Almost 20 years ago, I was enthralled by the Lance Armstrong story. His best selling book, It’s Not About the Bike, told the extraordinary tale of the cancer survivor who returned to win the world’s toughest cycle race, the Tour de France.
Back then, I was a modest cyclist (I still am) with dreams of cycling the length of Great Britain, Land’s End to John O’Groats. I was inspired by Armstrong’s story, especially his dedication to training. Yes, I knew all about cycling’s sordid relationship with drugs, notably the 1998 Tour de France’s Festina affair. (Paul Kimmage lifted the lid on this culture in Rough Ride.) But I believed the Armstrong line: he was the most tested cyclist in history. And every one had shown him to be clean. Karen and I followed Armstrong’s annual progress in Le Tour. I wore the US Postal team kit on several cycling holidays.
Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, the BBC’s Test Match Special was my summer soundtrack. I loved the ritual of turning on the radio just before 11am in time for the start of play in a test match. It was a treat to hear the rich Hampshire accent of commentator John Arlott, the voice of cricket. Arlott also wrote for The Guardian, taking on the mantle of the legendary Neville Cardus.
The other great name in cricket journalism during the mid 20th century was EW (Jim) Swanton. The two men were chalk and cheese yet Stephen Fay and David Kynaston’s wonderful book Arlott and Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket shows unexpected similarities. Most notably, both men hated racism and were appalled by South Africa’s racist apartheid laws, which segregated races and treated non-whites as second or third class citizens. As pressure grew to cancel South Africa’s 1970 tour of England, Arlott said he would not broadcast tests if the tour went ahead. And Swanton argued strongly that South Africa should field multi-racial teams. That didn’t happen until the 1990s, after the end of apartheid. More on that later.
Wales beat Fiji to reach Rugby World Cup 2015 knock out stage
In the end, the Group of Death proved nothing of the sort for Wales’s Rugby World Cup dreams. I was privileged to watch the victories over Uruguay and Fiji at the Millennium Stadium – but the real glory was our magnificent victory over England at Twickenham last weekend.
I still expected England to beat Australia – they have a good record against the Wallabies – but the hosts were woeful, going down to their worst ever defeat at HQ to Australia. Stuart Lancaster’s obsessive tinkering crashed England’s world cup chariot after just 16 days.
I’m thrilled that Wales are through. It’s extraordinary that a team so decimated with injuries should have the power to overcome tough opponents in England and Fiji. It speaks volumes for team spirit and their extraordinary coach, Warren Gatland, who has now plotted three wins at Twickenham in eight seasons. Australia will be tougher opponents, but that’s no longer a must-win match.
I’m also sorry that England are out. They didn’t deserve to progress, but the tournament is diminished by the host’s departure from their own party. And millions of England fans including many friends are feeling the intense pain of a premature exit. Blame the crazy decision to make the draw almost three years before the opening ceremony. Back in 2012, Wales slipped down the world rankings because we lost an extra autumn international to the Wallabies. As a result, the authorities placed four of the nations ranked in the top 10 on the eve of the tournament – Wales, Australia, England and Fiji – in the same group. Let’s hope they learn the lesson.
Today’s sad news that Hereford United FC has been wound up in the High Court brought back childhood memories. In April 1976, I was one of 35,000 people who watched the team play Cardiff City at Ninian Park in Cardiff. Hereford were leading the old third division and City were placed second. Cardiff won 2-0 that unforgettable evening.
I remember the shock of Bill Shankly’s resignation. I was 10 years old. I’d been to just one league football game. (Cardiff City 0-1 West Brom.) Yet even I realised this was an important moment.
My mind went back to that summer 1974 bombshell this week as I read David Peace’s book about Shankly, Red or Dead. Forty years ago. It was the summer I became truly interested in the game. Travelling back from a family holiday in Dunoon, Scotland, I was intrigued by Shoot magazine’s league ladder. I used it to track Carlisle United’s brief spell at the top of the first division. (I recounted this in my blogpost about the closure of Shoot magazine in 2007.)
Tan thought that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United pedigree would save the day. The opposite has been true: Solskjaer’s team has conceded an alarming number of goals without unduly threatening the opposition. By contrast, Mackay achieved some famous results, including defeating title contenders Manchester City, drawing with Manchester United and beating arch rivals Swansea.
At least we don’t have to worry about second season syndrome…
Frank O’Farrell, like Moyes, took on mission impossible by following a legend as Man United boss – Matt Busby. He lasted longer than Moyes at Old Trafford, but also inherited a team that was in rapid decline from days of glory. He has described how Busby’s presence at United utterly overshadowed his unhappy time as manager. Moyes found Sir Alex Ferguson far more supportive, but Fergie’s extraordinary legacy of success would have been a formidable burden for anyone who took his place.
O’Farrell went on to become Cardiff City manager the season after losing his job at United. It was a big step down, as the Bluebirds were struggling at the foot of the old second division. He got the job at City days after Jimmy Scoular was fired after Cardiff lost the very first game I ever went to see: at home to West Bromwich Albion on 3 November 1973. (That grim game was the perfect introduction to life as a Cardiff City fan in the 1970s and 80s. My Latin teacher said there was an easy way to remember what nihil meant: it was the number of goals City was likely to score.)
Man United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has seemed totally out of his depth as a premier league manager since succeeding the popular Malky Mackay last December. Cardiff could do worse than to offer Moyes the chance to rebuild his reputation in Wales. For all their troubles this season, City are in better health than in November 1973 when O’Farrell was appointed. And Moyes remains a decent manager, as he showed at Everton.
I’m delighted that Newport County are returning to the Football League after 25 years. It completes an unforgettable season for Welsh football, with Swansea winning the League Cup and Cardiff promoted to the Premier League. It’s just a shame that Newport pipped another Welsh club, Wrexham. (Wrexham have some consolation in winning the FA Trophy at Wembley.)
Growing up in South Wales, I was familiar with County’s precarious existence. In 1976, Manchester United played against a South Wales XI at Ninian Park to raise money to save the club from bankruptcy. BBC Wales Today filmed the then County chairman Cyril Rogers playing the piano to sooth the tension of fighting for the club’s existence. The campaign succeeded, and just five years later County narrowly lost a European Cup Winners Cup quarter final against Carl Zeiss Jena. But it was a mere stay of execution: Newport lost their league status in 1988 and went bust the following year. It’s little short of a miracle that the club has now regained league status.
The big question: has any other playoff to enter the Football League been contested by two former quarter finalists from a European competition? (Wrexham also narrowly lost a European Cup Winners Cup quarter final, to Anderlecht in 1975/76.)
Cardiff City are in the Premier League. Over 50 years since relegation from the old first division, we are once again in our neighbour’s football top flight. It’s also 86 years almost to the week since City became the only club from outside England to win the FA Cup.
Almost a year ago, I blogged my criticism for Cardiff City’s Malaysian owners’ decision to change the club red. That reaction now seems churlish. Red looks like City’s lucky colour. And we should thank the Bluebirds’ Malaysian owners for helping the team make history.
Dad, watching Cardiff City reach third FA Cup final, April 2008
Our family has spent many hours cheering on Cardiff City. My father, Bob Skinner, took me to my first City game almost 40 years ago. (Against West Brom, on 3 November 1973 – we lost 1-0.) He was born within a goal kick of West Ham’s ground, which meant I grew up with affection for both clubs. (By coincidence, West Ham adopted a City song, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’.) Family loyalties were stretched when we went to West Ham to see City in November 1979, but Cardiff lost 3-0. West Ham did well against the three Welsh teams in the old second division that autumn.
Five years ago, we watched City win an FA Cup semi final against Barnsley to reach a Wembley cup final for the first time since 1927. Another breakthrough in City’s renaissance. We should pay tribute to then manager Dave Jones for that revival.
Cardiff join Swansea in the Premier League. It’s the first time Wales has had two clubs in the top flight. A special moment.