OUR abiding image of Benny Hill is of him running into the nearest woods, to the jerky accompaniment of his theme tune.
And, for more than 20 years that’s where his comedy, derided as juvenile, sexist and worse, has remained. But, recently, I read an article on misunderstood funsters which reminded me that Charlie Chaplin was a big admirer of Hill, as was the author Anthony Burgess. Shortly after that, a telly tribute to Alan Whicker pointed out that, while Monty Python became the globetrotter’s most famous impersonators, it was Hill who spoofed him first. Then, last Monday in Madrid, came the Strange Case of Ander Herrera and the Three Amigos.
Manchester United fancied signing Herrera, the Athletic Bilbao midfielder. As the transfer window deadline loomed, a trio of ace lawyers arrived at the Spanish league’s HQ, apparently with United’s authorisation. Before Herrera could unpick defences with his passing, the briefs would first unpick Basque law. It looked like good preparation by United, it looked like deal done. Except the move never happened. United said they didn’t know these men and certainly they hadn’t commissioned them. The Bilbao paper El Correo likened the pursuit of Herrera to a sketch written by and starring – guess who? – Benny Hill.
Now, Hill fans will be delighted. For them, three mentions-in-depatches in quick succession will justify a major retrospective of their hero’s work, a Benny season on the box. The rest of us will conclude that the transfer window as it affects England has reached a whole new level of farce – overshadowing the football completely. Strictly speaking, season 2013-14 is already under way. The teams have each played three league games. Except they haven’t – not really. The real action, with all those desperate, last-minute, overpriced recruits, who arrived too late to get into official team photos or secure themselves respectable shirt numbers, begins next weekend. Why do clubs do it? Why leave it so late to buy when you’ll invariably pay over the odds, when there’s a good chance you won’t be making the most clear-sighted of judgements, when it takes so long to integrate new players now? I’ve mentioned before catching sight of a footballer interviewed on Sky Sports News – identity obscure – who insisted that two years to feel at home at a club was the norm. You may have heard me say this before, too – this lot are jessies. They’re not like Colin Stein and Joe McBride, beginning the next phases of their careers with hat-tricks.
Maybe, though, my view would be different if they were in charge of my team and it badly needed new faces, I admire managers who’re fundamentally thrifty, won’t be browbeaten by rotund agents and middlemen, and try where possible to buy promise which can be nurtured rather than established stars of questionable ambition. Arsene Wenger used to be a good example of this until a couple of years ago when, under pressure from fans, he made an 11th-hour trolley-dash for players that was just asking to be set to Benny Hill’s music. He could argue these were medium-price purchases, but he’s just gone and smashed Arsenal’s transfer record to get Mesut Ozil.
Seven other Premier clubs broke their records. England’s total spend was £630 million, dwarfing Spain and Italy’s £335 million. The real superstars (Edinson Cavani, Radamel Falcao, etc) bodyswerved England but the vast bulk of the traffic was still in foreign players, which doesn’t square with FA chairman Greg Dyke’s vision for English football, and a World Cup triumph in 2022. And this was the year the window frenzy was offficially upgraded to a mania, with virtually every club having to be seen to be buying someone, anyone. Was yet another sleek-footed midfielder really top of Arsenal’s “needs”? Was the unsleek-footed Merouane Fellaini really top of Man U’s?
The most notorious piece of transfer window footage used to be Peter Odemwingie in his car, trying to ram through his move from West Brom to QPR. Now it’s those lawyers. Gareth Barry, who’s gone from Man City to Everton on loan, may come into the unsleek category, too, but he displayed some nifty driving last Monday. Mid-evening, his move was on, then if was off. “So I just drove around and then I went for a coffee,” he said. “I didn’t want to look like Odemwingie.”