As any fule who reads this blog kno, Mrs d is English. I feel a rather hubristic pride that despite the differences between our respective nations we do so well together – and please note that any one who says that there are no differences is a fule. Having being brought together by a shared affection for Liverpool and her mostly willing acquiescence in being brainwashed about hurling, it would be fair to say that sport plays a large part in the relationship. For the first seven years though I did not join her in cheering for England. Hoping England would crash-and-burn for all those years was not a function of 800 years of oppression. Okay, it was a little bit about that. But mostly it was because England are the Nelson Muntz of the Irish and British playground. Taking a savage delight in Goliath coming crashing down was the natural position to take and Mrs d took this with her usual good grace. Although it would fair to say that when I told her that my reaction to this . . .
. . . was one of unrestrained euphoria, a shadow crossed her face. It hurt. It still hurts.
Over time I stopped taking pleasure in England’s seeming never-ending ability to screw up. It wasn’t until I went with her to see England play Andorra in June of 2009 that I realised that this England thing really means a lot to her. The English soccer team is at the very heart of what it means to her to be English. It’s probably because the Irish soccer team doesn’t resonate with me with quite the same passion that I missed that in her. To see her beaming with such joy by just being present at an England game was a thing of unalloyed beauty. If seeing once again even a fraction of that joy means hoping that England win, then so be it.
In case that wasn’t explicit enough, I hope England win. Only in soccer, mind, the rugby team can get stuffed. But it still represents quite the volte face from the days of Euro ’96.
So it was that I toddled along to Wembley with Mrs d to see England play Switzerland on Saturday, thinking I was being ticking all the irony boxes by donning a Waterford shirt for the occasion. Briefly I had toyed with wearing a classic Republic of Ireland shirt, which had the double benefit of being oh-so-ironic while making it easy to pick us out on the television later on. In the end I decided that it might draw a bit too much attention to myself so I settled on a Waterford shirt which would leave anyone who say it guessing but wouldn’t make me stick out like a sore thumb. And no sooner were we at the first Tube station on the route than the wisdom of such circumspection became clear as a group of England fans, obviously on the sauce since early in the morning, came into our vicinity with repeated exhortations that there would no surrender to the IRA. It didn’t seem probable that they’d present much of a threat, filled as they were with a lot of piss and wind. But it was uncomfortable. The GAA often gets accused of letting sport and politics mix but after the visit of HRH we’re all meant to be friends now, right? These boyos clearly hadn’t been copied into that memo.
We got to Wembley with not a lot of time to spare, clownish scheduling on the Bakerloo line meaning we had to get off and wait at Queen’s Park for a train coming behind us. I’ve long railed against the cult of sports grounds whether it be the Nou Camp or even Croke Park, and our experience on the Tube would have echoes when we got to Wembley. Wembley is a thing of beauty, but no amount of architectural and stylistic grandeur can compensate when it’s a pain in the arse to get to your seat and so it proved for the thousands of people trying to access the ground via gate P as the automatically operated turnstiles failed leaving the queue in the photo above with only fifteen minutes to kick-off. One can only assume that the armchair SAS officers were not in that queue because it’s a minor miracle that a riot didn’t break out as we sailed serenely through gate N. Although maybe they were in that queue and it was bad karma. One can only hope.
We didn’t get to sample much of the atmosphere before the match and the opening minutes were insipid. The crowd were pretty good humoured, partly due to a very boisterous Swiss contingent (more on them later) but at the time I felt it was because the England fans were very relaxed. England are well positioned in the group having beaten Switzerland away from and while the debacle at the World Cup in South Africa has dented confidence there had been nothing up to this point to suggest that the problems they occasionally experience in qualifying were going to rear their ugly head. Then Joe Hart completely lost the plot and before we knew it England were 2-0 down.
In fairness to Hart, the first goal was one of those things that happens with regularity, that of a free eluding everyone and going in at the far post. You could argue that he was slow getting across but if he anticipates such an eventuality and someone gets a nick on it back across the goal then he would look even more foolish.
The second goal was just terrible on every level for England. Filled as he would have been with brio from the first goal, it should have entered English heads that the marvellously-monikered Tranquillo Barnetto was going to have a stab from that range. Instead we had Hart leaving a gap that Fat Frank Lampard could have walked through at the near post and James Milner peeling off the defensive wall to protect against, well, nothing in particular. It was shocking. Having marvelled at the recent Tipperary – Cork match and the manner in which a hurling match can ebb and flow, we saw the opposite end of the excitement spectrum as a team found themselves with a potentially insurmountable gap in the length of time it would take you to make some toast. Which is what England looked like now.
Given this post is about the feeling of being at Wembley for the match rather than the match itself, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. Aprés the clowns on the Tube there was a section of the crowd who turned ugly, booing everything that England tried and being especially vituperative at half-time. But for the most part the reaction was one of appalled resignation. The World Cup has really knocked the stuffing out of England fans, both in the manner of the defeat and the team who did it. Anyone who contemplates chanting ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ is likely to be told that for you, Fritz, ze singing is over. It was hard to see how England were going to turn this around so it was fortunate for them that Switzerland gifted them a way back into the game via Fat Frank Lampard’s none-too-inspiring penalty. As stated earlier there was some jeering at half-time but not a lot of it. It was as if the fans were too filled with ennui to get angry about it all. Thankfully the introduction of Ashley Young was sufficiently dislocating for the Swiss to allow England a quick equaliser but even at the time it didn’t feel like England were going to push on and Mrs d didn’t disagree with me when I expressed the opinion that at least disaster had been averted.
This assumed England wouldn’t throw it away like they did against Croatia three-and-a-half years ago when they had drawn level after being 2-0 and while Switzerland were no Croatia they kept their shape well and constantly menaced the England defence, even if it rarely translated into a decent goalscoring opportunity. Contrast this with England who couldn’t put together a coherent passage of play yet got behind the Swiss defence on several occasions. It was on one such moment that the pessimism of the England support was justified, the Swiss goalkeeper spilled a straightforward effort from distance and Darren Bent, perhaps surprised at the force with which the ball pinged off the goalie, managed to spoon the ball over the bar with the goal sitting empty about twelve yards in front of him. Even after this there was little in the way of proper rage from the stands. The sense of fatalism was overwhelming. We could have been watching Waterford.
The comparison with the effervescent visitors was stark. When Saturday Comes had a photo album after the 2002 World Cup entitled something like ‘Well Organised Madness’, a tribute to the choreographed-yet-deranged way the South Koreans celebrated the progress of their team. At frequent intervals a tremendous roar would come from their ranks which at the time I thought was ‘La Suisse!’ but discovered later on in the evening from a couple of Swiss fans that it was ‘Hop Schweiz!’ It was an awesome sight, reminiscent of the performance of the Basel fans at Anfield back in 2002 with their booming chants and collective bobbing up and down. With about ten minutes to go and the match delicately poised they started a Mexican wave, usually the sign of a match that is dying on its feet. When the England fans didn’t respond the Swiss booed which finally spurred the majority of the ground into life, leading to the weird feeling of trying to keep an eye on the action to our right on the pitch and the wave coming from our left down the stands. The Switzerland fans were having a party, the England fans were having a wake.
Thinking about it while I write it, things were perhaps not as bleak as I’ve made out. To come from 2-0 down is always pleasant and the fans were happy enough at the end to have avoided humiliation. There was certainly no rancour on Olympic Way as 85,000 people traipsed away from the ground, the smiling bobby on horseback much in evidence. But the shadow of the World Cup casts itself over everything they do. It stripped away any illusion that the talent is there for England and all they need is a break or five penalty-takers to win a championship. On a day when Robbie Keane passed Bobby Charlton on the list of all-time international goalscorers, there’s a lot to be said for our reduced expectations from our international team. You’d think England could expect a little more expectation than this though.
I haven’t forgotten about the footballers playing the All-Ireland champions on Sunday. It’s just I’ll be otherwise engaged this weekend with a soccer match. And I don’t mean the Blues in the FAI Cup against New Ross Celtic:
See you Monday!
Clearly a closet Déisigh. All the best for the future – especially to the happy couple, but especially to the Minors.
Update: contra to the original post title the Minors beat Tipperary, not Cork. Well spotted, briankenno. Apply to Buckingham Palace for your prize.
Over and above the usual benefits one gets from a wife, her being English has had its uses – she was an unmoulded lump of clay when it came to the GAA, sparing me the trauma of a GAA-phobic West Brit partner-in-life. And working for a company that primarily serves the English market has its uses too – not having St Patrick’s Day off is more than offset by the long weekend you get at Easter. But there’s always the potential for the two to come together and create the perfect storm, and thus it has proven today as I prepare for a break in Britain, culminating in a trip to London for the nuptials of Miss Catherine Middleton and Mr William Wales, which means blogging will be rather light for a couple of weeks. Of course, you don’t need an excuse to go to London, and a big party is a very good excuse indeed. Alas, it means I’ll miss the Minor match against Tipperary scheduled for Walsh Park on 27 April, and would have missed the League final had we qualified, but you can’t have it all. Come on the Déise and up the Republic!
NB it must be stressed that back in 2002, when we had made arrangments which subsequently clashed with the Munster final, she happily released me from that obligation. Is this payback? If so, it’s a small price to pay.
For years I was sceptical about the efficacy or need for video reviews in Gaelic games and soccer. It may have worked fine in cricket, rugby and tennis but these are stop-start sports, a series of set-pieces with obvious gaps in which to pause and review the action. There’s no such luxury in the more frenetic sports. Besides, would video really eliminate gross injustices? When Stephane Henchoz handled Thierry Henry’s goalbound effort early in the 2001 FA Cup final, it wasn’t until much later in the evening on Match of the Day that footage was produced to show he had definitely handled it. If a decision was marginal, video wasn’t going to show anything that enlightening and the ref has to make a binary decision which inherently will displease someone. And if an infringement is blatant, they’ll get it right the first time. Contrary to popular opinion, the referee usually has the best view of the lot, mere metres away from the action. A little more faith that they’ll make the right call would lead to lot less angst.
Then 2010 happened, and such highbrow objections melted way in the face of a litany of refereeing clangers. The first one was in the World Cup, when even watching from several metres away on a flat screen it was clear that Frank Lampard’s header against Germany had crossed the line. Yet the referee and the linesman, both of whom had the benefit of their two eyes to see it in three dimensions, somehow contrived to miss it. Worse still was Carlos Tevez’s goal for Argentina against Mexico, helping the ball into the net from a blatantly offside position. In both cases you were left wondering what on earth the officials had thought they had seen. What parallel universe did they inhabit in which the ball had not crossed the line / Tevez was onside? A classic case of justice not only being done, but being seen to be believed.
This is all a prelude to the fiascos we have witnessed in Gaelic games this year. The eleventh of July should have been a day for referees to be quietly smug, as Johnny Ryan awarded the free that led to Tony Browne’s sensational equalising goal. The world and her husband were convinced that some gross injustice had been performed, until multiple replays finally yielded the holding of John Mullane’s hurley. A definite free, and one in the eye for those who think referees would be grateful for just one eye. Alas for the guild of officials Martin Sludden and his umpires were flushing any credit Johnny Ryan may have earned for the brotherhood down the pan with their inexplicable interpretation of Joe Sheridan’s goal. Add in Benny Coulter’s square ball goal for Down against Kildare and the notion that we can rely on referees to get the easy calls right and video won’t tell us much on the hard calls lies in as many pieces as Louth-to-win-Leinster betting slips.
The reactions of the respective authorities to these calamities has been revealing. Sepp Blatter has accepted the need to look at the issue again, saying “it is obvious that after the experience so far in this World Cup it would be a nonsense to not reopen the file of technology at the business meeting of the International FA Board in July.” It’s not often that the words ‘Blatter’ and ‘principle’ could be used in the same sentence, but my reading of Blatter’s objections to technology was one of *cough* principle, i.e. that soccer should be treated the same at all levels whether it’s a Junior League match in Ozier Park or the World Cup final in Soccer City. It’s an admirable position to take, but when the facts changed he expressed a willingness to change his mind. The same can not be said of Christy Cooney.
(As an aside, this shouldn’t be personal and I hope I’ve kept the invective against him to a minimum, but I’m finding it hard to warm to Christy Cooney. On just about every red button issue this summer – pitch invasions, various refereeing debacles, the staging of the Under-21 final at Tipperary’s home venue – he’s managed to stand on the opposite side of the fence (pun unintended) as myself. When Seán Kelly took an activist position on the subject of opening Croke Park to soccer and rugby, many people objected that an Uachtaráin would take sides in the debate. This struck me as being wrong-headed on the basis that as the only nationally elected official in the association the President was exactly the man to take a position on a subject. Looking at Christy Cooney, it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for . . .’ )
Christy Cooney has decided technology is not the way to go. Why? There are myriad reasons such as the difficulty of deciding what should be subject to review or preserving the authority of referees, which are fair enough. But two comments really stick out. The first is that “our games are built on passion. Our games are about the continuous flow of the game. The last thing I want is a lot of stoppages. It doesn’t do anything to help us.” Putt ing aside the implication that a game like rugby lacks passion, why should this be a reason for not having video refs? When infuriated Louth fans spilled on to the pitch after the Leinster final they were certainly not lacking in passion, but this was clearly the bad type of passion which had to be eliminated at all costs. Then there is his observation that “in sport, you are lucky some days, unlucky on other days.” Imagine if Cork had experienced the same scenario as Louth did that day. The Cork man would ultimately shrug his shoulders. If it only happens to you once you’ll have 99 other chances soon enough. The same could not be said of the Louth man, who at the current rate will have to wait 5,940 years to get their 99 chances.
Video referees are inevitable at this stage – they’ve probably been inevitable for a lot longer than this, since the days when Hawkeye first showed a bale being nudged off the leg stump on live television, but it took England’s experience in the World Cup to make me see it. How long will it take the GAA top brass? When you’re lagging behind Sepp ‘tighter shorts’ Blatter in the innovation stakes, something is wrong.
One of the significant events of my recent holidays was a trip to the Venue of Bellends . . . sorry, Legends that is Wembley Stadium. I’ve been to a few sporting arenas in my time now – the Nou Camp, Stamford Bridge, Goodison Park, the Millennium Stadium (photos sadly lost to the mists of time and a dodgy hard drive), the Reebok Stadium (?), Pride Park (!), and obviously Anfield and Croke Park.
Going to Wembley has reinforced a long held opinion of mine about sports stadiums. There is nothing inherently special about any of them. It was a splendid occasion, going to Wembley, but this was almost entirely because of the delight felt by my wife at finally seeing England play where they had won the World Cup all those centuries ago. Ultimately it was a big box with seats in it, albeit a state-of-the-art one in the case of Wembley.
Yes, they’ve all got a special charge to the people who frequent them regularly, and I always get a thrill of anticipation when arriving on Walton Breck or Jones’ Road. But that comes from the heart, not from anything that is bound up in the bricks and mortar. When I pointed out to a tour guide at Anfield that with all the times the turf at the ground has been replaced the ashes of those who had been scattered there were long gone, he sagely observed that people who had been buried at sea hardly expected to go to the exact location to locate the remains (wonder whether he is so candid with the loved ones who ask the same question).
Some people seem to collect sports grounds like stamps or fine wines, which is fine in so far as any hobby has an element of obsessive compulsiveness to it (bit like writing a blog that no one reads). But they seem to miss the point of these venues. They are special to the fans because of the history. To the occasional / once-off visitor, it’s just some place to watch the match.
As alluded to previously, we ‘ll be jaunting our way through the highways and byways of Britain for the next two weeks and won’t be going to the Limerick match. For those of you surfing on by looking for a slice of that Come on the Déise insight into clashes with the Shannonsiders, fear not: refresh your spirits with this account of one of the greatest hurling matches ever, certainly the best I’ve had the privilege of witnessing. Hopefully though it’ll be a bit less head-wrecking than that one and more like this. With me being in Blighty, the omens are good.
*shuffles shamefacedly away*