xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: July 2013

Friday, 26 July 2013

Singing a song for Soccer

A couple of nights ago 95 000 soccer fans packed out the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch the famous English Premier League team, Liverpool Football Club, play a game against local side, Melbourne Victory. It was a memorable occasion, made even more so by the spine tingling pre game singing of Liverpool’s theme song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, by most of the 95 000 red scarf waving Liverpool fans. As is often the case with soccer, the build up was far more exciting than the game, which was almost a 90 minute, two goals to nil, anti climax.
From the outset, may I say I am not a keen follower of soccer; the round ball version of football which the Football Federation of Australia adamantly insists should never be referred to as “soccer”. Well, I am sorry FFA, but soccer is the name that was derived from the word “association” in the English Football Association by the English people themselves. The AFF insists that its brand of football is not called soccer in the UK and it should not be called soccer in Australia. Well I have been to the UK and I have heard men, women and children there talking about soccer. What is more, I have been to North America and it is also referred to as soccer in Canada, the USA, and the West Indies and in many other parts of the world.
Even stranger is the fact than the non soccer recognising FFA has a national team which is known as, wait for it, The Socceroos. Obviously, the Football Federation of Australia is playing word games, attempting to put the boots into the Australian Football League, or the AFL, as it is widely referred to. The AFL is the supreme governing body for “Australian Rules Football” which now almost invariably is referred to as AFL football.
In a way it is strange, and perhaps indicative of Australians being known as a “Weird Mob”, that the Australian game is called Australian Rules, because the game is actually governed by Laws, not Rules. A booklet entitled “The Laws of Australian Football.” was drawn up in Melbourne in 1858 by three cricketers who were looking for some form of sport to occupy their winter months. The laws have been changed quite a bit over the years but they still are collectively known as the Laws of Football. Ironically, the AFL has a Rules Committee which is charged with amending these Laws from time to time. Too frequently, in the opinion of many.
Soccer is obviously a very skilful game but, for me at least, I have found it too slow to maintain my interest for long periods. Scoring is very difficult and often when a team does score it reverts to very defensive tactics which makes the game unattractive to spectators. My solution to this problem would be to do, as field hockey did about twenty years ago, and get rid of the Offside rule. With no restrictions on players approaching the goal, more goals would be scored and teams would be more attacking for longer periods.
However, my lack of enthusiasm for soccer has not diminished its world wide appeal. It is the most popular football game in the entire world. Indeed, it is smugly referred to as “The World Game”. To combat soccer’s universal popularity, Rugby fans insist that “Rugby is the game that is played in heaven”. That may, or may not be true, but obviously, Australian Rules is the game that God watches, because AFL also stands for the Almighty’s Football League.
One thing that can be said for soccer is that it has produced the most musical fans in sport. Faced with long periods of no scoring and interminable back passing, British soccer fans devised songs and chants to while away the extremely long periods of silence that would normally separate the rare moments of ecstatic jubilation when a goal is finally scored. For years I used to watch the televised coverage of the FA Cup just so that I could enjoy the huge crowd singing “Abide with Me” before the kick off. Sadly, in recent years I have missed this wonderful occasion. Either, I have tuned in too late, or in our increasingly godless society, the organisers fear that not enough people will know all the words. I hope that this is not so.
For many years soccer was marred by hooligans who used to engage in vicious brawls and violent acts of vandalism to fill in the boring moments between goals being scored. Football authorities were forced to erect barriers to separate rival team supporters. Deprived of physical activity, supporters soon developed chants and songs to help pass the time during the game. So enjoyable have these communal choral events become that I suspect that some fans would turn up even if there was no game on at all, just to enjoy the social collegiality of drinking, singing and chanting with their mates.
Soccer behaviour was even worse in Europe and South America, where crowd violence often involved fireworks, incendiary devices and fire arms. I recall reading about a soccer game in Quito, Ecuador, when after a goal was scored from a controversial penalty; one enraged barracker jumped the fence and ran onto the field brandishing a gun above his head. Terrified players, the referee and linesmen all ducked for cover as the desperate fan raised his pistol, took deliberate aim...and shot the ball!
Australian football is fast paced, usually with frequent scoring, so barrackers do not get a lot of time for singing and chanting. We know that there are Laws, not Rules governing Australian Rules football. Of course many people seeing Australian Rules Football for the first time would need absolutely no convincing that there are no rules in Australian football whatsoever. In some games, whatever rules there are seem to change, or become nonexistent, according to umpire interpretations, as the game progresses. With three umpires on the ground this can lead to new interpretations of new interpretations every quarter. Instead of singing and chanting, Aussie football barrackers are usually in a constant frenzy of abuse, yelling out, “Push in the back, “Holdin’ the ball”, “Holdin’ the man”, “Droppin’ the ball”, “Throwin’; the ball” and “Fair go, Umpire”. As far as I am aware, no one has ever attempted to put any of this to music.
However, in recent years AFL teams have developed a team song which is sung at the conclusion of each winning game. Television channels know that they will incur the wrath of their viewers if they do not televise battle weary players, in their circle of solidarity, belting out their victorious team song.
Unfortunately, “belting out” is the appropriate phrase, for unlike their song loving soccer counterparts, Australian footballers seem unable to sing their song with any reference to the melody. They choose to tunelessly yell and shout them out, while throwing red cordial over selected team mates and occasionally sticking their fingers in the eyes and ear holes of their neighbours. It is a demonstration of something, but of what exactly, I am not entirely sure.
To a music lover like me, this is especially sad, because some of these team songs are among some of the greatest melodies ever composed. Carlton’s “Lilly of Laguna”, Collingwood’s “Goodbye, Dolly Gray”, Brisbane’s “Les Marseilles”, Sydney’s “Old Notre Dame” and Melbourne’s “Grand Old Flag” are songs that could either raise an emotional tear, or send you happily into battle, if sung with the passion and tunefulness of a Liverpuddlian footballing chorus.
Some of the other AFL team songs are not quite so grand. As a West Coast Eagle supporter, I have to admit that “We’re the Eagles” has the tuneful mediocrity of a television motor car commercial. The Fremantle Dockers, of course sing the classic “Song of the Volga Boatman” which includes the unsporting and incriminating lines to ‘Hit ‘em real hard, hit ‘em down below”. Just singing those lines should incur a two week ban from the Match Review Panel.
I doubt that Australian footballers will ever belt out their team songs with the melodic beauty of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, but I do admire the rich tunefulness of those English soccer, er, excuse me,  football crowds. I don’t know if any more famous English football teams are scheduled to visit Australia in the near future. If I want to hear uplifting singing at the football I may need to hang on till next year’s FA Cup telecast.
Abide with me!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Ashton Agar and cricket's next generation.

The cricket world stands completely in awe of the remarkable test match debut of nineteen year old Ashton Agar. Primarily picked for his left arm off spin bowling, Agar stunned the England test team and sent Australian cricket fans into raptures of delight when, batting at number 11, he scored a brilliant 98 runs in his very first test innings. In doing so he also reversed the direction of the match.

He came to the crease with his team struggling. Australia had collapsed sensationally to be 9 for 117, having lost five batsmen for 9 runs in twenty five minutes. Australia was almost 100 runs behind England and looking very fragile when Agar launched himself into cricket history.

With a sound defensive technique and vast array of sensible attacking strokes, he became the highest scoring Number 11 batsman in test match history. In 136 years of Test Cricket no other batsman had scored more than 40 runs on debut, batting at number 11. Then Agar went on to become the highest scoring Number 11 batsman of all time.

Together with his batting partner, Phil Hughes, Agar scored 163 runs to break the previous record last wicket partnership in test cricket history of 151 runs. When he was dismissed Australia was remarkably 65 runs ahead of England on the first innings. Those at the ground, or watching on television, had seen it but they could hardly believe it.

Ashton Agar is clearly a gifted and talented cricketer who seems destined for a long and successful career. He has two younger brothers who are also keen cricketers. Perhaps the rumours are only partly true that Australia’s new cricket coach, Darren Lehmann, is already arranging net sessions for these younger Agar brothers, with a view to playing them in the second Test.

Ashton Agar’s brilliant batting debut, in contrast to the slack dismissals of most of his team mates, leaves Australian cricket followers wondering what has happened to the batting prowess of the once all powerful Australians. In my view the fault lies entirely with Cricket Australia which has become more interested in making money than nurturing talented cricketers.

Cricket Australia is reaping in billions of dollars from television networks interested in purchasing the broadcast rights to One Day cricket and 20/20 cricket. It has, has in recent years, been more focussed on money and lost interest its primary mission, to develop the game of cricket nationwide and produce talented cricketers.

Former test captain, Ian Chappell, in a column in the Sunday Times on June 1st,
reflected on the decline of Australian cricket. He spoke of the team disharmony, the recent sacking of coach, Mickey Arthur, and “the shortage of exciting young stroke makers and strong leaders in the pipeline.”

Chappell ended his column lamenting that, “The development of exciting young batsmen was once a given in Australian cricket, but that is no longer the case.”

During the recent disastrous Indian tour, four test cricketers were suspended because the did not participate in a team building activity. And rightly so, as Bill Lawry may have said. After the Test side’s drubbing in India, maybe it is time for the executive committee of Cricket Australia to be given its own “test team building” homework assignment.

All board members should be asked to suggest three ways in which Australian Test cricket could be improved. Anyone not providing the appropriate answers should be suspended for life. Of course, the appropriate answers are:- 1. Sheffield Shield.  2. Sheffield Shield. 3. Sheffield Shield.

For most of the 20th Century Australia produced outstanding test teams and a huge number of test cricketers who all displayed skill and aggression on the field and who were repected around the cricketing world. This came about because each cricket season the best Australian cricketers played up to ten games against each other in the tough competition of the Sheffield Shield. Until the 1980s one of the most eagerly awaited games of the season was the Boxing Day Sheffield Shield match between N.S.W. and Victoria, which invariably involved about nine or ten test players competing with or against each other. Very character building.

Because of its pursuit of money, via television contracts, Cricket Australia in recent years has concentrated on 20/20 big bash games and the one day fifty over competitions at international and national levels. Sheffield Shield games are played around these fixtures and test cricketers, at the insistence of Cricket Australia, are usually not involved.

In the 2011/2012 Australian cricket season, once the limited overs games were out of the way and the Sheffield Shield competition resumed, Cricket Australia removed 34 of  its top players from the next round of shield games. Some players were on their way to India, some were listed to play for Australia A in an inconsequential game against a West Indian team.

Cricket Australia does not seem to care about the Sheffield Shield. Why? The answer simply is that it does not make any money. That may be true. However, Sheffield Shield cricket does produce top quality test players and that is something Cricket Australia should be vitally interested in.

Over recent summers very few of our top cricketers have played any Sheffield Shield games at all. Some who could have played were “rested”. Early this year Peter Siddle arrived in Perth with his state team to play in a Sheffield Shield match at the WACA ground. Before the game started Siddle was ordered by Cricket Australia not to participate as they did not want him “over bowled.”

Cricket Australia’s policy of resting its players needs to be revisited. In earlier days all the champion player like Denis Lillee, Ian Chappell, Doug Walters and company all played in five tests each summer, plus most of the ten Sheffield Shield games. When they were not playing national or international cricket they played each weekend for their club teams in grade cricket. There was no thought of rotation or resting of players. These days players only play test matches and the shorter forms of the game which has tended to cause their batting techniques to decay.

The lack of experience in hard fought, four day Sheffield Shield contests has resulted in Australia having a test team in which the openers give too many slips catches by swiping wildly at balls outside the off stump or playing lusty pull shots at balls pitched on a good length and headed for their middle or off stumps. The disastrous results of this inept batting is painful for us to watch.

Australia is in the process of playing ten consecutive test matches against England, between July and the first week of January next year. These test will be followed by the slash and bash 20/20 contests and the fifty over one day games. Sheffield Shield matches will be played before the First Test in Brisbane and after the last one day games in February. It is a safe bet that test players will again be rested from Sheffield Shield duties. Another season will pass and our “top” cricketers will again miss out on gaining valuable experience in “test match” conditions in Sheffield Shield games. What is more, our up and coming younger players will be deprived of the valuable experience of playing with and against our very best players.

The outlook for our test players is gloomy. Many of them now lack the technique, or the patience, to construct a major innings in at test match. They will never develop these qualities while playing exclusively in twenty over and fifty over games.

So far young Ashton Agar’s cricketing experiences have chiefly been in the traditional form of the game.We can only hope that his sound batting technique is not ruined in future by his over exposure to the frenetic slash and bash culture of the shorter forms of cricket.The great pity is that young Ashton Agar will probably now play very few Sheffield Shield games. Cricket Australia will play him in test matches, one dayers and 20/20 matches and then rest him from the shield games.

What we really hope for, of course, is that Cricket Australia will resume its role of nurturing our next generation of cricketers by providing them with more and more opportunities in Sheffield Shield matches so they may develop real cricketing skills that will allow them to perform at world class levels in test matches.

Don’t hold your breath.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The sport of Eagles Bashing

It seems that Eagles bashing has quickly replaced Julia Gillard bashing as Australia’s favourite spectator sport. 

Journalist, Neale Prior, wrote in The West Australian newspaper in early June that we West Coast Eagles supporters are too old, we do not cheer and we leave early if our team is losing.Well of course we are older than Dockers’ supporters. We joined up in 1987. They joined up in 1995. Give it a few years.

My family and I in sit in the three tier stand at each home game amid a flock of Eagles’ fans who yell and shout and jeer as passionately as anyone. There is a good sprinkling of young and very young amongst us greybeards. It seems to me that supporters of other clubs who proudly boast that they are younger and more passionate than Eagles supporters are not demonstrating their team loyalty so much as their giant inferiority complex.

As for leaving early? Do people not watch the TV matches and see streams of supporters of various clubs flooding the exits after three quarter time whenever their side is well beaten? Even Collingwood fans do it.

I usually stay to the bitter end, but I left the WA Day Monday night game just after three quarter time as my eight year old grandson, who had school the next day, was almost fast asleep and we had to walk one and half kilometres back to the car

Please AFL, no more late Monday night games.

One thing in the Eagles’ favour is that their fans always turn up to the games. Even in the darkest days of the Wooden Spoon of 2010, Eagles crowds at Subiaco Oval were in the mid to high thirty thousands. This is in stark contrast to another WA based AFL team that battled to get a quorum when their team was struggling a few seasons back. Contrast it too with Port Adelaide. A couple of years ago, Port were losing regularly and attracting only a handful of spectator. This year they are having much more success and their fair weather followers are flocking back.

More recently, TV commentators and newspaper journalists were up in arms because some Eagles supporters booed Brownlow Medallist, Jobe Watson, when Essendon played West Coast at Subiaco Oval.

First off, not all Eagles fans booed. I didn’t and neither did any of the people sitting in my block in the three tier stand. TV commentators were quick to criticise the booing Eagles fans. After all, Jobe is a great footballer, a fair footballer and the son of legendary Essendon player, and now TV commentator, Tim Watson. Perhaps the TV commentators were sticking up for their media workmate?

At first I was not sure what the booing was all about, because Watson, apart from playing brilliantly, had not done anything that I saw to upset the Eagles fans. Then I twigged. They were booing him because earlier in the week young Watson had admitted to taking a banned substance. It was very similar to the performance enhancing drug that Shane Warne had blamed his mother for giving to him and which earned Warne an immediate twelve months ban from cricket. Yet here was Jobe Watson, a confessed user of a banned substance, running around and playing football against the Eagles on Subiaco Oval. Boo!

As Denis Cometti suggested in his weekly newspaper column, those Eagles fans were not booing Watson so much as they were directing their anger towards AFL CEO, Andrew Demetriou, who had remained silent and taken no action whatsoever, even though Watson had admitted on national television to taking the banned drug.

The AFL’s position is, apparently, that there is an independent inquiry proceeding into drug abuse in the AFL and they will await the outcome of that inquiry. Fair enough, but some will claim that this booing Eagles mob obviously thought that you have an inquiry to establish if anyone is taking performance enhancing drugs. Watson had clearly admitted that he was. Surely, when you know someone has taken banned drugs it is time take some action.

If Watson had been a racehorse, the stewards would certainly not have allowed him to run and would probably have suspended quite a few of his handlers. Those booing Watson were making a strong complaint about the AFL’s lack of action.

Meanwhile the Eagles bashing continued, in a somewhat refined and abstruse fashion, the following weekend when Fremantle played Geelong at Geelong. Early in the first quarter some Geelong barrackers started booing Dockers’ tagger, Ryan Crowley and midfielder, Haydn Ballentyne, two players, who as all Eagles supporters know, are ornaments of the AFL game.

One of the Fox TV commentators noted the booing and said it was a bit like the Eagles fans booing Watson. Not so said his co commentator, who maintained that the Eagles' booing of Watson was nasty and unsporting whereas “this booing by the Geelong crowd is rather good natured.”

Good natured booing? Yes folks, the very strong inference is that when other teams boo, it is good natured. When Eagles fans boo it is nasty and unsporting.

Reminds me a little of the time I broke up a schoolyard fight and asked the combatants how it had started . One litle fellow looked me straight in the eye and said, "It started when Brian hit me back."

To Eagles’ bashers everywhere, take my advice and worry about your own mob, some of whom boo and leave early when your side is getting a belting. The mighty West Coast Eagles team has given its fans plenty to cheer about over 27 seasons and we are not finished yet.

To those who do not like us, Boo Hoo to you too!