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What are we to make of the goalkeeping of David James? His recent performances have thrown up a near catalogue of problems: vulnerability to free kicks, poor judgement on through balls, his hurtling from the box to the dismay of his defence. All this is not to mention his historic vulnerability to the cross, which we haven't seen for a while but it'd be dangerous to assume wasn't still there.
His mistake against the Austrians on Saturday when a long shot went under his body was another serious blow to his credibility, since if James isn't a shotstopper then, as a goalkeeper, is he very much at all? The boy has a good throw, we can say that for him.
Still, such is the poverty of British goalkeeping (for all sorts of socio-economic and psychological reasons that are far too complex to go into here) that England's options are limited and it's best to stick with him for the while. After Saturday's error - which anyway wasn't quite as glaring as Oliver Kahn's for Bayern against Real Madrid in February (a picture of which I keep by my desk) - James will be doubly on his guard against the Poles on Wednesday. One or two dramatic shotstops and he might redeem himself; we just have to pray the Poles won't know what we know and sling over too many high crosses.
One thing about James not often noticed is that while he beats himself up in stoic fashion after he has made a mistake, he is also of that classic school of goalkeeping that wants to be loved. He appears remote and separate from the rest (a prerequisite of being a keeper) but really desires being part of the team. This is why at whatever club he goes to he quickly disappears after training from the company of fellow players, but only in the direction of the club shop to drink tea with the staff.
This beats going off to play Nintendo in some darkened den for hours on end, which was his problem at Liverpool. But his teammates and other colleagues are apt to interpret it as willing solitary confinement and to leave him to it. The opposite is the case. He recently said that one of the astounding things when he was living through that awful period at Anfield six years ago when he couldn't handle a high ball to save his life, was how no one thought to confront him and help him get to grips with the problem.
Had, say, Peter Shilton been suffering such a crisis in his Leicester/Stoke/Notts Forest heyday, he would have stayed after normal training and had the apprentices punt over hundreds of crosses till he'd got them absolutely right. James has a similarly obsessive nature, it just needed someone to take him under their wing.
Is coach Sven-Göran Eriksson the man to put his arm round him and comfort him? I'm not sure this is the way males of Swedish background - for all Sven's red-bloodedness otherwise - conduct affairs with their fellow men, so maybe not. Perhaps, however, England can leave it to matters of historical record to make sure James performs on the night.
His body flop against the Austrians was, after all, very similar to the error made by Shilton against Poland in that World Cup qualifier at 8.52pm on Wednesday October 17 in 1973 at Wembley, a game that all of us have long forgotten. The Poles, rejuvenated and looking for virtually their first decent result against England since, will want a repeat but should find an England keeper on the night who has already, for a while anyway, got the worst out of his system.
* A correspondent wrote to the FT during Athens 2004 last month making the point that Australia was the present Olympic champion of champions; per head of population its total of medals outstripped the numbers won by the likes of the US, China and Russia. A word here, though, is worth mentioning as far as Britain's contribution to that Australian success is concerned.
It all dates back nearly 30 years ago to the startling coup d'état enacted by the Queen's representative, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, when in November 1975 he threw the suspiciously limp-wristed Labor government of Gough Whitlam from power. The move caused a constitutional crisis in which Whitlam was the loser and Aussie sport the winner. Until then Australia was showing a progressively strong move towards becoming a cultural rather than sporting nation, more James and Greer than Cathy Freeman and the “Thorpedo”. Indeed, the following year at Montreal the Aussies reached their Olympic nadir when they failed to win a gold medal even at swimming. All that was rectified with Whitlam's departure, after which a mix of funding and re-focussing on to the physical put Australia back on the winning path. As Whitlam said with disgusted irony on his departure, “God Save the Queen”.
* Valedictory reflections on the Olympics were quick to rehabilitate the hitherto afflicted Greeks into the fold of humankind, but from a distance and the vantage point of watching the games from the sofa the truly remarkable thing was the blow they struck for the much maligned English West Midlands accent.
Hugh Porter's cycling commentary was the televisual, or rather audio, highlight of the Olympics and presumably now we can expect all UK call centres that are yet to “outsource” to Bangalore to staff their operations with people from Erdington and Bloxwich.
Porter and his Black Country tones (he's actually from Wolverhampton) registered another startling success for lottery funding. Once upon a time he and cycling were given barely an Olympian look-in but after Jason Queally pedalled gold in the individual time-trial at Sydney 2000, the rise of the sport's popularity and financial support guaranteed Porter was on from virtually start to end of the Athens games - from the time-trials, through the mystifying points race, to the rock-and-roll climax of the Madison. “It's enough to bring a tear to your eye”, as Porter said after either Bradley Wiggins or Chris Hoy had claimed gold, “in fact, I think I'm going to cry myself”.
Soft sentimentality is not something you associate with the West Mids accent and Porter was an unlikely star of the BBC's coverage. The corporation had tried to patronise us by borrowing Craig Doyle from its travel department to cutesily charm the audience in clichéd Irish brogue. Despite the no doubt great blow to the public purse, it was difficult to grasp the sporting point of having him around.
Also worth acclaim, the table tennis was well presented by Matthew Syed, but suffered a little from overselling. Understandable, perhaps, for a sport which once (I'm talking 1950s and early 60s) had claims to being the national game and now gets little to no TV airing. But I lost count of the number of “totemic” moments and “emblematic” shots that were played in some matches. At times Syed also reached such a state of adenoidal excitement that he sounded a dead ringer for Ron Moody's rendition of Fagin in Oliver.
At least he never reached the peak of Garry Herbert in the rowing. In content terms, his presentational style was to yell little more than “and it's Great Britain, it's Great Britain” from start to end of the race. The bloke has been an emotional wreck ever since he coxed the Searle brothers to gold in the pairs at Barça 92.
* Tangentially speaking of which, spin and salesmanship are wondrous things. My FT colleague Jimmy Burns has a new book out to follow his success with Barça published five years ago. That book I recall spoke of his “obsession” for Barcelona FC, yet now I see from the sleeve notes of When Beckham Went to Spain (Penguin/Michael Joseph £16.99) he was born just down the road from the Bernabéu. Mention of the fact that he also wrote a book on Barça is relegated to the dust jacket's final line. But no doubt the book will be as a good a read as Tom Watt's “autobiography” on Beckham, My Side, published this time last year and my copy of which Jimmy will no doubt return to me shortly.
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