Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Run, TSA, Run

It was a combination of factors, really, that made me decide to take up running. I have run before, of course. For buses, away from the responsibilites of adulthood, even away from a gun-toting Adolf Hitler in a particularly vivid childhood dream.

But real running - with times and distances and some vague structure or plan - a confluence of reasons.

First was, with February - a month I like, despite, or maybe because of its can't-be-arsed brevity - drawing to a close, the ghost of Christmas pudding past still clung to my midriff; this long, long after even the last Peanut Cracknel had left the Quality Street tin and life's moderate norm should have restored reasonable abdominal tautness.

Second was some friends are training for a marathon. Normally, the flights of folly of friends raise nowt but the quizzical eyebrow and doleful head-shake in TSA. The marathon is, quite obviously, alongside sexual acts with young boys, the worst idea the ancient Greeks have given us.

A chap called Pheidippides - clearly a clown of the highest order - was so cock-eyed with excitement by victory for the Athenians over the Persians, that he ran all the way from the town of Marathon to Athens to impart the news, and then proceeded to drop dead. For some reason, this act of questionable wisdom is celebrated the world over, often by people wearing gorilla costumes and tutus - the traditional battle uniform of the ancient Athenians, of course.

But still, hearing about the training and the striving, the sweating and the chafing, the pain and the fatigue, all from the mouths of quintessentially sedentary modern males, whose lives are in every other way as cosseted and comfortable and air-conditioned as my kinda got me to thinking.

There was a certain nobility to it, I grudgingly conceded. The wracking of the body for no point other than, well, because it was there. Like an old cat sitting in the corner getting fat on easy Whiskas, sometimes you need to kick the body out the back door and tell it to "go catch a frigging mouse."

Thirdly was - and linked with reason number one - the desire to do something notable in the exercise genre while age still permitted it, before the slow death of golf club membership began to loom.

The first thing you have to do is buy good runners. That's what they all say, all the websites and the experts. Seems to me you can position yourself as an expert in running for beginners armed with that information alone. "Buy some good runners, and then, er, run!" is the pleasingly spartan doctrine.

So not only did I buy proper runners (Asics, the doyen of the running shoe, they're even perched high up on the sports shop display, peering superciliously upon the Nikes below), but also - and this is the crossing of the Rubicon, the moment of truth, after which there is no turning back - proper running shorts. Short shorts with briefs like real athletes wear. The kind that wiry distance runners pull over their bits and bobs, so minimal, barely there, and in pointed contrast to the baggy, self-indulgent sort worn by footballers.

So with these shorts, not even the fragrant enticements of the chipshop will stop TSA. Watch me go!

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Tricky Eddie Exits the Valley

It'll probably take the departure of Eddie O'Sullivan himself for the World Cup to be totally consigned into history.

When that will come, we can't know: perhaps he will preside Castro-like for decades until ill-health finally forces him to step aside (presumably John Hayes will still be playing, patched up and repeatedly repaired like the old 1950s Cadillacs that roam the streets of Havana).

Or perhaps he'll soon tire of being the pantomime villain, the man the rugby writers and pundits hiss and boo and attribute the gamut of ills from the lack of an alternative outhalf to the frigging credit crunch to. Rather than doing a Castro on it, he might go out like Dicky Nixon, scowling "you won't have Eddie to kick around anymore" at his persecutors.

Whichever, only after his demise will the rank, pestilent stench of RWC 2007 totally clear and the air be fragrant and fresh as 'twas ere that benighted tourney.

Nonetheless, three games into the Six Nations, and despite the grumpy little fella still calling the shots, the fog of France is definitely clearing. The old, fondly remembered Ireland came into focus enough times on Saturday to finally suggest - in the nick of time for O'Sullivan - that this team as presently configured can do some of the fine things our big talkin' once suggested.

Brian O'Driscoll reminded one of Micheal O'Hehir's line about Bernard Brogan "drilling for oil" when his incision into the Scottish line helped set up Rob Kearney's try. The pass to Kearney was definitive World's Greatest Centre™.

Ronan O'Gara's sumptuous form all season suggests that he left France behind the moment Boeing left tarmac at Charles De Gaulle. Finally those around him are enjoying the same Gallic amnesia. For Tommy Bowe's first try the team got back into that Roman groove that we once thought would conquer the world.

And best of all, Geordan Murphy. The Leicester louche had endured a prolonged period of being used in turn by O'Sullivan and the press pack as a stick with which to beat each other.

The press would batter Eddie with calls for Murphy's inclusion, castigations of his treatment by the coach and general hypotheses that O'Sullivan's inability to use Murphy properly proved conclusively his fundamental unsuitability for the big job.

O'Sullivan would throw Murphy in, and upon the player's admittedly repeated failings, drop him with undue brutality, in order that the point be made to his foes: "look, see! See what you know!"

Best to put that sort of stuff behind everyone. Girvan Dempsey may be a wet dream for a belt-and-braces man like Eddie, but really, if Murphy's on the money, you have to put the house on him.

No talk here of the bad things from Saturday, there's been enough of that. Maybe we will have Eddie to kick around for another while. And as Nixon also said: "only if you've been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain."

(On the other hand he had just been forced to resign for instigating the most grievous threat to the American democracy since the Civil War. Anyway, maybe Eddie ain't so bad.)

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Minor European Football Leagues Unite, You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains

Probably like any football club, supporting Celtic has given me equal numbers of profoundly depressing episodes as moments of tingling ecstasy.

Well, I did grow up in the 1990s.

For every Seville, there's a Neuchatel Xamax. For every 6-2 Old Firm win, there's a drunken fan plummeting from the top tier of the North Stand, while on the field Rangers are winning the league and a referee bleeds. For every scarves-aloft, lip-trembling rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone at Parkhead, there's vile, tuneless Provo doggerel being croaked on a grim ferry trip across the water.

Wouldn't have it any other way though. Good for the soul; Kipling and triumph and disaster and all that business.

Rarely though, have I felt the two impostors in the same match.

The 3-2 defeat to Barcelona brings no shame on Gordon Strachan's team. True, many of the players will lament that they did not wear their best suit to the big occasion. But cursory glances at the opposing teamsheets and, indeed, balance sheets mean the harshest cross-examination of Wednesday's proceedings should be avoided.

Back to the agony and the ecstasy. Half time and no Celtic supporter, save the grizzled Lisbon generation, could ever have been happier. Forty-five sensational minutes of football, in which Celtic had played a part - admittedly a supporting one - but nonetheless, the neutrals purred with appreciation. And the impertinence of the two goals: "don't care who you are, lads, this is Parkhead, we'll set aboot ye" (if paraphrasing Rangers-supporting, terrorist-thumping baggage handler John Smeaton is allowed).

But the second half. Oh dear God. It was like coming home to find your wife in bed with Brad Pitt, being forced to watch, and fetching the cuckolder a cold beer afterwards.

Receiving a footballing lesson shouldn't ever be reason enough for the onset of profound depression. Only a game etc. However, during the extended longeurs of Barcelona possession, thoughts turned to the inequitable and constrictive organisation of European football: a feudal oligarchy over which a handful of despots rule, gorging themselves on the fat of the land, while the chieftains on the rocky periphery starve.

What was depressing was not the act of Barcelona's otherwordly dominance, but the system that has allowed it be so. Until Wednesday, we who pledge our support to those teams outwith the opulent palaces of England, Spain and Italy could dream: dream of Porto, 2004; dream of Ajax in '95; dream of the Lisbon Lions.

But the feeling that this club, like many in similar countries around Europe, will never again be able to fulfil its potential is what we were left with. To be so distant from the best, through no fault of our own other than the laws of commerce and geographical accident - that's depressing.

To bring through a player like Aiden McGeady, carefully, attentively cultivating his skills, to find that your opponents have half a dozen similar and better, some even on their bench - that's depressing.

Throughout the last several centuries, in other worlds, at other times, people took to the streets, marched and revolted at being told they could never be the best they could be, that they could never push through glass ceilings, into reserved enclosures.

We all know what happened then. To the barricades!

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Toasting the Health of the Cup

Medical opinions differ regarding the health of the patient. Hale and hearty on Saturday morning, when Bristol Rovers' throwback ground rambunctiously cheered its team into the quarter-finals; fighting fit when Barnsley picked off the eminently shockable Liverpool, the FA Cup slipped back into intensive care at Old Trafford, when Arsenal couldn't even be roused to care about it by the presence of their arch-enemies.

All that Manchester United's victory proved was that 75% of Alex Ferguson's best team was better than 75% of Arsene Wenger's, thus justifying the Arsenal manager's decision to ensure he would have at least two fewer fixtures over which to stretch his squad come the late season crunch.

If the FA Cup is a sickly patient, John Motson maintains a bedside vigil, mopping its brow. With the long term diagnosis necessitating a restorative visit to ITV, the BBC will soon abdicate the responsibility of administering CPR to the battered old trophy.
Shame really, as the job perfectly suits Motty. Being a classic old English eccentric, he's made for the task of stubbornly championing a beloved, but crumbling, national institution. Unable to confront the fact that neither of the teams he was watching would have traded three measly league points for a year looking after the old trophy, his voice crackled with bewilderment.
But the thing about these people - the types who hand out leaflets protesting the closure of libraries or who spend their free hours weeding a decrepit churchyard - is that they're usually right. Something valuable will be lost if their quixotic campaigns were to fail.

The 'magic of the Cup' thing is routinely - and rightly - derided as cash-in hokum. How often will the Beeb refer to the 'magic of the Cup' when they have but the footsoldiers of Five Live to tell its stories?

But equally, how many of an English football season's truly memorable, or at least unique and touching, moments come in the ancient competition? Chasetown, Havant & Waterlooville, Bury, Bristol Rovers, Barnsley - haven't they all at least sewn a colourful, individual edging into the occasionally monotonous blanket of league football.

Arsene Wenger and Rafa Benitez may have been thinking more of their impending duels with Milan's finest than navigating the road to Wembley, but, despite its interludes of poor health, the Cup can pack a mean punch when you're least expecting it.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Caught In A Trap

Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.

So did the FAI fall ass-backwards into the appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni, or did the intrepid Band of Three track down the highly decorated Italian like expert hunters on the trail of a grey-furred, catenaccio-advocating bear.

Whither Denis O'Brien? Is his largesse, as John Delaney claimed, merely a case of a footy fan with a few quid chucking loose change into the kitty? Can a governing body of a major sport, really have a billionaire media magnate paying half the wages of their most prominent employee, without any conflicts of interest, muddied ethical waters or general funny business arising?

Oh, that it would be straightforward! You know, the old-fashioned, orthodox way of things: football association seeks manager, football association finds manager, football association hires manager.

But hey. There's always another day, another phone-in show, another back page to ask all the questions. For a brief, beautiful interlude yesterday - possibly for the first time since Tony Galvin waddled the left wing and John Aldridge had a moustache - FAI, fans and media existed in a harmonious, Zen-like utopia. All was Trap, and Trap was good. Trap transcended. The power of a twinkly-eyed pensioner with a rucksack full of scudettos achieved the seemingly impossible.

With a few words of his strange Germano-English, Trap washed away our sins: the cheap shots about John Delaney's haircut, the whistling at Croker, Robbie on the Late Late. Just for a few moments the pesky duty of asking those - hah! - pertinent questions was abrogated, and we, each and every man Jack that holds Irish football dear, were lost in a reverie of promised turgid 1-0 wins all the way to South Africa.

We should send him down to Cork.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Good Job, Bearded Hippy Types

Blogger glitch now fixed, may we never gaze upon the face of De Burgh again.

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