United in their clunkiness.

Those with even the faintest notion of what’s going on in the world of football will know that the ‘relationship’ between Liverpool FC and Manchester United is spicy. In fact it ain’t spicy – or certainly not in any sense aromatically attractive – it stinks; it’s an all hummin’, gut-churnin’ clusterbomb of a thing, particularly off the park. Impossible (probably) to judge whether it’s the foulest rivalry of them all but there is an unseemly kind of hatred there that even mature and otherwise intellectually-viable human specimens seem to get caught up in.

Whilst this phenomena is historically and sociologically interesting I urge that we do get past it, erm… chaps and settle for the standard, or ideally elite-level exchange of witticisms common between opposing fans the globe over. Banter. Good-natured piss-taking or street-step, up-to-the-mike dissin’ of them Manc lot fer thur shockun defence or vice-versa/whatever. Let’s face it currently both sides have plenty of scope for abusing t’other.

Right now I imagine fans from Southampton to Sunderland are taking a certain rare pleasure in the sight of Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC – traditionally the swaggeriest of the swaggerers? – holding hands and walking rather shamefacedly into the Duffer’s Disco. Both are pitifully dad-dancing, or at least only fitfully finding the groove, being united in their clunkiness. Why is that?

Liverpool fans may be secretly the more concerned of the two ailing or failing dance-troupes. Because last year their side was so revelatory… and then came up short when it seemed like ultimate and redemptive glory beckoned. Scousers will be aware of and hurt by the accusations that pressure got to Liverpool when (as United fans gleefully point out) for the first time for aeons they were right in the mix at the back end of the season. It may be stretching it to think that Gerrard’s slip and those alarming capitulations were all down to pressure but something did happen to cruelly unravel a brilliant season. Now the feeling – the fear – will be growing in Liverpool that last year was The One… and it did get away.

Following a genuinely poor start Rodgers suddenly has his work cut out. Sure there have been changes but he would be wise not to make too much of the ‘disruption’ caused by the departure of Suarez and injuries to Sturridge. Liverpool FC are competing now in the big league in terms of transfers and bulking up their squad; so no excuses. Their failure smacks of lack of confidence and drive as well as due to individual issues with personnel. In other words it’s beyond excusing. Ar Brendan has to get topside of the group before (say) Balotelli’s propensity to sulk and undermine eats away further at the previously resurgent fabric of the club.

The Mario gamble I had no problem with. In fact, because I rate him highly, I thought Rodgers might conjure the best from Balotelli. This is still possible of course but that immediate prospect of the love-him/hate-him Italian enigma scorching into cult status having scored a bagful of screamers fades with each slightly dispiriting performance. The Kop needs something to shout about and Rodgers needs to provide.

Thirty miles east and the story runs parallel. Except that last season United were awful not brilliant. And van Gaal has had no lead-in time. But again because of the resources of the club excuses will not be tolerated. Real fans – of which there are, contrary to folklore, plenty – will give the man a little time because plainly there were cavernous holes in the squad but (again) things must simply be sorted.

The Red Devils cash having been splashed extravagantly, MU’s pre-season friendlies were quietly encouraging. Then the paucity of the United defence and the relative frailty of their confidence was utterly exposed in the physical and psychological crash-bang-wallop of real matches. Like Liverpool – only more so – they had no core, no solidity. The extraordinary inability to foresee and then cover the loss of Vidic and Ferdinand – both in decline for eighteen months – proved costly as occasionally sparkling forward play was made irrelevant by inadequate defending.

It may be true that there appears to be a world shortage of central defenders but for Manchester United to continue to line up with two or even three covering players demonstrably short of MU quality is either calamitous or remarkable depending on your allegiance or otherwise to the club. Either way it is an indictment of the shambolic transfer policy at Old Trafford. Incidentally the fact that van Gaal had to summarily abandon his plans to install a back three because the players were simply unable to cope with it speaks volumes on the issue of how truly premier our Premiership stars are, does it not? As with Ingerland FC, the rank inflexibility – the unskilledness? – of Jones/Smalling and co disappointed but surely did not entirely surprise?

The signing of Di Maria has been the chink of light. He looks United alright. Rapid and in the dubious modern phrase – penetrative. Falcao (in the traditional phrase) may need a goal but can clearly play heads-up footie of a high level; the attacking ‘problem’ for van Gaal (as for Hodgson?) seems to be settling on a role for Rooney… and van Persie. Shoe-horning all four of these mega-players into the same line-up may be unwise, may be impossible. Helpful of Rooney to get himself banned then.

There are arguably more problems of team shape for United than over at Anfield. There’s still, in short, a hole where the central defensive axis should be; a hole that spreads forward alarmingly into midfield when teams really get at them. They have players in there but no enforcer, leaving them vulnerable when the opposition squares up and fights.

What the clubs share – fascinatingly – is palpably thin confidence; susceptibility to pressure. This weekend Liverpool have what would appear a straightforward home game to West Brom. United meanwhile face them other scousers – Everton – in their first tough fixture of the season. How will they be if things go against them?

Managers earn their money in moments like these. Rodgers must bully or ingratiate his way in to a group that suddenly looks and feels exposed. Van Gaal has always known he was making a new beginning. Choose your words carefully, gentlemen.

That’s super, Mario… but…

It’s probably unwise to view Mario as some sort of symbol. After all, this may only lead to what John Lacey so brilliantly termed a ‘new breed of cliche’. One with a Mohican. But so ripe is the rather magnificent (actually) Italian that if I fall headlong into anything on the saccharoidal or sloppy side of all-consuming here I can live with that. He’s great symbol material. He deals in (or seems to deal in) either comic or provocative gestures;  ‘Why always me?’; a firework up the arse (or somewhere); as Robin Hood for Moss Side; via that hair-cut. He’s – on one level, surely? – bloody good value.

It seems the latest peak – or pique, or peek – in the Mario fable concerns his jolting to a halt at the precipice of outright rebellion earlier this week. When his people called off the Premiership quality, division-amplifying case lodged in some degree of fury against his employers, Manchester City. (For those in the dark about this stuff, basically they had fined him for being prodigiously haughty, naughty and individualist… and Mario objected – spicily and via his lawyers.)

So now, we’re into a kind of rumbling peace. A peace where we can only imagine swear words of the most vile Italian nature are being slid like poison letters under hotel bedroom doors. From the Mancini Family to the Balotelli. Meaning that although the lines of mutual contempt are openly drawn, positions are being re-negotiated, in a suitably febrile atmosphere, where the chamber maid gets frisked and the bellboy practically water-boarded. Because they’re both – they’re all! – working for somebody, right?  Arbitration of the most hopelessly hopeless kind has been going on.  And, for now, it’s worked.

After an opening ten minutes which augured well for the silvered bulk of City’s galacticos, Mario played like a total pussy against United. He may not have been alone in that, but this is the key and the catalyst. Worse – he looked like he wasn’t trying. His sulk condemned him – the feeling being that anyone so insensitive as to openly prioritise his own frustrations, for whatever reasons, over the need to beat The Enemy must surely be the worst and most arrogant kind of traitor. This was how his performance – or his withdrawal of labour? – was widely judged. Mancini, to no-one’s surprise, hoiked him early in the second half and Balotelli stomped defiantly but rather pathetically off down the tunnel. You would be hard pushed to find anyone sympathetic.

There are, of course, issues around this Mariocentric Polarisation Thingy. The Love/Hate boogaboog of his Go Home/Out There/Over My Dead Bodyness. Him drawing that attention or deserving it or not. Him bristling against our prejudices as well as our love of the one-off, the natural. Balotelli pushes all kinds of buttons, and like a miscreant child in a lift, he can’t stop. The result is some dizzying but not typically pleasant lurch from bargain basement through Lingerie to a glorious, metro-cosmopolitan summit, whilst his fellow passengers either indulge him or twitch pre-violently. But who, exactly, in this clumpingly predictable and reductive journey is making it ‘all about him?’ Not just us.

Mourinho famously described Mario as ungovernable and I have no doubt part of the texture of his current relationship (with Mancini) is because of the latter’s need to be seen to deal with him. Roberto is a proud and evidently stubborn man too. Crucially perhaps, he still lacks the seal of approval of the wider Brit Footie Public, who view him as a fortunate inheritor rather than a kosher elite-level manager. Thus whilst on the one hand it may be that Roberto wants shot of Mario immediately if not sooner, some genuine attempt to Be The One Who Tamed That Beast may be part of the equation here. That and some real or heavily prompted desire to facilitate the expression of the Balotelli talent. Which is real.

There is resentment in the air. From City fans as well as those who bawl from the sidelines of the affair. Many do not react well to anyone who struts – whether that be a non-hostile, almost non-contact Berbatovian version or the slightly spikier in-a-coiffured-kindofaway favoured by Ronaldo. It smacks quite simply of arrogance. Balotelli, even when so deliciously-brilliantly demonstrating the art of penalty-taking under extreme pressure, fails to avoid the negativity around this particular charge. His nerveless dinks or doinks or passes into the net and subsequent joyless posing tending to evoke roars of animosity outweighing even the Sky Blue cheer. (Speaking personally mind you, they’ve made me laugh.) More seriously, the generality of footiefolks read his loafing about when things ‘just aren’t happening’ as unforgivable. As stuff he can’t get away with in the Prem, anyway. And sadly, a racial angle on all this anti-Mario hoo-haa cannot be ruled out.

Plus money lurks. Because of the news story, we all know now that two weeks wages for this particular City employee constitutes around £340,000. Three hundred and forty thousand pounds! Which he will now pay in fines to City, following his poor disciplinary record. (Incidentally, a swift reckoning up suggests it would take me 28.3 years, on current earnings, to accumulate this amount. Go on, have some fun! Work out your figures!! And then go barf.) Frankly rather weird that Mario’s initial directive to fight the case was surely barely connected to the amount of money – more the amount of slight against his name, his nature, his talent. These things, understandably, he holds precious. But the manner in which he displays this… pride(?) this self-worth(?) undermines him, does it not?

Perceptions around this Balotelli fellah are so loaded up with tribal cares and personal envies and moralistic tosh that no wonder things blur into symbol. Mario as lone warrior; Mario as renegade, inevitably misunderstood genius. Is this, I wonder, how he sees himself?  Standing there alone, in front of that full-length mirror? In his figure hugging designer undies, his arms spread wide, aloft, his face quizzical?

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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.