Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Romania '93 comes back to haunt

I woke up in a good mood this morning. But it didn't take long to change. I read something that mentioned Wales final match in the Qualifiers for The World Cup in USA 1994.

In the book I'm reading, Tom Humphries of The Irish Times is watching the Republic get the point they needed at Windsor Road in 1993. During that game he hears that "Wales go a goal down, but now they are clawing for air".

The Romania game that he refers to sits lodged in my memory as a traumatic experience which waits to sneak out and smother the few fond memories of my football-watching career.

There have been other disappointments. Lots of them. But for many reasons, that Romania defeat remains the most painful. Probably because it came at a time when I was investing so much of my life in football, but also because of the huge pre-game optimism (remember the Echo's Countdown?"), the swell of public support, the missed penalty, and then finally the tragic death in the stadium which caused me to re-assess my priorities. I was never the same after that match.

I had been gutted before then of course. Joe Jordan and Rudi Glockner have a special place waiting for them in Hell. And I have since become used to defeat, like everyone else who follows Wales. When we lost to Russia in the 2003 play-offs, I was more reflective. This is what I wrote to the WalesAway Mailing List on the morning after the game;

One of the most difficult things about nights like last night, is that it
can often seem like nobody cares as much as you do. It had been one of the best
pre-matches that I can remember. It felt like my life was flashing before me as
I saw face after face of people I know who had been through all of the
disappointments since 1976.

In my block there were people who laughed, people who left with 10 minutes
to go, and people who had quite apparently gone as a "fab midweek jolly", (and I
quote that word for word). I was determined not to be as affected as I was in
'93, but nonetheless felt unable to move on the final whistle, and struggled to
take it all in. We are like the classic gambling addict who is convinced that it
must be red this time, because black has come up 7 times in a row. The casinos
all know that it's still a 50/50 chance.

As I sat there, the stand emptied around me and eventually I made a move to
take my flag down from the railings. I turned round and sitting in the empty
stand 20 rows back I saw a face I recognised. It was a girl that I had met
briefly in Moscow after the first leg, and she was sobbing. Those of you who travel away regularly will recognise the need to share these experiences with somebody who understands. We embraced, and without wanting to get too sentimental - it was

We walked together from the stadium in silence. We had a few more tears on
the ramp down to Westgate Street, and I asked her how old she was. She's 23. I
told her patronisingly that she had plenty more nights like this in front of
her, that our day would come, and that it would be all the sweeter for
disappointments like these. "No", she said, "THIS was our day. This was it".

I couldn't argue with that. I don't know her name, but she's a
friend for life because of what happened last night, and if we can take anything
from days like this, it's that sort of companionship and bonding experience.I
know some of you will read that and think that I'm a sentimental twat.You're
probably right, but the past 28 years have been difficult, even for someone like
me who hasn't invested nearly as much as the regularly away supporters. You need
to get something back, and that is the realisation that comradeship is worth
more than football.

OK, a lot of that gush can be put down to post-match blues, but it shows a changed attitude. Gone was the fierce anger, the sense of injustice that followed the Romania game ten years earlier. It had been replaced by a dull defeatism, a complete and utter resignation that Wales will never qualify for a Tournament.

That's what it does to you. Game after game. Scotland '77, Iceland 81', Scotland 85', West Germany 91', Romania 93', Russia 03. If we had won any one of those games, we would have qualified. Six Cup Finals. Didn't win one. Yet we were outplayed only once -Nuremberg in 1991. The rest could have gone either way. We just didn't have the rub of the green.

There - good mood gone. Yours too I expect. Note to journalists - don't mention Romania again. It sets of a chain of thought which ruins our day.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Livsy's Plan for Welsh Football

I picked up this post from the Bangor City Citizen's Choice forum .It contains my old mate Livsy's ideas to improve the Welsh Premier League. Now Livsy has been travelling around following Bangor for the past 20 years, the last twelve of which have been played in the Welsh Pyramid. He knows his stuff. So here is the blueprint:

  • winter football
  • 10 team premiership
  • £300K "grant" to each of those ten clubs.
  • no promotion or relegation for three seasons to ensure a bit of continuity
  • all teams play each other four times so giving 36 league games
  • league cup includes the two feeder leagues and Premier clubs come in at third round
  • regular audits of all teams accounts to ensure no one is going bust
  • clubs limited to a squad of 26 players enabling all clubs to have a fair chance at getting decent players
  • no transfer window for Welsh Premier
  • Welsh Premier club to get an allocation for each Wales international (like what they do in Rugby) to enable us fans to more easily get tickets and this to be based on 20% of average home attendance
  • all clubs to agree admission charge at the beginning of the three year period and fix prices accordingly.

I can't argue too much with any of that, but there are some interesting points raised.

Winter Football - I'm 50/50 on this one. Sometimes when we have a lovely day in May and the coats are off, the kids are playing while we sun ourselves on the terraces, I think that Summer football can't come quickly enough. And there would be undoubted benefits for those who struggle in European football played in June. But there would be ramifications further down the pyramid, and after a World Cup, I've had a gutsfull of football quite frankly.

10 Team Premiership
This makes me very uneasy. I'm a bit of a fascist when it comes to my own ideas about the ideal make-up of the Welsh Premier. I see Livsy's point, in that money would be spread around some elite teams. And those teams would qualify regularly for Europe, and hopefully succeeding, raising our co-efficient and so giving us a bit of an easier ride in the early rounds against lesser teams. I'd like to see the following teams make up the League, but I would rather that it was done through evolution than cherry picking the towns with the highest populations.

Aberystwyth, Bangor City, Barry Town, Bridgend Town, AFC Cardiff, Haverfordwest, Llanelli, Merthyr, Newport, Newtown, Pontypridd Town, Port Talbot United, Rhyl,
AFC Swansea.

14 teams, and unfairly no place for Caersws, or TNS. I'm just not sure that we can support that little triangle of teams in such a sparsely populated area. Merthyr and Newport should come into the Welsh Premiership - there's no doubting that in my mind. But they would disagree strongly, and who can blame them ?

I would hope that Cardiff and Swansea could support a successful junior side, but it would have to be a new side with no existing loyalties. So out go West End and Grange Quins for example.

Apart from that, I agree with Livsy - spread the money around fewer clubs to improve facilities and play European games at home. Games might get a bit stale with no relegation, so I would allow relegation if the feeder team could offer a financial guarantee. And it would be a free-for-all after 3 seasons.

I agree with the ticket allocation. Rugby club members get ticket opportunities from the WRU. It should be the same for football. But don't forget that Cardiff etc. are all members of the FAW, and would expect the Lion's share of tickets.

All in all, a good plan. Livsy for President !

Friday, July 21, 2006

Floyd Landis - the New Maradona ?

Forgive me for straying off topic, but Floyd Landis' incredible performance in the Tour de France can't pass without comment.

On Wedenesday, Landis looked all set to win this year's tour, in the absence of the big hitters like Ullrich and Basso, who had been suspended due to their involvement in a major drugs investigation.

But Landis hit the wall spectacularly. He didn't eat enough, drink enough, or more likely, he suffered from heat stroke in the scorching Alps. He lost about 10 minutes on his rivals and finished a broken man. This has happened before, but rarely does it happen in such a drastic manner. Landis was written off, and odds of 40/1 were available about him recovering to win the Tour.

I can sympathise. I'm ginger , like Landis, and I too have suffered from heatstroke in the Alps. In 1998, I was at the summit of the Galibier when Marco Pantani came out of the mist on the crucial move of that year's tour. It wasn't even sunny at the top that day, but when I came down from that mountain, I couldn't move for the rest of the day, and I was bed-ridden the day after. Surely, there was no way that Landis could even ride his bike, let alone compete?

But ride he did. From nowhere, this old team -mate of Lance Armstrong produced the greatest recovery that the Tour de France has ever seen. He attacked on the first climb, a suicidal move on that mountain stage. There was no way he could stay out front on his own when being pursued by the combined teams of his challengers. Nothing like it had ever been seen.

I love pro cycling. It moves me like no other sport. Or rather, it used to. When my hero, Marco Pantani flew past me that day on the Galibier, I wept. This was one of the historic Tour moments. And I was there. It was the greatest mountain performance since the days of Bartoli, and Coppi.

Like this year's race, the start had been rocked by a drugs investigation that implicated some major riders. That was the year of the great Festina EPO scandal. Pantani's main rival, Richard Virenque had also wept, as he protested his innocence after his team's soigneur Willy Voigt had been found in a car full of needles and drugs. He later wept as he admitted his guilt. Surely, the rest of the riders were clean under that sort of scrutiny?

Unfortunately not. Pantani was also later found out. He failed EPO tests in the late nineties, and I felt cheated. I had invested emotionally and felt like a complete mug. How could I trust professional cycling after that ? Pantani died last year in drug-riddled desolation. Several young riders have died with unexplained heart conditions in recent years, but still it goes on. It is now hard to watch this amazing race without some cynycism. Can you believe that what you are seeing is the result of bravery, training and honest endeavour?

Lance Armstrong dominated the race after Pantani's demise. Armstrong had suffered from cancer, so surely he would avoid drugs ? Not according to Emma O'Reilly a soigneur with Armstrong's US Postal Squad. She claimed that Armstrong had asked her to dispose of bags full of needles after one Tour.

In a seperate incident, other witnesses have also claimed that Armstrong admitted to drug use. The French newspaper, L'Equipe, claims that Armstrong would have failed a drugs test during the 1999 tour after his urine was tested using new methods in 2004.

Until recently, Landis was a loyal domestique to Armstrong in the Discovery team. His Tour finishes were mediocre and he felt that he needed to move out of Armstrong's shadow. He joined Phonak as a team leader and finished 9th last year.

He took charge of this year's race with a strong performance in the Time Trial. Until Wednesday, he seemed sure to win. But then came the big hammer, and he disappeared down the ranking to 11th.

His comeback yesterday was extraordinary. Really extraordinary. Almost unbelievable.

And when he finished after that superhuman effort, did he flop over the line? Did he collapse with exhaustion like so many great climbers before him ? Not this hero. He clenched a fist and bounced around aggressively in a manner not dissimilar to Diego Maradona, celebrating his goal for Argentina in the 1994 World Cup Finals.

These people. Where do they get the energy from ?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

TNS 0-1 MyPa

Farewell then, The New Saints. Is it worth it ? Is it worth maintaining a full-time squad, to walk the Welsh Premiership, only to play like the rest of them when it counts?

TNS were pretty bad last night. Ken McKenna said that it was pre-season, and that they played like it was a pre-season game.

"I'm paid to manage, not to get involved in politics, but if the FAW want
to give Welsh Premier teams a chance in Europe, they have got to look at
changing the season, otherwise it's just a waste of time."

That's been a common complaint from the defeated Welsh teams. Change the season and all will be well. They have a point, but the reality is that our standard of football is just not good enough to compete against teams packed with international players. That's no criticism. That's just the way it is.

UEFA don't help. The stringent ground requirements meant that both TNS and Carmarthen have to play European games at Newtown, and Llanelli will take over Stradey Park for an evening. It doesn't make much sense. I've been to Newtown, and as nice as it is, the surface and facilities are no better than Stebonheath Park.

Still, Leighton James lightened the mood last night, when he mistakenly referred to the team as "All Saints". And a glum looking Mike Harris still wears awful shirts.

Before the game Harris had criticised his team, saying that he'd be angry not to beat such a poor side. McKenna had stepped in with a more respectful appraisal of their opponents. Now that they're out, without putting up much of a fight, will Mike Harris change his assessment, or will he change his manager?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Koumas Tug-of-War

I've got a soft spot for Bryan Robson - Hackney Marshes. Boom boom!

No, seriously, I don't like him. He wasn't the first manager to mistrust Robert Earnshaw, but I think that he resented the Zambian imp more than most. There were times when his treatment of Earnshaw went beyond perverse. When West Brom couldn't score, which was quite often, Earnie would stay on the bench as erm... Geoff Horsfield took the field. That says a lot about Robson's mentality - Horsfield over Earnshaw.

And now we have the Jason Koumas affair. It goes like this.

Koumas is a very talented player, but he has some issues. He's great at Championship level, but hasn't quite cut it in the Premiership. It seems that our Jase is happier standing out amongst journeymen, than he is testing himself against the best. This was signposted earlier on in his career when he turned down Everton to stay with Tranmere.

Robson dropped him. He would have dropped him at some point anyway because he didn't suit Albion's tactics which were to pack everyone behind the ball and hope that one of those fancy dan forwards people would do their stuff. On their own.

So Koumas went to Cardiff on loan. Unfortunately, the Welsh club were already 30 million pounds in debt and were in the middle of stringent cutbacks on the playing staff. A year or two earlier and they might have paid 5 million for him.

Koumas enjoyed his time at Cardiff. He was given the freedom of the pitch and was probably worth 10-15 points to the team over the course of the season. Any club in the Championship would have wanted him, and plenty tried to buy him. But he liked Cardiff and it seemed that a permanent deal was on the cards. West Brom quoted a fee £1.5 million with an extra £500k in add-ons.

But Cardiff no longer had £2 million to spend. Their plans for a new stadium still haven't been approved. They are at the end of a long financial process and need to demonstrate to the auditors that they will not overspend on players, because there's a shopping mall to be built.

It seems that they have offered West Brom a million up front with another £500k based on appearances (the number of appearances remains suspiciously secret). The remaining £500k is triggered by Cardiff reaching the playoffs.

West Brom unsurprisingly rejected this offer. I suppose that when you set a price of £1.5 million and then someone offers you less, it's up to you if you want to reject it. It seems that they have no faith that Cardiff will reach the playoffs, and who can blame them ?. And remember, this is the club that immediately dropped midfield regular Gareth Whalley when he was one game away from triggering his bonus payment.

But Koumas threw his teddy down and skipped training in a major sulk. West Brom fined him. And will keep fining him for every day he turns up. They called Koumas "unprofessional" which is unarguable.

Cardiff sulked as well, and released one of their famously bizarre statements on their official website, which included the following sentence.

"Cardif City have done the impossible to get Jason"

They went on to criticise Albions's stance:

'So WBA have no real offer from anyone. They turn down a lot of money to sell
for what they asked for but on different payment terms. They turn down a lot of
money to loan. A player's livelihood and career may be ruined. Where is the
logic in that?'
Hmmm. £30 million in debt. Peter Ridsdale in charge, and they are questioning the financial acument of other clubs ? A club who sold Earnshaw, Kavanagh, Collins and Gabbidon for peanuts, whose Chairman once predicted that West Brom would become their feeder club?
I suspect that the Baggies can live without their advice.

West Brom countered with this statement on
'We quite properly expect Jason to meet the obligations of his contract, for
which he is handsomely paid."
Too right. Wales expect him to turn up regularly too, but he doesn't. Not if his cat is feeling under the weather, or he has some ironing to do.

Whisper it, but there are a few Cardiff fans who wouldn't be too disappointed if the deal falls through. Would they get another season out of him were he not on loan ? How long before he starts abusing his Cardiff contract like he is doing at West Brom ? How long can his pets stay illness free ?

I suspect that a deal will be struck before the deadline. But for now, the name-calling and strop-throwing is a mild entertainment to fill the columns before the season begins.

Meanwhile, South Wales Echo's Chief Sports Reporter Terry Phillips is in North America, writing a tour diary.

"The Bluebirds media officer was in the pool early this morning. I went to
the gym. Jamal Easter missed the bus and we all a laughed. I met a bloke who
knew Robin Friday. "
Poor old Terry. What wouldn't he give to be covering the Koumas affair ?"

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Football and the Environment

In the macho world of football, talking about the environment will have you bracketed in the same "must be a queer" pigeon-hole as Guardian-reading Graeme Le Saux. Mention global warming, and Robbie Fowler will be there wiggling his ass at you before your manager takes you aside and asks you to try and fit in with the lads a bit more.

But it's a serious issue. It's the most serious threat facing the planet over the next century or two, and as much as football will protest otherwise, football is part of that World. As a major employer, wealth-generator and socio-cultural focal point for communities across the World, it has a crucial role to play in the race to educate and reform. But for now, football is ignoring its responsibilities while the going is good, and as a result, one day there will be no football.

Stadium building is very popular at the moment. The thinking goes that there is no future without a new stadium. Shiny seats attract shiny people and money and success.
Yippee !! Everyone's a winner.

The stadiums are being built for the present. Motorway access and massive car parks are essential. Bike racks and train access not so. Cardiff City's proposed Stadium will sit next to the A4232, an already-busy feeder for the M4. The nearest train station is reasonably close, at Ninian Park, but that's a matter of luck. Cycle access is treacherous, and even if you could get there, there will be no facilities. No bike racks, no lock ups.

Worst of all, the new Stadium, like many others, is dependent on the building of a shopping mall within its boundaries. Another out-of-town shopping mall, another attack on car free shopping. Another nail in the coffin of the independent butchers and grocers that once lined Cowbridge Road, within walking distance of the terraced streets of Canton.

But it would be wrong to identify Cardiff City as being of touch with the rest of football. The whole sport is dependent on four wheeled transport. Cars are status symbols for the players, and the more petrol they guzzle, the higher their status. As a football person, mention your environmental concerns and be treated as a pariah.

Bangor City recently made a proposal to build a new stadium on the banks of the Menai Straits, an area of outstanding beauty and an important habitat for various wildlife. An objecting committee was formed by the residents of Beaumaris across the water and the argument was polarised between those on the wealthy side of the Straits, many of whom would be English settlers looking to enjoy their retirement in bucolic surroundings, and those from the City; local people who needed to work and live here and who saw the building of a new stadium as a progressive step. Why should they be denied facilities to pander to the picture postcard view of Wales held by the privileged? They had a valid point.

As a football fan with environmental concerns, I was in a minority. As far as I am aware, the only one. If you liked football, you wanted the new stadium. How could it be otherwise? As an incomer myself, I didn't feel that it was my argument. I learned to keep my concerns to myself and hoped that the NIMBYs won the day. Which they did, thankfully.

Football eats up resources with a voracious appetite. Floodlights burn into the night, Giant screens and electric scoreboards adorn the grounds where thousands and thousands of people have driven to watch a match. How many coffee beakers come from recycled material? How many cans are collected and recycled at the end of a match ? Cardiff City are currently on tour in North America. Next year, they will go to China for pre-season. How many trees will they plant as environmental compensation for the pollution that they create on these journeys ?

When the FA Cup Final was moved to Cardiff, all that you read about for weeks afterwards were the tiresome complaints from London journalists that it took them a long time to get home. But this was more of a comment on our national transport habits than a problem peculiar to South Wales. Wembley was never an easy trip for any team outside London.

Whereas we used to take thousands away on a football special, it is not uncommon for 50 or more coaches to leave in convoy for a big match.Where are the football specials? The ticket and train packages that would ensure some relief for the roads ? Instead, there will be possibly be railway engineering works on a football weekend, and restrictive timetables often mean that taking the train home is an impossibility.

By now, you are either nodding, or more likely, you are considering clicking on the small x in the top right corner. But think about it. How long can football carry on like this as the World's resources are depleted, and the hole in the Ozone layer is damaged beyond recovery ?

Within the next hundred years, people will start to pay for our blind profligacy. Radical cutbacks will be made in a final effort to prevent disaster. Unessential travel will be one of the first things to go.

Every Saturday, the M6 is clogged with fans travelling across the country to watch their teams. One of the reasons in the explosion of support which follows our National team across Europe is the availability of cheap air travel. This is unsustainable. At some point, away support will be banned as a necessary environmental cutback.

I believe that Leagues will initially regionalise to reduce travel before the eventual cull. Oil shortages will raise the cost of petrol until it is available only to the rich. Maybe governments will go back to the trains and build transport infastructures which work. But I doubt it.

For now, we will carry on. While £30 air fares to Prague are available, we will snap them up. While petrol is still only £1 a litre, we will drive 700 miles in a day to watch our team in the Leyland Daf Auto Windscreens Shield. We can't stop. It's up to the Government to force change, but while popular support is still behind the car, and the clamour for new out-of-town stadiums continues, football will continue to close its eyes to the responsibilities that should be met sooner rather than later.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Paul Anderson - the new Leyton Maxwell ?

A friend of mine is a Liverpool fan. When he heard the result from Wrexham, he raised a clenched fist and hissed triumphantly "Yes, 2-0 - Bell-a-my".

It was a friendly. Lard-arsed players, not long from the beaches of Barbados, strolling reluctantly around the Racecourse in front of a thousand Wrexham diehards, outnumbered by ten thousand shirt-wearing families, taking on the opportunity to introduce the kids to The Mighty Reds off the telly. Welsh kids, many from Wrexham, wearing the Liver Bird.

Of course, they loved it. Children are easily fooled. They will ask anybody wearing a Carlsberg logo to sign anything. How many will have gone home clutching the prized autograph of Paul Anderson, the other Liverpool goalscorer? How many friendly match programmes from years past sit unloved in boxes, bearing the autographs of young hopefuls, first year pros with starry eyes ? How many children have been blessed with the autograph of Leyton Maxwell, who was making his debut for Caernarfon on Saturday, while Anderson was playing the biggest match of his life ?

Leyton Maxwell was a trainee with Liverpool for years before signing as a professional in 1999. He became a regular in the reserve team, keeping Steven Gerrard out of the side on occasions. He was a Wales Under 21 international and his bright future was seemingly confirmed when as a 19 year old, he scored in front of the Kop on his first team debut, a League Cup match against Hull City, Anderson's former team.

But that was to be his final appearance for Liverpool, and he was sent out on loan to Stockport County for a full season in 2000/01. His rejection by Liverpool hit hard and Maxwell only started 8 times at a level where he might have been expected to flourish.

On he went, to Cardiff. But despite a few promising games, he struggled to make the first team and was offered to Swansea on a free, where he made three appearances on a non-contract basis. Since leaving Liverpool, he has been on more trials than Saddam Hussein, including time spent at Newport, Barry, Mansfield, St Johnstone and Chester City.

By 2005, Maxwell was at Carmarthen Town, and he scored a superb goal at Farrar Road to help his side beat Bangor City 1-0. Bangor were so impressed that they signed him. Reputed to be a winger at Liverpool, he has morphed into a busy-looking midfielder, reminiscent of Archie Gemmill, or Arfon Griffiths. He has had a decent season. At this level, he can dominate when he fancies it, but understandably he can also seem disinterested, disillusioned with the game. His fitness levels have suffered since he moved out of the pro game, but nobody doubts that he has ability.

Caernarfon Town are the latest club to take a punt on a player whose list of clubs reads like the CV of a 40-year old, but who is actually still only 26. While Paul Anderson became the latest young winger to shine for a Liverpool second string, Leyton Maxwell was playing in a side that lost 2-4 at home to Prescot Cables.

Is there a lesson to be learned? Would Leyton Maxwell, born in St Asaph, still be playing professionally if he had started his career with Wrexham? English Premier clubs now discard young talent by the bucketful and fill their teams with expensive imports. Maxwell might have made the Wrexham first team and stayed there.

Liverpool are like a spoilt child. They can afford to buy a whole packet of Revels in the knowledge that they can discard the orange and coffee ones, in the happy knowledge that a raisin will soon arrive. And there are plenty more packets where that came from. Wrexham buy Buttons and try to make them into Minstrels.

It's a difficult decision to make for a Father with a talented son. If Liverpool, or Man Utd come knocking for your 12-year old, what do you do ? Can you turn them down, and explain to your boy that Wrexham might be the better option in the long term ? How do you tell him that Wrexham have a fine record in player development and that his chances at Old Trafford will be miniscule. Maybe you could send him to Carmarthen to meet their young captain Rhodri Jones, who was a star of United's academy before being released five years ago.

So what about Paul Anderson, signed from Hull's Youth team? Will he go on to be a star in the game, or will he be the new Mark Kennedy, a young winger plucked from stardom at Millwall and cruelly abandoned into the obscurity of Liverpool's Stiffs.

Right now, Anderson is sure that he made the right decision. But so was Leyton Maxwell, that night in 1999 when he saluted the Kop. And so was Mark Kennedy when he posed for photographs in his new Liverpool shirt. How long before Anderson joins Kennedy and Maxwell at Disillusioned FC?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Let the People Sing

Who started it ? Who was the bright-eyed besuited pencil-chewing genius who decided, that what would be good, that what we really wanted, after a thrilling Cup Final win, is a 7,000 decibel broadcast of "We are the Champions"?

I'd like to meet him. I bet he likes ice hockey. I bet that he was inspired by a trip to America. I bet he doesn't really get football. I'd like to explain things to him.

I would tell him, that for a lot of people, the fans are just as important as what is happening , on the pitch. The various types of fan express this in different ways. The quasi-hoolie will look straight for the away support as soon as he enters the ground. He doesn't check whether the length of the grass will suit his team's passing style, he just wants to know how many boys they have brought ? (The real hoolie will already know this by calling his spotters at the station.)

For away fans, it's a case of chanting louder and more frequently than the home support. Just read the internet fan reports. "It was a great atmosphere and we outsung them throughout."
Most people will cite "atmosphere" as one of the great things about watching professional football with big crowds. The new brand of Tannoy DJ is ruining the very atmosphere that makes football what it is.

I remember my first ever away game at Crystal Palace in 1976. I remember it vividly. I know now that Cardiff won 1-0 with an Adrian Alston goal to help the 3rd Division Promotion push, but that's not what sticks in my mind. What has never left me is the sight of 2,000 blue and white scarves twirling in the away end as I looked on from amongst the Selhurst Park Grandstand.

The pencil-chewing git should have been in Moscow, 2003. Wales had earned a 0-0 draw, which was a better result than anyone had hoped for. The game itself was pretty drab, but you should have heard us sing Hey Jude. Long after the players had left the field, we stood there and sang constantly to the utter bemusement of the locals. They had been pretty aggressive throughout the game, but suddenly and spontaneously they began applauding us from all four corners of the ground. It was an life-affirming moment that will live long in the memory.

The lead gnarler would have it otherwise. He would have drowned out our singing and celebrations with booming music of his own choice. Tina Turner maybe, but probably Queen.

It's beyond a cliche now, it's tedious. I happen to follow a team that rarely wins things. But when it does, I like to think that we know what to do. Nobody needs to tell us. There is only one song that everybody wants to hear at the end of a hard won victory. It goes like this: Are you ready?
Arms spread wide and look to the heavens with a tear in your eye and a croak in the voice:

"And it's **********, ******** FC,
We're the greatest team in football
The World has ever seen." *

That's it . Says it all. And with it's singing, we become part of the victory. We've done our bit and we rightly share in the moment in the only way we know how.

Alternatively, we may choose to goad. Perhaps we'd like to serenade our opponents with "You'll Never win F*** All." Maybe threaten them with "You'll Never Make the Station". Is this what they're trying to stop by blaring their happy-clappy Euro-pop?

A few years ago, my team won a play-off Final. On the final whistle, so began a selection of football tunes that played like a K-Tel Compilation. My enduring memory of what should have been a cumulative and emotional victory salute, was the sight of thousands of beery men wobbling their arses and twisting away to the tune of "Hey Baby!"

The Germans played "You'll Never Walk Alone" as they went out of the World Cup. Have they no dignity ? As Robeson said, "Let the People Sing".
Stop the music. Now.

(* I know that your lot probably sings "By Far the Greatest Team", but for some reason, Cardiff City like to emphasise that we make no claims on being the greatest team in lacrosse, hurling, or baseball. Just football.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Another good night in Europe

Report from

LLANELLI celebrated their first-ever appearance in Europe with a superb
2-1 away win at Gefle IF.Two late away goals from Rhys Griffiths and sub Jacob
Mingorance gave the Reds a great chance of progressing to the second round at
the expense of the Swedes.

In the night's other Uefa Cup tie, Rhyl were held 0-0 at their Belle Vue home by Lithuanian outfit Suduva.


I like Llanelli. Good ambitious club, with an excellent stadium. They've also got a bit of spike to them and I've had a few heated exchanges down there over the years. I remember John Lewis's team kicking lumps out of Cardiff's Youth, and City coach George Wood squaring up to a mob of local Jacks as he got on the coach after the game. A few years later I witnessed the Llanelli bench remonstrating with the visiting Bangor fans. This also nearly came to blows.

They have trouble at Llanelli, having to compete for sponsorship with the dominant Scarlets. This left Chairman Robert Jones to struggle on his own until the club was taken over by JESCO Group a few years ago.

JESCO had lofty aims for the West Walians and cited their ambition to turn professional. But best of all, they brought in some blokes with foreign names. Plenty of column inches and Spain-related headines for the Welsh media, even if the new signings didn't waltz away with the league as some of us had predicted.

But they qualified for Europe last season and last night, they came away with the Welsh Premier's best European result since Barry Town beat FC Porto. Ymlaen !

Rhyl also had a respectal result, but would have been hoping for better. It seems to me that Rhyl's star is on the wane, and they will struggle to reach the standards they set for themselves a few seasons ago. I'm not so keen on the Lilywhites, since I saw their whole boardroom invade the pitch and hassle a referee at the end of a game at Newtown before their disgruntled team set about dismantling their changing room. The ref needed an escort out of the ground as they were still waiting for him half an hour after the whistle.
Still, a 0-0 draw is no disaster and it is not unfeasible that they can score away and progress.

These results are an indicator of the progression of the Welsh Premier, on the field. Gone are the days of Ton Pentre spending their qualification money on a mound of pasties for visiting players, and it seems that TNS, Rhyl and Llanelli have prepared properly for these tricky Summer starts.

A couple of years ago, Bangor City arranged friendlies against Ragged Arse Rovers and the Dog and Duck to prepare for their European games. I mentioned this unhappy situation on a forum once, and it winged its way to Peter Davenport, then Bangor manager. "Dav" kindly took the time out to send me a thunderbolt across cyberspace pointing out the difficulties of arranging matches at this time of year, and bemoaning his lot at the helm of the Citizens.

It is rumoured (apocryphally surely ?) that Dav likes to present himself with a firm handshake and a brief introduction : "Peter Davenport, Nottingham Forest, Manchester United, and England." Well, now he can add Colwyn Bay to that list, and wonder quietly at night what might have happened at Bangor with the same preparation that Rhyl, TNS and Llanelli have made for their European forays.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The New Saints

Last night, TNS achieved their best-ever away result in Europe as they were beaten 1-0 by MyPa-47 in Finland .The Saints were unable to steal a crucial away goal
but the tie is still very much alive for next Wednesday's second leg at
Newtown's Latham Park.

The New Saints. T.N.S. ...The... New... Saints. Geddit ?

Now I've got a lot of time for Mike Harris, the TNS Puppeteer. He has long been a lone progressive voice amongst the conservative Chairmen of the other Welsh Premier clubs. He tried to take them with him into a World of promotions, marketing, development, and profile-raising. It didn't work, so he has ploughed his own furrow.

There have been twin-club arrangements with Chelsea, contract offers to Paul Gascoine, Ian Rush and probably Maradona. When Liverpool won the Champions League but did not qualify for Europe, Mike Harris kindly offered them a play-off to take the Welsh place. TNS' European game against Man City was played at the Millennium Stadium, miles away from the club's home at Llansantffraid. TNS turned professional and now loom large over the Welsh Premier League.

In 1996, Llansantffraid shocked Welsh football with a stunning Welsh Cup win over Barry Town at the National Stadium. Not bad for a village side with a population of 246, including 3 cats and a parrot.

Mike Harris noted the publicity generated and in 1997 he offered a sponsorship deal which involved renaming the club as "Total Network Solutions", the name of his Oswestry-based company. There is a long history of naming football clubs after companies, such as PSV Eindhoven, and Airbus UK.

There was a campaign to get Welsh Premier results announced on British Television. When Jeff Stelling first cracked his joke about "dancing in the streets of TNS", Harris knew that his sponsorship gamble had paid off.

As his company grew, they attracted the interest of bigger players, and last year, they were bought out by BT, necessitating a name change. By now, TNS had merged with Oswestry (more of that later...) so Harris decided to auction the club's name, on Ebay of course. More fantastic publicity followed, though a winning bid seemingly arrived too late, as the auction ended amongst accusations of false bids and dodgy deals.

With no winner, they decided on The New Saints. I can hardly type it, it upsets me so much. I couldn't put my figure on it, but I think it's the "T" that does it. You can't capitalise "The". Is the British Broadcasting Corporation known as "TBBC" ?

Nonetheless, The New Saints are here for now, and they are flying the flag for Welsh football.
Except that they aren't...

I spoke to Mike Harris a few years ago and asked him about his pride in representing Wales abroad. "We don't represent Wales", he told me , "We represent Britain."

OK, Fair Enough. It's your ball. But then came the "merger" (read takeover) of Oswestry Town, an English club playing in the Welsh pyramid for historical reasons.

What are Harris's real intentions ? As a proud Britisher, could it be that he sees a backdoor into the English pyramid via Oswestry ? If so, why do it this way ? Why not buy Market Drayton Town and move up from the West Midlands Regional League Premier Division.

It doesn't make sense. Mike Harris has obviously enjoyed his time with TNS. It has served its purpose as a marketing tool, but he is still there, which contradicts those who accused him of being an opportunist with little interest in the game.

It remains to be seen what becomes of The New Saints, but I hope they do well. Where will they be in ten years ? Who knows, but I expect to see the re-formation of Oswestry and Llansantffraid under their original guises at some point.

Will the New Saints grow too big for Welsh football? I hope not. I hope that the rest of Welsh football can cath up, but it looks unlikely.

If we do lose Mike Harris to the English set up, then we have ourselves to blame. Here is a man with drive, commitment and imagination who could bring an upturn to the whole Welsh Premier. Give him the keys, I say, and let him drive.

One player, one club

There is a strange rule in Welsh football. It's called the "second forms rule". It basically means that a player can sign for two different clubs. If he hasn't got a game with his first club, he can turn out for his second choice.

It is supposed to help out players at bigger clubs who might not be getting a regular game. They can turn out for their local side when they are coming back from injury, or if they are just on the fringes of the squad.

All well and good you might say, but this creates problems lower down the league. A struggling side can suddenly benefit from an influx of high quality players at the end of the season and miraculously turn things around. Imagine Prescot Cables turning out Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen. That's the sort of effect that it has at our level.

Again, no real problem so far. But what about those players who have been turning up week and week out, even though they are regularly getting stuffed ? They are suddenly jettisoned in favour of star players whose season has finished in the higher tiers of the pyramid.

There are stories of promotions from the Mid Wales Leagues where a team is unbeaten in midweek, but struggles on a Saturday. This is because the midweek side is transformed by the appearance of top players from the Liverpool leagues.

My own club, Y Felinheli, is culpable, but the rule exists and it is perfectly fair. If we don't use it, we go down. Llanrwst United Reserves, who had been bottom of the League since August finished off the season with a double over Pwllheli, the runaway Champions. We went down anyway.

But thankfully this is all coming to an end. The Gwynedd, Caernarfon and Anglesey Leagues are all restricting players to one club this season, while the Welsh Premier, Cymru Alliance and Welsh Alliance have delayed its implementation until 2007/08.

Bluebirds try out Libyan skipper

Cardiff have given a trial to Libya captain and midfielder Tarek El Taib. If nothing else, this signing would give an opportunity to resurrect the popular 1980s chant: "Gadaffi, Gadaffi, Gadaffi is a Taffy."

The 29-year-old, who led his country at this year's Africa Nations Cup
joined Gaziantepspor for US$ 1.2 million in 2004, but has left the Turkish side.

This video clip shows him in action, though unfortunately, at no stage does he "do the Ayatollah". And I'm now sure how kindly he'd take to requests.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

John Aizlewood doesn't like Wales

Ien 1867 , the London Times editorial carried this message.

`The Welsh language is the curse of Wales. Its prevalence, and the ignorance of
English have excluded, and even now exclude the Welsh people from the
civilisation of their English neighbours. .... If it is desirable that the Welsh
should talk English, it is monstrous folly to encourage them in a loving
fondness for their old language. Not only the energy and power, but the
intelligence and music of Europe have come mainly from Teutonic sources, and
this glorification of everything Celtic, if it were not pedantry, would be sheer
ignorance. The sooner all Welsh specialities disappear from the face of the
earth the better.''

It is no surprise that the paper now offers a platform to a certain John Aizlewood. I came across his name some years ago, when I bought a book called "Playing at Home" . I've long since disposed of the book, but it's anti-Welsh tone still grates. Here's the synopsis from Amazon:

Between August 1997 and May 1998, John Aizlewood went to a football
match at every one of the 92 football league grounds in England. This book
describes the matches, the grounds, the people he met there, their relationship
to the clubs and the towns they come from.

Anyone notice anything strange about that introduction ? 92 league grounds in England? Are there really ? Aizlewood's book is peppered with derogatory comments about the Welsh, reserving a particular animosity for the Welsh language. His ignorance angered me, but I consoled myself in the knowledge that he was likely to disappear along with the other post-Gazza football arrivistes.

I started buying the Times recently, to replace my usual Observer. I was tired of Amy Lawrence's sycophantic Arsenal-groupy articles, and features on hot new florists in the West End. The Times had Glanville and McAlvenny and the peerless Paul Kimmage. I was astonished to find Aizlewood in such company, even though he is only usually asked to compile the funnies and top 10 lists.

But he was at it again recently, talking about the FA Cup in The Sunday Times :

"Perhaps the Millennium stadium, with its migraine-inducing loud sound
system, its vertigo-inducing stands and its suspicion-inducing Welshness, was
not the correct venue for the final of what the FA bellowed as the “world’s
greatest club tournament”.

Suspicion-inducing Welshness? Well my Welshness has induced a suspicion. It's induced a suspicion that John Aizlewood is a racist.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Hides and Rats invade BBC

Oliver Hides and Kevin Ratcliffe were left holding the fort when the BBC took 7,658 employees to cover the World Cup. Bizarrely, they were asked to front the 606 phone in on Five Live, discussing England's progress amongst other things. The BBC received this letter of complaint:

Dear Sir,
I am writing to complain about the disappointing quality of the BBC's 606 phone-in programme hosted by Oliver (Ollie) Hides on 30th June.

It was immediately apparent that Hides was presenting the programme from a neutral viewpoint. For God's sake, this is Britain. We are all British aren't we ? Hides appeared to be interested in the World Cup per se, whereas we all know that England's participance is the only point worthy of discussion.

Hides' disgraceful attitude was made worse by his apparent ignorance of football terminology. Does he not know that John Terry must be referred to as a "gladiator"? Is Frank Lampard not "due a goal" in his little Welsh World ? Does he not realise that Gary Neville has "grown in stature," and that Peter Crouch is "surprisingly good with his feet for a tall fella." He even spoke positively about Owen Hargreaves, who is surely the worst player ever to play for England.

But most disgustingly, there was not a single mention of 1966. If you must go abroad to get a radio host, make sure that it's someone who is happy with dual-nationality, like Green or Hansen. There's nothing worse than a petty jingoistic Taff.

Your Sincerely,
Dave Thurlow, Slough

Panini Shortage in Gwynedd

It's getting very difficult to find the Panini World Cup stickers in Gwynedd. Bangor has sold out completely, with Woolies in Caernarfon just about the only reliable supplier at the moment. There are rumours of a few boxes in Spar in Bethesda, but that can't be guaranteed.

Local shopowners tell me that the distributers are to blame. If they order 6 boxes, they only get 2. It's criminal, really it is.

I have even heard that some people are resorting to ordering stickers from the Panini website to complete their collection. Really, get a life. You might as well buy a picture book if you're going to do that.

And as for "Merlin's England" stickers, don't make me laugh. You can find them everywhere because nobody wants them. It was Merlin's deal with the English FA which has besmirched the Panini book, with superimposed pics of the England players and a St George's cross instead of the three lions. Disgusting.

What did Materazzi say ?

Let's be honest, we're all dying to know what he said. Well, so far there is only rumour and lipreading. But the claims have been getting steadily worse. Firstly, there was a general accusation of racism against the Italian. Remember that he has some previous:

"In a match between Messina and Inter in Sicily, Marc Zoro picked up the ball and walked off the pitch in protest at the monkey chants spewed at him by savage Inter fans. One team mate Materazzi shouted ’stop that, Zoro, you’re just trying to make a name for yourself’.” Zoro’s response, “I didn’t even argue with him, I’ve no intention of lowering myself to that level.” "

But it seemed unlikely that a whispered insult about your nationality, or even the accusation of being a "dirty terrorist", (which was L'Equipe's interpretation of the incident), would lead to that Billy Goat charge. The following seems much more likely.

According to French newspapers yesterday evening, Materazzi said "I hope Jean suffered". Jean Varraud was Zidane's first trainer and Zidane considered him his second father. He died from a long cancer battle just before the Spain game.

If that is true, then Zidane showed admirable restraint. What I can't understand is why he didn't give him a proper whack. If you're going to get sent off, you might as well give him a real dig instead of a playful nod in the plexus.

Fflint Scousers wind up United

Fflint V Cardiff City 1954 Word reaches me that there was some minor trouble at Fflint's friendly with FC United the other day. FC United are the team that were formed by Man Utd supporters in the wake of Glazier's takeover. They have such a large following that lots of clubs have been keen to arrange matches to boost income. The clamour for friendly fixtures has been so great that a reserve side has been formed especially to meet demand.

It seems that a number of antagonistic Scousers turned up chanting about Munich and things "got a bit heated" according to our correspondent.

I have to say that it doesn't surprise me. I've been on a train going through Fflint after an Everton home game. A group got off at Fflint that had been singing songs about Hillsborough and Heysel since they got on at Chester.

It's one of the things that has surprised me since my move up North. In South Wales, there are very few serious football fans who follow English clubs. Yes, there are dozens of coaches that go up the M6 every week, but these are day trippers, theatre-goers. They're not proper football people.

This isn't the case in North Wales. Football is more popular, and I would say that generally people are more knowledgeable about the game. But almost everybody follows a big Northern English club. Rabid Nationalists like Seimon Glyn see no hypocrisy in travelling to Man Utd instead of patronising a Welsh team.

The Fflint wannabes were probably not real Scousers. But they become honorary citizens of Liverpool when their teams play. They absorb the regional prejudices of their fellow supporters on the Gladys Road and become Scouse for a day. Their blood boils when the Mancs mock their "City of Culture", and they take this affrontery back home across the A55.

There is a sort of false rivalry created between fans of the English clubs which makes no sense. All this is bemusing for a Valleys boy, but it's been happening for a long time now, and I don't see anything changing unless Fflint Town United win the Champions League .

The image above shows a huge crowd at Fflint in 1954 for the visit of Cardiff City. If people stopped chasing the reflected glory of English teams, then maybe those crowds would be back.

Welsh Football Pub Quiz

I put this together recently for a quiz we had at our local club. Just identify the Welsh internationals numbered in the pic. Feel free to print it out and use it yourself. You won't need the answers will you ?

10 Years On - Eric the Red is back

Ten years ago, Eric the Red's Welsh football became the first ever website to focus on the Welsh National Team. It achieved neo-legendary status amongst early foot-geeks with its hard-hitting comment, spinning footballs and animated gifs.

But I was a fake. As more people started to follow Wales, I found it hard to maintain credibility. I've only been away twice with Wales, while some people made it their raison d'etre. I passed on the baton to Dragon Soccer and settled into oblivion, and concentrated on my job as Bobby Gould's PR man.

I moved to the mountains and settled down. Football became a distant memory as I stood on the terraces at Farrar Road. But even that was too good for me. I felt the need to be punished for my betrayal, and I started watching games in the Welsh Alliance. Then it was the Silver Star Gwynedd League which tempted me, and next season, my downward spiral into the guts of Welsh Football will continue as I prowl the sheep-jawed fields of the Caernarfon and District League.

But it's time for Eric the Red to rise, like Vortigern's Red Dragon and slay the English. For too long, we've been drip-fed propoganda about Beckham and Rooney and the ubiquitous English Premiership. There is a place for Welsh comment, and for Welsh football writing that the Western Mail and Daily Post can't fill.

I'm only sorry that we can't do this in Welsh, but you can blame the English for that as well.