Elite Sportsmen at the Top of Their Game

16th November 2016

It is appropriate – for three reasons, I think – that the last in this series of post-An Ordinary Spectator blogs should be on last Sunday’s England-Australia rugby league international in the Four Nations Tournament at the London Stadium.

First, the event. It was a rugby league match between Great Britain and Australia – at Headingley in November 1963 – that was the first international sporting contest I attended. As noted in An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport, it was a violent affair, which left a deep impression on the 9 year-old boy:

“The game was one of unremitting ferocity, notwithstanding the stern discipline imposed by the referee, Eric Clay from Leeds, who sent off two Australians and the British prop, Cliff Watson. I remember sitting in the stand and being awed – and, it has to be said, somewhat frightened – by the violence of grown men”.

Second, the venue. An early entry in this collection of blogs – “Olympic Games Football: What Do I Know?” (August 2012) – recognised Glasgow’s contribution to the 2012 Olympics by reporting on two of the matches in the football tournament played at HampdenPark. This blog completes an Olympic circle by ending the collection at the main venue of that successful Games.

[An
aside. It is under some sufferance
that I refer to the venue as the London Stadium. For me, it remains the Olympic Stadium,
which, let us not forget, was funded by taxpayers across the UK, not
just in the capital. However, it
does now seem to have been fully colonised by its football tenants – West Ham
United FC – as evident in the external signage, the Bobby Moore and Sir Trevor
Brooking Stands, the listing of club honours on the balcony and the use of
claret and blue colours throughout the stadium].

But, back to the rugby. This year’s Four Nations Tournament has been contested by New Zealand and Scotland, as well as Sunday’s combatants, the England/Australia match being the last in the round-robin stage. Following the earlier matches – which, crucially, included England’s one point defeat by New Zealand – the hosts had to avoid defeat (i.e. to win or draw) in order to qualify for next Sunday’s final in Liverpool.

England were still in the game at half-time, trailing by only 6-10, having earlier taken the lead through a well-worked try by Jermaine McGillvary on the right wing. However, Australia were too good after the break, when a lethal combination of power, skill and precision produced 18 points in one 12 minute spell. Three of their five second half tries could be attributed to the strength and technique of individual players close to the England line. England scored a couple of good tries of their own through Gareth Widdop and Ryan Hall, but succumbed to the continual pressure exerted by their superior opponents. The final score of 36-18 properly reflected the contest.

It had been over 20 years since I had seen the Australian rugby league team in the flesh: a test match with Great Britain at Elland Road in 1994. Throughout this period – as also for the 20 years before that – they have generally been the sport’s dominant international team, albeit with some occasional dents in their crown from New Zealand. In the second half on Sunday, the game having been effectively decided, I was able to sit back and admire the excellence of the team – its accuracy, cohesion and relentlessness – and the individual players within it.

And so to the third reason for this being an appropriate juncture at which to draw this collection of blogs to an end. At various times in the last five years – as during the half-century before that captured in An Ordinary Spectator – I have been reminded of the pleasure in watching elite sportsmen at the top of their game. Throughout this long period, I consider myself fortunate that, even when the side I had been supporting – whether Yorkshire CCC or the European Ryder Cup team or the England rugby union side – have been second best, I have been able to recognise the brilliance of their opponents: Alvin Kallicharran and Jack Nicklaus and Gareth Edwards et al.

In terms of the rugby league players of Australia, this acknowledgement of excellence stretches back to seeing the great Reg Gasnier in that turbulent match at Headingley in 1963. It extends through Bobby Fulton in 1973 and Mal Meninga in 1982 and Brad Fittler in 1994 with others in between. And, in the present generation – on Sunday – it has now been extended to Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis and Cameron Smith: each now probably in the latter stages of his international career, but amongst the best to have ever played the game.

For the presentation of a series of sports blogs, that’s not a bad place to stop. If only temporarily.

Leave a comment

Blue Ribbons and a Talented Sportsman

17th October 2016

In its usual upbeat fashion, the “It wasn’t all bad” feature of the 19th December 2015 edition of The Week reported on a positive story, following the devastation wreaked by Storm Desmond across northern Britain earlier that month: “three koi carp were reunited with their owner after being spotted swimming in the goalmouth of Carlisle United’s flooded football pitch”.

Good news for the koi carp and their owner, no doubt. However, I’m not sure that the recovery of these fish would have constituted much in the way of compensation for the many households and businesses in Carlisle who were dealing with the aftermath of Desmond, which left large tracts of the town – including the BruntonPark ground – under several feet of water.

Reflecting the response to the floods across Cumbria as a whole – stoical, determined and, no doubt, (justifiably) embittered – the football club rolled up its sleeves and set about getting back to normal: removing the tons of silt and debris from all parts of the ground, re-establishing its office and other facilities and completely replacing the turf on the pitch. On the playing side, “home” fixtures in December and the New Year were switched to Blackburn, Blackpool and Preston. The normal home programme was resumed with a fixture against YorkCity at the end of January. The following week, the team’s good FA Cup run, which had seen them reach the fourth round, was rewarded with a visit from Everton and a capacity attendance of over 17,000.

I had intended to attend a Carlisle United match last season by way of offering some (very modest) support to their recovery process. In the event, circumstances prevented that, but, last Saturday, I did go to their home Sky Bet League 2 fixture with Hartlepool United.

It was a good one to choose. For one thing, in a division in which 14 of the other 22 clubs are situated below the Severn-Wash line, this match – whilst, I would have thought, not exactly a local derby – constituted something unequivocally northern. (This season, the die-hard travelling supporters of Carlisle and Hartlepool are faced with expeditions to places as distant as Yeovil, Newport and Exeter). In addition, the home side entered the game having made an excellent start to the season: unbeaten after 12 league fixtures (albeit with 7 draws) and standing third in the table. Hartlepool had made a more solid start, sitting in mid-table, though also with 7 draws (plus 3 wins and 2 defeats) from their opening games.

The sense of history is not hard to find in Carlisle. After my lunchtime scone in Café Zest on the second floor of the House of Fraser store in the city centre, I set off on my walk to the ground past an elegant three-storey building noted as “The Site of Highmore House”. On the left hand side of the façade was inscribed “Here Prince Charles Edward Stuart had his quarters 1745” and on the right “Here the Duke of Cumberland had his quarters 1746”. For anyone who might not have known, the difference in dates provided a clear indication of the outcome of an earlier northern battle, held in the latter year at Culloden. The building now houses Marks and Spencer.

As I walked down Warwick Road , I passed a phalanx of about 200 Hartlepool supporters making their slow and halting progress towards the ground, cordoned off by a considerable police presence. Indeed, “considerable” would probably be an understatement and “significant” more appropriate: officers, cars, vans, dogs. The visitors were escorted past a reception committee of their home-town counterparts at the main entrance to the ground and on to their designated section in one of the stands where, it was later announced over the tannoy, they would be held for ten minutes at the end of the game “in the interests of health and safety”.

Warwick Road was badly affected in last December’s floods. I struck up a conversation with a young steward, mentioning – hopefully without wishing to appear a disaster-tourist – that I was trying to get a sense of what had been experienced. He patiently pointed out to me the blue ribbons that were tied on various items – drainpipes, door frames – on the front of some of the nearby houses at the height that the water level had reached. They were slightly above the top of my head. His older colleague chipped in: “We had floods in 2005. They said then it was something that happened once in a thousand years”. His tone reflected a combination of bitterness and resignation.

On the way to my seat in the Pioneer Foods Stand, I walked through the Chris Balderstone Bar. Of course – I remembered – Chris Balderstone: one of those talented all-round sportsmen who, before the overlap of the seasons, played two sports at a professional level: cricket in the summer and football in the winter. I looked up his details later: he played in 68 first-class cricket matches for Yorkshire without being capped, but found success at Leicestershire and played test cricket for England against the West Indies in 1976. His football career included 117 matches for HuddersfieldTown and, in the ten years to 1975, 376 games for Carlisle United, where he is obviously remembered with some affection. He died in 2000 at the age of 59.

It was a really entertaining game played in the bright sunshine of a crisp autumnal afternoon. Carlisle took the lead after 20 minutes – slightly against the run of play, I thought – when a brilliant cross from Shaun Miller was forcefully met by the centre-forward Jabo Ibehre. Miller then turned villain. After missing a chance to extend the lead by blazing over the bar from about ten yards, he was booked for kicking the ball away after being caught offside and then, early in the second half, he collected a second yellow card (and an automatic red) for deliberately handling the ball when lying on the ground. Hartlepool sensed their chance and an equalising goal duly came. At this point, with about 25 minutes to go, I would have been tempted to place a small wager on the visitors going on to win the match.

A superb strike by captain Danny Grainger restored Carlisle’s lead, but Hartlepool, prompted by the influential Josh Laurent in midfield, fought back to level again. Even when Michael Raynes took Carlisle into the lead for a third time with a powerful header from a Grainger corner, the visitors did not give up. But Carlisle held on for the 3-2 win and another notch on their unbeaten opening run. The 7,000-plus crowd – easily Carlisle’s largest home attendance of the season – roared them home: “United, United”.

In the meantime, whilst this enthralling match was unfolding in front of us, a separate confrontation was taking place throughout the game further along the stand to my right. At the far end were the Hartlepool contingent – white, male, mainly aged between about 16 and 35, though with some older (though possibly not wiser) heads; in front of them and to their left, a hard core of their Carlisle Doppelgänger; between them, a platoon of hi-vis jacket-attired peacekeepers; and, across the divide, a continual stream of obscenity and invective.

At one point, our attention from the football was diverted by what appeared to be a potentially serious scuffle. A number of people in front of me – mainly not of my generation, it has to be said – stood up to record the action on their phones. The more significant recording was being made, quite openly, by a young police officer on his camera, I noticed. “Don’t look. It only encourages them”, shouted a woman sitting a few places behind me.

Later, passing the time before my train, I sat on a bench across the road from the entrance to the railway station to read the match programme. The Carlisle United chairman’s introduction referred to their visitors having “made the journey across from the North East to compete in what for all of us is called a local derby”. So that was me corrected.

The extensive police convoy – cars, vans, dogs et al – appeared at the top of The Crescent escorting their cargo down to the Newcastle train and out of the city. An elderly man nodded to me sagely: “How much is this costing? I’d lock every f…… one of them up”. (I assumed that he meant the fans, not the police). I asked one of the officers whether it was like this for every match; he carefully explained that Carlisle was the only major football team in Cumbria and that the Hartlepool supporters had bought 800 tickets for the game. (There were far fewer than that in the escort party, I thought; most of them must have travelled – peaceably – by car or coach). Another casual observer – one of the local station employees – mentioned that the Carlisle fans had previously caused damage in Hartlepool. And so it goes on.

Sport as a reflection of the society around it: the well-worn them of An Ordinary Spectator and these subsequent blogs. In this case, though, I wonder if it’s quite as straightforward as that. During the course of the afternoon, it had seemed as if I had been an observer of two separate worlds: in one, several thousand people were engrossed in watching two well-matched football teams; in the other, there was a ritual of hot air and posturing and latent aggression involving two competing (but effectively identical) small tribes. These worlds had been occupying the same space, but – notwithstanding the overall footballing context that they had obviously shared – I’m not sure there was anything much in the way of a connection.

I had left BruntonPark with nice memories, however. As I departed through the Chris Balderstone Bar, by then closed, the tannoy blasted out some Bob Marley: “Don’t worry about a thing. Cause every little thing’s gonna be alright”. For Carlisle United, as matters currently stand – third in the table with just over a quarter of the league season now completed – things are indeed all right.

Leave a comment

Mr Jepson

9th September 2016

I have referred previously (“It makes me realise what I had without knowing it”, 24th October 2013) to the kind response I received from Harry Jepson, the President of the Leeds Rhinos rugby league club, after I had sent him a copy of An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport. He wrote to me on first receiving the book and then again having read it with some very complimentary comments and some fascinating reminiscences of his lengthy attachment to – and love for – the sport of rugby league.

In later correspondence (in September 2013), he mentioned that that year’s Challenge Cup Final had been the first he had not attended since 1946. However, he was looking forward to the 2014 reunion of the Hunslet club’s ex-Parkside players, at which the 80th anniversary of the 1934 Challenge Cup success would be celebrated. Later still, in October 2014, I introduced myself to him when we met at the opening of the “Hunslet Rugby League Remembered” Heritage Room at The Garden Gate public house in south Leeds and we had a nice conversation (“The Garden Gate”, 27th October 2014).

Harry Jepson died last month at the age of 96. There have been many fine obituaries and tributes, including on the Leeds Rhinos website and by Phil Caplan, editor of Forty-20 magazine, in the Yorkshire Post. After Second World War service in North Africa and Italy, he trained as a teacher before taking up the secretarial responsibilities at Hunslet and then moving to Leeds in the early 1970s. The obituaries refer, amongst other things, to his role in the development of Colts rugby, his involvement with French rugby league and his role as chairman of the Rugby League Council at the time of the foundation of Super League in 1995.

On Thursday, I caught the short tribute on Premier Sports’ Backchat programme, in which Garry Schofield, the ex- Hull, Leeds and Great Britain international – and former pupil – referred repeatedly and respectfully to “Mr Jepson”. Phil Caplan noted the remarkable fact that Harry Jepson had been personally acquainted with some of the club officials who had been responsible for the establishment of the Northern Rugby Union in 1895.

I can date exactly the previous occasion on which I met Harry Jepson: Tuesday 29th March 1966. It was the last week of the school term at ChapelAllertonPrimary School in Leeds and we were playing two rugby league matches against RodleyCountyPrimary School. Two matches: a fixture backlog meant that the two halves of the scheduled game were deemed to count as separate fixtures. My recollection is that our teacher, Mr Somes, refereed one match and Mr Jepson refereed the other. The day’s parsimonious entry in my “Letts Schoolboys Diary” records that Chapel Allerton won both games and that I scored a try in the second match.

At that time, in addition to fulfilling his teaching duties, Harry Jepson was also the Secretary/Manager of Hunslet RLFC. The previous evening, Hunslet had begun a run of 4 successive games in 12 days at their home ground of Parkside (which was to culminate, the following week, in a 7-6 victory over Leeds). At the end of the second Chapel Allerton/Rodley match, I nervously approached Mr Jepson to inform him that my dad and I were Hunslet supporters. He said that we should look him up and say hello the next time we were at Parkside. In the event, to my later regret, my shyness got the better of me and I did not take up the offer.

Not immediately anyway. I did eventually catch up with him – at The Garden Gate nearly 50 years later – to thank him for taking the trouble to write to me about the book. I’m really glad I did.

Harry Jepson OBE, 1920-2016. RIP.

Leave a comment

Eights

8th August 2016

And so to the Big Fellas Stadium (or Post Office Road, as we traditionalists still prefer to call it) for last Saturday afternoon’s opening encounter in the First Utility Qualifiers – or “Middle Eights” – between Featherstone Rovers and Leeds Rhinos.

The nomenclature indicates that the 2016 professional rugby league season has now entered its second phase. The arrangements are slightly complicated, so bear with me.

The top 8 teams in the Super League are playing each other – in the “Super Eights” – to determine which four sides will contest the competition’s semi-finals. Meanwhile, the bottom 4 are competing with the top 4 in the next division – the Kingstone Press Championship – to decide which four sides will remain in (or enter) next year’s Super League: this is the Middle Eights competition. The other 8 sides in the Championship play each other to decide which two teams will fall into the third division, which is confusingly called League 1.

League 1 has its own Super Eights competition, as the leading 8 teams are also meeting each other again. After that round of matches, the two sides finishing at the top of the pile will play each other (yet) again to decide on the automatic promotion into the Championship; the loser of that game will have another chance for advancement by playing off for the second promotion spot with the sides finishing between the third and fifth places. (With the exception of the Middle Eights competition – which starts from scratch – the clubs carry forward the points accrued in the season to date in their respective league tables).

I think there are both pros and cons with these arrangements, which are only in their second year of implementation. On the downside, they make the spectator’s advance planning of matches in this part of the season rather difficult. It was not until 12 days ago that the specific dates for the Middle Eights fixtures were known: something of a frustration for the casual visitor – travelling from, say, Glasgow to Yorkshire, to give a hypothetical example – looking to arrange his spectating itinerary.

On the plus side, the new schedule is designed to ensure that interest in the season is maintained by teams that, under other circumstances, might have achieved a mid-table comfort (with nothing else to play for) with several fixtures still to play. In the event, this did not happen in this year’s Super League, where the 4 teams destined for the Middle Eights (Leeds Rhinos, Salford Red Devils, Hull KR and Huddersfield Giants) were known some time before the end of the first phase of the season and those placed just above them (Widnes Vikings, Castleford Tigers and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats) knew likewise that they were safe from the threat of relegation.

The main positive feature of the system is that it honours the concept of promotion and relegation. In my view, this is essential to the integrity of a competitive league structure (though I do appreciate that other highly successful sporting competitions – notably the National Rugby League in Australia and the National Football League in the USA – seem to cope perfectly well without it).

However, I do wonder if the promotion/relegation net is being cast too widely. Theoretically, prior to the Middle Eights and League 1 top 8 play-offs getting underway, it would have been possible for Leeds, who finished 9th in the Super League, to be relegated to next year’s Championship, where they could have met London Skolars, hypothetically promoted after finishing 8th in the first phase of this year’s League 1. Very highly unlikely, it must be said – but not impossible. The gap between these two sides was no less than 23 places in the rugby league hierarchy: a huge range, given that there are only 39 teams across the three divisions.

Undoubtedly, the most striking feature of this year’s Super Eight/Middle Eight split is the presence of the Leeds Rhinos in the latter group. This is the club that achieved a treble success in 2015 – Challenge Cup, League Leaders Shield and Super League – but which has had a wretched season this time round, mitigated only marginally by victories over two of Super League’s top three clubs (Hull FC and Wigan) after its Middle Eights fate was sealed.

The rugby league historians have had a field-day. The last time that Leeds competed outside the top tier of British rugby league was in the 1902-03 season, when they finished second (to Keighley) in the Second Division. This was three years before teams were reduced to 13-a-side and four years before the introduction of the play-the-ball rule. The competition in the same division that season included teams from Millom, South Shields and Morecambe.

A second historical throw-back for the match at Post Office Road – albeit one that was generally less remarked upon – was that it was scheduled to kick off at 3.00pm on a Saturday afternoon. As I reported in An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport, this was the norm for most rugby league games in the early 1960s – when I was cutting my spectating teeth – before the advent of Sunday afternoon sport or the (much more recent) phasing of evening kick-offs over the long weekend. It brought back memories of being driven home from Hunslet’s matches at Parkside in my dad’s little green van to have my tea and watch William Hartnell in the latest instalment of Doctor Who.

In general, it is to be expected that the greater resources – in some cases, far greater resources – of the existing Super League clubs will mean that they will prevail in the qualifying competition for next year’s Super League. But the Championship sides’ places in the Middle Eights sun have been hard-won – this year by the Leigh Centurions, London Broncos and Batley Bulldogs as well as Featherstone – and none were to be taken lightly, notwithstanding that the last two of these squads comprised part-time professionals who also held down “day” jobs during the week.

This was reflected in Saturday’s game. Featherstone found it difficult to deal with the speed and power of the Leeds attacks, particularly down the latter’s right hand side, where the skilful distribution of Danny McGuire and the swift intrusions from full-back of Liam Sutcliffe repeatedly created the openings from which Kallum Watkins could profit. Although a breakaway try reduced Featherstone’s deficit to 4 points at one stage, a crucial score just before half-time took the visitors to an 18-6 interval lead. Thereafter, Leeds were in complete control, even playing up the slope, the final tally being 62-6 with Watkins registering 4 tries and the impressive Sutcliffe 26 points with two tries and nine goals.

However, despite the result, the Featherstone club enjoyed a good day in the warm sunshine. The attendance of over 6,600 was largest for a home fixture since the introduction of summer rugby league in 1996; the supporting entertainment ranged through the generations, including an excellent local male-voice choir (for many of whom the rendition of “When I’m Sixty-Four” might well have required the good Doctor’s time-travelling skills) as well as half-time mini-rugby matches that reached down as far as the Under 7s; and the home team was given rousing support throughout the match by their loyal supporters. (I also noticed that since my only previous visit to the ground four years ago – reported in “No Trains to Featherstone”, 5th September 2012 – there had been the addition of two new covered stands).

On the evening before the Featherstone-Leeds encounter, I was at the South Leeds Stadium for the League 1 Super Eight match between the Hunslet Hawks and Doncaster. The home side had had a good recent run – 8 wins in 10 matches, including the first two of the top 8 fixtures – and, as a result, had a reasonable expectation that they could squeeze into at least fifth place in the final standings and secure a promotion play-off spot. Those hopes received a setback, however, as a strong first half performance took Doncaster into a 24-6 interval lead that the visitors had consolidated to 36-24 by the close of play.

The attendance at the South Leeds Stadium was announced to have been 501. I met another of them the following day when, changing trains at Wakefield Kirkgate on my way from Leeds to Featherstone, I had a brief chart with the driver as he was loading up what he described as the “Leeds Rhinos Express” (albeit comprising exactly two carriages) He happened to mention that he had been at the Hunslet-Doncaster match and we duly compared notes. I think he appreciated my line about how – were the results in the Middle Eights and League 1 top 8 matches to go certain ways – Leeds and Hunslet could be playing in the same division next season.

Again, it’s still not impossible. After all, this time last year, what were the odds on LeicesterCity winning the Barclays Premier League title? However, on this occasion – given the balance of probabilities – I will probably resist the temptation to test the market with Mr Ladbroke.

Leave a comment

Income Levels

18th July 2016

One of the responses I received to my previous blog – on the impact of technological developments on cricket bat design (“Six and Out”, 4th July 2016) – was from Neil Clitheroe, whom I met at the Glasgow Film Theatre last autumn after he had arranged the showing of a documentary film about the threats posed to test match cricket (“Death of a Gentleman”, 8th November 2015).

Neil mentioned that he had recently walked part of the golf course at Troon that was to be used for this year’s Open Championship, which concluded yesterday. He had been concerned that some of the traditional par 4 holes would have their standing undermined by the much greater distances that professional golfers are now able to generate from the tee – again due to technological progress, this time in club design.

Last Friday, I attended the second day of the Open. During the afternoon, I spent some time at the top of the spectator stand behind the tee on the 8th hole – the famous Postage Stamp. The green of the 7th hole – 401 yards, par 4 – was below me to my right. In quick succession, we saw the tee shots of Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy emerge from the far distance, land on the fairway and roll up to within 10 yards of the edge of the green. As forecast, I thought.

Of course, there are actions that the tournament organisers can take to swing the odds back in the course’s favour. One concerns the positioning of the pins. At the first hole, I watched 7 groups of 3 (and one pair) for the first hour and a half after I arrived (beginning with the group including Ernie Els and the first round leader, Phil Mickelson). There were one or two close shaves – Dustin Johnson managed to miss from about two feet – but no-one registered a birdie, due principally to the positioning of the hole near the front edge close to two deep bunkers.

The other key factor is the weather, of course. During the period I was at the 8th, a strong wind was blowing across from the firth – left to right – making judgement of the tee shot particularly difficult, albeit on a hole that was only 123 yards in length. A succession of caddies arrived at the tee and checked the conditions by throwing loose bits of grass into the air before offering final pieces of advice. A succession of their employers then proceeded to watch their balls drift off the right hand side of the green down the slope and into the bunker.

One of these was Watson. McIlroy avoided this fate; he pulled his shot into the “coffin” bunker on the left. Both players then extricated themselves, in turn, by playing exquisite bunker shots – Watson to within six inches of the flag – and then putting safely to secure their pars. There might be power in their play – as we had seen at the previous hole – but there is also skill and finesse and, not least, the ability to keep a cool head when it is most needed.

Earlier, I had spent another 90 minutes standing at the edge of 15th green, which was in an attractive hollow and also guarded by some testing bunkers. Throughout this period, there was a torrential downpour. The play continued, however – the benefit of being on a links course with its natural drainage – and I watched a succession of previous (and, as it happened, American) Open champions trudge soggily through: Todd Hamilton, Mark Calcaveccia, Ben Curtis, John Daly. And Justin Leonard (whose win on the same course in 1997 I noted in An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport). Their best days have gone, though: none of them made the half-way cut.

One of my favourite locations on the Troon course is the distant 11th hole – The Railway – which is a 482 yard par 4 with a blind tee shot over thick gorse, more gorse on the left of the fairway and an “out of bounds” marked by a low stone wall on the right, on the other side of which is the railway line from Troon to Ayr. Most of the time, the hole is thinly populated by spectators and it is a good spot in which to find some personal space to watch the passing parade.

I asked one of the marshals where the best place to stand might be. He recommended the other side of the fairway, where there would be a good view of the second shots to the green. “But be careful”, he warned, “A lot of them are landing over there”. Sure enough, to the sound of “fore right” from the man with the red flags standing on top of a nearby lookout tower and the sight of the spectators bracing themselves in cowering anticipation of painful bombardment, Bubba Watson’s drive landed squarely on the railway line and headed off in the direction of the town centre. It is amazing how high a golf ball can bounce when it lands on a railway sleeper.

The following day – Saturday – I spent an hour or so in George Square, Glasgow: as the crow flies, about 30 miles from Troon. It was the last day of Homeless World Cup – an annual event which was first held in Graz in Austria in 2003. I caught the second half of Wales versus Zimbabwe and – as pure chance would have it, as I turned up without knowing the schedule – Scotland versus England.

The week-long tournament took place across three artificial pitches – each the length of a tennis court and about twice as wide – in the most prominent public space in Glasgow. 48 men’s and 15 women’s teams represented their countries in their respective competitions with over 400 matches being played. Each game lasted 14 minutes with 4 players per side on the pitch at any one time, including the goalkeeper, though rolling substitutions were allowed. Around each pitch, there were banks of temporary stands and so, for Scotland-England, there was a crowd of several hundred.

It will take some time, I think, before the full implications of the juxtaposition of these two sporting events – viewed on successive days – fully sink in with me.

It is an obvious – and fairly trite – starting point to compare the (literal) fortunes of the respective participants. The ten golfers I have name-checked above have, according to sources accessed on Wikipedia, combined career earnings from tournaments of approximately $375 million – i.e. even before income from sponsorship and endorsements. The players at the Homeless World Cup had a catalogue of experiences which included substance abuse, gambling and alcohol addiction, mental health problems and street-gang violence as well as homelessness. The case studies recorded in the official tournament programme provided some sobering reading.

However, I was struck by how much the two events had in common. Not least, for the spectator, they were both very well organised. At Troon, there was a continually operating bus service from the railway station to the course and back; the signage on the course was very clear; the electronic scoreboards were excellent; and the refreshment and restroom facilities were plentiful. In George Square, the volunteer guides gave a friendly welcome and, most impressively I thought, the MC introducing the Scotland-England game gave a short introductory request for spectators “whatever their usual feelings” to refrain from booing the England team or their play. His plea was met with a warm round of applause. I made a point of going up to say well done after the match had finished. “No worries”, he replied as we shook hands.

I am tempted to say that, in the Homeless World Cup, the results didn’t matter: it was the occasion and what it meant for the players (motivation, self-esteem, recognition) that was more important. I am sure that is right, but I couldn’t help but notice the joy shown by the Wales players and their entourage on winning their match, which gave them the Shield (for winning the group of teams ranked 25th to 31st in the tournament). Likewise, Scotland’s win over England (by 6 goals to 4 for the record) meant that they finished 21st overall (and their opponents 22nd), but was greeted with a similar enthusiasm.

And for the spectator? At Troon, I had a great day, notwithstanding the weather, as I always do when watching elite performers at the top of their profession. The successive generations captured in An Ordinary Spectator – Bobby Moore, Gareth Edwards, Sachin Tendulkar et al – have been duly followed by the likes of Mickelson and McIlroy.

That part is easy. At Troon, I knew beforehand that I would have a great day. When approaching George Square, I had been worried. Would it not just be patronising to watch the homeless play football? Will their temporary place in the sun simply be followed by a return to the shadows of the street? In the event, I was won over by the players’ commitment and pride and by the Glasgow crowd’s sympathetic identification, not only with their own national representatives but with all the teams in Wales’s Shield group – from Hong Kong to Norway and others – as they lined up to collect their commemorative medals. This is a hard city, but also a compassionate one.

In An Ordinary Spectator and the subsequent blogs, I have made repeated references to my (unoriginal) view that sport generally tends to reflect the broader world around it. Henrik Stenson’s Open Championship success yesterday was the result of thousands of hours of practice and dedication to his craft coupled with the consummate skill and ice-cool nerve that he demonstrated at Troon. His rewards will be high – quite apart from the £1.175 million prize money – due to the economics of globalisation, given the vast reach of his sport and its commercial and media “partners”.

Meanwhile, the weekend’s sporting itinerary also reminded us that many of the most significant political issues of current times – the distance between the haves and have-nots, the problems of the marginalised and downtrodden, the opportunities for mobility and progression, the remoteness of the ruling elites – are relatively easy to articulate, but very difficult to address. If the hosting of the Homeless World Cup in Scotland encourages us to try harder, that will be something.

Leave a comment

Six and Out

5th July 2016

Rather belatedly, I have recently come across an article by Mike Selvey in The Guardian of 23rd June: “Rein in the size of cricket big bats and allow the best to be the best”. It covers an issue which has been around for some time, not least in Selvey’s columns, and which I think is of some significance in the current development of the sport.

Selvey reports, with some enthusiasm, that the International Cricket Council’s cricket committee will recommend to the cricket committee of the MCC (which has responsibility for the Laws of Cricket) that there should be new legislation to rein in the influence of the modern bat. His argument is that technological advances in bat production – particularly with respect to the thickness of the edges and the depth of the “spine”- have had a disproportionate (and damaging) effect on the way that cricket is played.

In Selvey’s view, the “massive expansion in the ‘sweet spot’ hitting area of the bat (research estimates this to have increased from 3 inches vertical to 8 inches)” now means that “moderate and even mediocre batsmen are able to hit sixes with shots that would otherwise have brought about their dismissal”. In addition, many more top-edged shots that would previously have fallen short of the boundary are now clearing the ropes for six. “Mis-hits should bring wickets not reward”.

I have to say that I have some sympathy with Selvey’s argument. I think that it is a flaw in the modern game that a bowler can entice a batsman into a woefully false shot – say, a top edge or a lofted strike that does not come out of the (proper) meat of the bat – that, instead of landing in the field of play, still manages to carry the boundary. In Selvey’s words: “This is just wrong”.

However, although the article prompted a healthy and informed on-line response that was broadly supportive – with no fewer than 265 comments before the discussion was closed – it is clear that matters are far from straightforward.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that virtually all sports are continually subject to some form of technological progress which, in most cases, it is unrealistic to expect to be dis-invented. Formula 1 motor cars, golf clubs, tennis rackets, racing bicycles, swimming costumes… there is no shortage of examples of designers seeking to (legitimately) exploit a new idea for the benefit of their sporting clients. The key point is that, where such innovations have been made within the framework of that sport’s existing regulations, it is a relatively short step to the designer’s legal argument of “restraint of trade”, if the authorities were to decide that the changes should not be permitted. Golf clubs and tennis rackets provide case studies here.

There is little doubt that the incidence of six-hitting has increased in the modern game of cricket, even within the Twenty-20 format. In a slightly nerdish – and, admittedly, far from scientific – exercise, I looked at the scorecards of Yorkshire’s Headingley-based fixtures in this competition in 2005 and 2006. The 8 matches produced a total of 2455 runs by Yorkshire and their opponents combined, of which 15% were the result of sixes. By contrast, in 2015 and 2016 (to date), in which 10 matches have produced 2952 runs, the proportion of runs scored in six-hits has risen to 22%.

At first sight, this finding seemed to be consistent with my gut feeling that, compared with a decade ago, much more of the modern batting style in Twenty-20 cricket – even on grounds that are as big as Headingley – comprises a “stand and deliver” philosophy that results in either a big hit or, if unsuccessful, a scrambled single or dot-ball. In this perspective, some of the traditional subtleties of batting – for example, the quick single or the careful placement and swift running that allows a single to be transformed into a two – are being squeezed out of the game completely.

However, the data from my statistical exercise suggest that this is not quite the case. In 2005 and 2006, the proportion of the runs in Yorkshire’s Headingley Twenty-20 games that came from ones, two or threes was 39.1%. In 2015 and 2016, it was actually marginally higher: 39.9%. The increased propensity for six-hitting has been at the relative expense of striking fours: these accounted for 41% of the runs in 2005/2006, but only 33% in 2015/2016. (The remainder of the runs in both periods – 5% – were extras).

Of course – unless you are the bowler’s mother – the striking of a six is usually an notable incident in any cricket match. In An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport, I refer specifically to the blows struck by Don Wilson for Yorkshire in the Gillette Cup semi-final at Scarborough in 1969 and by Viv Richards for Somerset in a John Player Sunday League match at Park Avenue, Bradford, in 1975: each massive and majestic and firmly retained in the memory. And some six-hits undoubtedly have significance in cricket folklore: Mike Selvey reminded us that it is well over a century since Albert Trott struck a ball over the pavilion at Lords. But, as we watch the ball land in the stands for the nth time in an innings, the laws of diminishing returns must set in.

I do recognise that it is not only cricket bat technology that is at work here. The athletic frames of modern batsmen are much more likely than in previous times to feature the powerful upper arms and shoulders produced by serious weight-training. It is also clear that many more batsmen these days have the positive intent – or necessity – to score their runs quickly, not only in Twenty-20 matches, but in other forms of the game.

And, not least, there is the question of where the boundary ropes are actually laid. How often do we see the full playing area not being used, but the boundaries set several yards in from the fence? This provides the clear indication of what the preferences of the cricket authorities are. They recognise that the majority of the modern support base like to see a “maximum” – to use the awful description favoured by the authorities’ cheerleaders in the media – being struck. (No matter that it might come off the top edge of the bat and land on the opposite side of the ground to which the shot was being played). For those one-day competitions that involve the direct sponsorship of six-hits, the alliance between the commercial interests and those charged with maintaining the game’s integrity is presented in even starker relief.

The sensible placing of the boundary rope is one – relatively minor – contribution towards redressing the imbalance between bat and ball that concerns Mike Selvey and others. For many grounds, it would be irrelevant, of course, and it obviously does nothing to deal with the thorny issue of bat technology. For the reasons summarised, this will be a far harder battle to win.

One final thought. Last Friday, when Lancashire were (unsuccessfully) chasing a target of 142 to beat Yorkshire in the Twenty-20 match at Headingley, 6 sixes were struck, three of which were by Liam Livingstone off successive deliveries. However, eight of the Lancashire batsmen were caught on the boundary or in the outfield. At least two of those blows would have gone for six had they not been caught. The Yorkshire catching was outstanding and the first catch – by Adam Lyth – was stunningly brilliant. It occurred to me that had the carrot of the “maximum” not been present – albeit made easier than in years gone by for technological and other reasons – we might not have seen this thrilling demonstration of one of the other fundamental cricketing skills.

I did say that matters were not straightforward.

Leave a comment

Bank Holiday Monday

3rd June 2016

Last Monday – 30th May, the bank holiday – I attended the second day of the Roses match in the Specsavers County Championship at Headingley.

I might only see one day of first-class cricket this year, so this was undoubtedly the one to choose. It was exactly 50 years ago to the day (Monday 30th May 1966, a bank holiday) that, at the age of 11, I saw Yorkshire play for the first time – the second day of the Roses match at Headingley.

The strong memories of that occasion – as described in An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport – are crystal clear: sitting between my father and my uncle on the packed wooden benches of the sun-drenched Western Terrace; being enthralled by the supporting cast of scorecard and newspaper sellers and ice-cream vendors; Yorkshire declaring their first innings with a sizeable lead; Freddie Trueman charging in from the Kirkstall Lane end; John Waring, a second team bowler, taking 7 Lancashire wickets; Yorkshire sending out Jimmy Binks and Don Wilson – not Geoff Boycott, to my dad’s dismay – to knock off the 6 runs needed to register a 10 wicket victory.

I was absolutely captivated.

This year’s play was keenly contested. Following the fall of the last Yorkshire first innings wicket shortly after the start of play, their seamers bowled with admirable discipline to take the first 7 wickets before Lancashire had reached three figures. Adil Rashid then bowled more loosely, but wrapped up the tail to give the home side a first innings lead of over 100. Yorkshire’s second innings progressed to 79 for 3 by the close, based on a watchful knock by Adam Lyth. (Yorkshire went on to complete a 175 run win on the final afternoon).

I shall resist the temptation to make a series of “then and now” comparisons over half a century for the game of cricket as a whole – even this blog must have a limitation on its length. Still less shall I offer any broader philosophical reflections on the inexorable passage of time, though the occasion has undoubtedly prompted these.

Instead, I simply offer some observations on the respective Yorkshire sides of 1966 and 2016.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Yorkshire’s 1966 XI was its test match pedigree. (This was before the advent of one-day internationals, of course). Nine of the side had played for England, although for four of them (Binks, Padgett, Taylor and Trueman), their test careers were over by that stage. Three (Boycott, Close and Illingworth) played for England in 1966 and two others (Sharpe and Wilson), whilst not playing in that year, won test caps both before and afterwards. That left John Hampshire, who was to make his test match debut in 1969, and Waring.

Of the XI who took the field this week, 5 have played test cricket – with Tim Bresnan the most experienced at 23 caps – though it is reasonable to expect that a couple of the others will also do so before their careers are over. Of course, this is not a strict like-for-like comparison, as this year’s Roses match overlapped with the second test match against Sri Lanka at Chester-le-Street. However, the modern-day central contracts effectively preclude the participation of some of Yorkshire’s key players in mid-season with the result that, even had England not been playing, it is doubtful that Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow (and James Anderson for Lancashire) would have been on show at Headingley.

The comparison of the test match experience of the two sides does not reflect their respective ages. The average age of the 1966 XI was 30, ranging from Waring at 23 and Boycott and Hampshire at 25 through to Close and Trueman at 35. Six of the side was aged 30 or over.

The current Yorkshire side is slightly younger in terms of average age – by just under a year – but actually has 6 players aged 31 or 32; the mean age is brought down by the youthful Jack Leaming and Alex Lees at 22 and 23, respectively. Tricky things, averages.

Notwithstanding the age range of the 1966 side, that was not yet a team in decline. Indeed, after winning the championship in 1966, the first-choice Yorkshire XI remained almost unchanged for the next two years (with Tony Nicholson as the first choice opening bowler in support of Trueman) when the title was retained on both occasions. It was 1968 that represented the high-water mark for the Club’s championship success; after that came the long barren period that was to last for the rest of the century.

Unlike in 1966, the Yorkshire side of 2016 went into the May Roses match as the current county champions, following their emphatic successes in 2014 and 2015. Indeed, in last year’s final table, the points difference between Yorkshire and Middlesex (in second place) was greater than that between Middlesex and the bottom-placed side (Worcestershire).

The side entered this year’s Roses match in 4th position in the first division of the championship, 19 points behind the leaders. A major difference with 1966 was that those leaders were Lancashire, newly promoted from the second division, whose fine start to the season had seen them win 3 of their 5 matches. 50 years ago, there was little doubt that Lancashire were the weaker of the two sides – notwithstanding that 6 members of their team were (or were to become) test match players – and they were to finish the season equal 12th of the 17 in the championship table.

What of the composition of the respective Yorkshire sides? In 1966, there were five specialist batsmen, two all-rounders (Close and Illingworth), a wicket-keeper (Binks) and three specialist bowlers. This gave a 5-man bowling attack with Brian Close operating as the first-change third seamer. In the event, 17 of Lancashire’s wickets in the match fell to Trueman (7) and Waring (10) with Close, Wilson and Illingworth picking up only two between them in their combined 60 overs. (The other wicket was a run out).

The designation of players is rather more difficult these days, as there are generally far fewer genuine tail-enders in county cricket. However, if I (perhaps harshly) judge Liam Plunkett, Steve Patterson and Jack Brooks to be the specialist bowlers, the Yorkshire line-up is not too dissimilar to that of 50 years ago with 5 specialist batsmen, a wicket-keeper (Andrew Hodd) and two all-rounders. (It was the century sixth-wicket partnership between the last of these – Rashid and Bresnan – on the first day of this year’s match that was instrumental in Yorkshire reaching a total in excess of 300. Between them, the pair also took 8 of Lancashire’s second innings wickets). If I ignore Adam Lyth’s capabilities as an occasional off-break bowler, the main difference between the two sides is the replacement of the second spinner by the fourth seamer – but that takes us into cricket’s general shifts over the last half century, which I have promised to put to one side.

The style of management of the Yorkshire team has changed radically, of course. In 1966, although the Club was notionally governed by a General Committee of almost 30, the main figures off the field were Brian Sellers as Chairman of the Cricket Committee and Arthur Mitchell, the county coach: two formidable individuals.

I have no inside track on the current Yorkshire changing room, but I sense that Martyn Moxon and Jason Gillespie have a more modern approach to man-management, although some of the decisions they have made in the last couple of years – omitting players for certain matches, for example – reveal that an element of discipline has been retained.

As for the management of the game on the field, Andrew Gale is in his seventh season of captaincy and has the two championship successes as notches on his belt; between them, Lyth, Rashid and Bresnan have made over 420 appearances in first-class cricket; Ryan Sidebottom (absent from the Roses match) is in his 20th season. In the current team, therefore, there is no shortage of the type of knowledge that can only be generated through experience. However, in terms of sheer cricketing nous, it is difficult to believe that any side through the years – of any county – had the collective wisdom that the triumvirate of Close, Illingworth and Trueman brought to the Yorkshire team of the mid-1960s.

I leave the most obvious comparison until last. In 1966, Yorkshire fielded 11 players born within the county; the corresponding figure this year was seven.

I think that it is this final statistic that captures the overall change in the Yorkshire team that I am seeking to identify. It is a different Yorkshire, but not radically so. Most importantly, it is still one to which I can relate – though with the regional pride of an exiled 60-something, rather than the 11 year-old’s enthralled captivation.

On Monday, I watched some of the day’s closing overs from a vantage point near to the edge of the Western Terrace. The shadows were lengthening in the early evening sunshine. I reminded myself again of the anniversary. And I thought of absent friends.

Leave a comment

The Boy Hero – and a Boy’s Hero

5th May 2016

The Boy Hero – and a Boy’s Hero

Roger Millward, who died earlier this week at the age of 68, was one of the greatest names in rugby league. He spent most of his distinguished playing and coaching career with HullKingston Rovers, but made his professional debut for Castleford in 1964.

Millward had just reached his 18th birthday when I saw him play for the first time. It was the Hunslet/Castleford Yorkshire Cup semi-final of September 1965 played on a Monday evening at Parkside in south Leeds. I was 10 years old and absolutely mesmerised by him.

On the 50th anniversary of that match, I wrote an article about it for the Autumn 2015 edition of the excellent Rugby League Journal. The following is an extract from that article, reproduced in tribute to the late Roger Millward.

THE SPECTACULAR AND THRILLING “BOY HERO”

… I was already in my fifth season of supporting Hunslet, my dad’s team. It had been a productive period, given the Yorkshire Cup and Second Division championship successes in 1962-63 and the Challenge Cup final appearance against Wigan the previous May.

The visitors’ side included Roger Millward, who had come to a modest fame playing for the Castleford and District Under 17s in a series of televised junior rugby matches that the commercial channel had shown at Sunday lunchtime a couple of seasons earlier. Now, having just turned 18 – and at his full height of five feet four inches – he was in the first team of his home-town club.

On paper, the semi-final teams were evenly matched. Although only sitting in mid-table in the league – Castleford had won 3 out of 6 league games and Hunslet 3 out of 8 – each side had supplied four players to the Yorkshire team that had defeated New Zealand the previous week in the first match to have been played under Castleford’s floodlights at Wheldon Road. Indeed, the whole of the Yorkshire pack – Hartley, Ward, Eyre, Bryant, Ramsey, Taylor – was on display at Parkside. Following his rapid promotion from the Castleford “A” team, Roger Millward was now taking the field in some illustrious company.

On the day after the match, Arthur Haddock – the Yorkshire Evening Post’s chief rugby league correspondent – gave his assessment of a “…splendidly fought Yorkshire Cup semi-final [that] had just about everything… the superb tackling, resolute forward play, a fightback by both teams, a boy hero and the right result”.

The “boy hero” was Millward, of course. My memory is of him playing on the wing and being absolutely mesmeric. As reported by Haddock: “It would be difficult to imagine anything more spectacular and thrilling than his two wonderful tries and touchline goal in the space of three minutes just after half-time that put Castleford ahead 8-7”.

My father and I stood in the covered stand behind the goalposts at the Dewsbury Road end of the ground. After Millward’s heroics at the beginning of the second half, Hunslet responded by regaining the lead. Then Castleford pressed again. As they did so – and each time the ball was passed across the back line in Millward’s direction – the sizeable visitors’ support in the large crowd roared with anticipation. They – we – could not wait to see what the outcome would be when he next touched the ball. The noise echoed from the roof and back of the stand. What drama this was. I held my breath: captivated, transfixed and almost overwhelmed.

Of course, for me – the young Hunslet supporter – Millward was an opposition player and I wanted his team to lose. I willed the Hunslet defence to close in on him and eliminate the attacking threat. At the same time, I also knew the significance of what I was seeing. With his speed (described as “bewildering” in the following day’s Yorkshire Post) and agility and devastating changes of direction, this was clearly a wonderful and unusual talent.

The rest of the crowd – home and visiting – thought so too. Arthur Haddock again: “Every one of the 9,753 spectators, friend and foe alike, gave him an ovation in a great spontaneous gesture that warmed the heart”.

On this occasion, Millward’s efforts were in a losing cause. The home side’s pack – with Geoff Gunney and Bill Ramsey prominent – gradually took control. Two tries by Barry Lee and one from Kenny Eyre, plus four Billy Langton goals, took Hunslet to a 17-10 win and a (losing) Yorkshire Cup final appearance against Bradford Northern at Headingley the following month.

My assessment of Millward’s talent was not a difficult one to make, even for a 10 year old. Within 6 months, he had won the first of his 29 Great Britain caps and, in Australia in 1970, he was the linchpin of the last British side to win an Ashes series. I followed his career with interest and, as it happened, was present at some of its significant moments, including his debut appearance for Hull KR at Parkside in 1966, his first try for Great Britain (against Australia at Headingley in 1967), the touchdown in his last test match in 1978 (also against Australia at Headingley) and the crude jaw-breaking assault on him at Wembley in the Challenge Cup final of 1980.

It is half a century since the Yorkshire Cup semi-final of 1965, but my recollection of the crowd’s excitement at watching the young tyro on the Castleford wing – and, in particular, of the nerve-wracking sense of anticipation about what might shortly happen, as the ball got closer to him – remains absolutely fixed. The moments were described then – and are headlined again here now – as “spectacular and thrilling” and yet that somehow seems hopelessly inadequate.

The Castleford backs passing the ball towards the young Roger Millward on their left wing in a cup-tie at Parkside. It sounds routine, of course: and, at one level, it was. This was a professional rugby league side transferring the ball skilfully across the pitch and, as it did so, being challenged by a resolute defence. I can only report that the action can be conjured up again in my mind’s eye in an instant. And when it is, there is an immediate frisson of excitement, as well as the painful pang of nostalgia.

The full version of “The Spectacular and Thrilling ‘Boy Hero’” appeared in the Autumn 2015 edition of the Rugby League Journal, edited by Harry Edgar. (www.rugbyleaguejournal.com).

Leave a comment

The Bully Wee

2nd May 2016

Prior to last Saturday’s fixtures – the final round in the regular 36-match season – 4 sides were in the running for the 3 play-off places for promotion from the Scottish Premiership Football League Two. (The 4th play-off spot would be taken by the side finishing second bottom of League One: Cowdenbeath as it turned out). East Fife had already won the division and gained automatic promotion.

For Clyde FC – in 4th place going into the last game – a win at home to Stirling Albion would guarantee a play-off place. A draw or even a defeat might still be sufficient, but that would depend on how Annan Athletic (in 5th place) performed in their match with Queen’s Park. For Stirling, there was nothing at stake, other than disputing the bragging rights of 6th place with Berwick Rangers.

It could have been a tense afternoon for Clyde. In the event, it was reasonably straightforward. They took a lead through David Marsh after a quarter of an hour and the same player extended this advantage with a fine header before half time. A swift counter-attack made it 3-0 on the hour and, with Stirling having a player red-carded shortly afterwards, there was little danger of Clyde’s immediate mission not being accomplished. The home supporters could even acknowledge the best goal of the game – a perfectly struck volley from outside the penalty area by one of the visitors’ substitutes, Scott Burns – five minutes from time.

Clyde have been based at the Broadwood Stadium on the outskirts of Cumbernauld since 1994 – some distance from both the club’s 19th Century Glaswegian origins at Barrowfield Park and the Shawfield Stadium that was the home ground for almost 90 years. The informative Wikipedia entry provides three possible explanations for the club’s nickname – well-known in Scottish football circles – of “The Bully Wee”, of which the one most widely accepted refers to the Victorian idiom “bully” as meaning “of a high standard”. Hence, it is argued, “Bully Wee Clyde” was an early acknowledgement of a first-rate small club. Sounds plausible to me.

For a routine League Two fixture such as Saturday’s, all the spectators at Broadwood are located in one of the covered stands on one side of the ground. This has the advantage of providing a sense of intimacy for a modest attendance – 704 on this occasion – but it also means that it is difficult to distance oneself from the continual swearing and coarseness of the couple of dozen or so hardcore supporters at the back of the stand. Late in the game, as this group droned through another of its repetitive chants, an elderly man behind me remarked to his neighbour that even Gareth Malone would have difficulty creating anything worthwhile out of that particular choir. His friend reflected on this for some time before replying; “Who’s Gareth Malone?”

Not for the first time – indeed, it has been a regular theme in both An Ordinary Spectator and the subsequent series of occasional blogs – my attendance at a sporting event provided me with a host of indicators of the wider society in which that sport is contested. With my senior pass, I obtained a two-thirds discount on my trainfare from Milngavie to Glasgow and then free bus travel for the return journey on the X3 from Buchanan Street bus station to the Craiglinn Interchange. A journey that would otherwise have cost £8-70p set me back £1-30p: a discount of 85 per cent. Such are the travel concessions that have been made in Scotland to those of retirement age, irrespective of their particular circumstances: gratefully received nonetheless.

On the return bus journey, a group of 8 or 9 boys – aged 12 or 13, I would guess – joined some young girls sitting in the front half of the upper deck. One of the boys threw an empty plastic bottle down to the front of the bus. Another made his way through a takeaway meal in a polystyrene container and casually deposited the items he didn’t fancy – cucumber, onions, lettuce – on to the floor; when he had finished his meal, he dropped the retrieved bottle out of one of the upper windows as the bus turned on to the motorway. For the (several) other passengers in the latter half of the bus, there was almost audible sigh of relief when the party alighted at Muirhead. No-one said or did anything, however, other than take care where they were treading on leaving the bus later. As noted: the wider society in which we live.

I prefer to retain more pleasant recollections of the afternoon: the friendly response by the turnstile operators when I inadvertently attempted to enter the part of the ground allocated to the Stirling Albion support; the solid display in the Clyde defence by the 40 year-old Mark McLaughlin; the excitement of a couple of middle-aged supporters calculating which side would be Clyde’s play-off opponents, as we waited for the Glasgow bus.

ElginCity in the answer. The first leg is at Broadwood tomorrow (Tuesday) evening. Good luck to the Bully Wee.

Leave a comment

The View from the Milburn Stand

18th April 2016

These are difficult times for Newcastle United FC. Prior to last Saturday’s home fixture with Swansea City, they were in 19th position in the Barclays Premier League – one of the 3 relegation places – with only 6 games left to play. The side residing in the safety of 17th place (NorwichCity) had 6 more points to their name in the league table, albeit having played an extra game.

It is widely stated by football scribes that relegation from the Premier League, whilst a painful and depressing outcome at any time, will be especially traumatic this year, given the additional billions that the new television deals will make available to the top tier participants from next season. For this (very) detached observer of England’s elite teams, however, there is only mild indifference to this: I’m not particularly concerned about which of the top players (and their agents) will be able to add a couple of noughts to their already bloated wages.

What is of far more interest is the effect of the prospective demotion on a club like Newcastle, with its rich tradition and passionate support. The loss of esteem and status would be keenly felt. This is a club that is still located – at St James’ Park: “the cathedral on the hill” – within a few minutes walk of the central railway station, not on a greenfield site next to a suburban motorway. The team’s weekly fortunes have a significant impact on the local mood. The stalls of the match-day programme sellers take their places amongst the bustling Saturday lunchtime shoppers in the city centre.

This is a club with a pride in – and, perhaps, a longing for – its past.

It is the case, of course, that the tradition with which Newcastle United is associated has not been accompanied by any notable success for many years. The last majority trophy to be lifted was the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969. Since then, there have been three losing appearances in FA Cup finals and two runners-up positions in the Premier League, none of which have been in this century.

Unlike Glasgow Celtic’s European Cup-winning side of two years earlier, the Newcastle team that lifted the Fairs Cup was not composed of local lads. Indeed, of the 12 players who took part in the two-legged final, only three were from the north-east of England and only one (Frank Clark) from Tyneside. The others were from across the UK – 4 from Scotland and 2 each from Wales and Northern Ireland – supplemented by the Dane, Preben Arentoft. What did characterise the side, however, was its stability and cohesion: 8 members of the squad were each to play at least 180 times for the club, with the goalkeeper (Willie McFaul) and two full-backs (Clark and David Craig) amassing over 1,150 appearances between them. They were readily identifiable – by home and opposition supporters alike – as Newcastle United.

Reflecting the modern game, the catchment area of the present generation of Newcastle players is much wider: the 14 who played against Swansea on Saturday came from nine different countries across Europe and Africa, although 5 were English, a higher proportion than in the Fairs Cup-winning side. However, it is widely agreed that the more important difference, compared with 1969, is the players’ attachment to the club. For some of the current squad, this is generally regarded as being – to put it mildly – much weaker.

I had been struck by the way this point was emphatically made in the match report by Martin Hardy following Newcastle’s 1-3 home defeat by Bournemouth last month (The Sunday Times, 6 March 2016). Hardy is a knowledgeable and respected commentator and the report contained more than the standard description of the game’s course, with its goals and bookings. In addition, there was a sad summary of the home side’s technical deficiencies – “Newcastle were… poor. They could not defend and they did not look like scoring” – as well as a vitriolic condemnation of the lack of commitment: “It was an X-rated afternoon for anyone with black and white blood. There was none given for the cause by [the] players… It is a football club without a heartbeat. A team without character”.

The following week, Steve McLaren was dismissed as manager. His replacement – Rafael Benitez – was brought in with 10 league matches to play as the final throw of the dice to maintain Newcastle’s premier status. His first four games had yielded one point.

And so it was that, on Saturday, I took my place in the Milburn Stand at St James’ Park. This was another reference to Newcastle’s history, of course: its tradition for talismanic centre-forwards – Jackie Milburn (who scored goals in two of the three 1950s Cup Final victories), Malcolm Macdonald (121goals in 228 appearances), Alan Shearer (the club’s leading scorer with 206 goals) et al. This season’s top marksmen – Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksanar Mitrovic – have notched six goals each.

I had a good view from the stand, as I would have had from anywhere in this fine stadium. As the kick-off time approached, I watched the ground fill up – the attendance would be just under 49,000 – the mid-afternoon sunshine filtering through the transparent roof which swept around high above me and over to the Leazes Stand behind one of the goals. A blast through the loudspeakers of the Animals and “It’s My Life” was followed by a spirited live on-field rendition of “Blaydon Races”. I thought the crowd’s response to these local anthems was somewhat muted, however; there were clearly some nerves about what might follow.

In some respects, it was a strange game. What struck me about Newcastle’s approach was the lack of an upbeat tempo: there just didn’t seem to be any urgency. I mentioned this to the middle-aged man sitting next to me, who responded that it had been the apparent lack of effort that had most aggravated him and his fellow supporters during the season. “A waste of a shirt”, he muttered to himself, as one of the players was substituted in the second half. For their part, Swansea played a neat passing game without seeming likely to threaten the Newcastle goal. Then, a couple of minutes before half time, from a corner kick on the left hand side, Jamaal Lascelles was allowed to head the ball into the Swansea net from a distance of about two yards.

There was a period midway through the second half when Swansea were in complete control. A couple of timely substitutions sparked their attacking threat and, over the course of 10 minutes or so, led to the creation of 3 clear goal-scoring opportunities, all of which were wasted. On another day, the home side would have found itself seriously in arrears. Instead, with a few minutes left to play, from another Newcastle corner on the left-hand side, the ball fell to Moussa Sissoko, who crashed it home. (My footballing acumen detects that Swansea might have a problem defending corners). A neat finish towards the end by Andros Townsend – Newcastle’s best player, in my view – gave the scoreline an emphatic 3-0 polish.

Sunderland’s earlier victory at Norwich meant that it had been a very good day for Newcastle United. They were still in 19th place in the league, but the gap with Norwich had been reduced to 3 points with Newcastle still having that game in hand – against Champions League semi-finalists, ManchesterCity, at St James’ Park tomorrow evening. The view from the Milburn Stand – or, at least, from my neighbour – was that Newcastle should put in a couple of hefty challenges in the first two minutes to test the water.

Earlier, on my way to Johann’s coffee shop in the Fenwick department store – another local landmark – I stood back on the stairs to let an elderly lady walk down slowly with her stick. “I used to be able to dance down these stairs in my high heels”, she told me wistfully. In our different ways, perhaps we all have a pride in – and a longing for – our past.

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: