Fever Pitch

I had a Nick Hornby moment yesterday.
We went to a farewell party for a colleague of a friend. It was a beautiful, warm Southern California afternoon. Spring had a spring in its step. Sunshine, birds were singing, there was a slight breeze.
The party was outside, in a park near a river. People were drinking beer and eating grilled food. There were games and children running around. Mums were sitting under a canopy talking about waxing and babies.

I didn’t know any of these people. They all looked happy. But what was I supposed to say to them? What was I supposed to talk about?

All I could think about was, Sunderland have just beaten Chelsea. And, 77 undefeated home games for Mourinho. Until yesterday. When a win would have taken them above Liverpool at the top and put the pressure well and truly on the Red Men. But they didn’t get it. They lost. An on-loan Liverpool player scored the winning goal.

How am I expected to think about anything else? And now? We have beaten Norwich. 5 points clear. Raheem Sterling is dynamite.

My friend asked me yesterday, how does one go about celebrating a Liverpool title triumph? Last time, 24 years ago, I had to go and do my paper round after we clinched the league. This time I can’t even think about celebrating. I have no idea what I’ll do, if it happens.

3 more wins. Then I’ll think about it. Then maybe I can talk to strangers again.

Liverpool’s season starts tomorrow (again)

There have been numerous predictions of a new start for Liverpool FC this season. The actual start of the season, the 6th game after they had stumbled through 5 tricky opening games, and there is another new beginning tomorrow. For two reasons though this really could be the beginning of a change in fortunes for Liverpool.

Liverpool should manage to get what would be only their 4th league win of the season against Southampton, and they should expect to win the next 6 games before going to Old Trafford on the 13th of January. None of Liverpool’s next opponents have particularly impressed this year, and Aston Villa, Southampton, QPR and Sunderland are below them in the league. At a minimum they should be expecting 16 points from these 7 games. If they achieve that, and buy well and early in the January transfer market, then the trip away to Manchester United will begin to look less daunting.

The second reason for the possibility of new beginnings tomorrow is the return of Lucas Leiva. Liverpool are simply a better team with a fit and on form Lucas in the midfield. Lucas playing in the more withdrawn role of the midfield 3 will hopefully signal a new lease of life for Joe Allen, and allow Steven Gerrard to play in a more advanced role than he has so far this season. Lucas’s intelligent positioning, robust tackling and efficient use of the ball will also provide further support for a defence that has already conceded 18 goals. I don’t expect Lucas to start the game tomorrow but he should make an appearance as he begins his journey back to full fitness.

Probably the person most happy to see the return of Brazilian is Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers has enjoyed a mixed start to his Liverpool career, and the criticism of his methods is already starting to emanate from certain sections of the media. Some the complaints are, somewhat surprisingly, coming from the same people who also complain about young British managers not getting a chance a big club. Rodgers is young, British and is employed by a big club. He has a plan for how he wants to play football, and has shown himself to possess a pragmatic streak that permits him to change formations, personnel and tactics if necessary. Of course Rodgers is not exempt from criticism, and he has made mistakes this season, the Clint Dempsey/Andy Carroll unrequited love triangle, questionable motivational techniques and allowing Lucas to begin the game against Tottenham when he had felt muscle pain in the warm-up are the most worrying. As a young manager he will no doubt continue to make mistakes, but as long as he learns from them he should be supported. Accusations of being a ‘snake-oil salesman’ (c.f. Barry Glendenning on Thursday’s ‘Football Weeklypodcast) are premature and unfair.

Lucas’s return should help Rodgers in his continuing efforts to develop his game plan based on high-pressing, fast turnovers and ball retention. And some convincing wins throughout December will help to silence his critics, and most importantly improve Liverpool’s league position.

AFC Wimbledon against the Man

Living in the USA I have had to get used to the possibility of sports teams, sorry, franchises, moving from one city to another one, possibly on the other side of the country entirely. This years’ World’s Series Champions, the San Francisco Giants, were once the Giants of New York. Their rivals in Los Angeles began life as the Brooklyn Dodgers. When I asked my friend, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, which teams they have the closest rivalry with, she told me, ‘Cleveland and Baltimore’. Cleveland because of the geographical proximity to Pittsburgh, and Baltimore because Baltimore used to be Cleveland before it was Baltimore, and now Cleveland is Cleveland in a totally new incarnation.

Of course I am still labouring under the misapprehension that the city is the sports team, or vice versa. If you replace the words ‘Cleveland’ and ‘Baltimore’ with ‘Browns’ and ‘Ravens’ the above paragraph makes a little more sense.

When Wimbledon FC was sold and moved to that conglomeration of roundabouts north of London, it was difficult for me to understand. I was still marooned on the British Isles then and was as yet unprepared for the vicissitudes common to modern sport(s) capitalism. Growing up in England I understood that a sports team was a product and a part of its community. The only way that Liverpool FC could move to Manchester would be if climate change caused the seas to rise so much that the entire city of Liverpool no longer existed. The football team exists for the community, formerly the local one, now global. The community in turn endows the football team with values that the community imagines for itself.  Hence worn-out phrases such as ‘fighting for the shirt’, ‘wearing the badge with pride’ and ‘doing it for the fans’.

The richest teams are usually the best teams but the idea of what ‘winning’ means is changing. Now success is increasingly determined by what happens in boardrooms and financial markets across the world. The richest teams win trophies. Celebrating Manchester City’s league championship victory last season meant celebrating the oil billions of Abu Dhabi, similar with Chelsea’s Champions League triumph. In truth my own team, Liverpool, were left behind by the business brains of Manchester United at the end of the 1980s. A gap that we have yet to make up.

The upcoming FA Cup game between AFC Wimbledon and the MK Dons holds particular interest for many.  It is possible to see this as a clash of the neoliberal capitalists who heartlessly ripped a team from its community foundations purely for financial reasons and transplanted it into Milton Keynes (of all places, a heartless, modern, ‘New Town’), versus the people left in the wake of that uprooting, who instead of following their team to MK or switching allegiance to another London-based club, founded their own team. The Man against the People. The automated looms against Ned Ludd. Money against Soul.

It has become a cliché but football is a business now (not quite primarily a business but not far off). Like many other aspects of modern life, it has been neoliberalised to within an inch of its life. The government of a neoliberal state should do very little, but one of its main tasks is to provide the conditions for markets to function, and to create markets where there were none previously, and then not to interfere in these markets.  It is precisely this system that has allowed debacles like the MK Dons to happen, and it could happen again.

You will also find people suggesting that AFC Wimbledon haven’t been so pure either, that they have made life difficult for other smaller teams in their community. Nobody is perfect. The insidious nature of neoliberalism means that it affects everyone, competition is key so everyone must fight against everyone else. We have so much to gain from co-operation, yet like the prisoners in the dilemma game we can only see our own self-interest.

My natural inclinations are to hope that AFC Wimbledon beat MK Dons in the name of all that is good in the world. But really it is just two teams playing against each other. The players have no less value just because their team used to be somewhere else. And expecting this game to be like some kind of battle for the soul of football is investing too much into this fixture. For one thing it is because the real enemy is not the MK Dons, the real enemy is the system that allows the continued exploitation of supporters and players, and allows the MK Dons to do what they did. Also investing hopes and dreams into a PLC, like many of us do with our sports teams, is doomed to failure. It is the same as endowing a corporation with human values that we expect them to represent. They won’t. Corporations exist to provide for the enrichment of their owners and CEOs. If Wimbledon could have made more money by staying where they were they would never have moved. The only meaning that football teams hold is what their fans invest them with, because they are a symbol of a community. But when the owners of this symbol decide it is far more useful as a product, this symbol loses any real meaning. And then when the system rewards financial power more than any other the erstwhile community symbol becomes something else altogether.

The FA Cup game at the weekend is just a game, and no blow to system will be struck by an AFC Wimbledon victory. Likewise if the MK Dons win it won’t mean that football is lost forever. Though as a symbol for what is happening to our game, and our societies in general, it is important. Football teams exist for their supporters and for the community of which they are a part. AFC Wimbledon fit that description far better than their opponents on Sunday.

Bolstering the left-wing dimensions

I recently saw an interview with Gabriel Kuhn, whose book, ‘Soccer and the State’, was part of the inspiration for me to write the Political Footballers XI posts last year. If you haven’t read the book I recommend it wholeheartedly. Kuhn highlights some of the key stories and people from football’s prickly relationship with politics.

Here is a key quote from the interview:

‘The way professional football works today, I don’t think you can be major and left-wing at the same time. There are some big clubs – the FC Barcelona probably being the most prominent example – that stand for values such as independence, social awareness, and participatory democracy. However, the money and the power involved, the demands of success, the unsettling notions of loyalty and rivalry – none of this sits well with what I see as the core values of left-wing politics, namely justice and solidarity. But this doesn’t make the progressive elements less valuable, nor does it mean that anarchists can’t enjoy football on the highest level. The challenge is to bolster the left-wing dimensions that exist and to oppose those that reflect and perpetuate an unjust political and economic system.’

This rings particularly true for me as the Liverpool team I support have been caught in between their working class roots and a craving to join the wealthy upper-classes for some time now. Liverpool were left behind by Manchester United at the end of the 80s, as United became the first team to really push the boundaries of what was possible in football marketing.  The two sales of Liverpool FC were each supposed to increase the ‘brand’ awareness around the world and maximise revenue streams so that we could compete with the other top European teams. As a sporting strategy it clearly hasn’t worked so far.  Each further descent into neoliberal hell increases the distance between the club and the supporters, and is having little effect on the performances.

On the flip side of this is the renewed focus on youth training and development, and a clear path into the first team from the academy. This, for me, represents what Kuhn is talking about above.  A young player making his way through the ranks and into the first team instead of seeing his path blocked by an expensively bought player is something that all supporters, regardless of political persuasion, should cheer.

The most important task facing Brendan Rodgers: restoring Liverpool’s identity

Liverpool’s Identity?

During the past season being a Liverpool fan was difficult.  Most of us wanted to believe the best of our players, management and administration staff.  The allegations and subsequent charging of one of our best players, Luis Suarez, and the vehement defence afforded to him by the club and some fans, were difficult to watch.  As was the descent into tribalism on all sides.  The FA’s report was even more difficult to read, not just because of its length but because of its magical power of ‘proving’ whatever it was the reader wanted it to prove.

Liverpool accepted Suarez’s ban while still supporting their player, they went on to beat Oldham Athletic 5-1 in the FA Cup, probably hoping that a comprehensive victory would help to put the bad times behind them.  As it should have.

Unfortunately though, the following Saturday morning football fans around the world woke up to headlines containing the words “Liverpool’ and ‘racist abuse’ once again after Oldham player Tom Adeyemi alleged that he was on the receiving end of racial abuse from some fans.

These two incidents have succeeded in tarnishing Liverpool’s reputation worldwide.  And an association with racism is difficult to shake off.

The club, despite having at the helm the greatest player to have ever worn the red shirt, seemed rudderless at times.  Before Dalglish arrived the disaster that was the Hicks and Gillett regime very nearly brought the club to its knees.  The in-fighting between Purslow, Parry and Benitez made the situation worse.  We all hoped that having Dalglish there would restore Liverpool’s identity, and restore our pride in the team.  Unfortunately he was unable to complete that job.  This last season proved a step too far for many supporters horrified at some decisions taken by the club, and dismayed by the performances on the pitch.

One of the saddest things about all this is that this image, that was interneting rapidly around the world last year, is very far from the image that I have of Liverpool Football Club, the City of Liverpool and the people of Liverpool.

I am not from Liverpool, I am from Southport, a town a few miles up the North-West coast.  Which by definition makes me a wool.  I also left England six years ago.  I now live on the Southern California coast.  Which for some people would mean I don’t know what I am talking about and should just keep out of it.  My dad was from Liverpool though, and was a Liverpool fan, as was his brother, and their dad.  My grandparents were bombed out of two houses in the city during World War II, before they decided to move to Southport. And it was from my family that I got my love of LFC and my education of what Liverpool is all about and what it means to be a Liverpool fan.

I can remember the first few times I went to watch Liverpool in the mid-eighties, I remember feeling straight away that Anfield had an unwritten code of conduct.  There were rules that all Liverpool fans should follow.  No-one told me any of this, no-one needed to.  It permeated the atmosphere on the walk to the ground, it grew stronger as you crossed Stanley Park, and it was positively tangible queueing up outside the ground.  The moment I entered the turnstiles I knew in no uncertain terms that it was real.

What I believe formed this code of conduct (and still do) were these few things:

‘Don’t say anything stupid’

‘If you don’t know what you are talking about, don’t say anything’

‘Even if you think you know what you are talking about, it is better to not say anything’

‘Support your team’

‘Be respectful of the opposition’

Anyone who broke any of these rules was pretty swiftly made aware of their transgression, ‘gobshite’ or ‘soft lad’ being the favourite idioms.

I went to more games as I grew older, and spent more time in Liverpool.  I learnt that LFC stood for more than my imagined code of conduct.  The club was a cultural touchstone for a working class city, that had been treated desperately poorly by a succession of governments.  During the 70s and 80s the worse the city of Liverpool became the better the football team performed.  It is not difficult to understand why LFC came to mean so much to so many.  The powers-that-be can try to keep Liverpudlians down, they can close down the industries and take away people’s livelihoods and they can ignore the city and its people, but our football team showed that Liverpool remained defiant.  Even more than that, the football team showed that Liverpool can take whatever you throw at it and still come back and win. Win everything, again and again.

Liverpool Football Club owes so much to the great Bill Shankly, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say he formed the club in his own image.  That image is one of a hard-working, intelligent, proud socialist.  There is a Shankly quote for almost every situation, one that fits in this article is this, ‘The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards.  It’s the way I see football, it’s the way I see life.’

Here’s another one.  When asked about the famous “This is Anfield’ sign in the tunnel, Shankly said, ‘It is there to remind our lads who they are playing for, and to remind the opposition who they are playing against.’

More than any other manager Shankly knew about the power of ideas and the strength that a powerful identity can give you over other teams.  He even changed Liverpool’s kit colours to all red because he thought big Ron Yeats looked terrifying dressed in red.

Shankly and the power of ideas

Supporters of other teams may sneer at this thing we call the Liverpool Way but for me it exists.  There is a great quote in Jamie Carragher’s autobiography that he attributes to former chairman John Smith, ‘We’re a very, very modest club at Liverpool.  We don’t talk. We don’t boast.  But we’re very professional.’

All of these things I have mentioned make up my image of LFC.  This, even more than the trophies and famous victories, is what Liverpool means to me.  It is an image of proud, working-class dignity.  Not shouting your mouth off.  And being respectful to others, all the time.

Which is why the racism allegations against player and fans are so hard to take.  And the way the club dealt with the allegation.  The whole thing is a mess.  I support Liverpool’s right to defend their player, and I also believe that Luis Suarez did not intend what he said to be racist.  Here’s another thing, I also strongly defend Patrice Evra’s right to be offended by what Suarez said to him.  Also if a fan did racially abuse Adeyemi then that is impossible to defend.  Likewise even if it wasn’t racist and they called him a “Manc cunt’ as has been asserted by some.  It is simply not the Liverpool Way, if that still means anything anymore.

And that is the point, Rodgers and Fenway Sports Group have to make it mean something again. Liverpool often appeared to be playing last season without any idea of what they should be doing, no tactical gameplan, no ‘Plan B’ when things went wrong, no togetherness and no identity.

Liverpool was the European Capital of Culture in 2008 because of the strong identity and history of the city. Liverpool supporters have a strong identity and history.  The football club has a glittering history, but now it needs to restore its identity to ensure a future that lives up to its past.

Thailand: From a small boat

Gavin Young wrote in his autobiography that the following quote from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Youth’ is a stunning invocation to travel and adventure.  I heartily concur.

“And this is how I see the East.  I see it always from a small boat…  I have the feel of the oar in my hand… And I see a bay, a wide bay, smooth as glass and polished like ice, shimmering in the dark.  A red light burns far off upon the gloom of the land, and the night is soft and warm.  We drag at the oars with aching arms, and suddenly a puff of wind comes out of the still night – the first sigh of the East on my face.  That I can never forget.”

From a small boat

The Beastie Boys – RIP MCA

After hearing about the death of Adam Yauch I was moved to write something about my own memories of the Beastie Boys.

I was 1o years old when License to Ill was released in England and all I knew of its existence was the news reports of this wild rap group from America provoking violence and mayhem across the world.  There were the spate of thefts of VW signs from cars, the women in the cages and giant inflatable penises on stage.  My 10 year-old brain was still being manipulated by my parents so I only heard the bad news about this raucous band from New York.

So 3 years later when Paul’s Boutique came out to much less fanfare and drama, it passed me by.  I was at high school and had my own problems to worry about. Music wasn’t yet the vital part of my life that it became in my mid-teens.  I was around 16 when I remember buying a second-hand vinyl copy of Paul’s Boutique from a record exchange store near the market in Southport.  The cover was a little frayed at the edges but the gatefold sleeve with the panoramic view of Brooklyn was still clear.  It looked like my imagination of America.  Exotic, unusual and familiar at the same time.  The record had that smell that anyone who has ever been into a second-hand record or book store will instantly recognise.

The sound of the record was also new for me, layers of samples and nasal-whining. By 1992 I had discovered the rest of the Beastie’s back catalogue and was primed and ready for their new album, Check Your Head.  This was a different album in many ways from the first two.  Playing their own instruments, and seriously reducing the number of samples used on Paul’s Boutique, gave the songs a stripped-down, for-real sound.  At this time I was discovering English and US punk, and some of the funk-driven rap coming from America.  Check Your Head was a perfect amalgam of these styles and I loved it immediately.

Later that year the Beastie’s toured England with the Rollins Band, Henry’s post-Black Flag outfit and I was lucky enough to get a ticket.  I had been to a few live shows before but a punk and hip-hop show like this was the first time I saw something so powerful and vital.

They were due to play Manchester Academy on Oxford Road but the show was moved to the much smaller venue in the Students’ Union next door, the (incredible sounding) rumour was that they hadn’t sold enough tickets to fill the Academy venue.  Nevertheless the show went on in the Union.  I went with a friend and the older brother of another friend.  We made the drive from rural Lancashire to the big city and listened to the Beastie’s on the way.  We were trying to decide which of the two bands we were most excited about seeing, and to be honest I was more looking forward to Henry Rollins.  I was a Black Flag fan, and was really excited to see the enigma that is Mr Rollins, doing his thing with a new band.

The Beastie’s played first that night and we were summoned from the bar by the deep bass from the opening of Paul’s on a loop.  Then out they came, and rocked it.  They moved from their call-and-response hip-hop with a dj to playing their own instruments on a hardcore punk section.  I got a hand-slap form Ad-Rock and loved every minute of the whole show.

Henry played last and stalked the stage, growling into the microphone with muscles rippling.  Henry Rollins is a performer like no other, and the energy created in the room was visceral.

When it finished we were sweaty, exhausted and exhilarated.

This show was my first experience of America, up-close and personal. Gritty and real. That is what the Beastie’s mean to me.  MCA will be missed.