Kicking Off: the Rise and Fall of the Super League – BBC 2

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This was a rather puerile documentary.  I really didn’t need to see pictures of toilet flushes or cartoons of Popeye, and I’m not sure what Edith Piaf singing “Je ne regrette rien” was supposed to have to do with anything.   Sky’s documentary on the same subject made most of the same points, but in a rather more sensible way.

However, there were two points which neither programme made.  For one thing, there are now a lot more UEFA member states/national associations, and therefore a lot more leagues requiring places in European competitions, than there used to be.  Eleven of the former Soviet states are UEFA members, and there are now seven members in place of the former Yugoslavia and two in place of the former Czechoslovakia.  That’s seventeen extra leagues.  It’s rather a lot, really.   For another thing, people keep messing about with sports.  When I were a lass and dinosaurs roamed the earth, the rugby league season ran parallel with the football season, cricketers wore white and no-one had ever heard of T20 (and don’t get me started on the IPL), and doubles matches in tennis were the best of three full sets, five full sets for men’s doubles in Grand Slam events.  People tinker with sports.  Let’s just thank goodness that the mad idea of making football matches shorter, which was actually mentioned in this programme, has never been seriously considered.

So what did it say?  Well, pretty much what the Sky documentary said – and Sky a) got in first and b) said it all much better.  In the good old days, football clubs were owned by local business people.  Then Silvio Berlusconi got involved.   Then the Champions League came along.  Then new owners, often state-linked organisations from the Middle East, came along, and, rather like The Gilded Age, suddenly we’d got the old aristocracy (United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan) being challenged by the nouveaux riches (led by City and Paris St Germain).   A lot of the traditional big clubs had got into a lot of debt, and then along came Covid and made all the financial problems umpteen times worse.

As the Sky documentary did, this very much put the blame on the Spanish and Italian clubs involved, especially Real Madrid.  And added a nasty little dig suggesting that United were somehow in league with 10 Downing Street – could we just lose this silly conspiracy theory, please?!   And then made the point that it was English fans who killed the idea off … possibly with a little help from the Government, after Boris threatened to kill it off by legislation.  Well, if Parliament could abolish purgatory, as it did in Henry VIII’s time, it could certainly do away with the Super League.  But it never came to that.  The English clubs pulled out, and the idea collapsed.

One suggestion which this programme made, which I don’t think Sky’s did, was that the cack-handed way in which it was all dealt with was because the owners concerned had all inherited their money, and didn’t have a clue about how the world really worked.  This is an old, old story when it comes to old money versus nouveaux riches.  But I don’t think that the argument works here.   OK, we’re now on to the second generation of Glazers at Old Trafford, and the Agnelli family have been big shots in Turin for decades.   But the driving force behind this was Florentino Perez of Real Madrid, and he worked his way up, in Franco’s Spain.  How someone who’s made such a success in business could have made such a mess of this is an interesting question, but the BBC didn’t ask it.  Maybe he’s just too used to getting what he wants.

Is he going to get it anyway?  Remember that song by The Adventures of Stevie V?  Did they ever even record another song, BTW?!  Money talks, mmm, mmm, money talks. Dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, ooh. It does look as if the idea of admitting some clubs based on their historic records, however poorly they’ve done in the season concerned, will go ahead anyway.Well, given what a bloody awful season United have had, this sounds like good news for us.  But it’s wrong.

I think what we could really do with is some more input from abroad.  Everyone in England seems to agree that this is wrong.  But what do people in Spain and Italy think?

And whose word is going to count, in the end?   Unfortunately, this story isn’t over yet.   We’ve won the battle, but have we won the war?

 

 

 

 

Super Greed: the Fight for Football – Sky Documentaries

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This morning, before the Spring Statement, Sky News sent a reporter to Bury Market, to interview some of the people who run the food bank at Radcliffe.  Our region was very badly hit by the pandemic, and we’d had more than our fair share of socio-economic problems even before it.  And, in April 2021, with all that going on, when we were just starting to emerge from Covid restrictions after being under them for longer than any other part of the country, United and City signed up for the proposed Super League.  Liverpool too.  It was absolutely shameful.  For all the clubs. How on earth did the owners get it so wrong?  And it was the owners: the players and the managers more or less said that they were as disgusted as the fans were.  Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t even told about it until after the news had made its way into the press.

It was a bit ironic that this programme was made by Sky, given that it was Sky Sports who enabled the set-up of the Premier League.  But the Premier League’s not a closed shop.  It’s competitive.  There’s promotion and relegation.  And, yes, it’s been dominated by a small number of clubs, but Blackburn won the title in its second year, and Leicester won the title in 2016.  Relatively small clubs (no offence intended) such as Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town have played in the Premier League.  And the money doesn’t all go to the Premier League clubs.   It makes its way down, throughout the English game – although even that didn’t stop Bury going out of business in August 2019, nor Bolton Wanderers, founder members of the Football League in 1888, from very nearly following them.

Even the talk by one of the reporters on this programme of “the traditional Big Six” was nonsense.  What tradition?  When I was a kid, we had a “Big Five” – United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton.  Give it a couple of seasons and maybe we’ll have a “Big Seven”, with Newcastle in there.  Or maybe, given the current goings-on, Chelsea’ll drop out of that “Big” group.  Who knows?   All the best to Nick Candy’s consortium with their bid to buy Chelsea, by the way.   Until a couple of weeks ago, all I knew about Nick Candy was that he was married to Holly Valance, but he’s a Londoner and a lifelong Chelsea fan.

Going back, again, to when I was a kid, United’s chairman was Martin Edwards.  People used to call him for all sorts, but he was still one of us.  The Edwards family were self-made people from Salford, lifelong United fans.  Then along came the Glazers. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against any of the Glazers personally, and I’ve certainly got nothing against Americans, but what did they know about United, about Manchester, about football in general?  I remember once being on holiday somewhere in the US, Atlanta I think, and hearing the local American football club referred to as a “franchise”.   I mean, what?   A “franchise” is where you go for a hamburger.  A football club is an intrinsic part of a town or a city, of people’s lives.   And people, if they’re lucky to get tickets, travel to away matches, to other towns and cities.  Not to other “franchises”.  They do here, anyway.  They even do in Russia.

That was how it all seemed here, that it was about greedy foreign owners who knew nothing about the clubs.  The one exception being Spurs, whose owner had been born above a pub in the East End.  People pointed to the fact that Bayern Munich, who dominated German football to a far greater extent than any club dominated English, Spanish or Italian football, hadn’t got involved – because they were owned by their fans.  (Paris St Germain hadn’t either, but that was because their owners wanted to keep in with UEFA and FIFA.)

But it was different abroad.  Barcelona were also owned by their fans.  One of my initial reactions had been that Barcelona fans would be horrified.  Barcelona, mas que un club, surely they of all clubs would see how wrong this was.  But … well, it must have been representatives of club members who’d made the decision.  Juventus had exactly the sort of chairman we looked back to from the supposed good old days (er, not that English football in the 1980s was exactly “good”) – Andrea Agnelli was Turin born and bred, a lifelong fan, and had succeeded his father as chairman.  Florentino Perez, the chairman of Real Madrid, and the driving force behind it all, was a Madrileno.  None of that fitted the way it looked to us.

What was different?  Well, according to this programme, it was mainly money.  Italy and Spain had also been very badly hit by the pandemic, and some of the clubs involved had already had huge debts.  And, especially in Spain, the media and the government backed the Super League.  Sky put this down to the influence of Perez himself.  Who knows?   Italy was hardly mentioned, which a shame.

There was a lot of talk here, at the time, that the Government backed the Super League plans, and that there’d been secret meetings involving people connected with United.  I’ll just say that, whilst I can’t know for certain, I genuinely don’t believe a word of that, based on what I know of the people allegedly involved.  Anyway, with the fans of the clubs involved, the fans of other clubs, and every part of the media so vehemently opposed to the plan, the Government came out against it.

But it wasn’t about the Government, or even the media.  It was the fans who killed the proposal.  The fans of the clubs involved, who held huge demonstrations against it.  Sky spoke to someone from Marca, a publication which does not generally have anything positive to say about English football, and he said that the Super League proposal had been killed by English football fans.

And he was right.  And I think we can be rather proud of that. The whole thing collapsed within a week.

Watch this, if you get the chance.  It’s not perfect – as I said, it barely mentioned the mood in Italy – but it was very, very interesting.  And be proud, that we put football above money.  There are still all sorts of issues going on with English football, but we got this right.  The owners got it wrong, but the fans put it right.

 

 

 

Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football by Jonathan Wilson

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This book is amazing.  I ordered it after a conversation with my young nephews about the interaction between the rise of Shakhtar Donetsk to surpass Dynamo Kyiv and the geopolitical divisions within Ukraine.  Sound like a flippant thing to say?  It isn’t: it really isn’t.  The book mentions it, and it was written *before* the conflict in the Donbass broke out in 2006.   It also makes the interesting point that Karpaty Lviv are part of it too.  I’d never really thought of that, probably because Karpaty aren’t that well-known here, but it’s a good point.  Football says so much.  Look at how Barca ended up practically at the centre of the row after the Catalan independence referendum.

The first time I realised that Yugoslavia was going to disintegrate into civil war was well before it did.  It was in 1990, and I was watching a programme called Trans World Sport, which, in those days, was one of the very few opportunities you got to see even a few minutes of tennis on TV outside tournaments played in the UK.  Red Star Belgrade, Crvena Zvedza, were playing Dinamo Zagreb, and horrendous violence broke out between the Serbian and Croatian fans.  It sounds daft, but the venom was so intense that I knew then that there was going to be a war.  According to this book, Red Star fans actually claim to have started the war.  They also claim that they were responsible for the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, later on.  It doesn’t surprise me.  I don’t mean that as anything against Red Star/Crvena Zvedza, just that it doesn’t surprise me that football can be so close to politics.

The book does stop short of attributing the 1989 revolution in Romania to football, but it does say that it worked the other way round – that Dinamo Bucharest’s winning the double that year, ahead of the Ceasescu-backed Steaua Bucharest, probably wouldn’t have happened if the revolution happened first.

Incidentally, as a kid, I used to ask why Leningrad didn’t have a decent football team.  I always had Russia on the brain, and it seemed odd that such a major city didn’t have a top class football team.  I never got a satisfactory answer, so, when I went to Russia in 1996, by which time Leningrad had changed its name back to St Petersburg, I asked a tour guide.  “It does have a football team,” he explained, “but they are very bad.  Like the blue team in Manchester.”  Those were the days.  Zenit got their act together a few years later, and have been Russian champions for the past three seasons.  The book barely mentions Zenit, but it does say a lot about the various Moscow teams and how they were affected by Soviet politics, and the firm belief in Georgia and Armenia that Stalin, despite the fact that both he and his head of the secret police were Georgian, would only allow teams from either Moscow or Kyiv to win the Soviet league title.

Sorry, that’s irrelevant.  To get back to the book, the author says at the start that he was the only kid in his class who was cheering for Red Star/Crvena Zvedza in the 1991 European Cup Final, rather than for Chris Waddle’s Marseille.  Me too, Jonathan, me too!  I was another kid with a thing about Eastern Europe.  Red Star won, and played United in the Super Cup.  The leg in Belgrade was cancelled, and only the leg at Old Trafford was played.  War had broken out by then.

As I’ve said, it sounds flippant, which it really isn’t, to talk about football rivalries and wars in the same breath, because we don’t really have that in England.  I’m not playing down what our own clubs have been through.  I grew up hearing about the Munich Air Disaster.  My dad, as a 12-year-old schoolboy, attended United’s first match at Old Trafford after the plane crashed, along with my late grandfather.  A distant relative on my mum’s side died at Hillsborough.  But, although obviously we have club rivalries which relate to regional rivalries which go way beyond politics – United and Liverpool, Newcastle and Sunderland, etc – we don’t have the political issues here.  Well, we do now, with all these goings-on over Chelsea and Roman Abramovich, but that’s not about domestic politics.

None of our clubs have had their president shot dead by a Falangist, like Barcelona, been purged by the Nazis because they’ve got a number of Jewish staff members and board members (Bayern Munich), been purged by Nazi sympathisers for the same reason and then been put under the control of a man who deported 40,000 people to Auschwitz (MTK Budapest), dissolved by Stalin for contributing the majority of players to a Soviet side which lost to Yugoslavia (CSKA Moscow) or had their chairman deported to a gulag because the head of the Stalinist secret police didn’t like him (Spartak Moscow).

We don’t have clubs named after freedom fighters (Levski Sofia, Red Star Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade), and we don’t have clubs which became bound up with Juan Peron (Boca Juniors).   And we don’t really have the complicated regional political issues which are mixed up with football in Spain and to some extent Italy … and, of course, Ukraine.  Romania too, I suppose – there are some issues in Cluj over Transylvania’s complicated Hungarian-Romanian ethnopolitics.  Nor do we have clubs affiliated to the Army or secret police organisations.

OK, that’s a lot of talk about issues which don’t exist in England, rather than issues which *do*, or did, exist in Eastern Europe!  And, of course, I’m saying “England” rather than “the UK”, because obviously Glasgow and Derry and various other places have different issues.

Anyway.  To get back to the book!   There’s a chapter each of several different countries behind the old Iron Curtain, and each one’s fascinating.  What Ukraine’s performance in the 2006 World Cup, Slovenia’s in Euro 2000 and Croatia’s in Euro 1996 did for each country’s sense of identity and self-belief.  And Hungary in the 1950s … when I went to Budapest in 2000, people were still talking about *that* match at Wembley in 1953, as if it’d been the greatest moment in Hungarian history.  The author claims that the Magical Magyars’ defeat by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final was what led to the 1956 Uprising.  That’s possibly pushing it a bit, but he makes a very convincing argument.

There are also very interesting chapters on corruption and other goings-on in football in Russia, Georgia and Romania (although nothing about Ukrainian football and some of what allegedly went on, or was attempted, with the Kanchelskis transfers), and Poland and Bulgaria also get their own chapters.  I could go on and on, but I don’t suppose anyone’s going to read this anyway. Still, I’m enjoying writing it.

I suppose he couldn’t cover everywhere, but I’m curious about the omission of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  I remain convinced that the Velvet Divorce was linked to the omission of the Slovak verse of the Czechoslovakian national anthem at the 1990 World Cup!  Maybe Czech and Slovak football just isn’t questionable enough.  East Germany doesn’t get a mention, either.  Nor does Belarus, nor Albania, nor Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, but they aren’t major footballing nations in the way that the Czech Republic and Slovakia are.  And the book’s now 16 years old, so it would have been written too early to mention the rise and fall of Anzhi Makhachkala.

Anyway, this book is very strongly recommended.  It isn’t for everyone, and not everyone likes to read about Eastern Europe or football, never mind both, but I loved it!

 

 

 

Fever Pitch: the rise of the Premier League – BBC 2

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I was half-expecting this to be a load of soul-searching about whether or not English football’s sold its soul to Mammon and the extent to which lifelong fans have been pushed out by the prawn sandwich brigade.  Instead, it was largely a nostalgia fest about the wondrousness that was 1992/93.  I rather enjoyed it, and I’m sure that fellow United fans did too; but I should imagine that everyone else was wondering if they’d tuned into MUTV rather than BBC 2 by mistake :-).

In 1991/92, I was in my last year at school, United hadn’t won the league since 7 years before I was born, and we lost out on the penultimate week of the season to Leeds.  That was the last year of the old Football League.  In 1992/93, I was in my first year of university, in Birmingham – not the best place to be as United battled it out with Villa for the title.  This time, we did it!   26 years of hurt came to an end.  Did we care that it was the “Premier League” rather than the “Football League”?  No.  It was still “the league”.  We’d won the league.  And that was all that mattered.

I came home from Birmingham for every weekend home match.  I’d been going to every home match for years.  Did anything change for me in 1992?  No.  Did, as BBC 2 suggested, anything change for me after Italia ’90 (and don’t get me started on the day I had three GCSE exams on the day of one of England’s group matches)?  No.

What about Sky TV?  Well, I’d nagged my dad – sorry, Dad – all through the early months of 1990 to get Sky, so that I could watch tennis all year round rather than just for the few weeks of the year when it was shown on the BBC.  He’d eventually given in.  So, when everyone else rushed to get Sky installed so that they could watch the new Premier League, we’d already got it.  So no change there, either.   Do I feel that I embarked on a “journey” (why is *everything* a “journey” these days) in 1992, as Alan Shearer said?  Well, TBH, no.  But, yes, in some ways, it *was* all change.

I don’t half miss knowing that matches would be at 3pm on Saturdays.  You try to plan something for more than a month or so ahead and it’s impossible.  The match could be at half 12 on Saturday, half 4 on Sunday,  5:15 on Saturday, 2 o’clock on Sunday, Monday night or even Friday night.  Or, of course at 3 o’clock on Saturday.   Not to mention the travelling.  Newcastle v Southampton on a Monday night?   Norwich v Liverpool at half 12 on a Saturday?  Anything goes!

That all started in 1992.  But there was a load of other stuff as well – oh, dear, what on earth was some of it about?   Remember the “Sky strikers”?  What a load of sexist rubbish!   And the rest of “glitzy” nonsense, like the giant inflatable men being brought on to the pitches at half time.  No-one wanted to see that!   A few snooty remarks were made about brass bands.  Well, bring brass bands back, I say!   Older generations reminisce fondly about the days of brass bands at football matches.  Bring them back!

Other than all the talk about United, there was quite a bit of talk about the rise of Blackburn Rovers, bankrolled by Jack Walker.  Complete with a load of rather patronising clips of Southerners saying that they didn’t know where Blackburn was, which I could really have done without.  People moaned at the time about clubs buying success, but now I’d love to see people like Jack Walker and Jack Hayward in the game, owning their hometown clubs, the clubs they’d loved all their lives, rather than money men from America or Russia or the Middle East.  And that sort of thing was what I was expecting this series to be about; but it isn’t.  It’s just basically a lot of nostalgia, and interviews with the great players of the time.  I enjoyed revisiting that wonderful year, but it wasn’t really anything that you can’t see on one of the Sky Sports channels in the hours of TV that they fill up with reruns of old matches or interviews.  Still, I shall definitely be watching the rest of the series!

 

The United Way – Sky Documentaries

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This felt more like a home movie than a documentary, but I mean that in the most positive of ways.  It was like catching up with old friends.  People whom I hadn’t seen for years.  Arthur Albiston.  Kevin Moran.  Norman Whiteside.  Paul Parker.  Ron Atkinson was like some embarrassing old great-uncle who always says the wrong thing and makes everyone cringe!  Some were people we still see regularly.  Bryan Robson, my childhood hero 🙂 .  David Beckham, still one of us even if he’s a world famous megastar living in America.  And, of course, Eric Cantona.  Wearing a flat cap and making cryptic comments, although at least he didn’t mention seagulls.

People were relating little anecdotes, like you do at family gatherings.  Players reminisced about Alex Ferguson making them have margarine instead of butter, and talked about feeling like part of a family, part of a tribe.  United director Mike Edelson, whose daughters were at school with my sister and me, told the bizarre tale of how, in 1986, he rang the Aberdeen FC switchboard, put on a fake Scottish accent and pretended to be Gordon Strachan’s agent, knowing that he’d never be put through to Alex Ferguson if he was known to be from United.

I was hoping that it’d tell the full story, starting in 1878, but it started with the Busby Babes and ended with That Night in Barcelona in 1999.  So it wasn’t really a history of Manchester United: as I’ve said, it was more like a home movie.  Was that really 22 years ago?  “Who put the ball in the Germans’ net?”   I’ve got a miniature troll which I bought on holiday on Norway in 2004, and he’s called Ole Gunnar, long before anyone ever dreamt that Solskjaer would one day be the manager.  Well, what else could I have called him?!   A girl in my year at school had a dog named after Kevin Moran.  Plenty of people have named babies, never mind trolls or dogs, after footballers.  This is what we do.  This is us.

The word “Glazer” was never mentioned.  Nor, for that matter, was the word “Knighton” or the word “Maxwell”.  No mention of boardroom politics.  No mention of sponsors.  No mention of TV companies.  Not even any mention of the changeover from the Football League to the Super League.  Instead, we had appearances from Shaun Ryder and Bez from Happy Mondays, and Peter Hook from New Order, all lifelong United fans.  And Andy Burnham, who, although we all know he supports Everton, was welcome because we know he loves football.  He mentioned that his dad, working in Manchester at the time, went to the first match after the Munich Air Disaster.  So did my dad, with his dad.

This is us.  This is coming out of school and learning from the Manchester Evening New billboards that Ron Atkinson had been sacked.  No mobile phones in those days.  The odd Walkman made its way into school, but I’m not sure that we had Walkmans with radios in 1986.  We certainly did by 1990/91, because I remember sneaking mine in so that I didn’t have to wait until I got home to hear the Cup Winners’ Cup draws for the next round!  This is arguing (amiably, ish!) on the school bus with kids who support City.  And this is hundreds of thousands of people packing into town to cheer the treble-winning team on their open top bus tour when they got back from That Night in Barcelona.

Let’s get back there.  It’d be very nice indeed to get back to the glory days of 1999, but, first, let’s get back to having packed stadia, and to having people crowding into the streets to cheer on teams after winning a trophy or winning promotion.  And let’s get back to everyone accepting that the clubs belong to us, to generations of loyal fans.

We got a bit of general social history.  Partly from Andy Burnham.  Partly, bizarrely, from Michael Heseltine and Neil Kinnock: I’ve got no idea how they got in on the programme!  And we got the general story.  From 1958 to 1999 only.  If you’re actually reading this, you’ll probably know it all.  The glory of the Busby Babes.  The tragedy of Munich.  Matt Busby’s incredible building of a new team.  The European Cup triumph in 1968.  The struggles after Sir Matt retired.  26 years without a league title.  Tommy Docherty running off with Laurie Brown’s wife.  The drinking culture in the Atkinson years.

And the struggles in the early Fergie years.  We didn’t appreciate quite what a mess he had to sort out.  By early 1990, there were all sorts of stupid jokes flying round.  “Alex Ferguson, OBE – out before Easter.”  “What’s red and costs £15 million?”  “An expensive tomato.”  £15 million was an awful lot of money in pre Premier League days.  And the Mark Robins goal that saved us all!   Then the nightmare of 1991/92, when we blew it.  Signing Eric.  And then the joy of 1993, and the many wonderful years that followed.  They didn’t end in 1999, but I suppose it seemed like a good place for the programme to end.

It’s 22 years to the day since That Night in Barcelona.  I’m hoping that that’s a good omen for tonight’s Europa League final in Gdansk.  In 1983, the year that my little self finally convinced my dad that I’d behave if he took me to Old Trafford, and I attended my first match (we beat Stoke 1-0), Lech Walesa, Gdansk’s most famous son, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but he couldn’t accept it in person because he was afraid that the Polish communist government wouldn’t let him back into the country afterwards.  And in Valencia, home of Villarreal, tonight’s opponents, it was only a year since Spain had completed its transition to democracy after the death of Franco.  I feel really old now I’ve written that!

Anyway, we’ll all be watching, wherever we are.  Alex Ferguson.  Eric Cantona.  David Beckham.  Bryan Robson.  The musicians, the politicians, the journalists, and everyone else who featured in this programme.  Like Eric said, we’re a tribe.  And, whilst this won’t be winning any awards for great documentary making, it wasn’t half great viewing!

 

 

Football, Prince William and our mental health

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This isn’t an easy subject to talk about, but it remains a sad fact that suicide is the biggest killer of young British men, and that 75% of people in the UK who take their own lives are men.  It does seem to remain very difficult for men to discuss mental health issues, and it’s great that Prince William’s involvement in highlighting this very important issue is bringing it more attention.  Even a few years ago, there’d never have been an hour-long programme on prime time TV on BBC 1 about mental health.

He’s made a very good point about how people internalised their grief and trauma after the two world wars, as the feeling at the time was that everyone should try to move on and put those times behind them, and that we need to avoid doing that as we come to terms with the effects of the coronavirus and lockdown.  It was good to hear him talking about how the, much-deserved, “heroes” tag mustn’t be allowed to deter frontline workers from seeking any help they might need: I read an article by someone who helped to treat victims of the Manchester Arena bombing, saying the same thing.

And could we all be nice, please?  Whilst the majority of people *are* showing great kindness at this difficult time, there’ve been some very spiteful posts on social media of late, I won’t even say what I think of the appalling way in which some employers are treating their staff, and there’ve also been reports of parents being abused for either saying that they *will* send their children back to school or saying that they *won’t* send their children back to school.  The last things we need are nastiness and division.  Again, could we all be nice, please?  And, if you’re struggling, shout.  Men, this means you too!

What a weird year this is.  This programme was, as the title suggests, originally supposed to be about role that football can play in helping men to deal with mental health issues, and about well-known players joining Prince William in encouraging men to speak out by discussing their own experiences.

We saw a number of male footballers and fans – this was very much about male mental health – speaking out about their mental health issues, and we also heard about the SANDS United football teams, which are for men who’ve lost babies either before, during or just after birth.  It’s a way of bonding and of coming together.  And, whilst it seems a very long time ago now, we were all encouraged to take a minute to think about mental health issues before the start of the FA Cup 3rd round matches in Saturday.  The campaign was making progress, and getting a lot of attention …

… and then coronavirus hit us.  People have been cut off from their support networks, whether that’s grassroots football teams or anything else, and from things which we enjoy and which are important to us and which are an important outlet for us – which, for many of us (female as well as male!) is football.  And we don’t know what the long term effects of all this are going to be, in this country and everywhere else.

There’s the general trauma of the world being turned upside down, and the anxiety that that brings, as well as the fear that we or our loved ones may contract the virus.  There’s the trauma of being separated from our loved ones, and, for some people, of not being able to go out at all – it’s a lonely time.

There’s the upset of plans being cancelled.  And, yes, it is OK to be upset about this.  I am very sad that my holidays have been cancelled: they are the highlights of my year and I plan them so carefully and look forward to them so much.  And, as someone who overplans everything – it’s part of having anxiety – I find it very hard not being able to plan anything.  Going forward, there are, sadly, likely to be business failures and job losses.  And there are concerns that other health problems may have gone undiagnosed during lockdown.

And those are just the indirect effects of the virus.  Tens of thousands of people have died, leaving grieving relatives and friends who haven’t even been able to hold proper funerals.  It’s feared that many people who survived severe cases of the virus may suffer from PTSD, and that this may also affect people working in hospitals and care homes.

It’s not like the First World War or the Second World War.  No-one’s saying that it is.  But it is important that people don’t go down the “don’t talk about it” route: we’ve learnt from experience that that’s not a good idea.  And it’s crucial that people be nice to each other.  Some employers are behaving very poorly.  And the amount of nastiness and political points-scoring is appalling – it would be at any time, but especially at a time like this.  On top of that, we’ve now got parents being told that they’re depriving their children of their education and the company of their friends if they don’t send them back to school, and that they’re putting them in danger if they do.  Will the people doing this just shut up, OK!  Other people’s choices are not your business.  Everyone’s circumstances are different.

No-one could have seen this coming, and, like so many other things, this programme was partly overtaken by events.  But most of it was filmed before coronavirus hit, and we saw some very powerful and frank conversations about mental health issues, even actually about suicide attempts.  This is an incredibly important subject, and the fact that we’ve got a future king spearheading the campaign to address it says a lot.  This was a very moving programme.  Please, guys, we love you – if you’re struggling, speak out, and ask for help xxx.

The Keeper

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This was a rather romanticised and Roy-of-the-Rovers-ised version of the Bert Trautmann story, and it certainly wasn’t historically (or geographically) accurate, but it was an entertaining film and all the main points were there. In summary – I always thought everyone knew this story, but I gather not everyone does! – Bert Trautmann, a 22-year-old German soldier, was taken prisoner in 1945 and brought to North West England as a POW. He chose to remain here rather than be repatriated, and began playing for St Helens Town as a goalkeeper. In 1949, he was signed by City, and there was an almighty row: people were genuinely very shocked and distressed that a top-level club, especially one in a city with a large Jewish community, had signed someone who’d fought for the Nazis. There were big protests, a lot of letters of complaint were sent, and season tickets were returned. Rabbi Alexander Altmann, who’d come to Manchester as a refugee and lost both his parents and many other relatives and friends in the Holocaust, wrote a very courageous letter to a local paper, urging people not to blame one man for the war and the atrocities carried out by the Third Reich.

Things calmed down here, although for a while Trautmann continued to be abused at away matches, but eventually he won widespread respect, especially after he famously played the last 17 minutes of the 1956 Cup Final, which City won, with a broken neck. Tragically, a few months later, his 5-year-old son was killed in a car crash. Despite everything, he carried on playing, is regarded with great respect in Manchester by City fans and we United fans alike, is seen as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, and was awarded an honorary OBE for his work in improving Anglo-German relations. It’s a hell of a story even without film-makers romanticising it! Very watchable film, and wonderful use of Abide With Me, the Cup Final hymn which means a lot to so many people. I missed this at the pictures, but it’s out on Sky now, and is recommended viewing.

The timescale was all a bit bonkers in this – one minute it was VE Day, then the next minute the prisoners were being repatriated, and a minute after that it was 1949 – but, OK, you can only fit so much into a two-hour film, and I understand that they didn’t want to spend ages showing him in three different camps. It was all very romanticised, though! In this version of events, he was showing off his goalkeeping skills at the POW camp (as you do!) when his future wife and future father-in-law turned up to deliver some goods from their shop, and his future father-in-law talent-spotted him for St Helens Town, and invited him to work at his shop and move in with his family!  Then drove home through miles and miles of stunning open countryside, up hill and down dale … between Ashton-in-Makerfield and St Helens.  The East Lancs Road does not look like that, believe me! It is, however, true that he played for St Helens Town, and married the daughter of the club secretary. And, OK, it was all very Roy of the Rovers this way, especially as they had him saving the club from relegation, so I suppose it made for good viewing.

Then he signed for City. There’d been some unease at St Helens Town, but they, with all due respect, were a small non-league club.  City were a First Division club, and one with thousands of Jewish fans to boot.  The film did show the protests, and it did mention the rabbi’s letter, and show the famous scene in the dressing room in which the club captain said that there was no war there, but … well, whilst we all know what happened during the war, I thought it should still have made it clearer just why people were so upset. Some clips from the radio broadcasts of the Nuremberg Trials would probably have been the best way of doing it, along with some shots of the damage done by the air raids.  It did, to be fair, show flashbacks to him witnessing a young child being shot dead in the Nazis in Ukraine – but, in fact, he saw a full-scale Einsatzgruppen massacre.  Maybe it would have been too much to have shown a re-creation of that in the film.  And yet maybe they should have done – as much to show how much he had to cope with as to show how much City fans and everyone else had to deal with.

They did mention his having won the Iron Cross, and there were some vague references to “war crimes”, but I just didn’t feel that it fully got across the depth of anti-German feeling in the UK at the time and the reasons for it. I don’t know how people at the time came to terms with the Nuremberg Trials, with the details of what the Nazis did. I appreciate that it wasn’t meant to be a war documentary, but I thought it could have tried harder to show the effect that that hearing about the Nazi atrocities had on people, and why that made it so difficult for everyone to accept a former Nazi soldier joining a leading club. There was a lot of very 21st-century sounding talk about forgiveness and someone trying to find a new home, but I did feel that some more explanation was needed.

And I think they could also have done with, rather than just going on about how he had no choice, talking more about how he went into the Hitler Youth at the age of 9.  Because of Jojo Rabbit – although obviously this film predates that one – there’s quite a bit of talk at the moment about the indoctrination of children.  Lads like Trautmann joined the junior branch of the Hitler Youth as if it were like joining the Cubs – it was somewhere where they could get involved in sports, have fun with their friends.  So they were indoctrinated from a very early age.  It’s important to understand that.

However, you can only get so much into a film.  And it wasn’t meant to be a documentary.  And, as I’ve said, the main points were there.  It was a difficult time.  It was brave of Trautmann to stand his ground, when he was getting death threats, and being abused at every match.  And braver yet of Rabbi Altmann to get involved, after everything that had happened to him. He really was a hero.

Anyway, after that, we got lots of football, some of it actual film from the time. I think there was a bit of Bertie Magoo-ing going on here, though! Come on, how do you make a football film set in Manchester in the 1950s and not even mention the Busby Babes?! They could at least have shown Trautmann’s testimonial, when he captained a combined United-City XI. Or maybe it was just that the film didn’t have much sense of Manchester at all. Most of it was filmed in Northern Ireland!

I’ve always been quite sad that I was born too late for that era, when many United fans would go to watch City when United were away, and many City fans would go to watch United when City were away, without the unpleasantness that developed in the rivalries between different clubs later on.  We still get that Wider Football Family feeling sometimes, especially in times of trouble, but it’s not like it was then.

Heigh-ho!  But the way they showed the legendary 1956 Cup Final was great. And then … I could hardly watch the bit where the little lad was killed, knowing what was coming. Then … well, there was a strange scene in which Trautmann had a fight in a cemetery with a sergeant from the POW camp, whose wife and children had been killed in the Christmas Blitz, and who persuaded him to carry on playing. And then it showed flashbacks to his time as a soldier in Ukraine, and showed him telling his wife that he felt that their son’s death was his punishment for not intervening to stop the murder of a child there.

I don’t know where the idea that he felt it was karma came from, and I’m assuming it was fictional, but it was very powerful, especially with “Abide With Me” playing in the background, and it was a reminder of how difficult it must have been for those who fought for the Nazis to deal with it all.  There’s a lot of tension over Holocaust remembrance at the moment, and the authorities in some countries seem keen to play down aspects of what happened.  That’s wrong in so many ways.  We need to keep talking about it.  All aspects of it.

The film didn’t tell us that the Trautmanns’ marriage sadly ended as they struggled to come to terms with the loss of one of their children, but it did tell us about all the awards Trautmann received, both for his football and for his work in the community.  His story really is incredible.  Carrying on playing in a Cup Final with a broken neck would be story enough, but the story of the Nazi soldier – and he was initially classified as a Nazi whilst he was a POW – who became a hero in English football is something that you just couldn’t make up.

Football can do that.  It can bring people together.  It’s not always Roy of the Rovers.  It’s often anything but.  But it does throw up some absolutely amazing stories, and this is one of them.  Don’t go expecting historical accuracy, or indeed geographical accuracy, but, if you get chance, this is still a very good film to see.

The Greatest Comeback by David Bolchover

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This book ends with a journalist from Manchester praying at the Viennese graveside of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who managed Eusebio’s Benfica to two victories in the European Cup. It’s certainly something different.  I read a *lot* of books on Central European history and I read a fair few books about football, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one that combined the two before. The author clearly got extremely involved with his subject, and he does a great job of drawing the reader in as well.  I’ve read better-written books, but (it was only 99p on Kindle special offer, and) it was a fascinating story, both from a historical viewpoint and from a footballing viewpoint.

Football history as political history isn’t really a big thing in England, but it is very much so in many other countries.  We’re seeing that at the moment, with FC Barcelona issuing official statements about the situation with the Catalan independence leaders being unfairly jailed; and it can tell us a lot about politics and about in general.  The author obviously feels very strongly that insufficient recognition has been afforded to football players and managers who were affected by the Holocaust, both those who were killed and those who survived against the odds, and, amongst other things, he’s seeking here to redress a little of that balance.

This is a biography of Bela Guttmann, a Hungarian footballer and manager, whose name is surprisingly little well-known considering that he was the first manager to win the European Cup twice – although, as the author points out, managers weren’t as high-profile in his day as they were later. OK, everyone’s heard of Matt Busby and Bill Shankly, but how many non-British managers from the ‘60s can you name? Guttmann, although he doesn’t sound like the pleasantest of people – he was always falling out with players and club officials, and was involved in a rather unsavoury incident involving a fatal car crash – had a fascinating career, and a fascinating life in general.

He started off at Torekves, and then moved on to MTK Budapest, who aren’t one of the top Hungarian clubs now but won six titles in a row in the 1920s … and was with them whilst they were managed by Herbert Burgess, who was from Manchester and played for both United and City – he was one of the group of players, Billy Meredith et al, who moved from City to United after the 1905 bribery affair at City. The author clearly enjoyed getting in as Mancunian links as possible. Gold star for that!

Then he moved on to Hakoah Vienna, the all-Jewish Viennese team who won the Austrian league title in 1925. If the idea of a top football club in which all the players were of one religion seems weird now, remember all the hoo-ha when Mo Johnston became the first Catholic to sign for Rangers? It wasn’t that long ago! Hakoah were the poster boys of the “Muscular Judaism” movement of the inter-war years, which saw a far higher proportion of Jewish players and managers in football than there’s been before or since.  In terms of clubs managed by Austrian and Hungarian Jewish managers of this generation, we’re looking at, amongst others, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Torino, Feyenoord, Panathanaikos, Flamengo, River Plate … these are some of the biggest club names in world football.

The author clearly feels that this is a part of footballing history that’s been forgotten. However, it was largely a Central European thing so it’s perhaps understandable that it hasn’t received much attention in English-speaking countries.  It wasn’t until the 1950s that TV coverage and European club competitions brought about increased awareness of domestic football in other countries.  And the fact that Hungarian football in general, domestic and international, was so good in the 1930s has largely been forgotten: most football fans are familiar with the Magical Magyars of the 1950s, Ferenc Puskas (whom Guttmann managed in the late 1940s) & co, but certainly far less so with the teams of the ‘30s.

Hakoah went on a number of overseas tours, and became the first Continental club side to beat an English club side in England. Their victims were West Ham, LOL.  However, the club inadvertently shot itself in the foot with a tour of the US – seeing what a rapturous welcome they received there, as opposed to the anti-Semitism they so often encountered in Austria, Guttmann and a number of other players chose to join American teams. However, he later returned to Hakoah, also spent some time with Twente Enschede in the Netherlands.

In 1938, he got a much-prized permanent residency visa for America, and with many Hungarian Jews desperate to get away, you’d have thought he’d have grabbed it both hands – but, instead, he returned to Hungary, to become manager of Ujpest, and consequently ended up being in Hungary all through the war years, under the Nazi-allied Horthy regime, the Arrow Cross regime and then the Nazi occupiers. He was hidden for a while by the family of his Catholic girlfriend, but was then sent to a slave labour camp – alongside Ernest Erbstein, who later became manager of Torino and sadly died in the 1949 Superga plane crash. He survived, but many of his relatives were killed at Auschwitz.

After the war, he spent time as manager at umpteen different clubs – in Hungary, Romania, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Switzerland, Portugal, Greece and Austria, as well as a spell as manager of the Austrian national team – but the pinnacle of his career was his first spell at Benfica, during which time they won the 1961 and 1962 European Cups. After a falling out with the club’s directors, he’s supposed to have said that Benfica wouldn’t win another European Cup for 100 years, and some Benfica fans genuinely believe that this was a curse – including Eusebio, who’s prayed at Guttmann’s grave to ask that the curse be lifted!- and that it’s the reason they haven’t won the European Cup since, despite losing five finals! He died, aged 82, in 1981 – not exactly in poverty and obscurity, but not all that far from it.

So that’s the actual story, but there are various themes running all the way through it. One is football tactics and managerial styles, with numerous references to Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho (who was manager of United when the book was written) and Pep Guardiola. Another is the impact of politics on football. Hakoah Vienna were shut down within a few days of the Anschluss. Kispest, the year after Guttmann left them to move to Italy, were taken over by the army, and renamed Budapest Honved.  They were just referred to as Honved when I was a kid. We knew that Honved, Steaua Bucharest etc were army clubs, and that Dynamo Moscow were the Soviet police team, and so on, and it didn’t seem weird at the time because it was just the way it was … but it doesn’t half seem strange now, and it must have seemed even stranger at the point at which the clubs were actually taken over by the authorities. It’s not just an Eastern bloc thing either – when you look at the impact of politics on Bayern Munich, Barcelona … just be very grateful that we’ve never had these issues here.

And another is the ongoing history of anti-Semitism in Europe. Every chapter in which Guttmann moves to another European city is prefaced with a short account of an incident in that city or area involving anti-Jewish persecution – mostly from the Middle Ages, and not directly relevant to the subject matter, but clearly something that the author wanted to get across.

I think what most struck the author, though, was the fact that Guttmann didn’t speak about his wartime experiences. No-one in the footballing world really knew about his time in a slave labour camp until David Bolchover researched and published this book. Obviously a lot of Holocaust survivors didn’t talk about their experiences, because they found it too painful … but the impression you get with Guttmann is that he didn’t say anything because he thought it might affect his career, or, at least, because he didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that this had happened to him.

Last December, I went to Munich for the Christmas markets, and, whilst I was there, I went to see Bayern Munich’s stadium and museum. Bayern, who had a Jewish president and manager in the 1930s, were deeply affected by the onset of Nazism, but it wasn’t really spoken about until the 1970s, because they became seen as a great West German success story and no-one wanted to dwell on the horrors of the past.

In former Eastern bloc countries … this is a really sensitive area, and one which is still a big issue now, and it’s hard to think how best to put it. There does seem to be an ongoing issue with coming to terms with the past, even now. There haven’t been the educational programmes, or, until recently, the museums or memorials, which exist in the West. In Hungary and Romania, in particular, there’s the very delicate subject of the extent to which the local population were involved. And now, at least in Poland and the Baltic states, there seems to be an increasing emphasis on Soviet atrocities, with Nazi atrocities being emphasised less as a result. It’s a very difficult area to speak or write about, because it is so sensitive. And times are changing now. But it is an issue.

In June, Poland played Israel in a Euro 2020 qualifier in Warsaw, and, before the match, there was a ceremony to commemorate Josef Klotz, who scored Poland’s first ever international goal, and later died in the Warsaw Ghetto.  I didn’t know his name.  I’d heard of Hakoah Vienna, but I hadn’t heard of Maccabi Warsaw or Jutrzenka Krakow, the clubs whom Klotz played for, both of which (as far as I can gather) were dissolved in 1939.  As the author says, this is a part of European footballing history which isn’t spoken about.  This is a biography of a man who had a very interesting life and career, but it’s also a real eye-opener into a neglected area of history.

And, yes, footballing history does matter.  It tells us about life, and society.  The governments of both the UK and Bulgaria got involved after the recent disgraceful scenes in which black English players were abused and Nazi salutes made by Bulgarian “fans”.  And scenes like that show exactly why everyone should be aware of stories like this.  Very interesting book.

Our Classical Century – BBC 4

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The soundtrack to the glorious summer of 1990 wasn’t anything by the Stone Roses or the Happy Mondays, or even one of my beloved power ballads. It was Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. How mad (for it 😉 ) was that? Kids like us did not listen to classical/opera music. It was totally uncool. It was for old (i.e. over about 35) posh people in the Home Counties. Or Ken Barlow. And then, suddenly, it was for us as well. We even nicknamed one of our school bus drivers “Luciano” (there was a very vague resemblance, if you looked hard). The following year, Pavarotti sang in Manchester shortly after United won the Cup Winners’ Cup, in English clubs’ first season back in Europe after the ban. He wore a United scarf on stage. This was it – yep, classical music was cool after all!  Classic FM launched a year later. Nigel Kennedy’s Mockney accent was rather annoying, but, as the ’90s went on, along came Vanessa Mae, and she was brilliant. Suzy Klein, who’s the same age as me to within a few weeks, will probably have grown up with the same music as I did, but it still makes me feel really old to be reminded that Alexandra Burke, her co-presenter, is Melissa Bell’s daughter! But even people who aren’t old enough to remember the summer of 1990 know Nessun Dorma.  Vincero!  Vin-cer-o …!

I have to say that a lot of the stuff mentioned in this episode, about how classical music shed its stuffy image in the ’80s and ’90s, seems to have passed me right by at the time! I remember Bolero, obviously. Everyone remembers Bolero! I could have done without Alexandra Burke pointing out that she wasn’t born in 1984, but still.  And I remember classical music being used for TV adverts. We had to listen to Air on a G String in school music lessons, and, instead of looking blank like we usually did when the teacher asked if anyone knew what the piece was – I was OK with the 1812 Overture, because of its links with Russian history, and I must have recognised some things from the “Amadeus” film, but that was usually about it – everyone brightly pointed out that it was the music from the Hamlet cigar advert.

But I don’t remember the nation being “brought together” by a piece of classical music played at the funeral of Diana. Princess of Wales, although I remember Elton John singing Candle in the Wind, as clearly as if it were yesterday. And I have no recollection of a Venezuelan orchestra bouncing around whilst playing music from West Side Story, which the programme insisted was some great turning point in cultural history! Oh, and I never knew that Elgar supported Wolves – you learn something new every day! He wrote a football song called “He Banged The Leather For Goal”.  Seriously.

But Nessun Dorma in 1990 – oh yes. It was an interesting time, the summer of 1990. People Like Us, who were into football, were suddenly listening to The Three Tenors. People who were into high culture stuff were suddenly watching football.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the changes in football. Don’t get me wrong, no-one wants to go back to the days of hooliganism, but it’s hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for the pre-1990 days as I try desperately to work out when to book some shows I want to see in the run-up to Christmas, knowing that Sky and BT Sports and now Amazon Prime as well can change the dates of times and fixtures whenever and to whenever they feel like it, and it’s hard not to feel resentful knowing that, should my team get to a Cup final, I’ll struggle to get tickets because priority will be given to the prawn sandwich brigade. But feeling that, yes, classical music is actually for everyone after all – that’s a definite change for the better. I don’t actually listen to Classic FM, because I’m usually listening to stations that play ’90s power ballads instead , and I don’t usually listen to the Proms except on the Last Night, but I will listen to classical music sometimes, and I don’t feel that it isn’t for People Like Us.

And, when I think of 1990 – which I do quite a lot, because it was a really big year for me, for various reasons – I think, along with all the “Madchester” music, and along with Roxette, and Elton John, and The Beautiful South, and Sinead O’Connor, of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma, and making classical/opera music cool!

Frankie Goes To Russia – BBC 2

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This has been a strange build up to the World Cup.  Instead of the usual excitement, anticipation, and speculation as to who might win and whether or not England have got any chance, it’s been dominated by fears about racism, homophobia and hooliganism.  A Foreign Office committee issued a warning this morning about the risks which fans face.  Interviews with Gareth Southgate and the players have been more about these issues than the actual football.  This is horrible.  This isn’t how it should be.  And, whilst I do think that the media have come to demonise Russia over the last few years, to a level so ridiculous that it’s comparable with what went on in the 1870s (I’m getting a bit of “in the past stuff” in there, to try to pretend that I’m being on topic!), there is undoubtedly cause for concern.  No-one could ever call me anti-Russian, and even I’m saying that there’s cause for concern.

Only a few months ago, Paul Pogba and other black members of the French team were subjected to vile racist abuse during a match between France and Russia in St Petersburg.  Last year, during an under 17s match – under 17s, just kids – black members of Liverpool’s team were racially abused by players from Spartak Moscow, a club whose social media sites has referred to its own black players as “chocolates”.  Danny Rose said yesterday that he’s asked his family not to travel to the World Cup, because he’s so worried that they might face racist abuse.  That’s heartbreaking.  He said that his dad’s really upset.  To play in a World Cup is such a big thing, such an achievement, such an honour; and Mr Rose should be up there in the stands, bursting with pride.  Now he’s not going to get that chance.

When you’re a kid, the players are – obviously! – older than you.  Then you get to the point where they’re the same age as you.  I’m the same age as the Class of ’92.  Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and me – we were born within a few months of each other, and grew up within a few miles of each other, and now they’re all hugely successful, world famous, multi-zillionaires, and I’m … er, anything but!   Then the players are younger than you, and you even find yourself watching the likes of Kasper Schmeichel, Thomas Ince and Alex Bruce, whom you remember as toddlers!   And then it gets to the point where you are so ancient that you could actually be the mum or dad of the younger players.  It’s not great.  It really, really is not great!

But you do get this feeling of maternal/paternal pride when young lads you’ve watched come through the juniors make it all the way to the top, and that’s lovely.  Last night, both goals in England’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica, our final warm up match before the World Cup, were scored by Manchester lads who came through the United youth system – Marcus Rashford, just 20 years old, and Danny Welbeck.  I was so proud of them both, I can’t tell you!   And that’s how I want to feel.  I don’t want to be worrying that those lads, both black, are going to have people shouting the n word or monkey chants at them.

Ashley Young and Gareth Southgate have both said that the potential problems have been discussed at team meetings.  It’s good that the subject is being addressed, and a united front being presented, but this, and the warnings from the Foreign Office, and the concerns expressed in the media, aren’t what the build up to the World Cup should be about, in England or anywhere else.  We should be talking about who’s going to be in the England starting XI for the first match.  What are our chances?  Who’s going to win?  Which players and teams are going to light up the tournament?  Will it be the big names?  Will some young lad come from nowhere and make a name from himself?  Will an older player who’s supposed to be past his prime prove that he’s still got it?  Will an unfancied team make a fairytale run through to the later stages – remember Iceland at Euro 2016, and Cameroon at Italia ’90?  Those magical World Cup moments that you never forget, that people are still talking about years later, that get replayed on TV time after time after time – where will they come from this time?

That’s what we should be thinking about, and talking about.  Even the daft side of things.  Nigeria’s “interesting” kit.  The inevitable photos in the tabloids of players’ glamorous celebrity partners.  The quirky things that somehow grab everyone’s attention – remember the vuvuzelas at South Africa 2010?  And everyone getting obsessed with Nessun Dorma during Italia ’90?  Referees and linesmen (sorry, “referees’ assistants”), because, let’s face it, we all know that there are going to end up being controversial decisions which will make headlines.  Who’s got the best commentators, the BBC or ITV?  And why are there so few women involved?

But no.  Instead, the build up seems to have been mostly about racism, homophobia and hooliganism.  Thanks a lot, FIFA.  Oh, and where have they chosen for the next World Cup?  Qatar!   I understand the idea of taking the World Cup to different places – but, seriously, Qatar?  Hardly top of the international list when it comes to human rights, is it?  And can anyone actually name a single Qatari football club, or even a single Qatari football player?  Not to mention the problems with the heat.

Well, we all know very well that something is very rotten in the state of FIFA.   But, whatever went on with the voting process in 2010, when Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup and Qatar the 2022 World Cup, this is where we are.  And no-one’s saying that Russia is the only country in the world where these problems exist.  There’ve been horrendous incidences of racist abuse at football matches in Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, Germany and elsewhere in recent years.  Hooliganism … well, we can’t deny the involvement of some English fans in clashes in France in 2016, and it wasn’t just English and Russian fans either.  And there were been some nasty incidents in Spain, Italy and elsewhere during European club matches in the season just gone.  But Russia is where the World Cup’s being held, so it’s Russia (and, yes, I do know that I should really be saying “the Russian Federation”) at which we’re looking.

OK, that was a long rant!  What about the actual programme?  Well, quite honestly, it was a bit of a piss-take.  Frankie Boyle, who presented it, is very, very funny, and he made me laugh all the way through, from his deadpan comments about the weather (he went in February, in several inches of snow) and his horrible breakfast to his brilliant crack about how the Russian stadia will be used for football after the World Cup whereas the London 2012 Olympic stadium was handed over to West Ham.  I don’t like West Ham, sorry!  And watching a Cossack chop up a cabbage with his sword was certainly entertaining.  It was all entertaining.  But it all gave the impression of not taking things very seriously, and this just isn’t funny.  It’s not funny that a member of the England squad is so worried about potential abuse that he’s asked his family members not to go.  It’s not funny that black/ethnic minority fans are being warned that they may be at risk of abuse.  It’s not funny that LGBT fans are being warned not to make an obvious show of their sexuality.  It is just not funny at all.

Some of it was serious, admittedly.  And some of the points, whilst made in a jokey way, were very valid.  What the hell was Boris Johnson thinking of, comparing the 2018 World Cup to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, “Hitler’s Games”?  Has the man never heard of the Siege of Leningrad, or the Siege of Stalingrad?  Does he have any idea how many people the Soviet Union lost in the fight against the Nazis?  As Frankie said, remarks like that, from a senior member of the British government, are offensive to put it mildly.

That was at the end of the programme.  It began with a visit to the Luzhniki Stadium.  Now, as we all know, the Luzhniki Stadium was the scene of one of the greatest events in the history of the universe – United winning the 2008 European Cup/Champions League.  Against Chelsea.  Now, thinking back, I cannot remember any particular warnings or concerns at the time about the final being played in Moscow.  OK, it was a one-off match, but even so.  And that says a lot about how much has changed in the last few years … oh dear, was it really ten years ago?!  And, to be fair to FIFA, in the eight years since the decision to stage the 2018 World Cup in Russia was made.  The war in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea.  The worrying and highly discriminatory “homosexual propaganda” law.  All the failed drugs tests.  Syria.  The allegations over interference in the US presidential election.  And, most recently, the Salisbury poisonings.   That’s quite a mixture of things, but it’s all served to worsen Russia’s image in the media … and, of course, the nature of the media has changed a lot in that time, as well.

So how much of the genuine fear about racism and homophobia is well grounded?  Well, strangely, the programme barely mentioned racism.  And Frankie seemed to be setting out to look for trouble.  He spoke to was some kind of obsessive Putin fan, who was clearly rather weird and presumably not at all representative of Russian opinion.  Frankie tried to get him to talk about the issue of homophobia.  The guy insisted that there were no gay people in Russia.  Frankie, serious for once, tried to talk about the need for equality and human rights, but he just couldn’t get any sense out of the guy.  That was clearly worrying, but surely it would have been better to have spoken to the man/woman on the street, in order to get some sort of accurate gauge of public opinion?

And he went to some rather odd organisation which was training people in how to greet visiting fans – and, as he said, it was a bit like a Swiss finishing school.  All social etiquette stuff.  But, again, hardly representative of any sort of general public opinion.  And then on to the hairdresser’s.  That bit was actually better, because the woman in the hairdresser’s made some interesting comments about Russian views on women, and how society there’s still quite patriarchal.  But it was all interspersed with stuff about beards and male grooming, which I don’t really think is anyone’s main concern ahead of the World Cup!

Then on to Rostov-on-Don. Glasgow’s twin city.  Supposedly infamous for hooliganism.  I thought that was Spartak Moscow!  United played Rostov not so long ago, and there was no trouble.  And Frankie didn’t find any trouble either – there were lots of families at the match, and it was all very nice.  He then spent a lot of time hanging around with Cossacks.  I was rather disappointed that none of the Rostov fans at Old Trafford turned up in Cossack dress, I have to say!  The idea of Cossacks policing football matches – which apparently is going to happen – sounds  a bit bonkers, and we were shown videos of the worrying scenes at the Sochi Winter Olympics in which Pussy Riot (thank you, Google – the programme didn’t mention the group’s name, and I couldn’t remember it and kept thinking “Pussycat Dolls”!), the protest punk group, were whipped by Cossacks.  But, instead of talking about that, we then got scenes of a Cossack chopping up a cabbage with his sword.  Yes, it made for good TV, but I doubt that worried fans and players are going to be very reassured by seeing someone chop up a cabbage.

Frankie did seem to be concluding that there wasn’t that much to worry about, politicians were making things worse and the media were creating a bit of a fuss about nothing.  I hope he’s right.  But I’m not sure that making a comedy programme about people’s very real fears, over such serious issues as racism and homophobia, is really very appropriate.  Frankie was clearly taking the issues seriously, especially in the discussion with the very strange man who just wouldn’t acknowledge that people could be gay, but the tone of the programme just didn’t really work for me.  These aren’t laughing matters.  I love Russia, but no-one can deny that there have been some horrible racist incidents at football matches there, very recently, and the anti-gay “propaganda” law of 2013 has no place in any decent society.  No offence to Frankie Boyle, who is a comedian and was being a comedian, but, BBC, don’t say that you’re going to show a programme about something so serious and so horrible and then show a bloke chopping up a cabbage with a sword.  It just isn’t appropriate.

Here’s to a wonderful World Cup.  May it be full of wonderful football, and free from any sort of unpleasantness.  We can but hope.