Thursday 23 August 2018

Return of the McC - Brazil v Mexico, Round of 16

July 2nd 2018 

In my last post I touched upon the potential of BBC's Guy Mowbray to alienate his colleagues in the commentary box, but over on ITV today for Brazil-Mexico, cracks were starting to show in the relationship between returning warhorses, John Champion and Ally McCoist.

Both Champion and McCoist had seemed to have had their day in the art of describing and pontificating at ITV, big game players back in The Match era (2001-2004) but later presumed missing by those of us unwilling to make the hostage payments to BT Sport. As far as I was concerned, Champion and his former ITV colleagues Peter Drury and Jim Beglin had been floating under the sea in Andy Townsend's Tactics Truck since 2010, although I was aware that McCoist had breathed some air as manager of Rangers during their Premier Division exile in the last few years.

No grudges between the channel and the returning personalities appeared to be evident as they teamed up once more for this World Cup, although this afternoon there did seem to be some needle between the artists themselves, revealing itself in some barely controlled bickering over whether Neymar's opening goal was any good or not.

"A tap in for Neymar!"  said Champion firmly.

"You say it's a tap-in, but it's actually a brilliant goal" - McCoist responded.

"A muck and nettles goal for Neymar" - Champion continued.

"I think that's a really good goal. The spin Neymar does after giving the ball to Willian and getting to the back post. He'll be delighted with that" - McCoist persevered.

"You forwards will take anything" - Champion sneered.

" I just think that's a quality goal" - McCoist sulked.    

Some might suggest the exchange merely shows a difference of opinion, but at first, Champion appears to completely ignore McCoist's alternative view, choosing to overwrite the words of someone far better qualified to discuss six-yard box toe-pokes. And from then on, both attempt to win the argument by virtue of landing the final word. Those with trained ears will testify that the debate continued in whispered form, only ended by a period of silence while Champion recovered from a wincing blow to his upper thigh.  

Up to this point, I'd wondered why the Champion and McCoist team had been preferred to, say, Drury and Beglin, but now their obvious disdain for each other made everything a lot clearer...    

ITV have long identified simmering tension, or hatred, as a winning strategy to pull in the viewers, specialising in getting people who can't stand each other to sit in the same room in front of the same cameras, laying out their mutual loathing to millions. Examples down the years come to mind quickly. In 1974, David Frost's Yorkshire TV chat show fluffed up the pillows for Brian Clough and Don Revie to hit each other with at the height of their feud over Leeds United. On a 1990 episode of Midweek Sport Special, Nick Owen presided over a pre-bout sneering contest between Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn. In 1995, during their bitter battle to control Spurs, Terry Venables and Alan Sugar were booked together on Sport in Question. At France 98, Alex Ferguson and Ian Wright were at either end of the same studio panel, as bitterness lingered over Wright's two-footed lunge on Peter Schmeichel a little over a year before. In South Africa 2010 Roy Keane was expected to tolerate not only Patrick Vieira and Jamie Carragher, but even Adrian Chiles.

The approach has worked wonders for ITV outside of sport, too, notably with Richard and Judy, while Jeremy Kyle has proved a roaring success. Other channels have followed suit, such as Channel 4 with Big Brother, while at Euro 16, BBC sat Alan Shearer alongside Neil Lennon in the same lifetime as the former's attempted decapitation on the latter, down by the Filbert Street touchline.  

In footballing terms, ITV are subscribing to 'The Conflict Model', established by Johan Cruyff as a manager, and practiced now, most famously, by Jose Mourinho, with the aim of maintaining or even ramping up the intensity at a club after a period of success, even if it means driving an array of playing and non-playing staff out of it, such as Iker Casiilas at Real Madrid and Eva Cavaneiro at Chelsea. 

In all likelihood, the Head of ITV Sport had identified an 'atmosphere' between Champion and Super Ally, something that may have developed back in the day of The Match, the much-maligned Saturday evening highlights show that I mentioned earlier. Nobody came out of  The Match unscathed, and problems were glaring from the beginning, whether it was the use of U2 to sing it in, or the farce of negligent editing that saw winning goals scored by substitutes who hadn't been introduced either technologically or verbally, and not forgetting of course, Townsend slating beaten opponents to their face in the tactics truck (a prime example of the Conflict Model), until the final indignity of the programme being outmuscled by Cilla Black, who booted it out of it's original 7pm slot so that her own angst vehicle (or truck), Blind Date, could return there with its own brand of scripted bullshit.

Perhaps Champion and McCoist had suffered as much as anyone, but their refusal to heal old wounds worked in their favour when it came to their old employers picking through the archives of double-act cast offs. Some had simply failed to keep up with modern methods, stuck in a time warp as others passed by. The relentless over-enthusiasm of Drury, and Beglin's insistence on measured observation had no truck (tactics or otherwise) with a channel that had developed such a defined philosophy.

We must wonder about the long term future of Clive Tyldesley and Glenn Hoddle. Hoddle's employment has always intrigued me, especially in relation to the sacking in 2005 of Big Ron, who I must confess, and to be fair, ended up taking the conflict model way out of context. Do ITV know that Tyldesley is vulnerable to being pricked by Hoddle's own famous belief systems? Are we simply waiting for Clive to lose his shit one night when the Godfinder feels emboldened to ram his ideals down all our throats?

Hoddle's predecessor Townsend - his equal in grammatical corner-cutting - paid for his ability to tolerate Tyldesley himself, exhausting ITV's patience with a decade of sigh-heavy, teeth-gritting professionalism amidst the pain of having the closest ear to the rehearsed, matey schtick of a man remarkable for his own longevity when so patently unpopular with viewers.

On occasion, former Liverpool and Republic of Ireland left back, Beglin had been thrown into the ring with Tyldesley, and I have always been fascinated that, like Big Ron, his fate was sealed by a semi-final. While Big Ron's "aberration" (as the culprit himself called it) had come at that stage in the Champions League (AS Monaco v Chelsea, April 2005), Beglin missed the 2010 World Cup last four tiel between Uruguay-Holland due to illness, leaving Tyldesley to go it alone, like a possibly or possibly not more irritating version of Dec without Ant. Aware of Big Ron's self-destruction alongside Tyldesley in the principality, perhaps Beglin had been struck down by jitters, like Ronaldo on the eve of the 98 World Cup Final. Unlike Ant, Beglin's disappearance from ITV wasn't played out in the public eye, and unlike Ronaldo, there hasn't been a glorious redemption (like I said, if you don't cede to pay-per-view channels). We'll probably never know the full truth, but the bitterness of the expletives he might have aimed at his once loved colleagues this afternoon, would have come sadly too late as examples of the kind of anger even the most exhaustingly happy commentators could have bounced off.

I sided with McCoist on the subject of Neymar's goal, and later appreciated his confession to "stating the obvious" when remarking that by chasing an equaliser, Mexico were leaving themselves open to being hit on the counter-attack. This self-awareness hasn't always been evident in his work, once observing that both  Deportivo La Coruna and FC Porto had players who were "comfortable on the ball". In a Champions League semi-final.

Moments later in today's match, Champion made the point that by chasing an equaliser, Mexico were leaving themselves open to being hit counter attack. McCoist responded with dignity, not making a fuss, but really John, it's one thing to take the opposite view on the merits of a goal, quite another to stop listening at all.

I was in the car going to the supermarket when Brazil secured the win right at the end, and I clenched a fist to the sound of the second goal. This one was an easy tap-in, Firmino escorting Neymar's ball into another empty net. Little to argue about for the boys there, although they'd already shown their class in making something out of nothing, and I could imagine so easily one of them making an inflammatory case for Firmino's abnormally white teeth interfering with the eyeline of the goalkeeper.



Thursday 16 August 2018

Last 16 - July 1st 2018

July 1st 2018

Spain v Russia: Croatia v Denmark

I'm with the family at a splash park during the hosts' match against Spain, and while the iplayer delay facility is once again my friend, nearby people are my enemy, sitting on picnic blankets shouting out scores. In these days of VAR-type technology, can we not all have a chip installed that diverts information you want to avoid hearing? Doesn't seem too much to ask.

By the time we're home, the 1-1 scoreline is a fair reflection on the spoiler comments I'd had to endure at the splash park. I'm unable to watch either of the goals as the iplayer delay function won't go back as far as the early minutes both were scored in, and I'm eleven into the second half when I start to watch, the score disturbingly unmoved.

What are you playing at Spain? I ask the telly You know I'm relying on you, but you've allowed a ten-man defence and repellent negativity - the iron gates behind the iron curtain - to keep your relentless possession at just that - relentless possession. You're my biggest hope of all the four teams playing today, in England's half of the draw, of stopping Southgate's lot from inflicting an unimaginable misery on me, but you get the lead and then you lose it. All you had to do was what you did in 2012, bore everyone to death with your tedious exemplary ability and not let the others kick the ball. But oh no, good old, reliable Gerard Pique gives away another penalty, too busy thinking about Shakira to remember that we have VAR here now, not like in 2010 in South Africa, when he got away with swinging a Chilean around in the penalty area like some human discus he was about to let fly.

So now Spain faced the tedious, exemplary defending of Russia, boring viewers to death with their drilled organisation and shape, perhaps a new style of Putin slaughter.

At least such a sporting cyanide would put us out of the misery concocted by Guy Mowbray's latest attention-seeking commentary. During cracks of lightning midway through the second half, BBC's leading commentator asked today's expert stooge, Martin Keown, if he was bothered by the thunder. Keown, who during his playing career took part in a chilling central defensive partnership with Andy Linighan for part of a season, unsurprisingly said no, to which Mowbray quipped "Get off my knee then!"

I don't know if it's validation for his comedy Mowbray wants, or a Rear of the Year nomination, but the most likely outcome of his David Brent-style vanity is a collection of co-commentators refusing to work with him. He's seemingly already been separated from Lawrenson, and judging by Murphy's tone in the Argentina game, he may have had a sneaky word with the Head. Generally Mowbray is alright, who doesn't (to my knowledge) make factual errors or is madly over-excitable. Since I started doing presentations at work to generous audiences, I appreciate how difficult a job broadcasters have, particularly in front of millions of viewers like me ready to criticise any little indiscretion, but there's such a thing as becoming too comfortable. Some of his outbursts are just a bit weird. The "get off my knee" thing seems just as odd as the time he commentated on a, well, thunderbolt Aguero goal at Sunderland and then lip-read the "Oh my God!"reaction from the Sunderland bench of forward Jodi Altidore, before  mimicking the player's American accent.

Scorer of the 2010 winning goal, Iniesta, comes off the bench in what he says will be his last international tournament, but in today's extra time, the big talking point takes us back to a despairing note in Spain's World Cup history, 8 years before the success in South Africa. It comes right at the end of the additional 30 minutes, when the ever-popular Sergio Ramos is denied a clear penalty, casting back memories (or at least my memory) to 2002 when the then (joint) hosts South Korea benefitted from scandalous refereeing to deprive Spain of a win and reach a penalty shoot-out, which itself contained further injustice in the Koreans favour. VAR was supposed to rectify these 'honest' howlers, but closer inspection on the VAR officials themselves may help explain why the five-strong panel of match observers were unable to spot the conclusive evidence today. I noted a slightly open door to the side of the room, that may or may not have contained five bound and gagged topless officials, jerking helplessly in chairs, while a set of five other men in ill-fitting green shirts, including two notable dopplegangers for Mo Salah and Jurgen Klopp but without the beards and glasses, studied the action. The Klopp figure even had that same manic grin!

Ramos scores in today's penalty shoot, to the sound of banging fists in the VAR room, but after Koke and Aspas fail to beat Ivor Ikanfeev, there would have been celebration, or at least angry finger or wrist gestures, towards the Spain captain as he sat on the turf contemplating only the consolation of four Champions League trophies and a La Liga to during his country's trophy 'drought'.

I am, however, not appeased by the prospect of only Russia standing in the way of England and the Final.

On the way to the splash park, I'd taken a birthday phone call from my Dad, a day late yes, but the fact I could accept the conversation and wasn't driving, showed that the festivities were still ongoing.

"Well, both France and Uruguay would beat England" he said to me, as if to ease my mind, but even his eternal powers couldn't overturn the reality of our country's favourable side of the draw, adding that they "should reach the semi-final".

"I think Brazil look back to their best" I said, almost to dismiss the prospect of England's worryingly certain progression through the tournament, by predicting a different winner.

"I think France look the best team" Dad replied.

That evening, though, I look for inspiration from Croatia, to a country of 5 million that I hope will provide effective security at the door of the Final. Sorry Gareth, can't let you in pal, read the sign on the door, no jeans, no trainers and ID required for permitted quality. Modric and Rakitic can be trusted to keep the riff-raff out.

So when Denmark take the lead in under a minute, I'm anxious, rubbing my forehead like Messi during the national anthem before that defeat to Croatia in fact, the Croatia who eventually bashed Argentina up 3-0, clinically exposing their weakness. Now they are losing to the Danes, who are one of only two nations England have beaten in a knockout game in their last five World Cups. Pinning my new faith in Denmark? Probably not.

Calm it, Stu, calm it. Mario Mandzukic equalises just three minutes after going behind, providing an equaliser after only four minutes of play. This reminds me of the last 16 tie between Argentina and Mexico in 2006, when I went to a pub loo just after the kick off and returned to see a score of 1-1 and a grinning friend.

Croatia do labour the point in fully restoring order. In the ITV studio, their ex player and manager, Slaven Bilic, talks of their "fragile mentality" in the knockout rounds, although Lee Dixon suggests that the amount of changes to the line up in their last match was having an effect on their momentum. One of the rested players who might not have ageed with Dixon is Champions League winner, Modric, who spends a lot of the second half hunched over with his hands on his knees.  

So perhaps Modric wasn't the wisest choice to take the penalty Croatia were awarded for a foul on him in the last 20 minutes. More pertinently, was the history I had with a Schmeichel ruining my cup dreams with a penalty save. Peter, who saved from Dennis Bergkamp near the end of extra time in the FA Cup semi final of 1999, now watched on as son Kasper, looked to thwart my hopes. We soon learn that the same aggressive, angry joy typical of Schmeichal senior in his playing days, is also evident in saluting his family's achievements.

So Croatia, like Spain, are taken to a shoot-out, with my confidence and their fitness draining away. Modric gets lucky with his spot kick this time and is visibly relieved that his nervy effort bounces in. Then the Croat goalie, Subasic saves three terrible penalties, leaving Rakitic to serenely stroke home and put his team into the next round against Russia.

The dream of avoiding the nightmare lives on.

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Last 16 - June 30th

Day 16: June 30th

France v Argentina: Uruguay v Portugal

My birthday today, and I'm rewarded by not having to take my daughter to her ballet class in the morning.  Don't even have to suffer her usual manipulation tactics in trying to secure some overpriced magazine about ponies in the newsagents' afterwards. The original idea was to pop in after class and get a post-class chocolate bar, but this was quickly upgraded.

Instead I am indulged, beer, crisps and two cracking opening knockout games. The peace and quiet is only disturbed by the respective commentaries - and there's much to get excited about.

But first, let's talk about Didier Drogba's analysis...

Ex Chelsea hero, Drogba is BBC's African representative here, a role occupied by many before, none more memorably than Nigerian-born England international, John Fashanu, at USA 94, when he not only co-commentated on group matches involving African teams, but also presented information films during the 90 minutes. "That's called a 'nutmeg" he explained in one of these broadcasts, presumably expecting that the tv audience included a host of new observers. Yeah great, thanks for that John, now tell us something we all want to know, like, what the fuck does "Awooga" mean?

Drog doesn't do the detail like Fash. Rather, his answers to Lineker's questions are so short that there's a  kind of awkward dead air existing in the space between his last word and Lineker's next question, as if the presenter is still expecting the end of the point, like Sanjeev Bhakar in The Kumars at Number 42, waiting for the strange grandad to deliver his punchline. Consequently, when Drog does produce the 'goods', his studio pals go overboard in their response (not for the first time, in my opinion). When the teams were filmed lining up in the tunnel this afternoon, Drog was asked who he thought would win. Here, a one word answer may actually have sufficed, but instead he opted to steal Patrice Evra's best passport control line; 'I have a French passport, so I'm going for France!!' The studio pals practically wet themselves laughing, like sycophantic employees greeting a hitherto lighter side of a previously over-strict boss.
When mercifully the match begins, Marcos Rojo goes from last-game hero to villiain when he derails the express train known as Kylian Mbappe in the penalty area and concedes an early penalty to France. I call Barney over in case Griezmann scores and does the Fortnite dance. The missus and her brother enter the front room too, hopeful and expectant. Thrillingly, Griezmann rolls the ball in and performs the routine to much mirth.

But Argentina aren't losers just yet and Angel De Maria swings a beauty past Hugo Lloris from outside the area.
"Probably the best goal of the tournament...or one of the best" proffers Danny Murphy, reigning in wild abandon to the tune of a Danish beer commercial.
I'd have liked main commentator Guy Mowbray to hold back on some of his own urges. After Argentine defender Mercado deflected in a speculative Messi ball to put his team ahead in the second half, Mowbray engaged in some puns relating to the scorer's surname and the similar-sounding Meccano toys that were popular in the 80's. "Super Mercado" came one remark, and then later one about a "collapse" the defender staged when trying to win a free kick.
"Oh right, I see what you've done there!" Murphy humoured the grown professional.

My problem with Mowbray is that he thinks he's a footballer, like the ref Graham Poll - also an embarrassment on the World Cup stage (2006) - used to think he was a footballer. Where Poll used to sprint out of the tunnel and indulge in matey banter with the lads, Mowbray sees himself as part of England's 1998 World Cup squad, getting song titles into interviews. In this year of Barry Davies retiring from commentating (though he stopped working on top level football in 2004), it is a shame that we now have sixth form comics providing voices to the action.

France equalise with a stunning, outside of the foot and outside of the box strike by stand-in right back Parvard, which is similar to the goal Spain's equivalent, Nacho, executed against Portugal and is probably one of the best goals of the tournament...or at least one of them...almost certainly one of the best goals in the match. Mbappe then fires in a third to restore France's early lead, his shot going through Amani with suspicious ease (reminiscent, to my dubious mind, of opening game 1990 when then Argentine goalie, Nery Pumpido, allowed the header of another player whose surname began with Mb, Cameroon's Mbiyek, to squirm through him).

France appear to put the game out of Argentina's reach with a fourth in the 80th minute. In a move evoking memories of Brazil's final goal against Italy in the 1970 Final but with less piss-taking, Olivier Giroud plays the Pele role to set up the onrushing Mbappe to slide the ball past Amani.

Messi's World Cup dream for another year seemed over, but in the last couple of minutes, he picks out the ripped shirt of Aguero to guide in another late symbol of hope for the brink-teetering Argentines. Sub Aguero had actually come on to the pitch with ripped shirt, the v neck more of a plunging neckline, as if he'd been showing the manager his wares in an attempt to get on the field.
There was time for Argentina to build another quick raid down the left, with the ball looping in to the box, but their luck, and time, had run out. At least they'd avoided the group stage exit trapdoor to Love Island, even if the scantily-clad Aguero might have gone deep into the show.

7pm, and it's another Euro 2016 Finalist, Portugal, against another two-time World Champion from South America, Uruguay. This is a match-up of the overachievers, one country of only 10 million but with a history in the last 20 years of two major Finals and three semi-finals, up against a nation of 3 million but who'd achieved a semi-final and a Final in the last eight. That's what you might call 'exceeding expectations'.

Having a Ronaldo or a Suarez in your team helps of course, and it was a cross from 'you know who' as part of a brutal cross-field one-two with Cavani that enables the PSG man to open the scoring off his stunning cheekbones (no need here for any of Aguero's cheap tricks to blind the Portuguese goalie, Rui Patricio).

Somewhat surprisingly (to me, at least), the rugged discipline of the Uruguyans, overseen by 71 year old manager Oscar Tabarez who is uanble to walk unaided due to an illness he keeps close to his chest like a Drogba insight, is breached in the second half, Portugal centre half, Pepe, an anti-hero in the Uruguay mould, equalising with a header from a set-piece. I appreciated his defiant, shouty celebration. Before this goal, I'd wished he'd retired from international football on a high after Euro 16, where his collosal performances had turned my opinion around of him. In Portugal's opening game against Spain 15 days ago he was back to the worst of himself, trying to con a free kick out of the ref rather than defend against Diego Costa, who ended up equalising for the first time in that match. Sadly tonight, his redemption is short-lived. He's pulled out of position, allowing Cavani to pick out the bottom corner from just outside the box to win Uruguay the match. The two-goal hero may not make the quarter final against France in six days, a sore-looking injury forcing him off before the end. The omens otherwise look good for his team. In 2010, when Uruguay went to the semi-final, they'd drawn 0-0 in the first match and won 3-0 and 1-0 in the other two. Then in the last 16, they won 2-1 against South Korea with one of the two star strikers (Suarez, on this occasion) scoring twice. Their record in Russia is identical, other than the opening goalless draw, which this time they turned into a 1-0 win right at the end.  

End of season Premier League review club by club Part 2: 11-20

11th: Brighton & Hove Albion (48 points) Finishing one point behind your made up rivals must sting. A bit. It’s Millwall who hate Crysta...