Blurred lines

3 Apr

Just when you think you’ve seen everything, Danny Baker goes and makes a coherent and interesting point:

VAR is football’s own Brexit.  Everyone in the game knows it’s a turkey, a honking costly disaster but those who lobbied for it will say anything rather than admit they have fucked up and go back.

The suds-flogger is spot on.  VAR is truly dreadful.  If football was improved fifteen per cent by the introduction of the back-pass rule, VAR has reduced it by at least twenty.  Like Brexit, you curse those who knew what they were doing and pity those taken in by it.  It has that same irreversible feel, too.  Another shitty decision that has needlessly worsened things.


Also like Brexit, VAR came about through a small, self-interested body shadow-boxing itself in the mirror.  In this instance our wayward pugilist wasn’t the parliamentary Conservative Party, it was the televised media, who insisted again and again that football was somehow broken; that this game watched by, what is it, two billion people was somehow in need of repair.  God only knows who Sky thought was being left on the table in terms of viewership.  Perhaps some of the more remote Inuit tribes weren’t tuning in to Monday Night Football with sufficient regularity.

But show enough replays over enough years, highlighting every small error with a level of outrage ordinarily reserved for Leonardo DiCaprio’s choice of girlfriends, and eventually the pressure on football’s governing bodies becomes too great.  Of course VAR is necessary.  You’re left wondering how we lived without it for 160 years.  So now, here we are, in this new world of anxious waits and failed goal celebrations.


Football, if it has a beauty, is the exceptional beauty of the without.  For ninety long minutes, almost no-one scores.  An hour and a half passes and the decisive thing just doesn’t happen very much.  Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.  As with Sting and Trudy, the attraction is in the denial.  You wait an interminably long period then, boom, Harvey Barnes finally connects with one from close quarters.  And, by jimminy, it’s like the first time you saw Baby One More Time on MTV.  An absolute pandemonium of emotion.  Tears, joy, a nagging feeling that something this good might not even be legal.  Better than sex?  Abso-lutely my friend, did you not see Yeboah’s goal against Wimbledon?

If that emotion is the cherished part of the game, it really cannot be tampered with.  Never mind re-writing Roald Dahl, sling your privatisation of Channel 4, this is cultural vandalism up there with putting the Turin Shroud down as a base layer if you’ve brought a squirter back to your bedroom.  It simply isn’t acceptable to ask people to wait seventy minutes for something to happen and then, when it finally does happen, have them wait another four minutes while some Herbert in a room forty miles away decides if they can go bananas.  Why are we engaging in this bizarre act of human buffering precisely at the point we’ve reached the money shot?  It’s a goal, not a Beef Wellington; it doesn’t need to rest for five minutes.


Sepp Blatter wasn’t right about many things but he was spot on about video refereeing.  When his lips weren’t glued to a hose steeped in football’s petrol tank, Blatter was fond of saying “the game’s the same wherever it’s played”.  And he’s right.  Absent minor modifications for children, and allowing for skill levels, an eleven-a-side game of football is the exact same whether you’re at the Parc de Princes or simply the park.  Until recently, it was refereed the same way too.

Perhaps conscious of his own shortcomings, Blatter was completely comfortable with the idea that referees make mistakes.  He looked past the microwave meals-for-one, the extensive Dungeons & Dragons collections, and saw that referees were human; saw some big trusting eyes and a few wobbly lips and said to them: “it’s okay if you balls a few up today lads”.  Nobody goes to a game of football expecting to see twenty-two flawless performances.  Why would you expect any different from the twenty-third?  It’s just plain odd to be actively cheering on Tyrone Mings and in the same breath unable to accept the concept of human error.


My favourite competition at the moment is the League Cup.  Give me the three-handled cup over the clanking, shopworn, weekend-blocker that is the FA Cup any day of the week.  The League Cup’s at the front end of the season, so it doesn’t get in the way of anything else.  All the youth players and new signings are given free rein to make a name for themselves, and teams always properly go for it because, well, who cares, it’s the League Cup.  It makes for cracking games.  And like Steve Jobs when he lubed you up with the iPod before slipping you the full length of the iPhone, the League Cup’s just gone and got even better.  They didn’t introduce VAR for it!  It’s incomparably beautiful.  A goal goes in and the referee decides there and then whether it counts.  Sounds simple doesn’t it?  Watch any League Cup game and it’s difficult to conclude that what’s missing is Neil Swarbrick on Line One.


So well done Danny Baker.  An excellent analogy.  Mind you, having hit on the resemblance, equally well done for missing the yawning great logical conclusion stemming from it; one that might even rid us of VAR entirely.  Baker’s actually struck oil here but just seems to think the gushing black fountain makes for a nice water feature.

The problem with Brexit, as other commentators have possibly already touched upon, is the general public was asked to make a decision on acutely complex issues of international trade.  Tariffs.  Restrictions.  Regulated activity.  Common agricultural policies.  It was beyond most of us.  Some things call for the voice of democracy, sure, but some things are sensibly left to the keen eye of the technocrat.

By contrast, if referendums are for anything, then a topic as tangible as the enjoyment of the national game is just about the most suitable I can think of.  The bloke in the pub with an opinion on everything and the common sense of a pickled egg has every right to a view on this.  And a perfectly good one too, because football, like any sport, isn’t about how you think but how it makes you feel.  It’s not technical and it’s not complicated.  It’s the sensation you experience when a leather ball goes into a set of goals.  Let the people decide if they want video refereeing to impact that.


Everyone loses their way occasionally.  They changed the flavour of Coke once and it nearly foreclosed America’s century of dominance.  The Royal Mail’s crack at  rebranding proved so unpopular that its own trade union refused to use the new name.  It takes courage to say things are fine as they are, but sometimes they really are.  It’s actually rather unsettling that a small cabal of unelected officials is even allowed to change such fundamental concepts of the game of football, as though they’re tinkering with nothing more substantial than a two-stroke engine in the garage.  If there’s anything a nascent footballing regulator ought to be protecting us against, it’s this.

So fasten your seatbelts, UK, I think I speak for all of us when I say the nation’s ready for another era-defining referendum.  Let’s use direct democracy for a faintly sensible purpose for once.  The damage is already done here anyway, there’s only upside to this vote.  People are tired of experts and Stockley Park is infringing on our sovereignty.  It’s time to take back control.

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He’s game if you are.

The weight

26 Mar

Even at his peak, life as Steven Gerrard never looked easy.  Too much was at stake.  Too little help at hand.  When you’re part of a team, the load gets shared around.  But when you basically are the damn team, the responsibility looms a little larger.  

The Class of ’92 had it easy.  Six of them to share the burden.  Six to share the ups and downs, laugh off the occasional poor performance.  A luxury Gerrard could never enjoy.  Installed as the lynchpin from Day 1, he had to be Butty, Scholesy, Becks, Giggsy and the half-decent Neville all rolled into one.  38 games a season.  It never daunted Gerrard – heck, he was better than most of those guys in each of their own positions – but it eventually manifested in him a way of thinking the world had to be.

There were other options, of course.  He could have found a way to share the burden – Chelsea came calling every summer – eventually it became clear that he didn’t want to put the burden down, perhaps even couldn’t.  Human beings are pack animals by nature, but when you’ve wandered the prairie alone for so long, conditioned yourself to solitude, it’s hard to chuck it all in and go speed dating. 


The result was a career uncomfortable to observe.  There was never room for brevity.  Single-mindedness bordering on narcissism isn’t exactly a rare commodity in sporting elite, but for most it gets incorporated as part of the show.  Ronaldo, at least in the good moments, was able to bring a lightness to proceedings, a way of reminding you that deep down he was enjoying himself.  The muscle man celebrations, the tricks near opposition fans during the warm-up; you were invited to laugh because ultimately he knew he was putting on a performance.  Sure it said Real Madrid on the ticket but he and you both knew who you were here to see.

Gerrard, in contrast, could only tetchily oversee his brilliance.  There was no room to allow others in to enjoy the moment.  Teammates got batted aside during goal celebrations (even as team captain).  And when he kissed the camera lens it felt less like affection and more like an act of aggression, of him marking the Anfield turf.  He was showing you that he didn’t need anyone else.  People wanted to be CR7.  When it came to Stevie G, people wanted to get the hell out of the way.


The lonely pilgrimage was occasionally punctuated by others’ radiance.  First Owen, then Torres and latterly Luis Suarez all hinted at something bigger.  But each left Gerrard for greener pastures.  Each committed acts of treachery just as soon as the wheels really started to move.  It was tough: how can you keep making yourself vulnerable when you knew deep down they’re always going to leave?  Gerrard’s career had the hallmarks of a lady in her mid-30s trapped doing endless laps of Tinder.

The betrayals became coping devices.  No-one was here for the long-term.  Gerrard was to be a spinster, a cat lady.  It’s telling that his finest moments in a Liverpool shirt came when none of the above were in attendance.  The 2006 FA Cup final, the “Gerrard final”, was won with Djibril Cisse and Peter Crouch leading the line.  The Miracle of Istanbul starred Milan Baros and an overweight Harry Kewell up top.  Isolated by his own dominance, Gerrard never seemed happier than when he was single-handedly dragging mid-table players to the peak of Europe.


Swansongs are a funny beast.  Careers tend to fizzle out at the end, often descending into a chummy nonchalance, safe in the knowledge that your epitaph’s already been written.  Remember Rio at QPR?  Just occasionally though, more is revealed of the player once he commences the descent.  As the talent starts to wane, the human comes into sharp focus and informs the legacy.  In Gerrard’s case, the final distillation very much confirmed the projections.

By 2014, aged nearly 34, with many contemporaries enjoying a victory lap around the MLS or a cushy player-coaching role, Gerrard was furiously gangbustering his way to one last shot at an elusive premier league title.  An ageing body was being commanded to perform actions it once knew, but now with phantom limbs moving three seconds ahead of the real ones.  Diminished athleticism had forced him into a deep-lying quarter-back role, sat in front of the defence but still the sole touch paper for every single attacking movement.  Liverpool centre-backs would duly wait for Gerrard to pick the ball up and begin each move upfield, a sort of midfield Panama Canal through which all trade must pass.

It was gallant stuff.  Father Time had forced Gerrard into playing a role several England managers had given up trying to get him to play; tired legs finally pre-empting the game-management brain into better action.  Despite the limitations of age, it was one of Gerrard’s best seasons; a testimony to a player who really could do it all, if only you could persuade the bugger.  And so in the 36th game of the season when that fateful slip let Demba Ba through on goal, costing Liverpool the league, it was hard to muster anything other than sympathy.  The warrior had gone out on his sword.  

Partisans cackled with delight, naturally, but how else could Liverpool have lost that league title?  When you’re the master-board for the whole team, the sole cylinder, there is no “other”.  Every small action, every synapse of the hive mind, was initiated by Gerrard.  Either he won that league or his falling short would define the failure.  You suspect it mattered little to him whether it was won or lost with dignity.  If the end came with Gerrard flat on his front, mouthful of turf, staring back in horror at his own goal, so be it.  Having thrown absolutely everything at the cause, perhaps this was the only place to end up.  One-man bands never win the league.  It’s impossible.  Here was Gerrard proving the rule but also showing us how close one man’s brilliance could get.


Gerrard stuck around for a further season.  A red card against Manchester United that year, 38 seconds after coming onto the pitch, giving more insight into Gerrard’s psyche than 12 months’ unrestricted access to the man would have.  A final act that revealed a certain insecurity: not just an inability to leave the stage but an unwillingness, a fear even, of passing the mantel on.  After all, who else could be trusted to with it?


As others have noted, when Ryan Giggs’ wife divorced him and took half of everything, she ended up with 6 1/2 premier league medals more than Gerrard.  Mourinho’s thrown more league medals into the crowd than Gerrard has around his neck.  Cheap reductive shots, of course, but it’s impossible not to wonder what might have been if fate had dealt different cards.  What if he had gone to Chelsea?  What if, instead of Huyton, Gerrard was born fifteen miles east in the Greater Manchester catchment?  Instead of ploughing a lonely furrow at Anfield, what if he’d spent his formative years under the wing of Roy Keane, emerging with a fully-fledged understanding of what it means to play in a cohesive unit, contribute to a greater cause?  Was it nature or nurture that moulded Gerrard?  Would he have been a different player, or would Fergie have ultimately grown frustrated with a player who thought with his legs rather than his head and for himself rather than the collective?

We got a fascinating insight into Gerrard’s own view on the matter only this week.  Gerrard was one of Channel 4’s punditry team for the Italy v England Euros qualifier, in which Harry Kane became England’s outright highest goalscorer.  As is the current trend, for no obvious reason, the three pundits were forced to stand on the pitch to give their analysis, rather than deliver it from the comfort of a warm studio.  Full of praise for Kane and his feat, Gerrard stopped dead in the midst of the superlatives and announced “maybe it’s time, maybe it’s time for him to move on”.  It was a jarring moment – not least because no-one had asked him for his views on Kane’s club situation – but much more so because of the window it provided into Gerrard himself; a moment of quiet self-reflection leaking out seven years after his own retirement.  The man best placed of all of us to advise Harry Kane thought it was time for him to jump ship.  Not have his career tapered by blind loyalty as Gerrard ultimately did.  It was quite a moment.  The volume of unspoken regret was so deafening, so uncomfortable, you could actually see Joe Cole cautiously edging behind Jill Scott.


Whatever the case – for good or bad – Gerrard will be remembered as a player rather than his Liverpool side as a team.  A helluva player at that; one of the best five English players this millennium.  A match-winning force of nature who, on a given day, could beat any team in the world all by himself.  The nickname “Stevie Me” was a barb from opposition fans, but it’s difficult not to see it as a bit of a compliment as well.  There’s never jealousy where there’s not also strong regard.  The me time, after all, could be quite something.

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Gerrard, there, pathos at the ready.

The Banshee of Cork

3 Feb

Anyone who negotiates legal agreements for a living knows the power of compromise.  Cede a little here, turn a blind eye over there, and by jingo you’re in the boozer by 4:45pm.  It’s called being commercial, guys.  Indeed, whether it’s 1.55am in the nightclub or you’re signing away a slice of Crimea to the Russians, where would we be in life without the odd compromise?

For all their virtues, one man who’s never taken a chance on a compromise is Roy Keane.  Famously, there’s no middle ground with Roy.  No face-saving trade-offs.  No handshakes at the courtroom door.  One of us lives today, one of us dies.  The first casualty of every compromise is the truth.  And Cork’s favourite son has always wanted questions answered in a more truthful way than a complex world will allow.


The playing career of Roy Keane was a thesis in truth sought and justice meted out.  A Dostoyevsky novel in cleats.  Punishment.  Retribution.  Damages, ordinary and aggravated.  It was all in there.  Good didn’t always necessarily triumph, but there were themes of probity and rectitude and we all felt a little wiser after the event.

When Keane was out on the pitch crunching into people, a sense of moral obligation was at play.  An understanding that David Cameron’s Big Society couldn’t just be about community graffiti walls and giving up your seat for old people.  Big Societies still needed a judge, a juror, a hooded axeman.  We slept safe in our beds because we knew that rough centre-mids stood ready to visit violence on those that would harm us.

If it felt a bit beyond the pale at times, that mattered little to Keane.  After all, the world could be a frustrating place when the truth was staring you point blank in the face.  Didn’t it behoove all of us to put a two-footer in on those who refused to turn towards the light?  There’s so much beauty in the world and yet Patrick Vieira still went around bullying right-backs.  What was a box-to-box enforcer to do?


All manner of beefs, grudges and bad blood ensued in the name of rehabilitation.  Keane didn’t want to cripple Alf Haaland any more than Nadhim Zahawi wanted to file his returns.  But he did it so that Alf Inge would become a better person.  

Keane didn’t want to tell Mick McCarthy that he was a “shit player, a shit manager” and that he “wasn’t even Irish”.  Feck, no.  He did it because Mick McCarthy needed to know that he was a shit player, a shit manager and that he wasn’t even Irish.  And perhaps then the Irish national team wouldn’t be forced to turn up to World Cups with training facilities that resembled a car park.  

It’s faintly moving that Keane was prepared to give up playing in what was likely to be his last ever World Cup for the sake of his principles.  It would be more heart-rendering still if you thought that it had crossed Keane’s mind for even a moment not to say anything.  As ever, magnet to gospel that he is, it was foot-on-the-gas straight towards “you’re shit at your job and I’m going to tell you”.  No stop-offs or deviations en route.  No quick coffee at the service station of “should I damage my career in this way?”  And, in fairness, why should there be?  Don’t forget, the man wasn’t even Irish.  A point well made, if indeed one likely to draw blushes from about 70% of the rest of the squad.


The managerial game was always going to be a tough nut to crack for a tough nut who had a habit of giving people a crack.  And yet it started well for Keane, taking a Sunderland team fresh off the back of five straight losses in August to a Championship title in May.  True to nature, the disciplinary side of things came easy to Roy.  When Anthony Stokes, Marton Fulop and Tobias Hysen were late for the team coach on a trip to Barnsley one day, Keane simply left them behind.

Despite a Manager of the Year award and a first win against rivals Newcastle in 28 years, Keane was stood down three months into his third season.  The players apparently celebrating on hearing the news.  A blighted spell at Ipswich was best remembered for spats with the medical team, a barely fathomable twenty draws in a single season, and the re-signing of one of the blokes he wouldn’t even let on the team bus at Sunderland.  Oh and he didn’t like the fact they played in blue either.  

While Keane’s foray into the gaffer kingdom was ultimately one of limited success, you were left with a reassuring sense that he did things according to his lore, his beliefs.  Keane’s Austinian “orders backed by threats” philosophy was found wanting, but at least examined on its own terms.  No half-measures.  No compromise.  An immaculate code adherence, if indeed one that only served to make the evolution into his third act all the more unedifying.


For the past five years, Roy Keane has just played a character called Roy Keane.  The outbursts are now nothing more than a product commissioned by TV executives; manufactured eruptions delivered on cue while Dave Jones flicks us that wry smile as if to say “I might have to jump in here in a minute”.

It’s sad to see a man with so much natural pent-up rage selling it as a commodity on Sky Sports.  Like if Gerry Adams did panto, you can’t help but feel it cheapens what went before.

For me, Roy Keane’s greatest selling point wasn’t that you thought he was in the right in respect of every argument he got into.  It was that you knew that he was absolutely and utterly convinced that he was in the right.  Keane bled conviction.  Wore it as proudly as the captain’s armband he wore for every single team he ever played for.  It dishonours us all that he’s now stooging his own personality.


Perhaps on some level Roy appreciates the direction of the tide.  This is 2023, not 1997.  Today’s public space is dominated by pronouns, all-gender restrooms and Rylan; not midfield warriors whose terrifying presence alone lifted the standards of an entire team.  Maybe Keane recognises that the old world is best left where it is.  Let the Real Roy Keane calcify into a reflection of his era while he performs this mugging marionette reel in front of the cameras.  Smile and wave as he embarks on a new life as the Widow Twankey to Micah Richards’ Aladdin. 

It’s a living, I guess, and that’s something.  Bobby Moore won a World Cup and the English game left him for dead.  Jesse Owens beat the Nazis and ended up pumping gas at a petrol station.  The studio is warm at least and the chairs comfortable, even if Eni Aluko is sat in the next one along telling an audience of millions that Wales should rest Gareth Bale in the second game of a major tournament.

But it leaves the essence of the man in the rear view mirror.  Roy Keane of all people shouldn’t have allowed himself to be reduced to a cartoon husk.  Lee Sharpe, maybe.  Ian Wright, almost certainly.  But not Keano.  There were surely other career paths for Roy to take.  A full-blooded lollipop man.  A lay magistrate giving local ne’er-do-wells a fucking good sanctioning.  Maybe the world’s most terrifying headmaster.  Instead, we’re left with this “canned anger” punditry gig that’s gotten to the point where even Jamie Redknapp’s not frightened of him anymore.  And if that isn’t a compromise then I really don’t know what is.

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Ironing out a grievance.

Fading from the light: the career of Michael Owen

12 Jan

It was the late nineties.  Britain was cruising the stratosphere powered by the twin-burners of New Labour and the Spice Girls.  Wannabe had usurped Wonderwall as the nation’s anthem and the former bass player of Ugly Rumours was making good on his promise that things could only get better.  The credit crunch was still miles away and your parents were busy bleeding the country dry on cheap debt and a state-sanctioned housing bubble.  Most notably of all, for no apparent reason, Brian Moore had started referring to Paul Scholes as Paul “Shoals”.

These were prosperous times.  King Tony and Scary Spice were leading us through the longest fiscal expansion in post-war history.  And just when we thought things really couldn’t get any better, along came a young striker from Chester who mustn’t have weighed more than nine stone soaking wet.


He looked like a school prefect and he sounded like a trainee accountant.  You could have passed him off as a normal kid in any sixth form college in the land were it not for two things: he was faster than a greyhound and more lethal than a drawer above a bed with no stops on it.

But it was Owen’s sheer pace off the mark that really grabbed you by the lapels.  There’s “quite nippy”, then there’s the sort of speed at which your face drops when you realise Ben Stiller is in the film you’ve paid to see.  Owen was the latter.  In a game where battles are typically won and lost on inches, Owen always seemed to be miles ahead of defenders.


Football was a doddle for Lilleshall’s most famous graduate.  Maybe too easy.  There was something unerringly nonchalant about Owen’s goal celebration against Argentina in ’98.  It was completely out of sync with the scale of the occasion and, as importantly, what it meant to the rest of us.  Five seconds after it went in, I was under a pile of bodies that would have made Ulrika Johnson blush.  Owen, by contrast, just sort of trotted off with his palms out in front of him, like it wasn’t much of a thing.  Believe me when I say I’ve celebrated goals in training a lot better than that.  In retrospect, you wonder if he mightn’t have celebrated it a bit more…


Of the many retirements and farewells that were announced at end of the 2012/13 season, the one that touched me the most was Owen’s.  That seemed to be in contrast with the feelings of the majority of the footballing public, whose heartstrings were tugged in other directions.  Tears flowed in the streets of Manchester when Paul Scholes announced he was off again for the second time.  Commercial departments went into state funeral mode when David Beckham confirmed that he, too, would be hanging up his boots.  Even Steve Harper was visibly overcome with emotion as the Toon faithful sang his name during the 39th minute of his last game for Newcastle.  For all the gourmet platter of well-wishings on offer, very little was divvied onto the plate of Michael Owen.

Owen, by then, was at Stoke.  A club he hadn’t exactly had much time to build up an emotional bond with.  Potters fans gave him a bit of a clap at the end of his final game, but we’re talking here about men weaned on ex-javelin thrower midfielders, two metre strikers and centre-backs who snap shins for a living.  It was asking a bit much asking for them to get dewy-eyed over some short bloke with a good disciplinary record, especially one who’d only turned out for them on nine occasions. 

What saddened me was that nobody seemed to care very much.  Owen, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, isn’t roundly loved by the nation.  He’s a bit of a Liam Gallagher figure, in that he was once adored by all, but this has been slowly whittled down to the point where it now feels like it’s just me.


He’s not even particularly well liked by the teams he played for.  Indeed, he’s probably less liked by them.  Liverpool fans never recovered from Owen having the nerve to swap Harry Kewell, Igor Biscan and El Hadji Diouf for Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo.  Not that Owen’s new paymasters were desperately appreciative either.  In keeping with what appears to be a Spanish tradition, Real Madrid proceeded to play one of England’s best strikers out on the right-wing.  And despite scoring more goals than he had starts for the Bernabéu club, Madrid still took the view that Robinho and Julio Baptista were better bets, so Owen was shipped back to England. 

Unfortunately, they might as well have labeled the crate “damaged goods”, as by this time Owen’s hamstrings had filed for Chapter XI.  Nobody told Newcastle, though, so they were pretty miffed when broken fragments of the striker washed up on the Geordie shore for a record fee.  Scouse sensitivities were then further angered by Owen going on to join a hated rival and, being a famous ex-Liverpool player, Manchester United fans never really liked him in the first place anyway. 


This lingering rancor seems to have deprived Owen from being remembered quite as he ought to.  It’s not that he’s been forgotten – there isn’t an Englishman alive who’ll ever forget St Etienne – it’s just that we seem to have divorced the man from the moments.  He’s a hero denied hero status; trammeled by a collective desire to pass his greatness off as just something that happened in our lives; joyous but unearned, like a lottery win. 

The moments are all there.  Owen was our shining light against Argentina twice, he killed Germany in Germany and he gave us hope against Brazil.  He won a cup final in ten minutes, and in 2001 was judged by a panel of experts to be the best player in Europe; better than Zidane, even.  Michael Owen the person did that.  Not some sort of transcendental emotion that lives on in the collective English conscious.  Michael Owen.  The chubby fella on BT Sport who likes horses.

So let’s stop praising the moments and start praising the man.  Say it with me.  Michael Owen was England’s brightest star of the last thirty years.  Not Wayne Rooney.  Not Paul Gascoigne.  Michael was it.  The great white hope.  He’s debatably England’s greatest ever striker, yet a recent BBC poll didn’t even have him as one of the options.


The premature foreclosure of Owen’s career was, in footballing terms, a tragedy.  A tragedy brought back into sharp focus in 2015 when Wayne Rooney, cigarette and giant lollipop in hand, ambled over the line to become England’s highest ever goal-scorer.  My mind immediately thought of Owen and how that record should have been his.  Had he remained remotely seaworthy, Owen would have sailed past Bobby Charlton’s 49-goal mark at the same speed he used to race past Emerson Thome and Linvoy Primus.  With a clear run at it, something near 70 goals might have been achievable.


It wasn’t to be.  But with the death of the dream should not go the reality of what Owen was: the most feared Englishman of a generation.  The guy you absolutely one hundred per cent wanted the ball to fall to when it properly mattered.  Here at Too Good we have every confidence that we could embed video clips into this webpage if we wanted to. Every confidence. But Owen’s moments were so important you’ve seen them all a million times anyway.  So instead we’ll settle for a quote from Owen himself in the build-up to the 2011 Champions League final…

United were up against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Broken beyond repair and long past warranty, Owen was something like the third-in-reserve striker in Fergie’s list of substitutes.  It was frankly a miracle he’d gotten as far as the bench.  Despite this, on the eve of the game, Owen decided to tell the press that he “still felt he had one last big goal in him”. 

I couldn’t help but smile.  Here was a man who barely met the physical requirements of an office five-a-side game anymore.  Yet he still fancied his chances of getting on the end of something on the biggest stage of all.  Still thought he could anticipate a ball no-one else did; get a toe in before anyone could track him.  And the hairs on the back of my neck pricked up because, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I still bloody well believed him


In the end, Owen never got on the pitch that day.  His prophecy did prove correct in one respect, though.  He did only have one last goal in him.  Not exactly the big one he’d dreamt of, mind.  A close-ranger for Stoke against Swansea.  A rather meaningless 90th minute consolation in a rather meaningless 3-1 defeat.  It was his first goal in nearly a year and a half, and to be his last.

It scarcely seemed fitting.  But then not much of Michael Owen’s career past the age of 25 was.  Having tantalised with so much promise, the brightest star of the golden generation had shone most briefly of all.  Owen’s achievement as the only English Ballon d’Or winner since the advent of the compact disc is likely to stand untouched for quite some time to come.  But, as D:Ream themselves might have tunefully opined, things really could have been so much better.

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Owen’s career went from bad to worse.

The four-thousandth article called “The strange case of Dele Alli”

4 Mar

Identity theft’s all the rage these days.  And why not, right?  I’d far rather spend your money than mine.  Otherwise, what the hell else are we all voting Labour for?

But in most cases of identify theft someone at least has the common decency to pass themselves off as a person. This week some blighter is pretending to be my car.

Two penalty charge notices came crashing through the letterbox on Monday. Both for driving through closed-off roads.  The reg plate checked out, but if you look closely at the grainy images, that’s not my Corolla.  Small silver car, sure, but what about the shape of the back windscreen?  And where’s my aerial?  It’s a ghost car.  Someone’s tickling my chassis here.

Where this ends is anyone’s guess.  At the very least, I assume these penalty notices will keep coming, sending my well-marshalled credit score into a tailspin and leaving me on the street when the time comes to re-mortgage.  And that’s assuming no-one’s lining up a bank robbery or drive-by shooting with this doppelgänger wagon.  So best case scenario I’m homeless; worst case I’m staring down the barrel of fifteen to twenty.


You have to feel Dele Alli would have some sympathy with this.  Someone stole Dele’s footballing PIN number a long time ago.  Identity cloned and talent vaporised as if he’d dribbled headlong into the world’s biggest phishing scam.  Only the husk remains of England’s most exciting prospect from four years previous.

It certainly can’t be described as a blip anymore, that’s for sure.  Dele has barely put a foot right since the 2018 World Cup.  Valuation soaring somewhere north of £80m, all of a sudden the sky went black and the birds fell out of the sky.  A whole cycle has passed since then of innocuous displays and increasingly little game time. 

It’s a sad state of affairs if, in fairness, one entirely of his own making.  Few seem prepared to stand in Dele’s corner at the moment.  And when you have Spurs royalty like Glen Hoddle getting hot under the collar about something as silly as the clothes Dele wore at his Goodison unveiling, you get the sense there’s a back story about general levels of professionalism being alluded to.


It will surprise no-one that Dele’s first touch in professional football was a back-heel.  And listening to his own analysis in interviews, Dele talks a lot about needing to express himself, about the conditions being right for him to show people “what I can do”.  There’s a relationship of artist and paintbrush here, of football as a solo pursuit in which Dele is tasked with coming up with a beautiful solution.  Which is all well and good, except there’s 38 games to be played each season and it’s no use winning five of them 12-nil if you lose all of the rest.  Like the insisted-upon coitus on Valentine’s Day when the spark has long gone from a relationship, Dele needs to learn to put a shift in. 

Expressing yourself is an indulgence.  This is the premier league, Dele; we’re not here to fuck spiders.  Burnley away, 90-mile-an-hour stuff, Sean Dyche completely hoarse within ten minutes of kick-off.  We’re not painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we’re flogging NFTs of baby chimps to children.  Piling them high and selling them cheap, my man.  Some days you’re Kurt Zouma.  Some days you’re the cat.  The trick is to make the best of both situations.

Case in point, Manchester City have one of the best left-sided attacking midfielders in the world.  But what does the mad Spaniard do?  He plays Phil Foden centre-forward and tells him to bloody well get on with it.  Rather than cry foul over his tainted oeuvre, Foden crashes through 14km a game and creates bags of chances for his team.


In the long run, focus and discipline invariably beats talent.  No-one can teach Dele Alli to be self-starter in life except Dele Alli.  Some people sit at home and sulk on Champions League nights if their team didn’t qualify.  Some people dust themselves down and get burgling the houses of the players that did qualify.  It’s high time Dele showed the world he’s at least prepared to shackle a terrified wife and child to a radiator and bag up the jewellery.


The baton now passes to Frank Lampard to winch Dele out of the abyss.  It’s tempting to conclude, from a positional sense at least, there’s no-one better placed in football management to help Dele.  But the issue has never been one of ability.  The challenge for Lampard is to man-manage a player whose focus, not unlike Prince Andrew’s recollection, just seems to drift on occasion.

So how do you teach humble?  What elixir of modesty do you use to refloat a container ship-sized ego that has run aground? At the bare minimum, a few character-building turns as draft excluder on defensive free-kicks can’t hurt.  There’s also the nuclear threat of letting Dominic Calvert-Lewin pick out an outfit for Dele every time he’s voted worst in training, albeit being made to wear some truly dreadful clothes might not immediately strike Dele as a form of punishment.

Whatever approach Lampard takes to raising Dele off the rocks, you have to hope – against all the odds now, it must be said – he succeeds.  When all’s said and done, at his peak, Dele is the reason why you watch football.  He’s a goal out of nowhere; a hand grenade with the pin long removed.  The sort of madness-maker who wins back-to-back Young Player of the Year awards and celebrates by punching Claudio Yacob in the stomach, promptly ending his season early in suspension.  Unmarkable. Unplayable.  Unmanageable.  Not indispensable, though.  No-one ever is.  And it’s an awfully long road back from here.

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Can’t fault your bravery, Glenn.

Sportswashing Direct

24 Jan

The board game Monopoly was my first taste of wealth.  Scrabble was all well and good and Risk had its moments, but the crushing economic reality brought to bear in Monopoly was something else.  Looking my big sister in the eye as she waded through hotel-laden parts of the board and demanding sums of money that I knew in my heart she couldn’t afford and would never recover from, God what a rush.  I’ve longed to be a landlord ever since.

Unfortunately, subsequent tastes of opulence have been frustratingly slim – the only notable exception being the vicarious joy that comes with being a Manchester City fan.  On matchdays, I get to bask in the full splendour of unimaginable riches.

It changes you.  No point pretending it doesn’t.  All of a sudden you’re richer than a cheese and crab dip.  Imagine, then, what it feels like to be a Newcastle fan right now.  Manchester City’s bank balance barely registers as a postcode lottery win when rebased against the Toon’s newfound prosperity.  $500+ billion in cold hard black gold?  This is it, boys.  The supping well.  No-one’s rooming with Nile Ranger anymore.


For the fans, this all rather falls into your lap.  Can’t do nought but enjoy the ride.  For the current staff, a sense of foreboding is probably the main emotion.  The real interest lies in those first new arrivals and their motivations for coming.  Eddie Howe being at the top of that list.  Howe is about as close to choirboy as football management has to offer.  Which makes his arrival on Tyneside all the more fascinating.

Everyone knows the saying.  If you’re 20 and you’re getting pegged by your neighbour’s wife in a leisure centre car park, then you’ve got no heart.  But if you’re 40 and you’re not getting pegged by your neighbour’s wife in a leisure centre car park, then you’ve got no brain.  Newcastle’s new manager has wised up to this reality.  He’s been honest with himself.  Congratulations Eddie, you lived long enough to become the villain. 


As Howe is finding out, one of the privileges of wealth is it invites you to be a special kind of dickhead that simply isn’t accessible to the common man.  John Terry wouldn’t routinely leave his Bentley in disabled parking spaces if he was on a zero hours contract.  Jimmy Savile wouldn’t have sexually abused hundreds of children across Britain if his wealth and status didn’t afford him the access.  And while it is grossly unfair to compare Eddie Howe with a monster like John Terry, we can see that in his own way Howe has already started to channel his inner wanker.

Signing Kieran Trippier was standard fare for a nouveau riche club finding their feet. England full-back, slightly overrated, wrong side of thirty.  It was straight out of the Wayne Bridge playbook.  Chris Wood, on the other hand, what a statement that was.  £25 million on a 30 year old centre-forward with a whopping three goals to his name this season, signed purely to weaken a rival relegation candidate.  Talk about cynical.  Imagine having all that money at your disposal yet still looking Amanda Staveley in her wild, wild eyes and telling her that was the plan.  Not Aubameyang.  Not Ousmane Dembele.  The New Zealander averaging a goal every 579 minutes.  Reach for the stars, Ed.

And just to prove that if a grave’s worth shitting in, it’s worth filling up the whole coffin, Howe is at it again.  If the Sunday papers are to be believed, he’s about to bid for James Tarkowski.  He’s also been snooping around Carrow Road for Todd Cantwell.  Presumably a Watford player is next on the list.  After that, it’s a toss up between an in-house presenting role for Tim Lovejoy and bombing Israel.


This boss-level dastardly behaviour of asset-stripping the other relegation candidates is all the stranger because of who Eddie Howe is.  The Bournemouth club legend, so popular he was re-purchased using fan’s own money after two years in the wilderness.  A faith repaid when he overcame a seventeen-point deficit in his first season as manager to avoid relegation to the Vanarama National League.  As a topper, Howe climbed all four divisions of the football league, staying in the top flight for five seasons straight playing attractive, attacking football.  In that fifth and final season, he was the first premier league manager to take a pay cut during the pandemic.  This is a good man. 


Whatever the explanation for the current Anakin-to-Darth skit, Howe knows his Newcastle team must hit the groove fast.  The season’s more than half gone and neutrals aren’t exactly willing them to stay up.  Howe has at least learned one valuable lesson quickly; that you can always hire one half of the poor to kill the other half.  Perhaps he got some tips from upstairs on that one.  Better hope Chris Wood adds a fourth goal to his season’s tally then.  After all, sportswashing is a tough gig in the Championship.  Cleansing the Saudi brand really requires the deep waters of prime-time Premier League coverage.  17th or higher is a must.

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Eddie Howe, there, enquiring after Rose’s buyout clause on the flotsam.

Commencing the descent

21 Nov

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might look like the sort of man who would walk in on his wife in bed with another man and gently announce “I’ll take myself off to the pub then”.  Reaching past them both to grab his jacket before gingerly treading towards the door.  But this is of course a nonsense.  The devilment in Solskjaer was clear to see as far back as 02/03, when Fergie stuck him out on the right wing to piss Becks off.  Solskjaer enjoyed a glorious half-season kicking the bejesus out of premier league left-backs.  It was as though the track rabbit had pulled a 180 and started lamping the greyhounds.

He’s an easy target at the moment though is old Ole Gunnar, and not without some justification.  Along with Gareth Southgate, he holds one of the two great managerial offices of state in this country.  Yet neither had so much as an ounce of pedigree when they showed up on interview day.  Molde, Cardiff and Middlesboro?  Places you could well believe were twinned with each other, but breeding grounds for the United and England jobs?  “Never put in temporary charge a man who, four wins down the line, you don’t want public opinion to force you into giving the role full time”, you might think. 

And yet, when all said and done, for two seasons Solskjaer acquitted himself well.  After the face-down-in-the-water debacle of the Moyes regime, the weirdness of Van Gaal and the misery of Mourinho, Solskjaer was a ship-steadying force for good.  A 3rd place finish in his first full season followed by 2nd place last time around (above Klopp, above Chelsea).  This is about as good as any sane United fan could expect.


There’s a touch of the Insulate Britains about Solskjaer’s reign at Old Trafford.  Initially dismissed as a bit of a clown, his sheer resolve gained admiration in some quarters while driving others to the brink.  Solskjaer’s had his hands glued to Sir Matt Busby Way for nearly 3 seasons now, and every time you thought some bloke in a Ford transit van was about to violently knock his block off, he pulls through with another three points out of absolutely nowhere.

United’s ability to come from behind under Solskjaer has been really quite something.  The saucy red comeback boys have won a scarcely credible nineteen times from losing positions during his three-year tenure.  In many respects, the fortitude is to be admired.  But, as the saying goes, the superior pilot uses his superior judgement to avoid situations that require the use of his superior skill.  There’s not much glamour in securing a two-goal lead in the first thirty minutes of a game and killing the game dead, but you don’t half look professional.


Unfortunately, nothing grows in the garden of Old Trafford these days and the cheerful Norwegian now finds himself being wheeled towards the palliative ward.  Hopelessly trapped between expectations and reality.  Anything higher than fourth place an impossibility, anything lower a calamity.  A calamity with added farce if “Lazarus man” Moyes beats him to it.  Comprehensive defeats against Liverpool and Manchester City are one thing.  A firm spanking by relegation-threatened Watford quite another.

It’s happening Ole, this is Sinatra territory.  The bonus track.  All that’s left is how you want the legacy to be written.  A little advice?  Summon the spirit of 02/03 old boy, and that glorious springtime whacking lumps out of Ian Harte, Mauricio Taricco and Alessandro Pistone.  Put some keys in your hand and go out swinging.  Toss a ball at Jonathan Liew and demand he do ten keep-ups.  Go in two-footed on a Custis.  Ask Jonathan Wilson to tell you again that one about how your 30-goal a season striker is somehow the issue with United at the moment.  Maybe you haven’t been a roaring success, but you haven’t been quite the dismal failure they would dearly like to paint you as either.  Treated the same, Ferguson would have had hoods over heads and be driving out into the desert by now.  It’s not your fault that journalists literally can’t think of anything else to write about at this time of year.


After that, well, it’s into the sunset isn’t it?  Back to being a club legend.  Relax and enjoy the wild ride of United’s decennium horribilis; see where it goes next.  Will United executives finally start making decisions with their heads rather than their hearts?  Or is Phil Neville just around the corner?  Nobody knows, but then that’s part of the fun of structural decline.  This century’s already eaten up Debenhams, Thomas Cook and Woolworths.  The giants of yesteryear trampled by the Amazons, the Apples and those pesky sovereign wealth funds.  The future used to mean hope.  But time passes.  Possibilities decrease, regrets mount.  Better the warm cloisters of nostalgia than face up to the reality that Solskjaer is really only a symptom and not the root cause of Manchester United’s continuing decay.

A little something on the side

17 Oct

Being a professional footballer can’t be the most taxing life, can it?  Pick a colour for the leather interior of your Testarossa.  Watch Salt Bae bounce several ounces of salt off his forearm onto your dinner.  Ponder whether you’re going to skip the post-match handshake with Callum Robinson on Sunday.  The calm waters of being a supremely athletic youthful millionaire are rarely troubled.

Pity poor Marcus Rashford, then.  How easy is it to focus on passing drills when you’re mentally tethered to the 4.3 million children in Britain living below the poverty line?  What a burden.  Football might even seem a little insignificant by comparison.  And if that’s not enough, Rashford’s manager actually thinks he’s doing too much on the extra-curricular front.  Ole Gunnar wants less school-age dinners and more last minute winners.

“Marcus has done some remarkable and fantastic things,” Solskjaer told the press as Rashford returns from a shoulder operation, “… but now he maybe needs to prioritise his football”.  Oof.  That one hit harder than a Rashford tweet aimed at a Tory front-bencher.

In many respects, this was classic Fergie-inspired “concentrate on your football” rhetoric.  With Lee Sharpe, the job was to keep him out of the nightclubs.  With Eric, it was the away end.  With Rashford, it’s G7 summits.  Put that famished ten year old down, Marcus.


It’s an interesting, if possibly unfair, point that Solskjaer is making.  The name Marcus Rashford certainly conjures up more on the social justice front than it does professional football at the moment.  But it’s equally thought provoking that, of the presumably many outside interests Solskjaer’s squad of players must surely have, this is the one that irks him.  Paul Pogba changes his hairstyle three times a day.  Cristiano Ronaldo’s life ambition is to star on the cover of Men’s Health every month.  Harry Maguire likes to holiday.  It’s hardly as though Rashford is skipping training to visit food banks.  What’s Ole particularly got against children sleeping on a full stomach?


Chances are, being the masterclass tactician that Solskjaer is, the canny Norwegian recognises the deeper point for contemplation here; the Malthusian question emerging.  How good does Marcus Rashford have to be at football to help the most children?  The sheer scale of Rashford’s philanthropic endeavours depends to a very large extent on him continuing to have a successful top-flight career.  Playing for Manchester United adds seven figures of followers onto your social media account and provides a platform to change the world.  Some terrific charity work is undertaken in the lower leagues of English football, but the star striker of Macclesfield Town is unlikely to be granted an audience with Boris Johnson any time soon.

Imagine, then, the pressure on Rashford.  The stress.  Every below-par performance putting lives at risk.  Every missed chance a Findus crispy pancake that never makes it onto the dinner plate.  Football was never a matter of life and death regardless of whatever deluded nonsense ventured out of Bill Shankly’s mouth, but in Marcus’ case it just might be.


The free school meals crusade certainly wasn’t a one-off gesture, that’s for sure.  Rashford is delving further into the world of social welfare, this time with a focus on getting more kids to read.  And while it’s, shall we say, interesting that someone so keen on literacy campaigning doesn’t seem to actually write any of his own social media posts, Rashford’s intentions are undoubtedly sincere.


Maybe, for the best of everyone’s sake, Solskjaer is right to put up some boundaries on Rashford’s extra curricular activities.  “I” before “e”, but not on matchdays.  Relevancy is not a myth.  Divorce the sports star from the sport and you’re not left with much.  Kournikova taught us that.  And Attlee and Bevin didn’t have the distraction of midweek European games.

Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani, Jadon Sancho, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and a certain Portuguese returnee are all competing with Rashford for places this year.  He needs to be focussed.  It’s impossible to say for sure how many packed lunches it would take for Ronaldo to forgive an over-hit through ball, but you suspect it’s a lot.  There’s only so many seats at the dinner table of the United starting XI and the reality, unseemly as it may be, is it’s performances on the pitch that will allow Rashford to have the greatest impact off it.

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19 Feb

If Pep Guardiola took over a Sunday league team, he’d lose his first game in charge 7-0.  He’d lose the second game 15-0 and call it progress.  What’s interesting is he might be right.

The inherited brilliance of his Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams concealed some important things about Pep Guardiola the football manager.  The first being just how bloody long it takes to grasp his system.  It took four years for John Stones to become a Guardiola player.  Gabriel Jesus might never get there.

There is no Plan B.  That’s abundantly clear.  The plan is the plan.  The ball is your daughter’s chastity.  The last vaccine in the care home.  It doesn’t matter if it’s bobbling and Liverpool’s front three are swarming all over you; find a pass.  It doesn’t matter if Jamie Vardy is charging full pelt and your self-assessment is overdue; find a pass.  Clear your lines and you’ll find yourself clearing your locker.

Other leeways will be granted.  It isn’t an enormous issue if you’re a defender that can’t actually defend, for instance.  Stick to the plan and you might never need to.  If you’re a midfielder, you don’t necessarily even need to be able to run.  And while it’s a bonus if the goalkeeper can stop shots, let’s just say Pep has more holistic plans in mind for you.  You can see now why Guardiola didn’t give club legend Joe Hart even a cursory ten games at the start of his reign to prove he was completely ill-equipped for the road ahead.  Dropping him at the outset was an act of mercy.


Football used to be about space and finding the stuff.  Guardiola has collapsed this theory quite literally.  His players don’t spread out, they coalesce.  The temptation might be to think of Paul Scholes as a sort of archetypal Guardiola player, but those 35 yard cross-field balls of soaring beauty would have landed Scholes training with Benjamin Mendy and the reserves.  Sexless three metre passes are the order of the day; shorter if you can manage it.  Triple-A, risk-free balls to one of the two nearest options.  The exciting thing is this remains true even if you’re in your own crowded six yard box.


I used to reflect on how hard City had to work to score a goal under Guardiola and compare it to how cheaply they gave them away, but I’m beginning to think this is just a necessary by-product.  When it goes wrong the Guardiola way, it blows up pretty quickly.  In his first year at Eastlands, when they finished 3rd, City were conceding the sort of goals that would catch cameramen out.  The footage would still be of a replay or a close-up when the ball hit the back of the net.  City would require a 47-pass move to equalise.  The same is still true today really, it’s just that City are managing to do an awful lot more of the latter than the former.


I think you have to already be one of the best teams in the league to play the way Guardiola wants.  I really don’t think you get away with pushing your luck this far if you’re 16th in the table.  Even at the Emirates, Mikel Arteta is steadily extricating Arsenal from the high table of English football trying to implement Pep’s ethos.  The Guardiola method is a finishing school for excellence rather than a general manual on how to play the game.  For most teams, it would be like a normal human trying to use an Olympic standard pole vault; it won’t work and you’re going to hurt yourself trying.

That’s not an issue for Guardiola though.  After a quick practice with the reserves, he started managerial life with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.  He inherited a Bayern team that had just won the treble and his next move was to the Manchester branch of a sovereign wealth fund.  We’re unlikely to ever know what he’d do with Burnley.


What is true is his Manchester City team are starting to look like the best side in Europe at the moment.  A sort of Mancunian Harlem Globetrotters who you feel are a fit De Bruyne and Aguero away from their best tilt at the big prize. 

In this system that requires the greatest level of nerve, the test will be how well Guardiola’s outfit handle the big occasions in Europe this year.  It will be interesting to see just how solid those six yard box rondos really are in the last 30 minutes of a big European final.  Mourinho-style pragmatism football is tailored to cope with this kind of pressure, alleviate it as best as possible.  By design, Guardiola’s system does not allow this luxury.  The players cannot put the burden down.  That’s not the plan.  They just have to learn to handle it.

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England goalkeeper Joe Hart was keen to meet the new gaffer and understand his plans.

Red, white but forever blue: Steve McManaman won’t leave Manchester City alone

31 Jan

For some reason, it’s a hard-wired rule of English football that pundits and co-commentators have to have played for one of the teams that are on the telly that day.  There’s no obvious logic for this – they’re either decent at the job or they’re not – but then there’s no obvious logic for the taxpayer paying Zoe Ball £1.3m a year.  Some things we just unthinkingly accept.

The cast is familiar at the top end.  Carragher for Liverpool, Gary Neville for United.  You might get a Crouch or a Hoddle for Spurs.  Obviously the well gets a bit shallow the further down you go, and eventually you find yourself taking them on trust that the man in the studio for the Burnley game is in fact Tom Heaton.


I don’t know why this practice came about.  It’s not as though a player who played for a club 5-10 years ago has any special insight into the current team.  If they did, I suspect they wouldn’t be giving it away for free on Super Sunday.  Maybe TV executives think it will warm the hearts of supporters to see one of their “own” in the studio.  Either way, it’s a cruel fate that Manchester City get landed with Steve McManaman.

Always Steve McbloodyManaman.  Every single Champions League game for as long as I can remember.  For these precious years that City get to battle Europe’s elite, games are always played out to the backdrop of Steve McManaman, analysis escaping out of him like steam from an old kettle.

There are no positive associations between McManaman and Manchester City.  Even the press conference announcing his move to the club struck an oddly sour note.  McManaman’s nose was put out of joint by a line of questioning and he responded tersely, listing out all of the trophies he had won at Real Madrid.  McManaman concluded to his audience that he had nothing left to prove in the game.

Unfortunately for Manchester City, he was proven right.  McManaman played 35 games for the club and was shit in every one of them.  Didn’t score a single goal in two seasons.  Couldn’t run, didn’t look like he wanted to.  Just trousered one the best salaries at the club and then retired.  His ongoing relationship with Manchester City via the intermediary of BT Sport has now lasted many times longer than his actual direct association with the club.  Like the haunting spectre of a best forgotten ex-girlfriend becoming bezzies with your wife, he just won’t go away.


I could have easily gotten over this by now.  Fifteen years of wishing Gary Neville would get swept away by the tide didn’t stop me swooning pretty much instantly once Red Nev took to the studio.  But McManaman’s just so bloody bad at this job too.  It’s as though the gears are jammed and he’s stuck in exasperation mode.  He’s never seen anything ordinary.  Listening to him observe a short corner is like a child describing Disney World.  I honestly thought the ball hitting the corner flag and staying in play against Olympique Marseille was going to tip him over the edge.  The acts of a game of football are rarely side-splittingly hilarious.  And yet, for reasons best known to himself, “Macca” chortles his way through ninety minutes plus stoppages like an ageing relative who’s just discovered memes.

Life isn’t fair sometimes, but you wonder if it has to be this unfair.  When a burglar defecates on one of your rugs, you’re left thinking what was wrong with just bagging up the iPads.  United don’t have Carlos Tevez co-commentating on their matches.  No-one’s inviting Sol Campbell into the studio for Tottenham games.  Why must City be singled out for such perverse suffering?

Indeed, it would be a bit less galling if Sky weren’t up to the exact same trick.  In a weirdly similar gambit, Sky have the temerity to wheel out Robbie Fowler as Manchester City’s “representative”; a man who also turned up at City overweight in 2003, several years past his best, was lazy beyond belief and picked up huge wages.  It’s as though television executives are on a bizarre but subtle crusade to highlight the mismanagement of the late-Bernstein era.

It all rather begs the question why we even have partisan pundits in the first place.  If the idea is that they’re lending us their expertise, surely they’re doing us a disservice if they strive for anything other than the strictest accuracy?  There’s no place for a misty-eyed retelling of the game.  Don’t flannel me with false positives if the truth is we were awful.  I need to know, man.  Gaslighting me into believing we deserved all three points isn’t doing me any favours.


Hope springs eternal of course, and new blood may be just around the corner for City fans.  Fresh from a managerial stint at Fleetwood Town, there’s no way Joey Barton is going to swerve the allure of prime-time punditry.  And by crikey we’ll get some searingly honest analysis for our buck then.  Barton has never shied away from speaking the cold hard truth, even when the justice system isn’t compelling it from him.

That’s for the future, though.  Before he can light up our screens, Barton still needs to be extensively media-trained and, ideally, taught how to count to ten.  For the present, on those big European nights, we’re wedded to sharing the experience with Stevie Mac.  A tinnitus-inducing hinge on an old door, speculating excitedly about some of the more basic premises of the game.  Wide-eyed exclamations on a sport he’s supposed to be familiar with.  An expert, even.  Although, judging by his time at the City of Manchester, you would never have known.

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Barely worth marking.