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Wednesday, 29 August 2007

An Unimportant Incident...

Champions League qualifier: Liverpool 4 (Crouch, Hypia, Kuyt 2), Toulouse 0 (Liverpool win 5-0 on aggregate).

That field of loss. That field of hate. That field of blood.

David Peace, The Damned United.

I scan the sports news on teletext:

Spain international Antonio Puerta has died after suffering a heart attack in his club side Sevilla's 4-1 win against Getafe on Saturday.

Defender Puerta, 22, collapsed in the first half and medics prevented him from swallowing his tongue. He collapsed again after going off and was later given cardiac rescusitation before being taken to hospital and placed in intensive care. Doctors say his condition deteriorated before his death.

Leicester defender Clive Clarke collapsed in the dressing room at half time in their Carling Cup match at Nottingham Forest. The game wass called off. Clarke is now said to be in a stable condition...

Kieron Dyer suffered a suspected broken leg as West Ham saw off Bristol City...

The players put their bodies on the line and all we do is watch. Or is it? At its best, football is as much a test of character as it is of skill and strength, of speed and endurance. But fans show strength. Fans endure. It just goes unrecorded in the main. Because it all comes down to what happens on the pitch in those 90 minutes. "All the rest is propaganda."

Character. The Arsenal sides of the thirties had a bit of that. Edris Hapgood. Eddie Hapgood would go on to captain England. Never the sharpest knife in the drawer, he lost his £10 signing on fee (a lot of money in those days) to a gang of grifters playing the three card trick. Later, he suffered severe burns in an accident, so Arsenal physio Tom Whittaker built a harness for him to wear to protect his skin from the constant rubbing of his shirt.

Alex James: "...does that mean I get to go up in the air playing my saxophone Mr. Chapman?..."

Alex James - one of the under-sung greats of British football. As one of the 'Wembley Wizards' he'd played a large part in Scotland's 5-1 demolition of England in 1928. Arsenal had won nothing before he joined the club. By the time of his retirement in 1937, they'd won four championships and the FA Cup twice and become the most famous club side in the world. James was obviously a colossus, an invulnerable superman who could singlehandedly transform a club's fortunes. Well, he was and he wasn't. Bizarrely, he suffered from acute rheumatism in his ankles. Those extraordinarily baggy shorts of his might have made him stand out on the pitch, given him an identifiable trademark, but they also served a purpose. He wore extra long long-johns because of his condition.

Cliff Boy Bastin: "..your knee bone's connected to your...erm..."

Then there was Cliff Bastin. Cliff 'Boy' Bastin who, until the emergence of Messrs. Wright and Henry was Arsenal's all-time goal scorer - although, to put his achievements in context, it's worth remembering that he usually played on the wing. Bastin had a cartilage problem. It kept popping out. On the sideline Whittaker would gently tease the recalcitrant bit of gristle back into place and the Boy would get back onto the field, score a few more goals until it popped back out again. When the knee finally gave up the ghost, the Arsenal physio was even allowed to attend the operation to remove it, no doubt to allow him a good look at the cause of so much patient massaging and adroit anatomical probing. The Royal College of Surgeons was certainly impressed by the hideously deformed thing, as they put it on permanent exhibit. So that was Cliff 'Boy' Bastin. Oh, and he was deaf. It's not so much a wonder that the team achieved so much on the field so much as that they managed to take to it at all.

Bastin, James and Hapgood were all pall bearers for Herbert Chapman, the legendary manager who built the club into the world-renowned institution that dominated football in the 1930s. Chapman died of pneumonia at 3 am on Saturday 6th January 1934. At 3pm the same day, Arsenal kicked off against Sheffield Wednesday, some of the players having learned of the great man's death from the newstands on their way to the ground. "I suppose Arsenal gave a good display that day", Bastin would later recall, "considering that to the players the game was just an unimportant incident. Even the crowd was practically silent throughout the ninety minutes of a game which seemed to go on for ninety years."

That field of loss. That field of hate. That field of blood.

Poor old Alan Hanson. "He wants shooting for that", he'd said as part of his match analysis when Columbian defender Pablo Escobar had put through his own net. His goal contributed to the 2-1 defeat by the United States that was to see his nation eliminated from USA '94, and allow the hosts to progress. Arriving back home, he duly was shot. Escobar, that is; not Hanson. But then they go to war over football in South America. It's different there. People don't get shot in the streets over here...

That field of loss. That field of hate. That field of blood.

There was a pleasant surprise last night. There were two, in fact. Scrolling through the onscreen menu, we notice the words UEFA Champions League. I assume it's a preview of this season's tournament as both English sides played on the same day in the first leg, and Arsenal's game is tomorrow. But no, they're showing the return leg of the Liverpool v. Toulouse game. Rhys Jones' parent and brother are there, three pillars of blue in a temple of red. Rhys would have loved nothing more than to hear his beloved Everton's Z Cars Theme blaring out from the Anfield PA system. So it does and 40,000 scousers hold up their scarves of red and white. It's as if they're silently reminding the bereaved family that they'll never walk alone. And then they sing just that, 40,000 of them, red consoling blue. And then they clap him until their hands are sore as if he was one of their own. As we should them.

As we should them.

L.U.V. on y'all,


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