‘A practicing catholic’

So went the phrase in Misroslav Close’s wikipedia entry. I had looked him up as he broke the World Cup scoring record. Initially I thought it was only slightly interesting: what someone says they believe is less important to me than if it has any effect on their wallet, their relationships and the company they keep.

So I read on and found out two surprising things (Wikipedia is not an academic reference tool...):-

-He once turned down a penalty kick as he told the referee that it was, in fact, not a penalty.

-2 years ago he scored a goal. He told the referee that it was in fact a handball and the goal was overruled.

I do not know the veracity of these claims, nor do I want to make the guy a plaster saint (some people tell me I am ‘good’- I find this embarrassing: I know I am horrendously inconsistent), but at least in these two events, the label seems to fit.

Lets face it; it is easy to cheat/cut corners at work. Particularly if no one can see or if the pressure to own up is too great as you might lose face/profit or even your job. Hey: it is just as easy in the ministry- we are not pure.

And maybe Klose stumbles and makes mistakes and has glaring inconsistencies. In fact he will have. But in these two instances he is remembered as he did something different, something unexpected as opposed to shrugging his shoulders and saying ‘well everybody else does it’.

I would like my life to be marked by that: doing the unpopular thing, that costs, but it is done as it is ‘right’.

The Gaffer

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This morning I will mostly be helping my youngest son’s Cub troop in a regional 5 a side competition. They are entering 3 teams and I am the manager of the 2nd team.

It is my first ever competitive outing as a manager. I have been thinking formation (2-2, although knowing the boys and their desire to score, it may work out in practice as 0-4), tactics (Zonal- 1 player each quadrant….. although that may work out in practice as all 4 outfield players rushing for the ball), who is the best goalkeeper (I know who I want, but it may be the one who screams less to play outfield) and movement (freeflowing, passing in front of the player and keeping it tight at the back….which means it will be ‘kick and hope’, coupled with lots of screaming ‘that’s not fair).

Whatever happens, I have decided that I will be referred to as ‘The Gaffer’. I have not yet decided on the look: sharp suit, chewing gum nervously or track suit, chewing gum nervously. However, I may go for leather trench coat, shirt open to navel, lots of gold jewellery and felt fedora hat. I will of course be smoking a large cigar….

The Art of the Game

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I was in Manchester a week or so ago and went to the National Football Museum (the old Labour Goverment’s policy to make National Museums free has been great for us) & really liked it: so much more than a few faded jerseys in glass cases (although I got a bit emotional when confronted by Nobby Stiles’ shirt worn in the 1966 world cup final). I saw the original of the above picture.

I liked the picture when I first knew of it several years ago: blatantly kitsch, knowingly buying into the Cantona hagiography and playful. I have a very blinkered adoration of Cantona (‘Looking for Eric’ is one of my favourite films, solely for him) and regret that I only saw him on TV. I am searching for a good T shirt with the quote ‘I am not a man; I am Cantona’ on it. So taken and awestruck was I that I bought an artist signed A5 card of the picture. When framed, it will form part of the random sea of images that decorate my study (I have to have a study for work: mine is gradually becoming more and more a man den), remind me of time off and inspire me more and more to be eccentric. Money well spent.

And today I am supposed to restart football training for 30 plus 4-10 year olds, as well as appear in a Pantomime. Think I would still prefer to be lying on a sofa….

Just like Chris Balderstone….

In my Leicestershire watching youth I used to watch the late Chris Balderstone http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/content/player/8962.html . He was then in the autumn of his career, but I remember being there as he made his last century. He later moved into umpiring before dying relatively early from cancer.

I remember a reliable opening batsman who was also warm with the spectators. Those of us who watched Leicestershire knew, as well as his brief flirtation with Test Match cricket, he also managed to play league football. That was comparatively rare in the mid 1970s; it does not happen now- the expansion of both seasons, the higher levels of fitness and intensity demanded now (As well as the desire of clubs to minimise the risk of injury) and, well sadly life does not work like that anymore.

He was also the answer to a quiz question: ‘Who once played in a first class cricket match and a league football match in the same day?’ In 1975, he played for Leicestershire v Derbyshire , before dashing from Chesterfield to Doncaster to play in an evening match for Doncaster Rovers v Brentford.

That is a rather long introduction to today. If all goes to plan (and in villages we get used to not a lot doing so and muddling along), my youngest gets to play a football friendly in the morning and an end of season cricket friendly in the afternoon…. I get to train the squad in the morning…. and maybe play in the afternoon….

A colossus leaves the stage.

OK, football is a corporate money making entitity stuffed to the gunnels with mercenary, overpaid, money making pirates. In short, it is a bloated reflection of life.

It is like that, but I confess that I felt unreasonably sad this week when this man retired.

Age catches up with all of us (and a week ago, damp and cold on a Scottish island, I was at times moving like a 71 year old man) and there is a time to retire, but over 26 years of managing one club and garnering more trophies than could be put in one trophy cabinet is something incredible. Now a referee visiting Old Trafford does not have to count beyond 90 when Utd are behind….

And I just wanted to record that here.

And keep silence.


I was about 9 or 10 when I decided I liked Manchester United. I don’t know why: I lived in Leicester. I can still remember the excitement when some family friends took me to see Leicester City v Manchester United a couple of years later. I also remember the misery when they lost 1-0. One of the Utd players from that match now lives in the village where I live & in the heirarchy of Northern Blokeness, when we pass each other, he nods at me first. This still makes me very excited.

I next saw them 4 years ago during Middlesbrough’s death throes in the Premier League. Middlesbrough returning to the Premier League is fast becoming like the solemn intonation of someone who is Jewish at the Passover Meal: ‘Next year in Jerusalem’- next year never comes, but saying it keeps Hope alive. I despaired- in a mild, keep it all in 47 year old way- of ever seeing them again.

But then a rare visit to Manchester to see relatives, the realisation of an FA cup match and spare (cheap) tickets…and we were in. The first time I have been to Mecca/Jerusalem/Nirvana apart from ‘Songs of Praise’ and the official tour.

…and I just wanted to record that here….

A proper blokes day out….

Today we have but one god and his name is Tony….

So, this morning is the cubs regional 5 aside football tournament. My older son did two years in this tournament and now it is my younger son’s turn. He has an advantage: for a couple of years now, friends have been organising Saturday football training (heck: I am even known as a ‘coach’- I can now shout football gobbledegook and express indignation at anything that moves) and one of our number has had a proper professional career (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Butler_(footballer_born_1964)).

Then, this afternoon, the mighty Boro play Aldershot in the 4th round of the FA cup. It had gradually grown from a casual idea to a Proper Blokes Day Out- mass ticket booking (about 50 of us together), negotiation with pub to do bacon butties & beer (for the children) and now a coach has been hired.

My wife cannot understand our excitement at the prospect: freezing to death in a half empty stadium, bacon, beer and blokes. O, it is paradise…

I can’t really watch!

So it has come to this: 8.00pm tonight, Manchester City v Manchester United. A win for either will effectively give them the Premiership title. A draw gives Manchester United the advantage (still a lead of 3 points with 2 further games).

Of course, it is just a game. A game involving two of the richest clubs in the world and the lead players of each paid over ten times a week what I get paid in a year. The money is obscene and the national focus disproportionate.

But it is football! It may well be overblown and overpaid;  however as someone who has followed the fortunes of the team in red for over 35 years, I know who I will be cheering for. That is if I could bear to watch. It is rare that I would voluntarily chose a church meeting over football, but tonight I am. I will resist the lure of the score on my smartphone, I will be fully present that evening, I will not rush off, I will give people the time and space they need.

Manchester United may have a lot of form and experience when it comes to this time of the season, with the ability to conjure results up and grind out wins when others are falling by the wayside. This season, they have not been good and resemble a prizefighter, repeatedly knocked to the canvas, yet grimly standing up again and again and somehow winning. The real battle of football has come once again to two Northern clubs fighting for domination.

So, why am I blogging about this? Why not… I am sure that in some way the beautiful game is part of the beautiful creation. Plus, I like it. I may be very low come tomorrow, or very elated. See; I am not perfect, holy beyond measure or sinless and pure.

And in case you want to find me tonight, I may eventually be found in a place that has evil Murdoch Sky, watching TV through anguished fingers and fearing the worst….. a 3-0 City victory…


‘Is it always like this?’

(From happier days: Middlesbrough beat Cardiff earlier in the season)

A week or so ago I went with friends to watch Middlesbrough v Cardiff. Never a good idea to watch Boro if you want friends to stay friends as the football was appalling. In the first half Boro played badly and ending up losing 2-0, leaving their play-off dreams in tatters. To that extent there was a theological underpinning to the afternoon: Easter Saturday, a day when God remains silent and the full extent of the horror and hopelessness of your situation kicks in. At least that would be true if God was a Boro fan and not Welsh; for Cardiff it was a joyful day.

My friends asked ‘Is it always like this?’ They partly meant the quality of the football (it mostly is when I go!) but they also meant the extent to which the fans get on their own players backs when they make mistakes. Middlesbrough have a really good record of spotting potential, developing youngsters and then backing them to play (just look at the number of home grown players now playing for Premiership clubs). However good they may be, they are young and they do make mistakes; sometimes frequently.

‘Is it always like this?’ They said they had never experienced this to this extent at other clubs. I have only (apart from a handful of matches at 3 other grounds over 35 years) really watched football with any degree of regularity at this ground. I had grown used to the mores of this ground. Whilst I did not join in, I just considered it as normal.

‘Is it always like this?’ Often you need the voice of the outsider, the one whose perceptions don’t fit, to see how things really are. Perhaps there is something here about eyes, logs and motes here as well…..

It’s only football but….

Your football allegiance gets formed in childhood and often for irrational reasons. As an 8 or 9 year old I picked Manchester United. I don’t fully know why: I lived in Leicester and Manchester was a far off mythical place that I visited for the first time when I was 21. For a time I have followed other teams as well as a ‘second’ team: Oldham Athletic when I lived there and now Middlesbrough.

As anyone who has half a sporting braincell knows, today is the European Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona. I expect Barcelona will go through Manchester United like a hot knife through butter, but part of me still believes.

It’s only football….check

It is a bloated, overhyped match in a bloated over hyped league….check

Footballers, especially the ones who featured in this match are massively overpaid….check

But I will still be rooting for the red devils…