Friday, August 19, 2011

Homeless World Cup: Scotland Get Ready

Here's 16 names for you:

James Horsburgh
William McLean
William Lawrence
Barry Gannon
Robert Hare
Sean Lawrence
William Hamilton
Matthew Ramsay

Caroline Dunlop
Kerry Glencross
Katy Richmond
Catherine McAllister
Faye Logan
Melissa Noble
Rachel Mclean
Jade Morrison

You probably don't recognise them, most likely you've never heard of them. Random names in an anonymous world.

But they're about to represent Scotland at a World Cup. A football World Cup.

The stuff of dreams.

Yet each of the 16 will have gone through their own nightmares to reach this stage.

On Sunday they'll be pulling on the dark blue when the Homeless World Cup kicks off in Paris. It will be life changing and football will be the catalyst.

But this isn't a championship where good performances garner million pound contracts with top sides or crazily renumerated endorsement deals.

A roof over your head, a steady job, the confidence to kick an addiction. The sort of life changing events - events that might seem mundane to us - that maybe didn't seem possible a year ago or a few months ago when players were living on the street, fighting their demons, condemned to poverty, isolated from society.

And football, which so infuriates and bamboozles us, gives these players that opportunity. 70 percent of participants change their life for the better. Over 50,000 players, all of them victims of some form of social exclusion, are involved in Homeless World Cup projects across the world.

Scotland's team manager, David Duke, knows the impact the Homeless World Cup can have. He played for Scotland in Sweden back in 2004 after finding himself homeless and struggling with alcohol issues:

"The Homeless World Cup was the rope that allowed me to pull myself out of a very dark hole. It helped me and now I can help others. When homeless people say to me I can’t change, I say yes you can. I did. So can you."

A tournament where taking part is the real victory? Friends will be made, fun will be had, Paris will provide the backdrop for a global community of all shapes, sizes, colours, religions and abilities. But don't doubt the competitiveness of these players or the quality on show.

Scotland's men go into the event ranked 9th and, as one of the most consistent sides in the nine years of the event, will hope to improve on their 14th place finish in Rio last year.

The women's team make their debut in an expanding tournament that will feature 16 teams this year. Just like Ally's Army in 1978, Scotland's women are the only representatives of the home nations. I'm sure that won't be an omen.

Our footballing stars are too often easy disdain these days. Our teams too often let us down. The national team too often underwhelms.

That makes us weary of football. We forget the power it has to unite and transform.

The Homeless World Cup is a timely reminder of what the beautiful game can do.

It would be even better if Scotland's two teams give us something to remember on their French travels.

> The Homeless World Cup draw is made on Saturday, the games begin on Sunday. Follow the action here

Hillsborough: Justice Needs The Truth

More than twenty years on from the Hillsborough disaster and still, it seems, attempts will be made to deny those who most need the truth the access they demand and deserve.

The BBC reports:

"The government is appealing against an order to release cabinet discussions from the aftermath of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster.

"Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher held meetings about the tragedy, in which 96 Liverpool fans died.

"Information commissioner Christopher Graham has ruled that the information is in the public interest." (More)

Something to hide? The official line is that the Hillsborough independent inquiry must run its course.

Yet given the horrors surrounding that day in Sheffield, the way those who survived and those who lost loved ones have struggled to have their voices heard it's hard to understand the government's stance.

Hard also not to feel that there are victims here who have been ignored, palmed off and treated with disdain by successive governments. And that's a wrong that this government - whatever the motives for their intransigence - don't seem keen to put right.

The Hillsborough Justice Campaign released this statement:

The Hillsborough Justice Campaign is disgusted but not surprised by the government’s decision to appeal the release of information to the BBC. The fact that it quotes the Hillsborough Independent panel’s work and ‘public interest’ as the reasons to appeal is both illogical and disingenuous. It states that information should be “managed through the panel’s processes”; in what way will the information be ‘managed’? Why is there a need to ‘manage‘ the truth? If the panel is committed to the true facts being revealed then why is there such concern regarding the BBC revealing those facts?

The panel does not have a moral right to ownership of the facts.

The issue seems to be that the BBC would make public the contents of the cabinet meeting minutes immediately, whereas the panel will not release any information before 2012. The government’s action in appealing the decision indicates the close working relationship between itself and the ‘independent’ panel. The decision appears to us as a policing exercise that is not in the best interests of those most affected by the Disaster.

The Hillsborough Justice Campaign will now have to seriously reconsider the relationship it has with the panel. Of paramount concern to the campaign is that the panel, via the government, should seek to police that truth in this way.
(Anfield Road)

Two decades later and those that matter are still being ignored.

This is something that should unite us as football fans. That's neatly summed up on Twohundredpercent:

"As Paul Nuttall, the UKIP North-West Member of the European Parliament (and, as such, not a man that those of us that write this site would often agree with) said in response, 'Revealing the facts on Hillsborough is hardly a matter of national security, it is a matter of natural justice.'" (More)

96 lives lost.

And still there appears to be a disdain for those who matter the most. This isn't about a BBC story, about political point scoring, about the principles of freedom of information.

It's about a political elite finally doing the right thing.

It's about those 96 football fans and the scores left behind whose lives would never be the same again.

You can do your bit by signing this petition in support of the release of these documents.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Football on the Fringe: Stuart Donald & Daniel Gray

Not technically the Fringe this one. Rather the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the capital's posh Charlotte Square.

The stars: Stuart Donald, author of On Fire with Fergie, and Daniel Gray, writer of Stramash: Tackling Scotland's Towns and Teams.

The format will be familiar with anyone who has visited the annual orgy of literature before. Readings from respective tomes and then a question and answer session allowing the audience to quiz the writers, with journalist Steven Godden in the chair.

A genial but effective hour. (Normally genial: I once heard a character straight from Pseud's Corner attempt to hijack Norman Mailer with a question so dull I thought at one point Mailer had fallen asleep. He hadn't. Appearing over a video link the great man proved something of the pugilist remained as he smacked the questioner down to widespread applause).

A refreshing hour as well. I often feel the Book Festival gives sports writing something of a wide berth (a handful of events this year, including John Hartson and cricket's Jonathan Agnew) which always strikes me as a missed opportunity. It's a diverse genre that continues to flourish, as Gray mentioned at the start of this event, and will surely continue to do so as big sporting events in London and Glasgow draw ever nearer.

Stramash is a journey of footballing and historical discovery through Scotland's lower league towns while On Fire with Fergie delves back to Aberdeen's Alex Ferguson inspired glory days. Little room for Glasgow's twin behemoths in this discussion. And plenty of reminders that, while pockets of European football buckle under the weight of their financial excess, Scottish football apparently withers in poverty. "The free hand of football capitalism" offers many paths to Armageddon.

Yet it remained a positive night. The communities explored by Gray, the family bonds fondly revisited by Donald can find a way to survive, perhaps even flourish, through football.

We shoot football down a lot, it gives us ample ammunition, but it has played a role in our society that we should recognise and embrace.

A celebration made easier by engaging authors with enjoyable tales to tell and an audience determined to let optimism reign in a tent in Charlotte Square Gardens.

I have read and enjoyed Stramash - a review here and the eagle eyed among you might even spot a quote from this blog on the cover of the latest edition - but I knew less about On Fire With Fergie.

That I plan to start reading it immediately is probably the most effective gauge of a night when fitba' took centre stage at this "unique forum in which audience and author meet to exchange thoughts and opinions on some of the world's most pressing issues."

Few would have guessed that anecdotes concerning Arbroath's award winning public toilets, Cowdenbeath's less decorated Central Park and an Aberdeen draw at Portman Road would be appear so naturally amid such grandeur.

On Fire with Fergie by Stuart Donald

Stramash: Tackling Scotland's Towns and Teams by Daniel Gray

> The Edinburgh International Book Festival - and, sporting imbalance aside, it really does offer something for anyone who has ever read a book - runs until 29th August.

(Photo: Edinburgh International Book Festival)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Europa League: Hearts Look To Earn Their Spurs

The return of European football. Scotland expects.

The worst, usually.

Dundee United have already shuffled off, cramming a qualifying defeat into the SPL's blink-and-you'll-miss-it summer holiday.

Three survive. Rangers reward for not winning their Champions League qualifier is a shot at the Europa League if they can negotiate past Slovenia's NK Maribor in the play off round.

Celtic take their first steps in this season's continental competition against Switzerland's FC Sion, opponents who may or may not be on the verge of fielding illegally signed players.

Big games both. Big questions to answer. Ally McCoist has lost out on the Champions League cash 'n' carry already. Can he - or Rangers - afford the ignominy of another exit before August is out?

Neil Lennon's Celtic pulled off that unfortunate double last season. The Europa League might not be his European tournament of choice but unfinished business remains.

It's Hearts though who have landed the plummiest of plum draws as one of London's biggest clubs come calling.

Heart of Midlothian v Tottenham Hotspur.

As someone said to me over the weekend: "That's the sort of draw you want, none o' this fittering around wi' Eastern European clubs you cannae pronounce."

Can neither pronounce nor beat most of the time. But it's fair to say that non-Old Firm Scottish clubs rarely get a chance, now that we're very much the paupers of UEFA's stratified society, to get these sort of fixtures, games that hark back to the golden age when Europe was smaller and we took our place at the top table.

Another Battle of Britain. A clash that resonates with a certain history. In 1902 these clubs battled for the (albeit contrived) title of world champions - Hearts took the honours.

Memories of Dave Mackay have resounded through the decades at both clubs, a name never far from any list of all time greats at Hearts or at White Hart Lane.

Spurs' coach Joe Jordan spent a couple of years as manager at Tynecastle in the early 1990s.

His time as boss coincided with the first Gulf War. A joke from that period:

"What have Saddam Hussein and Wallace Mercer got in common? They've both got Jordan by the balls."

Funny? Not now. Probably not then. But illustrative of how Jordan's memories of Hearts might not be the fondest of a storied career.

If he is at all motivated by revenge the odds looked stacked in his favour. Fifth place in the English Premier League, on the back of a top four finish the previous season, requires a weight of resources and talent that Hearts, Scotland's "third force," can't begin to match.

As the Bard wrote: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!"

The power is the internet. The "ithers" are Spurs fans less captivated by this fixture than their Caledonian cousins:

"Heart of Midlothian are more or less everything that is disappointing about the Scottish Premier League. They started off the season with a couple of good results, then canned their manager for no good reason. They have a few high quality players, but the squad is a whole is not good enough to be terribly competitive. The sponsor on their jersey looks like crap. None of their good players are actually Scottish. Hearts are a microcosm of everything that blows about the SPL. They are a random clusterf--k of 'meh.'" (Cartilage Free Captain)

Which would suggest that hopes of maroon glory are little more than a foolish notion.


It's hard to see how Hearts can possibly win in Edinburgh let alone in the return leg. Spurs are simply a better team. There's a gulf that will show over the course of 90 minutes, let alone over the course of two matches.

But Tynecastle can be inhospitable and rumbustious. Hearts have players who will give themselves fully to the cause. And there will be some in attendance who have, at the back of their minds, a slight conviction that - even when hampered by a crap corporate shirt sponsor - David can sometimes slay Goliath.

Harry's army have already been rebuffed once, sent on to St Andrews tae think again with Edinburgh's hotels fit to burst at the height of the festival.

Will they be repelled again? The fact that some of the tartan media is presenting 'Arry's 'otel 'orror as being an important psychological blow suggests straws are being clutched.

On the other hand Spurs seem to be worried about injuries, have not yet played a competitive game after their league opener lost out to rioting youths and have a manager prepared to give as much time to the Europa League as he would to a journalist asking questions about dodgy deals.

Impossible is nothing? No, it's definitely something. But it would be nice to think this could be one of the great Tynecastle European nights, that Hearts can be competitive enough to stay in touch, to at least travel to London with something at stake.

If, at the end of the night, Joe Jordan's removing his specs anticipating a run in with Ian Black then the Jambos might even have got them rattled.

> That Spurs injury list in full:

  • Sandro
  • Wilson Palacios
  • Steven Pienaar
  • Luka Modric
  • Jermaine Jenas
  • Tom Huddlestone (maybe)
  • Ledley King
  • Alan Hutton
  • William Gallas

Which will leave the squad looking a little something like this:

Gomes, Friedel, Cudicini, Bale, Kaboul, Bassong, Dawson, Corluka, Walker, Assou-Ekotto, Huddlestone, Lennon, Van der Vaart, Kranjcar, Rose, Livermore, Pavlyuchenko, Defoe, Crouch

Pretty much devoid of the well known, the well paid or the odd bloke who finished a World Cup final captaining his country.

A squad, in fact, that would be happy to simply establish itself among the SPL's middle order.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Football on the Fringe: Singing I'm No A Billy He's A Tim

Even as you enter the theatre, Singing 'I'm No A Billy, He's A Tim' begins to knock one prejudice on the head. The idea that "Edinburgh in August isnae for normal folk" takes a hell of beating in this tale of Old Firm supporters.

It's been estimated that 75 percent of audiences seeing Des Dillon's play have never been to the theatre before. Certainly the sell out Saturday lunchtime crowd didn't seem to fit the profile of profile of many Fringe audiences.

That's understandable: this is a play that speaks directly to Scots and Scottish football fans in particular.

Although it debuted on the Fringe in 2005 it retains a freshness and relevance. Like a football team bringing new faces for the new season, the script is tweaked to reference recent events.

Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist are name-checked. So is Lennon's postman, lest we needed any reminder of the events of last season and the ensuing debates that those events framed.

If accessibility is one of the play's strengths then the trade off is the loss of a certain subtlety. That's clear from the beginning.

A Celtic fan and a Rangers fan are set to spend the day of an Old Firm clash locked in a cell together. The Celtic fan is called Tim and the Rangers fan - go on have a guess - answers to Billy.

The counter-argument might point to a certain tradition of popular Scottish comedy being broad and inclusive even when discussing our most visible football teams. Dillon's script, for all it's sledgehammer moments, moves us beyond Andy Cameron's "half 'n' half" Old Firm shirt.

There is no attempt to shy from the mindless stereotyping and misguided hatred that informs the bigotry of both men. It's a triumph of both the script and the performances, including some spectacularly realised examples of good, old fashioned Scottish swearing, that we see enough depth in both to identify with them - even before we learn of the bigotry that coloured their own childhoods.

Yet as they're brought together - united by shared experiences that cross the divide, a sense of humour, their intelligence and a shared empathy for the plight of "turn-key" Harry - it feels like many of the issues of bigotry remain unexplored.

While the script does full justice to the burgeoning relationship between them, the realisation that they are two halfs of the same coin, the sheer futility of the destructive bigotry that can turn father against son or brother against brother seems somewhat compromised by the need to entertain.

We're told early on that "there's more to fitba' than fitba'." There's also more to bigotry than fitba' and that theme deserves more scrutiny than simply being a conceit to convince the two men that they can bridge the divide.

When Tim reels off the races and religions - "Paki," "Jewish," "Muslim," "Chinky" - that would be unacceptable if substituted for "Fenian" in one of Scottish football's most well known ditties he is rehashing an oft made argument.

But, for this writer at least, that passage raised its own concerns. What joke are the audience laughing at? Is it the stupidity of those who indulge their ninety minute hatreds? Or has familiarity with their prejudices left us immune to how offensive they are, leaving us free to enjoy the "banter" while convinving ourselves that this is a victimless crime?

It's impossible to tell from the raucous reaction of the audience exactly which joke people are in on.

Despite these reservations this is a fast-paced, well executed ninety minutes of theatre. It's also an example of a play attempting to shine a light on modern Scotland and finding a popular audience for its message. That's to be applauded.

There remains a niggling doubt when you leave the theatre though. It says something particularly nasty about Scotland that this is a play reflecting certain strands of our society.

Singing 'I'm No A Billy, He's A Tim' will have done it's job when we can watch this tale of bigotry and ignorance - its repetitive banality along with the comforting humour it provides to those who choose to shelter behind its dated stereotypes - as a study of Scottish history rather a window on how we live today.

Singing 'I'm No A Billy, He's A Tim' is at The Stand Comedy Club III until 28 August