Brexit, football and changing of the goalposts

In true nerd style, I came across an interesting documentary the other night about trains and England, and how the rail network shaped that country in terms of commuters, building, culture, architecture.

Brexit, football and changing of the goalposts

During the programme the significance of train networks in sport was mentioned: horse racing meetings were facilitated by spectators taking the train, and the new rail industry employed enough people to fill entire sports teams. One such was composed by the workers on an obscure section of track in northwestern England, soccer side Newton Heath LYR.

LYR, standing for Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, was intended to distinguish them from Newton Heath Loco, the team from the power division of the company.

Still awake?

Newton Heath LYR would in time become Manchester United, as you probably knew. I found it interesting that the team’s origin story was so obsessively local that the team wasn’t even the only one called Newton Heath, or the only one formed by workers of a single railway company. (This was doubly interesting for all sorts of other reasons, not least the reference during the documentary to places like Whalley Range, which exist for this innocent only in the back catalogue of The Smiths.)

That strong sense of identification with a densely imagined city or urban area, I juxtapose here with a simple experiment.

Find below the cities of origin of one of the leading sides in the Premier League, and I’ve selected a feasible first eleven rather than a wilfully exotic one: Madrid, Vasteras, Bingerville, Preston, La Plata, Lagny-Sur-Marne, Burgos, Antwerp, Massy, Greenwich, Warrington.

The last in the list is probably the giveaway, as it’s the home town of Cheshire native Jesse Lingard. It’s Manchester United.

Try this club, which can feature a first team made up of denizens of Bree, Pamplona, Diadema, Dronfield, Kaduna, Paris, Arenas de Mar, Madrid, Ribeirão Pires, Brussels and Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Two points: a) Bree is not the crossroads village from Lord of the Rings where Aragorn meets the hobbits and b) the Brazilian-sounding names have probably alerted you to the club’s identity: Chelsea.

I make this point not to dish out an easy kicking based on the relevance of rainy cities in the north of England/upmarket shopping zones in London to the childhood dreams of kids in obscure parts of South America . Those childhood dreams have a habit of being overhauled by the prospect of a millionaire’s wages.

Go further: there’s something to be said for the power of a child’s desire to make it in sport if the starting point can be literally a continent away from the destination, even if the entire sport gives off a strong odour of heartless corruption (I thought you weren’t giving this an easy kicking? - everyone).

What’s interesting to this observer is the sheer variety in those place names when seen all together - and how that diversity sits in a country which voted against the European Community last year.

If last year’s polls reflect English opinion, as we all expect they do, then surely half of the passionate fans who live or die by their clubs are fundamentally opposed to the presence of most of their club’s players on the field, or at least their easy access to the workplace across the water. It’s wrong to seek too much logic in sport - particularly as it’s in short supply everywhere else - but has there ever been a sports situation where a national obsession has been so at odds with the electorally-expressed will of the majority?

Hats off to Federer’s durability

I meant to mention the incredible feat of Roger Federer a couple of weeks ago. Rolling back the years the way he did was sensational, pocketing another Wimbledon title (his eighth in all) at the age of 36.

His final opponent, Marin Cilic, is eight years younger than the Swiss champion, but he was no match for Federer, who swept him aside for glory.

True, Rafael Nadal won the French Open this year but he’s five years younger than Federer, and two years ago was struggling badly for form.

Novak Djokovic is a year younger than Nadal but time is taking a toll on him too, as he takes the rest of the year off to try to rehab a troublesome elbow injury.

All of which underlines Federer’s remarkable durability, particularly after he had knee surgery last year and missed a good deal of 2016 to recover from that operation.

Wicklow is not North Korea

Don’t all shout at once.

Wicklow is not North Korea. Not even close.

But kudos to Bray Wanderers for putting the two of them in one sentence and, as the club pointed out last Friday, “Yesterday we issued a statement that has drawn publicity from the Irish, United Kingdom, European, American and Asian media. No football club in Ireland has ever had so much publicity.”

True, a nitpicker might say that a football club would be better off getting publicity for football rather than colourful language in its press releases, but if Oscar Wilde’s old saying about the only thing worse than being talked about was etc. etc., then hitting that send button produced a win for Bray last week, certainly.

In the evil depths of my heart I can’t help but feel that this would be a superb chapter in a warts-and-all history of the League of Ireland.

The template already exists in one of the most enjoyable sports books I’ve ever read: Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association by Terry Pluto, a hilarious read about the brief existence of the breakaway pro basketball league that eventually merged with the long-standing NBA in the States.

Before anyone complains, this is the kind of venture that would be a welcome addition to the canon on any sport in Ireland, particularly as the North Korean reference in the Bray statement, allied to the recent screening of Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang, featuring Matt Cooper suggests the stars are aligning perfectly.

Pop into see Potts in his new endeavour

Best of luck to an old pal of this column with a new venture: Sean Potts, lately of the Gaelic Players Association, has opened a bar, the Piper’s Corner, on the corner of Marlborough Street in the capital.

Traditional music and a relaxing ambience: check it out the next time you’re in Dublin.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021

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