Sunday, 8 December 2013


Do you ever wish life had a reset button? I know I do.

Let me take you back four weeks, to the 10th of November, when Manchester United had just clung on to a 1-0 victory over Premier League leaders Arsenal; a win which looked to have ignited an already smouldering title race. That weekend, losses for Tottenham and Manchester City - coupled with Chelsea only managing a home draw with West Brom - meant United climbed to fifth, just five points of the leaders and heading into the international break with major confidence.

It is now 28 days later and, much like the survivors in the zombie film of the same name, United find themselves fearing for their own future as the members of their group turn on each other one by one, with previously benign foes now turned into malevolent, fearsome animals capable of tearing them to pieces at any moment.
Yes David, my thoughts exactly
Going back in time once again, this time to last Tuesday, I wrote an unbelievably good blog about how United fans should stick by David Moyes in spite of the troubles our team are facing. Two home defeats later, and United have fallen to ninth in the Premier League table, behind Everton, Newcastle and Southampton, those traditional powerhouses of English football. Indeed those three teams have taken a combined seven points from Old Trafford this season, with the former two teams claiming wins this week. These results have tested, but not broken my resolve to stand by Mr Moyes, but things have to start turning around soon. Being a United fan this season is a little like someone stuck in a dead end relationship, but moving out would mean homelessness; things are bad, but the alternative is far worse.

Supporting United this season has been a frustrating experience, although it is not (yet) one I will abandon. Yes, if our players could shoot as accurately at the goal as they do at their own feet, much of the gloom surrounding the club would be lifted, but football benefits from - not suffers for - its unpredictability. Besides, Arsenal have not won anything in eight years, and look how smug they are with a five-point lead in December.

I can't even say life as a United fan has been a struggle. Yes, the countless times when the team have been behind late in games has probably contributed to the inevitable baldness I will face later in life, but the team often, if not always, found a way to recover from disaster. Believe it or not everyone, United lost games under Sir Alex Ferguson. We often played this badly under Ferguson. And it is arguably because of Ferguson that our midfield is so short of quality and thus our team - built on an ethos of verve, speed and power - has become more predictable than a film starring Jason Statham, or the X Factor.

Moyes has made many mistakes, but he is by no means solely responsible for the gargantuan pile of despair, misery and ineptitude which we have come to associate with the last 6 months. He is the footballing equivalent of former England cricket coach Peter Moores: taking over a once proud but slowly sinking ship, trying desperately to impose himself on the side. Moores would famously leave his post after a 'disagreement' between himself and Kevin Pietersen, after famously blooding young 'stars' such as Sajid Mahmood and Liam Plunkett. But Moores' work has grown to be appreciated with time, perhaps Moyes' will.

Therefore, United's play this season has resembled a sort of strange, mass rendition of the Cha Cha Slide by the immortal DJ Casper (what happened to him?); moving sideways, somtimes forwards, before inevitably having to take it back now...ya'll. The whole thing (our season, not the Cha Cha Slide) is maddening, but there is always a game next week to get hopelessly optimistic about, before the inevitable decline into depression.

Just as United's title hopes were revived four weeks ago, they may receive a boost in a little over three weeks with the opening of the January transfer window. Whether Moyes will rectify the mistakes of the summer and actually buy a proper midfielder remains to be seen, but it is an opportunity to improve which surely must be taken.

That said, Marouane Fellaini - Moyes' most recent signing - is still trying to prove there is more to his repertoire than his past suggests, a bit like Daniel Radcliffe trying to convince everyone he is not Harry Potter. The £27.5 million (I know) player is clearly working hard, but still plays like an old man trying to intercept a chicken. The man is more than a little slow and the need to buy again could not be more obvious.

And to be fair to Moyes, he seems aware of the gravity of the situation, carrying as he does the constant look of a man who has been bought tickets to Live at the Apollo, only to learn that the headline act is Lenny Henry. His main problem was always going to concern moments like these, when players so accustomed to winning were having to take motivation from a man who has won absolutely nothing. Do you remember at school when you found out that the teacher you always feared was sick and some poor bugger straight out of university was taking the class instead? That is how the United dressing room must feel right now.

"It's gonna blow!"
So who can United buy in January - or indeed the summer - to turn things around? Well, they only really need a left-back, a young centre-back, two central midfielders (one creative, one combative), a skilful winger and maybe an extra striker. Fittingly, as it's Christmas, the list reads a bit like the famous song 'Santa Baby' by Eartha Kitt (thanks Wikipedia), so "Moyesy baby, slip Khedira under the tree, for me" seems oddly appropriate, if more than a little weird.

However, for the foreseeable future, I don't really have much choice other than to ride the bad times out and hope for better days. After all, the season ends in just five months, and then there will be England's traditional World Cup collapse to look forward to. Hopefully, Moyes and co won't be too focused on that competition and will instead do their homework better than they did this summer, when United loudly bragged about being being close to signing a number of players, not noticing that the clubs to whom they belonged were laughing at them, much like a man who hasn't realised he has walked out of a toilet with paper stuck to his shoe and his flies open.

From a positive point of view, United are a few good signings away from being an amazing team. With some excellent youngsters pushing through and money apparently available to spend, there is no reason why United can't compete again for years to come. However, at this rate, we look more likely to lose talent than gain it. But it's Christmas, chins have to be raised. Peace to all mankind and all that bollocks.

Things will get better, but they may have to get worse first.

Or, better yet, hopefully I'll just wake up.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Moyes will be Moyes

A little under seven months ago, as the rain hammered down at an emotional Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson addressed the famous old ground for one final time. While the tributes poured in and past glories were recounted, one small but not insignificant request was made: for the United fans to stand by their new manager. And most of us did...for a bit.

When news of Ferguson's imminent retirement reached me, I remember waking up in a Derby hotel room (don't ask me why I was in Derby, let's just say my early career path has taken me to some weird and wonderful places) feeling a strange mix of fear and confusion, a bit like being stuck in one of those 'naked' dreams. Ferguson's tenure as United boss far exceeded my time on this earth, so the idea of him being replaced was one I struggled to come to terms with. I felt like a kid whose parents had divorced and I would be forced to put up with my Mum's new man, even calling him 'Dad' while he awkwardly attempted to build bridges between us.

When my new 'Dad' (I'm going to see how far I can take this analogy) was announced as David Moyes, I was unsure of how to react, but looking back I now feel the right decision was made, even if United currently sit eighth in the Premier League. In the aftermath of Fergie's retirement, I said a few things I didn't mean out of grief and confusion - you know how it is. I even yearned for Chelsea's current boss Jose Mourinho, but looking back, the right decision was probably made.

"How have you come to that conclusion?" I hear all three of you ask?

Have you ever looked at your two favourite foods and thought: "if only I could combine them"? I had, until I realised that steak and ice cream is not a desirable mix. What I'm trying to say is that sometimes what you think will be a match made in heaven actually gives you food poisoning. Mourinho ended up going to Chelsea, and that is a move that suits both the manager and the club. Mourinho is the globe trotting mercenary, achieving success for the highest bidder, while Chelsea are just that - the perpetual highest bidder. The two deserve each other.

United, on the other hand, like Scottish managers. Perfect.

So why have United struggled under Moyes so far? Well, their cause wasn't helped by a summer transfer window which promised much but delivered very little. Ferguson's departure actually left an opportunity for United to improve. For all the great man had achieved, there were suggestions that he was losing his touch, in his tactics if not with his motivation, so United had a chance to add a few new players of real class. In the end, Moyes managed to spend almost £30 million on a player who has not improved a midfield which already had less flair than Lidl toilet paper. Still, United must have recouped most of that investment in wig sales alone by now...

So, without strengthening United's greatest weakness, the team were hardly going to get better. How much of United's pathetic transfer window is down to Moyes alone is open to debate, but the man ended up looking a bit like Jay from Inbetweeners, making large statements he was unable - or unwilling - to back up. In fact, although this analogy has been done to death, he really did look like the guy who tried to pull all the best looking women at the party, but ended up with the host's aunt.

So United were left with a strong, but vulnerable squad and in Ferguson's absence, the players were left without the Fergie factor which often conjured that crucial extra 5% from them. Think about it, this was a man who got Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck into the England team on the basis of them winning the Premier League. And nothing else. Moyes hasn't quite developed this ability yet, but he is starting to make progress.

But we did lose at home to West Brom.

That said, those predicting a total collapse from United are probably jumping to conclusions. Sure, a title triumph may be beyond the team this season and even next, but so what. As United fans, we have been spoilt for a long time, with success taken for granted. Our new Dad isn't going to deliver straight away, he needs to unpack all his things and do other step dad related stuff. There's still time for him to take us to the park, pick us up from school and buy us KFC. In this analogy, this means PLAY SHINJI KAGAWA AND NEVER LET ASHLEY YOUNG ANYWHERE NEAR A UNITED SHIRT.

Tomorrow, Moyes leads his new side out to play against his former team, Everton. In many ways, I expected Everton to cope worse without Moyes than we would without Ferguson, but the Merseysiders approach the game ahead of United in the Premier League table and looking to deliver a potentially fatal blow to United's title bid. Moyes himself had an annoying knack of inspiring Everton to amazing performances at Old Trafford. In fact, their 4-4 draw at the ground in 2012 still causes me to wake up at all hours of the night screaming in anguish and biting my fist until it bleeds.

For United, it is arguably a must win game, not just for the three points, but also because it would be good for Moyes to draw a line under his past and look to his future. As United fans, we are going to have to do the same. Stand by your man guys, stand by your man.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Second Ashes Test preview

Sorry for the underwhelming title, but the fact is I've been stewing over a headline for over three hours, and I had to just get something written down, so there it is.

A little over eight days ago, I woke up to see that England had been unceremoniously beaten, bruised and bullied. In fact, the humiliation would only have been worse if Mitchell Johnson had put his finger in his mouth and placed it in the England batsmen's ears, before giving them all atomic wedgies. Of course, comparing Mr Johnson to a school bully is rather ironic considering that, throughout the First Test, he sported a moustache which screamed 'do not trust me with children'. 

So how do England fight back? Graham Gooch, the England batting coach suggests that the game plan is to simply 'play better', but they will have to do so without Jonathan Trott, who has had to return home due to a stress-related illness. That said, how much England will miss Trott is open to debate, given that his form was worse than mine during a bench press attempt. The same goes for most of England's top order, of whom only Ian Bell is in anything like decent touch.

In Brisbane, England's problems centred around their inability to cope with the pace and bounce of Johnson and Ryan Harris, while Peter Siddle snarled a lot. However, given that the pitch in Adelaide is expected to be slower than a Gary Barlow sentence, Australia's pace attack ought to be blunted, giving England's beleaguered batsmen a chance to score a run or two. However, everyone said the pitch in Brisbane was flat, but England's batsmen ended up resembling the John Fisher Under 12 B team, the school XI for whom I batted at number four. And I once walked out with a chest pad and an arm guard...but without a bat.

Three years ago, England ran out comfortable winners here (I say 'here', I'm actually in an air-conditioned office in West London, not a swanky hotel in South Australia) thanks to a double-hundred from Kevin Pietersen and a first morning collapse from the Australians on a pitch flatter than Kate Moss. England will need similar bursts of inspiration if they are to overcome the hosts this time around, although given their batting displays of the last twelve months, that seems unlikely.

On balance, England's first XI is, to a man, better than Australia's, but the hosts seem to have stumbled upon a winning strategy on the field, coupled with a strong siege mentality and all the paranoia of Andre Villas-Boas in an Amsterdam cafe off it. When in form, England's batsmen and spinner are far better than what Australia can offer, while the Aussies have a better pace attack and are better at swearing at people.

 Not sure why I added this, it just seemed funny.

All of which brings me onto my next point: sledging. Sledging is the politically correct way of saying 'being a twat', much in the same way that Rugby players define sexually outrageous acts on team mates as 'banter'. Of course, while Australia were shit over the last couple of years, sledging took a back seat while they quietly took their beatings, with the crowds staying away for fear of having to support their team through a difficult spell. Now that the team is half-decent, the crowds have returned and so have the verbal blows.

Not that I'm complaining. If Australia gain an advantage from hurling abuse at the opposition, then fair play to them. I think it's time England fought back with some aggression of their own, either through some witty put-downs or just by straight up punching Mitchell Johnson in his irritating rat face.

Too often you hear pundits say banal nonsense like "let's just hope there isn't any ill feeling or controversy". Bollocks. I want to see both teams going at each other from the outset. I want to see a total breakdown in diplomatic relations between England and Australia. In fact, I want to see both sets of players in a jungle in a Hunger Games/Battle Royale type scenario. That said, given that Peter Siddle is terrifying as it is and eats nothing but bananas, he would probably emerge victorious, parading a smiling Joe Root's head on a spike.

Peter Siddle in 'sex face' mode

I guess what I'm trying to say between hypotheticals is that the edge that Australia have brought to this series is what has made it such a fascinating contest. Without it, Australia would be having to rely on talent alone. Therefore, England have a choice of either turning the other cheek in a delightfully English way and playing some bloody fine cricket on the field, or going toe-to-toe in the sledging stakes.

As for personnel, Australia are likely to stick with the same side which did the damage at the Gabba, while England will need to make at least one change, given Trott's absence. They are likely to go with Jonny Bairstow, that guy who batted well against South Africa once. As for the bowlers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad will be hoping to be joined by a third seamer capable of know...getting people out. England's bowling attack of the last few months has been a bit like the Sugababes; constantly changing personnel but unable to find the right formula. Leaving that crap analogy behind, expect Chris Tremlett - picked because he was tall - to be replaced by either the returning Tim Bresnan or Peter Crouch.

In two days time, we will see what England have in their locker. If Australia continue where they left off in Brisbane, then a 2-0 lead - and thus the prospect of me simultaneously crying and vomiting into my cereal - is extremely likely. I still feel England will get back into the contest and are still slight favourites to retain the Ashes. Indeed, the hallmark of the current side is to respond well to crushing defeats, and they will have to do the same in Adelaide, or Johnson and co will streak away to an Ashes victory.

And that's just not cricket.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Qatar's out of the bag now

A terrible pun, whatever will I write next? Bad jokes and little asides in brackets?

I digress. Gather round everyone, I was going to talk about the Manchester Derby and spurt about two thousands words of nonsense in your direction, but I won't. Why?

Because the World Cup in 2022 is going to be held in Qatar. That's why.

The above sentence makes me think three things:
1. That's bloody ridiculous
2. Why aren't more people satirising this?
3. I must satirise this!

Of course, this Qatar thing has been known for about three years now, but today it appears that Europe's top leagues and clubs have consented to allow the world's biggest summer competition to be held in winter.

Before - like a fat kid rolling down a hill - I start this post/rant and then find it difficult to stop, I will acknowledge a few mitigating factors:

Yes, to hold the World Cup in the same two continents over and over again is detrimental to the world game, and new countries in less 'traditional' football continents should be allowed to host this most prestigious competition. This hasn't happened enough in recent years, except when USA hosted the competition in 1994...and Japan and Korea did in 2002...and South Africa did in 2010. To give the competition to an entirely new country is an idea to be commended, but what was wrong with Australia's bid?

OK, so there's only one mitigating factor.

Without sounding like a right-wing leaning, tabloid-consuming, prejudice-spurting idiot, there is no way a country like Qatar should be hosting this tournament.

Even if you forget the political tension in the Middle-East at the moment, forget the country's views on alcohol consumption and homosexual relations, and the billion degree heat, there are still more holes in the organisation of this tournament than a paper condom, with half the effectiveness.

And do you know what? It's not even Qatar's fault.

Qatar invested a lot of time and money into this bid and are currently embarking on a very ambitious project to 'get their country on the map' through bids for major sporting events, including a (failed) bid for the 2020 Olympics. It's a bit like Manchester City trying to buy the Premier League, only with greater implications. They are well within their rights to do whatever they want. Which is where FIFA come in.

Now, this is not typically English whinging because we didn't get the 2018 World Cup. This isn't being wise after the event with Captain Hindsight levels of "I told you so". Besides, I'm mostly Scottish. Now, while that technically doesn't mean I am qualified to talk about football, it does mean that I'm not being...well, English.

Forgive my suspicion, but isn't it strange that a very ambitious bid from a group of men with a lot of money and influence won the right to host this tournament? Particularly when said country has very little football pedigree (go on, name one Qatari footballer), has a climate which makes summer football impossible and a current lack of top-class football stadia. It's almost like FIFA were persuaded by another factor. Almost.

Unfortunately, money does play a big role in modern football. Look at the Premier League's wealth and it's arguably detrimental effect on English football. Look at Portsmouth and Rangers, who spent so much money just to compete and ended up like the sporting equivalent of Kerry Katona. It's not really about the game anymore, it's about business now. It's not just the clubs who are now concerned with the 'bottom-line' either, it appears the organisations are too.

Why men who are supposedly much smarter than you and I couldn't predict this scenario is staggering. I remember the day that it was announced Qatar would host the World Cup. I actually forgot Qatar were bidding for the tournament. I thought they were the token rubbish attempt to make up the numbers, a bit like Great Britain at the European Song Contest or Lukasz Fabianski. When I found out they had won, I walked slowly upstairs and punched my pillow for about three days. That anger then turned to incredulity and then curiosity as to how this would all work. The truth is, nobody even knows now, in spite of the apparently inevitable conclusion.

So, it appears that the World Cup will be moved to the northern hemisphere's winter. In the simplest terms, that is not a problem. Indeed, why should Europe dictate the state of the world game? Why should smaller countries not be given the chance to represent themselves on the world stage?

But then, why did Australia not propose a winter World Cup? Why do we have a summer World Cup in the first place? Why should the five or six most powerful leagues in the world now have to radically overhaul their schedule to accommodate one tournament, then radically overhaul them again when it is over? Doesn't make sense does it?

The whole episode feels like a teenager who has not done his coursework despite having had months to do so. It's a bit like said teenager realised his work was flimsy, so added a load of pretty fonts and pictures to distract attention from the utter shambles which has been submitted. Luckily, like that teenager, there is time to turn this around, but it looks like it will take the mother of all all-nighters and waffling conclusions to make it work.

Anyway, that is my rant over. The bad thing is, this a giant mess caused by a giant organisation. The good thing is, we have a giant organisation trying to sort it out.

Good luck with that.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Premier League 2013/14 - What we've learnt so far

As the football world hurtles head-on toward the tedium of an international break, it has given us poor Premier League fans the opportunity to take stock of the opening fixtures of a season which has already provided a number of surprises and talking-points.

With that in mind, here is my ten-point analysis of the season so far. This analysis may stretch to twelve points if something comes to me midway through, or I may struggle to get past eight points if I get hungry and leave it. (Edit this paragraph - it's a little crap)

1. Manchester United have no midfield

OK, that may be a little misleading...many of us have known this for a little while. So far, I have had the pleasure of watching United's thrilling 0-0 draw with Chelsea and a rollercoaster 1-0 loss to Liverpool this season and each match led to the above conclusion.

For vast swathes (yes, swathes) of each match, the United midfield was about as populated as a comedy night in Berlin. Other than the excellent Michael Carrick, there is not much else. Tom Cleverley is willing but limited, yet remains the second best central midfielder available. Ryan Giggs is 39, Anderson has got really fat, really fast and Darren Fletcher is feeling a little poorly. A friend of mine recently said that in many ways, the fate of a billion pound company rests upon the bowel movements of a Scotsman, which is precarious at best.

Why this midfield malaise remains untreated, I have no idea. I can only assume that either United are insisting upon a tactical revolution - the 4-1-5 formation - or David Moyes was once both attacked by a malevolent, evil playmaker, leading him to vow never to play one for United.

Either that, or Shinji Kagawa has slept with his wife.

2. Jose Mourinho is still Jose Mourinho

Upon his return to England, Jose Mourinho - he of the self-appointed nickname - gave himself the moniker  'The Happy One', citing a change in his outlook on football, causing every journalist in England to moan in orgasmic delight. Would this mean a change in Mourinho's tactical view of the game?

No. Even three years managing Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Xabi Alonso have not altered the attention-seeking one's approach. Chelsea's game against United went some way to proving this, with Mourinho insisting upon a formation with neither a striker nor Juan Mata. He also arrived in West London not satisfied with the number of attacking midfielders at his disposal, so he bought a few more...and there is still no flair in that side.

Not that I'm being 'the moany one', give me a 1-0 win over a 4-4 draw any day...but while you're at it Jose, perhaps you could spot us one of your 7 playmakers?

3. Arsenal went from being the worst team in England to the best in two weeks.

It's been quite a transformation for Arsenal since that dire 3-1 home loss to Aston Villa on the opening day. They have gone on to record a staggering four wins in a row since that match, which had prompted many an Arsenal fan to react in typically level-headed, balanced fashion.

The signing of Mesut Ozil and a win over Tottenham has seen them confident of this at last being their year to win a trophy. Ozil in particular looks like a great signing. If there was one thing Arsenal needed, it was a midfielder who could pick a pass, keep possession and not track back.

Again, please do not read too much into my sarcasm Arsenal fans. Ultimately, your team are placed higher than mine in the table, and you bought Mesut Ozil, a player I would consider getting a proper job for.


Well, kinda. They sit top of the Premier League after three games and look set to go on a rampaging march to the Premier League title, inspired solely by Daniel Sturridge winners in 1-0 victories.

The absence of Luis Suarez has not hindered Liverpool one bit, and in some ways, it is not difficult to see why. Suarez, for all his abundant quality, became a big fish in a small pond at Liverpool and actually ended up diluting the qualities of Lucas and Henderson, which is unthinkable.

Add into the mix the Uruguayan's fondness for controversy and the taste of human flesh, and the team have actually seemed more focused in his absence. Coutinho and 'Renault' Aspas have been outstanding behind Sturridge and although their luck is bound to run out at some point, Liverpool could be contenders to go all the way to the final of the Top Four Cup.

5. Tottenham without Gareth Bale are...

Other than really, really rich? A little dull to be honest. I do not doubt the assertion of many Spurs fans that the team may actually benefit without Bale, but they are certainly less fun to watch. One could argue that Tottenham are not only a better XI without the Welshman, but an actual XI, given Bale Hostpur's performances last year.This is likely to be a good thing...eleven players are usually better than one.

The signings of Soldado, Paulinho and Eriksen in particular look like brilliant buys, and don't be surprised to see Spurs challenge for the title. Until about February. When it all falls apart. And Arsenal pip them at the end. Again.

6. Manchester City are still hopeless away from home

When I was about six years old, I asked my Dad why Man United had beaten Southampton so easily at home but been beaten at The Dell.

He went on to explain that, quite simply, away games are harder than home games, for a number of reasons too dull to write down but too important to totally overlook. In spite of this, City still don't seem to have learnt this lesson. Their title 'defence' - for want of a better word - last season was undermined by shocking away form, and they have already lost to newly-promoted Cardiff in Wales. It's all well and good panelling teams at home, but victories only ever get you three points, no matter where or how comfortably they are obtained.

That's my advice City, you can thank me later

7. Paolo Di Canio is actually pretty useless
Of course, if this particular blog goes viral, Di Canio is likely to hunt me down and murder me, the bloody psycho. But not racist psycho. Fascist psycho. There's a difference apparently.

It goes to show that yelling at your players and scaring the shit out of them is a pretty good tactic in League One and for over-zealous parents in Little League, but at the top level, some tactical nous is required. Example: England at Euro 2012. Example: England at World Cup 2010. Example: England not at Euro 2008.

Di Canio just about managed to frighten his players to safety last season, but they look in trouble already this year, in spite of the 39 players the Italian brought in, possibly to compensate for the fines, bans and beatings he is likely to impose over the next nine months.

8. Joe Kinnear is more useless

Seriously, what is the point of him? Is he part of some plan between the North East clubs to see who can humiliate themselves more?

The guy who was brought in to aid transfer business...didn't. That's basically it. He had ONE job and has gone about pursuing an obviously unknown remit, which I suspect is seeing how many Geordies he can wind up before he is booted out of the city for good.

9. Premier League teams are really rich

Premier League teams spent £630m this summer, which is enough to give everyone in England a tenner, or £200m more than the GDP of Tonga.

How did they get so much money? Well, firstly through TV deals and secondly through their ability to milk fans dry. Nothing will be done about either of these while the marketing is so good - it is the best league in the world after all - and the football is so frustratingly and compellingly average. There will come a time when the bubble bursts but, like my attitude towards toasters and knives, until something catastrophic happens, no action will be taken.

10. The Premier League is still pretty exciting

As the most nervous football fan in the world, I spent most of the summer actually enjoying the Premier League's absence. Why? Not because I find the league dull, but because I find it gut-wrenchingly (apparently that isn't a word) gripping. The drama, the twists and - in the nicest way - the gradually declining quality makes for unpredictable, enchanting viewing, which I can do without most of the time, both for the sake of my health and my relationships with the people who I care about. After all, nobody wants to see a loved one crying their eyes out or with fingernails sharp enough to cut steak.

But, I'm afraid it's going to be this way until May, so we may as well enjoy it for what it is.

Premier League, welcome back.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Manchester Derby: Nothing to pay for?

Hello again everyone, two things have given me the impetus to write tonight's blog.

1) I don't think enough people are covering tonight's match between Manchester United and Manchester City

2) Justin Bieber has 37 million more Twitter followers than me, and that has to be addressed sometime, what does he have that I don't? For what it's worth, Bieber has more followers than fellow countrymen. Spooky.

Oh yeah, 3) My girlfriend might start a blog soon and I find it of huge importance that I reassert my dominance in the literary stakes, particularly after we don't play '4 words 1 pic' anymore. As my profile picture suggests, I don't bring the looks, I bring the books.

Anyway, much to the chagrin of the nation's media, tonight's match will be more of demonstration derby than a demolition derby, not that I as a United fan am too bothered. Hell, City may even win, and I won't be too upset, it will be the footballing equivalent of Nick Clegg beating David Cameron in a race to the trousers shop. Now that I have made a mediocre attempt at political satire, let's talk sports.

A few weeks ago, this game was scheduled for that hotbed of footballing activity - Monday night at 8pm - in the hope of driving fans to incontinence from the high stakes, tension and significance. Of course, the hoped pivotal nature of the game in the title race would drive 'The Three H's' of football broadcasting: hype, hype and hype. If you want a more pertinent example of this, see this year's Battle Royale for that most coveted of sporting glories - Fourth Place.

But the championship battle hasn't turned out that way. Unfortunately for the broadcasters, City's form has stuttered while United have been imperious, stretching an already worrying advantage into an almost certainly decisive one. So the media have zoned in on the other subplot - the 'local' significance. But is there really any of that? In United's case, fans from all over the world will tune into the game at crazy hours to watch their team play, while all over Lancashire, City's fans will do the same at, admittedly, a still crazy hour.

It is no more a regional battle, football has changed. I mean, I support United and as I am constantly reminded, I am from London. Indeed, do you know the statistic that at any time in London, you are no more than five metres from a rat? You are probably only four metres away from a United fan. No comparisons please.

The contest

Anyway, the game. United can take an 18 point lead with victory and ensure that the title can be won as early as next Wednesday. However, at the end of a season which once promised so much, the expectation upon the champions-elect to secure the seemingly inevitable may affect their performance. Alternatively, the United players may see the game as a coronation; an opportunity to justify their commanding lead and to remind City of the improvement required to reclaim the crown. And that means doing a little more than signing Scott Sinclair.

As for City, an imminent FA Cup semi-final aside, their season has been relatively poor. In spite of a tough group, they were woeful in the Champions League and the defence of their title has been more pathetic than my current attempt to look busy - I'm actually at work right now. However, the game may present a chance to return to the old days, when the derby was like a cup final, when the opportunity to scupper or derail a United title charge was one to be taken with both hands.

I personally think the game will be low-key and cagey, with United perhaps less concerned with grasping the opportunity than, more importantly, not blowing it. On the other hand, City appear unsure of whether to look forward or back and an uncertainty has seemed to pervade through the club for most of the season. Most City fans will probably agree, they as fans are simply not yet used to success, perhaps the same goes for the players

It is probably my defeatism which leads me to predict a rather dour game, but I would not be surprised if it takes the complexion of a relegation dogfight, but with Samir Nasri thrown in. But don't take my word for it, I'm so nervous and pessimistic that I punched the air in relief at safely getting into bed last night, I'm hopeful I will be wrong.

The context

I still remember the corresponding fixture from last season when City tore United apart - mostly in stoppage time and with the handy deployment of 'the sweaty goal' - to record a 6-1 victory which still gives me sleepless nights. Perhaps of greater significance was City's win at the Etihad Stadium six months later, claiming a 1-0 victory on their way to a first championship since 1754. If the 6-1 defeat gives me selective insomnia, don't get me started on the manner in which City actually won the title...

Ok, I got started. While the nation's commentators were doing their best impressions of the male orgasm to accompany Sergio Aguero's goal, I was checking my phone for confirmation of the horrible truth, hoping that throwing it at a wall would make it all Ok. It didn't, and I remain emotionally scarred and without a fully functioning phone. In Salford and 'red' Manchester, there will forever be 'anomalies' in the sales figures of anti-depressants for May 2012. Meanwhile in China, there was probably a puzzling and dramatic increase in the number of Manchester United shirts with 'Aguero' on the back.

Looking forward, for us United fans, winning tonight would give us a brief sense of calm in a storm of uncertainty brought about by City's sudden rise to prominence. We all pretend to not be concerned by City's financial power, saying that Financial Fair Play will put paid (pun intended) to that (will it f**k) or that their position as current champions, is likely to be brief. But in reality, I'm sure most of us feel the same as me, lying awake at night in the foetal position and crying softly, waiting for that day when last May's demons can be exorcised, at least in the short-term. It matters a lot more than most of us care to admit.

I may have gone full circle in the space of one short article, but yes, tonight's match does matter. To a natural pessimist like myself - and thus my opinion is essentially void - it isn't over until it's over, but even to the realist, the sooner the day that red - and not blue - ribbons are on the Premier League trophy, the better. Those bragging rights I mentioned earlier may not be at stake, but the smug satisfaction - currently in the ownership of those at the Etihad - is. I need that false sense of superiority and achievement (derived from my own inability to do something for myself) to help me enjoy the summer.

With the weather finally perking up recently, starting tonight, hopefully that summer starts early.


By the way, if you are coming here from BBC Sport after my epic spamming, thanks for reading and I hope I didn't waste your time! Additionally, from that same page, please watch the interview with Owen Hargreaves, how strange is his accent?!

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Flappy paddles and Vanity panels

Ahhh Formula One, we have missed you. It has only been two months since Jenson Button limped over the line at the end of a brilliant Brazilian Grand Prix and 2012 season, but it seems like so much longer.

In that time, us Formula One fans have lived a hollow existence, absentmindedly walking the streets early on Sunday mornings, making vaguely 'F1ish' noises, or shouting "LIGHTS OUT, AWAY WE GO" when the microwave gets to zero.

In fact, on my walk to work, I now employ a 'racing line' to get to the train station as quickly as possible and throw my hands in the air when slowed by a back-marker (pensioner). I even try to be the first to react when the lights flash on the train doors to let me off that sweaty, angst-filled metal tube...much like a Formula One car.

This time last year, I wrote a pretty decent piece proclaiming Felipe Massa to be the man to beat in 2012 and the master of the universe in general. My thoughts have changed slightly for the 2013 season, for three main reasons: Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull are just too bloody good, Felipe Massa isn't actually the master of the universe and I used up all my best jokes in that article. Yes, THAT was the peak of my powers.

So, what can we realistically expect from 2013? Here's my take on it, strap yourself in for a hilarious* preview of the year ahead.

* Probably mildly amusing at best, like when someone says 'lol' via digital communication or Russell Brand.

I should just say at this point that if you want a detailed analysis and genuinely worthwhile predictions from someone who knows what they are talking about, please go elsewhere. Here is my team-by-team guide.

Red Bull
Quite simply the antithesis of funniness. How on earth am I meant to blog about the unpredictable, amusing nature of Formula One when this team keeps bloody winning everything. And this team is Austrian. Name me one funny thing that has been influenced by Austria, other than Arnold Schwarzenegger's hilarious performance as Mr Freeze in 'Batman & Robin'. Exactly, nothing.

With three straight victories in the Driver and Constructors Championships, it is difficult to see beyond Red Bull making it number four. Unless Mark Webber does what we all know he yearns to do and takes Sebastian Vettel out in at least two of the races. And even then it'll be close.

With a multitude of tracks suiting the characteristics of the 'typical' Red Bull car, there should be enough opportunities to secure maximum points on any given weekend, making your painful early morning rise utterly fruitless. In fact, the team are even pushing for a re-introduction to the calendar of the AUSTRIAN Grand Prix...AT THE 'RED BULL RING' FOR CHRIST'S SAKE!

I honestly don't know what to expect from Ferrari this year. With Fernando Alonso guaranteed to have said the word 'maximum' at least 638 times over the winter, there is no doubt the team will have tried to provide a car which isn' know, hopeless. Not that this really matters to Mr Alonso, who could probably drive my dad's Toyota Avensis to a string of podiums if given the chance. The problem is the man I once deemed indestructible - Felipe Massa. Once again, the Brazilian appeared to turn the corner (the minimum requirement of a Formula One driver) at the end of last season. The problem is, knowing Massa, he probably turned that corner, only to go terribly wide at the next.

Unlikely to produce two poor cars in a row, the team should be near the top and if they are within half a second of Red Bull's pace, expect Alonso to really push Vettel (and Webber, at his customary two solid races) to the limit. That if is bigger than Alonso's eyebrows though.

Once again, the Woking team appear to have produced a very strong car to start the season, but that was only good enough for third place overall last year. With the absence of Lewis Hamilton likely to affect the overall performance of the team, it will be interesting season for McLaren. With Jenson Button and Sergio Perez likely to battle over who can make the least pit-stops, it could be that if the car is gentle enough on its tyres, McLaren could challenge at circuits which are typically demanding on the rubber (no sex jokes please), like Canada and China.

Even people who are qualified to make predictions will struggle to call McLaren's season, so I ought to have no chance, but I see them having a really strong year, particularly if the team can get the car working to the precise conditions Button demands. That said, they had thirteen years to get used to Lewis' favourite settings, and instead provided cars that often fell apart or had gearboxes made of clay.

The team have talked the talk by aiming for a top-three finish, and who is to say they can't do it? Well, me. I personally think the aforementioned teams will be too strong, particularly if Romain Grosjean hasn't got over his penchant for hitting more sidepods than apexes. With Kimi Raikkonen showing remarkable consistency last year, he could be in line for another strong season. With a year under his belt after his comeback, he may shed the caution which often cost the Finn more points. Usually kind on their tyres, it could be a strong year for Lotus, but I just can't see it, at least not yet.

Ahh Mercedes, what do we think? In my opinion, more of the same really. Lewis Hamilton arrives from McLaren and may be able to add a few tenths to boost the team, but it is more likely to only mean the difference between seventh and fourth than anything else. The British driver may be able to deliver the odd podium and victory which ought to be beyond his Silver Arrow, but a championship challenge appears unlikely, which probably means more testy post-race interviews and the return of that famous scowl.

Of course, we are forgetting Nico Rosberg, who is an outstanding driver and has the intelligence to ensure the team stay on his side if necessary. If Rosberg was only able to extract one win from this car last season, I find it difficult to imagine Lewis working miracles, although many of my fellow Hamilton 'fanboys' will argue differently.

Some of my 'contacts' (one person I spoke to once) thinks Hamilton could be the difference - and more - between mediocrity and consistent challenges for victories. I disagree, but I do see a season a little better than last for Mercedes, perhaps fighting Lotus for fourth place in the championship. I think their focus is on 2014, when loads of complicated rules come in and prevents us fans from really knowing what exactly is going on.

The midfield
Because I know you are all bored of reading this now, I'm going to make this brief. To be honest, I'm getting bored of writing it! By midfield, I mean Sauber, Force India, Williams and Toro Rosso, and none of them appear too capable of building on what were encouraging seasons last year.

Sauber, thanks mostly to the outgoing Perez, had a great season last year. Although Nico Hulkenberg is also a very good driver, can he continue that level of performance? Time will tell. Esteban Gutierrez looks promising too, but I think with regulations stable for this season, Sauber are unlikely to have the same impact they had last season, when Perez secured three podiums for the team.

Force India were very consistent last season, with Paul Di Resta driving well for the first half of the year, before allowing Nico Hulkenberg to dominate him in the second. With Hulkenberg gone, as a Scot, I will be hoping Di Resta can take his chance as team leader and deliver more strong results, although his teammate is yet to be decided. I think, I don't research much.

Williams scored their first victory since 2004 with Pastor Maldonado - that loveable chap - taking the win in Spain, before their performances tailed off and they ended up in eighth place in the Constructor's Championship, thanks in part to Maldonado's carelessness as well as his occasional brilliance. With Bruno Senna replaced by Valtteri Bottas...I don't know who that is or where I'm going with that point, so I will leave that sentence there.

And then we have Toro Rosso, who I think will finish ninth again. I know, how profound.

The new teams
Who aren't new anymore. I think the excuses now have to stop for Marussia and Caterham, who are going to have to step up or step away. With HRT going bust - before a legion of fans kicked them out themselves - we are left with eleven teams, which should actually help the quality of the racing...slightly.

I think - again - that Caterham can finally secure a point, while I see another season of struggle for Marussia. Max Chilton makes his debut in the Marussia this year, and it will be interesting to see how he gets on, but what is likely to be a slow car may limit his opportunities to impress. As I said, the excuses have to stop now and the points have to start coming in, or these teams will be long forgotten.

So there we have it, Formula One is back, and I am back with it, hurrah!

I honestly think we could have a great season on our hands, and it is genuinely difficult to predict the next few months. But as I have shown, predictions are useless - thanks Felipe.

Let the racing begin.

OH BY THE WAY, I also wrote a little piece towards the end of last year, concerning the business side of the sport. It's got interviews, columns from actual experts, some nice pictures and some serious F1 chat from yours truly. I don't even make that many snide comments in brackets or hit and miss jokes.

If you like that kind of thing (and why wouldn't you?) then click here.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Window of inopportunity (is that even a word?)

Ahhh February 1st, the footballing equivalent of New Year's Day or the day after your birthday.

Have you ever woken up with the cold light of day piercing the curtains, bringing to an abrupt end a fitful, uncomfortable sleep, with more questions than answers, and a dreadful combination of random lucidity, realisation and fear filling your every thought? "What did I do last night?" "How much did I spend?" Or, in Harry Redknapp's case, "What the hell is Jermaine Jenas doing here?"

On those awful, awful mornings, you spend the next few hours tramping about the house scratching your head, wondering if it is too late to right the wrongs of yesterday, but the evidence soon appears and you are left to scramble hopelessly around, stuck in damage-limitation mode. If we're going to continue this tenuous analogy which has gone way too far already, let me please ask this: how much did Peter Odemwingie have to drink last night?!

I am of course talking about transfer deadline day and, like most things in life, it turned out to be dreadfully predictable. Arsenal once again ignored their obvious need for an extra player or two until long after everyone had cared, signing Nacho Monreal from Malaga. By the way, Monreal looks like a strange mix of Peter Crouch and Luka Modric, which I find incredibly disturbing. The injury sustained by Kieran Gibbs in midweek meant that Arsenal were left without a recognised left-back for at least three weeks. I understand that Andre Santos occasionally tries to find his way to left-back, but the key word is 'recognised'...and I don't recognise Mr Santos as a footballer, let alone a specialist in a position.

By contrast, QPR had a very busy day. Knowing that heroic defender Ryan Nelsen was on his way to the MLS to teach soccerball, the Premier League's bottom club were keen to add a defender or six. Christopher  Samba duly arrived after a turbulent spell at that Russian club with the long name, while Jenas and Andros Townsend came later in the day. Incidentally, Harry Redknapp appeared nonplussed when asked about his association with transfer deadline day, but the man spends so much time leaning out of his car in front of a camera, answering benign questions, he should be made a spokesman for his local McDonald's Drive-Thru.

But seriously? QPR signed three average players and nearly signed two others? Am I the only one who finds transfer deadline day incredibly self-serving and tedious? Much like the Premier League itself, it is an opportunity to maximise interest and revenues in a declining entity. Remember when deadline day was exciting? Me neither, except a few times when a couple of billionaires went mental and bought everything in sight. The main excitement from yesterday was Odemwingie NOT signing for someone. Yes, the West Brom striker will now be left with a situation more awkward than Lance Armstrong playing 'truth or dare' and I can understand that that is vaguely amusing for a minute or two. However, gossiping about how people will have to deal with their workmates is not the domain of the football fan, we seem to prefer hypocrisy and beating the crap out of each other instead. Thanks again Millwall by the way.

Forgive me for making a political/economic point, but in difficult financial times, with a triple-dip recession looming, how can we justify a system which allows Mr Samba - a decent, but hardly world-class defender - to earn £100,000 a week? It is not Samba's fault, but such a vast inflation of his perceived talents are surely thanks in no small part to this ridiculous, over-rated, disappointing day. What the transfer window provides is a licence for men with more money than sense to take vast, unjustified gambles to promote their own image, at the inevitable expense of their club. QPR may have yesterday's activity to thank if they avoid relegation, but what if they don't? What if they are left with these expensive trophies which seemed so attractive the night before? What if, going back to the case of 'the morning after', the club are left with the awkward situation of getting them to leave without giving too much away and not looking like a prick?

In Arsenal's case, why did they have to rush to buy Monreal in the first place? Because they were left with Andre Santos. Why? Because of the deadline day of Autumn 2011, when Arsenal bought five (I think) players in a desperate bid to halt an alarming early-season slide. How many of those signings have proved to be worthwhile? Per Mertesacker still has the jury out, albeit in no rush to deliver a verdict, much like how Per is never in a rush...ever. Yossi Benayoun and Park Chu-Young have since moved on, leaving Mikel Arteta as the only success from that day...and he hasn't exactly set the world alight, has he?

Anyway, that's quite enough from me. I can't believe how many serious points I've made in this post, this is not what I want to do. That said, perhaps I am maturing into a more rounded, context-driven and focused sport writer. Maybe this the new me. Maybe this marks a change in the direction of this blog.

On the other hand, boobs.

Sport in 2013: One year on from my first spam.

I remember starting this blog exactly one year ago with a mission: set up humorous, provocative and generally fun collection of my musings and ramblings about the finest sporting events around the world, as often as possible. When I say the finest sports, I basically mean the ones I like, and when I say around the world, I invariably mean within the United Kingdom and when I say as often as possible, I of course mean whenever I can be bothered which, since July, has been about twice.

What has changed? Well, I still find growing a beard difficult and despite numerous (one) attempt(s), I remain incredibly thin and geeky. I decided I needed to take a sabbatical from the stressful world of stress-free blogging and took some time out to really find myself, spending long afternoons standing at the top of hills, staring wistfully into the distance with a solitary tear rolling down my cheek.*

* - Lying in bed thinking "I might do a blog today...nah, Everybody Loves Raymond is on"

Unfortunately, the beginning of my internship and employment related laziness coincided with the most remarkable period of British sport of my lifetime. Still bearing the scars of Andy Murray's Wimbledon defeat and Manchester United's incredible sacrifice of the Premier League title, I resigned myself to a 2012 full of heartache and despair.

Which of course was wrong.

Still, 2013 is a new year and - more importantly - February is a new month, so it is time to get that New Year/Month/Week's resolution sorted.