Tuesday, February 18, 2020


And so to Sportswashing.

We are now just a Thaksin Shinawatra free chicken satay dinner away from being confirmed as the first Proper Pariahs of World Football. A throwaway Simon Cliff insult from the great football bin. All that delicate and beautiful football, lost in the dust of an Abu Dhabi child camel race. 

Football never used to tax us for our moral viewpoints of the world. It normally boiled down to a simple matter of whether you subscribed to the opinion that Paul Bosvelt was over the hill or whether Michael Brown would ever make a clean tackle. 

At the point Jamie Pollock headed us all into the third division, I had not given the prospect of Yemeni Civil War a moment's thought. I feel a little guilt admitting it, but even those poor lads in the Thai cave had not yet crossed my mind. Now, it makes me feel like maybe I used to be as devil-may-care as Dominic Cummings striding to his morning taxi muttering expletives to the press. It's just not on anymore. Not now we are two thousand and twenty.

The team I support are, as you read this, approximately as popular as the Coronavirus. This is in itself a vaguely funny thing. When Manchester City first came to my attention, they had just completed a manoeuvre, which helped relegate Manchester United. A back-heel by Denis Law, one of United's Sacred Trilogy along with the "other two", had returned to City and enacted a piece of simple ballet that, had I been looking at it from adulthood in 2020, I would have said was not for me. Sacrilege. This team of sky blue shirts and dark blue socks, of white shirts and curious feathery haircuts had trampled the sacred lamb. I should have known.

Instead, as a curious child, I thought it might be for me.

Let's just say the colour seemed pretty. And back-heels were avant garde. I was always a sucker for the latest continental fad. When melba toast arrived in Sale, I was on it like a Jack Russell chasing a beagle. Mayonnaise? Oh boy, this is it.

United in any case, were run by Louis Edwards, widely thought to be peddling off-colour meat to the poorer districts of Manchester, so they were not all they were made out to be anyway. As was to become quickly evident, following City soon bit you on the bum anyway. United's season in Division Two was not the carnival of laughs we all expected. They came straight back up with a cool new hooligan following and swept straight through to their rightful place above City in the First Division.

City were run by Peter Swales, who's only claim to notoriety was the albeit grave crime of combining check jackets with a combover and Cuban heels. It was a look that got him looks in Moss Side in the 80s, that was for sure. Swales had a penchant for swinging the attendance figures too, evidently a ruse to avoid the clutches of the chaps at HM Revenue. You could stand shoulder to shoulder on the Kippax in those days with not a centimetre to spare in any direction, your feet lifting gradually off the cracked slabs and the battered tannoy would splutter, "today's attendance is 23,708. Thank you for your valuable help fending off the tax man".

Even then we were part and parcel of a scurrilous law-breaking juggernaut. Admittedly, it was not the shimmering "Nandos visible from outer space" that Jonathon Liew likens the club to in the Guardian, but still, a kind of multi-storey Greggs with cheese and onion flavoured bells on, nevertheless. Steak and ale pasties the size of a Guatemalan forced labour camp.  

Meantime, United's regime had distanced itself from bad meat, but there was a storm brewing in the ladies' toilets. Liverpool had got us all (I say "us all", but City had no interest in Europe at the time owing to a lack of, what shall we call it, success) banned from Europe by being involved in the Heysel Tragedy. Chelsea, led by the affable Ken Bates, were ringing the Shed End with electric fencing, perhaps a direct copy of the stuff used in Yemen, I'm not entirely sure. Luton were taking human rights in a different direction, simply banning any members of the public from their ground who did not wear straw hats and do passable impersonations of David Pleat. Even the government had declared war on us all, threatening to paint all match-going fans with tar, so that ordinary members of the public could avoid us during the rest of the week.

And then, to top it all off nicely, I got beaten up by the fore-runners of Brexit at Huddersfield after a gruelling FA Cup second replay (now there's a novelty. The second replay not the cauliflower ear).

Football was a mess, run by charlatans, discarded by our country's politicians, awash with business folk of dubious origin and intention. My, what a time we were all having. And yet, still I concentrated on Mark Lillis's shorts.

The advent of the Premier League came about as a direct result of yet more charlatans trying to break away to make themselves more money. The Big Five of the time, Manchester United and Liverpool, naturally, Arsenal and Tottenham and, don't snigger at the back, Everton, decided to hold the Football League to ransom. The Premier League was the compromise. They would get richer and so, if we were lucky, would everyone else. Unhappy developments at Bradford, where a rickety, litter-packed and totally unsafe Main Stand went up in smoke and Hillsborough, where the umpteenth example of disastrous overcrowding, Orwellian conditions and police indifference brought more fatalities, resulted in us all having to sit down at the match. Paying higher prices for the pleasure seemed only fair at the time, but the momentum was underway.

The gentrification of the game was on a roll Hooligans found that sitting down did nothing to help swing a punch. Foreigners started to show up, off the pitch and on, including Andrea Silenzi at Nottingham Forest, Bosco Balaban at Aston Villa  and a thrutch of dazed looking Moroccans at Coventry City. These were strange times that followed on from the odd-but-normal that went before.

The Champions League also appeared at the same juncture. A beautifully lit, musically balanced coup de teatre featuring Glasgow Rangers, Gothenburg and PSV Eindhoven (note to UEFA, get this fixed, will you. Where the hell is Real Madrid?!!!). Soon, it had been fixed, quite literally, with Olympique de Marseille bringing France their first title and then having it removed owing to Bernard Tapie's light fingers. If the French beau had something of the night about him, Silvio Berlusconi, fresh from his presidential bunga bunga parties, waded in in full daylight and popped Milan at the top of the tree. Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Baresi, a meal fit for a king and rarified European dominance about to be served on a platter surrounded by olives and cornichons. This was very much Costacurta not Nandos. 

It was all above board. Dominance could be bought. FFP was neither an infant nor a hindrance. It had not been born. Javier Tebas was still eating Spanish rusks and spoiling his Butragueno emblemed Pampers. 

Then Michel Platini flounced to the top benches at UEFA, hair coiffed, savoir faire at every junction, the glib confident aura of a man, who has flipped a freekick or two for the cameras in his time. "FFP", he stated , in that ripe camembert accent "is my plan, my project to stop debt in European football."

Bob Lord's eyes would have bulged; Peter Swales' wig completed a pirouette; Martin Edwards would have looked up (or down) from what he was doing; Ken Bates would have flipped the switch on his fence and dear old Silvio would surely have buried his face in the nearest warm cleavage. Things were about to change.

Sexy, innocent and tragic, none of this mattered one iota to City, busy catapulting through the leagues and thinking of European combat as something wrestlers undertook to qualify for the Olympics. Technically, a league game at Wrexham qualified as cross-border antics, but it was not the same sport that Arsenal and United and Chelsea (by now no longer run by a simple electric fence advocate from Oldham, but a bona fide Russian billionaire!) were involved in.

It would take a heavy dose of Arsene Wenger's financial doping to join them, that's for sure, so far ahead had they got. Only this was not on offer anymore. The infamous drawbridge had been pulled up. Even Michel's FFP had changed colour from chasing debtors to jumping on naughty people who wanted to invest in clubs as yet unknown. Was it the BATE Borisov tractor conglomerate or Omonia Nicosia backed by a consortium of Russian nightclub barons? Could it be Hearts with its Lithuanian banking dynasty or perhaps HJK Helsinki part-owned by a Nigerian Money Laundering syndicate, who sent hundreds of emails out that began "Good morning, dear friend, I am the deposed deputy Prime Minister of Nigeria and I need your help to find a temporary home for $35,000,000 next week...'?

BATE Borisov prepare for the Champions League journey
We had been lost and now we were found. City, entering European football again in Wales (as if Wrexham had not been fun enough), we were persuaded to go to back. The omens were not good. Qualifying as England's fair play champions (not a good look) and set for a visit to a place called Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain. Now, if ever the charabanc should have turned back, this was it. You do not start your modern era of European dominance in Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain and that's that.

Things, of course, have moved on from there. City survived two games with Total Network Solutions to go onto build a passable recent history in European competition, but their backers, giddy with ideas of power and influence, forgetting what too much bunga did for Silvio's hair, spent too much money. Deep in a bunker in the Zurich hills, Mchel Platini's FFP computer had started emitting sky blue smoke. It was like the delivery of a new Pope in reverse. City's coronation came wrapped in yesterday's fish papers and Ken Bates's discarded barbed wire. Deliverance was near and yet acceptance was far.

But now acceptance is off the menu. The camembert has gone stale. Wales is another country. We are all tainted and our giant puff pastry project is visible form outer space. Like all of Michael Brown's tackles, it is too late.  

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