Saturday, May 31, 2014

England’s Inevitable World Cup Failure Bingo!

Let the autopsy begin! With the mighty Peru brushed aside we can now turn our attention to the World Cup and England’s inevitable failure. Yes, I know I shouldn’t pre-judge the outcome of the tournament, but come on! This is England. In-ger-land. At the World Cup. There’s a set format for how this works. We all know it. It’s tradition.

We’ve already had Roy Hodgson dampen expectation during a press conference at Vauxhall. “We have a strong group of players, but it’s going to be difficult,” he said, reading from the notes Fabio Capello prepared four years ago. “There are a lot of very good teams in the tournament.” Next up are the pull-out supplements, the endless countdowns of top players and great moments, and adverts for shampoo starring Joe Hart. Because nothing stops the whispers of “dodgy keeper” quite like dandruff-free hair. Then, just as Adrian Chiles starts slapping on the factor 50, white van men and taxi drivers up and down the land will provide the bunting industry with a much needed boost by attaching little flags to every bumper, grill and mirror.

Before long the whole country is caught in the grips of World Cup fever – even those poor fools that pretend like they don’t give a toss. The politicians will jump aboard the band wagon: Dave will wish “our boys” all the best, Boris will squeeze himself into an England shirt again, Gove will tell us that the teaching of any year other than 1966 has been banned from the GCSE history curriculum. The England team will put in three average performances and squeak through to the second round. Andy Townsend will tell the world, “P’raps, just p’raps, the lads are starting to believe.” At which point the team will implode and be knocked out of the tournament courtesy of the obligatory penalty shoot-out fiasco.

As the last spot-kick disappears into the Brazilian night sky, sports journalists will start picking over the bones, scrabbling around to explain yet another oh-so-early World Cup exit. So, dear reader, I invite you to see how many of my predicted excuses can be crossed off from your card in this exciting game of England’s Inevitable World Cup Failure Bingo!

Every paper will moan that the heat in the Amazon prevented England from playing their high-tempo pressing game, but only The Mirror will claim that Frank Lampard said, “It’s like a jungle out there.” The Daily Mail will combine incoherent football analysis with rampant misogyny by blaming England’s failure on the players’ wives and girlfriends while simultaneously running a WAG sidebar of shame special. Someone will blame the hotel for being too noisy, someone else will blame the food for being too foreign. You can expect to see complaints about the refereeing, the travel, the length of the grass and the shape of the ball.

Of course Roy Hodgson will take a fair amount of flak – football is after all one of the few professions where managers can be expected to shoulder any responsibility for a dire performance. The ‘serious’ papers will castigate Hodgson for his tactical conservatism, bemoaning the outdated notion of “two banks of four”. In typically crass fashion the Star will run a piece with the headline “Woy Wage”, making light of the minor speech impediment of a man fluent in five languages. The Scum will go straight for a suitable villain, probably Luis Suarez, and publish an article blurring the line between overt racism and mere spitefulness. We’ll all denounce it but still find ourselves thinking, “well, Suarez does have form…” And we’ll all feel a little dirty.

No doubt some will take the time to lament the passing of the Golden Generation of England players, the dying embers of which will finally fade in Brazil. There was always just the faintest echo of New Labour about the Golden Generation.  They were bright and shiny and new, youthful, full of promise and – to the casual observer – destined to achieve great things. After a decade you would struggle to think of even the occasional bright spot, maybe the minimum wage, or the 5-1 win in Germany, but ultimately you were left with a profound feeling of disappointment. It didn’t help that neither had many decent options on the left-wing. They were so unbalanced that people you’d normally expect to see out on the right were suddenly spotted out on the left, Steven Gerrard, James Milner, Keiron Dyer, Roy Hattersley… But I digress.

The one excuse you can expect to see in every single paper is, of course, the number of foreign players in the Premier League. “They’re all coming over here,” the Daily Express will cry, “and taking our young footballers’ jobs.” Every paper will publish statistics showing that only 39% of the players in the Premiership are eligible to play for England, and you’ll see the term “influx” used so often that you’ll begin to doubt whether it’s a word at all. In response to the media hysteria surrounding this “influx of foreign players”, Greg Dyke will appoint Nigel Farage as the chair of a new FA commission looking into the future of English football, before withdrawing Tottenham from the Europa League on the grounds that UEFA boss, Michel Platini, is trying to straighten his banana.

Unfortunately some sports journalists have tailed – and occasionally surpassed – their news desk colleagues in seeing immigration as the root of the nation’s ills. Whether it’s the state of NHS, or unemployment, or the failures of the England football team those ‘bloody foreigners’ are an easy scapegoat. Even if it simply is not true. If there really is a correlation between the number of foreign players in the Premier League and the success of the national team, then you would expect to see England performing well when the proportion of foreign players in the country was low. But if you roll the clock back twenty years, to a time when 70% of the players in the top flight were eligible to play for England, you’ll find that the team failed to even qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

In their book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Symanzski make the case that players from overseas have, in fact, been hugely beneficial to the quality of the English game, bringing with them new techniques, tactics and ideas. They also argue that England, for a nation of its size, has actually performed relatively well at major tournaments. But, as always seems to be case when we are talking about immigration, few let facts or logic get in the way of a good old right wing rant.

Part of the problem is that some commentators confuse quantity and quality. If the Premier League was comprised entirely of English players, all of whom had the grace and style of Carlton Palmer, then the national team would still fail miserably. A quick glance at the England World Cup squad shows that where English players are good enough – Sterling, Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain – they get game time. At this point you have to start asking bigger questions about why so few players reach that standard. Why does junior coaching prioritise competition over technique? Why does the national footballing culture value ‘bottle’ and ‘heart’ over skill and flair? Sadly, the answers don’t generate the kind of easy headlines that the FA seems so desperately to desire. And heaven help ya if you start talking about money.

In between sending sexist emails, Premiership chief Richard Scudamore has found time to preside over an unprecedented increase in wealth for the top clubs. Manchester City currently shells out £5.3 billion a year in wages, making their side the highest paid sports team anywhere in the world. Not that the riches of the Premier League are restricted to the players. The average chief executive at a top-flight club can expect a salary more than 50% greater than those in similar positions at non-football businesses of a similar size. And this wealth is more concentrated at the top of the football pyramid than ever before; the notion of trickledown economics as much of a sham in sports as is in the rest of society.

Ever since the Premier League began in 1992, money – particularly from television deals – has flooded in at the top of the game and is now at an extraordinary level. Yet for all the cash sloshing around the era has been marked by debt and insecurity. The amount of football clubs – both league and non-league – to have suffered “insolvency events” in this period now runs well into three figures. If even a fraction of the wealth to be found at the top could have found its way down the leagues then football would be in a much healthier state. Yet the relationship between the Premier League and the rest of football is deliberately structured to prevent any such redistribution. For the sake of rampant profiteering the Premier League has forsaken the grassroots of the game.

This is all being exacerbated by the government’s continued response to the recession. Recently Kelly Simmons, the FA’s director of the national game, has attacked the “austerity measures” pursued by the ConDem Coalition:
“We have raised our concerns in government but we have to face the fact that local authorities, who have been such a big investor and provider of football facilities, are taking huge hits in their budgets under the austerity measures. If we don’t tackle this and work with local authorities this is going to impact football for the next 50 years.”
The debate around English football has an all too familiar ring to it. The closer you look at the national malaise, footballing or economic, the clearer you can see that the problems are the same: the rule of the super-rich, the lack of investment, the belief in austerity. And still the likes of Cameron, Farage and Dyke tell us that the problem is the ‘foreigners’ and expect us to swallow the line, like shaking a set of keys at a toddler to distract them whilst mum and dad steal all the biscuits. So when England come crashing out of the World Cup and the knee-jerk reactions begin, just stop and ask yourself how much trust you can really place in these people. The answer, I’m afraid, is sweet FA.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Lindy Delapenha Interview

What follows is an interview I conducted with Lindy Delapenha, Portsmouth Football Club’s first black player. Lindy was born in Jamaica in 1927 and came to England in 1946. Following his brief stint with Portsmouth he went on to play for Middlesbrough, Mansfield and Burton Albion. Upon his return to Jamaica he enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a journalist and broadcaster. Today, aged 86, you can find him hitting balls up and down the fairways of the local golf course and managing the club shop.

Inside Left: You were quite the schoolboy athlete weren’t you?
Lindy Delapenha: Yes, yes, I did most things. The outstanding thing I did with my school was run 16 events in two days, heats and finals. And that was the biggest thing in my life in terms of athletics – and I placed in every event! Things came naturally to me. It certainly wasn’t something that I inherited. I was encouraged. I had a sister but she wasn’t anything of an athlete at all. But my mother and father – my mother particularly – were very keen and very helpful and gave me everything I wanted. If I wanted a cricket bat I got it; if I wanted a football, I got it. These were the thing I got at Christmas.

There was a gang of us, instead of today when there’s guns and things and they shoot people, we got sports gear and had sports days in the street. I lived in a crescent, which was quite exclusive, with an asphalt road, and we would run down the street in spikes which made one hell of a row, but the people didn’t seem to mind. When I say exclusive, I mean we didn’t get a lot of traffic coming down there. We used to save up and get prizes, which we might do twice a year. We even went as far as having prizes for catching lizards! We would take the vine from the coconut tree and make it into a noose, then we’d try to get it around the lizard’s head, and whoever caught the biggest lizard got the best prize.

We used to manufacture things and get along much better, instead of riots, instead of fights, instead of gangs and things like that. Our gangs were sportsmen. That’s how we blossomed out, how several of us blossomed out, though probably no one was as good as I was, in my era.

IL: But football was always the sport for you?
LD: Yes, that’s right, football was the one really. I did some athletics later in the army, I ran for the British army for Egypt when I was out there. That was also where I was discovered as a footballer. I ran 10.1 for the hundred yards several times. I ran 10.1 at school, and again, six or seven times, when I was in the army, running on the sand in a pair of boxing shoes. I’m 5’8” tall – there have been some short, stocky, quick runners, one or two in the Olympics, but most people that run that quickly are about six foot. 

IL: You were at a boarding school in Jamaica?
LD: That’s right, I was at a boarding school, actually I was at two what they call colleges out here, Woolmers College and Munro. I wouldn’t behave at all so my mother sent me to a boarding school! I used to spend most of my days away from home, I would get a ball and go into the park and play football. We’d have plenty of different things during the day, football, cricket, even run races. There was a crowd of us who would go there in the public park.
Ken Dunleavy was at Munro. Having looked at my academic record, he figured that I wasn’t gonna be a prime minister or a engineer or a doctor. My mother had high hopes that I would be an engineer, but I wasn’t really interested in that. I didn’t have the necessary qualities for that, so I decided on football. Dunleavy decided that I was so good, in his estimation, an Englishman, (I think he played a little bit with Leicester City), and he was our sports-master at school. He was a very bull-doggy kind of a man, a very rough player, and he decided that it was in sports that my life lay.

He gave me a letter of recommendation to pass on to Tom Whittaker at the Arsenal. We knew I had to do national service at that time. In that era, you would have to do two years or eighteen months and we didn’t want anything to disrupt my football so we decided that the army Physical Training Corps was a good idea, to go down that route. We got posted to Egypt almost by mistake. I say mistake because I was never expecting to go out of England. I was expecting to get recognised in England after a trial with Arsenal. I had the trial at Arsenal and it went well, Whittaker was quite impressed. I told him I still had to go into the army to do my national service, and he said that once I was finished I should come back and see him.

IL: As I understand it you got to England in slightly circuitous fashion. You arrived by POW ship?
LD: Yes, I had passage booked on a prisoner of war ship that was coming from Japan, going through the canal and stopping at Jamaica. My mother got a passage that lasted fourteen days. Seven of those I balled my eyes out because I was only 17 or 18 at the time and I didn’t really want to leave. I realised that I was lonely. But it was helpful because the soldiers on board took to me, and they asked different questions about what I did in Jamaica. That became a conversation piece with the army people, and they helped me with what I would have to do when I got to England. They advised me that it would be very cold as well as the things that I would have to do and not do. 

I actually spent the first night in Southampton, the ship landed in Southampton, the Lady Nelson it was called, and I really had nowhere to go. I landed in a vacuum. Anyway, so they advised me, and I ended up in a camp. I mentioned the army and they put me in a place where the soldiers were staying. They advised me of where I could go to get this trial. I spent a few days before I decided to do anything regarding sports. I just hung around and hung around. I had a little bit of money in my pocket, but not much. It worked out. I went to the army naffi and got nothing but advice, the people were very nice. I ended up signing up for the British army and got into the Royal Fusiliers in London – the only regiment who could march through London carrying a bayonet. So I got posted to Egypt. I played football for the army, I ran for the army, I did some exhibition diving in the pool for the army, I played hockey for the army.

IL: And you were spotted by a scout in Egypt?
LD: I got spotted by a scout in Egypt, and I was given a very beautiful letter. I got two copies, one was at Portsmouth and one was at Chelsea. I never got it back. Having signed for Portsmouth I really don’t know what I did with the Chelsea letter. His job wasn’t a scout in Egypt, he had another job, but he was doing scouting. He wasn;t in the army, he had a civilian job. He’d obviously been watching me play for the army and run for the army, and he wrote this letter to Chelsea and Portsmouth. I went to Portsmouth because my best friend in the army, a fellow called Horner, lived in Portsmouth, and with no place to stay in a new country, with no idea of where I was going to live, or where I was going to sleep, he said come and stay with me and my family. He took me to Portsmouth and Bob Jackson – you’ll have heard of Bob Jackson and his bow tie – and Bob Jackson says we have a match coming up at the weekend where we’re giving players trials. I actually played at Bristol City in the London Combination, where all the reserve teams played, and I was a reservist for Portsmouth.

I would have stayed at Portsmouth for a long time because Bob Jackson was very impressed. I played against Bristol City and at half time he said he wanted me to sign a contract and that was the start of my time at Portsmouth. I would have been there for a longer time and played more matches - I knew Bob Jackson was very impressed – but the problem was that I played a reserve match at Aston Villa, jumped for a header and came down on the side of my ankle. I’d already played nine matches and was just beginning to blossom. The second year I was really getting into the game because, you know, Portsmouth were set. They had won the championship the previous year and they had players that were established. They had people like Duggie Reid, Peter Harris and it was hard getting into that side.

I happened to get into the side through Duggie Reid who wasn’t playing too well. Duggie was a big, cumbersome fella, big kick, who scored a lot of goals. I got into the side and was going nicely with nine consecutive matches and I played at Villa, jumped, came down on my ankle. I would be hard to describe what my ankle looked like within two hours. It was blue, purple, pink, grey, green – everything. It was three times its normal size. Because of that injury I lost my place in the side, I would have had it for quite while cos I was playing well, had scored a couple of goals. And you know football clubs, if you’re look as if you’re going to be a problem they won’t keep you all that long, unless you’re a Wilf Mannion or a Stanley Matthews or someone like that. 

IL: Just how good was that Pompey team? Were they the best in the world?
LD: Without any doubt. I mean, Jimmy Dickinson was superb. Jimmy Scoular was superb, but a bit of a rogue. Jimmy would kick you down as soon as look at you. I remember Bob Jackson sending him home from a tour of Argentina after they sent him off the field for some rough play. Then there was Ernie Butler in goal, big, tall, 6’3”, and as good as any goalkeeper, I suppose. He had two good full back ahead of him. Then you had the halfway line, Dickinson, Schooner, and Reg Flewin at centre half. They had a flying right winger in Peter Harris. The five forwards used to change regularly. There was Ike Clarke, the established inside forward, Len Philips. Len passed away a couple of years ago… Joan Philips was my first girlfriend…

IL: What was it like living in Portsmouth immediately after the war?
LD: I used to live in Portsmouth with a landlady. She was very strict and she’d report to the club if I came in late at night. They had several different places where the club would put people up. I was quite close to the seafront, maybe 15-20 minutes walk from the pier. Gosport was worse than Portsmouth. I loved Portsmouth. I used to spend a lot of time in the Savoy and on the pier. There used to be two dance places that they’d ring down bands, dance bands, every Friday night. I got into trouble one Friday night, I wasn’t playing in the first team, but I was on the verge of getting in the first team, and I walked into the place as bold as anything. I looked up at the balcony and saw Bob Jackson looking down at me. He called me the next day and rebuked me. He actually left me out of the reserve side. When I turned up to play he said, “Where are you doing?” I said that I had a match to play and he said, “You’re not going anywhere, you’re going home.” So I turned round and went home. I liked the good life, I didn’t think it would do me any harm, going to a night club and listening to the Ted Heath band. But they didn’t think it was a good idea.

A lot of people wanted me in the side rather than Duggie – he was a big cumbersome fella but he had one hell of a shot. I believe Bob Jackson wanted me in the side instead of Reid, but I kept getting these niggling injuries and I never really got rid of them until I got to Middlesbrough. There was something lacking in my blood. I had a blood clot in my thigh, and I had an operation while I was at Portsmouth. That stayed with me. I had a blood clot when I came back to Jamaica. But I had an injury free career at Middlesbrough.

I was only a young man from a small island. They wanted to keep me but the ankle kept giving me a lot of problems. After about six months it still gave me problems, pain and so forth, so I wasn't at my best. I played at Middlesbrough on my return and we beat them 6-1. I think Bob Jackson became enamoured by my performance, I scored a goal. David Jack was impressed and made an offer to Bob Jackson, I think it was about seven or eight thousand pound or something. He decided that that was good enough so I signed for Middlesbrough.

IL: Looking back through copies of Portsmouth's local paper at the time it seems that your names crops up as much in the cricket stories as in the football stories
LD: I played for the United Services ground, I made a couple of 60s and 70s, I made a hundred down there once. I had a trial with Hampshire, you know, I also had a trial with Worcester. The Worcester trial was unfortunate because I got there on a wet day, a sticky wicket and only made ten runs. But I had a good trial with Hampshire. It was my fault that I didn’t follow through – I was a man that went to the races, I went to the dog track and things like this., and I figured that I didn’t want to be tied up in the summer playing cricket while I’m playing football for the rest of the year. I wanted some freedom for myself. It was just one of those things.

IL: You went on to enjoy some remarkable years with Boro, didn't you?
LD: Yes, I was leading goalscorers for two or three years, I kept away from injury, except another couple of strained thigh muscles I was an ever-present. The players used to have a joke about it, saying that the only way Lindy isn’t gonna be in the team is if his name falls of the sheet as the manager carries it out of the dressing room when he goes to hang it up on the board.

There’s a story there as well because at the start of the season you have practice matches and there was an outside right there, so they played me at inside right. Jack says he wasn't impressed by the outside right, and it looked like I had plenty of speed and a good shot. Of course Wilfy Mannion played inside-right so I couldn’t take his place because he was such an established player and that would be asking too much. So he asked me I would play at outside right in the second half of the practice match. I went there and scored two goals, showed a lot of speed and Davey Jack was very impressed. And that was the start of nine or ten years at Middlesbrough.

I played in all five forward positions for Middlesbrough. I liked inside-forward but the best place I played was outside-right, because I had room, I had plenty of pace and that turned out to be the best spot. As luck would have it, I stayed there for eight, nine, maybe ten years. And you know my record there, I scored plenty of goals, and it was quite a feat to score that many goals from the wing. 300 appearances… I didn’t keep a record… but the reporters… 300 goals from 309 matches… 100 goals, rather!

IL: And of course you were playing in the same team as Brian Clough...
LD: I made a lot of goals for Brian. He wrote a book, an autobiography, and he sent me a copy. Him and myself and Taylor, the goalkeeper, were good buddies, and in this book Brian says something about how he sold me a motorcar. I said, “Brian, I did a lot more for you than sell you a motorcar, I also made you a lot of goals!” He thought that was very funny.

Brian Clough was, er, I don’t know how to describe him. I don’t have the words for him. He was a bit of a… He was arrogant, a very arrogant fella. He was a great footballer, and a brilliant goal scorer, but he was an arrogant fella. He was my best friend, him and Peter Taylor. Before I left Middlesbrough I sold him my car for £100. He died very young.

IL: In later years black players would suffer from horrible racist abuse at games in the English leagues. What was your experience as a black player in the 1940s and 50s?
LD: The abuse now is far worse than it ever was. I’ll tell you why. Because the abuse in my day was from a couple of fans, a couple of fan. The abuse on the field was not bad, just a couple of fans, that’s all. Nowadays, nowadays, it’s players, spectators… I got away with it. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen me, you must’ve seen me, I’m not black, I’m brown skinned. And, although if I went to South Africa I would be black in Jamaica I’m not black, I’m coloured, let’s put it that way. So I didn’t suffer it an awful lot. Also, I had a way of dealing with it. I had an incident late on in my career, a very strange incident. I was finishing my career at Mansfield where a fan abused me – nigger and all sorts of things – and I went over to give him a punch but the fans stopped me. And the end of the game I went home to find this man standing at my gate. I recognised him and he said, “Lindy, I’ve come to apologise to you for abusing you so horribly.” I said, “Well, that’s very nice of you, sir.” He says, “My wife sent me. I went home and told my wife about the incident and she ordered me to come and apologise.” And this all happened when I was playing at Mansfield. 

So I used to get around it in different ways – I didn’t get a lot of it, but when they abused me I treated it as a joke. I threw a funny joke back which caused a laugh. I have a funny sense of humour, and it helps. If you get into a temper and want to fight it’s worse. You must let it go by the board. I did that and it worked.

It’s got worse because it’s got among the players themselves. I never had any abuse on the field. My abuse came from spectators, and it wasn’t much, but it didn’t come from the players. I used to get on well with all the players, both mine and from other clubs. I think when you show ability the other players appreciated it, you know, and they didn’t abuse you. Nowadays with the Spanish and the Africans and the Germans and the Russians and the different races coming in… The whole world has gone mad… But I never had any abuse off the field in Portsmouth, it was more cosmopolitan in Portsmouth with people all coming and going.

There was one black person that I knew in Portsmouth, there was one black person I knew in Middlesbrough. He was a bit of a humourist. He used to shout at the top of his voice about his kid, I was his kid. “There’s our kid, he’s gonna score two goals today!” His voice was booming all over. It was the same every match, I was his kid. 

IL: Were you tempted to stay in England after your football career came to an end?
LD: I went to Mansifeld, and I played a bit for Burton Albion. I played with Burton, and we won the Southern league Cup. I came to England in 1946, about six months after the war ended, and I stayed there until 1964. I came back a couple of times, playing for Jamaica. I played once against an England ‘B’ team. I was offered a good post out here as the director of sports at the broadcasting station. I did football, I did cricket, test cricket, I did horse-racing, I commentated on lots of sports here, because I was the top commentator. I did quite a bit of it. I only gave it up only a couple of years ago. It was a chance to come home. I’d been in England quite a while and the weather was cold, and I realised getting older that the weather wasn’t going to get any warmer.

I had a heart attack about seven weeks ago – right in the chair I’m sitting in here. I recovered from it quite well. The doctors seem to have done a good job. I play golf every day in any case. I love it! Before I got the complete recovery, and before the doctor gave me permission to play, I was still going up the fairway with just one club. That’s the way I helped with my recovery. She didn’t know anything about it and I wouldn’t tell her anything about it! But I used to go up and down the fairway before she said I was free to go and play golf. I’m 86, so I said I’ve had a good life. If I’m gonna go it may as well be on the fairway.