Archive for Football

Michael Carrick, the Samwise Gamgee of Old Trafford

Michael Carrick.  He is the Samwise Gamgee of Old Trafford.  The man does so much of the work that leads to glory but curiously ends up with very little of the credit.  I’ve just finished watching The Return of the King and it’s striking how often Sam is left to carry the burden of the Ring’s fate, with Frodo often delirious.  Frodo stumbles from scene to scene while Sam stands there, stoic, humbly and bravely seeing off all-comers.  Sam inches his way forward over ash and broken stone.  He drags himself and his friend through the lair of the most feral of predators.  And when all’s said and done it’s Frodo who gets to compose the trilogy.  Sam just gets on with life.

Getting on with it…Michael Carrick’s a bit like that.  He’s been like that since he arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 2006, taking the shirt of  arguably Manchester United’s greatest midfielder for a fee that many thought excessive.  Four league titles and a UEFA Champions League later, he still has his doubters.  Recently Opta tweeted that “Michael Carrick made 3226 passes in 2012, 577 more than any other player in the Premier League”.  I saw Carrick mocked, as I have before, for only passing the ball sideways, a criticism as inaccurate as it is bizarre.  There is often a perception of Carrick as a player who keeps the ball slowly sloshing about the midfield like stale bathwater, when in truth he gives it something crucial: rapid and efficient circulation.  And in any event, it’s unclear why there is an obsession with relentlessly forward passing from midfield.  After all, Xavi’s not fixated with it, and it’s worked out just fine for him.

Wee Newcastle and murderous players: just Fergie having fun

Why, Sir Alex?

Ferguson is known for his headline-stealing statements, but his last two have come with an unprecedented speed and intensity.  First there was his comment that Robin van Persie could have been killed by a ball kicked in the direction of his head by Swansea’s Ashley Williams.  Then, a few days later, there was his remark that Newcastle United was “a wee club in the North-East”.

Many Manchester United fans have either laughed this off as Fergie being Fergie or as some fiendish strategy to deflect attention from his team’s wildly fluctuating form. Personally, I believe that it is more of the former than the latter.  I don’t see his words as part of some grand design.  Swansea’s qualities are well-documented. Everyone knows that a fully-fit Newcastle team is a difficult proposition.  No-one needs reminding that Real Madrid are lying in wait in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, or that Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes should probably be retiring soon, or that a player like Joao Moutinho is sorely needed at the base of Manchester United’s midfield.

Sir Alex Ferguson is a genius.  But he is also wholly human, with all the attendant flaws.  He seems determined to market Old Trafford as Mordor and himself as Sauron, and I suspect that he is doing it for little other reason than the fact that he can.  (One could speculate, of course, that his all-seeing gaze is becoming agitated as he sees Guardiola approaching Eastlands).  In any event, this may be a title won by the slimmest of margins, and it’s hard to see how it helps to give other clubs any extra motivation.  For better or worse, it seems like it’s just Fergie having fun.

For Leo Messi, a tribute: “Just Another”

Tonight, Leo Messi broke the record for the number of goals scored in a calendar year, reaching the total of 86 in a 2-1 win for Barcelona over Real Betis.  In doing so, he passed the scarcely-believable mark of 85, set decades ago by Germany’s Gerd Muller.  I’ve written a tribute to his goalscoring feats, “Just Another”, which you can read below.

“Just Another”    

I guess that, for Messi,
Each goal is just another –
They come to him
As sun does to summer;
Just another low drive with the right or left
Or the odd lob, or deft touch with head or chest;
Just another night making his rival number
Drift past like a ship with a busted rudder;
Just another soul left in his slipstream
By his light-speed shift up from nought to sixty;
Just another free-kick from thirty yards
That will swerve like the letters of his autograph,
Or another free-kick sneaked beneath a wall
Or a handball that gives our praise the briefest pause…
Just another hat-trick scored
Just another home crowd’s ecstatic roar
Just another dribble that will dazzle all –
Watch this juggernaut
Clutch another Ballon d’Or.

“West Midlands Police Report”, for Ryan Giggs


The following text is the transcript of a telephone call to the West Midlands police.  The communication was made on the evening of the fourteenth of April 1999, at approximately 10pm, from an area known as Villa Park.

The witness had just seen a bank robber, who the police have subsequently identified only as “Giggs”, breaking into one of the most secure vaults in Europe.  Additional witnesses are urged to come forward.  Here is what the witness had to say.

“I spy a Welshman on the loose
With a tall dark Frenchman in hot pursuit;
As if by the spell of some ancient druid
His left foot has a ball attached to it –
Oh, look, now the Frenchman’s lost him
So two of his friends try to accost him
But he slips between them at such speed
That one of them sits down in disbelief! –
(This criminal’s moving at the speed of warp
But still, it is his balance which makes me gawp –
Fill two wine glasses, place them on his shoulders –
He’ll not have spilled a drop till this sprint is over) –
Mayday, all the guards are waylaid,
Just one of them’s left to protect the stalemate –
But undaunted is this rampaging thief:
The ball explodes from his toes and the safe is breached –
Mission done, he hits and runs,
For some strange reason he tears his shirt off,
He has the chest hair of a lion
At least that’s a means to identify him –
Thus in his theft he revels
As he celebrates with some other devils
They flee before the dust has settled:
Suspected destination?

My World XI: AKA, “The Avengers Test”

This post was inspired by Luke Smalley of Tattooed Football, so before I go any further I must thank him (he’s a very good follow, by the way, at @tattooed_2).  Luke sent round a question on Twitter about who would comprise our dream XI: it’s an exercise I had never seriously attempted before, so I thought I’d set out my all-star team here.

In the end, it was a fairly easy decision. There have been so many astonishing players over the years that I expected to struggle with my selection: however, I did what I normally do in such situations, and relied on what we can call “The Avengers Test”. Simply put, if a group of particularly malevolent alien FC turned up with a death-ray and threatened the Earth with annihilation, which superheroes would I pick to defend our world?

I opted for the 4-2-3-1 formation, which is by far my favourite.  The choices soon made themselves. Peter Schmeichel was impassable as Gandalf on that bridge. The only other goalkeeper who could conceivably have matched him for agility, distribution and sheer penalty area aura was possibly Lev Yashin. Iker Casillas is a supreme shot-stopper, Dino Zoff a master, but the Dane takes it. He was one of very few custodians who would have the authority to captain this eleven.

Cafu is my right-back. As a veteran of three World Cup finals, victorious in two, the small matter of an Armageddon playoff would be a joy to him. Central defensive duties fall to the duo of Franz Beckenbauer and Franco Baresi, the former of whom would step forward out of defence whilst the latter would sweep. Left-back must be Paolo Maldini. Often as elegant in possession as Marco van Basten, Maldini made the art of tackling look swift and clean as a bloodless coup.

The two deep-lying midfield spots go to Xavi and Roy Keane. The Spaniard’s control of midfield tempo was greater even than that of Fernando Redondo, and Irishman is simply the most competitive soul that I have seen in any sport.

My three playmakers are Leo Messi (beginning on the right), Diego Maradona (central) and Zinedine Zidane (along the left). Zidane would drift infield and encourage Maldini to overlap. Messi narrowly gets the nod over Johan Cruyff, whilst my decision to include Zidane ahead of Alfredo di Stefano may, on reflection, prove to be the only one that I regret. – Actually – you know what – to hell with it. I’ll give di Stefano the nod over Zidane. The two question marks over Zidane concern his goal tally (he was a very good finisher but deferred a great deal) and his temperament. Di Stefano, meanwhile, was better in both areas, and his stamina would prove an excellent asset down the left flank.

That leaves the centre-forward spot, which goes to The Phenomenon, or Ronaldo. At his peak Ronaldo had the technique of van Basten, the acceleration of Romario, the finishing of Gerd Muller, the power of Eusebio, and the presence of Pele.

So there we go.  A side fit to see off all-comers – to terrify whatever threats to our Earth emerged from the depths of black holes and rival galaxies.  Since it’s a one-off game, I’d ask Rinus Michels to be its manager.

Naming substitutes for this one is probably harder, in a funny way.  But I’ve managed it, I think; here are seven.  Dino Zoff would deputise for Schmeichel, edging out Lev Yashin and Iker Casillas; Giancinto Facchetti over Roberto Carlos; then Lilian Thuram and Lothar Matthäus: and Zinedine Zidane would sit bemused next to Johan Cruyff and Pelé.

Phew.  That’s that; yes, the subs were actually harder to choose than the main team.  Here they are one last time, and thanks again to Luke.

World XI

Manager: Rinus Michels

Team (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel; Cafu, Beckenbauer, Baresi, Maldini; Xavi, Keane; Messi, Maradona, di Stefano; Ronaldo.

Substitutes: Zoff, Facchetti, Thuram, Matthaus; Zidane, Cruyff, Pelé.

Predicted scoreline (why not, eh?): 4-0 (Ronaldo, di Stefano, Beckenbauer, Messi).  Take that, Universe.


Pride and Prejudice: Kick It Out, Ferdinand, Ferguson and the FA

The story is now so well-known that I will not dwell on it too long.  Yesterday, Rio Ferdinand, in defiance of his manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s wishes, refused to wear a Kick It Out T-shirt.  His refusal was due to the fact that he, like his fellow protester Jason Roberts, felt that football’s authorities were not doing enough to combat racism within the game.  Since Kick It Out – whose work is tireless, but whose remit and influence is sorely limited – derives the overwhelming majority of its funding from the FA, the PFA and the Premier League, Ferdinand identified them as the symbol of his discontent. Ferguson spoke afterwards of his embarrassment at Ferdinand’s refusal to toe the party line, and of his intention to punish Ferdinand. Whether that punishment will take the form of a fine or a fierce talking-to is still anyone’s guess.

A widespread view is that Ferguson – who, it must be noted, steadfastly supported Ferdinand throughout the Terry case – has got this call wrong, in that he has put his own pride ahead of Ferdinand’s anger at the FA’s perceived weakness in dealing with prejudice.  I will add two points here.

First, the protest that Roberts and Ferdinand are making appears to be against the enabling of racism by football’s institutions.  That is a far more difficult animal to tackle than racism from the crowds.  A monkey chant is readily identifiable by audio or video.  It is easy, comforting and cathartic to unite against the monkey chanter because the monkey chanter is outside football.  He or she is in the crowd and can simply and summarily be excluded from the game.  But what – and here is the more uncomfortable question – if there are those in senior positions in the game who actively or passively enable racist behaviour?  Joleon Lescott has not worn a Kick It Out T-Shirt since 2007, when he was at Everton. This is not because he is angry at racist chanting from the crowds.  This is because he felt that the authorities should have been stronger in dealing with Emre, the Turkey midfielder then at Newcastle United, who allegedly directed racist abuse at Joseph Yobo, Lescott’s fellow defender.  In this case, for which Lescott provided written evidence, Emre escaped punishment.  Lescott has found far less support or publicity for his stance than those who support the wearing of Kick It Out T-Shirts.  But it may be that his stance is of equal importance.  What is more, given that football is a self-regulating sport, there is no organisation with the independence to defend his position tirelessly.

Secondly, it is notable that high-profile black and mixed-race players, either still playing or as pundits, are themselves divided over the T-shirt controversy.  Viv Anderson, the first black footballer to play for England, and Ian Wright believe that no-one should have boycotted the T-shirt.  David James, whilst criticising the “anti-racism industry”, believes that the FA were too slow to deal with the John Terry affair, particularly in the light of the revelation by the Crown Prosecution Service that they did not delay the FA from taking speedier proceedings against John Terry.

I wonder whether there is something of a generational divide between Britain’s ethnic minority footballers: between the older guard, who remember racism as being far more overt and shocking, and the younger crowd, who have emerged into a world where most of football’s demons with regards to race have been swept aside (or, cynically speaking, under the carpet).  I wonder whether the older guard look at the younger group of protesters and think, “it was far worse in my day; toe the line and build on the advances that we painstakingly made.”  And I wonder whether the younger ones think, “yes, but we have more freedom today to say what you couldn’t.  The time for biting our lips is past”.

The older guard would have had to deal with colleagues who were initially either racist or ignorant but who have over time become loved or trusted friends.  They would have had to help these colleagues to work through their prejudices, a process that would have taken great patience and which in any case would have been necessary for the furtherance of their careers. As Bob Hazell, the former professional footballer for Wolves, Leicester, QPR and Port Vale tweeted earlier today, “me & my generation spoke about ‘ignoring it’ and ‘it inspires us to play better’.  We never spoke of feeling hurt devalued and fucking angry.’”  Back then, that was just the way things were.  They had to compromise.  The younger crowd would have grown up in a world where racism was not the norm, it was abhorrent, and so are more confident to call it out.  They have not had to compromise nearly so much.  In that context, why should they engage in what they see, quite literally, as an exercise in window-dressing?

T-Shirt or Not T-Shirt: Kick It Out and Jason Roberts

The key symbol of racism in football this week is not the handshake, it is the T-shirt.  Jason Roberts has refused to wear his Kick It Out T-shirt this weekend in protest that the organisation has not done enough to combat racial discrimination in the sport.  As the Reading striker told BBC Sport, “I’m totally committed to kicking racism out of football but when there’s a movement I feel represents the issue in the way that speaks for me and my colleagues, then I will happily support it…I think people feel let down by what used to be called ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’. People don’t feel like they have been strong enough.”  Roberts’ announcement comes a week after David James castigated anti-racism groups for trying to justify their existence by exaggerating the issue.  All in all, it has not been a good few days for Kick It Out.

The organisation may then have been grateful for Sir Alex Ferguson’s support.  In a press conference today, the Manchester United manager criticised Roberts, saying that “I think he is making the wrong point…Everyone should be united, with all the players in the country wearing the Kick It Out warm-up tops…”  He added: “I don’t know what point he is trying to make. I don’t know if he is trying to put himself on a different pedestal from everyone. But he really should be supporting all the rest of the players who are doing it…”When you do something, and everyone believes in it, you should all do it together. There shouldn’t be sheep wandering off. [My italics]”

Ferguson’s metaphor is an interesting one.  Roberts would rather not be the sheep who blindly followed an orthodoxy he did not share.  He would rather, one suspects, be the sheep that many argue that England’s Danny Rose should have been earlier this week, by walking off in the Under-21 game against Serbia after receiving racial abuse.  Ferguson’s call for unity is a powerful and timely one, but it must be viewed against Roberts’ own frustration, which is overwhelming.  His view is that football’s authorities have been too slow and too soft in dealing with the recent Suarez and Terry cases, and he believes Kick It Out to be primarily at fault.

I have worked with Kick It Out – whose name has been changed to address all forms of discrimination in football, not just racism – and I have found them to be a very smart, very diligent group.  We worked together on a campaign to address homophobic chanting at football matches, and the experience was a revealing one, for two reasons.  First, though they had a series of excellent ideas, they were working within very considerable constraints: they were only granted a small five-figure sum for a promotional video.  Secondly, they were operating on something of a leash.  That same video, carefully crafted with the assistance of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, was then pulled at the last moment by the FA, who were apparently worried about its controversial content.  The only reason that the video ever saw the light of day was that it was leaked to BBC Newsnight.

Kick It Out therefore operate in an atmosphere of caution and confinement.  As they have stated today, “certain myths and misinformation about Kick It Out’s remit have been laid down…We are not a decision-making organisation with power and resource as some people think, and can only work effectively in the context of these partnerships” [My italics].

The last sentence says it all.  In its own words, it is “a small campaigning charity” working in partnership with football’s leading authorities.  There are only seven of them.  Last year they had a budget of just over £450,000, of which £330,000 (about 73%) was provided by the FA, the Professional Footballers’ Association and the Premier League.  Kick It Out does not have the influence and independence to speak unbridled truth to power.  Nor was it ever meant to.  Roberts’ important contention is that the current system is ineffectual; the football’s governing authorities cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, and are in need of more robust checks and balances.  Kick It Out are unfortunate in that their success in gaining visibility has made them the public emblem of all efforts to fight discrimination in football; and that they are thus the unlucky anvil on which Roberts has chosen to beat out his point.


A poem, “Mortal”, for footballers who know their time’s up

Many footballers, like many athletes or other performers, reach a point in a career when they just don’t want to do it anymore. This poem, “Mortal”, is for them; there is a Soundcloud link below, where you can download my reading of it.


You cannot go back out there
So all of them return to the light but you.
There was a time when you would have been the first to surge out from that dressing-room
But that was before you grew to fear what’s out there,
Those tens of thousands of waiting mouths.
Above their hunger, beyond the stadium,
The night sky is so cruel.
Long after its stars have died,
It will leave them out there
for all to view.
Wretched you.
There is nothing worse
Than to be an ambition who has lost its thirst.
Two streams darken your shirt,
Which was first handed you by one as hunched as you.
That day, you thought glory
Was all that you would inherit:
Not also a suit
In which you’d perish.
Performers die two deaths:
The second, like all humans, is when our hearts’ rhythm is stayed
But the first is when we hear no more
The call of the stage.
You’ll be found mortal now. And
Three times, you will cry:
When you look your friends,
Then yourself,
And then your future in the eye.
Your coach returns to search for you,
To complete the group.
“Time!” he yells; and then he looks at you, silent in sweat and salt.
“Time”, he says. And you say,
“I know”.

A round-up of my writing this week

It’s been a busy week so I thought I would post a round-up of my writing, so that anyone interested can find it all in one place.

1. Football Writing

I am very happy to announce that this week I have begun a Manchester United blog for ESPN.  I am very excited about this opportunity – I will be posting for them three times a week, and my first post for them, “Sir Alex Ferguson and the Jack Welch approach”, can be found here.

I have also made my debut for the BT Life’s a Pitch website, with an article called “Nani in limbo at Old Trafford”.  Very many thanks to Matt Furniss at Opta Statistics for all the great Nani stats.

2. Poetry

I’ve been writing a fair bit of poetry recently, and in the last few days I’ve posted up five pieces.  One of them, “College”, is a couple of years old, but given that it was Suicide Awareness Day recently I felt that I had to share it.  This week, I also recorded it as a track with my group The King’s Will, thanks to Giles for providing the fantastic instrumental.

The other four pieces are all fresh.  One of them, “Delay”, was me thinking about the times I have procrastinated in my life, and why that might have been.  Then there’s “Gamesmakers”, celebrating the work of our amazing volunteers during the Olympics – the Gamesmakers are the kindest, humblest bunch of people I’ve had the pleasure to meet in a while, and I hope that they enjoy my tribute to them.

The last two pieces are very brief.  One is so short, but it had to be – it was a nod to Andy Murray’s magnificent US Open triumph, where he put the final touches on an incredible sporting summer for “Team GB”. It’s called “Full Stop”.  And last of all, there’s my ode to Eric Cantona’s most famous article of clothing, “Cantona’s Collar”.  I gave this to the fantastic 7 Cantonas website, it seemed only right.

Thanks for reading my work as ever, and I look forward to sharing more with you soon.



“Berti”, a guest football poem by Sheridan Bird

Recently I wrote a poem on Dimitar Berbatov’s departure from Manchester United.  Sheridan Bird, a European football expert who’s written for Champions Magazine and FourFourTwo, then sent me a piece he’d penned about a hero of his, Italy and Internazionale’s Nicola Berti.  His fulsome homage to the man nicknamed “Crazy Horse” is below:



Northern Italy
Early 1980s
Big framed boy with quiff ‘n’ grin
Stretches his long legs
Pounds the turf

Nicola likes the feeling
Strides clear of the wreckage
Limbs propel furiously
Thundering away from stragglers

Parma like it
Fiorentina like it
Inter like it
Italia too

The big lad’s technique is humble
His energy, timing and power conquer calcio
Clumpy, honest hybrid of Nedved, Boniek and Bryan Robson
From the left
From the right
Bounding into the box

A missile with a spiv’s haircut
Fizz the ball in
Berti smashes a path
Heads it past the keeper and into next week
Tour de force
Two-one to Inter

He had a girl’s first name
And an endless supply of girls’ numbers
Playboy in bars
Pumped-up puppy on the pitch
Not even London nightspots survived flirty Berti
Crazy Horse ran with the Hotspur

Nicolino gave his vibrant all in 11 World Cup matches
Won’t see him on a legends list
Unlike gutsy gliding assassin Baggio
Tight-lipped frumpy-faced shot-stopping  God Zoff

Berti didn’t sign his operas with skill
He was a steamroller with accelerators
Controlled chronological chaos
Spindly-legged action splash

Cheeky champ of Serie A 1989
Goal getter and trophy taker in ’91 and ’94 UEFA Cup finals
Gangly midfield funpack
Marquis of goals and girls