Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Back In The UK

I've been away out of the country in my other (paying) guise as a telecommunications engineer. Lots of things I want to write about, but I haven't got time.

Briefly: Pierce is still the best man at City. I care not a bit of Lampard buggers off to Spain so long as Mourinho stays. The Premiership would be a sadder place without him. Calling a referee a 'son of a whore' is a compliment compared with some of things I've heard on the football pitch. Delighted for Blackburn to get through to the semi finals of the FA Cup, and the Champions League draw makes for an exciting few matches. Benitez's rotation policy is beginning to look extremely wise compared with United's run of injuries. And, finally, Wembley is now finished. I'm going to reserve any judgement until I've seen it and experienced the atmosphere at a full England international.

Anyway, good to be back in Blighty. That rich foreign food plays hell with my digestion.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Look here chaps, I’ve had a headache for two days, not all of which can be attributed to a hangover or the effects of the flu that kept me indoors over the weekend. I still think most of my splitting headache is what comes of watching the Liverpool - Barcelona match on a big screen. Luminous yellow is not a team strip. I say it’s an advantage.

I’ve thought this last year, watching them beat Chelsea. Chelsea’s blue strip must give them no advantage, assuming that it blends in well with the background colours. In contrast, no other team has such a high visibility strip as last year’s European champions. Has nobody asked if it’s totally within the rules of the game? Does nobody but one old football pundit think it’s much of an advantage?

Yet consider the facts. Teams are often forced to change strips to prevent too close a clash with their opponents. In the modern game with advertising forming so much of the background, some kits are certain to stand out better or worse. And surely the colour of a teammate’s shirt can give an advantage. Barcelona have a strip that ensures that any player can easily pinpoint his teammates. Even seen in the corner of their eye, they’d spot that bright yellow strip.

I’m not saying that they aren’t a team of great players but surely there has to be a limit to how bright a team’s strip is. Okay. Enough said. I’ve come out of my hangover long enough to type this and I can type no more. Now won’t somebody pass me the paracetamol?

Monday, March 05, 2007

Guns At Knifefights

There’s a well known warning against bringing a knife to a gunfight. I was reminded of this sagely advice twice over the weekend.

On the first occasion, Liverpool’s impotent strike force were made to look even more inadequate by a John O’Shea late goal that have a woeful Man Utd an underserved win at Anfield. The second time I thought about knives was yesterday when West Ham managed to defy all reason and lose a game in which they had gone in at half time with a 2-0 lead gifted to them by Carlos Tevez.

Everybody praises United for their play this year but what Alex Ferguson seems to have instilled into them is a mentality that breeds goals. Other teams pitch up with players who look sharp from front to back only to find their opposition getting down to understated business with the simplicity of the gun, or at least a hard right foot.

Menzies Campbell’s knife lost its blade about six months ago and he’s been searching for it under the bed, behind the sofa, and in his greenhouse where he was using it to prepare some trellis for this year’s runner beans. Or so it would seem. It is one of politic’s saddest sights to see the once able deputy struggling to even bring a knife to a knife fight. It again reminds me how much politics (like football) is a game won by strikers. The party has not shifted or changed that radically since Kennedy was in charge. No party can ever change its core beliefs that much, no matter how much David Cameron wants to suggest otherwise. Yet if the party has not changed, then it shows how much the public’s wish to vote for the Lib Dems was have been heavily invested in something as fickle as the leader.

Blair has a supreme right foot, and Cameron is showing that he can occasionally get one in the corner of the net. Like the Premiership season for Liverpool and West Ham, the future political landscape will be decided long before the Lib Dems see their way clear to buying themselves a proper centre forward.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Significance of the Insignificant

You know, chaps, football is a funny old game and I’ve been wearing the knee length socks for far too long to have me start believing all the hype.

The experts would have you believe that this weekend has been the most crucial of the season so far. United have supposedly made the Premiership title a certainty by beating Liverpool at Anfield. I’m not so sure. Big games rarely produce big results. The key results will come in the next few weeks as United play the smaller teams they are expected to beat. That's when we might see them falter. I can't help but suspect that it’s the mid-table teams that bring title-chasing teams down and it’s victories in games like their lucky victory at Fulham last week that will eventually decide United’s fate.

We should also look for other people’s fates in odd places. If the bells aren’t tolling for the government, then the bell ringer is spitting in his hands and preparing to pull his ropes. The government is hanging on by the thickness of an injunction, but I still don’t believe that something as big as a criminal proceeding will eventually bring them down. My instincts tell me that this government will be defeated from within, by those small shifts of power than go unperceived on the surface but eventually cause huge ructions in destabilising the body. Labour’s defeat will come from one of two places; either at the ballot box when an uncharismatic party leader fails to capture the imagination of the electorate, or from the old guard reasserting the values of old Labour. The Labour Party is full of too much tension to maintain any harmony for too long.

In politics as well as football, big results are usually found in insignificant places. Perhaps I’m wrong and this government will go down in flames within the week but I feel tonight that the really significant things are usually found in the insignificant and that neither of the Premierships can be considered over.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Brown Gets Blattered

Expectations continued to crumble as Arsenal fell to the luckwarm might of Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup last night. Arsenal have been my team of the season, playing expansive football that leaves the crowd breathless. Yet it’s not been about victories as much as it’s been about Wenger playing a long term strategic game.

Arsene Wenger must have read the old Arabic proverb about the blow that doesn’t kill you making you stronger. Each one of these failures helps to temper a side which already has fantastic resilience matched by penetrative play able to slice open the defences of any team. Occasionally they youngsters overplay the ball, try one of two touches too many when a more mature side would take the chance of a strike on goal. But every time Arsenal take to the field we have to set the game in a bigger context. They are a team of young players who are now learning to lose. In a year or two, they will have mastered winning and they will be unstoppable.

The same cannot be said for Gordon Brown who is weakened by each phase of this phony war. You can imagine how it made me smile to see Sepp Blatter in Downing Street yesterday, playing his usual spoiling tactics.

This time Blatter was downplaying England’s chances of hosting a World Cup in favour of more worthwhile nations like the USA and China. Blatter brings an intractable European quality to negotiations. He appears on the scene like an ogre set on smashing the English game with his club. Yesterday, it was Brown that felt the weight of the Blatter bash. Every day that Tony Blair remains in office, Brown’s magic is dissipated. He no longer looks like the shoe-in. Stronger candidates will emerge once a leadership campaign begins. We saw this with the Tories. We’ll see the same with Labour. And if you want to put money on who will win, there’s only one possible winner. Put your money on Blatter. He knows how to play real hardball politics.

Nobody plays cooler or meaner game than the current President of FIFA.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


As any professional footballer knows, when you reach your peak, you happen to be at your most vulnerable. When your body works at its optimum, you tend not to notice the small signs that should warn you to take care. You ignore the muscle tweaks that hint at something more serious in the future. And then, when your crowd roars you on, you make a turn just a little too quickly, you go over on your knee and your anterior ligament gives way. We call this hubris or excessive confidence in one’s own powers. You fly too close to the sun and your wings melt.

Teams can also suffer the same condition. They weaken once they begin to take their superiority for granted. History teaches us that it happens to all the great civilisations and that decadence is born in strength. We saw it last night after Manchester United put three past Reading within the first six minutes. It looked like it would be a drubbing in the classical sense. Only, the truism about our finding weakness in strength again came true. Reading dominated the rest of the match, making the Premiership’s top team look poorly organised and lacking discipline. The late introduction of Wayne Rooney and Cristian Ronaldo introduced a little structure into United’s formation and eventually won them the match, although not until Reading came close to equalising in the final minute with the ball coming back off the bar.

After the match, I finally got around to watching the first part of ‘Blair: The Inside Story’, Michael Cockerell's documentary about the Blair years. It too reminded me that we often fail because we succeed. It also reminded me that unlike Margaret Thatcher, whose fall from office came about through her own slow passage towards hubris, so much of what Blair has done (and failed to do) came about because he appeared and acted invulnerable from the very moment he entered Downing Street. With Blair, the messianic swagger that we all now notice and mock was once less comic and far more interesting than it has become. It left him prone to the most enormous gaffs, such as the Millennium Dome project.

In John Major’s plan, the Dome was originally meant to be little more than a trade show; a new version of the Great Exhibition, showing the world the strength and variety of British Industry. Blair, the popularist politician, had to change it into an event ‘for the people’. He had the common touch and knew what people wanted. Or so he thought. The eventual failure of the Dome was rooted in the success of a Prime Minister confident in his own powers. Blair flew too close to the sun and even if his wings didn’t melt completely, they sagged considerably.

What Cockerell's documentary reminded me was that Blair is the Manchester United of politicians, displaying glimpses of greatness and ordinariness in equal measure. This is nowhere more apparent in the moments when Cockerell presents Blair as the male version of the late Princess of Wales. He captured the mood of the moment, conveying the despair of the nation, and yet this moment of perceived sincerity only led him to other acts seen as crass, manipulated, and glib. The shy looks to camera, his belief in his contact with ordinary people, the claim that ‘I’m a stand up guy’: Blair craved justification almost as much as Diana craved the acknowledgement that she was the wronged woman. He relied too heavily on the performance of personality over the performance of policy. Diana too became the victim of her own success, whether it was her increasing alienated within thHubrise royal family because of her popular appeal, or making high speed chases through Paris because of the demands of the media that obsessed over her.

Cockerell presented those early years of Blair’s government in terms that I can only put into footballing terms. Even moreso than Man Utd, Tony Blair’s governments resemble the pantomime of Real Madrid. So often it has had the chance to do something very great, only to end in the mundane bickering of enormous egos. It also convinced me that football may be a wonderful guide to the theory of hubris but for its practical application you have to look to the politicians among whom Tony Blair is its master practitioner.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Down Days

These are the down days, the days between games when players train and pundits wander the streets, bother the homeless, pester the vagrant, and look for something to do.

They kicked me out of the library this morning when I got into an argument about video technology with a bundle of rags that smelled vaguely of marker pens. Inside them was wrapped a drunken swine who wouldn’t accept that it would break up the flow of the game. I had to teach him a lesson or two with a hardback edition of the Rules of Association Football and that's when they decided to invite me to leave the library.

Drink, occasional violence, and disorderly conduct are getting old. I’ve considered taking up some more vices but vice seems to be on the way out among those in the know. Abstinence is the new drug. I’m thinking of taking it up in a serious way. I want to get seriously abstinent, despairingly sober, and decadently clean. The only way to go in the current climate is to be depraved in your abstinence. Those who want to give up the most excessive lifestyles do so excessively. Britney Spears has demanded the whole wing of her rehab clinic, which is undoubtedly the kind of behaviour that got her in there in the first place. Heather Mills McCartney is also giving up disability, or that’s according to some disabled-rights campaigners here in the UK. Because she’s stomping around the dance floor for some American TV show they argue that she must be able bodied. Well I can’t dance, does this make me disabled? If it does, I should look to give it up immediately by learning to dance.

Which has nothing to do with football and even less to do with politics.

But these are the down days and I’m going to see if I can sneak back into the library this afternoon.