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The Circle of Cricketing Life

6th June 2019

Last summer – recalled now as one of unremitting sunshine and scorching temperatures – my friend George Farrow and I managed the impressive feat of attending a one-day cricket match at Headingley (Yorkshire vs Nottinghamshire in the Royal London One-Day Cup) that was washed out without a ball being bowled. This year, we decided to improve our chances of seeing some action by arranging to watch the first two days of Yorkshire’s Specsavers County Championship game with Essex, which began on Monday on the same ground.

The general consensus amongst the cricket cognoscenti – and the online Yorkshire Members’ Forum – is that Essex are one of the three counties that are most likely to lift this year’s title (along with the champions, Surrey, and Somerset, who have already won the 2019 Royal London tournament). They have much the same squad as their championship-winning group of two years ago, though without the Pakistani fast-bowler Mohammed Amir and the experienced wicket-keeper James Foster. The Australian Peter Siddle has replaced Amir, whilst Essex have the bonus of the former England captain, Alastair Cook, being available for the whole summer following his retirement from test match cricket.

Cook ended his international career with the England records for the most tests (161), most consecutive tests (159, the world record), most tests as captain (59), most runs (12,472), most centuries (33) and most outfield catches (175). Equally importantly (if not more so) in an era when, for some, spiteful confrontation and perpetual aggression seemed to represent appropriate conduct on and off the cricket field – culminating in the shameful exposure and disgrace of the Australians’ “sandpaper-gate” in South Africa – it strikes me that Cook has always combined dignity and modesty in a way that is wholly admirable. Other than on television, I had not seen him play before and I was looking forward to doing so,

Given that, since retiring from test cricket, Cook has been knighted, I was also interested to see how he would be designated on the match scorecard. “AN Cook” was the answer.

George and I saw a full day’s play on Monday and the morning session on Tuesday, during which time Yorkshire compiled a first innings total of 390. As Essex then batted for 25 minutes before the rains came, I was pleased to be able to see Sir Alastair Cook walk out to open the innings. I was also able to see him walk back to the pavilion, as he was caught in the slips for two off the seventh delivery he received.

The evolution of the Yorkshire innings comprised all that is to like about first class cricket: an excellent knock by the opener Adam Lyth – who, in the neat description by Chris Waters in the following day’s Yorkshire Post, provided “the usual cinema reel of exquisite cover drives” – before falling five runs short of his century; a mid-innings collapse in which four wickets fell for 28 runs; a neat consolidating partnership by Johnny Tattersall and Dom Bess in the late middle order; a sharp piece of fielding by Sam Cook (no relation) to run out Gary Ballance; the break put on the Yorkshire scoring by the off-spinner Simon Harmer, who received a meagre reward for his long bowling stint with a solitary wicket late in the day.

The Yorkshire supporters in the East Stand were fully engaged by the action: “No ball, umpire. Get a grip” shouted one, when Ravi Bopara appeared to overstep the crease in his delivery stride; “Good fielding” acknowledged another, when the sprawling Nick Browne – not the fastest of movers in the outfield – valiantly dived full-length in front of us to prevent a boundary.

A couple of the names were new to me. Will Fraine opened the batting on his Yorkshire first-class debut and seemed to ally a sound temperament with a solid technique; it was a surprise when he was bowled for 39. On the Essex side, Will Buttleman, a 19 year-old debutant wicket-keeper, was equally impressive, taking three catches and conceding only one bye in a Yorkshire innings that spanned 125 overs.

As with all sports, there is a circle of life to first-class cricket. Sir Alastair Cook is winding down his career (hopefully with another couple of seasons to come) after 13 years in the test match trenches. The other (near) veterans in this match included Siddle and Bopara at age 34, the 35 year-old Yorkshire captain Steve Patterson and the Essex skipper, Ryan ten Doeschate, who is 38. The hope must be that the game of first-class cricket – including the county championship – survives long enough in its present state for the likes of Fraine and Buttleman to have rewarding careers of similar longevity.

Footnote

The Yorkshire/Essex match ended today in a draw. With most sides now having completed 5 of their 14 fixtures, Somerset head the county championship table.

Game Management

26th May 2019

The PRO14 rugby competition is contested by sides from Scotland, Ireland and Wales, plus two from South Africa. During the season, the teams are allocated to one of two Conferences, although there are also a sizeable number of inter-Conference matches. A play-off system involving the top three sides from each Conference generates the tournament’s finalists.

The final was played yesterday evening between the Glasgow Warriors and Leinster: quite appropriately, I thought, because these two teams had been the clear winners of their respective Conferences.

Glasgow had two possible advantages going into the match. First, the game was being played at CelticPark and, therefore, was effectively a home fixture. Second, a fortnight ago, at the time when Glasgow had had a week off, Leinster had played in the fiercely-contested European Champions cup final against Saracens in Newcastle. I wondered how much of an emotional or physical cost might have resulted from the 10-20 defeat. (Glasgow had previously lost 27-56 to Saracens in that competition’s quarter final).

I was pleased that the Glasgow team included Robert Harley at blind-side wing forward: a product of Douglas Academy in Milngavie, whom (as I reported in An Ordinary Spectator), I had first seen play as a 17 year-old for the West of Scotland FC at Burnbrae. That was 11 years ago; Harley is the first player to have made more than 200 appearances for the Glasgow Warriors.

I could not help but consider the parallels and differences with the Edinburgh Rugby-Munster quarter-final tie in the Heineken Cup (“The Grizzled European Campaigners”, 31st March 2019). On that occasion, I estimated that the travelling support had made up roughly half of the attendance at Murrayfield. Yesterday, by contrast, there was no doubt which side the majority of the 47,000-plus crowd was supporting and when, after 14 minutes – accompanied by the huge roars of “We are Warriors! We are Warriors” – the Glasgow forwards drove Matt Fagerson over the Leinster try-line to take a 7-0 lead, I did wonder if it was to be their night. Unfortunately, straight from the kick-off, the Glasgow full-back Stuart Hogg had an attempted clearance charged down and the ball, spinning wickedly in the in-goal area to stay in play, was pounced upon by the impressive Garry Ringrose for the opening Leinster try.

The parallel with the Edinburgh-Munster encounter is that my previous (complimentary) description of the Munster side can undoubtedly also be applied (if not more so) to Leinster, whose list of honours includes winning (in their respective various guises) the European Champions Cup on four occasions and the Celtic League/PRO12/PRO14 title six times, including the “double” last year. They know how to win tight games and they won this one by 18 points to 15.

The visitors took a 15-10 lead into half-time thanks to a try by Cian Healy. The prop forward, with a low body angle and an unstoppable force, drove over the line after a series of close-range surges from his colleagues: a practiced manoeuvre which demands strength, technique and patience. It is not pretty, but it is very effective and it is a significant component of the Leinster armoury; at the beginning of last season, I had seen Healy score two such tries in a European Champions Cup group match against Glasgow at Scotstoun (“A Tough Pool”, 23rd October 2017).

After the interval, a Johnny Sexton penalty goal gave Leinster a two-score advantage. Thereafter, in a steady drizzle, most of the play took place in Glasgow’s half of the field. This included the better part of five minutes when a scrum on the home side’s try-line had to be re-set several times when one or other of the front-rows caved in. Towards the end of the game, after their full-back Rob Kearney had been sent to the sin-bin, there was a three-minute stretch in which the Leinster forwards crabbed back and forth across the Glasgow 22-line with a total of 26 individual “pick and go” routines – I counted them afterwards when watching the Clwb Rygbi recording of the match on the S4C channel – that produced a net gain of about three yards. “Game management” is the jargon phrase, I believe.

Then, four minutes from the end, in a rare attack, Glasgow made use of the extra man brought about by Kearney’s absence to move the ball quickly and send the replacement hooker Grant Stewart to score in the corner. “We are Warriors!” roared out again as the crowd sensed a dramatic finish. It was to no avail, however; Leinster were again camped in the Glasgow half when the clock ran down.

At the end of the match, there was an inevitable delay whilst the presentation stage was set up on the pitch and the dignitaries took up their positions to make the various awards. The match officials, headed by the excellent referee Nigel Owens, received their momentos, followed by the Glasgow team. Then, the Leinster players went up in turn, each of their names announced individually as they did so. The Glasgow players, with their supporting group of coaches and camp followers, stood dutifully to one side, no doubt enduring the runners-up’s usual cocktail of disconsolation and anti-climax and fervently wishing to leave the scene. On their left edge, as I looked, Robert Harley applauded each individual Leinster player as his name was called out.

Bacon Sandwiches

13th May 2019

My train journey back from Sheffield to Milngavie, after watching a session of the World Snooker Championship last month (“Ebbs and Flows”, 28th April 2019), took six hours. A delay to the East Midlands Trains service from Sheffield to Manchester Piccadilly meant that I missed the linking connection to Wigan North Western station and the scheduled Virgin Trains service to Glasgow Central. Even though I benefited from a different late-running train at Wigan, it was close to 11pm by the time I arrived home. The consolation was a home-made bacon sandwich, as I settled down to watch the snooker highlights on tv.

I am persuaded that there is a book to be written – probably under the category of “niche” – entitled: “Bacon Sandwiches in Their Sporting Context”. This most obviously applies to the pre-match preparations for watching cricket, in which the “second breakfast” – as favoured by Pippin in The Lord of the Rings – can be difficult to resist. I have a clear memory of the bacon sandwich I consumed (in 1999, believe it or not) in a café on the way from Haymarket Station to the Grange Cricket Club to watch, with friends, the Scotland versus New Zealand encounter in that year’s World Cup. (New Zealand won by mid-afternoon). Likewise, the well-informed supporter of Yorkshire CCC will have been fully aware of the high quality of such offerings in the little café (long departed, sadly) just down the road from the St Michael’s Lane entrance to the Headingley ground. (For the current Members of the Club, the pre-match supply in the long room of the East Stand provides a reasonable, though not fully compensatory, replacement).

In our household, the favourite bacon sandwich recollection is of their consumption on returning home after an excellent evening’s viewing of the 2014 Commonwealth Games swimming gala at the Tollcross International Swimming Centre in Glasgow. I reported it in Still An Ordinary Spectator: “[W]e sat in the living room for an hour and chatted… The windows were open and a warm post-midnight breeze aired the room. We supplemented the discussion with Pimm’s and lemonade and bacon sandwiches. A perfect coda to the evening”.

It is now clear that the 2014 experience established an instant tradition to be followed on those (relatively rare) occasions when the whole family attends a sporting event together. Hence, it was agreed beforehand that the evening we were to spend at last year’s European Cycling Championships at the Chris Hoy Stadium in Glasgow should conclude with exactly the same menu in exactly the same location, and it duly was.

And it’s not just bacon sandwiches, of course. Looking back through An Ordinary Spectator and Still An Ordinary Spectator and the subsequent blogs, I am conscious of the many casual references to the various snacks that have featured in my catalogue of sports spectating.

A small sample reveals that these date from the “bag laden with sandwiches and pop” that I took on my primary school visit to Wembley for the Challenge Cup final of 1966 (Wigan vs St Helens) and the annual post-match drinks in the Original Oak in Headingley after the lunchtime Boxing Day rugby matches of the 1970s (usually Leeds vs Wakefield Trinity) through to the “hot dogs (three with tomato sauce, one without) and beers/cokes” that the family enjoyed whilst watching the college (American) football at the Alamodome in 2015 (University of Texas at San Antonio Roadrunners vs Louisiana Tech Bulldogs), my first mince pies of the 2018 Christmas season (Alloa Athletic vs Brechin City) and, most recently, the “orange-flavoured scone” that I consumed in the nice little café in Sheffield.

There are three points of interest to make here. The first is that I did not deliberately set out to compile a long culinary list when I started to report on my various spectating endeavours; the various food and drink items were incidental to the main themes of describing or recollecting the sporting actions. However – the second point – these items were duly registered: in other words, they must obviously have left some sort of an impression that I thought was worth recording as part of the overall spectating experience.

This leads to a more general conclusion, I think. It is not just the bacon sandwiches. And it is not just the other snacks of food and drink. It is the recognition that it is the full panoply of surrounding detail and minutiae that helps to provide the colour and warmth to the enjoyment of watching live sport. Of course, we watch the action on the pitch or in the arena – the runs, the tries, the fouls, et al – and we register the final scores and we record the winners and losers. But later – perhaps much later – as we look back, we might also, on occasion, recollect that surrounding detail.

More examples, from just recent years:

* the sponsorship of individual rugby players by a local working men’s club and a local church (Dewsbury vs Halifax, 2015);

* in conversation, the neighbouring spectator’s casual statement that his uncle had taken him to see Don Bradman’s Australians in 1948 because his father had been killed in the War (Yorkshire vs Nottinghamshire, 2015);

* the blue ribbons on the lampposts outside the Brunton Park ground showing the height reached by the previous winter’s floodwaters (Carlisle United vs Hartlepool United, 2016);

* post-match, seeing the oystercatchers over the banks of the River Derwent (WorkingtonTown vs Hunslet, 2018);

* the signage inside the respective sports arenas in Arabic (ManchesterCity vs Arsenal, 2017) and Chinese (World Snooker Championship, 2019).

… and the bacon sandwiches we consumed when we got home.

Kings, Queens and Poets

5th May 2019

Prior to yesterday’s last round of the season’s 36 league matches in the Ladbrokes Scottish Championship – the second tier of the country’s professional football hierarchy – four teams (Falkirk, Alloa Athletic, Queen of the South and Partick Thistle) were scrambling to avoid relegation to League One. At the end of the day’s play, the bottom-placed club would be relegated automatically, whilst the second-bottom would need to come through play-offs with three sides from League One in order to survive.

Falkirk began the day three points adrift and, therefore, needed to win their match (against the divisional champions, Ross County ) and hope that the side immediately above them (Alloa) lost to third-placed Ayr United. In that event, Alloa would be related and Falkirk would go into the play-offs. Queen of the South were level on points with Alloa, but had a much better goal difference so, for them, a draw (against Partick) would prevent automatic relegation, but would mean the play-offs if Alloa were to win; likewise, a defeat would also lead to the play-offs, if Alloa were to draw. For their part, a win or a draw for Partick would bring safety, but a loss would take them to the play-offs if Alloa were to join Queen of the South as winners of their respective matches. (As ever with these possible end-of-season permutations, a cold towel and a stiff drink are essential).

When I was a young boy in Leeds studying the league tables before filling in my mother’s football pools coupon – whilst, at the same time, coming to grips with the geography of Britain – I used to look at the names of several Scottish clubs with an air of some perplexity. Where, exactly, were the locations of Raith Rovers and Hibernian and St Johnstone and Third Lanark…? However, I was quite clear that the most romantic name of them all – alongside Heart of Midlothian – was that of Queen of the South. I subsequently learned that the club is based in Dumfries and, so, it was there that I ventured yesterday: Queen of the South versus Partick Thistle at Palmerston Park .

In preparing for my trip, I realised that I was completing a medieval link that I had commenced last year on the other side of the country. In “700-plus years after Edward I – a two-all draw“ (26th February 2018) – my account of attending a match between Berwick Rangers and Montrose – I noted that, above the steps leading down to the platforms at Berwick railway station, is a large plaque marking the spot where, in 1292, Edward the First’s arbitration in favour of John Balliol (rather than Robert the Bruce) in the contest for the Scottish crown was announced.

It was in Dumfries in 1300 that Edward signed a (short-lived) armistice solicited by Pope Boniface VIII, following his (Edward’s) latest invasion of Scotland. In the following years, the town remained central to the political events of Scotland culminating, in February 1306, with Bruce stabbing to death his rival for the Scottish crown, John “The Red” Comyn, at the high altar of the Greyfriars friary. Bruce was crowned Kings of Scots at Scone a few weeks later.

Before the match, I planned (and took) a short town-centre walking tour, courtesy of the information provided by the local tourist office. I walked up the High Street to the Greyfriars Kirk, which dates from 1868 and is roughly half a football pitch from the location of the original Franciscan friary at the top of Friars Vennel. On the other side of the road, a bronze plaque on the wall of an unoccupied shop marks the site of Comyn’s murder. Inside the next shop – a branch of Greggs, no less – there is a neatly mounted display summarising the events of the period, whilst the interior walls contain a number of photographs and historical images. I made a short inspection, largely ignored by the local patrons, who tucked in to their sausage baps and vegan rolls and fizzy drinks.

Outside, in the centre of a half-pedestrianised traffic island, the statue of Robert Burns – a resident of Dumfries for five years until his death in 1796 – looks straight down the High Street. The selection of his verse on the plinth provides a neat – and well-chosen – summary of the poet’s philosophies on life and humanity. I then walked down Friars Vennel and, after pausing briefly in a coffee shop, continued on to cross Devorgilla’s Bridge – the oldest multi-spanned stone bridge in Scotland, dating from the 15th Century – and make my way to Palmerston Park . (The original timber bridge was commissioned by Lady Devorgilla of Galloway, the mother of John Balliol, in about 1280). Take a walk through the centre of any town or city in Britain and there is history everywhere you look.

Partick Thistle won the match in something of a canter. They started the game much more positively that their opponents and took the lead with a Lewis Mansell volley after 14 minutes. A second goal came after just before half-time and a second-half penalty secured a 3-0 victory to the huge acclaim of their 1500-plus travelling supporters (most of whom, it had seemed to me earlier, had been on the two-carriage train that ScotRail had thoughtfully provided for the 1¾ hour-long journey from Glasgow Central). Stuart Bannigan, the captain, had an influential role in midfield and the two centre-backs, Steven Anderson and Sean McGinty, kept a close eye on the prolific Queens centre-forward, Stephen Dobbie.

The 36 year-old Dobbie has scored 40 goals this season – only one behind the club record for a single year that has stood since 1932 – and I was interested to see him in action. However, apart from one early attempt that went outside a post and several nice pieces of linking play, he did not have an impact on the game, as Partick successfully cut off his supply lines.

The final score meant that the long run of disappointing results for the home team – only 2 wins in the 15 league matches since the middle of January – was continued. A Queens-supporting neighbour in the queue for the coach service back to Buchanan Street Bus Station – I had decided to eschew the potential delights of the return train journey – told me that it had been their worst home performance of the season, and he wondered how long the manager, Gary Naysmith, might remain in post.

The consolation for Dobbie – such as it is – is that he now has a couple of additional matches in which to break the goal-scoring record. At the end of the day’s play, Alloa Athletic’s draw at Ayr United meant that Queen of the South would have to line up against Montrose from League 1 on Tuesday evening in the first leg of the play-off semi-final. (Falkirk were relegated, despite beating Ross County. Partick Thistle’s victory meant that they were safe, of course). I wondered if it had been with this next challenge in mind – the player having returned from injury for the Partick match – that Naysmith had taken Dobbie off with a few minutes to go. In the event, whilst Dobbie might feature against Montrose, Naysmith unfortunately won’t. My source (who alighted from the coach in Moffat) had been correct in his speculation; the manager was relieved of his duties yesterday evening.

In the course of my sojourn to watch Queen of the South, I learned that the name was coined not by Sir Walter Scott, as I had previously thought, but by a local poet, David Dunbar, who referred to the town of Dumfries as such when standing for Parliament in the General Election of 1857. The football club adopted the name on its formation in 1919. (It will be an anti-climactic end to Queen of the South’s centenary season if it is marked by relegation). However, in the comfort of my coach seat on the journey back up the M74, as I thought back to the Devorgilla Bridge and the branch of Greggs and the friendly welcome by the stewards of Palmerston Park, it was some of the words of the other poet associated with the town of Dumfries – captured on the plinth of his statue – that came to mind.

****

Man’s inhumanity to man,
Makes countless thousands mourn!

****

Affliction’s sons are brothers in distress;
A brother to relieve, how exquisite the bliss!

Ebbs and Flows

28th April 2019

The 2019 World Snooker Championship has reached the second round stage. On Friday morning, I went to see the first session of the match between Stephen Maguire and James Cahill.

The Championship has been played at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield since 1977 and the format of the tournament is now well-established. The 16 top-ranked players in the world are joined by 16 qualifiers to contest a straight knock-out competition in which the matches expand in length from the best-of-19 frames in the first round to the best-of-35 in the final.

Of course, the Championship dates from long before taking up its residency in South Yorkshire . The first tournament – in 1927 and then called the Professional Snooker Championship – was won by Joe Davis from a field of 10. Davis retained the title the following year and the year after that… and the year after that… through to 1946, when the Championship resumed after a hiatus in the war years. It has to be noted that the fields were generally in single figures – with, in a couple of years, Davis’s victories being in one-off matches against a single challenger – but, even so, it was some feat for him to have held a world championship title for 20 years. Moreover, the matches themselves made the present-day finals look like short sprints: in 1946, Davis beat the Australian, Horace Lindrum, by 73 frames to 62 in a final that was the best-of-145.

In the 10 years after Joe Davis’s retirement from world championship play, there was a familiar name as the tournament winner on 8 occasions: his brother Fred. Indeed, it is Fred Davis who provides snooker’s link with the modern era, as he was one of the earliest competitors on the Pot Black television programme, when it was first aired by the BBC in 1969.

I recall the early years of Pot Black with some affection. It had a jaunty theme tune and a sympathetic commentator in Ted Lowe: did he really once say “for those of you watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green”? The programme also benefited from the technicalities of its presentation at a time when the take-up of colour television was rapidly expanding: there was a neat fit for a snooker table on the television screen and the half-hour duration was ideal for a single frame. Although the extensive tv coverage of major tournaments did not begin until the following decade, it was Pot Black that took snooker out of the dark, slightly seedy, smoke-filled halls it had previously inhabited and on to the path that has led to the modern-day riches of the elite players with their agents and promoters.

By reaching the second round, Maguire was guaranteed prize money of at least £30,000. (I assume that this didn’t apply to Cahill, who is the first amateur to have qualified for the final stages in the Crucible era). However, a subsequent quarter-final place would take the reward to at least £50,000 – the winner of the final will receive £500,000 – and so there was an obvious financial incentive for him and the other professionals to progress further, quite apart from the kudos of reaching the latter stages of the tournament.

The tournament’s sponsors are Betfred who, no doubt like everyone else, had been somewhat surprised that Cahill had won his first-round match, given that his opponent had been the world’s number one player, Ronnie O’Sullivan. The pre-match odds on O’Sullivan to win that contest had been 50 to 1 on.

The Crucible’s bar and foyer area was dominated by the Betfred “shop”, at which an array of screens relayed the betting options on various sporting events. In front of them, a man with a microphone shouted the odds on a bewildering selection of the session’s (and the tournament’s) possible outcomes: the number of century breaks, the quarter-final pairings, the Australian Neil Robertson becoming the overall champion… At one point, he took a break to throw some Betfred T-shirts – medium-sized, so I declined the opportunity to catch one – into the group of potential punters. The man announced that Cahill was 7 to 2 to beat Maguire: not particularly generous odds, I thought, even allowing for the amateur’s first-round success, given that Maguire is a seasoned 15-year professional.

For the first three rounds of the tournament, two matches are played are adjacent tables, separated by a large screen. Not surprisingly, the screen had the sponsor’s details in prominent display. I noticed that some of the signage had a Chinese script: a reflection, without question, of the sport’s major growth in that country. Six of this year’s 32 competitors were from China , five of whom came through the qualifying stage.

On the other side of the screen, Robertson was playing Shaun Murphy: two former world champions. A few seats in the auditorium provide views of both games, but most of the spectators focus on only one of the pairings, with the progress in the other being signalled by the rounds of applause or the groans accompanying a missed shot or, more practically, the totals instantly updated on the respective scoreboards. I was struck by the intimacy of the environment, not least the proximity of the two mobile cameramen at each table.

The spectators in both halves of the Crucible concentrated hard on the ever-changing arrangements of the coloured balls on their respective tables, respectful of the talents of the players and fully appreciative of their skills. On our side, there were a couple of shouts of “Come on, James”, but otherwise a general lack of overt partisanship. (This was probably not surprising, given that most of the tickets had been sold before the session’s participants were known). The applause that both Maguire and Cahill received on recording century breaks during the session was loud and genuine.

Maguire took a 2-0 lead, a break of 67 securing a tense first frame and one of 103, after an early fluked red, the second. I did wonder if a one-sided match was on the cards. However, Cahill recovered to 2-2 with a century of his own and, although Maguire took three frames in a row after the interval, Cahill won the closely fought final frame to end the session only 3-5 in arrears.

I can see why people get absorbed on a tournament such as this. The players’ fortunes do not so much ebb and flow as pause and then accelerate as, following cautious safety play, an opportunity might be presented and seized and a frame-winning break compiled. In a closely fought match as such as Maguire-Cahill, a player might lose two or three frame in a row virtually without potting a ball and then respond with a run of winning frames of his own. In the meantime, the match score mounts as one player or the other (or perhaps both) approaches the target needed: in the second round, the first to 13. In this year’s tournament, four of the 16 first-round encounters were decided by scores of 10-9.

I had just over 24 hours in Sheffield which, despite my having been born and brought up in Leeds – only 30 miles to the north – is not a city I know well. One of the many useful maps attached to the city centre bus-stops pointed me to a tourist information site near to the Crucible. I went there to see if there were any bus tours and, when I thought I was somewhere in the right vicinity, I enquired about this of two young women smoking vapour cigarettes near a glass-fronted office building. It turned out that, not only were there no bus tours, there was no tourist office (at least on this site), as it had closed last year. My tour of the city was therefore conducted at random and on foot.

Looking back, I suppose that my time in Sheffield also had its ebbs and flows. On the downside, I managed to lose (permanently) my house keys through a hole in my jacket pocket; at the Crucible, I had a sharp exchange with the officious steward who was demanding (rather too brusquely, I thought) that we clear the bar and foyer area after the morning session so that the afternoon’s spectators could be let in; on the way back to the hotel, a huge rainstorm overwhelming my flimsy brolly. I acknowledge, of course, that none of these events can really be said to have been the fault of Sheffield and, for the record, I can report that the rest of the stewarding at the Crucible was exemplarily polite.

But there were far more pluses, quite apart from watching – and feeling that I was almost participating in – a top-class snooker event. For one thing, a nice little café in Norfolk Row, just round the corner from the Crucible, supplied a very passable orange-flavoured scone. Then on the way back to the hotel, I spent half an hour in the light and spacious Sheffield Cathedral, fortuitously timing my visit when the choir was rehearsing for its evening service. The colour and originality of the Lantern Tower – a 1960s restoration that belies the usual architectural horrors of that decade – is worth seeing.

By that time, the preparations were in hand, no doubt, for the evening session at the Crucible, where Stephen Maguire and James Cahill were to resume their contest. Both players won four frames and so the former took a 9-7 lead into yesterday afternoon’s last session. The final outcome was a win for Maguire by the narrowest of margins: 13 frames to 12. Perhaps those pre-match odds on a Cahill victory were not so unrealistic, after all.

The Grizzled European Campaigners

31st March 2019

Before this season, over the 22-year period in which Scottish sides have competed in the premier European competition (for what is now the Heineken Champions Cup), Edinburgh Rugby had progressed from the pool stages to the quarter-finals on exactly two occasions. In 2003-04, they lost in that round away to Toulouse, whilst in 2011-12 they beat the same opponents – when I was part of the near-39,000 crowd at Murrayfield, Edinburgh’s largest home attendance to date – before losing to Ulster in the semi-final.

In some years, Edinburgh have not even qualified for the Heineken/Champions Cup because of their low position in the previous season’s PRO12 League (in which they competed with the Welsh and Irish regional/provincial sides), leaving their Glasgow Warriors rivals as Scotland’s only representatives. Edinburgh had to settle for the second-tier European Challenge Cup (now called the Rugby Challenge Cup), in which they were runners-up to Gloucester in 2014-15.

All in all, this has added up to a performance over two decades on the European stage that can be charitably described as modest, given the significant resources ploughed into Edinburgh Rugby by the Scottish Rugby Union, especially on a series of high-profile coaches: Todd Blackadder, Andy Robinson, Alan Solomons et al.

The 2018-19 season has seen a notable upturn in Edinburgh ’s European fortunes under the former Leicester coach Richard Cockerill, who took over the reins at the beginning of last season. Edinburgh came top of a demanding Champions Cup pool – which also contained Montpellier , Toulon and Newcastle Falcons – winning five matches out of six. Their reward was a home quarter-final against Munster , which was played at Murrayfield yesterday.

The Irish provinces have an excellent record in the Heineken/Champions Cup. Leinster have won the competition four times, Munster twice and Ulster once and, between them, these sides have also been runners-up on three other occasions. Munster entered yesterday’s encounter having reached at least the quarter-final stage no fewer than 18 times since 1998-99 and, whilst their more recent trophy win was in 2007-08, they have reached the semi-finals in four of the last six years. They have a deserved reputation as experienced and grizzled campaigners on the European front.

Munster’s proud rugby traditions long pre-date the European competitions, of course. Inter-provincial matches have been played in Ireland since 1875, whilst Munster have been challenging touring sides since the first All Blacks visit of 1905. Since then, they have defeated Australia four times and, on a famous occasion in 1978, New Zealand once, thereby lowering the All Black colours almost 40 years before the Ireland national side first managed to do so.

Munster have contributed a total of 35 players to the British and Irish Lions over the years, the most recent – for the 2017 tour to New Zealand – being Conor Murray, CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony (who captained the Lions in the first test). All three played yesterday, along with Keith Earls, a veteran of the 2009 tour to South Africa .

O’Mahony’s appearance represented something of an echo for me, as I had previously seen him play for Ireland in a Six Nations Under 18 tournament that was held in Glasgow in 2007, on that occasion against England at the West of Scotland club’s ground at Burnbrae. I remember him then as a hard, aggressive competitor who, packing down in the Number 8 position, would launch himself into the set scrums with what was effectively an (illegal) mini-charge. Even at that stage, it was not difficult to envisage him graduating through the Munster ranks.

Munster edged yesterday’s game 17-13. It was a compelling match of (predictably) unremitting confrontation and physical intensity, in which the 36,000 crowd – at least half of whom wore the visitors’ red – were fully absorbed. Edinburgh had the bulk of the territorial advantage and there were several occasions when Munster had to defend desperately on their own try line but, as the match progressed – and even when the home side took a 13-10 lead – I did wonder if Munster’s years of accumulating their European nous might be of consequence.

All four Lions played significant roles. Stander and O’Mahony (again predictably) were at the heart of the Munster effort in repelling Edinburgh’s determined forward drives, Earls revealed his alert rugby brain by taking a quick tap penalty to score the opening try (on Munster’s first visit to the Edinburgh 22, after nearly 20 minutes) and it was Murray’s half-break that created the opportunity from which, following some skilful handling, Earls scored his second try with 10 minutes remaining.

As that try gave Munster a two-point lead, the conversion attempt was clearly going to be crucial, as the resultant four-point margin would mean that Edinburgh would need to score a try, rather than a single penalty goal, to rescue the match. When the replacement fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal struck a majestic kick from the right-hand touchline, the Munster roar was the loudest of the afternoon. It was duly followed by a spirited rendition of The Fields of Athenry.

Edinburgh were still in the fight, of course. The replacements came on for the exhausted front-line combatants – who had been impressively led by the captain Stuart McInally – to supplement the dangerous attacking threat continually posed from full-back by Darcy Graham. The last home attack saw Munster having to defend through no fewer than 29 phases of play over 4½ minutes of uninterrupted action (as I registered later on watching my television recording) before an infringement occurred and the visitors’ arms could be raised in weary triumph.

Earlier, before the match, I spent some time at the memorial to the Scottish international rugby players who have been killed in wartime, the first of whom was DB Monypenny in the Boer War. It takes the form of an elegant arch below which is a plaque with the names of the 46 fallen. A young steward came over and asked me if I recognised the best-known of those listed. I knew, of course, that he was referring to Eric Liddell, who won seven caps in 1922 and 1923 and died in a Japanese internment camp in China in 1945.

In return, I was able to point to the name of Roy Kinnear, who won three caps in 1926. Drawing on my recent article for the Rugby League Journal, I mentioned that he had been the father of the late Roy Kinnear and grandfather of Rory Kinnear, both distinguished actors. The older Roy Kinnear had turned professional and scored a try for Wigan in the first Challenge Cup final played at Wembley in 1929; he was serving in the RAF when died of a heart attack in 1942.

The memorial is set on a prominent site in the Murrayfield grounds, neatly shaded by a couple of trees, to the left of the main turnstiles on Roseburn Crescent . I was only a few yards from the main thoroughfare of incoming supporters on their way to the stands or the beer tents or fast food stalls, but it was strangely – and pleasantly – peaceful.

Rugby in Munster has a long and proud history. So does rugby in Scotland.

Tests of Skill and Character

15th February 2019

Four years ago this month, I attended the first leg of the tie between Glasgow Celtic and FC Internazionale Milano (Inter Milan, of course) in the last 32 of the UEFA Europa League. In Still An Ordinary Spectator, I reported that it was a rousing match (3-3) featuring a superb performance by the visitors’ Kosovo-born Swiss international Xherdean Shaqiri (who is now plying his trade with Liverpool ). Inter Milan went on to win the second leg 1-0 a week later.

Yesterday evening, Celtic were again at home at the same stage of the competition against attractive opposition, this time Valencia CF.

The two sides had reached the last 32 by different routes. Celtic had failed to reach the group stage of the Champions League, having been beaten in a qualifying round by AEK Athens, and so they had had to go through the group stage of the Europa League (which they just managed to do). By contrast, Valencia had featured in the Champions League, but had only finished third in their group behind Juventus and Manchester United, thereby qualifying for what might be considered the consolation tournament.

Not that Spanish teams take this competition lightly. Since Valencia themselves won the then UEFA Cup in 2003-04, the UEFA Cup/Europa League has been won 8 times by teams from Spain – the current holders being Atletico Madrid – with the runners-up being provided on two other occasions. It was also in 2003-04 that Valencia – founded 100 years ago next month – won the last of their 6 La Liga titles, the manager at the time being Rafael Benitez (who is now plying his trade with Newcastle United). Valencia are currently in eighth place in the Spanish league table – in contrast with their hosts, whose six-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership suggests that they are firmly on course for an eighth successive title.

I had a good seat in the Lisbon Lions Stand. Below me and to the left, at the end of the Main Stand, was the group of 300 or so visiting supporters, their presence cordoned off by stewards and police. They (the fans, not the police) kept up a steady series of chants of support throughout the evening, to which their team responded in some style.

The remainder of the near 60,000 crowd seemed to be bedecked in green and white and, as I had expected, the atmosphere created as the minutes ticked down to kick-off was electric. It can only be a totally emotionless person who is not affected by the Celtic fans’ passionate pre-match rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. As ever, it would be a test of the skill and character of the visiting players – and officials – to perform to the best of their abilities. (As it turned out, the referee – Ovidiu Hategan of Romania – also had an excellent game).

I have to say that I sensed in the opening minutes that this was not going to be Celtic’s night. It was noticeable that most of the early fouls were committed by Celtic players, not through any obvious desire to rough up the opposition, but because of the speed and skill with which Valencia passed the ball so as to manoeuvre themselves into threatening positions. By contrast, Celtic’s tempo seemed – throughout the match – to be lower, even to the extent of being sluggish on a couple of the backpasses to the goalkeeper, Scott Bain, which forced him into hurried clearances.

I thought the best players in the first half were the young Frenchman Mouctar Diakhaby, a calm presence in the centre of the Valencia defence, and his captain, the midfielder Daniel Parejo. However, as the interval approached, Celtic forced a couple of attacks on the Valencia goal and the home supporters’ hopes were increased. The twenty-something supporter next to me whispered to his chum: “I sense a goal before half time”.

He was absolutely right, though perhaps not quite in the manner he had wished. A few seconds later, Parejo’s defence-splitting pass paved the way for Denis Cheryshev’s opening strike. I was surprised to read in the excellent match programme that Parejo has won only one cap for Spain and it was disappointing that he did not reappear for the second half. His replacement was another Frenchmen, Francis Coquelin, the combative midfielder battle-hardened after ten seasons with Arsenal.

Valencia scored again shortly after the re-start. As with the first goal, Celtic lost possession near their opponents’ penalty area and, this time, Valencia broke quickly down the left-hand side before Cheryshev’s accurate cross was steered home by Ruben Sobrino. It was no doubt at this point that the jubilant throng of Valencia supporters below me confirmed to themselves that their journey had been fully worthwhile.

In Still An Ordinary Spectator, I also reported on another football match in the 2014-15 season – a fourth round William Hill Scottish Cup tie between St Mirren and Inverness Caledonian Thistle – and noted that, in the visitors’ side, the 19 year-old Ryan Christie “was particularly impressive with his excellent close control and the vision for a penetrating pass with his cultured left foot… a player of rich promise”.

This season, Christie has established himself in the Celtic team, scoring ten goals in the process, and I was interested to see how he would fare against this level of opponent. In truth, he and his colleagues in the Celtic midfield had a hard time against opponents who marked closely and, when in possession of the ball, surrendered it only with the greatest reluctance. Christie was replaced on the hour as part of a double substitution in which the Celtic manager, Brendan Rodgers, brought on two strikers. “They’re going for it”, said my neighbour on the other side, though I detected that his renewed optimism was somewhat guarded.

Rightly so, as it turned out. Valencia’s defensive formation retained its shape and discipline and, as the Celtic errors mounted – a misplaced pass, a wasted cross – my neighbour took to bowing his head and running his fingers over his eyebrows: it was an individual’s reflection of the general resignation that seemed to take hold of the Celtic support. “They were second best tonight”, I ventured to him at the final whistle. “Miles behind” was his instant reply.

Celtic’s last serious tilt at European silverware was the UEFA Cup final of 2002-03, when, with an attack led by Henrik Larsson, they lost to Porto 2-3 after extra time in Seville. Since then they have won the domestic league on eleven occasions. For their supporters – and no doubt, all associated with the club – the mismatch between domestic and continental success remains frustratingly wide.

Of course, all is not lost for Celtic in this tie. The second leg is to be played in Valencia next week and the 0-2 deficit could be overturned. I note, however, that Wikipedia describes the 55,000 capacity Mestalla Stadium as “renowned for its steep terracing and for being one of the most initimidating atmospheres in Europe ”. Another test of the visitors’ skill and character.