A curious communion. 

Grimsby v Solihull, June 2022

When anyone asks me which team I support, I always flinch slightly at the verb. I don’t ‘support’ Grimsby Town. The word suggests a pastime, a hobby, a magnanimous gesture.  My relationship with this team is something entirely different, as if they were an inexorable part of me, and me of them. They’re not an appendage, because that suggests something physical, but rather a part of my personality.  I’d prefer this not to sound too holistic or spiritual, but for those who worship at altars outside of the church of football, it’s a notion that cannot easily be understood. 

Put it like this. I first went along to watch this team at their noble but rickety old ground (Blundell Park) in 1966, and was smitten by the colours, the pipe-smoke bonhomie and the curious sensation, hitherto unexperienced, of the weird tribal consensus that unites football supporters. I’ll use that noun as a necessary default, but under protest. Anyway – I picked up on this togetherness immediately, and it smelled as sweet as the pipe-smoke. It was not a quality I’d detected in the species, up to that point.  

Blundell Park, circa 1970

Blundell Park was not, and never will be, a glamorous venue, but its crumbling 3rd Division chic was enough for me, even when they were almost immediately relegated to the 4th – a more humiliating- sounding category than League 2, its post-modern equivalent.   And I still do not know how I came to be there every fortnight, in congregation with 4,000 other lost souls, leaving their troubles behind in their kit-bags and gathering in that strange unison that only a football crowd bestows. Cloth-capped wags shouted witty remarks about incomprehensible things, and everyone smiled and laughed.  I’d not seen this before, and so in spite of the Siberian terraces in winter, brutally exposed to the grey North Sea, I wanted to be a part of Grimsby Town, however much time and money I knew it would waste.

I remember the first time I tried to break this emotional umbilical cord.  The internet informs me that it was February 1, 1969.  It was during a particularly wretched season, but the sun shone during the first half and we took the lead against Bradford City.  I was behind the goal and I remember it with embarrassing clarity.  By the 90th minute we were 1-5 down, the skies had opened and the hellish scene resembled something from Dante.  People had drifted away as the visitors were joyously banging in the goals in the funereal silence – and for one brief moment, staring through the nets behind the goal – I tried to switch off the life-support system, tried to pretend that I didn’t care.  How could such profound misery be a self-inflicted thing?  Better to take up stamp-collecting or chess, like my more sensible mates. 

I was there

But of course I didn’t, and ever since, my life has been measured in weekly doses of Saturday to Saturday (more or less) – a comforting rhythm of joy and deflation, deflation and joy.  Summers were torture, waiting for the publication of the fixture list and the restoration of the weekly dose.  As Einstein might have said, time is an inconvenience between football matches.

For the last thirty years I have lived in San Sebastían, and have naturally become a supporter of the city’s side too. My son was involved in their youth set-up, I am a season-ticket holder – and although they play top-flight football I also see their flaws and share in the pain of their defeats.  When people ask me which team I prefer, Grimsby or Real Sociedad, I tend to shrug because comparisons of that sort are invariably odious.  Like an unfaithful partner trying to justify his polygamy, I simply love them both differently. They are both a part of me, snuggled down in the soul, wherever that is.  I will only cast them adrift when I shuffle off this mortal Danny Coyle, and that’s ok.  

Real Sociedad. Different kind o’ love.

Slide the video forward to last Sunday. In the depths of Hackney Wick, in a state of mild culture-shock after three years of avoiding England, I pass a pub heaving with young-buck Grimsby fans, noisily celebrating the temporary kinship that a play-off final affords, northern castaways finding brethren in the murky southlands – talking the same bollocks, drinking the same beer, dreaming the same dream of an unlikely victory in the London Stadium.  It’s the National League play-off final, and the insane 4-5 victory at a Hollywood financed Wrexham the week before has persuaded me to fly over at short notice to attend the event.  I haven’t seen Town in the flesh for 5 years, but I simply cannot stop myself from buying air tickets and negotiating the tricky logistics of getting to the game.  To stay away would, as it were, be a denial of my own existence.

A curious communion

I am rewarded with a raucous 2-1 win, meeting up with some old mates who remarkably recognise me, and the post-coital afterglow of victory, even if it was against Solihull. As unsexy as they sound, Solihull were probably the best side in the Division after Stockport, and Grimsby’s win was once again achieved on the wings of a comeback. It was good to be there, amongst a sea of younger faces that I no longer recognise but with whom I share this curious communion.  The club seems to be on the rise again, with intelligent new local owners and a groundswell of fans who seem genuinely wedded to the club.  Grimsby can be as rough as arseholes, but is nevertheless a special kind of place. I left the town long ago, but it’s never quite left me, nor do I want it to. 

Maguire-Drew gets the winner for Grimsby

A few years ago, I responded to a question on the platform ‘Quora’ as to which team I supported and why.  I responded as below, and I stick by the thesis. 

Grimsby Town. Because they’re crap. And supporting crap teams (because you were brought up in the town and had no choice) is good for your general outlook on life. It teaches you to be wary of unrealistic or unhealthy expectations. It helps you to appreciate the wins (and the happiness that accompanies them) because they are few and far between, and so you understand that joy is a fleeting thing. It helps you to be an optimist, curiously, because despite the years of barren nothingness, you continue to entertain the fantasy that one day your team may be great, that there will be abundance as they bestride the world like a colossus. The fantasy is enough. You know it won’t happen, but it keeps you going, like a sort of life-carrot. You also belong to a smaller community of sufferers – and you understand each other perfectly. This increases your capacity for empathy.

So I cannot imagine why anyone would wish to support Real Madrid, Bayern or PSG, for example. You would learn very little, and all the above advantages would be absent or reversed.

Support a crap team. You know it makes sense.”

Phil Ball, San Sebastian, June 2022

It’s The Balls! 2021-2022 LaLiga round-up.

It’s The Balls! 2021-2022 LaLiga round-up.

 Never mind the bullocks – it’s The Balls

Omicron arrived on a free transfer, the crowds came back, masks were breathed into and sarnies smuggled whilst Real Madrid, and not their noisy neighbours Atlético, won the title with an ease that was not on the cards in pre-season.  Strange and unexpected things also took place – Vinicius suddenly decided to be a world-class player, Luis Súarez finally looked just a little too tubby and Xavi Hernandez returned from the desert to claw back his beloved Messi-less Barça from the brink of implosion to the runners-up spot.  Several teams with Euro-competition squads were rubbish, for example Valencia and Celta, with Villarreal the unlikely heroes of the Champions League but failing to make an impact in the league. 

Funny things also happened. Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish Footy Federation – (‘Rubi’ to his footballing friends) – is still in a job after dodgy conversations with his mate Piqué (‘Geri’ to his executive friends) were leaked to the press. Like Britain’s Boris Johnson, he saw out the storm with a bit of defensive bluster, but Johnson has better hair. ‘Geri and Rubi’ is rumoured to be the name of a new ice-cream company next season, with its main factory in Andorra.  A related item was the post-season press conference where the head of the Spanish Refereeing Committee, Luis Medina Cantalejo, concluded that it had been an ‘excellent’ season’ in terms of the quality of the officials’ overall performances, which was interesting coming from an ex-referee who was himself famously incompetent.  It’s difficult to know which season (or planet) he was alluding to, but whatever he was smoking pre-conference, we’d all love to buy some.  Perhaps they could include the flavour in the Geri-Rubi ice-cream, since the three of them all seem to share roughly the same interests.  ‘Helados Geri-Rubi, con sabor Cantalejo’.   Ok…that’s enough.

Rubi and Geri. The new ice-cream flavour from Andorra

Another interesting aspect of the season was the do-not-go-gently-into-that-good night behaviour of various veterans, written off as part-time bit players for the campaign only to emerge as the determining factors. Modric was majestic, as was Benzema, whose journey from domestic moggy to man-eating wild cat was finally consummated.  Marcelo made a few panto appearances and Kroos was ok, but elsewhere David Silva (when he played) was imperial for Real Sociedad, and Busquets confounded those who had predicted that he would meekly fade away, not forgetting the ancient Dani Alves, of course.  Morales was wonderful for Levante (despite their relegation) and Oscar Trejo at Rayo….but atop this particular podium, of course, was Betis’ Joaquin, the forty year-old national treasure who is yet to announce his retirement.  One hopes he will continue playing, since his inevitable transfer to the commentary box may be problematic.  Joaquin will make Micah Richards look solemn, with the added drawback that no-one actually understands his unfathomable jokes. 

Joaquin – someone understood his joke

Whatever, all in all it wasn’t a bad season, given the departures of Ramos and Messi, with the loss of soundbites and spectacle respectively.  The top seven sides were the same, albeit in shuffled positions, and Real Madrid finished with 86 points, the same as Atlético last season, but 13 ahead of Barcelona, who should be praised, I suppose, for their second-half catch-up act and the shrewd signings that enabled it.  Sevilla finished 4th again, but with seven points fewer than last season and a nagging feeling that they haven’t quite found the right guy in Lopetegui.  And talking of coaches, the season saw the first talk of Cholo Simeone walking the tightrope, the long-awaited departure of grumpy-bags Koeman (what is it about Dutch managers?), a season of renewed butchery from Bordalás at Valencia and the return of ‘El Vasco’ Aguirre (he’s actually Mexican) to save Mallorca, and he did – just.  Oh, and Ancelotti did okay I suppose.

Koeman and Bordalás. Only a mother would love ’em

Whatever – here are the annual Balls, arranged in their usual categories:

  1. La Liga’s 5 most predictable outcomes:
  1. The player with the most yellow cards (Omar Alderete) was from…… Valencia, surprise surprise. Mind you, Getafe didn’t quite forget the Bordalás shuffle, and had three players on the top-five yellow-carded podium. Valencia and Getafe occupied positions 1 and 2 for the most carded teams. You have to admire consistency.
  • Mbappé staying at PSG, and playing Real Madrid off against them, in order to fatten his wage-packet further.  Who can blame him?  Now Real Madrid have gone into offended mode, because they’ve suddenly noticed that PSG are richer than they are.  Funny one that, and a slightly twisted view of their own domestic history.  Oh well, where would we be without a lack of self-awareness?
Me? Going to Real Madrid?
  • Iñaki Williams played a part in every league game of the season, making it six seasons now without missing a league game. This has won him much admiration, although observers less impressed say that it’s a result of Athletic’s youth policy that stubbornly fails to  produce decent strikers to compete with him.  Discuss.
  • Gareth Bale would play more games for Wales than Real Madrid, and would suffer an attack of backache when the post-title celebrations were in full-flow.  He’s just a shy boy.  He doesn’t like parties.
  • Joaquin would repeat his legendary bollock-naked shot with the cup trophy, 14 years on.  Not for the faint-hearted.
Joaquin let’s ’em hang, 14 years later
  • La Liga’s five biggest surprises:
  1. The relegation of Granada.  After a decent season in 20-21, they did struggle but even at the death they had the easiest fixture list with which to save themselves.  If they now lose important squad members, they might not find it so easy to bounce back this time.
  • Vinicius.  An extraordinary transformation from national joke to top performer, almost overnight.  His relationship with Benzema became uncannily psychic, and in many ways Vini was the motor of the side, always a threat, always running with intent – a weird and unlikely metamorphosis from random road-runner to wolf-pack leader. 
Vini – the surprise leader of the pack
  • Atlético’s anodyne defence of their title.  They fought well in Europe but with Suarez fading and Oblak suddenly mortal, nobody really stepped up. Not quite sure what they’ll need next season.  A new coach?
  • Luis Enrique continues to ignore Iago Aspas.
  • Real Madrid making it to the Champs League Final – which is not a statement of disrespect – but every cliff-path seemed to be leading to a massive drop onto the rocks.  That they always found that blade of grass to cling onto was remarkable.  Watch out Liverpool….you’re forewarned.
  • Seven-and-a-half interesting facts for the season
  1. Real Sociedad scored 16 goals at home all season, and yet they won 10 and drew 6 of the 19 games.  Work that one out.  Never in the field of human conflict have so many points been secured for so few goals scored.
  • Real Madrid committed the least fouls (394) of any side all season.  Either a lesson to us all, or dodgy refs. Discuss.
  • Real Sociedad only conceded 9 goals at home, which means that if you add to the statistic for Number 1, their supporters had a fairly tedious season.  Hey – they played good football though.  I was there…
  • Barcelona women won the league scoring 159 and conceding 11.  They got so little practice in the domestic stroll that they went and blew the Champs League final.  There’s a lesson in there somewhere, although I’m not sure what it is.
Record crowd at the Camp Nou to watch the ladies v Real Madrid
  • Toni Kroos is apparently an excellent darts player.  I said that last year but it’s still true.
  • Vinicius ran with the ball for 10,165 metres this season.  Nobody ran more.
  • Oblak’s shot-stopping % dropped from 80% last season to 58% this.  Maybe it wasn’t Simeone’s fault after all.
  • Five new talents to have emerged
  1. Gavi.  Last year it was Pedri, so this year it’s Gavi.  They both end in ‘i’ in case you hadn’t noticed.  
  2. Martin Zubimendi.  Also ends in ‘i’.  There’s a pattern here. He was in the list last season but I’m going to include him again, just so that Luis Enrique, a regular reader of this column (of course) will take note.  Or is he seriously going to take Koke instead of this guy?  Demonstrate on the streets, now!  Oh – and I know his dad (Zubimendi’s, not Koke’s).
Gavi & Zubimendi. It’s all about the final letter.

3. Camavinga.  I liked him. Why didn’t he play more?

4. Yunus Musah: Hard as nails, and does everything well.  Was impossible to dislike him, despite the regime he was playing under at Valencia, although paradoxically, it might have been the making of him.

5. Yeremi Pino: Partly in there for his name (Jeremy Pine-Tree) but he’s yet another starlet to emerge from the Villarreal set-up.  From Las Palmas originally, but 40 games this season at 19 years of age and a scary talent.

Jeremy Pine-Tree
  • The best goal of the campaign.

Everybody always gets cross about this one, but whatever….I can never remember half of them.  Benzema seemed to score dozens of great ones, I liked Griezmann’s away at Valencia, Vinicius at home to Sevilla was great too, and technically-speaking it’s hard to better Oliver Torres’ volley against Levante…but I guess we have to go for Atlético’s Correa’s against Villarreal.  Parejo makes a mess of a square ball in the centre-circle, Correa intercepts, looks up and sees Rulli off his line (as usual). But the shot is extraordinary.  We’ll give it to him. Any other contenders?  Answers on a postcard.  

Goal of the season. Well done sir
  • Top fashion tips
  1. Antoine Griezmann: Recently employed by Mango as their face of summer ‘22, Griezmann has changed his look from retro-pornstar to a cross between an ooh-la-la French chef and the keyboard player from Sparks (Ron Mael).  Cool.
Antoine Griezmann. But which one?
  • Asier Villalibre (Athletic): Villalibre looks like some frighteningly knowledgeable computer-hack hipster, who leaves training to spend the rest of the day in Bilbao’s Starbucks branch looking serious but casual in front of his Macbook Air.  His beard is rumoured to harbour a nest of sparrows – Basque-bred ones of course.
Asier ‘Freetown’ Villalibre. Coming to a Starbucks near you.
  • Ed Camavinga: Nice lad, but that stuff at the back of his head makes it look as though there’s a firework display emerging therefrom.  If he wants to get noticed, he could just score more goals.

All comments and abuse most welcome.  

Phil Ball, San Sebastián


No Karim no party?

Real Madrid’s decision to wear black for the clásico at home – unprecedented if you ignore the time they once wore pink – gave the headline writers some cheap and instant metaphors for their weekend round-ups.  The obvious one being that they’d dressed up for their 120 year anniversary with a kit designed for the occasion, but ended the game in funeral colours.  Madrid remain nine points clear of Sevilla who could only draw at home to Real Sociedad, but the 0-4 result says a lot about this season’s rather curious dynamic.

Continue reading “No Karim no party?”

Good day Barça sunshine

If Real Madrid win their visit to Mallorca on Monday night – or if by the time you’re reading this they already have – you might be tempted to conclude that the race for the title, if thus it can be called, is over.  In truth it hasn’t really been a race, and Sevilla don’t really look as though they can sustain any meaningful challenge now, with ten games to go. If Mallorca were to surprise us all, then hope might spring eternal, but it would still be a long shot.  Even a bad result in next Sunday’s clásico for the leaders – entirely possible given Barcelona’s current form but equally improbable given their visit to Turkey on Thursday – would not cripple Madrid’s pretensions. 

Continue reading “Good day Barça sunshine”

Of cows’ arses and banjos

Funny old thing, isn’t it – the way that certain teams become a byword for a certain approach, or a certain ability – and then they suddenly forget how to do it, for no apparent reason?  But football’s a funny old game, and that’s why we love it so.  I refer principally to the rather splendid game at the Wanda on Saturday which saw Atlético Madrid, desperate for a tranquil victory as in their duller but effective days of yore, win 4-3 at the death with ten men on the pitch.  Suddenly they can’t defend, but they can score. As the Spanish say, ‘Mundo al revés’ (It’s a topsy-turvy world).    They’ve now shipped eleven in the last four games, and ice-man Oblak has suddenly turned all fallible, as if it had been a sham all along. 

Continue reading “Of cows’ arses and banjos”

Oh Dani Boy

Oh what a lovely weekend, with lots of interesting games and results to keep LaLiga lovers happy – where the sun finally broke through the clouds at Barcelona, shining on the Catalan paupers as they fielded their glossy new collection of Premier League rejects.  Only Griezmann was missing from the party, but Luis Suarez did manage to score against his old mates, even apologising as he ran back to the centre-circle…….but nobody seemed particularly interested.

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Paco Gento and a bookshop in Leeds

Quite a compelling weekend’s action in Spain, with some knife-edge encounters but also the death of Paco Gento, mourned at the beginning of the Elche match in the Bernabéu.  One of Spain’s most iconic players, his fame and influence bestrode two eras – from the post-war crackling radio generation to the emergence of a television public – from the black and white recordings of Real Madrid’s European dominance to the era of colour, or more precisely, from the 1956 European Cup final in Paris to the 1971 Cup Winners Cup final against Chelsea. When his teammate  Alfredo di Stéfano died in 2014 it felt as though something had ended – that tangible mix of pipe-smoke and maleness that characterised the game in general, or the sense, more specifically, that there could never be players like him again, players who stood apart from systems or who refused to conform to them. But Gento was still standing. There was still something left.

Continue reading “Paco Gento and a bookshop in Leeds”

Matchday 22

In our last Quiniela, Phil and I started to compete on our weekly predictions. It wasn’t an auspicious start by any stretch of the imagination: after a decent 2/3 in Saturday’s matches, both of us only got one result right in the remaining seven matches, ending up tied at 3/10. This weekend looks a lot easier, or at least I keep telling myself so.

Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.

Continue reading “Matchday 22”

Starting at the other end

Just for a change I think it might be nice to start at the other end of the football scale and leave the big boys for later on – a bit like starting Match of the Day with Watford v Burnley. That’s going to annoy somebody, but you know what I mean.  Another reason is that there are no league games now for a fortnight because the next round of the King’s Cup will be played next weekend, so there’s time for pause and reflection.

Continue reading “Starting at the other end”