Category Archives: Sport

The post about Manchester United that no one will read, but I wrote it anyway

In 1982, before I realised that I hated musicals with a passion, my parents took me to see Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre, a staggering four times. The last time we saw the show, I remember there was a pre-curtain announcement which explained that Jess Conrad – the star – would be unable to perform due to a family bereavement, and that the role of Joseph would be played instead by the understudy.

On hearing this news, the audience emitted a deep guttural groan as if they’d just been told that Norman Tebbit had been bused in to play the lead. I imagine the sound of mass disappointment filling the auditorium didn’t make the understudy’s heart sink so much as it tried to burst through his chest and roll out of the nearest backstage exit. It must have been a terribly disheartening moment.

I can’t actually remember anything about the performance that followed. All I remember is the audience reaction to the announcement and the instant assumption that the performance would be sub-standard. After all, how could a young pretender possibly replace the mighty Jess Conrad and still provide us with the high levels of entertainment we’d come to expect?

Believe it or not, this Jess Conrad-based preamble is my way of easing you into a blog post about football. You see, I’m a Manchester United fan. Admittedly I’ve only ever been to one game (Old Trafford, March 1985: we beat Aston Villa 4-0, during which I accidentally hurled a meat and potato pie over the man sitting in front of me) so I’m probably more ‘armchair fan’ than dedicated ‘super-fan’.

True ‘super fans’ of Manchester United probably live in a subterranean netherworld beneath Old Trafford itself, where the blood, sweat and tears from every match filters through the hallowed turf and hangs in the air like a fine mist. (In contrast, I live in a light and airy flat in a small Warwickshire village.) Furthermore, true ‘super fans’ probably attend every first team match – home and away. They’d probably turn up to watch the ground staff kick an empty can around the car park if they could. I obviously can’t compete with that level of fandom, but I’m still a fan and I still care what happens to my team.

The incomparable and uncompromising Sir Alex Ferguson has been at the Manchester United helm for all but a couple of years during my time as a supporter, but the idea that he would one day retire never really crossed my mind. Part of me expected a Weekend at Bernie’s-style scenario to eventually transpire, whereby a complex pulley system would be employed to animate Sir Alex in the dugout, inspiring thrilling victories and late comebacks for evermore. But now he’s gone (retired, not expired) and David Moyes sits in the big chair.

I feel a bit sorry for David Moyes. When he first took over at Manchester United it was reported that Sir Alex Ferguson had seen him as his understudy and natural successor. He was the man standing nervously behind the grand drape listening to a groaning audience of doubters, dubious of his ability to deliver high quality entertainment and anything but disappointment. “Will David Moyes turn Man United into a team who have to fight to get into the top four?” asked one fan on Yahoo Answers, using a forum best known for people asking if it’s safe to eat urinal cake.

Does any manager go into a club with the aim of actively reversing its fortunes? No, of course not. It was an idiotic question that was posed before David Moyes had presided over a single competitive game.

Still, David Moyes and the new executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, have had a tough time so far, particularly in the transfer market. In July it was reported that Woodward had departed the club’s pre-season tour of Australia to deal with “urgent transfer business”, and like many supporters I salivated at the prospect of Gareth Bale arriving, or even Cristiano Ronaldo returning, perhaps to be joined later by the likes of Geoffrey Kondogbia, İlkay Gündoğan, Mesut Özil, Ander Herrera, Eliaquim Mangala, Ezequiel Garay…and any number of players that we were being linked with on a daily basis.

Speculation about the “urgent transfer business” was constant. Woodward was in Spain trying to tie up the Fabregas deal. He was in Hungary on the trail of Puskás. Meanwhile, reports of secret meetings with Jossy Blair suggested that he was close to securing the signature of a Glipton Giants playmaker. We were about to go wild in the transfer market – and I couldn’t wait!

My excitement was somewhat dampened at 11pm on deadline day, when our only signing was £27.5m Marouane Fellaini from Everton. It’s an over-priced signing that, granted, gives us some much-needed physicality in midfield. But signing just one player in a last minute frenzy of transfer activity on deadline day was undeniably disappointing. Especially when you consider that, in the same transfer window, Spurs managed to snap up Christian Eriksen from Ajax for a mere £11m, along with the likes of Erik Lamela, Paulinho and Roberto Soldado. “If even half of these impressive Spurs signings succeed – look out,” tweeted Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl.

Oh, and Mesut Özil – one of the most technically gifted attacking midfielders of his generation – ended up at Arsenal. “The Premier League…is a league with much more space and Özil is a player that, given time and space, he will kill you,” warned Barcelona’s Cesc Fàbregas, fresh from playing the lead role in our long summer of unrequited love. Arsenal, it seems, could be deadly this year.

Fellaini’s arrival, on the other hand, was greeted with a mixture of dismay and indifference, with only a light dusting of vaguely positive reaction. “Probably our least exciting £20m+ signing ever,” sighed ‘kps88′ on the RedCafe.net forum. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one contributor to a forum thread has, at some point in the last couple of weeks, predictably referred to him as “Marian FAILaini”. But that would be unfair, seeing as he hasn’t even pulled on a Manchester United jersey or kicked a ball competitively for us yet.

Fellaini could be a great signing for us, so we should give him time. And I really hope David Moyes is given time, too.

In spite of a pre-season Charity Shield win for David Moyes’ United, followed by four points and four goals in three Premier League matches (in what Moyes described as “the toughest start Manchester United have had [in the league] for 20 years”) I’ve already seen some fans calling for his head – which is madness. We’re not going to become that club, are we? The type of club that casts stability to the wind and throws a manager under the bus every time there’s a dip in form.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s first game in charge of Manchester United, on 8 November 1986, was a 2–0 defeat at underdogs Oxford United, which was followed by a goalless draw at newly promoted Norwich City. It was hardly a scintillating start, but it didn’t define Sir Alex’s managerial reign or prevent him from eventually building teams that went on to deliver a historic level of footballing achievement.

Robert Chalmers’ open letter to Sir Alex Ferguson, which appeared in GQ magazine shortly after the Scot announced his retirement, noted:

“Paddy Barclay wrote, at the time you were possibly facing the sack, around 1990, that you had got everything right at [Manchester United], except at first team level. We read those words, as supporters, and thought: what use is that? But a great manager – given time, as you were – moulds a club in his own image.”

Wise words indeed.

David Moyes has a six-year contract at Manchester United and I think we should let him have those six years to build his own empire and write his own history at the club, even if it means that we have to part with success temporarily. He needs to impose his own style, make further signings (something he was very good at as manager of Everton) and even create his own urban myths. Like the time Sir Alex Ferguson disemboweled a hapless boot boy following a 2003 FA Cup defeat at the hands of Arsenal, before angrily stuffing the organs into a boot and launching it at David Beckham’s head, with the steaming entrails flapping like a comet’s tail as it flew across the changing room.

I’m not qualified to give David Moyes tips on how to achieve success. Although, I do have a very successful Manchester United career under my belt courtesy of Football Manager. (Or I did until last week, when I jokingly resigned after 12 glorious [game] years following some poor results, then watched in silent horror as the game immediately autosaved.) Football Manager is one of the most addictive games of all time. It’s like being captivated for hours on end by a detailed and thoroughly entertaining PowerPoint presentation. And when you’ve played the game for so long that your new signings are all ‘regens’ (regenerated players), your squad begins to look like it’s made up of talented E-FIT criminals. It’s swallowed a lot of my spare time over the years. But here’s what I’ve learned from that virtual managerial world: give youth a chance!

David Moyes shouldn’t be afraid to blood the youth at his disposal. Wilfried Zaha reminds me of one of those talented footballers at school, who could beat you with a flashy trick and blistering pace one minute, then go from pirouette to crumpled heap, clutching his balls, the next. His skill certainly needs refining, but he’s absolutely fearless and can run all day – which should terrify any defender lacking concentration or pace. Similarly, I’d love to see Adnan Januzaj get some significant game time under his belt this season. I’ve just heard that Juventus might do another ‘Paul Pogba’ and poach him from us if his contract runs down, which I’d hate to see. Surely he’s the future of Manchester United – PLEASE GIVE HIM A NEW CONTRACT, DAVID!

Also, please play Shinji Kagawa as often as possible. I know the trick is finding a way for him to play alongside Wayne Rooney in a position in which he can excel, but just find a way. Injuries aside, I thought he was great in his debut season. Just the nimble, creative force we need.

Still, what the fuck do I know?

After 26 years of managerial continuity at Manchester United, our 2013/14 transition season is obviously going to be tough as hell – especially with five very strong teams challenging us for the title. But before he disappeared down the players’ tunnel for the last time, Sir Alex Ferguson instructed supporters to do one very simple thing: “Stand by your new manager.” And unless David Moyes uses the January transfer window to re-sign Eric Djemba-Djemba or sell Wayne Rooney to Chelsea, that’s exactly what we should do. Jess Conrad is gone, now it’s time for the understudy.

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Tearful men in fancy dress

After being totally outclassed and taken apart by a rampant German team this afternoon, England are now out of the World Cup. It’s a defeat that’s left us with all the usual images: town squares up and down the country littered with broken, tearful men in fancy dress, being comforted by other men coated in sweat-streaked face paint. It’d be tragic if it wasn’t such a familiar sight following the disappointing conclusions to every major football tournament England’s been involved in over the last 44 years.

Anyway, I just wanted to suggest something.

Next time – presuming there is a next time – do you think the build up to England’s matches could be a little more low key? I mean, do we really need rousing filmic montages on ITV and the BBC, which look like something the late Don Simpson might have conceived at the moment of a cocaine-fuelled orgasm? Pounding orchestral soundtracks, ethereal choral voices, and high-speed film of the England players looking sweaty and determined, as their skin ripples with the impact of every tackle. Isn’t it all a little bit much?

We’re not far from montages showing the England team riding around the pitch on lions, as their St George’s Cross-branded big cats feast on the twitching cadaver of an opposing player. And when an England player hits the ball into the net, it causes an explosion that lays waste to vast swathes of the opposing side’s fans. (Cue slow-motion shots of England celebrations, as a Chinook helicopter lifts the team out of the inferno now taking hold of the stadium.)

But in reality, ‘England: The Movie’ was the ultimate damp squib.

And there was also Brian Blessed’s battle cry (shown on the BBC). Don’t get me wrong, I like Brian Blessed. But hearing him bellowing Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” just didn’t inspire me like perhaps it should. It sounded the kind of impassioned speech you could imagine echoing down the corridors of a psychiatric hospital, as you make your way to visit an old thespian uncle who’s been sectioned.

This England team didn’t deserve the ridiculous hype that was spun around it. Had they played like world-beaters from the start of the competition, putting in confident, high-scoring and technically proficient performances, then, yes, build them up. The stage is theirs. But given that the only gear they managed to find was ‘hungover pub team on Hackney Marshes’, the hype was somewhat misplaced.

For most of the competition the players seemed bewildered and slightly confused to be playing at the World Cup in South Africa. Do you remember that Derren Brown stunt on his Trick or Treat series, when he hypnotised a bloke inside a photo booth and transported him to Marrakesh while he was unconscious? Well, I suspect something similar happened to the entire England squad. The last thing the players probably remember was activating the air-con in their Bentley’s and Aston Martin’s, a strange gas emanating from the vents, then waking up to the sound of 50,000 vuvuzelas. Explains a lot.

So, yeah, next time let’s just go about our footballing business quietly, without the ridiculously overblown and dramatic England VTs. Let’s have no more ‘England Expects’ headlines in tabloid newspapers, with Steven Gerrard and a gurning Wayne Rooney wrapped in the St George’s flag or arm wrestling a lion. (Unless, of course, England expects crushing disappointment.) And let’s have no more ‘It’s War!‘ headlines the next time we have to face Germany. Sure, let’s shout for our team and get behind them. But let’s do it like the humble footballing nation we’ve shown ourselves to be.

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Don’t mention the war. No, really, just stop mentioning the war.

So, here we are again. Another World Cup, another crucial tie with Germany. Oh, and the usual avalanche of hackneyed stereotypes and Second World War references plastered across the pages of the country’s tabloid newspapers.

Take the Daily Star, for instance. In just 61 words today, they managed to cram in: “war”, “Jerries”, “blitz”, “Huns” and “battle”, which all sat beside a photo of a grinning Wayne Rooney, striking a pugilistic pose and wearing an England-branded Tommy Helmet. And that was just the front page. Turn inside, and you could also find: “Fritz”, “blitzkrieg”, “Boche” and “master race”.

Shameful.

In fact, I found it almost impossible to read the Daily Star’s coverage of England’s forthcoming match against Germany without my internal reading voice adopting the style of Laurence Olivier’s distinctive World at War narration.

Admittedly, finding these terms in a newspaper that Glastonbury festival goers would be ashamed to line a soiled portaloo seat with, isn’t news. I know that. But it doesn’t make the use of these terms (in 2010) any less infuriating.

The fact that Joachim Löw’s German squad have an average age of just under 25 – their lowest at a World Cup since 1934 – seems to be wasted on Britain’s tabloid journalists. Germany’s latest footballing wunderkind, Mesut Özil, was only one-year-old when the Berlin Wall came down, for fucks sake! The cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo have a greater connection to World War 2 than Germany’s current World Cup squad. So why do the tabloids still believe that the war is our nation’s greatest galvanizer for a footballing occasion such as this?

Next to the Daily Star’s front page offers of a “free World Cup pint of beer” and “massive England body flag” (useful, with only one day left in the competition – probably), I was surprised not to see: FREE STEN SUBMACHINE GUN, BATTLE DRESS BLOUSE AND VUVUZELA! (Although, to be fair, my imaginary Daily Star offer probably contains too many words for their average reader to comprehend.)

There was a great article yesterday on the BBC website, which was a German view on English football. Like me, the writer of that article, Marcus Schuler, questioned why British tabloid journalists always fall back on the same old stereotypes. He thinks it’s because they lack creativity. And he’s right.

But it’s also just crass stupidity. Surprisingly, The Sun, like The Mirror, didn’t join the Daily Star with its WW2-heavy reporting, as they were too busy making the most of a photo showing the German team on safari, watching three lions from the safety of a caged truck (three lions – what are the odds, eh?).

From another angle there actually appeared to be eight lions strolling around the Germans’ truck. But as a tabloid headline generator it didn’t really do the same job: ‘German team watch lions and enjoy safari’. If I was a PR advisor to the German national team, I would’ve told them to avoid lions at all costs and ensure that they were photographed near a Hyrax colony instead. What the fuck can a British tabloid headline writer do with a Hyrax on the eve of an important World Cup match with Germany?

Anyway, The Sun’s contribution to World War 2 World Cup fever was a small article on page four of today’s paper, which told the story of how Fabio Capello’s father “starved in Nazis’ hell-hole”. Apparently, Cappello’s father’s weight dropped to just six stone after he was captured in Yugoslavia by German soldiers and then detained for around three years in 1943. Pretty shocking stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. However, the article concluded with the fascinating World Cup fact that “some 60,000 Italians died in Nazi hell-holes” during the Second World War.

Martin Phillips – if you can enlighten me as to the relevance of this story in relation to England’s World Cup match with Germany, please contact me. Thanks.

Mercifully, the aforementioned Marcus Schuler says that when he talks to English friends about football, they never ever use words like “Blitzkrieg” or “Fritz”, which is heartening. So just who are the tabloids speaking to? Possible answers to that question include: (1) white van men, who spend their days farting into their hand and mushing it into colleagues’ faces, and (2) the dwindling few who actually fought in the Second World War, some of whom perhaps still hold a grudge against the German nation. But that still doesn’t make the Second World War even remotely relevant to the build up to a football match.

So, tabloids, do you think we can just get past the war? I mean, do you think you can manage not to be so laughably predictable every time a match like this comes along? Please, give it a try – next time – that’s all I ask.

As for England’s chances in the match tomorrow, it’s been reported that a ‘psychic’ octopus called Paul has predicted a defeat for Fabio Capello’s side. This is another thing that tabloids love to cover when confidence in the national side is low: quirky predictions.

If the tabloids got wind of an illegal horse fighting competition, being held to determine England’s chances, they’d probably report with some glee that an English stallion (Ian) brutally defeated his German opponent (Albrecht) during a frenzied clash of hooves and bared teeth. And it would be a tabloid journalist’s wet dream if the victorious Ian then went on to trample an Argentinean stablehand, before crapping in a giant paella.

‘StalLION tips our boys to reach World Cup final!’

‘Hoof do you think you are?’ Stablehand in coma as England’s Lions are tipped for glory!

If you ask me (which you obviously haven’t), I’d say that if England take their group stage performances into the Last 16, they’ll be flying home tomorrow evening.  I hope I’m wrong, but, you know, it is England. I’d probably have a more pleasurable experience watching 90 minutes of colonoscopy footage. Still, we can dream.

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