Wanking With Chopsticks – Andy Murray, Paul Gascoigne and Britain’s Tears

Andy Murray reached his first Wimbledon final this summer and lost. Yet to win a Grand Slam, a man widely considered unfortunate to be born in the all-dominant era of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic oligopoly, he was crestfallen as you might well have expected him to be. His frustration and disappointment surged through his veins, looking for a form of emotional release. Desperately trying to maintain some resolve and composure, he battled in vain as the BBC’s Sue Barker emerged toting a microphone as readily as a wreath at a wake, to expose his feelings for our entertainment. Murray responded with an outpour that flooded through to the audience both in person and at home, for this – said the presenter, the microphone, the camera, the audience – was the time to cry.

Imagine for a moment that you had never watched any televised sport before, and you might find Murray’s post-match tears to be even more unusual, stripped of the context of sporting theatre. It’s just weird isn’t it? ‘This is the bit where you cry’, Barker intoned wordlessly, in much the same way that Simon Cowell would do to a feckless meat puppet on X-Factor, or some gaily-coiffed runner would to the falsely-entitled humanity-voids on The Only Way Is Essex. We discovered last week that Uefa had manipulated video footage of a German woman to imply that she was crying at her team going two goals down against Italy at Euro 2012, when she had actually been moved by the pre-match national anthem.

Such an event is endemic of a vicious circle, where TV executives are so eager to demonstrate their own understanding of the emotional register of sport that it perpetuates the notion that viewers are too stupid to follow the action without obvious, sign-posted events. We have reached the point where tears have been stripped of genuine feeling and restyled as a televisual simulacrum, an artificial construct that gets in the way of life. A bit like wanking with chopsticks*.

It seems especially cruel that such a public purging of sadness would be required of Murray, a man who tries so hard and fails not just simply to win, but to keep his emotions in check. It seems that very few people dislike him because of his tennis; people dislike Murray for his gruff personality, the detached aloofness of someone striving for lofty ambitions. As such, his tears served as some form of emotional penance to a public with whom he has endured a sometimes fractious courtship. ‘We shall have our tears, for it is the least we deserve’, bellowed inwardly the voices of the audience who watched the Scot be pulled hither and thither (in no particular order) across centre court, the kitten to Federer’s wool-master. For them, the spectral promise of Murray’s tears was included in the ticket price.

The front page of the following day’s London Metro splashed with the headline ‘New bawls please!’, accompanied by pictures of Murray and his girlfriend (a woman!) crying, as if this were more important, more newsworthy, than the defeat itself. It emerged as a form of damage control, as if trying to retrieve a Pyrrhic victory from the burnt ashes of defeat – he may have failed to win a championship, but he’s not ashamed to cry, huzzah! A more committed pop-psychologist than I would tell you that this is the birth-right of an emotionally repressed nation. Watching a sportsman cry carries the inherent implication of emotional ownership, in the same way that the ‘shoulder to cry on’ in a relationship might expect to have greater claim to the affections of a wronged lover. The most prominent example of this form of collective national grieving is the reaction to the death of Princess Diana, memorably derided by the comedian Stewart Lee as “the hysterical, over-emotional, shrieking grief of twats”. Hysterical or not, this shared catharsis served to emotionally galvanise a collective, in order to rally behind a mutual cause. In the case of Diana, the people wanted the Queen to lay her feelings bare and share in their mourning (as well as to make practical use of commemorative ALF dolls.)

In the realm of football, a similar effect was achieved via the tears of Paul Gascoigne at Italia ’90, the Citizen Kane of sporting sorrow. Gascoigne’s tears have restrospectively been credited with restoring a lustre to the national game that had been lost in the wake of Heysel, Hillsborough and Thatcher’s Britain. The unreleased sequel came eight years later in a La Manga hotel room pulsing with the soothing muzak of Kenny G, as Glen Hoddle omitted him from his World Cup squad. We had to make do with third party accounts and biographical anecdotes, but we gathered enough information to discover that, yes, he cried again. To be denied such high-profile sporting tears! That we never saw them instead on a French football pitch is one of the lost masterworks of British sporting sadness, Gazza’s swollen, chubby-ducted eyes the equivalent of a bloated Orson Welles, forever to claim relevance despite waddling his way through a middling spell at Everton, as Welles did with Transformers voiceovers.

This is not to sneer at sportsmen showing emotion. The history of sport is awash with moments remembered as much for the tears as the stories they tell – Derek Redmond’s physical and emotional breakdown, Jana Novotna and the Duchess of Kent at Wimbledon, and, yes, Gazza missing out on a World Cup final. The difference is that tears have since been commodified, becoming the TV producer’s stock-in-trade, a visual shorthand that batters the viewer with a mallet marked IMPORTANT TELEVISION MOMENT. Future generations may never resonate with the feelings of a sportsman in the same way that past generations have. Perhaps one day prizes will be given for ‘Best Sporting Tears’, in the way that trophies for such categories as ‘Like, uhm, Best Kiss, y’know, whatever?’ are lapped up by whooping idiots at the MTV Awards.

The World is currently unzipping its fly in anticipation of the sporting gangbang that is the Olympics, and there will be more tears, no doubt stage-managed beyond the point of pathos. Should the likes of Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Philips Idowu fail to collect the medals implicitly promised by years of media hype, they will be probed and prodded to the point of tears, like a piñata exploding at the point of optimum release. If we cannot triumph vicariously through their victory, we must commiserate equally through their failure, as we did with Murray. Anything less would be pointless. It would be unsporting. It would be un-British.

* Line inspired by – that is, nicked from – The Armando Iannucci Shows.

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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.)

Theo Walcott and the issue of blame

It seems that, in English football, the greatest crime is unfulfilled potential, something that this nation has rich history in.

Two of the greatest midfielders of their respective generations, the Pauls Gascoigne and Scholes, ultimately failed to deliver what was expected due to the respective perils of personal demons and disenchantment through mismanagement. English football’s modern history is littered with talents blighted by a litany of ‘if only’s: if only he’d stayed focussed, if only he’d joined a bigger club, if only he’d worked harder.

England supporters, starved as they are of success, refuse to see it happen again.

Enter Theo Walcott. His current prescribed role seems to be that of perennial under-achiever, a forever disengaged black sheep who continues to fail to deliver on his vast promise. It is bizarre that someone such as ‘lil T’eo, nothing if not a milquetoast, is such a polarising figure, with pundits such as Alan Hansen and Chris Waddle condemning him for his lack of intelligence. Such suggestions, which he struggles manfully to mask with his pace and derring-do, stymie his progress, as well as the notion that he is an elite player, a game-changer.

In the pursuit of this open criticism by fans and pundits alike, it seems bizarre that no-one has been looking to blame anyone, especially when you consider that it can be excellent fun. It would be churlish, perhaps unpleasant to simply hold one person responsible for such a crime against football (the worst crime there is!), but it seems that one man has a lot to answer for, but continues to evade reprimand, like a fleet-footed cat-burglar. That man is one Sven-Goran Eriksson.

How odd that a man responsible for thrusting Walcott upon a ridiculously oversized pedestal would somehow escape censure, given that he has been treated with such ignominy by English football fans himself (Eriksson, of course, was once chided for his failure to take England beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament, a level they have yet to reach since the Swede’s departure five years ago). English fans have perhaps wilted in their hostility against the man who failed to get the most out of England’s cloyingly-named golden generation, in the light of Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello failing harder and faster than Eriksson ever really did. Perhaps it is this forced reassessment that has allowed him to escape scot-free for Crimes Against Walcott.

Picking Walcott was the last desperate throw of the dice for a condemned man. His left-field inclusion represented a courage and audacity that had been conspicuous by its absence throughout the rest of Eriksson’s tenure as England manager, a courage that was lacking when it was most required (such as in his compromising accommodation of both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and in failing to make Paul Scholes the creative fulcrum, as opposed to David Beckham). Eriksson put all of his chips on Walcott’s head – itself only just old enough to legally gamble – and unwittingly broadened the parameters of his career expectations forevermore.

To hell with the consequences!”, Eriksson almost certainly would’ve said to himself, alone, into his bathroom mirror, before sheepishly questioning his sanity whilst flossing. He wouldn’t need to answer to the repercussions. He wouldn’t be expected to worry for Walcott’s future development. As it would transpire, an English public clamouring for the fresh impetus that Walcott’s inclusion promised, would remain wondering, as an out-of-his-depth Walcott didn’t play a minute of football in Germany.

If he hadn’t been picked, his career trajectory may well have followed a similar path to that of Gareth Bale. He, too, was signed by a top London club from Southampton as a seventeen-year-old, based on similar qualities, most notably skill, pace, but above all potential. Bale did not suffer from the same burden of expectation (which would have just as much to do with Bale being Welsh and not English, of course), and was allowed to develop whilst maintaining a safe distance from the unforgiving glare of the spotlight. When Bale endured a run of 24 Premier League games without winning for Tottenham, it was treated as a joke, an amusing curio and nothing more. By this time Bale was aged 20, and was struggling to displace Benoit Assou-Ekotto as left-back. We all know what happened next.

For Walcott, his fast-track to the full England side saddled him with the millstone of being the next Wayne Rooney or Michael Owen, the precocious youth capable of sparking fresh life into the fading golden generation. Since then, he hasn’t been afforded the same patience that Bale was. I was recently reminded of Walcott’s first Arsenal goal, which came in the 2007 Carling Cup final against Chelsea. Watching the highlights of the game, in the aftermath of that opening goal, the commentary damned him with faint praise, speaking of how he was “turning things around at last” and “finally delivering on his potential”. Then aged 18, it was only his 28th game in Arsenal colours. When did this become an age to prove one’s calibre?

Perhaps it’s the fault of his prodigial predecessors for raising the bar too high – Rooney, Owen, Scholes, Gascoigne. The expectations were too high because, when fans want success and get none, they try and manufacture their own trophies. They wanted a player to frighten the world. Walcott is still only running around with a bedsheet over his head, flailing wildly to remove it to show the bared teeth beneath.

It seems that Walcott has been around forever, but he is still only 22. His career thus far has hardly been a failure, and yet it seems as though it is, as if we’re nearing the point where backs are turned on him and we look to the next great white hope, which was Walcott’s first prescribed role when Eriksson gambled on his future in 2006.

Maybe Walcott’s greatest contribution to England’s cause will be to deflect attention from the next crop of youngsters, so that they can prosper in relative peace. In the meantime, he will continue to shout boo, hoping that one day it will be enough to make people flinch.