Tuesday, 25 February 2014

We are not a-Moyes-d

Forgive the weak pun in the title.  When I was growing up, I learnt that 'a weak pun is better than no pun at all' - it isn't, but never mind.

I'm writing this with half an eye on the BBC Sport Champions' League Live Text, giving updates on Manchester United's progress against Greek Champions Olympiakos in the first leg of the Champions' League Last 16 tie.

Despite being the favourites to go through to the Last 8, the Premier League side are currently losing 2-0, and that's causing considerable consternation amongst their (many) fans.  Much of the anger, of course, is directed at new manager David Moyes - whose debut season in Manchester, I think it's fair to say, hasn't exactly gone off without a hitch.

I think it's pretty clear that, after the glory of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, Moyes would have come in for criticism no matter how his first season at Old Trafford had gone.  But the longer this season goes on, the clearer it becomes that something is definitely wrong in the red half of Manchester right now - and even those fans who sensibly decided to give Moyes a chance, instead of damning him before a ball was kicked, are starting to have second thoughts.

But how much trouble are United really in?

BBC Sport pundit Robbie Savage is certainly not the first to espouse this view.  I'm sorry Robbie, but just like your prediction that Norwich City will be relegated from the Premier League this season, this is complete nonsense!  This may be 'the same team' that won the League last year, but that overly-simplistic view fails to take into account that they were an ageing team even last year (and therefore are even older now); they have been hit by injuries to key players (such as Robin Van Persie) this season, which last year they were not; their main domestic rivals have strengthened around them while United largely kept the same squad - if you stand still, you go backwards; and a new manager - any new manager - is going to take a little while to get settled in the shoes of the exceptional Sir Alex Ferguson (the likes of whom it is unlikely football in this country will ever see again).

Having said that, Moyes' approach often seems slapdash and haphazard.  OK, he inherited a squad of players used to playing under one manager - many of whom are in the twilights of their careers by now, and others simply don't look up to the task - and he has (for whatever reason) not really put his own stamp on the squad since arriving in the job.  But it remains unclear what his vision for Manchester United is, and how he wants his team to play.

An interesting comparison to make would be Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool.  Liverpool is a club with a rich and successful history and passionate supporters all over the world - a club which expects success.  Rodgers was brought in from Swansea after his first season in the Premier League with them, and was largely unproven at the highest level.  Many fans were sceptical of the appointment, and quickly became disgruntled when Liverpool only managed seventh in the table in their first season under Rodgers.

However, a year on, Liverpool currently sit in the Top Four with an outside shot at winning the title and a real chance of Champions' League qualification next season.  They have had the most potent attack in the Premier League so far this year, and pundits wax lyrical about their style of play.  Liverpool fans are seeing that sticking with Rodgers even after a shaky first season is paying dividends - and that he is fast establishing himself as a very promising manager with a distinctive style, capable of coping with the pressures of managing a 'big' club in the Premier League.

In contrast, Moyes seems to be crumpling under the pressure of being in charge of Manchester United (although, admittedly, this is far larger than any pressure Rodgers has been under at Liverpool), and he doesn't seem to have a vision for his team, or for the club.  Praised with doing an excellent job with very limited resources for many years at Everton (who, conversely, actually look a better team now under Roberto Martinez than they did last season, and are currently above Manchester United in the table), Moyes has yet to show that he is able to adapt to the step up in expectation which comes with managing arguably the biggest and most famous football club in the world.

Personally, I think Manchester United would be absolutely mad to sack Moyes now.  The changeover from the Sir Alex Ferguson period was always going to take time, and Moyes deserves a chance to put his own stamp on things at the club - but he needs to decide what that stamp will look like, and act on it!

Manchester United will still be an attractive, desirable destination for top players during the summer transfer window; a club of that stature, with that record of success, doesn't lose its appeal after just one dodgy season.  But Moyes needs to throw his weight around in the transfer window, and start to shape the team he wants to see at Old Trafford, because another season like this one probably won't be tolerated by a club so used to winning trophies.

The word 'crisis' is bandied around far too much, these days.  Manchester United are not a club 'in crisis'.  As a Norwich City fan, I would be delighted to be sixth in the Premier League.  As an (adoptive) Viktoria Plzeň supporter, I would've loved to reach the Last 16 of the Champions' League, instead of going out in the Group Stages.  In the grand scheme of things, Manchester United fans still have it pretty good; getting knocked out of cup competitions and scrapping for mid-table finishes is day-to-day life for the majority of football fans, season after season.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Innocent until proven guilt-free

D'you know what I really hate?  OK, one of the things I really hate...

The sanctimonious branding of 'healthy' foods telling you that you don't need to feel guilty about eating this.  It annoys me that the people at these companies assume that I would feel guilty about that.

These are actually very tasty.
It's just the use of the phrase 'guilt-free snacking' on the packet to which I object.

I'm an adult, and I choose what I want to eat and drink.  Sometimes I eat healthily; other times I - knowingly - eat very unhealthily.  But always it's my choice to eat the food that I do...  So why would I feel 'guilty' about that?

I understand that a lot of these companies' marketing hinges on making people feel like that should be feeling guilty about the foods they have freely chosen to eat, but I'm not going to let anyone make me feel bad about eating good food.

Sunday, 16 February 2014


I'm going to start a new super-trendy internet craze called GeckNominate - you tag a friend on Facebook to 'nominate' them, and then they have spend the next three-and-a-half weeks living as a gecko, licking their eyes instead of blinking and shedding their skin.

Except, of course, they don't.  They don't have to do anything.

And it's just the same with current viral internet drinking madness NekNominate.  The NekNominate game has been in the news recently, and is under fire for being irresponsible and dangerous, and encouraging excessive drinking.  The Mirror claims the game has caused the deaths of five people in the UK.

But despite the so-called 'rules' of NekNominate, it's still up to you what you put in your body.  You've been tagged in a Facebook post - it's not a legally-binding agreement!  If you don't want to do it, just don't do it.

And if you do want to do it, fine - that's up to you.  But if you end up in the hospital because you drank a pint of Stella Artois with Royal Icing, two squeezes of Fairy Platinum washing up liquid, grapefruit juice and and a shot of Cointreau - can you really say that's anyone's fault but your own?

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Floods, sweat and tears

If you are one of the people whose home has been flooded or damaged following recent spells of violent stormy weather in the UK, you have my sympathies.  What you're going through at the moment must be absolutely ghastly, and no one would want to be in that position.

But almost as ghastly has been the response of politicians, the media, and the general public to what I'm sure, by now, must be termed the flooding crisis.

Let's be absolutely clear, here - the flooding is terrible, yes, but it isn't particularly anybody's fault.  There is a worrying tendency in our modern culture, whenever misfortune befalls us, to sit back, pouting with disapproval, superciliously demanding to know "what are they going to do about it?"

Whom, exactly, is supposed to "do something about it"?  Damage caused to personal property by the weather is unfortunate and inconvenient (to put it extremely mildly!), but we are dealing with forces of nature well out of our control; we can't just stamp our feet and demand recompense.  Who is going to pay it?

The government, of course.  Or, at least, that's what plenty of people are calling for.  Now, there are plenty of things for which you can fault the current Coalition government - but I really don't think that they control the weather.  (The other day I genuinely saw someone on Twitter refer to the recent downpour as 'Tory rain' - not just rain, but Tory rain.  Rain which believes in tax cuts, private sector enterprise and personal responsibility.  If that's not political hyperbole, I don't know what is!)

Of course, politicians don't help themselves.  David Cameron said yesterday that "money is no object" when it comes to helping victims of floods - which is, frankly, a stupid thing to say.  And for days, now, senior political figures from all parties have rushed to flood-stricken areas to do precisely nothing other than to be seen going there.  Naturally, people see right through that, lambasting the politicians for being so opportunistic as to turn up in flood-hit regions looking for photo opportunities where they can act like they care - but these same people would be the first to hit out at 'uncaring, out-of-touch' politicians if they didn't put in a token appearance in flooded towns and villages!

Ultimately, there's very little that can be done at the moment - and in our something must be done! culture, people find that difficult to swallow.  Our default reaction when we encounter adversity is to point the gnarled finger of blame and cast around for a suitable scapegoat, instead of just dusting ourselves down and getting on with things as best we can; unfortunately, sometimes we have to accept that it isn't anyone's fault, nobody owes us anything - it's just that sometimes, shit happens.  It sucks, but that's life.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Premier League Sack Race

As you probably know, I am a Norwich City supporter - so the current Premier League season has so far provided me with relatively few good times.  Yesterday's game away at West Ham, however, was a particularly low point...

Despite playing well, creating lots of chances, and seeming to dominate play for prolonged periods, Norwich failed to score, and ended up paying the price for that wastefulness in front of goal as West Ham scored twice late on to take all the points - leaving the Canaries travelling home to Norfolk empty-handed.

This is not the first time this season that we have found ourselves in the situation of being easily the better team on the pitch, and still coming away with no points to show for it (Manchester United at home and Cardiff away are both prime examples of this).  But the loss to West Ham last night - coming at a time when the team and supporters were full of confidence following a well-deserved and highly creditable draw with Manchester City just a few days before, and when all the teams in the lower regions of the League table are bunching up close together on points - is the one which has stung the most.

Predictably, Norwich fans were queueing up on social media to stick the knife into the club's management hierarchy - with first team manager Chris Hughton unsurprisingly coming in for the majority of the flack.  Despite being the usual illiterate, ad hominem rubbish which usually makes me embarrassed to call myself a football fan, these supporters do have a point; their anger and their frustrations are completely understandable.  Clearly, something needs to change.  The question now is: what?

As I pointed out in a similar post back in November, sacking the manager never has been (and never will be!) a 'silver bullet' to end footballing woes.  No matter how much the fans are baying for blood, it is always a much more complex issue than that.

Some City supporters are pointing out the upswing in Sunderland's fortunes since they changed their manager earlier in the season; I think it is short-sighted and foolish to compare our situation with Sunderland's.  But that does raise an interesting point; of the seven Premier League sides to part company with their bosses so far this season, how many have benefitted?  Let's take a look...

Paolo Di Canio - Sunderland AFC (sacked: 22nd September 2013)

Since jettisoning Di Canio, Sunderland have brought in ex-Brighton & Hove Albion manager Gus Poyet, who has done a fantastic job of lifting the Black Cats (formerly tipped as almost certain relegation candidates) out of the Bottom Three and towards the middle of the table.  Poyet seems to have restored harmony to a dressing room left divided and dispirited by the controversial and unpopular Di Canio, as well as bring back into the fold various players who found themselves marginalised under the previous regime and galvanising the spirit of the team as a whole.

Has it worked?  Overall, a great success, and with Poyet at the helm, Sunderland have at least given themselves a fighting chance of surviving the drop.

Ian Holloway - Crystal Palace (sacked: 23rd October 2013)

Despite being a fun, likeable figure in football, it quickly became clear to Palace that Holloway was somewhat out of his depth in the top flight, and the decision was taken to bring in former Stoke City boss Tony Pulis - a manager not without his critics, but with plenty of Premier League experience, and the distinction of never having been relegated English football's elite division.

Has it worked?  As with Sunderland before them, Crystal Palace have benefitted hugely from their managerial change - previously everybody's favourites to go straight back down to the Championship, under Pulis they now look like a team capable of holding their own in the Premier League.

Martin Jol - Fulham FC (sacked: 1st December 2013)

A run of abject results which saw Fulham propping up the Premier League in 20th place, coupled with the marked improvement in close relegation rivals Crystal Palace and Sunderland following managerial changes, did for Dutchman Jol.  Instead of bringing in a new manager from outside the club, Fulham promoted René Meulensteen to the hot seat from within their existing coaching structure.

Has it worked?  No.  Despite a few glimmers of hope (such as the nail-biting draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford last weekend, and the capture of highly-rated German midfielder Lewis Holtby on load from Tottenham in the January Transfer Window), the Cottagers are still in the Drop Zone, fighting a fierce relegation fight - and their fortunes are, for the most part, no better than they were under Jol.

Steve Clarke - West Bromwich Albion (sacked: 14th December 2013)

Following a brilliant debut season as a manager last year, Steve Clarke's sacking in the middle of December was one of the more unexpected moves of the current Premier League season.  Whilst not exactly matching the success and glory of their 2012-13 campaign, Albion were not in an especially bad position when Clarke went, and had achieved some decent results to boot (beating Manchester United at Old Trafford in wonderful style, in particular).  A few weeks later, the Baggies brought in Pepe Mel as Clarke's replacement.

Has it worked?  No.  West Brom find themselves one place (and one point) above the Relegation Zone, and despite holding Chelsea to a 1-1 draw yesterday, it is difficult to see at this stage why those in authority at The Hawthorns think Mel is particularly an improvement on Clarke.  West Brom's slump in form from last season to this seems to be much more closely linked to losing key attacking talent from the 2012-13 season (most notably Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku, who spent last season on loan at The Hawthorns from parent club Chelsea) than any managerial deficiencies.

André Villas-Boas - Tottenham Hotspur (sacked: 16th December 2013)

As pressure mounted on Villas-Boas to improve results after spending so much money on so many new (and mostly highly-regarded) players over the summer, the Portuguese began to run out of excuses - and, as tensions flared within the club in the weeks preceding his exit, it became clear to us all that the writing was on the wall as far as his future at Spurs was concerned.  Like Fulham, Tottenham chose to promote an existing member of their coaching setup - Tim Sherwood - rather than bring in somebody new from outside the club in their quest for that ever elusive Top Four spot and the Champions League place that would come with it.

Has it worked?  Sort-of.  But not really.  Like Poyet at Sunderland, Sherwood has brought players who were passed over by Villas-Boas back in from the cold - especially striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who has since repaid his new manager's faith in him by becoming Spurs' top scorer in the post-AVB era.  As a result of the change of style, Spurs are a noticeably better team now - but in League table terms they are no closer to their goal of a Top Four finishing position now than in December (Spurs are 3pts off 4th place, as things stand - the same points margin as at the end of December 2013), and I can see them missing out again this season.

Malky Mackay - Cardiff City (sacked: 27th December 2013)

Another sacking which came as no surprise to those who had followed the unhappy saga of Cardiff's first season back in the top flight, Mackay was finally given his marching orders after weeks of agonising at the end of December.  Unlike Malaysian owner Vincent Tan - whose decision it was to remove him - Mackay was popular with the fans and the players, and the sympathies of the football world were entirely on his side when Tan inevitably showed him the door.  Former Manchester United star Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was brought in shortly afterwards.

Has it worked?  No.  Cardiff remain bottom of the table, looking likely to be relegated.  Whether the situation would be any better had Mackay remained in charge in uncertain, but that things have not improved at Cardiff since the change is self-evident.

Michael Laudrup - Swansea City (sacked: 4th February 2014)

This decision has caused considerable consternation within the footballing world.  Just as at West Brom, the consensus seems to be that a very capable manager was just unable quite to live up to his triumphant debut season, and has since paid the price.  Central defender Garry Monk, who has been at the club as a player since 2004, was elevated to 'Player-Manager' status for the remainder of the season.

Has it worked?  Rather too early to say - but Monk has been a Swansea man for ten years, and the Swans aren't going to be relegated this season, so it may prove a success in the long run.  That's not to say Swansea wouldn't have been just as successful had they stuck with Laudrup, though...

Of those seven managerial changes, only two (or possibly three, if you include Spurs) have demonstrably been changes for the better.  In those cases, too, there have been clear indications as to what the issues are that need addressing - at Sunderland (and, to a slightly lesser extent, at Spurs), issues with performances were mainly due to unrest off the pitch, and under a new manager those wounds have been allowed to heal, and previously ostracised players have been brought back into the fold, bringing unity and focus back to the club.

At Norwich, we don't have that situation.  The players are not angry.  There is no unrest in the dressing room (so far as we, as outsiders, can tell, anyway).  Some supporters may claim that Hughton is out of his depth in the Premier League, as Ian Holloway was at Crystal Palace - but Holloway didn't record victories over Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal in his first season in the top division.

The trouble I see with sacking Hughton is that it is risky.  It is a huge gamble to take - especially at this stage in the season.  We could be another Sunderland or Crystal Palace, yes - but we could just as easily end up another Fulham, Cardiff or West Brom.  In my opinion, Hughton should go only when it is certain we would be able to replace him with somebody better - not somebody as good, but somebody better.

The usual brigade of "act-first-think-later" fans on the Norwich City Facebook page are full of suggestions as to suitable replacements for Hughton.  At various points throughout this season, Malky Mackay, Gianfranco Zola, Neil Lennon, Roberto Di Matteo, Martin O'Neill and Micky Phelan have all been touted as potential new Canaries bosses.

Mackay is a Norwich City legend as a former player, and a very likeable and popular figure, but I don't believe he is objectively any better as a manager than Hughton.

Zola is unproven in the Premier League, and was sacked by Watford this season being unlikely to scale the play-off heights of last year.

Lennon would never want to leave Celtic for Norwich.

Di Matteo is a good manager, but again I struggle to see why he would want to come to Norwich after winning the Champions' League in his last managerial post.

O'Neill is managing the Irish national team now.  Once again - why would he want to come to Norwich now?!

Phelan could be a good option - although technically unproven as a manager, he does have significant experience of coaching in the top flight, and of working alongside the most successful manager of the Premier League.

One option which hasn't (yet) been put forward, though, is Michael Laudrup.  Recently out-of-work, and someone who is (in my opinion, at least) certainly a step up from Hughton, I think it would definitely be worth the club's while to approach Laudrup and see if they can get him in.

The trouble with sacking the manager is not sacking the manager - it's what you do after you've sacked him.  The fans whose apoplectic comments are blowing up the Norwich City Facebook page don't seem to realise this; they are angry (and with good cause), and they want to see someone suffer as a result - they want their pound of flesh.  What they don't have is any meaningful solutions to the challenges facing the football club, beyond simple revenge upon those they perceive to have wronged them.

At this juncture, I would not be averse to a managerial change at all - providing it is a rational, well-thought-out decision made in the hard light of day, not a knee-jerk reaction driven by emotion and rage.  And, unless we can be sure of bringing in a new manager who will be a distinct improvement on the last - well, at this stage of the season, it's better the devil you know.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Vlog: TMI YouTube Tag

The 'TMI Tag' YouTube video involves answering fifty questions about yourself which are supposed to be highly personal - but are actually disappointingly middle-of-the-road.  (The kind of high school 'Truth Or Dare' questions like "do you have a crush?")

Anyway, I'd seen a few of these things posted on social media just recently, so I thought I'd have a go - but I found I wasn't able to take all the questions seriously enough.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Cold calling

Earlier today, I had the misfortune to experience a bizarre spam phone call. (You know the sort of thing I mean - some shady company with a made up name rings you up to claim they can get you 'compensation' for injuries suffered in a freak flan-baking accident, then they steal your identity and disappear into the alps when you acquiesce.) The following is a rough transcript of my brief interaction with one of these people...

Caller: hello, is that Mr Marsden?

Me: yes, who is this?

Caller: hi there, I'm calling on behalf of LTA Legal. Our records indicate that you have been involved in a road traffic accident at some point in the past two-and-a-half years - is that correct?

Me: I'm sorry, could you just explain again who you are, and exactly how you got my phone number?

Caller: well, you sound like a knobber!

*caller hangs up*

Very odd indeed!

Saturday, 1 February 2014

No, we don't have WiFi; talk to each other!

But I don't want to talk to you; I don't even know you.

I've seen this picture (or a variation on it - this one seems to be the most common, though) posted on a variety of social networking websites (ironically) just recently.  Most people see it as 'striking a blow' against modern social norms of using smartphones and tablets in public instead of talking to people face-to-face - and they seem to love that.  I, on the other hand, think it's incredibly condescending.

Firstly, to suggest that technological advances (particularly WiFi and mobile internet) have had an adverse affect on social communication is patently absurd.  Sure, internet technologies have changed the nature of social interactions, but the fact is that people are now able to communicate more easily with more people more of the time.  It maybe that some people still prefer more 'traditional' interactions, but to suggest (as this sign seems to) that using WiFi and being a social human being are mutually exclusive is demonstrably false.

Most importantly, however, the tone of the sign seems very rude, to me.  It is each establishment's prerogative whether or not to offer WiFi access to patrons - but to put up a smug, moralising sign about it seems a little unnecessary.

So, you don't have WiFi available here?  Fine.  But sanctimoniously telling me that your lack of WiFi is somehow 'better', or 'for my own good', would definitely be a good way to put me off giving you my custom.