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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.

Cumbria versus Serbia

28th January 2019

52 amateur teams competed this weekend in the first round of the 2019 Rugby League Challenge Cup. 13 of these sides will progress to the third round, when they will be joined by the 11 teams in League 1. Thereafter, the staggered entry of sides in the rugby league hierarchy will continue until the sixth round, when the top 8 teams in last year’s Super League will join the party. The final – won last year by the Catalan Dragons – will be played at Wembley in August.

I could not resist attending one of yesterday’s fixtures. Millom RLFC – which is generally acknowledged to be the oldest amateur rugby league club in the world, having been formed in 1873 – were pitted against Red Star Belgrade. I know that we live in times that do occasionally appear rather bizarre but, even so, this was a side from the southernmost tip of the old county of Cumberland doing battle with a team from Serbia in a cup competition that dates from 1897 and of which the current trophy-holders are based in France .

The leading experts on the history of rugby league in Cumberland/Cumbria are Harry Edgar (the editor of the Rugby League Journal) and Stephen Bowes (an Editorial Contributor to the RLJ). As it happens, in the latest (Winter 2018) edition of the publication, there is a very interesting article about the region’s various towns and villages – from Burgh by Sands in the north to Millom in the south – and the distinguished players that they have produced over the years. (I learned, for example, that the latter was the birthplace of Billy Eagers, who played 40 matches in the centre for the great Hunslet “All Four Cups” side of 1907-08). Millom are currently in the Third Division of the Kingstone Press National Conference League: the fourth tier of the sport at the amateur/community level.

The coverage of the Red Star Sports Society in Belgrade extends to no fewer than 30 different sports, ranging from taekwondo to water polo and karate to women’s basketball. The largest and best-known member is, of course, the football club, which won the European Cup in 1991. The rugby league section was founded in 2006.

The history of the sport in Serbia dates back much further – to its introduction by the French Rugby XIII Federation in 1953. However, in the following decade, the Yugoslav authorities demanded that clubs switch to rugby union and it was not until 2001 that the sport was re-established with the formation of the Serbian Rugby League Federation. Red Star Belgrade were the dominant team in 2018, winning the “quadruple” of Serbia ’s Championship, Cup and Supercup together with the Balkan Super League.

It might be noted that Millom is not the easiest place to reach by public transport from Glasgow on a weekend. I spent the Saturday night in Lancaster and took the local trains on a bright and cold Sunday morning, changing at Barrow-in-Furness . It is an interesting route, crossing the Kent and Leven Viaducts over the estuaries (sandy and misleadingly enticing at low tide) to Morecambe Bay and Lancaster Sound, passing through Ulverston (the birthplace of Stan Laurel, as the promotion of the recently released film Stan & Ollie currently reminds us) and skirting the ruins of the 12th century Furness Abbey.

I watched the match from the terraces in the company of Harry and Stephen. We looked out on a welcoming scene: a healthy crowd ringed the touchlines and in-goal areas (supplemented by those looking over the low wall on Devonshire Road, who had declined to stump up the £3 entrance fee); the pitch was in excellent condition; and, in the middle distance, against the blue sky, there was Black Combe which, at just under 2,000 feet above sea level, is the dominant natural landmark in the locality.

The only slight downside was the very strong wind, which blew straight down the pitch and favoured Millom in the first half. They took full advantage – not least through two long-range penalty goals, rare occurrences in modern-day rugby league – to establish a 22-6 lead at the interval. The question was whether this was a big enough margin for the home side to defend when the gale was against them and the answer was quickly given, when they scored the opening try of the second half. The final score was 38-10.

Red Star Belgrade were not disgraced. As expected, they played with passion and commitment, notably when defending on several occasions near their own line, and they scored two neat tries of their own. The American centre three-quarter Jamil Robinson – one of only three non-Balkan-born players in the team – played a particularly impressive game with his forceful running and stout defence. However, they were vulnerable to the runs from acting half-back by the Millom hooker, Noah Robinson, and they struggled to complete any threatening passing moves, through the windy conditions certainly did not help in that respect.

As ever with my trips to towns being visited for the first time, I was interested in Millom’s economic history. The relevant starting point is the 1850s, when the local discovery of iron ore led to the swift transformation of a collection of fishing villages into a major industrial centre. The new town was built in the 1860s and, by 1881, the Hodbarrow Mining Company was operating seven pits to feed the furnaces of the Millom Ironworks. (Stephen Bowes informed me that many of the incoming workers came from Cornwall and that some Cornish surnames are still to be found in the locality today).

The industry’s decline, when it came, was just as swift: the Hodbarrow Mines and Millom Ironworks were closed in 1968 and the town’s population fell by over one-third (to just over 7,000) in three years. Wikipedia reports that “Millom’s economy is now mainly based around retail, services and tourism” – the standard cocktail in post-industrial localities – with the options of commuting to Barrow or Sellafield.

My walks to and from the ground from the railway station suggested a neat town that is proud of its industrial heritage. There is firm evidence for this in Market Square, where Colin Telfer’s sculpture “The Scutcher” stands in front of the 1879 Clock Tower. A scutcher’s task was to stop the heavy iron ore tubs by thrusting a metal bar through the wheels – it required a hard man to do a hard job – and the public display is a fine tribute.

Harry Edgar’s RLJ article emphasises the strong two-way connection between Cumbria and rugby league, of which, over many decades, the tough industrial environment was a key component. For over a century, the region has provided a plethora of outstanding players, many of whom – from Billy Eagers onwards – earned their honours with other teams outside the area. At the same time, the sport has been an integral part of the local culture, which – I fervently hope – will continue into the future.

The Millom club is certainly playing its part. Harry informed me that the current side is almost entirely made up of local lads, whilst a glance of the match programme revealed that the club runs no fewer than seven age-group teams from Under 18s down to Under 6s. I wonder if, in 20 years time, some of the latter group will be playing for the first team in the Rugby League Challenge Cup.

And the Football World Title holders are…

7th January 2019

I have spent some time on a modest research exercise to work out who have been – and who now are – the holders of the Football World Title (FWT). I would be very surprised if this hasn’t been done before, though I haven’t previously come across the results of such an exercise.

The concept is the same as that of a world championship title in boxing. We begin with the very first soccer international – Scotland versus England at Hamilton Crescent in Partick in 1872 – and take the winners of that match to have been the inaugural FWT holders. That country retained the title until it was next beaten, at which point the new FWT holder was crowned.

The football historians will have spotted the immediate technical hitch. The first international was a draw: 0-0. However, this simply means that Scotland and England were the joint-FWT holders until their next meeting the following March, when England won 4-2 at the Kennington Oval.

In the long period up to the First World War, the FWT holders were always from the Home Nations. This is not too much of a surprise because, for most of this period, they didn’t play anyone else. England and Scotland battled it out for the honour, with challenges from Wales and Ireland, until the latter defeated Scotland 2-0 in 1903. It was during the 19th century that the FWT was to remain in the same hands for the longest continuous period: Scotland were the holders for the eight years from March 1880.

There was a break in the series between 1914 and 1919, when no soccer internationals were played by the Home Nations. Interestingly, the FWT holders over this hiatus were Ireland, who had defeated England in February 1914 and then drawn with Scotland. Scotland regained the crown in March 1920.

The first overseas challenge for the FWT occurred in May 1909, when Switzerland were put in their place (9-0) by England. It was to be another 22 years – in May 1931 – before the FWT moved outside the British Isles for the first time, when Austria defeated Scotland 5-0. The genie was out of the bottle: the Austrians retained the title over 11 successful defences, scoring another 44 goals in the process, before losing 3-4 to England in December 1932.

Dealing with the outbreak of the Second World War has required an important executive decision to be made by the Board of Governors of the Football World Title – i.e. me. In September 1939, the FWT holders were Italy on the basis, not of their World Cup win in 1938, but their defeat of the previous FWT holders, Yugoslavia, in June 1939.

There were two options. The first – the Peacetime Route – was to have assumed that competition for the FWT was in abeyance until the secession of the War in Europe in May 1945, when Italy were deemed to have resumed the custodianship of the title.

However, this does not allow for the fact that, for many countries, international football continued throughout the War years. After Italy lost 1-3 to Switzerland in November 1939, the possession of the FWT can be traced through the various matches played between the Axis powers (Germany and Italy), the countries within their political orbit (including Hungary and Romania) and neutral countries (Switzerland and Sweden). Following this path – the Wartime Route – the holders of the FWT in May 1945 were Sweden .

The Board of Governors decided that the best solution to this dilemma was to allow for two competing claims to the throne – rather in the way that different boxing authorities might claim that “their” man is the true world champion.

The two Routes remained on different paths for over a decade after the end of the War. The Peacetime Route largely stayed in Europe and included ownership of the FWT by the great Hungarian side between October 1950 and defeat by West Germany in the World Cup Final of 1954, as well as temporary custodianship by smaller football nations such as Belgium and Norway. The only home nation to feature on this Route was Northern Ireland, who briefly held the Title (twice) during the 1958 World Cup thanks to their two victories over Czechoslovakia .

England re-emerged as FWT holders on three occasions via the Wartime Route, initially when they beat Switzerland in 1946. Critically, they had the Title at the time of their infamous defeat by the USA in the World Cup of 1950. Equally significantly, the Americans then lost their next group match to Chile, at which point this version of the FWT became the property of South America until Italy temporarily took back custodianship in 1956.

Although there were World Cup tournaments in 1950 and 1954, the way that the fixtures and the results fell meant that there was no re-unification of the two versions of the FWT until the following tournament in 1958. This occurred when Brazil (the Peacetime Route holders) beat Sweden (the Wartime Route holders) 5-2 in the final.

In the 60 years since re-unification, the chronology of matches has usually (though not always) meant that the World Cup winners have also taken on the mantle of FWT holders. This applied to England in 1966, for example, which means that the Scots’ long-running claim to have been world champions following their win at Wembley in April 1967 can be supported (though they relinquished the FWT the following month by losing to the USSR).

The competition for the FWT has incorporated some famous international soccer matches down the years. In the case of England, the list also includes the “Battle of Highbury” against Italy in 1934 and the Euro 1996 clash with Scotland.

England last held the FWT in June 2000 – for three days between the defeat of Germany and the loss to Romania at that year’s Euros. Scotland ’s most recent custodianship is similarly brief: four days between beating Georgia and losing to Italy in March 2007. In the post-War period, Wales have held the Title once, following their defeat of Italy in June 1988, though they also lost in their first defence (to Holland in a World Cup Qualifier).

The fact that the FWT can be won or lost in one-off matches means that there is an element of democratisation – or is it random quirkiness? – about the process. As a result, whilst the football heavyweights might have dominated its possession, the FWT has not been theirs alone: to return to the boxing analogy, think of James “Buster” Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1990. Hence, for example, since the turn of the century, the FWT has been held (briefly) by Angola (in 2004), Turkey (2007) and South Korea (2013) amongst the middle or lower-ranking football nations.

I calculate that, by the end of 2018, there will have been a total of 951 FWT matches (with the Wartime Route, or 926 via the Peacetime Route) dating from that initial Scotland-England clash in 1872. The frequency of the contests has speeded up over time; whereas the first 100 games took over 36 years to complete and the second hundred another 20 years, the most recent century (to 900) took less than 7½ years to be reached. Indeed, due to the combination of the World Cup finals, UEFA Nations League matches and friendlies, 2018 saw the highest number of FWT matches in any single year – 18.

Clearly, the history of the FWT is ripe for analysis by the football statistician. 42 different countries have held the title via the Wartime Route (and 44 through the Peacetime Route). The country with the most successful title defences (via the Wartime Route) is Scotland with 86, all but 5 of which occurred before 1939. Next on the all-time list are England (75) and Brazil (60).

In the 60 years since the re-unification of the alternative Titles, the leaderboard looks somewhat different. Brazil have had 47 successful defences, followed by Spain (43) and Holland (42). England are in 13th place on this list with 14 successful defences and Scotland do not appear at all. The record for the longest run of consecutive successful defences is held by Spain with no fewer than 31 between November 2011 and June 2013.

Further statistical enquiry is no doubt possible: the leading goalscorer, for example, or the player with the most appearances or the team/player with the most red cards. We might be straying into nerdish territory here, however – or perhaps that ship has already sailed.

Finally, the Football World Title holders (at the beginning of 2019) are… the Netherlands .

Last year began with Peru in pole position before their loss to Denmark in the group stage of the World Cup and then the latter’s subsequent defeat (on penalties in the round of the last 16) to Croatia. France ’s 4-2 win over Croatia in the final consolidated the winners of the World Cup with the holders of the Football World Title. However, following four subsequent successful defences, France lost 0-2 to the Netherlands in a Nations League match in November. The Dutch then drew 2-2 with Germany (courtesy of a last minute goal) and so entered the New Year as the Title holders.

Note on data

The main source of data is the excellent online database at, supplemented (in a couple of instances during the 1950s) by the internet records of individual countries and/or tournaments. All full international matches have been considered, including friendlies, with the exception of those played in Olympic Games, when there have restrictions on the eligibility of players or squads. Where matches have been decided by a penalty shoot-out, these have been considered as wins and losses, rather than draws.

The responsibility for any errors is mine. The results presented here are given in good faith.

Tie-less in Vienna

18th December 2018

For many people, this time of year is one of reflection. After wondering where the last 12 months have actually gone, we think about the events that have happened during the year, the places we have been, the people we have met, the joys and sorrows we have experienced…

For some reason, the month of December is also conducive to thinking about previous Decembers. I’m not exactly sure why the month should be singled out in this way, rather than any of the other eleven. However, I was reminded of this a few days ago, when a radio announcer, on introducing the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, remarked that the work’s premiere had taken place one December.

The month features significantly in many of the recollections given in An Ordinary Spectator. For example, the second Tuesday in December was traditionally the date of the Varsity rugby match at Twickenham (though it has had a more flexible scheduling in recent years); had Blues been won for spectating, rather than playing, I would have been awarded half a dozen between 1974 and 1979 and another in 2010.

Similarly, the Boxing Day morning rugby league match at Headingley (in which Leeds RLFC played host to one of their local rivals) was a fixed point at which my father and I could catch up with my Uncle Vic and, in all probability, enjoy a Groundhog Day-like conversation about the matches of previous years over a post-game beer. In the book, I recall the occasion on which the Wakefield Trinity stand-off, David Topliss, shredded the Leeds defence (1976) and the year (1969) when the combined weight of the spectators trying to get into the ground smashed down the large wooden gate on the Kirkstall Road, which had been one of several entrances that were closed, and I was swept through by the surging crowd.

A look through my collection of match programmes confirms other December sporting events. Can it really be 41 years since I stood at the Gelderd End of Elland Road and saw Leeds United beat both ManchesterCity and Everton within a few days of each other? Or 39 years since I watched two young girls jumping up and down near me on the terraces of the Abbey Stadium as The Jam’s Eton Rifles was played over the loudspeakers before a Cambridge United/Queen’s Park Rangers game? Or even 10 years since the Glasgow Warriors narrowly lost to Bath in a Heineken Cup group match at the Firhill Stadium in Partick? On that occasion, I recall, I had a perfect view from my vantage point in the Jackie Hubbard Stand of the visitors’ winger – the 6 ft 7 ins Matt Banahan – scoring a try by leaping high for a cross-kick and catching the ball in two hands above his head before falling over the try line.

The radio announcer did not need to tell me that the Pastoral Symphony had been first performed in the month of December. I already knew that. Ten years ago on Saturday – on 22nd December 2008 – a few days after watching the Glasgow/Bath encounter, I was in Vienna for a concert to mark the 200th anniversary of that initial performance.

On 22nd December 1808, Beethoven directed an Akademie – a concert organised by a composer or musician at his own risk and for his own benefit – at the Theater an der Wien. The programme consisted entirely of works receiving their first public performances: the Sixth Symphony, the aria Ah perfido!, the Gloria movement of the Mass in C Major, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fifth Symphony, the Sanctus and Benedictus movements of the Mass in C Major, a solo piano improvisation, and the Choral Fantasy for piano, choir and orchestra.

200 years later to the day, in the same concert hall, this programme was repeated, with only minor modifications, in a performance by the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna, directed by Bertrand de Billy, and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. The soloists were the German soprano Annette Dasch and – greatly to my surprise, as he had not featured in the original promotion of the concert – the pianist Boris Berezovsky.

As the orchestra launched into the Sixth Symphony (which had also opened the original concert, with the Fifth Symphony coming later in the evening), my mind wrestled with a couple of thoughts. The first was the recognition of the sheer scale of the musical outpourings to which that Viennese audience had been exposed two centuries earlier. The power, beauty, subtlety, romance and drama of these new Beethoven works: all in a single evening. Surely, when hearing the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony for the first time, the hairs must have stood to attention on the back of the audience’s collective neck.

And then the second thought: the reality of the original performance itself. The 1808 concert had been – in the words of the 2008 concert brochure – “eine einzige Katastrophe”. The catalogue of disasters is succinctly captured in John Suchet and Darren Henly’s The Friendly Guide to Beethoven: Vienna’s most proficient musicians had been hired to appear at a competing concert, leaving only those that were second rate at best; the orchestra had had only one rehearsal; the inexperienced soprano fluffed her performance completely; the bird song in the second movement of the Sixth Symphony was greeted by audience laughter; Beethoven had to stop the Choral Fantasy and start again after a mistake by one of the performers; the concert hall was bitterly cold; and the programme, running to 4 hours, tried the patience of performers and audience alike. What disappointment and frustration must the composer have felt, as his reputation and emotions were put through the wringer.

The 2008 performance also ran to just under 4 hours, but this time – I am pleased to report – there was no catastrophe. Bertrand de Billy directed the orchestra with authority and calmness. Annette Dasch’s Ah perfido! was clear and commanding. The Fifth Symphony’s final movement – allegro, presto – was nothing less than thrilling. The excellence of the concert hall’s acoustics was confirmed in the dramatic climax of the Choral Fantasy.

Perhaps inevitably, the star of the show was Boris Berezovsky. His performance was one of impressive contrasts, whether bringing his commanding physical presence to bear on the vibrant passages within both the Choral Fantasy and the Fourth Piano Concerto, or, within the latter’s second movement, revealing a delicate sensitivity to hold both audience and orchestra in rapt attention. I also liked the way in which Berezovsky respected the general conservatism of the occasion – wearing a matching grey suit to complement the dress code of the orchestra and director – whilst also, by appearing tie-less, ensuring that he retained his own informal dynamism.

Beethoven and his premiered works survived that freezing cold night in December 1808, of course. The two symphonies and the piano concerto, in particular, are now core items in the classical repertoire. Accordingly, I thought at the time that it was perhaps slightly surprising that the 2008 concert had not seemed to seek a more “international” presentation. The concert brochure was entirely in German and, during the whole evening, the only concession to English was the standard request to switch off mobile phones before the performance started. There were no speeches or tributes to mark the event.

On reflection, that was probably just my misinterpretation of the occasion. Beethoven’s music does not need introductory speeches. The concert itself was the tribute to that evening – both wonderful and disastrous – of two centuries before. And the internationalisation of the occasion was reflected in the performers – the director born in France, the headline soloists born in Germany and Russia, and the soloists in the Choral Fantasy born in Germany, Poland and Romania.

I return to our seasonal reflections. This year, no doubt, they will guided by the recognition that we have acknowledged some major communal anniversaries: the end of the First World War and the extension of the franchise to (some) women (100 years); the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy (50 years); the Lockerbie bombing (30 years), and so on. We will also have remembered the more private dates of significance: in my case, the death of a great uncle on the day before the Battle of Amiens (100 years); a close relative’s “big” birthday (60 years); a particular wedding anniversary (30 years).

And – inevitably and probably by accident – we will have recalled some of the events which, whilst perhaps trivial in themselves, provide perspective and context when remembering the staging posts of life. Sport plays a role here, along with music or theatre or a thousand other activities: my first Ashes test match at Headingley (50 years); a first visit to Twickenham for a rugby union international (40 years). And a routine rugby match in Partick followed by a concert in Vienna (10 years).

The years pass.

Recreation Park

26th November 2018

On Saturday, I resumed my occasional tour of the football grounds of Scotland . I looked for a match between two sides I had not seen before: Alloa Athletic versus Brechin City in the third round of the William Hill Scottish Cup fitted the bill.

On paper, the home side were the pre-match favourites, as their Championship status placed them a division above their League One visitors. The clubs had bypassed each other at the end of last season, when Alloa were promoted from League One through the play-offs and Brechin ended a torrid year in the Championship, having taken only four points from their 36 games. Some might have expected the latter to free-fall through League One this year, but the ship has been steadied; Brechin have won four league matches and are currently placed in mid-table.

Alloa were elected to the Scottish Football League in 1921. Brechin are relative newcomers, therefore, having first been admitted to the League in 1923 and with their current membership dating from 1954. The furthest progression that either club has made in the Scottish Cup has been to the quarter-final: three times in the case of Alloa, the most recent of which was 30 years ago, and once by Brechin in 2011. But Saturday’s match was of some significance: success in the tie would mean a place in the fourth round draw and the prospect of a lucrative encounter with one of the major clubs from the Scottish Premiership.

Before the match, I took in a mini-tour of Alloa town centre: the choir of Christmas singers at the top of the High Street; the 14th Century Alloa Tower, a superb example of a Scottish tower house, restored in the 1980s (though unfortunately closed for the winter); Tobias Bauchop’s House, the 1695 dwelling of the eponymous architect, in Kirkgate; and a branch of the Dnisi coffee house chain (for my first mince pie of the season). Entry to the ground was £9 for a senior with the excellent match programme a further £2: good value, I think.

Alloa Athletic have played at Recreation Park since 1895. Under a sponsorship deal, the ground has been called the Indodrill Stadium since 2014, but, with due acknowledgement to the benefactors, my – admittedly external – preference is for the former name. It has echoes of other sports grounds that are – or were – the centres of communal attention: the rugby league venues at the Recreation Ground in Whitehaven or the Athletic Grounds at Rochdale Hornets, for example. Indeed, I was struck by the parallels with another rugby ground: Cougar Stadium in Keighley, which I visited in the summer (“A Long Time Between Visits”, 15th July 2018): the main stand is long and narrow, providing a close view of the action on the pitch from the few rows of available seating; there is a busy main road running behind one end of the ground (in this case taking the local traffic to Clackmannan, rather than Bingley); and, looking out to the left, there is the impressive backdrop of the Ochil Hills, beyond which lies Strathallan and the road to Perth (instead of the gentler rising slopes of Rombalds Moor, which separates Airedale from Wharfedale).

The home side’s status of favourites was justified. Their pleasant passing game – orchestrated by the impressive Iain Flannigan in midfield – threatened the Brechin goal several times before Dario Zanatta fired a low shot into the net after half an hour. “Keep it moving” was the persistent instruction from the Alloa manager, Jim Goodwin, on the touchline. Alloa duly kept it moving and two further goals in quick succession around the hour mark sealed a comfortable 3-0 win. Brechin did not give up and their goalkeeper, Conor Brennan, made a couple of brave point-blank saves, but there was little to cheer the handful of supporters who had made the journey down the A90. The game was played in a competitive – but respectful – spirit and was efficiently refereed by Steven Reid.

And so it is Alloa Athletic who will take part in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup. The draw has indeed given them Premiership opposition, although it could have been more generous than an away fixture with St Mirren.

For my part, at the game’s conclusion, I had three-quarters of an hour to wait until the departure of the train that would take me back to Glasgow . Just enough time for another visit to the Dnisi café and my second mince pie of the season.

Another Tough Pool

16th October 2018

Since the Glasgow Warriors returned to Scotstoun as their home ground in 2012, I have been fairly selective in the matches I have attended. Prior to last weekend, the total stood at six games (to add to the five matches I saw there during the Warriors’ temporary residence in 1997). There had been a 50 per cent success rate: victories against the Llanelli Scarlets (in what was then the Guinness PRO12 competition), Bath Rugby and Racing 92 of Paris (at the Kilmarnock FC stadium because the Scotstoun pitch was unfit) and losses against Stade Toulousain and, last season, Leinster and the Scarlets (the latter in the semi final of the Guinness PRO14).

On Sunday, on a sunny autumnal afternoon, Glasgow played their first match – against Saracens FC – in the pool stages of this year’s Heineken Champions Cup. The other teams in the pool are the Cardiff Blues and Lyon and so it is a formidable challenge to win the group and guarantee a place in the quarter-finals. It was the same story last year, when Glasgow were pitched in with Leinster – the competition’s eventual winners – Exeter Chiefs and Montpellier and won only one game out of six. (“A Tough Pool”, 23rd October 2017).

The last time I saw Saracens play was over 10 years ago, in January 2008, when, in another European pool match, they defeated Glasgow 23-16 at Firhill. In An Ordinary Spectator, I noted that, on that occasion, there had been a classic “echo” in my sports spectating: the visitors’ line-up had included Andy Farrell, whom I had seen 15 years earlier as an 18 year-old playing for the Great Britain rugby league team against New Zealand at Headingley.

Sunday’s match also provided a sense of the times passing and the generations moving on. Somewhat quirkily, the fathers of both fly-halves – Adam Hastings and Owen Farrell – had captained British rugby sides on tours of New Zealand: Gavin Hastings led the British Lions on the 1993 tour, whilst Farrell pere was captain of the GB rugby league tourists in 1996.

In the decade since the Firhill meeting, Saracens have been one of the powerhouses of European rugby, winning what is now the Champions Cup twice and being runners-up once; they have also won the English Premiership four times. In 2017, the club provided half a dozen members of the British Lions tour party to New Zealand.

All six of the most recent Lions – including the younger Farrell – took the field on Sunday and, with hindsight, it was perhaps the experience of closing out tight matches that saw Saracens retain the 13-3 lead they had built up at half-time through a scoreless second half. The home side was in the fight throughout, however, roared on by its vociferous support. Perhaps the crucial period was in the frenetic five minutes or so leading up to half-time, when Glasgow were encamped on the visitors’ try-line – aided by four penalty awards given in quick succession by the French referee, Matthieu Reynal – but unable to fashion the critical try. (Another official might have been less tolerant of the frequency of Saracens’ infringements within 10 metres of their line and reached for a yellow card).

As the score suggests, it was a match in which the defences – both of which were well-organised and (to put it mildly) uncompromisingly robust – were on top. However, the sole (Saracens) try was beautifully worked; it followed a quick line-out on the half-way line, the rapid transfer of the ball, a couple of swift changes in the point of attack and the creation of a two-man overlap on the left hand side of the field. Mike Rhodes, who played a fine game in the Saracens back row, touched down.

As ever in these closely contested, physical encounters, I looked for the moments of individual contribution. For the visitors, Alex Goode – in my view, consistently and mysteriously overlooked for the England full-back position over a long period – made a couple of thrillingly committed catches of the high ball, whilst, as expected, Maro Itoje combined his athletic presence in open play with a productive tally at the line-out. On the Glasgow side, the recruitment of the South African prop, Oli Kebble, has clearly enhanced the threat from their set scrum, which had the visitors’ front-row under consistent pressure.

More generally, I also noted that – apart from retreating in the face of an ominous drive straight from the opening kick-off – the Glasgow forwards dealt impressively with the Saracens attempts at the driving maul. This was a marked contrast with last season, when the home side’s vulnerability in this area was ruthlessly exposed by Leinster and the Scarlets, amongst others.

The weekend’s away wins by Saracens and the Cardiff Blues (the latter in Lyon) have obviously put these two sides in joint pole position after the first round of Champions Cup pool matches. Moreover, Glasgow now have two successive away fixtures prior to Lyon visiting Scotstoun in mid-December. All is not yet lost, however, and there might yet be some twists before the quarter-final line-up is known. It is another tough pool.

In the meantime, Glasgow’s success rate for my Scotstoun sojourns has fallen below 50 per cent.