Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Derby Open Water Tournament 21 June 2008
A Report from our motoring correspondent Jeremy Clarksman

When my editor phoned and said, “Jerry, how do you fancy covering a polo tournament in Derby this week-end? The South London Correspondent is out of the country on some ‘southern hemisphere election business’, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more, and we need a safe pair of hands.”. I thought, could be worse! Plenty of posh totty in top of the range 4x4s and a little too much Champagne. “Bamber, mate”, I told him, “fire over the details and I’ll see what I can do.”. That was on Friday afternoon. I printed off the details, stuck the post code in my Sat Nav and didn’t bother reading them until I was filling up the Ferrari at the services on the M1.

I don’t know which was more of a shock, the contents of the email or the daft bugger at the services trying to charge me nearly 30 billion pounds for a tank of petrol. I had no idea that people played polo in the water, can’t be too deep I thought, the poor old nags would drown. And one minor detail, the tournament is in Nottingham, not Derby.

Now there are some funny people about, I should know I work with a few of them, but this lot take the biscuit, in fact, the annual UK production of McVitie’s Digestives to be precise. When I’d got over the fact that the myopic idiot that calls himself my editor (Only kidding Bamber, old boy) had sent me to a Water Polo tournament and the fact that I was stood in the drizzle in Nottingham on a day that was seven thousand degrees colder than the average for the time of year, I managed to see the bright side. I didn’t have to take my clothes off and jump in the rowing lake, but dozens of idiots seemed to be doing it voluntarily.

You know the noise you get when you run over a fox and don’t quite finish it off, that high pitched squealing accompanied by an un-coordinated thrashing of limbs. Well this bunch of lunatics were doing it all over the place, hurling them selves into the brown sludge and flailing and squealing like they were being electrocuted. I assume that the water was rather cold. I looked around and there were practically naked bodies dotted around on floating blocks of concrete watching their mates in the water throwing brightly coloured balls around and fighting. There were other people blowing whistles for no discernable reason, but whenever the whistles went the drowning people stopped fighting and had a quick breather before setting about each other again. I looked about me for a sign that said “Nottingham Mad Peoples Day Out”, but couldn’t see one.

Under normal circumstances I would have hopped in the car and driven back to civilisation, but, always on the look our for another group of mad English eccentrics I thought I’d better find out what was going on. I managed to find one of the organisers, a nice, outwardly normal bloke called Jim, and he seemed happy enough to fill me in on what it was all about.

Having finally ascertained that there was no real point to the whole event. No major prizes would be awarded, no money would be changing hands, no-one would be any more famous after the tournament than before it, I gave up trying to understand why anyone in their right mind would subject themselves to this ludicrous folly and decided to watch a game or two. I asked Jim to point out the better teams and he advised me to watch the men’s top division and last year’s winners Avondale. I’d missed their first game (there’s a limit to how early even the most diligent reporter can rise from beneath his goose down duvet to cover sporting events) but already the invincible winners from the previous year were doomed to under-achievement having lost by a couple of goals to local London Rivals Beckenham.

I braved the drizzle and walked the few yards to the pitch where Avondale were about to take on Cardiff Old Boys. Well, I think I could have beaten the Cardiff ‘boys’. Several of the Cardiff players were untroubled by the cold having layers of blubber thicker than a luxury mattress. I had no idea what was going on, but could see that the Avondale players were definitely better at getting the ball into the goal than the old boys. How hard could this be? I thought I’d interview one or two of the Avondale team to get the player perspective (editors like that sort of thing) but they scarpered like a bunch of frightened sheep at the end of the game towards the changing rooms. I followed, like the intrepid reporter that I am, (and because I had been told that there was a Café there) and found the team immobile under the hot showers looking like a group of nine year old boys at your local sports centre. I decided to delay the interviews until later.

I must have nodded off over my coffee, because I woke to find myself alone in the café dribbling gently onto my cardigan with the time approaching 1:00pm. A quick consultation with my programme informed me that I would catch the next Avondale game against a team called Polytechnic in just a few minutes time. This was altogether better. The drizzle had slackened to a gentle wetting and we had a much more even match to watch. I got quite carried away at one point, even shouting something encouraging at someone. The Poly boys kept hitting the Avondale keeper on various parts of his head, body and arms and the poor old boy just didn’t seem able to get out of the way in time. A couple of goals from the big ginger bloke from Avondale kept them in front and they somehow managed to hold on for a 2 – 1 victory. The excitement was too much for me and I retired to the Motor for a quick snooze.

I woke a little while later and thought that the tide must have come in and that I was under water. Everything was grey and the windscreen was obscured with water. I remembered where I was as the sound of the chirpy announcer encouraged the players to forget the blatantly inhospitable conditions and to throw themselves into the freezing mud again. I was almost exhausted, but somehow managed to drag myself the few yards onto the floating pontoons to see another Avondale game. I had consulted the results sheets in the commentary box and saw that they were playing a team that were so far unbeaten. Penguin. I marvelled at the fabulously original name for a water polo club and scanned the list for any other teams who had thought of this exciting and original naming ploy. I found the Leeds Sharks, but sadly there were no Dolphins, no Tuna, no Cod and not a mollusc in sight. Disappointing

Meanwhile our victors from last year were getting a bit of a thrashing from the perky Penguins. Some ginger bloke seemed to be able to score even when his entire body was under water, the ball popping out from nowhere and arcing over the flailing arms of the old boy in the Avondale goal. I couldn’t be bothered to count the goals but the Penguins had a bait ball full compared with Avondale. Everyone shuffled off at the end to stand in the warm showers and I fell asleep again in the car.

Just one more supreme effort saw me back on the pool side for the final game in the men’s division. The Rotherham team hadn’t bothered with hats, which was a pity, because they were all identical as far as I could see, without a working follicle amongst them. Clearly I’d missed something in the tactics department and couldn’t quite see why the Avondale boys were allowing their keeper to get so much practice. Anyway he made good use of his face and arms to collect a nice set of bruises.

By now I’d had enough. My momentary enthusiasm for this weird sport was being washed away under the depressing Nottingham clouds that were almost touching my head. I snapped a picture of the scene and the Avondale keeper after the bombardment of the last game (here for your delectation). I left the Avondale boys sampling some home cooking from their captain’s girlfriend and declined a generous offer to muck in and taste Angle’s muffin. My last glimpse of the scene, through my rear view mirror was the cheery bunch, having been rained on all day, half frozen and having lost their trophy, happily joking and posing for photographs against the dead pan drab of the rowing lake. You couldn’t make it up!
The beautiful Derby Open Water Tournament 21 June 2008

The view from the warmth of the car

The perils of a lax defence!

Monday, 23 June 2008

Avondale II 17 - Cranleigh II 3 (Surrey League, 23 June 2008)

If you liked this you'll like... Tottenham Court Road. Personally neither Rocky or I like watching one way traffic and tonight's proceedings were as dull as the excuse for a game we were forced to endure last week. This week the home team won and last week they lost, but on both occasions the entertainment value was on a par with white line painting. I want my money back!

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Avondale II 8ish - Sutton & Cheam II(ish) 16ish (Surrey League, 14 June 2008)

For those of you with a penchant for exciting, "edge of the seat", stories the concept of someone letting slip a key fact or tit-bit of unwanted detail as to the final dénouement is like the gratuitous exposure of a bloated roll of pasty white fat above a chav’s Burberry mini skirt on a cold January evening. It is unexpected, unwanted and immediately sickening. Almost as egregious would be the act of drawing the reader in by building the suspense and excitement of a competitive sporting encounter, but then to simply deflate their now stimulated expectation with a banal, or worse irrelevant, outcome. So let me confess immediately that I failed to see the conclusion of this game. The score is a guess based on the state of the parties at the time Rocky and I marched in disgust from the Putney Leisure Centre.

I had been looking forward to this match, having heard stories of recent close encounters and games being decided in the dying seconds. Rocky and I like a cliff hanger! The portents were good as I surveyed the two teams, although my intuition told me that the number of very strong juniors that Sutton had brought would almost certainly tip the result in their favour. Then in a quite bizarre twist their team captain came across to the balcony and exchanged words with their supporters, one of whom I recognised as a key player in their first team. He then proceeded to join the team and started the game for them.

I looked around for a protest from the home team for this blatant infringement of both the Surrey League rules and the spirit of the encounter, but either they were oblivious to the late addition or did not mind or care. I don’t believer Avondale ever make any official complaints about artificially strengthened teams, following the premise that you play the opposition team that are there, rather than the one you expected to turn up. I suppose life’s too short to worry about the outcome of the odd Water Polo match, but still…..

The game started and the result was clear from the first minute. Sutton were clearly too strong for Avondale and scored, I think, five unanswered goals in as many minutes. Rocky slumped at my feet after the third or fourth goal and was, in a trice, snoring gently. Even the visiting supporters, in the past surprisingly animated at these fixtures, were seemingly unmoved by the procession that was unfolding. Avondale were particularly clueless tonight and again and again managed to leave Sutton’s strongest shooter free on six of seven metres. The visitors did not disappoint with their quick accurate shooting. Moorhouse, from the Avondale First team, coaching from the pool side, tried to coax a more coherent and appropriate response from the normally more resilient “Real Avondale”, but sometimes the difference in quality between two teams is too wide a river to bridge.

I’ve better things to do than watch dull one sided games – I left them to it!

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Whitgift I 5 - Avondale I 18 (Surrey League, 11 June 2008)

It’s a pleasure to visit the ample facilities at Whitgift School. You can knock the private education system (if you can’t afford it) but what could be more reassuring to those of us with an eye for the colonial past than to wander across the manicured cricket field in the warm summer evening with the sound of peacocks calling in the twilight. Next year’s prospective subscribers were emerging from the main school building brushing the crumbs away from their mouths as they ascended to the cool leather comfort of their lumpen four by fours. Satiated after the redundant but comforting smokes salmon sandwiches, Sauvignon Blanc and the Headmaster's address.

Rocky and I slipped through the throng as if invisible and made our way to the comfortable café area of the sports centre. The protagonists arrived in dribs and drabs and were diverted by a rather dull European soccer competition emerging without conviction from the large television screens. Rocky flopped beside me unenthusiastically.

My pre-match research had uncovered nothing about the form of the home team, Whitgift. They may have been playing as the home team, but the visitors looked just as comfortable as they chatted amiably in the cafe. I noticed a number of key players missing from the Avondale ranks, but picked up from their conversation that their dependable Captain had been forced to make a detour to collect a number of players after some vehicular malfunction. I saw no Bond, Konrad, Bind, Ford, Standley or Jacobs and wondered if Avondale were guilty of complacency. The Surrey league may not have quite the caché of the London Premiership, and Avondale went undefeated in this competition last season. Hubris is a dangerous and seductive companion and Whitgift can call upon a number of talented players. I felt an unexpected frisson of excitement and found myself considering that a rather more competitive encounter might be on the cards than I had envisaged when Rocky and I set out this evening.

As the teams warmed up it was apparent that the visitors had a solid but uninspired eight. And without their captain, no hats. It was all rather shambolic, with a gentle, casual air until the reason for their insouciance became clear. In short order, Konrad (as you’ll remember, tagged with the rather apposite moniker of “The Beast from the East”) their captain Petzer, Bond and Jacobs all arrived. A different prospect, suddenly, for the home team!

The late arrivals for Avondale had no time to warm up and the game started, late, with several of them dry. Two minutes later I was startled to find that the home team had the initial advantage with two unanswered goals. They weren’t goals that particularly inspired confidence and they owed something to the lack of attention that the visiting defenders managed to muster. The old Avondale keeper had only moved twice so far to retrieve the ball from the back of the net. When you’ve been at this game as long as I have you can sense an upset in the air. Rocky has a canine radar for these things that is more acute than his sense of smell; frankly it’s second to none, but he was comatose beneath my seat! Sure enough the tide turned in spectacular style when TBFTE somehow threaded a backhand shot through the Whitgift keeper. I say ‘through’ because there is no way to get a ball through the gaps between limb and post from the angle presented to the Hungarian wizard. Once again the laws of physics that bind the rest of us proved an ineffectual constraint and the Avondale show was back n the road. Jacobs arrived in the pool a moment later and warmed up with two strokes and a shot from the half way line that the keeper failed to even register. Remonstrating with a defender from one side of the goal when ‘The Sniper’ is in possession anywhere in the pool is a foolhardy pursuit. ‘The Sniper’ followed up with cross goal shot two minutes later and the keeper, who until this point had made a number of good saves, was simply operating in the wrong time frame to have any chance of interacting with the passing missile. The quarter closed at 3-2 to the visitors and now Rocky was scanning the pool eagerly from the seat beside me.

There might have been only a single goal between the teams, but both Rocky and I knew that the game was over. There was a time in Avondale’s past when I would have sneaked out and treated myself to a double decaf skinny mocha in the café. Now Rocky and I were looking forward to the entertainment. As a competitive spectacle, we were destined for disappointment, but there was some engaging water Polo ahead. The Avondale Captain began in style with a strong surge in the pit and scored at close quarters from a precise and well timed pass. Bond began to find his range and TBFTE delivered a trademark backhand that slammed in from the underside of the bar before anyone had even seen him pick up the ball. It must be rather demoralising for the opposition to shoot and three seconds later find youselves another goal down. It's simplicity itself and takes but a moment when the aged, but still surprisingly competent, Avondale keeper delivers a long accurate pass to the very slippery 007 who shoots and scores from ten metres. Suffice to say that the next two quarters were largely one-way traffic and they ended 9-3 and 16-5 to the visitors.

We had a moment of excitement towards the end of the third quarter then two of the players managed to spill some blood and perform a reasonable facsimile of Johnnie Weissmuller wrestling a crocodile in one of his 1940s Tarzan films. The referee laconically dismissed both players to the dressing room as a reward for their indulgent behaviour and both teams played with a man down for four minutes.

I was impressed with the efforts of Old Dave Brooks in the final quarter. For an old bloke he still gets about and in defence few adversaries get the better of him. On this occasion, cloaked in the invisibility of old age, he stole down the left wing undetected and put away a simple chance from a cross pass, whilst the keeper was busy attending to what appeared a moment earlier to be more important matters at the other side of his goal. Avondale finished with an outstanding bounce shot from the elusive 007 from all of 15 metres. The ball flew into the top of the net and Rocky gave a small bark of delight; a tasty little treat for my faithful companion at the end of another diverting Polo evening.