England may long regret semi failure

It was understandable that England fans were pleased to have some self-respect restored after debacles of 2014 and 2016, and they had every right to take pride in the way they were represented by Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and others. However, where they previously understated the prospects of the English team, they are now vastly overstating this year’s accomplishment.

There was always every prospect of England reaching the latter stages of the tournament once the draw was made. In the group, they had only to get past small North African country, Tunisia, and a Central American country whose population is smaller than Scotland’s and whose main sport is baseball, Panama. After that, a second round encounter with a team from the weakest group in the tournament (a group with no previous finallist at either a World Cup or a European Championship) was assured, making the quarter final a likelihood. Even at that, England progressed to that stage having lost the other group game against Belgium (still a country with barely a sixth of England’s population) and then via a penalty shootout. Then, in the quarterfinal, there was a bit of luck, after Germany had surprisingly folded in the first round for the first time since 1938, that it was not the world champions but rather a very average Sweden who awaited, and thus the semi-final was reached for only the third time.

Having played no country which had even reached a World or European Final within the lifetime of someone of average age in England, and only one country with a population more than a fifth as large, England were in a World Cup semi-final. Then there was another stoke of luck – due to the vagaries of the draw, a country smaller than Scotland which was only there courtesy of two penalty shootouts awaited, Croatia. This century, only Germany in 2002 had a comparably easy route to the Final. There was a difference, though. That German side (the one trounced by England in qualifying, in fact) made the most of their luck and got to the Final. Despite scoring first, England in 2018 still contrived not to.

For a country of such a small population, Croatia has an astonishingly good team packed with players who have done all there is to do at club level. But England will surely regret the missed opportunity. In 2014, finallists Germany had seen off past winners and hosts Brazil and past winners France, and Argentina had seen off three-time finallists the Netherlands. In 2010, Spain beat past then three-times winners Germany and the Netherlands beat five-times winners Brazil and two-times winners Uruguay. In 2006 Italy had to come past Germany and France had to get past each of Spain and Brazil. In other words, you generally don’t get to the Final without beating other major sides – typically past winners or at very least multiple finallists.

England’s run was, therefore, so straightforward. As ever, the media vastly exaggerated the scale of the achievement when England dispatched tiny Panama (in its first ever World Cup); and then lost the plot entirely after beating Sweden (a country with a population only slightly larger than Greater London). You can, of course, only beat the teams in front of you. But that is just the problem – England didn’t!

England’s overall record, despite not playing a past winner, was played 7, won 3, drew 1, lost 3. In reality, that is mid-table obscurity.

While there was much to commend in the way the team went about their business and, particularly, in the way the manager conducted himself, the fact is all the same failure traits were apparent. In times of desperation against real quality – Colombia in extra time or Croatia or Belgium more or less throughout – England were overrun in midfield and resorted to punting the ball forward aimlessly. A fuss was made about scoring more goals than 1966 but half of them in competitive play were against the worst team in the tournament – and all this while conceding on average more than one a game.

The problem, therefore, is that although England’s long suffering fans had every right to revel in their good fortune, they should be under no illusions for the future that that is what it was. England’s players still remain tactically behind, unable to switch a game during it; arguably they remain technically behind too, overly relying on set pieces; and there remains no evident ability to kill or turn a game by maintaining possession for long periods. Even in games England dominated, actual chances in open play were few and defensive vulnerabilities evident. More than that, the profound failure to be able to analyse the game – so obvious when listening to the tiresome “punditry” which accompanied the run – suggests England are still not learning.

There are four Western European countries with comparable populations to England – Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Each of these other four has won at least one major tournament and reached at least three Finals this century alone. England haven’t even reached a Final in over 50 years, and never away from home. The scale of the difference is stark, and demonstrates why the odd semi here and there should not be overstated. England should be in semifinals fairly regularly – and winning them quite often.

This is not to say good runs should not be celebrated. But it is a stark warning that there is in fact little evidence that a corner has truly been turned. There is some hope that youth development has improved so the decade to come should indeed be an improvement on the one which has just passed. However, for as long as the prime objective of English football is to maintain the richest league in the world rather than the best national team, it is unlikely much will truly change.


As a separate point, there was an interesting discussion on Twitter about whether final placing should be the ultimate determinant of how well a team did. Essentially, on that basis, England 2018 are the second Best England World Cup team ever, joint with 1990.

I see the logic of that, but dispute it! In 2002, for example, England faced former finallists Sweden, former double winners Argentina and 200m-strong Nigeria in the group, before meeting former European champions Denmark in the knock-out round and then being eliminated in the quarter final by Brazil en route to their fifth title. Given the quality of the opposition, I would argue that team did better than the 2018 team, whose opposition were of lower calibre. I would certainly argue that the 1990 team, which faced then current European champions the Netherlands, beat Belgium and lost on penalties to eventual winners for the third time West Germany, had a clearly better record than 2018’s.

But it’s definitely arguable, so thoughts on that welcome!


1990 and 2018 – a comparison

My father is a Londoner and my mother is a Belfastwoman – from a very early age I chose Arsenal as my club team for the former, and Northern Ireland as my international team for the latter. It has been a lot of fun – just enough disappointments to provide value for the glories, and just enough glories to cover for the disappointments!

Nevertheless, England’s arrival at the semi-final stage of the World Cup is remarkable – partly because of the relative youth of the team which as done it; and partly because it has taken so long. Comparable countries such as Italy, Germany and France have regularly appeared at this stage. England has managed it away from home just twice.

Unlike most of the current team, I do remember 1990 – and there are interesting parallels alongside the differences.

Firstly, it is hard to grasp that 1990 was actually nearer to the 1966 triumph than it is to now. Already, in 1990, it was becoming a noticeably long time since England had done anything at all – England had been knocked out at the quarter-final stage of three of the five intervening World Cups, and failed to qualify at all for the other two. A little like now, there was in fact little real expectation in 1990, although perhaps for different reasons – at the time, the whole country was feeling a little disgruntled as a recession set in, and football in particular was in the doldrums with English clubs banned from European competition due to hooliganism and stadiums being condemned after the deep shock of the Hillsborough disaster. Such was the level of trust towards English football, the team was deliberately placed on the Italian islands for its group games to keep its fans away from mainland cities.

In 1990, the opening game was far from spectacular – an ugly game against Jack Charlton’s Ireland finished 1-1. Perhaps a parallel with 2018, however, is that the second game provided some real hope – a 0-0 draw against the Netherlands, then European champions, was the beginning of “Gazzamania” and a sense that this English team could perhaps do something. Bizarrely, England went into the last group game with all the previous games in the group having been drawn, and secured the only win in the group as Mark Wright’s header eased out Egypt (coincidentally, the Egyptians did not return to the finals until this year).

The 1990 team was more experienced and had a better established defence, with Wright joined by Des Walker and, when needed, Terry Butcher. John Barnes, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne provided the type of flair the 2018 model probably does not have; and Gary Lineker provided the goals (an obvious parallel, with current Spurs marksman Harry Kane doing likewise now). Perhaps, however, it lacked the youthful exuberance of the current side, although an emerging David Platt knew few bounds and was about to become a hero.

As in 2018, the 1990 side looked at the draw for the last sixteen and realised there was a once-in-a-generation chance to reach the semi; and, as in 2018, it looked like the trickier of the two ties en route would be the immediate one at the second round stage with the quarterfinal something of a walkover.

As it happened, England’s first knock-out game in 1990 was against Belgium, a team now ageing but which had just had its most golden age – reaching the semis at the previous tournament as well as a European final a decade earlier. The Belgians hit the woodwork twice but England also had a good goal disallowed (which would have stood in the VAR era) and, as with the game against the Netherlands, all seemed set for that rarest of entities – a genuinely entertaining 0-0 draw. However, just as penalties loomed, Gazza stepped up and chipped in a free-kick and young Platt swivelled to crash home a memorable volley, thus securing a place in the last eight.

As in 2018, the assumption was now that England would cruise into the semis for the first time since winning it a generation earlier. Unlike in 2018, it turned out to be nothing like as simple as that assumption. Platt again emerged to give England a half-time lead as in 2018. However, in 1990 opponents Cameroon, the first Africans ever in the last eight, hit back with two goals in five minutes midway through the second half to take a fully deserved lead. The English were eight minutes away from an ignominious exit and were running out of ideas until a hack on Gary Lineker allowed him to fire home an equaliser from the spot. The same man was fouled and scored again from the spot in extra-time to enable England to squeeze home.

There are definite parallels, therefore, that an England side which gave rise to little expectation suddenly spotted a draw at the last sixteen stage which gave a clear route to the semi, made the first knock-out game exciting, and then won the quarter-final. The feeling in 2018 is perhaps more one of bafflement about how uncomplicated England’s progress against Sweden was; in 1990, there was much more relief at the equivalent moment as the team was less than ten minutes from outright embarrassment in a game in which they had largely been on the back foot.

Of course, the semi itself is a different matter in this case. In 1990, the opposition was provided by a West German team which had appeared in three of the previous four and four of the previous six finals; even victory there would have secured a final showdown with either the hosts Italy or the holders Argentina. The game was watched by an English audience more in hope than any sort of expectation, but proved to be remarkably even and after Gary Lineker’s late equaliser in regulation resulted in the emotional trauma for English fans of the three-pointed tragedy of Gazza’s tears, Pearce’s error and Waddle’s blaze (made only worse by the fact Waddle also hit the inside of the post in extra time). In 2018, the opposition is a country smaller than Scotland. England are the favourites in a World Cup semi final for the first time in over half a century – failure to reach the showpiece itself would at best now be a significant disappointment.

For all that, it does seem that 2018 is doing something that 1990 did, but in a different context. The story of the World Cup does not involve England until 1950. A country which assumed it remained pre-eminent in the game went to Brazil that year and lost to the United States, a defeat so ludicrous that it was largely ignored for another three years until Hungary’s “Magnificent Magyars” stuffed England 6-3 and Wembley and left no doubt that the game had moved on technically and tactically. 1966 is significant not only because it provided England’s only World Cup win, but because it was seen as a “correction” of the previous thirteen years of not being the best. Four years at the pinnacle ended ignominiously, however, with a loss to West Germany having been 2-0 up in the 1970 quarter-finals and no further appearance in the finals at all until 1982, by which time football was all too often followed by the word “hooliganism”. With the game in the doldrums, the 1990 World Cup served to lift football out of the depths and, with the emergence of the Premier League two years later, it has gained public interest hugely since. However, the focus of English football on providing the world’s richest league rather than the world’s best international team led to a series of tragedies (in various penalty shoot-outs) and embarrassments (such as failures to qualify or losses to Iceland) as the Premier League’s star quality was complemented only by mediocrity in international tournaments.

By 2018, this mediocrity had become an accepted fact of life by most English supporters. This World Cup will, therefore, become known as the one which reminded them of what is possible at international level as well as club level. Still we hear the ghosts of past arrogance in some of the wildly exaggerated BBC and ITV commentary, but fundamentally there is an acceptance that a successful England team is a bonus not an expectation. That, alongside the manager’s own story (the man who missed the crucial penalty in the 1996 European Championship semis then leads his team to the World Cup semis via a penalty shoot-out – Netflix would be proud of that script!), has led to significant sympathy for the team even outside England in a way which is genuinely novel and exciting.

1990 played its part in taking the game out of the doldrums in England; 2018 will probably not prove quite as decisive, but it will take the national team out of the doldrums. Whether in the 2040s Harry Kane is presenting Match of the Day remains to be seen…

World Cup – corrupt but still intriguing

The World Cup was always my favourite event of any four-year cycle – to the extent I once dedicated this entire blog to it for a month (in 2010). It is a gripping spectacle as the whole world comes together for a feast of its most popular sport.

I cannot deny that I have become less enchanted by it since 2010 given the obvious and outrageous corruption encircling its governing body, FIFA. The decision to award Russia this year’s tournament was curious when it was taken, although not outrageous at the time. However, the decision to award to the next one to Qatar – blatantly contrary even to the rules of submissions and at a cost of hundreds of lives (in construction workers operating with no health and safety to build stadiums whose viable use will be just a few weeks) – is a scandal to which the big national associations should by now have responded by setting up their own tournament in the summer of that year.

We are where we are, unfortunately, and there is little point in not enjoying the sport even if those who run it are blatantly corrupt.

This World Cup is curious also because of the number of establish teams not participating. The biggest is four-time champion Italy, eliminated in a play-off by Sweden. Missing a second major tournament in a row having reached the 2014 semi and the 2010 final are the Dutch. Once in the case of Italy may be misfortune, but twice for the Netherlands looks like carelessness. Those who have illuminated past tournaments but who are also absent this time include Chile, Romania, the United States and Cameroon (as well as, bitterly, Northern Ireland).

The tournament will, enticingly, include the likes of tiny Iceland (whose staggering achievements continue), and at the other end of the scale big African countries Nigeria and Egypt.

Two former winners seeking to restore their pride are Brazil (after the astonishing 7-1 demolition by Germany at home in 2014) and England (having crashed out of the European Championships to Iceland). As a side note, global television audiences for World Cup games in which either of these two participate are notably greater than otherwise. They may well face each other in the quarter-final.

Brazil, with Neymar and motivation, is the obvious team to watch as it seeks redemption. An Olympic title two years ago and a comfortable table-topping qualification programme suggest this is not impossible.

Most would see the main challenger as defending champion and top-ranked Germany, and it is easy to see why. The Germans qualified at a canter, know how to win tournaments, and have all the same strengths which won it on a different continent four years ago.

Previous winner (and treble tournament winners from 2008 to 2012) Spain and European champion Portugal in fact meet tomorrow evening in the game of the group stage, and either (particularly the former, given its strength in depth despite the lack of a manager) is a potential champion this time.

Another question is whether last time’s beaten finallist Argentina could hope to give Messi a World Cup in what is surely his last viable attempt. Recent form suggests not, but then that was the case in 2014 also.

Three European teams of significant interest but rarely talked of are Belgium, Switzerland and Poland, all ranked in the top ten in the world. Belgium has quality across the field; Switzerland functions extremely well as a unit; and arguably Poland has the tournament’s best goalscorer. There is also a parallel universe not far from here where Croatia won Euro 2016. Could this be the year of the semi-outsider?

You can rarely discount the host either, although whether Russia really has the quality to go deep into the tournament is debatable.

In the end, when you combine proven quality across the team with the motivation for real redemption, taking account of the draw my money would be on Euro 2016 runner-up and third favourite (behind Brazil and Germany) France.

We shall soon find out…

Michael Oliver was right. Gianluigi Buffon was wrong. We must be clear about that.

I have rarely seen such a remarkable European tie as this year’s European Cup quarter-final (NB: “leagues” don’t have “quarter finals”) between Real Madrid and Juventus. These were two exceptionally talented teams, superbly trained, clashing on one of the game’s largest stages. A fine early team goal, some daft messages, a candidate for goal of the decade, an epic comeback and then a gripping finale – it really did have everything.

However, it also left a hint of a sour taste. Right at the end of the tie, English referee Michael Oliver made not just the right, but also an extremely courageous decision to award the decisive penalty. For this, he was surrounded and shoved by angry defenders including Gianluigi Buffon, who thus saw red in his final European match. Unfortunately Mr Buffon, a fine ambassador for the game generally, then further let himself down by suggesting in no uncertain terms that Mr Oliver should not be a referee.

Mr Buffon’s logic was rather curious. Essentially, Mr Oliver should not have awarded the penalty not because a foul had not been committed, but because it deprived us of the drama (presumably of Mr Buffon’s own team completing the comeback in extra-time). This is ludicrous – and it takes someone in authority to point out it is ludicrous. It is dangerously ludicrous, in fact.

That it is dangerously ludicrous was demonstrated on the very day of the second leg by a story from the English Midlands of an amateur referee having to withdraw his (effectively voluntary) service to the game because he had been physically assaulted for the second time. This is extremely serious.

There remains within the game of football a culture which tolerates blistering attacks on the referees – even when these are in error. Here is the thing – if someone with the high reputation of Gianluigi Buffon is entitled to yell at a referee from inches away and to say he should be in the stand with his family instead, then others will inevitably take this as licence to engage in their own anti-referee activities. We know this can approach and sometimes exceed the boundary between verbal abuse (bad enough) and outright physical assault.

Mr Buffon should now use his status as a soon-to-be-retired ambassador for the game to apologise profusely for his terminology and accept the nonsense of his argument. In fact, what happened was that the world’s greatest player was allowed a free header at the far post, from which a situation arose where the best way to stop a goal was to bundle over that player’s team mate by both pushing and kicking him at the same time. Contrary to what the “experts” in the studio may have said, a clearer penalty award you will rarely see – and Mr Buffon should say so, publicly, in retrospect, while expressing sorrow directly to Mr Oliver.

If Mr Buffon cannot manage this, UEFA or even FIFA should consider stepping in. It is long since time that the game’s authorities stood up for their officials. Mr Oliver didn’t get to do a press conference where he could have analysed Juventus’ dodgy defending in the last few minutes, but somehow Juventus get to accuse him (wrongly, as it turns out) of dodgy officiating. It is plainly unacceptable, and it then ripples down the game until a referee is forced to quit in an amateur league in England because of the abuse and assaults he completely unjustifiably receives.

To be clear, Mr Buffon’s reaction was unacceptable even if Mr Oliver had been wrong. But Mr Oliver also was clearly not wrong. So what will it take for the game’s authorities to react? How many referees have to quit at amateur level, or retire at Premier League or La Liga level, before it is recognised fundamentally that the game is nothing without its officials?

Mr Buffon was wrong. Mr Oliver was right. It is essential we all recognise it openly.

The peculiar case of “text” as a past tense

When I wrote last week that originally all verbs in Germanic languages (such as English) formed their past forms by changing their root vowel (e.g. sing-sang-sung) and that the now productive (i.e. perceived to be regular) means of doing so by adding a dental suffix (-t or, more typically in Modern English, –ed), I would suggest that this was news to most readers.

At least consciously.

Yet every reader, in fact, knew this. As speakers of a Germanic language we are in fact linguistically programmed to know that the “dental suffix” ending marks the past. As a result, through time, it has become increasingly the case that it does (as noted last week, we now say helped not halp/holpen).

In fact, our pre-programmed determination to end past forms with a dental suffix overrides our preference for regularisation itself. There is a peculiar 21st century example of this.

The verb “to text” has emerged only in the past generation. It would have appeared senseless to anyone before the mid-90s that “text” could be anything other than a noun.

However, here is a funny thing: in casual speech, the verb “to text” is irregular in the past.

The regular past of text would of course be texted. Yet just listen out for it the next time you hear it, or even consider what you yourself say, and you will note that the past form (at least in casual speech) is in fact text. People actually say ‘I text her yesterday’ not ‘I texted her yesterday’.

We see this also with verbs such as “to bet”. What has happened is that our innate tendency towards ending a past with a dental suffix (in this case –t) has overridden our preference for outright regular past formation.

So, it turns out we know rather more about our linguistic heritage than we thought – even when using the most 21st century vocabulary!

Stormont: the options now

Clearly, two weeks ago, the DUP and Sinn Fein reached an outlined Agreement which would have enabled the appointment of a First Minister and deputy First Minister and then of eight Executive Ministers. In turn, this would have allowed restoration of the Assembly in plenary and in committee.

This first paragraph alone needs to be understood to enable us to grasp, structurally at least, what the options are now. The key point is this: the Assembly exists. The Assembly was correctly elected in March 2017, and it continues to operate – with its constituency offices, all-party groups, representative functions and so on.

As noted before, Northern Ireland has three specific peculiarities in its system which are too often overlooked by correspondents and commentators:

  • it requires an Executive to be appointed before its Legislature (the Assembly) may sit in plenary and committee (and thus before it can legislate and scrutinise);
  • it requires two specific parties to lead its Executive regardless of the election result otherwise; and
  • it removes its Ministers on election day.

Each of these is unique. In every other system (for example, up until a few days ago in Germany or for most of the past year in the Netherlands), a Legislative Assembly can sit and even legislate without an Executive in place; parties merely need to show they have the support, even implicitly, of a majority of that Assembly (even in systems, such as Belgium’s, which require a degree of power-sharing); and Ministers remain in place until they are specifically replaced.

Interestingly, the draft agreement did consider the latter. It suggests that an Executive would formally remain in place for up to six weeks after an election (while an attempt was made to form another), and that Ministers would remain in place for a further twelve after that (in an interim or “caretaker” capacity, as is common elsewhere) after which another election would take place. There has been some indication that the UK Government may proceed to legislate for this, and that would be wise as it would remove one of the unique problems and would at least enable decisions to be made in the event of a similar breakdown in future.

It would also help with the first point, as retaining an Executive through an election would enable an Assembly to sit and conceivably even legislate, even before a new Executive was agreed. That is now an area of discussion in the media and it is indeed where the UK Government needs to give some focus. Is it really wise to block MLAs from doing at least the scrutiny aspect of their job merely because two particular parties cannot agree (as is necessary because of the middle point) to form an Executive? Indeed, is there really any reason MLAs should be impeded from doing the legislative aspect of their role? The UK Government could, if it were legislating already to reform the timescale around Executive formation, continue to allow the Assembly to operate, at very least in Committee (primarily for scrutiny) and potentially even in plenary (primarily for legislation). There would be several advantages at least to doing the former – MLAs would be back scrutinising policy and thus could themselves be seen to be doing their job (and assessed on it) by the public; civil servants would feel more content to pursue certain policies given that they would be subject to democratic and local oversight in so doing; and indeed intra-party relationships could be built up to enable talks to restore the Executive to be carried out on a broader basis (so that no MLAs again feel they are being bounced into an agreement they have not even seen). Restoring a legislative function to the Assembly may be for later down the track, but would enable issues such as Health Reform and same-sex marriage to be pursued if that were the will of the democratically elected legislature. (This of course raises the issue of the Petition of Concern – is there any reason the review agreed to by the two main parties to be concluded in June 2018 should not in fact proceed?)

The middle point is of course trickier. How do you ensure genuine cross-community power-sharing? In practice, St Andrews made things worse, not better, but there is little prospect of the UK (or indeed Irish) Government intervening here while so caught up on other matters. That is, unfortunately, a problem we are left with and it is hard to see how it will be solved by those who have no electoral motivation for solving it – but there are, at least, other things we could be doing in the meantime.

Irregular verbs in English

‘There must be a Japanese word for the feeling you have when you see someone write “has went”‘, I once tweeted. As I wrote on this blog some years ago, it is of course a lost battle; a generation or so from now, “has went” (rather than the currently Standard “has gone”) will be universally accepted.

One potentially interesting aspect of this is that went is a “suppletive”. Suppletives are words used as part of a paradigm (e.g. a past form of a present; thus went for go) which have no historical relation. Other examples in English include good – better and some parts of to be (which varies wildly through the paradigm across am and are through been to was and were). What generally has happened is that a word which originally had a restrictive term has come to be more generally used. Went was in fact originally the past form of wend (cf. sent of send); go (actually gan as it was originally, and still is in non-standard speech in Northumbria) had another suppletive past form eode (which combined with a suffix also gave ful-eode, now followed; the present form follow is in fact a regularised back formation versus the original fulgan, cf. German folgen). Over time went took over as the past form of what was now go, but the non-suppletive past participle form gone remains (at least in careful, standard usage).

Most neighbouring languages do distinguish between a past form (sometimes known as a “preterite”) and a part participle. French has parlai/-as/-a etc versus parlé(es); German has plauderte(-st/-n) versus plaudert; Spanish has hablé/-aste/-ó versus hablado; and so on. With regular verbs, however, English no longer does – talked is both a past form (used throughout the paradigm – I talked, you talked, it talked…) and past participle (I have talked).

However, these regular verbs are in fact an innovation in Germanic languages. Originally, all verbs formed their past (and occasionally other forms) by way of ablaut – essentially, amending the root vowel. Still around 150-200 verbs in English (and other Germanic languages such as German) do it this way: sing-sang-sung, break-broke-broken, come-came-come and so on. However, as even those examples show, there has been a tendency towards regularisation (broke-broken was, until even Shakespeare’s era, brake-broken as is still evident in the Modern German brechen-brach-gebrochen; cf. also Modern English swing-swung-swung [not/no longer swang]).

It was only over time that Germanic languages developed an alternative past formation by way of a dental suffix (basically either -t or –d) which became productive (i.e. the normal way of doing it) to the extent that now it is the way with almost all verbs. Many verbs which now do it that way were once not (help-helped was at the time of the King James Bible an innovation from help-halp-holpen, cf. again modern German helfen-half-geholfen).

The pressure towards regularisation, despite the fact the language is standardised, is what brings about such forms as “he has came“, “it is broke“, “she has rang” (or indeed “she rung“) or “I have went“. It also nudges some verbs into the regular category, or just causes outright confusion (e.g. regular transitive lay-laid-laid versus irregular intransitive lie-lay-lain) or comes to separate words completely (e.g. set versus sit). Since the invention of the printing press, this tendency has slowed down remarkably, but is still evident.

In the end, regularisation in informal speech creeping into the standard language over generations is a forewent conclusion… (ahem, actually gone will remain as an adjective and in set phrases, such as “bygone” or “days long gone” but as a participle it will be “gone” soon enough…).

Away goals, English teams – and how the media get it wrong

The football media in the UK are of course prone to wild exaggeration and crazed build-ups. This is never more apparent than in the run-up to big European ties.

Two common errors apply to the usefulness of “away goals” and to the scale of British teams’ feats. A recent tie between Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur demonstrated both.

To be clear, away goals can be valuable. In my Arsenal supporting career, which is into its 37th year, bizarrely I have suffered several defeats on away goals (even domestically in one League Cup semi) and never experienced a win by that route. So they are not irrelevant, as I know from bitter experience!

However, the value placed on them is overstated. To make an obvious point, away goals only matter if the aggregate score is level. In the vast majority of cases – well over 80% – it isn’t. To show just how ludicrous the commentary can be, we should also emphasise for example that an away team winning without conceding cannot win the tie away goals. How often do you hear that any away goal is “crucial”; in fact, if the home side does not score, an away goal literally cannot be crucial (to use both the word “literally” and the word “crucial” as per their dictionary definition!)

Added to this is the constant vast overstatement of British teams’ performances. After the first leg of the recent tie, the BBC even offered an article suggesting that Tottenham Hotspur’s comeback to draw 2-2 was “the greatest comeback ever”. To leave quite aside Manchester United actually coming from two down to win 3-2 at Juventus in the 1999 semi or the obvious choice of Liverpool’s miracle in Istanbul six years later, this was a completely ludicrous proposition anyway since the tie was not over. Indeed, surely it would be preposterous to suggest Juventus’ comeback to win the tie (on aggregate, not away goals) was “the greatest comeback ever”?!

In the end, for all the media frenzy, the real expertise was provided afterwards by Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini, who said he never doubted his team would edge through because the opponents were very good but lacked the guile and experience at this level. Why did no one say that beforehand?

“Between you and I” and other horrors…

It was one of a number of papers exchanged between Michelle O’Neill and I“, noted Arlene Foster earlier this week.

She is not having a good run. Not only is it obvious that her party leadership had an agreement to restore devolution and then couldn’t provide the leadership to make the easy sell, but she then got mocked for her use of English. It should, of course, be “between Michelle O’Neill and me“.

This is a poor error – and it is an outright error, not just a non-standard variation – yet I see it all the time. What is going on here?

Fundamentally, the rules around personal pronouns are quite simple in English. “Direct” forms are used when they are the subject of a clause (thus “I, he, she, we, they“) and “oblique” forms are used when they are an object (“me, him, her, us, them”) – the form you is now used for both. Thus it would be “Michelle and I saw the draft” [subject]; but “Other negotiators joined Michelle and me“, “They showed Michelle and me the text” and  “There was an agreement between Michelle and me” [direct object, indirect object and pronoun object respectively – but it does not matter, any object takes the same form].

So how could anyone get this wrong?

Firstly, there is the issue of hyper-correction of a common dialectal (non-standard) rule. In many dialects of English, and in Scots, the grammatical rule is in fact that the direct form is only used if the pronoun is the subject and stands alone. Thus it is “I saw the draft” but, in many non-standard varieties, “Her and me saw the draft” (or indeed perhaps something like “Me and her seen the draft). There are some slight variations on this “rule” – other dialects require the pronouns to be removed from the verb, for example. Because this rule is so widespread in non-standard dialects, it is a prominent part of education in Standard English (whose rule, it must be said, is a lot simpler) that it should in writing and formal speech be “She and I saw the draft“. It is emphasised that the subject form is required, and indeed that to be polite the “I” should come second.

Secondly, we have the tendency in speech not just to distinguish between “direct/subject” and “oblique/object” but also between unstressed and stressed – when we stress a pronoun we tend to use the oblique form, e.g. “I didn’t see the draft, me“. This is quite common – French has a similar tendency (“Moi, je n’ai pas vu le document“), and Dutch has an entire separate set of unstressed person pronouns.

Both of these – the hyper-correction and the spoken tendency as well as the underlying grammar of some non-standard dialects – tempt us towards the oblique (object) forms over the direct (subject). Additionally, there is also the confusion around what happens after copulative verbs (verbs which do not take an object, most obviously “to be“); here, modern English tends towards the oblique form (“It’s me“, cf. French “C’est moi“), whereas the more typically Germanic “It is I” sounds archaic or even pompous (German actually has “Ich bin es” or “Das bin ich“, literally “I am it / That am I“). Indeed, this process has already led to the complete collapse of one direct/subject form, as the formerly uniquely oblique/object form “you” has come to take over from ye” entirely.

Nevertheless, the “rule” in Standard English is extraordinarily simple. As a subject of a verb, the direct (subject) form is used; as an object (of any type) of a verb or a pronoun, the oblique (object) form is used.

Between you and me, I suspect she did show her a draft…

Football refereeing versus hockey umpiring

Fed up with merely cheering on her daughter from the sidelines, my wife returned to playing hockey herself this season. On the eve of an away cup match in Tyrone in the autumn, she notified me that her team lacked an umpire and asked (ahem, told) me to cover it.

This caused me a problem. Football was my sport, having reached the giddy heights of the Down Amateur League as a referee. Hockey was my father’s sport but, as the rules have changed dramatically since his day, this only caused a further disadvantage – it wasn’t that I didn’t know the rules, but rather that I did know the wrong rules…

Anyway, a combination of flattery and desperation saw me invited back and I have been umpiring at various club levels more or less every weekend since (the league season was due to end for the team to which I am specifically assigned last weekend but has happily been extended).

Since hockey is presented as football with sticks, what are the key similarities and differences in officiating each? Can they even learn from each other more?


I do not really like the representation of hockey as “football with sticks”, in fact, but plainly there are similarities – two teams of eleven (including, at least normally, a goalkeeper) try to score goals. That offences are penalised by frees, the game starts from the middle with all players except the taker in their own half, and the whole of the ball has to be over the whole of the line to be off the field (or indeed in the goal) also makes game play quite familiar for anyone moving from one to the other.

Some officiating skills are, inevitably, quite similar too. In areas such as presentation of decisions, game management (gauging “temperature” and such like) and even the pre-match chat to both teams the basic skills are the same.


Hockey is (or at least should be) a game of stick skill, with fluent play and filling appropriate space more important than rigid positioning. Therefore the first obvious difference for the official, as I have found to my cost on many occasions, is that in hockey the umpire must try to stay (literally) ahead of the game.

This task is made slightly easier by the most obvious difference of all (from an officiating point of view), namely that hockey has two umpires on the field. This was, in fact, originally the case with football too, with each club providing one umpire each and then one off-field official to whom they could “refer” if in doubt – hence the term “referee”. By the mid-1890s, football had brought the referee on to the field and taken the umpires off it to run the lines. Hockey retains the older system, which is a significant advantage in terms of management at amateur level as each club still takes responsibility for providing one umpire; and it is a significant advantage for the official whose fitness may not be quite at the level of a professional athlete, as at least they only have to stay ahead of the game in one half of the field!

Having a fellow umpire does add another aspect of the game to manage, but if done well can be a huge advantage over the loneliness of the football referee. Even though umpires have responsibility in the rules for one half of the field, in practice this can be split diagonally and it is possible to operate as a team for incidents even when they are much closer to one umpire (occasionally it may still be the case that the further away umpire has a clearer line of view). Mastering this, of course, takes more than the few months I have had!

There are a number of other differences. Penalties for the attacking team in the attacking quarter are a lot more complex – both in terms of award and procedure – in hockey than they are in football; offences in hockey seem often to occur on the ground (stick-to-stick, kicking/stopping with the foot, etc), whereas in football particularly in the British Isles they may be at or higher than eye level (holding, pushing at headers, etc); hockey umpires also have a much wider range of sanctions available to control the game (four levels and three cards all of which indicate different types of suspension in hockey, versus two levels and only permanent suspension in football; and in hockey the same card may even be shown to the same player more than once). Also, the basic signals used by officials are similar but hockey has rather more and is stricter about their use.

A marked difference is match timing: in hockey, the whistle must be blown to end the half/match absolutely on time (although in certain circumstances, despite the whistle, play continues until a set piece is complete); in football the referee has a lot more discretion and it is possible and indeed advisable to wait until an attacking movement is complete before blowing for time; in fact, the football referee rarely stops the (main) watch at all, instead merely calculating (typically in groups of half minutes) how much time is added on by checking the watch at the beginning and end of any stoppage. With its two-umpire system hockey instead has a specific system for signalling time stoppages and they are thus (in theory at least) calculated to the second, albeit with the assistance of extra technical officials at higher levels.

Hockey also has, in my experience, a unique interpretation of “advantage”. The rules indicate that an offence may not be penalised unless it specifically disadvantages an opponent (it appears this has been done to make up for abandoning a previous rule on “forcing” offences); this is a more stringent requirement for applying the penalty than football’s “advantage” which allows play to continue only if penalising an offence would disadvantage the beneficiary. In other words, the application of “advantage” is not so much at the umpire’s discretion and is dictated in many circumstances by the rules, and does not so much depend on whether the potential beneficiary would prefer the penalty versus playing on as whether it has been disadvantaged by the offence. This can quite often mean than play continues (or, at least, should continue) when an offence is committed even if the potential beneficiary would prefer the penalty to be applied. Exactly how this is interpreted is, of course, subject to debate.

One final quirk is that hockey umpires actually view the game from the other side of the field from football referees. Firstly, as noted above, it is important to stay ahead of the attacking team in hockey (as the other umpire can cover behind), to the extent of going off the field by the goal if necessary. Secondly, hockey umpires always stand and move to the right of the attacking team (hockey must be played right-handed so there is a tendency for attacking play to occur on the right). Football referees have come, however, to run a “left diagonal”; assistants now always run the line to the right of the attacking team, thus it makes sense for referees to position themselves to the left. This was not always so; in the past in some places (including the UK), what were then referred to as linesmen actually switched sides at half-time to protect the pitch and so referees ran alternate diagonals in each half; although the “left diagonal” became established in international competition post-War and was becoming the norm everywhere by the start of the Champions’ League era, it took until this century for the Premier League to insist on it.


Hockey is inclined to change its rules more often that football changes its laws (as distinct from interpretations of them).

It is possible to watch football from the beginning of colour television and notice very few differences – the laws around goalkeeper possession (there was once a requirement to bounce the ball when running with it and subsequently an outright restriction on significant movement with it in the hands, both of which were effectively abandoned alongside the introduction of the “back-pass” law in the early 1990s) and some restarts (notably the kick-off) have changed, and gradually more substitutes have been allowed, but very little else is noticeable. There have been some technical changes (the ability to score a goal or own goal from certain restarts); bookings and sendings-off are now more common; and at top level there is now a board to mark how much added time will be played as a minimum (and there is a lot more of this than there used to be). Alongside gradual liberalisation of the application of the offside law over the past three decades, that is all.

Hockey, on the other hand, has changed markedly. My father played in an era when it was still permissible to stop the ball with the hand (which is still legal in ice hockey); but then he also played on grass and the game has changed profoundly since the surface changed. Rules around playing the ball above shoulder height, certain forms of obstruction and, most notably perhaps, offside, have been abandoned; the procedures and requirements for penalty corners have changed markedly; technical rules have come (and sometimes also gone) to try to promote skill and adapt to changed techniques while restricting danger, with varying degrees of success. Temporary suspensions (“sin-bins”) were long allowed in hockey but have been expanded; rolling substitutes have become the norm. Frees may now be “auto-passed” (it is not necessary for the taker to pass the ball; they may simply continue to play it). The exact rules around the taking of attacking free hits particularly in the attacking quarter of the field (alongside the recent abolition of “long corners”) change frequently.


At amateur level, at least in Northern Ireland, the sports are also structured differently. Hockey umpires at club level are volunteers, but assigned to a club (with all the camaraderie that comes with that). Football referees are paid (well, at least, compensated) per game, but have to make do with the odd referees’ meeting for the social side. In Ireland, where there is a marked shortage of qualified hockey umpires coming through, some thought is now being given to compensation.

Compensation for football referees is not the norm everywhere either, however. A league I briefly refereed in in southern Germany in fact always had two matches played after each other and the nominal home club for each provided the referee for the other match – meaning that referees were assigned to teams but went without compensation; in others words, the system was much closer to hockey in Ireland than football. (Thus I personally would be wary of going the compensation route for hockey umpires, as it is not clear it is necessary if clubs take some responsibility for development; that said, interestingly, both refereeing and pitch standards were markedly lower in Baden-Wuerttemberg than in Northern Ireland!)


Football has already decided to learn from hockey and other sports by introducing “sin bins” and rolling substitutes to the laws of the game; these are not yet permitted at the highest level, but that is surely a matter of time.

There are also proposals for football to borrow hockey’s “auto-pass” at free kicks; that may be more complicated, as it is easier in hockey to assess whether the ball has been stopped before the free is taken than it would be in football. (Football also briefly experimented with “kick-ins” from the touchlines some years ago, effectively making the return to play from the side the same as the general return to play after an offence as in hockey, but this was swiftly abandoned.)

As with rugby, hockey also gives more responsibility to the captain of each team. Football would surely gain from something similar, making captains the primary or in many cases sole point of contact between a team and the officials may improve game management and respect considerably.

It is perhaps less obvious what hockey has to learn from football (since hockey folk have vastly more exposure to football than the other way around, it is probable that it is more inclined to learn from it). From the angle of the communications professional as much as the sports enthusiast, I would tentatively make one suggestion: hockey should have Laws, not just Rules. The Rules are, evidently, a patchwork of amendments and adaptations going back some considerable time, and it is not always obvious even to experienced officials how they link to each other, what their purpose is, and how they should be interpreted (particularly after amendments); indeed, in some cases, there are details missing which then appear elsewhere (even something as fundamental as the rule around the “Method of Scoring” does not take account for procedures at a penalty corner, which at best amend it and at worst contradict it). Carrying out a fundamental revision, as has recently occurred in football, in this case to lay out clear Laws of the Game (which would only rarely be amended) alongside regulations (which could be adapted more readily, even across different levels) would surely make the game easier for players and officials alike to manage, while also enabling more thorough consideration of concepts such as “dangerous play”, “contact” and “misconduct”.

Ease of officiating

Which one, after all this, is easier to officiate? There, I remain genuinely undecided. In some ways hockey is the more pleasant sport to officiate because officials remain associated with a club, and thus with the camaraderie that goes with that – football is a lonelier operation altogether! On the other hand, the Laws of Association Football are broadly simpler and easier to apply consistently. Perhaps the best bet is to try both…