Daily Archives: May 23, 2011

F.A. Youth Cup Final, 2nd Leg: Manchester United U-18 v Sheffield United U-18

Having followed United’s current talented crop of  youngsters through their Youth Cup campaign so far, I was delighted to see them reach this year’s final and start tonight’s second leg with a good chance of lifting the trophy.  The teams started the game all square after last week’s exciting 2-2 first leg at Bramhall Lane.  The crowd at Old Trafford tonight, though not as large as last week’s near-30,000 sell-out was still respectable and included over 6,000 travelling Blades fans who had made the short journey over the Snake Pass.

Both teams began with exactly the same starting XI’s as last week, though United’s bench was strengthened by the return of Larnell Cole from injury and Tyler Blackett from suspension.  Sheffield had been concerned about the fitness of centre-back Harry Maguire, who limped off towards the end of the first leg, but he had recovered sufficiently to start.

The first half was a curious affair; United overplayed and gave the ball away with monotonous regularity whilst Sheffield pressed United whenever they were in possession and controlled the game.   Despite this, Sheffield were unable to get any shots on target and Sam Johnstone in the United goal had a watching brief for the most part.  His counterpart in the Sheffield goal, George Long, was somewhat busier and had to make a sprawling save as Ravel Morrison latched on to Paul Pogba’s astute pass to burst through on the right.  Morrison can be a menace when running at defenders with the ball, seeming to glide past opponents, but, as in the first leg, he was running into blind alleys and giving the ball away far too often.  John Pemberton’s Sheffield are a team built around a strong team ethic and they covered and harried and blocked United’s attempts to find a killer pass.  Worryingly for the Blades, however, their one stand-out star performer, striker Jordan Slew, was looking nothing like as dangerous as he had in the first leg.

As half-time approached it seemed that neither team was going to be able to seize the initiative, but then United scored twice in quick succession to take a stranglehold on the tie.  First, on 38 minutes, full-back Michael Keane burst forward on the overlap for virtually the first time.  His low cross was headed clear by Kennedy but fell into the path of Michael’s twin brother, Will.  He completely scuffed his attempted first-time shot, but the ball squirted conveniently into the path of Ravel Morrison, who was allowed time to control the ball before firing a low shot  from about 12 yards out into the bottom right-hand corner of Long’s net.

Sheffield responded strongly with a series of efforts that passed close to Johnstone’s goal without hitting the target.  Then, as the clock ticked over into added time at the end of the half, United struck a second killer blow.  Morrison got away down the right side of the Sheffield defence and clipped a left-footed cross towards the lurking Will Keane at the near post.  Keane was poised to bullet a header past Long for the second goal, when the covering Terry Kennedy inexplicably stuck out an arm to divert the ball over the crossbar.  Referee Michael Oliver awarded the penalty but took no further action against Kennedy and Will Keane stepped up to calmly slot home the spot-kick.

Will Keane slots home his penalty with a minimum of fuss… 

United began the second half in a more relaxed manner and both Academy Player of the Year Ryan Tunnicliffe and Paul Pogba began to find more space in the central areas.  Pogba threatened to extend United’s lead with an explosive drive from 35 yards that Long beat away, but then proceedings were halted for more than 6 minutes after Sheffield’s Harry Maguire suffered what looked like a nasty concussion in an innocuous aerial challenge with Morrison.

Sheffield seemed to be running out of ideas to get themselves back in the game and with Slew well-marshalled by Fornasier and Thorpe at the back, United looked comfortable for the most part.  They became even more comfortable after 70 minutes as Ravel Morrison again ghosted forward and manoeuvred himself sufficient space to drift a right-footed shot across Long for United’s third.

Ravel Morrison was a constant threat to Sheffield’s goal

Within two minutes, however, Sheffield were given a foothold in the game thanks to some gung-ho attacking from United.  Sheffield broke quickly out of defence with United short on numbers in defence and when Slew floated the ball over the head of the back-pedalling Fornasier, Joe Ironside (great name for a Sheffield footballer!) was able to control the ball and steer a shot past the advancing Johnstone.  Remarkably, this was Sheffield’s first shot on target.

Roared on by their travelling support, Sheffield made renewed and vigorous attempts to further reduce the deficit, but United introduced the lively Larnell Cole for Jesse Lingard after 78 minutes and he made an immediate impact with a number of penetrative forays down the right.  After 82  minutes, Cole got away yet again and with Sheffield’s defence caught pushing too far forward,  it was their turn to be undermanned at the back.  Cole’s half-hit pass to Will Keane was intercepted by the covering McFadzean on the edge of the Sheffield area, but he then promptly lost the ball again to the predatory Will Keane, who took the ball on and dummied both Kennedy and goalkeeper Long at least twice before calmly sliding a low shot into the net.  This was Keane’s 5th goal in 2 Old Trafford games this year.  If he keeps that up, he’ll be in the first team before too long!

So, 4-1 to United on the night, 6-3 on aggregate and after Keane’s second goal, there was  a feeling that the game was up as far as Sheffield were concerned.  They have great spirit and it’s easy to see how their collective strength and terrific organisation got them this far, but on the night Lady Luck didn’t smile on them and they were eventually undone by a tremendous second-half showing from United and from Ravel Morrison in particular.  The game was contested right through to the end of 7 minutes of time added on for Maguire’s injury and though both teams had their moments, there were no further goals. To be honest, 6-3 rather flatters United – it was a bit closer than such a scoreline would suggest.  Despite that, United were worthy winners of the Tournament and Tom Thorpe lifted the Cup for a record 10th time in front of an appreciative crowd, most of whom stayed on and braved being deafened by the  appalling Queen’s appalling ‘We are the Champions’ in order to see the youngsters rivalling the first team for the exuberant daftness of their celebrations.

 Statement for the Defence –  (L-R) Michael Keane, Scott McGinty, Tom Thorpe and Michele Fornasier with the F.A. Youth Cup

Tonight wasn’t a great game – certainly not a patch on last week’s first leg in Sheffield – but as guest MUTV pundit Gary Neville pointed out, cup finals are there to be won and often the importance of the result outweighs the importance of the performance.  United did what they needed to do to get the result their performances in this competition have deserved.  As well as the trophy, United’s F.A. Youth Cup campaign may also have seen the dawning of a new era because there have been 4 key performers in the squad – Keane, Pogba, Tunnicliffe and Morrison – for whom the future looks very bright indeed – and there may be others; Lingard and Cole are both super-talented but need to (physically) grow a bit and Tyler Blackett is showing huge promise for a first-year scholar – he should be back to help United defend this trophy next year.  Ravel Morrison’s future prospects may be influenced by the consequences of his off-field activities; he is up in court over the next few days on quite serious charges involving criminal damage and assault.  Once he  – hopefully – decides that he would rather be a Manchester United player  than a Davyhulme hoodlum, he should be OK. 

So, congratulations to coach Paul McGuinness and his staff and to all the players for a fantastic run in this year’s tournament.  It’s been great to watch – often a lot more fun than the first team, frankly.

It’s been a good week for picking up trophies, with the first team yesterday and the Under-18’s tonight, so let’s hope that good things do come in threes and that the first team can put one over on Barcelona on Saturday.  Fingers crossed.

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Listening to Jimmie Spheeris

One of the Princess’ favourite bands is Joy Division, a band that ceased to exist fully 10 years before she was born.  Even though I was living in Manchester during their brief but glorious heyday, even though I saw them play at least a dozen times, even though I knew Bernard Sumner well enough to stand at the bar in the Russell Club and have a pint with him, even though I was in the BBC studios on Oxford Road when they recorded that extraordinary version of ‘Transmission‘ for ‘Something Else’ or whatever the show was called…… despite all this, she has told me stuff about Joy Division that I never knew anything about at all.  Somehow, this spooks me just a little.

You would be entitled to ask, of course, what the hell this has got to do with Jimmie Spheeris, a California-based singer-songwriter who died quite tragically back in 1984 and was probably as unaware of Joy Division as they were of him.  The point of course, is the extraordinary power of the internet to act as a focal point for fans; a place where they can gather and post their stories and their concert pictures and bootleg recordings and all the memorabilia of fandom.  This is where the stories – real, imagined,apocryphal – get lodged in the collective psyche and become a narrative and almost mythical subtext to all the ‘official’ versions.   

Joy Division have, of course been pretty well served by such mythical subtexts and by the mechanisms of posthumous marketing.  There have been books -some of them of the doorstop ‘coffee table’ variety, there have been extensive issues and re-issues of existing recordings and previously unreleased recordings, there has been an enduring interest in Peter Savile’s iconic design work, there have been 2 feature length films, one of them Grant Gee’s excellent ‘Joy Division’ documentary, one Anton Corbijn’s fictionalised but equally excellent ‘Control’.  All of this stuff has been sifted and measured and evaluated by the online Joy Divison fanbase; a process that will no doubt continue more or less indefinitely.

For the late Jimmie Spheeris, it’s a similar story in some respects, yet with a radically different set of outcomes.  Born in Oklahoma in 1949,  Jimmie was brother to film-maker Penelope, cousin to musician Chris and was also apparently somehow related through his Greek origins to the movie director Costa-Gavras.  His family background was in the fairground/’carney’ trade and after his father was murdered by a ‘belligerent carnival-goer’, his mother relocated the family to California, eventually settling in Venice, in suburban Los Angeles.   Once grown, Jimmie moved to New York City in the late 1960’s in an attempt to break into the music scene.  At one point he apparently shared an apartment with the late Laura Nyro.

His break came when his friend Richie Havens introduced him to Clive Davis, at that point Head of A&R for Columbia Records.  Davis signed him to a four-album contract and the first of his albums – ‘Isle of View‘ – appeared in 1971.  Recorded in New York and Los Angeles with a band of largely unknown musicians, it got quite a lot of radio play in the States and was even released in the U.K. in 1972, but sank without trace here.  The lyrics were, I suppose, of their time – poetic flights of fancy, filled with images of birds flyin’ free or swooping down, of mountains and trees and rain and the seashore and perhaps more than anything else a set of intensely sensual reflections on love and its ‘many-splendoured things’ – not sure how many Spheeris fans knew at this point that he was openly gay.  Spheeris’ distinctive voice could soar across octaves, as on the standout ‘I am the mercury’, but the overall mood was of hushed intimacy, with acoustic guitar, flute and strings evoking a variety of moods; most of them in harmony with the hippie ethos of the times.

Jimmie Spheeris- early Columbia promo shot

In a way, that was the problem for Jimmie Spheeris and a host of other talented early 70’s American singer-songwriters, all surfing on the coat-tails of the success achieved by the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell or Simon & Garfunkel.  The market was awash with sensitive long-haired minstrels crooning gentle odes to their ‘old ladies’ and a substantial number of ‘old ladies’ returning the compliment.  A lot of this stuff was woeful rubbish, but some of it was really good and there’s little doubt that the music of Jimmie Spheeris had a magic all of its own.  It’s something that each of his first four albums all possess to a greater or lesser extent. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Spheeris worked largely within the parameters of what would usually be described as folk music, without sliding into country-rock or pop clichés.  Spheeris’ best songs tend to be introspective reflections on love and life; when he did step out with some more up-tempo rockers, or novelty numbers like the title track from his second album – ‘The Original Tap-Dancing Kid’, released in 1973 – the results were often a lot less compelling. 

The second album was produced by former Rascals frontman Felix Cavaliere and featured a crew of seasoned Los Angeles sessioneers like Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar and Bobbye Hall.  Whilst it consolidated the achievements of ‘Isle of View’, it didn’t really move things along too much, getting lost among all the other ‘soft-rock’ albums of the day and sold only modestly.  Jimmie Spheeris’ response was to take his music out on the road and he embarked on an 18-month period of touring with a band of close associates, such as bassist Johnny Pierce, guitarist Geoff Levin, drummer Bart Hall and keyboard/reeds player Jim Cowger.  During this era, he would play support to a plethora of different acts – some more ‘sympathetic’ to his music than others.

By the time Spheeris released his third album – ‘The Dragon is Dancing’ – in 1975, his band were a battle-hardened force to be reckoned with.  Jimmie had hooked up with producer Henry Lewy, who had worked extensively with Joni Mitchell and  for ‘Dragon’ Lewy was shrewd enough to retain the core unit of the road band, adding other guests on an ad hoc basis.  One of these guests was Chick Corea, who played synthesiser on the album’s atmospheric title track.  Whilst it might seem a little odd that an A-List jazz fusioneer would crop up on such an album, the reason is probably that by this point, Jimmie Spheeris had begun to flirt with Scientology, of which Corea is a high-profile aficionado.  Corea brought ace bassist Stanley Clarke (another Scientologist and Return to Forever member) along with him for the next Spheeris album  ‘Ports of the Heart’, recorded the following year.  Both ‘Dragon‘ and ‘Ports’ represented a quantum leap from the intimate ‘folky’ style of the first 2 albums.  Strings were again used judiciously, but these were rock albums, pure and simple, often with fantastic, imaginative arrangements and excellent musicianship.  Eighteen months of slog around the States had taught Jimmie and his band how to get the best out of one another.  Add to this a particularly strong batch of songs on ‘Dragon’ and some interesting cover versions on ‘Ports’ and it was clear that Jimmie Spheeris had escaped from the ‘hippie folk ghetto’ and was on the way to somewhere far more interesting……..all of which makes it all the more frustrating that he seemed to have simply moved next door into the ‘cult artist ghetto’ instead.

By 1976, when ‘Ports of the Heart’ was released, there were major changes afoot in the world of rock music.  Whilst the punk revolution was no more than a distant cloud on the hippie horizons of Southern California, things were nonetheless changing.  The Eagles had transformed their open road country-rock into a highly-formalised pop-rock monster and Fleetwood Mac had come back from nowhere to take the airwaves by storm.  What Jimmie Spheeris was doing was somehow too fragile and left-field to break out to a wider audience.  By now Spheeris numbered Jackson Browne among his buddies – Browne sang backup vocals on ‘Ports’ – and whilst their lyrical concerns weren’t a million miles apart, Browne’s lyrics were somehow more rooted in the minutiae of everyday life and the hard compromises now afflicting those who had espoused the hippie dream.  Jimmie Spheeris, meanwhile, still had his head to the skies, was lost in the mystical ‘otherness’ of the universe and his lyrics still reflected this.   In this newer, harsher ‘Hotel California’ world, brute economics took over; Browne went on to stardom, whilst Columbia dropped Jimmie Spheeris from their roster. 

As far as Spheeris’ career as a recording artist was concerned, there’s not much else to tell.  If he did much recording between 1977 and his death in 1984, little has survived except for one final album (‘Spheeris‘), which he finished on the night that he died.  Riding his motorbike home through Santa Monica at 2 am on the morning of 4 July, 1984, Jimmie Spheeris had the misfortune to meet a drunk driving a van travelling in his direction.  He did not survive the collision.  It was to be sixteen years before ‘Spheeris‘ saw the light of day.

During those sixteen years, the world had moved on in many ways; not all of them that positive.  In terms of the record business, we were now listening to small shiny silver discs as opposed to larger black plastic discs.  Punk had been and gone, leaving its claw-marks on the body politic and the thing we’d usually referred to as ‘rock & roll’ had morphed into a huge number of variants, from the frontiers of jazz to the retro stylings of rockabilly – and everything else inbetween.

The internet was already muscling in on the hegemony of the big record companies; bootleg tapes and CDR’s were being openly traded and the moguls of yesteryear were starting to lose their grip on what and who we listened to – a process that has only accelerated in the intervening 11 years.

Fans were starting to use the internet to share their enthusiasms for this or that band – fan websites were being set up and blogs were just around the corner.  Jimmie Spheeris fans were still out there and starting to pester Sony (Columbia/Epic’s new owners) to give CD re-releases to the Jimmie Spheeris albums in their vaults as their treasured vinyl copies became ever more battered and scratched.  No dice.  Spheeris just wasn’t a hot enough proposition in economic terms.  On the internet,  Spheeris fan Andy Markley started up a Memorial Gallery and  ‘Anybody remember Jimmie Spheeris?’ site and was amazed by the response he got.  One person who broke cover at this point was Jimmie’s former bassist Johnny Pierce and together with some finance and the efforts of numerous enthusiasts, Rain Records was set up as a Sony Special Projects enterprise with Pierce as CEO.  Its remit was to function solely as an outlet for existing and ‘new’ Spheeris recordings.  An examination of the 4 sets of master tapes in the Sony vaults revealed that if the Spheeris albums were to be rescued and released on CD, something would have to be done at once as the tapes were de-oxidising at a rate of knots. 

Sony drove a hard bargain.  Rain Records had to pay them upfront for the manufacture of the CD’s at Sony’s own plants.  Pierce took out a second mortgage on his house to cover this and many other costs.  However, by 1998, all four of the original Columbia/Epic releases were out on CD and it was my good fortune to visit New York City the following year, where I was able to snaffle up copies at Virgin’s shop on Union Square.  Even better, Rain had finally put out the ‘Spheeris’ album from 1984 and had put together a double CD entitled ‘An Evening with Jimmie Spheeris’ recorded at a club in Connecticut in 1976. 

Jimmie Spheeris on stage in 1977

The ‘Spheeris‘ album is – frankly – a bit of a curate’s egg.  There are a couple of good tracks – ‘Three in Venice’ and ‘Jungle Sweep’, for example – but by and large, it just doesn’t measure up to its predecessors.  The live album, however, is terrific, despite the ubiquitous hooting and ‘wooooooooo – ing’ that is probably the worst feature of American audiences.  Sometimes the delicacy of Spheeris’ songs gets lost in all the drunken ballyhoo of a smallish club gig, but enough of the real stuff gets through to make ‘An Evening with’ an invaluable addition to a painfully small catalogue.

‘Labour of Love’ is an overused phrase, but it’s one that’s definitely applicable to what Johnny Pierce and Andy Markley called ‘The Preservation Project’.  Together with a number of dedicated activists, they had managed to bring the music of Jimmie Spheeris to a new generation whilst making thousands of existing fans very happy.  It should have been an enduring monument to fan power; sadly, it wasn’t to last.

In the USA, the Rain CD’s were distributed by K-Tel, a name that will inspire mixed feelings among British readers of a certain age.  In the early 1970’s, K-Tel were active here in releasing a series of ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’-type packages of hits on vinyl in gaudy covers and with little discernible quality control.  In 3 words, they were cheap, re-packaged crap.

With such a reputation, what happened with K-Tel in the States  shouldn’t come as a surprise.  On 19 March, 2001, K-Tel International filed for bankruptcy.  They did so owing Rain a substantial sum of money and holding all but a handful of the inventory of Rain’s Spheeris CD’s in their warehouses.   This stock was, of course, immediately ‘impounded’ by whoever it is that deals with such matters….the Brain Police, the Mysterons…who the hell knows?

As a consequence of the K-Tel bankruptcy, Sony were quick to jump on the bandwagon.  From 7 April, 2001, Rain were prohibited from distributing the Spheeris CD’s that they had paid for upfront and the licencing agreement they had with Sony was cancelled.

So, to sum up, Rain were now prohibited from manufacturing and selling Jimmie Spheeris CD’s, even though they had paid for the existing stock upfront.  However, this was moot, as the K-Tel bankruptcy meant that said stock was now in the hands of the lawyers.  Not a happy story and I am unable to tell you that either the remaining stock or the funds owing ever found their way back to Messrs Markley and Pierce.  To make matters worse, Johnny Pierce died from cancer in 2005.

Since then, rather bizarrely, a ‘twofer’ CD that brings together ‘Isle of View’ and ‘The Original Tap-Dancing Kid’ seems to have emerged on British re-issue label BGO. Most recently – and this was what inspired this elongated post – Texas band Midlake have included a track from ‘Isle of View’ on their recent ‘Late Night Tales’  compilation.  Midlaker Tim Smith has described ‘Isle of View’ as his all-time favourite album.

For all this, it’s unlikely, I would guess, that Jimmie Spheeris is going to acquire the same kind of posthumous reputation accorded to – for example – Nick Drake.  Even so, the fans of Jimmie Spheeris, and, in particular Andy Markley and Johnny Pierce deserve enormous credit for what they did manage to achieve.  By comparison, being a Joy Division ‘internet archaeologist’ is a stroll down Easy Street.