Monthly Archives: December 2011

Entertainment, Heroes and Villains

Made a rare foray back to the homeland last weekend, so on the way back to Stockport we stopped off at Burnley FC to pick up some goodies.

It is difficult to describe what Burnley FC means to the town, or to the supporters like myself.  Every fan will tell you theirs is the best club, the one true thing they can rely on – and every fan will be right.  But the symbiotic relationship between Burnley and the town is a very rare thing indeed.  You can look on it statistically – at 73,000, it has a population of less than the capacity of Old Trafford, yet gates are somewhere between 12-18,000.  You can look at it symbolically, standing at the top of Centenary Way, the view dominated by Turf Moor.  Or historically.  Burnley is a poor town, neglected by politicians of every stripe for the best part of half a century.  Previously the centre of King Cotton, it transitioned to heavy industry with the likes of Michelin and Lucas, before losing those in the 80s.  Conservative governments didn’t give a damn as it was a Labour stronghold, and the Labour Party didn’t give a damn because it could – and often did – pin a red rosette to a donkey and see it elected.

(In a set of local government elections in the 2000s, neither Labour or Conservative fielded a candidate in every ward.  And then expressed shock when the BNP – who did campaign and did put a candidate up everywhere – won seats on the local council.)

The one constant was the football club.  Champions in 1960-61, the club had declined with the town, eventually ending up in 1987, 90 minutes from extinction in what was known as The Orient Game.  It was at this point the club and town began to understand that they needed each other.  The club clawed its way back from the brink via a trip to Wembley, a Fourth Division division championship and nights such as Derby in the FA Cup – perhaps the best piece of writing in a national newspaper about the club was written by John Sadler.  His eerily prophetic words as Clarets fans refused to leave after losing a Cup game were a portent for the then new Premier League.

Soon after goalkeeper Chris Pearce dropped his dreadful clanger they set up one of the loudest, sustained dins I’ve ever heard on a football ground anywhere in the world. “Jimmy Mullen’s claret-and-blue-army” was the chant from the terraces and double-decker stand that housed Burnley’s admiration society.
Over and over they chanted it. Clapping and stamping their feet and drumming the advertising boards in perfect rhythm. On and on for 20 minutes until the end of the match and another 15 minutes afterwards, until I urged the club’s chairman to get his manager and players to leave their dressing room, return to the pitch and wave their appreciation. The bedlam was almost deafening. It was a colourful and spectacular sight.

But it is something far more important than that. I wanted others to see and hear it. Big men, important men who are making decisions that could alienate the game from ordinary working folk. I wanted Graham Kelly to be there to prove to him that those who talk of Super Leagues should not underestimate the passion of the so-called little clubs. I wanted Sir John Quinton to be there so that the bank chairman chosen to preside over the elite could learn something of life at the other end of the scale. I wanted officials of Manchester United and Arsenal, Liverpool and the other fat cats behind the move to change the face of football to hear the voices of the people.

The bedlam of Burnley was not simply a cry of support for another of the F.A. Cup’s beaten teams. It was a roar of defiance. “Traditions,” said Arthur Cox, Derby’s manager whose time in north east football taught him all there is to know about fanaticism. “You heard the traditions of Burnley’s past out there today. A major club of 30 years ago, don’t forget.” Those who kept up that incessant, thunderous clatter were real fans. Genuine football people with a deep love of their club, no matter the result of a single game. They had nothing to do with the executive box brigade and corporate hospitality merchants to whom football is pandering in the modern era. They stood in the rain, sat in the cold and screamed their allegiance to a game which, at the highest level, continues to turn it’s back.

It took another five years and the club was, if not heading to the top, at least surviving and by 2000, back to its traditional position of punching above its weight.

And then something amazing happened.

The Last But One Next Big Thing

After knocking around the Championship for a while, manager Steve Cotterill departed via mutual consent.  Astute in the transfer market, he coped with players being sold to balance the books and cut his cloth according to his means.  However, that meant a degree of pragmatism, with some truly stodgy football turning away fans in their thousands.

Exhausted from working with the tight budgets, lack of resources and under the microscope of the town – as fierce as any large club – it was agreed he had gone as far as he could with the club.  Cotterill had been hailed as a bright hope in management and he had done a good job of staying in the Championship on comparatively tiny resources.  His replacement was Owen Coyle.

The rest is history – cup runs, then a surge to the playoffs and promotion to the promised land of the Premiership.  A home victory over Manchester United featuring a stunning goal by Robbie Blake.  Then the fall and the betrayal by Coyle.  The appointment of Brian Laws and the relegation back to the Championship.

This is all documented in Entertainment, Heroes and Villains by Dave Thomas. Using interviews with the managers, board and players, added to his own memories and masses of newspaper articles, it documents the story of Cotterill, Coyle and Laws in what was the most extraordinary three years at the club.

Two things stand out which makes this book probably the most definitive telling of the story.  First is that the archive material is presented in full, which means that quotes and comments are left in context.  Coyles betrayal (there is that word again…) of the club is there for all to see instead of being snipped out to paint him in a worse light.

The second masterstroke is not to simply tell the story of Coyle, but to bookend it with his predecessor and the man appointed to fix the mess.  It helps to highlight the extraordinary heights scaled by Coyle (it is an oft forgotten fact that he achieved promotion with a team largely signed by Cotterill) and to put into context the effect he had on the club, the players, the directors and the town.

The whole town had come along for the ride.  Suddenly the people of Burnley had something to believe in.  Coyle played on that, using the vibrancy and energy around the town to feed the crowd and the players.

I remember how utterly surreal it was to see my club the focus of all this attention.  I remember sitting in the White Lion pub in Manchester, watching the playoff final with another 100 Clarets.  It was an odd experience and at the final whistle, there wasn’t singing or dancing.  Just a very odd feeling of shared disbelief.  People just finished their pints, got up and left.  This wasn’t really happening. Not in money obsessed modern football.  Not now.  Not to us.

What Coyle perhaps didn’t realise was just how much he was leading the fans and the club on.  Perhaps from his point of view, it was just football, just business.  I’m the first to say that football is a business foremost, trading cleverly on emotional ties to make money. Players, coaches, directors, media and fans all play the emotional card to some degree, with a large (and completely unhealthy!) reliance on the irrational need for wins, losses and draws.   In a place so desperate, so needing something to live for, Coyle was building the emotional bonfire that would blow back in his face so spectacularly.

In fact, it wasn’t just in the town.  After leaving, many articles appeared decrying the loss of romance in the game.  The clock had struck midnight, and the world woke up to find Cinderella hadn’t married the Prince but hitched up with the first Flash Harry in a pencil ‘tache to wave his wad and Jag E-Type at her skirts.  My favourite was in the excellent Two Hundred Percent blog, saying

The sadness of the story of this managerial poaching, however, is in the death of another small chink of the romance of the game. The accession of Burnley into the Premier League was one for the romantics. The small-town club that arguably punched above its weight and became one of the great names in English football had been in the doldrums for years. Their promotion was unexpected as it was refreshing. We all know that players, managers, everybody associated with the game is involved in it for altogether more prosaic reasons than romance. We like – some might even say that we need – to maintain the illusion that there is more to it than this, though, and when one aspect of one fairy tale falls apart, yet another small piece of our love affair with the game dies a little on the inside.

Which makes the effect of his leaving on the supporters and the community understandable.  They had been taken on a magic carpet ride beyond their wildest dreams.  No-one was getting carried away with delusions of European glory, or that Coyle would have stayed forever.  Hell, it was widely accepted that at the end of the Premiership season he would be off to better things.  Had he seen the season out, then a queue of Burnley fans would have happily given his a lift to his new job with their very best wishes.  But walking out ripped the heart out of the town and the club, almost literally, as he completely decimated the backroom staff, taking coaches, physios and even approaching the Media Director with an offer.

A rare smile

It was into this mess that Laws had to step – never winning over the fans who understandably, if unfairly – took their frustration and anger out on the next incumbent of the dugout.  The players were devastated, morale was underground and Laws, not much more than an average manager, was the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  What makes it all the most tragic is that Laws was a product of Burnley FC and saw the managers role at Turf Moor as his dream job.  Laws did an average job under incredibly trying circumstances, perhaps better than one could have expected, but he was sacrificed in order to let the club, the fans and the people move on.

Time will heal the feelings towards Laws – in one of those supreme ironies that football is so very good at, Laws’s Burnley was drawn against Coyles’ Bolton in the Carling Cup.  On hearing the draw, Laws texted Coyle – “Ouch!”.  The meeting of the two clubs was more than a game of football, it was a night of catharsis.  A night to scream and shout and for most to move on.  Of course, Burnley winning 1-0 helped to put some kind of closure, though the wounds still run incredibly deep.

There is a bitter irony that Cotterill and Laws will always be welcomed at Turf Moor by the fans.  One, despite his terrible football and presiding over the longest winless streak in club history.  The other, despite his mediocre time at the club.  But the guy who brought memorable victories, the Premiership and financial stability to the club will be reviled, probably forever.  He is certainly up there with the likes of John Bond in club infamy.

Even as a supporter from distance, you’ll notice there is no picture of Coyle to accompany this post.  Nowadays, I delight in hurling abuse at his face when he does his post-match interview on Match of the Day.  I’m loving the fact that the move to Bolton appears not to be working out. It is fun and cathartic.  I don’t wish him ill, just failure.  It is childish and stupid, but then that is what football is.

Entertainment, Heroes and Villains is not only a superb read, but also part of the catharsis. It is a perhaps the most honest record we are going to get of that extraordinary time – certainly in a game where players, managers, directors and media to collude to spin, lie and cheat.  It might not be much outside of Burnley FC, unless you read football books for a hobby, but as a document of the thrill ride is it thoroughly recommended.

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Merry Christmas (War is Over)

So, that is it. The Iraq War is officially over.

Looking at the numbers, the Americans has 4,500 dead soldiers, 32,000 wounded and spent $800bn. British casualties totalled 179, with 5,970 wounded.   It also left a million Iraqis dead. But no-one can possibly argue that the entire adventure has given us safety and security like never before. We no longer have Islamic terrorists threatening violence all around the world and those post September 11th security measures have been lifted. Neither do we have a Middle East country threatening us requiring possible military intervention.

Oh.

Good job we found those WMD, eh? Those mobile weapons labs capable of launching biochemical weapons, that country that was sheltering terrorists.

Oh.

At least people weren’t disappeared into Saddams prisons, instead being disappeared into a global network of rendition and prisons.

Oh.

Lets remember the defining moments, shall we?

  • Abu Ghraib
  • Hostages being beheaded
  • Regular reports on innocent civilians and Western journalists being bombed by their own side

Oh.

Well at least we knew we totally won that war against… those other people…

Oh.

And it is finally all over, as the last troops come home.  America is out of Iraq, leaving only a 10,000 large diplomatic contingent and several thousand mercenaries which isn’t going to end badly at all.

Oh.

And all only 3,166 days after this guy stood in front of a banner that said “Mission Accomplished”.

A war criminal, yesterday

“Good work, everybody! “

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Young students? I wish them all dead.

Recovered from the old blog, but still relevant.  The next time someone says “look at those students protesting, with their smartphones and plasma tellies, they don’t know how lucky they are, this is your response.

One of the most common bits of bollocks spouted about students is “they are so lucky these days, they have their contract iPhones and their plasma tellies unlike the lucky buggers in University when I was there”

Well yes, they are lucky. Yet the reason they have iPhones and flat screen tellies and the previous generation didn’t is because iPhones and flat screen tellies hadn’t been fucking invented yet.

The previous generation had phones and colour tellies. And their elders bitched that they didn’t have them, because there was only black and white tellies unlike the lucky buggers in University now…

And the generation previous to that bitched because they didn’t have tellies at all unlike the lucky buggers in University now and had to make do with radios…

And the generation previous to that bitched because they didn’t have radios unlike the lucky buggers in University now and had to deal with being thrashed with a cane twice a week…

And the generation previous to that bitched because they didn’t get thrashed with a cane twice a week unlike the lucky buggers in University now, they got thrashed once a day and they had it easy, probably due to political correctness…

And the generation previous to that bitched that they didn’t get thrashed once a day unlike the lucky buggers in Universtiy because they didn’t go to University as they had been sent to work in the mill since they were seven years old and couldn’t write because the had lost fingers in machinery by the time they were the same ages as the students of today.  Who by the way, are going off to their fancy dan Universities in preparation for being sent off to get shot in a field in France, India, South Africa or whereever.

The whole of human evolution is about making things better for ourselves and especially for the generation coming after it. And for the first time in human history, we have a generation that not only has completely fucked things up for those coming after it, but bitches and moans that they should have it just as tough as they did because, well, they just should, alright? And not only that, but have fucked things up so badly that are actively removing the advantages that they had. You know, like free education, an educative and informative BBC and a supportive welfare state.

The old people of today, eh? *rolls eyes* Cuh!

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In praise of The Wire

Well, I have got tremendously addicted to The Wire, the HBO series that ran for five series a few years ago.  Set in Baltimore, it follows the interconnected lives of a huge amount of characters on both sides of the law in a never ending battle between drug dealers and the police.

I’m only up to the middle of series 3, so here are some mild spoilers.

The show takes its own time, it is absolutely the opposite of fast cut, fast action, move the plot along writing.  Scenes come and go at their own sweet time, most of the screen time is filled with silence.  The only incidental music is from stereos in cars or houses.  It is directed, shot and written to within an inch of its life, exploring and fleshing out the lives of its characters.  No-one is good or bad, just all shades of grey – McNulty, ostensibly the hero and the guy we see the story through the eyes of, is an absolute prick at times. As far as I have got, one of the main drug kingpins, Stringer Bell, is more interested in going legit than the street corners of Baltimore like a Mafia don.

The whole thing is Acted to perfection.  Dominic West as McNulty, Sonja Sohn as Kima Greggs and Idris Elba as Stringer Bell are standouts – the latter playing his character as thoughtful, precise and intelligent.  Never so charismatic that you end up rooting for the bad guy, but he does persuade you that he is making himself into a successful businessman – it is just that his product is heroin and cocaine, because that is all he has to offer.  D’Angelo Barksdale was fantastically played by Larry Gillard Jr, the cog trapped between the life he leads and the life he wants.  Also standouts are Bubs, the addict/informant, Bunk, McNultys partner and Levy, the greasy lawyer.

(The brief encounters between Bell and McNulty are absolute delights.)

The show does the neat trick of turning characters you hate into characters you… well, at least understand.  In Series 1, Bunk and McNulty are under pressure from Rawls, the Major in charge of homicide and Lansman, his willing lackey and sergeant.  To be honest, I was wondering how the hell two such obvious arseholes had got to positions of authority, especially as they seemed more interested in playing politics than actual police work.  By series 3, the pair are, if not actually likeable, at least they are justified in their actions -more rounded, and we can understand them.  (Aided by a brilliant scene in S1, between McNulty and Rawls.)

Downsides?  Well, the early shows weren’t exactly a barrel of laughs.  OK, so we aren’t going to get Whedon like zingers and comebacks, but it was slow moving, intense stuff.  As the story has moved on, the humour has revealed itself, in a dark and but dark, I mean utterly and completely pitch black manner.  The slow pace can sometimes be infuriating – series 2 takes 7 hours to do the inevitable “getting the band back together”.  And again in Series 2, Ziggy Sobotka is probably supposed to be a well meaning idiot, but to be honest, I just wanted to go to Baltimore and shoot him in the face myself.

The Guardian, as it often does, declared The Wire to be The Greatest TV Show of All Time and for a while spread it across just about every page it possibly could.  I’m not sure I agree, but that is because such a title is impossible.  I do support its claim to be a fantastic show, though one you have to work at.  It demands concentration and time and effort but what you put in is what you get out. It certainly is a hard watch, but the payoff is worth it.

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Lovely wording

Some sports more than others lend themselves to wonderful writing.  One of those is cricket and some of the writing on the Guardian is an absolute delight.  This little piece from Barney Ronay on the Mystery Spin Bowler had me chuckling away to myself.

So it was once with spin bowling, where age conferred legitimacy. But not so in the new era. Narine, for example, has come from nowhere: even now he has just 37 wickets in all cricket, his reputation based around glimpses in Twenty20 of the homemade “knuckleball”, which sometimes nips his flighty off-breaks the other way. The new-age mystery man comes to us like this: ready-made, off the shelf, hungry for a punkish kind of DIY success. There is an arc to his progress: claim a sensational televised three for 12; invent a delivery called the Zangler, the Knucklechuck or the Massive Pie; become the officially recognised next big thing; play a season for the Bangalore Cheesesteaks; get the yips; get no-balled for chucking; have a tantrum while playing for Devon; disappear completely. In favourable conditions there is no reason why all this should take much more than six months.

“The Massive Pie” is going to have me chuckling for days.

 

 

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Play from your heart…

I don’t normally write much about the X-Factor and all that, save the odd sneering comment from the sidelines.  The world seems to divide into several categories, those dumb enough to watch it and vote, those dumb enough to watch it and those watching it “ironically” in order to post sarcastic comments online about it.

Anyway, my ire was stoked when I heard that one of the previous winners Leona Lewis had covered “Hurt”.

The reason this sticks in my craw so much is that “Hurt” is a song absolutely loaded with meaning.  The Nine Inch Nails original is the climax of their classic Downward Spiral album, the theme of which is a man heading into despair, with each song building uncomfortably to the next before we reach his own suicide in “Hurt”.

“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel.”

The song was famously covered by Johnny Cash, who imbued it with his own meaning.  It was Cashs final song, and the video is utterly stunning, as it reviews his own life through clips and becomes a reflection on Cash and his place in history.

And then it gets covered by Leona fucking Lewis.

Don’t get me wrong, in the pantheon of X-Factor winners Lewis is probably the most talented.  Which is like saying a sprained wrist is better than a broken leg, but she does have the voice to carry off what she has done, which is build a career as a sort of Mariah Carey-lite. Unfortunately, she has the charisma of a broken bottle combined with the stunning ability to suck all the passion out of whatever song she has been directed to warble.  The girl could suck the life out of Agadoo.

(Which would be worth hearing actually, considering it would follow the standard Lewis pattern of quiet beginning, slow build, massively signposted key change before 60 seconds of belting “Aaaaaaaggaaaaaadoooo, PUSH PINEAPPLE SHAKE THE TREE”)

If that wasn’t bad enough, and on a much more personal note, she has also covered “Iris” by Goo Goo Dolls.  Now this one means something, specifically to me, because it was our wedding song.  Without getting into it too much, the lyrics meant something to me and my better half.  If one attempted to measure the irony of a fucking X-Factor winner singing “I don’t want the world to see me”, the resulting number would be so huge it would need Professor Brian Cox standing on a mountain somewhere and going “that’s amaaaaazing“.

In addition to Lewis’ attempt, “Iris” has also been covered by Avril Lavigne and Ronan Keating.  What the hell did the Goo Goo Dolls do to deserve that parade of mediocrity?

I accept that manufactured pop music has to exist.  It always has, and it always will – hell, the Beatles were a boy band.  Part of me actually admires the ruthlessness of the X-Factor, systematically stripping the business of music production down to the bare minimum of effort for the maximum profit.  They have got so good at it, that next year the winners single will be the same song no matter who actually wins the competition, exactly the same song whether it is won by the bloke, the girl or the band – they will just change the JPG for the download in iTunes and it will still be the Christmas Number One.

But I’ll only accept that if it leaves proper, good music alone.  Music from the heart, music by people who understand things like emotion and meaning. Something that is interesting.  If it were comedy, then I’m happy to have Stewart Lee and Gary Delaney and Die Clatterschenkenfietermaus, and you can have the future of comedy, which is Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay, live from the O2, stamping on a human face forever.

“I’m staaaaamping.  Everybody in. Everybody in. I’m staaaaamping.”

Anyway, instead of staying in its own niche, carefully prepackaged and demographically tested to within an inch of its life, X-Factor (or rather the true evil behind it all, which is Syco) get reaching over to “my” side of the divide and nicking songs.  Last years winner, Alexandra Burke, did a cover of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.  A song so full of depth and meaning, that it was best sung by someone the wrong side of 50, who was drunk and going through the end of their third marriage.  (For added authenticity, one of those marriages must have ended because the spouse died too young.)  Jeff Buckley did perhaps the definitive cover of the song and he is allowed to get away with it through creative use of the premature death clause.

So thanks to Syco, it becomes a song sung by a former shelf-stacker barely out of her teens.  Who later said “It just didn’t do anything for me.”

Fuck you, Burke.

So “Hallelujah”, now “Hurt”, and the inevitability of whatever is coming next. Matt Cardle doing “Enter Sandman”, One Direction singing “Love Will Tear Us Apart” or Will Young covering “Paranoid“?

“Oh come on Mike, it is just the X-Factor”.

I know I am standing on the beach, raging impotently at the approaching tidal wave, but some things are important. I’ll leave manufactured karaoke singers alone if they stop stealing the things that are important to me and cheapening them. I wouldn’t mind but not a single person involved in the production of “Hurt” has the slightest possible clue about the ability of music to generate passion, emotion or meaning. If they did, they wouldn’t actually go ahead with it. A legion of singers, producers, auto-tune engineers and a record company that hasn’t the faintest idea about what makes music so vitally important in the first place.

And they are encroaching on those who do care. I’m not asking for much, just to have my little space, free from blandification and turning into commercial product. I just want it to remain special, but they have to try and take that from me as well, my one last inch.

Enjoy your Monday morning.

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A day out in Dublin

OK, so I’m in the middle of Dublin on Saturday and just finished off a bit of lunch outside Dublin Castle. Next thing I know, there is a massive protest/parade passing by. The Spectacle of Hope and Defiance, organised by a lot of community groups in protest at the ongoing cuts to funding and budgets in Dublin.

The parade was led by children from the local community carrying tombstones for all the inner city projects that either had been closed or were threathened with closure.

People followed behind with slogans painted on butterflies or with placards. I think that the youth groups in the march had been working on them as projects.

Then we had a couple of floats – I liked the design of this one.

Ex-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who built the Celtic Tiger has retired with an annual pension of 152,331. Although to be fair, he did take a cut in it last week. He’ll really miss that 4,200 they lopped off it.

Of course, no protest is complete without drummers.

And a clown making balloon animals

And the bloody Socialist Worker.

Those stuck in the traffic jam didn’t mind.

The Scales of Injustice, complete with Marie Antoinette throwing cake out to those below.

One of the Marie Antoinettes. Cake not pictured.

Of course, the protest covers all of the people in Ireland. So here is a group of bankers on the way to the golf course.


And a banking fat cat, who threw cake at anyone photographing him (he was a good shot).

One of the EU Bondholders, who handed out Euros to the crowd.

The fat cat makes his way past the Bank of Ireland. The Bondholder shouts at him “Darling, look, it is our cash machine! Do you have the ATM card?”, which I thought was pretty funny.

Finally, the back of the parade was brought up by this huge phoenix.

All in all, good fun and quite uplifting to see the turn out and support, not just from the parade itself but the people it was passing by. Pretty much brought Dame Street to a halt, but it was all good natured and friendly. Special mention to the Gardai, who was more interested in keeping traffic moving – if this was the Met, it would have been truncheons, kettling and nicking of cameras. It really brought home just what a bunch of cunts the policing of protest in the UK is.

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