Wednesday, 30 November 2011


To say that it came as a surprise to hear, recently, that Adam Johnson had signed a contract extension with Manchester City keeping him at the club until 2016 would be something of an understatement. After all, those City-watchers (of which there are more and more each month) not privy to conversations between Johnson and the management could reasonably have surmised that he had hit the buffers at Eastlands, a ‘luxury player’ with whom Roberto Mancini had lost patience, if not actual faith. 

There was, it seemed, an illuminating moment in the Manchester City second string’s 5-2 Carling Cup evisceration of Wolves at Molineux at the end of October, a moment reprised when the two clubs met three days later at the Etihad. I’m talking, of course, about Johnson’s expressionless, bunraku face in response to rifling home crucially important 20-odd-yard drives, both whipped to precision past helpless ’keepers, the latter after 10-man City had just conceded a penalty to have their two-goal lead halved, the former at the start of a four-minute blitzkreig in which he also set up two more goals, one for Nasri, one for Džeko. “He’s just scored a worldy”, opined Merse on Sky Soccer Saturday between the two games, “and then he does that? Nah. That ain’t on”. 

At the time, I wondered what to make of such behaviour. Was this just temporary dissatisfaction, or symptomatic of a player whose tether-end had been reached? Just how deep did the young Wearsider’s exasperation at his current situation run? Well, taking the contract extension at face value, not very, it would appear. At a stroke, my fevered rumination on the implications – for both the player’s career and the England team’s prospects – of this suspected unhappiness (of which I am still to be entirely disabused) were seemingly made redundant. (If he were to leave, I thought, then he probably wouldn’t displace Nani or Young across town, nor Bale or Lennon at Spurs, while Arsenal and Chelsea’s systems don’t really suit – then where better than Liverpool…) 

Regardless of what the contract extension tells us vis-à-vis Johnson’s present state of mind, it was an open secret that he has been more than a little disgruntled at his recent treatment by Roberto Mancini, a man who seemed to have run out of carrots where his young winger was concerned and who had this season publically rebuked Johnson’s efforts on more than one occasion, his ululated “…but I feenk ‘e cann-a do better” becoming something of a refrain in his post-match platitudes. 

Indeed, seven days prior to the Carling Cup clash with Wolves – and before the (perhaps epochal) 6-1 romp across town (in which he played no part) – Johnson was unceremoniously withdrawn from the home Champions League tie with Villareal in the fortieth minute, shaking his head in apoplexy – though stopping short of the outright dissent that Tévez and Džeko had displayed in Munich – as Barry was introduced to play alongside De Jong, and Yaya Touré was pushed forward. Despite the restraint, it was abundantly clear that the winger was seething, for the mouth-agape head-shaking continued on the bench right up to half-time; and it was also clear that, more generally, Johnson was not in total agreement with his stick-wielding manager’s somewhat blunt verdicts on his performance-level. Thus it was with a shrug of acceptance that the footballing fraternity greeted news that Johnson, ostensibly sick of Mancini’s mild yet persistent barbs, had refused to board the coach back from Wolverhampton. Tiff or schism, their relationship had deteriorated remarkably quickly. 

It would appear that Mancini’s major bone of contention was with his winger’s tracking-back. Johnson, meanwhile, must feel that his attacking output and cutting edge merits considerably more game time than he’s been afforded. Perhaps the toughness of Mancini’s tough love was, and is, borne of a renewed confidence in his own position in the wake of the Tévez affair, emboldening him to the point of heavy-handedness with an English starlet who, given a run of games, has the raw ability to step up a level and join David Silva and Yaya Touré among the club’s most influential players. In fact, I’ve spoken to a top-level continental footballer who rates him as one of the most dangerous players in Europe. Bar none. (OK, so I made that last bit up. But it was plausible, no? There wasn’t a single one of you who said “Fuck off! That’s bollocks!” Admit it: you either said “Yeah, I can see that” or maybe even “Too fucking right”.) 

At any rate, it is arguable that Johnson offers something that no-one else in the City squad, with the possible exception of Balotelli, quite does: natural, raw dribbling. However, in the absence of any need to alter their overall modus operandi significantly, notwithstanding the defeat in Naples, and while the petrodollar-guzzling juggernaut rolls on, this underused facet of the squad (and the possible man-managerial implications for Mancini) may be of only secondary concern to the Blues. The league table serves as Mancini’s vindication. 

Despite the new contract and its implicit recognition of that raw talent, the evidence is pretty compelling that Mancini doesn’t yet trust Johnson. He is only the twelfth-busiest outfield player at City (fractionally ahead of a resurgent Balotelli), having made four Premier League starts and come off the bench in a further five games, scoring three goals in the process. Significantly, however, the four games in which he has played no part at all could be considered, on paper, the most difficult: certainly, trips to Old Trafford, Anfield and White Hart Lane fit that bill, while Everton at home has been a difficult fixture of late, City losing 1-2, 0-2, 0-1, and 0-2 over the last four seasons.

Yet what of the implications of all this bench-warming for his inclusion in the England squad for Euro 2012? After all, with Mancini’s compatriot, Fabio Capello, having shown himself time and again to be dogmatic about picking people on the basis of club form, it is understandable that Johnson might feel nervous about his participation in Poland and Ukraine, particularly having missed out on South Africa. One of the brightest emerging talents in English football, he will be 25 this summer and, whatever his public pronouncements, he could be forgiven for feeling that his time sitting on the sidelines has been served, certainly at club level. A first major tournament at 27 would be a scandal for a player of his abilities. 

It could be that leaving Eastlands would have given him the best chance of securing the regular first-team football that could propel him to the forefront of Capello’s thoughts, and that City’s contract offer has merely tried to ward this off. If Capello wishes to go for two inverted wingers in a 4-2-3-1, as seems the case, then Johnson is ostensibly competing with former Middlesbrough teammate Stewart Downing and Theo Walcott (Lennon seemingly out of favour) to play on the opposite flank to Ashley Young. A little over a year ago, he was flying toward the front of that queue, having scored the third in a four-goal romp past Bulgaria at Wembley on competitive debut. Four days later he slid home an excellent goal in England’s 3-1 win against the Swiss in Basel, a shallow run off the right flank being found by a Gerrard pass that was taken slickly round the advancing keeper and dispatched with aplomb. He was rewarded for these substitute performances with a full 90 minutes in the next match – the 0-0 draw with Montenegro – but played only 20 minutes in the remaining five qualifiers. 

While the fact that Johnson had still been having an impact when he came on for City speaks volumes for his raw ability, he nevertheless looked rusty and out of rhythm (vital for the winger’s art) for England against Spain. It is surely the case that he now needs more regular game time. He is a mercurial talent, a player who – all joking aside – would doubtless be more highly valued on the continent, yet one who, despite his rare gifts, seems curiously underappreciated here. Then again, we do have a certain amount of previous as far as maverick talents… 

The 1970s was the golden era of wasted talent – a World Cup won with bulldog discipline (and home advantage) saw Sir Alf Ramsay and then Don Revie (tri-)lionize the prosaic at the expensive of the outré, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington, Alan Hudson, Rodney Marsh, Peter Osgood, Charlie George, Tony Currie et al doubtless pulling their not insubstantial hair out at the injustice of it all as they amassed a mere 46 caps between them. Or, to put it another way, four more than David Batty.

Plus ca change...: Bowles attempts to pass Claudio Gentile

Unlike space-hoppers, flares and police fit-ups for suspected terrorists, however, this creativity-aversion at the FA was not just a phenomenon of the 1970s. English football seems to have possessed a couple of players in each decade who were, if not outcasts exactly, then woefully undervalued. The 1980s ought to have been bestridden by Glenn Hoddle, yet he won a comparatively paltry 53 caps, while the likes of winger Peter Barnes (22) and playmaker Micky Hazard (0) were left unpolished or untouched. The 1990s was the decade of the great enigma of English football, Matt Le Tissier, a man with the most natural, languid strike of the ball, good enough to have an entire Goal of the Season devoted to him and a player admired by the young Xavi, no less, yet who won only a paltry 7 caps. The noughties’ great underachievers are harder to pinpoint, if only because the continual exposure to Champions League football and the influx of enlightened continental methods has brought a torrent of modernity flushing through the shit-filled Augean Stable of the Charles Hughes/Don Howe ‘philosophy’, but someone like Joe Cole, despite his 56 caps, remains a player who, a scapegoat all too often, has withered where he might have bloomed. Is this the tradition of neglect that Adam Johnson will prolong? 

Irrespective of the fact that it is two Italians presently holding him back, there is hardly a tub-thumping, tabloidal outcry for him to be more frequently utilized by In-ger-land; and it is not as though we – or football – are blessed with natural dribblers (the sort who can beat men from a standing start and not just through raw speed in stretched games: Ginola, Di Canio, and their ilk). When all is said and done, there’s a simple truism with football: some people have got it, some haven’t. And either we just don’t realize it with Johnson yet or we are being woefully negligent. Along with Jack Wilshere, Phil Jones and the still-just-about young Wayne Rooney, he should comprise the world-class vanguard of England’s medium-term efforts, not an underappreciated luxury – a Ferrari in the garage – at rich old Eastlands.


Becks looking to play in the hole.
Becks hoping to go deep and spray it around.
Sod it sometimes you just have to let the pictures do the talking...

Looks like Alistair McGowan and Ronni Ancona were bang on…

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


I’ve often wondered whether ‘irrational hatred’ wasn’t, in fact, a tautology. Isn’t loathing always ‘irrational’? If not irrational, then unconscious, at least – conscious justifications merely giving our baser, more primal sentiments the ex post facto sheen of legitimacy. Or are there genuinely rational and reasonable grounds for hatred – the implementation of systematic genocide, say, or the so-called ‘ideological’ call to destroy a supposedly morally degenerate civilization – perfectly sound reasons that can be objectively agreed upon, and consciously assented to by all of ‘right mind’? I have a feeling that to seek to justify hatred in this way makes you, inescapably, as demented as Hitler or Osama bin Laden, and to ‘hate’ them in turn would be an undeniable waste of psychic resources, pity seeming more appropriate. 

Maybe I never truly hated Alan Pardew, anyway; maybe it – he – was just an irritation, an annoyance, a botheration. Who knows. What is certain is that, for a while, that soapy face and bassoon-like nasal parp stirred in me a prejudice or two that I wouldn’t really want to admit to in polite company, or impolite, for that matter (the difference at times not being easy to discern). I may even have spat at the pixels representing him on the TV, once… 

It’s hard to put my finger completely on it, but there was about him an air of smugness, I felt, and without the (partial) mitigation of actual achievement. In addition, he seemed such a desperate try-hard with words (not the crime of the century, I grant you), over-reaching his way to mangled metaphors and malapropisms when not outright misjudging the tone of what ought not really be said, even by iconoclasts (which he isn’t); for instance, calling West Ham fans “fucking wankers” who “should all fuck off” (albeit in jest) at a media training session (!) put on for him by the club (at a cost of £2k). In short, he was the archetypal bumptious social climber (nothing wrong with aspiration – in the sense of striving – only with boasting, or fretting, about status); a managerial Hyacinth Bucket apt to play too many bum notes while blowing his own trumpet. I’m Alan Pardew, A-ha! 

How heartily I laughed, then, when Pardew – at the time between jobs (at least, he hoped ‘between’ and not ‘post-’) – described a piece of midfield enforcement by Michael Essien to Match of the Day 2’s audience thus: “Ched Evans, who’s a strong boy, he knocks him off like he ain’t there. He absolutely rapes him”. 

Quite a faux pas, n’est-ce pas

Nevertheless, after a brief and relatively successful sojourn with Southampton, Pardew was invited by that paragon of PR, the replica shirt-selling, replica shirt wearing populist, Mike Ashley, to take up the manager’s post at Newcastle United, perennial oversized slumberers and a shoo-in for Most Deluded Club in the Land. Rumours were abroad that Pardew had befriended Ashley and his right-hand man, Chairman Derek Llambias, over the blackjack table, and the seemingly unseemly fact that he had fraternised with these two nincompoops convinced me of his irrefutable muppetry. Guilt by association. 

Gannin' oot th'footie, n' that, yous knah

The circumstances surrounding his arrival were hardly likely to have endeared him to the Toon Army, either. Or, to put it another way, the circumstances surrounding his arrival seemed like an insurmountable obstacle to him ever succeeding (see Allardici, Sam), a certain disaster waiting to happen, reason enough for me to let off a cackle of Scooby Doo-ian pantomime villainy. Pardew didn’t have a prayer. He was becoming the Man Who Killed Bambi, a replacement for the universally admired Chris Hughton, who had returned Newcastle to the Premier League at first time of asking, with 100 points, only to be unceremoniously ditched last December, having overseen a 5-1 derby win over Sunderland, a 6-0 rout of Villa and a 1-0 win at Emirates, and with Newcastle sitting in 12th position in the table. Even so, a run of five without a win created the opportunity for the trigger to be pulled, the ostensible justification being that the club needed a “more experienced manager”. 

Opprobrium was duly rained down upon Newcastle by an indignant punditariat. For many it was the latest tawdry, farcical episode for a club with an insatiable penchant for self-parody, what with the Messiah years having brought them nothing; with previous owners having heaped layer after layer of shame upon the club (Freddie Shepherd, anyone); with the appointment of the anti-charisma ‘charismatic leader’, Alan Shearer; with Kinnear’s rant; with even Sir Bobby Robson signing a collection of wronguns. Now Llambias and Ashley were bringing in a man not only with a propensity to use wildly inappropriate verbs in public, but who himself had just the two seasons’ top-flight management up his sleeve. Not only unseemly, then, it was illogical: Pardew’s CV was neither diamond-studded nor was he particularly “experienced” in dealing with Premier League players. 

After cutting his teeth over the course of four seasons at Reading, he left to take the job at fellow Championship strugglers, West Ham, losing a play-off final to Palace (his third such result on the bounce) before winning one the following year, then leading the Hammers to a creditable 9th in the Premier League while also reaching the FA Cup final, only for Steve Gerrard to snatch victory away with a last-minute thunderbolt and his team to succumb in the shoot-out. His stock was at its highest (until now, today). Time to build. So it was that those two most Anglophile of Argentines, Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano, arrived in East London, lured by the prospect of European football (and that alone). Yet Pardew hardly played either, instead preferring Hayden Mullins to the current Barcelona player and captain of the albiceleste, a decision that smacked of xenophobic, Basil Fawlty-esque Little Englanderism. In my worldview, anyway. This impression (or prejudice, call it what you will) would later be corroborated by his touchline push-and-shove with Arsène Wenger, tensions having been cranked up by Pardew’s sanctimonious criticism of Le Prof for fielding a team without English players. Anyway, the Icelanders would fire him just three weeks after buying the club (and no Magnússon I know is dumb, after all), whereupon he pootled across town to relegation-embroiled Charlton. He was unable to save them from the drop, nor get them promoted the following year, and duly suffered the second sacking of his career a short way into his third season at The Valley. His third followed – post-“rape”, post-eight-month sabbatical – at Southampton, the departure shrouded by talk of low morale and friction at the training ground – which figured; it was Pardew. 

absolutely not a dodgy deal whatsoever; all perfectly above board

Now, I have to admit that Pards had slunk off my radar somewhat during this period, but, lo and behold, here he was again, popping up at Newcastle, cocksure and preening, explaining how – and with a staggering lack of appreciation of just how much he’d fallen on his feet – he had “spelt out” to the owners that he wanted a “long contract” (it’s five-and-a-half years) and that he’d received reassurances that Andy Carroll would be staying (which, in retrospect, could all have been a colossally ingenious ruse, it now seems). Perhaps Pardew had won a bet, I surmised, looking for sane reasons for the appointment from a Newcastle perspective. Everybody assumed there must have been polaroids, but then a moment’s reflection revealed that too many of Wor Mike’s indiscretions are already in the public domain to render him susceptible to blackmail. It all seemed like a marriage made in heaven: drunk club, joke owner, too-pious fans, goldfish bowl – surely, surely it would all end in tears… And perhaps this teary ending was going to happen before it had even started, for – most joyously for those of us hoping to see him fall on his face and splatter that flaring mandrill nose everywhere – there was even the flirtation with another nuclear PR blunder, foot going in mouth well before it found its way under the Toon table when Pardew informed his new, black-and-white bleeding public how his mates had told him he was “mad taking the job…”. Nice one, Pards. He just about managed to hack clear that slice into his own net, hooting something about it being “one of the top five clubs in England”. Even so, surely the stigma and the strut would (fingers and toes crossed) undo him in the end… 

But no, at time of writing, the wheels are well and truly on. Newcastle are currently sitting fourth in the Premier League on 25 points, having lost just the once, to man City, and while most people suspect there’s some impermanence about it all, that they are punching more than a tad above their weight, there is a distinct possibility they could hold on to take a UEFA Cup spot, an achievement that might just guarantee Pardew the Manager of the Year award. Imagine. 

At the very least, it is undeniable that he has already vindicated the owner’s decision, and while the early improvements were imperceptible to the casual observer (they finished last season in 12th, after all, no different to where they were when he took over, Pardew accruing 1.23 points per game to Hughton’s 1.18), they now have the look of a stable team and a stable club, which happens about as often as you find yourself talking to a hen’s orthodontist. In the process, he has sold high-maintenance and high-earning players – some of his most talented players, too – like Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and José Enrique. And Monsieur Pardieu has done all this by exploring the land of his Huguenot roots, bringing Yohan Cabaye from Lille (£4.3 / undisclosed), Gabriel Obertan (undisclosed, estimated at £3m), Sylvain Marveaux and Mehdi Abeid on free transfers from Rennes and Lens respectively, as well as other francophone players like Demba Ba (free) to join Tcheik Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa. 

But mere recognition of footballing success is not enough to eradicate my antipathy, no matter how impressive the feat of making Fabricio Coloccini look like a world-beater (I mean as a defender, rather than for a Whitesnake look-a-like contest); after all, grudging admiration is my basic position on even the most silver-adorned Gafferísimo of the lot. No, during the eleven-month stint in the Newcastle hot-seat – first winning over and motivating the players, who plainly respect him, then getting the fans onside, bringing some quiet, sober achievement to the city – he has proven himself to be a better man than I ever thought him capable, often speaking with candour, acuity, even humility. He still occasionally appears ready to switch back to being fractious and confrontational, an accident waiting to happen, but he has shed the bombast, the preposterous peacockery, the air of the pre-emptive provocateur. He has a team of honest players who are rolling up their sleeves for him and about whom he speaks in a clear and cliché-free manner that has at times bordered on the gracious. At the end of the day, he’s probably looked in the mirror and learned from his mistakes, Jeff. I don’t know what he said to himself in there, but whatever he did say, it has obviously worked… 

As far as the final evaporation of my loathing was concerned, there were a couple of incidents recently that finally tipped the scales. First, when assessing the dubious penalties awarded during his Newcastle team’s impressive smash-and-grab at erstwhile Fortress Britannia, one to each side, he agreed that “both were soft,” while immediately excusing the officials from any wrongdoing or failing by qualifying his views with the assertion that “there’s a lot of barging in the box and refs having to make decisions”. Such equanimity is easily conjured in the aftermath of victory, I hear you tsk-tsk, irritably. Well, maybe so. 

However, second, commenting later that week on the racial abuse to which Sammy Ameobi had been subjected by a couple of 17-year-old Twitter-warriors, he showed a remarkable (by football’s standards, I mean) grasp of the historical breeding ground for fascism – or, more exactly, what philosophers Deleuze and Guattari call microfascism – and an implicit understanding of the material conditions that, in the post-Crash Europe of the 1930s, were to be translated into a psychological susceptibility to manipulation by the symbols of an abstractly unified and segregative form of identity, the us-and-them logic that formed the molecular underpinning of Nazism. It’s true! And so, finally to answer our questions from the outset, there is indeed no better example of the utter irrationalism of hatred – and its potential codification into some sort of justifiable sentiment – than racism (or, for that matter, the irrationalism of any overweening attachment to a rigid, transcendent form of identity: nation, credo, party, club). Here the insightful Pardew tackles the Twitter haters:

Like all clubs we represent the local community here and when something like this happens you have to react strongly. I think that what the club have done and the statement we have made are quite correct. We won’t tolerate any type of behaviour like that. And, of course, where we are now with the austerity measures and everyone feeling a bit tight – people are getting more narrow-minded and racism has come to the fore. And perhaps [this incident coming to light] is not a bad thing, because we have been leading the football world in terms of tackling [racism] and maybe we shouldn’t get complacent, just make sure we keep a tight lid on it.

A remarkably cogent, positively statesmanlike expression, I think you’ll agree, of the need to be ever vigilant toward fascistic impulses, “from the enormous ones that surround and crush us to the petty ones that constitute the tyrannical bitterness of our everyday lives,” as Michel Foucault so eloquently expressed it in his Preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s great Anti-Oedipus

So there you have it: rough-arsed and rude rapscallion to Renaissance Man in a few short months, and with it, a reputation restored – by which I mean in my mind rather than in the de facto tribunal of the tabloid media and thus (oxymoron alert) the ‘popular imagination’. Leo-Pards may not be able to change their spots (or, as Pards might say, you can’t polish a turd) but perhaps he was never a leopard at all. Just a plain old bête noir.

An earlier version of this article appeared on the excellent Twisted Blood site.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


With False 9 having been sensationally handed secret documents found lying around the locked desk drawers of Fabio Capello’s office, we can today offer our dozens of readers a WORLD EXCLUSIVE: revealed here is the England XI that the mobile phone-hating, lantern-jawed Italian has pencilled in to start the first of our three whole games at Euro 2012, a selection that will undoubtedly come as a bitter blow to JT, Wazza, Stevie G, Lamps, and other members of England’s self-proclaimed Golden Generation: