7 December 2007

The unbeautiful game

I travel the country watching my football team play and I can't bear the thought of not going. I watch plenty on TV too. But there are things about football I cannot bear, and here are ten of them:-

1 - Music after goals. It's always Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag, Tom Hark or Hey Baby. Tom Hark is a particularly gruesome choice, as when I play the full song at my 80s night, Stockport County fans come up and tell me they never knew it had words as they'd only ever heard the first 20 seconds. Music after goals is wrong on so many levels; my club, mercifully, remains in possession of a soul.

2 - Shameless rip-offs. Not tickets nor replica shirts et al, but matchday stuff like programmes (four quid or so for something which is 80 per cent adverts) and particularly food and drink. At Crystal Palace's ground this season I paid almost a fiver for one bottle of lukewarm lager. A fiver! What establishment does Simon Jordan think he owns - Stringfellows? I'm so glad we scored a 93rd minute equaliser that day.

3 - Fixture arrangements. We have to go to Norwich and Cardiff on Tuesday nights this season. This will rule out attendance by families and anyone who works what you call "regular" hours, unless their boss is at the top end of the understanding scale. Our midweek games should be the local ones, or at the very least, games based in the north. Norwich is fine as the crow flies but there isn't a motorway in sight and it is the hardest place to get to if you don't actually live in East Anglia - and we've been given midweek fixtures there for each of the last three seasons.

4 - Witless supporters. "Get that white shirt off, ref!" shouted one absolute div behind me after the official gave a mildly dubious decision in favour of our white-kitted opponents on Tuesday night. I suspect he's polishing off his collection of insults about the ref's eyesight and parentage ready for the weekend as you read this.

5 - Supporters who only whinge. I've hosted many a football phone-in, and the lines are red hot after a bad defeat with knee-jerk, clueless fools wanting a clearout of players or the sacking of managers, but a team that plays well and wins and has a rosy garden generally gets next to nothing by comparison. I once opened the lines after a 4-0 home win and nobody rang up.

6 - Blinkered choice of live FA Cup matches. The third round draw has just been made and while it wasn't especially inspiring, Match Of The Day has chosen nonetheless to screen the Manchester United v Aston Villa match, passing up the chance to give the odd smaller club a bit of precious BBC exposure and instead pander to the sides we watch on our tellies all the time.

7 - Assistant managers talking to the telly. If a manager refuses to speak to a particular media organisation due to some dispute or other, then the organisation in question should just refuse to offer any airtime for any underling's version of events. Especially uninspiring is Nigel Pearson, a bland, miserable, cliche-spouting lackey to Sam Allardyce at Newcastle, who is still refusing to talk to the BBC.

8 - Greedy councils. All of the laybys and verges et al which were always good for parking if you couldn't get into the designated stadium car park have been added to our local council's "restricted areas" list, and as a consequence I've paid two parking fines this season for using bits of land which were perfectly fine for the last five years. Nobody's space is stolen, nobody is blocked in, and traffic is not prevented from moving. It's just basic greed. No more.

9 - Fans who comment on games and performances they haven't seen. Self-explanatory, really. This happens on the radio a lot ("Hi Alan, I didn't go to the game but....") and during matches on online forums ("sounds like the captain's playing crap again, they should drop him...") and yet somehow these people think their opinions are as valid as those who attended or, better still, the manager of the team.

10 - Timewasting. I've saved the worst until last, and I hate my own team doing it as much as the opposition. What sort of negative, anti-football set-up encourages players to kick the ball away when conceding free kicks, take forever to pick the ball up for a throw-in or - worst of all - "miscontrol" the ball when an opponent gives it to them for such a set-piece? What's worse is that this happens a lot in the first half of matches after the timewasting team has taken the lead; as if shaving off ten seconds in the 20th minute will make a difference an hour later. Referees always claim to add on appropriate minutage at the end to allow for such antics, but by then teams are playing a more frantic, less organised game and the later it gets the less chance there is of getting that required equaliser or winner. Effective it may be, but it's unsporting, ungentlemanly and sick-making.

I like football otherwise.

6 December 2007

Light fantastic ... (ish)

Well, a striking royal blue seems to be the "in" colour for Christmas 2007 if the lights which have gone up on a smattering of houses on my estate and beyond are anything to go by.

I see most of the village every day due to dog-walking duties, and a sizeable majority of the lights up so far are this colour. Either there is a trend at the moment (a colour "in season" for 2007) or someone at the market further up the A-road had a cheap job-lot for sale. It's actually a tone which is pleasing on the eye, and I say this as someone who has never really got used to lights, multi-coloured or nay, going up on people's houses in the month leading up to Christmas Day.

It's very much an American tradition which we have adopted, is it not? Twenty years ago my childhood cul-de-sac, where my beloved parents still live, would not have had a single wired bulb wrapped crudely around its front doors and drainpipes. Gretchen Wilson may keep her Christmas lights up on her front porch all year long, but to this day it's quite hard to convince some folk in this part of the world to put them up at all.

There are extremes the other way, of course; without getting all Daily Mail about it, I must confess to a substantial dislike for the widely-publicised annual madness of lights which engulf whole houses and negate the need for council-maintained street lighting, such is their brightness and multi-coloured obscenity. The sniffier end of tabloid journalism make a point of highlighting (arf) the marital status and employment situation of whoever shelled out for so much grid-eating tack - providing that marital situation is that of unmarried parent and the employment situation is one of claimant. Perfectly possible as it is for well-off, longtime-betrothed folk to suffer from poor taste and strangle a street or estate with its choice of outdoor decoration, such types seem to not make the papers.

When the Natural Blonde's father sold his house to move in with other relatives, she acquired his Christmas decorations. These included a small arrangement of droplet-esque flashing lights, in natural colour, which one hangs from the living room window. I don't mind these at all - they make their point and show a willingness to get into the seasonal spirit without yelling "look at my house now!" at the neighbours. They haven't gone up yet - three weeks before Christmas is way too early. But once we get in the swing of things, they'll be accompanied by a tree in the conservatory, a tasteful and understated garland on the front door and some form of small candle display on the windowsill. None of this Twelfth Night bobbins either - Christmas lights and decorations should be long gone by December 27th, never mind January 6th. To me, there is no day less Christmassy than the day after Boxing Day, when the Christmas break is at its furthest away. The trinkets and lights should be returned to the loft on the same day your local commercial station stops playing Christmas records.

With our decoration arrangements, it goes without saying that the cats will be banned from the conservatory (well, they'll be greeted by a closed door if they go there - it's quite hard to inform a cat verbally that they're not allowed somewhere, nor is issuing injunction orders appropriate; they'd rip them up and scatter them around the house) and their antics on the windowsill will be closely monitored. Decorations - especially real trees - are a complete nightmare when you own cats. Frequently in my childhood would we get up on December mornings to find the tree, baubels and tinsel scattered everywhere.

You can buy droplet-type lights to drape from the roof guttering, but these only look right if you have a detached house. Mine is a semi, and our neighbours hate us because they think the dogs are descended from Satan as one of them occasionally barks at, oooh, 10.30pm, so coming to an arrangement about sharing lights to form a collective ensemble of colour is at zero on the likelihood scale. The detached house at the end of the road (where eight King Charles spaniels live, as well as the odd human being) has these stalactite lights hanging from the roof, flashing on and off in random patches and rhythms and they look ace. And these happen to be one of the many sets of lights in royal blue. Evidence of better neighbourly relations than mine are apparent elsewhere in the village, with numerous semi-detached houses and bungalows sharing the lights so that it all looks symmetrical and artistic and nice. Maybe they take it in turns to plug them in so that they share the cost as much as the admiration.

Other light arrangements spied during the twice-daily Basset constitutionals include a terrific pair of animal-shaped wire things - a lamb and a donkey - with enough bulbs strategically-shaped to establish the species of creature intended. They are on the front garden, which has no fence or wall, and look really classy. I also like the random covering of garden conifers in lights which a few of my fellow villagers lucky enough to have gardens which can accommodate such trees have utilised, but multi-coloured bulbs don't look very Christmassy to me, irrespective of where they're placed or whether they flash or not; I think they're better off on fairground attractions than people's homes.

As for figures in the window depicted by lights; well, if kids live at the house then you can appreciate a waving Santa or a flapping robin (though what robins have to do with Christmas I've no idea; it's like the longtime propensity for putting scarf-wearing penguins on Christmas cards which has become one of Alex Lester's finest running gags), while there's a good window display in the village of a reindeer tugging a small sled. However, a household on the same street as me has, yet again, decided that an old fashioned choo-choo train (smoke from chimney, bloke at the back pulling a string) is festive enough to go in the window. I've scoured the nativity story tirelessly and nowhere does it say Mary and Joseph had to head for Bethlehem via Stockton and Darlington, only for Mr Trevithick to say there was no room in first class and they had to sleep on the roof.

5 December 2007

"Og ikke retur!"*

Well, Helge got out of the car, thanked me for the ride, shook my hand and offered a mild manly hug, collected his bag and coat from the boot and headed off to his digs, ready to pack his belongings and return home to Norway tomorrow.

I waved him goodbye and wished him a pleasant and safe trip.

We'd just lost at Preston 3-0, played abjectly, and it's all his fault for turning up. We were doing ok prior to his arrival.

*Norwegian for "And don't come back!"

(Okay, okay, we'll see him next year...)

4 December 2007

"What, no Davina?"

In no particular order, media-type people who are brilliant and don't get the level of acknowledgement they deserve:-

1 - Claudia Winkleman

2 - John Sessions

3 - Kirsty Young

4 - Alex Lester

5 - James May

6 - Adrian Chiles

7 - Peter Allen

8 - Matt Smith (pictured)

9 - Richard Bilton

10 - Nick Knowles

"Humour! I recognise that!"

Do you remember Deadpan magazine? It was a monthly journal about comedy which broached the subject with both humour and a degree of earnest analysis, and it perished after about half a dozen issues. For 1994 it was too niched and like its contemporary Comedy Review, disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived.

I did a spot of grocery shopping today and while fervently searching for gravy, as you do, found a packet of Bisto. Declining this particular brand in favour of another maker's granules, it nonetheless revived my memories of Deadpan and prompted a wry smile, as Bisto always does. This is because Deadpan made a point of giving it away as a prize.

There was a feature called That's Shit!, which was as sophisticated as the title doesn't suggest. As I recall, it happened mildly by accident after the first issue but became seemingly popular quickly, as people sent in photographs of items or pastimes or phenomena or events which were, in fact, a bit rubbish. And the prize was a crisp tenner and a packet of Bisto.

As an over-keen, ingratiating 21 year old, I decided to send in a photo I had only taken with the initial intention of arseing about with my camera and finishing a film off. Actually, my work colleague and housemate Chris, now a high-flying agency journalist who won't remember any of this, took it. It was of me playing keepie-up with a football in the kitchen of our rented Kirkheaton cottage. No more, no less. My belief was that it fitted the criteria (funny and rubbish) because there were better things to do in a kitchen, better places to kick a football, and better things generally for 21 year old lads with a semblance of a future to be doing with their time.

And lo and behold, they printed it. They said that it was "not at all funny, but we just wanted to show everyone his crap kitchen. Nice kettle, Matty." A few days later, an envelope arrived containing a new tenner, a packet of Bisto and a piece of headed paper with deliberately slipshod, hurried handwriting on it which said "Well done Matt, here's your tenner and gravy. Deadpan people."

I did send other photos with the now nationally consumed and much praised Kitchen Football snap. One was of a manual typewriter. Another was of a jacket potato out of which only the filling had been eaten. Neither of these made it, unsurprisingly. I can still recall, however, from the few issues printed, what else from fellow resourceful readers made the cut and earned some free meat stock. These photos included GCSE Art, Drunk Mates (When You're Sober), No Use Signs (it was a road sign for some minority-faith church), People Taking Photographs Of Themselves, and The Grumbleweeds.

I liked Deadpan so much. It had star columnists which included Barry Took and Sean Hughes; it paid a quite fabulous tribute to Bill Hicks as its debut issue coincided with the great man's passing; it gave comedy writing tips; offered showcases for funny amateur monologues (one marvellous example of which was called "Help! It's A Twat Being On The Dole!"); interviewed star comics (it sent its most radical left-wing shoulder-chipped hack to see Bernard Manning at the Embassy and the hack admitted in his copy that he was converted - "laughing like a loon" was how he put it) and tried to revive the careers of comedians who'd dropped down the bill a bit. The reviews were lengthy and meticulous; the letters page hysterical (somebody called Fat Martin seemed to have a monopoly on here, with all of his letters being about the exposure of his penis); and the knowledge of its subject untouchable.

Yet it shut down so soon.

A year or so afterwards, the relaunch under Mohamed Fayed of the second incarnation of Punch was widely reported and I remember BBC Radio Leeds claiming it was good for comedy fans after the demise of Deadpan and Comedy Review. But this wasn't quite so. Punch was satirical, swiping at society (and as this was under Fayed, swiping at Private Eye too, incessantly and boringly so) where as Deadpan certainly wasn't there to mock the world, but merely to examine and evaulate what made us laugh. If Punch made you laugh (I read a couple of issues, and only the column by Jerry Hayes did I find faintly amusing), then it could be classed as a comedy magazine, but it wasn't a magazine about comedy. It was also relaunched purely as a publicity toy for Fayed to get his pops back at the Eye, advertise Harrods to extraordinary lengths, and little else. It was bobbins.

After Deadpan, the "new lad" stuff got its claws in, and FHM, Maxim and Loaded all took their places on the shelf. I read FHM for a while as I remained single and in my 20s, but grew out of it quite quickly. My magazines of choice now are about football only (football played in designated stadia, and not in cramped West Yorkshire kitchens, I should clarify). But take me back to 1994 and you will find my favourite ever organ, which was briefly great and greatly brief.

There's only one photo of it on the internet that I can find, courtesy of Richard Herring's website. He and Stewart Lee were columnists. Brings a tear to my eye, this - might have to go kick a ball around the kitchen to celebrate.

2 December 2007

Police, broken camera, lack of action

Dear Humberside Police

If you think a SLOW DOWN electronic sign with an added "30" in a red circle is necessary to make drivers on my village's main road touch the brake, could you at least make sure the damn thing is set correctly?

It still flashes when one is driving at a speed as low as 20mph, irritating people, causing more danger than any allegedly there before, and proving considerably counter-productive, as now absolutely nobody takes any notice of the sign at all and are back doing 40 again.

Well done.

A Norwegian would

If you're in that sizeable minority of folk who think that football is an absolute waste of time, you will despair at this tale, assuming you decide to read on at all now that the subject matter is obvious. It's a story of a dedicated fan of his club making a seriously long trip to see his heroes in action. So forget the sporty side, the piece of spherical leather, and concentrate on the human endeavour angle.

Still with me? Hurrah!

Ladies and gentleman, I give you Helge. Now, that name to me always used to conjure up images of Scandinavian females, owing to the presence of one such lady on the international journalism course which was in the adjacent lecture room to my own NCTJ training course back in 1991. And, fictional status notwithstanding, Hagar the Horrible's resourceful Nordic wife was a Helga. But this is a Helge with differences - an 'e' rather than 'a'; and a man rather than woman.

As I write this, I never quite grasped why Helge, a chatty, slightly-built father of two from Norway, decided to adopt Hull City (my team) as his English team of choice to accompany Brann, his local side, in the restless scavenge for his affections. But he has been a regular on the online fans forum I frequent for a number of years, has a website on the club in his own language and, this week, has made his second pilgrimage to leafy East Yorkshire to see his team play.

His previous experience of actually watching the team consists of a few games on Sky which have been, with possible question marks about the legality, transmitted into his home or local bar, and one previous journey over the North Sea last year. That trip was for one solitary game which the Tigers lost 1-0 at home, after which Helge drank an inexplicable amount of strong ale (actually, he did this beforehand too), purchased pretty much every item in the club shop (possibly including the branded bike, dressing gown and bra) and flew back to his brood.

His plea for assistance with planning his trip this season came early in the campaign - he wanted a Saturday home game again, but this time followed immediately by an away trip on a Tuesday night and all that goes with it. So, having already seen the 2-2 draw with Cardiff yesterday, he is now primed for a seat in my car for the trip across the country to Preston on Tuesday night. While I've never been a big drinker on match days and therefore am happy to take the wheel for midweek away games, my companions are known for putting away some quite magnificent quantities of liquid refreshment during away trips, something Helge will have to get used to quickly. Last season he gallantly tried to keep up with the rate of glass emptying achieved by the seasoned quaffers in the pre-match pub - and both he and the cleaners of his hotel room suffered the consequences.

So, Helge is here, having travelled continentally (and gone through the misfortune of a diverted plane and missed train in order to reach fragrant Hull) and he's about to don a seat belt, crack open numerous cans of ale and follow the Tigers elsewhere. He won't be back this season, unless we make the play-offs (ie, he won't be back this season). And before any of this, I'm getting him into the studio with a tape running to ask him about why the hell he does it. If the human endeavour argument has earned your empathy, then pop back later this week and I'll tell you what he says...