Didcot's eerie triangle
The streets of Reading are not quite bible-black this Sunday morning but they do feel grey. A bacon sandwich proves elusive in a near- deserted town centre at brunchtime. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is a mirage, a Big Mac the only alternative. Somewhere around here there is supposed to be a game on, and a local derby at that.
Sky's pounds 125m five-year deal with the Nationwide League means that he who pays gets to call the tune. Kick-off today for Reading v Oxford United, curtain-raiser to the televised Premiership match, is 1pm. The traditional British Sunday may have evolved from church, roast lunch and family argument but this is a new culture still.
"Normally I'd be catching up on some housework and vegging out," an Oxford fan, Jackie Turnbull, says. "I could watch it on TV, I suppose, but it's not like being here, is it?" Like most fans you talk to, she is not best pleased at the change to her weekend. "Yesterday did seem a bit empty without a game."
"A lot of people are involved with kiddies or pub football on a Sunday," says Brian from Bicester - ah Bicester; he is reminding you of Sunday lunch again. "It wouldn't be so bad if it was a three o'clock kick-off," adds Peter. "At this time you can't get a drink and nowhere is open. It affects a lot of support. Normally this would be a sell-out."
The crowd at outdated old Elm Park on what proves to be a pleasant sunny Sunday is a mere 8,099, 1,500 below average and 6,000 below capacity. This for the first derby in 13 years between the clubs whom Robert Maxwell once tried to merge into Thames Valley Royals. Not enough seem to care "who will be masters of the Didcot triangle", as the Reading handbook wonders.
Reading beat newly promoted Oxford 2-0. "Thank you for delaying your Sunday lunch," the announcer says. For the Oxford players, who trained yesterday, again this morning - on cereal, toast and fruit - and will do so a third time tomorrow, with a home match against Wolves in just over 48 hours, it is back to the drawing board.
"After the way we started we obviously got our preparation wrong and will look at it again," the Oxford manager Denis Smith says. "It's a long grind and makes life difficult but players have got to adapt. I would prefer Sundays off but we are getting paid and taking the money so we can't start complaining. There are a lot of things in football you don't like but you have got to move with the times and a club like ours with small gates can't afford not to be involved with television."
By now it's gone quarter to three and there's no one in the place except the local paper man Clive Baskerville ("Follow the Hound", urges the Evening Post) and me. And Nigel Howe, the Reading chief executive. Even though gate revenue is down, it is still worth the switch, he says. As well as their lump sum from Sky, Reading receive pounds 40,000 as a facility fee today. Oxford get pounds 20,000.
"I don't think it's Sky, it's the kick-off time that is the problem," he says. "It's a cultural thing. If we were kicking off at three or four, people would get their cultural thing out of the way, their extra hour in bed, their DIY or church thing, then go to the match and I don't think the wife is going to hit them over the head with a frying pan."
There is little scope at cramped Elm Park - "we had enough trouble accommodating Sky" - to provide other than a basic service to fans, Howe says, but hopes it will soon change. Work begins on a pounds 30m, 25,000-seater stadium near Junction 11 of the M4 next month. "Then if football continues to grow on a Sunday we will introduce a day's entertainment." In the meantime, a bacon sandwich would have been nice.
Final word to a real fan. "I know a club like ours needs the money but it doesn't mean we have to like it, does it?" says Jackie Turnbull. "It's money first and fans last again."
Talking a good game
The Bald Eagle scratches his famously polished pate as he settles on to his temporary perch, on the stage in what is signposted as the "Media Theatre" at Ewood Park. It is hardly surprising. When Jim Smith ruled the roost at Blackburn, post-match press conferences were held across the cobble-stoned, tramlined road in the upstairs room of No112 Nuttall Street. One of Fleet Street's finest once went to the terraced house next door, was offered tea and biscuits, settled down to Final Score, and only realised his mistake when blank stares met his casual enquiry: "So when is Kenny coming?"
Ewood was still too cramped to accommodate the fourth estate comfortably when Kenny Dalglish became manager. Since the completion of the ground that Jack Walker rebuilt, at a cost of some pounds 25m, it has boasted state of the art facilities for English football's pen-pushers. "At least Blackburn will have the best Media Theatre in the Nationwide League next season," one London hack suggests as we settle down for Smith's support act to the main attraction on the post-match bill.
Having been in the League management game since November 1972, Smith knows he is not top of the bill. The fact that his Derby County side, newly promoted and prompted impressively by the cut-price Croatians Igor Stimac and Aljosa Asanovic, have emerged 2-1 victors is not the "story". Hence the most awkward question in his token five-minute appearance is whether the injured Ron Willems would be fit to face Sunderland on Saturday. "No," Smith says, instinctively, before adding hastily: "I'm forgetting this is Monday. I thought it was Wednesday night. Yeah. I suppose Ron does have a chance."
Smith signed Willems for pounds 300,000 from Grasshopper Zurich last year. One of his first buys, as manager of Colchester United, was his former Lincoln City team-mate Ray Harford. And, as the Bald Eagle flies the nest, he knows the question we really want answering is whether Harford has a chance of making it to Saturday as Blackburn's manager.
At 10.29pm the plush blue leather seats on the stage, all stamped with the club crest and the motto "Arte et Labore," are still empty. "It looks as though Blackburn haven't got a manager," comes the quip from the third row. At 10.30 it was clear that Blackburn still have the same manager.
It is impossible actually to see Ray Harford, because of the radio reporters who rush to thrust their mikes before him on the stage. But the Cockney drawl is unmistakable as he settles down for some hard labore. "I'm sorry I'm late," he says. "I've had television interviews . . . and crisis meetings, of course."
Contrary to his rather dull public image, Harford can be a droll character. Initially defensive to the question of mounting pressure - "What do you mean by pressure?" he retorts - Harford opens up to the point at which his frankness threatens to disarm even the cynics. "A new face can lift a club," he says when somebody asks about possible signings. "Sometimes it's a new manager."
The last-edition deadlines are fast approaching when at 10.50 Blackburn's manager responds to one final, oblique enquiry about his position. "If you're asking me if I'm going to resign," he says, "I won't."
"There," he adds, with a smile, "I've answered you with a headline."
The mass scramble for the exit and the telephones along the corridor, confirms that Ray Harford is not the one under the most immediate pressure.
Kick-off time is just 15 minutes away. Yet tonight does not feel like a European night at St James' Park. The Newcastle United players, in their black and white shirts and unfamiliar white shorts and socks, look the part: more like the European champions from Turin than the English runners-up from Tyneside. But something is missing. Or, rather, someone. Lots of them.
In the section reserved for visiting supporters, the corner where the East Stand meets the Leazes End, or the Sir John Hall Stand as we are now supposed to call it, only three seats are occupied. "They've actually sold 32 tickets," one of the three security staff says. His eyes light up when the fourth and fifth Halmstads supporters emerge and ask to be helped to their seats. They both bear a resemblance to Agnetha Faltskog, better known as the blonde one out of Abba.
Halmstad - Jan-Owe Wikstrom, football correspondent of the Hallandsposten, helpfully reveals - happens to have gained international renown as the home town of another Swedish band, Roxette. "It also has the best beaches in Sweden," he adds. Indeed, Halmstad's appealing situation, where the River Nissan meets the country's golden coast, may explain why so few of its population are sitting in the shadow of Scottish and Newcastle Breweries on a site where public hangings drew the crowds in the days before Hughie Gallacher and Jackie Milburn (hence the gallows in "Gallowgate"). Maybe they are simply trapped inside the Swedish building at Sir John Hall's Metro Centre.
Roger Gudmundsson and his son, wisely, headed straight for Gallowgate. At ten minutes to eight they become Halmstads supporters numbers six and seven. Roger works for the telephone company in Halmstad. "He has supported Halmstads all of his life," his son says.
Tonight Niklas Gudmundsson is a Halmstads supporter too. Last season he played for his home-town club in the Uefa Cup. Indeed, the two goals he scored in a 3-0 home win against Parma earned him a pounds 850,000 move to Blackburn in January. Last night he played three minutes as a substitute against Derby at Ewood Park. On Saturday he will probably be one of the visiting subs warming up on St James' Park while the Blackburn fans chant his name from these same seats. "I think there will be more here then," he says.
Sadly for the Gudmundssons there is little to cheer. Newcastle do a passable- enough Juventus impression when the game kicks off. With five minutes to go Halmstads are fortunate to be only 4-0 down and the Gudmundssons are planning an early exit. "It's still been a great experience," Niklas maintains. "Newcastle, I think, have played as well as they can. Halmstad have not. They are a better side than they have shown."
At the final whistle, the Gudmundssons having departed, the two Agnethas and three other Swedes stand to applaud their team. The Halmstads players fail to acknowledge them. They cannot hear them as they head for the tunnel. Four sporting Geordie souls, however, clamber over the empty seats to shake their hands.
The tie may be as good as decided but the Toon Army will still head across the North Sea for the return leg. Roger Gudmundsson will be there too. Niklas, though, will be otherwise engaged. Blackburn are due to face Brentford in the Coca-Cola Cup.
Our European adventure started early yesterday morning with a charter flight from Manchester to Turin, a half-hour trip to the team hotel in the city centre, and the inevitable game of cards with Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and David May. We were training at the stadium at 7pm so that gave us an afternoon to kill and I've never been a great one for daytime sleeping so it was a question of finding something to do. The manager isn't very keen on us tiring ourselves out by heading off on shopping sprees.
People think you have seen the world, when really all you have seen is the inside of a hotel. Some of the lads will stay in their room and watch MTV. This proved difficult for me and my room-mate David May as Nicky Butt had stolen the "key" for turning on the electricity in the room. Nicky thought this was very funny. He and Paul Scholes are known as the Kray Twins because they're always up to something, usually along with Ryan Giggs.
In fact, today, when I come to get dressed for the journey to the stadium, I discover the Kray Twins have struck again and I am minus one sock. Although they will deny any knowledge of the theft, I'm confident that a search of Butt's bag will reveal the missing item. As it is, I travel to the stadium in club blazer, flannels . . . and no socks. It's on the bus going to the stadium, a 25-minute trip, that I start to think seriously about the match. I'm not a great one for thinking too hard about games in advance. It can have a negative effect. You can scare yourself. After the team meeting, I go through my routine, a superstitious thing I suppose, of going to get my ankles strapped and doing my exercises.
Walking out at the Stadio delle Alpi is an amazing experience. It's a great feeling as the flares go off, the sort of thing you usually only see on Eurosport.
But these European away fixtures can also be daunting. Barcelona's Nou Camp, filled with 110,000 spectators, stillranks as the best experience of my football life, even though we lost 4-0. I've also played in Galatasaray in Turkey and for sheer noise, not to mention the hatred raining down from the terraces, that would be hard to beat. On our first trip there we had a few death threats by phone and I will always remember arriving at the hotel surrounded by hundreds of baying fans and coming off the bus last, 20 or 30 yards behind the rest of the lads. As I walked through the lobby, a porter came up, stared at me and made a gesture with his finger across his throat.
But back to Turin, one of the biggest venues in the world, one of the best teams in the world, and we never really get to grips with the game in the first half. All credit to Juventus, they knock us out of our stride before we get going and leave us a little shell-shocked.
Very few of us have experienced this sort of atmosphere. Juventus start the game at an unbelievable pace. As soon as you are on the ball, a couple of them attack the man in possession. They play a lot of long balls up front, balls into channels, to Boksic and Vieri, a bit like the Wimbledon of old.
Everybody is disappointed with that first half but at half-time we are able to sort things out. We know our critics will say the young players were naive but those same kids have just won the Double. They proved last year they are quick learners.
More of a house party
Moments before the kick-off of the European Cup-Winners' Cup first round first leg between Liverpool and MyPa-47, the function room at the Liverpool Supporters' Club in Lower Breck Road, Anfield, is less than full. A giant video screen lowered from the ceiling shows the teams lining up in Anjalankoski, as the Finnish crowd join in with "You'll Never Walk Alone". But the fans back in Anfield do not sing: perhaps they are both feeling a little self-conscious.
"I think there must have been some kind of cock-up," Terry Brown, the Supporters' Club secretary, says. "Perhaps the newspaper advert said nine o'clock instead of eight." Perhaps the fans have stayed at home with Radio Five rather than come down to the club to watch the Eurosport transmission. Perhaps the fans don't care very much about the European Cup-winners' Cup first round first leg.
Richard Pedder, the chairman of the supporters' club, is inclined to the latter opinion. "I heard one of the commentators put it this way," he explains. "The Champions' League is for champions, the Uefa Cup for the teams that finished second or third. The Cup-winners' Cup is really the cup-losers cup: there are a dozen teams in it that didn't even win their cups." Hence the diffidence of the Liverpool faithful. "There won't be such a big gate at Anfield for the second leg, either," Pedder reckons.
On the big screen, Liverpool pussyfoot around with their semi-professional opponents. As the size of the crowd in the club gradually increases, so does the volume of their grumbles. "Oh, come on, boy, don't f*** about." "That Collymore, he can leave but who'd come in for him?" "I wish I was 40 years younger."
At half-time, in the pink-painted bar, the mood is downbeat. "The telly said Roy Evans said nil-nil would be good enough. That can't be right, can it?" "It wasn't good enough against Brondby, was it?" A short, reflective silence. "Are you staying for the bingo later?"
By the time the second half gets under way, there are thirty-odd people in the function room, but body language suggests that half are only there for the bingo: they are the ones who are facing away from the screen, nattering and counting their change, when Stig Inge Bjornebye finally puts Liverpool ahead.
There is no leaping up and down from the other fans. They flex their shoulders, nod as if to say: "That's all right then. It was only a matter of time, after all."
There is no disgrace in the lack of passion: this is as much a social club as a gathering-place for football fans. It is part of the Anfield community, a place for people to come to play darts or pool, to catch up on gossip. They even let Everton fans in.
"We're a focal point for the community in sport," Pedder says, unconcerned by now about events on the big screen. "We have funerals and 21st birthday parties in the function room here. We have top-class artistes here on Saturday and Sunday nights. And the Stroke Club meets on the last Wednesday in the month. That's the club for people who have had strokes," he adds, as if it might be mistaken for a bizarre Liverpudlian bonding ritual.
It is difficult to follow the rest of the match, partly because the room is filling up with chattering bingo players, and partly because Archie Macpherson, the Eurosport commentator, and Ray Clemence, his summariser, seem to be sharing their microphone with a loud German. Thus we learned that David Moore, MyPa's Englishman, had "spielen mit Bangor und Chester City," and that Stan Collymore's nickname in German is "Herr Schnell".
The final whistle blows, and fans stand to replenish their pints, relieved but not elated, glad that the campaign is off to a steady start. "We'll do well," Pedder says. " We're always optimistic up here, you know."
Macpherson and Clemence bid all and sundry a cheery "Auf wiedersehen", Terry Brown stands on a stool to fiddle with some buttons, and the big screen slides up into the ceiling. The lights come up, revealing portraits of past Liverpool greats.
Under the eyes of Paisley, Shankly, Clemence, St John, Dalglish and Souness, Chairman Pedder sorts out the bingo tables and produces cards: a long line of punters forms in front of him. Then it is "Eyes down", and there is a special call to listen out for: "Lucky for some: MyPa-47."
Cameo for the camera
If it's Friday it must be Huddersfield. The great football roadshow arrives at the glitziest new arena outside - and probably including - the Premiership. So advanced is the design, so swirling the lines of the structure as it reaches into the surrounding Yorkshire hills that a message on a wall deep inside its bowels has to clear up the little matter of its precise location.
"Excuse me mister, is this California?" asks a jocular caption inscribed in the passageway leading to the dressing-rooms. "No, son, this is the Alfred McAlpine Stadium, Huddersfield." And so it is. There is nothing so serenely ornate as this in California.
The significance of the contest is undoubtedly heightened by the presence of Sky television. The Nationwide League Friday-night match is a new contribution to this season's schedules and the excitement of the largest town in England at being its host is palpable. This is immediately reflected in the back- page headline of the Huddersfield Daily Examiner which refers to a "vital TV clash" though its conjecture in the article below that the 32-year- old winger Gary Crosby will emerge from the McAlpine shadows into the national television spotlight proves wide of the mark.
The television wallahs naturally descend early. It is a complicated business filming a football match from every conceivable angle and not the least complicated bit is stoking up fan fervour. There are at least two hours to go to kick-off as a reporter and cameraman stalk the stadium perimeter. Their objective is simple: to persuade either Oldham or Huddersfield supporters to exhibit how plain thrilled they are at the prospect ahead. At first this exercise does not go well as gathering fans are as plentiful as ramblers in the California desert.
Soon, however, they arrive and the technicalities of football TV coverage become apparent. Young Huddersfield fans, of whom there are gratifyingly hordes, are organised by the reporter to run at the camera chanting: "Brian Horton's blue and white army." They clearly adore the idea. There is some jostling to be at the front.
Sheffield Wednesday's manager, David Pleat, also rolls up two hours before the whistle. He is summarising, not on television but on Radio Five Live. This contest between the 13th and bottom clubs in the First Division is clearly gripping not only the Examiner but the nation beyond, and for all we know parts of California as well.
The match, fortunately, is a humdinger. Huddersfield's Marcus Stewart darts around elusively up front, incisive with a neat touch compensating for a shortage of real pace. Oldham are bottom and look it. It is no surprise, it is all they deserve when they concede a goal on the quarter-hour mark, which is the sort of time TV directors must dream about. It comes after the novelty of the preliminary stages and before routine sets in. Stewart is the scorer. A summer signing from Bristol Rovers, he continues to create openings swirling this way and that like the arches above the McAlpine stand.
But Oldham equalise. It's a sucker goal. Sean McCarthy out- jumps the defenders from a free-kick and makes capital of the free header. The Lancashire club are revitalised. Midway through the second half McCarthy gives them the lead with another still smarter header. Cross and near-post execution are impeccable.
Oldham's first win of the season looks inevitable. They are a unit. Huddersfield are now over-excited. But in a pulsating finish the Yorkshiremen win. A lovely jink from Stewart gives them the equaliser, the centre-half Kevin Gray heads the 90th- minute winner, his first goal for two years, only his fourth in 190 matches.
The first words of the Huddersfield manager Brian Horton, sensing priorities, are: "I'm amazed because we've won a game on Sky." Gray, the late hero, says, "Our confidence is sky high", which is an advert they probably don't need. But he has not taped the precious goal. "I haven't got satellite."
Dreams at the Field
IF it's true that television and satellites are turning the game of football into a global village then, by extension, there must always be candidates for the role of global village idiot.
Swansea City nominated themselves last year by getting through four managers in the first six months of the season and being relegated to the Third Division under the fifth. Even today, as they prepare to face the league leaders the chairman, Doug Sharpe, is looking for a buyer to take the club off his hands. The asking price almost certainly goes down again as Swansea fall victim to a Fulham fightback and lose 2-1 to record their fifth defeat in seven League matches.
This farce has a history. The huge, cantilevered stand behind one goal at the Vetch Field is testimony to earlier follies, notably the delusions of grandeur generated when Swansea inhabited the top division for two seasons. in 1981-83 under the management of the former Liverpool centre- forward John Toshack.
Now a more recent Liverpool veteran, Jan Molby, is charged not only with arresting the club's downward momentum but also with reinstating its stability and prestige. "We were a bit unlucky last season," Molby says in an accent that could land him a part in Brookside, "because although we improved when I took over some of the teams around us at the bottom did so too."
Molby's claim is fair. Just five wins in 31 games preceded his arrival in February. The effect of his appointment is shown in the six wins they registered in the remaining 15 games of the season. Nevertheless, here they are, down in the Third Division.
What's worse is that the optimism for a quick return is faltering less than a month after an opening-day victory, a 4,272 home crowd and a 5- 1 favourite quote from the bookmaker Victor Chandler. Swansea's record since then is dismal, with the crowd down to 2,479 for Tuesday's home game against one of this football outpost's nearest geographical rivals, Hereford, whom they beat 4-0.
Aware of the reality of life on the margins - that the football on the pitch is more about out-scrapping rather than out-playing fellow strugglers - Molby, who was schooled at Ajax in Amsterdam before his 11 seasons with Liverpool, in effect announces the temporary suspension of the beautiful game. "We have had to leave a few of the pretty-pretty footballers on the bench for the time being. It's all about everybody giving 100 per cent now. Their time will come again when things have turned round, when we are a bit more confident. For now it's about hard work and getting quality crosses into the opposition penalty area - that's what we did against Hereford and that's what we'll do against Fulham."
Well, they do in the first hour of the game, knocking Fulham out of their stride with a high-ball attack targeted at the head of the 6ft 3in Duncan Ferguson lookalike Steve Torpey. In the 28th minute Fulham fail to clear a corner and Dai Thomas fires a low shot past Roger Freestone in the Fulham goal.
But Fulham, watched by their chairman Jimmy Hill, persist with pass-and- move. Within minutes of the appearance of grizzled 37-year-old veteran Glenn Cockerill, Mike Conroy equalises and as Cockerill's influence grows Swansea fall apart.
Confined to the bench by injury, Molby has to sit and suffer. "We shouldn't be losing these games," he says afterwards. "We keep making the same mistakes time and time again. We sat back and too many of my players were just not disciplined enough."
Just over 10 years ago Molby was winning the 1986 Cup final for Liverpool virtually on his own, as his wonderful passing unhinged an Everton defence determined to guard a lead given to them by Gary Lineker.
Times change, but in football the changes seem more compressed, more intense because the players' careers are so short. Ten years of our lives are a fraction, but for footballers they are often the whole.
Molby's part in Liverpool's 1986 double-winning team is a memory, his last reality with the club loan-spells at Barnsley and Norwich before Swansea called. Now the Dutch-trained Dane with the Scouse accent is here on the South Wales coast hoping to prove that, at 33, he still has something to offer as manager to a game that he occasionally short-changed as a player.Reuse content