Who’s worse – Shearer or Suarez?

A day after Luis Suarez bit Giorgio Chiellini, the little Uruguayan finds himself, improbably, on the moral high ground.

Not due to anything he has done, of course. Biting an opponent is wrong. He knows that; so does everyone else.

But how wrong is it? You would think, listening to the intemperate reaction of the BBC’s suite of pundits, that it put him in the Harold Shipman league of criminals.

Alan Shearer says that Suarez should be banned “for as long as possible.” (Is that until death or does it include any potential after-life, Alan?)

I wonder what Shearer would say if Suarez had, instead of biting an opponent, which caused Chiellini almost no discomfort, kicked a player in the face when they were lying on the ground. Considering that sort of attack would inevitably have greater force and greater chance of injury, that must be worse, right?

Of course, lovers of English football will know that I am referring to Shearer’s own attack on Neil Lennon during a match between Newcastle and Leicester City in 1998. Shearer, then England captain, received no punishment for the incident. An enquiry, which heard from then-England manager Glenn Hoddle, decided there was nothing much in it.

As Shearer was England’s most important player at that time, the FA saying that he was not guilty had more than a faint whiff of self-interest about it. An England captain, it was decided, would not do that sort of thing. Shearer, reported the enquiry, “swinging out with his left leg was a genuine attempt to free himself.” Which is a bit like the old joke by Bill Hicks about the officers who attacked Rodney King, saying that if you played the tape backwards you could see the officers helping King up and sending him on his way.

Sitting alongside Shearer was Robbie Savage, who had got away with kicking opponents “so many times,” according to Thierry Henry. Savage said that Suarez should “never play international football again” which, considering he is 27 years old, would amount to a ban of anything up to 10 years.

"Yes, I saw you, but I won't say anything" Shearer and Savage in their 90s heyday.
“Yes, I saw you, but I won’t say anything.” Shearer and Savage thuggin’ back in the 90s.

That would be by far the worst punishment for any player in the history of football, worse than Eric Cantona’s nine month ban after he karate-kicked a Crystal Palace fan in 1995.

These double standards typify the British approach to punditry, where our lads are forgiven whenever they err in judgement, where the foreign player, such as Suarez, gets met with fury and calls for him to be driven out of the game. This lingering feeling of British exceptionalism, that we don’t dive, and are morally more upstanding, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is part of the reason that other teams inevitably seem to play that little bit better against us.

(That, and our war-mongering. One of the main reasons Maradona was so motivated to do well against England in the 1986 World Cup was in response to the injustices meted out to his countrymen during the Falklands War. Therefore, while his second goal, where he took on the entire England team is more celebrated, his Hand of God goal, where he hand-balled into the ball into the net, is his personal favourite.)

Why ever would he want to cheat against blameless England? Maradona in 86
Why ever would he want to cheat against blameless England? Maradona in 86

While Shearer and Savage declare that Suarez should be banned for anywhere between life and as long as possible (whichever is longer) they should be honest and admit that this incident, while unsavoury, is no worse than the darker moments of their own careers. And perhaps they should spend less time attacking Suarez and more time contemplating why Uruguay, a country of fewer than four million people, should produce a football team which, according to the evidence of last Thursday, is comfortably better than our own.

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Where have all the centre backs gone? England at the 2014 World Cup

There has been a lot of talk of British values recently, and the wide-ranging debate shows that it is largely a matter of opinion what is a British value and what is not.
That said, there is one British value which is beyond question: that of big centre-halves heading footballs and generally acting with a courage which happily boils over into full-blown craziness. When faced with someone smaller and more skillful, the English way is to use our brains not to out-think our opponent, but as an all-purpose blocking device.

We have always been knee-deep in this kind of unsubtle, fairly terrifying type of footballer: in my memory, this long line of lunatics begins with Terry Butcher and carries on through Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Steve Bruce, Sol Campbell, Jamie Carragher and John Terry, with the addition of two centre halves who could also, astonishingly, play football – Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King.

Lunatic: Terry Butcher displaying British values
Lunatic: Terry Butcher displaying British values

It’s worth noting that Steve Bruce, despite being a mainstay of Manchester United’s defence when they first started winning everything, never played for England. We simply had too many big, thuggish lads to get their heads on things, and so he was not required. Similarly, Jamie Carragher, who played 500+ times for Liverpool and won the Champions League, retired from the international game because he couldn’t get in the team.

Centre halves have always been the foundation of English football. In 1990, when we got to the semi-finals, Bobby Robson, in his wisdom, picked three centre-backs – Des Walker, Terry Butcher and Mark Wright – and another centre-back, Paul Parker, at right-back.

Let’s remember that at the group stage, England conceded one goal in three games, with clean sheets against the Dutch and Egypt. In total, we conceded four goals in six games – the same number of goals conceded in two matches at the 2014 World Cup.

Getting in the way - Sol Campbell
Getting in the way – Sol Campbell

In 2002 and 2006, Sol Campbell was named in the World XI at the end of the tournament, the only Englishman to gain that honour. What did he do to gain the world’s admiration? What England have always been better than anyone: getting in the way of shots, heading away crosses and, occasionally heading goals from set-pieces.

Which is why it is so sad to see Rio Ferdinand – one of the greatest English footballers – sitting in the BBC studio last night having to explain where it went wrong against Uruguay.

His analysis, to paraphrase, was this: Johnson, Jagielka, Cahill and Baines were not good enough. For the first goal, someone should have blocked the cross, and if it got into the box, someone should have headed it away. For the second goal, a defender should have headed the ball away, and if not, been in a position to block the shot.

That’s what Englishmen have been doing for decades. That’s what Jack Charlton did in ’66, what Butcher did in ’90, and what Adams did in ’96 (three goals conceded in five matches). The fact that our only properly good defender, John Terry, is currently heading beach balls rather than playing for England is perhaps the main reason for our utter defensive ineptitude at this World Cup.

While it is all very well wanting our national team to play more expansively the focus must be having a squad packed with robust centre-halves who will do anything to block shots and crosses.

Those are the values we must remember, before we try to do anything so frivolous as trying to score goals. So, if Mr Gove wants to become a populist figure, perhaps he should, after children have had double-Dickens in the morning, insist they have heading practice in the afternoon, so we can ensure that no England team will be so sadly weak at the back again.

The last of a noble lineage: John Terry heading a football
The last of a noble lineage: John Terry heading a football

Going back to South Hornchurch

I come from a place called South Hornchurch, a small suburban town at the edge of the East London conurbation. My parents took the bold step of moving from South Hornchurch to Hornchurch proper five years ago which gives me few reasons to return.

However, as it was Easter Sunday and I had absolutely nothing to do, I thought I’d go back and have a look. I took the 252 bus past the site of the World War Two airfield, which still has concrete bunkers I played in when I was a child. Many people locally cling to those World War Two glory years, perhaps because it was a time when the area was of minor strategic importance, and also because  men had the chance to do a brave and good thing: defend their country.

As the bus rolled through the airfield estate I noticed on my right several flagpoles in people’s gardens. One flew the Union Jack, two others the English flag with one for the Help The Heroes charity. The four flags were in gardens backing on to each other. It looked like it was a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses exercise, with each goading the other to be as patriotic as possible. I couldn’t help but think that this patriotism was not a simple statement of pride but a banner for all manner of unpleasant, bigoted views, with Help For Heroes being charity of choice.

I got off the bus and went into the Good Intent pub, which I’d always found to be a heavily ironic name. However, there was a friendly atmosphere with the locals enjoying a diet of Sky Sports, decently-priced booze and red meat. I settled in at the bar next to a bloke who was wearing long hair, a cardigan and a Miles Davis t-shirt – the only man who didn’t look like he did most of his clothes shopping in Sports Direct.

The match, Arsenal v Manchester City, began. At one point, Yaya Touré got a heavy challenge and hobbled off the field. One of the burly, shaven-headed men pointed to Touré and said: “He’s black and blue!” which caused great laughter.

Mario Balotelli raised the ire of some Arsenal fans with a couple of late challenges. One of the men, a skinhead, said, “I’d kick him in the face.” None of his friends reacted, so he said it again. Still being blanked, he said to one of them. “I’d kick him in the fucking face. I am a racist. I don’t like blacks, jews, faggots or transvestites.” He then walked outside to have a cigarette.

A quick survey of the pub revealed the only black person was a barmaid who, despite her youth, had a long-suffering look on her face. How many gays, jews or transvestites there were in the pub who could potentially cause him offence I could not tell.

I walked out at half-time, not because of this incident, which I was half-prepared for, but because I wanted to walk around my old neighbourhood. I went to my old school, Brittons, and noticed it wasn’t a school any more – it was now one of Michael Gove’s academies, which I’m sure will make a massive improvement to educational standards. Happily, I saw that the No Trespassing on School Premises sign outside the school had changed to No Pissing.

As I walked around South Hornchurch most of the people I saw were black. This was a big change from when I grew up there, when I knew a very small number of black people.

With the Union Jacks and casual and not so casual racism, I’ve no doubt South Hornchurch isn’t particularly welcoming to these people. I hope that, like Streatham, where I now live, the pubs on matchdays will one day be filled with football fans from all backgrounds, and racists will not just be ignored but barred. But I wouldn’t expect that change to happen any time soon.

The demise of Ricky Ponting – Australia’s Napoleon

Ricky Ponting in happier times

I sit here, at the end of a successful Ashes series, reflecting on the demise of Ricky Ponting. A man who has scored 12,000 Test runs finished the series injured, defeated and with an average a shade over 14. This is unquestionably the end of the era of Aussie dominance in Test cricket.

As an impressionable youngster I first experienced the Australians in the 1989 series in England. Their main bowler was Merv Hughes, a frightening-looking fellow with a thick, flowing moustache and a beer gut. Coming off a long run, with his belly jiggling around, he looked more dart player than cricketer. He would deliver a venomous short ball around the throat area, and finish about six inches from the frankly terrified batsman, all bulging eyes and boozy breath. The English succumbed quickly, which seemed sensible. I had heard that England had once won an Ashes but it seemed the stuff of myth.

When it was England’s time to bowl, a friendly bloke such as Derek Pringle would lollop in and send the ball at medium pace outside off-stump. The fellow at the other end was, again, a snarling, heavy-set man with Victorian moustache. This was Hughes’s soul mate, David Boon, who would respond by carving the ball through the covers for four.

England lost that six-match series 4-0. The only person who put up much resistance was our resident South African batsman, Robin Smith, a man who had a devil-may-care attitude to short-pitched bowling.

Call me a masochist; call me an inveterate idler. I was hooked on cricket. I didn’t mind that England lost. The Ashes was something in which comforting certainties, a natural order, existed.

With Victorian moustache, bulging eyes and xxxx on the chest, Merv Hughes was the archetypal Aussie cricketer

They came back in 1993, with Shane Warne in their team, and won 4-1. David Boon bludgeoned runs, Hughes snarled his way through the England batting. In 1997, Boon and Hughes were gone, replaced by sadly clean-shaven men called Matty, Mark or Jason. It was hard to tell these identikit Aussies apart.

In 2001, I settled down to watch the series knowing that England had no chance. The new Aussie No 3 caught the eye. Small fellow, by the name of Ricky Ponting, full of bullheaded aggression, like a distilled David Boon.

In the first three Tests, he showed flourishes of brilliance, but it was in the fourth that the English public got its first proper sight of this arrogant genius. In the first innings he scored 144 off 154 balls. He did not so much bat, as slap the ball about. If you bowled short, he pulled for four. If you bowled full, he drove for four. And if you bowled wide, he cut for four.

England bowlers, by this point, had enjoyed a decade of uninterrupted failure against the Aussie. But it was only with the accession of Ponting to No 3, that Australia went from being superior to completely driving England into the dirt. Humiliating them. In frank terms, taking the piss.

In this belligerent short man, the English cricket fan heard a historical echo. Here was not simply another Aussie cricketer, over here to bolster his average and claim the Ashes. This was a short man on the rampage. Damn it, Ponting was another Napoleon.

The English were roused from their gentle slumber. They realised it was not good enough to simply turn up and lose 4-1. That was fine, before Ponting. Not now.

The England team had to try a bit harder. Central contracts were introduced. The lads went for the occasional jog. They laid off the booze and fags before matches. They did a bit of catching practice.

By 2005, England wanted to win. They knew the only way to do that was by targeting Ponting, now captain. As a cricketing Napoleon, England knew he had a short fuse. It was just a case of working out how best to help the chap ignite.

Ricky losing his rag, in fine Napoleonic fashion

 

Firstly, like all successful English campaigns, some foreigners were brought in to help. We got an Aussie (Troy Cooley) to whip the bowlers into shape. Crucially, we brought in a South African (Pietersen) to bolster the middle order. Ponting wouldn’t like this. Oh no.

Then the winding-up started in earnest. The schoolboy tactics. The England team, full of big lads, were encouraged by our Wellington, Michael Vaughan, to taunt Napoleon. Matthew Hoggard, a bluff Yorkshireman, was deployed in press conferences to tell Ricky they had plans for him. During the match, the England fielders had mouthfuls of wine gums to help shine the ball and make it reverse swing. Vaughan started giving bowlers ‘toilet’ or ‘injury’ breaks during the day, so they could put their feet up and get a massage before their next spell, replacing them with crack fielders.

Ponting, nonchalant at first, safe in the knowledge that the Aussie would prevail, did not react. But through a tight series, the pressure grew. The Press started asking leading questions about whether he was happy with English tactics. The fuse was ready to explode.

And then, in the fourth Test, with England dominating, Damien Martyn pushed a ball into the covers for a quick single. The substitute fielder, Gary Pratt, picked the ball up and hurled down the stumps at the striker’s end with Ponting some way from his ground.

Ponting, whose temper had been contained until this point, exploded. He flew into a rage, waving his bat at the English dressing-room like a modern-day Yosemite Sam. Vaughan laughed, and England laughed with him. From there, with Pratt as 12th man for the final Test, and our South African plundering runs, the series was won.

The template of English success against Ponting was laid. In this present series we have merely refined it. We have another South African in Jonathan Trott to further solidify the middle order. We have an even better Aussie bowling coach in David Saker. And we made smart use of the referral system which caused Ponting to go apoplectic, again in the fourth Test.

It is unlikely Ponting will be seen against England in the next Ashes series. It is unlikely the Aussie batting order will quickly recover its former strength. Drawing the Napoleonic parallel again, I can’t help but think that putting the short man in charge caused great triumphs in the short-term. But while Australia, like France, enjoyed great success with a short-tempered short man as leader, it was in that very appointment that the seeds of their humiliation were sewn.

Ponting modelled his captaincy closely on the Yosemite Sam model