Monday, 15 August 2011


Not long ago, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I got to thinking about the humble apostrophe – “to some a mere punctuation mark”, I wrote, “to others the departure point for a whole book (cf. Lynne Truss’s [Truss’?] Eats, Shoots & Leaves)”. However, such reflections were not the result of a fastidiousness 
grammarians rancour, as they were with Truss, but for the altogether more mundane reason that a Cornish friend of mine belched up the frankly OUTLANDISH proposition that the sometime (actually, one time) Newcastle United goal-grabber Stephane Guivarc’h was, and I quote verbatim here, “the greatest apostrophied footballer of all time”.

As you can imagine, I almost spat out my drink in scornful 
disbelief and, suspecting more than a little Celtic bias toward his Breton cousin, rasped “that’s absolute fucking bollocks, Chief”. I started to reel off alternatives, when an eavesdropping Los Angelino chimed up: “Like, he-llo!! Er, Samuel Eto’o!? He’s, like, the greatest apostrophied sportsman EVER. Period”. A Glaswegian opposite me, also eavesdropping, did not concur: “Git tae foak. Whoat aboot Brian O’Driscoll? Ronnie O’Sullivan? Shaquille O’Neal, ken?” And so the conversational wildfire spread… 

I, meanwhile, had retreated to the bar. It was my round. (Ken who?) 

To cut a long story – and my auto-plagiarism (if such a thing is possible) – short, a debate of epochal significance ensued as to who – Who’o? – would get in the all-time World Football Apostrophe’s (sic) XI. They would play either the Hyphens or the Accents, of course.

Incidentally, we had a sub-debate about where they might play, this time-traveling, punctuationally homogenous team of ours. Several cities were considered – St David’s, Wales (admittedly, a fairly small city); Nuku’alofa, Tonga (a little too remote); St John’s, Antigua (a nice spot, but the stadium is a little small); Sana’a, Yemen (politically unstable); L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, just south of a genuine football metropolis in Barcelona – but in the end we plumped for the Netherlands and duly tossed a coin between its 19th and 3rd largest cities, ’s-Hertogenbosch and ’s-Gravenhage (a.k.a. The Hague), the former, joyously, winning.

Anyway, here’s the team we came up with…

GK: Michel Preud’homme
RB: John O’Shea
CB: Bruno N’Gotty
CB: David O’Leary
LB: Charles N’Zogbia
RM: Johnny van ’t Schip
CM: Yann M’Vila
CM: Andrés D’Allessandro
LW: Alan A’Court
#10: Kaka’
CF: Samuel Eto’o 


GK: Jacques Songo’o
D: Stephen N’Zonzi
M: Martin O’Neill
M: Landry N’Guémo
M/F: Fabián O’Neill
F: Stephane Guivarc’h
F: Gary O’Connor 


Michel Preud’homme 
With his long dark ringlets of hair, Preud’homme was an instantly recognisable figure between the posts for Standard Liège, Mechelen, and Benfica, not to mention the Belgian national side (winning 58 caps) after serving a long apprenticeship under Jean-Marie Pfaff, whose sizeable boots – or gloves – he filled with distinction. Indeed, he won the Yashin award for the best ’keeper at the USA World Cup in 1994, and was at this stage arguably the world’s premier stopper, an opinion certainly held by the International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians (IFFHS) who finally crowned him as such after he had twice finished runner-up to Walter Zenga. Preud’homme later went into management with Standard (winning their first title in 25 years), Gent, and Twente Enschede, following in a certain Englishman’s footsteps. 

John O’Shea 
Resembling a hybrid of Paddy McGuinness and Peter Kaye, John O’Shea was Manchester United’s Mr Versatility throughout the noughties, playing left-back, right-back, centre-half, and centre-midfield (not to mention striker and in goal) at various stages of his career at Old Trafford. A wholehearted player and fans’ favourite, his personal pinnacle at the club came with an injury-time winner in front of the Kop in 2007. 

Bruno N’Gotty 
Best remembered in England for a four-year spell at Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce, a manager who no doubt saw a similar player to himself in the big, strong, uncompromising centre-half, N’Gotty nevertheless also played at some continental glamour clubs – at AC Milan, and in France’s three largest cities, with PSG (for whom he scored the winner in the 1996 Cup Winners’ Cup Final, a 1-0 defeat of Rapid Vienna) and the Olympiques, Lyonnais and Marseille. Although good enough at his peak to win 6 caps for Les bleus, N’Gotty usually had – in Desailly, Blanc, Gallas, et al – bodies as formidable as his own blocking a path to the national side. 

David O’Leary 
Before his Leeds Utd-white managerial reputation was chucked in the washing with a bright pink dress and put on far too high a temperature during a bout of reckless, Europe-chasing spending, O’Leary was a stalwart centre-half for Arsenal (for whom he made a club-record 722 appearances) and the Republic of Ireland (for whom he scored a decisive spot-kick to eliminate Romania in Italia ’90). Pre-dating George Graham’s Famous Four, O’Leary nevertheless formed – with the likes of Jennings, Brady, Stapleton and Sunderland – a key vertebra in the spine of a useful Gunners side that reached three consecutive FA Cup Finals from 1978 to 1980. The aforementioned Leeds meltdown was followed by a three-season stint of ever-diminishing returns at Aston Villa, where his snub-nosed cantankerousness was much in evidence (which may well have contributed to his four-year managerial hiatus). 

Charles N’Zogbia 
Playing left-back for Apostrophe’s is N’Zogbia, occasionally deployed in this position early in his Newcastle career by Glenn Roeder. While a string of excellent midfield displays under Sam Allardyce and Joe Kinnear alerted suitors to the Frenchman’s talents, it was the latter’s tongue-tied reference to him as “Insomnia” that helped speed him to a January window exit in 2009, “Zog on the Tyne” swapping one chav chic tycoon in Mike Ashley for another in Dave Whelan, joining a Wigan side that would give him a free role. It will be interesting to see where – and how well – he plays at Aston Villa this season. 

Johnny van ’t Schip 
Having come through the fabled Ajax academy, Canadian-born Dutchman Johnny van ’t Schip was a fixture in the first team during the 1980s, sporting the famous number 14 shirt previously worn by his illustrious manager. With a model wife and, at one point, the most lucrative contract in the Eredivisie, van ’t Schip was not always universally popular, yet rarely groused about his handling by the dogmatic Cruyff. He appeared in over 40 games for the Oranje, including both the early stages of their van Basten-inspired Euro 1988 success and the spiteful clash with Germany in 1990. After Euro 92 he went to Genoa to wind down his career, since when his coaching appointments have largely been as part of van Basten’s staff, both with the national team and at club level.

Yann M’Vila 
After chosing France over the parental homeland of the Congo, the 21-year-old Rennes tyro has already won 10 caps for Les bleus and appears to have become a firm favourite of new boss, Laurent Blanc. Having made it into the Ligue 1 team of the year for 2010-11, M’Vila, natural heir to Vieira and Makélélé, is sure to feature soon on the radar of the European elite, particularly if Rennes advance in the Europa League. 

Andrés D’Allesandro 
Between Maradona and Messi, Argentina haven’t half had some #10s overburdened with praise at a young age – from Aimar to Ortega, Saviola to Lavezzi – but none so much as d’Allesandro, whose stellar dribbling displays at the under-19 World Cup in 2001 attracted interest from Europe, and he duly followed a well-trodden path to the old continent, first to Wolfsburg and then, um, Portsmouth and Zaragoza, before returning home with San Lorenzo and Brazilian club Internacional. Competition for forward places in the albiceleste national side is now so strong that players like Tévez, Higuaín, and Milito are benchbound, so it was something of a surprise that he was briefly recalled to the national colours last year.

Alan A’Court 
Occupying Liverpool’s left flank for 354 games during Shankly’s early years, A’Court was voted #81 in the “100 Players Who Shook The Kop”. The strong, direct winger scored 61 goals for Liverpool and showed great loyalty by staying with them after relegation, winning his 5 England caps (three of which were at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden) while still a second-tier player. He finished his career across the Mersey at Tranmere, then meandered through several coaching jobs, including Norwich, North Staffs Polytechnic and Nantwich Town, before quitting to run a newsagents. 

Thats right: Kaka’, not Kaká. Ask the shirt manufacturers of AC Milan, Real Madrid, or Brazil, a far more authoritative source than Wikipedia I daresay. Anyway, despite being the modern era’s most overrated player, the hole-roaming, Jesus-belonging enganche is still a shoo-in for any Apostrophe XI you care to mention.

Samuel Eto’o 
For two years at Barça under Franck Rijkaard, the electric running and unerring nose for goal of cheetah-lookalike Eto’o was the perfect compliment to the conjurations of Leo Messi and Ronaldinho. The feistiness that saw him confront the Brazilian and his boss over the former’s lax attitude to training, indulged by the latter – a belligerent trait manifest, also, in the graceless taunting of arch-rivals, the club that rejected him, with “Madrid, cabrón / Saluda al campeón” (Madrid, assholes / salute the champions) – eventually led to the Camp Nou exit, but he showed a hitherto unseen humility in diligently fulfilling his defensive duties while playing wide right for Inter under José Mourinho, as he pocketed a third Champions League winners medal in his first year in Serie A. Eto’o is a four-time African Player of the Year, and in 2006 he finished third in FIFA’s World Player of the Year award, only the second African to make the podium. 


Jacques Songo’o 
The barrel-chested Cameroonian was a stalwart for Deportivo La Coruña during the Galician club’s rise to the top of the European game under Javier Irureta, winning the Zamora Trophy for La Liga’s best ’keeper in his first season and helping the club to their maiden title three years later.

Stephen N’Zonzi 
Blackburn’s pacy Franco-Congolese full-back was unlucky not to make the Apostrophe’s’ starting XI, but he fits the bill of the modern, raiding full-back while not being shy of a tackle…

Landry N’Guémo 
Providing some midfield steel from the bench is 26-year-old Cameroonian international, N’Guémo, a former Celtic loanee who they refused to buy from his French club, leading to the memorable headline, involving no less than two apostrophied footballers: ‘No Go N’Guémo: Celtic Switch Attention to N’Diaye After Move for Nancy Bhoy Stalls’. Now back in Ligue 1 with Bordeaux. 

Martin O’Neill 
Before becoming a cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof manager and sometime garrulous, non sequiteur-spewing pundit, O’Neill formed a key part of Brian Clough’s Europe-conquering Nottingham Forest, a side that played 4-4-2, relying on wingers and classic big’un / littl’un forward combination – hard to see where he got his managerial outlook from, then... O’Neill played 64 times for Northern Ireland and was a busy, unflashy player prepared to do the dirty work for his superiors.

Fabián O’Neill 
The 19-time Uruguayan international – yes, you read correctly – played for the country’s legendary Nacional club before moving to Italy, where he enjoyed seasons at Cagliari, Juve and Perugia as an attacking-midfielder. He retired at the tender age of 30 to raise cattle on his familial hacienda.

Stéphane Guivarc’h 
The Breton striker was very much a leftfield selection for France’s ultimately glorious home World Cup of 1998, in which, despite starting four games and coming on as sub in two more, spending a total of 247 minutes on the field, he failed to score… Still, that was enough to secure a move to those astute purchasers of European strikers, Newcastle United (see Kluivert, Patrick; Tomasson, Jon-Dahl).

Garry O’Connor 
The neck tattoo-removing seeker of expiation for a wayward past in which he had “too much, too young” just edges out Irish pretty boy Keith O’Neill for the final spot on the bench, for no other reason than you’d only find three O’Neill’s in such close proximity in Faliraki.


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