Friday, July 31, 2009

Enter The Dragon

Theo, Duncan, Peter, Deborah, James

So Dragons’ Den is back for another run (series seven for the pedants). The only concession to the credit crunch is a ludicrous new opening title sequence in which the five Dragons stand menacingly in an apocalyptic wasteland in front of a derelict warehouse, as if they are about to re-make Death Wish with a vigilante in a suit.

Although still better than most of the brainless rubbish on television, it does feel like the show might have run its course. The basic premise is well-known: entrepreneurs pitching for investment from the notional fire-breathers, five venture capitalists willing to invest their own money in exchange for equity. Investors backing innovative British ideas with their own hard-earned cash - sounds good, doesn’t it? Of course, the show could alternatively be presented as a bunch of egotistical, tax-avoiding self-publicists being paid BBC licence money to boost their careers, but that would never fly.

The worst thing about the Den is the predictability of it all. Every show follows the same structure as all the others with a series of failed pitches culminating in the last item always securing an investment. Want to know whether a budding entrepreneur will get his funding? Just look at your watch. This series has thrown a curve ball into the traditional script by occasionally letting the first pitch also get some money, but essentially the programme’s editing is unchanged with its obsession on building up to a “big finish”.

"Come here, my precious"

Actually, I tell a lie. The worst thing about the show is its increasing Americanization a.k.a. dumbing-down with a totally unnecessary commentary from wonky-eyed host Evan Davis, taking a break from starring as Gollum in Lord of the Rings.

Dragon: "I'll offer you £50,000 for 25% of your business".

Evan Davis voice-over: "The team has been offered £50,000 for 25% of the business"

Yes, I know that, probably because I’m watching the show. The Dragon just said it, I heard it and my brain somehow managed to register this complex point.

Then, we have an increasingly tired series of cringe-making puns, as if the show would like to be Blind Date for businessmen. In the first show of the new series, Evan Davis dismissed some of the more idiotic ideas with some real gems: praising the Polish vodka pitch for having "plenty of spirit"; sympathising with the creator of a horsebox gadget who "had too much riding on her product"; and, for a hangman's noose-style cat collar, quipped, unforgivably: "it fell to Peter Jones to give the catastrophic news." Maybe the Dragons could make better use of their cash by buying some better gags.

"Shaddup your face"

Evan Davis’ contract must also stipulate that every show he has to utter his line that “under the rules of Dragons’ Den, they have to leave with all the money they came for”, as if the rules of this glorified game-show are as intricate as chess. The presenter’s role is completely redundant, so Evan should do us all a favour and take his “face for radio” back to, er, radio.

As for the Dragons, the gang is unchanged this season:

  • Peter Jones – a man truly in love with himself, despite being a dead ringer for Big Foot. Often caught on camera glancing at his fellow Dragons in a smug, superior manner. You get the impression that he considers himself the trendiest Dragon, as he is the youngest on the panel. As if his absurd coloured socks were not enough to dispel that impression, then surely his investment in the joke “indie” band Hamfatter knocked the final nail into the coffin. It’s hard to imagine that the increasingly chubby Jones used to be a keen tennis player. Very keen on making sure that the entrepreneurs are appropriately suited and booted, I wonder how he would react if Steve Jobs were to enter the Den: “I don’t care about the Mac, iPod or iPhone, I cannot invest in a man wearing a black turtleneck and jeans”.
  • Theo Paphitis – continually makes tiresome references to “Mrs. P” and “my children’s inheritance” like a Greek-Cypriot version of the godfather. For some bizarre reason, he seems to believe that he is the funniest man on the planet with a taste for really awful puns: “I don’t like your invention of biscuits for cheese. In fact, if I invested in that, I would be *crackers*” Boom, and indeed, boom. On the other hand, he did demonstrate an excellent sense of humour when he was chairman of Millwall FC by campaigning against football hooliganism and then appointing Dennis Wise, the taxi drivers’ friend, as his manager. In the first episode of the current series, he lambasted the inventor of environmentally friendly patio heaters, “I find you arrogant, rude and insulting”, though he may also have been looking into a mirror at the time.
  • Deborah Meaden – known for her deep pockets, she rarely makes an investment. When she does splash the cash, it is so often in partnership with Theo that they should really be considered as one Dragon. It is hard to move away from the idea that she is the “token woman” on the panel, as she is clearly far less wealthy than the others. That’s fine, but she could spare us the long-winded explanations, as we know she’s not going to invest. Memorably impersonated by Harry Enfield in Harry and Paul’s parody of the show, though since then she has evidently spent some of her money on a make-over, as the cat-fish with lank blond hair was not a good look for her (or indeed anyone).
  • Duncan Bannatyne – Glasgow hard man, who prides himself on being the most brutal, dismissive Dragon. Occasionally, we see his softer side, usually when the person making the pitch ticks the following boxes: female, young, easy on the eye. He is sporting a strange new haircut this series, where the side parting makes it look like he’s been hit on the head with an axe, though it could just be the worst wig that money can buy. He is by far the wealthiest of the Dragons, which may be the source of his regular conflicts with Peter Jones, which is one of his most endearing qualities.
  • James Caan – bears an uncanny resemblance to a Bond villain, especially when he strokes his trimmed beard with eyes ablaze with excitement. When he replaced the popular Richard Farleigh, some suggested that this was because the producers wanted a Dragon from an ethnic minority, which would be ironic, given that he changed his name from Nazim Khan. Has been investing this series like it’s going out of fashion. Either he really can see potential better than the rest of us or he must be suffering from a terminal illness.

Some other Dragons have fallen by the wayside over the years. Most memorably, Rachel Elnaugh was dropped after her company, Red Letter Days, went into administration. The BBC rightly believed that a failed business person would lack credibility on a business programme, though that did not stop Elnaugh attempting to cash in on her failure by writing a book about "the entire business life cycle and the kind of lessons you learn along the way - through bitter experience”.

"Deborah Meaden - you've been tangoed"

The luxuriously coiffured Richard Farleigh was more unfairly booted out, despite making more investments than the other Dragons and standing out by always trying to offer constructive advice to contestants, even when not interested in investing. Maybe his departure was due to clashes with other Dragons (step forward, Jones), who were jealous of his magnificent 80s barnet. From the early days, we have also lost Doug Richard, who was considered too American (probably because he is American), and Simon Woodroffe, who was just too boring.

The fact is that the Dragons take themselves far too seriously now, even their tedious light-hearted “rivalry”. It’s clearly one big ego trip for them now. We even have spin-offs with a series of ditchwater dull profiles of each Dragon with heavy emphasis on their house(s), yachts, cars, etc. Yes, we know you’re rich, but there’s no need for the BBC to flaunt your wealth any further.

It’s obvious that the Dragons absolutely love their new-found celebrity. That can be the only explanation why the incredibly self-satisfied Peter Jones can be seen making a complete fool of himself in adverts for British Telecom and You would have thought that he would have learned his lesson after his experience presenting Tycoon, when the show was moved from the prime time slot after just two episodes due to poor ratings. Dragons’ Den has become so much more about the Dragons and their burgeoning light entertainment and philanthropy careers rather than the original concept of entrepreneurs and eccentrics.

"Power dressing"

In some ways, the show seems to exist only to illustrate the shallowness and fragility of the British economy. Instead of genuine invention and creativity, we are increasingly subject to some song and dance routine that could just as easily feature on the latest Cowell money-making exercise. Even the excellent Reggae Reggae Sauce would probably have not got any funding without Levi Roots serenading the Dragons. This series we have already seen pitches for a musical about Dusty Springfield and “live action hardcore horror entertainment” called The Sickness, which basically seemed to be a bunch of students and dancers shambling around in bloody rags. More successful were the young women from the UK’s largest, ahem, “experience company” which had the male dragons falling over their wads of cash to invest.

By the way, why do the Dragons need to have piles of cash sitting on the table in front of them? I know what money looks like. Maybe it’s their own subtle comment on the safety of the banking system. Or maybe the show is just incredibly vulgar. How can all that money be flashed around and yet leave it feeling so cheap?

"Just wait until you see my new haircut"

Of course, the Dragons are not the only guilty ones. By now, you would have expected the contestants (sorry, entrepreneurs) to have mastered the game. There are only so many questions that the Dragons can ask. I could helpfully split this into three categories: financials, patent and tell-me-about-you. That’s it, really. OK, the financials could be split into revenue, profits, cost, debt, but it’s not as complicated as you would imagine when watching these rabbits caught in the headlights.

The other point about this “reality” show is that many of the deals are often not completed after the programme is shot. Both parties then enter into a period of due diligence, where deals can fall through. Whether this is because the entrepreneurs have not told the truth or because the Dragons pull out over minor technicalities is open to conjecture.

Either way, Dragons’ Den has gone stale. Any drama and mystique it once possessed has long since been edited away in the BBC’s quest to shove every programme into the light entertainment box. It’s way past its sell-by date and for that reason, I’m out.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

True Blue

"Tears of a Clown"

Another day, another leading footballer treating the fans like idiots. This time, it’s the turn of Mr. Chelsea, England’s Brave John Terry, who, after weeks of silence, has finally spoken to reject a move to Manchester City and commit his future to Chelsea.

I know there has been comment that I should have made a statement earlier. However, throughout this period there have been numerous discussions between myself, the owner and the Chelsea board and we all agreed that the timing of any statement would suit everyone involved in those talks, not any outside influences or agendas.

Would suit everyone involved? Surely the club’s captain has not forgotten the fans, who might just have wanted Terry to politely decline City’s advances a little earlier. After all, it’s not as if Terry lacked opportunities with Chelsea holding press conferences for the release of (yet another) new kit, the announcement of (yet another) new manager and before (yet another) pre-season tour to the US.

Assuming that Terry was not struck mute over the summer, it’s not as if he is usually shy about voicing his opinions. Granted, he normally waits until Chelsea get a new manager, when he will blather on about how brilliant they will be and the positive impact they will have on “JT United”; only matched by his comments when the same manager is unceremoniously sacked, when he will innocently insist that they had his full support.

I have lost count of the times that Terry has loudly proclaimed his love for the club:

I am Chelsea through and through ... I want to stay for life, I love the club, love the players, love the manager, Roman … I really can’t see myself leaving …  I’m so passionate about Chelsea … I am and always will be Chelsea … I want to end my career at the club that I love … I am totally committed to Chelsea.

On and on it goes - and yet apparently he only wants to stay for life if he gets assurances that players like Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole stay too.

"Chelsea fans can sit on it and spin"

No, the reality is that this was another grandstanding opportunity for Terry to enhance his reputation as one of English football’s supreme loyalists, while at the same time increasing his leverage for another hike in his already massive contract. Apparently, Terry can now look forward to increasing his weekly salary from £125,000 to £150,000. Obviously, Terry did not look to re-negotiate his contract, which had another three years to run. No sirree, Bob! It’s just a pleasing side effect of his friendship with Roman, or, as Terry himself put it, without any trace of irony:

That's the kind of relationship you can't buy. You can't put a price on things like that.

When he told his adoring public that he had received assurances from Abramovich that the club's ambition "remains as high as ever", he somehow managed to leave out the bit where they will throw another £25,000 a week at him.

In the latest attempt to destroy the English language, Chelsea’s new offer was described as a “loyalty” payment, which is a strange way to describe the result of another calculating mercenary holding his club to ransom before fobbing off its fans with a transparent load of rubbish. Funny how quickly loyalty evaporates when obscene amounts of money are plonked on the table. Even Noel Gallagher could see through this twaddle:

I don’t like John Terry and I never have. He’s got funny eyes and he’s a cry baby. He’s also a Cockney and he’d absolutely be coming just for the money.

Remember Terry’s demands the last time he re-negotiated his contract in 2007, when he asked for a 10 year contract including a clause to guarantee that he would be the club’s best paid player for the duration of the deal plus an option to become Chelsea’s manager when he retired from playing.

This response may seem excessively cynical, but we have been here before. In fact, it was about this time last summer that JT’s great mate, Frank Lampard, put us through a similar song and dance when Inter flashed the cash. Once again, the result was a declaration of undying loyalty to the club – and a new contract.

"JT takes one for the team"

At the very least, Terry has hardly been an agent of stabilization in the first days of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign, more an agent for himself. You also have to ask yourself why City maintained their pursuit of Terry for so long. Although they are pretty delusional, they are not complete idiots, so it is fair to assume that they have been given some encouragement along the line.

Of course, Terry has proved to be an expert manipulator in the past. His former team-mate, Claude Makelele, claimed in his autobiography that a transfer request from the skipper led to Jose Mourinho’s departure in September 2007:

When John Terry let his discontent be known to Kenyon and asked him for an immediate transfer, Abramovich reacted immediately. The departure of Terry was totally unimaginable, from the point of view of the supporters, the players or the club owners. Mourinho was asked to pack his bags.

Similarly, when Fabio Capello was considering who would be his England captain, Terry managed to rubbish his main competition, Rio Ferdinand, without even mentioning him:

If they don’t want an England captain fighting for England in every way possible, fighting to win the ball and come out of the tackle, fighting for the cause, then that’s down to them to make that decision.

"Taking the fans for a ride"

Despite his reputation as Captain Courageous, a lionheart that would spill blood for his country, he has not been above the odd tactical injury, like the time he missed two World Cup qualifiers against Kazakhstan and Belarus with a back injury, only to make a surprise return to the Chelsea team just three days later.

Although not a complete shock, some were still surprised when the straitlaced Capello eventually appointed Terry as his England captain, given some of the character defects displayed in the past. The late Oliver Reed may have been a bit of a lad, but you wouldn’t want him leading out your nation’s football team and Terry has much in common with the old hell-raiser with his reputation for drinking, gambling and womanizing.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Terry was among a group of Chelsea players accused of drunkenly mocking American tourists at Heathrow, stripping naked, laughing and vomiting. The following year, he was arrested for a fracas in a London night club, where a doorman was injured, though he was later cleared of charges of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, possessing a bottle as an offensive weapon and affray. In 2004, he was reputedly one of three Chelsea stars said to have risked £40,000 a week betting on the horses and the dogs. Terry’s love life has been no less colourful, as he himself has confessed to cheating on his wife several times.

"The Crying Game, part one"

You may wish to excuse these acts as being down to the impetuosity of youth, but only last season Terry once again had a late night brush with the law following boorish behaviour at a nightclub (along with the appalling Ashley Cole). Chelsea manager, Guus Hiddink, admitted he was astonished to find himself forced to confront the issue of discipline with two such experienced players. Maybe he wouldn’t have been surprised at Terry acting the Big Time Charlie, if he had seen the photos of JT parking his Bentley in a disabled bay with no thought of potentially depriving a needy individual of access to local amenities.

On the pitch, we have become accustomed to the sight of Terry leading a charge of furious team-mates towards any referee who dares to make a call against them. Most recently, Terry vigorously defended Didier Drogba’s deranged histrionics after the Champions League semi-final defeat against Barcelona, arguing that his team-mate was well within his rights to race onto the pitch, launch a finger-jabbing rant and hurl expletives directly into a television camera. He then irresponsibly claimed that the referee should “face the consequences”, so was presumably delighted that the ref had to be hustled away from the ground under guard, moved from his hotel to another location and then smuggled back home to Oslo, where he received death threats.

Maybe all of this aggression is to cover up the realisation that John Terry is no longer a great player. His pace and skills have clearly declined as a result of age and injuries. Even during the halcyon days of the Special One, he benefited from tremendous protection in front of him through Claude Makelele, plus he had Petr Cech in awesome form behind him. He has not even been the best defender at his club with Ricardo Carvalho demonstrating more skill, pace and positional ability. Nor is he the best defender for his country, as Rio Ferdinand is much more composed and mature.

We can forgive him his penalty slip that cost Chelsea the Champions League, especially as I have never seen a funnier sight on a football field, but surely even Terry realised he was talking nonsense when he insisted that he had proved he was a big-game player after scoring against the USA in a meaningless friendly days later. His decline was shown up when he was sent-off against, ironically, Manchester City, when he hauled down Jo, rather than expose his lack of pace.

"The Crying Game, part two"

At least he’s an inspirational captain, right? Well, I would ask what effect it has on a team to see their captain in bits after losing any important match. We have all seen Terry crying his eyes out after losing the Champions League final to Manchester United, the Champions League semi-final to Liverpool and after being kocked out of the World Cup quarter-final by Portugal. Apart from the tears, there is another common denominator here: JT leading his side to defeat. Maybe his familiarity with losing is why he described Chelsea’s season as “successful”, when they only won the FA Cup, despite all their riches.

At least this story has a happy ending with Mr. Chelsea pledging his future to the club he loves. Let the badge-kissing begin.

Monday, July 27, 2009

One Greedy Bastard

"True Blue ?"

“… there’s only one greedy bastard”.

Unfortunately, this chant rings no truer in modern football than Spurs fans singing, “We’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen”. However, the recent transfer of Emmanuel Adebayor to Manchester City, where he will reportedly be paid £170,000 a week (double what he was “earning” at Arsenal) surely takes the cake.

Last summer, Arsenal rewarded Adebayor for scoring 30 goals by doubling his salary. This season, Adebayor scored only 16 goals, but City have decided to reward him for being 50% as prolific by once again doubling his wages. In effect, he is being twice as well compensated for being half as good.

Initially, Greedy-bayor claimed that the move was not about money, but somewhat ruined his argument when he proceeded to clarify his motives:

I know a lot of people will be saying, ‘He went for the money’. But I would like to hear any man, if he is honest, say he would refuse it, if he was earning £10 and someone offered him £30.

Fair enough, it’s quite obvious to everyone that the man is motivated only by money, even though at the beginning of the year he launched his own war on wealth:

Money is killing the spirit of the game. I don’t want to mention a name here, but good players are made to be in a great team. Money is killing football because some people are making the decision because of money.

This heart-felt lament was a comment on Robinho’s transfer from Real Madrid to, er, Manchester City.

"City Slicker"

We shouldn’t be too surprised at Adebayor’s eagerness to embrace the oil money being flushed through the streets of Manchester. After all, this is the man who told us how he had to prepare for his retirement at the age of 24. This was a clear reference to his focus on money, though Arsenal fans could be forgiven for thinking he meant it literally, given his lackadaisical “efforts” last year.

The fans’ reaction to the sale of Adebayor is telling. No £25 million striker has ever been sent on his way with such a wave of indifference. The main concern among the club’s supporters was not that the deal might be completed, but that it might collapse. The prevailing feeling among the fans is “good riddance”. Hardly surprising, given that Adebayor blasted them for not giving him enough support, somehow comparing himself to Cesc. Well, the reason that the fans never turned on Cesc is because he never acted like Adebayor.

We understood perfectly how he had behaved: spending all last summer trying to move away from Arsenal, then engineering a massive pay rise and showing a frightening lack of self-awareness by kissing the badge after scoring a penalty in a meaningless pre-season friendly. To encourage his departure, Arsenal fans even produced a tongue-in-cheek “Michael Owen” brochure to attract buyers, describing him as “better than Marlon Harewood and Mido put together”.

"Kiss me where the sun don't shine"

Arsene Wenger also has a superb record in knowing when to cash in on his playing assets (Overmars, Petit, Vieira, etc). The reality is that Adebayor went to City, because he had no other options. No Champions League side wanted him – or would match what Wenger was paying him. No offers from Barcelona or big-spending Real Madrid. Even Milan with all the money from the Kaka deal and their obvious need for a new striker kept their cheque book firmly closed. So, it had to be the rich man’s plaything. Even then, Adebayor hardly endeared himself to his new fans by desperately touting himself to Manchester United and Chelsea at the last minute.

Adebayor has plenty of form with his numerous previous flirtations with Barcelona and Milan. Who could forget the day last summer when he gave one interview stating that he wanted to stay at Arsenal, only to change his stance moments later on another channel, when he welcomed interest from other clubs:

Barcelona have made a good financial offer and there is also the chance to play alongside great players. Yes, I am still under contract to Arsenal but it's up to the directors to satisfy my demands or I'll leave.

This was followed by an article in El Mundo, when he gushed about how he’d love to play with Thierry Henry again, featuring a photo of him holding a copy of the newspaper grinning like a wanking Japanese.

His overtures to Milan have been no less subtle. On the day of a crucial Champions League tie, he decided to rally the troops by dropping heavy hints of a transfer to Milan, bizarrely comparing the club to the bootylicious Beyonce, thus making Arsenal out to be the Susan Boyle of football. Adebayor also explained that he often speaks with Milan vice-president, Adriano Galliani, on the phone, because “he is very good at French, as his wife is from Morocco”. Alles klar. This is the man who had previously made the ludicrous claim that he’d had his phone off all summer, so had no idea about any transfer shenanigans.

"Greed is Good"

The chances are that Arsenal will actually be a stronger unit without Adebayor. The return of Eduardo from his long injury will be like signing a new player, while Adebayor’s exit may allow Arshavin to play in his preferred role behind the main striker. The emerging talents of Nicklas Bendtner and Carlos Vela should also be given opportunities to establish themselves at the Emirates. The £25 million injection into the transfer fund could be used to buy the defensive midfielder and central defender that the team so palpably needs.

Either way, it became clear towards the end of the season that Adebayor had been dropped from the last few games in order to protect the “asset”. Even though a diplomatic injury was the explanation, it is more likely that Wenger had decided to call time on Adebayor’s Arsenal career, because of his heavy first touch, unprofessional attitude and inconsistent performances. Even though Adebayor could still score the occasional spectacular goal, like the scissors kick against Villareal, those moments were few and far between.

In his first season, he ran the channels, chased loose balls and made things happen. Although he was a clumsy player, often missing easy chances, there was never a question about his application. However, this season he has strolled around, hard work apparently beneath him, with an on-pitch demeanour that makes Dimitar Berbatov look like Usain Bolt on speed. Speaking about Adebayor’s possible sale, Ray Parlour said:

He was too lazy at times last season and just didn’t do it. His body language wasn’t great. His attitude amazed me at times last season when he just didn’t put it in.

The Romford Pele hit the nail on the head. The best way for Adebayor to win the fans back after last summer’s nonsense was to work hard and score goals. Instead, his lazy performances have seen supporters grow weary of him.

But is Adebayor actually any good? Yes, he did score 30 goals in 2007-8, but that was a vibrant Arsenal side that made about 150 chances for him. The midfield trio of Fabregas, Flamini and Hleb combined beautifully to put everything on a plate. And 6 of his goals came against Derby County, statistically the worst team in Premier League history. Ade-barndoor is a big, clumsy battering ram of a forward, who plays in a brainless style. His lack of footballing intelligence is most clearly seen by being continually caught offside, but is also evidenced by his inability to anticipate a cross, short pass or a rebound. He is frequently on his heels, not his toes, at the crucial moment of an attacking move, so the ball often gets away from him. When he actually reaches it, he will more likely than not scuff his shot. He is six foot four, but cannot really head the ball. In all, he is just a poor man’s Didier Drogba.

"Caricature of a Player"

This has not prevented delusions of grandeur. He compared himself to Thierry Henry, who scored goals year after year for Arsenal and is one of the greatest players the Premiership has ever seen. Adebayor was a bit-part player for Monaco before Wenger rescued him, but he can at best only be described as a one-season wonder for Arsenal. Adebayor, of course, sees things differently, boasting that Arsenal have helped him “become one of the great players in world football”. Really? Would anyone swap him for Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka or Fernando Torres? Thought not.

He is also the classic flat-track bully, a big game bottler. When Wenger needed him most against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, Adebayor simply disappeared. His displays in the Champions League semi-finals against United were offensively bad. Not only did he gift John O’Shea (!) the opening goal of the tie by casually vacating a space when defending a corner, but quite unforgivably he implied in a post-match interview that he could not be expected to do much when playing against Vidic and Ferdinand. Words fail me.

It comes down to a question of character. Adebayor has a powerful physique and should be a real handful for opposition defences, but he doesn’t have the right attitude to compete, like a Wayne Rooney or even a Carlos Tevez. His arrogance and ego will not be missed by the dressing room, especially Nicklas Bendtner, whom he butted during a Carling Cup semi-final in a rare moment of physical exertion.

"Smells like Team Spirit"

Apparently one of the reasons behind Adebayor’s decision to join the City revolution was Arsenal’s failure to win any silverware since the FA Cup victory in 2005. Leaving aside the obvious rejoinder that the club’s recent lack of trophies is just possibly down to the players, including the mis-firing striker, have I somehow missed all those trophies won by Manchester City? Do me a favour. The sheer unwillingness to accept any responsibility highlights his lack of character.

One area where Adebayor’s work rate cannot be questioned is his big mouth. He seemed to have appointed himself as some sort of imbecilic spokesman for the club. In an interview with the appalling Garth Crooks on BBC’s Football Focus, he claimed that the club had gone backwards and blamed the fans’ lack of support for his drop in form. Earlier in he season, he had defended William Gallas’s outburst that split the dressing room: “If he had said nothing, where would we be today?”, conveniently over-looking the subsequent defeats to Manchester City, Burnley and Porto. Fortunately, he talks so fast that it’s hard to understand much of what he’s saying.

His swelling ego can also be found off the pitch. He decorated his car by embroidering his name and squad number into each of the seats, which is a crime against good taste. Even more offensive was his behaviour when visiting sick children at a local hospital along with other Arsenal players, when he had his iPod earphones in for all the pictures.

Despite winning African Footballer of the Year in 2008, Adebayor has enjoyed a fractious relationship with the Togo football federation. He has refused to play in international matches on several occasions: first, when he was made substitute; then, in a wholly unsurprising row over bonus payments; and, most strangely, because the president did not travel to matches. Little wonder that the coach described Adebayor as a “cry baby, who thinks he’s a superstar”.

Emmanuel Adebayor represents the archetypal modern footballer. Flash, brash and driven by cash, he is an out of control egomaniac who only flatters to deceive. City are welcome to the useless waster.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

18 Carat Love Affair

The relentlessly industrial city of Sheffield gained worldwide recognition in the 19th century for its production of steel, but far more relevant to me was its early 80s production line of innovative electronic bands, such as The Human League, Heaven 17 and ABC.

As the rough and tumble of post-punk gave way to a more sophisticated sound, ABC gave us the definitive soundtrack of the time with their debut album, The Lexicon of Love. The album’s glamorous, synthesizer sound sat comfortably with the New Romantic school of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, but it was clearly the belle of the 1982 ball. Lexicon is rightly recognised as a high-water mark of 80s music, a timeless pop classic that sounds as good today as then, allowing you to relive those days where everything seemed possible.

This masterpiece of orchestral song-craft and audacious lyrical insights is the sound of a band (nay, a generation) falling in love with the new stylistic and technological promise of 80s pop music. With just the right mix of high drama and blue-eyed soul, Lexicon is soaringly ambitious from the start: big on glam, big on glitz, big on sound, the album screams out quality with every gold lamé flourish.

"The Look of Love ?"

Famously produced by Trevor Horn, who emerged unscathed from his comical experiments with The Buggles and Yes to create a lush landscape of sensuous synthesizers, majestic string arrangements, shiny horns and pounding drums. All of this was orchestrated by the future Art of Noise member, Anne Dudley. The cracking bass lines came courtesy of Mark White (“that’s right”). Horn experimented with many creative production tricks, but never lost sight of Martin Fry’s commanding voice, allowing free rein to his witty, literate lyrics.

Martin Fry was the brains trust behind ABC. The singer was a romantic, a smooth operator influenced by Bowie and Ferry. He didn’t seem to sing so much as ache – for affection, glamour and the good life. Believing that the pen is mightier than the sword (“you’re going to hear my vocal chord”), his lyrical dexterity perfectly complemented the sharp music of ABC – a democratic dance party asking you to vote with your feet.

"If you judge a book by the cover ..."

Fry himself has described The Lexicon of Love as, “all about the same thing, me ranting on about lost love”. Each track is indeed a love affair in miniature, but there are a million ways to say “I love you” and Fry manages to cram most of them onto this dazzling debut album. He gives you the full range of emotions in a grand love story, or at the very least an elaborate seduction. In fact, the record could be re-christened “The Diary of Heartbreak”, as it showcases the innocence of hopeful love and the bitterness of a man scorned, but, let’s be honest, The Lexicon of Love is a great title that cannot be improved.

And you cannot ignore the sheer uplifting quality of the music. Yes, the band may have one foot on the stage, but the other foot is moving on the dance floor. Dance music has rarely been so literate with the synthetic drum beats and Chic-like bass lines giving disco a whole new vocabulary, like on “Valentine’s Day”: “If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed/And I got dancing lessons for all the lips I shoulda kissed/I'd be a millionaire/I'd be a Fred Astaire”.

Some critics could not see beyond the gold jackets and the somewhat cheesy videos, but the band’s ambition and attitude demand to be taken seriously. Yes, the songs are smart and funny, but there’s so much commitment in Fry’s voice that you completely believe in him. And just listen to the passion and energy of the band as they pull together in the closing lines of “The Look Of Love”: “Sisters and brothers/Should help each other”.

"You saxy thing"

Ultimately, it’s all about the songs:

We spend a lot of time writing and crafting the songs – they must be danceable, memorable, intelligent, functional, passionate. These things shouldn’t be excluded from pop music – they should be exploited and exaggerated.

A demanding manifesto, but these lofty aims were gloriously achieved with Fry’s skilful wordplay launching brilliant couplets from every direction. “Poison Arrow” boasts a simple, classic chorus (“Who broke my heart?/You did, you did”) before a synthesized drum roll explodes in Fry’s face, as his girl brutally cuts him down: “I thought you loved me but it seems you don't care/I care enough to know I can never love you”.

The theme of unrequited love is explored again in the funky “Tears Are Not Enough”: “Searching for certainty/When it's such an unstable world/Searching for something good/And I'm looking for the real McCoy”, while the end of a relationship is dissected in the string-drenched ballad “All Of My Heart”: “Add and subtract/But as a matter of fact/I still want you back”.

As if these things matter, The Lexicon Of Love provided four hit singles, but in truth any track could have been released from the album and matched that success. There really isn’t a weak link anywhere and my personal favorites are the so-called fillers: Show Me, Many Happy Returns, Date Stamp and the dark 4 Ever 2 Gether.

Martin Fry later sang on “Alphabet Soup”, “I hold in my hand three letters: vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C”, but no supplements are required here. This album replenishes mind, body and soul.

Love never sounded so grand. Easy as ABC.

Monday, July 6, 2009

London's Burning

For more than ten years there’s been peace – everyone to his own patch. We’ve all had it sweet. I’ve done every single one of you favours in the past. I’ve put money in all your pockets. I’ve treated you well, even when you was out of order, right? Well now there’s been an eruption. It’s like fuckin’ Belfast on a bad night.

When London crime lord Harold Shand’s world is suddenly torn apart by a series of murders and exploding bombs from an unseen enemy, this is how he summarises the situation to the rival gang bosses he has rounded up and hung upside down on meat hooks in the local abattoir.

This is just one memorable scene from The Long Good Friday, which resurrected the British gangster film in 1980. Director John Mackenzie described it as “just a damned good gangster movie”, but it is so much more than that. The film is a twisty tale of murder and double-cross, much more densely plotted and intelligently scripted than the standard fare. Starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, it’s a fast-paced thriller that strikes the perfect balance between humour and seriousness. The journey is a wild ride, but its memorable characters and earthy London dialogue superbly hold it together. In the late 90s, the wise folk at Empire magazine named The Long Good Friday as the best English film ever made. Praise indeed, when you consider the competition.

The film’s protagonist is Harold Shand, gloriously portrayed by Bob Hoskins, who is the undisputed kingpin of the London underworld, but aspires to become a legitimate businessman, albeit with the financial support of the American mafia. He plans to use the influence he has secured with corrupt politicians and bent coppers to re-develop the urban wasteland of the Docklands as a venue for a future Olympic Games – sound familiar? Suddenly, all hell breaks loose: a trusted lieutenant is murdered, Harold’s mother is nearly killed in a car bombing; another bomb demolishes his lovingly restored pub; and a third bomb is found in his casino.

Casino Manager: It was a good night. Nothing unusual.

Harold: "Nothing unusual," he says! Eric's been blown to smithereens, Colin's been carved up, and I've got a bomb in me casino, and you say nothing unusual?

"The Power of London"

Scrambling to find out who would dare confront him, Harold faces an unexpected foe with even more power, ferocity and determination than himself:

Harold: Who's having a go at me? Can you think of anyone who might have an old score to settle or something?

Razors: Who's big enough to take you on?

Harold: Well, there were a few.

Razors: Like who?

Harold: Yeah, they're all dead.

Harold’s tragic flaw is his unwillingness to admit that an enemy might best him. He needs information about the apparently unmotivated attacks and does not find it until it’s too late. Stupidly, it’s all a big misunderstanding, based on unauthorised decisions taken by Harold’s underlings, which have been misinterpreted by the IRA, who are engaged in a revenge operation.

"Harold gets to grips with the situation"

Obviously a film with “Good Friday” in its title is not being too subtle with the religious references, but there’s a shocking edge to the symbolism with a car being blown up outside a church, a security guard being nailed to the ground by his palms and villains being “crucified” (albeit on meat hooks rather than the cross). Harold is an unlikely Christ figure, but his call for a “new London” wickedly echoes the Christian call for a “new Jerusalem”. Finally, the revelation of his antagonists as the IRA reminds us that the explicit difference between the Irish and the English is above anything religious.

The Long Good Friday is a film about change. The movie features a London standing on the threshold of something, prophetically alluding to the 1980s development of a global centre, based more on financial services than traditional manufacturing. Harold sees himself as the bridge between the old (London’s violent criminal past) and the new (“a businessman with a sense of history”). His brand of ruthless, thrusting capitalism pretty much epitomises Thatcherite values. A self-made man, he is the ambitious working class patriot who would get on his bike and ride over anyone to get ahead.

The film’s other uncomfortable message for Thatcher’s government was the portrayal of the IRA as an invincible force that could not be stopped, even by London’s most vicious thugs. Given that this was the height of the Irish troubles, it was perhaps not surprising that the ensuing brouhaha delayed the film’s release by a year.

At the same time, the film is almost a Shakespearean drama of power and ambition, politics and hubris. Though he’s basically an East End boy made good, Harold’s vivid, coarse vocabulary has echoes of the Bard, “I’ll have his carcass dripping blood by midnight”. However, just as this modern-day Macbeth looks to be consolidating his power, the downfall arrives with tragic elements of self-defeat and inevitability.

"Just hanging around"

Nevertheless, this is most definitely Bob Hoskin’s movie, as he seems to live, rather than act, one of the greatest roles in movie history. His intensely physical presence sears the screen with burning intensity, bringing out every nuance of the script. He employs so much depth and subtlety in his portrayal that we actually find ourselves caring for this cruel, violent man, probably because he’s also a complex, deeply human mass of contradictions. We watch him struggling in vain to fight his brutal nature (an attack with a broken bottle is particularly shocking) and feel his impotent confusion as his world crumbles. Throughout the drama, he remains a larger-than-life figure with a lovely turn of phrase:

Pool Attendant: They kept it all incognito. They're gonna collect the body in an ice cream van.

Harold: There's a lot of dignity in that, isn't there? Going out like a raspberry ripple.

Harold: Alan found him dying. He'd been nailed to the floor.

Jeff: When was this, then?

Harold: Well, it must've been just after you saw him and just before Alan saw him. Otherwise, you'd have noticed, wouldn't you? I mean, a geezer nailed to the floor. A man of your education would definitely have spotted that, wouldn't he?

Harold: I want the name of your top grass.

Parky: He trusts me Harold, I've known him a long time.

Harold: Then you should remember his name.

Helen Mirren, the thinking man’s sex symbol, is also fantastic as Harold’s devoted girlfriend, Victoria, a genuine power behind the throne, well-spoken and diplomatic where Harold is crude and vicious. She is a tough, shrewd operator who valiantly tries to hold together Harold’s collapsing world.

There are many other familiar faces in the cast: Denzil from Only Fools and Horses has a very nasty meeting with a machete as Errol the Ponce; Charlie from Casualty experiences an old-fashioned glassing; while Pierce Brosnan appears as an uncompromising IRA hitman. Another important “character” is the music – a chilling, swaggering score that drives the film forward.

The closing scenes emphasise Hoskins’ bravura performance. First, he’s given one last triumphant bluster, as he defiantly dismisses his former American partners:

I'm glad I found out in time just what a partnership with a pair of wankers like you would've been. A sleeping partner's one thing, but you're in a fucking coma! No wonder you got an energy crisis your side of the water!

What I'm looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world: culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than an 'ot dog, know what I mean?

The Mafia? I've shit 'em.


The final shot of the film is a remarkable two-minute close-up of Hoskins’ contorting face, as he realises that he is powerless against the forces of terrorism. Every emotion is visible from anger to shock to horror to rueful acceptance. A classic ending to a classic film.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Do I Not Like That

"Eh? Eh? Eh? Eh?"

If you’re an England supporter, and despite the best efforts of Sven and the “wally with the brolly”, some of us still are, then you will be used to disappointment. In fact, you will have a PhD in it, as England are simply masters at falling short.

My personal theatre of nightmares would feature “zee Germans” (courtesy Turkish in Snatch) three times. Twice they beat us in semi-final penalty shoot-outs: Italia 90 World Cup with Gazza’s tears and Euro 96 (“it’s coming home”) with the appalling Andreas Möller’s celebratory strut. The most painful defeat was when they came back from two goals down in the heat of Mexico 70 to take advantage of the hapless Peter Bonetti, who was no substitute for the mighty Gordon Banks.

However, at least those losses were in major tournaments against a great football nation. No, the most humiliating defeat it has been my misfortune to witness came on 2 June 1993, when we lost 2-0 to Norway en route to failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. This was the crowning moment of incompetence of Graham Taylor’s inglorious reign as England manager, not helped by the fact I watched the match in the company of two Scottish mates, who took pity on my agony by refusing to indulge in the customary England-bashing.

Under Taylor’s management, England had not exactly built on the exhilarating performances under Bobby Robson in Italia 90. They struggled to qualify for Euro 92 in Sweden, where they meekly exited the tournament after two goalless draws and a defeat against the home nation. Or, as The Sun had it, “Swedes 2 Turnips 1”, when they launched the infamous “Turnip” Taylor campaign, super-imposing a root vegetable on Taylor’s yokel-like features. Apart from good use of alliteration, maybe this was a subtle reference to Taylor’s preference for the long-ball game and Brian Clough’s quote that “if football was meant to be played in the sky, God would have put grass or at least a few turnips, in the clouds”.

"Cruel to be kind"

Nevertheless, England were still expected to easily qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Although their group included the Dutch, two teams would qualify, so we only had to ease past Poland, Norway, Turkey and San Marino. The critics had evidently over-looked Taylor’s disregard of technique and skill, e.g. jettisoning the likes of Chris Waddle, who was tearing defences apart for Marseille, and his preference for the type of player whose only “ability” was a good engine, e.g. Carlton Palmer, Geoff Thomas, Andy Sinton, etc.

Despite a couple of disappointing draws, qualification was still in England’s hands when they arrived in Oslo for the match against Norway. Little did we know that we were about to see a defeat so complete, so shambolic, so embarrassing that it still makes me cringe even today.

In this most crucial of games, Taylor suddenly morphed into Baldrick, producing a “cunning plan” and making wholesale changes to personnel and tactics. He confidently proclaimed:

We’ll be playing with three at the back, pushing people forward to attack them, with Ferdinand and Sheringham up front. I expect us to cause them a lot of problems.

The idea seemed to be to confuse the “methodical” Norwegians, but was rather more successful at confusing the England defence, who clearly had no idea what on earth they were meant to be doing.

In the build-up to the match, Taylor was very concerned with the aerial threat posed by Norway’s giant forward, Jostein Flo, so he decided to deploy three centre-halves with Gary Pallister coming in to augment the usual partnership of Des Walker and Tony Adams. Leaving aside the fact that Adams was normally at his strongest against the traditional big number nine, it was apparent from the opening minutes that the English defence was all at sea. Seeing Taylor’s formation, his Norwegian counter-part, Egil Olsen, simply switched Flo to the left, forcing England to move Pallister to right-back where he was completely lost.

"Totally out of his depth"

By the time England sorted themselves out, Norway had won the game. Forest and England fans used to chant, “You’ll never beat Des Walker”, which was fair comment during the 1990 World Cup where he was imperious. However, Taylor's nonsensical tactics palpably rattled Walker here and he was at fault for both of Norway’s goals on either side of half-time. First, a quick free-kick that he himself conceded caught him flat-footed and, as he argued with the referee, the ball passed him on its way to a scruffy first goal. The master plan was again shattered when Walker was left static by Lars Bohinen, who beat the keeper at the near post.

Norway’s second goal came just two minutes into the second half, but England never looked capable of scoring, let alone re-gaining parity, as they just punted the ball forward on every occasion. The theoretical wing-backs, Lee Dixon and Lee Sharpe, were particularly inept. In midfield, Paul Gascoigne was anonymous, except for the ridiculous Zorro mask protecting his injured cheek, and Carlton Palmer was suitably embarrassing with his usual “Bambi on Ice” impression. Up front, “Sir Les” Ferdinand and “Ready Steady Teddy” Sheringham barely got a kick.

The match was memorably chronicled in Channel 4’ documentary, “The Impossible Job”, about the doomed qualifying campaign, which took no prisoners when highlighting the tactical vacuum at the heart of England’s management team, though, to be fair, all they had to do was point the camera at the bench. The emphasis on the long ball is revealed in all its glory, as Taylor bellows out his early instructions:

Go Les! Hit Les! Hit Les! Over the top! Fucking hell! Les, demand it!

Fucking Paul, come on! Fucking hit the space in there!

As England start to fall apart, Taylor loses his marbles completely, screaming at Carlton Palmer, "CAAAARLTON! CAAAARLTON!" Turning to his assistant managers, he then poses the question that has taxed football philosophers for hundreds of years: "Can we not knock it?" With three big men at the back and Carlton Palmer in midfield, the answer had to be no.

"Faster! Faster, Bambi! Don't look back! Keep running!"

Taylor is not served well by his support team of the über-sycophant, Phil (“Yes, boss”) Neal, and the barrel-chested Geordie, Lawrie McMenemy. After Norway score their second, Taylor astutely observes:

We’re in trouble here. Now then, now then. This is a test.

The Yes Man hardly begs to differ:

Yes. This is a real test.

Perhaps the lowest point in this tactical master class was when Taylor gave substitute Nigel Clough some advice just before he entered the fray. After putting his arm around him, he proceeded to deliver possibly the most confusing set of instructions in the history of management. Although the gist of what Taylor was saying was simple enough, i.e. play in the hole, the actual words suggested that Clough should play up front on his own, just behind the front two, wide on the left, in a floating role in the middle, as an attacking left-back, etc. Unsurprisingly, this was not a successful substitution.

In marked contrast to his pre-match ebullience, Taylor was justifiably demoralised after the game:

We made a complete mess of it. I’m here to be shot at and take the rap. I have no defence for our performance.

Fair enough, given that England did indeed appear to have no defence, following Taylor’s insane decision to impose a completely new system on the team and expect his players to master it in a single training session. Taylor’s honesty did not spare him a roasting by the press, who ran headlines like “Norse Manure” and “Olso Rans”, while the traveling fans hit the nail on the head, chanting “We’re so bad, it’s unbelievable”.

So, lightning does after all strike twice in the same place, as England had suffered another awful defeat in Olso twelve years earlier, when the Norwegian commentator famously taunted a roll call of English giants, including Maggie Thatcher, Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper and Lady Diana. In the summer of 1993, once again, our “boys took a hell of a beating”.

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