Thursday, 10 December 2009

What's the measure of a guilty pleasure?

It was with a considerable pinch of self-consciousness that I recently scolded myself for singing along to every word of a Good Charlotte song that blared from my kitchen radio.

This was not because I was wary of disturbing my neighbours, or because my singing would embarrass the cat sitting in my garden, but because the song was a truly guilty pleasure. Good Charlotte are rubbish, and I really should know better.

Good Charlotte would not, however, feature on a typical 'guilty pleasures' playlist, as they'd undoubtedly be muscled out of the selection by hordes of 70s soft-rock ballads and theme songs from programmes such as Baywatch and Nightrider.

Do not be fooled.

Those who confess to the 'guilty' enjoyment of acts such as Richard Astley or Whitney Houston do so fraudulently, behind a heavy veil of try-hard irony.

Not good. Not even in an ironic way.

Astley and Houston are flag-bearers for all that is bad about music, yet their most offensive efforts, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’ (dis)respectively, are spared the warranted scorn by a scandalous view shared by many that they are guilty pleasures.

These distorted recollections are what James Murphy, a.k.a. LCD Soundsystem, would call the cool kids' “nostalgia of the unremembered eighties”.

Christmas is notoriously synonymous with musical pseudo-guilty pleasures.

Dross like Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ is hauled from the murkiest depths of music’s sewage systems to be played at office Christmas parties across the country.

Brain-splittingly tortuous efforts like these would be treated with suitable disdain had they been released in May, yet their festive timing affords them a collective shrug of pardon from the public.

Tolerating such drivel is bad, but it is the act of enjoying these as so-called guilty pleasures that is unforgivable. Indeed, there is not enough guilt attached to guilty pleasures. If guilt was adequately appropriated to those found to be enjoying these songs, record collections would be torched and ears severed.

As things stand, however, we are left with halfwits who choose to dedicate club nights to ‘the best of the worst of the 80s’ and opportunities to ‘dance like your dad’ (or, more accurately, like the ‘totally random’ prick dancing next to you).

Irony is bludgeoned all over these events like a bloody axe, to such an extent that the term itself is left gaunt and empty; a bastardised phoneme shunned to the cringeworthy corners of our darkest mass culture.

So I’m going to listen to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’. In an entirely un-ironic fashion.

Friday, 30 October 2009

The Football League Show Blog. Show.

The Football League has undergone numerous facelifts and rebranding projects to rid itself of old pre-cursors such as the ‘basement’ or ‘the graveyard of ambition’.

The Championship (formerly the second division) is no longer solely associated with the top division’s title chase, and League One and League Two are deceptively elevating pseudonyms for what are actually the third and fourth tiers of British football.

Whereas the Football League has been innovative with its reinventions, though, the BBC’s coverage of it has been a little less than imaginative. The catchy name for its weekly, post-Match of the Day slot? The Football League Show.

And while the BBC’s coverage, despite its less than eye-catching branding, has still increased viewing figures for the divisions in question, its peculiar underground studio does create a basement feel.

Every Saturday night, we’re taken into the depths of a cold, bare warehouse, with only presenter Manish Bhasin and an analyst, usually Steve Claridge, for company. Claridge, having played for most, if not every one, of the football clubs in the United Kingdom, is the ideal man to guide you through the efforts of Gillingham’s John Nutter or Morecambe midfielder Emmanuel Panther.

Meanwhile, another of the BBC’s (un)memorable creations is the title of its League Cup programme… The League Cup Show.

This competition has also had its image tarnished by indifferent managers and belittling media coverage but, like the Football League, it has consistently reinvented itself as, among other things, the Milk Cup, Worthington Cup and now the Carling Cup.

It may only have rebranded itself for financial reasons but attendances are up, big clubs are all taking it seriously and, judging by the BBC’s decision to call in the big guns (well, Mark Lawrenson) for its coverage, the Carling Cup appears to be in rude health.

There is viewer interactivity in both programmes, with Jacqui Oatley and Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes fielding emails from fans. Although a little tedious, it does spare us the aural ordeal of a radio phone-in ‘debate’ between Alan Green and ‘Dave from the Wirrall’.

One facet of the footballing media circus the BBC has disappointingly overlooked is Andy Townsend’s Tactics Truck, last seen on ITV’s ill-fated Premiership highlights package. The nearest thing we’re treated to is the expert Leroy Rosenior chatting excitedly about the ‘total football’ on display at, erm, Huddersfield Town.

The BBC also has coverage rights for football’s truly unfashionable competition, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. It remains unconfirmed, however, whether there are plans to broadcast The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Show.

As written for Leeds Student 30/10/09

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Window of opportunity nears chaotic closure

Ankara’s rammed Esenborga Airport was an unlikely scene of mass hysteria earlier this summer, and it wasn’t a visit from the Pope or an Elvis comeback concert that the Turkish capital was staging, but a feverish welcome for quite a different hero.

Darius Vassell may be a striker with a less than handy knack for not scoring – best known for missing a penalty in England’s Euro 2004 quarter-final exit – but, at his new home, he has been embraced like a messiah.

Described as ‘more than a player’ by Ankaragucu fans’ placards, the former Manchester City misfit looked understandably surprised as around 3,000 supporters let off flares and chanted his name.

And it is this maniacal response to new arrivals that embodies the world’s undying thirst for the circus of the transfer window, which comes to a frenzied close today.

Whether it is a Bosnian wonder-kid heralded as Man United’s new favourite son, or an unattached journeyman going through the motions at a trial match in Grimsby, football transfers capture the essence of a British summer like the sight of a binge-drinking 16-year-old girl lying face down in a puddle of gravy and vomit outside Oceana, just hours after collecting 27 A* GCSEs.

The closure of the window, however, is as much a harbinger of the summer’s end as a chilly autumnal shower, and it is accompanied by chaotic ‘wheeling and dealing’ all over the world.

As 5pm nears, tanned and bejewelled agents across Europe will be frantically trying to explain why their Lithuanian utility defender is worth a last-minute multi-million bid, while managers will jostle for the signature of an aging forward whose ‘dream’ it has always been to join an underachieving Championship club.

And our friends at Sky Sports News will be there, anticipating every routine medical or rumoured trans-continental swap deal with the sort of excitement Carlo Ancelotti feels when he enters Greggs’ bakery.

The window won’t re-open until January the first, so make the most of Sam Allardyce’s latest pursuit of a fading former ‘Galactico’, ’Arry Redknapp’s bid of £3m and a bag of chips for David James, or Phil Brown’s failure to attract a confused Argentine playmaker to Hull.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Cullinan and cakes: Cricket's culinary treats

Despite the efforts of various radio DJs to ram La Roux’s faux-80s synthesized squealing into my brain, Test Match Special absolutely remains the soundtrack of my summer.

While Australia humiliated England at Headingley, the TMS team cheered its audience with an altogether jollier alternative subject to a batting collapse: food.

It took Geoffrey Boycott less than five minutes to add his input to the mix. Asked what he thought of Matt Prior’s injury sustained during a football match, Boycott boomed in overtones of Yorkshire dissatisfaction: “Daft. You’ll get more brains in a chocolate mouse.”

Boycott’s comment paved the way for a deluge of confectionery-related chatter in the commentary box. Jonathan Agnew waxed lyrical about cakes and sweets, sent in by the truckload by adoring listeners, while Matthew Hayden, the gargantuan Australian, licked his lips at the prospect of tucking into a selection of toffees, just as his former team-mates were devouring their feeble English prey.

What's for tea, Bumble?

A little further along in the media area, David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd kept Twitter followers updated not only with the cricket but, most importantly, the snacks available in the Sky studios.

One message read excitedly: “Pies and Branston have arrived and a HUGE cake. Beefy in business.” Beefy, of course, being Ian Botham – a talisman not only for his all-round cricketing ability but for his insatiable hunger.

Shane Warne may be a new addition to the Sky commentary team but the Australian is well acquainted with cricket’s healthy relationship with food. Renowned for his cutting remarks at the crease, there were often dietary references when he sledged opponents.

When bowling to the full-of-figure Arjuna Ranatunga, Warne was encouraged by his wicket-keeper, Ian Healey, to “put a Mars bar on a length”, to tempt the batsman out of his crease.

Warne’s own sizeable build, however, did not go unnoticed during his playing career. When welcoming Daryll Cullinan to the wicket, Warne remarked that he’d been waiting two years to bowl at and torment the batsman once again (Cullinan had supposedly seen a psychiatrist since their last meeting). The South African’s retort was short but sweet: “Looks like you spent that time eating.”

One wouldn't necessarily have to rummage through Bumble’s picnics or Warne’s mind games to find further foodie association.

Batsmen playing against Durham can actually be dismissed caught (Phil) Mustard, bowled (Graham) Onions. Proving to be a hit for reasons other than wickets and a comedy surname, England seamer Onions can now list Lily Allen as an admirer. It has not yet been confirmed whether Amy Winehouse has professed to her Twitter followers about an Ian Bell crush.

In fact, with Alistair Cook opening the batting, the England team has never been so pun-friendly, especially where culinary wordplay is concerned.

And should Rob Key win a recall to the England side for the decisive Oval Test, you can bet that food will once again be a feature of conversation at the crease.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Lions' roaring redemption song draws series of great and gruesome to an enthralling end

Pride is a term tossed about too often in sporting cliché, but the Lions restored theirs with a stirring 28-9 victory in the final match of an absorbing tour of South Africa.

Smarting from an agonising 28-25 defeat in the previous Test, the tourists were galvanised by a collective pain and feeling that a golden chance of a series win had been missed.

As the dust settled on the Ellis Park pitch, there was a buoyant feeling rare for a losing side, perhaps underlined by the sense of records set straight, a little justice regained.

Mike Phillips gets to grips with Heinrich Brussow

The series showcased the best and worst of a sport magnificent and brutal in equal measure. The second Test in particular will be remembered for years; a titanic battle lifted to stratospheric heights by both teams’ attacking prowess, whilst simultaneously dragged into the gutter by disputation and cowardice.

Despite the brilliance of Rob Kearney and Bryan Habana’s tries, even this humdinger will be tainted by Schalk Burger’s gouging of Luke Fitzgerald’s eyes in the first minute. That linesman Bryce Lawrence could only recommend “a yellow card at least”, and that referee Christophe Berdos could not summon the bravery – no, just the common sense – to show a red card, only compounded the debacle.

Controversy abounded in the final Test too. South Africa’s decision to sport white ‘justice’ armbands (in support of the banned Bakkies Botha) was an ignorant statement, belligerently rich for a team whose infantile siege mentality continues to erode an already damaged reputation.

If their support of Botha smacked of insecurity, their coach’s apparent toleration of Burger’s actions was just stupid.

Peter de Villiers proved a PR disaster for South African rugby. Claiming that gouging is “part of the game”, he showed himself to be not only myopic but woefully out of touch. If de Villiers still feels that his side were not given enough credit for their series win, a good starting place for him to find reason why would be the mirror.

After defending the indefensible, de Villiers then backtracked and reiterated his comments with dizzying confusion, before concluding with an unconvincing homage to the tourists: “I always said they were a brilliant Lions team.”

The class of 2009 may not be heralded in the same way as their 1974 predecessors but their fiercely competitive displays will have helped quieten doubts about the viability of Lions tours.
The victory will also have eased worries on a personal level. Phil Vickery, battered by fans and press alike after his mauling at the hands of Tenda ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira, rose to the occasion admirably by overwhelming his tormentor in the scrum.

There was catharsis for Shane Williams and Ugo Monye as well, with the two wingers scoring between them three crucial tries of real class.

Such a bright ending points to 2013, and springs hope of a triumphant series in Australia. With Alun-Wyn Jones, Jamie Heaslip and Tom Croft likely to be present, the pack will be a hardened, formidable proposition. Meanwhile, backs Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts and Kearney will already be thinking about piercing Wallaby defences.

With reputations restored and the foundations laid for an encouraging future, the atmosphere among and around the Lions is an understandably positive one.

And this wave of optimism is epitomised by arguably the most redeemed of all tourists, Vickery, who summarised the lasting core values of a Lions tour: “I can honestly say I have never been on a tour with so many good men. We’ve put a huge amount of pride back into the Lions shirt.”

Friday, 3 July 2009

Centre Court: Celebrity Sanctum

Wimbledon’s Centre Court is as much a British establishment as Pimm’s or talking about the weather, and it has recently proved to be the centre of attention for more than tennis reasons alone.

As well as boasting the most talked about roof since Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (or maybe the ceiling on which Lionel Richie danced and sang about), the venue has also become a celebrity attraction during the past fortnight.

Andy Murray’s progress has been enlivened not only by his imperious serving and cheeky drop shots but by the legion of stars present at his matches.

Ewan McGregor, Miss Scotland and Clive Woodward have all been spotted, but perhaps the most eye-catching spectator was the young supporter sporting a Hassidic Jewish hat and synthetic curls during Murray’s win over Stanislas Wawrinka.

From Bruce Forsyth appearance in the opening round to Kate Winslet at the quarter-finals, there seems to be a gradual rise in stardom at Centre Court as the tournament nears its climax. We wait with bated breath for today’s attendees but it has been rumoured that the Queen will be present if Murray reaches Sunday’s final.

Kate Winslet applauds Andy Murray's, erm, 'Titanic' quarter-final win

Wimbledon, with traditionally glitzy visitors such as Cliff Richard and, er, Jimmy Tarbuck, is far from being sport’s only star attraction. Away from the baseline rallies and strawberries and cream, other sports pride themselves on their glamorous clienteles.

Football can now even be considered chic. A far cry from meat and potato pies on crumbling old terraces, Flavio Briatore, QPR’s wealthy and vibrantly orange owner, has pledged to introduce ‘boutique football’ to Championship crowds.

Whether Briatore can attract friends such as Naomi Campbell to a home match against Scunthorpe remains to be seen, but his plans are certainly lavish enough to make Roy Keane choke on his prawn sandwiches when he takes his Ipswich Town side to Loftus Road next season.

While the hardened fans of sides outside the Premier League may need some convincing, Briatore can count on a growing number of fair-weather supporters to subscribe to his new brand of the game.

Sylvester Stallone famously paraded an Everton scarf before seeing them play Reading, Tom Hanks is supposedly an Aston Villa fan, Dr Dre has been rumoured to respect Liverpool as ‘cool cats’, and the late Michael Jackson once attended an Exeter City match with Uri Geller.

On a par with the aforementioned names in terms of fame but on a different scale entirely of commitment is Jack Nicholson, who is a partisan fixture at LA Lakers games. NBA courtside seats are as likely to excite the readers of Heat as they are basketball followers, with Ben Affleck and Denzel Washington among the spectators at the recent play-offs.

If the pomp of major US sport is matched by its audience’s star-quality, so too are the social and cultural traditions of the UK’s other main sports. In England, rugby union is as synonymous with public school as games of ‘soggy biscuit’ and boys’ names like Oscar, and matches at Twickenham are often attended by Prince Harry.

Somewhat differently in Wales, where rugby’s origins are rooted in mining communities, you’re likelier to see Joe Calzaghe or a former Big Brother contestant cheer the national team.

Like rugby, cricket’s fanbase has a more regal feel, and its stiff-upper-lip reputation is amplified by the prominence of former Conservative leader John Major at test matches played at the Oval.

Even with their aristocratic traits, however, both these former symbols of imperial Britain trail in Wimbledon’s wake, where an invitation might be issued to Buckingham Palace should Murray overcome Andy Roddick later today.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Survival Sunday blazes a trail for football TV analogies

'Survival Sunday’. It may sound like the producers of Lost have taken control of English football for the weekend but, for idlers familiar with Sky Sports News, the phrase has become synonymous with 24.

Before any ‘exclusive’ with, say, Gareth Southgate regarding the fight for Premier League survival, we are faced with the flickering digital graphics and beeping soundtrack of the long-running action series’ opening credits.

In a week where tension has risen like Michael Martin’s blood pressure, the severity of Sky’s tone suggests that the strain of the Premier League’s final match day would overwhelm even Jack Bauer himself.

Jack Bauer: Taking aim at Alan Shearer. Maybe.

Conveniently, tomorrow will be the 24th of May, but I think the parallels should be drawn beyond this coincidence.

There should be split-screens throughout Sky’s coverage; switching from Sunderland to Hull and other relegation-threatened teams with the sound of a ticking bomb lingering in the background.

Tension will reach unbearable levels not as our protagonists look to thwart attempts on a presidential candidate’s life, but as they strive to retain Premier League status.

Hearts will miss a beat not at the sight of flying bullets but of Newcastle defenders flinging their bodies to block a scuffed shot from Emile Heskey. Jeff Stelling could even narrate.

Personnel will play an important role in replicating 24’s relentless action. Elisha Cuthbert may not be present at any of the stadia, but the Villa Park crowd will at least have the eye candy of Iain Dowie, at whom they can gaze lustily amid the chaos.

The role of sinister, serially-telephoning nemesis would be amply fulfilled by the agent Kia Joorabchian, as he plots Carlos Tevez’s next move from the directors’ box at Hull’s KC Stadium.
With 24 potentially so well represented, it’s a shame TV analogies aren’t encouraged more in football coverage.

With the bottom half bursting with adrenaline, it seems the more predictable top four would be best represented by the steadier entertainment of a cartoon. Wacky Races, which invariably begins with an exciting exchange of the lead before ending with the same victors, seems a fair illustration of a season at the Premier League’s summit.

Perhaps the struggle for mid-table bragging rights could borrow from the battle for gang supremacy in the projects of The Wire. Appointing Stringer Bell as Wigan Athletic’s chairman would certainly liven up a Monday night fixture against Bolton.

Giving teams fictional alter-egos could attract new fans as well as appease current followers. West Brom? Think of them as football’s answer to the O.C. or 90210 – aesthetically pleasing but with little beyond the attractive surface.

Fulham, meanwhile, could bolster their modest attendances by rebranding themselves as the sport’s Channel 4 News; friendly, middle class and steadily growing in stature and popularity.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Capital capitulation

I had hoped to wake up on Monday morning to find that the previous day had all just been a bad dream.

Unfortunately, Cardiff City’s seventh place in the Championship’s final league table stared blankly at me from my computer screen, an unforgiving reminder of Sunday’s monumental collapse.

With four games left in the season, the Bluebirds had automatic promotion in their sights but wilted under the pressure to succeed like a daffodil in a blast furnace.

They mustered just one point from a possible twelve, conceded twelve goals and threw away a golden chance of becoming a Premier League club.

Dave Jones' expression is rumoured not to have changed since May the 3rd.

As I searched desperately for reasons to be cheerful – well, a possible trip to Hull next season – I tried consoling myself by thinking of sport’s other spectacular capitulations.

“I would love it!” is the infamous Kevin Keegan quote which will forever be synonymous with the 1995-96 Premier League season and, in particular, dramatic self-destruction.

Despite being 12 points clear at the top in January, a jittery run-in saw Newcastle surrender the title to Manchester United.

The Magpies never truly recovered, and now face the ignominy of joining the legion of underachievers in English football’s second tier.

Eclipsing Newcastle’s capacity to crumble under pressure is quite a feat, and one that the English cricket team has repeated on numerous occasions.

Most memorably, the second test of the 2006-07 Ashes at Adelaide signalled not only the turning point of the series but also the end of the briefest of golden eras, ‘The Class of 2005’.

Having declared on a mammoth 551-6 in the first innings, the tourists were poised to level the series at 1-1 when they were 69-1 in their second innings.

Once Andrew Strauss fell to England’s perennial tormentor Shane Warne, however, they imploded to gift Australia an unexpected win and, with it, a platform for a crushing 5-0 series triumph.

When the Ashes start in July, I’ll be in Cardiff hoping that the England and Wales Cricket Board XI can upset Australia and, in the process, spark a collapse that I can actually enjoy.

As written for Leeds Student

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Nicknames and snooker's identity crisis

As cricket’s ‘sexed-up’ alternative, the Indian Premier League, begins in its temporary home of South Africa, another quintessentially British sport has faced calls to reinvent itself.

Thousands of miles away from Twenty20’s pyrotechnics, the World Snooker Championships have been progressing to the calmer sounds of rustling sweet wrappers and coughing pensioners.

The Crucible’s gentle atmosphere, however, belies the tumult of the sport’s identity crisis. Those in charge at World Snooker have announced plans to trial a shorter format of the game, using six red balls instead of the conventional ten.

The decision is perhaps a reaction to Ronnie O’Sullivan’s request in January for the “entrepreneurial skills of Simon Cowell” to help inject some life into what the world number one claims to be a “dying” sport.

After all, the closest snooker has ever come to sexy is Kirk Stevens’ Saturday Night Fever-inspired white tuxedo.

O’Sullivan may have had a darts-styled introduction of a pub venue and bikini -clad women in mind but it seems that he had overlooked the unique glamour which snooker offers.

Tournament emcee Rob Walker is the man given the dubious responsibility of stirring excitement in the arena. If his cry of getting “the boys on the baize” fails to stir, however, he can turn to a rich source of nicknames.

Quarter-finalist Mark Selby has been dubbed the ‘Jester from Leicester’, a moniker which suggests a maverick cueman with a penchant for practical tricks at the table. In reality, though, Selby is a pale, wiry Midlander whose expression seldom changes from a look of deep gloom.

One of the sport’s newcomers, meanwhile, is the proud owner of a feistier pseudonym. Mark ‘The Pistol’ Allen has been referred to as a ‘street fighter’ by commentators but his contrived fist pumps make ‘Tiger’ Tim Henman’s self-motivational exercises look like the growls of an irate Romanian weightlifter.

There is one player who seems above the frolics of novelty alter-egos. According to the BBC, Ronnie O’Sullivan is a man so enigmatic that his profile pieces are required to be shot exclusively in slow-motion with the accompaniment of incongruously serious classical music.

O’Sullivan’s routine threats of retirement at the end of defeats are predictable but, without indulging in his melodramatic reflections, the BBC would have no icon on which to focus their coverage.

While snooker may have a dearth of brooding enigmas, we can be content with the plethora of wilfully naff nicknames, such as Stephen ‘The Wonder of Wiltshire’ Lee, Ali ‘Captain’ Carter and the, er, unforgettable Alan ‘Angles’ McManus.

As written for Leeds Student

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Dick seems not to know Best

It was announced in a recent governmental investigation that the FA’s ‘Fit and Proper Persons Test’ for prospective football club owners will require a tightening of regulations. After Dick Best’s appearance on Sky Sports News today, though, television producers may also need to rethink their screening procedures for pundits and contributors.

Best was speaking ahead of today's announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad for this summer's tour of South Africa. Asked why he had picked Delon Armitage ahead of Tommy Bowe in his Lions starting XV, the former England coach sniggered in the interviewer Phil Edwards’ ear, “You’ve always got to have a coloured boy in the team!”

As if the episode could become any more cringeworthy, the camera turned back to the studio, where the anchor Mike Wedderburn happened to be black. Visibly embarrassed, he uttered an uncertain “Yeeesss” before swiftly moving on to the next story.

The reaction was decisive but unconvincing. Wedderburn’s fellow presenter Millie Clode later apologised: "[Best] made remarks that he thought were off-camera. We would like to apologise for any offence this may have caused."

Sky appear to think that the real offence was having this racist remark made on camera, that a similarly offensive comment would have been acceptable away from our screens. Best’s casual racism was left to look like nothing more than a rugby club old boy’s joke. Armitage and Wedderburn might not find it quite so funny.

With such limp excuses, Ron Atkinson springs to mind. Atkinson’s commentary career came to a halt after calling Marcel Desailly a “lazy nigger”, yet instead of an earnest apology, there was only talk of the comment being meant for off-air discussion.

More recently, Carol Thatcher referred to tennis player Jo-Wilfred Tsonga as a “golliwog” while in the green room of the BBC’s The One Show, an incident which led to her being dropped from the programme. Thatcher, however, maintains that her comment should have remained private, that the remark was a “joke”.

Off-record or not, casual or malicious; racism should not be cast aside as jovial backstage chit-chat, and certainly cannot be brushed under the ever-bulging carpets of TV bosses.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Sheepish Sky sweep Shearer's past aside

There will be an eerie silence when Gary Lineker next invites ‘expert’ analysis from the Match of the Day couch. Viewers would usually ready themselves for a cliché splurge from the BBC’s preacher of the bleeding obvious, Alan Shearer, but these insights will now be confined to the walls of St James’ Park, now that the former England striker has been appointed Newcastle manager.

This appointment seems familiar. In January 2008, Kevin Keegan was heralded as Newcastle’s ‘favourite son’, ready to restore the club to its rightful place... twelfth place in the Premier League. King Kev’s tenure, however, lasted only eight months and sparked a period of disorder and drama turbulent enough to make Jacqui Smith wince.

Having gambled and failed with a fans’ choice, club owner Mike Ashley called on Joe Kinnear and Chris Hughton before buckling once again to supporter pressure. Inevitably, Shearer has already been lauded by the Toon Army faithful as the ‘messiah’ required to save them from relegation.

With the news coming too late on Tuesday evening for the majority of newspapers, it was left to Sky Sports News to expand on the hilarity at St James’ Park.

As well as its usual bombast, how the rolling news channel really entertained was by maintaining its tradition of pretending that anything happening away from their cameras does not exist.

Formula 1, the Six Nations and autumn international rugby union are a rarity – they are sports events not covered by Sky. Therefore, it seems rational to Murdoch’s minions to view these as pure fiction and, consequently, afford them no recognition.

When looking at a chronology of Shearer’s career, the presenters became noticeably quiet as they discussed his activity after retiring. Having read one disgruntled fan’s email demanding Shearer to “go back to the screens”, the anchors mumbled inaudibly before moving swiftly on to their next Sky Sports News ‘exclusive’.

An unsuspecting first-time viewer of sports broadcasting may have wandered why such sheepish behaviour surrounded the mention of a player’s relation to television. What could these people be hiding? I’d imagine a discussion between the channel’s researchers and producers sounding a little like this:

Researcher: “At least we won’t see Shearer on Match of the Day anymore.”
Producer: “What’s that?”
R: “You know, the Premier League highlights package.”
P: “You mean Football First?”
R: “No, Match of the Day – it’s on a Saturday night on the BBC.”
P: “On the what?”

In such moods, tuning into Sky Sports News is like watching a broadcasting corporation collectively stuffing its ears with its fingers and repeating like an unrepentant schoolchild, “lalalalalalala!”

Somebody, somewhere at the BBC must be delighted. Match of the Day may now even produce a soundbite containing a semblance, however small, of interest. That is, of course, if the programme even exists.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Coming down with Wordsworth and Human Traffic

Comedowns are an inconvenient reality. Whether they are alcohol or drug-induced, or merely the realisation of a natural high’s termination, the after-effects of a good time tend to taint enjoyable experiences.

William Wordsworth, a poet preoccupied with notions of the sublime and solitude, pleasure and pain, formed a model of what we might now call ‘post-session depression’ in his poem, ‘Resolution and Independence’. Although written in 1802, the lyric poem is relevant to anybody who has ever experienced a low that follows a high:

But, as it sometimes chanceth, from the might
Of joys in minds that can no further go,
As high as we have mounted in delight
In our dejection do we sink as low;

This passage from the third stanza encapsulates Wordsworth’s exploration of the immediacy between joy and dejection; that to experience the pinnacle of pleasure is to automatically become despondent.

Human Traffic may not necessarily be the most obvious contemporary cultural reference in relation to poetry of the Romantic period, but the film does bear some ideological resemblance to Wordsworth’s verse.

The film follows Jip (played by John Simm) and his friends as they indulge in the drug and club culture of the 90s and, when Simm’s character discusses ecstasy, his sentiments are reminiscent of Wordsworth’s: “We risk sanity for moments of temporary enlightenment.”

Jip then turns to the fragility and temporality of joy detailed by Wordsworth, “The last thought killed by anticipation of the next.” Although Wordsworth is sober and Pip under the amphetamine's influence, the two have in common a delight in the present but also an awareness that this dream-like state will at any moment switch to despair.

It is not only an eternal search for enlightenment which the Romantics poets and clubbers of Human Traffic have in common. Where natural delirium fails to ignite, both have sought alternative highs, primarily of the chemical variety.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, composer of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, famously pushed the self-destruct button when searching for inspiration later in his life; his alternative high, opium, eventually contributed to his death. Compared to Coleridge, Pete Doherty looks less a tortured soul, more a mischievous schoolboy sneakily sipping on his parents’ sherry.

‘Resolution and Independence’, however, is not concerned with the pursuit of an intoxicating escape from reality but, rather, a natural clarification of matters of joy and dejection.

One doesn’t necessarily need to be recovering from a drug’s side-effects to endure a comedown. For example, having experienced the rapture of a concert or the rush of a last-minute winner at a football match, once the immediate joy has passed, it seems that the only way for our spirits is down.

The culmination of expectations and ecstasy of the moment mean that, even in perfect sobriety, we have entered the highest point of pleasure and, as a result, we immediately enter a state of decline.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Tomatoes, chimneys and seagulls: An introduction to sporting philosophy

Post-match interviews and press conferences are often seen as the pinnacle of sporting figures’ capacity for dullness. Brian O’Driscoll, the Irish rugby union captain, however, bucked this trend in peculiar fashion during this year's Six Nations championship.

In a press conference held before Ireland’s match against England, O’Driscoll was asked about playing alongside Martin Johnson for the British and Irish Lions, and facing him as opposition. The centre’s reply was wilfully cryptic: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” It is unconfirmed whether this turn of phrase was a part of O’Driscoll’s team talk.

Meanwhile, flying the flag for footballing idiosyncrasies is Juventus manager Claudio Ranieri, who when faced with the sack at Chelsea in 2004, remarked, “Before you kill me, you call me the "dead man walking." I must buy you an espresso. But only a little one - I am Scottish!”

This particular trail of managerial misquoting is one blazed by many before Ranieri; none more so than Kevin Keegan, who said of decision-making processes, “It is understandable that people are keeping one eye on the pot and another up the chimney.” Read this sentence repeatedly for a day, and the word “understandable” still seems somewhat misplaced.

O’Driscoll’s enigmatic assessment is reminiscent of Eric Cantona’s famous foray into philosophy. Addressing the press in the wake of his kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace, the former French international said that, "when the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." As of yet, the forward-turned-actor’s profundity is one which has yet to have been matched by anybody at Old Trafford.

The aforementioned examples should illustrate how sport and philosophy are not as incongruous a pairing as one might first assume. To those still unconvinced, the great Algerian philosopher Albert Camus offers a definitive final thought: “All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”

As written for Leeds Student

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Secret of Being a Good Football Team

Ask a football pundit why Arsenal are such a joy to watch and the reply will probably include a platitude about the Gunners "playing football".

It may seem nonsensical to the casual observer but, to an armchair fan hardened by seasons of rolling news channels and highlights programmes, the phrase is ubiquitous.

Studio analysts offer their wisdom with the sort of knowing confidence that suggests they are indulging us in information so precious and rare that it requires its own conservational charity.

Pundits appear to see themselves as tactical philanthropists, seemingly saying: “To all of you languishing in relegation battles, take note – it is by ‘playing football’ that you become successful.”

A team's decision to do so is often met with pleasant surprise from analysts. It is with some relief that a perma-tanned former pro will say, "Well, Gary, it's great to see a team come out and play football."

Are we missing something? It could be that the average viewer is unaware of a preceding fixture, where Bolton have visited Old Trafford with helmets and pads to counter the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo with an American football blitz defence.

Considering that their work entails nothing but watching the sport, it can seem confusing that pundits cherish a side’s decision to “play football” with the apparent glee of an art critic who has stumbled upon Wayne Rooney reciting a soliloquy from Hamlet.

Teams with the audacity to "play football" should be warned, though. West Brom have suffered for such a philosophy, as their 4-0 and 5-0 losses to Man United apparently came from being too open and "playing too much football". Tony Mowbray seems to have much to learn about the Premier League if he thinks that playing football will yield success in a football match.

Meanwhile, the highest compliment Australia cricket captain Ricky Ponting can pay is that his opponents have, "played some really good Test cricket." As he rattles through his post-match pleasantries, one can imagine his players breathing a sigh of relief in the changing rooms, "Jeez, those Poms played some great cricket today – much tougher than when they had their table tennis bats."

It would appear that the secret is out. While footballers grasp that “playing football” is the foundation for success, even cricket teams have embraced the idea of “playing cricket”. And if the eventual 6 Nations champions will point to “playing rugby” as the key to their triumph, then they will have the besuited and tanned of Soccer Saturday and Match of the Day to thank.

As written for Leeds Student, February 20, 2009

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Hyperbole rhymes with Super Bowl, right?

It was with some disappointment that, during an English lesson some years ago, I discovered that the word hyperbole actually does not rhyme with Super Bowl. The two are made for one another: one is a phrase concerned with exaggeration and overblown pomp, while the other is pronounced ‘hy-per-bol-ee.’

Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIII provided a spectacle in more ways than one. An absorbing encounter that saw the Pittsburgh Steelers crowned champions for an unprecedented sixth time was just one aspect of an event globally unique for its unapologetically monumental sense of ceremony.

American football truly overshadows its European counterparts away from the field. Whereas I spent my last half-time break at Ninian Park with a cup of hot Bovril, the crowd at Tampa were treated to a Bruce Springsteen concert. With fireworks.

Meanwhile, on the pitch, seeing defence players (I suppress the urge to use ‘defenders’) whoop and holler their role in an incomplete attack was particularly novel. The image of Gary Neville throwing high-fives and bumping chests with fellow defenders after thwarting an opposition player’s effort on goal is one difficult to conjure.

It may well be America’s showpiece event but even a century of FA Cup finals would fall dismally short of the pomp generated by just one Super Bowl. Announcers at the Raymond James Stadium introduced songs from warbling R’n’B acts as tributes to “our beautiful country”, while army generals were paraded before the crowd. A shoddy rendition of Jerusalem this was not.

The BBC did their best to douse the event’s roaring sense of occasion with their choice of presenter, Jake Humphrey. Familiar to many as “that lanky one from CBBC who presented the Olympics”, Humphrey bolstered his reputation as the corporation’s purveyor of naff by calling touchdowns “tries” and referring to players by their first names.

Unfortunately for viewers in the UK, Humphrey’s presenting will be the only feature of this particular evening’s entertainment on show on our screens in the near future.

As written for Leeds Student 6.2.2009

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Sky's the limit for Murray hype

When Roger Federer questioned some bookmakers’ decision to make Andy Murray favourite for the Australian Open, reaction from certain sections of the media suggested that the Swiss player had just called for Bruce Forsyth to be put down.

The 13-time grand slam champion’s honest but fair words, however, merely served as a timely reality check for the British press. Despite only reaching one ‘slam’ final, Murray had been touted as a favourite for this month’s tournament but his fourth-round defeat to Fernando Verdasco showed that there is still work to do.

Murray, after all, has never won a grand slam and remains behind Rafael Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic in the rankings. Federer acknowledged the improvement in Murray’s game but warned, “Winning a grand slam is a different animal."

Sky Sports News’ Vicky Gomersall wandered aloud if it was a “case of sour grapes” from Federer but, in truth, it was merely an honest appraisal of a good tennis player, who has yet to reach the same level of consistent excellence as his aforementioned peers.

Gomersall’s thoughts highlighted the British media’s inability to accept a truth that may inconveniently differ from their biased views, and Murray’s is not a solitary case.

Backed by vociferous support from fans and press, Ricky Hatton could have been forgiven for thinking that his defeat to Floyd Mayweather Jr was a result of dodgy refereeing. However questionable some of Joe Cortez’s decisions may have been, though, Hatton was simply outclassed.

Likewise, England’s recent exits at football’s major championships have been blamed on Urs Meier (the referee who tabloids called a “Swiss Banker” – he is in fact a grocer) and Cristiano Ronaldo. In both cases, their own players’ underachievement has gone unnoticed.

Murray’s response was, in stark contrast, both candid and measured. “Sometimes you have to suck it up and admit he was too good.”

He may not be the most charming or eloquent man ever to grace a tennis court but the Scot has constantly reiterated that goals he sets himself are realistic. Despite the unrelenting expectation, Murray has maintained a patient philosophy; that his time, his chance to win a grand slam, will come.

As written for Leeds Student, 30/01/09

Monday, 19 January 2009

Snooker? With Jazz? Nice.

In their classic ‘Snooker Loopy’, Chas and Dave promised to show us what they “could do with a load of balls and a snooker cue.” Their legacy continued during the final session of the recent Masters’ final, with Ray Stubbs heralding one frame as a showpiece of “snooker balls of steel.”

With such an apparent fixation with balls, snooker would appear to most onlookers to be in rude health. Not according to its finest player, Ronnie O’Sullivan, though. After beating Joe Perry in the first round, O’Sullivan bemoaned the “dying” sport, and mentioned that an X Factor-inspired Simon Cowell overhaul would be provide the necessary resuscitative lift.

The world number one thinks that a change similar to that seen in Britain’s other favourite pub sport, darts, would revitalise the game. "It needs someone with entrepreneurial skills like Simon Cowell who is in the modern world and more dynamic."

Another of snooker’s greats, Steve Davis, agrees that the sport needs a change, but appears to be fuelling the discussion with an interesting new twist, "For the last 25 years our association and players have tried to run their own game a bit Motown style.”

Motown – now there’s an idea for snooker’s hierarchy. It is not a Saturday evening exhibition of third-rate karaoke singers that can save the sport – it is jazz. The game’s bluesy future already seems a vivid prospect; the nostalgic witticisms of commentators Dennis Taylor and John Virgo would turn to calls of “bitchin’ long pot from Graeme Dott” or “Alan McManus - take it to the bridge, baby” , while Hazel Irvine’s chirpy presentation would make way for the Fast Show Jazz Club’s own Louis Balfour. Nice.

In the playing area itself, the compere could be replaced with a piano-accompanied, gravel-voiced jazz veteran, who would introduce players like members of his ensemble; “Playing tactically tonight, we have Mark ‘Smokey’ Selby, and on break-building, the Rocket himself, Mr Ronnie O’Sullivan.”

If O’Sullivan is after a more mainstream-friendly dash of pop culture, then we have the ideal fusion of faux sixties’ soul and contemporary chart music - Duffy. Perhaps she could sing entrance songs for players, as the piano plays standards in the background. Steve Davis’ cousin Miles could even provide posthumous trumpets.

It is a picture of glamour that far exceeds ‘The Rocket’s vision of an ITV screening of ‘Shaun Murphy Versus Stephen Lee On Ice’ – though such a spectacle would indeed provide an entertaining support act.