Soapbox: the Russians were coming

Pete Sixsmith marvelled, as I did, at the speed and magical fluency of the Spanish team in making a second-half mockery of all the good things said about the Russians. You need only read what follows to see that Pete was rather looking forward to a Russia v Germany final, but the defeat did nothing to stem to tide of memories unleashed by the Russians’ unexpectedly good Euro 2008 showing…

So, Euro 2008 is down to the usual suspect in Germany and persistent underachievers in Spain. It promises to be a good final with lots of outstanding players on show and the distinct possibility of a victory for a country with no words to their national anthem. I’m sure that Motty will have a list of similar nations and will astound his audience by informing us that this is the first time that a major final has been reached by a wordless anthem team. What a surprise.

As I watched Spain on Thursday, I was mightily impressed with their movement and their ability to pass the ball around the Russian defenders. The one time Russia had clearly peaked was when they thrashed the Dutch and against Spain they were much more reminiscent of the USSR teams of the 60s as they lumbered around the pitch, desperately trying to catch the likes of Silva, Fabregas and the outstanding Iniesta.

I speak as someone who was an avid fan of the USSR in the 60s, so much so that I even had an order for Soviet Weekly from Bill Clarkson’s paper shop. I got it for the grain production figures but would occasionally cast a glance at the Soviet League table which was usually headed by Moscow Dynamo. In my naivety, I assumed that they were the works team of the local cycle factory and not the representatives of the KGB.

When the World Cup came to Roker Park in 1966, I was delighted to see that the representatives of the Workers Paradise would be gracing the hallowed turf and I immediately liberated a 10/- note from my paper round in order to buy tickets for the games. The kulak paper shop owner, Jimmy Wilson, would have to do without another plate of caviar in order for me to worship the sporting representatives of Lenin, Stalin and Kruschev.

The big attraction was Lev Yashin. He seemed to personify the ideal of the Soviet Union with his huge hands, his big rubbery smile and his menacing all black goalies strip.

He was the face of the team, although he was past his best, and while he dished out sweets and badges to adoring schoolboys, the likes of Voronin, Metrevelli, Banichevsky and Chiselenko got on with the business of steamrollering Italy and Chile out of the way.

In the quarter final they played Hungary, who had eliminated Brazil in the group stages and who had played some sublime football in doing so. Bene and Albert were their stars, but, as in 1956, they were unable to stop the inexorable progress of the Socialist Motherland and a goalkeeping display in the style of Kelvin Davies saw the Soviets through to a semi final against West Germany.

This time it was Yashin’s turn for a nightmare as he allowed a shot from Haller (I think) to sneak in at the post and after that he was despatched to a power station in Siberia to shovel coal with his hands and play in Regional League Division 8. His name lives on in a wonderful Fulwell End song which went;

Aye, aye, aye, aye
Monty is better than Yashin
Neil Martin is better than Eusebio
And Newcastle’s in for a thrashin’

My abiding memory of the quarter final is of standing in the Roker End and watching the half time board operator running up and down a ladder vainly attempting to keep the crowd informed of the avalanche of goals in the North Korea v Portugal game at Goodison Park. No electronic scoreboards or Radio 5 Live then!!!

Memories of Roker Park are never far away and I was reminded of one this week when I attended the funeral of a former teaching colleague, John Baxter.

John was a real character who found teaching the more unruly elements at Ferryhill a bit of a challenge. With the demise of corporal punishment, he resorted to making cinder toffee in his Chemistry lessons to calm the angry brutes, although he was known to lock children in prep rooms.

He was a Sunderland fan and would go to Roker on an irregular basis but would always come into work on a Monday waxing lyrical about the teas and cakes on sale in the Church Hall in Roker Baths Road. To John, this was far more important than a Stan Cummins volley (he taught Stan Chemistry) or a masterclass from Tony Towers.

While there I bumped into another former colleague in Peter Scott who was also a Roker Ender and who would go there come rain or shine. I remember him standing at the back on an awful September day when we beat Notts County 4-0 and the rain was coming down like stair rods. Scotty refused to vacate his spot and I picked him out from my relatively dry vantage point in the Clock Stand Paddock, standing there like a cormorant perched on a rock with the rain dripping down his collar.

He doesn’t get to watch the Lads as much as he used to but he had been a few times last season and his verdict was interesting and informative.

While accepting that there was still a long way to go, he said that it was clear that this manager was actively encouraging players to pass and that with the arrival of better players, this philosophy would move us up the league. That, he said, was the way forward, and if the crowd were patient, Keane had every chance of success. Wise words from a wise man.

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