Thursday, 14 June 2018

Brilliant Orange

Just read David Winner's Brilliant Orange for my sports book group. Written in 2001 it's still a classic 17 years later. Winner writes superbly of how Dutch football relates to the uniqueness of the Netherlands as a country. In a nation that has reclaimed so much territory from the sea and has many straight lines of fields, drains and dykes, he links Dutch football to the nation's ability to find space and relate to it in new ways. 

He also puts football in the context of social movements, pointing out that Holland was quite a boring authoritarian place until the counter culture of the 1960s that took place in Amsterdam. That questioning spirit helped spark the great Dutch side of the Cruyff era and perhaps also resulted in a famously anti-authoritarian stance and numerous fall-outs with national managers. 

Winner also brings Dutch painting and architecture into the equation. There are excellent chapters on the trauma of the 1974 World Cup Final, when a kind of national inferiority complex against West Germany resulted in the Dutch side trying to humiliate their opponents, but after netting a first minute penalty they ended up losing two-one. 

The later edition also has an added chapter on the 2010 World Cup Final against Spain when the Netherlands played a heavily physical game that seemed in direct contrast to the total football of the 1970s. But for such a small nation to reach three World Cup Finals there's clearly something special going on. A fascinating read and still brilliantly Orange.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Staying Sober with Tony Adams

Sober by Tony Adams is really a follow-up to Adams’ much-praised 1999 book Addicted, both written with Ian Ridley. The moving moment he gave up booze in 1996 is still included in Sober, where Adams tells his therapist that, “I know how to get drunk and how to play football, but I don’t know who I am.” 

But most of the book is about Adams' career post-Arsenal. For the gossip-lovers he talks about dating Caprice and his eventual ending of their relationship before meeting the less celebrity-conscious Poppy. He covers his fine work with addicted sports stars at Sporting Chance and his time at Portsmouth, where it’s often forgotten that he was Harry Redknapp’s coach when Pompey won the FA Cup. When Tony took the manager’s job it proved a poisoned chalice, with the club’s financial crisis hitting home and Adams soon sacked.

He remained open to new ideas and countries and after that embarked upon an adventure, moving to Gabala in Azerbaijan and helping build the club up from a low base to a Europa League side. He’s involved in all aspects of the club’s infrastructure and the strain takes a toll; he nearly dies from a heart problem and has a stent inserted. He’s since worked in China and at Granada in Spain. Adams also deals with Arsenal’s curious reluctance to have him involved, and it seems Arsene Wenger might be a little wary of having a questioning voice on the coaching staff.

Adams comes across as an intelligent, enquiring man, and a little evangelical at times about Alcoholics Anonymous, which has left him open to the football world’s opinion that he is a bit “weird”. Perhaps he is too honest to be a manager, as his AA principles don’t allow him to tell lies. But with his defensive knowledge you do feel some club is missing out on a good coach and leader, and also a man who can really help modern footballers deal with their demons.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Regis and Cunningham were Different Class

Anyone saddened by the death of Cyrille Regis at just 59 might like to read Different Class, the excellent biography of Laurie Cunningham, the man who provided the crosses for big Cyrille at West Brom. Dermot Kavanagh's book tells the story of Cunningham's rise to stardom at West Brom and Real Madrid in an era of horrible racism. Laurie was an Islington lad and rejected by Arsenal, partly because of his poor timekeeping and also because of the myth at the time that black players were temperamental. 

There was a fine event to accompany the launch of Different Class at the New Beacon Bookshop in Finsbury Park, where Kavanagh hosted an evening with several players who grew up in the local leagues with Cunningham. They described a time when north Tottenham was a no-go area for black people, where they risked beatings-up from both the National Front and the police. Playing anywhere east of Angel, "it was a fight to get in and out" and to go the Lacy Lady nightclub in Ilford (where Cunningham liked to dance) was "taking your life in your hands". 

Cunningham, Regis and Batson at West Brom, along with Clyde Best, Ade Coker and Clive Charles at West Ham, braved horrendous abuse and every player of today owes them a debt of gratitude.

Friday, 20 October 2017

The kits are not alright…

Been a strange week or so for kits. Liverpool did brilliantly to set a new club record and score seven at NK Maribor, but they did it playing in all-orange. You half expected to see Johan Cruyff bamboozling a Maribor full-back. Man United held out for a dire 0-0 draw at Anfield while wearing grey, the very same-coloured kit that once caused Sir Alex Ferguson to make his players change their kit at half-time, supposedly because they couldn't see each other in grey at Southampton.Then there was Scotland failing to qualify for the World Cup while wearing luminescent pink. I'm all for breaking down gender stereotypes, but even so, it still reminded me of the garish pink of my daughters' My Little Pony toys. At least purple might have had Scottish heather associations. In fact it wasn't so long ago that West Ham had an all-purple away kit, which was very Essex. While Manchester City used to wear a luminous green cycle courier away kit and recently won at Chelsea wearing claret and blue. Call me old-fashioned, but shouldn't away kits have something to do with a club's traditional colours?

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Redemption of Fellaini, the man who is more than just hair and elbows

It's hard not to feel pleased for the much-derided Marouane Fellaini, who has just scored twice for Manchester United against Crystal Palace. When he was signed by David Moyes he came to signify all that was wrong with post-Sir Alex Ferguson Man United. Fellaini was a big lumbering lump, not mobile, slow, all elbows. He arrived in the same season as Juan Mata, and the Guardian's Barney Ronay describers the little and large Moyes signings as looking like, "an odd couple, man-child double act in a John Steinbeck novella." 

Yet if you take a look at what Fellaini has won in his United career it's just about everything. He won an FA Cup with Louis Van Gaal and last season added a League Cup and Europa League to his trophy haul. That's three more trophies than, say, Harry Kane and Deli Alli have won while Alexis Sanchez has only an FA Cup. He's also human, and one of the first things Jose Mourinho did at United was to say that Fellaini was part of his plans. Perhaps he just needed to feel the love after the Moyes disaster. 

This season the 29-year-old Fellaini could quite conceivably add a league title to his trophy haul. So he can't really be that bad a player. United rarely lose when he plays, and Mourinho knows when to use a big man who scores goals and can play in a variety of positions. All those adaptation of Leonard Cohen saying, "So long Marouane," have proved a little premature.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Jose's bunch of animals

What is it about Jose Mourinho and cuddly animals? After Man United's win at Swansea he announced that he "let the horses run free." 

Jose has form for this kind of thing. Before a game against  Basel in 2013 Mourinho likened his Chelsea players to, "beautiful young eggs, eggs that need a mum, in this case a dad, to take care of them”. What, even David Luiz? Mourinho then gushed: “And one day we'll arrive in a moment when the weather changes, the sun rises, we break the eggs and the eggs are ready to go for life at the top level."

Jose also used eggs in a rambling omelette metaphor at Chelsea, coming over like a Portuguese superchef“Omelettes, eggs. No eggs, no omelette. And it depends on the quality of the eggs. In the supermarket, you have eggs class one, class two, class three. Some are more expensive than others and some give you better omelettes. So when the class one eggs are in Waitrose and you cannot go, there you have a problem.”

Back in 2006 Mourinho was more concerned about swans, telling a press conference: “What's football compared to life? A swan with bird flu, for me that's a drama."

So we've had horses, swans and eggs and quite possibly Jose will soon unleash the dogs of war (or at least Marouane Fellaini). Could Mourinho be a frustrated farmer? If it doesn't work out at Man United then he just might  get a role on Countryfile.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Why Laurie Cunningham was Different Class

For a pioneering footballer Laurie Cunningham’s career has been strangely neglected. Dermot Kavanagh puts that right with his excellent biography Different Class. Cunningham was thought to be the first black player to represent an English national side with the England Under-21s in 1977, though the FA later gave the record to Benjamin Odeje, who played for England Schoolboys in 1970. Laurie played six times for the full England side and in 1979 was the first English footballer to sign for Real Madrid, having been part of West Brom’s ground-breaking ‘Three Degrees’ trio of black players with Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson.

Cunningham was the son of Jamaican immigrants and grew up in Finsbury Park, London. Kavanagh writes movingly on the racism of the 1970s and how Cunningham found refuge in his love of dancing to funk and becoming a dandy in de-mob suits, hat and tie, while everyone else was in denim and cheesecloth. In fact his dance moves helped him establish the athleticism and suppleness that was to dazzle full-backs.

He was let go by Arsenal as a schoolboy but found a home and an understanding manager at Leyton Orient in George Petchey. He would be late and sometimes miss training, but Petchey knew that underneath the suit and hat he was quite a shy character who needed encouragement. Cunningham became a brilliant winger and after three seasons at Orient he was bought by Johnny Giles for West Bromwich Albion.

When Ron Atkinson was appointed Albion manager Cunningham’s career really flourished. Big Ron described him as “arguably the best British talent since George Best” and allowed Cunningham to express himself in a devastating partnership with Regis. A 5-3 win at Man United was one highlight, but it was also a period of terrible racism, monkey chants and banana throwing. Even the so-called ‘wits’ at Liverpool serenaded him with songs from The Black and White Minstrel Show when he took corners. Luckily Cunningham’s unflappable nature meant he responded by playing even more effectively.

At a time when British footballers rarely moved abroad, Real Madrid came in to sign Cunningham. Back then the whole deal was, incredibly, conducted without an agent. Laurie had great moments at Real, staring in a memorable win at Barcelona and winning La Liga and the Spanish cup. He moved to Madrid with his long-term partner Nikki Hare-Brown, learned the language and enjoyed the Spanish lifestyle. But his career was affected by a broken toe after a terrible tackle and then he had several botched operations and a knee problem. When he was pictured in a nightclub wearing a plaster cast the Spanish press was outraged. He had bought a crumbling luxury house from a team-mate and eventually Nikki returned to England disillusioned by fame. Laurie had lost his pace and played when not fit against Liverpool in the European Cup Final, where Madrid lost to Alan Kennedy’s goal.

His Madrid career was over and he made a number of moves, including a loan spells at Manchester United and then Sporting Gijon, Marseille, Leicester and Rayo Vallecano. Yet he found new stability with his Spanish wife Silvia and in another forgotten moment, joined Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang in 1988. He played nine league games, scoring twice, and came on as a sub in the FA Cup Final where the Dons famously defeated Liverpool. His son Sergio still has his FA Cup winning shirt.

In his last season Cunningham scored the goal that gained promotion to La Liga for Rayo Vallecano in 1989. But, never good with money, he had financial worries by this stage and after a night out died at 33 in a car crash while not wearing a seat belt and three times over the drink driving limit.

Cunningham spent five years in Spain at a time when there was little coverage of European football in Britain. But Kavanagh evokes just what a great player he was and has quotes from most of the key figures in his career. While with his love of dance, he would have been a natural for Strictly in this celebrity age.

Ian Wright sums up what an inspiration Cunningham was to his generation of second-wave black players: “Laurie played how we saw black guys playing football, anywhere, on any level. He had the skills, but most importantly he had the swagger, he had that ‘vibe’. He played like we’d play: of course there was some showing off involved but it was all about enjoyment and celebrating what you could do. Laurie was the first to bring that sort of strut to that level of professional football and he was like a magnet for us.”