Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Some good news from Greece

Most news about our Hellenic brothers and sisters has been pretty grim of late, so I thought it appropriate to buck the trend with a short Greek-related story that has absolutely nowt to do with banks, bankruptcy or bailouts.  I first came across Keep Shelly in Athens early last year thanks to Paul Lester's always excellent New Band of the Day feature in the Guardian and since then have been won over with the Athenian duo's mix of haunting, often indecipherable echoing vocals backed up with atmospheric music crafted by a bloke that goes under the splendidly commercially-unfriendly moniker RΠЯ.  To date the band has only released one video to accompany the small handful of tracks they've released since their foundation in 2010; that was for Our Own Dream, a song which was featured on last year's EP of the same name.  It's an excellent tune which sums KSIA up well - haunting, otherworldly and a frontwoman (Sarah P) with the most captivating eyes in music:

Friday, May 18, 2012

England expects... very little actually

As the last item to appear on this website concerned an English matter which has little impact on my personal life I thought it only natural to continue the theme and write about another affair presently grabbing the headlines across the Irish Sea, the goings on of which will have a similarly non-existent bearing on my daily routine. The subject in question? The beginning of the Roy Hodgson era in English football.

To be honest I'm still slightly recuperating from the shock of Fabio Capello's sudden demise back in February.  Is that because Capello was one of the great England managers?  No, of course not.  But then, forgetting Sir Alf Ramsey for one moment, you could say that all England managerial careers end in failure.  Truth be told the Football Association should never have made the schoolboy error of extending the Italian's contract by two years prior to the World Cup in South Africa, yet given that was exactly what they decided to do it seemed strange that they would allow the former AC Milan and Real Madrid coach to simply walk away on the basis of a dispute about John Terry's captaincy.  After all, he did help England qualify for this summer's European Championships without losing a single game and, putting aside the disaster in South Africa for a moment, he has a track record that few managers in Euro 2012 would be able to match.  One would think that any country with the good fortune to have someone of Capello's calibre as a coach would put up something of a fight to keep him, regardless of whatever the source of the dispute happened to be.  That was not that the case and Capello resigned after a meeting in London lasting a mere hour.

However, if the departure of the Italian was hard to fathom given the circumstances, what developed in the immediate aftermath was totally absurd.  At about the same time Fabio was waiting for a taxi in the reception area of the FA's headquarters to take him off to enjoy a few weeks unemployment, the British media began screaming out loud for the FA to appoint Mr Henry James Redknapp as his replacement.  While Harry is no doubt a decent manager as well as one of the sport's bloody good blokes, one couldn't help but get the feeling that there was not much beyond Redknapp's passport that was motivating these calls.

Since Kevin Keegan's catastrophic spell as head honcho ended in 2000, the rule seems to be that whenever an England manager steps down the nationality of the man leaving will determine the consensus as to whereabouts the next manager should come from. For instance, following Keegan there was a feeling that perhaps the time had come for England to look abroad for managerial options. After much searching the men at Lancaster Gate chose Sven-Göran Eriksson, the sombre Swede who had just guided Lazio to a league and cup double in Italy, as the man to guide the golden generation.  Three big tournaments and three excruciating quarter-final exits later, the English media had taken enough of Johnny Foreigner and wanted someone who no doubt drank ale and ate roast beef on Sundays to be manager.  The FA replaced Eriksson with Steve McClaren and England fans subsequently got to watch Euro 2008 from the comfort of their living rooms.  Open minds surfaced again after the McClaren calamity and in came Signor Capello.  His departure three months ago marked the return of the UKIP mentality to recruiting international football managers.

In my own view, and as a non-England fan, I can only say that the insistence of some on having an Englishman managing England is self-defeating.  Were this a golden age for English managers it would be understandable and would certainly make any subsequent success all that bit sweeter if it were to happen within an all-English framework.  Even the most hard-headed and pragmatic of modern football fans couldn't fail to be impressed by Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning team which boasted an Italian manager, an all-Italian support staff and a squad of twenty-three players who all plied their trade in Serie A.  However, England is not in such a position.  It speaks volumes that since the Premier League was set up twenty years ago it has never been won by a team managed by an Englishman (a Frenchman, a Portuguese man, two Italians and – just to rub salt in the Saxon wound – two Scotsmen).

In the unlikely event that the Football Association had approached my good self to select an Englishman to take England to the European Championships and beyond I would not have been selecting Harry Redknapp.  A good manager he no doubt is but with only one major trophy to his name in three decades of management (the 2008 FA Cup victory with Portsmouth) it is preposterous to suppose that he could be the man to end England's status as one of world football's great underachievers. I'm sure even Harry must have been slightly bewildered by all the hype. One particular caller to a BBC Radio 5 live phone-in show in the wake of the Capello resignation sticks in my mind as a symbol of just how carried away a nation had got. The man - suspecting that the FA would not appoint Redknapp because he was not 'one of them' - compared the situation to the failure of the organisation to give Brian Clough the top job back in the seventies. To even speak of Clough and Redknapp in the same breath is ridiculous. Redknapp has already been in the management game longer than Brian Clough ever was yet Clough managed to win virtually everything there was to win in the English game in his time at Nottingham Forest, not to mention the small matter of back-to-back European Cup wins (and we all know how difficult the great Barcelona of our own era are finding that particular task).

For me, the FA appear to have made a rare good decision in giving the job to Roy Hodgson.  I first joined the ranks of the unofficial Roy Hodgson fan club way back in the early nineties when he was manager of Switzerland. In his short spell in charge of the Swiss, Hodgson took them to the last sixteen of the World Cup in 1994 as well as leading them to Euro 96 (although sadly he didn't stick around for the finals of the latter as by that stage he had made the move to Inter Milan). He later enjoyed reasonable success with Finland, a country who are to Scandinavian football what Connacht are to Irish rugby. Despite the fact that they have never qualified for a World Cup or European Championships, as well as the fact that ice hockey and skiing are infinitely more popular among Finns, Hodgson took them agonisingly close to an appearance in Euro 2008. Sadly they fell at the final hurdle. Nevertheless, the experiences with the Swiss and Finnish sides give Hodgson one major advantage over virtually all other English coaches – international experience.

That said, a common criticism levelled at Hodgson is that he is a manager who specialises in doing extraordinary things with historically ordinary club sides: good at West Brom and Fulham, not so good at Liverpool and Inter Milan. It isn't always a fair criticism. For instance, he won four league titles in Sweden with two different clubs and then in the 2001/02 season winning the Superliga in Denmark with FC Copenhagen. Yes, sceptics might well point to Steve McClaren's similar level of success in the Dutch league not meaning much when it came to the England job but credit where it's due. His CV may not exactly be up to the standard of Sir Alex or The Special One but when compared to the so-called 'peoples choice' it is vastly superior (unless you are the type of person who was impressed with West Ham's 1999 Intertoto Cup triumph).

On the non-footie side of things there appears to be an individual of quite some depth. According to the New Statesman Hodgson is an old-style socialist who loves art (a big fan of Wassily Kandinsky apparently), literature (Philip Roth and Milan Kundera among his likes in that field), opera (Puccini and Bizet there) and films (one of his favourites supposedly Quand j'etais chanteur). Add to this his fluency in Japanese, Swedish, Norwegian, German and Italian – plus a fair degree of competency in French, Finnish, Danish and Korean – and we get an image of a man who does not fit the standard stereotype of an English football manager.

All of this quite clearly means nothing when it comes to eleven men performing on a football pitch but what it does signify for me is that Hodgson might possess the sort of character which makes him immune from non-soccer related tabloid scandal – something which has dogged managers of the England team over the years. He certainly doesn't seem to have been embroiled in any dodgy business deals, extramarital affairs with secretaries or harbour any strange religious beliefs regarding reincarnation and disabled people over his previous three decades of management and, perhaps I'm naive, but I somehow can't see him at the centre of anything to salacious (unless he is caught shoplifting Sebastian Faulks's new book from Waterstones). Nevertheless, he will be under severe scrutiny from day one and I have no doubt that Fleet Street journos out there are already digging for dirt, however even if no dirt happens to turn up the main focus will still be on priority number one: results.

In this field a lot will depend on what English expectations are in the short and long term. My feeling is that Hodgson might actually get an unusually easy ride from his native press in the coming European Championships. Given that he has barely four weeks to prepare for the second most important tournament in international football, it would take a crash-and-burn performance of enormous proportions to leave fans and the media calling for his head come July. My own prediction is that England should just about scramble their way out of Group D, probably coming second to Ukraine who I reckon should make the best of their home advantage this summer. Runner-up in Group D would mean a likely tie against World and European champions Spain in the quarter-finals. Would a spirited last eight exit to the Spanish satisfy the lads back home? I suspect it might. In fact, as a damage limitation exercise after everything that has happened since February, I'd actually say that it would be a fairly impressive job given that the team was without a manager until just a few weeks before the tournament.

Something else which could potentially happen is England enjoying a successful Euro 2012 precisely because expectations are so low.  For as long as I can remember English teams have always entered World Cups and European Championships with often unrealistic expectations.  This time the players will go to Poland and Ukraine with a nation that expecting very little in the way of success.  Add to this the guaranteed bonus of Wayne Rooney's return in the third match and suddenly things don't look all that bad.  Could they be the dark horse in the Euros?  Moreso than the World Cup, this is a tournament that has a history of throwing up surprise winners: Greece in 2004, Denmark in 1992, Czechoslovakia in 1976.  So, stranger things have happened.

The long term is more of a complex and uncertain issue.  England is a team very much in transition.  The golden generation of Lampard, Cole, Terry, Gerrard and co are all now on the wrong side of 30 and in many cases - while undoubtedly loyal and always putting in maximum effort when they've pulled on the national jersey - these men have failed to deliver for their country on the big stage.  Before he named his squad earlier this week, I heard many England fans urging Hodgson to begin the new era this summer and name an enthusiastic young team to replace the men who in the last decade provided fans with so much in the way of anti-climax and disappointment.  It didn't happen.  The Euro 2012 squad is a classic blend of youth and experience.  There weren't any major surprises.  There wasn't much in the way the way of controversy.  In a way, it was a squad that summed up Roy Hodgson.  We shall find out very soon as to how it performs.

There's nothing I love more than the permanent soap opera that is England's national football team.  Yes, I'll be the first to admit that in many cases I derive my pleasure solely from a very Irish sense of schadenfreude.  That said, it's much more a friendly rivalry than a blind hatred.  Let's be honest, when you come from a place that hasn't qualified for the finals of a big tournament in twenty-six years often the only thing you really have to give you your international footie kicks is the misfortune of your neighbours.  Sad, but as my equally long-suffering Scottish and Welsh colleagues will testify, true.  Whatever happens I am sure the soap opera will continue for some time to come yet as someone who has always admired Roy Hodgson I have to be honest and say that I would hate to see the day arrive when he would be savaged by his country's press in the same way that Graham Taylor and Steve McClaren were mercilessly ripped apart.

Right now it is difficult to say how things will transpire for England in the next few years.  Expect Euro 2012 to be the last big international competition for many of the veterans.  Expect the start of the qualifiers for World Cup 2014 in the autumn to feature more of the young faces.  As is always the case, with transition comes uncertainty.  So, as that is the case, better to rely on silly omens for how things may turn out in the Hodgson era.  After reading in the New Statesman that Roy was an admirer of Wassily Kandinsky, it dawned on me that he isn't actually the first England manager in history to be a fan of the Russian expressionist.  The first to express an interest in Kandinsky?  Fabio Capello.  And if you're Irish, that can only be a good omen.

Good luck, Roy.  No, really, I mean it.  I think.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The limits of party loyalty

As all of you are no doubt aware, elections are to the political junkie what a World Cup or an Olympics is to the sports fan. With Northern Irish voters not due to go to the polls again for another two years, sadly we ardent politicos in this part of the world have only other people's elections to get excited about in 2012. At the moment it is this week's London mayoral election that is the one attracting quite a bit of attention from those of us who love nothing more every once in a while than to spend the early hours of a Friday morning with David Dimbleby and some studio guests poring over the latest developments from count centres across the land.

On paper this election is a re-run of the 2008 contest: Brian Paddick is the Liberal Democrat man on the ballot sheet, Ken Livingstone has been tasked with trying to take back the capital for Labour while Boris, the current Mayor of London and one of the few politicians in the UK who doesn't require a surname, is the Conservative candidate. If the polls are to be trusted the outcome might not be all that much different from the contest of four years ago either. Although the results of each survey have differed slightly, opinion polling by ComRes and YouGov in recent months shows Boris with a slight lead over Livingstone while Paddick trails well behind in a distant third place (some are suggesting that the Lib Dem might even slip to fourth when the votes are counted). Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing of all in this campaign has been simply how unremarkable it has all been.

So far the mayoral race appears to be a battle of personalities over policy. Of course, this isn't anything new to the modern day political scene and it is even less surprising given that the election on May 3rd involves two of Britain's most colourful politicians. Nevertheless, I had hoped for a little bit more. After watching the recent mayoral debate with Andrew Neil and the four leading candidates (the fourth being Jenny Jones of the Green Party), I'm left wondering how one of the finest cities in the world has ended up with such a terrible selection of candidates to represent them on the world stage. In fact, as someone who has always been a solid Labour loyalist when it comes to politics across the water, I have to admit that if I was a Londoner I would be seriously considering whether to - even temporarily - abandon ship for this one election in a bid to give the party the kick up the rear end that it so badly needs right now.

Back in September 2010 when Livingstone was selected to run for Labour, I wrote that the "crucial thing now is for activists in the city to unite behind the Livingstone campaign in order to boot out Boris." Oona King, Livingstone's rival for the nomination and the individual I would have preferred to see represent the party, also declared her support for Ken in the aftermath of his selection. However, the more I look at Mr Livingstone the less I am convinced that he deserves another chance.

Some people have already made their decision. Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian columnist and a man that has voted for Ken in the last three mayoral elections, states that he can no longer support Britain's best known reptile enthusiast. For him it is Livingstone's attitude towards London's Jewish community that has forced the change of mind. I won't cover old ground by citing the specific incidents Freedland is referring to here. Most are fairly well known and some are discussed again in the course of his column. I did chuckle slightly though when I read him state that Livingstone's autobiography was "notable for its repeated interest in Jews, Israel and Zionism." Notable? I think not. I would prefer that things were different, but sadly one of the problems with the left today is precisely the fact that Ken Livingstone's views on the Middle East are not a rarity on our section of the political spectrum but unfortunately are sentiments which are quite widespread. Maybe we should put it down to the company he keeps. Back in the old days a Labour MP would be viewed with suspicion if he was seen regularly hanging around with folk from peculiar far left sects. Today it would almost be a welcome break to see someone from the Labour 'left' count a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party as a good friend. In recent times Ken Livingstone's friends have tended to be much more sinister. Take, for example, his cordial, not to mention financially beneficial, connections with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Last year the man known as 'Red Ken' presented a book review programme called Epilogue on Press TV, the state-owned international television channel of the regime in Tehran. I find it incomprehensible how anyone claiming to be a socialist could happily work for such an institution. It certainly cannot be the high standards of journalism that drew Ken to this totalitarian mouthpiece. In recent years TV stations in the country have carried reports about an international Jewish conspiracy based on – wait for it - The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As Jonathan Freedland states, his work for the broadcaster puts him "in the pay of a theocratic dictatorship that denies the Holocaust and believes that both homosexuality and adultery merit stoning." Even if Livingstone's stomach is not turned by antisemitism or the stoning to death of gays or the crushing of the Green Revolution in 2009, surely as a leftist he must feel some revulsion at the Islamic Republic's continued policy of outlawing the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, the organisation in Iran affiliated to the Socialist International of which the British Labour Party is a fellow member.

Ken may not find all of this galling but clearly many Labour supporters do. A YouGov poll for the Sun last week put the Labour Party on 43% nationally – a full twelve percentage points ahead of the Tories on 31%. Good news you might say. However, the results for London astonishingly show almost a complete reversal of fortunes: Boris Johnson on 42%, Ken Livingstone on 31%. It speaks volumes for the standard of the centre-left candidate in this election that at a time when the Conservative Party's popularity is at its lowest for many years, when their policy of austerity is increasingly looking like a disaster and with their candidate for mayor seemingly the epitome of everything that is turning British voters against Westminster's current coalition of the millionaires, Mr Livingstone still finds himself lagging behind.

If I were living in London I would find the decision a tough one: vote for Livingstone to help get the Tories out, or vote for an alternative candidate knowing that in doing so I would be indirectly helping the Boris campaign? On reaching the conclusion that I would most likely opt for the latter choice, I was surprised how easy it would be in this case to not support the Labour Party candidate. Why? Because the simple fact of the matter is that Livingstone is a Labour candidate in name only. His actions in recent years have compromised his credentials as a left-winger far too much and it is now abundantly clear that the values many of us on the left take for granted as being held by our comrades are not values which Ken Livingstone necessarily shares. Whether it is his ill-chosen remarks on the Conservative Party being riddled with homosexuals or his meeting with an antisemitic Islamist thug like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Ken seems to represent not so much any particular shade of red nowadays but more a colourless nasty populism that his party could really do without.

One way in which the Labour Party can look forward to a future without the likes of Ken Livingstone is for him to fail in his bid to become mayor of London later this week. If he wins then he is guaranteed his place in the spotlight for at least another four years; if he loses then there is a good chance that, with him close to 67 years old now, he may decide to knock the political game on the head once and for all. Under that scenario we have the possibility of a fresh new Labour candidate squaring up to Boris Johnson in 2016, as opposed to a fresh new Tory candidate squaring up to a 71 year old Livingstone in four years time (by which stage goodness knows how many more people he will have offended). In the meantime though, I would feel entirely comfortable casting my vote for Labour in the London Assembly election while in the mayoral race giving my first preference vote to Jenny Jones of the Green Party. True, the Greens are far from perfect but they are at least standing on a recognisably left of centre manifesto and their candidate comes with much less baggage than Livingstone. I should also add at this point that it isn't just my imaginary self living in London that would be happy to vote Green. Here in Northern Ireland (where thanks to Labour not even bothering to stand means we do not have the luxury of being able to reject one of their candidates) I have voted for the Green Party on more than one occasion in the past and I can declare that it did not trigger the apocalypse. I therefore have no reason to suspect that a vote for Jenny Jones might bring forth the end of the world.

So, an intriguing few days lie ahead regardless of whether you were born within earshot of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow or not. Will we witness the beginning of the end for Ken Livingstone or will the former Member of Parliament for Brent East prove the opinion pollsters wrong and topple the floppy haired one? The answer to that question we shall know quite soon. However, it is my hope that when the good citizens of London next set out to choose their mayor in 2016 that they will have a much better candidate on offer to them from the Labour Party. I don't mind whether such a candidate is 'new' Labour or 'old' Labour, but just as long as they are something we could recognise as being Labour. Unfortunately, in this regard, Thursday's candidate just does not fit the bill.