(The Original)

Amateur Scribe

A Bridge too Far

SVEN GORAN ERIKSSON was reeling last night after it was revealed his players lost tens of thousands of pounds in World Cup card schools. It is claimed one of England's leading players had to write a cheque for £30,000 on the flight home from the Far East last summer.

FA bosses fear card schools and gambling created cliques among the England squad during Euro 2000. Players were said to have gambled up to £10,000 a hand during Keegan's reign. The problem now seems as bad under Eriksson.

Professional Footballers Association chief Gordon Taylor last night admitted gambling was the biggest single problem facing his members. He said: "There's plenty of help and support for players who are affected by drugs and alcohol, but no tests available to spot early signs and dangers of gambling. It is something the whole game needs to look at most seriously."

Daily Mirror, January 2003

Confessions of an anonymous England player

What made me laugh was that they pinned it all on Michael. They needed to hold their hands up to the gambling epidemic so they chucked the tabloids some titbits about Owen and the low-rolling poker boys which meant they could sweep the serious stuff under the carpet.

It’s hard being in this squad. I remember the old days, the tomfoolery, the gay abandon of the golf course – a few beers and a punt or two on the gee-gees. It was much more relaxed. The gambling was something we did to unwind. “A tenner to anyone who moons out the back window of the team coach” or “a ton for setting fire to Shearer’s shorts – two hundred if you do it while he’s still wearing them”.

I don’t like the atmosphere now. The stakes have sky-rocketed – one game can bankrupt a player.

I suppose the skipper is the man we all fear. You never know when the mood’s going to take him, but the moment he sits down at the beautiful mahogany table in a dark corner of the players’ lounge, grabs a deck of cards and starts to shuffle them expertly, everybody gathers round and a hush descends.

“The game, gentleman, is Contract Bridge,” he announces haughtily, and we know the sparks are about to fly.

I think he revels in the theatre of it all. There he is in his monogrammed Dolce and Gabanna dressing gown and Armani flip-flops casually flicking the deck from one hand to the other. The pre-selected opponents take their seats either side of him. You can tell they’re shitting it.

Bridge 4
Becks

A conventional bridge four, and, inset, England captain David Beckham, who has taken the game to a new level

Beckham is careful with his partners. Form is everything – one day Ashley Cole might be the golden child, the next, Nicky Butt. Most of us have been there at one time or other, but it’s hard to keep the seat. I remember Paul Scholes was the blue-eyed boy for ages – could do no wrong – but then he failed to convert a straightforward three heart bid after screwing up the ruffing while the skipper was dummy. Becks flew into a rage and called him a “stupid ginger twat”. The next day he refused to pass to him. It was a World Cup qualifier as well. You think Scholesy quit the international scene because of his commitment to Man United? Please. He just couldn’t bear the ignominy of being one of David’s exes.

I know what you’re thinking. Footballers? Bridge? Come off it! But it really isn’t such a stretch. We are the new aristocracy. The money, the cars, the girls – they’ve always been there, but this is like a new religion. Those who scoff haven’t thought it through. Blackjack’s for losers – lounge lizards and wannabes who think they’re James Bond. Poker? Pah! D-Listers playing Texas Hold’em for peanuts on late night ITV: A handful of shameless ex-players mixing it with cretinous media luvvies and no-mark rappers from So Solid Crew.

No, bridge is the way forward now. Bridge is the game of kings.

But part of me misses the old routine. Gazza, Donkey Adams, Ted the Head – they didn’t take themselves too seriously. The players’ lounge was awash with cheeky banter and buxom waitresses. They were more innocent times: the de rigeur sports back then were binge drinking and arse slapping. After Venables, though, something changed.

You can forget the dentist’s chair now, the kebabs and the fake plastic breasts. Beckham flies into rage if his port is not 1963 vintage or his claret is served at below 18°C.

I remember one poor girl brought him a big cigar and nervously stammered something about being a really big fan and maybe getting an autograph… and bam! He cut her down. Didn’t even look at her. Just held up a perfectly manicured hand right in her face and asked Stevie G to cut the deck. He can be cold, man.

But boy can he play. It’s a joy to watch the grace with which he boldly finesses and stoutly defends. His knack at locating enemy singletons rivals his ability to bend a football into the top corner. On the whole he favours the Blackwood Convention, but he’s a real scholar. On rest days, when most of us are watching DVDs or playing Playstation games, you can usually find Becks with his nose in a bridge encyclopaedia boning up on all the obscure rudiments. And it’s paid off: He’s earned more cash through cards in the last six months than he gets from Adidas in five years. But it’s consumed him and he now commands fear, not friendship.

Sven

Sven Goran Eriksson: Crap at cards

When the gaffer first took over, I thought it would be just what David needed – a calming influence: classy, sophisticated…what’s the word? Urbane. Someone who could speak to Beckham on his own level. Keegan had no chance. He tried his best, bless him: Table tennis tournaments, golf days – he even organised a slap-up do at the dogs down at Walthamstow, followed by a bit of pound-in-the-pot action at some skin joint on the Old Kent Road to get the skipper back to his East London roots. But Keegan’s old school, man - he didn’t realise that the game has moved on. All that brash boy’s own shit is Nationwide Conference these days. Beckham used to look at him like he’d pissed in his Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

So when Eriksson arrived, we all thought it might rein the skipper in a bit. Loosen him up. Stop the pomposity. And to begin with, it did. The two of them sat up talking for hours discussing the finer points of five card majors, pre-emptive bidding and the pioneering film work of Omar Shariff. He’s a silver-tongued bastard is Sven, but he was winging it. In reality he knew nothing about bridge and it was only a matter of time before he got found out.

It happened soon after we arrived in Portugal for Euro 2004. The mood was good: Becks had calmed down and was even joining in with some of the younger boys and their adolescent larks. I remember he managed a watery smile when Kieron Dyer lit one of Wayne Rooney’s farts, when previously he would have stalked out of the room muttering about infantile japery being the bane of the England team for the last thirty years.

Anyway someone broke open the cards and Sven was confident enough to offer to partner the skipper in a friendly game of Chicago against Lamps and Rio. Nothing too dramatic: A thousand a hand. Rio got lumbered with a ludicrous 4-spade contract when he and Frank had no more than 23 points between them and everyone relaxed a bit. Surely even the gaffer couldn’t fuck it up from here. Wrong.

Beckham had the first trick won with the Ace of Hearts, but Sven, over-excited by the sense of togetherness and desperate to show off his card-playing vivacity and his void in Hearts, trumped his own partner with the two of Spades.

I’ll never forget the way Sven’s triumphant, puppy-dog face fell, when the enormity of the error struck him. The room fell silent. We all swapped nervous glances. Joe Cole started to cry. Becks stared icily at his partner, his fingers mechanically drumming at the baize. Without a word he carefully fanned out his remaining cards in front of him, rose from his chair and left the room.

They haven’t spoken in private since. When Beckham missed that penalty against France, he was heard to mutter: “Take that, you Swedish imbecile.”

Sven was a broken man after that. Not surprisingly we didn’t last long on that trip. It’s difficult to get much further than the quarter-finals of a major tournament when your manager spends all his time sitting quietly in his room playing backgammon with Tord Grip and the Neville brothers.

But the worst may soon be over. There’s definitely a feeling that the guard may be changing. Beckham was stuck for a fourth on the recent trip to Wales, and was chagrined to find most of us crowding around Sean Wright-Phillips and Jermaine Defoe as they locked horns over a game of cribbage. Out with the old, and all that…

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