Daily Archives: 12/12/2013

How San Siro Dom Matteo Became a Leeds Legend – by Rob Atkinson

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Dom Matteo scores to become a United legend

However much pedants may argue about when the third millennium started – January 1, 2000, or a year later – the season 2000-01 was the first proper 21st Century season, and it was also my annus mirabilis European campaign; having never seen my beloved Leeds play abroad up to this point, I witnessed them competing at the highest level in three true cathedrals of continental football.  Incidentally, I’ve always favoured the Jan 1, 2000 date as the start of the millennium – that’s when the most spectacular fireworks kicked off, that’s when the magical sight of four numerals clicking over was seen – and most importantly that’s when Leeds United were heading the Premiership table, marking what will probably be football’s only thousand year threshold by sitting proudly at the top of the game – a position that the media had been frantically speculating might have been held by the lesser United from the wrong side of the Pennines.

More about other parts of this memorable season elsewhere, but my European experience started in a “sports bar” on Westgate in Wakefield, watching nervously on a big screen as Leeds negotiated the second leg of a tricky Champions League qualifying tie against 1860 Munich.  We were ahead 2-1 from the first leg in Leeds, and such a narrow lead was never that secure.  In the end though, Alan Smith scored the only goal in Munich to close out the tie 3-1 on aggregate.  The subsequent draw saw United pitted against giants Barcelona and Milan as well as Turkish side Besiktas in an incredibly tough first qualifying group.  I was on holiday with my wife and young daughter on a campsite in the South of France when the first game was played, in Spain.  Callously abandoning my ladies to their fate, I impulsively jumped on a train from St Raphael to Barcelona, installed myself in a hotel with a swimming pool on the roof, bought a ticket from a tout, and watched from the midst of the fanatical home support – the Boixos Nois (Crazy Boys) – as Leeds, fielding a side decimated by injuries, slid to a 4-0 defeat.

If you’d told me then that we were destined for the last four, I’d have laughed long and bitterly, but I did enjoy every moment of my first European away-day in the palatial surroundings of the Camp Nou.  I still have two souvenirs – a plastic seat cushion and a big St Georges flag with LUFC Oxford Whites printed on it, which a group of Barca fans had captured and were waving in triumph at the end.  Stupidly, I approached them, feeling that a 0-4 defeat was humiliation enough, and demanded it back (quite politely).  I was getting snarls and throat-slitting gestures, and I remember mumbling something along the lines of “Barcelona no es Galatasaray”, which they seemed to take to heart.  Some of the lads’ girlfriends were regarding me pityingly, obviously wondering if I was drunk, or mad, or both – and to my relief they urged their men to show restraint.  Luckily for me, the lads seemed to listen – they handed the flag over, anyway – but if they’d known that we were destined to eliminate them from the competition, I doubt they’d have been so conciliatory.

The group then ebbed and flowed – but most results after that first defeat went our way.  We beat Milan at home, courtesy of Lee Bowyer‘s late winner which slithered through the Milan keeper’s grasp like a bar of soap on that soaking wet night.  Interviewed afterwards, Bowyer confessed his surprise and delight in tones of pure Albert Square – he hadn’t expected his shot to count because it “weren’t in the cawner” – but United were firmly back on track.  Then, we came so, so close to beating Barça at Elland Road, denied only at the very death after a world-class display from our inexperienced but brilliant young ‘keeper Paul Robinson – and we absolutely thrashed Besiktas by 6-0.  When it came to the last round of group games, the equation was simple – if we could avoid defeat at the San Siro, we would be through to the next stage, whatever Barcelona did to Besiktas.

And so I found myself on an early-morning flight from Leeds Bradford Airport to Milan Malpensa, along with thousands of other Leeds fans intoxicated at the prospect of a famous evening in a truly magnificent stadium.  We would arrive in Milan with plenty of time to look around the place before meeting up with coaches to the stadium, and it proved an eventful day.  There had been violence the previous night, a Leeds fan had been attacked and wounded in an incident which evoked horrific memories of the awful scenes in Istanbul just a few months before.  The city of Milan had been declared “dry” for the day, so it was extremely difficult to find a bar which would serve an obvious Leeds fan.  I was contented enough though, just wandering around the amazing Cathedral Square where I met legend and Leeds fan Ralph Ineson, of “Harry Potter” movie fame, and also memorably “Finchy” in the BBC’s “The Office”.  He was happy to have a chat and a photo, and then I ambled off to have a peek at the world famous La Scala Opera House, where my wife’s great-grandfather had been a violinist, so that was my passing nod to family history.

Finally, with the afternoon stretching before me, I bumped into an old mate from home – we both exclaimed stupidly “What are you doing here?” – and we managed to find a bar that was open, and spent a couple of hours relaxing and happily anticipating the match ahead.  The bar owner was friendly – so much so that he felt able to pop out on some errand, leaving us in charge.  The fearsome reputation of some Leeds fans had evidently failed to penetrate this far into the bar culture of Milano.

The match itself is so famous that I barely need to recount the action kick by kick.  The Leeds fans at one end of the stadium were in fully, throaty voice for most of the proceedings, drawing incredulous glances from the attendant Carabinieri who were in full-on riot gear but friendly enough, muttering to each other about lunatic English tifosi (hooligans.)  The first half was a decent contest – Milan were through already, but not disposed to give Leeds an easy ride – especially after paranoid noises emanating from Barcelona, who – nervous about their own prospects – had done their best to warn Milan off taking it easy against Leeds.  So Milan pressed in front of a crowd of 52289, and their winger Serginho was causing Gary Kelly plenty of problems.  In the 26th minute, a slightly soft penalty was awarded to Milan at our end of the stadium, and 6000 Leeds fans held their collective breath as Andriy Shevchenko took careful aim only to rap Robinson’s right-hand post, the ball bouncing away to safety as the masses behind our goal celebrated as if we’d actually scored.  And then, miraculously, as the first half ebbed away, we did score.  A Lee Bowyer corner from the right found Matteo rising majestically at the near post to meet the ball with a punchy header which soared high into the net.  Cue utter pandemonium at the Leeds end as all the tension, passion and belief exploded in one almighty roar which almost lifted the hi-tec roof off the famous stadium.

The party went on throughout half-time and into the second half, drawing more bemused glances from the Italian police; there was only a brief hiatus in the 67th minute when the superb Serginho deservedly equalised, but then it was mounting fan fever again all the way to the final whistle and beyond as Leeds held out to qualify for an equally difficult second phase of the competition.  The scenes after the game are at least as famous as the events of the ninety minutes; the team coming back out onto the pitch in response to the demands of the faithful who were held back in the interests of crowd safety.  What followed was described by respected football commentators (plus Alan Green) as the best example of team/fan bonding they’d ever seen.  Fans and players – even a certain Chairman and tropical fish fan – swapped chants and songs in a spontaneous celebration of a joyous night.  The uncertain musical efforts of Lee Bowyer were greeted by a blast of friendly derision as he looked suitably embarrassed.  It was a unique experience, and the Latin cops were clearly by now utterly convinced that these English people were absolutely barking mad.  As football nights go, you’d have to travel a long way to find one more worthy of memory – only a trophy could have improved it, but the spectacle of the game and its aftermath is one I have seen imitated but never repeated.

Dom Matteo, the hero of the hour, was simply a likeable and committed defender before that night, clearly delighted to be Leeds; the kind of player the Kop takes to its heart.  But after that night, he was elevated to demigod status, a true Leeds legend with his own song and a place on a pedestal in the United Hall of Fame.  The choice last season of Dom as a Football Ambassador for the club seemed obvious – but really it was utterly inspired.  This beloved ex-player and respected press commentator, dispensing common sense when all about him has been hysteria, sends out only the most positive of vibes.  He is the sort of person we need to see closely associated with the club, so his involvement in any capacity was a move to be applauded.  Just get Lucas “The Chief” Radebe back on board now, and we’ll be cooking with gas.

Thanks, Dom.  Thanks for being a voice of sanity in the press these past few years, thanks also for coming back to reassert your love of the club.  And thanks most of all for that memorable night in Milan.

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The Tory Approach to ‘Stock Management’ in Animal Farm UK

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The three Great Offices of State as represented by the current incumbents

George Orwell’s “Animal Farm“, written as an anti-communist allegory in 1943-44 at a time when, due in part to wartime alliances, Joseph Stalin was well-regarded in the UK, remains a classic of its kind. The allegory is a versatile literary device, and in the skillful hands of Orwell it painted a bleak picture of the events in Russia leading up to the Revolution of 1917 and those developments afterwards which brought about the Stalin era. Clearly, Orwell’s target had to be one easily identifiable through the clear vision of hindsight; he had in mind what had already come to pass and was making no predictions as to any future dystopia. But history has a way of reviving familiar themes and it is hard to look at the events that have been unfolding in the UK since the ConDem alliance of 2010 seized power sans mandate – and not to credit Mr Orwell with an uncanny prescience as his work assumes a new and chilling significance.

This coalition government assumed a power it was not elected to on the back of a welter of slogans and promises; those slogans have become sick jokes, perverted out of their original bright and shiny aspect, retailed now in the bitter coin of irony and disillusion. The promises, meanwhile, lay shattered into myriad fragments, reduced to dust to be blown away by the chill wind of austerity – while the original text of vows that became lies are being erased from political web servers, lest they be waved in righteous indignation at the lumpen Untermensch and thus perhaps foment rebellion.

The 21st Century reality of Tory-fabricated propaganda in ConDem Britain is, if anything, even sneakier than the crude tactics of Squealer, the mouthpiece pig of the allegorical Animal Farm. Where Squealer teetered on a ladder with a bucket of whitewash, the better to change the sense of the First Commandment “All animals are equal” by the addition of “…but some animals are more equal than others”, the Tory revisionism is unspoken, the whitewash job more subliminal. So, the internet records are abruptly wiped and old slogans or promises such as “We’re all in it together” are simply dropped quietly, used now only as satirical barbs by those who would counter the Big Lie. And meanwhile, the MP’s get an 11% rise while belts are being tightened among the hoi polloi, the bankers get their munificent bonuses while theplebs face the “heat or eat” dilemma and present themselves at food banks – because what were previously recognised as bare subsistence-level benefits have now been heavily cut from every direction – so harsh choices must be made courtesy of the Orwellian Pigs who banquet in the farmhouse, aloof and uncaring.

Some of the repugnant individual characters in the book hardly do justice to their modern-day counterparts. At least in Orwell’s work, the pigs – on a literal level – really are pigs. The farm stock, literally, are stock – cattle, sheep, horses; the unthinking, uncomprehending functionaries exploited all these years by humans and now hoping in their trusting way for a brighter future under an administration of their alleged peers. “All animals are equal”. But, lo and behold, in modern-day Britain, real life imitates the literal level of art. The Secretary of State for Work & Pensions no longer needs to bother referring to those under his benevolent care as human beings. To Iain Duncan-Smith, they are “stock“, we hear. So our deepest fears are realised: the ruling pigs really do regard us as dumb animals to be exploited for economic success and neglected to mitigate cost – the money saved to be devoted to improving the already lavish lot of the said pigs.

“These people”, trumpets IDS in response to murmurs of mild protest, “are referred to as “stock”. So, he’s emphatic about that, he can’t see that there’s any problem with it. It’s so hard to listen to for anyone who still retains any vestigial dream of a more equal society. People in caring professions are trained not to use terms like “these people”, because it sounds so pejorative, so demeaning – as if the human beings thus discussed are in a box labelled “Problem” or “Undesirable Element”. It’s almost too horrible for words, a litmus indicator of the contempt in which this privileged man, this latter day ruling pig, holds the millions of needy and vulnerable fellow human beings currently at the mercy of his incompetent tenure in office.

The “stock” is not to be trusted. They must be kept penned up and fed on rations, lest they gorge themselves and exhaust the farm’s resources. Any gorging to be done shall be done by the ruling pigs, because some animals are more equal than others. The stock cannot be trusted to have a work ethic, and so quotas are set (we call it Workfare) and sanctions are applied to those who are unable, for whatever reason, to make their contribution. These sanctions do not apply to the pigs, because the pigs are the sort of chaps who can be trusted to work given sufficient fiscal encouragement – so it’s all about incentives there. A bushel of apples in Orwell’s book – a seven figure bonus in 21st Century Britain – if, of course, you’re “one of us”. Incentives for the few – sanctions for the masses. Carrots and sticks – the Tory pigs find it easier to rule with the latter than the former. Easier – and cheaper too.

In Orwell’s book, when through sickness or age productive work is no longer possible, the consequences depend on whether you’re stock or stockman. Faithful servant Boxer, the once-mighty workhorse, is therefore taken away when finally exhausted, to be slaughtered and boiled down for glue, amid fanciful lies about a hospital bed and a peaceful end. The ruling pigs retire to the farmhouse, don the trappings of humanity and live the high life. As a parallel, in 21st Century Britain, thousands who have been found fit for work – when they clearly are not – have either died of their condition or have committed suicide. They have become “economically neutral” in official jargon; this government don’t like to talk about people dying as a result of their policies, so have rather conveniently stopped providing statistics relating to such matters as well as making it much more difficult to uncover such statistics. But Mark Byford, on the other hand, the former Deputy Director of the BBC, was paid an eye-watering £1 million over and above his contractual entitlement because – in Orwellian terms – he’s a pig. Certainly not “stock”, anyway. The ruling animals look after their own. Some animals are, after all, more equal than others.

It’s difficult to say what the future may hold – and it may well be that we’re faced with a sort of Devil’s Alternative, looking for the least bad option the next time we go to the polls – if, that is, such quaint and old-fashioned ideas as elections aren’t done away with in the next batch of nasty little surprises the ruling pigs have for us. I am speaking allegorically, of course. But to say we’re at a crossroads is to show a huge talent for wild understatement. At the moment, official figures are being manipulated to show what the government wants us to see – if they want us to believe that the threat of sanctions, or the effects of Workfare are helping people into jobs, then that’s what those figures will say – with an utter disregard for the truth and the casual brushing-aside of any peeps of protest from those who are aware of the truth. The mainstream media, also, can be relied upon to perpetuate the Big Lie, in all of its loathsome forms – and sadly, people appear happy to swallow this bilge as long as they themselves are not directly affected by the more swingeing examples of government policy. To the despair of those who wish to see transparency in government, and the interests of all strata of society advising policy – the opposite is happening, and that trend remains on the up and up.

What seems certain is that now is no time to be thinking of a new way, or some ballot-box chicanery based on the provision of a “none of the above” option. Nothing would be better calculated to succour our current rulers than such idealistic measures; instead, what is now needed is emergency pragmatism in the quest for that “least bad option” towards the desirable end of ushering out this unscrupulous and incompetent regime. So much damage has been done already, unwittingly forecast in uncanny detail by George Orwell in the mid-forties – and in such a relatively short time – that it’s too horrible to contemplate what might happen post 2015 if Napoleon, Squealer and Co actually manage to get elected next time around. More Workfare, more poverty for those at the bottom, more ostentatiously obscene wealth for those at the top – that could be the least of it.

And ultimately, there will be many thousands more poor, sick, disabled or simply old who will die for want of fair government for all. Perhaps they will reflect as their lights go out, on the essential truth of an old Latin tag: “Qui mori didicit, servire dedidicit” (Who has learned how to die has learned how not to be a slave). For many, that might quite literally be the only way out.