The August Riots

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Monday, 25 January 2010

Money in football – does the game belong to the fans anymore?

Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992 transfer fees, wages, ticket prices and television revenues have increased to previously unthinkable proportions. Whether or not the quality of football has similarly improved is debatable, however it is certainly the case that in the last twenty years the proportion of overseas players in the Premier League has augmented immeasurably. This, along with the final and perhaps most important change at the pinnacle of English football, can be explained by the aforementioned factors. That is the very recent phenomenon of Premier League clubs being purchased by exceedingly wealthy billionaires from across the world, which has even begun to filter down into the Championship, and most recently to Notts County of League 1. Since Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea Football Club in 2003, rescuing it from probable bankruptcy, the Blues have won the Premier League title twice in succession, the FA and League Cups twice and reached the Champions League final. I doubt any Chelsea fan would even attempt to claim that such triumphs would have been possible without Abramovich’s investment, which is rumoured to have topped £500 million since he took over the club. Manchester City are the latest billionaire’s plaything in the Premier League, having been purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group in August 2008, and if the club’s recent spending is anything to go by, City may well surpass Chelsea’s aforementioned outlay. With such dramatic changes characterising the pinnacle of English football, many fans, myself included, are deeply concerned at the potential future for the game. For even if the financial bubble in which the Premier League operates fails to burst, the combination of rising season ticket prices and greater concern amongst club owners for the number of fans in the Far East or Africa than their local communities is certainly a worrying sign.

Although it may appear as such, the trends exhibited by the Premier League are slowly but surely filtering down to the lower divisions, as the recent takeover of Notts County and its predictable subsequent collapse illustrates. Even my own side, Queens Park Rangers, have sadly fallen victim to foreign billionaires, and the selfishness, arrogance and disregard for fans they have unfortunately become associated with. Since the club was purchased by Formula One magnates Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore in 2007, season ticket prices have risen to astronomical heights, attendances have fallen to embarrassingly low levels, morale and camaraderie have disappeared amongst the fans, and a series of thoroughly inadequate and occasionally inept players have been afforded lengthy and generously paid contracts. Despite lavish, and frankly laughable promises of turning QPR into a ‘boutique’ club, and a ‘five year plan’ to achieve Premier League football, which may invite unfavourable comparisons with those of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, the reality is it very little has changed. The sum total of billionaire ownership at Queens Park Rangers F.C. has been a succession of managers sacked without being afforded sufficient time in the job, a demoralised and alienated fan-base, an over-indulged playing staff and the club’s reputation being brought into disrepute. For a significant proportion of those able to afford the outrageous £600 the owners insist on charging fans for the privilege of supporting their team, the dark days of administration, the struggle to survive in the Championship, buckets outside the ground and the glorious triumph of Hillsborough, achieved in spite of the club’s financial situation, seem intensely favourable to the current malaise.

It would be difficult to deny that since its inception, the Premier League has been anything other than an attempt to monetise, commercialise and internationalise the foremost level of English football for the aggrandisement of a select group of clubs. The Premier League in its current incarnation couldn’t have less to do with the values still prevalent, although likely to disappear in the coming years, in the lower leagues. The decline of the FA Cup, once a magnificent spectacle and a meaningful tournament for the vast majority of teams, has been one of the most obvious symptoms of the advent of money in English football. From being a predominantly working-class sport not thirty years ago football has become an incredibly expensive habit, open to those able, not to mention willing, to swallow continual rises in season ticket prices in order to support players who couldn’t be further removed from ordinary fans, and the exorbitant spending and shocking mismanagement of clubs run by foreign billionaires. Sadly it appears football has accepted its fate, renounced its traditions and embraced the pervasive and all-conquering influence of money. Manchester City may be the latest club to fall into the hands of foreign billionaires unaware and unconcerned of its traditions, but they most certainly will not be the last. Whilst teams in the lower leagues struggle to avoid financial meltdown, with many still recovering from the cataclysmic collapse of ITV Digital eight years ago, the Premier League will continue to be overrun by foreign billionaires, some of whom will be more generous with funds than others, and receive vast revenues from television companies primarily concerned with audiences in Beijing rather than attendances at Blackburn. Meanwhile the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in English football can only increase, whilst fans will forever be known as consumers of a global game, rather than supporters of their local teams. Therefore, although it pains me to say it, I see no future for a game that has rejected integrity, its fans, grassroots development, its collective history and ultimately its soul, in favour of astronomical wages and transfer fees, attracting football-illiterate billionaires from abroad, marketing itself around the world and extortionate ticket prices.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – a chilling tale from the darkest period of our history

Some films are far-fetched; others inconceivable; whilst some are so powerful, shocking and poignant one prays for them to be fiction. Whilst The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, based on John Boyne’s novel of the same name, is by no means a true story, it embodies in great detail the most horrifying aspects of Nazi Germany. Boyne’s novel, released two years prior to its big screen incarnation, topped best-seller lists in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Spain amongst others. Mark Herman’s adaptation, despite being generally well-received by critics and a recipient of five awards, hasn’t evaded criticism or controversy. Manohla Dargis, of the New York Times, rather unfairly described it as “the Holocaust trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked for a tragedy about a Nazi family”, an altogether bewildering assessment as far as I am concerned. How anybody could deem the film’s desperate final scene as ‘glossing over’ any aspect of the Holocaust is inconceivable. Furthermore the above comments appear to be more applicable to an uninspiring and predictable big-budget Hollywood ‘war’ movie, in which the world is yet again saved by the United States of America, rather than a shocking, brilliantly written and impeccably-acted work of fiction. On the final point, Asa Butterfield’s portrayal of Bruno, an eight-year old German boy who discovers a concentration camp “full of people in striped pyjamas” behind the house he moves to from Berlin, and mistakenly believes it to be a ‘farm’, particularly stands out. Both director Mark Herman and producer David Heyman have stated that they were looking for someone able to portray Bruno’s innocence, a role Butterfield’s “slim” knowledge of the Holocaust allowed him to fulfil; indeed both made sure to continue this state of affairs throughout the process of filming.

In many ways The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is a film about distinctions; some obvious, such as that between Bruno and Shmuel in Nazi Germany, also that between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people, one which Bruno quickly learns to be greatly distorted. Due to incessant promulgation of the ‘official’ line, it is taken by Bruno and one can only imagine, many other Germans in the Third Reich, that Jews are bad, indeed “not really people”, and their German counterparts good, even nice. This is until, of course, his eyes are opened during the course of the film to the true state of affairs. The distinction between youth and age is perhaps the least obvious; for example one assumes Bruno’s mother, Elsa, to be aware of what is going on, but her horror at Kotler’s offhand remark, “they smell even worse when they burn”, illustrates her naivety and relative innocence. Thereby the distinction between youth and age is blurred by a similar distortion between what we would normally consider right, and what we would fundamentally consider to be wrong. The character of Bruno can essentially be seen as representing the innocence and persistence of youth, for he doesn’t merely accept his father’s denunciation of the Jewish people but discovers for himself the falsehood of such doctrines. Herman cleverly contrasts between the pleasantly-attired, well-cared for yet naïve Bruno and the imprisoned, starved Shmuel, for whom the world of childhood is a million miles away from reality.

It is never easy to document any aspect of Nazi Germany, due to the shocking and utterly immoral nature of the acts committed by its political leadership. However Herman’s adaptation is a triumph, and Boyne’s story impeccably written and highly thought-provoking. I cannot think of too many films as inspiring, realistic and desperate as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. Some may decry it as exaggerating the Holocaust, even disrespecting it, whilst others may and most likely will continue to point out its inadequacies for the foreseeable future. However, all of these points are immaterial when one takes the film for what it is. Herman brilliantly documents, albeit in microcosm, one of the most horrific sequences of actions ever undertaken, designed to cause untold misery and suffering to millions, and in doing so reminds us that there are no winners in war, only losers. The final scene, in which Shmuel and Bruno are taken to the gas chambers, along with many others, and the lights go out, is chilling to say the least. Bruno’s illustrates the sad truth that nobody won the Holocaust; there were no battles, it was a foregone conclusion, and in the end all of humanity lost out to the forces of evil and terror, something that must never happen again.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Depeche Mode – Some Great Reward or a paltry return?

1984’s Some Great Reward signalled the moment, for the vast majority of critics and fans, at which Depeche Mode finally began to fulfil their undoubted potential. Whilst Speak and Spell, A Broken Frame and Construction Time Again had yielded several successful singles, they had yet to produce a sufficiently consistent album. Some Great Reward did just that, selling in excess of four million copies worldwide, whilst ‘People Are People’ became, at the time, the band’s highest-charting UK single. Its opening line “people are people so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully?” was clearly the perfect accompaniment to West German television coverage of the 1984 Olympics, which were boycotted by their Eastern neighbours, and helped the band achieve their first #1 in West Germany. People Are People was symptomatic of the album’s departure from its predecessors “synth-heavy Britpop” sound into “more socially relevant, and darker territory” by dealing with such issues as racism and exclusion, as well as questioning the sources of, and reasoning behind conflicts. It seems as though Depeche Mode had begun to wake up to the world in which they lived with 1983’s ‘Everything Counts’, which addressed corporate greed and corruption in the music industry, but Some Great Reward takes the process a step further. ‘Master and Servant’, despite its clear allusions to bedroom politics and BDSM, plus the use of whip and chain sounds that allegedly resulted in the song being banned by many radio stations in the United States, can be seen in a wider context as cutting social commentary. Lines such as “it’s a lot like life, this play between the sheets, with you on top and me underneath, forget all about equality” could refer to either the economic hegemony of the United States or the military occupation and domination of its satellites by the Soviet Union, both key issues and concerns at the time.

However it would be foolish to concentrate on the singles, which would involve ignoring, in the words of Ned Raggett, “some of Depeche Mode’s undisputed classics”. ‘Something To Do’ begins with a rapid, horror film-esque rhythm along with a “tinkling” piano in the background, repeatedly asking “is there something to do?” If the band were aiming to create a palpable sense of dread and panic with which to characterise the remainder of the album, they certainly managed it. The feeling of alienation and boredom fits very well into the 1980s backdrop of inner-city deprivation and faltering social cohesion, and along with the “low key pulse” of ‘Lie To Me’ is indicative of a band growing in confidence having fundamentally changed its focus and approach. ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ has a ethereal, dreamy quality combined with bizarrely child-like synths, and can be seen as Some Great Reward’s clearest take on a love story, albeit one combined with “a dark, intense, and spooky industrial sound.” ‘Stories of Old’ can be effectively described as “Duran Duran with added darkness and mysteriousness”, and is another display of the band’s exceptional and evolving musical ability. ‘Somebody’ is the album’s standout track, a gentle ballad, sung by Martin Gore, described as mixing “wit and emotion skilfully”. In many ways it is a typical ballad, with the deeply romantic lyrics longing for “somebody, who will put their arms around me, and kiss me tenderly”, however many speculate that Gore wrote and sung ‘Somebody’ in a tongue-in-cheek manner, thereby providing a wry observation of saccharine love songs. The final two lines, “"Things like this make me sick. In a case like this, I'll get away with it" certainly support such an assertion, and demonstrate Gore’s increasingly complex song-writing manner.

Penultimate track ‘If You Want’ begins in an almost hypnotic style, and continues as such by calling to the listener, “If you want to be with me, you can come with me if you want to”. Its murky yet sparkly rhythm again demonstrates Depeche Mode’s innovative juxtaposition of dark and light, and is Alan Wilder’s sole song-writing contribution to Some Great Reward. The album closes with ‘Blasphemous Rumours’, released alongside ‘Somebody’, which suffered the same fate as ‘Master and Servant’ by being banned from a number of American radio stations. This was due to its apparently anti-religious message, which was deemed offensive by many including the Church itself. However Dave Gahan has stated that the song was merely “a statement of how everybody must feel at one time or another” rather than being anti-religion. The chorus of “I don't want to start any blasphemous rumours, but I think that God's got a sick sense of humour, and when I die I expect to find him laughing” certainly doesn’t leave the listener in any doubt as to the song’s message, yet the fact that the band was able to approach such issues in this way illustrates its new-found confidence. It may have taken three years but Depeche Mode finally left the inoffensive synth-pop of ‘A Broken Frame’ behind, replacing it with bold, unrestrained social commentary and a willingness to push the musical, lyrical and topical boundaries. Some Great Reward is without a doubt “still one of the best electronic music albums yet recorded”, and its darkness and melancholy a testament to the age in which it was conceived.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Premier League – can Liverpool ensure the ‘greatest league in the world’ remains predictable and a foregone conclusion?

At the beginning of the season pundits, fans and casual observers unanimously agreed that the top four places would be occupied by Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, though not necessarily in that order. However Rafael Benitez’ side have been a model of inconsistency since last September, and as a result lie in seventh place in the Premier League, behind Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. The consequences of this are potentially disastrous, with the break-up of the ‘top four’ an unthinkable prospect, and the potential opening up of the fourth Champions League spot to ‘lesser sides’ such as those mentioned above cataclysmic. It may perhaps even result in the Premier League becoming competitive; therefore the powers that be have taken urgent action to rebuild Liverpool’s squad, ordering the transfers of Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Pato and David Villa to Liverpool in order to prevent such an outcome. Unfortunately for Benitez, and anyone incapable of identifying and comprehending sarcasm, this will not be occurring, but Liverpool will need a goal scorer of some sort to take the pressure off Fernando Torres, perhaps Robbie Keane…or maybe not. Meanwhile multi-million pound signing Alberto Aquilani has been about as effective in the Liverpool midfield as the CIA at preventing terrorists boarding passenger planes, and as such Steven Gerrard has been forced once again to rescue his club from disaster on a number of occasions. Liverpool will be hard pressed to close the four-point gap between themselves and Tottenham any time soon, and with Manchester City under the stewardship of Roberto Mancini and set to spend vast sums of money in the January transfer window, the Merseyside club may be forced to endure a season devoid of Champions League revenue it so desperately requires.

The title race meanwhile is inexplicably shaping up to be a three horse race, with just four points separating first-placed Chelsea and third-placed Arsenal, who have a game in hand. With the Blues having lost four players, including talismanic goal machine Didier Drogba to the often derided, at least by certain Premier League managers, African Nations Cup, Manchester United will be hoping to capitalise on any potential slip-ups. Given that Chelsea’s forward line currently consists of the unproven Daniel Sturridge, Dimitar Berbatov and Nicholas Bendtner appear mercurial by comparison. Obviously Nicolas Anelka is due to return soon for Chelsea, but will owner Roman Abramovich’s obvious desperation to win the Champions League prevent the Blues from giving their all to the title race? Probably not, as by the time the knock-out stages are upon us Drogba will have returned and the panic will be all but over in West London. Arsenal would likely be leading the Premier League at this moment were it not for Robin van Persie’s unfortunate and costly habit of picking up debilitating injuries requiring lengthy spells on the treatment table, but once Fabregas is restored to the Gunners’ midfield surely anything is possible? Finally Manchester United, fresh from their humiliating cup exit to Leeds United on Sunday, desperately need to bounce back, ideally by humiliating a Premier League also-ran by an emphatic score-line, most likely Bolton, Wolves, Portsmouth or Hull. Whilst in late November ago it appeared Chelsea had the title sown up, and Ancelotti was being hailed as a genius, although obviously not as tactically astute as Mourinho, who will forever enjoy God-like status at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea now appear defensively vulnerable and have won only two of their last six Premier League games. I would still back Chelsea’s ruthless efficiency over Arsenal’s frustrating flamboyance and Manchester United’s determined tenacity, but whatever happens this could prove to be the first ‘three-horse race’ for many years at the pinnacle of English football.

Since the advent of huge television revenues in the Premier League the battle to avoid relegation has gained significant attention, with many pundits reiterating and emphasising the importance of staying in the division for financial rather than sporting purposes. This could be a false interpretation, and I may be doing said pundits a disservice, but I severely doubt Paul Jewell’s first thought was of the impending financial reward the club’s Premier League survival. Indeed when West Bromwich Albion pulled off, against all the odds, the so-called ‘great escape’ in 2005 having been bottom of the table at Christmas, the fans flooding onto the pitch would have most likely been celebrating their club’s achievement and another year of top-flight football, instead of multi-million pound payouts. However since this season’s relegation race will likely once again be dominated by the issue of money, I ought to accept that football has fundamentally changed from being about the glory of competing and triumph of survival to the obtainment of rewards with which clubs can afford abhorrently high wages to their often mediocre players.

Without meaning to sound as though I am writing for a certain well-known tabloid newspaper, for Portsmouth Premier League survival is quite literally a matter of life or death. Despite club officials having promised to pay their players wages owed to them for the month of December by Tuesday, a further delay has arisen. Pompey will be further disheartened by the news that they cannot extend Jamie O’Hara’s loan from Tottenham Hotspur due to the transfer embargo enforced on the by the Premier League. Portsmouth have also been informed that a figure of around £7 million, owed to Chelsea, Tottenham and Watford for player transfers, will be paid for from their share of the latest round of television monies. On the pitch the club lies four points off safety, but also off nearest rivals Hull City in 19th place. A recent revival has given fans some hope of cutting the deficit, and Pompey are by no means certainties for relegation. However recent defeats, 2-0 away to West Ham being the most damaging, have halted the club’s progress under Avram Grant. They desperately need to fashion some sort of unbeaten run, and quickly, before those also in danger do the same and leave Portsmouth cut adrift. Hull City should also be tremendously worried, given that they are without a win in six Premier League games, and face Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United in their next three matches. Bolton Wanderers, with two games in hand and Owen Coyle likely to be in place for Saturday’s trip to the Stadium of Light, will hope to extricate themselves from relegation difficulty and drag West Ham, Wigan and Wolverhampton Wanderers into the mix, as well as Burnley who may suffer badly from the shock of losing Coyle. In terms of the unfortunate three destined for the drop, despite my previous optimism the extent of Portsmouth’s financial difficulties means they may remain rooted to the bottom, whilst Hull appear to be nailed-on certainties for relegation. Finally I believe Burnley’s impressive home record could disappear in the absence of Owen Coyle, and as such they could find themselves occupying the final relegation place.

As for the remainder of the Premier League, outside of the European positions, which will be occupied by the top four, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, although probably not in that order, clubs will fight to the death to ensure they receive the largest possible slice of the Premier League money pie. Birmingham City deserve huge plaudits for their efforts so far this season, which in my mind at least make Alex McLeish a prime candidate for manager of the year, along with Fulham’s Roy Hodgson and Stoke City’s Tony Pulis. As mentioned above, the fight for fourth place may well be very interesting indeed, and if Liverpool are unable to overcome the deficit, I would back Roberto Mancini, a man with a proven track record, albeit not in English football, to claim the colossal Champions League revenue that would be but a splash in the Manchester City ocean of wealth. Tottenham should be able to run the moneyed monoliths of City close, but may suffer from both inconsistency and the lack of hundreds of millions of pounds with which to make ‘squad improvements’. All we can hope for is that the Premier League affords football fans everywhere, or what Richard Scudamore would refer to as ‘consumers’, a shock or two instead of reverting to type with a restored top four and an uninspiring, tedious relegation battle.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

The 1990s – will we ever see another decade like it?

For many the 1990s began not on January 1st, but on November 9th the previous year, a day on which the overriding symbol of the Cold War was destroyed. For twenty eight years the Berlin Wall had represented impending nuclear annihilation, imprisonment, injustice, tension and the division between two different worlds. Put together with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, victory for Solidarity in Poland and Gorbachev relinquishing the Brezhnev Doctrine in favour of allowing the Eastern European satellites to ‘go their own way’, it signalled a tumultuous end to a conflict that had lasted for nearly forty-five years. In this atmosphere of freedom, belief, humanity, reconciliation and peace what I consider to be one of the greatest decades of all began. The Red Army, the world’s largest fighting force, was withdrawing its tanks and divisions from Europe, which had remained there since the end of the Second World War, and millions of Europeans were able to reject Communist rule and choose their own political destinies. By no means did injustice simply disappear on a worldwide scale; the Tiananmen Square demonstrations proved that without a genuine will for change amongst the political elite, mass protests are relatively ineffective. However, sandwiched between the Cold War (1945-1989), and September 11th 2001, the deadliest terrorist attack in human history, the world appeared for a time to be an altogether safer place. This is not to say that war simply stopped; indeed those affected by the conflicts resulting from the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Rwandan Genocide and the Gulf War would undoubtedly consider such an assertion extremely offensive. Despite such incidences the 1990s as a decade was almost an anomaly, in which hedonism and experimentation replaced fear and anxiety.

Nowhere was this change more apparent than in the musical arena. People often decry 1990s music as cheesy and irrelevant, and it is certainly true that it ranged at times from the sublime to the downright ridiculous. However it was still likeable enough to be appreciated for what it was. Perhaps it’s just me but it just doesn’t seem that songs like N-Trance’s “Set You Free”, Love Inc.’s “You’re A Superstar” or Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)" are made anymore. Now I’m not suggesting for one moment that any of these songs would win awards. Indeed I imagine the musical establishment wouldn’t recognise them as anything other than valueless pop fodder. Yet these are just a few of the great songs made in the 1990s, which unlike nowadays weren’t released by manufactured ‘groups’ or ‘artists’ off the X-Factor, made up of former shop assistants and hairdressers. Simon Cowell, media mogul and purveyor of repetitive, sing-along songs for the masses, is just one example of how music has lost its way. Before artists rose to the top of the charts because they deserved to be there, and had created some form of ‘art’. In the last ten years the charts have become a farce, with the latest release from Chipmunk or another equally-uninspiring rapper ‘with a tough upbringing’ guaranteed top spot. The UK charts haven’t yet ignited the same excitement amongst the population as they did in August 1995 with the ‘Battle of Britpop’, in which Oasis’ Roll With It went head-to-head with Blur’s Country House, and lost. Britpop, although a phrase coined by the media, was arguably the greatest musical ‘revolution’ in British history since the 1960s, where ‘British invasion’ bands such as the Beatles, Who, Rolling Stones and Kinks came to prominence in the United States as well as the United Kingdom.

The Britpop scene was just a part, albeit a significant one, of the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement that swept across the British Isles throughout the 1990s. Margaret Thatcher’s eleven year premiership came to a dramatic end on November 22nd 1990, ushering in a new era in British politics. Whilst the 1980s had been one of the most ideological political decades, in which the ‘consensus’ between the two main parties was triumphantly broken, it returned in the 1990s, albeit with a different face. Throughout her time in office, Thatcher had been a Marmite-type figure to most Britons, who either loved the ‘Iron Lady’ or hated her, but Tony Blair appeared to enjoy almost universal popularity at the time of his landslide victory in the 1997 general election. The emergence of ‘New Labour’ in the early 1990s saw the Conservatives destined for a long spell in the political wilderness, having dominated for more than a decade, and instead of taking a ‘tough line’ with the trade unions and ordering the sinking of the Belgrano, thanks to the changed decade he was in, Tony Blair spent his time meeting with Noel Gallagher and gaining the support of billionaire Rupert Murdoch. Whilst many historians and statisticians will point out that the 1990s had more war casualties than the decade that succeeded it, in the world’s most powerful nation, politics took a turn for the better. In stark contrast to Ronald Reagan’s huge defence spending and willingness to involve the United States in almost any conflict, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, Bill Clinton’s administration was able to present a budget surplus of $559 billion by the 2001 election. His ‘Third Way’ philosophy of governance ensured Clinton huge popularity and an approval rating of 66% upon leaving office, the highest of any American President since Dwight Eisenhower.

Whilst I’m sure that a number of people may take issue with the following analysis, the state of English football improved immeasurably during the 1990s, a time in which the necessary groundwork was laid for the popularity and appeal the Premier League currently enjoys. Following the horrific events of April 15th 1989, when a deadly human crush at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium during an FA Cup semi-final tie between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest resulted in the deaths of 96 fans of Liverpool FC, English football was deeply scarred. The 1980s had been blighted by such disasters; including the deaths of 39 Juventus fans at Heysel Stadium in Belgium in 1985, which resulted in the banning of English clubs from all European competitions, the Bradford Stadium Fire of the same year, in which 56 people perished, and the Luzhniki Disaster of 1982. Following Hillsborough the blame was wrongly pinned on the Liverpool supporters for causing the crush, but the Taylor Report later concluded that the official cause of the disaster was the failure of police control. The Report also stipulated that all fences at football grounds, originally put up in order to prevent hooliganism in English football, which had been rife during the 1970s, should be taken down and all-seater stadia introduced as soon as possible. It is deeply saddening that it required the deaths of so many people in order to achieve safety in football grounds; however since Hillsborough such incidents have never been repeated.

The break-away of the Premier League from the rest of the Football League has resulted in immeasurably higher wages, transfer fees, ticket costs and a drastically improved standard of live football coverage. Many fans, including myself would argue that TV money has probably had a slightly detrimental effect on the game, widening the gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, but the calibre of players in the top division has almost certainly improved, and the 1990s saw the Premier League becoming a truly worldwide spectacle. The high point of the decade's football was undoubtedly Euro 96, held in England at the high point of ‘Cool Britannia’, in which the national team reached the semi-finals before agonisingly losing out to Germany in a penalty shoot-out. Not for a number of years had English football been in such an optimistic state; the run to the semi-finals captured the imagination of the whole country, stadiums were safe, television coverage was far improved and hooliganism had been as near as makes no difference eradicated. Manchester United’s 1999 treble-winning triumph was the spectacular culmination of one of the brightest decades for English football for a long while, and a truly magnificent spectacle no matter one’s football allegiance.

As a decade the 1990s is difficult to sum up as it witnessed huge technological, political, social, economic and cultural change. Perhaps the best way of doing so is to say that the 1990s was the decade in which the world moved on. The bi-polar decades of fear, uncertainty, huge defence expenditure and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust were swept away by a tide of optimism, freedom, reconciliation and relative peace. The 1990s was in many ways the calm after and before two very different storms; the end of the Cold War, and the beginning of the war on terror, one which will likely last at least as long and perhaps never be won. The rise of the internet, arguably the most spectacular technological development in human history, sets the 1990s apart from its predecessors, but the innocence of the decade sets it apart from the world we live in now. With the Cold War having ended nobody knew where the next battle would be fought, and whom it would be fought against, until 9/11. The 1990s is therefore a decade to be cherished and celebrated, for its relative peace and prosperity if nothing else.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Frost/Nixon – the story of one the most compelling interviews ever conducted

Ron Howard’s critically-acclaimed Frost/Nixon, based on the play of the same name by British screenwriter Peter Morgan, dramatises a series of interviews of former President Richard Nixon, conducted by David Frost in 1977. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, who starred as David Frost and Richard Nixon respectively in Morgan’s stage production, reprise their roles for the big screen. For those unfamiliar with the events surrounding Nixon’s resignation, Frost is inspired by the prospect of a huge television audience and, along with his producer and friend John Birt, requests an interview with the disgraced President. The lengths Frost is required to go to in order to obtain the necessary capital, a previously unheard of $600,000, sell the interviews to networks and obtain sponsorships are portrayed, along with the efforts of Frost’s hired investigators, Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr., to uncover information, principally on the Watergate scandal. The interview is divided into four sections, covering foreign policy, domestic policy, ‘Nixon the man’, and the Watergate scandal. The first three recording sessions portray Frost as being unable to ask the difficult questions he intended of the President, who manages to prevent Frost from challenging him by entering into lengthy monologues and reminiscing about past events. Frost’s editorial team becomes greatly disheartened at this, and the prospect of Nixon exonerating himself, however in the final interview Frost takes a sterner and more confrontational line with Nixon, challenging him on numerous occasions, and providing hugely discrediting information about Charles Colson. Nixon’s response to his interviewer’s accusations and questions, “When the President does it, it’s not illegal!” shocks Frost, who proceeds to extract a confession of sorts from Nixon, before the former President admits “I let the American people down”.

Langella’s portrayal of Richard Milhous Nixon is exemplary, as is Michael Sheen’s interpretation of David Frost. As critic Roger Ebert states, Langella and Sheen “do not attempt to mimic their characters, but to embody them”. This is especially true of Langella, who “by the final scenes”, in the words of Variety’s Todd McCarthy, “has all but disappeared so as to deliver Nixon himself”. Langella’s portrayal of Nixon is not only hugely convincing, but from my own knowledge of the infamous former President, by no means inaccurate. Conrad Black’s description of Nixon as “driven” though “uneasy with himself in some ways”, is precisely the persona Langella creates. The film’s darkest scene, in which Nixon telephones Frost and impresses upon him the fact that the interview will make just one of them, whilst breaking the other, portrays Nixon at his most introspective, alone, albeit talking on speakerphone, with his own innermost thoughts. The final scene, in which he comments on how lucky he deems Frost to be for having ‘likeability’, reveals perhaps one of Nixon’s deepest discontents. No matter how successful his Presidency, no matter that he’d ended the war in Vietnam, begun the much needed process of Détente, and reached out to Communist China, his legacy was forever tarnished by the Watergate scandal.

Whilst I do not wish to enter into the Watergate scandal in any great detail, it does appear to demonstrate the extent of Nixon’s insecurities, paranoia and inherent knowledge of his failings. Black proceeds to assert that Nixon, despite believing himself to be “doomed to be traduced, double crossed, misunderstood and unappreciated”, imagined himself to be capable of prevailing through is “mighty will, tenacity and diligence”. Frost/Nixon at times creates sympathy for the former President, whose achievements in foreign affairs, the Vietnam War notwithstanding, would be enough to rank him highly, only if he had possessed the popularity of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, for example. Langella expertly portrays a President at odds with himself; Nixon yearns for acknowledgement, popularity and appreciation, but his inability to admit mistakes and apologise prevents him from such achievements.

Meanwhile Sheen’s portrayal of David Frost is no less impressive, and shows a man at odds with probability, if you’ll pardon the expression. Although a large proportion of the film depicts Frost as an effortless, charming playboy, all smiles and composure, Sheen still manages to depict a sense of urgency and at times desperation, which Frost would have almost certainly felt. With his broadcasting career on a knife-edge and facing a financial black hole if the interviews fail, Frost’s image of unflappability and unwavering calm is proven to be a lie. Frost is shown to crave fame, attention and importance, as well as being hugely audacious and willing to take risks. Towards the end he emerges from his metaphorical shell and turns the interview into what it was always supposed to have been, a ‘no holds barred’ contest between two very different, but altogether similar men. The ending may prove slightly Hollywood-esque for some, and a number of people have criticised the film for its supposed inaccuracies, but Frost’s ability to overcome the Nixon machine and claim a historic victory for honesty, truth and justice makes it, as Manohla Dargis of the New York Times states, “more palliative than purgative”.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Championship – promotion winners, relegation losers, and those going nowhere in the middle

With the huge financial rewards and infinitely higher profile of the Premier League it can be easy to ignore the Championship, and pass it off as an insignificant second-tier league full of sub-standard players and long-ball football. However the Championship is undoubtedly one of the most competitive and unpredictable leagues in world football, exemplified by the fact that just seven points separate Barnsley in 15th place and Cardiff City in 4th. I don’t believe there are many other leagues in which a run of only three or four wins can turn a club battling to stave off relegation to one competing for the play-offs or even automatic promotion. Such is the nature of the Championship that although the top two places are often relatively easy to predict, with teams relegated from the Premier League frequently retaining strong squads and using their parachute payments to good effect, the play-offs remain impossible to call. For instance, who would have expected Ian Holloway’s Blackpool side to be lying in eighth place, or newly-promoted Leicester City to be occupying fifth spot?

In terms of the current top two I greatly expect both to gain promotion at the end of the season, as West Bromwich Albion certainly have the playing staff to ensure their return to the pinnacle of English football, at least for one season. Meanwhile Newcastle United appear to have a steely determination and ability to grind out results they simply did not possess last year, when they dropped out of the Premier League with a whimper. The fact that Newcastle often fail to dominate matches and control possession in the manner of Roberto di Matteo’s West Brom side, yet manage to find the goals they need, often from Kevin Nolan who has been majestic so far this season, gives them an ability few other teams have. However such displays of good fortune and persistence appear to have deserted Newcastle United in recent weeks; a run of just one win from four games has seen the Geordies’ lead at the top cut from a seemingly unassailable ten points to six, which could become three if West Bromwich Albion were to win their game in hand. With the two sides set to meet at St. James Park in two weeks time, the title race couldn’t be closer and will almost certainly go down to the wire, unless Newcastle continue to falter and hand the title to the Baggies on a plate.

As for the play-offs, it remains unclear which sides will occupying the coveted four places come the end of the season. Currently it is Nottingham Forest, Cardiff, Leicester and Swansea that make up the top-six, but one would imagine with just over half the season gone and a lot of football still to be played that the situation will change. Whilst Nottingham Forest would appear to be the most immune to temporary setbacks, given that they have a six point advantage over all the other sides in the play-off places, this is in fact not the case. Cardiff have a game in hand over Billy Davies’ team, whilst Leicester have two; if they were to win both of these it would be enough to enable them to go level on points with Forest. Swansea’s position in the top six is the most precarious, given that they have an advantage of just two points over Sheffield United, and although they are currently three points ahead, Blackpool have two games in hand as well as a far superior goal difference. Moving further down the table Crystal Palace, Queens Park Rangers, Middlesbrough, Bristol City and Watford all probably harbour ambitions to reach the play-offs, and will hope to be able to capitalise on any dips in form suffered by the teams above them.

As for the question of which teams will finish in the play-off places, it would be unwise to rule out Nottingham Forest and Cardiff for certain. Forest Chief Executive Mark Arthur has described Billy Davies’ first year in charge as “remarkable”, and his side are currently unbeaten in 17 games, a hugely impressive achievement. Despite suffering the ignominy of defeat at home to Plymouth Argyle, and embarrassingly throwing away a four goal advantage at Peterborough last week, and the fact that the club is allegedly facing a winding up order over an unpaid £2.7 million tax bill, on the pitch Cardiff are definite contenders. As proven by successive away victories at West Brom and Middlesbrough, Dave Jones side have enough about them to be in with a strong shout of the play-offs. If Leicester manage to win their two games in hand they could also prove strong contenders, however the fate of Swansea, led by former QPR manager Paulo Sousa, is less clear. Blackpool are well-placed, but I wouldn’t rule out Sheffield United who have greater experience of such promotion battles.

Away from the glitz and glamour of the promotion scene is battle to avoid relegation, one certainly of less significance to the media at large but no less compelling or important. Despite their stunning comeback at home to Cardiff last week, which saw them turn a 4-0 half-time deficit into a 4-4 draw, Peterborough face an uphill battle to stay in the Championship. Manager Mark Cooper will have to install a huge sense of belief and a winning mentality in order to haul the Posh off the bottom, let alone see his side clear of the relegation places. Meanwhile manager-less Sheffield Wednesday desperately need to have a new manager installed as soon as possible, and in my view ought to look for someone with experience of relegation battles and a proven track record, instead of trying to entice high-profile bosses such as Alan Shearer. Gary Megson would be an ideal candidate for Wednesday, but whoever takes up the mantle will need to start winning games very quickly.

Meanwhile Plymouth Argyle have gone from being cut adrift at the bottom to just two points off safety, largely one can only assume, to the impact of new manager Paul Mariner. The former Ipswich Town striker appears to have settled in rather quickly to life in Devon, and has managed to end Argyle’s run of five successive defeats in which the side failed to score a single goal, with two wins in a row including a 4-1 thrashing of Reading. It is likely the renaissance will be brought to a halt at some point, but until then Scunthorpe, Reading and Ipswich all remain at risk of slipping into the bottom three. Whatever the outcome at the end of the season it has been another year in which the Championship has cemented its reputation as an unpredictable division in which any team has the capacity to beat any other, glory is not pre-assumed and the winners and losers are, if not impossible, difficult to forecast. Whereas in the Premier League it has become possible to state which teams will occupy the top four, and pinpoint those likely to be relegated, the Championship remains an erratic, changeable contest from the first game until the last, qualities I’m sure most would agree are vital for the future of our beloved game.

Monday, 4 January 2010

David Cameron – our political saviour or transparent PR man?

No sooner had the year begun than David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, fired the first shot in what will soon degenerate into an ill-tempered battle for victory in the forthcoming election. Those who took the time to listen to his speech on Saturday couldn’t possibly have failed to notice the overriding use of the word ‘change’ in Cameron’s rhetoric, an idea which will surely appeal to the electorate. However no matter how much change Cameron promises, there are a number of people beginning to question such vague promises and declarations. Such individuals, myself included, would prefer to hear actual policy declarations detailing exactly what the party aims to do and how it intends to do it. Unfortunately Cameron is clearly a graduate of the Tony Blair school of spin and excessive reliance on shady PR gurus in order to portray an image of strength, trustworthiness and political nous. Whilst Gordon Brown could certainly do with extensive rebranding, he does come across as an altogether more honest figure, although unfortunately this may not be enough to distract attention from his less than impressive record as Prime Minister.

The fact is that Modern politics has increasingly become dominated by sinister, Machiavellian public relations masters such as Alastair Campbell, and politicians for whom public image and appearance have usurped actual policies and integrity as the most important factors for acquiring public support. Unfortunately for Cameron he comes across as little more than an Old Etonian relying on “the most prestigious of old-boy networks in his attempt to return the Tories to power”. Whilst his assertion that Brown is “an analogue politician in a digital age” is one only the staunchest of the Prime Minister’s followers would take issue with, I believe Cameron ought to dedicate his efforts more towards coal-face politics than the PR game. The concept of a ‘war cabinet’ revealed in Cameron’s speech will bring hope to those desperate for greater cross-party coordination on foreign policy, however even the least cynical of observers may feel it is nothing more than another example of political one-upmanship.

I would love to believe the Conservatives’ wonderful promises of a “fairer, safer, green country where opportunity is more equal”, and as such I hope Cameron is able to provide a realistic manifesto for change and progress. With the forthcoming election vital in so many ways to the future of the country Cameron must deliver on his promises of “a bright economic future”. Charisma and popular appeal were enough for Tony Blair to claim a historic victory in the 1997 general election, and remove a tired, ineffective Conservative administration torn apart by crippling internal disputes. Analysing ‘New’ Labour’s triumph, some commentators pointed to the fact that voters were simply desperate for change following eighteen years of Conservative Party rule. Cameron will be hoping to exploit any similar dissatisfaction amongst the electorate over the coming months, and that his message of ‘change’, ‘hope’ and ‘progress’ will produce a landslide victory for the Conservatives.

The economy will be the key electoral battleground, and it will certainly prove intriguing as to whether the British public will acquiesce with the Labour Party’s plea to stop the Conservatives “ruining” the economic recovery. What is clear is that in the midst of a severe recession the choice being afforded to voters at the next election will be unsatisfactory for many. Under the leadership of Gordon Brown the country has been plagued by a crippling recession from which our European partners have long since recovered, but we remain deeply mired in. Whilst David Cameron can promise change until it goes out of fashion but the fact remains that Conservative promises, particularly those regarding the economy, are at times vague and at others pipe-dreams. One can only hope the British public are able to choose between the two futures, and read between the lines of spin and unrealistic promises to find the most suitable candidate to lead the country through this difficult time.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

In The Loop – expert political satire on the big screen

The feature film debut of Armando Iannucci, described by the Daily Telegraph as “the hardman of political satire”, was always going to be of huge interest to all those lucky enough to be familiar with the truly excellent The Thick Of It. With the film made in a similar style to its television counterpart, and featuring many of the same characters, it doesn’t disappoint. The presence of Peter Capaldi as the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker ensures a sense of continuity for the fans, and his performance is as usual exemplary as a New Labour-esque spin doctor in the style of Alastair Campbell. Tom Hollander stars as the film’s bumbling, incompetent minister, this time for International Development, who sets into motion the events of the film by publicly stating his belief in war being “unforeseeable”. The war referred to is quite clearly the much-discussed and still controversial invasion of Iraq, and the utterly false and fabricated ‘dossier’ in the film will inspire revulsion and anger in equal measure. The great strength of Iannucci’s writing is his seamless ability to present the thoroughly murky world of politics, with all the backstabbing, PR games, war-mongering and manipulation it involves, in a highly comical manner. Tucker’s one-liners remain as memorable as ever, with his profanity-laden performance and bullying personality in keeping with the overall message and spirit of the film. As Peter Bradshaw stated in the Guardian, “there isn’t a sympathetic character in sight”, an astute observation, as even the dismissal of Simon Foster towards the end by Tucker doesn’t draw any sympathy.

Despite the importance of the decisions being taken in the film Iannucci cleverly uses, as Time Out London calls it, “anti-West Wing production design that eliminates all notions of political glamour”. In many ways Iannucci’s filming techniques and inspired choice of locations, including a back garden in Foster’s Swindon constituency, draws parallels to that of The Office. Gervais and Merchant always intended for the characters to take centre stage, and as such chose the bleakest, most uninspiring locations possible. Iannucci clearly didn’t want to portray the glamorous nature of politics, such as photo opportunities at the White House; rather he wished to unearth the “compelling backstairs political world of anxiety and incompetence, bullying and humiliation”. In The Loop at no point depicts the President, or any other high-profile figure, rather it concentrates on “state department underlings, the kind of people that actually make decisions with enormous political consequences”, in the words of Iannucci.

Whilst some have observed the veritable poor timing of the film’s release, given the its proximity to the commencement of Barack Obama’s much-anticipated presidency, stating that “its exuberant, boundless cynicism will test the demand for political satire in an Obama-infatuated America”, In The Loop is a film everyone ought to be encouraged to see. Bradshaw’s observation that Iannucci is aiming to portray how “Britain’s callow political liberals” allowed themselves to be “flattered, and bullied and panicked into supporting whatever war America decided on”, is a conclusion many will draw. For me, films such as this don’t come around very often; too frequently a promising storyline will give way to a bloated, expensive and clichéd Hollywood ending in which everything works out for the best, but the fact is that with Iraq the opposite occurred. I sincerely hope the leaders and individuals involved in making those fateful decisions take the time to watch In The Loop, for they may be as disgusted and reviled by their own actions as was the rest of the world. As for the film I sincerely hope it revives the somewhat lost art of political satire, because as Iannucci has shown, our politicians have provided and continue to provide us with ample comedic scope through their actions.

Friday, 1 January 2010

The FA Cup – will the world’s oldest and grandest football competition remain unpredictable in 2010?

There is something special about the FA Cup, and even though the likelihood of significant upsets, such as Chesterfield reaching the final in 1997 has diminished, this hasn’t changed. Although only twice in eighteen years has a so-called ‘top four’ team failed to win the competition, I highly doubt many expected the 2007 final to be contested by Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth, and Dave Jones’ Cardiff. Indeed, even though my own team, Queens Park Rangers, have an abject recent record in the FA Cup since reaching the 1982 final, the ‘third round weekend’ is still an exciting affair. The selection computer has provided the competition with a whole host of potential upsets and mouth-watering ties, particularly that between arch-rivals Leeds United and Manchester United at Old Trafford. The game is one of five in the third round in which a Premier League side has been pitted against a third-tier outfit, and constitutes the first time the two clubs have met since February 2004. The fact that this is only the seventh time the two have been paired together in the competition, with three of the previous six being semi-final meetings, shows the extent to which Leeds have fallen. However, sitting pretty at the top of League One, unbeaten in fifteen games and featuring one the Football League’s most prolific strike partnerships in Jermaine Beckford and Robert Snodgrass, Leeds have a chance of at least taking the game to a replay. I very much doubt United would relish a midweek trip to Elland Road, and the ferocious atmosphere it would surely provide.

Current FA Cup holders Chelsea are again heavy favourites to lift the trophy, and face a home tie against Watford in order to progress. The Championship side should provide some sort of a test for the Blues, who are without Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel, all of whom are away on African Cup of Nations duty. However with thirty three places between the two teams it is unlikely that Chelsea will succumb to defeat, despite their notable absentees. Indeed Watford have two of their own, with Heidar Helguson having returned to QPR, and Premier League loanees Craig Cathcart and Henri Lansbury injured. Given that Chelsea are unbeaten in six league and cup games against Watford, and defeated the Hornets 3-1 last year in this competition, a Chelsea home win is the only obvious conclusion to draw. Meanwhile Liverpool face a potentially difficult trip to Reading tomorrow, in what could prove a huge upset. Whilst Liverpool have won their last two games and Reading are without a win in five, league form counts for little in the FA Cup and caretaker boss Brian McDermott will be hoping for a morale-boosting victory. Interestingly enough it will be the first time the two sides have met in the competition, and despite Liverpool being favourites, Reading will no doubt look to Barnsley’s impressive victory over Rafael Benitez’s side last year as a textbook example of how to claim a high-profile Premier League scalp.

Managerless Bolton will be hoping to avoid an embarrassing home defeat to Lincoln City, in the weekend’s only Premier League against League Two tie. Undoubtedly boss Chris Sutton will have studied the manner in which Wanderers threw away a two-goal lead to fellow strugglers Hull City on Tuesday, and with the turmoil currently surrounding the club perhaps some of the players may take their eye off tomorrow’s game at the Reebok Stadium. With Bolton just four points of the bottom of the Premier League progress in the FA Cup will be in many ways undesirable and take the emphasis off the club’s fight for survival. Although Lincoln have won just once in four games they will certainly hoping caretaker manager Chris Evans takes a dim view of the competition, along with his beleaguered playing staff. Sunderland’s game against Barrow constitutes the widest gulf in class of any of the weekend’s ties, with 98 places between the two clubs. As one of four Blue Square Premier representatives, Barrow will undoubtedly have their work cut out as they attempt to avoid a hiding, but given the recent lack of form displayed by Steve Bruce’s side, they have a hint of a chance. In the only other Premier League against non-league ties, arguably what the FA Cup is all about for many, Stoke City face a home tie with York City. The Yorkshiremen have already pulled off a huge upset in the competition, beating Arsenal by a single goal in the fourth round on 26th January 1985, and given the likelihood of Stoke fielding a weakened line-up, they have a chance to repeat such heroics.

In terms of the competition as a whole I am sure nearly everyone is hoping for anything other than a Manchester United and Chelsea final, and praying for the magic to return to the competition. When the third round weekend arrives we shouldn’t be asking where the magic has gone, or whether fans actually care about the competition. Instead we should be anticipating the prospect of upsets, heroic performances from previously unknown individuals, spectacular goals and unpredictable, perhaps even high-scoring games. Instead of hearing managers state just how much the FA Cup is an ‘inconvenience’ and how ‘unnecessary’ they deem it, I for one would prefer to hear about clubs having their futures guaranteed through one high-profile cup tie, and giant-killing teams whose players train just once or twice a week and spend the rest of their time as builders, students, office-workers, milkmen and such like. The FA Cup shouldn’t be a ‘Big Four’ competition; it ought to belong to all of us. Whilst Sky Sports insists on promulgating the odious fallacy that football began at the commencement of its broadcasting, people can easily forget about such occurrences as Wimbledon’s glorious 1988 success. The decreased status and importance of the FA Cup is for me extremely saddening, and a problem in need of serious attention. In the words of Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, “the FA Cup is a very important competition in England”, and the burden rests upon us to ensure it remains so.