28 March 2016
My sister telephoned me just as the Germany – England match was kicking off. It’s a couple of months since we last spoke, so she wanted a comprehensive catch-up. Good timing.
No seriously, good timing. She knows I have trouble getting fully engaged in an England friendly, especially one immediately prior to a big tournament, and will welcome almost any distraction, even an exchange of scan results, details of her pet dog’s worming, and the full S.P. on her grandchildren’s latest achievements.
Pretty well any diversion will do when England line up for a pre-tournament kickabout; in the past, I’ve tidied out the sock drawer, catalogued my collection of self-tapping screws, rearranged my CDs – already ordered alphabetically after the last England friendly – into categories such as soul, funk, country, earnest young men staring at their shoes, ’80s Australasians without mullets (just the one), and so on.
For those of us who take a glass-half-empty position when it comes to England – basically anybody who has followed them in any tournament since 1966 – the friendlies, and to an extent the qualifiers, are a lose-lose.
If we win well and look like a proper team with real prospects, experience tells us the national team is just messing with our heads, setting us up for a summer of disappointment.
If we lose and look pretty hopeless, the manager will encourage us to “take the positives out of it,” just like we did under Sven, Fabio, Steve, Kev, Graham, El Tel, Bobby (I think that’s everybody), and indeed Roy, before the last World Cup. But why? For 50 years those positives have turned into negatives as soon as the flags have been hoisted, the TV schedules cleared, and the beers got in.
A tidy sock drawer and an instantly accessible Blonde On Blonde are the only positives I can remember.
My gimlet-eyed cynicism was reinforced on Saturday night by ITV’s punditry team of Ian Wright, Lee Dixon, and former German midfielder Lothar Matthäus in the build-up, contrasting England’s smooth passage to the Euros with Germany’s less impressive qualifying campaign. All agreed that whereas England often look good in rehearsals, we are prone to fluff our lines on the big stage, whereas Germany are “a tournament team.”
They kept using the phrase even in discussing England’s remarkable last ditch victory – in fact, presenter Mark Pougatch reminded Matthäus of it when the German seemed to go slightly over the top in comparing his national team unfavourably with ours. And yet, and yet, we did look pretty good.
I was only giving the match around 40 per cent of my attention, while making sympathetic noises about my sister’s dog. (Apparently, you can spot when an animal is afflicted when it takes to shuffling across the carpet on its rear end. It’s called bottom scooting, which I thought was something in the Winter Olympics). But our second-half performance did lift the spirits, of all but our ill-starred goalie Jack Butland, who commentator Clive Tyldesley described as “Heartbroken, literally heartbroken.”
I should have thought a commentator of Clive’s experience would at some time in his distinguished career have come across Kelner’s ‘Rule of Literally,’ which is that the word should never ever, in any circumstances, be used in commentary. Rarely is anything literal in a sports fixture. Teams are never ‘literally drinking in the last chance saloon,’ Joey Barton has never ‘literally exploded in the referee’s face,’ and unless Butland’s injury spread quite rapidly from his ankle, I doubt his heart was ‘literally’ broken.
I also doubt George Graham literally managed Arsenal in the way described by Paul Merson on a programme called Sporting Triumphs on Sky Sports. When Graham took over at Arsenal in the ’80s, according to Merson, he cleared out seasoned pros like Charlie Nicholas and Graham Rix in favour of youngsters like Merson.
“They’d be going out all the time, doing what they wanted,” said Merson, “They were big voices in the dressing room. George didn’t want that. He wanted people he could manage with an iron bar really.”
I wasn’t there but I’m thinking an iron fist in a velvet glove is more likely, and given Graham’s reputation the velvet, I suspect, might have been fairly threadbare. Manage with an iron bar, and you would quite literally be breaking hearts and ankles.
Finally, I find I have little space left to discuss yesterday’s boat race. The event is usually characterised, not least by me, as an afternoon down on the river for young poshos, with not enough emphasis on the tough physical challenge of the race and the punishing training regime the young rowers endure.
I would love to redress the balance here, but instead I found myself irresistibly drawn to the names of the three interviewees from the victorious Oxford University Women’s Boat Club, all beautifully spoken with the unmistakeable vowel sounds of the Clapham wine bar. They were Morgan Baynham-Williams, Maddy Badcott, and Anastasia Chitty, who I’m sure Bertie Wooster got engaged to in one of the Jeeves novels.
Screen Break ran in The Guardian for 16 years, and then in the Racing Post. The first two episodes in its current incarnation can be found here, and here. Week three, now better know as ‘The Screen Break that cost Steve McClaren his job’, can be found here. Week four featured the wacky world of Jonny Wilkinson. Week five came with a money-back guarantee on laughs. (It was so funny that nobody at all asked for their money back). Also well worth a read is the most amusing ‘My celebrity death match‘. This piece is also a MUST READ. And so is this one.
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