The August Riots

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Monday, 15 August 2011

Rangers’ shoestring unravels at the first attempt

£1.25 million doesn’t buy a lot in modern football. It might perhaps cover a week’s wage bill for one of the ‘big four’ Premier League clubs, or policing costs for a high-profile local derby such as West Ham United vs. Millwall. Yet when the astronomical rewards the English top flight offers to its members are taken into account, it appears a measly sum, derisory indeed. With £90 million allegedly the reward for promoted clubs, the temptation to take on a ‘lottery winner mentality’ for victorious Championship sides is overwhelming. QPR, however, have differentiated themselves by showing tremendous restraint, thrift even. The West Londoners’ spending has been positively anorexic, and the reasons for this lie in the illness currently pervading the boardroom at Loftus Road. The owners’ disease is not a lack of money, nor is it a failure to appreciate the requirements of Premier League football. It is greed; poorly-disguised, the brazen selfishness of Flavio Briatore and Gianni Paladini - the latter still in control despite lacking an 'official position' at the club - cannot fail to be lost on even the most casual of observers.

The sight of the portly Italian leaving immediately after Bolton Wanderers netted their fourth goal at the weekend was nothing short of a disgrace, but by no means an unexpected sight. Briatore is a shameless dictator, no less disposed to give up his hold on power in W12 than to consider for even a fleeting moment that the best interests of the club and its loyal fanbase are being constantly jeopardised by his destructive rule. The figure quoted to at the beginning of this article pertains to the signing of DJ Campbell, one of few bright spots from the weekend’s footballing lesson, dished out to the naïve R’s by Owen Coyle’s Bolton, themselves seasoned Premier League warriors. This is, quite literally, the sum of Rangers’ preparation for the top flight. Now clearly the signings of Kieron Dyer, Jay Bothroyd and Danny Gabbidon, despite having no transfer fees involved, will have been secured by means of offering generous wages; it would be frankly unwise to believe anything else. However, with QPR’s wage bill already fitting in nicely with many of her more illustrious Premier League colleagues, there remains much to be done to ensure that thrashings like Saturday’s remain the exception, rather than the rule.

With the sensible, sustainable strategy employed by Norwich City towards summer recruitment having stood up to its inaugural challenge, R’s fans might well look jealously towards the side they trumped to the Championship title last year. Whilst City appear to have taken two steps forward, on Saturday QPR took three back. Having been introduced to the Premier League as the side boasting ‘the best defence in the Championship’, Rangers proceeded to destroy their own hard-fought reputation whilst remaining as impotent and wasteful in attack as ever before. With Kieron Dyer predictably falling to the floor within five minutes of setting foot on the pitch, Bradley Orr returned as a more familiar face at right back and proceeded to be given the run-around by Martin Petrov for 85 minutes. Orr’s generosity knew no bounds, as he selflessly dedicated himself to freeing up as much space as possible for the Bulgarian to run into, unchallenged, before Alejandro Faurlin and Shaun Derry proceeded to be struck by a similar fit of altruism.

Rangers need at least four, perhaps five more players. The sight of Hogan Ephraim and Patrick Agyemang sitting on the bench was nothing short of terrifying. Neither could expect to start for any self-respecting Championship sides, and the big names in League One would probably also turn up their noses at the pair. Full-backs are the most urgent priority; with Clint Hill suspended, a move for Ryan Bertrand has never seemed so pressing. Meanwhile Orr will continue to be the R’s Achilles heel in defence, and even if Kieron Dyer promptly returns from injury, he is no solution to the problem either. Wingers are also required, for although Tommy Smith stood out in the league below, he will fade into mediocrity as the Premier League season progresses. Jay Bothroyd, meanwhile, seems to have been instructed to abandon his central attacking position in favour of meandering down the wings. The void that this left up front was exacerbated against Bolton by one-dimensional long ball play, meaning that when QPR were in dire need of attacking impetus – at 3-0 down and thoroughly second best to the visitors – the diminutive Campbell was entirely bypassed.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Saturday’s game was Briatore’s early departure, along with potential ‘investor’ Tony Fernandes. The venomous and entirely justified chants of the Rangers fans aside, the temperamental Italian probably felt humiliated by the score-line and magnitude of the R’s defeat. Not wishing to attribute a greater level of intelligence than is due to the poisonous manipulator and ‘club saviour’, I highly doubt he had any grasp of the fact that for 45 minutes QPR were by no means second best, or could explain the result. Briatore’s investment in the club, along with his ‘chum’ Bernie Ecclestone, who couldn’t even be bothered to face the inevitable torrent of abuse, was from the first minute a vanity project, and remains so. Whilst the days of Ramon Calderon, celebrity airheads, Naomi Campbell and African monarchs in the directors’ box mercifully appear to be behind us, one has to worry that Briatore is just waiting to unfurl his lethal trigger finger once again. Last year’s stability was brought about by an increased trust between Warnock, the supporters, and the board, at least until the Faurlin near-tragedy. With Amit Bhatia having departed, and an even trickier task facing the ever-popular Yorkshireman, fans must be wondering how many more 4-0 defeats he can survive. Nobody with the club’s best interests at heart would advocate Warnock’s sacking, but sadly the opinions of R’s supporters have long ceased to matter when it comes to their, nay, our, club.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

A shaken elite: will the August Riots become the Conservatives' 11-M?

Any government can appear strong during a time of peace, growth, augmenting incomes and national celebration. In political terms, this is akin to sailing on a calm sea, and the rewards for leaders who are able to portray an image of absolute serenity and success are significant, even if their policies have little connection to, or influence on, what is actually taking place. Every politician must be aware, however, of the eternal cliché; that the next crisis is just around the corner. David Cameron's picturesque holiday in Italy was perhaps, in his mind, due reward for what could be described as a successful first year and a bit, at least from a Conservative perspective. Yet his hopes of sailing around Lake Como without a care in the world were dashed when reports reached him that one of the world's most historic, significant and famous capital cities had gone up in flames. That city was London, containing a multitude of nationalities and ethnicities, vast income differentials, and a citizenry with wildly divergent employment backgrounds.

Cameron did not rush home, however, a fact for which he has faced heavy and vociferous criticism from many corners, when the disturbances in Tottenham broke out on Saturday night. Pictured enjoying a romantic meal with his wife, Samantha, in an Italian eaterie, Cameron's PR men must have had their heads in their hands, realising that the Etonian had unintentionally made himself appear rather a lame duck. It was only when the riots spread to other urban centres in the capital - Ealing, Clapham, Enfield and Hackney - that the Prime Minister lackadaisically dusted himself down and returned to Britain, apparently determined to reassert his authority. His Conservative Party ally, or should that be enemy, Boris Johnson, was also conspicuous by his absence from the city he was elected as Mayor of back in 2008. Thus there was a notable power vacuum both at the national and local level, wilfully filled by shameless looters and embittered, angry Britons intent on wreaking destruction across their, and others' communities.

Since returning Cameron decided, rather wisely, not to discount without proper consideration any method of at first containing the riots and subsequently dealing with the perpetrators and the clear issues that lie uneasily below mainstream society which drove so many to commit acts of criminality. Yet in recent days he has appeared nothing short of draconian in his willingness to countenance thoroughly undemocratic and at the very least reactionary methods of preventing a repetition of the disorder. The potential shutting down of social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, for instance, drags the 'respectable, upstanding' Cameron awkwardly into the realms of world leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian Premier was understandably quick to offer his view on the events in London and other English cities; one can imagine the irony is not lost on Ahmadinejad that a Western leader should be countenancing similar methods of containing disorder to himself.

The potential damage to Britain's international reputation aside - a reality which in many ways has yet to manifest itself - the consequences of the riots and the manner in which they have been handled and continue to be approached by the government could impact heavily on the Conservatives' standing amongst the electorate. Despite initial calls for ludicrously militaristic and repressive measures against the rioters, such as bringing in the army, instituting a state of emergency and enforcing martial law, many are now beginning to realise that the causes of the riots are rather more deep-rooted than initially believed, and are in urgent need of being resolved. The fact that Cameron has so far failed to acknowledge that the 'sickness' of certain pockets of British society may not be self-inflicted doesn't bode well for dreams of a harmonious nation in which all members feel they have a stake in society. Furthermore, his grand promises of punishing rioters 'to the full extent' of the law may not save his reputation amongst Conservative voters, many of whom will have been shaken the most by the riots.

For in the past the Conservatives were known as the party of financial responsibility, able to uphold law and order and protect the interests of the upper and middle classes. With Britain's growth rate slowly and no tangible evidence that the economic policies being pursued by Cameron's party are actually working, the first pillar of Conservatism could be able to topple. As for law and order, the middle-class cry of 'anarchy' on our streets and 'powerless' police 'standing by' does little to enhance Cameron's credentials as an enforcer in the Margaret Thatcher mould. Indeed, there is some evidence that the extreme cuts to public services and austerity faced by the 20% of young people unemployed in this country may in fact be linked, and could provide at least part of the explanation for the outbreak of anger and lawlessness. In addition to this, Cameron's attempts to cut police numbers look dead in the water in the wake of the riots, and even if this isn't the case, Cameron will face a revolt from within if he tries to push them past a highly-resistant Johnson, himself desperate to rebuild his shattered image in the capital.

Perhaps the last time that a major crisis had a clear and dramatic effect on the political system in a democratic, Western state was back in 2004, with the devastating Madrid train bombings. Inflicted upon the Spanish people three days prior to the General Election, in which the conservative Partido Popular (PP - Popular Party) were set to triumph, 11-M instead brought about the election of current Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and his Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE - Spanish Socialist Workers' Party). The attacks themselves were brutal, callous and inhumane, claiming the lives of almost 200 people. In the immediate aftermath, the Spanish government (then PP-led) blamed Basque separatists ETA for the bombings, a catastrophic miscalculation. It was thought that by claiming ETA responsibility, Jose Maria Aznar and PP would stand a better chance of re-election, whereas if Al-Qaeda were implicated, it would be seen as damaging for the incumbent regime, whose troops were at the time participating in the war in Iraq. A subsequent investigation ruled out ETA responsibility, and could locate only Al-Qaeda 'inspiration', rather than direct involvement, however the PP and Aznar had already shot themselves in the foot.

This is the danger Cameron faces. Recent opinion polls have shown a clear public disapproval with the way the government has handed the riots, as well as providing a figure of 61% - this relates to the number of respondents who felt Cameron and his Cabinet colleagues were too tentative and slow in organising their respective returns from holiday. There is no doubt that Cameron's standing, and that of Mayor Johnson, have diminished. The British public is uncertain, scarred, divided in its approach and desperate for answers. Some blame the breakdown of the family unit, the disintegration of society, and sheer greed for the riots. Others blame the consumerist culture, government cuts and the nonchalant indifference towards the British 'underclass'. Whoever is right, Cameron has a large minefield to traverse indeed. This won't be the last crisis of his leadership, but it may well be the most damaging. With the pressure on the assured, straight-backed Prime Minister greater than ever before, as with a seasoned chess player, every move Cameron makes must be a right-one, or he could find himself marooned amidst the unemployed, riotous masses very soon.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Thrashed at home: a rude awakening for naïve Rangers

QPR were welcomed back to the Premier League as a founding club of world football’s most profitable division with a calamitous 4-0 defeat to Bolton Wanderers on Saturday. Having completed a double over the Trotters during their last season in the top flight, from 1995-1996, hopes were high that the R’s could spring a surprise over Owen Coyle’s charges amidst bafflingly positive assertions concerning Rangers’ survival chances from respected pundits.

It could have been so very different had DJ Campbell’s first ‘goal’ for his new club not been correctly ruled out for off-side after five minutes, but in truth the slow death of the R’s prospects of victory began from here. Shortly after this, Kieron Dyer, described as a ‘gamble’ by Neil Warnock upon his arrival, lived up to his lowly standing amongst R’s fans by being stretchered off the pitch to widespread consternation as to why he was ever considered in the first place.

Indisputably on the front foot throughout the opening 45 minutes, Warnock’s men suffered the desperate misfortune of conceding on the cusp of half-time; Gary Cahill proving his versatility with a scintillating strike into the roof of Paddy Kenny’s net. Cheers and applause echoed around Loftus Road at the interval, yet supporters had no idea what the second period would bring.

They soon found out, however. 67 minutes in and Danny Gabbidon, who had performed admirably on his QPR debut, tragically headed in Chris Eagles’ free-kick, to the immense fortune of the visitors. As if this were not enough, Bolton received their second dose of good luck when Ivan Klasnic’s shot was deflected in by the woeful Bradley Orr.

Fabrice Muamba, for the entirety of the 90 minutes akin to a pantomime villain with his robust approach and tendency to push the spirit – if not the laws of the game – to their limits, then rubbed salt into the wounds with a classy fourth. In truth, Rangers were second best in every department after the break, regrettably resorting to aesthetically-displeasing and ineffective elongations of the Warnock style. This led to Campbell, a clear bright spark with pace to burn who gave the visitors a headache or two during the first half, being bypassed by the midfield. Faurlin and Derry in turn and with unfathomable generosity, proceeded to afford Bolton all the space they could have possibly desired in the middle of the park.

They made full use of this magnificent opportunity, Martin Petrov in particular demonstrating just how short QPR currently are at full-back, with even mediocre Premier League names such as Mark Davies able to run riot against Shaun Derry’s ageing, Championship methods of protecting a back four who appeared only seconds away from the next crisis. To top it all off, and exacerbate Rangers’ defensive woes, Clint Hill was giving his marching orders with seconds to go, leaving the R’s without a left-sided defender for the trip to Everton.

As for the disgraced ownership elite in W12, Briatore’s very public and swift exit following the fourth goal ensured that his lack of concern for the club and rock-bottom approval rating amongst Rangers fans was made clear to the assembled media. Meanwhile, the appalling lack of investment in the playing staff at Loftus Road was being painfully revealed on the pitch by a side who will be unlikely to finish above mid-table. Perhaps the most distressing thought of all, however, will be that with a continued bloody-mindedness pervading the QPR boardroom, with regards to spending money, how many more 4-0 thrashings can Warnock – the man more than any other responsible for the R’s Premier League status – potentially survive?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

This Is England '11 - Panic on the streets of London


Over the past few days London has experienced a myriad of emotions, brought about by the most fearsome rioting witnessed in the capital in over a decade. Scenes which might otherwise be associated with fearsome conflict in war-torn cities have manifested themselves across London, in areas as diverse as Tottenham, Clapham Junction and Ealing Broadway. Efforts to diagnose the motivation behind these riots have yielded a variety of not particularly helpful partisan political opinion; Ken Livingstone, for instance, chose to take advantage of the distressing scenes to begin his campaign for Mayoral election in 2012 during an interview on BBC News 24. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen yesterday, and returned from his holiday in the United States just in time to be heckled in Clapham by angry, restless residents desperate for answers.

The anarchical conditions haven't been solely confined to the capital, either. Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol all experienced unrest, in a similar manner. Buildings were set ablaze, cars went up in flames, gangs roamed the streets and smashed shop facades before looting the contents. Perhaps the saddest aspect of all the riots is the age of many of these rioters; some as young as 10, many of whom clearly have no stake in society and therefore a disincentive to keep within the boundaries of law and order. An insight into the minds of those perpetrating last night, and Saturday's crimes, is provided by two girls being interviewed on BBC News 24. To witness one of the most saddening, anger-inducing minutes of television in recent memory, visit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14458424.

With fears that fresh violence and destruction could erupt tonight, many small businss owners have taken to boarding up their shops, restaurants, cafes and bars, or just not turning up for work. Unconfirmed reports have claimed that the trouble could spread to areas as far out as Watford, whilst Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd's Bush has allegedly been boarded up and had its security bolstered, according to claims made on Twitter. As for the social networking site, many have been quick to attribute blame to the role of the internet in the events of the past few days. Some disturbances are reported to have been organised via Twitter, as well as Blackberry Messenger (BBM), which has led to calls for both to be shut down.

With events as trauamatic as these, and the highly emotive sights of formerly peaceful and trouble-free communites in flames, and ransacked by those bent on inflicting as much damage as possible on their neighbours, or in other cases unwilling victims, the calls for action have varied in their levels of panic, and extremity. Some immediately beckoned the army into London, a severely draconian and utterly unworkable response to the situation. Other pleas ranged from martial law, to the imposition of a curfew, to immediate execution of rioters, and finally the use of rubber bullets. Thankfully, these calls have thus far been resisted, and the government's reaction has been, if rather pedestrian and initially seemingly unconcerned, fairly moderate.

Naturally, on the left hand side of the political spectrum, the socio-economic causes of these crimes, which doubtless do exist, have taken predominance in the post-riot analysis. Yet whilst the initial protests in Tottenham doubtless had many such reasons, and were in many cases a response to a government bent on reducing the vital support depended on by so many, the events in Ealing and many other areas were merely acts of senseless, selfish, attention-seeking terror inflicted upon the so-called 'rich'. Perhaps shops such as HMV, Curry's, Bang and Olufsen, Panasonic and banks can replace windows and repair the damage, but for small business owners these greed-driven vandals have thoughtlessly wiped out their livelihoods. The sight of an Oxfam store having been subject to attack in Ealing this morning was perhaps the saddest of all the 'morning after' images, but there are many, many more.

So what can be done about these riots, and what will the consequences be for London, and the country as a whole? With half the country wanting these 'thugs' burned at the stake, and another quarter wanting to offer them free music and arts tuition whilst asking them to kindly stop burning things, most simply do not seem to have the right view. Both, I feel, are indicative of the worst type of reactionary, nonsensical knee-jerk reaction we ought to lamentably expect in a crisis. The fact is that these riots will not make the government change course, and ultimately this is why the Conservative dream of ten years in power may have, if you'll pardon the expression, gone up in flames last night. From Cameron's intial hesitancy to his lazy reaction to these momentous events, he has been exposed as rather a weak leader, and in a party normally looked to as, at the very least, upholders of law and order, this won't play well amongst a core of his electorate.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson shouldn't get too comfortable in his throne at the GLA either, as he has been made to appear exactly as many on the opposing political flank have always portrayed him; indifferent, bumbling, incoherent and incapable of affirmative action in a crisis. With Ken Livingstone already on the campaign trail, and Diane Abbott, to her immense credit, immersing herself in her shattered constituency and actually being there on the ground, had a poll been conducted this morning amidst the devastation Labour would be streets ahead. The ramifications for 2012 are massive, and not merely for the Mayoral election. Safety concerns surrounding the Olympics, Britain's open invitation to the world to visit, will take some time to dissipate. If there is to be an end to this any time soon, then the political post-mortem will follow immediately. From police cuts, to the drastic reduction in state assistance, the economic situation and the Conservatives' languid response, Mr. Cameron and his pals will be attacked from all sides. He had better hope that the middle classes, many of whom will have been directly affected by the riots, can trust him to keep them safe, and will stay loyal to a party which promises so much, but at the moment seems to be delivering so little.

As for those who have perpetrated these crimes, I have no doubt that some would interview more eloquently than the two morons featured on the BBC this morning. Many of them have genuine problems, and it is no coincidence that in many areas these riots were socio-economic in character, based on deep-seated grievances and a reaction to a government which offers them nothing besides lectures on the one hand, and a withdrawal of support on the other. It is unlikely that we will ever know just what their motivation was; indeed, one cannot simply offer a blanket solution for all. Some set out to damage a system they felt disconnected from, others to stand up to a government they felt betrayed by, others still to cause harm to communities they have long since ceased to be a part of. Many, however, just wanted to see how far they could push the police, and what they could get out of the disorder. With the Daily Mail wheeling out the 'Broken Britain' tag every time any crime is perpetrated or a regrettable incident occurs, it is hard to sift through all the coverage to find the real truth. Yet perhaps this is exactly what we have no interest in knowing.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Prefiero morir como un león que vivir como un borrego

“I would rather die like a lion than live like a sheep.” Never has a saying so aptly summed up a city as this when applied to the extraordinary Mediterranean metropolis that is Barcelona. The city’s fighting spirit is evident everywhere; from the protest camp and plethora of political graffiti adorning Plaça de Catalunya, the city’s central hub, to the Estadio de Lluís Companys, Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol de Barcelona’s football stadium, named after the fearless Catalan leader murdered in 1940 on the orders of General Francisco Franco. Whilst I do not wish to enter into the political minefield that is the status of Catalonia – since 1977 a fully-autonomous region of Spain – Barcelona feels like a capital city.

In no way is it a poor relation to the royalist, conservative Spanish capital Madrid, itself a beautiful city boasting all the activities, amenities and wonders you would expect. Yet Barcelona has something that Madrid, along with other European capitals such as Berlin, Paris, Rome, Lisbon, simply don’t. That is its 4.5 kilometres of pristine coastline, straddling the heavily redeveloped antique Port Vell and the more traditional Barceloneta area, which coexist easily alongside each other. The sandy beaches provide a unique, and most importantly free, distraction from the drastically more active nature of tourism in Barcelona. For the city is a walkers’ paradise, providing picturesque views of the city from the uniquely ornate Parc Güell, itself a challenge to reach let alone traverse, the sprawling hills of Montjuïc, or the luscious tranquillity of Parc de la Ciutadella.

Further to this, Barcelona abounds with hidden gems, beautiful squares, excellent museums and, for sports fans, the indisputable current leaders of world football, F.C. Barcelona. For those who baulk at the prospect of spending almost 20 euros on a stadium tour – which is admittedly very interesting – just surveying the cathedral of magnificence that is the Camp Nou is enough to get a flavour of Los Culés current success, and their glorious history. Some of you might even be lucky enough to be able to attend a match, if visiting during the football season (late August-early June), but don’t count on it; tickets range from 40 to 100 euros per match, Barcelona as a club has over 100,000 members, and a 98,000-seater stadium thus becomes rather easy to fill. They don’t even confine themselves to football, either; Barcelona has an extremely successful basketball team, so fans of that particular sport will be well-catered for in this city of sporting winners.

If football doesn’t float your boat, then the re-enlivened Port Vell surely will. Now a hub of Barcelona nightlife, this relatively subdued daytime area comes alive after about 10pm, but most clubs don’t open until much later, unlike their British counterparts. Beware though; as appealing as the pseudo-Irish bars and stylish drinking establishments may appear, they are excruciatingly expensive. Expect to pay around five euros for a good old English pint of lager, and even more for a spirit and mixer concoction, albeit one with the notorious ‘Spanish measurement’ i.e. double the single level permitted in pubs in the United Kingdom.

Away from the thriving seaside, be sure to check out the bizarrely homely booze hole known as the Michael Collins’ Irish Bar, named obviously after the legendary Irish revolutionary leader. The merciful sound of English not being patronisingly applied by Spanish waiters who have clocked that you are from said country and obviously entirely ignorant and mono-linguistic will greet you from the smokers gathered outside. On the inside you will be greeted by memorabilia, photographs and paintings, alongside a signed Republic of Ireland football shirt. By the end of the evening, once a few typically expensive pints of Guinness have been drunk, be sure to keep an eye out for the Spaniards’ hilarious attempts at Irish dancing.

Barcelona, despite the lusciousness of its location, and the innate beauty the city holds, is not an especially expensive destination. Culinary-wise, the cuisine in Barcelona is excellent, consisting largely of seafood, rich, dark meats and obviously, tapas. It would be rather lazy of me to simply recommend paella as a potential stomach-filler, so I’ll offer a rather more specialised potential menu for your delectation. I am not sure if these dishes are unique to Barcelona, but for me they are definitely worth trying if you are in or around the region. The first is paella con arroz negro, a normal seafood paella turned jet black courtesy of its immersion in squid ink. The ink shrouds this normally ubiquitous dish in some sort of mystery, whilst injecting it with a salty taste, with perhaps a little too much garlic prior to a romantic evening.

The second is Fiduea, a relatively standard paella dish in terms of taste, but formed, not of rice, but of small noodles. Unquestionably worth a go, although beware; if the portions applied to said dish are the same as given over to normal paella, if your physique is even slightly similar to that of myself, you will struggle to finish. Now for somebody usually capable of eating far beyond socially acceptable limits as dictated by the particular restaurant or dish, this proves just how filling Fiduea is. As a final salvo on the food front, the delectable Patatas Bravas are a firm favourite as well. Yet the area where my expertise can really be applied, is in terms of liquid accompaniment.

Beer is a must in Barcelona, as with every city. Yet with the searing heat, and the perspiration and thirst generated by the requirement to walk everywhere in this beautiful metropolis, it cannot be avoided in Barcelona. Now the primary local lagers are Estrella Damm – sponsors of FC Barcelona and easily available everywhere – as well as San Miguel, Spain’s entry to the mass market of European lagers. Estrella is slightly stronger at 5.5%, and therefore nicer in my opinion, but San Miguel is pleasant enough. Far more refreshing and palatable than swill such as Carling, Fosters, it weighs in at an extremely reasonable 5%, so the same as beers such as Kronenbourg and Stella, yet without the latter’s potential to wreak domestic violence.

On my particular trip I was lucky enough to stay in a hotel with a magnificent selection of German beers, albeit at extortionate prices, but for those looking for something more local and less common than Estrella, I was unable to find much. Disappointingly, having put some research in following the trip, I found two beers – Moritz and San Miguel sister beer Voll-Damm – the latter a strong, German-style darker beer, which will be worth trying on any subsequent visits. Yet on this subject my advice would be, for those on a budget, avoid the sea front’s extortionate prices and head for a beer in the Universitat district or l’Eixample, where cafes open until the early hours will sell you a cold Estrella or San Miguel for a Euro.

Back to the more cultured aspects of tourist life in Barcelona. Museum-wise, there is a lot on offer, including the Joan Miro museum in the hills of Montjuïc, but by far the best of all the museums in Barcelona, in my view, is the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. With regularly revolving exhibitions and a broad, impressively detailed display of art, as well as one of the most picturesque locations in the city, which is no mean feat, it is worth a few hours of your time. Furthermore, with the addition of yet another useful piece of local knowledge, entry can be yours for free. This can only occur with the purchase of a Barcelona Card. When booked on its own, said card costs 45 euros, but as part of my holiday booking it was just over 30.

Yet what the Barcelona Card offers is free travel on all transport within the city itself, and huge discounts on certain attractions, moderate discounts on others, and free entry onto/into yet more. The Monument a Colom, for instance, becomes free with the Barcelona Card, and despite lacking the incredible vistas of Mount Tibidabo, it offers a formidable view of the city and port area from the incredibly narrow viewing platform at the top. Furthermore, the Barcelona Card allows for discounts in restaurants, bars and a free ride on one of the Golondrinas, which sail around the harbour and port area, a refreshing break from the stifling heat of the city centre.

Naturally, no trip to Barcelona would be complete without a visit to the world-famous Rambla, or Sagrada Familia Cathedral, which has undergone huge refurbishment work since I last visited, and now has all the trappings of the working church which Gaudi presumably envisaged when he began his key work all those years ago. Whether the Sagrada Familia ought to have undergone continued construction or not is a huge bone of contention, but I happen to think the developers and cultural committees who rule on such questions have found the correct solution. The Sagrada Familia was always meant as a testament to nature, and the incredible power of the mind of one individual, Antonio Gaudi. Yet it was meant to be an extraordinary place of worship, and at this moment in time, it is close to fulfilling this purpose.

La Rambla, meanwhile, extending from the port area around Drassanes Metro to Plaça de Catalunya, typically cannot be missed either in the day or at night time. With a motley crew of entertainers, street sellers, mime artists and seemingly every tourist in Barcelona, La Rambla at night is an experience indeed. Yet whilst a visit is definitely worthwhile, even for just a brief stroll, don’t feel you have to eat here. La Rambla’s international reputation means the prices are extortionate on either side of this wide, pedestrianized boulevard, unless you pick the right place. Furthermore, there can be something slightly off-putting when a street seller approaches you during your main course trying to sell you a luminous piece of plastic. So the best bet is to find a restaurant in upmarket Gracia or l’Eixample, and then head down to La Rambla before, if you’re that way inclined, a night on the tiles at Port Vell.

The area to the left of La Rambla, El Raval, is perhaps the most traditional and, dare I say, ‘authentic’ in all of Barcelona. Home to around 200,000 people, it is built around windy, narrow streets and feels extremely different to the vast majority of the city. Traditionally a home for new immigrants to Barcelona, and notorious for its nightlife as well as its crime and prostitution, don’t be surprised to see varyingly clad ladies standing on most street corners in the Raval, and keep an eye on your valuables. Obviously crime can happen anywhere, and you’re probably no more likely to be robbed in El Raval than on La Rambla, where pickpockets are active, Raval has the feel of a place you ought not to spend too much time in. Having said that, with the quality of some of the merchandise being flogged from nearly every building along La Rambla, you’d perhaps not feel too short changed if your money were stolen from you rather than wasted on certain ‘gifts’.

Having said all this, Barcelona feels safe. There is crime in every city, even squeaky-clean Vienna, so this is not a measure of anything at all, merely a fact worth noting wherever you travel. It is an inviting, attractive and homely city, with all you could ever want within a few square miles. Further to this, I believe, it is a deeply underrated holiday destination, with sufficient longevity and the range of attractions to keep you coming back. It is reasonable to get to, eat in, stay in, and there is plenty to be done for free. It is perhaps the only other city in the world I could see myself living in, which is a testament to Barcelona, in my opinion the crown jewel of the Iberian Peninsula.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Sir Bobby Robson: the loss of football's great gentleman who touched the hearts of so many

Achieving universal popularity is not at all easy. Not only do your interests, aims and desires have to chime with people from wildly varying backgrounds, but you have to maintain a very public sense of actually caring about each and every person you meet. This is a challenge even for the most skilled of PR operators. Yet Sir Bobby Robson was no PR man; he didn't need an entourage of assistants, or any notes or guides on how to act to make him look good. He achieved respect from his peers, success in the field, and a legacy that will long outlive him through his tenacity, dedication, humility and sheer talent. A working class hero, Robson's footballing career took place alongside employment as an electrician and colliery worker.

Netting 68 times for Fulham in 152 games in the early 1950s, a club described by the inside-forward as a "nice, sociable club" but not one capable of challenging for honours was a highlight of his playing career. His 56 goals in 239 games for West Bromwich Albion also constituted a purple patch for Robson, between 1956 and 1962. 20 England caps followed, as well as four strikes against France, Scotland and Mexico, but it was in management where Robson really cemented his reputation as a winner, and a man of the people. The farming lands of Suffolk proved fertile ground for Robson from 1969-1982; victories over Arsenal in the 1978 FA Cup Final, and AZ Alkmaar in 1981, in the UEFA Cup, made Robson a deserving recipient of his towering statue outside Portman Road.

England followed for Robson, and his and the Three Lions' failure to qualify for the 1984 European Championships was forgotten as the then 51 year old went on to manage England to two of the most famous, enigmatic, legendary defeats in the country's international footballing history. The first of these was in the Quarter Final at Mexico '86, where England were cruelly denied by Maradona's now infamous 'Hand of God' goal, which followed arguably the greatest strike in the history of the sport. The next tragedy was Italia '90, where Robson led England to their greatest finish in the World Cup since their 1966 triumph. Devastation followed as West Germany progressed on penalties, but in the minds of most England supporters, the tournament will long live in the memory.

Robson achieved tremendous success by moving into continental management, taking over PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, FC Porto and FC Barcelona respectively between 1990 and 1999, picking up two Dutch league titles, two Portuguese top division crowns and a domestic cup trophy, before striking the big time with Barcelona. In one season, largely courtesy of the ingenious signing of Ronaldo, Los Cules won the European Cup Winners' Cup, Spanish Super Cup and Spanish Cup, with Robson being voted European Manager of the Year for 1996-1997. Geordie Robson returned to the promised land in 1999, taking over as manager of Newcastle United. After a slightly uneasy start, he took the Magpies to the Champions League in 2002, securing successive top five finishes.

With these magnificent achievements in mind, it was never likely that the respect, adoration and popularity built up by Robson during his early and latter managerial career would ever fall. Yet whilst football supporters may respect figures such as Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson, and Jose Mourinho, they may feel little to no affection or emotional attachment towards them unless of course they happen to support the clubs managed by these three. Sir Bobby Robson was truly loved, and taken from us far too soon at the age of just 76. Having previously fought off cancer and other threats to his life as British football’s lauded elder statesman, Robson’s lung cancer was diagnosed in 2007 as terminal.

Whilst everyone knew that sooner or later this Geordie fighter would leave us, nothing could prepare for the day when Robson’s smiling face and passion for football would be lost from the world. The launch, in 2008, of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, and Robson’s heroic dedication of his final years to fighting for others experiencing the devastating disease, ensured his untouchable status as a true gentleman. By the end of 2008 the charity had earned £1million, a testament to the man who founded it, and by 2011 has raked in more than £2.5million to aid the battle against lung cancer.

When Robson passed away, peacefully at his home in County Durham, the world’s footballing flag flew at half-mast. Few of us knew Robson, but we all felt as though we did. His popularity surpassed generations, and by the time of his passing nobody could have found anything negative to say about him, no matter how hard they may have tried. Knighted in 2002 for services to football, Robson’s tributes know no end. One of thousands of fitting tributes came from close friend Michael Parkinson: “Robson will be remembered long after the present lot are old bones. By his decency, his humour, his love of the game's traditions and origins and confusion at what it had become, he made present day football look what it is – shabby by comparison. I can think of no more fitting epitaph.” Neither can I. Gone but never, ever forgotten.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Money talks, but silence has fallen over W12

Exasperation and disbelief have long been core components of QPR fandom. From the inconceivably disastrous days of Gerry Francis’ second managerial spell at the club, to the jaw-droppingly ludicrous procession of misguided hirings and firings during the 2009/2010 season, there’s nearly always a dark cloud above Loftus Road. The opening of the Summer Transfer Window yesterday will do little to lift the gloom, either, as Rangers supporters watch their closest rivals for Premier League safety, Norwich City and Swansea City, take intelligent, measured steps in the transfer market. The Canaries’ signings of Bradley Johnson from Leeds United and Millwall’s Steve Morison should see them well-placed to mount a survival bid, especially if the irrepressibly brilliant Paul Lambert remains at the helm.

What of QPR, the Championship’s best team last season and deserved winners of their first title since 1983? Well, as frustrated R’s fans will tell you, besides the niggling rumours surrounding Neil Warnock’s future at the club, and the constant Adel Taarabt transfer-merry-go-round, it’s all quiet on the Western Avenue. Those who crave behind-the-scenes drama and the sort of Goodfellas’-style scenario we had a few years ago – with the ‘Guns in the Boardroom’ saga – would probably love to hear of an epic power-struggle going on between QPR’s two ownership ‘blocs’. However, there is no evidence to point to this. Indeed it appears very much that the Cowboys, namely ‘Tango’ and ‘Cash’ – Messrs’ Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone – have irrevocably claimed the upper hand over the Indians – the ‘steelionaire’ Mittals.

Yes, there have been rumours, none of them pleasant, mind you. The prospect of our ‘big signings’ to keep us in what is unarguably one of the toughest leagues in the world being Fulham’s Andy Johnson and Hull City’s Jimmy Bullard is hardly appealing. Jay Bothroyd’s astronomical wage demands of allegedly £50,000 per week have, fortunately, priced him out of a move to West London, so what sort of new arrivals can we expect? Well, perhaps it’s best to ask Mr. Gianni Paladini, the man with seemingly no appreciation of when it’s right to cut your losses and leave. He is, without a doubt, past his sell-by date, an awkward amalgamation of a Godfather-type figure mixed with an East-End used car dealer who has long ceased to be of any benefit to proceedings at Loftus Road. His ‘limited’ evidence to the Tribunal over QPR’s signing of Alejandro Faurlin – a wonderful Argentine midfielder whose popularity knows no bounds amongst R’s supporters – shows him up as the morally dubious and inherently damaging and shady figure fans have long believed him to be.

The returns from their respective loan spells of Italian flops Matteo Alberti and Alessandro Pellicori, unless greeted with their imminent departures, might just sum up the current malaise. The only players we are able to obtain are those others don’t want; the board are unwilling to bid for potential signings whom other teams are interested in (see Craig Mackail-Smith for details); and the club is still controlled by men who would be more suited to running an illicit gambling den in London’s seedy backstreets. One thing is certain; over the past few years Paladini has acquired a reputation as a man willing to turn Loftus Road into a ‘rest home’ for footballers who are either on their way out or chronically injury prone (Fitz Hall and Dean Sturridge come to mind). If this summer is characterised by more of the same, don’t be surprised to see Sir Neil Warnock cut his losses and leave this over-priced, farce of a football club behind. He and QPR fans fundamentally deserve better.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

QPR - So many unanswered questions

Queens Park Rangers supporters finally received the news they had been waiting eagerly for since the final match of last season against Leeds United on 8 May. Neil Warnock’s men will kick off their first year back in the top flight since 1996 against Bolton Wanderers, themselves a model of how to achieve Premier League survival, and subsequent stability. Seeing such illustrious names as Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea on the fixture list was something rather special. However as discussed previously, the cost of attending these matches is such to render them little more than pipe dreams for a significant proportion of the W12 faithful.

Not only are the QPR owners’ misguided attempts to cash in on top-flight football tainting what ought to be the divine calm before the ferocious storm, but the club looks in worse shape than any other entering the Premier League fray previously. The dearth of signings at Loftus Road has already been discussed, sometimes with deep acrimony, but this is by no means the full extent of the problem. For in almost certainly the most commercially valuable summer in recent memory for Rangers, we have, catastrophically, not released our 2011-2012 season kit. The reason for this is that, since 8 June, Queens Park Rangers have been without a sponsor, the contract with Gulf Air running out without replacement. Thus not only is the club losing out on vital revenue, its standing is diminishing by the day from an already low base.

Perhaps some suggestions as to a future sponsor would be welcome to Messrs Ecclestone and Briatore. Considering that it has long been acknowledged that neither is capable of organising the proverbial ‘piss-up in a brewery,’ it would be apt for Carlsberg to take over the reins. Although from another perspective, in light of their recent record, maybe Sony would like to bring its unique brand of professional service to W12? Or we could just let Bill – the café owner from the high street – sign a multi-thousand pound advertising contract. That would, based on the current misery amongst formerly proud wearers of the blue and white hoops, reflect the esteem in which the club’s owners are currently held.

Moving swiftly back to the football, and the terrifying prospect of Shaun Derry lining up to take care of Luka Modrić on October 22, can Neil Warnock’s men stay in the Premier League? Realistically, based on what is essentially last season’s team sheet, the answer is no. Team spirit, a solid if unimpressive defence, managerial stability and organisation can see a team fly the Championship nest, but the Premier League is more akin to a pit of snakes, who don’t take kindly to newcomers. With enigma, ‘captain’ and whinger-in-chief Adel Taarabt constantly pining for a move to Newcastle United, or more realistically Chelsea, Real Madrid and Arsenal, will he want to play for the R’s up to his usual standard when the inevitable happens and other clubs say no to the player who is probably more trouble than he’s worth? Even if he does want to play for QPR still, will it make any difference? So many unanswered questions remain, and unless things become abundantly clear over the next month or so, Queens Park Rangers may well face a rude awakening in August.