Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Gibraltar joins UEFA – Nations quake

So, after years of trying and at the risk of exacerbating already strained relations between Spain and its British owners, Gibraltar has finally been recognised as a nation by UEFA. Not quite enough for it to qualify as an answer on Pointless, for which you’d need the less important UN recognition as a Sovereign State, but surely enough to send tremors around the world of international football as a long surpressed giant is finally allowed to strut it’s stuff on the international stage. Almost like post-apartheid South Africa being readmitted to the international rugby community, the potential impact on the countries that dominate the game cannot be underestimated.

Except, hang on a minute, this is Gibraltar, a country with no professional football league, a ground that does not yet meet UEFA requirements for competitive fixtures, and no players who play in the top level of any major domestic league. Maybe we should tone down the hype, and run that first paragraph again.

After years of trying, and no one caring, Gibraltar has been recognised as a nation by UEFA. San Marino, Andorra and the Faroe Islands now face a battle to retain the title of crappiest team in international football. A new kid is on the block and he might be about to join the teams that boast played 10, won 0, drawn 0, lost 10 records in the qualifiers.

That is sadly what the reality is likely to be. If you want to know why, just contrast Gibraltar with Iceland, who narrowly failed to become the country with the smallest population to qualify for a World Cup. Gibraltar has a population of 30,002, Iceland’s population is just over ten times that, while the team that currently holds the smallest population title are Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of 1.337 million.

Iceland’s squad include players plying their trade at the highest levels in Holland, England, Italy, Belgium and Denmark. Gibraltar’s first post-recognition friendly squad had just three players who play overseas, Scott Wiseman from Barnsley, Danny Higginbottom, nephew of the Gibraltar manager, whose football league days are now behind him at  conference side Chester and Adam Priestly who plays for Farsley FC in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier Division. As to the league structure in the two countries, Iceland has a five tier domestic league consisting of 70 teams, Gibraltar has two domestic leagues with 20 teams in total and no sign of a professional game emerging. 

The closer comparisons population wise are San Marino, whose population is just over 1,000 higher, and the Faroe Islands with just shy of 50,000 inhabitants. Andorra’s population  meanwhile is almost three times the size of Gibraltar’s.

None of this it to say that Gibraltar should be excluded from the international football party, but maybe it’s time for FIFA and UEFA to realise that a lot of these teams haven’t actually been invited to the party. They’re just there for a pre-party humiliation, turning up in the knowledge that they’ll be sent home long before the trifle’s gone in the fridge let alone been served out. Like the school kid picked last by the captains, they know their chances of ever playing in a proper game are less than zero, but they’re still expected to turn up and subject themselves to ten embarrassing games where the results are a foregone conclusion.

There’s something slightly cruel about it when you look at it. You don’t want to watch a team playing out of its league and with no chance of defying expectations. As anyone who followed Derby on their 11 point relegation season will tell you, it’s not a nice experience knowing that every week you will be out-played, out-classed and just prolonging the inevitable. But that’s what they’re doing.

If they were gaining anything from the exposure to the top footballing nations, you could argue it wasn’t all bad, but the evidence suggests that they’re not, and there is no chance they will ever make it to a World Cup or European Championship. It’s a hiding to nothing. At least with the FA cup qualifying rounds all teams know there is the vague chance it might lead to a place in the actual cup itself, and if it doesn’t, at least it will be a quick and bloodless exit, not the two year, ten game bashing that even the Champions League recognised was a bad idea when it abandoned the second group stage.

Fans want to feel that they have a chance of getting somewhere, not just that they’re making up the numbers. Wolves fans are enjoying the first division far more than they enjoyed the Championship, or the last days of the Premiership after they sacked Mick McCarthy with no plan B, because they are no longer whipping boys. There is hope and expectation. I would guess that the average Wolves fan is having a better time than the average Crystal Palace fan this season, even though they left the Championship via a different exit route.

And this is why, rather than continue the cruel and inhumane practice of every national team being put into the qualifiers, FIFA and UEFA should look at taking them out of the main competition, and creating a new competition just for them, a Small Nations Cup, where all the countries taking part felt they had a chance of making the final, and a reason for taking part. Like the FA Vase, or the FA Trophy, it could be played out at the same time, and have a final in the same stadium, as the big competition.  The finalists could also earn automatic places in the qualifiers for the next World Cup, with the losing semi-finalists, and quarter finalists battling it out for another place or two.

It might pass the rest of the footballing world by, but does that matter? It gives all nations a chance of actually having a tournament they can win and enjoy, and given the latest addition to the countries that could enter it, along with FIFAs love of handing tournaments to small nations with no footballing infrastructure, maybe the inaugural competition could be held in Gibraltar? It’s just a thought.


Thursday, 21 November 2013

Talk about Pop Music – Please

A woman ‘earns’ the nickname Screwbo because she’s on a talent contest, is 36 and can sing, and because a 48 year old woman who could also sing ‘earned’ the nickname Subo when she appeared on a talent contest a few years go.

On the same programme a 16 year old girl who turns in a performance that’s a carbon copy of Beyonce is told she should be herself, when, at 16, being herself probably means imagining she’s Beyonce.

Finally, on the latest edition of the same programme, we have a guest appearance from Miley Cyrus, a woman who claims to be channelling the attitude of Sinead O’Connor, because her video has a close up of her face as she sings and cries, only to be told by O’Connor that she is doing no such thing, because she also gets her kit off in the said video.

All of this elevates debate about the artist above debate about the music, with judgements cast not on the basis of their talent, or lack of it,  but on the implications that can be drawn from ill-considered sound-bite comparisons.

To begin with Sam Bailey, our X Factor prison worker. What are the real similarities between her and Susan Boyle? She’s 12 years younger than Boyle was when she found fame. She’s married with children, whereas Boyle was a virgin spinster living with her mother. She has a job  and, on the face of it, a perfectly normal life. All things that Susan Boyle didn’t have.  Okay, in a looks obsessed media, you could probably note that like Subo,  she is not what you would call a stunner, but if that’s all you need to draw a physical comparison, then you’re lumping a hell of a lot of people into the same bucket. And you’re probably one of them.

The actual similarities come down to the following; she is on a talent show, can sing, and is over 25. And that becomes enough for the comparison to be made and embedded in the nickname. And what of the nickname? If we’re being honest, we have to admit that there is something about it that is slightly insulting and derisory towards her, as if anyone over the age of 25 who is trying to be a successful singer must have something wrong with them. It can’t just be that they’ve been doing something else with their lives and now want to try and do something they enjoy. There has to be something more than that, because they haven’t realised that the natural state for people like them is to stay quiet and in the background for fear of ridicule and patronising remarks if they dare to break out of the box we put them in. That’s what the name is implying.

And doing it because they want to be famous, as well as wanting to use their talent, well, that’s really  no excuse - albeit that we should excuse all the cast of TOWIE, Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore and every contestant on every series of Big Brother for also thinking they have a right to be famous when they have no talent whatsoever. One rule for you, one rule for me, Screwbo. But she can take comfort from the fact that whether or not she wins X Factor, she will either have a number one single or a number one album,  even if people whose intelligence stretches no further than thinking of a wacky patronising nickname try to make her feel like a freak.

Skipping over Tamera Knowles and on to Sinead O’Cyrus as she would like to be known, the implication that she cannot be on the same emotional level as Sinead O’Connor, because she gets her clothes off, doesn’t automatically hold  weight, and the assumption that it does condemns a lot of clever people to a place in the dunces class. It’s not to say all page 3 girls are PhD students in disguise, or that you have to get naked to be intellectual or even capable of independent thought, but it’s a sweeping generalisation that allows no room for debate. Dismiss everyone without going beyond a headline.

Madonna in her Erotica/Sex/Body of Evidence phase went a lot further than Cyrus, but no-one would claim that means she’s stupid. We’re told the difference is that Madonna was in the driver’s seat for all of her 90s flesh flashing, whereas Cyrus is being manipulated by her managers, but how closely is anyone looking at this claim?  Yes,  her managers are probably rubbing their hands, if not other body parts, at the thought of the money it will make for them, but that’s not to say she isn’t a willing participant, and is stupid, or even just naïve, for doing it. But everyone is happy to say that’s what it is, that she is not in control of her image, and that the emotion she felt when making the Wrecking Ball video cannot, as she claims, match O’Connor’s in the video for Nothing Compares to you, because she is happy to then swing around naked on a wrecking ball. But one does not preclude the other.

That’s not to say that Cyrus is operating at the same emotional level, however. For me, the clincher that proves she is trying to manufacture a level of intensity she doesn’t really feel, comes not from her being naked, but from how obvious the attempt at getting that emotion is. It isn’t natural, it is the most forced thing in the video, and the staccato ‘wreck-ek-ek-me’ line confirms this. If you were bringing forth natural emotion and tears, you wouldn’t stretch a line out in such a syllable repeating manner. Also Cyrus’s continued habit of sticking her tongue out every time she sees a camera, suggests that she is going through some sort of postponed adolescent rebellion, rather than being a fully formed mature adult, but this is on a different level from just the clothes off video, a level that the usual summary dismissal of her doesn’t get to.

It also opens up a wider debate about her current behaviour, both in terms of what is behind it, and whether it’s right to condemn her for it.  On the first of these, the rebellion is ‘shocking’ because ‘she used to be so sweet’. Unnaturally so. The reality is rebellion is normal. Cyrus’ was postponed in order to fulfill the media desire for her to remain a sweet and innocent virgin, long after an age where she should be, and as a result, it’s intensity is possibly stronger than it would have been.  

She’s not the first of course, and her progression to maturity will be portrayed as part of some sort of emotional and physical meltdown, rather than anything caused by management designed arrested development, until it does indeed become just that, in much the same way as it did for Britney Spears, and probably is going to for Justin Beiber.

Which brings us to whether it’s right to condemn her. Beiber will only be ridiculed, he will not be condemned like Britney or Miley. Bad behaviour will not be tolerated, let alone celebrated, when it’s a female. The reason for this is probably because, for the rebellious female, be they Miley, Rhianna or Britney, the rebellion seems to come in the form of sex, as well as drink and drugs, and that makes people uncomfortable.

I could go on, but that would be missing the original point of this, which is that the people I’m talking about are first and foremost singers, and yet I can quite easily fill over a thousand words with almost no reference to their vocal ability or their records.  Newspapers, blogs, gossip columns and social media do this every day. It’s like talking about a football match and saying a ball was kicked by Wayne Rooney who once slept with an old prostitute but is now happily married to his childhood sweetheart with whom he has two children and lives somewhere in Cheshire where he has a house and a garden and basically anything other than reporting on the match.

But in music this now seems to be the norm. It’s the life and the problems and the scandal, not the music, that people latch on to, and that dominate column inches whether the person they’re writing about likes it or not.  The days have gone when the centre piece of an article about a singer would be a focus on their music and talent, rather than a reporters ill-informed  opinion of their life. It fills column inches, but it elevates the background to a higher level than the subject, and starts to reduce things to a lowest common denominator.  

Sam Bailey is a talented singer, not a subo replicant. Tamera Foster is a talented singer whether or not she wants to be a Beyone replicant, and is of an age where that’s a perfectly natural thing to be. Miley Cyrus isn’t particularly good, but that’s not because she swings around naked in her videos, it’s because her records aren’t good, because the image creation and promotion has always been put above quality of music in the list of marketing priorities for her. If stars put image before music, it’s always the music that suffers.

So artists, remember what you do and focus on that, and reporters and journalists, remember what the artists do too, and when you’re talking about a pop star, talk about pop music. That way we might get people who make decent music rather than people who make decent gossip column fodder.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Solution for the Winter World Cup

Faced with having to make a decision on whether or not to move the 2022 World Cup to the winter, FIFA responded in the way Governments normally do when presented with insoluble problems. They set up a taskforce. Cue a few high level appointments, several months of meetings, and a lengthy written report that will no doubt reveal, shock horror, that it’s dangerous for players to be playing in 50 degree plus temperatures, but that a winter world cup would disrupt domestic leagues. They’ll then set up a sub-committee to look into it further.

Well, FIFA I can save you a lot of money and a lot of time, as I have a plan for how the 2022 World Cup can be played in winter without throwing life, the universe and everything into the sort of disarray European Leagues are predicting. What’s more, it’s so breathtakingly simple that I know exactly the reason why you haven’t thought of it so far.

My proposal is this. Get rid of International Weekends in the 2022/2023 season. That’s all you need to do to give you the time you need to fit in a winter world cup. You won’t have to reschedule the domestic league for four seasons as someone suggested. You won’t even have to disrupt the league cup like David Moyes suggested, in a less apocalyptic prediction of the devastation we should expect. Best of all, we would get a winter world cup, which would mean we’d be able to sit at home in front of the TV and yell simple platitudes such as ‘he’s got to be sent off for that’ and ‘England’s problems started when they went for foreign managers not when they gave Hodgson the job’ without needing to leave the house. Sounds appealing already doesn’t it?

Now I know the first response will be what about the matches that would have been played on International Weekends, but thinking ahead, I’ve also solved that one without the need for a taskforce. The 2022/23 season will see the first half of the qualifiers for Euro 2024, so, ignoring the oh-so-important friendlies where top premiership players get a week off as their managers mysteriously discover they have a seven day injury, these are the games you have to reschedule. My proposal for doing this comes in three easy to understand bite-sized parts.

The first is to structure the qualifying groups so that every team plays every time there is a qualifier. Get rid of the five country groups that mean every country has weekends where they have to play friendlies, and make them all the same size. The second follows on from this. An increased number of qualifying groups would mean more teams qualifying as group leaders, and less places available for teams to make it via the play-offs. So the next part of the proposal is take advantage of this, get rid of the play-offs and save two more international slots for domestic fixtures.

The final, and most radical part, is to take all of the internationals that would still be left to be played, and move them en-masse to the time vacated by moving the World Cup. Not only would this solve the problem of how to fit the domestic season in around the world cup, it would also reduce the overall number of internationals that Premiership managers moan about, give us football to watch in June and July, and provide European nations with a good mini-warm up tournament ahead of Qatar. What’s not to like?

Of course there will be people saying it’s wrong to disrupt the season and expect players to be taken out of domestic duty for four weeks because of international commitments, but that’s been happening for years with the African Cup of Nations and I can’t think of anyone who’s come back from that looking like a shadow of the player they were before. Besides, even if they did, they would not be the only ones. Everyone would be returning jaded. The more successful their home sides were the more knackered they might be of course, but you have to balance this against the counter-argument that weeks without games are more likely to adversely affect a player’s mindset, and you also have to consider the number of games they’d have been playing had there not been a world cup.

If that leaves the top teams with the lion’s share of players who return a lot weaker we could look on it as an experiment, as suddenly the teams with smaller budgets and fewer internationals will be more evenly matched. It could make the second half of the season vaguely exciting. Teams that are lucky enough to have Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland internationals might find they’re heading into a golden period with full strength, fully fit squads to compete against the tired old wrecks of Man United and Chelsea*. If it were this year, it would make the money Real Madrid paid for Gareth Bale seem like a shrewd investment, rather than a sign of transfer fees getting even further out of hand than they were when they signed Ronaldo.

This just leaves the 1st division, the 2nd division, Conference and other non-league competitions, who don’t benefit from weeks off during the international breaks. Once the two weeks of group games are out of the way, there’s no reason why they can’t carry on as normal with some minor fixture tweaking. Also Sky’s absence from most of the World Cup coverage, would mean a three week window for first and second division chairmen to eagerly scan the fixtures list and hope they have a local derby or a match at home to ‘fallen giants’  so that they are blessed with live coverage. Or they could just use the mid-week slots allocated to the later stages of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, and non-league equivalents, to fit in any displaced fixtures, given that most teams will be knocked out long before then. Either way, it doesn’t seem too hard to solve.

So that’s the European domestic leagues dealt with. No taskforce and no sub-committees needed to solve the problem, and I’ll offer it up to FIFA for free, but on one condition. The condition is that the 2022 taskforce turn its attentions instead to what to do about the problem of the exploitation of migrant labour that has allegedly seen passports withheld, people forced to work fifteen hour days in searing temperatures with one fifteen minute lunch break and no water, people denied medical treatment and not paid if they are unwell, and 44 deaths in two months, alongside predictions that more than 4,000 more could die between now and 2022 unless working schedules and squalid living conditions are not radically overhauled, and all so that Qatar can build the stadiums it needs to host the world cup at a fraction of the money it will receive for doing so. For me, it’s that problem, rather than the problem of a world cup in winter, that’s why serious thought should be given to taking it somewhere else.  

*For the purpose of clarity, the description ‘tired old wrecks’ excludes John Terry who teams already face on a weekly basis. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Nasty Party returns

In 2002 Theresa May told a packed Tory Conference ‘You know what some people call us? The Nasty Party.’ The statement was made to the horror of her own party, who could not believe that one of their own would dare to point out the home truths that had been staring them in the face for years, and to the horror of Labour and Lim Dem supporters, who were happy that the Tories hadn’t realised the obvious, because it was taking them ever more into the margins and away from a return to power. Theresa May had unleashed the truth that could turn her party round, and to achieve this, they didn’t even have to be nice, they just needed to make the public think they were.

Not that the lesson was immediately learned. After ditching Iain Duncan Smith, the party did not set out to find a leader that could represent their nice side, instead they took a lurch even further towards the dark side with Michael Howard, the sort of grotesque villain who, if he cropped up in a Bond film, would lead people to say that the franchise had finally taken it too far. But eventually, after a third election defeat they started to get their house in order. The Nice Party was unveiled under David Cameron, and, to prove their credentials, he even hugged a hoodie, a species the Tory old guard wanted the public to see as more life threatening and dangerous than the BSE burger John Selwyn Gummer once fed to his daughter.

 With the aid of Labour Party moving into a self-destructive mode where on one hand it could no longer rely on selling itself as ‘actually quite right wing’, and on the other couldn’t agree whether it should go further right or return to some of the principles it was meant to stand for, the Tory makeover seemed to work. It wasn’t Changing Rooms but it was Ten Years Younger, with all signs of decay from age and physical and mental self-abuse hidden under a peeled-back, surgically-uplifted face. It fooled so many people that they came close to winning an election, but not close enough to prevent the murmurings of a deluded faction who thought they would have achieved an outright win if the Nasty Party had never gone.

And now they’re back. They probably never really went away, and they’ve certainly been seeping through the cracks in the polished veneer of niceness for months if not years, but this week in Manchester they’ve made a full throated return, rising forth onto a stage, spitting and spewing out bile, and setting out their agenda with an ill-disguised glee. They’re back and they’re proud. So proud, and indeed so bold and unashamed, that their former leader is standing on the podium announcing nasty policies. Of course, he’s not their leader anymore. The puppet master turned controller is a far more evil character who in true super villain style, has somehow managed to conceal his real identity from the Nice Party even when it’s clear to the rest of us that George Osborne is the new king of the Nasty Party.

When Osborne says we’re going to have to suffer the pains of austerity for another five years, in spite of claiming it’s working so well that continuing with it seems like malice, you get the feeling that he is smiling inside and wants people to suffer just for the fun of it. But that’s only half of the story of the Nasty Party. The other half is a concerted attempt to demonise the unemployed and stir up public anger to such an extent that they can claim to have a mandate for policies that could only be justified if everyone without a job really was a workshy idle layabout, with nothing better to do than watch Jeremy Kyle with the curtains closed all day.  

And not only do they use the rhetoric to support policies like making them do unpaid community work rather than paying the minimum wage for the same work, they also use it as a way to focus anger on someone other than themselves for the current economic situation.

You can almost imagine Osborne at a Nasty Party meeting saying ‘What reason can we give for why working people should continue to suffer, other than because we haven’t done quite as well as we said we would. Who can we blame?’ Someone would have immediately given the answer ‘let’s blame it on a section of society we can demonise and present as an amorphous mass of vagabonds, vagrants and cheats.’ At which point someone would have said ‘do you mean immigrants?’ someone else would have said ‘no, sadly our go home or get thrown out vans didn’t go down to well’ and another would have said ‘how about the Lib Dems?’ before being told ‘we can’t, we need their support for another two years, and besides, we need to blame them for the last five years when we get elected in 2015’. After anyone who offered the correction of ‘if we get elected in 2015’ has been laughed at and asked to leave, Smith would have revealed that it was a rhetorical question, and he and Osborne already knew the answer, it was the unemployed.

 The facts don’t bear out the rhetoric behind their claims. They will have ignored the fact that there are a lot of people who are unemployed through no fault of their own, that many people out of work are victims of the Government’s austerity programme, while others would probably have had a happy and fulfilling working life if only we hadn’t sacrificed the manufacturing industry their non-academic skills were suited for in order to remodel Britain as the centre of IT and Finance. And as for unemployed graduates with years of debt-funded knowledge, they would be dismissed as people who should lower the expectations the Government’s previous drive to get more people into higher education had fuelled, and stack shelves instead.

But the Nasty Party are not going to let any of this stand in their way.  Instead, they will spin every rotten stereotype, every outdated cliché, and every piece of partial ill-informed ‘evidence’ they can find to appeal to every base prejudice that might exist. I am not saying that there is no-one who is ‘on the dole’ who doesn’t want to work, but if the unemployed were a religious group the Nasty Party and their followers would probably be breaking a law by seeking to inspire hatred towards them all on the basis of the behaviour and belief of a minority.

It doesn’t matter what crumbs of reasonableness may lie in the details of the Nasty Party’s proposals, the thing that gets the attention and the thing they want to get the attention is the headline ‘we’re punishing the unemployed’ as if they are a breed of people that are responsible for all of society’s ills, along with anyone else that has ever claimed a benefit, and deserve nothing other than unmitigated contempt and public disgust at their fecklessness. Meanwhile any other proposals for dealing with the country’s economic mess, or improving the lot of the average person, are dismissed as harking back to the 70’s, as if every value held in that decade, rather than just some of them, was wrong and as if the policies that were implemented in response to them were an unmitigated success, rather than, at best, the very mixed bag they can now be seen as.

And that’s the Nasty Party. They’re coming to town, and they’re trying to take over the country. You know what you have to do if you want to stop them. It starts with a letter. The letter is X. You need to put it somewhere sensible and hope enough other people do the same thing and make the Nasty Party go away again.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Welcome back to the National Game

There once was a time when the start of a new football season was something that happened quietly one Saturday afternoon in August. Non-football fans would only know it had begun when they started seeing people in scarves and funny looking tops getting off trains and walking through towns to nearby football grounds. If they were in town later in the afternoon there would also be the other tell-tale sign of large numbers of men stopping outside Rumbelows or Radio Rentals at 4.45 to look at the mini-printer and Final Score as it brought up the results of the days games.

On TV, aside from Final Score, football would also push its way into the TV schedule on a Saturday evening, just after an American TV detective who normally had either a weight problem (Cannon) a disability (Ironside) or a love of lolly pops (Kojak), unless they were called Starsky and Hutch, in which case they just had an inability to get in cars by the normal method of opening the doors. Each week you’d get highlights of three matches from the top league and then that would be it for another week, unless you were a real football devotee, in which case there was The Big Match on ITV on a Sunday afternoon.

The people who came up with the name The Big Match clearly had a grasp of irony that passed most of us by. The programme had highlights of several matches, but none of them fitted the description Big, as all of them were from the Second Division. A better name for the programme would have been ‘The moderately sized match that is the biggest thing we can show because the BBC have Match of the Day and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ But that would have taken a lot of space in the TV times even when it did only have one channel in its listings.

For anyone under 40 this may sound hard to believe, but anyone over that age will remember these as simple times. If you want to know how simple, look no further than that the Second Division was the second level of English football, not something that was one step above the non-league pyramid, and the name of the knock-out competition played by teams from the Football League was The Football League Cup. You really knew where you were in those days.

Wind forward some 31 years since the league cup became The Milk Cup, or 30 years since ITV screened Tottenham Hotspur v Nottingham Forest as the first live top flight game on TV, in an age where there was no need to add the word ‘Terrestrial’ before TV to make it clear what type of channel you were talking about, and it’s a very different world.

The start of the football season has gone from being something that just happened to something that gets trailed for at least a month in advance, with newspapers and Sky building up to the big moment with an air of anticipation and a sense of mystique and excitement about the outcome, that belies the fact that the top four, if not the bottom three of the Premiership are pretty much a foregone conclusion. It’s almost like advertising an episode of Poirot and saying ‘will there be a murder and will the little Belgian detective be able to crack it?’ The Premiership, and Champions League, are sold in a way that the content simply does not justify, and the endless eulogising about what we can all look forward to, just serve to make it something that cannot fail to disappoint.

And yet, TVs vociferous appetite for all things football continues to grow, unless you live in Scotland and want to find a broadcaster who cares about your national league. Its impact on mainstream TV may have lessened thanks to Sky’s millions, and the inability of attempts to loosen its grip on the domestic game to do anything other than increase the number of pay TV providers taking your money, but like the nations favourite soaps, the overall amount of TV time it consumes has grown exponentially.

But in much the same way as the growth in volume of soaps, and the increased number of episodes of each one, led to declining quality, so the increase in the amount of live football on TV has seen the ratio of good to bad matches swinging firmly in favour of the latter. For every great match there are several more where the phrase ‘it’s not turning out to be the game we expected’ will be heard before the 90 minutes are up. Indeed that phrase is heard so often that it should now be reserved for the edge-of-your-seat, roller-coaster ride of thrills, spills and excitement type games, rather than the largely dull games that only have you on the edge of your seat when your eyes close and you start to fall off the sofa.

As this happens, event TV is becoming non-event TV. While the first live matches on terrestrial became stay at home programmes for most football fans, and the first games shown on Sky made the early days of Sunday afternoon pub opening seem like something that was filling a deep un-catered for social need, these days most live matches are just something on in the background at the local with only a few people breaking away from their I-phones, or their children’s wilful destruction of pub furniture in the absence of any child friendly toys, to bother to watch.

Clubs need the money, thanks to the upwards uncontrollable spiral of wealth that the first Sky contracts set in motion, so live football will remain a fixture on TV, but for me, and I suspect a lot of other people, the highest levels of the professional game football is eating itself. I no longer have the interest in it that I did, and no longer recognise it as the game I loved when I could only watch it in highlight form on Saturday night TV. Of course we still have Match of the Day, but the way that programme has gone from being exciting easy access TV to another example of something else that elevates the national game to a level of art and discussion it doesn’t deserve, could take up a blogpost in itself. If only I could watch it without a finger on the fast forward button, that is.  

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Wigan V Crystal Palace

Responding to the victory that takes them back to the Premiership, Ian Holloway, the Crystal Palace manager, apparently said they are 'on a hiding to nothing'. This honest assessment has immediately lead to many people getting the wrong end of the stick and saying he's already written off their chances of survival. The determination Holloway showed in trying to keep Blackpool in the Premiership shows that he is not a man to give up easily, and however hard the job might be, he'll still be trying to win games until relegation is a mathematical certainty. 

More importantly, if the experience of Blackpool is anything to go by, he'll also be trying to play entertaining football, and not just taking his team to shut up shop in their own half at every ground they go to. And this is the way it should be, for Holloway is right, Palace are on a hiding to nothing, and if relegation is almost inevitable, it's far better to do it in a positive way, by trying to compete.

If you don't believe me, then look at the team they've replaced. Wigan were on a hiding to nothing for eight seasons, but in all that time they've never played like a team for whom finishing 17th is the target. On their first game in the top flight, they held their own against Chelsea in a game that was starting to look as if the referee would carry on playing until Chelsea scored, which they eventually did in the 95th minute. Jose Mourinho admitted they did not deserve to lose, and they went on to defy the odds time and time again. Testament to their approach to football is Roberto Martinez looking destined to become manager of Everton. Would that have happened if Wigan had played like a team resigned to their fate, more concerned about clinging on to the premiership millions than about the value for money they provided for their supporters? I doubt it.

In winning the FA Cup and getting relegated in the same season, Wigan have achieved an unfortunate first (although Birmingham managed a similar feat when they won the league cup two seasons ago). It's again testament to Wigan supporters that, for the most part, they seem to be saying they would rather have won the FA Cup and gone down, than lost it and stayed up. It's a recognition of what football should be about - the excitement about achieving something, rather than pulling off an annual battle for survival where the prize for success is questionable.

I know people will say that a prize for success of between 50 million and 120 million is hardly questionable, but the value of this money isn't what it seems when you compare it to the budgets of the big four and the other top teams. You still have a playing field that is as unlevel as Barnet's Underhill Stadium, and, in spite of the vast amounts of money you get, you still end up comparatively poorer than you were at the start of the season, always expect to lose more matches than you win, and know that the next season might be even harder as your top players are picked off by other clubs further fuelling the rise in wage bills you have to compete with

That, to me, is why if you get in the Premiership you have to enjoy it. Go out and play entertaining football, try to win, and give your fans something to savour, not something that will bore them rigid for the season . Accept that there is a fair chance of relegation, but don't worry about it. After all, if you drop down a division, while you may lose your 50 -120 million, you'll be playing against teams that don't have the parachute payments you get, and your lower income suddenly becomes worth a lot more than the higher income you used to get. You become a big team in your division, and once again have the excitement of a season where something other than survival is at stake.

Holloway got that at Blackpool, successive Wigan managers got that when they were in charge, and some of the other unlikely success stories in the premiership have also got it, playing football without fear, and competing, not just trying to survive.

I'm not a fan of Crystal Palace, although I do like Ian Holloway. I don't care if they stay up, and would actually be happy if they came down as a result of a long standing grudge against them for conning a referee into giving a penalty that effectively sent my own team out of the Championship nine years ago. But all of that aside, I still hope that when they do go down, they've had an enjoyable season.

Monday, 22 April 2013

National Rip-Off Store Day

Saturday's National Record Store Day proved two things. The first was that there is a great demand for vinyl and collectors items, and this isn't just confined to old gits like me who remember when vinyl was all you could buy. The second was that record companies, if not record stores, will use any opportunity they can get to rip people off and screw them out of as much money as possible.

For this reason, my first national record store day is also likely to be my last.

Until now, I have felt a mix of guilt and anxiety at missing the yearly event on a consistent basis. Guilt because I wasn't supporting local record stores, and anxiety because I knew I might be missing out on limited edition vinyl-only tracks by people I like. Thinking that I would never get the chance to hear, let alone own, these tracks made me determined to make the effort this year.

I left the house relatively early on Saturday to go to Banquet records in Kingston. I foolishly thought it would be a case of turn up, pop in, and check out. Instead I found that my 'relatively early' was other people's 'very, very late' as the queue outside the store not only reached the end of the road, it went round the corner, up another road and past a car park. Some of the people at the front of the queue, and the ones who'd already been in the store and gone by the time I arrived, had been there since the previous evening, queuing as if it was The Sale at Debenhams, or the opening of a new IKEA store.

The fact that they would queue this long was what confirmed the demand for vinyl, and provided irrefutable proof that whilst some people will only download tracks and have no interest in a physical product, for other people the physical product is still the all-important thing to have. 

Record companies seem to willfully fail to realise this. Happy with the vast amount of download single sales, they ignore the fact that a lot of previously massive artists  no longer crack the top 40 with anything other than the first single from an album, if that. It's as if, for 364 days of the year, they don't get the obvious reason why this happens - which is that once you already have the whole CD, why would you want to download the single? There are no new tracks, no exclusive remixes, and crucially, no physical product, so there is nothing that a fan has to have in order to complete their collection. Hence, where once they would have bought a CD, 7 inch vinyl release, and/or 12 inch extended version irrespective of whether they had anything they didn't already own, or was any good, now they give it a miss, and even Robbie Williams can't get near the top 100 with his latest single.

But on the 365th day of the year, they sort of get it, but like being heroes, it's just for one day, and its a day when they show their utter contempt for people who want to buy records. Instead of noting the queues and thinking, 'maybe we could release vinyl versions of every single to meet this obvious demand', they think 'here's a lot of people that have waited a long time. If they want something that much, that means we can charge a lot of money for it' and act in what seems to be the British way by charging ridiculous prices and alienating the very people whose support they need.

Sample prices this year included £9 for a David Bowie 7 inch, £12 for a Kate Bush 12 inch, £11 for a Suede 7 inch, and £7 for a single by Frank Turner. Even a rabbit shaped vinyl version of Chas'n'Dave's Rabbit was going for about £8. It's as if the record companies are cutting out the middle man and immediately selling things for the sort of price they would previously have eventually traded hands at a few years later.  

Worse still, of the over 450 limited edition singles and albums that were released, the vast majority of them were simply vinyl editions of tracks already available in many formats. The Suede single was one track off their new album and one off their first. The Bowie singles included two tracks from The Next Day on one record. In short, no track you wouldn't already have if you were a real fan, but a collectors item you would have no choice but to pay over the odds for if you had loyally followed the artist and bought everything they ever did. What a nice way to say thank you to your fans. 

The record industry suffers from many self-inflicted wounds, including ignoring Napster till it was too late to stop the illegal download market getting as big as it is, but when they have the chance to do something really good to restore their reputation their default mode is to go for quick profit and exploitation of loyal fans. The long game is passed over for the quick win. Reasonably priced records 365 days a year, or one day of big money? They probably don't think twice about it. The record companies at least don't deserve your support or sympathy. Contempt is a better emotion, as that's the one they have for you. 

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Jumping the Shark of Revenge

For anyone who doesn’t know, ‘Jumping the Shark’ is the phrase used to describe the moment when a TV show ceases to be any good, or more precisely when it loses all credibility via one ludicrous storyline. The term derives from an episode of Happy Days where, having already jumped over buses and performed other Evil Kenevel type stunts on his motorbike, Fonzie decided he would jump over sharks.

Last night, Revenge, the American series starring Emily VanCamp, an actress whose surname is far too close to Camper Van for comfort, reached this point, having been building up to it for some time.

The moment came when Emily Thorne/Amanda Clark’s (played by VanCamp) boyfriend Aiden, and a woman in charge of a shadowy group called The Initiative, were trapped in a lift that was filled with gas, before being abducted, taken to the basement of a smart building, tied up, having bags placed over their heads, and then tortured by two other people who also had bags over their heads.

Against seemingly impossible odds, Aiden managed to escape and kill one of the abductees and flee the building with Helen, the woman from The Initiative, only for it, of course, to be revealed that it was all a set-up, and the abductees were none other than Emily and her geeky best friend and protector Nolan Ross. Not only was this implausible it was also blindingly obvious. From when the gas first started filling the lift, there was never a moment when you didn’t know that it was going to be a set-up and that Emily was the person behind it.

And with that, Revenge lost any last claim it had to being intelligent television, and joined the ever growing ranks of lowest common denominator shows where shady organisations exist as an excuse for the writers to pass off ever more improbable storylines, and where there is no limit to the range of superpower style skills ordinary people can have, particularly if it creates an action packed scene that requires, if not demands, no thought process on the part of its viewers.  

Why do I care about this? Possibly because series 1 of Revenge was not only good, it was intelligent TV, well plotted with the right amount of twists and turns to keep you interested, without thinking the producers were adding stuff simply to stretch the programme to 24 episodes and a cliff hanger for a second series.

It centred around Emily’s desire to get revenge on the Graysons, the people responsible for the death of her father, David Carter, and all of the people who conspired to help them. Most of the episodes consisted of a single sting against one such person, whilst slowly building a bigger back story, and drawing other characters and sub-plots into the overarching story. At the end the mystery seemed to have been solved and all the baddies had either got their comeuppance or were about to.

They could have stopped there, and followed in the footsteps of Harpers Island, the one US show in recent years to go off the air after one series for reasons other than low ratings. The makers of that show made clear from the outset that it would be self contained, with nothing left to spill over into a second series that rehashed the first, and it was all the better for it.

Unfortunately the makers of Revenge did not follow suit, the key words in ‘all the baddies had either got their comeuppance or were about to’ were ‘about to’, and into that briefest slither of possibility came a second series.

Initially, following one dropped clue at the end of season 1, it appeared that season 2 would centre on Emily’s previously considered deceased mother. This wouldn’t have been all that original, but would at least have built on the strengths of the first season, albeit probably obeying the laws of diminished returns at the same time. However, this was jettisoned after a few episodes that first of all confirmed she was alive, then said that actually she wasn’t the good person wrongly placed in an asylum that we’d been told she was, but was actually a bad person who had tried to kill her daughter, before ending with her getting a nice rehabilitation as someone who was troubled, but recognised her problems and needed to leave for her own safety, at the same time killing off any sub plots that had any connection to her.

It was almost as if the producers weren’t satisfied with this line of development. They wanted to ratchet up the conspiracy levels to 10 in order to capture an even bigger audience, presumably thinking the existing one would stay with it following principles of brand loyalty.

As a result, all eyes moved on to The Initiative, the shady group of business people who it now turns out were behind the plot that lead to David Carter’s death (the Graysons merely being people forced to work for them for reasons as yet unknown), and an equally mysterious Japanese organisation that trained Emily in the art of revenge, and are trying to stop the Intervention, also for reasons the producers either haven’t thought of, or haven’t revealed, so far.  

Things that made series one entertaining, such as the subtle surveillance methods Emily and Nolan used to keep tabs on the Grayson house and plot their next move, have became tired and idle plot devices, there merely to cover over the cracks by providing an explanation of why Emily and others have the vast amounts of information they need to make the storylines work. Other sub plots have been added, all on the theme of revenge, but with only a vague, if any connection, to the main plot, other than using peripheral characters. The end result is a programme that has veered off in more directions than you can count, and has lost all sense of focus and plausibility in the process.

In doing so it confirms a truism that American programme makers in particular, seem to continually forget, which is that if you have a drama that centres around one conspiracy or one strong incident, you cannot continue to stretch it out. Revenge now seems destined to join the ranks of Lost, Heroes and Prison Break as a show that lives on past the point when anyone even remembers the original storyline let alone cares how the loose ends tie up and the mystery is explained.

I would say it’s a mystery why this happens time and again, but it really isn’t. At five series in, syndication rights normally revert to the programme makers rather than the TV companies that broadcast them, and so series 5 becomes the holy grail all programme makers aim for. While this is fine if you have a setting and characters that drive the programme, as the best soaps or comedies have, it isn’t so good if you don’t. It would be good if both TV producers and film makers could recognise this and learn that everything has a natural length and not try and produce franchises that outstay their welcome. Sadly I can’t see this happening any time soon.

Revenge is now the latest in a long line of shark jumpers, it won’t be the last, and if you put all the shows that have, or will, jump the shark together in one line, you would end up with something so big that even Fonzie would find it impossible to jump over. 

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Tuesday, 19 February 2013

There's no Nashville in Nashville

If a TV programme is named after a place, you expect to find the essence of that place running through the programme at every level. Boardwalk Empire is a classic example of this. It is intrinsically Atlantic City during prohibition, every element of the programme evoking the setting to create the atmosphere that makes the characters and storylines believable and compelling. The first episode of new crime series Vegas, is also an example of drama that uses its setting. It captured the mix of old style Golden Nugget gambling and dust-bowl desert, and the storyline belonged in that place and that time. Going back further, the mixture of cattle country and oil barons in the original Dallas may not have been a realistic portrayal of the city, but at least felt authentic until Bobby headed into the shower, and the show headed down the plughole.

With this in mind, a programme called Nashville should surely feel like it’s set in the home of Country and Western music, bringing to life the vast array of music bars and struggling musicians that define the downtown area of the city, and showing how for every Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton, there are several hundred Willie Parton’s and Dolly Nelson’s more likely to end up drunk or waiting tables than they are to give Taylor Swift or Garth Brooks a run for their money in the US charts.
It should do this, but it doesn’t.  If you watch the programme you get the impression that Nashville has only two singers and two music venues, The Bluebird Cafe, and an aircraft hanger style club somewhere on the outskirts of the city with a very large car park (good to see ABC studio’s parking lots being used in such an active way).

The Bluebird Cafe is a real bar, although both the interior and exterior in the programme are Hollywood reconstructions. For the interior they’ve decided it’s a very respectable establishment where a young and attractive crowd sit at tables just the right distance from each other for it to be vibrant but not cramped, and where no-one ever tries to leave just as a tip jar is passed round. Hell, in Nashville the TV programme they don’t even have tip jars, the bar owners presumably paying more than their real life counterparts, and not leaving musicians reliant on extra public donations to supplement the income they get from any day job, and give them an amount they can afford to live on.

Meanwhile, the exterior of the reconstructed Bluebird Cafe consists of windows and doors only, the producers feeling no need to show any other buildings in this street, let alone the rest of the city, in case it suggested something that could impact on its main characters, or that would require Nashville, and the rest of the world, to have more than two country and western singers.

And what of these singers? Well there must have been a long time when no-one new started singing, as one of them (Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere, who will now be known for something other than being in Heroes and having a surname that sounds like a small French loaf), is young, and the other (Rayna James, played by Connie Britton) is old. That’s about all you can really say about them. Both are sanitised versions of real singers, stripped of any back story that could suggest their fame came at any cost or effort on their part.

The eldest of the two is admittedly struggling a bit now, with her new album not selling well and a tour playing to half empty venues, but it’s a relative failure. The venues are spread around the whole country, and even half full probably seat more than most Nashville musicians play to in a year. The younger one just seems to have had fame thrust upon her and unlike any currently popular singer, is on an upwards curve unlikely to be disrupted by a chance meeting with a member of One Direction.
The lack of any back story, takes away any depth the characters or storyline could have had, and turns it all into a battle between old and new, a forty-something stalwart and a twenty-something upstart. It maybe that this is why the programme is so light on location detail. The music and city are also irrelevant to the plot. The only reason for it being country and western is it’s the only type of music where people over 40 would even have a chance of competing against a younger rival. If you don’t believe me, consider the sales of Madonna’s last album in comparison to those of Lady GaGa or Nicky Minaj.

In short, it seems like the programme isn’t about Nashville at all, and the producers couldn’t be bothered to make the effort to pretend that it is, they thought that once they’d given it its name, that was it, job done, no need to capture the atmosphere of the real place, particularly when doing so would expose the storyline to scrutiny on the grounds of plausibility.

Having said all this, it’s winning awards and racking up nominations in the States, so maybe I’m in a minority of one, but for me it’s still a weak programme and a wasted opportunity.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Vote Europe!

If you come to an agreement with 26 people and believe that the end result is one where you give, and the others take, and you are the only one impoverished by the relationship, there are three conclusions an outside observer can come to. One is that the other 26 must really hate you, the second is that you are paranoid, seeing conspiracy and envy in every person you have contact with, and the third is that you are greedy and the reality is not that the other 26 are trying to do you over, but that you have no sense of what compromise actually is. In the case of the agreement between Great Britain, or at least the part of it known as England, and the European Union, all three of these conclusions probably apply.

The first of the three, to the extent that it exists, is probably a result of the other two. Britain’s relationship with the EU has never been easy because so much of it has been driven by suspicion, mistrust and grudging cooperation on our part. It all began with Winston Churchill’s original unwillingness to join the EUs predecessor on the grounds that ‘we are with them, but not of them’. This embodied our island nation and the days of empire – the feeling that we were somehow better than the rest of them, and could survive because we were British.

Time did not prove this right and eventually we had to join the EU. Joining when it suited us, for our own interests, and expecting others to welcome them after we’d turned them down when they wanted us in. That’s what we did. And we wonder why some of them were reluctant to let us in, and why the terms we got were not as favourable as they could have been. It shouldn’t take a genius to work it out.

It might be uncomfortable for many modern day conservatives to note, but the man who took us into the EU was not some soft-minded lefty with no concern for sovereignty and a desire to get rid of the monarchy. It was actually Ted Heath, one of their former leaders. Although, as the man Margaret Thatcher and subsequent Tory leaders sought to turn into a figure of ridicule, it probably just adds to their conviction that it was a stupid thing to do.

From then on, our relationship with Europe has often been characterised by fear that they are either taking our money, our powers, or both. This is where the paranoia really starts to creep in. Is it just us that they are taking powers from? Are they doing it deliberately to weaken us, like some James Bond villain but in a boring bureaucratic form? If they are, all I can think is that they don’t understand maths and the UKs bank balance. Why go to weaken a country that has barely enough money for itself, let alone enough to spread around 26?

The truth is that the EU benefits us in some respects, and harms us in others. It does the same for every country that’s a member of it. Only the likes of UKIP, the Conservatives pushing for the referendum, and some of the right wing press, really believe that we are the only country that get none of the benefits, and most, or all, of the misery that comes from membership.
The pressure that has led to the decision to seek to renegotiate our EU membership, and then hold a referendum on the new terms, is borne out of paranoia, and not from any desire to really have a debate on whether the benefits of membership outweigh the harm.

This has always been the way. In years gone by, our anger was directed at French farmers, various countries fisherman, and other assorted foreign people that we were paying to grow sunflowers or trawl in waters that weren’t ours, but probably had been once. The benefits in trade, customs tariffs, free markets, and whisper it quietly, some bits of funding that actually came our way, never got a look in.

The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express have always managed to turn any vague unease about anything EU related into a full-scale conspiracy, managing to achieve this even when it’s a policy that, on first glance at least, looks like it might be good for a lot of us. Maximum working week? No thanks, I’d sooner have my Government tell me I can be made to work all the hours that God sends. Minimum wage? No thanks, it’s for my Government to decide to pay me a pittance rather than Brussels to tell me I have a right to a level of pay I might possibly be able to exist on.

The arguments made for withdrawal are focused solely on the harm the EU can do, and not even an accurate portrayal of what that harm is. Whether those advocating an EU exit are paranoid themselves, or whether they’re just fuelling public paranoia as a front for other more selfish reasons for wanting out, may be open to question. To do this, the arguments for withdrawal need to be countered with the current benefits we have from being in the EU, and also the consequences of withdrawal, which may be far worse than just the ending of those benefits.

Sadly and worryingly it’s unlikely that the full debate will be heard. The anti-EU lobby have already won the day in getting this far with so much that panders to the lowest common denominators of self interest and mistrust, and so little by way of a balanced argument. And, so far, they haven’t even had to remind us that our shocking performance in the Eurovision song contest is further proof that they’ve all got it in for us. Makes you proud to be British!