Making *things* irrelevant. (Nice one, Fran).

The Women’s World Cup is drawing a lot of flak – funny that. Depressingly it’s not just the dumb middle-aged blokes who know nothing about football but also their youngish, similarly lazy equivalents. (On my twitter, young sporty lads giving it the sloppy, arrogant thumbs-down).

Some are more appreciative of the really accomplished passing football being played by most teams – best exemplified, arguably, by Netherlands, Germany, USA, England, France but also executed by many of the lower-profile nations.

Personally I’ve enjoyed the level of comfort in possession many of the players are displaying: the building from the back, the lack of longball-as-first-resort. Tempted to say this is waaay better than many England Men’s sides have managed until the ‘culture-changes’ of the last few years but that would of course be a calamitous o.g. – we need to keep the men out of this.

Women’s sport is different and there is no value in comparing, either explicitly or ‘subconsciously’, though that is challenging, in all honesty, for a middle-aged dumbo like myself. Plenty decades have loaded up the assumptions and prejudices in my own personal ether but  I am trying to pick a way, judge a way through that, without entirely denying myself the right to criticise: the thinking being that genuinely fair comment (should I ever achieve that) actually respects the validity/quality of the sport and makes issues of gender/sex/sexual politics irrelevant.

Flick the switch and relax. Put the telly on. Ooh, bo-nusss! England Women v Windies Cricket is on Sky Sports Mix, which is available free, to the Walton household. And I have time to watch some of it. And OMG… FRAN WILSON!

A diversion, kindof.

Last week I blagged my way in to the car park at Worcester County Cricket Club (I do have accreditation but didn’t *actually have* parking sorted) and swung stylishly and maybe a tad smugly to a halt next to a biggish 4 x 4, from which England players were decanting themselves. One of them was Fran Wilson. I don’t know any the players personally, despite having watched them a fair bit live over the last couple of years, but particularly it felt like I don’t know Fran Wilson… because she’s hardly played. I was tempted to wish her all the best but from a strange fella in a car park… how?

For me this adds a further dimension to the moment (captured above, though surely you’ve seen it, yes?) that you may and probably should revisit whenever anyone says anything.

Says anything about women’s sport. Or maybe about women? Or maybe about racism or homophobia, or maybe when somebody is cruel or stoopid or in any sense prejudiced. Either point them to it or revisit yourself, to bolster your faith in stuff. Because the world gets better at moments like this.

Fran – the same Fran that jumped out of that car, that I nearly said hello and good luck to – did something very special for us, by being very natural (for her).

She dived. She instinctively, stunningly, magnificently dived. Crucially, she caught a missile. She made a beautiful, undeniable, joyful thing-of-a-movement. She was perfectly, athletically human and the only judgement anyone can ever make about it is that was a staggering catch. No qualifications.

We can swat away the comparisons with Ben Stokes. We can swat away everything. This is simple (if statements of this quality and magnitude can be simple?) and wonderful.  She literally reached, stretched, re-invented or maybe denied the limits. Fran absolutely excited us and there’s something magic and electrifyingly pure about that feeling.

Is it okay to say I/we loved it? I think so, I hope so. I really hope we can de-clutter this, to celebrate it. It may be unwise, it may be wrong for this oldish geezer to gush like this so clumsily. But for how it looked, for how it lit up an instant and for what it says, I loved it.

The Universe Podcast 3: Ian Herbert, on the ‘Quiet Genius’ of sport.

Hold the front page! The mighty cricketmanwales.com Multinational Media Corporation has diversified. In a good, un-shouty way.

Distinguished sports journo Ian Herbert joins us and we talk sports… journalism…a-and everything. We shuffle through football history from Shankly/Paisley to Fergie to Mourinho, Klopp and Guardiola.

There are nuggets, there is experience, there is a lorryload of humility and integrity – remember that? – and there are points of view. The fella @cricketmanwales sits back and listens because Herbs actually really does know how it is/was at Anfield, Old Trafford, Maine Road/wherever it is that City play at now.

I’ll say nothing more – the man was sparklingly lucid on everything from the hows and whys of writing (and the relative value of sports-journalism) to the impenetrable, infuriating cocoons around people in elite football. Have a listen.

 

 

Okaaaay. Listened back, more than once. Am struck by several things, the first and most significant being how brilliant Herbs was/is.

Yes (he knows) he’s working for a paper many of us regard as the most poisonous rag on the planet but I do still stand by my initial reaction; that he’s a profoundly good man, absolutely committed to grafting, honouring and taking pride in the role of professional journalist. If this makes him sound Old School, then I imagine he’d live with that; however in this case the phrase does not imply any retreat into sentimentality, smugness or that mild brutalism that can come with ‘experience in the trade’. Herbs is more Ronnie Whelan than Sounness, I reckon.

Strikes me Ian Herbert is a thinker and fan and has precious banks of knowledge; some of it about the subject (football, mainly) but much of it about the process, the art of sports-writing – of journalism. Crucially, he also has seemingly limitless, top-end stories.

Those of you who know me through cricketmanwales.com or bowlingatvincent.com will I hope enjoy, as I do, the ironies around me – of all people! – hosting Herbs’s mantra about ‘3 facts per piece’. (I’m the bloke who kinda revels in being described by some respected dramaturg in my distant past as a ‘freewheeling absurdist’ and yup, that’s a fair cop: I get absolutely that the word indulgent may well have been invented with me in mind).

What Ian says about this is brilliant; it’s a key reminder and a warning for anyone who writes anything, arguably. They are actually wise words. Tell us something new – this is where the value is.

I truly heard what Herbs was saying and will genuinely carry it with me but my arguments around this are very different… because I don’t see myself as a journalist. I don’t report on things, I take diabolical liberties with words en route to an honest response to the universe – honest in the sense of being accurate to how I understand it. My writing is a flush of the un-wise, the immediate and the daft-expressionistic – which I know brings us straight back to that indulgence thing. Don’t care: it’s how I see and feel the world so elegant, clipped, economic writing would be a lie.

(All that to offer that mind-blowing contrast suggested in the podcast. Differences and yet still everything shared).

Ian Herbert also rocked it around that whole access-to-the-stars malarkey – how the Prem in particular denies the truth by denying access and discussion. He describes this superbly – go listen again.

Interesting too, how clear he is that journalists do try (inevitably fairly unsuccessfully) to prick the Mourinho/Klopp/Guardiola bubbles. But the clubs are fiefdoms and the journo’s really are herded, gagged and dismissed. (Just me, or did you feel that this almost daily charade might be central to Herbert’s ongoing quandary over which kind of journalism he should be doing? Everywhere else you get a patent love for the game).

Overall, as well as providing a window into Paisley’s socialism and Mourinho’s mania, my guest made me think pret-ty hard about my own ways, views or assumptions; in fact he really has challenged me re that ‘What Is Writing, Really?’ thing. This is healthy.

Our conversation also made me realise that maybe I really am something of an extremist – possibly worse still, an extremist-traditionalist. (I don’t see myself that way but) I’ve drifted from football, love football markedly less because I hate that strikers want to draw a pen or get the centre-back sent off, not smash it the ferkin onion bag. I can’t stand  the deception, the diving, the pretending my face just got absolutely smashed-in when, no… it just didn’t.

Herbs can live with that; or he certainly hasn’t drifted, he certainly isn’t raging angry, because of what he sees as the context – a magnificent Premier League. I, meanwhile, have to think about this.

So where are you, sagacious listeners/readers, on this continuum? Drifted, or in love?

Tell me. It may help.

 

 

 

 

And now they’re gonna believe me.

World Cup Winners. Not a phrase us sporty-peeps are all that used to. Mainly because our media and our heads are dominated by footie – by the epic failure of England. England Men. In football. In World Cups or Europeans.

But who cares about them?  Certainly I care waaaay less than I once did.  Let me dispatch that whole industry of trauma with a flourish, with some disdain, with a few bullet-points.

I care less because;

  • of politico-philosophical stuff about disassociating myself from the Posh South of England
  • because of the rank dishonesty and/or meanness of spirit/anti-sportness football wallows in
  • (but much more importantly) because other sports and other kinds of people seem better. More entertaining; more fun; more worthy(?) of our support.

Post the 2012 Olympics magnificent, generous, friendly, articulate athletes – proper humans who could talk engagingly even though they were world stars – lit up the footie-player-heavy universe.  They were lovely as well as gobsmackingly talented.  They were real and rounded.

Fast forward or maybe re-wind just a few days.  Focus (finally, yes?) on a particular sex. Throw your arms around or share the joy around Anya S, Sarah T, Heather Knight and that daft bugger Dani Wyatt with her twitter and her Proper Sense of Humour!

Read the backstories about shared houses and shared disappointments or challenges. Get the whole idea that there’s been a tough revolution going on – one where these tremendous women have been through major, testing stuff.  And now look at them.  Listen.  Get to know them.  This is England Cricket.  These are our World Cup Winners.  How great is that?

I need to acknowledge coupla things.  Firstly, I’m a dumb bloke.  Secondly, there are people who think this dumb bloke is as bad as the rest of them: somewhere on that patronising/sexist/misogynist spectrum.  Meaning I should be keeping my mouth shut.

I’m not going to because I know (actually) that I try pret-ty hard to be careful and reasonable with what I say… and I know however flawed I may be I am genuinely committed to some vague-ish but powerfully-felt ideas about equality.  I’ll get stuff wrong but as a geezer and a coach I do not entirely lack political sensitivity and do try to make things better.

By that I mean specifically supporting women and girls into cricket – or in cricket.  Apologies for the digression.

England’s World Cup win is a gift as well as a wonderful moment, a triumph.  The manner of victory was intoxicating and gut-churning and all those things that characterise truly fabulous sport.  It was unbelievable, dream-like, horrendous, glorious, daft, moving, nerve-shredding.  The actual match was extraordinary and captivating.

So the drama – the sport – was as magical as sport can be be but the levels of interest and coverage also went off the scale in a way that must surely mark a new phase; ‘just the start of the story’ as described by the outstanding Ebony Rainford-Brent.  Cricket needed that, the universe needed that and we Community Cricket Coaches needed that to really move things forward.

This is what’s exciting.  I hope it doesn’t sound too worryingly cynical if it feels like we all – not just those of us work in cricket – have to use this.  It’s BIG.  BIGGER THAN CRICKET. I’ll not wade into the wider debates just now but I do hope there will be an unstoppable energy around this event, feeding into rilly profound developments ‘elsewhere’.

I personally have been enthusing folks for bats and balls and stuff for about ten years. For the last four, for a living.  I am absolutely clear that us Cricket Wales coaches (who spend much of our times in Primary Schools and clubs) have actively set out to make girls feel like this is their game.  The argument can certainly be made that we could have done more but one of the central messages we’ve been trying to put out there is exactly that: girls, you can do this – it’s yours!

We in the Community Team run what we call cricket assemblies, generally alongside or in the middle of a series of school cricket sessions.  The centrepiece of these assemblies tends to be a shortish video, supplied to us by Chance to Shine, the treble-fabulous cricket charity, one of our sponsors.

I very often bring out a film that was made a few years back, showing India winning a World Cup, amongst other buzztastically uplifting cricket-scenes.  The presentation (bit concerned about that word, in fact) features a Jesse J soundtrack and the challenge is laid to the teacher and/or learning assistant to name the singer and the song – Domino.

I encourage the kids to sing along and if the hwyl with the staff is good to ‘dance around a bit’.  If the teachers get the points for identifying the singer/song then the kids get unholy amounts of points for knowing the words.

We have a bit of fun and maybe a quiz or a relatively ‘educational’ discussion around what we’ve seen.  Which countries were playing?  Recognise anybody – any flags?  I big up the notion that cricket can feel like this then I always ask a few of the girls present

was it all blokes?’  (The film has clips of England Women in action).

When the girls say ‘NO!’  I ask the class

who’s the best team we’ve got?

A question that throws them, admittedly but soon enough the lads start saying Chelsea, Manchester Utd, Swansea, or Scarlets or Ospreys.  I let them shout them out and we have a giggle or two around that – especially, obvs, at the Chelsea fan’s expense.

I then tell everybody that there’s a very strong argument that the best and most successful team we have (acknowledging the brilliance of our cyclists and rowers, maybe) might really be England (and Wales!) Women’s Cricket side.  Because a) they are right up there on the world stage b) because they do win things.

I’ve been saying this fairly convincingly for four years. Now, these classes – these girls – are gonna believe me.

I will again look them in the eye and say

girls. This is your game. Cricket is a fan-tastic game… and it’s yours every bit as much as it’s mine… or his… or his.

Slaven to the rhythm(n?)

Not sure how comfortable with the idea I am, but have been slightly comparing (if that’s a thing?) my medium-local cricket team with Premier League ‘equivalents’. Something to do with straining to get or put a handle on the role or leadership style of Robert Croft. Because Glamorgan – in fact based exactly 100 miles away – is my team.

The redaction back to footiestuff – as though that’s the Natural Yardstick – concerns me a tad but put that down to historical-familial linkage. Much as the righteous heart of me turns away from the diving, the feigning, the insufferable and delusional arrogance of too many contemporary football legends, I am in it (football) for life. Without pardon.

Cricket, meanwhile, insinuated a way in subtly and built over time. I played cricket as a wee lad, loving bowling from the first moment: however post comprehensive school (for reasons I won’t bore you with now) I flitted in and out of the game, returning fleshed-out and mature to coach, work for Cricket Wales and then really get back into it in my (ahem) middle years.

I now follow Glamorgan, from my hundred mile distance, ever more keenly. The daft-beautiful tribal nonsense-thing has properly kicked in.

This feels great, if challenging. Given the voluptuous up-and-down-ness of the current Glammy trajectory, I’m Kinda Concerned, of nr Tyddewi. And I’m wondering if it’s the ubiquity of fickleness itself – or what? – that draws me towards dubious analogies with more spiteful sports… and (ya know) Slaven Bilic.

Glamorgan under Croft just sounds right – and probably is. Former player, of great distinction and unquestioned commitment. Committed welshman – plus! Croft takes his archetype shooting, fishing and singing: slings his arm round it, man-hugs it, banters with it, in the dressingroom, sportsbar, tv studio. I reckon he broods with it, whilst softly crooning Canon Lan, wader-deep in the Tawe.

This is not (I promise you) to patronise the man. Bob Croft is loved and respected by many for his flawless, brilliant, imperfect, unstill, sanguine-genuine welshness but he is Head Coach at Glamorgan because of cricket; knowledge and nous.

Croft, I have felt, has the potential to be truly inspirational – a quality many coaches simply lack. It’s not in their biology, never mind their c.v. – however impressive, however legitimising. The Glammy coach’s strengths and weaknesses will increasingly inevitably be looked at as time goes on but few will question his ability to stir the blood of his players. Which is where (probably?) Bilic comes in.

Croft and Bilic share the p-word – the one that salespeople or businesspeople who should be stood against the wall and shot increasingly claim. (Shoot them for their impudence, their lifeless, dullards’ cheek, their hard-horny-shell-like unawareness; for they know nothing of… Passion!)

The geetar-playing Croat has it. The bloke from Swansea, too. Real, human, kosher, bonafide passion – the sort that implies a degree of poetry, of creativity, as well as that thing where you’d fancy sharing a boozy night out. Bilic and Croft are bigger than their sports – and this is why we are hopeful.

Today Bilic meets/met the West Ham board, in what the papers are characterising as a) crucial talks and/or b) routine, post-season discussions. Could be that like Croft he is both loved and under some pressure. Pressure because a) it comes with the territory and b) neither fella has sufficiently gathered his troops. The Happy Hammers have barely chortled, Glammy are steepling between Ingram’s brilliance and raw uncompetitiveness. Let me say now I hope both come through it (whatever it is) and go on to glory.

But what glory? What’s possible, in the nearish future? For West Ham maybe a cup, for Glamorgan likewise? What would turning it round look like?

Notwithstanding the brave retreat currently being fought by Ingram and partner in the four-dayer against Notts, in which at this very moment Chris Cooke is currently – perhaps symbolically – being treated for a blow to the head, Glamorgan have lately too often been battered. They appear off the pace in the longer format and were frankly wildly inconsistent in the LV One Day tournament, failing to progress.

Rudolph, the captain and theoretically the international-class statesman amongst a reasonably youngish group, is also under the spotlight. More than Noble (or whoever is West Ham’s skipper) might be. The role of the cricket captain is broader and  arguably more intellectually-demanding than the fooball equivalent but shares, clearly some fundamentals. You have to play well and you have to lead.

For Rudolph, this means more than anything that he has to get runs, against the fiercest, freshest bowling the opposition can muster… and he has to keep on doing that.

At every level in cricket the performance of the opening bats is crucial – even when (as say, in junior junior games) the result just doesn’t matter. Batters three, four and five settle, their whole experience of the game is transformed positively if the openers just see it out for a while, then get comfortable.

Glamorgan have rarely been in this position. Rudolph has (from memory) one much-needed ton to his name this season but his position will, as they say, be being looked at. He cannot lead, truly, without scoring pret-ty heavily.

Croft will have a big call to make on this – assuming agreements are not already in place. He must also seriously address what feels like a team-wide tendency to either gift-wrap wickets, or concede them somewhere on that spectrum between the mad reckless and the careless. Glamorgan batters have to stay and bat. More.

Of course Croft is aware of this – and no doubt working hard, pushing his players hard. Would be fascinating to know just how much Croft is prepared to blur the lines/protect his players/genuinely accept ‘positive cricket’ and/or ‘expressing yourself’ as an explanation for near-humiliation. I imagine he gets angry but also wants that positivity, not just from his precious jewel-of-the-moment (Ingram) but from likely lads Donald, Lloyd and co.

Glamorgan’s gaffer – and the man above, the impressively assured and committed Mr H Morris – are plainly and rightfully trying to find a way through meaningful encouragement of welsh talent AND via less popular (though necessary) judicious recruitment, with presumably smaller resources than most ‘bigger’ counties. They are also clearly targetting white-ball success. You would hope that Croft’s powerful bond with the county might suit a high energy, adrenalin-rich culture:  this year’s T20 Blast is feeling important, already.

Players talk of rhythym(n)s – of feeling good. Movement feeling natural, the game flowing or feeling easy or even energising, despite the tensions. I’m not neutral here but if I was, I’d still be hoping Croft (and Bilic) can charm, bully, or conduct their men towards that magical, tuneful, expressive flow.

 

This time it’s personal. It always is.

I’m finding it difficult to bear the news about Ugo Ehiogu. Not because I knew him, or supported Villa or Boro’, or have avidly followed his life and career inside or outside of football. Something has connected, though. I am genuinely saddened and undone in a way you’re going to have to give me time to describe, at a moment when words are inadequate.

Ugo was, to me, a really good player cut cruelly, cruelly short. I know nothing of him as a person but I promise you I totally get the weight of this. The depth of the grief, the merciless bleakness – the shock. Unbelievable as it may sound, I understand. For me and mine, this is about hearts.

It’s about hearts and possibly artsy indulgences – for which I should probably apologise in advance. However I want to make a contribution here, despite the likely inappropriateness, the embarrassment, the intimidatingly personal whorl I’m about to unleash; so I’m going on.

My dad was a sportsman and (actually, I came to realise) a great human. He died of a cardiac arrest, on a badminton court, playing with his mates, on a Sunday night, aged forty-four.

It was February. It was dark, it remains a blur.

I was sixteen or seventeen. Some word had come back that something had happened and my mother was whisked off. I remember one of my three brothers quietly saying to me, as I innocently got on with the most banal of things, that ‘ this really might be significant’. I had no conception of what he meant.

My mother returned, looking both shocked and calm. Her sister – who had ‘lost’ her husband (a doctor, at 38!) to heart disease about a year before – was physically supporting her. My mum said ‘I’m sorry to tell you, kids, that he’s gone – your father’s died. And there’s never been and never will be another one like him’.

My Auntie Marie couldn’t stop herself crying ‘yes… there has been – there has been’ before we wept, together.

I carry this loss every moment of every day. I have in some sense counted the days and years ever since with a shared, maybe schizophrenic focus;

1. to pour good energy in

2. to absolutely deny the possibility – deny, deny! – that I could leave my own wife and kids in the same situation.

I notched something when I went past forty-four a dozen years ago. I notched something too, later, when I had time in the back of ambulances, then hospitals, having mysteriously ‘gone’; when we had immense banter as some bloke put a ‘tinna sardines’ (an ‘at rest’ pacemaker) into my chest. I did this/do this utterly fearlessly, because I am recognising but denying – positively – still.

My next unspoken goal is to get both my kids past their teens and into Proper Adulthood (nearly there). Then there’ll be another marker-point, another effectively sub-conscious notch, done with that same unshakeable calm. Because I am not letting anything happen to me – because I do believe that I can, by act of will, persist into daft-glorious (in my case) Oldish Age.

But what’s this got to do with anything?

Our own family tragedies changed our lives. Sounds glib? Powerfully, devastatingly, inspiringly true. We learned about accepting sadness as part of the richness. I became powerfully angry and committed and I hope inviolably generous. I became (by all means chortle) An Artist Who Responds. I lost all that crap about being ashamed to say stuff deep or loving in public. My essence became truer and more determined, better… as a way of fighting back, perhaps?

I say all this because I think maybe the universe – maybe a particular family? – needs this kind of energy, today. Hearty stuff, stuff that’s de-baggaged, de-peer-group-pressured: fearless. I also want to say something about health – what health means.

The implication here is plainly that I do believe we can make some meaningful contribution to our own state of wellness by being positive and open. Let me both re-tick that box and contradict it by saying something about lifestyle and diet.

As a mob we’re a disgrace to our wonderful planet. We’re wasters, we’re soulless, medium-heartless irriots with an insultingly low capacity to think or act well. This applies particularly pointedly to issues around health.

Where to start with the examples? Parents with young kids get masses of pretty good information about healthy eating and exercise from Primary Schools yet virtually no families eat truly well. Kids grow up on coke and fanta and Mcdonalds; they eat pre-prepared meals. Hardly anybody cooks fresh on a daily basis. No matter your budget or your background, this is unacceptable. Our hearts – our systems – are paying for this.

So I suppose this is a warning.

Let me tell you another cruel story – one I hope certain members of my own family don’t read. I have a strong, childhood memory of being slightly in awe and certainly slightly jealous of the tray on our cousins’ kitchen table. On it were always three or four bottles of what we used to call ‘pop’.

We never had pop. But they had red or excitingly lime-green or yellowish pop. Always. On their table. This was the family whose father died at thirty-eight – the doctor.

I’m going to compound my judgemental rashness here by adding in that two of the children from this family – of which there were four – are now morbidly obese, with acute diabetes. Last time I saw one of them he told me fairly cheerily he didn’t expect to see sixty.

These are brilliantly clever people. They would have to concede that they’ve been relatively advantaged. I sometimes wonder if they haven’t got my Indestructibility Thing arse about face ; that they’ve got some death-wish going on – some self-hatred, some Punishment Thing as a result of their own heart story.

Now I know I need to say something about that use of ‘morbidly obese’. I accept it sounds horrendously judgemental – possibly unacceptable. But I cannot help but feel that those that are dangerously big have to accept some level of responsibility for their predicament. (And it is a predicament.) The warnings are out there – the tragedies, too.

I suspect more families exercise well than eat well – just not well enough, often enough or with enough enjoyment. Thus, as a race, we are unfit. (Again… pejorative word! But GREAT WORD!!) We have to work on this. As a society. By pressuring government and by making good choices.

One of the things I know my old man would be pleased about is that the bottom line with the thing I do – working for Cricket Wales – is it gets people moving about the place. He’d like that.

Keith Winston Walton was

a) (briefly) British Army 400 metres/yards champ

b) skipper of Macclesfield Town

c) (I think) bold enough to turn down Manchester City as a schoolboy, because he wanted to play full-back for Sale RFC

d) generally (weirdly?) a fit bloke

e) alongside my grandpa (ex-MU)) my hero.

Make that IS my hero. He was no intellectual, he was no artist but he poured out the finest, most positive energy into the universe that you could imagine. I grieve him still, because we lost him, crazy young.

So… I know it makes sense – it’s essential – to do the Good Healthy Thing. And – whatever the reasons for their own, terrible loss – I feel, for the family of Ugo Ehiogu, I really do.

Changing Rooms.

We end the year with more icons falling. Some mean more or less everything, in the moment, others slip away with minimal trauma. But the thing of The Event surely grows. Celebrity. The pull or dazzle of The Stars.

We all have our theories on this – and our judgements. One such might be that it’s inevitable and bad, that t’internet-led, halogen-quality, dumb-kaleidoscope-in-a-bad-way ‘behaviours’ have somehow infested our consciousness or swamped and smothered it into juvenile mush. We can’t think, can’t judge, can only follow or wallow.

That’s pretty much my view. Or maybe the view (as it were) from my gut.

It’s tempting to describe what we’re up to generally as both massively better-informed and largely stoopider and stoopider, right? Everybody has the capacity to know everything but somehow we got criminally dumber. How did we stumble into this full-on malaise-fest? We’ve gotten clouds when we need lasers.

If we cared to ratchet in one notch we might be forced to contemplate some yet more incriminating failure to not only assimilate readily-available knowledge, but fall utterly for sleazeball grades of prejudice around the simplest of issues; like goodness and badness, for example. Thus things become twisted, as well as or instead of being learned. We maybe got dumber and less moral, then?

This is quite a legacy for the year we’re talking here.

Going no further with this – not here or now. It’s merely the context for my own re-gathering of certainties, or maybe impulses I feel confident about. Confident enough to call them healthy – healthy and true.

Asitappens I work in sport. So the notion that we are subsiding into an entirely brain-dead, sedentary state in which we trawl in the wake of endless Lowest Common Denominators, whilst being familiar to me, is emphatically hoofed or carved or chased to the touchline. Yup there’s worrying dollops of lard-arsed acquiescence out there but there is also brilliance and sharpness and anticipation – refreshing, glorious movement.

And yes there is that twin evil(?) obesity – clearly inextricably linked to shocking diet (and yes, poverty and/or ignorance) plus lack of activity – but there is also invincible energy, around sport, around activity for pleasure.

We know in the case of children they simply don’t play in the way we did – certainly not out of school hours. We might also fear that they don’t charge about enough IN school, with time and place for Physical Education squeezed by the moronic pressures towards ‘targets’. Yet I am here to tell you, dear friends, that it is extremely likely your kids or grandkids will meet somebody inspiring and fit and playful during their time at Primary School.  They will be offered the game.

It’s clearly the business of folks like me to inspire them towards a particular sport – mine being cricket. But over a quiet pint most of us would confess to being more than happy to see children fall for the other tracksuited fella/other woman’s game.   To me there’s no contradiction in trying to be the fabbest, funniest and most inspiring sports coach Kid A will see at his or her school and being deebloodylighted when it turns out they’ve chosen regular rugby over regular cricket. Kids simply must do something.

I can, will and do make the case for team sport in particular because for me the craic and the learning are special. But this doesn’t mean I dismiss climbing, or surfing, or tennis – they’re ace too. However here’s a couple of thoughts, drawn absolutely from the most profound and wonderful experiences of my life, on why team sports.

Before we plough excitedly but sincerely on, a minor warning. Please read the next paragraph without being distracted by admittedly important and current news stories; I’m serious and it ain’t gonna work if you drift.

Dressing Rooms –Changing Rooms! – are places where real magic stirs. Of course, there have often been a zillion stages of learning or skills development before we get to playing matches but Proper Matches are it. The occasion around matches – the psychology, the camaraderie, the deep learning, the growth.

I understand the need for caution around all this Real Sport Is stuff. In fact I seem to spend half my life writing or working against what I tend to call dumb machismo. So this is not going to be some bullish cry for tribal aggression masquerading as ‘liberation’. Read on, reassured, people…

I spend most of my working life committed to non-competitive games or making games about inclusion – literally the sharing of the sport – as well as cricket skills, communication, activity, etc. So I am not some brutalist blokey-donkey equating sport with winning. But there IS another level for sport where powerfully human things get tested. Provided things are in place to make this kind of game work, it is or can be one our species’ great achievements.

In Changing Rooms I learned that the young lads I played cricket/football/rugby with were different but all brilliant. The hooligans were brilliant; the swots and the comedians were brilliant.

Those that knew or feared that they were destined for drudgery expressed their finer wits – fact! – around the game. Sure, they battled but they were also funnier than most comedians: or they were subtle or creative or electrifying on the park. A lad not blessed with academic precision counted exactly the 73 ‘fucks’ in the managers team-talk. Or Owen Roberts sent us out to ‘represent our region and our friends’ ten feet tall.

Through laughter and sometimes through grit and graft, we players came to value each other. Don’t tell me now that brickies or forklift-truck drivers are mugs: in Changing Rooms I learned otherwise. I’m rooted in this.

Though I’m hardly immune to the distractions of the twittersphere or (via my children) the instagram generation, and though I mourn the insidious omnipresence of all that is vacuous or ‘starry’ or sold to me by Keepemdown Multinational Corporation, I know some key stuff. I know sport. I know it’s profound as well as fun.

So when the universe feels overloaded with either junk or fakery; when things seem to conspire against intelligence or truth; when you want a real, genuine laugh – the kind that is undeniable and life-affirming – maybe just go play. Could even be that engaging in sport (because it typically defies prejudice?) is a progressive riposte to political and/or philosophical post-truths? Like that as a thought? Or that freeing up the spirit tends to be, or is facilitative of an act of protest?

Maybe these are my reasons. Maybe I think life is wonderful because even in our dumbness, we change – we run a bit, perhaps? – and we are brilliant.

The state of play.

Look we all know it’s ludicrous to go making comparisons. Between sports. Particularly when we go charging across the nations and the generations. But it’s also part of the fun. We’ve all (haven’t we?) illuminatingly weighed up Derek Randall and Theo Walcott, Andy Murray and Colin Montgomery, Michael Holding and Chris Ashton. Today feels like a day for a bit of all that.

Could be because rugby’s just rhino-charged back into the national consciousness – on a weekend where England play cricket in Cardiff. Plus (just to put the tin hat on the surreality of it all) Big Sam’s generally pitiful army start yet another World Cup campaign. So we’re entitled to drown in our own distracted chatter; aren’t we? Good.

Let’s start with the cricket.

As I write, England are going about their One-Day business, in pretty confident expectation of blitzing Pakistan in an entertaining but one-sided series. Blindingly obviously, there’s been another obvious lurch forward.

Bayliss and Farbraces’s posse(s) are clearly building impressively on more than one front. England have gone from being a raw embarrassment in short-format cricket to being one of the finest, most dynamic and not unimportantly one of the most watchable sides in world cricket.

Recent Tests may be less emphatic evidence of a level of development that really should have widespread and significant recognition but perhaps the uncertainties around (say) Hales and/or the number 4/5 batting slots might be considered more in the context of an encouragingly powerful blend within the squad. For me, the management team patently know what they’re doing in terms of bringing on a bunch of guys.

England and Wales cricket have genuine world stars in Root and Stokes (and in an admittedly less Boys Own kindofaway) Cook. They also have fellas like Woakes and Bairstow who, despite their obvious brilliance, are having to compete like hell for a place in the team. The ECB’s topline representatives – far from being Boring Old Fartish – are, in short, looking bloody strong, with the capacity to mature into something proper, erm aromatically tasty.

Almost finally on this, England are in danger of having players to look up to or love. Whether this be in the form of the charmingly, boyishly magnificent Root, or the horsier/left-fieldier Wood. They’re real, they’re engagingly chirpy and we all know they wannabe mates with us. Anybody playing football for England stack up against that?

Cobblers of the cheapest variety, of course. But fan-based cobblers, because yes, I am a fan, from a footballing family in the North of Ingerland, originally. And I do dare to back my right to mither or crow – or champion.

Back ‘midst the Cricket love-in, briefly, we may need to acknowledge the galvanising force of Cultural Positivity.  If this translates as both a raising of the glass to the work of the backroom staff and some appreciation that freeing the boys up is a function of mature and intelligent reflection rather than some dodgy contemporary dogma, I’ll sign up to that. England Cricket are brighter, busier, more aggressive – more positive. As is the game.

Now crossover to the footie. Wales (you may have finally-recently noticed), have their own football team.

Their stunningly successful Euro 2016 campaign was such a classic of unity and spirit (google the word hwyl, you Saes) it’s already been inwardly digested by the massively more well-endowed English FA – who have installed their own No Shit Sherlock tough-guy defender-of-the-faith, Big Sam.

This, in the context of previous dalliances with more exotic but nonetheless hopeless stewardship feels somewhere between a belated dollop of self-awareness and a concession to low expectation. England Football is (for example) gambling on freakily shot or depressingly brittle talents like Sterling, whilst Wales must now front up to the reality of being a team that should go beat people.

Both, therefore, face challenges, but surely England have the more threatening gulf to stilt-walk across?

As an active under-appreciator(!) of nearly everything the new England manager stands for, I confess to being little stirred by what happens next to Rooney, Raheem or even the genuinely fascinating Mr Stones. However, I am interested in the human: so that thing about whether they will look like they believe in Allardyce – having failed to project that for aeons under previous regimes – is the source of some fascination.

However, however. It’s one of the great vanities of world sport that England’s 60 Years of Hurt is still being by unpicked by idle scribes like myself. Enough; let’s waft on past.

Rugby. Is wonderful and confident in its own, indomitably morally-rooted fashion. Rugby people know their sport is a bastion against everything from too much time in the barbers to too much reality telly. Though plainly issues arise the great integrity of the whole remains largely un-nibbled by indulgence, arrogance or whatever phase of Pokemon wotsit we happen to be enduring. It’s about real clunking and real fronting up: it necessarily weeds out the fakers and the frauds. Rugby is essentially good: this the argument.

I buy some of that – strangely. But it doesn’t divert us from the task in hand – namely to surgically unravel the mysteries of current anglo-welsh attainment in the game, like us fans do.

Clearly it’s England who will dominate the flow, here. Since the appointment of a stiffer, brashier, ballsier, more Australian coach some months ago, the English have found or re-found a method. They now simply repel the insecurities that apparently plagued the Lancaster era. They are tough and they don’t care… they simply execute. It’s early but already Jones is in danger of deserving the fatal description ‘genius’.

Okaaay. But Wales have players that people love. Do England? Do they have a Liam Williams or a Jamie Roberts or are they simply a faceless powerhouse of a side? This may matter – like time and attention spans matter.

Maybe we finish with a points table. Maybe it looks like this;

(Out of 10.)

England football. Lovability 3 / style points 4 / current success level -26.

Wales football. L 8.5 / s p 5 / c s l 7.5.

Eng rugby. L 6.5 / s p 7 (oof, contentious!) / c s l 8.

Wales rugby. L 7 / s p 7 / c s l 6.5.

Eng and Wales cricket. L 8 / s p 9 / c s l 8.

I hereby declare (irrespective of today’s result) cricket the winner. Roooooooot!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smells like team spirit.

So does the Leicester Thing mean anything for other sports? Does the shockingly beautiful but relentless surge that carried the Tinker Man’s team through transfer elsewhere? Of course it does.

Not because there’s some template here, that Ranieri has demystified.  Not because the ‘reversion’ to simple qualities of honest work and togetherness explains everything in a way we can cart across to cricket or rugby.

This is not boxes being ticked so much as people (players) being transformed or galvanised together. And fans from all over – from outside footie, too – have loved or bought into the excitement around that; it’s felt refreshing, uplifting; it’s revalidated that wonderful but tarnished word ‘game’.

In our different way we get that the Leicester gaffer’s gathered and intuited together a powerfully more-than-the-sum-of-it’s-parts blend which has (rather than being one-dimensional but hellish durable) outrun, out-competed and often swamped the opposition in a flood of complex, focussed, inviolable energy.

There’s nothing simple about this except the sense that Ranieri’s absolutely nailed something – something like Peak Manager – in this remarkable process.

We have to be careful we don’t patronise his personal achievement whilst deconstructing events most commonly described as ‘unbelievable.’ We’d all concede that theoretically Leicester City have no right to win a Premier League; not in the era of oil sheiks and unthinkable piles of monopoly money – both of which they plainly lack. Let’s mark, then, the fact that Ranieri has done something truly rare; sustained a run from nowhere over an entire season.

Even those with a rare eye for talent would not have recognised Champions in their pre-season squad photo. Mahrez, Vardy and maybe Okazaki constitute the fellas high-profile clubs might have coveted in August. (I’ve just flicked through their ‘roster’ and recommend you do the same should you think this a significant underestimation of their star quality. We may argue on this but the central point seems reasonable; that Leicester have done something incredible, given their resources on all fronts.)

What factors have been key, then, really?

Broadly Ranieri has set his side up to play brisk footie at a highish tempo. They dare to exemplify the old virtues of teamwork and solidity within a four-four-two framework and defensively unashamedly challenge convention by fielding stoppers – blokes who can head and clout things and who dream not of overlapping charges nor cultured forward interventions.

Forward of the Huth-men, they’re quick, tough and mobile and in the case of Mahrez in particular, precociously gifted. But they are not Real Madrid. They are spectacularly galactico-free, in fact.

So there is romance in their relative plainness? Maybe.

The Leicester City defence have been like something out of a 1970’s comic. Or a movie where giants wade out of the sea. They  hold and shove; they are intimidatingly ‘physical’. They make that statement.

How much of this is policy and how much the ‘nature’ of the individuals I leave to you. But if it’s been their achilles heel in terms of popularity, not so re- results; it’s been a key part of the winning bundle.

Some can’t quite get past the idea that this is a freakishly poor quality season, with Man Utd, Arsenal, City and Chelsea all caught somewhere between underachievement and raw embarrassment. And that by implication This Was The Year when summatz daft might happen. Others have just got on with enjoying Leicester’s success.

Whatever our view of the tactical masterstrokes (or flukes), the philosophical undercurrent(s) or the uniqueness or otherwise of the Leicester Phenomena, we all seem drawn to a single essence. It’s about spirit. They bristle with it…  and most of us rate that.

But where does that come from? (Because maybe this is transferable, or applicable to other team sports – maybe to all?!?) How do you get that stuff to work… like this?

The gaffer sets the tone. At all levels. The manager or coach is a presence – a force or a vacuum, maybe. This presence may be expressed in the classically Churchillian way, through brilliant, inspirational, possibly ‘set-piece’ speechifying or it may be through by a sort of incremental handing over of responsibility or leadership to key individuals. Or some of both. In either case it is pretty close to critical that the manager is believed – respected.

Unsurprisingly, I think it’s likely that Ranieri has provided both inspiration and inspired delegation/organisation. He may appear  likably quirky but he is shrewd and demanding and tough. He is The Boss. He can cuddle and charm but he can deliver a serious bollocking.

I’ve been in dressing-rooms where I felt ten feet tall post the team-talk. I’ve been in dressing-rooms where we all felt embarrassed for the manager’s lack of weight; where the obvious irrelevance of the leader’s opinions was a rank embarrassment. He was lost, as was the room. Fatal.

Coaching at every level is the art of understanding and knowing your players. Getting into their heads; maximising their efficiency as a group by maximising their belief and their contributions as individuals. Finding different ways to motivate different humans. The efficacy of all tactical and strategic plans is contingent upon this relationship, this galaxy of relationships, driven and directed by the coach.

This does not mean the coach has be an orator par excellence – although he or she needs to be able to command the space. Pithy can be perfect.

During the Rugby World Cup, Graham Henry wrote brilliantly and fascinatingly on how he learned to withdraw his ego from coaching. How he latterly grew big enough to embed virtually all the motivation and the tactical decision-making within the team. His All Blacks evolved into a group that practically ran itself – once the cultural stuff had been coached or understood.

Extraordinarily, Henry barely spoke during the allegedly critical minutes before a match. His players knew where they were at and simply did not need further input from him. The work had been done, over months, years before and specific plans for specific opponents addressed during the preceding week or so. So the coach just shut the **** up. For me this is right up there with diving through a crowd to score knowing your going to get your head kicked in.

Ranieri may not have been at Leicester long enough to embed that amount of strength into the team. But he has clearly done something magnificent – something which is his.

Leicester City have chased and harried and out-passed and outwitted the Premier League. We watch their fabulously collective energy and we recognise something powerful and cheering for the game – maybe for all games? Sure it’s something to do with our love of the underdog and our revulsion towards Big Money but none of this need undermine our enjoyment, or the sensation that (dinglydong!) our faith may yet be restored.

Bravo, Claudio!! And thank you.

 

 

 

This Charmless Man.

Caught merely the gist of a column the other day about charmlessness, in relation – I believe – to the Six Nations and epitomised – I believe – by Dylan Hartley. Have to confess at the outset that what with coaching and taxiing the kids round the gaff, I did not read the article but was nevertheless struck by the life-affirming subtext that how players appear whilst executing the sport thing matters.

This is a civilising (ouch!) notion contradicted by the bullishness and result-oriented nature of much of the discourse around the daft games we love and fight about. Top Level sport (in particular) is so-o consumed by the means and process of securing victory that the quality, the measure of fulfillment around any given event has to some extent slipped from view and gone with it is the meaning and contribution of the fan – the one who watches and filters.

Wins are ground out – legitimately. Points are ‘everything’. Goals are still paying the rent.

All this would be unarguably okaaay but for the actually rather unsubtle shoulder-barging off of much of the colour or charm or richness of the game(s). Fans feel and maybe live through the wildly swinging doors of in-stadia experience, understanding and registering profound and also absurdly tangential stuff which (if coaches/managers/pundits are to be believed) apparently either didn’t feature, or stand irrelevant to the conversation. (I’m picturing everyone from Sam Allardyce to Andy Flower to Warren Gatland whilst saying this.)

Game-management is the thing and though we cannot deny the aspiration from Coach A to maximise his/her chances or narrow the dangers, there is surely a relatively negative inference here? Keep the thing orderly; shape it; direct it – provide the platform. All essential on the one hand but in contrast – even if understood as a either a pre-requisite or preamble to glorious, expressive dominance – unconvincing as a departure point towards heart-lifting poetry. And sport as we know can be poetry; liberated and rhythmic and giddy and beautifully-terrifyingly fickle.

So I make the argument for senses over sense. The audience knowing more than the player or coach – or certainly appreciating more. The audience being freer to love, less conditioned and constrained by the deathly need to win. Even those fans who phone in to say ‘we’d take that result anytime’; they don’t mean it, most of them. They mean to sound like coaches and players who screen the subtleties out because they need to protect themselves from the inevitable confusion and doubt that feeling all this might bring. Far safer to retreat into stats and meetings.

Of course plenty of evidence flies in the face of my hypothesis. How can Joe Root – the poster boy for brilliant, simple, expressive, almost childlike Playing of The Game exist, let alone thrive in the cynical world I describe? How could any ‘natural?’ And doesn’t the prevalence of talk from coaches on positivity and dynamism undermine this central accusation of cynicism and crassness at the core? Maybe it does.

But pausing to select a footballer or rugby star to insert into the Reasons To Be Cheerful category (and here I mean an all-round diamond geezer, gorgeously talented and whole)… I was struggling. Despite the magnificent levels of honourability and dedication and commitment in rugby, the sense (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) is of giants playing largely by rote. The football equivalent is further adrift again, being plagued by deceivers and posers and appalling egos.

Let me briefly develop this particular rant. I could get specific – or even personal given today’s events at Goodison Park- but let’s merely throw in the words Diego Costa, urge you to revisit the blog’s title and then shuffle forwards. Please. The extravagantly elbowed and foreheaded and indeed jawed one out-epitomises Hartley by a distance on our chosen theme. But yes – hastily – on!

Generally, sadly, I get precious little inspiration from footie these days and this is largely/precisely due to the charm deficit. Great that Leicester are flushing out the arrogance of the allegedly Big Four but the Premier League is surely characterised more by expensive barnets on underachieving heads than by authentic, Scholes-like genius? Fans know it feels

a) superficially exciting because it’s ‘open’
b) poor and in some measure fraudulent or expensive.

This reality is skilfully obscured by the sheer scale of the lurid behemoth that is Super Premier League Thing. Monopoly money. Corporate de-sensitising of the Actual Game-day. Pies at 5 or 6 quid. True the reassuringly tribal passions do remain but even they are being eroded; difficult to engage lungburstingly loyal mode when the blokes out there don’t seem bothered. Difficult to see the charm in shockingly high prices and mediocre quality sport and unlovable protagonists.

This then, broadly painted, is the challenge. In a word, mixed. You decide what applies to your team, your game.

As a conversation starter I’m saying that Dylan Hartley’s bland brutishness is merely and inevitably in contrast to Theo Walcott’s infuriatingly persistent adolescent blandness. But this leaves me feeling undersupplied. I know I’ve experienced richer fayre. I know it’s not unreasonable to insist on more. Because these essences, these defining-but-abstract things are appreciated, it’s incumbent on our Top Level People – players, coaches, directors of this and that – to provide us with authentic characters, with quality and with the charm that we deserve.