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.

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What it is with The Gooners.

Okay, so here’s the context and the central beef. Arsenal have been criminally non-durable for years; which is why we all doubt them. Wenger’s beautiful but psychotic purism has left them vulnerable to the memory of boggy pitches, the assumption of intimidation, or real-world Bigger Blokes or teams playing with simply more passion. In an ideal scenario perhaps a Gooner title triumph might elevate the lot of us… but the bulk of us still suspect this is contingent on the absence of (say) Tony Pulis and Cheik Tiote from the Prem landscape. Because if the level of inspiration dips at all, that seductive, metronomic not to say metrosexual heartlessness of Arsenal is just not enough; we know that. Like we knew The Arsenal came up to the Etihad early in crunch-month, with games against principal rivals rammed together. This is tough – like life.

But Arsenal’s perennial weediness kindof gets on our nerves, right? How can it be that they remain, so endlessly, a side unprepared for inevitable, sinewy, earthbound onslaughthood? How can that flaw persist so? Through year after year of more or less successful butterfly meadows later sprayed out. Wenger, to his credit and to his detriment and ‘midst the gnashing of our teeth, produces teams that will not set their sights so low as to block or to crunch or to stifle with physical oomph when they need to –that’s all we ask! They look to outplay the opposition only.

Look he knows – we’ve been telling him for years – that in this bitterly anti-meritocratic universe that ‘quality’ alone ain’t enough; sadly. He may even know (but not accept) that the result of the Arsenal Concept’s near-perfect one-dimensionalism is there will be a slide into capitulation (to generally lesser talents) and that it’s looming now. Six weeks, maybe, in which that lead at the top is swallowed up and the likes of Ramsey return to planet ordinary. And we watch as the mood music changes, as Arsene turns from the pitch again, exasperated, cut further by the sheer unfairness of everything, the anti-perfectness, the No Santa-ness, his Arsenal shot down by a sequence of either worthy and slightly unfortunate defeats and/or that dispiriting leakage of points to opponents that might a month ago have been imperiously (or should that be impishly?) dismissed.

Naturally then, after an emphatic win for City, in a pret-ty fabulous game that Arsenal, as always, contributed to generously, the odds have shortened on this Wenger trauma revisiting. For me their chief real-life weakness today concerned the failure to press the ball around the 35 yard mark. (Mind you, City weren’t much better at this.) Despite the presence of Flamini, Ramsey and Wilshere, City had abundant time to play heads up football – to pick their runs, their passes – as they faced the Gooner defence. Toure and Nasri and Silva are all half-decent; you don’t need to be giving them time and space to consider things. And if Zabaleta ends up with acres to race into… lookout. This stuff happened, infuriatingly commonly for the Arsenal bench.

From early in the game City were allowed some comfort where for me it should have been denied. Without the ball, Arsenal dropped into two banks – midfield at about thirty yards out and Mertesacker’s posse on the eighteen yard line; give or take. It might have been nerves but for me they looked worryingly slightly like England in World Cup mode – faux resistant, unconvincingly solid – deep. Like England, they let the opposition play. Whilst this undeniably led to a hugely entertaining game – and some well-constructed goals – the policy of late (or non-)intervention demonstrably failed. Maybe the predictability of the concessions brought out the miserablist in me; I found myself forever tweeting about dreadful defending rather than glorious attacking. (Shit! Did I just sound like Alan Hansen and Morrissey in the same paragraph?!? HANG ME. Irrespective of whether I have a point on this…)

But lest I inadvertently take too much away from City a sentence or two about them – and their incontrovertible topness. Firstly – hey – they put six past Arsenal.  Secondly, they are surely the best-equipped side in the league – by some distance, perhaps – though this may not necessarily be reflected in the stats come the end of the season. They have that sureness, in particular going into the final third, where an intimidating mixture of power and movement is often irresistible and proved so again today. Thirty-five goals in eight home games is absurdly good going.

Aguero is close to sublime every week, Toure is often unplayable, Silva (even at 70% capacity) just class. And with Zabaleta unzipping defences on his own – nominally, from right back – no wonder they are pulverising anybody foolish enough to turn up at the Etihad. I expect this dominance to convert soon enough into stronger away form and for City to go on and win the Premiership –chased home, I imagine by Chelsea rather than Liverpool… with the Arsenal somewhere behind… (inevitably.)

Perhaps fair (to the other home keeper) to mention that the home keeper was Pants today and also that City like Arsenal were hardly error-free in their own half. But Pellegrini’s boys are candidates alright – not just for the Prem but at European level. So tangible was their superiority that it’s truly hard to imagine that they could finish behind Arsenal come May.

Further notes from the Arsenal angle might include reflections on Walcott and Wilshere. The former was often ineffectual or absent then scored his second with a fabulous curled stroke for the far corner; the latter is buzzing less productively currently and was I think guilty of an offensive sign to the opposition support. Up front Giroud – who, for me has received lashings of praise more for being present in the line-up than being brilliant in it – was mixed again and Ramsey has understandably returned to mortal levels. Ozil jogged round.

On the plus side Arsenal rallied bravely after the catastrophic third goal had been conceded but the necessary withdrawal of Flamini left them increasingly open to counter… not ideal against the free-running Nasri and a Toure with licence. The Southern Softies had little luck with borderline calls from the officials but City simply had bigger and better gears with which to travel and they travelled with ominous purpose.

So, after a Match of The Season So Far which really probably was match of the season so far… this. Just as we feared or imagined. A Christmas unravelling and a statement of intent. The Wenger stocking still needs filling (as it were) with urgent physicality, whilst the Pellegrini equivalent looks short of very little. Unlucky, unlucky Arsenal.

Unfurling.

Today’s real sporting drama – or maybe simply its purest – involved the kind of dreamy, sunny naivety unfurling only I suspect during exchanges of contestation between kids. That’s contestation of the generally gleeful sort then, with huge and honest effort and, wonderfully, almost no conception of those ‘bigger pictures’.

I know this because I was there, in the brightness and the stiffish wind, as young boys focussed with instinctive but often intermittent brilliance on a cricket ball; in fact the very first hard, cherry-red cricket ball they had faced in a competitive situation. (Because they are 10.) It was in a lovely sense a beginning, the outset for increasingly understood ding-dongs or drab tactical affairs which will be the rich tapestry of their sporting lives. Lives which might actually be richer if the ‘understanding’ receded rather than tightened as the years rolled on.

As these young’uns swung or bowled with more or less co-ordinated effect – more or less freedom, even?– I had barely chance to check my timeline for news from the Etihad, where the fare was altogether more worldly. In fact, though I was an interested party in this Manc-trauma-drama, it pleases me on reflection that quite frankly I didn’t give a toss about United or City until about ten minutes from the end – of their games and ours.

So I didn’t know (until very ‘late’) that City’s driving force, the powerhouse that is Yaya Toure, whom I had forecast with some confidence would be central to a deconstruction of a mediocre QPR defence, was crocked. I didn’t know that the twit-articulate moron Barton had stropped or punched or been drawn on his way to a barely believable early bath. And I didn’t know that United consequently were seemingly cruising to another title.

Word went round the boundary, was murmured through the cheese’n pickle that Rangers were 2-1 up after somebody notched with a diving header. And… some stuff about Barton. I wandered away from base camp within bawling distance of my courageous young batsmen – by now huffing and hoiking slightly inelegantly towards a stationary target that grew with each passing, dot-ball heavy over. From then on occasional sly looks at twitter joined the conceptually unlikely dots to the allegedly fully growed-up conclusion; one which we can choose to interpret as proof of a bought enterprise or a freewheeling romance. Whichever way, it was bloody incredible. And by now – our game also being over – I cared enough to really check out the absurd facts.

Of course this Premiership wasn’t just about City/QPR and Sunderland/United; it’s not, famously, a sprint. Memory suggests City beginning more like a fuzzily recalled Juantorena – ‘opening his legs and showing his class’ whilst serenely obliterating all-comers. For early in the season they were kindof lapping the opposition rather than merely beating people, it seemed. Silva skipped artfully about, dominating games in a way that had us purists purring. And on an extraordinary day for the city, a 6-1 victory at Old Trafford, only partly explained by interventions from the ref, seemed to bring the finish line racing towards City’s achingly medal-free chest.

Such was their pre-eminence then an impression remains that the Sky Blues were and are the best side in the league this season.  And therefore become worthy champions. I do however, register a recurring temptation to baulk at this ‘worthy’ – all things Tevez and/or appalling-bucketloads-of-cash-related considered. United have themselves flickered and stuttered but rarely seemed like a bona fide United side, somehow. Scampering fullbacks have been too rash; injured centre-backs have been too immobile or (perhaps crucially in the case of Vidic?) rendered unavailable. Rooney’s contribution – though often decisive – has lacked the fluency and consistency of Happy Day Rooneydom. In fact, despite his haul of goals, there have been days where he’s been awful; which worries me.

There is an argument that the return of Scholes in some way reflects cultural problems as well as inadequacies in the engine room itself. Certainly United have been surprisingly over-run in midfield – particularly and memorably in Europe – but the Ginger Genius, let’s be clear, has been good enough to play in this team, this year, again. Evra’s lack of will or ability to defend and Carrick’s lack of personality have been more significant than Scholes’s superannuation, in my view. Bottom line, United’s defence has been decidedly average for most of the season, making it almost unreal they remained title contenders until the 94th minute of the last match. Ferguson will know all this – love him or hate him, you have to credit him – it took all his nous to get them this close. He will not, however accept another season of cobbling things together.

Mancini, likewise and maybe conversely, once recovered from his public melt-down today, may gather in some credit before writing another wish-list. (Please may I have… the best fullback in the world/the best wide player etc etc.) He has done outstandingly to keep this disparate and sometimes disunited City Show on the road, if not on the rails. He has – more obviously than in the red half? -that potentially explosive mixture of arrogance and greed as well as the extraordinary but ubiquitous sensitivity-bypass in the camp to contend with… or manage. He has players taking their greed out onto the pitch – even brilliant players such as Aguerro. Not that he’s the main problem; in fact his durability as well as his skill have made him a genuine Premiership star. Elsewhere lie the difficult ones.

But critically Mancini has Kompany and Toure and Hart. If he can keep them – I imagine only Toure to be of the perenially mercenary persuasion? – the force may again be Blue. Especially if one or two non-flamboyant good sorts of an elite playing capability are parachuted in for the next campaign. It may be crass to compare ‘like for like’ across teams but a broad comparison with United equivalents to the City backbone might be instructive here – in particular, perhaps, because the spine of Ferguson’s side is not that readily identifiable. Are we talking De Gea/Ferdinand/Scholes? Or who? The flawed Vidic might have been the stopper but who he(?) the driving midfield powerhouse for the Reds? The near National Treasure-status Scholes gave United a pulse, a massing point, but City had the gear-change, the muscle and the touch when they needed it; and they had it more often.

The Premiership Finale, I now have seen, was uber-epic in terms of excitement and drama. Vitally so. It may have enthused us as well as tormenting us in its steely, silvery clasp. It was flawlessly, appropriately but in the Northern colloquial mental. It was hallucinogenic hurly-burly. Earlier, for me, was in fact more beautiful and more real.

Derby.

Beware; the following is unashamedly personal…

My Grandfather – The Mighty Vic to me as I entered the adult phase – played pro football. At Doncaster Rovers, Grimsby Town and Manchester United. I believe (having been told by a source who was typically not the man himself) that he was

a) the Tommy Hutchinson of his time – although throwing one-handed, in the late 20’s onwards – and

b) he may have been for one day the most expensive player in British football before being superceded by one Alex James Esquire. (In his baggy shorts, right?)

I am openly happy to say I don’t know how true either of these stories are – to me it’s never mattered.

Vic died many years ago – sadly too many – as I was then still too immature to have those precious, allegedly and quite probably truly adult conversations about what it was all really like; that time.

My father was born and raised in Macclesfield, south of Manchester in an area now conflicted with absurdly rich young men wearing absurdly ostentatious clobbah, sweeping valleys and abrasive moors full-stopped with atmospheric and therefore memory-encrusted outcrops I do know bear the name Tors.

Don’t get me wrong with this rural pastiche thing; our lot were working class folks from within Macc itself rather than dung-clad clog-wearers from the leafy or stony or now rolex-heavy environs; they lived in streets. Now, myself, I have only a rather shamefully inadequate awareness of Man Tor being perennially present in the family consciousness – in my own consciousness in fact – and I could not confidently expect to locate it for you without a map.

Dad was a good sportsman too. Crucially for me now as a halfbreedspeaker of both Grimbarian and leeky-Welsh and long-time resident of West Wales, when apparently confronted with the choice of either signing schoolboy forms for Man City or playing full-back for Sale RFC, he chose the latter. Meaning I, his son, could later bask in the glory of his quasi-puritanical hwyl whenever a conversation in a hostelry or club bar in the province offered an opportunity for sporting/spiritual passport-production. He/we/I am authentic and have tended to be let in.

My father was in fact a really good sportsman in every sense; multi-talented; fair to the point of upright. He also did love both rugby and football – as I do – and would have shared, I know, some of my concerns about Evra/Young/Balotelli/Tevezgates and the many etceteras that unfortunately spring to mind. His club, his football club, was always City; City ’til the cruel day he died, at the (surely-this-should-have-gone-to-appeal-ref?) age of 44.

I recall him writing to Tony Book to complain (I think) about a drop in sportsmanship in the game – possibly even from City players. I picture him driving the football right-footed, with that exaggerated toe-pointed/head-descended pose he had when on those few occasions we played in the same Healing Royal British Legion Sunday Football Club side; him defending stoutly – slightly pigeon-chestedly – me twinkling up front. (I used the word pose, by the way, only in the sense of body shape; neither this bloke My Dad nor The Mighty Vic ever posed at anything in their quietly magnificent lives.)

Vic was of course United. He’d played through pain in an era when real, barely-treated pain existed for pro footballers. Pain they could feel, we could see and everyone could believe in. At twenty-six, his career was over because of it. He lived a longish and maybe predictable post-footie life; policeman/driving instructor/grandpa becoming more known and loved for his Northern trueness – his absolute lack of side – than for his sporting ‘fame’. At the age of about 70 he could head a football like… well substantially more powerfully and authoritatively than a certain Liverpool centre-forward I might mention.  He never lived to see the new gods of the Premier League and in a way I’m glad for that.

I know we’re into some generational thing here and I know its pitfalls. But look in an extraordinary week for football, for Manchester, it may even be healthy to let some sentiment, some ghosts, some history infiltrate the modern analysis. Football people exist; still. Perhaps in some crude or abstract way I wish to represent them or ingratiate myself into some imagined brotherhood that may then fight heroically against the flash and the brash and the alien. Or at least point out that the Emperor Mario is starkers with a firework up ‘is ‘arris. It feels appropriate to plant a flag for the real spirit of the game, which fortunately we will still hear and feel from the terraces of (even?) the Etihad.

United City is suddenly a mega-derby. Likely to decide the Premiership, or at least hugely important in that Manciniquest. I’ve written previously on the Psycho-joust between the two clubs and between Ole Rednose and the Gaye Gesticulator – both of whom, it strikes me, would have been recognised as proper football blokes, in their different ways, by my forefathers. For surely there is much about Ferguson and Mancini that is reassuringly toggeresque; the anger, the passion for starters; the genuineness of that twisted emotion.

What’s different is of course the inflated stuff; the hopeless arrogance around; the money. It has me turning in my own grave many years (I hope) in advance of my actual death and from the rattling down our street I sense I’m not alone in this. Boom boom.

I don’t want to be this way; it’s just… those diamond ear-thingies; an’ those jaunty caps and hats and… all that designer attitude; getting in the way of the football. To the point where actual kicking and heading cannot be understood as clean sport, independent of depressingly ego-polluted dross. Rarely does the gaining of a profile seem to come at such a cost – so many players simply seeming heartless in their privately estated unlove for the game.

There are times when many of us just simply can’t get in or get past that modern cynicism, that duff play-acting; or no longer want to. Because we just don’t get that in any game the objective appears to be to pretend something diabolical just happened… or get some other bloke sent off… or con the ref… or actually (unbelievably) as a forward player be far more interested in penalties than in scoring? (That one really does my head in.)

I know not all players are eating up the soul of the game all the time but few are entirely blameless or immune to the pervasive mind-blowing insensitivity regarding their own luck, their good fortune… and therefore their responsibility. That as much as anything sets them apart from us.

So I can think of coupla fellahs who would be offended by this latterday, allegedly Premiership stuff. But they had a particular kind of genius carrying them through; one not perhaps kicking around quite so freely on the scuffed streets of Prestbury, or coached at Lilleshall, or espoused convincingly enough elsewhere. Something to do with natural honesty being expressed through sport; which we know can happen; which can actually be – in the hackneyed vernacular? – a great joy.

So let’s take a deep breath come kick-off and throw our caps gleefully in the air. And listen for that unquenched spirit and watch for that moment of brilliance and try not to get diverted by anything. Because this could be a really brilliant derby. Couldn’t it?

Footie-family-note; just spoke to a touchingly proud and stirred mother. Wanted to add that one of many extraordinary footietales the Mighty Vic played some role in goes as follows. After retiring hurt from the game, he skippered Grimsby Police in the hugely competitive National Police Cup. They won it, at home (Blundell Park) in front of 23,000 supporters!

Wonder how the burglary figures were in Fishtown that day?

‘SING WHEN WE’RE FISHIN’, WE OWN-NEE SING WHEN WE’RE FISHIN’, SING WHEN WE’RE FI-SHIN’, WE OWNEE SING WHEN WE’RE FISH-IN’…

Climate Change?

It’s a Brit obsession we know. Because of its vagaries and its capacity to influence the otherwise pristine railways of certainty rushing magnificently towards the alleged termini of our lives. The weather. That shiny-glorious or insidiously SAD stuff that either comforts, clubs or inspires us through the winter/spring abstraction.

I say abstraction rather than say… interface because – and there’s many a post on this alone, right? – the notion of an allotted period of recognisably uniform(ish) weather gathering itself under a convenient heading juxtaposed against a different other seems suddenly rather quaint; that’s if we can use that term of a phenomenon likely reflecting the uncoupling of our worldly assumptions about water, light and …that other one? Oh yeh, CO2 (poisonous gas) concentrations.

Consequently I am bound, surely, by any understanding of what is significant, right and truly important, to write a coruscating analysis of our short-termist lunacy regarding the denudation of our magisterial globe; unless I am some kind of heartless, distracted moron? (Which I am. Sozz.) Because though I really may subject both of you sagacious readers to a treatise around and about THAT REALLY PRETTY HEAVYSTUFF again pretty soon, for now, I’m onnabout footie.

Footie it seems mysteriously de-wintered from that traditional slog through unaccommodating furrows of ankle-deep shite, wherein the undead bodies of Dave MacKay/Alan Ball/Billy Bremner as surreal examples still stand, frozen in that mix of worryingly heavy oil and chip-standing standard gravy. Viewed from that rose-tinted but manure-rich era when Menweremen and Wimminweremen, the current Premiership Stars enjoy Summer Football, do they not? In terms of the playing conditions as well as remuneration etc etc. your Silvas and your Balotellis are practically surfing a wave of Mablethorpesque good fortune. Immaculate clobber (changed at halftime,) green baize quality surfaces (finessed at half-time by squadrons of steel fork and spirit level-wielding groundstaffpersons) and crucially no wintergreen/Fiery Jack to destroy the accidentally contacted eye or scrotum. Eeeeeh. Sporting luxury.

Whether it be through Climate Change or TV-funded/stadia-improving ‘moving forward with the times’, suddenly – yes!! This week! – we have entered a summery universe wherein out there, beyond the twinkling daffs, some exhausting clamour for the Premiership line awaits. A red-blue confrontation; with knobs on; demanding/inviting a media colour-blindness to all but the Manchester truths. United – when lowest common denominated? – representing old school attackattackattackness compromised by some mediocrity and City some flashy new but often brilliant interloper into a previously unassailable 4-club scenario.

The situation has now arisen whereby the psyche of individuals – most obviously the two managers but also I suggest the clubs themselves as beings clad with individuals – is to be publically tested in an appropriately(?) HD manner. The recent and now more open spat between various figureheads marks a kicking on or in to a sharper phase; one more full of elbows/spat asides/toxicity which – as we may have seen with another north-west enmity – may not be good. Things have been ramped up, challenges accepted, more in resignation to some inevitable looming bitterness I fear than in response to some sporty, cheek-tugging mischief. The contenders have swung back to their corners and will indeed come out fighting.

Things do develop of course. It may have been inevitable that City’s rise to parity in terms of playing staff enables a ‘proper’ rivalry; whatever that means. (I hope it doesn’t mean anything like the poison between Utd and Liverpool, though this seems entirely possible.) But the relationship with the Scousers is different because Liverpool remain irrelevant to the central challenge. On derby days the Pool are a snarling relevance but ordinarily, sadly, they are simply uncompetitive in respect of the title – a real cause for concern given the acceptance that this is manifestly not a strong United side. City however, can and are competing, legitimately and consistently and on merit. Which makes for a fascinating new breed of psycho-joust.

The football may become almost incidental should the verbals transgress that line from Premier League Wind-up to raw offence; and the industry to which I am contributing now will no doubt participate fully in the ensuing spitefest. Forgive us if ye can, for innocent or not, figuring the moods and meanings of the various soundbites forthcoming will be undeniably tempting. So what gives? Firstly, with the clubs themselves.

Look United were certainly strengthened in terms of (any?) perceived moral ascendency by the latest, predictably saddening lurch in the Tevez saga. Even City fans can’t claim that the reappearance of the unattractive Argentinian because they suddenly might need him has warmed the hearts of neutrals. Ferguson is almost certainly right that would Tevez have tried that routine at United – maybe, in a sense, he did? – he would never have played for him again. In other words, the desperation of Mancini in accepting Tevez back trumps (IMHO) foulsmellingly United’s, as described by Viera, for going back doe-eyed to Scholes. (I also concur fairly wholeheartedly with Fergie’s assessment of Scholes as arguably the best Premiership midfielder for the last twenty years, so no great shame in going back for more of that controllingly ageless ginger ease.) 1, perhaps 2 nil to United.?

However City began the season in such a prolific and even stylish fashion, with David Silva the darling of most informed opinion, that any claim United may have to being the key and perennial breath of attacking fresh air is compromised. With Yaya Toure gallivanting, Balotelli coolly extraordinary and Aguerro oozing predatory class, the sky blues were outplaying the entire division for some time. Only Tottenham played with as much swash and buckle and they lacked the physical presence of Kompany and Toure Y in particular. So City deserved to be top. (Draw.)

The two gaffers could hardly be more dissimilar. Ferguson’s passionately, simultaneously distracted-but-focused mastication, pitchside, somehow being in its brittle, spearminty aggression a symbol of his legendary drive. A hair-dryer of a sort, in its acceleratedly intense way. He really is The Boss; awesomely, perhaps brutally, always and without contradiction; from and with incontrovertible experience. SAF is a contradictory amalgam of father figure, football poet and bully; he remains unhomogenised, unsweetened and unbowed by the challenge of 24 hour exposure because he is tough, tough and football wise. His spirit is defiant and he has forged his career upon a kind of oppositionism – ie. thriving on the us-against-themness of competitive sport.

Mancini is something of a heart-throb, apparently. He looks dashing and to some degree image-conscious even whilst patrolling the touchline. (Or is that some faintly xenophobic slur?) He looks and is from a new generation of well-groomed Galactico-Managers headed by the Special One. Like Mourinho he is dapper and demanding and he may be spiritually tighter, more cautious then Fergie. There are plenty of stories suggesting Mancini is hugely driven and even fierce in his own, I imagine less hairdriery way. The question may be whether he is really tough or Designer Tough?

In a sentence I think the heart of this may be that Mancini has the better squad but Fergie the greater capacity to inspire. United have United players and City have Undeniable Stars. Given that motivation and levels of confidence under (huge) pressure will tell here, both managers have a massive job on. Mancini may be smouldering convincingly in the background – he really may. And he really may have a dressing-room intent upon his every word. Things have changed – the footballing climate has changed – because of what City have done in the last eighteen months. They now have a very powerful side; one ‘well capable’. I do wonder, however, if they are as one as the Red half of the city. And whether that may tell.

During his press conference the other day, SAF seemed jaunty and alive during the exchanges about Citystuff; not that he seemed ‘dead’ prior to that. It’s just that at the mention of City… and the title… and the challenge, the juices were visibly flowing. Because for Sir Alex, at times like these, they generally do.

Sniffing out the truth of it…

Like some modern Allan Clarke, the much despised ‘sniffer’ of yore, I am instinctively and with some unattractive predatory gubbins well aroused, returning to the box.  The Pandora’s Box; the penalty box – the Rooneybox – the mad as a box of frogs box, in order either to wring my hands of its luridly signalled rubber-roominess, or say something intelligible.  About its abstracted bitterness, its high-octane mad-but-vulnerable surrogate violence, its derby-day realities.  United City; or more correctly – and here endeth the pretence towards accurate reportage – City United.

Having for scientific reasons (ahem; that would be a necessary family walk then) swerved the live coverage so as to benefit from cooler appraisals of what would inevitably be an emotional carnage-fest, I submit the following truths/untruths for your inspection.  They are based on a little knowledge and understanding of the game and absolutely no alcohol.

It strikes me firstly and often during this game that Manchester is helpfully keen to wrap us tightly into some symbolically drenched, mythologically scaled flood-scenario, where the protagonists slide tackles and gleeful victorious scoots towards ecstatic fans are beautifully facilitated by what can only be described as pissing rain.  Fortunately there were 5 scoots total, as United contrive to beat City 2-3 in what was without question an extraordinary match.

But the larger questions – about Rooney, about the side’s respective qualities – remain airlocked in the stormy organ-music of the affair.  Am I alone in thinking that although Rooney showed willingly and scored twice, his mixture of affectedly casual but often unproductive cuties and poor penalty are still indicative of a superlative player still rather unconvincingly egging on his own self-confidence.  Trying – maybe just slightly forcing – those sparks?  The purity of his attack for that thudding header notwithstanding, there were too many moments where I for one, felt he was seeking comfort on the ball rather than purring with it.

His exaggerated smacker on the badge in celebration of that first, illogical goal was similarly surely a kind of stage-managed theatre rather than some hearts-truth; Rooney having been led too far into the panto that is our lives to genuinely, genuinely move us with that one.  Yet score he did (twice!) and far be it for me to begrudge him that.  My cynicism or criticism is again more of a reflection of the lurv-deficit I feel exists between my own idealised Rooney and this current incarnation.

There was likewise something about the shortfall in real quality on show in this fantastic football match that disappointed.  Aguerro showed quality, I thought, and commitment – indeed much of the most convincing movement and passing came from City early in the game.  But Aguerro was guilty of a shockingly cheap clasp to a negligibly contacted face late in the game that again, for me, undermined his contribution.  This poorly refereed game, played in admittedly testing conditions, did not need rank drama of that order from one’s of its generally more highly performing combatants.

And so, regrettably, we turn to the ref.  And that sending-off.  The defender – Kompany – jumped in somewhat and two feet were unjustifiably raised, raising the possibility of a red.  However, it was a poor, ill-advised decision with significantly damaging consequences; namely that the game was obviously and unreasonably skewed against the home side from that moment forward.  Why oh why the 57 cameras attending these matches cannot be put to productive use for contentious decisions such as these is a mystery those allegedly running the Premiership avoid like … like politicians – it’s that bad and that mindless.  Twenty something seconds of reviewing gives us good quality decisions 90 something percent of the time; as opposed to the 41% currently imagined.  End of.

The fixture – if not the quality of the football – deserved better.  Instead Giggs was able to stroll absurdly through the match, relatively unchallenged, as City dropped deep, coiled into counter-attacking mode.  United disappointingly contrived to allow their ten opponents to boss both territory and possession in the second half, so that the homesters developed a real and threatening momentum towards the climax.  Thus Ferguson’s (disappointing?) shallow holding position almost embarrassed him.  For me, Phil Jones, Nani, Evra and Lindegaard were all poor and the performance itself was mediocre, unlike the result.

City, I suspect, will likely be more buoyed by what happened today than their rivals.  An irate Mancini can and will motivate his classy troops with that ole chestnut “Imagine what we’d have done if the ref hadn’t robbed us?”.  Silva though, may be more personally distracted by grief over his withdrawal for the second half – a half notably again unlit by his colleague Nasri.  And Hart will surely wonder quietly (or otherwise) at his manager’s decision to rest him for this, arguably the meatiest if not the most meaningful confrontation of the season so far.

Sad, in conclusion, that in a situation so gloriously stuffed with stories – the mighty Scholes revisiting, the cruelly crocked Hargreaves popping in – witless ‘authority’ pastes the headlines across its own, impervious brow again.  There is something of the dumb animal about this, or the drunken party game, where, glazed-eyed, Bigwigs paste miscellaneous notes above the eyes of those to the left.  Only here, we the fans can read what is written; it says “Don’t be such a donkey- REVIEW!!”  Then we get a proper, proper game of football.

In Between Days?

Don’t know ‘bout you guys but despite the seasonal arrival of well… mainly socks to up the sartorial ante, I’m both looking and feeling a tad dishevelled; peeky; and a tad bloated.  The dog-walking has been an essential antidote to pies and puddings and the occasional pint but not, in truth, sufficient.  I’ve needed a dive in the ocean or a game of rugby or something to truly de-cobweb  or detox the overwhelmed pipework.  Haven’t had it though.

Following this week of lacklustre engagement with either/neither the coalface or the sporting widescreen j’accuse – I accuse myself actually – of a kind of proportionate indolence that prematurely factors in all the really active stuff I have lined up and thereby gets me off the hook.  (Pass that pie, please?)  I accuse moreover, the Mother-in-Law of baking far too much.  Generally, I accuse the calendar of being too Christmassy; but I need to move on.

To the sport.

Kauto Star may well be the real story over the Xmas period but he is an athlete I am barely familiar with.  I can more honestly comment therefore, on the gallop towards the Premiership title, now featuring just the two legitimate Mancunian thoroughbreds.  If that’s what they are?

Manchester United have eased into a position of some control, despite a brief period where they were utterly exposed  -chiefly by City but then in their poor European campaign – as only mediocre pretenders to the title.  Ferguson will know that his side have barely improved of late and will be conscious of the need to maximise psychological capital from criticism of  The Reds from perceived traitors (Roy Keane) and around issues both for and against the strength of his squad – now being tested to the limit by injuries.

United certainly do need players to compete with authority and confidence in the Champions League next year; some added brilliance in midfield and some fit defenders may help.  And yet, domestically, almost independent of any assets the team may have or lack, results come.   The defining quality, the defining force of the Premiership itself still being that fierce Scottish fire smouldering beneath this extraordinary club’s belief.

Mancini, on the other hand, enters a period where both he and the widely imagined disunity within his starry group will be tested.  Are they – in particular these disproportionately remunerated foreigners – able to show real Premiership grit when the squeeze is suddenly applied?  If fluky things suddenly start to go against them, will the likes of Balotelli and Aguerro rally round some newly pressurized core?  (Given that for me both are already showing if not outright selfish tendencies then certainly an awareness of a need to make a personal impact, I do wonder how emphatically City will respond as a team to an allegedly inevitable ‘bad patch’).  We may learn a great deal about the legitimacy of any sky-blue badge-kissers in the next period, methinks.

Crucially, perhaps, now that City have finally faltered – only drawing at West Brom, being held by Chelsea – allowing United to draw level on points, will Silva flow so freely and with such influence?

So results (or something) conspired almost miraculously in the last 48 hours or so to re-hoist United, whilst undermining the Chelseas and Liverpools of this world.  Arsenal too, despite playing consistently well are coming from too far back.  Tottenham – lovely, pacy, Redknappy Tottenham – are bursting brilliantly but likely to be less durable, I would argue, than the Northern Bootboys.  The sensational Bale is quite possibly the single most exciting footballer on the planet, currently; he is the antidote to Lucas and to Cattermole and to the often outstanding but unsprinting Barry.  By sweeping past people in a way that seemingly owes more to childish expressionistic glee than to any football coaching book, Gale is capable of bursting through cynical or disinterested hearts.  Even my marzipan bubble was disturbed by the flying Welshman.

But a passing and respectful nod to Kauto Star and at least a mention of the magnificent, record-breaking crowd of 82,000 for the recent Harlequins v Saracens match at Twickenham are in order.  As is a further airing for the name Farrell (junior), with which some time in February the sporting population may again become generally familiar.

Perhaps though not before your currently sedentary scribe has actually done a substantial amount of running, throwing, batting, bowling; developing his How To Coach as well as his What To Coach skills.  Is there I wonder a workshop out there on How To Shed That Seasonal Lethargy-Thing?  If so, put my name down… immediately.