Tag Archives: football

Park football

I recently played my first football match for about a decade, so thought it would be a good time to revisit this article, which originally appeared in the Independent On Sunday in around 2003. This is an edited version.

“Can we join your game?”

It’s an action stopper every time. The match shudders to a halt as everybody sizes up the newcomers, two lads in Italy shirts with heavily accented English working their way round Regent’s Park like free transfers looking for a kickabout.

“Can we join your game?”

Well, it’s not as simple as that lads. This might look like two dog-eared teams in mismatched shirts puffily chasing a flaccid ball over a softball pitch, but it’s actually an evenly tied humdinger, a finely poised 4-4. Pick the wrong Italian, and that satisfyingly tight and edgy tie could turn into a 10-4 romp. And who wants that?

Welcome to the world of park football, when London’s green spaces become a mass of under-athletic over-enthusiasm. Just after 7pm, gangs of kids and grown-ups who should know better mob up at tube stations – Regent’s Park, Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch, Clapham Common – and descend upon the nearby park to seek their pitch. Bags become goalposts, talents are weighted and teams carefully picked, and, after token warm-up, the game is on.

And what a game. Pitches are warped, with non-existent boundaries so that the keenest players will go haring off after the ball into the far distance; fouls are rare, with every physical challenge followed by an apology; headers are met with open mouths and closed eyes; teams are mixed in race, sex, size, language and ability. The only unifying factor is that everybody is playing for the hell of it. It’s fun.

This can change when you find yourselves a couple of players short for a decent game among yourselves. You need at least four-a-side for a proper match, so if only seven of you have turned up there are two options. Rope in a pair of eager passing Italians to make up the numbers, or – more thrillingly – challenge another group short on numbers playing elsewhere in the park.

Possible match-up are scrutinised and whispered conferences abound: what about them, they look crap. Don’t ask that lot, they’re wearing shinpads. Check them out, they’re all in Tottenham shirts – they must be rubbish. Eventually the challenge is thrown down, considered, debated, accepted, and the teams line up. At first it is tentative, nervy, almost polite, as you test each other out, softly sparring like virgin boxers. Then your opponents realise how crap you are, and thrash you 9-0.

In these circumstances, there are only two ways to lose: to some awesomely gifted foreign language students who score countless goals of great beauty and raise your spirits with their relentless exuberance; or to some ultra-competitive English accountants who celebrate each methodical goal with high fives and crush your spirit with their relentless commitment.

Indeed, it is almost terrifying how many cultural stereotypes are encountered on these pitches; stocky, tricky southern Americans who want to beat half-a-dozen players before scoring; willing but limited Scots; talented but retiring east Europeans; willing but limited English; pass-heavy Spaniards; clueless Australians playing rugby. All are represented on this uneven playing field.

Here young and old, black and white, join together to bond in unexpected teams. And, most tellingly, here are the Asian footballers that we are told do not exist, playing huge, joyful, eager games and raising the question why no player from the subcontinent has yet broken through to play top level professional football in this country. Well, they’re out there, in London parks, having fun with us and wondering why their role models all play cricket.

Nostalgia corner: Zola, bitumen, Paolozzi and the great ‘is London shit?’ debate

Because of a frantic start to 2015, I’ve neglected Great Wen recently. Hopefully, I’ll find something to stick up soon but in the meantime here are a few interesting bits and bobs.

First, here’s me, writing for the Canal & River Trust, about the experience of taking a narrowboat into drydock, where you whack it with mallets, coat it in tar and get pleasingly sozzled with strange Irishmen.

Second, I really enjoyed this piece by Callum West on the great Chelsea team of the 1990s, and the extraordinary revival of fortunes that preceded the salad days of Roman Abramovich. This isn’t the side I grew up with, or the one that won the most trophies, but it’s the one that gave me the greatest pleasure to watch.

Finally, the great London debate – is it turning shit or isn’t it? – is gathering pace. The constant stream of negative stories, the latest being Eva Wiseman’s pretty dismal contribution at the weekend, has finally been met by counter-argument in Brockley Central.  Is Nick’s point fatally wounded by the use of Giles Coren as a defense witness? Or is he simply missing the point, which is that the death of fun by over-development in central London is a prevailing trend that is already starting to infect areas far from the West End, and we sit and sneer at those uncomfortable at the increasing inequality, inaccessibility, unaffordability and general dreary Dubainess of it all at our peril? Both, probably.

Professional contrarians like Coren will get in bed with anyone if it gets them attention, but I’m not sure many other Londoners should be siding with the developers and speculators.

By illustration, the latest landmark to get the chop are the great Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road. Still, that’s the price of progress! Yay to cultural vandalism!

London in maps

This was a piece I wrote for the January 2011 issue of Metropolitan magazine.

In July, the Mayor of London introduced a scheme that allowed the public to rent bicycles from 300 docking stations in different London. Within days, maps could be found all over the internet showing exactly where each docking stations could be found and which were the most popular. These maps were largely unofficial and all free, created by tech geeks for fun and copied to internet forums for the use of cyclists, tourists and map lovers. It proved once again that Londoners will map anything. There are maps for free wi-fi hotspots, maps that chart where the most Twitter activity comes from and maps that find the nearest toilet. One of my favourite maps is this 1970s version of the knitted football tribes of London.

 

This love of maps is engrained in London’s psyche, the result of living in a chaotic and unplanned metropolis. Two of the city’s favourite icons are maps: the A-Z, that portable atlas which even seasoned Londoners carry in case they get lost; and the Tube map, a design classic that has been copied by transport networks all over the world and is regularly ‘mashed-up’ by artists, replacing stations with footballers, philosophers, films, authors and anagrams.

In 2006, the British Library organised a ‘London: Life In Maps’ exhibition, curated by Peter Barber, the library’s Head of Maps, who thinks London’s love of maps is far stronger than anything you might find in Paris. ‘The French have a very cool attitude towards maps,’ he says. ‘They don’t, on the whole, use them and there is no comparable market in old maps to the one we have in London. You have to give away old maps of France. Maps in France are associated with authority – they were tools of administration and control. Whereas in England maps were commissioned privately and so are not perceived as being so menacing.’

The Lost Map

Barber names the key maps of London’s past –the Copperplate map of the 1550s, the Morgan map of 1682, the John Rocque map of 1746 and the Horwood map of 1829. Barber makes a distinction between two kinds of maps. There are functional maps for getting you from A to B (or A to Z) and there are maps that work thematically or artistically to present information or ideas over a cartographical plan. The thematic map has been popular in London for centuries – the most famous is Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of 1889, which colour-coded streets according to income. Another is ‘The Modern Plague’ of 1886, produced by the National Temperance League, which showed pubs in central London. These maps are designed to transmit an idea, not aid mobility, and are fascinating to study. One of the first was John Snow’s map, tracking cholera outbreaks in Soho.

Such maps are now getting easier to compile. ‘It’s said that 80 per cent of all knowledge is spatial, and you can geo-reference any phenomenon and plot it on a map,’ says Barber. ‘With digital mapping, the techniques to do this are within the range of everyone. Digital mapping isn’t new, what is new is the ease with which it can be done and the extent of the information that can be plotted.’

Simon Foxall summarised this in his book ‘Mapping London’, writing: ‘Maps have been made to do things they were never expected to tackle and, in doing so, have exposed patterns, connections and ideas that were as interesting as they were unexpected. ‘

Straddling these two types of map is Bill Visick, a former manager at IBM, who has developed the London Time Travel Explorer (TTX) app for the iPhone. This features four maps of London dating from 1746 to 1862 and a contemporary map of the city. Using GPS technology, the user can fade between old and new maps to see how the street on which they stand has changed. It’s virtual time travel.

Visick had been collecting maps of his Kensington home for years, but smart phones allowed him to take this to another level. ‘What sparked it for me was realising that the street I lived on contained the first buildings ever built in Kensington,’ says Visick. ’I was standing outside my door and thinking, “blimey, that was a hedge and that was a field”. So the first thing I did was put this old map on my phone and walk around looking at it – that became the prototype and that’s where the idea of TTX came from. It happened almost as soon as I realised the technology would allow it.’

The novelist and poet Blake Morrison has spoken about ‘our craving for interactivity’, and that is something the artist Stephen Walter is also exploring through maps. In 2008, he created The Island, a vast, exquisitely detailed map of London, crammed with cultural and political references and in-jokes. ‘People have been suggesting I do an app,’ says Walter. ‘The British Library did a brilliant browsing tool for the map and people have suggested I do something for a phone or tablet computer. I’m interested to see if there’s a way people can leave their own tabs on the map, personally configure it with their own information.’

The Island is modern in its outlook, but Walter was following a long tradition. ‘There’s a huge, strong history of map-making in London and we do like to beat our chests about it,’ says Walter. ‘It’s a bragging thing, a celebration of history and size. The Island was a spoof of a medieval map. The twist was that a lot of it was very personal and also a contemporary reaction to the city, whereas at first glance it looks like a pretty conservative world map.’

It has long been understood that the map is subjective, reflecting the views of the maker, although rarely as blatantly as in The Island. In ‘Mapping London’, Foxall writes, ‘The map, as a scaled replica of the entire city, presents a choice to its maker: not what to include, but rather, what to exclude. The mapmaker, like a sculptor, must chip away at the raw block of material that is the city to reveal the shape and representation hidden inside.’

Barber expands this point. ‘Different maps show different things and your judgment of a map depends entirely on what you want from it. In some cases you could draw a direct contrast between the map the man in the street wants and the map the expert says is best. The A-Z is a complete travesty of mapping because the streets are grotesquely enlarged and the open spaces much reduced.’

The irony of the growth of digital mapping is that it comes at the expense of the old-fashioned kind. People no longer need A-Zs, because they can use GPS or SatNav. ‘I spoke to somebody the other day, a businessman in his 60s, who no longer takes directions,’ says Visick, with one example that stands for thousands. ‘He knows he can get anywhere on his phone.’

And into this breach step the digital mappers, who offer information in a manner that all of us can understand. London can be a daunting city to comprehend, so a thematic map that breaks the city down into easily absorbed chunks of information located spatially is very helpful. As Walter muses, ‘It seems the more complicated life gets and the easier it gets to traverse the landscape, the more maps become all about ourselves.’

South London and the birth of the educated footballer

This is an edited version of a piece I wrote for 4-4-2 magazine in September 2009

Whitgift School in Croydon is not the sort of place you’d expect to find the future of English football. This breeding ground for bright young talent is as far from the stereotypical back streets of football’s urban north as you can get. Situated in 45 acres of parkland and boasting colonies of albino wallabies, flamingos and red squirrels, Whitgift School is one of the oldest and wealthiest private boys schools in the country. For centuries, it has produced outstanding academics and sportsmen. The latter have usually been rugby players such as England fly-half Danny Cipriani or cricketers (the county-standard pitch is used by Surrey CC), as befits the tradition of the English independent school, which  leaves football to the hoi polloi of the comprehensive sector.

So how have four professional footballers emerged from Whitgift’s ranks in the past few years? Why does the school currently count 13 children from different footballing academies – including Chelsea and Tottenham – among its 1,200 pupils? And how did the school attract three former footballers to work on its coaching staff?

To answer those questions, I entered the headmaster’s study to meet Dr Christopher Barnett, the man who brought soccer to Whitgift. As we talk, exotic peacocks can be seen through the study window, heads bobbing up and down as they wander around on impeccable lawns. It is an extraordinary environment. In these conditions, Dr Barnett’s belief he can ‘change the mould and develop a new breed of middle-class footballer’ seems entirely plausible.

The Australian connection

Dr Barnett’s conversion from rugby to football came in Australia. ‘In 1996 I went out to a school in Parramatta,’ he says. ‘I was walking round the grounds and it was rugby as far as you could see – rugby match after rugby match after rugby match. But then I turned the corner and there was soccer being played. So I thought, if they can do it…’

Convinced that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, Dr Barnett looked for a coach and found Colin Pates, the Chelsea and Arsenal centre-back, who had retired with a knee injury. A posh school in the suburbs is not where you’d expect to find a hard-bitten former pro, and Pates admits: ‘Whitgift is quite alien to some of us, because we had state school educations. It was intimidating, and not just for the boys.’ But he jumped at the opportunity.

‘The headmaster asked me to take a sixth-form team on Wednesday afternoons,’ he says. ‘I asked if there were any goalposts, pitches, teams or even footballs, and we didn’t have anything. So we had to start from scratch, pretty much teach them the rules. They were rugby boys playing football, so these were quite aggressive games. But after three years we introduced fixtures and we’ve never looked back.’

Introducing football to a rugby school for the first time in 350 years was no easy task and Pates admits that ‘there was always a concept that we’d bring in swearing and fighting, but we’ve had none of that. History told me it was going to be very difficult to change people’s attitudes, but if you know you’ve got the support from the top man, the head, you can slowly change the perception of football.’ And the Headmaster – motivated by ‘old-fashioned esprit de corps’ as well as the desire to have the newly fashionable sport of football on the syllabus – gave it his full support.

As football cascaded through the school, the coaching team expanded to include John Humphrey, a right-back for Charlton and Crystal Palace, and Steve Kember, the former Chelsea and Palace midfielder. ‘It showed that we were engaging with how we would be a football school, but a different kind of football school,’ says Dr Barnett. ‘What I wanted to do was provide discipline and a serious education. We wanted to tell footballers who were coming to Whitgift: “Yes, but…” and the “but” is that you are going to work.’

 

The coming of Moses

Whitgift began to offer scholarships and bursaries to help parents of talented young players pay the £13,266 annual fee. It also established an informal relationship with Crystal Palace, with some of the club’s outstanding talent getting recommended for places at the school. David Muir, Education and Welfare Officer at Crystal Palace, explains ‘Whitgift is flexible and open-minded,’ he says. ‘Private schools are generally better than state schools at supporting the academies, offering excellent sports training and balancing that with academic work.’

By 2007, two Whitgift pupils (Victor Moses and Lee Hills) were in the Palace first team. But education was still paramount. ‘A lot of these boys are outstanding academically even if some of them can come here with what appears to be a relatively low IQ,’ says Dr Barnett. ‘But if you work with them and give them belief and encouragement, they can soar.’

Moses, now playing in the Premier League with Wigan, arrived at the school as an 11-year-old orphaned asylum seeker from Nigeria predicted to get no GCSEs at A-C and ended it as an England youth international with GCSE results above the national average. Dr Barnett is adamant that a good education and football skills are mutually beneficial. ‘We did a correlation study on pupils’ academic expectation on entry and then factored in how much they participate outside the classroom,’ he says. ‘And those boys that were more heavily involved in sport did far better academically – quite the reverse of what you might expect. Received wisdom is that if you do too much sport, you’ll damage their education, but that wasn’t the case.’

As for what education can do for your football, he cites the words of an FA Cup-winning manager, who watched Whitgift win the Schools Cup in 2005, when they beat Healing School 5-0 (Moses scored all five). ‘Lawrie McMenemy said to me that if he’s got a choice between a footballer without a brain and a footballer with a brain, he’ll always go for the one with a brain, because he knows he’ll follow instructions and understand tactics and you’ll get far more from him.’

Muir says that  ‘previously, you were either seen as a sportsman or an academic, but our best players have always had the potential to be high-achievers academically as well.’ This backs up Dr Barnett’s claim that ‘the managers of the academies want their boys at Whitgift. Because as well as getting good football training and terrific facilities, they’re going to get discipline and they’re going to get structure and they’re going to get their qualifications.’

It is this that will provide the new type of footballer desired by Dr Barnett. ‘You know that if they were in the state sector they would get lost. Football would be all they had and they’d probably end up with nothing, no career and no qualifications; here, they can end up with 10 GCSEs and still make it as a footballer. And that is one of the key differences in how they will conduct themselves on the pitch  and what image they provide for football. If you get enough kids doing this, you could change things.’

The movement is gathering place. Other private schools – including local rival Trinity and Ardingly College in Sussex – have started to follow Whitgift’s lead.

Finding the kids

So how does Whitgift recruit its talent? Muir says that ‘Palace put forward one or two players every year. We have to find kids who are both outstanding footballers and with a potential to do well academically because they have to pass the entrance exam. The parents pay the fees, though they can be helped by scholarships or wealth-related bursary schemes.’

Other relationships are less formal, and sometimes clubs foot the fees. And sometimes, the players are already at Whitgift before the clubs spot them such as Stefan Amokwandoh, a 13-year-old at Charlton.

A close relationship between school and academy is vital. The school’s fixtures are played midweek to avoid clashing with academy games, while academies benefit from the high standard of coaching the players get from the school.

Whitgift insists that all pupils play in school fixtures, compete in all sports and do their homework. ‘I have to work harder than the other boys at Chelsea,’ says Joel Witele, a 14-year-old who also excels at rugby. ‘When I get homework I have to concentrate and make sure I do it.’

For those football academies accused in a recent book (‘Every Boy’s Dream’ by Chris Green) of offering too many boys nothing but disappointment and educational underachievement, you can see why Whitgift is so attractive.

‘Look Sir, no litter!’

The notion of privately educated footballers no longer seems strange to Pates and Humphrey, even if it must to some of the school teams they come up against (‘We played a local state school,’ said Pates, ‘and one kid said: “Look Sir, no litter!’). Humphrey says: ‘We have quite a few guys at Charlton [where he is an academy coach] who go to private schools. If you have two boys of the same ability, you pick the brighter one because they’ll learn quicker, so we’re moving away from state schools monopolising football. There’s a lot of money out there, and parents want to give their kids the best education they can.’

Pates agrees: ‘A lot of footballers are sending their kids to independent schools. Working-class parents are earning money and putting their kids through private school. We’ve had [Brentford manager] Andy Scott’s boy here, Ian Wright’s boy, Steve Coppell’s – there are lots of them and its spreading into football.’

Muir concurs: ‘It’s great to see the kids get an opportunity I never had. It’s not what people might perceive of from an independent school, it’s not a bunch of boys with plums in their mouths, it’s just normal kids whose parents want them to do really well and provide them the best opportunity to do so.’

Another motivation for Pates and Humphrey is the experiences they had as players. ‘A lot of players from our generation had nothing to fall back on when they came out our game,’ says Pates. ‘There was also nothing in place when we were young – if you didn’t make it, that was that. So we ensure that our players have the opportunity to be everything they want to be, even when they leave. Rhys Coleman was released by Charlton, went to Glenn Hoddle’s academy in Spain and didn’t quite make it, so we got him a trial with Palace. It’s like aftercare. We try and help.’ Another former pupil managed to put himself through university with the money he earned from semi-professional football.

It’s all part of a package that Pates and Dr Barnett believe to be unprecedented. ‘You have to be an exceptional footballer to make it these days,’ says Pates. ‘So we want to give them the best opportunity to be a footballer, but also give them a magnificent education so if they don’t sign scholarship forms they have something to fall back on. It works for us, it works for the academies and it works for the families.’

The question now is will it work for football.

Kicking off about FIFA

I call it the strawberry ice-cream paradox. I like strawberries, I like ice-cream, therefore I should like strawberry ice-cream. But I don’t, I can’t stand it. Too sweet, too tart, too unchocolate.

It’s the same with football games on the computer. I love computer games and love football, but I hate football games on the computer. I recently picked up FIFA 09 at Oxfam, but even at £3.99 it was against my better judgment. I know I won’t like it. Too difficult, too boring, too realistic. I haven’t even taken it out of the case yet, having been let down by every FIFA and Pro Evo I’ve played since the PS2.

It wasn’t always like this. In 1990, I bought Kick Off 2 on the Amiga and fell in love, despite the Palace away kit on the loading page.

I am not much of a stayer when it comes to games – the only one I’ve completed is Deus Ex – but I came this damn close to mastering Kick Off 2, and was pretty much unbeatable when I stuck R Shaw on the wing in the unfashionable 4-2-4 formation. 

The joy of Kick Off 2 – and Sensible Soccer which followed – was that it was very much a game, arcade-style, unrealistic, stupidly fast, a bit daft and a total laugh-riot. It was pretty much instant fun. This was not an attempt to recreate the tactical and technical complexities of football on your computer screen because the only games that embraced reality back then were Flight Simulators, which your dad would buy in the forlorn hope they would turn out to be educational. Yeah, nice try Dad! 

Kick Off 2 wasn’t educational and it certainly wasn’t a ‘simulation’. It was a game, thrilling, stupidly fast, end-to-end football with crazy banana shots, mad sliding tackles and a goalkeeper who could always be beaten at his near post. More like air hockey than football.

This is beautiful. I could watch it all day.

The early Pro Evolution and FIFA games on the first-generation consoles understood this, while improving the graphics, changing the camera angle and throwing in some insane ball skills. But as the hardware got better, the games got more complicated, the learning curve steeper and dread realism took over. Now, when you make a sliding tackle you don’t go from one end of the pitch to the other taking out everything in your path in the process, you just get booked. Your strikers are always offside, your wingers fall over when they try to do a trick and your midfield simply doesn’t exist unless you play 4-5-1 and try to squeeze out a tight 1-0 in every game. Ooh, but aren’t those facial expressions so real! And listen to the crowd! This must be good.

Well it’s not, it stinks.

But despite this, the FIFA and Pro Evo get great reviews and sell by the bucketload, presumably to grown men and women who enjoy suffering and teenagers who spend months at a time in front of the screen and are able to beat Brazil 8-0 with AFC Wimbledon and make their players hover in mid-air while preparing epic bicycle kicks like this final scene from Hotshot.

But for me – and sometimes it seems like it’s just me – the modern football simulation is a profoundly unsatisfying and dispiriting experience, tedious, frustrating, blister inducing and a long way from fun. 

One of the reasons I like computer games is that they let me do the sort of things I can’t do in real life, in ways that are wholly unbelievable but very enjoyable. I’m rubbish at football in real life, I don’t get a kick out of being rubbish at football in the virtual world as well.

The essence of football

David Brooks gets it:

‘Soccer is a sport perfectly designed to reinforce a tragic view of the universe, because basically it is a long series of frustrations leading up to near certain heartbreak.’

From the New York Times.