Monday, May 23, 2011

Dead men walking in the Roman empire

"I knew my time was up. I knew from the start, from the very beginning I was just a dead man walking." Those were the reflections of Claudio Ranieri, the likeable if somewhat erratic Roman sacked by Roman Abramovich as Chelsea manager after a year of speculation. The poor man had to endure almost a season of rumours, including the clumsy, clandestine meeting between the Russian oligarch and Sven-Goran Eriksson.

When Ranieri was sacked, after a season in which he had earned the tag "Tinkerman" for his often eccentric team selections, he left with a rare dignity in an era of professional disrespect in football. Contrast that with his replacement, Jose Mourinho.

Roll on seven years and history has repeated itself: Carlo Ancelotti, another highly likeable Italian, has been dispatched by Abramovich, with the club explaining that: "This season's performances have fallen short of expectations and the club feels the time is right to make this change ahead of next season's preparations." This is the same club which won the Barclays Premier League title and the FA Cup in Ancelotti's first season in charge, the first league and cup double in Chelsea's history (patronisingly, the official club statement does make a nod to the Italian's achievements by adding: "Carlo will always be welcome at Stamford Bridge, where he will be given the reception and respect his position in our history deserves." Cheers. Thanks. Grazie.)

It is, of course, ludicrous to sack a manager who wins The Double in one season and only manages the  runners-up spot in his next. By this token, Arsene Wenger would have been fired years ago. But when you're Roman Abramovich, Britain's third richest resident and the 53rd richest man in the world, you can - and patently do - whatever you want.

What makes it all the more ridiculous, however, is that Ancelotti was the manager Abramovich wanted in the first place, even before he signed Mourinho (who remains Chelsea's most successful manager ever). So the story goes, when the newly-minted billionaire decided that his next 'must-have' bauble would be an English Premier League club, he began an obsession with winning the European Champions League - just as AC Milan seemed to be very good at doing...under then-manager Ancelotti.

Abramovich is said to have courted Ancelotti to become Chelsea manager several times before he eventually prised him away from the San Siro in 2009. Until then, all Abramovich had been able to get out of Milan was the perma-crocked and extremely expensive Andrei Shevchenko. With Ancelotti finally he had the manager he'd always wanted; and with the results of the 2009-2010 season, it would appear his obsession with the Reggiolan had been worth it.

Come the new season, and Chelsea came back out of the traps like Wile E. Coyote strapped to a new Road Runner-seeking rocket, winning their first two games 6-0 and seemingly running away with the Premier League before most people's summer tans had started to peel. But then the wheels started to fall off: Ray Wilkins - the genial former club captain-turned media-friendly coach was informed - at half-time of a reserve match, if you please - that his contract wasn't being renewed. Both the timing and the motivation of this stank. Almost at once, Chelsea's fortunes turned, soon conceding top spot and the generous margin it had built over Manchester United, and enduring a winter of discontent which even saw them fall out of European positions for next season.

Whatever magic Ancelotti had applied in his first season had somehow been irretrievably lost down the back of the sofa by Christmas. Nothing, and no-one seemed to be getting the side up on its feet. Ancelotti was already looking like the next dead man walking. Given that Abramovich had dispensed with Jose Mourinho after an indifferent Champions League match in September 2007, his successor, Avram Grant went within days of taking Chelsea to within a penalty kick of the European Cup, and his successor Luis Felipe Scollari walked the plank after just seven months in February 2009, Ancelotti's departure was a foregone conclusion, regardless of the logic.

To his credit, the club rallied: despite or in spite of the preposterous £50 million arrival of Fernando Torres in the January transfer window (an arrival which has produced just the one league goal since), Chelsea clawed their way back into contention for the league title itself. However, as incredible as it seemed that they could still retake the top spot they'd conceded to Manchester United some months before, defeats in Europe and the league to the Mancunians sealed Ancelotti's fate.

Disarming and dignified to the last, the Italian maintained a que sera sera stoicism that whatever would happen wouldn't bother him. There would be no wailing or gnashing of teeth, no Latin histrionics. He would politely walk away.

No Chelsea manager walks away empty-handed, of course: the modern penchant for golden parachutes means that in prematurely jettisoning five managers in seven years, Roman Abramovich has also forked out a substantial amount of money - as much as the price of a Torres - in payoffs.

And so, Chelsea starts its search for the eighth manager of the Abromovich era. Money is already changing hands on who will be the next lucky individual. Meanwhile, Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates his 19th league title in almost 25 years as Manchester United manager. That's almost a quarter of a century, and 27 trophies in all. No prizes for guessing the secret of his success, then.

Success for anyone mad enough to take on the Chelsea job will always be fleeting. Jose Mourinho won back-to-back Premier League championships but was still sacked; Ancelotti was even the one Abramovich had wanted, but was still sacked. Whoever enters the Roman lion's den next will have but one objective - win the Champions League. If he fails, there will be only one outcome.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ain't No Saint

New Malden, my home town, is one of those unprepossessing London suburbs that earns passing mention but precious little attention otherwise. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, it languishes amongst a collection of conurbated towns on London's Surrey edge which developed in the 1930s as the capital spread outward, branching suburban railways and trunk roads with it.

After the war, it sent battalions of middle-ranking professionals to work in London's banks, insurance companies and chartered accountancies. New Malden was - and still is- the archetypal middle-class dormitory.

Sitcom writers - probably because they lived in neighbouring Surbiton, Kingston, Teddington or Wimbledon - have regularly referenced it in British sitcoms like The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin (another, Bless This House, even featured New Malden's distinct 60s-built office towers as a backdrop), largely because of it's typification of English suburbia. All that aside, New Malden's greatest claim to fame today is that it is home to Europe's largest Korean community (clearly famous residents like Jimmy Tarbuck, Gyles Brandreth and, apparently, Avengers goddess Diana Rigg, don't even register on the geographic scale of notability).

Amongst New Malden's ex-residents are yours truly and, though humbly mentioned in the same sentence, Steven Wilson, all-round ├╝ber talent and front man of progressive rock giants Porcupine Tree. Steven lived in New Malden until the age of six. I know this because his house backed on to mine and we pretty much played together every single day until he moved to Hertfordshire.

There is one other notable ex-resident: Iain David McGeachy. It's highly unlikely you'll have heard of him and, sadly, it's almost as unlikely you'll have heard of John Martyn, whom McGeachy became at the outset of an acclaimed career as one of Britain's finest and most under-rated singer-songwriters. Martyn's final album, Heaven And Earth has been posthumously released this week, almost two-and-a-half years after his premature, but somewhat expected, demise at the age of 60.

Martyn was as complex as some of his music simple: growing out of the mid-60s London folk scene where he - along with Ralph McTell and Gerry Rafferty, together with a young Billy Connolly (then members of The Humblebums) - frequented a Soho music club known as 'Les Cousins'. At the time they thought they were plying their trade at a club owned by a local bloke called Les Cousins - until they discovered it was actually a pluralised French noun.

John Martyn was born in New Malden on September 11, 1948, to light opera-singing parents. When they divorced Martyn moved to Glasgow, where he grew up with his father, only occasionally returning south to spend summers with his mother on her houseboat in Kingston. As a result, Martyn would, in later life, flip effortlessly between speaking in a near-incomprehensible Glaswegian brogue and broad Mockney 'geezah'. Critics suggested a mild form of schizophrenia bordering on fraudulence, but for Martyn it was simply how he engaged the world.

Picture courtesy of the Daily Telegraph
Martyn was undoubtedly an incurable romantic, who wore his heart on his musical sleeve with, at-times, uncomfortable honesty. When his marriage to fellow folkee Beverly Martyn ended, he poured his heart and several gallons of whisky into the album Grace And Danger. Writing and drinking with Phil Collins - who was himself in the midst of the divorce that led him to write Face Value - Martyn stripped bare his marital relationship. Ain't No Saint, one of his titles, was certainly apt. When he performed one of Grace And Danger's most moving songs, Hurt In Your Heart, for a TV special almost 25 years after writing it, Martyn - by now a big burly bear of a man - was seen wiping tears from his eyes, such was the emotion drawn out by the performance even then.

Martyn was a hellraiser: his booze-sodden and drug-fuelled touring antics with bassist Danny Thompson were legendary. Many a Martyn punter has stories of seeing him falling off the stage, drunk, or bumping into him at the bar of an adjacent pub minutes before he'd be due on stage. Such antics often overshadowed Martyn's tremendous writing and performing talent. His musical apprenticeship in Glasgow and London's folk scene helped him develop an amazing guitar technique which found it's strength in performances with his Martin acoustic famously looped through an Echoplex box to create woozy soundscapes which matched his trademark vocal style.

Martyn died from pneumonia on January 29, 2009 aged 60 and not long after receiving an OBE, arguably for being Britain's best-kept musical secret (something he actually preferred, although his 1982 album title Well Kept Secret may have taken a sly dig at the lack of commercial success his creative direction at the time was providing).

He'd been working on Heaven And Earth after what would be best described as a challenging period in anyone's life. Four years before he'd had his right leg amputated just below the knee, bizarrely, the result of a burst cyst, rather than anything more expectedly associated with his lifestyle.

Regardless, he continued to tour and showed no signs of giving up his blend of blues, jazz and folk-influenced songwriting, as Heaven And Earth testifies. It will hardly rank amongst his best albums, but then the likes of Solid Air (whose title track was written about Martyn's troubled friend Nick Drake), One World and Grace And Danger are so peerless that anything would compare badly.

Posthumous releases can be macabre cash-ins; John Martyn's catalogue has its fair share of poor quality fan-fleecing compilations released by the myriad record companies he was signed to over 41 years. But Heaven And Earth is a beautiful, if whisky-soured finale.

Quite rightly installed by The Sunday Times as album of the week, Martyn's swansong spans his love of jazz and the blues, with his signature slurred vocal giving each track a honeyed tone unlike no other musician I can think of. It takes one last, satisfying drink from the well, bringing closure on the checkered life and checkered career of one of the most gifted singer-songwriters of his generation. And certainly of the town he was born in.