Train from Glasgow to California left a while ago

21 Feb

Train from Glasgow to California left a while ago

David Beckham – Servant or Master in Downton Abbey?

4 Dec

butlers.1900 Now that David Beckham has played his last act in an American soccer role, what is next for the Englishman abroad? Having spent the last five years in Hollywood making friends (Tom Cruise and Russell Brand are mates), casting agents must be wondering if Mr. Beckham desires the spotlight of the silver screen.

I pondered this as I drove to the Los Angeles Galaxy stadium for the MLS Cup Final last Saturday. The team’s ground is located in the city of Carson. “Carson,” I thought, “Where have I heard that name before?”

Then it struck me. Carson is the butler in Downton Abbey. Yes, that was it! Mr. Beckham could start his acting career in Downton Abbey, Masterpiece Theater’s darling smash hit drama set in the snobbery fields of England, on an aristocratic manor cast between the privileged and their servants. But the big question was this? Would he be cast downstairs as a servant known as Becks or be claimed by the aristocracy upstairs as Sir David Beckham of Essex?

Hollywood aristocracy is not the same thing as English Lords and Lady Dowagers delivering lines of caustic sarcasm. So Mr. Beckham would be at a disadvantage when it came to sneering condescension. He always speaks fondly of his humble roots and I don’t mean his immaculate hair.

Furthermore, Mr. Beckham’s accent is not from the plum tree of linguistic fruits. He does not replace his “r” with an “h” as in, “Dahling, pass the sugar.” His timbre would immediately betray him as lower social class in England’s grand scheme of manners. The only thing going for him upstairs is the fact that he is married to Mrs. Victoria Beckham, also known as Posh in the Spice Girls. Her moniker may not be enough to fool the Lords of the manor, however.

So it seems Mr. Beckham may be destined for a role with the servants under the stairs. No doubt, he has been a loyal servant to soccer both in the States and in his native England. He served his country scores of times on the soccer field and off. He carried the Olympic torch at the recent Olympics, transporting the flame by speedboat up the River Thames in London.

But what role would he have as a servant at Downton Abbey? Surely not just Footman Becks bending his elbow to serve the aristocrats their garden peas at dinner. Becks would have to be higher up the food chain, perhaps as a junior butler, serving under Mr. Carson. Think of it as the same type of relationship Mr. Beckham had with Mr. Alex Ferguson, his “soccer father” and coach while he played at Manchester United. Learn a trade, son.

But the butler remains the butler until his service ends with the grave. Mr. Beckham represents a more mobile type of man, an iconoclast. Perhaps he would be better cast as the chauffer who falls in love with one of the Ladies of the Abbey and marries into the family. No longer called Becks by the masters but accepted as David. Too late – an Irishman already played that part.

That leaves being a valet to one of the Lords of the higher orders, dressing him for breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, and bed. But one can’t see Mr. Beckham dressing others when he is a fashion model himself. Nor can we imagine him putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush for his Lordship. Perhaps Downton Abbey is not the show for Mr. Beckham after all. Maybe the similar Masterpiece drama, Upstairs Downstairs, is a better option? Now let’s see, who could he play in that?

Alan Black writes a weekly soccer column, on Friday, for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of the memoir, Kick the Balls.

twitter @footyheader

I’ll Have a Becks – Beckham Bows Out of US Soccer – MLS Cup Final

3 Dec


MLS Cup Final

Los Angeles –

Throughout the regular season, teams can take it or leave it when it comes to winning and losing. Not so in the Cup Final. The memory of loss in the big game hangs around necks heavier than the runners-up medals handed out to the vanquished.

Yesterday’s MLS Cup Final in Los Angeles was billed as a farewell party for Los Angeles Galaxy’s David Beckham, soccer’s biggest star. He is used to winning. A runners-up medal was not to be part of the final act. It had to be a happy ending for the man with the golden touch.

Houston Dynamo stood in the way. They showed up determined to avenge their 1-0 loss in the 2011 Final to the Galaxy. The role of party spoilers was the added incentive. And for a while it looked as if the Texans would rob the hosts of the goodies. They took the lead into the locker room at halftime. But Beckham and his mates were not in the mood for an anti-climax. Beckham’s party had to go out with a bang.

Cue the Galaxy’s ace players. Omar Gonzalez pulled the score level to be followed by a Landon Donovan penalty strike. Speculation about Donovan’s future swirled around him prior to the final. He gave notice that he had lost the passion for playing. Was he heading for the soccer player retirement home at thirty years of age?

During a pre-game press conference, Donovan possessed a stare that could have melted kryptonite. Was it a fix into the heart of darkness? Not so. It was the clinical eye of a player who executes when the chips are down. Donovan slotted home his penalty and the Galaxy crowd erupted. The hugs of his teammates squeezed him tight. At least for one night longer, Donovan ‘s star power shone.

It was left to Irishman Robbie Keane to put Houston to the sword. He slotted home his penalty kick, earned by forcing the defender to trip him. Keane is the real deal. Coaches love him for his pace and harpoon striking skills. He fills nets with goals. Defenders fear him.

The hardness of Robbie Keane comes from his days playing Gaelic football as a kid growing up in Ireland. Ireland’s traditional sport resembles a fusion of soccer and rugby. It is not for whiners.

When asked how Gaelic football contributed to his skills as a soccer player, “toughness” was the answer.

The final whistle brought the Beckham era in Major League Soccer to a close. Wrapped in a Union Jack, this Englishman abroad lapped up the adulation of his American fans. He pledged to continue his “commitment to the league, the sport and this country.” The Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack were united for a soccer moment.

The Fixer – England’s Harry Redknapp

26 Nov


You run a top-flight English club. You are bleeding points. Leaks are everywhere, players pissed off, morale thin, and the puddle deep with fans abusing the idiot you hired last year to bring success. The investors never intended their wealth to be on the Titanic. What to do? You send out an S.O.S. to Harry.

Harry Redknapp sails to the rescue. His latest mission is at the wheel of the fast sinking Queens Park Rangers. The club is listing badly, in last place in the English Premier league, winless, rudderless and everything seeming hopeless. No luck with the breeze. Harry brings the wind.

Throughout his speckled coaching career he has blown in and out of clubs, leaving some in better shape, abandoning others to their fate, himself sometimes at the mercy of the bosses. Listening to Harry speak, you come to believe. He drafts hope. The kind of optimism you find in the blustery pub philosopher, the man of the people – the boys can do it, where there’s a will, there’s a way, we got a job to do.

English football fans believe in that archetype. When the England national team job became available earlier this year, Harry’s claim was trumpeted  by the masses. The news tabloids ran his campaign for the job. Polls had him as popular as the Queen.

But those in the halls of football power were more wary. The idea of Shakespeare’s “we happy few…” and visions of a populist King Harry telling the elites what to do, did not rest well with some of football’s landed gentry. Never crown the man of the people as King. A chap called Roy Hodgson was hired instead, somewhat of a glum choice. He could be sacked in the future without anyone caring in the pubs.

Harry returned to the waves of club football. He took London club, Tottenham, to the door of the Champions League in 2012 only to be sacked. Rumor had him at odds with the Spurs boss. But once again men with much to lose have come calling. And whom does Harry wish to be first officer saving Queens Park Rangers from the deep? David Beckham.

Alan Black will be in Los Angeles next week for the MLS Cup Final between Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo on December 1. The game will be David Beckham’s last in a Galaxy uniform.

On Twitter


The Beckham Big Top To Close

20 Nov


David Beckham will play his last game for Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup Final against Houston on December 1 in Los Angeles.

In 2007, he rolled into soccer town with a show. Beckham brought the big top to a little circus. Major League Soccer needed a new act, someone who could crack celebrity’s whip and park the audience in the soccer tent for gasps of excitement.

Roll Up! Roll Up! Come See the English Lion Bend It! The seats quickly filled. The clowns in the paparazzi kept the circus on the covers of the tabloids – Beckham – fame’s iconic acrobat. His image flew in various states of undress, hints of his latest fragrance passing over his fans, dropping purchases of all-things-Beckham, kids wearing his #23 jersey among the new converts. The top hats of Major League Soccer thanked him. As they should. Their league expanded to nineteen teams. No longer a little circus.

Not everyone was happy with the ticket to the Beckham show. The Galaxy fans turned on him when he considered closing the tent and moving back to Europe half way through the run. The fans of rival teams excoriated him. Fewer players have endured such heaps of boos and abuse. He became the ringmaster with a target on his back. His skin had to be thick. No doubt, money and fame made it easier to endure.

Consider this. Kids imagine being like someone. And who can deny that a chunk of America’s soccer playing youth imagine being Beckham. Flighting a free kick into the back of the net is tried on suburban soccer fields every weekend.

It was the Beckham show. And now the ring will be empty.

Roll Up! Roll Up! Who’s Next?

Read Alan Black’s soccer column every week in the Friday print edition of the San Chronicle.

Five Reasons to Get Off Your Arse and Go to the Match

14 Nov

1. Avoid the wisdom of television commentary. No longer will you have to risk tackles on the obvious from the pundit class. Take this gem attributed to a former well known coach turned pundit, ”I believe in the principle that if you go one goal down, you need two to win.” Turn it off.

2. Participate in one of those Poznan shoulder-bracing, back to front type goal celebrations (pictured), reaffirming your belief in the power of backwardness and the chance at actually hugging another person for the first time in twenty years.

3. Actually prove to yourself that people gather in more places than Facebook or Twitter.

4. Be free to yell in the public forum. Burn those caustic remarks you have been waiting to use against your most hated enemies, while making grotesque gestures to the opposing team that may be captured on television prompting your mom to wonder where she went wrong.

5. You can’t skip through a recorded game on your DVR to get to the goals, avoiding all those terribly boring vacuities associated with association football. Patience as a virtue, wait for it…

Read Alan Black’s soccer column each week, in the Friday print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Stadium Memory as a Hole in the Head

2 Nov

The weeds thrived on the deserted steps. Brittle concrete swept up by the blustery wind fertilized the void. I stood solitary in a stadium built to hold 25,000 people, separated by fifty yards from the nearest fan watching our team. Some of the few present may have harbored decades old memories of the roars that once sang loudly here. But not now. There was no crowd of bodies, no fan’s life in multitudes. 500 scattered souls was a big congregation.

Shawfield Stadium in Glasgow was the home of lowly Clyde Football Club, founded 1877. The club shared the ground with Glasgow’s greyhound dog racing scene which was vastly more popular. Lithe dogs chased the hare three nights a week on a large oval track that cut off the soccer field from the proximity of the fans. Rumor had it that Liverpool legend, Kenny Dalgish, summed it up as the worst stadium he had ever played in, like playing in a vacuum. Yet, we unhappy few went every week to the breach, us nobodies, in the wind or rain, usually both.

The desire for greatness was not limp amongst us. Vigorous dreams of success energized the first few games of the season. But when the results offered no favors, we were left with a dank pathos and our trousers stuck to our legs by the marriage of wind and rain. Most of us Clyde fans blew down to Shawfield from the nearby town of Rutherglen.

The town’s bank clerk was a Clyde fanatic. He had no friends. His window at the local bank was decorated with a threadbare Clyde scarf. He housed my emaciated bank account. I felt safe banking there. Could he steal money from a rich bastard’s account and add it to a fellow Clyde sufferer’s ledger? – an act of charity, really.

No, he said, but I have a plan to bring an exciting atmosphere to Clyde.

In a magnificent effort to show the Clyde fans the meaning of ecstasy, the bank clerk arrived on gameday with a boombox and a megaphone. Suddenly, the sprigs of black weeds growing on the concrete steps were blasted by the junked up bung of his busted megaphone, feed backing on his crap boombox playing a recording of a cheering soccer crowd, recorded off his television by a cheap microphone held up to the speaker.

Blood curdling screeches of feedback skewered the stadium, crunching across the field of play, stiffening the players, hitting the vacant seats, rebounding backwards to the clutch of fans on the steps, ears covered, faces buckled in pain. What the hell was that? What a nightmare! A few gathered and booted his boombox to death, this space invader. We went back to the twilight of ends and watched Clyde lose again.

Shawfield was a man’s place but there was one female working behind the counter that served hot drinks. Her hair was aflame with reds, rouge busy on her lips, the pearls around her neck clashing with the sunset yellow of her nicotined dentures. A few male specimens stood boggle eyed, fixed to the spout of the tea lady’s charms. They were doomed to die prematurely.

The lady sold rounded meat pie. They made good weapons for attacking the odd rat scurrying at the back of the stadium. But no one could have heard the approaching mad moos of cows floundering on filthy barnyard floors. When Mad Cow Disease in humans began killing people in Scotland, the meatpie was fingered as a likely source of contamination. It had a magical luminous quality to it, the soccer meat pie, sparkling in the gloom, the spinal cords and brains of the herd delicious inside this partially hydrogenated slop. If your rotted brain did not fell you, the clamps on your arteries surely would.

And then there was the hot drink. Cue this thick brown fuzz trading under the name, Bovril.  A cup of hot Bovril beefstock resembled something brown and smelled like something brown. It was consumed in lubricating quantities, helping to wash the meat pie into the intestinal maze. Horrendous double acts of dietary danger knew no greater perfomers than the meat pie and the cup of steaming Bovril. As powerful as any pharmaceutical laxatives, the antiquated plumbing system at Shawfield was stretched to the limits, disintegrating with a vile ugliness that the dryness of words could in no way do justice to.

Fortunately for  the stadium plumbing, the pipes had only to run a short distance to the River Clyde, a mere hundred yards away. The Clyde, the great river and vein of Glasgow’s shipbuilding history, had become a dark, rusted water, filled with iron filings, amputated ship parts and meat pie and Bovril deposits sailing down the river on a Saturday afternoon. Some people went fishing in the Clyde, hoping to snare cast off shoes or wallets from those who had jumped in the final act.

Stripped of hope, Clyde Football Club eventually crashed and burned into the black hole of meaninglessness. Disputes with the greyhound authorities forced the team to leave their old home. Moving to a tiny stadium in the middle of nowhere amongst the fields of Central Scotland, the exile proved lethal. The once proud club sunk to the bottom of Scottish soccer. The sound of cows can be heard mooing in the distance to this day.

Major League Soccer Passes the Six Million Mark

31 Oct

Give up comparing soccer to the nation’s dominant sports. Baseball and Football don’t do comparisons – they exist alone. No point in soccer warriors climbing the walls of their impenetrable castles chanting, we’re going to be bigger than you one day! Forget it. They’ll throw their balls at you and knock you off.

Climb down and compare soccer to the world instead. MLS now ranks eighth in the world for attendance. Not bad for a league formed in 1996. This year, over six million went to MLS games. The five million barrier was broken last year. Place MLS above France, Argentina and the second division in soccer loopy England.

MLS is conservative in its approach, wisely so. Its pioneering efforts of new stadium barn raising and strong fencing preserves the inchoate soccer settlement. There are plenty of hungry mavericks out there who wish to see MLS accelerate to templates such as promotion and relegation leagues, a free market for wages, the end of the franchise concept. But who can see over the horizon?

Those high up in the Baseball and Football castles can. And all they see is more of America. Sure, they play the American sports in other parts of the world but few care. This might explain the interested number of baseball and football owners who are stretching their visions and wallets and getting into the global soccer game. Soccer has the wider horizon.

Shooting Stars – San Jose Earthquakes Shine in Being the Best

22 Oct

Americans of all creeds gathered to grab a blue shovel to build a home –  the new domain of the San Jose Earthquakes. On Sunday, a world record crowd of 6,256 fans grabbed shovels and dug for two minutes on the land destined to spring forth a new era in Bay Area soccer. The man from the Guinness Book of World Records gave his assent and the deal was done. Fans cheered when the official word came through. This was a day for the true blue Quakes fans. Everyone there deposited a little bit of heart and graft into the future of their club.

There was business to attend to after the groundbreaking event – the final homegame of the season. Across the rail tracks at Buck Shaw stadium, the Quakes took on their rivals from the southland, Los Angeles Galaxy, a distant constellation missing a couple of bulbs. David Beckham and Landon Donovan were absent but no one really noticed or much cared. After all, the Quakes had lorded over the Galaxy this season with a brighter magnitude of talent.

Pre-game, there was a majestic tifo display unfurled by the 1906 Ultras, the Quakes fireball supporters that pack a sonic boom. A marvelous roll of canvas covering their section depicted the iconic Star Wars credits featuring the Quakes stars Steven Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski in the leading rolls. The ref blew the kickoff whistle and the job of running all over the Galaxy commenced again.

Yet the Empire from LA was intent on striking back. The Quakes had won the two previous duels this season. The Galaxy were determined not to lose again and they set about their business convincingly. San Jose struggled and were lucky not to find themselves behind at the half.

After the interval, both teams powered up, more territory opened up, and the battle engaged. LA went for the win, twice taking the lead, only to have the advantage pulled back by the dogged Quakes set on keeping their unbeaten record at home this season intact.

All eyes were on Wondo, chasing the single season goalscoring record of twenty-seven, set in 1996 by Roy Lassiter, who watched the game from the stands. The Danville native needed two to tie Lassiter and when he bagged the equalizer to make it 2-2, many thought destiny was at hand. Wondo hit the post twice, prompted the Galaxy keeper to produce saves but could not fling the final peg. He has one more chance next week against Portland. “Records are made to be broken,” said Lassiter, and Wondo knows it.

The Quakes had won the coveted Supporters’ Shield the night before thanks to Kansas City being unable to beat New York. Naturally, the team would have preferred to snatch the silver for themselves from Los Angeles, the current holders. But it didn’t stop the celebrations at the final whistle. San Jose were the rulers of the 2012 MLS season with the most points. The scenes in the locker room went pop with splashdowns of champagne. The MLS Cup now beckons, the final shot for a team that has shone brilliant all season long. May the force be with you.

Scotland – A Case of Football Bunk

19 Oct

Some teams are forever rubbish. Their hopes are in the trash; they are always in the trash. They get dumped from every tournament routinely. They exist to make up the numbers, goal-scoring practice for opponents. The nose of defeat means nothing to them. The senses are numbed. They’ll never smell the roses, never be handed flowers by natives on their arrival for a World Cup Finals.

But what of countries that once saw themselves as contenders, indeed contributors to the soccer platform? Take a nation like Scotland. In the seventies, Scotland had a spot at the top table, when the World Cup Finals hosted only sixteen countries. The fiery Scots were feared, they were trouble; they fought like lions. They lived next door to the English and this made them madder. In celebration, their fans drank more than the rest of the countries combined and they sang louder than anyone else.  A World Cup without Scotland was unthinkable.

Now a World Cup with Scotland is unthinkable. The fire is gone, the lion meows, the next-door neighbor laughs at them and the fans drink more than the other countries combined to drown their sorrows. As for their songs, a sad lament of dirges and desperation accompany the disharmony. The tattered Tartan Army sings, We’ll Walk a Million Miles for One of Your Goals, oh Scotland. Try two million.  It’s never going to happen.

Scotland is already out of the running for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They have been out of the running for World Cups since 1998. For this is not a soccer problem but one of the spirit and the mind. Lay them down on the psychiatrist’s couch and take a blood sample. The lab results are in – years of overdosing on downer coaches feeding the once proud lion a diet of depressant tactics and fear of everything. The current depressor (he’s facing the axe) actually fielded a team without one striker. Talk about sending a message of hopeless, low self-esteem.

So, what therapeutic remedy is available for a soccer casualty like Scotland? Happy pills! Happy, happy, happy pills! And the fans can have some too.

First of all, accept the fact that you are rubbish. Then field seven attackers and three defenders. Throw caution out with the depressants. Go for it! Fly at the opponents and their carefully structured strategy. What a surprise they will get! We thought Scotland was a bunch of miserable defensive losers, they will say, but look at them throw everything into attack with smiles upon their faces.

And what does Scotland have to lose? Nothing. It’s all been lost already! As for the fans – give up singing that pathetic drone called Flower of Scotland – When will we see your likes again? Never! Good! Live in the present, not the past. Sing Bay City Rollers songs instead, something happy and cheery and not so ponderously glum. Now watch Scotland win a few games.

The next Scotland boss (appointment to be made imminently) should be psychiatrically evaluated. Not to discover why anyone should ever be so crazy to accept a road to nowhere but whether he can bring levity and happiness and attacking at all costs. Kill the meow and make the lion roar again. Listen! The neighbor has stopped laughing. And the fans are singing Easy! Easy!