May 04, 2010

Twenty Five Years On

BBC Radio 4 Archive on 4: The Bradford Fire- A Day That Will Live Me For Ever (Saturday 1st May 2010)

Time marches on but some events will always stick in your mind regardless how old you are. Childhood memories can sometimes play tricks with you but certain occasions remain as raw as if they happened yesterday. The fire at the Bradford City Football Club will always be one of those events for me. Radio Four documentaries on a Saturday night may not be everyone’s cup ot tea. However Gabby Logan’s poignant and personal account of that fateful day was a perfect tribute to this horrific disaster. Nevertheless I am sure that Tuesday 11th May will be a traumatic for everyone associated with the club, the city of Bradford and the wider footballing community.

I listened to the testimony and the painful memory but I will never be able to truly imagine what was going on in the Main Stand around 3:40 on Saturday 11th May 1985. Some sensations are best left to those who can or want to talk about it. I was an impressionable five-year old around the house of two close relatives in Colchester, Essex. It was another Saturday afternoon visit the promise of a cup of Ribena, chocolate biscuit, 50p and a Double Decker bar if I was quiet and well behaved throughout the afternoon whilst the adults were talking about things that I could not understand.

As a bit of distraction therapy, I would have been given some things to keep me occupied during the long afternoon. A magic colouring book and the Radio Times would have been the usual material. Looking at the colour pictures of Keith Harris and Orville and The A Team would have kept me quiet and the TV was on too. It was a colour TV! We came from a house, which was still in the black and white age so to enjoy a colour TV picture was nothing short of a technological revelation.

It was the pictures that I can remember. It was not the usual Saturday afternoon Grandstand or World of Sport material. We were not watching the endless horse racing of the show jumping. I am not sure what channel was beaming into our lounge but I can still remember the pictures of the stand with people running down the wooden steps, across the wall and onto the pitch. I was entranced and by the bright colours and turned to my parents wondering what was going on.

Something was indeed going on and I was pretty sure that something bad was going on. However, I got the impression that I was asking too many questions in the opinion of my parents who believed that the Valley Parade pictures should not be played out in front of a five-year-old. There were some pictures that I can still remember to this day and it is difficult to get those images out of my mind.

The Bradford City fire was the first national event that I can remember in my lifetime. Memory comes and goes when you are five, but I can remember those pictures in that dining room, in Colchester, on that May afternoon. There were a number of high profile disasters during the eighties, for which I can remember but have been confined to my mind with a mix of facts and figures. However that fire will mean something a bit more to me because I was watching the action in real time. I will be reflecting on that dreadful event and the city on 11th May.

A lot has changed since 1985. I now have two great ex-university friends living close to Bradford. West Yorkshire used to be unknown territory for me confined to soap opera and cliché, but I enjoy my trips to Batley with the added visit to Bradford. On those occasions, I am enticed with the prospect of curry on Leeds Road rather than the chance to colour in a magic colouring book. There is something attractive about the city. I have seen Valley Parade from afar, and been attracted to the stadium too, which is nestling in the city rather than being stuck in an out of town shopping centre with a load of buy one get one free supermarket offers for company.

I can not confess to having been a regular football watcher in 1985 but I have since caught the bug to visit grounds across the UK. I have a vague ambition to join the 92 club and West Yorkshire is an area for which I need to do some serious stadium visiting. After feasting on a diet of modern stadium, with comfortable seats, crystal clear sight lines, and fast food takeaways at every turn without a plank of wood in sight, you sometimes forget that football grounds used to be so different. It is doubtful what the young football fan in 2010 would make of Valley Parade circa 1985.

Gabby Logan’s documentary is not an easy listen, but it is an essential listen to appreciate how British football had to struggle through a painful transition on and off the pitch to resemble the game that we know today. The personal nature of the report makes it much more immediate and raw rather than recollections of some TV pictures in Essex. Alongside the replaying of TV news bulletins from 1985, the programme also reflected on some of the advances in medical treatment as a result of the fire. The Bradford Sling was especially remembered as a mark of medical ingenuity in the face of life- threatening injuries. Twenty-five years have also seen dramatic changes in stadium management, which often seems to be taken for granted these days.

I was left with a reaffirmed personal ambition to never forget about those fans and club personnel whose lives were tragically cut short on that Saturday afternoon in May 1985. I will still struggle to watch those pictures of the fire. I still struggle to listen to that little bit of Pennine Radio commentary from the particular game. However I believe that this Radio Four archive documentary was the perfect tribute about a match that ended in utterly dreadful circumstances.

April 18, 2010

This is Ian Callaghan

Ian Callaghan with John Keith (2010) Cally On The Ball Liverpool, Trinity Mirror Sport and Media

A recent Tuesday lunchtime chat was made a little bit more interesting when a Liverpool supporting friend arrived in my very hot and airless office to chew the fat over the issues facing the Liverpool FC as this season staggers to a close. We were shooting the breeze on a range of topics such as the Europa League campaign or whether Torres’ knee could ever be the same again. I know that my friend is always interested in the books that I am reading, especially if the subject is Liverpool FC. I showed this new book from Ian Callaghan and wondered whether he was familiar with a player that had such a long period of service with one club

His face went blank with a tinge of embarrassment. He was unsure about who Callaghan was. It was obvious that he was out of his comfort zone and I did have some sympathy for him. No one likes to be found out with a slight tinge of ignorance about a key player in the club’s history. If I am totally honest, it was only after reading this book when I realised the importance of Ian Callaghan in Anfield for fifty years. This book is celebrating this half century but I would tentatively suggest that this player does not have quite the same public profile outside of Merseyside as a Keegan, St John, Dalglish or Rush figure for anyone under thirty years of age.

This book is not a full-scale biography of Ian Callaghan, and this book is all the better for adopting this different approach. You do not start off with the childhood years and nostalgia and finish off with the retirement and the regret. You will be reading a series of short tales and considered points of view, allowing this long serving figurehead to talk about anything and everything about the game, and his beloved Liverpool Football Club. A whole variety of subjects are up for discussion and although there are some tales of reminiscence, it is not another book that argues how everything was great ‘back in the day’ while modern football has ‘gone to the dogs.’

It is obvious that Callaghan has great respect for current Liverpool players. The first chapter is a discussion between Callaghan and Jamie Carragher about life as a Liverpool player, and it is obvious that both figures have the utmost respect for each other. There is no attempt to outdo each other in what can often be a tedious debate about which period was best. Fans of all ages would be interested in what is discussed. There is also much talk about Steven Gerrard who makes Callaghan’s all time Liverpool XI. The author acknowledges that “Stevie’s up there with the world’s best” but he wonders what will happen at the end of Gerrard’s career at Anfield. Callaghan hopes that new local talent is able to have their ultimate dream in the Liverpool first team like so many players from the great teams of the past.

There is a chapter on that memorable 2005 European Cup Final. Callaghan is comparing a corporate dinner at Anfield and the account talks about that well known dramatic change of mood from the utter despair at half time, to wild joy at full time. I will never get bored when I read stories from Liverpool fans or players, or think about where I was, on that May night nearly five years ago. Callaghan talks about Fernando Torres too, praising the Spaniard as a “sensational striker,” and name checking some of Torres’ fabulous goals such as the strike against Blackburn in April 2009. Torres does not make Callaghan’s top Liverpool XI due to his currently short Anfield career, but the author argues that Liverpool’s number nine could “become a legend among legends, a Kop hero to rival any of the past” if he stays on Merseyside.

Callaghan also passionately talks about the current problems facing the game in the twenty first century. The author’s solutions to these issues involve giving an automatic red card to the guilty player and installing off-pitch technology so a quick look at the camera can determine whether ‘simulation’ took place. There is a reference to David Ngog’s alleged dive during the November 2009 home fixture against Birmingham City; another example of the “win at all costs” trend that “sickens” Callaghan. It is probable that the author is not the only person who shares these views. Callaghan also talks about the decline of the FA Cup as a premier competition part of the national football heritage, and suggests that the FA Cup winners gain a place in the Champion’s League qualifiers instead of the fourth- placed team in the league. In an age when rants can be easily made about aspects of English football, this book is providing considered pieces with reasonable solutions.

Alongside the reflections on current issues, Callaghan does talk about the past, and shows utmost respect, pride and affection to those Liverpool figures that managed him during his long Anfield career. There are many references to Shankly and his iconic management at the club as well as Bob Paisley. Callaghan also talks about his frustratingly long wait to receive a World Cup medal after being part of the 1966 team. You are left wondering how such a proud footballing nation, such as the UK, allowed this delay to happen.

Alongside the football stories and debate, Callaghan talks about his career for the Littlewoods ‘Spot the Ball’ competition, which would be a job that I would have no problem in undertaking. This work included a chance meeting with Nelson Mandela who professed his support for Liverpool FC. Callaghan also talks about his discovery of the music of Tony Bennett, and many chapters talk about living in Liverpool during the sixties when the city had a Merseybeat voice in the cultural and musical life of the nation.

This book is a very accessible account to read and would appeal to Liverpool fans of all ages. You can dip in and out of the various stories, which are told in a very vivid manner, as if you had a pitch side seat to enjoy the action. It is obvious that Ian Callaghan’s love for the game and Liverpool FC has not diminished over the last fifty years. It is to be hoped that some of the current players continue to have a productive relationship with the club, because these links are what makes Liverpool Football Club so special.

April 14, 2010

The Legacy of Shankley

Writing about web page

Reading, reviewing and writing about any book about Bill Shankly for a Liverpool FC website is never going to be an easy task. You want to be objective in your review but you feel that if there are any criticisms to be made about this book, some people will feel that you are criticising the man, and subsequently disrespecting Liverpool Football Club’s proud history. This particular book is made up of Shankly’s own words, which makes any criticism seem even more personal in nature. I also wondered whether any complaints about Shankly’s autobiography would mean that I was at risk of being thrown out of the red half of Merseyside without as much as a goodbye!

April 11, 2010

Jason Cowley The Last Game Simon and Schuster UK (2009: Paperback 2010)

I appreciate that football may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I would still recommend The Last Game because this book is a heartfelt reminiscence about 1980’s life.

Take a father and son enduring a strained relationship as a result of the traditional adolescent chaos of understanding another person’s point of view. Mix it with a society that was undergoing a dramatic socio economic transition and sprinkle with a national game that was crashing on the rocks.

Cowley has written an unpretentious tale avoiding the pointless trivia t6hat frequently defines traditional eighties reminiscence. This book is a deeper personal reflection about the decade.

April 09, 2010

Theo Walcott: Can you win anything with kids?

Writing about web page

The UK has a weird way of treating young football players. Happily Arsenal has a proud history of embracing youth talent but some clubs seem to have a real problem with their idea in blooding in the youth. Certain fans have the same problem too. We like to know that the young prospects are having a chance to have a go to make it big in the national game but some of us seem suspicious about their presence.

March 25, 2010

The Kop: Not just any old stand and not just any football history book

Writing about web page

I love visiting Anfield. You probably know this already but whether on or off the pitch, it is a stadium that has a real atmosphere. That fact is especially obvious when you visit other concrete bowls across the UK that like to call themselves Britain’s top football ground. When you walk around the edge of Anfield and take in the various staging posts beside the pitch, within the stands or outside the ground, you realise that this is a venue for people who love their football. Anfield is one of the world’s finest football cathedrals. It is a stadium where you come to worship the game of football rather than gorging yourself on the burgers and chips throughout the game and leave before the end “to beat the traffic.”

March 01, 2010

The Important Things in Life

Writing about web page

You may not be familiar with what happens when someone breaks a leg during a football match. You may have never broken a bone in your body but one paper has helped you to understand that painful process. If you do not know how a leg looks when it snaps under a tackle, get your hands on a copy of the Sunday Times from the 28th February. Turn to page nine and you cannot fail to notice a picture of Ryan Shawcross tackling Aaron Ramsey.

February 25, 2010

The Fratton Park Mess

The Fratton Park Mess

It was another Wednesday evening and another Champions League match on ITV. Inter Milan were playing Chelsea in what the TV commentator described in as many words as the most eagerly anticipated tie of the round. I have to admit that the hype had slightly passed me by since that draw had been made. That match had never really hit my radar and I would suspect that I was not the only football fan to be thinking that way.

The Champions League has turned into a massive, ugly wart-faced cash cow that does not really reach a sense of excitement until the semi final stage. The rounds before Christmas are generally either cagey affairs or whitewashes as one of Europe’s football giants sharks destroys a minnow that dared to swim into the lake of the Champions League. They are punished with humiliating defeats and return to their humble domestic leagues with their pride shattered but a slightly healthier bank balance for a while before the next big money player is signed with the hope that those big times will return.

I accept that some people think differently about what is often build as Europe’s premier football competition. I am regularly meeting people who seem to care about these Wednesday night fixtures rather than the Saturday games because they know that their team is guaranteed a top of the table position. I can not tell them what to think but I sense that there is an unstoppable groundswell for a European super league that will probably be in existence within the next ten years.

I always think that you can not do much with the hand that is dealt you, so I have no problem with these Champions League fans salivating over their next big box fixture against Inter or AC Milan. I just hope that they do not forget that not every club can enjoy the same riches. There is an increasingly large group of fans that have experienced their club going into financial meltdown and can do little about it apart from hoping that there will be a game to enjoy come Saturday at 3pm.

We used to think that no one else would be buried in the graveyard that contains the corpses of outfits such as Maidstone United or Bradford Park Avenue. In this World Cup year, some clubs have had a plot laid out for them in the graveyard of shattered dreams. Some corpses are lying in the coffin in the readiness to be buried. It is difficult to know where Portsmouth FC are at this point of time, but it is a sorry sight bringing memories back to a fan whose club was close to bust around eight years ago.

Before Ipswich jumped in a showbiz stage of their development with the appointment of an ex Manchester United icon as a manager, the team were close to going bust around 2003 and 2004. Town got relegated at the worse possible moment with ITV digital disappearing into the history books and money drying up in the lower leagues of English football. I can remember a match between Town and Portsmouth at Portman Road around Good Friday of 2003. Town surprisingly won 3-0 with hopes of another play off run remaining possible. History tells us that it was not meant to be at Portsmouth were promoted.

At the time of that Easter, I have to be honest that I was slightly envious of Portsmouth. Everyone connected with Town was desperate for promotion and there was a feeling that not everything was financially smelling of roses in the club’s garden. Of course, the fans were never really told about how close their club was to insolvency. You scoured the local press, TV and radio for any little nugget of information. Sometimes in desperation, you resorted to hearing the pub bore and hanging on his every word. You believed everything that the friendly old sage was saying when he told you that he ‘knew some one who knew the barber of one of the directors’ who let slip that your star striker was going to be the next player to be shown the door.

The slow drip of players off to other clubs was particularly depressing for a Town fan that was desperate for the club to recover and return to the Premier League. You also noted that these particular transfer fees were way below what would have been expected if your beloved club had not been in such a desperate state to shift these players off their wage books. After another failed play off campaign ended at the hands of West Ham, summer 2005 saw a fire sale of the key players that managed to secure a top six position for Ipswich despite the confusion behind the scenes.

That sale provoked me to write my first ever words about my beloved club out of a sense of misery and frustration. My mood was never helped by what I thought to be pious comments from the club personnel who told me to accept the financial realities associated with the club. I have lost count of how many times I was told that ‘hard choices are needed,’ when I thought that I had never caused those choices to be made in the first place. I have the same opinion about the current national economic crisis but I will not mix football and wider national politics because that relationship will always get messy.

People would argue that my fellow fans and myself never complained when the big wage players were signed during the start of the decade. We did not ‘complain’ but we had always hoped and expected that those people who sipped the fizz in the boardroom always had some realistic idea about where the club would progress on and off the pitch. Ipswich Town Football Club was not Suffolk’s version of Ebbsfleet United where all the fans seem to have a seat in the boardroom.

I will not try to argue whose fault it is that Portsmouth face high noon on the first day of March 2010. What I do know is that the Pompey faithful around Fratton Park who are caught in the middle between the various fighting factions, and the seemingly never-ending stream of owners. They are also coping with a regular barrage of comments from other clubs that their club should not be treated as a special case in terms of Premier League finances.

The whole mess is certainly not ‘pay back’ time for the Portsmouth fans that enjoyed their FA Cup moment in the sun less than two years ago, and it is difficult to know how this episode will be concluded. However, I know that this episode is not just an issue for Fratton Park, Portsmouth or the greater Hampshire. The fate of Portsmouth Football Club will bring back a series of uncomfortable memories for a number of fans across the UK, which will be a dramatic contrast to the riches, hype and boasting that defines the excess of the Champions League.

The Spirit of Crouchy

Writing about web page

I’ve always needed a book to pass the time on the daily bus journey. I have also needed something to take myself away and block out my mind on train trips when my carriage is bouncing to the sound of people’s mobile phone chats, passengers are rowing about their seat reservations, or heading for the loo as the train passes every signal box.

February 19, 2010

Book review: Messi, by Luca Caioli

Writing about web page

This book contrasted with other tones that seemed to ignore Torres’ childhood and his years at Atletico Madrid to become club captain. Perhaps it is a sign of the times, but these other books seemed to concentrate on ‘key’ issues such as what Torres likes to have for tea, is he a fan of Dancing on Ice, and whether he could avoid fans to shop for some clothes in Liverpool’s finest boutiques.

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