Thursday, 29 November 2007

Same Old Chelsea...

Alan Curbishley has ignited a potential war of words with his Chelsea counterpart Avram Grant by insisting the Israeli has done nothing to evolve Chelsea since becoming the manager there and is "picking up" wins because of the foundations left by his predecessor, Jose Mourinho. Curbishley expects the side he encounters at Stamford Bridge in Saturday lunchtime's Premier League fixture to mirror the one West Ham played last season in both style and line-up. Such comments are sure to anger Grant, who has put great emphasis on the improving quality of Chelsea's football since he became manager in late September in an attempt to step out of Mourinho's shadow and establish his worth at the club.

"They're talking it up but if you care to look at it, there's not much difference," Curbishley said. "Drogba is a handful, the midfield three are as strong as you get, John Terry plays when he's fit and the other players are put around them. The side is well established and they play a certain way, it's just carried on. When he [Grant] took the job on he must have thought, 'I'm gonna win more than I lose with the squad I've got.' The foundations Mourinho left were there for everyone to see and he's taken over nice and quietly and picked up the results."

A comparison between Grant's 14 matches in charge of Chelsea and Mourinho's last 14 indicate the club is not only winning more regularly but doing so in more flamboyant style. Chelsea have won 10 times since the 2-0 defeat to Manchester United on September 23, Grant's first as manager, scoring 30 goals in the process. Running from the end of last season and until the 1-1 draw at home to Rosenborg on September 18, Mourinho's last match in charge, Chelsea won only four out of 14, scoring 14 times.

But as far as Curbishley is concerned, the only difference at the club is the persona of the man in the hot seat. "He [Grant] was the perfect solution for the change Chelsea wanted. He's quite reserved, different to what they had."

Curbishley also criticised the so-called big four's attempts to influence referees, days after Chelsea were charged with failing to control their players during the 2-0 victory away to Derby. The club has also only just paid a £30,000 fine for threatening behaviour towards the referee Mike Dean during the defeat at Old Trafford. "The big four teams definitely get after the ref a bit more than other teams," Curbishley said. "All the top teams are that way inclined - decisions are disputed, especially when they're at home."

Curbishley is hoping Freddie Ljungberg will be in contention for the weekend fixture after missing Sunday's 1-1 draw with Tottenham with a migraine. Dean Ashton, a long-term injury concern, could also start.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

This Crimson Blot

This crimson blot will take three years to fade
By Russell Brand

I first became anxious when I realised that beneath the twirling, hypnotic umbrella seeking shelter from the lightly drizzling rain permitted by the broken roof at Wembley stood the manager of our national team, Steve McClaren. I was at the match in incredible seats with my mate Nik and David Baddiel and his brother Ivor.

We were right behind the dugout in posh leather-look seats having enjoyed the delightful hospitality of one of the lounges which was a bit embarrassing for us all in the sense that it's quite far removed from the authentic trudge and bilge that's synonymous with the football of our youth. Actually though I do like a bit of luxurious nosh and privilege in this the final flush of capitalism before the revolution levels us all, a revolution that seems all the more attractive now the beautiful distraction of Euro 2008 has been smashed to bits.

It seems daft to harp on about the subsidiary consequences of England's failiure to qualilify because the immediate effects are so upsetting; after a knife wound to the heart one is unlikely to lament the blood stains on your T-shirt and this crimson blot will take at least three years to rinse away. I wonder if Brian Barwick'll feel embarrassed in South Africa at the World Cup qualifiers draw? If he'll avoid the pitying glare and condemnation from his counterparts?

I bumped into a Croat in the lavvy straight after the match and was still unready for good-natured prittle-prattle so I neglected to ablute to avoid handshakes. I bore them ill-will even before the final whistle because of what I perceived to be a needlessly fascistic form of chanting throughout the match. Perhaps this says more about my prejudices than the philosophy of those fans but it did seem terribly well organised - two huge, adjacent sections of the stadium spent the entirety of the match indulging in a terrifyingly simplistic call-and-response mantra that unnerved me as much as the sharp, acerbic presence of Slaven Bilic on the touchline first in a woolly hat and an awful off-white coat that the whole Croatian operation had been forced to wear, then when he re-emerged for the second half, assured of victory, in a shoddy suit.

Why I've reserved my vituperation for this obviously talented manager and former West Ham centre-half is a mystery when a more fitting candidate for wrath stood like Gene Kelly or more latterly Rhiaana meekly concealed beneath his brolly awaiting a holiday in the Bahamas that it turns out he'd already booked. I was distracted in that fabulous stadium. David was agitated by the fact that the roof hadn't been closed and queried whether it was a misjudged tactical flooding under the assumption that the Croatians would never have encountered a "greasy surface" before.

When we later discovered that the bloody thing simply doesn't work it was merely added to the list of heartbreaking metaphors that cluttered up the abominable evening. I was transfixed by Bilic - he has menace in his eyes, and in my nervous mind I likened him to an Eastern bloc pimp masquerading as a mini cab operator in Soho. I berated myself for being so racist, whilst my head still hung; ashamed by the comical escapades occurring on the pitch and my own misuse of stereotypes the Croatian fans again brimmed over into their regimented yawp.

Poor Scott Carson looked all daft in his yellow costume. After his intitial error, so ludicrous that all present paused to establish that it had actually happened and was not just a big stupid David Copperfield-style illusion before letting the nausea kick in, he became from then on merely some matter filling an outfit standing in a goalmouth. Every time the Croatians surged forwards, mostly on the break, a goal appeared likely and Ivor's remark that England seemed not to have prepared in any way for the specificity of playing Croatia and their ability to inflict punishing counter attacks but simply assumed that a side, already qualified would be happy for an evening out, was judged to be the most perspicacious of the evening.

Though it received little in the way of competition from me I confined myself to attacking the Croatian team's coats which I judged to be rubbish, particularly in comparison with the rather dapper England attire - in my mind a sartorial competition became the only kind of encounter in which we could triumph.

In the second half David Beckham, dear derided, adored David Beckham offered hope, he knew it was him alone who could offer it. Eighty thousand people scanned the pitch searching for something to be optimistic about and it wasn't til his arrival that that need found a destination. It was for him alone that I remained to applaud as he left the field, dignified still, saluting the crowd, teased to the precipice of a century. Who knows what will occupy this wasteland when, if he ever surpasses his 99th cap?

McClaren had already sought sanctuary in the dressing room knowing his holiday was already assured along with his severance. Better to be abroad - his umbrella can offer little protection from the current storm.

Guardian column

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Curbs Turns His Back On England

West Ham manager backs call to stem foreign influence.
By Duncan Castles

It has been a week of soul-searching for the national game. 'Horrendous', 'impossible', 'a job no one will want to take' were just three of the negative depictions of the England manager's position. The nation's European Championship future at the mercy of Macedonia, Israel, Russia and Croatia; its long-term future darkened by the ever burgeoning horde of foreign footballers employed on these shores.

Eighteen months ago the country's most lauded home-grown coaches had submitted themselves to the Football Association's horribly drawn-out appointment process. Today, Steve McClaren is being hounded out by the media, Sam Allardyce is battling for survival at Newcastle and Alan Curbishley is emphatically not interested in serving the FA were they to come double-interviewing again.

When I was at Charlton I had all sorts of clauses in the contract - for other clubs, for the national side - and that's why I was given permission to talk in the first place but I didn't seek any of those sort of things in this contract,' says Curbishley, the West Ham United manager. 'I'm ruling myself out entirely. This is where I want to be and this is where I want to be successful, so I've got no intention of leaving the club.'

If that sounds like another victory for Premier League over patriotism it is deceptive. A consistent champion of Englishness from the grass-roots to his profession's senior appointment, Curbishley's passion for the national team remains undiminished - as concerned with the quality of player feeding through from youth levels as he is that England's manager should remain a compatriot.

Six of his 13 permanent transfers into West Ham, and the majority of his recruitment budget, have involved Englishmen. Curbishley's interview with The Observer came on an afternoon spent handing over FA certificates to a class of community coaches, one of several personal contributions to the Premier League's Creating Chances programme. 'The problems are obvious,' says Curbishley. 'At the start of the Premier League season, I think 40 per cent of the players playing were English. The second week it went down because of injuries or change of selection. That is very difficult for Steve McClaren. Secondly, [the under-21 manager] Stuart Pearce has got to scrutinise where he wants to go because he has to ensure that there are a few English players playing to make it worthwhile.

'It reminds me a little bit of Scotland a couple of years ago when you were going to a Scottish game and there were hardly any Scottish players on the pitch. It has become very, very difficult and I think one of the reasons is the global market. The Premier League is very attractive to a lot of players and it's going to become more attractive.'

Other statistics bear out Curbishley's concern. In the first week of the Premiership in 1992, a mere 11 non-British players started matches. Currently, it employs senior professionals from 62 different nations while its youth ranks become less English by the season. That is another worry for the West Ham manager.

'I think the clubs have invested so much money in the coaching and the facilities - at most clubs now they are second to none and totally different to what we had growing up - but I don't know if there is the enthusiasm coming from the raw material,' says Curbishley. 'That's one of the biggest problems. The standard and the number of coaches and the infrastructure is far greater than 10, 20, 30 years ago but we don't seem to have the same players coming through.

'I keep going back to the raw material. I think the raw material has got to want to be a footballer, or love the game, or want to improve. I think they see what can be achieved but I don't know if they want to go out and get it. I can't help thinking we're bringing up a softer generation, where there's other things in life, as opposed to football.'

Regulating squads through a quota system is a solution that Curbishley can see merit in. Be it the Uefa method of reserving a proportion of squad slots for home-grown players, the Scottish Premier League's mandate that a team lists at least two under-21s, or Sepp Blatter's proposal at Fifa that no more than five of the starting XI be foreigners.

'I think it's happened in other countries and sports and been accepted,' says Curbishley. 'It wasn't too long ago that cricket had to do that, stop the influx of the foreign cricket player. I'm quite into rugby union and haven't they got a similar problem, that half their squad is foreign? If there is going to be a development that is going to help the home nations bring more people through, then we're got to do it.

'It's no coincidence that Mark Noble's is the biggest-selling West Ham shirt. Because he's one of two home-grown players at the moment, because the fans can identify and see that he's one of them. It's so much better for a club and a team if that can be done.'

Artificially or not, increasing the number of Englishmen on Premier League teamsheets should diminish another problem handicapping the national team. 'No sooner does an English player break into his Premier League team than he's being touted for England,' says Curbishley. 'He's played a handful of games and people are talking about him that he's going to come through - because there's not a lot about.'

Their talents often exaggerated by observers, when such youngsters do make the national team the pressures increase again. 'They turn up, the focus of attention is on them and everything that they do. They can't even walk along the street. We all know it's a difficult situation the national side. Everyone is under pressure to perform, but it seems to me that they don't perform with perhaps the same feel and the same freedom as when they play for their clubs. Perhaps that's something we should look at.'

Curbishley still feels the current England team are 'better than what they're producing'. Though he no longer wants the job, he also refutes the suggestion that managing the team is mission impossible. What has not changed is his belief that the mission should be undertaken by an English coach, which he says should continue to be McClaren regardless of his Euro qualifying campaign.

Observer

Saturday, 17 November 2007

My England Habit

I need a new way to feed my England habit
By Russell Brand

When organising warm-up gigs for the forthcoming, final leg of my current tour my tour manager, Ian (City), and manager, Nik (United), asked if I wanted to keep Wednesday night free for the England match. Whether the game against Croatia is of any relevance will be determined tonight in Tel Aviv when Israel play Russia - if Russia don't win then England can still qualify for the European Championship with a victory against the group leaders at Wembley.

In effect, my response to this inquiry will define me either as a patriotic optimist or an indifferent pessimist. Or, as is often the case in these times, there is a third way: I could remain essentially optimistic but affiliate myself only with the claret and blue corner of England where Bow bells chime and bubbles blow, like a Cornish separatist imagining new borders around a principality of the heart.

We all know of the pledge, of course, where we swear to never again be seduced by a national side that only ever lets us down, an oath that is easier to remain faithful to if you're a fan of Manchester United or Arsenal and have a happy and successful domestic football life than if you follow Huddersfield, no disrespect, or even West Ham. But perhaps that constituency is now being diminished. Fans of the MK Dons could find more joy and triumph following their local team than by going to all the bother of daubing a St George's cross with Milton Keynes and traipsing off to Vienna.

I can't seem to give up my England habit: although I've never seen them play I have been inveigled by the trappings. Esso World Cup coins, for example, which bore the faces of the Italia 90 squad were as prized as richly as golden doubloons by my teenage self and while people fret and query the benefits of adopting the euro I campaign tirelessly in my mind to have them made our sole legal tender - a Peter Beardsley for a loaf of bread, a Chris Waddle for a day pass at Thorpe Park and a weeping Gazza for unlimited lap dances at Spearmint Rhino (they were very rare).

Last week only 38 Englishmen played in the Premiership. Now I don't want to get all Oswald Mosley but is that enough? We're approaching the point where if you are a top-flight English footballer you can assume you'll be in the squad, just turn up at the airport in your PE kit and demand a chance. So perhaps Michel Platini and the brave Steven Gerrard are right, that there ought be a cap on foreign players or players should run out for the nation in which they earn their money.

That might be quite good actually, not just because then "England" would be bloody brilliant but also David Beckham would have to play for the United States, probably as skipper, affording me the delightful opportunity to write an article entitled "Captain America to the rescue" which would be a breeze. It might even help to loosen the stranglehold that nationalism still has upon us, and our atavistic tribal instincts, to the point where we abandon the concept of the individual and gather in stadiums just to cheer the idea of collective consciousness - it would be much harder to tell who'd won or when the game had finished and some people would still struggle with the offside rule but it might herald an age of global peace.

When I was a lad and Liverpool won everything, folk would harp on about Sammy Lee being the only English player because that side was made up largely of home nations players. Others would say he was like a little barrel that had come to life in a Disney film set in a brewery but they contribute nought to this argument and can just eff off.

I suppose what I'm saying is that England will always underachieve, and it doesn't seem to be something we can correlate to club football in a direct way. If we don't qualify there is talk of having a home nations tournament, presuming that Scotland are also available, and some of my mates are more into that idea. "Four meaningful matches," said John (Liverpool) and I'd be interested to watch such a tourney, but it might feel a bit like the third-place matches in the World Cup where two teams of disillusioned failures vie for mediocrity.

We'd be pretending to care about our mini-matches but actually in our heart of hearts we'd know we were watching a consolation cup, for little girls in their mum's high-heels tottering around, fancying themselves all adult but not contributing to the gas bill.

I'm doing my warm-up gigs on Monday and Tuesday night and keeping Wednesday free because I make decisions with my heart (especially now my goolies are out of action) so Wednesday I'll be watching England and I hope it'll be consequential. I know it'll be a lot more relaxed than the front room in Yarm where Steve McClaren will watch tonight's other group matches with his sons and a loudly ticking clock.

Guardian column

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Soulja Boys

I'm joccin' on yo bitch ass
And if we get to fightin
Den I'm coccin' on yo bitch ass
You catch me at yo local party
Yes I crank it everyday
Haterz get mad cuz
I got me some bathin apes...

Protecting A Friend

Anton Ferdinand became involved in a fight outside a nightclub after running "to protect" his friend, he told a court today. The 22-year-old has pleaded not guilty to causing actual bodily harm on October 2 last year and affray outside Faces nightclub in Ilford.

He told Snaresbrook crown court he was trying to defend himself after the man turned on him "aggressively". Also in the dock is his friend Edwards Dawkins, 28, of Henry Adlington Close, Beckton, east London, who also denies the charges. Their alleged victim, Emile Walker, 23, has told jurors that after Ferdinand struck him he was punched and kicked to the ground by up to 10 men.

Giving evidence, Ferdinand said he was unaware that a friend in a white shirt, who has not been identified, struck Mr Walker to the side of the head outside the club. "I looked to my right and I saw Emile Walker aggressively running towards my friend and I'm fearing the worst," said Ferdinand. "My purpose was to go and protect my friend."

He said he put his left hand up to act as a "protection shield" and he was shouting but could not remember his words. "When he [Mr Walker] turned around I felt frightened because he did turn around aggressively and I knew it was time to defend myself. I tried to swing at him, to contain him, to grab him, to keep him close to me so he couldn't do anything to me. He was trying to come across to hit me and I'm trying to get to him to try and contain him."

Ferdinand's barrister Antony Chinn QC led him through CCTV footage taken of the events outside the club. Ferdinand said he was trying to restrain Mr Walker but as the pair were wrestling, "Emile Walker was getting the better of me, getting on top of me and pulling my head down."

Ferdinand said he suffered a "bust lip" and a moved tooth during the scuffle, which required treatment from the dentist the next day. "After feeling the pain that I felt from that blow, which shook me up and scared me, I wanted to protect myself," he said. "I tried to hit him back."

He said he tried to punch Mr Walker but he did not think it was a "full on blow". Ferdinand said he was relieved when the pair were parted as he was not an aggressive man and often did work with children from Peckham, south London, to advise them against using violent means. He said that on the way home he was shaken up and in a daze and his lips were throbbing with pain.

Ferdinand told the court he had been in a "bubbly and happy" mood but had drunk no more than four or five whisky and cokes. He said that as he was leaving the club a man kicked him from behind, aggravating a slight hamstring injury from which he was already suffering. He said the kick was "hard enough to make me realise that someone had done something to hurt me".

The bouncer ushered the man outside and a short time later Ferdinand himself went out of the club to wait for Mr Dawkins, who was bringing the car. At this point he saw Mr Walker, who was with a couple of other men and was staring at him. "He was looking at my watch, looking me up and down," said Ferdinand. "I felt uncomfortable with him looking at me like that."

He said he had been mugged the previous year near a nightclub in Croydon and one of the attackers had tried to stab his friend because he wouldn't hand over his belongings. He said that he himself was more co-operative, and handed over his phone, and his chain was ripped from his neck.

Of events outside the club, Ferdinand continued: "Another one of my friends comes up to me and he says to Mr Walker: 'What are you looking at?' and Mr Walker turned to his friend and said: 'Is he for real, I will kill you'." He said Mr Walker's manner was "very serious" but he put his arm around his friend and told him to leave it.

The court heard that Ferdinand had been at West Ham since the age of nine and turned professional at 17. He left school at 16 with three GCSEs, including for PE and music. He told the court that he had received "the odd yellow card" but had never received a red, "touch wood," he said.

He said he had been racially taunted during football games both by another player and by the crowd, but he had never reacted to this and was not an aggressive man. "A lot of people say that that is one of my downfalls as a defender, that I am not as aggressive as I should be," he explained.

The court heard Ferdinand was at the club with about 10 friends after driving there with his cousin and arriving at about 10.30pm. Alex Agbamu, prosecuting, said to him: "It is suggested that this incident was sparked off by a man who Mr Walker believes may be your cousin." Ferdinand, who would not give his cousin's name in court, said that the man who could be seen hitting Mr Walker in the CCTV footage was not his cousin.

Judge William Kennedy adjourned the trial until tomorrow when Ferdinand is expected to continue giving his evidence.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Throwing The First Punch

West Ham defender Anton Ferdinand admitted throwing the first punch in a confrontation outside a nightclub, a court heard today. Ferdinand told police he thought the man might be an armed mugger who wanted to steal his £64,000 diamond-encrusted watch. The 22-year-old, who had been mugged a year earlier, explained he "had worked hard" for the valuable timepiece and was not about to let anybody take it. Ferdinand, who is on trial for assaulting the "would-be thief" he insisted had been "eyeballing" him, said his alleged victim also threatened to kill his friend.Despite Ferdinand trying to act as "peacemaker" during the increasingly tense situation, a fight suddenly erupted. London's Snaresbrook crown court heard it was then he began trading blows with the man. However, when he was asked who struck the first blow, he admitted he had.

Ferdinand pleads not guilty to causing actual bodily harm and affray outside Faces nightclub in Ilford on October 2 last year. In the dock with him is Edward Dawkins, 28, of Beckton, east London, who also denies the charges. Their alleged victim, Emile Walker, 23, has told jurors that, after Ferdinand struck him, he was punched and kicked to the ground by up to 10 men. He managed to escape and flee from the scene with just a badly bruised jaw and a cut on his forehead. Jurors have heard Ferdinand was about to be driven from the scene when police stopped the car he was in and questioned him about the incident. Initially he denied being involved in any fight outside the club, saying his lip had been cut during an incident inside the premises, while blood on his T-shirt came from an old leg injury.

In his statement Ferdinand described leaving the nightclub at about 1am and being kicked by a man in the foyer on the way out. A friend told him to ignore the incident, but as they headed for the pavement he became aware of a group of men hanging about. "I became apprehensive because one of the men began looking at me and my watch," said his statement. "Although it was insured I was worried in case the man might try to take it from me. The fear arose in part because I was mugged about a year ago in Croydon during which my mobile was taken from me and a chain ripped from me. I found that incident frightening and I try now to avoid having to go through that again."

Ferdinand told police that as the man - allegedly Mr Walker - continued "eyeballing" him his friend asked the man what he was looking at. His statement went on: "He said to my friend 'Is he for real? I will kill you'. My friend got mad at being threatened like that. I told him to walk away. I was afraid there was going to be a fight, one I had not started, did not want and was trying to walk away from. I was worried he would take my watch by force and I had worked hard to earn the money to buy that watch and did not want him to take it from me. "The man who had threatened to kill my friend seemed to be acting on that threat by approaching us. For all I knew he had a knife. It worries me people who are prepared to start a fight do not do so without carrying a weapon."

Ferdinand said the violence he had feared then began. "Other people quickly became involved," he said. "I wasn't really focusing on anything other than protecting myself. It was very frightening." The interviewing officer then asked him whether he hit anyone. "Yes ... by punches and he did punches as well," he replied, in an apparent reference to Mr Walker. "Did you punch him before he punched you?" - "Yeah."

Ferdinand said one of the blows he received loosened one of his teeth and subsequently required dental treatment. He also aggravated an old hamstring injury during the melee. "It was all really a daze for me," he said. "I was very anxious. It was such a horrible experience." Even after arriving home 90 minutes later he was "still anxious and distressed". Ferdinand, who told police he had drunk no more than five "JD and cokes" during the evening, added: "Around that area it is a known fact that a lot of people in my profession go to clubs like that."

The trial was adjourned until tomorrow when Ferdinand is expected to give evidence.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Fergie's Flirtatious Feuding

My view from afar of Fergie's Flirtatious Feuding
By Russell Brand

I'm in Morocco and no matter how completely my senses are flooded with the mystery of the souks and the nobility of the Atlas mountains this will always be to me the nation that in Mexico '86 fielded a player called Mustafa Merry (I remember the Panini sticker book representation rather than the individual). I liked that name as a child as it seemed like a joke, and also pre-empted by a decade my mate Matt's nickname for me as an Arabic-tunic wearing junkie, Mustafa Skagfix.

The other prejudice I've been carting about was learned from the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears where Joe and his murderous lover Kenneth Halliwell briefly holidayed here and copped off with loads of rent-boys. I don't know why that stayed with me, it just seemed so jolly, bathing costumes, giggling and Alfred Molina and Gary Oldman enjoying tense frissons. The memory of the pair of them, and Mustafa Merry, skipped through my mind while I was on the phone to the travel agent.

I've not encountered Mustafa or a single rent boy the whole time I've been here and am thinking of demanding a discount. I've kept my eye on things in Albion though and here's my round-up of football news, not to mention my "wacky, sideways" view of it all: Chris Hutchings' sacking; oh. I liked him, he was a friendly peep-eyed, thin-lipped, gel-haired uncle and I don't think Dave Whelan has given him long enough. Also talk of Paul Jewell returning to Wigan seems barmy because Hutchings was formerly his first-team coach.

What if Jewell does return and offers Hutchings his old job back? It'll be uncomfortable, Hutchings won't be able to tell the players anything - he'll be like a castrated step-dad. "Run round them cones lads," he might shout; "Eff off, you're not my real coach," Heskey'll respond. It'll be awful. It doesn't do to go backwards, unless you're an old lady descending stairs, then it's de rigueur.

West Ham have always been keen on the ol' "sell players then bring 'em back" technique and it's always a bit disappointing. Julian Dicks, Tony Cottee and Frank McAvennie all came back for less successful second spells and whilst it's romantic I don't know that it's good business. Though who wouldn't welcome dear Harry Redknapp back to the Boleyn in an instant? Why, only the loopy and the indifferent.

There was talk of Nicolas Anelka returning to Arsenal but I imagine Arsène Wenger is not one given to nostalgia, and it seems improbable that any of Fergie's former charges would be welcome back at Old Trafford - they usually seem to be kicked out from 'neath the protection of his coarse petticoats like incestuous toddlers. I admire Sir Alex Ferguson's need for conflict as much as his appetite for success, and his remarks this week about Sepp Blatter's proposed cap on foreign players were tremendous fun; implying that Arsenal and Liverpool would suffer most under such a ruling then nonchalantly awaiting the protestations from the Emirates.

Wenger was of course unable to resist retaliating and I thought his riposte was a good one: "His own foreign players must feel undervalued by that." I enjoyed this particularly as I was following this minor dispute as if it were a soap opera and after Ferguson's initial dig I knew Wenger would respond but was unable to anticipate the quality of his parry. It's like flirting a bit, or any form of seduction: one must destabilise the target to make them suggestible to new ideas, like bumming.

Not that I'm suggesting that this was Ferguson's ulterior motive although the chemistry between them is exciting. The cursory, eye contact-free handshake that followed last Saturday's clash, whilst brief, must have felt enormous to either man. Like having a fingernail traced up the nape of your neck or sweet breath blown into your ear, how could it not engender an electric shudder? I wonder if they think about each other much when they're alone, initially angry - "the security was a bloody joke" - but lapsing into the whimsical - "he has such inviting lips, ever wet and puckered, each rebuke a prelude to a vicious kiss" - almost certainly.

Actually Yossi Benayoun would be carried shoulder high along the Barking Road should he ever return. His hat-trick against Besiktas, like every ball Joe Cole has ever kicked whilst clad in blue, induced a gut-pang, and now as a nation we must hope that he uses his much missed and lamented skills to give England a chance of qualifying for the European Championship perhaps, if the mischievous deities of nostalgia have their way, under the stewardship of Terry Venables.

Guardian column

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Dealing With A Crisis

There are many ways to deal with a crisis. If you're Heather Mills, you book a breakfast TV slot and launch into a tearful rant about the wicked, nasty, evil media. If you're the England rugby team and you've just lost 36-0 to South Africa, you ignore the boss and adopt a siege mentality that takes you all the way to a World Cup final. And if you're the prime minister, you simply quash opposition hopes by saying no, thank you very much, we won't be holding a general election just now.

Similarly resourceful in the crisis-handling stakes is Alan Curbishley. The West Ham United manager is still planning to add weight to his injury-prone strike force by recruiting Internazionale's Adriano according to the Guardian. The generously proportioned Brazilian apparently rejected a planned summer move to Upton Park on the grounds that the nearest West Ham will get to Europe this season is a midwinter break in Benidorm. However, that was before Roberto Mancini decided that Adriano's fulsome figure couldn't be accommodated within the narrow confines of his 25-man Champions League squad, dashing the striker's pregnant expectations of Euro frolics and prompting him to dream anew of blowing bubbles at the Boleyn Ground.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Luis Confused

Luis Boa Morte's inability to establish a regular first team place at West Ham seems to have affected his memory. He yesterday described the club as one which is "always in the top eight" and can fight for Europe, months after they survived relegation on the last day of the Premier League season. The former Fulham captain also said West Ham are the bigger of the two teams and that was the main reason why he moved from west to east London in the last January transfer window.

Since his £5m move, Boa Morte has made 27 appearances at Upton Park with 12 of those as substitute. This season he has started only six out of 11 matches, scoring one goal. The 30-year-old admits his slow progress has caused unrest in his relationship with manager Alan Curbishley. "I don't want to be sitting around while West Ham play," Boa Morte said. "I respect the decisions the manager makes but that does not mean I have to be happy about it. I get frustrated sitting on the bench, I want to show the fans what I can do, that would make me feel better. I will work hard to get into the team."

But Boa Morte, who has started West Ham's last two matches - the league draw away to Portsmouth and the midweek Carling Cup win against Coventry, insists he has no regrets about moving to West Ham, having made more than 200 appearances for Fulham in seven years scoring 44 goals. The Portuguese said: "I had a good time at Fulham but I was at a stage in my life where I had to move on. West Ham is a bigger club, being here gives me a different challenge. Fulham were fighting all the time to stay in the Premier League but at West Ham it is different, this is a club that plays always in the top eight. We can definitely be in Europe." West Ham finished two points and one place above Fulham last season and are currently in 11th place.

The Hammers could climb to eight should they beat Bolton on Sunday afternoon but will to try and take three points without a host of injured players, including Dean Ashton, Craig Bellamy, Kieron Dyer, Scott Parker, Freddie Ljungberg and Bobby Zamora. Hayden Mullins and Anton Ferdinand picked up knocks in Tuesday's match at Highfield Road although the former is expected to be fit for the weekend.

Curbishley is refusing to use the absentees as an excuse for any slip-up against Gary Megson's side. He said: "We have just got to get on with it. Some of the players who are fit have had to play out of position and have been picking up results along the way, which is great credit to them." It is almost 12 months since Curbishley became manager at West Ham. He is certain he will not spend 15 years at the club as he did at Charlton and in Bolton's recent change of manager, sees a pattern which will be repeated again soon.

He said: "I had 15 years at Charlton and Iain Dowie [his successor] had 15 matches, Sam Allardyce had 10 years at Bolton, Sammy Lee had 10 matches, it's just the way it is going unfortunately, managers no longer have time to establish themselves at a club."

Curbishley has given his backing to a winter break in English football but admits it would be difficult to implement. "A break would do everyone good but how would you fit the games in?" He said. "We're already a match behind and can't fit it in because of Champions League and Carling Cup games during the week. If you took two weeks off in January, and then there was bad weather after that, the problem would get worse and we'd struggle to finish the season on time. One solution would be to start the season earlier."

East Will Always Be East

East will always be east for lovers of freedom
By Russell Brand

EAST EAST East London. EAST EAST East London. It's a simple enough chant, a peculiarly forceful and evocative ditty only relevant in the minute context of Upton Park for West Ham's home games and for tiny allocated corners elsewhere when away. I mention it only in an attempt to popularise the lyric as the two "EASTS" that precede "East London" were immolated by a copy reader at the publisher of my forthcoming autobiography My Booky Wook - serialised in this paper a week Monday.

I was describing my early visits to the Boleyn ground with my Dad, and put ". . . on weekend trips to EAST EAST East London. . ." as a coded message to the claret and blue army. This was taken by the copy reader as evidence that she was dealing with the absent-minded doodlings of a mental patient and she swiftly exorcised the sentence of its charm so it reads simply ". . .trips to East London. . ."

Now of course my autobiography, like the homework of a recalcitrant berk, was handed in about 20 seconds before the book was due to go to print meaning there was no time for this error to be corrected. I suppose this lady, having read a substantial portion of the booky wook by this stage, had due cause to suspect she was not editing the work of an infallible literary force and having weathered a torrent of evidence of insanity took this to be a kind of needless outburst of Tourettic orienteering lingo rather than a sweet nod to a menacing chorus. These things happen. A trivial, accidental injustice that has speared its way into the malignant core of my creativity and lanced the tumour of furious perfectionism that festers therein. These things happen. I suppose it doesn't really matter - it wasn't the defining sentence of the book - but it's difficult to quarrel with one's own feelings, and I feel browned off.

That big, lovely, bald Honey Monster of a man Martin Jol apparently experienced similar duress when at the Lane, he endured Damien Comolli giving him an unwelcome reach-round while he was trying to bring his squad to climax. Jol revealed that he planned to bring Manchester City hits Elano and Martin Petrov (It's easy to say that now, I've always loved Sven myself, never once suggesting that he joined England players in the post-match bath wearing soggy knickers) to Spurs but Comolli brought in players that would have long-term commercial re-sale value like Darren Bent (we'll all be rich, I tells ya) and Adel Taarabt.

It can't be much fun trying to manage a Premier League team of teenage millionaires while the club chairman and director of football (which is a job title to undermine a manager's control if ever I heard one - "Don't mind me, I'll just be here directing the football") stand just behind you pulling "spaz" faces and doing "wanker" signs. Why not just turn up at first-team training sessions and stick Post-its on Martin's back reading "I want my Mummy" or put cards in phone boxes with his mobile number and "I will bend over for cash" written on them.

The only way to run a Premier League club is as a dictatorship. Witness the top flight's own Stalin and Mao, Ferguson and Wenger, answerable to no one, sat beyond reproach atop the power pyramid of their respective clubs, Titans answerable only to God and their own consciences. May I just point out that I'm not implying that either man is genocidal, it's simply not called for in their line of work, but I can't imagine Sir Alex would take kindly to anybody abbreviating his autobiography - although his life isn't littered with evidence of instability, unless he really did throw that shoe at David Beckham and even that's not as bad as the ice pick that Trotsky had to contend with just for trying his hardest.

So, try and use EAST EAST East London as often as you can till it's as popular an idiom as Whassuup! Or Milf. Make sure you find an appropriate situation, though, or people will think you're nuts.

Guardian column

Thursday, 1 November 2007

A Striker Reborn

It is difficult to believe Carlton Cole could "go missing" on a football pitch given that he stands 6ft 3in tall but many Upton Park regulars will have endorsed Alan Curbishley's choice of words when the West Ham United manager reflected on a career that has promised much and delivered little.

The injury-time goal that took West Ham past Coventry and into the quarter-finals of the Carling Cup on Tuesday could be a sign that Cole is rediscovering the form that prompted Chelsea to offer him a six-year contract as a teenager. With West Ham's treatment room now overflowing an opportunity beckons. "I have been under a lot of pressure from my own fans," said Cole. "Sometimes I think it has been a bit unjust but that is football. I am trying to come to terms with that. I came to the club and a lot was expected of me. But I have never been given a great chance to fulfil my potential at any of the clubs I have been with. What the fans have seen of me so far has not been good enough. Hopefully I can change that now.

 

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