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?


The state of play on Merseyside is difficult to discuss dispassionately, right, given the investments we have in that very particular city? (And no, I’m not talking money.) Liverpool might instantly mean footie to many of us but just as likely music or what we might call pop culture to many others. Or soaps, or unions, or wit, or scallieness. For every individual unit of us-ness out here in non-Liverpool, there’s a ‘colourful’ Scouse something or other fit and ready to be engaged with, or seduced by… or something, it seems. Because the brand is kindof monster in terms of this little island; because that accent and those pop/otherwise arty or sparky people are extraordinarily in our consciousness. Which brings me remarkably (almost as though I planned it!) back to footie. For I am dangerously close to making some woolly argument for all that ‘You’ll never walk alone’ stuff being special.

There may be some blinkered academic at Royal Holloway College unmoved by or god forbid even ignorant of the indivisibility of ‘Walk On’ and Liverpool Football Club. (Christ. Can you imagine meeting them at a village fete, over the prize jams, laid out post-scrutiny with rosettes duly awarded? You scurrying on towards daylight, them in deep contemplation of the horto-biological origins of greengages.) But the rest of the sentient universe knows that one song is so richly of the city (now) that it represents a surging, emotive and maybe even envy-inducing peak of tribal oneness. Something full of contradictory shades of nostalgic invincibility and here-and-now, blokey pride, for sure, but frigate bird-appropriated, throat-displayingly and singingly splendid in its depiction of importantly and recognisably human and uplifting mores.

I have been in a non-scouse environment – in a village pub in West Wales – where, post Football Presentation Night ‘festivities’, that originally unremarkable song was revisited by an arm-locked circle of admittedly rather alcohol-inspired young men (and women) in a manner that chased hard upon the inspired heels of a certain “Ma hen wlad”. Which is to say that it gathered the gathered into a soul-brotherly Massive, transforming them and the moment into something (I kid you not) profoundly joined. Or perhaps more precisely it further encouraged and maybe embodied latent inclinations to share heartystuff. It was, in its chavvy but searingly honest triumphalism, possibly the single most wonderful moment of camaraderie I have ever experienced and it owed everything to a recognition of the specialness of that Kop Thing. A thing predicated on lungbursting expression of – yes! – community.

But enough about politics. There’s a Mersey derby this weekend with a fair amount on it. For Liverpool – in the red corner – there’s an opportunity to claw back some of the further slippage of the last few weeks. For Everton – The Toffeemen more often than the Blues – a chance to justify, to usurp, to thumb a nose. On form and in terms of recent team shape and unity, Everton are substantially in better fettle; being identifiably a side with purpose and some confidence. Liverpool, on the contrary, are in a mess; this does not, however, mean they are or should be viewed as underdogs.

This is partly because Liverpool are unquestionably – though not necessarily ‘deservedly’ – the bigger club. Their pull across the world dwarfs that of their uncomfortably close neighbours. King Kenny’s rather dissolute mob – is that fair? It feels it? – are light years away from competing for the Premiership, yet understood still as a world power in the game; because of all that Tommy Smith/Emlyn Hughes/Kevin Keegan/John Barnes/Kenny Dalglish/Ian Rush malarkey. That history. Of success. Which does dwarf Everton’s.

It may be important that one of few strikingly and resoundingly Liverpoolesque wins recently came against an Everton team scampering back up the table over the last three months following their own rather typically disappointing start to the season. The returning Gerard found his superman costume for the first time for about a year and that was that; 3 – 0. That the win was undeniably against the grain of the teams respective trajectories mattered little to either set of supporters. Since then David Moyles has again re-motivated his side whilst Kenny has apparently fumbled at the tiller. Everton are looking settled and strongish, with occasional bouts of instinctive team brilliance – I’m thinking in particular of those near-unplayably good chunks of their recent game at Sunderland, for starters. There they looked creative and sharp as well as aggressive in midfield and defence. The Addition of Jelavic and Drenthe and arguably Gibson plus the return of the South African prodigal Pienaar to a squad already containing Cahill, Rodwell, Fellaini etc has understandably enabled a substantial kicking on as the season has developed. Tempting for Moyles to wonder ‘What if’ all over again… but the Top Toffee has plenty to be optimistic about.

King Kenny however is in some difficulty. He needs the goodwill legacy that stills holds back much of the anxiety and almost all of the venom from amongst fans and critics alike. He has earned this good fortune more, surely, through his magnificent playing career and understanding of and role during times of real heartbreak for the club than through either of his periods of management at Anfield. His side is demonstrably and increasingly now perceived as being relatively poor – certainly unacceptably poor for a Liverpool side. Results very recently have been close to disastrous and there is – critically perhaps? – no sense that Dalglish is ‘turning things round’.

The media is relentlessly detailing the failures of several big buys. There is a seemingly interminable amount of distraction (through shambolic lack of discipline?) over various controversies which, to put it mildly, might have been handled better. I have been critical of both SAF and King Kenny in regard to much of this and regrettably have seen nothing from the Liverpool boss lately that makes me want to drift in to support him. His sullenness and ignorance – yes, I do think that’s fair – before the media and his utter blinkeredness have been frequently shameful, bad for the club and bad for the game. And I wonder at what stage if any the owners might consider telling him and his players to keep it shut even and maybe especially when they feel provoked or insulted or wronged. And I stress here that I am not responding here merely to some inelegant handling of PR issues; I think Dalglish and by implication the club have been wrong to champion Suarez and to inflame enmities when silences or blandnesses might have helped.

So I don’t rate Dalglish as either a bloke or as a manager. I find it ironic that as the figurehead for a club he clearly on the one level understands and unquestionably loves he can fail to link hands and sing the necessary… because though that song is indeed about loyalty, it’s about hope too; and hope depends upon generosity.

That football match between Everton and Liverpool Football Clubs may well be an absolute cracker. But it’s more likely to be wince-inducingly ‘physical’, frenetic and low in quality. Clatterings and bookings and only rare moments of composure or construction, fluidity. Fortunately, the rivalry sits beneath that ugly contempt ‘shared’ between United and Liverpool but it’s hardly a love-in. There is no figuring or forecasting this one because much of what occurs will be about capitulations or otherwise to moments of stress rather than expressions of form or talent even. Plus “It’s The Cup!!” Win or lose, the Diddy Men of Everton are currently the better side. But they are smaller, if you knowwharramean?

A (really crap) Lancashire Panto

It might be nice if life was simple; if I could talk about say… Patrice Evra in all innocence.  If I could simply idle through the only mildly offensive theories generated by my good self regarding his almost unbelievable inability (or will?) to defend.  Likewise, if only I could rave naively about Luis Suarez’s rare gift of inventing space within and around the box, his utter confidence, his unbelievably seamless transition into Premiership groovyhood.  But I can’t – not now, not today.

Stuff’s really gotten in the way.  To the point where the foul blood already slapping the sides of the Manchester Ship Canal collects, minute by minute, further cheap flotsam – further ammunition.  And then it gets lobbed at the other side.

Such is the feeling between Manchester United and Liverpool Football clubs.  Clubs whose realness and greatness in footballing terms is beyond dispute.  Yet the epic scale of their one-eyedness, their capacity to brutally reduce pretty much everything they have in common to a seething conflict currently excels itself.  The annual home and away contest the watching world is exposed to – itself a thing of little beauty – has been further deflowered through the ‘conviction’ of Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker in the matter of alleged racist comments made against Evra (United’s left back.)

At the moment of writing there is a depressingly self-righteous gale of protest and allegation blowing east and west.  Hot on the heels of a strongly worded statement from the club following the Football Association’s decision to substantially (hah!) fine and ban Suarez, the Liverpool players have released a strongly worded message of support for their man.  United meanwhile have spent the recent period belligerently backing Evra.  At no time has it seemed likely that anyone from either side would step forward or, more ideally remain quietly in the background whilst advocating calm.

But what might we expect?  (And this, for me, is the depressing bit…)  The context is generally close to disgraceful.

United-Liverpool games have been effectively brain-dead for ages.  There are almost no moments of class in a matrix of brittle abuse.  Abuse of the spirit of the game; abuse of the ref; abuse of the real, footballing loving fan.  The players almost to a man apparently utterly lack the discipline or will (again) to avoid getting sucked into the ‘heat of the battle’.  They aren’t, frankly, big enough to deny the fraud that is the tackle from behind, the accidentally flailing elbow, the ‘follow through’.  Season after season – even with the influx of allegedly technical players from around the world – the same violent pantomime persists.

So in one sense maybe Suarez has been either unlucky, or miscast as villain of this piece?  For every ‘derby’ match between these two since about 1970 has surely offered up some genuine candidate for an 8 week ban?  Sir Alex, burning with furious and career-long need to outdo his rival from Merseyside is certainly culpable in this general amorality – as, of course, are a series of Liverpool managers.  Don’t tell me that the players are typically eased into the bear-pit without some reminder of ‘what this one means?’   And whilst I concede the likelihood of a caution that all 11 must remain on the pitch… what we used to call “kick-ball-fly” generally ensues; with malevolent knobs on.

Regrettably and shockingly and predictably, the logical extension of this milieu of Vinny Jonesesque lowest-common-denominator clatteration is mere footballers getting themselves or allowing themselves to get twisted up into a cheap, worrying and important controversy.  Difficult to be sure if Suarez dealt in supra-offenses or just the ordinary offensive comments that the derby situation pathetically fosters.  If he has racially abused Evra and he and his clubmates are pinched along a scale between outright lies and loyal delusion, it’s outrageous.  To me it seems very unlikely that he has done nothing for which he might justifiably be ashamed.   However, I am clear that this is no one-sided issue.

Evra, fascinatingly, has previous in the shape of his involvement in a brawl (effectively) at Chelsea, involving a non-playing member of that club’s staff.  Ultimately, after investigation, the word “unreliable” was one of many used to describe his evidence on the matter.  This may, naturally mean nothing whatsoever; I merely take it as a further sign of the disappointing level of understanding and commitment to responsibilities within the beautiful game.

Returning to my own fanlike/fanlit flames of controversy, I have I confess been more than distracted by Patrice’s extraordinary absences or meagre contributions to United’s defending over a period of about eighteen months.  The conclusion has been drawn here that he can’t really be arsed much with stuff happening in the left back zone.  Which is strange, surely, for a no. 3?

Returning to er… the letter of the law, I am clear that this whole, unappealing episode may not tell us much more than this – the obvious.  That a reasonable judgement might be critical of both protoganists – who seem representative of their colleagues in many respects? – plus both clubs, for their unstinting and continuing work towards undermining our faith.

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.

Well, go on then

So the Premier League allegedly got going yesterday. But pardon me… who, exactly played? Liverpool/Arsenal? The one in mid-possibIe ascent, the other mid-possible turmoil – King Kenny having undoubtedly revitalised the ‘pool, but Wenger looking increasingly lined and drawn with Goonercares.

I confess to having plugged in to MOTD rather more deeply under a blanket than might have been the case if it felt like the Premier League had started. Given the nature of the (few) fixtures both in terms of likely quality and scale, it was no wonder the 3 Wise Men in Generally Shiny Shirts and Lots of Black seemed disinclined to animate the thing. Of course one of these aperitifs before City/United/Chelsea/arguably Tottingham legitimise the menu could have proved energising to the project. The wounded magnificence of Liverpool; the frilly glam that is QPR? They both predictably disappointed. If any side brought a smidge of class to the day… it was probably Bolton. Nuff said?

There seems to have been an elementary cock-up with the scheduling – one that is entirely appropriate to the smug hegemony of PL ‘presence’. They think they’re the unchallenged best, these folks – why else would they offer such an uninspiring entree? The fundamentals of earning the right to an audience, perhaps wanting to increase that audience, appear to be as irrelevant as fair ticket prices.

Depressingly though, it may be that despite the sombre mood and the real difficulties many look destined to face, this absurd balloon-thin carnival may continue to be the receptacle for the nations deluded passions. The thought strikes me –no pun intended – that the moment yesterday when alleged hard man and thug Joey Barton yanks Gervinho up (thuggishly) and then, having received a girly slap, drops shamelessly to the ground in order to get his assailant (I mean fellow professional) sent off, is appropriate, in its cheap, amoral, ludicrous way to the times.

Perhaps that’s how we should understand this new beginning.