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The Unscrupulous Caddery of Thames Ironworks FC

In Championship Football, Millwall, The Past, West Ham on September 19, 2011 at 4:14 pm

In 1885 the right honourable Dr William Murray-Leslie founded Millwall Rovers in a fine old pub on Tooke Street named the Islander. I know this because I was there. The function room of The Islander had been frequented by a hefty quantity of the gentlemen from JT Morton’s fine English cannery since a quarter after three and it had taken until five minutes after seven before the motion to found (what we were sure would be) a historic football club was finally agreed upon and passed. At seven minutes after seven Dr Murray-Leslie sounded his hammer and shook the hand of young Jasper Sexton to mark the first moment of our club. Young Sexton suggested the name Rovers, after his dog, and we all agreed it a rather charming title.

 Millwall Rovers, or The Dockers as we would become known as, on account of the large number of dock workers around and about the Isle of Dogs who would attach themselves to the club, had a rather inauspicious adolescence, having been truly cricketed by five goals to nil by the boys from Fillebrook. I myself had a particularly difficult afternoon with David Eastgarth the Fillebrook centre half, whose imperial strides forwards left me up to my moustache in mud for two goals. But gladly the Dockers would rally back in later matches and become well known across the borough for our uncompromising straight line play and rugged physical strength. Young Sexton even scored with his head in one match, leaving him with more than a few sore teeth but smiling regardless.

By 1886 the Dockers had joined the inaugural East End Football Association and returned from the Senior Cup Competition final with a memorable two-two draw with London Caledonians (after much deliberation we had resolved to let the Caledonians hold the trophy for six months at which point we would collect it and display it in the cabinet at the Islander for a further six months). the very next year and the year after that we would endeavour to win the Senior Cup outright and take possession of the trophy as a permanent resident of the Islander (as much so as young Sexton’s beloved Rover, who had sadly passed from us in the second year of Millwall Rovers’ life cycle).

Quite plainly we had developed into a formidable side, driven by the powerful straight runs of Mr Jock Anderson (and we had more than our share of Jocks or Scotties due to the high proportion of Scottish Labourers who had settled nearby the JT Morton site) and the subtle but sturdy wing play of Mr Falkirk Albany, and dare I say my own touches of the ball in the middle field. Young Sexton had developed into a highly accomplished player of his own, and between a group of thirteen or fourteen gentlemen Millwall Rovers was to field a wide array of sporting talents in several quite daring systems that would impress our superiority over all the rival factions of the area.

Some of the Scottish boys, not blessed with the gifts of physique that we Englanders had so happily brought to the club (notwithstanding my own lean build and Mr Anderson’s moosefighter chest), had tried to instil what they had dubbed the northern style, and which was founded upon a lightness of touch and the interchanging of the ball between two or even more players. Their reasoning being that if the runner was to be overwhelmed by a large number of defensive players he could simply stroke the ball sideways to his own free man, who would no doubt use the space created to score a goal that lacked nothing in stature by way of this new method. Many of our rivals accused us of deviousness in our willingness to exchange the ball between runners, but we were more than happy to rise to their provocations with a few kicked shins and sliding take-aways of our own. Undoubtably, we had also not failed to impress our strength of character in these instances that would powerfully support our ingenuity of play.

 In 1895 however, those scoundrels of West Ham’s Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co. had founded their own garishly named Thames Ironworks FC (there were several claims from Mr Arnold Hills that the Ironworks had founded a club in the early 1890s, but I must contest. It is certain that there was no football on the Hermit Road until 1895!). This year of 1897 was the very first time that they would meet their betters as the brutish Iron clashed with the Dockers. By this time, I myself had stepped aside in order to take up management of the playing personnel from the edge of the field and young Sexton was now one of the team elders, having grown into a fine and powerful player in the English mould (we still had many practitioners of the northern style in the latter years of the century, but as always it was the grit and energy of the Englanders who would really make the team zip!). By 1897 we had also relinquished the proud and beloved name Rovers from our title (out of respect for young Sexton’s enduring love of his lost companion) and adopted the new title Millwall Athletic when we had moved playing venues to the Athletic Ground in 1889.

That the Thames Ironworks had formed a team that could compete directly with our own boys was of much interest given the recurring theft of shipping contracts that our boys were losing to the upstarts in West Ham. Increasingly, the Millwall beloved were being left worse off by the greedliness of the rival firm and there was much desire to make light of them in the public arena of the football field. That Mr Dave Arnolds, their ungracious foremen had bitten his thumb towards one of our own in the Lord Nelson public house had provoked some degree of outrage as well. Mr Arnolds was not much like by large degrees and young Sexton in particular was keen to teach him his place.

On December 14th 1895 the two teams met for the first time. After a short exchange of pleasantries (neither of us meant them but these are such formalities), the referee blew up his whistle and the game got underway. From the off the Iron were unable to properly account for our movement and increased experience when handling the ball. Our middle-field shifted the ball sidways and opened up the opposition’s defensive line. I shouted for a man to run into it and Mr Basingdon duly did so. The ball was presentably shuffled towards him and Basingdon swiftly darted towards the Ironworks’ fullback. The movement was blocked and had to be moved backwards again, but the pace was set and the Iron were given an early indication of our tactical prowess.

Three or four times we were given enough room to manoeuvre beyond the Iron’s back line and by the thirty minute mark we were aggrieved not to have been two or three goals to the good. On the turn of thirty one minutes however a decisive occurrence punctured the Iron absolutely. We had started another swift movement, shifting the ball between two players on the right flank, the Ironwork’s defensive line was being moved about raggedly, not knowing which player was to be given the ball at any moment and clearly finding it difficult to cope. The ball shifted across the field again to a third player (young Sexton of course!) on the edge of their 16 yard line. He dipped a shoulder and made to drift forwards into a striking position when that unscrupulous cad Mr John Thomas Archer Woods (I use his full name with anger burning on my lips) led into a tackle with his boot driving into Sexton’s knee. Not a sound came from Sexton’s mouth (such a specimen he has grown into!) but it was clear to all that a heinous felony had been committed. Having received an earlier booking for spitting into the crowd he was shown his second and made to take an early bath (but doubtless he went straight to some West Ham house of amusement there and then!).

Sexton was awarded a penalty kick which he duly thumped straight past the Goalkeeper Mr H. Graham, the latter whirling away into a sideways dive whilst Sexton simply attacked the ball and sent it straight down the centre of the goal. Mr Graham’s scowl at being fooled by such a clever trick was a picture and this sequence ensured that a Millwall victory was to follow. In a fine display the Dockers played the ball in sequences that the Ironworks could not fathom and resplendently finished out winners six goals to none.

I have not been more proud in any of my days on (or rather on the edge of) a football field, nor have I been more certain that justice had been served to a right ungentlemanly side. At the close Robert Stevenson even refused to shake my hand. One cannot imagine a local rivalry ever being played with more ill will than I witnessed that day!

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Response to a Straw Man

In Painting, Run of Play, Straw Man, Wigan Athletic on September 15, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Spacefootball has recently been engaged in a bit of writing for another website that it likes very much. Roberto Martinez and Abstract Painting has been available on the Run of Play for a little while now.  I am very happy with it and have had a fairly positive response so far. Thank you very much to everyone who has read it and who is reading the other things on here. I hope that you keep reading.

There was one response however that was less than enthusiastic about Spacefootball’s article on Roberto Martinez. This simply read:

                   “The most pretentious article I’ve ever read. Wigan are going down”

I would like to use this as a starting point for some thoughts that I hope might return us to the sentiments that were expressed in Spacefootball’s first piece of writing. I would also like to go over a few of the reasons why I said that Wigan play like a Jackson Pollock painting when I could have replaced Wigan for Barcelona and been greeted with universal agreement.

My thesis (and response to the above comment) is as follows:

Wigan are fucking awesome and will remain so even in the event of relegation or losing to Crystal Palace in the Cup.

Firstly, lets remind everyone that Spacefootball is not an affiliate of Wigan Athletic nor does it support or know anyone that supports Wigan. There is a tendency in the world of football writing to think from the top down. In the English Premier Division Manchester Utd and Manchester City are both pretty good. Chelsea aren’t playing that badly but according to the Guardian are “in need of rejuvination despite the  flattering defeat of Norwich”. Arsenal, as usual, are in crisis, this time sparked by their remarkable hammering by Man Utd. Liverpool are doing pretty well now but have only just pulled out of a crisis that took up the best part of three years and in which they slipped into the bottom half of the table.

Lets take one moment to think about this. The suggestion that it is possible for a club like Arsenal or Liverpool to slip into something we can call a crisis is silly. These are teams that have been finishing near the top of the league table for a long time and in times of ‘crisis’ will, at worst, probably still finish around mid-table. The BBC’s chief sports writer has variously described the Arsenal squad as ‘thin’, ‘depleated’ and ‘more a “Who’s He?” than a “Who’s Who”‘, and whilst we can agree that “the current Arsenal squad is not of the quality required to maintain the standards Wenger’s own brilliance as a manager have set”, its probably worthwhile to remember that this is a squad that features Robin Van Persie, Theo Walcott, Andrei Arshavin, Thomas Vermalen and Wojciech Szczesny. Even Arsenal’s fringe or ‘shite’ players would be more than comfortable in a starting position in 85 of the 92 clubs in the league.

This makes me wonder if the word ‘shite’, or even a more media freindly word like  ‘bad’ or ‘poor’, is being incorrectly applied in a number of instances. From the point of view of a (hypothetical) Darlington Supporter, is the premier league really full of rubbish teams? We are all used to the faint praise applied to a Championship that’s considered ‘hard to get out of’ but not neccessarily ‘good’, but is this really the case in a league featuring six league champions, twelve FA Cup winners, Five League Cup winners, One Cup Winner’s Cup winner and three champions of Europe?

We need to adjust the critieria for determining what makes a team good. Under the current system a team is considered to be good if it can realistically have a claim to be able to beat everyone else at football. So Manchester Utd is considered a good team beacuse they will win against everyone except perhaps a handful of European clubs. Even if Man Utd were to lose to a team like Leeds or Arsenal, this doesn’t mean that the former is bad and the latter good, because we know that this result is probably not a reflection of the state of the football world. Bad teams can sometimes beat good teams but this doesn’t mean that the poles have shifted under our feet. Man Utd were probably just unlucky or perhaps didn’t take the contest seriously enough.

Under the current criteria, the top of the table is very simple. Man Utd are good because the win everything. But lets see what happens as we climb down the table. Are Manchester City a good team? Well they have lots of good players and a manager that has won everything elsewhere, so yes we think they probably are a good team. We could say until recently that they have potential, but with an FA cup victory and a couple of drubbings for the lesser teams in the division this has crystalised into actual goodness.

Sinking lower: Chelsea are good because they have won things before. Arsenal are a good club for the same reason, but as a team they are only potententially good. The same is true of Liverpool but perhaps not Tottenham because they never translated their potential into actually winning things regularly and now look to be on the slide.

Tottenham and Arsenal and Liverpool of course, despite not winning things (and by this we normally mean coming first in a competition) are pretty good at winning games, and have been for a number of years. We might say that Spurs are in a slump and that Arsenal are in cirsis and that Liverpool have been crap for a few years but is this the same as being not good? All of these sides can only be said to be bad in relation to a past performance in which they were doing better. And when you play for (five times European champions) Liverpool or (formerly invincible) Arsenal that is pretty likely to happen all of the time.

Sinking lower again: Can the following teams be considered ‘good’? Everton, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Sunderland, Bolton, Fulham, Wolves, West Brom, Stoke. Now things are becoming more difficult. We can’t say that these teams are good based on having won things or looking like they might be able to win things. We can say that they might be good because they win football games, but this is still nowhere near as certain as when discussing the teams above. Everton often look pretty good, but they also have a tendency to nosedive in form from time to time. The same is true of Bolton and Fulham and (especially) Sunderland. Villa and Newcastle both used to look pretty good, but Newcastle have reinvented themselves as a well organised, uninspired team for the footballing wilderness and Villa lost six – nil to them last year so they must also be not that good. Are Stoke a good team? Well they got to the FA Cup final, have qualified for Europe and instill abject terror into everyone they face. But remember Stoke only finished 13th last year, which is not that good in terms of measuring goodness based on winning.

Sinking lower again and its probably not worth asking anyone if they think that QPR, Swansea, Norwich, Blackburn or Wigan are good or not. Remember that any suggestion that Wigan are capable of playing an interesting or exciting style of football is simply pretension. Wigan are going down.

We could go on through the Doncasters and Hartlepools until we hit Darlington and Blyth Spartans and still get no sense of where to draw the line on exactly which teams are worth talking about and which are not, but its clearly not getting us anywhere. I am not really sure if Stoke can be considered a good team (based on the current cirteria). They are obviosuly a lot worse than the couple of definately good teams in the league. But then again they would vapourise pretty much everyone below Championship level. My hypothetical Darlo fan woul be happy if the Quakers netted one in a six goal mauling.

So lets re-evaluate. I propose that a team can be good in one of two ways (and I think the accepted method is sort of a blend of these, I would like to seperate them out):

1) A team is good in relation to the league structure as a whole. In this sense its not possible to be actually ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but simply better or worse than everyone else. So Birmingham City are better than Hartlepool but worse than Aston Villa. Making them more or less good in relation to the leagues below or above them. Or, taking their current league standing (32nd out of 92 clubs in the league), Birmingham are 8/23 or 34.78% good (I think, sorry if  my maths is bad).

2) A team is good if it is winning (one or many games) or playing well, but not in relation to the league as a whole. This makes Brighton one of the best teams in the country based on the fact that they keep battering everyone. It also opens a space for interest in and appreciation of teams that are historically shite and even actually shite that do things that are wonderful.

Which brings me back to Wigan. Wigan are not going to win the league or even that many games but they are awesome because when they do win they look good. Against a team that isn’t going to swallow them up they are well organised, fluid and nice to watch. They have an excellent manager and a couple of really excellent players (Moses, Di Santo). Even when Wigan are playing a team that are going to swallow them they look pretty good because they dont seem scared of them and don’t revert to breaking David Silva’s face into little peices. Finally, Wigan are good because Al-Habsi is one of the very best players in the league (not relatively, but actually). In the short term at least, no amount of relegation will change this.

Most importantly, Wigan are good because they did this and this.

The Song of James Richard Bullard

In Championship Football, Hull City, Ipswich Town, Sadness on August 30, 2011 at 3:59 pm

My name is Jimmy Bullard and I don’t really like football that much. I like clear air and I find that football just doesn’t afford enough of it anymore. There was a time when I was young when this was not the case but now I am old and I cannot breathe. The air is stagnant when I play. It is heavy with the breath of thirty thousand spectators stood around the edge of the field. Each one of them snarls hateful things between their teeth and I can hear everyone like they were standing next to me. Each is a pointed dagger skittered from the end of a slippery tongue. Each fills the air up with hatefulness and I can’t help but breathe it inside of me. I have to get out of those clouds of dripping hatred.

When I was young I would play in fields and empty streets. I would feel the ball at my feet without needing to look and when I struck it you could hear the slap of leather in the air. I have not heard that sound in years. It gets sucked up in the air and clouded within a million other noises. When I am young I remember the glow of the grass and the ticking of the tiny insects ticking below my feet and it doesn’t even matter if I step on them because their exoskeletons will protect them. When I am young the air as alive with different noises. The air is flickering against my cheek as I move and I can call clearly with a bronzed timbre in my voice. And then the ball will come drifting towards me through the air. I can spring upwards and trap the ball on the end of my foot and silently bring it downwards to the ground. The air whistles in my ears as I fall.

When I am young I can shift my weight and skip to one side and be past a defender before he even sees my hair flick the other way. Every step has a sound. My left foot clicks as it drives into the earth. My right foot snaps as I lightly push the ball into a pocket of grass on the edge of the area. Another click and I catch the ball with the inside of my left and shift it to one side of the defender. A hole appears and I can see the goalkeeper bobbing on the balls of his feet. The sun is buzzing and the air feels soft in my mouth. My right foot snaps and the ball traces an arc through the air and past the keeper’s outstretched fingers. My left foot clicks lightly as my legs wind out their momentum and I turn slightly on the spot. When I am young football is full of sounds. My feet click and snap in quick succession and the ball pops when I hit it.

But the sounds are different now and I don’t like them very much. Now when I touch the ball I can barely hear it above the circling hatred around my head. Every movement I make is mute and empty. My feet step out the same patterns as they ever did but the noises, so deliberate and clear before, are hidden in an air that is too thick to breathe. I have to gargle for three minutes before anyone hears me calling for the ball and when it comes to me it burns the noise around it and crushes my foot with its weight. There is a snap but now it’s heavy like my bones are falling apart under my skin. The click of my left foot is too soft to hear above the manager slapping his legs at the side of the pitch. He opens his mouth and something hateful streaks onto the pitch. His eyes are ugly. The ball rolls forward heavily when I prod it and it’s an effort to even shift my weight over the pitch. Every time my foot scrapes the edges of the ball I can hear the ringing of money falling into mouths and larynxes choking a happy hateful song. Every now and then an advertisement board rolls over onto another picture with a sad grinding rhythm and the money rolls out of it and onto the field.

When I reach the edge of the box I have shift my weight and try to find a little hole in the vibrating mass of bodies but a defender claws at me and I lose my momentum. There is a pulsing skin of players wrapping around me and I need to break free or I might suffocate. I stumble past a knot of dripping teeth and scratching hands and scuttle the ball along with my right foot. It snaps again but it’s the sound my toes breaking under the weight of the ball. The air gets dark and tastes of treacle. I swim forward after the ball and find a lonely patch of blue where the viscous fog is lighter and I snap. My right foot snaps at the ball and it sails in a staggered arc towards the goal. The keeper falls over his tentacle arms and can’t reach it. When the ball hits the crossbar the earth goes silent and there it shakes with a ring that bundles up all of the hate and debt and noise in the world into a ring that shakes the inside of my head. I fall to my knees and lift my hands behind my head and close my eyes.

My number is raised and I know there is another player jogging on the spot and thinking hurtful things. Through the noise I can hear some angry lizard snarling at me so I get up and walk away towards the tunnel. The manager gargles and I disappear into the dressing room and pack my bag and go home. I don’t want to play football again but after spending three nights staring at the wall my eyes hurt and my brain is full of too much noise. I switch off the electricity and try to block out the buzzing that seems to lace around the whole world. I can still hear each penny tumble onto my head. Soon enough and I will never play for Hull City again. The manager makes up something hateful and I have to go and live in Ipswich instead. I don’t like it here. The air is thick and burns my eyes and every single goal that grinds over and into the goal meets with a louder wave of vicious curdling hatred.

I play for a few minutes and we win two-one. Everyone seems happy but it’s only pretend. I know that every snap is hate and every tick is the sound of money.