Archive for February, 2011

1972-A Season to Remember

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011


 I didn’t attain a very high standard in football, but I played the game, primarily in the Swansea Local League, for over 30 years without achieving any material success in terms of trophies. I did win player of the year in 1976 with Bryndeg, and they presented me with a four inch statuette at the annual Christmas dinner held at the Gower Inn. Thank God I didn’t have to make a speech!

Nevertheless, one season stands above all the others in terms of sheer enjoyment, camaraderie, call it what you will. In 1972 I was playing in the reserves for Nalgo, which was an acronym for the union of National Association of Local Government Officers (succeeded by UNISON whatever that stands for) and most of the players worked in The Guildhall, home of Swansea City Council.  On the face of it, nothing was expected from the reserves except to provide back-up to the first team when one of their players was injured or unavailable. We were a bit of a motley crew really. The team colors were claret and blue shirts, white shorts and for some unknown reason red socks!

 Some of the players were attired in the conventional sense with shirts tucked neatly in their shorts and socks pulled up to the knees, while others including myself wore shirts outside the shorts in a somewhat rebellious fashion, and a couple of the reprobates let their socks dangle around their ankles. Hair styles were complementary to the seventies era and generally bordered on the shaggy side with one or two exceptions in the short back and sides variety.

We may have looked bedraggled, even unkempt, but somehow we clicked as a unit. We won 16 successive games, including a crushing defeat of the first team in a “friendly” by a whopping margin of 4-0. In some matches we were so dominant I would catch myself standing back and marveling at the intricate patterns woven between the midfield and forwards. I kept thinking this is too good to be true and it can’t last; famous last words!

Over the years I have often tried to analyze what made a bunch of nondescript office workers into a formidable football unit. I wish I knew the formula because it was never repeated in any subsequent team I played in. We usually lined up in a 4-3-3 formation mirroring what most professional teams were operating at the time.

On reflection, Brian Hill was the key player in as much he played central midfield, had the energy to go from box to box, could pass short or long, was devastating in the tackle, had the ability to shoot and head the ball, and basically was the complete player. The following season he turned to rugby and was lost to football.

 I subsequently met up with him 17 years later in Greece and he downplayed his talent as a footballer and showed more enthusiasm about playing rugby for which apparently I am told from a reliable source he was quite average. I never had a conversation with him until that fateful meeting in Greece, and I found him to be quite bland and definitely did not live up to the personality he portrayed on the football field.

Anyway, I digress. The key to any successful team is the sum of its parts. Let’s break down the components of the team and in doing so I may discover the secret of our success.

Howard Jones was the goalkeeper. He was quite tall, over six feet, which was a reasonable ingredient for someone between the sticks. Furthermore he looked the part. He was always dressed immaculately unlike some of his teammates. Unfortunately he didn’t like crosses (hence the nickname: Dracula) and could remain routed to his line during penalty box melees leaving his defenders to clear the lines.

 He was a competent keeper for this level of football and was an amiable and likeable character. He always yearned to play at centre forward which he did occasionally in practice, and if enthusiasm for playing that position could be substituted for skill, he would have been world class.

The back four usually comprised Hugh Jones and myself at full back, Peter Williams/Mervyn Thomas and Tony White at centre back. Hugh Jones was a quiet self effacing personality and a reliable defender. He was slightly one paced and could get caught out of position when he sometimes lost the ball in possession going forward. Peter Williams was team captain and an excellent leader. Despite being deceptively slow he provided controlled aggression while marshalling, cajoling and encouraging his teammates with humor and candor.

 Mervyn Thomas was really a first team player who had fallen out with the management over tactics or maybe the length of his hair. He was very laid back, a very good distributor of the ball, and an excellent reader of the game. Unfortunately, he had the tendency to commit some horrific tackles which were unnecessary and overshadowed his natural talent.  Tony White was the joker in the pack; not very tall but a great header of the ball. His bravery and determination against the biggest strikers made up for his lack of skill on the ball.

The midfield is the engine room of any football team, and a successful midfield requires balance where the players need to complement each other. The midfield comprised Brian Hill who has already been mentioned, Stuart Button and ken Rees.  Stuart was very skilful, as strong as a bull and possessed a shot like a cannon. His one weakness was a lack of pace which he usually overcame by a keen positional sense.  Ken Rees was the introverted member of the trio. Nevertheless, he provided the bits and pieces that go largely unnoticed which allowed his team mates freedom to express themselves.

The three strikers comprised Steve Kucyk, Andrew Walker and Rob Byrne. Steve and Andrew played out wide and provided a contrast in terms of style and appearance. Steve, looking like a hairy hobbit, played on the right and was very tricky and fast. His low center of gravity made it difficult for defenders to shake him off the ball. Andrew, who resembled a lanky Clark Kent with shoulder length hair, hugged the left touchline and was all knees and elbows. He was very unpredictable which on his day made him very effective.

 Basically they played as natural wingers and provided a string of crosses while scoring many goals themselves by invariably cutting in from the flanks. Rob Byrne led the line superbly. He could hold the ball up when necessary and lay it off for the midfield men coming through ‘the old-fashioned’ inside forward positions. Significantly, all three front men were in double figures for goals scored at the end of the season closely followed by Stuart Button.

We played very attractive football which was noticed by one of the eight spectators and his dog who normally attended our matches. Paul Roberts was involved in some charity work and he invited us to play in a charity match one Sunday in January against a Representative eleven selected from the West Wales League. I was little nervous having to play against some of the best local footballers in the area and I thought we would be out of our depth. I needn’t have worried because we played them off the park and won comfortably 5-2 on a playing surface that resembled a skating rink.

We didn’t win the league, we didn’t win any cups and outside this innocuous article we didn’t receive any recognition from our peers. We didn’t train together; we didn’t socialize with each other apart from one or two friendships. Occasionally I would bump into a couple of the other players in the office during the week and exchange a cursory nod, but the only time the team came together would be in the dressing room on match days. Many Saturdays there would be drama in the dressing room when the captain would take a head count and realize we didn’t have a full complement of players and kick-off was imminent. On a couple of occasions, we were forced to take the field with only eight or nine players until the stragglers eventually entered the fray a few minutes into the game.

The season ended far too quickly and we went our separate ways. During the summer Tony White and I attempted to keep the team together, but two or three of the players had signed for other teams and the moment was lost. I know in some quarters that team chemistry is dismissed as being over valued, but in this case “chemistry” is the only explanation for eleven office workers coming together on a Saturday afternoon and performing like a well oiled machine.

My one regret was my dad never saw the team play. It was partly my fault because I never invited him to any of the games because he was a good player himself and I was afraid I wouldn’t live up to his standards. Furthermore he never offered me any praise for any accomplishments that I achieved.

 My wife assures me that her dad was exactly the same; that men of their generation were reluctant to reveal their softer side less it was mistaken for a sign of weakness. If he was still alive he would have said enough with this sentimental posturing, so let’s finish on a positive note. He did tell me once in front of the family that I could open a bottle of champagne better than anyone which was praise indeed! Mine’s a pint of bitter if you please.

Wayne and Shane

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

This was the first time since 1968 that United and City had contested a Manchester derby with both teams in contention for the premiership/championship title. Ryan Giggs at 37 years of age was playing in his 34th derby, and Paul Scholes was not far behind in the longevity stakes. Curiously, the teams decided to play a similar formation comprising a five man midfield with one man upfront. Even more surprisingly, the free scoring Berbatov, United’s top scorer this season, was left on the bench.

The first 30 minutes resembled two prizefighters sizing one another up with neither prepared to make any mistakes, and then Ryan Giggs defied the advancing years and produced a sublime pass for Nani to open the scoring. City eventually responded with an equalizer early in the second half with United’s penalty area resembling a pinball machine. David Silva was credited with the goal, but knew little about it until the ball ended up in the back of the net.

For all intents and purposes, the game was drifting towards a draw until Wayne Rooney conjured up a moment of sheer magic. Nani motored down the right flank looking for an opportunity to place a telling ball into City’s penalty area where Rooney was lurking. The ball was zipped across the penalty area at shoulder height slightly behind Rooney who, in a blink an eye, turned with his back to goal and propelled himself into an overhead scissors kick. Rooney made exquisite contact with the ball which flew into the top right hand corner of the net leaving City’s England goal keeper, Joe Hart, looking on helplessly.

By his own standards Rooney’s season has resembled a curate’s egg; good in parts so bad in other places. But arguably, he scored the goal of the season by the use of tremendous technique and skill which only world class athletes are capable of executing. Needless to say, a goal of such rich quality deservedly won the game for United; cementing their position at the top of the table. Rooney ran towards the corner flag and raised his arms aloft and milked the roar of the crowd like a gladiator in the Coliseum. His disappointing world cup, the tabloid revelations about his personal life, and his threats to walk away from Utd in a pursuit of a fatter contract were all forgotten in one moment of sheer wizardry.

Across the pond (the Atlantic) my attention was drawn to Murryfield, Scotland where Wales were taking on the home side. Both teams had lost their championship openers, but Scotland had shown some promise against their opponents, France of better days to come. Wales had not savored a victory in their last eight matches and were desperate to register a win to bolster their confidence in world cup year, and give their long suffering legion of fans something to cheer about.

Head coach, Warren Gatland had responded to public opinion and moved James Hook to fly half for the game against Scotland following their abject performance against England the previous weekend. It didn’t take long before the positional change paid dividends. Hook made a sublime break through Scotland’s defense and glided towards the goal posts only to be tackled tantalizingly short of the try line. At the point of tackle he managed to slip the ball back to the mercurial Shane Williams, hovering at his shoulder, who duly delivered his 52nd try for Wales.

Wales extended their lead to 16-0 and were in total control until two of their players almost simultaneously committed silly fouls and were sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes. Fortunately, despite tremendous pressure from the Scots, they only managed to score 3 points when Wales were reduced to 13 men. Wales regrouped in the second half and ran out comfortable but unexpected winners 24-6; thanks to a second try by the incomparable Shane Williams. Shane is only 5’7” tall and 176 pounds which by international rugby standards places him in the midget category.

What Shane lacks in size he truly compensates by the sheer brilliance of his play. For a man of his limited size to compete and be so successful in the cauldron of international rugby is truly remarkable. He is a try poacher second to none, and his cavalier play places him head and shoulders above the round heads of modern rugby’s sterile lateral imitation of rugby league.

He has earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as the legends of the golden age of Welsh rugby: Edwards, John, Bennett, Dawes, Gerald Reames Davies, JPR and latterly Jonathan Davies, the likes of whom we are unlikely to see again in our lifetime. James Hook reminded us ever too briefly that Wales still has the potential, and more importantly, the responsibility to play with flair in the manner that Brazil carries the flag of excellence in association football.

Congratulations to Wayne and Shane for making a couch potato jump out of his chair with  breathtaking moments of virtuosity.

Bruised Egos

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Super Bowl 45 turned out to be a good game with the result hanging in the balance until the final minute and was the most-watched television program in history. Initially it threatened to be a blow out when the Packers enjoyed an early 14-0 lead and even led at one time 21-3.

 Not to be outdone, the Steelers clawed their way back to be within 3 points of the Packers, but they could not overcome 3 turnovers. Big Ben had the ball in his hands with two minutes to go but could not produce a typical  Rothleisberger winning drive with the game on the line. A personal foul by a team mate pushed them back to their own twelve yard line and Big Ben was forced to taste his first loss in a Super Bowl with the Packers winning 31-25.

Unfortunately a series of calamitous events in Super Bowl week and on game day overshadowed events on the field. For six unlucky people, it was the frightening experience of being struck by the chunks of melting ice that slid off the roof of Cowboys Stadium on Friday afternoon in Dallas.

For another 400, the moment frozen in time came when they arrived at the stadium on game day and were informed that their $800 tickets — and many paid way more than that as they obtained tickets on the secondary market — were no good.

Your section is closed. Fire marshals would not issue the appropriate safety certificate for additional temporary seats added to the stadium’s original seating capacity. With the extra seats, Jerry Jones, the self serving owner of the Dallas Cowboys had hoped the Super Bowl attendance record of nearly 104,000 would be broken. The announced crowd (103,219, which included media and stadium employees) fell a few hundred seats short of the mark.

That capped the unfortunate series of setbacks all week that took luster off the game. This, of course, included the weather that organizers could not control. When the one storm struck on Tuesday, it ushered in three days of sub-freezing conditions. When a record snowfall on Thursday night, about six inches in some places in the region, it contributed more to the region’s paralysis.

Before kickoff, Christina Aguilera butchered the American national anthem while giving a passable impression of a constipated duck. The half time show didn’t go without incident when some of the Black Eyed Peas’ microphones were not working. They reminded me of a bad karaoke night in the Wildfowler Pub in my home town of Swansea.

 A strike by cab drivers added another layer of difficulty, while the ice buried beneath the snow presented another hazard. Cowboys’ owner Jones issued an understatement on Monday, citing “manpower and timing” issues, but one wonders if Dallas will get another Super Bowl. Atlanta hasn’t hosted one since 2000 when an ice storm struck just as it did when the city had the big event six years earlier.

The Super Bowl clash between the Packers and Steelers was the first in the game’s 45-year history without cheerleaders. Jerry Jones is not one to miss an opportunity and offered the much lauded Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders which was politely rejected by the league officials.

Speaking of my home town, Swansea City lost to their arch rivals Cardiff City at the Liberty Stadium to a late goal by the malcontent of Welsh football, Craig Bellamy. Bellamy is the type of guy who would start a fight in solitary confinement and arguably has the best snarl in association football. The Swans have designs on achieving promotion to the Premiership this season, but based on this performance and the abject loss in the FA Cup to Leyton Orient, they are not ready for the big stage.

Staying in the Principality, Wales lost their 8th successive rugby international; correction they drew against Fiji. To make matters worse they lost at home to the arch enemy, England. Warren Gatland, our New Zealand born hapless coach, attempted to wind up England’s hooker by calling him a choker. The player responded by making a huge contribution to England’s convincing 26-19 win. Gatland reminded me of my chemistry teacher who took great delight in attempting to bully and belittle adolescent school boys into learning mindless chemical equations.

No dialogue on egos is complete without mentioning those warhorses of the Premier league, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. Ferguson fidgeted and fumed as he witnessed Man Utd’s unbeaten run of 29 games come to a crashing halt against bottom of the table Wolverhampton Wanderers. Utd had the perfect start with a goal after 3 minutes to inexplicably lose 1-2. The Red Devils adopted the role of Little Red Riding Hood but couldn’t keep the Wolves from tearing her apart.

In the North East, Arsenal played sublime football for 60 minutes and scored 4 goals against Newcastle; only to see their lead frittered away by a great comeback by the Geordies aided and abetted by an Arsenal player being sent off and two penalties (justly) awarded against them. They were lucky to hold on for the draw at the final whistle.

 When every neutral football fan agreed they had witnessed one of the most entertaining matches in the history of the premiership, Wenger churlishly dismissed the notion and stated: “It would not be a great advert internationally because people who will see that will not agree with what happened today.” Typically Wenger blamed the referee’s decisions for Arsenal collapsing like a house of cards.

Prior to Super Bowl on Sunday, Fox News televised an interview between two alpha males in the shape of President Obama and the arrogant mouthpiece Bill O’Reilly who would eat himself if he was made of chocolate. My humble television set, devoid of sufficient pixels, HD and other technical wizardry, could barely accommodate the two oversized egos on the screen. I will give O’Reilly special mention though; I have never witnessed an incumbent president, so-called leader of  the free world,  interrupted so many times by a television interviewer.

There are several candidates who could claim to have the most bruised ego of the weekend, and while the reptilian Mr. Jones runs him close, I must give the award to Arsene Wenger. I will never forget the look of anguish and disbelief on his face when Newcastle leveled the scores with 3 minutes remaining.  Wenger looked up to the skies and I swear he muttered: “Beam me up Scottie!” By the way, I forget to mention that Aaron Rodgers the Packers quarter back won the MVP award with 304 yards, 3 TDs, no picks and a 111.5 passer rating.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Barak Hussein Obama’s State of the Union address to the Nation reminded me of the Emperor’s new clothes. You must know the tale by Hans Christian Anderson about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that are invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all! He’s as naked as the day he was born (sic Danny Kaye.)”

I don’t care what your political leanings are, but Obama is not a liar. This guy is delusional! Unfortunately the American voting public bought into his rhetoric; hook line and sinker. Ironically it is virtually impossible these days to find someone who will admit voting for him . The buzz word throughout Obama’s election campaign was the need for “change.” The primary change appears to be image and no substance.

Declaring in his State of the Union address that the United States is “a light to the world,” President Obama joined the pantheon of presidents who, in turbulent times, wrapped their political agenda in the comfortable cloak of “American exceptionalism.”

The term, first used with respect to the United States by Alexis de Tocqueville, refers to the notion that America differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its national credo, ethnic diversity, and revolution-sprung history. It is often expressed as superiority: The United States is the biggest, most powerful, smartest, richest, most-deserving country on earth. In times of great change and tumult, presidents seek to inspire beleaguered Americans by reminding them of their national identity.

This is how Obama expressed the sentiment at the opening of his address, while reflecting on the shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz.: “We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.”

The trouble is, for too many Americans the dream is slipping away. The unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent and even before the recession, real middle-class incomes fell from $58,500 in 2000 to $56,500 in 2007. Even as Republicans clamor for budget cuts and voters grow weary of the nation’s mounting debt, Obama called for more investment on new technologies, new energies, education, and infrastructure. What he requested isn’t really new—Obama and other Democrats have made similar requests in the past—but the frame was: Rather than a blunt appeal for money, Obama challenged the country “to sacrifice and struggle and meet the demands of a new age.” He dared Americans to turn their backs on the American dream. He really meant oodles of more spending but investment sounds more amenable.

After going through a series of measures he put under the category of freezing or limiting domestic discretionary spending, Obama told us with great enthusiasm that these measures would trim $400 billion off the deficit over the next ten years which in reality is a drop in the economic ocean.

This is so ridiculous when you realize that the deficit this year alone is $1.5 trillion. Even if Obama found a way to reduce the deficit by $400 billion all in one year, it still would leave us with a deficit nearly three times as massive as anything we ever saw before Obama took office.  He admitted that the spending areas he mentioned are not the key drivers of the deficit, and asked Congress to come up with “bipartisan solutions” to the things that are which means entitlement spending (social security, Medicare, Medicaid) and defense spending.

 But last year, Obama asked a bipartisan commission to come up with ideas of the very same kind. They did, and he hasn’t asked Congress to implement a single one of their ideas. So now he’s asking another group of people to come up with a new swathe of ideas. Obama has been president for more than two years, and he still hasn’t taken a single action to get entitlement spending under control.

All he has offered is supposed deficit reduction of $400 billion over 10 years. Even if Obama’s proposal resulted in the savings he described, we would be trimming $2 off every $75 of deficit. Applied to this year, it would mean the $1.5 trillion deficit dropped to $1.46 trillion.While he’s basking in his $40 billion in annual deficit savings, and not taking entitlement reform the slightest bit seriously, we’ll see the national debt soar during that period from the present $14 trillion to nearly $30 trillion in one decade.

Two days after Obama’s speech, we learned that Social Security has gone into permanent deficit. George W. Bush warned about these six years ago and proposed a solution. Democrats made light of the issue and insisted Social Security was in no danger whatsoever. Now it’s reached the crisis stage, and all Obama can do is ask Congress to give him some ideas, because the last group of ideas he asked for and received actually represented serious action – raising the retirement age, means-testing, cutting benefits – and Obama isn’t interested in that. How does anyone take this man seriously?

Fear not, for this is a glimmer of home on the lost horizon. On January 31st. Judge Vinson, a federal judge in the northern district of Florida, struck down the entire health care law as unconstitutional; though he is allowing the Obama administration to continue to implement and enforce it while the government appeals his ruling.

In ruling against President Obama‘s health care law, Judge Vinson used Mr. Obama‘s own position from the 2008 campaign against him, when the then-Illinois senator argued there were other ways to achieve reform short of requiring every American to purchase insurance.

“I note that in 2008, then-Senator Obama supported a health care reform proposal that did not include an individual mandate because he was at that time strongly opposed to the idea, stating that, ‘If a mandate was the solution, we can try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody to buy a house,’” Judge Vinson wrote in a footnote toward the end of his 78-page ruling Monday.

The footnote was attached to the most critical part of Judge Vinson‘s ruling, in which he said the “principal dispute” in the case was not whether Congress has the power to tackle health care, but rather whether it has the power to compel individual citizens to purchase insurance. Other states that joined the suit are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Turning to international issues, in the wake of the outpouring of protests in Egypt against President Mubarak’s 30 year regime, Mr. Obama meekly suggested in a recent speech that there should be a smooth transition to Mubarak’s successor but failed to mention who that should be. In reality, The Muslim Brotherhood, dominated by Iranian Islamic fundamentalism, will doubtless emerge as the winner should the government of Egypt fall. The Obama administration, in failing to throw its weight against an Islamic takeover, is guilty of the same mistake that led former President Jimmy Carter to fail to support the Shah, opening the door for the Ayatollah Khomeini to take over Iran.

The danger lies with the sobering fact that America provides Egypt with upwards of $2 billion a year in foreign aid, and the Egyptian military, the tenth largest in the world, receives $1.3 billion of this money. Clearly, America needs to send a signal to the military that it will be supportive of its efforts to keep Egypt out of the grip of the Islamic fundamentalists.

 It would be catastrophic for the Middle East, and indeed for World peace, if the Egyptian military armaments fell into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists. Instead, Obama has placed our military aid to Egypt “under review” to pressure Mubarak to mute his response to the demonstrators and has given top priority to “preventing the loss of human life.” Perhaps I should change the title of my blog to “Obama fiddles while Egypt burns.”