Monday, 23 April 2012

That wasn't in the script....or was it?

Both Manchester sides have contrived to drop the hot potato of a comfortable lead in the league over the last few weeks.  

Just as the prize seemed to be in sight; just as bookies were debating with themselves whether 8 points in either team's favour would be the right time to think about paying out early for that all-important good publicity - we are left with the situation that the clubs' managers Ferguson and Mancini predicted some weeks ago. They both said points would be dropped - they duly have and we are now facing the showdown that Sky TV could not have hand-picked any better. If you ignore the remaining fixtures involving Swansea, Sunderland, Newcastle and QPR, the Manchester derby is now, pretty much "winner-takes-all" or loses-loses-all.  

Let the hype begin....

Paul Scholes has brought about a composure and touch of guile to the United midfield, that they were in dire need of up to Christmas. His return from retirement could be seen as a reason that United have kept in touch with their noisy neighbours. How his aforementioned composure and guile would have assisted them on what became a very tricky night out in Wigan last week. Being the old-stager he is, though, he couldn't do three games over seven days and was not even on the bench that night - United floundered.

If Carlos Tevez had behaved differently in Munich. If his manager, rather than sit in a lofty perch proclaiming that the player was finished at the club. If they could have worked out a way around their little episode and have brought him back in line making the appropriate apologies and noises - the title might already have been city's by now. However, seeing the goals dry up and the magic of their early season form start to dissipate, Roberto Mancini began a slow descent back down the ladder from said perch to dine on humble pie and send out an SOS to Argentina's newest golfing legend. city are in touching distance again.

Based on historical results in the fixture, unexpectedly, the second half of United's game against Everton on Sunday was pure footballing drama. Everton had no real reason to be busting a gut in such a manner (why did they not do so in the FA Cup semi-final?), but bust a gut they did. With the help of some calamitous defending from United, they assisted the setting up of a glorious shoot-out next Monday. No-one can claim that this year will be a boring title run-in - we have an extra, unexpected cup final to enjoy.

Monday night's Manchester derby has now become the footballing equivalent of a heavyweight fight - how Sky must wish it could be a box office one-off and that they could charge us all a pay-per-view fee.

Is this what was planned all along? When Sir Alex was suggesting, nay, telling everyone who would listen that "points will be dropped" before the end of the season, or even before the derby - could there have been more than kidology at play? Surely, looking at the fixture list running up to the 30th April, United would still have a healthy lead, wouldn't they? It goes without saying that Mr Ferguson knows more about the game than I, and he was correct again. 

The great man is so famously stubborn, though, a little part of me has entertained the thought that having to win away at city is not only the best scenario for TV, but it is also just the way he would have wanted it.

Anthony H Wilson once claimed that the British were light years behind the Spanish and Portuguese when it came to televising football matches, citing the Euro 2004 in Portugal as an example. Sure we were functional, we followed the game expertly and could rely on on a multitude of angles - there were even some nice little animations and sound effects when a goal was replayed. 

The Iberian directors though, Wilson opined, knew that football was theatre. They not only gave replays of the major incidents. Suddenly, we saw players screaming to the heavens and waving their hands, cajoling and encouraging team-mates, berating and gesticulating at each other - all in glorious slow motion. The various emotions on display from all parties when a goal was scored - players, coaches, fans and even the referee in states of ecstasy, despair, anger was a joy to behold.

When we invited the game in to our living rooms on a regular basis - the football world turned on its axis, but football needs stories like that which will unfold next Monday night in Manchester - or even that which occurred at the Camp Nou last Saturday night - whether by fluke or by grand design. The media feeds voraciously on it.

There was a period of time when I was a little obsessed with South American writing. I didn't always understand magic realism and I often got lost weaving my way through the rich language of the likes of Garcia Marquez, Allende, Vargas Llosa, Galeano. But I enjoyed the intricate stories where lots happened at the same time as not much. However, I never really got along with Jorge Luis Borges. After my attention has been drawn to a short story of his, that he wrote along with Adolfo Bioy Casares, I may revisit him. 

The story is called Esse Est Percipi. Stick with me - it ties in...

Our protagonist is wandering the city and notices that the River Plate stadium seems to no longer exist. Alarmed by this, he later meets the president of a football club. To break the  ice, our hero congratulates him on his team's recent performances and recounts the build up to a recent goal, pass by pass and player by player. The president replies "yes, and to think that I invented all those names." 

The story unravels that football no longer exists in the form that we thought. It exists solely in the radio and newspapers - the media are making up the scorelines, the stories, the drama and the theatre.

"...everything is, along with the gamut of sports, belongs to the genre of the drama -performed by a single man in a booth, or by actors in jerseys before the tv cameras."

Borges and Casares' short story Esse Est Percipi is lovingly transcribed here: it's not too long, and a good read. 


Thursday, 19 April 2012

Action Replay

Disclaimer - sorry about adding my two-penneth to this meandering story, but who’d be a referee, eh?

It doesn’t matter what level of the game you are at – it is a challenge that there must be fewer and fewer queueing up to take on each year.

Soccer referee uniforms clipart images free download, football clipart free
At the top of the tree, you have matches with a myriad number of cameras staring at you and watching your every move and decision, for those with the benefit of a thousand replays to berate and debate. “No hiding any more”, we are told on countless phone-ins. “Top-flight referees are now professionals and so should be held accountable for their mistakes”. (So should the bankers of the world, but that hasn’t happened).

Still, although professional players will charge the ref down, swear and gesticulate aggressively at decisions where they think they have been wronged – those cameras are on hand again,  perhaps like in a late-night town centre, a cctv-like deterrence to any of said actions going too far. (perhaps not - see last summer's English riots).

Further down the food chain, to local Sunday leagues and the like, the referee is not afforded such security – whether or not heated moments progress to anything physical, the intimidation must be real.

Back at the top it’s one, usually ageing, bloke in the middle of a very large pitch, trying to keep up with a new breed of footballing and athletic machines and making instant decisions to incidents as they perceive them.  This last week alone has given plenty of ammunition to all those in the game and led us once again to everyone’s favourite debate. Video evidence and goal-line technology.

The Chelsea-Spurs game last weekend obviously harbours the major talking point and the reason why our red-tops are in overdrive again. The goal that was that wasn’t. That was. or something.

The problem at that time was that Martin Atkinson was so sure in his own mind that the ball crossed the line, that he decided he did not need to speak to the assistant on the line. These "Refereeing Assistants" are employed to "assist" - hence the enforced name change from linesman, no? Why did he not just do that? It may have saved us from all this brow-beating.

Was it because the Spurs players were surrounding him, pleading with him to do so? After all, he can’t be seen to be swayed by a swarm of players in to casting doubt on his own decision – however, if that is the case, I wonder just how much was he swayed by Juan Mata’s reaction, celebrating the “ghost” goal?

[one other thought springs to mind. The Chelsea players were very quick to come out and say it wasn’t a goal after the match (how could they say otherwise?) - poor Frank Lampard must have been having nightmarish flashbacks to the world cup - hey, don't fret, Frank,  this time it worked out in your favour.
 It is, however, still sad that common decency and the old corinthian spirit is so lacking in the game that no-one held their hands up at the time it happened. (a la Di Canio or Fowler). True, no-one would really have expected anyone to do so, how could they face their team mates should they lose - in the argument for technology, we are always being told there is too much at stake in today's game - therefore, whilst human frailty exists, it is ripe for exploitation. Win at all costs).]

No vast amount of money needs to be spent on a “hawk-eye” system or Ice Hockey-style red light on the goal - surely it is not such a frequent occurrence to warrant that, is it? (I’m happy to be put right on that – my thinking is that it is over-hyped so much when it does happen, that it is highlighted with a bright yellow Stabilo Boss marker and trumpet fanfares - but I am sure there will be tabloids printing lists titled "why we need goal-line technology - NOW!" which will prove me wrong.)

For better or worse, we have now gone so far that the modern professional game exists in its current form because of television – perhaps television can be used in this instance to help the much maligned man in the middle.

How long would it have taken the fourth official to see, with the help of 23 cameras and instant replays, and to indicate to the Mr Atkinson that he called it incorrectly? Seconds? The free-flowing game of football would not be hampered too much - the players would still be arguing amongst themselves in that time. Rugby League has elevated a similar situation with regards to tries to a whole event in itself as part of the game. That might be a tad too far, though and makes me shudder at the thought of goal celebration music.

I believe it is right for the authorities to take their time on this, and I am not just being a luddite. Once the pandora’s box is opened, it will release numerous questions and cause all sorts of ramifications. The game is played at many various levels and the beauty of football is its great simplicity - top to bottom. Once you stop using jumpers for goalposts, the game works on the same principles throughout. At what level of the game is a decision made to stop the use of technology or cameras?

Where does this leave the lower leagues referees? Once the cameras or tech disappears, will the game be governed and refereed in a whole different way?

UEFA have experimented with extra goal line officials in the Europa league, of course - something that many mock - but they are in the perfect position to assist and are in constant communication with the referee - they have helped with decisions on penalties and more in the past, also. Hawk-eye can’t do that part of the job. So do the cameras have a say on other decisions on the game? Which ones?

Gordon Taylor at the PFA had this to say, echoing most people’s views: “In this day and age, the technology is available and we should use it. We’ve got to do all we can to ensure that, in sport, justice is done.” True on the last part, but presumably that will then mean that all the rules are re-written so we can go back and punish those players properly that are seen to be cheating, diving etc. and that red and yellow card offences can be revisited more easily?.....(more on “cheating” to come at another point!)

As mentioned earlier, with every opportunity taken to try and fool the referee and win penalties, free-kicks, and take advantage of one man being in charge of the game - it is getting more difficult with each passing match.

As you can read above - as a humble grumpy old fan, I don’t have answer to this - sorry Sepp and Michel. Good luck with that. However, neither do I have an answer to why anyone would still want to be a ref...(answers on a postcard)


Sunday, 8 April 2012

piensan que es todo...

Well - that's an Easter weekend where
we have seen manchester city confirm their implosion in 2012 - in this season, where it seemed a cakewalk for them to wrap up the title. Let's face it, all the other usual challengers are very much in transition and have been under par.

Mind you, United's recent run of 34 points from 36 is very impressive and certainly not under par.

Unfortunately, we once again are talking about both refereeing decisions and not-so-super Mario.

 - QPR had a hard enough task going to Old Trafford, but we might as well have finished the game the very instant that Lee Mason made the penalty decision and waved the red card to Shaun Derry - the fact we had 75 minutes left to endure of a one-way traffic training match was farcical. Although let's not only blame the ref - how did the linesman miss that Young was offside.

And what to say about Chelsea's offside goal against Wigan?....Poor Roberto Martinez speaks out for once against referees - so it must have been a really poor decision -  and now faces a wait to see if he's going to be charged by the FA.

And Senor Balotelli's red card - he should have gone for his awful tackle in the first half...

The last few weeks do still have a few things to keep them interesting, though. The "race" to finish in places 3 and 4 - yes, that's right - 3rd and 4th are the new 1st apparently - until someone can prise that trophy away from Fergie's No More Nails coated hands. And no-one seems to want to stay in the Premier League at the moment - although the aforementioned men in black might have the biggest say on who stays up!

A few days break coming up, hence my hasty recap post. Got some important swing-football to play in the garden with the little lad - now he's lost his footballs, tennis balls and "shufflecocks" (sic) to the neighbours one too many times as well as emptying our little blossom tree plants of all their pretty white blossom with his caseys, that's all we're left with. Well, that and Table Football for when it's raining and his mum says we can't stay outside (or foosball, or futbolin, or babyfoot - I'm confused - just what do you call it? - please send answers in!)

what's in a name?

As a little way to refresh my Premier League weary eyes, you'll have noticed I've had a brief virtual sojourn over to Spain, resulting in my last couple of posts and a couple of published articles for the nice folk over at - my last post on RCD Espanyol's old home at the olympic stadium can be found here: elcentrocampista - grumpy article they make my witterings look reasonably professional and if they can do that and you are interested at all in Spanish football - look no further. Just let them know I sent you.

Hasta la proxima,


Monday, 2 April 2012

Mi Casa es tu Casa

West Ham want it, Leyton Orient want them nowhere near it. (We are all going to pay for it).

The Olympic stadium - another bloated, over-budget stadium for our glorious capital city. With the debate still raging, Orient's chairman and pub-game promoter, Barry Hearn, has been taking to soap-boxing on the airwaves -giving his views on how a move to the ground for West Ham will kill his club and informing anyone that will listen that the stadium is "not fit for football".

It is hard not to feel sorry for him as he passionately and ever more desperately pleads on behalf of his club and fans.

The belief that the ground is not fit for football stems from the usual complaints over stadia built with Athletics in mind. Think Juventus and Bayern Munich, to name two.

Those pesky running tracks and the gentle slope of the seating.

Manchester city overcame the problems with the re-structuring of the commonwealth games stadium before they moved in - but that was a much smaller affair. The Commonwealth Games is the Anglo-Italian cup to the Olympic's Champions League.

Some years back I travelled to Barcelona for a few days with my Dad - it was "the wrong weekend" and Barca were away from home. After the obligatory tour around Camp Nou - we stood in awe at the number and variety of trophies in the cabinet. Who knew there were so many hockey tournaments that Barcelona had won? - we decided to head across town to see if we could score tickets for the Espanyol-v-Las Palmas match.

Not exactly a fixture to set pulses racing, but a foreign match experience in any event. It was held at Espanyol's then home - the olympic stadium at Montjuic. The beautiful, but very impractical legacy of the 1992 Olympic Games held in Barcelona.

The trail had to be one of the most surreal, but pleasant journeys to a football stadium. Unfortunately the cable-car crossing was closed at the time,  which really would have elevated the transport to new heights, so to speak. Instead, it was the metro, followed by a funicular (cutting out a few kms criss-crossing the hillside) which left you with a very pleasant stroll through tree-lined avenues. Eventually, the spectacular sight of the Olympic torch towered in to view.

As someone used to the packed tram from Manchester City Centre and a walk past the Lou Macari chippy and terraced houses on Warwick Road, it was a very exotic experience.

Espanyol had left the comfy, but atmospheric surroundings of their la Sarria ground in the late 90s. The local government had pressured the club for some time, desperately wanting a permanent use for their very own white elephant stadium. Mounting debts left the club with little choice but to sell to developers and lodge at Montjuic.

Once outside the Stadium, we relaxed in a shady park (and that isn't shady like edgy, like Stanley Park, but leafy) and pondered how to secure a ticket over a cool cerveza. We needn't have worried - the match was far from a sellout and the oldest ticket tout in town had spotted us a mile off and made his way over towards his prey.

I knew enough Castilian Spanish to partake in a conversation with said gent, who eagerly took our cash, flashed 3 season ticket cards at us, beamed a toothless smile, and escorted us through the ticket barriers - once safely through the two checks, he waved an arm in a cursory gesture to the swathe of light blue seats that backed on to us (I think, to indicate we could sit where we wanted) and walked off, straight out through the barriers - presumably to go and spend his newly earned money at the local bar!

Montjuic was truly huge. There was no gasp as you walked up the steps to see the lush carpet of green spreading out below. No thrill as the crowd at the opposite side of the ground flashed in to view. Just awe at an absolutely huge bowl of a ground and open space, with an enormous orange running track circling a faded green patch of grass some distance away.

Two gigantic banners, emblazoned with the club crest, covered each end of the ground behind the goals - the places where the ultras would usually whip up the fervour inside the ground - seemingly because those seats would actually be furthest from the pitch and no-one in their right mind would want to sit there. It also served to "herd" the spectators together along the sides of the ground, rather than have small pockets of fans here or there. The capacity without the banners would have been around 30 thousand to large for Espanyol to fill.

Without any sort of roof, other than on the main stand, probably just enough to cover the two or three rows of club directors and vips, the Sun beat down relentlessly.

We were lucky in a couple of ways - the game was an enjoyable 3-2 win for the home team, and, despite the very, very shallow incline of the seats, the crowd was so sparse that we had no-one in front of us for 10 rows or so. Why did we not move further forward, you ask? Well, the shallow incline and the and running track, combined with the obligatory perimeter advertising boards conspired together so that should the winger be sprinting along the touchline, we had no view of the ball whatsoever - and could certainly not judge whether a tackle was well-timed or not!

A quick beer at half-time (word of warning "sin alcohol" is not point of sale advertising of the evils of beer by the catholic church, like on cigarettes by the government, but "without alcohol") and not a pie in sight - nice bag of sunflower seeds, anyone? The damn things littered the stadium by the end of the match!

The Espanyol fans didn't want to reside at Montjuic in the first place, and finally got their way after twelve years on top of the hill, they moved again, much further from their traditional heartland, to the working-class suburb of Cornella-El Prat.

The new stadium opened in 2009 and is an outstanding FOOTBALL stadium. Absolutely a modern masterpiece which should be the envy of many. The supporters are right next to the pitch and the focus is all on the green carpet in front of them. Aping the much-loved and missed Sarria stadium in which they used to reside, with very modern twists.

Atmosphere is building as the fans begin to feel at home and attempt to remind the world that "Catalunya es mes que un club" - that there is more to Catalunya than the other club down the road, as a banner at the ground defiantly states. So far, results have not exactly gone the way they might have expected with the re-emergence of the twelfth man, compared to their relative successes at the desert-like Montjuic. This may come. As I write, the club are hovering just below the Europa League places.

Many clubs have found that moving home across town needn't be the displacement of their soul that purists may think. Franchising and moving wholesale out of the town or city they traditionally represent (a la MK Dons) is abhorrent even to the non-purists. But, with careful planning, fan bases can be renewed and reinvigorated within the local community - much like Espanyol, who are attempting to forge new relationships in their new surroundings - no easy task when a footballing goliath shares your city.

But the clubs must be thoughtful in their application of these plans. Larger clubs muscling their way in to other’s backyards can never be a good thing either. There are many sensitive choices to make.

Whilst an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon, those few years back in Montjuic, the whole thing was a little soulless. It was serene and pleasant - much like the journey to the ground - probably, in fact, much like an Athletics experience, rather than a footballing one.

As Barry Hearn would attest: The 1992 Olympic Stadium was not fit for football.


pics are from the excellent blog - check the site out for much more on Espanyol and all Spanish clubs stadia, throughout la liga and beyond - extensive photos and write-ups