Saturday, February 24, 2007

Cardiff 4-1 Preston

About five years ago I was working in the press box at Ninian Park when David Moyes' Preston team scored four and completely destroyed the home side. I interviewed David Moyes who cut a very impressive figure even at that stage of his career. But when Frank Burrows bravely appeared to face the music, I kinew that I wasn't cut out for the harsh world of sporting journalism.

City had been on a poor run, and the press were in no mood to let him off lightly. There was almost a feeling of glee that a big home defeat would help them fill the back pages, and they could smell the blood of a respected and likeable man who was about to appear from the home dressing room.

Frankie Burrows was and is no mug. As he made his way up to the Director's Box, where press conferences were held he knew which way things would be going. He stood with his back to the well, outstretched his arms and mocked us; "Nail me up fellas, nail me up." They did, and he left the club.

But the thrashing was reversed last night. And I didn't see it coming. In fact, I laid Cardiff quite heavily at Betfair because I just couldn't see a home win. I saw us lose at Preston earlier in the season, when we gave them a footballing lesson for an hour before somehow losing the game. But since then, we had lost form and fluency, the two attributes which have helped us to over achieve so far.

But there are a few players coming back into form now. And while we aren't fluent, we are at least fast. Peter Whittingham is a proper player and has replaced the threat that Joe Ledley provided in August and September before he ran out of gas.

The most obvious difference of course is Michael Chopra, who is getting close to my all time City X1. But I sense something dislikeable in his manner. Is he arrogant, feisty, or just a moaner? The jury's out, but he's no Carl Dale thats's for sure. I can't see Chopra being a sparky in Newport when he retires.

Roger Johnson had his best game for the club, the daft penalty notwithstanding. There is surprise at his old clubs that he isn't a regular at Cardiff. He is held in high regard universally, and maybe now we have some solid defensive cover.

And a word for Matt Green who came on at the end. Good for Dave Jones on giving the lad his chance. It had seemed that the local route to pro football had been blocked, but Green joins a long list of illuminaries who have progressed to Cardiff from Welsh football, including John Lewis, Carl Dale, and Mark Delaney. Good luck to him.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Scarfers Unite.

For somebody who professes his support of grassroots football, I don't half love my Champions League. I love the theme tune, I love the glamour, and I even enjoy the sheer unabridged commercialism of the big world-wide sponsorship deals.

This week has given me the opportunity to watch the teams that I consider to be the three greatest clubs in Europe, which in my blinkered football horizons, means the World.

Celtic , Liverpool, and Barcelona. The very mention of their names conjures up all that is good about football. Celtic are helped in their reputation by the astonishing acheivement of eleven Glasgow boys who first won the Cup in 1967.

But you only had to look at their fans before yesterday's game v Milan to see what could be possible if we all had their attitude. The singing of "You'll never walk alone" was stupendous, aided by the classy decision to switch off the louspeakers for the chorus. The song boomed out, and was aided immeasurably by the sort of scarf waving that was last seen at Anfield in 1979. I wish that my club could follow suit, but we seem doomed to be cursed forever with our labels and lairiness. Newcastle's scarf giveaway has helped the atmosphere at St James'. Maybe that is an idea we could follow.

When Cesc Fabregas recently questioned whether Mark Hughes the manager could ever really have been Mark Hughes the Barcelona player, he had a point. Sparky's current personality belongs to someone who hates football, someone who places self-interest, and a 0-0 draw above the good of the game. He is not alone in that, but Fabregas is a footballer and always will be. Barcelona are a delight to watch, whatever the result. And, most importantly, they have the best kit in the world.

I have a 1974 Scorcher annual on my bookshelf. On page 47 is the scrawled graffiti of a 7 year old. "Liverpool are Magic, Cardiff are Tragic". How precocious, how prescient. Admittedly, I didn't know the true meaning of tragic at the time, and in hindsight it is a word far more accurately attached to the Scouse club.

But Liverpool are a great club. Their fans make a good claim to be the best in the world, as my 1973 album of "The Kop Choir" will testify. And there they are at the Camp Nou as I type. Smiling, laughing, bedecked in scarves bearing the names of both clubs on the field. And therein lies the rub. The fans of all three of these footballing monuments favour the scarf as a declaration of support. We could all learn something. Scarfers unite for the glory of the game.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Give the refs a break

Two games took my attention over the weekend. Firstly I saw Felinheli battle to a
3-2 win over Llanrug Utd Reserves at Cae Seilo. Then on Sunday I watched the highlights of Cardiff v Leeds on Soccer Sunday, a programme which has now remained true to its extraordinarily low production values for the past 10 years.

Both games were were seemingly dominated by a refereeing performance, when this need not have been the case. In Felin's game, 2 early red cards reduced both teams to 10 men during the first half, for no apparent crime greater than a bit of push-me-round-Charlie. The rest of the match saw some unfathomable decisions, particularly the lack of even a yellow card for Ricky Fic when he pole-axed Llanrug's centre forward in the final minute as he strode away towards our goal.

In Cardiff's game, the decisions were equally bizarre, and even more match-defining. Mark Clattenburg's performance was incomprehensible. Walton was sent off for being nudged off the ball, and Leeds escaped without a caution for a handball which prevented an on-target header from reaching the goal-line.

Dave Jones' after match press conference was spent attacking the referee. At Felin, the local and well-known referee was berated for the full 90, and a little beyond. No more than at any other game in the country, mind you - just the usual stuff.

But do they deserve this abuse? These are men who turn up for the love of the game. As far as I am aware, no referee tries to get it wrong. So from 180 minutes of football, with lots of mistakes and errors on both sides, the only one who is publicly abused is the referee, who earns a fraction of the professional salaries in Clattenburg's case, and a tenner for petrol in the local ref's case.

Last week, Paul Jewell went public and complained that referee Phil Dowd had sworn at his players. Well diddums. It is hard to think of a more ridiculous complaint in the modern game.

So where is the referee's right of reply? Who stands up for the ref? Not other referees unfortunately. Theirs is a lone furrow, and they are quick to criticise the mistakes of others in order to raise their own standing.

And certainly not the media. Any correct referee decision is praised almost grudgingly, as if they were lucky that time, but just you wait, they'll cock it up soon.

Sometimes I would love to hear the ref's version of events. As I recall, Sky used to have Neil Midgeley in the studio to give a ref's point of view. But he was soon ditched as the controversies were quashed far too sensibly and quickly.

But what did Clattenburg see in Walton's "dive"? Was it his angle? Could he tell there was no contact? Tell, us please.

And as far as I am aware, Donal Courtney, the fourth official who awarded Jonny Wilkinson's try against Scotland has not yet explained his contrary decision. I am curious. The unexplainable should be explained.

AS for the Felin game, Terry the ref said that Andy used his head in the stag rutting game. Fair enough, it's his call, let's move on.

And David Jones might prefer to criticise his millionaire centre forward who struck a tame penalty, or his millionaire striker who will receive another suspension for lack of discipline. Or Paul Parry for poor finishing. Or Walton for his first half yellow. But no, it's the ref that gets it.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Newport's place in the Universe

One of the more realistic aspects of FIFA 06 on Playstation are the crowd chants and team banners waved by the virtual crowd. Except that in Cardiff City's case, the two most prominent flags, which travel all over the virtual world following City's friendlies even in China, were apparently made by two groups that might surprise a few people.

"Llanishen Blues" are at least a known entity. There has always been a strong following from that area of Cardiff, and I travelled with them myself on a few occasions. But I don't remember a 15ft wide "Llanishen Blues" banner being unfurled at games. I do however, recall a Union Jack, with "Cardiff City" sitting incongruously on the red cross.

The other flag in PS2 displays the legend "Newport Blues". How this must stick in the throat of everyone from the "New Seattle" (c.Spin magazine 1996). There were certainly very few Newport Blues in the old days. And even in recent years, I don't know how many Cardiff fans travel from Newport.

Cardiff have always had a one way relationship with Newport County. In the 80s, Nweport scores announced at Ninian were always cheered or at least approved. The Cardiff people do patronisation very well.

But Newport County on the other hand have their own history. They believed themselves to be the equal of Cardiff, and have understandably resented the local dominance of the Capital.

In their glory days, Newport were a credit to Wales. We all remember the classic team of Tynan, Aldridge and Gwyther. The 1980/81 WCWC run led to a European Quarter Final. Unthinkable for todays Welsh Premier clubs.But in those days, Newport's status was equal to Wrexham, and not far behind Swansea. When I went to watch Cardiff at Somerton Park in 1983, there was an official attendance of 16,000.

The decline of the club due mainly to lack of local support sent the club bust, only to reform as a fan's co-operative in the English Pyramid. A nasty legal battle with the FAW ensued and nearly sent the club down again. Newport won their case and stayed in the English Pyramid. A Pyrrhic victory said some.

Some of the old school still aren't happy. And they elicit sympathy. You can see a selection of authentic NCFC tattoos at various stadia round the country. The old loyalists wander the grounds like lost souls, deprived of their team. To these people, Newport County died in 1989. They reject the new club which goes on without them. A sad situation, when both factions so obviously need each other.

Currently, Newport County play in the Conference South, only a couple of Divisions from their stated aim, the Football League. But that's a pipe dream. County will do fantastically well to reach the National Conference, but that's where it will end. Aldershot are a club in a similar phoenix-like state, but Newport can't begin to match their enthusiasm or support.

Whilst I understand Newport's reluctance to enter the Welsh pyramid. I don't support it from a National viewpoint. But look at it through their eyes. They have recently had big FA Cup games against Blackpool and Swansea which were live on Sky, and matched any interest shown in the Welsh Premierships forays into Europe, TNS's franchised games v Liverpool and Man City notwithstanding.

Newport fear the Bangor scenario. They are similar clubs in many ways, and nobody can argue that Bangor have not been in decline since the start of the Welsh Premiership. Whilst Newport can currently rely on crowds of up to 1,000, this would soon drop to 500, and then 300 in the Welsh pyramid. No wonder they want to stay.

But Newport can never be successful in England. The rise of small clubs based in the wealthy South East is noticable. Look at Rushden, Wycombe, Reading. All clubs built on new money which just doesn't exist in the Newport area.

One of the things that interests me about Newport is the "Welshness" of their support. Newport is not a particularly Welsh area. Situated on the English borders, there is a common apathy towards Wales and the Welsh language from the townspeople (not a City - don't be silly). But Newport County fans parade their Welsh identity when following club and country. I believe that this is due to their club's presence in the English Leagues. When you get called a sheepshagger every week, you tend to behave like one.

The Welsh Premiership is unsustainable without Merthyr and Newport. The admission of those two clubs alone would improve the League by 50%. There would be a lot more interesting games, and even teams like Bangor would would be rejuvenated by their entry. There is a lack of self-esteem suffered by clubs in the League which would be helped by the unclusion of the two biggest semi-pro sides in Wales.

But Newport would rather compare themselves to Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham. Whilst those three clubs remain in the English system, there can be no suggestion of aquiescence. And for that obstinate stance, you can only give them respect.

Up the County!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Why is football so soft?

When Kevin Morgan walked off the pitch at Murrayfield on Saturday, it didn't look like he would be coming back. He walked gingerly to the touch line, cradling his jaw, but at the same time afraid to touch it. His mouth was stained with dark blood and it hung at a strange angle. Yet ten minutes later there he was, diving at the feet of a 19 stone forward, and bravely trying to assert himself in an already beaten side.

Meanwhile, across Europe, at the same moment, a hundred different footballers are screaming in agony, rolling on the turf after being lightly pushed in the chest, nudged by a shoulder, or tickled playfully under the armpit.

Now Kevin Morgan is not a hard man. He is polite, well-spoken and generally tries to avoid any roughness. But the culture of his sport is such that he returned to the field with a broken jaw because he didn't want to let anybody down.

Later that evening, the multi-millionaire Samuel Eto declined to take the field as a substitute when requested to by his manager Frank Rijkkard. He was tired apparently.

How did it get like this? What happened to football along the way? When did it become acceptable, if not condonable to make a big fuss over a slight knock? It wasn't like that in the until the 1990s was it? I certainly don't remember Phil Dwyer going down unless he had been assaulted with a weapon.

So who wants it to be like it is now? The fans? No, the fans hate it. The media? Well, it can lend a certain controversy and drama to the game. But overwhelmingly, I'm afraid it boils down to coaches and managers.

In days gone by they might have been former schoolmasters, academics, and since the sixties, pulled from the working class - people who generally had some respect for a person's moral fibre. These days they are almost always former players, former cheats.

And FIFA can take a share of the blame. Whilst I fully support the harsh penalties dished out to professional foulers, why has it become a red card offence to "raise your hands"? What is the big deal about giving someone a clip round the ear after he stamped on you, or pushing someone in the chest after he spat in your face?

The more I see of how the two sports are developing, the more I hope that my children take up the oval ball game. Yes it is more dangerous, less popular, and the financial rewards are much smaller. But I think that rugby will make them bettter people. I can't say that about football.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The poor state of armbands

With due respect to the estimable Brian Williams, the Neath prop who died last week, the Welsh rugby team wore black armbands for their match against Scotland. But it wasn't a band really, it was more of a strap.

Armbands used to be at least 4 inches wide, and were made of heavy cotton material. This style lasted for years after being popularised by the trend setting Nazi party and their uberfashionista, Adolf Hitler, or "Bruno" as he was known in Austrian High Fashion Circles.

The Welsh armbands looked like a piece of electrical tape hastily picked up at B&Q in Carlisle, and wrapped around the upper arm. Surely with the current popularity of ostentatious grieving, they could have done a bit better. Brian Williams deserved it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ali in the Observer

I've known Ali Yassine a long time now. He was watching Cardiff when it wasn't so easy to be a black face at Ninian. He is a Somalian Welsh speaker who has been prominent in changing the public perception of the Welsh language. He is also an actor who I have worked with professionally, and I've got a lot of respect and no little admiration for the man.

It was a shame then to read a backhanded criticism of my work at Cardiff City before Ali took over in his best known role as stadium announcer at Ninian Park. In an article in the Sunday Observer, Ali states that "previous announcers had no connection with the club." Hmmm, thanks mate.

Now as someone who only did the job for the season or two before Ali started, he probably wasn't thinking about me, but the announcer before me was the legendary Phil Suarez, who sadly died before his time a few years ago. If Phil Suarez had no connection with Cardiff City, then I don't know who does.

Now I know how these things work, and I'm sure Ali's phonecall interview has been butchered. It certainly didn't read like the Ali I know. But let's not get carried away with the cult status. Not everybody likes a showman on the mic. Dinosaurs like me believe that announcers are for announcing so I never worried about "playing the same music every week". For me, it's a football match not a discotheque.

And I don't know what to make of Ali's claim that he was the reason for Wales' first goal against Azerbaijan. Apparently he had got the crowd so worked up that the Azer players were standing dumb as Wales strolled the ball into the net. Please. Come on. You didn't really say that did you Ali? And if you did, you don't really believe it?

Scotland 21-9 Wales

I don't know what to make of this game. Wales were outgunned undoubtedly, but I always thought we were going to win right up until the last 10 minutes. We are obviously a more talented side than the Scots, and I am not faulting our application. I am concerned that there is a much deeper problem than a sluggish attitude.

The props have proved that they can mix it with the top teams, all four of them. Alun Wyn Jones is athletic, and I prefer Gough to Sidoli. The current back row is well balanced and I've got no complaints in that area. The half backs are good enough and.....oh dear what have we here?

This is where it all starts to go wrong with the current team. Hook, Robinson, Czeckai, Jones, Morgan. I just don't think that the boys have enough faith in the three quarters to run the ball wide and to play the fluent game that we've become used to. It was high risk even with Shane Williams, Henson, Shanklin, and Alfie. With this lot it would be disastrous.

The decision not to put Henson on the bench betrays a frightening puerility in the Welsh camp, and in Welsh rugby in general. When Morgan went off with an injury, our back line looked like something that had been thrown together for Mickey Steel-Bodger. With Henson's ability to play almost anywhere, his non-selection can only be based on spite and dare I say it, jealousy.

Welsh people have never liked someone who has things too easy. Henson is a naturally gifted player, and we prefer the braver prole who will put his body on the line. Yes, Henson is out of form, but you can't tell me that Sweeney or Aled Brew are better covering options.

The team in general look like they are not enjoy Gareth Jenkins' tactical game. And while I'm at it, the sooner that we look at Roland Phillips' position the better. I'm afraid that you just can't have a professional pantomime cow running the National side's defence. Something has to give. Either the cross-dressing on S4C, or his job with Wales. I know that the defence was outstanding on Saturday which is why I'm having a pop now. My position isn't reactionary, it's to do with respect and propriety from a WRU official . How can we criticise Alfie's recent behaviour when we appoint a television comedian as coach?

And finally a word about the television coverage. Abysmal.

I knew from the start that it was going to be an irritating afternoon, when the Director chose to mic up 15 nervous rugby players instead of the 30,000 lustily boozed up Welsh travellers for the anthem. From then it got worse. Every line out was filmed from pitch level, which is probably just about the worst seat in the house. The animated advertising boards were a pain in the arse, and none of the repeats managed to capture the crucial part of the replayed incident.
I can only think that the job was being performed by a competition winner. And that it had been won by one of those middle aged women who buy up all the magazines and do all the comps. Including the word puzzles.

It's good to be back.

Blogging's a slog

Thanks to those of you who have written bemoaning the lack of recent updates on this blog. But it's not my fault honest. Ever since Blogger was taken over by Google I've been unable to get into my blog. Still, I've sorted it all out now, and we should be all back regular again. And as we're in the 6 Nations season, and I've been watching a lot of rugby, I've decided to write about that as well. It is rugby "football" after all.

Things you've missed me ranting about:

Henson should be on the bench for Wales.
Cardiff City spelt the word "Caerdydd" wrongly on their socks.
Fair play to Collins for apologising to Tosh.
I booked a day trip to the Dublin game in March.
Porthmadog treated so harshly compared to Newport.
Bleasdale finding it not so easy at Bangor. Don't see him lasting.
We desperately need more playing fields.
I saw a 9 year old crying cos his manager shouted at him so much.
I played in the vets game on Boxing Day.