Monday 31 December 2012

Snakes On A Plane

People. Airports. Pee-fucking-pull and Air-fucking-ports. People and airports. People in airports.
Two significant sources of annoyance whisked together, poured all over me and baked at a low heat for 15 hours - all because good old Christmas-time is here again. Not that Christmas bothers me, I actually quite like it but the journey home is so much of an inconvenience that it’s almost an outright deterrent. 15 hours all alone – well, alone apart from all the annoying bastards everywhere.

So, here I am, trapped in a flying metal phallus with an intriguing array of curious characters. Every minute spent in here is torture and my journey’s just beginning; I’m tired and irritable and my misanthropic thoughts are in danger of turning into wanton acts of mile-high violence as I slowly become acquainted with my fellow passengers...

First up is an over-worked young banker-type, run down from ‘living the dream’; quickly coming to realise that living the bloody dream involves little more than getting up at 6am and working like a dog to impress some muppet who in turn is getting raped by his superior – all to make money for some nameless, faceless asshole who wouldn’t even piss on him if he was on fire.

Maybe he’d get along well with the prissy little bitch who’s thoughtfully scrawling in her ludicrously expensive diary, elaborately decorated with butterflies and crystals and the obligatory little lock that keeps inquisitive on-lookers at bay – on-lookers that would need to be both deranged and perverted to have any interest whatsoever in discovering more about her world.

Next we have the mowler with the crumpled chinos, tailored grey sports jacket and shiny black shoes – all beautifully complemented by the Liverpool jersey that he proudly wears to complete the dashing ensemble. Although, to be fair to him, the ‘St.Michael’s GAA’ gear bag that he’s carrying his Christmas presents home in is a lovely seasonal blend of red and green.

The loved-up young couple are here too, of course. The guy saying all the right things. The girl beaming from ear to ear, reveling in the attention and the fact that she has him wrapped around her little finger. Not that he minds and he dutifully trudges up and down the aisle hoping to find a place for her ridiculously over-packed rucksack – while the people in the queue forming behind them are growing increasingly restless and frustrated, audibly tutting and shuffling on the spot, willing him to snap under the pressure and to shove the bloody bag up her stupid fat arse. (Or maybe that's just me...)

Then the too-sweet-to-be-wholesome air steward makes his announcements, carefully enunciating all his syllables and urging the passengers to “feel free to contact myself as I pass through the cabin should you wish for anything”. Such subservience is music to the ears of the smug, chubby middle-aged man sitting across from me and with 330ml cans of Heineken costing a mere €5 he’d surely be a fool to miss out. He’s a sophisticated adult and he always likes to have a little treat when he’s flying, regardless of the cost. It’s his little present to himself to help him unwind and enjoy the flight. After all, he deserves it.

At the top of the cabin we have the horse on stilts standing with her arms behind her back, desperately trying to look professional and eager to help but her mask is slipping. Another inch of make-up flakes off with each forced smile and she’s there in body only - her tiny mind is away in the clouds, plotting her escape. Maybe this will be her year; after all, she’s Miss February in the Ryanair Babes calendar – all she needs is for the right guy to see that and pluck her from obscurity and make her a star. Well, a porn star at least.

My train of thought is interrupted by an important announcement made by an enthusiastic Finn who advises everybody that some self-important shit-head has made it known that they are allergic to nuts and nut products and could all passengers please kindly refrain from eating these… and at that exact moment I wanted nothing more than to stuff a big bag of dry roasted peanuts into my mouth and to cough and splutter everywhere, hoping that the fucker would be dead by the time we landed. Or, well maybe not dead - it is Christmas after all - but at least itchy and bloated and in need of urgent medical attention.

Now, I'm no stranger to hating every last member of the human race when the mood is on me but this is bad, even by my standards, so there and then I vow that next year, to save me from tears (and a possible court appearance), I'll have to avoid airplanes.

I'll stay away or get the train or walk or something. Maybe I'll try hitch-hiking - Chris Rea sounds like he might have a seat going a-begging...

Monday 17 December 2012

Identity Crisis

Upon his return to Newcastle in January 2008, Kevin Keegan spoke of the weight of expectation and the fans’ desire to be entertained; how they want to “see something that’s worth seeing”. He likened a visit to St James’ Park for one of the Geordie faithful as being akin to a trip to the theatre for the more cerebral and culturally-inclined southerners. While it may have been a slightly cringe-worthy analogy, his conviction was palpable and we all understood what he meant.

Keegan has always known what he’s wanted and he is synonymous with a certain style of football. His 1996 team captured the public’s imagination in a way that no team ever had or, arguably, has done since – at least until Pep Guardiola took the reins at Barcelona. Essentially, you know what you get when you appoint Keegan. The same, however, cannot be said for Alan Pardew.

While last season’s superb 5th place finish rightly saw Pardew lauded, it’s fair to say that he doesn’t adhere to any particular philosophy – nor does the team don’t have any identifiable style of play. Indeed, this struggle for an identity has been on-going since Bobby Robson’s departure and while Keegan’s return ultimately didn’t result in a repeat of the heroics of the mid-90s, at least it was a step in the right direction. Since Ashley forced Keegan out, however, the subsequent managerial merry-go-round has ensured that the good ship Newcastle has been somewhat rudderless.

The popular perception is that having weathered the storm after his initial arrival, Pardew set about overhauling the team by shipping out the likes of Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton in favour of more technically gifted ball-players like Yohan Cabaye. Granted, there were some superb performances and excellent results last season but Newcastle are not the free-flowing, dynamic attacking force that many believe them to be. Indeed, when they were at their most scintillating in the final third of last season, it was more by accident than design – with a rejuvenated Hatem Ben Arfa finding form and confidence at a particularly opportune time and Papiss Cissé hitting a prodigious purple patch shortly after his arrival.

Newcastle’s current problems lie in the fact that they have no footballing philosophy to speak of. This season has been a chaotic shambles so far and despite his new 8 year deal, Pardew will know that a failure to arrest the recent decline could edge him towards the exit door. Contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re written on and Mike Ashley is nothing if not brave and ruthless, so his position is far from assured. Nor, however, is it anywhere near untenable just yet despite a disastrous and scarcely-believable run of 5 defeats in 6 games against some of the league’s lesser lights.

While their points tallies are low, both Liverpool and Aston Villa’s recent performances have been quite encouraging and the decision to abandon the quick fix in favour of a more sustainable long-term strategy looks curiously far-sighted in a world where instant gratification is routinely demanded. Similarly, fans have more patience than they are given credit for and Rodgers and Lambert may well reap great rewards in the coming years as they are being afforded the time needed to implement a new playing style and to instill a fresh ethos in their respective clubs. The time has come for Pardew to do something similar.

It’s fair to say that this season has been a write-off for quite a while now and the best we can hope for is to avoid spending the next few months in a relegation dogfight. However, Pardew can turn the situation to his advantage in the second half of the season by attempting to develop a signature style of play and to bring some cohesion to a fragmented group of talented, yet purposeless, players.

The common misconception is that Newcastle’s midfield quartet of Ben Arfa, Cabaye, Tiote and Gutierrez are the heartbeat of the team and that they dictate the tempo of the game and carve out opportunities for whichever of the Senegalese strikers is in the mood that particular day. The truth, however, is that Newcastle are heavily reliant on the long ball and the midfielders spend a significant proportion of every game stargazing as hopeful balls are repeatedly launched over their heads in the vain hope that Ba or Cissé can make some magic happen should they happen to get on the end of it, which is a rarity. (Though, rarer still are the occasions when the aforementioned players are all actually on the pitch together at the same time).

If he wants to play a direct, long-ball style then Pardew needs to have courage in his convictions – he shouldn’t attempt to sugar-coat it and to pull the wool over the fans’ eyes. If it’s to be long-ball, target-man football then Andy Carroll needs to come home. If it’s not, then either Ba or Cissé need to be sacrificed and the appropriate personnel must be deployed in the 4-3-3 system that reaped so many rewards last season, rather than attempting to shoe-horn an out-and-out striker into an unfamiliar wide position. Similarly, Ben Arfa’s match-winning magic is compromised when he’s required to play on the wing as his talents are better suited to playing centrally and creating space for others as well as wreaking havoc himself with his thunderous shooting and his delightfully incisive passing.

Also, it might be a loss of appetite or perhaps it’s complacency brought on by the lack of competition in the squad but Danny Simpson and Jonas Gutierrez have been particularly disappointing this season and may well have out-lived their usefulness. They’ve both been great servants in recent years and have made massive contributions but neither is deserving of a starting berth anymore and must be replaced if Newcastle are to progress. Jonas in particular looks a spent force as he has lost a yard of pace and no longer goes on the long, mazy runs which he was famed for in his early days, while his unreliable delivery and distribution have diminished even further in recent times.

On the other hand, while Davide Santon has been one of the stand-out performers this season, he has shone more as an attacking threat than as the heir apparent to Paolo Maldini, which he was mooted to be during his breakthrough season with Inter. His marauding runs, mazy dribbles and quick thinking have invited comparisons with a young Gareth Bale – a similarly gifted player who also started out as a full-back before being moved higher up the pitch to take full advantage of his talents. One wonders whether Pardew might consider making full use of Santon’s abilities and deploying him as a right-winger and buying a specialist left back in January. It would bring a greater balance to the side and could rejuvenate and reinvigorate the team as an attacking force.

Of course, such a gamble may not pay off but the time has come to think outside the box as Pardew needs to stamp his authority on a team that looks increasingly clueless, unimaginative and one-dimensional. He can no longer afford to rely on moments of individual brilliance from match-winning mavericks like Ba and Ben Arfa. The time is nigh for Pardew to cultivate a signature style; a philosophy on how the game should be played. Nobody’s expecting Barcelona’s tiki-taka but a little joined-up thinking and cohesion would go a long way and may just be the making of him as he struggles to stay in control of his destiny having enjoyed a remarkable journey during his first two years at St James’ Park. Then, who knows what might happen - sentimental old romantics in years to come may recall ‘the good old days’ of Pardew’s Newcastle with the same wistful smile and far-away look in their eyes that they currently reserve for Kevin Keegan and his ‘Class of ‘96’.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Slack & Shite Army

This month sees the second anniversary of Alan Pardew’s appointment as Newcastle manager but he’ll be lucky to see out even another season of his new 8 year deal unless performances and results improve dramatically.

The defeat at the Britannia stadium was our fourth on the bounce and it meant that a series of winnable games against so-called ‘lesser’ sides have yielded absolutely no points and that’s just not good enough. Of course, there are mitigating circumstances: the strain of the Europa League, injuries to key players and frequent suspensions have all taken their toll but the lack of investment in the summertime now looks like it has ended our season before it ever even began. Far from building on last season’s success(or even standing still), the team has gone into free fall this autumn and they are bereft of confidence, devoid of ideas and lacking fight – all of which is in stark contrast to last season. Jonas Gutierrez has mentioned that Newcastle are now a marked side and that opposition teams have figured out how to stifle their threat. That clearly is the case but, worse than that, Newcastle have shot themselves in the foot by blindly hoping that last season’s good form would continue on into this year. ‘Plan A’ worked a treat in the second half of last season when Cisse and Ben Arfa were in sparkling form and shot us up the table but there were some comprehensive defeats – such as the 5-2 reverse at Fulham and the 4-0 spanking by Wigan - that Pardew and the players clearly failed to learn anything from.

The strain of European competition coupled with the fact that Newcastle are overly-reliant on Ben Arfa producing a rabbit from a hat meant that investment needed to be forthcoming in the summer but, sadly, funds were denied. Not only did the squad need padding out but investment in what Derek Llambias has termed ‘purple’ players could have cemented the club’s place in the top 6 and helped take us to the next level but a long list of supposed targets yielded only one signing and to describe his start as patchy is being somewhat generous. Now, however, not only is Plan A not working but Pardew doesn’t have enough bodies to change things up, so some players are still basking in the glory of last season’s achievements and not pulling their weight – safe in the knowledge that their starting berths are all but guaranteed.

Our early season draws were frustrating but understandable given the strain of our Europa League participation but we imagined that it would be a solid platform to build upon. We weren’t picking up wins but we were still robust and hard to beat but that steeliness has evaporated since the draw at Anfield and defeat now seems inevitable as soon as we concede a goal. Indeed, quite amazingly, Newcastle have never overturned a deficit to claim all three points during Pardew’s reign - the last time they did so was in October 2010 in a 2-1 win at Upton Park in a game that was overshadowed by media reports of Chris Hughton’s impending departure. The team has a losing mind-set at the moment and it is up to Pardew and his staff to shake the players out of this malaise.

Similarly, our set pieces are regularly a frustrating non-event. Long gone are the days when a free-kick or a corner launched in the general direction of Andy Carroll would cause mayhem in the opposition box see the ball ending up in the back of the net and our boys wheeling away in celebration. Steven Taylor used to be good for the odd headed goal but that has dried up of late, Williamson hasn’t managed a league goal for us yet and the likes of Gutierrez, Cisse, Anita, Simpson and Co simply don’t have the physical stature to be an aerial threat (although that’s assuming that the ball will even get beyond the first man).

Even more curiously, Newcastle top the statistical charts for long balls played despite the widely-held belief that Carroll’s departure and the arrival of Cabaye and other more technical players has resulted in a new, more expansive passing style. These long ball tactics don’t particularly suit Demba Ba and certainly negate Papiss Cisse’s threat, while the lack of an attacking central midfielder in the Nolan mould means that any aerial duals that the frontmen do win are not capitalised upon and rarely result in goals.

Ironically, Pardew is in danger of becoming a victim of his own success but he needs to show that he is not just a one-season wonder – he needs to build on last season’s success and be inspired by it, rather than seeing it as a millstone around his neck. Newcastle need to evolve and reconfigure the team’s playing style; changes need to be made, underperforming players need to be dropped and the good of the team must come before any one individual. Pardew has a lot of credit in the bank with Newcastle’s fans and defeats will be forgiven if it’s all part of a greater plan and we can see progress being made. A slow and sad decline will not be tolerated, however, and Pardew must rally his troops and ensure that performances improve quickly even if results do not. While we all dream of glory, at times failure seems inevitable and so, if we must fail, at least let us fail gloriously – it’s better to burn out than to fade away…

Monday 19 November 2012

The Devil We Know

While many beleaguered Ireland fans may currently be calling for his head, the history books will no doubt be kind to Giovanni Trapattoni. In years to come, his tenure will surely be heralded as a great success and rightly so. It doesn’t really feel that way at the moment though as dissenting voices in the media and in the stands were left feeling disillusioned and frustrated by John Delaney’s decision to grant Trapattoni a stay of execution following the pair’s meeting last month.
For a man of his standing in the game, it is remarkable that he is held in such disdain by the very supporters who jubilantly sang his name and proclaimed him an honorary Irishman prior to the demoralising capitulation at Euro 2012, which saw public opinion turn against him.

There is no denying that Trapattoni has heaped a lot of misery on himself during his time as Ireland manager. His man management style is caustic and abrasive, his tactics are stagnant and inflexible, his devotion to the job has often been negligent and inattentive and, most disheartening of all, the team’s performances have frequently generally been insipid, lacklustre and devoid of imagination and creativity. In spite of that, however, he remains the only man for the job.

Changing manager during a qualifying campaign smacks of change for change’s sake. Fans grow bored and weary - it’s human nature. However, we must be careful what we wish for. New beginnings, blurbs, flashing lights and sound bites all help to get people on-side, to stir up excitement and get the fans dreaming again but it’s all cyclical. The tidal wave of goodwill subsides after a while and we are left in the same situation again.

The FAI were somewhat over-zealous and hasty in tying Trapattoni to a new deal prior to our trip to Poland and now must stick by him. Not simply because they are hamstrung by the financial implications of dispensing with the Italian but also because, as Liam Brady pointed out, it would be a PR disaster to oust him - as he has arguably over-achieved during his time in charge of Ireland.

A hasty and populist sacking to appease the media and fans could do untold damage. While many may doubt whether Trapattoni is the right man to take us forward, it is worth remembering that in tough times, standing still must be regarded as a success – it would be disappointing but far from disastrous. After all, we failed to qualify for four successive tournaments after 2002 and the world didn’t stop turning. Life goes on. You acknowledge the disappointment and hope to learn from it. Not that we shouldn’t aim to qualify, rather that we should not necessarily expect it. As Brady said, we were in the wilderness for 10 years. Also, as depressing as it was, the Germany defeat was only cosmetic and has not really damaged our chances of qualifying. So, why are people baying for blood as if we have shot ourselves in the foot or somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory? We are precisely where we imagined we might be at this stage. Germany were always going to win the group at a canter, while Sweden are a formidable opponent and certainly better than us on paper, boasting many established Premiership players as well as the brilliant Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

It has also been quickly forgotten that drab and unimaginative performances during our last qualifying campaign nearly cost us dearly and only some unexpected results turned the tide in our favour again. We did not mastermind our own success. We performed solidly and, for once, the planets aligned for us. Curiously, if we had met a more formidable opponent than Estonia in the play-offs and had another glorious failure like in Paris in 2009, Trapattoni’s standing might be higher. He has become a victim of his own success. Qualification raised hopes and fans dared to dream that this team could replicate the success of Jack Charlton’s spirited sides in the 1990s. Unfortunately, those dreams were cruelly crushed and we were brutally exposed under the full glare of the media. However, as clinical and unimaginative as it may be, Trapattoni’s game plan is at least just that: a plan. It might not be pretty but, on the whole, it is relatively effective and despite 2012 being a dispiriting year, the national team stands in good stead.

Also, there is no outstanding candidate to become Trapattoni’s successor. Any manager that is out of work, is generally out of work for a good reason. The best-equipped replacement recently sauntered down Portman Road and signed on the dotted line with Ipswich Town. Ironically, he will replace Paul Jewell - a man who Eamon Dunphy and John Giles fervently backed to become Steve Staunton’s successor at the time. Jewell himself was hired to revive the once great club’s flagging fortunes – ironically, the very thing that Roy Keane before him was unable to do. Keane has been out of work since, while Jewell may find himself on the scrapheap for a while until a lower league club comes calling. David O’Leary’s name will surely arise but his career remains on a downward spiral having been sacked by Al Alhi in 2011. The idea of replacing a European Cup winning, serial achiever like Trapattoni with candidates such as these is ludicrous.

Fans are disappointed and dispirited at the moment but we have a vastly experienced manager with a glittering CV who has, on the whole, performed very well with a shallow pool of resources. Of course, we are entitled to wonder whether trusting the likes of Long, Coleman, and McCarthy at an earlier date may have had a telling impact on our performances and results but we must let bygones be bygones. Now is the time to wipe the slate clean and afford Trapattoni some much-needed breathing space to overhaul the team and implement the necessary changes now that some of the old guard are hobbling off the stage and the understudies are shuffling in to take their places. Duff and Given are gone. Keane and Dunne may soon follow. It’s the end of an era but it need not be the end of Trapattoni’s tenure.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Iconoclast Ashley’s greatest triumph was slaughtering Tyneside’s sacred cows

Few would have believed back in the tumultuous days of December 2010 that Alan Pardew would still be incumbent in the St James’ Park hot-seat some two years later.

Since Mike Ashley took the reins in the summer of 2007, Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear, Alan Shearer and Chris Hughton have all come and gone – none bar Hughton lasting any more than a few months or leaving with their reputation enhanced or their credibility intact. They dined with cannibals and got eaten as Ashley’s ruthless regime chewed them up and spat them out. Sympathy was limited and many onlookers basked in the schadenfreude and were only too happy to witness Newcastle’s sad decline.

To the untrained eye (and there were many of them - myself included), Pardew in 2010 was a washed-up also-ran who had blown his chance of making it big by believing his own hype and letting the relative success of his stint at West Ham go to his head. However, against all the odds, he has done an amazing job at Newcastle and he thoroughly deserves all the plaudits he has received of late. However, despite my admiration for Pardew and all he has achieved, it must be noted that finally, either by accident or design, Ashley and Co have brought stability, reality and a sense of perspective to Tyneside.

Ashley’s mistakes have been both high-profile and numerous – each one a more shameful and damaging PR disaster than the last, with many die-hard fans swearing that they would stay away from St James’ Park for the duration of his tenure. Doubtless, some have done and will continue to do so – yet it has not really been reflected in the attendances as the stadium is more or less full for most league games.

Many fans have surely been in turmoil as the team’s fortunes on the pitch began to improve. Pardew’s vision took shape, he hit upon a winning formula and he got the team playing attractive, free-flowing football once more. Trying to make a stand and be principled in showing your dislike for a contemptible owner is one thing in the bad times, quite another when things are going well. It’s easy to criticise, take the moral high ground and bark out ‘I told you so’ as the club continues its moral decline and the owner eventually heads off into the sunset, leaving shattered dreams and smouldering embers in his wake. However, turning your back on your team when they suddenly start winning is nigh-on impossible; when all the hurt and controversy is justifiable and you realise that it was all just a means to an end... Gandhi himself would be hard pushed to continue his protest under such circumstances.

Yet, at times, it seemed like Ashley was intent on causing as much damage as he could in as little time as possible. His takeover of the club had fans dreaming that Newcastle would rival Chelsea in the transfer market and could take Europe’s hottest talents to Tyneside and finally break the hoodoo that has plagued every manager since Joe Harvey won the Fairs Cup in 1969.

Despite Allardyce not being his man, Ashley gave him backing, funds and enough time to see whether he could change his spots and attempt to play a more exciting and expansive brand of football – he couldn’t and he wouldn’t and he paid the price.
After the drudgery of Allardyce’s short reign, Ashley then pandered to the fun-lovers, the dreamers and the romantics and wooed Kevin Keegan back from the lonely obscurity of his Glasgow Soccer Circus. He sold us a dream where the glorious failures of the recent past would be replaced with actual, tangible success. We would play with style and flair once more and the near-misses of yesteryear would be exchanged for cantering triumphs. Or so it seemed.

Henry, Beckham, Ronaldinho and Modric were mooted as possible arrivals but none materialised. In reality, trouble had been brewing since Day One and Dennis Wise’s arrival would ultimately ensure Keegan’s premature but all-too-predictable departure. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, while it was very sad and regrettable, one feels that Keegan’s departure may well have been for the best. He was (and always has been) high-maintenance and despite his shabby treatment and the subsequent legal wrangles that absolved him of any wrongdoing, he was probably not the right man for the job anyway. He lacked the energy and enthusiasm that had characterised his first stint as Newcastle manager – the sparkle was gone and he didn’t believe in miracles anymore.

However, Ashley’s bizarre decision to leave the running of team affairs to the charming Joe Kinnear while he sought a buyer further alienated the already disillusioned fans and made the club a laughing stock. Kinnear did his best, which wasn’t much, and his only really meaningful contribution was to repeatedly bring the club into disrepute and his exit in the back of an ambulance was all too fitting and symbolic of the general state of the club at the time.

That left Hughton and Calderwood to take the reins for a few games until Ashley consulted the ‘Big Book Of Geordie Legends’ once again and made a beeline for Tyneside’s favourite son in the vain hope that he could save them. Unfortunately, even Alan Shearer couldn’t revive the club’s flagging fortunes during his brief tenure and it was a cruel irony that arguably the club’s greatest servant was at the helm to oversee Newcastle’s fall from grace as the fecklessness and poor decision-making of two different regimes culminated in a scarcely-believable demotion to the Championship.

Despite the relegation, Ashley publicly backed Shearer, saying that appointing him was the best move he had made as owner of the club. The fans too were on-side, the general consensus being that it would ultimately be better for the club to crash and burn, clear the dead wood and rebuild from a solid foundation under Big Al’s stewardship than for them to limp to 17th place, avoid relegation and bring in another of the Cockney Mafia’s henchmen to take charge of our pathetic excuse for a ‘team’ until Ashley finally sold up and headed back down south - whenever that might be. Despite the turmoil, the feeling was that fans would continue to get behind the team as they had faith in Shearer’s ability to guide the club through the turbulent transition period and to restore the club to its rightful place.

Unlike another of Tyneside’s favourite sons however, Ashley makes promises lightly and has no qualms about breaking them. He gave Shearer the silent treatment that summer, ended up giving the job to Hughton and, allegedly, the pair haven’t spoken since. Naturally, this prompted further ire amongst the long-suffering supporters.
However, Shearer’s loss ultimately seems to have been the club’s gain. Rather than acceding to Shearer’s demands about backroom staff, the playing squad and the necessary transfer budget needed to gain promotion, Ashley’s gambled on Hughton and it paid off spectacularly. Better still, Hughton was discreet and humble and didn’t want any limelight. His stewardship was steady and understated and exactly what the club needed at the time. While it wouldn’t be wholly fair to label Hughton a ‘yes man’, it is fair to say that Shearer would have been a much more demanding employee.

Shearer, of course, is revered on Tyneside and with good reason. He had the same dream that every young boy in the area has ever had: to play for Newcastle United and wear the number 9 shirt – the difference being that he was lucky enough for that fantasy to become his reality. Where others might have buckled under the pressure, Shearer was inspired by it and when he wore the shirt he carried the hopes and dreams of the city on his shoulders as the fans lived vicariously through him. He was an inspirational talisman that could galvanise fans and team-mates alike and was an excellent servant of the club. However, that was when he was a player.

His eight-game stint as manager in spring 2009 showed him to be a mere mortal and one who had neither the tactical nous nor the man-management skills needed to save Newcastle. On the pitch you wouldn’t want anybody else but in the dugout, it was a different story. Several interesting managerial vacancies have arisen in the last few months and Shearer’s name is always in the running without ever being considered seriously – even at a club like Blackburn where he is fondly remembered. One is entitled to wonder why.

Unfortunately for Shearer and the high esteem that he holds himself in, he has proved himself to be a less than shrewd football man by spending his Saturday nights sitting on the fence in the ivory tower that houses the increasingly tame and pedestrian institution that is BBC’s Match Of The Day. He comes across as wooden and smug – devoid of personality, lacking insight and generally, not much of a student of the game despite his prowess during his playing days.

Derek Llambias feels that Shearer lacks the necessary attributes required to make the transition from great player to successful manager and says that he regrets turning to Shearer in the club’s time of need. There is a sneaking suspicion that Shearer feels that he has a God-given right to walk into a top job without ever having cut his teeth lower down the leagues (as Lee Clark, for example, has done) and that is holding him back – even though he claims that he loved the challenge of his two months in charge at St James’ Park.

I’m afraid that the time has come for Shearer to shit or get off the pot, as the old saying goes. He had his chance to prove his worth and show what he was capable of and despite the task being difficult, it was far from impossible and he was unable to perform the necessary miracle – now he needs to swallow his pride and take a job at an unfashionable club or stop talking about being a manager. It has been more than three years since he last sat in a dug-out and the sound bites are wearing thin.

The intervening years have proved Ashley to be right in his assessment of both Shearer and Pardew’s respective merits and I, for one, have forgiven Ashley for all of his crimes – even the harsh sacking of Hughton appears to have been a shrewd move in light of Pardew’s subsequent success. The club has made great strides under his stewardship despite all the agonies and controversies that we have had to endure. Mistakes were made but, crucially, lessons were learned. It should never be about one man – it should be about an entire club and while Ashley was merciless in his slaughtering of two of Tyneside’s sacred cows, it is now apparent that the good of the club is paramount and woe betide anyone who forgets it.

Thursday 1 November 2012

The Black (& White) Stuff

It emerged this week that prior to the completion of Wonga’s controversial sponsorship deal with Newcastle United, Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias made an audacious attempt to set up a lucrative agreement with brewing giants Guinness. In an effort to tap into the growing African market, Newcastle had been looking at forging a commercial relationship with Guinness’s parent company, Diageo, who have an international base in Nigeria. Plans have long been afoot at St James’ Park to create a football nursery in one of the continent’s English-speaking countries and it seemed that this could be a match made in heaven.

Despite being an internationally-renowned institution in the beer world, Guinness have recently reported a marginal downturn in sales in Ireland, the UK and Europe and had been keen to examine the possibility of creating a mutually-beneficial commercial partnership with Newcastle United. With Newcastle having cemented their place in the Premier League since their promotion in 2010 and also having returned to competitive European action in the Europa League this season, Diageo had earmarked Mike Ashley’s charges as a perfect fit – with the matching black and white colour motifs of the two outfits being a marketing man’s dream.

However, the deal reached an impasse when Mike Ashley and Co requested the naming rights of Guinness’s flagship brewery at St James’s Gate, Dublin. They had been interested in exploring the possibility of renaming the famous brewery as the ‘ @ St James’s Gate Brewery’ in keeping with their re-branding of the erstwhile St James’ Park but the head honchos at Diageo vetoed the move and the deal ultimately fell apart.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Like A Bat Out Of Hell

They say that you never really choose your football team. With little regard for your mental health, current (and prospective) relationships and general hopes and ambitions for the future, one big brutish bastard of a team will grab you by the hand and forcefully drag you down the aisle to join them in irrational, passionate and bittersweet matrimony until the day you die. Not that it’s all bad – there are good times. Just enough of them to keep you blinded by hope when the shit invariably, and repeatedly, hits the fan (no pun intended).

Now, while I haven’t quite chosen a new team per se – New-fucking-castle won’t be nudged out of my affections that easily – I have been presented with a choice since arriving here in Valencia.

I was blissfully unaware of the fact that the city boasted two La Liga sides until I arrived here and started fishing around for something to do one Sunday afternoon (actual fishing not being an option that day, unfortunately) and saw that Levante were playing host to Real Sociedad and that tickets were readily available. So, I went and enjoyed the atmosphere and saw a decent, if unspectacular, game as a debut goal from none other than former Newcastle livewire Obafemi Martins helped ‘Los Granotes’ overturn a one goal deficit to win 2-1 in the type of stifling heat that one would expect to find in the muggy, breathless kitchen of a sizzling Texas steakhouse owned and run by the devil himself.

“Adelante Levante!” and all that but I wasn’t quite ready to fork out €60 on their faux-Barcelona jersey or even buy as much as a pencil in the club shop. I couldn’t nail my colours to the mast just yet.

A trip to the Mestalla awaited and I had an inkling that Valencia just might be my team. I was, after all, in a position to engage in a spot of glory hunting for once in my life and I was damned if I was backing the lame horse.

Weekends came and went and either Valencia were away or I was, so we’d have to wait a little longer to consummate our marriage. Not to worry, we’d get there in the end.

A midweek liaison with Lille in the Champions’ League saw an upsurge in form for Valencia as Jonas scored two in an altogether greatly-improved team display as Mauricio Pellegrino’s men put their league woes behind them and ran out 2-0 winners. They were hitting form at just the right time – a few days before the local derby.

Sunday 7th October had been an eagerly-anticipated date in the Spanish football calendar since the league fixtures were announced during the summer but that had absolutely nothing to do with either Levante or Valencia. Real Madrid were heading east to face Barcelona in the first league meeting between the two sides this season and all the talk was about ‘El Clásico’ – nobody seemed to care about the other mammoth derby that was taking place down the road…

I cared though. I would finally get to see Valencia play and, what’s more, I would do it as one of their own. I made a bee-line for the ticket desk at Levante’s ‘Estadio Ciudad’ and bought one in the ‘away fans’ section and eagerly walked around the perimeter of the stadium until I was safely ensconced in the bosom of ‘my people’.

Although, one quick look around me and I noticed that the bosom wasn’t particularly welcoming or fragrant. It was 11.30am. Thirty minutes prior to kick-off – very early for anyone, anywhere to be up and about and enthused about a game of football in the mid-day sun, never mind the notoriously lazy Spaniards.

A quick scan and sniff of my new family told its own story; bleary eyes, designer stubble, the pungent waft of stale sweat and the hoarse-yet-hearty laughter of an all-night reveller too wired to even think about trying to sleep. Anyone who was here was still up after a serious all-night session and they were here to shout abuse, act the prick and sing their little hearts out with little regard for anything that might
actually unfold on the pitch.

The minutes immediately before kick-off were brilliant and the excitement and anticipation were palpable. The air was dense with a swampy honey-glaze of molten noon-day heat as I found my seat right in the middle of the sleep-deprived, half-pissed Valencia Ultras. They were in fine voice and were all twirling and waving their scarves proudly as the two teams lined up. Once it was underway, the game itself was pedestrian, insipid and repetitive as neither team took control. The real action was in the stands. Classical-sounding ballads of local pride and vanity blended seamlessly into artless anthems of bilious hatred, before all the fans came to their senses as one, realised that there was a game on and that whoever had the ball was an ‘HIJO DE PUTA!!!!!!!!!!’

La Liga is often accused of lacking the passion of the Premiership and that may generally be the case - I don’t know - but I do know that this was quite a fiery occasion. Little sons looked up adoringly at their fathers as they hatefully roared in unison, while tattoo-covered brick shit-houses puffed heavily on joints and screamed profanities over at the Levante fans in the adjacent stand.

Yes, the Valencia fans were loud and they were proud but, most of all, they were just annoying. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in their midst and while I should take the blame for my unwise choice in terms of the seats, I didn’t expect to be surrounded by complete lunatics. On a different day I may well have showed up drunk myself and seamlessly blended into their band of miscreants but it was early on a Sunday; I was clean, I was sober and I was interested in watching some football.

I longed to be sat amongst the wholesome, well-mannered Levante fans. Mothers bounced their babies lovingly on their knees and clapped hands in unison as fathers shared Cokes with their parched sons (as opposed to coke, which many of the feral Valencia fans may well have fed their children for breakfast) and everyone encouraged the team with ripples of applause and constant good-humoured singing. I was trapped and there was nothing I could do.

Or was there? Levante had taken a 1-0 lead during the first half thanks to an Obafemi Martins goal that was somewhat against the run of play but they were looking good for the 3 points. For the first time in my life I was in a position to be a glory-hunter for a day and change horses mid-race. It didn’t matter to me that Levante are really quite shit and will do well to reach mid-table this season. I knew I didn’t want to join Valencia’s army of spiteful, hungover semi-hooligans, so I changed out of my Batman costume… and into a different Batman costume.

A subtle sea change, imperceptible to the masses surrounding me, and I ripped my colours from the Valencia mast and nailed them firmly and proudly to Levante’s! Yes, I was now an undercover agent; behind enemy lines and living dangerously - ostensibly wishing for a Valencia goal on the rare occasions that they made a breakthrough but secretly delighted when Roberto Soldado and Co. frequently fluffed their lines.

With the clock ticking down, the tension ratcheted up. Minute after minute the fans grew more restless and the players became more purposeful and frenetic - everything seemed to be crescendo-ing towards a noisy, repugnant and ill-deserved Valencia equaliser. How the hell would I get out of this? My mask would surely slip! I could try to explain that I’m Irish and didn’t really support either team but that mightn’t wash with Big Gus and Hairy Jorge. I crossed my fingers and my toes and fixed my gaze on the scoreboard as the four minutes of injury time slowly evaporated. I wasn’t looking at the pitch but I knew that Valencia were on the attack. I heard the collective gasp of the crowd as a long ball was foisted goal-wards… and then I hear them exhale… and moan… and groan… the whistle had blown!

I shook my head sadly and knowingly as my eyes met those of the dejected fans around me as we all gloomily swarmed towards the exit… but inside I was somersaulting in tandem with Oba Martins.

Pardew must be brave if Magpies are to continue flying high

Originally published on various websites in early September, I forgot to post it here.

Prior to Newcastle’s recent meeting with Aston Villa, Alan Pardew warned his misfiring front pair, Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé, that their places in the Magpies’ starting XI were far from assured – despite the apparent dearth of viable alternatives that Pardew has at his disposal.

The comment was probably designed as a motivational rallying-call to reignite the spark that has been so sorely lacking in the duo since pre-season training started in July. In stark contrast with last season’s superb performances, Cissé and Ba have contributed one solitary goal between them so far this term and, far more worryingly, have looked blunt, listless and off the pace. Pardew now needs to show that his threat was not an empty one.

Perhaps their complacency is to be expected given that Newcastle are currently bereft of any other attacking options. “There’s only two Ameobis!”, has become a favourite chant of the St James’ Park faithful since Sammy joined his brother Shola in the first team squad in early 2011 but fans and staff alike are probably thankful for that at the moment given that the only fitting use of the word ‘prolific’ in any sentence involving the pair would be in describing their respective injury

To be fair to Shola, he has often proven to be an able understudy in times of need but his presence in the dressing room is unlikely to have Ba and Cissé quaking in their boots, while Sammy is still far too young and inexperienced to be called upon in a game of high stakes.

While neither really set the world alight, both Leon Best and Peter Lovenkrands were reliable professionals with international experience who could do a job when required and their respective departures during the summer have left Newcastle dangerously short up front. Forgotten men Nile Ranger and Xisco remain on the club’s books but are about as likely to feature for the first team again as Peter Beardsley is.

Indeed, the only non-Senegalese striker to appear for Pardew’s side so far this season has been the 17-year-old academy prospect Adam Campbell who made his debut against Atromitos as a makeshift Newcastle side limped to a 1-1 draw in Athens on their way to sealing qualification for the Europa League group stages. Those in the know are making all the right noises – praising Campbell’s ability and attitude and tentatively speculating about whether he will prove to be the North East’s next
great footballing luminary. However, one is inclined to wonder whether his involvement in the first team set-up has been fast-tracked out of necessity.

One gets the feeling that this summer presented Newcastle with the perfect opportunity to build on last season’s achievements and to consolidate their position as a ‘Top 6’ club by adding reinforcements to what is already a strong and cohesive team. Curiously, however, Newcastle chose not to invest in another striker during the transfer window – a move that one hopes will not come back to haunt them in the coming months; defeating Atromitos has added a further six European
fixtures to the 20 league games scheduled between the season’s start and the re-opening of the transfer window in January.

The possible return of Andy Carroll was an intriguing prospect but one always assumed that Liverpool would sooner keep him warming their bench than admit defeat and allow him to return to the North East for a fraction of the £35 million that they forked out to prise him away from Tyneside in the first place.

Newcastle have a growing reputation for keeping transfer targets under wraps until they’re signed, sealed and delivered and this, coupled with the excellent work that Head Scout Graham Carr has done since joining the club in 2010, has given fans a new-found confidence in the club hierarchy’s ability to deliver in their time of need. Selling the likes of Carroll, Barton, Nolan and Enrique was seen as a suicidal move at the time, yet Newcastle stuck to their guns, ushered their replacements in
with little fanfare (and modest transfer fees) and have since gone from strength to strength – all the while playing a more free-flowing and expansive brand of football than has been seen at St James’ Park since Bobby Robson’s charges were genuine title challengers in the early 2000s.

All of this only serves to make the decision not to bolster their limited attacking options all the more baffling. Ba and Cissé were both unstoppable on their day last season but, sadly, Ba’s outstanding early contribution to Newcastle’s cause petered out after Cissé’s arrival and a 2-1 victory over Aston Villa in early February was the only time that the pair ever scored in the same match. As the season wore on, Ba was shoe-horned into an unfamiliar position on the left side of a front three in a
formation that allowed Hatem Ben Arfa to come into the fold and paved the way for Cissé to blaze his trail and hit 13 goals in his 14 league appearances last term.

While Cissé and Ba stroll around looking lost and lethargic, making up for lost time and quickly becoming the club’s new talisman is the magnificent Hatem Ben Arfa, who has finally made the successful transition from bit-part luxury player to indispensable match-winning maverick. He embodies the boldness, craft and cunning that Newcastle fans have long cherished – from the great Jackie Milburn through to the tempestuous Laurent Robert via Malcolm Macdonald, Kevin Keegan, Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and countless other fleet-footed magicians.

The terrible injury Ben Arfa suffered when he clashed with Nigel De Jong in a game against Man City in October 2010 kept him sidelined until the summer of 2011, when an ankle injury delayed his anticipated return until the new season was well underway. Even then his involvement in the first team was fleeting as Pardew was reluctant to entrust him with a starting berth, believing that he didn’t work hard enough for the team. He was used largely as an impact sub but gradually started to
win Pardew over with his improved work-rate and appetite for the ‘ugly’ side of the game, whilst still displaying his own brand of Messi-esque wizardry by conjuring up sublime solo goals against Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton to name but three.

Newcastle have been disappointingly stagnant and toothless so far this season – “a ghost of a trace of a pale imitation” of their former selves, as the song says – and Ben Arfa has been the only stellar performer in an oddly one-dimensional and unimaginative side.

Pardew believes that mischief-making agents are partly to blame for Newcastle’s slow start with Yohan Cabaye, in particular, and possibly Ba, Cissé and Cheick Tiote all believed to have had their heads turned by enquiries from Champions’ League clubs in England and beyond. There may be an element of truth in what Pardew says but all of that is out of his control and there is nothing he can do about it now; what’s done is done. More importantly, however, what has been said has been
said and Pardew has painted himself into a corner.

The only way out now is for him to deliver on his promise and to take the bold decision to dispense with the static and lacklustre 4-4-2 that Newcastle have stubbornly tried to make work and, accordingly, to relegate one of his big hitters to the bench and to wholeheartedly embrace the more fluid 4-3-3 (or, at least, some derivative thereof) that brought so much success last season.

An outsider looking in may see dropping an enormously talented – though, admittedly, goal-shy – striker as a negative move. The truth is quite the opposite. Ba and Cissé haven’t ever complemented each other to great effect for club or country and there is a growing belief that they are too similar to prosper in unison. Placing them in direct competition with one another for the central striking role may just shake them out of their lethargy and reinvigorate them, while simultaneously allowing Pardew to remind everybody that he is in control and is not afraid to make big decisions.

There is a sneaking suspicion in some quarters that a leopard can never change its spots and that this team are merely a reflection of their manager; over-confident, smug and believing their own hype after confounding all their critics last time out and finishing the season in a vertiginous 5th place. To be fair to Pardew, however, he has handled himself impeccably since being installed as manager in December 2010 against a backdrop of bewilderment and incredulity. Replacing somebody as popular as Chris Hughton was always going to be a tough task and he has passed the test with flying colours; fine-tuning a functional side and gradually encouraging them to play with more flair and flamboyance.

Having under-performed at Charlton and then been sacked by Southampton in August 2010, Pardew seems to have learned from his mistakes. He cuts a more humble and well-rounded figure since his return to top-flight management. He remains self-assured and still possesses a steely determination but the brash and flashy over-confidence that seemed to characterise him in his days as manager of West Ham has been replaced with a quiet poise and a dignified belief in his own ability.

Pardew did a tremendous job last season as evinced by the fact that he won both the ‘Premier League Manager of the Season’ and the ‘LMA Manager of the Year’ awards. Building on that remarkable achievement will take some doing but the ball is now in Pardew’s court. Sticking with Plan A in the hope that the glories of last season can be replicated is a dangerous ploy, while ‘fixing’ something that many people may not necessarily see as being broken is sure to raise a few eyebrows too…

Pardew had nothing to lose when he arrived at St James’ Park precisely because he had nothing; he was a forgotten man and expectations were non-existent. Now, however, he has it all and therein lies the problem.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Foxy Lady

I've been tidying out my room and throwing out lots of old crap this week. I found this little gem. It's an essay I wrote in school when I was 17. We had to write a short story based on the image below. It's a little weird and melodramatic but I was vaguely impressed reading back over it.

My mother died when I was 15 years old. All these years later I can still recall every minute of her funeral. It was a relatively small affair – around one hundred people.

The majority of these people were familiar faces: aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbours and so on. However, to my surprise, when it came to the time for tributes and words of praise, nobody volunteered to voice their affection for my recently-departed mother. So, being a caring son, I stood up, dusted off my crisp black suit and headed for the altar. The sound of silence was deafening and each of the one hundred mourners looked at me like I was demented. (Of course, if I was demented it was hardly surprising, given my mother’s mental state).

Addressing the congregation, I proceeded to tell them about my mother’s life. The bored faces suddenly became interested and they stared and listened intently. It was almost as if they were watching the words leave my lips – and leave my lips they did. I did a lot of talking. I had to. Everybody in that vast, echoing church had been hurt by my beloved mother in some way. Not least of all me – but I had learned to cope down through the years.

I spoke at length about the frailty of the human mind and, indeed, the frailty of humankind. My mother was a manic depressive. She used to say that she had a “car crash personality” – unfortunately this “car crash” managed to ruin many lives. Families had been torn apart, little children had been scared half to death and buckets of tears had been cried as a result of my mother’s erratic behaviour.

After my father left, my mother sought solace in other men. This kept her happy for a time but it seemed that the men came and went with the seasons. Frustration then crept in and she went through dozens of periods of bleak depression. However, there were other times when a letter from her sister in America or a kind word from a stranger would bring a smile to her face. The smile would gradually fade away as the awful reality of her life would creep up on her and drag her down into the doldrums once more. For every high there was a low twice as bad and, unfortunately, there were plenty of highs.

While I was making my heartfelt speech, my eyes met with those of several of the congregation. Their faces were blank, dull and familiar. All of these faces had knocked on our front door at some time or another to give my mother a piece of their mind. There were also some kind, understanding people who spoke to my mother with the intention of providing her with some peace of mind. One such person was Frank, the butcher. He had incurred the wrath of my mother several times and he understood her better than most.

Frank was my mother’s last partner prior to her untimely passing. At 45, he was the same age as her and, being a man who cut up dead animals for a living, he was used to plenty of bloodshed. He was more than a match for my mother and she knew it. That’s why she liked him.

Indeed, years before, while in an unstable frame of mind, my mother had toyed with the idea of becoming a butcher herself. It was just one of the many phases she went through. I recall sitting on the floor with my brother watching television late one evening. Mother had not yet come home from her daily excursion and we had not eaten dinner.
Upon hearing the key rattle in the front door, I anxiously anticipated my mother carrying in fish and chips or some such delicacy for the three of us to devour.
You cannot imagine my surprise when she staggered in, wearing a blood-stained black dress, holding up a dead fox. I think that image will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Frank listened intently for the duration of my speech, his attention focused on every syllable. He looked very grief-stricken. It was obvious that he loved my mother very
much. He appreciated and understood what I was saying and when I had finished he was
the first to stand and applaud. Thankfully, the others followed suit.

As I left the altar to a rapturous ovation, I placed a single red rose on the coffin and slunk back to my seat. The sun - that had been stuck behind a threatening grey cloud - appeared and shone fantastic beams of light in through the stained-glass windows. The bleak, bare church was brought to life with the fabulous montage of colours. It was very fitting.

I gazed at the box in which my mother lay. Her plain pine coffin had transformed into a kaleidoscopic chariot; its brass handles glimmering and shining like gold.
My mother was happy again – I hoped that it would last.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Poland in a Nutshell

14th June 2012: Gdansk, Ireland 0 -4 Spain

15th June 2012: the journey home

As the train chugged determinedly onwards, I fell back into my seat with a lumpen thud – like the proverbial sack of spuds. We were in one of those individual private compartments that you see in 1930’s espionage films. Eight seats. Only really big enough to fit six people. The two window seats were occupied by an elderly Polish couple who didn’t look all that pleased to see a group of hungover football fans invade the peace and privacy of their little carriage… well, sorry Boris; tough shit, Magda, I paid for this seat!

My fingers fumbled feebly with the zip on my jacket. It was stuck. A couple of minutes later it was still stuck and I was growing increasingly frustrated. The Ireland flag that I proudly wore at the previous night’s match had become irreversibly entangled in the zip and was now limply strewn over my thighs as I sat there fidgeting like a helpless toddler; lost in my own little world, oblivious to on-lookers.

Only when the elderly Polish lady offered to help me did I snap out of my little trance – the zip was a bit too close to my crotch for my liking, so I thought that I’d do well to avoid a diplomatic incident and decided to stand up and step out of the dashing jacket and flag combo as if it were a skirt. However, in doing so, a boiled egg that I had drunkenly secreted away at breakfast time hit the floor of the train carriage with a crack and a ripple of laughter from my three friends and the septuagenarian Poles…and what else could I do but join in? Not for too long though. All that laughing was making me thirsty and I was eager to leave before I embarrassed myself further in front of real humans.

As I stomped and clomped my way through the train carriages, I got knowing looks from other Irish people, amused smiles from upstanding elderly citizens and nods of approval from tough-looking Poles who seemed very envious of the fact that I was still completely pissed from the night before and about to top up again.

I finally reached the dining carriage and waddled unsteadily up to the bar – my hands digging feverishly in my pockets in search of some shiny pennies. A mound of till receipts, tickets stubs and chewing gums wrappers were fished out and flung away before I finally found the fistful of dollars (well, złoty) that I needed.

I sat alone at a high table thinking lonesome thoughts, watching a steady stream of weary compatriots queue up to buy teas and coffees; seemingly unable to do further damage to their already pickled livers by following my lead and biting off a big bushy mouthful of the hair of the dog.

Twenty minutes later I sat there finishing my second beer when a no-nonsense Pole insisted that he had to buy me a drink to celebrate the sterling work that I had done the previous night during Spain’s masterful and mechanical dismantling of the Irish team as they cruised to an all-too-easy 4-0 win.
We gluttonously swallowed the beers that my new friend had bought before diving headlong into another pair of pints that I was compelled to buy to reciprocate his generosity.
The man sitting at the table beside us sensed a bit of mischief in the air and he promptly joined us just as my three travel companions completed their pilgrimage through the rattling carriages in pursuit of thirst-quenching piwo.

There we sat, four Irishmen and two Poles, all in high spirits, guzzling imperiously and chatting frenetically - with animated hand gestures, user-friendly pronunciation, wide-eyed incredulity and exaggerated enthusiasm; forging a firm but ultimately meaningless friendship.

Our travelling companions were two very different beasts. The first man was a sad and tired-looking young man in his early 30s who ran an Irish bar in Gdansk (and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Ireland’s Italia 90 team), while our latest recruit was a 50 year old dentist who worked in Berlin. Alcohol being what it is, it blurred my judgment and the younger man was slowly phased out of our conversation and he disembarked the train at some godforsaken stop with a shy whimper as the dentist took centre stage…

In hindsight and under the unbiased scrutiny of sobriety, the dental man turned out to be rather more of a mental man but we weren’t to know that at the time.
He had great teeth; pearly-white movie star teeth. That gave him a great air of trustworthiness and respectability – assholes just don’t have perfect teeth, do they?!? He was charismatic and full of life too; eager to make up for lost time - married and divorced twice (with two kids to show for his trouble) - but now he was well and truly free and single and, dare I say it, ready to mingle.
He was headed all the way to Berlin too and it went without saying that we would spend the whole journey together, cementing our friendship and regaling each other with the quixotic tales that drunk people keep locked away in the dusty recesses of their minds for just such an occasion. You suddenly remember every hilarious hi-jink you’ve ever engaged in and recount great tales of bravery, debauchery and virility – neglecting to mention that your life is really more tae, beans and shite than Arabian Nights.

After a couple of hours of fraternal drinking we arrived at our stopover in Szczecin. I bounced off the train in a fit of drunken delirium and, if I may say so myself, I was at the top of my game.
I went to the information desk in the station and got a city map and made a bee-line for a group of thick-looking cunts sitting outside the station bar. My dental friend had taught me a few choice phrases during the first leg of our trip and I was eager to try them out.
I did my best ‘lost tourist’ face and leaned in to ask Thick Cunt #1 if he could tell me how to get to Ulica Sezamkowa - Sesame Street to you and me…
He gritted his teeth and shook his head sourly with a mixture of anger, annoyance and grudging respect for my gall. Wisely, I left him and his friends and moved down the road a little and poked my head in the window of a taxi to repeat the trick. It went a little better this time and the driver laughed and even got a friendly poke in the face from my novelty over-sized foam hand for his trouble, the lucky divil. I was leppin’ around the street like a pissed fairy then; the one-man show in full swing and men, women and children alike feeling the full force of my drunken tomfoolery – and, thankfully, taking their tickles and prods with good grace.

Nevertheless, my friends made the wise decision to take me out of harm’s way for the rest of our 90 minute stopover and set about finding a place to sit, have a beer and watch France play Ukraine. Our dental man had been to Szczecin many times before and said he knew just the place, so off we marched.

We had just finished ordering and were getting settled into the nice outdoor seating area when our Polish friend discreetly informed us that the local lads beside us, who had watched us like hawks as we came in, were ‘hooligans’. He advised us to behave ourselves and try to avoid getting involved with them. All well and good in theory…until the waitress arrived a few minutes later and brought us all two beers each - along with our food and informed us that the locals had sent us over a round of drinks as a (now customary) show of respect for our singing during the Spain match.
We waved over to them and thanked them from the safety of our seats but they beckoned us over to join them. So much for keeping a low profile…

More handshakes, backslaps and animated smiles as we loaded our small-talk guns and prepared to riddle the breeze with a magazine full of bullets.
The meanest-looking of the group intimated that he liked my leprechaun hat (or the ‘piece of resistance’ as my friends and I had christened it). It had been an inspired purchase, setting me back a mere €2 and it had seen more than its fair share of action. It capped off the ‘demented-Irish-dickhead’ look very well indeed and I was loth to part with it. Nevertheless, I overcame my reluctance and decided that giving our new ‘friend’ the hat was the best way to avoid the possibility of any hassle later on. A wise move. So, the hat was now in Polish hands (or, well, on Polish head to be precise) and I would not leave empty-handed either. They proudly presented me with a hideously-coloured scarf of the local football team. Hardly a fair swap for the best hat in the world but I suppose it’s the thought that counts…
Only one thing for it, so: a presentation photo! Huge cheesy grins, bright eyes and magisterial handshakes were the order of the day. The handshakes grew more vigorous with each passing second and next thing, what bounced out of my pocket only the cheeky little boiled egg that had made a name for itself on the train!

We all nearly lost the plot laughing and I came up with the fabulous idea of sharing the egg with the hooligans to cement our bond and show that ours was a lasting and meaningful friendship. A few triumphant mouthfuls later, the egg was no more. A few beer-sodden minutes later the friendship that the egg symbolised was no more either. The time had come for us to leave the pub and head back to the station.

I didn’t engage in much eejitry on the way back as we were short of time and beer and needed to stock up before getting our train home. We pooled our pennies together and left our dentist to do his worst. Piwo! Wahey!...and back on to our rolling locomotive for a quiet ride back to Berlin. Wrong again…

While fishing in my pockets for my ticket I found my tricolour facepaints and suddenly had another inspired idea. I topped up my own war paint and went off in pursuit of new recruits for the Green Army.
‘Snoozing’ people pretended not to see me, others just said ‘no’ and some stopped me in my tracks with a stern look before I even got to suggest anything to them. It wasn’t going too well.

Thankfully, I found a few half-dead Irish people in one of the carriages and I broke my duck. Confidence slowly crept back and I got brave. Brave enough to put a big green, white and orange stripe all over a sleeping bald man’s head. Others who saw this were laughing so hard that they were unable to resist my charms. I was on a roll now – making progress slowly but surely. Then I met the driver in the end carriage. She was a very serious-looking Turkish-German woman with a crew cut and trendy thick-framed glasses. She wasn’t in the mood for any messing and told me to stop and sit down. I begged and pleaded with her and asked her for one good reason why I couldn’t paint her face and she said that her husband wouldn’t be happy.

Somehow I used this to my advantage and managed to convince her that she needed to be painted so that she’d have some evidence to back up the story of the Irish bollocks on the train – a story that she said she would be telling her husband and her friends. So, not only did I paint her face, she took a photo of me on her iPhone for good measure. Oh, the sweet smell of success!
Further emboldened by this, I turned around and marched purposefully back through the four carriages and painted every single person on the way back to my seat. All of them: babies, geriatric old farts, drunken Irishmen, nervous housewives and timid postmen alike.
The only ones left without my seal of approval were the three people sitting in the seats behind where my friends and I had stationed ourselves. I asked the dentist to explain the situation to them and help me complete my collection but he was reluctant. He said that two guys playing dominoes were kind of neo-Nazis (since when have Nazis played dominoes?!?!?!) and he didn’t advise interrupting them for the sake of indulging my silly shenanigans.
As for the third person – well, she was an Indian girl sitting alone with tears in her eyes. When I asked him what was wrong with her, he laughed and started mocking her – it seems they had had a row while I was off gallivanting and he had come out with some nice racist remarks that upset her. None of us knew what he had said but we knew he’d been a naughty boy, so we told him to apologise. He screwed up his face scornfully, waved his arms at us with disdain and indignantly trudged his way to the toilets to smoke an illicit cigarette - disappointed, no doubt, that we hadn’t turned out to be his partners in bigotry despite what the day’s drunken buffoonery may have led him to believe.

So, my friend John spoke to the ‘Nazis’ and explained my need to them and they grudgingly obliged me. Meanwhile, Donal spoke to the Indian girl and her mood improved and she let me complete the set! Wahey! You can’t spell persistence without ‘pest’! Everybody on the train painted! A total of 70 or 80 people; a modest enough number but still a great achievement in many ways. My work was done and I could rest easy.
I flopped back into my seat with a serious sense of accomplishment and the sudden realisation that I was more drunk than I had thought humanly possible. The train rolled on into the murky German night and I closed my eyes and let the gentle rhythm rock me to sleep.

Friday 22 June 2012

The Beautiful Hames

Roy, Roy, Roy. Everything you said made sense but the timing was wrong.
It’s like making a speech at a wedding and reminding everyone about divorce statistics and saying how the groom’s first girlfriend was really his true love.
There are some things that people just don’t want to hear and there are times when you just shouldn’t interrupt the ceremony.

However, maybe the reason that Keane’s comments annoyed people was because we know that he’s right. On one level anyway. The tournament was an unmitigated disaster for us and the gulf in class between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was all too apparent. Depressingly so.
With almost half of the first match still left to play, we knew the game was up and that this would be the tournament that would show us up for the pretenders we are – no hope of a giant-killing, era-defining moment to rival Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton’s goals in Euro 88 and USA 94.

They (whoever ‘they’ are) say that the league table doesn’t lie – well, unfortunately, FIFA rankings do. It is nonsensical for us to be 18th in the world when we haven’t beaten anybody ranked above us since September 2001. Lucky clean sheets and workmanlike victories against poor opposition have helped to paint a distorted picture of the ability of this Ireland team.
The old argument that we’d be more up for the fight than our opponents and scrape a result through sheer grit and determination just doesn’t ring true these days.

As many commentators have pointed out, there’s no chance that Glenn Whelan works any harder than Luka Modric, Andrea Pirlo or Andres Iniesta. Iniesta is one of the most celebrated and decorated footballers of his generation for a reason - that reason being that the grit and determination that some people foolishly believe can tip the scales in Ireland’s favour against more technical and skilful opponents such as Spain are the starting point of his exquisite array of talents, not the sum total of them.

‘They’ also say that fortune favours the brave. Conversely, however, it also rings true that the brave are often prone to getting slaughtered if they don’t have a coherent plan of action and it is clearly the latter, more pessimistic attitude that Trapattoni buys into. Granted, his selection pool is limited in terms of talented personnel (indeed in terms of both talent and personnel), yet he has made some very negative decisions during his four years at the helm – decisions that have deprived the team of imaginative and inventive players just when we need them most.
Trapattoni however, is a great believer in pragmatism and he preaches a mantra of keeping things simple and compact and never strays far from the tried and tested 4-4-2 system that has served him so well throughout his managerial career. Prior to the tournament, the Irish players talked the talk and the record books showed off our impressive defensive record. Accordingly, fans were almost expecting a heroic shut-out akin to the miraculous clean sheet that we recorded during the 0-0 draw with Russia last autumn. Maybe we could even sneak a goal or two and then our dream of progressing from the group stages might be looking more like a reality…

Managers who promote a more expansive and expressive playing style than our steadfast Don Trap will always maintain that attack is the best form of defence: if you’re on the front foot, in possession of the ball in your opponents’ half, then they can’t hurt you. It makes sense and we all know it.
Unfortunately, what we also now know is that defence can never be the best form of attack. Keeping things tight and hoping to nick a goal on the counter or from a set piece is all well and good in theory but that plan relies on the assumption that you can actually keep a clean sheet. However, when you find your team conceding goals in the opening minutes of each half and have no Plan B then it’s going to be a long night and a depressing and deflating defeat is inevitable.

The Irish fans ironically sang about ‘a team of Gary Breens’ but what we really need is a team of Roy Keanes. Unfortunately for us, however, Roy was in the TV studio and the wrath and ire that were so inspirational and effective whenever he took to the playing field in an Ireland shirt were somewhat misplaced and misunderstood and, accordingly, his comments were misinterpreted as an attack on the fans.
I’m sure that Roy Keane was as proud as anybody of our fans’ poignant performance during the closing stages of our Spanish mauling. What he was speaking out against was what he saw as the small-mindedness, the ‘sure, aren’t we great to even be here’ attitude and the celebration of mediocrity that has long characterised our country. He is right to speak out against it and to dream of a better future; one where we possess a winning mentality, where we demand to be taken seriously and where we harbour genuine hopes of making an impact on the pitch rather than in the stands.

However, what he was wrong about was saying that the fans themselves harboured no ambition and were happy for the team just to be there. We were not patting our under-performing players on the back and embracing our mediocrity - far from it. We were celebrating ourselves and our country.
As the third Spanish goal went in, I looked around the stadium and saw literally hundreds of Ireland flags draped over the stands and thousands upon thousands of fans decked out from head to toe in green, white and orange, complete with painted faces, inflatable rubber hammers and leprechaun hats. The whole stadium was a sea of green, drowning out the small pools of Spanish rioja that had poured into witness the masterful matadors put our lumbering, cloven-hoofed bulls to the sword with their swift and incisive artistry. I wondered what our support would be like if we had cause for genuine optimism or ever had something to actually celebrate and I felt an immense sense of pride in Ireland and its people.
A similar feeling appears to have permeated every Irish person in the stadium (and, ultimately, simply every person in the stadium) and what resulted was simply one of the most beautiful shows of spontaneous patriotism ever witnessed in a sporting arena – somehow managing to be heart-warming in both its boisterousness and its poignancy.
The media around the world marvelled and every single person in that stadium that night knew that they had been part of something truly unique and spectacular.
That’s what happened, Roy. Or at least that’s how I saw it… I was singing for myself and I was singing for my country and I have never been more proud to be Irish despite our pitiful performance and our meek retreat from Poland. Football didn’t really come into it. It was simply a time to celebrate ourselves. As Keane’s great guru, Bob Dylan, once sang: “when all else fails/ I’ll make it a matter of self-respect”.

An out-and-out winner like Keane will always share Bill Shankly’s belief that football is much more important than life or death. Such a mantra may imbue players with a sense of power and purpose and help them summon up every last ounce of energy and strength when they take to the pitch. Fans, however, can’t directly affect what happens on the field and, as such, have a different role to play and this is something that Keane seems to have glossed over in his comments. For, if football really were a matter of life and death, we’d all have died a thousand times over at this stage.

A group of Spanish fans that I spoke with after the game told me that while many Spanish fans are renowned for their passionate and vocal support of their teams, they are also notoriously fickle and will march out in disgust if their team goes two goals down. It seems that they often epitomise the ‘only sing when you’re winning’-style mindset of fair-weather, bandwagon-jumping fans. That is why they were so awestruck by our unwavering support and joined in themselves.

So, even though the praise for Ireland’s fans has ranged from the saccharine to the down-right condescending via the in-between where the truth really lies, it remains comforting to know that while the Spanish may have mastered the beautiful game, it’s fair to say that nobody does a beautiful hames quite like the Irish.