Thursday, July 31, 2008

Last Orders in England's silly season

Slàinte! (Cheers!)

Forgive me if I sound worse for wear but I am celebrating the launch of ‘No Short Corners’ as well as my own birthday today. I am also toasting the end of the silly season here in the home of football, as EPL clubs start actualizing or tearing up those summer transfer rumors, reveal their hideous new uniforms and prove how rusty they are in pre-season friendlies before the real tests begin on August 16th.

Tottenham Hotspur have hogged what constitute the headlines at the height of the recess, after bagging the silky Croatian playmaker Luca Modric, Mexican maestro Giovanni dos Santos and David Beckham's future England replacement David Bentley, while appearing on the brink of signing one or both of Russia's dynamic duo of Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin, who shone brightly at Euro 2008.

To compensate for this spending spree during the credit crunch, Spurs look certain to sell Bulgarian goal-machine Dimitar Berbatov, and have already offloaded Finnish midfielder Teemu Tainio to Sunderland, erratic England goalie Paul Robinson to Blackburn, and this week to Liverpool, the enigmatic ex-Inter striker Robbie Keane, surely the most curious Irish presence in Serie A since Juventus signed Ronnie O'Brien, now of the San Jose Earthquakes.

Will this be Spurs' year then? I doubt it, not because they are still atoning for flying a Nazi flag over White Hart Lane in 1935 (Germany were playing England there), nor because they have failed to become champions of England for the past 47 years, but because Juande Ramos is in charge. A fine manager the Spaniard certainly is, as Tottenham's League Cup victory over Chelsea earlier this year and his classy summer signings would appear to confirm. But I do wonder about a foreign coach who comes to England and orders his men to "lose control" after winning a big match.

Being Anglo-Irish, I am well aware of the role 'de drink' plays in people's lives, let alone in football, but in recent years alcohol has been on the wane in the game over here, as the trickle of foreign players and coaches became a huge torrent of common sense to ensure that professionalism and heavy drinking do not mix. The days of George Best stumbling in hung-over to training seem long ago, although one Premier League player did admit to me he once arrived in the morning without having gone to bed the night before.

Milling around outside Reading FC's stadium with a window into the players' bar, I can confirm Marcus Hahnemann downs nothing stronger than a mineral water after every game, while the only booze in Watford or Charlton's players' lounge I have seen was in the hands of hangers-on like me. A close friend of mine swears he saw a well-known England captain of the 1980s, who went on to coach two Premier League outfits, throwing up into a toilet bowl in a night club, but other accounts of sozzled soccer stars in England are better documented.

Legendary coach Brian Clough ordered his Nottingham Forest team (including current Aston Villa coach Martin O'Neill) to clear a huge table of drinks the night before a cup final in 1979, Manchester United & Eire legend Paul McGrath admitted to playing (sometimes well) while actually drunk, and Paul Gascoigne wrecked his chances of playing in World Cup 1998 by drinking beer at nine in the morning during England camp, a trick he repeated when MLS cancelled his trial with DC United four years later after he was spotted leaving Washington's Capitol Lounge with a bottle of vodka in each pocket.

So why did not Ramos tell his team to have a nice quiet meal with the wife and kids and get a good night's sleep instead? It almost sounded as if he had heard so much about his adopted nation's ale house heritage he was trying just too hard to fit in and do as the Romans do.

He is not the only one. National Team coach Fabio Capello has just agreed to be escorted by a TV crew as he visits an English hostelry, presumably to further cross-cultural understanding...One wonders what positive conclusions, if any, the former Milan coach will draw from his night in a local. Sure, our pubs remain our most historic builidings after our churches, but despite a ban on smoking, they do not have the savoir-faire of the Parisian terrasse or the intellectual fervor of the Viennese kaffee-haus, Fabio. What passes for conversation in pubs is 99% hot air, or to be more precise, steam being let off.

The only benefit for Capello in visiting a boozer is to hear fans' blunt thoughts about the players they watch week-in, week-out, the sort of real-life resumé a player's agent or Pro-Zone would never put on the table. The more I hear about Capello the more I wonder how much he understands England at all. After appealing for better technique and possession football from his players, he then said before the USA game in May that they needed to show more 'rabbia' - aggression or rage, which would seem to be the opposite style of play, and one which England have flogged for far too long.

So if the players turn to drink under their confused Italian director, can you blame them? While Spain's sangria nights might approach English pub crawls in their levels of hedonism, Italy has no drinking culture to compare. My memories living in Italy is of inebriation being frowned upon in the land of 'la bella figura' and of alcoholism almost deemed to be on a par with child-abuse.

Capello's last-but-one predecessor Sven-Goran Eriksson admitted learning a new word while he lived in London - 'session', after he realized to his surprise that many footballers were going out at night and having more than one beer (!) :

"If you play for England you don't need to drink wine or beer with your meals," said the sober Swede. "We are together to play football, not for anything else."

And I'll drink to that.

-Sean O'Conor

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