For my sins I’m a bit of an Arsenal fan. Like the glutton for punishment I am, I also happen to be a Guardian reader (probably no surprise to anyone who’s read my increasingly infrequent pinko leftie-liberal ranting on these very pages). These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to happily combine the two.
I don’t care what any fusty old git says about the Telegraph having the best sports coverage, to my mind the dear old ‘Graun’ wins it by a country mile. Football writers like David Lacey & Kevin McCarra, alongside broader sportswriters like Paul Hayward and Richard Williams, are – if you’ll pardon the rather awkward pun – leagues ahead of the competition in terms of quality, if not readership.
Nevertheless, the (admittedly Manchester-leaning) Guardian seem to have developed an unhealthy obsession with the fortunes of Arsenal Football Club. In fact, scanning the rest of the media, the annual end-of-season implosion of North London’s finest seems to be something of a cause célèbre for everyone else too. Arsène Wenger is variously derided as stubborn, deluded, myopic, deranged, overly prone to whingeing, not to mention tactically inept and – let’s not forget – just bloody well foreign.
An undue amount of attention seems to be given to Arsenal’s sixth season without silverware (although there never seems to be any mention of Liverpool’s trophy cabinet gathering dust for the same period) without anyone pausing to consider perhaps what a fantastic job Wenger has been doing these last few financially-constrained seasons.
During a brief chink of light during an otherwise unrelenting hatchet job on the Arsenal manager, The Independent’s Mark Fleming points out that:
Since The Invincibles season of 2004, Wenger is actually in profit concerning transfer dealings with £10.8m in the bank, thanks mostly to selling Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré to Manchester City, while at the same time recruiting players such as Andrei Arshavin (£15m), Samir Nasri (£15.8m), Theo Walcott (£9m) and Thomas Vermaelen (£10m). Such frugality is remarkable, given the net spending of his rivals – Manchester City who have spent £435m since 2004; Chelsea £397m; Tottenham Hotspur £239m; Liverpool £142m; and Manchester United £108m, despite selling Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m.
Wenger’s shrewd management of Arsenal has seen the club finish in the top four of the Premier League for every one of his fourteen seasons in charge while becoming by far the most financially stable club of those that regularly contest the honours. This has been achieved without the backing of rich benefactors, or indeed (as in the case of Manchester United) the scandalous laying of debt onto the future of the club. Oh, and Arsenal still manage to play by far the most entertaining (if frequently infuriating) brand of football in the English League.
Yes, they were found wanting in the closing stages of the season and yes, almost any Arsenal fan would be able to point to areas of the team which could do with strengthening, but it really is time that someone recognised the quite remarkable job Arsène Wenger has done with such limited means. Instead it seems that otherwise respectable organs like The Guardian draw lots among their sports writers to find out who gets the privilege of putting together the daily character assassination of the Arsenal manager (witness these eight pieces in the last week alone). Meanwhile the free-spending scattergun-in-the-transfer-market Harry Redknapp (one FA Cup win in his managerial career) is portrayed as some cheery national treasure, poised to lead the limited players of the England national squad out of the wilderness the moment his country comes calling.
Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. Perhaps Arsène Wenger really is the worst football manager ever. Even so, Arsenal would be mad to swap him for anyone else.
OK, best to start with my cards on the table. I am a smoker, I have been for around a quarter of a century (with a few brief flashes of willpower in between) and I work in the pub trade. You could say that these factors cloud (no pun intended) my judgement on the issue of smoking bans, whether the existing public places restrictions or a suggested ban on smoking in cars, and you’d probably be right. Nevertheless, I know smoking is daft, I know it’s unpleasant for non-smokers and I don’t believe it’s fair for parents to make their children suffer the muck they exhale.
Having said all of that, I can’t honestly say I was an enthusiast for the smoking ban when it came in in 2007. As the manager of a rural pub with a predominantly food-led trade we took the decision to become completely non-smoking some months before the ban came into effect, and our customers were (largely) grateful for it. But I always felt that establishments such as ours should be free to choose their own policy. Ultimately I always believed that such things would be, to use the jargon, ‘customer-led’ and that government interference would not be necessary. By the time of the ban there had certainly been a change in public attitudes towards smoking, and those pubs that didn’t examine what they were doing were in danger of being left behind – in the end people would have a choice, and no business wants to be on the wrong end of such a choice.
Of course, the ban in pubs did have another aspect and that was the protection of staff. Whatever one’s views on individual freedom there was a strong case to be made that the generally poorly waged should not be forced to breathe others’ smoke simply to earn a living, and that should be one of the reasons most pubs would never go back in the unlikely event that the law was ever repealed.
No such logic is present in Jersey’s deliberations on whether to ban smoking in cars. Few would argue against such a ban when children are present (although it seems an alarming 16% don’t feel compelled to agree) but it’s difficult to understand why individuals in private cars should not be free to smoke if they choose. Regardless of what those in favour of a ban say, it is not the same as using a hand-held mobile – unlike a phone you can still hold a steering wheel with a cigarette in your hand. Besides, even if you do make the case that smoking is a distraction, where do you draw the line? Is eating a travel sweet a clear and present danger? Should you really have the radio on or, heaven forbid, switch stations?
Perhaps I’m a little paranoid. Maybe I’ve adopted the seige mentality propagated by the tobacco lobby. But there will be many on the mainland who watch the Jersey experience with interest with a view to changing the law here. I suspect that few of those people believe, as I do, that individual freedoms should be maintained provided there is no demonstrable harm to anyone else.
We’ve come a long way from the days when advertisers used to tell a credulous population that “more Doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette” and that is unquestionably a good thing. A smaller percentage of the population smoke now, and those that do are left in little doubt that their addiction tends not to be viewed sympathetically by the majority. I can handle being a social leper and I’ll keep going with my feeble attempts to quit. But I do think the choice should remain my own, provided I don’t restrict anyone else’s options. It will be interesting to see what Jersey’s powers-that-be conclude.
I’ll finish off with one of my favourite magic clips, which has very little to do with the arguments around smoking bans but is hugely entertaining all the same. This is an American magician called Tom Mullica who used to perform this ‘trick’ throughout the eighties and nineties. Understandably his doctors were never too enamoured with his performance, but the good news is he subsequently gave up smoking. He now reports that he can obtain health insurance for the first time in his professional life.
There is no trickery – he actually does what you see before you. (The whole clip is worth watching, but if you just fancy the disturbing part head to 2:56.)
To the great surprise of just about no one, the FA and referee Mark Clattenberg have ducked out of making Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney face charges for his blatant elbowing of Wigan’s James McCarthy at the weekend. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the FA’s somewhat strange procedure in cases such as these, it does seem rather odd that such a clearly obvious attempt at assault is able to go unpunished.
It’s probably fair to say that I’m not Rooney’s greatest fan. Talented though he is, you’d have to go a long way to find a more over-hyped player in the already never-knowingly-undersold English Premier League. Witness, for example, the wall-to-wall coverage of his overhead kick in the Manchester derby recently – undeniably a great goal, but overseas players frequently produce such feats with only a fraction of the fanfare – or the continuing media obsession with a colourful private life which is, nevertheless, private (or at least, should be).
Of course, it can easily be said that these factors are outside Rooney’s control. He doesn’t choose the headline writers’ puns, either front page or back. What is his responsibility, however, is his behaviour on the football pitch.
Rooney continually cuts a tormented figure, as if his entire life story is one of endless persecution by ‘The Man’. Every decision by a referee is met with a volley of Anglo-Saxon, a scowl or a plain, unadulterated tantrum. He chips away at opponents, bellows at linesmen, lashes out at corner flags and has now managed to add common assault to his less than glorious repertoire.
The argument often given in defence of his antics, not least by his supremely over-indulgent manager or the likes of previously sane journos like Paul Wilson, is that if you take away Rooney’s dark side you lose the part of his game that makes him ‘special’. What complete neanderthal rubbish. Why should we expect talented footballers to automatically behave like petty thugs or indeed excuse the few that do? It was never the case with Thierry Henry, Kenny Dalglish, Trevor Brooking or countless others. Lionel Messi doesn’t rely on assaults to the head to keep his genius ticking over. Yet we’re constantly told that Rooney’s precious talent makes him a special case.
Without necessarily going down the route of conspiracy theory to explain why Manchester United often seem to receive different treatment from the authorities, I do sometimes despair that anyone will ever summon the courage to tell Rooney to pipe down. Referees, managers, sports writers – all seem to develop a blind spot when it comes to the behaviour of England’s ‘Great Hope’, but seriously people, can someone have a word?
A spark of pro-democracy protest – almost unnoticed in parts of ‘The West’ – appeared in Tunisia last month and has now turned into a fire of potentially historic proportions reaching across North Africa into the Middle East. The great Arab democratic revolt overthrew the governments of Tunisia and Egypt and now threatens the established regimes of Bahrain, Yemen and Libya while doubtless causing anxious glances from other states in the region, perhaps most notably Iran.
It’s impossible to say how this will end and how much blood will continue to be spilled by totalitarian regimes such as Gaddafi’s in Libya, but this passage of history bears a striking resemblance to the collapse of Soviet Communism in Europe in the last months of the 1980s. In that case a similar domino effect was witnessed as the supressed and impoverished people of each Eastern European state felt able to draw strength and confidence from neighbouring states who had risen up against the old order. Europe changed forever in the space of a few short months. It was a fascinating period of twentieth century history, and it was a privilege to be alive during such a time of immense change.
There is a similar feel to events in the Arab world at the moment, although the factors causing change are quite different from those which were at play in Europe twenty-two years ago. On the face of it, nationalism appears to be less of a factor in the Arab uprisings as Middle Eastern peoples have always had less regard for lines on a map than their European counterparts. In addition the Cold War backdrop of a chessboard for the Superpowers doesn’t apply in the Arab nations, at least not to the extent that it did in post-War Germany and the nations surrounding it.
The common factors, of course, are repression and economic suffering. A class of people have found the strength to articulate their strong view that their economic hardship should no longer be taken for granted and that they should have the democratic freedom to do what they can to put that right. I applaud the courage of those who live in political systems I can barely imagine who have taken to the streets to give voice to, in some cases, hundreds of years of simmering resentment. I hope that the Arab states can find their solutions, free if at all possible from Western interference, and that people will not have to keep dying in the pursuit of democracy. History is being written across North Africa and the Middle East, and it’s probably about time too.
Mercifully, this was my first ‘Transfer Deadline Day’ for some years which remained untouched by the hype and breathless speculation of Sky Sports News (I cancelled my subscription some months ago). As it turned out there was probably no need for that particular network’s passion for sensationalism, as another day of extraordinary gambling in the transfer market unfolded with Fernando Torres heading for Chelsea for £50m and – in perhaps the most eyebrow-raising move of recent years – an apparently reluctant Andy Carroll making the switch to Liverpool from Newcastle for £35m.
Every year one of the over-monied English Premier League clubs takes an extraordinary leap for a seemingly ordinary player, and every year there is the inevitable chorus of “this can’t go on”. Yet we know there will be more of the same in the summer and another rash of panic-buying a year from now. There seems no end in sight for a level of spending we all routinely refer to as unsustainable.
I’m no enthusiast for Tottenham Hotspur but – even for a club managed by Harry Redknapp – they too had a remarkable Deadline Day. Bids for Carroll, Blackpool’s Charlie Adams and a seemingly endless pool of £38.5m-rated Spanish centre-forwards were capped by a £500,000 approach for Everton’s Phil Neville, a move their manager David Moyes described as ‘insulting’.
Redknapp, of course, is great copy for the sports journalists during the transfer window. Not for him the quiet reticence of only speaking when you actually have something to say – Harry loves nothing better than discussing other clubs’ players, giving the nod to the journos about the ‘deals’ he’s working on. Some regard him as something of a national treasure, the coming saviour of the English national team. Others see him as a throwback to another era, when players moved on a nod and a wink and everyone in the game ‘looked after each other’ as it were.
Personally I see him simply as an irritant, someone who should learn the concept of good manners and not ‘tapping a player up’. I’d quite like him to take the England job, sooner rather than later preferably, because I’m fed up of Spurs looking like they might be successful. It’s hard to imagine him as a national coach, however. No transfer market and therefore no opportunity to make public overtures towards Spanish forwards who might be able to “come in and do a job for us”. It would be destined to end in tears, but would no doubt be hugely entertaining along the way.
I never quite understood the rationale behind the transfer window. It always seems to be unfairly restrictive on the clubs with the smallest squads and the tightest resources. Newcastle, for example, now find themselves a key striker down with no chance to bring in a replacement until the summer. The ‘big’ clubs, by contrast, can afford to splash out heavily with a few hours of the window remaining, thereby reinforcing their dominance on a league already controlled by sugar daddy owners with deep pockets (or, in the case of the Glazers at Manchester United, large overdraft facilities). Perhaps the worried cries of unsustainability over the years have been wide of the mark, but Deadline Day does rather preserve the status quo – the one reason above all others that nothing’s likely to change soon.
I began fiddling around with this post before play had even started on the final day of the Fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne, and that is probably another indication of how annoying fans of English cricket will become to Australians over the coming days, weeks and months. Cockiness has seemingly become part and parcel of the England fans’ mindsets over the series so far, at least in the eyes of the Aussies, and the bad news is there’s almost certainly worse to come.
Last night Andrew Strauss’ team retained The Ashes by comfortably winning the Fourth Test, thereby assuring at least a draw in the five match series. The series isn’t won yet – a win or a draw for England in the final Test at Sydney would clinch that – but the gloating is well and truly underway.
The thing is that it’s particularly hard not to gloat about any sporting triumph against ‘The Old Enemy’. I don’t even like rugby, but I couldn’t resist reminding any Australian I encountered of Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal in the 2003 World Cup Final for some months after the event. Similarly, the Ashes triumphs on home soil in 2005 and 2009 were brought up at any opportunity, even if the 5-0 whitewash at the hands of the Aussies in 2006-7 put everything briefly into perspective.
This one is special, however. Every English touring side over the last twenty-four years has had to endure the sneering and sledging of the home nation and acres of accompanying newsprint devoted to the topic of whether such uncompetitive opponents warranted a five match series. Suddenly such commentary has fallen silent while the previously packed venues have steadily emptied as the home side’s fortunes have disappeared down the pan.
The Australian media have been a joy to behold on this tour, one minute claiming their favourites were not fit to wear the famous Baggy Green, the next pointing sharply at perceived English hubris. Now they are left to face defeat, and in so doing have given us a reminder that perhaps the British media aren’t the only ones who enjoy nothing more than giving their own a brutal character assassination. (My favourite outlet of the series has been the Sydney Morning Herald and an example of their no-holds-barred criticism of a deflated Australian side can be seen here.)
So I for one will not be afraid to wallow in a healthy dose of gloating at the expense of the previously unassailable Australian cricket team. Yes, England can still lose the Fifth Test and yes, Australia will almost certainly rebuild and come back stronger, but it’s hard to put away the memories of a quarter of a century of relentless Aussie gloating. It may not be big, clever or even slightly magnanimous, but I can’t take my eyes off the current disaster of Australian cricket – and I’m loving every minute of it.