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January 20, 2012

Coppa Italia Thur 19 Jan 2012

Inter Milan 2-1 Genoa


There was a football match last night. Again. Honestly. Not that many will have noticed, wedged between another Clasico, the restarts of Serie A and the Bundesliga, a transfer window and Carlos Tevez. Inter hosted Genoa – creditable, 8th-placed, recent victors over Udinese Genoa. Inter took the game, 2-1, an identical scoreline to their Milanese neighbours (are you neighbours if you groundshare? Probably not) against Novara the night before. In everything else, though, Inter’s game was different. In fact, it was perfect.

Not hugely important, not massively successful or even particularly pleasing to watch, this match should be one of Ranieri’s happiest memories come next October when he’s sacked for not competing with Roma. This was football manager as pointillist painter. The little things mattered, even if in the end all that mattered were little things.

First off (and they were first off, subbed after an hour with the game won) were the boys. Ranieri gave starts to Obi, Poli, Castaignos, Faraoni and Ranocchia. The average age of those five is 20.8 years (by my maths, okay? Don’t be mean.) Not bad for a team that was beginning to resemble their superannuated neighbours. Can you be superannuated if you’re not technically retired? Probably not.  Of those young ‘uns, only Castaignos, the youngest and most in need of experience at this level, had anything less than a good game. His willingness and attacking intent were never in doubt; he just looked to take a touch where he will learn he’s not allowed. Like many teenagers.


The game had the perfect intensity for Inter’s lessons: not up against it, but not – as in so many cup games – not up against mannequins, either.  Much of that was down to Rossi and Kucka, and it was noticeable that Genoa’s thrusts down the left were neutered when Kevin Constant came on for the injured captain Rossi. Wesley Sneijder, who continued his comeback from injury with 80 minutes here, is no slouch, but if he covered the pitch like Rossi seems to then Pele would be refusing to talk to him by now. Sadly it Genoa were static up front, with Ze Eduardo and two noughts in Jorquera and Pratto doing too little until too late.

Much of the ease for Inter was due to controlling the game with early goals in each half. Maicon scored first, with a straight-leg shot across and over Lupatelli from outside the box. Poli effectively killed the tie after finishing a triangle with Obi in the Genoa box. To an extent, these goals masked a less than perfect showing from the veterans in defence. Zanetti was uncharacteristically lax with passing, Maicon struggled to get in the second half, and Cambiasso was nowhere near his performance in the Milan derby. The upshot? Well, Obi and Poli bailed them out a few times, and Ranocchia made a lovely intervention to prevent a breakaway that would have seen Inter’s entire defence stranded on the halfway line. So even their mistakes worked to their own advantage, in the long run.

If you want to be really Poli-anna-ish about it, Valter Birsa’s goal after 93  minutes would hardly be grumbled about. Inter’s run of not conceding (1 in 6, until this game) was punctured with a goal that meant nothing, in a secondary competition. Pressure relieved, with a harmless injection of the virus itself. Ranocchia-lation, as the doctor ordered.


C-90 Cassetti unspools, throws his poise out the tram…

November 7, 2011

Serie A Sat 5 Nov 2011

Novara 0 – 2 Roma

Luis Enrique rejigged his defence once again, going for a back four of Taddei – Cassetti – Burdisso – Rosi. He also swapped De Rossi and Gago’s positions in midfield, with the Argentine having one of his best Roma games in a slightly deeper role. Ahead of him, Erik Lamela made his third start of the season tucking in behind Osvaldo the fifth musketeer.

Side A

At the end of their defeat to Milan last week, Roma looked to have perked up, so it was sad to see Enrique pull his coat hood almost over his face, as the ball almost immediately sailed clean through the Roman box, asking only for a touch goalwards. Taddei, at left back, was off the pace, and while gli hardly Osvaldo tracked back admirably, he was wont to give away cheap free kicks in his own half.

Cassetti C-90

Lamela lost the ball in a soft challenge, but immediately won it back, and even put up with Porcari pulling on his shirt. Sadly, the defence was less battling, and more brittle. Cassetti got to 12’ without making a mistake – he didn’t do anything else, but he didn’t make mistakes – but then he started to unspool. A ridiculous body check, arms raised, making a skull and crossbones with Takayuki Morimoto’s skull earned him a booking and could have got worse. The free kick sent the ball bobbling in the area like a pea in a whistle.

Four minutes later, Cassetti did the exact same thing. Again the dead ball wasn’t dealt with, Mariannini stepping off his marker and heading in, only to be called offside.

Cassetti was obviously magnetic in his ineptitude, as Miralem Pjanic, who was booked versus Milan for pettiness after losing the ball, was shown yellow again.

Morimoto continued to torment Cassetti, the striker co-owned with Catania finally looking like the ‘Japanese Ronaldo’ he has been labelled in the past. Cassetti caught up with him in the six-yard box, and managed to take the ball off the Morimotoes. With a header. While sliding off the pitch on his stomach.

Side B

Memento Morimoto

Roma started the second half as if they meant to go off. Rosi and Cassetti continued to get into a tangle on the right of defence, while Osvaldo and Pjanic squandered chances to get balls into the box at the other end. Morimoto and Meggiorini, with the ever-faithful Mariannini backing them up from right-back, caused havoc, beating Taddei back and forcing Burdisso over from the centre to deal with the threat.

Much is made of the artificial pitch at the Stadio Silvio Piola, but Roma were being shown up with their refusal to acknowledge the weather conditions. Their long attemted passes skidded out ahead of their target regularly, with not one of their midfield architects rectifying the error. Pjanic’s shots from free kicks were better, but even then Fontana was hardly perturbed in the Novara goal.

So Enrique’s grand experiment was at the same stage as in so many of their matches. Flashes of flash, passages of passage, without much to show for it. But Novara is, literally, a ‘new place’, and the introduction of Boy Bojan Krcic on 64’ might just have reset their course for the season. The Spaniard gave his side a shot in the arm with a lovely goal from Pjanic’s chip, and Osvaldo added to the cheer with a shot across his brows ten minutes later. He nodded in a corner while taking a step away from the goal, with placement and finesse in a crowded area. There was enough time for  Novara to be pushed back, and for them to hit back, but Taddei had been moved round to right back, so Cassetti was less exposed.

Overall, it was more of a battle for Roma than it should have been, and they cannot always rely on the surprise of Bojan coming on to win matches. For all the talent in their midfield – Gago is in the most recent Argentina squad, though that’s mainly due to injuries – this team requires focal points up front. That might come from allowing Lamela to play in the middle , or from playing Bojan with Osvaldo, who have not started together since the derby defeat. Whatever the options, it’s quite enjoyable not knowin who’s going to be playing where…




Macellaccio and the Uruguayans

November 6, 2011

Serie A Sat 5 Nov 2011

Palermo 3-1 Bologna

Stefano Pioli must not know whether he’s coming or going. The Bologna manager, at his third club of this year, was treated to two simultaneous homecomings on Saturday. First off, he’s still in the official honeymoon period (©) at Bologna, where he started his coaching career with the youth team in 1999. Secondly, of course, he was returning to the Stadio Renzo Barbera, from where Maurizio Zamparini had banished him at the end of August.

“…that’s f*cking Barbera…”

The Renzo Barbera – currently named after a previous chairman of Palermo – has a schizophrenic past. In the nearly 82 years since it was built, it has taken the name Stadio Littorio, as fascist homage to Ancient Roman civil servants; Stadio Michele Marrone, in honour of a soldier who died in the Spanish Civil War; and Stadio La Favorita, after a country estate of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

Lictor (Littorio), ieri

It was renamed Renzo Barbera on the club’s return to Serie A in 2002, a mighty act of humbleness on Zamparini’s part, given his usual nature.

As for Pioli, he was neither put on trial, shot at or hunted. In fact given the clumsy play in the first half, Stadio Hanna Barbera might have been more appropriate.


Guglio Migliaccio - Macelaccio

After 30 seconds, a flying elbow found purchase on the bald head of Palermo midfielder Giulio Migliaccio. Blood flowed. He got a plaster stuck on his head. More blood flowed. Migliaccio took regular breaks from the game to get more and more bandage wound round his head. He continued to charge around, though, doing his best Terry Butcher impression.

While Guilio Macellaccio was getting blood in his eyes, the 19 other outfield players were creating their own blind spots. Rarely have I seen so many passes in one game attempted with no glance at all towards where they were going. Presently Palermo tired of the party games, with Bacinovic picking up the ball and striding forward from midfield. Eran Zahavi took note, and followed his example on 13’. The Israeli broke from outside his own box, carrying the ball to the Bologna ‘D’. There he slipped it sideways to Bacinovic, who shot into ‘keeper Gillet’s body, naturally. Zahavi followed up, tapping in an Eran shot (ha!).

The goal – one of the few occasions when Bologna’s defence was drawn out of its proper shape – settled the nerves of the home side somewhat. And when Uruguayan striker Abel Hernandez was forced off with a hamstring pull a minute later, it appeared the Rosanero might settle for defending their lead.

Fortunately for neutrals, Bologna have Uruguayans of their own.  Macellaccio met one of them, as Copa America winner Diego Perez and he made handbags out of sows’ ears together. Both were booked. Our friendly local Macellaccio also showed his delicate side, bringing out his inner thespian to avoid a second booking for a lunge on Gaby Mudingayi. The depilated midfielder was then lucky not to get booked for simulation after Morleo’s sliding tackle missed him comfortably.

The second half

After the break, things kept on refusing to calm down. Josep Ilicic decided to only play in backheels. Bologna responded by sarcastically flicking the ball on at every opportunity, even when it was easier to control it. The result was wacky – the 1 in 100 chance that lack of control led to plenty of opportunities, as defenders and attackers seemed to forget how to read the ball. Marco Di Vaio, however, hasn’t the pace to capitalise on this ‘style’ of play, and it meant that when Palermo put passes together, as Ilicic and Zahavi did continuously, they looked dangerous. The Slovenian in particular stretched Bologna with perfect cross-field balls. Zahavi got an assist to go with his goal on 53’, reviving a Palermo corner to place the ball on the head of Matias Silvestre. Ilicic got his reward soon after, slipping a delightful ball over the top from Varela under the keeper.

Bologna’s insistence on moving the ball as if they were level paid off with a lovely consolation goal. Gaston Ramirez got his third of the season after a penalty box one-two with fellow Uruguayan Henry Gimenez. Interestingly, Perez and Ramirez are in the Uruguay squad to face Chile and Italy in the next two weeks, as Abel Hernandez surely would have been without his injury. The three all came through South America’s most successful club, Penarol, before moving to Europe.

Roma vs Milan: Free Headers, Fine Margins…and Expensive Footer

October 30, 2011

Roma 2-3 AC Milan

29 Oct. 2011 Serie A

After all the fuss about lack of goals in Serie A, as well as consecutive Milan hat tricks, who knew what to expect in Rome?. On the one hand, Ibrahimovic, Boateng, Nocerino, Cassano and Robinho. On the other, the magic-eye picture that is Roma’s midfield of maestri. By the end of the match, we would also have seen Lamela, Pjanic, De Rossi, Pizarro and Bojan. So there was perhaps the assumption that history couldn’t strike twice, as it were, and that the attackers who had got 14 goals in these teams’ last three games would finally be neutered. Read more…


May 6, 2011


Sky Sports presenters get a bit of stick – and they certainly get plenty of slap too – but they do serve a purpose. They gave the nation two scapegoats of Biblical proportions, simultaneously exposing the sexism of modern TV and striking a blow against rampant Murdochracy.

Now there’s a more subtle lesson being taught. Fans of Derby County, Leicester City, Liverpool: ever wondered about the strength of your club’s brand? Forget absurd preseason tours and sponsored bookings (West Ham, we’re looking at you here). How will the branding experts in expensive suits and cheap club ties affect your club’s league position?

Probably, in the case of those clubs named who have undergone intense re-branding exercises recently, not too much. But Sky Sports face Simon Jones has pointed up a dividing line, an equator below which fans’ skins will catch fire and the tar in their ships will melt.

Jones’ Twitter avatar recently underwent a redesign of its own. Where once the face of the ex-Blue Peter mic-manner looked out over the badge of his beloved Norwich City, his chin is now free of canary. Was it a coincidence that the badge disappeared while Norwich were in the process of getting promoted?

And as a digression – these Twitter avatars with tiny club badges on them that are still instantly recognisable. Let’s spare a thought for the effort and man-hours put in over the last century so we know that ‘@Abz201’ is a Bury fan.

Anyway, it’s clear – for one broadcaster, at least, there is only a possible conflict of interest as regards Premiership clubs. Good news for Robbie Savage.

B S Johnson – The Man Who Should Have Filmed ’66

May 4, 2011

This article originally appeared on The Equaliser, as part of 1960s month.


Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(which was rather late for me) –

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.

                                                                            -Philip Larkin, ‘Annus Mirabilis’

The 1960s: skirts got shorter, and it seems that memories got shorter too. Larkin’s verse above exemplifies this. Written looking back on the ‘Annus Mirabilis’ from 1967, he conveniently ignores that his own sexual career started much earlier than this.

English football had its own annus mirabilis, of course, three years later, a blend of amnesia and ambrosia that still defines the national game.  The World Cup victory in ’66 served to dispel worries that the rest of the world had overtaken the inventors of the game. The post-war humiliations suffered at the hands of the Republic of Ireland, the USA and Hungary were erased. The final against West Germany, the disputed goal and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous commentary act as a watershed: without them the decade would not have been as swinging. It is no coincidence that the nation’s narrative has repeatedly returned to the match.

The longevity of this one match is incongruous in one particular way. The players that lifted the trophy at Wembley are, for the most part, still with us, and some, like Greaves and the Charltons, have been influential across the sport, in management, behind the scenes, and in the media. But the commentary and reporting on that final smacks more of the ‘50s than the year that The Beatles released Revolver. In a way, Wolstenhome’s famous line marks another year zero, one at the start of modern football writing.

I must have seen it forty times

Taking the ball past one, another,

Stumbling, recovering, scoring


Always I want the defeated full back to stop him


Ah, the chances let slip!

-B S Johnson, ‘World Cup Shot’

The idea that sport is defined by its reporting is not new. While baseball was being developed in the US, sports writers attending games were considered official scorers, their reports a matter of record. In cycling, the Tours of France and Italy were created by L’Auto (which became L’Equipe) and La Gazzetta respectively.

So it would seem that the commissioners of Goal!, the official film of the 1966 World Cup, had one eye on posterity, when they employed Brian Glanville as scriptwriter. The novelist and ghostwriter could be relied upon to create the immediate and lasting sense of nostalgia required of these films. There was just one thing: Glanville was the second choice.

The first writer chosen was B S Johnson, at the time (at most times) a struggling novelist. By the mid-‘60s, Johnson had published a few novels that couldn’t be more different from Glanville’s. He delighted in playing games with form, insisting these games were vital in creating a truly ‘modern’ piece of art. So, in Travelling People, the reader gets through nearly the whole book before a crashing authorial intrusion reminds them in un-broadcastable language that it was all a fictional construction. In Alberto Angelo, he went even further, cutting holes in some pages so that the reader had a textual ‘premonition’ of the future.

Johnson was made a huge offer to write the script for what became Goal! – £250 to begin, and another £250 upon completion. He set to with gusto, aiming to better the film of the Tokyo Olympics two years earlier. In Johnson’s script, the players of each team were to be observed in their free time in each host city – he had vague hopes of capturing the likes of Eusebio and Beckenbauer in quaint English pubs. This in itself would have been hugely problematic in a 90 minute film.

He also had a vision of a film that worked through automatic mental associations in the viewer. Hence his introduction ran like this:

City tower blocks…

glass link to: …Kew Gardens…

grass link to: Regent’s Park…

clothes link to: Carnaby Street (if you must)…

junk link to: Club Row Sunday morning market…pan…to PO Tower.

Tower link to: …St Paul’s…

Cathedral link to: …’Pop’ architecture, includes pub at southern base.

Pub link to: …football game in London pub…

Ball link to: Father teaching small son to kick football in tiny back garden.

Child link to: …school playground.

Ball link to: …school playground.

Even now, it seems far too mannered and formalised to make a popular film. The producers certainly thought so: they sacked Johnson from the project at the beginning of the competition’s second week. On the film’s eventual release, it won a BAFTA, though The Sunday Times dismissed it as being like “…those Walt Disney nature films where they lay it on not so much with a trowel as with a mallet.”

B S Johnson continued at the World Cup, though, writing reports for The Times of India. His constant devotion to experimentation on form did not quite preclude him from earning a small living as a football and tennis reporter, though his relationships with editors – on newspapers and in publishing houses – was tempestuous to say the least. At the middle of the decade, his football reports could be found in The Observer. Richard Burton offered the odd rugby piece, and philosopher A J Ayer also reported on football for a time. Johnson would often rail against the butchering of his copy by the subs, even though for his first report he managed to get two goal scorer’s names wrong.  This continued until he simultaneously quit the paper, and began a story about a football reporter.

This would turn into his most famous novel, The Unfortunates.  That is, if you can call it a novel. This story of a sports hack returning to an industrial city to cover a football game was published as 27 separately bound chapters, in a box. The first and last chapters were marked as such; the rest were to be read in any order the reader liked.

The story in The Unfortunates is narrated by an unnamed football reporter, based on Johnson himself. The reporter arrives in an unnamed city (slowly revealed to be Nottingham), and mixes the day’s match with memories of an earlier visit, to a friend who has since died of cancer. The novel was finished in September 1967, though it is set, according to Johnson’s biographer, Jonathan Coe, at a match on New Year’s Day 1963. So the novel looks back across the decade in the exact same way that Larkin does. Johnson’s view of ’63, though, was less celebratory. As the year began, he scribbled the following, unpublished lines:

Nineteen hundred and sixty-three-

A year I hardly thought to see.

But since it’s here I won’t complain –

Just hope it won’t come back again.

Johnson rails against the barbaric treatment of language in sports reporting. The ‘Last’ section of the novel consists of a transcription of a reporter reading his copy down the ‘phone to his paper. It is ironic that despite “This bloody reporting”, this block of language, broken down into the familiar and increasingly meaningless football clichés, is the most easily understandable.  As the narrator says, “Thank Christ I don’t have to write…preliminary speculative meaningless crap…just my own kind of crap.”

The Unfortunates can be read as a critique of those ‘swinging’ years when London was the centre of the world, and England ruled football. In his narrator’s musings on what was the disguised City Ground, Johnson notes the shortcomings of the “popular” stands, and allows himself a dig at Wembley, where a year since the author should have been filming. This sense of decay inherent in the fabric of football is meant to mirror the physical decay of the reporter’s friend, dying from the ‘random’ advances of cancer.

Touched nearly to the point of obsession with these decays, B S Johnson would descend into drinking and depression in the years after 1966, though football retained an allegorical power for him. Looking back, he mapped the gaps in memory over the gaps in play on an imperfect City Ground pitch, doing so with ellipses and gaps in the Unfortunates text. One of his last acts was to watch his beloved Chelsea. At Stamford Bridge, as a friend tells it, Johnson rued a poor performance by a Chelsea player, commenting that he could be relied upon to “do the obvious”. This player then “Put the ball over the centre-half’s head…turned around and hit it into the back of the net”. Johnson and his friend celebrated madly, the author shouting long and hard, “The fucking obvious!” This real-life illustration of randomness and plot on the football pitch seemed to settle something in the writer: he slit his wrists in the bath a couple of days later.

Post-War Football and the Invention of the Teenager

April 9, 2011

This article first appeared on The Equaliser blog, as part of ‘1950s Month’.

There’s one at every club. Intricate hair, intricate tattoos, ‘obvious’ girlfriends. Strops, tabloid scandals and growing pains. Football has always been a good home to teenagers; a mode of communication for the shy, and a goldmine to those so inclined.

Forget the present day for a second, though, and cast your mind back to the decade that gave birth to the phenomenon. The world had never seen a ‘teen-ager’ until the 1950s. Nor had it seen modern football as we know it. Read more…