In case anyone was wondering……

Teething Troubles….

Today sees the staging of the traditional curtain-raiser for the domestic football season here in England.  The Community (née Charity) Shield will be contested at Wembley between the League Champions (United) and the FA Cup winners (Wigan) in what is generally regarded as the final warm-up game before the real business of the season begins.

However, Wigan were relegated after their FA Cup heroics against Citeh, so as a Championship side, they are already about 2 weeks into their season.  As for United, their pre-season form has been spotty to say the least and new manager David Moyes is finding it every bit as challenging a job as you might expect.  And, to be honest, he hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory either.

Fergie 2 Moyes

If only it were this simple…….

On the pitch, United have lost more games than they have won, which is not really that big a problem as long as you get things sorted by the start of the season.  However, in mitigation, it should be said that Moyes has been bedevilled by the unavailability of players, either through injury or due to extended periods of rest after their involvement in (for example) the Confederations Cup or other summer frolics.  Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez have largely been absent and the likes of Jonny Evans have been sidelined with injury.

Then there are the off-the-field shenanigans, which I’d have to say have been somewhat more worrying.  This summer’s class clown has been Wayne Rooney who despite earning his weight in banknotes every week has decided that United just don’t love him enough and that he wants to play for Chelsea.  Rooney has not been seen in competitive action for United since April and made only a fleeting appearance on the pre-season tour before being flown home with an alleged hamstring strain.  He is smart enough to realise that he has pretty much burnt all his bridges with the United fans – no-one asks to leave United twice – but Moyes’ problem is that he knows that Rooney is still a very good player and he doesn’t want to sell him to a rival team, yet no overseas team seem willing to take Rooney on – wisely, in my view.

This toxic scenario is likely to drag on for the rest of the month and,  for once, United can find common cause with the derided Dippers  down the East Lancs Road who are going through an almost identical scenario with cute & cuddly ‘Goofy’ Suarez, who has decided he wants to move to Arsenal in order to play in the Champions League this season rather than the Lancashire Senior Cup.  I suppose there is some solace to be had here from the old saying that there’s always someone worse off than you – at least Rooney hasn’t tried to eat his way through an opposition defence yet.

It's my ball“It’s my ball and I’m going to London…”

Even so, Moyes will have to decide whether he would rather have Rooney poisoning United’s much-vaunted ‘esprit de corps’ or alternatively run the risk of seeing him banging in 25 goals in Chelsea blue next season.  There are rumours circulating that senior United pros like Giggs, Rio and Pat Evra have already told Moyes how fed up everyone in the dressing room is with Rooney’s antics, so I think Moyes will have to sell him in the end.  Let’s hope he manages to persuade Mourinho to throw in Juan Mata as part of a player + cash deal;  I think most Reds would drive Rooney to Stamford Bridge themselves if Mata was part of any deal – he’s exactly the type of player we need in our midfield.

And there’s the second problem for Moyes – and in some ways it’s even more of a worry than the Rooney situation.  The new manager very publicly nailed his colours to the mast in terms of identifying his summer targets – first of all it was Thiago Alacantara – now a Bayern Munich player, then it was Cesc Fabregas – still very much a Barcelona player – and of course, there was always the mirage of Ronaldo coming back shimmering in the background.  Now we’re on to Luka Modric, apparently, who, if we are truly after him, is about 4th choice – and he will be aware of that.  Ultimately, I fear that Moyes will end up going back to his former club Everton and being made to pay through the nose for Baines, a left-back we do not need and Fellaini, a midfield beanpole who is probably not good enough for United and certainly not the playmaker we have needed for years now.

What makes all this even more of a concern is that our main rivals – Citeh and Chelsea – seem to have had no problem in targeting and buying the players they wanted.  United are, after all, the reigning champions, so you would think that players would be only too keen to join the club, but it would seem that the uncertainty about the post-Ferguson era and Moyes’ relative anonymity in Europe is now working against us.

If there is any good news at all, it is that the young players who took part in the pre-season tour are all progressing very nicely.  Fergie’s final signing, Wilfried Zaha looks a real find and home-grown youngsters Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane are also likely to be pushing for first team action.  There was also much enthusiasm for 18-year old Adnan Januzaj, but he’s a little raw right now.  It would be nice to be able to report that two other promising youngsters, Will Keane and Nick Powell,  are close to returning from injury, but even MUTV have offered no definitive information about either.

WilfriedWilfried Zaha – one of Moyes’ few bright spots….

David Moyes needs a convincing win against Wigan this afternoon, just to quell the undercurrents of unease among United fans.  He also needs to identify a midfield playmaker who can make things tick – and sadly, he probably also needs to get Wayne Rooney out of the club.  It’s going to be a long season….

Goodbye Eric

Living in this house has, for the first time in over 20 years, almost become a cat-free existence.  Not so long ago, we had three cats of contrasting demeanour, but three years ago we lost Oscar, a Persian/Tabby cross who we all loved unreservedly and who loved us back with equal enthusiasm.  Now, we have lost Eric – very much the yin to Oscar’s  yang – “a cat’s cat” as many have said, a character, a curmudgeon and a cat who, late in life, discovered a scathing meow of such howling intensity that it brooked no denial.

Now we only have Charlie, a nervy, needy, small, black, neutered tom of about 15 years, who has reacted to Eric’s demise by effectively choosing to live outside in the back garden through most of the recent hot spell.  He comes in only to eat, then bolts out through the catflap as though pursued by a pack of wolves.  Then again, he’s always been neurotic, so who can say with any certainty what this bizarre shift in behaviour presages?

Eric – we reckon – was about 20.  When we first encountered him, he was called Simon by the woman who had adopted him and about 100 others in a council house in Quinton, out to the west, where Birmingham imperceptibly turns into the Black Country.  Eric’s dignity was clearly affronted by being landed with such an inappropriate name but his haughty demeanour softened a little once the partner’s niece had re-christened him Eric, after United’s maverick French talisman, Eric Cantona.  Like Cantona, Eric was a little bit haughty but like Cantona he was the Boss.  Even on the way back from Quinton in the car, he sorted Oscar out with a judicious clip round the ear, thereby establishing a pecking order that was to persist until Charlie arrived to disrupt everyone’s equilibrium about 5 years later.  Eric’s story was that he had already had a false start with an Afro-Caribbean family in Handsworth; the lady of the house ‘returning ‘ Eric after a week with the news that her kids didn’t like him.

Their loss, our gain, although we took the view that Eric had faced early competition from either another cat or maybe a dog in that Handsworth household.  In his early years with us, if Oscar got too close to Eric’s food dish whilst he was eating, Eric would growl in his throat, warning Oscar to keep his distance.

IMG_0577Eric – keeping an eye on his territory, and on me.

Whilst Oscar concentrated on winning hearts and minds indoors with his ludicrously loveable behaviour, Eric was out ploughing the lonely furrow to preserve his territory.  He was always a scrapper, often returning with his ear shredded or scratch marks across his nose.  he spent far more time outside than Oscar and that only increased once – for better or for worse – we added Charlie to the merry feline throng about 5 years later.

In latter years, and particularly once Oscar was no longer around him to protect him from Charlie’s needy behaviour, Eric – as so many cats do – found a second home next door with our neighbours Steve & Kat.  In their house, he had no competition and would sleep the day away in peace before returning home for food and another nap.  By this point, Eric had acquired a piratical air, having lost many of his teeth and about half of one of his ears.  His fighting days were over, but thanks to Charlie (we think) he learned how to meow late in life and developed a screeching howl of great intensity that he used when he decided that we should feed him.

Eric’s demise was signalled by increasing unsteadiness of gait and (if possible) an increase in his need for sleep.  Towards the end, he spent more and more time next door where he was dealt with by Steve & Kat with enormous kindness and sympathy.  When the end finally came, we buried him at the point where he would cross from our garden into Steve & Kat’s garden – it seemed appropriate.

Bon voyage, Eric – we all enjoyed being members of your staff for so many years.  We are diminished by your loss and life will never be quite the same.

Nearly there…..

Seems like I have nearly achieved my aim of learning to say nothing…..

It’s been well over a month since I last posted here and in truth I find that has only bothered me intermittently.

I can’t quite make my mind up whether it is a slump in visitor numbers that has enhanced my indifference or simply that blogging no longer offers me any genuine satisfaction.

It’s not that there has been nothing going on – you will read of the death of another family member if you continue to the next entry – and there’s been other stuff happening as well..

To be honest, the trip I made to Poland – and specifically to Auschwitz – in April still weighs heavily on me.  I am in the process of reading more  books and watching more documentaries about the Holocaust,  but you can only bang on about this stuff for so long before people’s eyes glaze over.  I have found that even close friends aren’t really as perturbed by it as I have been – perhaps you just had to be there.  I have to say that my first visit to New York City in 1999 was the last trip to have such a profound impact on me.

My mood on that  Polish trip was not helped by domestic issues and I now have difficulty in contemplating the idea of another ‘family’ trip – memories of the way I was packed off to Berlin ‘with a flea in my ear’ still rankle and I have already declined the opportunity to join a subsequent ‘family’ expedition to the west of Ireland.

My  60th birthday year was supposed to feature a lot of travelling, but somehow, like this blog, it’s all gone a bit sour.

One of my more bizarre claims to fame is that one of my distant ancestors was Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’  Oates.  He was the member of Scott’s ill-fated 1910 Antarctic expedition who announced that he was “going outside and might be some time”, before walking out to certain death in the blizzard that raged around the camp.

This might be an apt way to end this entry.  I may be back but I may be some time.  The blizzard continues unabated outside.

Writer's block

The Folly of Youth……

Although the  football season is officially in abeyance right now, there is still some football being played, of course.  Most notable over the last week or so has been the European U-21 Finals which are being held in Israel this year.  Today’s web pages and newspapers will doubtless be sprinkled with discreet amounts  of can’t-really-be-arsed angst about how and why the England U21’s crashed out of the tournament after 3 successive defeats against Israel, Norway and Italy.

England defeatWell, at least their boots are in nice colours….

In case there are any regular readers here and in case they are under any misapprehensions regarding my attitude to International Football as played by teams representing a specific country, allow me to summarise…..

Essentially, whilst I will cheerfully watch some of the games in the big International tournaments like the World Cup and the Euros, I regard International football as a sideshow.  The pre-eminence of club football via the Champions League and the sheer volume of ‘overseas’ players in the Premiership/Bundesliga/La Liga/Serie A in Europe mean that we now get to see the best players on the planet every week.   It’s got to the point that if you switch on and see Lionel Messi wearing an Argentina shirt rather than a Barcelona shirt it  seems a little strange.  In short: International football? Who needs it?

Argentina v Venezuela - 2010 FIFA World Cup QualifierI know this bloke from somewhere…..

There was a time of course when the only time you would see players like Pele and Jairzinho was wearing a Brazil shirt in World Cups.  These days, FIFA try to puff up the international fixture list but they are undermined by the Champions League and major European Leagues and are in any case surely heading for a major PR and logistical car crash over the mooted  2022 Qatar World Cup.

Additionally, there is increasing friction between clubs and national associations regarding the availability of players for what are usually described as ‘meaningless friendlies’ in mid-season.  More and more players are retiring from international football once they have secured a place on the European club ‘gravy train’, reflecting an attitude to playing for one’s country which is, at best, pragmatic and at worst, completely cynical.   The old Corinthian values of the ‘honour’ of representing one’s country started going out the window around the time that Bobby Moore got arrested for allegedly stealing a bracelet from a Bogotá jewellery shop.  Nowadays, players will pay lip service to those ideals but it’s debatable how many of them are actually sincere about it.

As for England, winning the 1966 World Cup was – as Dickens would have said – the best of times but also the worst of times.  For all the gap-toothed glory of Nobby Stiles’ victory dance and Bobby Charlton’s combover angst, the fallout from that soggy Saturday afternoon at Wembley in July 1966 has become the cross that all England international players have had to bear ever since.  The chances of England repeating their 1966 victory have receded year by year until there is now some doubt as to whether they are going to qualify for next summer’s Brazilian beano at all – and even if they do, does anyone seriously believe that they are going to win the tournament or even come close?

Even the television companies – usually prone to the worst type of hyperventilated jingoism – have noticeably throttled back their expectation levels  during recent tournaments.  There is a general acceptance that we don’t really have a good enough squad and that  the most we can aspire to against the better teams is to be hard to beat and then (probably) lose in a penalty shoot-out.  During the same era,  from 1966 onwards,  English club sides – albeit girded by the addition of choice imports from ‘foreign parts’ – have won multiple European club trophies and reached many more finals.  Even ‘unfancied’ clubs like Middlesbrough and Fulham have had their moment in the sun.  Little wonder that the glory-hunters of TV scheduling have chosen to concentrate on tournaments where English teams do have a chance of winning.

Picles & PapparazziBack in 1966 when it meant something; Pickles the Dog that found the (stolen) World Cup with admiring paparazzi

There seems no way out of this conundrum and it seems only a question of time before there is a major club versus country confrontation – a confrontation in which there will surely only be one winner.  We are undoubtedly heading for a scenario where players signing up for the top clubs have ‘secret clauses’ in their contracts where they agree to ‘retire’ from international football.  Come to think of it, this has probably already happened.

And so back to the small beer of the latest Ing-er-land debacle in Israel.  Manager Stuart Pearce, who has always struck me as being a bit of a plonker,  has come out and publicly blamed the players for their dismal performances, something that rarely happens at this level.

pearceStuart Pearce tells it like it is…

Generally we get some managerial double-talk about the poor  standard of pitches, refereeing, facilities or (more realistically) the impact of a long season catching up on the players.  Not this time, though – Pearce has – for once – not pulled any punches.   The crucial phrase ‘already on the beach’ has been used to describe the players’ attitude, though not necessarily by Pearce himself.  Clearly his comments are those of  a man who does not expect to be in his current job for much longer – and probably rightly so.  If he cannot motivate the squad and get them playing together effectively then he has no business being in the job.  Then again, could anyone else have done better?

I am an avid consumer of U21 football at club level and thoroughly enjoyed watching United’s U21’s beat Tottenham to lift the National U21 League title, so I find it hard to understand why the only United player involved in the Israeli tournament was the incoming Wilfred Zaha, who isn’t really a United player yet as he’s only just arrived from Crystal Palace.

United U21's United’s victorious U21 squad – spot the England U21 player…

Having said that, 3 of that United squad – Sam Johnstone, Tom Thorpe and Larnell Cole – are in Peter Taylor’s U20 squad who fly out to Turkey today to participate in this summer’s U20 World Cup.  I would have to say that I am surprised that the likes of Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane and Ryan Tunnicliffe  have failed to make the cut and am equally sure that Michael’s  brother Will would have done so had he been fit.  Whether Taylor’s squad will be any more successful and how the media respond will, I suspect, be largely dependant on whether there are any big transfer sagas unfolding at the same time.  It says a lot that many English journalists will be more concerned about the destiny of a certain Portuguese superstar and whether he’s going to remain at his current Madrid address or relocate back to the glittering towers of Mancunia.  The omens don’t look that great right now, but I live in hope…..

RonnyCome in # 7 ; your time is up!

The ever-thinning ranks…..

Time to interrupt the jollities of a very late spring and the first seriously hot day of the year with news from afar that my Uncle, my late Mother’s brother, 96, suffering from severe dementia and living in a care  home for a couple of years now has finally succumbed to a chest infection that has been bothering him for some time.

The most startling measure of his age is perhaps to reflect that he was born in the Attercliffe area of  Sheffield on a night in the autumn of 1916 when the city was being peppered with bombs from a German Zeppelin.   This was the first air raid on the city and is quite well documented here:

Zeppelin L22Zeppelin L22 bombed Sheffield on the night my Uncle was born

My Mum’s family moved to Northamptonshire in the late 1920’s because of a lack of work in the Sheffield area.  My grandfather had worked in the steel industry in Sheffield and got a job at a small foundry in Kettering as well as securing a council house nearby.  My mother, then 3, her sister (my late Aunt) and my recently-deceased Uncle moved into the house in 1929 and indeed he was to remain there for the next 82 years, surely one of the longest unbroken council house tenancies of all time.

The Kettering house was a kind of ‘Little Yorkshire’ where an ‘us against the world’ mentality was maintained indefinitely.  Of the 3 children only my Mum fled the coop and got married – and both she and my Dad were put through the wringer for doing so.  Her parents  would not and did not attend the wedding even though it took place just 10 minutes down the road and there was only a partial reconciliation when my Dad wrote to inform ‘Little Yorkshire’ that a grandchild was imminent, though as I was born in Northampton, I would never be eligible to play cricket for Yorkshire….

Yorkshire chauvinismThe worst of it…….

My childhood was dominated by dreary fortnightly Sunday trips to ‘Little Yorkshire’ where my presence possibly helped to dispel some of the tensions that still existed between my Mum and her family – I hope so anyway.  I recall the air of gloom that would have descended on the house if Sheffield Wednesday had lost the previous day or if the Yorkshire cricket team were not doing so well.

My Uncle – clearly a bright boy – had enjoyed a successful education but there was never any possibility of him going on to University.  He left school and began work in a local shoe factory where – apart from a short spell in the Army at the very end of the Second World War – he worked for the rest of his adult life.  This fitted in with my Grandfather’s ‘model’ –  he carried on working at the same foundry from 1929 until his retirement and my (also unmarried)  Aunt worked in the same clothing factory for her entire adult life.  Change was not embraced in this household; no wonder my Mum wanted to escape.

Henderson'sThe best of it…..delicious Henderson’s Yorkshire Relish from Sheffield  – a deluxe and superior version of Worcestershire Sauce.

My Uncle stayed put, however and having a reputation for a certain intellectual acumen – read a broadsheet newspaper (the ‘Telegraph’ of course), listened to classical music, made occasional trips to London to see operas – was treated like royalty by his Mother in particular.  My Grandfather, meanwhile. was not held in such high esteem; he had a weakness for the horses and his clandestine trips to the bookies would often enrage my Grandmother.  Even so, he had the occasional win and in the late 1940’s he came up trumps with what was for the times a major windfall of a few thousand pounds – enough to buy a reasonably-sized house.

Here was the mentality prevalent in that house; just round the corner from the council house they occupied was a lengthy row of newly-built semi-detached private houses with substantial gardens front and back.  With money in the bank from his winners, my Grandfather carted the whole family off to look at one of these houses that had come up for sale.  My Mum told me that she distinctly recalls having a good look around and being really excited after which the whole family assembled at the foot of the stairs with the vendors.  At this point my Grandfather uttered the immortal lines: “Thank you very much for showing us round.  It’s a lovely house but it’s not for the likes of us…….”  I have to remind myself that this is not a Monty Python sketch – it really did happen.

Four Yorkshiremen“Luxury!  Not for the likes of us…”

Anyway, once my Mother had left and got married, her family closed ranks again and though we were tolerated we were always treated with a certain amount of disdain – particularly by my Uncle. who was, I think, made a little uncomfortable by my Dad’s upward mobility as he built a thriving career as a teacher and – ultimately – a headmaster.  My Uncle stayed on in the house through the deaths of both his parents and his sister, my Aunt.  Only once she died and he was living alone did his attitude to the wider family change and once my Mother died, he and my Father had to deal purely with one another, something I think they both found pretty awkward at times.

Around ten years ago, it was clear that my Uncle’s mental capacity was diminishing and his ability to look after himself came into question.  As a single man living in a 4-bedroom council house, the local Council were keen to move him into a single-occupancy sheltered flat, but true to form, he would not move.  In the end, care packages were put in place to help him cope but this was always an inadequate option and only the interventions of a caring next-door neighbour made the situation viable at all.

In the end, change was triggered by one hospital admission too many.  His ‘capacity’ finally fell below what Social Services perceived as being the minimum necessary for him to adequately look after himself.  The neighbour found him naked on his bedroom floor where he had been for up to 24 hours, unable to get up. This time, when the hospital discharged him, it was into a care home where he spent the last 2 years of his life, oblivious to everyone he had once known.

My Dad always said that my Uncle would outlive him and that’s the way it’s turned out.  My own view is that my Dad had a mental hitlist of things he felt that he needed to do before he could move towards the end of his own life and getting my Uncle into a care home was  one of the major items on that list.  He did it for my Mum of course;  caring for her brother – spiteful and small-minded though he could be – was a task my Dad felt he had to take on.  I have to say that I felt under no such compulsion.  As far as I was concerned he was warm and fed and looked after, but he was also oblivious to his surroundings and to anyone he had once known and failed to recognise me for several years before he went into the care home.  I stayed away and when I go down to tie up the loose ends next week, it’s going to be administrative and nothing more as far as I’m concerned.

And so, the ranks of my family grow ever thinner.  There’s really only myself, the Princess, my Aunt in Scotland and my Uncle in Sydney of my immediate family who now remain.  Sic transit gloria mundi…..

Positively the last game of Fergie Time…

Tonight Old Trafford played host to the National Reserve Team Play-Off Final  (or whatever it’s now called) between Tottenham Hotspur and United’s U21 teams.  This was definitely the final game of the Alex Ferguson era and in many ways it was a far more representative encounter than yesterday’s 10-goal thriller at West Bromwich.

For all that, Fergie wasn’t there – or if he was, he was keeping out of sight.  In point of fact I seem to recall him at his Press Conference on Friday saying that he was going to a League Managers Association Meeting where presumably he would pick up his umpteenth and final Manager of the Year award.  New boss David Moyes may well have gone with him; certainly  the two of them were at Carrington this morning as Fergie presumably helps to ease Moyes into his new job by introducing him to the coaching staff, some of whom may lose their jobs once Moyes takes over.

Albert plus 2Albert the United kit-man with 2 hitch-hikers he picked up

First team coaches Rene Meulensteen and Mike Phelan were at tonight’s game, as was Sir Bobby Charlton, looking a little frail at 76, but still able to present the medals and the trophy at the end of the game.

He would have been pleased to present the trophy to United skipper Tom Thorpe, something that looked pretty unlikely at half-time following 45 minutes of comfortable Spurs dominance, graced by two excellent goals from Jonathan Obika and Alex Pritchard.  Spurs could have been even further ahead as both Obika and his strike partner Harry Kane also hit the frame of the goal in the first period.  By contrast, United could offer little by way of response.  Reserve Player of the Year Adnan Januzaj was asked to play as a lone striker which isn’t really his forté; he’s a clever player but he doesn’t really have the physical presence to play this role and United found it difficult to get anyone forward to support him.

The dearth of strikers has been one of Warren Joyce’s major problems this season, with Will Keane out for the season through injury and others like Macheda and King leaving on loan or permanent deals.  However, something had to be done and early in the second half, Joyce withdrew U18’s  midfielder Ben Pearson (whose day will surely come) and sent on  Welsh striker Tom Lawrence to help Januzaj out.

And it worked.  Slowly but surely, United began to push Spurs back and to apply consistent pressure on the Spurs defence.  Lawrence was giving them an extra set of problems and Januzaj could now play with greater freedom.  On the hour mark, the young Belgian’s countryman Marnick Vermijl (my choice for Reserve Player of the Season) got forward from right back and picked up Ryan Tunnicliffe’s beautifully-weighted pass.  He cut in and fired a low shot across Spurs’  keeper Archer and into the far corner of the net.  From that point onwards, United stormed forward and equalised after 74 minutes when Larnell Cole fired home off the underside of the Spurs crossbar after Januzaj and Jesse Lingard had created havoc in the Spurs defence.

Larnell Goal CelebUnited players celebrate Larnell Cole’s equaliser

Spurs responded strongly as they began to see the game slipping away from them and substitute McEvoy fired into the side netting from an acute angle.  However the force was definitely with United and in a typical Fergie-era late finale, Cole drove home the winning goal after great work by Lawrence on the right.  United played out 4 minutes of added time without too many problems and the final whistle saw a good deal of jubilation from the team in red.

Larnell Goal 2Larnell Cole fires home the decisive third goal with  2 minutes left

So, after beating Aston Villa in a penalty shoot-out in the final of last year’s Play-Off, United retained the title, though the trophy is a new one, reflecting the new format for this U21 tournament this year.

Whenever Sir Alex gets back from his meeting and his trip to the racing at Newmarket, I’m sure he’ll sit down and watch the video of this match – the last match of his era as United boss and in many ways a typically thrilling and ultimately successful occasion.  Well done to Warren Joyce, Nicky Butt and all the young players.  Let’s hope some of them are given a chance in the first team next year by David Moyes.

Tom Thorpe & Reserve TrophyTom Thorpe lifts the U21 League trophy