Tuesday 19 March 2019

A mistreated old favourite draws parallels with the illusion of the Magic of the FA Cup

During the traditional Saturday night FA Cup quarter final between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United, Beeb co-commentator Martin Keown uttered the phrase "by the way" no less than eight times, four in each half, and six times nonsensically.

I was surprised to find the re-emergence of btw (by the way) after an absence of some years since former Beeb reliable, Mark Lawrenson, made the saying his own. In happier/less scrutinied times, Lawrenson was a mentor to junior pundits like Lee Dixon, before being eventually marginalised for suggesting that some male players should wear skirts and going on about penises live on air, making Gabby Logan blush.

An early btw example of peak Lawrenson might be "Chelsea have got an abundance of quality...and they'll have plenty to spend in the summer, by the way". Impressionable pundos like Dixon, awed by the emphasis present in Lawro's two-point reflection, subtly brought btw into his own game, and in time even hard-headed individuals of the opinion world like Alan Shearer, could be heard concluding an already important view with a btw add-in.

The btw virus quickly spread across the airwaves, even cross-channels, as decipels of the new art like Andy Townsend of  ITV began to regularly insert btw's into their analysis, taking advantage of Lawro's schoolboy/girl error in not securing a patent. Townsend took advantage of Lawro's lack of business acumen to liven up the dreary world of Clive Tyldesley internationals from Wembley hosted by Steve Ryder. Dixon, meanwhile, secured a move to ITV after Euro 2012, possibly on the back of his increased btw brilliance, and almost definitely because of being constantly interrupted by  Shearer.

Eventually, btw became a victim of the modern game, soon sounding as antiquated and irrelevant as other dying aspects of the game, such as dribbling wingers, two men up front and stadium announcers who read the teams out like adults. Lawrenson's most famous catchphrase was suddenly heading into the abyss with him.

Yet, as many Brexit voters would no doubt be delighted to hear, Keown's use of btw at Molineux symbolised a change back to how things once were...and not just by using a btw, by the way. Keown, sharp eyed as ever, noted that Wolves were playing with two up front, adding that "partnerships are coming back" (just not in the top six). Emboldened, Keown watched one of those Wolves forwards, Diogo Jota, have a shot saved by United reserve goalie, Sergio Romero, and then commented on the action replay, "he could have lifted it over the goalkeeper for me... all credit to the keeper, by the way".

This, though, seemed a confusing use of a btw, a classic case of a simple saying complicated by a human being. Keown did no better when talking all over Jota’s goal late in the game to put the home side 2-0 up.

"Look at his pace, by the way", he urged us, forgetting the fundamentals that the pioneer, Lawro, had put in place all those years ago, and omitting to execute the two-statement approach.

Still, lacking in quality Keown's btw's were, they did at least deflect attention away from some of his other remarks, such as "Wolves are just letting Mancheter United have the ball" (the opposite was true throughout the game, a point Keown later conceded), "VAR would have sorted that out" (fair play to Guy Mowbray for questioning that statement) and "Lukaku's coming into top form" (any newbies to the game who saw the currently injured striker's attempts to score from six yards out at Arsenal the previous week might have considered that avoiding putting the ball in the net was the aim of the game).

Higher standards could be found in the gantry, where Ian Wright only once said "in respects of", while Paul Ince quickly recovered himself after again falling foul to describing his old club as "Manc United". A recent career portrayal of Incey on a streaming channel reminded us of his inability to be able to say "Man" whenever "United" is the next word, and now that he is, like Alan Partridge, back on the BBC after a long absence, would have been reminded of his conduct. Sold abruptly he may have been by the Old Trafford club, the shortened use of "Manc" in the title of his old team might be viewed as inflammatory to fans of the Red Devils up and down the county. While it is endearing to see such a snarling, hateful figure on the pitch wobbling his words out like a frightened rabbit off it, one only has to recall Lawros's penis episode to understand how quickly a star can fall. Luckily, Incey's indiscretion this night came while replayed footage of Jota’s saved shot was being shown, enabling Gary Lineker to hastily hold up a placard with the words "Manchester United" on it. After this, Incey referred to them only as "Manchester United". He even went on to make a joke about Brexit, which visibly drew a moment of panic and self-doubt from Shearer.

Fair play to the Beeb for addressing this skill gap where other institutions fail to educate their staff. When - oh when! -  for instance, will Pep Guardiola of Manc City be made aware that his star wanes ever more by insisting that the opposition had "only one shoot" on goal. I'm sure he'd like to be corrected, as I understand he's quite keen on details.

Elsewhere in the Cup, VAR was also shotting itself in the foot by not being in the right place at the right time to prod the referee, like a pizza flyer to a cupboard-bare family, and show that at Swansea, Sergio Aguero was in an offside place, minutes after Raheem Sterling was in a morally bankrupt place to turn the tide against Championship opponents and progress to the semi finals. That very championship status of Swansea's was the reason VAR wasn't in the building, as clubs below the Prem are unworthy of it's attention. While VAR was busy overturning an arguable red card at Molineux, at least one clear and obvious error was allowed to breathe at The Liberty Stadium.  After years of moaning about "inconsistency" blighting the game, it's apparent solution seems to be actively promoting it.

But who are we to judge? VAR is the new ruler in town, cowardly and unseen and expensive and shiny and new, as opposed to The Ref, middle aged and cheap and visible to a baying crowd. The Ref, or at least almost all of his/her's authority is dying out, all because, as we are told, "there's some much money involved now/"the stakes are so high"/"football is a business", and to that end we must not allow any errors to be tolerated, even if sometimes crowds and matches are galvanised by injustice and having to fight adversity, and that sport, like life, isn't perfect, by the way.              



Sunday 10 March 2019

The return of Brendan's Hollywood smile amid the rise of the secret showbiz football managers

So Brendan's back in the Premier League, here once again to tell us in his sexy, Irish croak how one day he'll  save the world with his super-tactics, even if, by God, he'll have to sacrifice his principles of loyalty to do it.

During Rodgers' lively spell at Liverpool, some people cruelly dubbed him "Brenton" for his unyielding thirst for self-promotion, like fellow tie-smoothing boss, David Brent. Rodgers even starred in his own sitcom, Being Liverpool, where the new man in charge turned team talks into raps (all shoulder-dips and shimmies as he lays down the vocals) and, in a pre-season address, showed the squad an envelope that contained the name of a player in the room that he said would ultimately let the club down. This scene took a couple of takes as Brendan's first envelope-wagging moment resulted in a piece of paper falling out that depicted an unknown artist's impression of him frolicking with livestock in his previous residence of Swansea. Raheem Sterling was said to have been initially scapegoated for this, only for substantial evidence to eventually point to Brendan's best mate and assistant, Colin Pascoe, who was subsequently the subject of a mock sacking via a telephone, which Rodgers spoke into knowing he'd dialled the wrong numbers.

In Rodgers defence, he is at least a real person, and interesting though the Brent resemblance is, his authentic existence as Rodgers goes against the grain of a growing trend of Prem managers who may not be what they seem. I will start with the man Rodgers succeeds at Leicester City, Claude Puel - or at least, that is the name given to him... In the same way that Clark Kent fooled swathes of the American public, and indeed even his closest co-workers, with his canny use of thick-rimmed lenses to avoid assumptions about him actually being Superman, the creators of Claude Puel seemed to expect that we would be tricked by a similarly limp disguise; however, it soon became apparent to most observers that the person fronting up to the tv cameras in that humourless manner was actually the acclaimed Hollywood actor Ben Stiller doing a borderline racist comedy accent.

Stiller/Puel's appointment at The King Power Stadium may seem an oddity, but there had of course been talk, following Leicester's more-improbable-with-every-passing-year title win in 2015-16, about fairytales and films, and in these days when people say that the business model is more important than the football itself, perhaps the temptation to get Stiller/Puel on board to really pull off that role and target a box office smash, was too much to resist.

Maybe that's one explanation, but it doesn't really satisfy question marks over mis-casting. After all, real manager of Leicester's against-the-odds triumph, Claudio Ranieri, had a much better facial fit in popular camp thespian, John Inman. Sadly, Inman was dead eight years by the time Ranieri was lifting the Prem trophy, which possibly explains the delay in the project - and Craig Shakespeare - until 'Puel' could be discovered.  

On-the-money football fans will know that 'Puel' had already been in production at fellow Premier League outfit, Southampton in 2016-17 - the very season after Leicester's title-winning campaign - where astonishing research of the manager's role took his team to the heights of a League Cup Final, only for him to be sacked, mysteriously it seemed at the time, at the end of that debut campaign. There were, though, suspicions that Stiller couldn't combine both the Southampton job and contractual obligations to Brad's Status, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Play Dodgeball with Ben Stiller.  

Yet, this wasn't the first time Southampton had fired or hired a man more accustomed to delivering lines on television or stage. In January 2013, bonafide football manager, Nigel Adkins, who'd led the club to two successive promotions in returning to the Premier League, and had just overseen a two-goal fightback at Stamford Bridge, was unexpectedly replaced by fully paid-up cockney, Danny Dyer. Masquerading under the pseudonym, Mauricio Pochettino, Dyer opened the way for the likes of Stiller/Puel with heavy reliance on an exaggerated foreign accent.

Wise not to expose his professional East End patter to a public that widely sympathised with Adkins, Dyer took an even more pragmatic approach than Stiller/Puel, and conducted post match interviews in his 'native' language, accompanied by a 'translator' who, according to an insider, was actually some bloke off the street who'd been threatened with a "slashed boat race" if he didn't do what was
he was told.

Like Stiller/Puel, Dyer threw himself into his new role and soon won over the fans with a hard-running, hard-pressing style adapted from his portrayal of top boy hooligan, Tommy Johnson, in the film version of Football Factory (2004). Dyer can now be seen at the helm of London's Tottenham Hotspur, where he has rented out a short-to-medium tenancy on a top four residence and has relaxed into a limited use of the English language ('translator' bumped off out the back of a van and into the sea). With demand for his services at an all time peak, Dyer is careful not to slip into Ossie Ardiles mode during appearances on comedy panel shows, or in his now regular spot in East Enders as barman, Mick Carter, while avoiding going full 'apples and pears' in the dressing room on matchday.  

As for Southampton's current boss, well, after unsuccessful appointments with qualified coaches Mauricio Pellegrino (not to be confused with 'Mauricio Pochettino'/Danny Dyer) and Mark Hughes, the Saints went back this season to their tried and trusted method of going for someone from the big screen, landing the haunted, booming-voiced Englishman David Morrisey, playing the role of Ralph Hassnhuttl of Austria. At the time of writing, Morrisey/Hasenhuttl is making a decent stab of clearing up the mess made by his likeable and unlikeable - respectively - predecessors.

So, in reversing the trend of footballers turning to acting (Vinny Jones, Stan Collymore, Eric Cantona - both Collymore and Morrisey appeared in the critically panned Basic Instinct sequel, Basic Instinct 2, and it is believed that the pair struck up a friendship on set, offering each other advice on their specialist professions), Southampton have hit upon a management philosophy that clearly works for them. In a somewhat ironic twist, Ranieri was sacked by Fulham this month following an away defeat to Morrisey/Hasenhuttl's Southampton, effectively put out of a job at the hands of Southampton just as Stiller/Puel, the man/men entrusted to play the Italian on screen were.

As Stiller himself might reflect, There's Something about St Mary's.                    


Saturday 2 March 2019

My final World Cup 2018 round up (subject to a VAR check)

Just a few more observations and then we're done. Makes it sound like a medical check up, and I guess some of you (and there are some of you, believe it or not), have experienced some discomfort during these posts, but at least this leads me nicely onto my next section of World Cup 2018 contributors...


Defenders of the 80's, 90's and 2000's always knew they would be in for a bruising, awkward encounter with Alan Shearer on the pitch, and while those players still nurse wounded pride and cheekbones, it is now the members of the watching public who go into live BBC broadcasts fearing the worst. This summer showcased all of Shearer's post-playing attributes in the television studio. The pace and the hair might have gone, but the confidence remains undimmed, as he set about his fellow pundits with due disrespect, only Didier Drogba escaping an interrupted viewpoint, due to an analytical approach comprising of no more than five words. During the semi Final, Gary Lineker asked Jurgen Klinsmann how you could stop Kylian Mpbappe, only for the German to ramble on for a number of seconds, before Shearer glanced at Lineker, possibly unsighted, and then dictated a new conversation with Rio Ferdinand. Shearer should, though, be careful when doing this to Jurgen, who has a history of exacting revenge on those who have crossed him during last four matches.

As much as I love Ian Wright, he has to stop saying "in respects of", in respect of using incorrect grammar. Clearly no one is saying anything about it on the Beeb, and it seems that ITV aren't that bothered either during his contracted stint for international tournaments. Ever a patriot, I felt he betrayed me when becoming so emotionally involved in an England team that had some many Spurs in it. I can forgive him because of all the goals he scored against Tottenham, although I'm not sure his mocking of Roy Keane's accent during the 3rd/4th play off coverage of England-Belgium, should be so easily overlooked!

Cesc Fabregas, (BBC), played the role of sensible, lucid European, like previous incumbents such as Roberto Martinez and Gianluca Vialli, though Henrik Larsson and Patrice Evra (both ITV) attracted unwanted attention by putting, respectively, a gold star and a patronising comment in the textbook of Eni Aluko. Evra became the fall guy by choosing to applaud Aluko's research on Costa Rica, responding (sarcastically?) to Larsson's nodding praise. Larsson's behaviour was even more odd considering he himself was on the end of similar attitudes at the USA 94 World Cup, when opponents allowed him to score four goals, having believed there was no need to waste time tackling the skinny kid with long dreadlocks and a hairband who was clearly only playing thanks to some mixed gender initiative that American authorities continue to be famous for.  

Rio Ferdinand couldn't be accused of sitting on the fence this summer. For one, he was sitting on a chair, and in that chair, he called Belgium "the team to beat" after their quarter final win over Brazil, claimed "we will beat Croatia" in the same broadcast and suggested that fans at Premier League games should add cleaning the stadium to their other duties of creating the atmosphere, keeping pay per view broadcasters (such as his own employers, BT Sport) in business and paying sums beyond £150 a game for the privilege.  In hindsight, though, I suspect all these opinions were part of a revival of his legendary 2006 'Rio's Word Cup Wind Ups" production, where unsuspecting members of England's World Cup squad were merked.

Other Things of Interest...

Why were the bookings of players announced over the public address system?

 Why were interviews with the England representatives, though mainly Southgate and Kane, all taken place in the same gloomy little room, pre-recorded? Where was the spirit of 98, with the players shoehorning titles of pop songs into their answers live on air to a backdrop of deckchairs and swimming pool? "It's not exactly Club Tropicana, Bob!" was Southgate's offering in France, which uncharacteristically didn't show much "imagination", the title Shearer signed off with, when the game was finally rumbled by Ray Stubbs.

 Where were the Germans? Partying like it was 1945?

Ah, nothing like an outdated, offensive and dividing remark to sign off with. Qualifying myself for Qatar 2022, perhaps?


‘One more’ lonely night: Spain 2 England 1. Euro ‘24 Final

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