National Treasure

Have you ever sat somewhere in absolute wonder, an idiot’s grin crescenting your wonky face like Tracey Emin doing an impression of Helen Daniels after a stroke (yes, a Neighbours reference there, kids), wondering how the merry hell you got there? Desperately trying to trace the source that delivered you on the trajectory that plonked you there in the first place? Well, at The O2 Apollo in Manchester, your (admittedly absent) scribe went on a mental journey that trawled 21 years of media, music and memory.

Helen Daniels, stroking.

Helen Daniels, stroking.

Actually, perhaps 23 years is more accurate to trace the turn of events that led me to see one of the greatest gigs of what has been a wonderfully rewarding gig-going life for 25 years.

In 1990, ┬áthe England – EN-GER-LAND! for anyone that remembers the best football song of all time: New Order’s ‘World In Motion’ – national football team went to Italia ’90, the World Cup that changed the game forever in this country.

Following hot on the heels of hooligans that hadn’t been on their toes for 20 years, that summer’s tournament gave everyone in England hope: hope that we could stand up and be counted on the pitch against the best; hope that we could behave abroad without shaming the country; ┬áhope that football could bring a smile to the face and replace the sneers of previous years.

At the heart of this team, that combined the stiff-upper-lip-backs-to-the-wall doggedness of the British Bulldog, with the quintessential quirks of our national humour, was Paul Gascoigne. Regarded by many as one of the most naturally gifted footballers of any generation produced on these shores, he set about Bobby Robson’s camp with one aim: represent the England shirt and nation on foreign soil for 4 weeks, to do a job and win some football matches, but lets have some fun as well. His antics off the pitch at that tournament are as well documented as and his skills on it, and I won’t go into them here. Suffice to say that it began a beguiling love affair with the loveable, but recently troubled, Geordie that still persists to this day. Not many ex-sportsman could turn up at the scene of an horrendous shooting spree at the hands of a steroid-bursting madman, with a fishing rod and a four-pack of beers to wash down a KFC, pissed out of his fragile mind, and try and talk him into giving himself up without the British public feeling sympathetic!

Making it acceptable for bin-men to blub. Paul Gascoigne, 23 years ago.

Making it acceptable for bin-men to blub. Paul Gascoigne, 23 years ago.

Meanwhile back in 1990, as the BBC’s anchorman-lothario-in-chief Des Lynam-presented coverage stirred the cultural loins, with Pavarotti’s rendition of the unforgettable ‘Nessun Dorma’ (from Puccini’s ‘Turandot’), ‘Gazza’ got the world by the balls and made everyone sit up and take notice. He was a maestro on the field, and played the game in a way that made every Englishman proud. During the infamous semi-final versus West Germany he was booked, picking up his second yellow card of the tournament. Under the FIFA laws of the tournament, this meant that he would have been suspended for the final, surely the pinnacle of any global footballer’s career. He was distraught, and tears ensued. He cried on the pitch, in front of millions and millions of people around the world. But instead of being shunned, shamed or ridiculed, the world fell in love with him. He made it OK for builders and bin-men to blub. He was the darling of the terraces. He had become a treasure.

His popularity continued to soar, both on and off the field. He not only secured a number two hit single with the downright fucking disgracefully auto tuned Fog On The Tyne (with beardy-weirdy folk-fucks Lindisfarne), but started to attract the attention of more glamorous and better-playing, better-paying football teams. He was a marketable asset on a European level, and this was his time.

He was playing for Tottenham Hotspur but, frankly, he needed a larger stage. In September 1992, the Roman team Lazio made a successful bid to take him to Serie A, at the time the world’s leading football league. This was the big time, and Gazza knew it. And, due to his popularity, where he went, the British media went. And, as our most newsworthy export since hooliganism, or fields of pie-eyed youngsters necking ecstasy in the countryside, there was always going to be interest. Channel 4, who had stayed away from sport in any tangible sense, decided to bid for the television rights to broadcast Serie A, to follow Gazza’s exploits, whilst opening up a viewing demographic that had been sadly lacking from their ratings.

The Sunday live matches at lunchtime were the perfect tonic for the hungover football fan. The commentary was professional but inclusive, and they had guest summarisers such as the Housemartin’s Paul Heaton! What a good place to be, eh? Eh? Oh.

At the heart of the coverage was James Richardson. Humorous, knowledgeable, dry, but never superior, he was the face of Italian football coverage. On Saturday mornings, during the magazine preview show for the big game on Sunday, you could watch him sitting aside Lake Como or Milan’s Piazza Duomo, accompanied by an ever-growing gelato that began threatening to orbit his balding head. He was, in this humble scribbler’s view, the best presenter of football to date.

As Gazza’s inevitable decline accelerated, the programme’s reliance on his fame gave way to the clarity of the actual football coverage and Richardson’s own skills. And, partly as a result of this success the costs of the rights increased, to a point that Channel 4 simply could not justify the costs of showing the games. During this period Murdoch’s media-thieves BSkyB had also appeared from nowhere and changed the domestic footballing landscape overnight with the creation of the Premier League behemoth.

However, Richardson was THE face of Italian football, and as the rights passed from broadcaster to broadcaster, he continued to front it. Added to this, he was also broadcasting, and this is where – thankfully for you, my narcoleptic, solitary reader – we try to drag it back to the modern day.

Minus the 'gelato', James Richardson, some time or other.

Minus the ‘gelato’, James Richardson, some time or other.

In 2007, I listened to a Guardian Football Unlimited podcast that he hosted, whilst living in Kuwait: a necessary connection to a distant homeland. At some point their conversation drifted away from football and veered into music. He made a comment about a “proper band” that really had to be heard. Having trusted him implicitly for years on footballing and frozen dairy matters, it somehow resonated. But I soon forgot about it, as you do when it is 43C in the shade. Then, in a bizarre episode of serendipity, a CD that was cover-mounted on Q magazine proclaimed the best new American bands. The standout track was ‘Fake Empire’, by The National. I was instantly hooked, and so began a love affair with them that had until this week had remained a very distant and one-sided affair.

On Monday, for the first time, I saw them play live. There are very few examples of bands or musicians where I have been so intimately familiar with their work, for such a long time before seeing them in the flesh and being able to demonstrate my affections. An album or two, maybe, but not four. And, with each album, the band has grown and developed into such an emotional force, that seeing, hearing and feeling that first chord felt like meeting a long-lost brother for the first time.

These charming men, The National, some time ago.

These charming men, The National, some time ago.

It was a magical, at times near-religious experience for more than just me at the venue. With a set that lasted two hours, there was no filler. To this writer they haven’t recorded a song that isn’t either musically or lyrically remarkable, which made selecting the appropriate time to urinate akin to choosing which bollock you wanted to lose first. There wasn’t a song that could be justifiably missed without feeling disappointed.

Focussing a great deal of the set on the last two albums, 2010’s ‘High Violet’ and this year’s magisterial ‘Trouble Will Find Me’, there was still time for a barn-storming ‘Fake Empire’ from ‘Boxer’ and some tracks from the earlier repertoire. You know when you’ve seen a good gig when even your less favourite tracks suddenly come to life and take on an identity of their own that you simply hadn’t spotted before.

But, as the show climaxed, the standout moment was probably the last, and most beautifully respectful and heartfelt singalong by a Manchester crowd away from a football ground. The band came from behind their instruments, circled at the front of the stage and began the anthemic ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’. A solitary trombone, and strummed acoustic guitars were all the stripped down rendition needed, as we took our respective places in the choir.

“I’ll explain everything to the geeks!” is the desperate exclamation of a song about love, loss and life. As people involuntarily began to hold hands, put arms round shoulders, sing at the top of their uninhibited voices, shed shameless Gazza-esque tears and began to wail the pain away through sheer joy, I wondered again just how I ended up witnessing one of the best encores I have ever had the joy to behold. And then remembered a debt to a footballer, that was once all the very best of us.

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