Thursday, May 19, 2016


It's been a while since I felt any affection at all towards football.

Let's face it: as businesses go it is about as amoral and corrupt as it is possible to be from the very top all the way down to the grassiest of roots.

Far too many clubs exploit all sorts of financial loopholes with the plethora of clubs spending well beyond their means and then hitting admin to wipe the debt out at the expense of their creditors. It might be legal; it might be commonly acepted business practice; no matter it stinks.

Perhaps worst of all is the Man Utd/Glazer-stylee leveraged buy out where a new owner buys a club using income the club itself generates... God alone knows how they get away with it or sleep at night because it is completely without shame.

For all of that I have kept going to games (home ones mostly anyway) and it is a struggle to know why beyond it being an excuse to see mates and have a beer. The last few years have been a horrid, relentless, attritional spiral into near oblivion with barely a glimmer of joy along the way but I have barely missed a (home) game.

Last season was better and we began to look like a team with some talent again but even that ended horribly with the Wycombe play-off debacle no matter how remarkable, but still inadequate, the Bob Marley mini-comeback was.

Which brings us to this season and this season has been horribly disappointing as well. Make no mistake we should have been promoted weeks before the end of the season like Northampton were. It should have been us and them neck-and-neck balls-out all the way to the finishing post but no. When it mattered we just bloody crumbled.

And now we are here with Wembley and Wimbledon looming large on the horizon and a pair of simply sensational games against Portsmouth fresh in the memory. Those two Pompey games reminded me of what it was all about; of why it is that I fell in love with watching Argyle as a kid all those years ago:

Mariner & Rafferty and a vast, massive, chaotic Tuesday night crowd v Colchester; Jim Furnell saving a Terry Venables penalty; the West Brom and Derby (x2) games in the cup run; Nelson's late equaliser at Blackpool; Godfrey scoring at Bristol Rovers to set in sequence the most remarkable run of results I ever knew; being out-played by Derby for 45 mins before doing 'em good 'n' proper 4-1 in the end; walloping Leeds 6-3; Stewart Evans inspiring mayhem as we beat Man City 3-2 after being 2 down; McGregor's hat-trick in a 4-0 win at Torquay; Colchester (again) vanquished in the play-offs; Darlo at Wembley; virtually every moment of the two Sturrock promotion campaigns but especially that match v QPR and the "you'll never play here again" night v Exeter; fantastic away wins under Holloway at Palace (which remains, I think, the best I ever saw us play) and Charlton and Sheff Utd (sort of...) but that was pretty much where it stopped dead.

Since then there's been next to nothing to enjoy, to cherish but it was those occasions that make and keep a new generation of fans. It is those occasions that de-Plasticise if you like and hopefully Wembley will grab the soul of a few Plastics and never let go.

And then they won't be Plastics any more.

And lets face it we all started somewhere; we were all Plastic once.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Derby County v Plymouth Argyle

I’ve just seen this video on Facebook.

And a host of memories have come flooding back!

The game was a 6th round FA Cup replay played on the Tuesday following a 0-0 at Home Park the Saturday before – there was no nonsensical 10 day delay between the first match and the replay in those days.

I was in my first year at college and was living in Gloucester at the time and I’d journeyed back to Plymouth for the first game. We were unlucky not to win after Gordon Staniforth spanked a long range shot towards the top left corner only to be denied by Derby ‘keeper Steve Cherry getting his fingertips to the ball thus diverting it onto a post, the ball then bounced down onto the goal-line, hit the other post and was deflected away. It was a sensational moment in a pretty drab game but plucky underdogs Argyle, struggling horribly in the league below, had shaded it and Derby, who were something of a fading power at the time, knew they’d been lucky to get out of the game with a replay. Argyle, on the other hand knew Derby were there for the taking.

I suppose the most remarkable thing about the first game, Staniforth’s moment apart, was the attendance: 35,000. Home Park was rammed with Derby being allocated the Devonport End (and maybe the Barn Park too?). It was mayhem. These were the days when football grounds were feral places, terraces were often vast and the horrors of Hillsborough, Heysel and Valley Parade were yet to happen. Things really could not have been any more different to how they are today. Back then football was so much more raw than it is now. They say the past is a different place well this might as well have been a different planet.
So a replay it was to be. I had to go. So, too, did many thousands of others. Most of them travelling from Plymouth but me having to make my way from Gloucester. The Plymothians would have been coached up, I guess, for the large part but for me the only option was public transport so I bunked off college for the day and got the train up to Derby. There was only one problem: no train back. “Never mind” I thought. “What the hell! There’s no way I’m missing this one.”

I’d never been to Derby before. In fact I don’t think I’d ever been that far north before so on arrival I didn’t have a clue where anything was. I asked a railway porter where the town centre was, he jabbered something I completely failed to understand and with my mouth being kept firmly shut and my scarf being securely stashed away out of sight – there was every chance that an away fan going anywhere in those days would get a kicking if he took even the slightest of liberties – I made for the town centre where I hoped to find the Baseball Ground. This plan failed abysmally but I did find WH Smiths so I went in grabbed a Derby A to Z road map (internet? mobile phone? google maps? Not even a gimmer on the horizon at the time!) looked up where the ground was, committed details to memory and was off.

On leaving Smiths I bumped into an old school mate, Bod, who had made the same journey as me but from London. We were now a crew of two. I seem to remember that it was a fair old walk to the Baseball Ground but we had nowhere else to go so off we toddled and we got there early. Very early. Ridiculously early. I suppose it might have been about 1730 with kick-off at least 2 hours away. Nothing else for it but to hang around which we did. It’s possible we were the first ones there because the stadium wasn’t even open!

People eventually began to arrive. Bod and I continued to mope about – going to a pub was unthinkable. Eventually we were approached by a few fellas. “Are you from Plymouth or Durrrrrrrby?” “Gloucester” says I. “London” says Bod. Our interrogator was a bit confused by our unexpected responses but by now it was obvious they were from Plymouth and chances were they were looking to give any stray Derby fans they could find a kicking. We sort of fell in with them. We were now a group about 7 or 8 strong.

Neither Bod nor I had any way of getting back and our new friends were quite impressed by our bone-headed commitment. “We have a space in the car – but only one. There’s a lift, but only 1 place, back if you want it. Find us afterwards.” That didn’t seem likely.

And so on to the game. 27,000 at the Baseball Ground (“we’ve got more fans than you!”) crammed into the tightest of grounds imaginable. There’s nowhere to compare today except maybe Loftus Road but the Baseball Ground had about twice the capacity and its stands rose almost vertically from the touchline with barely any track around the grass of the pitch at all. We were stood on the lower terrace behind the goal we scored into, right behind the goal about 10 yards from the front. Behind and above us was a tier of seating also occupied by Argyle fans and above that a third tier of seating filled by home fans who took great delight in chucking stuff down on top of us: anything that came to hand and coffee seemed to be a great favourite (I hope it was coffee – it was certainly warm anyway). I’ve no idea of how many travellled up that night but it must have been at least 5000 fans and if it wasn’t it certainly seemed like it.

There was much banter. Derby’s Archie Gemill came in for fearful, relentless abuse some of which was good-natured. Blue Peter’s Simon Groom and his dog, Goldie, put in an appearance and the atmosphere in the ground positively crackled away into the night sky. It was a night of rare old passion.

We took  a lot of abuse from the home fans above us and one of them had an inflatable something or other… maybe a penguin or snowman or some such and they were dangling it down on a length of string teasing us with it. Needless to say everybody was trying to grab it and eventually they lowered it fraction too far and the thing got ripped to pieces. “We’ve got Archie Gemmill!” was the song and somebody put the head over his own and was hoisted aloft on shoulders as we celebrated the triumphant destruction of our inflatable foe.

The game itself is a blur. They battered us, we defended desperately, magnificently and with huge resolution. Our defence was not going to breached. Andy Rogers fluked the goal direct from the corner and Cherry went from hero in the first match to zero in the replay. Football can be so cruel. At the final whistle scenes of unbridled joy: Chris Harrison climbing onto the fence around the pitch; Johnny Hore dancing in delight on the pitch… It was like a mass tellytubbies big hug sprinkled with angel dust. “What scenes!” as today’s youngsters like to say.

As we filed out at the end of the match Bod and I bumped into our new friends from earlier. “Want a lift then, boy? We ain’t going to London but Gloucester is on the way home we’ll take you if you want.” What price friendship, eh? The offer of a lift was too good to turn down (and it was free!) so I went with them and Bod took his chances hanging around Derby all night dodging their supporters, who had nought but murderous intent in mind, until the first mail train the next morning. We stopped off somewhere on the way back for a beer. Uttoxeter, maybe? And got there just in time to see the match highlights on Sportsnight which was a definite result!

I got dropped off at my halls of residence where everybody was fast asleep and I was all on me tod buzzing like I never had before and rarely have since.

Derby. 1984. What an occasion! Just… crazy. Absolutely stark-raving bonkers in every single way imaginable. I'd like to think this blog gives a taste as to what it was like but I probably haven't even got near...

Monday, August 17, 2015

Traditions - Argyle could do with some!

Tradition is pretty important to us football fans, isn't it?

From our little corner of Footballworld we passionately support our team but what is it that we are actually supporting?

Argyle, like most of the other clubs, was formed a long time ago to provide an outlet for our talented performers to display and test that talent against others. Along the way it also provided an entertainment spectacle for the locals to watch that talent get tested.

To that end various norms were adopted: team name; colours, location and so on. It is those that we have come to support.

But where are we now? The team is mainly composed of imports from elsewhere with a scant smattering of local talent. The backbone of the team is now provided by old sweats from anywhere we can get them who, on arrival at least, have the barest inkling of club history and no affinity for the city beyond it. Argyle, to them, is just a career move, another step on the ladder whereas to us it is far, far more than that.

For our part Argyle has gone through many evolutions. Owners, managers, players all come and go with few of them leaving any lasting impression. The club itself has changed the kit we wear many, many times: we've had predominantly green, predominantly white, stripes (both green & white and green & black), we've had green with whites sleeves and green with a band across the chest and white with a green band across the chest and that's just from memory. Before that we had halved shirts, black with green trim, green with black trim.

Even the shade of green has shifted as we have gone along. There's what I used to refer to as Argyle green, a much brighter version hidden between black stripes, a very dark green, a lighter very dark green and various other shades too. The current green is a very dark shade but even that dark green has varied considerably since Paul Sturrock's mob first wore "meadow green".

We've had white shorts, black shorts and green shorts; green or white socks (I don't recall any black ones but I wouldn't be surprised...). The club badge on the shirt has even been changed with incredible regularity and I've not even considered the myriad of away kit options: white, yellow, champagne (!), light blue, dark blue, orange, black, royal lilac or whatever the hell it is now... There's probably others.

If there is one thing, easily achievable, that I would like to see the club do it is settle upon the very basic things that label us as Argyle: shade of green, kit design, change colours and badge design.

There's been so much change over the years that there is no tradition in any meaningful sense to go back to so why not start again?

Argyle could easily petition its season ticket holders and the affiliated supporter groups could easily petition their members so let's settle on a shade of green - and stick to it. Let's set up a competition to design a new badge - and then stick to it. Let us settle on a kit template for both home and away kits and stick to it. Let's settle on change colours and stick with them.

It wouldn't be hard to achieve. It wouldn't cost much to find out. It would engage supporters and help us to feel that it is our club still/again*.

It would not win us a single point or score us a single goal. It would have as much effect on our future results as last month's horoscopes did but for all of that it is important because it goes to the heart of what it means to be a football club.

And after that we could set about using Argyle as a platform for more local talented players to perform on but that is much harder, but no less desirable, to achieve.

We should not ever lose sight of why Argyle was formed to start with or why we all decided to pin our colours to the club's mast. Settling once and for all on some core identifiers would be a reminder to us all of what it is really all about.

*Delete as appropriate

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Some Journey?

Suzanne Vega has a song containing the lyric “if I had met you on some journey where would we be now?”

And it has set me wondering about the counter hypothesis: “if I had not met you on some journey where would we be now?”

Except for “I” I’m thinking Argyle and for “you” I’m thinking James Brent.

If Argyle hadn’t met Brent where would it be now?

And it is a valid question, certainly worthy of pondering given the long, empty summer we have looming, given how often I have heard “without Brent there would be no Argyle” (or variants thereof).

So far as I can see if James Brent had never existed it is only really feasible to imagine 3 options:

1) The Heaney bid would have succeeded.

2) A different “Brent”-figure would have emerged and done much the same in terms of saving the club from administration – after that who knows?

3) PAFC as we knew it would have gone bust (which it did anyway – something often over-looked) and had to start again God alone knows where down the pyramid.

At the time we were offered a club separated from the stadium by Heaney. The club was up for sale for £1 but the land/stadium stayed with him and we would have been tenants paying rent… “all he wants to do is build a cinema in the park” was the mantra chanted, remember?

Well a few years later the land has been separated from the club, the stadium has been sold (luckily to the council) and all James Brent’s planning depended on building a cinema in the park. And we are just tenants paying rent. Brent has obviously failed in his preferred option (the now-shelved Higher Home Park development) and has failed in no small part because he quite simply didn’t get it done before a better (Bretonside) plan came along but, essentially, you can’t slip a fag paper between the Brent and Heaney plans so far as they are known. Had Heaney won would he have built his cinema before British Land came along? We’ll never know but if he had then there would probably be no ambitious Bretonside plan and no new bus station in the city centre and much more besides. If ever there’s an example of why non-Argyle fan Plymothians should be interested in what goes on at Argyle, or why PCC should take an active interest in the club’s governance, then here is as good a reason why as you will ever see.

Or Heaney might have taken over and failed completely. Had he done so then we’re back where we were when the New World failed but with a different administrator, probably, meaning that #2 above comes into play. A similar but different Brent-figure. At the time there was only one other name in the frame: Buttivant. Rumours exist that other parties were interested but Guilfoyle didn’t appear to be entertaining anybody other than Heaney, until his wheels came off, and then it was a mad panic to get Brent in before the whole shebang folded. Was there really any viability in this option? I guess we’ll never know but it seems unlikely.

Which leads to #3: Starting all over again.

That would have meant a Trust-owned club phoenixing from the ashes. Resurgam!

Obviously this is completely speculative but would such a club have been marooned in the very lowest levels for long? I don’t think so. At the time we were told that such a club couldn’t even hope to finance the upkeep of Home Park but, we now know, that the council was willing to negotiate very, ahem, favourable arrangements around rent and rates and we also know that since then next to nothing has spent on maintainance at Home Park. A Trust-owned Argyle couldn’t have failed to match that so why wouldn’t it have succeeded?

The template to follow has been well-established by both AFC Wimbledon and Newport. A steady rise back up through the pyramid would have been likely and a spectacular run of year-on-year promotions is not unthinkable.

And if that had spectacular run had happened the club would now be renting the stadium, exactly as it is now, and it would still be united with the land surrounding the stadium, which it currently is not. The question is which league would Argyle now be in?

We have now had 4 seasons since Brent took over. We are still in the same division that we were in when he arrived. The club’s finances are a little better, so we are led to believe, than when he arrived but had he not done so, and we had genuinely started anew, we would have done so unencumbered by the burden of historical debt and we’d’ve been enjoying 4 years of watching a team pay its own way, mostly win and, possibly, enjoy 4 promotions to boot. We would be awash with optimism and pride and the horrors of the New World’s incompetence/negligence would be no more relevant to us than, say, the affairs of the MK Dons are to AFC Wimbledon.

So, to be where we are now we would need to have seen successive promotions, in reverse order, from the Conference Premier (containing e.g. Forest Green Rovers, Braintree and Alfreton), Conference South (e.g Whitehawk, Concord Rangers and Bishops Stortford), Southern League Premier (e.g. Truro, Bideford and Dorchester) and Southern League Div 1 South and West (e.g. Taunton, Bridgwater and Tiverton). Below that and we’re down to the South West Peninsula League (e.g. Ivybridge, Saltash and Plymouth Parkway) and I don’t think we would have had to drop that far down.

Obviously the presumption of being successful in the lower leagues is hugely speculative but surely not an entirely preposterous notion. It is also pretty much certain that the last 4 years would have been very interesting and, quite probably, far more enjoyable than the ones we have endured so what, exactly has James Brent “saved us” from?

And was it worth being saved from at all?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Millwall 1984/The Bradford Fire

Supporting a football team is a funny old business. Mostly it just seems to offer the odd island of joy amongst an ocean of misery; for an Argyle fans the last 6 years or so has offered far less than that but this blog goes back further, much further than the last 6 years to 11th May 1984. Exactly 30 years ago to the day.
The world was a very different place then and I was a very different person: thinner of waist, thicker of hair, better of eyesight, poorer than I am now. I was, in fact a pretty typical 19 year old student living in Cheltenham and I had been invited to a student party in Ponders End which is a part of Enfield which is north, very north (well north of the nearest tube station, Seven Sisters), London. By coincidence Argyle had a game in London that day and I, along with my buddy Andy, decided to combine the two.
It’s not far from Cheltenham to London. In those days it was straight down the A40 so we decided to hitch-hike there. We got up, Andy lived in the flat downstairs from me, met up and headed off. We got a lift very quickly from, as I recall, a fella who was a branch manager for the Chelsea Building Society. There had been a glitch and he was heading off in his company car to a “meeting” during which he expected to become an ex-bank manager of the Chelsea Building Society. They had a strict “no hitch-hikers” rule and he picked us up as a last rebellion against his evil, as he saw it (he swore blind he had nothing nothing wrong) employer. Anyway he took us all the way down to west London and dropped us off at which point we were on the outer-reaches of the tube network. Virtually there!
We bought our travelcards and headed off to the depths of south-east London with Millwall our destination. We were there with hours to spare. What we did not have was cash. I needed a cashpoint or somewhere that would cash a cheque because banks didn’t open on Saturdays back then. I asked a copper where the nearest cashpoint was: “which bank?”, “Lloyds”, “I bank with them. About 3 miles away…”. Great. So there I was in darkest Bermondsey, not long after the infamous riot at Luton, miles from anywhere I could get money and with insufficient cash to get in to the game I had travelled to. Up and down the street of shops we went. “Can you cash me a cheque, please?”, “no”. It was hopeless. Just as it was dawning on us that we were likely to miss the game a few lads I knew from school (!), also going to the game, turned up out of the blue. They stumped up a loan and we were sorted.
Off to The Den we went. In those days there was a huge, sprawling car park outside the ground which had a pathway running through it. By now we were a crew of, maybe, 6 lads: Colin, Mark, Dave, Lawrence… (it was a loooong time ago) desperately trying not to be identified as away fans. There was a similarly sized group of blokes, older than us, walking along, slowly, in front of us. We were close enough to be able to hear their conversation: “if we see anybody whose face don’t fit we’ll fahking well knife ‘em…” was one choice comment. We were bricking it but ambling along as nonchalantly as possible, keeping our traps shut and hoping to survive long enough to get somewhere “safe” (there wasn’t anywhere safe for about 10 miles in any given direction).
Eventually the path we were on split: home fans this way; away fans the other. It was a moment of truth. Our nonchalant amble turned into a nonchalantly sprinted stride and we got to the turnstile safely. So we thought. But no. The turnstile was on the other side of a sodding great wrought iron fence with a gate in it. The gate was padlocked with a impressively heavy chain wrapped around it. We rattled the gate. “Fahrk orf!” came a cry from the inside. We rattled it again. “Wha’d’you want?” this time. “We’re Argyle fans. Let us in!” we shouted. There was a brief delay but the key was found and we were in.
Inside it was bedlam. Millwall were in with a shout of winning Divison 3, as was, and needed to win and it was fair to say that the home crowd was well and truly up for it. There was nothing in the game for Argyle and no transport had been laid on to the game at police request – they didn’t want to have to police away fans as well as home ones, obviously. There could have been no more than 200 Argyle fans standing on the covered terrace that day and I’d imagine that all of us were questioning our own sanity for being there.
Anyway they battered us. Took an early lead and added a second. The Den was in fine fettle that day and it remains probably the most intimidating stadium/atmosphere that I have have ever “enjoyed”.
With about half an hour to go we were approached by a grey-haired police sergeant. “Look lads. You shouldn’t have come here today. We won’t be able to guarantee your safety afterwards. We’re going to lock the gates to keep them” [pointed at the home fans] “out in a minute and then keep them locked for at least an hour after. It looks like they are going to be Champions” [they were] and there’ll be all sorts going on. When we do let you out don’t hang around or you’ll find out why it is called “Cold Blow Lane” outside. Or you could leave now.”
Basically we couldn’t get out fast enough. Not having any idea where we were or where to go we just got on the first bus (travelcards, see?) and stayed on it until we passed a train station at which point we got off and caught a train into London proper and started the long trek out to Ponders End for the party.
Along the way we stopped here and there for a beer. In one of the pubs an Australian barman told us that “Leeds fans had set a bomb off somewhere” and that it was real bad. No mobile phones, no internet, no way of getting instant reliable news like there is today. We didn’t believe him. A bomb? This might have been the bad old days of football hooliganism but a bomb? Unthinkable.
And so the day wound on. We ended up at the party. Had a great time. Drank too much and ate too little. Stayed up waaaaay too late. Eventually we crashed out.
Sunday morning came so horribly soon. I was very hungover and awfully stiff from having slept on the floor. The flat looked like a first class party had happened in it, which it had, and was a complete mess. It was cup of tea time and clean up time. Somebody turned on the TV – it was that long ago that Breakfast TV was something of a novelty still and there it was: the truth about that “Leeds bomb” was that he had got muddled up with the Bradford Fire. We just watched the horrific footage in stunned silence as the news rattled on: “playing Lincoln”, “Valley Parade”, “packed because Bradford were about to win Div 4”, “spread in minutes”, “56 dead”. I don’t think have ever seen anything as horrible in my life. We were stunned into slack-jawed silence until somebody turned it off at which point we completed the clean-up, Andy and I headed off to the local pub, The Gilda (which had a stripshow going on!), with a few others before going on to the A40 to try to hitch-hike back to Cheltenham.
We quickly got a lift from a young yuppie-type fella who, apparently, had got off with the daughter of somebody so famous the night before that we wouldn’t believe it if he told us. Funnily, because he never did spill the beans as to who she was, I believed him – and still do. He took us to Oxford at about 100 mph all the way where our next lift was a crazy old man who should not have been driving “I’m 85 years old, y’know!”. If he kept on driving he was unlikely to see 86. God knows how he got that far. Anyway he took us to Whitney and dropped us off there. Dual carriageway. We were stuck there so long we decided we were best off walking the 30 miles we still had to go. It started to rain. It was getting dark. Spirits were very low as we plodded forlornly along.
In such circumstances you need a stroke of luck and we got one. If we could have chosen a fantasy lift it would have been two gorgeous girls and that was exactly what happened. Proper Australian Page 3/Barbie Doll types they were too. “I don’t usually stop for hitch-hikers but you two looked so miserable I felt sorry for you…” Sadly they didn’t seduce us but they did take us to Cheltenham. The adventure was over.
All of which I have been reminded of by today’s 30th Anniversary stuff about the Bradford fire. 56 people went to football match, just like Andy and I did, and through no fault of their own never went home. That awful, horrific tragedy, in conjunction with Heysel and Hillsborough, changed what it is to be a football fan in England forever and 30 years on watching football is nothing at all like what it was then – even in the few grounds that still have terracing. In many ways it is far better now: the threat of violence is remote; the view is better; the toilets are better; it’s far more family-friendly. It’s not what it was though. The feral terraces have gone; the apprehension when travelling is more or less non-existent; it is easier to meet-up with friends; the other scores are easily looked-up… Is it better now? Of course it is. It isn’t as exciting though. I can’t imagine how 56 people could be killed at a match in England again – but nobody could back then either.
All of this has been running through my mind all day. If you are still here then thanks for reading it all but amidst the obvious highs and lows of following a team there is always the adventure involved in going to an away game somewhere. It doesn’t matter where and it doesn’t matter who you support. There must be a million, several million hugely personal different folklores out there unique to each and every fan; the episodes are all shared either directly or indirectly with other people. We all have our bank of memories and tales to tell and they are all precious and they all make us into what we are today. That is what following a team gives you and it may be subtle but the cumulative effect is more profound than any win, defeat, goal or red card.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Neil Young & Crazy Horse at Hyde Park

“& Crazy Horse” is the important bit from the title above. Neil Young is a fella who adopts many guises but you can be certain of one thing: when he joins up with Crazy Horse you know exactly what you are going to get.

And so it came to pass. Old Shakey thrashed away on Ol’ Black and his old muckers created a rolling, riffing wall of heavy electrical and percussive, mostly jammed, accompaniment for nearly all of the 2+ hours that they stalked the stage in a ramshackle, noisy, barely-in- time-and-tune show that epitomised their undoubted craft mastery. The absence of long-time Horse bassist Billy Talbot due to a recent stroke, replaced by Young’s “regular” bassist Rick Rosas for this tour made not a jot of difference to the cumulative effect created by Ralph Molina (guitar) and Frank Sampedro (drums). Even the solo numbers Young played where played semi-accoustically and with loads of distortion.

There is a strangeness about Neil Young on stage that defeats interpretation, if not observation: Neil Young is brilliant; Neil Young has a back catalogue of material to die for; Neil Young just oozes stage-presence; Neil Young has unique stage body language; he has complete freedom of choice about who, what and where he plays; he has a massive legion of fans many of whom who’d walk over broken glass to see him play; he was playing with his oldest and most trusted friends and collaborators… And yet…

I can’t help but wonder if he actually enjoys performing at all? There was zero humour, barely a smile from him and precious few spoken words throughout. Or at least none that I noticed on the big screens being far too far back to directly observe his facial expressions. A relatively cantankerous and wilfully difficult jamtastic show followed. “Truculence” should his middle name.

Which is no great surprise. That’s the way he does things and sometimes the self-indulgence and egotism results in moments of rare passion and glory that remain buzzing around your skull well after the event (like they did when I saw him at The Hop Farm) but on other occasions the messiness of it all doesn’t so much as disappoint but infuriate. It doesn’t need to be like this.

And this is the over-riding feeling I left the show with. It was good, really good in parts, but overall the effect was that the 50,000 or so souls in the audience were an irrelevance. Neil Young & Crazy Horse were not in attendance to please us but we were in attendance to enable them their fun – if fun it was. Their loyalty was not to us as paying customers but solely to each other and to hell with everything else.

The choice of songs chosen was odd. I’ve been listening to Neil Young records for over 30 tears now and, to be honest, even I struggled to recognise much more than half of the songs played! So much so, in fact, that I have had to look this up but the setlist was:

Love And Only Love
Goin' Home
Days That Used To Be
After The Gold Rush
Love To Burn
Separate Ways
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Blowin' In The Wind
Heart Of Gold
Barstool Blues
Psychedelic Pill
Cinnamon Girl
Rockin' In The Free World
Who's Gonna Stand Up And Save The Earth
Down By The River

Not that there was that much much difference between any of the Horsed-up versions of any of the songs and the cumulative effect was that it was all a bit samey.

So what were the highlights of the show? It’d have to be a truly epic Rockin’ In The Free World played as darkness descended and performed at breakneck speed with a couple of mega false endings unleashing a ferocity that even AC/DC would have been pleased with. After The Goldrush, sounding quite unlike any version of the song that I have ever heard before, was another stand out moment. It was also nice to actually recognise some of the other tunes (Cinnamon Girl, Blowing In The Wind) and to have a bit of a sing-song (Only Love Can Break Your Heart) but my honest feeling was that two encores consisting of a brand new song followed by 20 minutes of Down By The River as a closer was a bit much (then again I thought exactly the same about No Place To Hide at The Hop Farm).

I felt the opportunity to really unleash The Horse was missed. I’d’ve loved to have heard Like A Hurricane, Southern Man, Cortez The Killer, Hey Hey My My, Powderfinger, Farmer John, Fuckin’ Up, Welfare Mothers, Piece Of Crap… or many others but that was not to be.

If that all sounds a bit grumbly… well it is. But that’s what Neil Young does and what he has always done and it’s how I saw it. He performs pretty much for himself and not for the audience (I wonder what the paying punters thought of the feedback fest that was released as Arc as a companion piece to the the excellent live Weld?) which is genuinely selfish but that self-indulgence also, sometimes, results in moments of genuine unsurpassed excellence that once edited down a bit and trimmed to fit onto 12” of vinyl resembles genius and you can’t have one without the other.

I’ve been to see Neil Young in concert three times now and of the three I would place this gig third. Would I go to see him again? Yes, but not if he was touring with Crazy Horse despite considering myself to be a massive of fan of both his and theirs. The Hop Farm gig was far better despite the Hyde Park gig being blessed with far better weather! (Man it was hot. Very hot. 80 deg F hot. And sticky. Very sticky. God knows what the humidity was.)

For reference: Neil Young at the Hop Farm

Saturday, July 12, 2014

World Cup Referees (and An Odd Statistical Anomaly)

As I write this the 2014 World Cup Final between Argentina and Germany is a little more than 24 hours away. It promises to be an intriguing game between the best team (Germany) and, arguably (I’m sure fans of Colombia’s James Rodrigues would most definitely argue), the team with the best individual player (Lionel Messi).

Intriguingly this is the third time the two nations, if you’ll allow me to equate Germany with the old West Germany, have met in a WCF with Mexico ‘86 seeing Argentina eventually triumph 3-2 in a match I regard as being the very best WCF that I have ever seen and Germany’s dodgy penalty eventually winning a horribly petulant affair that saw two Argentinians red carded to conclude Italia ’90.

It is the frequency of these two teams meeting which although not, seemingly to me, exactly anomalous itself given that in any World Cup you can reasonably assume that Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy and Holland will enjoy annoyingly regular success but that in the semi-final of this tournament Brazil and Germany met in serious competition for only the second time. How is it possible for these two giants of world football to have clashed so infrequently over so many World Cups? I suppose tournament seeding would keep them apart in the early group stages but surely their paths should have crossed more often than this?

But that was just an observation that has arisen since starting this piece; my real purpose is to consider the role, impact and philosophy of Big Match referees: what on Earth is going through their minds?

In the 2010 WCF Spain were, basically, physically assaulted from the off by Holland with Nigel De Jong’s horrendous kung fu-styleed chest-high studs-up lunge setting the tone for much of what followed. It was the most blatant red card offence since Schumacher half-killed Battiston in Espana ‘82’s epic semi-final (this match was the most exciting game I have ever seen). In due course the Spanish, no strangers to the game’s blacker arts themselves, responded in kind and the game degenerated into an X-rated spectacle with, perhaps, a morbid fascination all of its own but preciously low in terms of skill and excitement. That game’s English referee Howard Webb was, and has been since, routinely defended by the pundits who have infiltrated our TV and radio commentaries as “not wanting to flash the cards too early” or “wanting to keep 22 men on the pitch” or “doesn’t want to spoil the game” or “nobody wants to see a game decided by a refereeing decision”. Well we all saw where that leads and the 2010 WCF, between two teams stacked with talented players was an absolute stinker devoid of entertainment as a result. It could be said that it was the worst WCF since 1990 when Argentina similarly clogged what was then West Germany - if USA ‘94’s bore draw, settled on penalties, between Italy and Brazil escapes one’s mind thoroughly as it deserves to.

So was Webb incompetent? No. He saw all of the “tackles” and judged them mostly to be fouls and gave the free kicks. Actually he gave dozens of free kicks. Eventually he started showing the yellow card. Eventually he sent somebody off but it was all too little too late; the shape of the game had been set early on by De Jong and nothing was going to be able to change it later.

What Webb was guilty of was following the mores of the old pros as he tried, without success, to “let the game flow”. He was guilty of allowing subjectivity to over-ride objectivity. He was guilty of not actually enforcing the rules of the game and adequately sanctioning severe foul play or tackles likely to endanger an opponent – and much more besides. Luckily nobody was seriously hurt and the Right Team won in the end but it was no thanks to Webb that it did.

But that was just a one-off, wasn’t it? Well… No. We saw the same thing again in the recent Brazil v Colombia game except this time the spectacle was not spoiled even if the result probably was. Just as in 2010 it was heart-breaking to see Holland’s lauded stylists with their rich history of Total Football personified by that old Dutch master, surely one of the finest talents ever to grace the game, Johan Cruyff so it was again to see Brazil launch assault after assault (I wonder what Pele, Zico, Socrates or Garrincha made of it?) on Colombia’s talented young team – with the added irony that it was Target #1 James Rodrigues who was booked, for an innocuous challenge, first. There was little that Colombia could do in the face of such an approach going unchallenged and as they fell behind by two goals they seemed to have little hope. The fact that they pulled themselves back into such a game does them huge credit but, just as the Spanish did in 2010, they had to fight fire with fire and commit to a similarly brutal approach. It made for compelling viewing but the best team lost the match.

This time, however, a player – the brilliant, mercurial Neymar (Brazil’s best and maybe the current games very best of all) – was hurt. And he suffered not just a minor injury but a cracked vertebrae. When he was fouled he lost the feeling in his legs; it’s no exaggeration to say that he may have been permanently paralysed.

This is where decisions made by referees can lead to and in the Brazil/Colombia match we so very nearly saw a truly magnificent talent permanently paralysed – and let’s not forget that, his fantastic talent aside, he’s a young man with a lifetime ahead of him just as so many more who play the game at a less exalted level. What goes at the highest level also goes in our national and local games. It might have been Naymar but it could have been just about anybody.

We all know and accept and rejoice in football’s physicality: it is the game where you have to be able to compete before you can expect to thrive but it isn’t known as The Beautiful Game for no reason. For the best players to thrive, for the best teams to win all the referees have to do is apply the laws of the game as they are written and not as a few grizzled ex-pros spouting forth cliché after cliché in the guise of punditry would like them to be.

I can’t see the 2014 WCF degenerating in such a way. For one thing there is no chance that Germany, who are as physically strong an XI as any in the world game, will be intimidated by Argentina. Argentina will know this and so they will not even try. On the other hand Germany could be the aggressors but I feel that their innate self-belief and confidence means they won’t even consider it; they believe that they are going to win and don’t need to. So will Germany’s strength as a genuine, seemingly complete team be enough to triumph over a moderate support cast committed to stoking Messi’s individual brilliance? I suspect it will but it wasn’t enough for West Germany in 1986 and it may not be enough this time. I just hope the referee doesn’t spoil the match, gives the talented players a chance to play and gives the cloggers short shrift should they try it on. May the best team win a final between two teams that no English football fan wanted to see there!

All of that and not a single mention of…