A Highlight or the shape of things to come?

I did not see Man Utd’s performance at Bayer Leverkuson coming. So impressed was I with Leverkuson’s home form and Man Utd’s general patchiness I had once again put courage to my convictions and placed a small wager on a home victory. From the moment I placed the bet I should have known that Man Utd were going to do something special. For lets not kid ourselves a 0-5 away victory in Europe in Germany is something to savour.

To put the 0-5 victory in context Utd’s other European away games this season had yielded two draws to which the phrase ‘job done’ or ‘they’ll take that’ were surely uttered. If you win your games at home and avoid defeat away that’s 12 points and although I cannot be bothered to do the maths/research I can’t believe many (if any) teams have failed to qualify with this amount of points. As such when Man Utd set out for the North Rhine-Westphalia region it is a fair bet that a draw would have been seen as very acceptable. To win by five clear goals then is more than just a victory it is a statement of dominance.

On Wednesday Man Utd were dominant. They were fast paced in possession and ruthlessly clinical in front of goal. Time and time again Utd broke forward and past Bayer players who seemed to be stuck in treacle. This was a side a world away from the stale performance at Cardiff.

The question is can Man Utd roll this form over into the domestic campaign and a crucial game against Spurs. Afterall there are still heavy question marks over this Utd team. Firstly, it seems unlikely that Ryan Giggs will be able to play another 90 minutes at the same level so soon after this one. I mean whatever ring of power or Lazarus pit he uses kept bossing games aged 40 needs time to work/recharge right. This will then leave a Man Utd midfield with Cleverly and Jones in it. I would tip the Spurs midfield of Dembele, Paulinho and Sandro to win this contest every time especially since they will want to erase last weeks horror show. This of course is the perhaps the key problem for United at the moment they lack depth at central midfield. Some body is going to have to step things up for them here. Maybe the time is ripe for Cleverly to show everyone why both Ferguson and Hodgson rate him so highly?

Secondly, will David Moyes stick with Kagawa at number 10 as the central creative hub? Kagawa’s more central position was the x-factor in Utd’s performance but with Welbeck back, Van Persie possibly fit again and Rooney in one of his purple patches will Moyes continue with the experiment of playing Kagawa through the middle and leave someone out. Utd looked a much better side with Kagawa in his favoured position but Van Persie and Rooney are near undroppable and of course always score goals.

We should be able to start answering these questions by Sunday night. If Man Utd answer these questions correctly mid-weeks result might just be the shape of things to come. If they fail to do so a 0-5 thumping of Bayer might just be highlight in a very murky season.

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England Six Years On

There is a recurring argument that is almost conventional wisdom in England. The argument is as follows

‘the reason why young English footballers are not playing at the top of the domestic and european game is lack of opportunities. Your young English John Smith is being squeezed out to make way for an Spanish Jesus Smithio or a German Johann Smithzer.’

It is an argument repeated up and down the land amongst football fans and pundits that these players might be good enough but they are never given the chance. Now what I decided to do was put this hypothesis to the test. Do young English players get the chance as compared to countries who I would consider to be England’s footballing rivals. To do this I decided to go back to the under 19s 2007 teams playing six years ago. Players from this age group should now be playing football consistently if not internationally then at least at a high level. So lets then compare the teams from this year for England, France, Spain and Germany. More specifically the squads they sent to the 2007 UEFA European Under 19 Championships (For England this means taking the team that played in the last game of qualifying as they didn’t make the tournament). It seems reasonable that if other countries gave their youngsters more chances these players should have played more games than the English players.

Lets see how this panned out. The German team that lost in the semi-finals of the competitions was as follows

  • 1 Martin Männel – 166
  • 7 Jerome Boateng – 166
  • 3 Arne Feick – 118
  • 4 Benedikt Höwedes – 159
  • 5 Alexander Eberlein – 163
  • 2 Daniel Schwaab – 194
  • 10 Anis Ben-Hatira – 104
  • 13 Manuel Konrad – 111
  • 15 Max Kruse – 143
  • 17 Mesut Özil – 211
  • 14 Sebastian Tyrala – 45

These players have accumulated 1,580 professional appearances of which 740 were in top divisions.

The French team that lost in the final was as follows

  • 1 Johann Carrasso – 83
  • 3 Paul Baysse – 164
  • 4 Garry Bocaly – 113
  • 18 Jean-Yves Mvoto – 106
  • 13 Granddi N’Goyi – 124
  • 17 Quentin Othon – 53
  • 7 Etienne Capoue – 177
  • 8 Malaury Martin – 49
  • 10 Bakary Sako – 227
  • 11 Steve Pinau – 43
  • 14 Kévin Monnet-Paquet – 174

These players have accumulated 1,313 games 735 of which were in top divisions.

The winning Spanish team was as follows

  • 13 Sergio Asenjo – 122
  • 2 Victor Díaz – 168
  • 3 Javier Cantero – 126
  • 5 Jon Echaide – 174
  • 12 Pablo Gil – 74
  • 14 Mikel Sanjosé – 121
  • 7 César Azpilicueta – 205
  • 11 Carlos Coto – 161
  • 15 Daniel Parejo – 169
  • 9 Emilio Nsue – 173
  • 10 Aarón Ñíguez – 162

The victorious Spanish team have played 1,655 games. Out of these 467 were played in top divisions.

The English team that got a consolation victory against the Czech Republic was as follows

  • 13 Francis Fielding – 173
  • 18 Jack Cork – 232
  • 14 Stephen Darby – 120
  • 3 Scott Golbourne – 221
  • 9 Danny Haynes – 249
  • 7 Sam Hewson – 87
  • 17 Rossi Jarvis – 187
  • 16 Craig Lindfield – 150
  • 6 Michael Mancienne – 155
  • 15 Chris Martin – 208
  • 12 Ben Turner – 149

The English team have played a total of 1931 games. This is the most out of any of the four teams. However, only 143 of these games were played in a top division.

As can be seen the England under 19 players have received far fewer chances in the top division and none of the English players can be said to have become regular performers at the top division clubs. Michael Mancienne played top flight games but has been frozen out at Hamburg. Jack Cork is now second choice at Southampton and Ben Turner has only just broken into the Premier league this season with Cardiff. The English crowd is hardly setting the word alight.Whereas not only have players from Spain, Germany and France played more top flight games but they have produced players like Mikel San José, César Azpilicueta, Daniel Parejo, Mezut Ozil, Etienne Capoue amongst others who are now enjoying top flight careers.

You could look at this and think that it is irrelevant. It could be argued that there are other young English players who are getting first team chances but they were not in the under 19 side of 2007. In a way though this is even more concerning. In an age group where the FA is supposed to be identifying the best talent and giving them every advantage at achieving sporting stardom England lag far behind Spain, France and Germany. So the evidence suggests that English players aren’t getting top flight chances but is this because, English players aren’t good enough or because, the FA is unable to identify the best talent at a young age. Neither is very good for the future of the English game.

Review of Raising Steam by Sir Terry Pratchett

I grew up reading Pratchett. I am a fan. I am predisposed to liking his books. I can remember reading Pratchett books in the lunch room whilst waiting to rehearse my small part in the annual school play. Yet despite all the goodwill I bring to a new Pratchett book I wasn’t completely sold on ‘Raising Steam’. Truth be told I’m still not quite sure of my feelings towards it. I enjoyed it but, unlike Pratchett’s best works, there is nothing here that is going to make me read the book again.

You see Moist Von Lipwig is the nominal protagonist of the plot but the true protagonist is the freshly invented railways which the author clearly loves. This presents two real problems. One, if you don’t love trains then the ‘magic’ of the railways isn’t really going mean that much to you. Two, there is no real protagonist or antagonist. Unlike bad guys, such as ‘The Auditors’, there is no real sense of there being any stakes at play with the dwarf fundamentalists. Indeed throughout they are portrayed as fighting for a hopeless and ultimately meaningless. This makes it hard to take them seriously. Of course if you don’t have a real villain to inject a sense of threat into your story then it will lack urgency which is definitely the case with ‘Raising Steam’. I would hazard a guess that Pratchett was aware of this problem because, at times the novel seems like it would work better with be a better fit with Commander Vimes as the main character but, that this is impossible because, the story would then be too similar to the ‘Thud!’ and the main villains are a bit naff.

If I was to sum ‘Raising Steam’ up I would say the footnotes made me laugh and it is certainly readable but the plot is unfulfilling. As such whilst the book is enjoyable for discworld fans new readers (if there any left) would do better starting out with almost any other in the series. I gave this 4 out of five in truth its probably a three and a half, but I’m a fan so I rounded up.

The Coventry City Football Club – Story of the Season

It is only mid-November the season is still shaping up and yet I want to make a pitch to you that the most dramatic story of the sporting year isn’t going to be found n the premier league or the NFL or La Liga or even when England thrash Brazil 5-0 to win the World Cup. The sporting story of the year is Coventry City Football Club. Before the season began there was a one surefire certainty in League One. Coventry City Football Club would be relegated. Coventry began the season with a series of handicaps against them that would stop a stampeding Rhino.

Firstly, they began the season on -15 points as a penalty for being in administration. Minus 15 points that’s five wins before you even get to zero! When other teams such as Leeds, Portsmouth, Rotherham have points penalties imposed they were relegated. Making things worse for Coventry however, was that they were and are not playing in their home stadium (Subaru Stadium). A key reason for Coventry’s financial difficulties is a rent dispute with their stadium owners. Unable to resolve the dispute the club owners decided to play home games some sixty miles away in Northampton. Understandably peeved at this the Coventry fans decided to boycott all home games instead organising exhibition matches at Subaru stadium. So If your keeping count Coventry began the season in administration unable to play in their stadium necessitating at temporary move to sixty miles away leading to a fan boycott of home games. I don’t think a campaign has started on such unfavourable terms since the ill fated charge of the light brigade.

Still you might be thinking Coventry could have a squad made up of Pele’s, Maradona’s and Maldini’s maybe they are so good that they were just lulling the other teams into a false sense of security. Well I would direct you towards the fact that Coventry were under transfer embargo for much of the window brought in only one player the forward Mathieu Manset on a free whose career had hardly set the world alight. Whilst at the same time 14 players were released or transferred out on a free to cut the wage budget. These fourteen players included key experienced pros like David Bell, Richard Wood and Stephen Elliott. All told the 14 players lost had played a over 230 games for the club. The squad that was left had an average age of 21.

Come the weekend of the 23rd of November the smart money would have placed Coventry mired in relegation difficulties probably just about up to zero points. Instead they sit mid-table five points off a playoff place. If they had managed to start the season without the 15 point penalty they would be third with 36 points battling for the title. How has this come about? Manager Steven Pressley must take the accolades for knitting together such a successful team, but the stat that really leaps out at you is goals. Journey man striker Leon Clarke has found 12 league goals a tally matched by the youngster Callum Wilson. They jointly lead the division goal scoring charts and as a team Coventry have scored more goals than any other team in the division.

If they keep up this sort of form it might be a memorable season for Coventry for on the pitch reasons as well as off the pitch struggles and what a story that would be!

Best Worse Movie Review

There is something magical about a truly awful film. Therefore it wasn’t a hard sell to get me to watch ‘Best Worse Movie’ the inside story of ‘Troll 2’. ‘Best Worse Movie’ chronicles the reactions of starring actors upon discovering that that the truly awful film they made two decades ago has become an underground cult hit.

Overall I enjoyed it. The first half of the film was both heart warming and funny as people’s reactions and enjoyment of a truly bad film were revealed. This was heightened for me because, I had never seen ‘Troll 2’ and so the hilariously bad dialogue was all new to me. There was also a tinge of sadness and disbelief at meeting the director of ‘Troll 2’, Claudio Fragasso, who was firmly convinced that he had made a classic that audiences were rediscovering and not just laughing at a bad movie. In the second half of the documentary however, the jokes began to wear off a bit and the film descended into padding to fill out the running time. So in the end whilst I would recommend it I just wish that ‘Best Worse Movie’ had been an hour long tv documentary rather than a cinematic release. If it had been it would have been a five star tv show rather than a three and a half star film.

The Ashes

In under twelve hours one of the oldest and greatest rivalries in sport begins again. England v Australia will cross bat and ball in the Ashes. England are seeking to win a mind blowing four consecutive series. As an Englishman who grew up watching Messrs Warne and McGrath munch their way through the hapless England team like a hungry lion the reversal of fortunes between the two sides is something glorious to behold. Do I think England will win the series then? Yes but I predict it will be much much closer than last time. With this in mind I thought I would preview the key areas of the upcoming Ashes match.

1)

Starting with my dear old thing Henry Blofeld. The Doyen of commentators with the most unique style of oratory that I have ever heard. Even if your are not a cricket fan I would highly recommend youtubing this picture postcard image of an Englishman whose father’s surname apparently inspired Ian Flemings Bond villan. Listening to his commentary never fails to put a smile on my face. His enthusiasm is infectious as he fills the listeners in on the local birdlife, the progress of the number 10 bus, the working habits of nearby cranes and Oh look he’s been bowled for a duck. Top quality entertainment that is not to be missed.

2)

Watching sport late at night is a very strenuous activity it is important to stay well carbed up as if one was running a marathon. I’m a personal fan of the late night sandwich. The key decision then is whether to go for a beer or a strong cup of coffee. I say if there is brown sugar then plump for the coffee.

3)


Preparation is vital remember there are no heroes where tiredness is concerned. Warm up for the night with a long afternoon nap so you can feel refreshed and awake come 3am.

4)

If there is one area where England outclass Australia it is in the spin bowling department. Last summer England exploited this preparing a series of pitches designed to favour spin bowling. This worked magnificently with Swann taking more wickets than any other bowler out of both teams. The pitches in Austrailia are unlikely to be so turn friendly so the question what role will Swann play. He will not be expected to bowl out the Australian team but with all the left handers in the Australian batting order he’s a good bet to chip in with important partnership breaking wickets. Australia need to keep Swann quiet if they are to have a happy series.

5)

But wait that’s two pictures are you just being lazy and not wanting to do a number six. No. Not at all. These pictures represent two sides of the same coin. On the left Australia’s pace attack and England’s top order. In the last series England’s top order underperformed. Whereas Australia’s pace attack stayed fit and were comfortably their biggest plus. The thought amongst pundits is that the same low slow turning pitches that so helped Swann worked against English batsmen such as Cook, Trott and Pieterson who enjoy pace on the ball. If this analysis has anything going for it (and I would tend to think so) then the conditions down under should be ideal to get back into form. Here’s hoping.

I’m off for my pre-match nap.

Cometh the Hour, Cometh Fellaini?

Man Utd are a hard squad to assess. On one hand they have great firepower upfront, wingers who on their day can be unplayable and the winning mentality of champions. On the other the spine of the team looks weak and arguably has for some time. Of particular concern is the central midfield area. Gone are the days when Keane and Scholes formed one of the top central midfield units in Europe. The central midfielders at David Moyes disposal are not of the same quality. There’s the chronically unfit Anderson, a player-coach Ryan Giggs who can no longer play every game, an injured Darren Fletcher, an out of position Paul Jones, an out of form Tom Cleverly, the metronomic Michael Carrick and the new boy him of the awesome afro Fellaini.

The brightest light amongst these options is undoubtedly Michael Carrick. A steady player Carrick distributed the ball in the unfussy manner that is probably as close to the retired Paul Scholes as any one currently in the premier league. The news of an achilles heel injury that will keep him out until at least Christmas is a massive blow. With the transfer window shut the player that needs to step up is the only real defensive midfield left Fellaini. Such is the paucity of Utd’s midfield options and the importance of the position that it is no exaggeration to say that Utd’s hopes of launching a competitive title challenge this year will turn likely turn on Fellaini’s performances over the next ten games. Utd may be the masters of the New Year title charge but an impressive January will only matter if they are close enough to the top teams.

The question is can Fellaini step up to the plate? His performances so far have been underwhelming. The dominant midfield presence of the Everton has been lacking with the stand out memory of his Utd career so far being a sending off against Real Sociedad. This lack of form is especially troubling since with over 100 premier league games under his belt the hope would surely have been that Fellaini would settle in quickly. Still Fellaini looks to be far too talented not to be a success at Utd. Furthermore, the weekend fixture against Cardiff should provide a perfect opportunity for Fellaini to find some form as the midfield battle against Gary Mendal is sure to be combative and this extra physicality might just spur Fellaini on. His team desperately need it to be so.

Batman: Under The Red Hood

Batman under the red hood poster.jpg

As opposed to doing anything productive I spent last night watching the DC animated film Batman: Under The Red Hood. Although not a comic book reader myself a steady diet of DC and Marvel cartoons growing up and the current wave of superhero films means that like almost everyone else I am familiar with the main players Batman, Spiderman, the Joker etc. I found the film to be really enjoyable. The plot is interesting and wacky enough to hold the attention and the Joker is exactly the sort of mad anarchist that was so enjoyable to watch in the Dark Knight. On top of this the score and character voices were fantastic and really added something to the experience. It comes to something when it is easier to understand the words of a cartoon then most of the actors in mainstream Hollywood films.

As someone who is not a huge comic book fan I would highly recommend this.

Big Brother has been here all along/Explaining Britishness

One of the peculiar aspects of the British national identity is that it is so hard to pin down into something that a majority of Brits would accept as being true. Unlike other countries there is no ‘Britain Day’ in which all things British are celebrated and cliches like the ‘stiff upper lip’ probably haven’t been true for many a decade (If you don’t believe me look at reality tv). How then can Britishness by identified. I believe the following story I am going to tell you gets to the heart of the matter better than many other things I have read.

Ever since George Orwell’s novel 1984 was published in  1949 the idea of ‘Big Brother’ watching us has entered into the English speaking world’s lexicon. The idea of a totalitarian government harnessing technology to spy and invade people’s lives has spawned countless films and novels. The issues of government spying and intrusion into the lives and emails of people has of course touched the political sphere. See for example the debate and discussion over Edward Snowden and his revelations into the extent of US surveillance of other citizens and world leaders.

Indeed perhaps the great fear of the zeitgeist is the loss of privacy coupled with debate over whether anyone cares about privacy anymore. I afterall am blogging theoretically to anyone with a computer. Millions and millions of people post details of their life on social networks. Millions of us use twitter to provide real time locations and narration of our lives. Privacy surely is dead.

It was with great amusement then that I read about long established (running from 1937 to the 1950s and restarted in the 80s) ‘Mass Observation’ project in Britain. This is a project which seeks to record Britain by recruiting ordinary people themselves to provide detailed observations on their daily lives. In the ‘Mass Observation’ archives there are reams and reams of information going back decades on all manner of things. Although if I had to guess it wouldn’t be dissimilar to things posted online today (there is probably even drawings of dancing cats). In many countries around the world this ‘Mass Observation’ project would generate hysteria and conspiracy theories. In Britain it has generated a BBC website article about the ten most interesting things we have learnt from the project. For example in the 1980s people struggled to spell Bob Geldolf’s name correctly or “the average time taken to drink half a pint of beer in pubs on a November Saturday night in Brighton in 1938 was 7.3 minutes”.

You see Big Brother has existed since before the war in Britain and public and private life has continued without thought or debate over the possibly Orwellian consequences of our actions. There is something uniquely British about this.

PS

The BBC article in question can be found here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24957664

Four Year Plan – A Sobering Reminder of Modern Football

“Well, professionals don’t run the football club, Brian. The chairman does. If it’s true football is all about money, that’s the way its going well. that suits us chairmen just fucking fine

because we’re the ones who’ve got it (emphasis my own)

from the film “The Damned United”

If “The Damned United” prophesied the modern chairman ‘The Four Year Plan’ shows what can happen when those words come to fruition.

“The Four Year Plan” follows the fortunes of QPR owners and billionaires Flavio Briatorre, Bernie Ecclestone, Lakshmi Mittal and Amit Bhatia (Mittal’s relative) from when they brought the west London club to the club’s promotion into the top flight. Notice here that I said it follows the owners and not the club because, throughout you are firmly shown that this is the owner’s story. Just over a minute has elapsed when the following notes appears on the screen “When they arrived, the new bosses brought in the cameras. Though they financed much of the filming they did not control were the cameras pointed or what ended up in the film.” This note is crucial because, it explains why and how the filmmakers followed the owners so tightly. Simply put the owners from the very beginning intended this to be about them and in that they succeeded. We get to see board meetings where the spending on flowers for corporate boxes is discussed and we get to see the executives yell and shout and it is for the most part entertaining. What we get very little of is insight from the manager and coaching staff. There is nothing about the form of player x or the need to do y because the next opposition are weak there. And this is not a criticism because the film is only tangentially connected to football. It is more a study in arrogance.

This is a film that follows the executives because they are of the conceit that they are the ones doing the stuff that really matters. They spend the money. They are best placed to pick the team. They are the competent ones. The film delights in showing just how far from the truth this can be. Flavio Briatorre takes centre stage and does his damnedest to manage the team personally. We watch him hire and fire managers in search of someone strong. Someone so strong that they will also accept tactical instructions sent via text mid-game. We watch Briatorre criticise a manager for playing too many players up front and conceding goals only to be seen in the next scene slamming the lack of forwards on the pitch. Indeed this film is so revealing regarding the antics of the boardroom that I am surprised that they allowed it to see the light of day.

Should you watch this film then? If you are interested in sport then I would say yes. “The Four Year Plan” will show you why you wish things were different. At numerous times during the film the disconnect between the owners and fans is clearly shown. Attendances are low and the home games seem devoid of atmosphere but there is no talk of dropping ticket prices. Even when the matter is raised by fans at forums the executives still appear to dance around the issue because, for them it is all about the money. If you are not a sports fan then my instinct would be that this is something to watch on a rainy day indoors but certainly nothing to search out.