Santa’s little helpers were exhausted.
They’d carefully boxed a new brain for Mario Balotelli.
They’d bubble wrapped a mirror bought by Jose Mourinho’s biggest admirer.
They’d taken a last minute order from Ann Summers for someone called Svennis.
They’d tied a ribbon to a consignment of voodoo dolls, destined for Rafa Benitez.
They’d even parcelled up the stink bombs sent to Wayne Rooney’s agent.
He’s such a wag, that Fergie.
Always does a turn at the annual dinner of the Amalgamated Elves Union.
But this was too much.
Santa needed them to empty a new warehouse.
It was an eyesore, a blot on the landscape at the North Pole.
The place smelled worse than Rudolph’s stable.
Above the door, a sign read: Special Deliveries, FIFA House, Zurich.
The presents came from all around the globe.
From Russia, with love.
From Qatar, with promises.
There was even one from England.
It was ticking, loudly.
A goblin from Health and Safety got busy.
Loading all such gifts on to the sleigh contravened the code.
“Have these FIFA boys been naughty or nice?” asked Santa.
We know the answer to that, don’t we children?
So did Santa.
That’s why we’ll have a Happy Christmas, with a clear conscience.
And certain people in embossed FIFA blazers won’t.
Yo Ho Ho.
Archive for December, 2010
Santa’s little helpers were exhausted.
The clown was off message.
There were no jokes about mating badgers, or birds in the back of the taxi.
Just Ian Holloway, alone with himself.
In front of the mirror of his reputation.
We saw a garrulous end of the pier comedian.
He saw a father with profoundly deaf daughters.
A rootless man who needed to change.
His perspective had shifted.
“There was fear behind every move I made” he said.
It was a simple statement, dredged from the depths of rejection.
Its truth has never left him,
He is making the most of another chance, at Blackpool.
This time last year they were eighth in the Championship.
Now they are mid table in the Premier League.
On the sort of budget that funds a promotion push from League One.
Hoofball has been replaced by 4-3-3.
His system is based on intelligent use of space, incisive counter-attacking.
Coach of the Year, no doubt.
Now he faces another moment of truth.
Is it time to change, again?
Blackpool have been pro-zoned by the elite.
They no longer have the element of surprise.
The only way is down.
To the quicksand currently occupied by West Ham.
Avram Grant doesn’t have a price of surviving.
If I were Hammers owner David Sullivan – and I thank everything Holy I am not – I’d do the deed.
Then I’d offer Ollie the job
The story so far.
Carlos loves everyone, apparently.
Especially Roberto, his new best friend.
Mario loves himself.
He doesn’t love Jerome.
They fight like drunken secretaries at kicking out time in a suburban disco.
Adam, the Boy Wonder, feels under-appreciated.
Yaya is too sexy for his snood.
Joleon can’t stand it any more.
Everyone can’t stand Emmanuel.
Even Shay, the Nicest Man in the World.
He wants out of the straitjacket of easy money.
Where is all this leading?
Answers on a postcard, please, to Khaldoon.
He’s got access to Sheik Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
For a while, there, he might have asked disturbing questions.
Like whether Garry the shoe salesman deserves his confidence.
Carlos doesn’t really like Garry.
He said so, you know.
In the heat of the moment, of course.
In suspiciously good English
Unkind souls might think that’s down to Kia.
He’s the Prince of Darkness.
Makes Peter Mandelson look like Mary Poppins.
The richest football club in the world is one big puppet show.
The strings were stretched last night.
Everton, a true team, beat City, a collection of individuals.
Manchester United are top of the Premier League at Christmas.
A fable for our times?
Arsene knows, even when it snows.
Monsieur Wenger is scathing about a society scared of its own shadow.
He decries the fact football is at the mercy of the Nanny State.
Too many games are called off too quickly.
Too many decisions are taken by faceless functionaries.
Health & Safety Commissars are merely professional pessimists.
They’ve decided a simple game is an unjustifiable risk.
You might as well seek official sanction for bungee jumping off Big Ben.
In a blizzard.
No one has yet given a cogent explanation as to why one of the season’s pivotal games, Manchester United’s visit to Chelsea, was called off 24 hours early.
It’s the sort of decision that invites conspiracy theories.
Chelsea were there for the taking. One win in seven.
Confidence was lower than Sepp Blatter’s reputation.
They now have time to regroup, recharge and recruit in the January transfer window.
Convenient, don’t you think?
Someone, somewhere, soon, will trot out the old line about English football taking a winter break.
I like the challenge of skid pan football.
It will come as no surprise that Arsene Wenger doesn’t.
He believes the Premier League should adopt a one out, all out, policy when the weather closes in.
That way, he reasons, everyone will replay their games on a level playing field
Dammit. He’s right.
2010 was supposed to be Africa’s year
The World Cup united South Africa, invited unprecedented achievement.
Sadly, the continent’s six representatives blew a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Old problems overwhelmed new horizons.
African football is still blighted by corruption, confusion, incompetence and indiscipline.
Pele’s infamous prediction, that it would spawn a word champion by the end of the 20th century, is a relic of rash optimism.
But, whisper it, all is not lost.
Englebert Mazembe might conjure images of an ageing cabaret singer.
They are African champions, from the Congo.
Against all odds, they have broken new ground by reaching the final of the World Club Cup.
They play Inter Milan on Saturday evening in the suitably surreal surroundings of a Sports City in Abu Dhabi.
Mazembe, the Crows, may have a manager who luxuriates in the nickname of Mourinho.
But Real Madrid, they ain’t.
They are missing their two best players, banned for a year for karate kicking the referee during a qualifying match in Rwanda.
They sink to their knees on their own goal line, and pray before the start of each half.
Their celebrations are extravagant as their haircuts.
Goalkeeper Muteba Kidiaba shuffles along, on his bottom, like a drug-addled duck.
If he’s taking requests, to mark a Milan defeat, the world will have changed.
Two men, united in legend.
One’s character was formed by the privations of a Lanarkshire mining community.
The other’s principles were shaped as a shop steward, in a Glasgow shipyard.
Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson have more in common than fathers who instilled the value of honesty and hard work.
Each will be defined by their influence on the biggest football club in the world.
Ferguson passes Busby’s record for longevity when he takes Manchester United to Chelsea on Sunday.
Sir Matt, who rebuilt United following the Second World War, and the Munich air crash, was in charge for 24 years, one month and 13 days.
Sir Alex will be 69 years young on New Year’s Eve.
It is his life’s work to defy those who would “have me in my bath-chair on Torquay beach”.
His flirtation with retirement was brief, once he considered the impossibility of rest.
He admits he occasionally feels like “a dinosaur”, but is galvanised by youth, and the challenge of an alien culture.
His handling of Wayne Rooney’s handlers was masterful.
It was a mixture of sensitivity and savagery, beyond a younger man.
He’s a good friend, a bad enemy.
Living proof that great clubs need great men at the helm.
Not opportunists ignorant of history, and the privilege of rank.
Anuradha J Desai is the first female president of the World Poultry Science Association.
Respect. The Colonel sends his regards.
Ms Desai is also chair of Venkys, newcomers to the Premier League’s magic circle.
She wants Blackburn Rovers, their franchise, to move up “the rankings”.
They should be “fourth or fifth”, apparently.
Has someone drugged the Darjeeling?
This is a collection of over-achievers, with limited horizons.
“The fans should have trust in us, and belief in us”
I’m no great fan of Big Sam Allardyce.
His teams play brutish, one dimensional football.
He’s a master of gamesmanship, with an unhealthy ego.
He’s trousered £2.5m compensation for the indignity of being summarily sacked.
It’s a familiar tale, when a club is taken over.
The incumbent manager tends to get taken out.
But this is different.
The manager wasn’t allowed to manage.
Venkys sub contracted the big decisions to Kentaro, a sports rights agency.
They’re linked to the SEM Group, headed by agent Jerome Anderson.
The implications are obvious.
Blackburn want a Continental-style coach, who’ll get what he is given.
He’ll be a creature of the training ground, neutered in the transfer market.
Steve Kean, in charge while the usual beauty pageant is staged, is an exceptional coach.
I wish him good luck.
He’ll need it.
As team photographs go, it was a collector’s item.
They wore the red of Manchester United.
Truth be told, a few were above their fighting weight.
Yet they were treated as heroes, as symbols of the human spirit.
Quite right, too.
The rescued Chilean miners were guests of honour at Old Trafford.
They exposed that old lie, about football being more important than life and death.
So let’s take a deep breath.
Examine the game in its correct context.
United’s win last night was definitive
Arsenal were found wanting, again.
They played into United’s hands, again.
They were meek, one dimensional.
That doesn’t make them a bad team.
Or Arsene Wenger a bad manager.
He reacted badly to defeat, as he always does.
He gave surly answers to those asking the old question:
When, precisely, will you win a trophy?
The Carling Cup, as compensation, doesn’t really cut it.
Wenger has to salvage more substantial scraps from the landfill of defeat.
It will be difficult, because of the psychological nature of the blow inflicted last night.
He could do worse than show his players that team photograph.
He should ask them to look into the eyes of those miners.
They showed courage, fortitude, collective strength.
They owe their lives to the ultimate act of teamwork.
Losing a kick about, in front of billions, doesn’t compare.
A little late, but something to ponder? Here’s my Mirror column.
A phone rings in a cold, claustrophobic hotel room in the Polish mining town of Lodz.
It’s London calling, after a delay of an hour, rather than the normal three.
News that John Lennon has been murdered overnight slices through the static.
Russian tanks are massing on the border.
An invasion, designed to ensure the stillbirth of democracy, is apparently imminent.
Poland is threatened with repression, like Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
I’m on the front line of the Cold war, to report a football match.
Thirty years on, that third round UEFA Cup tie between Ipswich Town and Widzew Lodz, has a strange significance.
It is the symbol of a different time, a different world.
Back then, football was a source of inspiration, a vehicle for protest.
Its innocence is beyond comprehension, in an age in which we associate football with corruption, cynicism and cronyism.
Change is inevitable, constant, and horribly revealing.
It was minus 17 on December 10, 1980, when Ipswich went out to protect a 5-0 first leg lead.
The pitch, frozen and covered with compacted snow, was unplayable.
Today, it would cause an international incident. Back then, everyone got on with it.
The Ipswich kit man dislocated his shoulder, twice, ferrying the skips in an ancient van, which had a magnetic attraction to roadside ditches.
The pre match meal was wild boar casserole. Isotonic drinks were the figment of a marketing man’s imagination.
Most of the Ipswich players, including our very own Terry Butcher, wore woollen tights, mittens, and bobble hats.
Kevin Beattie, described by manager Sir Bobby Robson as “the best English born player I’ve ever seen”, wore a short sleeved shirt.
Modern sports science would have warned him off constant cortisone injections into an arthritic knee, which curtailed his career at 27.
He earned buttons, ended on benefits, and nearly drank himself to death. He was twice the player that John Terry is, on £170,000 a week.
Fans, bouncing off each other on steep, unprotected terraces, kept warm by necking litre bottles of vodka.
They sang songs in praise of striking dockworkers in Gdansk, and Lech Walesa, the trade union leader who would become president.
They threw snowballs at sullen soldiers, who were sufficiently peeved to make a show of waving their machine guns.
Lodz won 1-0. They had beaten Manchester United and Juventus in the early rounds, an impossibility in these days of Champions League cannon fodder.
Robson, given time and space to build a club, made the team bus wait for journalists, filing their reports.
The Cobbold brothers, owners with cut-glass accents and formidable thirsts, served Georgian champagne on the way home.
They famously decreed a crisis at Portman Road involved running out of white wine in the boardroom.
Today the club is in turmoil. Roy Keane is morphing into Forrest Gump, with press conferences that should be conducted on a psychotherapist’s couch.
Marcus Evans, its secretive owner, has made millions out of the unofficial corporate hospitality industry.
When he suspected cameras were trained on him, at the last home game, he fled in his helicopter before the final whistle.
Ipswich went on to win the Cup in the 1980-81 season, an achievement now out of reach for a provincial club.
Beattie missed the final, and was refused a medal. It was not until 2008 that Michel Platini, the UEFA president, thought to right an historic wrong.
Imagine. Football was a game, back then.
Now it’s a business.
Can it be reclaimed, wrestled away from the spivs and speculators?
Let’s hope so.
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
Interesting how others see you. Here’s a review by a leading cycling writer LIonel Birnie. Like me, he’s a Watford fan:
WE’RE at a match between West Ham and Millwall and there’s been
violence. A stabbing. Millwall, one of the ugliest boils on the face
of English football is oozing again. I think I know how this is going
to turn out.
Except I am wrong. Very wrong.
Three chapters in and something alarming is happening. I am warming to Millwall, a club I dislike with an intensity reserved for few others.
I am being introduced to people. Human beings. And they are telling
their story with a passion I can admire.
It helps this reader, of course, that one of the central figures in
Family is the Lions manager, Kenny Jackett, a Watford man. I can see
he is his own man, someone with a backbone as upright as a goalpost
and a courage of his convictions that explains how a seemingly
mild-mannered man can thrive in the wilds of South East London. And it
is fascinating to see Graham Taylor’s influence in him too. It’s below
the surface but it’s undeniably there.
Michael Calvin has achieved something very rare. He got right under
the skin of a football club by spending a season on the inside. By
getting into the dressing room, the manager’s office and onto the
substitutes’ bench throughout Millwall’s promotion campaign last
season he gives us a front row seat. But Calvin has achieved something even more valuable. He has earned the trust of his subjects, allowing him to bring another, more personal, dimension.
Family explains the complexities of a team that wears its heart on the
outside. And it reveals more about the modern game than any book I’ve read. It reaffirms that a football club’s soul (yes, even Millwall’s.
In fact, especially a club like Millwall’s) has the deepest of
foundations but its chief protagonists are only ever on shifting
sands. They’re just passing through but while there, they are Family.
The hopes, the almost paralysing fears, the place a football club
plays in our lives. Family is about Millwall but it could be any of