Paul Ince’s Reminiscences – Republic of Ireland vs Italy, World Cup 1994

Paul Ince's Reminiscences

Republic of Ireland versus Italy, World Cup, June 18 1994, New York, Giants Stadium

USA ’94 was my first World Cup, and as for most football fans that means it probably remains my favourite. Though I’m English, I was young enough to look past England’s absence from the tournament as one might divorced parents or having a speech impediment; being young I simply didn’t know any better, so it all seemed normal enough. The flimsy merit of my pre-pubescent support went instead to the Republic of Ireland, due to my having an Irish grandfather. I had no idea at the time that this made me more eligible for Jack Charlton’s squad than many of the players he’d picked. That’s neither here nor there.

Ireland’s first game in the tournament was against Italy. We all know what happened next: the Irish celebrated a famous shock victory, Italy became the first country to ever lose a World Cup final on penalties, and I would eventually pass my Eleven Plus the following summer. Such dedication to my education came at a cost, as I was sent to bed before the game had even finished. I watched the first half with tiny, disbelieving eyes, as my nascent interest in the sport had not prevented me from learning that Italy were a force. I knew that the best players were in Italy, and that the best pubs were in Ireland (thanks, Grandad!). I knew enough to realise that Ireland surely couldn’t win. So it was that I shuffled off to bed reluctantly, hoping that the following day’s breaktime would involve joyous playground recreations of Ray Houghton’s winning goal with a sponge ball, as proper balls weren’t allowed at our school as a safety precaution (TRAUMATIC SIDENOTE – At school I once split my head open playing football by scuffing an attempted goal-line clearance, skidding on the soft ball which caught under my foot. I fell noggin-first on a concrete fence post, in the most ironic injury ever sustained by an eleven-year-old).

To this day I still haven’t seen the full game, although received wisdom and YouTube highlights have informed me that the game is remembered for two things: Houghton’s goal, and Paul McGrath. If, for some reason, you’re not aware of the magnitude of McGrath’s performance that day, the fact that an item of clothing has been designed in tribute will tell you all you need to know. I’d always wanted to see the game in its entirety to fully appreciate McGrath’s efforts that day, but there are other reasons too.

You remember your first World Cup the same way you might recall your first car, or your first trip to the bone zone; it may not have been very good, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the best. That first time always retains a certain magic. I wanted to wallow in the warmth of nostalgia, and feel the magic of my first World Cup once more, redolent in its exotic NTSC footage. I wanted to see what else there was to this legendary game. But most of all I wanted to vanquish one of my life’s great lost second halves. So join me as I apply Tiger Balm to my knee in respectful homage to McGrath, and enjoy this famous game at last…

IrelandUSA94

Roberto Baggio was the first man to introduce me to the idea that there was such a thing as The Best Player In The World. By the time USA ’94 rolled round, I had taken in roughly a season of English domestic football, largely through terrestrial television offerings and magazines paid for with my pocket money. Baggio was new to me, and with his ponytail he looked different to what I’d seen so far: physically a class apart, a being from another footballing planet. His name still retains a mythical lustre just as it did in the preamble to the World Cup, where it felt as if this whole, exciting event was arranged merely to provide a showcase for his talents.

Good at football.

Good at football.

The footage I’m watching features the original ITV commentary from Brian Moore, with analysis from Ron Atkinson, one of the game’s great forgotten racists. There is some remarkably prescient discussion about Houghton before kick-off, when Moore reveals how Charlton had publicly suggested that the Aston Villa man’s best days were behind him. Moore hails it as a “fantastic piece of man-management” in inspiring him to pull his socks up. He has no idea how right he’ll prove to be.

Atkinson talks of Franco Baresi as having “lost that zip”, in reference to the pre-tournament knee surgery that threatened his participation altogether. It’s a melancholy portent given how fantastic he was throughout the tournament, only to eventually miss a crucial penalty in the final. It’s just as sad to note that this is a young Roy Keane’s first and only World Cup, and that he wouldn’t return while at the peak of his powers (there was an incident).

Ireland immediately begin the match by refusing to let Italy have any time on the ball, doubling up on any movement in the attacking half. It is as if Ireland are protecting a lead from the very start.

Italian full-back Mauro Tassotti is wearing number nine, pre-dating the irritating vogue for self-consciously zany shirt numbers by at least a decade. The 25-year-old Paolo Maldini is a man you imagine smells nice all the time – you can practically see the fragrance emanating from him. Meanwhile, Roberto Donadoni plays for Italy, aged 30, at the peak of his physical resemblance to television gardener Monty Don.

Roberto Donadoni

Roberto Donadoni

Monty Donadoni

Monty Donadoni

After 10 minutes, Roberto Baggio flicks the ball over Ireland’s high-defensive line for Beppe Signori to chase. Only McGrath stands between him and the goal, and the two men sprint 30 yards to make the inevitable outcome, as the ball is sent safely back to Bonner. The Paul McGrath Block/Tackle/Interception tally (or, the BTI Index) currently stands at three. Atkinson sounds an ominous warning of what’s to come for Italy, when he suggests that the time to catch McGrath out is early on, when his knees are not yet fully warmed up. He will only become more obdurate as his tattered cartilage adjusts to the New York heat.

"I just hit it and it's went in!"

“I just hit it and it’s went in!”

The game is twelve minutes old when Ray Houghton wallops in the ol’ career-definer: his OK Computer, his Colonel Kurtz, his first WWF Championship. A long-ball from the back, defensive header, another header, Houghton pounces. The most memorable thing in the immediate aftermath of the goal is his slightly fey roly-poly. He is a man whose modest agility fails to match the adrenaline rush that demands something more acrobatic for the occasion. The most compelling part of the celebration was the subdued reaction of Terry Phelan. He is the first to embrace Houghton as jubilant team-mates pile in to a celebratory huddle, but Phelan’s anxious face says everything you need to know – the game’s not won yet lads. In that brief moment where he’s caught by the camera’s gaze, you can see him inwardly wince at the titanic defensive effort Houghton’s goal has just demanded they all make for the next 80-odd minutes. Phelan is the gangster turning up late to the mugging, realising that the bodies need to be cleared before they can make off with the spoils.

ray_terry

Phelan – ants at a picnic. Houghton – gay as a window.

Italy don’t have their first attempt on goal until the 18th minute, when Signori shanks a long-range shot well wide. After 20 minutes the Italians trouble the Irish area for the first time, and in the space of ten seconds McGrath connects with two headers, then blocks a shot by throwing himself in harm’s way. In a trice McGrath’s BTI Index has now doubled to six. They know what needs to be done, and McGrath leads the way by settling into the bunker, ready to repel wave after wave of enemy fire.

A few minutes later, Phil Babb nervously shepherds the ball away from an onrushing Signori after Bonner shows reluctance in coming out for the ball. After some frosty words with Babb, he responds to a similar line of discussion with Phelan by telling him to “FUCK OFF! FUCK OFF”, with a face like a volcano full of bubbling shit.

Gary Newbon reports from the touchline that Charlton, in a sign of technical area outbursts to come, is going “absolutely potty” at his inability to get water to his overheated players, raising the hackles of FIFA officials who demand that he remain seated in the dugout. Charlton and substitute Tony Cascarino battle the heat by wearing plain white baseball caps and staunchly refusing to curve the peaks, as per the fashion of the time. They both look utterly ridiculous of course, although Cascarino wears his at a slightly unconventional angle, retrieving the situation somewhat. GANGSTARINO!

"Yeah! Hats!"

“Yeah! Hats!”

Roberto Baggio is clattered in a tackle from not-quite-behind by Andy Townsend. It’s the sort of challenge that was perfectly acceptable at the time, but would probably be penalised today. As it was, the whole incident was so degrading for the Divine Ponytail that his then-wife cited it in divorce proceedings, which she began in earnest immediately after her husband had been dispossessed by the trundling journeyman.

Ireland are so wasteful with the ball, trying to rush things when all they need to do is hold on to it. They frequently overhit dead-balls straight off the pitch, rather than floating them in to the box where they could try and unsettle the AC Milan back four, unsettled by Baresi’s ring-rust. Ireland’s profligacy only escapes unpunished due to Italy’s inertia, as Arrigo Sacchi’s men stumble out of the blocks like some sort of Olympic drunkard.

We are only 35 minutes in to the game when Denis Irwin knocks the ball back fully 40 yards to Bonner. This display of long-ball catenaccio is roundly booed by the Italians, as the Irish ‘keeper has already received more balls than a particularly busy prostitute. Ireland are frustrating Italy, but it is a disciplined defensive performance, rather than just a matter of getting bodies behind the ball and flying into tackles. Atkinson points out that they haven’t given away many free-kicks around the box, as the Irish are simply working hard at keeping their shape, and refusing to allow Italy’s attack to make space. Signori’s face is as ruddy as a Cornish butcher when the half-time whistle blows.

Signori blows it out of his arse

A ruddy Signori blows it out of his arse.

The second half begins with some extraordinary insight from Atkinson, who says, upon seeing Daniele Massaro on the pitch: “It looks very much like Daniele Massaro has come on”. At least with the racism he was trying to make a point. He redeems himself by pointing out that Italy have switched Signori to the left-hand side, “which he occupies a lot for his club side”. A co-commentator showing some research and insight, while Moore does exactly what should be done, and allows him the space to speak; if only they could’ve passed this lesson on to Townsend, so that his future self might learn the lesson for his own benefit, and pass it on to Clive Tyldesley too.

It’s a pleasure to listen to Moore’s commentary, and yet a galling reminder of the dearth of quality commentators these days. One skill synonymous with the man is that wonderful change in vocal gear when something exciting might happen, something which so few commentators seem to get right. When either team attacks on the break, he’ll change the tone of his voice to suit, as if breathless from running to join the attack himself.

"Yeah bwoi. Well better than dat clown Tyldesley, I can smoke him in the commentary box like BOOM TING, feel me blud?"

“Yeah bwoi. Well better than dat clown Tyldesley, I can smoke him in the commentary box like BOOM TING, feel me blud?”

Immediately from the kick-off, Ireland are camped in their own half. An Irwin clearance is launched upfield, where Tommy Coyne ploughs a lone, futile furrow, like Boxer in Animal Farm. There are further boos for another 40-yard pass back to Bonner, this time from Keane.

Massaro is caught offside, and does the most Italian thing in the world: pinching his thumb to his fore and index fingers, turns his hand upside down and bounces it rhythmically, for the universally recognised gesture for Italian dissatisfaction.

Newbon brings us lots of information from Charlton’s team-talk: complaints about players not being able to get enough water, warning players to be careful around the edge of the penalty area, cut out the ball being laid back by Italian strikers in and around the box. When the ball is played up front for Coyne, Ireland players are to run at Italian defenders to distract them. Newbon has long since disappeared from ITV programming after Gabriel Clarke killed him and ate him so he could steal his job. The level of Newbon’s input is genuinely surprising, as we don’t get that much information from team-talks anymore. These days, such details are leaked via a phalanx of well-placed journalists on Twitter. Clarke’s bloody act of cannibalism was all in vain. He doesn’t even have a Twitter account.

In the space of five minutes, Babb cuts out two separate through-balls to Dino Baggio with immaculate last-ditch slide tackles in the box. While McGrath’s contribution has since been mythologised, Babb was immense too, doing the leg work so McGrath didn’t have to, freeing him up to use his uncanny perception of the game to cut out danger where possible. After an hour, another firm-but-fair Babb tackle prompts Roberto Baggio to lash out angrily, and you can see Italian composure beginning to crumble. The incident is barely acknowledged by anyone watching the game, but four years later a similar tangle between David Beckham and Diego Simeone will offer a very different outcome.

Moore: “This could be real edge of the seat stuff for the next 20 minutes or so”. He’s not wrong. A dangerous cross comes into Ireland’s box – “Massaro is in the middle…and thank goodness, so too is Roy Keane”. A subtle way of implying home nations bias, without beating the drum of jingoism too hard – another quality lacking from many of his present day counterparts.

Ireland make a substitution after 67 minutes – Houghton off, Jason McAteer on. Just as McAteer is ready, Houghton goes close with a great volley from a Coyne knockdown. Ireland’s second-best chance after the goal itself. A fine day’s work. Newbon informs us that it’s McAteer’s 23rd birthday, and he celebrates by running himself into the ground for the cause. At one point the Bolton Wanderers winger takes on four tiring Italians one after the other, in a bold cavalry charge. Moore implores him to “Go on, run at them“, said with such relish and enthusiasm, as an old man might say to a youngster during a park game.

With 20 minutes left the Irish nearly seal it after some great play on the left wing from Keane, who cuts it back to John Sheridan, who hits the crossbar. Even though he misses, it still comes at a valuable time, momentarily alleviating the mounting Italian pressure. Ireland are reminded that, tired though they are, their destiny is still in their hands. As if to prove the point, McAteer pressures Maldini off the ball after a mix-up with Gianluca Pagliuca. Italy have been staggered by Sheridan’s shot, allowing Ireland time to regain their composure. They then proceed to take more time on the ball, defying the tension by calmly passing it rather than hopefully knocking it long down the channels. This only seems to last for a few minutes though. Perhaps with this in mind, Moore and Atkinson offer praise for Coyne, who has worked tirelessly, and yet has only had about six touches of the ball.

With just eight minutes to go, Ireland’s fatigue stymies any effort to relieve the relentless pressure. Phelan cuts out a pass on the edge of the box before sprinting forward, covering sixty yards in around three seconds, taking the fight to Italy on his own to allow his team-mates the time to catch their breath. Townsend refuses to succumb to this moment of derring-do by refusing to pass to him. Phelan sprints back, shamefaced. At this point I only notice for the first time that there are corner flags placed at either end of the half-way line. Those crazy Americans!

As the clock finally reaches 90 minutes, Ireland fans rise to their feet in anticipation of the final whistle. Coyne is substituted for John Aldridge to eat up some precious seconds. Aldridge will not touch the ball once. Ireland keep soaking up pressure, until Townsend seizes on a loose ball and runs frantically into space. It’s cheered like a penalty has just been given. He runs the ball into the corner. A few green streamers are thrown onto the pitch.

There is still time for McGrath to cut out a final, hopeful ball into the box, and the BTI Index finishes on 21. He didn’t have very many touches beyond these blocks, tackles and interceptions, but when you think that he prevented 21 possible goalscoring opportunities, you see exactly how vital he was that day. His true influence can be measured in the authority of his composure. There was a crucial moment in the second half when McGrath, under pressure from both Roberto Baggio and Signori in his own box, takes a breath before calmly turning and passing the ball away from danger. It was the most remarkable example of the sangfroid that permeated throughout the team, settling Irish nerves while those of the Italians frayed.

And then the whistle blows, causing untold damage to millions of Irish livers. Nearly two decades later, and a lost second half has finally been found. If you wish to relive the match yourself, check out the WWF-tastic ESPN footage of the full match below:

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Paul Ince’s Reminiscences: Baddiel and Skinner, 2006 World Cup podcast

In 2006, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner recorded a series of podcasts for The Times during the World Cup. The comic duo and longtime friends travelled to Germany for the tournament, recording their observations live during games, as well as in their hotel rooms. The shows were a mixture of live reaction and post-match analysis, with the two riffing on various comic tropes, and offering their opinions on England’s stuttering form.

There was a sudden shift in tone for one particular episode, which has become a valuable resource to me whenever England flatter to deceive, which is often. It is something that I have returned to in the past, and expect to turn to again this summer, despite the best intentions of one Roy Hodgson at the European Championships.

The podcast recorded on July 1st, the day of England’s elimination at the hands of Portugal, deserves greater recognition for the way it transcends itself, becoming more than just a knockabout comedy show. As David and Frank mourn England’s latest failure, they pick over the bones of the corpse with the same confused heartbreak of someone lamenting a former lover. They spend half an hour discussing not merely a football match, but a broken relationship. Sven-Goran Eriksson is the lover that they collectively puzzle over, as they balefully consider the state of his legacy and his imminent departure.

The podcast is effectively a time capsule that condenses the Eriksson era. Sven is the aforementioned ‘lover’, with Baddiel and Skinner musing over every last gesture, every last word, desperately trying to decipher meaning amid the chaos. The show is, from the stand-point of an England supporter, gut-wrenching, rueful, cynical, optimistic, existentialist, and plenty more besides. Above all, it is essential listening. It offered strange comfort not just in 2006, but in 2008 and 2010 too. I expect it will offer the same dark solace this summer, when I break the emergency glass for this, the best available remedy for England’s failures…

The podcast begins as the match does in Gelsenkirchen, Baddiel and Skinner audible in the foreground as they join in singing the National Anthem. The nervous optimism of the live match recordings is intercut with a more despondent post-match inquest, as joviality and hope is gradually eroded by the advancing reality of England’s elimination. The two timelines intertwine, offering a similar timeshift as if watching Memento, with Guy Pearce’s insomniac, memory-deficient cop replaced by an acerbic Brummy and a neurotic jew. This non-linear dynamic cultivates that nagging sense of ‘what if?’ that haunts you after your team has lost a crucial game. Baddiel, post-match, says that’s he’s already getting over it, and you wonder if he’s being honest. He asks himself how long he would’ve been joyful for had England won: “About…two hours?”. It seems like he’s just kidding himself, compromising the integrity of his hopes with emotional bargaining. He jokes that he would still be pissed off that the show’s producer has a bigger hotel room than him, even if England had won. Skinner disagrees, saying that an England win would be “the gift that keeps on giving”, that he’d remember it in the shower the following morning and feel great again, rather than just remembering “Ah shit, we’re out of the World Cup.”

When we cut again to the ground, the two continue joking, perhaps just to allay their nerves, but it’s akin to the early scenes in Titanic when the poor people party below decks, unaware of the disaster that awaits. Our hosts compare the two managers, with “wily old fox” Felipe Scolari likely to be on the lookout for weaknesses to exploit, while Eriksson is more likely to see “a woman with big tits in row G”. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this point, until a drained post-match Skinner cites Elvis Costello: “I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.” It is worthy advice, and Skinner embraces it with enthusiasm. Baddiel tells of how he bumped into Victoria Beckham at half-time, and heard her say “Cheryl, can you take the boys to the toilet?”, with Skinner quipping that the Cheryl in question (the nation’s favourite cuckold and forgotten racist, Ms. Cole née Tweedy) would be the worst person to do such a thing.

Even a flippant story such as this carries some weight, representing the distraction and excess of the ‘WAG’ enclave at that tournament. It seems appropriate that the players’ wives would somehow feature in this podcast, despite having no direct impact on events on the pitch. That tackily-tanned harem with long legs and longer hair extensions made for fitting symbols of the attention-grabbing sideshow that served as an unwanted footnote to England’s risible campaign.

Mining the zeitgeist further, Baddiel laments the absence of Michael Owen, whose tournament ended after a knee injury against Sweden. He talks about how England made chances against Portugal, without having anyone available to take them, opining that we “still miss that type of player”. The type of player that Gary Lineker was for England, always popping up to score when a goal was required. Six years on, and England are still missing that type of player. Such a void will stretch ever larger this summer, when Wayne Rooney sits out the first two group games of Euro 2012 through suspension.

Rooney has previous when it comes to international red cards, of course, and the response to his stamp on Ricardo Carvalho makes for riveting listening. Skinner, like most England fans would have been at the time, is apoplectic: “And fucking Rooney’s been fucking sent off for fuck all!” he spits. “I can’t fucking believe it! What did he fucking do though? We’re being cheated out of this!” Skinner is the more emotional and impulsive of the two comics, and appears to have more in common with the archetype of the England fan. The assumption that England were being cheated is something that was likely to have been echoed in pubs across the land that day, even with the benefit of TV replays. Skinner ticks off another square on the England supporter’s bingo card by defiantly declaring it “time for the courageous England performance. Ten young men of England taking on Portugal and the fucking referee.” Several clichés that come with the territory of England at a major tournament are referenced, but the show doesn’t suffer for this triteness. It is oddly comforting to hear the thoughts such as might proliferate in the head of so many England fans.

The subsequent conspiratorial wink from Cristiano Ronaldo is addressed by Baddiel after the game, suggesting that he “Can’t see how [Ronaldo and Rooney] can go on playing together for Manchester United ever again.” The fact that they would, winning three Premiership titles, an FA Cup and a European Cup, makes for an effective reminder that sometimes things are rarely as melodramatic as they might seem immediately after a game, especially when that game is a World Cup quarter-final (Recently the Carlos Tevez situation at Manchester City has further proven that no bridge is every truly burnt). Baddiel goes on to discuss ethics in the game, and suggests that “Any chance of [young players] ever thinking in terms of something [being] okay to do ethically on the pitch is completely gone now.” Since then we’ve seen such incidents as the Luis Suarez handball against Ghana, Thierry Henry costing the Republic of Ireland a place at the World Cup, and countless other high-profile instances of cheating that suggest that Baddiel, sadly, may well be right.

The reign of Sven is summarised by Skinner, who complains that the Swede only ever picked the players that the papers demanded, as if the squad was decided by a press vote. Rather than concentrating on finding the right blend of players, Skinner continues, he stuffed the team with Galacticos that never looked like a proper team. I remember when he picked unheralded Charlton Athletic defender Chris Powell in his very first squad. This singular thinking was rarely to be seen throughout the rest of a tenure which can perhaps be surmised by the albatross that was the Steven Gerrard/Frank Lampard conundrum. Warming to his theme, Skinner extemporises by comparing the England team to a greatest hits CD. He says that he prefers proper albums as they represent the band’s creativity over a specific period of time, and that, while there may be a few fillers, it works better as an overall product. The England team of 2006, as through Sven’s entire reign, was England’s greatest hits album, without the unity, focus or vision required to transcend the sum of its parts. Baddiel agrees, saying that no-one ever picks a greatest hits collection as their best album, and by that same logic, few will ever hold Sven’s perennial losing quarter-finalists in any great esteem.

As Baddiel and Skinner prepare for the shoot-out, they adopt the “penalty stance” – arms around each other, heads bowed in grim anticipation. There is still time for some gallows humour, as the two men embrace with faces smeared red with melting face paint. “Since our face paint has made us look red,” Skinner says, “People are looking at us saying ‘Look at those two blokes from the dermatitis clinic showing a bit of unity.'”

I have seen the key moments of that penalty shoot-out several times since, but no amount of repeat views can recreate the sinking feeling of imminent collapse as well as Skinner’s guttural reaction to Lampard’s missed penalty. “Oh…he’s….Oh no, not again. Please not again. Please not again.” It’s a reaction that is almost lewd in its rawness, and it perfectly captures the horrors of a penalty shoot-out. In some ways, Skinner’s reaction to the first Portugal penalty miss makes for even more distressing listening. The optimism and elation of the moment is retrospectively recast as the cruelty of false hope. Portugal’s second miss is even more vindictive. Skinner doesn’t say as much, but you can read his thoughts clearly: nobody misses penalties against England, but for a team to miss two? England are going to win, this is our time. When I listen to this moment again, I ask myself whether I could’ve ever felt that myself at the time, watching at home. I’m certain that perhaps I did, but it seems impossible.

Skinner takes a turn for the maudlin when he tells how he had tears in his eyes at the thought that he doesn’t think he’ll ever see England win a major tournament in his lifetime. “I’m 50 next year and I honestly think time is running out, I just can’t see it happening.” Baddiel reminds him that he said the same thing after leaving the Stade De France after the 1998 World Cup final, before suggesting with all sincerity that a healthier lifestyle could be the way forward – “If you live a bit longer you might have more of a chance.”, he says, with no hint of irony or sarcasm. Unwittingly, Baddiel sums up the desperation of the England fan with some genuine, wholesome advice. Rather than hoping for a more tactically astute manager, or a brighter crop of young players to emerge, it seems that yoga and a macrobiotic diet offer a more likely route to triumph (Possibly heeding this advice, hydrophobe Skinner completed a swimming challenge for Sport Relief earlier this year).

As Owen Hargreaves successfully puts his penalty away – the only England player to do so – Baddiel and Skinner talk afterwards about how their perceptions of him had changed after the tournament. It has long been my contention that, had England beaten Portugal, that his performance in this match would have deserved the same canonisation as David Beckham’s against Greece in 2001. If anything, it would’ve warranted additional merit – England were expected to beat Greece in front of home support, whereas a team of ten men in a World Cup knockout match had far more to do. Beckham’s performance against Greece, full of apparently selfless running, may have provided a problem of its own that day. By seeking involvement in order to grab the game by its scruff, Beckham dispensed with positional sense in a way that may well have made it harder for England to form cohesive attacks on goal. Hargreaves would have covered similar ground against Portugal, but it was absolutely essential with ten men on the field, in a match where survival was paramount.

Skinner damns him with faint praise by lauding the typically English decision to name him man of the match “for basically just running out of his skin”, and not for anything technically cultured. “It’s alright, but it’s not going to win us the World Cup”. One might well adopt this maxim for Scott Parker this summer. Parker has made “running out of his skin” the bedrock of his game, and is the long-awaited successor to Hargreaves, but Skinner is right – more is required to win tournaments. This is not to downplay the importance of Parker in 2012, nor the importance of Hargreaves in 2006, but the point is valid. Either way, it is staggering to consider that, in all likelihood, this was the last a major international tournament would ever see of Owen Hargreaves.

“Hmm…perhaps if I steal his knee while he’s busy weeping?”

Skinner offers another theory concerning English football, by suggesting that the national game was irreparably damaged by Brazil winning the World Cup in 1970. Prior to this, England were a major power by playing English football, with “big stopper centre-halves, big, strong centre-forwards, some skill, but a lot of hard work, sweat and guts”. Then, after seeing Brazil in ’70, England underwent a shift in ideology. “We basically turned our back on our inheritance to try and play like continentals or South-Americans. You have to keep true to what your football self is.” Roy Hodgson, with his penchant for pragmatism, may well agree with such a philosophy.

There is further tactical insight from Baddiel, who says that, after five years, he couldn’t say what Eriksson’s style of play was. They discuss the misperception that England endeavoured to play defensive football when, in Skinner’s view, really it was just “failed attacking football.” Baddiel is angered by Eriksson’s assertion that he wouldn’t mind if England won playing ‘bad football’, arguing that teams never win playing ‘bad football’. “Greece played tight, dull defensive football in Euro 2004, but it wasn’t ‘bad’.” Take Chelsea’s Champions League elimination of Barcelona this season; some derided Roberto Di Matteo’s allegedly anti-football tactics, ignoring the fact that defensive football is a tactical discipline with its own intrinsic qualities and nuances. England could only dream of such accomplishment in Germany. Baddiel provides a fitting epitaph for the 2006 campaign: “We gave the ball away, we constantly looked frightened at the back.” ’twas ever thus.

Skinner closes the podcast with an almost apologetic tone, confessing “We couldn’t be bothered sitting here trying to be funny, I’m pissed off.” This is something that the ubiquitous ‘Toby Jug full of hot piss‘ Adrian Chiles would do well to take note of. Sometimes it’s right to be morose if it captures the moment. In the wake of a defeat, you don’t want to be laughing and joking about it. You can’t force yourself to stop agonising over it. It might not be the right thing to do, like picking at the scab of a grazed knee, but even if it is painful, you just want to feel that something is being done to heal the wound.

To my mind, the appropriate tone at such a time is the one captured in this podcast – unashamedly dejected, bleakly conciliatorial, strangely cathartic. I’ll listen to this again at some point this summer, seeking consolation by reminding myself that this is just the way it has to be. The FA should make this available on their website as dejected England fans nurse their grief. If you’re an England fan, I suggest you do the same, using the links below.

DOWNLOAD – Baddiel and Skinner – 1st July 2006

SOUNDCLOUD – Baddiel and Skinner – 1st July 2006

 

Paul Ince’s Reminiscences #1: Danny Baker’s 606, November 3rd 1992

Was it not the Guv’nor that once spake: “true nostalgia is an ephemeral composition of disjointed memories”? I, for one, believe that it was. How can one truly understand the game’s present without understanding its past? How can one truly appreciate the work of Justin Bieber without being au fait with, say, David Cassidy? Paul Ince’s Reminiscences will take you on a thrill ride through the swirling expanses of timespace, as we review obscure artefacts that straddle the twin worlds of pop-culture and football. So buckle up, baby…

Our first trip down Memory Lame takes us to the inaugural season of the Premier League, on November 3rd 1992, and a broadcast of 606, helmed by the Candyman himself, Danny Baker.

I stumbled upon this on my iPod, having previously obtained it via a chap. I’m not sure whether I’ve listened to it before, but I wondered what cultural truths it might uncover, akin to opening a Blue Peter time capsule and puzzling at the curio of the Love City Groove cassette within. Given the seismic cultural shift of the game’s landscape in the last 19 years, it would surely proffer something of note. It was fascinating to listen to, a bizarre mix of outdated cultural references (Teletext! The Diadora Football League! LPs! El Dorado!), modest hopes for the nascent Sky deal, and some oddly prescient suggestions.

Nostalgia smacks you ‘twixt the eyes immediately, as the classified football results (itself a phrase that evokes childhood memories of Saturday afternoons, Grandstand, fish-fingers for tea, jumpers for goalposts, mmm?) are reeled off, with the hierarchy of the English game somehow so different and yet so familiar. For fans of a particular age who took to the game as I did at the time of the Premier League’s inception, it won’t feel at all odd to see QPR and Norwich in the Premier League in 2011. Having obsessively pored over annuals and sticker albums as the Good Ship Premier set sail on its maiden voyage, the badges and colours of the likes of Crystal Palace, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday would never look out of place among the country’s elite, no matter how long it may yet take for them to return.

Division One included teams likes Cambridge United, Oxford United and Luton Town; Division Two was home to contemporary Premier League mainstays Bolton, Stoke and Wigan. Division Three, the lowest tier of professional football in the land, contained exactly the sort of teams you might expect. Even then, they were where they belong, the day’s results reading like a morass of mediocrity – Barnet, Shrewsbury, Scarborough, Rochdale, Carlisle, York. It seems that teams such as this will forever be anchored to the lower reaches of the spectrum. Some teams of note have since offered varying levels of success (Cardiff City, Chesterfield) to placate long-suffering fans, but it was compelling to note just how the universe works. Some teams just have to know their place and stay there.

What of Baker himself? Exactly as you might expect: erudite, whimsical, tangential. This show, he claims, will be his last 606, even playing out the show with the same song with which he started the first show (Melody Motel by Squeeze). The first caller prompts a remarkably prescient comment from Baker, after revealing that he is a referee: “Ah! They’re loading them up! It’s the revenge! I shall leave a spot of grease, a wreck”. Of course, in 1997, he would be fired from Radio Five Live for being accused of inciting violence against referees on air.

Two stories dominate the show: Blackburn’s 7-1 tonking of the erstwhile high-flying Norwich City, and the litigious outcome of the Leeds United/Stuttgart European Cup tie (Despite Stuttgart winning on away goals after a 4-4 aggregate draw, a one-leg replay at the Nou Camp was ordered by UEFA, after the Germans had infringed the three foreigner rule by deploying Serbian substitute Jovica Simanic).

The former, predictably enough, provides a rich seam of material for Baker. He urges Norwich fans to call in, omitting no detail of their misery, citing the “mystical” properties of a team scoring 7 (seven) goals, and the unique embarrassment of the opposing team having their score spelt out on the Grandstand vidiprinter. Given Arsenal’s recent 8-2 reverse at Old Trafford, he provides some other zingers that are as useful today as they were then: “Do you think you should drop down more than one place just out of courtesy? Can we meet up in a year to honour the veterans of this game?” He ponders on the nature of the discourse amongst Norwich fans as their team kicked off after conceding the seventh, when it was possible that goals number eight or nine could feasibly go in.

In a year, we shall meet up to honour veterans such as Piers and Crispin

Also fascinating is how this is still of a time when football seemed as bored of Liverpool winning then as people are with Manchester United winning things now. When Baker talks of the way in which the Stuttgart/Leeds match wasn’t televised, he referred to it as “the greatest night of European football since the 1968 Man Utd victory” on two occasions during a comedy riff, before adding, dismissively “That doesn’t include Liverpool, by the way”. Later, a discussion of the favourites to take the title did not even warrant a mention of United, with bookmakers odds thrown around for Blackburn, Norwich and Leeds, but not the eventual winners. A Norwich fan jokes that the Blackburn drubbing was a managerial masterstroke on the part of Mike Walker as it “takes the pressure off by allowing Blackburn into second”, only half-joking. United seemed like peripheral figures in the title picture at Christmas, and this marks the last time that you could claim such a thing. Baker redresses the balance by roundly mocking one caller for his speculative 200-1 punt on a 1-2 finish of Leeds and Coventry.

Another prescient conversation comes when Baker discusses the forthcoming match between England and Norway at Wembley. It is suggested that, since Wembley is effectively a neutral ground for England players, and that it’s “special, but special in the wrong direction”, it should be shut down. Baker proposes that England play their home games at places such as Old Trafford, and excites himself at the prospect of Paul Gascoigne making his long-awaited return from injury at St. James’ Park, whipping up excitement like Don King presenting Soccer Saturday: “We must warn you that Gazza is making his return in Newcastle, and we can’t be held responsible for what happens next” he froths, in faux-warning to the Norwegians. Although Baker’s wish would come to fruition after the old Wembley was dismantled, the erection of the passion vacuum that is the new Wembley means that his gripe is as relevant now as it was then, with Wembley’s mystical lustre proving so inspirational for so many foreign players, those from Ghana and Switzerland most recently.

This was, of course, the season that saw Sky first impress itself on football’s landscape, and it’s interesting to observe exchanges regarding the broadcaster. The same Norwich fan that spoke of the Mike Walker ‘masterstroke’ is fulsome in his praise of club chairman Robert Chase, for securing live coverage for the club in two consecutive weeks. On telly two weeks in a row! Modern fans used to the ubiquity of football on TV would be surprised to hear the simple joy of a fan happy that he can watch his team play twice in a fortnight. Baker still has misgivings about the quality of the football on display, describing it as a very flat season (“No wonder they can’t find sponsors.”) He mocks Sky’s selection of Oldham versus Everton as one of the Monday night live games: ‘I bet it stinks the place up. I bet it’s not a 7-goal thriller’. (It would actually be a five-goal thriller.)

Hope amongst Norwich fans that they could make a serious fist of challenging for the title is bittersweet to observe. This time – this very radio show – represented a peak era for Norwich fans, the era of Ruel Fox, Jeremy Goss’s volley against Bayern Munich and the atrocious ‘birdshit’ kit. They would never – most likely will never – come as close to winning the top flight again, and have enjoyed a terse relationship with the top table ever since. Surely this just represents the plight of the non-superclub football fan in microcosm: accepting fleeting glory when one can, hoping for something sweet to make it all worthwhile. Elsewhere, a fan of Oldham Athletic calls in, revelling in the newly-promoted side’s assured adaptation to the top flight. In a moment of heartbreaking, naive optimism, he offers this exchange:

Baker: ‘Have you ever known a period like this?’

Oldham fan: ‘No, it’s been fabulous.

Baker: Hand on your heart, do you think it’s going to last?

Oldham fan: Yeah, I do. Yeah.

Oldham would be relegated the following season, never to return to the top flight. They currently reside in English football’s third tier. The caller would leave no suicide note (presumably).

It is on this grim note (literally!!!) that I leave you, in the hope that my next leap will be my leap home….

(It won’t. The next one will have something to do with Baddiel and Skinner, but not in the way you’re thinking, you silly sausage.)