A kind of ugliness?


Chelsea – or as we in either our pomp or our provincial density call them ‘Chelski’ – have long been a symbol of metropolitan arrogance; we’ve hated them for that for yonks.  Way before the Putinesque assassin with silencered WOMP secreted about his black leather jacket wafted poisonously in.  We hated Chopper Harris – with some moral justification.  We hated Peter Osgood for his flashy bird-pulling brilliance and whiff of Kings Road boutiques.  Less obviously, we even hated David Webb for his (surely fake?) stolid yeomanhood, believing that to be the sole preserve of Northerners like er… Nemanja Vidic.  Chelsea were and are, easy to hate.

Man City are more recent arrivals at this general bile-fest.  Traditionally they had been pretty close to admirable, what with their perennial hopelessness just very rarely – like Once in a Blue Moonish, actually – spoiled by the classy shimmies and undeniable running of a Colin Bell or somebody.  (Rodney Marsh did complicate this other half of Mancunian experience by coming over all gaudy Landun The-attah on us at one stage – but this is simply a historical aberration; clearly he should have moved across to The Bridge, not Up North.)  No, City are a 21st century horror; one created entirely out of The Prem’s seduction by ‘Arab (or somebody Other’s) Money’.  Suddenly, we’re all lost in a sandstorm where the barchans are made of banknotes; where the origins of everything are unknowable; where there really is no foundation.

Chelsea got there first – before City, anyway – with the money thing.  Abramovic bought success and stuck around, presiding in a fashion we can only speculate about, his degree of control/interference/dictation being (again) unknowable.  The club has been his though.  Championships and even a turgid but triumphant Champions League campaign have followed, with (in my view) shockingly little dissent from the fans over his utterly amoral metier.  Managers have been brutally hoofed in a way that suggests Abramovic is indeed both a brute and a geezer ‘oo don’t knar ‘is fackin’ futtee.  Eventually and quite possibly ironically he has a frazzled, destabilised Benitez somewhere near the helm.  The club has gone from flash to kindof sordid, has it not?  You could only be proud of Chelsea, as a fan, in an aggressive/defensive kindofaway; not proud of how the club is.

In this respect City have come towards Chelsea.  The cheap blitz of wealth and acquisition now having passed through that anschluss/honeymoon phase into something truly hollow but still competitive.  Players who clearly owe negligible allegiance to the City Cause – but Big Name players.  Factions.  Noises off.  A kind of ugliness, symbolised (and I attempt to reflect the cruelty and bad taste of the average opposition fan here, perhaps foolishly) by the unattractive fizzog, as well as the unattractive activity of the boy Tevez.  City as some brash new ego-maniac brand; sometimes sparkling, sometimes depressingly disappointing; a metaphor for the new age in and out of the game.  For all these reasons, today’s cup semi is no popularity contest.


The game was nearly fabulous.  Certainly exciting, with a coronary-inducing openness and that familiar stamp of a footie match where defenders often looked like they simply could not be arsed to defend.  (Surely this is weirdly and maybe disturbingly characteristic of the current Premiership?)  Unfortunately this was not the only stamp of note – Aguero two-footedly clumping Luiz in a fashion that should have seen him dismissed – he wasn’t.

It would, however,  be churlish to overstate that moment of callousness in a game that had much to recommend.  From the opening, City were bright and penetrative, bristling with ideas and running power; Chelsea were simply overrun.  Out wide and central, where Mikel was displaying either the nerves or the qualities of a rather ordinary player (you delete…) the disciplinarian structuralist Rafa’s posse were ragged, whilst the faux-bully classicist-fascist male-model Mancini’s unruly horde were impressively ON IT.  So no surprise – indeed predictably – that symbol of thin undeservinghood Nasri (see earlier gripes/continue at will) bundled through with some good fortune to notch a goal; for himself mainly… but also his estranged team… and yeh, the supporters.  I didn’t see Mancini’s reaction; I suspect a shrug and a turn away.

It took Chelsea a good half-hour to turn up.  By then we had seen frailties all round the park, including the obvious thing around there being too many diminutive ball-players in midfield – an alarmingly counter-Rafa state of affairs that continues, rather charmingly.  Notable I thought was Azpilcueta’s discomfort; with like everything.  The Blues (in black) did need Ramires and Mikel to enter meaningful contact with the game.  They continued to refuse all offers, though they did come, for City – with Milner again in infuriatingly one-paced and wasteful mode – were far from perfect.  ‘Twas one nil at the break and this seemed about right.

I have been known to air my displeasure at City’s striker’s greed around the box, as though this was in some way emblematic of yaknow, their selfishness and the shameless humbug that is free-market egonomics.  This persisted today, for me.  Tevez and Aguero seemed as likely to square one to each other for a tap-in as Arthur Scargill is to read the eulogy at the #Thatcher funeral.  Whether this single-mindedness (stroke greed) is coached at City I can’t say.  It suits my purposes, I guess, to continue to use it against them, in an unlicensed moral fury, until they grow up and jolly-well pass to each other. The point is this game could have been over had they showed any public-spiritedness of the sort that tends to form an essential part of a sports team; not at City, apparently.

Aguero, as if shut up folks like me who maybe under-appreciate his brilliance, scored with a header.  Then Ba, on the half-turn, following poor defending, got Chelsea back in it.  There followed a period where City, in their turn, drifted and sat, giving Oscar and co the chance to create and me the time to indulge reservations about the clunkiness of Barry as Oscar and co breezed past him.  (Couple of years ago both Barry and Milner looked proper England players; now they could barely be more limited, more uninspiring; what happened?  Oh – they’re England players!!)  On the plus side this meant the match was pretty close to exhilarating at times, as Chelsea poured forward for the inevitable equaliser.  It never came.  City won.

Many of us have mixed feelings about football being in the hands of people who don’t know the game, or worse still could never convince us they want to listen to our understandings of its daft joys.  In that way there are parallels with capitalist politics, yes?  (He asked, absurdly.)  Maybe I’m a pompous arse but I am not entirely able to untangle my feelings about these clubs/this match from the crassness and delusion and cynicism at the heart of the contemporary game.  Chelsea FC and Manchester City FC, as well as having some of the world’s significant footballing talents to call upon, represent now a lot of stuff that ain’t good.  I don’t say them alone… but they are the apex of a crappy Premiership triangle; or maybe polygon; or maybe something bit more insidiously amorphous.

Things aren’t simple anymore; the exposure is so massive, the intensity so SO unreally high definition that we are being invited to pay homage rather than view.  This troubles me.  Odd to be so dissenting of a really pretty captivating match?  Perhaps.  Perhaps.

From The Bridge, with love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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