Sunday, 16 November 2008

Sweet FA

A nation of overweight children too fat
to play football? Certainly sir, would you
like fries with that?

I was perusing the appointment pages of the Sunday Times last week, and came across a cushy little position at the FA. The job title was ‘Chief Executive’ or something; must be important, because they took out a half page ad, and in colour too. Now I read the blurb, and as far as I can gather, the main goal for the successful applicant is to sort out this failing enterprise, and point it in the right direction so that ultimately, the English can win some football matches. At least that’s what I gleaned from the particularly convoluted language used in the ad. They make it sound easy; anyone can achieve co-ordinated synergy whilst maintaining traction to gain leverage in a competitive and ever changing dynamic sector, right?

I was just about to apply, when my mind was unexpectedly cast back to a balmy summer’s evening in 2006, when having obtained the telephone number for FA’s Soho square offices from directory enquiries, I drunkenly called them to demand an explanation for Mr Eriksson’s choice of formation during the group stages. I left my name on that answer phone message, and so considered my hopes of becoming incumbent in the chief exec’s suite dismal at best.

Whatever the eventual candidate decides to do down there at the nation’s most overpaid and under worked office building will be entirely irrelevant. Yes, he (or she, but we’ll safely assume he for now) might change the stationery or sack some people, but there is not much that can be done about the overriding task that has dogged the organisation for over 42 years now; winning something football related. There is the youth training stuff to deal with, but all that needs to be done there is to say ‘yes’ and part with some cash for the seemingly ill fated national football academy in Burton (which at present is occupied by sheep) and put a stop to the ridiculous (but lucrative) sponsorship deal that sees the FA working in conjunction with McDonalds, of all people, to promote grass roots level coaches and facilities. No, the main task lies beyond the CEO’s control; the management of the national team. To inflict further ignominy on the previous director, that task was given to Steve Mclaren, to whom I am not prepared to give the credit of my precious words to insult. Oh, ok then. Wanker. Anyway, he was sacked and went off to learn to speak English in a Dutch accent, and now we have Fabio Capello, who looks equally as clueless if we’re all honest, but has a glittering managerial career behind him. So far it seems to be going ok, but there is still plenty of time for his players to trip over their own egos and end up in a big heap somewhere at the bottom of the world cup qualifying group. We’ll see.

This week, Capello has expressed his desire to coach the British Olympic team in 2012, describing the opportunity as his ‘dream’. We can only assume with his limited grasp of English that by ‘dream’ he meant ‘waking nightmare’. The whole affair will be a disaster from start to finish. It’s hard enough to get one country to play to a decent standard, let alone four. I am also doubtful if the respective FA’s of England and Scotland will ever actually agree to the terms and conditions that will see the first coming together of the home nations for a competitive tournament. Capello has a significant rival in his bid to coach Team GB; a grimly visaged Scotsman who hangs around Manchester a lot. Alex Ferguson is also in the running, presumably so he can pick 11 Scottish players and stick two fingers up at the English as his swan song before retiring to a yacht in the Caribbean.

Whilst I am on the subject of the Olympics, it seems that staging a multi billion pound event smack bang in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the last one is finally beginning to induce some headaches. It has been confirmed that fewer new homes will be built on the Stratford site than originally planned, and the state of the art Media Centre will now be a not so state of the art ‘temporary’ structure, or portacabin. One can only assume that this downscaling will continue and gather momentum as time passes, although you can bet that the final bill will not drop with it. At this rate, we are potentially looking at staging the athletics on the playing fields at Lewisham College and the diving competition on a plank of wood nailed to Blackfriars Bridge.

Back at the FA, there is no obvious resonance of a recession, with a six-figure salary plus benefits awaiting the successful applicant at Soho Square. A wage befitting of the task at hand I would say. If the new CEO can drag English football out of the doldrums and put in place a mentality that leads all the way to the world cup final and the Olympic gold medal, I’d give him a blank cheque. And a knighthood.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

New World Order?

Karl indicates how many major
banking corporations this week alone
could have benefitted from having a
large grey beard.

I’m so glad that things are finally settling down and becoming normal again. There was, for a time, the pervading feeling of impending doom, that not even the politicians in the highest positions of authority knew how we as a developed world would pull together and see out this tumultuous time. But rest ye worried minds, for all is well. The world’s biggest superpower is due to implement a new regime, and will draft its unbridled genius and vision from either a corpse assisted by a crazed Alaskan armed with a hockey stick used for smashing the brains from polar bears, or a thin man with little experience but a smile that transcends his face, taking his financial advice from an unqualified, tax dodging plumber. Phew, that’s America sorted then.

And fret not either, for another major player, everyone’s favourite vodka swilling racists Russia, remains fronted by a man who is capable, if not liable, as his recent instructional video shows, to judo chop his way through the entire United Nations security council. Meanwhile, back home, British level headedness and calm resolve prevails, with the new head of the British armed forces doing the sensible thing in the current economic downturn, and pledging 30,000 fresh troops to various suicide missions across the globe whilst we devise a new sub zero graph to chart the demise of the FukTSE share index.

It would seem then, if I were to obey the countless posters in London’s subways and on boarded-up shops that the only realistic option left open to us in this current climate of disarray and uncertainness is to grow a beard and become a socialist. Fine, I like beards, and I hear the Marx look is very in right now. There is a problem however; the slight niggling drawback that Socialism could never work here in the UK in 2008.

If we were all at university, then it would work like a dream. It is in some way admirable that students are the only demographic that seem to actually want to change the world. I have regularly been accosted in the street by shabby politics students who, having entreated me to become a socialist and subsequently received my polite declination, have each launched into a tirade of righteous dogma and suggested that my decision is obviously based on my ignorance to their ideals and could not possibly be a result of my own independent thinking.

Their activism is largely due to youth, enthusiasm and a fresh perspective on the world, as well as having too much time on their hands, but the main reason for their relentless mission to alter the course of human civilisation lies in the fact that the majority have never stepped foot into the real world; that crushingly difficult, austere and soul destroying ocean that millions of us share, and in which it takes the maximum of effort just to maintain one’s heads above water. Spend a couple of years getting battered by its waves once the harbour wall of university has been removed, and one can be excused for getting less than feverishly excited about organising a revolution for a new world order.

Ironically, if these same politics student succeeded in their utterly futile mission, then life would probably be more pleasant for a large proportion of the population. Despite my cynicism, I would love to see a switch in western values with the introduction of a government attempting to break down class barriers and oversee the equal distribution of wealth for the people of Britain. Call it pessimism, pragmatism or just weary disbelief, but I can’t see it any anytime soon. Especially with the seemingly inevitable onset of a Conservative government to brighten the lives of everyone but the normal man. Still, stranger things have happened. Derby County won away from home the other week, for instance.

On a totally different note, I would like mention how wonderful I think it is for Guy Ritchie that he no longer has to take orders from the repressive and toothy old monster that has dogged him for the best part of a decade. It is no coincidence that the man has not been able to produce a decent movie since he married the cadaverous troll, as all the while he has had to endure the interminable embarrassment of seeing his elderly wife writhe around in a leotard on television with dancers whom she is old enough to have mothered in her late 30’s. It must also be hard to knuckle down to work when the other half, having ostensibly nipped out to get bread and milk, returns each week with another new child stolen from Africa. Get out Guy, get out, and whilst you deserve at least a few million quid for your troubles, you probably won’t get it, because you’re a man (and your wife is in league the devil).

Friday, 22 August 2008

Axe Factor?

Simon adopts the default position after
advisors suggest he lowers mobile phone
voting fees for this year's X Factor

I envy Simon Cowell. The majority of Britain and America realise he is a power-crazed evil genius who truly only gives a shit about himself, and yet he still manages to front TV shows that pull in millions of viewers from both sides of the Atlantic on a regular basis. He is the totalitarian dictator of the phone-vote show format, responsible for millions of eyebrow raising telephone bills and despite his programmes being implicated (and eventually acquitted) in the fiasco that was the ITV phone-in scandal, his reputation has escaped relatively unscathed.

Cue the new series of X Factor then, and strap yourself in for a predictable and totally choreographed few months. We all remember last year’s winner, well, um, we all remember the winner from two years ago, one Leona Lewis. In her, Cowell finally found a contestant worthy of exploiting on the other side of the pond, rather than just dumping in it, and so we will probably not see Ms Lewis again for some time until she returns from America an emotional wreck with a cocaine habit. By which time, there will be a new one.

The first episode was the usual affair; the inevitable sob story of a woman who ‘wants this more than anything’, aiming to overcome the adversity of her terribly unfair upbringing in which she chose to have seventeen children. You could almost see the Pound signs in Simon’s eyes as this, lets face it, crack whore was given the opportunity to show how singing a few lines on TV is seen as an acceptable alternative to education and hard work when aiming to succeed in life in 2008. Then, there was the unbridled hilarity of two Welsh half-wits who stumbled their way through a Peter Andre song in the most excruciating way since Peter Andre. Like I said, the usual drivel.

The lucrative presenting role has been reprised by Dermot O’Leary, who, whilst being immeasurably more bearable and far less irritating than Kate Thornton, has some way to go before he masters the false sympathy for contestants and obsequiousness towards the judges that is required for the role. Annoyingly, he also insists on wobbling his head around like he is being controlled by Jim Henson. The other big change sees Cheryl Cole replacing Sharon Osbourne, to which I have no objection. You will not hear complaint from Ashley Cole either, who must presumably be overjoyed that he will not have to book a hotel room to conduct his affairs now the wife is out filming.

Over on the other side, the BBC’s latest attempt seems to be in full swing. If ‘Last Choir Standing’ were not the fourth of fifth incarnation of the Beeb’s ‘perform-vote-perform-for- survival’ reality format then it would surely be laughed off the airwaves. I was not a regular viewer of any of the other shows, and so I cannot fairly compare or contrast this one, but it works a hell of a lot better than it sounds.

Of the two presenters, Nick Knowles looks he longs to be back on a show about knocking down walls, whilst the ever smiling Myleene Klass has evidently just graduated from presenting school. The slightly odd pairing presides over a show in which a series of amateur choirs from around the country battle it out to become, you guessed it, ‘Last Choir Standing’. The name suggests that the disqualified are put to death in a gladiatorial manner, but my suggestion to the BBC that this may be a worthwhile addition to the post watershed results segment in subsequent reality shows has been sadly ignored.

This week, singing for survival were Bath Male Voice Choir and Revelation, a gospel choir from a paradoxically joyous and soulful part of East London. Their choice for the showdown was the gospel classic, ‘Love The One You’re With’; although I’ve leafed through my Bible and I can’t find the books of Crosby, Stills, Nash or Young anywhere. Despite this, it was enough to see off the boys from Bath in the judges’ opinion, although I do believe Russell Watson and the other two adjudicators were acting under duress following the projected costs of keeping the eventual losers in the competition. Not even the BBC can run to dressing 32 ageing tradesmen in new suits time after time, not to mention footing the hotel bills having ferried them up and down the M4 every week.

The BBC’s entertainment programming ideas may vary from the sublime to the ridiculous, but credit must go to their ability to think even a little bit innovatively. I thought the days of reality phone-in shows must have been nearing an end after last year’s tired X Factor format but, like an untreated genital wart, it has come back bigger and bolder than ever. As much as I hate to admit it, this is testament to Cowell’s canny ability to assess when a duck becomes a dead one. He proved this by axing Pop Idol and replacing it at just the right time with X Factor, and will doubtlessly do the same again once he has squeezed every last penny from the show, and when he judges his reputation to be waning. Channel 4 could use his vision, with Big Brother currently limping pathetically home in the ratings race. In fact, if it were a Greyhound, it would have long since been shot and tossed in the Thames.

There may be many (myself included) who are screaming out for a fresh approach to entertainment television, but for now it seems we must resign ourselves to at least another year’s onslaught from Cowell & Co, happily duping millions of overweight women into pausing from their takeaways long enough to pour their money down the telephone lines in voting for the biggest thing since the last big thing. What was last year’s winner called, anyway?

Friday, 1 August 2008

What's The Story (Olympic Glory)?

The Tibetan Shot Put hopeful
demonstrates his technique ahead
of next week's Olympic event.

And so the Olympics are upon us again. It doesn’t seem like five minutes since the last one, but mankind’s largest cock measuring contest is back. This time, it is the turn of Beijing to spend a fortune for the privilege of housing a million foreigners for a month.

There have been doubts as to this vast industrial city’s suitability to host the games. The kayakers for instance, have been warned not to submerge themselves in the river unless they welcome the idea of glowing radioactive green, and the marathon runners have been preparing for the air quality with a strict regime of 20 Marlboro a day.

Niggles aside, China has really pushed the boat out for this year’s games, spending more than is conceivable on a stadium that is supposed to resemble a bird’s nest, and which unfortunately for them, has turned out to look just like a bird’s nest.

Much has been said in the run up to the games regarding China’s woeful human rights record, at home and abroad, and many politicians spoke hopefully after Beijing was awarded the games that we may see changes in the communist nation, with the softening of some of their policies and ideals now the world was looking on.

This was wishful thinking of the highest order, and as Amnesty international’s 2008 report shows, has done nothing to alter the behaviour from the ultra restrictive communist government towards freedom of speech and forced labour. No doubt on the surface it will be all smiles in Beijing during the course of the games, and it is doubtful whether despite the inevitable protesting, the Chinese silencing committee will be seen or heard with the world’s eyes fixed on the country; it would after all be a PR nightmare. As for the potential for unrest, one needs to look no further than the farcical torch rally to see the weight of opinion against Chinese human rights policy, and not even with their huge resources can the government replace the entire city with secret service men as seen alongside the flame procession.

As for the sports themselves, China will be hoping to do rather well. Like any communist state, the Chinese government holds its own country in massively high regard, and likes nothing more than revelling in the achievements of China on the world stage. And what achievements they are. Twenty years ago in Seoul, they took home just 29 medals, falling way short of the podium. By 2000, they were third with 59, and last time around in Athens, were pipped to the post only by the ever-omnipotent USA, who took home only 4 more golds than the Chinese. This year, they will be certainly hoping to keep the Americans on their chubby little toes.

Part of the reason for their success is obvious. If the world were a school playground, the Chinese team captain would have far more kids lined against the fence to pick for his team. To put this metaphor into some kind perspective, by comparison Britain would be left with the fat kid and the nerdy one with glasses.

However, sheer population does not automatically denote success. What you need is a system, and that’s one thing the Chinese are rather good at. You see there isn’t many sports that China has great tradition in. Given that re-educating Tibetans is not yet officially recognised as an event at the games, they are left with only a couple of historical specialities. Martial arts are the main one, for which the rest of the world turn up every four years for a total pasting, and the other for some bizarre reason is table tennis. So instead of the British approach; training up anyone who shows promise in their chosen discipline, the Chinese do it the other way round and find sports, however alien, and make people good at them. This explains the production line of freakishly talented (if in many ways totally abused) young gymnasts we have seen over the past few decades.

I read a news piece recently concerning the Chinese rowing team. The government were looking for a sport that had the maximum number of categories, (i.e potential medals) and decided that rowing was it. They set aside a pile of cash, hired one of Europe’s best coaches, picked out 10,000 men and women and put them in a camp for a year and hey presto, a world beating rowing team is born. A little soulless yes, but a winning formula nonetheless. This strategy has enraged the rowing world and put more than one nose out of joint in Henley-On-Thames. In fact, in a television interview recently Steve Redgrave, the sort of Olympic hero whose life you just know is an empty void since his retirement, said that it just wasn’t on that the Chinese rowing team had come from nowhere, and what’s more, they must probably all be on drugs anyway. Nothing like embracing new competition eh Steve?

As for team GB's chances, Redgrave will be happy to know that rowing is amongst our top sports, with experts predicting a gold medal or two despite the challenge from the potentially chemically enhanced Chinese robots he seems so concerned about. We also have a small boy hoping for diving success, which angers me somewhat, because when I was young the swimming pool staff never let me on the high board. He must have his own pool.

Elsewhere, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot by disqualifying our best sprinter, tennis’s Andy Murray will be hoping nobody good shows up so he can bag a medal and the badminton mixed doubles pair who claim they aren’t a couple, but everyone knows are at it, are aiming to go one better than the silver of four years ago. Sadly, there is no GB football team, and the absence of such a squad entering the games looks set to continue after the Scottish FA refused to participate, claiming their independence would suffer as a result. Hmm, I really think they have missed the point.

There is little doubt that Beijing will be a success, from a logistical point of view anyway. The IOC will be hoping for a peaceful few weeks, with sporting prowess taking the headlines, but the games may be remembered from a far more political standpoint. ‘One World, One Dream’ is the maxim under which the 2008 Olympics are being played. Quite whose world, and what dream are unclear, but one thing is for sure, if you are anywhere near Tibet or Darfur, it certainly isn’t yours.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Shiver Me Timbers...

Jack felt he had been discriminated
against after his broadband provider
accused him of piracy.

When I think of pirates, my mind is transported to some far away ocean, in which sails a ship full of drunken men with eye patches, wooden legs and questionable attitudes towards women. Quite how, given their crews’ sensory and mobility impairments, these ships struck fear into other sea-going vessels is a mystery. Who knows, perhaps the parrots bore the brunt of the labour. What is not in doubt however, is the enduring legacy of such ships and their law-shy inhabitants. Piracy therefore, unlike most crimes, has been granted a legendary status, and its memory somehow seems to absolve its perpetrators of all wrong doing; namely the murder, rape and theft they were so fond of.

Why then, in today’s society, do we reserve the term of piracy with all its swashbuckling imagery, to describe some Japansese student copying music and movies, which he then sells down the local boozer? As far as I am concerned, this is a tame employment of the word. Yes, piracy is a serious issue, and as we are constantly reminded, is more or less destroying the entertainment industry with its impact growing exponentially each year. Despite this, I prefer to think of it as changing it, as opposed to destroying.

Of course, as everyone knows, the Internet has facilitated an alarming amount of piracy, and the illegal downloading of music and films is no longer the exclusive domain of hi-tech nerds operating empires from their parent’s loft. Within today’s Internet savvy youth culture, programs like LimeWire are commonplace, and most think nothing of downloading albums for free with the click of a mouse; I am guilty myself. Part of the problem, other than the ease of doing so, is that obtaining content in this way is not perceived by the majority as wrong. This is despite relentless attempts to convince us of the fact. Take cinema advertising for example, that likens the downloading or purchasing of pirate material to stealing a car or a handbag. ‘It’s not though, is it?’ is most people’s response.

This is partially due to the perception of those we are ‘stealing’ from. People do forget that the entertainment industry extends way beyond the artists or actors themselves, and some can see no further than the overpaid stars, believing their money can be more ethically spent. It is this Robin Hood mentality makes it much easier to justify the ‘theft’ of a movie or album. I spoke to a woman once who honestly thought she was helping Robbie Williams by choosing to illegally download his album rather than buy it. As a die-hard fan she was, in her twisted logic, cutting his profits in a bid to prevent him coming to a grizzly, Elvis-like end whilst eating cheeseburgers on a solid gold toilet in his LA mansion. For fear of her reaction, I stopped short of telling her that it is much, much too late to avert that particular inevitability.

Let us not forget though, that piracy has existed in some form for decades. Much of my childhood was spent happily sellotaping over the tabs on cassettes in order to copy my friend’s NOW 17, or recording songs directly to tape from the radio. Admittedly, before that vinyl was difficult to pirate, but that period saw the birth of illegal broadcasting with Radio Caroline taking to the seas in 1964. Much later, after CD’s has consigned the cassette tape (and annoyingly, most car stereos) to the dustbin, it became apparent that they could be copied cheaply and easily on any half decent PC, giving rise to the explosion in library attendance amongst the student population, raping and pillaging their CD collections in a manner faintly reminiscent of the original pirates, albeit with more government assistance and less work ethic.

The late nineties saw the beginning of the Internet generation, and piracy made a jump into the mainstream. Napster was the pioneer, enabling its members to ‘share’ files between themselves, and boasted 26 million users before it was shut down after a court injunction in 2001. Since that time, countless other sites have sprung up. Record companies have been accused of burying their heads in the sand when it comes to lost revenue through illegal downloads, and seem to be no closer to a resolution. Last week, Virgin announced that it was clamping down on file sharers, threatening to disconnect users from their Virgin Media service unless their illegal activities ceased. This worried precisely nobody, given that according to Virgin, no prosecutions will be made on the back of the investigation. Ironically, Virgin Media are currently introducing a new fibre optic broadband service which will mean increased download limits, and ensure that the very same pirates can access their loot much more quickly and easily than before.

With regards to music, the increase in pirate activity is forcing a change of tack within the industry. In certain cases, they are aiming to beat the pirates at their own game by offering free downloads, as seen with the recent cases of Coldplay and Radiohead, two of the biggest bands on the planet. Increased live performances and more frequent tours are becoming the norm as a result of the changing face of the music scene, and is becoming more and more important. For instance, there are more festivals this summer than ever before, as bands and artists look to claw back the lost profits from recordings to keep them in the lifestyles they have become accustomed. I often wonder whether if placed in today’s climate, the Beatles would have ceased touring as early in their career as they did.

The entertainment industry is resilient though, and whether it be through live shows, merchandise or public appearance, they will no doubt find other avenues in which to make their exorbitant sums of money. So do not fret; the age of the spoilt, overpaid pop star is far from over, and whether we like it or not, with today’s ubiquitous mass media, the likes of Winehouse and Spears will continue to haunt us whether we are stealing their albums or not...

Monday, 23 June 2008

Anyone For Tennis?

Britain's new national tennis centre has
received a mixed response from players
and coaches alike

I ate a bowl of strawberries and cream this evening, which can only mean that Wimbledon has started. Or that Sainsbury’s had them on special offer. Either way, they were ok, but as is the case with all British fruit, they were just not as sweet or inviting as the continental stuff. The same is true of most of our tennis players; not that they are bitter (although I’m sure a lot of them are), but rather that they are just a little disappointing. I do not wish to write another article centred totally on the failings of British athletes, so I will pick on the ex-athletes. Like Tim Henman. The Prince of over-hype and under-achievement decided last year that he had perhaps put the British public through too much pain and chucked in the towel. It is exclusively within the domain of British tennis that any half decent player can hang up his boots, or plimsoles, and sit back, relax and to wait for the inevitable call from the BBC. There are so few successful pros that tennis on television simply must contain every single one of them. Or at least, that is the only way they can hope to justify the inclusion of ‘Tiger Tim’ on this year’s Wimbledon coverage. You could ring out more charm from a used sweat towel than from Henman and his strange, gormless smile. He promised before the tournament that he would prove to the nation that he possesses a sense of humour, although his insistence on entering Wimbledon each year with the hope of winning revealed this years ago.

My hope is that they will break him in gently by plonking him on some outside court to commentate on ball girl vs tennis ball machine on the ill-conceived ‘BBC interactive’ service, where it is poossible to simultaneously watch pictures of nine tennis courts with their rain covers on. When there is play, being given a choice in this way can be counter-intuitive; I remember last year being completely unable to choose between two live matches, flicking feverishly from one to the other until I had lost the plot of both and said bollocks to the whole thing, returning instinctively to the comforting default position on the sky box that shows non-stop Top Gear.

The great news this year is that they have finally shelled out for a new scoreboard on the centre court. It was long overdue, and must be a relief to its sponsors Rolex, who have been lucky to stay in business by associating with the local railway station standard of the previous one. I think the new colour display even has the facility to play back pictures of Cliff Richard singing in the rain, which bizzarely the BBC seem to find infinitely fascinating.

As for the sport itself, in recent years the men’s draw has been dominated by the world’s only famous Swiss man, with Roger Federer taking the honours in five consecutive tournaments. The final has been contested for the last two by the oxymoronically floppy haired yet ferocious Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, who has only relatively recently learnt how to play on grass, on account of his lack of practise due to the rain falling mainly on the plain in his native Spain. The women’s game on the other hand is harder to call, mainly because of the frightening quantity of super talented blonde girls with an ‘ic’ at the end of their names that are emerging from behind Europe’s old iron curtain.

And so to British hopes. Or hope. The ever petulant Andy Murray will be hoping to avoid injuring his nostril hair, little toe nail or whatever it was that kept him out of contention in the last tournament so he can be free to shout, swear and generally disgust his opponent into submission. Good luck to him I say. ‘Tiger Tim’ could have done with a bit of Murray’s Scottish beligerance in his playing career. The only emotion we got from him was the now famous clench fist motion he performed after a particularly crucial point, which always looked more like he was very constipated. The thing is, Andy Murray is actually quite good, and is only 21 so has some time before his career reaches its peak. This is in stark contrast to Henman, who didn’t so much peak as continue on a semi competent plateau, and was arguably prevented from climbing to the top of the metaphorical mountain by the constant gale force wind of public expectation that blew him back down again. Hopefully, unlike deluded football fans, tennis enthusiasts will have learnt not to pin such unrealistic hopes on our current number 1, and just let him get on with it.

Incidentally, Murray’s brother Jamie is rather good too, and actually won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title last year, although in my eyes doubles tennis doesn’t actually count. It’s tennis’s ‘special’ younger brother, with learning difficulties but a ‘real zest for life’.

The figures reveal for themselves how far behind the British lie in terms of competitive tennis players. France and Germany, two comparable countries in terms of affluence, population and climate, have 15 and 12 players respectively featuring in this year’s men’s draw, and Britain a measly 4. The same goes for the women, with only 5 due to turn up for a battering. Interestingly enough, I cannot name a single female British tennis player. Come back Sue Barker, all is forgiven.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is the lack of available coaching at grass roots level. Tennis has long been the domain of the upper middle classes, with club snobbery ensuring that cash, rather than talent, be the deciding factor in membership. It means simply that there is no talent without coaching, and no coaching without cash. As for tennis in schools, everyone knows that the courts only exist to provide a place to conduct fire drills, and from memory, rarely even have nets.

Funding is a real problem too. Every time I see British athletes fail at something, my mind is cast back to a wonderful segment of a documentary that was aired just before the last Olympic games. It charted the progress of two similar athletes, both swimmers. One was from the UK and the other from Australia, and in a similar situation to Rocky IV, the Australian had wires protruding from him and was plugged into about five beeping machines whilst he trained in a specially climate controlled glass box. Whilst his every movement was being charted by a computer to highlight any minute areas for improvement that might shave a thousandth off his personal best, our guy was in a public pool in Luton with his trainer pulling along what looked like a fishing lure on some wire through the water for him to chase. This, the Olympic hopeful revealed, was the full extent of government funding for the swimming team.

Given that we are hosting the games in the not too distant future, should we not throw some cash behind finding and training the very best athletes? Not necessarily becuase we want to win everything like the Americans, but instead because it is almost guaranteed that in 2012, London’s infrastructure, transport system, crime levels and cost of living will be embarrassment enough, without our athletes showing us up further...

Sunday, 8 June 2008

And now for the Sport...

During the 70's, Des managed to juggle
his work as both sports presenter and
porn star quite respectably.

Imagine yourself in B&Q looking for paint. If you didn’t see the colour you wanted, you would go and see the man in the apron behind the paint desk. He would know more than is healthy on the subject, and you would leave satisfied with your choice of elaborately named colour. Suppose that the man behind the paint counter was not in fact a paint expert, but had been drafted in from the gardening section and couldn’t tell his Cumulo-Nimbus White from his Sratus grey. You would probably feel a little inconvenienced. Now suppose you learnt that potted plant man was not simply covering for his friend whilst he attended a paint-related emergency, but was a permanent fixture behind that counter and would not be replaced. In that instance, you may want to tell him where to stick his paintbrush and go to Homebase instead. I know I would.

This is exactly how I feel with BBC sport coverage. A perfect case in point occurred a couple of weeks ago, when BBC2’s live coverage of the PGA golf championship was anchored by none other than everyone’s favourite crisp-eating goal poacher, Gary Lineker. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Lineker, he is a fine presenter and professional to boot. MOTD is just not the same when he is absent, though admittedly that could have something to do with his stand-in Ray Stubbs, who would be more at home presenting the World Darts championship with a beer in his hand every week. But surely Lineker is the football guy right? Wrong. For some reason, the Beeb consider Leicester’s silver fox to have reached a plateau in his career, where he now transcends football and can be used generically. This as may be, but it did not stop my mother, with whom I watched the golf coverage, uttering his name most incredulously as the program was introduced. The Lineker rule also applies to Sue Barker, who has risen to a level that (thankfully for Sue) seeks to erase the memory of her many years spent in tennis-playing mediocrity.

The BBC has a particular penchant for these sport-hopping impostors, and some are frankly ridiculous. For instance, I laughed out loud when I saw a red-faced John Parrot jogging over Tower Bridge during the London Marathon, struggling to keep up with the man dressed as a giant vegetable that he was interviewing. I am dubious as to whether he has run 26 miles in his life, never mind an afternoon. Similarly incongruous is the sight of half the 1992 British Olympic team wandering around for the BBC with microphones at any given sporting event and interviewing anything that moves. What next, the woman from the racing show presenting Crufts? Oh no, wait…

Specialist, ex-professional sports star presenters are all very well and good, but they must be confined to their respective field of play. The problem is that the BBC lacks a pool of quality, multi purpose presenters. You could draft them in from other genres, but it wouldn’t work. Richard Hammond cannot present everything on television after all, and I wouldn’t trust Graham Norton anywhere near a program involving the word balls. Titchmarsh would make things difficult by turning the six yard line or fairway into a herbacious border, and Adrian Chiles is problematic too; not even the most serious and tactical sports are beyond his relentless, sarcastic dismantling.

Oh, how they miss Steve Ryder with his beautiful mane of greying blond and a manner slicker than James Bond, who can now be seen weekly on ITV delivering his smooth, calm and English-gentleman approach to the Formula 1 championship. I have fond memories of his days on Grandstand, holding links together like the exquisitely groomed glue that he is. It is no wonder Grandstand was canned not long after his desertion to ‘the other side’.

My suggestion is for the BBC to run a major reality show in a similar style to ‘I’d Do anything’, dedicated to finding the next great sports presenter. It would be named after and adjudicated by the godfather of British sporting broadcast himself, with Des taking Lloyd Webber’s seat as the Beeb take contestants and begin to ‘Lynam Up’. You saw it here first…….

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Exclusive: 'USA fined for Martian littering '

Detailed plans of Britain's next voyage
into space as revealed yesterday. It is hoped
that the 'chihuahua' will transport Britons
to Mars by the year 2020.

Hooray! We’ve landed on Mars! When I say we, I mean the Americans. And when I say landed, I mean guided an unmanned and heavily laden tea tray with legs on to the surface. The first pictures from the Phoenix scout craft were beamed back on Monday, showing in crystal clarity the terrain of our closest neighbour to be just as rocky, dusty and dull as many expected. This did not curtail the jubilant scenes from Arizona, with the mission’s staff clearly relieved that they still had a job after the craft was given a 50/50 chance of surviving the landing. ‘Welcome to Mars’ said NASA’s Mars chief Fuk Li, who is presumably overjoyed that this successful phase will ensure he is remembered for something other than his hilarious name.

All this is in stark contrast to the events of 2003, when Britain’s own version of the Phoenix, the pathetically named ‘Beagle’, was destroyed entering the Martian atmosphere, leading to misery inside the broom cupboard in the basement of a University building that doubled as mission control. Given that funding for the British Space Program is less than for the Eurovision song contest (at which we are equally as hopeless), I am dubious that it got that far, and am sure that even if our three-legged Beagle did make it out of the Earth’s atmosphere as claimed, it would have probably hit the Moon by accident.

Space travel just isn’t our thing. Whilst the other world superpowers were getting busy with the space race and putting men on the Moon, we were working on mop-top beat pop and winning the World Cup. Far more worthwhile, as the Beatles sold more records than NASA could ever hope to, and there is still a chance Paul or Ringo might get into orbit. Space exploration in Britain is treated as a bit of a joke; a few mad scientists with vain hopes of floating around in zero gravity. Its place in the media is reserved for the ‘and finally’ segments on the local news, where wannabe astronauts are seen launching rockets ‘into space’ from a quiet spot on Clapham Common. Britain should gracefully bow out of the space race. After all, it’s only another competition for us to potentially lose, or at best crash out in the quarter-finals.

For all its bells and whistles, from what I can ascertain, the Phoenix scout cannot actually do very much. It has an arm, with which it intends to dig down to reach a layer of permafrost, but may not be able to tell us a great deal once it has done so. Apparently, though the whole mission is geared around the ancient ‘life on Mars’ hypothesis, the Phoenix does not have the equipment on board to test for existing or past life. It is primarily concerned with finding ice just below the surface. Given that aerial probes have long since confirmed the existence of ice on the red planet, it seems that the half-billion Dollar Phoenix will do little more than to confirm that it is indeed frozen water.

Experts will argue that there is much more to it, and perhaps there is, but the pragmatic reality of space exploration has the unfortunate drawback of playing second fiddle to Science Fiction, which has given us far more excitement over the years than simply sticking a metal finger into the red rock of Mars, and is way more fun. It won’t be truly captivating for the public until we send someone there in person. I have a diary opening next week so will volunteer. Who knows though, perhaps in 200 years time, we’ll all be living the Mars dream. Elton John once sang ‘Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids’, but I am not so sure; I hear there is a lot less knife crime…

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Toffs and Trollies

'Does one know the way to John Lewis?'

A little while ago, my local Sainsbury’s closed temporarily for refurbishment in order to rearrange the store to resemble Jamie Oliver’s face. Instead, I was forced to go to ASDA. If you ever need to feel a little better about the state of your life, I suggest you visit. The trolleys may have minds of their own, but the check out staff for the most part do not, and as for the clientele, they are less ASDA and more ASBO. It was cheap mind you, and I felt strangely compelled to pat my back pocket accordingly as I walked back to my car. I also learned that ‘George at ASDA’ was not in fact a helpful man behind the cheese counter, but the designer tasked with dressing the nation’s council estates.

I was reminded of this excursion recently when I heard that ASDA held the second biggest share of the UK grocery shopping market. They are overshadowed only by TESCO, whose titan-like grip on British (and increasingly world) shopping poses as big a threat to our planet as Climate Change. In fact, environmental and economic experts estimate that by 2100, rising sea levels will have covered 80% of the Earth’s landmass, and the remaining 20% will be covered in nothing but TESCO express stores.

This got me thinking. Assuming the lower paid, working classes of this country are reflected in the demographic seen at ASDA, then this comprises a huge proportion (17% to be precise) of potential voters in the next general election. Class has been put in the spotlight of late with Labour’s attempt to paint the Tories as ‘Toffs’, planting two activists in Top hats and tails during the much publicised run up to the Crewe & Nantwich by election.

Also in the news has been the resurgence of the debate over MP’s expenses, which, entirely paid for by the taxpayer, can amount to twice the salary of each MP and include furnishings for their second homes in London. To standardise these expenses and justify all the gold-plated kitchen sinks in Westminster, a list has been compiled using prices from John Lewis, the department store that also operates Waitrose. This is hardly a reflection of everyday British retail, and ensures that unlike most of the population, MP’s can enjoy the finer things in life. As such, whilst the Prime Minister reclines in his John Lewis hot tub, he should think twice about throwing accusations of ‘Toff’ at other parties and takes a moment to consider that many ‘ordinary people’ might consider his party to lead a privileged existence too.

There does of course exist one obvious solution. In an effort to help level the playing field, MP’s expenses should from now on be calculated against prices at ASDA……

Monday, 12 May 2008

'Tis the (end of) Season'

Derby County celebrate their first ever
Premier League title in an alternative
reality at Pride Park on Sunday

And so the curtain goes down on another Premier League season. In an afternoon totally orchestrated by Sky TV, kick off at the JJB stadium was delayed in order that simultaneous split screen pictures from Stamford Bridge could be beamed to every Manchester United fan in the Home Counties and beyond. In the studio, dozens of possible permutations were enthusiastically hypothesised. Jamie Redknapp was particularly buzzing, although he is still new to punditry and will have to endure a few 0-0 draws on dreary Monday evenings in Middlesborough before he becomes lobotomised like some of the rest. Ray Wilkins, who looks more and more like a potato every time I see him, is a good example of this.

It was put to Wigan boss Steve Bruce before the deciding game that some had questioned his allegiances, and that his managerial integrity was in question. The three-time title winning Manchester United captain and ingratiating friend of Alex Ferguson, with an obviously burning desire to some day return to Old Trafford, was of course quick to dismiss these rumours. The real question of his managerial credentials should have been why, as a defender himself, he still employs the stumbling calamity that is Titus Bramble

All Chelsea could do to prompt a frantic dash with the trophy down the M6 was to score a goal or two at home to Bolton, something that pretty much everyone else had achieved at some point in the season. A Manchester United win would see a second successive title for Alex Ferguson’s men, and so any impartial viewers’ hopes of a nail biting finish rested with Wigan putting a stop to United’s dominance. To their credit they gave it a good go, they defended sternly and Heskey came close to scoring on two occasions in the second half. The afternoon belonged to the defending champions however, with a penalty in the first half converted by Ronaldo, whose behaviour was more toddler-like than usual, followed by a strike from none other than Ryan Giggs, who secured his tenth league winners medal with the club fifteen minutes from time and nearly caused Fergie to choke on his gum with excitement.

Meanwhile in West London, the news filtering through from Wigan gave Stamford Bridge an atmosphere akin to a funeral, and was compounded when Bolton equalised in injury time. Indeed a funeral march may have been an apt choice as some of the Chelsea players left the field, a chance for the fans to pay their last respects to the likely departure of Lampard, Shevchenko and possibly Drogba in the summer.

At the bottom of the table, Fulham continued their impressive run of form to ensure Premiership survival, beating Portsmouth away from home. Victory for the West London club resulted in heartbreak for Reading and Birmingham however, whose valiant efforts saw them both score four and win their respective games only to be swallowed up by the relegation quagmire that drowned Derby sometime back in September.

Elsewhere, as a two fingered salute to Thaksin Shinawatra, owner of Manchester City, Sven guided his team to an impressive 8-1 defeat in what is likely to be his final game in charge, and with so little to play for, with their holidays imminent, Liverpool’s match with Spurs was presumably played out in Flip flops.

Everton secured fifth place to ensure European football next season with Yakubu proving himself quite the opposite to the total waste of money and (considerable) space his acquisition seemed to spell.

Cue the summer break then, when the tabloids crank up the rumour mill with wild transfer speculation. I am told, for instance, that Elvis has just signed for West Ham.
Elsewhere, Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan plans to strengthen his squad by selling everyone he owns, apart from Michael Owen.

Finally, I would like to propose a moment of reflection for Derby County. An epitaph of their catastrophic season was beautifully delivered via text message upon the final whistle to my brother from his friend at Pride Park. It read simply ‘Crap.’

MyFace, Spacebook...

An article i wrote for a website some time ago....

//Accept friend invitation?//


Facebook, Bebo, Myspace. What do these words say to you? Some will have no idea, and probably guess that they are pop groups vying for this years Christmas number 1 spot. For the majority of people in the 15-40 demographic however, they are as common in daily vocabulary in the same way as words like ‘Big Mac, ipod and tomtom.”

For those at the back, the aforementioned are websites. Social networking sites to be more precise. They were designed with the sole intention of linking people together more easily and efficiently. The idea is pretty simple; first set up an account (your profile). This is done by answering a million questions from what music you like to whether you would prefer to sleep with Brad Pitt or Jonny Depp. You then upload a photo, and search for some ‘friends’.

This is where it becomes interesting. Most of us could probably write our list of real friends on the back of a fag packet. I mean, the word friend suggests someone you ring up on a daily basis, someone you meet with at the pub/gym/church/S&M club, right? Wrong. If you give yourself over to the online dark side, then prepare to completely change the way you operate. Even with casual use, a slightly geeky thirty something with no real friendship group in real life, can notch up a good 60 friends within a month using one of these sites. He enters the e-mail address of his one drinking buddy, whose list contains another 5 people he went to school with. A click of the mouse here and there and e-presto, he has 7 friends. These people in turn have mutual acquaintances and before you know it, our once greasy recluse seems at first glance to be more popular than the Pope.

Sites such as Facebook can be both a blessing and a curse. A sceptical friend of mine remarked how invasive she felt the site was. This is all too true. When I first joined up, I reviewed my page and began realising the extent to which my life could become a published article. I don’t necessarily want everyone I have ever known knowing about everything I do from here on in. I’m not saying I lead a double life like Batman or Clark Kent, but we all have a past. The main problem is that these sites bring our past, present and sometimes future colliding together in one potential online pile up. One comment typed out of turn, and before long, the worldwide rumour web starts spinning.

You hear more and more of marriages and friendships being destroyed through malicious web untruths, and while I know gossipers have always existed, they have now been given an extension of the tongue with a boundless audience. One badly timed post on someone’s profile can effectively ruin him or her. There are stories about potential employees’ online behaviours being under surveillance so as employers can ascertain whether or not their new receptionist is or ever has been a hooker.

I totally disagree with the notion that you can suss out any given human being on the strength of their Facebook page. For one thing, their comments may not be a true reflection of what they think, but instead a contrived ploy to either glorify themselves or to put others down. We must remember that unlike audible conversation, typed comments can be carefully mulled over for hours before utterance, and are immortalised in digital ink rather than the comparitively forgiving timescale of sound waves. Secondly, the list of one’s friends should be taken with a pinch of salt too. Whilst I have very few contacts on my profile that I would not gladly go for a drink with at a moment’s notice, others accumulate friends they don’t even know faster than their laptops accrue viruses.

Another thing that gets my goat is those who actively seek a person’s ‘friendship’, acquire it, and then never get in contact. I mean, you wouldn’t introduce yourself to someone at a bar, shake their hand, and then blatantly ignore them having sat at their table would you? In my mind, people should stop hiding behind the online shroud, and treat socialising online the same as they would in the dying habitat of the real world. Only last week, I had a friendship request from a guy I have not seen since school, and even then I barely knew him. Despite him actively seeking my approval, I saw him days later in the local pub. I recognised him from his picture, as did he with me, but he avoided my eye contact and did not even approach me. Needless to say, I wimped out royally, accepted his request for fear of being deemed rude, and shall probably never speak to him; online or otherwise. So much for the increased ease and simplicity of social networking. It was much less confusing when it all took place down the pub….

Handbags and Gladrags

I have literally just set up this blog page so the first few posts may be a few weeks old or possibly longer as they have just been sitting burning a hole in my hard drive!
After Sir Alan Sugar’s tumultuous reign at Spurs, he remarked that all footballers were ‘scum’, and that most of them would probably be in prison were it not for the sport. An extreme view perhaps, but I certainly agree with the sentiment.

I am writing this with last week’s farcical scenes from Stamford Bridge fresh in my mind. There are of course farcical scenes emanating from Stamford Bridge and every other Premier League ground on a weekly basis, but this week’s winner goes to the visiting Genii of Manchester United, and their two-man vigilante gang of Ferdinand and Evra.

Firstly, after being substituted, Rio childishly lashed out with his foot at a wall that was cleverly disguised as a woman, in a manner about as threatening as a Derby striker. The wave of ‘ultra violence’ then continued post match, when for reasons unknown but seemingly inherent to French footballers, Patrice Evra launched himself at a ‘civilian’, who, considering his employment as a pitch side security guide, would have probably knocked him out had the fight not been split up (or exacerbated? It is not clear) by a mob of United players and coaching staff. And the reason for this pathetic behaviour? Yes, United had lost. It is precisely how I myself would have acted, had I been six years old and defeated at Tiddly winks by my brother. The only difference here, apart from that Tiddly Winks is a game of immeasurably more skill and finesse, is that we are not talking about children.
Fully-grown men’s acting in this way is disgraceful, and when coupled with the iconic status they hold to the nation’s young it becomes completely indefensible.

Professional footballer. Analyse the term. They play football, and by definition they are paid for it. It is their profession, and automatically demands a degree of professionalism right? Wrong. In the same way rock stars in the 70’s were plied by the record companies with as many drugs and women as needed to keep them sated, footballers are so heavily mollycoddled; surrounded by cars, Gucci sunglasses and Girls Aloud members to the extent where they feel immortal and certainly not subject to the same rules and regulations that govern the rest of us. I realise I may sound a little jealous (I concede I have a soft spot for Ferraris) but it angers me that this particular demographic are not reprimanded heavily enough for their habitual displays of petulance.

Let me put it in this way. I am a successful solicitor, I work a defence case, my client is found guilty, I smash up the bench and call the judge a c*nt. Consequently, I lose my job, my wife, my friends and my licence to practise law. Rightly so.

I am a Premier League footballer, I get riled by the smug defender whose leg I tripped over (deliberately), I stamp on his legs to gain retribution, I call the referee a c*nt, I receive a yellow card, I finish the game, get fined a morning’s wages (£4000) and go home to my adoring model wife. Hardly seems fair does it?

A case in point; though the incident was uniformly condemned, Eric Cantona received a mere one season ban for his attack on a fan at Selhurst Park. To put it into context, if a plumber attacked his customer in this way, it would probably have carried a five-year jail sentence as assault.

The exorbitant wages paid to players and the comparatively low fines for misbehaviour are also instrumental in promoting this behaviour amongst these young men. If I had the chance to punch a particular bloke from my office knowing full well that the most I would receive would be a ticking off and a 50 quid fine, I would take it, and probably every week.

The intrinsic ego of the modern day footballer must be reigned in. The salaries must begin to be capped worldwide by FIFA, and referees and managers must take a harder line with offenders who persist with childish behaviour similar to what we saw at Chelsea last week.,. Professional football needs to start becoming exactly that, before it descends even further into pathetic childish pantomime.

So, given his contempt for the game, perhaps the FA should hire Sir Alan to issue an ultimatum; behave or ‘you’re fired’.

Pete Grant