Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Golden Age

I hadn't really paid attention to the tabloid 'shenanigans' following Wayne Rooney recently until this mornings papers, where an article in The Times querying his recent form mentions them (Pissing in the street? FFS). While there are numerous theories as to his dip in form, nobody seems to be mentioning his age. While he's just 24 and so clearly this couldn't be a factor, personally I'm not so sure.

When he first 'burst' (he always bursts/explodes/powers etc) on to the scene Alan Hansen marveled on Match of the Day 'just how good will the boy be at 28?'. Even then I found this question slightly unsettling as at the back of mind I thought, well, he'll be wrecked. A couple of injuries, his bad diet (and perhaps just basic unfortunate poor genes, those love handles just wont seem to go away) and, by then, over 10 years of 'playing at the summit' will have all taken a significant toll, drastically weakening his ability and exceptionalness. While I wouldn't for a second suggest that he is finished, I'd personally put him at his peak now and fear he will never exceed his performance for the majority of last season. At 28, I doubt very much he will playing for Manchester United.

The belief that players peak at 28/29 still seems to hold sway but surely this is no longer true in the pace heavy modern game. Looking back at Michael Owen's own dramatic arrival in France 98, if you had wondered what he'll be like at 27 you probably wouldn't have thought; lying on an awful Newcastle side's treatment table with hamstrings like spaghetti. But there he was.

There's an undeniable trend towards players peaking at ever younger ages. Look at Kaka, just 28 and yet seems like yesterday's man at Real. Or Ronaldinho, who Barcelona jettisoned (and appear to have been justified in doing so) at the age of, again, 28. Aren't these supposed to be their best years? While it is most probably forward players who suffer from this shortened career span (although considering they start earlier it may remain the same length of time) this then surely permeates throughout the positions - defenders have to be faster and more agile to keep up with the ever quicker strikers/wingers etc. While players like Cannavaro refute this trend - winning the Ballon d'Or at 33 - looking at other recent winners of the prize affirms it.

Looking at 2007, 2008, 2009 the winners were, at the oldest, aged 25 and with an average of 23 (while the other players rounding out the places, only Xavi excepted, were as young or younger). Going back to 1982, 1983, 1984, however (a time when someone like Hansen would have been at his peak) only one of the 9 players was under 27, and he was 26.

I thought this reducing 'age of effectiveness' might be replicated in tennis, particularly women's tennis where they seem to be about 14 years old, and so went to find some stats but came across this article on the men's game. Here, by looking at the success of men going back to Jimmy Connors (in regards to the point by which they have amassed 50% of their career titles), he puts the age of optimum performance at around 24. This seems to be more reflective of the modern footballer as well to me. The idea that experience, the extra yard being in the head etc all make the footballer best in his late 20s is surely over, it's a young man's game.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I Want My Premier League

The Premier League's worldwide success has always been a little hard to pinpoint. It is often explained away as the result of a sort of crass, immediately satisfying product whereby the all-action nature of the play is easily appreciated by the average watcher. This was never a particularly solid explanation however and has been disproved recently, most notably by Mourinho's tactical innovations (and less dramatic play) while at Chelsea.

John Terry said that on the first day of training Jose had to stop them completely, going ballistic at basic defensive errors which the players were used to being tolerated. This was quite a defining feature of the PL for me for quite some time. The volume of goals scored as the result of defensive howlers used to be exponential. Every Saturday, Match of the Day would feature half a dozen 'Titus Brambleesque' errors leading to goals that many would sniffily conclude as the defining factor of the league's success. Mourinho, and Benitez (who, not Ferguson, always seemed like Mourinho's true rival), did more than any other manager to stamp these sort of basic errors out. The popularity still remained however, and was now underlined by objective success. Before Mourinho came along an English side had not reached a Champions League final since 1999. Although Mourinho would not lead Chelsea to one during his 3 years at the club, the representation of an English club at every final in the 5 years following his arrival is in no small part due to his, and Benitez's, tactical innovations. Not just that, they seemed to snap Ferguson and Wenger out of their mutual dependency and force them to raise their standards, United certainly obliging, Arsenal maybe not.

Sometimes I think English success/popularity, in many things not just football, is down to their capacity as appreciators. They are truly the best fans in the world. At everything - music, art, sport. They will cheer you to the rafters, treat you like a god, write about you eloquently. Even, say, the massive success of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones can be seen to result to some degree by the band members' appreciation of other things - in this case black R&B. When looking back at the rise of the PL it has often been spurred by the English peoples adoption and support of previously unappreciated figures. The enigmatic wanderers like Cantona, the misused geniuses like Henry, the elder statesmen like Zola and Okocha had all had unhappy existences in more harsher climates before receiving the warm embrace of England, and all paid back the support handsomely. Watching Mourinho's miserable experience in Italy really hammered home how differently the English treat their heroes, or perhaps the criteria each use to verify such heroes.

This may not be a good thing of course. The way Mourinho was feted during his time in England was surely excessive. And perhaps it was contrived only by a rapacious press pack whereby we are all now living by the morals and codes of a small group of fan-boys. He did ruin that referee's career in order to gain a slight competitive advantage for his team, all based on lies. He did accuse the Reading ambulance service of purposely and potentially fatally harming Petr Cech, again all based on lies for who knows what motive. Maybe he is a scumbag. But he gives good quotes, which means the press like him, ergo us drones are forced to like him through media subjection. However what prevents me from being completely negative about the English league is, strangely, Americans.

Americans seem to have taken to English soccer beyond other leagues, and despite cliches to the contrary, they are usually a sound arbiter of good taste. Their patronage of the league elevates it out of the 'Big in Japan' level. Similarly Australians' championing of the league confirms the quality. To be honest I get the impression Americans and Australians are loathe to celebrate anything contemporary about 'Old England' so the league must have something going for it to grab them, but they're also two nations who are constantly looking out for 'the best', regardless of historical import, and will change allegiances more quickly than others.

Sometimes I wonder if the Premier League is more suited to American sensibilities than their present sports. The strange aspect of American sport I have always found (at least from casually looking at it from the outside) is that for such a capitalist country its sports betray socialist tendencies. The salary caps present in the leagues prevent, to a point, a monopoly of talent by a few clubs while innovations like the previous season's last team getting the first pick in the player drafts are something the PL Board would surely fight tooth and nail, at the behest of the big clubs, to prevent ever happening in England. Similarly the insistence on players attending college seems to go against the 'grab it while you can' nature which the US exhibits on a macro level. Although I'm faintly aware this has been challenged recently with some players drafting straight from High School, I feel this is being generally resisted. Does Glenn Beck have bits on Fox News castigating the sports bodies for this? Isn't it all a bit, well, liberal? (The underlying argument could be that America is liberal of course. Strong unions, good schools, decent working conditions are all ingrained there despite what some would like to present.)

While there still seems to be permanently successful clubs like The Lakers in America, there also seems to be teams that, either through appointing a great coach or getting a good draft can have a few years of success, winning titles along the way. The idea that a Fulham could win the title, without a sugar-daddy owner, the way a small American football club can is inconceivable. (But maybe nobody wants Fulham to win. Nobody supports them outside a small band. Maybe people want Man United, Chelsea etc. to be challengers every year so that quality, narrative, familiarity will all be ensured. The certainty is celebrated. Like people flocking to the cinema to watch Julia Roberts essentially play Julia Roberts again and again, it's the actors, not the performances, we crave.)

I think sporting success may be deemed a bit Eurotrashy in the US consciousness. When you look back at famous American figures, noted for intellect or political achievement, it's amazing how many of them are former accomplished US sports players - Hemingway, Gerald Ford, George Bush Sr., There is no real equivalent here (despite the odd Camus/Pope as goalie), you can be good at one but not the other. I feel this may have been somewhat planned by the US in their early days to more better fit the country's aspirations. Perhaps they were reluctant to celebrate something so unthinking and based on natural talent (and thereby unfair/unAmerican) as European sport, rather than hard work and application and so catered their sports around accommodating thoughtful personalities, so the quarterback needs to be a good thinker etc. While this might make for more rounded sports stars perhaps the games become more boring, and thus - here comes soccer, enjoy these noble savages.

And so the Premier League behemoth rumbles on, managing to turn places as dreary and prosaic as Bolton and Wigan somewhat exotic, and nobody's really sure why it's working so well or what indicators to use to judge it. Those in charge are too worried about damaging their jewel to properly examine it to see what's the cause, or what could stop it. It just works.

EDIT: I often read these posts later and cringe so just for my sanity can I say that I realise I've probably got this completely wrong of course. It could be that soccer is so desirable precisely because it is thoughtful and not so dependent on physical attributes as many American sports. Looking at basketball heroes, for example, taking Bryant, Jordan, Johnson - all three were at least six foot six. There's no equivalent in soccer really. Take Maradona at 5'5", or Pele at 5'8" or Zidane at 6'1", there's no physical pattern there. It could perhaps precisely be that because their wit, intelligence and skill can influence their performance above and beyond their physical attributes the sport is so attractive to some Americans. Often watching (only very occasionally) basketball now it seems to have turned into something resembling the scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest where it has reduced into getting the ball as quickly and most directly to a giant player under the hoop. While there is obviously a subtlety I can't pick up only being a casual observer (maybe the grace of the 6'10" guys?), that could be part of the problem - ignorant watchers like me just think 'isn't it whoever has the tallest player wins?'.

Then of course there's the colour thing. Basketball is black. American Football is black. Baseball is, what, Dominican? Even traditional white sports like Golf and Tennis now have the feel that white people reign supreme because of social and not sporting factors. But not only are white people good at soccer, you could say they're the best. They don't need to overcome more skillful minorities through attrition or physicality. They have grace, skill, natural ability the way America is so used to seeing black American sportsmen have. I don't even think this is particularly racist, just borne of honest surprise. In fact, I find it a little unsettling that at an American Football game the majority of the players are black while all the fans in the stand white. It seems bloody stupid (maybe I am racist though). Looking at it benevolently, Soccer has more variety. It's not as limited to a race or socio economic class and it's truly global. There's still a place, and hopefully always will be, for an Irishman or African or Spaniard or, now, American.

This is why this post on the excellent A More Splendid Life, admittedly by a Canadian not American, was so interesting (and I completely agree with it). Maybe North Americans know that descending down a road of tactical and physical prowess leads ultimately only to tedium. Hearing Pep Guardiola praise Theo Walcott as Arsenal's main threat because he can run the 100 metres in 10.3 seconds was annoying for the same reason - why doesn't he piss off and do athletics then, this is football.

Of course we have been here before with Americans trying to take to soccer in the late 1970s. Perhaps it's just history repeating and won't last although it does feel more substantial this time.

Monday, July 26, 2010

At the end of the day, it's all meaningless.

I have read alarmingly few football books. I'm yet to read any of Eamon Dunphy's output, aside from his Roy Keane biography, nor Hunter Davies, nor Phil Ball. I've read a lot of David Conn's articles, but none of his books. I've read almost nothing.

So far I've tended to keep to the 'tell-all' end of the market, focusing on the biographies of the 'troubled geniuses'; Paul McGrath's Back from the Brink, which started off as a revealing and enlightening insight into a severely damaged upbringing/abandonment and its effect (he spent 6 months at the age of 19 bed-ridden in a psychiatric ward) which by the end had descended (at least for me) into a non-stop litany of matter-of-fact results from such damage, now almost devoid of any context (You drank a pint of Domestos? Wow, what happened next?); Tony Adam's Addicted which hinted at a depth of knowledge and understanding which has been decidedly missing from his management career so far; I even scanned through Stan Collymore's Stan: Tackling My Demons to see what titillating pleasures may be derived ('I leaned in the window and had a bit of a fiddle with the wife', oh that's quality dogging Stan. Roy Evans' daughter, tee-hee).

To readdress this imbalance I visited my local library and picked up Jonathon Wilson's highly-praised Inverting the Pyramid, on the evolution of football tactics. (While I was there I also picked up Richard Williams' The Perfect 10, wherein he dedicates a single chapter each to ten seminal players who played in the number 10 position. I'm, unfairly, wary of anything Williams writes since hearing his 'John Lennon review story'*, but the chapter on Ferenc Puskas which I have read so far was excellent. I'm more confident of getting through this than the Wilson book to be honest.)

Wilson's introduction points at the fundamental difficulty many in this part of the world have in investing too much credence in the over-riding importance of tactics on football matches. His description of a fellow writer casually mentioning that in the end it comes down to the ability of the eleven players on the field seems not to be a self-serving manufactured argument but is quite representative of many in these isles (I'm not 100% sure on which side I come down myself, I'm looking forward to seeing what sway Wilson's book will have on me). This argument, that 'tactics are overrated', is one that I often hear coming at me through my TV screen, by another character from one of my few football reads, John Giles.

David Peace's The Damned United was an incendiary read for me, far better than I had anticipated and quickly encouraged me to find all his books. The Brian Clough of the novel was a powerful creation and seemed to encapsulate not just a lost character but a lost nation (Although I was born as long ago as 1980, the idea of Englishmen being such titans of industry seems alien to me. This period of the novel, when the largest and most powerful, not just football clubs but businesses and services and systems and finances were run by Englishmen and according to English principles, for all the flaws, is something I didn't really see growing up. England used to be so big. Perhaps it's Ireland's increase that has affected this view, but only to a small extent I believe.) The strongest critique of the book I saw argued that the tone was too retrospective and that Peace had taken the Clough we had seen at the end of his career (bitter, disappointed, failing) and transplanted him back to a time when he was in fact much more successful and balanced. This is a strong argument, but I can't help feeling that Peace nailed it. The man, the time, the country. Everything.

Everything includes The Irishman, Johnny Giles, menacingly stalking Clough during his 44 days and greeting all Clough's difficulties with pitiless mirth, 'laughing like a big, black fucking dog'. While Giles successfully sued the author, and later editions have been amended to reflect this, a part of me, perhaps unfairly, believes that Giles would not have brought the case had he not been afraid there was a little truth in the portrayal. A truth I think is evident in Giles' role on Tv.

As a Tv pundit Giles is notoriously non-plussed. Non-plussed by players. Non-plussed by managers . Non-plussed by those sitting beside him. (This has seeped into the public's perception of him and his representative character on the popular parody Apres Match bears an almost permanent look of detached bemusement, as though he can't actually believe the silliness of everything and every one.) He is certainly no ignoramus on football tactics but his overarching concern seems to be character. Mourinho is a good manager far more because of his personality than his tactical acumen. Ferguson's greatest quality according to Giles is his trust in his players, a trust Giles certainly doesn't share in the current crop. Players know is one of his favourite arguments. They know what to do and when to do it and if they don't no tactical change is going to educate or improve them. It may come down to semantics of course as what most refer to as tactics Giles calls 'good defending' etc. It's nonetheless surprising that someone who has played under such renowned managers in Busby and Revie is so dismissive of the job. Despite becoming a manager himself his faith and credence lies squarely with individual players. And John isn't impressed much.

The underlying impression is that it's the tacticians who are the spoofers to Giles. The chancers coming along after the fact to portray the action as a result of planned, by themselves, actions and procedures. Giles seems to have no credence in these charlatans. The question is does this come from lessons learned from experience - Giles pedigree as a footballer is often under-emphasised, maybe due to the timing of his career; he's neither fully of the glorious 1960s (despite making his debut for Manchester United in 1959) nor violent 1970s (despite playing until 1980) but straddles the period a little uncomfortably.

Or is it something deeper, a view Peace appears to hold. In the book, when Clough tries to get Giles onside by excitedly detailing his plans for the future he is met only by Giles' steadfast rebuttal that Giles is concerned only with the past, not the future. While most probably factually incorrect, it succinctly elucidates a type of fatalism rooted in many Irish people, a hopelessness born of shameful history. It's not that we don't think it can be done, it's just that we don't place any stock in it. It could all fall apart tomorrow anyway, why bother building it so carefully?

After I read the book I googled Giles a bit and came across a revealing and strikingly open interview he had given to the Evening Herald which I can't find now unfortunately. In it Giles talked about a period when he was aged about 29 as the only time he had significant doubts in his life. His daily routine had become monotonous. He trained, had lunch, had a nap, had dinner, went to bed. Probably a more accurate description of a footballer's life than the tabloids present. Wondering if he could be bothered carrying his career on much longer he took a trip home to Dublin and when there went out with his father. His father was an unsuccessful footballer who was at his element in a crowd. Popular and enthusiastic, a jack-the-lad celebrating all his seconds on earth. Giles described this meeting as a little epiphany that ensured him his own life was fine. Strengthened by the weakness of others he left for home.

This is not so far from The Irishman of Peace's book I feel. The life of a footballer, certainly in the 70s, was most likely a dull and fairly prosaic existence. Would his father's carefree lifestyle not have been even a little desirable. No, here was one more spoofer. Another know-nothing in a bar tediously detailing his might-bes and could-haves. But the beer soaked bar-fly is no more of a chancer to be dismissed than the earnest tactical professor with his statistics and clip-boards. John places no great merit in either.

Players know maybe.

* If anybody wants to know the Williams/Lennon story - while in his role reviewing music (for Melody Maker?) he was commissioned to review one of John Lennon's new releases (The Wedding Album?). The advance copy he received was pressed up on double vinyl but is only a single vinyl record so two sides were naturally blank. Williams however went on to review it as a double lp, praising the blank sides as audacious experiments etc. I mean it just goes to show you, they think they know everything but they don't know as much...HEY! HEY, WHERE ARE YOU GOING? I'M TALKING TO YOU. I'M SAYING, IT JUST GOES TO SHOW...

Friday, July 23, 2010

What a Funny Story

I wonder who got the power pack?

So then I bought it and it arrived and I started building it and then I got injured and then I had to go back home and I never finished it but my kids were obsessed by Lego so then, you know, I'm good friends with James Corden so I text him, I said 'Can you believe it, I'm playing Man United in 2 days and I'm sat here building a Taj Mahal' and he sent one back saying 'Can you believe it, I'm sat in a hotel and I'm so bored I just said to myself 'Should I shower?'' He said 'I'm talking to myself', so we're both having this really boring conversation

It's the banter in the dressing room I miss the most, the training and matches I can do without being honest.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

We Are All Made Of Stars

The failure of established 'Stars' to shine, certainly in the manner which they had in much of the promotional material issued by sponsors in the run-up to the tournament, seemed a defining feature of the 2010 World Cup. There were many debates around this on Minus the Shooting and Loki posted a piece questioning the ability of the Premier League to create stars. There's a huge amount of interesting tangents here to me and one is the nature of determining a Premier League star.

Star status, as conveyed by the Premier League, seems to be decided by a curiously liquid set of metrics. Nobody's quite sure what they are, but there comes a point when a player seems to be universally agreed to have qualified. It will start off slow, usually appearing in print or among supporters until no less a sage than Alan Shearer will declare some Saturday evening that "For me, he's World Class and at the moment he'd be my firstname on the teamsheet." A little probationary period will then follow where the judgement will be cemented or broken. A continuation of good form will see the endorsements and WAG opportunities start to roll in but a drop in form will do irreparable damage, negating almost all the previous good work. Just a couple of short weeks later may see number one fan Al declare "He doesn't do it often enough for me".

You flunked kid. You only get one shot here and you missed it. Oh well, it's Portsmouth and not Chelsea for you I'm afraid. Perhaps a move to the Bundesliga beckons and that's pretty much Siberia as far as we're concerned.

While there is no one way of ensuring World Class status, obviously it is often based on the number of goals a player scores, with the quality of them (tap-ins versus wonderstrikes etc) perhaps only influencing what kind of World Class player you will be - a great goalscorer being just as feted as a scorer of great goals. So van Nistlerooy quickly became World Class based on aggregate. If you score enough, its undeniable. Steven Gerrard on the other hand may never have been declared World Class were it not for his impressive ability to smash in 20-yard screamers often enough for it to be evident this is down to technique and not luck or opportunism.

Goals scored are the one true way a sport like soccer can be reduced to statistics. If you score 1 in 2 for long enough you're World Class. It cannot be denied. While there may be mutterings about 'not doing it against the big teams' this will only stick amongst a pernicious elite. People want stars. Why are you denying us them with these subtle counter arguments? Despite the increasing awareness of other stats - passes complete, assists made, ground covered - that will even appear on the screen throughout the game, the simple undeniable objectivity of goals scored is unrivaled. There are no variables or doubts or undermining little grey areas. It's your goal, all yours, your name will appear beside it forever in the annals. You can even run off on your own to celebrate it wildly and bask in the glory. Fuck the rest.

This is perhaps why people, at least those casually interested in football in this part of the world, have difficulty deeming a player like Iniesta or Xavi 'World Class'. The appreciation required doesn't fit neatly into a 'News at Ten' style clip reel. The match has to be watched in its entirety to fully appreciate their talent. This makes it difficult to transfer their status across borders the way Beckham's was - you only needed 10 seconds of your time to watch Beckham curl a delicious free-kick into the top corner and you could be safely assured that they weren't trying to trick you. He's World Class, don't you worry about that. But this Xavi guy, what does he do? If he's doing more than i think/notice maybe they all are? Maybe Beckham's doing less? I didn't sign up for this kind of questioning, I want certainty and assuredness from my media interaction thank you.

The result of this desire for certainty is that once World Class status is conveyed it can never be taken away. Michael Owen will be World Class until the day he retires, regardless of form or fitness or changing tactics in the game. It's a permanent title, like a Knighthood. As a result, there will always be some manager, most likely English, that will be willing to 'take a punt on a proven goalscorer'. "We all know Michael's World Class", they'll say, "hopefully we can give him the platform here to show everybody what he can still do". While it is obviously fitting that on retiring certain players are recognised as having been World Class, the difficulty lies in removing that status during their playing career.

The flip-side of course is that if you flunk your initial assessment, judgement can almost never be reversed. This was highlighted when Diego Forlan's victory as Golden Ball player in the World Cup was greeted by unseemly derision by the BBC punditry team. This was Forlan. Forlorn. The Sally Gunnell lookalike who (I think) ushered in the 'yellow card for taking off your shirt' law after an overenthusiastic goal celebration saw the game tipping-off again with Diego shirtless, the offending shirt balled up in his hands, running around terrier-like trying to regain possession. He's obviously improved but, come on, he's the same person. And, you know, it is the Spanish League/Uruguay.

It's funny how quickly arguments that are dismissed as bitty or excessively begrudging when made against a player in the PL - 'He's a flat-track bully' etc. - suddenly become valid when trying to prevent recognition of a foreigners status - 'The Spanish defences are terrible though'. (I wonder is there a precise measurement for a goal scored in La Liga. Maybe it's worth .61 of a Premier League goal?). This is all seemingly done not to protect the player, but to protect the judgement system. The output has to be unchallengeable. Surety is necessary.

I like to imagine Forlan contacting a sort of equivalent to the 'Dubious Goals' panel, some Kafkaesque bureau at the end of an anonymous telephone line, to see if he can get his case heard again. Plead the mitigating circumstances that prevented him from successfully auditioning for a place as a 'Star' during his time in England.

But we can't Diego, I'm sorry. You seem like a really nice guy and we're really happpy that everything's going well for you, we are, but we can't entertain doubt. If we do it for you we're going to have every Joe Soap looking for a re-count and it will make a mockery of the whole system. And we need to protect our current members, we can't go diluting their brand and related employment prospects because we want to have a more fair or efficient system.

And therein lies the rub Diego, if you don't get it first time, you can never get it, but if you do you'll get a first-class ticket to an unrivaled gravy train that never stops running.

It could be you. Or not.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Planned Obsolescence

My mother has a Kenwood Food Mixer which simultaneously represents everything that is good and bad about the human race to her. The Kenwood, as it is referred to, was a wedding present upon marrying my father.

"It's...What year were you born?"
"Well then it's...(counts on fingers)...9, almost 10 years older than you. And it's never given A DAY of trouble."

They don't make them any more. You can't get them. They don't make them.

Sometimes when at a family get together I can see my mother cast her eye around the particular kitchen, to find what food mixer these people have. The relevant mixer will comfortably confirm my mother's gut instinct. It's not The Kenwood. It doesn't look nearly solid enough. Plastic.

My mother sometimes buys denim jeans from Tesco. They can cost as little as 4 euro. But they're just the same as the ones you'd pay 50 euro for in town. There's no difference. They're the same jeans.

"Sometimes I think they're better."

I was flicking through a colour supplement recently advertising a home-ware sale in one of Dublin's big department stores, probably Arnott's. They listed a Kenwood food mixer that was reduced to 299 from 599. I brought this to my mother's attention to try and explain the Kenwood issue from my point of view.

While I do accept things are no longer 'built to last', it doesn't mean they don't exist. Here was proof the standard of The Kenwood was still available, it was just highly priced. The trend in modern consumerism has long moved away from quality to accessibility. We can have more things, at inferior quality. Most people would (perhaps sensibly) opt to buy a cheaper, inferior mixer rather than the 599 Kenwood nowadays.

I like to believe that, in her day, while people had less, what little they had was of a similar standard to that of the most fortunate. Perhaps you had scant furniture, but you had one item that would not have looked out of place in any house in the city, carefully preserved and passed through generations so you too could have a slight taste of what the good life may be like. (I like to celebrate the grace of other people's poverty maybe.)

Now pragmatism rules; They perform the same function anyway. There's no difference between them really, it's all advertising. They're the same jeans.

My mother wouldn't have a word of this. She'd seen those Kenwoods. They're awful. The plastic knobs wouldn't last a week.

They don't make them any more. You can't get them. They don't make them.

Watching Manchester United over the last few years I constantly hope for the club to address the poor quality of its midfield. Try and find a purposeful, powerful body of players that could comfortably rank against their stellar cast of the 90s. Perhaps a big money signing would do it, preferably from one of their rivals. Or maybe they have a box-to-box midfielder in the mould of Roy Keane waiting in their youth ranks. Something is drastically needed to end this limbo-like stasis of an aged Scholes and insufficient Carrick.

I see they're looking at Joe Cole as a free transfer. The similarities to the Owen signing are eerie.

But he's free.

He's just as good as anyone else.

There's no difference.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mine's a Pint Treble

So the title of this blog refers to a piece of commentary during the Man United-Arsenal Semi-Final replay at Villa Park in 1999, describing a wayward pass from Vieira into Giggs' path from which he scored his 'wondergoal'. I, like 99% of United fans, own the DVD (Or at least those of us who still have the habit of wanting things in a hard copy. I'm increasingly losing this desire as 'space' is starting to seem ever more valuable. Why would I want things cluttering up my universe when it's only ever a mouse-click away?) and not to come over all Nick Hornby-like but I'm surprised at how often I still watch it, and how much enjoyment I still derive from it.

There a lot's of factors that may contribute to the enjoyment and obviously basic nostalgia looms large but I tend not to let any of these impede the joy the 'Treble' has always inspired. I can remember the day it came out. Coming home after working at my first serious job on Dublin's Dart train system I heard a woman(!) tell her husband over her mobile phone that she'd just bought the VHS and it was one piece of dialogue, that I think is the main blurb for the DVD, that caught my attention. It had apparently; 'All the goals, all the games.' It sounded like the most solid, undeniable signifier of supremacy there could possibly be. All the goals, all the games. What more could you feasibly want? All your desires are being met.

And a lot of the Treble is about the games. As pointless as these exercises are, I'm fairly happy to nail my colours to the mast and select the semi-final replay as my favourite ever football game. (It may be hard to find any United fan between the ages of, say, 25-55 who won't plump for a match from that season for their choice.) While the match was undoubtedly objectively exciting - the sending off, the missed penalty, the Giggs goal; who could deny this drama? - it's how the drama was celebrated that pleases me most. I wan't to be there, watching it is not enough. The pitch invasion at the end seems like nothing of the sort. The sheer hilarity of it, the piss-your-pants funniness a mass of people find that a game that was surely, inarguably lost has been snatched as victory. The sight of Bergkamp so disconsolate, struggling to place exactly how he's lost this match and how much blame he has to shoulder considering his excellent performance v. his missed penalty, doesn't bring me awareness - just joy.

In recent times I've been struck by how tense football fans are over results, a curious inverse relationship that as the importance of winning seems to decrease - the lack of a bond between supporters and clubs, the mobility of the players reducing loyalty, the shrinking of genuine challengers to a group that, if they don't win it this year, will win it again soon enough - the impact of results seem to be felt ever more forcefully. When you hear about a Arsenal fan in Africa driving a car into a bunch of African United fans you wonder what on earth are they dealing with through English football clubs (a charge which may well be extended to Irish fans of course)? Jesus, why do you care so much? But it's not just those in distant lands that disappoint, the crowds at Premier League games can seem excessively agitated and nervous, and goals often appear to be less celebrated than welcomed as disaster-averting interventions. Rather than lifting people up, goals/victories are just bringing them back to an even keel. Nowadays I almost never look at a PL game and think, wow I wish I was there.

But that desire to participate, to be there, to fully experience what that unprecedented season was allowing is a defining feature of the time. The most popular t-shirt commemorating the Final win over Bayern simply said YO ESTABA ALLI. I was there. And from us, the global audience, I always thought this desire to be there also has been the main attraction of English clubs. Why people travel thousands of miles to attend one game, to chalk off that item on their to do list. To experience something unique and non-transferable. You choose to support United as much because of the Stretford End as for Roy Keane. For the songs sung about Giggs as much for Giggs himself.

Ferguson always understood this, I feel, and I remember reading a story about his time at Aberdeen where his half-time team talk was just a description of how much the crowd enjoyed the performance so sure was he the team would take as much inpiration from this as he himself did. There are many things about him on the Treble DVD that make me like him - his preserved youth (sometimes watching United now i feel, like a dog beginning to resemble to their owner, Utd can be staid and slow, doing just enough, treating energy as a precious ever-reducing commodity to be only carefully expended); his after-the-fact creditation of the comeback against Liverpool in the FA Cup being the springboard for the whole season (success is always sweeter when it is at the expense of the scousers); and his brilliant display in the Champions League final that encapsulates everything I like about the man - after Sheringham equalises, MacLaren grabs Ferguson's attention by jabbing at his clipboard. He wants to revert to a 5 man midfield to hold the draw. Ferguson dismisses him with a flap of his arm they way you might a foolish child. We'll win this now. Too right.

But my favourite is his interview (with Gary Naylor?) after the Arsenal match. As the interviewer tries to focus on the seriousness, the importance of United's position and how this epic match will have drained the team, Ferguson quickly gives him a lesson in living,

Look, who's to know what's going to happen in football Gary? It could all blow up in our face at the end of the day. But can you forget moments like this? Our supporters will be talking about that for years, our players will be talking about that for years. That's what football's about.

And it's the contrast between the two attitudes, not even philosophies, that I like most. While the interviewer should be the calm one - recognising the bigger picture, the context etc., it's Ferguson, celebrating the joy of transient victory who comes across as the measured perspective. Life is short, victories should be treasured, who does know what tomorrow will bring. This isn't a juvenile immature outlook, it's the calm, sensible, right approach.

Football, eh, bloody hell.