Apr 142014
 

Consider your all time footballing greats; the likes of Diego Maradona, Eusebio, Lionel Messi. Now, we all know how very difficult it is to pick that one special player to rise above the rest, but had you considered that the players themselves are just waiting for your adulation, and can even become embroiled in a ‘war’ of sorts, even in the most luxurious, unconventional of battlefields?

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 Posted by at 3:19 pm
Oct 142013
 

With the talk of a boardroom takeover at arguably one of Italy’s biggest clubs having been constant since the beginning of the summer it now appears as if we are ever closer to reaching a conclusion to the saga surrounding Internazionale of Milan. The current owner, the enigmatic Massimo Moratti confirmed in the last few days that the sale of a majority 75% stake in the club to Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir could take place within the week.

The Moratti family have held significant invested interest in the Milanese club dating back to 1955 when Massimo’s father, Angelo, would become club president. This partnership would be a rather fruitful one which over the course of the thirteen years Angelo spent at the helm of the club saw Internazionale win their first ever European Cup in 1964 The trophy was retained just a year later when Moratti’s Internazionale side defeated Benfica in the final.

The baton was eventually passed down from father to son when Massimo took control of the club in 1995 with the sole goal of at the very least matching his father’s haul of two European Cups. However Moratti in this instance would only hold the presidency for nine years before taking over once again in 2006 after a two year hiatus. Massimo Moratti to this day has managed to win one European Cup after a Jose Mourinho inspired Internazionale side conquered the continent in 2010 with what can now be considered an ‘old team’. The legacy of this team did not last long with the figurehead Mourinho leaving to join Real Madrid that very summer. The club never really recovered and with Moratti unable to pump in the finances required to succeed at the very very top level in modern football, Internazionale have slipped down the pecking order within their own country and it appears as though Moratti has decided his time with the Nerazzurri is coming to an end.

Erick Thohir at just forty three years of age is a sizeably successful businessman with the main body of his fortune coming through the inherited family business and ownership of several Indonesian media outlets including the television station ‘tvOne’ and the Newspaper ‘Republika’. This fortune has allowed Thohir the freedom to expand his empire into the world of sport and Internazionale supporters may be able to take some solace in the fact their club wouldn’t be Thohir’s first venture of its type.

In 2011 Thohir was part of a consortium which led a takeover of NBA Basketball team, the Philadelphia 76ers, this coupled with his ownership of a number of Indonesian basketball franchises provided a solid base for Thohir to begin to understand how sports franchises worked and how to use his money to improve their success both on and off the field/court. It is interesting to note that in the takeover of the 76ers, Erick Thohir was closely aided by a former basketball agent, Jason Levien who has stuck with Thohir ever since.

Levien and Thohir then set their sights on a football franchise, this time targeting the MLS’ own D.C. United. Their takeover bid was successful in July 2012 with Thohir and Levien forming a three way ownership agreement alongside fellow investor Will Chang with the aim of propelling D.C. United to a successful period on the field as well as finally securing the funds for a new stadium which had been the source of frustration for D.C. United for a number of years.

The partnership between Thohir and Levien is an intriguing dynamic. Levien has a background within the sporting world having made his name, and money, as a basketball agent. This experience within the sporting arena is something which I believe Thohir is trying to tap into when purchasing ownership of numerous sports franchises. There has been no official word as yet whether Levien would be part of Thohir’s consortium if and when the takeover of Internazionale is completed however it would be a pretty safe bet to assume Levien will be involved in one way or another. The way I can characterise the relationship between the pair and the job Levien does to an English audience specifically would be to recall the role undertaken for many years by David Dein at Arsenal.

David Dein had a fantastic working knowledge of not only the business side of football but also the sporting side and as a result of this was always able to assist Arsene Wenger in transfer matters in a manner which greatly benefitted Arsenal. Dein knew how football worked, he knew how agents worked and how players in the midst of negotiations worked, he used all this knowledge to his advantage to persuade players to join Arsenal when in truth they had better financial offers on the table from other clubs. James Levien has been part of Thohir’s sports ownerships to offer the very same role, Levien as I have previously mentioned is a sports orientated man and knows how the business within sports works having been an agent himself. Thohir is willing to place his trust in Levien’s knowledge of the sports world and back him financially in order to achieve results.

Whilst there is currently what feels like a semi-permanent dark cloud surrounding the Milanese giant, things in truth can conceivable improve quickly. Internazionale are very fortunate in the sense they have managed to secure Walter Mazzarri as their manager this past summer. This may very well be the Moratti family’s final gift to the club. Mazzarri is an exceptional man manager, as well as a tactician as we saw during his years at Napoli, despite never making that final step and winning the Scudetto. Internazionale’s current high league position in Serie A is testament to Mazzarri however the 3-0 drubbing at home to high flying Roma really highlighted just how poor the Internazionale squad currently is.

There are players within that squad who have been brought in simply as a cost-saving measure due to the lack of funds available at the club. The recent sales of big name players such as Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o and Julio Cesar were yet again financially motivated measures. The club not only needed the money from the sales but also could no longer afford to offer those players the astronomical wages that they were promised during the club’s recent on field boom period. As a result we have seen the more talented players leave and less talented players come into the squad on sizeably lower wages. This was a measure that has seen Internazionale fall out of the cash cow that is the UEFA Champions League after finishing 9th last season in what was the club’s worst final standing since finishing 13th in 1994.

Internazionale knowing full well the finances were on the decline took a gamble bringing in Andrea Stramaccioni as manager following his successes as the coach of the Internazionale Primavera side which won the 2012 edition of the NextGen series. It was hoped that Stramaccioni being the impressive tactician he was could nurture through the crop of up and coming young players from the Primavera and keep Internazionale competitive whilst the money was not available for the big purchases which have characterised the Massimo Moratti era. This project unfortunately was probably started too soon for everyone and eventually ended in disappointment with players not making the grade quickly enough and Stramaccioni, albeit not free from blame, having to persevere with a lack of quality within the first team.

D.C. United, following the takeover of Thohir and Levien, saw their fortunes turn in a positive manner. They finished an impressive 2012 MLS campaign in second place in the Eastern Conference and third overall in the MLS. This was a huge improvement from the 2011 campaign which saw D.C. United finish a lowly thirteenth in the MLS. Thohir’s impact albeit coming half way through the campaign was significant and there is forward progress currently being made on the construction of a new stadium with planning permission having been submitted to the required authorities for a site near ‘Nationals Park’ baseball stadium.

Thohir is a billionaire and will be able to pump considerable finance into Internazionale, Thohir seems a very astute man as we have seen not only in his previous business ventures but also his alliance with sports mogul Levien. Thohir is rumoured to yet again be looking to surround himself with ‘football people’ by asking Massimo Moratti to stay on as part of the board for at least six months after he completes his proposed takeover. With the experience of Moratti and the sports brain of Levien, provided he joins up with Thohir in this particular venture coupled with the mammoth financing Thohir can provide this may well be the deal that rescues Internazionale. Money will be able to be spent in the transfer market and a lot of players considered ‘deadwood’ will be able to leave the club. With all this financing being trusted to a proven coach in Mazzarri the future may well be bright for Internazionale and it is a whole lot closer than people thought possible.

Sep 102013
 

Brazil 2014. As World Cups go, it’s probably the one you don’t want to miss – either as a supporter or a player. The tournament is being billed as a “festival of football”, full of “colour” and set with the backdrop of a “carnival atmosphere”. One suspects that these are just some of the clichés that make the 20th edition of the competition actually sound like something enjoyable to look forward to (unless you’re actually from Brazil but that’s a story for another day) rather than the act of over-dramatised trench warfare that modern football is often depicted as. From an English point of view, it’s the one party we don’t want to be looking in on from the outside.

With things looking tight at the top the current qualifying group, England travel to Kiev to face Ukraine this week. Three points for the Three Lions will mean that Roy Hodgson can pack his Havaianas and Ray Bans as a win will all but seal qualification and safe passage to Brazil with two ‘winnable’ home games to come. A draw would make things slightly more uncomfortable while a defeat will certainly set off alarm bells. Currently topping the group, England’s destiny is very much in their own hands and, while not an impossible outcome, it does seems unlikely that they will be missing out on the fun and games next summer.

However, it would be unwise to take qualification as a given. It’s exactly 20 years since England last missed out on a World Cup and Roy Hodgson will be hoping not to follow in the footsteps of Graham Taylor and the ultimately disastrous qualifying campaign for USA 94.

England were drawn with Turkey, Poland, San Marino, Holland and surprise package Norway. The Scandinavians started with a 10-0 victory over the hapless San Marino which seemed to set the tone for what turned out to be dominant qualifying campaign as they led from the front. Norway had played and won 3 games by the time they travelled to Wembley in October 1992. David Platt gave England a second half lead but Kjetil Rekdal’s stunning left foot volley meant that Taylor’s team could only take a point from what was their first match in the group. Playing catch-up, a Gazza inspired 4-0 win over the Turks, a 6-0 thumping of San Marino and another 2-0 win in the return fixture in Turkey meant England were joint top of the group with Norway and Holland by the time the Dutch came to Wembley in March 1993.

A stunning John Barnes free kick gave England an early lead before David Platt doubled the advantage. A young, promising striker by the name of Dennis Bergkamp pulled one back with a delightful volley just before half time. Just as England looked on course for what would have been a valuable victory, Des Walker was beaten for pace by the electric Mark Overmars and the Sampdoria defender ended up pulling his opponent to the ground. Replays suggested the initial contact took place outside the box but with just five minutes to go, the referee awarded a controversial penalty to the Dutch which Peter van Vossen dispatched with little fuss. This minor setback turned into something of a catastrophe just a month later as England could only manage a 1-1 draw in Poland, thanks to a late Ian Wright equaliser, before suffering a damaging a 2-0 defeat in Norway courtesy of goals from Oyvind Leonhardsen and Lars Bohinen – two players who would later play in the Premier League.

In order to top the group, England knew they needed maximum points from their remaining games. A comfortable 3-0 win over Poland at Wembley provided hope but with Norway also beating the same opponents shortly after, it was a showdown with Holland for second place. The penultimate group match saw England travel to Rotterdam level on points with the Dutch and knowing a draw was the absolute minimum they would realistically be able to get away with. In what was a tense encounter, things seemed to be going to plan as the score remained goalless going into the second half. Then with about half an hour to go, a speculative Tony Dorigo long ball was misjudged by Ronald Koeman and David Platt found himself in on goal. Koeman then cynically pulled Platt to the ground to prevent him from giving England a shock lead. The only decision that would have made sense would have been a red card but German referee Karl-Josef Assenmacher only saw fit to issue a yellow. The resulting free kick came to nothing and mere moments later, in the cruelest twist of fate, Holland themselves won in free kick in the exact same position at the other end of the pitch. Of course, it was the man who should have been sent off who would step up and break England hearts as he delicately lifted the ball into the top corner. Even watching it now, the ball seems to travel in slow motion as David Seaman desperately sprawls across the goal fruitlessly trying to stop it going in. Dennis Bergkamp soon scored a second against his future Arsenal teammate and travel agents up and down the country lamented the fact that it now looked likely that most English football fans would be doing their best to avoid taking any trips to America the following summer.

Going into the final game against whipping boys San Marino, things were desperate for Taylor’s team. To have any chance of qualification, England needed Poland could beat Holland – the very same Poland who had lost 4 in a row since that unlikely draw against England earlier in the year. The Three Lions also have to make sure they beat San Marino by a margin of at least 7 goals. Sadly, even this task proved beyond them as a calamitous Stuart Pearce backpass in the opening 9 seconds allowed Davide Gueltieri to give the microstate an unlikely lead. The seven England eventually did score in response ultimately proved fruitless as Holland quite easily dispatched of Poland 3-1 to join group winners Norway at the World Cup.

Fast forward to the present day. Just one point separates England, Montenegro and Ukraine at the top of the group. Anything less than a win in Ukraine and the home game against second placed Montenegro in October will take on even greater significance. England’s final match is then against Poland who themselves could be back in contention if they beat San Marino as expected. England will be favourites going into all three remaining games but having only managed to draw against each of these opponents so far and only registering wins against the two sides propping up the group, absolutely nothing is set in stone. The spectre of that 1994 campaign and subsequent failure should provide a cautionary tale about how costly it can be when you fail to beat the teams around you in qualification. Graham Taylor’s legacy is not something Roy Hodgson will want to emulate.

Jun 052013
 

How would you assess United’s season overall?

It’s been a fantastic season. Given what happened last season, the league was the priority. Van Persie was a huge signing but the first few months were strange. There were 3-2 wins away at Southampton, Villa, City and Chelsea. 4-3 away to Reading and at home against Newcastle. We had to score an awful lot of goals to win games. It settled down a bit in the last 3 or 4 months and tightened up an awful lot but it was certainly an entertaining first half of the season. It took a while to get going after losing against Real Madrid but United thoroughly deserved to win the league. It’s a long slog – 38 games in the Premier League is tough, physically as well as mentally. It’s a huge competition to win.

Were you surprised how easy it was in the end?

Yes, because it’s an 11-point gap. Chelsea got off to a great start and I thought they and City would be closer. Sometimes it works out like that. I remember when we won our first title in 1993 and it didn’t seem until the last couple of games that we were over the line but we actually won it by 10 points. The team played very well this season and thoroughly deserved to win the league.

What’s your goal of the season?

Van Persie’s at West Ham. His goal against Villa at Old Trafford was fantastic but the pass from Giggs, the control then finish at Upton Park were remarkable.

Game of the season?

There were so many in the first half of the season but I probably have to go with the 3-2 at City.

Player of the season?

It’s close between Carrick and van Persie but van Persie scored so many crucial goals in the first half of the season that he just edges it. Carrick’s had an unbelievable year, though.

What did you think when you heard Ferguson had retired?

Shock. I knew it would happen like that but it was always going to be a shock after so long and given all he achieved.

What do you think was his greatest achievement?

The longevity of it all. Most managers go through some barren years but not Sir Alex.

After we won the FA Cup in 1990, the trophies just kept coming. 38 trophies in 26 years tells a story. The game changed and he changed with it. He had a good team around him as well, coaching and medical staff. Sports science is a big part of the game these days. He rebuilt 4 or 5 different teams, it’s incredible.

What was he like to play under?

Great. There were no grey areas with him. If you worked your socks off, concentrated on playing football and gave everything then he was fine with you. All this hairdryer stuff gets bandied around too much. It didn’t happen as often as people make out and I don’t think it would have the same effect if he did it too often. You always knew exactly what the manager wanted and that was good.

What do you make of Moyes as Fergie’s successor?

Hopefully there shouldn’t be too much change. He’ll have his own ideas and philosophies and I’m sure there’ll be changes eventually but we’ll have to wait and see what he does to begin with. The foundations are there, the club has just won the league so hopefully he can continue that. He’s in the same mould as Fergie and he’s done a brilliant job at Everton with limited resources so hopefully he can continue where the old manager left off.

What’s his biggest challenge?

The sheer size of the club. It was big in 1990 when I arrived but it’s huge now given the global popularity of the Premier League. The enormity of Manchester United will be the first thing that hits him on the preseason tour.

Where do you think he might want to strengthen?

That’s down to him. He’ll have his own ideas. You always need refreshing. One of the criticisms of City is that they didn’t build on winning the league so I think he’ll look to make a signing or two. Obviously I’d be very happy with Ronaldo coming back or Bale making the move north!

——–
Read part one of the interview where Irwin discusses his time at the club.

Jun 042013
 

In part I of our exclusive interview with Manchester United legend Denis Irwin, we discuss his time at United, the reasons behind him signing for the club and who he got along best with.

Whenever fans and pundits reflect on their best ever Manchester United XI, your name always gets a mention. How does it feel to be arguably the best ever player in your position to play for the club?

Tony Dunne was a fantastic player back in the 1960s and Arthur Albiston was brilliant too, he was here for a long time. Patrice Evra has been great in the last 7 or 8 years since arriving. I was fortunate in that I spent 12 years here during which the club was so successful. I played in a great team so it’s just good to be remembered.

Which team did you grow up supporting?

I was a Wolves fan when I was younger. I grew up in Cork in the early 1970s so I wanted to be a Cork hurling player like everyone else but I supported Wolves.

How did it come about that United signed you from Oldham? What was it like the first team you met Fergie?

I’d had 4 great years at Oldham but I’d let my contract run down. United had beaten us in an FA Cup semi-final and I was looking to move. As soon as United came calling I jumped at the opportunity. I met the manager at Old Trafford and he brought me onto the field, explained his vision for the club and I knew I wanted to be part of that. There was no guarantee that trophies would come but United had signed Steve Bruce, Paul Ince, Danny Wallace and Brian McClair in the previous couple of seasons. Growing up in Ireland I knew just how big Manchester United were and was delighted to get to the very top.

What’s your personal favourite memory of your time at United?

The first year I was here when we won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991. It was the first time English teams were allowed back into Europe after the ban and we were playing a very good Barcelona side in Rotterdam. We were the underdogs on the night and Barcelona went on to win the European Cup the next year. They had Laudrup, Koeman and Ferrer in the team. It was a truly great night.

Who was the best player you played with?

Eric Cantona was special. We’d come so close to the title the year before he signed and he was the difference in 1992/93. I played with Roy Keane for a long time with United and Ireland and he was as good as anybody. Scholes was a fantastic footballer, and Giggs was brilliant in front of me on the left.

What was your relationship like with Roy Keane?

We’re from the same city and we’re fine. He’s younger than me and I didn’t know him when I was growing up but I was delighted when he joined the club.

Which player did you get on best with?

I was good friends with Paul Parker until he left but most of my friends were away from the game.

You went to Wolves with Paul Ince. What was your relationship with him like?

Very good. He was a fantastic player and played for some great teams. We got promoted in my first season at Wolves and I think they just needed a bit of experience, which is why Dave Jones signed us.

———-
Read part two of the interview with Denis Irwin where he discusses Manchester United in 2012-2013 and Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.

Jun 032013
 

Sam Wallace, The Independent: Chelsea 1 Rosenborg 1: Mourinho left with egg on his face after Chelsea held by Rosenborg

The pressure is on Chelsea, Jose Mourinho admitted last night, after his side failed dismally against Champions League minnows Rosenborg in an embarrassing 1-1 draw with the Norwegians. After his third successive game without a victory, the Chelsea manager lambasted his side for failing to convert their possession into goals.

Chelsea needed an equaliser from Andrei Shevchenko eight minutes after half-time to rescue them from potentially the most humbling defeat in their recent history after the Rosenborg defender Miika Koppinen scored in the first half. Another goal conceded from a set-piece was compounded by a sparse crowd of 24,973 and no progress, Mourinho said, in the rehabilitation of his injured senior players.

After defeat to Aston Villa on 2 September, the draw with Blackburn Rovers on Saturday and last night’s result, Mourinho said that he was “very disappointed”.

Dominic Fifield, The Guardian: Shevchenko strikes at last to save Chelsea

Chelsea must feel further away than ever from a first European Cup. Roman Abramovich may have his heart set on this competition, but the lowest crowd to have watched a home game under Jose Mourinho saw his team endure embarrassment last night. Rosenborg, seasoned Champions League campaigners but too often cannon fodder for star-studded sides, achieved their best result in this competition since they eliminated Milan with a 2-1 win at San Siro in 1996-97. Those in blue shirts departed with red faces.

Chelsea dropping two points at home should not be terminal to their chances of escaping a group that is far from daunting, but their displays are leaving the manager frustrated. Mourinho admits he is “alarmed” by his side’s recent results – they have followed defeat at Aston Villa with draws to Blackburn and now Rosenborg, with only one goal scored. Next they face a trip to Manchester United on Sunday.

Martin Lipton, The Mirror: Mourinho’s millionaires disappoint against team of average part-timers

No Style, no swagger, no zip – and the noose is starting to tighten around Jose Mourinho’s neck.

The official confirmation that Roman Abramovich has had enough of watching soulless football could hardly have come at a worse time for the Blues boss, whose excuse-making is wearing thin.

Proof of that came with the boos that echoed round the vast empty spaces of a half-full Stamford Bridge, leaving Mourinho to point the finger at the players who conspired to squander enough chances to win the group, let alone one game.

It was not anywhere near good enough. This was supposed to be the first step towards Moscow in May. Last night, it looked more like the start of the road to nowhere.

Phil McNulty, BBC: Chelsea 1-1 Rosenborg : Chelsea’s stuttering start to the season continued as they were held to a shock draw by Norwegian underdogs Rosenborg in the Champions League.

Rosenborg threatened to spring a surprise when Miika Koppinen turned in Marek Sapara’s free-kick at the near post in the 24th minute. Andriy Shevchenko headed Chelsea level eight minutes after the interval. Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou hit the woodwork for Chelsea, but resilient Rosenborg held out to force a draw.

And perhaps even more worrying for coach Jose Mourinho was a crowd of only 24,973 at Stamford Bridge, including a distinctly unimpressed owner Roman Abramovich – a miserable turn-out for a Champions League game.

May 302013
 

The sad, early death of Brian Greenhoff took Ken Gambles back half a century to the makeshift pitch on South Yorkshire wasteland where the future star paraded his precocious skills. Greenhoff went on to play more than 290 times for Manchester United and Leeds United and 18 times for England. He ended his career as player-coach at Rochdale. Ken’s game was restricted to university, local and finally veterans football. And, of course, following Sunderland. For Ken, reflecting on boyhood pals who did make the grade and those who did not, the phrase that comes to mind is ‘they also serve who only stand and watch’

 

One of the more unusual side-effects of growing old is that whenever you read an obituary,the first focus seems to be on how old the deceased was

Older than you and it is only natural; younger than you and it becomes a bit disturbing. When I therefore read that Brian Greenhoff had died on May 22 having barely reached 60, it was a double cause for reflection.

 

I was taken back to the 1960s with the realisation just how powerful early memories can be. I began Barnsley Grammar School in 1960 and one of the highlights of my first week was being given a French book, Whitmarsh book 1, which had three years earlier been used by Jimmy Greenhoff.

Jimmy was already famous in Barnsley for being a hugely promising footballer aand a current member of the Barnsley Boys side who won the English Schools Trophy beating Liverpool Boys in the 1961 Final.

Of course he later went on to have a fine career with Leeds (despite his atrocious dive for a last minute penalty in our 5th Round second replay versus Leeds at Hull), Manchester united and Stoke, being tagged as “the best footballer never to play for England”.

In late spring 1964, when I was 14, a local smallholder allowed us to construct a small football pitch in one of his fields next to where I lived. We built “proper” goals with crossbars, had wire netting for the nets, sawdust markings, corner flags, the lot.

We arranged with mates at school from various parts of Barnsley, on what memory suggests was a Sunday but it might have been in a holiday period, to come for a six-a-side tournament. Teams from Monk Bretton, Kendray, Lundwood, Cudworth and Klondyke duly appeared and we had a competitive afternoon.

On that bit of wasteland, however, trod three footballers destined to make top-class careers out of the game.

Brian Greenhoff, then just 11, played for Kendray. We knew he was Jimmy’s brother and was also said to be a real talent. So it proved as mainly against much older players he showed composure calmness and a huge amount of skill for one so young.

From Cudworth came Steve Daley, who again only just 11. We had had regular kickabouts with him and several others in Cudworth park and I knew him fairly well.

He went on to play for Wolves, later being transferred in 1979 to Manchester City for a then record fee of £2m. He was an England B international, played in the States and is now a regular on the after dinner circuit.

Finally there was Stewart Barrowclough, then 14 and playing for Monk Bretton.

He was a popular lad and went on to make an impressive 424 League appearances although unfortunately 221 of them were for the Mags.

Of course what time had in store for any of us we’d no idea and had I been offered then, in some sort of Faustian pact, the chance to be a professional footballer yet die young, I’m sure I would have taken it.

As it was I played a decent level of University then local football until I finished at 35 followed by a couple of seasons of veterans football in my forties.

Other than the three players I’ve mentioned I’m sure none of the other 30 of us played at any significant level and none provided even a footnote in the history of the game.

Two aspects of this recollection,other than the fact 49 years have passed, struck me most forcefully.

The first is the respect and adulation we give to those footballers who have made it, especially our heroes, who in some marvellous way remain forever young and untainted by time.

When our 1973 Cup-winners took to the field at half-time during the recent Stoke home match, I suspect I wasn’t the only one who really saw a black moustachioed Bobby Kerr, a lithe Dennis Tueart and an agile Monty rather than the procession of ageing stars who took the pitch.

That is how I remember them and always will along with SuperKev, Quinny and Marco. It’s a sort of immortality that fans of all clubs subscribe to and I can genuinely empathise when Boro fans grow misty-eyed about “cowboy” Hickton or Wednesdayites drool over David Hirst.

In the excellent football retro magazine Backpass it doesn’t matter whether it’s an article on Liverpool or Hartlepool, Bradford or Banbury, supporters recall their favourite players with real affection and it must be marvellous to be so remembered as the years pass.

The second aspect is just how much I have loved, and still do, the game of football which, despite its inherent disappointments and at present the predominance of money, can still enthral and excite.

So many of my closest friends are such because of football, primarily though not all through Sunderland. My daughter has been a season ticket holder at Sunderland for the past 20 years and is just as daft as me about the club (this is totally her own choice and hasn’t directly been my doing). I have met and enjoyed the company of so many good people in pubs, at away matches and in the North Yorkshire Supporters’ Branch.

To a lesser extent even on Salut! Sunderland I am able to share a passion for Sunderland and the wider game with other committed, enthusiastic and intelligent contributors such as Pete, Goldy, Sobs and Jeremy for example.

When you think about it, 40,000 players and 18 fans wouldn’t make much sense so ultimately supporters are a massive and necessary part of what makes the game what it is, which is something the authorities ignore at their peril.

The chance to have played professionally, particularly at the standard of Brian Greenhoff, Steve Daley and Stewart Barrowclough, would have been wonderful. Yet with age I’m glad I never had the chance to make that devil’s pact for I am more than satisfied with my life and involvement with the game.

In the words of Jim Riordan, “Football has taught me much and has given me some of the happiest memories of my life”. As for ageing or deceased footballers, once people have hero-worshipped them, they don’t become mortal again but seem like otherworldly beings who never grow old.

I will always remember from that sunlit Barnsley afternoon of nearly 50 years ago, a slight, blond 11-year-old with the world at his feet.

May he rest in Peace.

 

Oct 122012
 

I was lucky when I first used to go to Manchester United matches, over fifty years ago. Although the team was in the painful early stages of recovery from the Munich Air Crash they still often managed to play wonderfully expressive football in keeping with the finest traditions of the club.Take this description of United’s quicksilver style, written by ex-1930s Arsenal star Bernard Joy for a London paper prior to the Red Devils meeting the Gunners at Highbury in April 1960, under the heading ‘Busby Can Lead England Back To The Top':

‘United play a simpler and purer type of football (than champions Wolves) which is more likely to lead England back to world supremacy. United do not rely on specialists. They believe in footballers who can fill more than one position…But for injuries United would have had five inside forwards forming the attack at Highbury today – 19-year old Irishman John Giles, £45,000 Albert Quixall, Dennis Viollet, Mark Pearson and Bobby Charlton…This strange-looking attack succeeds because the players go where the initiative and the opportunity takes them. Each in turn is the forager, each a winger, each a spearhead thrusting at goal. The emphasis is on skill and positional play. The line is reminiscent of that of the Rest of the World at Wembley in 1953 , which contained three centre-forwards…What brilliant teamwork they displayed.’ ( Evening Standard, 23 April, 1960)
I read this article in the London Underground on my way to see United for only the fourth time and perhaps you can imagine the glow of pride I felt as I read these words of praise about my team from one of the most respected voices in the game.I was heading for the Arsenal Stadium, fore-runner of the Emirates,which always had a special presence as one of the great football venues.It represented so much that was admirable about British football. What could be better than Arsenal v Manchester United in such a setting?

Remembering Highbury

I always loved the thrill of anticipation when emerging from the Arsenal station to find the narrow streets and terraced houses blocking the view of Highbury until it suddenly loomed into view in all its refined Art Deco glory. On the day of that United match in April 1960 I was determined to see the haughty ‘ Marble Halls’ in the East Stand official entrance foyer, and I sneaked in nervously, expecting some uniformed commissionaire to toss me out on my ear like some grubby street urchin. I wanted to see the famous bust of former manager Herbert Chapman which sat on view in an illuminated niche. Chapman had been one of the innovative giants of inter-war football, first at Hudderfield Town in the 1920s and then Arsenal in the ’30s, making it entirely fitting that he was commemorated in bronze by Jacob Epstein, a world class modernist in his own right. This was just one more thing to savour before the match, which brought two undoubted giants of the game head to head.

Because of the grandeur of the stadium , with its AFC and ‘Gunners’ cannon insignia, I always thought of Highbury as steeped in history and tradition, yet in fact around the time I first went there its impressive East and West double-decker stands were little more than a quarter of a century old. In those days I usually stood on the raucous open terraces at the legendary Clock End or behind the goals on the covered North Bank, and the vista from either was magnificant.

However, for all the glories of the past, at the time of that United match in April 1960 it was Arsenal who surprisingly seemed more in need of a major overhaul than United, despite Matt Busby’s team having lost eight players at Munich little more than two years before. Memories of that tragedy were fresh at Highbury because the Babes’ last match on English soil had been here in one of the finest matches seen in the great stadium. United had won an awesome end-to-end thriller 5-4, a tragically fitting sign-off that is remembered to this day by neutrals who were there such as Terry Venables.

Perhaps because the Arsenal team of the early Sixties was a shadow of its former self, there was sometimes a curious mood among supporters, a mixture of gloom, resentment, sombre passivity, frustration and resignation, suddenly dispelled with roaring cloudbursts of exultation when a Gunner put the ball in the back of the net. Having dominated football in the 1930s through to the early Fifties, Arsenal were now in something of a struggle against mediocrity, lingering season after season in the lower half of the table. So, as we came to the penultimate game in the 1959-60 season, having myself recently seen United thrash Fulham 5-0, comfortably beat Luton 3-2 and lose unluckily 2-1 to West Ham, each time displaying passages of play of the highest quality, I fully expected Arsenal to get a good going-over, as befitted their position seven places below United in the league table.

Basking in the expectation of victory is, however, in my long experience, never wise. And so it turned out on this occasion. Defeat I could take, but this was something different. This was the first time I had seen United at close quarters when they were playing badly. Very, very badly.

Saturday 23 April 1960: Arsenal 5 Man United 2

United were inconsistent throughout the ’59-60 season, scoring four or more goals on eleven occasions but also conceding three or more thirteen times, including a shocking 7-3 defeat by Newcastle in January, highlights of which I’d seen on TV. By the end of the season United had scored 102 goals in the league , a total they have only twice surpassed in their history, confirming what a potent attacking force they remained, led by Dennis Viollet with his record-breaking 32 league goals , followed by Bobby Charlton with 18, Alex Dawson with 15 and 13 from Albert Quixall. However, I knew the team could slip from sublime to slipshod in the twinkling of an eye, which I always put down to there being so many youngsters thrown in the deep end because of Munich. They never really challenged for honours in that season , ending up 7th in the table, but as the goals kept bombing in it seemed that at least progress was being made.

However, a match like this one at Highbury could only kick lumps out of this complacent attitude of long term optimism. United were not only dreadful, they appeared not even to care, which I simply could not comprehend as a 14-year old who thought teams all stuck together at all times and fought for each other whatever the outcome. Especially if they played for Manchester United.
In beating United 5-2, Arsenal made it look easy, like the proverbial taking candy off a kid.

It’s worth saying something about the Arsenal team that day, which despite their lowly league position featured some excellent players, including their top scoring centre forward David Herd, who’d got 14 goals in 31 appearances, prompting Busby to sign him for United a couple of years later. Then there was Wales international goalkeeper Jack Kelsey, plus fellow Welshman Mel Charles at right half , the beefy brother of the ‘Gentle Giant’ John Charles. Playing at centre half was the craggy, hard-tackling Scotsman Tommy Docherty, who of course became United’s manager in the 1970s.

United came running out for kick off looking full of shining confidence in their all-white, red-trim ‘away’ strip, but that was rapidly blown away when Danny Clapton gave the Gunners the lead after just six minutes. Mark ‘Pancho’ Pearson, always one of my favourites, equalised quickly with a cracker and I thought United were going to pull themselves together, only to concede again almost immediately through inside-left JImmy Bloomfield, who ended up with a well-deserved hat-trick. Johnny Giles made it 2-2 just before half time but in the second half Arsenal ran riot, rattling in three more goals as United cravenly fell apart, the last one coming two minutes from the end, scored by right half Gerry Ward. I was aghast, but at least my favourite, goalkeeper Harry Gregg wasn’t at fault for any of the five goals.

I was stunned by how bad United had been, with only Giles and Pearson making any sort of show although mercifully there had been one moment of light relief. Tommy Docherty had his name taken after he’d belted the ball at the ref in protest at a free kick being given against him for a non-existent foul on Pearson. The ball ended up in the crowd who gleefully refused to give it back, prompting Kelsey to sit down on the grass as if he didn’t care one way or the other if the ball was returned.Apart from this little Rooney-esque moment the Doc was magnificent, blocking out the much-vaunted United forward line from beginning to end.

Matt Busby was later said to be furious at this sloppy, lacklustre performance, which I could fully understand. For me it had been a chasteningg experience, being only the fourth time I’d seen United in the flesh. It brought home to me just how far the Red Devils had to go before they would be seriously challenging for honours again and Bernard Joy’s fine words now rang very hollow.I felt flattened and disappointed as I made my way back to the Underground for my long journey home, surrounded by unusually jubilant Arsenal fans who were coming towards the end of a hard season on a high.

‘Reminder to Manchester United: All the soccer skill in the world amounts to nothing without possession of the ball. That’s why United crashed at Highbury. In defence and attack they showed end of season lethargy. They were slow to challenge for the ball and to take up position….United did not go down without a show of tantrums. Their annoyance instead of being directed at Arsenal, should have been aimed at themselves.’ (Daily Mirror, 25 April, 1960)
The press were pretty scathing about United’s performance:

‘But, oh, how disappointing the Busby Boys! And how sad to see then indulging in shirt-pulling and over-robust tackling’ ( Daily Express, 25 April 1960)
I too would have probably put the whole woeful performance down to ‘end of season lethargy’ if it hadn’t been for a disturbing report a few days later in the Sunday Dispatch, just after United ended their season by thrashing Everton 5-0 with a brilliant display of attacking football. The shocking headline declared: ‘Busby demands match-fixing probe’

According to the Dispatch Sports Editor George Rutherford, the United manager Matt Busby had ‘called on the Football League and the Football Association to investigate allegations that for weeks have been sweeping the country, directing suspicion at all the League’s 92 clubs.’

Then came the really disturbing bit for me, having myself sensed something was wrong at Highbury the week before: ‘He (Busby) hit out at rumour-mongers yesterday, after his club had become the latest storm-centre in a spate of vicious stories that matches are being “sold” to bring off betting coups.United were said to have “sold” their match against Arsenal at Highbury last week when they were beaten 5-2. Mr Busby’s answer to the whispers was “Utter nonsense” .He said : ” The situation has reached such a pitch that any team that loses is in danger of being accused of throwing a game.It is important to sift out the truth and put the public’s mind at rest. Unless it is checked the situation will only get worse. There should be an investigation. ” (The Sunday Dispatch, 1 May, 1960)

The report added that other managers were ‘gravely concerned’ too, including Arsenal’s George Swindin who said single-match betting was the real danger.
‘Now Matt Busby, one of football’s most respected managers has given the lead for this slur on the game to be expunged’ (Dispatch)

All agreed that urgent action was required to get the situation under control so the next season could start with ‘a clear conscience’

For days after this I would scan the papers for more information , expecting such scandalous allegations to attract enormous press coverage and lead to a full investigation, perhaps followed by criminal prosecutions. I dreaded the thought that my beloved United would be found to be involved in anything as underhand as match-fixing, whether bribing opponents or ‘throwing’ matches for money. But there was nothing. I never saw the issue mentioned again, and I assumed all was well, none of my heroes were tarnished. Then suddenly the whole subject flared up again in a much more substantial way some three years later, only this time United were not involved. At least on the surface.

The Sheffield Wednesday match-fixing scandal of 1963

I had long forgotten the shadow hanging over United from 1960 when suddenly a Sunday paper came out with a major scoop which didn’t involve United but raised the whole match-fixing issue on a much larger scale at the end of the 1962-63 season, when United were struggling against relegation in the league but heading for Wembley in the FA Cup.
The People accused three Sheffield Wednesday players, Peter Swan, Tony Kay and David ‘Bronco’ Layne of conspiring to lose a match against Ipswich Town the previous year which eventually led to all three being convicted, banned from football for life and sent to prison. What made it worse was that Swan was the current England centre half and Kay had also played for his country. It was a stunning investigative coup in those pre-phone hacking days, and there was more. It emerged that the Wednesday 2-0 defeat was only part of a wider conspiracy as former Everton player Jimmy Gauld admitted two other matches had been fixed on the same day , Lincoln v Brentford and York v Oldham. It was widely suspected that this was just the tip of the iceberg, that many more footballers were corrupt and that match-fixing was rife. Remembering 1960 I waited in fear of United finally being exposed, which would have broken my heart. Again I would nervously pore over the papers every day as rumours circulated, but nothing emerged to implicate United or any other major players and the issue gradually faded out of public consciousness. I relaxed and assumed – or wanted to believe – that United were clean. There the matter lay as far as I was concerned until nearly thirty years later.

A Strange Kind of Scandal

In 1991 the former United youth-team player Eamon Dunphy published his groundbreaking biography, A Strange Kind of Glory:Sir Matt Busby & Manchester United, which remains essential reading for anyone wishing to understand not just Busby and United but also the often harsh and sometimes ruthless world of football during that period . As an Irish kid trying to make his way in the game , Dunphy, who ultimately enjoyed a solid career at Millwall (as recorded in his brilliant earlier book Only a Game?), had a close up view of all the key players and the coaching staff at Old Trafford. That gives his writing a compelling immediacy, allied to his strong sense of history and trenchant political views. It was perhaps these qualities that made him the ideal ‘ghost’ to help Roy Keane write his even more controversial autobiography in 2002.

Anyway, Dunphy devotes a couple of measured but telling pages to the match-fixing issue, which prompted unwelcome reminders of my own suppressed anxieties on the matter. Placing the issue in the context of the troubled, faction-riven dressing room at Old Trafford in the early ’60s as United struggled to recover from Munich, he has this to say about what happened after the Sheffield Wednesday corruption was exposed:

‘The match-rigging scandal touched Manchester United when two Daily Mail journalists travelled to Blackpool, where the team were staying at the Norbrek Hydro, to confront United goalkeeper Harry Gregg and some of his colleagues with allegations that they had been party to the conspiracy. Busby was deeply shocked when confronted with the allegation that a small group of players had sold games. Unable to confirm the story, Busby persuaded the Daily Mail not to publish the allegations. He then convened a meeting of United’s players at which he warned that anyone caught or even suspected of match-rigging would be out the door. The matter ended there.’ (A Strange Kind of Glory, p.270-1)

Dunphy says that Gregg confirmed to him that there was substance to the allegations and that he was asked to throw matches several times between 1960 and ’63. He had refused to take part himself but told Dunphy that other players – whom he named – had thrown matches. One of those accused by Gregg admitted to Dunphy that there was a lot of discussion about fixing but insisted that nothing ever came of it. Others, ‘innocent of involvement’, Dunphy says, ‘acknowledge that on occasions there did appear to be something odd about United’s performances’ (Glory, p.271).

Admitting that it’s impossible to be certain on the basis of hearsay evidence which may be ‘contaminated by personal grievance’ Dunphy concludes with words that still strike a cold chill: ‘There is no doubt in my mind that Manchester United players did conspire to fix the result of at least three games during the ’60/ ’63 period. It is widely accepted within the game that those convicted in the ensuing (Sheffield Wednesday ) scandal were not the only prominent players involved in the match-rigging conspiracy’ (Glory, p.271)

Given that the only contemporary documentation specifying a particular fixed match was the Sunday Dispatch article which referred to United’s 5-2 defeat at Highbury in April 1960, I was forced to conclude that certain United players may indeed have thrown that match. The uncertainty about it all leaves a shadow over what should have been a relatively happy memory, even though United lost. Defeat I can take, but not selling your soul.

In the wake of Dunphy’s book there was some speculation about match-rigging , but no clear-cut allegations or names named which would have stood up in court, just rumours. The issue then died down again for another decade, until Dunphy’s chief source and old friend at Old Trafford Harry Gregg broke his silence.

Harry Gregg’s ‘Bad Bet’

The first United-related book I got was Harry Gregg’s autobiography, Wild About Football, published in 1961, still a treasured possession. Unsurprisingly it made no mention of match-rigging. He was a great hero of mine because of his bravery at the time of Munich when he went back into the burning aircraft and rescued people at great risk to his own life. He dislikes talk of his heroism, saying his actions were purely instinctive, although one can see from the recent alleged behaviour of the captain of a certain sinking Italian cruise-liner that instincts can take people in very different directions. Gregg was also my hero as a magnificent goalie, who I never tired of seeing in action with his flying leaps, fingertip saves and clattering encounters with sharp-elbowed centre-forwards. As soon as Harry published a new book, Harry’s Game:The Autobiography in 2002 I rushed out to get it, having forgotten all about the match-fixing controversy. The book is a good read, giving a sometimes painfully honest account of his conflicts with others in football – including clashes with colleagues at Old Trafford over corruption.

He devotes part of a chapter entitled ‘A Bad Bet’ to the match-rigging issue, broadly confirming Dunphy’s account. Harry says that the first time he realised there was something going on was when the young Irish full-back Joe Carolan came to ask for advice: ‘I was totally caught by surprise when Joe, who I must stress was not involved, asked for a quiet chat. We went to the boot room and he said: ‘Have they been to see you yet?’ I asked what about and he told me they’d offered him the chance to earn some extra readies on the fixed games and he didn’t know what to do.I replied: ‘They won’t come to see me,’ and advised Joe to ‘Go deaf, son’. (Harry’s Game, p.93-4)

I was pleased that Joe comes out of this well as he was a decent player in the first couple of seasons after Munich and never let the side down. He was playing at left back at Highbury on that fateful day in 1960, incidentally.
As it turned out, Harry was wrong. ‘They’, whoever they were, did come to him, in the treatment room when he was being treated by physio Ted Dalton. When Ted was out of the way the two players talked loudly about there being ‘a few bob to be made’ .Harry said to them: ‘Here, that’s the second time I’ve heard that. If I hear it again I’ll be straight upstairs and you won’t have to bloody ask who told’ (Harry’s Game, p.94). They backed down, saying he was ‘mad’ and claiming they were only kidding.

The next time the issue came up was when the Daily Mail reporters approached him at the Norbrek Hydro in Blackpool, as mentioned by Dunphy. They said they’d heard Harry had ‘stopped United throwing games’ and told him more of what they had discovered, which he found convincing, although he didn’t confirm anything that he knew, on the basis that wasn’t going to ‘throw teamates to the press pack’. Alarmed by the whole thing Gregg gathered the team together and told them what the Mailmen had told him and warned them all off: ‘I said I didn’t want anything to do with it’.

At this same time there was an Irish League v Football League representative match in Blackpool, covered for the Sunday Express by Spurs captain Danny Blanchflower, brother of United’s Jackie, who’d been badly injured at Munich. The two Mail reporters started deliberately talking loudly in front of the Irishman about match-fixing. Danny challenged them, saying, ‘I sincerely hope you’re not suggesting Tottenham Hotspur’. One hack replied, ‘No, but I’m afraid we can’t say the same for your brother’s club’. United’s Wilf McGuiness, on crutches following the injury that forced him to quit as a player, heard all this and angrily confronted the journalists, threatening to tell the boss, which suited them as they’d been trying to talk to Busby for two days.

Harry now raised the matter with trainer Jack Crompton (United keeper in the 1948 FA Cup Final) who clearly knew nothing, so he finally decided to take it up with Busby.He knocked on the manager’s door and went in: ‘Matt was sitting behind his big desk and I pre-empted the conversation by telling him there was no way I was going to give any names. He asked what I was on about and I said I didn’t mind having lumps kicked out of me, but I wasn’t sure who was playing for or against us . He ranted and raved, saying over and over: ‘I bloody knew’. And this was from a man not noted for his histrionics or foul language. Obviously, I’d merely confirmed what Matt already suspected.’ (Harry’s Game, p.95)

Matt received a letter of apology from the editor of the Daily Mail which he read out to the players , presumably as a stern warning about their future conduct. As Harry says, ‘It’s the only time , aside from Munich, I actually felt sorry for him. What a blow to your pride, to your respect for what had been built at Old Trafford’.

Gregg says that he got ‘incontrovertible proof ‘ of match-fixing in 1964 when he was dropping off a player in his car and the man, who was aggrieved about other matters ,admitted what he’d done and named the others involved.

‘I left Manchester United in 1966,’ Harry says, ‘and I know that after my departure games were thrown’ (Harry’s Game, p.96)
It would be wonderful to be able to say all these rumours and dark tales of the Sixties couldn’t possibly be true at an institution such as Manchester United. But that would be to ignore certain unsavoury aspects of the club’s sometimes chequered past.

Question marks over Billy Meredith at City
Even the circumstances of United’s first Golden Age before the First World War included unresolved allegations regarding football’s first super-star, the Wizard of the Dribble, Billy Meredith, when he was at Manchester City. In 1906 he was accused of trying to bribe an Aston Villa player to throw a match, leading to an 8-month ban. The controversy around this spread into a wider investigation of all sorts of irregularities at City, who had won the FA Cup in 1904, leading to the near complete dismantling of their team. Numerous City players and officials were banned for long periods and told they could never play for the club again.

United’s shrewd secretary-manager Ernest Mangnall promptly swooped to sign four of City’s best players, starting with Meredith in October 1906, although he couldn’t play until his ban expired in January 1907. Next United nabbed three more top quality players, including goal-scoring centre forward Sandy Turnbull together with Herbert Burgess and Jimmy Bannister. There was surprisingly little resentment from City towards United who were now in a strong position to challenge for silverware, winning the league twice in the next four years and the FA Cup in 1909.

The irony is that Meredith was extremely lucky not to have faced a lifetime ban for his attempted match-fixing. He never really gave a satisfactory explanation for what had gone on although he did produce a letter which appeared to show that whatever it was had been approved by the City management. His usual response when questioned about the attempted bribe was to laugh and change the subject.

The case of Enoch ‘Knocker’ West in 1915

There was an even more clear-cut match-fixing scandal at the end of the 1914-15 season, the last one before normal football was closed down for the duration of the world war. Saddled with debts after the building of the magnificent new stadium at Old Trafford in 1910 and sliding into mediocrity on the field, United were staring at relegation when they faced Liverpool on Easter Friday in April 1915. United beat Liverpool 2-0 with surprising ease, provoking ever more strident demands for a full investigation after strong indications that the match had been fixed. The upshot was that three United players, plus four from Liverpool and one from Chester were banned for life, including United’s Sandy Turnbull, Arthur Whalley and Enoch ‘Knocker’ West, whose goals had powered the team to their secong league title in 1910-11. West was the only United player who’d actually played in the offending match, which helped secure the Reds’ place in the top division, and he proclaimed his innocence for the rest of his life. Those protestations ironically probably ensured his ban was maintained long after the others had theirs lifted, in recognition of their service in the War.That reprieve was too late for Sandy Turnbull who was killed in action at Arras in 1917.

Enoch West’s ban was finally lifted after the Second World War in 1945, when he was 62 – still protesting his innocence.
‘Call me an idealist’
Some people may see these stories of possible, or probable, or proven match-fixing as colourful tales from a distant past that don’t really matter. But it matters to me. I want United to be squeaky clean , at all times, on and off the field. For over fifty years I and countless thousands of others have supported United in the belief that each and every player will try their best. They won’t always win, they won’t always even play well, but they owe it to us all not to betray us or their team mates. That’s why I still find it deeply depressing to think there may have been something corrupt at the heart of United’s team that day in April 1960. All of those players in sparkling all-white were my heroes then. Did any of them betray United?

Harry Gregg was playing that day, so let me leave the final words to him: ‘I always considered it a privilege to be paid for playing football. But with that privileged position comes a certain responsibility. Call me an idealist, but I firmly believe that each and every player, coach, and manager is duty bound to do their best. We owe it to the game, and to those not blessed with the skill and opportunity that takes you to the top’. (Harry’s Game, p.92)

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Oct 092012
 

“Jimmy Murphy has never been given the accolade he deserved for enabling Manchester United’s revival. He was destined to live in Busby’s shadow but there is no denying the debt Sir Matt and the club owed him even though today he is sometimes forgotten by revisionist historians.” Michael Parkinson

“Whatever I have achieved in football, I owe to one man and only one man – Jimmy Murphy.” Sir Bobby Charlton

Jimmy Murphy is a Welsh footballing legend. Fact. Murphy’s career is one of football’s great stories in itself. The fact that he is immortalised in a memorial in Old Trafford’s museum shows the huge respect that is afforded the great man at United. The club’s annual Young Player of the Year award is even titled the ‘Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award’ in ode to man’s incredible ability to nurture upcoming talent which included the great Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton. The man became an inspiration to Matt Busby and with that an inspiration to one of the greatest clubs on this planet. Murphy was around a long time before me, but what I know of the man I place him as one of the all-time great Welsh sport personalities and maybe even just one of the greatest Welsh personalities ever. In some respects, Murphy has slipped into the back seats of history, but there was ample opportunity for Murphy to become one of the greatest coaches in football history – he just didn’t want to be.

The Rhondda Valleys, Ton Pentre to be exact, can lay claim for the upbringing of one of Welsh football’s greatest. James Patrick Murphy was born on 10th August 1910 to a Welsh mother and Irish father, planting him with very strong Celtic links. The house he was brought up on Treharne Street is now recognised with a plaque to commemorate Murphy. Football would be Murphy’s life from a very young age and he went on to play for numerous youth teams in Rhondda Valleys throughout his teenage years, although Murphy also demonstrated a talent for music as he played the organ at Treorchy church as a boy and his parents hoped he’d become a teacher. Murphy’s footballing prowess would impress enough for him to be selected for Wales schoolboys and this would be the catalyst for his football career as scouted came along to watch the talented Rhondda boy. Murphy was signed up by West Brom and made the switch from the South Wales Valleys to the Black Country.

The 17-year old Murphy would make the switch to West Brom in 1928, a time when the club were entering some success after promotion from the Second Division and winning the 1931 FA Cup. Murphy had made his debut the year before in March 1930 in a 1-0 away defeat to Blackpool, but during West Brom’s successful promotion and FA Cup winning 1930/31 season Murphy could not establish himself in the first team. On promotion to the First Division, Murphy became a first choice player, playing at his favoured position of wing half and he would maintain this place in the side for almost the entirety of his time at the Hawthorns. Murphy would go on to make over 200 appearances for West Brom and help cement the Baggies as an established First Division side. Murphy helped the club get to another FA Cup final in 1935, but unlike their 1931 success, West Brom succumbed 4-2 to Sheffield Wednesday in the final. As well as becoming a stalwart for West Brom, Murphy became the then youngest player ever to represent Wales, earned 15 senior Welsh caps with Welsh football historian Ceri Stennett stating that Murphy was seen as “a key member of the team.” Many of Murphy’s caps would come throughout the 1930s, a particular golden age for Welsh football where they won several Home Nations Championships. Murphy would play for West Brom until 1939, before making a move to Swindon, although his time at Swindon was cut short as World War II halted professional football throughout the country. The army beckoned for Murphy, but his time in combat during the Second World War would actually play a huge part in creating Jimmy Murphy, the coach.

After serving his country for four years in North Africa as a Desert Rat in the Royal Artillery, Murphy became an NCO in Bari in 1945. Whilst in Bari he was spotted delivering a passionate speech to some football-playing troops by the coach of an Army football team. Little did Murphy know, but the coach in attendance that day, who listened to the speech would remember it many years later – that man was a certain, Matt Busby. This would not be the first time Sir Matt had encountered the inspirational Welshman having lined up against Murphy in his only ever appearance for the Scottish national team, in a Home Nations game between Wales and Scotland at Ninian Park in 1933.

Following World War II, Matt Busby (still a mere mortal and still had a long way to go before achieving his knighthood) joined Manchester United as manager in 1945. Busby’s first signing of his Old Trafford tenure and the signing he claimed was most important to his success at United was the signing of Jimmy Murphy as ‘club coach’ – Busby claimed he signed him after recalling the rousing speech he remembered from his time in Bari. The Old Trafford Murphy would arrive at was a bomb-ravaged, crumbling old stadium and United were even playing fixtures at Manchester City’s Maine Road. From this wreckage Murphy, alongside Busby, created two of United’s greatest ever teams that are remembered and celebrated to this very day. Jimmy Murphy would remain in his role as club coach until 1955 and then Murphy would be promoted to Busby’s assistant and would help him oversee the development of the ‘Busby Babes’. Even before taking on his role as assistant manager at Old Trafford, Murphy had played a crucial role in developing the lifeblood of the team in his role of coaching the youth team and scouting future talent; many credit Murphy for bringing on the precocious geniuses of Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton amongst many others that would star in the United first team following their stint in the youth teams under the Welsh coach. Similar to Taylor and Clough twenty years later, Busby would be the Clough-like blood and thunder fronting the duo, whilst Murphy would be the Taylor, working diligently in the background away from the limelight or as Clough famously described his assistant, “I am the shop window and he is the goods in the back.” Bobby Charlton famously said of the Welshman, “He was a brilliant teacher, but he did not want to command.”

Alongside nurturing the greatest crop of youngsters in the country at that time, Murphy was also managing the Welsh national team. Murphy took on the mantle of national team manager in 1956 and would oversee a golden age in Welsh football. Murphy would create Welsh footballing history: Wales would qualify for a major tournament – the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Wales’ path to the tournament would perhaps be one of the most unorthodox routes to qualifying for a major tournament in football history. Murphy’s Wales team consisting of legends such as the Charles brothers, John and Mel, the Allchurch brothers, Ivor and Len and Spurs icon Cliff Jones, looked to have missed out on qualifying for the 1958 World Cup after finishing second to Czechoslovakia in their qualifying group. However, politics would intervene in the Asian/African qualifying group as Indonesia, Egypt and Sudan refused to play Israel. With no-one willing to take them on, Israel were proclaimed winners of the group, but FIFA decided they did not want Israel going to the World Cup without playing a game. A draw was made between the second place teams, and after Belgium were drawn and also refused to play Israel, Wales were drawn and accepted the challenge. Wales would beat Israel home and away, 2-0 both times, and they were off to the World Cup in Sweden. The iconic John Charles would say in his autobiography on qualifying for the World Cup:

“I was pleased not only for myself but for Jimmy Murphy who had put so much into Wales despite working every hour God sent to rebuild his beloved Manchester United.”

Wales would have a very successful tournament finishing second in their tough group behind hosts Sweden, but ahead of a good Hungary side and a tough Mexican team. Wales would go out to eventual tournament winners Brazil at the quarter-final stage, a game which on another day Wales could have won. Wales went out in an exciting 1-0 defeat with a 17-year old boy scoring his first ever international goal – that kid was Pele. John Charles (who was not able to play against Brazil due to an injury) claimed that Murphy reacted in utter frustration to Pele’s fortuitous goal and turned to Charles and said “After all this, we’re going to lose.” The amazing thing about Murphy was that the Welsh players actually felt that they could go on and win the tournament, as alongside their talented squad they were well-drilled and driven by Murphy. The spirit he embedded in them was incredible and he will go down as perhaps the greatest Wales manager ever.

Wales’ 2nd leg play-off game at Ninian Park against Israel in 1958, the game that took Wales to Sweden, would prove to be the start of one of the most tragic periods in football history – a period which would change Murphy’s life forever. As mentioned previously, Murphy’s Wales side had beaten Israel 2-0 in Cardiff and Murphy was in a euphoric mood about taking Wales to the upcoming tournament in Sweden, where Wales would prove themselves against the world elite. The only irritation that came with this play-off fixture was that Murphy was unable to travel to Belgrade with United as they took on Red Star in a European Cup game. Murphy’s good friend and United coach Bert Whalley would take his place alongside Busby in the Welshman’s absence. No British team was yet to win the prestigious trophy and many were tipping the ‘Busby Babes’, who had developed so much under Murphy’s watchful eye, to conquer Europe this season. Busby had granted Murphy a leave of absence telling the Welshman he “had a job to do” for his country. Following the Wales v Israel game, a jubilant Murphy headed back to Manchester the next day – a job well done and now back to United duty. Little did Murphy realise that he was about to step in to the biggest job any man has ever have to take on at Manchester United.

Murphy arrived back in Manchester on Thursday 6th February 1958, the day after Wales’ win against Israel and in typical Murphy fashion he headed straight for work at a deserted Old Trafford. Having poured a scotch for himself, Busby’s secretary, Alma George, came into his office speaking of a crash. Murphy didn’t understand.

“It had been a long, tiring journey (back to Manchester) and I poured myself a glass of Scotch. Alma George, Matt’s secretary, came in and told me about the crash. I didn’t take it in at all. I just poured Alma a glass of sherry and carried on sipping my Scotch. Alma said, “I don’t think you understand. The plane has crashed. A lot of people have died.”‘ She was right. I did not understand. So she told me a third time and this time she started to cry. A good few minutes had elapsed and suddenly Alma’s words began to take effect on me. I went into my office and cried.”

This was the 1958 Munich air disaster that would claim 23 lives. The fatalities were a mixture of journalists, the aircraft crew and oen fan travelling with team, as well as Manchester United players and staff, all colleagues and good friends of Murphy. Murphy was there in Manchester trying to get an understanding of a situation that seemed to him completely impossible to understand. Murphy was soon on a flight to Munich where he got to see the devastation of his beloved team and friends before him. At the Rechts de Isar Hospital Murphy encountered his boss at what seemed to be death’s door and Busby, from inside an oxygen tent,told him to “Keep the flag flying, Jimmy.” And that is what he did. What Murphy did next was extraordinary. Jimmy Murphy began to rebuild Manchester United by himself without the great Scotsman Busby to turn to. Despite the clear emotional turmoil surrounding the club, Murphy just carried on and drove the club on. Many years later, Jimmy Murphy Jnr. would say of his Dad:

“There were football matches to be played and that’s what he’d do – he’d just get on with the bloody job and history has proved what a great character he was.”

Obviously, Murphy was utterly devastated by the disaster, but he perhaps more than anyone held himself together to put a strong face on for the club. In private, many stated that he had lapses in his resolve and Bobby Charlton says in his biography:

“One day he was discovered in a back corridor of the hospital, sobbing his heart out in pain at the loss of so many young players he adored for their talent and who he loved like sons.”

The death that supposedly hit Murphy hardest was that of his good friend Bert Whalley, the man who was sitting in the seat next to Matt Busby on the flight – the seat that should have been Jimmy Murphy’s. It is great testament to the man himself that Murphy made a huge effort to attend every funeral of every person that was tragically killed in the disaster; the only funerals he missed were those which were at the same time as another funeral.

Nonetheless, Murphy knuckled down and bought and recruited a whole new team and quickly worked on them and attempted to create a cohesive unit. In one of the most poignant moments in football history, Murphy led out a new United team at a packed Old Trafford in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days after the disaster. There had been some speculation that United could fold after that day in Munich, but the club showed extreme resolve and, amazingly, the makeshift United team defeated Wednesday 3-0. United would only win one more game in the league out of 14 and finish the season in 9th place. Despite the struggles in the league, Murphy inspired his team to Wembley and an FA Cup final against Bolton. There to watch United that day from the stands was Matt Busby, complete with crutches, a full three months after the air disaster. Despite the magic that had taken the new United to the cup final, their momentum run out and they sunk to a 2-0 defeat to Bolton in the final with both goals coming from their iconic striker, Nat Lofthouse. The club even carried on in the European Cup, defeating AC Milan at Old Trafford, but losing out on aggregrate at the semi-final stage. A mid table finish in the league and an FA Cup final was an incredible achievement considering the tragic circumstances surrounding the club.

Matt Busby would return to United and would carry on the rebuilding job instigated by Murphy’s hardwork and determination. Murphy would carry on alongside Busby and against the odds they would create a team that was arguably better than the team that was lost in 1958. In 1968, ten years after Munich, Manchester United lifted the European Cup at Wembley. That final was a celebratory yet hugely emotional night for United fans, Murphy and Matt Busby following what the club had come through ten years previous. United had to defeat a tough Benfica team, complete with Eusebio, in extra time to lift their first European Cup. The United team was one of the greatest in their history with George Best, Brian Kidd, Nobby Stiles, Pat Crerand amongst others.

Also in the starting XI that day were two players Murphy had had a huge impact on. Bill Foulkes had been on the plane that had crashed in Munich, but amazingly escaped with only head injuries and even avoided spending the night in hospital. Foulkes returned to Manchester and was made club captain by Murphy as the club began their redevelopment, despite Foulkes originally telling Murphy he did not think he was up to the job. Captain for United in that Wembley final in 1968 was none other than Bobby Charlton, Murphy’s most famous protégé. Murphy had nurtured the young Charlton since his arrival in Manchester from the North-East and played a huge part in making him the world-class player he would become. Charlton even said of Murphy, “Whatever I have achieved in football, I owe to one man and only one man – Jimmy Murphy.” Arguably, a Welshman had a bigger impact on England’s 1966 World Cup triumph than many people know about.

Murphy worked as Busby’s assistant until 1971. However, Murphy could not slip into a simple retirement and he could not let his attachment with the club go, so he worked on as a scout for Unitedin an unofficial capacity, most prominently under Tommy Docherty’s management. Murphy Jnr. even stated that his Dad would regularly go down to the club in his retirement years to talk to scouts and coaches just to be near the club he loved.

Many people have dubbed Murphy as a bit of a ‘forgotten man’ as Sir Matt Busby went on to take the limelight, although much of this was down to Murphy wanting to take a backseat away from the media. It could have been so different. Murphy could have gone onto be one of the greatest Lost Boyos ever if he had wanted to follow a different coaching path. His good work at United and with Wales had not gone unnoticed and Arsenal supposedly wanted him to become their manager. More interestingly, John Charles reported that the mighty Juventus wanted Murphy to become their manager. This was not just any old Juventus team, but one of their greatest. A team which would win three Scudettos between 1958 and 1961 as well as two Coppa Italias. The team contained ‘The Magical Trio’ of Omar Sivori, Giampiero Boniperti and of course Lost Boyo, John Charles, the Welshman voted the greatest foreigner ever to play for the club. It was actually Charles who was sent on the mission to persuade his national team manager to join Juventus with the Juventus officials aware of the great friendship between Murphy and Charles. One of Murphy’s most discernible attributes was his sheer loyalty and he pinned his unperturbed loyalty to Busby and United over everything else, claiming he could not turn away from the man who gave him a job following the war (although Charles claimed that in discussion with Murphy, that his national team boss claimed he was slightly tempted by the Arsenal job).

There was one other reported party interested in Murphy’s services. So impressed were they with the job he had done with Wales, especially when they were confronted by them in the 1958 World Cup quarter-final, it was widely claimed that Brazil wanted Murphy as their coach. Murphy was supposedly approached by the Brazilian FA following the departure of Vicente Feola in 1960. Murphy turned down the job of the then world champions and with it the opportunity to coach some of the greatest players that have ever graced the pitch. Murphy would have been working with Nilton Santos, Didi, Zagallo as well as the unpredictable genius Garrincha and the undisputed king of football at the time, Pele. It is interesting to think what Murphy could have done with this team of geniuses, although they obviously did not miss him as they went on to win the World Cups in 1962 and 1970 following their World Cup triumph in 1958, where they defeated Murphy’s Wales. My brother and I have talked about who is the greatest Lost Boyo ever on several occasions, but undoubtedly if Murphy had gone to either Juventus or Brazil, I’m sure he’d have put in a good case to be top of the pile.

It was one of football’s biggest tragedies that Murphy’s incredible career and story is not reported and venerated more than it is, a fact the family has lamented in recent years. However, this lack of coverage is probably what Murphy would have wanted, leaving the limelight open for the boss he adored, Sir Matt Busby. Murphy’s son perhaps best summed up Murphy’s reserved nature following the unveiling of a bust of Jimmy Murphy in the Munich room at the Old Trafford Museum; in his speech to commemorate the occasion Murphy Jnr. said:

“If my father had been alive today he wouldn’t have come tonight. I’d have dropped him off at the pub down the road and picked him up after.”

Murphy died in November 1989, aged 79, and he had worked all the way up to his death. To commemorate his outstanding work for the club, the club’s young player of the year award was renamed ‘The Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year Award.’ In a recent BBC drama titled United, which centred on Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Murphy following the Munich disaster, Murphy was portrayed in a stellar performance by no less than Doctor Who star, David Tennant (although admittedly he looked nothing like Murphy).

It is not unreasonable to suggest that without Jimmy Murphy, Manchester United would not be the club they are today after he dug in to stabilise the club following the Munich air disaster. Alongside his brilliant work at United, he is still the only manager to ever take Wales to a World Cup and with a bit of luck he could have even perhaps taken the team all the way to the World Cup final – who knows what could have happened then.

Jimmy Murphy – a true legend of football.

Oct 022012
 

I don’t need to introduce AFC Ajax to you. I’m pretty sure you all know this club, its rich history, its world famous youth academy, the legendary players the club has produced. You are all football fans with knowledge in your bags, you know your stuff.

But if I asked you to name three players in Ajax’s current starting XI, could you? Can you name two? You’ll no doubt be familiar with Christian Eriksen but how well can you do after naming him?

The Eredivisie is not as popular as Europe’s biggest leagues, such as the Premier League, the Bundesliga, La Liga or the Serie A. Despite the fact Ajax is one of the biggest clubs in football history, not many people are interested in the club and its league nowadays. They rather follow a club from one of the bigger leagues. It’s a shame if you ask me but I’m not writing a plea why more people should follow the Eredivisie. I’m here to write about by far the greatest team the world has ever seen: AFC Ajax.

Since Frank de Boer took over from Martin Jol in December 2010, a fresh wind is blowing through the club. The focus is back on developing talents and on giving talents the opportunity to have a shot in the first team. The goal on the long term is to replace players with players from the academy. Buying a player only happens when there’s no youth player ready to make the step yet. Youth academy De Toekomst (The Future) is literally our future. So the new philosophy is also about spending as less money as possible. Players must want to play for Ajax because of the club, its philosophy, its ambition, the fans, the stadium etc. Not because you can earn a lot of money.

Former players such as Marc Overmars (Director of Football), Dennis Bergkamp (assistant-coach) Wim Jonk (head of the youth academy) and of course Frank de Boer have important roles at the club. It’s fantastic to see such names returning to their boyhood club to give something back to Ajax. That also defines our rich history.

Fans say Ajax is Ajax again. We’re playing or trying to play attractive, attacking football with out and out wingers in a 4-3-3 system. The system that belongs to Ajax. The system that is Ajax.

The club’s worth nothing without the players on the pitch who have to do the job. Ajax’s current squad is a very young and inexperienced one. There’s one player who breaks the 30 barrier: Christian Poulsen (32). All the other players are 26 or younger. Ajax have the youngest squad in European competitions (Champions League/Europa League) this season.

In the first games of this season, there’s been rotating a lot in the starting XI. Only the keeper and the back four are pretty sure of their place in the team. Kenneth Vermeer is the one who will been seen between the posts. At 5ft9, he’s not the tallest keeper but his jumping power and cat-like reflexes compensate for his height.

The back four is formed by right back Ricardo van Rhijn, whose style of play can be compared to Van der Wiel’s : a modern full back. A young player who still has to learn a lot but his future looks bright. He has already made his debut for Oranje.

Toby Alderweireld and Niklas Moisander form the core of the defence. Alderweireld has been a regular starter in the last three seasons. The Belgian is a centre back who has a drive to go forward when possible. His passes from deep and goals from a long range are his speciality. Alderweireld is a strong, technical defender with a massive will to fight. His challenge this season will be to take that final step, as Jan Vertonghen did in the past two seasons, becoming a defender that barely makes mistakes and is rock solid. Niklas Moisander came to Ajax as Jan Vertonghen’s short term successor. The Finnish player can be compared to the Belgian. He’s strong in the build up, a good defender and adds a welcome experience to this team.

The left back position belonged to Daley Blind in most of the games this season. Blind is the weakest player in this team. In my eyes he’s not good enough to play for Ajax. He’s strong going forward but you can query his defensive skills. Let’s hope Nicolai Boilesen is back soon after being out with a hamstring injury for almost a year.

Who form the defence is out of question, who form the midfield and attack is a surprise every game. The ideal midfield and attack would be: Siem de Jong/Lasse Schöne – Christian Poulsen – Christian Eriksen
Tobias Sana – Ryan Babel/Siem de Jong – Derk Boerrigter/Ryan Babel.

Our midfield would have the best balance with Siem de Jong (captain) on the right, Christian Poulsen as a defensive midfielder and Christian Eriksen on the left, cutting inside to the middle. Poulsen is someone who’s mostly known as being a flop at Liverpool FC. He can be an important player for Ajax with his experience. His game is basically retaining and recycling possession, he’s capable of playing as a No. 6. A key spot in Ajax’s game of high pressuring and circulating.

Siem de Jong, Eriksen and Schöne are the creative midfielders. I don’t need to introduce Eriksen, who is one of the biggest talents in Europe and wanted by the biggest club on this continent. An attacking midfielder with a creative mind and a sublime technique. A star in the making. He’s needs to step up his game this season though and become more decisive. Siem de Jong is a player who does a lot of dirty work when playing as a midfielder but he’s more dangerous in his role as a striker. Schöne came over on a free from NEC Nijmegen and is a perfect squad player. A creative player with a good technique and an eye for the goal.

Tobias Sana is a newbie at Ajax. The born Swede came over from IFK Göteborg for just a couple of hundred thousand euros. He’s a winger who’s capable playing on both the right and left. He has pace, a good technique and capable of delivering excellent crosses. A ‘tropical suprise’. Derk Boerrigter is a classic left winger with an superb acceleration and an even better cross. Both wingers are also good finishers.

Last but not least: Ryan Babel, who actually needs no introduction. At Ajax he’ll be focusing on the spots on the left and middle of the attack. From the left he’s most dangerous cutting inside. As a striker he’s a strong player who can hold a ball and lay if off to his team mates. His pace, experience and talent will hopefully lift his career and help Ajax achieving great things.

So far this season hasn’t been spectacular from a fan’s point of view. Ajax are currently sitting three points behind FC Twente, who they beat 1-0 on Saturday. Despite that they are still unbeaten (4 wins, 3 draws) but that’s not good enough when you are Ajax.

Let’s hope this season can end as good as the past two. The squad is talented enough to do so.

Sep 112012
 

If BFTGT‘s followers on Twitter were in a football ground, they would fill Mill Lane, home of Pickering Town FC, who were founded in 1888. Currently playing in the top flight of the Northern Counties East Football League, they have a ground with a capacity of 2,000 (200 of which are seated, don’t you know).

What about some BFTGT writers?

@Spooky23Dear Mr Levy

Altrincham FC‘s Moss Lane ground has a capacity of 6,085 (1,154 seated) and has been the home of this Conference North side since 1910. The record attendance for this ground is 10,275.

@mowingmeadowsMowing Meadows

Lewes FC play in the Isthmian Premier League and have played at The Dripping Pan since their club was founded in 1885, although there is evidence to suggest the ground has been there since 1745 and used for cricket.

@beautifullyredBeautifully Red

Ashton United FC were originally known as Hurst FC when they were founded in 1878 and have always played at Hurst Cross.

@chelseayouth

The New Tivoli is a German stadium that was opened in 2009 and cost €50m to build. Despite boasting a stadium with a capacity of 32,960, Alemannia Aachen currently play in the third tier of German football.

@regista_blogRegista Blog

Abbey Hey FC, also know as The Red Rebels, play in the North West Counties League Division One at the Abbey Stadium in Gorton.

@typicalcityTypical City

Needham Market FC were founded in 1919 and play in the Isthmian League Division One North. They moved to Bloomfields in 1995-1996 when former player Arthur Rodwell died, and left the club the money required to purchase a site and build the necessary facilities.

This is a lovely feature from The Bootiful Game site. Which ground would your followers fit in?

 Posted by at 12:00 pm
Sep 102012
 

The Champions Ring: World Cup 1930 - 2010

by Hyperakt.

Following a 5-0 win over Moldova, England continue their World Cup 2014 qualifying bid with a game against Ukraine tomorrow night. The last time they met was in the Euro 2012 group stages when Wayne Rooney returned from his suspension to score in a 1-0 win.

The infographic above shows the history of the World Cup in ring form. Nice.

Learn about infographics software.

 

Sep 072012
 

Earlier this week, Alessandro Del Piero was strongly linked with a move to Liverpool, only for him to opt for Sydney FC instead. Liverpool are in desperate need of a striker after selling Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy, as well as loaning out Andy Carroll to West Ham. Brendan Rodgers even refused to rule out a move for Michael Owen who is a hate figure on Merseyside after joining hated rivals Manchester United and lifting their 19th title with them.

After enduring their worst start to the league in 50 years, signing a legend like Alessandro Del Piero certainly would have turned a few frowns upside down at Anfield, despite him now being in the twilight of his career, but it wasn’t to be.

Whilst it’s probable that Sydney have made it worth Del Piero’s while financially, with his contract being worth a reported £1.3m a season, his former agent, Claudio Pasqualin, believes the Heysel Disaster is what kept the Italian away from Merseyside.

“I think as a real Juventino, out of respect and remembrance for the massacre at Heysel, he said no to Liverpool,” Pasqualin told TMW.

In May 1985, ahead of the European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool, 39 football fans were killed after Liverpool fans charged at them, causing a wall to collapse.

Red and White Kop once collected testimonies of fans who were at Heysel that day, with them reflecting on their memories of what happened.

“The only thing separating us from the Juventus fans was a thin strip of what could only be described as wire netting,” one said. “The fans got restless, partly through the heat, partly through boredom and partly because they were fed up of being sitting ducks for the fireworks raining down on them. Then the abuse started. The Juventus fans behind the chicken wire chanting, the Liverpool fans responding. the Belgian police with riot gear and clubs ran away from the fans. Yes they actually ran away from the Liverpool fans! What sort of policing is that? You charge the fans with your riot shields, helmets, visors and clubs and then you leg it when the fans turn on you? So what happens then? What happened when a bunch of fans push forward and the police run away? Well it is not bloody rocket science! What happens is the fans keep pushing forward. And what happens when thousands of fans push forward and the only thing separating them from the Juventus fans is chicken wire? Well obviously the chicken wire falls down. And what happens then is that the Juve fans run, the wall falls, people die.”

“I remember being angry that the police were allowing firework attacks over the flimsy separating fence,” said another. “When Liverpool fans charged I remember saying to my mate ‘Well they’ll get what they deserve’. Little did anyone know that the wall was about to collapse.”

Two years ago, Del Piero spoke at length about his memories of the disaster too, from his perspective as a young lad in a Juve supporting family.

29th of May 1985, I was only eleven, but I remember it all really well. My team has to win the Champions Cup. This time it just can’t get out of our hands, we are stronger than before. The day after I had to go to school, but I knew that my parents would have let me stay up late, in any case there was no way I could have fallen asleep. Mine was a Juventus family: Daddy, Mummy, my brother. I already played that game in the afternoon with my ball, and then in the evening, before go to sleep I played it again in my mind, as usual in my imagination , trying to be every single player. The fantasy makes you fly, but some years later I was to find out that the reality sometimes can be even better.

It was one of those games that everyone talked about, especially in Veneto… Veneto is crowded with Juventus fans. But the match Juventus-Liverpool, Champions Cup final 1984-85 at Heysel stadium in Brussels, we watched together with an Inter supporter: he was my father’s good friend and colleague and we invited him for dinner. Nice chance to stay together, to celebrate, at your friend’s and surely not at your opponent’s house.

The time before the beginning of that match symbolizes for me all the best of football and the passion for my team. All the worst and the most dramatic that you can only imagine came with what had happened later.

I remember that I gobbled down my dinner to have a permission to run outside to play with my parents’ friends’ son before the kick off. I remember that we were waiting, but the match didn’t start, adults were at the table, glued to the television, I heard from a distance the voice of Bruno Pizzul, that was reporting what was happening there. I was playing outside. Only later they explained to me what it was all about and I started grasping the real meaning of insanity, madness, bestial acts but also the human irresponsibility. We came back home between the first and second half. The game started, but it didn’t really matter anymore.

That was some game. We won the Cup, yes we did. But there were 39 people dead at Heysel and 32 out of 39 were Italians, Juventus supporters who wanted to celebrate as much as we did. People like us, they were us.

I’m the Juventus captain now. 25 years passed and since I was 17, I have swapped sides. From supporter, to protagonist. Today we’d like to remember the victims of that tragedy. And I will do so, not only as a player, but also as a supporter that I was, as a 11 year old child I was, who had dreamt to play that final match.

We mustn’t forget. And specially us, who are lucky to wear this jersey – doesn’t matter if for a minute or for the life time career – have to think about the match, that never started and about those who lost their lives for that match, for the passion, for the Juventus.

What made the events of Heysel even more painful for Juventus fans was the fact Liverpool refused to accept responsibility for what occurred. Whilst there is no doubt the stadium was in no fit condition to host a game of this magnitude, and ultimately was a cause of the deaths, the official denial from the club chairman, John Smith, meant there was no peace for the family members of those that died.

“Some lads had newspapers, they did not make nice reading,” said one account from a fan on RAWK. “Painted as the scum of the earth by everybody who had anything to say, there was no real understanding of what had gone on, I don’t think there is to this day. John Smith had told reporters that he believed the trouble to be the fault of ‘Chelsea fans’ – it was nonsense, clutching at straws. There had been fans of other clubs there, there always is in major cup finals, but not in any significant numbers.”

Tony Evans at The Times, a Liverpool supporter who was also at Heysel, touched on the denial more recently in his article “Our Day Of Shame”.

[Many Everton fans] feel that in some way they are the real victims of that dreadful day because their title-winning team could not play in the European Cup the next season. It taunted Liverpool supporters, some of whom still feel that they had nothing to do with the deaths of 39 people on that May night nearly 20 years ago. “A wall collapsed, that was all.” I have said it and heard it countless times. Except it is a lie.

Evans claimed that many Liverpool fans were still angry after attacks by Roma fans when they played in a victorious European Cup final the year before.

After the game, Rome erupted in rage, and the bloody events around the Olympic Stadium left everyone who was there — and those who had only heard talk of what happened — determined not to suffer again at the hands of Italian ultras. “The Italians won’t do that to us again,” was a refrain repeated in the weeks since the semi-final. It was not a matter of revenge. It was a wariness, a fear that built itself up to an enormous rage that would spill out at the slightest perceived provocation. The anger was palpable.

In conclusion, again discussing Liverpool’s attempt to relieve themselves of any blame, Evans concedes that they were at fault.

We limped home, quickly throwing off any shame, repeating the mantra that it was a construction problem, just a wall collapsing, hiding from the scale of what had happened. The disaster has a long causal chain — stabbings and beatings in Rome, hair-trigger tempers, aggression on both sides, excessive drinking, poor policing and a stadium ripe for disaster. Remove any one link and the game may have passed off peacefully. But it didn’t. So, Evertonians sing, with pathetic self-pity, “Thirty-nine Italians can’t be wrong.” Well they weren’t. We were. I was.

All English clubs were banned from European competition indefinitely as a result of this, with 20 clubs missing out on competing in competitions they had qualified for. Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Everton, Southampton and Nottingham Forest were amongst the clubs that were punished for the actions of Liverpool fans at Heysel. The ban was lifted for the 1990-1991 season, ending the punishment, but not erasing a defining moment in English football history.

Twenty years after Heysel, the two clubs met in the Champions League and Liverpool FC were ready to accept responsibility and apologise for what their fans had done. The Liverpool Echo printed the names of the people who were killed on the front cover under the title “We’re Sorry”. Ahead of kick-off Liverpool fans presented Juve with a “friendship” banner, which also listed the names. A “significant number” of Juventus fans choose to turn their backs on this gesture, raising their middle fingers, presumably believing this gesture had come twenty years too late.

The Gazzetta dello Sport reported that “it was an embrace that died against a wall of indifference.”

Paul Kelso, The Guardian, wrote: It was a gesture intended to express regret and sorrow but it was met with a devastatingly eloquent response. As the banner moved forward, watched from the centre circle by Phil Neal, Michel Platini and Ian Rush, all of whom had played at Heysel, the front 10 rows simply turned their backs. They did so again moments later when Anfield stood for a minute’s silence and supporters on the Kop displayed a mosaic repeating the sentiment, Amicizia.

When the away leg was played, with more than just 2,600 Juve fans that were present at Anfield in the stadium, feelings of friendship and reconciliation were not on the agenda.

Glenn Moore, The Independent, wrote: Forgive and forget? Many in Turin can never forgive and few will ever forget. Imagine yourself in their shoes, burying a father or son, a brother or lover, and it is easy to understand the enduring bitterness both of those who suffered a personal loss at Heysel and of the wider Juventus community. Irrational though it may be to hate, and hold responsible, every Liverpudlian, every Englishman, it is equally understandable. Who among us, in all honesty, can say they would feel otherwise?

That was the backdrop to the uneasy mood which pervaded this stadium last night. Twenty years may have passed since Heysel but for some it could have been yesterday. The angry response of the few to the belated hand of friendship offered by Liverpool at Anfield last week presaged a more venomous reaction in Turin.

The lone banner in the Liverpool section featuring both club crests and the word “friendship” seemed meaningless. Another, which carried the legend “Do you think we would leave you dying?”, though a reference to the dead of Hillsborough not Heysel, appeared grotesquely insensitive. So was the rush to taunt the defeated Juventus supporters at the final whistle.

So, taking on board the feelings still held by Juve fans, when Del Piero learned about interest from Liverpool, what was he to do? He joined his boyhood club when he was 19-years-old, he played in their first team for 19 seasons, he was their captain, he is their all time highest goalscorer and he loves the club. Could he have signed for a team that large sections of his fans hated?

Harry Kewell, who joined Leeds’ youth team as a teenager, made the unforgivable decision of joining Galatasaray in 2008. He had played in Istanbul eight years earlier when two Leeds fans were stabbed and killed by Galatasaray fans yet didn’t think it was inappropriate for him to sign for the Turkish side.

“I chose the No 19 shirt when I signed for Galatasaray AS as a sign of respect for Leeds because that was the number I got when I first became a regular member of the Leeds United starting XI,” he said in his feeble attempt to make peace with the furious Leeds fans. “I felt that it might be a way to demonstrate that I had not forgotten where it all started and I was hoping that in a small way it would help the healing process of the tragedy that occurred on 5 April 2000.”

Clearly Del Piero is no Harry Kewell and was not prepared to tarnish his reputation at Juventus, even if it did mean getting to play for one of Europe’s historically biggest clubs.

“The driving force in my career has always been a deep love for football, for the Juventus colours and for its fans,” he said after signing his last contract extension with the club. He is a badge-kissing Bianconeri legend and avoiding a move to Liverpool will ensure his status at his former club will never be in doubt, whatever his motivation behind the decision.

Aug 172012
 

It was announced this afternoon that Robin van Persie will wear Manchester United’s number 20 shirt this season, following speculation that he might be given Dimitar Berbatov’s number 9, despite the Bulgarian still being at the club.

Who else has worn this shirt and what did they win when they wore it?

1993-1994: Dion Dublin

Premier League: 1

1994-1995: Terry Cooke

1995-1996: Gary Neville

Premier League: 1
FA Cup: 1

1997-2007: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Premier League: 6
FA Cup: 2
European Cup: 1
Intercontinental Cup: 1

2007-2012: Fabio Da Silva

Premier League: 1

2012-?: Robin van Persie