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Games, Winning and Education..

15 Jul

In 1975 a Cambridge philosopher, Charles Bailey, wrote a controversial article ‘Games, Winning and Education’ in which he suggested that team games, indeed games involving opponents, had no place in the school curriculum. Allowing for certain bi-products such as sportsmanship, the team-ethic etc, Charles, as I remember, argued that the presence of an opponent involves the tawdry desire for him/her to lose. Further it encourages gamesmanship, playing to the letter but not the spirit of rules and a number of other unwholesome outcomes. Better to teach rock climbing and yoga where the individual challenges him/herself and let clubs outside school get on with teaching the professional foul.

Now Charles might carp at my crude summary of his argument but you get the gist. After yesterday’s super Sunday (Cricket, DjokFed,F1 and Netball) and with the Ashes, Open Golf and World Cup rugby on the horizon, sport in general and games in particular are in our faces in a glorious way this summer. Oft has it been said that the great gladiatorial clashes of individuals and teams take the emotions of nations to levels of agony and ecstasy beyond the dull opiate of politics. Well the beam-me-up-Scottie factor is desperately needed these days.

What we saw in the truly great matches at Wimbledon and Lord’s yesterday was sporting combat played with levels of intensity beyond any of our wildest sporting experience. And in the moments of victory and defeat we saw humility, sportsmanship and an appreciation of the opponent which was an education for young and old; something that sports teachers and club coaches should carry with them as they guide our newly enthused youngsters down the fun path of participation and joy in sport.

Without wanting to dampen the mood of the moment, I wonder whether Messrs  Johnson, Hunt or Corbyn learnt very much at all from their sporting education? We know that Boris liked rugger at prep school but his bull-in-a-china-shop outtakes suggest that he learnt little of team tactics. Jeremy-rhyming-slang, although Head Boy at Charterhouse seems to have no sporting credits according to Wikipedia. Presumably that was why he was made Minister for Culture, Media and Sport. As for Jezza the Red, his claim to sporting fame rests on his support of the Gunners, be they Hezbollah or Arsenal. He too, of course, went to a prep school and, after, a grammar school. Institutions that he would now ban, of course. If we add Theresa maybe into the equation, we have only the Maybot to gauge her athletic abilities. Hmm.

It might be interesting to look at the sporting education of those in public office whom we admire most. For the time being I hope that those to whom we entrust our democracy, can learn from the planning, expertise, determination, stamina, execution, integrity, humility, honour and respect for their games and their opponents – all these things displayed in vast measure, yesterday – Super Sunday. A real education. And a delight for the nation.

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Looking beyond the immediate abyss..

8 May

It’s been some time since I put thoughts on paper. The valley of death into which our politicians have led us has become a ravine. I lost all heart for a while but there are small handholds in the slabs above the abyss which can take my weight. I can only hope that those responsible for the black hole in our democracy lose their grip and plunge into that ravine.

OK. Reasons to be cheerful. Liverpool. I’m not a fan of the scousers but by God what a game. Judd Trump. My God, what a performance. Tiger, Tiger burning bright. A sporting God (and don’t we like the fallen hero resurrected?)Harry and Megan. OMG, the extraordinary production of a child. And now the summer of sporting snapshots – all the usual stuff, Wimbledon, the Open, the Ashes and all that – but also World Cups in Cricket and the Lionesses in France. Netball and Rugby take centre stage too. And there will be lots of photos of little royals to keep us and Hello Magazine happy.

Sporting heroism, royalty and outstanding musical and artistic performance keep us all sane, optimistic and buoyed up. There is a purity in these things which seems a million miles from the whispering corridors of power and snide self-interest. And it is not escapism, indeed the pursuit of the ultimate in performance and the fondness we have for the celebrity leaders of our society, be they Megan or Elton, suggests a purity, an innocence where we mere mortals applaud achievement and excellence in an uncomplicated and generous way.

You may not have heard of Barry Middleton, ex England and GB men’s hockey captain who retired from International hockey after 432 caps. 432!! His skill and dedication has easily matched far more famous and moneyed sports stars but his pre-eminence as a British player of such longevity at the highest level is quite, quite extraordinary. And he has always played with such integrity and sportsmanship.

I mention Barry because in national terms he is an unsung and, outside hockey circles, unknown hero. Let me add James Cracknell’s name to those for whom I have untold admiration. At 47 – and after enough personal trials and tribulations to unhinge most people – he won a Blue for Cambridge in winning the Boat Race. The staggering physical and mental effort to eclipse the age record for the event by a country mile is an achievement almost beyond comprehension.

I salute these two guys and all the girls and boys to whom we will look up this summer. Steph Houghton leading out the Lionesses beats Mother Theresa staggering out of her local church any day. And if only Andy’s hip can come right….

 

The Vanarama National League. Blessed relief.

6 Jan

When Sam Purkiss, a distinctly dodgy referee, blew the final whistle at 5.54pm yesterday, Sutton United had edged a gritty Vanarama encounter with Harrogate, 2-1. There was the gruff, happy sarcasm of celebration on the terraces at Gander Green Lane – born of many years of ups and downs. Triumph and disaster are put in their place in lower league soccer. Tomorrow is another day. And so the gritty band of Yorkshire supporters cheered their vanquished team before the long journey back up the A1.

Manchester United’s superstars, Pogba and Sanchez, who have, until recently been warming the team bench at a cost of £650,000 per week, could not have constructed or executed better goals than the three which punctuated the Sutton/Harrogate match. Mind you, punctuation apart, there was very little to raise the pulse during a delightfully dour and rather tetchy encounter. But this is the National league, several flights of fancy below Old Trafford – and so much easier to enjoy.

For a start, admission is £8 to the likes of me – over 60. Secondly, parking is unrestricted along the suburban roads that ribbon out from the ground. West Sutton Station is next door. A supporters dream. If you add the Gander pub at the end of the road and the burgers, hot dogs, chips and coffees on sale at the gate, you have a recipe for simple ecstasy. The sights and sounds and smells of the lower leagues have an authenticity – and a budget price – to trump anything that the big boys can muster in their corporate entertainment world.

The quality of the soccer varies. Conversation on the terraces – yes standing for a game is another retro-joy – is hardly interrupted by stimulating action on the pitch although there are sublime moments which delight all the more as they come as surprises. One such was Jonah Ayunga’s brilliant header in the 19th minute to put the hosts 1-up. Another George Thompson’s stunning left footed equalizer after 60 minutes – a rifled shot from 25yards. Apart from the skill, I enjoyed the normality of a name that I could pronounce.

The game was a niggly affair with a chap called Falkingham from Harrogate being the chippy little sod who seemed keen to be at the centre of most arguments. He was a talented little midget with a number 4 on his back. His number could be seen racing to complain to the rather wet Mr Purkiss at each decision, or as in this ref’s case, non-decision, that occurred. The little runt should have seen yellow early on. Instead, as he had a modicum of talent, he led the Harrogate revival and would have turned the game had Sutton not woken from their lethargy and sent on three smaller, quicker, raiding players to seal the game 8 minutes from time. Harry Beautyman finished a sweeping move to complete his own fine display and send the chocolate and gold fans home with a spring in their steps.

Total expenditure with beers and burger came in at under £20. At the top table of soccer we would be over the ton. More to the point, there were many boys and girls (£3 entry) gambolling about in their scarves and bobble hats. The club is a community facility with a 3G pitch. Finances are in the black and both the manager and chairman has ben in place for years. Sutton have had a number of famous FA Cup excursions but their bread and butter is local fun and support. Thy are threatening the promotion places. Elevation to the Football League would change things, perhaps not for the better. The expenditure on ground and facilities could be crippling. What’s wrong with staying in the Vanarama and keeping the burgers affordable?

Over Christmas and New Year I have enjoyed the blessed relief of politicians on holiday, being with those whom I like and love and only watching TV when lethargy overwhelmed me or when Love Actually was on. I have yet to make any New Year resolutions but that is normal for me; I don’t make promises I can’t keep. And so we’re back to bloody politics.

Then comes my fit again…

Southgate’s slipstream…

13 Jul

On the rare occasion that I find myself cycling in a group, I try that Bradley Wiggins thing. Not the dubious medication-in-a-bag scam; the tuck in behind the leader ploy and cruise in his slipstream trick. With the cheers of defeat echoing through our beleaguered nation might we not consider harnessing  some of Southgate’s energy.?

Jokingly I have suggested Gareth for PM. It’s not really so far-fetched is it? A recent bout of insomnia led me to listen to several TED talks in the wee small hours. If you hit on some really boring ones your sleeplessness will fade quite quickly. On this occasion I found myself engaged by some chap speculating on the random selection of politicians from a cross-section of society, ie no gravy-train, vestedly-interested, career-politician muppets but a spread of the electorate given a chance to guide and challenge the Sir Humphreys of Whitehall to make sensible choices for us all. We couldn’t do much worse than recent evidence suggests, could we?

Gareth seems to have got us all ‘on message’. His honesty, directness, humility and decisiveness have been admirable. No pushover but a natural diplomat. Plenty of steel but compassion and warmth under his waistcoat. As we have pedalled along in his slipstream the Trumpmeister has hoved into greater view.

Firstly he gives NATO what-for with his pay up or shut up inarticulacy, then on to febrile Britain where he tells Mother Theresa that Boris the Spider would do a better job than her. He was reading directly from his Farage script. He may be making plans with Nigel for a takeover of the bullies at Westminster.

Sir Gareth is far from a bully but there are so many of them in the international playground. Having had some experience of how boys and girls can bully – some insidious and  covert, others brash, gross and brutal – there are many parallels to be drawn from playground to parliaments. Many of our World leaders or eminent (sic) politicians are bullies with agendas which serve themselves and not those whom they purport to represent. The Trumpet Major, some say, would have done so much better than Mother Theresa because he would have bullied the EU into groveling submission. He’s sorted Kim Jong Un, he’s telling the Chinese how to conduct trade and he’s jumped into bed with Macron. What a player!

But bullies get found out. Sometimes teachers don’t realise what is going on right away. The kids in the playground can be seduced into siding with bullies for self-protection. In the end everyone sees – and remembers- the awful truth of the unpleasantness. Sometimes bullies continue into adult life and we can all recognize them in the workplace. Yes, sometimes they are successful in certain terms. But life’s too short to kowtow for too long. I’m amazed that Piers Morgan is still ruffling feathers on primetime TV, not because what he says is idiotic (he occasionally talks sense) but the way he says it brooks no opposition. My way or the highway. The Alan Sugar code of living.

When the behavior that we take note of is predicated on the notion that the world is a better place with guys and gals like them telling us all how it is; kicking ass; sticking it to opponents; single digiting those who disagree, then we are back in the playground where the bully reigns supreme and the rest of the kids keep out of their way and let them wreak havoc.

I’m in Southgate’s slipstream at the moment. We’re kicking a ball about in the park. Jumpers for goalposts. Gareth  captaining my team and we’re playing properly, no need for a ref because we trust eachother. There’s a nasty bloke called Donald who wants to play but he always spoils the game with cynical fouls and bullying of the smaller kids. Ah, I see Gareth has gone across to sort him out. If only…

Lionesses learning how to roar? Events have overtaken my trite blogging!

15 Mar

A few days ago I penned a slight piece about the English women’s soccer team being required, by new coach Phil Neville,  to ‘watch in pain’ as the USA lifted the Shebelieves trophy. The italizised version (see below) appears a silly irrelevance now.

The attempted murders of Sergei Skripal and his daughter have signalled the attendant dangers of a warfare beyond our sight and control. Big power games are being played and we are the powerless majority. The haughty arrogance of the Russian State appears chilling and uncaring of the values to which humans should adhere. Their supremacy – and the unquestioning certainty of it – comes before any other consideration.

The deaths of two household names, Ken Dodd and Stephen Hawking, have provoked eulogising and respect. I never quite ‘got’ Ken Dodd but he’s been around the whole of my life singing Tears and waving a tickling stick. He entertained millions in a classically British fashion. The last of the music hall comedians, they say. Apart from Einstein there is no other scientist whose name trips off the tongue around the world more often than the remarkable Hawking. Compare him with Vladimir Putin. Compare him , for that matter, with anybody. His influence on young and old, his extraordinary spirit, never mind his genius, will live on .. and on. The BBC got it right when they led with the news of his death over and above the shabbiness of Russian dark dealings.

We should turn to the spirit of Hawking at times like this. My daughter and son-in-law have both been seriously ill of late. Now, thankfully in recovery, they owe their health to the skill of doctors and the wonders of science. Compare the consultant who treated my daughter’s  virulent bacterial infection with Vladimir Putin.

The shenanigins  of the superpowers persuade us to hibernate in the warmth of the mundane. The winter Paralympics and the doughty-spirited Brits struggling to justify their funding in sports which are, mostly, alien to our culture; the multi-millionaire Mourinho’s press conferences saying very little about not very much at all; the thrill of Lionel Messi; Six Nations rugby; Dancing on Ice. When I’m down I turn to sport and books. I’m on Martin Amis’s The Rub of Time – a collection of articles and observations on everything from a wonderful observer. Brilliant.

I’m OK with the truth. So many of those to whom the people of the world look up – or are forced to- want to construct their own truth. Stephen Hawking showed us all that the search for truth is everlasting and inexhaustible. That we are all on this planet together and should behave as if we are all part of the same enterprise.

I am not a man of God, nor particularly a member of the St. Paul fan club. However, being the age I am and with my upbringing and career in education, I have read and listened to many a Bible reading  and prayer. One of many texts that comes to mind so easily is Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Often used in prayer – well it used to be – I offer it here.

‘…whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.’

I apologise for the bathos of what follows.

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The USA women’s soccer team have just won the Shebelieves Cup by beating England in the final game. Well-deserved. Phil Neville, the new Manager-Coach of the Lionesses insisted that his team stayed out on the pitch to watch the cup being presented to the victors. He ‘wanted the team to feel the pain’ ; it would thus make his women more competitive in next year’s World Cup.

Phil didn’t suggest that it was simply good sportsmanship to applaud the USA’s triumph. Good manners, even. The recently accepted common behaviour in soccer and some other male team competitions is for the vanquished to leave the stage to lick wounds; fans of the defeated too. In some cases – recent Ryder Cups for example, the winners have revelled in victory with demeaning relish. Tennis is one of the exceptions  – perhaps the one-on-one gladiatorial nature of it produces a greater respect, an honourable appreciation of the opponent.

Eddie Jones’s dreadful treatment at the hands of inebriated Scottish rugby fans may be a sad sign of the times. Interestingly he pointed out that the intemperate language of partisan media commentators had not helped the cause of commonsense. Gavin Hastings had talked of relishing ‘rubbing English noses’ in defeat. A phrase to excite, indeed but part of the growing hype which surrounds major televised sport. Drama and controversy has to trump playing the game in the right spirit.

Having watched and coached young sportspeople for umpteen years, there is little doubt that I have observed better sportsmanship and respect for referees from women. There are exceptions of course. I, Tonya, the film about the bitter rivalry between American ice skaters, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan shows just how female gamesmanship can get out of hand. And how!

Most males have the instinct for honour but they need to be led by captain, coach, teacher, parent. Somehow women, although just as competitive, see a bigger picture when the fat lady sings.

There were plenty of heroes around when I was growing up and, as readers of my pages will know, I idolised the best of them: Bobby Charlton. These days the honourable leaders are thinner on the ground and being gracious in defeat – and generally – is a commodity in short supply. There is a huge amount of psychological point-scoring in the global game of soccer but there are many mangers and players I still admire. Roy Hodgson for one.

I like Phil Neville and he will do a fine job. ‘Feeling the pain’ may well be a good idea but in the precious moments after a great sporting struggle, disappointment should give way, for a few short minutes, to congratulation and commiseration. Equality in all its fair forms is necessary and right but Lionesses might beware of accepting all male sporting mores.

Roar on Lionesses. Have edge, enjoy the cut and thrust of battle but when you hear the final whistle, do the honourable thing.

VAR – Virtually Assured Reprobates

19 Jan

A reprobate, as my Shorter Oxford tells me, is a person cast off by God, hardened in sin, of abandoned character, immoral. For my purposes we’ll call him a Premiership footballer, specifically say Mr  Morata or Mr Pedro.

The introduction of Video Assistant Referee to the global game is set to cause mayhem. This isn’t because video replays are a bad thing, it is because premiership soccer players enjoy cheating more than most other sportsmen and women. Add to this that referees in this sport don’t want their authority to be undermined, so they want the final say. Add to this the scepticism of the old guard – Alan Shearer et al – that errors are ‘part and parcel’ of the game. Controversy causes argument and makes hype and headlines.

Video referral systems have been used widely and successfully in many sports – both individual and team. For the most part they have worked well and enhanced the game. After all don’t we want accurate decisions? Isn’t the truth what we are all after?

Take rugby. Has the ego of the best ref in the world, Nigel Owens, taken a knock from having to ask for the video ref’s advice? You’re joking! Ah but do top rugby players seek to deceive, to cheat, to distort in the same way as Messrs Morata and Pedro did for Chelsea? Not a chance.

Simulation is the new word on the block in soccer circles. It means diving, yes cheating. Strange that no such word exists in the lexicon of rugby, hockey, cricket, tennis, American football.. and the other sports which use video-checks.

Klose, the Norwich defender who looked to have brought down Chelsea’s Willian – yet the referee Graham Scott chose not to video-refer had this to say. “VAR would help the referee sometimes in some situations but I’m not a fan of it. Football is all about these situations. We remember Diego Maradona’s Hand of God …etc Football needs these situations, it puts emotions on, you can write about it, the TV stations have something to talk about…”

So there we have it – at least some players and many pundits are sceptical of VAR. They want it to fail because the drama of cheating and getting decisions wrong creates uproar and fulminating punditry. Does soccer really prefer gamesmanship to sportsmanship? Until the great game changes its attitude to the truth it will continue, in my book, to be less than great.

Happy 80th Birthday Sir Bobby. My hero!

11 Oct

I knew from a very young age that the great Bobby Charlton and I shared something special: our birthday. Mid-1950s I developed an infant-school passion for Manchester United and in particular two players: Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton. The Munich air crash of February 1958 found this little seven year old lad devastated at the loss of so many young, talented lives. The colossus that was Big Dunc had perished and I clung to the hope that Bobby would play on and that Manchester United would rise, phoenix-like from the ashes. And so they did.

On my tenth birthday my mother brought in the traditional breakfast-in-bed tray, filled with cards to open. A rush before school as I recall. Half now and half later, she had said; but there’s a special one which you should open first. Imagining that it was my parents’ offering, I carelessly tore at the envelope. Steady, she said, you might want to keep this one. Curious, I slowed down and a boysy soccer birthday card was revealed and a handwritten letter fell out.

Dear Paul,

Your mother wrote to me recently telling me that you and I share a birthday and you are a great supporter of Manchester United. Well done! Have a very good birthday as I hope I shall.

With all good wishes,

Bobby Charlton

My excitement knew no bounds. The card and letter sit proudly in my scrapbook 56years on. Now Sir Bobby, my hero, is 80.

I have many sporting and other heroes but Bobby eclipses them all. As I write, a few days before the day, Theresa Maybe’s colleagues are busily deciding whether to stab her in the front or the back. Doubtless there are Cassiuses with lean and hungry looks, envious of the female Caesar. There may be an honorable Brutus in there; intending the best but sticking the knife in anyway. Certainly there will be more than one Mark Antony, playing an insidious longer game for power. It’s all rather unseemly and great but tawdry fodder for the obsessive Laura Kuenssberg and her Westminster media bubblegummers.

Today the media frenzy is feeding on the odious Harvey Weinstein. The BBC have placed this sleazy story above the rumble in Barcelona. Power corrupts, absolute power …etc

How elevating is it, then, to think of the unimpeachable Bobby. His extraordinary record-breaking career was characterised by peerless skill, power, grace, achievement and, crucially, humility. Every championship he and his teams could win in global football, he – and they – did.

Bobby played with a crazy gang of charismatic characters for club and country.  The flawed genius that was George Best; the electric Denis Law; the fiery Nobby Stiles. Then there were the giants of 60s soccer: Johnny Haynes, Jimmy Greaves, Gordon Banks and Bobby Moore. It was a time of heroes. The 1966 World Cup win was followed by Manchester United’s epic European Cup victory over Benfica in 1968. Sir Matt Busby, Bill Foulkes and Bobby, survivors of the crash ten years earlier, had beaten their demons and lifted the trophy that had long been a cherished dream.

This was all fairy-tale stuff for me growing up. Bobby was larger than life – all power, speed and grace – and yet his  combover, his understatement and shyness, his integrity all built a picture of a man humble in his greatness. He was cautioned once in his international career, in the infamous ’66 World Cup game against Argentina. His response to being tackled brutally was ‘…to get a little bit excited.’ England won, of course but perhaps Maradona’s hand of God evened up the score a few years later – in a way that Sir Bobby would never have countenanced.

Today Sir Bobby is 80. I have enjoyed sport all my life and the past 60 years Bobby has been a guiding light, my hero. I could not have wished for better. Thank you Sir and have a wonderful day.

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