Derby.

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b) he may have been for one day the most expensive player in British football before being superceded by one Alex James Esquire.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?

‘SING WHEN WE’RE FISHIN’, WE OWN-NEE SING WHEN WE’RE FISHIN’, SING WHEN WE’RE FI-SHIN’, WE OWNEE SING WHEN WE’RE FISH-IN’…

We need to talk about thingy.

Twitter has become a part of the vocabulary of my life; in a good way I think. It’s going to sound laughably pretentious if I say for example that I have used it to watch Jeanette Winterson give a lecture on four modern sculptors but that’s true. It’s also true that I’ve tweeted a virtual beer or two with a certain former England cricketer and other matie mates in a way that fairly authentically replicates semi-pro quality blokeish banter (and I mean that most sincerely, folks) in a snug north country pub.

It is of course hugely addictive – particularly if, like me, you seek to use it at least partly to seek some mysterious ‘breakthrough’. I am sad enough to defend it, passionately even, on the grounds that my personal experience on twitter has been both enjoyable and even enriching. It depends on who or what you follow, I say. You follow morons you get banal or offensive crap. You follow @tate, let’s say or @paulmasonnews, @_PaulHayward, @DeborahJaneOrr or @adliterate, then you aren’t very often going hear “Just had me tea”. It’s about choices.

I’m choosing well I think and consequently am in touch – and it does feel that way – with really good people whom I may never meet but who contribute generously and importantly to my understanding and enjoyment of the daily flux. So I really was delighted when my mate @LineoutCoach (whom I’ve never met) landed a slot on the USA Eagles coaching roster. And I really was delighted when my mate (whom I’ve never met) @talprofs sharply deconstructed a contentious argument over bonus culture. There are other people – some now members of a near daily mob, bless’em – who likewise I have come to view as either supportive/like-minded/interesting or hilarious individuals that I look forward to seeing up there in the timeline. So I’m lucky.

Because twitter ain’t always like this.

I’m big into sport, right and forgive me for going over old ground but though I work in cricket and just about favour rugby over anything, I grew up in a footie household. Looking back to rosily or at least colourfully bruised-knee-days of endless, endless Backs and Forwards with rare but pleasingly radical eruptions of Kick Ball Fly, a football was all we had or wanted. Or so it seemed.

I still treasure hilarious pictures of me as Alan Ball, in my ‘flash’ (orange/yellow) Everton reserve kit with a number 8 imperfectly sewn on by Mrs Rawson. My shin pads extruding sideways from threadbare orange socks, my legs – my shins! – spookily skinny and almost entirely unprotected by the flapping but sartorially essential accessories. Playing first to ten goals and then change round; so matches twenty goals minimum. (Do the maths! Thirty-plus more likely.) Hours. Wonderful, daft and inspiringly communal games on the local park or legion field. That was footie.

Over this weekend, however, I’ve had the misfortune to see stuff on twitter and elsewhere that shockingly betrays that same game. After a seemingly endless campaign by Manchester Utd and Liverpool Football Clubs to undermine all possibility for proportionate or –dare I say it? – civilised sporting engagement, the despicable racist tweets many of us have seen or been subjected to(?) landed both shockingly but predictably. It seems very difficult to avoid a conclusion that points to a very deep ignorance somewhere. Much of my own heart feels that there are just unavoidably some low-slung losers out there with too little brain in them and too much bad. To hate that much, or to allow that much hate to well up over a football match – or a football issue – is… is sick, actually. But that’s a pretty dumb response. One many of us may need to revisit.

I know about and understand football or sporting rivalries. However I do not understand what’s been going on in the minds of Messrs Dalglish and Ferguson and everybody else allegedly charged with steering those two undeniably massive (but how could I use the word ‘great’ right now?) clubs. It’s been obvious for years that the rivalry has gotten out of hand. Therefore those men at the top simply have a responsibility, if not an inclination, to show some intelligence. Before somebody gets hurt. Before, actually, the game – remember that? – suffers through somebody or other letting the floodtide of bitterness spill over. (Ooh gor blimey look! There it went!)

How Dalglish can continue to be so darkly and so bitterly intransigent when the game needs a little lightness and a little help, quite frankly, is unreal. Even assuming, as I suppose we must, that he feels Evra has lied and cheated to get Suarez banned, is it not extraordinary that either Dalglish himself or someone close to him in the Liverpool hierarchy has not counselled for the bigger picture? The one that includes THE MEANING OF ALL THIS. To fail to accept that WHATEVER, it’s really important to show the world that (sports)people can get on and get over political or personal difficulties because sport is wonderfully freeing and generous and selfless by nature. Sadly nearly everything that Dalglish has done and said in that bluntly ungenerous way of his has been unhelpful in this and nearly every other regard. And Ferguson hasn’t been much better.

The Terry saga was likewise depressing last weekend in particular. For the gentlemanly handshake to be abandoned at QPR because certain players were going to refuse to shake the hand of an opponent is in itself a beautifully and ironically wrapped take-away symbol of designer-label cheapness. Sure it was a difficult situation. (So difficult that I’m not at all sure that I agree with myself as I stride so confidently towards the penalty spot that is my judgement..) But for professional footballers to be taking some high and mighty view of anything is pretty questionable (cue the dive) yet sure… understandable. Teammates want to stick up for teammates; quite possibly more than they want to stick up against racism(?) I can buy that. Maybe some of them even did feel deeply about the issues. But either the two clubs should have agreed that neither player would play, or the handshakes should have taken place. All of them. Because the game is the thing. And we need to keep talking and tweeting …about that.