Masters of the Universe

Old footballers never die-they just reappear in widescreen slow motion. The Football Masters is a tournament for those of us who are happy to venerate the names of our ersthile heroes, rather than be saddened by what they’ve become!

A circuit for players past their sell-by date, it’s a seven-a-side competition which does roll back the years, but in a strangely distorted form.

The Liverpool Echo Arena was the venue for the British Masters, the nearest we get to the Home Internationals these days, although that tournament died before even these guys were playing.

Encouraged by a ten-year-old son who has developed a surprising taste for watching players whose hey-day was before the date of his birth, and filled with my own childish excitement at seeing our very own Dean Saunders strut his stuff, I found myself at the Football Masters Home Internationals at the Liverpool Echo Arena last month.

Possibly my lad’s enjoyment at watching the aged play a slow-motion version of the beautiful game has been fuelled by our backyard kickabouts, although there are significant differences between our gruelling garden-damaging encounters and the Masters; he doesn’t seem to watch them for the comic value of one of them falling over and rupturing himself, and the games also lack a key feature of our matches: a forty-year-old goalkeeper having the ball constantly slammed into his groin from first range by a child who, I suspect, isn’t really trying to score at all! Still, a save’s a save in my book!

I’ve seen plenty of these legends affairs on TV and attended a couple to boot, so it was something of a surprise on entering the arena to find something was missing: the crowd! Usually they’re well attended but on this occasion the people of Merseyside had decided to stay at home and watch Coronation Street.

Whether this was because, in these days of shifting loyalties, fans are more partisan towards their clubs than their countries, or if there was merely a mass boycott of Wrexham and Liverpool fans once it was confirmed that Saunders wouldn’t be appearing we’ll never know!

Not that the marketing people had been thrown by this, as they came up with a crafty strategy to sell advertising even though there weren’t many people in the crowd to appeal to: aim products at the players instead! I assume that was the plan as, along the side of the playing surface was an advert suggesting running your own pub, the traditional activity of the retired footballer!

Of course Saunders was the main draw for us; the chance to see our glorious leader show that he still lives up to the exacting fitness standards he demands of his players was a mouth-watering prospect, but the small matter of helping his nation try to qualify for the World Cup got in the way unfortunately.

Wales might have been able to use his energy as the tournament was rather slow-paced, even by these geriatric events’ standards; the non-stop hustling of Andy Legg, one of the few players still active at a decent level, stood out like a sore thumb.

A more typical example of the players’ fitness was Ray Parlour, who certainly showed he still has some quality with a couple of spectacular goals, but slowed down like a Formula One driver letting his team mate pass as the evening wore on.

Perhaps he misjudged his attempt to pace himself, but he was lively enough in his first game against Wales, a 3-3- draw, then increasingly pedestrian as the games wore on until he moved like he was running through the knee-deep Histon mud!

Despite Saunders’ absence there was still plenty to keep Wrexham fans occupied. The oldest outfield player in the tournament was Ian Rush, who certainly brought back memories of his time at the Racecourse as he held the ball up well enough but never looked likely to score!

The passage of time has left him with grey hair at the front and white at the back, making him look like Pope Benedict from one angle and Father Ted from the other, but unfortunately for God’s Own Country there was no divine protection as he suffered a pulled hamstring half way through the tournament, leaving them with only one striker, another man with a connection of sorts to Wrexham.

Iwan Roberts has been a regular in the last year or so in the press box for away matches, reporting for the BBC, and I was looking forward to ribbing him the next time I bumped into him over his performance, but he looked rather good and slotted a nice opener against England, sending Ben and I into cautious delirium as we sat in the stand in our Wales shirts, surrounded by a sea of white! Meanwhile my Dad maintained a calm air in his jacket and tie, clearly realising that if we went too far he could deny any connection to us and slip away!

A more direct link than Roberts to Wrexham was a man who brought back vivid memories of the last time it was fun to be a Dragons fan. The Welsh keeper, a stand-in for Paul Jones, was Andy Dibble, and he quickly showed that he’s the same as ever. At first he looked a little sluggish and stiff legged, but once he loosened up his superior positioning and solid technique made him a difficult man to beat-indeed the string of saves he made in Wales’ last three games, including an heroic showing in the final, meant he was unlucky not to pick up the player of the tournament award.

Just to show that some things don’t change, he even had to have treatment on an injury half way through Wales’ game against Ireland!

The sparse attendance meant we were able to grab ourselves prime seats near the action, right above the substitutes as they waited to come on. However, our fine vantage point wasn’t quite as advantageous as we first thought. It seems that ageing footballers attract ageing autograph hunters. Now I don’t mind over-enthusiastic kids swarming round players-hell, I did it when I was their age! But I stopped. Some people, it would seem, don’t.

Being in the front of the crowd meant having to peer around a portly middle-aged man who seemed to see his ticket as the fee required in order to get superannuated footballers’ autographs rather than watch the matches.

Back to the action: possession was the key, as no-one wanted to chase to get it back at their age, and players who threw the ball away needlessly got short shrift from their team-mates. The All-Ireland side was clearly the best of the four, with Owen Coyle showing the competitive edge which has made him a Masters legend by griping constantly at everyone like Victor Meldrew after fifteen double espressos.

There was also a hairy moment when a controversial decision by Jeff Winter, who bottled it when England keeper Fraser Digby picked the ball up outside the box to prevent a Scottish striker getting to it first by blowing for half time. It was a decision the ref might have got away with had he not neglected the fact that the crowd were counting down the last ten seconds of the half, and had barely got to four, and for a moment things threatened to get nasty as Don Hutchison took a grab at his arm.

However, that sort of spilling over of emotions is a pretty rare sight in these affairs, which tend to be rather easy-going in nature, which made it all the more remarkable that Ireland managed to achieve the rare feat of stoking up an angry, hated-soaked atmosphere at a pensioners’ kick-about!

They went into their last match already assured of a place in the final and decided they would go easy on their opponents Wales, allowing them the win that would put them in the final too and assure them of playing opposition which hadn’t had the benefit of an extra half hour’s rest.

It didn’t take long for the plan to become apparent as David Kelly, put clear on the Welsh goal, turned his back on the advancing Dibble and ran the ball back to the halfway line! The victims of this Machiavellian plot were England, and the home crowd understandably turned nasty when it became clear what the Irish were doing.

Wales raced into an early 2-0 lead but the best laid plans of Coyle and his men almost went awry when Jason McAteer brought back memories of his pomp, and not only because he looked more trim than most of the other players. Known as Trigger in his Anfield days as he was said to not be the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer, he seemed to live up to that reputation when he managed to score for a side that they were clearly trying to throw the game!

No doubt McAteer had everything clearly explained to him afterwards as no further slips were made and an Ireland-Wales final was confirmed. The final whistle was greeted by a chorus of boos, and a certain provocative ten-year-old next to me in a Wales shirt standing up to sing a swift “England’s Going Home!” before I could haul him down and point out to him the dangers of mocking the opposition when you’re sitting alone in the middle of them. Full marks for attitude and bravery though!

The final itself, despite Dibble’s heroics, went the way of the Irish to the tune of 2-1, and the winners were crowned in front of a crowd which had stayed behind to abuse them as they took the trophy. If only Deano had been there, it all might have ended so differently!

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