INT’L FOOTBALL Part 3: Nazism versus ‘The Paper Man.’

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in March, 2021. 

Italy’s success at the 1934 World Cup had not gone unnoticed by the Nazis.

Benito Mussolini had shown how a spectacle such as this could be used for great political advantage and with the 1936 Olympics set to be held in Berlin, it should come as no surprise that Adolf Hitler sought to portray German superiority on such a grand stage.

There was just one problem when it came to football. The German national team, in the 1930s, weren’t particularly good.

In 1931, they had played their neighbours Austria twice and been on the receiving end of a 6-0 and a 5-0 hammering. Unlike the Germans, the Austrian ‘Wonder-Team’, as they were known, were highly admired and revered for their style of play. Something which surely goaded ‘Der Fuhrer’, even if he was an Austrian native himself.

On the political front, 1933 saw Germany withdraw from the League of Nations. In essence, Hitler was showing his resistance to democracy, but rather than be seen as an aggressor, he used the power of football to convey a sporting and friendly side of the national character. 

In December 1935, despite some anti-fascist demonstrations outside the ground at White Hart Lane, England beat Germany 3-0 in a challenge match, but the game itself was merely a charade for what was lurking underneath the surface. 

Reports from the match – including some wrinkly old film footage – consistently refer to the German players being somewhat overly-sporting in their behaviour. Regularly shaking hands with their opposition, never being drawn into a foul and smiles all round in what the press hailed as “a most sporting match.”

All done, under Nazi orders and instruction to shed the country in a positive light, as it  was discovered later. 

“The Triumph of the Will.” 

The Berlin Games in 1936 provided an ample opportunity for an exhibition of Nazism. The opening ceremony was made to look as a beautiful spectacle while the ‘Triumph of the Will’ film by Leni Riefenstahl raised the hearts and hopes of the nation. Over the course of the next few weeks, no country won more medals than the host nation.

These games will inevitably be remembered for the enchanting success story of American athlete, Jesse Owens, throwing out the script to win the medals he did, but in keeping with football, Hitler was to observe another moment which undoubtedly dismayed him greatly. 

Generally speaking, most historians tend to agree that when Hitler was invited along to attend Germany’s match with Norway, he was assured of a victory. Something that would no doubt please him after Owens’ successes.

Norway, however, didn’t tow the line. Despite being perceived as a ‘lesser nation’, they ran out comfortable winners over their German counterparts. Perhaps what perplexed the Nazis even more is that Austria – a fellow German-speaking nation – were going from strength to strength and they had one player who caught their eye in particular.

“The Paper-Man.”

Matthias Sindelar, known to his adoring fans as “the Paper-man”, was seen by many as the greatest centre-forward in the world at that time. His talents on the field inspired works of poetry and, long before footballers became celebrities, he starred in a feature film. In 2001, he was proclaimed as ‘Austria’s Greatest Sportsman of the 20th Century.’

As we saw in the previous article in this series, he was mainly denied a place in the 1934 World Cup Final due to coercive refereeing that favoured the Italians. Nevertheless, his reputation grew stronger, but when he caught the attention of the Nazis, his mercurial talents would be blighted and exploited beyond belief.

In March of 1938, the Anschluss was complete. The Nazis had effectively annexed the Austrain state, forcibly usurped any political autonomy it once held and brought it into the realm of the new, and ever-growing, German sphere of influence.

As a proud Austrian nationalist – even if Czech by birth – Sindelar despised Nazism. Part of which had stemmed from ‘Aryan Only Policy’ when invading troops forced Jewish employees and officials at his club, Austria Vienna, out of their jobs during the period of occupation.

The Austrian national team would soon become no more than a memory as it had to amalgamate with Germany, but while some reluctantly accepted the fate of their nation, Sindelar remained headstrong and used football as an act of defiance. 

During the same year, Austria were scheduled to face Germany in what was essentially a ‘farewell game’ before the amalgamation of the two teams officially took place. 

It’s widely believed that the plan was for the Germans to win the game. A way of showing their superiority in a symbolic manner and historical references do cite that at half-time, with the score at 0-0, the Austrian players were told to follow suit with this plan. 

Refusing to collaborate, Sindelar scored early in the second-half to give the Austrians the lead. He then assisted a second goal and during the celebrations, he visibly taunted the Nazi hierarchy in the VIP section of the crowd. They were not amused. Within a year, Sindelar would pay dearly for his act of defiance. 

In a BBC interview, his friend and former clubmate, Egon Ulrich recalled the night of 23rd January, 1939. 

“We were playing cards and gambling in the coffee shop. There was plenty of drink taken. Some Nazi soldiers came in and invited themselves to join in the game. They were teasing Sindi all through the evening and, when he finally called it a night, that was the last I ever saw of him.”

Sindelar was found dead the following morning. It’s perceived that the apartment he was sleeping in that night with his girlfriend, was leaking gas fumes and the inhalation suffocated him. His biographer, Wolfgang Marderthaner, believes it may have been a suicide brought on by the shattering of his spirit in the aftermath of the Anschluss. 

Either way, be them directly or indirectly responsible, the Nazis shouldered the blame.

An inquest into his death was carried out, but the reports of which were later ‘mislaid.’ 

As a symbol for Austrian patriotism, dispute and speculation still ring out about the actual cause of his death. Perhaps to keep order, the Nazi administration did allow for a state funeral to take place where some 15,000 Austrians bravely bade farewell to their fallen hero.

“Peace In Our Time?” 

The famous words echoed by British Prime Minister, Nevile Chamberlain, when he held aloft the letter proclaiming that he and Adolf Hitler had signed a peace agreement. 

At the time, Chamberlain was held up as a hero. A man who would spare a return to conflict just a generation after the Great War. It was to be a false-dawn.

As part of the policy of appeasement towards Germany, England sent a team to Berlin to take them on in a game billed as another friendly between two peaceful nations. Many felt that the English should’ve refused to play the game, but in keeping with the goodwill measures set out by the government, they simply had to play it.

The game itself is remembered for the iconic and somewhat startling image of the England team lining up and giving the Nazi salute. What’s more surprising is that Hitler wasn’t even present. Against their wishes, the players did raise the right arm. Something which many of them deeply regretted for a very long time.

On the political front, the two countries signed the Munich Treaty. Effectively, this meant that the British would not interfere with the ideals it of German expansion.

In the quest for ‘lebensraum’ (living space) and having already acquired the Austrian state, Hitler was now free to invade the state of Czechoslovakia and thus, add to his growing territory.

Shortly after, attention soon turned to the 1938 World Cup in France. An opportunity for the Nazi regime to banish the memories of previous defeats on the football field.

When Hitler rallied support for the new and improved German side – with its acquisition of Austrian and Czech talents – and declared that “Sixty million Germans will play in Paris!”, it became a chilling precursor to the Nazi invasion of France just two years later.

In the tournament itself, however, underlying cracks within the team began to show. In a first round replay against Switzerland, all looked rosy as Germany – now with its five Austrians – led 2-0 at the break. 

As the game wore on into the second half, it became evidently more clear that there were deep internal divisions within the camp. Austrians would not pass to Germans and Germans would not pass to Austrians. Switzerland duly pounced on this lack of cohesion and turned the game on its head. They won 4-2 in the end.

Another embarrassing failure for Adolf Hitler on the footballing front.

Even with Germany’s disappointment, Mussolini’s fascist movement was still gaining support through footballing success. They had won – albeit in a contrived manner – the previous World Cup and this time around, they were showing real promise again.

Symbolically, in Italy’s second round meeting with host nation France, Mussolini ordered that – in the face of a hostile home crowd – the Italy team would abandon their traditional colours of blue and white. Instead, just as the foot-soldiers of the Fascist takeover had done, the footballers adorned the Blackshirts.

They would defeat the French 2-1 on their own soil and would then later go on to beat Hungary in the final. It seemed as though Fascism was still the powerhouse but there was one country which was noticeably quiet during this era, but they were soon to be awoken as a political and footballing force.

That country being Spain, who we will look at in more detail in our next article in the series.

INT’L FOOTBALL Part 2: Mussolini and the 1934 World Cup.

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley, March 2021. 

As of October 8th, 1922, Italy had as good as fallen under the rule of a fascist dictatorship.

In the aftermath of the First World War, the Italian people had lost faith in their monarchy as well as democracy and power was seized by the opportunistic thinking of Benito ‘Il Duce’ Mussolini.

Under his reign, authority was to go unquestioned, any political opposition was crushed and promises were made to screaming crowds that, under him, the Italian state would soon revive the glory days of the Roman Empire.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7278.jpg

While Mussolini considered which foreign lands to plunder and conquer, he first sought to ensure that loyalty and obedience to his rule remained strong back at home.

And there was no better way to harness the support of the people other than by giving them something to celebrate. Football.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7268.jpg

A game he wasn’t all that particularly fond of himself, despite adapting his Youth Movement to the ranks at SS Lazio, but that was irrelevant. As a former journalist and editor with the Avanti, he knew how significant a role propaganda could play in shaping public opinion.

“We become strong. I feel, when we have no friends upon whom to lean, or to look to for moral guidance.”

‘Opportunity’ is undoubtedly a key word when one looks back at Mussolini’s tenure.

He had seized upon the unrest and frustrations of the people when he marched them in their thousands towards Rome in 1922; even if he himself allegedly arrived by other more comfortable means.

Initially, while holding the title of Prime Minister, he had grasped the chance to convert the system of governance to suit his own ends by introducing the Acrebo Law.

The political act that, essentially, granted him supreme rule.

Intimidation and brutality on opposing factions was a useful method here and when Italy got to host the 1934 World Cup, this was a means by which he could consolidate his popularity among the masses.

Benito Mussolini’s vision of Italian prowess – physically strong, muscular and attractive – was mitigated by his own propaganda. Akin to that of the physique on the statues of Olympians and heroic Roman figures throughout the country.

After all, he himself was not adverse to the notion of taking his shirt off whenever the cameras showed up.

Whether it be pretending to be helping the workers laying the railway tracks (to help the trains run on time) or trotting about on horseback, Mussolini missed no opportunities to bare the torso and give the onlooking public something to talk about.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7274.jpg

In addition to that, the 1934 tournament was a perfect chance to showcase Italy to the world. Its developments, under fascist rule of course, of infrastructure, commerce and general economic recovery. To show that it could not only host and organise a world cup, but that it could also organise the victory of one too.

Looking back through the archives, it seems that even FIFA had backed down from having any real involvement in the running of this particular tournament.

In his biographical notes, then chairman Jules Remit makes no reference to so many important changes made to the competition that year; not even the imposition of the ‘Coppa Del Duce.’ An accolade that would also be hoisted by the eventual champions.

Mussolini had allowed himself to create his own special trophy of that bore the aforementioned title.

It was a bizarre and overtly-large cup (symbolically about seven times bigger than the actual World Cup) and going by the inscription on it, it’s clear which country he felt should go on and win it.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7272.jpg

“Silence is the only answer you should give to the fools…”

Having home advantage wasn’t enough. Favourable refereeing now had to be courted by whatever means necessary. With Vittorio Pozzo as manager, Italy adapted a hard-hitting and niggling approach to their game-plan.

It’s widely believed that Pozzo – who had spent time learning the game while living in England – had no qualms about physicality. Being under the pressure that he was from above however, he might well have had to turn a blind eye to some of the nastier aspects of the way his team went about their business on the field.

Overlooking the Italians opening game against the United States where they enjoyed a come 7-1 win, it was the games against Spain that truly began to rouse suspicion. After the initial drawn game, the replay was overshadowed by a series of contentious decisions – all of which favoured Italy – and the host nation progressed to the next round thanks to a debacle of a 2-1 win.

It became common knowledge that Mussolini had taken up the authority to select the referees and officials he wanted for each match and the plan was working. The Italian supporters were in too much elation to be bothered about questionable fair play and sportsmanlike conduct. After all, they had a World Cup semi-final to look forward to.

The night before Italy’s semi-final meeting with Austria, allegations still persist to this day that Benito Mussolini sat down to dinner with Swedish referee Ivan Ecklind. No doubt the plan was to discuss ‘tactics’ for the upcoming match. Whether the referee was bribed or bullied, we might never know for sure. Either way, it seems as though the man who was supposed to be the one in charge of the game, agreed to something.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7279.jpg

Despite what the native Italian press had said, the Austrians would have been staunch favourites to win this particular game. Their footballing style was renowned for its class and prestige. They were the second country after Britain to go full-on professional and they had Mattias Sindelar – arguably the world’s best centre-forward – leading the line in attack. 

In a 1998 interview with the BBC, Austrian player Josef Bican, openly discussed his tarnished memories of that game. He claimed he and his teammates all knew something was awry with some of the decisions that were going on. Perhaps most vividly, he recalled how he was trying to find a team-mate with a pass only for the referee to intervene and head the ball back to the Italians.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7270.jpg

Torrential rain over Milan had caused the pitch to water-log and quagmires appeared on the surface. No one seemed interested in tending the puddles. Any hopes Austria had of applying their passing game to good effect was under threat and with the referee seemingly doing all in his power to stop them, they bowed out in a single goal defeat. A goal which many still believe was both offside and a blatant foul on their goalkeeper. 

As Italy prepared for the final in Rome a few days later, it’s possible that Mussolini and the world were starting to see how the realms of fascism could be put into active practice. Unlike religion and historical events of old, there could be no dispute about their impending success.

In essence, there could be no interpretation or lie about Italy’s win because the world would see it for themselves. That’s what Mussolini capitalised upon. Portraying an inarguable ‘truth’ to the world that his national side were the greatest. Even if it was a distorted and artificially crafted truth.

“Fascism … believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace.”

Retrospectively speaking, there seems to be an allure of fascination with packed stadiums when it comes to fascist dictators. We’ll see more of that in our next article when we hone in on Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco. They too seemed to be rapt withal to the image of addressing mass crowds and, after all, what fills a stadium better than anything else?

Football, of course. 

On the day of the final, as Italy prepared for their date with destiny against Czechoslovakia, an interesting meeting took place shortly before the kick-off. A meeting which shattered the Czechs’ dreams of causing an upset on the day; before a ball had even been kicked.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7269.jpg

Ivan Ecklind, the controversial Swedish referee from the semi-final, was not only selected again to adjudicate this showpiece game, but when he and he alone, was called to the VIP box to meet with Mussolini, the Czechoslovakian players had their suspicions of underhanded coercion confirmed. As author of ‘The Chronicle of Czech Football’. Miloslov Jensik, told: 

“If anyone was going to be invited, it would usually be the two captains, possibly [along with] the referee … but when our players learned that it was only the referee, it was the confirmation of their darkest fears because they knew what had happened in the semi-final with Austria.” 

The Czechs knew they’d have to face an aggressive team, a hostile home crowd and now a referee who would do all in their combined power to ensure an Italian victory. Throughout the game, the exuberance and recklessness of Italy’s tackling went unpunished and they would eventually win the game 2-1.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7271.jpg

As throngs of supporters of the Azure flooded the pitch in celebration, the significance of an Italian victory in (of all places) Rome was not lost on anybody. It wasn’t just the fans, who had already been whipped up in a fever of turbulent nationalism for over a decade, who rejoiced. Inwardly, a feeling of quaint satisfaction also fell on the dim and devilish smile of one man in particular. Benito Mussolini.

Waving at the crowd in his white military attire, Mussolini knew only too well that fascism had become the religion of the lay people and, with Italy being crowned world champions just twelve years after the seizure of power, a true liturgy was born through sport. Even if the means to that success were fiendish and built on ulterior motives.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_7276.jpg

A sporting event twisted and moulded to suit the political ends of people who would use their power for great and terrible evil.

And just like what happened amid the unstable political climate of 1930’s Europe, the incorporation of fascism to football would not remain purely Italian. Soon after, the ideologies would again unravel. Maybe even on a more lasting and wider-scale than before. This when such ideas, as we’ll see in Part Three, crept into the mindsets of those holding power in Germany and Spain.

To Be Continued …

INT’L FOOTBALL Part 1: Football in the Age of Empires.

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in March, 2021. 

“Sport and Politics should never be mixed” and while that’s a statement with great noble intentions and morality within its sentiment, there’s no denying that the two invariably have.

Within the last century alone, we’ve seen how the political ideals held by those who hold power over the people have utilised ‘The People’s Game’ to suit their agenda.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the early stages of international football and it took a prominent role, not just in Britain, but also across the European continent between the years of 1872 right up to the end of the inter-war period. Looking at how and why the game many of us know and love so well took the course that it did. 

A time which would witness the game moving from the pastime of factory workers and small villages across the United Kingdom to when it caught the attention of facist dictators who were plotting continental and global domination for what they perceived to be the ‘Master Race.’

‘Auch, did ye aye?’ 

Historians generally agree that the first officially recognised match between two international sides took place in Glasgow on St Andrew’s Day (30 November) 1872 between Scotland and England. 

One could be forgiven for assuming the two neighbouring teams, ruled by the same Empire, adapted a similar approach in the way they played. In fact, the complete opposite is true.

Players from England used a methodology that was focused almost entirely on a dribbling-based game. Imagine, if you will, the way you rugby is played, but with the ball on the ground.

One man running towards the goal and if he should be dispossessed, he’d be hopeful that a comrade might retrieve the ball and take up where he left off.

The Scottish approach was very different. Always an inventive nation, they were the initiators of a passing-game. Something which many would have assumed had always been part and parcel of the game – but no. Scots’ players looking to share possession by moving the ball around was most baffling to their English counterparts.

The game ended at the Partick Cricket Grounds with a 0-0 scoreline but with regard to separate nations playing the same game – but with very different ideas and motives – this particular match was perhaps an omen for some things to come.

‘We’re English and the English are the best at everything!’ 

It is true that the English were responsible for bringing the game to so many parts of the globe, but for the purposes of this article, the focus will stay on Europe for now.

The Corinthians, largely based in London, were the Harlem Globetrotters of their day. Going on tours and entertaining crowds and showing off this new game which their country had invented.

Adorning their white kits – a legacy carried on by Real Madrid in their honour – they brought joy and spectacle to the steadily growing towns and cities they visited and there were three cities in particular where they caught the imagination of the people tremendously well.

Prague, Budapest and Vienna. 

Three cities which were once under the common rule of the Hapsburg Empire – but were now establishing their own respective identities and cultures under the Austro-Hungarian rule – they all ran along (or close to) the River Danube which made boat travel for the travelling Crusaders much easier.

Following the end to hostilities after The Great War, Europe would have a very different complexion from 1919 onwards as new national borders were drawn up and new countries were born.

One of which was Czechoslovakia and, as some wrinkly old footage shows, they gathered huge attendances at their club games right from the off.

In Budapest, it seemed that political groups were already using the game to support their own ideologies. Much of the support for MTK Budapest came from the Jewish community. On the other hand, Ferencvaros, were the team who held sway with the migrant German population who had lived there.

Similarly in Vienna, the Social Democrats urged their predominantly working-class followers to get behind FK Wien. Their claim was that this was the club of the common man. Differentiating themselves from Rapid Vienna, who were tagged as being the side for the bourgeois members of the high-class society. 

The post-World War I attitude in Britain, particularly in England, was that of ‘Splendid Isolation.’ They felt they’d no need to involve themselves in matters concerning Europe anymore; be it as allies or enemies.

As for football, reports suggest that many Britons felt that it was always going to be ‘their game.’ 

After all, it had been codified in the public schools such as Eton and Harrow and, after some early bannings by previous monarchies led by Charles I and James (I of England and VI of Scotland), the game of football had become not only legal, but also a healthy and a respectable leisurely pastime for people to play or watch. 

Even the clergy hailed it as ‘Muscular Christianity’ and a way of keeping men away from the temptations that too many ales in the public houses might have brought on.

It’s unclear exactly when they started to realise that the game was becoming more than just a passing phase or a fad to those who played it on the European mainland.

Some suggestions do indicate, however, that when Austria became the next country to adopt full-on professionalism and then walloped Scotland 5-0 in 1929, alarm bells began truly ringing.

‘Mambo Italiano.’

Despite some internal divisions at club level, European national sides began to forge and also in the 1920s, there would be a re-assemblement of the Mitropa Cup between the clubs of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Italy.

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this, in a way, gave us an early glimpse of a European club competition long before 1955. Essentially, it was an earlier forerunner for the European Cup / Champions League.

This is where one man in particular had an importance that can not be understanded; that being Vittorio Pozzo.

Born in Turin in 1886, a keen football supporter who had come to know about the game from his days as a student in Manchester and when he attended the 1913 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa and Sunderland where over 121,000 attended. 

Pozzo is believed to have been hugely interested in the tactical side of the game and during his time in England, where physicality between competing sides was a key component, he’d become impressed all the more. More about that later! 

His expertise, knowledge and love of football were innocent traits but they could be exploited by a young, rising and domineering figure within Italian society. 

One who would lead the overthrowing of a King, who’d stand on balconies alongside Adolf Hitler, who made promises to frantic crowds that he would restore national pride, crush all opposition and revive the spirit of the ‘Glory Days of the Roman Empire.’

Benito ‘Il Duce’ Mussolini had banished deomcratic procedures in Italy under his supreme and unquestionable rule. The Blackshirts brought intimidation and violence to anyone who spoke ill of his authority and, being a former journalist himself, Mussolini was well aware about how public favour could be won over.

Propaganda articles in the Avanti newspaper proclaiming that the trains now run on time is one thing, but it seems that Mussolini sought more. Something that could really capture the spirit, imagination and fervour of the people. In some ways, the timing couldn’t be better, especially with this new tournament starting up in 1930 – the World Cup.

To Be Continued ….

‘The Prince of Goalkeepers’; John Thomson.

Originally published in September 2020; Redrafted in March, 2021 by Jonathan Foley.

Still regarded by many as the best goalkeeper in Britain during the two decades which separated the world wars, relatively little is known about Celtic and Scotland’s John Thomson.

The date of September 5th marks the anniversary of the tragic passing of this young man during a Rangers vs Celtic game in 1931. One who so many once hailed as ‘The Prince of Goalkeepers.’

By the time Thomson reached the tender age of 21, he was already a fully-fledged starter in goals for both the Celtic and Scotland teams. Sadly, he’d not live to go any further. 

During that aforementioned Old Firm match at Ibrox, he gallantly rushed out of his goal to thwart a move that put Sam English in on goal for the home side. 

As Thomson dived at the attacker’s feet, English’s knee innocently collided with the goalkeeper’s head and the blow was severe enough to put him into an immediate state of unconsciousness. 

His head nestled in the ground, his arm raised aloft and static above him. A most harrowing image, even today, when seeing the flickering archive footage which has survived all this time.

The urgency of the matter was not lost on English who, despite limping from the clash, forewent concern from himself and immediately rushed to Thomson’s aid. 

David Mickeljohn – the Rangers captain – called for calm amongst the many thousands on the terraces who were initially booing and jeering.

Realising the seriousness of the situation themselves, the crowd quit their taunts and immediately fell into a hushed and most respectful silence. 

Thomson was stretchered from the field and was rushed to the Western Infirmary. 

Rangers manager William Struth feared the worst and arranged for the club to send a car to Cardenden – some 55 miles away – to collect the boy’s parents from Fife.

He passed away at 9:25pm and the mass congregation of some 100,000 people who attended his funeral – many of whom arrived on foot from Glasgow – was testament to the stature to which he carried himself. 

And yet, while many recall how he passed, not as many know how he lived. 

Background and Upbringing:

Born in 1909, Thomson spent the bulk of his early life carrying out work in the dank and claustrophobic surroundings of the coalmines. 

Despite his relatively slender physique and small-sized hands, his job of locking trailers together as they moved along the rails, is said to have given him a natural sense of agility, timing and positioning. Ideal goalkeeper attributes. 

His appearances in youth football on the Scottish east coast caught the attention of then Celtic manager, Willie Maley, who approached and signed the boy for a fee of just ten pounds. 

Even with his Evangelical Protestant upbringing, Thomson was delighted to sign for Celtic. Miner strikes were common and professional football offered a more steady and stable income. 

The only true opponent to his decision to swap the pits for football was his mother, who feared that football was too dangerous. In retrospect, her words could be deemed as a haunting prophecy. 

During his career, Rangers were dominant in the league title honours, yet Thomson helped Celtic to two Scottish Cups and three Glasgow Cups. 

At international level, he initially played for a Scotland League XI side. Despite a resounding victory for an England XI at White Hart Lane, Thomson was applauded off the field by both sets of fans.

At Scotland senior level, he earned four caps. He put in a series of wonderful displays and became known for his ability to clutch crosses from the air and for his bravery when rushing out of his goal. 

Behaviour that certainly wasn’t all that common at the time and in his four proper appearances for his country, he conceded just a single goal in those matches.

Perhaps an element of foreshadowing knocked on his door when he picked up a series of injuries in one game.

During a challenge, he lost two teeth, broke his jaw and several ribs. His mother’s pleas rang louder than ever before but he was unperturbed.

He recovered to be back in goal quickly and set his sights on marriage after becoming engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Margaret Findlay. A wedding that nobody would ever see.

Sam English, only 23 himself, openly wept at his funeral and his genuineness was seen by everyone. Thomson’s family openly forgave him and successfully pushed for an exoneration; clearing him of any wrongdoing. 

English, a native of County Antrim originally, left Scotland soon after. Even a prolific goal scoring record at Liverpool couldn’t redeem his spirit and humour anymore. 

He retired young with the feeling that football had become what he called “a joyless sport.” He passed away himself in 1967, aged 58. He remains well thought of by all. 

John Thomson joined the game as a boy, but sadly, left it as one too. He will always be remembered amongst the Celtic support and, hopefully, by the wider football community as a whole.

@johnnyfoley1984

1992: FOOTBALL’S ‘RE-BIRTH?’

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley, March 2021.

“Football wasn’t invented in 1992, ya know?” 

There’s an expression we’ve all heard at some point during a debate between fans down through the years. And while, of course, it’s true, let’s take a look at why that particular year is so significant in terms of football history.

First up, maybe it’s all too easy to say that it was the era when the Premier League was initiated and Sky Sports grabbed a firm hold on the broadcasting rights that changed everything. Certainly that was part of it, but in truth, there was a wider European, global and consumer-based cultural context on the go at the time which also played as key factors.

#1: ‘Taking Down the Iron Curtain.’

As a continent, Europe underwent a massive transformation – largely aided by the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – and thus, greater freedoms and better relationships between nations and states was within grasp. 

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the decimation of communist regimes had many feeling that a new structure to the European Cup was required. 

With the notable exception of the former Yugoslavia, Europe fell into relative peace and harmony. Something which would’ve been unforeseen just five decades earlier. 

Let’s wind the clocks to 1991; the final year of ‘Old Football.’ Red Star Belgrade were the European champions, domestic league matches all kicked off at the same time on the same day, most teams were limited to just two foreigners and Vanilla Ice was telling us all to ‘stop, collaborate and listen.’ 

By the time the summer of ‘92 came around, Denmark became the victors of the European Championship, despite not having actually qualified, and a meeting between German businessman, Klaus Hemple and British composer, Tony Britten at the tournament, would change everything.

Hemple was in the early stages of revamping Europe’s premier club competition and was well away with his plans to introduce group stages and seeding for all the participating sides. 

This meant that teams were guaranteed a minimum of six games; replacing the old two-legged knockout round that saw Napoli and Real Madrid both having early exits in 1987 and 1989 respectively. Hemple’s new format promised more games, but it also pleased UEFA as they’d have final say on the advertising rights and on a standard kick-off time – midweek, 7:45pm GMT. 

The corporate hoardings around the pitches and in the stands would be standardised, but to make the new competition seem more lucrative, Britten’s composition of the theme music gave the tournament an air of sophistication … even if it was a total rip-off of Handel’s classic anthem of ‘Zadok the Priest.’ The listeners of Classic FM seemed to approve, however, as they saw it as rekindling an old gem with a more modern spin. 

Prime-time viewing delighted the endorsing companies like Amstel Bier, MasterCard and Continental Tyres to name but a few and, after some deliberation and debate, the name of the ‘UEFA Champions’ League’ was born. Early footage broadcasts by ITV do show poor Ian St. John and Bob Wilson occasionally stumbling over the name of this new competition. 

#2: ‘And It’s Live!’ 

Back in England, things had plummeted to an all-time low. Sponsorship deals were often modest at best while crowd trouble and hooliganism was still synonymous with the game. The better players were plying their trades in Italy and Spain and even some of the best British players (Gary Lineker, Mark Hughes, Ian Rush and Paul Gascoigne) were all playing abroad. 

The year of 1992 was also the year in which the old First Division would morph into becoming the newly-formed FA Premier League and when Australian media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, recognised its potential, football as we know it would change forever. 

The BSkyB Corporation took inspiration from American television in how they covered matches. 

Customers who’d availed of the Sky Sports coverage were there to be entertained and educated in a manner which reselmed how the networks across the Atlantic Ocean did theirs. Matches on a Sunday became the [Ford Escort] ‘Super Sunday’ and ‘Monday Night Football’ entered the lexicon of the everyday fan on the street. 

The radical changes in how the game was broadcast was evident right from the start. The “Whole New Ball Game” would hold five hours of screen time on a Sunday with ex-players in suits and ties using tactics boards and graphics to discuss their thoughts on a given topic. Even the Monday night games at Crystal Palace and Coventry City had pre-match cheerleaders.

Football became trendier than ever and it seemed as though, in the top-flight anyway, that the days of rioting crowds on rickety caged-terraces of the 1980s, had been banished from sight. 

The arrivals of Eric Cantona and Denis Bergkamp brought some early flair to the league and by the time Chelsea landed a series of Serie A players in the summer of 1996, the facelift was well underway. The backbone of Arsenal’s double-winning team in 1998 was dominated by a flurry of French internationals who went on to win the World Cup in their own country that summer. 

#3: ‘So We’re All Agreed?’ 

Jumping briefly back to 1992 again, there was another important political development which helped shape all this. The signing of the Maastricht’ Treaty in Brussels essentially afforded the freedoms that all European Union member states now enjoy: the ability to live and work in any other country within that jurisdiction that they chose to.

This agreement had paved the way for an influx of foreign players to come in and light up the Premier League as they were free of the restrictions that had often impeded them from doing so. The development of the Bosman Ruling in 1995 then made it possible for players to leave on free transfers once their contracts had ended. A matter of profound implications. 

On the other hand, football had also become pop-culture. The old days of ‘Roy and the Rovers’ comic-strips were replaced with fancy computer games (some where you played as a team and some where you even played along as the manager). Televised dramas like ‘Dream Team’ hit our screens and, for a brief period anyway, the Premier League even had it’s on breakfast cereal … which was minging, by the way! 

Players dated pop-stars and drove sports cars, David Beckham’s haircuts made front page news and, to this day, Liverpool’s decision to wear white suits to the FA Cup Final in 1996 still probably gets more coverage than anything from the actual match that was played that day.   

All in all, it showed that it wasn’t just the Sky ‘takeover’ of the Premier League in 1992 that changed the game – some might say for better and some might of the more traditionalists might tend to disagree – but in an overall sense, it was also down to the changes in Europe’s political structure and how we all became part of a mass consumer culture. 

The year of 1992 was not the year in which football was invented, but it was certainly a year in which it saw it undergo a massive rebirth.

@JohnnyFoley1984

IS FOOTBALL (REALLY) FINISHED?

Originally penned in March 2021.

Football has undergone a plethora of changes in recent times. So much so that the game sometimes feels unrecognizable from what it was 25 years ago.

Some changes have been forced upon the game by the powers that be – some for better, some not so – and some have been brought to bear on ‘The Beautiful Game’ by the players, managers, pundits and even the supporters themselves.

“The Game’s Gone” has become a popular catchphrase amongst all such parties mentioned. While much of that sentiment derives from the frustrations over VAR and harsher penalization of supposed foul play, let’s take a look at some other factors that might be just as responsible.

Back in 1992, when Sky Sports may as well have claimed that they’d invented the wheel with their “whole new ball game” bragging, the main rule change of that period was the introduction of the back pass rule.

#1: ‘Can’t Pick It Up!’

Taking a look back at the first weeks of the inaugural Premier League season is interesting. It will provide enough evidence to show that goalkeepers were certainly finding it hard to break the habits of a lifetime.

A series of bundled goals and comical errors ensued and it led to a public decry that the game was being ruined. Utterly ruined! One notable protester was a certain Andy Gray.

His frustrations rang out most memorably during his co-commentary from the gantry of the Charity Shield at Wembley.

Leeds United ‘keeper John Lukic was given a tame enough pass, when all of a sudden, the fear of being charged down by an opposing forward became all too real!

It seemed the only option for him to take was to just hoof it out of play which he duly did: “Is that [rule] making the game any better? … I don’t think so!” bemoaned the Scotsman.

#2: ‘He’s Getting How Much?’

Moving slightly onwards into the mid-nineties, it could be argued that society at large started to become more aware, and often disgruntled, by the amount of money that was being thrown around on club transfers and player wages. 

Between the summers of 1995 and 1996, moves like those of Denis Bergkamp to Arsenal (£7.5m), Stan Collymore to Liverpool (£8.5m) and Alan Shearer to Newcastle (£15m) alone made both front and back-page news headlines (Shearer’s especially).

When reports of how much they’d be earning a week were eked out by the press, the wider-public would surely have been throwing their eyes to the heavens in exasperation.

“What?? That amount of money every week to kick a pig’s bladder around! Well, I’ve never!” was one I can definitely recall.

#3: ‘The ‘FAmous’ Cup?’

For generations, the FA Cup was something of an institution and a staple in the football calendar.

Regardless of who you supported, watching the cup final at Wembley every May was as routine and as annual as Christmas. The teams leaving the hotels that morning, being filmed on the buses to the ground; it was all part an exciting build up.

Sadly though, it’s lost its charm in modern times.

Most higher-end teams tend to put less emphasis on the importance of cup success in preference of a more financially-rewarding league finish.

Part of which is understandable but it begs the question. As kids, whoever dreamt of finishing fourth in the table instead of scoring the winning goal in a cup final?

Some have claimed that this was brought on the FA by themselves however.

In the 1999-2000 season, it’s said that they encouraged Manchester United to withdraw from it to go and compete in the experimental 8-team FIFA World Club Champions tournament.

Allegedly this was all a part of a plan to help England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup.

#4: ‘Put Your Clothes Back On!’ 

A little further on into the new millennium and, in the eyes of the law-makers, there was a new enemy in town. The curse of ‘over-celebrating!’ and it had to be promptly stomped out.

Initially by booking players who removed their shirts during a celebration and later by doing likewise for players who left the field of play; even if they were merely scaling the advertising hoardings.

Now, after seeing how frightful hairy Ryan Giggs’s torso was after he scored against Arsenal at Villa Park in 1999, this may not have been the worst rule that ever came in. Still though, it basically eclipsed the possibility of anyone ever reigniting the Fabrizio Ravenelli celebration, forever more.

Although some players will rebel against the system and do it anyway, one couldn’t help but feel slightly aggrieved for Chelsea’s Arjen Robben in 2006.

A late winner in a pulsating fixture at Sunderland saw him dismissed for ‘over celebrating’ with his own fans, even though no item of clothing was removed in the process.

The rule which stated “players must avoid such excessive displays of joy” had been violated and breached.

#5: ‘Goals: The Original Soundtrack.’ 

Personally speaking, I can’t say I’m overly-opposed to music being pumped through the ground’s sound-system. It’s certainly wasn’t the worst idea that ever was.

Mainly because I hold fond memories of joining in with the chants at Celtic Park when the DJ pressed play on ‘The Magnificent Seven’ every time Henrik Larsson scored. The same goes for the rehash of the Stone Roses classic for ‘I Wanna Be Edouard.’

And I’ve no doubt that the likes of Middlesbrough fans feel something similar. Especially when the samba-like saxophone beats of ‘Reach Out’ blare out in the stadium when the Teesiders finally get around to hitting the net.

Mind you, Tottenham may be taking theirs a tad too far. Even this year, during a time when stadiums are empty, someone decided it was a good idea to play a 20-year old dance track (‘Sandstorm’ by Darude) before a VAR check on the goal is even complete.

So one has to wonder what the thinking was behind that one.

#6: ‘Hold Me Close, Don’t Let Me Go.’ 

Seeing the teams line up in the tunnel is always part of the anticipation just before kick-off.

It adds a sense of realism to the affair, but over the last maybe seven / eight years or so, one can’t help but feel that the excessive hugging and friendliness between supposed rival players is a bit of a momentum killer.

It’s a sentiment that’s certainly shared by Roy Keane in his punditry, but as a player, his spat with Patrik Viera in the tunnel at Highbury in 2005, makes him true to his word on this occasion.

Now I have to say here, that I quietly enjoy seeing international colleagues or former teammates share a pat on the back. Goalies too who seem to have their own unspoken bond.

Although an instance like third was comically ridiculed by Jamie Vardy when Kasper Schmiechel and Pierre-Emile Hoijberg had their lovely moment spoiled with a teasing “Oooh Danish friends!” just before a Leicester took to the field alongside Southampton back in 2017.

#7: ‘Make Mine a Half and Half.’ 

The growing trend of half and half scarves at domestic league matches has got worrying to say the least.

A quick online search suggests that the two biggest names Ed who are most guilty of this heinous act are the Manchester clubs. Others may disagree, but sure hey, if it’s on the internet, then it’s gotta be true, right? (Ahem!)

Half and half scarves of teams competing in a European match seem to be somewhat exempt from this rule, but seeing them in the stalls outside the grounds of teams who are facing even their crosstown rivals just feels like a quick cash grab.

In fairness though, the clubs themselves can’t really be blamed for this one. After all, these items are almost always unofficial merchandise and we all know how it’s not that cheap to attend these games anymore. Maybe it’s just a new fad of consumer culture to purchase a memento of that particular game.

Fair enough, maybe.

#8: ‘Ask Not What Your Country Can Do…’ 

Perhaps because our multi-channeled and high-resolution television sets have us all so spoiled nowadays; ones that enable us to watch top-flight football from clubs all across Europe and the world at the touch of a button. Yet one can’t help feel a touch sad when we see how so many fans now see international breaks as a hindrance.

A youngster lining out for his country hasn’t really remained as a landmark moment down through the years.

In the contemporary era, a player togging out for his country creates more a sense of apprehension or dread amid the fans who basically offer prayers so that he won’t get injured.

And yet, when the big summer tournaments come round (be it for the Euros, the World Cup or the Copa Americainternational football suddenly becomes cool again.

Call me Old Fashioned, but I’d still take watching the best eleven Brazilian players take on the best eleven German players any day of the week over West Brom vs Brighton. 

#9: ‘Computer Says No!’ 

There’s not a chance we could come this far and not discuss the way the game has spiralled since the introduction to VAR in 2019.

I think it’s fair to say how we, as fans, all feel a tad bewildered by how cruel it is in ruling players offside and how, even with all the fancy electric geometry Stockley Park can perform, what exactly constitutes a handball is more confusing thanever.

Some might argue that it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’

For years, there were cries and moans that technology should become a prominent feature of the game (“look at how rugby does it!” one would say) and now that it’s here, the golden wish has become a nightmare.

The hierarchy claimed it would quell any arguments over decisions, but many fans still hold firm to the belief that debating theories over a decision was just part of the enjoyment.

Olivier Giroud and Harry Kane have both scored superb goals this month but the joy of either moment could never be fully embraced due to prolonged monitor viewings and re-viewings that followed.

#10: ‘Breaking News: Player Eats Sandwich – More to Follow.’ 

Clickbait media is a huge pep-eevee of mine.

The digital version of tabloid gossip and quotes being taken out of context drives me up the wall. What’s worse is that even Sky Sports have got in the act with misleading captions on their YouTube. Hoping to draw in views because a pundit supposedly said something controversial.

In these cases, the word ‘slams’ gets a ridiculous amount of use. With the exception of the occasional actual outburst by a manager during a press conference, very few of these ‘slams’ are ever anything to take note of.

And with this being an era of likes, shares and retweets, it’s little wonder fans often end up talking more about what pundits say or didn’t say during the broadcast of a live match instead of the game itself.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a luxury having the ability to sprawl out on the sofa and channel-hop between matches but I just don’t buy in the “explosive punditry” narrative.

In conclusion, while the game of football has indeed changed an incredible amount over the last quarter of a century, some are uncertain for the future. Will it ever be enjoyed the same way as it once was?

Attending games, even post-Covid, could become even more expensive and we’ll rely more and more on mass media to pass their opinions onto us.

Is “the game gone” though? I mean, really?

If life teaches us one thing, surely it’s that this is a common feeling that has been uttered by generations many times in the past.

History books like ‘Sport and the British’ (Richard Holt) teach us that the very notion of players being paid to play the game at all spelled certain doom during the late 19th Century.

It’s unimaginable to think now but there was even a time when a group of Scots factory workers adapted a revolutionary new tactic called ‘passing the ball.’ A ghastly idea that their English gentlemen counterparts thought to be most appalling (cite: ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ by Jonathan Wilson).

Even in my own years as a fan, I still recall my elders bemoaning the death of the game when players had the audacity to wear coloured boots and gloves while on the field. The Horror!

@JohnnyFoley1984

HOLLYWOOD’S GOD COMPLEX.

Originally published in January 2018

As we all often tend to do over the Christmas period, we get to kick back and relax on the couch with a seemingly endless flurry of popular films to divulge ourselves into. Being something of a movie-buff, my old educational qualification in Media Studies and English had me watching away when it hit me: ‘Does religion play a strong underlying role in popular media?’

I wrote previously about how hidden political statements are often made in fiction. In that article, we looked at how even the likes of Godzilla reflected the international relationships between the governments of the USA and Japan. Anon, me thought, let’s see if religion does the same with a specific focus on ET: The Extra Terrestrial and The Shawshank Redemption.

Starting with ET, it might be considered laughable at first to think that a wee alien creature who befriends a young boy could be anything more than a nice little piece of science-fiction. As some people like me tend to do however, there was time to read between the lines – and maybe overanalyze some might say – so see what you think. Spoiler alerts ahead, by the way. 

The underlying religious themes of ET are found when you look closely into his connections with the stories of Jesus Christ. Most other alien-based movies of this time dealt with ray guns, battles in galaxies far, far away or in the case of ‘Alien’, a most gruesome looking birth scene you could ever wish to see. ET bucks the trend of this stereotype.

His behaviour in some scenes give rise to the theory that he is on earth purely to study plant life and nature. This can be seen as early as the opening scene as he caresses and smells greenery with a sense of happiness and contentment. It’s shown again later in a very simple and basic scene where he brings a plant back to life through his telekinetic powers. 

Some people have suggested that these actions mirror the paintings of Christ that show him being at one with nature where he is immensely immersed in what he sees as God’s most wonderful creation – the Earth. The connection goes further as the filming progresses. When ET rises from the dead – connection made – he is shown wearing a shroud as his heart glows. 

Almost every home in Ireland would have pictures of Our Lord displayed on the walls of hallways or kitchens posing in the very same manner. During the narrative, we also notice that the creature has the ability to heal pain and this is demonstrated when he cures the cut on Elliot’s finger by touching it with his own. 

Another part of this famous film shows ET being treated by medical experts who are trying to resuscitate him as he slips away from life. The time of death is audibly heard as “15:36.” This sprang me to nosey if this was a Bible passage of some relevance. The quote I found was “What you sow cannot come back to life!” Perhaps this is a metaphor both plants and death. 

Director Steven Spielberg vehemently denies any Christian theme to the film but that doesn’t stop us from being allowed to interpret it anyway we choose.  

Spielberg himself is Jewish but that hasn’t stopped other theorists from looking closer at the ‘Bike Scene’ where the fleeing boys try to outrun the authorities by purposely ‘crossing the desert’ as they veer off-road. 

His ascension into the sky at the film’s end is another possible link and we should not forget of course what his two most important messages to Gertie and Elliot were. 

He reminded Gertie (and us) to “Be Good” and similarly to Elliot (and us again) that “I’ll Be Right Here” as he literally touches his heart.

Moving onto The Shawshank Redemption. Based on the novel by Stephen King, this story changed his reputation as being purely a writer of horror-based fiction. On the surface, it’s your basic prison movie with an almost all-male staff and themes of hope and freedom running along with the storyline. 

Delving a little deeper however, that there is no real representation of God in this film, so in his absence, the audience are given what is known as a perverse deity; a devil-like character who is disguised as a holy figure.

This character is portrayed by the warden who repeatedly makes biblical quotations as well as using a stitch-work about judgement (that his wife made at church group, remember?) as a cover to the safe where he keeps records of his illegal financial dealings. Yet this connection cannot be made fully unless reference is given to the essay ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ by Jean Paul Sartre. 

In this written piece, Sartre argued that in the absence of God, humans must define their essence themselves through the choices they make. In the prison, the inmates aren’t allowed to define their own essence and this is echoed by the lines: “You eat when we say you eat!” and “Forty years I’ve been asking permission to piss.”

In a nutshell, the walls come to define who they are. First they hate them and then have to get used to them, so much so that Brooks becomes institutionalised and chooses not to live anymore. In the same essay, Sartre compared humanity to rocks in that rocks are shaped and defined by something else whereas we see Andy choosing to shape and polish rocks in a way that he wants. 

This of course wasn’t the only time King would use religion in his works. A few years later, The Green Mile held much more obvious forms of Christianity and used the prison setting here as a metaphor for purgatory. Here Tom Hanks’ character often questions the morality and what judgement he will face before God when dealing with John Coffey’s impending execution (note the use of initials.)

Maybe I’m overthinking but sure interpretation is something we’re allowed to do.

MY UNUSUAL LOVE AFFAIR WITH WORLD CUP USA’94.

By Jonathan Foley

Originally penned in January 2021

And a one and a two and a “Glooooray Land. In Glooorrraaay Laaand! It’s in your Heaaart! It’s innnn your Haaands! Gloooray Land! Innn Gllooorrry Land! You’re Here (You’re Here!!!) in Glooooraay Laaaannnd!”

It’s over a quarter of a century now but, Gosh darn it, there’s still just something about World Cup USA 94 that I just love rewatching all these years later.

Maybe it’s because it was played in the United States and all those montages with intercuts of eye-catching skyscrapers, ones roller-blading down sunny boulevards and packed out rodeo shows captured the imagination of my then 9 (and a half) year old self.

Perhaps it was because this was the first time I really started to learn about different cultures and customs of nations from all around the world. Something I see as an early catalyst for inspiring me to go traveling later on in my life.

Even if it was only through the magic of television, I’m not sure I’d ever seen real-life South Koreans, Africans or Latino Americans share the same emotions over football, just like I did. It made the world feel somehow smaller to me. 

One of the perks about reading up on the wee World Cup sticker album I had was that it had a little bio on each participating nation. 

That meant that for the next few years in school, I was a dab hand in Geography tests when the teacher would ask us to identify the flags or name the capital cities of such exotic locations.

As alluded to earlier, montages are something that I’ve always loved watching, particularly during a major tournament.

For me, USA 94 was arguably the first competition where the tv companies – because of the advancements in technology and wider array of camera angles filming the action on the pitch – they became much more visually attractive.

Looking back now, they were fast cut, they were colourful and many of them were mixed with a cool nineties dance music vibe that still holds up really well when you see them on YouTube today.

Even if football isn’t your thing, they’re still worth a look for the feel good nostalgia factor that often goes with popular music of that era.

“Welcome to the start of an All American Show!” was how Barry Davies put in his commentary for the BBC on the evening of Friday, 17th June.

As you could somewhat expect from the Americans being the host nation, the opening ceremony at Soldier Field in Chicago was awash with razmataz and spectacle. 

Red, white and blue balloons to raise the sense of patriotism with Diana Ross fluffing a ‘penalty shot’ that would oddly foreshadow how the actual Final would be decided four weeks later. 

The initial match between Germany and Bolivia was a pretty dour one. A single Jurgen Klinsmann goal was enough to decide it, but I’ve read since that very few US-based viewers saw that goal live.

Millions had switched channels on their TV sets. Not entirely because they were bored of the ‘soccer’ and its low scoring attribute.

Nope! It was because a police helicopter was following a chase down the highway of one OJ Simpson. It was all go in America that night!

Well not really! Local interest in the tournament wasn’t all that high. And truth be told, because the MLS didn’t exist at the time, I foolishly thought the US players were all just College boys who happened to play the game and they just threw a team together. Whoops!

Being an Irishman, it’s only right that I pay homage to some of our exploits in that tournament. It was a short stay but something of a roller coaster experience.

Now it must be remembered that the Irish have always felt some sort of ownership of some parts of the United States. Arguably with New York at the top of that bill.

Then again, so have the Italians. In a way, it was somewhat fitting that the two would be drawn to face another in a game played at the Giants Stadium in East Rutherford. 

In a game where our fans had a near monopoly of the tickets, Ray Houghton’s 12-minute ‘swinger’ with the left boot was enough to seal a famous victory for our boys. 

This was back in the days when the neighborhood kids would assemble for a match on the green between all our houses and his roly-poly became a firm favourite to imitate for the rest of that summer.

As the tournament progressed, there were other talking points that cropped up. Conversations that were taking place for the first time amongst an intrigued and curious youngster like myself watching the World Cup.

Mind you, there was room for some misguided and ill-judged premonitions too. 

-‘Did ya see that Mexican goalie who designs his own jerseys? Mad!!!’

– ‘Them Nigerian lads are cool dudes the way they dance when they score, aren’t they? But how do they all have English first names and African second names?’

– ‘Greece are pure dung! They’ll hardly win a match, let alone a tournament, in the next ten years!’ 

– ‘Oleg Salenko scored five goals in one game. He’ll be a quality signing for whoever gets him!’

– ‘Fair play to him but what age d’ya think yer man, Roger Milla, really is? They say 42, but he looks at least sixty!’

With the greatest of respect to Italia 90 four years earlier, it wasn’t really a tournament for the purists.

Half-empty stadiums, a lot of matches in damp conditions and something of a goal drought meant much of the games that summer became largely forgettable. USA 94 was different. 

Every match seemed to reach close to full attendance and the warm and sunny conditions made you want to run outside and kick a ball about yourself between almost every game. Goals came in a flurry and in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

There were diving headers, solo-runs and neat finishes, volleys, daisy-cutters, direct free kicks all busting the nets from all angles.

Granted, the dropping standard of goalkeeping did become a major talking point amongst Matthew Lorenzo and the ITV pundits one night. 

Back in the days when the late night ad breaks either read ‘Back Soon’ with some elevator music or sometimes they were for 0891-Chat Lines which, I’m guessing, cost a fortune.

They had good cause to discuss this poor goalkeeping to be fair but, as an almost 10 year old boy, goals and more goals were what you wanted to see.

Gheorgi Hagi’s rasper in the group stage for Romania against Colombia was another I regularly tried to replicate out in the back garden after. Rather unfortunately, the off-target shots meant the garage door got its fair share of muddied splotches.

The tournament produced its fairytale stories too of course. 

Nigeria caused a stir with progression to the knockout stage as group winners and could’ve gone further had the Italians not snatched an 89th-minute leveler – who went on to win in extra time –  in the second round. 

Both Bulgaria and Sweden upset the odds to reach the semifinals. 

The former pulled off a shock victory against holders Germany, when Jordan Letchkov’s flying header sailed into the German net. 

Hristo Stoichkov became a household name after the tournament. A feeling not lost on most people who later renamed his hometown after him, in his honour. Not a bad wee tribute to have bestowed.

Whereas the Swedes had a wonderful array of attacking talent with the likes of Martin Dahlin, Kenned Anderson and the youthful talents of young dreadlocked lad by the name of Henrik Larsson.

The legacy of the Dutch team’s travel arrangements would leave a permanent mark on the mind of Denis Bergkamp. After an unusually rough landing, the then Ajax forward swore he’d never fly again. A promise he stuck to. 

It might be insensitive to man’s phobia, but it was used to raise the question of whether or not Arsene Wenger should employ the tactic the A-Team used to similarly deploy with BA Barachas.

Bang his head off the door and throw him on the plane once he’s passed out. Just a thought.

At that time, I’d never heard of Saudi Arabia before, but there’s one name I’ll always remember and that is Saaed Al-Owiran. And yes, I’m pretty sure I can pronounce it right too.

A minute skinny lad who ran the full length of the field to rattle one in past Belgium. 

And no World Cup would be complete without its soap-opera like moments and by God, they came by the bucket load. 

The Republic of Ireland’s own John Aldridge losing the rag on the sideline with a FIFA official caused a very boisterous Scouse-twanged “Ya f*****g d******d!” to be heard over the airwaves. 

Not forgetting how the heat of Florida affected the Irish team so much that the team management, and Jack Charlton in particular, was cautioned for throwing on too many water bags. Then poor Steve Staunton looked as though he was going to melt faster than the witch from the Wizard of Oz.

Germany – who incidentally arrived at the tournament on the back of an official song they recorded with none other The Village People – cut their ties with midfielder Stefan Effenberg. 

After he was substituted in a group match, he gave ‘sign language’ to the crowd. His appalled manager, Berti Vogts, declared he’d “not play again until the year 2006!” Now how’s that for efficient German organization and planning? 

And to top it all off, the irrepressible Diego Armando Maradonna. Argentina’s finest. 

Celebrates a goal by running at the camera looking like he was at a rave and, maybe unsurprisingly, gets ushered off the pitch in the next game to undergo a (failed) drug test.

I mean ya just couldn’t write it, could ya?

Sadly, it wasn’t all fun. 

The Irish team’s exit came on probably the day of the one cloudy and grey-skied afternoon in the whole tournament. While the Netherlands were much the better side and well worthy of their 2-0 win. It was heartbreaking to see my fellow Donegal man in the Ireland goal, Packie Bonner, make such a costly and avoidable error from Wim Jonk’s strike.

Then, of course, there was a moment that made the trials and tribulations of football seem somewhat irrelevant. 

When the news broke that Andrés Escobar was tragically gunned down on the command of Colombian drug lords for his own goal against the USA, it was shocking news for everyone. Revelations have since unearthed about how much threat and pressure that Colombia team lived under, during the reign of Pablo Escobar; it was another lesson in the harsh reality of life.

On a lighter note, the best thing about the 1994 World Cup was the Brazil team. 

Romario, Bebeto, Dunga, Taffarel, Branco et all. Names that just rolled off the tongue and they played football like guys who were having fun to the beat of Samba music. 

The partnership of Romario and Bebeto was a dream to watch. And they too had fun in the team camp when the latter scored against the Netherlands during the quarterfinal meeting in Dallas.

Bebeto ran off pretending to cradle a baby. He even had some unknowing teammates join in.

It was only after the game that he informed his teammates that his wife had given birth to their baby boy just a few days earlier. They’d later progress to the Final after beating Sweden.

One team who had a much rockier path through the competition were Italy.

There could be a movie with an unhappy ending written about their conquests that year. There had been a media backlash after their opening game defeat to Ireland and when goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was sent off against Norway, their manager, Arirgo Saachi, took a monumental gamble when he withdrew their starman, Roberto Baggio. 

That gamble just about paid off as Italy still managed to progress. They needed and they got all the luck going when they scraped past Nigeria – with Gianfranco Zola also being sent off in that one – and just about got past Spain in the quarters. A bad-tempered and tempestuous affair where Luis Enrique sported a bloodied nose for his troubles.

That incident came about when the officials failed to spot Mauro Tassotti swinging an elbow into his opponent’s face. As the blood ran down the face and into the now heavily-stained white Spanish jersey, the millions watching knew the Azzurri were riding their luck.

Nevertheless though, thanks to a dramatic 2-1 win where Roberto Baggio again provided a last-gasp goal, they were through.

The ‘Ponytailed Assassin’ was digging his side out of holes when it mattered most and as they made their way to the Final, it seemed as if they were doing so in a kicking-and-screaming fashion. Two goals again for Baggio in the semifinal ended Bulgaria’s noble crusade but it came at a cost, as the talismanic striker’s injury and fatigue were starting to show more and more.   

The Final itself in Pasadena was a bit of an anti-climatic way to conclude what had been a tournament full of fast-paced and high-octane matches. A 0-0 stalemate where the game resembled more of a chess game than a football match and, thus, a penalty shootout ensued with Roberto Baggio skying the decisive spot-kick miles over the bar for Brazil to win. 

Like a figure who was utterly lost to the world in disbelief at that moment, the man who had done so much to get his team to the Final was unable to save them in the end. Brazil were rightful winners in the end, but seeing Baggio standing alone on the penalty-spot while the green and gold celebrations erupted around him; it was a life-lesson for us all, in itself.

Brazil manager, Carlos Alberto Panieri, had ended Brazil’s drought of 24 years without a World Cup success. While his side would never really get the acclaim that their predecessors from 1970 had with Pelé and the likes, this Brazil side would set a new trend in motion and would go on to reach the next two World Cup Finals; winning the competition again in 2002.

All in all, while so many of the matches that summer started (because of the time-difference) after my bedtime, there’s still something so very special and memorable about what was the fifteenth installment of the World Cup finals tournament.

Using football to inadvertently study up on so many different countries and cultures from across the world was an early factor in what I feel inspired my enjoyment of travel ever since. American TV shows and movies of the mid-1990s had always captivated my imagination and now I had football to throw into that mix. 

And sure who doesn’t love a good montage, eh?

See: https://youtu.be/6s5zI2onIgU

EVEN HOW WE WATCH MOVIES IS CHANGING.

Originally published in January 2021

It’s probably fair enough to suggest that over the last five years or so – and particularly during these prolonged periods of ongoing lockdown – our reliance on visual entertainment has sky-rocketed; on par with that of the 1980s and 1990s.

Mind you, back in those days, we still had other things to keep us entertained. Going outside being one.

Amid all the binge-culture we’ve fallen into though, it’s easy to see that not only movies and television shows are changing, but also how we, as an audience, watch them.

In 2017, Anthony Mackie spoke very openly (and often comically) about how the movie experience has changed so dramatically since the eighties. I’ve no plans to simply regurgitate everything the man said that day but the crux of it was “back in those days, going to the movies was an experience … a family thing … but not anymore.”

He alluded to how a summer blockbuster would come out and “everyone wanted to see the new Stallone movie or the new Schwarzenegger movie.” The shiny silver screen provided a wonderful source of escapism for those few hours and memories of the pre-screening trailers or perhaps the aroma of popcorn came flooding back to so many.

I tend to imagine that when movies were in production back in those days, the only public backlash they feared was either a bad review in Variety magazine or a grilling from tv critics like Siskel and Ebert or Barry Norman. The very notion of keyboard warriors tearing a film to pieces for its use of cultural appropriation and political correctness was still a long way off yet.

The era that brought us so many longlasting spectacles such as Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, Ghostbusters – the one true version – and Dirty Dancing (more so for the ladies) were an absolute trip to watch.

It was also the beginning of a time when Hollywood cast much younger actors in lead roles and the use of soundtrack grew in equal importance to the narrative itself.

Now I don’t profess to be any sort of a science-fiction geek. I can take or leave Star Wars and had it not been for the sheer hotness of Vanessa Angel in the tv adaptation of Weird Science, I doubt I’d have ever snuck a sneak-peek when nobody else was around.

Having said that, even I can appreciate just how truly magnificent some of these movies must’ve first looked to an awe-struck audience in cinemas all across the world. And to their immense credit, I believe the CGI-images of Jurassic Park, Toy Story and others like the ones mentioned earlier, still hold up handsomely on screen all these years later. 

Popping back to Mackie for a moment, he also told in that particular press conference that so many movies from back then just wouldn’t get the green light from studios to go ahead today. I know what you’re thinking. ‘It’s all because of that bloody PC-Brigade!’ Truth is, that’s part of it, but not the main reason.

It boils down to the fact that movies are now tailored to the tastes of cinema-goers in Asia more so than they are for Western audiences. The dominant genre in box office sales over the last decade or so has been that of the superhero and this is evidenced by the coinage of terms such as the ‘Marvel Universe’ and ‘DCEU’ amongst their fans online.

Heroes assembling to fight off the giant foe while city landscapes get crumbled to pieces has always been a fan-favourite in the likes of China and Japan. It’s no secret either that Hollywood movies are carefully re-edited before being sent to the far east and that’s nothing new either.

If anything, this all echoes back to the days when 1962’s King Kong vs Godzilla (which doesn’t hold up well with regard to advanced filming technologies) had entirely different endings over who won the final battle. It just depended on whether you watched the movie at a screening in the likes New York or Tokyo.

Long before Covid though, the days of family movie trips for a Saturday matinee or a midnight viewing already seemed to be dwindling and rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

Ticket prices and combis have risen considerably in price and because we now live in a time where we have our own big screens and sound systems at home, why bother paying out anymore than you need to?

We also live in a consumer culture of series watching. Even Channel 4’s streaming service often promotes their own content as ‘binge-worthy.’

Water cooler and staff room talk will often veer to the question about a given Netflix or Amazon Prime series; where one has to be careful not to let too many spoilers out because others may not have had a chance to binge as much just yet. And when a movie leaves the cinema, chances are it’ll appear on your IPTV Firestick before too long.

Be that as it may, I’m certainly not opposed to an aul series fest myself – Cobra Kai being the latest – but from past experience, I always feel that, even a great series, will nearly always let you down in the end. It was said of Game of Thrones, Lost and The Sopranos in the last fifteen years alone. 

I mean seriously, Tony Soprano, a hardline kick-ass mob boss running the show in New Jersey becoming a buffoon of a man who has dream sequences about talking cartoon-like fish heads? And then him riding horseback through houses? Good God! Do me a favour!

Nonetheless, it’s all somewhat sad to know that the cinema experience is not what it used to be and that it’s unlikely that it ever will be again. In my own hometown of Letterkenny, I admit that Joker (2019) was the last film I saw in there but yet I’m totally oblivious as to which film – or even which year – was my visit before that.

And the cinema where I used to frequent more regularly on Saturday afternoons throughout the nineties on the Port Road is now an used building where the renovations would have you believe there was never even a theatre there at all.

The days of gaping out the school bus window when we drove past it on a Friday morning just to see the staff put up the new billboards and screening times is a memory that lives with me.

Even though it did take me three desperate attempts to blag my way in to see Dumb and Dumber back in 1995. I was 10 and a half in the real world, but while I was in those queues, I’d somehow jumped to 12!

Movies are still great entertainment (well, some of them) but in these heady days, don’t be surprised to see their quality decline and a preference for nostalgia-based viewing to go up.

“And They Get the Equalizer…”

DID JUST ONE HEADED GOAL CHANGE CELTIC FC FOREVER?

By Jonathan Foley

Celtic Football Club enjoy a wealth of support from across Scotland, the world and even our own wee Donegal and they are widely known for the passionate following of this great club.

Just to cater to our younger fans for a second however, many of them who I know and come across in schools or in local sports clubs, have lived the vast majority of their lives so-far with only seeing Celtic success. 

They’re the blessed ones because as the elders will remind them, in the not too distant past, seeing the Hoops lift silverware was often a rare privilege and not a formality.

Being something of an amateur historian of football, particularly with the history of Celtic, I decided to pry into the single moment that maybe – just maybe – was the defining moment that changed the course of the club’s history during my lifespan.

And for me, that was a 91st minute header by Alan Stubbs against Rangers (who else?) on the rainy night of Wednesday 19th November, 1997.

With Rangers leading the game through a Marco Negri goal that he’d rammed home twenty minutes earlier, Celtic were in crisis but thankfully, a late penalty box scramble saw the ball come into the path of Celtic winger, Jackie McNamara.

A deft cross with his right peg hung in the air on a damp and drizzly night just as Alan Stubbs rose high above three Rangers defenders to score a, not so much a bullet of a heade, but more of an aptly placed one.

Then with a capacity of 50,000, Celtic Park erupted!

You may ask though, if this was only to achieve a 1-1 draw against Rangers twenty years ago, how can it be so relevant to the great gulf of success that Celtic have in their wonderful 133-year  old history? 

To understand why this goal was so important, let’s turn the clocks back a decade before this night.

The club’s fairytale end to the 1988 season couldn’t have gone much better as that team lifted the Premier Division and Scottish Cup double in what was their centenary season. It seemed that this team had the capabilities to go on and achieve more but it was not to be. In the years that followed, Celtic would fall away both on the field of play and off it.

Rangers became utterly dominant; the golden representatives of Scottish football. They had big nights in the newly formed Champions League, they were attracting major players from both England and abroad as well gathering millions upon millions of pounds in revenue. 

So what of Celtic?

Across the city during the 1990s, Celtic plummeted to an all-time low. 

Fans were aiming their frustrations at the board and boycotts became common as the club sank into financial turmoil. The club went through a series of panic-signed managers and by the end of the 1994-95 campaign, they’d become regular finishers in the third-to-fifth positions. Unheard of today.

Despite an important cup success in 1995 under the late Tommy Burns, Celtic could still not get close to catching Rangers in the all-important league title chases.

Behind the scenes though, things were starting to look a little better. Fergus McCann invested heavily into converting Celtic to a PLC and plans were made to reconstruct the stadium into what it is now.

On the field, even with gradually improved performances, wonderful attacking game-plans and exciting foreign players coming in, success was still illusive as Rangers homed in Celtic’s previous 9-in-a-row record from the 1966-74 seasons.

Even with the mercurial talents of Paolo DiCanio, Jorge Cadete and Pierre van Hooijdunk now leading the Celtic frontline, they would still fall short in the head-to-head and often heated clashes with their rivals.

Sure enough, in May of 1997, Rangers went on to clinch that ninth title and as their fans danced in the streets, ours mourned the loss of a cherished record.

The summer of 1997 also offered Celtic fans little to look forward to.

All three of those high-profile players mentioned walked out of the club and with loyal captain, Paul McStay, opting to retire, things seemed like worse to come. Rangers were roaring favourites to now go on and overtake Celtic as they sought to reach the unprecedented ten-in-a-row.

Changes were afoot however. An unknown Dutch coach named Wim Jansen was drafted in as well as nine new players throughout the season; two of which included a dreadlocked Swede called Henrik Larsson and a European Cup winner in Paul Lambert. On the field again though, it looked as though nothing had changed – at least at first anyway.

By the time Celtic lined out to lock horns with Rangers in mid-to-late November, they’d already lost four league games that season.

Two of which had come in a period of twelve days building up to the game. So with Rangers leading with just seconds remaining at Parkhead, Stubbs’s late leveller looked only to be a blush-sparing equaliser at the time.  We know now that it was so much more.

Celtic gained immense confidence from this draw and six months later would win the league to stop the ten-in-a-row. Not without its nail-biting moments and frustrations of course, but it was done. One can’t help but ponder the hypotheticals if Rangers had won that night and gone on to win ‘the ten’ (or more!) after that.

In the two decades since then, Celtic have undoubtedly had their disappointments in Scotland and in Europe, but in overall sense, they’ve recorded a copious amounts of cherished memories and success; of which our local support here in the town has witnessed through the generations since. The true dominant force.

Martin O’Neill’s treble season, the epic voyage to the UEFA Cup Final in Seville, winning the ‘Title for Tommy’ against all odds and beating illustrious European opposition like Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester United, AC Milan and Barcelona in recent times are only the tip of the iceberg.

Not to mention the famous the latest treble winning seasons; of which we saw an undefeated domestic run (2026-17), in what was the 50th anniversary of the Lisbon Lions’ most glorious campaign.

Yes, Rangers / Sevco / Newco / The Rangers (whatever!) have had their fiscal worries … but that’s none of my business.

So just to raise the question again: “did just one headed goal change Celtic FC forever?”

Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. Perhaps it was other factors, but it did certainly help the famous Grand Old Team immensely in shaping their future. Paradise Lost? Paradise Found!