Something For The Weekend (195)
It was a long time coming and no one can argue that it wasn't worth the waiting for - the best team won Euro 2008, and in the best possible way. It really was wonderful and for once it seemed that the gods decided not to intervene and stomp on our dreams of justice and beautiful football. For reasons unfathomable, they completely left out the dreaded Spanish ai caramba, and I still can't quite believe it. I give mighty thanks for that!
I will always remember it as one of the great tournaments - and not just because there was no bitter England pill to swallow, although that almost certainly helped. And Lawro's Swiss Tony joke about the Italian striker, must go down as one of the greatest quips of all time.
From Monty Python's, perfectly true, Travel Agency Sketch, to John Cooper Clarke's Mallorca, having a go at Spain was, for years, more or less compulsory. In fact, for kick-starting a flagging conversation down the pub, exchanging tales of lousy Spanish holidays, is completely unbeatable - its the kind of country, which demands ironic explanation, and the character of Manuel in Fawlty Towers paid ample tribute to that fact. The one thing that was unavoidable, was that Spain was a country with every perfect ingredient to be a great nation but which through bitter internal division they managed to distil into glaring and hilarious naffness. But not any more.
An accusation not exactly untrue about the English either and possibly a guide to our own habitual failure.
But if we are looking for lessons, then the Germans offer even better examples, as they reached yet another final with what has been constantly described as an ordinary team, and what good losers they turned out to be.
Obviously Ballack's howitzer will live long in the memory but so too will his ability to smile and joke his way up the stairs, on his way to collect yet another loser's medal to add to his considerable collection. I couldn't help but admire him in those moments, as it stood in such strong contrast to the lachrymose wailing and gnashing of teeth, which has overtaken these sporting occasions this last decade or so. Even Sir Bobbie, only wept when he won or someone else did. In the old days, personal dignity was never held so cheap.
So, well done Ballack, but I still think he might consider trading in that number-thirteen shirt, of his: the gods do like to have their fun.
And, just to prove what I mean, take look at how much Eric Idle looks like Fernando Torres in the Travel Agency sketch: prescience or what?
Them football gods - they're 'avin a laugh.
Unfortunately, they don't seem to be having much of a laugh down Villa Park right now, as the whole Barry saga goes on and on, and despite his status as Villa's favourite son, I think most fans have reached the stage where the endless agony just prompts the sincere wish that he would just bugger off and leave us to get over it. Its turning into a rather messy and bitter divorce, and I appeal to both the player and the clubs - just think of the feelings of children (us fans).
Obviously, I am too old and cynical to believe that Gareth has suddenly gone from a paragon of loyalty, to a turn-coat and traitor in a single bound. I tend to believe what old Oscar said, about temptation being the only real test of virtue - its easy to be loyal if no better offers come along - his loyalty was always conditional, just as the fans' was. But everyone knows that the belief in the loyalty of players and that they actually return the affections of the fans is one of those necessary fictions, that make the whole thing possible - a bit like that 'for richer for poorer' bit, in the wedding service. Bullshit - how we need it, how we crave it.
I think Gareth has shocked the fans by the depths he has been willing to go to, to get what he wants - he knew exactly what he was doing when he invited The News Of The World for the pool-side chat. But I don't think anyone should be surprised by this, as it seems that his whole career has been marked by a total stubborn determination to get what he wanted. The same qualities which made him a model professional and stubborn opponent from the moment he joined Villa, and kept him going through those long years of exile from the England team, are the same qualities of stubbornness and determination, which he's shown in trying to get his dream move.
He has what might be called a dilatant personality - the more you stir him up, the more resistant he becomes. Mr Freud called it an anal personality - which is probably not too far from the term some fans are using these days.
But if Gareth has chosen self-interest over loyalty, no one can really get too self-righteous about it. What's the pity, is that the whole affair has turned out to be such an ugly embarrassment, to all parties concerned. And, no one can pretend that it is not damaging to everyone involved - the clubs, the managers and the player.
For Aston Villa, the unseemly squabble over the fee, casts doubts on the belief, amongst the fans, that O'Neill has a substantial coffer of cash, available for the Lerner project. Did the transfer of Owen or Henry to Real or Barca entail such a fuss? Wasn't there a sense, like when Keegan went to Hamburg and Steve McManaman went to Real, that they had earned their big move, with their long service for the club (Stevie Mac, like Gareth, did ten years at Liverpool)? Like the similar row between Real and Man United, damaging and unwelcome questions about prestige and status of the two clubs have emerged.
It damages Gareth Barry too because his disrespect for Villa and the fans who adore(d) him, means that he has burnt his bridges, and that should it all not go quite to plan, there can be no quick seamless return, like Steve Staunton, or even Super Sid. We can all remember how an uncannily similar player, in Nigel Clough, disappeared into Red obscurity, when he signed for Liverpool and was eventually spat out, after various false starts, at Burton Albion, only two years later.
I certainly don't wish such a fate upon Gareth but you can't help but feel that he has thrown away something really precious by his mishandled of this affair: the thing only a very select few can lay claim to. Strangely enough, Steven Gerrard is one person who understands the value of such things, as surely he must hunger for Premiership championship medals, as much as Gareth wants his Champions League football. Shearer, I seem to remember, thought it so precious, that he was willing to trade the draw full of medals, he would have won had he signed for Manchester United, for loyalty.
But don't they say, that the reason Shearer is a legend, is because he never lost sight of the things that really mattered to him.
Gareth, make it is easy on yourself: Ai Caramba!