Thursday, 16 December 2010

Football Fanship and Persuasion

"But why do you follow that team?"

My brother, a Cottager of the Paul Peschisolido aeon, brought this to my attention when in 2006 Chris Coleman was inexplicably fired by Alfayed. Or Alfayed Jr.

What compels us to one team? What are the charms that forge a strange(ways) belonging and scratch reason and indifference upon every kick off?

Firstly, the cause of my brother's disillusionment: How a club is run from the top down. It is worth reminding oneself of the cheap tricks of family, extended family, school mates and school bullies. Legacy and Location (sadly, this is the normal order). Financial investment. Emotional investment. Patterns of play. Tradition. And the individual talent.

I have, before, overheard the brilliantly irrational fan jump to what (s)he thinks is a more important question: "Are you a proper supporter?" These probes, usually accusations, are certainly related, though I would say that ever since the Taylor report, the (off-the-ball) melodrama of Italia '90 and the subsequent influx of middle-class fans, the 'proper supporter' knockout blow has become the tired air punch of the fat and the guilty. Straight-faced righteousness is responsible for the soggiest kind of literature and pub-talk about the game. To borrow a favourite, silly catchprase from British politics: class war is dead. In a boast, the self-described 'proper supporter' - of any social background - will reveal more about its failing ego than the game.

Why do I follow, I mean really follow, Spurs? (OK so I go for free a lot, and I rarely do away games.) Why did I travel back and forth from Leeds, and now from Brighton, to join in this masochistic ritual? Why did I go as far as to customise the web-address of my blog - this meeting of personal and quietly public writing - after love of my club? Well, passion I guess. And passions ought to provoke serious and mocking responses in equal measure. Under the influence of Fever Pitch (1992) - a hideously overrated autobiography about fanship, probably still worth reading eighteen years on - I have listed a few reasons for, and advantages and disadvantages of, having spent nearly two decades enthralled by Tottenham Hotspur's special brand of (recently elevated) mediocrity. 

1) Seven Sisters is a hole. The stadium is not. On the twenty-seven minute walk from the Underground exit to Bill Nicholson (R.I.P.) Way, everything is rotten. But when the gravel, the entrances and the food stalls are left behind, walking out into the surround sound is always a new experience. The blue and white sloping sea of White Hart Lane, filling before kick off, is my macrocosmic Dionysia; a swathing delight at drama that would disrupt the breath of any person interested in culture.

2) "Football is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom." (Danny Blanchflower)

Tottenham Hotspur has a tradition. This argument doesn't work when Peter Crouch is bringing things down from the sky for bystanders, though I'm not going to complain if Rafael van der Vaart continues to score the same goal every other game. For the too-young-to-remember, have a rummage through your parents' VHS cupboard at the next available opportunity. Recorded somewhere between Top of the Pops 2 and vintage pornography, you might chance upon Hoddle's volleys, Villa's slalom and Gazza's belter against our filthiest rivals. And don't understimate Gary Mabbut's bravery, or Steffen Freund's aggression. Match of the Day is inconceivable without us.

3) We do lots for charity.

4) Harry Redknapp is the next England manager. He is a meticulous tactician. His every bone is humble. England deserves his services. (First and final sentences might not be sarcastic.)

5) If nothing else, we are worth a sympathy shag. Our captain left on a Bosman to said filthiest rivals. Ten years have past but even now - as I type out the fifth amendment in a room filled with cobwebs and a stopped grandfather clock - it hurts. I still want dark events to affect Sol Campbell's remaining lifetime. The experience was formative in so far as it hastened my moral education: don't expect loyalty or fidelity from anybody. If ever these virtues are disavowed by a friend or lover, deja vu assumes the gigantic form of a central defender lifting the Premiership title. The analogy all football fans know best - walking in on your best mate and your girlfriend, at it - is hard to refute. But until this happens, Campbell will remain the benchmark. I hate to harp on but there were many nightmares afterwards. And in the cinema, the incident would transfer a vengeance of blood lust. Sol Campbell never goes away. He just stands outside the railway stations I wait at, signing autographs and smiling in one of his Size XXL overcoats.

Readers who support other clubs will argue that you could edit place and person names, and publish the same blog post about any team. I agree in so far as the emotional life of football fans is consistent. But it is not at all protean. I know I am, I'm sure I am, I'm one club till I die. (An exception must be made for Wimbledon FC fans.) I was persuaded into this. It is impossible to be persuaded out.

By and large, idealism is safe and humorous within football. Especially on these shores. There are some idiots however, myself included, who sometimes refer to the game as a religion, approximating their status as a fan to a worshipper, or a sheep in a flock if you will. This is, of course, a ludicrous thing to suggest. And not just because managers actually answer our questions, passed on by priests Guy Havard and Garth Crooks, and offer reasons (sometimes even apologies) for the sickness they birth us into some afternoons. All this singing and proselytising is not done in the name of any Dear Leader. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, before a glass of sherry, will tell you Manchester United is bigger than any of its powerful representatives.

In the modern game there is a kind of stupid sacrifice and a desire for ignorance. Why do I bother? Next week I'm going to do something else. No, you won't. The Future of an Illusion has not conceded its worth. You will not change seats. You will wear the selfsame scarf and retro jersey to every match. Your happiness this weekend comes down to people you don't even know. What marries faith with football is the promise of eternity: an old ticket, torn seasons ago at the turnstiles, ketchup-stained and folded in a jar where I keep the most personal memorabilia. All is not lost. It really did happen:

Tottenham Hotspur 3, Sunderland 2 (December 2nd, 2005)

Scorers: Whitehead, Mido, Keane, Le Tallec and a late winner by Carrick.

Thursday, 9 December 2010


Close in on me, move away soon.
Another mouth from a movie.

No heart has beaten me freer
Than the written word.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Sandwich Board

When and where to use when or where,
That old writer's hocus pocus.

On a sandwich board, the whole city.
Smokily the font is thick and the News accented.

Why this partially public outpour?
severe delays, part closure,
planned closure, severe delays

So there are literary features happening,
Un-umbrella'd pissed-ons perusing Newsagents,

The sandwich board is in prostate protest.
If I watch its plastic black limbs and paper body,
The early summers come back and pester.
There the world is an outdoor one, barbeque prised.
A sandwich board beside a picnic bench,
Where my father could be in cricket whites, 
Nursing a Young's Bitter, and
When his children--
A trinity of newly discovered planets--
Buried themselves in chips and Choc Ice.

Here is a sandwich board outside London Victoria,
And on this sandwich board, the whole city.

It's a film prop, the purpose in a New Yorker.
It's a stool, a music stool:
Its lyric of Breaking News self-snared, flip-flapped,
It is in the musicality of wind.

Where a Silk Cut sausage-rolls itself out of flame
At a rain-puddle
A ringtone came, and

When you rang, wrung
The words from me as if the poem
Were a spiracle
For your breathing,
Where and when the blog, for no fault of trying,
Gave itself up, said I AM A FUTURELESS AQUARIUM,

The language became the news, darkly blue in salt water.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Let Me In (2010)

Above: Lina Leandersson & Kare Hedebrant in Let The Right One In, 2008. Below: Chloe Moretz & Kodi Smit-McPhee in Let Me In, 2010.


(Dir. Matt Reeves, 2010)

The first two blunders in Let Me In occur before the opening sequence has even finished:

1) Making changes to the narrative (of Let The Right One In) for the sake of nothing else but change.

2) Shouting at everyone that this is now about the United States of America - by pistol-starting with evangelists, with an epic orchestral score, and with a glaringly propped TV blaring out a patriotic speech made by a former President.

Let Me In is Matt Reeves's certain remake of the very special, uncertain Let The Right One In (2008). Both films borrowed their stories from Lindqvist's airportly novel about a girl-vampire's friendship with first her elderly helper, and later his replacement: a boy who is bullied at school and is struggling at the latch of puberty. The action has moved from Stockholm to New Mexico. Self-preservation is the challenge facing Eli (now Abby) and Oskar (now Owen), who must overcome the threats posed by their impulses and those of their enemies. What they don't have to deal with on screen is mortality, the Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart crisis. And not even prodigy actors Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass) or Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) can make this film fly. The faintly sketched community, the need for one genre only, and even the emptied significance of the snow, make for a missable, wet thug of a movie. All the androgyny and irony in Let The Right One In has been subject to bloodsucking. Reeves transports the impressive terror of his Cloverfield to a wholly foreign project, without a second thought.

There is no real pain, loneliness or consolation detectable in Moretz and Smit-McPhee's behaviour. Probably their talents are let down by a contender for most unnecessary adapted screenplay in history. If this were a TV movie, it would be worth flicking channels during each scene of dialogue. Never creepy, because it is never allowed to sit still and scare, Let Me In is another contradictory product of recession cinema; culture cannot afford the collapse of the movie industry, yet pointless remakes such as this one demand violent reviewing. The computer improvements on the climbing and killing skills of a vampire, and on the abruptness of fire, are cheap resorts to satisfy. From ten minutes in I wanted out, and for the world to go back to Thomas Alfredson's beautiful reimagination of a bland book.

The author Salman Rushdie has sought to debunk the mythical law that books are better than their screen adaptations. I wonder if he has read and seen Let The Right One In - a fragile conch of storytelling, an intimacy polished by a second pair of hands, but colonised and crushed in a third grip. This book to film to film-remake process is time consuming. Rarely is great art found crushed on either side by disappointment.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. 

"To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless--of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer. That you are here--that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse."

"That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"

The Social Network (2010)

* * * *

(Dir. David Fincher, 2010)

Some day Jesse Eisenberg will win an Oscar; precocious yet again, the twenty seven year-old deserves a nomination for his star turn in David Fincher's The Social Network. Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland) is Mark Zuckerberg, the overwrought and disputed creator of Facebook. From a meeting room where lawyers and Harvard rivals are resolving a crisis of plagiarism, the film's lense abreacts the hard work, genius and ugly social cortex that founded Facebook.

There is a problem right away since, at first thought, a movie about the making of any website promises little entertainment, comedy or tragedy. However the event (the creation) is invaluable to so many people whether they would like to admit it or not. Just type a few words into a search engine to collect the precipitated ironies - status-updates, pages, blogs, groups and their diary plans each determined to celebrate this film. In Zuckerberg, The Social Network makes an artist out of the computer-geek stereotype. The scene where Bill Gates delivers a speech to Harvard undergrads - Zuckerberg, part of the student crowd - is submerged in transcendence and greatness, avoiding the normal flaccid description of what constitutes inspiration. At his best, Eisenberg acts alert and exhausted moments as impressively as Ben Whishaw's John Keats (Bright Star, 2009) or Sam Riley's Ian Curtis (Control, 2007). Any breaking good news about Facebook has Zuckerberg rocking to sleep in the daylight, before the flutes of champagne reappear, the desktops restart and his brainstorming resumes.

If the argument is won by the end of the film, Zuckeberg hasn't moved a social muscle. Fincher flies the flag for his subject (and Zuckerberg has reciprocated, saying his portrayal by Eisenberg was "really cool"). When the idea takes off, he is advised but never herded by Sean Parker, the creator of the music piracy service, Napster, and a role comfortably acted by Justin Timberlake. Partisan for sure, but nonetheless objective. For objectivity is really an unerring search for truth.

The truth is that an overrated, failed romance between young people is what prompted Facebook, the social networking site which IDs and advertises our intimacy. This season there is a movie able to keep surprising its audience without borrowing the language of Halloween or of the Hollywood zeitgeist, against whom this is a small victory.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Danny Murphy The Brave

Every football fan in England knows what a head-bandaged Terry Butcher looks like.

The brave old English slogan is boring and, at least, ought to be, synonymous with kick-and-rush failure. Grudge and self-entitlement in England, from beach football to World Cup competitions, is embarrassingly enduring. It has been said before that the dad on the touchline, who discourages his son from experimenting with the ball, is as much to blame for our international shortcomings as any scapegoated manager.

If Danny Murphy's recent comments inspire any debate, then it must be about the physical nature of the Premiership and every league beneath it. BBC football writer, Phil McNulty, restricted his response to tackles-and-injuries, failing to see the bigger picture: what the culture of watching and playing football really amounts to in this country. After all, Murphy did refer to the role played by the manager - the tactician and the motivator - in all of this. It is not impossible to watch both a leaderly and pretty midfield; just observe Di Matteo's West Brom or Poyet's Brighton and Hove Albion; or remember when elite luxuries were commanded by Petit, Butt and Hamann; then treat yourself to a book on the emergence of passing football from Scotland in the 1870s to Vienna to the River Plate. There is a common good for any standard or epoch that will prevail in what is a global game. Mistimed lunges, whatever the unknowable motivation of the perpetrator, are unacceptable and in too many cases unforgivable. What I am not arguing is that only homegrown players are culpable. But what has to be destroyed is the widespread masochistic assumption that we'll give the grit and they'll bring the flair.

The Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper, Paul Robinson, described Murphy's opinion as "irrelevant". Apart from the obvious relevance - we know flung studs have wrecked careers before football became a full-time profession - violent tackling is clearly this autumn's hot topic. In recent months, Ryan Shawcross, Lee Cattermole, Nigel De Jong, Karl Henry and Jack Wilshere have all been guilty, either of grievous bodily harm or of misinterpreting the speed of their working environment, their deadlines as it were. A player who has learned is John Obi Mikel, the Chelsea and Nigerian midfield player. We no longer wince or roar at his defensive interventions: he has already done his job by being in the right place at the right time, keeping shape. Mikel doesn't do Gerrard anymore: if deployed as a central midfielder, he doesn't find himself negligently out of position, forced to scamper across the pitch and throw himself into a tackle to the misguided applause of Anfield or Wembley crowds. The principal culprit for Clint Dempsey's equaliser in Rustenburg was not Robert Green but the Liverpool captain, who could not stop the American turn as slowly as a clock hand, twice, and get his shot away. 

"You get managers sending teams out to stop other sides from playing, which is happening more and more. Stoke, Blackburn and Wolves, you can say they’re doing what they can to win the game, but the fact is that the managers are sending the players out so pumped up that inevitably there are going to be problems. The thing I think people miss is that it’s the managers who dictate what the players do and how they behave. If you have a manager in control of his team, who doesn’t allow these things to go on you have a more disciplined team.”

These were the well considered comments of an honest midfielder who has probably suffered from his nationality; I pity fans who do not think England would have retained possession and passed more penetratingly had such a playmaker made the cut for South Africa. Murphy is a signature, big-match performer. He scored for Liverpool against Manchester United in three one-nil victories in four seasons. And then there's his punditry, invariably smart, and it should be acknowledged with real alarm that Jamie Redknapp, Alan Shearer and Martin Keown are currently the official megaphones for our ex-players.

If Murphy made any mistake it was in naming three clubs: he should have named more. He can be proud, as publicly as he likes, of sharing responsibility for making Craven Cottage comely as well as homely. Fulham are an established Premiership club who can compete in Europe. They thrive on elegant, athletic football and a fine disciplinary record (1st last season, 3rd so far in 2010/11). This campaign, Blackpool and West Brom are not dissimilar. And then there are Stoke, Wolves, Blackburn, Bolton and Sunderland, probably more, who go on as ugly alternatives. Which is to say that people pay a lot of money to go and watch them kick opponents and scavenge for the second ball. However hard or conjectured it is to deconstruct the national game, where we can begin to catch up with superior cultures is off the ball. This way trickery on it does not mean putting bones at risk. Lengthy suspensions and fines for clubs will curb recklessness. It would be a breakthrough if more influential institutions than the FA, such as Opta and Sky, could publish and discuss data about dangerous tackling in relation to stylistic approach. We need to be factually clear.

During Blackpool vs. Mancester City on Ford Super Sunday, Andy Gray yet again revealed his inner coward. After a mistimed but harmless tackle, he sneered that this would get "the usual reprobates whinging". Hopefully the likes of Dean Ashton and Eduardo, the desecrated and the damaged, were not listening. And how I am happy for Ronaldo, the finest Brazilian forward in my two and a half decades, poorly protected by referees, who doesn't speak English and who wouldn't believe his hears if he could.

Danny Murphy is a fine example to young viewers and players. His comments evinced a bravery more important and more interesting than any Terry Butcher or John Terry self-portrait.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Classic Review: A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

* * * * *

(Dir. Kim Ji-Woon, 2003)

When does a person die?

What is most disturbing about Kim Ji-Woon's masterwork is surely the Freudian question, recently put by Nicholas Royle at the Brighton book launch for his debut novel Quilt. Quilt is the venerable academic's take on the death of a parent: a trampoline of words and symbols springs its narrator into a new height of breathing. Here, 'past' and 'present' lose significance. Here, humid illusion threatens to prevail. In A Tale of Two Sisters, a step-daughter struggles in this same air. There are the old devices of horror at work - the dead and the sick demanding attention via a seething piano. This time, the smallness of beauty preceding the climaxes is not played out in some pseudo White House in the Hamptons. On a film set in rural South Korea, audio-visual horror finds a cultural serenity all the more frightening to upset.
We begin at the psychiatrist’s table. The protagonist, Su-mi, is non-responsive and phantom-like. She is living in the past to carry on another person's life - that of her sister. Her malady - we realise later that this is severe dissociative identity disorder - is of casual concern compared with what she has lost. If we have figured it out in the first ten minutes, this doesn't spoil the movie. From the talkative psychiatrist and the catatonic Su-mi, we spring to an overhead shot of Su-mi and her little sister, lying above a lake, their shoes removed in pairs. As soon as we learn the sisters' mother has died, the tale begins and belongs to Su-Mi. Everything takes place in the house they are growing up within. Everything emotional is sincere, though nothing in the plot is remotely trustworthy.

Su-mi, fearful for her sister, believes that their new step-mother is guilty of child abuse. Su-mi's behaviour is curious and calculated, loaded with sexual jealousy, dispelling the Romantic myth that children are by nature innocent. One morning Su-mi wakes up from a nightmare to find her sister has begun her period. The step-mother finds this funny because she too has her period. The motif of bloodied bed-sheets is hardly original but it becomes essential in stitching together this episodic film. Run through a gentle landscape in South Korea, it is the red of fertility and familial blood that gives grace to Ji-Woon's gore. The step-mother is an imposter, but is it rather the case that she stands in the way of Su-mi's idealism? The usurpation of the mother by the daughter has been postponed. Time is all over the place; blood, ubiquitous and pungent.

The genre chosen is apposite. A Tale of Two Sisters is, among other things, about the limp, delicate role of women who are utterly domesticated. Su-mi smashes the idea of role playing, bent on protecting her sister from terror. The step-mother is constantly made-up and washing or preparing food, the pitiable father intellectually rejects his feminine household, the screenplay is notebook-thin and yet silence in this film can not be underdescribed as lingering.

Inspired by a myth originating in Korea, or what used to be Josean Dynasty, A Tale of Two Sisters was in 2003 the sixth attempt by film makers to do justice to this sinister folktale. It is so far the most successful; standing as the highest grossing film in the history of South Korean cinema, it won at the 2004 International Fantasy Film Awards but was snubbed, typically, by the Academy (last year it were Michael Haneke and Jacques Audiard's turns at empty-handed genius, for The White Ribbon and A Prophet respectively).

Kim Kap-su and Im Soo Jung were cast as father and daughter, and the actors fulfilled their contracts as if resolving some real life trauma. Yeom Jong-Ahn, as the step-mother, did a kind of Clytemnestra terribly well. As psychological thrillers and horrors go, this is cruelly honest: it goes down as the scariest I have encountered. For better or worse in our dreams, A Tale of Two Sisters is a resident desire.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Say When Once

New post,
I know these blocks of writing are flammable.

If I have no other choice but to write,
Where can I go but into house fires?
What can I emerge with, appearing from the smoke,
Except receipts?
Or the wallet you gave me,
Unstitching, indigent;
One flippant poem tucked behind points cards.

I open and close the wallet you gave me.
There are no possibilities,
Say when once I woke up on a school holiday morning,
And nobody else was in,
And plans stretched out over parks,
Into the back gardens of girls.

Whether or not I buy drink,
Dust puffs.

Slither. Shed skin. Slither along the same
Entries, you do, without penetrating.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

2010/11 Premiership Year: some Essaying, some Crude Predictions (Vol. IV. Tottenham Hotspur)

When the aircraft carrying Rafael van der Vaart touched down on September 2nd in the year 2010, it did so in a country where the advanced playmaker (or midfield-striker) role could never be the same again. Arjen Robben disapproved publically of the transfer: van der Vaart could have moved to yet another sovereign club in European football, Bayern Munich, having previously worn the colours of Ajax and Real Madrid. Robben went on to say that his Dutch teammate is as fine a player as Lampard, Gerrard or Fabregas, and that there is now no gap between Spurs and Arsenal. Don't think he wasn't being sincere. Perhaps a maturing Arsenal was the wrong choice of club; United or City would have made for more reasonable comparisons on paper. Perhaps he should have left it at Gerrard and Lampard and not mentioned Cesc Fabregas. What is important is that these are not flippant comments made by a braggart who had lost his marbles at Soccer City (where, almost two months before, Iker Casillas had denied the winger everlasting fame). On that July evening, as the best moment in Andres Iniesta's life happened, van der Vaart was wearing the captain's armband of a nation tortured by World Cup Final defeats, but blessed by some of the greatest attacking footballers the world has ever seen: Johans Cruyff and Neeskens, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Kiki Musampa, Dennis Bergkamp and Wesley Sneijder.

Having suffered a brief spell clothing Darren Bent, the Tottenham Hotspur no.10 shirt has returned to the dressing room peg of Robbie Keane, talent-asphyxiated though he may be. Despite this outrage, there are now three Lilywhites who, according at least to book-writer Richard Williams's demands in his prescious history, Perfect 10, could pass oaths unto those same sacred digits at the very highest level. If Bert Bliss, Les Allen, Jimmy Greaves, Hoddle, Gascoigne and Sheringham could recite every blade of White Hart Lane grass like lighthouse keepers blessed with ball skills, so now can 6. Tom Huddlestone, 14. Luka Modric (Jonathan Wilson's definition of "the modern playmaker" in world football) and already the new Dutch signing who wears 11. Warming the bench is another capable Croat, Niko Kranjcar. These playmakers are determined to establish Tottenham Hotspur as an elite club in the new decade, and not just for themselves, but because they evidently enjoy playing to the mores of The Glory Game. It might, at last, be worth Hunter Davies writing a sequel.

There is, as of now, no ostensibly world class riposte to Rooney, Drogba or Fabregas on the Tottenham squad list. Gomes, King and Gallas at their fittest and best might dispute this. So might Hollywood left winger Gareth Bale and his three poetic playmakers. Realistically however, Spurs are unable to challenge seriously for the most prestigous prizes. There are also two flaws that could stop them from maintaining their place in the top four: Redknapp is striker-lite and tactically obtuse in both 'big' and 'small' fixtures. Neither Defoe nor Crouch - Arry's Pompey lads - has ever claimed an England shirt as his own; that of a boring and frivolous major tournament team. Their partnership is primitive, big man / small man stuff, hardworking and unpleasant for ordinary defenders but unlikely to intimidate managers who boast Rooney, Drogba, Torres, Tevez and Van Persie. One up top will suit the wanderer, van der Vaart. It is an increasingly important tactical assumption, especially away from home and in Europe. Earlier this year though, Pavlyuchenko and Defoe intelligently moved Chelsea and Arsenal into defeat within the space of four days to guide Tottenham into the Champions League. They showed that, as mobile and skilled distractions in the final third, 4-4-2 can still threaten the titans of the game, whether coming up against a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-2-3-1.

However we now know there is nothing the Russian can do to atone for, well, whatever it is he had done wrong. Focused and upbeat every warm up, a fan's favourite in every stand, a proven goalscorer when it matters. In all competitions, he has scored for Spurs at a rate of 0.40 goals per game, Defoe at 0.40, Crouch at 0.35. And unlike his peers, Pavlyuchenko has had to get used to the speed of the Premiership, too often starved of opportunities. His most crucial goals include the first in Reknapp's tenure against Bolton, dragging Spurs away from the relegation mire in October 2008; there after arbitrarily ostracised, coming on to net twice against Wigan at the DW last season. He has scored the two most significant (rescue) goals of the 2010/11 campaign so far; a spectacular strike in Switzerland against Young Boys and, after losing at home againt Wigan, the delicate goal against Wolves that ensured Spurs their first league win of the season at White Hart Lane. His omission when there is no superior striker at the club - especially when Defoe is injured - can not be explained in footballing terms. Recruitment nightmares Rebrov, Postiga and Rasiak are distant memories. Perhaps it is too much to ask for the amelioration of the current caliber (Europa League / top half of the Premiership table) of strikers. Prioritising Pavlyuchenko every week is something Redknapp can do.

A more devastating truth about Harry Redknapp the tactician reveals itself to the football reader. It was Assou Ekotto's absence during the African Cup of Nations which forced Redknapp to play Bale. Then when Bale had impressed and Assou Ekotto had returned, Redknapp was had no other choice but to play Modric in his best position (central) and Bale filled in the gap at left midfield. Later still it was Palacios's suspension that allowed Huddlestone to establish a partnership with Luka Modric. Tottenham fans have benefited from an unwatched soap opera of tactical accidents: this does not happen at every club. And so shame on those who defend the boss for saying to the giggling media "What could I have done? That sort of thing happens every weekend on Hackney Marshes", or that a manager "in the Conference could do my job" or that football is "90% players, 10% tactics", or for transforming Tottenham's Sky Sports page into a permanent advert for his family. Which isn't just to say, "I didn't see it", but to go further and disagree, like some hyperventilating creationist, with empirical - video - evidence. 

Sylvie van der Vaart has all her aesthetic convincing still to do: when Rafael spins and finds an immaculate pass (into space, not to feet), or tests the brawn of gloves and goal nets, his artistry is more beautiful than any photogenic model. Closer to Penelope and Odysseus than Posh and Becks, the van der Vaarts are radiant symbols of Tottenham Hostpur Football Club's culture; about which Maradonna once described, "it's like playing at home." In my lifetime of Klinsmann, Ginola, Berbatov and van der Vaart, a trip down memory lane proffers, to varying degrees of consistency and grace, the surviving truth and beauty of the game. The associated failures are so nineties: a teamsheet televised in Champions League font, soundtracked by Handel - "Die Meister / Die Besten / Les grandes Équipes / The Champions!" - is entertaining reward for attacking football and clever business strategy.

Predicted finish: 3rd, though if you like, you can dismiss this blogger's integrity by skimming over Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion or simply by reading the web address above. I call it reasoned wish-thinking: Spurs are a tactician and a world class striker short, but will climb above United and remain in the way of City - both rivals have realistic European glory to fly to later in the season, and their best players are either retiring, injured, off-form or do not know one another

Best signing: Rafael van der Vaart. I won't say Gallas

You Tubed / Football Manager wonderkid: Football Manager has been charitable to Spurs over the years. South African alcoholic Mbuelo Mabizela became the Thuram of the noughties. Tomas Pekhart, the Czech Alan Shearer. This year, be sure to follow Dean Parret and John Bostock on loan, who really are promising midfield teenagers

Flop: Robbie Keane, whose four goals at home against Burnley last season should not have justified retaining his services. Expect a lot of whinging (and diving)

Player of the Season: Tom Huddlestone who - by his continued absence from England squads - has become a symbol of everything wrong with the national football team. At sixteen, the pass master completed nine GCSEs (six at B, three at C) while playing for Derby County. He is now an established first team player and sometimes captain of a Champions League outfit. His style has been likened by various pundits to Beckenbauer, Hoddle and Xabi Alonso. Huddlestone is into football, not kick-and-rush; clipping, not hoofing; humbling, not whoring

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Expendables (2010)

* *

(Dir. Sylvester Stallone, 2010)

It often happens that a scroll of end credits begins its earthward reel and I know I’ll never see that movie again. In The Expendables, an island and some islanders get blown up; ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin is bald and wrestles for a while, and the veiny ventriloquist, Sylvester Stallone, mumbles his way through another silly flick. Stallone directs and acts. Neither effort is commendable. He might look like a gruesome elderly porn star but he is actually playing a noble protagonist - the leader of a veteran, baddy-bashing syndicate.

Much like in The A Team, its rival swab of action, the rag-and-bone mercenaries are kitted out with devastating arms and catchphrase brains. They include Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Randy Couture and Terry Crews. In the other corner, on a fictional island in the Gulf of Mexico, a tyrant known as General Garza is backed by tycoon Eric Roberts and thugs, Gary Daniels and Steve Austin. The Expendables must put a stop to this American-sponsored totalitarianism at once. A sub plot develops and Stallone, pitying the General's comely daughter, becomes desperate to rescue her. In hardly the most unusual role for a black actor in Hollywood, Crews - a former NFL athlete - has fun with a gun. He basks, after mutilating a single-file queue of enemy soldiers with a futuristic toy: “You betta remember this at Christmas!” Sad but entertaining.

I don’t remember much from the script (how can you?) but I laughed a few times. With John McClane, 'Rocky' and 'Stone Cold' essentially making appearances, this movie - much like Travolta's From Paris With Love earlier this year - is leftover fast-food for the starving. Schwarzenegger, Willis and Stallone meeting in a Church to talk with their balls is nostalgic, if not exactly cool. One hopes there is an honest hopelessness in the making of the aforementioned scenes; that The Expendables revels in irony and rebels against severity.

The fight scenes are a let down. Stallone should be disappointed for not making the most of the martial experience of Daniels, Lundgren, Li, Austin and Mickey Rourke among others. The only significant cut belongs to Rourke, and to no person's surprise. His professional duties are to counsel and tattoo Stallone. Sitting in his dim parlour, his giant features trembling and filling the screen, Rourke remembers a war in a monologue that gives us a glimpse of a better film.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Arsenal 4 (aet)

Arsenal strolled into the fourth round of the Carling Cup this evening, winning away at bitter rivals Spurs after extra time. The game was preceded by a minute's applause for Bobby Smith* which both sets of supporters respected. The away pocket continued to make noise throughout the 120 minutes. This is the loudest I can remember Arsenal - a club reputed for its quiescent support - at White Hart Lane. They cherished tonight's Carling Cup victory and sang, without irony, of going to Wembley. The surrounding home faithful responded to their thrashing in bedlam or tight-lipped shame.

Wenger, serving a touchline ban, went 4-2-3-1 as is now customary for Arsenal. A welcomely aggressive Wilshere continued to impress in a deeply born, darting midfield role next to incomer Denilson; Henri Lansbury, flanked by Rosicky and Nasri, worked higher up the pitch to support Carlos Vela. Of the several no.10s on display in red, Lansbury impressed as the most predatory, by getting on the end of a cross which sped across the face of the Spurs goal - a cross worthy of the chalkboard-messy, passing move it completed.

Harry Redknapp, not as up to speed with the sport as his counterpart, fielded a Venables Christmas tree: 4-3-2-1. Arsenal broke its branches at ease, isolating a Russian angel. Palacios, Jake Livermore and Brazilian debutant Sandro started without discipline (and so the ball) in midfield. They couldn't cope with the coherent haranguing by Densilson and Wilshere among others. Livermore - thankful Parret and Bostock are out on loan - struggled to express himself. Sandro made more of an impact and managed some critical interceptions and wily dribbles. Palacios quickly became Arsenal's best player, a phantom capable of illicit tackling. The whimsical David Bentley and Vela's international teammate Dos Santos were inverse but narrow wingers. Pavlyuchenko, up front, looked very alone. With no other options he fired shots from distance that were skyward or blocked. Arsenal did not have to move up a gear. Despite humiliating Spurs with the ball, the visitors could only force one shot inside the box before the interval. Bassong and Caulker defended resolutely.

1-0 down at half time, Redknapp brought on Aaron Lennon and Robbie Keane - whose determined movement and pressing were rewarded by a goal. An awkward finish - what we have come to expect from the Irishman - pattered from the edge of the box to Fabianski's left. The goalkeeper has a habit of making blunders against Spurs in the Carling Cup and let the ball squirm through his gloves. Shot-stopping is not normally the flaw of an Arsenal goalkeeper: Almunia will know his immediate future is secure. Only recently, Harry Redknapp told us in The Sun that football is 10% tactics, 90% players. Tactless but talented, Spurs dominated approximately 10% of this match. Thirteen minutes after conceding the equaliser Arsenal reimposed their style: Vela came close on the hour but couldn't net with his head. Before the (first) final whistle Vela, Denilson, Wilshere, Djourou, Eboue and substitute Chamakh all threatened Pletikosa's goal. Meanwhile Lennon, put off by a recovering Koscielny, spawned a straightforward opportunity to nobody's surprise.

Niko Kranjcar was withdrawn from the lineup close to kick off, and then perplexingly came on as a substitue for Sandro in extra time when the score was 1-1. This meant that for 90 minutes against a world class passing outfit in a North London derby, Redknapp burdened Sandro with the sole responsibility of playmakership for his first game in England, let alone Europe. The onus was never going to fall on the industrious types, Livermore or Palacios.

In extra time two clumsy challenges - first by Bassong and then three minutes later by Caulker - saw Nasri convert two penalties. After Spurs right back Kyle Naughton conceded a foul and fell asleep, Arshavin was through, into the box and finished with aplomb. Once Nasri had cleared off the line, Fabianski saved a close-range effort by Keane and the game ended 4-1, Arsenal's biggest win at White Hart Lane in 32 years.

Arsenal's familiarity and cohesion meant they were the opposite football team to a raw and miscommunicative Spurs. Arsenal's greater number of first team regulars making appearances also ensured they were comfortable. What won them the match though was a program of passing Spurs were unable to better or rebuff. If an attacking team are drawn in a Cup against Arsenal, then assured and interdependent passers must play. Kick and rush football will not suffice. The two teams shared possession at 50% each. But having shot twice as much as Spurs, shot twice as much on target as Spurs, and having committed half as many fouls, the superiority of Arsenal's passing culture in Tottenham's own half is impossible to get away from. Without Tom Huddlestone, control becomes something of a myth in the Spurs midfield. The absences of Modric and Van der Vaart are explicable but did not help. Tonight for Tottenham, it was a defence and midfield of strangers. And yet without Cesc Fabregas, the enemy is still well-prepared and idiosyncratic, home or away. The gap remains but it would be a lie to say only one team in North London has improved in 2010. Neutrals will savour a Premiership derby if Huddlestone, Modric and Van der Vaart confront Song, Wilshere and Fabregas.

Player Ratings

Pletikosa - 6
Naughton - 3
Caulker - 6
Bassong - 6
Assou Ekotto - 5
Palacios - 4
Livermore - 4 (Lennon - 6)
Sandro - 7 (Kranjcar - 5)
Dos Santos - 6 (Keane - 7)
Bentley - 5
Pavlyuchenko - 6

Fabianski - 5
Eboue - 7
Squillaci - 7
Koscielny - 7
Gibbs - 8 (Clichy - 6)
Denilson - 8
Wilshere - 9
Rosicky - 7 (Arshavin - 8)
Lansbury - 8
Nasri - 8
Vela - 6 (Chamakh - 7)

*Smith, a conventional no.9, top scored in Tottenham Hostspur's greatest ever team, the 'Double' winners of 1960/61.

The achievment might have been repeated the following year had it not been for the distraction of Europe and Alf Ramsey's ruthless Ipswisch Town. Spurs were knocked out in the semi finals of the '62 European Cup by Benfica, but Smith scored in both legs. He also scored in both of the FA Cup finals he played in when Spurs triumphed in '61 and '64. In '62 he became a Cup Winners Cup champion. He also represented Chelsea and Brighton & Hove Albion, retiring from professional football with an admirable goalscoring record: 218 in 376 club appearances; 13 in 15 for England. Bobby Smith passed away yesterday, aged 77.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Going South West

In the headlights of an old banger, signs for Sussex are seldom, and strips of white are all the time peeling and unpeeling before my eyes. I stick to my lane. The A23 is swallowing me toward a stomach. Here I will trade boringness for butterflies. I am slipping into Brighton; job hunting, reading, writing. It gives me great pleasure to say “the hope of this journey is filling in for gravity.” The Viking horn of impatient Land Rovers, the Sat Nav magnate, the dickheads on my tail: none of you shall stop me from moving on with my life slowly. My reason is inexpensive but hardworking. Haven’t you noticed the sweat high up on my face, or coruscating on bristles where my chest used to heave as if I were wretched? Man-made superstition and His pamphleteers gave it their best shot. Have you ever been cursed by superstition? Billions live this way. The billionaires, the broke.

The dawn is done. Here I cross football fields to shop for groceries. If sea air is the thing, I don’t go so far.

I carry on down the motorway’s throat, accelerating a little until my iPod shuffles too far to the left and ‘Karma Police’ is ready and waiting for drums, and Radiohead really mean it this time. I'm driving in a scene eerily resembling the music video for this same song, and it’s a matter of minutes before I have to wind down the volume and inundate entire lyrics. THIS IS WHAT YOU GET. This Is What You Get. This is what you get when you.... Disturbed by silence I turn the volume up too soon, ‘Karma Police’ hasn’t finished. I have to pull over, take a sip of Mountain Dew, check my complexion in the head mirror, deselect Shuffle and play something by The Searchers because Thom Yorke’s vocals are kites repeating their billows, inventorying my past: I lost myself. For a minute there, I lost myself. At the scene's end, the photography is awesome. I burn up in influence, my ashes reek of anxiety.

Dusk is over. Here I cross football fields to find love or something. And when I find the rubbery switch on my torch, I wrist-flick another headlight in swirls around the centre-circle and then I stretch my arm downwards, like a detective, rolling a lambency all across the halfway line. (A child trying to draw a circle, a man interested in diameter.) Sea air is the thing tonight. I imagine a congregation of women and men on the stony beaches. A thinning snare when high heels come off and the drunk find a rhythm to swash to. Everybody smells their fingers in the morning, has lost loose change, is looking roughly into the future.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

2010/11 Premiership Year: some Essaying, some Crude Predictions (Vol. III. Manchester United)

Manchester United's gianthood in the Football League is renowned whether you're fascinated by the sport or unlettered in the offside rule. 1990/91 was the last time a Sir Alex Ferguson team finished outside of the top three. Two decades of dominance include two Champions League titles, eleven League titles, seven Cup and four League Cup wins.

In an era where tactics can be described and analysed by using graphs and statistics, but where managers are still steretoyped as Wengerian romantics or Allardycian wrestlers, Sir Alex Ferguson's flexibility is undertalked. His success can be loosely divided into three tactical epochs: first came the support-striker, Eric Cantona, as the centre of the universe, then the two bags of four (the glory midfield) where British width shone, and later and now, the ball-winner and the five-a-side team in front, topped by a talisman. In each system, there existed a flat back four. Even Dennis Irwin and Patrice Evra, for all their productivity up the pitch, were faithful to shape and line. Now this defence is neither a long term nor a work-in-progress unit. It consists of raw (the Da Silva brothers) and retiring (Neville) full backs, unfit or out-of-sort centrebacks (Ferdinand / Vidic / Evans / Brown) and, sometimes, central midfielders filling in there. Selling, voluntarily or not, the now most valuable centre back in world football - the 23-year old Gerard Pique - is worth crying over. Further up the pitch, the midfield is a non-veteran, world class talent short of being taken seriously alongside Barca, Inter, Bayern, Real and, at least on paper, four Premiership rivals. For this reason, the new season will be yet another test of Ferguson's resolve who, perhaps worryingly, is turning sixty-nine in December. It would be charitable to describe the near future of boardroom, players and customers as precarious.

If Ferguson inspires reverence and confidence in his squad, the same can be said of one of the modern game’s great goalkeepers, Edwin Van der Sar. The Dutch stopper turns forty next month. He's one trivial injury or serious mistake from his last game. In the small margins of a thirty-eight game campaign, in-goal is where Manchester United have been evidently stronger than their title rivals in recent seasons. Certainly since Chelsea’s Petr Cech suffered that horrific head injury, and the grossly underrated sweeper Jens Lehmann was released by Arsenal. In midfield, Scholes and Giggs, still match winners, must wane. Carrick's confidence comes and goes but having not found a replacement for Paul Scholes’s playmakership, the veteran is still the only trusted registra in the big games: meticulous on the ball, his work of leathering the long pass and watercolouring the short lends to Pirlo, the new Spaniards, or for want of a home-grown analogy, well, perhaps only a blushing Tom Huddlestone is beginning to show signs. Here is where the imagination of competitors like Fabregas, Denilson, Modric, Van der Vaart and Huddlestone could punish United over the distance of the fixture list. It's not just the killer ball, but the one into space to begin an attack, which matters. This is where Chelsea have excelled, which is no surprise considering Carlo Ancelotti was himself the pivot of Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan: Gli Immortali.

There is a pattern emerging here. Like a racing car preparing to pit stop, those most intrigued - or most involved emotionally - are wondering when, even if it feels like never. United are dependant on several playing and non-playing staff who can no longer be considered as anything other than short term assets. Less of a serious concern, but no less of an encumbering bereavement, is captain Gary Neville, the outstanding right-sided defender in England since the dissolution of the half back and, later, the wing back. But in 2010 he finds his career in full circle; just a brave boy amongst men, slow and small and ordinary, Neville would be considered a stultification were it not for his infectious courage. Might then Rafael learn to concentrate in a flat back four and avoid season-suicidal mistakes such as his red-card foul in April against Bayern? Will Wes Brown be healthy? Can John O’Shea perform for a whole season in one position? Having to ask a total of three questions - this before Ferdinand’s fitness, Evra’s recovery from disgrace, Vidic’s form and Jonny Evans’s naivety - is petrifying for the United fan. Manchester United are, as with any serious team, most vulnerable when unfamiliarity disharmonizes the defence. Losing Bruce & Pallister and later Stam & Johnsen took time and pushed trophies away. So too did the varying absences of Van der Sar, Ferdinand and Vidic last season.

Then there’s Michael Owen, a player who, if not on legs, is at least running on a pair of reputations - the crocked has-been or the worldly goalscorer. Neither of these are really truths: Owen has never reached twenty league goals in a season and, thirty years old, his patriotic off-the-last-shoulder act is a modern defender’s dream. In each twenty-five man squad, shoulders are stronger, feet are faster, and players who are weak as well as unimaginative stand little chance. In his masterpiece of football scholarship, Inverting The Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson argues - to my judgement, correctly - that the game played at the highest level has left behind this one-dimensional species of striker. The book has been available for two years and three Premierships seasons, in which time, and for much longer, Michael Owen has neither proved a no.10 nor a no.7 worthy of a world famous football club.

It is because of the arrogance of the new Chelsea idolaters, and also the hegemony of articles and TV shows where hucksters pat one another on the back for announcing cliches as dumb as The Makelele Role: It was Makelele who invented that role, sitting in front of the back four, winning the ball, that the professional defensive midfielder has been misunderstood in recent years, or maybe forever on these shores. Darren Fletcher possesses the stamina, medals and whiny guile that deserve comparison with Makelele but are in truth closer to a more disciplined but less gifted Souness or McKay. Working in their favour in the final third (better put for Manchester United as the counter-attacking length of the pitch) Ferguson is blessed by the improvisational genius of Nani, a player capable of winning any match on the planet on his day. Moving on, it would be unfair to curtail praise for Park and Valencia to work rate: Valencia rivals Walcott and Lennon for any of talent, directness or end-product, and as we saw in Group B at the World Cup, when space and the ball and the South Korean skipper are at one, spectators should get up off their seats.

Wayne Rooney also plays for Manchester United. It may be said that the club's season - future even - depends on his fitness and goal return.

For those whose only religious experiences are located in football, then the true story of Ferguson and his disciples (or apostles or sheep) is certainly one of the more sickeningly addictive. Here are logical, determined footballers who will stand, move and do exactly where and what a logical and determined manager demands of them. Leading this pack are old or damaged legs for whom the bell is readying to toll. How long can this keep on? It’s suspicion and not superstition that Old Trafford Saturdays are becoming threatened by. The chapter is approaching its final paragraph - a time when nervous officials and dugout barbarism will matter no more. It will take considerable fortune - in both senses of the word - to win that dreamy twentieth league title.

Predicted finish: 4th - a habit of twenty years broken, but who is to say Rooney won't score United back to major trophies?

Best signing: Javier Hernandez - 22, £6-8 million wisely paid for before a World Cup where he showed tremendous promise and now boasts an international record of ten goals in eighteen games

Youtubed / Football Manager wonderkid: Federico Macheda is still only nineteen years of age. Hernandez has to adapt, Berbatov has to be unreliable and Owen is obsolete. The Italian shouldn't be forgotten

Flop: Neil Young once wrote "It's better to burn out than to fade away". I see Van der Sar fading away

Player of the Season: The BBC and Sky will make annual love to Ryan Giggs in the Spring, but Darren Fletcher in an increasingly dull United team is a more just proposition

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


I'm in trunks, bearded, on a sun bed a metre from the deep end, facing it, when a freckled British toddler points and says "Mummy, that man has a book." He might be five, six. He holds his mother's hand, a paw. She - youngish, hot - smiles in big sunglasses. "Yes, George, well done." The afternoon and the pool are both clear: I can make out sand and sunken jewellery ready for somebody. George and his mother are approaching the tiles where a Peroni is in danger. The mother, upbeat in her role as my stranger, asks "So what is he reading then George?" And the boy is afraid to look because he know that I'm just as curious as he is, and he glances embarrssedly at the cover and his answer is incorrect. "The Santa Verses." We each laugh politely, for different reasons. But the mood changes when the boy, not quite out of earshot, asks "Mummy, why is the man not with anyone?" This is the moment it gets hard for me because I'm reminded of what is really happening on this holiday.

I go in when the sun goes in, a Disney towel over my shoulder, flip flops on and pair of goggles remembered - elastic rubber over a wrist, lenses in a palm. When I enter my bedroom - a single or double depending on solitude or bed size - I whirl round and lock the door and when I undress and step into a cubicle and shower it hurts. The faucet points and powers, finding sunburn. I apply old hotel-stolen lotions - shower gel, shampoo, conditioner - preparing but not hoping for somebody, and I think about what went on here four years ago when I was eighteen. A lyric receives song in my brain, smothers me, gets me thinking Is my timing that flawed?

At night we (this incomplete family) go out where it's very happening for a while. Wearing a bowler hat I'm hiding my hair in, I make an excuse after mains and leave for another friendly bar where I drink Peroni and smoke down Camels without company. A cover artist is covering Baby Can I Hold You Tonight? for a clumsy teenage couple: a blonde boy twirls a blonde girl in rainbow beams of spotlight which forgive them their flaws, make them famous, bind them. Watching on, some mothers are pushing prams back and forth. Everybody is dancing enough.

The morning is beginning when I stumble out of a cab and into the villa, possibly waking up my parents. They shouldn't be disturbed at dawn. In my room the air con is breathing but so is somebody else because there are two perfumes under the sheets. An ex of mine is speaking slowly, telling me I've gone blind, that I've become a monster:

"Your eye sockets have wasted, sealed over. They look and taste like cream, the cream of this villa, the off milk I told you not to drink, the yoghurt you eat opposite your mother at lunch when you don't have a job and she does."

Burning starts. I can feel lenses in my palm, eyesight in the wrong body part. In my makeshift leg there is a pain I don't want to describe or maybe it's that I can't. And if I have lost sight, somewhere along the way, how then can I picture fully the persons and the fires bringing me to blog? I look down the bed or I imagine looking down the bed at this ex of mine: she is pregnant with a boy who will be ashamed of his genes. And as I move a hand and leave it draped over a bump, we are still under the sheets, this incomplete family. The last thing I remember her doing is kissing my mouth, biting her bottom lip and saying "Sssshhh. Close your eyes. Close the book. Close your eyes. Sssshhh."

Thursday, 19 August 2010

(Single Review) City Reign: Making Plans

(Car Boot Records, 2010)

Making Plans is the debut single by soon-to-be-signed foursome, City Reign. The songwriters, Chris Bull and immaculate guitarist Michael Grice, have promulgated a successful pre-sale campaign on Facebook and MySpace that has already seen over 100 copies shifted on Ebay. The official release date for Making Plans on iTunes is September 27.

Vocalist and lyricist Bull was educated in the same classrooms as Marcus Mumford and Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons, as well as Matt Owens of Noah and the Whale, in Wimbledon, also the hometown of songstress Laura Marling. City Reign do not belong to the new folk scene and, forming in Manchester, their sound is firmer or rougher: the skeleton of the songs is milked by the artist's name. Where better to start your confession of influence and ambition? Making Plans doesn't stop in the northwest. Sometimes gutteral, sometimes nasal, the vocals power-slide from a grown-up Liam Gallagher to early Green Day. It's the sort of song in which disturbing loneliness becomes consoling music: "As the rain drips from the mirror... There's noone else near... These thoughts... Why do they come and where do they go?" while a unity of unpanicking musicians makes for an infectious chrous.

Making Plans is fun, impressive, serious. This project prefers isolation, augmenting melodies and a compatible guitar solo. Since the suppression of the Brit Pop genre, the radio has been crackling out for some of its angry young men to properly articulate themselves. There is an old abbreviation I will never forget: K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple Stupid. Lottery artists wallowing in empty metaphors, in love with the banality of indie life, should pay heed. Our music - at its most honest and at its newest - comes out simple, catchy and repeatable. City Reign will find their work on such playlists.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

2010/11 Premiership Year: some Essaying, some Crude Predictions (Vol. II. Manchester City)


For fifteen years now, Manchester City FC have constantly been adjusting. Normally in football this is self-inflicted. City were the bad joke, not just of United, but of the Football League: relegated from the Premiership in 1996, then dropping into the third tier in 1997, not returning to the top flight until 2000. Paul Dickov's 1998 play-off winner is a quieter memory now. No longer can a British journeyman bring the blues to their feet. Not unless Shaun Wright Phillips scores an equally important goal this season. And this is unlikely. An even more emotional and historical moment occurred in 2003 when Maine Road closed for business and the City of Manchester Stadium opened; doubtless the first step-change in the club's ascent as a serious power. But this year's challenge of adjustment will be the most popularized and scrutinized by the media. A supreme test of patience for owners, star-players and fans-with-short-memories awaits.

After a summer when both the transfers in and transfers out columns have bloated with considerable talent, it could take a long time to complete yet another rebuilding process in Manchester. City's five rivals in the top six have blessed themselves with a core for consecutive seasons. Feeling the vertebrae of each, you will find one or more of a goalkeeper, a central defensive pairing and a vital midfield player who have demonstrated loyalty to, or been rewarded by, their club. (Van Der Sar, Ferdinand and Vidic, Fletcher, Scholes, Gomes, King and Dawson, Cech, Terry and Alex, Essien, Lampard, Almunia, Song, Fabregas, Reina, Mascherano, and Gerrard.) No names or partnerships feel permanent on the City teamsheet. To say that this impermanence is good in terms of competition for places is to miss the point. With a squad of players as gifted as any, Manchester City failed to take the battle for fourth to the final day of last season, and one wonders about togetherness, and how sooner it would have been decided if Lennon, Modric and Pavlyuchenko had played more football.

On the plus side, Yaya Toure will protect or replace the increasingly irrelevant Gareth Barry, while a returning Joe Hart could prove a more commanding goalkeeper than the brilliant-on-the-ground but shoddy-in-the-air, Shay Given. However the England No.1 might have to flourish just as much as he did at Birmingham. Dunne out for £5M, Lescott in for £22M was abonimable business. With yet another chopped and changed back four learning to communicate, Bridge possibly out and Kolarov in for £18M could prove even worse. Either zonal or man marking, and the offside trap, become backbreaking when there is no established, well led, defensive unit.

Worse still is the death of the creator. Mancini seems determined to stub out the fire of 4-2-3-1 and brick-up with a 4-3-2-1, fielding three pachyderms in Yaya Toure, Barry and De Jong. So out wide then, and amazingly, Craig Bellamy has been loaned out to Cardiff with the aforementioned Wright Phillips an apparent starter. The shift away from the advanced playmaker was reflected in the decision to sell the Match of the Day luxury player, Stephen Ireland. But if City really are title-challengers, it is asking a lot of Milner to immediately prove himself in such a team, and of World Cup winner David Silva to shrug off his ironically poor form in South Africa, not to mention the pace and dirt and bodily harm he will experience when the DW, the Reebok, the Britannia and Ewood Park beckon. In four seasons with the great David Villa, Silva managed to assist only 8 of his 101 goals. But Silva was instrumental when Valencia were at their most dangerous. Despite just dipping his toes in the water of the Premiership, Silva's passing chalkboard for Saturday's opener against Spurs illustrates how his movement influences play across, and not just up, the pitch. You could perform a comparative study with Dempsey or Modric or Rosicky for instance. Only, we know that Silva is either less injury-prone or statistically superior to any of the above, and with the added validation of the most important sports medals on the planet in his new home.

The Premiership's previous genius-winging imports, Pires (Arsenal's invincibles) and Ginola (Newcastle's better years), were freed by risk-assessing (Wenger) and risk-taking (Keegan) managers. But Silva might be burdened by training and match routines. He is not to be confused with central incisors Xavi, Iniesta or Fabregas, nor with the stuff of strikers; Torres or even the deeper-working Villa. No, Silva must feel obliged to move laterally and, like the aforementioned Sky / Premiership Frenchmen, eat up the pockets of grass that open up in the final third. This is going to take weeks, perhaps months. But we are living in a time in which David Silva is driven and flown around England to play football. If managed properly, and supported by a more able footballer than Wright Phillips, Silva will become an open box of gold, rewarding the workmanship of the midfield and Carlos Tevez. A relatively small portion - a single purchase - of City's spending then, should make them more watchable and more prolific, and hasten their sprint to silverware.

Predicted finish: 5th - A Springtime surge proves too little too late. Europa League is a marathon City might muscle their way through. Thursday nights, Channel Five

Best signing: Yaya Toure - 27, £24M from Barcelona, presence and time on the ball. Terrifying opponent with an immaculate pass completion record. Kolo's more relevant brother is a Nou Camp midfielder (probably) worth £200,000 a week

Youtubed / Football Manager wonderkid: there's no point. Or does grumpy kid, Mario Balotelli, count?

Flop: Every rotated defender

Player of the Season: Joe Hart. Who might also break into PFA team of the season. A goalkeeper with everything

Thursday, 12 August 2010

England in Half an Hour: Boring Irony, Sad Nutshell

 Captain Steven Gerrard rolled back the years - and no it isn't too early in his career to opt for such a phrase - when he decided tonight's game in typically English style: individually. You can be forgiven for thinking a sports piece beginning Captain Steven Gerrard promises something eulogic. Our twenty-four hour news culture is so insistent on such a disgrace of a football team, tactic, selection, pitch and institution, that patriotism has been replaced by mock-patriotism. The pictures from half an hour of England's 2-1 comeback-win against Hungary in a friendly at Wembley are proof that we, as a collective audience, our now way past denial. It is easier tonight to laugh than to sneer, and to resort to superstition. To pray to Pele, Cruyff, Maradonna, Messi and the rest of the football deities, that some of the young, talented un-English footballers - Tom Huddlestone, Jack Rodwell, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Lennon, Adam Johnson and Wayne Rooney - will one day get their chance to blend in an un-English formation.

Have you ever seen a player celebrate a goal in as meaningless a game with so much passion? I do not doubt Steven Gerrard's sincerity: it is difficult to care either way. So it was a moment of enjoyable symbolism when in the 69th minute, Wembley's atrocious turf bobbled up a ball to fall perfectly onto Gerrard's laces who equalised splendidly from twenty five yards. A ruthless hit saw the captain running over to celebrate in front of the faithful as if he had just salvaged a World Cup knock-out match by the scruff of its neck. Four minutes later, Gerrard wrapped things up, inside the box, with an even better goal. Although after his first touch Gerrard didn't seem to know where the ball had gone, and although the surrounding defenders were, with respect, non-sequitors, the captain recovered brilliantly, retaining control and shimmying to the left before angling the ball home with a push of his inside-right.

Meanwhile the party broadcaster, Clive Tyldesley, was doing his utmost to beat the the player-rating drum - a particularly disgusting trait in primitive football culture, which elevates the parts above the more pressing issues of the preparation and communication of the sum: what friendlies are for. In fact less than a friendly, a pre-season friendly. ITV analysis and camera (work?) hemmed in on Michael Dawson who, after some clumsy defending in the 62nd minute expected from a player short of match-fitness, recovered with a last-ditch goal-line clearance. The ball was judged wrongly by officials - also short of match fitness - to have crossed the line, despite replays showing otherwise (... no, I don't have the time).

In the shared Cyclops eye of manager, media and Wembley member, we can safely presume that after tonight's flirtations the hierarchy will be re-established, albeit without Beckham. And yet no serious thinking person could possibly suggest John Terry has been a better defender than Michael Dawson in the last eighteen months (a very long time in football). Brave JT will be lauded once more as the ever-dependable stopper. According to 2009/10 Opta averages, Terry and Dawson are presently the two best central defenders in the Premiership. But where Terry's shambolics have been shrouded by the riches north, west, east and south of the positions he takes up, Dawson is not as blessed. There is a heavier burden on the shoulders of the latter. There are younger if similar legs working, and a (clear) conscience upstairs. Tyldesley, seemingly shaken, praised Dawson's Spurs form but couldn't help himself from underlining with sinister tone of voice, the word "club". This even though substitute Dawson hadn't yet completed his first forty five minutes in an England defence.

Instead of condescension, what we might have received was an explanation. That Dawson is, against weaker opposition, more vulnerable than against similar-quality or superior opposition. (Exactly what England is missing.) When his teammates are camped so high up the pitch, controlling a game, Dawson's sometimes heavy feet are food for counter attack. Any interactive chalkboard demonstrating his passing or interception accuracy from the bottom third of the pitch will vindicate. Sadly a mistake in a home pre-season friendly against Hungary might cost England's best, fit, centre half further opportunity. Over the top, or untrusting? Not at all. Never forget the only recently, many promising or proven players (the likes of Kirkland, Winterburn, Bould, Bruce, Carragher, Jenas, Redknapp, McManaman, Le Tissier, Wright, Fowler, Andy Cole) who for different reasons - be it technical, tactical, physical conditioning or psychological - were either miscoached, mismanaged or unpardonably ignored. This time the manager is Italian, you say. But Fabio Capello hails recognisably from a footballing nation equally lost in the past, and losing even more in the present. What Capello can not do with a group of fully grown men is drill into their cognition the resolve which has helped the Azurri to four World Cups.

Perhaps it is cowardly to mock the international game and its press, since our domestic top-tier is never short of a fluent passing team or two, an enterprising No.10 or dozen. Since CONMEBOL and La Liga fixtures are so readily available on television, and since youtube-sponsored compilations are now our daily bread. We are spoilt by the beautiful game. Nonetheless, cowardice can become courage when solutions are this readily available and measurable. One vitriolic fan was shown getting off his seat in order to hand-gesture at the camera: Four Four Two. This is so funny that no satirist could improve on ITV's footage. And when he was taken off after being persistently booed (presumably for his lack of form in South Africa where he was fatigued and being played in a system alien to that at United) Rooney's sarcastic wave around the stadium, to his credit, was certainly more watchable than the embarrassing post-Algeria remarks. One of the world's finest lone strikers in a formation acknowledged the world over, his actions speak louder than his words. Ferguson, Wenger and the rest of the league's perceptive managers must treat these ludicrous occasions like two-star Hollywood comedies. The international friendly fixture is as missable as a film on a fiery date. Still, there might be a couple of punchlines to savour for a couple of hours; in this instance, a belated brace.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Gatti-Ward I (18th May 2002)


Arturo Gatti is a swivel globe, the axis a sword.
His opponent, Mickey Ward, is a Massachusetts bear
Of Irish stock; a spited clock
Reacting and resolving with a second, a third hand.

The referee will not stop the fight.

This is fast inswing and brave batsmanship,
Total football unto total football,
A championship putt
In stanzas, rosy and honest, of fucking hit him.

The only chinnies are ringside,
Whose jaw bones thud soft air.

The referee will not stop the fight.

It's fists for consonants: predator Gatti
led by his prey into the wind-howling vowels
Hoarsed by media. The ropes bend.

Another one hundred and eighty seconds fall
Without a fighter.
In each pocket, symmetrical as on a school blazer,
A team works to patch up the openings of each head.
Trainers tell lies to rally and tally true blows.

These really are parents whose families are at stake.
Who could look away now, get up for a piss,
Stop panting?

The referee will not stop the fight.

And in the ninth round,
Ward and Gatti become wolves with arms.
The moon is neither half nor full:
Dieted desires are writing Nature.

The referee will not stop the fight.

Faces - unrecognisable - meet in the tenth
Before the last bell in the world rings. 

Ward wins this time: an ending impossible to give away
Since this isn't the point.

When the primitive and the technical collude,
Hats off, gloves - red gloves - on.

I am marked, and standing in the rain,
And Gatti has passed away, pattering
Into the nighttime of video memory.