Buckets of cold water, wet pitches and floodlights – How Wolverhampton Wanderers rescued English football and forged the European Cup in the Black Country.

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On a chastening November day at Wembley in 1953, any outdated and misguided ideas about English preeminence in the football world were cruelly banished by the cherry-shirted Magical Magyars of Hungary. Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hideguti and their compatriots comprising a team that would go almost a decade with just a single defeat recorded against them – albeit in the World Cup Final of 1954 – delivered the sort of sobering wake up call akin to being doused with bucketful of cold water after a long and particularly intoxicating night on the tiles.    Continue reading →

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The trials of Bernard Tapie.

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For the French public, the Tour de France is a matter of national pride, and to deliver the home nation success in the three-week  event is almost a guarantee of acclaim, regardless of other misdemeanours. In 1983, Bernard Tapie provided the finance and teamed up with disgruntled French hero Bernard Hinault to form the La Vie Claire cycling team named after Tapie’s chain of health stores. ‘The Badger’ had suffered an acrimonious split from Renault-Elf-Gitane team and in in him Tapie saw a man smarting for revenge who could deliver the prestige he so desired. This would be no ‘easy ride’ however, Tapie demonstrated the character to not only contain Hinalut’s fury, but also added the maverick American rider Greg LeMond. In 1985 the team won the Tour with Hinault, and reprised the result the year after with LeMond. Tapie’s finance had created the team, but his dynamism, will to win and ability to hone disparate parts into a cohesive unit had made it triumphant. To his nation, Tapie was a hero. Continue reading →

Cup glory, a nose for goal and a couple of pints. The fairy-tale year of Raith Rovers.

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“Unthinkable surely for the skipper to miss.” It’s funny how things work out sometimes. The next words were, “But he has!” Jock Brown, commentating on the 1994 Scottish League Cup Final at Ibrox, uttered that particular harbinger of doom for Celtic’s captain Paul McStay in the penalty shootout that decided the game. McStay saw his shot saved by Raith’s goalkeeper Scott Thompson and the Kirkcaldy club, managed by Jimmy Nicholl had secured the unlikeliest of cup triumphs.

The unlikeliest? Well, of course it’s always a major coup for any club outside of Glasgow’s top two to land a trophy and for a second tier club to do so, only added to the lustre. But there was more to it than that. A series of coincidences, links and cross-cutting threads about the game and various subsequent events, marked the game out as a watershed moment for both clubs.   Continue reading →

Alex Young – The People’s Player.

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The monochrome format betrays the age of the film. A five year old girl is featured, centre screen. She looks at the camera.

A voice asks, “What does your daddy do?”

“Plays football,” she whispers, almost apologetically in reply.

“Who for?” she’s asked.

“Everton,” is the quiet reply

“Is he good?” The questioner goes on.

Yes,” she replies.

“What’s his name?” The gentle voice enquires.

The young girl smiles shyly. “Alex Young,” she says.

The sequence is the opening part of Ken Loach’s film entitled ‘The Golden Vision’. Released in 1968, it a tells of a group of Everton fans, their lifestyle and devotion to the club, spliced with film of Everton players, and a particular insight into Alex Young, the man whose nickname gave the film its title.

For many football fans, there’s a player who epitomises their club. There’ll be a consensus, unspoken but no less fervent for that, about him. He’s the player that you refer to in respectful tones. Not because he was the best player. It’s often the case that he may not have been; nor necessarily the top scorer or the inspirational skipper, but the player that did things as they should be done. He played the way you want all your players to play, and his attitude was the same. If you were a footballer, it’s how you’d be. For many Everton fans of a particular vintage, that player would be Alex Young. Continue reading →

The 1974 World Cup and the missing piece in Holland’s almost ‘totaalvoetbal.’

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The Olympiastdion in Munich on 7th July 1974. On a seasonably warm Bavarian afternoon, the coronation of Holland’s ‘Oranje’ was expected. Rinus Michel’s team had scorched the the pitches of West Germany with the vivid bright flame of their football. The ‘Cruyff turn’ had been born when Sweden’s Olssen, bamboozled by the Dutchman’s manoeuvre not only had to buy a ticket to get back into the stadium, he also needed a taxi to get back there, so far had he been sent the wrong way. A Brazil squad, shorn of Pele for the first time in a generation had eschewed their ‘jogo bonita’ for a style some called pragmatic, others called brutal. In a beauty and the beast contest however, the Dutch had eliminated the reigning champions. Whilst the Dutch masters created flowing football with the panache of an artist, the Brazilians were cutlass-wielding barbarians in comparison. Wherever they were when they saw the performance, the souls of the ‘Pearl,’ Gerson and Tostao would surely have been uneasy. Continue reading →

The Khrushchev of Burnley.

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Arthur Hopcroft described the late Bob Lord, chairman of Burnley Football club, using this phrase in his book ‘The Football Man’. Sad to say however that in researching this article, I’ve failed to find any reference to Bob Lord removing his shoe and banging it on a table, as Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev once did at the UN, but if I had, it would hardly have been a surprise.

Those of a certain vintage will remember the days when many football clubs were the fiefdoms of the local mercantile made good; when, a collection of butchers, bakers and perhaps even the odd candlestick maker sat in the chairs now occupied by accountants answerable to the interests of American groups, Russian oligarchs or middle-eastern magnates. These autocrats were the movers and shakers in football. Picture Ken Bates during his time at Chelsea, multiply it by a factor of ten or so, and you just get around the fringes of understanding the way it was when such dinosaurs ruled the football world – and the T Rex of such times was surely Burnley’s Bob Lord. Continue reading →

The Elephant who never forgot.

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The private lives of footballers are often the stuff of Sunday scandal sheets. On-field saints become off-field sinners, indulging in nefarious liaisons and the sorts of spending habits that reflect the old maxim of youth having more money than sense. Such are the impressions so often presented to the public by the behaviour of many Premier League players. There are, of course, some that defy such stereotyping, have a normal family life and somehow enjoy their wealth and good fortune without courting the notoriety apparently so thoughtlessly sought by many others.

It is unusual to hear of such things though, as ‘man goes home and does good things’ is hardly going to fill the voracious appetites of the less salubrious pack of news hounds – and perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, living life below the tabloid radar, and avoiding the harsh, negative glare of the public spotlight should hardly be a cause for celebration. After all, it’s what most of the population do all of the time, but just with a lot less resources. Sometimes however, there’s a story that should be told for the right reasons. Sometimes a footballer becomes more of a person; more of a human being. He becomes a player in a conflict far more important than any played out on a football field. Sometimes he can use his fame for enormous good. Sometimes you simply have to give credit where credit’s due. Continue reading →

The intertwined tale of Chelsea and Claudio Ranieri.

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Chelsea Football Club was formed in 1905 and fifty years later, they became Champions of England for the first time. The following year I was born, hence missing out by twelve months on the best year of the club’s existence up to that point. The next time they topped the domestic tree would be in 2005. Chelsea titles were just like London buses, regular as clockwork – one arrived every fifty years. Two years before the second title however, something happened at the club that would redefine perceptions of ‘success’ lifting the club to heights the like of which case-hardened fans such as me could hardly comprehend. Continue reading →

From World Cup glory to tabloid story. Lothar Matthaus: The man who fell to earth.

Lothar Matthaus of Germany

Back in January 2015, Lothar Matthäus, hero of the Italia ’90 World Cup victory, was embroiled in a bout of verbal sparring with Arsenal striker and compatriot Lukas Podolski. Speaking on German television, Matthaus remarked that “Lukas has his qualities; now he must prove them by bringing them back to the pitch. In the past we heard how he tweets more than he plays. He needs to concentrate on football.” The comments came during speculation regarding a potential move for Podolski to Inter Milan. It was advice that Podolski did not take too kindly to however. Apparently not content to leave it there however, Matthäus also took a swing at his former club, saying, “Inter is no longer the team of the past. Italy lost charm. Too many scandals, little modern infrastructure. In the 90s Inter and AC Milan have written the history of football, had players like Gullit, Van Basten, Hansi Müller and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Today the top players play in Spain, Germany and England, not in Italy.” The Nerazzuri tifosi must have loved that one. ‘A fanabla, Lothar!’ Continue reading →

The club that led Britain into the European Cup.

Hibs soon added Bobby Johnstone to a forward line already including Gordon Smith, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond

Hibs soon added Bobby Johnstone to a forward line already including Gordon Smith, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond

Although the European Cup is the the preeminent competition for club football, and participation in it is regarded akin to  a ‘coming out party’ as a top club for any who secures it, British clubs’ relationship with European competition was not always anything like fully committed. Continue reading →