Archive | September, 2010

Walking Alone

26 Sep

With Liverpool’s humiliating elimination by Northampton Town in this week’s League Cup, coupled with yet another installment in their stuttering start to their League campaign against Sunderland yesterday, perhaps it is time for us to begin a re-assessment of what this famous club’s purpose is in the modern era. The instability of Liverpool’s ownership situation continues to rumble on but Liverpool’s decline as a football club has been long-standing and can more or less be traced back to the abandonment of their much-fabled Boot Room ethic, that appointed managers from within the inner sanctum of the club’s coaching staff, with the hiring of the divisive figure of Graeme Souness in the early 90s. With the renouncing of the ideals which formed the foundation of the club’s imperious domination of the game in the 1970s and 1980s, Liverpool Football Club has lurched from one transitional crisis to the next in the intervening years and despite having achieved such an improbable victory in the Champions League in 2005, a generation of fans has grown up viewing the club’s devouring of League titles as a fast-receding dot in the distance.

Liverpool has a long history as a city of opposition to the repressive dictats and policies decreed by the centralised, Goliath of Westminster. As Margaret Thatcher began her systematic dismantling of the fraternal bonds that held the working-class together in the early 1980s, Liverpool was at the frontline of the class war having one of the highest unemployment rates in the country leading to mass departures and 15% of land being left either vacant or derelict. As a response to government plans to reduce funding for local services, Liverpool City Council fought a prominent campaign of opposition to the draconian policies which would have ravished communities already ravaged by the consequences of factory closures. Out of this climate of fear and loathing came some of the most impassioned and critical cultural beacons of the time with the likes of Alan Bleasdale and Carla Lane articulating the plight of the city’s working class in televisual landmarks such as Boys From The Blackstuff and Bread. From this, the image of the ‘Scouser’, for better or for worse was formed and has continued to resonate with us ever since from the docker’s strike of the 90s to Harry Enfield’s lampooning for a mass audience.

Liverpool Football Club’s current predicament mirrors that of its city. By losing the very essence of what it stands for, it remains mired in a cultural timewarp, unable to choose a path which would serve the twin purposes of re-capturing the glorious achievements of its past whilst also competing in a football world which has had to disengage with its roots in order to compete in a world which holds market forces and brand-awareness in higher regard as a pathway to success and growth; Chelsea and Manchester City, perhaps providing the most evident examples to this less esoteric non-ideology.

What perhaps is providing the biggest obstacle to Liverpool’s evolution is the sense of entitlement that pervades the mentality of the club’s fans and the media’s reluctance to admit that Liverpool cannot, in their present state of metaphyiscal limbo, hope to reach the giddy heights that they once reached. Whilst Liverpool have stagnated, Manchester United became the pre-eminent club of the last two decades and it is telling that whilst the ‘local’ fans all seemed to support Liverpool in the 80s, the casual fan tends to plump for United, Chelsea or Arsenal these days. Of course, this is a sign of success and a back-handed denouncement of the ‘glory-hunter’ but it also shines a light on just how much Liverpool’s stock has fallen. Liverpool have no divine right to sit at the game’s top table and the emergence of far more credible challengers to the much-coveted fourth spot has only made this even clearer to the observer.

However, it is ironic that events in the world at large seem to mirror what is going on in the world of football. Ed Miliband is now the Labour leader. And with his election, the death knell in the New Labour project is more than likely to come about. The Labour Party, having narrowly rejected the prospect of his brother David, has hinted that it is eager to re-engage with the ideological principles that once laid the foundation of what it stood for. Although David seemed to have been the heir-apparent to Tony Blair, the evident lack of a clear purpose other than the pursuit of power which saw New Labour rise out of the ashes of Thatcher’s class war has shown that there is an appetite for the politics of conviction which so many commentators were keen to dispel. As the coalition government continues with its policies of austerity, it would seem that we are headed towards an era which may yet rival the 80s in terms of societal divisions. And out of this adversity, with a sense of conviction, the city of Liverpool and its club may just be able to thrive once again, on the field and culturally, as it did in its heyday.

The problem with such a proposal however, is the fact that Liverpool as a football club is devoid of the foundations so meticulously laid by the great Bill Shankly. The media likes to hold up Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher as examples of how the club has remained loyal to its roots but all they really serve to do is show how far the club has come away from what it once was. Their purpose is to show everybody else that the club retains its ‘Scouse’ spirit but in the end, what truly matters for Liverpool fans is the collection of trophies. If the battle for the club’s soul and identity is not resolved soon, the Shankly dynasty will be something that is re-told as a brief moment in history. Alan Bleasdale would surely relish and despair at such a challenge.

Further Reading:

The Rise and Fall of New Labour

Dispatches guest spot on www.just-football.com: A Matter of Opinion

Taking The Mick

19 Sep

Here’s an oft-cited philosophical question for you to mull over: is it it better to live a life in blissful ignorance rather than have the instinctive thirst for knowledge, with all its attendant futility and soul-searching weighing heavy upon your burdened shoulders? After all, does a passing understanding of the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian dispute or a being able to offer an intricate analysis of Wittgenstein’s oeuvre really have any bearing upon one’s day-to-day life? Is it more preferable to switch one’s mind off in front of the television and feed your soul a daily soup of Phil Mitchell’s battle with crack addiction or whether Paris Hilton has resolved her dispute with Lindsey Lohan via Twitter? In the end, isn’t our opinion so crowded out amongst the din that if we take the time out to care, all we do is just get bogged down with worry? It’s quite telling that Americans have a guaranteed entitlement to the ‘pursuit of happiness’ written into the Declaration of Independence with the operative word being ‘pursuit’. If you’re ignorant and happy is it far better than being informed and depressed?

Mick McCarthy, the Wolves manager, has always struck me as being firmly entrenched in the ‘ignorance is bliss’ camp. While he is of course entitled to project such an image, it is slightly worrying that his straight-talking, ‘down-to-earth’ persona during interviews and commentary is so widely celebrated among his media colleagues and fellow managers. This is a man who during his World Cup commentaries made it abundantly clear that he was unwilling to make any attempt to pronounce the names of players who had the temerity not to possess Anglo-Saxon names, reducing their individuality to generalisations such as ‘the little fella’ or ‘the number 7’ (see The Numbers Game). McCarthy is by no means the only culprit. Nevertheless, he is emblematic of a certain type of person who views the world in very simplistic terms and is unwilling to acknowledge the fact that cultures, individuals and footballing approaches are far more varied and blurred than he would have you believe. He was bemoaning the fact on Match of the Day yesterday that his team have received a negative rap from the press recently due to their rugged approach to games. He was quick to point out that of course Tottenham were a Champions’ League side, so his team in the end were up against it. All this serves to demonstrate is that McCarthy is devoid of any kind of ambition and his record as a manager does little to prove otherwise. Of course, Wolves cannot compete with teams of Spurs’ calibre, but McCarthy has spent much of his managerial career expounding a policy of survival over anything else. There is no attempt by him ever to embrace the more cosmopolitan outlooks of managers such as Arsene Wenger or Roy Hodgson. McCarthy seems to occupy a quasi-reality in which the brutality and overtly masculine worlds of the 1950s through to the mid-1980s never really went away. This is a world in which players could knock back pint after pint and still put in a winning performance the next day; a world in which women were ‘birds’ and went and did their hair on a Saturday afternoon rather than go down the football; a world in which a tackle from behind was a gentle tap. I’d hazard a guess that Life on Mars was his favourite tv show of the last five years, if in fact he understands the concept of time travel itself. In interviews he always seems to be at odds with the modern game, disdainfully dismissing players as preening and protected. You can almost hear the brass bands of the local mine playing in the background as flat-capped urchins deliver papers on their rounds and Mrs Arkwright invites the whistling milkman in for a cup of tea.

Of course, he is entitled to this worldview, but what remains irksome is that he is portrayed by his media chums as a straight-talking man of sense. This highlights an all-enveloping attitude amongst pundits of a certain age (take a bow Alan Shearer, Andy Gray) that somehow the world is simple and all this talk of formations, advanced training regimes and fashion statements are symptoms of a game gone wrong.

Players who have shown any degree of intelligence have always been treated with suspicion within the game and generally are given the epithet of ‘The Professor’. Graeme Le Saux was vilified on the terraces and openly mocked by his fellow professionals (most notably by Robbie Fowler) in the 1990s for having the temerity to read a newspaper which wasn’t a redtop. And because of that, he was labelled as gay? The argument from these people might be that the game is a working-class pursuit and should remember its roots but I wasn’t under the impression that working-class people were expressly forbidden from taking an active interest in the world at large or having the capacity for articulate, cogent discourse.

The Brazilian legend, Socrates goes a long way to dispelling the notion that football-folk are all lumpen proles more at home talking about creosoting (encore Mr Shearer). This is a man who is a practising doctor in his local village, holds a PhD, regularly commentates and is currently writing a novel. His thoughts on the game are radically oppositional to how McCarthy and his friends regard it:

“To win is not the most important thing, football is an art and should be showing creativity. If [painters] Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas had known when they were doing their work the level of recognition that they were going to have, they would not have done them the same. You have to enjoy doing the art and not think ‘will I win?'”.

There are erudite, sophisticated people in football (Martin O’Neill, Roy Hodgson, Eric Cantona). The problem is they’re drowned out by people who have made a name out of being inoffensive, bland and ignorant. And if these people continue to remain in managerial and broadcasting positions, what message does that send out to the many millions enthralled by this game of ours? Don’t challenge, don’t think, don’t question. Be scared to try something new and revel in your own ignorance, masking it as common sense talk. Knowledge may be a curse. But I assure you, ignorance is so much worse. I’m sure Mick’d give me a slap for saying that.

Further Reading:

BBC Sport – The Wisdom of Socrates

Reality Cheque

12 Sep

Day 29 of the English Premier League Season. 11.04 a.m. Some of the players are gathered in the changing room, playing cards and listening to N-Dubz on their i-Phones. Wayne has been summoned to the manager’s office.

Twenty minutes later. Wayne emerges and tells his room-mates that he won’t be playing today due to the media pressures surrounding him and has been temporarily evicted from the clubhouse. Big Alex has advised him to go and see Coleen in the hope that their OK! sponsorship deal can be salvaged.

Meanwhile, Brian wins Ultimate Big Brother and a prostitute is due to shake her booty on next week’s X Factor. Stateside, Armageddon is averted at the final hour whilst nine-year footage is regurgitated for your viewing pleasure. Who goes? YOU decide…

It became apparent yesterday that Wayne Rooney was spared the prospect of coming out and playing against his former club for fear of the detrimental effect it might have on him. Everton fans had come armed with a repertoire of chants aimed at taking the maximum advantage of the striker’s current personal travails and Sir Alex evidently felt that the attendant media circus and furore surrounding Rooney was not worth putting either the individual or the team’s performance at risk. As it transpired, United managed to implode all by themselves without any added help from prying cameras and baying crowds. The saddest aspect of this however, was Ferguson’s willingness to change the habit of a lifetime and exclude a player for reasons beyond the parameters of football when once he stood by perceived public enemies such as Roy Keane, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.

What Wayne Rooney may or may not have done in bed is of little concern to me. That is a matter that needs to resolved between the parties directly affected by his alleged transgressions. When he takes to the field, he should be judged on what he delivers as a professional footballer and his lacklustre performances during and after the World Cup are what needs to be scrutinised. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly harder to separate the roots for a player’s bad form if his every move is held up in screaming floodlights for all to see. As The Sun has so brazenly told us over the years ‘We Love It!’.

For some reason, we all seem to have an unquenchable thirst to know other peoples’ business; rubbing our hands at every flaw that is magnified in each and every person we come across. When once such tittle-tattle was disseminated over the garden fence with bosoms heaving on top of folded arms or folded laundry, we now nullify our daily worries using the very media which was apparently designed to elevate us all to some kind of sophisticated, erudite Arcadia. With a rampant, breathless media increasingly under threat of economic redundancy, we are incessantly bombarded with one salacious gossip piece after another in a shameless attempt to keep us hooked on the screen or buying the papers that some might say are more addictive and pernicious than a junkie rush of heroin through a vein.

During the death throes of Big Brother‘s final hour on our screens, very little was made of the fact that the show’s original remit was that of a sociological and cultural experiment which sought to shed light on how we lived and interacted at the dawn of the twenty-first century. They even had segments of the show dedicated to analysing the body language and psychological tics of the original participants. Somehow, it was packaged as something ‘worthy’ of our attention. However, all that was dispelled with the trial-by-media of ‘Nasty’© Nick Bateman, the mask came away and the show made its name on allowing individuals with low self-esteem (transfixed by the promise of fame) endure moments of ritual humiliation and vilification. There was little attempt by the show’s producers to accept culpability for the capitulation of Jade Goody and there was something slightly distasteful about the fawning tribute to her on Friday night as Davina Macall confidently proclaimed that Jade was the Ultimate Big Brother housemate. What we in essence were party to was the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jade in her three incarnations on the show and when somebody’s every flaw is so exploited and pawed over, then we should all feel a little ashamed of ourselves. Of course, Jade was free to do as she pleased and we don’t have to watch or buy the magazines but if we are all addicted to the cultural zeitgeist, it’s not so easy to wean ourselves off. I always feel I need to take a shower after watching something as crass and exploitative as Big Brother or The X Factor. I am fully aware of the manipulations that take place but I watch nonetheless. In many ways, I’m worse than some, because I should know better…

I was fortunate to catch the great American stand-up, Doug Stanhope performing this week and watching him dispense his brand of misanthropy with a vicious wit, I remembered a piece he did on Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe a few months back. The gist of what he was talking about is although we are all prone to voyeurism and finger-pointing, it becomes even more perverse when that natural inclination is used by the media for its own ends. Did anybody really think about the consequences of giving airtime to a rinky-dink pastor with no following who decided he wanted to mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11, with a ritual Koran burning? By shining even the faintest of media lights on Terry Jones, instead of showing restraint and talking up co-existence (as many politicians were so desperate to put across), didn’t anybody think that such a story would merely exacerbate and entrench certain misconceptions and world-views? And meanwhile we’ll show more titillating documentaries of people falling out of the burning buildings, packaging this voyeurism as newsworthy and keeping the victims’ memories alive. Over on BBC3 though, you can also watch a docu-soap on how a teenage mum got on at her first day ‘on the game’, whilst juggling the disabilities of having dyslexia and a wooden leg.

Whether Wayne Rooney saves his marriage or not holds no interest for me. It’s clear that he is a flawed individual. Neither particularly likable or cultured but regardless a wonderful footballer. I’m only interested in that aspect of him because Wayne Rooney as a sex-crazed lothario is not an image that I particularly want to have weaving its way into my subconsciousness. I don’t care about Cheryl’s divorce or Bruce’s wig or the Kardashians toilet habits. I just don’t care. Unless that is, Davina presents it. Then I’ll be hooked once again. I’m coming to get Rooooooooooooooo……..

In Memoriam

5 Sep

An old man died on Monday and it would be fair to assume that many of us would not have even the faintest idea of who Francisco Varallo was. With his passing at the age of one hundred years and six months however, the football world lost one of the last remaining links with the game in its formative years and for that we should all feel a little sad. Varallo was on the defeated Argentine side that succumbed to Uruguay in the inaugural World Cup Final in 1930 and with his death, the curtain came down on the pioneers who ensured that the game of football would be elevated to the globe-conquering heights it has subsequently reached.

It’s sad to think that Varallo’s life is consigned to a footnote. But without the modern benefits of visual media that record and document significant events for posterity, the endeavours of Varallo and all those other men that took to the field of play in Montevideo, the World Cup’s early history relies upon the spoken recollections from those who were there and however much we may try not to, we humans are prone to the occasional embellishment and exaggeration with every re-telling. And if those stories stop being told, what’s worse is that those events merely recede and all we are left with are cold, historical facts which can never truly capture the essence of experience. One would think that the World Cup began in 1966 with the advent of colour and English triumph but for those of a more inquisitive disposition, the stories of the tournament’s early years is equally as enthralling whether that be how fascism hijacked the 1938 games (see individuals-united)  or the tale of the West Germany’s rejuvenation and re-acceptance within the family of nations with its triumph in 1954.

I’ve always been fascinated by just what images and sensations choose to lodge themselves into my brain. Seemingly innocuous incidents seem to sear themselves into my consciousness whilst what might seem like significant events seem to be more readily discarded when it comes to creating the fabric of what embodies me as a human being. For instance, my earliest footballing recollection was of a live match between West Ham and Liverpool (I think…) in which West Ham’s Alan Devonshire was left with a huge gaping gash on his forehead after a clash of heads with another player. The injury was so horrific that Devonshire’s forehead had split into two flaps of skin as he stood on the sidelines and was apparently stitched up. As disturbing as the image was, I was also magnetised by Devonshire’s permed mullet and his moustache and by the fact that he wasn’t shedding any tears; a mixture of the grotesque theatre and machismo. I can’t remember anything else from the match. Similarly, a non-football memory I have dates back to the time I decided to take my first foray into the philosophical musings of Albert Camus, in his novel, The Outsider. Sitting on the tube, engrossed in his world of existential angst, a passenger sitting next to me coughed open-mouthed in my direction and as a result of not shielding his cavity with his hand, a globule of spit landed neatly on page 39. In one involuntary, tiny act, said existential angst was perfectly encapsulated and I have been revulsed by the book ever since, unable to recount the basic thrust of Camus’ narrative if and when asked.

What I’m trying to articulate in divulging such personal and almost autistic incidences is that a life is more than the biographies that would be written about an individual. Christopher Nolan’s Inception has left many cinema-goers infuriated with its reluctance to provide a one-dimensional reality within the realms of its world. Reliant on multi-layered abstractions of the subconscious, we are provided with an intricate narrative which requires us to allow the images to imprint themselves on our minds in order for a sense of understanding to be made apparent by the film’s end. This has evidently challenged a populus programmed to consume media in linear structures, where images merely wash over the viewer and no detailed thought process is required. However, the film is far closer to a sense of our own realities than any number of Hollywood star vehicles.

Our subconsciousness is not so neatly packaged. When our day-to-day perception is intermingled within the metaphysical corkscrew of memories, dreams, fabrications, exaggerations and natural decay, it is increasingly harder to maintain a truly consistent presentation of ourselves; we are all walking contradictions and rather than this being something we should turn away from, we should learn to accept and embrace it. Such a willingness to acquiesce towards a more fragmented state of being is not without its dangers though…

One of the greatest exponents of this theory is Tony Blair who came out of his self-imposed exile this week to promote his memoirs in an interview with Andrew Marr on the BBC. When the subject of his legacy in Iraq was brought up, he was adamant in his reasons for embarking upon the action that would forever haunt and taint his reputation. WMD were the case for war and always were, we were repeatedly told. However, I seem to recall that this reason was discarded the moment it became apparent to the watching world that the intelligence was false and said WMD were simply non-existent. So with his credibility on the line, the argument for war was then manipulated and massaged to centre around the need for ‘regime change’; a policy which would have evidently been roundly rejected by the United Nations. Mr Blair argued his defence over this policy u-turn when pressed by Marr, with so much conviction that for the first time I was inclined to believe that Blair had performed the ultimate act in Orwellian doublethink by persuading himself to believe something despite all the accumulated and recorded evidence suggesting otherwise in 2002/3. His warnings towards Iran were almost symptomatic of The Party’s switching of enemies and allies in 1984. “Today we are at war with Iran,” you could almost imagine him saying. “We have always been at war with Iran. Iraq are our allies”. Such self-deception among our political masters is filled with danger and it is for these reasons that the scrutiny and recording with which the tools of our modernity can be used to our advantage when these people’s decisions and personalities hold so many lives in the balance.

Francisco Varallo’s story ended last week in La Plata. What memories he took away with him of that day in 1930, I will never know. But I am glad that even after his passing, I have re-connected with a link in the chain that has encompassed so many, from Pele to Beckham to a little boy watching a grown man’s bleeding forehead on the telly. Preserve your memories. No matter what. Because they’re all that’s left you.

Further reading:

Hasta El Gol Siempre: Obituary for Francisco Varallo

Orwells Dreams

Robert Fisk on the Blair Interview

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