1000 miles in 1000 hours: the athletic feat of 1809

Walking a mile in a hour sounds straightforward. Walking ten miles in ten hours sounds reasonably doable, even leisurely. How about walking a mile in each of one thousand successive hours – ie walking a thousand miles at the stately pace of 1 mph, for hour after hour after hour after hour (continue up to 1000)?

Robert Barclary Allardice is aptly described in the opening line of his Dictionary of National Biography entry as:

Allardice,  Robert Barclay  [known as Captain Barclay]  (1779-1854), pedestrian
The DNB recounts his most famous achievement as follows:
Captain Barclay’s most noted feat was walking 1 mile in each of 1000 successive hours. This feat was performed at Newmarket from 1 June to 12 July 1809. His average time of walking the mile varied from 14 min. 54 sec. in the first week to 21 min. 4 sec. in the last, and his weight was reduced from 13 stone 4 lb to 11 stone. He was so little exhausted that he started for the Walcheren expedition on 17 July in perfect health
Wikipedia’s entry on the walk includes a contemporary report from The Times:
The gentleman on Wednesday completed his arduous pedestrian undertaking, to walk a thousand miles in a thousand successive hours, at the rate of a mile in each and every hour. He had until four o’clock P.M. to finish his task; but he performed his last mile in the quarter of an hour after three, with perfect ease and great spirit, amidst an immense concourse of spectators. The influx of company had so much increased on Sunday, that it was recommended that the ground should be roped in. To this, Captain Barclay at first objected; but the crowd became so great on Monday, and he had experienced so much interruption, that he was at last prevailed upon to allow this precaution to be taken. For the last two days he appeared in higher spirits, and performed his walk with apparently more ease, and in shorter time than he had done for some days before. With the change of the weather, he had thrown off his loose great coat, which he wore during the rainy period, and on Wednesday performed in a flannel jacket. He also put on shoes thicker than any which he had used in the earlier part of his performance. He said that during the first night after his walk he would have himself awoke twice or thrice, to avoid the danger of a too sudden transition from almost constant exertion to a state of long repose.
One hundred to one, and indeed any odds whatever, were offered on Wednesday; but so strong was the confidence in his success, that no bets could be obtained. The multitude of people who resorted to the scene of action, in the course of the concluding days, was unprecedented. Not a bed could be procured on Tuesday night at Newmarket, Cambridge, or any of the towns and villages in the vicinity, and every horse and every species of vehicle was engaged. Among the Nobility and Gentry who witnessed the conclusion of this extraordinary feat, were:—
The Dukes of Argyle and St. Alban’s; Earls GrosvenorBessborough and Jersey; Lords Foley and Somerville; Sir John Lode, Sir F. Standish, &c. &c.
Capt Barclay had a large sum depending upon his undertaking. The aggregate of the bets is supposed to amount to £100,000.—He commenced his feat on the first of June.

55 years later, Emma Sharp overcame various acts of skullduggery to become the first woman to achieve the same feat and thereby raise monies to buy a rug making enterprise:

Emma Sharp (1832–1920) was an athlete famous for her feat of pedestrianism completing a 1000-mile walk in 1000 hours, the event first completed by Robert Barclay Allardice in 1809.[1][2] She is thought to be the first woman to complete the challenge, finishing on 29 October 1864, having started on 17 September that same year.[3][4] This ‘arduous task’ was reported in the newspapers of the day,[5][6] in which she was described as having a medium build but an active frame, dressed in male clothing with the exception of her straw hat which was adorned with ‘feminine ornaments’.[7]

She rested in the Quarry Gap pub in between walking approximately two mile stints every 90 minutes and completing 14,600 laps of 120 yards over the course of 1000 hours.[8] It is reported that her food was drugged and people attempted to trip her to prevent her from finishing, for the last two days she carried a pistol to protect herself. At the end of the walk the weather was extremely wet. The event was heavily wagered upon both in Leeds and provincial towns.

One wonders when the last 1000 miles in 1000 hours walk took place? It strikes me as an event ripe for reviving….


Textspeak in the 18th Century – the case of Pot-8-Os

Once, Prince’s use of “U” for “you” and “2” for “to” (or “too” or “two”) was seen as an example of his supposed eccentricity. Now, of course, it is all too commonplace.

What Prince was up to could be called “sensational spelling” though now it is not so sensational (and that sounds a little naff) with the rise of text speak. Naturally, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9481.00127/abstract.

One amusing 18th century example of this is Pot-8-Os. Here he is:


And here is his Wikipedia bio, which reveals him to have been an equine member of the 27 club. Here is one origin story for his name:

The origin of his name has several different versions. According to one, Abingdon intended to call the young colt “Potato” and instructed the stable boy to write the name on a feed bin. The stable boy facetiously spelled the name as “Potoooooooo” (Pot followed by 8 “o”s), which so amused Abingdon that he adopted the spelling


From “The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter”, Colin Tudge

Perhaps this is why we feel so drawn to trees. Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or a mosque – a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy. Christians with their one omnipotent God may take exception to such pagan musings; but the totaras and the kauris were sacred to the Maoris, and the banyan and bodhi and the star-flowered temple trees (and many, many others) to Hindus and Buddhist, and the roots of this reverence, one feels, run back not simply to the enlightenment of Buddha as he sat beneath a bo tree (in 528 BC, tradition has it), but to the birth of humanity.

But Christianity did give rise to modern science. The roots of science run far back in time and from all directions – from the Babylonians, the Greeks, many great Arab scholars in what Europeans call the Middle Ages, the Indians, the Chinese, the Jews, and the much underappreciated natural history of all hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers everywhere. But it was the Christians  from the thirteenth century onwards, with an obvious climax in the seventeenth, who gave us science in a recognisably modern form. The birth of modern science is often portrayed by secular philosophers as the ‘triumph’ of ‘rationality’ over religious ‘superstition’. But it was much more subtle and interesting than that. The great founders of modern thinking – Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Robert Boyle, the naturalist John Ray – were all devout. For them (as Newton put the matter) science was the proper use of the God-given intellect, the better to appreciate the works of God. Pythagoras, five centuries before Christ, saw science (as he then construed it) as a divine pursuit. Galileo, Newton, Ray and the rest saw their researches as a form of reverence.

Review of “Japanese Rules: Why the Japanese needed football and how they got it” by Sebastian Moffett. UCD AFC programme 2003

Archived here (and now here). I have observed before that I formerly wrote much more on sport than I do now… or am interested in now. Looking at this piece now, it seems to me an interesting little case study of cultural differences.


During the Confederations Cup, myself and a friend were wandering the Champs Elysees. My friend was clad in a replica Japan top and we attracted the attention of a young Japanese man who turned out to be a football journalist. A brief discussion followed – he was delighted that we recognised Inamoto and Nakata from a team picture, and asked as what we thought of someone/something called “Jiko” It took us a while to realise he meant “Zico.” He was quite knowledgeable about Ireland’s fortunes and asked us to illustrate Brian Kerr’s tactics on a piece of paper as little circles and lines.

The books I’ve reviewed in the past few issues have dealt with football and football culture in traditional powers of the game; Spain, Germany, Brazil. Written before the 2002 World Cup, “Japanese Rules” main theme is the establishment of the J League and the gradual improvement of the national team over the years. As the title suggests, football was not an established element of Japanese culture until a perceived need for it arose.

In Japanese culture, at least in Moffett’s account, hardly any aspect of life isn’t seen as a metaphor for how the Japanese see themselves. Baseball was the established sport in Japan for most of this century, largely because the one-on-one aspect of pitcher vs. slugger reminded the Japanese of one-on-one sword combat, which dominated Japanese culture well into the Nineteenth Century. Japanese baseball culture revolved around the cult of the coach – television coverage would focus on the coach’s reactions and instructions to the players. This was in turn seen as analogous to the hierarchical management structure of traditional Japanese corporations.

Football had a low-level presence in Japan for years – they won Bronze at the 1968 Olympiad coached by German Dettmar Cramer, whose training routines according to Moffett largely consisted of jumping up and down. In the early 1990s Japan’s culture began to change. There was a mood of rebellion against the hierarchical, “baseball style” management, towards a more creative, less hidebound style – football was seen as exemplifying this trend.

Hidetoshi Nakata was seen as emblematic of the “new Japan” – in fact his signings for Perugia and Parma were partly in response to death threats from some of Japan’s tiny but virulent ultranationalist groups, after off-the-record comments made about the national anthem were publicised.

Some of the descriptions of Japanese coaches of the past are astonishingly brutal. Corporal punishment of the most severe kind was not only frequent but encouraged. This was a hangover from baseball training – which from Moffett’s account seems to consist in Japan at any rate largely of the players hurling heavy objects at each other and betraying no reaction when hit.
Zico would find his Japanese team-mates taking down his most incidental word and even referring back to them prior to games. Arsene Wenger was frustrated by the subservience of the Japanese players – players in training games would look to him for baseball-style micromanagement. As late as 2000, in a Second Division J League game, a coach instructed Omiya Ardija to slow the play initially to stop the opposition take an early lead – however once the early lead was conceded the goalkeeper continued to take an eternity to take a kick out, leading to the foreign pros on the team pleading with the ref to give their own goalkeeper a yellow card.

Wenger (recent events notwithstanding) is generally portrayed as an urbane sporting intellectual. Coming to Japan fresh from the Monaco job, Wenger spent most of his time shouting at his Grampus Eight charges – once, when a striker missed a sitter, Wenger yelled at him in English from the touchline “I’ll kill you!” No wonder Martin Keown was so wound up. At first the players naturally hated him, but over time and with the help of Drajan Stojkovic, Grampus Eight became a formidable force. Stojkovic found the Japanese players initially very passive, and worst of all they weren’t upset enough for his taste when they lost.

Dunga, former Brazilian World Cup winner, came to Japan and, like Stojkovic, spent most of his time shouting at his teammates. Dunga dubbed this his “football classroom full of love” and Japanese TV showed his greatest onfield rants to a backing track of slushy romantic music. Initially, Gary Lineker was the J-League’s greatest star. He was polite, affable, made an effort with the language and culture, and was widely expected to be a crucial factor in the conversion of Japan to soccer. Lineker had severe injury problems and his son had leukaemia around the time of his Japanese Odyssey, which was not a success. One paper calculated he made a cool million quid for every goal he scored. Linker’s case illustrated a less endearing Japanese trait also seen in baseball – gaijin (foreign) players brought over on huge contracts would be mocked behind their back if they failed to live up to expectations.

As Moffett writes, in Japan it is generally believed that there is a proper way of doing things. Thus fans were encouraged to study Brazilian, English and Italian fans. In the early days of the J-League the stadiums were full of families and teenage girls whose motivation was to see the hyped spectacle and ogle the new sex symbols. Some of the stories of early J-League fan culture are quite touching – teams were exquisitely polite to each other and to the crowd. As fans “studied” other nations, they decided that this was not the way to go, and began to adopt borderline hooligan behaviour. Reading the book, this doesn’t seem to have been particularly threatening – after all, it was a rather artificial phenomenon. Even now, at international games the Japanese supporters tend to be quiet, only making noise when it’s “proper” to do so, in the stadium

The ridiculous names of J-League Clubs owes much to this notion of a “proper” way of football. The clubs were given foreign names – such as Yokohama Flugels, Kashima Antlers, Grampus Eight – as they were proper “football names.” As the Japanese economy faltered in the later Nineties, and as the initial hype of the J-League moved on, teams began to struggle financially. A merger was mooted between the Flugels and the other Yokohama team. Spontaneously, a fan revolt took place – in fact the whole story is very reminiscent of the Wimbledon MK saga. Football had given communities which largely served as dormitories for work something to focus on. At last an authentic football culture established itself in Japan.



Football movies (review of Goal! in SAU blog, September 2005)

Continuing my ressurection of my sport-themed writing, here is another piece from the Social Affairs Unit Blog.  Ostensibly a review of Goal! this is really a mini-essay on football movies – I had written a similarly themed piece for the UCD FC matchday programme which I drew on rather heavily. I don’t think I ever really asked “will there e a decent British football film?” as per the subtitle. The Goal! series lumbered on in to the planned trilogy, and the football movie seems now to be mainly a a documentary based entity.


Directed by Danny Cannon
certificate 12A, 2005


The sports movie does not have a distinguished pedigree. And within the genre, the soccer movie has an even less distinguished one. Goal! is the latest in many attempts to reverse this situation – the first of a mooted trilogy which is supposed to show a gifted Mexican teenager’s progress from barrio to Newcastle to Real Madrid to World Cup.

Goal! has been touted as yet another step in that moral crusade, Converting America to Soccer. How odd it is that many who denounce globalisation in its other manifestations see America’s failure to take soccer to its bosom without reserve as yet more evidence of the country’s inferiority. Borges wrote once of how the street games and traditions of Buenos Aires were swept away by the march of soccer. I use “soccer” deliberately – again, the American use of “soccer” is often, ignorantly, held up as evidence of American insularity. Yet in the USA, in Australia, in Ireland indeed, “football” can and often does mean an entirely different sport. What exactly is wrong with this, and why should the Americans meekly subject to the march of soccer?

Soccer’s relative non-existence in the USA has much to do with its low cinematic profile. Britain has given us the distinctly mixed bag ofBend it Like Beckham, Mean Machine and Mike Basset England Manager. And of course the hardy Christmas favourite Escape to Victory, with Pele, Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles and a host of Ipswich players alongside Sly Stallone and Michael Caine – all eye-deep in corny lines and unlikely plot twists.

There have been some more interesting football (oh alright, I give in) related films. 1940’s The Arsenal Stadium Mystery featuresHighbury and footage of the Arsenal first team in its whodunit plot. It also features footage from an Arsenal-Brentford game which turned out to be Arsenal’s last home game before the outbreak of World War II. It sometimes turns up on daytime television. Aside from the archival interest of the footage, there is an interesting glimpse of pre-War morality – the caretaker of a building one of the footballers lives in is scandalised when it seems that a woman stayed there overnight.

Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick) is a Wim Wenders film whose plot, according to the Internet Movie Database, is as follows:

A goalkeeper, Josef Bloch, is ejected during a game for foul play. He leaves the field and goes to spend the night with a cinema cashier. He then proceeds to strangle her the morning after.

There is a scene in which Bloch and another character discuss penalties while watching TV, but overall the film is more about man’s alienation in the modern world etc. than a “football movie”.

There’s also the 1995 Italian flick L’Estate di Bobby Charlton which I have not seen, but the plot summary as follows:

After the marriage between a woman from Italy’s north and a schoolteacher from Italy’s south fails due to deep-seated differences in culture and tradition, the husband forcibly kidnaps his two young sons from the home of his estranged wife’s parents and sets out on the road with them in a VW Beetle.

What has any of that to do with Bobby Charlton? Who knows?

Perhaps the most interesting football movie of recent years – for reasons not really related to football – was Sonke Wortmann’s Das Wunder von Bern (The Miracle of Berne), about West Germany’s 1954 World Cup triumph. Parallel to the story of the actual victory, Wortmann focuses on a football-besotted Essen boy whose hero worship of footballers is strongly disapproved of by his father, who returns from a Soviet P.O.W. camp in the early stages of the film. Naturally the West German victory leads to a touching reconciliation between father and son. Gerhard Schroeder apparently wept when he watched the movie, which was widely described as marking another stage in Germany’s “coming to terms with its past” – that seemingly eternal process, which the film Untergang was also supposedly part of. Stripped of the freight of cultural commentary,Das Wunder von Bern was a rather sweet drama, distinguished by more convincing football action than is the norm. Wortmann – himself a former professional – used real footballers to enact the action, and it shows.

And which highlights one of the perennial problems of the sports movie. Given the sheer extent of television coverage, it is very hard to convincingly fake sports action. When you can see Michael Jordan or Roger Federer performing astonishing acts of skill and dexterity, without any jump cuts or freeze frames to heighten the effect, it comes across as hopelessly phoney when films feature such technical tricks.

Despite being made with the co-operation of Newcastle United Football Club, and featuring such players as Alan Shearer, Goal!never rises to such a level of verisimilitude. It is a worthy, earnest and really rather dull film. It is hard to dislike outright, although I imagine only the most football-besotted pre-adolescents will really take to it.

Goal! begins promisingly. We see a child suddenly ordered to leave his room by his father. A family is fleeing across the border to the United States. The early scenes, set ten years later, in Los Angeles, capture the aspirational spirit of Santiago Munez (Nuno Becker), who helps his father in his gardening business by day, busboys in a Chinese restaurant by night, and whenever he can plays football for a park league. One day a visiting former Newcastle player, turned failed scout turned garage owner, played by Stephen Dillane, happens to see Santiago indulging in his repertoire of tricks. Thus the wheels of the defiantly predictable plot are set in motion.

After the initial promise of the short, lively scenes that begin the film, cliché follows cliché. Santiago’s father disapproves of his dream to play for Newcastle United (given some of the stories which the club have featured in in recent years, one must have some sympathy). As night follows day, some form of reconciliation will follow. When we see Santiago surreptitiously use an inhaler before his first Newcastle trial, we know that the inhaler will feature in some suspicious plot development. When a pretty nurse administers Santiago’s initial physical, we know that romance will ensue.

Almost all the characters – from Anna Friel’s club nurse, to Santiago’s Catholic matriarch of a grandmother, to Dillane’s scout – are ciphers. Only two are of any interest. Allessandro Nivola’s Gavin Byrne, every tabloid editor’s dream of a modern footballer – greedy, womanising, absurdly coiffeured – and yet capable of unexpected kindness, at least has the promise of a more fully realised portrait of a real, albeit flawed, human being. And Erik Dornhelm (the distinguished Romanian actor Marcel Iures), the German Newcastle manager reminiscent of Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, combines obvious steeliness with a not entirely unsympathetic approach to his young charges.

Goal! is a rather sweet, inoffensive drama about Following Your Dream and Being True To Yourself. Newcastle is made to look rather glamorous, and there are some pretty shots of Santiago running by the sea. Oasis churn along on the soundtrack – how stodgy and heavy their music seems now, and how absurd that ten years ago pundits were seriously comparing them to the Beatles.

Those who may not hate football, but do hate the arrogant homogenising impulse that drives the more evangelical devotees of the game, have nothing to fear from Goal! That this mediocre film – for which “sturdy” is the most generous adjective I can imagine – is the basis of a trilogy says much about the faith and gullibility of those supposedly hard-headed movie moguls. America can sleep easy in its love for its own “football”.

Football writing as travelogue: Jonathan Wilson’s Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Foorball

As I have previously observed , a lot of my writing was once about sport. Much of this was in the form of book reviews, and the odd film review. In 1998 I wrote a review of the All Ireland football and hurling championships for the UCD Observer, and I think I did write a match report of some kind while in UCD at some stage. But most of my sports writing is about other people’s sports writing. Which is appropriate since, even when I was more into it, I read about sport far more than I actually watched it (and I think on balance probably have directly participated a little bit more than I have watched it)

Anyhow, onto this piece from a decade ago. As far as I recall the last sports book I have read is Wilson’s biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You . As is clear from the above, even at the time I had reservations about the Simon Kuper school of pop sociology via sport; it is interesting that the man himself has moved on to statistics. In retrospect  I wonder am I too harsh on Wilson who is certainly a more impressive writer than Kuper (though possibly not as PR savvy) The inevitable Borges quote features,  and I certainly share Wilson’s romanticism about Eastern Europe.


Behind the Curtain – Travels in Eastern European Football
by Jonathan Wilson
Pp. 326. London: Orion, 2006
Hardback, £16.99

The publication of Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy in 1994 marked something of a turning point in football writing. If Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch created a whole series of far less ably executed personal memoirs with the game as an anchor, Kuper’s main innovation was to use football as a prism through which to view society and politics. Football Against The Enemy was often pedestrian, its conclusions obvious, its insights less than riveting, but when it came to writing about football that aspired to intelligence the wonder was not that it was done well but that it was done at all.

Kuper’s Ajax, the Dutch, the War, which used football to explore the less than heroic Dutch record in World War Two (as in many nations, the actions of a relatively small resistance were vastly overstated after the war to atone for collective indifference if not guilt, and as Holland was – Poland, aside – the occupied nation in which a Jew was least safe, there was a lot of collective indifference around at the very least) and was far more successful. Kuper, freed from pontificating on Celtic and Rangers and Dynamo Kiev, produced a social history of some merit about something he actually knew about.

Jonathan Wilson, formerly of the Financial Times and prior to that of onefootball.com, has written a book the cover of which comes blurbed by Simon Kuper himself. He covers football in Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism, although inevitably the past looms large.

Some English readers may still wince to read of the HungarianArantscapat, the “Golden Squad” which defeated England 6-3 in Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest a few months later. This shattered England’s myth of invincibility at home (or rather at Wembley, for I must point out that the Republic of Ireland beat them 2-0 in Goodison Park in 1949). Even more than the 1966 World Cup winning team in England, the Arantscapat and their defeat by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup overshadow much of not only football but national life in Hungary. Similarly, the Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski who kept England out of the 1974 World Cup and was dismissed as a clown by Brian Clough for his troubles, is still a public figure in Poland.

Eastern European teams were seen as having a distinctive style. Wilson himself confesses to having a weakness for the technically proficient and the cynical brand of football exemplified by the Red Star Belgrade that won the 1991 European Cup on a penalty shoot out. Indeed, he describes himself as:

Certainly the only person in my class who wanted Red Star to win the 1991 European Cup final against Marseilles.. there will never be a greater blend of cynicism and sublime skill than that Red Star side.

Wilson is fortunately not a nostalgist for communism, although there were possible warning signs in the Introduction, he is sensible enough to realise that the end of communism was a liberation, even if tarnished by subsequent events in some countries. He is refreshingly honest about his real reasons for an interest in Eastern Europe:

There is, to my mind at least, just something plain romantic about taking a rattling old night-train from Ljubljana through Zagreb to Belgrade, about sipping thick Russian coffee in a St Petersburg café watching ice floes drift down the Neva, about buying raspberries wrapped in newspaper from an Armenian peasant on a mountain pass in the Caucasus. There is a magic even in the names: Odessa, Tbilsi, Szombathely.

How many supposedly profound interests in the history and culture of particular places have roots in such adolescent enthusiasms? The book works best as a kind of politically informed, football based travelogue through the Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Armenia, Russia and the former Yugoslavia. If there is any overriding political philosophy, it comes in the final lines of the book:

Local football will never wholly die, for certain clubs have an emotional hold, and the market, anyway, requires a nursery for new talent, but this, I suspect, is the future, football globalised almost to homogeneity. This may, in time, lead to decline in corruption, but an indefinable something will have been lost.

The irony, of course, is that while Wilson decries the cultural homogenisation that is making Eastern European football indistinguishable from that in the West, he is forced to recognise the historical fact that the whole reason that football is spread around the world is due to the globalisation of an age past.

Borges wrote of his dim memories of the Buenos Aires street games of his childhood in the early 1900s, games destroyed by the all-conquering English game. For an English game – the claims of the Chinese notwithstanding – is what soccer is. Invariably, soccer conquered the world due to the efforts of British Engineers or Anglophile students. The Year Zero of soccer in Brazil, the five-time World Champions, was 1894, and the Prometheus who brought the game was a Scottish Engineer named Charlie Miller.

Wilson amusingly discovers that Anglophilia still rules the football world. FIFA make a great fuss about “Fair Play” – on his travels, Wilson finds that:

The English term [“fair play”] is used across Europe, and the English, curiously, are seen as its prime exponents.

The swelling of pride in English hearts may be somewhat restrained by the consideration that English is the international language of hooliganism. For instance the hooligans affiliated with Dynamo Zagreb called themselves the Bad Boys Blue – which on banners and the like, as Wilson tartly observes, was:

Always written in English, of course, for all the best hooligans are English.

Croatians now hate the Slovenes with (at least according to an opinion poll cited by Wilson) more passion than they hate Serbs. Within Slovenia, a bitter rivalry between the clubs from Ljubljana and Styria in the East has arisen. This did not exist until independence. The Slovenian footballer Brane Oblak observed:

You have to have rivalry. And if there isn’t any other way, you have to create it artificially.

Football’s role in the former Eastern Europe varies from country to country. In the former Yugoslavia, it is still a potent expression of nationalist identity and fervour. Slovenia’s qualification for the 2002 World Cup, for instance, was seen as a defining, Birth-Of-A-Nation moment. In Russia, meanwhile, the oligarch’s cash has meant that football is coming close to the big time of the West – with CSKA Moscow’s victory in the 2005 UEFA Cup proving the point. Poland and Hungary, meanwhile, are:

Nations no longer desperate enough to require validation through football, and not yet comfortable enough to invest it with the faintly ludicrous importance it has in England today.


Georgia and Armenia ponder the point of football when there are no Muscovites to upset.

It is often held that dictators try to use sport for propaganda purposes. This is undoubtedly true, but dictators have also found sport somewhat less malleable than expected. In his book on German football Tor! Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger writes how the Nazis found sport difficult to manage and – in the tradition of German nationalists – would have preferred if everyone had engaged in endless, non-competitive Turnen or gymnastic exercises. The Red Star Belgrade hooligan group, the delije, was the source for the bank robber, gangster and ethnic cleanser Arkan (Željko Ražnatović) to recruit the Tigers:

Weeks after the victory in Bari [in the European Cup final of 1991] – when there was “choreography Europe will never forget” as one fan told me – the Tigers, chanting the songs they had sung from the North Stand, marched to the front. They were there in Vukovar in 1991, when hundreds of Croat patients were herded from a hospital, packed into trucks, and shot in a field, and they were there too the following year in Bijeljina, killing Muslims or chasing them from their homes at the onset of the conflict in Bosnia.

On 26th July 2000, however, the delije turned on Slobodan Milosevic during a Champions League qualifying league match against Torpedo Kutaisi of Georgia, chanting “Do Serbia a favour, Slobodan, and kill yourself” (a particularly biting insult given both Milosevic’s parents committed suicide). In the unlovely and grandiloquent way of hooligan “firms” everywhere the delije mythologise their involvement in the fall of Milosevic, downplaying the work of Mayor Velja Iljic and the youth group Otpor. However the transformation of football matches in Serbia into anti-Milosevic rallies helped create the atmosphere that made his fall inevitable. At the very least, they provided a certain muscle.

There is a sameness to some of the accounts of this or that match fixing scandal in a former Communist country suddenly catapulted into market capitalism, and the complaints of various football figures about the no doubt real problems of corruption and nepotism – reflecting the problems of wider society – begin to merge into each other. However, Wilson is an entertaining, open-minded writer, and while one suspects he kicks to the left it is lightly worn. The book works best as a kind of compendium of amusing, and at times revealing anecdotes. In Bulgaria, we read:

As the Ottomans carried out reprisals following a failed revolt in 1876, a clerk saved Pazardzhik with a sleight of punctuation, altering orders to “burn the town, not spare it” to read “burn the town not, spare it”.

We also have the rich farce of the marriage of Arkan:

Their wedding [that of Arkan and the Serb “turbo-folk” singer Ceca] was an orgy of kitsch on the theme of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, Arkan dressing as a warrior and Ceca as one of the women who had tended the injured. He rode up to her parent’s house on a white charger and, as was customary in the fourteenth century, was asked by her father to prove his worthiness by shooting an apple off the top of the door with a crossbow. His first effort missed, as did his second, and his third, so, before it got too embarrassing, he nodded to his henchmen, who blew it to pulp with Kalashnikovs.

English readers may find it most poignant of all to read that the “Russian linesman” who gave Geoff Hurst’s second goal against West Germany in 1966 (the Germans still call a goal awarded that did not cross the line a “Wembley goal”) was in fact Azeri. Tofik Bakhramovnow has the national stadium in Baku named after him. There is something somewhat touching about naming a stadium after a match official (although, as Wilson points out, it also bespeaks a dearth of great players.) Bakhramov allegedly gave the game away on his deathbed:

Asked by a reporter, desperate to have his final thoughts on the controversy, how could he be so sure the ball had crossed the line, Bakhramov apparently answered with a single word:”Stalingrad”.

Glasgow Celtic Coma Scale. The Magazine 2000, Setanta.com around the same time…


This originally appeared in a zine I briefly produced called The Magazine. It then appeared on the Setanta website when it mainly a text based thing. It has got preserved here  for posterity. As I have observed before, up until about ten years ago I wrote a lot about sport, a lot more than  I actually care about sport relative to, say, nature. But evidently sport appealed to something in my young manhood.

I had mixed feelings about reposting it. I had remembered this article as being a kind of anti-Celtic screed, which I thought would read now as needlessly provocative and adolescent – whereas on reviewing it is not quite that – I am not sure there is much that a thoughtful Celtic fan would disagree with. I tend to agree now with the onetouchfootball commenter who observed that this contained nothing new and was mainly composed of assertions, and a certain prim self-righteousness pervades it which I think is actually atypical of me.


Onetouchfootball was the main messageboard I ever posted on – though even at the height of my posting life, I did feel it was a bit of a waste of time and prone to flame wars (are they still so called?) – and is full of interesting people. My posts tended to bring an end to whatever conversation was going on, or garner exactly zero replies.



‘For it’s a grand old team to play for
‘And it’s a grand old team to see
‘And if you know your history
‘It’s enough to make your heart go OOOOOOOHHHHHHH’ -Celtic Supporters Song

IN 1967, Glasgow Celtic won the European Cup in Lisbon, with a team entirely comprised of men from within miles of the stadium. The Lisbon Lions have become a central part of Celtic’s mythology as they struggle to win anything much with their expensively assembled multinational crew.

In the culture of football club as PLC, the likes of Man Utd and Juventus aren’t particularly worried about the paying punters from the local community who might want to see their alleged representatives play a game. They are interested in the football club as Brand; they want to sell replica jerseys and mugs and pictures of Beckham/Davids/whoever to the punters in Middle England, Malaysia and Munich alike. They try to encrust themselves in tradition and myth (like Barcelona, Liverpool and Juventus) or the glamorous aura of loadsamoney (Marseilles, Blackburn).

Generally, the mystique of the really big clubs for whom allegiance crosses national boundaries has various components. A distant foundation with plenty of sepia-tinted photos of stoical-looking men in baggy shorts with arms folded does wonders to establish a club as rooted in a definite past. Most clubs have legendary father figures of the distant past; Busby, Shankly, Paisley, Jock Stein, etc. Many clubs also have the aura of tragedy in the background; the Munich Air Disaster, or the death of Celtic’s goalkeeper John Thomson during a Old Firm game in September 1931. Finally, being associated with a particular region or ethnic group, particularly one which has been persecuted or oppressed, is also handy. Step forward, Barcelona and Glasgow Celtic.

What is there in all this that attracts a Kuala Lumpur taxi driver or a Garryowen teenager to support a team many miles and possible
continents away? Why are Barcelona team shirts sold in Lifestyle Sports in Galway and on the Oslo High Street?

Something linking the characteristics of superclubs listed above is that all revolve around a sense of belonging, a sense of tradition and even of family. It is unfortunately a cliche, but modern postindustrial society is increasing a place where people have lost a sense of belonging. Tradition and even the sense of a local community have all but disappeared among the suburban middle classes. I know more about Puff Daddy than the people who live two doors up.

Celtic are the fortunate position of having a ready-made brand identity, and a ready made demographic; the millions of Irish both in Ireland and in the Diaspora. Millions of Irish who sing The Fields of Athenry when they get drunk, closing-time Provos the world over.

Celtic supporters enjoy wrapping the green flag round; supporting Celtic is a refuge for armchair Republicans who doubtless regard singing rebel songs as a revolutionary gesture. The same middle class lost souls who would never dare openly support the IRA happily chant ‘Up the Ra’ within the safety net of football.

From our distant perspective, Celtic may seem to posses the charm of the underdog when pitted against the monotonously successful Rangers. However in Scottish football the Old Firm are twin behemoths, bloated giants whose perpetual stumbling in European competition is always good for a laugh. To call Celtic underdogs is like calling Pepsi or Burger King underdogs.

As the Lisbon Lions illustrate, like most football clubs Celtic were once genuinely part of a community. Founded in 1888 by a Marist Brother to give the Irish population of Glasgow a focus of pride, Celtic in the pre-Murdoch era genuinely did represent a community focus for the Irish community of Glasgow, and beyond to Donegal and the North of Ireland generally.

But now supporting Glasgow Celtic in Ireland has become a facile badge of Irishness. More to the point, it is Irishness as Brand Name, as Lifestyle Accessory. Those Celtic supporters who claim that they are engaged in a profound expression of culture as they watch various Scandinavians struggle to match Aberdeen are sadly deluded. They are simply credulous consumers of a carefully-designed corporate package. And that isn’t what football is about. Football is about teams that are genuinely part of a community, it’s about windswept days in midwinter, it’s about heart and soul and guts and blood and thunder and mud and diesel and dust and misery and joy and love and hate and futility and redemption.