The Manchester Derby – As It Happened

Ruud Gullit Sitting On A Shed is the sort of site that never shies away from the big games. In the past, we’ve bought you detailed minute-by-minute reports of the Old Firm derby from the perspective of the match ball, as well as coverage of the Merseyside derby via ScouseBot 3000. Tonight saw Manchester United and Manchester City fight it out for the Premiership crown they both crave, like right greedy bastards. Naturally, we were all over it, and anyone that says we weren’t is lying.

Our latest minute-by-minute report comes to you from my Dad, fresh from an argument, who politely points out that he hates my Mum for her relentless mind games and the spiteful venom that emanates from her very soul. While I listen to my Mum crying in the bath as I worry that this is somehow all my fault and the other children will bully me for not having a proper family, I hand over the reigns to my Dad, who needs to CALM DOWN. Dad, seriously. Cool it. (You can use my laptop if you want, but just do a half-decent write-up on the game, I can’t really be bothered now. I’ve already written an intro for you, but obviously delete this bit in brackets first.)

Dad enjoying a family holiday at Butlins, Minehead.

Hello! Clive here. This is good, isn’t it? I will let you know what happened in the match tonight if you just bear with me as I am new to this, and I’ve been a bit emotional lately.

1 minute – Kick-off. AND IT’S GO, GO, GO! (Murray Walker joke there! Shame he’s dead.)

4 minutes – United will fancy their chances here. They’ve got a good away record, which certainly doesn’t surprise me. It’s not like I’m one to be shocked by the prospect of someone playing away with 11 other men. Isn’t that right Janet, you WHORE?

10 minutes – United are looking very comfortable here. I’m sure they’d feel as tense and anxious as I always do if their wives were all medicated up to the eyeballs every waking hour. I’ve told you a million times, depression isn’t an illness, it’s a type of sadness, Jan!

17 minutes –  Great tackle from Gareth Barry there. He has his critics, but he always works so hard. Is trying so bad really? At least it shows that he’s interested. That can really mean a lot to some people. Or apparently not enough, like when I drove for four bloody hours to go visit your family, only to find they weren’t in because YOU got the dates wrong, you silly old moo, and all you did was moan as if it was my fault somehow.

30 minutes – Nice shot of the Manchester City banner to Sheikh Mansour there. I have my own one in my house. It says : “YOUR DIVORCE LAWYER THANKS YOU, JANET SHED!”.

45 minutesGOALS! Vincent Kompany smacks in the ball with his enormous head. By the look on his face, that goal was better than sex. I’ll have to take his cum-face for it, since I’ve forgotten how that feels due to my non-existent sham of a sex life. A man has needs! (Sex needs)

Half-time – Can’t believe it’s half-time all ready. Where does the time go? In my case, it goes into the crushing duopoly of a loveless marriage and a hateful existence. Off for a pie.

46 minutes – United will have to improve in this half if they want to keep their grip on the Premiership trophy. They lack that extra bit of quality in the final third, and it’s something they might need to address in the summer. They’ve got some good youngsters coming through, but I do worry about their futures. Just like my own kids, they leave me feeling disappointed and hollow. Maybe some experience in the Carling Cup next year might help? If we do get divorced, I guess the equivalent for me and my kids will be taking them to parents evenings. No-one likes going to those. The League Cup of parental responsibility.

52 minutes – Wayne Rooney’s struggling tonight, which is surprising as he’s scored more goals this season than I’ve had hot dinners. And I mean that literally, as my wife is a terrible cook. Isn’t that right, dear? Cooked for Cliff Richard when you were at college, did you? BOLLOCKS.

65 minutes – Ryan Giggs is 37-years-old and is still vital to Manchester United. I’m 52 and I’m made to feel absolutely useless, day in and day out. If Giggs proves anything, it’s that age can bring it’s own intrinsic qualities, and it’s not just about the youngest swinging dick in town, even if he does run his own business and is called Pablo and has a holiday villa in Portugal and is better than me and this is rubbed in my face every day by my own wife. It also proves the preserving quality of pilates.

75 minutes – It’s all kicking off on the touchline between Ferguson and Mancini. Not sure what triggered it, but sometimes an argument can be a healthy thing. Maybe they’ll feel better for it in the morning? It never works for me, but whatever. Perhaps they’re just more caring than most.

82 minutes – An ambitious effort from Yaya Toure goes wide there, but still, it’s nice to see someone with a bit of ambition around here isn’t it? Not like when a certain someone gave up her night classes in French.

88 minutes –  City are minutes away from buying their first title! No doubt they’ll be looking for more new players in the summer, but I’m afraid these fans just don’t realise the value of money. No one does these days. Piles of debt and for what? More misery and despair, with the added anxiety of bills to pay at the end of it. This applies to both my life and the point I was just making about the game there. FUCK YOU, JANET!

Full time – City win, and surely the title is now theirs! It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. I remember when I had dreams. It was bloody ages ago.


The Joy of Sect – Arsenal, Arsene Wenger and The Simpsons

Arsenal fans can look at a seventh season without a trophy, as well as their burgeoning status as a selling club to the glitterati, as hard evidence that things ain’t what they used to be. The question has now changed: no longer do supporters ask ‘Is this is a club in decline?’, but ‘What is a reasonable response to this decline?’.

I’ve often asked myself the same questions regarding The Simpsons, formerly the best television show of all time, whose goodness has been sadly diluted by years of contrived celebrity cameos, vapid pop culture references, and inconsistent characterisation. The Simpsons and Arsenal have both seen better days, leaving fans to pine for past glories that seem fainter with the passing of time. While the quality of both the show’s animation and the club’s stadium have improved, neither have masked the decline of the products they represent, illuminating their shortcomings. Now both institutions can only look back on their peak periods as glorious relics, as they desperately retrace their steps through the intervening years, in order to reclaim mislaid heritage.

One particular episode can be stretched like an allegorical balaclava and clumsily pulled over Arsenal’s symbolic head, in a suitably ham-fisted way of explaining the club’s malaise. The Joy Of Sect saw the residents of Springfield indoctrinated into the cult of Movementarianism (think Scientology meets Raëlism), based on promises of a journey to a planet named Blisstonia, which they would reach via a spaceship being assembled in the ‘secret barn’. Eventually, they discover that they have been hoodwinked all along by an oddly charismatic charlatan known only as ‘The Leader’.

The beginning of the episode is highly appropriate given the state of Arsenal, England’s crisis club du jour. Homer takes Bart to the airport in order to “welcome the team home”. The team in question returns to a big crowd, to their surprise since they just lost the big game. It then becomes clear that everyone is there to heckle them, throw garbage at them, and to upturn the plane in rage. Increasingly, Arsenal supporters are making like Moe Syzslak, and throwing rocks at their own by booing their own players (Emmanuel Eboue, now playing for Galatassaray, in 2008, and most recently Andrey Arshavin, now on loan at Zenit St. Petersburg.) This uprising amongst the support could well be the tipping point for the club. Whether it results in immediate change or not, either in the form of Wenger’s dismissal or, more feasibly, extra investment in the playing squad, the dissent has wrought its effects already. The parameters of success have been assessed and redrawn. Wenger has recently remarked that finishing fourth in the table should be considered “a trophy“, despite it’s lack of cup-like form, and lacking as it does any requirement for silver polish.

Marge, with her staggeringly tall blue hair, has often been said to bear a physical resemblance to Ashley Cole. But the two bear further comparison: when Cole left the club for Chelsea, it was famously due to Arsenal’s reluctance to pay him more money (as Barney Ronay notes, he may have been right to do so, as his departure from the club signposted a withering of the club’s financial muscle which still stymies them). Much like Marge, he saw the writing on the wall, and realised that the promises that were made were not as they seemed, and wouldn’t bring the bliss he craved. When Marge makes good her escape from the Movementarian compound, she has to dodge such obstacles as crocodiles, wolves and landmines. She is also chased by a sinister orb (a reference to ‘Rover’, the guard balloon from 1960’s TV show The Prisoner). Cole was escaping an orb of his own as he ran away from the club – an orb representing dwindling standards, transfer market atrophy and seven trophyless seasons. In the end, the orb crushes Hans Moleman, who Wenger would resemble more closely but for his Lego-like helmet of hair.

Marge convinces Bart and Lisa to forget life with the Movementarians by presenting the kids with ‘hoverbikes’- in reality just bikes suspended with wires, with Ned Flanders blowing a comb-and-paper to give them a mystical aura. Eventually Homer too is convinced that not is all as it seems and appeals to his fellow Movementarians to see the evidence for themselves. He opens the door to the secret barn, and everyone is stunned to see the spaceship present. Homer was expecting nothing, only to be presented with the apparent sum of all the promises made by the Leader. Such false dawns are not unfamiliar to Arsenal fans, with hopes raised in the past few years by such events as last season’s 2-1 defeat of Barcelona, reaching the Carling Cup Final, and Robin Van Persie’s recent goalscoring, injury-free hot streak. These dawns were the equivalent of Homer exposing “one hell of a spaceship” – a momentary, but illusory, promise of glory.

The leader flies away on a hoverbike of his own, absconding with the sacks of money extracted from the gullible saps that believed him. Wenger has been blowing through a comb-and-paper of his own throughout these barren years, by giving voice to promises never fulfilled, exalting a bright new tomorrow that never breaks through the carapace of recurrent false dawns. Wenger, like Flanders and the Leader, keeps making these mystical noises in an effort to disguise the depressing reality; that the promises are just as misleading as the kids’ hoverbikes, fanciful dreams suspended by wire, always destined to fall.

Ultimately the Leader crashes into the home of feckless hick Cletus Spuckler, who produces a shotgun with which to extract the bags of money that fell with him. In this scene, I cast Roberto Mancini as Cletus, using his position of power (substitute Cletus’ shotgun for Sheikh Mansour’s Monty Burns-like riches) to strip Wenger of his assets (not money, but players – Kolo Toure, Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, possibly Robin Van Persie in the summer). The Leader, once at the helm of an all-powerful cult, is by the episode’s end stripped of the relevance that had previously defined him. Where Wenger used to feud with Alex Ferguson and fight for titles, he is now managing a club that sees fourth place as it’s ultimate goal, and for whom a 2-0 FA Cup defeat to Sunderland doesn’t even register for the opposition as a ‘famous win’. Nowadays, such a result comes as no real surprise at all, just as it’s no shock when one watches a new episode of The Simpsons, with all the jokes and humour replaced by masturbatory, zeitgeist-pandering references to Apple or Facebook.

For Arsenal, recent victories against Tottenham and Liverpool (and a heroic near-miracle against AC Milan) have invigorated players and fans alike, but I suspect it may be yet another false dawn. As for The Simpsons, it’s trying to trade on happy memories of the old days by reintroducing former writer Al Jean, who has deployed the tactic of referring back to classic jokes and characters, to foster a sense of nostalgia amongst fans.

Jean remains with The Simpsons, now in it’s twenty-third season, while Arsenal’s own returning legend, Thierry Henry, returned to the club at a time of crisis and left all too soon. The fundamental difference is in the fact that The Simpsons acknowledged its state of decline and hired Jean to try and arrest the slump. Arsenal may soon be considering a change of personnel, whether it’s on the pitch or in the dugout.

Paul Scholes 3:16 – or – How I Learned To Stop Worrying About Football and Love Adam Bomb

“Can football still be considered a sport? Or is it something else? It possesses characters, narrative, plot. It attracts more attention for what happens on the field rather than on. The game still continues, of course, but the edifice around it suggests that sport is just an aspect of what football has become. Is it, in fact, sports entertainment?”

Recently I wrote a flippant piece imagining a pop culture mash-up of sorts between football and professional wrestling. Since then, two things have happened that have compelled me to stretch this comparison further, like some poor sap trapped in a Crippler Crossface.

Firstly, I read an article by Rory Smith in The Blizzard, quoted above, which posits the theory that contemporary media coverage of football has unwittingly thrust the game into the realm of sports entertainment, the term with which pro wrestling is synonymous.

Secondly, Paul Scholes emerged from retirement to dust off his boots, to stage an unlikely comeback for Manchester United…

I used to watch wrestling. Like squabbling brothers we no longer get along, despite their playing a vital role in my formative years. As a naive child I cheered for the likes of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. As a teenager I matured during the ‘Attitude’ years of Stone Cold Steve Austin and D-Generation X. As a young adult I marvelled at the curious hinterland where scripted drama and legitimate conflict overlapped. As such, I have often viewed different forms of entertainment through the prism of this bizarre, often misunderstood world, where scripted beefs and simulated sport combine.

The return of Paul Scholes made so much sense and yet so little sense at the same time. Viewed through ginger-tinted spectacles, it was a romantic, heroic return of a legend, and a sensible addition to a depleted midfield. In purely football terms, it seemed perfectly logical. But something about it roused the slumbering wrestling fan within me. The style of the last-minute announcement, with United’s players not finding out until hours before the game, smacked of the sort of stunt booking one would see in wrestling, where eleventh hour interference from an outsider is a staple trope. When Scholes leapt from the Etihad substitutes bench to pad back on to a competitive football pitch, it may have lacked the dynamism of, say, The Undertaker announcing his return from a lengthy hiatus by riding in on a motorcycle. But in terms of its shock value, the way it changed the game, and it’s drama as a spectacle, the two events made for convincing, if unconventional, bedfellows.

A more pragmatic view would have it that it undermined the confidence of the rest of United’s midfielders. Darron Gibson saw the writing on the wall that he frequently missed during shooting practise, and left the club to join Everton. Ravel Morrison has decamped to West Ham, where his prodigious talent will war with his self-destructive streak in a battle for his footballing soul. United may well prove better off without them both, but if Scholes was what finally ushered them to the exit, it was akin to dumping a girl by kissing someone else in front of her – thrilling yet tactless, and lacking a certain class.
Another surprise was that it begged the question – why do so few footballers turn their back on retirement? Wrestlers are notorious for finding it hard to walk away, unable to leave behind an all-consuming lifestyle that sustains them. Mick Foley famously retired from wrestling in 2000, only to return weeks later for a lucrative WrestleMania pay day, where he retired again for real. In January 2012, he was confirmed as one of the 30 participants in the Royal Rumble event. Ric Flair continues to wrestle to this day despite numerous abortive attempts to retire, having first laced up boots in 1972. Occasionally footballers change their mind when it comes to international retirement, with the results ranging from the sublime (Zidane in 2006) to the sub-par (Carragher in 2012). In time we may look back on the comeback of Scholes and see it as a groundbreaking event, the moment a door was opened to shed light on retired players, who may wonder what their bodies and minds may be capable of after a similar break.

In the case of both Foley and Flair, as with so many others, their inability to step away from the limelight succumbs to the rule of diminishing returns. Earlier triumphs are tainted by shambling, inept attempts at reliving long-distant glories. The early signs for Scholes (and passing completion statistics) indicate that the comeback could prove a masterstoke. If his level of performance should wane, it would betray the send-off he was given last May. Scholes’s final game was the Champions League final against Barcelona, and despite a comprehensive 3-1 defeat, there was a scrum amongst Barca players to swap shirts with a player identified as one of their spiritual kin. Andres Iniesta won, and it seemed like a symbolic, if somewhat belated, passing of a torch, with Scholes ceding the limelight as Iniesta enjoys his peak years.

It is rare for a wrestler to return from retirement with renewed vigour, but one example springs to mind. Shawn Michaels was forced to retire in 1998 due to a debilitating back injury. After five years of convalescence he returned, and stunned the industry by being as good as he ever was in his prime, winning the World Heavyweight Championship. Scholes may yet prove to be like Michaels, and leave people ruing his absence rather than malign an ill-judged return. If anything, Michaels bears comparison to Scholes’s team-mate, Ryan Giggs. Both men were considered too old, and yet still too good. Both men (Michaels’ five-year hiatus notwithstanding) experienced similar career trajectories. They both emerged as flying, precocious pin-ups, with talent to burn. Growing older, they became mainstays through consistent performances, particularly in the big matches. As they aged they continued to raise the bar by modifying their game, whilst showing their employers up for failing to promote new talent to replace them. (One exception is in their proclivity for scandal; Giggs maintained a monastic lifestyle throughout his career, until his much-publicised affair and subsequent waving of a futile, skyward fist at Twitter for besmirching his name. Michaels’ career was the exact inverse, with a tendency for controversy eventually eroded by the spiritual lure of born-again Christianity.)

If Giggs is football’s answer to The Heartbreak Kid, then it’s because they share common ground in a founding principle in wrestling – the gimmick. A wrestler’s gimmick is their personality, the manifestation of character, the thing that makes them stand out from the rest. The ‘Million Dollar Man’ Ted DiBiase arrogantly flaunted his wealth on the way to the ring. Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts would terrorise opponents and fans alike with a live snake. The Gobbedly Gooker was a man dressed as a giant turkey, who would go on to embody the phenomenon of ‘wrestlecrap‘ by hatching from a giant egg.

Just as the most interesting wrestlers have the best gimmicks, so do the most interesting footballers. Increasingly, the media pigeonhole football personalities of interest according to their own, easily identifiable USP’s. In this era of homogenised, media-trained bores, anybody that bucks the trend by demonstrating personality are exalted out of proportion, and are considered oddities, rather than just the lone, sane voices in a world awash with tedious, rent-a-quote post-match interviews. Mario Balotelli is an enigmatic, child-like buffoon. Joey Barton is a Nietszche-quoting reformed thug. Harry Redknapp, to his evident consternation, is seen as a cock-er-knee spiv. Craig Bellamy blends genres by casting himself as a sort of philanthropist tosspot.

Scholes’s gimmick was almost subversive in it’s anti-gimmickness. His on-field persona eschewed the passion of the box-to-box midfield general, or the bombast of the tricksy winger. Scholes was a no-frills performer that found the spectacular in the mundane. Keeping the ball, savouring possession and carving a few feet of space from mere inches became his art. He was the footballing equivalent of a solid mat technician, such as Bret Hart or Chris Benoit. Both, like Scholes, were utterly bereft of charisma, but more than made up for it with peerless technical acumen. Scholes was technically magnificent, the footballer’s footballer, just as Benoit was the wrestler’s wrestler. Both men were throwbacks, publicity shy, rarely giving interviews. They were devoted to their vocations in the purest way possible, in wanting to excel without wishing to discuss it, in seeking the kudos of approval without courting it. (Here the comparison ends, as Benoit’s career and life came to a tragic end.)

His bad tackling has become a lazy comic trope used to deride him, whilst simultaneously managing to overlook the fact that he got away with an awful lot, despite the occasional red card. In this regard, you can also see a likeness to the late Eddie Guerrero circa 2003. His gimmick at the time was captured by his catchphrase, ‘Lie, cheat, steal’, and would see him living up to that mantra by doing whatever it took to win, without compromising his ‘good guy’ status. Similarly, Scholes’s tackling, which veered wildly from the clumsy to the barbaric, was dismissed with an almost-universal chuckle because – bless ‘im! – he was rubbish at tackling, wasn’t he?

In short, Scholes spurned the very notion of showmanship. While we all know that wrestling’s not sport, just as in the field of acting, the best in the business are the ones that can convince you that it’s real. The best ones are good talkers, and can hold court on a microphone, trying to convince you that they really do intend to pulverise their enemies. The best promos are the ones that ‘talk them into the building’, (see CM Punk, Paul Heyman and Jake Roberts) drawing in rapt audiences desperate to see the denouement of a bitter feud. 

After Scholes’s return, a disappointed Roberto Mancini spoke to ITV’s Gabriel Clarke, who pressed him for a response regarding Vincent Kompany’s contentious red card. Undeterred by Mancini’s reticence, Clarke pushed and pushed, rephrasing the question, desperate for the Italian to get himself into trouble. This is what the media has made of pre- and post- match interviews, turning them into antagonistic, inflammatory wrestling-style promos. They are no longer solely intended to extricate news on whether a left-back’s groin strain has cleared up, but to extract exclamations of war, digestible, ready-for-air soundbites that stoke the fires. Journalists and broadcasters poke, probe and agitate, mining spite.

Nowadays, interviews tell the stories which feed the narrative of the match. Rafa Benitez pulling out a slip of paper to angrily recite his infamous list of “facts” regarding Sir Alex Ferguson was the equivalent of Benitez telling Fergie that he was gonna lay the smack down on his candy ass. Kevin Keegan’s “I’d love it if we beat them” address is remembered now, in the light of his ultimate defeat, as the sign of a man descending inexorably into madness. At the time, he was telling Ferguson (That man again! The cerebral assassin! The dirtiest player in the game!) that he was gonna take that championship belt from around his waist, and watcha gonna do, brotha, watcha gonna do, when the Toon Army runs wild on you!!! (History also forgets how Sky Sports cameras cut away just as Keegan ripped off his t-shirt and flexed his muscles inanely, like a ‘roided-up chimp).

"Well, y'know something, Mean Gene.."

In football, just as in wrestling, the storylines are just as important as the matches themselves. The preamble to ITV’s coverage of Manchester United’s visit to Liverpool in the FA Cup dwelt on the thorny backdrop of Luis Suarez vs. Patrice Evra. When Wayne Bridge faced erstwhile love rival John Terry on a football pitch for the first time after their very public personal feud, the image of Bridge refusing to accept Terry’s handshake took on the gravitas of, say, Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant sizing each other up before battle. In both cases, this was wrestling-style promotion for the purposes of football. Smith gave the example of how, the morning after Barcelona eviscerated Arsenal 3-1 in the Champions League last season, the papers focussed on Arsene Wenger’s accusation that the referee killed the game: “The beauty of Barcelona was relegated to second billing behind the whisper of illusory controversy.”

"How do you expect me to play for England again when you've boffed my missus?"

It is this notion of illusory controversy that made the return of Scholes so bizarre. That a player so averse to publicity would court the idea of doing something so outlandish in the face of such anathema was entirely at odds with the man that everyone thought they knew. Perhaps this is the most encouraging thing about his return. By allowing his sheer enthusiasm for the game he loves to overcome such an instinct for shyness struck something of a blow to the edifice surrounding football, as cited by Smith at the top of this article.

To quote Smith once more: “Everything, in football, is heightened. Reality is not enough, so it is expanded, meaning is extrapolated, significance is assumed.”

This is as true of Paul Scholes as it was for Adam Bomb…

"My favourite player is Frankie Bunn."