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Friday, June 26, 2009

 
Observer  June 28th

If you can remember it then you weren't there, obviously, but I'd hazard a guess that 1967 was the Summer of Love. And then twenty odd years later, according to Arthur Smith and Chris England's play An Evening with Gary Lineker, there was the second Summer of Love in 1990. And now nearly two decades on we have not the third Summer of Love, but...The Summer of Accountancy. How quotidian.

I have minimal interest in my own expenses, why on earth would I have any interest in someone else's? Their expenses are no more likely to be interesting than the memoirs which they've 'been scribbling away at off and on, for a while'. When, 'surfing the net', I stumble upon 'DATA: download the full spreadsheet of BBC executive expenses. Can you do something with this data?
Please post your visualisations and mash-ups on our Flickr group' I wonder groggily who is the mad one around here.

Should a history of the Summer of Accountancy ever come to be written, and it will, I think the prime cause for the mania will be seen to be the death of lunch. It is obvious that so many journalists spend so much time twittering and flickring (sp?) that there isn't a minute available to venture away from the desk. To such a person an expenses form is both exotic and a threat. By being honest and leaving it blank they admit to the poverty of their existence. By filling it with false claims they lay themselves open to charges of hypocrisy. And woe betide a journalist who was also a hypocrite...

Ah well, what is needed is an escape from the accountants and if Wimbledon does one thing it is escapism. It offers something for everyone. There's the tennis and the lemonaded-down Pimm's and the Duke and Duchess of Kent and the middle-management types holding their secretary's' clammy hand and Sue Barker.

What it hasn't thrown up this year, however, is the plucky British outsider. A character who is vital for sustaining our interest during the first week when matches tend to be one-sided. The plucky outsider's matches are always close. They are always thrilling. And he/she is always delighted to win them and appear live on BBC television with John Inverdale and say, 'obviously, on paper, Sampras is the favourite, but tennis matches aren't played on paper, Invers'.

These characters, who it must be said we tend to forget before we have remembered them, also come into their own on retirement when they 'do a Petchey" and are swiftly moved sideways into a commentator's booth. All sports prefer to leave the commentating to their own kind but tennis is peculiarly in-bred.

The problems with this selection policy become evident when the tennis pros share a programme with a real pro. Last week as Michael Stich and Jeff Tarango struggled to kickstart any sort of conversation with any one lolling around Murray Mound it was Simon Mayo who attempted to rescue them by suggesting, with a laugh, that they ask about 'the Schleswig-Holstein problem'. Stich doesn't do laughs and it became evident that he hadn't done history either. Hours later he was still complaining to Mayo 'why you ask me about this Holstein-Schleswig. This not tennis.' Which was the funniest thing he has said, albeit unintentionally.

This year's only candidate for plucky outsider was Elena Baltacha but she lost in the 2nd round after, according to Chris Bradnam (a poor man's Petchey, if you can conceive of such a thing), 'being beaten in every sense of the word.' Really, Chris. Like an egg, like a drum, like driven game, with a cane, that Baltacha sure took one hell of a beating.

If we are to have any hope of escaping the Summer of Accountancy we need people who have some gift for words.





The Observer 21 June

It is March 3rd, 2010 and the English football team are travelling by coach to the Bernabeu stadium for a pre world Cup friendly against Spain. As the coach enters the Plaza de Lima it comes under attack from armed terrorists. They open fire on the coach and hurl grenades at it, which fortunately miss. Nevertheless eight people are killed including six policemen. The match is cancelled and the England team are flown home immediately.

At Heathrow, a 'clearly shaken' John Terry explains the nature and extent of the injuries suffered by him and his team-mates: 'Stevie G has a shrapnel wound in his leg, but he is fine. Crouchy had shrapnel in his chest, but thank God it wasn't very deep and just on the surface. I had shrapnel injuries in my shoulder, but they have all been removed and I'm okay now. Young Theo had shrapnel in his neck and scalp, but he too has had medical attention and is fine. Everyone else is perfectly all right.' It is the first time since Munich 1972 that sports stars have been targeted by terrorists on the European mainland. All sporting tours to Spain are cancelled. John Terry receives a knighthood for bravery in the Queen's Birthday List. There is, somewhat fanciful, talk of a Victoria cross.

Four months later in South Africa, England reach the World Cup finals where they face Spain. As a gesture of solidarity the teams stand together for the national anthems. There are many minutes of silence.

For over a month the 24 hours rolling news channels have led their bulletins with the English Squad's every move. An award winning highlight being live coverage of the 'Boys of '10 Get Back on the Bus.'

'Getting back together, going on a bus you know sometimes you look around and you feel how vulnerable you are in the bus if anyone wants to do any harm,' says Captain JT. 'At the same time it is great to get back on it as a team and play your first major tournament after Lahore. That feeling of togetherness, being through tough situations, and playing the game we love brings us a lot closer together. Everyone just fell into their places. Lots of players have seats they are really fond of: Wayne always sits on the right three to four rows from the front and the Neviller likes to sit at the back. So the guys are back in their usual positions. Life is back to normal.'

Gary Neville expresses most eloquently how the players have changed: 'You realise there are more things to life than football. I just want to concentrate and enjoy the simple little things and make the most of every moment. I know that in this world nothing is sure right now; anything can happen if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.'

An extraordinary story and, of course, one which will be played out at Lord's this afternoon when Sri Lanka play Pakistan with Samaraweera as Gerrard, Tharanga as Crouch, Mendis as Walcott, Sangakkara as Terry, Jayasuriya as Rooney and Jayawardene as Neville.

Before the tournament Sangakkara promised, 'we are trying to play on our unpredictability and our unorthodox make-up and hopefully we will be able to come up with the unexpected and surprising.' They have more than delivered on this promise. The batting has been innovative with 'the Dilshan' being a kamikaze addition to a batsman's range of strokes. And the bowling of the 3Ms (Muralitharan, Mendis and Malinga) has been so exceptional that they are on the way to being ranked alongside the 3Ws (Worrell, Walcott and Weekes) who so dominated the West Indies middle order in the fifties and sixties.

For all these reasons most neutrals, and perhaps even some Pakistanis, will be hoping they triumph this afternoon. And, even if they don't, they are already The Team of the Year.


The Observer June 14th

Often it falls to the joker to tell it as it is. So it was on Wednesday night. Before his turn we had been treated to the inevitability that was Kazakhstan 0, England 4 and Steve Claridge in an attempt to rev up 606 saying something along the lines of 'so, six out of six for Fabio Capello's England (pause to think of talking point) but I can't help thinking that the level of performance has dipped slightly. What do you think? Rob from Mitcham.'
'Hi, Steve.'
'Hi, Rob.'
'Great show by the way. I just think. It's staring us in the face what the problem is..'
'Yes, Rob.'
'They've got to get rid of Lampard.'

And so it goes on. Whatever the problem, sacking Lampard is the answer. At one stage, sources tell me, Gordon Brown was thinking of drafting him into his cabinet just so he could gain some short-term popularity by dispensing with his services in the next reshuffle. He is the only Englishman to hold down a place in possibly the strongest midfield in club football, yet he is the one most constantly vilified. Baffling.

Anyhow, having seen off the mighty Kasaks, next up in the week of footballing inevitability was a country with a population of 69,150 in its last census. If Andorra had been playing a team of similar size, say Newmarket, then it might have been watchable. The mighty Andorrans versus a team of jockeys would at least have had curiosity value. As it was they were playing 'one of the favourites for the World Cup' (TM most pundits) and it was achingly predictable. Yet still the analysts analysed as if there was something worth analysing. And no one mentioned that the Principality had no back four, midfield, or strikers. ITV had paid good money to cover the event; they, of all people, were going to pretend it was an event.

The pretence normally would have been sustained for the full two and a bit hours; instead, and gloriously, at half-time Jimmy Greaves hove into view and, owing nothing to no man, pointed out that the Andorrans had no players and questioned the sanity of anyone bothering to watch the non event. The interview was briskly terminated, but the myth that because something costs money to acquire it must per se be of value had been punctured.

What was frustrating was that this fake mythologising took place during a week when  two sporting events, which truly bordered on the mythic, took place. First, there was Chris Gayle. Few visiting cricket captains have been so traduced. His efforts in leading his side to their first Test series victory for five years forgotten. His calm when his coach threw away a one day match ignored. He told it as it is and he was slaughtered.

His West Indies side was routinely condemned as a pathetic shower. And then they played Australia. And Chris Gayle with one monumental innings stood up to cricket's most effective machine and stopped it in its tracks. At the end of his innings he allowed himself a smile. And most of the Aussies, realizing the epic nature of what he had achieved, smiled too.

The very next day Roger Federer bested even Gayle. The game's poet has been trying to succeed in Paris for a decade. When he finally did so the tears came easily for him and many of those watching. Once again the vanquished played their part with his  opponent recognizing the magnitude of his achievement and then saying, nicely, 'no one beats Robin Soderling eleven times in a row.'

Sport can amaze. It can be imbued with grace and dignity. But often you have to look beyond the front pages of the back pages, you have to look beyond football, in order to find it.


Observer June 6th

The adverts suggested that the MCC members might turn up wearing face-paint. This didn't happen. Indeed, if anything, the Pavilion was more solemn than usual. 'It's a quiet Long Room,' said one seasoned member. 'Very quiet'.

One reason for this is that for many discerning members Lord's is part sporting venue, part well appointed pub and part, and often primarily, very superior Travel Lodge. There are few more comfortable or convivial environments in which 'to unwind' in NW1. Not surprisingly, therefore, there is great competition for places and if there can be one criticism of Mike Brearley's Presidency, which better judges than I have described as flawless, it is that he might have lobbied for more leather chairs, a leather sofa or two, and, if bold, a leather pop-up bed. As it is one has to be alert to any opportunity that arises. My strategy is to loiter near the loudest snorer as he will often snore himself awake and then, embarrassed, exit rapidly. The silent sleeper, in contrast, can be as difficult to budge as Tavare. (NB, and note to sub, no first name here please)

After the naps were powered there was a sense of disappointment in the Library.
'Which Royal have we got?' asked one Member.
'The Duke of Kent,' replied another.
'Jesus.'
The aura of low key persisted when it was announced, 'The Opening Ceremony has been abandoned for safety reasons.' This drew a few groans, but I think a useful precedent has been set for 2012. Imagine how much money might be saved, how much shame averted, if we knew in advance that the London Olympic Opening Ceremony would be subject to cancellation.
Outside in the corridor there was a kerfuffle. There were women in the Pavilion! There were women under 25 in the Pavilion!! There were women under 25 in shorts in the Pavilion!!!
They were, of course, the cancelled ceremony talent. “It's gutting...all that work...and' said one.
'I sympathise with your predicament,' said the doorman, which is MCC doorman speak for 'I feel your pain'.

In the Library, meanwhile, a Member, who had earlier opened a grand window, decided to sing along to the National Anthem. He got as far as 'Gracious Queen'  before heavy stares forced him to desist. It was commonly agreed that the Dutch effort was 'lovely'.

And so to the match, or, to give it another word, walk-over. It was all very merry as Bopara and Wright biffed and baffed the ball although, personally, I consider disco dancing on a podium to Daddy Cool after you have been awarded four wides to be a little de trop, but maybe that's just me.

England were coasting until being undone by the condition that so often undermines the national teams: Being Thick. Once the fielding restrictions were removed they batted as if it was the first 20 overs of a 50 over match rather than the only 20 overs of a 20 over match. They refrained from risking twos even when the percentages were 90/10 in their favour. They entirely failed to grasp the one fundamental of the format: You can afford to lose a wicket every other over.

A total of 160 odd could be bettered by half-a-dozen Dutchman making twenty and a few extras. A game which should have been dead and buried was up for grabs. The Dutch swung and missed, swung and hit, and chased down every run. At the end, like a team of David Pleats dressed in orange they ran berserk to their supporters. It was a magnificent sight. England may have been defeated but for the MCC, which is chief evangelist for the game, it was a victory. What could be more inspiring than an underdog with few resources outwitting a pampered fat cat?


The Observer May 31

'It's all positives out there,' said Andy Gray, half-way through the first half. It was intended as one final effort to big the game the up, but, in reality, he was illustrating what had killed it stone dead. United's fatal mistake was to believe the hype. They believed they were the equals of Barcelona. They believed they could play them at their own game. They believed wrong.

None more so than Alex Ferguson who allowed this delusion to influence his team selection. In the Premiership you can get away without picking a midfield if you defend properly and have an array of talented strikers. You cannot afford such laxity against a team as fluent as Barcelona. Guus Hiddink realized this and picked a side chosen to frustrate in the first leg and one which limited his rivals to one shot in the second. Rafa Benitez, with Gerrard, Alonso and Mascherino at his disposal, would never have made the same mistake. Either team would have given Barcelona a match, which they might even have won.

Instead of a contest we had the 'final which every neutral wanted' – a piece of hyperbole which contained a grain of truth for it was a game which in never reaching first gear stayed in neutral for the neutrals. A chocolate box affair for those who like vanilla centres. It was not until Paul Scholes appeared very late in the day that there was any attempt to add some ginger to the mix. United should have chased and harried, instead they reclined with their supposed star Ronaldo treating it as personal beauty contest rather than team struggle.

But then may be I'm biased. The game was ruined for me by having to watch it on Sky (did any pub go with ITV on Wednesday night?) and, despite their coverage being superior, Sky has become intolerable to me since I started playing FIFA '08 on the Xbox 360. The verb playing is used loosely as I have succumbed to twelve straight defeats, this despite 'being' an in their pomp Chelsea side lining up against an understrength Norwich. The nadir of nadirs occurring when I lost 1-0 having missed four penalties. If you thought Drogba and Ballack over-reacted, imagine their despair if each claimed penalty had been awarded and then missed. That was the place I found myself as, in front of my uncomprehending eyes, Frank Lampard drilled his fourth effort straight into the arms of an unmoving Marshall in the Norwich goal. On screen, Fat Frank stared at his feet in shame; in our front room, furniture went flying.

It wasn't just that I had been proven to be incompetent, it was more that there was no escaping my incompetence. In a bid for supremacy I had squirrelled the instruction manual away for private perusal, only to end up hiding it too well. The internet, once again, was worse than useless. First, everyone, apparently, is now playing '09 rather than the bargain bucket '08. Second, there is no walkthrough explaining how to take a penalty because it is assumed, globally, that everyone can take a penalty. It is only me who, whatever button I push, cannot make the ball deviate from a straight line. This makes saving a penalty the easiest of task for my opponent for they merely have to do nothing.

All this inaction is accompanied by sarky comments from Tyler and Gray who provide what passes for commentary and analysis in this virtual world. After you have missed yet another pen you do not need to hear Gray saying 'a lot of people expected Chelsea to win this'. It may have been 'all positives' in Rome, but it is all negatives in my front room.
 

 

Observer  May 24th


There was always something faintly laughable about a regiment of journalists lambasting others over expenses. But as we enter the third week without any respite the laughter has turned hysterical. The hacks' justification for this hypocrisy is that old fall back that they are simply giving vent to the public's outrage. Whether the public is outraged, however, is moot. If there is such a thing as the national mood then, by its very nature, it is elusive and difficult to capture.

And easily manipulated. If I ask the man waiting for the Clapham Omnibus 'how disgusting he thinks it is that his local MP has spent ten large on moat clearance?' he is likely to reply 'very'. If, however, the wait for the bus is protracted and I say that his local MP is paid about half the salary of the local GP, who is always advising him to take a aspirin and a shower and see how he feels in the morning, and these expenses were a legitimate attempt to redress that inequality then he might reply 'fair play to the man'. Where you end up depends on where you start from and it is an inherent flaw of any assessment of 'the national mood' that it is usually journalists who determine the starting point.

The whole thing has become redolent of the football phone-in, another forum from which, by definition, the silent majority are excluded. The problem is nearly always one of tone. If you accept calls only from the shrill and intolerant then you will become a refuge for the shrill and intolerant. If callers are selected not on how amusing or interesting they might be, but merely how angry they evidently are, then you are going to end up with a hot and ratty hour or two of radio. Just because someone cares it doesn't mean anyone else will care what they have to say.

All that said, anger can have its uses particularly when directed against bookmakers. In a bid to keep losses in check I have forsaken the horses and limit my bets to a weekend four timer. This is a satisfying bet because it offers both long odds and lasts longer than a five furlong sprint. It is not over until its over and you can keep spirits up with thoughts that if Huddersfield bag a couple and Arbroath nick one and....other results go your way then you are in with a squeak.

The bet, therefore, comes heavily recommended except the last dozen times I have made my selections based on the odds advertised in the Sun and then trudged to the bookie to make my investment the odds miraculously, and every time, have turned against me. The prices advertised in the national press are not on offer in the shop. It is as if World of Leather stated in the newspapers that a sofa could be yours for £499.99 and yet on arriving at the store you were  asked to fork out £699.99 for advertised sofa. One would imagine that these prices were in breach of advertising regulations except the bookies, being nothing if not weaselly, have concocted an internet get out. In effect, I have to walk to the shop to be told to return home to take advantage of the preferential odds available on the internet.

The shop, and the people who work there, are becoming redundant because the bookies, like the train companies, want to drive us on line. Perhaps because in the comfort of our homes and four lagers to the good and feeling we can do no wrong we are liable to make some shocking investment decisions.

This week's four timer: Stoke, Aston Villa, Fulham, Man City.
Train selection: Norwich Leeds via Peterborough.

 

Observer May 17th

'Twelve points for your country, twelve points for your country, twelve points for your country.'

So chanted the heavily bouffanted male half of the presenting act before the crucial voting got under way in Thursday's night second semi-final heat of the Eurovision Contest Moskva 2009. The semi-final was instituted in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, a good idea spectacularly ruined by the organisers doing the hard work and then throwing away the chaff. If Eurovision is anything it is chaff, all chaff, and nothing but chaff. By going with the wheat they allowed both the big-haired Serb and the man in the lurid green gimp suit to fall by the wayside. Little wonder the cognoscenti call it 'the stage of heartbreak'.

Disappointing as this was no criticism can be made of the mechanics of the voting  itself. Eurovision possesses a scoring system to rank with tennis. A close Eurovision is tenser than a tied basketball match with 1.09 on the clock and no time outs remaining. It it something to be cherished. And then adapted for use in the wide world of sports.

My first thought was to ring around a few people and see if we could get any enthusiasm going for Champions League Eurovision. The format writes itself. Every team to qualify for the first group section would hold secret karaoke testings before selecting one of their number to go to, probably Rimini, to compete against his peers. The idea looks strong. Frank Lampard singing songs for swinging lovers up against Cesc Fabregas intoning some of his poetry in his native Catalan would certainly attract big brand advertisers and, if packaged right, viewers.

But it would be a lot of effort and there is a very real danger the whole thing could end up camper than Cowell (see the extraordinary 'I will follow Ronaldo song' on the fine website Who Ate All the Pies)  Therefore, I have limited my ambitions to imposing the scoring system on to an already existing event, to whit, the European Footballer of the Year. As far as I am aware this is currently decided with little fanfare or fuss by a few hacks who work for L'Equipe.

Missed opportunity, surely. Let's move the deliberations from a dingy left bank cafe to the spanking new O2 Arena conveniently situated by London's River Thames. As with Eurovision the player selected by the richer countries (England, Germany, France, Spain, Italy) would automatically qualify for the final whereas the relative paupers (Scotland, Azerbaijan, Wales) would have to navigate the stage of heartbreak.

The process would be simplicity itself with a short video of the player showing off the skills which made him an obvious choice as his country's player of the year being followed by his appearance on stage to field a few questions (favourite car, most difficult opponent, if not a footballer...etc etc) from a reinvigorated Des Lynam. So far, so cozy but things will become distinctly edgier with the scoring. Who, for instance, will the Welsh vote for if they cannot vote for Ryan Giggs? Could an Eastern block vote mean that a Moldovan does for Christiano Ronaldo? If Gerrard was the English player of the year would United fans vote for Vidic?

The abundance of questions suggests that we don't just have a show but an institution on our hands. An annual event. A curtain-raiser to next year's World Cup. A night fit for the Beckhams.

But what do I know. Any confidence in my own opinions has been dented, perhaps irrevocably, by a poll which stated that 50% of people would like to see alcohol banned at football grounds. Even assuming only two people contributed, this is still bewildering. What next? An alcohol ban in pubs??


Observer  May 10th

It is perhaps worth remembering that for the majority of this season Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack (recently renamed by the British media 'Mad Drog' and 'Herr Ballack') were accused of not caring enough. Now that they have been seen to have cared not too little but too much many sportswriters, ever eager to clamber towards the moral high ground, have condemned them for disgracing the English game.

Once again there is an aching gap between those who cover the game and those who follow it. In the pub in which I watched the match there was a sense of disappointment that Ballack did not end his sensational mazy forty yard off the ball run with the full Zidane. Had he done so he would have been hailed as a hero even as he walked head held high from the pitch after the inevitable, although with referee Ovrebo nothing is certain, red card. Whatever else it would certainly have made for a sensational chalkboard and elevated Ballack (referee) into the Keifer Sutherland (fashion designer) stratosphere.

Equally, if Drogba had approached Overebo and started slapping him on each cheek, while saying 'who's the Daddy?', the admiration of the pub would have been unbounded. As it was he limited himself to a 'fucking disgrace' which everyone agreed was putting things rather mildly.

Anyone brought up watching football in the seventies and eighties, before the game had pretensions to morality, could not help but be struck by the absence of a pitch invasion. In those days a touch and go offside decision might spark a charge, what would have been the effect of the failure to award four stone cold penalties was never discovered because such a situation never arose. On a lucky day a ref might survive one such decision, in his dreams two, never three.

Up in the Sky studios there was little attempt to empathise with the man in the pub. Richard Keys kept blathering on about Sky Sports distancing itself from allegations that the game might have been fixed as if anyone anywhere cared a jot about what 'Sky Sports' thought (if indeed 'Sky Sports' can think?) about anything. Jamie Redknapp struggled grimly with the concept of Norway. Only Graeme Souness was up for it, skillfully fanning the conspiracy flames.

It was one of those nights when you could write the next day's Evening Standard headline before going to bed. The death threat to the referee being both de rigeur, and more importantly, untraceable. The fact that Ovrebo had to be smuggled out of the country was a galling touch. From Penzance to Cley-next-the-sea the British used to smuggle in illegal booty, now they are reduced to smuggling out Norwegian referees. The Decline of Empire is complete. The only new wrinkle was the apparent establishment of a Facebook Group (By our Facebook Groups shall we be judged), although finding it was way beyond my capabilities.

It was all rather dispiriting but as nothing to the events of last Sunday when the Super Canaries let in a rapid fire three first half goals against Charlton. The man from Radio Norfolk was once again spot on:  'It's not as if we're playing Brazil, this team is bottom of the Championship, for goodness sake's, and still Norwich can't get a touch.'

All this lack of physical contact left me glum and in need of a laugh. Fortunately, one is to be had from, of all things, rugby union. Anyone who doubts this should go to chasethelions.com and admire the work of Hector Ó HeochagÁin and Risteárd Cooper. In particular, Leinster man: 'What about O'Gara? 'Legend, legend, legend, legend...they're all legends'. And Malcolm the English fan: '..and the crowd spontaneously started singing one of the great tunes of modern sport, really, erm, how does it go, 'Lions, Lions, Lions.' It's a fan's eye view and all the better for it.



Observer May 3rd

It was when John Virgo labelled me as a member of the red button community that I realized the BBC had won. It was late one night last week and Higgins was playing another bloke and needed to win the last two frames to win and the BBC were about to cut away to something absurd and trivial, Newsnight, probably, and by a cautious press of the red button, followed by a twitchy wait, and then a selection of screen I comprehensively outscheduled them. Farewell heads talking nonsense; welcome back  some serious snooker.

Often in red button land you are left dangling between frames but not when JV (They are called by their initials now – JV, JP, WT.. It's like being back at school. Perhaps, with Cameron in the offing, we are all Etonians now) is at the mike. JV doesn't bog off for a crafty fag 'n' a bet leaving the red button community in the lurch. He sits bedside talking snooker in the hope that someone somewhere is not only alive but awake. Don't think it isn't appreciated, JV.

The implications of this development spread way beyond the red button community. If the BBC can provide this level of service for one viewer (I can't believe anyone else is watching now Ronnie's gone) then how can anyone else compete. For the cost of a licence fee (which is a quarter the cost of a national newspaper) and at the push of a button I can be my own scheduler. Sportswatching is changing irrevocably. If a sports event is taken up by the BBC you can watch it live when it is on traditionally, and when it isn't on red buttonly, or catch up with it after it's over on BBC iplayerly. And once the BBC  show events on their website you will be able to do this anywhere in the world. The viewing figures will be astronomical. And because the BBC do not allow advertisers the only way to take advantage of these billions of viewers will be to sponsor the events which will mean the sports will be paid more and more, provided their events are on the BBC. And in a red button world there is no limit to how much sport can be screened. All you need is a camera, and JV.

The future of sports broadcasting encapsulated, on to gambling. A fine book has just come out (and if there is one thing that you need to survive the Crucible it is a fine book) called Free Money by Declan Lynch in which the author details, bet by bet, a year spent gambling on the internet. Like many brought up in the days when betting shops were required by law to be decorated like a circle of hell Lynch has not lost his 'sense of wonder that something so brilliant and so potentially catastrophic can be available in his own home to every man who can get himself an internet connection and a credit card.'

Interleaving his bets with entertaining and insightful anecdotes on how he became a keen gambler, and what it means to be a gambler, Lynch's book cracks along at a merry pace. But it soon reveals its remorseless side in the sheer accumulation of bets that are made in order to win or lose increasingly insignificant (in terms of time spent to secure them) amounts. That is often the downside of gambling, not the amount one loses but the amount of time wasted limiting those losses. Lynch closes his book with a quote from Girolamo Cardano, author, in the 1560s, of Liber Di Ludo Aleae, 'the greatest advantage in gambling lies in not playing at all.' Easy to say in the mid 16th century when the incitements to play were limited by there being neither internet gambling nor red button viewing.


Observer April 26th

Hansie Cronje was very attached, literally, to a bracelet on which was written, as an aide memoire and self help book rolled into one, the acronym 'WWJD' (What Would Jesus Do). If I wore jewellery I would wear one with 'WWKD' upon it. This not being a stutterer's shortening of an youth-alcho-drink (A Yad – as in 'the Yads are on me') but standing instead for What Would Keano Do. Often, when perplexed by life, I pause for a nanosecond to consider how Roy might react to my current predicament and then, and only then, go charging in. Keano is not only inspiration but guide. He can do no wrong.

All that said, he has somewhat upset the hypothetical bracelet by, just as I emerge into the Norfolk sunlight as a fully-fledged Canary, going and deciding to manage cosmopolitan Ipswich. For Cronje it would be the equivalent of Jesus coming back to earth to be coach of a Robert Mugabe Select XI. Except it's worse than that. It's sort of like Mark Lawrenson reacting to news of the murder of Colombian defender Pablo Escobar during the 1994 World Cup by saying, 'the only way I can make it more real for people....it's like Tony Adams going away to the European Championship, scoring an own goal, coming home...and getting shot.' Except it's even more real than that.

In short, it's a blow. And a confusing one, too, for I now wish for Keane to succeed, yet Ipswich to fail, which is a long shot wish if ever there was one. Needless to say Roy's decision to move to Suffolk has been the catalyst for much hogwash from his intellectual inferiors in the sporting press. First off the bat let's deal with the question of supposed walkouts. The difficulty in Saipon was the fault of Mick McCarthy. What happened at Sunderland can be blamed on Ellis Short. To think otherwise is to be misguided.

The misunderstanding coming from the English, and most of his critics are English,  (see Tony Cascarino), problem with authority. When an Englishman is told something by a manager he does as he is told. More rational people consider anything  said to them by a manager to be, at best, the basis for negotiation and, at worst, something to be immediately contradicted in thought and word and deed. Keane's response to managers when a player, and owners when a manager, is both rational and consistent.

To argue as the sportswriter Simon Barnes does that Roy is 'a spoilt intellectual' (yup,  that's Barnes on Keane) is ridiculous. To call him a quitter, as Barnes does, state he 'never truly believed in Ireland', and imply he is a coward is plain wrong. Sometimes it takes strength to act. It can be braver to quit than stay schtum. To fail to register this is to be 'an over-indulged middlebrow'.

As for Cascarino's claim that 'Keane versus Cascarino is a fight that will go the distance' this is noteworthy only for the fact that Cascarino, a man who used the first person singular like no other, has drifted towards the third person singular. Perhaps they should get their ghost-writers to do their fighting for them – ghosts at ten paces, anyone?

The only man speaking sense is Roy. To those, including Alex Ferguson, who had suggested he might never return to football he replied, 'what did he think I was going to do? Go backpacking around Mexico?' Asked to assess his time at Sunderland he said, 'I did OK'. And finally, being no lover of hype, he correctly pointed out that none of his contemporaries at United had actually won anything as managers. Indeed none of them have ever finished in top five of the Premiership. Something even Ipswich have achieved this millennium.

Observer April 19th

It has, pretty much undeniably, been a fast-paced and exciting week or so in the Champions League. The Liverpool v Chelsea games being nearly up there with the Clive Walker match in 1978 and the Gianluca Vialli game of 1997. Little wonder then that the pundits, so inured to being hyperbolic about the mundane, were reduced to silent admiration. Having exhausted all the words in their vocabularies they now use the head shake, the wry grin and the exhalation with eyebrows raised when they are truly impressed. In the press the new cliché 'football, bloody hell' was wheeled out.

It was very good, but I can't help feeling it might have been even better if it had been a relegation battle. If Chelsea and Liverpool had met level on points, with Chelsea having the superior goal difference, and played out that match to stay in the Premiership. Football may be about winning but for an increasing number of fans it is about winning just enough to avoid the loser's fate that is relegation.

The tensest matches of my supporting life have involved battles for survival rather than beauty contests at the end of which the winner gets a bauble. I can barely remember a goal from the two matches above but the Paul Miller shot, which deflected off both Joe McLoughlin and Steve Wicks before looping into the net in front of the Shed and condemned Chelsea to the play-offs, remains vivid in the memory. As does the home fans singing 'we're the boys in blue in Division Two and we won't be there too long.'  There could be humour in defeat in the days before fans queued up to appear on Sky Sports News to shout, 'I'd sack the whole bloody lot of them. Yesterday.'

There could also be exultation in last-gasp victory. David Pleat's careering victory charge at Luton's survival is clearly superior to Jose Mourinho's manicured slide at Old Trafford. It just means more to be crap and escape than to be boringly successful.

And surely it is in tune with these recessionary times to feel sympathy for the about to be relegated rather than the relentlessly self-promoted. Forget Manchester United going for the eighteenth title how about Norwich trying to avoid returning to the third tier for the first time in fifty years. Fans of the Canaries have, in a sense, been blessed by the incompetence of their team giving them a nerve-jangling end to the season when neighbours Ipswich have languished in the dull mire that is mid table.

This lunch-time they meet in a Derby which is being played for high stakes. If Norwich win they will be nearly there; if Ipswich win, and other results go their way, they will bask in the unbridled joy of having pushed their rivals to the edge of the precipice. Added edge will come from the Norwich front line being led by ex Ipswich player Alan Lee who is a throwback to the days of uncomplicatedly direct big number nines. As the fine commentator on BBC Radio Norfolk often has had cause to observe recently  'the referee needs to understand that aggression is a big part of Lee's game'. This afternoon Norfolk expects a comprehensively aggressive performance from Lee. And a goal would be a bonus.

One further reason to cheer on Norwich's survival bid is that it would represent a rare victory for one of the nice guys. When Norwich dispensed with Glenn Roeder's services they might have turned to one of those hard-bitten bastards who has carved out a reputation for avoiding relegation at any cost. Instead, in a perfect example of the Norfolk way, they gave the job to a good bloke. And if Bryan Gunn completes the task it will be a match for anything his former manager achieves with Manchester United this season.




Observer April 12th


'I don't play golf, I like women.'
Barry Cryer.

Even as an occasional golfer (my handicap is that I am not good enough to have a handicap) it is hard not to agree with Cryer's comment. Golf is a man's game, and this is not necessarily a compliment for the side of the male psyche it appeals to is the literal, anal, completist, constrained and emotionally constipated side. It is a game defined by rules, of play and etiquette, which can give the impression that it is less 21st century sport and more encrusted gentleman's club. And never is this more evident than when the BBC does the Masters and Gary Lineker morphs from one of the lads into fawning butler. The jokes are replaced by hushed tones. We, the unworthy, are privileged to be allowed entrance. To be able to watch Tiger Woods play Amen Corner is akin to being given a spoonful of the best sponge pudding in clubland, with treacle.

It does not necessarily follow from Cryer's statement that people who play golf don't like women, although there is evidence in support of this proposition. For instance, the fact that both the Royal and Ancient and Augusta do not accept women as members. And worse those clubs which allow women in but then subject them to no-go areas, no-play times, and draw lines in the bar that they must never cross.

All of this is repugnant and should be knocked on the head yet golf, literal and legalistic and hidebound, remains resistant to change. In part, and on some deep level, this may be a territorial thing. The golf course is where men go to get away from it all, the all usually being their family. Like fishing and trainspotting, golf is an activity in which the actor spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to do one simple thing – put a ball in a hole, catch a fish, spot a train. There is no need for multi-tasking.

The simplicity of the task, however, does not prevent it being extremely expensive with fortunes capable of being spent on the new Big Bertha, Graphite Ultra-Heavy, or Access All Areas Supasaver Monthly pass. Golf, fishing and trainspotting are perfect hobbies in that they require one to spend large sums of money and thereby leave one with neither inclination nor funds to do anything else. Furthermore, and crucially, they can never be finished. There will always be another hole, another fish, another train.

Once one sees golf as trainspotting – a somewhat odd activity practised predominantly, but not entirely, by men – then it makes a lot more sense. If you consider - to choose at random from the top ten after the first round - Chad Campbell, Larry Mize, Hunter Mahon. Mike Weir and Todd Hamilton to be trainspotters then, at a stroke, their purpose and motivation becomes apparent. They are quiet and god-fearing men going about their lonely work, with patience and dignity. The fact that they may appear a little dull, a little hemmed in, is the fault of their work. There is as little room for histrionics in golf as there is in trainspotting.

Which is why I enjoy golf most when it is being played by those least suited to playing it. When unbuttoned and flamboyant men like Big John Daly, Monty and Seve pick up a club and set off on a roller-coaster ride of our, and their, emotions. This is when the game becomes magnetic, when the lateral take on the literal, the careering take on the careerists. And there was never one more swashbuckling than Seve, whose contempt for the rules and the rule-bound was magnificent to behold, and who played the 'man's game' with the grace and passion of a diva.






Observer April 5th

Another of those weeks when very little made sense and, once again, the catalyst was Alan Shearer. There he was surrounded by adoring press doing his best to look like a Messiah (albeit a pro-tem Messiah) and in reply to a tame question admitted he had taken the job because a friend had said to him how would he feel if he didn't take the job and Newcastle managed to stay up.

This was odd. Surely the point of being a Messiah/Hero to the Geordie nation is that you take on the role because you could not live with dodging your destiny and Newcastle being turfed out of the promised land. If your nation, be it Jewish or Geordie, can be saved by a stricken Joe Kinnear or interim Chris Houghton there really is little call for a Messiah. With one answer Shearer had revealed that this whole exercise is all about Shearer and very little to do with Newcastle. He, and his brand, couldn't live with someone else receiving credit for something he might have done so he graciously/grudgingly agreed to do it for however many hundreds of grand a game. Once again it is all about Shearer. If he succeeds he is hailed; if he fails he can say like so many false Messiahs before him, 'if only I had had the time'.

The Shearer brand is based upon the Shearer look and it was in evidence as he cased his many friends in the press room just reminding them, if such a reminder were needed, that it would be unwise to stray out of line. He even tried it on the fans, perhaps trying to stare down anyone tempted to put in an early critical call to 606. It is very similar to the look that Alan Sugar employs from his stacked chair as he surveys his boardroom full of nincompoops and it is probable that Shearer used it in his job interview.

Big Al has the brand, the look, the patented goal celebration but he doesn't have the medals to back it all up. In fact he only has a single medal (1994/1995) for actual achievement and a host of gongs for mythical achievements (Overrall Player of the Decade, Outstanding Contribution to the Premier League and the rest). Ruud Gullit was on to something when he told him he was 'the most overrated player he had ever seen', even if it cost him his job. It is also notable that the Geordie that Alex Ferguson regrets signing most is the rickety and unreliable Gascoigne rather than the creosoted Shearer, and not signing him has never cost him his job.

Shearer's appointment will automatically improve Match of the Day and thereby allow the BBC to increase its advantage over its only terrestrial competitor as ITV's coverage continues to be hobbled by an over-reliance on one man. When they have a slot to fill the call goes up 'Where's Andy?' and, having located the tagged Townsend, the cameras are dispatched to do the show right there with Andy and whoever else is around. So it was that Wednesday night's  'reaction' programme featured Andy and drinking buddy Graeme Le Saux and someone who I assume must have been an autograph hunter and had been roped in at the last minute to do a bit of linking under the obviously cod name Matt Smith. How else to explain a discussion on 'Being Wayne Rooney' which possessed not a shred of sense and Smith's perpetual use of the phrase 'at international level'. As in 'you can't waste chances at international level' whereas, I suppose, at national level, as the career of Shearer attests you can waste as many as you like and still be judged to have made the 'outstanding contribution'.

 

Observer March 29th

The last time I went on a course concerned with such things I was informed that news travels at 150 mph. I haven't been back, but I think it is safe to assume that the news has only gotten faster in the past year. Who knows it may even be shifting along in excess of 200 mph, that is to say considerably quicker than Lewis Hamilton.

Evidence for this proposition can be found everywhere. First, there was the OK! Goody Death Memorial Edition which, with news of her death travelling so fast, actually appeared before she had died. OK! - The News Before It Happens!

Second, in the thirst to be first, sports supplements seem to be appearing earlier and earlier, often coming out so far in advance of an event that it is logistically unlikely that anyone will be able to retain them for sufficiently long for them to be of any use during that event. Only last week I was asked if I would like to knock out some tosh for a 2010 World Cup Guide. In a bid to stay ahead of the game this will, rather complicating matters, be published not in June 2010 but 2009, at which stage, of course, many relevant games will not have been played. That is the problem with going early with the news, it involves much corner-cutting and general skating around.

Yet it is consistent with the times when everyone is so busy looking forward there is no time to reflect upon the event which was so long anticipated. As the previews for big sports events expand, the post-match chat diminishes. It's all foreplay, no analysis.

This is rather childish. Ask a child in the morning what he is doing at school today and he will bore you rigid with detail before he has reached morning break. Ask a child in the afternoon what he did at school today and he will go schtum on you. Ask an adult in the morning what work has in store for him and he might mumble something about a meeting. Ask an adult in the evening about how work went and he will talk tirelessly about 'that moron in HR gave me a lousy 3 out of 20 for flexibility and a, frankly unbelievable frankly, one for reliability...'

Men are particularly prone to hoping that a long shot in the future will erase the problems of the present and this is why males outnumber females by a good 20 to 1 in betting shops. It was also why in the excellent documentary Trophy Kids (Ch 4,  Thursday) we only saw fathers, not mothers, fanatically pushing their children towards sporting success. Dad after Dad appeared swearing at his child for his incompetence with one breath, turning to camera with another to state how he was doing all this for the child's benefit, and then totting up the cost of the whole exercise with a calculator. The mothers were absent. They had either left or given up. They couldn't quite believe in the dream which had gone from sustaining the family to overwhelming it.

At the end of many of these dreams is London 2012. There has been much talk about how hosting the Olympics will galvanise 'the nation's youth' to rise from their X box 350s and do something sporty. There is already chatter about medal prospects. A London 2012 supplement is likely to be published any time now.

No one, however, mentions those who will fail to make it and screw up their lives in the attempt. No one mentions the hours and emotions which will be wasted as thousands upon thousands bid to live out a most unlikely dream. Nor will any one talk about after that failure becomes apparent. They will be too busy looking forward to Tokyo 2016.



Review of Eclipse

Horse-racing is satisfyingly bent. It is this which sets it apart from other sports. Football has become increasingly corporate and the Premiership's reputation for being difficult to fix gives it a global appeal as a betting medium. Cricket is convivial and, although subject to the odd controversy, essentially straight. Racing, however, needs an edge. It relies on inside information and the battle between punter and bookie, being at heart one over who is better informed, ensures that racing is fuelled by gossip and innuendo.

All of which makes the Sport of Kings attractive to people from every walk of life. A point emphasised in Nicholas Clee's meticulously researched and compellingly written biography of Eclipse. A horse who could not be more aristocratic, given that his male line descendants have won all but three of the last 50 Derbys, and yet one who was owned by a jailbird chancer and an up and coming brothel owner. The former was Dennis O'Kelly, who possessed, according to his Genuine Memoirs (in ital) 'the broadest and most offensive brogue that his nation, perhaps, ever produced'. The latter was Charlotte Hayes, the madam's madam in what proved to be 'a golden age' for prostitution.

The pair were a perfect fit, gambling and philandering being kindred interests, and they were born at the right time. In the mid 17th century people would bet on everything and anything, Lord Barrymore once winning a bet as to whether he could find someone who would eat a live cat and odds of 4-1 against being freely available on whether George II would be killed at the battle of Dettingen. They were also sufficiently randy for Charlotte to be able to open not one but two brothels in Kings Place, handily situated for both White's and Boodle's. The Lords and Ladies who lost money betting with O'Kelly in Munday's coffee-house would console themselves by spending a third of what a lawyer might earn in a year at one of Hayes's establishments. It was appropriate that with the monies earned they should buy a horse bred by William Augustus (third son of George II, the Butcher of Culloden, and, according to BBC History Magazine, the Worst Briton of the 18th Century).

The horse, in contrast, was so good that he made racing boring. He was unbeaten throughout his career, more often than not passing the winning post while his competitors were a furlong behind, hence the phrase  'Eclipse first, the rest nowhere'.
Yet magnificent as Eclipse was on the course he was more valuable off it and it was O'Kelly's genius to realize that stud fees could dwarf prize money. Race for show, breed for dough is as true now as it was then. On his death, the Times considered his  exploits on the turf made him 'as Sir Isaac Newton was among the philosophers – at the head of his science.'

His struggle to reach this pinaccle makes for a ripping yarn which is told expertlyby Clee, In part, 'Flashman at the Races'; in part, Seabiscuit without the schmaltz; the whole is a darned good read.

5:09 pm gmt 

Observer MArch 22nd



Observer 22nd March

Television is utterly imitative. This makes it doubly difficult to get anything commissioned because, left to their own devices. television executives would happily do nothing. In order to stir one set of goons, therefore, you need to convince them that another set of goons is interested, and, of course, vice-versa. This provides both sets of goons with motivation, and a safety net. If the programme is a success they can claim they were the first to have the idea. If it is a failure they can say everyone was doing it.

All of which explains why the time is now ripe for my genius idea to shame Alex Ferguson. The plan, as I patiently explained to the BBC last time, was good enough for the IRA so it should be capable of seeing off a choleric Scottish pensioner. It involves the simple device of a double. If Alex Ferguson will not speak to the BBC then the actor Alec Ferguson will. Imagine the Scotch man's shame when he sees a mere luvvie has taken his place. Mind games don't come mindier.

The BBC, needless to say, didn't get back  to me. But now that Ferguson has boycotted Sky as well the plan is very much back on the table, or, rather, tables. And, fear not, I have been honing the concept. Ever alert to who is in and who is out I have signed up Martin Sheen to play Sir Alec Ferguson on both channels and, as is pretty much de rigeur these days, Peter Morgan will write his script. These signings are work-a-day producing the genius upon the genius is to have different and competing Sir Alec Fergusons.

When he appears on Sky, Ferguson will be what might be termed late period Clough. There will be wildly inconsistent statements, there will be jabbing, there may even be a clip round the ear for Geoff Shreeves. There will be tantrums, there will be tears. There will be grandiosity and there will be bathos. It will be Kevin Keegan meets Ollie Reid. It will be a ratings smash with, if I know anything about sports journalism, enough copy generated by each interview to fill many a Goals! supplement.

Meanwhile over on the BBC, the channel for family viewing, we will have Ferguson  as Clough in his pomp. That is the Clough at Middlesbrough with the tan and the perfect hair and the ironed shorts. In short, Clough at his campest. Now I don't need to tell a man who has played the part of Kenneth Williams how to do camp but I have suggested to Sheen that what the BBC is missing on a Saturday night is a touch of the Larry Graysons. I can see it now. Crooks in the tunnel asking his interminable questions and Sheen as Ferguson interrupting to say, 'Ohh, shut that door, Garth!' or 'What a Gay Day' or, with a lewd wink to camera and a ruffle of Garth's hair, 'Seems like a nice boy'.

It would be magnificent television. A final nail in the coffin that is I.T.V. And I would pay good money, indeed a licence fee, to see what Hansen, Shearer and Lineker would make of it:
Lineker: Sir Alec in playful mood, Alan?
Hansen: I mean I know football does funny things to people but...
Shearer: You wouldn't have known his team have just drawn at Sunderland.

The net effect of the above would not only have Alex Ferguson on his knees pleading to be allowed on television (a request which, if the ratings hold up, will be denied) it will also revive the moribund art form that is the managerial post-match interview. It will be out with the banalities and in with the entertainment. The only people disappointed will be those so literal and naïve as to take these things seriously. The rest of us will have a ball.


4:57 pm gmt 


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