Monday, 6 June 2011

How Davina got Big Sam the sack

I blame Davina.

That cheeky wrist tattoo and her tight, black dresses might inspire dreams of naughtiness in some but let’s face it; we were all getting along so well until she turned up and started telling us not to swear because we were live on Channel Four.

Now we’re all scratching each other’s eyes out at every possible opportunity and sacking football managers before they’ve even had a chance to warm the office chair with their well-fed arses.

Well, quite.
I know what you’re thinking: “What the fuck's he on about this week?”  Well, the season just ended has seen 53 managers exit stage left, including Carlo Ancelotti, who despite leading Chelsea to second place (and winning them The Double last season) was unceremoniously sacked in a corridor. Classy.

But this is just part of a general trend identified by the League Managers Association which has shown that the average tenure sacked managers have in the dugout has consistently fallen over the last 11 seasons. Back in 1999/2000 when we were stupid enough to believe The IT Crowd's claims that the Millennium Bug would make planes fall from the sky, managers got 2.04 years in the job before they were sacked. Last season it hit an all-time low of just 1.4 years.

This season Sheffield United's Kevin Blackwell lost his job after defeat to QPR and a draw away at Cardiff in the opening two games. Now, given QPR went on to win the title and Cardiff came fourth that doesn’t seem like such a bad return. (And if you’re only going to give the guy two games, why not have the balls to sack him in the summer?  It’s not rocket science.) But of course, these days we have to have someone to blame.

He was replaced by Gary Speed who stayed for a few months (but didn't improve the club's fortunes) before taking the Wales job and so Micky Adams was given the red-and-white dust pan and brush and asked to clean up the mess. He couldn’t, so he too was sacked after The Blades were relegated even though the problems weren’t really of his making. But again, someone had to be at fault...

Leicester City's Paulo Souza was sacked after just nine League games (he was shit mind) and then there was Roy Hodgson sacked after 31 matches - the shortest tenure in Anfield history. The fact that Liverpool's performance improved so much under Kenny Dalglish means some might say this argument is rendered meaningless, but it can't have helped Hodgson's confidence that the fans were popping into the diary room week after to nominate him for eviction.

Likewise in 2008, Sam Allardyce was effectively hounded out of Newcastle after just 21 League games by the ever-patient Geordie fans who had taken to singing "We're shit and we're sick of it". Mike Ashley responded by sacking Allardyce with the club in 11th place and still in the FA Cup. Predictably the following 17 League games produced less goals scored, more conceded and less points per game on a pro rata basis than under Big Sam and the club ultimately finished 12th.

Allardyce has repeatedly been shown to be one of the most effective managers in the country.  The authors of Pay as You Play demonstrate that he gets the best return for every pound spent in transfer fees and Dr Sue Bridgewater of Warwick University has shown he is bested only by Tony Pullis and Holland's Schteve McLaren when comparing performance with the amount spent on wages. But that wasn't good enough for The Barcodes. The nominations had been counted; the phone lines had closed. Sam, you have 30 seconds to say your goodbyes...

I suppose it’s probably a little bit unfair to heap all the blame on the über-MILF, as the amount of so-called humiliation TV on our screens has risen so we have become increasingly desensitised to the ritual abuse of the people who take part, and more inclined to seek scapegoats and so, at the same time, the tolerance shown towards football managers deemed to be ‘failures’ has decreased.

At the vanguard alongside Miss McCall was Anne Robinson with The Weakest Link which first aired just a month after the Big Brother bandwagon crashed into our living rooms in July 2000.  Both shows asked the participants to actively choose which of their fellow contestants should be removed from the show.  Of course, on The Weakest Link they were dispatched down the Walk of Shame with an extra dose of sarcasm from the winking ginger bitch.

A year later the godfathers of the Geordie TV mafia PJ and Duncan brought us Pop Idol. While viewers were asked to vote positively for who they wanted to win, a central element of the show was the barbed put downs from Simon Cowell and his fellow judges at the most useless wannabes, something which is even more exaggerated these days.

In that very first series, not only did we get to meet Rick ‘I’m-not-fat-just-big-boned’ Waller but also Jordan's sweet, stammering fuck buddy Gareth Gates. Gates' speech impediment was deliberately focused on by the producers as a 'story line' - even in those early days it wasn’t just about their talent but whether they had a characteristic we could poke fun at.

In 2002 the Byker Grove rejects got to pack their sun cream and budgie smugglers for a junket Down Under to host the first series of the gloriously mis-named I’m a Celebrity… This took humiliation and persecution to new heights (or lows depending on how you look at it) as now the viewing public got to choose which hapless Z-lister would be buried alive in a box full of wombats or be asked to eat kangaroo shit burgers in the bush tucker trials.

This schadenfreude reached it zenith in 2009 when the public chose Katie Price (nee Jordan) to face six consecutive trials. The only thing stopping her having to do a seventh was the fact she got booted off (which, unfortunately for her, meant she had to be interviewed by another pair of massive tits).

And so the list goes on from X Factor and Britian’s Got Talent to my mate Lord Sugar on The Apprentice and a whole host of programmes masquerading as ‘proper’ telly – How Clean is Your House?; Embarrassing Bodies; Extraordinary Illnesses and Jeremy Kyle.

And don't forget publications like Chat and Take a Break which market themselves as light-hearted women's magazines but scream at you from the shelves: "MY DAD WANTED ME AS HIS WIFE", "The girl who DEFILED THE DEAD" or "MUMMY when will my hands grow?". Oh darling, the circus is in town; shall we go and point at the freaks?

Running alongside all of this are the omnipresent adverts for personal injury lawyers; had a trip or fall at work? Well, let us help you make someone else pay. (Alternatively, you could just take a bit of personal responsibility and have some awareness of your general surroundings, you arsewipe.)

So now we live in a society where it's not just acceptable to find someone to blame, but we feel we have the right to tell them in no uncertain terms exactly what their faults are.

Take immigrants. If they’re not trying to destroy the very fabric of our society from behind the safety of a Niqāb they’re trying to courteously and efficiently fix our plumbing. Either way they’re bastards, right?

Or take the treatment of Jade Goody; we laughed at her because she didn’t know where ‘East Angular’ was and because she thought Rio de Janeiro was a person.  Hell, she even had a lesbian, handicapped mum - the tabloids couldn’t have made her up. 

Perhaps instead of laughing, we should have been asking how anyone could slip through the education system of one of the world’s richest countries with knowledge as limited as St Jade’s.  But Hey! There was a World Cup on, it was sunny, lager was cheap, house-prices were going through the roof – we were all just having a bit of fun, weren’t we?

Then she was evicted and we lionised her before we demonised her before she died and we canonised her the only way we know how - by buying OK! Magazine's memorial edition (issue 666) which helpfully went on sale the week before she died complete with her 'final' words. Along the way she became a millionaire by virtue of nothing more the celebrity we bestowed on her, so I guess really the joke was on us.
Only cowards steal from the poor.
Of course we weren’t actually laughing at her, we were laughing at a whole section of society; the ill-educated, the unemployed, the disposed - in short-hand: Chavs or anyone wearing a hoody.  In 2005 the Bluewater Shopping centre banned people from wearing them on the premises. While David Cameron was pretending he thought these kids just needed a hug, the Prime Minister of the time Tony Blair fully agreed with the move saying the Government would introduce new laws to enforce ‘proper behaviour’.  Yeah, and wasn’t your son found drunk and incapable in
Leicester Square
aged just 16, Tony? I blame the parents, now jog on.

It's this attitude that allows the Government and the media to create bogeymen; to demonise squatters while not addressing why there are so many empty homes and so many homeless. Or to point the finger at so-called benefit cheats while at the same time ignoring the fact the taxman let Vodafone's £4.8billion tax bill go unpaid.

(Incidentally, for real insight into hoodygate check out the excellent video for Dizzy Rascal's Sirens. If the fact you get a more perceptive commentary on the subject from a 22-year-old rapper than you do from the man who's supposed to be running the country doesn't leave you wanting to mainline Cillit Bang then I don't know what will.)

As TV shows and magazines continue to serve this stuff up like cheap, processed hamburgers, so the need to point and blame, to hold someone accountable, to pick fault and to sneer will continue to clog up our brains like cholesterol. If we're not laughing at some unfortunate on the TV, then we'll be spouting bile at out club's manager from the stands.  It's Orwell's two minutes hate, 27 years after its ETA.

You are the weakest link, goodbye.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Manchester United, Megamind and why we all need a rival

One of the great things about having kids is that you have the perfect excuse to watch all sorts of shit at the cinema you wouldn't otherwise be able to. (A by-product of this is that I now have a, some might say, unhealthy obsession with Ashley Tisdale. But I digress...)

Last year I was dragged along, arm twisted firmly behind back, to see Megamind a cartoon in which the titular character, voiced by Will Ferrell, is the evil villain of Metro City and nemesis of good guy Metro Man.

Very early on Megamind seemingly lures Metro Man to his death and thus gets to have his wicked way with the city. Mwah! Ha! Ha! But here's the thing; without an adversary, he gets bored and depressed - his victory is short-lived as he's now faced with no challenge and his own existence is rendered meaningless, and so he sets about creating a new superhuman rival with predictably comic (I use the word loosely) results.

He's got a big head for a spaceman, Clive.
I know you're all now desperate to see this film so I won't spoil the ending (which let me tell you has a twist straight out of left field) but look through popular culture and you'll find it's not just the bad guys who need an enemy to quell their existential angst.

One of the most interesting (albeit little-known) interpretations of the Sherlock Holmes stories is that the great detective was himself Moriarty. So the theory goes; wthout a rival worthy of challenging his massive intellect, Holmes simply created one and ran his criminal network to boot.

This is best expounded in the stage play The Secret of Sherlock Holmes written by Jeremy Paul in the late Eighties with the support of the brilliant but tragic Jeremy Brett (who was suffering bi-polar disorder - you have to wonder if that had some bearing).

Now, you might think that's a load of bollocks and maybe you'd be right, but what can't be denied is that Moriarty has gained a far greater prominence than his appearances in the Holmesian cannon deserve.

Of the 60 Holmes stories, Moriarty plays a key role in just two (The Valley of Fear and The Final Problem) and is mentioned in passing in just five others. He meets the detective just once (the fatal clash at the Reichenbach Falls although, perhaps significantly, this isn't witnessed by anyone) and the good Dr Watson never meets Moriarty at all.

Clearly, even if Sherlock Holmes didn't create a rival then we've done the job of, retrospectively, constructing one for him. So, if you're still reading, that brings me to the football...

At the beginning of April, I wrote a post asking So, Exactly How Bad Are Man Utd? The point was, at the time, the media had already decided that this would be the worst of Sir Alex Ferguson's teams ever to be crowned Premier League champions - something I just didn't buy and so I set about trying to prove that by analysing the performances of all the title-winning teams to come out of Old Trafford at a comparable stage of the season (32 games).

What I found was that while this year's vintage were by no means the best, they certainly weren't the worst either. However, one of the comments I received about the piece that stood out in my mind was that my argument was 'reductive'. Once I'd looked the word up in the dictionary I was inclined to agree, at least to a certain extent.

Statistics can only tell you so much but what they never take into account is the drama or narrative of any given situation. What this season's Premier League campaign has lacked is a real rivalry - a key consistent challenger to Manchester United -  and this has added to the sense that, well, they just ain't all that.

Let's face it, Chelsea started the season well but fell away, seemingly at the same time Ray "stay on your feet" Wilkins was sacked, and they never really managed to make up the lost ground. Arsenal also had a good start to the season before buckling like a marzipan dildo after their Carling Cup final defeat.

Conversely Liverpool started off poorly until King Kenny returned to the dugout (it's going to be fascinating to see him lock Zimmer frames with Fergie next season) and the noisy neighbours, Manchester City were concentrating on baby-stepping their way into the top four, maybe next season they too will mount a proper title challenge.

As if to hammer the point home, following the Red Devils crowning as champions, the Guardian ran a piece asking which of Fergie's title winners was the best. Of the top five seasons, the article directly references the strength of a key rival in four of them (Newcastle in 1995/96; Chelsea in 2006/07; Arsenal in 1998/99 and again in 2002/2003).

Elementary, my dear Phelan.
Think of most sports and their greatest seasons, or tournaments are more often than not defined by great rivalries and their top competitors have demonstrated the need for a strong rival to push them to the peak of excellence.

Take John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, for example. For three incredible years the battles between the cool-as-ice Swede and the potty-mouthed kid from New York defined tennis. And then Borg just quit to go and sell pants.

In his autobiography McEnroe talks about Borg's retirement saying: "It took the wind out of my sails: I had a very tough time motivating myself and getting myself back on track. It took me a couple of years to start improving again." Blimey, that's serious.

While their battles burned fiercely but briefly, over on Number One Court the rivalry between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert was like one of those Scotch video tapes, you could re-record it but it wasn't going to fade away. They won 18 out of 19 Grand Slam titles between 1982 and 1986 and contested five Wimbledon finals between 1978 and 1985.

Likewise, the Sebastian Coe - Steve Ovett - Steve Cram trivalry (yeah, I just made up a word, whatchagonnadoaboutit?) meant that the mind-numbingly dull sport of middle-distance running seemed interesting for, ooh, about a nanosecond in the late-Seventies and early-Eighties.

The rivalry between Alain Prost and a young Ayrton Senna lit up Formula One in the late Eighties and the fact that Senna died at the age of 34 in 1994 meant we never saw the Brazilian take on Michael Schumacher in the German's early pomp. So, statistics tell us the German, with seven drivers' championships under his belt, is the greatest of all time but you can't help think he was never really challenged and things might have been different but for the Senna's fatal crash at Imola.

Oooh, and let's not forget chess. Never has a board game taken on such global significance as when Bobby Fischer faced down Boris Spassky in Reykjavik. Forget, the Berlin Wall, forget Protect and Survive, forget the bit in Threads when that woman pisses herself after the bomb drops; that chess match in Iceland was the Cold War, right there, and it also defined the game as nothing else did before or has done since.

Even coverage of Tony Blair's time as Prime Minister was viewed through the prism of the simmering tension with his Chancellor Gordon Brown. Hell, there's even a book on the subject by James Naughtie called, you guessed it (or maybe you didn't) The Rivals.

Without the need to overcome their own Metro Man, Moriarty, Borg or, er, Gordon Brown, Manchester United have been able to win the title at a relative canter and so this season has lacked the dramatic tension of a central antagonist-protagonist narrative much, it would appear, to the chagrin of the Fleet Street pack who've actually had to think for themselves for a change.

Awww, bless them. Maybe they should all take a trip to the cinema.