On the concourse outside Wembley Stadium on Tuesday evening, prior to England's footballers taking on 11 Montenegrins in a Euro 2012 qualifier, a gang of men in fluorescent pink bibs busied themselves picking up litter. The bibs bore the words "Wembley Stadium – Waste Management" and a couple of hours later, following a sterile 0-0 draw, it didn't seem overly cynical to conclude that the waste management operation might have been put to better use on the pitch.
That our lavishly-paid, hugely lionised footballers were unable to beat a team drawn from a population of barely 650,000 – about the same as greater Nottingham, or if you prefer, less than eight Wembleys full – is, of course, a humiliation and a disgrace. That England should have had a second-half penalty, and that the Montenegro players had already belied the diddiness of their three-year-old country by rising from 199th in the world rankings to 40th, is neither here nor there. What this miserable spectacle underlined was the considerable gamble involved in attending a live sporting event.
Sometimes the gamble pays off. Last year I forked out more than £300 to take my two sons to Wembley for the Everton v Manchester United FA Cup semi-final. As Everton fans we were rewarded with a thrilling win by penalty shoot-out and a long day out that my boys will never forget, not least for the image of their father grinning stupidly as they were hugged by a succession of sweaty adult strangers. Not far from us, I later found out from a policeman friend of mine, a well-known Merseyside villain was in a similar clinch with the copper who had arrested him a fortnight earlier. Live sport is unique in yielding moments like that.
More often, though, the gamble backfires. All too frequently, time, money and energy both physical and emotional are invested for little or no return. And even when your team wins, football delivers not much bang for your buck, as the prospective new owners of Liverpool FC might put it. Most matches last just over 90 minutes, which, in my case on Tuesday, meant one minute of (dreary) action for every five minutes getting to and from the match. Maybe that's my fault for living in Herefordshire, but you can live in central London and have a nightmare getting to Wembley, and reaching Twickenham (in return for just 80 minutes of sport) is even harder.
The various authorities ought to do something about all this. If they can't guarantee value for money in the quality of the sport on show, which they manifestly can't, they should offer it in other ways. An uplifting musical performance beforehand, or a dazzling fireworks display afterwards, would stop us trudging away feeling like suckers. But they won't do it, because they know that suckers are what we are.
What not to do with your cider
On Sunday I loaded the back of my car with as many apples as I'd been able to pick in our garden, and drove them to the car-park of the Crown Inn, a pub in the delightful Herefordshire village of Woolhope. There, I handed them all over to Deborah Davies and Nigel Sweet, who have a little mobile cider press and with irreproachable logic call themselves the Little Cider Press Company. In glorious autumn sunshine, and enveloped by what one punter sweetly called "the smell of October", I waited along with a dozen or so others while Deborah and Nigel pushed our bramleys and russets through their scratter, filled their hairs with our pulp, and formed stacks of cheeses.
I think I've got the jargon right, but am less sure that I'm on top of the fermentation process. For £35, I took home a 25-litre container of my own apple juice, which according to Nigel would yield 40 pints of delicious cider by early next summer. He drilled a hole in the lid and showed me how to create an airlock, because if oxygen gets to it then your cider will scarcely be fit to drizzle on fish and chips. He suggested that I put the container somewhere fairly warm while waiting for the juice to ferment, and my wife, Jane, had what we both thought was the brilliant idea of sticking it in the airing cupboard.
But half-way through the England match on Tuesday I got a text to say that our cider was not only gurgling alarmingly but making a break for freedom. Apparently, the floor of the airing cupboard was awash. So the people at Bulmers can relax; it might be a while before I offer much competition. On the upside, we now have a full set of apple-scented sheets.
Hopping into salvation
Was there ever a child's toy more disappointing than the space hopper? They promised so much, with their orange hides and cheeky faces, yet after a few bounces it was clear that the amount of energy expended greatly exceeded the fun derived.
Last Saturday evening, however, more than 40 years after it was first introduced to Britain, the space hopper finally came into its own. When two teenage girls were swept into a rough sea off Dawlish in Devon, onlookers were unable to reach them with lifebelts. So 24-year-old Matthew Gribble ran to get his space hopper, chucked it into the water, and the girls managed to cling to it until the lifeboat arrived. All we need now, to complete this redemption for overrated toys, is for a pensioner to fight off a mugger with a pogo stick.