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

 

A Fraction Of The Whole: Paul Merson

Celebrating the game’s minutiae, one tiny fragment at a time

Past Michael Owen raises the bar impossibly high, while Present Michael Owen watches on YouTube for the millionth time on another one of his days off, lamenting the fact that Twitter hadn't been invented yet in 1998, as this would've made for a cracking tweet.

It was the day of my thirteenth birthday when Michael Owen scored a career-defining goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. I remember every glorious detail without needing to consult a replay. The brief look up from David Beckham as he plays the ball in-field. Owen’s first touch with the outside of his right boot. The dip of the shoulder that fooled the Argentinean defence. The onrushing Paul Scholes arriving in vain. Owen’s expression of assured disbelief as he runs away with energy still to spare.

Another detail swept up in the drama of the moment is something I recall just as easily, and it comes from the substitutes’ bench. Synonymous with the memory of that goal is the reaction of one Paul Merson, who rises with the rest of the squad to celebrate Owen’s strike. As he leads the applause, he turns around to be captured by the camera as he says something to Teddy Sheringham. It’s too quick to be lip-read, much less heard, but you can see everything you need to know in his face. A mixture of incredulity and wonder at what he’s just seen, transmitted to a global audience as everyone else marvels at what’s just occurred.

The reason I recall Merson’s face with such fondness is because of the way it communicates so much in such a short space of time – he is seen for a mere second before the picture cuts back to a breathless Owen jogging back to resume the game. At such a young age, I felt as if this was the commencement of some exciting new dawn. I had watched my first World Cup four years previously, when England failed to join the party in the USA. Even at the age of eleven I could acknowledge the patriotic power of home advantage offered by Euro 96.

But Owen’s goal was something I had never seen before. England had just shown that they had something no-one else did, a weapon that could cause whatever damage was necessary, as long as it was deployed in the right direction. It seemed so easy, as if England had just discovered a cheat code on a video game. It seemed so incomprehensibly fortuitous that suddenly we had someone that could just do whatever he wanted, and he just fell into the lap of every future England manager that would be able to select him. My mind, swamped as it was with nascent hormones and birthday cake sugars, could not process the significance of this goal. It was more than just one goal in one game. This was something seismic and I knew that straight away.

That brief moment, where Merson giggled and shook his disbelieving head for the world to see, was like looking into a mirror. Merson looked the way that I felt, and it would later offer succour in the face of England’s eventual elimination. To see an actual professional footballer react just like I had… that meant that it wasn’t just youthful naivety on my part. It meant that I was right and that eventually he would elevate beyond the prescribed heights of the England team, and together they would do something amazing.

Of course, it wouldn’t quite work out that way. The goal would weigh heavily on Owen’s shoulders, and the intrinsic declaration of promise would unwittingly taint public perceptions of his career (Click here to read more on Owen’s dubious legacy). For all that, the excitement, shock and joy I felt at that moment, mere hours into my teenage years, is something I will always remember, because Paul Merson is there as a totemistic reminder of the chemicals that rushed through a brain yet to be sullied by hormones, adolescence, and the crushing reality of being an England supporter. And I shall forever be thankful that Owen did not hit, to use Merson’s Soccer Saturday parlance, the ‘beans on toast’.

The Ascent of Michael Owen

Michael Owen’s career trajectory has seen him fulfil a number of defined roles that read like a skewed footballing equivalent of the ascent of man: prodigal teen, international mainstay, Galactico, injury-prone milquetoast, mercenary, washed-up substitute.

These days he occupies the role of abused, benevolent veteran, trying in vain to steer a course through the twilight of his playing career in peace. He seems absolutely happy with life, despite not playing much. He tweets a lot, espousing the virtues of domestic life, asking for opinions on his coaching badge coursework, and generally comes across as an affable man. Yet this apparent inertia is frequently met with ire, which Owen occasionally reacts to. To wit:

The first tweet, met with sarcasm and scorn, comes from a man who is clearly perfectly happy with his lot. Of course, you would imagine that comes easy for a millionaire footballer, but his lot right now is rather modest in comparison with his more vaunted and youthful colleagues, who can expect to play more football. He is an example of a man growing old gracefully, in a profession where that isn’t always to be taken for granted. They become poor/lazy/misogynistic pundits. They ghost write vapid, boilerplate columns for The Sun. They have affairs and tear families apart.

There should be more Michael Owen’s, happy to cede the limelight once they’ve taken their own share, thankful for what they’ve had without greedily expecting more. David Beckham still clings to desperate delusions of international relevance. Frank Lampard complains about his role at Chelsea which diminishes in direct proportion to his obviously waning powers. Ryan Giggs is forced to continue in workmanlike concession to the paucity of options available to his employer, like Boxer in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Others seek cynical, dollar-chasing moves to the MLS (that retirement home of such washed-up Premiership has-beens and never-weres like Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan).

"I will work harder. Sir Alex is always right."

Perhaps it is an inherently English problem. His career, perhaps more than most others, is summarised by one iconic moment, and it weighs upon him like a millstone. That goal against Argentina, that symbiotic burst of pace and promise, represented a prelude to a brighter tomorrow, a warning shot to the rest of the world that Owen (and England) would achieve wonderful things together.

He went on to win trophies as part of the most successful Liverpool side of the Premier League era (the small matter of a Champions League win notwithstanding). He won a Ballon D’or in 2001, becoming the first Englishman to do so for 22 years. He acquired an international goalscoring record which has few peers. In short, his career was no failure, and yet still there persists this feeling that he didn’t do enough, his achievements harshly tainted by the misfortune of his late-20’s and early-30’s.

Injuries haven’t helped him, the same way they haven’t helped countless others before and since. The opprobrium targeted at Owen for such bad luck is misplaced: yes, the later years of his career were ravaged by injury, but what of the likes of Owen Hargreaves? Jamie Redknapp? Kieron Dyer? Are they all to be subject to the same venom aimed at Owen for the betrayal of their bodies?

His career is petering out, just like those of so many before him. The state of semi-retirement we find him in now may not befit the teenage sensation, or the Ballon D’or winner, or the Galactico incarnation of Michael Owen. But he’s in a different stage of his career and life now. There is no public raging at the dying of the light. But when that light flickers out, you sense that he will accept it with more grace than most.