Category Archives: Sport

Only Fools and Football Fans

Our Bank Holiday football ground-hopping ‘tradition’ has been observed more in the exception recently, so we were determined to get back on track on Boxing Day. Our original plan had been to take in the Welsh Premier League local derby between Cardiff Met FC and Barry Town United, at Jenner Park, Barry. An electrical fault at the ground and a shift in the kick-off time from 3pm to 12.30pm put paid to that ambition, and so we made the short journey to ‘Dave’ Parade, Newport, to watch seventh place in League 2 Forest Green Rovers against eighth placed Newport County. The actual name of the ground is Rodney Parade; the misnaming as ‘Dave’ Parade is a reference to Trigger in Only Fools and Horses and his constant references to Rodney as ‘Dave’ throughout the programme. It’s a silly joke, admittedly, but harmless!

This Boxing Day, Dan and I were joined by my dad for the 12 mile ride east along the M4 from Cardiff to Newport. One of the great advantages of visiting lower league football stadia is the relative ease of finding free parking close to the ground, and so – having set off at 1.40pm, we were safely through the turnstyles and enjoying a cup of coffee (me and dad) and a Cwtch (Dan) by 2.10pm.

One of the interesting things about our Bank Holiday ground-hops are the coincidences that get thrown up. Named in the Forest Green starting XI for this match was one George Williams. The diminutive attacking midfielder was on the fringes of the Welsh national squad until fairly recently, and indeed, the last time I’d seen him ‘in the flesh’ was as a substitute warming up for Wales’ opening European Championships game against Slovakia in Bordeaux in 2016. Williams’ career has been blighted by injury, and having initially been signed by Fulham as a youngster from MK Dons, he has struggled to establish a long run at any of the clubs that he has spent time on loan with since. Dan’s observation (before this game had even started) that Williams was too good for League 2 was borne out in spades.

Spytty the dog (geddit?) and a mascot literally loving life!

On paper, this should have been a relatively closely-fought affair, with both sides pushing for a play-off place near the top of the table. Any thoughts that the first twenty minutes might be a bit cagey were dispelled almost immediately though as Rovers were awarded a free-kick 25 metres out and that man Williams lined up to take it.

It was a well-struck free kick that took a wicked deflection off the top of the Newport wall, causing the ball to loop perfectly into the top corner of the net, evading the full stretch dive of County ‘keeper, Day. Dan managed to capture the moment perfectly on his iPhone camera, and the action shot is captured in all its glory below. Three minutes on the clock, and Rovers were one-up.

Much of the next forty minutes of play followed a relatively standard pattern. Rovers looked the better footballing team, attempting to get the ball down and play on the floor as much as possible; County looking to get the ball forward much more directly (and often aerially), relying on the size and athleticism of Matt and Bakinson to cause problems for the visitors’ defence. Whilst there were half-chances for both sides during this period, neither side really troubled the opposition goalkeeper. Indeed, the main incident of note was a flare-up between County fullback Piper and Rovers’ Brown that remarkably led to a caution for the former but no sanction at all for the latter. This was one of a number decisions from referee Mr Busby that did little to endear him to Newport supporters.

If Forest Green’s opener was down to the wizardry of Williams, then their second goal on 43 minutes was down to speed, accuracy and teamwork. A Newport attack on their right hand side broke down and Rovers counter-attacked in numbers down their left hand side. They were assisted by a couple of rash attempted challenges by County covering defenders, but quick footwork and accurate passing got the ball to Campbell, who waltzed into the penalty area before calmly side-footing the ball past the advancing (and hopelessly exposed) Day.

Any fears that home supporters might have had that the second goal would kill off the game were quickly extinguished. The goal seemed to galvanise the Ambers and they laid siege to the Rovers goal straight from the re-start. Their ambition was rewarded in the second minute of first half stoppage time when Forest Green keeper Montgomery had a rush of blood to the head. Charging from his goal in an attempt to punch the ball away, he succeeded only in clattering into the back of Newport’s Amond. The most stonewall of penalties and one that Mr Busby was right on the spot to call (garnering some ironic cheers from the south Wales faithful in the process). Amond picked himself up to send the hapless Montgomery the wrong way and reduce the deficit to a single goal at half time.

The half time chat amongst the Pearce ground-hopping crew was whether Newport could continue their comeback in the second half. We were all confident that there would be more goals, and one of us was even rash enough to predict a 4-3 victory for the County. Dan, though, being both less rash and more fatalistic, cautioned that (as a Cardiff Blues rugby supporter) he was only used to seeing away teams win in Newport. I should have been more in tune with the omens.

The game was effectively all over as a contest within seven minutes of the restart. Newport’s Butler saw red for Denying a Goalscoring Opportunity in the 51st minute, and Williams stepped up to drill the resulting free kick into the top corner of the net without the aid of any deflections this time. You could sense the energy draining from the Newport players as a result.

Williams (also behind that bloody stanchion!) fires in his second beyond Day’s despairing dive – no deflections needed for this one

Within five minutes, Williams had completed his hat-trick, finding space in the Newport penalty area following an intricate passing movements down Forest Green’s left, and curling a shot into the far corner of the net to make it 4-1 to the visitors. The final half an hour of the game was a master-class by Forest Green in how to play against ten men. They kept the ball, moving it across the full width of the pitch and forcing Newport to chase shadows. That their possession and movement did not lead to more goals was down to over-elaboration in the box, and some fine saves from Day in the Newport goal. It was all too much for a significant number of home fans who were pouring out of the ground with more than fifteen minutes of the game to play. Normally, I’d be highly critical of this sort of behaviour, but on this occasion, I could see their point. Whether this was on off-day, or whether some players have already begun thinking ahead to the FA Cup tie against Leicester City in January, it was clear that this performance did not live up to the standards that manager Mike Flynn has set for his side.

On the plus side, with so many fans having left before the final whistle, getting out of the ground and on the road back home to Cardiff was even easier than getting there in the first place!

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Getting ready to get fit again

I am pleased to report that my knee is recovering really well from the recent minor operation to tidy up the cartilage. The bag of bolts that had become lodged behind my knee cap has disappeared and I’m completely pain free for the first time in a year. I’m not getting ahead of myself and I know that it will take a while to get back up to full fitness, but I am really optimistic now that I’ll be back at parkrun by Christmas. In fact, such is my confidence, that I’ve just entered four 10k races in South Wales between March and August next year. All things being equal I’ll be pounding the streets of Cardiff in March, and then Newport, Porthcawl and Barry Island as the weather warms up. This will be part of a phased build-up to the half marathon double header of Bristol and Cardiff in late September and early October of 2019.

The race is on!

A funny thing happened when writing this blog

The good thing about blogging is the almost instant feedback that comes in following each post. I included a couple of jokes in blog posts over the weekend. The reaction from readers was mixed : some asked me very politely to think carefully before including any more; while others threatened me with direct physical violence if I didn’t stop it immediately. It turns out that my readership is the very definition of a tough crowd!

As it happens, the whole issue of when it is appropriate or sensible to attempt humour in a professional context has been a hot topic in recent weeks. First there was the ‘outing’ of Sir Philip Green as the businessman at the centre of a controversy around the use of so-called gagging orders to prevent the public disclosure of allegations of harassment by former staff members. And then came the resignation of William Sitwell from the editorship of Waitrose Food following an email sent to a freelance journalist that included allegedly jokey references to vegans.

Green is reported to have dismissed the allegations as misconstrued office banter. And supporters of Sitwell have been quick to suggest that whilst what he wrote may have been ill-judged, it hardly warrants the loss of his job. In both cases, the context within which these events took place seems to have been afforded less significance than it probably deserves. Green and Sitwell were in positions of power and influence over the people who were on the receiving end of the banter or attempted humour. As CEO and editor respectively of their company or magazine, they are also the human embodiment of the organisation. What they do reflects on the organisations they represent almost as much as it does on themselves. This is particularly the case for Sitwell, where the magazine that he edited is commissioned by an upmarket supermarket chain that has invested heavily in its vegetarian and vegan product range.

Both cases illustrate the change in attitudes towards banter and workplace humour in recent years, as employees and employers have begun to understand the damaging effects that inappropriate humour, teasing, joshing (call it what you like) can have on individuals and wider team morale. There is a fine but increasingly clear divide between the sort of informal interactions that help a team to bond and perform well, and the inappropriate words and actions that make life miserable for individuals or minorities in the workplace.

It seems that the tide is turning too in other arenas where banter is a major part of the overall experience. As a football supporter, I love the knockabout humour, often coarse but spontaneous and often very funny, that typifies the atmosphere at most grounds on any given Saturday. I have previously written on this blog about my trip to Bordeaux following Wales in the European Championships. Hal Robson Kanu was in the Wales squad for that tournament. Having previously played at age-group level for England, his Welsh qualification came from his grandmother. The affectionate chant of Wales supporters on the way to the opening fixture went along the lines of : “Hal Robson Kanu, Hal Robson Kanu, as Welsh as a zebra, but he’ll [expletive deleted] do”. And I’ll never forget the chant of Cardiff City fans towards the Chelsea left back during an FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge (I think it was Yuri Zhirkov) : “You’re just a big score in Scrabble”.

However, not all football banter is as humorous and victimless as this. There still remains an undercurrent of racism and sexism around football that occasionally rears its ugly head. Organisations like Kick It Out and many clubs across England and Wales have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to tackle this. And it seems that their efforts are starting to bear fruit. The Red Wall of Wales football supporters has received positive feedback for their behaviour from countries throughout Europe in recent years. At a recent match in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland, however, there were disturbing reports of racist abuse and sexism by some of those following the national team. What is interesting though, is that it is other supporters who have taken the initiative in calling out this behaviour and committing to ensure that there is no repetition in future.

For my own part, finely attuned as I am to your feedback, dear Reader, I’ll keep the jokes and banter to a minimum for now!

It’s not all equally bad news

It’s been too easy recently to assume that we are all going to hell in a hand-basket. Austerity and its impact on the poorest members of our society; Brexit and the feral, anti-immigrant sentiment that it stirred up; abuses of position and sexual harassment in the corridors of political power – all suggest that we are becoming less tolerant, less social, less equal as a society.

Its good to be able to reflect on two pieces of very positive news today. The first details a change in maternity and paternity leave policy by the UK’s largest insurance company, Aviva. In future, both parents will be able to claim up to 26 weeks leave at standard basic pay in the first year following the arrival of a new child or completion of an adoption. Where both parents work for Aviva, this could allow a full year of child care to be provided by the parents without any reduction in basic pay. This is not only great for the child, but has the potential to significantly reduce the negative impact on the woman’s career of taking time out of the workplace after childbirth. What’s particularly encouraging about the Aviva initiative is the recognition that changing the policy alone won’t achieve the sort of cultural shift that they are seeking to achieve. “Aviva [will] use male role models to show it is acceptable to take up the offer of parental leave, to encourage a change in perceptions and foster a cultural change. Otherwise, male employees may still be reticent about taking time off, even if paid.” I genuinely hope that this is the start of a wider review of maternity and paternity leave policies across the private and public sectors. It’s in everybody’s best interests to support women and men equally as parents and employees.

aviva

The second ‘good news’ story this Friday comes from an unusual source. Swansea City FC and AFC Bournemouth have become the first Premier League football clubs in the country to formally recognize transgender and non-binary supporters in the way that they are addressed. In future, supporters will have the option to choose to be addressed as “Mx” as an alternative to the more ususal Mr, Miss, Mrs etc.. Explaining the change in policy, Swansea City’s equality and diversity manager said : “We’re continually looking at ways to make our services more inclusive. Language plays a really important part in delivering this and ensuring that everyone feels welcome – regardless of age, gender or gender identity, sexuality or ethnicity.” Too often, football and football clubs are associated with a laddish culture in which minorities and ‘difference’ are seen as fair game for ridicule or humiliation rather than celebration. It’s great to see some clubs now taking a much more enlightened attitude to these issues. This weekend also sees the launch of the Rainbow Laces campaign, promoted by Stonewall, and designed to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes in sport more generally. Of course, as with the challenges of cultural change at Aviva, adding Mx to a list of prefixes won’t suddenly lead to premiership football becoming a safe space for transgender and non-binary fans, but it may encourage those have been reluctant to attend football matches for fear of how they would be received, to go along. And that’s good for the fans and the clubs.

Have a good, equality-filled weekend!

rainbow_laces_2017_graphic_1920x500-1

Ordinary, everyday tragedies

Looking for inspiration for today’s post, I stumbled across one of the most poignant things that I have ever seen. There is a Twitter feed and Instagram account dedicated to the chronicling of lost footballs.

Many of the images are framed in quasi-tragic terms : the deflated football abandoned in a deprived neighbourhood; the ball stuck immovable in the branches of an impossibly high tree; the one caught on rocks in a fast-flowing river at the bottom of a treacherous ravine. There is an aching sadness that attaches to the lost potential represented – the hours of fun that that football could have provided; the epic battles that would have been played out in formal matches on manicured pitches, or scratch games on stretches of scrub land; the journey home under the arm of a sweaty, exhausted child, placing the ball safely in a corner of the garden ready for the next game.

But some of the images prompt an altogether different response. There are those that show a fully inflated football floating across the sea, like a fugitive from the harsh life of constantly being kicked around. This example of the ball from Aberdeen that washed up in Denmark has all the hallmarks of a footballing ‘Great Escape’. This one may have been recaptured but “most of the balls that go into the river are never seen again”! This conjures up the image of a football nirvana, where escaped balls gather on soft sand gently rocked by the breeze and occasionally bobbing about in the shallows.

And then there are the photographs of footballs hiding in plain sight. On top of a bus shelter in a busy urban street; nestling in groups behind high-level advertising hoardings at an old-fashioned stadium; or sitting nonchalantly in the middle of glazed roofs – visible but utterly inaccessible. These are the drop-outs and misfits of the football universe. They are of the mainstream but separate from it – occupying the neutral spaces where footballs aren’t meant to be.

It’s been an eye-opener to see the vast array of places where footballs end up. I’ll be sure to keep my eyes open for footballs in strange places in the future, and adding my own contributions to the lostfootballs social media sites.

Ex-footballer dementia : a kick in the head

Two football stories feature in the main BBC News bulletin this evening. Alan Shearer has produced a documentary assessing whether regular heading of a football is a contributory factor for dementia later in life. It will be screened on BBC1 on Sunday 12th November and promises to make uncomfortable reading for those responsible for governing the beautiful game.

The second story covers the sacking of Patrice Evra by Olympic Marseille. Evra Aimee a kick at the head of a Marseille supporter before a European game earlier in the week. I can only assume that M. Evra had been spending too much time in heading practice.

Crisis averted

Having gone through a bit of a lean spell, I am pleased to report that my mojo has returned. With the help and encouragement of you, dear reader, I am running again! A gentle reintroduction in the beauty of Bute Park last Sunday, was followed up with a couple of runs around The Downs in Bristol during the week, and a Blackweir parkrun yesterday. However, the reason why I know I’m back on it is because this morning I set out on what was planned as a gentle 7.5 mile run to Roath Park lake and back. The sun was shining in a sky of unbroken, azure blue, the roads and paths were quiet, Roath Park was its usual jewel-like self, and well – to cut a long story short – I got carried away and ended up running 10 miles at more or less 2.15 half marathon pace. This is the first time that I’ve run more than 6 miles since the Llanelli Half Marathon in March, and whilst I am aching a bit at the moment, it felt good! I am now much more confident that the Bristol : Cardiff half marathon double header in September/October is achievable.

The motivation provided by a number of regular runners who happen to read this stuff occasionally, and who continue to inspire me with their performances in half marathons, marathons and trail runs (thanks Kev, Sarah, Tom, Bob in particular) has been complemented by Vassos Alexander’s book “Don’t Stop me Now!”. It is a fascinating compendium of insights and advice from a whole range of elite athletes, coaches and scientists, woven around an account of the 26.2 miles that Alexander ran as the final leg of an Iron Man event. It’s a highly accessible book and is a great reminder of all the benefits that come from simply putting your trainers on and getting out there. I highly recommend it, and I will be keeping it really close to my bedside to act as a kind of reminder of all the good things about running when I get up occasionally and the rain is falling and my whole being is screaming for me to stay under the duvet!