Thursday, January 31, 2008

Jump Out the Window!

Ed. note: that was a long hiatus, wasn’t it? I’m going to post three times a week now, Saturday, Monday, and Thursday. I think that should cover the spread without things becoming stale.

The last day of the transfer window is upon us already – but as the Guardian pointed out recently, deals done at the last minute, much like the last-minute homework cobbled together by a struggling student, tend to bring further failure rather than miraculous success. It’s embarrassing to see a manager held in high esteem for his on-pitch organization scrambling around on the 31st of January like a man on the street with a box of receipts running to the post office ten to midnight on the last day to file his Income Tax. Shouldn’t you have deduced back in September the right-back that, once acquired in the January window, would for reasons related to Quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and Game Theory, be the missing mathematical piece to ensure a consistent Spring push for a UEFA Cup spot? Why instead is it 12:20 in the afternoon and suddenly you’ve found yourself in possession of one Wayne Routledge?

Well, Pobody’s Nerfect as the hat goes. The whole idea of windows is absurd, like a pathetic plot-twist in some sci-fi show (“The Ri-Kion Wormhole has a twenty-minute window for us to fly to the Rice Planet so we can feed the refugees of Gargledon; we must work quickly!”). In recent years I was happy to see Villa laying low for the whole process, maybe dropping a million on, say, Djemba-Djemba to throw everyone off (O’Leary, you genius!) whilst being careful not to give up our treasured midfield to some rich London club, yeah…they were jealous, weren’t they? And we seemed to have followed suit this year, even managing to guarantee a deficit of players for a team already among the tiniest in the top-flight. Because Aston Villa may not be big, but they're small. And sometimes, instead of rushing to meet some imposed deadline, it’s best not to hand in your homework at all but fake a doctor’s note and ask for an extension. Or set up a bung, whatever works.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Spurs; Africa; Hope for Football

First, a nod to Spurs tonight who have capped a wonderful week in football, with a riveting African Cup of Nations debut starring a cracker of a game with Egypt of all teams beating with sheer skill and tactical sturdiness Samuel E’too and Cameroon 4-2, Ghana’s great start against Guinea 2-1, Villa challenging Liverpool at Anfield with an inspired 2-2 draw, and today, a 5-1 rout of the would-be Premier League Champions at White Hart Lane. I take back any negative thoughts I ever had toward the Carling Cup, well, at least until Everton v. Chelsea tomorrow.

Second, having just finished Michael Pollan’s exceptional “In Defence of Food,” a book about the mass-marketing and production of ‘food-like substances’ and the consequent deterioration of traditional food-culture and the simple, inelegant home cooked meal, I found myself thinking of Eduardo Galleano’s remarks about football in the plastic, pastel-coloured present: “Obedience, speed, strength and none of those fancy turns: this is the mould into which globalization pours the game. Soccer gets mass-produced, and it comes out colder than a freezer and as merciless as a meat-grinder. It’s football for robots.”

Having passively watched the BSkyB-sponsored Big Four ‘Grand Slam’ Sunday in December, a day traditionally left for Church and rest in the Western calendar, I remember feeling that perhaps the Premier League with all its financial and ratings successes may have just stepped beyond itself and into territory where football, unlike many other sports, has no appeal. This is as mere ‘entertainment.’ As Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson once put it: ‘A myth has grown up that football should strive to be entertaining. Sport is not entertainment.’

Football can be thrilling like no other sport and as equally maddening. The brilliance of the game is its refusal to perform on command, to allow for commercial breaks, to be as good on TV as it is live, to refuse to provide seven goal thrillers between two Big Clubs vying to win the League but let the boring and useless domestic league cup produce nothing but thrilling goal-fests, in other words, to stoop to our level.

Football is football and yet, there we all are, cursing ourselves for being enveloped in a sport than brings so much misery even as it haphazardly, even cruelly doles out pockets of pleasure beyond what we thought possible on a Saturday afternoon. Perhaps, just perhaps, football will conquer the commercial onslaught that has made all the world a vending machine by getting stuck in the gears, by refusing to show itself like a somnambulant animal at the zoo, or to perform for us despite all the money we can throw at it. Results like those at home and abroad this week give hope.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Villa Forced to Drink a Tall-Bottle of Ruin

How often has Peter Crouch scored the goal that ruined everything? Perhaps, statistically, not as often as I think he has. But it sure felt like it today. We were to win this game, not playing well mind you. We were to win it simply because O’Neill was more apt to position his slabs of meat in useful spots on the grass than Mr. Benitez – ugly, turgid, hoofing ping-pong, exactly the game that pees in the ‘Pool these days. Keep your sixty-five percent possession, keep your chance after chance after chance, meanwhile, I’ll take scrip-scrappy football a la a Marlon Harewood equalizer and an Aurelio own goal. It was all done and dusted; after that Laursen-(who else?) inspired cock-up, the stage could not been more set for the clock to run down on a hopeless 2-1 defeat at Anfield and for Bert and Ernie soon after to call it curtains on the lispy Spaniard, bringing Villa’s count to Reliable Midtablers 2 – Managerial Supermen of England 0.

Then Crouchie, the cockblocker. I remember a similar feeling of ruin when he scored the master-class equaliser against Croatia. It felt like that scene in the horror movie when the relieved celebrations start ominously too soon; just as you blithely wander off, the bloody hand of Petric grabs you by the throat and reminds you your death was always in the script.

Somehow losing 2-1 to Croatia would have been enough to shake the English game to it’s core, to really scare the bejesus out of the FA and spark radical Football Soviets across England’s pleasant pastures green. Yet up went Crouch and ruined it by giving everyone hope. Well now he’s gone and given Rafa a three-week reprieve, the bastard. 2-1 to a tepid Villa with Harewood on the scoresheet at Anfield, Villa tied for fourth with Everton, all this after a limp-dicked draw at Boro: doom my friends, doom.

All I can say is I hope someone in Merseyside lets Crouch finally enjoy his damn nachos: he’s earned them.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Toronto FC Update

There’s been scant news coming out of Toronto’s BMO Field these past few months, but the latest tidbit emailed to me direct from club management (love the folksy touch) was worth reading. TFC has added fitness coach Paul Winsper to the backroom staff, a man with ten years experience working over there with Newcastle United. Presumably ‘experience’ in part means shaking his fists in the air every few months or so over Michael Owen’s latest mashed leg when he wasn’t overseeing ‘stars’ like Boumsong and Smith.

The addition to the staff is silent acknowledgement that TFC’s first team fitness troubles last year may have shared a common denominator. There were whispers around BMO over the summer, especially in the aftermath of Toronto’s friendly with the Villa which left Danny Dichio and Marvel Wynne out for great swaths of the rest of the season, that Mo Johnson wasn’t training his players properly between matches. Against the convention that a bad manager uses injuries as an excuse for bad performances, the injuries at TFC seemed to have a real impact on the first team; Toronto only ever performed at peak level when all the starting players, Dichio, Cunningham, Wynne, were match fit.

While the role of fitness coach hardly fires the imagination unless said coach is female, blonde, 115 lbs and into Lululemon, the position in the MLS is a hugely important one. Players in this league are either young and straight out the Collegiate system (Maurice Edu) or old and washed up, usually on the last legs of their career (Danny Dichio). Additionally the team rosters in Major League Soccer tend to be small and the season shorter than in Europe, so teams can ill-afford to have any player suffer longer-term knacks. Whether or not this has a big impact on the season obviously remains to be seen, but it does indicate that this winter, someone in the MLSE actually might know what they’re doing.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

To Be a Villan

Who would true valour see, let him come thither. Well, to be fair it was only Reading. Yet with hand firmly placed faux-oak Ikea desk, after a marvellous 3-1 decision at home this weekend the Villa may have well and truly proved they’re a top seven club, at least for the time being.

However long ‘the time being’ turn outs to be is an open question. Having already dodged the threat of O’Neill somehow warming to the charms of Brian Barwick (a tall order if there ever was one), Villa sits precariously in the January transfer window with two of the best young wingers currently in the Premiership. Their English origins will likely over-inflate their price-tags, but with the ascendancy of the Winger with the continued success of Christiano Ronaldo over at Manure, Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor may seem like tantalizing prospects for a certain struggling, soon to be manager-less (you heard it here folks!) Big Four club, if not now then certainly over the summer.

Villa without the two players looks dismal. While Laursen and Mellberg are as secure as they’ve ever been, the back still looks shaky with Zat Knight taking time to get in his stride. Carew is on form at the moment, but in the area he tends to manoeuvre like a Greyhound bus trying to parallel park at Safeway. Gardiner can be great as we saw back at White Hart Lane. Barry continues to be Barry, which is mostly a good thing when he doesn’t buy tabloid national team hype. But the fact that Martin Laursen is second only to Gabby in goals coupled with Villa’s lethal finishing on set-pieces points to excellent service, even better than the Indian restaurant on Queen West, Babur’s. Take away the service and all you’ve got is some soggy nan and some paneer that tastes like rubber.

O’Neill is aware of the fragility of the squad and has already warned off clubs from approaching Young and Agbonlahor (which seemed oddly to me like an invitation). We may see some surprises as January progresses. The squad needs expanding; it is, as O’Leary used to point out after every single loss under his tenure, one of the smallest teams in the Premiership. Yet there are many positives, biggest of all being Martin O’Neill’s healthy relationship with Randy Lerner and his commitment to the club. The players look happy and resilient as their bounce-back from both the Carling Cup and the FA Cup has demonstrated. We shall see when the cracks form. But for now, I’m just happy to be on level with one of the best Big Four clubs in the Premiership: Manchester City.

POST SCRIPT: Apparently this jerk supports the Villa 'because the name sounds like a nice spa.'

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Big Goodbye

Another one bites the dust. This time new management finally gave Big Sam the Big Sleep half-way through what has been a very poor season for Newcastle. I never liked Allardyce, even when Bolton seemed to be on the verge of a Champions League spot and many were chiming for him to take the England job after Sven, back when everyone was so na├»ve about domestic managers, so care free…

It was a long-ball too far for Allardyce whose playing style didn’t exactly capture the imagination at St. James’ Park. Things started to go ass-over-tea kettle for Newcastle after a series of hopeless home losses, the most brutal to a merciless Portsmouth four-one. The hope at the beginning of the season seemed to vanish almost on the first day; I remember the lovely August morning when I had to sit out on the balcony and tune the radio to hear the Toon rip into Bolton three-one as my new cable subscription went all stillborn after one day of service. Anelka’s second-half strike seemed to telegraph Big Sam’s failures early on; a bad defence and the incapability to impose a game-winning presence on inferior sides.

It’s funny but no one has mentioned even in passing how awful Newcastle’s players have been up to this point. Martins, Viduka, Alan Smith, Joey ‘Ubermensch’ Barton, what a handful of steaming chum in Big Sam’s giant hands. Admittedly, skill-friendly formations may not have been Allardyce’s strong suit; the fact that Ivan Campo still managed to make the first team at the Reebok was in part indication of Sam’s preference for the ugly ‘hoof-and-chase’ of yore. But it should be noted that despite all the negative hype this is still the preferred method of some fairly successful managers in the Premiership, Svenny G included.

So the verdict? It’s good to remember that Real Madrid in the 50s and early 60s, one of the best European sides in history, basically ran on managerial autopilot because of the discipline and technical standards of the players on the pitch. Maybe if England focussed less on bringing up children who think they can break the big time by acing Football Manager on difficult, and more on bringing up children who can work a football through the midfield and into the box, we might rely less on the Allardyces of the world and more on the Leonel Messis.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Sepp's Blather

Don Capello certainly made his impression on me the other night after the four hundred and sixty-eighth cut-away to his iron gob on the eve of his first day on the six-million pound a year job, in more ways than one. Certainly it was joy to remark that there is more surging, youthful England talent in Villa’s first team than in the whole of London at the moment, and Capello’s tacit acknowledgement of this fact by travelling all the way to horrible Brum for an FA Cup tie is very welcome indeed.

Yet behind all the good cheer there was the nagging sensation of a squawking, irate, fat little man with a name that brings to mind the need to take a piss. Sepp Blatter remarked with his trademark timing that Capello’s appointment broke the ‘sacrosanct law’ that big national teams with big histories should bloody-well appointment a big (in the English case, big means in girth only) domestic manager. English players, English manager, English national team. On the surface, sure, in the highly unlikely event of an English trophy I don’t want to have to deal with sour grapes Italians rubbing the manager’s national identity in my face any more than the next guy. Yet can’t we look to the enormous positive of an extraordinarily talented foreign coach teaching the game to a nation which, while duly credited for bringing football to the world, has been left behind by its vastly superiorly-talented children?

The Premiership is proof positive that, over one hundred years after England’s white Christian elites came up with the Game to prevent boys from ransacking villages, England is still at the forefront of world football. While FIFA and UEFA cry out for domestic players for domestic clubs, for domestic managers for national teams, for nations to remain nations in an increasingly mashed-up, decreasingly nationalistic world, England is proving a beacon having created a pulsating domestic league featuring the national talents of tens if not hundreds of countries from around the world. It’s perhaps the second-best football league on the planet. More on this tomorrow.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Big Four Oh

You, dear non-existent reader, might not have surmised it from the games I’ve surveyed on this blog, but I hate the English Big Four. In fact, I entirely despise the gazillion dollar, pound, Euro worth of the top sixteen clubs in Europe. I understand the storied history of these clubs and why we’re supposed to not mind that only a handful of European clubs win leagues and UEFA competitions every year: the Munich air disaster, Di Stefano and Puskas, the Old Lady, Der Grosse Clubbe der Deutschland keine Historie whatsoeverkeit. But just because your club was coached by Bill ‘Life-and-Death’ Shankly doesn’t mean you still have a God-given right to the Premiership after 18 years of failure.

Case in point; how is it for the second year in a row Manchester United take on Aston Villa in the third round of the FA Cup? Not that the Cup is much use to anyone in England these days, outside of providing an eccentric glass of final-match-of-the-season celebratory champagne. But it would have been a nice thing for my Villa working as hard as they have been over Christmas to draw, say, Woking, or even Oldham who wonderfully beat Everton this past weekend. It’s not like Manchester United, despite the righteous spitting of the British press, are a better team than Villa, it’s just that we always lose to them. It’s part of our recent heritage. And surely Manchester United knew this when they paid off the FA to draw us for the Third Round.

The real point is the finer, non-Big Four clubs in England today view a place in the UEFA Cup or a Carling Cup final berth as the height of glory. And perhaps that’s ultimately not good for football, capitalism and 100 million South East Asian viewers be damned.

Post Script: Although no one really reads this, I apologize for the Christmas delay in posting. Won’t happen again.