Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Simon Cowell's back track highlights fear factor

It was Halloween, in a grim twist of irony, when X-Factor tykes John and Edward's double act passed from the ridiculous to the ghoulish. Highly entertaining though their Ghostbusters... ’rendition’ was, it served on Halloween as a scary indication of the way the latest series of X-Factor is going. Losing sight of its apparent talent-finding objective, pandering to a public looking for some twist on Big Brother’s gormless reality TV format – which will finally die an ignoble death next year – Simon Cowell’s money-spinning programme has now jettisoned two genuine talents within its grasp in favour of far less talented, but more widely commercially appealing acts.

Admittedly, Rachel Adedeji's exit the weekend before last had less to do with John and Edward than Lucie Jones’s. Young Lloyd Daniels, who each week seems increasingly out of his depth, was suffering from a virus and virtually unable to sing in tune, yet despite Simon Cowell’s repeat assertions that he and the other judges base their decisions on the merit of the performance ‘on the night’ – something Cowell reiterated last week – it was clear that this is no longer the case. Rachel’s singing performance wiped the floor with Lloyd, only to be met with Cowell back tracking and putting her at the public’s mercy.

If viewers thought this was a one-off (and given their capacity shown so far to put up with childish nonsense on primetime television, they probably did), they were horribly mistaken. For the first time, last week John and Edward found themselves in the ‘bottom two’. It seemed a no-brainer. Louis Walsh would obviously stick by his boys. Cheryl Cole and Dannii Minougue would correctly support the talented singer Lucie Jones. And Simon Cowell would be only too delighted to oust the twins himself, ridding Louis Walsh of his only act, and ridding the competition of two boys who he himself had consistently maintained “can’t sing, can’t dance”. Cowell has always relished the role of X-Factor’s pantomime villain; here was his moment to kill off two main characters. Oh no he didn’t! Oh yes he did!

Except: oh no. He didn’t.

The X-Factor's twin publicity propellers have divided opinion like no other act in the six (yes, unbelievably, six) series of the show so far: even brother and sister combo Same Difference, for all their gut-wrenching, incestuous faux-romance shtick, were undeniably decent singers and capable performers. John and Edward (smartly shortened to Jedward by chortling Brangelina fans) have the capacity for neither. They’re High School Musical – without the music. The trouble is, that is the sort of snide putdown Cowell is renowned for. Yet this week he clambered clumsily all over his previous statements and intentions and, knowing full well that Jedward were never likely to be the public’s least favourite, gave his backing to the boys. On television, as Lucie Jones broke down in tears, the crowd weren’t even split 50/50: the boos far, far outweighed the cheers.

Simon Cowell is not stupid, however. He said himself that the twins won’t win the competition, and he’s right. There isn’t a Facebook campaign big enough to garner the twins that amount of support. So at a purely tactical level, Cowell is now holding the cards for three of the six remaining acts that could win this year’s competition. He has furthered his stronghold with the decisions that cost Rachel Adedeji and Lucie Jones, genuinely talented vocalists and rivals to his acts, their finalist places.

His wisdom runs deeper than beating the other judges, of course. Cowell knows that John and Edward attract a wider audience than a simple ‘talent versus talent’ shoot out would. He knows that the twins’ plight has given the programme itself an X-Factor. The twins certainly don’t have any, but they’re the twist the programme needs to stay fresh each week; their survival enthrals both the audience cheering them on, and the audience baying for their blood. No other act can command such attention in equal measures, and Cowell, fearful of losing such a massive audience segment, has acted. For once, the show has a bigger villain than Simon Cowell himself – and all the best stories need a villain.

But in replacing himself as the necessary evil, Cowell briefly lowered his guard. As The Guardian wrote on Monday, in prolonging the absurd theatre of this year’s X-Factor Cowell has cheapened its core values; the search for singing talent, and the dreams of those who enter. He has given in to public demand, dethroning himself as the pervading pop idol of X-Factor and put popularity measured in television ratings ahead of everything else: the programme’s integrity, the album and single sales, the record deals, the tours. And once the Jedward novelty wears off – about January 2nd 2010, I’d wager – it will be very difficult to claw that elevated status back.

No longer can he claim, as he did last weekend, that the programme is made for the dreams of people like Leona Lewis: this year’s strongest female singer is already out of the competition thanks to Cowell. Maybe the lifecycle of X-Factor is drawing to a close, and Cowell’s short-term gain at the programme's long term expense is already in full flow. Perhaps Cowell’s mind is turning toward the infinitely more empathetic stories that drive Britain’s Got Talent. But whatever might happen, X-Factor has suddenly been reduced to pure spectacle. Cowell has tarnished the programme’s mission statement, and possibly its reputation; for good.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Resistance: is futile? A track-by-track reaction

GIITTV deputy editor Tim Miller goes through Muse's new album 'The Resistance' track-by-track. But is the Resistance futile? Or not?

Uprising –

Hang on, this can’t be right, the CD’s playing Kasabian’s ‘Shoot the Ru –’ oh no, this is actually it. Now it sounds a bit Dr. Who theme-ish; spacey and wishy-washy. Matt Bellamy’s wailing about being ‘victorious’ again. For the third album in the row. Sigh. Bellamy’s chord progression expertise is here, that’s evident, and it’s a passable romp, but where are the guitars?


Monday, September 14, 2009

Da Silva lining

UEFA's lightning U-turn on their own decision to ban Arsenal's forward Eduardo for diving would raise many an eyebrow and derisive snort, were it not for the fact that that had been the majority reaction to the initial decision in the first place. With, as usual, impeccably ham-fisted timing, UEFA waded into a minor, irrelevant subplot from the one-sided Arsenal versus Celtic Champions League qualifier, and blew it out of all proportion.

Matters weren't helped when Scottish FA chief Gordon Smith needlessly and publicly criticised Eduardo for his 'dive' that won Arsenal a penalty, resulting in one of the five goals they scored against Celtic. Deception or not, Celtic's own players and manager admitted it was immaterial to the tie, but such was the furore drummed up by Smith and the media - probably due to the lack of other talking points from a match that thoroughly highlighted the gulf between the English and Scottish top leagues - that the incident took centre stage.

As dives go - if it was a dive, that is - it was hardly blatant, hardly the sniper bullet-suffering theatrics that are seen across Europe and occasionally creep into England's top flight. Sure, Eduardo is guilty of leaving his body there to allow for contact with the goalkeeper, as Wayne Rooney did against Arsenal a couple of weeks ago too. But how severe the level of gamesmanship is no longer the issue.

Referees have the power to - and do - punish players they deem to have dived, handing an on the spot yellow card. When UEFA got clumsily involved, this should have been the extent of their remit, to give Eduardo a retrospective yellow card. After all, if an off-the-ball sending off offence occurs in a match, which the referee does not see, the Football Association can go back and decide to ban the offending player for three games, the equivalent of a straight red card - as is likely to happen in yet another event involving Arsenal, Emmanuel Adebayor's stud on Robin Van Persie's face from the weekend. But in the case of Eduardo, UEFA took it further and rightly garnered furious criticism from Arsenal, and many points across football.

The reaction was justified, largely because while UEFA and FIFA condemns diving, this was the first occasion a retrospective and severe punishment had been handed out for the offence. Television cameras have been catching players diving every week for years and years, and yet UEFA chose to 'set a precedent' by punishing an inconsequental dive that paled in comparison to the out and out cheating that has gone before it, and that ultimately made no difference to the game it came in.

If their choice in timing was ill-judged, then their involvement at all was bizzare. UEFA would have had no reason to revisit the incident had Gordon Smith not voiced his futile annoyance. So in their effort to affect the game for the greater good, UEFA's precedent essentially became this: 'moan enough about an alleged dive in a football match, and we'll go back and ban each player for two matches if it can be reasonably proven'. Of course they've now overturned it; the very idea is a non-starter. That UEFA could have even begun to uphold the standard they would have set had they allowed Eduardo's ban to stand is clearly impossible.

And that isn't even to say what the precedent would have set for challenging ANY refereeing decision. Take one of the most common problems in football - an offside goal. These errors can be proven within 10 seconds, never mind post-match. So for example, a team loses 2-1 with the winner being an offside goal: given that the losing team can prove they've suffered at the hands of a poor decision, do UEFA now go and cancel out that goal? Change the outcome of the match and award both teams a point? Where do you draw the line, UEFA? Rather than try and answer the question, sensibly the governing body for European football have overturned their ridiculous Eduardo Da Silva decision that got them into the predicament in the first place.

Every cloud...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Following in Freddie's footsteps? As long as it is Broad...

There was never any doubt, of course, that Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff could possibly allow the fifth and final Ashes Test match of 2009 - and his last for England - to pass him by. Though he offered two indifferent innings with the bat, and huge, gargantuan heart and effort with the ball for no reward, the pivotal moment of the deciding Test nevertheless fell to Flintoff - in the field.

Australia, chasing an improbable (and would-be record-breaking) 546 to win, were making a decent effort of it. Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting had shared a third wicket stand of 127 runs when Hussey chanced a quick single to Flintoff at mid-off, presumably thinking he would be the one in danger as they ran. But Flintoff, so often in his career the big man for England in big moments, had his eyes on the big prize: the potentially match-winning wicket of Aussie captain Ricky Ponting. And, in one 30-yard throw, as though of pure lightning, Flintoff had done it. The single second on which the Test, and ultimately the 2009 Ashes series, hinged, was a moment of magic from Flintoff. As he has done more recently (as he's got older), Flintoff stood basking in the adulation of the crowd, awaiting his teammates to envelop him hugs and high fives. The key moment of the Ashes 2009 series had fallen to the key man, and he had, as ever delivered.

Following the ecstasy of the series win, the talk swiftly fixed upon where England are going to find Flintoff's replacement. He had always been considered the 'Botham' of his generation - who would be the next one, or more pertinently, the next Flintoff? Up until his announcement that he was retiring from Test cricket, it hadn't really been a problem. Suddenly, it was a panic. It was fitting, then, that the fifth test's Man of the Match, Stuart Broad, should properly step up to the plate in Andrew Flintoff's final Test match for England.

Broad, supported by Graham Swann, stole the show over the first two days. An entertaining quickfire 37 ensured England nudged a first innings total of 325+, but then came his starring moment. A majestic, unanswerable 12 overs of quick, accurate and clever fast bowling blew apart the Australian batting order, and gave England an advantage from which it would soon become impossible to lose. This, to many watching, was where Stuart Broad finally delivered on the potential he's been showing for the last two or three years, and proved he is capable of individual match-winning performances.

Without doubt, Broad has always had the talent to be a top performer for England. But critics have pointed to his temperament - think back to his dreadful over just in June in the T20 World Cup against Netherlands, where he literally threw the match away - and his bowling has often been expensive, a sign of inexperience and lacking concentration. With the bat, Broad has regularly shown his natural talent - elegant strokeplaying, attacking mindset, able to score quick runs - but his bowling seemed to let him down in the 'all-rounder' takes.

Not anymore. As well as scoring two fifties, contributing important runs in the final match and averaging better than recognised batsmen Alistair Cook, Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell and Ravi Bopara, Broad also became England's most potent bowler. Broad took the most wickets, including two 'five-fors', at the best average. And contrary to his previous problems with expense, Broad's economy rate was a smidge over 3.5 an over: compare that with Jimmy Anderson who was at 3.4, and generally recognised as England's best bowler before the series, and it seems more than decent.

The Ashes 2009 was the biggest series of Broad's life and across the five tests he has performed. After an inauspicious start too; following the first two tests Broad was in the firing line to be dropped. But Andrew Strauss, Andy Flower and the England selectors stuck with their precocious pin-up - and it paid dividends. England have now got to be patient with the star Englishman of the Ashes 2009. Broad is far from the finished product: consistency is what separates the greats like Brian Lara from erratic genius like Kevin Pietersen, and Broad is only just learning now how to use his talents tactically: when he does, he has proven he can be a match-winner. For sure, Stuart Broad can be nurtured into one of the best English all-rounders of recent generations - he is after all still young and, touch wood, not injury prone. But to be the next Andrew Flintoff, he will need careful handling, support and persistence; enough time to bloom, enough matches to become a regular England performer, enough opportunities to win matches for his nation. Because when England expected, Flintoff would deliver. If Broad is given the same treatment as Freddie, he will deliver too.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Fabulous FIB - Benicassim 2009 in review

Hey to everyone who does read this: sorry it took, and is, so long! Great memories...

There are better ways to spend a Friday night than hiding from gale-force winds huddled in an empty paddling pool at 2am while horizontal torrents of sand and dust whip the skin from your face and loose tents fly overhead. Preferably, you’d be getting pissed round a campfire having cheered on Kings of Leon earlier, given that’s why you’re out in the Spanish seaside town of Benic├ássim in the first place. But, as has been well documented, the Friday night of Benic├ássim Festival was something of a disaster.

Luckily, it was a minor blip in an otherwise stellar journey...


Thursday, June 25, 2009

For Iran, citizen journalism is the only journalism

Twitter has courted its fair share of news headlines since the turn of the year – many for its novelty factor, in truth – but this time it was different. When online news sources began reporting that Twitter had rescheduled technical maintenance to its service in order to allow a crucial daytime period for Iranian users to go uninterrupted, it highlighted not only that Government restrictions are clearly oppressing communication from within the state, but also the very real power that sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook now possess.

It is without doubt the most telling example of the increased significance of ‘citizen journalism’ to date. With official channels stifled and doctored, and censorship clamping down on internet usage in Iran, sites like Twitter and YouTube don’t just offer an outlet for the Iranian people but a view in for the world outside. The importance of these two-way flows of information cannot be underestimated, as proven by Twitter’s decision to delay its technical work last week, but more potently in one of the most landmark internet videos in the web’s history.

The death of Neda Agha-Soltan, shot in the street of a Tehran suburb, was captured by a civilian with a mobile phone camera, chillingly recording the last moments of the young girl’s life. It was uploaded to YouTube and Facebook within minutes. Its amateurish but unmistakable footage is disturbing, but the content itself is hardly shocking by the net’s standards. What sets it apart is that this video is being shared by everyday people worldwide, and broadcast by international news sources too: YouTube is allowing multiple versions of the footage to sit on its site attracting millions of views; CNN replayed the whole film in its news broadcasts; in the UK, the video made the front page of the Guardian. An unknown citizen journalist has created the single most iconic image of the 2009 Iranian Election: the girl lying prostrate in the street, blood streaming from her mouth, her eyes rolling back into her head.

More than a mile from the main demonstrations, this moment would have been missed by the world’s media, and would have been smothered by the Iran regime if they’d caught hold of it first. But instead the power of citizen journalism is fully realised; clearly it no longer reflects upon the news (unlike this blog does), but now creates and shapes it.

At the same time, the fallout from the Iran election is being given a platform that can no longer be ignored. The words and images emanating from the protests in Iran have a global stage on which they are communicated, and importantly, a global audience too. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have given the Iranian people a voice, an escape for an otherwise hidden version of events to rival the official controlled reporting, and that this is resonating with people around the world is overwhelmingly evident.

The events in Iran have further blurred the rapidly decreasing boundary between traditional and new media, and called into question the truth and validity of ‘official’ reporting. The reaction across social media sites has mobilised worldwide outrage and sympathy, and the issue is now unavoidable. The tools of the web have shed light on what the Iranian people see as the real truth, and for Iran, citizen journalism has been the only outlet to do it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Relegation, relegation, relegation

As Newcastle's 'best fans in the country' will be counting to their cost, the high profile calamitous collapse through the trap door that was the Magpie's relegation brought the curtain down on one of the best English Premier League seasons in recent years. The title chase was a genuinely exciting two/three horse race for much of the season, extended perhaps by United's timely dip in form after being trounced 4-1 by Liverpool, while the bottom half of the table resembled chaotic turmoil until the very end, as gradually one by one teams hauled themselves away from the yawning chasm into the Championship.

While the gulf remains between the top four and the rest - painfully so for Villa, who saw a seven-point lead over Arsenal crumble to a ten-point deficit in just 13 games - the relegation of Newcastle and Middlesborough, plus close shaves for Blackburn and Sunderland, only goes to highlight the narrowing gap between the lower regions of Premiership football and the Championship. Middlesborough have flirted with relegation and promotion for over 10 years, while West Brom have also been classic bouncers between the divisions recently, and Birmingham sealed automatic promotion just a year after losing their Premiership status.

But a deeper look into the Championship explains why the two divisions are drawing nearer in quality. The top four teams have all been in the Premiership within the last three years. Between positions 6 and 20 there are eight clubs who enjoyed decent Premiership spells since the league's inception: QPR, Crystal Palace, Sheffield Wednesday, Ipswich and Coventry to name a few, not to mention Nottingham Forest. But most intriguingly, the three relegated teams from the Championship this season were all in the Premiership four years ago, and in Southampton and Charlton's cases, well established, if unspectacular, top level sides.

In all, 16 of last season's 24 Championship teams have graced the Premier League in its 18 years. Scattered around leagues One and Two are more examples of others - Swindon, Oldham, Leeds. Rarely are the Premiership's relegated teams all obvious candidates - consider examples of Leeds and West Ham, and Newcastle, being considered 'too good to go down'. With the competition as fierce as it is, that old adage just doesn't wash.

But if the likes of Hull City, Stoke and Burnley seem odd in the Premier League, it only reinforces the strength of the second tier of English football. Ex-Premiership sides don't get promoted by right anymore, as a short on form Reading discovered, despite missing out on automatic promotion on the last day. And, as Norwich, Southampton and Charlton can testify, it is quickly possible to struggle in the Championship even with years of Premiership experience. Ultimately, if you can't adapt quickly to the Championship, aspirations of a promotion chase can easily turn to fearful glances over your shoulder (something Derby can also sympathise with, after their indifferent Championship season).

And so it will be for Newcastle, Boro' and West Brom that relegation isn't just relocation, a change of scenery for a year (the Baggies are probably well aware of this anyway). Unless they take seriously the burgeoning strength of English football's most competitive league, and prepare in the right way for a long and difficult season, fighting for the right to harbour Premier League hopes rather than assuming they deserve them, the harsh reality of life in the Championship may just have a couple more major scalps to make.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Bournemouth in decent gig lineup shocker

Four and a half years I’ve lived in Bournemouth, and tonight’s gig is the biggest live music coup I can recall; certainly in terms of eye-catching and wave-making new bands. The Gander – a grotty, carpeted room that looks inside like a local football team’s decrepit clubhouse, sitting above a much trendier bar – welcomes four acts, and three are what you call in the indie scene ‘names’. More...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spotfiy's the difference

While undoubtedly the most high profile filesharing courtcase to date, Pirate Baygate has this weekend also become one of the leading global news stories. Sir Paul McCartney has brought the debate closer to the UK with his comments to the BBC, judging the verdict 'fair'; the Guardian has poured scorn on the ruling that will see four Swedes spend a year each in jail and pay (or not pay) in excess of $3m to the undernourished record conglomerates; while forums, Twitterati and online communities the world over have vowed to continue with their illegal downloading efforts. You only have to read the reaction of BBC website users to realise just how marginalised the support for the record companies is.

For one thing, Pirate Bay has been heralded in many places in the last few days for its innovation; it is a central location for links to torrents from which its users - which numbered 22 million in February - can download free music, film and television files. It represents the height of the digital revolution in accessing and distributing music. It stands as a beacon against the record companies who still want to charge £10 or more for physical CDs, and who have monetised the digital musical publishing industry for not much less of that cost.

Trouble is, its primary function is to facilitate an illegal practice.

While it plays the Robin Hood of the online music scene, there's a reason why the word 'Pirate' is in its name. Pirate Bay didn't host the free files, but allowed and assisted mass access to them. In the same way you can be charged separately for the possession and supplying of drugs, the Pirate Bay verdict has shown that music giants are capable of not just successfully prosecuting the people who own illegal files, but the ones supplying them too.

Where the real issue lies, though, and why the case has been derided in many circles, is that the ruling poses an insignificant threat to the activity itself. Pirate Bay does very little more than Google, a point that is being increasingly made in the fallout, in 'making available' copyrighted material. A Google search for BitTorrents will get you the links required to start your illegal downloading career. And indeed, if Pirate Bay had 22 million users in February, surely twice that many more have now been made aware of the service. The founders of the site will be behind bars, but the website will not be shut down. Its users will not stop, and it won't prevent other services from continuing. Napster, all those years ago, was ahead of its time and suffered for its art, but set a precedent that, given the ubiquity of the internet, is simply unstoppable in this day.

The answer is great value, legitimate online services, and many new start up sites are learning quickly how to make techniques pioneered by martyrs like Napster and Pirate Bay legal. Which is why the divisive verdict has been particularly timely for Spotify.

Something akin to the Twitter of online music applications, essentially Spotify combines the access of Last.fm with the recognised layout of iTunes. It's free, legal, and they're adding albums in their thousands by the day (literally: check out their blog as they continue to bolster the Spotify library). What's great is that currently, the music labels are buying into it too: Spotify obtains licences for every single minute of music they put up. Their revenue consists of advertisers, whose 45-second ads crop up once every five songs or so if you're a non-paying user, and the fees from premium users, who pay £9.99 a month to forgo the adverts. Like much of what's good about the internet at the moment, it's innovative but simple, easy and accessible. And also, possibly, revolutionary.

It allows free, constant and instant access to pretty much all the music you could want on your computer - and if you can't find something, you can be sure it won't be long in coming. The one difference is you don't have the bytes stored on your hard drive. Is that so difficult to grapple with? Real music fans will not have a problem in paying money towards owning someone else's art, be it an official download or a new CD, if owning a particular song is so much of a burning issue. And in any case, to counter the overpricing problem, artists are increasingly finding innovative ways of packaging, complementing or adding value to physical copies of music: exclusive downloads, gig tickets and competitions, t-shirts, badges, books, DVDs, teabags.

The rise of online has caused a shift in importance from ownership to access, according to one of Spotify's founders. The method of free legal access to copyrighted material and free illegal ownership of it is indistinguishable, but Spotify is the most recent winner of the battle by being the safest bridge between the gap. It is, of course, in its infancy and no doubt will face a challenge in sustaining its business model against ongoing illegal filesharing and the newly-buoyed record companies. But it is growing, and conveniently doing so at a time where embracing some sort of digital model is the only way forward, regardless of who you are or where you stand on the internet's regulatory and ownership flaws. The Pirate Bay case has served to highlight how much there is a need for the gap to be bridged further still, but, for the moment at least, those who still respect the rights of an artist to their intellectual property will be able to Spot the difference.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Sun won't shine on Hillsborough

20 years ago today, 96 Liverpool fans were killed at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough ground in an FA Cup semi final against Nottingham Forest. It was a disaster, the worst footballing tragedy the English game has known, one that resonates still today, and particularly on its 20th anniversary. Everyone knows what happened, and everyone is united in sadness and respect - Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton supporters alike, players, managers, fans and families.

Everyone except Kelvin MacKenzie.

The editor of the Sun newspaper at the time, MacKenzie's editorial on the Wednesday (19th April 1989) after the disaster was so badly misjudged as to be unheard of. The Sun's front page alleged that the Liverpool fans stole from and abused their own supporters, urinated and attacked the emergency services. It was simply unbelievable that a leading newspaper could support such claims. What was simply catastrophic is that it could parade the allegations - on the front page, remember - as 'The Truth'.

According to a book on the history of the Sun, MacKenzie was alone in his conviction behind the newspaper's stance on the tragedy, and as editor, no-one stood in his way. No one else at the paper, it seemed, thought that that day's edition of the paper was a mistake, or misjudgement, or confusion. To everyone but MacKenzie, that Wednesday's paper was little more than outright, and deliberately accusing, lies.

MacKenzie originally apologised for the error personally in 1993, excusing his actions on the grounds of believing what a Conservative MP had said, which had been supported - apparently - by the Chief Superintendent, who later admitted to lying in statements immediately following the disaster.

The Sun, in 2004, the 15th anniversary of the disaster, took the opportunity to apologise unreservedly for that terrible error, and labelled it - quite rightly - the worst mistake in the paper's history. It goes without saying that you would be hard-pressed to find another, by any paper, on that sort of level. But the fact remains that MacKenzie's editorial was a lone choice, based on statements by unnamed sources and hearsay, with literally hundreds of counter statements from supporters who were at the game, on the pitch, in the stands, at the time.

Despite not having a leg to stand on, MacKenzie then shot himself in both feet. In 2007 he stated he was forced to apologise by Rupert Murdoch in 1993, against his will. An infamous quote attributed to MacKenzie is, "I was not sorry then and I'm not sorry now." His only concession to this day, by all accounts, is that he does now 'not know' if everything that he stood behind in that paper's shocking coverage was true. In other words, still MacKenzie has no reason not to believe in what he printed.

MacKenzie, however, does not deserve to be forever tied to the disaster as it lives on in the memory of football fans. Nor does the Sun newspaper. Despite their hollow apology of 2004, obviously the paper has gone through many changes in 20 years and even being the rag that it is, is not capable of making the same mistake again. MacKenzie has said that the distinction between the tragedy and the newspaper story is blurred, and he is right. The blame for the events of the day that caused the 96 deaths should not lie at MacKenzie's feet - he was not responsible, or in a position of authority on the day that could have saved those lives. The Justice For 96 campaign needs to remember the facts, and they are firmly pointed toward the authorities at the ground on the fateful day.

MacKenzie, however, refused to deal in, and still fails to acknowledge, facts. His terribly misguided bullish stance has earned him notoriety in Liverpool, and indeed across most football fans who were alive at the time, and he is hated. However, such an arrogant, callous man does not deserve a place in history alongside one of the most genuine sporting tragedies, and neither does the diabolical decision he made to publish a newspaper story belittling it. Boycotted for the last 20 years by thousands and thousands of people across Merseyside, and indeed the nation, The Lies by the Sun and its editor will never be forgiven, of course, and there will never come a day where the paper can make amends for its shocking conduct over Hillsborough.

What is most important, though, is that what happened on the day is remembered beyond all. Only in the hearts of those who were at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989 are the full facts, and for the peace and mind of families and friends of the 96 victims, justice might never find its way out. But The Truth is that the dead need to be remembered, the mistakes need to be learned from (and have been), the grieving needs to respected and wounds need time, and support, to heal. The humanity of Hillsborough - the loss of life, the outpouring of emotion, the uniting of people in sadness and respect - is its greatest lasting memory, and one man and one issue of a tabloid are just tomorrow's fish and chips paper.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mach ado about nothing

What was unthinkable just three weeks ago has become an exciting and tense footballing reality. Manchester United were swanning down the home straight to the Premiership title, had drawn the - on paper - weakest opposition in the Champions League, had two cups in the cabinet and were in the semi finals of a third. The question wasn't whether United would win more trophies, but whether they could win ALL five of them.

That has now changed, quickly and drastically. United met Liverpool in a make-or-break match - for the Anfield side anyway - that, had United won, would have all but settled the Premiership title race. But they crumbled at the hands of Rafa Benitez, whose well-organised, energetic side led by Torres and Gerrard carried out a clinical and thrilling 4-1 dismantling of Alex Ferguson's men. Since that result, United have put in three lacklustre performances since: a 2-0 humbling at Fulham, an undeserved victory against Aston Villa thanks to a 17-year old debutant's moment of magic, and a barely deserved draw at home in the Champions League (quarter finals, no less) against Porto.

The last four games have exposed severe frailties in defence and a worrying lack of creativity going forward. United have conceded more goals in the last three Premier League games than in their previous 15, and have proven that without the formidable Ferdinand/Vidic partnership, others - notably Gary Neville and John O'Shea, not to mention Edwin Van Der Sar - are nowhere near the level required to keep clean sheets against top teams when the pair are missing.

Similarly, United's attacking options have run out of steam at just the wrong time. Ronaldo seems to be sulking, though two excellent goals against Villa managed to stave off excessive criticism and he could yet prove to be the single deciding factor in United's success this season. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs both now look short on fitness when required to dominate the midfield in big games, with the latter virtually restricted to substitute appearances to affect matches. Michael Carrick, so essential for much of the season, seems to have run himself into the ground trying to provide defensive cover at the expense of the consistently injured Owen Hargreaves, and both vision and passing at the expense of Fletcher, who has neither. Whisper it, but a key figure for United currently missing is the Brazilian youngster Anderson, who can provide the perfect foil to Carrick's deeper creativity. United's bit-part midfielders, Ji-Sung Park and Nani, have suddenly become big game necessities.

Berbatov's disappointing season looks set to end in patches as he returns from injury, and United's predicament was summed up neatly by last night's performance,where only the industry and loyalty of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez saved United's blushes - and the latter isn't even a full United player, still. The fans have made up their minds firmly on where Tevez's future should lie, though, and Ferguson should have the nous to realise how important he is to keep. If not, Barcelona or Real Madrid will surely come calling.

Against Porto, United were out-passed, outmanoeuvred, devoid of flair and that winning mentality that Ferguson instills in all of his teams, gifted their opening goal and lucky not to concede twice as many. Of course, that they had to work extremely hard against Villa barely 48 hours earlier showed. Again there, United were second all over the pitch for the third league game in a row, but the heroic Federico Macheda's last-gasp winner to steal three points was supposed to reignite the United march for five trophies.

The ecstasy and jubilation at that goal subsided last night, however, when United turned in another poor performance against a thrilling Porto team, and dealt their Champions League defence a hammer blow. It would be stupid to write United off in any of their competitions yet though - Ferguson's various United generations have made snatching victories from defeat's open jaws a habit over the last decade. An unprecedented quintuple would be Ferguson's greatest feat, possibly unrepeatable in future seasons, and United still have the time and the players to chase that dream.

Very quickly, however, Manchester United need to rediscover their form and self-belief of a few weeks ago, or the wonderkid's goal that supposedly set their title ambitions back on course will turn out to be much ado about nothing.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jade Goody's 'legacy' should not be as a cash cow

The late Jade Goody has always been a favourite target of mine for this blog and throughout its archives are probably a generous spread of more-than-derisory remarks on the unfortunate icon who became the figurehead of a reality TV-obsessed - but not always friendly - media. I hadn't wanted to make any comment on her death - heaven knows it's everywhere else right now - but the fallout from Jade's demise peaked at fever pitch some weeks ago, and has failed to drop off since. It had been acceptable, although naturally over the top, but the personal tipping point came for me over the weekend, as headlines screamed of globally-renowned actresses being lined up to portray Goody in a film about her life.

Now let's get one thing straight. Jade Goody was an ordinary woman, with no outstanding talent, who contributed nothing of worth to society at large for about 26 of the 27 years of her life. In fact, her lack of intellect, Essex roots and loud mouth were remarkably common, middle of the road. Aside from (the small matter of) her early death, the more recent of Goody's years have been graced by extraordinary good luck.

Catapulted from a lower-class abyss to nationwide stardom in just a summer - with not one identifiable reason why, apart from a ravenous desire on the public's part for her documented humiliation - Goody was the first, and ultimate, reality TV star. Goody was ridiculed, admonished, shamed and caught out for months - yet refused to go away. It came full circle when, two years ago, she went on Big Brother again, this time as a celebrity in her own right. Books, videos, relationships, photoshoots, columns, interviews, TV shows - Jade Goody was the cat that got all the reality TV cream. She was rich, she was a success, beyond the dreams of many who share similar backgrounds to the Bermondsey babe, and for nothing more than exploiting the happy chance fate decreed her. She was the first to benefit from the insatiable cycle of reality TV feeding tabloids feeding public feeding reality TV, and because she was, she was also the last one standing. She is the irritating testament to just how far you can go in this country - despite having no remarkable talent whatsoever.

But it was not for her life in the media spotlight that Jade has a 'legacy'. In fact following the 'racism row' (more stupidity than malicious, and it's made Shilpa Shetty a household name), Goody was starting to tumble down the side of the peak she had been atop for so long. It was the onset of an untimely and unstoppable death that swung things back again.

To me, it says something that it took being diagnosed with cancer, that most terrible of illnesses, for the public to forgive and accept Jade Goody (I mean a certain public here, not necessarily everyone, and certainly not myself). It doesn't say a lot for her regard, and it doesn't say a lot for the press either, who were quite happily lambasting the woman one day and quite suddenly mourning for her the next.

The months leading up to the inevitable were quite astonishing. She did what any normal mother would, and that was to safeguard her children's future as best she possibly could, and, in the privileged position of being able to command hundreds of thousands of pounds for her fast-diminishing time, must have accounted for a lot of money, and is still probably making heaps as I write. Handled correctly, the money Jade will have secured will be immense, but the act alone does not make the woman remarkable.

Jade Goody also campaigned, with incredible success in such a short period of time, to raise the awareness of cervical cancer. Again, aided by the constant spotlight of a media falling over itself to portray her as an understudy to Princess Diana, great work has been achieved to this end. But there are many charities, and countless women who are faceless and nameless behind the scenes, who are doing exactly the same sort of work, for far, far less success. Goody's heroic success in reaching out to generations of women with an urgent and potentially life-saving message is remarkable only in its highlighting of how collective support can be mobilised by something as trivial as a twentysomething single mum dying. As if that doesn't happen every day of the week. Many of my friends have raised money in their own way for charities to support other family members and loved ones to the full extent they can. Jade did nothing differently to you or I; she merely had the help of the nation's daily media on her side.

It is the mark of a nation who can raise £57 million in one evening for a televised charity appeal, but who look the other way when offered a £1.80 Big Issue.

'Cash' and 'cow' are two words that have followed the late Ms Goody around from the moment she filled our television screens ten years ago. But she died a near-national treasure, a term that no matter how I look at her story, her 'achievements', her 'troubled past', her 'success', I cannot bring myself to accept. Her life story is made all the more remarkable by just how ordinary a woman she was, and how easily she was able to forge a career via an ever-present spotlight, and a huge market lapping up every tit-bit, good, bad or - as was often the Jade Goody case - ugly.

Hers is a story barely worth re-telling, lest the extreme spectrum of reality lived out by Goody be over- or under-played. She is worth remembering, of course, but a reinterpretation of Jade Goody's life will no doubt lend itself to a heart-warming, feelgood outcome. To preserve the memory of Jade Goody the person does not require Jade Goody: The Film (a.k.a one final money-spinning opportunity). No doubt her estate - no longer a two up, two down in Romford - will want the legacy of Jade Goody to be decent and dignified, qualities that the woman herself sometimes embarrassingly lacked. But a blockbuster movie would be indicative only of the society that made her the celebrity, and not of the down to earth, bubbly and honest qualities that made Jade Goody the person.

If it does happen, a film to mark Goody's death would be in danger of distorting reality one time too many. Because however much it may try to have us believe, the life and times of Jade Goody did not have a happy ending after all.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Seeing wood for the trees

This economic climate, then. I've avoided getting on to it until now, because it's been everywhere for too long already and it's getting worse through constant coverage, doom-mongering, and so on like this blog. But it's taken some very real effects to people close at hand to bring home just how quickly this climate needs to bounce back.

I won't say much about it because I had genuine faith in people, the power of uniting in the face of adversity and challenging a crisis head on, to believe that come end of 2009, we'd have turned this ship around and been heading for a brighter horizon, albeit it sailing with much more care and attention to the course.

I don't believe that anymore. I don't believe in people now. This is all someone else's fault. Everyone is out for themselves, no one trusts anyone else to do something about the crisis, and individually everyone is contributing to a worsening situation that affects everyone collectively more badly than the day before anyway. There is no public trust in the banks or the Government to pull the economy around, there is only finger pointing between institutions to blame the crisis on a cause instead of unity and responsibility in getting through this, the media tells us the worst is yet to come, then behind us, then the worst ever, and no one is looking further than their own nose.

But it is going to take trust, more than anything, to turn this situation around. Only by putting faith in the people paid/elected to do their jobs right will this issue be addressed. If people actually thought, for one moment, 'hang on, what if I do something about it?' and changed the negative attitudes, put some belief (and some money) back into the banks and the economy, rather than cursing that damned 'someone' whose fault this all is, then things would be brighter based on a collective unity and effort to right the wrongs.

Yes mistakes have been made by few in high places, and everyone now has to suffer the consequences. But the consequences have now become so vast that everyone will have to pick up the pieces, not just for themselves but for others, to reverse the sliding global economy. It's going to require trust in each other to pull together for a greater good, instead of individual short-term safety (which has thus far done nothing but bad - for anyone). The bigger picture needs repairing through the changed views of millions of little pictures. But when the public can't seem to see the wood for the trees, I don't trust anyone else to think the same way.

Friday, February 20, 2009

It's Calypso cricket, Andrew, but not as we know it

Fortune favours the brave. He who dares wins. Just a couple of cliches that could be, and have been, applied to England's 3rd Test in Antigua. If you're feeling particularly vitriolic, you could apply them more specifically to Andrew Strauss's captaincy. In these days of instant success or failure, a lot of questions, if not criticism, will be placed at the spikes of Andrew Strauss.

But this was only Strauss's second Test match as captain proper. It was also one in exceptionally unusual circumstances, although given the Mumbai bombing-affected Tests last December, abandoning one due to the pitch being more like a beach and rearranging the next for two days later must seem like pretty standard fare by comparison. Regardless, several key decisions had to be made, and as it was England drew a Test they should have won.

The first decision was whether to make the West Indies follow on, after dismissing them for a first innings total of 285. Strauss instead chose to bat again. Was he right? England's bowlers were on a roll, there was enough time in the day to take another couple of West Indies wickets, and possibly pile on the pressure for day three. They could have knocked the West Indies all out for an innings defeat, or leaving a meagre total to chase in England's second innings.

But: Flintoff had picked up an injury. Harmison had been unwell all day. In fact the whole team had toiled admirably in the hot sun all day, and would have to do so again indefinitely the next day. Batting again, the West Indies could have posted a total some 200/250 ahead of England, leaving Strauss's men a difficult run chase and the danger of losing. And bearing in mind the last match's 51...

So for my money, it seems in hindsight that not enforcing the follow on was the right choice. By leading England out to bat again, Strauss ensured that England eventually put themselves in an unassailable position - 500 runs ahead. But one or two points stick with how he got there.

The second decision in sending James Anderson out as a nightwatchman at the end of day three was too defensive. We weren't protecting a lead because every run gained was an extra piece of the target for West Indies to have to chase, so a lower order nightwatchman was a hindrance as Anderson slowed things down - especially on the morning of day four - in Strauss's quest to reach a 500+ lead. Thirdly, there are question marks over the need to have that high a lead anyway. By giving the West Indies 450 or so to think about, a carrot dangling so to speak, they may have been inclined to go for their shots, take risks, and be more likely to go out. Did Strauss effectively price Windies out of the game to England's cost? Was he too worried about losing?

Well, really the answer is no. The Windies reached 380 - not all out, either - when trying not to take risks and score lots of runs. The ground, small and uneven, is notorious for having big run-scoring records broken on it. A lead of anything less than 500 would have been less of a carrot dangling, and more on a plate: England bowled 128 overs defending 503, and even then the West Indies only needed to score 4 an over to win against that lead. If they'd have been actually trying to score runs to win rather than avoid defeat, and especially if that target had been sub-500, who would have bet against the Windies getting there?

So we've established that Strauss's decision not to enforce the follow on was correct, the decision to declare with a 500+ lead was sensible, even if putting out Anderson slowed up the scoring. Why, then, did England not win?

There's a case to be made for the weather. England lost 75 minutes bowling time to rain, and bearing in mind England spent about 35 minutes trying to get the last wicket, it would be safe to say that with an extra 75 minutes that task would have been achieved. Of course, that is too simplistic because in the morning both Chanderpaul and Sarwan were at the crease, so it was they who would have taken up the minutes. but who's to say we'd not have rattled through them before tea, if it hadn't been for the rain?

Ifs, buts, maybes. The real truth of the matter, and the central point to this roundabout defence of Andrew Strauss, is that he is captain of a side that is not as good as it was two, three, four years ago - bowling especially. Anderson and Harmison shared just four of the 19 West Indies wickets to fall - Harmison in particular looked sluggish, bowling short and erratically for the most part. Swann is a virtual beginner in Test cricket, bowling in just his third ever Test - and he was England's keynote spinner. Broad, so useful in the second innings, remains expensive, and is only just beginning to show signs of maturing into a consistent world class bowler. Flintoff was the man to make things happen with the ball, but is short of full fitness and hasn't made a noteworthy score with the bat since returning from injury.

On the subject of batting, Pietersen's oddly subdued innings, Cook's two unconverted 50s, Owais Shah's uneventful debut and Collingwood's place-saving (career-saving?) century all went unnoticed in the excitement. No real complaints but overall, England were taught a lesson in Antigua on how to bat in the face of adversity, how to apply oneself to the task in hand and contribute to a match-saving team effort.

Cometh the hour, it was cometh the West Indies performers. England have got positives to build upon - I remain convinced that this match would have been an England victory but for the rain delay - but Strauss has got to ensure his troops are rallied, confident and prepared to win in the 4th Test.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tweet, to who? It doesn't matter

Though Facebook was celebrating its fifth birthday this month with its 150m users, the party has been overshadowed by the spiralling stock of a rival social media platform. ‘Suddenly, it seems as though all the world’s a-twitter’, goes one of the social networking site’s snippet-like reviews. That might have been considered a premature verdict to... Read more

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Transfer window of opportunity disappoints

No takeovers, no £100m Kaka, no Robinho-style steal, no big names: 2008/2009's January transfer window was a shadow of the start of season sales. The obvious pick out of this lacklustre window is the farcical 'Robbie Keane returns to Spurs' story, the Irish whinger making a south-bound trip down the road he'd taken North only six months before to follow his 'boyhood dream' move to Liverpool. Farcical because it went against Rafa Benitez's continued assertions that Keane would continue to be a Liverpool player - though I doubt he was really as sincere as his words suggested - and farcical because the player's desire to fight for a place at Liverpool was clearly inhibited by his ego, and his desire not to sit on the bench at a top three club. Keane scored seven goals in around 28 appearances, which, given his proven pedigree in the Premiership, wasn't really good enough.

It obviously takes a player a while to settle at a new club, but Keane is nearly 30, a well-travelled and expensive forward (some £71m has been spent on the man in his career), a potent goalscorer with international experience, who did have plenty of starts for Liverpool. 28 appearances does not equate to limited chances - as Andy Gray would say, it only takes a second to score a goal. Liverpool find themselves second in the league, and in the Champions League knockout stages. It's not as if they haven't been winning games, and ergo scoring goals. He might not have played 90 minutes every time, but with Keane's experience, you could forgive Benitez for having expected a better return.

The third farcical point is Liverpool's title challenge. In Torres they have perhaps the most deadly forward in the league, but he hasn't been properly fit all season, and now has to carry the weight of the team's attack on his shoulders for the remainder. Support can come from Babel, N'Gog and El Zhar, but that's all they will be, support. Benitez maybe would have wanted to prove a point by allowing Keane to go, but he hasn't done himself any long-term favours by letting him do so with half an hour to find a replacement.

The only other major transfer of the window - Andrei Arshavin's incredibly protracted, probably dodgy, we'll turn a blind eye anyway switch to Arsenal - was verging on farce too. For 31 days, Arshavin wasn't, to paraphrase most football pundits, 'the sort of player Arsenal needed'. Then panic sets in hours before the window was shutting, and suddenly Arshavin is the player Arsenal cannot afford to miss out on, lest they fail to qualify for the Champions League. More pressing for Arsenal had surely been a holding midfielder in the Flamini role, which would allow Nasri and the returning Rosicky more freedom, and the inconsistent Diaby, Denilson and Song chance to improve. Arshavin is not going to score 15 goals coming from midfield, even though he will likely be given a totally free role behind one of Van Persie or Adebayor. Obviously the lad is top class, but his is a signing that needed to be made in August, not now, and one world class signing with four short months to make an impact might not be enough to give an inconsistent Arsenal side the necessary boost they need.

Returning to Spurs (like a certain Irishman), Tottenham continued this month's 'variations on a theme' transfer policy: the theme being ex-players, the variations being Keane, Pascal Chimbonda and Jermaine Defoe. Rumours that Ossie Ardiles and Jurgen Klinsmann were returning to White Hart Lane proved to be unfounded. Harry Redknapp, for all his transfer guile and experience, has never been in a position where resources are plentiful and the club is genuinely attractive, and Spurs were the busiest signing club in the window. After also capturing Wilson Palacios from Wigan, they had only spent a million or two less than billionnaires Man City, but Redknapp has got to do more with his usual wheeling and dealing than simply save Spurs from relegation. A top half finish is imperative now, given how close the table has been this season, but Redknapp will not have any excuses come the end of the season should they fail to head significantly upwards.

For most of the other clubs in the UK engaging in transfer activity, the credit crunch had a major impact on their plans. Outside of the Premier League, most clubs could only loan players to each other, with the occasional five or six-figure fee being splashed by a Championship team. Even Chelsea, so often the funds behind a merry-go-round of transfers, were restricted to a loan signing of the quality but inconsistent Ricardo Quaresma.

It seemed a case of two approaches in the Premier League. Spurs, Man City, Wigan and Arsenal, and to a lesser extent Hull, Pompey and Stoke, took the 'spending money to make money' path i.e. the monetary reward of staying in or succeeding in the Premiership. But for many other clubs including Blackburn, Sunderland and Middlesborough, it was more a case of keeping hold of assets already at the club - Roque Santa Cruz, Kenwyne Jones and Stewart Downing respectively - to aid their bid for survival or glory. Even in the multi-billion pound football industry, caution seemed the watchword.

But despite the economic climate and most clubs' lack of funds or willingness to break the bank, it was nevertheless a record January spend for the British transfer window: some £160m went on new players. However, for the incredible combined price paid, it will be interesting to see whether the rest of the Premier League season delivers its money's worth.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Kaka deal falls through, sun shines but hay is not made

The most expensive and lucrative job switch in the history of football (if not history of anything, ever) collapsed yesterday as Brazilian star Kaka decided against a move from AC Milan to Manchester City, turning down the chance to be come the sport's first three-figure million pound player and a wage of around half a million pounds a week.

That anyone can turn down that amount of money, for whatever reasons, is in itself a commendably brave rejection. Just a month's wages could set his family up for life, two months' pay would virtually save the UK economy in a single shopping spree. True, Kaka already commands a wage of around £100,000 a week at AC Milan, but while cynics would suggest anyone earning that much doesn't need a pay rise, not many people would ignore an opportunity to increase their wage by 500%. Imagine someone who happily earns £50k a year, and is offered the same job for a new company at £250k. Why turn it down purely because the current situation is comfortable? Make hay while the sun shines, and all that.

But the truth lies deeper than money. Kaka is the shining light of an imbalanced, ageing AC Milan team past their dominant glory years, and, though they're rebuilding slowly (and with Yohan Gourcruff still on their books, ominously so), a rejuvenated, new look Milan is far from ready to challenge seriously in their domestic league, never mind Europe. While the sale of Kaka made business sense, it would have been almost sporting suicide: not least because the backlash from the Italian media and the Rossoneri would have almost certainly lead to the notoriously violent and sometimes fatal scenes Italy's football supporters are well-versed in.

Depending on where you read, Kaka may or may not have been open to the idea of a move to Manchester City. Stories emerging today point to the steady influence of his father, who City's representatives talked with, and the stumbling block posed by AC Milan's apparently slow conduct in the transfer negotiations, as the reasons behind the failed move. It is also likely that a media furore about the sheer scale of the transfer got in the way of the hard facts over the last few days. But whatever the reasons for the deal's ultimate collapse, a quiet sigh of relief at the sport just about extracting itself from madness has probably been breathed all over the world (bar the City of Manchester stadium). I don't think the world of football is quite ready for the first £100m pound player.

Not yet.