How to submerge bad news

Maccabi Lions White [n – where n is a positive integer > 1] – [0] HMH Wildcats

Rowley Lane

Challenge Cup 3rd Round

26 January 2014

Before getting into the usual reportage I’d like to briefly consider a few important matters of mathematics, strategy, history and climate change. And even before scaling those scholarly peaks I should apologise for the lack of photographs in this report. This is no reflection on the functionality of the multi-megapixel facility built into my phone, rather that said portable electronic device is not guaranteed to be waterproof, and even if it were, would you really want to see pictures of rain? To make up for this unfortunate deficit, you may notice an abundance of watery metaphors, references and allusions in their place.

But first let’s get the maths out of the way. A football match comprises 22 players, one inflated spheroid and 80 minutes (at least at U16 level) of earth time. Making allowance for seconds lost to throw ins, waiting for free kicks and goal kicks to be taken, retrieval of balls from nearby ponds and so on, a simple calculation reveals that on average, a player will spend no more than 3 minutes on the ball during a typical game. Astoundingly, and to needlessly drive the point home, a total of 28 hours of player time is spent ‘not having the ball’ in an 80 minute game! Given that almost the entire match is therefore spent without the ball, it is worth giving some thought to the most effective way of using all that time.

How to deploy ones self effectively during the hours of ‘dispossession’ is possibly the greatest strategic challenge of any manager or coach. At times, the Wildcats have addressed this challenge head on and played with the most masterful command of strategic considerations, but not always when one might expect it. From the vantage point of the touchline it is pleasing on the eye to see the team defending in well-drilled formation, their two lines of four creating all manner of vexatious conundrums for frustrated opponents who struggle to create chances. Paradoxically they have produced some of their best strategic play when up against the strongest teams, or obliged (as they were in their last league match) to field a team short of a man or two.

The first half of today’s game was another perfect illustration of the strategic art, as the Wildcats skillfully plugged the gaps and the Lions huffed and puffed but struggled to get anything on target. Only once did the waves of Lions’ attacks breach the Wildcats defenses in the first half, so all was finely balanced during the half time drenching.

Students who trawl the Wildcats chronicles will know that Rowley Lane has not been a happy hunting ground in recent years, save for a memorable cup final win (against a team that was not the Maccabi Lions) two seasons ago. A combination of visually challenged linesmen, faulty timepieces and ill luck has contrived to deny the Wildcats the results their play has frequently deserved. But today’s encounter was always going to be different, because Maccabi Lions White are currently top of the top Division, unbeaten in the league, and clearly a formidable outfit. This might almost have been billed as a David and Goliath clash, typical of cup competitions, in which a team of plucky underdogs does their best to upset the odds. Think of Watford’s trip this weekend to Manchester City, or Tottenham’s Coventry’s visit to Arsenal. We knew to expect a tsunami of attacks, and that if the strategy went awry there was the unthinkable prospect that the floodgates might open.

Which brings me nicely on to climate change, and the repeated deluges that have afflicted the country over last couple of months. There are some countries that opt for a winter break in the football season, but here in the UK the break is rigorously enforced by the monsoon rains, so it was all of six weeks since our buoys last played. As we arrived today, the clouds were gathering and the rain arrived right on cue with the pre-match warm up. It isn’t often that the supporters of both sides are pleading for the merciful release of the final whistle even before kick-off, but with the water rising around us and our hosts ignoring the obvious need for some speedy ark building, an even greater concern was that we might be subjected to extra time and penalties. The referee summoned the captains, and with the pleasantries over the Wildcats found themselves paddling upstream in the first half.

After which lengthy digression and preamble, and notwithstanding the need to restrict myself to one page, I can turn at last to a detailed analysis of the events of the game. We lost – ‘nuff said.

Man of the match: Otter Otto

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55 years and 325 days

The 31st October 1986 was an unusually mild autumn day in London. That afternoon, my father Brian took a stroll up Chiswick High Road, returning a little later with some shopping and a bunch of yellow flowers for my mother. He was 55 years and 325 days old. I had moved down to London about a couple of months earlier, having just finished my PhD in Edinburgh and taken up a post-doctoral position at what at the time was known as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK). It was the weekend and I had returned briefly to Edinburgh to collect some belongings and was staying at my girlfriend’s parents house and about to have dinner when the phone rang. My mother told me to sit down, and then calmly informed me that my father had died suddenly, perhaps 30 minutes earlier, just as they themselves were sitting down to dinner at home in Chiswick.

My memory of that short phone call is vivid, of being stunned by the disbelief that precedes grief, and then the long overnight train journey down to London, arriving in drizzle at King’s Cross the next morning. The yellow flowers were in a vase on the dining room table. We never really found out what happened. The post mortem showed nothing particularly unusual, traces of pneumonia, but he was quite a fit man and to this day my sister and I puzzle over why he died. I’m writing this now, because his life was never noted previously, indeed it was in many ways an unremarkable life. He was a quiet man, though at times exceedingly funny, and piercingly clever. He took his A levels back in the days when students learned their percentages, scoring 100% in maths and physics, and 99% in chemistry. The chemistry mark bugged him, apparently he lost that 1% for describing chlorine as a ‘suffocating’ rather than a ‘choking’ gas, or was it the other way round. Despite this minor descriptive blunder he won a scholarship to UCL to study Chemistry, where as an undergraduate he met my mother, another UCL Chemist. It is purely coincidental but pleasing to me in some indeterminate way that I have spent most of my own career at UCL.

After graduating my parents both lost interest in Chemistry and, in something of a vocational U-turn became art dealers, specialising in Victorian watercolours. My father had an analytical and highly discerning eye that helped the business flourish. And he became an accomplished framer, which when done properly is far more of an art than you would ever imagine from the high street shops that offer this as a formulaic service. He had a sophisticated cutting apparatus that he would use to fashion immaculate morticed corners, but his real talent lay in the mounts to which he would carefully apply heavily diluted washes, the muted tones selected to capture elements of whatever picture they were destined to surround. I have several examples of my fathers geometrically precise artwork on the walls around me now, in the family for several decades, and finally handed to my sister and me after my mother died a couple of years ago. As a kid I remember us doing lots of father-son things – he taught me how to play chess, fly fish, ride a bike, but best of all were the years when we would go to St. James Park to watch Newcastle, these were the pre-Toon days of Bobby Moncur, Pop Robson and Wyn Davies, and we would stand on the open terraces swaying with the crowd, me tiptoeing on a small wooden box he made that I decorated with black and white stripes.

When he died I was still a callow 29 year old, and although at the time I had some objective sense that 55 was relatively young, he seemed, as fathers probably always do to their sons, as if he would always be a much older man. Certainly back in 1986 I could not have imagined myself at such an age yet in a week I too will reach the milestone of 55 years and 325 days. The distortion of time has made us contemporaries, it has changed my perspective and brought us into some sort of alignment. Of course 55 years now seems absurdly young – I still play the guitar, I cycle 12 miles to work and back every day, but I am acutely aware that in just a few days I will have outlived my father. For the first time, I will be an older man than him.

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