Look carefully at the above. I’ll wager those of you reading from overseas may just about have heard of Leeds Utd, a famous old club from the north of England, famous for cheating, foul play, Eric Cantona and the location of that film about Brian Clough.
A few of you who’ve been following these pages regularly might just recognise the name Charlton too. They are, of course, my local football team, the team I follow, the team that has caused me a little pleasure but a lot of heart-ache of the over the years. And the top of the table. Top! Ok, they’re top of the third league in the English game, but top of the league nonetheless. Four wins in a row. Four! The last time that happened there were Zeppelins flying over South East London.
The fact that we’ve beaten teams who most of you have never heard of matters not one jot to me. Walsall, Hartlepool, Leighton Orient and the mighty Wycombe Wanderers may not be regulars on your screens in New York, Paris or Honkers, and you may not have read anything of them on the back pages of Corrire dello Sport or in the back pages of The Sydney Morning Herald (those of us living in Blighty would even struggle to find them on an A-Z or an O.S. map) but Charlton Athletic Football Club have beaten them all and, because they’ve scored more goals than Leeds, are sitting proudly on the top of the tree.
Do not read any further. Bookmark this page—you’ll not see them on top again. Now let us continue.
It is the nature of most sport fans to believe their team to be world-beaters when they win, and utter tripe when they lose. I am not one of those sports fans: I believe my teams to be utter tripe whether they win, lose or draw. I always want them to win, but I never expect them to. As mentioned previously here, being a pessimistic supporter means you are rarely disappointed. Charlton may win another game or two but, in the end, will wither away into mid-table anonymity next to the like of the MK Dons (who they???) and Milwall (ditto). Don’t put your life savings on them winning the league. I bet on them once. What a complete waste of money that was.
A bloke on the radio this morning, of a similar mindset to me, said he was gonna pay the bookies a tenner to help England win the Ashes (we’ve gone on to cricket now, chaps). He reckoned if he could get odds of, say, 10-1 on Aussie and put a bet on them, then with his luck England were sure to win but if somehow they managed not to, he’d be 100 quid to the good, thus sweetening that bitterest of pills. I like that kind of thinking. There are many who wouldn’t dare bet against their own team, but I see nothing wrong with it: patriotism is patriotism and betting is betting.
Example: I have a friend (to protect the innocent, let’s call him Trev) who has lost the equivalent to the Mexican National Debt by persisting on betting on his beloved Welsh Rugby team, regardless of all the evidence and odd stacked against him and his Boyos. Throughout the nineties the sluicegates of Trev’s bank account opened up and spewed the contents therein into the gaping reservoirs of Messrs J.Coral, P Power and S.Index, Turf Accountants. Yeah, ok, a resurgence in Wales’ rugby fortunes means he’s been able to recoup some of his losses, but Trev suffered long and costly Saturday nights as the points mounted up against his team and the cash made its merry way out of his wallet. Great fun to watch though.
It’s now 12.20 on Sunday, August 23rd and England are, or at least seem to be, romping home to regain the Ashes at the Oval. Everything points to an England win. They are miles ahead in the game. The pitch resembles the crust of a semolina pudding. Any given bowl thrown at an Australian batsman could either go through the surface of the pitch and dribble along the floor, bruising his big toe, or hit a lumpy bit, rear up and knock the batters block off. They cannot possibly predict what’s gonna happen next: Big Advantage England.
Just two things stand in the way of an England series victory: The England players themselves and Australian Captain Ricky Ponting.
Ricky “Punter” Ponting is possibly the best batsman around at the moment. He’s technically excellent and mentally tough. Like many great men (Napoleon, Nelson, T.E.Lawrence, Mickey Rooney) he’s rather short and perhaps this focuses his mind. Short-man syndrome is well-known and perhaps this one compensates for his lack of height by wielding his bat and smiting the ball to all corners. Whatever the reason, he sure is a tough little bugger to get out. He gets boo-ed on and off the pitch and that only seems to strengthen his resolve to protect his wicket. His nickname “Punter” was given to him for his love of a betting office. As a young man he loved a bet. Loved a bird too. A bet and a bird. And he took a drink. A bet and a bird and some booze. Now, though, he’s a reformed man and a superb cricketer, free of distractions (apart from his little legs). He knows his odds, and he knows that while he’s still at the wicket, even the London bookies wont be giving a decent price against an improbable Australian win. He knows that if anyone can do it, the Aussies can, and the bookies know that too.
Anyone who’s watched and supported England play football, rugby, cricket, you name it has seen us throw away much stronger positions than this before. We seem apologetic for winning. A lack of killer-instinct. Somehow we seem to think winning well, stuffing the noses of the oppo into the dirt is not the done thing (hence the phrase “just not cricket”). We like a competition, a near-thing, a close-run race. The whole of the English sporting psyche is built around the “it’s not the winning that counts, it’s the taking part”. What a load of cobblers. If we ever do trounce an opposing team, the first thing said in the pubs and the papers is that the opposition were “not very good”.
Perhaps because of the many times we’ve lost, we’ve always had a very different view to the rest of the World of what constitutes a victory or a defeat. Dunkirk is taught in english schools as a victory, for Christ’s sake. If the Charge of the Light Brigade had happened to any other country’s military, the story would be torn out of history books in Russia, China and parts of the Conservative American West. Douglas Haig and Bomber Harris would be filed under ‘E’ for ‘Embarrassment’ if they were German. Not here: we erect statues to them. Scott was beaten to the pole by Amundsen and died a heroes death, freezing his nadgers off in a tent. Our history books are chock-full of dead heroes. Why can’t we have a few more very old codgers walking around who once beat West Germany by 11-0? or who captained the European Ryder Cup team which beat the yanks 28-0? or was 100 Olympic 100 meter champion for 16 straight years. I’ll tell you why: it’s cos we don’t like winning, and if we do, we don’t like winning well.
In 1879 just under 150 Welshmen from the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot successfully defended the mission at Rourke’s Drift against about 4000 Zulus, winning umpteen Victoria Crosses, (and providing us with a great story for a movie, 85 years later).
Trevs’s Great Grandfather was there. He bet on the Zulus.