Archive | May, 2011

I Heart Manchester United: A Confession

29 May

Picture the scene. The Champions League Final, 1999. Reading University Student Union Bar. My future wife and best friend have just witnessed Teddy Sheringham’s last-gasp equaliser against Bayern Munich and she’s dancing on the sticky, alcohol-sodden floor whilst he’s lying on a pew in disbelief. Cue Solksjaer and we all know what happened next.

Whilst all this is going on, I’m huddled by a fruit machine with my future child’s godfather, both of us skulking and seething with hatred for Ferguson’s team. We miss the celebrations and later that night, I drunkenly (and idiotically) try to pick my first and last ever fight. Needless to say, I would have lost against my friend Steve and it has forever been a point of embarrassment that I was unable to share in some part, the joy these two people who remain dear to me, experienced that night.

I have no real defence for my actions twelve years ago. It was the ‘90s and fashionable to pour scorn on Manchester United’s dominance of the game, just as it was de rigueur to dislike Liverpool in the ‘80s. However, my relationship with United runs much deeper than this and has always been complicated by other factors that have shaped both my life and the way I watch football.

My father had left us only a few years before the famous final. He was a United fan; his support deriving from the club’s international renown in the ‘60s making its way across Europe to a mountain village in Greece. Naturally, he had wanted his one and only son to follow the team he followed. So my first experiences of football were being forced into a United shirt and being ‘told’ this was my team. I didn’t know where Manchester was at the time let alone who the players were. Football matches were rarely on television when I was growing up and I developed an aversion to the game, trying to block the screen because I didn’t want to watch football when the 1982 World Cup was on. I was admonished for that and preferred to go and play with my animal collection or tuck into my mum’s apple pie. I hated Manchester United. I hated football.

As the years passed, my parents’ marriage broke down and I would find respite in the sounds drifting through my bedroom window of the crowds at White Hart Lane cheering as goals were scored. I was intrigued by this. Regular readers of Dispatches will know the rest…

My anger at my estranged father would manifest itself through football though. As a result, my vitriol was reserved for United and United alone. The Arsenal rivalry was something a lot warmer but United had me spitting irrational venom for a few years.

Time has mellowed me of course and I’ve come to realise that Manchester United, whether I like it or not, are inexorably bound to me for the rest of my life. I was born exactly twenty years after the Munich air disaster. On the 6th February every year, I cannot help but spend a few moments quietly contemplating what was lost on that day and I find it difficult not to challenge ‘fans’ of other clubs who derive sick pleasure in singing those heartless, inhumane songs. I also am married to a Manchester United fan. Through her, I’ve worked through a lot of my demons to a point where I recently relented and allowed her to plant official Old Trafford grass seeds on our lawn…(how suburban can one be?). She finds it difficult to support United when they play Spurs. She genuinely likes my team and I feel a little foolish whenever Spurs even have a sniff of a decent result against them and I’m jibing and taunting her to little effect.

I guess it’s the football equivalent of the Lord Alfred Douglas quote about homosexual love – “the love that dare not speak its name”. The relative anonymity of Twitter allows people to confess attitudes and beliefs that they would never reveal to those they physically interact with on a daily basis. I’ve had a West Ham fan admit to me to originally being a United fan and a Celtic fan guiltily revealing that he secretly owns a Tottenham replica shirt. We all have different reasons for supporting the clubs we do. The romantic notion is that we all come to them through some metaphorical handing of a baton from generation to generation but to some extent, geographical shrinking and television have dismantled traditional rites of football-supporting passage.

I’ve probably watched more Manchester United matches than I have Spurs matches on television over the years. Simply because of United’s continued success and enduring appeal to the media. Ferguson’s sides are as familiar to me as any of the teams sent out by the merry-go-round of managers who have lodged at White Hart Lane in that period. More than any other side, I would have gladly seen the cream of these sides playing in a Spurs shirt. Cantona, Keane, Giggs, Bruce, Ronaldo and many more were players I have begrudgingly come to admire as the years have passed. The top table at my wedding was called the Gascoigne/Cantona table while the guests sat on tables named after our favourite United and Spurs players. I could never say the same for Bergkamp, Wright, Henry, et al. While my attitude to United has softened and I have become aware of my own identity, my attitudes to London rivals have rightly hardened.

Fast-forward twelve years. The same four individuals are in my living room watching United lose to Barcelona in this year’s Final. Two of those people are now married with a child. One is engaged. The other happily sits in an armchair getting drunk. The match is on but we share many laughs and reminiscences, contentedly easing in to our maturity. I want United to win but we all acknowledge the greatness of the Catalans. All is well with the world. Some things are more important now.

Today is Sunday. I’m about to go and do what all grown-ups are apparently supposed to do on a Sunday. I’m going to mow the lawn. I’ll just make sure to avoid a certain patch. This is what ‘angry young men’ eventually become.

See you next season.

Further Reading: Out of the Shadows: Arsenal and Me 

Dispatches is taking a well-earned break to enjoy the summer and the first flushes of fatherhood. A massive thank you to everybody who has read & supported this blog. It’s been a pleasure to write it. 

Keep your eye out for some Summer Specials. Dispatches From A Football Sofa will return in August. Until then, keep your sofas warm.



Unpredictable Predictability – Vol.2

22 May

I wasn’t expecting to be writing a Dispatch this Sunday. If the oddball ravings of Harold Camping were to be believed, you dear reader, at this very moment would be contending with cataclysmic earthquakes and worrying about whether you were one of the lucky few million who had made it up to heaven in God’s rollover jackpot of a Saturday. For those left behind on this damned Gomorrah of a planet there’d be, to quote the irrepressible Dr Pete Venkman from Ghostbusters, “human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria”.

Predictably, the world’s still intact. It’s a beautiful, sunny day. I’ve had the fabled breakfast of champions (coffee and cigarettes) and am leaving fans of the five teams struggling at the foot of the table to contemplate their on survival on this last day of the domestic season.

It’s human nature to pontificate about fate and outcome though. Only upon reflection and with the benefit of changing circumstance and hindsight can you dwell on your own short-sightedness. I’ve had a look at some of this season’s early Dispatches whilst sitting in the garden and found my proclamations somewhat amusing knowing now what was to transpire.

In October, I suggested that Liverpool [will] have…points deducted and [will be] condemned to playing lower league football because of events that have occurred off the field rather than on it.”  I didn’t count upon the Lazarus-like arrival of Kenny Dalglish and his uncanny knack of raising the expectations of a faltering team. I might be even tempted to suggest that Liverpool are a good bet for next year’s title. But I won’t.

In the same month I dismissed Manchester United’s capacity for regeneration and their indomitable spirit:

“All empires have their demise. These falls usually occur after years of complacency and sated appetites that are superceded by powers hungrier and more willing to step up to the challenge of conquest. After twenty years of unprecedented success, Manchester United’s dominance may not have been scuppered by an old general’s desire to succeed but by the greed of a few bankrupt businessmen and the ignorance of a young soldier.”

Oh dear. Who’d have thought a Little Green Pea could shatter all such misgivings? But I did get one thing right at least. Spurs. Forget the year ending in a one. That famous superstition has more or less been consigned to the twentieth century and has made a non-believer of many a Spurs fan. I did say in August though:

I’m able to look upon Spurs’ impending Champions League campaign as the beginning of a glorious adventure. We will play the reigning European Champions twice. But we will definitely not be at Wembley in May’s Final. Because experience tells me it’s appreciating the journey rather than the blind pursuit of some imaginary glory that is the true, most gratifying aspect of being a Spurs fan.”

The nature of predicting events fails to take in changing variables. It’s a running theme in these Dispatches that football personifies the unending struggle to tame the uncontrollable. Managers might go to great lengths to prepare their squads mentally and physically. Books on tactics and manuals suggesting how to coach more successfully fill the bookshelves but football as a game does not allow itself to follow a pre-agreed script. People who don’t ‘get’ football say it’s all the same; just a load of men running up and down a field chasing a ball hand-stitched by an army of under-paid child orphans in a sweaty sub-continental sweatshop. In many respects, that’s true but that fails to take into account the subtleties and idiosyncrasies that keep fans coming back year after year. Who can account for a beach ball contributing to a goal, the myopia of a referee or the unguarded sexism of firmly-ensconced football anchors? I said anchors…

So if rumours are to be believed and a certain footballer is being hung, drawn and quartered for his craven attempts to gag the media for an alleged extra-marital affair, said footballer’s manager must be bordering on a state of apoplexy with a week to go before the biggest match of the football season. Instead of a relaxed week in which this manager would have drilled his players with plans on how to quell and overcome such irresistible and ominous opponents, he now has to contend with the very real prospect of his training ground turning into a media feeding frenzy. Could he have foreseen that several months ago or weeks ago even?

Whatever walk of life you come from, you’re required to plan. People like to throw the Robin Williams-inspired cliché of carpe diem at you, especially in times of reflection but nobody truly adopts this as an ethos to live by. I’m asked to predict the grades of students I teach on a routine basis. I can of course give an educated guess but I cannot guarantee the outcome. I can’t take into account a student’s home life, his attitude towards learning or even the mood he’s in on the day he takes his exam. Nevertheless, my reputation as an educator is by and large dictated by these dressed-up versions of fortune telling.

The season’s coming to a close. Some things have indeed surprised us. Blackpool’s refreshing and cavalier approach to playing football has enlivened the Premier League. As has the on-going comedy soap opera of Mario Balotelli’s sanity. Other things however, never seem to change: Arsenal’s aversion to playing teams of muscular presence, David Moyes’ ability to produce solid, workmanlike Everton sides or the sad, drawn-out demise of Michael Owen’s goal-scoring prowess.

And so as we bid farewell to season 2010/11, we look towards a re-opening of hostilities between Manchester United and Liverpool in 2011/12. But please, don’t quote me on that. Chelsea might have a say in that. Or Arsenal. Or Man City. Maybe even Spurs…

As for the Domesday merchants, they’ve got 23rd December 2012 to look forward to now. As Dr Pete Venkman so succinctly put it: “See you on the other side…”

Further Reading: Unpredictable Predictability 

Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @gregtheoharis

Marriage of Inconvenience

15 May

A year ago, soundtracked by a score of ethereal tranquillity and the desolate scattering of rustling papers in the wind, Nick Clegg went for a walk across this country’s dales and tower blocks. He looked us square in the eye and decried that politics had let us all down. He called it “a trail of broken promises” and he vowed that should we vote for him and his party, fairness would be restored to a society that had been ravaged by the gluttony of the Thatcher years and the self-serving transparency of the Blair era. He believed his words and so did I.

In that same month a year ago, Peter Crouch took the chance that came his way and scored the goal that would propel Tottenham Hotspur into the stratosphere and fly in the face of those who believe that money is all one needs to succeed in the world. Manchester City’s avarice had been repelled. Goodness and virtue had been rewarded. Harry Redknapp roundly received praise for his ‘miraculous’ turnaround of a club long in the doldrums. Harry believed his words. So did the press. He even sang a song to hawk The Sun during the World Cup. I wasn’t so sure.

Twelve months later, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats find themselves decimated in the polling booths, ridiculed on a nigh-on daily basis by a right-wing press and the man himself appears drained of all the vim and vigour that made his optimism seem so appealing not so long ago. Having entered into a coalition government in which the Conservatives seem quite happy to bide their time until the uneasy alliance collapses under the weight of ideological incompatibility, Clegg has sat back and watched every significant pledge of his crumble for the sake of unity. In this marriage of convenience, it would seem that David Cameron is the Ibsen-esque patriarch, crushing the hopes and dreams of his wife as he and his cronies rub their hands at the latest Lib Dem gaff.

Twelve months later, having seen the European dream crumble to dust with an act of recklessness and a goal-keeping calamity, Spurs see their magnificent season receding into the distance. Needing a victory to maintain any kind of Champions League challenge at Eastlands on Tuesday, Crouch scored once more. Tellingly, it was at the wrong end. That one moment encapsulated Spurs’ run-in. One win in thirteen games, a goalkeeper shot of confidence, a serious injury sustained by the Player of the Season and the vultures circling around the club’s prized assets do not indicate a summer of quiet, happy satisfaction for Spurs fans.

Redknapp meanwhile does not see any huge cause for concern. On Match of the Day 2 last week he all but wrote off Spurs’ chances of finishing in the top four next season. Tottenham supporters are beginning to re-assess their own marriage of convenience with a manager who has never made any apology for the fact that he would be willing to move to greener pastures should the opportunity prove attractive. Unlike Nick Clegg however, Redknapp never makes any promises. By doing so, he needn’t ever be held to account. In fact, his default riposte to any kind of criticism from fans is to point to the fact that Spurs were rock bottom of the Premier League when he took over and we should more or less bow in gratitude for everything he has done for the club.

The Champions League was indeed a wonderful experience. To suggest that Spurs were incapable of reaching such a summit without Harry is folly. Martin Jol was close and had he not suffered at the hands of boardroom politics, he would have undoubtedly succeeded. Many who know me will attest to the fact that I have never let the sacking of Jol go. It rankles me. Because in Jol, I saw a manager whom I genuinely believe had the best interests of the club at heart. Redknapp however, for all the good he has indeed done, is always quick to mock Spurs supporters with pithy asides. Can anyone genuinely, hand-on-heart believe that he would see the job through if a better offer came along?

In that respect, Redknapp epitomises everything that was wrong with the governments of the last thirty years. He embodies the philosophy of the self-made working-class Tory who is quick to proclaim his roots whilst also looking out to advance himself at all costs. Spending lavishly on players that a club like Portsmouth simply could not afford, he and his acolytes vanished into the night as the south coast club fell apart at the seams. His response to the justified anger of the Pompey faithful was to shrug and suggest that they should feel lucky that he had brought them the greatest period of success in recent memory.  Tell that to the administrative staff that were made redundant or the four hundred local businesses that remained unpaid for undertaking work for Portsmouth whilst the club spiralled out of control with debts totalling £120 million. Boom and bust, played out on the football field. Blair and Brown’s proverbial chickens come home to roost. Redknapp may not have been totally responsible but he was certainly complicit.

As the summer approaches, Nick Clegg is in danger of losing all the credibility that he so successfully garnered for himself last May. He has probably lost that already. Nevertheless, in his face, you can detect a man who was truly caught between a rock and a hard place. I don’t think he has stopped believing in his core values. He is just trapped in a coalition government in which he is forced to compromise to the will of far shrewder and power-hungry partners. Much like Spurs fans are.

Don’t be surprised if over the summer you wake up to find Luka Modric modelling the latest brand design of Manchester United or Gareth Bale being unveiled as the latest addition to the galaxy of Galacticos. As for Harry, like David Cameron, he’s biding his time. His jingoistic friends in the press are clamouring for him to succeed Fabio Capello and it won’t be too long before England press conferences are reduced to sycophantic laugh-ins.

Spurs fans will stay put though. What choice do we have? The campaign to ‘Bring Back Jol’ starts here…

Dispatches From A Football Sofa has been nominated for the EPL Talk Football Blog of the Season award. If you would like to vote for it, just click on the link below. Thanks. Voting closes Sunday 22nd May.

For Bonnie

8 May

You came to us on a Tuesday.

As the world turned its head towards a bad man’s comeuppance and the clashing of Iberian footballing titans,

We watched you take your first breaths

In splendid isolation.

You played hard, you did.

Like a Greek defence, locked and stubborn,

You made your mother work

But the reward was more magical than the miracle of Lisbon itself.

After thirty-eight exhausting hours we held you in our arms and cried

The most joyous of cries.

I’m sitting here watching you sleep.

Content in your own innocence.

You occasionally scratch your nose, heave a sigh.

You gurgle and crave your mother’s milk.

Unaware of your daddy’s other great love,

You have no concept of the eternal magic

Of twenty-two men hustling and bustling

Up and down a carpet of green.

Of the multitude of faces that cheer them on.

The grizzled, the youthful, the spiteful, the fresh.

Of the enduring fascination of Saturdays spent in front of a television watching other men

Watching a television.

Of the kits and the friendships

And the chips and the laughs.

As you embark upon your journey

(Should you make the choice to immerse yourself in this world that so occupies your father’s heart and mind),

I want to offer you an apology.

Whatever team you decide to hold dear will



Provide you with heartache.

You’ll go to bed in tears from time to time,

Dreading the jeers and taunts from others

Belonging to other tribes.

They’ll let you down, your team.

Players that you idolise will drift away to other clubs

Lured by the promise of success and financial reward.

You’ll curse them and swear your love is dead.

And you’ll hate me for selfishly initiating you into this most self-punishing

Of pursuits.

But before you do that,


Should you emulate your old man in an abiding love for this game

And more specifically for a club in North London, N17,

You’ll feel that you belong somewhere.

I’ll show you where you came from as I hold your little hand

And you pore over the matchday programme,

Your fingers greasy and smudging the paper.

As we pass your grandmother’s house,

(The place where your dad grew up,

streets away from where your great-grandparents made their home),

You’ll breathe in the same air that the generations that came before you did.

Wrapped up in a scarf of blue and white,

Your nose red and peering through the warmth

Of a bobble hat,

You’ll tread the same path that I did.

And through this you’ll travel back to the immigrant’s toil.

His loss of his roots and his hope for his children.

He finally succeeded.

“Wrong team,” he’d say of course.

But “these things even themselves out”,

The cliché goes

(Prepare yourself for loads of those).

Maybe it’s destiny that we’ll re-live the fabulous rivalry of N5 versus N17?

You’ll choose that lot instead of mine.

Or like your mother, (both Kentish girls),

You’ll tie your colours to the red of Manchester,

Scoffing prawn sandwiches together.

Either way I’d love you just the same.

But I’d rather your beautiful voice sang

The Glory Glory of Tottenham Hotspur than that of Manchester United.

After all, I can’t afford to take you up the M6

Every two weeks

On a humble teacher’s wage.


There’s another thing you’ll come across.

No matter what they tell you at school,

However many isosceles triangles they get you to protract

Or Shakespeare sonnets they get you to recite

There’s nothing they can teach you about life that this beautiful game of ours can’t.

Take my word for it. I know these things.

You’ll come across swindlers and crooks who will test your very faith.

You’ll see acts of camaraderie and selfless humanity

As people you’ve never met before will dance with you in thronging streets

Celebrating those fleeting moments of exquisite celebration.

You’ll be bored mindless;

Unable to keep your eyes open as the tedium of the mid-table clash ticks along monotonously

On your screen.

You’ll laugh at the tantrums and verbal cacophony

Of braggarts and showmen.

You’ll be mesmerised and dazzled by exhibitions

Of outrageous skill that will leave you

Shaking your head in disbelief

Crying with the sheer beauty of it all.

You’ll learn that it’s not always about winning, it’s about belonging and loving.


As I do you.

And then there’s the stories. So many stories.

The lifeblood of the game.

Our folk tales.

Of a man blessed with the skill of a god

Who danced and cheated his way to immortality.

Of a balding genius who destroyed everything we loved about him with the butt of his head in his final ever act.

Or there’s the tale of the Turnip Man.

Or the Mad Irishman who took his dog for a walk.

And best of all,

There’ll be tales of a man called Brian

Who told us all he could walk on water and offered to fight heavyweight boxers.

You’ll see your own stories of course.

Store them away. They’ll nourish you as the years go by.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t always make sense.

That it sometimes seems futile.

That it makes you pull out your hair.

Such is the way with this game.

As is life.

Ask anybody who feels the same way.

They’ll tell you a similar story.

You came to us on a Tuesday.

Our beautiful little girl,

More precious than anything the world can offer.

Whatever the years bring to you,

Whatever life throws your way,

Whichever path you choose to walk down,

Be sure of this my darling Bonnie.

Sharing my sofa with you

Will be the greatest honour and pleasure I will ever have.

Dispatches From A Football Sofa has been nominated for the EPL Talk Football Blog of the Season award. If you would like to vote for it, just click on the link below. Thanks.

A Conspiracy of Dunces

1 May

“Sometimes to me it is disgusting to live in this world and have this football world for a living.” – Jose Mourinho

As the Happy Couple performed their much-anticipated nuptials and the world looked on with a sense of either wonderment, pride or sneering indifference (delete where applicable), much more sinister forces were at work behind the highly guarded barricades of Buckingham Palace. The royal family, you see, are not all that they might seem. According to sometime goalkeeper and now quasi-messianic oddball David Icke, the Windsors are in fact part of a shape-shifting reptilian race that controls and feeds on humanity. The sacrificial rituals required to carry on their domination led to the ‘murder’ of Princess Diana and there are grave concerns now for the future of the recently wed Duchess of Cambridge after her investiture.

Meanwhile, billionaire property magnate and wig-fancier Donald Trump sought to question the birth credentials of a democratically elected US President. Apparently, that Barack Obama has managed to pull the proverbial wool over   everybody’s awestruck eyes and his tenancy of the White House is nothing short of a land seizure by a foreign invader. As a consequence, Obama was forced to release his birth certificate for verification in a press conference this week in order to temper the insinuations of the Republican Party’s presidential hopeful. Worryingly, citizens of Hicksville are still to be convinced.

And then there was Jose Mourinho’s petulant and ungracious press conference executed with acidic aplomb in the aftermath of what has swiftly become known as The Battle Of The Bernabeu. A loss of discipline on his side’s part and two moments of artisanry from Lionel Messi had effectively left Real Madrid with an uphill task to overturn in the Camp Nou next Tuesday. Mourinho however, was unwilling to admit any kind of tactical deficiency on his part. He of course laid into the match officials, as is the set default of the aggrieved manager in the modern era. But then came the moment when Mourinho’s conspiracy complex went stratospheric:

“Congratulations to a fantastic football team. But congratulations for all they have as well, it must be difficult to get to get all this power. Where does this power come from? I don’t know if it’s because they give UNICEF publicity (on their shirts)? They have to get to the final, and they’ll get there, full stop.”

In essence, Mourinho has effectively implied that Barcelona, UEFA and a United Nations charity have colluded to fix matches in the Catalans’ favour. Without proof (other than a series of incidents that have given Barcelona advantages in key matches), his calculated inferences could potentially threaten the foundations and integrity of a game that already is riddled with the chicanery of FIFA officials, football agents and self-serving players. However, the danger lies when calling into question the integrity of an institution (UNICEF) whose sole function is the welfare of the disadvantaged young. Say it often enough Jose, and people might actually start taking your comments seriously.

As was the case in 2005 when Mourinho branded referee Anders Frisk an “enemy of football” after he deemed the latter’s performance in a match between the ‘Special One’s’ Chelsea and (surprise surprise) Barcelona inadequate. Death threats ensued and one of the world’s leading referees was hounded into an early retirement.

Or how about the accusation a year later, that the NHS and Reading Football Club did not act with urgency and care after Chelsea’s goalkeeper Petr Cech had received a serious but accidental blow to the skull in a collision with Reading’s Stephen Hunt? Mourinho’s righteous claims that the treatment offered the stricken goalkeeper was “shocking” and “a nightmare” forced both Reading and the ambulance service to release documents recording the fit and proper action they took which grossly contradicted Mourinho’s ministrations.

It seems that the magnetism of Mourinho is dissipating fast. Where once his swarthy charm and scowling arrogance held many in thrall, he is rapidly turning into a figure that looks to clutch at extreme straws rather than admit to his own and his team’s shortcomings. The facts may indeed show that players have been sent off whenever his teams are pitted against Barcelona. But rather than seeking to address the fact that this may be down to the intricate short passing game that the Catalans adhere to being rarely playable against his own philosophy of defensive brinkmanship, he seeks to conjure injustices and conspiracies, imagined or real.

As an unashamed self-publicist, Mourinho therefore shares much with both Trump and Icke. Whether you agree with their theories or not, they are always eminently watchable. Consequently, somewhere in a distant outpost of the world, impressionable souls might just take their crackpot theories as gospel. What happens then? Will they take responsibility when the letter-bomb is posted through the door or the gunman finds aim? That may seem a little far-fetched, but history proves that human beings are indeed very impressionable creatures.

Innuendo and subtext does not further any cause. By starting conspiracies that clearly do not exist and are solely created with personal gain in mind, these three men only serve to negate the valid and diligently researched efforts of those people who work to shed light on cover-ups. Without these people we wouldn’t have the unmasking of the British government’s shameful imprisonment of the Guildford Four or the unravelling of the Nixon administration after the Watergate scandal or the uncovering that Jean Charles de Menezes was not the terrorist we were lead to believe he was in the direct aftermath of the London bombings of 2005.

Somehow against these examples of real hidden agendas that affect real people with very grave and often tragic consequences, a lizard, a birth certificate and a red card pale into insignificance.

Dispatches From A Football Sofa has been nominated for the EPL Talk Blog of the Season award. Thank you to everybody who has read and continues to support this humble little blog. 

To vote, simply click here

Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @gregtheoharis

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