Tag Archives: football

Corpses In Their Mouths

bbc commentary

By recent standards, the build up to this year’s World Cup was relatively low key. The national team’s abysmal showing at the last few tournaments, where the so-called golden generation were outplayed by the opposition and outshone by their own wives and girlfriends, resulted in a situation where both the media and the publics’ expectations were closely aligned to reality for once. The country at large seemed to accept the indisputable truth: England are a rubbish team and had absolutely no chance of winning the World Cup.

Which was fine, of course. Sanity looked like it might prevail and instead, we could all focus on enjoying the competition, spared of any national outpouring of jingoistic fervour and the self-indulgent cycle of chest beating, wailing and navel-gazing that greets every England tournament flop.

Unfortunately, the minute the squad touched down in Brazil, the old ‘World Cup fever’ quickly took hold and as a consequence, every good patriot felt obliged to re-assess the England team’s chances. The logic seemed to be that as England hadn’t done anything at previous tournaments as one of the favourites, perhaps they’d do better now they were relieved of that tag. A slightly flimsy pretence, perhaps – but one that many pundits and commentators were happy to run with. Sigh.

Cheerleader in chief was Adrian Chiles, doing his avuncular everyman schtick as ITV’s main anchor (yes, anchor). Chiles gets the gig, presumably, because focus groups and think tanks have reached the conclusion that of all potential candidates for the position, he’s the least likely to cause anyone great offence. He’s not posh enough to alienate the Sun readers and he’s not Northern enough to turn-off vast swathes of Middle England. Chiles is a human version of Marks and Spencer jeans. Completely non-threatening and minus controversy, he’s a Volvo estate driving at 69mph in the middle lane of the M6… tuned to Radio 2.

Alongside a revolving panel of 3 studio guests, Chiles’ main brief appeared to be ‘if in doubt, steer conversation back to England’. It didn’t matter what game was being previewed or what action we’d just witnessed, everything was geared towards shoehorning in references to ‘what Roy Hodgson might be thinking’ or ‘getting the latest from Gabriel Clarke at the England camp’ every 15 minutes.

To be fair to Chiles, he didn’t have an awful lot to work with. There must have been panic all-round when Roy Keane bailed from his duties on the eve of the tournament, leaving ITV woefully short in terms of actual personalities to pass comment on proceedings. Instead we were left with Glenn Hoddle, veering between complete nonsense and interminably dull recollections of France ’98, the ultra smug, charisma void that is Patrick Vieira and Fabio Cannavaro, on whom Chiles’ developed a painfully unfunny man crush that was duly referenced each time they appeared on screen together.

(Un)fortunately, Ian Wright had to return home after a week due to opportunist thieves/exasperated viewers breaking into his house and threatening his wife and children. I’m not condoning what was no doubt a horrific ordeal – although it did at least spare us a repeat of the lamentable spectacle of ‘Wrighty’ conducting live interviews with bemused, German surfers on Copacabana Beach…. “Yes! Copacabana Beach. This is hot! What’s your name, man?”

Listening to him amongst this bunch actually had the remarkable effect of making Lee Dixon seem both tolerable and knowledgable, though genuine salvation was to occur for ITV viewers during the second week of the tournament, following Martin O’Neill’s arrival. O’Neill is great – tetchy, inquisitive, and opinionated – it only took him about 5 minutes to upset the cosy bonhomie that was in place (even throughout an opening night bricking from Brazilian protesters). First O’Neill took offence to Chiles suggesting he might have cowered in defensive walls during his playing days, “I actually didn’t wear glasses when I played”, he explained – before reminding the sniggering Cannavaro and Vieira that he was the one on the panel with two European Cup winners’ medals. Have a look at his little outburst on YouTube, it was quality.

In Clarke Carlisle, ITV must have assumed they possessed the most boring co-commentator at the World Cup. That looked a shoe-in until the BBC, for England’s opening game versus Italy, decided to unleash Phil Neville on the viewing public. It was a mesmeric commentary debut from Neville, as his Bury monotone filled every millisecond of potential dead air with a non-stop stream of banalities. Actually, that’s a guess based on Phil’s twitter persona – because his voice was pitched at such a level, that it was difficult to make out any actual words. What was emitted wasn’t what could accurately be described as speech, it was more of a drone – reminiscent of a demoralised bumblebee, repeatedly crashing against the window pane of an otherwise silent, spare bedroom.

The BBC’s line-up is a mixture of familiar MOTD stalwarts (Lineker, Hansen, Lawrenson, Shearer) and a handful of newcomers (Lennon, Ferdinand, Henry, Seedorf and Juninho). Compared to the debacle of the last World Cup where the Beeb pundits seemed to revel in their collective cluelessness (“Seen much of Slovenia, Alan?”, “Haven’t a clue, Gary.”), they appeared to have arrived with a few pages of notes this time out, determined to at least give the impression of being well-informed.

Rio has given a decent account of himself so far, appearing genuinely enthused about the opportunity he’s been given and expertly straddling the fine line between capital bantz and serious analysis. Henry too is a natural at the punditry game – instead of guffawing at each cringeworthy Lineker pun, instead he’s taken to bowing his head – a gesture that manages to convey both his own embarrassment and a degree of pity for his colleague. Clarence Seedorf says very little and smiles a lot; Robbie Savage talks utter rubbish.

The biggest clown of the BBC crew has been Jonathan Pearce, who managed to make a complete tit of himself during France v Honduras. After Karim Benzema’s shot hit the post (wasn’t a goal) and was then spilled over the line by the goalkeeper (was a goal), Pearce was utterly befuddled by the resultant goal line technology replays. “THEY’VE CHANGED THEIR MIND!”, he bellowed, as the nation back home collectively began to wet themselves. “WHICH REPLAY ARE WE SUPPOSED TO BELIEVE?!”, he then implored, as Martin Keown quietly tried explaining that as there were two replays shown in sequence, perhaps it might be an idea to believe both of them.

Oh and the football? Yeah, it’s been goals and entertainment all round so far – the best World Cup in years. Fair play to the England team as well, and Steven Gerrard in particular, for delivering in terms of all our pre-tournament expectations for once. It’s about time.

Copyright Red News – June 2014

www.rednews.co.uk

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Demon Days

The recent derby was a textbook example of how completely and utterly miserable football can make us feel on occasion. A vintage case of go home, go to bed early, media blackout for 5 days and everything can just fuck the fucking fuck off. So due to having nothing positive to say about anything at present, this month’s column has been abandoned and we’ll instead acknowledge our current woes by wallowing in the 10 most depressing results of the last 30 years. I’ve thought long and hard about this selection – I considered putting in games from yesteryear but decided to keep it personal by only selecting games/results experienced myself. So tough shit, Bobby Stokes – you missed the cut.

Note: Some may baulk at the non-inclusion of, say, for instance, the Champions League final defeats to Barca. I’ve tried to keep it real and opted for games that triggered genuine doom. Of course I was gutted losing to Barca but it was no great surprise and there was no great mental hangover afterwards… these are the results that proved difficult to shake for weeks and months, not just a couple of days as was the case post Rome/Wembley.

Liverpool (Wembley) League Cup Final – (1-2) March 1983

norman

I wasn’t at this game, instead I listened to it on Radio 2 live radio commentary in my Gran’s front room – it was played at 3pm on a Saturday so wasn’t even on telly. All started very well with Norman’s opener before the Scousers equalised near the end and then won it via Ronnie Whelan’s curler in extra-time. I call still recall the sense of rage and injustice at the description of Grobbelaar’s outrageous assault on McQueen… unsurprisingly not punished due to the referee being George Courtney – not the last time we’d suffer at his hands. I cried after this. Tears. Proper tears.

Nottingham Forest (H) FA Cup QF – (0-1) March 1989

forest programme

This one gets the nod just ahead of McClair’s penalty miss at Arsenal that saw us dumped out of the FA Cup in the 5th round a year previously – heartbreaking at the time because it happened in the one season when McClair never missed. Again I wasn’t present and instead listened to this on the BBC world service as I was stuck in Northern Germany somewhere on a school exchange. It was horrendous. The family I stayed with had a massive Alsatian that crapped in my room and for tea we had cabbage and sausages every night. Another refereeing injustice here as well. Brian Hill he was called. Shithead.

Manchester City (A) – (1-5) September 1989

5-1

Early-season giddiness stemming from the acquisitions of Webb, Pallister and Ince, the proposed Knighton takeover and the opening day thrashing of Arsenal had been well and truly obliterated following 3 successive defeats which left United down in 16th place by mid-September. Nevertheless, we’d spanked Millwall 5-1 the week before so there was some grounds for optimism as we headed to Maine Road – City were below us having only won one game all season. What followed was as baffling as it was depressing. United missed numerous chances and despite being on the defensive for much of the game, the 5 chances City had all went in. Mercifully, it was the last thing they had to celebrate for the next 2 decades.

Liverpool (A) – (0-2) April 1992

anfield 92

I recall queuing for 7 hours one Sunday morning to get a ticket for this. What had all season long promised to be a title winning party instead turned out to be a truly harrowing afternoon. In reality, all Liverpool did was confirm the inevitable with Leeds having stumbled past Sheffield United earlier in the day. A sequence of 3 miserable results in just 5 days had already killed off United’s hopes – a draw at Luton, the bank holiday Monday defeat at home to Forest and then Kenny Brown’s goal at West Ham. It was official, we really would never win the league.

West Ham United (A) – (1-1) May 1995

west ham

This was another killer. It began as a case of ‘more hope than expectation’ but as the afternoon developed there was the gradual realisation that Blackburn were indeed in the process of bottling it and a winner at Upton Park would give a United a 3rd successive title. Following McClair’s timely equaliser and despite over half an hour of bombardment of the West Ham penalty area, it just wouldn’t fucking go in. A timid showing in the FA Cup final a week later merely heightened the gloom

Fenerbahce (H) Champs League Group Stage – (0-1) October 1996

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

This one hurt. Really hurt. The end of a the 50 year unbeaten home record in Europe and we lost it to Fenerbahce… who were absolutely shite and could barely believe their luck. United were on a shocking run at the time (we’d just lost 5-0 at Newcastle and 6-3 at Southampton) but there’s no way we should have lost this game – it just seemed so careless. A 50 year unbeaten home record surrendered to Fenerbahce of all people. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juve, Milan, Ajax… that would be understandable – not like losing to this rabble. Big sulk after this one.

Borussia Dortmund (H) Champs League SF – (0-1) April 1997

dortmund

Having scraped through the group stages following Eric and Schmeichels’ masterclass in Vienna and then battered Porto… arguably the best team left in the tournament other than Juventus – only Dortmund stood between United and a place in the final. It really looked like it was on too, especially after coming away from the 1st leg in Germany unlucky to have suffered a single goal defeat. The overriding (admittedly naive) feeling was they were very beatable and would crumble under pressure at OT. Sadly, as we were to experience numerous times in subsequent years, it’s rarely that simple. Despite battering Dortmund and creating countless chances, they scored early and somehow kept United at bay. What’s worse, the then imperious Juventus suffered a rare off-day in the final and the unfancied Germans beat them easily.

Manchester City (H) – (1-2) February 2008

6-1

The 50th anniversary of Munich game, an occasion everyone connected with the club had been looking forward to for months. An opportunity to provide a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives in the crash, given even more of an emotional charge due to the fact City would be providing the opposition. It was sure to be a day to remember and as anticipated, there was one team that seemed overcome with the sense of occasion that day. Unfortunately it was United.

Manchester City (H) – (1-6) October 2011

divs

I saw what was happening here and fled the scene with 10 minutes to go, just after Fletcher had made it 3-1. Unfortunately it soon got worse. Much worse. After getting out of a cab on Deansgate, a mate and I took refuge in the Cornerhouse bar as it seemed the safest bet not to contain anything or anybody football-related. We then drank in abject silence whilst I mentally debated the best way of getting home without seeing any blues – a tricky prospect when you live in Stockport. An absolutely sickening day, but still doesn’t compare with what we’d experience at the end of the season.

Sunderland (A) – (1-0) May 2012

sunderland

Or more to the point, Manchester City vs Queens Park Rangers (3-2) May 2012. The most recent and still the most painful. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever get over the gut-wrenching feeling of that last 5 minutes. Ever. Not being dramatic, either – I genuinely mean it. As much as anything it’s the knowledge we were *that* close to inflicting on them something that would have eclipsed all the previous cock-ups that have littered their history – them losing the league from that position would have topped the lot. They had scarves printed already, out on sale in the open on Market Street the week previously. How wonderful would it have been to have got hold of one of them? The fuckers would have never lived it down. There’s all that, plus the certain knowledge that no matter how long we carry on ‘doing’ football, we’ll never be able to inflict the same amount of pain on them. Sorry, but it’s true.

Bastards.

Copyright Red News – October 2013

www.rednews.co.uk

So Long, Farewell

Sir Alex Ferguson

Despite enjoying a close relationship with Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson for the last 26 years, I only actually met him just the once. This was after the home derby at the close of the 1990/91 season (the game in which Ryan Giggs scored his first United goal, fact fans – though he clearly never got a touch) at one of those supporters’ club functions they used to have at OT. This was back in the days before the club took the decision to spare the players such ordeals, and thus there remains almost no opportunities for local fans and players to mix socially – unless you are fortunate enough to stumble upon one spewing up outside a casino at 6am.

Held in one of the exec lounges a couple of hours after the game, it was a bit of a grim affair to be honest – like a night at the Phoenix Club overseen by Keith Fane instead of Jerry St Clair. You got chicken and chips in a plastic basket, there was a pay bar that was happy to serve me without ID and that ‘I’m so Excited, it’s Man United’ Tracy bird did a PA. The star turn was the appearance of the players, who as a group possessed all the charm and charisma of prison inmates on death row. They spent the evening reluctantly signing autographs and forcing smiles for photographs – all whilst slowly getting shitfaced and leering at any women who crossed their line of sight.

Alex Ferguson by contrast, was an absolute star. Whilst the players could barely conceal their displeasure at being obliged to spend a couple of hours with the great unwashed, Fergie worked the room like a total pro and had time for everyone. He listened intently as people crapped on endlessly in the way football supporters do and even made a point of seeking out and sitting down with a couple of elderly dudes who weren’t mobile enough to jostle in the scrum constantly surrounding him. It was impressive to witness. I mean he can’t have genuinely wanted to be there, he must have wanted to disappear off home like everyone else there in a professional capacity – but you’d never have guessed that watching him.

That was the closest I got to spending time with the bloke at close quarters, not exactly revelatory I know – just another recollection to put alongside the thousands upon thousands of others on record (most of which you’ve heard repeated again over the last month or so.) Even as a 17 year old kid he just struck me as the real deaI – genuine, statesmanlike… a leader of men and all that. I walked out of OT later that night thinking Clayton Blackmore and Lee Sharpe were a pair of dicks…but not Fergie, no. Fergie was a top boy, a boss.

That isn’t just my perception alone, it ties in with what many have said over the years. His compassion, his willingness to go that extra mile, his eye for the insignificant, smaller details that leave a lasting impression on people… all admirable traits that will continue to be repeated as people line up to eulogise the man. It’s doing him a disservice to simply pile platitude upon platitude, however – the relationship between Fergie and United fans was far more complex and multi-layered than to simply state he was a top bloke and everyone loved him unconditionally.

Like many patriarchal figures throughout history, Alex Ferguson was a complete pain in the arse at times. The endless, unfathomable tactical tinkering and rotation of line-ups; the brutal way in which ties with several legendary players were severed; the horse spunk episode; the u-turn in his attitude to the club’s sale; his treatment of anyone who dared to criticise or question his methods. It’s one thing possessing a stubborn streak, it’s kind-of a prerequisite for anyone hoping to thrive in a high-pressure management role. Fergie however – it’s not unfair to say – could be single-minded to the point of obnoxiousness.

I’m aware that by admitting to not being completely enamoured with every decision he ever made, I could be seen as guilty of gross insubordination in the eyes of many reds. Vast numbers of United fans were so in thrall to Ferguson that even his most irrational or (on face value) unhinged actions were accepted without question. That was in part due to his influence and power, yet also something of a genius trait he possesses – even if you don’t agree with him, time has shown that most people come round to his way of thinking eventually.

IMG_2275

Amongst the tributes paid over the last few weeks, it speaks volumes that so many one-time adversaries had nothing but kind words to say about the man. Beckham, Ruud, Jaap Stam, Paul Ince – ex-players who left the club under something of a cloud armed with justified grounds to hold lifetime grudges against their former boss… all full of genuine admiration and praise. Content to have played a part in the story and knowing any personal grievances they once held are now mere footnotes in something that turned out to be much bigger than any individual playing career.

The respect is still there because all sportsmen recognise that in order to reach the top, its an implicit fact that sacrifices have to be made and there are inevitable casualties along the way. Manager-player relationships are fleeting, mutually undertaken, marriages of convenience – once either party grows restless or the bad times start to outweigh the good it’s usually a signal to part ways. For sanity purposes, it’s probably helps not to dwell too much on the past.

Ferguson was ruthless when faced with such decisions. Utterly unsentimental, business was business and once you’d served your purpose or stepped out of line one too many times you were out of the door. He claimed to have mellowed over the years but there’s little evidence to suggest that was the case in reality – you only needed to note his final, parting shot at Wayne Rooney for evidence that Fergie was still relishing the battle even during his final week in charge.

His standards never slipped, despite at times, appearances to the contrary. From 2005-2007 it looked for all the world that he’d well and truly lost the plot. The squad was in such a mess that The Mirror’s habit of printing the club badge with a big crack down the middle seemed justified for once. The signings were shit, old favourites had departed and the whole club seemed to be on the downward spiral many predicted post-takeover. Yeah right… within 18 months we’d won back-to-back league titles and were champions of Europe again. Only the very stupid or very brave would risk declaring him ‘finished’ again after that.

Fergie leaves us having remodelled the club and completed the next phase of Sir Matt’s original vision – not just champions of England or Europe, champions of the world twice. Those victories in Tokyo and Yokohama are viewed as little more than trinkets to most people in this country at present, though with the rapid globalisation of the game I’ll be stunned if they don’t hold increased value in future years. He understood this whereas successive Liverpool managers had dismissed the fixture as a glorified friendly. Never mind, eh?

More valuable than trophies or titles, the greatest thing he leaves us with is memories. Rotterdam, Blackburn at home in ’93, Turin ’99, Barca, Moscow… 5 of the greatest nights of my life. I’ve spent countless hours cursing him over the years but now it’s all over… well I can only conclude that it’s been an absolute pleasure to have been present throughout. There was always a method in his madness. There’s no question about that.

Copyright Red News – June 2013

www.rednews.co.uk