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b) he may have been for one day the most expensive player in British football before being superceded by one Alex James Esquire.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

Anybody else drifting?

Five Live on and the thrum of news and noise and oohs and aahs. Snippets tumble and actually – following late night(s) and some devastatingly wholesome fresh air via The Beach all morning – fall in time with … my eyelids. And briefly, the sleep of the just. Or rather a luxurious snoozette, reflecting justifiable knackeration and also some degree of meandering of interest away from the allegedly beautiful game.

If pushed I could establish in some depth the atvincent pedigree in terms of closeness to and understanding of that extra limb, that family member we grew up calling footie. Then, we had or wanted or were aware of little else, it seems.

My authority in the subject is however sentimentally deep rather than encyclopaedically Motsonesque. I forget dates but remember Saturdays or Wednesday nights at Forest/Derby watching United/Everton and The Happy Hammers. I remember pink Football Specials – on one occasion with a front page feature welcoming a Dad down from Grimsby with his clutch of sons to watch Clough-era Baseball Ground action. Back even further, I remember late-vintage Best/Charlton/Law skitting unreally beneath the floodlights, with Foulkes/Crerand/Byrne patrolling like red minesweepers.  And Dave MacKay there, pigeon-chestedly bustling through a throw-in, in order to reduce my appearance fee on MOTD.  These are indeed memories of a convoy-on-the-horizon kind; almost monotone perhaps, but nevertheless poignant.

Family life nowadays seems more cluttered; there are obscene and wonderful multitudes of distractions whirring noiselessly or insidiously close. Running off down the park is not the dumb-heavenly default position it once was. Many more things blink and shine and probe for the burnished weaknesses to break the surface; the needs for the new; the needs for the cool. The story can never be languidly innocent again it seems; and it’s ‘clips’, not a story.

But ludicrous to imagine otherwise. How could the context for anything remain unshifted in times characterised by rapaciousness/superficiality/dynamism of the tail-chasing sort? Why would footie remain untouched by all this stuff? It hasn’t.

Let’s swerve to the positives – of which there are always mercifully plenty (too.) The pre-eminence of Spain in world football marks perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime triumph for skills over functionality. The current gorgeous irresistibility of David Silva amongst the often unhinged limbs of the Premier League is likewise something to be treasured. Arsene Wenger’s magnificently imperfect but idealogically Invincible tenure at Arsenal is similarly inspiring, if a small degree of separation from the need to win big is negotiated. Levels of inclusion and even anti-racism are massively improved. And yet I drift.

I drift because of many things – some of them impossibly beyond footie’s remitt or control;

  • the competition from rugby and cricket
  • the indescribably absurd amounts of dosh being shovelled around, generally in the direction of pretty modest talents
  • the cynicism of many in or around the game, exemplified by the typical forward -Oops, striker!- thinking only of drawing a foul or penalty when breaching the box, rather than instinctively bursting the net
  • the shameless faking of injury or contact
  • the foul abuse of referees/officials
  • the fact that only 2 or 3 teams could actually win the Premiership.

The tsunami that is Manchester City epitomises many of these concerns. Funded remorselessly, they have spent the last few seasons proving that great individuals don’t make a team, whilst their fans foamed with expectation and United and Chelsea trod the ammoniated waters, fearfully. For an age their Mancunian galacticos teetered on the brink of implosion, such was their incapacity to win.

Now, things have changed, results-wise. But this is still a club attempting to smother a terrible secret – the Tevez affair. The Argentinian may have entirely refused to step on the park when called upon by the manager Mancini, or he may have not. He has, however brought shame upon the sport through a series of defections and mercenary switches of non-allegiance; metaphorically kissing the arse as opposed to the badge. Serially.

This insensitivity to the essence of the thing is both unforgivable and sadly infectious in the modern era and it therefore reflects an important truth. That football may have more dead souls, more non-sportsmen, more Show Ponies than is viable for a world-important game.

Whether the plusses tippy-tapped out by our Spanish brothers can either mitigate or make amends entirely for the mouthy the ungrateful and the undeserving is open to question.  Watching Rooney – brilliant though he is – face contorted with Shrekian rage, assaulting a ref or TV camera by way of expressing his dark but manicured frustrations invites recoil towards less offending alternatives.  And so I drift, unsure of whether to hope.