Thursday, October 30, 2014

Greatcoats for Goalposts

Dave Zirin is rightly renowned as a radical sportswriter.

In the USA he is the sports correspondent of The Nation. His most recent book  Brazil's Dance With The Devil is a powerfully written exposure of the negative consequences for Brazilian democracy of hosting both World Cup 2014 and the Rio Olympics. He was named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World,” and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, ESPN and Democracy Now! He also hosts his own weekly Sirius XM show, Edge of Sports Radio. His other books include What's My Name Fool? (Haymarket Books), A People's History of Sports in the United States (the New Press), Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner) and, with John Wesley Carlos, The John Carlos Story. You can find all his work 

In Britain we have precious few sportswriters who combine Dave Zirin's radical politics and popular impact.

To mark the centenary of the 1914 Christmas Football Truce Philosophy Football therefore thought it would be a grand idea to invite Dave to make a rare visit to these shores and to lead a discussion on 'Why Sport Matters'. He gladly accepted our invite, and with the generous support of the RMT Trade Union, the Amiel & Melburn Trust and Thompsons Solicitors we now have a superb seminar organised in association with the journal Soundings which is FREE to attend. 

Saturday 20 December, 3.30-5.30 at the Rich Mix Arts Centre, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA

Dave will be joined by discussants  Tony Collins, author of the acclaimed Sport In Capitalist Society, Heather Wakefield, Head of Local Government at Unison, Nick Davidson, author  of a new book on German football club St Pauli  Pirates, Punks, Politics and Michelle Moore, an activist promoting equality in sport.  In the chair Anne Coddington, Programme Leader in Sports Journalism, London College of Communications, University of the Arts London. 

This looks like a fantastic event - you can book your place by following this link.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Defending Raheem Sterling

Originally written for my Beyond the Ninety column on the Voomfootball website.

Raheem Sterling has come in for some serious flak in the past 24 hours. England fans have been upset that the Liverpool midfielder spoke to Roy Hodgson before England’s game with Estonia and told the national boss that he felt jaded and out of form. With this in mind Hodgson replaced Sterling with Adam Lallana as England laboured to a 1-0 victory over Estonia.
It has been interesting to witness the variety of criticisms that have been levelled at Sterling. Firstly, how can a 19-year-old be tired a month into the season? Secondly, how dare a player who earns thousands of pounds each week be tired ever? Thirdly, who is calling the shots in the England camp? Each carries some validity but yet none of them really hold sway. Let’s deal with each of these in turn.

Those of us who have watched Sterling’s performances for Liverpool can testify to the fact that he is not enjoying the same rich vein of form that characterised his performances towards the end of last season. He possesses such pace and talent that he is still a potent attacking threat but his runs are meandering rather than incisive, his passes all too often misplaced. One may wonder how a player so young can be fatigued but that he is showing signs of tiredness is surely not in doubt. Moaning that he shouldn’t be tired does nothing to change this fact.

Raheem Sterling is handsomely rewarded for his footballing ability. Once his contract negotiations with Liverpool have been completed he can expect to receive around £100,000 a week. This is, of course, absolutely ridiculous and another sign that market forces are a complete nonsense. Workers in the public sector (nurses, civil servants, teachers) will go on strike having been offered a measly 1% pay rise. We live in a horribly unequal society. Football in particular seems to know the price of everything and everyone and the value of nothing. But, once again, this does not stop Raheem Sterling actually being out of form.

Finally there is a question around Roy Hodgson’s leadership. Is he letting the players call the shots? Or did he drop Sterling to the bench to placate the increasingly irate Brendon Rodgers? Frankly, who cares? The cult of the manager, complete with strong, interventionist leadership, is everywhere in society but at its worst in football. Hodgson made his team selection on the strength of the information in front of him. Such decisions are made every single day and don’t mean that players have more power than managers. Would that it were the case. As anyone who has ever gone to work can tell you, managers know very little about what happens. Given the way England are playing at the moment it might not be a bad idea to get rid of Hodgson and let the players work it out for themselves. 

Assuming that Sterling is genuine – not just pulling the footballing equivalent of phoning into work and telling your boss you’ve got the squits – then he is to be congratulated, not castigated. He is aware of the limitations of his own body, he is open and honest enough to tell Hodgson that he doesn’t feel at his best, and he has put the needs of the team above his own self-interest. Sterling is no fool, he will have known the expectation that people are placing on his shoulders. Under this pressure one might expect a teenager to buckle, instead he trusted his instincts.

Sterling’s body is still changing, still developing. He already looks a completely different figure to the spindly boy that made his debut for Liverpool in March 2012: his physique is bigger, his shoulders broader, his upper body more muscular than before. Without a strategy to manage this continuing development the incessant demands of the modern game will take a heavy toll. Sterling is still at the stage where he needs to be rested occasionally. The alternative is potentially career threatening.

And there are warnings from Liverpool’s own recent history. Both Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen burst on to the Anfield scene as precocious teenagers; neither would ever fully realise his potential. As I've noted elsewhere on this website: "In his first four full seasons playing for Liverpool Fowler appeared in 188 games. Over the same timespan Owen notched up 160 appearances. It was an incredible stress to place on the bodies of professional athletes who were little more than boys. The prodigious talents of both players dawned in an era of fading fortune for Liverpool FC. When Kenny Dalglish resigned from his position of manager after Hillsborough he left behind an aging squad, short on fire power. To exhibit such extraordinary ability at such a tender age was the curse of both men. The intensity of those early years – the result of a club desperate for glory, honours and revenue - almost certainly accounts for the fact that neither man reached his full potential." 

If Raheem Sterling is to avoid a similar fate then he must continue to be brave enough to know the limits of his own body. 

Beating the Franchise

Originally written for my Beyond the Ninety column on the Voomfootball website.

Some football matches are more important than others. Cup finals, relegation six-pointers and local derbies all mean more than your average game. But then there are some fixtures which have a significance reaching far beyond the confines of the pitch. They speak to us about the society in which we live, its divisions and priorities. Sometimes teams assume the roles of good and evil in a battle for the very soul of football. It’s just not often that this all happens in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Last Tuesday Adebayo Akinfenwa scored the winner as AFC Wimbledon beat the team from Milton Keynes 3-2. It was a result which brought smiles to the faces of countless football fans across the country regardless of which team they support. Why? Because this was more than a game. It was a contest between two very different conceptions of what football is and what it should be. On the one hand you have AFC Wimbledon, a genuine grassroots initiative. On the other, you have Milton Keynes, a club that will always be the “Franchise” and will never be the “Dons”. And their histories are painfully connected.

Wimbledon FC was formed in 1889 and for the best part of a century the club rattled around non-League football. Only elected to the Football League in 1977 they rapidly climbed through the divisions and were promoted to the top flight of English football in 1986. Two years later they beat Liverpool to win the 1988 FA Cup. For more than a decade the Crazy Gang, featuring the likes of John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones and Lawrie Sanchez, would terrorise the so-called big clubs, turning their brand of physical, direct football into something of an art form.

But their success was not to last. Unable to develop Plough Lane they were forced to groundshare at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park from the start of the 1991/92 season. By the end of the century their larger-than-life owner Sam Hammam had sold the club to Charles Koppel, Kjell Inge Roekke and Bjorn Rune Gjelsten. In 2000 they were relegated. Still without a ground of their own and financially unstable Wimbledon were faced with an uncertain future. Then in stepped Pete Winkleman.

Winkleman had long wanted a football club in Milton Keynes and it was much easier to steal a team from another part of the country than build a club from scratch. His pitch was simple: Wimbledon could move to Milton Keynes. This was a city without a club for a club without a home. After protracted negotiations with the FA and the Football League – both of whom had originally rejected Winkleman’s idea – the club moved in 2003. Winkleman personified vulture capitalism at its worst: wait for a business to fail, cherry-pick the parts you want and damn the consequences for everybody else. The effect was to destroy Wimbledon FC - screw the history, screw the tradition, screw the fans.

The closest the English game had previously come to a franchise side had been in 1913. It was then that Arsenal chairman, Sir Henry Norris, moved the club from Woolwich to north London, in search of larger gates and increased revenue. Instead franchising has been most closely associated with sport in the United States, where club ‘brands’ can be bought and sold and, in theory, transplanted to the other side of the country on the whim of a multi-millionaire owner. Milton Keynes is the only such franchise club in English football.

Wimbledon fans were rightly outraged by the way their club had been stolen from them. But they didn’t mourn the loss of their club, they organised. AFC Wimbledon was formed in 2002 and their rise through the divisions has been every bit as meteoric as that of Wimbledon in the 1970s and 80s. Their victory over the Franchise was just the latest in a series of milestones. But was it justice for what Wimbledon fans have gone through? Not according to Kris Stewart, the founding chairman of AFC Wimbledon.

“I can't speak for everyone, only myself, obviously,” said Stewart. “For me, I'd say that it essentially makes no difference – the Franchise still have the league place they stole, they still exist. No-one should ever have to play them. They shouldn't exist. "Justice", if it comes, will come the day they go out of business. And it was a tinpot cup. And we've been there twice and lost. And we shouldn't ever have to play them. But fuck me, it was great to stick it up 'em!”

“We spend very, very little time thinking about them. We have a great club and we're on our way home. We 'proved' whatever we had to prove back in July 2002 when we played our first friendly at Sutton United and lost 4-0. We have nothing to prove. We are Wimbledon.”

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Remembering Brian Clough

Last month football stopped to remember Brian Clough who passed away ten years ago. It seems rather odd to think that an entire generation of fans has grown up without him as a footballing reference point. As a player and a manager Clough was one of the great figures of the English game in the twentieth century. As a man, however, Clough was legendary: feared and revered, a perfect blend of talent, humour and outright arrogance. And he was, of course, the best manager England never had.

Clough made his debut for Middlesbrough in 1955 and quickly formed a deadly partnership - and lifelong friendship - with Lindy Delapenha, the first Jamaican to play professional football in England. Clough netted 204 goals in 222 league games for the club before moving to Sunderland in 1961. While on Wearside he bagged another 63 goals in 74 matches. Who knows how many more Clough would have scored were it not for the knee injury which ended his playing career at the age of just 29. This extraordinary level of success would continue as Clough made the transition into management. His Derby County side won the league in 1972. He achieved the same feat at Nottingham Forest in 1978, and subsequently secured back-to-back European Cup successes.

These accomplishments, astonishing as they are, formed only the backdrop to the very many articles which appeared to commemorate his life. It was Clough himself that took centre stage. As Daniel Taylor wrote in The Guardian, “Clough’s legacy should not just be measured by his European Cups and all the other trophies. It was the charisma with which he did it, with his own set of rules, and the way he mesmerised everyone in his company”. Pat Murphy, BBC journalist and friend of Clough’s, made a similar point: “what set him apart was personality - his ability to transcend his sport. Clough was a genuine one-off and there are more anecdotes about him than anyone else in the game.”

These anecdotes are at the very heart of Clougie folklore. Whether he was explaining his football philosophy (“If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there”) or knowingly referencing his own egotism (“You know that Frank Sinatra, he’s met me”) Clough was never ever short of something to say. This was a man with no respect for reputation, prepared to skewer the pompous and self-regarding. And he was the only person to verbally spar with Muhammad Ali and come out with a victory. There are other elements integral to the Clough story – being ignored by the Football Association, his 44-day stint in charge of Leeds United, that green jumper – but all pale in comparison next to his ability to deliver a killer one-liner. Yet, strangely, while writers all remembered Clough’s wit and wisdom, few, if any, mentioned his politics.

In the 1970s the National Front (NF), an avowedly fascist organisation, had gained a small but all too real foothold in British society. They stood in local and national elections, picking up both votes and new recruits in the process. But it was on the streets that the NF posed their most serious threat, intimidating and viciously attacking black and Asian people. Racism seeped onto the terraces and black footballers were regularly abused, sometimes even by their own supports. Anti-racists struck back and formed the Anti-Nazi League in 1977. Clough, along with thousands of football fans, was a supporter – indeed he was one of the signatories of the ANL’s founding statement.

Similarly, Clough would offer his solidarity to the miners who went on strike in the 1980s. As a socialist he understood only too well that Maggie Thatcher’s plans to close the pits would decimate whole towns and ruin countless lives. Clough marched with the miners, refused to speak to “scab” reporters, made donations to their campaign and urged others to do the same: “all right-minded working class fans should contribute towards the miners’ fund.” And this was not the only time. He had taken Derby County players to picket lines in the 1970s and marched against pit closures in the 1990s. Just imagine the controversy if Jose Mourinho was seen protesting on the streets about unemployment or Arsene Wenger took part in demonstrations against the privatisation of the NHS! Not that anyone could or should try to paint Clough as a prolier-than-thou working class hero. He had, as we all do, the vices of his virtues. His later life was marked by alcoholism; Alan Sugar alleged that Clough “liked a bung”; his treatment of Justin Fashanu while at Forest was shameful.

But his politics were a key part of who he was and how he managed. Like Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly - the three Scottish managers who dominated British football in the 1960s and 1970s – Clough imbued something of his working class upbringing and his beliefs into the sides that he managed. No one player was ever bigger than the club; teams played their best football when they were a collective rather than merely eleven individuals.

In the modern game there are plenty of managers who seem to think that by criticising referees or the FA they are, somehow, speaking truth to power. Brian Clough set his sights a little higher than that. His targets were racial prejudice and Conservative governments. Those who want to honour his memory would do well to follow suit.