Jan 012013
 

Firstly, Happy New Year to one and all. You are seeing one of my resolutions in action by reading this – having not posted anything on here since mid November (and a thumping 5-2 win over Spurs) I’m starting 2013 by making an attempt to return to writing. It is, however, something of a rant-driven return. A little spleen venting never hurt anyone, right?

I have to confess to feeling extremely frustrated whenever I turn on sports channels these days. I don’t just mean Sky Sports News, but everyone. Without wishing to hark back to ‘the good old days’, I remember a time where the whole week built up to a match, you’d watch the game, and then possibly catch the highlights later, with a bit of analysis thrown in. Then, you’d flick through the papers as you built up to the next one. It was simple, it was easy, it was fun.

Maybe I had a different perspective at the time, being considerably younger, but it certainly seemed that there was less ‘fluff around the edges’ in the analysis. By that I mean that the likes of Match of the Day would show the game, chat about the incidents and move on. Interviewers would ask about the performance and perhaps the wider context of the league. Thrilling games were enjoyed.

These days, it seems no analysis is complete without sowing the seeds of a story that can be talked about for the rest of the week. It makes sense in a way – when broadcasters only had to worry about a single highlights package, they did exactly that. But with 24 hours news coverage, they need something to talk about in between, so the focus shifts to the controversial, to the debatable, and often to the banal. Witness the aftermath of the victory over Newcastle on Saturday evening. We had just been treated to a remarkable 7-3 victory, one of the ridiculous scorelines becoming associated with us these days, and despite limited time to talk about it, and ten goals to get through, the main focus was Theo Walcott’s contract.

Let me repeat – we had just witnessed a game that finished 7-3, and they were talking about (in fact, idly speculating on) a player’s potential contract decisions. Nothing had changed, no more information had been gleaned, both club and player were continuing their stance, and it wasn’t even the first hattrick he had scored this season.

There are times where such discussion is appropriate – if the player says something controversial, if the manager suggests a change in the player’s future, or perhaps simply if the match ended as a 0-0 snoozefest and there is nothing else to speak of. But surely not here.

Yet talk they do, and talk many do. It saps the life and fun out of the ninety minutes on offer to spend the rest of the week worried about the peripherals – after Saturday’s game I read plenty of fans speaking about Walcott’s hattrick without enjoyment, as if it had been scored for someone else. No, it was for us, and it won us the match. Why can’t we just find the positives in that for a change, rather than worrying about how many more times it will happen?

We are in the midst of perhaps the best fortnight of any season – the Christmas period is always packed with matches (and usually goals, for some reason), games come in a constant stream, and just as you feel January coming on and the thrill dissipating, along comes the third round of the FA Cup, which remains my favourite day of the entire campaign. It is a fabulous time to be a football fan.

But ask yourself this – what was your first football-related thought today? Was it the opening of the transfer window, or the fact we’ve got a match in a few hours against a Southampton side playing better than their results suggest? I hope the latter, but the news coverage is very much focused the other way. Sky, and their infernal ‘transfer ticker’, drive me nuts with a stream of stories that will mostly end up being agent plants, and the press write in the same way. Is this really the most important thing going on?

Who cares if we win today, when there is the much more enticing prospect of a big name signing this month? The same sort of big name signing that is often planted to raise excitement levels, only for the player to sign an improved deal days later. Or perhaps we should analyse the body language of Theo Walcott again, and how much he claps the fans, rather than sitting back and enjoying the actual game?

I don’t get it. At heart we are all football fans, and it is on the field where the best experiences are had. Every wonderful memory is driven by the men in red and white (and variety of increasingly ugly away kits) doing something special on the grass, not by the men in suits negotiating with clubs, agents, players and families. So why is the majority of our time spent speculating and worrying about that? We choose to read uninformed talk of invisible action instead of discussing what is right in front of our eyes, and the very thing that made us so passionate about the game in the first place.

(There is an exception – reading the analysis of those who bring up points you haven’t thought of based on information you don’t have is interesting – but rare. We know who those people are, and theirs are fascinating pieces to read).

I realise I sound like a grumpy old man, and I realise that there are only so many ways you can analyse a game before running out of things to say, but perhaps that is the inherent flaw in 24 hour coverage – you have to fill in the gaps with ‘our sources tell us’, ‘we understand that’ and stories that are so fanciful that they just make you laugh.

So here’s the thing. If we sign someone this month, I’ll talk about it. If we sell someone this month, I’ll analyse it. If Theo signs a new contract, it’ll get a mention. I might even throw in some transfer window thoughts when the blasted thing finally shuts and Jim White can crawl back into his hole. But until then, I’m going to enjoy the games. Fancy joining me?

Jan 272011
 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, or indeed watching Sky Sports News, where they valiantly pretended the story wasn’t going on around them, you may have heard about the spot of bother Richard Keys and Andy Gray got themselves into, going all 1950s alpha male by slagging off the ‘state of football today’ for daring to employ a female lineswoman (who, incidentally, was excellent), while ‘hilariously’ joking about how she would need to be taught the offside rule, being, you know, a woman, and therefore incapable of understanding some complexities. Seriously, these guys missed their calling in stand-up. Don’t give up the day job….oh.

That they no longer have jobs at Sky has less to do with the incident that started the furore (the type of which would normally result in a slapped wrist), and more to do with the fact that they were almost universally disliked within the organisation they worked in. Subsequent leaked videos proved that the ‘joke’ was anything but a one off, and the lack of support from a company that usually rallies around its most esteemed employees was extremely telling. Never was this plainer than yesterday, when Keys went on Talksport and proceeded to commit career suicide with the worst of attempted apologies. That Sky deemed it unnecessary to aid their presenter with prepared material was akin to giving himself the rope with which to hang himself. Keys resigned later that day.

Gray, on that other hand, had already been sacked, and is considering legal action, which he will certainly win. Don’t get me wrong, I have no sympathy for either of them – their smug arrogance belied their own feelings of self-importance, and they had almost become parodies of themselves, their catchphrases (“Take a bow, son”, and “and it’s LIVE”) grating more with every passing week. But from a legal perspective, Gray’s is an open and shut case. He was warned about his future conduct after this week’s incident, and then sacked when it transpired he had done it before. However, you cannot fire someone for not heeding a warning when the second act occurred before the warning was received. It simply will not stand up in court.

It is precisely the same reason why referees cannot give a player two yellow cards in the same incident, no matter how many bookable offences they commit. Ever wonder why when player A hacks player B down, and then they square up to each other, the referee gives them equal punishment of a yellow card? Logic suggests that if B was booked for the squaring up, so should A, and given the booking he received for the original foul, he should be off, but it doesn’t work that way. A yellow card is a warning as to the player’s future behaviour, and a second yellow card comes when that warning is not heeded. The second card cannot be earned before the first has been officially given. In the legal sense, Gray hasn’t had the chance to heed the warning – he has been sent off for a foul he committed off the ball half an hour earlier, that the referee has just seen on the big screen.

The football world has gone into righteous indignation mode, with Henry Winter, the man who loves a bandwagon, leading the charge, tweeting over and over that he had written an article on the subject, as if we hadn’t noticed the first one and ignored it. The only surprise is that he resisted mentioning Henry’s handball somewhere in his piece, such is his inability to let things go. But while the faux surprise that sexism is rife in the Sky Sports studios has been nauseating, it has served a greater purpose – that sort of behaviour has no place in any workplace, and for it to be highlighted can only be a good thing.

Football does, however, have a habit of picking one evil, making a massive fuss over it for a week or so before going back to pretending there are no others to sort out. But while sexism is certainly an excellent problem to tackle, it is far from the only one. It isn’t even close to being the only prevalent form of discrimination that would be condemned in a ‘normal’ environment, yet is openly accepted in the alternative reality of football. I am referring in particular to xenophobia, which is both rife and legitimised.

During the first half of the Arsenal-Ipswich Carling Cup semi final on Tuesday night, Cesc Fabregas dived. It was a pretty poor attempt to win a penalty, and I expected him to be rounded on at half time. He was, but one line used by Alan Hansen struck a chord:

“These continentals have brought us great football, but they’ve also brought us diving.”

It was said brazenly, and raised no eyebrows in the studio. “These continentals” was used as a term presumably to represent all foreigners who have ‘corrupted the English game with their cheating ways’. Cesc was included in that ludicrously sweeping bracketing of nations, despite having barely broken into our first team by the time Wayne Rooney was diving to win United the penalty that ended our unbeaten run in 2004/5. Any corruption of the apparently previously squeaky clean game had occurred long before the Spaniard had come along.

That foreign players brought diving to the English game is a fallacy that the English media, players and pundits like to promote. It dates back to World Cup 90, the first time it became a real issue in our national papers, largely because the offences were being committed on the grandest stage. Klinnsmann was making a name for himself as a theatrical cheat during West Germany’s triumphant run, never more so than against Argentina, when his histrionics ensured Pedro Monzon became the first player to see red in a World Cup final.

Four years later, Klinnsman became one of the most high profile foreign players in the English game when he joined Spurs, becoming one of the early adopters of the Premier League’s rise to prominence. He was still best known for his playacting, a fact he showed himself aware of with his self-deprecating celebrations. Despite curtailing that activity before he even arrived in the country, he was perhaps the first to be labelled as ‘the cheating foreigner who will corrupt our honourable game’. That stigma has never left those coming to these shores, and neither has the country’s distrust of foreigners subsided.

Football, as a global sport, is now richer, more powerful and more greedy than ever before. Prizes for success are astronomical, and with that certain moralities have dissipated – the agent is now the corrupting voice in the ear, contracts are there to be broken at will, and diving to win a crucial penalty is seen as an acceptable risk. None of that is due to having more foreigners in the English game – it has far more to do with the greater rewards and consequences of success and failure.

To say that foreigners are the purveyors of diving and the only perpetrators is at best, laughably myopic and at worst, obscenely xenophobic and offensive. Steven Gerrard, a man adored by the very same Hansen who apparently abhors diving, will tell all and sundry how he tells his new foreign teammates that simulation is not accepted in the English game, only to do his best starfish impression the very next week. And he is not alone. Rooney is a persistent offender, while the likes of Ashley Young throw themselves to the turf at every occasion. Going back further in time, I don’t remember too many people complaining at how easily Michael Owen went to ground winning a penalty against Argentina in the World Cup.

Foreigners did not bring diving to the English game – it was an inevitability that came about by itself. To suggest that if we hadn’t imported Europe’s best talent then we would have avoided the problem is a laughable piece of self-denial. The game has exploded into a multi-billion pound industry, and with that comes cynicism and the desire to win at all costs.

Hansen, along with many other pundits and papers (particularly the openly racist yet strangely untouchable Daily Mail) will continue to blame foreign players for every woe in football. But not only are they misguided in the extreme, they are promoting an opinion that is every bit as outdated and objectionable as those that saw Keys and Gray ousted.

Jul 122010
 

An underwhelming final completed a largely disappointing World Cup last night, with Spain edging out Holland to lift the trophy for the first time. And just as in the European Championship final two years ago, it was Cesc providing the assist for the only goal, this time setting up Iniesta to crash in the winner just minutes from a penalty shoot out.

A clash between Spain and Holland was a mouth watering prospect – not only are they usually two of the most aesthetically pleasing teams (along with the current crop of Germans), but there was an added mystique lent by the extraordinary statistic that they had never met in the World Cup or European Championships before. But the Dutch decided to ruin the game by employing strongarm Stoke-esque tactics, and were lucky not to be men down much earlier than extra time – Van Bommel and de Jong getting away with two of the worst challenges of the tournament.

At half time, Alan Hansen laid into the Dutch tactics, calling them ‘a step too far’, eerily reminiscent of the same words used by both Cesc and Wenger after Ryan Shawcross had destroyed Aaron Ramsey’s leg. But on that day, Hansen lambasted Wenger, essentially telling Arsenal to grow up and legitimising the tactic due to it being the ‘only way to cope with Arsenal’s superior technique’.

Well, if that statement doesn’t sum up everything that is wrong the British attitude to football, I don’t know what does. Last night was no different to what we’ve seen for years – teams that know they cannot outpass their opposition so resort to thuggery. It is not a valid tactic in any way, it should not be praised and lauded as such, yet Hansen, Lawrenson and co do exactly that week in, week out. To then do a complete 180 and lay into the Dutch was hypocrisy at its rawest. Those following me on Twitter will have seen me spitting fire on the subject at the time.

Don’t get me wrong – the criticism Holland received was entirely justified. Sure, Spain were no angels, but they were the victims of some frankly shocking challenges, the type of which should grace no game. That Van Bommel was guilty of one came as a surprise to no-one.

But once the first day of the Premiership arrives, the viewpoint will revert. As soon as a Wigan, Stoke, Bolton or Blackburn player scythes into a technically superior opponent, he will be praised for ‘letting his opponent know he is there’ and ‘getting stuck in’. And if those are the traits we value above all, is it any surprise England crashed out so early, struggling even to control the football at times?

Imagine being Wenger today – he will be well aware of Hansen’s contrasting views of Holland and Stoke, and if I were in his shoes, I’d be raising that very point early in the season. But Wenger has more class than that, and understands that such a reaction will give the pundits the satisfaction of getting under his skin. He will instead listen patiently as they slate the lack of an end product to all the Arsenal passes, compare the number of goals Arsenal and Spain score, and shrug with an ironic smile.

Spain did not win the World Cup because of their stellar attacking, no matter what the press are telling you. They scored eight goals in seven games, looking toothless much of the time. No, they won it because they did not concede in the knockout rounds. The difference between Spain and Arsenal is not end product, it is that Spain do not give the opposition an idiotic headstart.

But don’t expect to hear those kind of sensibilities on the BBC anytime soon.

I had high hopes for the coverage of the final – having ditched some of the less useful pundits (as soon as African interest ended, so did Adebayor’s television time), the BBC could have given the tournament a great send off. But each of the panel quickly made their desire for Spain to win abundantly clear, which made for a painful listen, especially given their remit of neutrality.

By the end, I couldn’t stomach any more of Hansen celebrating the ‘victory for football’, or using Wenger’s own ‘anti-football’ phrase to describe the Dutch, so I switched off, although not before witnessing the farcical trophy presentation, where the entire Spanish squad was crammed into a tiny holding area. Ridiculous.

All in all, it has been a disappointing summer. I love the World Cup, I really do, but this one hasn’t sparked me in any way. There were few thrillers, no minnows going the distance, no stunning comebacks. Even the best goals were largely down to goalkeeping errors.

But on a positive note, the end of the tournament signals the beginning of the build up to another season. Due to players being away from their clubs, the transfer window has essentially been compressed, and the next few weeks should be very interesting. Hold on to your hats.

Jun 252010
 

You analyse the fixtures, pick a match you’re desperate to watch, and get into work early to ensure you’re home in time. Minutes before kick off, you grab a beer from the fridge and perch yourself on the sofa, no intention of moving for a couple of hours. On goes the television, and then comes the big moment – is it on BBC, or ITV? Flick on to BBC1 – The Weakest Link. Crap, it’s on ITV.

Cue painful commentary from Clive ‘Pointless reference to the past’ Tyldesley, analysis from Andy Townsend and Robbie Earle (at least, until he was sacked), and general annoyance from Craig Burley. Adverts that take up more of half time than the programme, endless slow motion replays, and a complete lack of intelligence all round. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t even mind Adrian Chiles.

But what really takes the biscuit is ITV Live, supposedly the way to track the games while at work. It seemed such a great idea – streaming the matches online, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, the ITV stream is usually around three minutes behind, although on one hand I don’t mind that so much – I can hear someone in the office exclaiming at the goal, and then flick up the images and watch it ‘live’. Or at least I would, if the online coverage hadn’t already dropped out.

You see, the stream cuts out approximately every two minutes. Sometimes it comes back thirty seconds later (and now thirty seconds further behind reality than before), and sometimes it just dies entirely. No matter, you might say, just refresh the page, and since the online coverage is a couple of minutes delayed, you’ll probably get the pictures back before the goal goes in.

Well, that’s true – you get pictures back. Unfortunately they aren’t pictures of the match – they are adverts. ITV have come up with the genius idea that instead of attaching you direct to their main coverage (and therefore getting adverts at half time with everyone else), they will force you to sit through three adverts every time you load the service. Even if a penalty shoot out is at a critical juncture. Or if you have the restart the ‘service’ every few minutes.

What this means is whenever you hear a yelp to indicate there’s been a goal, you flick to the stream, only to find it has inevitably fallen over. You desperately fumble around to kick it back into life, get the ‘loading’ screen, and sit back relieved. Three infuriating adverts follow, by which time the goal (and all the incessant replays) have been shown. Oh joy.

They have been shambolic from start to finish. Their presenting team is painful, I’ve watched more matches on mute than ever in my life, their online service is crap, and the debacle of missing England’s goal against USA would have sounded ludicrous had they not done the exact same thing in the FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Everton last season.

Not that the BBC get off scot free. While their coverage certainly seems more professional, they still have the infuriating contrast of the monotone Mick McCarthy and the squeaky over-excited Mark Bright. Both come out with complete nonsense – Bright is a master of idiocy, regularly watching a slow motion replay and describing the events wholly wrongly.

McCarthy, meanwhile, was asked why Argentina were so impressive against South Korea, and replied ‘It’s because they play 4-4-2‘. There was a pause, as clarification was awaited, but none came. That was the full analysis, as if the formation was the sole reason for success. Can’t argue with it, after all Messi has been spectacular for Barcelona this season in a 4-….oh.

But with the BBC, there seems to be higher level of professionalism. With Lineker, Hansen, Hodgson, Dixon and Seedorf providing the intelligent points, their analysis is far more insightful, especially for the bigger games, when the hysterical are ditched and the experienced brought in.

The BBC have their flaws. But ITV have an astonishing knack for removing my pre-match excitement just by knowing it is them covering the game. Some feat.

Mar 062010
 

Reading the newspapers, listening to Five Live, and watching Arseblogger get more and more irate by the Soccer Saturday coverage of the Ramsey incident, it strikes me that the written and spoken press are completely missing the crux of the issue.

  • Shawcross did not mean to break Ramsey’s leg, but that is not the point. 
  • Gallas put in a poor challenge on Davies, Vieira and Lauren used to put in hard challenges, and Arsenal are no angels, but that is not the point.
  • Wenger was emotional after the game, but that is not the point.
  • Shawcross cried, but that is not the point.
  • The Stoke fans contained some of the absolute lowest of the low, but that is not the point.
  • Ramsey was quick, but that is not the point.
  • Shawcross has injured before, has broken legs before, but that is not the point.
  • Ramsey has suffered a dreadful setback, and while that deserves more of the focus than any of the above, it is in some ways, also not the point.

No, the point is that we have cultivated a culture in English football in which weaker sides can do more than harry and press, they can close the gap using methods other than the legal approach of working harder, being better organised and coming off the pitch exhausted.

In addition to all of that, it has become accepted to put in sly tackles, flail elbows, and deliberately foul to put your superior opponent off the game. It is even accepted to come out before the match and declare this as your intention. Instead of applauding the workrate of the strugglers, the pundits snigger at the late challenges, the full blooded swipes, irrespective of the danger they cause.

No other country allows this to happen. Wild tackles are punished no matter what the consequences, but they only come into focus here if they result in a serious injury. Even then, they are defended – how else can the smaller team compete, they ask? The answer is simple – by playing football better than us. The clue’s in the name of the game, you morons.

I get it, you get it, the blogs linked to the right get it. So why do 90% of those paid to analyse the game miss what is the real story here?