Saturday 24 February 2024

A potted history of potty grudges.

 It’s been three months and seventeen days since I last read The Guardian. Not bad, even if I do say so myself. I was a five- articles-a-day man -  often sneaking out from the family to click on a sixth - but I’ve subscribed to a patch-up publication to help with the withdrawals and haven’t lapsed.

This is the sort of thing that happens, they say, as you approach 50 and edge closer to retirement; the lean away from the Left and the twist to the Right. The gradual, then bitter opposition to immigrants and Trans rights. The new sympathy for those poor, put-upon millionaire Tories. The sudden need to put too much milk in tea. Some of this is nonsense of course: no one is edging closer to retirement these days. 

No, it’s nothing personal against The Guardian, I have long been waging vendettas against a range of newspapers, television programmes, sporting tournaments; some for personal reasons, some credible. I was in my twenties when I finally quit The Sun for good. I think I’d had at least one other go at walking away until, one day in 2002, sitting in my work canteen, I seethed inwardly at the final straw and then folded up my printed copy and pushed it aside. What was it, you ask, that finally brought me to the light: the objectification of women? The shameless terminology used to describe other nations? the continued championing of Kelvin ‘The Truth’ McKenzie? A belated realisation that I was feeding in daily to Rupert Murdoch’s evil empire? Was it all four of those compelling factors? No, I was outraged by the negative reporting of Arsenal’s 1-1 away draw at Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. 

Without going into details (Arsenal went down to 10 men in the second half when Ray Parlour received the second of two questionable yellow cards, allowing The Sun reporter to go on about the club’s disciplinary record under Arsene Wenger rather than praise the team for hanging on to their 1-0 lead until the very last minute, and not mention at all an unpunished foul just before the equaliser on Robert Pires that almost certainly stopped a second goal for the Gunners), my mind was made up for me, it wasn’t even a decision anymore, but suitably for a matter involving The Sun, a no-brainer. 

I moved on to The Evening Standard, less maverick maybe, but a safe pair of hands - although it’s availability wasn’t always reliable, sometimes bringing disappointment when the shop near my work hadn’t received delivery of the afternoon/evening’s editions by the time of my lunch break. On one occasion, I went up to the girl behind the counter and clumsily asked “Do you have any Standard’s?” Hopefully she’d noted my regular purchase of the paper and didn’t take offence. 

I know that I read the Standard for at least five years, as I recall the time that they too, nearly lost my custom after the 2007 League Cup Final. My favourite columnist was Matthew Norman, who though was a Spurs fan and made clear his issues with Wenger, was professional and skilled enough not to let it cloud his output (although of course I don’t know know what was edited out.) But then one day he wasn’t (in my view) and I refused to buy his paper for three days. A part of me believed (as apparently it does now) that my amnesty had shown them who was boss around here. When I handed my pennies to the girl at the shop on day 4, I was half expecting to read an apology.

I only stopped reading The Standard later that year when the first of my three children came along. My son’s arrival coincided with many things being dropped from my life, and reading a newspaper was one. There simply wasn’t the room to bring something else into the house among the sterilised bottles and nappies and baby wipes, or the time with all the baby signing and the existential angst. 

I would, though, live to turn my back on another publication. The existence of something called the internet allowed newspapers to be read online, and somewhere along the way I found The Guardian, or more accurately The Guardian football section, bringing me excellent feature writers twinned with a morality that chimed with mine, and no doubt further educated it. For 13 years - or 3 World Cups/European Championships - I’d found my home. Of course there were wobbles here and there, but the addiction or habit had forged a strong foothold. 

Until that November of 2023. 

What on earth could I have found so offensive in the inoffensive? The judgement of an Arsenal match, you wonder. My, aren’t I so predictable? The Guardian itself may have played a part in the betrayal I felt. I’d learned through them the horrors evident in repressive Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So in the aftermath of Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat at Newcastle that carried three acts of injustice in the goal alone, I was in no mood, even as late as the Wednesday following the Saturday match, when one of the regular columns criticised Mikel Arteta’s criticism of the referee/VAR. I was self-aware enough to understand that this column often cited “tin-hatted fans”, and that my subsequent Ferguson/Redknapp-like strop amounted to such a slur. But as Arsenal prepare to face Newcastle today in the return fixture at The…in North London, I am almost proud that my pettiness has lasted so long. 

Back in my GCSE year, I woke up to the sounds of Radio 1 DJ Simon Mayo, who unlike fellow Spurs fan Matthew Norman, wasn’t restrained in sharing his feelings on Arsenal, regularly fitting a Tony Adams donkey noise into the breakfast show and slating George Graham’s team even as they raced to the title that 90-91 season while Tottenham plunged further into financial irregularity and mid-table. I kept listening because my self-esteem was low enough to invite respect for Mayo to the point that I hung around waiting for his validation. The one time he said anything nice about Arsenal, the morning after their 3-0 win over champions Liverpool, I went in to school with the proverbial spring in my step. How sad. After that it was normal service resumed, and I even listened the Monday morning after Spurs beat Arsenal 3-1 in the first ever Wembley FA Cup semi-final and Mayo had Gary Lineker on as a guest. 

Mayo was also horrible to the listeners who phoned in to play the breakfast show games, and the sadly late Dianne Oxberry, the lone voice of reason and warmth alongside Mayo and the man-child news reader Rod McKenzie, ticked him off for being sarcastic and disrespectful. My dad chuckled at the “jumped up, little…” though Mum, distant from football and level-headed, considered my choice of Mayo as my ‘one free kill’ a waste because he was “so insignificant.” I am comfortable now, recalling Mayo’s laughably prudish lecture on Top of The Pops right after the Divinyls performance of I Touch Myself, and I smirk at his righteous indignation when rebuking Danish actor Sofie Grabol for unknowingly swearing on one of his more recent shows. I didn’t listen to it but read Grabol’s recollection in an interview. Mayo is not so much Alan Partridge, more Dave Clifton. A dosser and a dwad. 

I don’t know what the alternatives were, Radio 2 wasn’t then what it is now - and maybe I should have just got up out of bed - but the me now wouldn’t give Mayo one breath. Nowadays, because of that internet thing, you can find lots of people feeling how you are feeling about your team and the people who hate them. I pretty much use Arseblog as a counselling service. I don’t go anywhere near the danger zones of Sky Sports and Talksport FM. I did, though, expect better of The Guardian/a small part of its football section. 

So when, hot on the heels of the St James’ Park fallout, a rival comes along to offer me a cut-price deal, I will happily move on and take my custom elsewhere. I have a right not to agree with the man who is not agreeing with the manager of my team, and just as I take umbrage with that freedom of speech, I will activate my freedom of movement. Before Saudi Arabia come for it. 

Thursday 15 February 2024

Mocking all over the world

 The second half at the London Stadium was just a few minutes old on Sunday afternoon (11.02.23) when viewers and listeners were treated to the most compelling evidence yet of a new trend that is definitely growing amongst match-going fans in the Premier League. Definitely a new trend? Well, I’ve had to go back in the edit and delete Upton Park as West Ham United’s home, but don’t let that discredit my claim. 

Leandro Trossard of the Woolwich Arsenal had just directed a shot wide of the West Ham goal, and this was immediately followed by the customary cry of collective mocking from the East End flash Harrys. It was the usual noise of this sort, the one you also hear when a waiter drops a tray of glasses, the one that used to be 'Wahey!' but over time has lost the w and the a, and gained an r at the beginning (this version has now usurped 'aggggh!' as the lead insult of choice, but what will never change is that mis-directed shots and sliding cutlery will always fall prey to a certain section of the public hard-wired to find other people’s misfortune incredibly amusing.)

Of course, the Trossard baiting in itself isn't unusual, but the context here warrants examination; in short, the scoreline at the time of it:  West Ham United 0 Arsenal 4.

If anyone was ripe for ridicule in that moment, it wasn't Trossard, a player who'd already scored a vicious, bending third for Arsenal in a first half where all four of the goals for the visitors up to then had come. People on the wrong end of a 0-4 reverse at home to London rivals, now I can see the humour in that, but more to the point, I would expect the natives to have observed Trossard's latest assault on their goal with this restlessness that the media types go on about. I would expect to hear the strains of disgruntlement, or even the discontent of silence, maybe even see concerned head-shaking (although not on the radio.) What I wouldn't expect to hear is a goalscorer in the opposing team who are four goals up having the piss taken out of.

Unbelievable, you cry, but wait, the same thing happened to Bukayo Saka in Arsenal's win at Nottingham Forest two weeks before. He'd already scored as part of a two-goal lead over the hosts, but then obscurely was ribbed for narrowly missing a third for the away side.  In this instance, it may be churlish to investigate Forest’s home support, who are quietly becoming some of the most ‘interesting’ in the Premier League (particularly as Stoke City are no longer in it.) Take their barracking of the very same Saka in an FA Cup game three years ago, when they chanted “You let your country down!” after his penalty-against-the-post that saw Italy take the Euro 2020 (aka Euro 21) trophy against England at Wembley six months before. How, I wonder, would one of Forest’s most famous ever players, former captain and manager, Stuart Pearce feel about that chant?

I hasten to add that it isn’t just Arsenal players receiving the mocking-while-winning experience; I have recently and frequently been affronted on behalf of other teams, too. What ever happened to the kind of face-covering despair so regularly expressed by, for example, Newcastle United’s fans from the late winter to spring of 1996? 

I blame these world and European tournaments, where fans in the stadiums are shown flitting between sadness and joy, one extreme emotion replacing another by virtue of noticing themselves on the big screen. Many will argue that this is another virus we have picked up from those pesky other countries, the disturbing revelation that losing a football match might not be the end of the world. Honestly, it will be half and half scarves next.

Or might it be that fans are capable of evolving too? We hear about these modern day managers bringing in their counter-pressing and passing lanes and cycle hubs and XG's of 120, but is it unreasonable to consider that the paying mugs, once labelled hooligans, now derided as customers, can just as cleverly put strategies together, all too aware that outside the stadium there is even more darkness, with interest rates and energy bills and bloody Thatcher, and that if they can find a spark of joy in the other team’s wing half narrowly missing his sixth goal of the game after just three minutes, they will rightfully take it. 

Monday 5 February 2024

Howe-away the lads!

 Tempting as it is to snigger when Newcastle United complain  about anything these days, their supporters’ protest during the home 4-4 draw with Luton Town (Saturday 3/2/24) that highlighted a succession of late evening away kick offs, at least have an ounce of credibility about them (certainly more so than Eddie Howe’s moaning about being forced to comply with Financial Fair Play rules.)

Of course, sympathy may swiftly be beheaded when you consider that United’s new-found attraction, bought and paid for by the murdering PIF regime of Saudi Arabia, is at the heart of these televised dates, and to cry foul at a Premier League who allowed your club’s shiny new owners to pass their fit and proper persons test seems a bit inconsistent (though Geordies, by their very nature, are inconsistent, Alan Partridge might have said.)

Speaking more generally, it’s obviously unreasonable that a North East team’s fans should be expected to regularly turn up to a match one day and travel back the next, but then, sadly, reason has little to do with elite football in this country. And of course it’s not just them who get the wrong end of the deal. One of their recent 7pm kick off travels was to Fulham in the FA Cup, but this game was just three three evenings since the West London team were playing at Liverpool in a semi final second leg of another cup competition. Old school football bloke might say they should just get on with it like in the proper days, when there were 12-player squads and men were men, but couldn’t the game have been played on Monday or Tuesday? Chelsea, who court marginally less compassion than Newcastle, played Aston Villa in the Cup on Friday, three nights after their own second leg semi of the Carabao Cup. Why not Saturday or Sunday? 

Questions, reason, anger: they will, for all the logic behind them, count for nothing in the end. Take Jurgen Klopp, who has announced his intention to leave Liverpool at the end of the season; a man who has won everything in the club game, a legend, huge personality. Yet for all his on-pitch success he has got nowhere with the comments he’s made about senseless fixture schedules and nation-state clubs. There will have been wry smiles at FIFA and UEFA and at the Premier League when his decision to step down became public. Another giant overcome. Even someone like Klopp is just passing through. Collecting trophies and being mugged off. The authorities just ride it out, knowing it will be someone else’s turn soon. Protesting just becomes part of the story. 

Wolves played Chelsea on Christmas Eve. There were dissenting voices, but people still went and watched, tuned in. That we won’t see a Christmas Day match is only because of the threat Julia Donaldson brings. Newcastle fans can protest long into the night of their next midweek fixture in the capital, but it’s as futile, and in their case as unjustified, despite the semblance of common sense, as Howe’s other moan about injuries. These things are happening to everyone, and your own greed will eat you in 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...