Sunday, 16 September 2012

I can't believe he missed Andy Gray: A foreword

As a leaving present for Chris Oakley upon his departure to New Zealand, Graham Sibley and I published a book containing his complete Friday List Of Little Or No Consequence posts for Some People Are On The Pitch and the Football Fairground. Below is the foreword, penned by myself. 

“Anything with Garlic.” replied Archie Gemmill to the now classic “What’s your favourite food?” question asked of all professional footballers honoured to be the subject of the now defunct “Shoot!” magazine’s Q and A section. The answer immediately conjures images of the rampaging Scotsman, wilting the Dutch players on that infamous night in Argentina in 1978, with his garlic fuelled breath, as the wee man met his destiny and Scotland met their end.

I never read “Shoot!” as a boy and only found out about Archie’s appetites through that stalwart of mental ephemera that is The Friday List Of Little Or No Consequence which for five years ran in Chris Oakley’s football blog, Some People Are On The Pitch and later the Football Fairground.

Every week, the list would provide a portion of empirical factitude delivered by the author. The list was aptly named and exemplifies the true spirit of a fan’s passion for the game. For most of us, football is a matter of little or no consequence but the the lists demonstrate the power the beautiful game has over us when we choose to seek knowledge and understanding for no reason other than because it is there.

As much as chalkboards, tactical breakdowns, player profiles and historical & cultural contexts allow us to understand football, the accumulation of hitherto buried trivia gives the game substance. From the sixteen teams in the 2008 Africa Cup Of Nations in Nickname Form to England one cap wonders to ten stickers missing from his “Football 1981” Panini album to 27 Statistics mentioned during the Guardian Football Weekly podcast of 29 December 2011, every Friday the List gave the reader possibly one of the greatest gift anyone could receive: consequence free knowledge; innocence on a web page.

As Chris embarks upon a new chapter in his life, he leaves his disciples these lists, collected in a single volume, as a fitting legacy and tribute to a man for whom no fact was too small, no event too obscure and no genre too niche.

Happy trails, Oakers.

STRIKER: Raging Against The Machine

This post was originally published on 8th September 2012 for the Football Attic.

Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, Socialist Worker, Ernest Hemmingway’s Men Without Women, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lethal Weapon Pinball, Selhurst Park, Guinness and Super Nintendo (SNES). If you were to evacuate my conscious mind in the early Nineties and reassemble its elements as some grotesque Mental Pinterest then those fragments of ephemera are what would be displayed. But if I were to place an extra large pin on one of those elements to give it extra significance it would be the Guinness. However, I’ve not been asked to write about Guinness. I’ve been asked to write about an old video game, so for the purposes of this tortured preamble, I’ll say it would be my SNES.

Purchased from the Virgin Megastore in Tottenham Court Road, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System introduced me to NHL Ice Hockey, the glory of World League Basketball (NCAA for readers in the US) and the worst Rugby video game in the history of all games ever created (everyone knows time is not up until the ball goes dead. EVERYONE KNOWS THAT!)

Then of course, there was the king of all football video games, the timeless classic: Sensible Soccer. However, SS looked stupid with its plan view pin pricks for players, stupid sound effects and rubbish player names (who the fuck is Alan Shiarer?) After a week I’d decided that this was a game for people who took this sort of thing far more seriously than me and took up STRIKER instead.

The first thing to say about STRIKER was that it was produced by a company called RAGE Software. For angry Trotskyite class warriors, as I claimed to be at the time, anything produced by something called RAGE was brilliant. RAGE was a force for good. RAGE made a difference. RAGE would kick the Tories out. RAGE would smash the State and end injustice. Whatever else you can say about the name RAGE, it was ideologically sound.

The next thing to say about STRIKER is the gameplay which had an agreeable 45-degree view, sticky balls (if you’ve played Kick Off or listened to the latest Attic Podcast then you’ll know what I mean) and crunching tackles. If there was a normal tackle button, I never pressed it. The sliding tackle was designed to clean out the opposition player and emerge with the ball at your feet. The action generated a satisfying squelchy slippy noise which elicited a feeling of great and surprisingly wholesome satisfaction. There was no commentator (thank Christ!) but whenever something extra cool happened an electric scoreboard would pop up with encouraging exclamations like “OFF THE BAR!” and “WHAT A TACKLE!” and “PENALTY!” and “GOAL!!!”

The games were accompanied by an “authentic” crowd noise which responded to the shifting patterns of play and had a curious reverb that was a little freaky when you played the game on your own. However, when the ball hit the back of the net the crowd would go wild and once you’d figured out how to strike the ball with the correct amount of backspin, straight in front of goal and from just outside the area that net took one hell of a beating.

Having found the game's weakness, I took Palace to League and Cup glory. England won the World Cup averaging nine goals a game. The game had customisable kits and clubs but I didn’t go in for that. I was only interested in the glory of pummelling Arsenal and beating the Germans 9–0.

Football game purists will be spinning in their graves (especially the alive ones) to read this but what made STRIKER so appealing was that it was easy and conveyed a sense authenticity without being authentic. It had an indoor training mode where the players' trainers squeaked which may have been a first for non basketball games. Granted, STRIKER was not as clever as Sensi Soccer but it made you feel a lot better about yourself when you played it. Like left wing politics, STRIKER kept it real and had easy answers. Sensi Soccer, where the basic graphics disguised the realistic game play and advanced engine was more suited to working class Tories for whom, all suffering is necessary. Neither game was entirely healthy and if you’re still playing either today, stop.

But the final thing to say about STRIKER is the theme tune. This game's release coincided with the birth of the FA Premier League. Football was entering its modern era and much of the old game was being swept aside for all-seater stadia, satellite TV, Richard Keys and high ticket prices. The one link to our past was Match of the Day and Barry Stoller's classic theme tune which was played at Agincourt, if the legend is to be believed. The STRIKER theme (still in use today as the theme to the Sound Of Football podcast) evoked that old anthem, and its reassuring subtext, beautifully. Here was a game that looked ahead to a world of football that demanded its gratification in instant form or sack the coach. But it also knew the value of nostalgia and a compelling melody. Truly it was a product of its age.