Is it just me that thinks that Rio – in his admittedly low-voltage kindofaway – appears to want to give off both something of the guru and the gangsta? (And I ask this in the awareness of the danger of slapping stereotype upon racial slight or slackness here.) He’s got a certain power in that low-geared, almost ambling style of his that diffuses itself into ‘projects’, some of which conflict. Is he, for example (or is anyone else, mind?) really an anti-gun/knife, pro pro-empowerment-thru-education, unfaithful metro-renaissance man with what appear to be occasional flashes of lefty intelligence, who identifies with black urban music and an oppressed worldview… and produces/approves films/music with a worryingly confrontational dynamic? If so how does that all work? And why am I wondering that?

It’s partly, of course, because I’m a white geezer who really doesn’t understand or know the territory – I accept that. But it’s also because we are, right now, by his centrality to the England selection fiasco, pretty much bound to wonder at his integrity – maybe at his level of maturity (even) – given the undeniably childish way this Hodgson/Terry/Fergie/Rio/Qatari/Spinal Rehabgate thing is unravelling. In brief the er… highlights;

1. In a previous life, Hodgson foolishly chooses Terry over Ferdinand

2. Rio sulks but continues to radiate that god’s-gift sweeperaciousness whilst nonchalantly easing round the park…

3. so as to make ultimate re-selection an inevitability.

4. When the call comes, Rio snubs…

5. And Hodgson shrugs…

6. And ‘statements’ come out…

7. And they all sound like cobblers. Embarrassing cobblers.

8. Essentially, Rio has apparently done everything to exact a kind of revenge upon Hodgson, the FA, and the universe. It’s garbage – all of it. Sez yer average fan.

Now might be the time to say that Rio Ferdinand – even allowing for the debilitating injuries (particularly, I imagine the back injuries) – has been close to the best centre-back England has ever produced. If he had remained free from pain and boundlessly agile, I think he may even have been England’s finest player all round. He is one of few who can stop people playing whilst caressing the ball about the place. He can head, tackle, read the game at a level far higher than most; then he brings in that composure, that comfort on the ball and his peers – let’s say like John Terry – look quite quite ordinary by comparison. Fit, he would have been the best centre-half in the world, as Ferguson said he might be on the day he signed for United. For emphasis, I want to repeat that he’s been pretty damn close to the best centre-half in the world whilst playing hurt for years; he’s that good.

But now this. The potential for yahboosuckery has been there for some time. Without being party to the (entirely normal, actually?) clique-making proclivities amongst the Engerland FC elite, it’s been clear that Mardy-Bums lurk. Ferdinand – wow, I realise that this is such a contentious thing to write about him – appears to be an individual (amongst several – black and/or white) – with a chip on his shoulder. Therefore unlikely to accept the vagaries of a new gaffer’s policy on this or that should it clash heavily with his own needs and indeed self-image. I imagine Ferdinand can’t stand any of Hodgson, Cole or Terry and these feelings are likely reciprocated. What is a wee bit tiresome here is the fact of Engerland’s Need.

Egos. Mountainous and cavernous and generally all-round large and hairy interveneth. And it clangs against our – the punter, the fan’s – sense of what is good and right about Playing For Your Country, however dodgily old-fashioned (or not?) that concept may be. A big lump of the universe thinks that playing footie for his/her country really is an Ultimate. Yanking up those formerly Umbro socks, trotting out to wave at an openly weeping cluster of friends near the Royal Box, ritualistically parping mucous out the nozzy as the ref counts down the seconds. Ultimate. So what… what’s happened to those standards, those understandings? Given that Rio is still, currently, our best centre-back?

There is an assumption that few modern players appreciate the import of these classically traditional/tribal feelings in the way that Stanley Matthews or even Stanley Bowles did. That yes or no from the England Boss meant a huge amount. Dads did blub; mums did flutter with a pride that wasn’t all nationalistic mania; it contained or described even a kind of love. It may well still be out there, in fact; it’s just that we feel overwhelmingly that such is the absurd and cosseted and raw self-important nature of the average Premiership beast that these things typically just don’t matter like they did. (Whether this in itself is a phenomenon to regret or to celebrate, by the way, is another fascinating, quasi-political matter – but one for another time.) Certainly the modern elite pro’ doesn’t need to care about much; he is either rich or obscenely rich; there are no worries about security or profile; when every need is so luxuriously taken care of a certain smugness surely sets in. (Generally.)

Footballers are not known for their sensitivity or intelligence; though the game has changed, the prevalence of gambolling youff or over-coiffured senior – now with ‘people’ – has persisted. Rio is not one of the Grade A posers, being quietly cool rather than fawningly fashion-conscious. He’s grown out of a fair amount, moving further towards that genuinely exclusive club where players who are held as true exemplars draw the phrase ” Aww, he’s a player he is”, (or similar) from supporters home and away. He’s class and that’s been obvious for ten or twelve years. But this England thing ain’t classy.

Certain papers will have a field day with the trip to the Middle East to spice up coverage of the England game. Considering the allegedly stringent requirements of Ferdinand’s Injury Management Schedule, Rio could hardly have been taking the piss more effectively had he first run to Qatar, then scored the winner for Montenegro on the way back. That’s a YAH-BOO-SUCKS of a fairly exaggerated quality. It’s hard not to equate this with a turning his back on England, as some unfortunately very public tit-for-tat effort unworthy of too much of our attention. But gor blimey look how much attention it’s gonna get…

How we wish to calibrate this on the rebellionometer will naturally depend on where we sit on the issue of nationalistic fervour-as-community spirit(-ometer.) Whilst not understanding (and certainly not knowing in grim detail) half the nuances of half the Fergiesque mind-games that have been played out in the last few days, I do understand the following concept, arisen like a bedraggled moggy where there should be three lions; disappointment.


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Beware; the following is unashamedly personal…

My Grandfather – The Mighty Vic to me as I entered the adult phase – played pro football. At Doncaster Rovers, Grimsby Town and Manchester United. I believe (having been told by a source who was typically not the man himself) that he was

a) the Tommy Hutchinson of his time – although throwing one-handed, in the late 20’s onwards – and

b) he may have been for one day the most expensive player in British football before being superceded by one Alex James Esquire. (In his baggy shorts, right?)

I am openly happy to say I don’t know how true either of these stories are – to me it’s never mattered.

Vic died many years ago – sadly too many – as I was then still too immature to have those precious, allegedly and quite probably truly adult conversations about what it was all really like; that time.

My father was born and raised in Macclesfield, south of Manchester in an area now conflicted with absurdly rich young men wearing absurdly ostentatious clobbah, sweeping valleys and abrasive moors full-stopped with atmospheric and therefore memory-encrusted outcrops I do know bear the name Tors.

Don’t get me wrong with this rural pastiche thing; our lot were working class folks from within Macc itself rather than dung-clad clog-wearers from the leafy or stony or now rolex-heavy environs; they lived in streets. Now, myself, I have only a rather shamefully inadequate awareness of Man Tor being perennially present in the family consciousness – in my own consciousness in fact – and I could not confidently expect to locate it for you without a map.

Dad was a good sportsman too. Crucially for me now as a halfbreedspeaker of both Grimbarian and leeky-Welsh and long-time resident of West Wales, when apparently confronted with the choice of either signing schoolboy forms for Man City or playing full-back for Sale RFC, he chose the latter. Meaning I, his son, could later bask in the glory of his quasi-puritanical hwyl whenever a conversation in a hostelry or club bar in the province offered an opportunity for sporting/spiritual passport-production. He/we/I am authentic and have tended to be let in.

My father was in fact a really good sportsman in every sense; multi-talented; fair to the point of upright. He also did love both rugby and football – as I do – and would have shared, I know, some of my concerns about Evra/Young/Balotelli/Tevezgates and the many etceteras that unfortunately spring to mind. His club, his football club, was always City; City ’til the cruel day he died, at the (surely-this-should-have-gone-to-appeal-ref?) age of 44.

I recall him writing to Tony Book to complain (I think) about a drop in sportsmanship in the game – possibly even from City players. I picture him driving the football right-footed, with that exaggerated toe-pointed/head-descended pose he had when on those few occasions we played in the same Healing Royal British Legion Sunday Football Club side; him defending stoutly – slightly pigeon-chestedly – me twinkling up front. (I used the word pose, by the way, only in the sense of body shape; neither this bloke My Dad nor The Mighty Vic ever posed at anything in their quietly magnificent lives.)

Vic was of course United. He’d played through pain in an era when real, barely-treated pain existed for pro footballers. Pain they could feel, we could see and everyone could believe in. At twenty-six, his career was over because of it. He lived a longish and maybe predictable post-footie life; policeman/driving instructor/grandpa becoming more known and loved for his Northern trueness – his absolute lack of side – than for his sporting ‘fame’. At the age of about 70 he could head a football like… well substantially more powerfully and authoritatively than a certain Liverpool centre-forward I might mention.  He never lived to see the new gods of the Premier League and in a way I’m glad for that.

I know we’re into some generational thing here and I know its pitfalls. But look in an extraordinary week for football, for Manchester, it may even be healthy to let some sentiment, some ghosts, some history infiltrate the modern analysis. Football people exist; still. Perhaps in some crude or abstract way I wish to represent them or ingratiate myself into some imagined brotherhood that may then fight heroically against the flash and the brash and the alien. Or at least point out that the Emperor Mario is starkers with a firework up ‘is ‘arris. It feels appropriate to plant a flag for the real spirit of the game, which fortunately we will still hear and feel from the terraces of (even?) the Etihad.

United City is suddenly a mega-derby. Likely to decide the Premiership, or at least hugely important in that Manciniquest. I’ve written previously on the Psycho-joust between the two clubs and between Ole Rednose and the Gaye Gesticulator – both of whom, it strikes me, would have been recognised as proper football blokes, in their different ways, by my forefathers. For surely there is much about Ferguson and Mancini that is reassuringly toggeresque; the anger, the passion for starters; the genuineness of that twisted emotion.

What’s different is of course the inflated stuff; the hopeless arrogance around; the money. It has me turning in my own grave many years (I hope) in advance of my actual death and from the rattling down our street I sense I’m not alone in this. Boom boom.

I don’t want to be this way; it’s just… those diamond ear-thingies; an’ those jaunty caps and hats and… all that designer attitude; getting in the way of the football. To the point where actual kicking and heading cannot be understood as clean sport, independent of depressingly ego-polluted dross. Rarely does the gaining of a profile seem to come at such a cost – so many players simply seeming heartless in their privately estated unlove for the game.

There are times when many of us just simply can’t get in or get past that modern cynicism, that duff play-acting; or no longer want to. Because we just don’t get that in any game the objective appears to be to pretend something diabolical just happened… or get some other bloke sent off… or con the ref… or actually (unbelievably) as a forward player be far more interested in penalties than in scoring? (That one really does my head in.)

I know not all players are eating up the soul of the game all the time but few are entirely blameless or immune to the pervasive mind-blowing insensitivity regarding their own luck, their good fortune… and therefore their responsibility. That as much as anything sets them apart from us.

So I can think of coupla fellahs who would be offended by this latterday, allegedly Premiership stuff. But they had a particular kind of genius carrying them through; one not perhaps kicking around quite so freely on the scuffed streets of Prestbury, or coached at Lilleshall, or espoused convincingly enough elsewhere. Something to do with natural honesty being expressed through sport; which we know can happen; which can actually be – in the hackneyed vernacular? – a great joy.

So let’s take a deep breath come kick-off and throw our caps gleefully in the air. And listen for that unquenched spirit and watch for that moment of brilliance and try not to get diverted by anything. Because this could be a really brilliant derby. Couldn’t it?

Footie-family-note; just spoke to a touchingly proud and stirred mother. Wanted to add that one of many extraordinary footietales the Mighty Vic played some role in goes as follows. After retiring hurt from the game, he skippered Grimsby Police in the hugely competitive National Police Cup. They won it, at home (Blundell Park) in front of 23,000 supporters!

Wonder how the burglary figures were in Fishtown that day?