Monday, 30 September 2013

All Quiet From The Moyesy Neighbours

Not that long ago my football-watching had become more jaded than an aside from Miranda Hart - but that was before the Premier League got interesting.

We've become used to the Champions League dog-fight. You know - the one in which wannabes still wallowing in increasingly distant past glories get all edgy about scraping into a Chumps League qualifier in a far-flung town where they still point at aeroplanes.

The usual suspects are: Arsenal (invariably successful), Tottenham (always deprived by a distracted manager and a side-order of listeria lasagne) and Liverpool - not exactly walking alone but certainly jogging some way back from everyone else.

Occasionally Everton might loom in the distance, defying the relative evils of a small squad and a lack of funds to quite possibly out-perform the others - and still finish 7th.

Now a quick - and undoubtedly premature - glance at the table reveals a great deal of optimism for the perennial scramblers.

Arsenal, pilloried after losing to Villa first-up, have clambered neatly to the peak like a crack squad of Sherpas. Good stuff they've played too. Ozil is a delight and Ramsey a revelation. Flamini has stiffened up the middle of the park too.

Tottenham have been mighty entertaining too, without really steamrollering anyone. Paulinho and Erikson are terrific players and optimism at White Hart Lane is growing almost as alarmingly as the AVB comb-over. (There's still something a tad unconvincing about the Villas-Boas fist-pump, mind you. It's a bit, well how can I put this without sounding cruel... it's a bit Tim Henman.)

And of course Liverpool look way sharper with more teeth in their attack now the ungrateful little (extremely talented) shit has returned to their front-line. Suarez looked good even if he was up against the Sunderland defence. UN resolutions get passed quicker than Carlos Cuellar.

This is of course good news. All three of these teams could win the League this season. The Gunners are still a worry given that they have centre-back pairing of headless chicken and bumbling beanpole. Spurs might be the better bet - the squad looks stronger. And Liverpool's good health will depend entirely on Sturridge's hamstrings and whether Suarez can remain vegetarian. It seems unthinkable that Luis will be available for selection for the rest of the season but if he is... hmmm.

Of course, none of these teams have been impeccable, it's just that the usual top tier have looked pretty bleeding average. For all Mourinho's personal swagger he can't half put a dull team onto a football pitch. Quite what Juan Mata has done to upset El Uno Especialo is beyond everyone. Perhaps it's those goals he creates and scores with such regularity.

Chelsea's best centre-forward is at Everton. And it'll be back to Ba after Torres's nonsensical sending-off. Then again the girls' playground assault on the thespian Vertonghen - 'I'll scratch your eyes out!' - was so demeaning that the great Jessie shouldn't have been on the park anyway.

Manchester City oscillate from the sublime to the preposterous. It's like complacency is inbuilt there now. A Benteke-less Villa were a piece of piss - until they weren't. And the post-match comments stank of more conceit - we were brilliant, it was a joke we lost it, etc.

But the most life-affirmingly poor start belongs to Manchester United. Now I like Moyes. Who doesn't, really? But he's not only filling the biggest boots in football, he's doing it with the weakest squad United have had since Ferguson arrived there.

In fact if you want to know how good a manager the Govan Beetroot was you only have to look at United's current first team and remind yourself that they are the current champions. That's right SAF won the league with a creaking back four, no midfield creativity whatsoever and one of the club's highest-ever goalscorers in a permanent sulk.

Of course Moyes can be held accountable for his lack of purchases. You don't want to be in a position where you're grateful that Nani has renewed his contract. He's an inflatable doll of a footballer - nothing like the real thing. Fergie papered over the midfield cracks with a bit of Scholesy here and a bit of Giggsy there and the odd Ashley Young plummet. The only thing Marouane Fellaini has ever created is a roaring trade in afro wigs. They needed a Cesc, or a Sneijder.

United have not scored a goal in open play since the opening fixture of the season. Were it not for Rooney's much-improved form they could be rubbing shoulders with Holloway and Kevin Ball. It's pretty dire.

Some will say it's too early to worry about whether they'll miss out on Champions League footy next season. I dunno. If I were the average United fan, I'd be worrying my little Malaysian socks off .

In the meantime a small thought for Paulo Di Canio. The knob.

Is it any surprise that a man so interested in fascism should run the club like a latter-day Il Duce? The only thing to be said in his defence is that Ellis Short must have known this already when he hired him. Everyone else did. There are poisoned chalices in football right now the SFC job is more like a hot steaming bowl of plutonium-enriched effluent.

And the candidates aren't exactly jostling for position. Mark Hughes should be top of the list but Gawd help us if he hasn't actually got a job. Steve McClaren looks like he's off to replace the pitilessly sacked Nigel Clough (and seriously who else would've managed all that on no budget? Ri-bloody-diculous.)

You could imagine Alan Curbishley coming in - and let's face it, Alan, it's better than George Osborne forcing you to pick up litter every day.

There is one bloke who's not been mentioned but relishes a challenge.  At the moment he's busy looking for his eyebrows down the back of the sofa, but don't put it past ol' Colin Wanker to emerge from the managerial scrapheap. Even Warnock's got a tad more subtlety than Di Canio.

Whoever gets the job, I hope he starts planning for the Tees-Wear derby for next season. (That's if we stay up of course.) Cos Sunderland look more than somewhat doooooommmed.

PS No I haven't mentioned Southampton. Someone always punches above their weight and this season it's you. What do you want? A medal?

Monday, 16 September 2013

Diving off the Deep End

Of all the low-down divers in the low-down dive that is the den of iniquity they call the Premier League, Ashley Young is lowest, downiest, diver-iest of the lot.

First of all, he's English, and Englishmen don't dive. We leave that to oily, slippery folk from hot countries. That's right. You know who I'm talking about. Michele OwenInho, Gareth Baleiovic, Stevio Gerrardini - untrustworthy sorts, I tells ya.

Second of all, he plays for Manchester United, one of the most upstanding of names in the world of international sport. United players have a history of never falling over to win a penalty. Like ever. (And unlike Evra.)

Thirdly - and perhaps more to the point - Ashley Young doesn't actually dive properly. While many prefer to indicate the slightest of ankle-taps has thrown him off-balance, Young attempts to simulate that he's been wiped of his feet by someone wielding the trunk of a recently sawn-down redwood. He doesn't so much fall as throw himself into an invisible tumble-dryer.

Having said that, he is at the forefront of a new and subtle variation in the art of diving. Falling over when no one has touched you can make you look a bit silly. Ashley counteracts this by kicking his opponent's leg before going over. This has caused all sorts of confusion for the regular pundit who will tell you that 'if there is contact he is entitled to go down'. Given that football is a contact sport, we are in serious danger here of losing the plot entirely.

The Young approach is akin to the old joke of the police officer's report that states that 'the suspect repeatedly smashed his face into my boot for a good ten minutes' before he confessed. The fact that Ashley has been warned about this appallingly blatant somersaulting before just adds to a sense of frustration about the player. (That and the fact that he's another of these England internationals who is promising at 22 and NEVER GETS ANY BETTER AFTER THAT).

The referee did well to book Young on Saturday. The irony is of course that the same player won a penalty kick a little later on as a direct result of trying not to fall over. If you watch the incident again you will see Young's feet start to stutter and stammer as he tries to overrule his now natural inclination to try a couple of Nadia Comaneci flick-flacks as he makes his way into the box. Dikcagoi makes a clumsy effort to get the ball, but nothing much more than that, and Young goes down anyway in the inelegant heap that would have happened even if the Palace man hadn't nudged him.

But this is the problem with these serial offenders like Ashley Young. I'm told that practice makes perfect; that the way a sportsman becomes very good at something is through repetition of tedious routine until that action becomes automatic.

You can't tell me that Young hasn't been practising. He has a little trigger, a muscle memory if you like, so that his inevitable response to going past someone in the penalty area is to cartwheel through the air like a bit of tumbleweed. He can't actually help it. Much like a batsman can't help lolloping a short ball down long leg's throat, or a golfer tends towards the draw in a tee-shot.

Except in football it's what's known as fucking cheating. So we wonder why Ashley Young can't just stop fucking cheating. And we find that the answer might just be to penalise the little bleeder severely until he unlearns his sinful little addiction.

So how do we do this?

Well first of all, as David Moyes has done, players and managers (and fans) need to condemn it whole-heartedly. A goal has been scored through the overt deceit of your player, your teammate. And not through the incompetence of the officials. And yet too often you get club representative shrugging their shoulders, grinning wryly and muttering the tired old maxim of 'winning some and losing some'.

The Crystal Palace chairman says the ref should give a red card for diving. Yes, mate. If he's absolutely certain, then he should. Especially if it is an attempt to win a penalty. However more often than not there's an uproar precisely because the bloke's got away with it. And in that case, you're a goal down and the punishment has to be retrospective.

Now to anyone but those folk who believe that the world spins on a stick of celery and is rotated twice a day by a giant marmoset with sticky hands, the idea that the FA haven't yet been able to introduce serious retrospective bans for simulation is simply gob-smacking.

It is the most obvious thing that can be done NOW, straight-away, to say that anyone found guilty of successfully conning the referee into awarding a penalty kick shall be given a three-match ban minimum. If he does it again, double the ban. So what if that means that Luis Suarez never plays another game of football? It would work.

Me, I'd go further. Humiliate the cheating little bastards. If you want to be a diver, you've got to dress like one. Ashley Young should play the next match in body paint and budgie smugglers. If he transgresses again, he plays his next match in snorkel and flippers (and he MUST be selected in both instances).

While said player is missing games he plays an important role in the half-time entertainment - a large paddling pool is pulled on to the pitch and small children take turns pushing the little sneak into the water. Then we strap him to a cart and he is given of lap of dishonour during which fans may boo, hiss and jeer, throw half-eaten pies, to their hearts' content.

If that weren't enough, I would make them explain themselves on national television, like disgraced Japanese businessmen sometimes do. Hell, let's get Piers Morgan to interview them. Let's see the contrition.

As it is, the FA lie motionless like basking seals, barking out the odd complaint but doing, appropriately enough, FA. It is ridiculous.

I don't really know anyone who has anything but contempt for the falling-over brigade. Ashley Young couldn't be less popular if he became an estate agent in his spare time. This is actually a very straightforward issue. Ban the Divers. Properly. Outside of the marital bed, there's no place for simulation.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Hansen Is As Hansen Does

The announcement of the forthcoming retirement of Alan Hansen has hit the nation across the face with all the power and punch of a carelessly tossed cotton wool ball. Fair play to him for walking, mind you. Stuart Broad, wherever the hell you might be, take note.

But it brings to the fore the thorny issue of just how shite Match of the Day has become. While BT Sport are thrusting their little hips around in the form of Jake Humphrey and a studio the size of Dunstable, and Gary Neville's wielding his Sky gadgetry like some Mancunian Gandalf, MotD continues to chunter away in the corner like an ailing uncle.

So what's up with it?

The boy Lineker is still comfortably at the helm, but that saintly smirk stopped working when he employed it for the 723rd time in yet another Walkers crisp commercial. (What does he have over them, exactly - has he caught factory workers lobbing toe-jam into the cheesy Quavers?)

Plus there's the fact that, as a former professional footballer himself, why does Gary need to ask the opinion of other former professionals? It makes him look like he's being deliberately dumb, like some coquettish blonde with a first from Cambridge.

Television loves doing this. Take Ready Steady Cook. The chef Ainsley Harriot asks chefs how to cook. Former French Open champion Sue Barker asks tennis players how to play tennis. What next? Geri Halliwell asking Kerry Katona how to go about making a living from doing fuck-all?

Ideally your main man/woman should be a keen amateur enthusiast - your Des Lynam, your Clare Balding. Adrian Chiles works much better as a host of a footy programme precisely because he wants to know what it feels like to be stepping out on the park in an England shirt for the first time.

Of course you have to hand it to Lineker that he manages to keep a programme rolling when the punditry is delivered by Newcastle's answer to Stephen Hawking, Alan Shearer, and the lolling Lancastrian Lawro.

There used to be a kind of twinkly-eyed detachment in Lawrenson. He was the dressing-room 'wag'. He was the twot who put the 'pun' into pundit. These days he looks as bored as we are looking at him.

In the wings there are a whole host grisly options - and I excuse Pat Nevin from these cos by Gawd I like the bloke.

There's Robbie Savage who, despite preferring to look like a bearded Charlie's Angel, can be relatively coherent, although he can't help spouting contentious twaddle because he secretly thinks that's why he's been employed - he's a kind of footballing Richard Littlejohn. He's ruled Man U out of the title race already, according to the Beeb's website. The twit.

There's Martin Keown, who carries a Garth Crooksian gravitas with him and is an expert mixer of metaphors - the other day I heard him say that Arsenal were struggling because they hadn't managed to get the players in that they'd 'nailed their hats onto'.

Poyet - well I can't understand him (he always sounds like he's got a particularly chewy squid ring in his mouth); Hartson - he's straightforward enough but he never says owt that every bloke in my pub wouldn't say; Danny Murphy - promising enough but oh so mild.

But then each and every one of the new boys suffers from one drawback - Savage possibly aside - they just can't quite slate a former fellow pro like they should do.

And if you fumble down the back of the pundits' sofa you will find it clogged with one compromised opinion after another. The only time I've ever seen a BBC couch unite in condemnation is when England play in World Cup Finals. And hellfire in those circumstances even Mother Theresa could be forgiven for calling the wallies in white a bunch of useless malfunctioning cocks.

Of course one of the better pundits at the moment is Roy Keane, not because he is necessarily more acute than any of the others, but that he doesn't give a shite about what people think. You can tell just how challenging that is when people like Southgate wince as if the outspoken teenager has just dissed the head of chemistry again.

It is though, time to move on for Match of the Day and the fact that Hansen, there at the very dawn of the Premier League, has decided to spend more time on the golf course, and that the Beeb have given Lawro 'a reduced role' is a good thing.

They won't be much missed and within the year, I can see both of them talking up the delights of the latest sale at DFS:

       "Hansen: 'I used tae miss my sofa'.
         Lawro: 'Me too. I was never a City fan, but I'm dead sure I'm a settee fan, eh, Al?'

         Hansen shakes head and smiles at his irrepressible friend."


In their place I should like to see the following:

The host cannot be Lineker, he knows too much. I'd have Holly Willoughby. On the programme I mean. And Craig Revel-Horwood for balance.

My pundits would all be genuine and unreasonable. Joining Keano I'd have Geoff Boycott, Nick Faldo and a parrot that has learnt all it has to say from the football pundit handbook 2013 (or, if you will, Michael Owen).

Expert analysis a la G-Nev I would put in the hands of Dermot O'Leary lookalike, Tomasz Schaeffernacker. Foreign nationals, you may not know this fella but he's a BBC weatherman with all the swagger and pizzazz of a very cool cocktail waiter. Failing that I'd use Tracey Emin.

Viewers get to vote off a pundit each week, and they are replaced the following week by someone else effortlessly objectionable. Cowell? Mark Wahlberg? Neil Warnock?

You could press the red button and access such special extras as:
Thatch of the Day - one for the ladies in which Robbie Savage talks us through the best hair around; Snatch of the Day - not what you're thinking - but the most incompetent finish from a striker when one-on-one with the keeper (featuring the Frannie Jeffers Trophy);
Catch of the Day - a bit of a specialized one presented by Peter Shilton and mainly for old-school goalies who still reject the modern keeper's tendency to punch rather than claim....

Feel free to add to this list.

All I do know is that MotD is going to need a radical overhaul and I don't just mean Shearer's shirts or Lawro's appalling barnet. And at least this is a start. Cos let's face it, we don't have to pay shedloads to get this programme so it'd be nice to have it done well. Or better.

And good luck Mr Hansen. I can't help but like you a bit.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Love out the Window

I was away on a week's holiday last week. The missus got a bonus and rather than tuck it away for a rainy day she blew it on the rent of an Andalusian villa. With no telly. Or internet access. As often happens in such circumstances, you find that you can manage perfectly well without the news, or the latest in an lmost psychopathic addiction to dramas about murder, and as long as you know the words
 'paella' 'cerveza' and 'gracias' you're pretty much laughing.

Spain, mind you, is a pretty solemn place these days. 25% unemployment. Not a euro to rub together, Were it not for tourists like my missus, they'd have gone under long ago.

Still, that's not going to stop Real Madrid stumping up twice the GDP of sub-Saharan Africa for Gareth Bale. Some say if you coated Ronaldo in Dulux white emulsion with a hint of pink, put a monkey mask across his chops and divided his hair at a jaunty angle, you'd have Gareth Bale. (You wouldn't).

I've yet to go into the complex relationship between Real Madrid and the Spanish government but it seems safe to say that Real operate on a different level when it comes to the mundanities of paying tax and keeping solvent. No matter how broke they seem to be, the galacticos keep coming.

I mean if this was your work-shy neighbours and the expensive furniture kept being trotted through their front yard, you'd suspect that there might at least be a cocaine factory in the cellar. There appear to be no such investigations at the Bernabeu.

You might argue that Real have flogged Higuain and Ozil to fund this, but as long as players can cost Umpty Zillion quid, people like me are going to start wondering why we bother to follow the Beautiful Game.

The transfer window has become a preposterous game of player-hawking and whoring. Managers seem unable to keep their counsel under the sheer bulk of hack's inquiries and the final day resembles nothing less than the last days of Sodom. For those of us that support a scruffy little outfit and watch our team through groans and grimaces, the sight of Europe's mightiest passing around their produce like a bunch of toffs on a wine-tasting binge makes us howl with fury.

Chelsea's purchase of Willian was the most galling intervention by the richest - a simply opportunistic act to deprive others of something, like a vegetarian buying the last pork chop because he didn't like the bloke behind him in the queue. Mourinho can now field an entire front eight of attacking midfielders (as he pretty much tried to at Man U in that tedious draw last week). Moses was the only what to look elsewhere. I'm surprised Mata didn't beg to join him.

David Moyes, unversed in wheeler-dealership on such a lucrative scale, could only manage to drag the long-handled paintbrush Fellaini up the M62. His former employers resorted to familiar tactics and just borrowed a couple of players, including everyone's favourite midfield plodder, Gareth Barry - another of those blokes at a big club who looks along the bench in the home dug-out and thinks "What the fuck am I - a football player or a scatter cushion?"

Indeed the main business during these imposed periods of transfer activity seems to involve the Citeh and Chelski (The Croesus Two) lending their bench-warmers out for a jog on someone else's park.

They'll argue of course that some of these lads need a bit of playing time and it will help their careers. Like Wilshire at Bolton a while back. Except that loanees like McEachran, Lukaku or Carroll at Spurs (who's off to join that Den of Financial Discretion at Loftus Road) will find they're still right at the back of the queue when they get back.

The loan system is simply the refuge of a club with a horribly bloated squad on horribly bloated salaries.

Not very long ago - possibly slightly longer than the blink of an eye - people, myself always very much included, were railing at Arsene Wenger to acquire some bleeding gumption and purchase someone. The return of Mattheu Flamini wasn't quite what we had in mind. The doom-laden approach of the North London derby only seemed to make this major purchase more necessary than ever.

Spurs showed with all their brand new bits of human bling on show, looking for all the world like a dolly on her first night out after radical plastic surgery. All the new parts look like they work well enough, but when you put them all together... well it just a looked a little weird.

And, do you know what, I was very thankful to discover that old Arsene, moths still safely thriving in the lining of his wallet, managed to squeal a win out of that game without recourse to any 'marquee signing'. The moths are looking for new accommodation now of course. And Arsene has rather gone the Chelsea route of buying someone to play in a position that he has covered. There again, Ozil is a cut above.

And as the window closes, there's just one more thing that gets defenestrated, and that's my love of the game. Now, more than ever, it has become a serve-serving quagmire of wealth of ego. The Premier League, UEFA, FIFA, they simply sit atop these festering compost heap yelling 'Austerity My Fucking Arse'.

Maybe, if I supported a team that rewarded my support with the occasional tin-pot or day out, I might just think that this sloshing about of tidal-waves of lucre was justified. But I fear the heart of the game has been ripped out by the grasping hands of the plutocratic gods of our age. I preferred football when Glasgow Celtic won the European Cup with a bunch of lads all born within ten miles of Celtic Park.

Nowadays such localism and community loyalty is almost a joke. Before the decade's out it's not impossible that Real Madrid will be the first club to pay €500 million for a footballer - and such is their reach the lad will probably have learned his trade on the playing fields of Mars.

Still at least in Spain they still pick Spaniards to play in their league. As we do in England. We'll have anyone, so long as they're not English. Greg Dyke described the England team as a 'tanker that needed turning round'. It's a tanker. all right. It tanks and it tanks and it tanks.

The arrival of more qualifying fixtures approaches like the tapping stick of Blind Pugh in Treasure Island. Those Englishmen that do manage to pull on a first team shirt also manage to pull a muscle or a sicky and we're left with the prospect of a really shonky eleven scrambling for points against what we'll no doubt be reminded is 'a well-organised and technically good' Moldovan side.

Like the rest of football at the moment, I can't watch. But somehow I will.