Contest. And then maybe not?

Where are Wales? What level they at? Are they heroic over-achievers, in a cruel, more heavily-endowed-with-everything kindofa world? Or what? Where’s the Wales Place, in footballing terms – and maybe the other stuff? Football-wise, are they brave and bold, or are they ungenerous and perverse? Are the ‘limitations’ enabling or stultifying? Where do,or should Wales pitch themselves?

These and more LIVE QUESTIONS lie resolutely unanswered beneath… in my live blog from Wales v Iran.

I note to the universe the wonders of the human eye. Because the eight zillion pounds a pop cameras covering #Wales #Iran are plainly battling against the glories of the light. (*Insert smart-arsed Dylan Thomas gag, here*). The stark incredi-contrast between bright and mercifully shaded areas of the park are almost too much for mere, space-age technology. But the Beeb Camera-people and the rest wrestle on, manfully.

Wales start well, disappear for ten minutes then Moore should score from a curling cross from the right. Not clear if he really is hurt by the defender’s boot or whether he’s just lying there, mortified. In a (rareish?) moment of clarity and brevity, the commentator on said channel pronounces this a ‘contest’ – and he’s right. Encouragingly.

Iran have hoisted a ball or two longish, early, to expose the Wales centre-backs turning-circle. It nearly works and it’s an interesting, perhaps counter-intuitive tactical ploy.

On fifteen minutes the whites ‘score’… but the onrushing attacker has rather poorly gotten ahead of the ball. Clearly off: a ‘you had one job moment’. Alarming, though, for Wales – the opposition already looking like they will register. Bale is mildly contacted in the fizzog by a loose but unthreatening arm. He rolls theatrically to the floor, just on the off-chance that the ref might produce a red. Gaz may be a god… but that was cheap as chips.

Twenty-five minutes in and Iran are marginally the better: they aren’t remotely slaughtering Wales in the way that the USA did, in that extraordinary first period of game one, but they have more controlled possession and do look more threatening. Marginally. Then Ramsey is looking a little more influential, which may augur well in terms of establishing rhythm and a level of ease with the occasion. The game is tense but rather low-key: there is space to play but not enough quality, from either side, to string multiple passes together.

Again Iran go long. Understandably. They have plainly identified a weakness in the core of that Welsh defence. Suddenly, one-on-ones look a danger. Rodon and Davies have both had to scramble. But Wilson responds, finding Williams in a luxury of space on the left of the Iranian box. Unusually for the flying full-back, his touch is poor and uncommitted. A real opportunity is wasted.

First corner on 42 minutes: Iranian keeper claims. Already that feeling that both sides are prepared to accept a Phoney War, in the knowledge that this will become unacceptable come the (what?) 75 minute-mark. A draw really not likely to be enough for Wales: however much they protest their lack of fear for England, Southgate’s side are significantly superior. The Page Posse must therefore look to bank some points, here.

Iran are probably less good than the USA, but they will feel that a win against Wales offers some hope for going beyond the group stage. They will consider a draw in that final game entirely possible. Four points might take somebody through, especially if England go through the group with three victories. All of which brings us back to notion that both sides must look to win this fixture – despite what coaches, captains and fans might say, should this turn out a draw.

At the half, a draw seems likely. Just before the break, Iran came close to breaking the deadlock after a controlled move down the right finished with a smart, curled cross that Rodon just managed to shepherd away. A critical view of Wales might be that again they have failed to retain possession or build attacks. Against Iran, the weakest team in their group. For all his inspiring brilliance, Bale has again been quiet. He may be a past master of finding or waiting for His Moment but another view of this is that he is simply not offering enough.

Palpably, Wales have limited playing resources – even acknowledging that this group has more players who can genuinely live/compete at international than any Welsh side for many years. They have lived off team spirit and occasional flickering moments of genius or high-level execution from their skipper for aeons. Now the captain has again to deliver, not just in terms of snatched goals – although manifestly that would ‘do’ – but by playing well, influencing the pattern of the game. Ditto Ramsey, the other player of high (if faded) quality. Wales needs more than the occasional miracle: they need to play better.

We kick off. Again neither side presses hard, so there is scope to gather and get your head up. Iran’s defensive shape looks to be holding, with some comfort, any Welsh incursions. The reverse is less true.

On 51 minutes Iran ‘must score’ three times. They burst clear on the right, Azmoun beats the keeper but the ball clatters back off Hennessy’s left-hand post. Within seconds, Gholizadeh belts his right-hand upright, with a fabulous, curling, left-foot drive which rebounds out to the diving centre-forward, who nods into the keeper’s chest. Barely credible. A real surge, now, for Iran. Perhaps the single-most concerning period of pressure, for Wales.

Page must be concerned but he has no choice: despite being in trouble, he must throw on attacking substitutions. James and Johnson, for Roberts and Wilson.

The flow remains with Iran. An hour done, and for the first time I’m thinking Wales win this 1-0 with another Bale against-the-grain intervention. Iran have another gear; are zestier, more energetic, more ‘likely’. They deserve to be ahead. Perfect territory for a Gaztastic heartbreaker.

Azmoun – who has been excellent – retires, looking exhausted. Dan James does that thing where he looks to have gained a crucial yard but fails to deliver. Wales do have real pace on the park, now, at least.. but will either Johnson or James have the composure to convert… or produce the gift that Wales so desperately need?

Hennessey has to save a slightly scuffed shot, diving to his left. Corner and more pressure. Then another. The keeper has to punch clear twice. It’s ‘all Iran’. They make a triple substitution on 75 minutes. Allen replaces Ampadu, for Wales. James finds another blind alley. It’s feistier, maybe scrappier. Angst is rising with the tightening of the time. Bale fails with a rather indulgent flick: it’s almost certain the guy’s playing hurt but he’s made no meaningful contribution and his side have been second-best – not overwhelmingly, but without question second-best.

Finally Wales produce an encouraging passage of play. James crosses long and loopy. There is a some teetering -on-the-brink before Davies is teed-up. He smashes high.

Then the Great Moment of Drama. Iran burst clear and Hennessey clatters the attacker. Has to be red – initially yellow is hoisted. The referee, rightly, is hauled over to the monitor and forced to correct. There are only a handful of minutes remaining but Wales remove Ramsey to sling in the replacement keeper, Ward.

It’s time to get behind the sofa, for the watching Welsh. Into the 90th minute but there will – of course, at #Qatar2022 – be a lump of added time. Even with ten, Wales still have to look for a win. (Repeat, no matter the traditional Welsh defiance towards the English, (and the possibility they might beat the enemy over the bridge) this is the game they have to win. Iran have looked waaay more likely to win, in this second period in particular.

Iran, however, possibly lack that killer instinct – they’ve been good, but not clinical. They are now looking a little tetchy, which is unlikely to help. Wales even have a sniff… but no. It’s all gone a bit Headless Chicken.

There are nine minutes of added time but they are largely scrappy. *Until*…

Another Iranian surge. In the 98th minute a fine right-footed strike from the Iranian number 15, Chesmi, from twenty-seven yards, finds the bottom corner. Ward may get a fingertip on it but in it goes. Finally, something to roar about: the stadium obliges. All those fans, many of whom openly wept during the forced sing-song that was the Iranian national anthem, pre-game, are jumping/screaming/bawling again – only for joy. What a sight, what a sound.

We’re not done. In the 100th minute the lead is doubled, with Wales cut brutally open. It’s one of those cruel breakaways that tends to happen when a team is left with no choice but to ‘gamble’, recklessly. Iran don’t care: Rezaeian scores after the space has opened, with a cute dink over the goalkeeper. Devastating for Bale, Page – for all of Wales – but they were beaten, as it were, on merit.

Following morning. I wake up with the strong urge to note something further about Gareth Bale. It’s simply this: that he will probably retire from internationals, after the England game. (This of course on the assumption that Wales go out of the tournament – which I fully accept is not a given. But it is likely).

Bale really is a god, here in Wales: truly loved and adored by both the Proper Fans and the Folks Who Ain’t That Bothered About Football. This despite him being a rather undemonstrative sort, personality-wise. And in return he gets that special thing about Being Welsh… and has delivered both on that and on the park – largely because of that inspiration. Bale loves Wales.

Know what? I’m thinking now that if he does sign off, there may be a post to write. ‘T will, be lost, as per, in the other zillion but maybe I’ll return to this. So enough, for now. Except to say that in my view Bale is ver-ry close to being completely shot, as a player, now. On the one hand it’s clear that playing for Wales has been the real driver behind his football for the last several years: he’s hobbled through in order to play in red at the Big Events. Now I think he should stop.

Done

Gripping and yet from an English (and possibly a World Rugby Community) perspective, gallingly predictable. New Zealand – the Black Ferns, on this occasion – win the World Cup. Meaning there is scope for conspiracy theory as well as joy.

England’s winger Lydia Thompson was removed from play in the 18th minute, for a ‘head-on-head’ challenge. The TMO, belatedly, reversed a line-out call, in New Zealand’s favour: he was correct but plenty folks were wondering if that level of scrutiny would have been applied, had the situation been reversed… and this not been a notably feisty Eden Park. Forward passes may have been missed.

Red Rose supporters may not be alone in resorting early to “what if”s or “yeh but this is what you get”. I barely know a Wales fan who doesn’t routinely suspect special privileges for the All Blacks. Acceptance of their utter brilliance is universal: disquiet around bias is medium-widespread. But hey; this kind of nonsense fuels the game, eh?

Few would dispute the veracity of the Thompson decision, in the contemporary game. The referee was calm and clear; pundits agreed. However there may be some merit in the argument that Simon’s tackle on England’s other winger, Dow – which drew a yellow – was marginally more dangerous. Neither were malicious or entirely wild but the Black Fern *may have gone in* with a smidge more concerning pace and something closer to carelessness. Whatever. This was a febrile blockbuster of a match.

England, unbeaten in thirty, had started as though they might destroy New Zealand. Two early tries and phenomenal execution by both flyers and undeniable earth-crunchers. The Red Roses have been squishing less physical teams, with organised forward play the like of which the women’s game has never seen. We saw some of that. But the England handling and running was also ominously good – incredibly good, given what was at stake.

For maybe ten minutes, the wall of sound and fury within one of the most intimidating stadia on the planet, was shredded. On Eden Park, the team in black were getting absolutely monstered… and in such a way that fear and capitulation from the locals seemed a live option.

But no. The Black Ferns responded with characteristic flair and no little ooomph. Tries were traded – there was an extraordinary sense that even with two outstanding defences on the pitch, both sides would score with every attack. It was a feast. The break saw relative parity, at 19-26.

Most informed neutrals might begrudgingly concede that the best side in the world – England – are the only side in world rugby who might possibly beat the second best side in the world – the Black Ferns – one woman-down. But do the math. Thompson gone in the 18th; meaning 62 minutes of that cruel chasing game, against one of the best and certainly the most fluent and creative side on the planet – New Zealand. *That moment* was everything.

The second half may have been as colossal as the first. It was an exhausting watch, with the defiant visitors floating through chunks of time, before selflessly, heroically heaving against the inevitable. Both sides naturally made changes and inroads. Both scored. But the universe had been shifted. The crowd knew it. England were overhauled, before striking back. Then overhauled. With three points in it, the battered visitors kicked for the corner rather than look for the three points that would bring extra-time.

In another game, with fifteen staff on the park, they may have chosen differently – or not. England’s line-out and driving maul had been literally irresistible, even here, even tonight. So one more?

Maybe that call spoke of their understanding that the fates were closing in: that more game-time would be a cruel, one-way torture. Best get it done. Kick for the corner, catch and drive. 34-31 the score; the clock about to go red.

The Black Ferns spoil the line-out. In a great, visceral, joyous, tragic roar, we are done. England, bounteous England, brimming with players and investment and Serious Intent, take a lot of credit for dragging women’s rugby into a spectacular, professional age. But it’s New Zealand, the side more inclined to endless adventure, who take the trophy.

Who else… and how?

Whoopeedoo. Our friends at AOL are reporting that the unseasonably warm weather in October has probably saved our glorious government 260 million smackers: monies that would have gone out to the Great (Undeserving) Unwashed to cover heating costs. Rishi and the team will no doubt crack open a coupla bottles of something half-decent to celebrate.

I may have missed the stories about how a #WindfallTax on the energy giants – plainly a legitimate, popular and equitable solution – would have fixed this particular inconvenience. And I may have been distracted when the unanswerable arguments for taxing the super-rich were pumped out, along with the other urgent stuff about Strictly, Meghan’s make-up and the new Three Lions vid. Forgive me for being so lax, you AOL-peeps.

260 mill is obviously a smidge of a deficit – or bonus – when we do the Whole National Math. (I get that most of us never do and are indeed ill-equipped to do the Whole Math, but yaknowhattamean?) Even dumbos like me understand that the Brexit-sized, post-Truss-&-Kwarteng-sized hole we’re in is a fucking monster. Interest rates, food prices, fuel going or gone scarily up: political choices heavily squeezed. A time for good, responsible government.

Fat chance. Rishi may have rather skilfully been positioned as the gentleman-who-knows-what’s-good but with his personal powerbase and charisma negligible and his party still in the throes of a weird, exceptionalist and deeply nasty ideological mud-wrestle, sustained careful steering seems unlikely. Sunak (the Impossibly Wealthy One) may have a wee bit of credibility amongst those gullible enough to associate his working experience with financial competence but he’s also, patently, another obscenely privileged toff. The plebs may easily turn.

The PM does have the advantage of not being as crass as Truss and Kwarteng. He’s less noisily, stupidly strident, ideologically, and probably less stupid, all-round. He will allow himself to be guided, to be considered, you suspect, in a way that his predecessor and her oddball Chancellor shunned. They were consumed by a sharp, masturbatory, Tufton Street-curated frenzy; Rishi is too well-groomed, too self-aware for that. He’s quietly mad – Freeports, hedgefunds, that depressing ease around Market Forces – as opposed to barking and under-equipped, like Liz and Quasi. Despite the pitiful incompetence of a succession of Tory governments, Sunak is likely to seem okaay… and to close the yawning gap in the polls, over time. Incredible-but-true.

‘People’ (or enough people ) may forget Partygate, Dido H and the systematic looting of the Covid resources. Despite both being offenses of a contemptibly filthy nature; despite that almost shocking, ‘un-British’ stench of corruption and deceit. Some are already either forgetting or have been consistently beguiled by the amoral clown that is Johnson: let’s put it on the record, the worst and most grotesquely shallow Prime Minister ever to have smooched with the dispatch-box. It will be fascinating and probably cruelly depressing to see how ‘things settle’, in Sunak’s favour, as the various oven-ready catastrophes fade into history.

Large swathes of the media will obviously either make it their business to distract, or somehow acquiesce to the endless protection of the great families, the shadowy elite, the Establishment*. Johnson and Harding are unlikely to face justice. The roster of palpably hopeless and/or careerist Ministers of the Realm escaping scot-free with a pay-off will be noted but then slung in the chipper with the rest of the old news stories. Politics of a sort will resume.

This may be a difficult period for Labour, depending upon how the execrable mob still labelled The Government can handle the next few months. Starmer has, understandably to some extent, been a non-protagonist throughout the chaos: no doubt advised that it’s wiser to keep his counsel re- Brexit, immigration, even the modest redistribution of wealth. He’s both failed to lead – been a kind of silent passenger – and chosen not to. Some of us find that abdication-by-focus-group depressing and unwise. Not only does it feel a dereliction of duty to allow politics itself to become bland to the point of meaningless; it also deprives the country of hope.

When a succession of appalling Conservative governments shamelessly and endlessly allude to (and deliberately conflate) race/immigration/’invasion’, dragging the discourse into the swamp, it must be the job of the Opposition to oppose, articulately and with moral force.

Currently Braverman is an obvious national disgrace – as was the Johnson/Cummings campaign before her – with regard to that lowest common denominator, racial signalling. Sadly, bigotry, so heavily supported in the national press, appears to draw as much positive agency as revulsion. But people understood that there was something powerfully wrong about Partygate. Then something cruelly cynical about unlimited bankers’ bonuses and tax-breaks for the rich. So there is a measure of decency out there. A Labour Party that proudly champions things that are right and just and explains the rationale in terms the population can understand is a) fulfilling its purpose and b) (probably) grabbing hold of the political narrative.

Those of us who sympathise with the centre-left understand Starmer’s cool determination to win. We see the barriers. We suspect, however, that any movement needs leadership; that if Sunak gets a smooth ride – remains essentially unchallenged – things will conspire towards restoring a general faith in Tory competence, however ludicrous that may seem.

A final thought. With philosophical discourse drowned beneath either a general disillusion or the acidic rants of the Twitterverse, there is a worrying vacuum. There are dangers here, which bots and Press Barons might be/have been quick to exploit. On the plus side is there not the possibility that a single individual with manifest decency, integrity and appeal (horrible word but…) could transform this vapid/wretched environment?

If any one of the progressive parties could find such a voice, in such a void, surely people would fall-in, and an Alliance Against Xenophobia and that other Nasty Stuff might begin to heave us all back towards civility and a certain level of social justice?

You may (I hope) have names in mind and agree with my good self that this feels like a job for some cross-party cooperation? Beyond Labour I can’t help but think that in Sturgeon and Lucas – very much ‘for example’ – we have people who could make a contribution.

But who else… and how?

*Some folks argue that the likes of Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Truss, Farage, even, are too right-wing, too bursting with fervour to be of the Establishment. Cobblers. They are all cosseted, all protected; they all reek of money, exceptionalism and privilege.

Pic (I think) is from Spectator, Australia. Forgive me if wrong.

Holding players.

So United, then. One-nil winners against a West Ham side who pressured hard and may have deserved an equaliser, late-on. Rashford’s exhilarating goal with a rare, committed thunk past the keeper being ‘the difference’.

But quality-wise, there was little difference. In the first ten both Casemiro and Eriksen showed glimpses of their rarified best, either threading or spraying fabulous passes into feet, offering real hope that the mythical(?) corner into Team Flow and Sumptuous United-ness might yet be turned. But no. Casemiro looked statuesque and composed at times, and Eriksen was goodish and as central to any football as anyone, but this was again a relatively disappointing scramble.

Up top Ronaldo continued to seem shrunken in every respect: playing in a different game to his alleged partners Elanga – who again looked like a reserve team player thrown in during some flu epidemic – and Rashford, who only fitfully raised the hopes of the home support.

How the universe wishes that Ar Marcus could really blossom! From this occasionally wonderful, pacy, watchable, worthy local lad into the full package – the genuine United-level striker. A power header and a run or two was again not enough to convince. He was the pick of the strike force but Gary Neville’s Man of the Match Award was staggeringly generous; another sign that the universe *really does* want him to do well.

Rashford has a lot going for him; given that pace, dynamism and his substantial experience, you wonder why he remains so ‘up and down’. And if that wastefulness and inconsistency will always suppress his value to the cause. I fear it may: that he will always alternate between boyish profligacy and eye-catching vim. Cruel. Elanga was rightly withdrawn: the team had played poorly but he looked a misfit. Ronaldo barely had a meaningful kick.

The generally fair and frequently insightful Neville pointed out that a United midfield of Casemiro, Eriksen and Fernandes is a statement of culture and belief, from Ten Hag. Belief in quality, artfulness and in direction. They are all positive, creative players, essentially, in there to control possession and develop threat, as opposed to stem the flow from the opposition. (O-kaay, Casemiro has been holding but his lack of pace and inclination to bite marks him out as a passer – a ‘player’). This relates to both the manager’s (Dutch, Total Football-tastic) worldview and the United Way. It may not be ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK but it IS forward-looking and kinda generous.

Fernandes has now had a sustained dip in form. He’s become irritating and irritated; unable to flash even short passes to their target; easily distracted into verbals and resentful of every perceived injustice. Energetic, yes, but now mouthy and weirdly inconsistent. Battling against his previous: that notion that he is (or was) the King of Old Trafford, Playmaker and Leader of the Surge.

West Ham, particularly in the case of the consistently excellent Rice, stymied United’s rhythm. The Hammers often looked better with the ball, in fact, or at least had relatively convincing spells of possession. What the visitors couldn’t do was create clear-cut chances. United again could rarely string more than about five passes together without handing the ball back to the visitors; meaning the match was largely mediocre.

Dalot and Martinez were MU’s best players; both intervening aggressively and decisively throughout the game. The latter is likely to be a much-loved fixture in the side for some years, I suspect, for his hearty indomitability. De Gea looked solid. Maguire did ok, strolling around in that particular way of his, but there were moments when the heart of the United defence seemed about to unhinge and some of this seemed to be about his positioning and generous – that is to say trawler-like – turning-circle. (I may traduce the fella. But that wholly admirable composure on the ball does feel compromised by his capacity to find himself exposed). Varane and Martinez will be the first-choice partnership, in a four, surely?

The manager spoke well, after the event. He’s not sugar-coating the amount of work there is to be done and he plainly has the Ronaldo issue/ego in hand. The world superstar has clearly been emphatically bollocked for his recent petulance and knows now he will not walk into (even) this misfiring side. The expectation must be that he will go, on receipt of the first decent offer – go or retire.

For the second time in a week, Ten Hag felt compelled to shut up shop, as West Ham dominated the later stages. McTominay and Fred are a ver-ry different combination to Eriksen and Casemiro: in short they are nowhere near as good… but the gaffer hopes they might do that manning-of-the-hatches thing. You could see McTominay working in a rampaging United side – a Fergie team – as the tenacious clatterer behind inspirational flyers, but his DNA is closer to Celtic or Rangers than Man City or Bayern. He may survive if United inherit a new clutch of irresistible forwards: if they don’t (or Sancho/Rashford/Anthony continue to underachieve), the tall Scot will remain a squad player, on merit. Or go, possibly, alongside his fire-fighting Brazilian comrade.

A cold view of Manchester United might be that this mighty club still has too many players unworthy of the badge. Too many who look like Academy players-plus, journeymen, or guys who simply lack the mentality to live at that level, in that shirt. The manager appears to have a handle on this and is gradually re-building. He knows what they lack and has the authority and strategic intelligence to nudge this intimidating project towards authenticity and contention. West Ham are a well-organised, mid-table outfit with minimal cutting edge. United just about held out.

A Christmas Puppy?

(An apology: the last thing I wanted to do is to make everything ‘all about him’ again. But the reason I do that is because I really do have some hope that this really might be it, for Johnson – an ending. I’m not optimistic about a Sunak Premiership, however short, what with likely roles for Braverman and other Nasty Party rightists but there would be some satisfaction at the thought that BJ’s time was rather unceremoniously snuffed-out. Let’s hope that proves to be the case).

So could the Age of Embarrassment finally be over? Might the Bumbling Buffoon, the Etonian Mess really be done?

It’s possible. In a characteristic veil of porkies and shameless, conscience-less swerves between the reported fact, his Urgent Gatherings and the forbidding fridges of a life lived in cosseted anarchy, Johnson really may have spent himself. It’s possible. The lies and the deceit and the vile uncaring will of course go on, endlessly, but it may be that his time in the Real Spotlight is over.

Rees-Mogg’s insipid declaration of confidence proved as thin as the man himself. His ill-matched bedfellow (the lard-arsed one) never, ultimately stood, preferring to come over all ‘tactical’ until defeat slapped him in the kisser. It’s widely believed that the 102 MPs were as genuine as de Pfeffel’s protestations of love, and that Johnson’s toying with politics may now be short-lived. The good people of Uxbridge have barely seen the former PM, what with all the foreign holidays: they are unlikely now, to be graced by long-term service – nobody (but nobody) gets that.

Boris doesn’t do contributions of this sort. Ever since Eton, his singular egotism has blinded him to the whims and needs of the un-Boris. Surely the whole charade that is his life has been a kind of gristly reflex towards the destiny that family and place had promised? Masses of fame, masses of moolah; fawning women and footmen a-drooling. The irresistible fact, then, of Great Office (briefly) precursing comely adventure, from exotic break to highly-remunerated Public Speaking Engagement. In so far as Johnson is capable of planning ( I think in his case these things tend to be assumptions), this has been The Plan. Tick the big juicy boxes, proffered by happy circumstance towards one; reap the rewards.

Much to its shame, the universe has provided. Women got on their knees, blokes laughed at the ‘quirkiness’, folks voted, presumably out of that feudal inferiority complex that defers to Them Who Know Best: yaknow – the toffs. Silver Spoon-dom; Eton; Balliol. Boom.

Even having the Most Embarrassing Father In History somehow failed to work against him. Five missed Cobra meetings; patent corruption and murderous incompetence around Covid planning and response; relentless extravagance and grotesque indulgences within Downing Street itself (largely at some mindless but presumably mortified sponsors’ expense). None of this seemed to register against; except, perhaps Partygate.

Finally the clowning seemed unfunny. Enough of the ordinary Mail-reading psycho’s felt a twinge. There was a cover-up, there were further blanket untruths and omissions but even without a Kuenssberg or a Peston Revelation – like how could they not know? How could they not have personal experience?!? – Partygate stank the place out. People could smell it. That whole culture of taking the piss, of being superior, of not needing to care because the rules just don’t apply… leaked out. And there was no other place for that to be centred than on B J.

Boris, we all knew, had been guilty all his life of believing in his divine right to indulge, freely and without conscience. But now it was obvious this included during lockdowns. Whilst we were – whilst the Queen was! – behaving or making cruel sacrifices for the common good, Johnson and co were popping the corks. We’re not so foolish as to believe they will ever be truly held to account… but we know they were guilty of this. That transgression landed. Shockingly, a miniscule number of Tory MPs acknowledged the nature and the heft of the betrayal and the Opposition seemed – appallingly – unable to call out the great sin of the age. But it landed enough.

This is why Boris was unzipped; disowned by 60-odd MPs, ultimately. They finally found safety-in-numbers and finally called him out. Now his unseemly bundle back has been stymied. A last porkie – 102 supporters, lols! – waived in front of a gullible press. A phone call to Mordaunt to schmoozle her into backing down. But nope. That old magic has waned.

Sure there were a few spineless cretins calling him ‘boss’ right until the end. Some actually believed there was a future in it – a Boris 2. But it’s likely now that neither those hand-relievers nor the Press Barons themselves can keep the Johnson delusion afloat. The bloke’s still under investigation – and again whilst natural justice on the matter is unlikely, ultimately to be enacted, I’m guessing now that (hilariously, finally!) enough Tory MPs view him as a serious, short-term risk to the party’s credibility.

It may be possible that lots of people would, if given the chance, still vote for the Big Dog. But a sufficient consensus has arisen, within Westminster, to keep the unkempt beast chained. He may yet become, in political terms, at least, a Christmas Puppy: loved briefly then ‘too much trouble’ – forgotten.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, born New York. Made for life, of course. Will flit from speaking gig to courtesy holiday. Will play the jester and delight those predisposed to crawl. Never, actually, a serious political figure: now, quite possibly, ‘over’.

Sensationalists: people who might convince us.

I have covid, and maybe some of that ‘brain fog’ so this may be foolish on all kinds of levels. But I want to write something about modern art and I have just watched Saatchi, Hirst, Emin & co on the tellybox.

Let’s start with a wee bit of credit. BBCiplayer Arts is a treasure trove; one which I dip into regularly, especially when that What’s On, Bruv? moment drops. (There’s always something on the iplayer).

More rank positivity: it’s my opinion that the overwhelming majority of artists (yup, even contemporary ones) work with a huge amount of integrity and even honour. They ask the Big Questions for us and almost without exception their work is deeper, better and more multi-layered than we perceive. Broadly, we chronically undervalue what they do.

Public understanding of and respect for modern art is generally an embarrassment, reflective of the stupidity and bigotry of (for example) The Daily Mail – which unsurprisingly features in the 3-part series.

Morons at the Mail, poor or tokenistic arts education and profound levels of ignorance have engineered a situation where we are a) visually illiterate b) suspicious and small-minded and c) too bloody lazy to stand in front of an artwork and let it do its job – beguile us, transport us, challenge us. This, for what it’s worth, is my context; the belief that art matters and that artists carry that privilege of being our conscience with courage and often a deep, deep, incorruptible honesty.

I’m happy to out myself as some kind of enthusiast rather than a bona fide expert. I watch and read about art and even Theories of Art. ( I know, weird). So Sensationalists, a series about Young British Artists/that London scene, whilst not necessarily being top of the list, was always going to get a look.

I found it relatively disappointing. The subtitle ‘Bad Girls and Boys of British Art’ maybe didn’t do us any favours. It wasn’t entirely cheap and headlinetastic but the casual clumping-together of two very different social phenomena – punk and the dance/rave scene – was just one example of rather lazy inference. Those warehouse parties were all bout loved-up escapism. Punk spat at the politics of the universe and the depravity and (yes!) immorality of capitalism/the Music Bizz.

I’m not sure if any of the YBA were punks. There was subversion, yes, of the laughable Arts Establishment and there was lots of punky mischief. And of course that whole being on the lash thing smacks of ‘edginess’. But the utterly central role of Saatchi and (some of) the artists’ complicity in both the rather shameless hedonism and ultimate gentrification of parts of East Landun do ask questions. Whilst respecting that right and even imperative for artists to ask those Big Questions, might we ask why much of the YBA cannon is apolitical? (Cue the arguments for it being ‘bigger than politics’)…

Hirst is a fascinating man. Perverse, savvy, brilliant and possibly lost. I may need to look harder at the whole of his output because it’s ver-ry easy to conclude that his obsession with the business of art is a joke that only needed telling once. I really don’t want to traduce him so let’s put on the record the signature contribution – telling, shocking, reverberating, truly powerful works of art. (You know which ones). Installations which announced something new and did transform a feebly necrophiliac industry. But, in the absence of a killer interview or similar, and with the sense of potential wankerdom looming largeish- Groucho Club Laddism, endless wealth-gathering – what are we to make of him?

My default position remains. That shark/those cattle were profound.

Sensationalists is okaay and I recommend you watch. Understand we need Popular Arts Coverage but I wanted and think the seismic lurch into scary, conceptual art required some elite-level voices. (They don’t have to, obvs) but many wonderful artists talk or write spectacularly about art, or their work.

A recent doc on Munch and Emin utterly vindicated the latter as a Serious Artist. Her real, human messiness and her cheapish, temporary East End Squat-zone Posse mischief rightly got an airing in the series but, interestingly, pretty much the only Brilliant Mind on display in Sensationalists was Jake Chapman. (I know – FUCKFACEs!)

Emin can talk. Chapman can plainly talk. Given the poor understanding abroad for the leap into Art of Ideas, we needed more articulate people. People who might convince us.

Things have changed.

(Pic via Daily Mirror).

First half and it’s England who are bossing the Yanks. Wow. Yes, those Yanks, who’ve been light years ahead for a decade. But suddenly – or is it suddenly? – things have changed.

The change of regime has plainly been a factor, here, as is the inevitable turning of the talent cycle. England *do* now have a clutch of ver-ry good and very experienced players who are playing, for the most part, in a Women’s Super League that is almost unrecognisable from the division of even a couple of years ago. The environment, the context has surged electrifyingly forward, skill-wise and particularly in terms of composure – just watch the matches on the tellybox. The subtle movements, the retreating into space and opening-up of angles is so-o much more sophisticated than it was. Bright, Greenwood and Daly have all transitioned from relative journeywomen to relative ball-players.

Wiegman must also take huge credit. Not just for the delivery of the first major silverware since the age of the dinosaurs but also for the cultivation of a high level of execution. And consistency. And ease, at this elevated parallel. England were nervy and ordinary as recently as the early stages of the Euros but the gaffer’s supreme equanimity and humour (as well as tactical intelligence) was surely a major factor in the development of a more fluent, confident side. A side that floods forwards relentlessly and fearlessly for 40 minutes, against the United States of America.

It’s 2-1 England, at the half, after Hemp bundles in and Stanway slots a pen. The England midfielder had earlier dwelt criminally, if momentarily, on a weighted pass from Bright that she simply had to biff away, first touch, under the imminent challenge. Instead she tried to ‘do more’, was caught, and the brilliant Smith cracked home. VAR may have robbed the visitors of their second equaliser but the home side deserved (if that’s even a thing?) their lead.

After an old-fashioned bollocking from Ted Lasso – I jest, of course, though a) they, the U.S. needed it and b) he was knocking around – the Americans turned up, post the interval. They were better, for 20 minutes. The game and the stadium quietened. Or it started to moan more, at decisions, in frustration.

Kirby – who has been on the margins – is replaced by Toone. There has been an absence of heads-up football. That sense of potential reality-check (for England) builds. Rapinoe comes into the game, without exactly influencing. Both sides make errors as the frisson, the contagion develops. Toone gets tricky *with a view to drawing a pen* but the ref rightly waives away. The pitch appears to have shrunk, or players are somehow less able to find and revel in space.

In recent days, there have been serious revelations about widespread abuse of professional female players, in the States. A horrendous, shadowy narrative that we can only hope will be shifted towards justice and resolution by powerful voices in the game such as the now-veteran American playmaker (and public/political figure) Megan Rapinoe. Tonight, on the pitch she again stands out, but more for her strikingly purple barnet than for any of her *actual contributions*. The movement is silky and assured but the effect minimal. Even she can’t string this thing together, entirely.

Stanway symbolises the whole drift by easing with some grace into the red zone then clattering agriculturally wide. The standard of officiating drops in sympathy with the play. Having emphatically and instantly given a penalty, the ref has to concede that the backside of an England player is not the extended arm she presumed it to be. In short, a howler cleared-up. There are multiple subs – this is a friendly, after all – and the (on reflection) ultimately below-par Rapinoe is amongst those withdrawn.

Late-on, Toone is wide, in space, in the box. Player of the Match Bronze finds her but the volley is medium-rank. Similarly, Smith lazily under-achieves with a ball that drops invitingly twelve yards out. Hmm. Neither side can find their players.

When the whistle goes, it’s clear the crowd’s loved it, anyway. (With the ole scoreboard saying 2-1 England and the statto’s confirming 23 matches undefeated, who am I to argue?) I won’t argue. England are in a really good place – women’s football is in a spectacular place – with improvement, development and quality visible for all to see.

Yes. Let’s finish by repeating that. Two of the best teams in the world. A massive, near record-breaking crowd and quality visible for all to see.

I. Moral.

The word ‘immoral’ has been bandied about, eh? In politics and on social.

Fair enough, in fact thank god; any sentient being must have felt the creep of depravity and self-interest swilling over from the nauseating Johnson administration (hah!) to the newly-hatched but similarly reptilian Truss Crew. It may even be that A. B. de Pfeffel (etc)’s only profound contribution to British Public Life was the re-ushering of considerations around goodness and decency… because the twat was so manifestly bereft of both.

Yup, surely beyond dispute that the dishevelled clown was amoral – lazy and utterly uncaring? Secure in his repellent cocoon, protected by generational privilege and just enough ‘quirky’ wit to seduce a sufficient percentage of morons out there in The Country, as well as a few fading, doe-eyed, probably aspirational debutantes within his, or The Party’s clutches. He raised the flag for the slags – male and female – and the heartless.

Hard to be sure how much Truss loved and/or admired him, but plainly there are *connections*. Johnson’s weird ‘libertarian’ bullishness becomes her Free Market Mania. His wallowing in pomp and casual signalling about race and value becomes her pointy-thin English nationalism. Neither give a toss, nor know anything about the lives of ordinary people.

I confidently expect Johnson to be the worst P.M. of my lifetime but in that grubby contest, fair play, Truss has gotten off to an absolute flyer. She is less obviously steeped in entitlement but more openly pro- Those Who Have than he was. Astonishingly. The now infamous mini-budget, concocted with fellow servant-of-the-toffs-and-corporations Kwarteng was perhaps the most mind-blowingly brazen genuflection towards concentrated and unlimited wealth-gathering within the great families and corporations that this country/these countries have ever seen. Truss and Kwarteng shoved it in our faces. Those Who Have will get more – you other fuckers will get less, to pay for their ‘growth’.

Growth. Say it like the swear word it is. On a dying planet; in an ‘advanced society’. Four billion years of evolving life and these evil puppets are saying this is how we should work? Forget that which is decent. Forget equality or any sense of philosophical civility. Forget the Climate Crisis. Let the obscenely rich… be richer?

Biden’s notable but understated rebuke around the laughable and patently discredited ‘trickledown theories’ – unacknowledged by Truss and co, but plainly at the empty core of their vacuous ‘policies’ – was one of the minor highlights of recent political badinage, on the Twitters. (Put your hands up, friends, if the sight of a serving Brit PM getting called out for so obviously being a dumbo, made you smile – albeit ruefully). Even the (centrist) Yanks are laughing at us; at our hopeless, mean, un-educated transparency.

But maybe there is hope. Because it’s not just Andy Burnham using that word immoral. Despite the relative absence of political intelligence in the population, there is some decency. Folks know that there really is something foul about bought-Tories (like Truss) and Outed Toffs (like Kwarteng) opting to line the pockets of their allies. There is no windfall tax on the energy giants. Tax cuts *do*, barely credibly, favour the rich. The lurch both to the right and away from that which is right has found another gear. Oh, the arrogance! Did they think we wouldn’t figure this out?

On top of the willful, cheapening, xenophobic project that was Brexit, the Truss Conspiracy piles more economic and cultural madness. There’s an argument that the key driver here is prejudice – certainly it’s powerfully present. Prejudice (or lack of care) around ordinary folk, because they ‘barely contribute’. Or because they will never grow. Prejudice (of course) towards Others; those who are foreign, whose value is less than us, the Exceptional English. Prejudice born of estrangement from normal lives.

Whilst the Tories plainly got in because of this prejudice – the whole Johnson/Cummings campaign was constructed around it – something’s changed. It’s possible that many of those gullible to racial constructs are less persuaded by strategies built around class: particularly where the thrust of advantage seems mono-directional; that is, to the overwhelming benefit of the rich.

Interestingly, Truss feels relatively isolated. Even before she shocked some (but not all) of her party colleagues by being embarrassingly shambolic, it seemed like few Tories actually believed in her, or were following. (The figurehead that is Truss has always felt decapitated, has it not – even from the nonentities and bit-players that now make up her cabinet?)

The Conservative Party may, post-Boris, have been ripe for more nationalism and more strident neo-liberalism, but I’m not sure they expected this shite. Appalling competence, woeful messaging and startlingly reactionary economics.

One of the most telling allegations against the Tories since the asinine May era is that there’s been no voice for the good. No-one protesting for decency and fairness. Under Johnson, naturally, urgent or mindful voices were subsumed by the essential hedonism of the individual. Bojo was expressly amoral: nobody called him out. That cowardice – the absence of conscience – may yet decimate the party. They deserve it.

Truss is an ideological fool, soon to be caught in amber with her arms-length colleague, Kwarteng. They may actually believe in their growth theories but nobody trusts their intentions. Events – funding/’contacts’/the facts of their upbringing – present them as neck-deep in either corruption or privilege or both. They have outed themselves and some would say, the Tories, as Defenders of the Haves. They have done it more shamelessly than any government we might remember: even Johnson was less economically-wedded to the class he burst forth from.

The government are indeed immoral. Though that might not be the word that Everyman might find, it is the sentiment that will bring this callous cohort down. Soon. The people know.

They – the Tories, these Tories – are #theveryworstofus.

Clickbait? You betcha!

Hey. Front-loading this (from last night) with a sentence on *that* presser-invasion. That presser-invasion by the England Women players may have been the best moment in the history of sport.

Now read on.

Feel like doing something cheap and inflammatory – much like the fella Kelly and the fella Bronze did, late-on, for England. (They are blokes, right? Or could it be they just pretended to be, at the death there?)

So yeh how about that cheapest of cop-outs – the Player Ratings thing – along with some comments? Let’s get at it…

EARP. 8.5: tournament score 8.5.

May have been England’s best player of the tournament and was ver-ry solid again tonight. Commanding under the high ball; had no chance with the German goal. Does she score extra style points or lose some, though, for the Loving The Camera thing? Comes all over a bit David Seaman/Jordan Pickford when she feels the lens upon her. Whatever: good work. You stay down there for ten minutes gurll, if ya can get away with it.

BRONZE. 6.25: tournament score 6.

This may be the best, most dynamic athlete and *player* in the England squad and she may know it. She’s off to Bayern next, no doubt seeking ‘a new challenge’ and a purse commensurate to her talents. (Most of which is fine, of course. Except possible inflated ego and limited loyalty). Bronze is a worldie who has spent much of the last two years either playing soo faaar within herself that she is almost absent, or being wasteful or under-focused (particularly defensively) given the immense talent she has. Poor tournament, given the success of the team and shockingly blokey cynicism (reffing the game/looking to inflame/amateur dramatics in the last ten minutes of extra-time). Should certainly have been booked for that nonsense. So yeh. We see you, Bronzey. We don’t need you thinking you’re a male Premier League Legend. Get playing.

BRIGHT. 8.679. Tournament score 9.

May be England’s most limited player but Player of the Tournament nevertheless. A Rock. The Stopper. The Lioness Army on her own, pretty much. *Maybe* might have closed down Magull earlier or better for that German goal but otherwise a close to flawless competition for the erm, Rock Stopper.

Williamson. 7.8. Tournament score 7.231.

Hugely accomplished player and excellent foil for Bright. Reads the game, can thread passes. Goodish but not at her peak in this adventure.

DALY. 7. Tournament score 6.9.

‘Honest’, old-school full-back. Meaning likes to clatter wingers and do that defensive graft. Limited composure and quality on the ball. Will battle.

WALSH. 6.572. Tournament score 6.572.

Holding midfielder who can play. But didn’t, all that much. Can see a pass but didn’t, all that much. Lacked presence, both physical and in terms of influence.

KIRBY. 6.1. Tournament score 6.3.

Fabulous player who has had significant health/fitness issues. Lucky to have seen this campaign out, having been scandalously absent in certain matches. Real shame she barely featured again tonight: Kirby oozes quality and skill and composure when purring. This evening, on a stage made for her, she barely made a pass.

STANWAY. 7.82. Tournament score 7.28.

Mixed again, from the playmaker. Not as ineffectual as Kirby but not convincing or influential in the way her team-mates, fans and coaching team might have hoped. Got drawn into some of the spiteful stuff and rarely picked her head up to find a killer pass. Good player marginally below form.

HEMP. 6. Tournament score 6.

Surprisingly low? Not for me. Hemp is a tremendous player, who does torment opponents week in, week out. But she started nearly every match looking paralysed by nerves and (as well as making some good runs and the occasional threatening cross) she ran down faaaar tooo many blind alleys. Fully understand Wiegman’s No Changes policy but Hemp’s mixed contributions were so obvious that she might have been dropped in another high-flying side. In short, another underachiever given her ability.

MEAD. 6.75. Tournament score 7.243.

Golden Boot winner: scorer of a couple of fine goals. What’s not to like? Mead’s wastefulness wasn’t at the level of her co-wide-person, Hemp but her early contributions tended to be somewhere between woeful and mediocre. So nerves. When she settled or didn’t have time to think she smashed the ball in the net. So significant plusses. But I maintain she was significantly down on her capacity.

WHITE. 6. Tournament score 6.

Fine all-round striker who lacked her edge. Good movement but missed chances, including an early header tonight. Intelligent, crafty, even but neither involved sufficiently in link-up play nor the Fox-in-the-Box she aspires to be. She may not care, but not a great tournie for Whitey.

SUBS.

RUSSO. 6.75.Tournament score 7.45.

She’ll (and we’ll) always have that backheel – probably the Footballing Moment of the Year(?) – and she featured well on appearing around the hour. Has a certain physicality White lacks and does threaten magic. Wiegman will be feeling pret-ty smug, I’m guessing that her Russo Project delivered.

TOONE. 7.82. Tournament score 7.49.

Beautifully-taken goal, against the grain of the match. Historic, I guess. Is a talent and, like Russo, has the gift of sparking something. Quite possibly unlucky not to have started games: was quietish, mind, apart from the goal.

KELLY. 6.2. Tournament score 6.2.

Bundled in her goal but like most of us half-expected it to get ruled out for the way in which she fought off her defender. Then went mental. (Think her goal was probably legit but would it have been given in Berlin, I wonder? The officials were consistently poor, were they not?) Have no problem identifying as a Football Purist so thought Kelly’s repeated and deliberately inflammatory way of ‘going to the corner’ was literally foul. An awful way to finish a good tournament.

Don’t care if folks think I’m being embarrassingly retro if I say it’s a slippery slope, that, down to where the scheisters in the Bloke’s Big Time hang out to ‘draw their fouls’. Cheap shot after cheap shot – unnecessary. The manifestly higher levels of fairness and respect in the women’s game are important. Don’t fall in to shithousery, please. Thought the lead pundit on the telly-box – former England keeper – was appalling around this and her pitifully one-eyed view of the game, generally, was unedifying.

SCOTT. 7. Tournament score 7.

Scott’ s brief for some time is to run around for a limited period of time and rob the ball, then keep it simple. She tends to do that well. She’s feisty, too. Fading memory – was it her, wassit her?!? – of a Classic Moment when argy-bargy broke out and Scott bawled “FUCK OFF YOU FUCKING PRICK!!” into the face of one of our European sisters. Guessing our Jill is a Brexiteer.

WIEGMAN. 7.985. Tournament score 8.972.

Clearly a good coach/manager of people. Don’t entirely buy the Oh My God She’s a Genius meme, because England were outplayed for too long by Spain and Sweden (and for some periods tonight) without sufficient reaction from either the England players or their coaching team. But she’s good, and she couldn’t do more than win the bloody thing, eh? Apparently she’s a right laugh, too. So maybe add a full point to those scores, on reflection.

PRESSER INVASION. 10.
The best, funniest, most human thing a daft bunch of wunnerful football stars have done for aeons. Magic.

OVERVIEW.

MASSIVE that England have won a tournament. Weird, you may think, that they have won it with half the team underachieving. But I do think that. #WEuro2022 has been a good, often fabulous comp with an ordinary final won by a team who maybe had a little luck. So what’s new? Most tournaments go that way, in fact many are poor quality, in truth and have a duffer of a showpiece.

It was important and often thrilling that we saw some top, top footie, with real quality, composure and skill at this event. France were outrageous at times; Spain gave England an hour lesson; Sweden and the Netherlands were tremendously watchable when at their best. But England went and won it; scrapped and flew in there and battled and then won it. They are to be congratulated. Here’s hoping we can look back on this in a wee while and bring out the ‘l’ word – legacy, dumbo! – without rolling our eyes (a la London Olympics, etc, etc).

I’m thinking this could be huge for women’s sport all over Europe, not just in Ingerland.

Field of Dreams.

A challenge, this: to wrangle with the conflictions around Flintoff and somehow appreciate fairly the reality-docu-dip that was his “Field of Dreams”.

Let’s blast away at the opening concerns, and indeed the opening credits. Crap intro which ladles on the Freddie-lurv and traduces the state of the game as it stands. (Of bloody course cricket is dogged by elitism – I spend half my life trying to oppose or render it obsolete – but it’s not THE most privileged sport in Britain. Let’s not start with a shameless dollop of clickbait and a slack falsehood: that debate is important).

Get that this is ‘popular TV’ but not sure that means we need to launch with Sun readership-level positioning of the central issue; that faaar too many kids are either denied the game entirely, or are rendered ‘irrelevant’ by lack of facilities/coaching/dosh. Wonderful that Frederico is (belatedly?) struck by the need to do something… but c’mon, let’s have a wee look at the thinking or motivation behind that. Then we can un-pick the socio-economic/class-based problems and hopefully look with clarity at the pitiful, possibly unsustainable failures of leadership.

Do I doubt the quality of Fred’s feeling for the game, or his impulse to pitch in and use his profile to put something back? Absolutely not. Would I have preferred it if he hadn’t made a documentary series off the back of that concern – i.e. if he had quietly but maybe more magnificently done all of this stuff off-camera? (Yes).

On the one hand Flintoff’s generosity shines through, here but it’s also the case that the former cricket-god has form for being relentlessly attention-seeking: in short Fred’s made more appalling telly that almost any man alive, and much of this seemed to be driven by a deepish neediness which may spring from his own, heavily-reported issues. (Issues I am absolutely not under-estimating. I’m just speaking plainly). Flintoff, like many great sportsfolks, has both an ego and some not insignificant baggage.

Flintoff also authentically has that Northern Way of being good and being honest. He is genuinely concerned for and genuinely proud of the mixed bag of dysfunctional ‘nutters’, borderline depressives and fabulous ‘under-achievers’ that make up his group. There are legitimately poignant (and even important) stories intertwined with the inevitable gather towards comradeship/achievement/growth.

Speaking as a Northern Lad (originally), brought up with sport in the blood and hugely conscious of the role it can play, it struck familiar chords. I didn’t grow up with or encounter Afghani immigrants who had cut their way out of lorries not knowing where the hell they were. I did, however, grow up (in the fullest sense) with lads who were allegedly ‘a waste of space’ everywhere but the sports field. I have coached a million hours in Community Settings and am proud to know people who spend their lives doing what Flintoff did – offering that way in. I know cricket can be a platform, a shelter, a right bloody laugh.

So I welled up, listening to lads who are nearly lost; imagining my kids on the streets; seeing Sean’s clandestine brilliance so dismembered by circumstance.

Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams” is enjoyable and compelling but flawed – of course it is. Fred’s that way himself (and so say all of us). Cricket is neck-deep in privilege and therefore dysfunction but this join-the-dots shuftie at ‘estates’, idylls and elite private schools, may not have added much to the urgently necessary discussions around administrative change and resolving inequality. (To be fair, that probably wasn’t The Brief).

Fred, and the essential team of (community) coaches who (though largely absent from our screens) clearly effected much of the cricket development, did some great stuff. I love and honour both them and the game, for that. The obligatory former SAS hunk threw in a team-building exercise that might have taken gold at the Blokey Back-slapping Olympics and Our Lovable Rogues *really did* make progress, not just as cricketers but as citizens.

Fred got some scallywags got off the streets, off their arses and (yes) inspired them to *do something positive*. Some fell in love with the game. Some made much-needed mates. Perhaps most importantly, about half of them joined the local club after the TV Caper was done. Flintoff used his clout, some of his personal wedge and an infectious lump of encouragement to make a difference. To paraphrase him, late-on; it may even be that the listening, the offering, the life-changing malarkey was waaay more important than any win over a bunch of toffs could be. This was bigger than cricket.

Pic courtesy BBC TV.