Stars for a minute

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HOW narrow is the dividing line between being a professional footballer, seeking the best salary for your ability, and being a self-seeking prima donna?

That line has been firmly tested over the past couple of months.

First we had the one man strike at West Ham by their star play maker Dimitri Payet, demanding he be sold for a mega million fee.

Then we had striker Chris Martin do much the same at Fulham, although on this occasion he simply wanted to return to his parent club Derby County.

And then we saw striker Ross McCormack conduct a one man training strike at Aston Villa. His actions forced Villa manager Steve Bruce to publically reveal that the Scot had been dropped from the first team squad for “continually missing training”.

But these examples are not a new capitalist madness in the beautiful game we all love.

Back in 1998, Dutch striker Pierre van Hooijdonk staged a very public one player strike, claiming Nottingham Forest had made “broken promises” to sell him if he helped them earn promotion from Division One.

And more recently in September 2011, during a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich, Argentine star Carlos Tevez ignored Roberto Mancini’s orders and refused to come on as a substitute for Manchester City.

Crazy eh!

So how refreshing is it that one of our own stars has the dignity and professionalism to show others how to behave.

The transfer speculation surrounding Dale Stephens dominated the Albion’s close-season.

The Seagulls turned down several bids of up to £8million from Premier League side Burnley for the midfield star.

Then as the transfer window closed, Stephens took to Twitter to explain that although he had been “reluctant” to submit a transfer request, he wanted an opportunity to play in the top flight.

“I’m 27 and recognised this could by my final opportunity to do so, which is why I feel disappointed my chance was taken away,” he posted.

Many Albion fans feared that Stephens might sulk, rebel or simply refuse to train as a result of his rejected transfer.

But how wrong they were.

Since last August, Stephens has proved to be one of our key players. His work ethic is exemplary and his importance to the team is pivotal.

Small wonder that the Albion have not lost a game this season, when Stephens has been in the team.

On 22 October, after scoring the winner for the Albion against Wigan, he underlined his professionalism saying: “I enjoy playing for this club and enjoy playing for this manager and I remain fully committed until the end of the season.”

But Dale Stephens’ situation opens up a reality for many professional footballers, and maybe casts some light on the actions of Payet, Martin and McCormack.

It has always been the case that the career of a professional footballer is short.

For while many may sign for a club as a schoolboy, their proper career doesn’t usually take off until they turn 20. And for most it is all over by the time they reach 35 – Inigo Calderon, Bobby Zamora and Gordon Greer are good recent cases in point.

So what do they do for the next 30 years of a normal working life?

Some stay with the club in an executive or coaching capacity (Guy Butters and Paul Watson) and some take up TV or radio punditry (Adam Virgo), but for others the future is less clearly defined.

For all players the onus is to earn as much as they can, while playing at their top level, to pay for a lengthy retirement.

Last season, average Championship earnings were £6,235 a week (£324,250 a year) while in the Premier League first-team average salaries were around £1.7 million.

Meanwhile, the average basic pay in League One was £69,500 and £40,350 in League Two – not much more than the national average.

That means top-flight players earned over five times as much as Championship players, almost 25 times as much as League One players, and around 42 times as much as League Two players.

Small wonder that players like Dale Stephens want to play in the Premier League before age and declining fitness determines that their career is over.

Thirty years ago, a top-flight footballer earned on average £25,000 per year, or just two-and-a-half times as much as the average household income of £9,788.

By 1995-96, a top-flight player earned six-and-a-half times as much as an ordinary family, and by 10 years ago it was more than 20 times as much, or £686,000 versus £33,000 per year.

Now it’s more than 40 times as much.

So spare a thought for my boyhood Albion heroes of the late 1960s.

Charlie Livesey was already a star with Chelsea when he joined the Albion in 1965. He was the Dale Stephens type dynamo of that era.

At the time the average weekly wage for a footballer in the third tier was just £20.

In his four years with the Albion, Livesey made 146 appearances, scoring 37 goals, before being released aged just 31, in April 1969.

He finished his career at Crawley Town then returned to the East End of London where he became a humble painter and decorator. Charlie died in 2005, aged 67.

Nobby Lawton was a similar midfielder – ironically born in Newton Heath, Manchester, just a few miles from where Dale Stephens later grew up.

He began his football career as an amateur with Manchester United. Following the Munich air disaster in 1958, he gave up his job with a local coal merchant to sign professional forms.

By the time he signed for the Albion from Preston North End in 1967, aged 27, wages had climbed to £30 a week.

Lawton was Livesey’s natural replacement at the heart of midfield and scored 14 goals in 112 appearances before dropping down to the Fourth Division to play for Lincoln City in 1970, and retiring two years later, aged 32. He returned to Newton Heath in 1977 to work for an export packaging firm.

Nobby Lawton died in April 2006, aged just 66.

Today, while Dale Stephens will hope for a much longer and healthier life, his career expectation is the same as it was for Charlie Livesey and Nobby Lawton, all those years ago.

It’s a long retirement.

 

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A Sublime Day in May

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MY paternal grandfather’s abiding passions were his vegetable garden, barley wine, horse racing and Newcastle United Football Club – not necessarily in that order.

But one thing was certain, enter his living room any time after 4.40 on a Saturday afternoon – once the BBC tele-printer was running – and there was complete silence, as he waited for the Newcastle result to come in.

Grandfather, or Pop as he was known, was born and raised in Throckley, seven miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne, the son and grandson of coal miners at the village’s Maria Pit. He was Geordie to the bones.

He had moved south in 1933, during the Depression, with my gran, my dad and his three siblings, to find work and a better life.

With his health failing, aged 86, he returned north early in 1979, following the death of my gran. He wanted to live out his final years on his beloved Tyneside.

All my life he had regaled me with deep passion about the pre-war Newcastle teams (particularly the 1926-27 First Division champions) and the three times post war FA Cup winners, with the legendary centre forward Jackie Milburn – the uncle of Bobby and Jack Charlton.

So we come to the evening of Friday 4 May, 1979, and I am sipping a large whisky with Pop at his comfortable new home on Tyneside and talking excitedly about the reason I am staying with him for the weekend.

I am enthusing about my beloved Brighton and Hove Albion and their end of season fixture at St James Park against his beloved Magpies.

He smiles, asks me to pour him another whisky – this time with a splash of ginger wine – and whispers: “Don’t get carried away lad, your team haven’t done it yet, they still have to encounter the Mags on God’s own soil.”

I went to bed that night with a huge grin on my face.

Saturday 5th May was our big day.

But strangely, it wasn’t the last day of the 1978/79 season.

A snow laden winter had left many clubs playing catch-up with their remaining fixtures, and we were going into our last game at Newcastle, at the top of a remarkably tight Second Division table, with just one point separating the top four clubs.

A win would secure us promotion to the First Division for the first time in our history against a Newcastle side in ninth place, with little to play for, bar pride.

So that morning, in bright sunshine, but with a chill wind in the air, I hopped the local train into the city.

At the station I met an old friend Pete – a Geordie with whom I had gone to many Newcastle games, while we were at university together in West Yorkshire. He had a black and white scarf wrapped around his neck and was grinning widely.

“Why aye, Nic, let’s do some beer,” he enthused, “There are quite a few pubs that open at 10.30.” And so we began a two man pub crawl for the short distance between the city station and the Newcastle ground.

We eventually reached The Strawberry, an infamous drinking hole outside the Gallowgate End of St James Park. It was (and still is) a pub for home supporters only.

“Keep yer trap shut inside,” Pete winked, “Or I am not responsible for taking you to hospital!”

The Gallowgate End or “Gallows Hole” was an historic place of public execution in Newcastle. In 1650, 22 people – including 15 witches – were hanged in one day.

The last hanging took place in 1844, only three decades before the first ball was kicked inside St James Park!

So I drank my pint quietly, to avoid becoming a 20th century execution!

Then, merry with beer, Pete and I shook hands and wended out respective ways to either end of this legendary football stadium. What followed, was the stuff of real legends.

The weather was sunny and dry as the game kicked off, in front of 28,434 fans.

The first 10 minutes was all Brighton as we attacked the Leazes End, where our 2,000 plus fans were gathered. We were dominating, and suddenly from a left wing Williams’ corner, skipper Brian Horton snuck between the Newcastle defence to bullet a header into the net. (1-0 Albion).

With Rollings and Cattlin immense in defence, Horton running the midfield, and Peter Ward inspiring, Albion began bossing the game. A few minutes later Ward let Maybank in with a clear shot on goal, but Teddy shanked it wide.

That was the key for Newcastle to up their game, and they twice came close to an equaliser.

But they hadn’t counted on Peter Ward, whose sublime mazy run through their defence and a directed shot, which somehow managed to cross the goal line, doubled the lead. (2-0 Albion).

Our football was expansive as the rain started to team down.

It was end to end stuff, before Ward fired at goal and Gerry Ryan poked in the rebound from a Newcastle defender. (3-0 Albion).

But the Magpies were not about to give up and they began to put steady pressure on our goal before the half-time whistle blew.

We were almost there… just 45 minutes to make history.

The second half was rocky in comparison as Brighton nerves made their way around St James Park. But the clock was ticking and when Alan Shoulder pulled one back for Newcastle, it was too late for a comeback.

As the final whistle blew, the moment (and the game) was savoured. We went wild as our heroes in yellow ran towards us, manager Alan Mullery ran onto the pitch, hugged Horton and joined in the celebrations.

Tears flowed, voices shouted, cheers echoed, hugs were exchanged and smiles enveloped every face.

We were promoted to the top flight for the first time in our history!

But it had gone to the wire: with a game in hand, Palace won the title with 57 points, we were second on 56, just ahead of Stoke on goal difference and Sunderland fourth on 55 points.

After the game I tried to find Pete for a celebratory pint, but in the days before mobile phones, and amid thousands of cheering supporters, the task was impossible.

A few days later, he telephoned me at home to say; “Where were you afterwards? We were all waiting for you in The Strawberry!”

But later that sublime Saturday evening I arrived back at Pop’s home, to be greeted with a smile, a handshake, a “well done, lad” and a very large whisky.

Pop sadly passed away, two years later.

I will never forget him, or that day.

 

Fans United Will Never Be Defeated

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Ken Richardson’s fire

Stoked the Doncaster ire

It only took a spark

To ignite his moment in the dark

 

They can’t understand

In their money-grabbing hands

When they try to steal our game

They are all the fuckin same

We will not be tamed and seated

Fans united together

Will never be defeated

 

Bill Archer made a killing

From his crooked Goldstone shilling

But the battling Seagulls now fly

Under a blue and white sky

 

They can’t understand

In their money-grabbing hands

When they try to steal our game

They are all the fuckin same

We will not be tamed and seated

Fans united together

Will never be defeated

 

Alex Hamilton’s wrecking ball

Swung the Racecourse call

As the evil ball came down

Wrexham’s fans saved their ground

 

They can’t understand

In their money-grabbing hands

When they try to steal our game

They are all the fuckin same

We will not be tamed and seated

Fans united together

Will never be defeated

 

Roland Duchatelet’s sleight of hand

Unites the Valley stand

The fans now deal their own CARD

As they clear him from their yard

 

They can’t understand

In their money-grabbing hands

When they try to steal our game

They are all the fuckin same

We will not be tamed and seated

Fans united together

Will never be defeated

 

Karl Oyston sues football fans for fun

But his regime is now undone

Under the famous Blackpool lights

Here come the Tangerine Knights

 

They can’t understand

In their money-grabbing hands

When they try to steal our game

They are all the fuckin same

We will not be tamed and seated

Fans united together

Will never be defeated

 

Fans United Will Never Be Defeated

Ken Richardson’s fire

Stoked the Doncaster ire

It only took a spark

To ignite his moment in the dark

 

They can’t understand

In their money-grabbing hands

When they try to steal our game

They are all the bloody same

We will not be tamed and seated

Fans united together

Will never be defeated

 

Bill Archer made a killing

From his crooked Goldstone shilling

But the soaring Seagulls now fly

Under a blue and white sky

 

They can’t understand

In their money-grabbing hands

When they try to steal our game

They are all the bloody same

We will not be tamed and seated

Fans united together

Will never be defeated

 

Alex Hamilton’s wrecking ball

Swung the Racecourse call

As the evil ball came down

Wrexham’s fans saved their ground

 

They can’t understand

In their money-grabbing hands

When they try to steal our game

They are all the bloody same

We will not be tamed and seated

Fans united together

Will never be defeated

 

Roland Duchatelet’s sleight of hand

Unites the Valley stand

The fans now deal their own CARD

As they clear him from their yard

 

They can’t understand

In their money-grabbing hands

When they try to steal our game

They are all the bloody same

We will not be tamed and seated

Fans united together

Will never be defeated

 

Karl Oyston sues football fans for fun

But his regime is now undone

Under the famous Blackpool lights

Here come the Tangerine Knights

 

They can’t understand

In their money-grabbing hands

When they try to steal our game

They are all the bloody same

We will not be tamed and seated

Fans united together

Will never be defeated

 

Socialism Meets Soccer

Your shoes, they were bought in Boohoos

Your dress is from Taiwan

Your bedding’s from Malaysia

Your ruck sack’s from Amazon

That skirt you wear comes from the Philippines

And the phone you use is a Lumia Grey

It was put together in Chengdu

By a girl making seven Yuan a day

 

Well, it’s sundown on the Goldstone

West Pier and the Corn Exchange

A train ride to the Amex

Where no-one thinks it’s strange

Thirty-six quid for a football match

You play their game and pay

Sure was a good idea

Until greed got in the way

 

Well, your dress is made in Suzhou

And all our cars are from Japan

Your silk scarf was bought in Primark

The Fat Face jeans from Pakistan

All the furniture, it says “Made in Brazil”

Where a woman, she slaved for sure

Bringing home 60 pence a day to a family of twelve

You know, that’s a lot of money to her

 

Well, it’s sundown on the Goldstone

West Pier and the Corn Exchange

A train ride to the Amex

Where no-one thinks it’s strange

Thirty-six quid for a football match

You play their game and pay

Sure was a good idea

Until greed got in the way

 

You know, capitalism is above the law

Because “It don’t count unless it sells”

When it costs too much to build it at home

You just build it cheaper somewhere else

Democracy doesn’t rule the world

That’s something you need to understand

This world is ruled by bankers

Who use politics as a sleight-of-hand

 

Well, it’s sundown on the Goldstone

West Pier and the Corn Exchange

A train ride to the Amex

Where no-one thinks it’s strange

Thirty-six quid for a football match

You play their game and pay

Sure was a good idea

Until greed got in the way

 

(With thanks to Bob Dylan for the original idea)

Spending a Penny for the Albion

THERE is nothing quite like having an intimate moment with your heroes.

And it was so unexpected.

I have been an obsessive fan of Brighton and Hove Albion since I was a small child and watched many victories and defeats over those years.

My baptism as an 11-year-old was standing in the North Stand at the Goldstone Ground on a sunny Saturday in September 1967 to see this team in blue and white beat Bury 1-0, with a goal from my soon-to-be hero, Kit Napier.

The chanting, bustle and atmosphere immersed me. I was hooked and soon queuing after training sessions to obtain the autographs of these footballing gladiators: Charlie Livesey, Norman Gall, Wally Gould, Nobby Lawton and of course Christopher Napier.

I can still smell the Bovril and cigarette soaked air of my first evening game one year later and taste the pride and disappointment of the 1983 FA Cup Final.

So I cheered on my heroes from the legendary Peter Ward to icons such as Brian Horton, Steve Foster, Bobby Zamora and Jimmy Case.

Yes, Brighton and Hove Albion are, and have always been, an integral part of my life.

But nothing prepared me for that moment on the M1 motorway, on Friday 28th March 2008.

My Aunt Val had died suddenly, and as next-of-kin I had driven to her home in North London to sort out her affairs. Her death was unexpected and I guess my mind was focussed on getting everything right.

After dealing formalities with her solicitor and the funeral celebrant I hopped into my car to make the long journey back to my home in North Wales.

I stopped at the M1 Toddington Services, just north of Luton, for petrol, a coffee and a toilet break.

I was vaguely aware of a smart coach pulling in next to me in the car park.

The loo called first, so I made my way to the gents. I stood by the urinal trough and was just about to relieve myself when more than a dozen guys in dark blue tracksuits walked in.

They assembled in various positions to answer the call of nature. As I started to pee I looked up at the guy next to me. He had a Brighton and Hove Albion badge on his tracksuit top. I silently gasped and looked along at the rest of the guys… it was the entire Brighton first team squad.

That was the OMG moment and I got instant water retention.

I was peeing with my heroes… or in my case not! I had to stop looking or they might get the wrong impression!

As I exited the service station toilets I turned to the player next to me – our full back Andrew Whing – and politely asked: “What are you guys doing in Luton?”

“We are on our way to Leeds, we play them tomorrow,” was the reply.

“Do we?” I answered stupidly, still desperate for a wee.

Stopping the Wrecking Ball at Wrexham

Since my first game in 1967, I have witnessed many highs and lows following my beloved Brighton and Hove Albion.

And, like most clubs we have had our share of heroes and villains.

Kit Napier was the first of many heroes – far too many to name.

But the true villains in our club number just three: former club owners Bill Archer and Greg Stanley along with chief executive David Bellotti.

And as most readers will know, the 1996/97 season became one of football’s great displays of non-violent direct action, as we staged a desperate fight against these three men, who were stealing our club from under our noses.

That season included the first Fans United Day, when on 8 February 1997, supporters of clubs across the UK and Europe shared the Goldstone terraces in solidarity with the Albion fans.

We eventually succeeded in our battle to save our club. But the victory came too late to save the Goldstone Ground.

Over the ensuing years the story of asset stripping football club owners was replicated far too many times for comfort.

By the time I became involved in a similar battle, seven years had passed.

I was living 300 miles away on Tyneside and by a quirk of fate was unexpectedly thrust the mantle of Fans United organiser for Wrexham FC.

The supporters were battling their club owner Alex Hamilton, who had threatened to bulldoze their ground for a housing development. But they were facing an uphill battle for anyone outside North Wales to recognize their plight.

I guess with 20 years of PR and newspaper experience and family connections to North Wales, I had found a strange niche.

Weeks of phone calls, radio and TV interviews and bombarding other football clubs’ message boards (this was before the days of Facebook and Twitter), and another Fans United Day arrived.

Saturday 20 November 2004, was a football day I will never forget.

More than 1,000 supporters of other clubs descended on Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground that afternoon for a routine third tier match against Bristol City.

The weather was wintry and cold, but that did not dampen the shared spirit.

As part of a small group of Brighton fans I entered the famous old ground and made my way to seats on the left side of the home stand.

Wrexham’s average home gate had been 4,500 and even at 2.50pm it was clear that there were many more than the average.

Everywhere we looked fans were filling the seats – even the terraces at Wrexham’s Kop seemed full.

Our small group was soon augmented by more friends. We stood 16 strong and knew other Brighton supporters were elsewhere in the ground. Around us we met fans from Sunderland, Cardiff City and Swansea, Stoke City, Stockport County, Northampton, Everton, Wolves, Telford, Bury, Donny Rovers and even Chester City (Wrexham’s bitter rivals from 10 miles up the road)

Suddenly a chorus of “We love you Brighton” echoed from our left. A group of Wrexham fans were looking in our direction, singing and smiling broadly.

A chill ran down my spine, I looked around as thousands of people rose to their feet and applauded. More choruses of “We love you Brighton” rang from all sides of the ground.

I glanced at my good friend Ian. “Glad you’re here?” I asked.

“Too right, I wouldn’t have missed this for anything” he replied.

The ground was full as the first half passed in repeated choruses of singing and chanting.

Then a few minutes before half-time a senior steward told us: “You can carry your banner around the pitch at half-time.”

Dazed by the offer, a handful of us followed the steward down the steps as people stood and began applauding. This was unreal.

Around the pitch side we continued. The game was still in progress, but as we walked, each section of the ground rose to their feet and cheered and clapped – it was as if what was happening on the pitch was inconsequential.

Our collective hands were freezing but the adrenalin was rushing as we began a procession along the touchline – our Save the Racecourse banner held aloft to the crowd. Spontaneous “We love you Brighton” echoed again in our ears. Fans leant over the hoardings to shake our hands.

As we reached the Kop there was gathered on the pitch about 200 Wrexham fans holding their own Save the Racecourse banner. We walked past, spontaneously shook hands, embraced and shared smiles that will last many lifetimes.

I moved across to Ian and said: “This surpasses anything I have ever been to in football… only the last game at the Goldstone comes close”.

Ian smiled broadly. “It is simply amazing” he replied.

We made our way back to our seats, shaking more hands along the way. But as we approached the entrance at the end of the main stand a hefty and serious looking man in a red Wales shirt stood in our way. He looked menacing. I looked at him closely and there were tears in his eyes.

“I just want to say thank you,” he said.

He thrust his giant hand into mine and shook firmly, and proceeded to ensure he shook all our hands.

On the way back to the seats we stopped to ask a steward about the attendance. She replied: “At least 10,000!”

Wrexham lost the game 3-1, but that did not seem to matter to anyone.

Sometimes the bigger picture is more important.

Wrexham eventually won their battle, but not before the club was placed into administration and eventually relegated from the football league.

Twelve years later Wrexham FC are still languishing in non-league football, but the club is now owned by the fans as a community venture and never again will they be victim to a rogue or greedy asset stripper.