The Football Man

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“The whole appearance and manner of professional football have been transformed, not to everybody’s liking. The youthfulness of a team, as a positive policy rather than as an enforced result of a high incidence of injury, is now a commonplace; the game is played at sprinter’s pace; it is more explosive than it was; players are cunning veterans by their mid-twenties; referees are frequently treated with undisguised contempt; managers grow more tense and anxious by the month; the conflict between the younger and older generations, which is one of the major contemporary tensions in society generally, is given emphatic expression in football. Even boards of directors are beginning to get younger.”

So wrote Arthur Hopcraft over 50 years ago in his 1968 timeless classic The Football Man.

I picked up a copy after seeing it referred to on more than one occasion as the best football book ever written. After such billing, I fully expected to be disappointed. I was not.

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Hopcraft was a journalist and screenwriter, born in 1932, who started out reporting on football at the age of 17 and by the mid 1960s was a football writer for the Observer, granting him access to everyone involved in the game. He was also an avid football fan since childhood. These two points combined are what make the book the special read that it is.

Football Man is broken down into nine chapters, each focusing on a different component of the game: the player; the manager; the director; the referee; the fan; the amateur; football and the press; football and foreigners; the future.

Some of these chapters are then broken down further into sub-chapters, each focussing on a particular personality or event. Each chapter is as fascinating as it is beautifully written. Hopcraft has that ability to paint the most vivid picture with a sentence of so few words that it seems effortless, similar to Orwell in his non-fiction books. This is evident right from the very beginning of the book, which kicks off with Hopcraft sitting in a car with an 18-year old George Best, while “a thin old man with stubble on his chin and a neck like a cockerel’s” battles the wind and rain to run up to the car, rattle on the windows and shout “I was a referee, you know,” desperate for any form of acknowledgement from his young hero. Best simply smiles gently at him and says, “Cheerio,” and they drive away.

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World In Motion : An Italia ’90 Masterpiece

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I hadn’t yet reached my seventh birthday when Italia 90 took place, and yet I am more familiar with it than any World Cup since, and I am not alone in that. For 80s and 90s kids it remains the World Cup. Pure theatre that captivated the imagination of a generation.

I don’t have too many specific memories of watching the games live, although I undoubtedly did, but one that sticks out is of being sat on the settee with my dad – he always pulled it up close to the telly for big games – and jumping up and down with him, punching the air and shouting uncontrollably as David Platt’s overhead volley in the last minute of extra-time broke Belgian hearts in the second round. I was hooked.

 

Eight days later I watched England’s penalty shoot-out defeat to the Germans from behind that settee, unable to take the pressure. As the Germans celebrated, I followed Mum to the kitchen and stood in silence in the door as she made a cup of tea.

Over the next two or three years, every Saturday morning after Going Live! with Phillip Schofield and Sarah Greene finished on BBC1, Dad took me and my sister to the video rental shop so we could each pick something to keep us quiet for the afternoon. Every single week, without fail, I picked one of two videos, alternating on a weekly basis between: Every Goal of Italia ’90, and Highlights Of The 1990 World Cup. I watched them religiously, often two or three times on the same day.

I knew every player, every goal, every celebration, every fan seen in the stands or, in the case of the Romanians, filmed dancing outside the stadium in Bari, and every piece of accompanying commentary by heart. Thirty years later I still do; right down to the blonde Brazilian woman crying at the final whistle, signalling defeat and elimination to bitter rivals Argentina, that 8-year old me was deeply in love with.

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The two videos that define my childhood

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Picking Mushrooms on the Mine Fields of Bosnia (2005)

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Danilo, my girlfriend’s 55 year old Slovenian father, is interested in purchasing some land in northern Bosnia and wishes to go and check out a few potential spots before committing. I agree to accompany him on the three and a half hour drive from Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, using Croatia as a corridor. We have completed the journey once before, except that time we had an interpreter with us in the shape of Vanja my girlfriend. Today it’s just him, me, a language barrier and the open road, as we set off just after 7am, into a glorious spring morning.

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After a few wrong turns in Croatia, we find ourselves speeding along a dirt track, about 3km in length, dust being launched from under our wheels into the bright green fields, tall trees and lush rolling hills that line our path. I am smiling, quietly admiring the serenity of nature, when my eyes happen upon a reminder that things haven’t always been this tranquil: a sign warning of land mines in the surrounding fields and woods.

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SIGNED COPIES FOR CHILDREN WITH CANCER

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I’m selling signed and personalised copies of Gatecrashing Europe to raise money for the charity Children With Cancer. Each copy will cost you just a tenner, that’s even cheaper than if you buy it in the shop or on Amazon, and a fiver of your money will go directly to the charity. Not to mention the 10% that already goes to Cancer Research UK.

So you’ll be helping two charities with one purchase, plus getting a book at a discount on its RRP.

I’m not making any money out of this, so don’t think it’s for my benefit. And to give you confidence that the money’s definitely going directly to the charity, I’m selling it through Ebay, who take care of all of that.

If you’re interested in a copy, CLICK HERE TO CHECK IT OUT. 
And here’s a copy of the link, if you could be so kind as to share it around: http://r.ebay.com/lKvvZS

Thank you. Love you all.

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Unfair Punishment

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So this is pretty wrong, but it happened. I had to kick two Americans out of the hostel earlier tonight. They’d only checked in a couple of hours earlier and had paid up for the next five nights, but now they’re wandering the streets of Rome looking for another place to stay. On top of that, Mario refused to give them their money back, so they lost around 90 Euros each.

I had just started the night shift and although technically the smoking terrace was shut for the night, I told these two lads that they could stay out there a bit longer so long as they were quiet. It was fine because Mario was gone for the night, so no one was going to bother them. They only wanted somewhere safe to be able chill out and smoke the nice lump of hash they’d just bought. I was going to go out there and join them once everything was under control at reception, leaving Amin to man the desk alone for a bit while I got stoned, to be able to float nicely through the rest of the night shift. I turned off all the lights in the communal area and closed it off to guests and waited for the last remaining stragglers to piss off out for the night. The unmistakable fragrant aroma of marijuana filled the air. It smelt delicious.

Amin was balancing the books for the day and Matt and I were just stood chatting about nothing in particular when fucking Mario walked in the door. He didn’t need any time to smell what we could all smell. ‘What the fuck is that? Drugs in my hostel!’ Mario’s policy is zero tolerance. I’d been unaware until that moment of how seriously he enforced it, but now I found out. He flew out onto the terrace; they never had a chance. He grabbed one of them by the collar. I’ve never seen him that angry before. ‘Pack your bags! Get the fuck out of my hostel!’ They tried to reason with him but he was having none of it. He came back to reception and told me that I was to make sure they were gone in 10 minutes. Then he gave Matt and me a bollocking for not smelling it sooner. Continue reading

Gatecrashing Europe

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Here’s a video of an interview I did with Brighton’s Juice 107 about my book Gatecrashing Europe.

If you want a copy of Gatecrashing Europe, go to either the publisher Valley Press, or Amazon, or if you’re old school you can go into your local bookshop on the high street, for example Waterstones.

And don’t forget, 10 per cent of all royalties go to Cancer Research UK.

 

Africa Solo – Talking to Guinness World Record Breaker Mark Beaumont

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On Christmas day 2007 I was freezing my balls off under the Eastern European snow, midway through my challenge to visit every capital city in the European Union without spending any money, for Cancer Research UK. What I didn’t know until a bit later was that I wasn’t the only 24-year old British guy roughing it far from home in the name of charity and adventure. That same Christmas day, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand, Mark Beaumont was getting battered by the driving rain as he rode his bike up the country’s steep Alpine hills, on the third continent of his challenge to become the fastest man to cycle around the world. Later that day he found a motel and, after inadvertently interrupting a family Christmas Dinner, was brought a plate of leftovers which he ate alone in his room.

A little under two months later Mark pedalled into Paris, breaking the previous world record by 81 days. He had gone around the planet, with just his bicycle for company, in 194 days and 17 hours. His adventure raised over £18,000 for charity.

I found out about Mark’s feat a few months later when, flicking through the TV channels one afternoon, I stumbled across his BBC documentary – The Man Who Cycled The World. The complete four-part documentary is available on Youtube, and I highly recommend it to everyone. A bit later on, Mark also released a book of the same name, detailing his epic journey. I’ve read it and it’s excellent. Since then I have followed with interest Mark’s adventures.

Last year, Mark set a new Guinness world record when he cycled from Cairo in Egypt to Cape Town in South Africa in 41 and a half days, smashing to bits the previous record of 59 days. For those of you who were smoking behind the bike sheds when you should have been in geography class, Cairo sits up in the north-eastern corner of Africa, close to where the Nile River drains into the Mediterranean Sea, while Cape Town lies around 6,500 miles away, down on the south-western coast of the continent. But despite how it might look from a cursory glance at a map, do not be fooled into thinking this is an African version of John o’Groats to Land’s End. It is so much bigger than that.

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This is no John o’Groats to Land’s End venture. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, you can ask Mark yourself. He rode that famous route  himself. Solo. At the age of 15.

Riding your bike from Cairo to Cape Town is like riding your bike from London to Tokyo. And then doing another 300 miles on top, just for shits and giggles. It is going to hurt. Endurance feats like this were nothing new for Mark, who, on top of cycling around the world rode solo from Alaska to the bottom of South America in 2010; and in 2012 had to be rescued whilst attempting to break the world record for rowing across the Atlantic when the boat he was in capsized, 27 days and over 2000 miles into the journey. Mark’s journey through Africa, which he called Africa Solo, raised over £100,000 for the charity Orkidstudio. I caught up with Mark recently to find out about Africa Solo among other things.

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Hi Mark, Let’s cut to the chase: Africa Solo – Why did you make the journey?

Well the background to this is that I’ve always looked at the Around the World, the Length of the Americas, and the Length of Africa as the ultimate hat-trick, in terms of ultra-endurance cycling. You know, there’s tons of other great bike rides out there, but if you look at a world map that pretty much crosses the inhabited continents of the world, and having gone round the world, and top to bottom on the Americas, the African one was the obvious last one.

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Wine, Hash and Guns in the Georgian Caucasus

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The mountains of Georgia, between Turkey and Armenia, 2013

We are driving at speed in a little Lada, away from the Georgian border town of Vale towards an unknown stopping point. Neither our driver nor his two friends speak English, but we are able to communicate enough through broken Russian to ascertain that they aren’t headed anywhere near Armenia.

For a recap of how we ended up in this situation, click here

‘Pochemu Armeniya?’ our driver asks, ‘Why Armenia?’ in a tone suggesting offence that we don’t want to see Georgia.

‘Priyatel v Armenii,’ I reply. ‘Friend in Armenia.’

Squeezed into the back with Adriana and I is a tall man, in his late 30s, with the dark features common in the Caucasus. The man in the front passenger seat is younger but with a similar look. The driver is different; he looks like a Russian ex-special forces man; about 50 years old, barrel-chested and with a neck thicker than my thigh, on top of which sits a head roughly the size of a watermelon. His name is Georgi, a local boy come good, who lives these days in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, where he owns a bar. He is on a short visit home, visiting friends, two of whom, Gocha and Levan, are in the car with us.

Afternoon will soon be turning to evening and we are keen to get out of Georgia and into the Armenian city of Gyumri before dark. We drive for 40 minutes, high into the hills, swapping the greyness of Vale for the rolling green fields and lush countryside of the Lesser Caucasus mountain range. Down in the valley below us runs the river Kura, into which the mountains dip their feet. Houses are few and far between but we pass a church every five minutes; each time causing all three men to silently mark the cross on their chests. Around us, peasants make their way along the dirt paths on carts pulled by donkeys. We know we have left the road to Armenia.

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Georgian Hobo

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We are in the city of Kars, Eastern Turkey, and need to get to Gyumri, just 60km across the border in neighbouring Armenia. This would be an easy task if the Turks hadn’t murdered over a million Armenians 100 years ago, in what is now recognised by most of the world as the Armenian Genocide.

The Turkish Government to this day refuses to acknowledge that what took place in 1915 was genocide. No diplomatic relations exist between the two countries, and the land border that separates them has been closed for the past twenty years. For us, it means having to take a 300km detour through Georgia.

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The blue line shows the detour we’ll have to take; the purple arrow shows how it would be done if the world was less messed up.

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Gyumri in Armenia has Character

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‘If you want to shower today – and trust me, you seriously need to shower – you have a window of about 15 minutes before the water is turned off for the day,’ Adriana informs me, gently shaking my face to annoy me just enough to get me up.

Yesterday’s diarrhoea has left me while I slept, but still my body feels weak and achy. The past few days of cross-border hitchhiking, drinking and staggering around under the heavy Caucasian rain has taken its toll; all I want is to sleep. But my mum taught me from a young age, ‘If you can smell yourself, it is bad,’ and I can definitely smell myself. I take a lukewarm, low-pressure shower, sneak past the kitchen full of breakfasting Europeans and return to bed; not waking until early afternoon, to a silent flat. A note tells me Adriana is out with our hosts, and that Iustina is asleep in her room and will take me to meet them later.

I boil some water from my bottle, make some tea and lean out the kitchen window to smoke. The sun is shining and I get my first glimpse of Gyumri under natural light. Our fourth floor window offers a panoramic view of about 180 degrees, revealing that we are sat in a valley, encircled by green-brown mountains, their snow-capped peaks in fluffy clouds. Justina emerges, shares with me some cake, we drink some tea and head out the front door.

The street that our block is on is little more than a dirt path, with small ponds dotted all over it, filled by the previous few days’ rainwater. As the city’s street lights were out of action last night, we manoeuvred our way around the area in darkness, with only the glow of our mobile phone screens for assistance in identifying and avoiding the deep potholes. Now, in daylight, with the sun temporarily hidden behind a passing cloud, and with a broken and gutted school bus lining the side of the path, similar to the one Alexander Supertramp turned into his home in the film Into the Wild, I feel as far away from city life as at any point so far on this journey. I know we are in a city, the second largest in the country, and as soon as we turn the corner we will return to urbanity, but for the moment I allow myself to be fooled into thinking I too am In the Wild.

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