Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Salt and vinegar but no chips


'Now for extended highlights of Tranmere...'



Football is back, back, back. 

Except it isn't really because you can't play it and I don't support any of the tiny amount of sides that are allowed to play. According to Wikipedia (only the best sources for you dear reader) England has "over 40,000 association football clubs*" and just 44 of them are allowed to play. That means that 0.001% of football is back. 

*Yes I did put the Wikipedia phrase in quotation marks, and yes, that was to try and imbue it with an authority it perhaps doesn't deserve. What do you want from a free blog on the internet? I don't even put ads on it FFS. Stop complaining. Eat your dinner. 

Most teams have had to live with the situation and some of them have gained or lost accordingly but seemingly the elite deserve different. In these strange times, sporting integrity is down to whether you can afford to stump up the sums to have your players tested and survive playing with little prospect of income. It helps if your costs are offset by a massive lump of TV money... 

Yesterday, I listened to a bit of football on the radio. I can't tell you what match it was. I did know at the time, but I forgot. That's how exciting it was. Two blokes describing something with the odd muted cry in the background. It might not even have happened.

Sometimes when I can't sleep, I make up football matches in my head. It usually does the trick. For all I know they were doing the same on Five Live. It might all actually have been a dream.

Last night I watched Crystal Palace vs Bournemouth on the telly. I couldn't say I found it an especially moving experience. It wasn't as good as when you're going through the freeview channels and you find that there's a Scottish 2nd division match in Gaelic on BBC Alba for example. There's something incredibly exotic about watch the 800 people in somewhere like East Fife or Ayr huddled under a dimly lit corrugated iron roof that was sadly lacking about the big BBC primetime return.

What I learned: 

1: Crystal Palace are a slightly upgraded version of Rotherham United. If you've seen Rotherham recently this will make sense. If you havn't, just imagine Crystal Palace sans Zaha and you more or less have Rotherham. 

2: Bournemouth weren't very good. One of the two people pointlessly stationed by the pitch let me know that 'the fans, if they were here, wouldn't be very happy' at one point, which was helpful. There's something incredibly through the looking glass about having an ex pro on hand to tell fans at home what they would be thinking if they were present in front of a stand where they visibly aren't.

3: The BBC obviously couldn't afford a proper crowd simulation so held up the noise of the sea in a seashell to one of the mics in the commentary box. It was so half arsed an effort to simulate the noise of a ground as to seem quite charming. 

4: Not much else really.

I've pondered for a while whether I'm being misanthropic about football's return. I've tried saying to myself 'FFS, can't you just enjoy something for what it is.' I've been thinking that it's grand to have football on telly again. What a wonderful thing it would be if everything was on Saturday afternoon except for one game on Saturday night on the proper telly. If only.

One game on the BBC would pull 3 or 4 times (or more if it was a big match) the audience that Sky do. Football could get back in its box and out of the corner it's boxed into by being on the box less but in front of more.... A weekly primetime outing should be enough, a big spectacle, not loads of games spread out unsatisfactorily, like when you've almost run out of 'fuck my life, this really must be butter, even though it doesn't taste owt like butter' and need to spread 3 slices worth across six pieces of toast. It would be grand.

I can believe...

My overwhelming respose to the game was to note what a hollow experience it was. It seems churlish to analyse the bored sounding commentators, struggling manfully to fill the silence and keep their enthusiasm levels up. Their words may have spoken of their contractually obliged thrill but their tone 25 minutes through the second half told a different story.
Is football without fans nothing? It's not exactly nothing, but the whole affair seems to unmask football a little. It all seemed a bit like seeing a supermodel without make up, wearing a scruffy tracksuit and buying a bottle of bleach in a corner shop. It was an action film but with all the CGI taken out.

Remember when the BBC solidered on with Grandstand, long after they didn't really have any sport to show? Think of Steve Ryder announcing 50 minutes live coverage of the women's u19 regional volleyball heats, followed by the Scottish curling (Renfrewshire district league) semi finals. Sports played in gym halls to the squeek of trainers on polished floors (or in the latter case, brushes on ice) with the breathy shouts of the players echoing through your CRT speakers...

Football always seemed so much more. These sports suffered from seeming a bit shit because there was no sense of spectacle. They felt a bit oddball. Why would you want to watch a game like this regularly when there's another game available, with chanting, intensity and colour aplenty? 

That's sort of what watching #boucry felt like. It wasn't quite the Hemel Hemstead u23 regional indoor tag rugby fives but it wasn't a million miles away either.

It makes me wonder if I do love football for something different than some of my peers. 

I watched the freekick that the Palace lad scored and I appreciated it. 'What a very good example of someone kicking a ball accurately' I thought. I didn't feel a thing. As the ball hit the back of the net, there was no thrill. No excitement. Not even surprise. It was one of those goals I saw coming from the way he shaped up. You can tell. Watch enough football and you become prescient. 

Why didn't I feel anything though...?
It's not because I don't support Bournemouth or Palace. I've watched plenty of games as a nuetral and I can usually invent a reason to support someone. I might prefer the kit, the sound of the teams name, I might have some sort of vague personal connection or any other of a myriad of reasons. In the case of Saturday's game, Palace's white kit with the double diagonal stripe is an all time classic, they're called Crystal Palace ffs and my grandad followed them. So I should have felt at least a little twinge of pleasure. 


Few better shirts exist... (other than tangerine ones obvs)

I really do like Palace pretty much as much as I like any Premier League side. I like how they're an anti fashion side. I like how Woy defies the odds and just gets them organised instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. I like how they still have 'a big lad' up top who just jumps about and gets in the way and I like their left back who got in a row with Katie Hopkins. I like how the enigmatic and intelligent Steve Coppell seemed only to be able to manage them and kept going back. Their victory over Liverpool in the 1990 cup semi final is one of the greatest dramas I've ever witnessed (followed closely by the epic final against Manchester Utd) and like Blackpool they have a kit that is instantly recognisable.

Without the hum of the crowd, it's nothing. I can't feel the buzz from the away fans as they realise their team are in command. I can't feel the way the home fans become edgy, I can't feel the relationship between the fans and the players... The real drama lies in the experience of the fan, the groan as the usual suspect sprays a misplaced pass, the sudden rush of energy as a favourite son picks up the ball, the way that sometimes the crowd take matters into their own hands and urge a struggling side to greater heights. The crowd inform the viewer as to what is going on, with a greater richness than any ex pro ever can.

On the TV this was evident, on the radio even more so.

Without crowds football really suffers. It becomes just another sport.

I love country cricket. An afternoon slumbering at an out ground or listening to local radio commentary is just about my idea of June bliss. Cricket works in the context of paltry crowds because it's a more cerebral game. You can lose yourself in the tactics and the strategy and the infinite variations of pitches and conditions. Cricket is rich with statistics and milestones, where as football analysis is an affectation. You can move the players about a bit and there are three basic modes of playing. All out defense, counter attack and all out attack. You can go down the wing or up the middle. It's not a game to satisfy the intellect. There's no time on the pitch for the players to really think. It's not like cricket, where there are so many variations of field position and types of bowler. You can sit on your own and watch a game of cricket and lose yourself in the mind of the captain. It's a bit like chess. Football is different - its appeal is visceral, emotional and hypnotic.

I don't want to make some wanky statement about football as theatre for the working class (partly because it's wanky and partly because for many years theatre was a working class activity, long before football ever was) but it's like watching a play in an empty auditorium. The greatest writers wrote with an understanding of the rhythms of the audience, they wrote in laughter, gasps of shock and moments of emotional release. That's how theatre works, without them, it's just words being read out. It comes alive through the shared experience of those on stage and those in the darkness. Football works in exactly the same way.
The whole thing has a feel of a rehearsal. 

Football without crowds isn't exactly nothing but crowds without football remain something. Crowds don't need football to feel thrilling, dangerous, joyful or angry. Football needs crowds to feel anything other than an empty exercise in technical appreciation.

I don't know if it's just because I don't really watch football on telly that much but I can't help feeling it's like eating dry cereal. It's like having salt and vinegar but no chips. 




Watch the above and then tell me that it's all about the football. I've been bewitched by football crowds since I was about 7. I remain so.

Far from being a morale boost, I'm finding the return of football a really strange, bittersweet example of how odd things really are. For all the optimism, watching a game in these circumstances just screams 'it's far from OK out there...' 

Seeing teams play, completely shorn of any cultural context, the game clinically extracted from the community that drives it is a bizzare experience. Others have expended words on whether this is just a speeded up endgame for the vision of modern football, one where everyone is a TV fan and the beautiful elite perform without the inconvenience and ugliness that supporters bring. I don't know, I somehow doubt it because it all speaks to the vital role crowds play. The biggest machine can fail to function with the smallest component missing.

What this should bring home to everyone is exactly what the supporters place is. They are as much the product being sold as the players are. Perhaps we might see a reflection on some of the reletive value we place on the different parts of the equation.

Supporters are taken for granted, they're subjected to absurd kick off times, inflated prices, access to games is squeezed by the spread of hospitality packages... Yet, when they aren't there, the game is a shadow of itself. A faded photocopy of the real thing.

Imagine a world where once a week, we could all enjoy a game on the telly and bask in the atmosphere. Imagine a world where a greater slice of the wealth in football was channelled into reducing ticket prices or even into the communities around clubs, where football wasn't just a glorified soap opera, but something you could look at and take a bit of pride in what it stood for. It's all got a bit John Lennon and that's never a good look, but if you can't dream in the surreal world of mid 2020 then when can you?

In 21st century top flight football (and increasingly in lower league football) the only thing that gives a club its identity is the supporters. The vast majority of players have little or no connection to the communities they notionally represent. The likes of Trent Alexander Arnold, Chris Wilder and Dean Smith are very much the exceptions that prove the rule.

English football is a global brand, because it speaks of some sort of authenticity. It's the original manifestation of the professional game. The model from which the globe took inspiration. The brands 'Manchester United' and 'Liverpool' are symbols, loaded with geographical and historical significance in the minds of the global marketplace. In an era of endless transfer churn, rootless players and global consortiums, it's only Anfield and Old Trafford (and by extension, those who make the atmosphere) that really represent the long term appeal of those clubs. Players come and go, but the songs remain the same.

The supporters are all that remain when everything else is transient and has been bought and sold so many times that whatever authenticity was there has been been rubbed away by the oily fingers of greed.

Maybe the new normal could involve the game as whole recognising that actual supporters aren't simply bystanders. They are the essence of what makes football more than badminton or quoits. The direction of travel for as long as I can remember has been against the wishes of many the actual paying fans. Unwanted ground moves ripping clubs from traditional homes to out of town shopping malls, games rescheduled at the whim of TV directors, sanitisation of stadiums in favour of 'a better (richer) kind of supporter'

It's frankly a miracle that more fans haven't turned their backs on the game at the top level. Perhaps, this experience shows we could start listening to them, instead of simply telling them what they want is what they're getting...  

UTMP



Thursday, June 11, 2020

Cheers Armand! Goodbye to a misunderstood genius...


This article was mostly written in March and orginally published in Now That's What I Call Progress - the premier Blackpool fanzine which you can support (cos you get 32 pages of stuff all about the Mighty for just £2) by clicking the link above.

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As I write this (at the beginning of lockdown), I, like many of you reading this, am facing the prospect of not seeing friends and family for a long time. I'm also trying not to think about how some people might not see friends and family again ever. 

If you think that's a slightly morbid tone to strike, then I'm sorry, I have news for you. It's going to get even worse in the next paragraph. Are you ready? Brace yourself with a shot of whatever spirit you panic bought and buckle up. Ok?... Now, read on. 


We might not see Armand Gnanduillet again in a tangerine shirt. 


I told you it was bad. 


There haven’t, if we are brutally honest, been too many week in, week out thrills since the homecoming. We’ve had a particularly stodgy set of players and there are times over the last year when wondering what Armand will do next has been somewhere alongside ‘wondering when they’ll fix the advertising board the Fleetwood fans smashed’ or ‘timing how long Larry can keep his his arms folded whilst doing nothing else’ as a highlight of the game.

Big Armand is, in my opinion, a football genius. A maverick with (a rare quality in the modern game), his own style of play. He’s one part height and power, one part languid and powder puff, occasionally explosive and occasionally hopeless. He’s capable of 8ft leaps and shoulder charges that leave the opposition crumpled but equally capable of watching the ball sail overhead with little more than a glance in its general direction and a look of gallic disinterest.

To some, that’s infuriating. They see a player wasting his potential, a player, who if he attacked everything with a snarling relish could be unplayable. To me, I see a player who has worked out his chief weapon is unpredictability.

To play against Armand must be a nightmare. He drifts, he wanders, he occasionally sprints like his life depends on it. He isn’t lazy, he covers a huge amount of ground, you just don’t always notice him doing it as for such a big fella, he moves around like he’s got carpet slippers on. He sometimes plays like a carthorse, but other times a nimble ballerina. He’s totally unorthodox and for a defender that is disorientating. 

He’s also possessed of deceptively silken touch. Yes, sometimes the ball bounces off him like he’s made of concrete, but watch when his back is to goal and someone is running for him. The weight he puts on the ball is often perfect and the angles he sometimes conjures are mind altering. His vision is very good, his brain quick.

There’s the dribbles. Sometimes he looks like he should never attempt it again, staggering to a corner before tumbling to the ground like a felled tree. But every now and again, he just ghosts past two or three and on rares occasions will belt it in one of the corners. 

My absolute favourite goals are headers. I love how crosses so often come to nothing, but from time to time, you can see what is going to happen a split second before it does. For each aerial challenge he ignores, there’s another moment where he charges onto a Feeney cross and plants it, unstoppably into the back of the net. I loved Dave Bamber, I loved John Murphy and I love Armand. I like a player who scores headers.

I love how he thrives on confidence, how he wears his heart on his sleeve and a goal puts a real strut in his step. I like how he is visibly lifted by the North Stand singing his name. I like his air of total calm before a game as if he really doesn’t care either way. I like the way he seems like a decent lad. When the young keeper had to come on and replace Alnwick, it was Armand who came over and put his arm around him and made him smile. When Joe Nuttall was having one of the worst games I’ve ever seen a pro have at Rotherham, it was Armand who put his arm around him and spoke in his ear. 

He gets pushed and shoved and elbowed all the time, but he never lashes out. He’s just too cool. I like the way that when he gets knocked over in the box, or he misses a chance his incredulity is expressed with the flair of a mime artist, slow motion gestures and eye popping expressions of confusion or anguish. He plays like he knows it’s theatre and he enjoys playing his role.

Most of all, I like his spirit. I like that he’s not actually that good, except when he is. I like that he never, ever gives up. He just keeps on going, he doesn’t care if he’s just hit the corner flag, he doesn’t care if he’s mistimed his last jump or miscontrolled the last pass. He shows again. He trots back to his position and hits reset and is ready to go once more.

He is Armand and we could all take a leaf out of his book. He’s untroubled by failure, knowing that the next success is only just round the corner. Never fearful, never doubtful. Just soldiering on regardless. Life is a journey and there’s no point worrying about what went wrong or what might happen. Just keep going and doing your thing, whatever they say. Let’s all be a bit more Armand. 

He’s everything that so many of our best modern players have been. Flawed, imperfect but full of character. Unloved elsewhere, but somehow touched by whatever magic comes with the tangerine shirt.

He’s my favourite Blackpool player, my favourite player full stop and for a long time, I never imagined having another favourite player. Some of you won’t agree. You probably think Messi is great or something. You simply don’t understand his genius. 

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Now we're back in the present and I'm supposed to be homeworking, not writing about the big man. Go on, sack me...

I am genuinely sad he's gone. It seems all a bit 10 years old, panini sticker and full kit wanker (or them weird cards you get in FIFA that I don't understand for the yoot of of today I'd guess) to have a 'favourite player.' 

A bit of personality goes a long way. The 2010 side was special, not simply because we were in the Premier League, but because it had character. Loads of it. Brett and Keith weren't the *best* players, but they made the whole thing that bit more magical, because they were ours, and particularly in Southern's case, the success seemed unlikely but there it was... to everyone's astonishment, Keith Southern was a Premier League player. Who knew GTF was that good? Who knew that Evo was capable of excelling in the top flight or that Brett's legs *hadn't gone after all* (or that his head could make up for it anyway...)

I love it when a player surprises, I love it when an average player becomes a special one. Of course Armand isn't Brett, Keith, Evo or GTF, not even close, but I enjoyed his success in a similar way. I liked seeing him exceed his percieved level and watching him enjoy it. We didn't have that many players you could cite as 'playing above themselves' and if you can't celebrate that, without wishing to sound like a knob, I'm not sure what you expect to get from watching a team who have been *mostly a bit average* for the vast majority of the seasons I've watched them. You have to take the rough with the smooth and Armand was the rough and the smooth in one. 

I think he'd have done a job for us, even in a 'Critchball' style. For all the excitement about us playing an attacking high press like Liverpool or more accurately, like us (Aug 2009- Oct 2012) you need need players who fit the division to succeed. What works in the Premier League won't work just transposed with no adjustment to a division where you get no space and the chief skill of half the other teams is 'kicking you up in the air and getting men behind the ball' - Armand doesn't make coached runs or play to any particular style. He's a languid, deceptively skillful and unpredicatable chaos engine and that has its place in League One. Denying that is denying what League One is. It's a moot point though. He's gone. 

We're a lot further along than when I wrote the main body... We're arguing over whether it's 40, 50 or 60k dead. We're trying to work out how and if and when we get a season next year and who will pay for it. We're facing wage caps in football and face masks on the street and insecurity all around. We're wondering whether the recession will be devastating or just terrible, whether the government should face a reckoning or not, whether the virus will burn out or return with a vengeance. 

We know more and yet seem to know less everyday. Normal seems further away and yet within touching distance at the same time. There's a party atmosphere mixed with funeral solemnity, tinged with anxiety and sprinkled with a powder keg of social unrest. 

It's a strange time to say the least. 

Somehow, I imagine Armand facing it all with a sanguine expression and a nonchalant shrug. 

Go well big man. 

Cheers fella. 

UTMP






Sunday, June 7, 2020

GAME REVIEW: SOCCER TOP 6 SUPERSTARS (EXCLUSIVE)

There's a new game coming out soon that has the dominance of the FIFA series in its sights. It's been given the working title of 'Soccer Top 6 Superstars' and it aims to reflect the reality of contemporary football in a way that will take computer football to the next level of accuracy.

The fundamental gameplay differs little from FIFA or Pro-Evo so this preview looks at the unique points of difference that make this game such a nailed on facsimile of the genuine article.

Let me take you through some of the features it will have.

*New more realistic competitions*
If you choose to play as anyone other than about 6 or 7 teams, then you've got literally no hope of winning anything ever, even if you play it all night for 3 weeks straight and get really good at it. Even the League Cup. 

In international mode, all the world's leagues are there but there's barely any purpose in most of them.

*New transfer realism*
As soon as you get any good, then the incredible AI generated realism will kick in and whoever is any good in your team will get bought for a price the AI will not let you refuse and added to the teams that you already can't beat!

This amazing level of accuracy will be added to by the fact that, whilst you are allowed to spend the money you recieve, you won't be able to buy any of the obviously good players in the game and should a coding glitch allow you stumble across a wonderkid or unknown talent, then after a few months the same thing will happen until you end up buying a rank average striker from Derby County or a player on the fringes of the Danish national side who isn't very good at all. 

*New progress algorithm*

One of the most powerful features is how the computer generated teams improve over time. Each season the best clubs will get between 50 to 150% more resources and spawn more new players of a higher quality as a result of being able to afford better youth facilities. Thus the game will get harder over time and it will become increasingly pointless playing as anyone other than the top few teams. The challenge for anyone not choosing Chelsea will be to maintain their engagement beyond the first few weeks of owning the game. 

*Better crowd realism*

Crowd animations have had a full overhaul and Premier League grounds are now full of middle aged people (who get older each season that passes.) Crowd noise for meaningless midtable games is suitably muted, to the point where many matches can now be played out to a backdrop of listless grumbling. If you look and listen carefully, you'll be able to see stewards bundling out supporters with banners and hear announcements reminding fans 'this is an all seater stadium' if they get carried away and start enjoying themselves.

Never has a computer game portrayed the football experience with such relentless accuracy. 

You'll be able to look baffled in the comfort of your own home as the stadium announcer proclaims 'another sell out crowd at the Emirates!' whereas the screen will show empty seats all around.

*Increased precarity*

Whilst the game doesn't simulate the effects of the Covid19 pandemic on football finances, a new mode is available in which you can take control of a league 1/2 side - you can choose two paths - either 'ambition mode' in which it's almost impossible to achieve anything without the club going bust, the game data wiping itself and you having to start all over again or 'know your place mode' in which you get to play games but accept that finishing 19th in the Championship is the limit of your ambition.

A similar mode ('Aston Villa mode') is available for run of the mill Premier League clubs. Finishing eight twice triggers a cut screen of supporters clapping half heartedly with a resigned look on their faces. 

*More pointless stats* 

To distract from the fundamentally terrible premise of a game that offers the player no prospect of glory, there is a new 'media mode' in which well spoken, clean shaven university trained media types will shower you with completely asinine facts like 'This is the fifth time Rotherham have faced a team with both an A and an E in their name whilst wearing their away kit on a Tuesday night and their record is W2 L2 D1

Similar pre match cut screens will feature horrifyingly empty discussion about how 'the new stadium really is a springboard to a new level, just look at the catering facilities and the tunnel club Ron' which will leave you feeling nauseous and less optimistic about the future of humanity than Nietzsche on a down day.

*More pointless camera angles*

You'll have unrivalled access to seeing the game as you've never seen it before. Sock Cam and Nose Cam will give you a 'on the pitch' feel, whilst the build up to matches and half time will feature Lav Cam so you can see which of the players are feeling nervous or have just overdone the (officially branded) energy drinks. 

Again, this will add a whole new perspective on the whole pointless charade, allowing you to appreciate the stunning mediocrity of it all like the all seeing god you are. 

You can also look forward to Ray Winston shouting "Go on, spunk your money on this you muppet, what else have you got eh? Nothing! Nothing! Bet on this shit or I'll break yer fackin' legs" between each game just to give the reality cake a final tasty icing. 

*Club owner mode*

The game will also allow players into the boardroom where you'll be able to choose to play as one of the following characters

- the property speculator with a record for cutting corners on safety.
- the international arms or drugs baron
- the oligarch who got rich on post communist corruption and now owns the basic means of existence for half the eastern bloc
- the chancer (you won't actually have any money, but everyone will think you have so you'll have to win things quickly!)
- the shady international conglomerate (no one knows what you do, but you have a private jet with a logo on it, so they assume you must do something important) 
- the community led supporters trust chairman

If you choose the latter option, the game goes straight to the following cut screen, whilst a distorted voice on a loop repeats 'Alan, it's a money game these days and good intentions never won a trophy' for 23 days. You can switch off the computer, in fact, you can trip the electricity in your house but it will keep playing regardless. Wherever you go. In your sleep. Even if you can't take it anymore, your funeral will be accompanied by this noise, which will then haunt all who attend. It'll be like 'the Ring' but worse. For god's sake, don't be so niave. I beg of you...


Once you've chosen your 'owner personality' the game offers you a series of options, a selection of which are listed below: 

- Sign player you don't need and will probably dump in the reserves for £200k a week just to show you can and to impress fellow lizard people at illuminati meetings (yes/no) 

- Sue the nan of a young fan who turns up at the ground in some unofficial merchandise and admits, in tears, to your hired goons (aka supporter experience operatives) in the underground bunker you drag him to that 'my nan knitted the scarf for my sixth birthday' (yes/no) 

- sign letter to UEFA asking for 'more Champions League games' and 'more money for playing them' and go on the radio to decree that 'whilst we respect the traditions of football immensly' the FA Cup is getting in the way of things and the trophy should be put on a rocket and sent into space and never spoken of again. (yes/no)

- Start up 8 companies and spend your time selling things to yourself to avoid the tax man/bailiffs. Give £50 to a local youth charity in a photo opportunity with a massive cardboard cheque to assuage your conscience. (yes/no) 

- install metal detectors in the main stand to catch out the old boy who brings a thermos flask. Follow this up with a mealy mouthed statement on the club's website about 'need to balance the interests of supporters with the needs of our official catering partners in order to protect much needed revenue streams' (yes/no) 

- consider having old man silenced as he's written to the local paper in a display of rank ingratitude complaining that 'To be honest I don't like going anymore, it's twice as expensive as it used to be and nowhere near as much fun' (silence him/threaten him/sell his seat to foreign daytrippers who will but stuff at the gift shop and post 'on brand' selfies

In terms of reality, this new offering is unparalleled.

The question is, why the fuck would anyone shell out good money for a game deliberately designed to be like this?

See what I did there? 

Soccer Top6 Superstars will be available for Xbox, Playstation and all other major platforms from August 21. 

A companion TV series entitled 'Football' airs on Sky and BT at the same time. 

Next week's game 'ECB Middle Manager 21' where the player has to dream up increasingly bizzare ways to piss about with cricket in case anyone asks the question 'What do the ECB pay all those people to do?' 

UTMP. 

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Squad: Expert Review pt 4 - The Strikers

duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh......

This could be hard as I've rarely played up front and I'd never like to claim expertise I didn't possess. However, I've got one defining experience to draw upon. The time I played up front for England (against Maradona) and won the game. 

One of the highlights of my school years (as I think I've previously mentioned, I attended the same shoddy comprehensive school in the suburbs of Wigan as future Blackpool loan star Neil Whitworth) was a trip to France, in which we spent a frankly astonishing (viewed through the lens of modern risk assessment) amount of unsupervised time generally roaming around a French village from our youth hostel-esque base. In said village was a football pitch and naturally, that's where we headed, to play football and drink incredibly exotic little bottles of french lager procurred by one of our number who had got a bit of bumfluff. 

Some local lads appeared one evening, replete with a little monkey bike and after riding around us for a bit and failing to unsettle us (we were from Wigan, little more than a nuclear attack will alarm a Wiganer) they sauntered accross and despite the language barrier (I don't know why were in France, because we'd learnt no meaningful French) we established we would play a game, each representing our respective countries. 

The usual dynamic of team selection was thrown up in the air, by the fact that a) we were missing some of our year group who hadn't come on the trip and b) some of the coolest ladz were off necking with the coolest girlz, the simmering passions fueled by about 4 bottles of 3% lager each. Hence I ended up at the top of the pitch for once.  

We won the game 4-2 (just like the other World Cup final) and I scored twice. I can still remember one was a neat, placed finish into the bottom corner after running onto a through ball and the other was a scruffy bundled effort. I can remember little else about the trip. So much for opening young minds to exotic cultures eh? They took us to another country and all I can recall is doing the exact same thing we did on the rec every night back home... 

One other detail I recall came part way through the game when a younger kid turned up and shouted to the lads playing - they gesticulated to us to get another player on because they wanted this lad to play. He was tiny in comparison to both them and us and our faces were collectively incredulous - I remember gesturing to the lad I was near to indicate 'short/tiny!' and him turning and in a thick French accent saying 'Maradona!' 

Fuck me, that kid was good. He was the best player on the pitch by an absolute mile and we had a lad who'd played for Man Utd youth. I've never seen a kid so talented. Like Joe Cole in that advert that Joe Cole is famous for but more of a grubby looking French kid than Joe Cole. I often wonder if he went on the be a player, he was that good. My mate had trials for Wigan and Man City and Bolton offered him youth terms but this lad was twice the player and about 5 years younger. 

Some things you'll never know... 

With my credentials firmly established, lets do this! Strikers, here goes. 

Armand Gnanduillet

What can I say about the big man that does him justice? He's my favourite player in years and years. Partly because I love it when a player who gets stick comes good and mostly because he's invented his own way of playing that is individual and eccentric. Languid and loping around one minute, looking comically disinterested and then suddenly a beast, out of nowhere, pouncing and deadly. He's the most efficient footballer ever. Yes, the traditionalists and unimaginative would like him to jump for pointless headers, so they feel they are getting there money's worth, but Armand works on a different level. Misunderstood genius. Why battle for what you can't win? Armand is good at being Armand and that's enough for me. 

I imagine he's a nightmare to play against. You cant work out if he's any good, let alone what he's going to do and when you think you've got him sussed, he'll pull out some mad trick you weren't expecting, like completely ignoring two crosses, but absolutely nailing the third, or doing a step over in slow motion that looks like it'll never work, but suddenly he's going past you, despite it seeming like a physical impossiblity. 

Who couldn't love his facial expressions and gesticulations of anguish or astonishment when something doesn't go right? It was worth travelling to Rochdale just to watch Armand's solo mime show of disbelief when the referee stopped the game, but he'd played on. It last for about a minute (I'm not exagerating here) and was executed with a precision that would have the most dedicated practitioner of physical theatre expressing their wonder at his range. 

He's also fucking ace. He's a better player than half the crowd give him credit for and he deserves the adulation that the North give him. Yes, he picks his battles, but he never gives up. He moves all the time in a static team and even on a bad day is worth his place for the disruption up front and the presence at the back. His touch and brain are much better than his gait and stature suggest and he's a canny player if you put into his chest. Many say Critchley won't fancy him. I'd suggest if Critchley is the man we hope he is, he'll recognise that variety is the spice of a decent league one team and in the unlikely event that the big man says 'Neil, I 'ave decided to zign zis 'ow do you say, contract' then no matter how many battery farmed well groomed athletic young men from the Sky Sports clubs he can get his hands on, there's no one quite like Armand. 

Joe Nuttall. 

Nuttall big money signings work out (see what I did there) and poor ol' Joe is one who definitely hasn't. I've spent a year really, really hoping that his physicality (fuck me, the lad looks dynamite) would be matched by the performances it hints at. To be honest, this feels quite cathartic, because I'm going to say what I've seen. He does the right runs, but doesn't seem to judge what to do at the end of them. He's pulled up for fouling or brushed off the ball. There's no in between. It's like he hasn't learned the tricks of the trade. His performance against Rotherham away in particular was hands over the eyes stuff. When through on goal, he looked as fearful as an animal heading to an abatoir. His head looked gone. 

I wonder if Nuttall is actually a striker. He seems most comfortable to me in that weird left side role that Emile Heskey played for England in that odd period where Sven kept picking Emile Heskey for no other reason than he wanted someone to play in a weird left sided role that only Emile Heskey could play. See also Danny Welbeck a bit later when he kept getting picked to play the same role but on the right. He's not a bad player, sometimes he does some lovely stuff in build up play, but I'm not sure he's the player we want him to be. 

He looks like he doesn't have that desperation to score that marks out a striker. Armand will miss, then miss again, then miss again, but he'll keep going at it and it'll come good eventually. Nuttall's head drops, he looks nervous. Someone once said to me, if you are good at something, never judge yourself by it. Tell yourself it's just a hobby you care about. If you want to be a serious artist, just imagine your painting is as important as say, cooking a nice dinner. No more. Caring too much is the enemy of genuine achievement. That's the genius of Armand and Joe hasn't worked that out. It seems to hurt on a deep level when he gets stuff wrong. 

That Bolton goal though. Got to be a candidate for moment of the season. 

Ryan Hardie. 

His specialism appears to be doing curved runs and not getting that near the ball. He never got much of a chance and Larry binned him off after he missed one chance, which was a bit mystifying because we didn't really have many other options in the cupboard marked 'strikers who are different from Armand.' 

I might sound like I'm doing him down. I'm not, It was quite nice seeing a player moving up front, but he appeared to be doing the sort of movement a totally different team would require. Off he went to Plymouth where he scored a goal every 9 seconds - A record which would suggest he might be worth having around if we can afford the luxury of players next year. 

Nathan Delfouenso 

If Armand is substance over style then Fonz is the opposite. As gifted a player as almost any in League One he needs to be given a job and to stick with it. He gets shifted about because he's good at football on a technical level, but never seems to quite deliver. We love him, he loves us. He lifts the soul on a dreary day with a shuffle, a burst of pace, a drop of the shoulder and a shimmy and then he pops it over the bar and a bolt of agony passes through his body. How many times has he been there. How many times has he cursed himself for not keeping his head down, for not just putting his laces through it? 

I've expended so many words on Fonz this year that I can't say any more. If he can't do it this coming year, in a footballing team, in a division where he's as good as anyone at the basic technique required to play football, then I don't know when he will. I really hope he can. 

Gary Madine

If Gary Madine was a vehicle, he'd be a big American Truck. In fact, I can well imagine him as a trucker, sat in a diner eating loads of pancakes and bacon and wearing a 'Make America Great Again' hat, chewing a tooth pick in a vest and check shirt. That's not a value judgement. Writing requires me to soak up the words from the ether and channel them through the keyboard and that's what was in the air. 

He's fucking mint at heading and stuff like that and I think he got dogs abuse in some games for playing on one leg but he's a hold up player and we don't have any goalscorers unless Hardie can come good. He's why we won't keep Armand but somehow, I can more readily imagine Armand as a Critchley player than I can Madine, even though Madine is a technically better footballer. 

He's likely on the sort of wages that will be causing a few flutters at the moment as Simon and Ben go through the balance sheet in a conversation that I imagine goes a bit like this... 

"There's good news and there's bad news Simon - the good news is, we sold the last three kids away goalie tops online, so that's £46.50p added to the £18 we got for selling the youtube sponsorship and the £9.32p we found when we had a good rummage around down the back of the seats in the Corner Flag"

"What's the bad news Ben - give it to me straight..."

"Basically everything else"

Adi Yussuf:

I imagine him and Jamie Devitt in a French film about two alienated young men who seek silent solace in each others company. Whilst they have little in common, they bond over their mutual isolation, the fellow leper status. We follow each man alone, through the back streets of Blackpool, their shoulders slumped, trudging, oblivious to the world around them. We watch them together on a bench, no words exchanged, Adi, listlessly chucking bread at the pigeons, Jamie, staring into the middle distance, playing with a hole in his jeans. They sit, under the pier when the tide is out, their backs against the barnacle encrusted victorian metalwork, in the background, children play football, barefoot on the sand, the image blurred but the shouts and screams carrying to the viewers ears on the wind, but Jamie and Adi are numb to their joy. They ride a tram, to nowhere, gazing out the window, but seeing nothing. They sit in a cafe, drinking piss weak tea, an unread newspaper between them. They watch a beggar playing a tuneless song on a whistle. They go their seperate ways, only a look, a slight nod signals their parting and they're filmed in their beds, staring blankly at the ceiling. The day has passed, but nothing has happened. 

Film4

1:10 am La vie ne commence jamais (Life never starts.) 

A portrait of listless despair in black and white set at the English seaside. 

Ewan Bange:

He's big and he probably wonders why he doesn't merit ten minutes here and there if Joe Nuttall keeps getting a go. That's all I can say. Like a few others, I'd like to see him get a shout from time to time. 

Tony Weston: 

He's apparently potentially ace and will probably be living proof that we can't have nice things because the Premier League clubs are like a bunch of thugs preying like Mafia, on anyone who dares to have something they want. If money was under control in the game, a player like him would stay with us, given as we've got one of the most well regarded youth coaches in the world game and he'll be a hell of a lot nearer the first team than he will at a club with 670 players from all around the world. Also, it was great when they changed the rules to make it so it was above board to poach kids and pay next to nothing for them. Twats. 

----

I don't think we've got any players to score goals. With the exeption of Armand none of the above have looked like bagging many and therefore it's sods law that it's Armand who will likely be going and the other lot staying. It's troubling that the weakest area of the side is the one where we've probably got most players per position. Madine is a good player at this level, but he's not got an obvious partner and I also don't know if he fits the athletic game Critchley will probably want to play. It's putting a hell of a lot of faith in Hardie to suggest he'll be the man and Fonz has shown time and again, he's better creating than scoring. 

Maybe big Joe will come good. 

Which is probably, if you had to give the season a title, an apt phrase to name it with. 

You can read about the rest of the team by clicking the links below: 


UTMP

Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Squad: Expert Review pt 3 - The midfield

'Fuck it, when it comes to me, I'll just run with it...'

Who am I, you might think, to judge this portion of the side, given I've previously staked my claim to goalkeeping and defensive expertise? My experience in midfield came later in life, when I won a transfer from 'playing on the rec' to 'playing 5-a-side with work colleagues in a dismal effort to recapture the spirit of youthful freedoms' 

Playing goals is rubbish in 5-a-side so that was out and there were already two lads who'd got the 'standing about at the back because you can't be that arsed' berths covered. Midfield it was and I'm happy to report I combined the tireless terrier like attitude of a Norman Hunter with the golden vision of an Andrea Pirlo.

Some might suggest I'm over egging it and I was more of a dogs home David Perkins/John Doolan mongrel but you've trusted my judgement enough to read the first two parts of this squad review so I'd hope you'd trust me to describe my own abilities.

Safe to say, I'm ready to cast the same expert gaze over the midfield as I did over the defence and the goalkeepers. My considerable experience puts me in a position to give you the following exclusive insight into playing midfield: 

It's fucking knackering.

Keep that in mind as this review makes you remember the parts of the season where it didn't appear we actually had a midfield and try to think of KDH instead. Please can we keep him. Please? 

*note to reader - if you are a straight woman or a gay man, you can tweak the metaphor used later in the piece for KDH and Ronan in your own head. It'll work just fine. 

Jamie Devitt: 

Who is this lad? Saying he signed amidst a high expectations is a bit like calling Fleetwood a seaside resort. There's a few ice cream vans and the view is lovely, but let's be frank, it's going to be a disappointing holiday. Devitt's signing prompted a few optimistic shares of him scoring some nice goals and hopeful statements like 'Carlisle fans don't think he's complete shite!' but he wasn't the Charlie Adam many were pinning their hopes on.

It seems a shame he never played. Whatever Tezza McP saw in him Larry McG certainly didn't and the gollumesque yorkshireman sent the cuddly scousers' big signing packing very quickly indeed, without so much as a Football League Trophy match to show his worth. Which seems odd in some respects considering Devitt reputedly could pass a bit and liked a shot. Which at times, were the precise qualities missing from the team.

Who knows. Critchley might fancy him. Very much doubt it. 

Kieran Dewsbury-Hall:

When KDH (as young people call him) made his debut, I thought he looked like a headless chicken. 

About 30 seconds after I'd made that thought known, he scored. 

Since then, I've never had a negative thought about him. Hard working, intelligent and already a leader at a tender age, he's basically too good for this level. 

It's like we're an average bloke going out with a beautiful girl and we know it can't last but we're just enjoying every moment in her company. The goals, the bustling purpose, the energy, the effortless, calm distribution, the fist pumping crowd rousing celebrations. He might be the equivalent of an extraordinarily beautiful girl who is out of our league but if so, he's got a lovely personality to match. We can't get bitter. It's going to end one day and that day might be soon, but he'll let us down in such a way that we'll always have the memories. He'll say we can stay friends, he'll mean it as well, he'll say 'it's not you, it's me' and he'll mean that as well. We'll dry our tears and wish him only the best, but when we see him 5 years from now on the arm of some rich club in the elite league, our hearts will skip a beat and we'll remember the time he was ours. 

He's special. 

Liam Feeney:

Talking of special. The Starman is ace. Last year he looked crap. Terry Mac seemed to do everything other than play him on the right wing and when Larry decided to play him where he belonged everything clicked. 

He's under rated in my opinion, probably because he's not as viscerally thrilling as some wingers, lacking the seering pace or trickery of a crowd favourite. I can't not like the lad. He works hard, he puts in a mean cross and though he's not always pinpoint, he gets the ball in time after time after time and sooner or later that yields a reward. Both him and his lanky partner in crime  show the quality of just keeping on keeping on and I think Feeney has another year in him yet.

He's also my lads favourite player. 

Feeney's the kind of player that when people go 'Fucking hell Feeney, we need better players than this shite' I want to club them to death with a rolled up fanzine whilst shouting 'you bought a ticket to a League One football match, it doesn't say 'the Bernabau' on the ticket does it? What did you actually EXPECT TO SEE? Were you born this miserable or has life ground you down to this bitter husk?' 

Ben Garrity:

Get him in the team! He might be good! 

He might not, but I like a player from non-league. Whether he's the next Brett or the next Rory Prendergast, we'll not know till we see him play. He's made the bench a few times so he can't be total gash in training. 

Sullay Kaikai: 

I think many would say 'the juries out on Kaikai' but I'm going to make a case for a not guilty verdict. He was decent early on and we suffered when he got crocked. So much so that Larry seemed to rush him back into the side before he was fit and he never seemed to recover from that.

He's potentially the most exciting player we've had in ages - where Feeney is as reliable and steady as wingers get, Kaikai is everything else. Is he a winger? A striker? A player in the hole? What does he do best? Who knows?

His touch is sublime. Watch him warm up when they play the keep ball passing game, he's unreal at it. Little moment in games are spellbinding, taking the ball in, close to a defender, spinning away like a dervish. When he gets running, it's a sight to behold, slaloming, close control, exocet pace, splitting defenses like a speedboat makes a wake on water.  

He's not had the impact his ability suggests, but if I was Critchley, I'd be wrapping him cotton wool till he's totally fit then coaching him till I could coach no more because he's got the exact attributes you need to make a decent team special. 

Yeah, 'tactical discipline' and all that shite... shut up. People who spout that shite probably thought Glen Hoddle was right to leave out Gazza and Le Tissier for David fucking Batty and Paul Ince. Where did that get us eh? 

Connor Ronan: 

Ok, this is going to get weird. 

Remember the KDH bit? The beautiful girl stuff? Good. Connor isn't quite the conventional beauty that KDH is. He's the slightly less mainstream looking girl. The star of some indie cinema or the singer of a cultish band. The lads (lads lads) wouldn't fall for him in the same way because he'd challenge their tastes a little bit. Much easier to project their masculinity by having KDH on their arm.

But fuck me, I love Connor Ronan. The single most entertaining player I've ever seen play football live is Wes Hoolahan. To say Ronan reminds me of Wes is the biggest compliment I could possibly give. No one reminds me of Wes, apart from Wes. That's how special Wes was. He's not the finished article, he does the odd daft thing and he lacks the polish, the sheen, the perfection of his loanee partner, but that's the exact point.

He could be just about imperfect enough to be ours. He's unconventional enough for that guy at Wolves with the ridiculous beard to not see what he has in front of him and... you never know... you never know.

A side with him and Kaikai in would be mental. I'd pay to see it, even if we'd have to score 5 to win each week. I fear the tragedy will be that he'll join Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham or some other turgid run of the mill club like Ipswich. Offer him as many rides on the Knott End ferry as he likes and a season pass on the trams. He'd be mad not to take it. He's made to play in Tangerine. 

We can't live without hope. It's the hope that kills you. 

Sean Scannell 

Remember the lad before? The one who was ranting in my imagination about Liam Feeney? 

Now he's ranting about Sean Scannell and this time I want to say 'Yes, clearly he's not fucking good enough, but show a heart man! What's he supposed to do? Give up and go and photocopy shit and get some cunt who thinks he's achieved something because he's attained the status of a middle manager in a non-job in a non-fucking-business doing shit no one fucking cares about setting him targets that he doesn't give a flying fuck about just because his knees have gone? eh? How would you like me screaming at you everytime you didn't live up to someone's expectations even though you are trying your best? Where do you work? A fucking petrol station eh? Right, I'm coming tonight and going mental because you didn't say '£56.43p' in a cheery enough manner. Twat. Give your fellow man a fucking break' 

The lad is a tragedy because you can see that he's a really good player in his head but his body just doesn't let him do it. That goal against Lincoln. Lets remember that eh? I hope he can do 30 minute cameos for Dagenham and Redbridge, Forest Green or someone of that ilk because there's nothing sadder than a player whose flame is dwindling before it's time. Watching him trot up and down the touchline and warming up hopefully is too painful to bear for another year.  

Nathan Shaw: 

All I can say about Nathan Shaw is more or less what I said about Ben Garrity minus the non-league bit. I didn't see either of his appearances this year but if he managed to get into Larry's side twice, despite being a *young homegrown player* then he must be not bad. I'd really like us to go mad and try playing some young, fit, hungry kids and seeing what happens.  

Jay Spearing: 

He played in the Champions League y'know. Which sort of proves my point above. There is no way on earth today's Spearing is a 'Champions League' kind of player, but he was young enough and hungry enough to make it onto the pitch and do a decent job.

He's the player I'm most conflicted about. I can't help thinking if he was a bit bigger, he'd be a really top class player but he isn't and that's why he's playing for us. Some weeks I'm convinced he holds the team together with sheer effort and other weeks I think he holds us back in his conservative approach.

I think possibly the problem is, Spearing is very good at doing the simple things well, retaining possession and playing the right ball. He rarely seems to risk a pass when the pass is speculative. For part of the season, we were plagued by a chronic lack of movement and thus his options were inherently defensive. He's also been partnered with other players like him, who have been industrious and worthy but haven't really been foils to his terrier like style. Give him a creative partner or a side that moves in front of him and we might yet get a real indian summer from him.

Whether Critchley sees him as an important influence or a symbol of the past is a very interesting question.

Matty Virtue

I like Matty Virtue a lot. He plays with heart and soul, he chucks himself in at crosses, possessing a slightly Clarkson-esque ghostlike quality, he's got a magnificent strike on him and he seems a really humble lad for someone who was captain of Liverpool's kids. 

Is he good enough? I don't know. He lacks a yard of pace. That shouldn't stop him being a really decent footballer in League One at least but I can't help think of someone like Chris Beech when I think of Virtue. Wholehearted, commendable player who is just short of being a week in week out player. He's young though and he looks like he lives for it and I really want him to succeed. As much as I think of Beech, I also see a player who could get better and better. 

If Spearing has suffered from the players around him, I think Virtue hasn't been used to his best sometimes and occaisionally his inexperience has shown. He was excellent playing ahead of Spearing in the last few games up until the Tranmere match, where he was terrible and Spearing coming on changed the whole rhythm of the midfield for the better.

That Sunderland goal.  

Grant Ward: 

One of the weirdest sights of the year was Grant Ward playing in central midfield but with the tactics and technique of a winger. It didn't work and he got substituted. In a slightly later match he came on up front and ran around a bit as a substitute. That also didn't work. Given as footballers spend most of their time not scoring or setting up goals (even the really good ones) it would be harsh to rule out Grant's career as over on the basis of those glimpses. He did also manage a piece of ridiculous control, pulling the ball down like it was magnetised to his feet. So there's that.

File under 'why did we sign him?' and 'maybe he'll come good' and 'people who might be the new Sean Scannell'

In memorium. Those who have left us. 

One of my favourite moments this year was when Callum Guy mistook the adulation for Charlie Adam after the Reading home game, as a response to his applause to the North Stand. Bless him. The look on his face. At one point, someone I know was hoping 'that Callum Guy lad could be the answer' and I knowingly said 'If Callum Guy is the answer, then I'm more worried about the question' like a right twat. I think he'll be a decent player at Carlisle. 

Jordan Thompson merited a song, a transfer fee and a move to a higher division. That lad from my imagination can have a go at me in return now because mostly my reaction to Thompson was 'for fucks sake Thompson, get up!' He has skill and touch and I think we could have seen a very special player if he'd had a different set of managers, but sadly, my abiding memory is of him flattering to deceive and falling over too much. He might never have given the ball away, but he didn't do enough with it, relative to his ability.

I'm getting fatigued now from all these midfielders so I'll finish by saying Harry Pritchard always seemed to have the feel of an RAF pilot who had fallen through time from the 1940s and ended up playing wide right for us. I can't think of anything bad to say about him, but he doesn't evoke any special memories either. 

---

That's the midfield. It was probably the worst bit of the team last year, (apart from strikers that weren't Super Gnando) yet, when I go through it, there's some really decent players. The way we suddenly played football under Dunn, then Critchley suggests that at least some of the midfield suffered under Larry's tactical rigidity and perhaps before that, Terry Mc's direct approach. I'd love to have seen Thompson really coached to unleash his potential. Sullay used right, could be devastating. Feeney is decent, KDH and Ronan are so good I can only discuss them in a weird metaphor (that on reflection seems a bit homoerotic.) Spearing is Spearing and Virtue has his virtues. Look at that lot and it shouldn't have been a season where game after game felt so devoid of spark.

Still, like the defence, we're losing our best players but there is a bit of quality left. Who knows who we'll bring in. I'm not going to pretend to be a mystical sage but whilst our tactics havn't got the best out of what we've had, we've cried out for either a playmaker or a really dominant midfielder all year. 

Only the strikers left. Thank fuck. 

Be good.

UTMP

Yet another bad owner. Where do they breed them?

This is Brooks Mileson. He owned Gretna FC. If you don't know who he is or what the score is with Gretna, it might be worth giving it ...