Awards

FWA Student Football Writer of the Year awards – shortlisted entries for the Hugh McIlvanney Award

Here are the 10 entries shortlisted for the Hugh McIlvanney award, named after our late colleague and one of the greatest of all sportswriters. The winners will be announced soon

Aron Lavis, University of Durham:

Recent events have laid bare a dormant truth which had been hiding behind the advertising hoardings that frame football’s canvas. The extent to which elite sport and political controversy are intertwined has become a scary prospect. Of course, we must embrace the recent re-evaluation of how sport and politics interact and aim for long-term momentum in the fight for change. 

However, it is OK to admit that the increasing darkness we see encroaching onto our source of escapism can weigh heavy, it can make us forget the levity which football can bring. But recently, I was fortunate enough to experience a timely reminder of football’s beauty.

I am currently on a year abroad as a part of my degree. I work as an English teacher at a primary school in Palma de Mallorca. The school is located in a neighbourhood called Son Gotleu. According to the National Institute of Statistics for Spain (INE), it is one of the poorest areas in the whole country, with an average household income of 5,000 euros (2019). 

Every Thursday, the top two year groups are allocated the football goals for breaktime. Below lies a match report from a game played last Thursday which encapsulates the joy which still lies at the game’s core. 

The Mallorcan sun shone down on the white concrete of CEIP Joan Capo’s  football pitch, providing the spotlight for a clash of titans. Both teams lined up in their signature formation of 1 – 1 – 5, putting forth a daring, yet revolutionary extension of Guardiolan offensive philosophy. I make up the numbers in Year 5 as young Diego is forced to sit the game out due to an in-house disciplinary breach. His form tutor, Señora Kati, has been contacted for comment. 

Straight from kick-off we are treated to a mesmerising run from Year 6’s talisman, Malik. Malik is the eldest of 4, he shares a room with all of his siblings in a tower block a few streets away. I see him lead his siblings across the road to school every morning, making sure to look left and right as he goes. His demeanour around school is as one would expect for a boy with such responsibility on his shoulders, but this melts away as soon as he steps out onto the pitch. He receives the ball and jinks left and right to defeat the oncoming press. Next, he roulettes past me and takes my pride with him, going on to dispatch the ball into the bottom right-hand corner. 1-0. Game on. 

As we neared the halfway stage, Year 5 started to threaten. Mercurial left winger Ogohmwen (Oghos for short) glided into the penalty area, he completed a drag back for the ages to evade Malik’s oncoming challenge before pulling the trigger to score in style. Oghos is a cool customer who exudes effortless talent on the pitch. He mirrors this in his celebration; a casual jog back to the centre circle holding his finger to his lips. 

Oghos’ fellow strike partner and best friend, Tolu, has different ideas. He grips the ends of his sleeves tightly, like Eden Hazard once did in his prime, as he attempts every skill in the book whilst simultaneously commentating on himself in the 3rd person. His ambition is admirable, but is met with a forceful challenge by Year 6’s resident midfield destroyer, Christopher. Christopher is a shy boy, but once he gains sight of a football his passion shines through in the form of bruising challenges and deft touches alike.

With only 5 minutes to go, Year 6 held a precarious 2-1 lead as Year 5 had started to apply unrelenting pressure in search of an equaliser. Christopher bellowed ‘Tranquilo! Tranquilo!’ as even technically gifted individuals like Malik had lost their composure and began booting the ball long. As the final seconds ticked away, Tolu found himself in the area with time to shoot, he slotted away and jetted off in celebration. He had salvaged a draw for the underdogs. 

During the game, an altercation broke out in the streets behind the playground. I later found out that a forced eviction was taking place and the locals were attempting to keep the police from carrying out the task. Perhaps the old adage that football players can’t hear the undulations of a crowd is true, for, as the police sirens whirled, the players remained deeply lost in competition.

During the post-match interviews, I asked some of the stand-out performers to describe how they feel when they’re on the football pitch using just one word. The answers proved impactful in their simplicity. Malik told me he felt “content”, displaying the importance of escaping into football for a boy in his situation. Chris smiled and exclaimed ‘unstoppable’. Finally, Tolu shrugged and uttered “genius” in-between drags from a pencil he was using as a pretend cigarette.

Arsene Wenger once hailed football’s power to make us feel that, “for 90 minutes today, life is beautiful”. The only shame for the kids of CEIP Joan Capo is that break time lasts for only 30.

***********

George Simms University of Durham:

Durham City AFC’s new Secretary John Wilberforce shakes his head and mutters, to himself more than anyone, “I must be mad!”. It’s hard to disagree with him. The line between optimism and delusion is hazy at the best of times, and these are not the best of times for the Citizens.

 It’s a surprisingly balmy Saturday afternoon at Hall Lane, the ramshackle pitch City rent from Willington AFC, about 30 minutes outside Durham. They have just gone 3-0 down to Newcastle’s University side, but more than an hour of the game has gone. The 40 or so Durham fans dotted about seem to agree that this has been one of their side’s best performances for some time. This may be true, or it could just be that the March sun has finally come out in Willington.  

The oldest club in Durham, formed in the wake of World War I, City last won a game on 9th April 2019. In 33 games this season, they’ve conceded 164 goals, scored 18, and picked up just two points. The Citizens have been rooted to the foot of the Northern League Division Two since the start of the 2018/19 season.

Off the pitch, they are functionally bankrupt. Their owner, eccentric former Newcastle defender Olivier Bernard, has employed a heady cocktail of apathy and mismanagement to drag them to this point. They have had the same kits for three years, and the gate money from their shared stadium, the club’s only income, goes straight to paying the referees’ fees.

Despite propping up this Step Six league for the past four years, the Citizens have stayed up thanks to Covid-19 and insolvency issues elsewhere. But technically relegated already with ten games to go, they look to have run out of lives.

Wilberforce is quick to remind me of how relegation to the Wearside League works: “Three teams come up, but they have to meet certain requirements. Teams haven’t been able to come up before. Five teams applied for promotion this year. They should all meet the requirements, but we’re not officially down until that’s confirmed. There’s still a chance.”

There’s a line from Fleabag that has stuck with me. Giving a wedding speech, the ‘hot’ priest explains that “being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope.” In the absence of money or results, hope is the only thing keeping Durham City alive. It’s why the few die-hard fans are here. It’s why the unpaid players are pressing every ball 85 minutes into their 31st loss of the season.

Their love for the club, and the game, is tested on a weekly basis, but only ever appears to grow stronger. The depth of their hope is extraordinary, and infectious. Despite everything, ‘today could be the day’ echoes around the ground before every game.

As self-deprecating as Durham’s fans, players and staff are about the club’s situation, they’re all footballing romantics at heart. They have to be. They still talk about a 2-1 loss to Sunderland West End in December, a side who beat them 10-0 earlier in the season. The pitch was under a couple of inches of water, but a particularly lenient official allowed the game to go ahead. It turns out playing in a makeshift lake is a great footballing leveller. “That was our chance, that could’ve turned the season around”, one fan assures me.

A middle-aged Middlesbrough supporter, Wilberforce has only been in post for ten days. He has no previous affiliation to Durham City – he’s just a local football lover. The fourth Secretary to volunteer this season, he knows the struggles of his predecessors. He just can’t bear to see a football club go under.

When Durham go down, they will lose their arrangement with Willington, who hire them the pitch for next to nothing. They will have nowhere to play, and probably no  players either.

Yet Wilberforce still has that look in his eyes. He believes he can turn this club around.

Stripped of the money and grandeur, football is a game of hope. People turn up to matches in the hope of bear-hugging a stranger when a goal goes in, of witnessing that moment. As predictable as statisticians try and make it, football’s beauty will always lie in its unpredictability.

The game needs people like Wilberforce and Durham’s remaining players. Madmen to some, but true footballing romantics to others. Hope is the only reason they’re still there. It’s all they need.

Hope may not be enough to save Durham City, but I don’t have the heart to tell Wilberforce that. A far cry from the ever-more turbulent and data-driven age of top-level football, his blind optimism is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.

***********

Andrew McClean, University of Sheffield

For Leo Daniels, January’s League cup semi-final between his beloved Tottenham and Chelsea was like any other game. Spurs were losing and heading out of the competition at the hands of their London rivals. In the 86th minute the match was stopped. Leo had suffered a seizure and required urgent medical attention. 

“I don’t even remember feeling ill beforehand,” Leo says. “I was watching the game and nothing was out of the ordinary. Next thing I remember I was being stretchered into an ambulance.” 

Leo’s story is not uncommon. There have always been incidents of fans taking unwell during matches – but it is rare they gain any kind of coverage. This season has seen a shift in perspective, with games now being stopped to allow those affected to receive medical care. Numerous fixtures across the country have been paused as a result.

“The care I received was superb,” Leo says. “The doctors said it was the best place to seize given the amount of medical care available in stadiums.” 

Thankfully, Leo’s story has a positive ending. Post-match scans discovered a brain problem – but it is treatable and he will make a full recovery. In the meantime, he has started attending games again.

Tragically, not every stoppage ends positively. In January, Paul Parish lost his life after suffering a heart attack during Fulham’s match against Blackpool. In February, Sunderland fan Michael Waggott died after falling ill while watching his team play Burton. Both games were stopped for more than 40 minutes to allow the men to receive treatment.

Joe Cosgrove has been a crowd doctor for over 20 years, working alongside safety officers, paramedics and first aiders at St James’ Park to ensure crowd safety. Prior to this season, he had never seen a game halted for a fan’s medical emergency. He believes it is too early to tell if the stoppages coincide with more fans taking ill or whether it is just a case of it being more widely highlighted. 

It was a match he covered, Newcastle 1-3 Tottenham, where the first stoppage happened after Newcastle fan, Alan Smith, suffered a cardiac arrest. The decision received huge publicity and those involved were widely praised for their actions. A precedent was set.

A small, vocal group have tried to claim the rise is due to the vaccine. This is refuted by Dr Cosgrove who cites the wider societal issues caused by Coronavirus.

“The likelihood of having a cardiac problem as a result of the vaccine is incredibly small. The chances are 40 to 50 times higher if you have Covid while unvaccinated.

“If there has been an increase it is most likely due to physical deconditioning that has occurred as a result of the pandemic and lockdowns. Lack of exercise, worsening diet and an inability to access screening checks have all contributed.”

Football has always had a higher incidence of cardiac events. A 2003 Durham University study found mortality from heart attacks and strokes increased significantly in men living in the North-East when their local football team lost at home.

Research into the effect of World Cup performances in Germany and the Netherlands revealed a similar pattern. With the stress inherent with following football, this perhaps comes as no surprise.

It is unclear how long the current trend of halting games will continue. For Leo it is an easy decision. 

“I believe stopping games is absolutely the right thing to do. It allowed the necessary attention to be put on me and I was escorted out quicker than I would have been had the game continued.”

However, stoppages can create other issues within the stadium. Guidance issued by the Sports Ground Safety Authority (SGSA) states halting matches can result in unexpected, unsafe crowd surges, difficulties for disabled supporters and, particularly in relation to mid-week games, cause post-match public transport issues.

They can also hamper access to other medical emergencies. Something Dr Cosgrove has seen first hand.

“There were two simultaneous medical emergencies during the Newcastle Tottenham match,” he says. “Had they occurred in reverse it could have been difficult to access the other emergency which was also life threatening.”

There will be more clarity on the issue when the SGSA conducts their post-season review. Until then Dr Cosgrove believes the message should be one of reassurance.

“You can understand why people feel the game should be stopped out of respect for the person who has fallen ill but, generally, the game should continue with discussions ongoing between the fourth official and medical teams. 

“It’s about getting the message to officials and players that while they may feel under pressure to act they do not need to. There are experienced medics there to take the pressure off them.”

***********

Cain Hillier, Sciences Po, Paris:

It’s nearly midnight, and my eyes are shot bloody from staring at the screen. I’ve been tracking G-THFC, Tottenham’s private jet, across the continent, waiting for a pair of magic feet to land in Luton and make the long drive to Haringey. A ginger from Sweden by way of Turin, winger Dejan Kuluevski. A flurry of texts in the group chat –

“He said it.”

“Fabrizioooooo.”

“Here we go.”

My head drops away like a bowling ball, swinging me off my chair and onto the mattress. I won’t sleep, I’m too wired, too much blue light – I don’t care, we’re winning the league.

Such is the nature of deadline day. 

In 1893, Willie Groves moved across Birmingham from West Brom to Villa, breaking the 100 quid transfer ceiling. Despite controversy over his “poaching” and a £25 wrist-slap from the FA, he scored 4 in 22 and helped bring the Villains a league title. 

One hundred years later, Neymar would move from Barcelona to Paris. Football club/Qatari soft-power generator PSG bought out his contract. Despite receiving a €222m package – equivalent to the GDP of Tuvalu, Barcelona was loath to let him go. They demanded the return of a €9m bonus, about 1/54th of their total wage bill. Since arriving, Neymar has scored 65 goals in 81 appearances. He considered a failure for not bringing PSG a European title through his right foot. 

The transfer market is breathlessly expensive, expansive and everlasting. Gone are the quiet post-season months where you would have to go outside and touch the grass. Football is now a summertime sport, as much played in boardrooms, restaurants and hotel suites as out on the pitch.

On the 18th of April 2021, out of these same rooms came the announcement of the European Super League. Put lightly, the world exploded. Gary Neville called it “an act of pure greed”, and 79% of the UK agreed. It took thousands of protestors, a locker room revolt on Merseyside and Old Trafford’s storming, but the people won out. After an apology from John Henry with as much emotion as a wooden board, the league was “disbanded.” We pat ourselves on the back, went home and started scrolling Twitter to see how these executives would spend their billions next. 

The whiplash is quantifiable. In 2018, a study was published out of the University of Oviedo tracking transfer activity among the top European leagues. Their data showed a tightening market amongst the top clubs (and inexplicably Swansea City), indicating “less uncertainty of outcome at the league level.” Indeed, the network contains all ten ESL members. The evidence is clear. The transfer market tightens the grip of the elite clubs over their domestic leagues. It is a coil that’ll soon spring into a new JPMorgan backed abomination no FA or other 16 can topple. 

Better players beget better results, and we want our teams to succeed regardless of the petrostate or oligarch that gets them there. But the more we see football as a series of eight-figure international exchanges and less as an on-field orchestra, the more we play into the hands of executives who seek to uproot the game from the grass entirely. This year, I’ll be getting a good night’s sleep on deadline day.

…probably.

***********

Mauricio Alencar, University of Oxford

On the 7th September, Brazil celebrated its Independence Day. In São Paulo, to mark the day, thousands of marchers descended on Avenida Paulista. The atmosphere perhaps was not so jovial, however. Anxious and irate marchers had in truth showed themselves in São Paulo to back Bolsonaro’s vision for a supposedly orderly and progressive Brazil where God is above all, and to lambast the Supreme Court’s tyranny for investigating Bolsonaro, and to gather some Trumpian momentum in the fight against the unlikely and unconvincing possibility of electoral fraud one year before elections take place. The radiant yellow colour the flood of marchers had created was a familiar one, a shade of yellow that would normally be attributed to the Seleção’s iconic football kit. But as Bolsonaro spoke to the thousands, the yellow of the Seleção shirt had seemed to defamiliarise itself from football, and had now become the token symbol for Bolsonaro’s far right agenda. 

It’s nothing new, politicians using football for their own good. Some of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup triumph can be accredited to General Medici’s, Brazil’s dictator, interest in politically investing in the national team and using his military to improve the players’ fitness levels. The country’s leading football writer, Juca Kfouri, writes that “I never let the dictatorship steal even what was most intimate to me”. Football and politics could easily be separated. Brazil’s success on the pitch could not be a politician’s success. 

Pelé had potentially consummated the hazardous marriage between Brazil’s dictatorship and its football when he shook hands with Medici. In a review of Pelé’s documentary film on Netflix, Jonathan Liew of The Guardian writes: “Of course, he admits, he had an inkling of what was going on, even as he posed for photographs with General Médici at official functions, beaming and shaking hands in pictures he must have known would be distributed around the world as pro-regime propaganda. But even now there is no real contrition, no twinge of moral anguish, much less genuine remorse at a course of action he insists was the only realistic choice.” But it indeed was his only realistic choice. Access to education, let alone high-quality education, is limited. The Brazil team’s visit to the presidential palace was less of a polite invitation than it was a stern-faced command. The denial of a handshake with a dictator perhaps would not be the most sensible choice for Pelé’s own career as a footballer in the years after. It’s easy in retrospect to assume Pelé should feel regretful for not forming his own defiant identity off the pitch. Carlos Alberto Torres, the captain of the 1970 team, put it in an interview in 1988 that the players were only interested in “our careers, the professional pride of winning a World Cup”. Then, the effervescent colours of Brazilian football in 1970 carried a natural purity and artistic uniqueness that could be protected against invasive socio-historical readings. The handshake was that it was not a handing over of Brazilian football’s collective mould of individual romanticism to the state’s powers.

Dani Alves, the world’s most trophy-successful player living in a new age of player activism where footballers’ political voices have become ever more significant, finds himself in very different circumstances to the position Pelé and his teammates found themselves in the aftermath of their 1970 World Cup triumph. Dani Alves has publicly supported Bolsonaro in using his slogan “Brasil above everything, God above everyone” on Instagram- Pelé was never deliberate in showing his support. Neymar’s dad commented under Alves’s post with a fist-bump emoji. Lucas Moura is another prominent footballer to have declared his strong support for Bolsonaro. Polling suggests that Jair Bolsonaro in fact has a very high disapproval rating across the country, despite the mass demonstrations on the 7 September. It is very much in Dani Alves’s consciousness that his political voice carries a significant level of importance to politics in the country. And as Dani Alves’s apparent words of support for the former military captain are complemented by an image of him wearing the national football team’s shirt, the iconic Brazilian shirt seems to embody not the national pride shared by a whole country, but a nationalistic pride felt by a minority in a country. 

It should come as little surprise that the Brazilian shirt seems to have had its symbol stolen. In part due to a number of factors including the 7-1 defeat, performances at recent World Cups, a growing European-led distaste for the “joga bonito” style,  and the demise of the reputation of Brazilian leagues, Brazilian football’s pedigree now finds itself in a vulnerable state. An untidy culmination of Brazilian football’s recent failures most recently came in Brazil World Cup Qualifier against Argentina where health officials rushed onto the pitch mid-play to tell some of Argentina’s Premier League players to go into quarantine, though they had been in the country for three days prior and the whole world had been alerted to the fact that they were in the squad ready to start. In a country where just under 600,000 people have died from COVID-19, this sudden dismissal had nothing to do with health safety. This was a moment in which the incompetence of the country’s various governing bodies and the general bagunça (utter shambles of a mess) of Brazilian politics had violated, trespassed, and over-spilled onto the country’s most valuable safe-space. The purity and innocence of the Seleção has finally been ruptured, eclipsed, and defaced by political calamity. The far-right have capitalised. It’s Jair’s shirt now. 

***********


Harry Robinson, University of Manchester:

Bolivia’s capital La Paz sits 3,600m above sea level. Its soundtrack is unique. Vans choke up endless hills, cholitas natter and bargain with their latest customer. Once a derogatory term, cholita is the now-affectionate name for Aymara indigenous women. Small bowler hats perch precariously on their heads, a tradition encouraged by British railway workers. Their Italian hats arrived too brown and too small so they convinced these women to buy them. Now, the hat’s exact position shows a woman’s marital status. Many sit streetside, surrounded by bulging sacks of potatoes and fruit. Others spend their Thursdays and Sundays wrestling atop one of La Paz’s vast hillsides.

The La Paz soundtrack is one heavily accented by the panting of the foreign tourist. There is less oxygen in the air. You walk, you pause. You walk, you pause. Cholitas stride past carrying 20kg sacks of potatoes over each of their shawled-shoulders. Overhead, cable cars carry thousands to the sprawling red-bricked hilltop El Alto. In overlapping cities where the air is so thin exists a wide and passionate football culture.

“The clásico paceño is different,” insists Club Bolivar fan Rodrigo. Every derby has its intricacies, but in the context of Latin American football, he has every right to this claim. 29-time title-winning Club Bolivar are the dominant force in a beautiful and unappreciated country. Rivals The Strongest, their English name a nod to those pasty travellers who brought football to the Andes, have fewer trophies but are Bolivia’s oldest club. They inaugurated the Estadio Hernando Siles where both teams play. Strangely, it is neither team’s ‘home’ stadium, but its 42,000-capacity indulges ticketing demands.

In 2012, Bolivar’s three rival barra bravas transitioned into one: La Vieja Escuela. Their philosophy is to support the team, not fight. La Gloriosa Ultra Sur 34 (LGUS34), The Strongest’s ultras who predate their rivals by two decades, are the same.

On the continent of Boca-River’s violent superclásico, it may be surprising to hear that this clásico is “more of a party.”

“It is different,” Rodrigo, sitting in Curva Norte, says. “La Paz is Bolivia’s economic and political centre. People are from all areas of the country. There’s tolerance because everyone knows the fanbase of both clubs isn’t necessarily born in La Paz.”

‘Peace’ is unique to this clásico. When either team faces Chilean opposition, for example, “it becomes dangerous.”

At the end of the 1980s, Bolivar’s barras did invade The Strongest’s Curva Sur. The state soon intervened to separate the two barras. The leaders decided that whoever’s team won the next clásico would stay. The Strongest won 3-0 and have remained in Curva Sur since 1993.

Kettle drums, firecrackers and confetti make for an incredible atmosphere at the Siles, which sits snugly between high-rise flats. One evening I stand at a viewpoint a kilometre away. The terraces sit against an extraordinary background of a million twinkling paceño lights and snow-capped mountains, a reminder that though the sun shines, you are two-and-a-half times higher than Ben Nevis’s peak.

Cholita stalls spread along the pavement. Meat sizzles on a hot plate, to the left of which is a child’s stool for the next customer: me. I eat a roll stuffed with pulled pork, pickled veg and salsa. I first stand above the bouncing LGUS34. An old man in a clean white coat and hat wanders along with a tray and petrol canister. His creaking knees struggle on concrete steps. After he uses his canister to propel upwards, he pours sweet hot chocolate out of its lid. I join LGUS34 in the lower tier to celebrate four second-half goals and a 5-2 win.

El Alto’s residential mass contradicts the governmental capital of La Paz. A sprawling flea market, one of the world’s largest, threatens to tumble off its edge. Designer clothes sell, yes, but also barber’s chairs and chicken shop fryers.

In 2018, Club Always Ready moved from La Paz into Estadio de Villa Ingenio, El Alto’s government-funded 25,000-seater. It meets international tournament standards but sits a staggering 4,150m above sea level. Few can play football up here. Argentina have a history of Bolivian defeats. Lionel Messi threw up in 2013. In 2017, players took a pre-match cocktail of viagra and caffeine to arrest the effects of altitude. They lost 2-0.

Always Ready, whose name is a mistranslation of the Scout motto ‘Be Prepared’, have ambitious father-and-son owners. In their first Copa Libertadores group stages since 1968, they want to win it. No Bolivian team has ever bettered Bolivar’s semi-final appearance. Perhaps Always Ready’s ambitions will soon be realised, a fresh dawn for Bolivian football, but until then, the clasico paceño down the hill remains Bolivia’s big fixture. It’s tame compared to Buenos Aires’s superclásico but when a short walk leaves you panting, maybe that’s not a surprise.

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George Julian, Solent University:

It’s not often that you get to break a record as a football fan. It’s even less often that you are joined by 91,552 other people inside the stadium whilst watching a women’s game. On 30 March I experienced both of these.

For as long as I’ve loved football, I’ve wanted to visit Camp Nou. The stadium has played host to some of the greatest artists in football history. I’ve read about Lazlo Kubala and grew up on clips of Cruyff, music montages of Ronaldinho and Messi’s Magic.  

But they’ve all moved on. On this night it would be Alexia Putellas, Caroline Graham-Hansen, Jenni Hermoso and Mapi Leon who wore the famous blaugrana shirt.

A sell-out crowd was expected to pile into the stadium to cheer on their new heroes against their old rivals Real Madrid. Earlier in the day, there were worries that a lot of people might not turn up. Heavy rain had showered the city that morning. By kick-off, the clouds had disappeared in time for Barca Femení to enjoy their moment in the sun.

For most, this Champions League quarter-final would be their first taste of women’s football. An older gentleman to my right was Googling each player’s name as they were read out by the stadium announcer. The one name he didn’t have to tap into his search engine was Alexia Putellas. Winning the Ballon d’Or has catapulted her to superstardom in this city.

The metro to the stadium was packed with men and women with Alexia 11 adored on their back. When I visited the Barca Shop on La Rambla the next day I was informed that I couldn’t have her name printed on my shirt as they’d sold out of the number 1.

On the field, the hosts got off to a dream start. Mapi Leon’s cross from the right curved and transformed into a shot as it flew through the air. Misa was caught off guard and could only get a limp fist on the ball before it crashed into the net.

When Real Madrid were awarded a penalty eight minutes later the party atmosphere disappeared. The Nou Camp crowd turned into a pack of angry cats or a gang of referees, hissing and whistling, hoping to get into Olga Carmona’s head. A true El Clasico atmosphere. It didn’t work. Olga slotted the ball home.

As the fans were shuffling back to the seats after half-time Claudia Zornoza spotted Sandra Paños off her line. The Real Madrid midfielder lifted the ball over the Barca goalkeeper and into the net from over 40 yards out. 90,000 fans were hushed into an uncomfortable silence.

The fans in the north stand rallied. Their chants and songs began to suck the ball into the net that hung before them. First came Aitana Bonmatí’s cool finish to immediately make it 2-2.

Then came Claudia Pina’s wonder strike just three minutes later. The 20-year-old forward recovered from a surprise first touch to cut the ball across the keeper and into the top corner. Real Madrid quickly learned that a one-goal lead is always the most dangerous.

With their lead restored, so did the party atmosphere. Graham-Hansen continued to turn defenders into stone by running at them, leaving them like Medusa’s victims.  

 Patri Guijarro was spreading passes with the accuracy of scud missiles.

Putellas continued to orchestrate the crowd.

She got the host’s fourth of the game. It wasn’t pretty. Her shot trickled under Misa and trickled over the line. ‘Alexia! Alexia! Alexia!’ rang around the stadium. The hero of the moment bowed to the Camp Nou before blowing them a kiss.

 By this point, the game had become an exhibition. Fridolina Rolfö danced her way past two white shirts. Her cross took a deflection on its path to finding Graham-Hansen at the back post. The Norwegian crashed the ball into the net, sending the stadium into ecstasy.

 When the final whistle blew nobody left the ground. Everybody stayed to celebrate the historic moment. 91,553 people watching a women’s football game, a new world record.  The Culés hadn’t just turned up hoping to be a part of a record-breaking crowd. They hadn’t just turned up because tickets were a fraction of their usual price. They had turned up to watch their side trash their bitter rivals.

 Before the game, Putellas hoped that this moment would usher in a “new era” for women’s football. That already seems to be the case in Barcelona. Tickets for their semi-final against Wolfsburg sold-out within 24 hours. The city has been captured by futbol femení.

***********


Dom Smith, University of York:

Once Luke Shaw had leathered home the goal that will define him, his elated teammates joined in with his totally unplanned celebration. England’s most unlikely scorer had notched the earliest goal in any Euros final — and given the nation a ‘pinch me’ moment of hope that the years of hurt might have reached their final chapter.

Two minutes on the clock, and England led Italy — the tournament’s outstanding performers. Kyle Walker has spoken since about what was flashing through his mind on that dizzying jog towards Shaw and the corner flag. He felt this was it. He thought he and England were about to win the European Championships.

Alas, in a world of clichés and catchphrases, just as “it’s better to score early”, it’s also true that “good things come to those who wait”. Roberto Mancini waited. He calmly observed as a buoyant England ran his side ragged for the remainder of the first half.

Great managers earn their money not through their team selections but on in-game decisions. Mancini made Italy changes — and Italy changed as a result. The mercurial Federico Chiesa and the metronomic Marco Verratti and Jorginho tussled the game out of the home side’s grasp. The more England retreated, the more the Italians welcomed the invitation and threatened to level. And that equaliser increasingly felt a matter of when, not if.

England had been here so many times before. Alan Shearer against Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final; Michael Owen in quarter-finals against Brazil at World Cup 2002 and Portugal at Euro 2004; Wayne Rooney from the penalty spot in the Euro 2016 Iceland thundercollapse; and even under Gareth Southgate, when Kieran Trippier crashed home his free-kick against Croatia in Russia. Each time, the Three Lions started excellently and took an unexpected early lead. And each time, they sat on what they had, invited pressure, and became tragic spectators to their own demise.

From a pinballing corner, Leonardo Bonucci stabbed home, and then leapt onto the advertising hoarding, chest out, drinking it in, knowing even at 1–1 that football was coming to Rome. But not immediately; this was to be a long, drawn-out death. Italy were never quite decisive enough to kill England off, and England never quite bullish enough to haul themselves back into contention. England were eventually finished off by their most wounding penalty shootout defeat of all.

If Shaw’s belting opener felt a lifetime ago when the half-time whistle blew, it felt like a distant relic by the time Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini were posing with the trophy beside a dazed and forlorn Harry Maguire after the match. And as always seems to happen, the England inquest began almost immediately.

Could England have taken more risks? Could Southgate, should Southgate have made a change earlier — preferably one that worked out better? Why did Harry Kane never get into the game? But in amongst all that finger-pointing was the slight possibility, in the corner of your mind, that England’s fate had been sealed back on page one, just 115 seconds into the drama.

Whether England scored too early is an unsatisfying question in such a vitriolic era. There’s no obvious scapegoat for an early goal — and we needed someone to blame. Scoring a goal tends to be a good thing. But the way England responded to their shock opener — and the way England teams of the past reacted to early leads — was the issue here.

If England’s route to the Euro 2020 final showed one thing, it was that the national team have scarcely been better prepared for a tournament. Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland deployed two distinct formations throughout the summer, alternating based on the profile of the opponent. Their expanded Covid squad of 26 players offered space for only in-form players. Previous England managers have struggled to fill a plane with 23.

They strolled to the semi-finals exuding professionalism, seeming to have nailed tournament football without conceding a single goal in five games, and looking like they’d expended far less energy than the sides they’d knocked out along the way.

But of all the plotting and planning that Southgate and Holland will have done in the build-up to that final, surely none was centred around the assumption that England might hit the net within two minutes of kick-off. They were highly unlikely to have a well-developed contingency plan for that.

So any kind of game plan England did have, went out the window before some players had even touched the ball. It was preservation football for 118 of 120 minutes. England had given themselves a bittersweet kiss of death. Again. But this time there was no one to blame — though an ugly few chose to see it differently.

***********

Ben Parsons, News Associates, Manchester:

“My first thought was I need to be out of here in the morning for training but within a week I was told it was the end of my playing career.” 

Three years ago, Fraser Franks was 28 when doctors entered his room in the cardiovascular ward of a South Wales hospital and delivered the crushing verdict.

The Newport County defender had been a hero of the magical FA Cup run under Michael Flynn that concluded in defeat to then Premier League champions Manchester City.

Franks was man-of-the-match in a famous win against Leicester City at Rodney Parade two rounds earlier.

But it was just days after trudging off the pitch against Pep Guardiola’s all-stars that his life changed indelibly.

Franks was selected to start in the following midweek fixture against Notts County but knew something wasn’t right.

“I just didn’t feel great on the way there and when I played, I felt really lethargic,” he explained.

“I didn’t feel like I could continue early on but then I scored which is a rarity for me and it gave me an adrenaline boost.

“But my legs weren’t moving at all and I couldn’t finish the game so came off with 15 minutes to go.”

Franks is seldom flustered and didn’t want to concern his pregnant wife, pop star Stacey McClean, as his heart pounded rapidly the following night.

But desperation set in as his heart raced out of control and he would soon realise his worst fears after being rushed to hospital.

“I was sweating and shivering and then I started getting a racing heart,” he said.

“It got to the point where my heartbeat was shaking the bed. It was going that fast and I said to my wife you’re going to have to take me to hospital here.

“She took me in, they rushed me straight through and my heartbeat was around 260-270 (BPM) so they knew something was wrong straight away.

“I was thinking ‘it’s literally a week ago I was playing against Man City and now I’m the youngest guy on the cardiovascular ward by 40 or 50 years.

“Within a week in hospital they had found a couple of issues and that was the end of my playing career.”

Doctors advised devastated Franks that complications with his heart meant he must retire with immediate effect.

He had suddenly been stripped of not only his career, financial security, but also his identity with football the focus of his entire life ever since joining Chelsea’s academy at an early age.

An extensive career included 320 games and three promotions, but there had still been so much more to come.

Franks was just reaching his prime and tantalisingly missed the chance to lead his Newport teammates out at Wembley for the League Two Playoff final at the end of the season.

“When I first came out of the game there was a novelty of a different routine and there was something that made me enjoy the freedom,” he admitted.

“But when that novelty wears off, you’re thinking ‘What am I doing now?

“It was a delayed effect for me. I tried to kid myself that I was okay and didn’t miss it but a few months later it couldn’t have been worse.”

“It’s not just a job for a footballer. It’s who you are and when that’s taken away there’s nothing left to give.” 

After battling anxiety, Franks sought therapy through the PFA and unburdening his negative thoughts around retirement ultimately helped find a new perspective. 

Escapism is rife in retired footballers and Franks is all too familiar with players resorting to excessive alcohol and gambling as they chase their playing highs.

Franks added: “So many players that finish football eat and drink what they want, don’t train, put on loads of weight and look in the mirror disgusted.

“I’ve seen a big correlation with the people who don’t keep fit and the ones who struggle mentally and turn to alcohol.”

Fraser believes more needs to be done to support and educate players ready for life after the game.

“We need to separate the player from who you really are and realise there is a life after football,” he said.

“Football has a way of ageing you like nothing else. People label players like James Milner as an old man and he would be a young kid in the office.

“You don’t have to be defined by what happens in 10-15 years of your life.”

 Franks reflects back on the highs and lows of his professional career but its premature ending certainly won’t define him.

And his message is helping more retiring football stars forge a new path rather than slipping through the cracks.

***********

Jack Walton, News Associates, Manchester:

The year was 1999 and Ian Stott had an idea. Not a popular one, mind. In fact, the year was 1999 and Ian Stott – chairman of Oldham Athletic Football Club – had an extremely unpopular idea. Stott’s brainwave was to merge three football clubs in the north of Greater Manchester; Rochdale, Bury and his own Oldham Athletic, all of which were struggling financially. Pooling resources might be the only way for each to survive, he thought. The pitchforks came out.

Not surprisingly three rival fan bases – schooled on hostile derby days and mutual mud-slinging – weren’t keen. Bury chairman Terry Robinson called the idea “revolutionary” but stated the blindingly obvious: “there would not be total support from traditional fans.” Stott didn’t last much longer as chairman and Manchester North End, as he billed it, never amounted to anything more than a figment of his imagination.

Much has changed in 23 subsequent years, but equally much has not. Merger football clubs would still be akin to treason today – treated with the same disdain as half-and-half kits. But also, all three teams – Oldham, Rochdale and Bury – continue to have their issues. 

Stott’s prophecy of doom, that all three clubs might fold, has proven true in only one case: Bury. Despite promising developments, Bury remains dormant having gone in administration in 2020 over unpaid debts. While Bury fans can only wait nervously for their club to reemerge, Rochdale’s have spent the best part of a year fending off a shady cabal of businessmen who attempted a hostile takeover of theirs. 

Oldham meanwhile, have been at loggerheads with their owner, Abdallah Lemsagam, for four years. In a 2-1 loss to Colchester earlier this year, tennis balls and flares reigned down onto the pitch at Boundary Park in a scene something like a biblical plague. Many fans would argue the situation is even graver than that. 

After Bury was wound up, MP Damian Collins claimed their demise to be both “systematic and structural.” Just by scouting the 10 mile radius around their empty Gigg Lane, it would be hard to disagree. But fans are standing up.

On 3rd January this year, Dale Trust  – Rochdale’s main supporter group, released a statement. They would walk the 6.5 miles from Rochdale to Oldham ahead of an upcoming match between the sides, as is annual tradition. What made the action unique, however, was that Oldham fans were joining them, under the banner ‘Fans Together,’ a marker of mutual solidarity for their respective battles.

More recently, the Trust began crowding to pay for legal fees after the firm who failed to take ownership of the club last summer took out a high court claim against them. Already, £40,000 has been raised – many donations coming from empathetic fans of other clubs, often Oldham.

And indeed, the Trust have proved allies, rather than foes, in Oldham’s fight against their ownership. “We’ve happily promoted Oldham issues,” says Colin Cavanah, the chairman of Dale Trust. Recently, when three Oldham fans were issued banning orders on spurious grounds, they were amongst the first help – sharing petitions and speaking out. “Really, the only difference is the postcode,” says Colin. 

This might seem alien to the uber-partisan world of football, but many fans are becoming more reflective. In response to the issues at his club, Matt Dean, director of the Oldham Athletic Supporters Foundation started up a podcast – Boundary Park Alert System – onto which he has invited representatives of several other clubs that have had ownership problems: Brentford, Blackpool, Stockport, Portsmouth, etc. 

Pooling the knowledge of those who have fought similar battles, Matt’s Trust have been able to affect change. After extensive protesting, Lemsagam has agreed to sell.

The question of ownership of football clubs offers a paradox of sorts; these entities are at once private businesses but also embedded into the heritage of cities and towns. In that sense they have two owners – owners listed on Companies House and owners in spirit. Naturally, these clash. “We don’t want to be a plaything for whoever,” says Matt.

The silver lining is shared experience. “When you’ve been in a situation where your club is under threat you really see its value to the town,” Matt explains. “Then when you see other clubs struggling you’ll reach out.” 

In many ways this is Stott-lite; cooperation, if not unification. It should be more palatable. Manchester North End was probably always a daft idea, but as the football wealth disparity between the biggest clubs and the rest looks ever less like a gap and more like an aching chasm, it suggests that there was at least a nugget of sense in Stott’s vision. “Lower league clubs are going to have to be more together to keep themselves in business,” Matt tells me. “In their hour of need you have to back them.”

***********

Charlie Webster, Nottingham Trent University:

Aleksander Mitrovic has had the season of his life for Fulham. At the time of writing, he has 37 goals in 36 games, which is a new Championship record. A mind boggling number over such a gruelling campaign. He has well and truly ‘bullied’ the division this year.        However, it is not his first prolific spell in the Championship. During the 19-20 season he bagged 26 goals, while in his half a season loan to Fulham during 17-18 he managed 12 goals in 17 games. As such, he has established himself as one of the most valuable assets for a promotion chasing Championship side and it suggests, he is possibly too good for the division.

Yet, in his three and half Premier League season he has failed to impress. For Newcastle he has 40 Premier League appearances with 10 goals. For Fulham he has 64 appearances but just 14 goals. He is a part of the reason Fulham find themselves yoyoing between the divisions, with a squad who can pull them out of the Championship, but not keep them out.

This is a typical Championship ‘bully’, he is a player who exists for a season and then vanishes. Ideally, he would operate in a league between the Premier League and Championship but since this does not exist, he finds themselves having one incredible season and one torrid one. I started with Mitrovic as he is the most current and arguably most deadly Championship ‘bully’ ever.

The concept is not easy to define, and it is debatable which players fit the mould. It favours attackers, due to the numbers they put up, but there are examples of defenders who have consistently performed in the division without ever getting or taking their chance at the top. Grant Hanley, who has three Championship promotions, comes to mind

A Championship ‘bully’ cannot be a player who starts their career in the league and is simply a cut above, like James Maddison. The title is reserved for those who cannot make it in the Premier League but will dominate the Championship. They do not have to spend their whole career bullying. Very few players do. Some lose their bullying ability, some try something new, others stay in the Premier League as a bit part player. Think Shane Long.

One the best and earlier examples is Jordan Rhodes. Between 2012 and 2016 he made 179 Championship appearances and scored 91 goals. Despite this, he never got a chance in the Premier League and when he finally gained promotion with Middlesbrough, in 2016, he lasted six months before being loaned and eventually sold to Sheffield Wednesday.

 Billy Sharp is another. Between 2009 and 2012 he made 97 appearances, scoring 49 goals. When he finally reached the Premier League with Southampton he managed just two appearances before loans to Nottingham Forest, Reading and Doncaster. He regained his bullying prowess at boyhood club Sheffield United, first in League One and then the Championship where he hit 36 goals in 74 games before managing 6 across his next two Premier League seasons.

Many have bullied the Championship from midfield. Ollie Norwood had three consecutive promotions before he had even played in the topflight. Tom Cairney regularly put in outstanding performances for Fulham earning him two PFA team of the season appearances, but he could never replicate this in the Premier League.

Bullying is done from out-wide too. Wearing, Barnsley tinted glasses Adam Hammill and Ricardo Vaz Te were two spectacular but brief bullies. The latter hit 20 for Barnsley and West Ham in 11-12, even scoring in the Playoff final. However, in the Premier League he managed just 5 goals across three seasons. Adam Hammill, in the season prior, amazed with his direct style and screamers before a career changing move to Wolves, which returned 0 goals in 23 league games across three seasons.

Although, when discussing wingers, the leading bully is the late Peter Whittingham. Between 2004 and 2017 he spent all but one season in the Championship. Three consecutive seasons between 2009 and 2012 yielded over 20 goal contributions, along with the 2009 Golden boot. He has three team of the year inclusions and, fittingly, a spot in the Football League team of the decade 2005-15. His spectacular left foot terrorised the Championship for years but had little impact in the Premier League.

 The Championship ‘bully’ is a strange footballing sensation which has the potential to delight and disappoint. There are countless examples, and each club would be able to suggest a few. It probably highlights the growing disparity between the second and first tier of English football but given these bullies have been circulating for years it may be that some players are just built to bully the Championship.

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