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.