News Blog

A Prisoner of His Time ?

11th December 2017

[Disclaimer:
This blog contains historic quotations of an offensive nature, which are
pertinent to the subject under discussion].

It is a familiar (and unoriginal) theme within these occasional blogs and the books of sports spectating reminiscence that preceded them – An Ordinary Spectator and Still An Ordinary Spectator – that, in any given period, sport is a barometer of the broader society around it. This applies not only to the playing and watching of sport – with its rules, rewards, technologies and morals – but also to the reporting of it.

As further evidence to support this proposition, let me refer to Farewell to Sport by Paul Gallico (1897-1976), which was first published in 1938 and reprinted in paperback by First Nebraska in 2008. I purchased a copy in the excellent The Sport Gallery in the Distillery District of Toronto.

Gallico is well-known as the author of fiction, notably The Snow Goose and The Poseidon Adventure. However, he made his name as the sports editor of the New York Daily News for the 14 years from 1923. In 1937, he gave up this prominent – and highly paid – position to travel and to concentrate on his fiction. Farewell to Sport was a collection of essays written at this time which, as the title suggested, offered some reflections on the sports he was leaving behind.

Given the newspaper for which he was writing, it is not surprising that Gallico focused on sport in America, especially boxing, baseball and golf. The book contains one favourable reference to soccer – “one of the greatest of all spectator sports from the point of view of sustained action and wide-open play” – and nothing on rugby or cricket. Some of the essays straightforwardly capture the admiration – indeed, hero-worship – that the author had for three sportsmen in particular: the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, the baseball star Babe Ruth and, especially, the golfer Bobby Jones. In each case, this was partly an acknowledgement of their exceptional sporting prowess; equally, however, it was a reflection of their respective characters and the way in which fame and adulation did not change them.

Gallico was no mean sportsman himself – a rower at ColumbiaUniversity and, later, a fencer of some note – and he was one of the first sports journalists to engage directly with the stars on the field of play (a branch of journalism that spawned other well-known practitioners, notably George Plimpton). Most dramatically, he sparred with Jack Dempsey (for all of 97 seconds) until the inevitable stoppage: “I learned…that the fighter rarely, if ever, sees the punch that tumbles blackness over him like a mantle”. I liked his description of a Dempsey training camp at Saratoga Springs: “…the grand, exciting, bawdy atmosphere. There were sparring partners with bent noses and twisted ears…boxing writers, handsome state troopers in their gray and purple uniforms, doubtful blondes…and blondes about whom there was no doubt at all”. Gallico was at pains not to drift into sentimentally, however; he knew that prize-fighting was a tough sport and that an unhesitatingly vicious instinct was required for ultimate success. Dempsey was “a jungle animal [with] hatred in his eyes…He was utterly without mercy or pity”.

Gallico also saw himself as a crusader. He railed against what he saw as the hypocrisy of the administrators of what were supposed to be amateur sports – athletics, tennis and, especially college (American) football – whose major events attracted vast crowds and gate receipts. He was brave in naming the shady characters associated with many of the boxing promotions, notably in the post-Dempsey era of heavyweights. And he felt himself a helpless onlooker at the inferior status conferred on black boxers, as reflected in their treatment by hotels and restaurants, including the members of a Golden Gloves team from New York that he managed in Chicago.

In the final essay – “The Next Fifty Years” – Gallico attempted to look into his crystal ball to the sporting environment of 1987. He was correct to argue that the records of his time would be eradicated, though, in most cases, he significantly underestimated the speed of progress. He wondered if the then world record for the mile (4 minutes 6.7 seconds held by Glenn Cunningham) might be reduced to about 4 minutes 3 seconds. (As we know, Roger Bannister took it below 4 minutes as early as 1954). Likewise, he reckoned that the high-jump record might be raised to 7 feet and that the pole-vaulters might reach 15 feet. (In 1987, world records were set in these events by Patrik Sjoberg and Sergey Bubka at 7 feet 11¼ inches and 19 feet 9¼ inches, respectively).

In this connection, it is worth noting that Gallico had views about the regimes that he thought likely to be producing the record-breakers of the future. He predicted that the stranglehold that the US had on track and field athletics was likely to be broken by “the new generation of youngsters, regimented and trained from infancy in Germany and Italy and other Fascist states [in which there was] the athletic and military training of youngsters under ten years of age, teaching them the fundamentals of sports and drill”. His caveat to this forecast was chillingly prophetic: “The early sports training may make them a nation of athletes far surpassing anything that we have ever known before – or it may make them cannon-food”.

So far so good. However, even allowing for the Sports Illustrated and other accolades (see below), Paul Gallico’s sports writing has fallen out of favour with many present-day commentators due to the shadows of sexism and racism. The relevant examples jump off the page in Farewell to Sport.

Gallico undoubtedly admired the spirit and determination of the top-class sportswomen. But his overall attitude to the “muscle molls” was captured in a couple of sentences: “[T]hey are at best second-rate imitations of the gentlemen…A man has swum a hundred yards in fifty-two seconds. A girl takes one minute three seconds for the same distance, and so it goes. No matter how good they are, they can never be good enough, quite, to matter”.

Gallico’s descriptions of specific women’s sports were dominated by his assessments of the participants’ physical attributes. Hence, for example, the female track athletes were “flat-chested most of them, with close-cropped hair. Not much on looks either. Most of them had hard faces”. By contrast, “what lovely legs and bodies those figure skaters have”. Farewell to Sport contains many passages in this vein.

The examples of racism also cause unease for the modern reader. Whilst Gallico recognised that the formidable Joe Louis was a bone fide world heavyweight champion with his exquisite skill and thrilling efficiency – aided by his being “exceptionally well managed and handled by a hard and capable crowd of people of his own race: a lawyer, an ex-numbers man and an ex-convict” – he also made the curious assertion that Louis had been “carefully trained in the sly servility that the white man accepts as his due”.

In many ways the most bizarre example relates to the sport of basketball in New York, which “for the past years Jewish players on the college teams…have had…all to themselves. [T]he reason…that it appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background is that the games places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smartaleckness”. We should remember that Farewell to Sport was published in 1938: the year of Kristallnacht in Germany.

Eighty years on from Farewell to Sport, it is difficult to rationalise the many unacceptable (to us) forms of words that Gallico used. However, arguably, they partly reflected the milieu in which he was operating: the alpha-male world of competitive sports reporting on the East Coast of the 1920s and 1930s. He was writing for a mass audience which, at that time, clearly did not have anything like the social sensitivities that we take for granted in the 21st Century. In this sense, he was a prisoner of his time. He knew his market and he reported back on terms that were familiar to it.

Farewell to Sport was allocated a place in the “Top 100 Sports Books of All Time” by Sports Illustrated magazine in 2002. Justifiably so in my view – for two reasons – notwithstanding that it is in places a distinctly uncomfortable read.

First, there was Gallico’s descriptive prowess, which – for modern readers – continues to provide an evocative picture of the good and the bad of the major American sports and their elite practitioners in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, on the positive side, his affection for baseball was clearly unbounded. A game could produce “half a dozen split-second races between a running man and a thrown ball, in which the hundredth part of a second is all the difference between success and failure, dozens of examples of skill triumphant, skill defeated, traps baited and snapped shut upon victims, human folly, and human cowardice, narrow escapes, heroes, villains, individual deeds that verge upon the miraculous…”

Similarly with individuals. The portrait Gallico painted of Babe Ruth consisted of a rich combination of fine details within the overall composite: “He was kneaded, rough-thumbed out of earth, a golem, a figurine that might have been made by a savage…with an unshapely body that features a tremendous, barrel-shaped torso that tapers down into too small legs and an amazingly fragile and delicate pair of ankles… His nose is flat and pushed in. Nobody did it for him; it grew that way”.

On the downside, Gallico’s assessment of the corruption of the heavyweight boxing scene that took Primo Carnera to the world championship title – “Pity the Poor Giant” – concluded dramatically: “He was just a big sucker whom the wise guys took and trimmed… All this took place in our country, Anno Domini 1930-1935”.

Second, Gallico himself was aware that he was writing in a particular time and that what he observed on the sports field reflected the wider society around it. He noted more than once that the huge crowds for sports events – notably boxing – that had occurred during the prosperity of the 1920s had not been maintained with the onset of the Great Depression. Indeed, at one point, he also doubts the validity of his own hugely-rewarded profession at a time when many American families were in desperate straits: “Many of us felt a little silly, still writing in the flamboyant post-war style of highly paid professional and amateur athletes at a time when most people were wondering where their next pay-check or meal was coming from”.

Gallico’s linkage of sport to society extended from the economic to the cultural. I was struck by a key paragraph describing the crowd’s reaction when the black American (Joe Louis) was knocked out by the white German (Max Schmeling) in Yankee Stadium, New York, in 1936. Notwithstanding that Louis was fighting on home soil, “…an even lustier and more joyous [yell] went up from the unpigmented spectators… The white brother is fickle and tires very quickly of seeing a Negro triumph too often”.

It is in this context that the damning flaws in Paul Gallico’s sportswriting should be considered by modern readers. Their very presence should be seen as part of the overall package – in other words, as complementary with the evocative (and acceptable) descriptive passages in not only contributing to our understanding of American sport in the inter-war period, but also providing a window on the broader social context in which that sport took place.

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Concussion

1st December 2017

In a recent blog on the Glasgow Warriors-Leinster game in the European Rugby Champions Cup (A Tough Pool”, 23rd October 2017), I noted that, during the course of the match, four players left the field for Head Injury Assessments (HIAs). One of these – the Glasgow captain, Ryan Wilson – departed the scene under some protest and had to be restrained by the medical staff from rejoining the action. Even for a non-expert such as me looking on from a distance, it was clear that he was not fully aware of his circumstances and was suffering from some form of concussion.

Events within the last fortnight or so seem to have confirmed that most high-profile rugby matches – of both codes – include similar incidents. In the Rugby League World Cup quarter-final between England and Papua New Guinea in Melbourne, the latter’s star player, David Mead, received a heavy blow to the head after only a couple of minutes and took no further part in the match. England’s Kevin Brown similarly received a head injury a few minutes before half-time; he was allowed to continue until the interval – during which time he moved sluggishly on to a pass and dropped the ball – but did not re-appear for the second half. On the same day, in the rugby union international at Murrayfield, the Scotland prop forward Zander Fagerson was concussed against New Zealand and obliged to miss the following week’s match against Australia. In last Saturday’s Wales-New Zealand game, it was clear from the television coverage that the Welsh scrum-half Rhys Webb had been dazed after being tackled and hitting his head on the turf; play continued for some time afterwards, with Webb apparently recovering his wits and participating again in the Welsh attack, before he was taken from the field at the next stoppage of play. In the same match, the New Zealand centre, Ryan Crotty, went off for a HIA after 20 minutes and did not return. And so on…

It is widely agreed that these incidents are important not only because of the immediate injuries incurred by players, but because of the possible long-term implications for health and well-being. Indeed, such links are becoming part of the conventional wisdom: The Scotsman’s obituary of David Shedden, who died in October at the age of 73 after a decade-long battle against an aggressive form of early-onset dementia, noted that, in addition to his 15 Scottish rugby caps in the 1970s, he had suffered from no fewer than a dozen concussions on the field of play.

In the period since the Glasgow-Leinster encounter, I have read Truth Doesn’t Have a Side: My Alarming Discovery about the Danger of Contact Sports (2017)by Bennet Omalu.

Dr Omalu was the neuropathologist with the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office in Pennsylvania who conducted an autopsy on Mike Webster, a former American Football player with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had died in September 2002 at the age of 50. He became aware of Webster’s post-career history of mental illness, memory loss, depression, disorientation and spontaneous anger episodes, but, initially, could not find the evidence of blunt force trauma on the brain that he had expected to see with the naked eye. Nor was the deterioration of Webster’s brain consistent with the dementia pugilistica that is seen in punch-drunk boxers. Instead, “many [brain cells] had died and disappeared and many appeared like ghost cells… [There were] spaces in the substance of the brain… like a partially demolished building stripped of its windows”.

Eventually, Dr Omalu concluded Webster’s decline and demise were the result of the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and brought about by the repeated blows to the head (concussive and sub-concussive) that Webster had incurred playing his sport. The wearing of a helmet had been irrelevant, in Dr Omalu’s view, because it had not prevented the brain bouncing around inside the player’s skull and suffering impact on the skull’s inner surfaces.

The fascination of Dr Omalu’s book is not only in the medical detective story that he presents – with its references to tau tangles and amyloid plaques – but in the broader circumstances in which he conducted his research and then presented his findings. He was born in Biafra at the height of the civil war in 1960s Nigeria and had made his way to the USA on a medical scholarship. After publishing his conclusions on CTE, he was widely attacked as an outsider seeking to undermine the sport that plays a central role in defining American society and culture. Perhaps naively, he was shocked by the counter-response, notably by some of the NFL franchises and the National Football League itself.

A feature film of Dr Omalu’s story, starring Will Smith, was released in 2015. Ironically, its title – Concussion – cuts across one of his central findings: that damage to the brain is done by repeated incidents of “mild” trauma as well as obvious concussions in which a player temporarily loses consciousness: “the fundamental issue is not concussions, but repeated blows to the head without or without concussions”. And once that damage is done, it is permanent and irreparable: “the human brain does not have any reasonable capacity to regenerate itself”.

I was interested in what the author had to say about rugby. Not surprisingly, he did not differentiate between the union and league codes, so one assumes that it is the former with which he is the more familiar. The references in the book are relatively brief, but still very clear: participation in other “high impact, high contact” sports, in which repeated blows to the head are prevalent, also increases the risks of CTE. Rugby is included in this list.

It is not only American Football and rugby, of course. With regard to soccer, there has been much media comment in the UK following the recent broadcast of the very good BBC documentary – Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me. The medical researchers interviewed in that programme echoed an important point made by Dr Omalu: there is the potential for brain damage from repeated heading of the ball – as Shearer reckoned he used to do about 100 times a day in training – as well as from the clashes of players’ heads. A poignant episode in the programme was Shearer’s interview with his first manager, Chris Nichol – a robust and committed centre-half in his own 20-year playing career – who bravely admitted that his memory was “in trouble” and, on occasion, that he forgot where he lived.

It is clear that, across many sports involving physical contact, the authorities are increasingly conscious – if you’ll pardon the pun – of the potential long-term dangers of head injury. In rugby union, the HIAs procedures have been tightened up, though many medical experts would argue that they do not go far enough. The Football Association announced last month (jointly with the Professional Footballers Association, PFA) that experts at the University of Glasgow had been commissioned to conduct research on the incidence of degenerative neurocognitive disease in ex-professional footballers. In the USA, in 2015, heading a ball was removed from the soccer played by under 11s and heading practice limited for 11-13 year olds. (Dr Omalu would extend this ban to under 18s, given that the brain is still maturing to that age). The NFL has banned helmet-first tackling and has established new protocols for dealing with concussed players.

Although these developments suggest that a clear direction of travel is evident, it is also the case that there is far from unanimity about the linkages between sport-related blows to the head and the long-term health of the brain. (Part of the problem faced by researchers is that, currently, CTE cannot be diagnosed until after death). The counter-argument was made, in a soccer context, in another interesting recent documentary – Sky Sports’ Concussion: The Impact of Sport – in which it was noted that modern footballs are much lighter than the heavy rain-sodden leather balls of old and that, in any case, “there don’t seem to be hundreds of Jeff Astle cases out there”: a reference to the former West Bromwich Albion and England centre-forward, whose death in 2002 at the age of 59 was judged by the coroner to have been due to an industrial disease i.e. football-related. In turn, the short answer to that is that we simply don’t know how may “Jeff Astle cases” there are – a point acknowledged by the PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor, in the Shearer documentary. An important aim of the FA/PFA-commissioned research will be to determine whether the incidence of long-term brain disease amongst ex-professionals is statistically different to that within a control population on non-players.

Where do we go from here? I find it very difficult to forecast what the sports of rugby and football (soccer) might look like in 10 or 20 years time. However, I think we can be reasonably confident of a number of things. First, there will be continued further lobbying for significant rule changes in many sports by some branches of the medical profession. In addition, parents will continue to pay close attention to activities that affect the well-being of their children (and, in large numbers, will prevent participation in sports that they judge to be too risky). We can also be sure that the lawyers will be painstakingly examining whether sports authorities and clubs are meeting their duty of care towards the participants of those sports.

And, finally, we can be certain that – irrespective of the perceived risks – many people will wish to continue playing “high impact, high contact” sports.

A Tradition Maintained

7th November 2017

I turned up at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday knowing that Manchester City had made an impressive start to the 2017-18 season: maximum points from their 4 Champions League games to date, 9 wins (and one draw) out of 10 Premier League matches and safely through to the quarter-final of the Carabao (or League) Cup. In the Premier League, they were five points clear of second-placed Manchester United and nine points ahead of Arsenal in fifth spot. As Sunday’s game was against Arsenal – and United were playing fourth-placed Chelsea – there was the possibility that City would put further daylight between themselves and their title rivals.

I had wondered what to expect. The latest (2017) estimates of Forbes magazine are that the ManchesterCity and Arsenal corporate entities each have a value of approximately $2 billion. They are global brands in a global market. City are owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group; Arsenal’s major shareholders are an American sports tycoon and a Russian billionaire. The respective managers are a Spaniard (or, more accurately in the current political climate, a Catalan) and a Frenchman. Both clubs spent over £50 million on single players during the last transfer window. In the starting XIs, City fielded four Englishmen and Arsenal none (though there was one Welshman).

The question in my mind was whether – for the home supporters on this occasion – there was still a local connection. Do the City faithful still have a sense of identification with a club that will mark its 125th anniversary in 2019: the club of Billy Meredith and Bert Trautmann and Colin Bell?

There was plenty of evidence to indicate that the ties between club and supporters are still very strong. In this regard, the appeal to tradition is clearly significant. It was no coincidence that my seat was actually in the Colin Bell Stand. Moreover, the player described by the mc as probably the greatest ever to wear a Manchester City shirt was present to take his place before the kick-off in a guard of honour for Sergio Agüero who, in the previous match against Napoli, had become the club’s record goalscorer. Agüero’s total of 178 had taken him past the 78 year-old record of Eric Brook, whose daughter was on hand to make a pre-match presentation. She was accompanied by Mike Summerbee, a “club ambassador” and, of course, a colleague of Bell’s in the great City side of the late 1960s. In turn, Summerbee’s article in the match programme having made reference to Remembrance Day, a separate piece recognised some of the City players killed or wounded in the First World War trenches 100 years ago.

When Agüero scored his 179th goal – a soft penalty awarded five minutes after half-time to give his side a 2-0 lead – it looked as if the floodgates might open, given Arsenal’s occasional tendency in recent years to concede large scores to sides at or near the top of the table. Instead – prompted by the Welshman, Aaron Ramsey – they enjoyed their best spell of the match and a goal by the lively substitute Alexandre Lacazette duly reduced the arrears. For the third City goal, the naked eye suggested that David Silva was at least three yards offside before setting up the tap-in for Gabriel Jesus: the later television replay indicated it was perhaps half a yard, but offside nonetheless. 3-1 was the final score.

Much is made of ManchesterCity’s playing style: a passing game, built up from the goalkeeper and the back four, so that the skilful presence of Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane can threaten in the final third of the pitch. De Bruyne was announced to have been the man-of-the-match – he had struck the first goal and posed a danger throughout the afternoon – though Silva must have run him close, as also Fernandinho. The last of these is generally less-heralded, I suspect, but is clearly a vital component of City’s midfield machinery.

Earlier in the day, I had visited the NationalFootballMuseum in the city centre. I had been meaning to go for some time, partly because, when it had previously been located in Preston (as it was from 2001 to 2010), one of the trustees was the late Brian Booth, whom I got to know when I was a Scottish Executive civil servant and he was a non-executive director of the Glasgow-based Student Loans Company. Brian was a proud advocate of the Museum and its Lancastrian location.

The Museum, which is free to enter (and invites donations), is well worth a visit. For the traditionalists and historians amongst us, there is some fascinating older material, including a hand-written version of the Rules of Association Football (from 1863) and an England shirt from the first international football match (against Scotland in 1872). One should be prepared to be overwhelmed, however, as there is scarcely an aspect of (English) football history that does not seem to be covered. I’m not really sure if the exhibits need to include the shorn locks of Robbie Savage’s hair or the pickled knee cartilage of Willie Cunningham, though I suppose one of John Motson’s sheepskin overcoats just about qualifies.

The “sport-in-society” theme of my occasional blogs was certainly captured in some of the Museum’s displays, not least the dreadful array of knives carried by some of the members of the 1980s football gangs. On a more uplifting note, I was taken by the small model of the old Wembley Stadium – sculpted out of concrete – the concrete itself having been rescued at the time of the demolition of the old Wembley Stadium.

The usual rules apply, I think. If one seeks to understand the current state of affairs of something – in this case, of football in general or a club such as Manchester City in particular – it is immensely useful to start with its history. Some traditions are maintained, others are re-interpreted, yet others are broken.

For the present, ManchesterCity go from strength to strength. By the close-of-play on Sunday, their lead at the top of the Premier League had stretched to eight points, courtesy of Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Manchester United. There is still over two-thirds of the league season to run, of course, but it is looking ominous for the rest of the field.

As for Arsenal, the traditions of my personal relationship with the club have been maintained. I have seen them play three times – against Leeds United at Elland Road in 1971, against Manchester United at Highbury in 1985 and now against ManchesterCity at the Etihad Stadium in 2017. They have lost on all three occasions.

A Tough Pool

23rd October 2017

The Glasgow Warriors have been drawn in a tough pool in this season’s European Rugby Champions Cup. In addition to the Exeter Chiefs (the English champions), their section includes Leinster (three times winners of the competition in its previous guise as the Heineken Cup) and Montpellier (currently third in the Top 14 championship in France). For their part, Glasgow had begun the season by winning their first six matches in the Guinness PRO14 championship.

Having already lost at Exeter on the previous weekend, Glasgow met Leinster at Scotstoun on Saturday.

The game was played in proper rugby conditions with dampness in the air and a tricky, swirling wind. It was clear that attention to detail – a sine qua non for a professional player I would have thought – would be important. I could imagine the frustration of the Glasgow coaches, therefore, when the scrum half, Ali Price, kicked the ball directly into touch from just outside his 22 on the first play of the game. It was from this advantageous field position that a Johnny Sexton penalty kick opened the scoring for the visitors. Later in the first half, with Glasgow leading 10-3, a massive punt downfield by Stuart Hogg took the ball all the way over the Leinster deadball line. The resultant scrum, brought back to 10 yards from the Glasgow line, led to the first of Cian Healy’s two close-range tries. On such fine margins are matches won and lost.

Healy was one of 5 British Lions who took the field for Leinster, two of the others also being prop forwards: Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath. They were instrumental in the Leinster forwards gaining the upper hand in the tight exchanges. For their part, Glasgow often looked dangerous when moving the ball swiftly to the wider channels, where Hogg could time his intrusions from full-back into the three-quarter line. I thought that the accuracy of their passing was not all it might be, however, and there was also the commonly-seen fault of the runners drifting across the pitch.

It all added up to a very interesting contest with both sides demonstrating skill as well as muscular strength. Stuart Hogg’s try required him to chase a bouncing ball over the try line and touch it down before either he or it went over the deadball line. The way that he managed to keep his feet in bounds as he stretched forward reminded me of one of the fundamental skills of a wide receiver in the National Football League, where a catch for a touchdown in the end-zone requires that both feet touch the ground in the field of play.

From 3-10 down, Leinster took a lead of 24-10 mid-way through the second half. A penalty goal by Finn Russell and a well-worked try by Tommy Seymour – along with Hogg the Glasgow Lions on view – gave the home supporters some hope before Leinster’s late surge extended the final margin to 34-18.

As expected, the game was somewhat feisty at times, but it was well handled by the referee. This was equally anticipated, as the man in charge was Jerome Garces of France, one of the world’s best. (It was Garces who dismissed Sonny Bill Williams of New Zealand from the field during the Lions’ Second Test in July). It was a pleasure to see him in action.

Garces was especially efficient in stopping the game immediately when a couple of players received head knocks. In the cases of Ryan Wilson and Callum Gibbins these appeared to involve concussive injuries, even to this non-medical expert sitting in the depths of the stand. There is undoubtedly a serious problem for rugby union concerning this issue and I shall return to it in a future blog.

Experience suggests that teams’ performances in the early rounds of the European Rugby Champions Cup can be deceptive. In Still An Ordinary Spectator, I reported on the hugely disappointing Bath side that lost 10-37 to Glasgow on the same ground in October 2014; Bath went on to win the pool. Conversely, the apparently all-conquering Toulouse team that won their first four matches in the same group that year somehow failed to qualify for the quarter-finals. But, having lost their first two fixtures in this year’s competition (and without the consolation of any bonus points), it must now be long odds on Glasgow reaching the next stage.

Difficult times at Rugby Park

2nd October 2017

It is not one of the braver predictions to forecast that Celtic will win the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership this season. Aberdeen and Rangers are likely to contest the runners-up place, though the term had a slightly hollow ring to it last season, when Aberdeen finished 30 points behind Celtic. It is also reasonable to assume that the consistently well-organised St Johnstone team will end up fourth (or thereabouts), the position they have reached in each of the last three years.

For the other eight teams in the division – and although they would no doubt publicly set their sights higher – the first priority is to avoid either direct relegation through finishing last or ending up in the penultimate place and facing a hazardous play-off against one of the Championship teams. A finish in the top 6 – also achieved last season by Hearts and Partick Thistle – would represent a distinctly successful season.

That is not to say that, outside the Old Firm and Aberdeen, the Scottish Premiership clubs lack the ambition for winning trophies. Over the course of the last decade, the Scottish Cup has been won not only by St Johnstone, but also by Dundee United, Hearts, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Hibernian and so the prospect of lifting some silverware is clearly realistic. But, as far as the league is concerned, the long, gruelling task of autumn and winter is to eke out as many points as possible in order to enter the spring with some optimism.

On Saturday, I went to see two of the likely also-rans – Kilmarnock and RossCounty – battle it out at RugbyPark, where a cash payment of £15 bought me a senior’s seat in the Frank Beattie Stand. On the opposite side of the ground, the front of the roof proudly referenced the home club’s foundation – “Kilmarnock FC 1869” – four years before the formation of the Scottish Football Association, of which it was a founder member.

The further investment of £3 procured an impressive match programme which, in addition to the usual news and comments from the home team’s perspective, included details of the 18 previous encounters between Kilmarnock and RossCounty as well as career summaries of all the players in the visitors’ squad. There was also a fascinating piece on a relatively obscure piece of Scottish football history: the “B” Division Supplementary Cup, which was contested between the second division teams in 5 of the 6 seasons from 1946-47 (although the 1949-50 final between Kilmarnock and Forfar was not held because the clubs could not agree on a suitable date).

Kilmarnock have not been in the second tier of Scottish football for 25 years, but this season is already shaping up to be something of a challenge. Prior to Saturday’s match, they were bottom of the table with 3 draws and 4 defeats from their opening 7 fixtures. For their part, RossCounty – two places and one point above them – had responded earlier in the week to what was obviously considered to be their disappointing start to the season by parting company with their manager, Jim McIntyre, and replacing him with the experienced Owen Coyle.

The 2-0 win for RossCounty was thoroughly deserved. They had forced half a dozen corners and generally held the upper hand with some impressive passing play before a neat header from Craig Curran gave them the lead after 35 minutes. Just before half-time, another extended passing sequence resulted in the left-back Kenny van der Weg finding space in the penalty area to score the second. Kilmarnock brought on their talismanic centre-forward Kris Boyd for the second half and had a period of pressure midway through the period – aided by the bright sunshine streaming into the faces of the visiting defenders – but their opponents held on comfortably. There were perhaps 100 or so visiting supporters in the stand behind Scott Fox’s goal, who no doubt enjoyed their journey back to Dingwall.

Ross County were anchored in midfield by the physical presence of Ross Draper and Jim O’Brien; they have streetwise campaigners in the lively Michael Gardyne and the captain Andrew Davies; Fox is an experienced goalkeeper and Curran led the forward line with energy and commitment. Interestingly, their starting line-up had five players with experience in the lower divisions of the Football League in England.

In some respects, Ross County reminded me of the Inverness Caledonian Thistle team that I had seen play at St Mirren in November 2014 (as reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator) on their way to winning that season’s Scottish Cup – indeed Draper was a member of that side – though perhaps without the cutting edge provided on that occasion by the young Ryan Christie. I might check out this season’s Cup odds when the fourth round draw is made.

For Kilmarnock, these are difficult times. The referee’s half-time and full-time whistles were accompanied by crescendos of booing from a sizeable proportion of the home supporters in the main stand behind the dugout. As I left the ground, I did wonder what the immediate future might hold for the manager, Lee McCulloch, and, sure enough, it was announced yesterday that he had lost his job.

A rearrangement in the fixture schedule means that, for McCulloch’s replacement, the first 5 league games will be away from home, including trips to Rangers and Celtic. A long and gruelling journey through to spring is indeed in prospect for Kilmarnock FC.

Virtutem Petamus – and Other Thoughts

11th September 2017

When I entered RoundhaySchool in north Leeds as a first-year pupil over 50 years ago, the school uniform included a cap with a metallic badge on which was inscribed virtutem petamus: “We seek virtue”. (The cap was a compulsory part of the uniform, on pain of detention, until the end of the fourth year). Part of the ritual/initiation/minor bullying (delete as appropriate) faced by a freshman was for his cap to be snatched from his head, usually by a second-year pupil, and dashed against something solid – a brick wall or the concrete playground – in order that it might be “christened”.

The modern RoundhaySchool is a comprehensive providing “all-through education from 4-18” and its badge reads “Courtesy, Cooperation, Commitment”. I can quite understand that these are virtues that any school would wish to inculcate amongst its pupils. However, I am also pleased to see that the original Latin motto survives in the crest of the Roundhegians Rugby Football Club, the home ground of which is on Chelwood Drive, a mile and a half away along Street Lane.

The Old Roundhegians club, established in 1928, moved into its present home in 1953. In common with the venues of many other rugby clubs – including Headingley and Bristol, about which I have written in Still An Ordinary Spectator – it is called the Memorial Ground in honour of the old boys of the school who lost their lives in the World Wars. The grounds are neatly maintained, comprising two pitches that are framed by a combination of mature trees and suburban housing. The club became an open one in the early 1970s.

I played at the Memorial Ground on one occasion – for the RoundhaySchool 1st XV against the Old Roundhegians 2nd XV in October 1971. We won that day, partly due to my left-footed drop goal which – I shouldn’t be surprised – might still be referred to with some awe in the local clubhouse. Health and safety regulations have put an end to this type of school/Old Boy fixture – quite rightly, given the latter’s invariable dominance of size and weight, though not necessarily of speed and skill.

This season, Roundhegians RFC are playing in Yorkshire League Division 2 of the RFU North’s structure: the 8th tier of club rugby in England (if my calculations are correct). On Saturday they were at home to Wetherby in their second league fixture of the year, the initial outing having resulted in a 15-38 defeat at Old Crossleyans.

The first 20 minutes took place in a torrential downpour, when the ‘Hegians also had to contend with playing into a stiff breeze and dealing with the marked superiority of their opponents in the set scrums. They stuck to their task, however, and, by the time the rain stopped, had established a 14-0 lead thanks to some skilful handling in the difficult conditions. The right-wing Alex Miyambo scored two tries, both impressively converted from wide out by Alex Jones.

By midway through the second half the position had changed, as Wetherby, taking advantage of their scrummaging superiority, took a 15-14 lead, one of their scores being an emphatic pushover try. The decisive phase came when the ‘Hegians managed to hold out against another short-range scrum, turn over possession and make their way downfield, where the decisive penalty goal took them to the final 17-15 scoreline.

The handful of spectators – family, friends and support staff in the main – braved the inclement weather under a colourful array of large umbrellas, either on the raised grass banking along the touchline or on the balcony of the clubhouse. At this level, rugby is arguably a game for players and coaches, rather than spectators, but there was still much to admire in the commitment and organisation of both teams. Indeed, the game’s final play was genuinely exciting, as, in search of the winning score, Wetherby worked the ball through several phases down the field from under their own posts to their opponents’ 22 before possession was lost.

And, of course, the game had its informal moments. The touch judges being supplied by the respective clubs, it was not really a surprise to hear one of them – an otherwise consistently impartial assessor of when the ball was out of play – shouting “offside, ref” during a tense period of play. Later, he gave one of his own side a high-five when the player had followed up a long clearance kick to touch. I also liked the moment when, standing on the touchline, the home side’s coach turned round in surprise to see that one of his players was standing next to him; I had previously watched the player make the long walk from the far side of the pitch and round the back of the goalposts to this near touchline, having been sin-binned for 10 minutes. The coach’s response was to offer him a sweet from the packet he was consuming.

After the match, I caught the bus to RoundhayPark and walked down from the main entrance to the café next to WaterlooLake for a cup of tea and a rather good flapjack. Another shower of rain came and went. I then walked back to the main arena and up the steps next to Hill 60. Somewhere in that imposing grass mound is the toy soldier that I lost – to my considerable distress – when I was about 6 or 7.

I have two competing impressions of the suburban landscape in this part of the city. On the one hand, it changes over time: the shop frontages are different and I try to recollect which stores were there before; the public house is demolished and replaced by a foodstore’s car park; a road junction is altered with a plethora of new markings and lights. On the other hand, there is the continuity of that which is unchanged: the rugby club with its lush pitches, the location of the bus stops, the beauty and greenness of the park.

On balance, I would say that, over the period which I find myself contemplating – 50 plus years – it is the latter characteristic that generally prevails. Notwithstanding all that is new or unfamiliar, there is an overwhelming sense of that which was there before still remaining in place. Of course, with the people inhabiting that landscape, it is the opposite that applies. We are all just passing through and our presence – whether counted in decades or years or occasional half-days – is only transient, irrespective of whether or not we seek virtue.

The Wolfpack and the Cheesy Dog

27th August 2017

Last Saturday, in order to get to the Allan A Lamport Stadium from downtown Toronto – a distance of just over two miles – I took the 504 streetcar along King Street heading directly west. I arrived early and went for a beer in the nearby Shoeless Joe’s, where the Toronto Blue Jays were in action on the screens in the second of their weekend triple-header against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. However, the purpose of my journey was not televised Major League Baseball, but live rugby league in the (British) Kingstone Press League 1: Toronto Wolfpack vs Newcastle Thunder.

We do live in times that are, occasionally, slightly bewildering.

The division has now entered the Super Eights phase of the season, in which the top 8 sides play each other to decide (eventually) which two teams will be promoted to the Championship. As the points accumulated during the season are carried forward, Toronto Wolfpack are in a strong position, as they lead the table from Barrow and Whitehaven. For their part, Newcastle were in 7th position, with an outside chance of finishing in the top 5 and engaging in the final rounds of knock-out play-offs.

I suspected that the match might be somewhat one-sided. Toronto have recruited ambitiously in their playing and coaching staff – the former Great Britain coach, Brian Noble, is the Director of Rugby – and had lost only one (and drawn one) of their 18 league and Super Eight matches to date, averaging 57 points per game. And so it proved. The left-winger Liam Kay went over for the first of his three tries inside two minutes and the home side ended up scoring a total of nine tries in a 50-0 win.

(A curious statistical aside. I have seen Newcastle Thunder play three times: once here and twice in their previous guise as Gateshead Thunder against the Hunslet Hawks at the South Leeds Stadium. On each occasion, they have conceded exactly 50 points).

The outcome of the match not being in much doubt, I was more interested in the presentation of the game and the local response to it. It was all pleasingly encouraging. The Lamport Stadium has several tiers of elevated open seating, running the full length of both touchlines, which provide good views of the action: ideal for a warm and sunny afternoon such as this, less so if Toronto experiences one of its occasional summer thunderstorms. The row of concession stands populating the King Street end of the ground, behind the goalposts, was also heavily patronised throughout the afternoon.

The sizeable crowd – over 7,500, according to the Wolfpack’s website – enjoyed the home side’s dominance, the volume of cheering not seeming to diminish as the later tries were run in. Interestingly, many spectators stayed around in their small groups after the game had finished, remaining on the seating or at the edge of the pitch: it was a social gathering on a pleasant Saturday afternoon.

As at other sporting venues in North America, there were a plentiful number of beer-sellers doing the rounds up and down the terraces. Food and drink is a significant component of these events and so I treated myself to a Big Mamma’s Cheesy Dog (with tomato sauce) from one of the fast-food stalls. It was as delicious as the name suggested.

The demographics of the crowd covered all ages with many family groups, a significant proportion of women and – it seemed to me – a plethora of Canadian accents, rather than those of casual visitors from Britain or the Antipodes. The loudest gasps were heard at the collisions between the respective prop forwards, perhaps not surprisingly as one of those wearing a Wolfpack shirt was the formidable Tongan, Fuifui Moimoi – a veteran of 10 seasons in the Australian Rugby League – who was typically aggressive both with the ball and in defence. (It struck me that Moimoi’s clear emergence as a local cult hero was not unlike that attained by the similarly-sized Ian Van Bellen in the latter stages of his career at the newly-formed Fulham club in the 1980s).

I talked to one or two of my neighbours. Of the two young men on my right, one was familiar with rugby union in Canada – a well-established sport in some areas of the country – and seemed to be accurately explaining the rules of rugby league to his friend. He remained nervous about the Wolfpack’s promotion prospects, quoting to me the narrow leads over Barrow and Whitehaven (2 and 4 points, respectively) in the league table. When I asked about the local media coverage, the second man acknowledged that rugby league was a “second tier” sport, but noted that soccer (through the Toronto FC) was succeeding in making its own inroads from a similarly low base. He made an interesting point about the need to keep the entry price at a competitive level, compared with soccer: the cost to me (as an adult with no discount for seniors) was $30 Canadian (about £20).

The middle-aged couple seated in front of me were attending for the first time with their young children. The father told me that his preferred sport was lacrosse and his awareness of the Wolfpack had been raised by press reports of some of the injuries that the players had sustained (which partly answered the question about the local media). He seemed to thoroughly enjoy his afternoon and, I’m sure, they will be repeat visitors.

If professional rugby league is to take root in Canada, Toronto seems to be the best place to start. It is a large, prosperous and cosmopolitan city with a liberal attitude to outside influences: we were informed on the city bus tour that one-half of its inhabitants were born outside Canada. The sport might also be able to take advantage of the growing concerns across North America – including amongst the parents of high school and college students – about the potential effects of head knocks incurred playing American Football on long-term health and wellbeing.

It is a summer sport, however, and the main challenge in raising general awareness of the local rugby league is undoubtedly the blanket media coverage given to baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays have regular season fixtures in Major League Baseball on 160 of the 183 days between 1st April and 30th September. That said, the local television station did report the Wolfpack’s win in a single by-line on the screen, whilst Monday’s Toronto Star gave all four of the weekend’s Super Eights results and an updated league table. It might be expected that the local media coverage will increase when there is a larger domestic presence within the Wolfpack ranks: the 25-man squad listed for the Newcastle game had 18 players from the British Isles, 3 from Australia or the PacificIslands and 4 from Canada or the USA.

The other major challenge will be on the playing field, of course. If and when the Wolfpack are promoted, they will incur much tougher challenges than those posed this season by the Gloucestershire All Golds and Hemel Hempstead Stags and, indeed, Newcastle Thunder. Next season’s opponents should include the skilled (and grizzled) campaigners of Featherstone and Halifax and Batley. All being well, this enhanced competition – and the higher standard of rugby league on offer – will lead to the further progress of the Toronto Wolfpack club.

More immediately, I noted from the match programme (price $2 Canadian) that the Toronto Wolfpack have three home fixtures remaining in this year’s Super Eights. Two of these are against Barrow and Whitehaven.