The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
“Twelve years ago John Gregory selected an Aston Villa side made up only of Englishmen. It has not happened since.” —Subhed in The Guardian, “Aston Villa’s all-English team a distant Premier League memory,” by Louise Taylor, February 26, 2011.
But of course you already knew that. The fireworks displays and speeches at Buckingham Palace would have been hard to miss, and even outside London and Birmingham the TV coverage was relentless. Here in America, the usually reserved and modest Colin Firth interrupted his six hundred and forty-seventh Oscars interview to cry a little and hum the first two verses of “The Roast Beef of Old England.” But for those of you who live under rocks, and therefore weren’t able to attend one of the special commemorative rallies held in Chicago, Buenos Aires, Frankfurt, Tokyo, and Liverpool, this weekend marks the twelfth anniversary of the last Premier League game played by a side made up entirely of Englishmen: February 27, 1999, when the all-English Aston Villa heroically lost 4-1 at home to Coventry City. This is therefore one of the most important weekends in the history of sports.
I know, I know: You agree. Of course you do. Sure, some people will question the whole point of the exercise—will trot out, say, Steve McClaren and May 2006. But to do so is merely the sign of a frankly benighted ignorance, as Louise Taylor pointed out in her Guardian column yesterday:
Middlesbrough did come near to breaking the sequence in May 2006 when they played Fulham in Steve McClaren’s penultimate game in charge before becoming England manager. McClaren named a very English squad including 15 academy graduates and appeared to field a fully home-grown starting XI – or at least everyone thought he had done so until one of those supposed Englishmen, James Morrison, was subsequently capped by Scotland.
Fortunately, the mistake was officially recognized before the sculptor had completed the bronze Steve McClaren Receiving The Order Of The Garter From Princess Diana And The Duke Of Wellington that the FA had commissioned for Hyde Park. Otherwise, the nation would have been stuck with an oddly colored, rigid, essentially useless McClaren planted on an irrelevant patch of grass—not exactly what the doctor ordered in the buildup to Euro 2008.
In any case, I wanted to pay my own homage to this significant, not to say epoch-making anniversary, so I took the unusual step of tracking down the actual game footage, which for some reason hasn’t been shown on television since it originally aired in 1999. What follows is a belated minute-by-minute report of the game. I hope you’ll enjoy it. More importantly, I hope Colin Firth will enjoy it.
Conventry City (4-4-2)
Hedman, Nilsson, Shaw, Burrows, Williams, Froggatt, Boateng, McAllister, Telfer, Huckerby, and Aloisi.
Aston Villa (WM *) * Does not contain Scotsmen.
Phipps-Briggington, Alsop, Pottering-Smythe, Beckham, Marquess of Hartington, Reggie “Beefy” Sload, Marquess of Umbria, Philpot, Forthminster, Baker-St. Ivanhoe, and Tyne.
“It’s a beautiful, foggy day at Villa Park,” the commentator gushes. “The rain is absolutely perfect. You simply couldn’t ask for a nicer day on which to have your unthinking belief in the inherent superiority of the English footballer unproblematically reinforced.”
Thin tendrils of mist swirl around the goalposts. It’s a 3pm kickoff. The moonlight casts a cheerful pall over the instruments of the Queen’s Fifth Grenadiers Military Brass Band and Boot-Polishing Consortium, and an even more cheerful pall over their boots. They’re playing “Jerusalem.” The crowd sways along, occasionally clinking their teacups.
The players make their way out for the introductions. A thunderous roar greets each of the English stars, fresh off their impending triumph at Euro 2000. The prematch handshakes are briefly interrupted, however, when Baker-St. Ivanhoe accidentally tumbles into the Thames. It seems to be running down the left touchline for some reason.
1 min. And we’re off! Big Ben, which is just visible behind the Trinity Road Stand, tolls the start of the match. Conventry City open with a tidy bit of attacking play, as Boateng slides the ball to Huckerby, who nearly finds Telfer in the area but is felled at the last instant by a bone-crunching tackle from the Most Honourable Marquess of Umbria.
3 min. Several promising solo runs from the Villa attackers are snuffed out by City defenders. Something to watch for as the match unfolds: It could be a tactical problem for Villa that—lacking any Scotsmen—they refuse on principle to pass to an open teammate.
6 min. The camera picks out Prince William, who is extremely good-looking and has a thick head of absolutely normal-seeming hair.
10 min. GOAL – Coventry City! And it’s 1-0 to the visitors as City striker John Aloisi slips past Aston Villa halfback Reggie “Beefy” Sload, then slots the ball through the three converging Villa fullbacks to Huckerby, who neatly chips Phipps-Briggington for the goal. This caps an excellent stretch of play for Coventry, perhaps made just a little easier by the fact that none of Villa’s five advanced players has thus far attempted to track back.
11 min. The crowd has gotten quiet, not because they’re demoralized, but because they’re profoundly embarrassed. Someone in the Holte End makes a “Chipps”-Briggington joke and the tittering of laughter is nearly drowned out by the nervous rattling of teacups.
17 min. Play stops as Villa make their first substitution, bringing on Neville “Nigel” Northrop to replace Philpot, who has had to be airlifted out of the Thames after straying too close to the touchline. A warm cheer goes up for the Queen’s 92nd Helicopter Rescue Unit, the legendary “Hampshire Guard”. Is it just me, or has the river moved closer to the pitch?
21 min. This is better from Villa! Northrop dribbles straight at the heart of the defense, but loses the ball to Forthminster, who dribbles straight at the heart of the defense and loses it to Beckham on the right side of the area. Beckham sends in a sterling cross to Tyne, who is standing unmarked in front of the goal. Tyne, however, ceases play in order to upbraid Beckham for his cowardice in bypassing the dribble. “To score is desirable,” the color announcer seethes. “To be a gentleman is fundamental.” In the stands, Prince William—by far the best-looking man in the stadium—folds his arms.
22 min. David Beckham is subbed off in disgrace. Fitzwilliam Uxbridge is brought on to general the right wing. He won’t cross the ball. No sir.
30 min. GOAL – Aston Villa! After a seemingly endless series of futile solo runs, Villa finally put together an impressive attacking sequence. Phipps-Briggington sends a long goal kick sailing over the entire length of the pitch, and the ball falls to Baker-St. Ivanhoe, who, as a philosophical holdout against the temporary and unwelcome divergence of the football code from rugby, feels entitled to scoop it up with his hands, run forward a bit, and then punt it into the goal. The crowd applaud politely, resting their teacups on their knees. Rob Styles saw the infraction, but—as will be pointed out later on Match of the Day—was too moved by the honorable nature of Baker-St. Ivanhoe’s protest to disallow the goal. There is absolutely no controversy over the incident.
34 min. GOAL – Coventry City! The band launch into “Jerusalem,” but come to a sudden halt as McAllister puts Coventry City ahead. The Thames, which has now clearly moved into the playing area, swallowed most of the Villa back line as Boateng dribbled nimbly down the riverbank. “Beefy” Sload was unable to get around Stonehenge in time to stop him, Stonehenge having shown up on the pitch at some point, awesomely. Boateng passed to McAllister, who coolly fired past Phipps-Briggington’s extremely painful-looking approximation of a dive. 2-1 City, and Villa are looking rattled. To the extent that they can be seen through the increasingly soupy fog, that is.
39 min. GOAL – Coventry City! This isn’t looking good for Villa. Mist from the river has now made the pitch extremely difficult to see, but what apparently happened is that Burrows dove in for a scything foul against Forthminster in the area, but Forthminster, whose autobiography is titled Honour On One’s Feet, refused to go down, opting instead to fall into a Marquess of Queensbury stance. He squared up to the City man, but before he could throw his first jab Burrows had lit out with the ball and found Huckerby with a chipped ball over the surging river, which has now claimed the lives of several members of the Villa technical staff. Again, it’s hard to see in the fog, but from the crowd’s frigidly embarrassed silence it would appear that Phipps-Briggington is no longer the soon-to-be-hero of England’s Euro 2000 win.
43 min. The match is increasingly descending into chaos, and frankly Rob Styles seems powerless to restore order. A loud rumbling and shaking begins in the Doug Ellis Stand, followed by immense clouds of dust billowing over the alread-obsured pitch and the stand is riven asunder by the spontaneous formation of the White Cliffs of Dover. The band cheerfully begins to play “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover,” but are silenced by a cool and normal-haired look from Prince William, who climbs over the wreckage to begin directing a helicopter rescue effort. The City goal detaches from the riverbank and goes floating away in the current, pursued by “Nigel” Northrop, who is in turn pursued by a rescue helicopter. By 3:44, the moon is shining weakly through clouds of chalk dust and fog that cover up not only the scoreboard but most of the Holte End, including a regiment of the Queen’s Life Guard, who stand utterly still even when their section of stand breaks away and falls into the river, in which they bob up and down like furry buoys. Baker-St. Ivanhoe scoops up the ball in his hands and runs around the stadium ecstatically, chased by the surviving City players, Rob Styles, and what appears to be the Ghost of Christmas Past.
45 min. Big Ben brrrongs for halftime. The Holte End collapses. In the last instant before the light fails and the cameras are claimed by the rising waters, the fans gather their teacups, return them to their hampers, and go to see about ordering pies for halftime.
by Brian Phillips · February 26, 2011