Russian Railways Cup and the 39th Game

Our forthcoming participation in the Russian Railways Cup is exciting on so many levels outside of the ‘on the pitch’, pre-season friendly, kick-about sort of stuff. Just look at the website!

A huge monster of an Iron Horse charging at you out of the screen, reminiscent of the great days of steam. That hunk of metal would take you all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok in less time than it takes to get from Stratford to Richmond on the North London line.

Perhaps because we are an island nation the concept of the railway doesn’t fire the imagination of the man in the street. If you get on a train in Britain you won’t be on there for two or three days unless the signalling is playing up just outside Clapham Junction or you’re sleeping off a bender in the sidings at Whitstable.

Me, I am in love with railway travel. I have ridden the City of New Orleans all the way to Chicago via Memphis. I have stood in awe at the Hook of Holland looking through the myriad destinations opening up before me, magical journeys to the heart of Europe, through history. I have wondered at the trains leaving Shenzhen for Beijing, and for Harbin in the very north of China and longed to ride those rails.

The railways should hold a mythic place in our consciousness. They brought change and revolution in their wake. The world became smaller and yet more palpable. The physical effort of construction: the permanent way, iron steel, wood, sweat, toil, engineering brilliance, destruction. The worst of capitalism in some ways, yet whole communities were built and thrived around the railway.

There is a romance, a centrality of experience and a deeply felt connection with the railways evinced by an ever growing visual and literary cannon in Europe and the US (elsewhere as well, perhaps, but I can only speak of what I know). Trains, journeys, stations, waiting, love, fear, death, madness, espionage.

If a film features air travel, it always boils down to the fact that the plane could or will crash. The train, the railway, offers so much more scope for complex, layered storytelling.

Anyway, it’s good to see a trophy with an honest straightforward name. Not some dreamed up nonsense like Eon or Veolia, which sounds lovely and soft and airy fairy. All touchy feely. But what they really do is sell electricity, treat sewage and collect your bins – fine honest and upstanding work that needs doing, so why try and disguise it? Veolia used to be Compagnie General des Eaux for God’s sake!

We live in a world where everything is pretending to be something else. The Champions League? It’s the European Cup. The First Division Championship, it’s now the Premier League (the Premiership or whatever). How pretentious.

Which brings me to the 39th game. Peter Kenyon was on about it again yesterday.

I’ll tell you what they are up to. There is no way they are going to set up 19 games around the world. How will they sell Wigan versus Hull (with all due respect) in Kuala Lumpur? No it was just a smokescreen, a softening up process.

It’s all in the name. There are two other sports with a Premiership in this country, Rugby Union and Rugby League. They spend all year bashing the billy bollocks out of each other to finish top of the pile. Then what do they do? Have a play-off. So you win the league but don’t necessarily win the Premiership.

That’s where we’re headed boys.

What could be more marketable than a play-off between the top four or eight in the division? Set it up in a couple of venues for the first round and finish in a third. Don’t worry about excessive travel, fatigue etc. Think of the money.

Kenyon talks about the equitable nature of the distribution of TV money. Yes, it’s going to be more for the boys at the top and a sop to the rest.

It will all be played in faraway places like Dubai so the fans at home won’t think too hard about the league winner perhaps not being the winner. They will have to decide about Champions League places too. But it will come. These guys are sold on the American sports model and post-season play is so much part of that.

Just bring back the Russian Railways Cup boys so I can touch something real.