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b) he may have been for one day the most expensive player in British football before being superceded by one Alex James Esquire.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?



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?

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.


One version of events suggests that the revolution at The Bridge featured a shocking restraint on the part of the owner – a man hitherto identified chiefly for his hatchet-mania. It is said that Abramovich actually supported his manager better and longer than the players did… before finally wielding the battle-worn veteran that is his Ukrainian Kukri. Thus we are presented with the possibility that Mild-Mannered Frank, known and loved for his A Level in Excruciatingly (S)killed Diplomacy (WhenFacedWithanInterviewSituation,Brian) and for his formerly likeably cuddly tumtum may – repeat may – have played a more aggressive role in the undermining of the brilliantly verbose ex-Porto man than Comrade Youknowwho. I’m shocked.

And could it likewise be that Ashley Cole, in a post-Napolitan strop, sought to apply the full, intimidating force of his intelligence to the de-stabilisation of Villas-Boas perhaps – I imagine through scrawling SHIT on the gaffers desk, or similar? And did Didier maliciously synchronise incoming Rolexes for that infuriatingly deadline-hugging fine-teasing screech of supercars into the car park, before winking knowingly at the watching but helpless ‘boss?’ We may never know.

We may never know if that kind of stuff mattered more than the dark, results-driven mutterings exchanged between the Real Boss and (again, I imagine) his own reflection most mornings, for the last month or two. But however, it seems sadly likely that the players… the players wanted The Bemackintoshed One out. More than the newly sensitised Abramovic, amazingly.

So no more absurdly fluent but amorphous/slightly increasingly ludicrous post-match roadkill dissections. And no more cruel dressing-room japes at AVB’s expense. So… so who’s next? The flawed Benitez – who surely isn’t to be trusted entirely to spend, spend , spend on the backbone of a new squad if his record at Liverpool FC is to be held in evidence? Who else? Who else, more to the point more likely than AVB to turn around a team that in recent times combines talent with an unappealing smugness?

Even throughout the good times – and let’s be clear folks, even now is a historically fortunate time for the club and its supporters – there’s been a tad too much of the histrionic (Drogba?) or the sulky (guess who?) or the near-bewilderingly indulgent about many of the sub-galacticos that have plied their trade at The Bridge. (Their trade being actually and apparently something they’ve appeared often to tinker with or dabble at rather than apply themselves to as though, god forbid, they meant to a) truly fulfil some meaningful contract with the club and the supporters b) stay longterm.)  Maybe this is what money buys? Mercenaries. Badge-kissers.

There may indeed be some traceable and even inevitable momentum leading us to where we’re at ‘darna Bridge’. Fans feel stuff like that whilst guys and gals like me search for encapsulating wisdoms; like this one. Particularly of late there’s seemed to be no team.

Who are Chelsea? John Terry was – Frank Lampard was – but this year’s flux seems to deny us any convincing evidence of who just might be next to carry that flame/torch/designer symbol. This living by mood is surely both a result of the Russian owner’s unstillness as well as of the consequent carousel of arrivals and departures from the dug-out – whether they be playing or more-or-less ‘overseeing’ arrivals. Bottom line, like the eyes of Dr T J Eckleburg, it is Roman who sees all. Voices full of money populate both Scott-Fitzgerald’s novel and the environs of the Kings Road. A key difference is that Roman scorches past the merely symbolic into the hands-on, the prosaically influential. He is tinkerer-in-chief, in truth, as well as sower of dreams.

So the club has lurched from one temporary beauty to another. Mourinho and Ancelotti, in their hugely different ways were on the one hand outstanding and on the other… gone. Hiddink too. Fans of Graham Norton will be familiar with the dumping chair at the end of his current run of shows, from which those who fail to entertain the Great Unwashed sufficiently (in Graham’s twinkling Irish eyes) are unceremoniously hoiked back’ards. Reminding me of Chelsea – or Abramovich? Who have the same crassness going for them but lack, generally, the humour.

So let’s return to that question: who’s next? Hilariously (from outside) it appears that Abramovocih has already exhausted the list; like serially. For me, Benitez is a goodish coach who rose periodically – i.e. in cups, typically – to the challenge of galvanising Liverpool. But he signally failed to produce a side which genuinely troubled those competing over the season’s length for the Premier League title. And the longer he went about that business, the less convincingly or astutely he dealt in the transfer market. Given that the Chelsea Project (volume 9?) clearly does imply a serious need for restructuring – culling, actually – as well as buying in, Rafa would not, I confess, be on my wish-list. Is he really top of Roman’s?

But who else is both capable and available? Mourinho – no? Hiddink – no. Guardiola – surely no?!? Does this already begin to bring us into contact with the untested or the (Chelsea)-undeserving? If Abramovic really does want to win and win stylishly that list shrinks yet further; to the extent that the feeling might be that Chelsea simply cannot get the right man; a feeling that first suggested itself whoa… about five or six years ago, or whenever somebody started kicking managers out every season.

Roman will surely go for a big name. Roman will surely not, however, concede to that new man the right to truly manage; begging the further question who, in their right mind, would want to take the Chelsea thing on? Unless for the money.

(Inter)National Coaches Week

I’m declaring it to be (Inter)National Coaches Week on several grounds – The Emirates/Twickenham/The Stadium Of Light (Sunderland) for starters, arf arf.

For Coaches R It this week and these disparate, more or less absurdly named arenas seem urgently/particularly loaded venues for fascinating, topical and revealing (Inter)National Coach Intro/Circum Spection, surely. (I am so sure about this I’ve already posted upon the Roker and Twickers connection to the subject – indeed The Week at hand).

But these two par-blooming sporting meadows, instructive though their gathering lushnesses may be, threaten to serve only to heighten the drama darna Emirates, where desertification has manifestly struck. Wenger – he of the oft-reported urbane manner and quasi-Catalonian seedlings – is, this week, in the words of the renowned Spanish Sportsmeister Jorge BlackAdder, more weakened than a very weak thing. And this strikes me as a matter of considerable regret.

Arsene – who has borne with some dignity the inevitable xenophobic dross about picking poncy foreigners for years – may soon have tilled North London’s soil his last. For like this apparently bipolar metaphor, the downs seem now to have swallowed the ups.

Following the Gooners distracted-to-the-point-of-uncaring loss at the San Siro last night, the abuse coalesces malevolently. Indeed, plenty of it has already been let loose, understandably in the case of the 5,000 (can it really have been that many?!?) who travelled to Northern Italy to be rewarded with an unacceptably poor performance. Those fans will surely have felt betrayed (a strong word but in this footballing context a relevant one) by the uber-laxity of their side’s defending all around the pitch and the comparative lack of urgency from their players to put things right.

Both the result and the performance were a blow, for sure, but for many including my good self neither came as a real, full-on shock. Because Arsenal have been so obviously vulnerable for some considerable time; indeed their recent absence of trophies is a clear reflection of lack of durability rather than lack of talent. And Wenger the purist, the inspiring torch-bearer for twinkle over clonk, is heavily culpable in this deficiency. Ironic but true, he really could have done with a British centre-half; or full-back; or something. Something to balance and stiffen the current malleable, tippy-tappy model.

So is there an argument that those who have bayed for Wenger’s head out of Brit-nationalist leanings may have fluked their way to centrestage; because Arsene is in trouble now.  But let’s not capitulate space to the fat beer-belly of prejudice, eh?

I am aware that the near incomparable Alonso of Real has expressed dismay and even disbelief that the Brits still see tackling as an essential component of the game at the top level and I have some sympathy with his view. However, simple lack of tackling ‘ability’ is not the issue at Arsenal; it is more a lazy disinclination to pressure the ball once it is lost and to genuinely track the movements of the opposition attack.

Unsurprisingly, Barcelona provide a sensational example of a side prepared – and I use the word advisedly – to relentlessly but with some intelligence hunt down the ball (and thereby regain possession) at the earliest opportunity. Arsenal seem to have neither the inclination or the athletes to do this. If Song and Ramsey for example are not allowed their preferred mode for coolly dictating play, they appear one-paced and sometimes adrift from the action. They can both tackle – unlike Rosicky? – but in Milan they and the bulk of their teammates shared an alarming tendency to let the opposition play.

Even in deep positions this lack of engagement characterised the performance. Simply and as a whole the defence was unspeakably bad; bad in a cultural, absence-of-application rather than very occasionally switching off kindofaway. Even allowing for the individual paucity of Walcott – again playing like a fifteen year-old – and later the hapless Djourou, it was distressing to see the ease with which Ibrahimovic and co were able to turn and play or pick a choice pass. For Wenger, seeing this must surely have been torture; torture beyond national boundary and almost beyond belief.

But Arsene IS responsible. He has failed to address an issue that needed addressing several years ago. Generally the coach pays the price for these kinds of flaws.

On the one hand the Gooner ownership are to be heartily congratulated for gifting the British game a Wenger Concept that has entertained us and unquestionably enriched the Premier League. On the other, in the brutal terms of this No-Place-For-A-Sensitive-Boy environment and given that there appears no reasonable prospect for the learned Frenchman to so utterly reform his comparatively spineless side, he may have to go. Go or clear out the nearly brilliantly total footballers he’s stood by for so long. Sad, methinks that his flawed generosity should expose him so. But what can you do? What can you 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.

Anybody else drifting?

Five Live on and the thrum of news and noise and oohs and aahs. Snippets tumble and actually – following late night(s) and some devastatingly wholesome fresh air via The Beach all morning – fall in time with … my eyelids. And briefly, the sleep of the just. Or rather a luxurious snoozette, reflecting justifiable knackeration and also some degree of meandering of interest away from the allegedly beautiful game.

If pushed I could establish in some depth the atvincent pedigree in terms of closeness to and understanding of that extra limb, that family member we grew up calling footie. Then, we had or wanted or were aware of little else, it seems.

My authority in the subject is however sentimentally deep rather than encyclopaedically Motsonesque. I forget dates but remember Saturdays or Wednesday nights at Forest/Derby watching United/Everton and The Happy Hammers. I remember pink Football Specials – on one occasion with a front page feature welcoming a Dad down from Grimsby with his clutch of sons to watch Clough-era Baseball Ground action. Back even further, I remember late-vintage Best/Charlton/Law skitting unreally beneath the floodlights, with Foulkes/Crerand/Byrne patrolling like red minesweepers.  And Dave MacKay there, pigeon-chestedly bustling through a throw-in, in order to reduce my appearance fee on MOTD.  These are indeed memories of a convoy-on-the-horizon kind; almost monotone perhaps, but nevertheless poignant.

Family life nowadays seems more cluttered; there are obscene and wonderful multitudes of distractions whirring noiselessly or insidiously close. Running off down the park is not the dumb-heavenly default position it once was. Many more things blink and shine and probe for the burnished weaknesses to break the surface; the needs for the new; the needs for the cool. The story can never be languidly innocent again it seems; and it’s ‘clips’, not a story.

But ludicrous to imagine otherwise. How could the context for anything remain unshifted in times characterised by rapaciousness/superficiality/dynamism of the tail-chasing sort? Why would footie remain untouched by all this stuff? It hasn’t.

Let’s swerve to the positives – of which there are always mercifully plenty (too.) The pre-eminence of Spain in world football marks perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime triumph for skills over functionality. The current gorgeous irresistibility of David Silva amongst the often unhinged limbs of the Premier League is likewise something to be treasured. Arsene Wenger’s magnificently imperfect but idealogically Invincible tenure at Arsenal is similarly inspiring, if a small degree of separation from the need to win big is negotiated. Levels of inclusion and even anti-racism are massively improved. And yet I drift.

I drift because of many things – some of them impossibly beyond footie’s remitt or control;

  • the competition from rugby and cricket
  • the indescribably absurd amounts of dosh being shovelled around, generally in the direction of pretty modest talents
  • the cynicism of many in or around the game, exemplified by the typical forward -Oops, striker!- thinking only of drawing a foul or penalty when breaching the box, rather than instinctively bursting the net
  • the shameless faking of injury or contact
  • the foul abuse of referees/officials
  • the fact that only 2 or 3 teams could actually win the Premiership.

The tsunami that is Manchester City epitomises many of these concerns. Funded remorselessly, they have spent the last few seasons proving that great individuals don’t make a team, whilst their fans foamed with expectation and United and Chelsea trod the ammoniated waters, fearfully. For an age their Mancunian galacticos teetered on the brink of implosion, such was their incapacity to win.

Now, things have changed, results-wise. But this is still a club attempting to smother a terrible secret – the Tevez affair. The Argentinian may have entirely refused to step on the park when called upon by the manager Mancini, or he may have not. He has, however brought shame upon the sport through a series of defections and mercenary switches of non-allegiance; metaphorically kissing the arse as opposed to the badge. Serially.

This insensitivity to the essence of the thing is both unforgivable and sadly infectious in the modern era and it therefore reflects an important truth. That football may have more dead souls, more non-sportsmen, more Show Ponies than is viable for a world-important game.

Whether the plusses tippy-tapped out by our Spanish brothers can either mitigate or make amends entirely for the mouthy the ungrateful and the undeserving is open to question.  Watching Rooney – brilliant though he is – face contorted with Shrekian rage, assaulting a ref or TV camera by way of expressing his dark but manicured frustrations invites recoil towards less offending alternatives.  And so I drift, unsure of whether to hope.