The accent is on a very British coup
Sunday 25 April 1999
The belting of a long ball down the middle is by no means a British copyright but there was a time when it was regarded as symptomatic of our approach to football and one of the reasons why the wily foreigners ran rings round us and made an altogether more subtle thing of the game we invented.
It wasn't the first time that the subject came up during the two legs of the semi-final. Each of the four goals United scored carried its own extremely high value but you could work out a case for the special importance of the equaliser scored by Ryan Giggs in the final minutes of the first leg at Old Trafford. It was a goal that helped sustain United's hopes during the intervening fortnight and its presence in the bag undoubtedly assisted their recovery from Juventus' opening two goals. A three-goal deficit would have likely done for them.
Giggs' goal came after a period of United pressure that blasted the Italian club's defence in a manner familiar enough for Kevin Keegan to gasp, proudly I think, that it was typical English football. And so it was. Although teams of any nationality tend to get frantic at times, that's how we play most of the time and for some of us it added to the pleasure.
Why we should be still rooting around the embers of Wednesday's events in search of extra comforts is explained by our prolonged absence from such triumphs and a need to evaluate how much of the old British game is capable of having any effect at the top these days.
Judging by the success of our international teams in recent years, the answer to that is unavoidably bleak, and the extended exile of our clubs from the peaks of the European Cup has prevented us from reaping the satisfaction that was freely available in the 1960s and 1970s when Celtic, Manchester United, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa were successfully carrying the banner.
Were it not for the years we were banished, quite properly, from club competition in Europe following the horrors of Heysel in 1985 we would not have spent so long dislocated from opportunities to prove the true value of our domestic game. This may have been a blessing but it would have been fascinating had, say, we'd been able to see how Wimbledon fared in Europe after qualifying for the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1988. At the time they were derided for their archetypal old English style in their own country but we were denied the chance to see what the foreigners would have made of it.
It is fair to say that the British clubs who were successful were those able to make the most sensible adjustments to the game required for the fast-moving domestic demands. But things are not the same now.
Apart from the invaluable experience our clubs lost through being isolated for those five years, we've seen a steady growth in the influx of foreign players. There is no complaint about that. The strength of our game still rests solidly with the clubs and our players can only improve through the presence of top players from other countries.
It is not certain, however, who is benefiting most at the moment. A significant number of skilful players have taken one look at the harsh pace and have sought more familiar surroundings at the earliest opportunity. The more successful inductees have been those able to adapt; a task made easier by those managers adept at wise and patient blending, of whom Alex Ferguson is now the shining representative.
What they do learn, whether they like it or not, is the necessity of maintaining a consistency of effort not only during a game but week by week throughout a season that becomes more arduous the more successful you are. In addition, they absorb the hope and optimism that is as central to our game as the irresistible urge to dash about. Such qualities, I fancy, had a part to play on Wednesday.
But the transition is important and is happening elsewhere, although perhaps not as dynamically. Italy have a style as deeply rooted in the past and as prone to being lost to other influences. When I called in on Toni, my local Italian restaurateur, to pick up my tenner bet on Thursday he was staring into space. "Whatever happened to catenaccio?" he asked glumly.
FROM AMERICA comes news of a thrilling breakthrough in televised sports watching - an exercise bicycle that provides the electricity for your television set. Developed to help stop obesity in couch-potato children, the pedal-powered screens have shown potential in experiments with overweight kids between 8 and 12.
Obliged to keep pedalling if they wanted to see their favourite programmes, the children not only lost a significant amount of body fat but also watched far less television.
We should immediately arrange the compulsory introduction of these machines into the homes of sports addicts. And pubs with big screens would require a bank of bikes with everyone having to pedal like mad. The result would be a fitter nation, a saving in electricity demand and a much more objective assessment of what is on offer.
Think of all the crap we watch because we are too idle to switch off. If you were seeing a good match, the incentive to keep the pedals going would be strong and you'd finish feeling enriched physically as well as emotionally. If it was bad, you could freewheel it out of sight; the equivalent of a slow handclap but far more effective.
It would lead to a more critical look at sport but it could also prove dangerous. Imagine how many poor souls we would have lost if Wednesday's thriller had had us pedalling furiously through extra time and penalties.
DESPITE THE crisis in the Balkans, the Football Association insist on going ahead with England's friendly match in Hungary on Wednesday. They don't consider playing 200 miles from the Yugoslav border to be a good enough reason for seeking a postponement. I trust that disturbed area appreciates the generosity of the gesture, for there is no situation that doesn't appear better when compared to the sight of England playing a friendly.
Besides, as the FA's acting executive director pointed out, England take pride in fulfilling their fixtures, come what may. "We don't welsh on our obligations lightly," he said.
If the Welsh take exception to that remark, it will not be because of his unfortunate choice of words, but because England's slavery to their obligations has not always been apparent. In 1984, England abandoned the Home International Championship, thereby cutting Wales and Northern Ireland off from the main source of their income. Wales and England had played against each other every year since 1879 and many might think that a tradition of 105 years standing could be regarded as an obligation. On the other hand, welshing on the Welsh is probably not regarded as seriously as welshing on anyone else.
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