Sunday, January 22, 2017

THE 5th COLUMN


Institutional bias is a heavy phrase to bandy about in these enlightened times of post fact bliss.
Anyone attempting to make a salient point these days is more than likely to be met by a wailing mass of hysterical pitch fork wielders, who question their parentage and ridicule their every word.
The next two and a half thousand words may thus be simply asking for trouble.

***
Manchester City’s coverage in large areas of the press is downright scandalous. The club’s treatment at the hands of referees has followed suit and the reaction of the great unwashed is driven by combinations of the two. Anyone, who mentions this these days has an agenda, is half blind to the truth or has a grudge against Alan Shearer because he's famous.
Even the club itself, driven by a need to be accepted in its new elite position, won’t say boo to a goose.

The moments before, during and after an enthralling City-Spurs game brought things once again into sharp focus. Raheem Sterling unwittingly became the centre of this particular vortex some time ago and, bless him, he's still there today.
When Sterling goes down too easily, he is cheating. When he tried to stay on his feet against Tottenham, running through on goal one on one with Hugo Lloris with a golden chance to put his side 3-1 up in a game totally dominated by City, he did not get what he deserved, or what the rules of the game state he deserved: the award of a penalty. The shove in the back that he had received from a beaten Kyle Walker, described gamely by the Spurs defender afterwards as “I did as much as I could to put him off”, came an instant before he took his shot and critically unbalanced Sterling at just the right moment.

Let’s take the player’s words first: “I did what I could to put him off” is player-speak for “I fouled him”. Fair enough, you do what you can and what he could in this instance was to perpetrate a foul. Every defender in the land, including those lambasted in the sky blue shirts of Manchester City and those given a free ride in Liverpool’s red, would attempt to do the same or something similar.  Now it’s in the hands of the referee to dish out the proper punishment: a penalty, certainly, and quite probably a red card for Walker for denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity.

The incident was met with a mixed reaction of incredulity from those treating the game to an unbiased view and subjective ridicule from the internet’s teenage warriors and miscreants. City can’t even hold on to a 2-0 lead anyway, was the retort, ignoring the fact that they would have done, had the referee had two functioning eyes in his head connected to a fully functioning brain and –apparently- a workable head set. To lament the malfunctioning communication system between ref and linesman is of course to forget that the linesman in question,  was in the handy possession of a fluorescent flag, which might also have been a useful communications tool had he felt the need to wave it.

City watchers of any great vintage turned around in their thousands at that very moment and said one of two things: “this is going to 2-2” or “we’ll lose this”.

Both of these phrases come originally from a different mindset altogether: the gallows humour so readily found on the Kippax in the old days of thud and blunder at Maine Road, when the club shot itself in the foot so many times its feet looked like colanders. Self-deprecation was rife. It was all that kept many of us going every weekend, as City were relegated twice in the 80s and began a spiral downwards in the 90s that would end in the third division and, for many fans, in the psychiatric wards of their local health centres.

It was in those days of comedy revolution that City’s fans turned up in ever greater numbers, averaging a well-documented 28,000 average for home games in the third division. Turning out to watch Chesterfield and Gillingham, Wrexham and Macclesfield in those sorts of numbers gained City a warm response from fans of other clubs. Like the fumbling megalith that is Newcastle today, many fans felt warm enough about City to consider them a second favourite or at least a club they felt warmth, empathy and positivity towards. In truth – contrary to all the modern day brickbats aimed at City fans – they had long before been noted for their loyalty in numbers, making the modern day shout of “where were you when you were shit” perhaps the most ill-advised chant of them all. Away followings at Leeds in the 1977 and 1978 FA Cup games, at Notts County in the second division and at places like Hillsborough, Ewood Park and the Victoria Ground reached well beyond 10,000 and regularly gained a positive press from media commentators at the time.


And the noise you can still here in the background is from the large mass of travelling City fans, who it must be said have once again backed their side with the usual loud and faithful support…” Barry Davies, Match of the Day commentator, Coventry v City, FAC up 4 round replay 1996.


The City fans amassed in the away end have been standing all afternoon in lusty support of their side” Barry Davies, Aston Villa v City 1995-96, with City one game from relegation.

That has now not just evaporated, but been replaced by a deep hatred from many and ridicule from others. Even the legendary faithfulness of the support has now been swamped by widespread and brainless banter about empty seats and lack of history. The know-nothing brigades, who shout loudest on radio phone-ins and internet forums are having a field day in the Post Fact era Donald Trump and his acolytes have ushered in.

People will say that this sea change comes with the territory. City have been transformed into a side chasing honours on domestic and foreign fronts. And, of course, unlike all the other successful sides throughout history, money is involved. Sunderland (“The bank of England side”), an Everton bankrolled by the pools millionaire John Moores, Real Madrid, levered above the rest of Europe by foul means or fair, Liverpool, Manchester United and many other clubs in the historical spotlight have always relied on cash to push themselves clear of the rest. Now City have done it, just to give themselves a fighting chance, it amounts to some kind of vulgar heresy, of course. Certainly, our culture is to build things up in order to knock them back down again. This is as true in politics and the arts as anywhere else and football has also proved an excellent conduit for this irrational behaviour in recent years.

Sure, I can remember grudgingly admiring Liverpool in the 70s and 80s when they spent two decades rubbing everyone’s noses in the dust, but also hating the fact that they always seemed to get the run of the ball, a blind eye from the referee and the lucky breaks. Part of this is what being a strong side is all about. The more pressure exercised on the opposition and the more possession of the ball you have, the more the number of fouls committed against you will go up and the number of decisions apparently favouring you might be expected to follow. 

Yet curiously this doesn’t happen with City. This season the club has the highest possession stats in the Premier League and is apparently the dirtiest in the division, with red and yellow cards being sprayed around like confetti at a wedding. How does that work? Guardiola certainly can’t explain it.

These things can only work when the bias against a team becomes institutionalised. On the eve of the Tottenham game there were three strands of destabilising bile coming out of the press, led as usual by the Mail, Mirror and Sun. Neil Ashton’s piece in The Sun bore the scarcely believable headline “569 million reasons City need a good kicking”. Now please correct me if I’ve missed it, but I have never seen an article like that aimed at West Brom or Bournemouth, or against Liverpool or Manchester United.  Ok, the trolls will wail that nobody cares about West Brom and Bournemouth and whilst that is clearly nonsense, those clubs are not as newsworthy and therefore do not carry such a high profile in the media. The press greatly ignores them as a result. Liverpool and United, however, do. They are big news. Bigger news than City, thanks to their recent pasts and the continuing genuflecting of large swathes of the media, this is where it all kicks in again.

Liverpool’s 3-2 loss at home to Swansea should, if it follows the pattern of any of City’s recent failures, be met with a wall of criticism from the great and good of the tabloid press. It should receive undercurrent stories attacking their calamity defence, as City have received, and yet more about the obscene amount of money they have spent to create this common failure, as City have done. Then there should follow a series of snidey reports about their manager’s glum and unresponsive performances in the press interviews, as Guardiola has been subjected to in the last month, followed by widespread story-telling of how unsettled Klopp is and how he may either soon be leaving the club or even quitting the game altogether, as Guardiola was reported to be doing in recent releases. If you are truly awaiting any of these to actually appear, you may have to take a picnic and settle down for a considerable wait. Liverpool’s lamentable recent record of 1 win in 6, and that in extremis against lowly Plymouth, does not seem to be attracting the vitriol to their manager, who for some reason is a darling of the press. Strangely, people seem to be falling over themselves in the rush to see if English football can send Guardiola over the edge.

Another of many destabilising strands in the press last week covered City’s obscene spending. The number of times a spend comparison flashes up before a City game is these days something of serious comedy value, as it has been continued in the obvious light that the other big clubs are spending just as much as City and in various cases more, to be competitive. Needless to say, when Liverpool trot out against Plymouth and nearly exit the FA Cup, neither a spend comparison flashes up nor any criticism of their paper thin performance.

No doubts over the shining football disciple Herr Klopp were heard to be uttered.
The money slant escapes all the other big spenders, of course. No spend comparisons when Liverpool show up at Home Park, nor when United play Bournemouth. All is calm and good. Wayne Rooney is a guy who’d play for United for just 50 quid, after all.

Refereeing decisions, of course, can go against absolutely anyone and to suggest there is some kind of concerted effort by officialdom to neuter City’s challenge would rightly be met with equally widespread ridicule. However, the treatment of Raheem Sterling by the press begs a question: can it have a subliminal effect on the referee? The answer most surely to this is yes.

Sterling you see, was, thanks to The Sun (ah here we go again) widely blamed for England’s collective defeat in the Euros, despite being no worse than the rest and considerably better than some. He was then ridiculed in the Sun (“England flop Sterling enrages fans after Icelandhumiliation by showing off blinging house and fleet of supercars”) and the Mirror for spending money on a house for his mother (obscene wealth, you see is something only Raheem Sterling has in these modern times of you’ve-hardly-heard-of-him footballer millionaires).


Curiously when he was later spotted in Poundworld, he was treated to equal amounts of column space. The same has happened to him on the pitch. Because of his transfer fee and the club he plays for, he has been subject to ever-closer scrutiny from the press. Visiting grounds like Burnley and Crystal Palace, you are left wondering what earthly reason the home fans could have for actually singling Sterling out for continued booing. Is it his hair, perhaps? Or are they just following the great example of the press and joining a bandwagon that has been rolling for months since Liverpool fans took the hump that anyone could consider swapping Anfield for anywhere else? Sterling is not only a good target off the field, he “goes down too easily” on it too. A bit like Ashley Young, whose latest dive only managed to register on the amusing Gifs level of internet coverage and didn’t merit comment in the national press.

So, what happens when Sterling goes down these days? Fouled by Danny Rose against Tottenham, he fell to the floor and a possible penalty went unawarded. Fair enough, these things happen. Marginal call perhaps. You win some, you lose some. Next time Sterling stays on his feet, determined to score, to play fair and perhaps in the knowledge that if he does go down he’ll be labelled a diver and again get nothing. Everyone saw what happened. Is Andre Marriner, already infamous at City for “not seeing” Sergio Aguero’s “heinous elbow” on Winston Reid this season that enabled the striker to be retrospectively banned for three games, running down the field with a clear objective mind or is he saying to himself here goes Sterling, he’s a diver?

When City’s game with Chelsea exploded with similar ferocity to the Tottenham match and Aguero and Fernandinho were sent off, not a single line was attributed to the part played in the affair by Cesc Fabregas. The incident even got as far as that august magazine World Soccer, with City’s two miscreants laughably managing to lever themselves in to one of the three slots for the global game’s “villains of the month” alongside Metz fans for throwing firecrackers at Lyon keeper Anthony Lopes that hospitalised the player and caused the game to be abandoned and the Brazilian FA president, wanted for extradition for widespread fraud. Aguero's villainous act was a late high tackle and Fernandinho's na inappropriate reaction to being slapped in the face by Fabregas. They stand accused alongside rioting fans and a major fraudster!

It reminds one of City's UEFA fine for walking out late at Porto for the second half of a Europa League match. Porto were fined half as much in the same game for racist chanting.


The Sun opts for calm objectivity
Against Chelsea Fernandinho and Aguero received red cards at the end of a tempestuous game that had been running strongly in City’s favour, but ended in defeat. Before the internet tribe reaches for its pitchforks again, it was the same game, where, with City in full flow, David Luiz – already booked – took out Aguero with a blatant body charge.

The referee, Anthony Taylor “of Altrincham” showed no card (it would have had to be red) and waved play on. The red mist had been rising understandably for some time. Yes, Chelsea won that match by merit of scoring more goals than City, just how it is meant to be, but yet again the opposition were aided by officiating bordering on the criminally inept. To top it all, Aguero copped for an added 4 game ban, thanks to Marriner’s errant antics against West Ham.
In the old days, we’d have laughed along with everyone else, then gone home to weep into a pillow somewhere. We wouldn't be booing UEFA and their bent FFP attempts to scuttle City on the continent. We wouldn't be steaming and frothing about this that and the other.
The truth is out there somewhere, unpalatable or not.

Friday, January 6, 2017

ROMARK: THE CURSE OF BIG MAL

It is with a little sadness that we today remember Romark and his remarkable FA Cup curse.

In case anyone forgets, Romark was a legend in his own crystal ball during the 70s.

A man with just as much psychic ability, Malcolm Allison, had uncovered this mysterious Shayman (massive City-pun coming in approximately 7 paragraphs) during his spell as head honcho at Crystal Palace in the mid-70s.

Big Mal, hands more than full with champagne bottles and bunny girls from the Playboy Club, forgot to pay Romark's modest bill, however, and the soothsayer got the severest of humps, revolving his eyes in different directions and placing a curse on Mal's young and eager Palace side. On the eve of their 1976 FA Cup semi-final against Southampton, Romark -evidently a man who enjoyed looking into the past as well as the future- contacted Lawrie McMenemy's secretary and arranged to meet up with the Southampton supremo. McMenemy could hardly refuse a man with such an obvious penchant for storing grievances. He is widely quoted thus:


"When he came in, his eyes immediately struck me. He had peripheral vision, both eyes staring in different directions. He surprised everyone by asking for two chairs to be placed in the centre of the room facing away from each other two yards apart, then got an apprentice to put his head on one and heels on the other. When he took the chairs away, the lad stayed suspended in mid air. I was even asked to sit on the lad's stomach and still he stayed suspended. George Horsfall, our reserve-team trainer, came in shortly afterwards and, after telling him what had happened, he did the trick all over again. He wouldn't tell us how it had been done, but George was born in India and it may well have had something to do with the old Indian rope trick."

Whether the apprentice was suspended by the golden filaments of Mordor or Romark had a set of bathroom mirrors stashed in his underpants, the trick worked a treat on Southampton, filling them with a strange "energy" that not only saw them past Allison's oddly unblinking Palace, but imbued enough turquoise light in the players to see off staunch favourites Manchester United in the Wembley final itself.

Some will still remember as schoolkids, watching Bobby Stokes stroke the winner. The pass through to him had arrived in his stride from Jimmy McCalliog, who, when afforded an intimate close-up after the goal, appeared to have a middle eye shining brightly on his forehead. In an instant, it was gone. It was that fast. I may have been the only one watching Cup Final Grandstand that day that actually saw it. My nurse says this is an entirely possible scenario.

Romark's work was not yet done, however. The curse, as these things often do, transferred itself to Allison himself, who went back to City in the late seventies with startling failure and abject embarrassment just a funny glance and an oddly pointed finger away.

On the eve of the infamous FA Cup third-round tie at Fourth Division Halifax, to be played at The Shay (told you to look out for it) the Halifax manager George Kirby enlisted Romark's assistance once again. Not being a man to miss a pay check or an opportunity to get revenge on previous poor payers, Romark accepted and brought his mirrors and rope set north to West Yorkshire.

Halifax striker John Smith recalled an odd meeting two days before the tie:

"I'm sat there with this guy called Romark, and he was saying … 'you will go to sleep now, John Smith, and then you'll overcome the power of Manchester City. You will play the greatest game of your life, John Smith. When I count to three, you'll wake up again.' I was trying not to laugh and I'm thinking, what's all this about? What a load of nonsense."

Naturally enough, Smith would subsequently lay on the winner for Paul Hendrie in a 1-0 win for the home side, although "overcoming the power of Manchester City" was not confined to Halifax in those tumultuous days. Shrewsbury and a host of other less than fragrant opponents also found it within themselves to beat City, Romark or no Romark. Smith was flabbergasted. "All the headlines, though, were about that hypnotist," said Smith, "but we beat Manchester City through courage, hard work and belief.", said the Halifax man whilst hovering three metres above his sofa, drinking orange juice without a cup.

Romark later tried to prove his powers to the unforgiving public on Ilford High Street by driving blindfolded down the road. His intrepid journey reached a rather predictable (unless you couldn't see the future too clearly) end after approximately 20 yards when he drove miserably into the back of a police van.

"That van was parked in a place that logic told me it wouldn't be," he said afterwards, looking at the wretched vehicle, slotted hopelessly alongside the pavement, parallel with the curb, within the little yellow lines and with its hazard lights flashing for good measure.
Paul Hendrie exits the tunnel at Halifax

It was too late to save Big Mal, however, who got the bullet from City shortly after. Unlike Mel Machin, Peter Swales may well have claimed at the time that Mal had too much "repartee" with just about everyone. This was the problem.

After being imprisoned for embezzling his mother, Romark died of a stroke in 1982. Didn't see that one coming, did he? Was this the end of the curse?

When City left Maine Road, it was felt that this was another moment of release, as unhelpful gypsies had been said to have buried an upside down horseshoe with a picture of Gary Neville's great grandfather Neville Neville Neville attached to it. Surely, the move to a new stadium would also bring an end to the Gypsy Curse laid so many eons ago?

Well, maybe, maybe not. What we do know is Manchester City have at last laid the ghost of the FA Cup to rest. The fading images of Paul Power gleefully waggling his arms over his head as he set off for the Holte End fencing, already awash with amateur mountaineers and escape artists in blue scarves, can be put to one side. In the name of Romark and old man Neville, City fans will hope there is no dark stranger with a wall eye and a bag of spoons at the entrance to the London Stadium this evening. 

City, after all, have been wholly capable of mucking things up without help or hindrance from a higher plane.

Monday, January 2, 2017

ANFIELD RAP

This article first appeared on the pages of the Irish Examiner

And so the pain goes on for City at Anfield, the ground they just cannot function properly in.

A paralysis takes over, a numbness of the mind sets in, a deep-rooted fear takes a grip that is so all-pervading, that countless upgrades of manager, regime, and playing staff have changed absolutely nothing.

2003 - The last time
And so it was that City introduced Pep Guardiola to the Anfield rap sheet: two league wins here since 1956 and no sign of the this incredible tsunami of bad fortune and ill will being either slowed, stopped or turned around.

In fact in the first half it was simply more of the same. City playing with geriatric full backs against a side so energised that it looked like the first takes from yet another Keystone Cops movie.
"Throw in the Benny Hill theme tune and we were off. Liverpool’s high pressing, relentless approach to the match meant City had little or no time to move, think or breathe, during a first half that flowed in one direction only."
Once again, as had happened against Arsenal, the opposition’s first meaningful attack of the game brought a goal, a towering header from Georginio Wijnaldum.

However, you had to dissect its source and course to see how City, and one player in particular, had contributed.

With a ball played long up the left, Aleksander Kolarov produced a cushioned pass inside to nobody in particular.

This loose ball was picked up, carried and dispatched across the park in a matter of seconds to the marauding Adam Lallana, who ran at a bamboozled Pablo Zabaleta.

The Argentinian is a City stalwart and should not really be put through this final season of embarrassment, his legs getting slower and slower as the opposition get nippier and nippier.
Standing off Lallana to give a him a decent sight of the penalty area, Zabaleta watched in horror as the ball was played in for Wijnaldum to leap like a salmon and score. Underneath him, meanwhile, leaping like a fish attached to a rucksack full of bricks was Kolarov, the original culprit of lost possession.

You can read the rest of this article here

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