Latest News

Gil Merrick obituary

Stylish goalkeeper whose England career included a disastrous defeat to Hungary

Had his international career as England’s goalkeeper stopped at the beginning of the 1953-54 season, Gil Merrick, who has died aged 88, would doubtless be remembered as the stylish, commanding player so long admired between the posts for Birmingham City. Alas, he was destined to run into the Hungarians, conceding six goals at Wembley in November 1953 – according to the England manager, Walter Winterbottom, Merrick “had a nightmare” – and another seven in Budapest, the following May. Still, Merrick remained as England’s keeper when the party flew on to the World Cup finals in Switzerland in 1954, where another uneasy game – conceding four goals against Uruguay in the quarter-final – proved to be the final cap he would win.

Born in Sparkhill, Birmingham, Merrick supported the city team, rather than Aston Villa, as a boy and he signed as a professional with them in August 1939. He spent the second world war in the army. Returning to Birmingham City, he helped them to win the Second Division championship in the 1947-48 season and was again in goal when, having been relegated, they won it in 1954-55.

In 1956 – the year that Birmingham City finished sixth in the First Division – he figured in their FA Cup final team, which lost 3-1 to Manchester City at Wembley, the match in which his opposite number, Bert Trautmann, continued to play despite breaking a bone in his neck. Merrick made 485 league appearances for Birmingham City until 1960, when he retired as a player and went into management.

Standing 6ft 1ins tall, weighing more than 13 stone, and elegantly moustached, Merrick was an imposing figure. He took his goalkeeping very seriously, making a careful study of his potential opponents. “If I studied a player’s run-up and action,” he would reflect, after saving a fierce right-footed shot from Portsmouth’s Duggie Reid, “in kicking the ball, rather than waiting for the ball in flight and depending on quickness of the eye to make a save, I should have a better chance of going the right way.”

The first of Merrick’s 23 England caps came in 1951 at Wembley. He could scarcely be saddled with all the blame for England’s later debacle against Hungary, their first ever defeat on home soil by a team from outside the British Isles. Defensive weaknesses had been evident some weeks earlier in the same stadium, when a patchwork Rest of Europe team scored four times and deserved better than a 4-4 draw. Two of their goals were scored by a player Merrick particularly admired, the powerful Hungarian exile Ladislao Kubala.

From almost the outset of the game against Hungary, Merrick was something of a sitting duck. His defence was totally baffled by the deep-lying Hungarian centre-forward, Nándor Hidegkuti. Barely 90 seconds of the game had elapsed when Hidegkuti, with a clever feint, caused the English centre-half Harry Johnston – who failed to get to grips with him throughout the match – to leave a space in the defensive line, through which he crashed a fierce right-footer past Merrick.

A flood of goals followed. “That was something special, no doubt about that,” Merrick would recall. “Everybody was so very fast. I think the first was a shambles. We never knew who to mark. Harry Johnston, as we walked off 4-2 down [at half-time], said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here. I haven’t had a kick’, and he hadn’t, because Hidegkuti had moved back 20 yards and left Harry marking nobody. In some ways it was a privilege to play against them. I don’t think there was a better side to teach us how to play football. We’d never seen anything like it. We never had a ghost of a chance at all… The two wingers could catch pigeons. Poor Alf [Ramsey, the right-back] didn’t know which way to turn, because the little left-winger was going by him like a train.”

Seven more goals whizzed past Merrick in Budapest, but with Billy Wright moving from wing-half to centre-half, the defence tightened up in the World Cup in Switzerland, until in the quarter-finals the opposition was Uruguay, holders of the trophy, the 7-0 conquerors of Scotland in the first stages. Merrick, thought one commentator, “had lost his nerve completely after the two Hungarian defeats. England’s new backs, Ron Staniforth and Roger Byrne, had not had time to build up any understanding with their goalkeeper or with each other.”

In Basle, it was 1-1 when England fell behind to a goal by Uruguay’s famous roving centre-half and captain, Obdulio Varela. “The agility of Beara [Yugoslavia’s keeper] or Grosics [Hungary’s],” considered the commentator, “might have saved that goal.” Uruguay’s third goal saw Merrick widely criticised – too slow, it was reported, to get down to a shot by Juan Schiaffino.

Dropped by England, Merrick would play for another six years for Birmingham City. Before he retired, he published an autobiography, somewhat challengingly titled, I See It All. He managed Birmingham City from 1960 to 1964, becoming runners-up in the Fairs Cup in 1960-61 and leading the side to win the 1963 League Cup over Aston Villa. Although they were never greatly successful in the First Division under Merrick, the club at least escaped relegation.

In the 70s, he would have a spell managing non-league Bromsgrove Rovers, but his name will always be associated with Birmingham City. Last year, the Railway stand at St Andrew’s was renamed in his honour.

He is survived by his wife, Ivy, a daughter, Jill, and a son, Neil, from a previous marriage.

• Gilbert Harold ‘Gil’ Merrick, footballer, born 26 January 1922; died 3 February 2010 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Continue reading

Latest News

Birmingham City plan summer transfer revamp

• Chief executive predicts ‘significant’ transfer moment
• Eight or nine players likely to leave St Andrew’s

The Birmingham manager, Alex McLeish, is set to reshape his squad in the summer with “significant” additions and “eight or nine players likely to leave” – according to the club’s chief executive, Michael Dunford.

McLeish only managed to bring in Míchel from Sporting Gijón and Craig Gardner from Aston Villa during the January transfer window. But Dunford predicts the former Scotland manager will be busy with ins and outs from St Andrew’s when the window reopens in four months’ time.

“I expect it to be quite a busy summer,” he said. “We will gear ourselves up for what I’m sure will be significant transfer movement in the summer.

“There are also eight or nine players likely to be leaving the club which means from a numerical point of view, we need new players of quality to supplement the ones we have got as well.”

McLeish has already allowed Martin Taylor and Damien Johnson to leave on free transfers to Watford and Plymouth respectively while Gary McSheffrey has joined Leeds on loan.

Several players are out of contract in the summer, including the current first-teamer regulars Liam Ridgewell and Sebastian Larsson plus Lee Carsley, Garry O’Connor, Stuart Parnaby, Franck Queudrue, Maik Taylor and Grégory Vignal.

McLeish has indicated he would like to keep some of those players and Blues have options which means they can extend the deals of several of them should they so desire.

The former Rangers manager is hoping his squad will have recharged their batteries for Sunday’s home derby with Wolves, having given them time off this week to recuperate from their heavy recent schedule.

“We did our away stint as a group recently with the warm-weather training abroad and this time off was for them to spend some quality time with their families,” he said. “It’s been a case of trying to rest the minds as much as the physical side and I thought some of the players looked a little tired against Tottenham last weekend.

“We are hoping they will be ready to go again on Sunday. The coming weeks are going to be interesting because we’ve got some games against teams fighting for their lives at the bottom of the league and desperate for points. There are some real battles ahead and we’ve got to be prepared for those.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Continue reading

Latest News

How did John Terry keep his affair a secret for so long? | Deborah Orr

Even a super-injunction can’t hide your dirty laundry for ever

Oh, dear. The modern world, eh? Many contemporary philanderers learn the hard way that recourse to the text and the email, in pursuit of illicit sexual excitement, is often a risky thrill too far. Footballer John Terry has learned, however, that recourse to the super-injunction has its own dangers. Who knew?

It’s actually quite impressive that Terry kept his affair with Vanessa P­erroncel a secret for so long. The press were not allowed to blab. But Terry’s wife, Toni, and Perroncel’s former partner, Wayne Bridge, appear to have maintained blissful ignorance until the legal gag was untied. Not peeking at texts and emails? That’s admirable. But not putting two and two together and ­coming up with a very messy ­foursome? That’s just baffling.

Still, Toni Terry is taking no further chances. She has decamped to Dubai, where extra-marital sex is against the law. John is keen to get out there with her as soon as he can. So he’ll have an excellent incentive to stay on the straight and narrow, just for a while. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Continue reading

Latest News

Lawrence Donegan: Super Bowl’s double standards

God bless the good old US of A – but please save us from a group called Focus on the Family

God bless the Super Bowl advert, a staple of American life and commerce that, if nothing else, serves as an annual reminder to the rest of the world that no one does anything bigger, better, bolder or more expensive than the good old US of A.

Want to sell a car? That will be £1.5m for a 30-second slot. The price is hefty but the appetite is strong. Yet corporate America falls over itself to spend the money, while the television audience awaits the first commercial break of the game with the hushed anticipation of a Derren Brown audience. Some people think the adverts are better than the game because they are shorter, more imaginative and funnier, although it is hard to believe anyone will be laughing on Sunday when the times comes to roll the slot promoting the message of a group called Focus on the Family.

As you probably guessed from the name, FotF will not be selling beer or car insurance. In fact, it will be selling anti-abortion. The commercial will feature a college athlete called Tim Tebow, who is famous for playing football, doing charity work overseas and pushing the message of Christian fundamentalism at every available opportunity.

Tebow never takes the field without the numerical reference of a biblical verse etched into his eye black. He never throws a touchdown without thanking the good lord above (who, of course, has nothing better to do than fulfil the sporting ambitions of his most ardent followers). He is proudly chaste, an advocate of “abstinence only” school of sex education and a creationist. In other words, he is a perfect fit for an outfit like Focus on the Family, which as well as peddling all of the above also likes to sell a virulent strain of homophobic intolerance. Here is what the group’s founder, James Dobson, once had to say about people who are both gay and Christian: “Their sexual thoughts and feelings produce great waves of guilt accompanied by secret fears of divine retribution. They ask themselves, how could God love someone as vile as me?”

All of which begs the question: how could the US television network CBS, which will be broadcasting the game into 50 million homes, accommodate someone as vile as Dobson?

One reason is that while Focus on the Family is hateful, it is not stupid, which is why its advert will focus on Tebow’s mother, Pam, who was living in the Philippines when her son was conceived and, shortly thereafter, contracted a disease requiring her to take medicines that endangered herself and her unborn child. Doctors recommended she have an abortion, which she rejected out of hand. Cue the tag line, whatever it is (no one has seen the advert yet so no one knows): Join Focus on the Family and you, too, can have a son who will one day become the most famous college athlete in the country, perhaps?

Another reason is that CBS has chosen to abandon the long-established policy of declining to broadcast adverts from “pro-advocacy” groups during the Super Bowl, saying only that it has a policy of ensuring “all ads, on all sides of an issue, are appropriate and fair”. At this stage some might feel the urge to congratulate the network for standing up for freedom of speech, although before doing so they should be aware that while pocketing cash from the poisonous Mr Dobson, CBS also rejected for broadcast an advert submitted by the gay dating website

Apparently, the mildly amusing ManCrunch slot, in which two men end up kissing each other during the Super Bowl, was deemed to be unsuitable. Unlike, say, the semi-pornographic beer adverts featuring bikini-clad women that have been have been a feature of Super Bowl broadcasts for as long as anyone can remember. Or the enduring spite of James Dobson and Focus on the Family.

Yet the wonder of all of this is not that there has been outrage at CBS’s behaviour, but there has been so little outrage, which leads one to conclude that the thing the good old US of A does biggest and boldest of all on Super Bowl Sunday is double standards.

Zero tolerance the only answer for sorry racists

Sometimes sorry isn’t enough, not even if you say it with flowers, as Sunderland fan John Davison discovered after being banned from football for three years following his conviction this week for racial abusing Shirley Bent, the mother of the Sunderland player Darren Bent.

We all know how imaginative racists are, so no doubt you can guess what Davison called Mrs Bent. Apparently, he and his mates found it hilarious, although the mood changed when security officials outside Wigan’s ground got involved. Suddenly, Wearside’s wittiest man became Wearside’s most abjectly apologetic. He said sorry. And then he said it again. And then he promised to get a tattoo of Darren Bent on his arm. And then he sent Mrs Bent a letter, followed by a bunch of flowers.

Some magistrates might have listened to that litany of repentance and decided whatever guilt applied had to some extent been assuaged. Fortunately, no such lenient souls were on the bench at Wigan magistrates’ court when Davison made his appearance. There is only one way to deal with football racists and that is with zero tolerance.

Why Parry’s panacea will never come to pass

Credit to Rick Parry, whose government-ordered review of gambling in sport was published this week: he was not mealy-mouthed when it came to acknowledging the scale of the problem or found wanting when it came to offering up solutions, not least the establishment of a powerful, well-funded Sports Betting Intelligence Unit.

The only problem is that nothing will ever come of Parry’s efforts, partly because of a lack of political will and partly because the very powerful UK gambling industry will resist any attempt to have it meet the cost of implementing the report’s recommendations. What a pity.

Barely, a month or two passes without a major match-fixing scandal in Europe. Just before the turn of the year, the German authorities announced they were looking into 200 football matches. Before that Uefa announced it was investigating 40 games. Are we really being asked to believe that, like rabies, this curse is being held at bay by the stretch of water that divides Calais from Dover?

Mickelson a Master – even without that wedge

Those who run professional golf love a quiet life, which is why they hate a scandal. So you can imagine the consternation over the last few days after a PGA Tour nobody called Scott McCarron accused a PGA Tour somebody, Phil Mickelson, of cheating. The “scandal” revolves around the grooves of a golf club – a Ping Eye-2 wedge – being used by the world No2 and, as you might expect when the subject matter involves the technical specifications of a golf club, is somewhat esoteric.

Suffice to say, McCarron was in the wrong and has spent the last couple of days apologising. Mickelson, for all that he has done nothing wrong within the rules, has now decided to take the offending golf club out of his bag, lest he did something awful with it like win the Masters.

“I won’t be playing that wedge,” Mickelson said. “My point has been made.” A PGA Tour review of the issue is pending.

Scandal over. It was fun while it lasted – at least it was to those who think it is about time professional golf stopped peddling this fiction of itself as morally superior and therefore better than other sports. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Continue reading

Latest News

Zia Mahmood on bridge: A devilish false card

When an opponent plays something that might or might not be a true card, it’s best to believe it

“Sorry, partner,” said Tony Forrester to David Bakhshi after this deal from last year’s Gold Cup final. “I ran into a desperately unlucky trump break – the suit was 3-2 with the finesse right.” My counterpart at the Daily Telegraph was not being entirely serious – he had in fact run into a simple yet devilish false card from his opponent, Gerald Tredinnick. Love all, dealer North.

(1) A variant of the “multi-coloured 2♦”, showing a wide variety of hands, one of which might be… (2) a weak two bid in ♥, in which case North would pass, but since he in fact had … (3) a strong three-suited hand with short ♥, he bid the suit below his singleton, whereupon … (4) his partner made an artificial enquiry, and when North showed … (5) 19-20 points. South converted to game in the 4-4 major-suit fit.

West led his singleton ♣, East put in the 10 and South won with the K. It seemed a dull hand – Forrester would take the ♠ finesse, draw a second round of trumps, knock out the A♦ and lose a trick in each suit apart from ♥. But when he led a ♠ as the first stage, West played not the J but the K. Aware that this might not be a singleton, Tony also knew that when an opponent plays something that might or might not be a true card, it’s best to believe it. You may pay off if they have done something brilliant, but don’t look foolish if they have been following suit. If the K were West’s only ♠, the contract might still be made with favourable splits in the other suits, but it would be fatal to draw a second round of trumps – that would allow East to draw two more rounds when he obtained the lead, which would be hopeless. So Tony left the ♠ alone and fatally played dummy’s K♦. West won with the A, gave his partner a ♦ ruff, received a ♣ ruff in return and played another ♦ to promote his twin brother’s 10♠. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Continue reading

Latest News

Irish horse racing regulator must show the door to corrupt stable lad

A four-month ban from racetracks seems woefully inadequate for seeking to profit from inside information

The Irish Turf Club will shortly get a second chance, having blown the first, to show that it is serious about fighting corruption in racing. The omens, however, are poor; indeed, the club can fairly be described as a laughing stock, thanks to its handling of the John O’Gorman case.

O’Gorman, who works as a stable lad at the County Limerick yard of Charles Byrnes, was last week found to have layed bets through Betfair on nine runners from the stable during 2008. Happily, he made a very large net loss because the horse against which he risked the largest sum managed to win. But that hardly justifies the astonishingly lenient sentence he was given, a four-month ban from attending racecourses in Ireland.

Byrnes has expressed his regret that O’Gorman “got involved in such a thing”. But he does not, apparently, view such corruption as a sacking offence and has now applied to the ITC to be allowed to continue employing O’Gorman.

The answer can only be a scornful “no”. Otherwise, the ITC will have exposed the sport to the risk of endless similar cases. What is to deter any stable worker from using inside information to make a quick profit, knowing that, even if caught, they will face nothing worse than a short ban from going to the track? They may not go racing much in any case.

Regrettably, the case involves Solwhit, Byrnes’s splendidly game favourite for the Champion Hurdle. It was Solwhit who managed to win when O’Gorman wanted him to lose, having staked €8,600 on the outcome, far more than he risked in the other races. If Solwhit drifts in the market at Cheltenham and then loses, punters may jump to all sorts of conclusions. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Continue reading

Latest News

Victoria Coren on poker: An expensive lesson from a surprising hand in Deauville

Further proof that there are no absolute rules in poker

Here is a surprising hand from the €20,000 High Roller holdem ­tournament in Deauville. As you’d ­expect with that buy-in, the field is small, intense and serious.

With blinds of 150-300 and all ­players deep-stacked, Juha Helppi raised to 750 under the gun. Helppi is the fiendish Finn, the man I can never beat; thankfully, I wasn’t in this pot. In fact, it is a sign of my respect for Helppi that four players called him and I didn’t.

The flop came K 5 6 rainbow. Helppi bet out 3,000. Everyone folded except Jan Skampa, winner of the Prague EPT, who had the button.

The turn was a seven, still no flush possibilities. Helppi checked and Skampa bet 7,500. Helppi smooth called.

The river was an irrelevant two. Helppi checked again and Skampa bet 15,000. Helppi thought and thought and thought. He apologised for the delay. He thought some more. ­Finally he passed . . . face up . . . a set of fives.

Helppi clearly felt that Skampa could not make this play without 34 for the straight, or a set of sixes (either of which was possible, given the action). Other options were a pure bluffing “float”, or (as Skampa later claimed he had), 78 for one pair and a missed straight.

Rightly or wrongly, I would have called on the river. Dan Harrington says, “When I hear someone explaining how he passed a set after an intricate chain of reasoning convinced him he was beaten, my quick (but silent) ­reaction is ‘idiot’.”

As I know from expensive ­experience, Helppi is no idiot. And there are no absolute rules in poker. But I find Harrington’s as close as any: if you flop a set, put your money in. If your set is no good, you are simply ­supposed to lose a big pot. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Continue reading