The Championship

Brighton v Watford, VydraLooking at things objectively, last weekend in the Championship was tinged with a feeling of anti-climax given the events that preceded it. Since August last year the race for promotion has been entirely unpredictable with the lead changing hand on a weekly basis.  It looked a dead cert that the automatic promotion spots would be decided by a four-way final day test of nerves.

And then it was suddenly over. Watford were up and Bournemouth followed shortly afterwards (subjectively, this was fucking magnificent, the Watford bit I mean ). However, the disappointment that there won’t be an epic last day battle does not mean this hasn’t been a brilliant season.

The Championship has provided the sort of contest you would want from any league. The relentless,  46 game bastard of a season is not without fault, but often the criticisms are misplaced or fail to understand the romantic appeal of a league that breathes life into the otherwise turgid existence of many clubs. This piece raises questions about the growing divide between the second tier and the Premier League. It’s a familiar refrain and one that’s been heard pretty every year since Sky got involved. But, has there ever been a halycon era for the second division? It is, by definition, the second best that English football has to offer. How good does anyone really expect it to be?

When people talk about it being a great league, they are not referring to the kind of football that leaves you breathless the way Socrates and Zico did in ’82. But, that’s not the point of it. It’s not a league for neutrals, and that’s a good thing, because neutrality is dull.

Have you ever watched a Football League match involving two teams you don’t support? It’s a desperate way to spend your time. A few months after my daughter was born, worn out by sleep deprivation, I found myself watching a mid-table clash live from The Riverside. I had the lights and sound off to avoid disturbing the baby. Sat in silent darkness watching Boro v Someone. Never again.

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Watford’s Fernando Forestieri: supporting a cheat

It’s easy to cast judgement when another team’s player has blatantly tried to con the ref. Less so when when it’s one of your own. On Saturday, one of Watford’s players, Fernando Forestieri, was caught cheating against Wolves. He did this:

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Francesco Totti’s trophies with Roma will not reflect the greatness of his career

Francesco Totti, 20 anni nella Roma

Hungry for Glory is Roma’s current motto. The club have taken to using it with imagery depicting the wolf that founded the Eternal City, ready to devour rival teams that enter Olimpico . Unfortunately for Roma, history has shown that their rivals can often tame the metaphorical wolf without too much bother. They haven’t yet tried releasing real wolves onto the pitch, which would surely yield better results, but in the meantime, they’ll have to make do with Francesco Totti.

At 38 ½ years old, we should be talking about Francesco Totti as someone on the verge of retirement, but yesterday he scored a wonderful brace in the Rome derby. Pardon my ageism, but old players aren’t supposed to be that influential; when they’re close to forty they should be wheeled out occasionally to steady the ship, not driving their team’s fight back in their biggest domestic fixture. This leads to two possible conclusions: one, Totti is not human; two, he’s one of the great players of his generation. It’s possible that both are true.

After two decades in Roma’s first team, including fifteen years as captain, and the second highest number of Serie A goals of all time, Totti’s status as a great should be beyond debate, but this is football, and there are always doubters. The shade these doubters cast is to point at his relatively meagre trophy haul. His only league title came in the first phase of his career, and since then he’s had to make do with a few cups and plenty of runner-up medals. He also has a World Cup, of course, but the 2006 tournament didn’t see Totti at his best; his greatest form for the national team was way back in 2000, when he helped Italy reach the final of the European championships, including an outrageous chipped penalty in the semi-final shootout against Holland, some twelve years before Pirlo repeated the technique against England.

But, it’s a cold, loveless world if footballers are judged only on who has won the most. At best trophies are a useful guide, at worst they’re woefully misleading (see Fernando Torres’ haul over the past few years). Rome is a beautiful, spectacular city. The romantic side of football demands the team that bears its name should boast the kind of attacking flair that draws universal admiration. How disappointing it would be if Roma were a highly effective side of utilitarian troopers, so how right it is that Totti is very much a player to be watched. Some players create a legacy defined by less tangible means than simply winning stuff.

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Ched Evans’ second chance is a smokescreen of denial

There is an argument being put forward that Ched Evans ‘deserves’ a second chance, which in football means he should be given a lucrative contract to score goals. Why shouldn’t he, it’s important that he puts his talents to good use instead of wasting what remains of his career, or so the argument goes. But there’s a big leap from saying someone should be allowed the chance to find employment after they’ve served their punishment, to saying a football club should fast track the return of a former employee convicted of rape. In any case, no one has been arguing against the legality of employing criminals – but since when did society become so clearly defined by matters of law?

Think about other professions in the public eye; can you imagine many people holding a similar view if a Government minister was convicted of rape – do you think there’d be people calling for that person to get a second chance in their old Cabinet job? And, there are many less high profile professions where you’d imagine a rape conviction would be seen as a career ending incident. You probably wouldn’t welcome a convicted rapist back to teach at your local school, for example.

Football is of course laced with double standards and hypocrisy, and there are no limits to the absurd positions people will assume in order to defend their preferred idols. The Luis Suarez charge of racist abuse was a prime example. All sorts of armchair experts on linguistics came forward talking about cultural relativity, and explaining the authorities were ignorant for not recognising that the language Suarez used was a term of endearment in his native land. The end result was a lot of white people defending one man’s right to call a black man ‘negrito’, but there we are. That happened.

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In off the bar: the sound of glory

Remarkably, some people decided not to spend Monday night watching Hull City v West HaIf. Granted, there were times in the first half that shook my sense of purpose to its core. What choices had a I made that led me to this point, watching Stephen Quinn competing with Mark Noble on a Monday evening, and trying to care who won?

And then Enner Valencia thumped one in off the bar, and I was immediately at peace once again. Any appraisal of this goal would conclude that it was a decent hit; a shot that crashes in off the wood work is automatically elevated above a good proportion of other goals. But, if it’s accompanied by a good THWACK sound, it becomes hall of fame material

The sound of ball twatting against post or bar on its way into the net is one of the best sounds in football. It represents something unstoppable, and Valencia’s goal was just that, a fizzer that exploded off his boot with minimal warning.

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