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.

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.

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.

London Calling. Or Falling? Or Stormed?

So waay too late, I went to an Olympics. Or an Olympic stadium. Aeons after the world loved London, Ingerland – ten excruciating years, in fact, by my reckoning – I’m there.

Now, somewhere between dystopian weirdness and jarringly-immediate come-uppance – and shit, at the moment of writing! – the fat, privileged, idle, laughing-stock who has robbed us of our very authenticity, preened the very worst of our national prejudices and creamed-off much of our silver for his pals in Stockbrokerville has been presented with a significant hurdle. Come the end of the day he may be spent. And this may be a turning-point back towards a kind of general decency and respect: a kind of England most of us could sign up to *at some level*.

(Yes, friends, I live in Wales so yes there are a million sub-clauses and qualifications inferred here. Don’t be insulted if I fail to itemise them?)

Meanwhile, *switching*, West Ham – the football team – smacked of a kind of earthy loveliness long before the London Olympics changed their geography as well as their profile. They were Bonds and Hurst and Peters and Brooking and Clyde Best. Their whole spirit was somehow characterised by the rolled-down socks (but metaphorically rolled-up sleeves) of that first-named club icon. So they were liked.

It’s absurd in 2022 to use phrases like ‘attractive football’; worse still to associate that with abstracted, rose-tinted community goodness but as I look around the acres of ‘park’ now home to the Happy Hammers, the clash of values, vistas and jazzed-up-verbals is somewhat mind-blowing. The mind drifts. The New Universe is built of gravel and murals. A metallic bowl, in cream and concrete and claret; opened-out spaces to accommodate a world of visitors; the greyish hinterland of planned policing.

I get there early so as to find stuff: Stratford, the stadium and a pub in Hackney Wick. It’s quietly thrilling to see so many Town milling about, more than two hours before kick-off. Already clear Solihull Moors gonna be swamped, on the terraces – or, ahem, in the seats.

Yes. I’m Grimsby and I’m there because I’m Grimsby. Despite being in West Wales for the whole of my considerable adult life. (Hands up, schizophrenic don’t cover it: proud of family and mates but substantially estranged from Ingerland. Particularly now). A National League Play-off Final has drawn me to The Smoke, not the prospect of a Boris be-heading, or the Plat Joob – which I have openly unsubscribed from.

Don’t blame me if the kaleidscopic madness of everything is conspiring towards another action painting. Blame them murals.

22,000 in the ground and towards 15k of them are GTFC. (No kidding. This may merely mark the size and history of the respective clubs but it feels incontrovertibly good, as a Town fan, in the building). Solihull – fair play – make a nonsense of this by quietly massacring a limp Mariners side for twenty-five minutes. They do all the ‘playing out’. They do all the ‘ball possession’. All the stuff we’ve been demanding, over beer and fodder in the local hostelry, they do.

Town have a fella called Fox in central midfield. He gets his head up. He gathers and looks – more than almost anybody in the National League. He should be playing alongside Clifton and he/they should be getting the ball. Hurst, the Grimsby manager, lacks the game intelligence to see this. Solihull boss the game faaaar too easily and Fox falls back on the easy role of dogged interceptor and header of midfield bombs. Clifton has a mare throughout. He’s not the only one undermined by nerves, tiredness and/or poor strategy but it’s a particular shame in his case.

Moors nearly murder us (see what I did there?) in the opening half-hour. Instead the lead at the interval is a manageable 1-0 – the eight foot twelve striker Kyle Hudlin inevitably nodding home just as folks were beginning to slide off for pies and pees. It’s been mixed fayre – and it remains that way – with Town’s dominance off the park barely reflected in the relatively uninspired action on the pitch.

It’s the National League; I get that. Guys are nervous and in the Mariners’ case, entitled to be drained. (Already two EPIC knock-out games ticked off. Remarkable, exhausting games). But there is a lot of poor, wasteful play and percentage-wise, a fair lump of that comes from Sousa, who, despite being gifted, seems to specialise in infuriating profligacy and Smith, who cannot pass. Others under-achieve but if I were to brutally dissect… those two guys seem the obvious candidates for release*, before the deeep breath and go again thing, in League Two, next season.

*Fully understand that some Town fans will powerfully disagree with this. Sousa’s dancing and Smith’s resilience have made a contribution. But for me they aren’t players for the next step.

The Town Faithful, perhaps blithely confident that somehow the Mariners will find a way, make their presence felt, periodically. And periodically, McAtee, the Boy Most Likely to, looks likely. Then he scores.

Seventy minutes gone, with Town threatening in bursts. McAtee beginning to look a tad laboured – been playing hurt, I’m guessing. A threaded pass offers a yard. He nails it, calmly threading the angle across the keeper. A million agents make another note. The lad may be in the Championship promptly; cruel for Town but plainly on merit.

We get our third consecutive bout of extra-time. Their right-winger gets his eighty-fourth cross in, unopposed by Amos. There is space and Town have thrown on the alternative, pacy strike-force to snatch this before pens. Abrahams is racing lustily around, Dieseruvwe showing the occasional good touch. Hurst’s late positivity feels like a healthy gamble.

The trauma of pens is avoided in probably the most predictable of fashions. Even though National League defenders spend most of their professional life defending aerial threats, (my) recent experience has been that they ain’t that proficient at doing it. (Witness Wrexham, here… and everything). A long throw is piled in to the six-yard box, from somewhere east of Lowestoft. A yellow-shirted neck cranes cruelly but the ball glances dangerously on. Maguire-Drew launches and gets a nudge. 2-1 Town.

Us part-time supporters (and Englishmen) go ballistic. It’s a ver-ry special eruption of pride, defiance, community. THIS TEAM have really triumphed. THIS TEAM really did refuse to lie down – serially. McAtee, soon after, is talking about 11 months of non-stop graft. The lad’s exhausted but wonderfully free of the arrogance that might come once somebody gets in his ear ‘about his worth’. He’s loved this club and loved this moment. He’s seen what it means to ‘these fans’. This is legitimate joy.

Anybody casting an eye over the decent sports press will have seen the columns that Jason Stockwood has been filing. They’re a kind of Decent Capitalism-Plus. The chairman gets it: people; value; patience; belief. I can’t argue with his support for Hurst – though in strategic terms I think he gets things wrong. But what the hell? There is something profoundly right – though indescribable – about Grimsby Town battling/earning/enabling an immediate (but endless, agonising) return to full-time, professional football.

Let’s draw no daft equivalence between that wonderful storming and the one the bloody nation(s) need. Travelling back to Wales, the issues, the anger, the surrealities will only garishly multiply. My ears have popped, bursting out of some West Of Ingerland tunnel. Deep breath and I’ll be all over the news channels.

Six Nations under one groove…

L’eau: c’est claire et bleue, n’est-ce pas? (Did I get the feminine thing, right?)

Clear blue water. It feels that way, the morning after: France at a higher level. With Matt Dawson’s recent description of Scotland as ‘world class’ looking ever dafter – or evermore like some kind of weird but familiar (and peculiarly English) Existential Guilt. An over-compensation.

Murrayfield was swiftly quietened. Then England Wales felt and often looked slightly Division Two, with Eddie Jones’s crew again looking like a team that lacks identity – quite possibly because Eddie Jones changes the line-up every time they step out on the park.

The hierarchy seems clear, then: France ten points better than everybody else, with Ireland and England closely matched, behind. Les Bleus go to Cardiff – where they should win – and host England, who may yet offer a challenge. Should Natural Justice prevail, however, the best and most entertaining side in the tournament will win a Grand Slam. Few would deny them that.

Scotland have closed a metaphorical gap, to their credit, in recent years, but remain reliant on inspirational sparks from the crowd, or from hearty, ball-carrying individuals. It’s notable – and disappointing for us neutrals – how Hogg and Russell have underwhelmed, thus far. Wales, meanwhile, are somehow both close to a slump… and occasionally brilliant. Here are my two live blogs, from Saturday.

Du Pont! Generously waiting a full seven minutes before dancing and smashing through the hosts. Classically ‘French’ try – meaning all-court rugby of a particularly expansive species, made by the scrum-half’s endless, penetrating break. Murrayfield stamps its feet quietly and shakes out the cold. May be resigned, early doors.

A minor response – an important response – as Russell knocks over a pen but within another five or six minutes a second, genuinely glorious try from as France surge, sling, then bundle over in the corner. After fifteen, the visitors lead 12-3 but have already minced most of those absurd expressions of confidence from pro-Scottish pundits. (C’ mon: it’s been obvious. Scotland were fortunate to beat England, they are an improved side but still a relatively moderate one AND NOWHERE NEAR AS GOOD AS FRANCE. Whatever happens from hereon in).

The wind is blowing strongly, in Scotland’s favour – assuming you accept that a following wind is a boon. The thought strikes that Hogg’s monumental kicking game may be key to keeping this close ’til half-time… but beyond that?

Scotland managing set-pieces okay: they rob a line-out and van der Merwe opens his legs. Encouragement. Then a Big Moment. Jaminet launches at the high ball but clumsily mis-judges. Yellow? He is maybe fortunate. What the full-back’s error does do is offer real momentum to Scotland. They capitalise, after an extended period of pressure: Darge powers over after a tap penalty. After the extraordinary expression of superiority from France, in those initial exchanges, the scoreboard reads 10-12. Ridiculous and rather wonderful. *Perhaps especially* given the growing sense that a few French heads are reverting to stereotype: i.e. lost under pressure.

Scotland again get the penalty upon contact: then France strip the hosts. Then a knock-on, from Jaminet – who, in fairness had to reach behind himself in the attempt to gather. (Poor pass). Incredibly, we reach 35 minutes (in about 12) and this entertaining harem-scarem feels even. No phases, lots of excitement.

AAAARGH. Clear green water for van der Merwe then Hogg must surely score?!? The pass is out front… a teaser… a killer. The skipper can’t get there but can’t stop himself reaching and knocking on. Could decide the match, that – a score then and even I might believe in a ridicu-grind towards a Scottish victory. Instead, we approach the half and France have a line-out on the twenty-two.

The first opportunity is missed, strangely because of a slightly lazy long pass, form the godlike Du Pont. No matter. France, well into red time, keep this alive and scorch diametrically towards the other corner. Pace and power again combine, as Fickou barges over and in. (Perhaps that might have been defended?) Whatever. 10-19 may flatter France a tad… but surely does represent the relative strengths of the sides?

Second half. France score early (so I’m looking wee bit smug). Danty may have been a tad fortunate with the bounce but again, that sense that Natural Justice is at work: an improved but out-gunned Scotland are being, yaknow, out-gunned. 10-26, now.

Half of you may not like my dismissal of the Scots: it ain’t personal. I rate and respect the development and the skill and spirit (especially) they are showing again, here. But they are not The Contenders some of the Top, Top Pundits have been saying they are. And I do think that’s been obvious – even when they’ve won games, showing a healthy mix of ambition and of guts.

France are kicking a bit like France; otherwise the differential might be bigger. It’s blowing, at Murrayfield but our friend Eunice is long gone. Notable that Russell is having little influence; a kind of non-developing theme, in this championship?

Have Scotland suddenly tired? The French winger Penaud suddenly has acres to jog into, unopposed. One of the weirder ones – and surely dispiriting, for the team in white? Converted, so we now sit at 10-31, in (whatever the French is for) mullering territory. La Marseillaise; magnificently.

The game does that thing where it goes into Inevitably Scrappy Mode. Scotland have no choice but to look for tries, and battle courageously. France seek unanswerable superiority through multiple phases which the hosts, to their credit, deny them. It’s a clear away win and has been, arguably, since the fourth minute. The breakdown is contested manfully, to limit the damage but Penaud again finds a paddock available as Ntamack kicks serenely into space. 36-10.

Finally, something for the locals to cheer. Kinghorn runs… and runs… and offloads to the grateful VDM. Thrilling but almost irrelevant. A knock-on in midfield prompts the whistle. 17-36: away win, of the convincing variety. Warburton waxes lyrical about France, who come to Cardiff on 11th March to entertain us – and *I do mean* us. I’ll be there!

Les Bleus are earning the right to be talked about as world-leaders. That’s unknowable or un-provable, surely, as yet(?) but they look like a side that could go to-to-toe with the icons of the South. Meantimes, they must be targeting a Grand Slam, to cap off an exhilarating championship. It’s what they deserve… and I strongly suspect most neutrals would welcome that eventuality.

England versus Wales.

Smith gets us going. Great hoist. England have it, just a few yards out but concede the penalty… before claiming one in return. Easy kick for the glamour boy – drilled home. Jones’ Posse looking bright and aggressive: the worst chant in world sport gets an early airing by way of erm, encouragement. A second penalty, again exactly where the fly-half would’ve wanted. 6-0; all a bit easy.

Sniff of an opportunity, for Wales. Tompkins pings a probing punt forward but nothing arises. Decent defending, from Daly. (A-and the Alliteration Overload Award of the week goes to)…

A sudden burst of pressure offers the visitors hope, via scrum then line-out, deep into the twenty-two. Longish advantage before Biggar opts for another throw in the corner. Lawes robs it!

Wales notably unhappy with the refereeing: not just their skipper ‘having words’. Cuthbert breaks but concedes a penalty on contact. But some encouragement for the red shirts, who are shading things, in this wee period. It remains 6-0, after 15, however.

Gorgeous step and no-look pass from Marcus Smith electrifies the midfield. Again, within seconds, Wales have offended but the England pivot narrowly fails to capitalise. (Kickable, nine out of ten). A mixed game, quality-wise, with limited phases. Randall looking confident, mind.

Ewels within an inch or six – hands under the ball. Prolonged break for a review of Williams’ sly mitt. The full-back is binned, eventually, and England are five metres out. Scrum. Rinse and repeat, messily, infuriatingly – consider re-setting the lawsingly.

Wales get the pen; Sinckler standing but getting no sympathy from the ref. Best part of ten minutes near the Welsh line but almost no rugby. Finally, Wales clear. Injuries and spillages. Basham rips brilliantly, Lawes gets one in the eye but still almost no rugby – or *only* rugby of that competitive-but-suffocating variety. Cowan-Dickie subbed, injured, on twenty-four minutes. Another scrum. No sense, in truth, that Wales are a man short.

The visitors surge, Cuthbert dismisses Nowell faaar too easily but another error follows. Scrum Wales, in a decent, central position. Ambition, from Biggar as he tests opposing wingers with a floaty, cross-field kick. Nothing results but the clock has ticked down. Slade’s neat step almost threatens but it’s a tectonic clattering from Curry that ultimately offers Smith the chance to increase that lead. Slotted nicely from thirty-five yards.

Now Liam Williams is back. He may be happy enough that the board confirms an increase of only three points in England’s favour. Given that conditions are perfect – really perfect – I’m wondering (after 35 mins) if this game is going to reveal the relative (that word again) mediocrity of both teams. (That harsh? Perhaps. But this is ordinary fayre).

Finally rugby breaks out. Phases; movement; threat. Smith is absolutely at the heart of it, bursting intelligently, drawing and popping, utterly justifying his place. He thrashes over a simple pen. England go in 12-0 up.

Ugly, ugly, strategic, deliberately sapping breakdown work, from England. Part of the Great Grind? Fair enough. It may be the way to win this.

OH GAWD!! Uber-clanger, from Wales gifts Dombrandt a try. The number eight has only to catch the shockingly fluffed line-out and his momentum will carry him through. He catches, he stretches and the lead goes to an inviolable 17-0, as Smith misses the kick from wide.

Wales do respond, with some sustained attacking – well, relatively, but inevitably the visitors cough up possession. Pivac will be angry, never mind disappointed.

As with Scotland, so with Wales: we get spirit. (Then we get the Royal Bloody Family).

The game feels gone but Williams throws a sharp one out to Adams… and the flyer finishes clinically, as he tends to. 17-5, 25 minutes remaining. Surely not? Wales have found some purpose. A further try is not unthinkable. And then who knows?

Line-out five metres out. Phases with some control. A TRY SEEMS LIKELY. Tompkins, deservedly, gets in. With Biggar being characteristically emphatic from the tee, Wales are flying and the margin is only 17-12. Youngs comes on for his record-breaking appearance. England need him to manage this.

A little territory, for the home side. Cuthbert breaks out but is isolated and expertly crunched by Nowell. Penalty. Smith – at the furthest extent of his range, you suspect – converts, for an eight point lead. (So important). Marginal, but that may have been against the grain of the match; certainly of the half.

Wales offend at the line-out after a clearance from Slade. Kickable. Smith again delivers calmly. Nine minutes remain. 23-12. Commentary team quite rightly making the distinction between the margin on the scoreboard (eleven points) and the ‘lack of (real) authority’ in England’s performance. Untimely pens and/or recurring pens have cost Wales.

Two minutes left and Wales looking to make some statement of defiance. Line-out routine. They have a penalty. England asleep as Hardy taps and goes. In! Jones will be angry and disappointed – particularly as Wales will have one more phase of possession. 23-19. Tension where there was none.

The visitors retain and auto-circulate, showing tremendous resolve – and skill under pressure. Williams does brilliantly to stay in touch… but Wales again contrive to concede possession. Game over? NO!! Lawes concedes a deliberate knock-on (and pundits all agree he should be yellowed). Ridicu-tension, now.

After a near-epic spell of edgy, competitive, necessarily expansive rugby, England get their hands on the ball. The roar of relief can be heard in Brighton. Were Wales ‘hard done by?’ In the sense that they were better and more threatening in the second half, yes. But they lacked both the top-level sharpness and discipline to hurt England enough. And England lacked authority. Some drama, belatedly but this was mixed fayre from two unremarkable sides.

Where were you?

Where did that reference to The Mekons come from? Oh yeh. Twitter. Those profound, weedy, ridicu-lyrics: somebody posted. As did I, ’bout lunchtime, Sat’dee.

Meanwhile it was sleepless sleep, in the howling, battering gale and watchful half-skewed relentless triptych-vision. Daft, undulating, golden, white resort-sports for the White Stuff Generation on the one screen, footie and/or cricket on the other. Maybe radio too.

The rugby, you have to watch. Even if you absolutely do, now, fall into the category of Six Nations Dilettante. (Yup. Sadly. Having previously followed club action/the wider game, I now find myself unable, somehow, to grab a hold. Too busy; too much else). But this, despite mixed or even lowish standards, is a good tournament. Never more so than when the green/red/navy danders are up, the tribalism off the scale and the gales a-blowing.

England slaughtered Scotland for an hour, without turning dominance into points. Then Smith – the Hoddle, the Poster-boy, the Soft Centre – was withdrawn, as the stats (probably) or the GPS (possibly) said he was 0.023 down on something. Despite having just raced thrillingly across the try-line, thereby raising the flag for poetry and instinct in a way only probably he and his opposite number could even contemplate, Marcus was pulled: Jones and his 1400 sub-coaches looked to Ford to ‘manage the thing from here’.

That moment of soul-crushing pragmatism prompted the ancient-but-righteous gods of joy, IRN-BRU and twinkling perversity to gather immediately around and hoist their kilts. The hitherto impregnable Cowan-Dickie wilted in the maelstrom, pansy-patting the ball forward and out of play, to deny a possible score for the foaming, lurking Graham. It was both a robbery and a moment of grace: the penalty try being awarded, apparently, as punishment for the deliberate, if barely-controlled slap at the ball, without consideration for whether the attacking player would have gathered in cleanly and touched down. In that sense, controversial. Morally, a win for the resurgent jocks and all of us.

Meanwhile, before, Ireland stunned Wales. *All the ingredients were there*, as they were in Edinburgh. Febrile ether; gale; beery breath. Plus a marginally more complex ‘national relationship’ between the protagonists. (They tend to be Celts together after proceedings. During, there is *feeling*). Ireland launched and never came back down – or hardly – the intensity of the thing being simply too much for a mediocre Welsh side, who could not, despite keeping the score respectable for 40 minutes and more, compete meaningfully across the park.

It was a series of impressively purposeful, urgent flurries by the hosts that wore Biggar’s side down. The new Welsh skipper has a mighty, doughty spirit to go with his management skills. Even he was found shaking his head in disbelief and disappointment, late in the game.

Zoom out; remember. (Christ it was only yesterday!)

Pacing the energy-use was key, eh? And re-fuelling with care. Early alcohol was deeply unwise – it generally is – but throw a healthy pile of nosh and a tactical kip in there and you find yourself upright for The Cricket, later. (Upright in bed, anyways). Aus have won the toss and are asking Heather Knight to carry her team through another onslaught. She can’t. Nor can Sciver, the other Significant Hope.

England bat, understandably but also illogically – the series has gone! – with caution. Winfield-Hill is both dreamy-good, with her expansive drives but also unable, with her early partners, to garner more than three an over. When her coach Keightley and her 178 sub-coaches know that Healy will coast nearer to six, from the off. So it’s reasonable madness, from England. They splutter to a chillingly disappointing 120-odd all out: Winfield-Hill gets her customary 30. It’s never-in-a-million-years a competitive total.

But I slid towards fitful slumber at about the twenty over mark. When England were still below 80, from memory. Rafters clanging. Sea rumbling. Had to lie side-on and perch a pillow over my head to blot out – just a little – the sound. Felt both bit like smothering yourself and retreating into childhood and adventure. Oh, and final phone check – just to turn off, really. But yeh, twitter…

When I was waiting in the bar, where were you?
When I was buying you a drink, where were you?
When I was crying home in bed, where were you?

When I watched you from a distance, did you see me?
You were standing in a queue, did you see me?
You had yellow hair, did you see me?

Mekons.

Ted Lasso.

Two series in, so what do we think?

We think it’s pret-ty close to wonderful. We think it’s gobsmackingly surprising that something which we feared was gonna reek of America(na), of franchises, of that whole dumbing-down of the universe by checking in so constantly with the Gods Who Dance With Schmaltz turns out to be a rampaging, intelligent, bright and even poignant force for good. (Good telly; goodness in humanity).

We have fallen about, and blubbed. We’ve darn-near turned off – maybe when Ted’s made-for-American TV-isms have flown irritatingly over our heads again… but then been utterly compelled, both by the humour of the Overall Thing and by the brilliance of the sporting intel.

Say what?!? Sporting intel? Yes, even when – as always – the live sport can seem clunky and in danger of failing the myriad authenticity tests so immediately and rightly hoisted by pedantically maniacal fans like my good self. (We know footie. Don’t fuck wiv us*). YES, sporting intel, because whoever is writing/directing/playing/making this stuff does understand football (enough) and, remarkably, coaching, too.

*In fact the live sport here is waaay better than most; though admit the bar has been set appallingly low by almost every football film or series in history. Players can play, mostly, ‘live’ matches are 80% there and the changing-room vibe is decent, plus.*

Ted Lasso (the programme) makes a zillion jokes about Ted Lasso (the coach) not knowing the rules, the history, the zeitgeist in which football booms and busts and yaknow, breaks us. But – in case, friends, ya missed it – this is all knowingly done. The outstanding awareness and generosity and wisdom embedded in the Lasso Method – coaching as transformative, civilising mission, which *really does* look to empower players/individuals, through appreciation, prompting, enquiry, support – utterly squishes any idea that this Dumb American is some under-informed fraud. NO. Ted is a wonder-coach; that’s what this story is about. A bloke who, despite being absurdly out of place, re-defines the quality of that place… by being wonderful… and sophisticated… and deeply, inviolably human.

Everything is faith. That corny, hand-written sign above the door, that says BELIEVE. That ethos, where something we might need to dare to call brotherhood (and critically, authentic sisterhood) grows, becoming essential to the execution of strategies on the pitch and the veracity of the drama beyond it. If there is a tension around Ted’s flirting, or outright crazy street-meme-dancing with and through banalities-which-might-be-profundities and vice-versa, somehow it works. People love him and he bloody deserves it. We’re mercifully and pointedly not hearing anything about god, here, but the series is an ode to faith.

(Minor note. I’m a sports coach so do have some knowledge of how teams are selected, motivated, organised. It’s clear to me that Ted/the writers have a good understanding of where coaching is. Lasso’s relentless good-humour should not obscure the objective – which goes beyond any kind of ‘good guys can win’ schtick. Ted is enacting a very contemporary thread towards building ownership/decision-making/power within the player. The camaraderie and the community-of-souls thing is of course a necessary co-host to all this developing positivity. But the leadership smacks of informed, elite-level choices towards empowerment).

So Ted is a humble genius and a daft idol. Vulnerable, through family breakdown and trauma – separated, father a suicide – prone to anxiety attacks which we see, on camera, in a popular TV series. Further evidence that this world-franchise-monster is overwhelmingly a force for good in the universe. (Except that’s daft, right?)

This is a Big Television Event and it has resources. Unlike many hiked-up projects that might fall into that category it shares the quality and the stories around. Hard to find a character that isn’t well-drawn, generously developed, real enough to make us laugh or cry or root for them. (Can’t stand Awards Ceremonies so didn’t watch the Emmys but apparently it won a shedload. No wonder. Great casting, looks excellent in almost every scene, scripts top-level).

Coach Beard is brilliant – lugubrious and wise and kinda delusionally-in-lurv. He gets ‘his own episode’. Rebecca Welton is stunning and hilarious and extraordinarily multi-dimensional. Her relationship with Keeley Jones, who is willing herself rather magnificently towards Being Someone, whilst oozing with love for those around her, is knock-out and frankly, emosh. Lots of this is frankly emosh, whilst knowing exactly how close it tiptoes to that aforementioned schmaltz.

In short – because I really could go on, about Coach Nate, Mae in the pub, those daft three Greyhound supporters and Miss Fuckwitch and (Our New Hero) Sam Obisanya and (That New Pantomime Villain That I Ju-ust Think We Might Finish Up Loving) Jamie Tartt – you need to make an effort to see Ted Lasso. On Apple TV. It’s popular but grown up. There is sex – and especially via the softening but formerly hardened street-warrior Roy Kent – there is lots of fu-uck-ing language. So what? More importantly, this is a ludicrous but self-aware and ‘issues’-aware smash. A celebration. A reminder that cynicism – probably ours – is bad and that love stories can be good.

Mady Villiers – in the flow.

So, Mady Villiers then. Even in defeat. Electrifying and watchable, ‘stoked’ and stoking the energy of the crowd with her youthful, skillful, thrillingly-coordinated contribution.

Most folks coming away from Sussex County Cricket Club on Saturday night will have been smiling and re-living the genuinely multiple moments of brilliance from the England player – even some of the few visiting or Brighton-resident Kiwis, you suspect. (The White Ferns won the match – deservedly – through better and more consistent work, but even their Player of the Match Sophie Devine brought less extravagant pazzazz and performance to the event). Villiers, meanwhile utterly shone.

Elite women’s cricket is soaring in the background but in a sexist universe it still, of course, finds itself categorised (by men of a particular sort, obviously) as Almost The Real Deal But Not Quite. Blokes who look and sound like me – ‘sporty’, ‘authentic’, ‘experienced’ – own this territory as much as if not more than they own everything.

So a) they wrongly and inadequately judge male and female cricket as some hierarchical homogeny b) they know exactly which one is ‘best’. Oh and c) many of these guys really are arseholes  –  look at social media/listen in the pub but (even) the ones that aren’t reside in the Flawed Geezer sector of humanity. (I flit, inevitably, between both male states, hoping to keep my foothold in the Flawed-but-trying subsection).

Male cricket is allegedly ‘best’ because The Blokes bowl quicker and hit harder and throw themselves around in the field more athletically. Physiological difference makes this (ahem) an Undeniable Truth. Bullshit. It may be a convenient truth but good luck trying to de-authenticate Marizanne Kapp’s recent bowling performance (Hundred, final) or South East Stars’ openers Smith and Cranstone, batting in the weekend’s Charlotte Edwards Cup Final. And maybe take a look at Sophie Ecclestone’s left-arm slow. *Etcetera*.

The point is it’s futile, unwise, unhelpful and plain wrong to go comparing. Just watch without prejudice. Or – because I get that machismo-thing (or that baggage-thing) may get in the way of that aspiration – do your best. I’ve chosen to follow elite women’s cricket around for some years now and I find it truly compelling: there are even some plusses to the Sexual Politics side of this – the sense that despite everything, women’s cricket is manifestly, irresistibly on the up.

Back to Villiers; partly because the most legitimate criticism of the elite women’s game has arguably centred around fielding standards. (Know this is more flawed thinking – a kind of concession to that matrix of bullish negativity – but think there is *also* something of a fair cop going on, here). Skill levels and agility levels in female international cricket or women’s pro’ cricket are not always where they might be. Too many mis-timed dives over the ball, too many catches dropped.

Much of this can be simply accounted for. Lack of experience – maybe particularly under lights. The ver-ry recent advent of full-time professional contracts. Skill Development under way, rather than culturally ingrained (as per the blokes). Coaches and players in the women and girls’ pathway the world over are grafting with real integrity and purpose to get to where Mady Villiers is. Maybe they are conscious that brilliant movement will better appease the sceptics? I hope they feel more that there is something wonderfully liberating in throwing yourself around and that this in itself is the driver towards increasingly exhilarating sport.

At Hove on Saturday night, Mady Villers was prowling and diving and catching and slashing magnificent throws in to the stumps. At one stage, with the equally outstanding Danni Wyatt stationed to her right – and both, therefore, within about thirty yards of where I was scribbling – it felt fab-yoo-luss to be in the presence of such intensely-tuned athletes. If you wanted authentic, high level sport, it was patently in front of you. If you wanted frisson and raw but heightened entertainment, ditto.

I am posting a picture of Mady Villiers throwing, at the head of this blog. It’s a cheat in the sense that this pic – robbed from ECB, from memory – was not taken on the night that Mady announced herself as a presence. That was Hove, Sat-dee Sept whatever-it-was. (Go find some highlights, maybe?) Here, in this frame, Villiers is ready to go/flow/throw.

As a coach/sports-fan/bloke, I love this pic. It reeks of urgency and focus and magnificent, grooved movements. It’s bursting through stuff. Love the left foot raised as the heel is placed. Love the wide, elastic base and that sideways-on position. Love the game face and the high, throwing elbow. Love the gesture of the left hand as it flips and points and feels for the target. Love that the chest and core is clearly being flexed and opened, ready for the lashing-through of that right arm. Love that she’s gonna bloody sling this, hard.

Am aware of the dangers of extrapolating out – searching for symbols. But (quite possibly because of my flaws or guilt or certainly my *viewpoint*) it feels not irrelevant that this is a young woman. Mady Villiers. Showing the universe that she can really do this.