Tag Archives: Roy Keane

It’s Human Nature

I think anybody who saw France’s capitulation to Spain can agree that Florent Malouda, a footballer who is to footballing what Adam Mars-Jones and Philip Hensher are to novel-writing, should have made at least some effort to pick up Xabi Alonso as he burst forward to get on the end of Jordi Alba’s cross and score the first goal of the evening. ITV’s Jamie Carragher took very little time to highlight Malouda’s utter disinterest in shoring up his side’s flimsy defence during the half-time punditry, and – had I been born in Dijon rather than Darlington – I’d be pretty adamant that the Chelsea something-or-other should never pull on the bleu ever again. That said, I was astounded by Roy Keane’s contribution to the analysis. He began in typically Keanian spirit, saying somthing along the lines that any professional should have internalised the idea that tracking back when one’s team is in trouble is a fundamental part of the game. However, this swiftly turned into generalisation. ‘It’s human nature,’ he blurted, in his (arguably reasonable) concern to make sure that Adrian Chiles knew what he was talking about.

Is it ‘human nature’? There’s a Marxian approach to Darwin that says the wrong elements of Origin of Species were emphasised in Victorian Britain, as ‘competition’ was elevated above ‘mutual aid’ in an effort to naturalise certain basic principles of industrial capitalism. Certainly, evolutionary science might do well to play up the theory that we’re hard-wired to help each other out rather than to snipe, undermine, and generally look after our own ends. It might serve as a corrective to lunk-headed Mail blog commentary about ‘common sense’, at least, and we might begin to put to bed timewasting hair-splitters such as ‘altruism is really just another form of selfishness’. However, Keane – who I’m normally a big fan of – got under my skin tonight. The implication wasn’t that providing assistance to those in need of it is an inherent human trait, I think – it was that football-mindedness is something we’re all secretly given to. It was a claim for the game’s universality based in its alleged similarity to lived experience which, to me, demeans football’s particularity, cutting away the aspects that make it different from other team sports.

The claim that football is somehow a pure analogue of human experience in general doesn’t work for me. It might serve as a pathway into broader concerns, but its inital spark lies in its difference rather than in its similarity. By that, I mean that it produces a skewed image of what-we-do-the-rest-of-the-time which serves as a vantage point onto the everyday: that’s to say that modernist poetry or painting offer more valid points of comparison than realist fiction or drama. Every attempt to make football into a simile for day-to-day life falls short somehow, and I’d be willing to bet that we’d turn our backs on it pretty fast if a point-for-point metaphorical exchange was possible. Of course, social factors are huge influences on how football is played in a given location, but these are the starting points of tactical trajectories rather than objects of unimpeded mimesis.

By Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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The Lost Art of (Defensive) Midfielding

Yesterday, while watching an entertaining collection of mostly off-the-ball incidents involving Danish former Everton and Real Madrid midfielder Thomas Gravesen, I began to consider the importance of controlled aggression in football. It became clear to me that Gravesen, in his both his physical and ‘banteresque’ exchanges with other players, was involved in a strategy of shadow throwing and exaggeration that one is more familiar with in wrestling or pantomime than in modern football. That evening, the Netherlands struggled against Germany, but failed to reach the violent nadir of their performances in World Cup 2010 – especially the final when the inarguably talented but weirdly boring Spain team ground out a win in a game reminiscent of some Christians trying to play keepie-uppie against a team of extremely hungry and irate lions with a penchant for self-loathing.One persuasive narrative to emerge from that night: the Netherlands were seen as anti-footballing villains while Spain were conquering heroes.

There’s little doubt that a rare strain of ultraviolence was embodied by that Holland team, but was that final really the night when, symbolically at least, a non-contact, packed-midfield brand of tiki-taka football was crowned? And, if so, where does this leave the defensively-minded midfielder who’s motivated not only by a desire to turn defence into attack by breaking play up through tackling and distribution, but also – see Gravesen – to turn the course of a game through psychological jostling, cumulative pressure and, yes, the occasional physical attack?

The growing aestheticisation of football, fed by a speed-reading of Barcelona’s fluidity crossed with fantasies of a Harlem Globetrotters-like touch of anti-gravity showiness (Krusty the Klown: ‘they were using a freaking ladder for gods’ sakes’) has perhaps blinded many to the successes of teams more fundamentally grounded in supposedly traditional footballing strategy: put a big lad up front, get it out to the wings and kick anyone who goes towards your goal. For some reason, Real Madrid and Stoke City spring to mind. Barçelona’s efforts to experiment with these ‘sorts of players’ haven’t been hugely successful: Ibrahimovic was a notable failure while Mascherano came in an aggressive, hard-tackling midfield mentalcase but is now someone who slots into defence when one or other of the favoured centre-backs is crocked. The logic of Barça under Guardiola dictated that the target man and the hard-man defensive midfielder must be tamed and domesticated in order to play within the system.

Where’s a defensively-minded midfielder (with a penchant for controlled aggression) to go, though? Strange that such a player, who offers a bulwark for defence, a certain kind of gonzo leadership and, at his best, a hub from which the spokes of successful counterattacking play can project, now finds himself unfashionable and unloved. But, then again, these players are always the least praised, and frequently demonised for their excesses: Roy Keane for his career-ending tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland, Gennaro Gattuso for his headbutt on Joe Jordan – Lee Cattermole for, well, practically everything he does whenever he gets on the pitch. (And then there’s obviously Van Bommel, whose reputation precedes him to the degree that when he fails to hack someone down, he resembles Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, nervously picking around the laboratory in fear of turning into the enormous green anger monster.) To jump away from strictly defensive midfield for a moment, such vilification puts one in mind of another midfielder, though admittedly in a different galaxy from everyone else – both in terms of the quality of the player and the near-operatic tragedy of the excessive event – Zinédine Zidane’s ‘chestbutt’ on Marco Matterrazi in the 2006 World Cup final.

One of the disappointments of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parenno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was its relative silence – Zinédine barely spoke apart from (according to my recollection) telling the ref to go fuck himself at one point. If that film presents the art of midfielding as one of quiet contemplation occasionally punctuated by success, failure and inexplicable violence, the Youtube footage of Gravesen (mostly from his time with Real Madrid and set to broad parpy comedy music) shows the industry with which one goes about creating the sort of legend that leads others – both on and off the field – to refer to a footballer as ‘that psycho’.

Posted by Karl Whitney

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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The Diligent Loitering of Alan Shearer

Pitch side in Warsaw, and a middle-aged man fixes the camera with gimlet-thin eyes and an air of truculent self-assuredness, heavy perspiration bringing a gleam to his newly shorn bonce under the stadium lights as he pours forth his wisdom. “Those guys will be in the dressing room right now” begins the BBC’s roving pundit for Euro 2012, Alan Shearer, having conspicuously failed to notice that the “guys” in question had been warming up behind him for a good five minutes. With this, it was clear that the tournament was upon us – the first piece of memorably idiotic punditry being the traditional curtain raiser for such affairs. Not on a par with Paul Gascoigne welcoming viewers to Japan/Korea 2002 with the bon mot “I’ve never even heard of Sennyagal”, perhaps, it nevertheless heralded the start of three weeks of bluster, hyperbole and one-eyed jingoism that constitutes the black cloud of punditry which lingers over international tournaments.

Shearer sweating in the pitchside fug is, it seems, a sight we shall grow accustomed to in the coming weeks, with he and the embryonic Jake Humphrey scuttling between patches of turf to loiter diligently as the Beeb’s token men on the ground. It’s a curious double act, Shearer reciting the names of unfamiliar players with the glee of a toddler learning a new word whilst Humphrey gazes deferentially as if in the presence of a balding deity. Never the most charismatic screen presence, poor Al looks even less comfortable here – staring anxiously into the screen like a man who’s spotted a ghost hovering above the camera as Humphrey gasbags to his right.

That the presence of Shearer and Humphrey pitchside has been the Corporation’s sole on-screen presence at the tournament thus far makes the selection of the pair even less explicable. Perhaps they were the only two willing to fly economy, given the collective forelock-tugging towards the in-no-way-compromised Coalition’s complaints about cost effectiveness at the Beeb. Indeed, so showily understated has the coverage been that is has become ostentatious in its own right. The straight-off-the-shelf CGI opening credits, the truncated timeslot, the twinge of bitterness in Lineker’s voice as he acknowledges the BBC punditry team has been anchored in Salford Quays; even disregarding the mirroring of England’s downgrading expectations it’s hard not to feel that there’s an element of political point-making going on here. These are the BBC’s very own Austerity Games, and they’re keen to let it be known. If things don’t improve, they’ll be running a telethon alongside the coverage by the quarter-finals. “Alan, Clarence and Lee haven’t eaten for three days. Stranded in Salford, they’re three miles from the nearest supply of clean water. Please do give generously.”

It’s not just in relation to the studio location that These Straightened Times have dominated the mood of the BBC’s early coverage. Abetted somewhat by the fact that the opening fixture involved Greece, the tone was set from the off as the pundits ramped up the narrative agenda. “It’d be great if the Greeks could do well, because they’re a nation on their knees”, Hansen droned – rubbing salt in the wounds of a nation so down at heel even a Scotsman can patronise them about football.  The charitable concern continued, “They haven’t had much to shout about with all the economic problems engulfing their country” – the inference presumably being that everything here is tickety-boo. At least from a Greek point of view the cultural touch-point of fiscal collapse is a step up from “they invented gayness”, so baby steps.

Alongside financial doom-mongering, the other narrative strand likely to define the tournament is that of race. Hansen’s oblique reference to “a lot of controversy” introduced the issue within a minute of the Beeb’s coverage commencing, prompting the assembled throng to furiously fudge their way around the matter like resignedly bemused elderly relatives tutting about “That Racism” that the young folk are getting worked up about. Jonathan Pearce was quick to take up the baton on day two, helpfully informing viewers that “I’ve heard no racism yet” in a tone that immediately reinforced the perception that racism was exactly what we should expect from these dastardly Eastern Europeans. This is meat and drink to the likes of Pearce, a man whose view of football seems entirely defined by the peripheral narratives that swirl round the game and who, frankly, gives the distinct impression that he’d much rather be back providing an idiotic backing screech to a death match between Sir Kill-o-Tron and Count Crush-Bot on Robot Wars. Despite this, and for all the post-Panorama angst, the only piece of racism caught on camera has – rather unfortunately for the BBC – been Mark Lawrenson breaking off from his sheet of pre-scripted ad-libs to revel in his own Big Ron moment:

Most egregious of all, however, has been the BBC team chortling knowingly about the idiocy of English optimism in bygone tournaments, as if such overblown expectations of the cult of “Stevie G”, “Lamps”, “JT” and the rest of that depressing cavalcade of self-regarding underachievers had absolutely nothing to do with them. At least normal service now seems to have been resumed, with Harry Redknapp’s jingoistic fervour and teeth-grinding bonhomie – even Lineker tartly quizzing Redknapp if he was “surprised” owl-featured fraud Roy Hodgson was given the England job ahead of him was met with a fixed grin and a blanket of vague platitude – acting as a catalyst for an upswing that will doubtless grow to a crescendo should England nick anything against France. By the 47th reference to “good lads”, even mild-mannered viewers were left praying there was something to those Mayan prophecies after all. Come raining meteors and fall on Salford.

And yet, for all the manifest flaws, the BBC’s coverage has been like watching Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation in comparison to ITV’s shambolic effort. First, the inexplicable opening credits; a sequence in which what one assumes are wooden puppets – but which more closely resemble crude effigies carved from doner meat by an obsessive – of the giants of the European game jig about a fairytale landscape for no discernable reason. Gullit, Platini and Beckenbauer are all there, along with, erm, Roy Hodgson. It’s enough to fill you with patriotic fervour, as well as making you feel peckish.

Then there’s the studio – a mid-market provincial café, in which the gathered luminaries perch uncomfortably atop oversized Mecanno chairs. Of these, Roy Keane’s descent into furious self-parody continues apace, whilst Jamie Carragher ploughs ahead with his metamorphosis into a permanently on-call controversialist. A kind of footballing Jeremy Clarkson. The set-up seems fuelled by the hope of laboured controversy, with Patrick Vieira added to the roster in the hope that he and Keane quickly descend into finger-stabbing, “see-you-fuckin’-out-there”ing, doubtless stirred up by macrocaphalic windbag and disingenuous professional everyman Adrian Chiles under the guise of the ubiquitous, wait for it, “banter”. Given that each talking head has around fourteen seconds of airtime between the need for such hyperreality is just about understandable, but no less palatable. Brief respite is at least provided by the eminently sensible Roberto Martinez and Gareth Southgate, especially with the latter’s trend-bucking knack for verbose non-specificity and uncanny resemblance to a partially deflated balloon, but by and large it’s been turgid stuff.

ITV’s in-game coverage has been no less execrable, with Peter Drury spending most of last night’s game patronising Irish fans to within an inch of their lives. Drury is ITV’s Pearce, with his relentless clinging to every twinge of controversy and infuriating habit of applying stress at arbitrary points in player names – “PAV-lee-a-CHENK-o” – in an effort at appropriated gravitas.  At least he’s yet to come up with anything as nauseatingly self congratulatory as his yelp of “sing sing Africa” that greeted the opening goal of the 2010 World Cup, so small mercies and all that.

It’s only been three days, but already I feel beaten down. There’s little doubt that the standard of coverage continues to deteriorate, just as the amount of time, technical sophistication and effort invested continues to rise. Herein lies the central problem; that in the era of liveblogging, twitter and timeshift viewing the peripheral elements of TV coverage – punditry chief amongst them – are increasingly redundant. With corners of the Internet colonised by Wilson-inspired tactical savants, analysis that comprises of Lee Dixon superimposing a luridly coloured digital arrow over a full-back before embarking on a tangential yarn about David Seaman’s love of fishing quickly loses its lustre. Likewise, it’s not just the adverts that increasing numbers are skipping past on PVRs – the half-time kettle surge of years gone  now replaced  with a collective strain on the nation’s fast-forward buttons. In response, the TV companies are attempting a fightback, but in the process reducing everything to colours and noise, the superimposition of an external, one-dimensional narrative on a game that stubbornly refuses to yield to such a restriction.

Where the cycle stops is anyone’s guess. It’s a safe bet it won’t be tonight, when Clive Tyldesley will be covering England for ITV. Things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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