26 June 2010

"And England sad-sad-sadly are out!"

I never buy a Sunday newspaper, but I intend to avoid them with even more care than usual tomorrow. I dread to think what some of the lower quality journals have in mind in previewing the England v Germany game.

I do hope, at last, that the harking back to two world wars has finally ended as Fleet Street policy whenever the two football teams meet in major competition. The unspeakably tasteless front page of the Daily Mirror - allegedly a forgiving newspaper - on the day of the 1996 European Championship semi-final took jingoistic claptrap to a level lower than a snake's belly.



Piers Morgan was the editor, lest we forget.

The fact is, however, that there is a major hang-up over the German football team and it is easy to see why. Since the 1966 World Cup final against the then West Germany (that's the one we won, for the many non-footballists who still plough through this guff of mine daily, and bless you for that) we have never bettered the Germans in either of the major international competitions. 1966 represents the last time England knocked Germany out of a major competition (assuming the final can be regarded as an act of "knocking out").

In 1970, they gained revenge at the next World Cup by defeating us in the quarter finals. In 1972, they won a two-legged European Championship quarter final, the first of which was a fine 3-1 win at Wembley. In 1982, we garnered a goalless draw in the World Cup's much criticised "second phase" (which was dumped afterwards) and the Germans progressed while England flew home. In 1990, there was the notorious semi-final defeat on penalties in the World Cup. In 1996, another semi-final defeat on penalties before the Wembley crowd in the European Championships. In 2000, we beat them 1-0 - our first competitive win since 1966 - in the European Championships but neither side qualified from the group. Later the same year, Germany won 1-0 in the old Wembley's final ever game as World Cup qualification got off to a bad start. The incredible 5-1 win in the return fixture at Munich's Olympic Stadium is tempered, albeit mildly, by the fact that the Germans not only still qualified for the finals behind us, but went on to finish as runners-up while we did our usual quarter final choking act. We have made no finals since 1966; the Germans have won two World Cups and two European Championships since that day, and England were among their victims on three of those four routes to glory.

So, as you can see, the history is backed by a dismal record, one which comes along with a fattening dollop of inferiority that acts as enough reason to feel nervous about tomorrow's game. Referring back to 1966 becomes more understandable when you examine the subsequent progress of the fixture. Referring back to 1918 or 1945 is not understandable, nor acceptable under any circumstance at all.

And I have never disliked the German football team, despite their uncharitable habit of beating us in matches that act as a do or die for the England team. The two wins in 2000 were not such, the rest quoted above were. The other big rivalry England claims in world football is that of Argentina, but it exists purely because of one act of cheating by one player which, as the most famous single moment against the spirit of the game (not to mention the rules), still rightly rankles.

With Germany it's envy, and that isn't mutual, plus respect, which is. With Argentina it's hate, and it's most definitely mutual. The reason Diego Maradona never came to play for an English club wasn't because of money or the post-Heysel European ban. It was because he would have had to live essentially under house arrest as a whole generation of English football fans hated him.

If we do beat Germany tomorrow, it's likely to be Argentina in the quarter finals. Now that really is when the tabloids will go stir crazy. And if that day comes, I might even buy one. Well, read one in the shop, at least...

24 June 2010

Alan Cooper

I've just received the sad news that my first boss has passed away. Alan co-ran the news agency where I worked between 1993 and 1998 and was already beyond the usual retirement age when I hooked up. I'm guessing he was 83 when he died yesterday afternoon.

He was a fantastic bloke, fully red-bearded which made him identical to Richard Stilgoe, except Alan was a far better wordsmith. He and his business partner Stan were old school hacks, brought up on typewriters, spikes, trench coats, copy via telephone boxes and what looked like 4,000,000 wpm in very complicated Pitman. They had run the agency together since the 1950s.

Alan hired myself and another 20 year old trainee in order to replace a young reporter destined for bigger things (that chap is now chief football writer for the Daily Mirror) and also to allow him to take a little more time away from the office. I can only recall him dashing out on a breaking story once, which was a tragic road crash in Sowerby Bridge which involved a lorry, a BT van and two shops, and resulted in half a dozen deaths. He drove to the scene and returned with a story, loads of quotes and a clear idea of how it should be written. It was done in half an hour and over several front pages the next day.

He wouldn't mind me saying, however, that those of us who knew him in the 1990s and onwards remember best what he was like in the pub rather than in the office. He was phenomenally generous, and always got the first round in irrespective of how many people were in it. He and Stan saw it as a gentlemanly duty to take me and the other newbie for a beer each evening after work, as well as the odd lunchtime and always in the press box bar at Huddersfield Town on a Saturday, because they were aware that our salaries weren't exactly outstanding and so a young boy's ale requirements should not be part of his weekly outgoings. Through this period, we were treated to endless tales about their finest hours and maddest moments as West Yorkshire journalists from the 1950s onwards, and as raconteurs they were hard to match. Both men were so different, as individuals and as a partnership, and yet so similar. They embodied principles and values and kindnesses that I hope rubbed off on everyone who worked with them.

They tried their best with me, but even they couldn't turn a decent writer into someone who had decent news sense, though I still felt I learned more in a fortnight with them than I did in a year on an NCTJ training course ("What do they teach you in these bloody colleges?") and so in 1998 I quit being a journalist for the alleged career I have now. By then both had retired entirely and sold the agency on. For all the enjoyment I got from working with a new boss, it wasn't quite the same as hearing Alan grumble about the accounts or tell a yarn about Frank Worthington or James Pickles while Stan argued with a copytaker or practised his singing.

Stan informed me of this news about half an hour ago, and it's so sad. I've had my share of evil and incompetent bosses over the years, so when one of the Really Good Guys goes, it is all the more poignant. Rest in peace Alan, here's a pint and a whisky chaser. Now tell us again about Lord Kagen's downfall.

23 June 2010

I O U

It's accounts time, and I'm just sifted through a whole year's worth of fuel receipts. And this has depressed me, as the amount of money I spent on diesel to get to "work" each weekday in January (lots) against the amount of due wages I received in return (zero) is quite a contrast. I hope the taxman allows for expense incurred in getting to a workplace where money was not eventually paid.

Still no further news on that, by the way. But I'm not giving up.

22 June 2010

Alex and Diego

Argentina versus Greece is on, and the bearded, suited Diego Armando Maradona is looking proud as his country's national anthem is played. He always reminds me of Princess Alexandra.

This isn't a slight on HRH, who is the Queen's cousin. I'm not suggesting she has a crack addiction nor has held a riotous press conference in which she told the journalists, in slightly more indelicate terms, to perform an oral act upon her. But when I think of Maradona's most notorious moment, I think of her.

You're demanding an explanation. And even if you're not and are about to click the link to someone else's blog, you're still going to get one.

Maradona's act of cheating ("And is that goal going to be allowed?") that made him even more of a hero to Argentinians and a brand new one to Scots, followed by his stunning solo second ("You have to say that's magnificent!"), knocked England out of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico at the quarter final stage. But eleven days before, crucially, our village community centre was reopened after a major refurbishment.

And the lady who opened it? HRH Princess Alexandra. As I recall, she is the daughter of Prince George, the youngest brother of George VI (no misprint, as George wasn't the King's real first name) who never really established his role in life and copped it in a plane crash during the war. There was a documentary about him on Channel 4 not long back. Her brothers are the Kent pairing that we know quite well, Duke of and Prince Michael of.

Here she is...



And here's the modern day Maradona...



You can't see the likeness? Bah.

By the way, my single favourite tweet of the World Cup so far was the one that suggested Maradona, in his suit and with his greying beard and ample jewellery, looked like a bloke from the waltzers making a court appearance.

I'm procrastinating, I know. As the 1986 World Cup was in Mexico, and the games were played in woefully inhuman Central American daytime temperatures, they were on late night in the UK or even in the middle of the night. This was no good to football-daft schoolboys like me, and so I only ever got the results upon switching on Frank Bough while packing my Nike shoebag in a morning. The last group game, which England needed to win after a desperate start to the competition (sound familiar?), was against Poland and was, of course, in the middle of the night.

So, we all woke up to the good news that England had located their own arses and managed to reach the second round of the competition. As every kid walked through our village to get to school - the comprehensive I attended was one village away - much excitement was to be had. The community centre was reopening at lunchtime by royal appointment and preparations were being briskly made. Hanging baskets were being watered, with the dead ones finally being removed, while decorative stuff was draped and hung and taped and laid. TV cameras were even there, which I'd never seen in the village before.

So, school happened and then the walk home, by which time Her Royal Anonymousness had turned up, unveiled the plaque to the newly-named Alexandra Hall, smiled for the Holderness Gazette and then buggered off again. I doubt she had time for a pint in the Queens Head, possibly because of the awkward name of the pub, which was handily situated across the arcade from the community centre. When we arrived back in our village, it was still swathed in ribbons and paper chains and bunting that hadn't been out of the town council's cellar since the Silver Jubilee, and some roads were still closed to mechanically-propelled vehicles.

And one rather thick acquaintance of my brother, upon seeing the bunting, commented: "Oh, they've really celebrated the England result, haven't they?"

So that's why Diego Maradona reminds me of Princess Alexandra.

(This is quite a story, isn't it? Bet you're biting your fist.)

She visited after the Poland game, and we didn't play Argentina for another 11 days, but he is the playing symbol of the whole competition and so when I see him, I think of the 1986 World Cup, and in turn that makes me think of Princess Alexandra. I would say I always think of Maradona when I see Princess Alexandra, but I haven't seen her in any form since, or at least not to my knowledge. No solemn broadcaster has, from memory, pointed her out at any Royal wedding or internment that the television has shown and she has presumably attended. She is still alive though. I've checked. I don't think royalty has crossed the village boundaries since. The community hall that bears her name was the venue for every crucial teenage disco I attended over the next two or three years.

The friend of my brother who seriously believed that a village's precious bunting would be hastily hung up to celebrate a single England football win of limited significance is, you'd be reassured to learn, now a policeman.

As you were.