Saturday, 26 January 2013

I Knew Your Dad

Watching Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain take Manchester United apart in January 2012, reminded me of his dad, Mark Chamberlain.

Now it’s not strictly true to say I knew Mark, but we did both appear at Wembley for the first time in December 1982.  Him on the pitch, and me in the stands.

Mark Chamberlain had burst onto the scene in 1982 when he moved from Port Vale to Stoke for the start of the ’82-’83 season.  He was a winger.  During the 70’s and early 80’s most teams had wingers, and young Mark was one of the most exciting.  I was a winger in my school team and always looked for those players when I watched football.

Stoke returned to the First Division in 1979.  They’d battled against relegation for 2 out of the 3 seasons, 1982-83 was their best performance since they came up.  Manager, Richie Barker had tasted success as 2nd in command to John Barnwell at Wolves when they surprisingly beat European Cup holders, Nottingham Forest in the League Cup Final in 1980.  As with Tony Pulis today, he had plundered other clubs squads to assemble a team that would battle for the cause.

Chamberlain, though, was a raw, young and exciting player who would hug the touchline and make full-backs look silly.  He had pace, good close control and could operate on both wings.  But he also had a certain quality that made wingers so absorbing for me as a spectator – unpredictability.  There would be games where he’d be quiet, his tricks wouldn’t come off, but in with all that, you always got a buzz when he received the ball wide on the wing with a full-back to take on and the bye-line to reach.

In 1982 England had a new manager.  Bobby Robson had left a very successful post at Ipswich to take on the national job as Ron Greenwood stepped down.  England had just come from the World Cup in Spain.  Unbeaten, they peaked in the first match (beating France, 3-1), and gradually performances dropped off the further they progressed.  They were a game away from the Semi-Finals, but in a way they were further than that.

Robson had taken charge of three matches and had mixed results, before England showed up at Wembley in December.  England’s European Championships Qualifier had begun with a 2-2 draw in Copenhagen, only to be beaten, 1-2, by West Germany in a friendly at Wembley.  This was followed by an impressive 3-0 win in Greece.

Come December, England were confident of another win.  Luxembourg were the visitors and were on a 15-game losing run, which ultimately stretched to 32 matches.  Robson gave just 1 new cap that night, to Chamberlain.

After several attempts on goal, the deadlock was finally broken when Luxembourg scored an own goal after 18 minutes.  Suddenly, England were rejuvenated and Steve Coppell made it 2-0, three minutes later.  Midway through the half, Tony Woodcock made it 3-0.  Then, two minutes before the break, came an important moment for English multi-cultural progression.

Watford’s Luther Blissett scored England’s 4th.  Well, only just as he’d made a pretty good attempt at keeping himself off the scoresheet for the most of the half, and even scuffed this chance. For those younger readers, you may be surprised to hear that Blissett became the first black player to score for England.  It was only 4 years since Viv Anderson became the first black player to play for England, and so another milestone had been reached.

Blissett then grabbed his 2nd midway through the second half, and England were 5-0 up.  Robson then sent Chamberlain on for Steve Coppell.  There was genuine excitement in the crowd and then on 72 minutes, Chamberlain scored.  It was a great moment for the young lad, who just 6 months earlier had been playing in the Fourth Division (now League Two) at Vale Park.  Although the attendance of 33,980 was lower than normal at Wembley, this was certainly the largest crowd he had played in front of.  Some players play several matches before they get their first goal for their country, some never achieve it, but Chamberlain had scored within 8 minutes of coming on.

Blissett then completed his hat-trick 4 minutes from time and there was still enough time for Glenn  Hoddle and Phil Neal to complete the scoring and 9-0 is still a record win for England at Wembley.

My eldest brother had taken me to Wembley.  He’s a mad Spurs fan and Hoddle was his hero.  For me, a Liverpool fan, I was there to see Phil Neal and Sammy Lee, but secretly I was there to watch a young lad who’d just turned 21 and I hoped he’d be the future of the England team.

It’s a bit like when young kids were really interested in Paul Gascoigne in Italia ’90 or Michael Owen and David Beckham at France ’98.  There is a sense that these young lads are ‘yours’.  They’re coming into an adult world already inhabited by your older siblings, who have their favourites but have never seen these young pretenders.

Chamberlain never scored again for England, mind you neither did Blissett.  Chamberlain didn’t pull on another England shirt until the vital qualifier against Denmark in September 1983.  England lost and Denmark went to the Finals at their expense.  It wouldn’t be till the following year that Chamberlain had his best run in the team.  He was picked for the Home International Championship match against Scotland at Hampden Park in May 1984, and then USSR, Brazil (the John Barnes goal) Uruguay and Chile in June.  His final appearance for his country was at Wembley against Finland in October 1984.  It was fitting for a lad who made his debut in a 9-0 win, to then be part of a 5-0 win in his final match.

With the emergence of John Barnes and Chris Waddle, there was ultimately no place for Chamberlain at international level.  In 1985 he moved to Sheffield Wednesday and spent three years there.  Interestingly enough, I will always think of him as a Stoke City player, but when he moved to Portsmouth (from Sheffield Wednesday), he made more appearances for them than he did for Stoke.

I later came across him again in 1992 when he was the elder statesman in a young vibrant Pompey side that nearly beat Liverpool in the FA Cup Semi-Final.  They took them to a replay and were only beaten on penalties.  That was the Portsmouth side that gave us our first glimpse of players like Darren Anderton, John Beresford, Guy Whittingham, Warren Neill and Kit Symons.

So do I feel old seeing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain playing professional football?  Not really, but there’s a strange kind of symmetry in how his Dad played a large part in my football education as a youngster and now his son is exciting people, and hopefully inspiring kids to play the way he does.

After all these years, I still get excited about players running at defenders.  Lennon, Walcott, Bale, there’s a definite rise in the heartbeats of supporters when they get the ball.  Chamberlain followed people like Peter Barnes, Laurie Cunningham, Dave Thomas and Steve Coppell.  He was 12 minutes away from being the first black player to score for England, but for one lad at his first trip to Wembley, Mark Chamberlain was my hero for that day.

The Greatest Goalscorer

Now I’m sure you thought this was going to be about Ian Rush, but it isn’t, it is about a man named Josef.

Josef ‘Pepi’ Bican was born on 25th September 1913 in Vienna, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  He was born to a poor Czech family and spent most of his childhood playing street football with a rolled-up sock, which gave him great technique, a knack for improvisation, and the ability to score with both feet.

Bican was powerfully built and could run the 100m in 10.8 seconds, which was faster than many athletes of the time. 

In 1931, he started his career with Rapid Wien.  He scored 10 goals in 8 appearances in his first season and went onto win the first of his three Austrian Championship medals in 1935.  In all, with Rapid, he scored 68 goals in just 61 matches.  He moved onto Admira and won a further two Championship medals up to 1937. 

During this time, Bican became an important part of Austria’s ‘Wunderteam’, which could’ve won the 1934 World Cup in Italy.  They were beaten by the hosts in Semi-Finals, as it was rumoured the referee was a friend of Mussolini.  Bican later claimed the referee headed one of his crosses to an Italian.  Remarkably, the same referee took the final too, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Italy won.

.The Second World War had a dramatic effect on Austrian football, as it did the rest of Europe, but Austria became part of Germany, their league disbanded and many players fled the country.  Bican was one of those players.  He fled to Czechoslovakia, where he played for Slavia Prague.  He won 4 consecutive league titles during the war.  He had scored 14 goals in 19 appearances for Austria, but only appeared in the one World Cup. 

Between 1937-1948 he played in 274 matches for Slavia, scoring, an eye-watering, 534 goals.  These were in official matches, and records show that he also played in 153 ‘friendly’ matches scoring 298 goals.  In two seasons, between 1945-1947, he scored 74 goals in 39 games.

He won the Mitropa Cup, the Champions League of its day, with Slavia and applied for Czechoslovak citizenship, but this was not processed in time and Germany invaded his adopted country too.  He turned down the Nazis’ demand to represent Germany, and also refused a move to Juventus as he feared Italy would become communist too.  When the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia, his chance to move abroad had gone.

The Czechoslovak government used him as a propaganda pawn and tried to make out he was middle-class, whereas Bican’s childhood had been especially poor, having to play barefoot as boots were unaffordable.  He was made to work as a labourer at Prague’s Holesovice railway station and then drifted into obscurity and poverty.  When the 1989 revolution overthrew the communists, Bican was given the Freedom of Prague.

Bican’s goalscoring record makes impressive reading.  In terms of League matches, he scored over 600 goals, compared to Romario (546), Pele (538) and Puskas (517).  In official matches he scored at least 805 goals (part of his record in 1952 is missing), compared to Romario (772), Pele (767) and Puskas (746).  In all matches during his career he is recorded as scoring 1,468 goals in 918 matches.

He played right up to 1956, aged 42, as he finished his career back at Slavia, then known as Dynamo Prague.  In his last three seasons with them he scored 22 goals in 29 appearances.

In January 2001 the International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians awarded Bican the ‘Golden Ball’ as the greatest goalscorer of the last century.  This was judged by the number of times a player had been top scorer in his domestic league.  Bican managed this feat 12 times.  Pele and Romario managed this 11 times during their careers.

On 12th December 2001, Bican passed away, aged 88.  He seems to be one of a handful of players who are considered by two countries as theirs.  He would appear to have been both lucky and unlucky to be born when he was.  Lucky, in that the football played during the 1930’s & 1940’s lent itself to goalscoring, of which Bican was incredibly gifted.  Unlucky in that his childhood came during the post-First World War years, and his career was blighted by the Second World War, Nazism and communism.  What would seem to be in little doubt, is that his record may well stand forever.

When is a Dive not a Dive?

I love the whole debate around diving and Luis Suarez.  The subject has provided many article writers with much ammunition over the past few days and weeks.

What I particularly love is that Luis Suarez is physically attacked in the penalty area by a Norwich defender and no penalty is given and few people have written about it.  Suarez is then attacked several times by Stoke defenders, including being stamped on, and nothing is given his way.  He is tripped in the area, for which he stumbles, and then as he still cannot hear the referee’s whistle, he goes to ground – cue the headlines and articles and judgements.

Many players have made reference to the practice of ‘going down in the area’ so to alert the referee that a foul has been committed.  The suggestion is if they do not, then it’s unlikely they will be given the decision their way. 

Which brings me to the question, when is a dive not a dive?

Several people have called for action against ‘the divers’, and the suggestion is that an immediate ban will stop the practice.  But who is to decide whether a player dived or not?  Do we need technology to measure the strength of the challenge to determine if a dive occurred or not.

Consider the incident in Kenny Dalglish’s first game back as manager of Liverpool in the FA Cup at Old Trafford.  Dimitar Berbatov is running with the ball in the area, Jamie Carragher challenges him and his foot makes contact with Berbatov.  The contact is not enough for the Bulgarian to go down, but after taking a step he realises he has overrun the ball, so he falls to the ground.  Penalty awarded.  Had Berbatov been inches from the goal he probably would’ve stayed on his feet to score.  Is that simulation?

What do we do about shirt pulling? 

Now picture the scene.  You and I are running down the street and you’re ahead of me.  I pull your shirt, do you throw yourself to the ground or do you simply just stop running? 

Footballers throw themselves to the ground, but surely the ‘challenge’ was not enough to warrant it, so surely that is ‘simulation’?

On the subject of shirt pulling, at nearly every free-kick and corner-kick, players have their shirts pulled all the time, in fact many defenders physically manhandle an opponent to halt their movement.  Rarely is anything ever done about it.  Personally, I would prefer to see that remain in the game, it is a contact sport after all.  Some players will throw themselves to the ground, but it seems increasingly common for referees to ignore this.  So a player who has his shirt pulled and throws himself to the ground is less likely to gain a penalty if there are many other players around him, so he must wait until a one-on-one situation and then he is more likely to get the decision.  Doesn’t sound like much of a rule to me.

Consider an incident at Britannia Stadium last season between Stoke City and Liverpool.  Jamie Carragher and Jonathan Walters clash in the area and the Stoke player falls to the ground.  He managed to turn round so his back was to the goal, with Carragher behind him and the Liverpool defender had his hand on Walters’ hip.  Walters fell forward, but there was no push from Carragher so surely Walters was simply highlighting to the referee that Carragher had hold of him.  Was that a dive?

What about other actions designed to gain an advantage and fool a referee?  Go back to the 1998 World Cup and the Second Round clash between England and Argentina.  Six minutes in and Argentinian Diego Simeone is through on goal with only David Seaman to beat.  The angle is tight and as Seaman spreads himself to either smother the ball or stop the shot, Simeone deftly pushes the ball past him.  As Simeone goes to jump over Seaman, he leaves a trailing leg and as that connects with Seaman, Simeone falls to the ground.  Had Simeone jumped with both feet then the collision would never have occurred.  Did Seaman bring him down intentionally?  Did Simeone gain an advantage to fool the referee?

Another incident occurred at the Emirates Stadium last season between Arsenal and Liverpool.  Deep into injury time, Liverpool get a free-kick just outside the Arsenal penalty area.  The ball is cleared by the Arsenal defence but remains in the area, just close to the bye-line.  Lucas runs after it, pursued by Arsenal defender, Eboue.  As Lucas gets to the ball he ‘checks’ his run and as Eboue hasn’t realised, the Arsenal defender bumps into Lucas.  Lucas goes down and a penalty is awarded.  Lucas has engineered the situation so the only likely outcome is the defender will barge into him enough for Lucas to go to ground.  Is this cheating, or has he simply allowed the defender to be sucked into the situation?

Move now to an incident which occurred a few weeks ago at Anfield in the game between Liverpool and Manchester United.  Early in the second half, Liverpool has a corner.  Daniel Agger makes a run and intentionally or accidentally blocks Rio Ferdinand, allowing space for Steven Gerrard to score.  Difficult to judge Agger’s intentions and you could argue he was simply positioning himself under instructions in case the ball bounced near him.  This sort of thing happens in many games and is generally accepted as part of the game.  It is very difficult to create rules for this unless you can read the mind of the player making the block.

Back to 2003 and Highbury is the venue for a game between Arsenal and Portsmouth.  Robert Pires has the ball, runs into the Portsmouth area and pushes the ball past the Pompey defender to his right.  Pires then sticks out his right leg so that it catches Stefanovic as Pires goes past and the contact is enough to allow Pires to fall to the ground.  Why did Pires stick out his leg?  If he had carried on running in his normal way, there would have been no contact as Stefanovic had not made a tackle.  Is this simulation, or just one of those things?

Watch enough football and you see plenty of other incidents, such as the one where an attacker and a defender are running for the ball.  The defender puts his hand on the attacker’s shoulder and the attacker falls to the ground.  A similar one to the shirt-pulling episode, mentioned earlier, so was the challenge enough to mean the attacker went to the ground voluntarily or was it unavoidable?

My whole reason for highlighting these incidents is that some people are calling for retrospective action to be taken on diving.  For this to be done, we need to re-write the rules of football to determine when a dive is not a dive.  We will probably need censors on each player to determine how strong the contact was in order to facilitate the fall to the ground.  If players throw themselves to the ground to highlight to the referee that an earlier foul has been committed, then should we consider that to be a dive?

But the current rules are muddled for referees.  They are told to issue yellow cards for simulation.  So if a player goes down in the area and the ref waves play on, surely he feels a foul hasn’t been committed and therefore the only conclusion must be that a dive occurred. 

Is it just supporters who are irritated by divers?  Are the players concerned about it?  I think not.  They are when it happens to an opposing player, but when one of their own does it, then it’s just part of the game.  There is many a player who will admit that once they cross that white line they will stop at nothing to try and win a game.  So if you live by the sword you should die by it.

If we outlaw one form of ‘trying to gain an advantage over an opponent’ then surely we need to examine all other instances.  That could lead to the banning of rival supporters trying to put off a penalty taker when he is trying to score at their end.  Surely that is trying to gain an advantage, or is it part of the game.  Is it ruining the game?  Only for some, and personally I think they should just get on with it.  Diving is not a new phenomenon; just ask Rodney Marsh or Francis Lee from the 1970’s.  Just ask the Nottingham Forest players who were cheated by Anderlecht in 1984.  In some countries they admire players who are able to ‘get one over the opposition’, just ask Argentinians how they view the infamous ‘Hand of God’.  The problem of finger pointing at other people is often you can conveniently forget about your own teams misdemeanours.  Is there a team in the Premier League without a player who has dived at any stage in their career?

Of course the other problem we have is if we label diving as simulation.  Simulation is making out something to be something it is not.  So a player going down injured towards the end of a game to waste a few minutes is not simulation?  So a player requesting a drink of water when they aren’t really thirsty is not simulation?

Personally, I think we’re making far too much of this and too many people are getting hung up with looking for one type of incident rather than enjoying a game of football for what it is.

Never On A Sunday

It is now customary for us all to settle down on a Sunday in May and watch the final fixtures of the Premier League play out before us.  Thanks to Sky, we may even have a choice of which match to watch live, or just watch the summary which brings you every goal scored.  The Championship too, has its own final day on a Sunday.  So, those below the age of 22-23 may be forgiven for believing that it was ever thus.

In fact, the first fixture to be played on a Sunday in the First Division (now Premier League) was on 27th January 1974 when Stoke City beat Chelsea, 1-0 at their old ground, the Victoria Ground when Geoff Hurst’s penalty won the game.  It would not be until 1983 when we would see the next fixture played out on a Sunday in England’s top division.

6th February 1983 Swansea played Watford at The Vetch Field.  Watford won 3-1 with 2 goals from Luther Blissett and one from John Barnes.  This was the first fixture played in Wales on a Sunday.

1983 was when things started to break through when it came to football on a Sunday.  The FA Cup had already included a few Sunday ties, as Wigan Athletic (then a Third Division/League One side) were knocked out of the cup by non-league Telford United.  The Sunday match ended 0-0 at Wigan’s old ground, Springfield Park, but Telford finally won in the second replay.  Then in the Fourth Round, both Liverpool and Everton were drawn at home.  Everton chose to move their fixture to the Sunday and on 30th January 1983 they beat Second Division Shrewsbury Town, 2-1 in the first ever football match to be played at Goodison Park on a Sunday.

Amazingly the Fifth Round saw both clubs drawn at home again.  Everton were again going to move their tie to the Sunday but their opponents Tottenham, refused.  So for the first time ever Anfield hosted a football match on a Sunday.  Brighton, bottom of the First Division, visited Anfield and one of Liverpool’s old boys, Jimmy Case scored in a famous 2-1 win for the Seagulls.

The first recorded League match taking place on a Sunday was in 20th January 1974.  Just a few weeks before four FA Cup Third Round ties were played on a Sunday.  The reason behind this was to do with the industrial strife Britain was under at the time.  In late 1973 there was an energy crisis caused by the Arab members of OPEC refusing to send oil to western nations who had supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  The situation was exacerbated when the miners seized their opportunity to bring the country to its knees and went on strike at the beginning of 1974.  As supplies were low, many clubs looked to try and alter the kick-off times so as not to have to use floodlights.  The idea was then suggested that matches be played on a Sunday as the earlier kick-off times for other days had not been popular.

6th January 1974 and the first ever football match played on a Sunday was at Abbey Stadium where two Third Division sides met, Cambridge United and Oldham Athletic.  The game kicked-off at 11.30am and ended in a 2-2 draw.  Almost 8,500 people turned up for the game, easily the best crowd of the season for Cambridge.  Three other cup ties were also played that day but the reactions were mixed, despite the increase in attendances at those games.  On 20th January 1974 we had the first instance of League matches being played on a Sunday. 

Millwall met Fulham at The Den in a lunchtime kick-off.  Millwall won 1-0.  This was a Second Division match and one of three held that day

Back then Britain was under the rules of the Sunday Observance Act 1780.  The Act prohibited admission to a building on a Sunday for payment.  In fact, the Act states that any house, room or other place opened for public entertainment or amusement, or for public debating on any subject whatsoever, on a Sunday, and to which persons shall be admitted by payment of money or by tickets sold for money, shall be deemed a disorderly house or place.  The fine for breaking the law would be two hundred pounds.  When you consider this was written in 1780, this fine would clearly be a far greater sum in 1974.  This meant that clubs could not charge spectators on the gate for entry.  However, they worked out that if they charged spectators for a programme and made their purchase compulsory on entrance, then they could get round the Act.  The fly in the ointment was that some clubs charged differing amounts for programmes dependent on where you wanted to enter the ground.  What also hadn’t been thought through was what happened if the club had not printed enough programmes for the amount of people attending.  One of the other Cup ties played on 6th January was at Burnden Park where Bolton beat Stoke City, 3-2.  Almost 40,000 people turned up, more than 20,000 above the average attendance for a Bolton match then.  No one knows whether everyone paid to get in to see the game that day.

The initial experiment of Sunday football produced a mixed response.  Arsenal’s General Manager, Bob Wall declared “Playing football and making profits on a Sunday is wrong.  We will not disturb the peace and quiet of the neighbourhood of Highbury on that day”.  Ted Croker, FA Secretary said “Football is the national game and we should be concerned to give the public what they want when they want it.  A lot of people do want to watch football on Sundays.”  However, Alan Hardaker, the Football League secretary. was less enthusiastic; “We must not have our heads too high in the clouds.  Bolton, for example, played the only game in Lancashire and it was a novelty.  I would want to see a lot more Sunday football in other parts of the country before I become too convinced.”

Hardaker was a continual thorn in television’s side when it came to the desire for live football anyway.  He later wrote in his book that ‘regular live football would undermine the game’s health.”  I will leave the reader to make their own conclusion as to whether it has or not.

For the rest of the 1973-74 season many games were played on a Sunday, particularly in the lower divisions.  Interestingly, Darlington played at home to Torquay United on 27th January, having already played at home to Stockport County the previous day.

Sunday matches in the First Division were still a rarity going into the 1983-84 season.  On 2nd October 1983 the nation settled down to watch the first ever televised League game on a Sunday when Tottenham met Nottingham Forest at White Hart Lane.  Spurs ensured no expense was spent by bringing on Chas & Dave for the pre-match entertainment, although the party atmosphere was soon spoiled by Colin Walsh giving the visitors an early lead.  Gary Stevens and Mark Falco scored late in the game to give the home side their first home win of the season.  ITV broadcast that match, and back then the two main broadcasting companies agreed to split their coverage of fixtures with BBC taking a Friday night match. 

A brave new world had been entered into and soon we would become accustomed to football filling our screens when previously black & white westerns or programmes about monks wearing socks and sandals, had once purveyed.  Moving into the 1990’s and Paul Gascoigne’s move to Lazio convinced Channel 4 to buy the broadcasting rights to screen a live Serie A match every Sunday.  Millions of us, well maybe not millions, but those of us who believed we had discovered a cult show most of our mates were too arrogant to go near (actually the tv audience was approximately 3m), settled down to see Lazio play Sampdoria.  Unfortunately, Gazza was still injured but the game was entertaining enough to end 3-3.  Back then, we believed Italian football was played out using binary as most of the games were 0-0 or 1-0 or even 1-1 if you were lucky.  Gradually throughout the decade you could see the muddy, honest, physical challenge of an English game on tv and then turn over for the romance, the subtlety and sheer opera that was Italian football.

1992, of course, was the year football exploded onto our tv screens as the Premier League was born and sky had a live game every Sunday.  That meant the fare on offer for those without a Skytv subscription was, what is now known as, the Football League.  16th August 1992 at the City Ground saw Nottingham Forest beat Liverpool, 1-0 thanks to a Teddy Sheringham goal and it was the first live football match broadcast by Sky.  Sundays would never be the same again.