Sunday, 27 December 2009

Christmas Week

Christmas week 2009 has been, in my opinion, as effective an advert for the Premier League as you could imagine. We’ve seen plenty of goals, big upsets, high quality football, brilliant fan support, mind games, backroom intrigue and even a high-profile managerial sacking. All of which has meant that we finish the year, with one more game to play, with the annual title race closer and more exciting than it’s been in years. It has also demonstrated, somewhat brutally, exactly what a ruthless place the league has become.

Last weekend, more so than this one, was the sort one could use as an argument to anyone as to why they should watch the Premier League over any other. Manchester United lost their second consecutive league game in a 3-0 defeat to Fulham, having been forced to play midfielders in defence owing to a crippling injury list – the sort of thing that just wouldn’t have happened last season. Portsmouth finally found a result to go with their improving performances as they beat a woeful Liverpool side 2-0 – the side hotly tipped for the title at the start of the season after their stunning 2008-09 run-in in April and May. Arsenal beat Hull 3-0 to keep up their string of impressive results and ensure that they remain worth keeping an eye on despite being largely unfancied and appearing under-strength. Mark Hughes’ Manchester City finally got a 4-3 over Sunderland win when yet another high-scoring draw looked to be on the cards – and their manager was sacked at the final whistle. And, on Sunday, with the stage set for Chelsea to move six points clear at the top, West Ham held them to a creditable draw – ensuring that no one was drawing premature conclusions as to the destination of the Premier League trophy at the halfway stage.

This weekend kicked off with Chelsea being held to yet another draw, this time away to Birmingham City who themselves, impressively, are currently 8th following a run of five consecutive wins. Victories for Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool seem, on paper, to suggest a return to normal service – though with the latter lying in 7th behind Aston Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City, this might finally be the year when we are forced to stop talking about the ‘Big Four’, at least temporarily.

The gap between first and second is now only two points (with both teams playing again this year, and with Chelsea facing the prospect of play Fulham with an untested strike partnership) and between third and eighth is only eight. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’re in a position yet where any one of these top eight can win the league – but would certainly argue that we’re no closer to knowing who will be entered for the European competitions than we were in August (indeed probably less sure) and that when you look at Serie A (Inter Milan eight points clear, Roma in fourth, 11 points behind) or La Liga (Barcelona two points ahead of Real Madrid, who are in turn seven points clear of third place Sevilla), and without wanting to come across too biased given that it’s the league I happen to watch every week, the English top flight does seem to be where the true unpredictability lies. Nothing is over by this Christmas.

Except one thing, maybe. Where there is the excitement of unpredictability, there is also bound to be a measure of the crushingly, tediously inevitable to spoil the party. Rumours of Mark Hughes’ demise as Manchester City manager after 18 months were in all the tabloids from Friday morning and all over the internet on Saturday morning during the build-up to the afternoon’s fixture. It’s been well reported that Hughes looked disconsolate and distant throughout the game, despite the pulsating action on the field and the odd-goal-in-seven win for his team, and that his wave to the fans at the final whistle had a look of the farewell about it. Sure enough, here was a man who had effectively been replaced weeks before, by another young manager – this one from Italy and with a more high-profile name and CV. While it seems now that Mark Hughes was the only person in the country who didn’t know on Saturday that the Sunderland game was to be his last, the fact that he clearly knew something was up is heartbreaking.

The inevitability of the decision is the worst part. When City’s new owners came in at the beginning of last season, it seemed even then to be only a matter of time before Hughes went. Given £200 million to spend, Hughes survived into this season – but it seems now that only sitting top of the league and with a trail of Big Four scalps behind him would have been enough to save him this indignity (though going unbeaten at home all season and getting wins against Arsenal, Chelsea and narrowingly missing out against Man United was not).

Of course, the points that City have dropped this season were never going to be tolerated by ambitious, impatient owners who clearly feel they had given Hughes everything he needed to shape the club into international superstars. Financially, they did. The one thing they didn’t give him was time. Roberto Mancini did not start out with the name and reputation he has. Neither did Ferguson, or Wenger. Hughes was settled into the job, had bought well (mostly) and the players liked him. Mancini will now start from scratch and, in all likelihood, bring in a slew of players in January and next summer. In replacing Hughes, City’s owners have effectively put themselves back a year in development and written off the money they spent on players this year – and if they get the Champions League place they so crave this season it will only paper over the cracks.

I wish Manchester City all the best and hope that Mancini does use the club’s financial clout in the same way that Mourinho did at Chelsea when he arrived in 2004 – to bring in exciting new talent rather than marquee shirt-shifters, to make the Premier League even more competitive than before and to help the English leagues show the rest of Europe the way in modern football. My fear is that if it doesn’t happen quickly, I could be writing all this again very soon.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The Football Basement

The blog is late this week because over the last seven days I’ve been part of an experimental new football podcast project. This makes it sound far less ramshackle than it actually is – but when, during a predictably over-excited round of group emailing in the hours leading up to the draw for the World Cup groups, the idea of committing our outlandish predictions to tape in a social setting came up, The Football Basement podcast was born.

The podcast has just gone up on iTunes, and interested readers can subscribe and download it by clicking here, or (hopefully) by searching the iTunes music store. It was recorded, fittingly, in a basement in Borough, South London, which is much less dingy than the image the title probably conjures up. Spacious, well-lit and comfortable, the suggested meeting-place had everything we would need: with even a little fridge to chill the inevitable first-record beers.

In the end there were seven of us who were up for the idea – none of whom had ever really done anything like it before but all equally enthused about the prospect of having, if not a record-breaking, chart-storming career-making podcast, then at least a record of our own World Cup hopes and predictions to look back on and laugh at. Chances are it would also be funny (at least to us) as this same group of people is well-used to gathering, bantering, bickering and generally taking the piss out of each other.

The football podcast is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time – particularly since stumbling across the excellent Football Ramble, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is well worth a listen and provides consistently funny and well-informed chunks of football banter every week. Incidentally, I was invited to the regular Socrates meeting of London football bloggers last week and managed to meet a couple of the Ramble boys who, although we had already recorded our chaotic effort, were able to offer some brilliant advice on getting started podcasting.

There was a lot to get advice on, as it happened – and much to take into account when recording. Seven is a lot of people to record with, especially when you possess the magical, zero-budget combination of a single, internal microphone attached to a Mac laptop and Garageband, nobody with any real recording or radio experience and lots and lots of beer. We all knew it would be noisy – and feared that it would be completely unlistenable. As it happened, the layout of the Basement helped us out in that everyone was able to be positioned more or less equidistant from the mic and that there was absolutely no noise from outside.

However, we hadn’t recorded for long before we realised that a free-form, slightly merry discussion just wasn’t really going to work. The urge to shout down whoever is making a point is hard to resist – and in football discussion, particularly in large groups, there is a counterargument to literally every argument. While this is what makes football banter so much fun, it can also be what makes it interminable – and potentially completely tedious to listen to. While we felt the podcast was primarily for our own amusement, it’s nice to think that there might be some other people out there (and at the very least our other friends) who could enjoy it too.

There needed to be order, and the appointed chairman (me) was required to step up and rule with an iron fist. Well, kind of. A system of raised hands and pointing out whose turn was next evolved, but the big fear in this situation is that such an officious approach can stifle organic conversation.

I don’t think we needed to worry – the podcast definitely improves in terms of listenability as it goes on – but if the organisation of the discussion was manageable, duration was definitely an issue. It’s crazy to think about, but fascinating in itself having given ourselves the remit of discussing the World Cup draw which had taken place only 48 hours before, that we not only had to consciously try not to talk too much about it in the pub before the record, but that we managed, almost without noticing, to talk for two and a half hours purely on the prospects of the members of each group – including a frankly inexplicable forty minutes on Group D – and continued to debate during every cigarette break we gave ourselves and finally, barely having broken sweat, continued back in the pub after we’d pressed Garageband’s stop button for the last time.

This, surely, cannot be healthy. Never mind the fact that I had meticulously prepared an agenda that went on from a “quick” discussion of the group stage to Capello’s team selection, World Cup memories and so on, I honestly think that we could have picked a single team and talked about them alone for just as long. And while this is somewhat shocking, in terms of editing the podcast later in the week, it verged on the maddening.

The finished article is a fairly tight 65 minutes, looking at each group in turn and allowing each of the seven of us to pick out our winners and runners-up from each group. Achieving this tight 65 minutes from 150-odd minutes of yelling, swearing, giggling and, occasionally, some really good, well-argued points from a group of silly but thoughtful football fans took six hours. Getting the 40-minute bellow-a-thon of Group D down to the eight minutes it is now took a long, long time (and about three quarters of a bottle of red wine – that was my Friday night sewn up). Clearly, if we’re planning to make this a regular thing (and we are, I think) then we’re going to have to organise. Set time limits and a deadline – and allow everyone to make their points. Have a detailed and realistic agenda on hand. And, crucially, focus.

But I think the finished podcast sounds great – and is a lot of fun to listen to – mainly because it’s chaotic, silly, noisy, funny, rambling and, at times, really interesting. In fact, I like it for the same reasons I like talking about football at all. I know that over time we’ll get slicker, more disciplined and we’ll do more research. It might not be the same people every time (seven people is also a tricky number to round up of a regular evening) and it might not always be good – but I’m proud that we have this first, shambolic cacophony of deranged, drunken punditry saved for posterity.


So here’s the plug bit, properly:

The Football Basement Episode One is now available on iTunes. If it’s not searchable yet, click the link at the top of this entry or try again later in the week. If you’re not an iTunes user, it can also be accessed through hosts Jellycast by clicking here.

If you’re on Twitter, follow what’s happening with the Basement at @tfbpodcast.

If you fancy getting in touch with The Football Basement, email

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Draw

Tomorrow evening the draw for the group stage of the 2010 World Cup finals will take place in South Africa. Nelson Mandela will be there, as will Archbishop Desmond Tutu, current South African president and all-round dubious man Jacob Zuma, actress Charlize Theron and soccer enthusiast David Beckham – along with Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner and assorted dignitaries from the 32 football associations represented in the finals.

Viewers are to expect nothing less than a glamorous, star-studded firework show of a draw – and why not. While on the face of it a simple administrative procedure that could just as easily take place behind closed doors or be generated at random by computer (and still suffer no greater volume of accusations of FIFA conspiracy or group-rigging), the group stage draw is truly a hotly anticipated date in this season’s calendar in the run up to Christmas – forget El Clasico or the awarding of the Ballon D’Or, the fans are actually excited by the prospect of seeing a collection of ancient ex-pros cracking open plastic balls and unfolding pieces of paper, on a stage in Cape Town, probably interminably slowly.

One of the most amusing indicators of the hype and expectation surrounding tomorrow’s draw is the high-budget and admittedly rather impressive Budweiser advert showing a packed stadium of people turning over thousands of cards to make a bottle of Bud fill up a beer glass. The ad is fine on its own – but has for the last month or so been followed by the caption ‘FIFA World Cup draw – now only 4 weeks away’, and so on. Can people really be made to be this excited about a draw? It would seem so – as since the announcement of the FIFA seedings for the draw on Wednesday morning the internet has virtually collapsed under the weight of office-chair pundits and their speculation, prediction and ludicrous omen-citing. I haven’t exactly been immune to it, of course.

Funnily enough, while taking a look at the stats relating to North Korea’s performance at World Cup 1966 on Wikipedia (as you do, etc) it occurred to me to check what England’s group had been in that ever-so-slightly hallowed year. Having noticed that it is technically possible for England to draw the exact same teams again – Uruguay, Mexico and France – I mentioned this to some friends over email, one of whom in turn mentioned it to a contact at a national newspaper who in turn passed it on to their editorial team. By the late afternoon, this page had appeared on the newspaper’s website. It seems that in amongst a largely pointless conversation about how we would like or would dread England’s draw to turn out, I had inadvertently set the Mirror’s news agenda for the afternoon. I was, needless to say, fairly pleased with myself.

Various other insights came out of the conversation. There seemed to be a consensus on what would be bad for England – various ‘Group of Death’ permutations, most of which involved drawing one of the two big name play-off winners from Pot Four: Portugal or France. Such apocalyptic hypothetical draws also tended to include one of the major African sides – particularly Ghana or the Cote D’Ivoire; possibly because as regular Premier League viewers we are acutely aware of the skill and power in the possession of players like Michael Essien, Kolo Toure and the in-form Didier Drogba. The Pot 2 choice for a worst-case-scenario draw seems to be the USA – mainly, it would seem, because few other teams in their pot present much of an immediate threat (or because they are relative unknowns).

A favourable ‘Group of Life’ draw is easier to pick – and, worryingly, easier to be too casual about. Should England actually draw North Korea, Algeria and Switzerland, we risk complacency setting in months before the tournament even starts. At the very least this will be the view the press will be keen to hammer home. The FA will doubtless set up friendlies against teams similar in style and stature to England’s opponents, which can only mean a string of dull and deceivingly easy wins against negligible opposition (see England’s 6-0 battering of Jamaica in 2006 as preparation for the group game against Trinidad and Tobago). This in turn ensures all the more shock when England inevitably stumble into the last 16 and are summarily beaten by a much stronger opponent.

The other side of the argument, of course, is that playing weaker teams at the group stage will allow England to conserve energy for the knockout stages while another hapless seeded team scraps away in a tougher group, picking up injuries, fatigue and confidence-rattling results against stronger sides.

The players and coaches will usually trot out the same line about how if you want to win the World Cup then you have to be prepared the face the best in the world – and that it doesn’t matter at what stage of the competition you meet them. This, it would seem, is a bit of professional disingenuousness, as of course there are draws that would trouble even the most confident of players on paper. There is the risk that, handed a freak ‘Group of Death’ scenario, a possibly great team could be sent packing before they’d even had a chance to get into their stride.

England, I think, will want a mix of the two. Personally I’d like to see a couple of teams that Capello’s men should despatch without much fuss and at least one relatively scary name to give them a stern test early on. A good draw, I think, would be something like Australia, Nigeria and Serbia. This would still be a group you’d expect England to win – but one in which they wouldn’t perhaps be tempted to fall into the 2006 strategy of winning without getting out of first gear. They’d hit their peak just in time to beat Cameroon in the second round, Portugal in the quarters and…no, no. Must stop.

Either way, it seems foolish to speculate – at least today. From tomorrow the World Cup will really be happening and the countdown to the whole beautiful hysteria of the finals will have begun for real. And if Australia, Nigeria and Serbia come out then the Daily Mirror might just have to put me on the payroll.