Friday, 20 July 2012

Lords of the Rings.

Competitors were surprised to learn that instead of a dense conurbation, London is in fact a rolling expanse of lush countryside. Complaints that the facilties in the athletes' village extend to a post office run by an old man in a flat cap and a small church hall selling tea cakes have been vehemently denied by the ODA


Seven times I've seen or heard multi-Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson on the TV and radio over the past week. Seven. Among other things, he's unceremoniously stuck two fingers up to his fans from all those years ago by telling me that he won his races by phasing out the supporters' noise in the stadium because, as he sees it, 'they can't win it for you'. He's also sagaciously highlighted the errors of other sprinters' ways by pointing at their freeze-framed limbs on a screen and shaking his head at their outrageously misaligned postures. In addition, he told me how his antecedents' struggle to freedom from slavery are directly linked to his ability to run around a track faster than pretty much anyone else. All this in a voice so dull and monotonous that it makes Sally Gunnell’s sound like Marilyn Monroe singing to President Kennedy.

Anyway, what this all means is painfully clear. Anyone more famous for their absurd style of running than their personality should never, by rights, command so much air time. But this is the Olympics. Also known as the 'Bloody Olympics' by default in my office. It's similar to a wartime situation, this. Not just because we've drafted the army in, but because everything’s tense, slightly different from usual and because no one talks of anything else. Just like before the onset of the Blitz, millions are trying to live a normal life and battle on despite the conditions. Rationing, not of food, but of space is the reality today as we fight and we scrape and we push and we try beyond all the odds to counter the invasion.

Things are changing in London, as we've all been reminded by the authorities in the most jocular way possible. TFL have successfully managed to smuggle, through a 'humorous' ad campaign, the awful truth that no one will get anywhere at all during the Games. This is fine, if you believe the billboards with their hoards of robotic, smiling commuters happily acquiescent to the jams. Not so fine if, in reality, you're a neurotic stockbroker unable to get into Pret of a morning. The same is true of the roads which have been painted in celebration, and these murals of misery will go on to haunt us still further following the end of play as they laboriously paste over them again. Presumably ambulances will still receive priority along Games Lanes, but one assumes that they won't be readily available anyway considering the temporary surge in population and probable number of Japanese tourists calling 999 to complain that their train is late.

How cynical, you might retort. I agree, and there is a lot to celebrate during this festival of sporting excellence after all. All the more reason to visually shout about it, wouldn't you say; to brazenly display the five colourful rings of champions throughout this magical metropolis? Except you can't, not without permission. Around town, the Olympic rings logo is harder to spot than an enjoyable element to competitive cycling. There's one at St Pancras, that's a nice one, and one hanging from Tower Bridge. Plus, if you get up really close to these, you might be able to make out the ® and TM legends underneath. The other place you'll see the rings is in the previously maligned Games Lanes (probably patented so worth the cautious capitalisation), which is a sad use of such an iconic image when you think that the bulk of London's road users will subconsciously associate these with stress, missed appointments, astronomical cab fares and destroyed personal lives.

Legislation exists to prosecute anyone displaying the Olympic rings, or the London 2012 logo without permission from the London Organising Committee of The Olympic Games, or Locog to give it its altogether more menacing sounding acronym. Not that you would want to display the London 2012 logo of course, which looks like 4 slabs of concrete hastily pieced together by quick drying cement then sprayed pink, but nevertheless these trademarks are fiercely protected by the people responsible for the sycophancy towards official Olympic sponsors. Admittedly, these corporate oligarchs have gone a long way to funding the Games, but the extent that organisers will go to to protect these brands has already been widely documented, including the ludicruous monopoly on McDonalds fries within the Olympic Park. This was further fuelled this morning following Lord Coe's comments on Radio 4. So strong is the grip of these sponsors that even the head of the organising committee, the Lord of the rings, when jokingly asked about the extent of these rules could only confirm that visitors would 'probably' be able to enter Olympic venues wearing Nike trainers. 

The same paranoia surrounds the intellectual property of the Olympic logos. Anyone deemed to be 'cashing in' on these official scribbles will be ordered to remove them and could face legal action under existing legislation. Though no one has ever been prosecuted under this law, you might want to put money on 2012 being the first deployment of such powers. One cafe owner near the Stratford site for instance, has already felt the piercing gaze of the all seeing Locog eye after it was deemed that his three-year-old 'Cafe Olympic' must change its name in accordance with the sponsorship rules.

Walking around the city, it really is difficult to tell that this festival of sport is upon us. Take the jubilee, for instance, when the (unpatented) Union Jack was bloody everywhere. The lesser-spotted rings however, only really appear conspicuously along some official routes, most notably along the Old Kent Road to remind anxious dignitaries that they are still on the right track to Royal Greenwich and not, in fact, descending into the wild and unlawful ghetto of South London from where they may not escape with the wheels of their S-Classes intact.

When you consider the Games from ground level in this way, the vehement retention of the Olympic brand seems tantamount to one big bureaucratic spoiling of sport. The sad fact is that the place you'll most likely spot the colourful emblem of sporting excellence, and historically the pinnacle of amateur competition, is on a tin of Coca Cola or beneath the smudges of burger sauce on a Big Mac wrapper. Or a UPS van. All brands with solid sporting pedigree, nothing less.

And so, with the Games bearing down on us like a demented one-eyed Olympic mascot, all we can do is hold our collective breaths and stand hand-in-hand against the corporate, gridlocked, multimedia onslaught that looms on all sides. And when all is said and done, when all fades away and the population of East London wake from their sedatives, only Michael Johnson will remain. With microphone in hand, he'll lament the lack of any real modern day talent amid the dwindling lights of the spectral Olympic stadium until West Ham arrive and turf him out back to the Crystal Palace athletics arena where the twenty thousand seats will far outnumber the few people that every really cared about competitive athletics.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

See You at the Crossroads

The Final 'Final Whistle' Column - The Goldsmiths Leopard. Published May 2012

The organisers' comprehensive anti-hooliganism drive was an unmitigated success.
There were few fans available after the game for comment.

So, the ref is looking at his watch, preparing to blow full time on ‘final whistle’... And what a great place to leave the world of sport, delicately teetering, like the bus at the end of The Italian Job. Except that unlike Michael Caine, I don’t have a plan...

At the time of going to press, we have just about got our collective Leopard breaths back from the whirlwind that was the final five minutes of the Premier League season. This is just the beginning. In fact, instead of balancing precariously on a cliff, the British sporting nation, along with many Leopard writers, finds itself unceremoniously dumped at a crossroads. Waiting along one road is the final of the Champions League, where a battered, shoestring Chelsea side will turn out against an in-form, organised Bayern Munich team. Where will that one take us? Spurs fans will be hoping it’s a dead end, as a Chelsea win in Munich on Saturday would put them into European no-man’s land and on another trudge through the Europa league with the resultant loss of the fourth Champions League spot for next season. Di Matteo deserves a medal, but sadly, he’s not even assured a job. Especially given that Abramovich may look to oust him for the very man the Italian outsmarted in the semi-finals. Go figure.

Another road leads us kicking and screaming into Euro 2012, with a brand new (old) manager, who instilled little optimism with his appointment of Gary Neville as coach. Yes, the uglier of the two ugly brothers may be England through and through, but so is a fry-up, and that gives you heart disease. What Hodgson was thinking, I suppose we’ll never know but one thing’s for sure, the England team bus will be a distinctly Scouse free zone if Manc nationalist G-Nev gets his way. The job’s a big risk for an unproven coach, especially as Neville looked a nailed on choice for the second pundit spot on Sky’s Super Sunday next season. At least now there’ll only be 11 people having to put up with his drone.

A third avenue takes us majestically on to London 2012, providing the road isn’t blocked. It’s a miracle that everything is ready for the Games if we’re absolutely honest with ourselves. I was half expecting to have to base this entire column on the general ineptitude of the Olympic Delivery Authority, but it looks like they may have pulled it off. That’s not to say they won’t forget something important though. It’s always the way: after all, you only ever remember your toothbrush when you’re halfway down the motorway. The difference here of course, is that in the ODA’s case the toothbrush may just turn out to be failing to order the lightbulbs in time for the opening ceremony. Depending on the outcome of these games, Seb’s either going to be given a plinth on Tralfagar square or tried in the media equivalent of the Hague. But, it’s the taking part that counts, right? Only if Britain finishes outside the top 5 in the medal table...

A fourth track leads us smoothly and gentlemanly to the summer’s cricket tests. God only knows how the erratic England side will perform, having gone from world’s best to shaky outsiders in the space of 6 months. You’d expect them to beat the Windies, but I’d expect a squad of spaniels in whites to beat the Windies, given that most of their top order is chasing the rupees over in the Indian Premier League.
Looking back the way we’ve come, the road has been a bumpy. Who’d have said three months ago that Man City would overturn an eight point deficit to beat United and clinch their first top flight title in living memory? Not Betfred it seems, which sagaciously paid out over half a million to punters on a United league victory back in April. Who also would have thought at the start of the league season that Alex McLeish would narrowly avoid relegation with Aston Villa? Oh ok, fair enough; I’d have paid out on that in January. It was a vintage year for the Premier League, and one that rightly cements it as the most exciting, if maybe not the most technically advanced, in Europe. As Chelsea showed however, the Sunday league technique of bodies behind the ball can pay dividends and crucially, not one of Messi’s 60 goals this season was scored past this resolute defence, which was already depleted of its two central assets in the semi-final second leg.
As far as national pride is concerned, the argument will continue to rage as to which is best football league in the world. Criteria varies, but Champions League success is a healthy barometer.

Only one English team per year has made it past the quarter final stage in recent times, which for many indicates a falling away in technical merit for a domestic league that regularly enters four teams a year. However, as Charles Darwin would have told you when he wasn’t out stealing other people’s ideas, adaptability is the key and Chelsea showed it in abundance that night in the Nou Camp. Where Manchester United had been ripped to pieces by the classy Catalans the year before, Chelsea rolled up their sleeves and got the job done. Considering this was in front of 90,000 hissing Spaniards, the feat is magnified. The fact that Chelsea finished sixth in the Premier League this year is irrelevant: they still won the day when it mattered. Even Torres got a goal, before quietly slipping back into his spiralling depression via a freak hat-trick against QPR.

The argument goes that in England’s crumbling Premier league, lack of homegrown quality spills over onto the international scene. But this is pure drivel. Surely the best homegrown talent plays to a higher level amid the best in the world? Besides, England have always been terrible, except for one giddy summer in the 60s when everyone in England was so high it’d have been impossible not to win something on home turf. Three Lions on your shirt, chest, arse or anywhere else will never change that. No, regardless of the result of Saturday’s final, Chelsea have single-handedly proven that the English Premier League is the best in the world through their sheer stubbornness – like only the British can.

And so now the end is here, and I, along with the ODA, Team GB, Chelsea FC, Roy Hodgson, England and the British Public, face the final curtain. The Olympics were organised, and will no doubt be run, in a truly British fashion. Chelsea will do what they can to bring home the Champions League title to the most exciting domestic league in the world. Hodgson will work his nodding little face off to progress past the quarter finals of Euro 2012, and The Leopard will continue trying to produce something a little different but eminently readable in the way I have attempted to do here this year.

So, at these crossroads, we’ll travel each and every one of these highways, and looking back we’ll say that more, much more than this, we did it our way.
And it’s been a good’un.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


Eric Cantona signals his position in the
recent world football respect rankings

'I'm about to give you all of my money
And all I'm askin' in return, honey
Is for a little respect.'

Aretha Franklin was not discoursing on professional football when she sang these immortal lines, but they are as relevant to the beautiful game in 2012 as they ever were to furthering women’s rights in the late 60s. Such is the lack of respect that modern footballers seem to have for almost everyone.

I, like the rest of the country’s media and football fans, am under no illusion that football is a beautiful game. It’s not. It’s ugly as hell, and the media loves it that way. The second incarnation of ‘shake-gate’ was held at Loftus Road recently, or rather it wasn’t, as the powers-that-be at QPR decided to cancel the players’ nonsensical polite greeting before the FA cup tie against Chelsea. Handshakes, after all, presuppose respect. The spotlight shone on the pre-game handshake of Terry and Ferdinand was brighter than the one trained on the match itself, which only goes to show the vested interest of sports reporters for scandal. This is neatly demonstrated through a volley of recent incidents, be they racist (see Evra), sexist (lineswoman Sian Massey), violent (Balotelli) or monetary (Redknapp).

The attention paid to on and off field controversy in British football is nothing new. Cantona’s kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan in 1995 received as many column inches as his superb goals ever did. I don’t intend to play down the seriousness of abuse in the football, on the contrary, it should be highlighted in a bid to render it socially unacceptable, but I do take issue with the salivating circus of today’s media in escalating matters beyond the immediate context. The Terry/Ferdinand shake drama is evidence of this, as BBC Five Live cut ceremoniously to full pre-match commentary on the eventual non-incident.

The usually monosyllabic Alan Shearer made a valiant attempt on Match of The Day recently to play down the recent racism scandals, saying that we should simply stop talking about it and get on with the football itself. This, naturally, came at the end of a fifteen-minute link devoted to discussing it. The same happened on ITV’s coverage of the FA Cup third round, during an excruciating thirty seconds when presenter Matt Smith desperately tried to explain what he meant when suggesting that studio pundit Paul Ince was ‘uniquely positioned’ to pour comment on the issue.

Paradoxically, you may say, the last paragraph only serves to continue the debate, rather than putting it to bed. This would be the case, except when recent matters are viewed from a slightly different angle.
Racism in football is unacceptable, agreed. However, it is my belief that ‘racism’ as a term needs to be examined. I do not believe that John Terry is a racist. By that I mean to say that I don’t think the England captain views himself as intrinsically superior due to his colour, or actively dislikes anyone purely for their different racial background. It is partly the insistence on viewing racism through the anachronistic eyes of the 1980s that perpetuates the belief that he does.

There is a tendency to view racism with unspeakable fear. Not fear of actual hatred towards people of other races, but of the word itself and its connotations. It is a social taboo that causes the British (especially) to freeze in fright, wince and change the subject. This is partially why the television discussions of the recent incidents in football have been so awkward and stilted.What I mean by this is simple: there is a difference between a racist comment and full-blown racial hatred. Sports journalists and pundits, on the whole, fail to recognise this.

This fear is clearly motivated by the awful history of racism in this country. But, with all the progress that has been made towards racial equality, why do we still panic at the thought of raising any issues even remotely related to race? Partially because a whole generation have been rendered petrified of saying ‘the wrong thing’ after a volatile period that saw inexcusable and vehement racial abuse. This was during the first days of black players’ emergence in the English game; the days of Viv Anderson, Garth Crooks and tellingly, the Toxteth and Brixton riots.

Alan Hansen is one such fossil from these times, as shown recently during his confused ramble in which he practically said that some of his best friends were ‘coloured’. We live in a fully integrated multi-cultural society, and I do not believe I am naïve in suggesting that a racist comment (by which I mean referring to a someone by their colour) in football or any other arena is tantamount to racial hatred. More importantly, I believe there are worse problems in sport that continue to be overshadowed because of the huge taboo that exists around the term ‘racism’ – especially in the British media. Yes, it doesn’t help that the head of football’s world governing body is tactless on the subject of race, but does anyone really think that Blatter is a racist? He’s just out of touch, that’s all.

John Terry may be a lot of things, but I don’t believe he hates black people. He has grown up through the football system as a friend and colleague to players of all races and backgrounds, the Ferdinand brothers included. Yes, he may sleep with his team-mates’ wives, but I don’t believe he despises Anton Ferdinand for his ethnicity.

It is alleged that Terry called Ferdinand a F****** Black C***. Horrible, yes, but there is an equal chance he was referring to the referee as a F****** Blind C***. If this were the case, then his FA hearing (and his criminal trial) would undoubtedly have a different, more lenient outcome than if he were found guilty of racial abuse. But is either acceptable? Not at all. It is precisely the fear we hold as a nation about racist language after the dark ages of the 1980s that has caused the matter to be discussed at such length. It is also why the misogyny directed at lineswoman Sian Massey and the trenchant homophobia on the terraces are not given a proportionately adequate airing, not to mention the sickening abuse that referees take every week.

Is, for instance, selecting the colour of someone’s skin inherently worse than commenting on his or her sexual orientation? Or, in the case of Luke Chadwick when he played for Manchester United, the fact that someone is spectacularly ugly? Only when viewed through morally confused spectacles.

The progress made in tackling racism within football is tremendous. Several high profile initiatives, including ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ and ‘Let’s Kick Racism out of Football’ have worked hard to level the playing field for black and mixed-race footballers. What I am suggesting here is a level-headed view of abuse of any kind in football, and sport at large. Instead of trying to form a narrative of racist episodes in football, sports journalism has a responsibility to grow up, view things as they really are in 2012 and get real. Beautiful and clean the game may not be, but let’s not kick dirt in its face unnecessarily. Address the equally despicable problems that referees, women officials and gay footballers receive, and we might just get somewhere.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Are You Pulling My Legacy?

The Olympic Stadium just hours before
the 2012 games begin. Lord Coe
is confident of its punctual completion,
and of Elvis
arriving in time to perform
at the opening ceremony.

For those of you that care, London has been awarded the 2017 World Athletics Championships. I say it like that because I expect that not many people do. Not that much anyway. Certainly it pales into sporting insignificance when compared to the glimmering spectacle of the Olympic games to be held here next year, and for many, constitutes a far duller prospect. It’s a bit like being out in a bar: you get chatting to a confident and gorgeous girl/guy, and bask in their glorious presence for a short while as they pay you the attention you’ve worked so hard to receive. Before you know it, he or she leaves and you’re left talking to their awkward, shy and ugly cousin, and despite doing their level best to impress you, you would much rather they just went away forever.

That’s what we’re dealing with here, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because most people don’t see athletics as a sport. Simple. It’s a spectacle: a once-in-four-years reason to care a jot about a bunch of men and women running around a field and throwing things. If I ever tune in to such events, it is because of the outside chance of a javelin missing its target and nestling itself in the shoulder of a middle distance runner. It hasn’t happened yet.

I’m being slightly unfair – some people love running, jumping and throwing. So much so, they do and talk about little else. You know the people I’m referring to, and they’ve almost certainly bumped into you when you’ve been strolling romantically along the South Bank, or jogged absurdly on the spot next to you in yellow leggings while you’re waiting to cross the road. Fitness is important, I grant it, but that’s what gyms are for. Runners and jumpers are thus safely contained and shielded from the army of non runners and jumpers who try really hard on a daily basis to fight the overwhelming urge to trip them up or clothesline them as they bounce annoyingly past.

But I digress. The point is, athletics for most people is a spectacle, and not a sport. We all love the 100 metre final at the Olympics. Thousands of years of Darwinian achievement sandwiched into less than ten glorious seconds worth of explosive muscular contraction. Likewise, we all know Usain Bolt, and Asafa Powell, and, erm, the other ones. Similarly, the 200 metres are popular. And the 400, a little bit. The 800 metres is bearable, but anything longer than that and we’ll generally wait half and hour to rewind the Sky box for the last lap. That’s the sort of dedication the British public has for track and field athletics.

Thus, the World Championships constitute a watered-down version of this already diluted enthusiasm, and I will bet a discus throw of small change that the newly preserved running track around the national stadium will put fewer bums on seats than during its glory days in 2012, with the footfall of Olympic champions still echoing around its capacious, spectral shell. Don ’t believe me? Just look at the Crystal Palace complex during one of the absurdly titled ‘grand prixs’ next time it’s on TV. Ghostly.

But the point of securing the games was to ensure that the stadium didn’t turn into an athletic burial ground like Barcelona’s, right? Well yes, ostensibly. Coe and co will regurgitate the same platitudinous rhetoric of the ‘legacy’ and ‘sustainability’ of track and field athletics in this high-achieving land. But in reality, it’s analogous to a hungover fry-up in a greasy spoon café. Winning the World Championships saved their bacon. Just think, if London had lost out to Doha, then the egg deposited on faces would be runny and plentiful, just like after the failed World Cup bid, except with a half-billion pound stale piece of ovular fried bread as the centre-piece of the oily, tepid platter.

By securing the championships in 2017, the legacy committee has managed to justify retaining the stadium in public ownership; an 11th hour decision that saw West Ham lose out on its (previously ratified) bid for a new home. Without 2017, the farcical organisation of the stadium’s fate would have stood out like a world-class velodrome in Stratford. Which is another issue, for another time.

Cynical perhaps, but Coe got lucky here. Surely the concept of a legacy is predicated on deciding it beforehand? Otherwise it’s just chaotic bureaucracy buried in a happy accident. The Olympic organising committee has got so much right in the build up to the games that it magnifies the confusion surrounding the stadium ten-fold. The saving grace of it all is that the centrepiece of 2012 will be ready on time, a tremendous feat considering London’s recent efforts at building completion. It’s taken, for instance, nearly ten years to install the new escalators at Bank station, and as we all remember, Wembley was late (an eventuality that won some of its builders considerable sums of money at Ladbrokes).

And so, Qatar defeated, we jog inexorably on to the games next year. Excited? I am actually, and my ticket lottery win for the synchronised swimming will be put to good use. As for 2017, I would tell you here how to get your hands on tickets, but you’re not going to bother, right?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Failure is Golden

Frank Lampard has dismissed claims
that his relegation to the bench during
a recent Chelsea Pensioners swimming
gala could have knock-on effects for
his England career

Gold, in Athletics, is reserved for the winners. Quite rightly. While it’s true that expectation is unfairly lumped on to runners, vaulters, jumpers and other athletes prior to competition, the determination, guile, strength and tenacity required to triumph on the track or field is rewarded with a solid gold medal, along the equally important recognition of success.

Only in football is it the other way round. Completely unjustifiably, almost a decade ago the media (and therefore the public) crowned a bunch of relatively unproven young men with the title of the ‘Golden Generation’, largely due to England’s 5-1 demolition of Germany in the run up to the 2002 World Cup. This same shining crop crashed out to ten-man Brazil in the quarter-finals of that particular tournament. It was also this gleaming group that disappointed in 2006 in Germany, as well as two years later when Steve Mclaren’s umbrella led the stalwart army of prodigious brilliance all the way to the qualifying stages of Euro 2008, before mercifully sparing them the humiliation of having to actually compete in the tournament.

You know the rest. It’s hardly a revelation that Messrs Gerrard, Lamps, Cole and the rest of the golden boys failed to achieve anything remotely resembling a successful stint during their tenure at the pinnacle of football’s rocky peaks. It’s also no great shock to anyone (except the FA, strangely) that there is a glut of extremely talented young players emerging in this country that should be given their shot at being mildly competitive for England on the world stage. My only gripe is that it’s taken so damn long.

It’s worth dwelling on the ‘Golden’ label that has followed this group through their careers like a heavy application of David Beckham signature aftershave. Was it a hindrance? Did the semiotic significance of ‘Golden’ place an unattainable level of expectation on their young shoulders that proved impossible to live up to? If so, then it was hardly their fault. Anything less than a sustained period of success would have been deemed a failure. As it happens, it has been deemed a failure, and no, they are not entirely to blame for this. The criticism for their lack of success should be viewed mainly in terms of a warped sense of entitlement. In the same bizarre way that Britain still holds the belief that it should remain a world beating military force, each England set-up going into any major tournament is lauded as a genuine contender for the silverware. Is this reasonable? Given the track record of the national team, you’d have to say it isn’t. The almost biblical hype that surrounds the team’s palm-leaf donkey parade into every World Cup renders their actual performance an inevitable failure, with the hearts and minds of supporters existing in a parallel universe where it is either still 1966 or late in the reign of Queen Victoria, the only two times when England really were that dominant (with the latter being more down to imperial exclusivity than actual talent).

It is also the fault of the FA, which I am convinced is also partially responsible for world poverty, international conflict and large scale destructive weather phenomena, such is the ineptitude of its governance. Not since the Conservative party of the 1990s have we seen a group of such misguided, confused old men squabbling and head scratching over the direction of their policies and forward momentum. Just look at England’s recent World Cup bid. It begins with appointing the wrong manager, every time, purely with the belief that success can be bought. In Capello’s case, guaranteed success was secured to the tune of £6m a year. Look where that got us. I’m not opposed to the idea of a foreign manager, not at all, but one that speaks English is a good start.

With the overhyped, big-name manager securely in place, all that is left for him to do is select the same eleven players utilised by the previous, overhyped, big-name incumbent. Cue 2-3 years of confusion, platitudinous interviews and excuses by the bucket load. Next, repeat this process ad infinitum, and ladies and gentlemen, there you have the mastermind organisation that is the English Football Association. Ask any businessman stepping in to rescue an ailing company or brand. What to do when faced with forty years of similar disappointments and hallmark mistakes? Shake it up, change it around, root and branch. This is exactly what the Germans did after that night in Munch (even Heskey scored for goodness sake). Taking a step back, they oversaw a back–to-the-drawing-board approach that led to an experimental, young side that have gelled fantastically, culminating in the last laugh for the vibrant Germans, who destroyed a lack-lustre England set-up at last year’s World Cup in South Africa.

So what now for Capello? Well, with his contract secured until after Euro 2012 (and no longer), anything he likes. Oddly, with this finishing post in sight, only now has he adopted the common-sense view of trialling a comparatively fresh line up. In came Smalling, terrific for Manchester United so far this season, and perhaps vitally, Lampard was dropped to the bench. Happily, you could tell how much that pissed him off, but it is the first real moment of resolve from a manager with an otherwise predictable selection policy.

For me however, Capello didn’t go far enough. With Terry in perhaps his last full season as a first choice centre back (he certainly won’t see the next World Cup), why not now opt for the hugely impressive Phil Jones, recently bought by Alex Ferguson as a long- term first choice replacement for Rio Ferdinand. If one thing is certain in football management, it’s that you should trust the judgement of the most decorated manager in the country’s history. Plus, John Terry is a horrible man as we all know. The same goes for Frank Lampard (although not necessarily the horrible bit). Annoyingly, Capello has rowed back on his apparent statement of intent by sheepishly holding a press conference to iterate Lampard’s continued importance to the national team; presumably this kind of ego-massaging is in his contract.

Though Jack Wilshere would almost certainly have started had he been fit, Tom Cleverly and Jordan Henderson must surely remain contenders in an England midfield that is crying out for youthful exuberance and creative options for the newly thatched and resurgent Wayne Rooney. One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t like to be in Steven Gerrard’s increasingly rickety boots when he makes his overdue comeback after injury. It may have only been less than a year, but it really does seem like the footballing scenery has totally changed since he began his lay-off. And that can only be a good thing.

Things are looking a little difficult as far as a second striker goes. Bent is Lineker in disguise, but only half as good, and Defoe is so frustratingly inconsistent that I applaud any manager who has worked with him for an entire season without wanting to sacrifice him on a plate to feed up Peter Crouch. Wellbeck is shaping up to be a genuine contender, but a couple of clever back heels in a team surrounded by genuine stars does not a prolific England striker make. Give him a season I say; after all, he did fail to lift a hopeless average England under 21 side this summer.

Whilst Qualification for next year’s Euro tournament has not yet been secured, it seems likely that England will be present, unlike the shambles of two years ago. A good start. But Capello’s strategy at this tournament will be vital to the development of the team in the long run. Hypothetically (and hopefully), off the back of excellent domestic seasons for their respective clubs, the likes of Cleverly, Smalling, Jones and Henderson could really step up on the international stage come the start of Euro 2012. I doubt they’ll win it, but a strong showing at a major tournament would cement them as a regular, cohesive unit, and would supply the much needed experience at the top level to propel them forward to the World Cup two years later, by which time the youngsters will be at the peak of their careers. Far fetched? Perhaps, but as far as I see it, the only way forward.

What then of the Golden Generation? Here’s a suggestion: let the emerging, bright young things embark on a European Championship crusade to eastern Europe, and in the meantime, Fat Frank, Stevey G, Becks and JT can remain at home and apply their gilded boots to the more leisurely path towards Olympic Games glory. You never know, they might even get bronze.

Sunday, 31 July 2011


After its successes in the world of home computing,
Microsoft's foray into the more unfamiliar
territory of designer drugs has received mixed
reviews from users and critics alike.

The other day, I was recalling with some relish the woeful ITV football programme ‘The Premiership’ – it was terrible, and I’m not just talking about Andy Townsend’s ‘Tactics Truck’ which, last I heard, was teetering on the edge of cliff somewhere in continental Europe, with Townsend insisting that everyone holds on, as he’s ‘got a plan’.

No, I’m talking about the strange and exciting time during which the Internet was taking over our lives. There was a palpable switch, sometime around 2003, where a website address became not just a luxurious but inefficacious addition to media coverage, but an integral part of its output and creative content.

The particular link that sprung to mind involved Des Lynam, a luddite of the highest proportions, attempting to raise viewers’ awareness to ITV’s snazzy new online footballing site. You could see techno-fear in his eyes as his producer barked into his earpiece, instructing him to mention the web stuff. Des, bless him, had no bloody idea what he was talking about and began wildly throwing around w-s, co-s and dots until he went crossed eyed and was led off for a lie down during the break.

Utterly alien to us now, the thought that television presenters, or anyone else for that matter, could be ignorant to the goings-on of the Internet and the accompanying lingo seems absurd. In a short space of time, the web has gone from inconsequential puff to vital resource. It seems quite touching, and delightfully sweet, that in halcyon days of the 80s and 90s, viewer participation in television programmes was conducted via the Royal Mail. Remember that big sack of letters and postcards that was routinely emptied onto the studio floor during Going Live each Saturday morning? I used to love that, although they never read my bloody letter out; thanks Schofield.

For me, it’s been fascinating to watch the way in which the language of the Internet has morphed itself into the very fabric of our day-to-day lives. Even as recently as 5 years ago, advertisements and promotional material quoted website address with a plethora of https and forward slashes, which always looked a little messy and seemed to alienate the technologically challenged. But, as we became more familiar with and reliant upon the Internet as our primary source of information, companies and advertisers dispensed with these superfluous prefixes and even dropped the ‘w’s.

Nowadays though, it is simply not necessary to direct anyone to a website address. We accept that by Googling what we need, we will be effortlessly transported to our desired location. Indeed, most people (myself included) feel inconvenienced by having to even type a full website address into the search bar, and judging by the search suggestions thrown up by Google, are largely unconcerned about the correct spelling either. Interestingly, my Microsoft Office 2007 does not recognise 'Google' in its infinitive or participle form. That said, I'm not sure the OED does either, but it's surely only a matter of time, such is the speed with which the term has become the only real way to succinctly describe the act of searching for something on the Internet.

With advertisers fully aware that the Internet is most people’s first port of call for information, a major shift has taken place in media marketing strategies. Where before, companies would include their website address, they now often dispense with it altogether, fully aware that people will flock, like lemmings, to their site anyway. Other brands feel it necessary to include an instruction to ‘search’ for them online, such as the ‘Search Colgate’ banner emblazoned underneath a tube of the stuff on a billboard near you. Presumably, these sorts of brands must still include the gentle reminder, just in case people forget that they have better things to do with their lives than to Google a brand of toothpaste.

The other great coup of the online branding world is the recent vogue for centralising the online content into the thrust of the ad. Strongbow for instance, have recently launched an absurd marketing drive through their website for thirsty volunteers to collaborate and build their own pub, presumably supplying them with enough Strongbow in the process to ensure the work force is as sozzled as the rest of Britain’s tradesmen, and that the workmanship is to the same, shoddy standard. This is just one of the many weird and wonderful recent ideas to have been dreamed by marketing executives with the considerable new weapon of social media at their disposal. Many brands, simply as a measure of quantifying their market, encourage customers to ‘like’ their latest venture, insisting that once a million people follow suit, they will throw a party or something. What next, two billion re-tweets and Apple Corp will eradicate world poverty? That’d be nice.

I was having a conversation with my brother recently, and I speculatively enquired with him as to whether he thought there might be any tickets remaining for the upcoming England Test Match. ‘Haven’t you googled it?’ was his bemused reply, seemingly baffled that I would have even thought to ask anyone but the multi-coloured search bar. And that’s out problem today, in my opinion. Not just that we consult our phones or laptops before we do people with real opinions and experience, but that having such a bounteous go-to resource is damaging our capability to learn, memorise and recall. Psychologists in a recent study confirmed the startlingly obvious; that heavy use of the Internet for on-demand information has rendered us reliant on it use and affects memory capability. I can’t remember the exact statistics though, but I’m sure there’s a way of finding out…

Or, perhaps it’s a good thing? The playing field has been levelled, information is now a right and not a privilege, and that anyone, anywhere can be self-taught in any intellectual practise they choose. If only that were the case. It would be nice to suggest that with access to the sheer wealth of material online, people would seek and devour knowledge like demented PhD students, but sadly (and predictably) the human race refuses to learn, and instead use it primarily for watching porn and gambling. Hey ho.

On a mildly serious note, it begs the question: with total and utter ubiquity of wireless internet signal, which will surely be realised in the next few years, the requirement to store information in our brains will be unnecessary, nay, perhaps even futile. And that’s a little worrying. If the Internet were taken down (or taken out) tomorrow, we would survive. After all, we’ve been reliant on it for a relatively short space of time, and none but the Facebook-weaned, moronically-brained youth would be irrevocably affected. But a few years down the line? Hard to say, except a catastrophic and apocalyptic scenario is looking ever more likely to be cyber-induced. And let’s not forget that if Facebook disappeared tomorrow, the population of the developed world would cease to speak to one another, and may even be forced to resort to face-to-face contact.

Possibly the most regrettable side effect of the Internet is the awful cyber-slang that inevitably follows. In the most egregious way conceivable, it seems that a number of people (women usually, without partners) insist on suffixing .com onto any number of inane verb participles. It’s horrific, and the next time I see a Facebook update containing the ‘phrase’ ‘’, or ‘I’m’ I may well drown myself in a bath of toasters. Come back Des, all is forgiven.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Excess All Areas

Like many bands with waning popularity, Queen

embark on a tour of Britain's Universities, where

along with the new line up, Brian May completes

a PhD backstage at each venue as part of his

tour rider.

‘And that’s when he got up on to the table, and in front of the whole pub, snorted a line of drawing pins whilst ingesting a bottle of Jack through his left eye.’ Everyone loves a good rock n roll anecdote, and it is this indulgence that informs the entire genre of retrospective music documentaries. A bloke, usually in a leather jacket and sporting a face resembling a tube map, sits in a pub (now a wine bar) where an infamous piece of rock folklore allegedly took place. I say allegedly, because you never can be too sure. The bloke in question has been telling that one in various pubs since 1976, and jumps at the chance to regurgitate stories of the old days to a television audience who’ll lap it up like Keith Moon on a stag do.

The thing is, everyone wants to believe the rose-bespectacled roadies, producers, biographers and journalists who routinely apotheosise their idols through the medium of the talking head. I’m not saying these things didn’t happen, but the fact is that the people doing the remembering were often as largely drug-addled as everyone else in the 70s. Except Queen. I watched a documentary recently in which Brian May and Roger Taylor laboriously took me through their entire career, from the band’s inception through to Freddie Mercury’s death. Fascinating. Except it wasn’t, not really.

The problem with May is that he’s too damn clever. There’s nothing wrong with a rock star Post-Grad per se, it’s just that he didn’t take enough drugs in his heyday to translate his story successfully to television 30 years later. Good for him, of course, but a little staid for the rest of us. He could even remember which part of the middle eight he wrote on ‘Killer Queen’ which, being a rock star, he has no right to remember. Ozzy Osbourne, for instance, can’t even remember how to sing.

Contrast this with Motorhead, and the quite excellent documentary they produced in the 90s. My favourite anecdote involved drummer Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor who, having taken an alarming quantity of acid, narrowly escaped death after attempting to escape his dressing room by climbing out of the bathroom mirror. Love that guy.

Yes, I concede that this is all very juvenile behaviour, pitiful really, but for me, the hedonistic antics of rock musicians in the 1970s helps to define the era and contribute towards its rightful status as a behemoth of musical history. The argument that Hendrix (60s, I realise), Moon, Bonham, Morrison et al would never have achieved such legendary status had they lived to be fat, old, leather jacketed men is erroneous and academic. The focus should be on the prodigious talents they did display during their blistering, if relatively short, careers. Twice as bright, half as long as they say.

Some do make it out the other side, but not always successfully. Roger Daltrey looks more like a hip old geography teacher these days, and Brian May, well, the hair was bad enough before it greyed.

With the current vogue for band reformations, a nod must go in the direction of the Rolling Stones, who despite trying their level best to kill themselves repeatedly over the years have managed an unrivalled longevity at the top of their respective games without the need for a break, apart from Ronnie Wood’s rehab and Keith Richard’s ‘Palm Tree’ episode. Scorcese’s 2008 film Shine a Light was simply superb, and the physical condition of Mick Jagger at that gig was nothing short of phenomenal. Admittedly, if we didn’t already know him to be particularly svelte, one would either think he was dangerously malnourished or a twelve year old girl, or both, but that’s by the by.

Some rock stars manage to juggle the respectability of unrespectability alongside a clean living lifestyle. Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden not only shunned the long hair, but also now pilots the band’s private jet on world tours. Impressive, considering the band’s reputation. I’d have loved to see Keith Moon try that; it may have been marginally more successful than his attempt to drive a hovercraft through the side of his local pub.

Now I wasn’t born in the 70s, and I realise I may have fallen into the trap of drinking the same anecdotal whisky I derided earlier, but I make no apologies for that, it's more fun that way. It does lead me to think though: what enduring legacies and Winter’s Tales will the current crop of popular musicians leave in their wake? Remember the time that Chris Martin of Coldplay held an all-night smoothie binge? And what about the time when Justin Bieber took four groupies backstage to play Wii? Classic.

Lemmy once expressed his annoyance at seeing bands getting on the tour bus with laptop computers – ‘There’s no place for that in rock and roll’ he said as he sipped his first whisky of the morning. But, unfortunately for Lemmy, that is rock and roll in 2011, and there just isn’t a place for the Rolls-in-the-swimming-pool approach to life on the road anymore. It’s one reason why the 70s is so fondly remembered; a time when men were girly-looking men, groupies hadn’t quite grasped their equal rights and more importantly, when record companies had more money than they knew what to do with and would surround their stars with a comfort blanket of cocaine and sex, just to keep the creative juices flowing. The Rolls Royce thing never happened by the way, which just goes to show the lengths to which people will go to keep the memory of those days alive.

So, we should be content to consign the days of rock ‘n’ roll excess to where they belong; the heyday of the superstar rock band and of globe trotting lunacy. It would be an exercise in futility for today’s wannabe stars to even attempt to live up to the reputations of Zeppelin, The Who or Black Sabbath. Pete Doherty? Oh please, Lemmy would be turning in his grave had he died when medical science dictated he should.