Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hero or villain?

Many people believe that England’s demise as a football nation can largely be attributed to one man.

Now if I was to ask you who you thought it were, it’s hardly likely you’ll choose a man who achieved greater notoriety as a singer of daft songs on a late night football comedy program than he did on the playing pitches of England. A man whose death appeared in the Sunday papers we read as we munched through breakfast in the Aer Lingus hotel in Kensington on our London trip in January 2002.

Yes, indeed, arise Sir Jeff Astle.

To understand the logic behind the theory, you’ve got to go back to 1970 and the World Cup in Mexico. England went there as World Champions, expectations were high and a second consecutive win would have surely have spurred them onto a prolonged period of higher achievement, at least in Europe.

And what happened - they finished second in their group thanks to a 1-0 defeat to Brazil and were consigned to a quarter final pairing in Leon with the Krauts, who as is the custom in post-66 days, sent them packing swiftly. A few years later Tomaszewski, followed by Norwegian commentator, Gazza’s crying in Italy and A Brazilian lobbing Seaman in the States.

So why blame Jeff Astle? Well here’s why. England v Brazil group game, second half, Brazil a goal up and the ball drops to Jeff, unmarked a few yards out. A nation holds its breadth – most of them 5500 miles away in the middle of the night. Only Felix, the weakest Brazilian in a brilliant team, to beat.

Displaying all the prowess of a dead cat, Jeff controls the ball and strokes it wide of the left hand post. And with that glaring miss (a sitter in schoolboy terms), England’s die is cast and the future is orange (flamboyant Dutchmen), and blue (artistic Frenchmen – 1998 not 2010) and green (plucky never-say-die Irishmen) but certainly not white or red. The Cross of St George has since then only been raised in anger. Competition after competition, they scourge themselves with new feats of underperformance.

Poor Jeff Astle – he deserves better. A lifetime devoted to the beautiful game on England’s mucky pitches and a possible cause of death linked (by the coroner) to the brain trauma he suffered as a result of repetitive heading of the heavy leather footballs used in the sixties. And at the end, he is remembered for one moment of indecision in the Mexican sun.

Jeff swinging from the big gates in the sky.