Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Chapter Twenty-Six of Hampton from the Halfway Line

Goodness. Is it time for another installment already? Isabel really let Novak have it in the previous chapter, didn't she. This bit, i should tell you, is for real lovers of football, as we take a trip back to 1992 -- then even further.


Canary Wharf, London

Trevor Ball sat down to his desk on a sunny, late spring morning in London and opened his e-mail. Third from the top read the subject heading, all in uppercase, BEN HAMPTON CHAPTER. He knew straightaway the message, or whatever it was, would be from that Rosalie McMahon. Trevor Ball did not quite know what to make of this woman. Yes, he did. He didn’t trust her, and she made him angry. Oh, sure, the firm had received a significant amount of publicity since word leaked out about this half-arsed Ben Hampton deal cooked up by Rosalie McMahon.
‘Where does she get off masquerading as a sports literary agent?’ he’d muttered to himself on more than one occasion.
At an initial meeting last September about the Julius Novak book, she referred to Liverpool’s home ground as ‘Banfield.’ Then, after being snittily called out by Trevor, excused herself by saying she’d just returned from a weekend in Dorset visiting her friend, Asha Banfield.
“She introduced me to all her cousins,” Rosalie laughed. “George Banfield. Doris Banfield. Lieutenant Malcolm Banfield. Banfield. Banfield. Banfield.”
After the meeting, Trevor went all around the office taking the temperature of the firm.
“Colonel Mortimer Banfield. Give me a break. Did anyone believe that rot?”
Actually, they all did. No one but Trevor Ball had given it a second thought, and everyone present found Rosalie immensely charming and fun stuff. In fact, rousing stories about Rosalie immediately circulated through the building, and, by the end of the day, she had become something like a cult phenomenon at JJI Sports Reform Press. They had not had this much excitement since Sir Rodney Walker was named chairman of the UK Sports Council and vowed to clean up junior international netball.
Trevor Ball double-clicked the Word-file attachment and selected the Print command. While the file printed on his DeskJet, he scanned the rest of his mail. He thought about letting Ben’s pages sit there and going back to what he’d been working on, i.e., the public outreach campaign materials he’d been assigned to edit on behalf of the Synthetic Turf Council. Since having that responsibility land on his plate, Trevor had come to agree with the STC’s feeling of increasing concern about the amount of synthetic turf misinformation. Why, he wondered, are such vast amounts of credible research not being shared with the general public?
Still, Jonathan James believed Trevor was the man for the Ben Hampton/Julius Novak project. For reasons known only to the self-important editor, the mood Mr. Ball had been attempting to strike since the advent of this potential, retail gold mine was insouciance. Unfortunately, his pose came off as studied. That is what his colleagues nudged and winked at one another over, not about Rosalie McMahon’s saucy and infectious optimism.
In spite of his desire to seem cool about rubbing elbows with the big boys, Trevor grabbed the printed pages from the manuscript and began reading.
Working title:  “90 Minutes of Posing.”


The worst thing about writing this book, along with all the privacy-depleting, as well as soul-depleting speculation, was the realization that I would have to research (that means re-watch the videos of) two of the more wretched days in Arsenal’s recent history. For my purposes, recent history means everything that went on between the 1990 World Cup in Italy and Nayim chipping Seaman from the halfway line. And then bring the narrative of football forward a bit with carefully selected, pithy references.
For those of you not up on your football - and, believe me, there’s nothing at all wrong with that -- the Nayim thing was in extra time, just before what would have been the commencement of penalty kicks (which we probably would have lost anyway) of a Cup Final in Paris on 10 May, 1995.
If we added up all the wretched days in my time as an Arsenal supporter … well, first of all, that wouldn’t be very much fun, would it? But if some footy masochist were to undertake such a macabre arts and crafts project, taping the wretched days to a poster board, then Nayim chipping Seaman from the halfway line would definitely qualify – if for nothing else, its sheer quotient of the spectacular and ridiculous.
But there was something else. Nayim had spent several seasons up the Seven Sisters Road in north London as a rather good Tottenham player, soldiering forth for more than a hundred matches for Spurs in their Gazza and Lineker days. He actually came on for the injured Gascoigne in that FA Cup Final at Wembley. Nothing could have been more calamitous and humiliating for an Arsenal supporter, and nothing could have been more the definition of schadenfreude for Spurs fans. And what could we do but just take it? Bile filled our collective throats. But that’s what it’s like supporting a football club -- you get used to the taste of bile.
And look at the video on YouTube, if you like. It wasn’t quite the halfway line. But that’s what we call the event. It’s more evocative than calling it ‘Nayim from about a 60-degree angle from goal and about 50 yards out with not one Arsenal player attempting to close him down, just basically standing around like the donkeys that they were.’ See what I mean? No less than David Lacey of the Guardian, as a matter of record, reported it as a ‘50-yard GarryOwen,’ for those of you up on your cavalry-charge music.
So, just about five years time is what I covered for the football bit of this book, not counting Novak’s years playing in Germany. And, of course, I’ve obligingly philosophized (having been asked to) about this latest, unreal period when the world and his wife can comment at least semi-thoughtfully on which Premier League team has the best chance of avoiding the drop this year.
Even sensible people like yourself, who put a lot of honest energy into avoiding football altogether, still unconsciously let some random fact or other slip into your mind; so that at the odd party or office function or children’s’ school event you find yourself sticking your head into a group of strangers and commenting, “No, that was Henrik Larsen whose introduction turned the match in Barcelona’s favor against Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League Final.”
Then you race home and gargle with some really nasty anti-bacterial mouthwash, the most vile-tasting concoction on the market with no mint or any nice additives – just pure battery acid that not only kills germs for up to one year but causes you to pass out on the bathroom floor in your clothes as well. And the decision to employ the mouthwash torture is only because you’ve loaned out your pair of official Opus Dei scourging whips.
Novak has alluded to these moments while talking about other things. But up to now, we’ve not tampered with the final resting places of the two egregious failures of Novak’s spell at Highbury, both taking place in his second season in North London. The first is not as well known around the global football village, but it was of mighty importance to the club, to George Graham and to Julius Novak, for reasons that we have discussed -- in pubs, mostly. I think my next book will be about darts.
Anyway, Arsenal 1 Benfica 3 (2-4 agg), which caused the club to miss out on the lucrative group stage of the European Cup (as it was known for the final time that season) in what was a relatively weak field of teams and a final that would be held at Wembley. Many expected an Arsenal-Barcelona final. In the event, Sampdoria (aka Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini) played and lost to Barça in the final.
The other match, also from that bizarre and gut-wrenching season, is much more popular and notorious – an unparalleled embarrassment in the annals of Arsenal and for all their supporters and maybe the greatest day in the history of the little Welsh club from Wrexham. In fact, just a year ago, the club threw a 15th anniversary celebration of the historic victory. For all I know, they celebrate it every year like Dublin’s Bloomsday with rashers and puddings.
I remember that day like it was yesterday. 4 January, 1992 at The Racecourse in Wrexham, Wales. What made this match remarkable in the first place was the draw itself, pitting the previous season’s 1st Division League Champions (us) against the side that had finished bottom of the Football League’s lowest professional league – the old Fourth Division. That represented 92nd place in the league. So the gap between these two teams, on paper at least, could not have been wider, unless the smaller club had been some amateur, village side -- something that only happens in fiction. (We’ll get to that in a moment.) The press were treated to a bona fide David and Goliath, best against the worst scenario. How tantalizing, how appealing, how wonderful for everyone. Everyone, that is, except Arsenal and their supporters.
Some of you younger punters reading this book might not know that this kind of match doesn’t really happen anymore. It doesn’t happen because the big clubs generally no longer play their best available players against the minnows in competitions like the F.A. Cup. The best teams have bigger fish to fry, so they attempt to stay alive in as many competitions as possible by strategically deploying the entire contents of their massive, well-paid squad to dispatch with teams like Wrexham and Doncaster and Lincoln in the early rounds of knockout cups.
These days, the media do their best to gin up some kind of drama. That’s part of their job, I suppose. And we play along with it because, deep down, we yearn for the Cup to mean what it once did. Some of us are old enough to remember the F.A. Cup when it meant the world to even the biggest clubs. I can speak for myself and my club, at least since 1968 when I first became a young fan. Any cup competition was massive.
Kids in Britain grew up back then and before in a sporting culture that placed the greatest emphasis on competitions. The professional Football League, divided into four divisions, was itself one, long competition held over an entire season lasting about nine months. Damned difficult to win and hoist a league trophy. But a cup competition, a knockout competition, particularly the mother of all cup competitions in Britain, the F.A. Cup, was a different matter, much more open to those clubs not soon likely to come top over the long course of a season – your Coventrys, your Wimbledons, your Southamptons, your Ipswich Towns.
Even a non-league side of part-timers can make quite a national stir by scratching and kicking its way through the regional, preliminary rounds to the first round proper. Then, if your hometown heroes can defeat one, then perhaps another lower division professional outfit or whomever, that tiny club might realize the once in a lifetime fantasy come true of squaring off opposite one of the richest football clubs in the land, either on your mucky patch where it’s anybody’s game or inside their brilliant palace where you can unhorse these Fancy Dans in front of their own fans and take home a much-needed chunk of the gate receipts.
90 minutes. Eleven of us against eleven of them. You all started playing the game when you were lads in the alleys and in the schoolyard, kicking a ball against a wall. Most of you kept the game in your lives and close to your hearts and stayed with it to one degree or another. A few, for better or worse, dedicated their entire lives to it and became professionals, like your dad decided to become an electrician or a solicitor or a dockworker or a teacher.
For anyone who has played the beautiful game, hopefully you know that there are many ways to skin a fat cat or cut the swaggering giant down to size or any number of metaphors. Level the playing field! Sometimes it’s merely a matter of direct sun in the visiting goalkeeper’s eyes for the entire first half before it dips below the tree line or behind some buildings.
In the old days at, like, Millwall in the old Den, the savagery of the supporters often intimidated the shit out of visiting teams. And once the playing field is level, getting a result for your side is not the monumental task it might seem to the unschooled outsider. This is one of the million reasons we love football.
In 1982, the year Julius Novak was playing amateur football of a considerable quality in Cologne (and drew Marianne Papineau’s stunning nude body in a university art class. Sorry! I just can’t get that out of my mind), one of his German Literature professors gave him a London Magazine Editions original but quite frayed copy of J.L. Carr’s “How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup,” known colloquially to its many admirers, simply, as “Steeply Sinderby.” The young teacher, an Alemannia Aachen supporter, handed the book off to the young American scholar-footballer not because it was one of two or three thousand, soon-to-be-rare literary pearls, but because he believed, presciently, Novak might enjoy it and gain a certain depth of insight from it.
Steeple Sinderby is a comic fantasy based loosely on Carr’s experience in the 1930s, while a teacher trainee, playing for a village football team in Yorkshire that enjoyed a stunning and successful run in a local knockout competition. Each succeeding victory became more inconceivable, and the team immediately entered local yore. In the hands of a writer without Carr’s gifts of the ironically detached participant/narrator, the story could have landed in the dustbin of literary history.
The title of the book, of course, indicates how the story ends. So how could the novelist possibly keep his audience interested (unlike the makers of, say, Titanic or Pearl Harbor were so spectacularly unable to do)?
And if we know the ending, why would readers like myself and Novak and others – perfectly sensible chaps with full lives and a variety of interests – go back and re-read Steeple Sinderby again and again? First of all, it’s short – more of a novella. Seriously, part of the allure lies in the “derisive gaiety,” I think someone said, of his prose and that device the masters of detachment instill so effortlessly – Carr infuses the mundane acts of human life with seriousness and nobility and treats each workaday moment with empathy and respect. The characters treat their occupations and pastimes, even the most monotonous, as worthy of honest attention and reverence.
So we, the readers, react to scenes and actions and conversations with admiration while, simultaneously, cognizant of the ridiculousness of what we are observing. Throughout the book, Novak laughed out loud. All throughout, though, and particularly by the end of the book, he held in his heart a deep respect for the richness of the characters and of a time and place that is gone.
Do I sound like a really boring literature lecturer? That’s probably why I was a crap teacher and became a writer instead. Oh, just go on and read the book. And read “A Month in the Country.” And everything you can get your hands on by George Orwell. And sit up straight or I’ll send you to the headmaster.
Novak, then, absorbed those lessons of Carr’s comic novella as pertained to his life. The only reason he read the book in the first place, given his impossible schedule, was because he held Leo, the young professor/football supporter, in high regard.
And Leo had said, “I want it returned by the weekend.”
Different people take different things from literature, music or art. “Steeple Sinderby” worked on a few different levels. Novak took on board the most obvious and surface philosophies and guiding principles that Carr inadvertently (or not) aimed at a young, intelligent athlete – in this case, a serious and (secretly) ambitious footballer. The soon-to-be Bergisch-Gladbach apprentice immediately became convinced that, with maximum attention to detailed preparedness, motivation and fitness and an in-depth calculation of the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, any soccer team reasonably could overcome any other soccer team one faced.
“And don’t think the eye of the world is on you. Outside this county we don’t exist. Until November, the Cup is just a horrible scuffle to scoop up minnows to feed the big fishes. But, we’re going through, we’re going through, and when we’re fed in, that club, whichever it is, will find us mouthful enough to choke it.”
“I believed it,” Novak commented on the words that became his Serenity Prayer and never fail to give him goosebumps to this day. “Because I knew it was true. That’s not to say it would ever be easy for a small club with unknown players to beat, you know, Bayern Munich or someone with some of the most expensive and supposedly talented footballers in the country. I had played for some championship school teams in my teenage years, but occasionally we would lose or draw to a vastly inferior side.
“Why? Well, that particular team of mine was one of those that could generally only be defeated by itself. And that team, because of its manager, was highly prepared – and put through rigorous paces -- to be the last side standing in challenge tournaments. We had our faults; some of the characters were unsavory; and some of our methods were questionable. But our record in the biggest, most important cups was something that probably will never be equaled at that particular level of competition, mainly due to how the game has grown and become more balanced.”
What gave Novak’s school team the edge was preparation and a doggedness to not be beaten. The way he described his manager and those teams, I was actually reminded of Bob Paisley’s Liverpool sides – teams that used to throttle my beloved Arsenal and saddle me with teenage nightmares. The manager, Pat Duggan, was a national collegiate champion defender in the mid-60s. Duggan’s university coach played for the USA team that defeated England in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. So Novak learned soccer for four years, at an impressionable age, from a man who learned it, at a certain level of his development, from a man who was directly involved in one of the greatest cup upsets in the entire history of sport.
Now they weren’t a tiny David club, a Wüppertal, a Wrexham, that had to go up against Goliath – just the opposite, really. Late 70s. They, like the great Liverpool, were the intimidators. Novak’s schoolboy side had legend and tradition and an arrogant confidence on their side. Similar to how life was later on when he came to Arsenal, they weren’t afraid of the opponent.
“We were only afraid of what would be said about us in our town if we lost. We were afraid of looking at ourselves in the mirror were we to allow failure to happen. It wasn’t during that period where I learned how to overcome long odds. I learned how to stand on an opponents’ throat once you had them down. I learned how to win tournaments.”
Once established in the Bundesliga, after having absorbed the lessons of “Steeple Sinderby,” he now believed he knew how to win tournaments in which his side were the unfancied nobodies. The confidence and the strong shoulders that came from such insight bode well for Novak at a club like Wüppertal.
Carr’s poorly-selling but well-reviewed little book helped inspire Novak to unconsciously or otherwise transfer his levels of attention, from mostly academic pursuits and his lust after a certain sexy sculpture student, to improving quickly as a footballer; assessing and preparing for every opponent; and attempting to inspire his teammates to win every single match in which they took part. Of course they were not able to do that.
On Sundays when he could not find a lift to the home matches, Novak rode his bicycle to the central Köln Hauptbanhof for the five minute train ride to the Verbandsliga Niederrhein local amateur club, a little outfit called SC West Köln, headquartered in the nearby suburb of Bilderstöckchen. The club held its training sessions Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday evenings at Volksgarten Park very near to Novak’s university digs.
Listening to Julius Novak’s reminiscences, one begins to understand just what is possible in a mechanism in which all the parts work in harmony and amidst which there is a powerfully rational component to its organization, administration and operation. We’re talking about the German Amateur Football setup and how it functions in tandem with the Bundesliga. Novak had something – some tangible quality -- that certain bodies in the system believed they needed.
Because of this relentless apparatus in which they operated, they were able to find him – discover him, if you like -- and put him to use. After such a point, if it comes your way, and with a lot of good fortune, those who work the hardest and keep their head up and continue to try to develop have a chance of advancing. That’s how it still was twenty-five years ago. Things are much more cutthroat now what with all the academies and centers of excellence and people like Gerard Houllier slinking about. If you want to be a professional footballer today, you’d better hope your parents decided by the time you turned age three. But this was 1982.
And it was in Novak’s inspired pursuit of contributing to the cause of West Köln that scouts from the Bundesliga club, Karlsruher took serious note of him as they gathered to watch the progress of someone else. The man the scouts came to see was a clever attacking midfielder from Germany’s top division who was working himself back into fitness after a long, injury rehabilitation. That the player, Düsseldorf’s Erhardt Sanger, even played in that match on that day in the spring of 1982 was pure coincidence. In the event, Julius Novak marked Sanger (and everyone else in opposite colors) into the ground and out of the match, which, in Sanger’s case, eventually saw the talisman substituted after seventy-five minutes. The next week, Novak’s manager surprised the American by informing him that Karlsruher would like him to attend a tryout in Bonn.
Novak is reported to have asked, “Do you mean Karlsruher the football club?”
Three weeks later, during the close season, Novak asked some friends to drive him down to Bonn. There he completed an all-day training session with some very nervous-looking young German footballers keen to be signed by Karlsruher SC. Novak felt as though his performance on the day was quite in accord with some of the very best players on the pitch.
One week later, his coach phoned to give him the news that Karlsruher was electing not to take things any further at this time. Novak shrugged, claiming not really to care. Then Novak was informed that representatives from Wüppertal FC would be contacting him. They too were in attendance at the Bonn tryouts. Posh Karlsruher were not interested, but blue collar Wüppertal were. Novak signed and the club placed him with the regional fourth division side, Bergisch-Gladbach, thirty minutes from Köln. He played one season for Gladbach where he became an instant, firm favorite and about twenty-five matches for Wüppertal ‘reserves’ before being called up for good to the senior side, second division Bundesliga, Wüppertal FC, just prior to the winter break in December 1983.
In the second half of the season, Novak played in every league match, starting in the final fourteen, and helped lift the side from mid-table obscurity to a second place promotion spot. They were headed back to the first division for the first time since 1973.
More importantly and historically, however, Wüppertal won the venerable German Cup for the first time in its history. Julius Novak had put his Steeple Sinderby philosophy into practice as The Lions (Die Löwen) piled one famous club after another on the dung heap, finishing with mighty Möenchengladbach in the final in front of a stunned and delirious crowd in Munich.
After an academic year abroad and a loan spell while in Yugoslavia, Novak returned to become a permanent and Herculean fixture in Wüppertal’s starting eleven for the next five seasons. During that time, tiny Wüppertal won its second German Cup, reached the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, the final of the UEFA Cup, won the Cup Winners’ Cup, won the German Bundesliga title, and reached the semifinal of the European Cup, losing to Marco van Basten’s AC Milan over two legs.
Imagine a club like Port Vale accomplishing something similar in the 80s, and you’d have a pretty fair idea of Wüppertal’s accomplishment.
Remarkably, seven of that starting eleven from 1984 – including future Arsenal man, Julius Novak -- remained in the starting eleven at the end of the 1989-90 season. The local heroes could not be lured away from the Zoo Stadion to the richer clubs at home or abroad. The only thing that could ultimately stop Wüppertal was Wüppertal – or rather the naive directors and the unforgiving economics of modern football.
By 1997, less than a decade after their zenith versus il rossoneri, the club found itself where it remains today, back where none other than Julius Novak first began his amateur career – the Verbandsliga Niederrhein, one of dozens of local leagues in essentially the sixth tier of German football. But during Novak’s time, their Golden Age, they took on the greatest soccer clubs in Europe.
By the end of his time in Germany, of course, Novak had purchased his own reading copy of “Steeple Sinderby” as well as having received a very fine first edition from the Papineaus. In his library at Dovedale House in Blockley can be found at least one copy of all five editions as well as a small collection of related ephemera.
On that raw day in Wales, January 1992, third round of the FA Cup, Arsenal, just like all the big clubs did back then, sent out the best players available. Alan Smith scored the Arsenal goal. Tony Adams, David O’Leary and David Seaman bungled Wrexham’s game-winner. Julius Novak played the entire 90 minutes. In spite of their recent poor form and the bitter disappointment of being knocked out of Europe by Sven Goran Ericksson’s inferior Benfica, Arsenal did not fit the type of big club that succumbs on such an occasion. They were not overpaid primadonnas. O’Leary? Adams? Novak? Winterburn?
I looked around the stadium that day at the Racecourse, as a sizable number of the 10,000 Wrexham supporters spilled onto the pitch to hoist their heroes, and realized that my mighty club had run smack into Steeple Sinderby, and there was no escape from out of its swampy beet fields.
Finally, after fifteen years of not really thinking about that cup humiliation all that much but, when I did, being left with a feeling of confusion; I had the rare opportunity of asking one of the players if he could please tell me what the hell happened that day. After all, I had driven to fucking Wales, hadn’t I? And I was quite busy and stressed trying to get a book published. “Out in the Cold”? Ring any bells? I had plenty of blank interview tapes, my schedule was clear for the next two days, and I was ready to sit back and be mesmerized by Novak’s groundbreaking and exquisitely intricate mea culpa on behalf of his teammates and the club I love.
“I have no explanation. It was a game of football,” Novak said, as though it happened to someone else. “Hats off to the winners.”
There you have it. Worth the price of this book alone, wouldn’t you say?
By February, Arsenal were twenty points adrift in eighth place, their season in tatters. The rest of the year we were perfect and irresistible – seventeen straight matches without a defeat. Men like Ian Wright, Kevin Campbell and Paul Merson played some of the most scintillating football I had ever seen at Highbury. Julius Novak continued to do his thing and do it well. But it was too late.
While in Wrexham, the names they’ll remember forever are Mickey Thomas, Steve Watkin, Joey Jones, manager Brian Flynn, Kevin Reeves, Vince O'Keefe, Andy Thackeray, Phil Hardy, Brian Carey, Mark Sertori, Gareth Owen, Waynne (with two n’s) Phillips, Karl Connolly and Gordon Davies. Heroes for life in Wrexham, at least, and even in other parts of Wales – right up there with the Victoria Cross-recipients from the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.
“That’s the kind of thing we want,” Trevor Ball murmured to himself, wrinkling his eyes with a frankly unattractive grin.

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