FANS of English football have been delighted by the recent form of the national senior squad. But few people realise that England Schoolboys go into their last match of the season, against France at Wembley on Saturday, with a 100 per cent record.
Not only have the youngsters - the Under-15s - won all seven of their games, they have defeated Holland away and Germany away twice. Almanack rang Malcolm Berry, the Chief Executive of the English Schools Football Federation, to offer congratulations.
''We've had one of the best seasons of schoolboy football for a very long time,' Mr Berry said. 'Not that winning is all- important. It's about gaining experience and performing well technically. We have produced some boys this year who are capable of going on and playing at levels much higher.'
One of the great frustrations of schoolboy football is the frequency with which young stars appear on the international stage only to disappear without trace. Mr Berry points out that schoolboy sides are selected not to provide stars for the future, but to win schoolboy games. He is aware of players who are likely to become stars in the future who are not suited to the schoolboy game.
Mr Berry rates the 3-2 win over Germany, in front of 65,000 fans in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, as the boys' finest hour: 'A superb game of football,' he says. France - committed to wing play at this level - will be tough opponents, but England should get through with goals from any of their three top-scorers, Michael Branch of Everton, Mark Gower of Spurs and Mark Wilson of Scunthorpe. Let's hope they're still scoring in 1998.
Case of pitch tampering
THE SPORTS pages have been so full of ball-tampering accusations recently that a disturbing development in cricketing crime has gone unreported: pitch thieves have been at work in the West Country.
The felons struck at the Coaver Cricket Club in Exeter. Under cover of darkness, they extracted the nails from a
newly-laid artificial wicket and rolled it up. But then they discovered that they had miscalculated: 40 metres of Astroturf was too heavy to lug to the boundary. The would-be thieves got tired no more than a short single's length away from the stumps, and the sticky dog was left behind as they fled.
'It was a wicket they just could not cope with,' Coaver stalwart Martin Milford said. 'It did not have enough lift in it - they would have needed a fork-lift truck to carry it away.'
Exeter police were naturally called to the scene of this shocking act of vandalism. Sgt Jeff Mead believes the theft of artificial wickets is unusual. 'It has got to be a first,' he said. 'Would the offenders expect to get bailed if we catch them?'
What about a motive, sergeant? What is driving the evil- doers to such lengths? 'Obviously someone is waiting for a wet summer. If their pitch is waterlogged, they need an artifical one.'
The club players discovered the attempted theft the morning before an evening league game. A volunteer team immediately swung into action to ensure that the 20-overs-a-side match could still go ahead. But in the end, the match was washed out anyway . . . by torrential rain.
A feast at T T time
'BE AWARE,' said the Isle of Man police notice. 'Motorcycles are everywhere.' It's done with good intent, but it is stating the obvious. Bikers sweep around the island in gentle, touring phalanxes. They perform 'wheelies' along the promenade, 'doughnuts' in front of Bushy's Brew Pub. Don't the locals mind? 'Nah, they're pussy-cats,' said a Douglas taxi driver. 'Especially the Hell's Angels. If they see an old lady waiting to cross the road they'll get off their bikes to help her.'
The shops are swamped for the annual TT road races: motorcycle cakes, videos, T-shirts; a blow-up doll in goggles and TT knickers; TT Teddy, 'Zehn Pfund und Funfzig Pfenig' to the hordes of German punters. Even the Body Shop is a TT Supporters' Club Corporate Member. All the boarding- houses are full, and many of the islanders' homes have been taken over by visiting fans.
Among the temporary residents are the DJs John Peel and Andy Kershaw, who rent a cottage in the village of Kirk Michael, about half-way around the 373 4 -mile course. 'The riders come through the village at about 150-160mph,' Kershaw told Almanack. 'Past the butcher's and straight through the main street. We've got a little garden and we're about five feet away from them. If you were daft enough, you could touch them.'
Almanack headed for the paddock, keen to get as close to the action as Messrs Kershaw and Peel. The Formula One machines attracted the most attention, lining up on the grid with engines bellowing a thick cloud of sickly fumes up into the grandstand. You could see people taking deep breaths, savouring the smell. The bikes are flagged off two by two for their practice laps: thundering away through the gears, flat out down the hill towards Quarterbridge.
It is a blast from the past, a different order of spectacle from the sanitised safety of a modern circuit. It takes a while to adjust to the speed of the machines, the noise ricocheting off the stone walls, the staggering bravery of the riders and the studied insouciance of spectators and officials. Inside the tapes marking the course and a few feet off the racing line, a bald official in a white coat sits on a school chair, signal flags crossed in his lap. He barely turns his head as the racers flash past. Toddlers clamber on top of the painted log barriers; their mothers chat to each other between the roars.
The riders love it, for all the obvious danger and the annual list of fatalities. After the practice session Almanack caught up with Chris Haldane, a first- timer and one of 16 riders over from New Zealand for the TT. Wasn't the course terrifying to a newcomer? 'Well, my favourite bits are the parts that are easiest to learn,' he admitted. 'They're the most fun. But I'm enjoying it and I want to keep it that way, y'know? Not push it too far . . .'
Who are the fancied riders this year? Andy Kershaw marked our card. 'I think it'll be Steve Hislop for the Formula One,' he said, 'but Philip McCallen may give him a hard time. And there's a completely unsung bloke from Leeds, Steve Ward, who's been coming past our house as one of the fastest this week. He's a privateer, and I think he's going to find himself on the rostrum for either the Formula One or the Senior TT. And if he does, that'll be symbolic of something about the TT - it's not about corporate works team bullshit.'
Peter Fordemann, one of at least 10,000 German fans on the island, has ridden over to watch the TT every year since 1980. 'It's just unbelievable,' he said, quaffing a lager with half an ear to the broadcasts of Radio TT. 'There is just one word for the atmosphere here. Perfect.'