Friday, 7 December 2012



If ever there were a goal to fit the opening titles of Gazzetta Football Italia, Channel 4’s much-loved and pioneering coverage of Serie A in the early 90s, then it was the one scored on December 6, 1992 by English football’s clown-prince, Paul Gascoigne.

The previous week he had notched a first goal for Lazio amidst no less a fixture than the Eternal City’s derby, rising in the 87th minute to head an equaliser that had seared him eternally in the hearts of the club’s notorious ultras. A week later, he followed up with a slalom through the Pescara defence that took six players out of the game with seven touches, a goal that seared him forever into the consciousness of tifosi of all stripes, maybe even the more magnanimous giallorossi – although perhaps not the one who, insistent that Gazza take him up on his offer of hospitality after he’d stumbled unwittingly into a bar full of Roma fans, spiked his drink with LSD, confining him to “two days hallucinating in bed”.

In a sense, such a tale is emblematic of Gascoigne’s entire career – so outlandish (for a top-level footballer) as to be barely credible, yet somehow matter of course when put in the context of the wall-to-wall craziness of his life, a life that tumbled into an equally erratic career that delivered fewer highs than his inordinate talent had promised but that still almost unfailingly brings a glassy-eyed smile to his success starved and resolutely glass-half-full compatriots. 

Gazza's greatest goal: Pescara vs LAZIO, 06-12-92 

Here was a maestro in the grand tradition, a fantasista who in his pomp would have walked into any team in the world (and, despite what the tabloids say about the likes of Beckham, Gerrard, Shearer and others, there have been very few of those). It is perhaps therefore no coincidence that both England’s semi-final appearances at major tournaments (aside from 1966) came with a relatively fit Gascoigne pulling the midfield strings, all imagination, power and balance, a balletic bouncer now ghosting past an opponent, now strong-arming them out of his path.

It is a pity that he only pulled on the three lions fifty-seven times and that his skills never adorned one of Europe’s elite clubs. But the great tragedy of Paul Gascoigne’s football career is not his – it’s ours, the football-loving public’s, given only one World Cup and a single European Championships of this sublime, instinctive footballer. His three years in Italy ought to have been the zenith of his career, the period when unquestionably the greatest English player since the World Cup-winning team lorded it over the world’s pre-eminent league. And to a certain extent he did – to the eyes of Fabio Capello and Michel Platini, anyway – albeit lamentably briefly.

The obvious parallel would be with George Best, although with Gascoigne there’s no pithy Best-like throwaway line to explain it all away – no “I spent some on burgers, some on practical jokes, the rest I frittered away” – perhaps because there was no real hedonism or glamour, just the venting of various rumbling compulsions and hissing manias.

This was a man who, literally, didn’t know what to do with himself; a man tossed about the sea of his impulses – which, on a football field, could be devastating. Take the 1990 World Cup semi-final in Turin. The night before, restless and insomniac, Gazza heard a couple of drunk Americans in the hotel grounds playing tennis at 3am, so, being Gazza, he decided to venture down and have a game with them, two versus one, for over an hour – as you do – until Bobby Robson’s was alerted and he scurried back to his room. 

The game itself would become famous for his tears, of course, the catalyst for English football’s eventual gentrification, but his display was punctuated by moments of magisterial prompting, thrusting extemporisation and rare football intelligence. Above all, he was a master dribbler, the secret of which is knowing when to move the ball; shifted at the right time, one can glide past a defender as close as the bull to a matador performing a veronica. The performance marked him out, along with Roberto Baggio, as the greatest attacking talent from Italy’s largely negative World Cup. Little wonder there was near-hysteria in Rome when he arrived two years later after recovering from the cruciate injury sustained in his final game for Spurs and a fractured kneecap outside a Newcastle nightclub.  

Finally, on September 27, some seventeen months after sigining, Gazza pulled on the biancoceleste shirt for a debut, already a cult figure. That first season would prove his most productive, featuring further goals against Milan and Atalanta – whose fearsome ultras carried a banner in the shape of a beer bottle bearing the affectionate message “This is for you Gazza” – as Lazio finished a creditable fifth, their highest for seventeen years.

But there were always the injuries. A Jan Wouters elbow against Holland (in the “Do I not like Orange” match from An Impossible Job) fractured his cheekbone, leading to his then revolutionary Phantom of the Opera mask. A year later, a reckless lunge on a young apprentice by the name of Allesandro Nesta saw him break his leg in training.

And when it wasn’t the injuries, the problem was that Gascoigne’s low boredom threshold – and the lack of professionalism his genius afforded him – frequently derailed periods of strength, an indiscipline that would later catch up with him. As a result, the barnstorming performances are probably outnumbered by the tragicomic anecdotes: commandeering a coach and driving it down Oxford Street; putting a dead snake in Roberto di Matteo’s pocket; mimicking an Orange Order piper after scoring in the Auld Firm derby; replying to a Norwegian reporter who’d asked him for a message to his countrymen, “Aye, fuck off Norway”; diving in a lobster tank in a restaurant to fish out his desired meal and catching flu; belching into the microphone of an Italian TV reporter and offending the country to such an extent that they debated his expulsion in Parliament. There are several others. 

His Lazio coach, Dino Zoff, frequently despaired of his mischief-making maverick man-child: “He ate ice cream for breakfast, drank beer for lunch and when injured he blew up like a whale. But as a player? Oh, beautiful, beautiful. I loved that boy,” he reflected. “He was a genius, an artist, but he made me tear my hair out.”

It is not only for his combination of buffoonery and flair that the Lazio fans adore him, as was amply demonstrated by his visit to the Stadio Olimpico last month. It was also his transparency – almost stupidly vulnerable – and his spontaneity, a man whose unpredictability on-field and off became almost predictable (a paradox to complement his famous assertion: “I don’t make predictions and I never will”). 

The trite or puritanical thing is to lament a flawed character, a loveable idiot, a psychiatrist’s wet dream who transcended their taxonomies with his ADHD, OCD, Personality Disorders and multiple addictions (alcohol, gambling, food, prescription drugs), but was eventually sundered by them.

And yet, as he struggles to find a way to deal with these subterranean forces without the succour provided by football– the constructive way for him to get out of his mind – here’s another way to think of Gazza: he increased our perception of what it is to be human, bringing pleasure not only through his football – at times so magnificent the only response was to laugh – but also through his great warmth and fellow-feeling, his incessant merry pranksterism, even if he himself did not always feel that joy, or could only feel it through the intoxicating prisms of drink or daftness.

He remains, in an age of plastic ‘stars’ and vacuous pre-fab celebrity, a beacon of heart-on-sleeve authenticity. And he could play a bit. Gazza: human, all too human.

The original (edited) version of this piece was published by ESPN

Others in the Fantasy Footballers series...

Wednesday, 28 November 2012


After the grotesque chanting at White Hart Lane on Sunday, Big Sam makes moves to endear himself to the Hammers' hardcore by unveiling a revolutionary new formation to be used at Old Trafford if/when they get a man sent off -- the first real tactical innovation since the 4-2-3-1.  

Friday, 23 November 2012


So, Sparky has gone and some windswept mic-thruster in West London tells us that, before the almost certain arrival of 'Arry (who has realized that the Poole to Kiev commute presents problems for his non-negotiable early doors pooch perambulation), it has today been up to Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki to prepare the Hoops for their trip to Old Trafford. Here's how they've done it: 

cartoon courtesy of Jake Goretzki, on Twitter here
[You may also like this take on the origins of the Manchester derby]

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


Mark COOK (ISLANDS) (Univeritario)

Ryan FRANCE (Hull)
Rinus ISRAEL (Feyenoord, Netherlands)
Mike ENGLAND (Spurs, Wales)
Ken OMAN (Shamrock Rovers)

Matty HOLLAND (Charlton, Ipswich; Ireland)
Stephen IRELAND (Man City, Villa; Ireland)

Alan BRAZIL (Ipswich, Man Utd; Scotland)
Daniel MONTENEGRO (Independiente, Club América; Argentina)
Diego Capel TRINIDAD (Sevilla, Sporting Lisbon; Spain)

Joe JORDAN (Man Utd, Milan; Scotland)

Jason SCOTLAND (Swansea, Trinidad)
CHAD Barrett (LA Galaxy)

Manager: Rosa LUXEMBURG
Kit design: Roy LICHTENSTEIN
Physical trainer: Rob DENMARK
Shirt sponsor: ICELAND
Tennis player for them to have a hit with: Juan MÓNACO
Team Womble: Uncle BULGARIA

A few other daft XIs and Top 10s

Friday, 9 November 2012


For no real reason other than wistfully watching Michael Laudrup sat on the Swansea bench smiling beatifically at the worthy-though-limited efforts of Routledge and Dyer, two wingers not fit to lace his boots (not because they were too wee), I decided to pick an XI from the current Premier League bosses. They’d play 4-3-3, reverting to 4-3-1-2 with Laudrup in the free role when/if the shit was hitting the fan. 


Adkins (Southampton)

Moyes (Everton)
Jol (Fulham)
Clarke (WBA)
Hughton (Norwich)

O'Neill (Sunderland)
Lambert (Villa)
Di Matteo (Chelsea)

Laudrup (Swansea)
Hughes (QPR)
Mancini (Man City)

Gaffer’s Gaffer (aka Gafferísimo): Ferguson (FA)

If you think this team – aside from the front line, obviously – isn’t up to much, then you ought to have a look at Serie A, La Liga or the Bundesliga. You’d barely scrape a 5-a-side team out of any of them.

Instead, they’d probably come unstuck against each of English football’s next two tiers’ composite Gaffer XIs, even if the Champo doesn’t have a goalkeeper. It seems that, in England, you do have to be a horse before you become a jockey. 

CHAMPIONSHIP XI (4-4-2; diamond)

Pearson or Mowbray (Leicester/Middlesbrough)

Grayson (Huddersfield)
Berg (Blackburn)
Bruce (Hull)
Powell (Charlton)

Solbakken (Wolves)
Clark (Birmingham)
Jacket (Millwall)
Poyet (Brighton)

Clough (Derby)
Zola (Watford)

LEAGUE ONE XI (4-1-5: make the system fit the players, yeah?)

Blackwell (Bury)

Laws (Scunthorpe)
Curle (Notts County)
Moore (Tranmere)
Howe (Bournemouth)

Wilson (Sheffield United)

Saunders (Doncaster)
Dickov (Oldham)
Robins (Coventry)
Rosler (Brentford)
Di Canio (Swindon)


In ‘The Crack-Up’, the great American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald’s incredibly candid account of the nervous collapse he endured aged 39, at the height of his fame, he observed with great acuity that it is often when things are going well with the major things in life (relationships, career, health, finances) that little cracks can start to appear, fissures that will eventually break you like an old plate – if not definitively, then in some irreversible way. Suddenly, without knowing quite why, you reach a threshold of lowered resistance; things that you could put up with yesterday or the day before now become quite intolerable.

So it was that prior to the controversial 2-2 Champions League draw with Ajax, an animated Roberto Mancini held a press conference at which, in response to a line of questioning that had picked up on and pursued some of his more cryptic recent statements, he made a vehement defence of his record as boss and the strides Manchester City had made under his tenure. He looked like he’d had enough…but of what?

“Of course all life is a process of breaking down,” Fitzgerald writes, “but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work – the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside – the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within – that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”

Unbeaten after ten Premier League games and well positioned on the shoulders of both Chelsea and their cross-town rivals, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was little need for agitation at Eastlands – be that among fans, board, players or management. The superrich arrivistes – the noisy neighbours – are, in modern football parlance, “entitled to believe” that, having removed the championship monkey from their back, they have the resources to barge their way into a prime seat at Europe’s top table.

And yet, as it stands their all-but-certain Champions League exit may not even to be offset by the UEFA-gerrymandered sop of backdoor Europa League qualification – and a quick glance at Sunday’s floodlit Abu Dhabi grand prix, with the sky blue painted run-offs and omnipresent Etihad branding tells you that, as Mancini himself observed a week ago, the owners are indeed “very serious people” when it comes to fast-tracked success – while their 22 league points have featured only 18 goals, half the number that the opening ten games of their title campaign did. 

It was, initially, a very different story. So porous were they in defence that it took the visit of toothless Sunderland (13 shots on target all season) for them to secure a first clean sheet of the campaign. Now they appear to have lost their cutting edge, not all of which can be attributed to the missing playmaker, David Silva. They were fortunate to draw at Upton Park last weekend, even more so to beat Swansea, while WBA deserved a point at least from the previous game.

Of course, you would think that Mancini, steeped in the ultra-cautious gioco all’Italiano (slightly less starchy descendant of catenaccio), would be happy to have partially shored up the back line, even if, temporarily, it appears to have been at the price of his attacking thrust. And while his rudimentary English and guarded manner are an open invitation for the media to scrutinise his pronouncements for meaning perhaps not there, you couldn’t help but feel that there was a subtext to his blindingly obvious assessment at West Ham:  “if you don’t score, you don’t win: this is the football”. Perhaps it was a thinly-veiled criticism of Mario Balotelli, who missed City’s best chance and was seen scowling at and cursing his boss after being hauled off (still, he did successfully locate the armholes of his big warm jacket). 

It is not the only statement Mancini has made of late that ought to raise an eyebrow or two. He also said, with a hint of self-protection, that it could take City “ten years to win the Champions League”, which you can imagine being at least five years too slow for the Emirati owners, especially as the Italian has never been beyond the last eight in the competition. Indeed, they might quickly conclude that the fault might be him – at least, if they take him at face value that his undercooked experiments with a 3-4-1-2 were a “failure to prepare the game”. 

He also made public declarations that he has rebuffed “seven or eight” suitors including a Russian plutocrat-funded ‘project’ at Monaco, all of which might be taken as an indication that he is starting to unravel under the strain. Aside from his outburst at the end of the Ajax game, about which there was some justification (although the force that he drew upon, the vehemence and ire, seemed to tap into a hidden magma of pressures), there are signs of what might euphemistically be called restiveness. Others may call it cracking up. 

Is this intense and serious figure growing exasperated with his high-maintenance, underperforming charges? Has he perceived Txiki Begiristain’s arrival as Sporting Director as assistance (displacing Brian Marwood) or threat (smoothing the post-sabbatical path of Prince Pep)?  

As with many footballing problems, the solution for Mancini and Man City may just be a couple of good results or convincing performances away. Equally likely, a few wins may simply paper over the cracks. Here’s Fitzgerald again: “Sometimes…the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the icebox under leftovers…”

A glance at his options shows that a search for both potency and balance is eminently achievable. Indeed, perhaps the crux of the problem for Mancini is not so much the individual talents at his disposal, but how their respective characters blend, both on-field and, especially, off, and how that translates into man-managerial issues.

Carlos Tévez’s behaviour last year was little short of scandalous, his rehabilitation a function of City’s desperation and the amoral pragmatism that football imposes on its protagonists – from diving players, to bosses working under the sword of Damocles. Meanwhile, to describe Mario Balotelli as high-maintenance is like referring to a Hurricane Sandy as “a bit of a nuisance”. The ‘Why always me?’ t-shirt slogan was among the more conspicuously attention-seeking attempts at suggesting at suggesting one ought to fly under the radar. Taking a few cool penalties cannot be adequate recompense. 

At a certain point last season, both of these players, we were told, would never play for Manchester City again. This sounds suspiciously like a crack. And there may be a third problem emerging, too. Edin Dzeko’s polite-yet-abrupt rebuttal of the BBC reporter who tried to dub him “supersub” at West Brom demonstrated that he is also reaching the upper threshold of his discontent, particularly as he is playing well and rescuing games for Manchester City.

Yes, they have helped create history and lanced a 44-year-old boil. But, as with all players, they are, in the most neutral sense of the word possible, mercenaries. How long before their waning motivation, the lure of the next salary hike, his own fatigue and language difficulties make this group unsalvageable for Mancini? Is there a solution that can fix the plate together?

Across the city, Sir Alex Ferguson has proven highly adept at keeping a stable of four forwards relatively content, not least when his treble-winning side had the bromance of Yorke and Cole plus trophy-starved-and-hungry Teddy Sheringham backed uncomplainingly and, um, deadlyly, by the baby-faced assassin, Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer. Yes, Tévez, Berbatov, Ronaldo and Rooney could not be sustained (although the Bulgarian’s insouciance can often be confused with diffidence) but today he has a reserve striker in Javier Hernández who is not only down-to-earth and humble (Danny Welbeck likewise), but also dedicated and deadly in the box. 

Even as Mancini’s spirit and zeal are sapped, that doesn’t mean he cannot ‘get the job done’, as it were. As Fitzgerald says: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” As he attempted to recover, he realized that “the question became one of finding why and where I had changed, where was the leak through which, unknown to myself, my enthusiasm and my vitality had been steadily and prematurely trickling away.”

Perhaps if Mancini simply cuts his losses with Balotelli – concedes that Mourinho was right, that he is “unmanageable” – then the overriding criteria he should use in seeking out his back-up strikers is humility first and foremost, then hunger, perhaps even a certain shyness (everywhere except the penalty box, of course). He needs a player who plays infrequently, but who grumbles even less. A Victor Moses, or perhaps a Dimitris Salpingidis – a player who rolls up his sleeves, like Tévez did once upon a time, and who inspires through graft.

Ah, the crack-up: always too late when you realize it. Speaking of the blows that subtly and insidiously break you from within, Fitzgerald concludes: “A man does not recover from such jolts – he becomes a different person, and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about.” Perhaps it’s time to call in the psychometrics people, and not those who tested Super Mario.

Saturday, 27 October 2012


Sky Soccer Saturday: four-parts cringe, three-parts bantz, two-parts comedy genius (of which, two-thirds unintentional).

Today, Jeff Stelling throws (a verb I overheard a Sky roving reporter use this summer) to Villa Park, where we see the all-too-familiar pencil ‘tache of maybe-not-quite-so-easygoing-as-his-persona-suggests-if-he-has-to-maintain-the-same-facial-hair-and-Barnet-arrangement-ad-infinitum Chris Kamara. 

‘Kammy’ is a regular gantry gaffemeister, of course, but on this occasion it was less general confusion and broadcasting incompetence, more a common-or-garden example of combining two hackneyed figures of speech into a preposterous hypothesis.

With Norwich having dominated the first half-hour (think tabloidopundit thought-fart ‘I don’t know what Chris Hughton has said to them in there, but it’s working’), Kammy opined: “If an alien landed on earth here today, they’d think Norwich were the home team, Jeff”.


Are you sure they wouldn’t be thinking: ‘Why don’t Aston Villa play a withdrawn striker and have two wide men attacking diagonally between advanced full-backs and centre-halves, allowing them to play a double-pivot and an extra midfielder’? Or: ‘Norwich need to circulate the ball quicker’? Maybe even: ‘This must be the legendary Norwich, the club of the flecked strips that we saw in Earth Year 1992’.

Naturally, the reach of Sky Sports is such that the good aliens of inner space are clued up enough to grasp the basic truth of football: The Home Team Shall Be Dominant.

Still, you sit around for another twenty minutes and after an excruciating feature showing a Scouse entrepreneur who runs football tours out of the back of a minibus to people wearing Liverpool scarves still sporting ‘El Niño’ (with knitted phizog-likeness!), we cut back to Jeff Stelling, the hint of a grin playing across his face as he deadpans: “I once went on a tour of the Grand Canyon by helicopter. But I’ve got to say, this is right up there…”

Aliens here, Jeff – unbelievable!

Another piece about SSS: Thommo on Racism

Wednesday, 24 October 2012



“The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day.”

It has been quite a month of moving on for Liverpool Football Club. After the cathartic findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report and the announcement of a full investigation into the cover-up and smear campaign of South Yorkshire Police, last week, more than a decade after ground redevelopment (or relocation) was first seriously discussed, and two years to the day after FSG’s arrival, the club have been given permission to expand Anfield.

Provisional outlines are for around 15,000 seats to be added to the main and the Anfield Road stands, all of which is of course conditional upon the agreement of adequate compensation for the neighbours whose houses stand to be demolished. And this is where things potentially get difficult – a crumbling block as a stumbling block.

Ian Ayre stated last Monday at the town hall: “It is not Liverpool that is acquiring the properties, it is the city council and Your Housing Group [a social housing developer]. We have passed the ball really. If we get through this next stage then it becomes the role of the planners and whether our planning application will be accepted”. Pass and move – forward, but not to Stanley Park.

Despite the club had already lost £59m in the 2010-11 financial year on plans for the new stadium project, it is still actually a surprise to learn – or to be told – that the project will not be wholly or partly financed by Liverpool, since it has been green-lit by Liverpool City Council as part of the regeneration of Anfield district. However, it seems that not everyone is yet sold on the idea of leaving their homes and others are dissatisfied with the terms being offered by the City Council.  

Monday’s Sky News carried an interview with the Chair of Anfield’s Rockfield Triangle Residents’ Association, Patrick Duggan, who said the club had acted in a manner that was “unkind”.

Is this the classic story of a corporate behemoth – although in this case a much-loved one – steamrolling over the wishes of its near-powerless neighbours? On the other hand, is it right that the will of a single resident – and those of a conspiratorial bent have suggested there could be Evertonians on Lothair Road – could derail a project that could potentially reinvigorate a great institution and much of the area?  

Duggan claims that there has been a deliberate policy of running the neighbourhood down – a duty of dereliction? – essentially making it unliveable (it wouldn’t take much of a stretch to imagine city councillors, after glasses had been clinked and flesh has been pressed, colluding in some skulduggery, would it). 

Anyway, Liverpool FC own ten properties and have relocated residents to different areas of the city, leaving those ten units unoccupied and boarded up. Arena Housing has done similarly to nine properties (three are owned by the council, four owner-occupied, four rented, five uncertain). With abandoned property has come anti-social behaviour: first ex-con tenants re-housed there by the council, then street gangs looking for territory and the everyman dope-and-vodka oblivion-seeking of the underclass. After that came the plunderers: scrap metal, copper piping, anything. Not only did this drive out residents, it also depreciated the value of the property, making it cheaper for Liverpool (or whoever) to buy – and presumably the football club would have to buy the land from any third party – and yet, at the same time, perhaps making the residents less inclined to sell.  

Noises from council and club are that they’re “optimistic for a positive solution”, whatever that means. No doubt emotional pressure will be brought to bear; guilt trips may be mobilized: “you’re holding the club to ransom”. Compulsory Purchase Orders have been mentioned. Are these the same fans who bat not an eyelid at the news that Joe Cole and Alberto Aquilani’s combined weekly salary was around the £180k mark? I will be quick to say here that there is not a single set of supporters in the land who will prioritise class solidarity with fellow fans of rival clubs over the particular, parochial interests of their own club, who will not acquiesce in the mind-boggling absurdity of these wages, leading to the one-eyed turning a blind eye (well, a look of awe and disgust) to it all.

Of course, presuming the Lothair residents are not being recalcitrant out of any ulterior motive, not overly sentimental, not holding out for unrealistic prices (mayor, Joe Anderson says 800 new homes are to be built as part of the regeneration project), the residents can do their bit for the football club (and for this part of the city). Assuming they receive a fair price, naturally, and there’s the rub…

Regardless of how high-handed the mayor gets in rushing through the purchases, perhaps the players can also do their bit to expedite the materialisation of acceptable compensation. They could each donate a week’s salary. It’s a devastatingly straightforward idea, one that ought to hold some sort of resonance for a club, the edifice of whose modern rebirth was cemented together by a hefty dollop of Shanklyist socialism (heaven only knows what he’d have made of the salaries they’re paid these days) and who ought to feel deeply uncomfortable about the allegations from Duggan that they have been left to walk alone. “We believe that the people, even now, are being exploited,” he said. “They’re being dealt with in a very underhand manner and are being offered peanuts for their houses after years and years of uncertainty”.

Footballers often talk about “wanting to become legends”.

One assumes that, as they take their first footsteps in the professional game – before they get sucked up and up to Felix Baumgarten country, where the exorbitant rewards create de facto microeconomies, the player now a whale with its pilot fish – those childhood dreams of glory must still be at the forefront of their thoughts. 

Then – imperceptibly and yet implacably, one supposes – come the distractions (not all players necessarily succumbing, too): the tenpercenters start their whispering; the self-taught factotums (and their own overwrought scrotums) appear like foxes-in-the-box pouncing on a parried save; maybe the player’s ego gets tangled up in pay-indexed pecking-order concerns. Innocence is lost. Detached from real world numbers, caught up in salary blingo, alienated from the lives of the fanbase, these Citizen Kanes’ demands for an extra £20k per week, the venality of the modern player, has been captured by the synecdoche, ‘Cashley’. 

Footballers also talk about “giving something back to the community”.

Beyond the odd famous last-ditch tackle or legendary goal, this can be the players’ way of truly “giving something back” – not just paying lip service to this notion when forced to wander along to a school or a hospital to fill out their afternoon. What is £100k out of the annual salary of Gerrard, Suárez, Reina, Joe Cole, Carragher…?

There may be some resistance. We know Gareth Southgate managed to summon the indignation (maybe faux, maybe vrai) to avoid signing up to the Nurses’ Hardship Fund five years ago, to give up his honest day’s pay for his honest day’s work, but could the Liverpool players – even those with a naturally weaker connection to the club – really raise the chutzpah to say “Sorry, I cannot afford to give up one week’s lucre for the sake of ensuring our neighbours are re-housed fairly and that the club can move forward”?

Liverpool’s annual salary bill for 2010-11 was £129m. This works out at £2,480,769 per week. With FFP around the corner, it’s perhaps significant that wages to turnover has increased from 54% just three years ago to the present figure of 70%. With 35 houses in the street, this would mean each household received £70,879 (the ones long since moved on could also receive money, in theory, albeit adjusted for inflation). Of course, some calculations would be made to ensure that ‘ordinary’ members of the staff at Liverpool FC didn’t have to forego a week’s earnings. Just the players and coaching staff. 

In the wake of the extraordinary PR debacle around their recently appointed Director of Communications, Jen Chang, and the blogger and fictitious Twitter persona Duncan Jenkins, this might be a chance to post some good news through a neighbouring street’s eight remaining letterboxes.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012


So, you’ve had time to digest the extraordinary story of Jen Chang’s off-piste meeting with the blogger Sean Cummins, the man behind the Twitter character @DuncanJenkinsFC, eh (mates)? Pretty mantle, eh? (Sorry, I apologise for apeing his rather tedious joke; I shall desist voluntarily – there’s no need to be putting dogshit through my virtual letterbox, you average football fan, you.)  

There are several disturbing things to have come out of the brouhaha: principally, that people insist on calling @DuncanJenkinsFC a “parody account” (Telegraph) when to be a parody you need to be parodying something or someone – in this case, a real life person called Duncan Jenkins, or Jenkinson, or somesuch. It is a fictional account, a persona.

Nor was the blog “anonymous” (Mail): it’s pseudonymous.  

Anyway, those crucial issues of terminology aside, it appears that Liverpool FC thought that Jenkins was the nom-de-clavier for a real journalist (perhaps one forbidden to tweet as ‘himself’ by an employer) who was party to high-level information from within in the club – in fact, there’d been speculation that he had a mole in the club (not realizing that Santi Cazorla played for Arsenal). Apparently, the LFC hierarchy – including amateur eyebrow raker, Ian Ayre – were miffed that Jenkins’ Twitter activity had cost them money in transfer deals, adding £300k to the value of Fabio Borini after AS Roma were disgruntled that the “maximum discretion” they’d asked for had been apparently breached. Not that Jenkins was gruntled when he found out.  

So it was that the club’s Director of Communications of four months, Cambridge alumnus Jen Chang  perhaps after an evening of, you know, sitting around feeling powerful  took it upon himself to squash the fly in the room in a manner, alleges Jenkins in his blog, more befitting of Chow Yun-Fat. Internal Affairs, only ‘Dunc’ knew no insiders. (Yes, I’m aware the original film was Infernal Affairs, but that joke wouldn’t work, yeah?)  

You couldn’t make it up. Except that you could. Not that ‘Duncan’/Sean has made it up, although that’s what Jen Chang is reported to believe, quoted in The Independent that he won’t respond to “nonsense”.

But what is Liverpool FC’s position on this PR disaster? I know, let’s ask– …Oh. Oh, I see.

What’s that you say – Jen Chang is unavailable for further comment? And whom has issued that statement, pray tell?

See, this is the thing: postmodernism tends to push us beyond good old-fashioned brazen hypocrisy (thinking or feeling one thing, saying or doing another) to a kind of structural cynicism. A lawyer doesn’t need to believe in the law; a civil servant or politician doesn’t need to believe in the government. You just need to perform your duties, to simulate the assigned image that comes with your role. And in the PR universe (often quite high-handed and paranoid at the top end), the image-polishing duties mean that individual bodies are frequently forced to split themselves into private and public selves. (Incidentally, I was going to call this piece Compartmentalization of the Self, but no point losing readers at the title stage, eh [mates]? I also thought Chang on the Ching? might work.)

In fact, it’s probably more nuanced than that (even private individuals are not some untainted residue of authenticity), but the point stands that Chang can, in theory, speak about this affair privately (by which I mean publically, on Twitter, but in a private capacity), but he cannot, or will not, do so professionally – on the Liverpool website, say.

His Twitter profile sums up the absurdity of this situation – and it is absurd; if you don’t think so, that just means you’ve internalized the rules of the game, absorbed the proscriptions against honesty, become a cynic – by stating, as is now a commonplace: “Views expressed are my own opinions and do not represent those of the club”.

So, we go knocking on the door of ‘the club’ looking for a statement about Jenkins’ claims – and again, we need to find someone else since, in his professional capacity, Mr Chang will of course be the flesh-and-blood personage behind the PR cliché “Liverpool FC say…”. According to the aforelinked piece in The Independent, “The club said they were aware of the allegations but had no statement to make”. Hmmm. Yet presumably he is in charge of whether or not he can speak in his professional capacity, as ‘The Club’. Such is the conundrum when a PR gaffe is made by the PR Executive.

Anyway, having myself just (with barely lukewarm zeal) started in this rarefied specialism that is Public Relations – I was also a perspiring journalist, of sorts, after leaving academia – I’m perhaps not yet qualified to diagnose this situation as a “PR disaster”. Nor am I sure what talking head Max Clifford’s line on it all is as yet, but I’d certainly say it’s too early to be calling Mr Chang a PR Guru solely on the basis of the status of his current job.

At the time of writing, being decidedly not ITK (and unable to see how peddling semi-spurious transfer gossip is a professional achievement), it looks like this is what will transpire here: a powerful institution simply denies it happened and, without witnesses, without recorded evidence, the story slowly goes away.

That’s exactly how me and Max-C – M-dog, the M-Unit – would play it, eh Jen.

Sunday, 30 September 2012


I was happy to have a second piece accepted for BT Life's a Pitch website this week, particularly because they (a) answer my emails, and (b) pay very well. 

The subject of the article was how the Anfield crowd could see through the poor results (the pitch was made before the victories at WBA and Norwich) and discern genuine signs of improvement under Brendan Rodgers. The impression that the Ulsterman is a man of great perceptiveness and cogency is being confirmed  by the manner of Liverpool's play and the results, not to mention some snippets from the slightly corny Fox documentary, Being: Liverpool

Overall, I thought the BT LAP sub editors did a decent job with the copy I submitted, although they did manage to excise two quite good gags (one comparing Gary Neville to Morrissey, the other describing Hodgson's 4-4-2) that I will keep up my sleeve for a future date. They also removed a phrase that sought out some rapprochement between the Liverpool and Manchester United supporters after the unseemly chanting at the end of last weekend's match. Where I talk of "the furstrations of the American owners to reinforce one of the strongest spines in Europe", I'd added, parenthetically, "in another life, reason enough to foment solidarity between the ordinary supporters at either end of the M56". Oh well. 

Read The Wisdom of the Anfield Crowd.

Friday, 21 September 2012


Before Chelsea's frankly pretty flukey Champions League win this May, it was well known that no team from London had ever won Big Cup. At first glance, such a fact appears decidedly strange, given the size of the city and the number of clubs...only that, perhaps, is the point: no other city the size of London has quite so many top-flight clubs. Anyway, the distribution of the city's variegated football fans is neatly shown by this map (a WIP).* The only club missing is, of course, Manchester United... 

* Thanks to Jake Goretzki for the source, not to mention the gag that follows, although I would also have made it. Open goal, eh? 


They say the darkest hour comes before the dawn, although whether or not that includes false dawns – of which there have been a few at Anfield in recent times – isn’t entirely clear. It has been confusing not only for Liverpool’s battered and bruised supporters to ascertain whether the pale sun above them was rising or setting, but also for their talisman, Steven Gerrard.

He has seen the promise of Benítez’s side allowed to wilt on the vine and the early Dalglish bump run aground on a catastrophic shopping spree. Now, Liverpool’s failure to secure another striker in the summer transfer window leaves him further away than ever before from capturing another Premier League title.  

Brendan Rodgers had arrived on Merseyside with the promise of tiki-taka (not easy to say in a Scouse accent), something that even the most wildly optimistic of supporters realized would take time to deliver. Yet the almost face-spiting parsimony and inactivity of the transfer window saw the skies darken again on Merseyside, and moved John W. Henry to send the supporters a ‘Letter from America’: “We should have held you / We should have told you / But you know our sense of timing / We always wait too long.” 

This new upswell of doom and gloom crested the Sunday before last at home to Arsenal, when Luis Suárez – attempting a too-cute finish to a chance that he needed to put his foot through – spooned a shot over the bar and into the groans of the Kop. Sky Sports’ summariser Alan Smith – no stranger to spoiling the mood at Anfield as an Arsenal player down the years – and co-commentator Rob Hawthorne instinctively (and appropriately) adopted the sort of solemn, hushed tone that one hears at funerals. There was no scope for any other reaction: the Kop’s native stoicism prevented any self-pity or maudlin; realism foreclosed any voluble and explicit condemnation of the player, now Liverpool’s sole experienced centre forward.

The cameras cut briefly to Gerrard, the man who has spent the tail end of his career witnessing such disappointment. Heaven knows what was going through his Steven Gerrard’s mind at the time of Suárez’s miss, or 36 hours earlier when the window was shut and curtains closed on Rodgers’s squad reinforcements.

However, recognised or not, the forlorn skipper’s mood was undoubtedly the greatest cause for solemnity. After all, this was surely the moment (or the match, at least) when the long-cherished dream of a nineteenth top-flight title – or a first, depending on your point of view – was finally, irrevocably extinguished. No more sunrises.

Even the flintiest of footballing hearts ought to acknowledge the transcendent suffering in this. Perhaps out of respect, then, the camera refused to linger on Gerrard for a second time that afternoon – for he had already had one abject look beamed across the globe, having earlier been guilty of a careless, close-up eliciting misplaced pass that led to the first goal (although to fail to acknowledge the brilliance of Arsenal’s counter-attack would be a travesty).

Of course, the last time Stevie G struck up a swanky partnership with a world-class Spanish-speaking forward, he was in his pitch-bestriding physical prime – a phenomenally effective player whose strengths were rooted in athleticism, courage and responsibility (even if those same traits meant searching too hard and too often for the Hollywood pass) – while his ‘other half’ was a stunner. His fling with Fernando Torres was a glorious, passionate affair – a summer of countryside lovemaking and frolics across the Old Trafford turf – but now the England captain must cosy up to his new Uruguayan clinch without the vitality and soft skin of his youth and with the grooves on that brow deepened as the furrowing has grown more frequent.

Some may argue that it is still not too late for Gerrard at Liverpool, citing the fact that his performances at Euro 2012 – up until his front-row seat (or was it third?) for Andrea Pirlo’s regista masterclass – were widely praised.

Yet there is the lingering impression that Rodgers’ way – concerted pressing and ball possession, using the full acreage of the pitch to achieve that – implicitly endorsed in Henry’s open letter might signal Gerrard being eased toward the Anfield periphery (although the punditariat are already getting twitchy and stuck in about playing out from the back). To provide guile, the Ulsterman has brought in his trusty deep-lying midfield playmaker, Joe Allen, along with Nuri Sahin; to add thrust, there’s Fabio Borini, Oussama Assaidi and greenhorn Samed Yesil. In short, the component parts of Gerrard are gradually being outsourced, a squad makeover that inevitably invites us to ask: where does this leave Cap’n Stevie?

Slow revolutions are not ideal for the peace-of-mind of a 32-year-old for whom the competitive fires must continue to burn fiercely. He still no doubt wants to play like the best in kid in primary school, the one who scores 117 goals per season and is four inches taller than the others, but the body’s protests are always reluctantly accepted by the mind and this athlete-footballer doesn’t appear to have as straightforward a veterans’ niche as, say, Paul Scholes, six years his senior, at Manchester United. Like a favourite yet ageing dog who, happy to be off the leash, scampers after the first couple of throws with alacrity before succumbing to the complaints of his weary limbs, the veteran Gerrard must adapt, slow down, and stop chasing the ball all the time.

Even so, it is certainly not yet time for Liverpool to look into the dimming, waxy eyes of this favourite Koppite pooch and make the difficult decision of taking him on that journey to the vets for that injection. But tactical discipline and simplicity have never been his forte (which is why Benítez moved him forward for his halcyon years, away from the boiler room) and so the future remains unclear.

Either way, if the Arsenal game is the definitive onset of Gerrard’s autumn, physically and emotionally, then, as his nights draw in – even, perhaps, as a new dawn approaches for Liverpool – we do need some proper perspective on this final phase of his career, to take stock of his contribution to the game on these shores. And respect would be the correct tone. 

Has he been frequently overrated in the British media? Perhaps. A sower of chaos? Without doubt. But for better and for worse – both occasionally confusing the positioning of teammates, yet providing considerable final-third cut and thrust.

Yet beyond the partisans’ squabbles, the hype and the jibes, we should remember that Gerrard is that rare creature: a one-club man. And not a one-club man like Giggs and Scholes, Baresi and Maldini, Xavi and Puyol, with their trophy cabinets the size of swimming pools and thus scant incentive to think the grass could be greener anywhere else. No, here’s a one-club man for a team that, during his career, has rarely been truly competitive over the long course and which, perhaps increasingly burdened by its history, both glorious and tragic, has often struggled to punch its weight.

Here is a man who, while well remunerated for his work (although he would surely have been equally so at Real Madrid, Chelsea or a host of other suitors), has sacrificed opportunities for glory elsewhere for the love of his club and for the dream of making its fans’ dreams come true.

In this of all ages, supporters of all colours – even those along the East Lancs Road and across Stanley Park – ought to acknowledge and respect the old-fashioned virtues in that loyalty.

A version of this was published by ESPN. It’s fair to say the homoerotic passage didn’t go down very well…