Shed and watershed.

From bowlingatvincent.com, April 2015. So a taster. But a relevant one, yes?

Van Gaal’s post-game MOTD ‘interview’, as well as being top TV, felt like a watershed moment. The fella was serene and confrontational; he was brimful with something pret-ty powerful, despite having seen his side get beat, predictably(?) 1-0. Given United were Mourinho-ed in the most classically depressing way (having dominated possession but been caught by a brilliant counter) we might have expected something more downbeat.

But no. Instead there was something mildly erotic about him. He was a Dutch stallion – or a tulip in full lustre. He bossed it, in a non-violently pugilistic kindofaway, his mischief veering slightly towards the merciless as Guy Mowbray scrambled.

That’s good… that you are interested
may go down as the best, driest, eyeball-to-eyeballiest comeback in Premier League history.

LVG was not so much in his pomp as reinventing the genre, because he knew his side had grown up, in public, in a way that validated him and the club. Mourinho had won the points but United had won easily on points. Without being flawless, the reds had played all the football and carried the spirit. Without scoring they had made the statement that they not only had intent, but also quality – kosher, challenge-for-the-title quality. For periods the champions were made to look ordinary; hence the gaffer’s dander.

United fans lapped up both performances. Okaaay we were 30 per cent gutted that Mourinho’s turgid default position had done over our ambitions but 70 per cent of those expressing a preference would call this a significant moral victory. Get real? Maybe, but there is nothing so real as confidence and this display will surely contribute further to the freeing up of van Gaal’s side and mark another positive step in the much-remarked-upon transition.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Mourinho has to take an interest in both the quality of his own team’s humour – see 89 previous blogs about all that – and that of his major rivals.

He can profess or pretend to be the owner of the blackest heart, with the coolest, clearest aspiration; he can perfect the art of ruthless execution; he can win serially and undeniably through being the best and most proactive manager in world football but can he really be impervious to the feeling that there’s something missing? (Short answer – YES!)

But does he never wish he could break himself out of his (own) BIG GAME PHILOSOPHY? Go on Jose – leg it down the street naked – live a little! ‘Ave a right old go – folks will love you for it!

Of course he is loved. Idolised. And rightly in the sense that he is a true, modern great. I fail to see, though, how Chelsea supporters could really, genuinely, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die(edly) love either the means or the manner of their victory on Saturday. Or more exactly how they could love it wholly.

Maybe you could argue that Park the Bus Plus is an elite and legitimate form of footie – in truth you could hardly argue against that. However it is so patently dispiriting as a spectacle and (is this too far?) such a slight on the game that football lovers view it with some contempt. Chelsea and Mourinho are hated more (again) this year because the feeling grows that despite being blessed with attacking genius they will resort to asphyxiation-mode whenever threatened. Meaning crunch matches are… reduced; meaning the soul of something is lost, forgotten or betrayed. The Chelsea project is unloved, generally, because it smacks of business being done.

At which point half the universe is spluttering obscenities about MU being every bit as big a business. Of course it is. The Premier League is an appalling, monstrous, cynical, anti-meritocratic business. But some teams – some managers – are still in touch with the romance at the heart of all this.

Look it’s a fact that United approached this (away) fixture with obvious and creditable boldness. Even though they knew this would suit Chelsea. Even though this may play to the strengths of Mourinho’s side in this draw-will-do-nicely moment – van Gaal opted for boldness.

Amongst his reasons would be the good form of his players and the relative strength of his attack over his defence; United are buoyant, so they look to go on the offensive. If that suggests a strategic choice to attack in part because of defensive frailties this hardly devalues the philosophy. It’s the kind of gamble that infuses sport with glory and with life.

And so to the match. The stats on possession (30-70 in United’s favour) were little short of remarkable, even allowing for the re-engagement of P-the-B-P mode from the home side. Shaw’s surges were perhaps the most memorable feature from a necessarily sharp encounter.

There was controversy – again inevitably – when Falcao was fouled immediately prior to the decisive break. (The Colombian was maybe not as strong as he might have been but Terry did bundle through the back before Hazard profited.) And yes, De Gea did handle marginally outside the box, meaning Jose could again drop into character for another episode of Moanfest Revisited. But it was all effectively United.

Half the United fans exploded when it seemed Rooney had arced one left-footed into the top corner. McNair of all people clearly felt that he was destined to score a screamer from thirty yards. Passes were thrashed forward with confidence. Chelsea were all but dismissed, for considerable periods. But yeh, okay, United got beat.

On MOTD Phil Neville tried not to gush, or gurn with grievance and almost managed it. He tried, in fact, to say some of the big-hearted stuff I’ve just so foolishly said. The sagacious Mr R Savage chopped him off at the knees, mind you, with his own profound assertion that any (critical) judgement on Chelsea’s approach meant nothing in the context of another win. (All I’ll add on that is that van Gaal’s horny disposition thereafter surely personifies the opposite argument – or at least renders the Savage view characteristically simplistic.)

So is it true, this idea that only the winning of it matters? How long have you got?

Fact one (Robbie/Jose); this season is done – it was before the fixture – so look ahead. Fact two; United’s forward transition may come to threaten the Champions soon enough (and this is therefore relevant.) Fact three; (in any case) there are untold zillions who only understand football as a game where trying to score… matters, is the essence of what you do. Fact four; (in any case) is there not an imperative to entertain, to enter into the sport?

I know… I godda be joking. All that matters is the winning.

(Discuss?)

Shed and watershed.

Van Gaal’s post-game MOTD ‘interview’, as well as being top TV, felt like a watershed moment. The fella was serene and confrontational; he was brimful with something pret-ty powerful, despite having seen his side get beat, predictably(?) 1-0. Given United were Mourinho-ed in the most classically depressing way (having dominated possession but been caught by a brilliant counter) we might have expected something more downbeat.

But no. Instead there was something mildly erotic about him. He was a Dutch stallion – or a tulip in full lustre. He bossed it, in a non-violently pugilistic kindofaway, his mischief veering slightly towards the merciless as Guy Mowbray scrambled.

That’s good… that you are interested
may go down as the best, driest, eyeball-to-eyeballiest comeback in Premier League history.

LVG was not so much in his pomp as reinventing the genre, because he knew his side had grown up, in public, in a way that validated him and the club. Mourinho had won the points but United had won easily on points. Without being flawless, the reds had played all the football and carried the spirit. Without scoring they had made the statement that they not only had intent, but also quality – kosher, challenge-for-the-title quality. For periods the champions were made to look ordinary; hence the gaffer’s dander.

United fans lapped up both performances. Okaaay we were 30 per cent gutted that Mourinho’s turgid default position had done over our ambitions but 70 per cent of those expressing a preference would call this a significant moral victory. Get real? Maybe, but there is nothing so real as confidence and this display will surely contribute further to the freeing up of van Gaal’s side and mark another positive step in the much-remarked-upon transition.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Mourinho has to take an interest in both the quality of his own team’s humour – see 89 previous blogs about all that – and that of his major rivals.

He can profess or pretend to be the owner of the blackest heart, with the coolest, clearest aspiration; he can perfect the art of ruthless execution; he can win serially and undeniably through being the best and most proactive manager in world football but can he really be impervious to the feeling that there’s something missing? (Short answer – YES!)

But does he never wish he could break himself out of his (own) BIG GAME PHILOSOPHY? Go on Jose – leg it down the street naked – live a little! ‘Ave a right old go – folks will love you for it!

Of course he is loved. Idolised. And rightly in the sense that he is a true, modern great. I fail to see, though, how Chelsea supporters could really, genuinely, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die(edly) love either the means or the manner of their victory on Saturday. Or more exactly how they could love it wholly.

Maybe you could argue that Park the Bus Plus is an elite and legitimate form of footie – in truth you could hardly argue against that. However it is so patently dispiriting as a spectacle and (is this too far?) such a slight on the game that football lovers view it with some contempt. Chelsea and Mourinho are hated more (again) this year because the feeling grows that despite being blessed with attacking genius they will resort to asphyxiation-mode whenever threatened. Meaning crunch matches are… reduced; meaning the soul of something is lost, forgotten or betrayed. The Chelsea project is unloved, generally, because it smacks of business being done.

At which point half the universe is spluttering obscenities about MU being every bit as big a business. Of course it is. The Premier League is an appalling, monstrous, cynical, anti-meritocratic business. But some teams – some managers – are still in touch with the romance at the heart of all this.

Look it’s a fact that United approached this (away) fixture with obvious and creditable boldness. Even though they knew this would suit Chelsea. Even though this may play to the strengths of Mourinho’s side in this draw-will-do-nicely moment – van Gaal opted for boldness.

Amongst his reasons would be the good form of his players and the relative strength of his attack over his defence; United are buoyant, so they look to go on the offensive. If that suggests a strategic choice to attack in part because of defensive frailties this hardly devalues the philosophy. It’s the kind of gamble that infuses sport with glory and with life.

And so to the match. The stats on possession (30-70 in United’s favour) were little short of remarkable, even allowing for the re-engagement of P-the-B-P mode from the home side. Shaw’s surges were perhaps the most memorable feature from a necessarily sharp encounter.

There was controversy – again inevitably – when Falcao was fouled immediately prior to the decisive break. (The Colombian was maybe not as strong as he might have been but Terry did bundle through the back before Hazard profited.) And yes, De Gea did handle marginally outside the box, meaning Jose could again drop into character for another episode of Moanfest Revisited. But it was all effectively United.

Half the United fans exploded when it seemed Rooney had arced one left-footed into the top corner. McNair of all people clearly felt that he was destined to score a screamer from thirty yards. Passes were thrashed forward with confidence. Chelsea were all but dismissed, for considerable periods. But yeh, okay, United got beat.

On MOTD Phil Neville tried not to gush, or gurn with grievance and almost managed it. He tried, in fact, to say some of the big-hearted stuff I’ve just so foolishly said. The sagacious Mr R Savage chopped him off at the knees, mind you, with his own profound assertion that any (critical) judgement on Chelsea’s approach meant nothing in the context of another win. (All I’ll add on that is that van Gaal’s horny disposition thereafter surely personifies the opposite argument – or at least renders the Savage view characteristically simplistic.)

So is it true, this idea that only the winning of it matters? How long have you got?

Fact one (Robbie/Jose); this season is done – it was before the fixture – so look ahead. Fact two; United’s forward transition may come to threaten the Champions soon enough (and this is therefore relevant.) Fact three; (in any case) there are untold zillions who only understand football as a game where trying to score… matters, is the essence of what you do. Fact four; (in any case) is there not an imperative to entertain, to enter into the sport?

I know… I godda be joking. All that matters is the winning.

(Discuss?)

Oh Arsene!

Oh Arsene. How sick must that parrot have been as you bore it (beneath that dovecote of a puffa jacket rather than aloft, surely?) back up the tunnel at The Bridge. The Bridge of all places!! With that salt ‘n peppa flecked, stubbly-but-gaargeous, offensively-sickeningly-brilliant Portuguese bloke already having tea and kit-kat in the dressing-rooms; dunking emphatically – coarsely. Preparing for the presser where he will say “We come to kill… and in ten minutes… we destroy”.

With flak like the blackest of tear-bombs welling up in the stands, the press-box and across the whole goddam universe, could life ever get more painful for the Thoughtful One?

Heart-breaking; enough to break the spirit and simply extinguish the career of many a football man. Not just a pasting but the passing of a sentence over the Wenger Way. For the team it seems certain there is no way back – or rather no way now to win that elusive Premier League title this year. For the man himself,who knows? Who knows how endless the Arsenal hierarchy’s patience will be? Certainly there’s a feeling that something out there (in there?) must surely have shifted. The poisonous cloud, condensed brutally around those other earlier appalling verbals from Mourinho, has increased in its malignancy. Here we see it, here we feel it; Exhibit A – failure.

But though he must be deeply distraught, expect the sagacious Frenchman to gather. This guy is a philosopher of sorts, we know that. Okay, not averse or immune to the chronic myopia afflicting almost every manager you could name but nevertheless profoundly better equipped in the brain-box (and hopefully perspective?) department than the jabbering, gesticulating masses. Which is why it makes it utter sense that he gave us – amongst others – Bergkamp and Henry and a side that never got beat. The Invincibles.

Wenger’s contribution to the thing we used to call Our National Game has been massive… and massively positive. For many the gauche Mourinho’s abuse of him has been the single most repellent managerial outburst – uncalled for, cheap and vile in a personally disrespectful way – in a season full of unseemly stuff. I for one hope Wenger lands the FA Cup for no other reason than this would go some little way to dispatching that taunt.

Why do I feel that? When I am not simply anti-Mourinho? And how can it make sense when I am clear that the Arsenal figurehead should make a dignified exit this May? Is it just my head wrestling with *facts* from alarmingly diverse and contradictory sources here? I suspect not. As Graham Parker may have sung – Arsene gets us twisted.

There seems to be a consensus around the feeling that Wenger is/has been (a) a truly enlightening force and (b) a daft bugger when it comes to beefing up his defence/midfield. There’s a kind of unreality about the longevity of all this trauma… and its obviousness. Any idiot (we think, sometimes) can see that all Arsene had to do was find another Adams and another Viera and job done. A dollop of obduracy or fire or – for want of a finer phrase – backbone. Easy. The essence of the case against Wenger is simply that and it remains unanswered. But how does all that sit with the man’s undeniable intelligence?

I had to listen to the first period of yesterday’s game on the radio. It sounded extraordinarily open, with chances at both ends and both teams carrying a threat – or so Pat Nevin (former Chelsea twinkler turned run-of-the-mill pundit) appeared to suggest. Arsenal were then blown away ludicrously early, firstly by a top-level finish from Eto’o and then a killer but soft-goal kindofa blow from Schurle… on seven minutes. Seven minutes? How can a top side be destroyed in the first seven minutes, when presumably coursing adrenaline alone would keep you at your most watchful?

In a blaze of action – and it has to be said, excitement – play had charged almost wildly from one end to t’other, with Giroud already missing a decent chance for the Gooners. Then calamityville.

Chelsea charged through the weirdly unprotected deep centre-midfield to devastating effect – two goals and a pen. The Arsenal were utterly exposed, embarrassingly so, both because they seemed unready for the pace of Chelsea’s counter-attacking and because in front of their back four that allegedly mythical ‘NOBODY HERE BUT COME ON IN!!’ sign flapped dopily in the breeze. So raging obvious was this tactical flaw (or, to be fair, failure to execute defensive plans?) that Nevin’s exasperated description gathered it in, to gobsmacking hyper-reality. It was cruel listening as the lack of a dimension paradoxically heightened the scorching drama.

And it worked on radio because we didn’t need to see it to get this vulnerability thing, to know this flaw was there. Every one of us knows Wenger’s Arsenal are simply not durable enough; certainly not against the best. (Invite without undue smugness if you please Exhibit B – Man City, C – Liverpool, D, etc etc.)

I fear we dance with xenophobia or worse when we speak of lack of backbone but it’s an accusation we might perennially reasonably make. And if you are easily undone you have to be absolutely sensational going forward to out-score your opposition week-in, week-out. Arsenal are not that sensational; not currently, not recently.

Sure, in those opening minutes Arsenal did carry something of a threat too but Giroud – even when scoring, for me – is rarely pin-sharp… and not quick. Currently he looks a French Torres; only less mobile. Arsenal’s midfield scurriers and gliders have therefore to contribute heavily on the scoring front because strategically the Wenger Way chooses to spurn what we might call direct potency. But Chelsea’s ruthless exploitation of space throttles any talk of a possible realistic challenge should a full complement of Gooners have remained on the park. The game was gone at two, never mind three nil.

Watching this horror-show later confirmed nearly every concern or prejudice about that which is felt to be typically Arsene, come the Drought Years. To add to the general sense that there was a Viera (or Flamini and Arteta?) sized hole in the Arsenal midfield we might throw in observations about dodgy goalkeeping and a certain aesthetic predictability. In essence, too many nippy but toothless creatives and not enough product. But hold on there. The other lot were pretty tasty. Any judgement must respect (for example) the supremely calm finish from Eto’o and the pace and verve of this suddenly marauding Chelsea outfit.

Plenty has been written about Hazard’s excellence/Terry’s resurgence/Mourinho’s motivational and tactical brilliance. Chelsea have found again that ZAP! – that direct potency? – beyond the ability to merely ‘play’. They are bursting forward with unparalleled energy and commitment whilst denying the opposition the comfort of the ball. Arsenal could neither live with that loss nor counter the blue whirlwind.

In post-match interview, The Special One may again have offended some with his (that word again) brutal choice of language. But the winner may crow. A diabolical and chastening experience for Wenger was for the neutral, in football terms, a rather beautiful massacre. Whether the Arsenal Man is finally(?) fatally undermined… we will see.

The Plight of The Swans.

The story broke nationally earlier that a fracas, accessorized street-gangster-stylee, had broken out on a Premier League training ground yesterday. Allegedly in this case we’re talking full-on foaming low-brow lunacy – i.e. ragamuffin with brick – as opposed to gold-toothed sophistohoodlum with diamond-encrusted firearm. Whilst this may arguably endow the event with a kind of old-school bunch-of-fives credibility, the whole shebang seems particularly absurd when traced to its geographic location – Swansea FC.

Prior to this un-Swansea outrage, the feeling has been that a side built in the dreamboat image of their manager have absolutely led the way as the most civil painters of precious doodles, or as makers of footie-as-sculpture, turning that theoretically dull, flat space (the pitch!) into kinetic, smoothly sensual linkages. If that makes them sound more like a love-object than a togger team, then so be it. Laudrup has developed the inherited football culture and this sense that material has been skilfully – artfully? – tweaked and moulded persists. Then they started getting beat. Then they started reaching for bricks – allegedly.

Suddenly and darkly, there’s the danger of tragedy interloping, via a) some geezer getting badly hurt b) The Swans going into unthinkably graceless free-fall. Even for neutrals, this is not happy territory.

It figures, of course, that any bitterness between Chico Flores and the former skipper Garry Monk will be appropriated from now ’til the end of the season as the sign – the moment – when the Swans terminal dance began. ‘Course they’re arguing – because the club is full of prima donnas!’ That may be the reaction from the cynics and from Cardiff, should the weeks claw away and the battle for survival harden. Personally I hope and trust that they will play their way out of this but the obvious argument against –that a team so apparently obsessed with football of the choicest kind may be less well-equipped than say Sam Allardyce’s mob to battle – rings true enough to worry us purists. But say it anyway; Swansea are good for the Prem and they deserve to do their classy lil’ thing.

Meanwhile t’other Welsh relegation contenders – also now led by a Scandinavian, remarkably – already sit in the bottom three. Despite some signs of encouragement, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s crew were ultimately duffed up 4-2 at The Etihad, by a Manchester City side who look both profoundly capable and ready to take the title this year. Solskjaer will have to really work some restorative magic to keep his team afloat – they look rather cruelly short of quality all around the pitch – but he seems a good sort and both realistic about what may be necessary and up for the challenge. Critical may be who he, as a name, can bring in.

Pellegrini, on the other hand, is in sky-blue clover. Money has bought successive City regimes everything a manager could dream of but this one has shown the wit and the authority to corral the extravagant forces available. To the extent that they are now, unquestionably, amongst the elite handful of clubs chasing the pigs bladder anywhere.

Although it may be possible to imagine that amongst his brilliant mercenaries lack of loyalty for the club badge might cause the occasional blip in the next year or four, City seem perdy close to impregnable and should Aguerro or Toure depart elite replacements are no doubt, for this empire of the nouveau riche, buyable. The question then may be more about how prominent or even dominant might City be – and over how long a period – rather than whether they pip Arsenal or Chelsea this time round.

Down at The Emirates, the other birdlike senior presides over another fabulous and indeed intriguingly classically Gooniferous phenomenon. The perennial Norf Landun storyline, featuring dashed attractive football and an inevitable falling short is again emerging as the business end approaches. Only this time the falling has missed its reassuringly early cue so that we can’t quite be sure (can we? Can we?) that Wenger and co will again be damned to disappointment.

In fact a delicious tension is beginning to unwind, given the actual possibility that Arsenal may be in it to the death, as it were. Where once we had the certainty of failure, we now have something that twinkles with possibilities – something life-affirming, something which teases – and I for one think that’s great.

Okay on balance the brutal truth remains that the bulk of us fear recent history will again repeat; that because of the goddamn inviolability of Mourinho’s Chelsea and the power and depth available to Pellegrini, Arsenal will be undone. If like me you understand Arsenal/The Wenger Project as a worthier, more genuine and longer lasting investment than either of the other two candidates, that does seem unnecessarily cruel. However, a couple of things strike me;

  1. The Arsenal are far from hanging on in there in this title race – they are playing with too much zest and purpose for that.
  2. The Premier League run-in will be a far richer and more exciting place should Wenger’s side remain competitive to the last.

I say two candidates. And this is both disrespectful to Liverpool and contradicts my oft-repeated esteem for their gaffer, Brendan Rodgers. The former Swansea man has invented something so threatening at Liverpool that the Scousers have re-found their roar as well as their lust for the title. Rarely is the incongruously lame phrase that ‘anything is possible’ more appropriate than in the case of this Anfield side, where the world’s most deadly player and his medium tasty English sidekick do have the potential to radically unpick the wider narrative… only to find themselves (let’s say) two-down home to Villa after 40-odd minutes.

Rodger’s Liverpool can and will beat almost anyone on merit on any given day and can even go on the kind of run that snowballs towards glory. But, honestly… I don’t quite see them as Champions. His squad is palpably less impressive than Pellegrini’s in particular and the ‘Pool defence (and keeper?) is just too ordinary. Suarez-led, they have lit up the league; whether this claim is undermined by the Uruguayan’s propensity or ability (you call it) to gain free-kicks or penalties is, whichever way you judge it, one of the issues of the season.

Spurs, Everton and Manchester United are not contenders for the title; they must target Champions League Football instead. United, as always, draw the most coverage – just not here – where the subject is essentially top… Wales… and bottom.

Had words.

Given the self-consciously bouffant cosmo/metrosexuality of the erm #Blues, the first half of the Europa League Final was an extraordinarily trad clash of gifted foreigner (in red) v English plodder (in blue.) For the first 45, Chelsea may as have well played wearing white hankies on those over-coiffured barnets; Oscar looked nervously ordinary, Mata too absent to even be ordinary, Ivanovic like a clumsy, monkish David Webb and Ramires managed to be both infuriating and fascinatingly awful – all of this in a peculiarly Brit kindofaway. Meanwhile the impish swarm that was the opposition toyed around their tetchy, island-hamminess.

It occurred that perhaps this latest influx of Abramo-galacticos had been spending quality time in fe boozers rarnda Bridge, polishin’ ap on ther ‘istry or sammink as part of some Community Outreach Thing(?) How else to explain their total immersion in a rich, Shed-local and apparently transformational anthropological context? Suddenly they seemed fully qualified as authentically duff footballing Englishmen. Was this merely because the moment pressed? Perhaps – but be honest – my theory is much, much more fun.

Gaitan and co skipped and smooched around a statuesque Chelsea rearguard in a fashion that must surely have gladdened the heart of the Benfica bench… although looking at the whirling but-not-entirely-in-pleasure Manager… maybe not. Jorge Jesus – him with the extravagant locks – showing more irreligious passion than contentment. Unstill soul that he appears, surely the only cause he might have had for those constant explosions of vitriol was on the matter of the scoreline; his team having slaughtered Chelsea in terms of style points and creativity but failed (significantly) to notch. Nil nil at the half flattered Benitez’s crew. He then, must have been the one to have ‘had words’.

After the break it became a contest. The embarrassment of riches and touches for Benfica was more meaningfully challenged by Lampard and Ramires, despite the latter’s weirdly off-key performance. The near humbling fluency of the reds, so characteristic of the early stages, slipped, as what I imagine to be a Benitez-driven gathering of blue force responded. There were few now, of those moments when you thought Benfica would dismiss Chelsea entirely through a beautifully constructed goal. Arguably less football broke out, in fact. You could almost feel Gaitan, in particular, sweating over those painfully lame misses from earlier in the match – chances which had they been converted might have tipped the reported balance over from ‘deserving winners’ into ’emphatic’. Despite real quality from the jinking/interlinking Salvio, Cardozo, Salvio, Gaitan, Benfica did lack that killer touch, meaning ultimately… ’twas not to be.

In a twisted world it’s a dead cert that the most maligned striker in the history of the universe is gonna stick one on his critics on an ‘occasion’ like this. And so it nearly was; meaning Torres if not absolutely sticking one then politely labelled a reminder and pressed it quietly against the fridge. Or somewhere. Fernando – whom I too have abused and whom I too still believe to be a pale shadow – threw off some of those monkey-albatross things and firstly led the line with something close to competence and indeed threat and secondly… scored.

Fittingly perhaps, it was a bit of a Sunday League, end-to-end in eight seconds flat job; except the finish, which flickered between composed and stylish, even. Cech lobbed the ball out smartly to Lampard, who pinged it through for the 50 Million Smackers Man to run onto. Torres extended and bypassed both the last defender and the sprawling keeper – going worryingly wide for a split second – before clamly slotting. Four years ago we would all have said it was class. Probably, it still was.

Benfica did respond but things were scrappy now rather than entertainingly ding-dong. Curmudgeonly barges and slightly cynical tumbles and inelegant, incomplete exchanges. Luisao baulking or lunging, Ivanovic clumping, Luiz still not hitting a meaningful pass. There was tension, still, in the play.

A clumsy handball from Azpilicueta needlessly gifted Benfica a direct route back into the game – Cardozo despatching the penno. Significantly, however, the reds control had ebbed away and the staccato nature of things was as least as likely to be punctuated with (for example) two stunning strikes from Lampard as it was with anything orgasmic from those sexy-footballing Europeans. Oscar and Mata still made only fleeting contributions, but the feeling grew that Chelsea’s resolve – or their physicality? – might be enough, without recourse to what might generally be termed ‘much fooball’.

It may therefore only be right to point out that a certain Fat Spanish Waiter (sorry Rafa!) is entitled to take some credit for the distinct improvement in attitude, application and consequently fortunes of the Chelsea side post the break. They dug in and held – even whilst failing to find their classier gears – and suddenly… bingo.

We’re in the last minute and there’s a corner which Mata floats towards the back stick. Ivanovic – who had been inconsistent with his defensive work all night (and was yet to offer Benfica one last golden opportunity, which fortunately for him, they spurned) drifted then looped back to connect with a firmly steered header. Time stands still… as does the keeper… and the ball arcs into the top corner. Cue ecstasy, cue disbelief. Chelsea have won their second European trophy in a year or so… and Benfica – remember them, who looked different class in the first period? – have now lost seven (repeat SEVEN) on the bounce, apparently.

Re-winding, it may be that the most remarkable thing about the game (save it’s extraordinary climax) was this imperfect correlation between say… John Terryness and David Luizness – or at least the David Luiz that looked kinda British, last night. And him (and Chelsea) being bamboozled by ‘technically gifted’ types for much of the game.

For a zillion years foreigners have done this carousel-of-lovely-touches thing to our lot but given that this 2013 version of ‘us’ is more likely to have wailed its first in Portuguese rather than cockney, how could a team containing almost no Englishmen represent the White Cliffs and stuff so stoutly? Could we maybe credit/blame Benitez for that too? And where does this leave the concept ‘us?’ And hang on… was that Jesus bloke like… on something, anyway?

In the extremely wonderful The Big Lebowski, the central character gets through by being a combination of stoned, stoic and mellow ma’an. It is said that ‘the Dude abides’. As he waddles off onto another sunset, another box ticked, perhaps we should be offering a little congratulation to Signor Benitez… who likewise, I suspect, will persist… nay thrive?

Follow that!

There’s that thing where you mainly want to deny such-and-such the oxygen of publicity… and then…

#Swans(Ballboygate). #Edengate. #Endoftheworldasweknowitgate. #I’msodesperateforFOLLOWSI’mgunnalieonthisfuckingballmungate.

… maybe a few words might be said?

In last night’s Peeling Paint Trophy cultured minnows Swansea City triumphed over metrosexual giants Chelsea, thereby qualifying for a Wembley final against mighty Bradford. And most of football hussaaarred, before hoisting their cloth caps gaily into the greenly-dancing wintry bay. ‘Twas a delightful rebound to the days when boys with shin-pads twice the width of their shins got a Saturday Sixpence, and sherbert lemons rooled the world – acidly but kindof reassuringly sunnily.

So it did have that nostalgic timbre, except that Swansea – now led not by some local wide-boy with a taxi cab – oozed a kind of surreal un-brit crypto-Real classicism around the park, not so much dumping but dismissing the unwashed cockneys from their presence; Swansea City now being coiffured as opposed to gaffered by some bloke called Laudrup hailing from valleys lit more by aurora borealis than blanching leeks.

In Swansea’s case the journey from footie’s precipice to bona fide, stylish Premiership cruisers is a thing of some beauty; not so much a RAGE as a gathering strut – one which they have, on recent evidence, nigh on perfected. Long gone the days when survival in the pro’ game was under meaningful threat; now, as well as the comfort of general acknowledgement of their ‘classy’ brand of football, they have a valedictory date up the capital. Not their capital, admittedly, but trust me, the local populace have swiftly found it in their hearts to forgive just the one escape to land of the lily-livered enemy.

The Swans are indeed flying then. And I do feel conflicted over (even) writing on ought but their hugely laudable progression. But look, we know what we have to talk about, if briefly. Forgive me.

In the second half of a game now drifting away from the Lampards and the Coles and towards a Last One Out Turn Out The Lights exodus for The Smoke, something essentially laughable happened. After the ball had been knocked out of play for a Chelsea throw, a ball-boy engaged in some pretty dumb time-wasting; by lying on said sphere. In the full knowledge that this – oh THIS – was his moment to

  1. strike a blow for Wales
  2. get on the telly, like
  3. deny that English bastard Eden Hazard possession.

You could see him (Ballboyman) engaging twitter as he lay there. Yet before he could hashtag the word #glyndwr (or google the spelling) the aforementioned Hazard had hoofed him in the midriff, in either

  1. an attempt at cold, cowardly murder (this from the SAF book of H and S)
  2. an understandably frustrated effort to retrieve the ball and play on
  3. a moment of madness most of us approved of in the circumstances.

Whichever way it was extraordinary. Extraordinary and naughty, of course. But mainly extraordinary in its deliciously fine-tuned exposition of everything that’s wrong, now… and presumably forever… in the mad flush of sensuround phenomena that constitute those two things – Us… and The Prem.

Transported (though on the couch) back or forward somewhere weirdly both familiar and threateningly odd, I laugh my goolies off – literally – watching as the lard-arsed ballboy simulates an act of sedition so crass it might have been well… planned. (In so far as a low-life of this nature could indeed plan.) His #epic #fail at both lying down convincingly and feigning inter-costal agonies was entirely appropriate to the age of Get Me Outta Here (or Get Me Some Followers, in fact.) I loved him for his Homo Homer-Simpsonianisness, his wide-eyed WTF outrage as the savage Hazard gave him most of what the watching world thought he deserved. It was soft porn for pundits.

As the cameras panned in and Hazard the crazed, over-remunerated foreigner looted and shagged and sprayed his wanton seed over the fields of old Enger… I mean Wales, it was all – in terms of its relevance to the hour – magbloodynificent. Like something that might have been on at The Royal Court (end of Kings Rd, geddit?) in about 1964.

A breath-taking, sexually invigorating flood of issues arose. Where to throw our contempt first? How to pitch our revulsion without spilling the Doritos?  And what, in the name of god, can we do in the face of this EXHIBITION OF FILTH?!?

Given that I have been at the helm of a Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct, I suppose I should be upholding some illuminative matter of conscience here; pointing to some haughty tribunal or other. No doubt eventually I will, once I stem the flow of OMG’s and furtive laughter. For now, there’s no escaping the feeling that (I’ve been there – haven’t you? Come on, off the record?) – it’s sort of okay… when some arsehole really gets one. So let’s move on?

Meanwhile, like the rest of the universe, I’ll be queuing for the slowmo scratchmix edit.

I recently published an ebook – it’s here, on Amazon, with an introduction from Paul Mason and support from Brian Moore and Paul Hayward, amongst others –   amzn.to/SSc9To

 

From The Bridge, with love.

It varies, clearly. The amount of responsibility – credit or otherwise – that a particular Manager deserves to receive. And in football, the measurement of such things is a) hilariously prejudiced by tribalism and … well, rage, often and b) by lack of knowledge – ours. In particular knowledge of what really happens in dressing rooms and on practice pitches. Few of us get a fair or informed picture of all that barking and larking or genuine professional graft. At Chelsea, over and above these prevailing inadequacies, there appear to be several extra dimensions, belted provocatively together like some Dadaist symbol for contemporary machismo. How much is satire? How much is real? What’s it made of? Who is responsible for this madness/this brilliance? Well now… blow me! It’s Rafa.

Rafa the ‘fat Spanish waiter’. Rafa the prolific trophy-hunter-gatherer. Rafa the portly ‘academic’. Rafa the puppet-with-thankless-task but substantial wedge, critically(?) we assume. Nominally – it’s him.

So let’s run with that for at least a paragraph. That assumption of him Casey Jones-ing the Blue engine; waving his hat and smiling through steamed glasses at the bouncing innocents along Kings Road Meadow, as they gosh and gallivant alongsides. (Because it’s that kindof beatifically innocent scenario we’re talking here, right?) Rafa as wholesome, er… English, spirit-lifting and no doubt balloon-piloting leader of men rather than porky attendant upon some Russian oiligarch. Because –even us unBlues – we have to dream, yes? Let’s dream.

Benitez starts off as Stinky Pants in the class; universally disliked and derided for his unequivocal unattractiveness and history of suspiciously dour, five-bellied Latin Scouseness. Or something. Slaughtered for not being either of those other two Mediterranean geezers; abused for his obvious and treacherous lack of FatLamps/Terryhood. But he manfully steps up (here comes that Casey Jones thing again) to the fireside plate and woo-woo – slings coals around with authentic Grit and Determination. He whistles convincingly, authentically, trans-halfwayliningly, with just the right fingers in just the right part of his gob and… before yas know it… proper locomotion! Players go beyond mere hand/arm wheeling gestures and puffing out cheeks into recognisably doing His Full-on Rafathing. Firstly, actually listening – as opposed to smirking in the depths of the changing room before jogging subversively out– then whooshing and clanking and braking and refuelling, pretty-much, in exactly the way he might really want, on the pitch. As if Rafa was really really in charge. (Cue major toot!)

It’s becoming (something that seemed cosmologically distantly unlikely) infectious, I think. Both the notion of Rafa winning out and the actuality of Chelsea getting manifestly better. Even those of us who have failed to warm to the man and who remain suspicious of the quality of his achievements elsewhere may – like the Sheddites themselves – have to nod approvingly as the Flying Spaniard streaks past… and on… and upwards. Because let’s face it, this seems increasingly likely.

Chelsea are looking good; more durable and organised; pacier as well as more directly threatening. Torres, whilst not being remotely the liberated, electrically humming soul of Anfield days, has looked like a footballer again. And has scored. Plus that suspicion of frailty brought on by the random inclusion of anyone with an exotic surname is dissipating, markedly. Chelsea’s midfield are more successfully stopping other people playing, whilst growing themselves – finding their rhythm, dominating. They are a stronger unit. Whether or not we acknowledge this through more or less grinding gnashers, it seems only reasonable to conclude that Benitez must take some credit for this.

But when will this turn into love? How long – if ever – before the chanting turns turtle? Already you suspect that the vitriolic banners are being folded away. After the deluge against Villa and now – perhaps more significantly – the hard-won and possibly fortunate win away at Goodison, when might we expect the first warblings of Rafa-appreciation to go public? Who, I wonder, might be bold enough or drunk enough to break ranks from the previously icy monolith? Anthropologists are no doubt secreting themselves amongst the faithful to trace the moment.

In this near-romantic fug it really is possible to shake away, for a lovely moment or two, the shadow of Roman. But not entirely. Because though he remains unimpeachably clear from the dangers of any form of accountability – whether by interview or other democratic means – Abramovic rules. His truly appalling metier – that of the alleged fan but in reality that of the bruiser, the dictator, the maniac, perhaps? – abides. So any personal triumphs or inspired choices or transformative drills or directives from Benitez shrink to nought; or will. Because they mean nothing compared to the real Gaffer’s whims.

I have found it fascinating and a little depressing that in the upheavals of recent weeks and months virtually no dissent – and no demonstrations to my knowledge (though I am happy to be corrected on this)- have been targeted at Abramovic, for what many identify as his bitterly stubborn mode of ‘leadership’. As though he has bought that particular success – ie inviolability – in addition to the on-field accomplishments. Instead, the focus has been entirely fixed on an unwanted Rafa and the unjustly departing Di Matteo. Meanwhile (and consequently) Chelsea the Club remains an idle plaything, less than inert but more than competitive, paradoxically fortunate to be in Abramovic’s financial orbit but corrupted, some would say, by his grasp. In short, (perhaps not uniquely) there is no innocence here; instead there is something which feels greedy and anti-sporting.

Rafa may succeed. He may even succeed undeniably, so that (because a particular gentleman may yet turn Roman down) he may be paraded triumphantly yet by a suddenly loquacious and emotional and converted Abramovic as the ‘Real and Legitimate Manager for this Club.’ But I doubt that. Sounds lovely… but I doubt that.

I have just published an ebook of selected posts and new material, with an introduction from Paul Mason. ‘ Unweighted – the bowlingatvincent compendium’, is available from Amazon ebooks.  The link amzn.to/SSc9To should take you there from Twitter.