Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Blunkett or Bianca?

Two more members of the elite have popped their heads above the parapet on Brexit and Article 50.

David Blunkett, respected former Labour MP and more formally Baron Blunkett, of Brightside and Hillsborough, argued, with a heavy heart as a passionate Remain voter, that the argument is over and the Lords should vote for Article 50 without strings. "It is not in any sense acceptable to use the debate to block Article 50, thereby undermining the straightforward legislation which arose from the Supreme Court decision last month, that Parliament should have a final say on Brexit. It is not acceptable... for the House of Lords to determine that Britain should or should not remain a member of the single market.... if we believe in democracy it is the will of the people, not the predilections of those in positions of authority which must prevail."

And the other person was Bianca Jagger, who demanded that Theresa May give Parliament the power to block an "unpatriotic Brexit".   The former Rolling Stone's wife is a Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador (eh? I don't understand how come either). She has dual nationality, naturalised British and her original nationality of Nicaraguan. I find it hard to say anything that isn't intensely unpleasant, so I will resist. But no doubt Twitter has already done it for me.

In case you were wondering, her ex-husband doesn't think Brexit will make a huge difference to the UK. He said before the referendum that Brexit could be beneficial for the UK in the long (20 year-ish) term, though probably detrimental in the short term. He suggested in April that David Cameron was already regretting going for the referendum. One can see why a Tory political adviser described Jagger, who correctly told said adviser that the Tories would win the 2015 general election a month before it, as "one of the savviest political observers I've come across". He had discovered at a dinner that Jagger had been a bit of a "political junkie" his whole life. I hadn't realised that, though I knew that he's a cricket buff. For what it's worth his summary of Brexit is very similar to what I have always thought, though I expect the transition to be more difficult.

It won't surprise you to know I'm with Blunkett and not Mick's ex; I suspect he has a better understanding of democracy.

"I fought heart and soul for Remain. But we Lords must NOT defy the people's will", David Blunkett, Daily Mail 21 February 2017. Bianca Jagger's views were noted in the paper on the same day and can be seen in the scurrilous Ephraim Hardcastle column at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-4243842. Interestingly the Blunkett column is not on mailonline, obviously too serious for it.

I read about Mick Jagger in the NME (April 2016: http://www.nme.com/news/music/mick-jagger-2-1195656) though his pre-referendum views on Brexit were in an interview with Sky News

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

In your guts, you know he's nuts

At some point in the US presidential election campaign I remember thinking that, if the Republicans chose Trump, it would be a landslide for the Democrats. (Don't snigger, a lot of you did). Trump reminded me of Barry Goldwater, a right wing, arguably racist, firebrand, who lost heavily to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. As JFK's VP, Johnson had taken over the presidency in November 1963 and, when put to the test himself a year later, won by one of the biggest margins ever in a presidential race.
I only just remember this,  but Kennedy's assassination made even a 12 year old pay a bit of attention.

Goldwater, like Trump a maverick Republican, loathed the liberal, Washington establishment, which he saw as peaceniks. He was backed by the Ku Klux Klan and rebuffed by most of the Republican party leaders. Many saw him as extremist: but he said "extremism in defence of liberty is no vice". Goldwater, who had voted against the civil rights act passed by Congress under Johnson that year, railed against Johnson's liberal agenda, welfare programmes - suggesting that social security become "optional" - and what he characterised as Johnson's weakness in the face of the soviet threat, in particular Cuba, 90 miles of the US coast, being communist controlled.  On more than one occasion, Goldwater seemed to suggest that he would not be above using nuclear weapons on both Cuba and North Vietnam to achieve U.S. objectives.

Johnson, meanwhile, mollified domestic concerns about a possible war in Asia by claiming that he would not send “American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Johnson’s statement satisfied many Americans, but any commitment he may have had about avoiding direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict was already eroding by the time of the 1964 election. Nevertheless he won a massive 60 percent of the popular vote and no democrat has won a bigger share of the electoral college since, though Republicans Nixon (1972) and Reagan (1984) had bigger electoral college margins. Johnson won 44 states to Goldwater's 6. It was a landslide.

Mind, Johnson lied:  four months after his victory, he committed U.S. combat troops to Vietnam.

The 1964 campaign was possibly at least as tetchy as 2016 and is often described as "bitter". Strangely, Goldwater was a personal friend of JFK and had been hoping for an election contest with his friend and political rival. One wonders if, had it happened, that campaign would have been more dignified, but surely the result would have been even more embarrassing.

In the campaign Goldwater refused to moderate his views and the Johnson campaign didn't pull any punches. In reference to Goldwater's policies regarding the use of nuclear weaponry, the Johnson campaign launched a television ad that would come to be known as the "daisy ad" in which a young girl pulls the petals off a flower until the screen is overtaken by an exploding mushroom cloud. Johnson accused Goldwater of being willing to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam after stating the United States should do whatever was necessary for victory. Goldwater clarified that he was not an "outright advocate" of using nuclear weapons there. This has echoes in Clinton's question about whether Trump could be trusted with the nuclear button, though the Clinton campaign seems positively gentlemanly (odd word I know for a female candidate but it seems appropriate) compared with Johnson's.

So, like many, I assumed "crooked Hillary" would beat Trump easily, just as Johnson had thumped Goldwater. Many people are still trying to understand what happened, but I can't help thinking that there was a reaction to 8 years of Obama: partly his colour, I fear, as well as a rejection of liberal values, but also the usual "enough, time for the other lot to have a go".

During 2016 many commentators pointed out parallels between Goldwater and Trump but many also noted that there were substantial differences*. One interesting parallel is the comment that the prospect of Goldwater's election "....scares the hell out of me.” Except that was actually said by Goldwater himself!

But perhaps the most amusing thing I've read about the 1964 campaign was about slogans. Goldwater ran with a slogan "In your heart, you know he's right". To which Johnson's team responded with "In your guts you know he's nuts".

Though I hadn't spotted it, there were attempts to use this slogan against Trump last year.

So some aspects of history repeated themselves, but not others. And the idea that last year's campaign was unusually bad tempered just ain't true.

But we do know they were both nuts.

*https://verdict.justia.com/2016/05/27/dont-compare-trumps-presidential-campaign-barry-goldwaters







Friday, 17 February 2017

Brothers In Arms (updated)

My father-in-law Charles was a good geezer and, on many things, on the button. It used to surprise colleagues at work when I told them jokes he had messaged me well into his 90s. He also loved music. It took a while for me to get some of his tastes from long before I was born, but Fats Waller was one. Though he turned his nose up at what he called "groups" rather than bands, he could recall seeing the Beatles play at the Cavern Club in his lunch breaks. It only occurred to me recently that he would have been over 40 at the time. To be fair, he didn't recall much, but no doubt they were one of many similar bands at the time. And he did buy all the early Beatles albums, though officially they were Christmas presents for his daughter.

So I wasn't shocked when, on holiday in the south of England en famille with our then young sons, he really got into the Dire Straits album I had on the cassette player in the car which, of course, was "Brothers In Arms". Subsequently he bought half a dozen Dire Straits albums and three Mark Knopfler solo albums. He long since struggled to play his vinyl, so we had bought him a machine to play digital music and I recorded many hours of his vinyl collection onto flash drives which he could handle more easily.

So, with a heavy heart over the last few weeks, I've been listening to those sticks in the car, particularly Fats Waller and Dire Straits. It's reminded me just how good an album "Brothers In Arms" is. Side 1 has the hits: the rather nursery rhyme like So Far Away, the classic Money For Nothing on which Sting's thin falsetto complements Knopfler's gruff delivery and Walk Of Life. But it's the atmospheric side 2 that I've always preferred.

Three of the four tracks on side 2 have a military theme. I thought many of the lyrics were just sentimental mush which Knopfler doesn't really sound as if he believes for a moment, indeed he almost sounds embarrassed singing (using the word loosely) some of them. But maybe that's just his delivery as the lyrics aren't bad and there is some story. In Ride Across The River, singing as a guerilla on one side of the river: "The cause it is noble and the cause it is just/We are ready to pay with our lives if we must" and singing as a mercenary on the other side: "I'm a soldier of fortune, I'm a dog of war/And we don't give a damn who the killing is for/It's the same old story with a different name/Death or glory, it's the killing game", with both singing that they're "Gonna ride across the river deep and wide/Ride across the river to the other side". I love this simple but well put together track with its percussion redolent of jungle drums and what sounds like a synthesiser mimicking pan pipes, giving it a South American feel. Indeed, after typing that I've just read on an anorak website that "The song is based on the concept of the Latin American guerrilla wars in Honduras & Nicaragua in the mid 1980s, as it features an off-beat rhythm, pan flute and eerie background noises, to allude to the elements of guerrilla warfare"* Nice guitar too.

The Man's Too Strong is about a war criminal, filled with guilt, hatred and fear, justifying himself as only having been a bit part player, but with more than a suggestion that there was more to it than that**.

The Brothers In Arms title track is another atmospheric piece with some lovely guitar. Charles was adamant that Knopfler was the best ever electric guitarist. "I'm not sure about that" I would say "but he's very good". This track has him in fine form: to me, every single sound that comes from the instrument, even the sound of his fingers sliding along the strings, is perfectly judged.
These mist-covered mountains/ Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands/ And always will be
Some day you'll return to/ Your valleys and your farms
And you'll no longer burn/ To be brothers in arms

My father-in-law served his country for more than half of WWII, most of it outside the relative safety of the British Isles. Although he wasn't in front line combat, there was plenty of excitement, including the landings to liberate Italy. I'm glad he made it through the war, though many of his brothers in arms did not. After all, I wouldn't otherwise have met my wife. But he was great company and it was always interesting to hear him talk about his days in uniform. And, as a man of discernment, he was, of course, an Evertonian. But it was a real bonus to not only share a love of music, but ultimately a love of some of the same kinds of music, despite our difference in age.

You swung like a sultan, Charles and not just in 1942, on shore leave in Casablanca.

Update - just found the picture and Casablanca was actually 1944:
1479112 AC2 Electrician Walker is 2nd left


*http://miamivice.wikia.com/wiki/Ride_Across_The_River
**https://www.quora.com/Is-there-a-source-explaining-the-lyrics-for-The-Mans-Too-Strong-by-Dire-Straits



Thursday, 16 February 2017

An end to austerity?

I think of two things every time I see Nicola Sturgeon's picture. Firstly, I think of the caricature of her as Wee Burney from the Rab C Nesbitt TV show, which is cruel enough, or the one as Wee Jimmy Krankie, which is arguably worse as Jimmy is a woman pretending to be a man. I almost agree with the rather po-faced Guardian column by Peter Bradshaw which said the latter jibe was "not nice, not funny", though surely not, as he styled it "the single unfunniest joke in the history of English journalism".


Image result for wee burney nicola sturgeon

And secondly, I can hear her Scots burr droning on calling for "an end to austerity". Which always makes me feel as if her hand is scrabbling in my pocket for the last of my loose change, because she means, of course, "as long as the English (and Welsh) pay for it".

Talking of which, I don't think I've ever seen anyone try to defend why Scotland get such a better deal than Wales.

So, will Nicola get her wish anytime soon? (I mean the end to austerity. The more I see of her I'll soon be ready to concede her other wish, a second Scottish independence referendum, any time she wants. Or better still, an English referendum on Scottish independence, after all why should it only be one way?)

I guess from reading David Smith in the Sunday Times (12 Feb) the answer is "no". Smith notes that the Institure for Fiscal Studies has published its "green" budget. This isn't anything to do with the environment, it's a detailed analysis of the UK's finances, which has been published for 35 years.

"The IFS pulls few punches in laying out the scale of Britain's fiscal challenge and left me feeling a little punch drunk." Wow! I've been reading Smith's economics column for a quarter of a century and I can't remember him saying anything quite like that before. He goes on to say that, seven years after the start of post-crisis deficit reduction, the budget deficit is the 4th largest, relative to GDP of the 28 advanced economies. Public sector debt is the 6th largest. It has not been higher relative to GDP since the mid 1960s. This despite a real terms fall in public spending of 10% since 2010, the longest and biggest on record, with more to come. By 2019-20, on present plans, real government department spending will be 13% lower than 2009-10. The £17bn of tax rises planned for this rest of this parliament will bring the tax burden up to 37% of GDP, the highest since early in the Thatcher government. Even then, there will still be a budget deficit.

Smith says he has always adopted a "something will turn up" view of public finances. The 1980s economic revival turned a budget deficit of 4.3% of GDP into a surplus in eight years. In the 90s the time scale was even shorter, Britain going from a deficit of 6.7% of GDP to a surplus in just 5 years.

This time the challenge was harder: a deficit of 10.1% of GDP in 2009-2010. It was down to 4% by 2015-16. But that is still high. It's projected to be 3.5% this year: in the six decades to 2008, Britain only ran a bigger deficit in 13 years, mainly in recessions.

So will something turn up this time? Smith doubts it, for the obvious reason. He says that, at a time when a growth boost would have helped public finances, the economy is expected to slow down. "The idea that leaving the EU would mean healthier public finances has been exposed for the fantasy it is".

This all looks very difficult when there are spending pressures in the NHS and social care and the government wants to increase spending on infrastructure (it would like it to be 21% of spending by 2020-21, compared with 13% in 2012-13). Smith comments that day to day spending pressures may make this increase in investment unachievable.

He says this is all rather gloomy. "The damage to the public finances from the financial crisis and the years of aggressive increases under Labour has proved enduring". Though he also says the coalition and the current government have bottled it (my paraphrasing!): "While spending cuts have been genuine, the pill has been sweetened for households and businesses. Some taxes have gone up, but others have been cut...There has been the long freeze on petrol and diesel allowance and the big raising of the income tax personal allowance....". In contrast, he says, the Thatcher government "meant business" on deficit reduction in 1981, freezing the personal allowance at a time of high inflation". They also whacked up VAT, I recall.

Smith expects that, because of demographic spending pressures kicking in the 2020s (I thought that had already started, but presumably we ain't seen nothing yet) we may have to get used to a world in which a 2% deficit, or even more, is the norm, with higher levels of government debt than we have been used to for more than half a century. "As long as the markets are prepared to lend what Britain needs to borrow, the debt and deficits will be manageable, though with a rising debt interest bill. If not, there will  be a problem".

I suspect "problem" is an understatement. Given all the above, if Brexit goes really badly, our trade balance gets worse rather than better and the economy does poorly hitting tax revenues, things could get pretty horrible in terms of the government's ability to provide for the services everyone expects, while protecting and policing us and acting like Father Christmas to countries which launch space vehicles (though maybe only some citizens expect the last of these to continue).

On the other hand, if Brexit goes really well then, paraphrasing Smith's words, that would be a turn up for the books - the Chancellor's books.

Hmmm. Looks like no end to austerity any time soon then, Nicola. Best concentrate on the second referendum, at least that's something you might win on. And, if you do and you get a yes vote, then in principle Smith's headaches will ease, because removing Scotland from the union would decrease the rest of the UK's deficit at a stroke.

I'm not being entirely serious here, as I expect separating Scotland would make Brexit seem easy and the transition would be painful and damaging. But every time I see Jimmy, sorry Nicola, I'm more prepared to contemplate it.




Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Shine a light

The egregious lawyer Phil Shiner was struck off for dishonesty and malpractice earlier this month following the full extent of his behaviour, encouraging false claims against British soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, being confirmed.

This would be the same man who was made lawyer of the year by The Law Society in 2007 and who was lauded by The Guardian and The Independent for his ambulance chasing style campaign to prosecute British soldiers based on testimony from witnesses whose evidence, in some cases, was pretty much impossible to corroborate and also had a financial vested interest in extracting money from the British taxpayer, i.e. you and me. It was actually the much maligned Daily Mail, not generally regarded (perhaps unfairly) as a campaigning newspaper, that had perhaps done the most to expose Shiner. One wonders whether, if the Leveson arrangements were to be fully implemented, such a campaign could be run in the future.

To be fair to The Guardian, it maintained its principled stance even after Shiner's exposure, writing (Guardian view on Phil Shiner - bad man, vital job*) that, while he betrayed the standards of his profession and besmirched the integrity of Britain’s armed forces, he also brought justice to victims, and he threw light on grave flaws in the way soldiers were trained and led in the haste to go to war in 2003.  Its editorial went on to say an absurd number of cases were brought, many of them improperly, it is also true that more than 300 of them did result in compensation payments and others led to service disciplinary hearings . (Hmm. Were they all sound, I wonder?)  Politicians now queue to denounce “spurious” and “vexatious” lawyers, but fighting this kind of abuse is not spurious or vexatious, they go on, it is a matter of justice. It is also a simple question of prevention. Stopping the abuse would silence the lawyers. The government would rather just silence the lawyers. One might say they want to Shiner light (sorry) on human rights abuses.

Nevertheless, the Government now seems set to drop most of the actions left outstanding against our soldiers. Stand by for more hand wringing on that from the metropolitan elites who were so keen to see British troops in the dock.

Now I'm not defending criminal behaviour of any kind at any time, even under the appalling conditions and extreme pressure some of our forces would have served under. But we live in an era when derring do is fortunately mainly limited to the sports field not the battlefield. Our heroes get Olympic golds and MBEs, rather than VCs. But while most of us have little understanding of what it actually takes to be an elite sportsman, yet we still comment at will ("how could he miss that?"), it seems that there are people all too ready to pass judgement on the conduct of our troops, on the basis of say so from dubious witnesses, egged on by lawyers who also have a vested interest. Why would that be?

I have a feeling that it's because they failed to nail Tony Blair for taking us into the Iraq war. They wanted to see the former British Prime Minister arraigned and, if they can't have that, then a bunch of poor innocent squaddies will just have to do, even if it unjustly ruins many lives. These people, like the Bolsheviks, feel that sort of thing is necessary collateral damage and the end (Britain never fighting in any kind of war ever again whatever the circumstances) justifies the means.

Shiner is an odious creep. But the lobby that shouted him on without regard for the harm it was doing to ordinary, innocent British soldiers make me feel equally sick.

*https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/03/the-guardian-view-on-phil-shiner-bad-man-vital-job

Monday, 13 February 2017

The wrong shaped ball

Which sporting competition has the highest average live attendances in the world? Well, it's happening now: the Six Nations rugby. This weekend's Wales-England match was a great spectacle and a close finish, even if it wasn't perhaps the highest quality match and decided by, well, decision making. I'm left wondering why on earth Wales didn't kick for goal when they had 2 penalty opportunities when losing 8-3 early in the match. No need to panic with three-quarters of the game to go, surely? Noticeably England did kick for goal in a similar position to narrow the Welsh lead to 2 points with about 10 minutes to go and exert pressure. And also why Wales slung the ball to a left footer on the left of the pitch with a couple of minutes to go: the normally immaculate Jonathan Davies missed touch by so far that it looked as if he meant to lump it straight down George Ford's throat in the middle of the pitch. Without these three kicking faux pas, Wales might have won by eight points instead of losing by five. T-CUP Sir Clive Woodward used to call it - Thinking Correctly Under Pressure. That would be the same Clive Woodward whose England players said of him "his indecision is final". Before they won the World Cup, of course.

Ford slung the ball to Farrell - for me England's most consistent player over the last 4 years - why on earth did it take so long for rugby purists to warm to him? (Possibly because his dad made his name playing Rugby League?). Farrell's superb pass released Daly who did what wingers do and made for the corner. Now I know it was late in the game, but why on earth was Alex Cuthbert left isolated against Daly? Why didn't another Welsh player make straight for the corner? After all, in soccer, you "show" the winger the outside, to encourage him to go away from goal. Surely in rugby you show him the inside - if he turns that way there's a whole posse waiting to tackle him. Curious. But a grandstand finish, if bitter for Wales. England's winning run is now 16 matches - the international record (among the "top" nations) is 18 and the record for consecutive matches unbeaten is 23.

You can tell I quite like rugby now, but I hated it at school, which was a missed opportunity. It wasn't taught well (taught at all really) but I wasn't mentally or physically ready for it. 15 years later, after I'd toughened up a bit playing in men's football (VERY different from the school and university game!)  I realised I could have enjoyed rugby a lot. I would have a lot of helpful suggestions for my old school PE department about how rugby should have been taught to 11 year olds with no experience of the game if I had a Tardis to hand.

But one of the things I really don't get about rugby is the way most people seem to think it's a more honest sport than soccer.

One of the things I hated at age 11, as just about the smallest boy in the class, was the deliberate late tackle. You offload the ball and some galoot takes the opportunity to flatten you when they could easily pull out. Just like Wales's aptly named Moriarty (who had a great match) did to England's Owen Farrell on Saturday. Not a word from the referee despite the tackle seeming so late you needed a calendar not a clock to measure by how much. To be fair, Farrell got up (slowly) with a wry grin and got on with it, which tends not to happen in soccer. But that's because the late hit has always been 'part of the game' in rugby. At school in the 60s I felt a victim and considered it a form of bullying. I don't feel any differently now. It put me off the game for 20 years.

I can remember playing full back (I'm talking proper football now) on a wet winter's day in the glorious heights of the Warrington and District League circa 1980 and running flat out with the winger for a ball rolling diagonally towards the touch line half way in my own half. The ball was not quite going to carry out of play. Get there first and it's out for a throw in, go to ground but let him get it and and he's away. Hesitate and he's away anyway. We got there together and I took the ball and the man with my best ever sliding tackle. We ended up in a heap several yards off the pitch, got up and got on with it, as rugby players do. I don't remember the game getting easier after that, but obviously it did as the ref came up to me at half time (orange squash on the pitch, nothing fancy for us) and said "great tackle, he's not come anywhere near you after that". The point of the story is that, if I'd been just a fraction late, given the strength of the challenge, there would have been an enormous row with players piling in, lots of pushing and shoving, many angry words and me quite likely getting my marching orders. I knew when I went in for the ball that the tackle just had to be timed perfectly.

People will say you couldn't apply that in rugby, though I'm not sure I fully appreciate why there should be such a difference between hitting someone in rugby after the ball has been offloaded from football after the ball has been laid off. And I realise rugby does penalise very late tackles, but there is still plenty of scope for hitting the man regardless. It might be sport but it's not sporting to me when there's no attempt to pull out.

Rugby has cleaned its act up a bit, since the dropping of someone on their head or neck in a tackle was clamped down on. I still don't understand why there wasn't more outrage at the "spear tackle" the two All Blacks Keven Mealamu and Tana Umaga cynically used to put Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll out of the Lions tour in 2005. He was lucky it was only that - for me this was a deliberate, co-ordinated and blatant attempt to injure a player. It should never have been called a tackle as the ball was nowhere near - the two All Blacks picked up O'Driscoll from a ruck, flipped him over and drove him down and into the turf. O'Driscoll was fortunate to "only" dislocate his shoulder: his neck could easily have been broken. Totally beyond the pale even in tag wrestling and not something you could ever see in soccer: even if you set out to deliberately hurt someone in the round ball game it wouldn't actually be easy to do it, let alone do it without sanction. Whereas in rugby - well a work colleague who played schoolboy rugby union and league to a decent level told me a stack full of tricks short of spear tackles that were normal practice. His favourite was dropping on his knees with full weight onto the back of an opposing player who was diving to score a try. "Makes them a lot less likely to do it again and you never get caught". As for Mealamu and Umaga, the rugby authorities took no retrospective action against them and the New Zealand camp swore All Black was All White. They accused Woodward of trying to deflect attention from his team's defeat in the match when he raised the issue after the match. Umaga branded O'Driscoll a "sook", slang for cry baby, and he claimed he was victimised in the media, saying in his book "The sustained personal attack they (the Lions) launched against me was hard to believe and even harder to stomach. You don't want to take it personally but it's almost impossible not to when another player, a guy you had some respect for, attacks your character in the most direct and damning terms." I've read many self serving statements by sportsmen who should have held their hands up and accepted they were wrong but this one takes the biscuit for being the most..... sorry, but the only word I can summon up is cretinous. If you don't know what I'm on about, watch the video for yourself (there's a link below). I don't know about the law of New Zealand, but in the UK I would have thought a charge of assault could have been successful. Either way, it makes anything you've seen on a soccer pitch look very tame.

Ah, but what about cynical play I hear you say? Footballers are divers and cheats! I give you what rugby folk call the "dark arts" of the scrum. England's Neil Back was widely admired by pundits and players for his mastery of being able to get away with living on the edge of the rules (usually just the wrong side, but getting away with it). In other words, cheating. The blurb on Back's own book describes him as an "anti-hero". Back retired a few years ago but the dark arts live on, well described by Will Greenwood in the Telegraph last autumn*. Lots of tricks aimed at hoodwinking the referee and winning penalties rather than getting on with the game, including the scrum half's version of "going down easily" and many variants on winning penalties and getting the other team's players into trouble with the referee.

Yes, they all talk to the referee politely - which I commend. In said Warrington League back in the day swearing at the referee meant immediate dismissal, as it should. The behaviour of Premier League players towards the referee has been a big irritant for me for many years. To my pleasant surprise, the Premier League has actually rolled it back a bit - since warnings a couple of years ago refs have been tougher on dissent and you don't see the likes of Wayne Rooney screaming in their faces as much of late.

But, however you address the referee ("ref" in football, "sir" in rugby), has there ever been anything in soccer as remarkable as rugby's "bloodgate" in 2009, when a Harlequins player bit into a blood capsule to feign injury, allowing the Quins main kicker, who had gone off injured, to come back on in the final minutes of a key cup tie. (I think the point was that the kicker couldn't run, but his stand in wasn't doing well and the scores were very close going into the final minutes. Presumably the main kicker could hobble about and be available to take a kick if needed, though in practice there was no further scoring). It turned out Quins had pulled this prank more than once before. Their director of rugby, Dean Richards (not exactly a non-entity - he played over 50 times for England and the British Lions) was given a three year ban and the club fined £260,000. Now this escapade got a lot of publicity but can you imagine the media frenzy if it had been in a top class soccer match? Isn't that the real point: soccer is front and back page news, rugby mainly just back page and that colours perceptions.

So I just will not accept that rugby is an inherently more decent game, played by tough sporting fellows who are all chums afterwards (as if that isn't ever the case in soccer - trust me, it was most of the time). A good proportion of the players on any pitch in either sport will push the limits on what they can get away with to try to win. But I will enjoy watching the Six Nations and hope for lots of good (and fair) action. Maybe we'll get to see a straight put in at a scrum just once? No, I agree, that would be too much to hope for. But they don't cheat or use gamesmanship, so all scrum halves must all have one arm longer than the other, I suppose.


*http://www.telegraph.co.uk/rugby-union/2016/10/08/referees-need-to-wise-up-to-the-scrummaging-dark-art-that-has-in/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/rugbyunion/european-rugby/11276718/Bloodgate-How-the-scandal-unfolded-when-Harlequins-met-Leinster-in-April-2009.html

You can read about the O'Driscoll assault and see a video clip at http://www.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=11471681







Saturday, 11 February 2017

An upgrade?

I expect most Liverpool fans think that Jurgen Klopp has been an upgrade on Brenda (as I used to call him) Rodgers. Indeed, I thought Klopp was getting some momentum and that Liverpool might be building up to challenge again. But Liverpool had an awful January, apparently forgetting the Shanklyism that "we don't lose three in a row".  They have lost 4 of their last 5 matches, none of them against big clubs: three at home (against Swansea, Southampton and Wolves) and the fourth away at Hull.

So how is Klopp doing compared with Rodgers?

The answer is that, after 54 games, they have identical records: won 26, drawn 16 and lost 12.

Some upgrade eh? I suppose that, before January, Klopp's record was significantly better than Rodgers'. So a blip? Found out tactically? Players fatigued by his high pressing game and no mid-season break, such as Klopp's previous teams would always have had? We'll see.

But quite probably neither is an upgrade on Rafa Benitez. Last weekend's paper had an interesting interview with Didier (Didi) Hamann. Unlike Gerrard Houllier, Benitez is not an arm round shoulder, people person, asking about the wife and kids. He would tell players not to come knocking on his door if they were out of the team to ask why: just knuckle down and work harder. "And do as you're told, or I'll bring someone else in". "What's wrong with that?" Hamann asks. Benitez was concerned that Stephen Gerrard's burgeoning reputation would be harmful to the team and was determined to show him no favours. To the extent of announcing the team using player's nicknames, with one exception: "...Sami, Carra, Didi, Xabi, Luis, Gerrard..."

It's hard to diasagree with Hamann that former players like him will find it almost impossible to get a job as Premier League manager, so he is punting at being a director of football (and training at Man Met's business school). If Giggs couldn't get the United gig, how is it going to happen? Yes, such a person might get a job with a smaller club but, after United's experiment with Moyes, that is very unlikely to provide a pathway.

I've got a lot of time for Benitez, now he isn't at Liverpool and I think they made a big mistake in sacking him. I agree with my younger son that, if the FA hadn't decided the England manager should be English, Benitez, with his extensive Premier League knowledge and ability to set a team up for a one off game (which all England matches are really), was the ideal candidate. Maybe next time.

While on matters Liverpool, according to Charles Sale, long serving Liverpool CEO's last Premier League meeting was not marked with any warmth from the other clubs despite Ayre attending such meetings for over a decade. The reason is Liverpool's stance that the £3.5 billion of TV money from overseas sales should be divided by performance and viewing figures rather than equally between the 20 clubs. Liverpool might have 4 or 5 supporters around the table with all the other clubs against. I must have gone blue in the face banging on about how the Premier League should take a leaf out of the NFL's book and share all league negotiated revenues equally, so I am firmly with this status quo. The attraction of the Premier League is that it is a league. A one off game between Liverpool and say Manchester United is an exhibition match and has little commercial value. So it is logical to share the cash equally but the NFL rules are more about ensuring there is competition and a handful of franchises don't dominate. Businessmen like Ayre will always try to reduce competition and it is incumbent on the FA to ensure that they don't succeed. This is much more important to the FA's competence as a governing body than its make up by gender or ethnicity.

Didi Hamann was interviewed by Jonathan Norcroft in the Sunday Times, 5 February.
Charles Sale's column is in the Daily Mail.