March 02, 2012

Play the Game, Chaps

CENTRAL PARK on sportsmanship


When I was a lad and playing football for my junior school, I was always irritated at the end of the game when the teacher insisted that we gave three cheers to the opposition. As far as I could see that was just adding insult to injury, as we always got hammered.

Apparently it was considered to be sporting and character building etc. but as an eleven year old I just didn’t see things that way. I usually turned my head away and slouched off. ‘Play up, play up and play the game’ was a bit lost on me – the sands of the desert could get as red as they sodding well liked - I wasn’t going to give a cheer to people who had done their best to kick me off the pitch.

Even at that age I thought that a cheer for the opposition wasn’t really worth anything if it was only being done because it was expected and was not genuinely meant. I still feel that way today, and I always get extremely irritated by that meaningless charade at the beginning of games when grown men are forced to line up like eleven year old kids and shake hands with every member of the opposition – as if that is going to have an effect on what they are going to do for the next 90 minutes - and make the respective sets of supporters feel any better about each other."I remembered his antics when he played for Brentford and expected no good of him this time round. I was right again."

We have seen over the last couple of years the potential for trouble this nonsense is, and why are they doing it? To satisfy the ego of some twerp in a suit who thought it would be a good idea if we all played nice and really tried to like each other. It seems to be happening all over the world so it probably has the imprimatur (that one’s for you Ken) of that paragon of fair play and openness Sepp Blatter – since when was anything he ever did an example to put before the world?

Now we hear that an international committee chaired by Franz Beckenbauer, after great deliberation and expense, has come up with the brilliant wheeze that the players should line up in the centre circle after the match and all shake hands. Is he mad? There is even greater potential for trouble, with disputed decisions and dubious tackles fresh in the minds of the participants.

Can you imagine the conversations?

John Terry: well played Mario mate, sorry about that tackle that almost broke your thigh.

Mario Balotelli: don’t mention it old chap, that sort of thing can happen in any game, to anybody – but why always to me?

Ashley Cole: come on lads, I’ll buy us an orange juice and treat us all to a night at the ballet.

Well, perhaps in the minds of the Archbishops of Zurich and Munich, but the rest of us aren’t likely to be so optimistic.

On the other hand might they just be on to something? Who’s to say that if we had taken the pre- match handshake a little bit further and had insisted that the players also shake hands with the spectators (alright, not practical at Hartlepool but they could certainly run a pilot scheme at the white elephant stadium down the road without delaying the kick-off) then that diminutive troglodyte Stuart Nelson might not have blasted the ball into the crowd at point blank range the other Saturday?

Well I’ll say it for a start.

As soon as I saw who was playing in goal for Notts County that day I expected to see the less savoury side of the game. I remembered his antics when he played for Brentford and expected no good of him this time round. I was right again.

Mind you, having roundly condemned him for his actions, which I didn’t see even though I was behind that goal, it was inexcusable for people to throw things onto the pitch. Apart from being just plain wrong, as somebody pointed out in the Mail, it could have serious repercussions for the club. I don’t know what was thrown but as expected Mr Nelson made the most of it (not as much as Mr Turley did all those years ago when an empty plastic lemonade bottle landed six yards from him and he went down holding his face as though Henry Cooper had landed a left hook) and now we have a police investigation going on that we could well do without.

Although I strongly condemn Stuart Nelson’s actions I’m not one of those who think that players should take 90 minutes abuse and just put up with it. If someone has been subject to verbal abuse throughout a game then I think it is only human if they make some gesture of triumph or disgust at the end of the game, or even a verbal response during it. I remember Tommy Hutchison (the man who scored for both teams in the 1981 cup final) playing against us for Swansea in front of a very sparse crowd. Some self-appointed wit shouted to him ‘go home Hutchison you’re finished’, at which Tom immediately shot back, ‘when I’m finished I’ll play for you’. A perfectly decent piece of banter which these days would probably have him censured for inciting the crowd.

While a frank exchange of views has always been a part of football I have to draw the line at actual physical assault between spectators and players.

Just a couple of weeks ago some slob ran on to the pitch (somewhere abroad of course) and tried to assault one of the players. Fortunately he was stopped by a goalkeeper, who had evidently undergone training in the night clubs of Hartlepool, who remonstrated with him in the old fashioned way – and then got sent off for his trouble. What the hell goes through the mind of an official in those circumstances? There’s no knowing if the pitch invader was carrying a weapon, or how much damage he might have done, but the immediate reaction was to punish the player for an act of violence, by sending him off. There will be those who think that the goalkeeper over did it a bit, but it must be difficult to judge the right level of restraint in such situations. I suppose if the invader is looking for a silver lining then he is no doubt grateful that he didn’t run into John Gill.

No doubt Mr Nelson has cemented his place in the rogue’s gallery kept by the Hartlepool supporters and we will follow his career with interest from now on. I suppose every set of supporters has their own particular list of opponents that they remember for one reason or another (as an aside, I wonder how many of those lists Bob Newton managed to get himself on), but there are some players who can annoy the life out of you while at the same time engendering a grudging sort of respect.

There is one such chap expected at Victoria Park just as this edition of the fanzine is about to be published. So welcome back to Hartlepool Mr Dean Lewington.
If he plays true to form then he will have infuriated about 4500 people by the time 90 minutes is up on Saturday, and he won’t be the least bit bothered. He will waste time, trip people up, pull their shirts and try every crafty trick ever pulled on a football field. In addition I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he also scored against us and then gives us a wave at the same time just to wind us up a bit further.

I remember leaving the ground a couple of years ago after one of his typical displays against us, and hearing one Hartlepool supporter saying to his friend ‘that Lewington was a disgrace the way he went on, he should be banned from football’. His friend replied ‘you’re dead right’, then after a short pause, ‘mind you, I wish he played for us’ and the first supporter said ‘aye so do I’. Nowhere like a football ground to get a dose of realism, contrived hand shake or no contrived hand shake.

Sorry Sir Henry, it seems your fine words have been wasted on us.