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 should take you there from Twitter.

Cup Feeling

The ‘build-up’ to the FA Cup Final – how long? Did somebody not bother to tell ITV that – ludicrously – the kick-off was hoiked back to accommodate god-knows-what-or-who? So they started blathering about lunch-time as usual and just kept on, presumably with the producer making windmill signs and mouthing just keepit going!! until kick-off arrived aeons later. By which time the TV audience is so bloated with nacho-consumption they’ve lost the will to live, or on the lager equivalent are so paralytic they think Roy Keane is Simon C and that the big girl’s blouse up front for Chelsea is Aleesha D. I had twigged (LOL?) we were evolving into a dumbed-down species of highlight-obsessed couch-spuds but… c’mon people.
More seriously – like hoogely/anthropologically importantly – does anyone have that real Cup Feeling anymore, I wonder? The one where dressing rooms around the isle go quiet as the radio chunters out the draw? Or where small boys skip joyfully round the living room on hearing ‘Liverpool away?’  Do they?  When the semi’s are played at Wembley? When most of the playing participants did not (now) grow up with this gorgeous fervour – indeed nobody, I suspect, grows up with it now in the way that we did – when it meant something?

How could it be the same when the powers that be schedule the kick-off for tea-time? Tea-time being – in terms of world history never mind the FA Cup – a footie-free zone in much the same way that Christmas Day, to my pretty certain knowledge, is a pancake-free festival. So audible harrumph here and like… what is occurring?
An Opening Ceremony, that’s what! With a magnificently appropriate (i.e. sickeningly glammed up) Abide With Me cherrying the naff freezer-cake. If only those flash geysers of flame that puncture the skies of North West London as the players begin their arrogant, or humble, or nervous walk to the pitch could be toppled sideways, torching the chavvy pomp of it mid-chew of its pineapple Wrigleys.
But okay the game, the game. No surprises that Fernando is on seat-warming duty again for Drogba; only this time he is genuinely unfortunate, having finally suggested the artist/striker formerly known as Torres may be cracking that hard horny eggshell. Chelsea start better. Predictably perhaps, a whiff of Sunday League from the red midfield leads to an early goal for Ramires, as Spearing’s poor touch leaves an opening. Chelsea’s burst forward is converted by the baldy-pacy-wiry one after Reina leaves his near post a tad exposed. On balance, 1-0 at the half-hour mark about right.
Chelsea seem more composed, more purposeful, less nervous. Pretty early, the sense from Liverpool fans is that they anxiously yearn rather than hope for more than mere possession; they want the ball to threaten; it doesn’t. As things develop – or not – a moment of haplessness again seems more likely than a moment of inspiration from any of the five strung across midfield. And the red support groans. Even Gerrard has that pallid look; things don’t link. We all think of the league table. The game eases to half-time.
The second chunk mirrors the first in the sense that Chelsea get a desperately easy goal – Drogba this time the beneficiary. Lampard has threaded a pass too comfortably and the Ivorian thesp has turned merely adequately and scuffed a left-foot shot through Skrtel’s legs beyond Reina. The kind of goal that turns your stomach as fan/manager/nutmeg recipient. The thought arises that Chelsea might get 4 if say Kalou was something like.
However, he ain’t. And neither – famously – has been that lanky no.9 for Liverpool. Yet on he comes, quite rightly, though not altogether in the expectation that he will change the game. Out of absolutely nothing, the ball breaks to the much maligned one in the Chelsea box. He proceeds to calmly – if slightly laboriously, if this is possible? – skin John Terry before lashing into the roof of the net. Thus the Pool go from the verge of a hammering to the lip of glory in a transformative, pony-tail bobbing slo-mo.
We, the extra-tribal to this fest, like this; partly because Carroll has at least something boyish about him, something naive, despite that clearly inadequate, over-fussed and ill-advised barnet. (But most Top Players have those, right?) He looks, on this occasion – very much to his credit – like someone who both understands and cares about the FA Cup and it’s great, actually, that he (that?) makes a difference.

This variously described giraffe/dinosaur/hetero-retro-centreforward comes on here to course about in a convincing, even occasionally lung-bursting fashion. He heads things; he frightens the metaphorical horses; he scores and has one spookily adjacent; so adjacent the post-match stuff and much of the next twenty years on Merseyside will be dominated by that particular header. If another 16 camera-angles go on to ‘prove’ that it was a save from Cech, it will rank with that Montgomery moment for Sunderland, thereby making a legitimate contribution to Cup History.
In short, Liverpool were awful then courtesy of Carroll, right back in it. They pressed for an equaliser and it never came. Henderson busied himself to almost no effect, Gerard and Suarez were ineffective to the point of listless. Elsewhere Kalou yet again showed his almost complete package of inadequacies, squandering opportunities to break and to score as Chelsea faded with the unity and purpose they had shown earlier, under the red but B Category crypto-onslaught. The final score, at 2-1 to Chelsea, was absolutely right, assuming that non-goal was correctly called. So… cue that further debate.
Despite its limitations – its obvious lack of fluency and relative vervelessness – a better final emerged than the lousy fare generally served up for this particular showpiece. Few moments of quality, none of significant shame. Chelsea in the first period cruising at a level unlikely to be attained by their opposition, you felt, but Liverpool honourably competitive at the ‘death’. No Torres. Drogba – who was again present rather than good in my opinion (sorry – IMO) and who again was greedy rather than generous, will collar most headlines… along with a disappointed rather than a disappointing Carroll.
Many Blues won’t be stopping too long to contemplate their underachievement in the second period but some will. Because running counter to the silvered but shallow and nonsensical time-shifting from the FA and …whoever, and despite the pre-match evidence for age-relevant Olympic-smudged taste-shafting, there is an appreciation of quality alive in the game. Fans want to win but they want to drape themselves in some association with glory too – implying something wonderful as well as and beyond winning. The nature of the cup – this FA Cup, this proper cup! – is conducive to that magic, making it precious. So less of the tampering, eh?

Oh Fernando

A few days ago I spoke of the acute tensions affecting that formerly boyish, now visibly creasing with world-weariness, Signor Fernando Torres. His is a story absurdly, almost hypnotically full of the contradictions of celebrity life. He is outrageously wealthy and talented; he is handsome, personable and has – unusually for a togger player? – the look of a sensitive human about him. But quietly, for a near-worryingly long period of time, he has been …shredded.

By that I mean that his confidence has been denuded to a mesh-like frailty. I have speculated – as a formerly prolific inside-forward/centre midfielder – that the principal emotion betraying the striker in mid-strike is a kind of glassy-eyed succumbing to a need for things to be over. Over for better or worse. Therefore, rather than showing either devastatingly confident instinct or devastating composure (this latter for me the absolute sign of class as well as goalscoring proficiency) the centre-forward does the difficult bit…but apocalyptically misses the yawning net. Receiving, in the process, a terrifying challenge to his previously invincible belief as well as the bitter mockery of the opposition support.

In the last week or two the cruel peaks and troughs of Fernado’s being – him being a top level footballer player and all – have been as publicly excruciating as the most exploitative X Factor audition. His level of performance has lurched from the sharp and instinctive (occasionally) to the raw embarrassing. But Fernando we know, we understand, should be passed fluffing his lines completely, right? He’s so been there, with all that pressure, all that expectation and worship because he has been brilliant, he has been as good as there is… which makes it news, which makes it poignant.

Today Torres again showed what are destined to be labelled ‘flashes’ for the second game on the trot. And crucially, perhaps, he scored. But then he lunged into a poor challenge – following, we presume prolonged verbals from opponents, who had no doubt quoted observations from my previous blog – and was summarily despatched from the proceedings.

It was an almost inevitably tragic (with the usual caveats) event in the accelerating sequence of almost cartoon-like Fernandoslots we have all been seeing and hearing on hourly sports bulletins for the last several months. And it makes us wonder what comes next. After the ban.

Will it be a prolonged period on the bench? Will it be, given football’s propensity for exposing the sensitive, a gift to heartless centre-halves the Premiership over? Will it be a catalyst for further dissent amongst fellow players, only some of whom are likely to have been truly supportive during Torres’ difficult times at both Liverpool and now Chelsea. We can’t know. But it seems beyond unlikely that Fernando will simply be spurred by a sending off into getting a grip. I wonder if or how he will do that, at all.

A Word about Torres…

Let’s in a moment get slightly past the obvious; Torres is a formerly brilliant central striker – at one fairly recent stage arguably the best in the world – but he was not worth £50 million when purchased by our Russian friend. Aside from any legitimate argument about whether that fee may be obscene – let’s pretend there is a ‘real’ market price for his value as a player only – there could be no justification for a fee of such magnitude for a player so apparently physically and psychologically damaged.

That may in fact be a rather melodramatic description of where the player is at but surely it’s fairly representative of the feeling around him, following maybe 2 years of admittedly injury-linked frustration, poor goal returns and occasional (out-of-character) petulance at Liverpool. Torres the magnificent and the fluent had become a tetchy, visibly unhappy individual and a player fortunate to be getting regular football at the top level. It was and is questionable whether the toll repeated injuries and surgery had taken on his movement and consequently his form would and will preclude re-capture of the original precious gift for electrifying impact.

Ask Nemanja Vidic – in a few years time perhaps – to honestly assess where Torres ranked, how brilliantly he shone. Ask the average Liverpool fan to describe the relationship that fizzed between the Koppites and the player in his unassailable pomp and the scale of The Fall would be revealed. He was hugely loved, both for his scampering expression of the team ethic and for his exuberant talent. But that was, in football terms, a long time ago. When the fleet-footedness and the confidence petered away Fernando was rather depressingly different. He was not worth a place in the team.

Extraordinary then, that at this time of near-poignancy for the Spanish superstar, Abramovitch stepped in. I myself hope that he put an arm round Torres, told him he believed in him and would guarantee him a chance to gather and then express his deadly genius once more. (I suspect that the money was less an issue for Abramovitch than it would be for most minor nations but let’s assume the best and applaud the Russian for his faith – generosity even. Doubly so if we imagine the purchase as a reflection that he really does want to excite the Chelsea support on the way to the next level of glory). Torres may have seen the move more prosaically, as a step closer to silverware, rather than an opportunity to nestle under the warm wing of the owners’ casual jacket. Whatever, the blonde former bombshell moved south.

To further difficulties. A spiky or likely surly dressing-room, a club perennially now in flux. Ego’s the size of the Ivory Coast/France maybe. A new, sharp and pressing need to show that the Price Tag was irrelevant and the gift alive. Impossible? Could any manager build a side around this particular striker – let alone, after a series of underwhelming early performances, justifiably pick him?

A new season brought certain signs that key instincts may be returning… but not, sadly, the essential goals. And then there is today, and an absurdly wonderful, open game at Manchester United. Some of the movements – the commitments – are back. In a game brimming with opportunities and space, Torres scores a fabulous goal with an expressive flick of the right foot; it’s a trademark, top of the range finish; it’s beyond encouraging. But tomorrow’s papers I fear will be more likely to concentrate on the stomach-churning miss achieved shortly afterwards; the Sunday League miss, the one executed surely by an interloping donkey from park football, who, having rounded the keeper with contempt, stabs it laughably wide. To world-wide disbelief.

Cruelly, this one is right up there with the very best open goal misses. Massively saleable and destined to be forever referenced by fan and pundit alike. How did he miss? Because suddenly, he wanted the moment to be over. Over for better or worse. As a consequence, if Fernando is the sensitive boy many believe, he is going to have to disconnect his capacity to feel for some time. I wish him luck and the mental and physical wellbeing to recover.