Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Don't believe the you-know-what

hype - verb, hyped, hyp·ing, noun
1. to stimulate, excite, or agitate (usually followed by 'up' ): She was hyped up at the thought of owning her own car. 2. to create interest in by flamboyant or dramatic methods; promote or publicize showily: a promoter who knows how to hype a prizefight. 3. to intensify (advertising, promotion, or publicity) by ingenious or questionable claims, methods, etc. 4. to trick; gull.

Purchasing a car is, after property and a pint of Guinness in Paris, the third most expensive investment you are probably ever likely to make. We humble consumers can therefore be grateful for the conscientious zeal with which motoring journalists evaluate new cars on our behalf.

Here's how it works: a nervous-looking flunky turns up at the journalist's house with a low-loader bearing a shiny, new and staggeringly expensive car. The journalist then thrashes the car around Cumbria for a week before returning it, ideally intact, to the now ashen-faced flunky. Sometime in the weeks that follow you will read 2500 words of carefully considered copy that may - or may not - influence your decision to part with your hard-earned (and, let's face it, who hasn't been poised to write out a cheque for a Lamborghini Aventador only to read in What Car? that its iPod jack is inconveniently located and that would present daily annoyance during the school run? Well, exactly).

I would hardly place Lana Del Rey's Born To Die in the same category of outlay as the ludicrous but stunning Aventador, but if you're going to succumb to History's Most Hyped Album, you may as well know what you're in for. Buying music on spec can be a fraught affair. Pity the Sting fan who owns everything since The Police's Fall Out and still rushed out to buy Songs From The Labrynth only to discover it features the tantric one doing German baroque. Because he's Sting.

Unlike motoring journalism, the march of digital progress has changed the way music reviewers do their job. In a recent blog post, The Word's David Hepworth noted how record company fears about advanced digital copies of albums being leaked onto the Internet makes it commonplace these days for music hacks to be summoned to a 'playback' session. Held in venues resembling Guantanamo Bay's Camp X-Ray, any form of recording device - not to mention shoelaces, belts and ties - are removed from the journalist, who is then given a priviledged spin or two of the anointed new album. Just last weekend, journalists were in Paris for a closed-door playback of Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball.

There is another key test to a new album - how it fairs against The Law of Diminishing Listens. This principle is first encountered as a teenager: you buy the new Echo and The Bunnymen single on the day of its release and play it incessantly for the next 48 hours. By Days 3 to 5, plays have scaled down to two or three per day, dropping further to a single spin as you enter the second week of ownership. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the makings of a record collection which will eventually become the topic of a domestic argument.

So what about Born To Die, which I have now managed to avoid passing judgement on for the better part of a month? Does it stack up to the expectation and hype, the Brit award Del Rey won last night, the handbag Mulberry have named after her and the frankly baffling namecheck by David Cameron (who apparently "digs" the singer)?

Because with Del Rey comes a degree of suspicion. Just what is it about her arrival from nowhere (so it seems) that has had the entire music industry fawning over this doe-eyed and pouty 25-year-old from upstate New York, apart from her obvious photogenic qualities.

To some extent, and to her credit, Del Rey's rapid ascendancy, has a lot to do with her own endeavour. With fewer record companies to promote fewer acts because there's less money to make from selling fewer records, today you've got to do it yourself to get rich and famous, which is what Del Rey did. At the beginning of 2011, she was plain old Elizabeth Grant from Lake Placid, NY, with a sunk-without-a-trace debut album Lana Del Ray - A.K.A. Lizzie Grant, already gone and forgotten. Determined, Grant went back to her bedroom, and started messing about with the six or seven chords she says she knows, changed a vowel and became Lana Del Rey.

Midway through the year she released the song Video Games online and, with the help of a grainy self-made video, it went 'viral'. Now, of all the wild wackiness associated with the web, I'm least comfortable with the idea of anything 'going viral'. In my mind - that clutter of ephemera resembling Steptoe & Son's living room - going viral suggests a need for antibiotics, taking two days off work and drinking lots of Lucozade. Apparently, however, going viral is the crown of accomplishment in the virtual community.

Video Games - a polemic about a boyfriend who paid more attention to his Xbox than his better half - was one of two viral events of note in 2011. The other is the YouTube hit of a suburban Englishman losing it while attempting to bring his dog, Fenton, to heal in London's Richmond Park. Though little was initially known of the gentleman in question, comparisons have been subsequently made to Basil Fawlty memorably taking to his Morris 1100 with a tree branch in Fawlty Towers ("Right! I'm going to give you a damned good thrashing!!"), and it was therefore safely assumed that Fenton's owner was sired from the same solid block of English middle classness. Assumptions proved to be correct. After all, who else would call their dog Fenton?

OK, so no more procrastination - back to Lana and Born To Die. Is it any good? Yes, I suppose. But it's nowhere near the knock-your-socks-off breakthrough the hype created expectations of. Now I don't want to give the impression that it's a disappointment, because it's not. But with Del Rey branding herself the "gangsta Nancy Sinatra", you would have expected something a little more diverse. Not that it is bad. It just lacks true variety.

Tonally, Born To Die doesn't veer too far from being a noirish David Lynch soundtrack, positively soaked in reverb, big soundstages and the odd twanging bottom E string, reflecting, perhaps, smalltown normality with a Twin Peaks hint of something not right beneath. Del Rey herself adopts one of two vocal personas, either the smokey, low-register of the title track and the eerily aged voice of Video Games, or the squeaky, Britney-esque baby doll of This Is What Makes Us Girls.

Del Rey is certainly comfortable with the theatrical, such as Off To The Races, in which she adopts the skin of a double-crossing gangster's moll. Elsewhere she portrays herself as a somewhat knowing femme fatale, as if acting out the full Laura Palmer backstory (with a pinch of Audrey Horne thrown in for good measure). Carmen takes this bad girl theme further with a vignette of a 17-year-old Coney Island tease with a booze problem.

Diet Mountain Dew is one of the few attempts to take the tempo of Born To Die up to something that moves one's toe in a tapping motion; but for the rest there is a lot of big-haired, cinematic grandeur, awash with strings and cavernous echo like Summertime Sadness and its somewhat dour tale of relationship collapse. Much like Adele, you hope that Del Rey won't return to her failed romance on her next album. As cathartic as this well-trodden route might be (Phil Collins arguably fuelled his entire solo career on the demise of his three marriages), it can grate after a while.

Like any good pop record Born To Die grows with each listen, revealing additional layers every time. And that's a good thing. It's not an instant classic, despite that the hype might have suggested it was. I've never been one to be told who to like: I've probably come to bands long after their period of media adulation has faded and they're already on the chicken-and-chips-in-a-basket revival circuit. But with Lana Del Rey, for once, I think the cognoscenti is on to something...but it's not there yet.

It may not be obvious, and it may need that difficult second (OK, third) album to bring it out, but in a market where Adele has all but stamped her ownership on the Best Female category, Del Rey needs to work more at her craft - learn a few more chords, another key and maybe different time signatures. And then we'll have a very interesting rivalry on our hands: two torch singers - one from Tottenham, the other from rural New York State.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Woke up this morning with dem same ol' Blues blues

It was a mad idea last summer and it has grown progressively madder. André Villas-Boas - at the age of 33 and after just 21 months in professional football management, taking over one of Europe's biggest sides, owned by one of sport's most impatient proprietors - was a preposterous idea on June 22 last year when Chelsea announced the precocious Portugeuse as its new manager. 

Now, nine months later, and with Chelsea not only losing sight of the Barclays Premier League title, but automatic qualification for next season's Champions League, Villas-Boas is looking increasingly like he couldn't run a hot dog stand at Stamford Bridge, let alone a team of ageing superstars with egos to match. 

Yesterday's 1-1 draw to a diminished Birmingham City in the FA Cup 5th Round merely highlighted a relatively poor season getting steadily worse, and a managerial position creeping close to becoming untenable. Which is unfortunate. Because it's not really his fault.

When Villas-Boas arrived at the Bridge last summer (well, returned to it), conventional wisdom was that this was - as high-risk appointments go - as risky as electing Charlie Sheen mayor of Las Vegas. Why, when a manager of Carlo Ancelotti's European pedigree and maiden season league-and-cup double achievement wasn't good enough, should a manager with such a patent lack of experience do any better? 

One could be tempted to think that Roman Abramovich's decision to hire AVB was some cruel form of bloodsport. Not only was football's very own Charlie Bucket getting the keys to the entire chocolate factory, he was also inheriting a squad dominated by the politically-savvy John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, as well as the woefully disappointing and outrageously expensive Fernando Torres.

On paper Chelsea are one of the most exciting teams in world football. When you look at the talent throughout the squad you do wonder how this group of players should have been so poor yesterday to Birmingham at Stamford Bridge, a home venue which not so long ago was an impenetrable fortress.

And yet to see Villas-Boas looking isolated and seemingly out of his depth on the touchline, you wonder what this much-vaunted "project" is that he and his superiors keep talking about. To me "project" doesn't exactly sound like a firm commitment. In corporate life, a high-flying executive who gets put in charge of 'Special Projects' is usually on their way out because the CEO doesn't know what to do with them. Perhaps Villas-Boas is merely on a three-year internship. Either way, it hardly suggests a long-term appointment. 

Little is really known of what Villas-Boas' project actually is, however. Is it to finally win the Champions League, the prize most coveted by Abramovich? Is it to modernise a squad still built around the nucleus of players assembled by Jose Mourinho more than five years ago? Or is it to try and help Fernando Torres understand what the three white sticks with a string bag attached to them are at each end of the pitch? 

Villas-Boas has been defiant to the point of cockiness that his job is safe. Despite a noticeable uptick in the number of visits Abramovich has made to the team dressing room post-match and to the club's training ground in Cobham in recent days, Villas-Boas maintains that the Russian has demonstrated nothing but "empathy and motivation for next year's project". 

However, it's this year's project that is the concern. With the club lying fifth in the Premier League, and on Tuesday night playing Napoli in the Champions League, facing an on-form team in a notoriously oppressive environment, Abramovich is in a difficult position. If he fires Villas-Boas now he will merely confirm what many critics of Chelsea have been saying, that the oligarch doesn't have the first clue about owning a football club. This view is supported by the ridiculous turnover of managers and the acquisition of crocked players like Torres for non-sensical sums of money. We might never know what Abramovich actually thinks: but if the sight of Chelsea's chief executive Ron Gourlay puffing out his cheeks in a despondent (or relieved) manner at the end of yesterday's cup tie was anything to go by, AVB's bosses are clearly concerned about their head coach.

If, on the other hand, Abramovich sticks with Villas-Boas, despite the team looking unlikely to claw their way back into the top four and a European place next season or, possibly, not winning a trophy at all this season, questions will be asked as to how much true progress has been made in Year 1 of the three-year project. On this, I suppose, you've got to start somewhere, and if that means being brave enough to drop the likes of Terry, Drogba and Lampard - despite their supposed power base within the club - then Villas-Boas is trying to get somewhere. But, maybe, not far enough. Or soon enough.

Friday, February 17, 2012

No thanks. Thank you.

Being the nice, polite middle-class boy that I am, I was brought up on the principle that courtesy costs nothing, and that I should always mind my Ps and Qs.

Now I'm in my 40s, and mandated by gender predetermination to be in a semi-permanent state of curmudgeon, I have found that "Thanks!" is not always the catch-all of polite appreciation.

As an employee of a large company I have discovered that there is one situation where such gratitude expressed will actually have me pulling upon the red handle marked FOR USE ONLY IN MOMENTS OF MIDDLE-AGED RAGE. I refer to the practice of using the 'Reply All' e-mail button to say, to just a single person (but copied to a cast of millions - including me) "Thanks!".

Being cc'd on an e-mail from one person to another is rarely more than attempted indemnification: "I've copied him/her, therefore he/she can consider themselves informed/looped in/involved". However, when the e-mail only says "Thanks!", the copied recipient has merely become a spectator of the most irrelevant, inconsequential and pointless of declarations. In terms of likelihood to raise one's duster in the workplace, it is beaten only by having to listen to the loud end of someone else's phone conversation. Which is a rant to unleash another time.

E-mail has, however, replaced conversation in many working environments. Few of us office drones will have escaped receiving an e-mail from someone sitting just three feet away or on the other side of a very thin wall. And, worse, when you're on the periphery of a lengthy e-mail exchange between an entire group of people, you end up wondering why that those expensive meeting rooms with video conferencing facilities had been installed, as your inbox fills up with patience-sapping, life's too short-reminding back-and-forthery.

E-mail is too convenient, and in the era of the BlackBerry dispatches are tossed off with careless abandon, at all times of the day or night. How different from the days of "Take a letter, Miss Jones".

With this ease comes the volume: last year the Internet handled almost 110 trillion e-mails. Many of them ended up in my Inbox, it would appear.

Unlike the kitchen pedal bin, which only informs you it has reached capacity when you bother to investigate that unplaceable odor wafting through the house, the message “YOUR MAILBOX IS ALMOST FULL” is a more terrifying warning of impending doom for the desk warrior reliant on an active communications pipeline. But imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to have this digital umbilical removed. Imagine having to actually, you know, talk to people, face-to-face, in the same room...

A few years ago Scottish researchers found that over a third of workers had become stressed by the daily volume of incoming e-mail and, worse, by the obligation to respond to it.

They felt that e-mail had become a distraction, that they were checking their Inbox 30 or 40 times an hour for new arrivals. That study took place five years ago, when ownership of smartphones was miniscule. Now, when even teenagers are hunched over BlackBerrys, no-doubt co-ordinating the next inner-city riot, e-mail is everywhere. Soon it will be impossible to go anywhere without e-mail catching up with you. There are cars in development that will offer you in-car e-mail, Facebook and Twitter (which will make for some pretty interesting insurance claims) and even fridges which will be able to say "You've got mail!" while also reminding you of the fact you're out of milk and houmous. So it has to stop. Or at least be curtailed.

To their absolute credit, several companies and their CEOs have taken initiatives to introduce an alternative e-mail culture in their organizations. Nine years ago, John Cauldwell, owner of the mobile phone retailer Phones4U took the radical step of banning staff from using e-mail altogether, arguing that his 2,500 staff were spending too much time handling e-mail and not enough time dealing with customers. "I saw that email was insidiously invading Phones4U so I banned it immediately," he said at the time. "Management and staff were beginning to show signs of being constrained by email proliferation - the ban brought an instant, dramatic and positive effect."

It's an idea that was picked up last year by London-based fashion PR agency Push, which banned any e-mail activity on Tuesdays to encourage account executives to use the phone more. Push didn't ban electronic communications altogether: in establishing Tuesdays as "T-Days", the agency ruled that staff could use only the telephone and Twitter (geddit?) to speak to journalists, clients and colleagues. Still, not a bad idea.

Last year Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos - a company which runs IT services for large corporations - picked up the Phones4U mantle by launching an 18-month program to eradicate internal e-mail altogether in a bid to achieve "best management practices". Breton's rationale was that only 10% of the 200 e-mails employees received on average every day had any use, which meant that the reading time associated with the other 90%, plus the minute or so it takes to return to work after looking at an e-mail of no great value, was time lost from more important activities.

As with any technological advance, e-mail has it's place. But as a working tool, it has its drawbacks. When more and more people admit to checking their work e-mail while on holiday for no other reason than to reduce the pileup of unread messages when they return to the office, something is clearly amiss. 25 years ago would you have gone into the office every day during Christmas to check for unopened letters or faxes? Of course not.

Other tools are out there which do the job of e-mail just as well: Atos, for example, is replacing e-mail with a combination of a Facebook-style social network and the dear old telephone.

In other companies, Twitter-like applications have been developed, which have the added advantage of encouraging workers to be brief. Given that time is, arguably, the most precious commodity we all have, a carefully crafted 140-character message instead of a lengthy, stream-of-conscious braindump sent to one and cc'd to several hundred more would not only get to the point, but would be the kindest act of humanity one worker could do for another.

And speaking of humanity, let me leave you with this thought: a single e-mail has a carbon footprint of 0.04g, and an e-mail with a PowerPoint presentation attached to it weighs in at 0.4g of CO2. Worth remembering that, next time you e-mail the colleague sat opposite you...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Now is the winter of our discontent

"He's a disgrace to Liverpool Football Club. Some players should not be allowed to play for Liverpool again. With the history that club's got and in a situation like today, he could have caused a riot."Sir Alex Ferguson on Luis Suárez, Saturday 11 February, 2012
Have we had enough rancor yet? Or do we need more? If so, we surely don't need two of the most famous football clubs in the world supplying it.

Fabio Capello's petulant flounce from the England job this week may have become expensive collateral damage in the Ferdinand-Terry race row, but there was no requirement for anyone - least of all Liverpool's Luis Suárez, Manchester United's Patrice Evra or their respective clubs and managers - to reopen football's other simmering feud, with it's distasteful undercurrent of open and implied as well as accidental racism.

Things were bad enough two weeks ago when Evra was booed by Liverpool fans every time he touched the ball during the clubs' FA Cup tie. Players get booed like this for the most petty of reasons: Ashley Cole, who still gets booed by Arsenal fans for accepting the Abramovich coin in 2006, added Newcastle supporters to his fan club when he cheated on his Geordie wife, Cheryl Cole (the apparent singer, talent show judge and national sweetheart once found guilty for assault in a racially-tinged incident involving a Surrey nightclub's toilet attendant).

It is a normal part of player baiting, one has to accept. But booing a black player for making a complaint about an opponent making a racistly malicious remark? Different league. Likewise, did my own fellow Chelsea supporters really need to boo Rio Ferdinand for being Anton's bigger brother? Nope.

With the memory of their toxic last encounter only two weeks cold, Liverpool and Manchester United needed to tread very carefully before their league meeting yesterday at Anfield, given that it was also the reverse fixture from the game in which Suarez made his original remark to Evra, and since he was banned for eight games for the offence. If you then ice the cake with this North-West derby being one of the most contentious rivalries in sport, everyone needed to be on their best behaviour.

So, the sight of Suarez refusing to shake Evra's hand during the increasingly pointless pre-match love-in was probably one of the most brainless things I've ever seen a footballer do (and let's face it, there are plenty of brainless acts from which to choose).

However, the thing that troubles me more than else is the lack of club management in this issue. Kenny Dalglish - one of the most hailed figures in the modern game - has been relentlessly criticised for his lack of condemnation of Suarez in the first place. You would have thought he'd have gone the extra distance yesterday to tell Suarez to just get on with playing football and not inflame things further.

If it was disappointing seeing the idiot Suarez blanking Evra's handshake - itself an offer of profound significance - it was as disappointing to, again, find Dalglish implicitly supporting his striker by his lack of guidance and his lack of admonishment after the game.

There was, for years, a whiff of unfounded racism around Liverpool, with suggestions that the club had a policy of not signing black players, despite signing Howard Gayle in 1977 at a time when there were still few black players anywhere else in the-then First Division. Dalglish has done his club no favours at all by standing by Suarez by not saying anything about his behaviour towards Evra.

Liverpool isn't a racist club, and Sir Alex Ferguson's barbed reference yesterday to "...the history that club's got" didn't help, not that anything the Manchester United manager says when on such viperous form ever does (although I go some way to agreeing with him that Suarez was a disgrace for not shaking Evra's hand -  small gesture that would have travelled a thousand miles).

I don't believe that racism exists on any institutional level in football. It can't, surely? True, apart from the occasional Korean or Japanese player, there is a distinct lack of Asian players in the senior echelons of the game. But the idea of racism still being an ingrained problem, given the immensely black and white make-up of most professional teams (a fact that has hardly needed pointing out in recent years) is nonsense.

It would, though, be foolish to dismiss the signs of its lingering presence: the exit of Micah Richards from Twitter following the posting of racist comments against him, and the utterly vile comments posted yesterday against former Liverpool player and now talkSport presenter Stan Collymore show there is no shortage of morons out who are either racist, or stupid enough to think anonymously sending racist comments to black sportsmen and media personalities is clever.

British football is possibly teetering on a precipice when it comes to race: the next England manager will, potentially, have to deal with a team split between the anti-Terry lobby and those who can't care less. We don't need the remaining four months of the domestic game mired in a worsening atmosphere of poison.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

When We Was Fabio

A Ferdinand
Amongst the many things I struggle to comprehend, the origins of World War 1 have long been a fruitless source of bafflement.

The facts, as they stood, are that on 28 June, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand - heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire and inspiration for a Scottish art rock band - took a bullet from a cross young Bosnian and, within a month, most countries, it seems, were piling into France and Belgium for a punch-up that would leave more than nine million people dead over the course of the next four years. How we went from one event to another is a mystery to me.

Skip forward, if you will, to Sunday, October 23rd, 2011 and the Barclays Premier League encounter between Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea.

An exchange of words between another Ferdinand - the home team's Anton - and the visiting club's captain, John Terry, results in a conflagration that is continuing to take lives, proverbially speaking, almost four months on.

Last Saturday What Would David Bowie Do? remarked on what an utter mess the original incident at Loftus Road had left football in. If you missed it, here's a handy summary:
  • Terry is facing a criminal trial for his alleged "public order offence" towards Ferdinand (A) and had the England captaincy taken off him because of the impending court date 
  • Terry and Ferdinand are now at the center of collapsing inter-team relationships
  • QPR captain Joey Barton rants about the affair and Terry's deferred court case on Twitter
  • Ferdinand's brother Rio gets booed by Chelsea fans after giving his public support for Anton in an ill-advised TV interview on the eve of the Blues meeting Manchester United
  • QPR captain Joey Barton is, apparently, threatened with jail for contempt of court by ranting about the affair and Terry's deferred court case on Twitter 
  • Players threaten a toxic split in the England camp if Terry even turns up as a squad member for England's pre-Euro 2012 fixtures as well as the tournament itself
  • England are now without a captain four months before the start of a major tournament
And now, to that list, we can add "England seeks new manager". Again.

Fabio Capello's resignation tonight - bizarrely, scant hours after Harry Redknapp, widely tipped to be the next England manager, was acquitted of tax fraud charges - was coming. The Italian was incensed that the FA's senior executives didn't loop him into the decision to strip Terry of the England captain's armband.

Capello was known to be an enormous fan of Terry's on-pitch leadership skills, even if his off-pitch track record left something to be desired for the notoriously discipline-minded coach. Capello had, of course, been responsible for sacking Terry after his affair with Wayne Bridge's former girlfriend, but had also reinstated him in as bold a statement of his determination to have Terry lead the national side, come-what-may. 

The FA's decision to sack Terry before English football's reputation got any further out of hand may have been a sensible (and unavoidable) action, all things considered, but in blanking Capello, the Italian's days in the post were numbered. Capello did little to hide his ire, giving an Italian TV interview in which he said: "They really insulted me and damaged my authority," and that he "...thought it was right that Terry should keep the captain's armband." Capello's strong conviction was that his captain had not been convicted of anything: "In my opinion one cannot be punished until it is official and the court - a non-sport court, a civil court - had made a decision to decide if John Terry has done what he is accused of."

As Harry Redknapp was walking away from Southwark Crown Court, Capello was walking in to Wembley Stadium to meet FA chairman David Bernstein and general secretary Alex Horne. The expectation was of a terse meeting. The expectation, too, was that this would also end in Fabio Capello's reign coming to an end.

When the digital jungle drums of Twitter sprung to life to report that Capello had indeed resigned, few people were all that surprised, any more than they'd be surprised that the odds on Redknapp replacing him were shortening with every second.

The official statement from Bernstein was the expected dull-as-dishwater affair, stressing how "...Fabio has conducted himself in an extremely professional manner." and that in accepting Capello's resignation they were "agreeing this is the right decision," followed by the obligatory platitudes about thanking Capello for his work with England and to "wish him every success in the future".

Most people will agree that the former Milan, Madrid, Roma and Juventus coach gave a mixed return on the £6 million a year the FA furnished him with for his expertise. Although the stats show Capello had a creditable 67% win rate as England manager there was consensus that England hadn't made much more progress under him than they'd done under Sven-Göran Eriksson. These stats must also be balanced with England's abject performance in the 2010 World Cup, including the ignominy of another tournament exit at the hands of bloody Germany.

Perhaps the timing of Capello's resignation wasn't too bad after all: four months is a long time for the new man - whether Redknapp or anyone else on the bookies' shortlists - to come in and get the squad prepared for Euro 2012.

Whoever does come in will be picking up one of sport's most poisoned chalices. I wouldn't mind betting, either, that come the start of the Euros the chalice will contain more than a drop of the taint still traceable from whatever stupid comment was uttered in the heat of battle, one autumnal Sunday afternoon in West London.

Like a pebble dropped onto a still pond, the Ferdinand-Terry affair has triggered a series of concentric ripples that, by the time they are reaching the shoreline, are becoming extremely choppy indeed. Choppy enough to leave casualties - and careers - starting to pile up.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

And we thought the Dutch were self-destructive

What a mess. What an absolute, utter mess. John Terry has the England captain's armband unceremoniously taken off him for a second time in his career because he is considered too much of a liability to team unity.

For once, you can't fault the Football Association. What else could they do? Having seen Terry reinstated by England coach Fabio Capello (after he lost the armband previously for having an affair with teammate Wayne Bridge's girlfriend), the FA was then confronted with the prospect of the national captain heading for a major summer football tournament with a criminal trial for allegedly making a racist remark on the other side of it.

Terry's sacking as skipper only addresses one part of the problem. Reading striker Jason Roberts claims that the England dressing room at Euro 2012 “could be toxic” if Terry is even involved in the tournament, even as a member of the squad. And he claims his view is based on comments from England players he knows.

Chelsea are standing by Terry as club captain in the whole debacle, which began on October 23 when the defender is alleged to have called QPR's Anton Ferdinand a "f****** black c***" in a heated off-ball moment during their clubs' Premier League encounter. Chelsea's backing of Terry is understandable at such a critical stage of the domestic season, but one can wonder whether this is the start of the 31-year-old player's footballing career unravelling.

It shouldn't be forgotten that Terry has not been found guilty of any offence - either a football disciplinary charge (the alleged incident between Terry and Ferdinand was not recorded by the match referee, so no charges could be brought by the FA) and the criminal prosecution - built from, apparently, lip readers and YouTube footage - is clearly sub-judice.

But with the footballing world around Terry looking increasingly divisive - with black professionals even asking critical questions of Chelsea's black teammates for either backing him or not publicly criticising him - whatever really happened in that fleeting exchange between two players, in the heat of an intense Sunday afternoon London derby, is casting a bigger stain on the career of a player who's ability on the pitch has been habitually undermined by events off it.

© Twitter
The FA's announcement yesterday - which, apparently, Fabio Capello knew nothing about in advance - has led to the inevitable stream of invective and counter-invective online.

Joey Barton, the QPR skipper and a player with hardly a spotless reputation (two criminal convictions for violent behaviour - a six-month prison sentence for assault and a suspended sentence for actual bodily harm to on teammate Ousmane Dabo) spent much of yesterday evening ranting on Twitter about the case involving his club colleague Ferdinand. This included a particularly ugly spat with TalkSport's Adrian Durham and the Daily Mirror's Darren Lewis, in which Barton branded them "spineless maggots".

Much of Barton's stream of bile was legally borderline, but in one tweet he was spot on: "Once the issue went out of the FA's control, it was always going to get messy. They should have dealt with it instantly. Now its a farce." Indeed, had the affair been investigated by the FA back in October, and a referral to the police made instantly, there is a chance that the legal proceedings could have been commenced earlier.

As much as I support John Terry as captain of my football club, and as much as I fully support the "innocent until proven guilty" principle, I wonder whether the lawyers who pushed for Terry's trial to be held after Euro 2012 were thinking about anyone else's interests than their own. All the time Terry - still, arguably, the best candidate for England captain (sorry Rio, we don't need your expert long-ball punting skills...), drags this affair behind him, there will be a foul smell surrounding English football itself.

Great preparation for the national side in the run-up to a tournament that is meant to restore the nation's pride after the ignominious embarrassment of the South Africa. I expect the Dutch, with their talent for self-destruction, must be laughing in their clogs.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

When Two Tribes Go To War

As anyone who regularly attends English Premier League football matches will attest, the idea that in this prawn sandwich-munching, bring-the-wife-and-kids-for-a-family-day-out, multi-million pound fan "experience" era of the game, its nefarious side has been completely extinguished would be regarded as foolish.

No doubt, things are vastly improved, certainly from the days of my own youth, when standing in 'The Shed' of Stamford Bridge made owls out of inquisitive boys, as we rotated our heads fully through 180 degrees to see the newest outbreak of mayhem on the terracing behind us.

There is no doubt, too, that the orchestrated warfare that erupted with grim regularity in the '70s and early '80s between entire armies of clubs' fans - Millwall and West Ham, Chelsea and Tottenham, Arsenal and Leeds - has disappeared from the neighbouring streets of these clubs' grounds (although it would be the height of naïveté to suggest that it has disappeared altogether).

There is also no doubt that in recent weeks the word "tribal" has crept back into the football writers' lexicon as the supposed 'race rows' between Liverpool's Luis Suarez and Manchester United's Patrice Evra, and Chelsea's John Terry and Queens Park Rangers' Anton Ferdinand have been ratcheted up.

Tribal is not just an unfortunate word in the racial context, but entirely inappropriate in the actual context of what it is to be a football fan. I don't consider Chelsea or my fellow Chelsea fans any more of a tribe as any other group with whom I claim association - be it England supporters, owners of the complete recordings of Nick Drake, or corpulent male professionals in their mid-forties from the south-west suburbs of London.

However, fate, irony, some perversion or a combination of all three contrived to bring Liverpool and Manchester United, QPR and Chelsea together last Saturday for the FA Cup 4th Round's lunchtime kickoffs. Sports hacks couldn't believe their luck with the column inches they were gifted to stoke up the tension - and risk creating self-fulfilled prophesy. For things easily evolved from being about four football players, to being entire sets of supporters pitched against each other.

For a start, the North-West derby just didn't need it. Liverpool-Manchester United was already one of the longest running team rivalries in professional sport; Suarez from one side was serving his suspension, while Evra from the other had returned to his football. Unfortunately The Kop didn't receive the memo, and spent much of the game's rancourous 90-plus minutes barracking the Frenchman for being "a lying bastard", amongst other choice suggestions, for reporting Suarez to the FA, the result of which being the Uruguayan receiving an eight-game ban.

The Ferdinand-Terry affair, on the other hand, was still an open goal. Ever since the QPR-Chelsea league match on October 23rd when Terry is alleged to have made a racist slur against Ferdinand, the Chelsea and England captain has been allowed to play on by the FA, as they maintained the position that he was facing a public prosecution, rather than an FA disciplinary charge, as Suarez had.

I am sure that some legal expert somewhere will explain the significance of the two, different situations, but to me, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police, in claiming to have sufficient evidence to charge Terry with a public order offense, did the FA a favour, as it allowed them to totally swerve the tricky issue of their national captain being accused of racism.

So, if Terry is found not guilty, he and the FA will simply go back to some form of normality, and if found guilty, his England career as captain and player would most probably be over. Responsibility well and truly offloaded.

Unfortunately, things were ballsed up - quite literally - by QPR drawing Chelsea in the FA Cup 4th round, in a tie to be played just days before Terry's case opens, today, at Westminster Magistrates Court. No doubt under the most hawkish of legal advice, nothing official had been heard from either player or club on the matter since Terry was charged - until it was revealed, on the eve of the cup tie, that Ferdinand had received in the post a "malicious communication" (which, according to different reports, contained either an air gun pellet, a bullet or a shotgun cartridge).

Naturally, the package lacked a return address, but the nods and winks were already heading the way of Chelsea fans amid suggestions that some form of highly misguided  support for Terry had been enacted. Internet discussions sprang to life and Chelsea's historic - and unwanted association - with far-right groups became a convenient charcoal brick with which to warm up the barbecue further.

Thankfully the Ferdinand mailbag became a sideshow to the less injurious topic of "Will they? Won't they?" and whether Ferdinand would shake Terry's hand in the somewhat ridiculous pre-kickoff 'Respect' handshake ritual between the two teams.

In this the ever-reliable "friends close to the star" suggested that Ferdinand would blank Terry (which would not be a first for the defender - Wayne Bridge came close to the old thumb-to-nose finger waggle gag when he confronted Terry on the pitch for the first time after it was revealed he'd been enjoying relations with Bridge's then-fiancée).

Shortly before kickoff on Saturday it was reported that there would be no team handshake at all. It was explained that they didn't want to risk a handshake snub towards Terry prejudicing the court case about to open today. In truth, the QPR players had decided as a team on Friday to blank Terry, causing a cataclysmic humiliation for the Chelsea and England skipper, and the FA itself.

The only thing this messy piece of PR really prejudiced was the ability of football to stand up above racism itself. Whether Terry did call Ferdinand a "f****** black c***" or not is now for a court to decide. The fact is that Ferdinand and his teammates could have shown themselves to be bigger indivduals by accepting Terry's handshake and moving on. They may have believed it was supporting the cause, but instead it would only have prolonged and provoked things further.

And there lies the biggest issue of all. If you go looking for a rift you'll find one and make it larger, and racism and tribalism are two causes football could do without. If Terry did use such a slur, he's an idiot and should be punished. We all know that many players are blighted by a red mist that descends in the heat of battle. It is debatable as to whether Terry's alleged epithet, uttered in a high-pressure London derby his team were losing, makes him a congenital racist. Stupid, but not malevolently racist.

He is , however, a role model, a senior player and his club and country's captain. In both jobs, he works every day in multi-cultural squads, being a high-profile ambassador for the FA's Respect and the 'Racism - Kick It Out' campaigns. He needs to command the utmost respect from the players he spends most of his week in the company of. And he should have remembered that before opening his mouth in a game monitored by 13 high definition television cameras, unprecedented online scrutiny and the video pinboard that is YouTube.

In no way do I endorse racism or the use of language that draws malicious attention to someone's racial origin, physical appearance, sexual preference or any other tag.

Football is strange theatre. I doubt any, or at least many, of the fans who chant "Yiddo" towards Spurs supporters are card-carrying Nazis, or even know the significance of the slur. And while I've always baulked at the despicable song that refers to Auschwitz, one is wearily resigned to the fact that most members of this chorus line are morons braying with their fellow terrace sheep in complete ignorance of true anti-semitism, and certainly the full, sordid and abhorrent ugliness that was the Holocaust.

The Evra/Suarez and Ferdinand/Terry spats are no more than that - spats. What we have to avoid is the creeping return to English football of the Neanderthal monkey chants that are still projected towards black players from the terraces and stands of football grounds in Spain, Serbia, Poland and Germany. As it is, an eagle-eyed smartphone owner caught sight of an idiot at Anfield on Saturday impersonating King Louis. This shouldn't be allowed to be a return to the disgraceful banana-throwing days of the 70s, when the likes of Luther Blissett, the young John Barnes and Chelsea's heroic pioneering black debutant Paul Canoville ran a gauntlet of hate and ignorance from their own supporters.

I like to think that football has moved on and, for the most part, it has. Supporters might still mockingly draw attention to Liverpool fans' employment status, to Arséne Wenger apparently lacking both a plan and money, and to Ashley Cole having the temerity to cheat on the nation's unoffical sweetheart, Cheryl Cole (God help him if it was Susan Boyle), but this is no more than mild joshing, baiting to get a rise out of the opposition rather than any declaration of war.

Football really isn't a matter of life and death. It's a game. You scream your lungs out at your own midfield, the myopic referee or the small contingent of noisy away fans (who will give as good as they get), all in the name of giving a match some atmosphere. Within this pantomime will be some of the funniest songs, the sharpest wit and the most cutting of self-depreciation. Left to itself, it's harmless. It just doesn't need journalists to turn it into something else, as we all know that friendly abuse can quickly become something decidedly unfriendly.