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.

Friday, 6 August 2010

2010/11 Premiership Year: some Essaying, some Crude Predictions (Vol. I. Liverpool)



Of all the uncertain futures in the Barclays Premiership, the crystal ball is cloudiest for Liverpool FC. For so many reasons. Some - the fiscal - can be left to the fiscal people in this decisive fortnight.

Here are some on-the-pitch questions. Can Roy Hodgson resuscitate his captain: match-winner and most frequent and faithful badge-kisser this century? Can he convince Mascherano and (contract-bound) Reina, insuperable in their roles on these shores, to stay? And what of the No.9's fitness, or the stale careers of Lucas and Ryan Babel, portraits of stunted player-growth? Another unwritten story is that of Alberto Aquilani. With greater tactical freedom and more playing time, this season could be his, but only if Mascherano or A.N. Other as disciplined, as stamina-spoiled and as hardened, is bulwarking in the centre circle.

Despite the sale of Benayoun, there is a through-ball of hope in the hole. With 53 goals and 26 assists in 423 career appearances, Joe Cole is a footballer who owes his career-statistics - the science of his CV - a jackpot season. An explanation comes in the form of another stat, researched by BBC's Andrew Ornstein:

"Cole made only 28 league starts in his final two seasons at Chelsea, was on the pitch for only 10,613 of the 23,940 Premier League minutes the Blues played in his seven years at Stamford Bridge and has started one England match since 2008."

Fit, and a handful of goals & assists more prolific, then the advanced playmaker could make several points difference come May '11. It is no spectacular if, considering an enviable managerial appointment. A genuine educator in the game, unafraid to quote sports literature or records so that he might explain himself on camera, football is grateful for Roy Hodgson. Putting affection to one side, he has earned his opportunity. Like Japan-conquering Wenger, Hodgson is a travelled footballing intellect, having won the Danish and Swedish leagues, and led a then modest Inter Milan to a Uefa Cup Final. He is proud of what he has achieved. Back in March, 2002, in an article titled 'Art of being a good manager doesn't just disappear', Hodgson told The Independent:

"The football that Bob Houghton and I brought to Sweden between 1974 and 1979 fashioned the whole of Swedish success ever since."

The Wenger in Hodgson ought, chronologically, to be the Hodgson in Wenger, the inevitable fragment in the bigger picture: the evolution of football management. His learning curve is conspicuous, his disappointing time at Blackburn in the nineties not a regret but a necessary puncture. And so another knife edge is prescient, but if we can forget the monetary nightmares for a moment, and the supporters who reacted to Benitez's sack as if this logical decision had beckoned apocalypse, then Anfield could be in for a romantic autumn after all.

Losing one of football's greatest one-off-match managers must never have felt so, if ever before, good. Benitez triumphed famously in Istanbul and Cardiff, guided Liverpool to their highest league finish, of 2nd, in nineteen years, and achieved more in three seasons in the Champions League than Ferguson had in twelve (during one of which Benitez was busy winning the trophy with Valencia). Nonetheless the failures in the transfer market (seventeen right backs in five years), and the unhealthy pastime of drawing matches, simply happened. Expect Hodgson's interviews to be less boringly sardonic, more insightful, less prey to Ferguson's mind games, more graceful and approachable for those in and around the football club employing him. Interviews are not, of course, the material from which we should draw our conclusions about football managers. But interviews can mean more than the snippet-stuff of Sky Sports News and tabloid drop-quotes. Hodgson is in many ways the opposite to his predecessor - under-decorated as a major-club medalist, terse with his resources and even better with his words.

The transition from Fulham to Liverpool could never have been more smooth in the histories of each club: Craven Cottage and Anfield are now comparable - in terms of results - as home ground havens. Last season, Liverpool finished 5th and Fulham 8th in the Home League Table, 8th and 15th Away. And in UEFA competition, the two clubs came within a game from facing each other in last season's Europa League final. Hodgson though, has swapped the banks of the Thames for the Mersey. This, in footballing terms, means that he will have to handle the burden of superiority and significant expectation by unprecedented means. With Liverpool and Everton, as in Manchester and as in North London this coming season, 2010/11 could be the closest the noisy neighbours have come in decades to the bragging rights football bestows during her summers off. While Fabregas's time in red-and-white is finite, Liverpool have had a season to get used to life without their brainy, Spanish passmaster: the artist, Xabi Alonso. However, affecting the game further up the pitch, a cockney could make the scousers sing loudly on Saturdays once more. 8. Gerrard. 9. Torres. 10. Cole. It's make or break year on Merseyside.

Predicted finish: 6th - a domestic cup, Hodgson a Kop hero, but Everton finish on the heels of their Torres-depleted (injuries or Roman Abramovich) rivals

Best signing: Milan Jovanovic - 29, Free from Standard Liege, a lively inverse winger able to turn-give-go, to find pockets of space. Capable of wearing down or cutting open the opposition, is the Serbian international Liverpool's answer to Park Ji-Sung?

Youtubed / Football Manager wonderkid: still, Daniel Pacheco, but the slow tearing off of the prodigy label is something Liverpool supporters know a thing or two about; Anthony Le Tallec, Igor Biscan, Emanuel Insua, Lucas Leiva... sticky shreds of paper under the nails.

Flop: Steven Gerrard

Player of the season: Pepe Reina again - could be his last season at Anfield. Is there a better non-Spanish goalkeeper?

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Small Chat

I am a reptile moored on gelid, slopeless waters. (If you want to use gelid when you write, first look it up on "adj. Very cold; icy: gelid ocean waters". You can lift the example if it makes you happier)

I am a reptile moored on gelid waters. Today I travelled to a beautiful house, not a hundred yards from Richmond Park. I took my plate and my barbecue meat and at a table there were other guests. We are young adults. We trapped three busy wasps in upside down plastic cups. We small chatted. I watched each unknowing death (maybe the whole thing lasted an hour) as if I were feet-up on a private balcony, surveying three open-air rooms showing three different slide shows to three different audiences. It was samey. A lesson going in one ear and out the other. Everything on offer was tender and dressed and sauced and seasoned and fucking replenishing.

Today I've been out watching wasps dying in plastic cups. In the back of my mouth you'll find sick and tar and kisslessness.

Oxygenate me. Throw pink twats at my face. Feed me the wasps and their little coats of harp gold. I want to eat dispassion from dispassion. Peck at nausea. Gobble on ugliness. I am a reptile, I am cold-blooded, I want to dine with a woman.