Where’s your famous atmosphere?

I thought it had all ended, but then realised I’d forgotten that they’d have to play a rematch. The match reports were written about 10 days ago. If Bolton had won, it was because Fabrice Muamba’s plight had given them a hardened inner-resolve, the like of which we hadn’t seen on the field of play since Agincourt. If Bolton had lost, it would obviously be because their minds were elsewhere.

Yep, their minds were elsewhere: 3-1 Spurs.

Commentary on the Muamba collapse has seen a split between the self-congratulatory; those for whom the act of applauding rather than booing a man at death’s door is seen as cause for feelings of intense pride, and those of a more, dare I say it, objective viewpoint. I hope you won’t think less of me (doesn’t matter if you do: I don’t exist anyway) for siding with the latter. I truly tried not to jump in with the sanctimonious non-football going wankers, but alas, couldn’t help it.

Grieving has been a national sport since Diana, and everyone is still seemingly over-compensating; for fear that if they don’t someone will notice, and take them to task on it. Maybe even on the telly – the horror! This is football’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Be seen not sobbing/ not looking concerned/ playing gaily in a flowery meadow, and your loyal sprog will dob you in to the righteous moral authority that is – sick bag out – the “football family.” Presumably the same  tight-knit “family” who sung all those hilarious Adebayor/ elephant ditties.

It’s an offset of the well-reported outrage phenomenon. Everyone is constantly on tenterhooks, ever-willing to be offended so as to give their whining a deeper gravitas. Consider the Labour MP Angela Eagle who moaned at Cameron’s anaemic “calm down, dear” line: she was so ‘outraged’ that she then inadvertently went on to vindicate the PM’s choice of words by embarrassingly professing her fury on television. Silly tart. Oh but I’m doing it for women across the country! Etc. etc.

As Marina Hyde rightly questioned on the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast: where does it all go from here? I.e. do we now forget Muamba totally, or do we gradually dilute the sentiment to a series of pats on the backs and warm handshakes?

To be honest I’m more concerned with the eulogies and shrines in his honour; which one has to hope are cleared up before he finally gets out of bed. Imagine seeing shirts, flowers and candles laid out for you – you’d be utterly convinced of your own death, and subsequently that you were now in some sort of Sixth Sense-esque afterlife.

You have to feel for the poor guy. If the heart-attack didn’t finish him, the mawkish interviews – no doubt already having been planned to the nth degree by some soppy saps in Isleworth and White City – should see that he never makes a full recovery. Adrian Chiles simply has to get the first interview; the last thing you’d need post-coronary would be Dan Walker’s Christian virtue coiling its way around your helpless person. Adrian would provide a stoic distance, dropping a few “glad your back, mate” lines as opposed to Walker’s “we’re sooooo happy your back in our lives.” Roy Keane would be a useful addition as a reminder of the brutality of the modern world, and could step in manfully with the Kleenex when it all gets a bit much for sensitivity’s Gareth Southgate.

What makes it all the more ridiculous is that you know full well that when a fully recovered Fabrice Muamba – touch wood – brings down your flash Spanish creative type with his all his fancy-Dan passing and tactical thinking-about-the-game twaddle, you’ll scream some ungodly obscenity – either out loud (working class) or inside your noggin (middle-class) baying for his head on a plate. You can see the message boards now:

“Muamber all-ways gos down cos of wot happened – e knows the ref will simpathise wiv him and be afrayed of gettin in the headlines for bein r@cist!!!,” BrooksyBRFC4eva will write in some dimly-lit teenage wank-chamber in a forgotten corner of Britain.

“Pray 4 Muamba.”

Now, call me a stiff with woeful lack of perspective, but would it have been wholly unreasonable to have just written the word ‘for’ in there as opposed to the text message equivalent? I’d understand if he wore the number 4 shirt, but he doesn’t. Poor old Michael Gove (he Daily Express-ed). If these footballers are the role-models we’re told to believe they are, then they could at least do their bit to contribute to the urgently required improvement in spelling amongst the nation’s failures-in-waiting.

“Thank you for your support for Fabrice,” was adorning various t-shirts on Tuesday. Bit clumsy, innit? Repetition of ‘for’ over a seven word sentence? Seriously guys, that’s just not good enough. Notice we’re now on first name terms, as this is a SERIOUS ISSUE. He’s no longer Muamba, he’s Fabrice, and solemnity abounds. I.e. Wayne has had a baby; Rooney has scored a goal. I don’t quite know what sort of human wouldn’t offer a show of support to a man who’d suffered a heart attack, and if there is one, I’m yet to meet him/ her. In addition, seeing various teams adorned in Muamba tribute tees, one couldn’t help but be reminded of just how misguided those Suarez tops were. I only wear it to bed now.

On the other hand, Rowan Williams must be delighted. This has probably been Christian church’s biggest coup since Kaka’s “I belong to Jesus” Topman t-shirt; God’s tap on the shoulder to the ipod-immersed generation. Wazza Rooney let his however many million sheep on Twitter know that Muamba was ‘in his prayers’, presumably in addition to a wage increase and Coleen not seeking a divorce.

In a move in keeping with modern Christianity, Muamba has inadvertently become an industry. The poor lad’s in danger of coming round to Fabrice Muamba Day every year for the rest of his poor life, which should ensure he’s never allowed to forget what happened, or put it behind him. Indeed it’s a small wonder altruism’s David Beckham hasn’t shown up at the poor old boy’s bedside (at time of writing) offering his arm round the shoulder + steely gaze to the baying pack of photographers in tow.

However, science is proving a worthy adversary to the cross. Those proposing that the whole affair has been “a miracle” are not to be sniffed at, but some may argue medicine had a role to play too. In this light, isn’t it now time we started lavishing praise on clubs for charging ban-bustingly high ticket prices, which price out the unskilled worker in favour of the professional?

Dr Andrew Deaner’s risqué assertiveness led to Muamba being driven further away, to a more specialist hospital; a triumph of professional cool-headedness. Lots of fans cop a lot of stick for their non-support, with many grounds subsequently derided by so called ‘better fans’ for their rejection of emotion and general on-the-day madness. With this in mind, I think I’d most like to play for Fulham. Just imagine the expertise around you pending a breakdown of some description: finance, law, medicine would be totally covered. Also, the Cottage is so quiet you could be guaranteed that if you did suffer a sudden medical ailment, you could lie there fully-assured the various do-gooders would be able to communicate in a surgery-like environment. God forbid Muamba – or rather Fabrice – had collapsed at the Britannia with all its horrible shouting and atmosphere; you’d have 30,000 up for murder. Hopefully we’ll soon get fans boasting about how many degrees their average season-ticket holder has.

Malcolm Glazer’s reported intention to seek investment in the Singaporean stock-market seems silly in this light. He should have just made an appeal for bidders over the tannoy:

“Could the owner of the Ferrari with the twaty personalised number plate please move it out of Bebe’s parking spot – yes, we know he’s crap – and email joelglazer@yahoo.com with the latest news from the far east?”

Perhaps some helpful banker could just “do a Deaner” and just run onto the pitch, skilfully manipulating the simpleton in the hi-vis jacket to let him on the field through Etonian-charm and terrifying phrases like ‘leveraged-buyout’, ‘commodity pattern of trade’ and finally just “sell, sell, sell!!!” It’s surprising United haven’t struck a deal with the FT, who could relay the latest headlines on the digital advertising hoardings. Then again I suppose if some unexpected news came through regarding an oil-rig explosion in the middle-east the stadium could quite easily empty, which would completely diminish the visceral anger of Wazza ripping his top off after smashing in another against Citeh.

Since Dr. Deaner became a national hero, you have to wonder whether Roy Keane feels a bit silly over his slating of the Old Trafford faithful-till-a-better-team-comes-along for their choice of sandwich filling.  With a more vociferous middle-class crowd, we might have seen a spokesperson come back at him with: “Well I bet your wages aren’t working for you nearly as hard as you they could be, you ISA-loving small-timer,” and so forth. Hopefully the praise lavished over Dr Andrew Deaner will give the professional-classes a voice inside stadia across the nation (in the Premier League at least) as Richard Scudamore finally realises the dream of “fahkin no atmosphere in there” becoming the new “oh my days bruv the place was fuckin bouncin!”

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Drugs in Sport

Everybody. In it together. Obviously.

Oh dear. On Monday Kenny Dalglish laid bare the crisis engulfing Liverpool, appearing to conduct an interview ahead of the derby game against Everton under the influence of popular party drug Ecstasy.

“The club is now where it was before – each one for each one, everybody in it together.”

Cripes.

So euphoric was the Liverpool manager one felt compelled to check he hadn’t borrowed that line from Original Pirate Material. It turns out he hadn’t; despite the shared sentiment. What club exactly Dalglish was referring to I’ve no idea, but assembled hacks were worried the deluded Liverpool gaffer may have been discussing The Hacienda, which certainly isn’t “where it was before.” Unless of course he was speaking spiritually, in which case it may well be; I wouldn’t know. Dalglish appears to have wholly convinced himself of Liverpool’s position at the top of the Premier League Positive Vibe table.

“You look around here [at Melwood] and most of the people have got a smile on their faces now.” I’ll bet they have. As a journalist, this brought back personal memories of all those times under Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez when you’d drive into Anfield before a game and your car would aquaplane on the tears shed by the disgruntled staff and players. I managed to grab one of the long-term cleaners, and asked her whether things had improved under Dalglish’s stewardship.

“Immeasurably,” she replied. “Kenny’s completely shifted the points-mean-prizes paradigm we’d unwittingly been slaves to our whole lives.”

One journo – Dalglish’s daughter, Kelly Cates, rather disturbingly – asked him whether he was concerned by his side’s alarming inability to score goals?

“Goals, goals, goals – open your mind up girl. Have you seen eleven guys going harder at it this season? Every week we put out a side capable of the highest quality raving for 90 minutes. That’s why I bought Big Andy. I’ve read some total nonsense regarding Stewart Downing’s ability to front up to the challenges laid before him. That’s just the way he raves – he’s totally in his own mind, man. If people want to run round him it doesn’t mean he’s not avin’ it as hard as they are. He always owns the left hand side of any dance-floor he steps foot on. He just goes to get drinks pretty regularly.”

“Um… are you okay, dad?” a concerned Cates followed up.

“If it’s good for them, then it’s good for morale, and it’s good for the club,” he answered, before winking at the cameras and adjusting his tie-knot. The moment that confirmed our suspicions as to whether he was on something was when he went off on one about the new kit deal, as if this represented some new addition to the trophy cabinet.

“Off the pitch, especially, the club is a lot stronger than what it was,” he droned, wrapping his knuckles hard over the table before him; looking to prove this vacuous assertion. Dalglish then let slip that he plans to spend the summer clothed in a hemp rag driving across America, experimenting with all manner of hallucinogenic substances, with a view to possibly ascertaining a truth even higher than financial success.

“There are many ways you can judge a season and the best way is progress at the football club as a whole. I don’t think it necessarily relates to trophies or points,” he existential-ed. “The best season I ever had was Summer ‘97. Trance was just beginning to take a hold on dance music and Gatecrasher was the place to be. Hugging Robbie Fowler at Jules’s night was out of this world.”

The presser was temporarily interrupted when Dalglish got a call from Jay Spearing – which he duly put on speakerphone – who wanted to know when Dalglish was going to pay his brother’s mate’s cousin for the gear, and revealed that he was currently being held at knife-point in the Toxteth branch of KFC.

“I’ll pay him yesterday,” said Dalglish. “Chill out,” he reasoned, before starting to eat the phone.

“You’re an embarrassment Kenny,” a journalist from the Express exclaimed to the now drooling Liverpool manager, who was busying himself massaging a press officer’s shoulders and telling him how great he was. “A total fucking embarrassment.”

“Hang on,” Dalglish replied, his face lighting up like a strobe, “didn’t you get me a beer at Creamfields?” he asked, as he was dragged away by police.

S_R A_ _X _E_ _US_N

That was the real quiz, that was the real quiz.

Huge fan of Soduku. And Poker, for that matter. The Telegraph’s Cryptic Crossword is always a fun hour, too. In fact, any game that engenders a total consummation of one’s mental faculties is fine by me – that’s why I love football.

For the past twenty five years or so, English football fans have been treated to some of the most delicious ruses imaginable by the sport’s favourite socialist knight of the realm, Lord Ferg. His press transcripts read like Ulysses, but fortunately translators and decipherers come in the form of hacks, who for our benefit seek to bridge the gulf between genius and fan. One such luminary is Paul Wilson of The Guardian, who had this to say a week or so ago in response to Ferg saying that if United can beat Spurs they’d have a big chance of winning the league:

We are about to discover whether the most successful manager in the business can really be worth an extra point or two to his players by virtue of the way he conducts his campaign away from the pitch.”

Quite, Paul. We really, truly are. That is definitely what we’re about to discover. You won’t find one bookmaker in the country foolish enough to turn their back on the Mind Game market; I myself whacked 100 of the Queen’s finest at 1/3 on the two Manc clubs being tied on points, goal-difference and goals-scored come May, only to be separated in United’s favour by Ferg’s achievement in having more column inches written about him than Mancini over the season.

Ah the Halcyon days of Ferg vs Keegan; undeniably an ESPN Classic Mind Game. I mean after all, Keegan has shown over years that he’s nothing if not a cold-blooded robot, capable of championing rationality over passion as and when he plea… oh.

Just three journalists are now allowed into Ferg’s pressers at Old Trafford these days (at time of writing), with the others having been banned for asking banal questions supposedly loaded – in the mind of the great one, no less – with innuendo and agenda.

Or so you’d think. The actual reason for the scarcity of reporters is not because they’ve been banned, or have chosen deliberately not to go and see an old man talk at the pace of a limp snail about whether Johnny Evans or John O’Shea has less of a social life, but rather because they don’t possess the brain-power to fully and confidently interpret the multi-layered responses.

That’s why the old boy is so dreadfully joyless. It’s not that he’s irritated with these hacks for posing questions that tip-toe around the issue of Ryan Giggs’ simply breath-taking sex-life, rather that they don’t understand his retorts, or indeed, exactly what it is they themselves are asking in the first place.

It’s for this reason that we should consider ourselves particularly lucky to have Gary Neville in the Sky Studio at this time, for he will perhaps be able to go some way to revealing the deep trains of thought that lead to such cognitive outbursts; and dare I say it, contribute to his former employer’s quest for the title – probably in a more effective way than he did for his last few seasons at right-back anyway.

Yes Gary is Alex’s man in the studio, a feat of espionage only Ferg himself could pull off. Anyone who saw Nev “trip up” over the most basic of formal introductions when interviewing Mancini at the start of the season will have acknowledged the presence of an ulterior motive at work. Mancini was left bamboozled by Gaz’s idiosyncratic syntax, and I’m personally quite prepared to accept that City’s Champions League failure was the direct result of Nev mind-fucking poor Roberto. If you didn’t catch it, you can watch it again, and again, and again, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTakRm-0ypE

In light of all this brain-battling, will we soon see players forgo traditional put-the-cones-out-in-a-line coaching positions, choosing instead to jolly off to university to read about how Zimbardo’s prison experiment can be related to the dressing room? Tell someone they’re a shit player, and they will be etc.; relayed in the language of academia? Should this become reality, Motivator of Men ‘Arry will no doubt find himself sipping on a Margaux ‘53 in one of those old-looking gaffs somewhere in Oxford, as guest speaker in the How To Make Players Feel On Top Of The World module. Thinking about which players would be keen to embark on such a psychiatric journey kept me amused for roughly four minutes.*

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” + “madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” = me copying Ferg to a successful outcome.

In meticulously following the unshakeable logic of the above equation, I comprehensively out-thought and defeated my dear old mum today. Looking back on it, the poor woman didn’t stand a chance. I was initially inspired by an article in the Manchester Evening News, which proclaimed, on the basis of Ferg calling into question City’s title experience: “The Mind Games Begin”, without even the merest hint of uncertainty. Well, that settles it then: they have. Expect hitherto empty seats across the country to suddenly be snapped up by those in need of a low-budget psychological thrill-fix, with fans praying that their manager can this week instigate some subliminal killer blow to the mind of their promotion chasing rivals. But back to the kitchen.

“Would you like a cup of tea, darling?” she said helplessly, utterly oblivious to the torrent of deviousness I was about to pour down her lugholes.

“Oh,” I said, “are you experienced enough to make one?” I turned aside, smirking long and hard into my shoulder.

“I think so, I’ve made hundreds before.”

“Have you?” I said, my knowing grin now barely repressible.

“Yes,” she replied; quite reasonably in fairness.

She filled up the kettle with cold water, taking care not to exceed the ‘max’ mark on the water scale. Flicking the switch to “ON”, she took two mugs out the cupb… CRASH! BANG! WALLOP!

1-0.

“Oh no!” She exclaimed. “It’s always happens to the things you like the most.” I half-heartedly agreed, laughing hysterically at my manifest predictions. She’d crumbled. I’m now calling her “Mumcini” in honour of Ferg’s latest victim, which has also left her baffled due to an interest in football comparable to Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s.

Anyway, in conclusion, Manchester United win football matches because they have better players than other teams.

*You definitely thought Gareth Southgate too.

Ing-ger-land Ing-ger-land Ing-ger-land…

Men of the people

The FA are in no rush to appoint the next England manager, we read this week. Some appear a touch perturbed by this, as if our chance of winning a match – let alone the tournament – depends on the right man for the job being installed post haste. In view of every tournament I’ve ever seen bar Euro ’96, the presence of a stable long term manager in its run up has never seemed particularly conducive to success on the field of play.

Unsurprisingly, the media appear to be the main perpetrators. Earlier this week Henry Winter bemoaned Pearce’s decision not to name the captain for Holland (h) until the day of the game on Twitter, typing:

“Pearce decided who #eng captain would be 2 weeks ago. So why delay announcement until tomorrow? Unnecessary uncertainty,” before grabbing his handbag and trotting off to the ladies to apply copious amounts of lippy in preparation for his weekly writhe over David Bernstein’s lap.

Unnecessary uncertainty? Well it’s no wonder I didn’t sleep on Tuesday. This ‘divine right to know’ in such a damning of Pearce’s modus operandi is really quite startling, albeit hardly unsurprising. How do we know he didn’t tell Scott Parker two weeks ago? Also, what if Parker had been injured the day before the game? Fair play to Pearce in his handling of this (non) issue, the only people he’s annoyed in this ‘decision’ are the hacks who were perilously close to having to write about actual, muddy boots ‘n all football, as opposed to its pseudo-political off-shoots.

Much as we’re lead to believe, England is not some sort of 24 hour concern, nor a ubiquitous elephant in the room in the lives of anyone involved with it. Many of the players following the same old same old script against the Dutch on Wednesday night have got a Premier League denouement to worry about, a competition which at the summit is infinitely more impressive than anything England’s purveyors of route one could hope to achieve. The next England match isn’t until May, and I sincerely hope the manager is revealed by Adrian Chiles fifteen minutes before kick-off.

I daresay the lack of a figurehead/ whipping-boy will be advantageous in the short term, keeping the players on their toes perhaps, and not allowing anyone to experience the indignity of being called a horribly matey nickname by some under-qualified idiot you don’t respect like Steve McClaren. This latest FA trick could also be disconcerting for the opposition in England’s group, who will perhaps be less inclined to attack our lads for fear of losing to A) England, and B) Manager-less England; and thereby risk conceding to the annual Walcott-lead counter attack that does grant a goal. If I were in the FA’s position and was offered three 0-0 draws, I’d bite the donors hand off; safe in the knowledge that the PR dept could reel off the ‘England undefeated at the Euros’ headlines.

Anyway, editors across the country are dying to pull the trigger to commence the Race for An Arbitrary Interview With ‘Arry, where our knight-in-waiting tells us wrongly that it’s the biggest job in world football and that it’s a proud day for both him and his family. Even Sandra new that. I really hope ‘Arry sticks two fingers up to protocol and forgoes the Club Wembley interview sat next to Adrian Bevington (surely the definitive football suit name), instead doing as ‘Arry does, and speaking to the assembled press pack with one arm resting on the window of a boy-done-good car in the jaws of the entrance to Tottenham’s training/ over-glamorised five-a-side facility, flicking cigar ash triumphantly over the cameras. Naturally expect Sky to attempt a sneaky little stunt and nab first dibs on ‘Arry’s amazing mind, calling in a favour from the gorgeous Jamie.

Sky will perhaps find themselves a little torn emotionally with the advent of ‘Azza’s managerial reign of mediocrity, for as the elected embodiment of the Best League in the World, we will soon see him twitching throughout humble terrestrial households, prompting millions of hitherto unknowing souls across this green and pleasant land to exclaim: “He’s just like us! He’s one of us! He’s exactly-just-like-identical-inseparable-from one of us! Dad, get in here now! Mum, pop the kettle on.” With this in mind I do hope Sky are planning the mother of all farewells for the old fox before he breaks up with them, no doubt lead by that grey-haired enthusiast “out there in the field” somewhere in Norf London – who I’m convinced is also operating Spurs’ training ground gates – blubbing uncontrollably into his microphone.

One supposes that where Sky benefit most is in Azza’s propensity to discuss players belonging to other clubs who he is definitely isn’t interested in, and then signs an hour later; which gives them a fighting chance of filling each passing hour on Sky Sports News with something approaching originality. His gift of the gab will become somewhat redundant with England (it’s no wonder club football’s better really is it?), as unfortunately the players “I’d love to ‘ave ‘ere” will not be an issue of contractual and financial clout, but rather down to the much more mundane issue of passports. Having said that, if anyone can instigate a misgiving over a man’s nationality, it’ll be ‘Arry.

It’s imperative that in his first few months on the job, ‘Arry is allowed a transitional period in which he can readjust the workings of his mind to his new surroundings and parameters. Don’t scoff when he says of the Ghanaian Kevin Prince-Boateng: “Sure we’d love to have him here at England, a player like that, sure. But it’s not up to me – it’s up to the Prime Minister, who’s been excellent to me.” It won’t help the team and that – it’s too easy to forget, I know – is “what it’s all about.”

On the plus side, HMRC will be relieved that they won’t have to spend another 6 million of our English pounds chasing the wily old fox in court over unpaid taxes, as the FA’s dealings should – rather boringly – be fully above board.

It remains to be seen whether ‘Azza’s ascension to the role of England Manger sees a reversal of the decision to rename September 1st‘Arry’s Ded Lyne Day’; the honour bestowed upon Mr Redknapp for his services to extending the traditional deadline day cut-off point to suit one’s own need. To be fair it I suppose it was the logical consequence of what ‘Az himself revealed in court, i.e. “I write like a two year old.” With this in mind and in the spirit of school exams, I suppose it’s only fair that he gets 15% extra time to complete his wheelings and dealings. Critics of this extended time allowance have long relayed the view that “you don’t get 15% extra time in the real world, mate”, but then anyone claiming football is a part of the real world is clearly an idiot anyway, and would instantly qualify for an extra 30% of time themselves to complete even the most rudimentary of paperwork tasks. Now he won’t be involved in the buying and selling of young men, we may well just be left with the comparatively lacklustre Transfer Deadline Day, on August 31st… ‘Arry please don’t go.