Draw something

Champions League draw

There’s nothing in club football quite like the rigmarole of a UEFA Champions League draw. With a level of bureaucratic drudgery normally only found in George Orwell’s 1984, the Michel Platini led organisation holds a vice-like Ministry of Truth grip over its sport, something it exercises and celebrates in its own stifling way each time its services are called upon for what should be the joyful task of drawing lots for the knockout stages.

But if you can stomach UEFA’s self-aggrandising, back-slapping pal-fest presentation style – a big ask I know – then the draw can offer up some entertainment. In fact cynics could argue that it’s where the real action takes place, such is the familiarity with each other held by the bulk of the last sixteen. European football’s increasingly small set of elite clubs is reducing the Champions League to the routine of a conventional league table interrupted only by the occasional interloper. The European Super League mooted for years is happening under our very noses. Witness today’s events in Nyon for proof.

But if the selection of guests at UEFA’s dinner table is getting smaller, the quality of the food on offer is still exquisite. Reading through the completed draw after 10.30 this morning will be like studying some grand menu conjured up by the finest chefs in the world. The mind will instantly start to imagine the delicious mixture of ingredients each dish promises. The old classics will be there, but with this season’s twist.

And if nothing else the draw gives the conspiracy theorists something to enjoy. Even the quickest internet search will reveal the numbers of people out there that relish dissecting the draw, looking for signs of subterfuge. Their theories range from the simple to the extreme, but all are voiced under the blanket of the web. The Ministry won’t tolerate open-aired dissent.

I’ll be watching this morning. I doubt I’ll witness some of the secrets of the shadowy world of UEFA, but I’ll come away with my appetite well and truly whetted by the hors d’oeuvres they – or fate – concoct. I’ll look forward to the main course, where we’ll stuff ourselves till we burst, then we’ll all complain, the spooks will say it was a fix, and UEFA will return to the confines of its underground base hidden beneath Mont Blanc. It’s tradition.

You Can’t Win Anything With Kids

Paul Lambert is suing Norwich City

I’m already falling for Paul Lambert. From his European cup winning pedigree to his willingness to experiment tactically – and of course signing Christian Benteke – every day he impresses me more and more. If someone could teach him to smile I’d happily admit to head over heels infatuation. The glorious twist of fate he engineered at Anfield yesterday means that’s now one step closer.

Seventeen years ago, fresh from having witnessed Aston Villa dish out a 3-1 hiding to Alex Ferguson’s young Manchester United side, Alan Hansen infamously remarked that “you can’t win anything with kids.” It was a comment that came back to haunt him as the Red Devils marched defiantly to a league and FA Cup double that season.

How sweet then, that Villa have once again weighed into the youth versus experience debate that so befuddled Hansen, against his own Liverpool no less. Yesterday’s starting line-up featured eight players aged 23 or under, yet they defended with an experience and sense of organisation that defies their tender years. Barry Bannan, looking every bit the Paul Scholes tribute act he threatens to become, was at the heart of everything, leading by example, a 23-year-old veteran marshalling his troops with an infectious authority.

Under the guidance of Gordon Cowans and Tony McAndrew Villa’s youth academy has attracted much acclaim. Three times finalists in the FA Youth Cup in the last ten years, the development system has produced a string of top flight professionals, including England internationals such as Darius Vassell, Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill. Yet no manager before Lambert has nurtured so many graduates through to the first team at once so effectively.

Yes, eight of the team that started in Saturday’s 3-1 win at Anfield are 23 or under, but of those eight six players came through the academy together. They have been at the club long enough to know Villa Park and Bodymoor Heath like the back of their hands. They may be relatively new to the Premier League, but they are not new to each other. There is a familiar and established core to Lambert’s side, just as there was to Ferguson’s in the mid-1990s.

The lesson Hansen gave us was that youth and inexperience should not be confused. They are separate concepts. They are of course not mutually exclusive; there are plenty of talented, young teams out there that do lack the experience and steadiness that familiarity breeds. But Lambert’s Villa side are not amongst them. It goes without saying that Villa will not threaten the title this season, but with a Capital One Cup semi-final spot already booked and a decent FA Cup third round draw, silverware is not beyond them. It’s just a shame Hansen wasn’t on the Match of the Day sofa yesterday to make the same mistake again.

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro – Joe McGinniss


From the very first page all the way to the last, Joe McGinniss’ rollercoaster ride through the lows and highs of a season in Serie B reads more like a work of fiction than fact. That’s nothing to do with the American author’s writing style – though at times his self-aggrandising nature does grate – it’s merely a reflection of the almost unbelievable chain of events that befell the tiny hamlet of Castel di Sangro and the football team at the heart of its community as it bids to survive its first ever season in the Italian second tier.

The original miracle referred to in the title is the penalty save that carried the team to the dizzying heights of Serie B. On hearing of this McGinniss, a recent convert to the passions and hysteria of football, drops everything to spend the entire 1996/97 season with the club and documents its pursuit of a second, and even greater, miracle: escaping a relegation that seems a certainty from the offset.

Curiously though it’s not this underdog story that provides the backbone of this tale, rather it’s the relationships McGinniss develops, the stories of a small town Italian existence, the richness of the characters he encounters, and all the triumph and tragedy that comes hand in hand with not just football, but life.

The sheer pace with which the story develops makes this a difficult book to put down, and easily consumable in just one or two sittings. As McGinniss delves deeper and deeper into his subject, he uncovers some truly shocking subplots, and if it wasn’t for the detail he goes into when describing even the most basic football concepts (he is after all clearly writing for an American audience) you could at times almost forget all about the quest for league survival.

But that is not a criticism, it’s a virtue. Such is the expanse of the narrative that this book can be enjoyed by football fans and those without the slightest interest in the game. Indeed, upon finishing the book and reflecting on the journey McGinniss has just taken you on, the standout memories that leave you shell-shocked will have virtually nothing to do with what happens on the pitch each weekend.

If you can persevere with McGinniss’ own ego as he interferes with the club’s management at virtually every turn, forcing his opinions onto professionals with decades of experience between them, then you will find a quite astonishing story. And you absolutely should, because it’s a tale that deserves to be heard.

Abandon hope all ye who enter here

“I’ve got troubles Lord but not today, because they’re gonna wash away” – Joe Purdy

I address this diatribe to nobody but the rapidly decaying voice of optimism that inhabits the back of my mind. That little rallying cry that desperately tries to stifle the cynic in me that over recent weeks has claimed an increasingly large area of territory. That last flickering flame of eternal hope that was all but extinguished this week.

You see the rain that fell in astonishing droves on the masses huddled inside Warsaw’s National Stadium on Wednesday felt like the beginning of some great biblical storm, sent by the Gods to punish the heathens for their sins. Its cold, hard force that destroyed the green fields of football was part metaphor, part grim reality.

Because it signalled the arrival of three days of utter insanity. Seventy-two hours in which the soul of the game was sacrificed, sent away to consider its very existence and benefit to mankind.

It left behind a dark and maddening place.

Football demands an almost unparalleled level of dedication and adherence. This week the BBC published its Price of Football survey for 2012, which revealed, amongst other things, that the cost of the cheapest adult ticket in the top four divisions of English football has risen by 11.7% in the past year, a figure more than five times the current rate of inflation. Amazingly, there were many who defended the rises, arguing that fans who think the rates are too high should simply not attend matches. The reality is that many who want to attend simply can’t. They don’t even have the option of choosing to stay away. Football has hooked them in, then cut them loose when it can’t profit from their lust. It has expelled those not able to line its pockets. It is grotesquely greedy.

It perpetuates the most vile of social ills. The disgusting racial abuse endured by Danny Rose in Krusevac should have drawn nothing but condemnation. Yet it prompted a response from the Serbian Football Association that was offensively obtuse. It creates this anger, but is too lazy to placate it. Too self-serving to tackle it.

And these ills lurk on our own doorstep too, despite what some would have you believe. And when football identifies them, and condemns them, it also protects them behind titles (and armbands), too proud to admit its wrongs.

Across the Premier League yesterday several players, irked by a lack of action or even desire to tackle these ills, elected to abstain from wearing t-shirts promoting the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign. Such a decision would appear to be a purely personal one, retaining as we all do our right to freedom of expression. Yet so swollen with its own pride and gluttony is football that one of its pillars condemned his own man for making just such a stand. Football doesn’t care about others.

Nowhere was that more apparent than at Hillsborough on Friday night when, with ten minutes remaining of Sheffield Wednesday’s encounter with Leeds United, an individual clambered from his seat and onto the field of play, where he proceeded to assault the home team’s goalkeeper Chris Kirkland. It was a shocking scene. But equally shocking was the fact that the man in question was tracked by camera back into the Leppings Lane End, where his evil, snarling face was caught on film, laughing like the star of his own sick little hooligan movie. I’m sure he thought he was big and tough. I’m sure he thought he was a hero. He is none of these things, and he is part of football.

I am angry by the ludicrous parade of football’s biggest sins over the last seventy-two hours, and I’ve probably spoken out of turn. I know football is capable of goodness and virtue too. But sometimes that potential seems so distant it makes me think its lost forever.

And that is how I feel right now. I look at football and I can’t see any goodness.

Football is broken. It is a sick, limping and diseased beast. Its soul has been in exile for three days.

Maybe we shouldn’t curse the rain. Maybe we need it to wash away the sins of the game.

Otherwise its soul may be gone for good.

Playing by the rules: Ashley Cole, Confucius and the Leveson Inquiry

“How I hate those who are dedicated to producing conformity” – William S. Burroughs

The words had barely left his fingertips before they ignited a fire that swept through the media devouring everyone in its path and leaving behind only ferocious comment or, at the scorched edges of the blaze, a slightly more considered but no less charred rhetoric. In the weeks that followed an elderly statesman has attempted to douse the flames, but don’t most fires ultimately just burn out anyway?

The individual that sparked the blaze in question is Ashley Cole, who a week ago took to Twitter to brand the FA a ‘bunch of t***s’ after English football’s governing body announced that, following their investigation into the allegation that John Terry racially abused Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand at Loftus Road last November, the Chelsea captain’s defence against the charge was “improbable, implausible and contrived”.

The implication of the FA’s comments were that Terry, Cole and Chelsea secretary David Barnard had conspired to fabricate a defence with the sole purpose of seeking to exonerate Terry from the accusations levelled at him. Cole’s reaction to this was to take to the internet to abuse FA, prompting a fresh disciplinary charge for the much maligned full-back who, within hours of posting his offensive message online, had issued a full and frank apology.

Still Cole’s latest online misdemeanour seems to have served as the final straw for FA Chairman David Bernstein, who following the incident announced his plans to introduce a mandatory code of conduct for England internationals. Those found to be in violation of Bernstein’s regulations would face an international ban, and the current climate of high profile footballers, such as Cole, starting fires with ill conceived online outbursts is such that Bernstein’s proposal has been almost universally welcomed.

But there is a wider context that should be considered. Equally guilty of playing with matches was former News of the World reporter Clive Goodman whose famous royal scoops of 2007 led to the revelation that he and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire had been unlawfully intercepting telephone voicemail communications from Clarence House, paving the way for the surge in opinion that has led to the establishment of the Leveson inquiry.

Mulcaire and Goodman were both jailed for their actions, and the News of the World has of course since folded as the full details of their extensive phone hacking campaign came to light. Yet David Cameron still felt it necessary to establish the Leveson inquiry to investigate the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. You could of course argue that it was the surge of attention in the build up to the Leveson inquiry that brought about the closure of the News of the World, but as some of their activity had been exposed as illegal, shouldn’t the courts have just been left to sift out the bad apples?

Because, should Lord Justice Leveson upon the culmination of his inquiry recommend a new set of press regulations or regulatory body to government, the likelihood is that the landscape of the British press will dramatically change, as standardised, sanitised, watered down journalism becomes the norm. You only have to look through the pages of the Mirror on Sunday, the newspaper that stepped in to fill the void left by the closure of the News of the World, to get an idea of the kind of bubblegum nonsense that is now common place. Whatever your opinion of the News of the World, they broke some big stories in their time, and produced some quality pieces of investigative journalism.

At the centre of both the Leveson inquiry and Bernstein’s proposals are the key issue of our right to freedom of expression. A new, post Leveson regulatory body to replace the Press Complaints Commission, and an FA code of conduct for England internationals are, in my mind, grossly unnecessary, and potentially damaging. We already have laws that make phone hacking and similar practices illegal. The FA already bring charges for those who bring the game into disrepute. Over regulation would simply homogenize our press and our footballers.

Cole’s actions are of course foolish, rather than criminal, but the point still stands. Though many were quick to condemn Cole, the fact is football would be a duller place without individuals like him. Let people speak their minds, let them cause outrage if they can justify it, but don’t bury them beneath a landslide of rules to the point where their personalities come pre-defined by what the FA deem to be correct behaviour.

If we feel our footballers, or our journalists have truly lost their way, perhaps what is needed is not regulation, but a renaissance of Confucian thought. Let individuals cultivate their own concept of personal integrity, and reward those shown to be acting with virtue or benevolence, whether that be with an England cap or an editorial role. Where Confucian ethics or an individual’s own moral compass malfunctions, whether they be a journalist or a footballer or neither, society and the courts if necessary, can judge them.

The alternative at its extreme is a limping, flaccid press, and a conveyor belt of uniform footballers lacking any spark of individuality. Bernstein and Leveson could be laying the foundations for that as we speak. But feel free to disagree, you have that right. Unless you’re an England international of course.

We should be ashamed: What John Terry and Andrew Mitchell tell us all about ourselves

So, after successfully defending himself from a criminal charge relating to the same incident, John Terry has now been found guilty by the Football Association of “using abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards Anton Ferdinand which included a reference to colour and/or race”. The one time England captain, true to form, had pre-empted the verdict by announcing his own retirement from international football, and lambasting the FA for, in Terry’s own words, making his position within the England set up “untenable”.

As has been widely pointed out, the FA’s decision is made on the same grounds as those used in civil cases, essentially on the balance of probabilities compared to the beyond reasonable doubt definition that is required for a criminal conviction. Given that fact, Terry’s insistence that he had not used any racist language in the aftermath of the incident, only to then make an admission in the magistrates court that he did use racist language but only because he was repeating it back to Ferdinand, it is easy to see why the FA reached the verdict that they did.

What is trickier to understand is why going into the hearing Terry was still in the England set up at all. I don’t mean in terms of his ability, you’ll have your own views on that. Rather, I can’t understand the sense in allowing a man with a track record of loutish and unprofessional behaviour – from urinating in nightclubs like a common hooligan and arrogantly parking in disabled spaces, to greedily renting out his subsidised Wembley box and offering out private tours of Stamford Bridge for £10,000 – to represent his country.

That is, of course, without mentioning the fact that Terry has already been exposed as a liar. Whether or not you believe he is a racist, by publicly denying that he had used racist language in the days following the allegation against him first being made, only to then accept in court that he did use the very words he once claimed he hadn’t, Terry revealed that his morals are, at the very best, questionable. But then the revelation of his extramarital affair, as well as the dishonest response he gave in the face of video evidence that captured his off the ball assault on Alexis Sanchez in the Camp Nou earlier this year, served as indications to us all that Terry’s moral compass is horrendously skewed.

Yet despite all this, Terry has been afforded positions of power and extreme wealth for years. The Chelsea club captain’s £220,000 fine from the FA that was handed out with their guilty verdict and a four game ban is equivalent to roughly two weeks wages. Sponsorship deals with Umbro, and advertising contracts with Samsung and Nationwide, have already made Terry the tenth richest footballer in England, according to the Sunday Times rich list, with a net worth of £26 million. I don’t mean to pass judgement on my fellow man, but it angers me that despite a string of misdemeanours that would curtail his opportunities in virtually any other profession, Terry has forged an incredibly successful career. But in that regard, I suppose he is far from alone.

Take, for example, the case just over a week ago of the Conservative cabinet member and chief whip Andrew Mitchell, who used abusive and disrespectful language towards police officers who refused to open the gates of Downing Street to allow him to cycle through. Mitchell, it is alleged, branded the police officers involved “plebs”, and told them they they needed to “learn their place”. Whether Mitchell used the words attributed to him or not, his actions, coming just a day after serving police officers Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes were callously murdered whilst on duty, were ignorant and short-sighted in the extreme.

Since “Plebgate” came to light, many have called for Mitchell’s resignation, but unlike Terry he has refused to yield. Like Terry however, Mitchell’s own track record is one that raises the question of whether or not he is fit for office in the first place. When the expenses scandal broke Mitchell was amongst the most criticised politicians, as his accounts revealed he claimed £21,000 for the cleaning, redecorating and furnishing his constituency home and garden, as well as, rather ridiculously, 13p for Tipex and 45p for a gluestick, at a time when he was in charge of his party’s policy on tackling global poverty no less.

If that wasn’t enough, it was also revealed earlier this year that Mitchell held shares in a company that used a legal loophole to avoid paying £2.6 million in stamp duty on the purchase of a commercial property in London, an act which HM Revenue and Customs called “aggressive tax avoidance”. Even more embarrassingly for Mitchell, just a week earlier Chancellor George Osbourne had used his budget statement to brand such tax avoidance schemes as “incredibly repugnant”. No right minded person disagreed.

Consider too the story of Lucy Kinder, the Daily Telegraph writer who recounted this week her own experience with Mitchell who, whilst on a humanitarian visit with Kinder to Rwanda in 2009, ostracised the young journalist and forced her to go home for simply expressing her opinion on the project. It may be the use or alleged use of the words “black” and “pleb” that has angered many, and so it should, but such terms are just the poisoned tips of a catalogue of bullying and bad behaviour from both men that stretches back for years.

So why do we allow people to act like this? Both Terry and Mitchell are in incredibly privileged positions of wealth and power, and have shown themselves, without question, to be below the level of behaviour most of us as ordinary citizens would consider acceptable. Worse, they haven’t just offended once, but time and time again, and, most sickeningly of all, they have both acted with nothing but arrogance and petulance when their wrong-doings have been exposed. Towards their fellow professionals, to the UK’s legal system, to authority figures and even to you and me, both have behaved like cowardly bullies.

Of course, Mitchell isn’t the only politician with a questionable ethical record, and Terry is far from the only professional footballer to also behave like a thug. Perhaps it is as wrong to single them out as targets as it is for them to single out their own victims, but then it would be wrong too if we were to just excuse them. Nevertheless the fact remains that we, as a society, have created a culture where bullies go unpunished, and indeed are often even rewarded for their behaviour. We should be ashamed of this fact. Whether in government or on the football pitch, we need to have a serious look at who we are choosing to represent us.

Oh brave new world that has such people in’t!

In terms of the greatest transfer coups in the history of football this has to rank right up there. I know, I was as shocked as you when the news broke earlier in the week. After all, this was a striker with such a strong international pedigree – over sixty caps for his country – and a crucial goal in the World Cup knockout stages to his name. A man who had played at the very top level for over a decade and lifted European silverware. An individual who had played for two European Cup winning sides and been transferred for fees totalling over £20 million in his career. We all had to ask: quite what was this global superstar doing signing for an A-League club?

Yes, that’s right, Emile Heskey has moved to the Newcastle Jets. But don’t shed a tear, for England’s loss is Australia’s gain. You might, however, want to spare a thought for poor Alessandro Del Piero, who had the misfortune to announce his own move down under just days before the news of the Heskey deal broke. As the collective excitement of Australian football fans reached feverish proportions at the arrival of Heskey, Del Piero snuck quietly in the back door to sign a two tear deal with Sydney FC.

At this point I should point out I’m only writing with a modicum of jest. Any regular readers (are there any?) will know I’ve used this blog to confess my true feelings for Emile before. I’m sincerely of the opinion that Heskey was frequently the victim of short-sighted managerial decisions that meant for a good period of his career his strengths were wasted. I’m not short-sighted enough myself to ignore that, like all of us, he has his flaws, but I firmly believe that he has the potential to be very successful with the Jets.

There have been many brave new frontiers in football in recent years, from the rejuvenation of Major League Soccer with its short-lived mainstream UK TV deal to the recent influx of foreign talent into the Chinese Super League. But the Australian A-League never really seems to have captured the imagination of football fans in Britain, despite the pre-existing sporting rivalries shared between Blighty and Oz. In fact, the prevailing perception here appears to be one of low quality football and disappointing crowds, and of a public with little interest in the game.

The uneducated may assume Heskey’s move to New South Wales represents something of a graveyard shift, a final payday in a career that is fading out. Many more will view Del Piero’s transfer with equal scepticism. But, although there is no doubt that Heskey – sorry Del Piero – will become the biggest name ever to have played in the A-League, it is not a competition built on expensive imports. Indeed, with a list of Australian-born stars like Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer and Mark Viduka having all enjoyed glittering careers in the Premier League, and journeyman striker Michael Bridges and property mogul Robbie Fowler being the biggest names to move the other way, the balance of talent sees the pommes far more in debt to our Australian cousins than vice-versa.

It is the well travelled Bridges that Heskey may ultimately replace at the Jets as the one time Leeds United and Hull City forward enters a second spell of retirement. Bridges though found the time to give the arrival of Heskey his own seal of approval by announcing that it was a “tremendous signing”, whilst Jets chief executive office Robbie Middleby purred that “to secure the signature of Emile is a fantastic result for the Jets and for the A-League.”

But beneath the polished veneer lacquered over the arrival of Heskey by Middleby and Bridges there remains very real problems at the club. Enigmatic owner and financial backer Nathan Tinkler has attracted criticism in Australia for emigrating to Singapore earlier in the year, leaving behind him a series of companies that are widely rumoured to have substantial debts. Tinkler, who made his money through Australia’s lucrative mining industry, has cut himself off entirely from the media since relocating, and the sudden withdrawal of his presence – and perhaps his pockets – has left the Jets in a precarious position.

Such financial instability is by no means confined to New South Wales either. In the last year and a half the A-League has lost Queensland based outfits North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United to bankruptcy. The demise of Gold Coast, despite the financial backing of Clive Palmer, who along with Tinkler is regarded as one of the wealthiest men in Australia, is worryingly prophetic to Jets fans.

Elsewhere A-League new boys the Western Sydney Warriors, who have been linked with Michael Ballack over recent weeks, are backed by the Football Federation of Australia after attempts to find investors for the new franchise in what is considered the heartland of Australian football failed. The hope is that the Warriors will fill the void left by the loss of the Fury and Gold Coast, and will attract buyers as the season develops. But so far they have attracted more negative press than positive after Warriors fans were involved crowd trouble in two pre-season friendlies that left a child injured, and saw two supporters receive five year football banning orders for their part in the trouble.

Though the quality of football on the pitch is perhaps the area in which Australian football is improving the quickest, the wealth of the emerging Asian leagues are still a very real threat to developing home grown talent. Internationally Australia are struggling too since their relocation to the Asian Football Confederation. Indeed, just a fortnight ago Australia were beaten 2-1 by Jordan in Amman to leave head coach Holger Osieck’s side facing the very real possibility of missing out on a place at the 2014 World Cup. Tellingly Osieck’s starting eleven that day featured six players based in Asia, and none who are based in Oceania.

Wrestling interest back towards the A-League and dealing with this Asian complex is key if Australian football is to grow. Though Del Piero and Heskey may be thirty-seven and thirty-four years old respectively, the hope is that they can spark some real interest in the game, get supporters through the turnstiles and ease some of the financial burden on their struggling clubs. I for one will be watching with interest. I just hope I’m not alone.

The Horror

“Mr Speaker, the families were right”

I’m not a Liverpool fan and I’ve never been to Hillsborough but, like many others, I’ve found this past week incredibly painful. I was four when that dark day in April 1989 came to pass, and though I wasn’t really old enough to fully understand what had happened, I recall the harrowing reaction of the people around me as those shocking images from Sheffield were broadcast into our home. I remember the confusion of seeing the terror unfold at an event I had previously only understood as a game.

Please don’t interpret this as me trying to hijack the suffering of the families of the ninety-six individuals who so tragically lost their lives. Though David Cameron, in his eloquent speech in the House of Commons, called Hillsborough a “national tragedy” I am conscious of the deeply personal nature of the suffering of those far more closely associated with the disaster than myself. I can not begin to fathom the depths of hurt these people have endured for the last twenty-three years, and can not stress enough how inspiring their bravery and stoicism has been.

Nevertheless the Prime Minister struck a chord. Hillsborough was – is – a national tragedy. After all, such was the state of football in Britain at the time that Hillsborough could have happened more or less anywhere, to more or less anyone. Crumbling stadiums, inefficient or overlooked safety procedures and poor policing were prevailing conditions that existed up and down the land, threatening tragedy with alarming regularity. The Bradford City stadium fire in 1985 in which 56 fans lost their lives was yet another black cloud in the gloomy skyline of 1980s Britain. But Hillsborough would cut the collective consciousness of the nation like nothing before.

The revelations this week of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report into the tragedy show why. Though long suspected, the full and repulsive extent of the cover up orchestrated by South Yorkshire Police makes it, not just the biggest scandal in the history of British sport, but arguably in the history of the country.

Standing out from the report are a set of conclusions and figures so shocking they are hard to digest: 164 statements altered to push blame onto fans, the confirmation that police carried out checks on the deceased with the sole intention of “impugning their reputations”, that similar near-disaster incidents in 1981, 1987 and 1988 made the tragedy entirely foreseeable and, ultimately, that forty-one of the victims had “the the potential to be saved” beyond the 15.15 time of death originally given by the coroner. The report certainly yields sadness and anger in abundance, but must now also bring justice in equal measure.

The HIP will now be dissolved, its report complete, but it has set the wheels of justice in motion. There are those who must now answer difficult questions, chief amongst them Sir Norman Bettison, who has so far hidden behind his title and position of power, and whose comments since the Hillsborough report was made public have shown not guilt or regret, but contempt for the families of the dead. Others have analysed the panel’s findings far better than I can, but it is clear even to me that there are villains out there that must be brought to account.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, and though I don’t share in his politics, the heartfelt apology offered by Cameron greatly moved me. Although the HIP’s report found no evidence of a government effort to help conceal evidence, in creating an atmosphere in 1980s Britain in which football supporters were regarded as sub-human the Thatcher administration allowed the narrative perpetuated by the police to grow, nurtured it even. Cameron’s words seemed like an acknowledgement of that injustice too, something which the families of the ninety-six, and football supporters as a community, needed to hear.

But Hillsborough has become so much more than a footballing tragedy. In pedalling outrageous lies, in besmirching the names of the dead in a vile attempt to disguise their own failings, and in attempting to block the truth at every turn the police force have reminded us all just how easily justice can be subverted. Britain must learn from this scandal. This is why Hillsborough matters to us all.

At the heart of the of Wednesday’s proceedings were a group of fans who, in refusing to accept their persecution at the hands of the authorities and the media, have shown us all that right can still triumph over might. We all owe a gratitude to the Liverpool supporters who for twenty-three painful years have campaigned relentlessly for their cause. They’ve challenged at every turn the opinion, until Wednesday still held by many, that the Hillsborough disaster was caused by hooligans, and that their loved ones were such monsters. This is why Hillsborough matters to Liverpool and to football.

Hopefully, buried amongst the now exposed myriad of evil and deceit, there is at last some crumb of comfort, some semblance of closure that has been uncovered by the work of the HIP. If we wish for nothing else, let us all pray that the families of the ninety-six may now sleep a little easier.

But we should not rejoice in any of this, for there is nothing to celebrate. There is no light to be found, only darkness.

May the families of the ninety-six never have to walk alone through that darkness again.

Thomas Dewar and the history of the Community Shield

After the rip-roaring success that was the European Championships, the build up to the return of top flight English football at Villa Park yesterday afternoon may have felt like something of a hangover to some, as the Olympic bandwagon pushed Manchester City’s encounter with Chelsea well and truly into the shadows. Thankfully the ninety minutes of football served up for Sunday lunch proved to be highly entertaining, but for many the Community Shield remains something of an oddity.

For one, the reputation of the of the event as a fund-raising operation can seem somewhat laughable. According to the Football Association themselves, the Community Shield raises less than a million pounds each year for charities and community based initiatives up and down the country. Though the system of dividing up funds between the 124 teams that compete in the F.A. Cup from the first round onwards each year and allowing them to donate to their chosen causes is laudable, the sense of well-doing is somewhat tainted by the parade of wealth that takes place for ninety minutes in the name of the Community Shield. Take events today; the amount raised for good causes will equate to less than Yaya Toure’s monthly salary.

It’s perhaps hard then to view the Community Shield with anything but an air of scepticism, and though the tournament has a long and rich history, and the element of raising funds for good causes is as old as the event itself, a look through the history books reveals that the competition has not had an unblemished past. The Community Shield itself has it’s origins in the Sheriff of London’s Charity Shield that was introduced by distiller and politician Thomas Dewar in 1898 as a competition played between the best professional and amateur sides in England to raise funds for local hospitals and charities. The very first final, played between Corinthians and league leaders Sheffield United, attracted a fair amount of controversy however.

After the first final played at the Crystal Palace in front of a crowd of somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 – depending on which report you consult – finished as a goalless draw, a replay was arranged. This second fixture ended 1-1, with Corinthians scoring from a retaken free-kick after their opponents didn’t retreat the required distance. Sheffield United were apoplectic, and refused to return to the field for extra time unless the referee was replaced. Their demands were not met, and the press were damning in their assessment of Sheffield United’s actions. After Corinthians rejected a request for a third game, an agreement was reached for the Shield to be shared.

The following year the committee of the Sheriff of London’s Charity Shield elected to invite Queen’s Park to take part as the amateur game’s representative as Corinthians had struggled for form. Aston Villa were chosen as the professional side, but reports at the time suggest they weren’t keen on accepting the offer, fearing a loss of revenue as a result of having to re-arrange their league fixture with local rivals West Bromwich Albion. After much negotiating the event finally went ahead, ending with a goalless draw, and the Shield again being shared.

Dewar’s invention was short-lived, with the final Sheriff of London’s Charity Shield being played in 1907 after a dispute between several amateur sides and the Football League that led to the foundation of the Amateur Football Association. Dewar too was a busy fellow. Having already travelled the world with the goal of developing his family’s whiskey brand, he turned to politics, and was heavily involved in establishing the controversial Aliens Act of 1905, which introduced strict immigration controls and legislation, and led to some coming to regard Dewar as an anti-Semite. Dubbed the ‘the man who taught the world how to drink’, Dewar had also established the Dewar Trophy in the United States of America, and become heavily involved in horse training and racing.

In 1908 the Charity Shield was relaunched by the F.A. as a competition between the Football League’s First Division Champions and the Southern League Champions. The inaugural match pitted Manchester United against Queens Park Rangers, with the First Division Champions – Manchester United – emerging victorious in a replay played at Stamford Bridge. It was the first, and last, F.A. Charity Shield final to go to a replay.

Over the years that followed the format of the competition varied greatly season to season, with the old amateurs versus professionals format of Dewar’s Sheriff of London’s Charity Shield featuring regularly throughout the 1910s and 1920s. The current F.A. Cup winners against the Football League winners setup was first used in 1921, and from the 1930s onwards this became the standard, with only occasional alternatives between 1930 and the present day. Two key exceptions were the 1950 final which pitted the England World Cup team against an F.A. side that had toured Canada that summer, and the 1972 final for which both league champions Derby County and F.A. Cup holders Leeds United declined their invitation to take part, resulting in Manchester City, who had finished fourth in the First Division, and Third Division champions Aston Villa contesting a makeshift Charity Shield, with Manchester City claiming a 1-0 win.

Curiously that was Manchester City’s last triumph in the Charity Shield before yesterday’s game. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s wealth may well dictate that his team’s name is engraved on the Charity Shield with alarming regularity over the coming seasons, but the sometimes controversial history of the competition may continue to elude many watching.

…bad heads and heavy hearts…

With bad heads and heavy hearts, we bare the pain together,
this peculiar agony of allying yourself to eleven men,
who poured heart and sinew into their endeavours,
who stood up to be counted, when their limitations outnumbered them,
but still came home beaten and alone, with bad heads and heavy hearts

From chaotic beginnings, and a struggle for power
our lot was forged, and placed in the hands of,
not the man from north London, but a man of the world,
who had walked the long and lonesome road, past triumph and failure,
ecstasy and ridicule, and arrived back home, with a bad head and a heavy heart

And how they laughed and snarled at him,
as they perceived a weakness that was never there,
but their bait was left untouched,
their headlines forgotten,
as he turned his mind towards a bitter feud

With a bad head and heavy heart the choice was made,
for better or worse, one would stay and one would go,
though tainted with the mark of the accused,
and the the cross of Saint George, he would take his place,
with a bad head and a heavy heart

And the ranks were filled by a cast of men,
heroes, villains, the chastised and the championed,
amongst them the boy wonder, all fire and ferocity,
and he who came before him, still raw but ravaged,
by years of bad heads and heavy hearts

They arrived on foreign shores, this motley crew
of has-beens and have-nots, with no hope
afforded to them, by those supposed to be in the know,
before they had chance to stand, they were knocked down,
with bad heads and heavy hearts

And old foes from across troubled waters came,
but could not conquer, and hosts and madmen
came and tried too, but none could triumph,
against those who bore the three lions,
with bad heads, and heavy hearts

So on we marched, into an azzurri flood
of genius and insanity, and of ravishing beauty,
we built a dam, but the flood still came,
banks of four, banks of four, and they all chased shadows
with bad heads, and heavy hearts

And like a dream time ebbed and flowed,
until the time finally came,
and like a nightmare our hopes ebbed and flowed
away, gone again, leaving only
bad heads and heavy hearts, for another two years

Still we try to smile, for we never hoped for hoping’s sake,
but still it hurts, for we trusted in them, in us
and in him, we trusted in luck, and in courage.
but we trusted in vain, and is trust ever enough anyway,
when we wake up again, with bad heads and heavy hearts?