Thursday, August 31, 2006

Millar from the halfway line

An article on the offical Cardif City website reminds us of a certain Paul Millar, who played for Cardiff City in the early nineties. In particular it talks about his goal in our 2-1 defeat at St Andrews in 1995. It was a spectacular long distance shot, and the website suggests that fans began to sing "Mill-ar from the half way line" in his honour.

Not true. That chant began after a Welsh Cup match at Swansea at around the same time. It was a week before the Birmingham game, and played at the Vetch. Cardiff were having a terrible season and fully expected to lose. But most memorably, Cardiff fans were banned from travelling.

It became a badge of honour to get to the game, and all sorts of stunts were pulled. Tickets were bought at the Vetch earlier in the week, and a variety of routes were taking to avoid the Fabian Way checkpoints. People travelled to the game via Neath, or Carmarthen, and friends of mine got past the border simply by speaking Welsh to each other in a West Walian accent. Once inside the ground, familiar faces winked at each other over their Bovril.

I watched the game from the roof of the nearby Grand Theatre, which overlooks the ground. At least I thought it did. In fact, it overlooks half the ground. I could only see one goal.

So when I saw Paul Millar gather the ball on the half way and and look up before belting the ball out of my line of vision, I assumed that it was another hopeful punt up towards Phil Stant which would soon be returned with interest. Instead, Millar's eyes widened, his jaw dropped, and he raised his arms before being smothered by team-mates. I didn't know what I was celebrating, but I went mad at the top of that theatre.

Television highlights later showed Millar's wonder goal, which won the game , and we went on to beat Swansea 4-1 in the second leg, with another one-off cracker from Wayne Fereday. A friend of mine woke up in his next door neighbour's garden after that one.

Millar left Cardiff in 1995. Sales of Guiness plummetted in Cardiff. He will be remembered for that purple patch when he scored a few belters, but he remains primarily famous for his karaoke performances in the Borough Arms of a Sunday evening.

Mill-ar from the halfway line. Indeed.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Kitson not Irish

I caught an interview with Reading's Dave Kitson from the weekend's Soccer AM. It seems that he has turned down the chance to play for Ireland on principle.

"I only qualify for Ireland through my Grandfather who I never met. I've never felt Irish, and I spent the Summer watching England in the pub wearing a shirt with Gerrard on the back. I know that I'm not good enough for England but that's not the point.

I've always felt English, and it wouldn't be right to play for Ireland. I realise that my stock would go up if I was an international player, I coulod command better wages and get better deals. But for me it's about the football, not about the money."

Fair play to the bloke. It's not so often these days that a footballer is so principled. I've always been dubious about the rules for qualification, though thankfully football hasn't gone down the absurd residency rule that rugby has used to cheapen the international shirt.

So fair play to Kitson. Not for him the Owen Hargreaves route of touting around for the best team. Hargreaves was born in Canada, developed by the Welsh FA and switched to England after committing himself to his Mother's country as a youth player. Objectively, you would say that Hargeaves made the right decision. He's played in a World Cup, and seems set to become an England regular. But I'd rather go for a pint with Dave Kitson. And that's what really counts.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A flying start

I should go away more often. On return from my two week sojourn in France, I was astonished to find Cardiff City sitting proudly on top of Division Two. (I'll leave it to others to call it the Championship). Even more astonishingly, Felinheli are lying second in the Caernarfon and District League and remain undefeated after four games.(I'll leave it to others to call it the Safeflue Caernarfon and District League).

I wasn't that astonished by Cardiff, as I had been receiving the papers whilst abroad. But from what I've read, it seemed that it was all a blip. Each game was a one-off. The Nationals are struggling with the idea of Cardiff lying in first place, and are treating the strange occurence with disdain. Whilst the Times covered last week's victory at Leeds with one sentence on the League Leaders and four paragraphs on the Yorkshiremen, The Observer barely saw fit to mention the match at all.

With Cardiff beating Birmingham 2-0 at home yesterday to go three points clear, Sports Editors across the country closed their eyes, covered their ears and hummed the Marseillaise. Today's Daily Express copes admirably, simply by ignoring the game between 1st and second in the Division. Even the Wales on Sunday led with Wrexham's League Cup draw on the back page. That was bizarre, even if it was a North Wales edition. You're either a National paper or you're not.

Meanwhile, Felinheli are also unbeaten, and rumours are circulating about a 6-0 win. I've only seen two wins since I moved to the village two years ago, and while I'm away, they decide to go for it. That's just plain vindictive.

In another certain confirmation of my jinx, while on holidays I went to see Barcelona, my favourite Continental side in the European Super Cup Final. They lost 3-0. Luckily I'm not going to Prague.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Barcelona v Sevilla in Monaco

Like many Welsh people, I have long held FC Barcelona in the highest esteem. To the Welsh supporter, the Catalonian team exist in a World, which can never be ours. Despite the similarities between two ancient countries that fight to cling on to their independence and culture in the face of overwhelming interference from their neighbours, the tribal Wales will never unite behind its Capital side, like the Catlunyans do.

There are differences of course. Catalunya is a wealthier country, its population of 7 million is more than twice that of Wales'. Football is its only serious sport, and its people have been welded together by the atrocities suffered at Franco's hands during the Spanish Civil War. But there are similarities too. Like Wales, it has its own language which has only recently won official recognition, and it has recently battled for political independence. Barca's relationship with Spain mirrors that of Wales' relationship with England.

I am jealous of Barcelona. Not only do they have an amazing stadium, a famous history, and currently the best team in the World, they also wear World football's best kit, gloriously unbesmirched by sponsorship. In my dreams, all Welsh supporters would put their energies into one professional club which could compete at the level of the Catalunyans.

So it was with some excitement that I learnt this week that the European Super Cup Final would be held in Monaco between Barcelona and Sevilla. I was holidaying near Nice, and the chance was too good to miss. I wanted to experience the Barcelona phenomenon at first hand.

I arrived early in the day and equipped Eric Junior with a placard begging for tickets . The capacity was only 18,000 and the match was sold out. It was apparent early on that we would be very lucky to secure a pair and I moved on to the stadium. The Stade Louis II is rightly famed for its stunning setting. You can just about make it out in the centre of the picture above.

I was immediately approached by a tout, offering tickets at 100 Euros each. They didn't seem right. The paper was a bit shiny, and I questioned their authenticity. "Don't worry", he assured me, "I am a white man. You can trust me." I moved on.

I eventually bought a pair of tickets for 160 Euros, or £55 each. Not bad really, when you consider that the same tickets for Barnsley v Cardiff would have cost me nearly £50. Face value tickets were £15-£35 for a European Cup Final, however contrived it might be.

The pre-match atmosphere was initally as I expected. Groups of middle-class families wondering around Monaco in their colours, with Sevilla supporters seemingly outnumbering Barca's following. But as we waited for the gates to open at the Stadium, it was obvious that there are stark divisions in Barcelona's fan base.

I had heard about the Boxois Nois, Barcelona's self-styled Ultras. And I came across them a few times in Monaco. They are a strange lot. Like many so-called Ultra groups across Europe thay are known to have some influence at the club and received free tickets at the Nou Camp until Barca President Laporta decided to end their priveleges. It didn't go down well and there has been some real anomisity between the President and his Ultras.

They look a bit silly to the cynical British supporter - a throwback to the early 1980's when the average British Hooligan still sported skinheads and wore scarves wrapped around their wrists.

When I first saw them, the Boxois Nois were facing up to the chanting Sevilla fans on the Stadium Concourse. It was like a scene from a bad hooligan movie, I.D. maybe.

They linked arms behind a big banner and marched towards that massed Sevilla fans who were themselves as about as threatening as Norwich City in party mood.

As usual, this impending violence featuring 300 of Europe's toughest thugs was stopped when a couple of traffic policemen stood in their way. It's all bluster and pantomime.

The stadium was even more impressive inside. If you need to make a 20,000 capacity stadium, then this should be your blueprint. It has a stunning backdrop of mountainside that is only rivalled by the view from the stand at The Traeth, Porthmadog.

Aesthetically, it is the best stadium that I have seen, though the catering facilities would suffer in comparison to most of those in the Welsh Premier.

Inside, the atmosphere was building, and even the tannoy man did his bit by playing the club songs. Barca had some official fan organisers who had laid out flags on the seats along with complex instructions on when to wave them, and for which chant. These instructions were well intentioned, but ignored as always.

When the Boxois Nois entered, things began hotting up a little and they started putting up their flags. I couldn't believe my eyes.
About a quarter of the flags featured the St George's Cross.

I'm well aware that St George is the patron saint of Catalunya and that it features on their badge, but this was different. The English flag was undoubtedly being used as some badge of commitment to the team, reflecting their ideas about its identity with hooliganism.

They were hilariously captioned with terms like "Youth Firm", and "No Surrender - True Always". I can only think that the latter was poorly translated from a Loyalist flag that they saw on telly.

For obvious reasons, these banners upset me a little. I had naiively thought that there was some bond between small nations. I even persuaded Eric Junior to wear his Wales shirt to the game, as previous meetings with Bretons and Basques had led me to belive that Catalunyans would be similarly friendly. In the event, I have to admit that the shirt had no recognition whatsoever. Are Catalunyans different? Are Barca too big to concern themselves with others ?

Even if this were the case, the English flags are particularly offensive. I hope your fight for independence goes well, Barca, but there's no need to insult your Celtic cousins by flying the opressor's flag.

Towards the end of the game, the Boxois Nois put on a little show. They started throwing flares at the blokes who were getting the platform ready for the presentation. It all threatened to kick off when the police got involved, but what was most interesting was the reaction of the rest of Barca's support.

The English wannabes were roundly booed and loud chanting began, aimed at the Boxois. This is obviously a divided club. There is a huge gap between the few hundred Ultras and the rest of the many thousands of family-based support. The Ultras are being marganalised and attacked from all sides. I'm not sure that this is a battle they can win. The Boxois Nois celebrated their 25th anniversary this year, but as a group, their future seems uncertain, which is fine by me.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Floyd Landis - I TOLD YOU SO

In light of Landis' recent positive drugs test, I just had to come back on here and point out that I seem to have been the only person in the World to have questioned him openly at the time.

Even now, there are an amazing number of journalists and fans still in denial. Get over it. It was obvious then , and it's definite now. Nobody has mentioned the pumped-up celebration which gave the biggest clue.

Landis may win an appeal on technical grounds, but he was 11 times the normal testosterone level of a normal person.

The drugs don't bother me so much. It's the deception that hurts.

Wales v Brazil

The news that Wales will be facing Brazil at White Hart Lane on September the 5th fills me with ennui. Whilst English players seem to resent playing more than eight games a season, it seems that the Brazilians will fly off anywhere mid-season for a quick game of three and in if there's a monkey on offer.

But you try telling that to my boy. Six years old, he wears a Ronaldinho sweatband and carries a nylon wallet featuring the less than elegant features of Ronaldo. He has three different Brazil kits, all purchased for a fiver from Thailand, but Brazil kits nonetheless, and can tame the clubs of every member of the World Cup Squad. Try telling him that it's a nothing game. He can't believe that they'll even be on the same pitch as Sam Ricketts and David Partridge.

I felt the same in 1983, when we played Brazil for the first time since the Sweden World Cup in '58. Ninian Park was packed to the rafters with a rumoured 30,000 crowd. Somehow, I was given a Grandstand ticket by an Uncle, and I took my place amongst the Cockneys and Brummies who had travelled to see the famous South Americans.

I don't remember much about the game, except that the Bob Bank was fuller than at any time since the 1977 FA Cup run. And Brazil's goal was dodgy, of course. Something about a quickly taken free kick while the ball was moving. And didn't Bryan Flynn score with a header to equalise ?

But the big occasion for me was the friendly we played at the National Stadium in 1991. I was in the band. On the pitch. I was on the pitch. Legally.

It just so happened that I used to play the sousaphone. One of my occasional bands was called Wonderbrass, and we were asked to join the Steel Band, Samba Gales in making the Brazilians feel at home.

Out I went before the game and experienced the big match atmosphere. I really felt I was playing for Wales, and set off an a lap of honour. I saw my mate in the crowd and started doing the Ayatollah. 15, 000 people in the North Stand Ayatollahed back. So I turned to the South Stand. Same thing. Another 15,000 Ayatollahing.

I was enjoying the greatest moment of my life when a Chief Inspector tugged my collar. "You're nicked, Eric". I had been recognised by a Ninian Park copper, and my supposed scam was about to be outed. They tried to escort me from the pitch.

"But I'm in the band - really. They'll never do justice the Charlie Mingus number without a thumping bass line." They weren't having it, and the frogmarch continued until I begged for mercy. Eventually the CI cut me a deal. I had to audition for him, and if was any good , I could rejoin the band.

I hadn't been so nervous since I sat in front of Arthur Davison for the National Youth Orchestra . I played like I had never played before. Strictly speaking, you need a fourth valve to play the Vaughan-Williams Tuba Concerto, but nonetheless, that old sousaphone was bouncing around the high cadenza as she celebrated her release from the shame and humiliation of my chugging ragtime oompah! of the previous few years.

It worked, and I was back in. I rejoined my colleagues in time for the Anthems and posed for a photograph which made the front page of the Newport Argus and sits in my trophy cabinet till this day, alongside the match ticket for Exeter away in the Leyland Daf trophy.

We played throughout the game, or rather the Samba band did. They had no real interest in the football and started up every time Brazil attacked. We were soon being attacked by the occasional missile and those in the seats near us glared furiously and raised fingers to their lips. Others just raised fingers.

We won 1-0, thanks to a Dean Saunders goal, but it wasn't celebrated like a proper win. We all knew that if it came to it, that Brazil could beat us even if they were all forced to wear a Sousaphone each for the whole second half.

It was in this frame of mind that I missed the friendly at the Millennium in 2000. I didn't have any kids at the time, (well, maybe one) and I knew that it would be a highly unsatisfactory evening whatever the result.

But this time it's different. The Chief Hambugger, will be hambugging me for the next month. But I will resist. It's a long way to Tottenham, and I know for a fact that after 15 minutes, the burgers and coke will be of more interest to him, than the best player in the World who has just been tackled easily by Carl Fletcher, as Brazil go through the motions on behalf of the ticks on their shirts.