Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Was I named after Phil the Greek? Er, I dunno but maybe

 There have been rivers of newsprint expended on the royal family in recent months so perhaps I shouldn't bother....but what the hell.

I didn't watch Prince Philip's funeral, or Prince Harry's interview with the second lady of the United States (isn't that what Oprah Winfrey is?) But I did see some of the news coverage. After all it was hard to avoid - and in the case of the funeral I wouldn't have wanted to avoid it. Britain does pageantry very well.

I am a reluctant monarchist. As a young man I would have described myself as a republican, though I may well have hesitated to wield my vote like a guillotine if there had been a referendum on abolition of the monarchy. Over time I have concluded that the figurehead monarchy we have is probably the least worst option. For years I have rationalised this by the awful prospect of having a superannuated politician as our president: President Blair for example. But now a greater fear would be, in the Boaty McBoatface era, that we would have some vacuous celebrity as president. Or even two of them, if it was Ant and Dec.

The cost of the royal family is minimal. The sovereign grant was £69.4 million in 2020, roughly £1 per person, which is neither here nor there. I know you can argue that there are forgone taxes and the militant Corbynites among you would presumably confiscate and redistribute the sovereign's wealth, but it wouldn't go far. Having a president instead would entail some cost and not having a royal family would presumably reduce tourism revenues. I can't see that abolishing the royal family would do any good for the country or its standing in the world. That standing was enhanced by the Prince Philip's dignified funeral. The covid restrictions served to make it seem more of a family event.

He was always referred to in our house - by me at least - as Phil the Greek, though as his family was parachuted into Greece he just happened to be born there and while his blood was Danish, German and Russian the one thing it wasn't was Greek. There was much debate about Philip's nationality in the run up to his marriage but some time later, in 1972, former lord chancellor Lord Dilhorne replied to an inquiry from Lord Mountbatten that it was "undeniable" that, under a 1705 act of parliament, all the descendants of the Electress Sophia Hanover, including Philip, through his link to Queen Victoria, were British subjects. So Philip was British all along and, being descended from royalty on both sides he was actually more royal than his bride.

I've occasionally been asked if I was named after the Duke of Edinburgh. The thing is I never asked my parents and I can't now. I always assumed that I wasn't explicitly named after the Queen's consort but the name would have been permanently in the news when my parents met (1947 - the year Philip married the then Princess Elizabeth), when they married and in the run up to my birth so it would be surprising if that didn't have some influence. We both had one L in Philip but that was the more common spelling until the 1960s when double L prevailed. The name has plunged in popularity over the last two decades. According to

After nearly 2500 years on the list of popular male names, Phil(l)ip is finally retreating to the shadows. This ancient name appears to be outdated and perhaps a little dull amidst the Noah, Ethan and Aidens of the nation. (Eh? Noah? You can't get more antediluvian than that - literally!) Once a masculine royal staple, you’d have to be a contrarian parent these days to pick an old name like Phillip. Regardless of where he appears on the charts, Phillip is a timeless classic. And a great choice for parents who live on a horse ranch or have a little future cowboy on their hands.

Ah that old thing - Philip means lover of horses. True for Prince Philip, not me. But personality wise? The same dodgy American website says:

"... a leader - strong and competitive...willing to initiate action and take hard .... and have the ability to apply their creative and innovative thinking skills with strong determination. They believe in their ability to succeed and are too stubborn to be hindered by obstacles.... meet obstacles head-on with such mental vigor and energy that you better step aside. They resent taking orders, so don't try telling them what to do either. This is an intensely active personality, but they are also known as starters rather than finishers. They have a propensity to become bored and will move quickly to the next project if not properly challenged.  They are the ones to think up and put into action new and brilliant ideas, but they are not the ones to stick around and manage them. This personality has an enthusiastic and pioneering spirit. They are distinctly original.

Well Mrs H would certainly agree with competitive, stubborn, a propensity to become bored (attention spell of a gnat she says) and, much of the time, a starter not a finisher. Though the trait noted earlier about determination means that once I decide to finish something I will pursue it beyond all rational sense. Brilliant ideas? Not really, but a series of psychometric and other tests for managers once showed that I come up with an average number of ideas but some of them were startling unusual. This was because I'd got rather fed up with the daft nature of the questions and wasn't taking it seriously! I don't know if the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme was entirely his own idea but it has proved to be original and hugely successful - and it undoubtedly required stubbornness to see it implemented. I think I read that courtiers didn't see the point as boys (it was launched in 1956 and extended to girls two years later) could just join the scouts. But that was the whole point - you didn't need to join an organisation or wear a uniform: it was for outsiders, as Philip undoubtedly saw himself. So it drew in young people who may not have joined the traditional organisations. It has been a huge success and not just in Britain. How many initiatives started by an individual span 144 countries?

And I'm an old curmudgeon, just as the Duke was. I don't think it's at all speaking ill of the dead to refer to him as a curmudgeon who wouldn't suffer fools gladly. But his actual number of gaffes over such a long period was so small over the length of his dedicated service - he didn't get to retire until he was 96 - the newspapers struggled to come up with more than one per decade. Only the "slitty eyes" one sticks in the mind. But there you are: being facetious is obviously also a trait of folk called Philip.

Ending on that theme we come to the choice of a custom modified Land Rover as Philip's hearse. While this was very much his own idea, it followed on from Mountbatten's funeral in 1979. I wondered why, given Philip's carriage riding hobby, he wasn't being pulled by horses. There were at least two reasons. When he started planning the funeral (nearly 20 years ago! Somewhat pre covid) he would have expected to be taken from Buck House to Windsor and 20 miles might have been rather far. But more importantly the royal family have had an aversion to horse drawn hearses since the horses drawing Queen Victoria's funeral carriage bolted, leaving sailors to pull it, starting a new tradition. Whether Land Rovers become royal tradition remains to be seen but I expect I can't have been the only one inappropriately amused at the concept of a Land Rover custom designed and modified by Philip after he reconfigured one by overturning it in 2019. 

At least this time it stayed on its wheels. 

Good show, sir!


How Philip the Greek was British all along was in the Guardian on 9 April 2021.

What is the Duke of Edinburgh Award, when did Prince Philip found the scheme and how does it work?

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

I thought all good keepers did this

My last column noted that Gylfi Sigurdsson and James Rodriguez shouldn't really be on the pitch for Everton at the same time. They didn't both start the match against Crystal Palace on Monday: James did and Sigurdsson was soon in action as Andre Gomes was injured after half an hour. Everton made more than enough chances to win comfortably in the 1-1 draw. But while he was on Sigurdsson had one of those games where he just didn't turn up. In contrast, James gave a very James Rodriguez performance. I didn't notice a single sprint* and he has a very low pain threshold when bumped by an opponent, so spends a fair amount of time on the ground looking wronged if not assaulted. But he protects the ball well, as always there were some gorgeously struck passes and his finish for Everton's goal was excellent: well struck by his weaker foot and precisely placed. Not an easy finish by any standards. As usual James didn't last the full match but his substitution after 79 minutes, as Carlo Ancelotti went defensive and tried in vain to protect Everton's slender lead, came around ten minutes later than normal.

The comparison between James and Sigurdsson didn't really back up Alyson Rudd's case that Gylfi should be "in charge" with James left out. (see Aly's hot on the Iceman but he blows hot and cold, 5 April). It may be that Sigurdsson feels inhibited or has a touch of imposter syndrome when he's alongside a golden boot winner. 

But I've enjoyed many more of Alyson Rudd's columns than just her Valentine to Gylfi  One of her more recent columns gave her reflections on attending matches under covid rules. She cycles to many London matches and the stories about which clubs help store her bike and which ones have provided biscuits to the journos in the covid era were interesting but I particularly liked her account of being in the stadium with no fans present. I prefer listening on TV with no artificial stadium noise - because it's well, er artificial - but it hasn't been as easy to hear what the players are shouting as I expected. As well as being able to hear the players shouting guidance to each other there is always the entertainment of them bad mouthing each other.  Mrs H always thought it was good for me to get this out of my system playing on a Saturday without her around.  The broadcasters still make daft apologies for "offensive" language, most of which you don't actually hear and even if you do much of it is mere vernacular. But Alyson says there isn't actually much swearing - and then it's usually players swearing at themselves for making a mistake, which she finds rather endearing. And is actually how I remember football matches I played in. She also says referees are hardly ever subject to much abuse (they shouldn't allow any of course).

She notes that some managers are much more voluble than others. We know about Klopp but it's  Hassenhuttl who is permanently shouting at his players. When asked about it one of them said "he's just the same in training". They probably blot it out most of the time.

And some goalies talk much more than others. Kasper Schmeichel is the most voluble, always shouting instructions and not shy of criticising the players in front of him. When his defenders make a mistake he lets them know about it. The thing is I thought all good goalies did this. It used to be on the job description! I wonder if it has been diluted because of the number of overseas players in the Premier League, due to language or culture. Or, given that Schmeichel isn't one of the younger players, maybe giving a constant stream of negative feedback to your team mates is not what people do in these snowflake days. 

A simple fact about football is that it's the centre backs who are both in the best position to see most of what's going on and also have the most time to organise a team. The goalkeeper is too far from the action most of the time. But when play gets near the penalty area that switches to the keeper, enabling the centre back to concentrate on his job. I was taught that, ideally, the keeper controls the box and in that zone his is the voice you listen to. Playing in front of a quiet keeper is very disconcerting; you feel you never know what they are going to do. 

The nightmare of course is when, at centre back, you go to play the ball and find the keeper, without warning, has rushed out of his goal to go for the same ball. It's about as much fun as finding two batsmen in the same crease at cricket. We saw a classic example of such a communication failure when another Alisson - Liverpool's Becker - bundled into Ozan Kabak in the game at Leicester in February leaving Jamie Vardy a free run on an empty net.

I'm all for the "sweeper keeper" but just tell your defender you're coming so he can concentrate on blocking off the forwards to leave the keeper free to play the ball. This is the sort of sneaky defensive play, just short of a blatant foul, which gets me shouting at the TV these days but which I specialised in when I played.

So I'd rather have a constant stream of Kasper Schmeichel invective instructing me where to play it, telling me off or asking me, in the manner of my old mate Herbie, who was never short of a word or three, "what the **** did you do that for?" Which happened quite often in the hundred or so matches we played together, about half my time as a centre back. When Herbie came for the ball you knew about it in good time. Which was just as well; he's a big fella and you didn't want the football equivalent of a charging rhino clattering into you. Much better than hearing the odd hesitant call or an unsettling silence and never being sure what's happening behind you.

Maybe Kasper is just a bit more full on than most other Premier League keepers, though I suspect many are quieter than they I think they should be. If so, I'm still bemused that the current generation of Premier League keepers aren't all as voluble as Kasper and, indeed, Herbie.

* Remarkably James had as many goals and assists as sprints in his first few games for Everton. You might say that isn't hard when his number of sprints is essentially zero, but that wouldn't be quite fair. He sprinted all of seven times in his first four matches, in which he scored three and had four assists. Carlo Ancelotti said "During the first four games, do you know how many times he sprinted? Seven! He’s got more assists and goals than he did sprints." Which may show either Carlo or his data analyst can't count, or maybe can't. See James Rodriguez earns Ronaldo comparison after opening Everton spell with more goals and assists than sprints,, 3 November 2020.

Monday, 5 April 2021

Aly's hot on the Iceman but he blows hot and cold

I'm not sure whether this is a breakthrough for an old dinosaur like me but I have a new favourite football writer who happens to be female - Alyson Rudd who writes in The Times and the Sunday Times. I felt she had trained on in her latest columns - but then I found she had already won sports feature writer of the year in the most recent British Sports journalism awards.

There's no doubt that being female and preferably not white is a big advantage in the current awards environment. But Alyson is always worth reading. Her columns are knowledgeable and perceptive but I also find them very relatable. There is a hint of hero worship in some of her writing about the players. I'm not sure a male football writer would dare publish a column about a female footballer like the one Alyson wrote in February in praise of Everton's Gylfi Sigurdsson. It was a barely concealed valentine*. Alyson recounted that she had been introduced on an Icelandic radio station as England's greatest aficionado of the Iceman. And that back in his Swansea days she interviewed him and let slip that she was naming her next kitten Gylfi ("he looked only moderately embarrassed" she said). She was mocked for predicting that, if Sigurdsson were fit, Iceland could win the 2016 Euros. Then they knocked out England before one half of what she called "cockiness" led to their defeat by France in the quarter finals. 

Rudd noted that Sigurdsson had been in danger of being labelled an over-priced luxury at Everton. Over-priced - you bet, £45 mill in 2017, still a club record. I wrote at the time that swapping Barkley for Sigurdsson and loads of money wasn't a great deal. Sure, Everton had little choice but to take Chelsea's miserable £15 million in January 2018 as Barkley was about to enter the last year of his contract and I know he hasn't set many fires alight in the meantime, as well as proving injury prone. Sigurdsson can strike a sweet ball and has an eye for goal, scoring a 50 yard spectacular on his Everton debut against Hajduk Split**. But Barkley is also a good finisher and dead ball striker and is much more dangerous running at defenders with the ball than Sigurdsson.

The puzzle at the time was how Everton would use Sigurdsson. Yes Barkley was on his way out but Everton signed two other players whose best position was also number 10, the others being Rooney and the also very expensive and now long departed Davy Klassen. But Siggy has often been deployed on the left in his career and Everton tended to start him out on the flank early in his spell at Goodison. Indeed, it's not always been clear what his best position is throughout his career.

That seems to have been resolved under Carlo Ancelotti: it's number 10. Leaving the problem that Siggy has never really made the position his own and this season Everton signed golden boot winner James Rodriguez, also a no 10 candidate. James has also often been deployed on the wing and is arguably too lightweight to be deployed at number 10, depending on how the team is set up around him. But the penny that eventually dropped for Ancelotti was that you can't have Sigurdsson and James in the same eleven. Most of us supporters seemed to figure that much quicker than the celebrated coach Ancelotti. Even Ms Rudd noted that it was  "painful" watching Everton with them both on the pitch. 

James can be frustrating and, as Ancelotti puts it, has quality but not physicality. But every time he plays he catches the eye with at least a few gorgeously struck passes. Sigurdsson has games where he makes such a  minimal contribution you forget that he's on the pitch. It's not that he hides; there are days when he just can't seem to get anywhere near the ball.

Alyson's remedy is simple - go with Siggy. Saying she has long held that to get the best out of Sigurdsson he needs to be in charge on the pitch (hmm, sounds like she doesn't just mean on the pitch...) she noted that by mid February Everton had won every game this season in which he had set up or scored a goal. And some of those set ups have been superb. Everton's thrilling 5-4 FA Cup win against Spurs was clinched by a slick turn and gorgeously weighted lofted pass for Bernard to finish, a classic piece of number 10 play from the Iceman, with his "wrong" left foot too. Sigurdsson had a great night, scoring a penalty and assisting three goals. For Rudd, Sigurdsson was in charge, James was injured and not in the squad and "it worked".

The problem with this analysis is that, 4 days later, Everton were desperately poor in losing 2-0 at home to Fulham. Both Sigurdsson and James were in the starting eleven, Everton looked tired and leggy and Sigurdsson, far from being "in charge" had one of his invisible man games.

And while at 6ft 1in he is bigger than James he isn't really more physical. While he was involved in four of Everton's five goals against Spurs he was also culpable for two. For some reason Everton tasked Siggy with marking the Spurs centre back Davinson Sanchez at corners. I think the idea - one which my team quite frequently used - is not to have your best headers marking so they are free to attack the ball, so Sigurdsson's task was just to stop Sanchez getting at the ball. His attempts to do so were utterly  pathetic. For the Spurs first he followed Sanchez's smart run put pulled out of making any challenge and just tried to give him a bit of a shove. Nothing like enough of a shove. His attempt at defending Sanchez's second was worse. He decided to stand with his back to the ball, watching and grappling with him. A bit like an American football defender trying to wrap his arms and do everything but actually hold his opponent. Except he was holding him while the ball came in and Sanchez, watching it, was able to get a foot on it. To see the full comedic parody you have to watch the video replay**. Siggy is one of those tall chaps who plays like a he is several inches shorter than his actual height.

But his lay off to Calvert-Lewin for Everton's first that night was sublime and his pass to Bernard for the winner was even better. Then against Fulham - invisible. So Sigurdsson is an enigma, even if Alyson Rudd is smitten.

Anyway, I like Alyson's style of writing and she has produced a string of entertaining columns over the last few months. She was born in Liverpool, raised in Lancashire and is a graduate of LSE. She worked in fashion and as a financial journalist before football took over. She played for Leyton Orient Ladies and is a qualified coach and referee. Her writing is much nearer to both a fan's and a player's viewpoint than most of the time served professional journalists. It makes me realise how much I miss the better written articles from the fanzine era.

And we'll see whether the Iceman cometh for Everton tonight against Crystal Palace. This is the sort of game that has proved a banana skin for Everton in recent months. Not only has the normal home advantage disappeared without fans present, it's become a disadvantage. Since Boxing Day Everton have played seven home league games, winning one, drawing one and losing five. Their away record in that time is the mirror image: played seven, lost one, drawn one, won five. If Everton had done as well at home as away in that period they'd be sitting prettily in third place, sandwiched between Leicester and Man United but with two games in hand on both of them. You may say that's a big "if" but it only needed them to beat three teams in the bottom five (Burnley, Fulham and Newcastle) and one team from a similar standing in the current league table, West Ham. 

Once upon a time I would have thought Everton's persistent failure to beat such teams was indicative of a bunch of prima donnas. But I don't level that charge at Sigurdsson or, for that matter, James even though they are players you'd have thought could unlock such teams. I suspect the problem is the team isn't quite good enough yet and they struggle mentally in the games they are expected to win. Against the top teams they can go out and perform, knowing that whatever the result they can still be said to have played well, for example as recently in the  2-0 F A Cup defeat by Manchester City. The pressure of being expected to win and being criticised for any other result, is another matter. Come to think of it, this isn't new: Everton were often the same under Moyes. They prefer to be the underdog. It's about time this  psychological hang up was resolved. After all, Sam Allardyce said three years ago that Sigurdsson had struggled to cope with the pressure of playing for Everton and talked of bringing in a sports psychologist to sort out the mental frailties of Siggy and his team mates***.

Still, Everton are fortunate to have (and be able to afford) two playmakers like Sigurdsson and James, even if they aren't perfect and they have to rotate them rather than play them together. After all, some of James's assists this season have also been things of beauty, for example his ball for Richarlison to score at Anfield. If Everton can overcome their inferiority complex at Anfield then surely they can learn how to impose themselves against teams from the bottom end of the table. 

Surely....? With not just Sigurdsson and James but Lucas Digne, second in this year's Premier League for assists from full back and with strikers of the quality of Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison Everton's failure against weaker teams is a bit mystifying. But it shouldn't be difficult to solve. Get the ball up the pitch earlier, so that the players named above get more of the ball in the places where they can do damage.

Over to you, Carlo.

 * Actually it wasn't concealed. It was only when I checked I realised Alyson Rudd's column was titled If Everton's boss swooned over Sigurdsson like I do they would be serious cup and top-four contenders - and appeared in the Sunday Times on 14 February 2021. Sadly for Alyson, Gylfi married Alexandra Ivarsdottir in 2019

** Sigurdsson's remarkable goal against Hajduk Split: The highlights of the 5-4 Spurs game are at, Sigurdsson's cringeworthy attempt to prevent Sanchez's second is after 4min 16 seconds

*** Struggling Gylfi Sigurdsson embodies Everton's malaise for Sam Allardyce was in the Guardian , 3 Dec 2017: Photo credit: Siggy's knee slide comes from the same article