Wednesday, 13 October 2021

The Premier League: Please watch irresponsibly

 In July 1991, when I had just turned 16, I was in the Arsenal end at Watford for a pre-season friendly, and was thrilled by the homophobic chanting directed at the hosts chairman, Elton John. 

The emphatic rounds of “Elton John’s a homosexual” as soon as he appeared on the pitch as part of a presentation for the club groundsman, not only added a new dimension of gloss to my recently acquired life on the terraces, but kept me in good spirits for several days after, as memorable a moment as former Watford and Arsenal full back Pat Rice waving our way when he was introduced on to the pitch. 

In October 2021, aged 46, I must reconnect with that 16 year old in order to support my excitement of the Premier League without the fusty old hindrance of morality. If I want to avoid conflict with my natural desire to be engaged with the league that Arsenal compete in, then I have to ignore my natural grievances that the game in this country continues to produce as frequently as new managers at Vicarage Road these days. 

My ‘bothered’ amnesty is over; I looked forward to Arsenal’s home game with Norwich City as the one that would stop the rot; I wanted to be at The Emirates to see them bashing up Spurs; I started watching Match if The Day; I am counting up the points that my secured players in the auction-based fantasy league are earning me. I am weak of will, a yellow, lily-livered let-down incapable of walking away from an abusive relationship, hooked forever on the nicotine that will one day kill me. I am good at making noises about leaving but it’s no good, I love it, and I can’t help what I love, right?

I mentioned the Emirates there, and it’s bad enough the ground being called that, with the anti-human rights statement it brings, let alone the shirt sleeve recommending you ‘Visit Rwanda’, a country run by an Arsenal fan who orders the deaths of those who threaten to expose the appalling injustice there. 

So, onto the Prem’s latest bit of business - and their compliance in overseeing Newcastle United’s takeover by a Saudi Prince, who puts the outgoing Mike Ashley’s zero-hour contracts in the shade with a profitable career in beheading. The Prem’s much-lauded Fit and Proper Persons Test has, with his arrival (though not in club affairs, honest) been dealt another decisive blow.

Of course the 19 other innocent bystanders of the Prem have voiced their opposition, a number which includes Manchester City and Chelsea, who are probably so engaged and deluded by their own sportwashing agendas that they truly cannot believe anyone has the temerity to plough billions of pounds into a football club that they have no connection to just to cleanse their reputation. 

But what City and Chelsea have to do is leave their principles at the turnstiles. To get the most out of this Prem showcase, they and we must go all-in. Newcastle’s legendary greatest fans in the world have been celebrating the return of their club to them, discovered in the Sports Direct eternal fire-sale by the Arab saviours. This is the spirit. Welcome without examination the murderous regimes; support that loveable old rogue, Rupert; chuckle at your mate Jeff as he advertises betting, which has cost his friend and colleague 7 mill; sneer a bit at the taking of the knee; roll your eyes at the Rainbow laces; say bollocks to #MeToo while you’re at it. As long we’re all 16, we can enjoy this never ending thrill. 

Sunday, 26 September 2021

No point looking away now

A couple of weeks ago, I received notification that tickets were on sale for Arsenal v AFC Wimbledon, and inside the  email was a countdown to kick off, though more appropriate - as it turned out - would have been a countdown to the congestion outside the ground that delayed kick off. 

Perceived wisdom is that the problems were caused by 20,000 tickets going on ‘general sale’ , and casual fans being unfamiliar with the stadium layout, not to mention the usual lack of urgency to get in on time while selfies had yet to be completed and a thorough browsing inside the club shop.

Luckily, most were inside to see Eddie Nketiah’s imaginative back-heeled goal, and it is any moments like these that seem to be the point of League Cup matches. Manchester City have won the last four League Cup finals and will no doubt make it a fifth in succession. They win it so routinely that the trophy is usually forgotten when summarising their season; didn’t win the league or Champions League, not even the FA Cup. A season of failure. 

All the eyes on Nketiah’s goal, and all the frustration of those not being able to make kick off, and all the thousands of words on the 3-0 home win should, with all reasonable logic, have been geared towards the story of the match itself, rather than on any journey to lifting the trophy. Same with all the other goals and moments to in all the other games, unless they involved City; the ending to the League Cup has already been written, it’s just the tale that needs to be weaved.

The countdown to Manchester City’s triumph at Wembley. 

Monday, 6 September 2021

The Arsenal Megamix comin' at ya!

Of course you can't extricate yourself entirely, and I've dabbled, skimmed the surface, ok dived in a bit, but not long enough to get used to the cold. Got back out again pretty quickly.

The 'in-game' punditry of Arsenal's defeat to Chelsea contained the same old go-to favourites:

"Soft underbelly"

"Same old problems"

"Where are the leaders?"

I compare this to being on the clubbing circuit in the mid 90's and 2000's when you hear the Grease! Megamix week after week, year after year; there comes a time when you just can't listen to it any more. You stop, blow out your cheeks and walk away from the dance floor. 

I still haven't seen a second of MOTD (or MOTD2 if you're asking) this season, and it's liberating not to have caved in - not that I'm denying myself. I miss Wrighty but I don't need the smug, underhand gloating of Lineker, Jenas and Murphy, nor the pontification of Shearer. What gets said online by SKY and BT just gets repeated on air at a later part of the day, the afternoon suits doing the evening casuals work for them. 

Another benefit of not committing, is the avoidance of gloom that the international break delivers. Who cares there's no football this week, there hasn't been any for me the previous weeks! Maybe when my auction-based fantasy league kicks in, November's will be a source of frustration, but the appeal of that competition is the absence of dabbling and tinkering; you don't get the withdrawals of unnecessarily messing your team up (there's some movement in November and February when you can drop and select three players max, but it is normally in a pub and includes a roast dinner - although the mini-auctions might be on zoom this season).

Arsene Wenger may be in the familiar position of fielding a whole load of flak for FIFA's World Cup every two years proposal, but his idea to condense the painful tedium of qualifiers seems worth listening to at least. Let's take England as an example; their last interesting qualifying group was in 2007-8 when they missed out to Russia and Croatia. Three decent teams in one section, only two able to qualify. McClaren was ridiculed and sacked but Russia reached the semi-final and Croatia the quarter-final.  2007-08 qualifying also gave us The Wally with the Brolly and Paul Robinson letting a Gary Neville back pass roll under his feet. What do we remember today's World Cup and Euro qualifiers for? Racism mostly, and UEFA/FIFA doing nothing about it.

The 2008 tournament had 16 teams, we now have 24, so the chances of competitive qualifying are virtually zero for the established sides. If this misery must continue, can it not go back to how it used to be, qualifiers midweek without interrupting the league schedule at the weekend? I get that's hard with clubs being represented by nationalities all over the world, but hey I don't care anyway, do I?             

Saturday, 21 August 2021

Remembering better times and Sean Lock

I haven't watched a single second of last week's season opening round of football. No, don't applaud me, there are people out there achieving far greater feats than that (yes really).  Truth is I haven't even been tempted, so it's neither a victory of willpower or self-sacrifice. I don't need it any more, I'm done.

Do I believe myself? I never have before so why should I now, but take my approach and response to Arsenal's result at Prem new boys Brentford on Friday night: just about to turn to my pillow to go to sleep I remember to have a look at the score on the phone. Brentford 2 Arsenal 0. I do a half-amused grunt, put the phone to the side and turn back to the pillow. Previous incarnations of first day defeat (albeit a night, a Friday night, which in itself lends weight to apathy) would have had me raging or sulking, but though I knew the result would lead to a mass outpouring of the former, I felt liberated not to be a part of it.

A journalist last week wrote of a "major tournament hangover" affecting the atmosphere at the Community Shield between Leicester City and Manchester City, but mine is an ongoing, self-inflicted bout of sickness due to an over-indulgence of tolerating greed and lip-service that has moved football as far as it possibly can go from a parent and their child kicking a ball about over the local field.

I could have gone to Arsenal v Chelsea tomorrow afternoon, because tickets are still available - even with a full house at The Emirates being allowed for the first time in 18 months - but I'll never pay £64 minimum to watch a regular game of football. I used to choose to pay £6 to stand on the north Bank, and then £11 when I could pick seats in the all-seated North Bank stand in 1993-94. Yes, not every match is minimum £64, but the category system they operate is flawed, as it suggests that the quality of opposition will guarantee a better match, which is simply not true. All fixtures are as important as each other, and £30 to watch every one of them would be a fair price.

One person who sadly won't be at the Emirates is Chelsea fan and comedian Sean Lock, who died earlier this week from cancer at the age of 58. Two of my favourite lines from him involve football. One is from 2006, when he narrated a World Cup free-kicks compilation in 2006 in the style of Harry Hill doing You've Been Framed. Watching David Beckham curl one in against Colombia in 1998, Sean remarked "And here's David Beckham...bending it like Stoichkov".  

The other comes from the same year on the panel show They Think It's All Over when he was captain of one of the sides. Speaking of Steve McLaren, then Middlesbrough manager, he claimed that his nickname was "The Chair". "Sometimes he sits down, sometimes he stands up...he's a bit of a character!"

Sean Lock was certainly a character, and even funnier than McLaren saying English words in a Dutch accent.   

I'll miss him on the telly more than corporate football.                       

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Euro 2020 Postscript

In the days when I wrote a monthly fanzine for a Sunday League team I played for (a ‘playerzine’?) my player/manager suggested I conclude my supposedly witty match reports with “player ratings”. I didn’t take up this idea, as I feared I was causing enough offence to my team mates already, and indeed had nearly been dropped by that same player/manager on the morning of a game for comments about him that he had taken to heart. I talked him round eventually, but considering we only had 11 players turn up that day, leaving me out really would have put me in my place. 

My Euro 2020 reflections will cause the relevant subjects less resentment, partly because I am not a qualified observer of the professional game, but mostly because they will likely never read them. Which is actually a good thing, as I have licence to say what I like without worrying about reprisals. Yes, definitely a good thing…Mr Matterface, can you hear me?

Thing I hated Most About Euro 2020 (apart from stampedes, abusers on social media and taking-the-knee booing)

Seven Nation Army blaring out from the speaker system when a goal was scored, especially in front of a noisy, nearly full capacity crowd watching the home team in a Final. Any additional, external accompaniment (including Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, which seems to be the chosen tune of celebration, as after the England- Denmark semi, and also featured on William Hill adverts; you can bet someone’s making some money out of it) in this event is a blatant insult to supporters (everywhere) and serves only as the latest message that fans should know their limits. 

That said, I am about to contradict myself…

2nd Thing I Hated Most About Euro 2020 (apart from…)

It’s Coming Home. No, It has to stop. 

Match I would watch again

Italy v Spain semi-final at Wembley. As the best commentator, Steve Wilson, said: “It’s been a fantastic first twenty minutes”, and it continued to be fantastic for the next 100. Actually, Steve may have said “football match” rather than “twenty minutes” but luckily I would watch it again so will hopefully find out. 

NB: “Its been an excellent twenty minutes”, he says, so I was wrong on both counts. 

A weird moment I can think of

Jonathan Pearce (oh yes), going on about the number of Crystal Palace players out of contract during Holland v Austria. 

A couple of Rio Ferdinand quotes

“But can you really see them winning it?” (Italy)

“England beat both those teams” (after Italy v Spain)

“Gareth Southgate has come up with the trumps so far”  (during England v Italy)

“If there one thing I would criticise Gareth Southgate for, it would be the team sitting back” (after England v Italy)

Bit of xenophobia creeping in

The memes doing the rounds of Italy and Spain (and then Italy again) practicing diving. Did you not notice how England got their penalty against Denmark?! Or how Harry Kane and Jack Grealish spend half the match?!

Unlikely Hero

Clive Tyldesley. Knows there was a 2nd Group stage in the 1982 World Cup. Acknowledged the irony of taking the piss out of Ally McCoist’s playing career. Presented inclusive commentaries. Predicted France v Switzerland going all the way at the start. Mocked the ‘Mexican wave’ during the same game (“I think this game deserves better than that”. Shades of Brian Moore there). Is still the best ITV commentator.

A Disappointing game

France v Germany. Bloodless, thanks to France. 

An Interesting Studio Panel

Keane, Vieira, Neville (hosted by Mark Pougatch) for France v Switzerland. The 2005 Highbury Tunnel panel, you could say. 

Players I Enjoyed Watching

Olmo, Saka, Bonucci, Donnarumma, Chiesa, Tierney, De Bruyne, Pedri, Renato Sanches, Shaw, The England Captain.

Biggest Surprise 

Jorginho being Italian/Soyuncu Turkish/Digne French. 

I Love You Ian Wright…

Stop the Marvel references, though!

Favourite Goals 

Damsgaard for Denmark v England

Insigne for Italy v Belgium

De Bruyne for Belgium v Denmark

Morata for Spain v Croatia

Chiesa for Italy v Spain

Schick for Czech Rep v Scotland

Sterling for England v Czech Rep

Gonzalez for Croatia v Spain

A contentious issue

The person at the Final who was showing off their England shirt with Mrs Grealish on the back and the number 69…harmless fun, or a betrayal of womankind?  Similarly, those fans who are captured on camera, and play up to it like it's the highlight of their lives, even if their team has just conceded a vital last minute goal. Harmless fun, or a betrayal of footballfankind?  

To sum up then...

I liked that the player who scored the first goal of Euro‘88 became the winning manager of ‘20. There’s no real symmetry there, but I just like it anyway. 

I can’t pretend to have seen all the games - maybe I only saw the majority of a quarter of them, and would have seen even less if my daughter hadn’t shown so much interest in the England Semi Final and Final. As it was, and to my relief, she wanted to stop watching the Final after twenty minutes, as the tension was too unbearable. After all, she had Italy in her class fun sweepstake, so had a vested interest. 

As for me, I need to have a think. I spend every two summers waiting desperately for England to be knocked out of a major tournament in similar anxious circumstances to the Champions League Final of 2019, where Spurs took the reins. When there is so much about modern football that invites you to step away for good, sometimes I have to consider how much good this is doing me. 

Anyway, Ciao for now!

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Euro 2020 Day 31: Jeering for England

 It wasn’t the worst thing that some England fans did before, during and after the Euro 2020 Final, but the booing every time an Italian player touched the ball at Wembley was just as tedious and juvenile as when they did it to ‘one of their own’, Beckham, for the whole of 98-98. 

At least the commitment to infantile pantomime fare on Sunday was just for 120 minutes (plus penalties). In February 1999, commentating on Nottm Forest-Manchester United, Barry Davies called the default response to Beckham receiving possession, “tiresome”. 22 years later, the tiresome show of hostility at Wembley for opponents blocking the path to ‘home’ for football wasn’t, I guess, intimidating for the wily Italians, but was incredibly irritating to me. 

Then there was the mocking whenever an Italian pass or shot went wrong, which is a standard response to the ‘enemy’ side up and down the country during the domestic season, but is the equivalent to the joy expressed in pubs and bars when one of the staff drops a tray of glasses.

UEFA’s regrettably employed match day entertainment team added to the unnecessary noise, blasting out Seven Nations Army when England scored, as if the response from 60,000 people hanging onto the belief that their perceived birthright was about to be rescued from the evil Europeans wasn’t sufficient. 

The excess onslaught on the eardrums continued with Euro 2020’s official theme tune (performed by Bono, an apt choice for the job given the tournament’s scant regard for climate change) still playing as the game kicked off. Then, during the break before extra time, it was the turn of Gala’s Freed From Desire (aka Will Grigg’s On Fire) to ‘pump the crowd up’, a move given the thumbs up by Alan Shearer and Rio Ferdinand, despite the dismay of John Stones and Phil Foden, both on the pitch during the most famous rendition of the song’s football variant when League One Wigan Athletic beat Manchester City 1-0 in the FA Cup 5th Round, thanks to Grigg.

The weirdest choice of noise on the night (besides booing, which is weird on any occasion) was England doing that clap over your head thing that Iceland brought to the last Euros, where they beat England. I can’t imagine as an Arsenal fan that I would ever generate a chant used primarily by Wrexham or Bradford City. 

I am out of touch, of course. The game is heading in a Matterface direction, and I have to admit I am in the Tyldesley boat, given the choice. As for where football is going right now…well football is everywhere. It’s a global game. But if I am to pander, then Football’s Coming Rome.

Monday, 5 July 2021

Euro 2020 Day 24: Letting the air out a bit and my vendetta with David Baddiel

When I was at my lowest point on Saturday (3rd July) I wanted to kill not myself but David Baddiel.

Maybe that's not entirely true. Maybe it was just his interminable bloody song I wanted to kill. I pick on Baddiel particularly because the earworm shitshow of his co-making isn't the only grudge I hold against him. Two years after FCH or ICH or Three Lions, or whatever the bollocks it's called, entered the charts, Baddiel was interviewed outside Wembley Stadium with tickets for the Arsenal v Newcastle United FA Cup Final talking about his "hate" for Arsenal while I sat indoors at home having not been able to get a ticket despite being a regular in the North Bank and Stand for the previous eight years. To make it worse, his team, Chelsea, had been in the previous years' Final, and another in '94. Why was he accepting this privilege? You may say that his stadium admission, alongside, of course, West Brom fan Frank Skinner (can't vouch for Ian Broudie and The Lightning Seeds, which is good as it saves me time rifling through their albums for lyrics of hypocrisy) was part of some corporate entertainment deal, but to me that just makes it worse.  

I have mellowed over the years and indeed went along with my good lady girlfriend to see his very funny comedy show at The Alban Arena four years ago, and have tickets to go and see his Covid-delayed next one (if you're a die-hard David fan and couldn't get one, please let me know) but on Saturday, during one of my depressive states of inescapable fixation now certified by a Doctor, I drove around and moped along with that arsehole tune going round in my head, mocking me until I reached the cliff edge.

Fortunately I reached our Close instead, and inside our house I could talk to my girlfriend who helped me lift some of the fog (It really is good to talk). She knew the evening was wracked with potential disaster as England were playing an easy-looking quarter-final with Ukraine (fair play to Southgate's mob, they've found another tulip-laden path to victory while all the top dogs claw each others eyes out) and had forewarned her Mum not to engage me with all the cheering and goodwill. The laugh is that we were going there for a family night of curry and cards for my delayed family birthday celebration!

We'd mooted the idea of cancelling so her Mum could enjoy the game uninterrupted (and learn the players names) but we ploughed on, and after an unsteady start the evening was a success. I learned that England won 4-0 but I still couldn't tell you know who scored apart from Kane (I heard Guy Mowbray stretching out his name in a raised tone, rather like the time Tyldesley yelled out "Shearer!" as heard outside the Red Lion big-screen for England v Germany in 2001, in another disappointing outcome to that fixture).

I won't be watching the semi-final against Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday and will have to order a cave or something and judge when it's safe to come out, which is possibly never. I can't do anything about the hopes I have that Denmark's Eriksen-inspired tournament will bring about some kind of '92 repeat while understanding that they lost the first two games this summer (the first, understandably, the second once Belgium sent on their best players); that said, they didn't win either of their first two in Sweden in '92 but went on to beat favourites' France (huh!) and defending champions Holland in the semi-final and then World Cup winners Germany in the Final. But England at Wembley? In the face of that peddled mantra? They won't win.


The Premier League: Please watch irresponsibly

 In July 1991, when I had just turned 16, I was in the Arsenal end at Watford for a pre-season friendly, and was thrilled by the homophobic ...