All entries for Friday 05 September 2008

September 05, 2008

Sugar Daddies

Beware the Sugar Daddies!

Back in those innocent days around 1986, one of our regular after-school expeditions involved a long walk around our Colchester estate with the help of a bag of lemon drops and chocolate limes from the local sweet shop. That shop doubled up as the local post office and had a distinct smell of rotting sugar, and furniture polish, but it was a highlight of a Monday afternoon.

I pushed past all the endless birthday card stands and appeared at the counter and whimpered for something sweet from one of the plastic jars that were lined up like test tubes behind the grumpy shop owner.

As I grabbed the paper bag and ran off towards the busy

Ipswich Road, I was warned by my mother “not to eat them all at once!” I just about managed to obey those wise words, and had some left to finish off whilst climbing over the brightly coloured iron bars that doubled up as the local playground.

This all sounds a bit idyllic, and I suppose it was but those mid-eighties years were good times. I watched my first FA Cup Final in 1986. I wondered why the name “Ian Rush” was being mentioned every two minutes, and I hoped that I could be as good as the Kop legend. Barclays League Division One seemed to be an honest place.

It did seem that Liverpool were winning everything but their football was sublime. You had a sense that a mix of shrewd management, stability, and top quality home- based talent could pay dividends. Maybe I am looking through rose-tinted spectacles but there seemed to be a sense of innocence back in those days. You also were pretty sure that England would beat Andorra in 1986 without question!

I appreciate that things have to move on, but the recent events in the Premiership soap opera should make any football fan be slightly worried. I am referring to the recent take over of Manchester City, the goings-on in Newcastle, the drift on Merseyside, and the slamming of doors at West Ham. Although I would love to see my beloved Ipswich Town playing in the Premiership this season, I am quite glad that my team are currently out of this boardroom blood bath.

Portman Road has a sugar daddy but he is at the same level as that sheet shop owner plying his trade on the
Ipswich Road in Colchester. Our finances get the Premiership cast-offs that had a chance of Premiership stardom before the Russian oligarchs and American millionaires set up shop in the plush boardrooms. We live in hope that we can get the £30 million Brazilian superstar but realise that this will only happen in the world of Pro Evo.

In the quagmire that is the Championship, there are some B-list sugar daddies. The press greet each arrival of a financial saviour like the second coming, and the club is subsequently saddled with unrealistic financial aspirations by the fans as well as other clubs. Why would clubs like Huddersfield or Cheltenham sell their star striker to us for £500,000, when they know that our club could afford for a lot more? When another Championship play-off ends in a disaster, the sugar daddy looses interest and retreats back to their oil field or their country pad? The brief moment of financial heaven collapses into the mire of debt and recrimination.

We have not reached that stage in the Premiership, although you wonder whether the first signs are starting to appear. The unseemly spat between the American co-owners with additional material from the chief executive and the manager has done nothing to enhance Liverpool’s reputation.

The kop is rightly angry and it is difficult not to sympathise with these passionate fans. There is nothing much different at St James’ Park, with a saga that surpasses anything that was on Byker Grove. These are two proud clubs flirting with sugar daddies and both of the episodes leaving a sorry taste in the mouth.

If I was a Manchester United, Chelsea or now Manchester City fan, I would be on cloud nine with a cheque book that had no dotted line. I would never grumble about Cristiano Ronaldo, Robinho or Fernando Torres in an Ipswich shirt and I wish the very best of luck for these clubs. They can play their Champions’ League football and head towards football’s promised lands of riches and . I worry about the rest of us.

I worry about the proud clubs like West Ham who risk tearing themselves apart in the pursuit of trying to match the richest and successful clubs in the land. I worry about the yo-yo clubs between the Premiership and the Championship club that have no chance of being Premiership champions, despite what sections of the hysterical media say. I worry about the lower league teams who are destined to never really reach the top and achieve their football dreams.

The worst case scenario involves the Premiership imploding in ten years time. It may have done already and I wonder whether anyone below even second place in the Premiership can win the ultimate prizes in domestic and international football.

I have a feeling that this is a lone voice and like much in football, I just have to accept it “because that is football.” I hope that I am wrong and there is still much to look forward to. Otherwise I will look back to those mid-eighties years with even more nostalgia.


Stepping Out on a European Tour

Stepping Out on a European Tour (1040 Words Friday 29th August 2008)

It was only at 4:00pm on Wednesday with just over twenty-four hours to go to the big match against FH Hafnarfjordur, when I decided to return to Villa Park for my first taste of Aston Villa circa 2008. I am currently mired in PhD revision and stress and felt that Villa could provide a relaxing tonic in a way that chocolate or TV can not quite reach.

Wednesday 17:40: I gabble with the ticket sales telephone operative for a seat. I am provided with a top class position in the Trinity Road Stand, and assured that I will have a great view of the action. In my excitement, I forget to ask where to pick up the tickets, and feel too embarrassed to meekly phone again to clarify the location.

Thursday 09:00: I try to wise up on Icelandic football. I want to know more about this mysterious country than who is Hermann Hreidarsson. I look at some dramatic snow-capped mountains and hot water springs but find little else.

Throughout the day, I struggle to find anything about tonight’s opposition, and I am still struggling to offer a convincing Icelandic pronunciation of FH Hafnarfjordur. However, I love the fact that this team is still clouded in the fog of the unknown, and wonder whether the players will sprint out of the dugout in flames and smoke.

Thursday 18:50: Arrive at the football ground in the gloom of a muggy summer evening. I run up the Holte End steps like a child going to find Santa on Christmas Day. I interrupt my friend’s Thursday bath in Ipswich to gush about Villa Park.

The sweat smell of chips and doughnuts bounces around in my nostrils, as we discuss the upcoming game with my best mate who is a long motorway drive away. To my left, I watch the lorries stack up on the Aston Expressway into the confusion of ‘Spaghetti’ Junction.

I can see groups of Villa fans proudly clad in claret and blue mulling along

Trinity Road. Every bit of railing is coloured in the club colours, with two gables shaped like lions. I wonder what stories could be told, if these lions could talk.

Thursday 19:30: I find my tickets and prattle to a very tolerant security usher about how I was looking forward to this game. I wonder what she thought of me. “If this guy behaves like this before a UEFA Cup Second Qualifying Road match, which Villa are already 4-1 in front, how would he behave when Manchester United and Liverpool are in town?”

After aimlessly walking around the concourse, I take my seats and immediately see why the telephone operative had described these seats as some of the best in the ground. I look to the Holte End, in full soulful voice, bashing out the club hits like troopers. The pre-match build up involves a mental vow to head in to the Holte End on my next visit to Villa Park but I am unsure which tier would be best.

Thursday 20:00: The match starts and the rest of the first half disappears in a very quick blur. I am mesmerised by Gabby Agbonlahor whose surging runs along the wing remind me of skimming a stone across an electric blue lake whilst on a Sunday afternoon stroll. It is how football should be played.

John Carew and Martin Laursen go for a slow jog up beside the pitch and salute the adoring Holte End. Martin O’Neil gives a series of waves and my attention moves to Wayne Routledge at number 18. I watch him coming in from the flank for a series of powerful shots at the bemused Icelandic goalkeeper.

Gareth Barry is roughly in font of me plying away in the left-back position plying balls up to the surging forwards, in the company of Zat Knight. Two goals are exchanged like two shots in a Wild West Cafe

Thursday 20:45: Half time and I slip into the ancient pursuit of people watching. I wonder whether I should say hello to the cuddly lion that is making his round of greetings to younger fans beside the pitch, but think that my time for all that happened in about 1984 or 1985. Half time does not seem to drag into a black hole of chart hits, and birthday greetings, and the players return to the arena.

Thursday 21:50: Credit must be given to FH Hafnarfjordur. Our Icelandic friends had a good go at this game, and I am not sure that I would have the heart to try and overturn a 1-4 score miles away from home. I join the Villa fans in applauding the vocal Hafnarfjordur support in the director’s box, and stumble out into a warm West Midlands night.

I hear the ecstatic chants of ‘We’re Going On A European Tour’ as I follow the Villa faithful to Witton station. Whilst the football train waits for a green signal, I look to my right to see the bright floodlight shining on a deserted Villa stadium.

The bright blue lettering is unmistakable and the lion crest seems to act as a beacon in the North of Birmingham. The train carriage is full of excited teenagers debating whether their Thursday night can continue in the pubs and clubs of Birmingham. I wish I could join them, but I am tired out. I would be asleep in ten minutes and I know that I have still got to get the Leamington Spa train.

Thursday 23:30: The identity of a football supporter is either his shirt or a programme and I am drawn into conversation with a Villa fan and his mother. Their Villa match had been their chance to recreate some family moments from the late 80s and early 90s. We launch into a Villa history conversation about Dwight Yorke and Dalian Atkinson, which has to be sadly curtailed at Leamington Spa.

It was my first European match at Villa, and it was an exciting experience. I could forget about the PhD stress for a short while. However I hope that the journey continues a little longer this season to the point that a new set of heroes and some new commentary will go into the Villa consciousness as it did in 1982.


Stirring up a Hornet's Nest

Stirring up a Hornet’s Nest

If you thought that everything was ok in the national game, you should hear my sorry story about finding a TV to watch the recent match between Town and Watford. I was not asking for much. I was not asking for a resolution to the credit crunch. I did not want to halt the slide of global warming. I know that I was not asking to watch one of the Premiership’s top four, but surely I could catch this crucial game somewhere in central Warwickshire.

It was one of the two warm Saturdays of summer 2008. I had been learning tennis over the previous match and had taken the opportunity to smack a few shots over the net in the vein hope that I would be the next Wimbledon champion. As with every sporting venture that I decide to try, I was dressed in a selection of multi-coloured 100% polyester ‘gear’ from Planet Blue. I hoped that the club crest would spur me on to the next sporting level. It sort of did (and the stress should be on the word ‘sort.’)

After the tennis, I had moved into a period of mental preparation for the game. For any Town fan who has spent a sustained time away from Ipswich, Suffolk or East Anglia, the chance to grab a piece of Town action always needs to be grabbed with both hands, even if is on TV. Although I was sceptical whether my tennis companions would enjoy a slice of Ipswich action, I successfully bribed them with an offer of a refreshing drink. I was glad of their company.

We hoped that the local pub would be showing the game. I arrived at the bar with the hope that their TVs would be swiftly turned to Sky. The spiky-haired bar attendant looked at me with astonishment. He pronounced ‘Ipswich’ as if it was a debilitating disease. His companion piped up in a very British way to ask if I was looking to catch some football. I was bemused by the response and I was tempted to suggest that I wanted to catch the ‘Ipswich’ horse racing team. The manager said that the pub was shutting in five minutes to prepare for an evening event. I took the hint that he wanted us out of the pub as soon as possible and I skunked out of the pub with a few expletives peppering my breath.

We launched into a search for a pub that had Sky. We journeyed to Kenilworth, which is a Wickham Market styled small town. At the next inn, I was told in no uncertain terms that the Arsenal versus Newcastle match was taking priority. That Premiership fixture had been advertised on the outside blackboard and there would be no change on the television. I tried to be apologetic, and smashed my head on one of the fake timber beams as I stumbled out of the pub. I had the slow nagging sensation that things would have been totally different if Town had been a top four Premiership side with a flourishing European trophy cabinet.

I was becoming gradually hysterical as my friend calmly drove in his Fiat Panda with low oil pressure. I wondered what was going on at Vicarage Road and hoped that Town were 5-0 up on their way to the second victory of the season? We arrived at a student-drinking den in Leamington Spa. I arrived at the bar and launched into a short pleading speech to convince the bar lady to show the Ipswich game. I was told that my wish was not possible, and it would have only worked if the match had been on BBC1. Surprisingly, Watford versus Ipswich had not replaced the final of Last Choir Standing on that channel, and we left.

I was slowly beginning to believe that there would be little possibility that I would see this Ipswich game. I would be left with the X Factor and the chance to catch thirty seconds of action on the Sunday morning Championship highlights show. We tried one last place near Leamington Spa railway station. My friend used his contacts and the barman brought down the big screen for the second half of the game. The Arsenal game was on all the other TVs and there was sizeable audience for the Premiership action. I had to watch the Town match without any sound, but at least I had a picture. I could not complain.

After all this anxiety, the second half was a massive anticlimax. Although I reached vocal heights in my support that would rival a howling wolf, Town were scarily disjointed and strangely angry throughout the second half of the game. I could not comment on the Town performance, because I had spent the whole of the first half driving around central Warwickshire to find a pub that could show the game, but at least my tennis companions could enjoy a bit of the Ipswich experience.

I can imagine that many people will probably experience the same sad situation as I experience on this muggy August evening. The whole episode taught me that when it came to the crunch, Championship action would always play second fiddle to any Premiership game. Many pubs can not split their TVs to show a myriad of matches, and the great British public have affection for Ipswich Town Football Club, but that is just about it.


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