The ‘Little Witch’ and his spell among the Red Devils – Juan Sebastian Verón at Old Trafford.

It’s questionable whether there are many transfers involving expensive foreign imports to the English game that have evoked so much varied opinion as when Juan Sebastian Verón joined Manchester United from Lazio in July 2001. The deal was reported as being worth a then British record transfer fee, of around £28million. Continue reading →

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From struggling reserve to record breaking goalscorer – The incredible story of Joe Payne.

Going back a few years or so, outlandish results and scoring feats were not that unusual, especially during the Boxing Day fixtures when any number of players may have been turning out in less than top notch condition. That to one side though, the feat of Robert ‘Bunny’ Bell still merits mention. On 26th December 1936, Oldham Athletic visited Bell’s Tranmere Rovers side and went back home with a 13-4 defeat and tails between their legs. Bell had netted nine of his team’s ‘Baker’s Dozen’ of goals, and should have added a tenth, but missed a penalty. Nine was pretty good though and constituted a Football League record for the most strikes in a single game. That missed penalty hardly seemed to matter, the game had been won, and it would surely be a long time before anyone would anyone would challenge Bell’s scoring record. Well, actually, not so much. Continue reading →

Jan Tomaszewski – The ‘Clown’ who had the last laugh.

England had won the World Cup in 1966, and offered up a more than reasonable defence of the trophy four years later, before heat, fatigue and an absent Gordon Banks did for them in Mexico. In 1974, the tournament would be back in Europe, in West Germany. Conditions would be much more akin to the climate in Britain, and England would have a chance to reassert themselves.

There was, of course, the somewhat irritating matter of a qualifying process to negotiate first, but in a group alongside Wales and Poland, to many fans it didn’t look like a problem. As it panned out, thanks to a ‘Curate’s Egg’ of a series of group matches, the final fixture would decide all. Poland were to visit Wembley on 17 October 1973. Should Sir Alf Ramsey’s charges prevail, the tickets to Germany would be booked, if the Poles could win or draw however, it would be sufficient for them to go through and England would fail to qualify for a World Cup Finals for the first time since they entered the fray in 1950. Continue reading →

Un-be-liev-able!

There are many reasons why certain goals are memorable. They can come in big matches, be part of an ongoing rivalry between the goalscorer and the team he nets against. Perhaps it’s the type of goal where the player runs the length of the pitch before rounding then goalkeeper and scoring, something especially difficult in an away game against a massive club in one of the biggest tournaments. Or, perhaps it’s the sort of goal that rewards a team for outstanding fortitude against the odds, when all seemed lost. Some goals have a few of these elements, but very few have them all, and this is the tale of one that does just that; a goal that Gary Neville described as “Un-bel-eive-able!”

On 24 April 2012, Chelsea turned up at the Camp Nou to defend the slenderest of leads, thanks to a backs-to-the-wall effort at Stamford Bridge where, in a game overwhelmingly dominated by the visitors, Didier Drogba had managed to snaffle a precious goal on one the home team’s rare visits to the opposition penalty area. Now they had it all to do keep their Champions League aspirations alive in a game where Barcelona were sure to be looking to secure the goals their domination should have earned a couple of weeks previously in west London.

Things didn’t start well for the visitors. A dozen minutes in, Gary Cahill tweaked a hamstring and had to be replaced. It would get worse. Despite holding out until ten minutes before the break, a rare goal by Sergio Busquets brought the aggregate scores level. Two minutes later, a malevolent rush of blood to the head saw John Terry dismissed after a senseless knee into the back of Alexis Sanchez. It didn’t end there. Just two minutes ahead of the break, Andrés Iniesta netted the second for Barcelona to put them ahead, and leaving Chelsea “…a mountain to climb,” in the words of Martin Tyler. The game looked well and truly up for Roberto di Matteo’s team.

A goal by Ramires in injury time at the end of the half seemed scant consolation. Yes, it put Chelsea ahead on away goals, but surely wouldn’t be enough. The second period would inevitably bring a Blaugrana onslaught and down to ten men, with both first-choice centre-backs off the field it looked like it would need something extraordinary if Chelsea were to survive; something quite “unbelievable” in fact.

Sitting on the Chelsea bench as the white line held firm against the home team’s swarming attacks was Fernando Torres. Born in Fuenlabrada in the Madrid Metropolitan Area, El Niño had log been a hate figure for the Cules in the Camp Nou. As well as hailing from the heart of Castilian Spain, in his first period with Atletico Madrid, he had scored seven goals in a mere ten games against Barcelona, and last year took that total to 11 in 17 games. The goal he would notch in this particular game however may well have been the most galling for the Cules.

As the expected onslaught raged on the pitch, Torres watched from the sidelines. For over half-an-hour the attacks battered at the white wall Di Matteo had organised to prevent his team capitulating under the pressure. Chance after chance was squandered, but still a Barça goal didn’t come; Messi even crashed a penalty against the bar and away, as the home team charged forward. With just one substitute change remaining, Chelsea’s Italian manager threw the fresh legs of Torres into the fray with ten minutes to play, detailing him to defend the left flank of the stubborn defence.

Another home attack broke down, and the ball fell to Torres. Trying to drive downfield to ease the pressure, he hit the ball forward and then chased. Possession was lost though, and Torres slowed to an amble, then a trot forsaking his defensive position. The ball was driven into the Chelsea box for the umpteenth time, but another block diverted the ball up onto Ashley Cole’s chest. The full-back lashed the ball clear, with surely ne’er a thought to it being a potential through ball. It was simply a hack away from danger.

As the TV screen followed the ball however, Fernando Torres also honed into view. His aborted breakout had taken him past the last defender, and as the ball dropped to his feet around the halfway line, he was clear. Only                 Carles Puyol was even in the same screen, but he was some 15 metres behind the galloping striker. Back in Spain, and at a ground where he had scored a number of times previously, Torres shed the cement overcoat that had hampered so much of his play for Chelsea, skated clear, rounded Valdes and rolled the ball into the net. “Ooooh,” orgasmed Gary Neville as Torres turned away, sinking to his knees in front of the home fans who were probably shouting anything except “Bueno, El Niño!” Two minutes into injury time, Torres had returned and thrust an estoque into the worn-out bull that was the Blaugrana team.

(This short All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘Golden Goals series on ‘The Open Veins of Football’ website).

Bohemian non-rhapsody – Three clubs, one name and the fans who saved the day.

Almost by definition, the story of any fan-owned club is going to be one of faded memories best viewed through sepia lenses, with an added touch of financial misdemeanours thrown in, often by past itinerant owners who rejoiced more in the money they could make from the club, more concerned with 20 pieces of silver than silverware or relative success on the pitch. There’s hardly ever a ‘good’ reason for fans to feel committed to taking over a club. It’s an action driven by necessity and the undimmed devotion to an institution that has seared its way into the souls of the people who gather to watch its trials and tribulations out there on the green sward. The story of Czech football club Bohemians is no different, except perhaps that on top of mismanagement there’s an unhealthy dollop of confusion and a less than clear legal position just to add a little extra spice to the plot. Continue reading →

Conduct Unbecoming – The 1967 Intercontinental Cup games between Celtic and Racing Club.

Any clash of cultures can be prey to disorder and dispute as two different, and sometimes diametrically opposing, views of the way things are conducted bump up against each other, with truculence and violence often the outcome. This can also be the case in sporting encounters when teams that are used to different ‘norms’ are placed on opposing sides of the same field. Whilst nowadays, the Intercontinental Cup, often now termed as the FIFA World Club Championship, is a structured, disciplined and well organised tournament, the early years of its existence were much less so, and the confrontations between Glasgow Celtic and Racing Club of Buenos Aries is very much a case in point. Continue reading →

Magyar Renaissance – The cherry red flame of Flórián Albert.

The Magnificent Magyars of Ferenc Puskás, Nándor Hidegkuti, Sándor Kocsis et al, who bedazzled and bewildered the pride of England’s Three Lions back in 1953, may well have been the greatest team in the world for the best part of a decade. Had they won the World Cup on a rain-sodden Berne pitch in 1954, there would even be less room for debate. When they were odds on favourites to adorn their glory with the Jules Rimet Trophy though, they squandered a two-goal lead to a West Germany team wearing boots fitted with revolutionary screw-in studs that allowed them to better adapt to the conditions, and the ultimate prize slipped through Hungarian fingers. By the time the next World Cup came around, South America’s Brazil and Pelé, the starlet who would become one of the greatest players ever to grace a football field had claimed the mantle. Hungary’s time in the sun had passed, the bright flare of their football dampened down by the aging of their Golden Generation, and a rain soaked Swiss pith. Now their accomplishments sat in the shadow cast by the, ironically, sun-yellow-shirted Brazilians and their exile initiated by Soviet tanks in 1956 precluded any return to their greatness.

As fires burn out though, just before their energy is spent, there’s often a late, last flaming of life, perhaps not as powerful as when in its hot and burning intensity, but still warm enough to give off a pleasing glow. For the Hungarian national football team, that late glow, arising as the embers of glory from the magical team created by Gusztáv Sebes were dying away, came from a new cherry-shirted hero; one that may even not have looked out of place amongst the luminaries of the mid-fifties. Continue reading →

The first Luis Suárez

Long before the Uruguayan version landed at the Camp Nou following his truncated and less than totally harmonious departure from Liverpool, a different Luis Suárez was wowing the Catalans in the famous Blaugrana colours of Barcelona. Rather than being part of a trident for the club, this Luis Suárez, became an integral part of a quartet, achieved hero status in Catalunya and then nationally, before being recognised as Spain’s first and, so far, only Ballon d’Or winner. He then took Serie A by storm and became a legendary figure for the Nerazzuri in Lombardy. His namesake, currently strutting his stuff alongside Lionel Messi in the Barcelona front line has a bit of work to do if he is to become recognised as the best Luis Suárez of all time. Continue reading →

Cheers, Tears and Jeers – A History of England and the World Cup.

After an early rush leaving empty shelves, Amazon have now restocked copies of my new book. Latest updates suggest that they now only have two copies left, but have ordered more.

Why can’t they keep these books on the shelves, why are they selling like hot cakes and why do so many think it is the ideal companion for the upcoming World Cup? Well, you can find out how England got to where they are now by retracing their steps through the history of the planet’s greatest football competition by purchasing your own copy here:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cheers-Tears-Jeers-History-England/dp/1788487559/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1525600833&sr=8-1&keywords=gary+thacker

Or, if they’re sold out again, you can go direct to the publishers website here: http://www.austinmacauley.com/book/cheers-tears-and-jeers-history-england-and-world-cup

Either way, don’t miss out on this book!

Turkey and Armenia – When football opened the door to reconciliation.

A century is a long time when counted against the essentially ephemeral nature of a lifetime. Many sentient beings would both arrive on, and then take their leave of, this earth in the scope of those years. Those same years though, counted against institutionalised memory of tragic events of mind-numbing intensity, the sort of trauma that leaves indelible marks not on an individual person, but on a whole people, may be but a drop of water in the infinite swell of the world’s oceans. At such times a rapprochement between two peoples may seem an insurmountable task. With each passing year, attitudes harden and viewpoints become ever more deeply entrenched. But even the most firmly bolted door can be unlocked when the correct key is found. And at such times, that key may lie in the most unexpected of places. Continue reading →