Bring it on

Sky Sports, Halifax Town, Ebbsfleet United, sports, broadcasting, satellite TV, Shay
Behind closed doors? Perhaps, but not ‘in camera’

It looks certain now that if the 2019/2020 league season is completed, it will be ‘behind closed doors’.

This isn’t quite the same thing as ‘in camera’, an expression originating in the legal system, when a judge excludes the press and public from proceedings. That means literally ‘in a chamber’.

‘Camera’ arrived at its contemporary meaning by a circuitous route but it is the same word, and if ‘in camera’ is not appropriate ‘on camera’ most certainly is. The public might be excluded from the league season’s remaining fixtures, but the broadcasters will be there.

Will we, then, be able to watch without Sky or BT subscriptions? The Government will argue for free transmission, to stop us all going round to watch games at the home of whoever has one. Or extended highlights. Or, if not on TV, via the websites of clubs.

Cheltenham, Lancashire, Gloucestershire, lovers, cricket, attendance
Will footballers cope with the absence of a crowd? County cricketers seem to manage

From a fan’s point of view it hardly matters. Football on TV again on any terms would be a huge adornment to our locked-down lives. A satisfactory footballing conclusion to a blighted season might be welcomed everywhere, with the possible exception of Stevenage.

If the season does end behind closed doors, it will be interesting to see how the players react. Many clubs talk of their supporters as a 12th man; can they compete on equal terms? Will spitting become a sending-off offence? Will the pundits wear masks? Who cares. Bring it on.


Halifax, Piece Market

When Latin was taught in schools, back in the Dark Ages, every schoolchild knew that Rome was founded by refugees from Troy. According to a vaguely related legend, one Brutus, great-grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas, subsequently wandered into the North Atlantic and became the first king of Britain.

The legend is colourful nonsense. But there are still parts of this country where the sense of strangeness (from the French ‘étrange’, meaning ‘foreign’) is so strong and inexplicable that legend retains some appeal.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Halifax is an unexpectedly exotic and cosmopolitan town.

On a sunny afternoon you could easily imagine its Piece Hall in the Mediterranean or in some Roman province. It’s a large quadrangle bounded by two- and three-storey colonnades, backed by arched rooms in which worsted and woollen goods were traded. It opened in 1779 and was beautifully restored in 2017. Today it houses specialist shops, some historic displays, the information centre and places to eat and drink.

Halifax, Halifax Town Hall
‘After dark, parts of Halifax town centre – around the Town Hall (above) and the Borough Market especially – feel improbably French’
After dark, parts of Halifax town centre – around the Town Hall and the Borough Market especially – feel improbably French; it may be the lighting and lamp standards, the sandstone and style, the mansard roofs and turrets, an occasional tall, slim gable end, diners glimpsed through an aqueous window or the tolling of the hour on the Town Hall clock. Around the town the lights on the hillsides are a profoundly nostalgic sight.

Halifax, Dean Clough, viaducts, bridges
‘In other respects Halifax is thoroughly Yorkshire’
In other respects Halifax is thoroughly Yorkshire: a dark, culverted river; dramatic public buildings; old mills converted to contemporary purposes; a fine local industrial museum measuring the breadth of Halifax’s contribution to the Industrial Revolution; a lovely Minster with a feeling of great age, unusual even for a church; and Eureka!, the National Children’s Museum to which you aren’t admitted if you don’t have a child in tow.

The people were lovely too, by and large, though not in all cases with an unusual feeling of great age. It was a strange atmosphere: just two days later the Government tightened its advice on the coronavirus. Meanwhile people strolled around the Piece Hall, they went to pubs and restaurants and at 5.20pm they attended what would be the last professional football match for some time. The National League fixture at the Shay, between Halifax Town and Ebbsfleet United, kicked off at 5.20pm for the cameras. On public transport, in the street, indoors or at the Shay they gave each other space but were friendly and helpful.

Calderdale Industrial Museum, Halifax, museums, industrial history, Industrial Revolution, knitting machine
Calderdale Industrial Museum: still making Halifax great
At the Calderdale Industrial Museum, some of the volunteers must have been in the ‘vulnerable’ category but that wasn’t going to discourage them. Stationed around exhibits in the four-floor building, each was a mine of information (especially the gentleman in the mining section). Much of the equipment on display, though static, is impressive enough; but many machines still work and are eagerly demonstrated. At the automated sweet-wrapping device you’ll even be offered a sample of the product.

The museum celebrates the industrial history of the town in all its diversity: pottery, mining, engineering, machine tools, textiles, carpets, confectionery. It also records the contribution of individuals and, when I was there, specifically Laurie Annie Willson MBE. A suffragette, she was instrumental in getting women into the WWI war effort, pioneered works canteens and, after setting up her own electrical engineering company, she built quality homes for working people. Four of her estates are still part of Halifax’s housing stock.

Halifax, Halifax Minster, Gentleman Jack, BBC, Suranne Jones, Shibden Hall
‘A lovely Minster with a feeling of great age, unusual even for a church’
Another notable Halifax woman is remembered at the Minster. Anne Lister was the Gentleman Jack of the recent BBC series. She owned Shibden Hall, just outside Halifax, was an active local parishioner and her tombstone is in the Minster.

Dean Clough sounds like a junior offshoot of a footballing dynasty, until you consider the northern geographical meaning of ‘clough’ – a valley or ravine. Here, a collection of 19th century buildings and mills has been converted into offices, a shopping village, galleries and leisure spaces.

The galleries are a rabbit warren but the printed guide helps and it’s worth persevering. In a random corridor you’ll find a Hockney; above a staircase, Tom Wood’s portrait of the Prince of Wales; and in a room to itself, a sensational Lego model of the complex.

Halifax Town, Ebbsfleet United, Shay, Halifax, National League, lockdown
As close as Halifax came to an equaliser
I was in Halifax on a Saturday. By the following Tuesday a number of the places I visited were closed – the Industrial Museum, the Minster, the Shay – until further notice. This was football tourism to the finest of tolerances. On the day football closed down in England, then, 52 Ebbsfleet supporters made their way to Halifax and were rewarded with an away win. Some of the Halifax team played as if they were feeling under the weather.

FC Halifax Town 0 Ebbsfleet United 1
The Shay Stadium, 14 Mar 2020

Norman Hunter

The picture is from Marching on Together

When Norman Hunter died last week it was natural that the broadcast news should include clips of his career highlights, however unedifying. Hunter was one of the most significant footballers of his generation. In an era of hard men – in a teak-hard Leeds United team – he stood out.

But the highlights reels revealed an aspect of Hunter’s play that can’t help but catch the eye, 50 years later. All the fouls featured were committed with the boot. Hunter was indeed a footballer. Neither on the BBC News nor in many of the YouTube compilations will you see Hunter grappling with an opponent. He summarily chopped men down, rather than hauling them down with his hands, arms or upper body.

Is that to Norman Hunter’s credit? No, it probably made him more dangerous than would be tolerated today. But the famous ‘duty of care’ that players are said to owe opponents seems a convenient piece of hypocrisy anyway. Grappling has not replaced hacking, stamping, scraping etc – it has joined them in the modern footballer’s armoury.

On the other hand… there is a certain honesty, perhaps almost purity, about the way Hunter played. His job was to stop opponents from scoring. How much easier it would have been had the use of the arms been legitimate – or even mandatory – in his day.

In the event it was one of Hunter’s team-mates who changed football in that respect. When Jack Charlton was allowed by referees to get away with standing on the goal-line in front of the goalkeeper at corners, the game changed forever. In particular, the days of an offence previously referred to as ‘obstruction’ were numbered.

The argument Leeds made was that Charlton was entitled to stand where he liked at a corner-kick. That much was true; but his purpose was to impede, distract, perhaps intimidate but certainly to get in the way of the goalkeeper. From there it was a short step to other overt forms of obstruction – ‘shepherding’ the ball out for a throw-in or goal-kick, for example. And with obstruction effectively part of the game, it was natural that use of the arms should follow. When, then, was the last time you saw an indirect free-kick awarded for “impeding the progress of an opponent”? Instead, something similar to rugby’s ‘hand-off’ is routine whenever the ball goes near a player with a marker within reach.

It is to be expected that in half a century the game might have changed. Norman Hunter was a good enough footballer to have made a career in it if he were starting out again now.


VAR, micrometer screw guage, caption, middlesbrough, reading, goalmouth action

One of the unexpected victims of the much-maligned VAR could be goal celebrations. Players who aren’t sure they’ve scored can’t help but be inhibited. Celebrating prematurely will expose them to the mockery of opposing fans, as when half the ground sees a shot hit the side-netting and the other half thinks it’s a goal.

Surely, you might reply, only an old curmudgeon would find anything objectionable about goal celebrations. Speaking as an old curmudgeon, I agree – but only up to a point. Some goal celebrations are genuine (if premeditated) expressions of joy. But others are no better than brand-building. They belong to the world of marketing and image rights. They are yet another lamentable demonstration of football’s eagerness to sell its soul.

Alex Young, the Golden Vision (Everton 1960-68), on scoring one of his 89 goals for the club, would offer a firm handshake to any team-mate in the vicinity before trotting back to the centre-circle looking godlike. That was how it was done in those days, though few managed to look godlike in the process.

The first vaguely modern, exuberant goal celebration may have been Roger Milla dancing with a corner flag at the 1990 World Cup. Cameroon illuminated that tournament and Milla scored enough goals to have partnered each corner flag in turn. He was, incidentally, the oldest footballer to score a goal at the World Cup finals at the time, but nobody spoke of dad-dancing then. And Peter Crouch’s robot was 16 years in the future.

But celebrations are becoming more and more reprehensible. Anything involving hand shapes or messages on undershirts should be outlawed, with the exception of Owen Farrell’s ‘JJ salute’ in which Farrell is promoting a charity. What Gareth Bales’s heart, Ellen White’s goggles or others (including the Mobot) are promoting is anybody’s guess. Joy unconfined?

VAR often takes an age to come to a borderline decision. That is clearly not what the procedure was intended for, and is one of the many valid objections to it. But if it takes the ‘spontaneity’ out of goal celebrations, would that be a bad thing?


‘Dover Western Docks was once one of the most romantic destinations on Britain’s railway network – your eventual destination was probably Paris’

Dover Western Docks was once one of the most romantic destinations on Britain’s railway network. To have a ticket to Dover Western Docks meant you were traveling on the boat-train; your eventual destination was probably Paris. If, like me, you were thrifty, you were probably traveling at dead of night into the bargain, which added to the romance. Theoretically, at least.

Before ever I made the trip I thought the boat-train somehow trundled from the pier right into the bowels of the cross-Channel ferry. It was a disappointment, then, to have to disembark at a cold, dark, anonymous railway terminal and walk the last couple of hundred yards. Any remaining shreds of romance were irrevocably whisked away on to the chill night breeze by the state of the vessel at dead of night. Squalor is the word that comes to mind. And yet when I think of that first trip the chief memory is of Ilse and the sense of romance returns refulgently.

Dover Priory railway station, trains, public transport, renovation
‘It was hard to be sure whether they were knocking down Dover Priory station or renovating it’

The last train arrived at Dover Western Docks in 1994. The listed station building remains on Admiralty Pier but the lines are long gone. Trains to Dover now deliver you to Dover Priory station, which sounds an acceptably historic alternative. Don’t get your hopes up.

In March 2020 it was hard to be sure whether they were knocking down Dover Priory station or renovating it. Perhaps they plan a future diametrically opposed to the fate of Western Docks – the rails will stay but the station will disappear. Either way, any romance or sense of history attached to this element of your visit will depend entirely on how you feel about your companion.

One final announcement from Platform 1. In March 2020 the UK, as elsewhere, was trying to keep Covid-19, the coronavirus, under control. The official advice was for us to wash our hands, long and often, with soap and hot water. The Gents at Dover Priory had neither soap nor hot water. This comment is not aimed at the station management; I mention it to illustrate a common British inability to match ideals with the daily reality experienced by most of the citizenry.

Dover Castle, Castle Street, Dover, lamp-post, flower basket, brooding, hill
‘If Dover were a golf course, you’d splash out on a buggy. Castle Street, encouragingly flat for the first hundred yards or so, soon takes a turn for the worse’

If Dover were a golf course, you’d splash out on a buggy. The flatlands of the town centre don’t require it, and here you will save further money by finding the Transport Museum and the Roman Painted House closed through the winter and Dover Museum is free. But up the hill to the west are the Western Heights and associated redoubts, plus the Templar Church. Up another hill to the east is Dover Castle. Even the football ground, at Crabble, is up a slope that would be regarded in most towns as challenging.

Dover, Dover Castle, hillside, fortifications
‘Experienced travelers will think nostalgically of European cities like Ljubljana and Salzburg, where castles are served by funiculars’

From the railway station, the hill closest takes you up to the Western Heights. The fortifications here are from the Napoleonic Wars originally. “The exterior and moat can be viewed daily during any reasonable daylight hours,” says English Heritage. As for the rest, then, you’d have to be lucky about the date of your visit.

Dover, Western Heights, Napoleonic Wars, English Heritage
Western Heights: ‘The fortifications here are from the Napoleonic Wars originally. “The exterior and moat can be viewed daily during any reasonable daylight hours,” says English Heritage’

It may nonetheless be worth trekking up there. For one thing, it will warm you up for the walk to the castle later. For another, it gives you fine views across the town, harbour and, indeed, the English Channel. Dover Castle is at a similar altitude on the other side of the town but unfortunately the photo opportunity is compromised from some angles by a pair of masts rising out of the landscape beyond.

Alternatively, if you turn left out of the station you’re into the town centre very quickly. Here you will find Dover Museum.

Bronze Age, ancient boat, oldest seagoing boat known, 3,500yrs, Dover, Dover Museum
‘The “oldest sea-going vessel known” may be 3,500yrs-old. It was apparently built of hollowed-out trunks strapped together. At intervals along the length of the base are what look strangely like the wheel-arches of a small car’

The Dover Museum has galleries on three storeys, one of which was closed when I was there, for an exhibition to be set up. No matter; the remainder was excellent. They soften you up with attractive displays of Dover through the ages, including an especially effective room devoted to the town’s military history. This included a sequence of seven or eight chronological models and, suspended from the ceiling, a V1 flying bomb. Not as obvious but worth equal attention is a portrait of Elizabeth I painted in about 1598 and displayed in Dover Town Hall during her reign.

And then we come to the pièce de résistance, the Bronze Age boat which merits its own gallery. This is fairly dark. If you have reactolite spectacles you may need to give them a few minutes to calm down.

The boat is apparently the “oldest sea-going vessel known”. It may be 3,500yrs-old. Laid out behind perspex in the middle of the room, it was apparently built of hollowed-out trunks strapped together. At intervals along the length of the base are what look strangely like the wheel-arches of a small car. At either end there are obviously bits missing, but most of it is astonishingly complete. Around the sides of the gallery, related exhibits and explanations complement the vessel perfectly.

From there, it is no great distance to Dover Castle. But Castle Street, encouragingly flat for the first hundred yards or so, soon takes a turn for the worse. Experienced travellers will think nostalgically of European cities like Ljubljana and Salzburg, where castles are served by funiculars. Press on. It’s worth it, even at £20.90 a pop.

Dover, Dover Castle, spiral staircase, stonework, fortifications, keep
‘You could probably spend most of a day at Dover Castle. It covers an enormous area and has several set-piece attractions from various eras’

You could probably spend most of a day at Dover Castle. It covers an enormous area and has several set-piece attractions from various eras. The castle itself includes a keep with rooms presented as period halls, kitchens, bedrooms and so forth, and with access to the roof with wonderful views. Around the keep’s courtyard is a museum devoted to the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment and The Queen’s Regiment and these help to maintain a sense of chronology. And that’s not easy, partly because the eras rub shoulders with each other on a large scale – a Roman lighthouse alongside a Saxon church – and in the general feel of the place, with WW2 artillery pieces in one direction, a trebuchet and cannon in another. Some of the more prosaic buildings are equally intriguing, from barracks to holiday accommodation.

The Naafi Restaurant attached to the castle was closed for refurbishment. English Heritage broke that lamentable news in a peculiarly jolly-hockeysticks fashion. “We’re excited to announce that major work has begun to improve our catering facilities.” So I looked for lunch down the hill and wandered at random into the White Horse on St James St. It was an inspired choice.

When a pub is busy and you have a deadline – 3pm in my case – it helps for the staff to warn you that you might wait 40mins for food. But when they realised I was a party of one (no-one Ilse on this visit) they accommodated me and fed me promptly and well.

White Horse, St James Street, Dover, Channel swimmers, mementoes
‘The White Horse on St James St: an inspired choice. All over the walls, ceiling and doors are notes left as in a Visitor’s Book but in this case by Channel swimmers’

The pub itself is extraordinary. All over the walls, ceiling and doors are notes left as in a Visitor’s Book but in this case by Channel swimmers. A typically matter-of-fact entry, on the back of the main door, reads: “Cedric Bird, Jersey, E-F 13/9/08 11hrs 46mins For Charlie & Hannah”. Some include an inspirational message: “Life dream is now a reality. Chase your dream!” Many immortalise the support crew. One or two are illustrated, especially with flags. And there is humour: “For Lil and George, It Was Only One Length! Rebecca Simmons, First Guern! 19-9-09 11-4.3”

London Road is down-at-heel, enlivened by some notable architecture. The shabbiness increases with distance from the centre. Or, to be more generous, the grandeur fades. The Royal Victoria Hospital and its annex are still pretty grand. But Kings Hall, described by the estate agent trying hard to drum up interest as “an impressive and attractive theatre hall”, is startling. Certainly, very few English towns are too grand for a bit of Romanesque frontage and a pair of Doric columns, but painted yellow, white and sage green? A little further along is Jasper House, built I believe in 1954 as a Working Men’s Club. Is this very late Art Deco or early retro?

I realised too late that I had been walking parallel to the River Dour, and that it might have been possible to walk alongside it rather than beside a busy road. On the other hand its name doesn’t inspire visions of sylvan tranquillity. In the long run, it supplies the adjective that my memory will attach to the fixture at Crabble that afternoon.

Dover, Dover Athletic, Crabble, Yeovil Town
‘Even the football ground, at Crabble, is up a slope that would be regarded in most towns as challenging’

‘Confident’ is the word for a football club that prints the its name in type no bigger than 8½pt on the front of its match-day programme, relying instead on the initials COYW as a masthead. Come on you whites… and with cliffs that colour, what else would Dover Athletic play in?

Dover Athletic 0 Yeovil Town 1
Crabble Stadium, 7 March 2020

A Farewell to Sleeves

YouTube preserves many wonderful treasures from the past, rarely more golden than when Eric Cantona bestrode the earth. And in almost all the epic goals that decorate this five-minute compilation, Eric is wearing a long-sleeved shirt.

At some point in the intervening quarter-century long sleeves, along with the Anglo-Italian League and black football boots, have disappeared from the game (though not racism, homophobia and intolerance of all kinds). And yet football is a winter sport, surely ill-suited to what is in effect a T-shirt (albeit with miraculous wicking properties). Have footballers become more hardy and virile?

sir stanley matthews, stoke city, britannia stadium, stoke, statue, footballer, knight
Sir Stanley Matthews: sleeves and the man

‘No’ is the short answer. On the contrary, it can only be a matter of time before players take the field in overcoats. Sir Stanley Matthews would not have rolled his socks over his knees. He would not have worn cycling shorts except perhaps on a bicycle. If he ever played in gloves it would surely only have been as an emergency goalkeeper in the days before substitutes. As for tights, in Sir Stan’s day running around kept you adequately warm.

‘No’ is also the longer answer. Short-sleeved shirts enable players to get away with a bit of layering. Beneath the maillot du jour, the colour, design and detail of which will vary according to venue, occasion and time of year, players wear long-sleeved undergarments. This untidy habit is only slightly mitigated by the regulatory insistence that the visible long sleeves should match the colour of the outer short sleeves. Such under-sleeves do not, of course, bear any stripes or other patterning. They do not have a noticeable cuff. They aren’t always a particularly good colour match. They can, however, bear a logo or message to be revealed when a goal is scored. No doubt footballers think they are ‘edgy’.

Can clubs not afford two sets of shirts, then? Again, ‘No’ is the obvious answer. Clubs produce new strips at the drop of a hat and customise them to commemorate special events. In former times a player would have been offered a choice of short or long-sleeved shirt. His selection would then have been drawn from a hamper containing 20 freshly-laundered shirts: one short, one long-sleeved for each of the 10 outfield players. (According to legend Arsenal was an exception: there, the captain decided what sleeves the whole team would wear.)

Does any of this matter? Once again, no. But you can’t help feeling that it’s all part of football’s determination to milk as much revenue as it can from fans, perhaps in this case by getting them to buy twice as many shirts as they need.

Dial M for Mystery

justice, southampton, scales, street furniture

Suppose you were on trial for murder, in a country where the death penalty was still applied. With the trial more than two-thirds complete – just a few more defence witnesses and the summings-up to go – suppose a virus put a halt to court proceedings, as jurors fell ill and social distancing made further hearings impossible.

How would you want the thread to be picked up when the court system could begin functioning again?

Three possibilities come to mind:
The judge reaches a verdict based on the evidence heard so far
The trial is resumed from the point at which it was interrupted as soon as it is possible to do so
The trial is abandoned. A new jury is sworn in and the process begins all over again.

Surely the first option can be dismissed out of hand. Without all the evidence having been heard and, in cross-examination, tested, no final verdict is possible. Unfortunately, then, Liverpool cannot be awarded the Premier League title. Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich cannot be relegated with 27-30 points each yet to be contested.

The third option also presents problems of consistency and fairness. Starting again does not move all the pieces back to where they were. In the courtroom analogy, a new jury might have other sympathies; witnesses might no longer be available; new information might have come to light. The trial could be quite different.

Regardless of your view of the concept of natural justice, or of Liverpool FC, for Liverpool to be denied the title arbitrarily would be grotesquely unfair. As the table stands with the league programme suspended, Liverpool need just two wins from nine games to be sure of the title; they have 27 wins from 29 at this point.

Elland Road, Leeds United, Leeds, promotion, Championship
Elland Road: must surely have Premier League football again next season

And so on down the leagues. In the Championship, Leeds and West Bromwich have pulled away in the automatic promotion places, as have Coventry in League 1. They and their fans would justifiably feel hard-done to if their efforts to March were expunged. At the darker end of the tunnel, poor Bolton are almost certain to be relegated from League One and Stevenage from League Two. Reprieves for them might condemn two other clubs next year.

But there is a quarter of the season outstanding and few issues are clear-cut. The problem with the second option is time. Nobody knows when football might resume. As things stand the Premier League has proposed fixtures from 2 May, but that seems optimistic. Beyond that point, the 2020/21 season will become a factor in calculations.

One idea offered as a potential solution is quite ingenious. The Premier League is apparently looking at the possibility of an accelerated finish to the season in conditions resembling an international tournament: all the clubs gathered in a small number of neutral locations, playing out the remains of the season behind closed doors.

They would hope to be able to do this through June and July. The close season, officially defined in FA rules as June, would thus be sacrificed. But everybody would arrive at the 2020/21 season in the same state of exhaustion. And the investments of time, effort, money, emotion etc in the 2019/20 season would not have been wasted.

It may not happen. First, the infection curve may not be sufficiently flat for anyone to embark on such a project with confidence. Second, complications may arise not only from the fitness and health of players but also from their registrations and contracts. The expectations of broadcasters and sponsors will also be a factor.

Even so, a continuation of the present season must be the fairest course. Even if it runs well into 2020/21. Clubs should be allowed to complete this season’s competitions on the terms under which they entered them; if those terms need to be adjusted for next season, so be it. No League Cup, perhaps, to free up mid-week nights; only one league fixture between clubs, to halve the length of the season; no winter break. If the terms are understood and accepted before the 2020/21 season begins, there should be no problem.

But the example of the play-offs gives grounds for doubt that the current season will be allowed to finish. The play-offs suggest that the people who run football have little regard for the time, effort, money, emotion etc invested in a season by a club and its supporters. Ask anyone whose team has ever finished in third place, streets ahead of fourth but obliged nonetheless to play three more games at the end of the season to gain a promotion it has already earned.