26 August 2010

"Goals by Keegan, Kennedy and the ginger-headed David Fairclough..."

I watched the Champions League draw on television earlier, although heaven knows why, given that I have no emotional interest in the competition.

There is something fascinating about a live draw for a major football tournament that drags you in and, as each ball is plucked from the dish and each team learns its fate, you find yourself making assessments and expressing opinions on fixtures that, when they come, you may not even watch on telly.

I dislike the Champions League but still watch a sizeable number of games, just because I'm still someone who enjoys a comfy settee, a decent drink and a good match on the box. For a spell in the 1970s and 1980s, English clubs dominated the competition and, immediate bitter rivalries apart, generally goodwill existed in the whole country for whichever team was doing well.

And the singular 'team' is important, and forms part of the reason why I maintain a big fascination for the old European Cup while scorning the structure and ideals, if not the quality, of the Champions League.

Nostalgists like me would prefer the Champions League - a bloated, money-led group system that allows teams who aren't the best in their own country to still be crowned the best in Europe - to be ditched and reverted back to the classic European Cup format that existed until 1993, in which just the champions of each nation partook in straight two-legged ties until a brace of finalists emerged.

It'll never happen. Money talks. Power dictates.

But the old European Cup was fantastic. Midweek games, always reserved for Sportsnight highlights, and the fans of those sides that won the competition during that purple patch - Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa - talk of "great European nights", which somehow don't feel capable of replication in the modern format, especially if a heroic 4-3 win over AC Milan can still be cocked up by a 2-1 defeat at Basle a fortnight later.

I think, leaving the actual finals aside, the best night for an English club in the European Cup during that halcyon era came in 1977, when Liverpool faced French champions Saint-Étienne ("ALLEZ LES VERTS") in the quarter finals. The first leg in France had finished 1-0 to Saint-Étienne, leaving Liverpool with little doubt of what was required; win the game and try at all costs not to concede an away goal.

Anfield, a ground which in its modernity I find it hard to warm to, was just the most atmospheric of venues in those heady days of terracing and minimal segregation. The travelling French fans, decked in bright green scarves, were in the Anfield Road end, mixing with the locals. At the other end, the Kop was sprawling in anticipation. The gates had been locked a whole hour before kick off.

England had not had a European Cup winner for nine seasons and this Liverpool team looked most capable. Saint-Étienne had lost the final the previous season and were no slouches, but Liverpool settled their nerves and sent their fans into raptures when Kevin Keegan - his necklace clearly wafting over his shirt - fluked a shot-cum-cross into the far corner after just a couple of minutes.

Everything was now level. 1-0 to the home side in each leg. Liverpool therefore became favourites with still nearly a full game before their own people ahead of them. But Saint-Étienne threatened to ruin it when they scored an equaliser.

There are two things to flag up about that particular goal.

Firstly, it has never been offered the credit it deserves as one of the European Cup's greatest ever goals. Dominique Bathenay was the young French midfielder who scored it, thumping a swerving, looping shot from more than 30 yards over Ray Clemence. England's best goalkeeper at the time was completely done by a very special shot the moment it left Bathenay's boot.

Secondly, as it was scored at the end where the Saint-Étienne fans were based, it meant there was this bizarre sight of green-clad people capering with glee interspersed with people not doing so. The lack of segregation was quite remarkable, especially in an era where hooliganism in the English game was rife and rising. These thrilled fans of Les Verts were rightly cavorting in their allocated area at such a priceless goal; that they were able to do so within undoubtedly a surrounding majority of disgruntled Scousers makes their glee all the more notable. As the ball hits the net you get about two seconds of fans behind the goal celebrating or clearly not celebrating together, before the director unsurprisingly focusses in on the scorer.

As far as the fixture was concerned, it meant Liverpool were in trouble. 2-1 down on aggregate and, with the away goal now against them, they needed to score twice or go out. There was little more than half an hour to go, but within eight minutes of Bathenay's wonder strike, Ray Kennedy had slid in a smart shot to make it 2-2. The Frenchmen maintained the upper hand, albeit a greasy one.

Then the story that every Liverpool fans present that night still talks about.

David Fairclough, a nippy but slight young striker from the city with hair to match the red Liverpool kit, was slung on as the substitute, something for which he had become renowned in his short career as he had been prone to grab crucial goals after late introductions. And, in the last 10 minutes, he was given a through ball that still required him to shake off two uncompromising French defenders.

This he did, before slotting the ball past the goalkeeper in front of the Kop. Which promptly exploded with noise.

Fairclough's reaction was ace. He didn't quite go for the full scale "arms aloft, look at me" celebration as he was evidently a mixture of unsure that the goal had been allowed and disbelieving that he'd just scored it. Gerald Sinstadt, commentating for ITV's The Midweek Match, knew how to react as the ball hit the net - "Supersub strikes again!"

The game stayed at 3-1, giving Liverpool a 3-2 victory and a place in the semi-finals. Eventually they would win the final in Rome and collect their first European Cup and even though they have since won the competition four more times and had countless great evenings in doing so, the drama and elation of the win over Saint-Étienne remains one of the most revered of the "I was there" occasions for the elder Liverpool supporter.

Of course, it's possible to still have similar melodrama in the Champions League format, as once the group stages are over the surviving 16 teams revert to authentic two-legged showdowns until the final. But it's a pity that the Champions League retains an element of falsehood about it when history shows that the competition is big enough to produce those moments that remain in folklore and transcend the competition and the sport. Those 55,000 who went to Anfield know that. Everyone who watched on television later, irrespective of affiliation, knew that. Have a look at it yourself, go on.

The innocence of football in 1977, eh? Clemence had to put on a yellow keeper's jersey because of Saint-Étienne's green strip. You'd have thought they could have found one with a number 1 on it...

25 August 2010

"And nothing had the chance to be good..."

Holding Back The Years by Simply Red. And no matter how many things the upturned of nose can say to emphasise their dislike of Mick Hucknall, you still come back to the voice.

I have never had a problem with Simply Red, though I can't say I've ever found their music amazing. They're a strong soul pop act who happen to have a frontman who fits every cog in the frontman Meccano set. Presence, charisma, willingness to take all the rap as well as the credit and, of course, a quite astonishing voice. Given that many frontmen do not have an astonishing voice, this is some trick to pull off.

And it really is all about the voice. Look through the Simply Red back catalogue and you'll remind yourself of a handful of half-decent but unspectacular pop larkabouts, all made into much more memorable recordings because the bloke singing them has a special gift. And maybe the plentiful sneerers of Simply Red don't dislike them because of Hucknall's personality, it's because they want to criticise the voice and can't.

I think Hucknall was the best new British singer to emerge in the 1980s. Again, cast aside views on the actual material and listen to the voice. Terrific on record and, anyone who remembers his live version of Holding Back The Years on Top of the Pops will attest that his ability to deliver one true vocal on one stage was flawless. It got to the point where he could sing shopping lists and still be impressive; indeed, I suspect that the gaggle of untesting mid-tempo ditties - Fairground, Sunrise, Remembering The First Time, The Right Thing, Thrill Me, It's Only Love - that Hucknall has foisted on his audience over the years are a sure sign of creative laziness as he knew the voice would always win through.

Holding Back The Years is a brilliant exception. Hucknall wrote it as a teenager after establishing exactly how his life had been devalued by the unforced exit of his mother when he was a toddler. He was brought up by his dad (I think he was a barber) and a collection of female neighbours and, as is often the case, his mum only expressed an interest in her boy when she realised he was that famous, rich, talented, good loo... - ok, that's pushing it - one hitting perfect pitch on telly. And Hucknall told her where to get off.

The line "strangled by the wishes of pater, hoping for the arms of mater" is notable, as Hucknall wonders aloud whether there was more comfort to be had in the presence of a mother, presumably from seeing the benefits of having a mum that his peers in Manchester had. This is emphasised further in the video when the small boy falls off his bike and Mum does the auto-care routine while Dad shakes his head as if he didn't approve of mollycoddling.

The video was filmed in Whitby and allowed a role for the rest of the band as the churchyard cricket players. Now, Simply Red have always been a band but Hucknall has been the focal point from day one to the detriment of the profile of the rest. Vocalists always are, but this was an example of a man transcending all the equalities that come with a group. He wrote the songs, took phenomenal attention, had the gift of the gab in interviews, looked the part and even chose the band name from his flamboyant barnet. Members of Simply Red could walk down a street unnoticed in 1986 and still can now, with their professional reputations unaffected.

As for rest of the video, well I can't think of a single one of my teachers that I'd like to have caught necking on a gravestone.

It took some going for the song to be noticed. After their version of Money's Too Tight To Mention got them in the Top 40 for the first time, three follow-up singles from the debut Picture Book album flopped, and this was the second of those three. It took a judicious re-issue eight months later for it to be fully noticed, courtesy of the song's slow adoption by American audiences.

During that early summer of 1986, Holding Back The Years climbed to No.1 in the USA and No.2 in the UK, where it was held off for a fortnight by Dr and the Medics' version of Spirit In The Sky. During this time, Hucknall appeared alone on Top of the Pops for that astounding live rendition of the song, one that cast him as a genuinely special talent. It was, after all, still only his band's second hit.

In popular culture, the song is well known for its appearance in the episode of Only Fools and Horses where Rodney gets married. As it plays, the main characters follow the bride and groom out of the reception area, leaving Del on his own to be reflective. I could be sniffy and say this ruins the song, but there will be plenty who would say with equal conviction that it's the song that ruins the programme. In truth, even though Only Fools and Horses began to die the moment it allowed a girlfriend to stick her oar in, the song probably suits the moment pretty well.

My only beef with Holding Back The Years is the refrain "I'll keep holding on". I hate this line. The expressions "hold on" or "holding on" are ubiquitous in popular lyrics and act as a kind of shorthand for "we can't think of something more profound or poetic to write". En Vogue, Wilson Phillips, Beverley Craven. Listen to the terrible Stop Crying Your Heart Out by Oasis and you've got the picture right there. Noel Gallagher ran out of ideas on that one before he even got started.

The Stars album is still the best thing Simply Red have done. The title track is fabulous. For Your Babies is delightful. And Something Got Me Started - even though Hucknall's laziness is very present in the chorus - is still eminently danceable. But Holding Back The Years remains Hucknall's finest hour as a writer and a vocalist and remains the best single reason why his detractors have a real fight on their hands when trying to bemoan his talent.

24 August 2010

"You haven't enough sense to go to the toilet, never mind university..."

It's GCSE results day, so the news gives us the regular mixture of female-only celebrators ("fruity girls!") opening their envelopes and academic killjoys telling them their results are worthless and they will all die of malnutrition by the time they're 25.

I didn't have to go to school for my GCSE results. They arrived in a tiny brown envelope in the post. Well, eventually they did. Our post frequently wouldn't turn up until midday or later and I had pretty much chewed up and spat the entire stair carpet to fight the nerves and adrenaline by the time the mail eventually did poke through.

I also took about 17 phone calls from friends, all of whom had received their envelopes via their more efficient village post offices and were telling me, excitedly, that they'd got enough Cs and above to go to Wyke Sixth Form or something. Back then, Cs and above were regarded as the achievement. I hope As and A*s are not more common now because the exams are easier. I'd like to think it's because kids are cleverer and teachers are better.

Two Bs and a clutch of Cs for me, resits permitting. The whole exam process when I was 16 is a blur now. I remember just bits, like the question in my Chemistry exam to which the answer was cobalt and nickel (buggered if I know now what the question actually was, though - are they the only metals that don't rust, or something?). I remember writing an essay about the Poor Law in History that couldn't have been more improvised if it had been John Sessions writing it in the style of commedia dell'arte, but I passed, possibly through sheer cheek. To this day I struggle with negative sums (my overdraft situation means I regularly have to such calculations) but I scraped through my Maths at intermediary level, having decided that iteration wasn't for me. English and French were the only comparative doddles. Biology was absolutely hideous. Geography the dullest subject of all - bollocks to sedimentary rocks, tell me about India and Brazil and what's at the bottom of the sea!

My A levels are much more vivid, undoubtedly because I totally loathed sixth form beyond all measure. And to those GCSE students who keep hearing the exams are too easy, fret not. We got that too - from the pro O Level brigade (mainly students who took the last O levels in 1987 and developed a sanctimony that even Tony Blair would have repelled) complaining that they had it harder than us. Boo bloody hoo. We did O level papers as exam practice and the only real difference seemed to be that GCSE didn't provide many juvenile euphemisms for fellative activity.

23 August 2010

Empty channel 83

For my sins, I don't have Freeview. I like to watch live football on television and therefore hand over my subs directly to Mr Murdoch every year. Topically, this means that I'm unaffected by today's removal of Sky Sports News from the Freeview canon.

It coincides with the channel going HD and now sports junkies have to get the full Sky package in order to carry on viewing it. There has been a large grumbled reaction from Freeview users over this decision, and not surprisingly so.

Sky Sports News is television's greatest contradiction. Because of who owns it and the methods it uses, few people of a sporting bent can say they really like it but nonetheless it remains the first pick when flicking on the television of a morn and when arriving home. And there will be a sizeable number who use it solely and exclusively on a Saturday afternoon when the peerless Jeff Stelling is in full flow.

Much of the "news" is geared towards its own agendas and cross-promotion, hence why cycling has suddenly become a major importance to them because of the Team Sky project and its recent acquisition of Bradley Wiggins. Over the summer they almost forgot there was a World Cup on because they aren't allowed the rights to show it, while Wimbledon, the World Snooker Championships and the Grand National barely make the radar despite being obvious headliners every year by their very heritage.

They specialise in speculation, rehashes from the papers and finding tenuous angles from anything and everything that Premier League managers say in their press conferences. They don't just get comments from otherwise unemployable pundits, they then turn these pundits' unoriginal opinions into fresh news stories. "The top story on Sky Sports News; former Tottenham manager Gerry Francis has said Aaron Lennon looks a right pillock with that shaved arrow in his head..."

But for all this, it's done slickly and the presenters are smart, cheery and, with the exception of the ludicrous Jim White, keep the cheese factor to a minimum. And the easiness which the likes of Georgie Thompson (who goes out with one of Ant & Dec and therefore has ruined everything; the Sarah Greene du jour), Natalie Sawyer, Twitter darling Millie Clode and the pixieish Alex Hammond/Quinn/Hammond have on the eye can do no harm at all, especially as most of them do have either sporting or journalism backgrounds and aren't, as assumed by some, just pretty faces who can read. (New girl Hayley McQueen needs to keep her head still though).

But, now, the Freeviewers will have to shell out as Murdoch constructs his televisual equivalent of the Times paywall. If it's any consolation at all, this morning's HD launch has done little but hurt my eyes and the new typesetting and layout is wretched. You're not missing much. And, if we're all honest, every time we've missed Sky Sports News in the past we've not missed much - even though that never stops us watching it again. And if you're missing Jeff and the boys, there's always Garth Crooks on the BBC... oh ok, down the pub it is then.