Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Will José's juniors ever get to shine?

Picture: Chelsea FC

I don't wish to go on about Chelsea's victorious season (and I realise that I just have), but it should be pointed out that the club has won not one, not two, but FOUR titles in 2014/15.

The Barclays Premier League you know about, and the Capital One Cup (which still sounds more impressive as, simply, the League Cup) you may vaguely recall from the first weekend of March. But what almost slipped past unnoticed five weeks ago was the club's much-vaunted and, lavishly-equipped 'Development Squad' winning both the FA Youth Cup and the UEFA Under 19 Youth League.

While Roman Abramovich's largesse has been mostly seen to have won senior trophies (Champions League, Europa League, four Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, a Super Cup and the Charity Shield), there has been plenty going on in building up the supposed next generation. Except, much-deserved silverware notwithstanding, there hasn't been much to show for it in terms of the Chelsea Academy breaking into the first team, surely the purpose of developing young players.

John Terry was the last Chelsea youth product to break into the senior squad and stay there. He's 34 now and while having just completed a season in which he played in every Premier League game (despite having been written off by both Rafa Benitez and Andre Villas-Boas), he is clearly now the club's sole elder statesman, with Didier Drogba joining Frank Lampard in gentler climes.

Benitez and Villas-Boas were, infamously, charged with the task of bringing down the average of Chelsea's squad, a strategy coupled with the club's policy of only offering players over 30 single-year contract extensions.

That certainly has been achieved: the core of the team that last weekend lifted the Premier League trophy is clearly the basis of Chelsea's mid-term future - Eden Hazard (24), Thibaut Courtois (23), Willian (26), César Azpiliqueta (25), Nemanja Matic (26), Diego Costa (26).

But with the still youthful (relatively) Gary Cahill turning 30 this year, the outstanding Branislav Ivanovic 31, and Petr Cech - if he stays - now 33, opportunities for Chelsea's youth product to break through must surely be in the offing.

© Simon Poulter 2015
To give José Mourinho some credit, he has promoted Academy players like Nathan Ake, Isiah Brown, Dominic Solanke and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to the first team squad this season, and while they have largely been warming the bench, they have occasionally been given their chance. But these have been the exception.

This last season, Chelsea loaned out as many as 25 young players - enough to form two full teams with three to spare - including much-admired prospects like striker Patrick Bamford (14 goals for Middlesbrough and almost helped them to promotion), right back Todd Kane (Nottingham Forest), the highly rated defensive midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah, the Czech wunderkind Tomas Kalas, and Marco van Ginkel, the talented young Dutchman who was dispatched to AC Milan before even getting a chance to pull on a Chelsea shirt.

Somewhere out there, too (Vitesse Arnhem, actually) is Josh McEachran, the 22-year-old midfielder seen at one time as the successor to Frank Lampard, and who is also actually very good, but must wonder what he's got to do to get a game at his parent club, one that keeps buying midfielders.

With all his apparent contentment, a notable lack of any friction with the club hierarchy, and talk of extending his contract to 2019, Mourinho must now start thinking about building a legacy at Chelsea. Youngsters like Loftus-Cheek, Brown and Solanke have been awarded cameos in the most recent campaign - though notably the job of winning the Premier League was more or less over by Christmas, making appearances for them somewhat risk-free. Loftus-Cheek has, in particular, shown encouraging promise. Bamford, at Middlesbrough, has shown plenty of self-confidence in front of goal.

Surely it is time for these young players to enjoy a bigger part in what Chelsea has built over the two seasons since Mourinho returned to the club? Or is his refusal to accept anything other than winning blanking off the potential for the club's expensively built Academy to do no more than serve as a nursery for talent that can be sold on to other clubs for a premium?

Picture: Chelsea FC
The prospect of Mourinho extending his contract at Chelsea is the kind of stability its fans have dreamed of, as managers have come and gone like Ryanair jets at an airport terminal. We used to look enviously at Manchester United and even Arsenal, with Ferguson and Wenger putting down roots that maintained those clubs as perennial winners. Even now, you never know what the capricious Mourinho will do: he has never stayed at a club for more than three full seasons.

For now his challenge is to defend a title, with opponents coming back from the summer break not only more determined to take that title from him, but with fresh ideas of how to do it. Could youth be the opportunity? Could the Under 21, Under 19 and Under 18 players who are pulling in trophies form a nucleus of youth to sustain Chelsea for years to come, much in the same way as Sir Alex Ferguson did with the Beckham/Scholes/Neville/Neville/Butt/Giggs group?

The trouble is that for all of Mourinho's seemingly token promotion of youth, it's clear that this has not been his priority. The club can afford to buy whichever senior players it wants, and unless given an ultimatum to realise its investment in the Academy by playing more of its product, Mourinho has no actual need to play them. A shame, really, as England and the other national teams already represented within Chelsea's youth set-up, could only benefit from more frontline experience in the Premier League.

Mourinho himself, however, claims that promoting Loftus-Cheek to the first team this season has been an achievement as great as the Chelsea Academy producing two major trophies. He has also hinted at more opportunities for Chelsea's youngsters next term.

It would be nice to see, but Mourinho's win-at-all-costs mindset will always decide. Just a few weeks ago, with Costa and Drogba injured and Loic Remy yet to really prove himself as a first-choice, Dominc Solanke was denied the chance to even sit on the bench against Liverpool, with Mourinho instead choosing a three-man midfield attack.

José: from parking the bus to riding it
© Simon Poulter 2015
He is, though, adamant that Loftus-Cheek, Brown, Ake and other contemporaries are in the first team squad to stay.

Former Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair believes that Chelsea must match the words with deeds when it comes to developing Academy players into first team regulars. "For John Terry to be the last regular to play in Chelsea’s first team is a concern," he told TalkSport recently. "They probably got the best academy in Europe and they should have more players playing in the first team.”

The issue is how much they will play. Chelsea will surely come in for one or two of the bigger names on the market this summer, and as has been the case for a long while, you must question how youth players will develop if they're missing out on playing time because there is always someone bigger and more expensive before them in the squad.

One thing Mourinho is clearly conscious of is avoiding the Raheem Stirling situation at Liverpool. "In modern football, because of the agents and the parents, when the players are in the process of being almost there, they think they are already there," Mourinho said recently. "They make the players think they have arrived when they haven't. They think about money before the career starts and everything gets very, very confused. That doesn't help the players. They need stability. To be in a big team and to reach the level to be playing regularly for the first-team, you need time and stability. We try to give that to our boys."

The question for me is how much time?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Over and out: the 2014-2015 Barclays Premier League season

© Simon Poulter 2015
So that’s it. 2014/2015 over, more or less. Cue, then, three full months of transfer speculation and managerial rumours, interspersed with pointless pre-season friendlies, with it all heaving off again 75 days hence whilst most fans are working on their sunburn in the Mediterranean.

This has hardly been a vintage Barclays Premier League season, and I even say that as a Chelsea fan still dusting off the celery leaves after today’s victory parade.

Obviously, I’m extremely happy that the Blues won the league. Because it’s what we watch football for. I genuinely don’t care that Chelsea have at times been - like every other football team when they need to be - liberally pragmatic. I don’t care that other football fans have had the temerity to call us boring. Because we, not they, got to enjoy the carnival at Stamford Bridge yesterday and in the streets around it this lunchtime.

© Simon Poulter 2015
I know there are footballing perverts out there who ponce on about how football should be like a Borough Market artisan cheese rather than a box of easy-peal Darylea triangles, but Chelsea simply did what they had to do and those who follow them wanted them to do: win.

Not our fault if Manchesters United and City, Arsenal and, at various points, the likes of Swansea, Southampton and even, ambitiously, West Ham couldn’t mount a full challenge.

That sounds arrogant. It’s not meant to be: the reason this hasn’t been a vintage season is because in the first half no one could catch up with Chelsea, and when they had the chance in the second half, didn’t seem able to. Or bothered to.

The last word, possibly, I’ll say on Chelsea is that even if they are far from being the most popular team in the world - a status forged of a variety of self-made and tribal factors - you’d have to be terminally blinkered not to raise a hat to the tactical nous of Mourinho, the brilliance of Hazard, the inspired signings of Costa and Fabregas, and the resilience of a back four which included a John Terry written off by Rafael Benitez almost two years ago. The football writers and the players themselves have voted their acknowledgement of Chelsea’s achievements this season by awarding accolades on Mourinho and Hazard. Perhaps the boo-boys will now take respectful note.

Despite the somewhat averageness of the Premier League this season, it hasn’t gone short of bright spots elsewhere: who’d have thought that a Southampton denuded of so many of its players last summer would have remained so wonderfully competitive? Hats aloft to Ronald Koeman, that pedigreed Dutchman who, like so many of his compatriots now in management must surely fancy his chances one day at one of football’s ‘royal’ clubs.

Hats off, too, to Gary Monk, who turned on its head the idea that, as a newbie to management he would be a lamb to the slaughter. Not only that, but he also managed to hold down a part-time job as lead singer of the Kaiser Chiefs. And at risk of sounding as patronising as everyone else when praising Sean Dyche at Burnley, an honourable mention must go to the unfancied promotee who played with determination and style, and did more to deserve staying up than some who have remained.

Which leads me to Newcastle: everyone in football knows about Newcastle. Once the very essence of a football club happy enough to turn up and enjoy themselves, even to the extent that they didn’t seem to care about titles. However, the dysfunction and toxicity that has surrounded Newcastle United for too long - and it’s been fairly obvious where the blame has laid - doesn’t show any sign of abating. Which is why it brings a certain bittersweet pleasure to see Alan Pardew doing so well at Crystal Palace after just a few months in charge at Selhurst Park. And the club he left behind? Let’s just say that if you don’t get your arms around dysfunction, it will bite you on the arse, and leave teeth marks for a long time.

That, inevitably, is the cue to consider Liverpool. For all the wrong reasons, this will be a season to remember. A season when last season’s promise was never fulfilled; when last season’s heights were never repeated; when this season’s early potential, despite lacking the bite of Suarez, was exemplified by Brendan Rodgers ambitiously going for a three-striker attach of Sturridge, Sterling and the bravely acquired Balotelli, and ended so ignominiously with 6-1 hosing at Stoke City. Part of me feels genuinely sorry for Steven Gerrard’s 17-year tenure at Anfield to end so gloomily. But then ungraciously, part of me isn’t that sentimental about the miserable Scouse git.

I could go on about Liverpool, especially the misplaced sense of entitlement that still labours in and around Anfield Road (Gérard Houllier may not have been the best manager in Liverpool’s recent history, but he was spot on, 11 years ago, when he identified a lingering obsession with wanting "to go back to the '70s and ‘80s”). The tragedy of all this - and to be fair, it’s not all Rodgers’ fault - is that Liverpool has simply become a commodity, a famous name passed around like a party favour from one corporate entity to another, to the extent that no one anymore knows whether the problem lies with the owners, the club, the manager, the players (and their agents…), the fans or a combination of all of them.

Other clubs have pulled themselves out of a similar mire this season: Aston Villa, in particular, have done so simply by appointing a can-do manager. Tim Sherwood hasn’t completely turned Villa around, but he’s done enough to put smiles back on faces in Birmingham. I’ve yet to hear of anyone who doesn’t say the same thing about Sherwood - that he’s a born leader and a born communicator in equal measure, and those two factors alone are enough to suggest that he could do great things more at Villa Park. I’m a big fan of anyone who can transform club, not necessarily with a large transfer kitty, but by being able to instill - or even reinstall - a sense of purpose, pride and self-belief in a club. You can see that Sherwood has done just that at Villa, just as Pardew has done the same at Palace. We all know there have to be winners and losers, those who stay up and those who go down, but it’s always pleasing to see a manager parachute in and not only transform the playing capabilities of a club, but also its spirit.

And what of Tottenham, who unceremoniously rejected Sherwood in favour of Mauricio Pochettino? As a Chelsea fan I am permanently poised to go “Ha-ha!”, like The Simpsons’ Nelson Monte, whenever the chance arises (the same applies, in varying degrees, to Liverpool, Manchester United and Rafa Benitez).

So, I have been periodically chuckling away at Spurs pocketing 100 million euros for Gareth Bale and buying, well, basically bugger all with it. And, yet, Spurs have this season finished a decent fifth, were Capital One Cup finalists and worthy league winners at home over Arsenal and, in a brilliant performance, Chelsea. It shouldn’t be forgotten just how young this Spurs side are. When Harry Kane is considered one of the ‘older’ players at just 21, there is much to come from Tottenham, as long as its own history of corporate tinkering doesn’t get in the way again.

I promised not to go further on Chelsea, but I can’t end without mentioning the teams that should have challenged the eventual champions: first up, Manchester City. Last season’s champions were, simply, a disappointment. Chelsea may have come out of the traps like a rare gas in August, and City at least showed the intent to keep pace with them, but when given the opportunity to exploit their London rivals’ weaker post-Christmas form, as they lost Costa and Fabregas to suspension and injuries, they simply couldn’t find the gears. That Sergio Aguero’s 26 league goals earned him the Premier League Golden Boot belies the fact that behind him slouched a comparatively moribund team of title defenders. Blame will surely fall on Manuel Pellegrini - it’s not like he didn’t have the players who’d won the league just the season before. It was a genuine surprise that they failed to ignite a serious challenge this term.

No matter how much gloss is applied, City’s neighbours Manchester United can only be so-pleased with this season. It was clearly a marked improvement on the last one. United may still be a work in progress, and Louis van Gaal’s blowhard management may have returned some of the club’s missing mojo, but there was still too much rough with too little smooth. And the ludicrous pre-season splurge only really seemed to be an attempt at throwing money at the problem of man management that had clearly plagued United under David Moyes. Still, a fourth place finish and a return to Europe, with last summer’s signings having a full season to settle in could raise the potency of van Gaal’s side next term.

And while we’re on the subject of lobbing dosh about, I can’t neglect Arsenal. Not that Arsène Wenger exactly went nuts with the chequebook last summer, but by his standards, the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, David Ospina, Mathieu Debuchy and (inspiringly) Danny Welbeck, on top of Ozil 12 months before, was like a Wenger remake of Brewster’s Millions by comparison. Only the most rose-tinted spectacles would suggest that this has been a season of major progress for Arsenal.

It wouldn’t be churlish to say that their season has been mediocre, even if they did end third, with Saturday’s FA Cup Final to come. The trouble with Arsenal is that we’ve been there every season for as long as I can remember. Close-but-no-cigar. Showing promise, but no product at the end of it. Even those who maintain that Arsenal are steadily growing in potency must accept that such growth has been at a tectonic speed. Yes, top three; yes, the Champions League again; yes, a shot at silverware. But, Arsenal fans, are you really where you should be? Here’s to August 8, when we start to find out, all over again.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Back in the doghouse: Seasick Steve at Le Bataclan, Paris

© Simon Poulter 2015
Some years ago, there was a brief flurry of amusement about Big Daddy, a band that produced ‘50s doo-wop versions of contemporary songs like Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark under the pretence that they were an actual band from the late 1950s, captured during a USO tour of south-east Asia to be rescued in the 1980s to make “old versions of new songs”.

Nobody, for one moment, was taken in by the creaky plot, but that didn't interfere with the band's brief season of patronage by metropolitan musos in Britain.

A similarly arbitrary hipster fad could be attributed to Steve Wold - aka Seasick Steve, he of the colourful backstory and unlikely, late-in-life fame which came out of bemusing the pants off festival-goers with his itinerant blues traveller act.

While Wold's initial flourish of fame may have come from the semi-ironic appreciation of wigged-out Glasto punters (those who turn up for the Foo Fighters and end up digging Dolly Parton), his subsequent progress has rightfully installed him in the spectrum of performers dutifully interpreting the music of the Mississippi Delta in their own sweet way.

Of course there is some degree of caricature in Wold's stage persona: the John Deare tractor cap, the improvised guitars and a never-far bottle of something to swig from does suggest schtick to frame the whole hillbillyness of it all.

But with seven albums since 2004 and countless more festival appearances under his belt, you'd have thought the novelty would have worn off. It hasn't.

You only have to stroll down Beale Street in Memphis to Handy Park to see pretty much the same concept being relayed throughout every authentic hour of the day of that living museum of the Delta blues.

And while Memphis affords tourists a genuinely engaging nod back to Beale's origins, Wold's version of the blues traveller is increasingly playing a vital role in keeping this chapel of Americana alive.

It's hard not to mention BB King at this point. He may have become ever-more cabaret towards the end, but his status as the last of the original bluesmen, with the dirt of Southern cotton fields still beneath their fingernails, placed him at the apex of a movement keeping this vital piece of American culture alive. Clapton, Buddy Guy, Tedeschi and Trucks, the mighty Popa Chubby, and Wold are its remaining custodians, authentic patricians of blues heritage and guardians of its legacy in equal measure.

If there’s one misunderstanding about blues music, it’s that it is maudlin. True, distress of the human condition has always been a lyrical mainstay of the blues, but much of that was tongue-in-cheek. Moreover, the blues is at its most joyful when expressed with the warmth and richness that Seasick Steve applied last night at Le Bataclan, spending much of the evening grinning as widely as most of the vocal Parisian audience (“we love you Sea-sick!” hollered one beer-soaked punter, failing to see the irony of such nautical malady).

Accompanied by the thunderous drummer Dan Magnusson, Wold rattled through the 13-song, 90-minute set, getting the crowd stomping furiously from the get-go with My Donny, the bottleneck blues workout that did so much to endear him to festival crowds to begin with, before easing into Bring It On, which doffs a trucker cap to Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks (and for a former hobo, the choice of Ramble On, amongst an assortment of Led Zeppelin songs, seemed eminently appropriate to warm up the yappy crowd). Indeed, Wold makes it easy to see how the hypnotic rhythms of the Mississippi Delta had such an effect on the British Blues movement and the likes of Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham.

Over the Tennessee chugging, Wold gets to talk about the places he has drifted from and to: Summertime Boy references his own West Coast history (at one time living under the roof of abusive father in Oakland) as he painted an idyllic picture of surfing off Californian beaches, and the drive north on PCH that I can personally vouch is one of the greatest, life-affirming experiences one can have. Barracuda ’68, much later in the set, casts the same effect, a seemingly effortless stomper for the ultimate road trip soundtrack.

With Walking Man, Wold strays into Bono territory by pulling a blonde from the crowd in order "to sing you a love song”. It is indeed a beautiful blues ballad, evoking a southern porch with fireflies jigging about. The warmth and tenderness of both Wold's vocal and his slide guitar never surrendered to schmaltz.

The pace is cranked back up again with Roy’s Gang, on which Wold breaks out a guitar made from a washboard and a banjo neck and played with a thimble. At this point you might question whether this is too much humility, but the earthy grind that Wold and Magnusson concoct is every bit as inventive as Jimmy Page and his violin bow, or Hendrix playing with his teeth.

© Simon Poulter 2015
With the audience now frugging in unison, Wold piles into the standard Baby, Please Don’t Go (popularised by Big Joe Wiliams, immortablised by Van Morrison’s Them), which takes the crowd along with its infectious repetition.

“Play the blues Steve!” shouts someone in a crowd noticeable for the number of plaid shirts and John Deare tractor caps. "I ain't playin' no blues, man, I'm a hillbilly!” is the response, as Wold grinds into Keep On Keepin’ On, which says everything you’ll ever need to know about Seasick Steve and his professional ethos.

After the briefest of breaks, Wold re-emerges on his own to cover John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind, a countrified ballad about life on the road, and again, another example of Wold’s delightful balance of chugging blues and a gentler take on the genre.

We end with another Seasick Steve signature, Dog House Boogie, another rousing, growling, floor-thumper that provides a consolidating demonstration of why, playing this old, weather-worn, venerable form of music, live audiences were so bowled over by Wold to begin with.

It wasn’t about his sorry tale of life on the road, of seeking out a living and sleeping in hedgrerows, it was the fact that with a guitar made out of the barest of components, Seasick Steve was able to - and continues to - demonstrate that music, proper music, isn’t created on a computer, or in a TV studio - but by soul. Simply wonderful.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mojo still working: Paul Weller's Saturns Pattern

When the late James Brown was handing himself titles like "The Godfather of Soul", "Soul Brother Number 1", "Mr. Dynamite" and "The Minister of Super-Funk" (in much the same way as Idi Amin, who made himself "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, Victoria Cross", and, of course, "King of Scotland") - the only sobriquet that could be questioned was "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business".

Not that Brown lacked the work ethic to justify the description, but it would have been hard to prove, given that any one of a number of stand-up comedians, singer-songwriters, film and TV extras and, of course, Michael Caine, could mount a serious challenge to the description. Even the now-dear departed BB King averaged up to 300 shows a year well into his 80s.

However, we're not here to debate the industry of entertainers at large, but instead give regard to Saturns Pattern - incredibly, the 35th album to be released by or involving the current Hardest Working (or Woking) Man in Show Business, Paul Weller. Just think of that: 35 albums - including 12 under his own name post-Jam/Style Council. That is, by any stretch of the imagination, prodigious.

In 2004, though, the covers album Studio 150 suggested an easing up on the creativity. Faithful, but not particularly inspiring versions of the soul classic Wishing On A Star, Gordon Lightfoot's Early Mornng Rain and even All Along The Watchtower made many question Weller's career path at the start of his fourth decade in the business. There was talk of writer's block, tabloid whispers about his lifestyle, and sundry other diversions from what what should have been the discussion, about one of Britain's most consistent artists.

While All Is Now, featuring the delightfully rambunctious From The Floorboards Up, suggested that Weller's mojo was back, it was 2008's 22 Dreams that suggested - no, insisted - that whatever had been holding him back had been well and truly exorcised, delivering a deluge of expression, experimentation and unrestricted avante garde.

Since then, the albums have come - relatively speaking - thick and fast, each one pushing at the notions of what the so-called Modfather should be doing. Because no-one and nothing can or will dictate what Weller will commit to record.

Hippy-dippy psychedelic woozeouts? Fill yer boots. Ray Davies-nodding stompers? 'Ave some. Gentle, Laurel Canyon-esque ballads? Be our guest. Although you'd never guess it, given his famously stoney expression (which always reminds me of De Niro), the nine tracks of Saturns Pattern suggests a Paul Weller having fun. 

There is a striking ease to it: songs like Phoenix recalling long hot summer soul boy days (and Dusk Til Dawn on the Deluxe Edition brings back memories of The Style Council's Down The Seine); White Skies, the album's opener, kicks in with eviscerating guitar and distorted vocal without so much as a by-your-leave; and These City Streets harks back to the gentle white soul of Remember How We Started on Weller's solo debut, an album which, like its mega-selling follow-up Stanley Road underlined his remarkable ability to combine tone, texture and melody without either selling out to mainstream pop, while remaining totally faithful to the cause. And then there's the title track, which sups from Weller's original source, The Small Faces, with its rinkly-tinkly piano and carefree giddiness (so carefree Weller clearly wasn't bothered by the heinous titular omission of a possessive apostrophe...).

Weller doesn't stand still, and I don't just mean from the propensity of his output, but from his seemingly restless desire to expand and explore, to mix it up and try this and try that. Take In The Car... for example: bluesy acoustic guitars, bottleneck slide electric guitars - instruments you would struggle to associate with the younger Weller - are blended together with splashes of psychedelic Hammond organ, providing solid evidence that this 56 year-old (he turns 57 next Monday) refuses to adhere to any conformity of expectation.

It's always possible that Paul Weller will, one day, produce a dud. A real stinker. He could so easily descend into self-parody, or head off, Spinal Tap-like, into the realms of jazz-rock experimentation, or reinvent himself, sort of, as a Neil Young tribute act.

But on current evidence, there's little to no danger. Saturns Pattern is, like it's most recent predecessors, another solid sleeper lying across the railway line of Paul Weller's solid career trajectory. OK, a convoluted analogy, but you know what I mean. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

A 99 cone please: Blur's The Magic Whip

Now, I'm not going to drag up all that Britpop brouhaha because it was 20 years ago and the world has moved on. But to hear a brand new Blur album, 13 years after their last studio release and a massive 16 years since they launched one as a fourpiece, messes with the head.

Because there is much about The Magic Whip, released last week, which seems unaged, timeless even. And yet, for the rest of us, the difference between the salad days of Britpop and now is the distance between carefree abandon and the burden of mortgages, middle-aged spread, grey hair and random bladder-related ailments.

20 years is, though, a long time in any rock band's history. Imagine how The Beatles might have sounded in 1986, twenty years on from Revolver? Would it have been, like so much of that period, a cacophany of over-production, Fairlight samples and Simmons drums? With added Jeff Lynne for good measure...

Thankfully, then, Blur have managed to bridge the decades effortlessly with The Magic Whip. It's opening track, Lonesome Street, harks back to the bop-a-long past - a chugg-a-chugg Country House rhythm coupled with Damon Albarn's maudlin take on modern life (which is rubbish, in case you weren't aware) and the mundanity of taking the "5:14 from East Grinstead". Perhaps disingenuously, it has even earned the nod of approval from one time bête noire Liam Gallagher. How times change.

In reality, so much has passed since Messrs Albarn, Coxon, James and Roundtree were last a recording fourpiece. Albarn has pursued polymath offshoots in Chinese opera and smartarse collaborations with street artists and old punks, Graham Coxon has honed his somewhat underrated skills as an exquisite guitar-based singer songwriter, Alex James took up being a posh farmer and Roundtree returned to his criminal legal practice.

Given all this, it was hard to predict what The Magic Whip would deliver, especially given the somewhat accidental way it came about - the result of a Hong Kong studio jam session two years ago during a tour, with Coxon resurrecting interest in the recordings at the end of last year and Albarn adding lyrics to complete the album.

Improvisation led to 13 and Think Tank - their previous studio albums - but The Magic Whip has the air of a relaxed, Sunday afternoon day-off, Coxon in particularly delivering fluid, understated guitar riffs, if aimlessly plucking out motifs while kicking back on a settee.

Picture: Facebook/Blur

The album is a mix of the joyful and the warm, contemplative and the cold, with frequent lapses into the reflective mood of Albarn's introspective Everyday Robots, released a year ago to the week. All of which gives us gems like the understated New World Towers, Thought I Was A Spaceman and the standout My Terracotta HeartOng Ong returns to singalongaBlur, while Mirroball - nothing to do with Elbow, you may like to know - is another wonderfully woozy afternoon of a song, with beautifully expressive guitar work from Coxon.

Pyongyang mixes the dystopian sparsity of Bowie and Brian Eno's Warszawa, with Albarn recalling a visit to North Korea to create, it must be said, a beautifully bleak postcard. The subject of There Are Too Many Of Us won't come as any great surprise, either - literally, too many of us "living in tiny houses" (in the country and elsewhere). Not exactly uplifting, but somehow, Albarn's hangdog outlook doesn't grate as much you'd expect.

Picture: Facebook/Blur
Lightening the mood, Ghost Ship is a playful piece of blue-eyed soul, seemingly cast in idyllic waters with James plunking away at an ice-cold glass of Chardonnay's worth of summer bass, redolent of nu-soul one-hit-wonder Omar's There's Nothing Like This.

Ice Cream Man might be comparable with the sort of whimsy of Ernold Same, The Great Escape's nod to Pink Floyd's Arnold Layne, but in trying to be quirky, it tries too hard and misses. That, though is probably the only miss on the album.

While The Magic Whip throws up few real surprises, it certainly isn't the comfortable pair of mail order drawstring trousers it might easily be. Blur aren't pretending to be the the 20 years-hence version of their younger selves, even if photographic evidence doesn't suggest much of an ageing process.

But everyone - Albarn, Coxon, James and Roundtree contribute with an assuredness, as if returning to an artisan hobby that had been packed away under a spare upstairs bed.

Monday, May 04, 2015

There was only one word for it: inevitable.

Picture courtesy of chelseafc.com

It's not over yet, although it is, and in truth, has been for a long time. The party streamers and champagne corks strewn across the pitch at Stamford Bridge tell the tale of relief, elation, vindication and many, many more emotions.

Chelsea have become Barclays Premier League champions for the 2014-2015 season. That title might suggest a competition that began in August and is will end on May 24 (with the champions still to play three more games), but in reality, it was probably over before 2015 had even begun.

That is not meant to be a boast - truly it wasn't. But the Usain Bolt-like speed with which Chelsea sprinted out of the traps in August was truly breathtaking. In fact, such was the rapidity and regularity with which Diego Costa was scoring goals so early in the competition - good goals, exciting goals, goals created by Cesc Fabregas - that many jaded Chelsea fans were still caught discussing whether the club had bought yet another couple of misfits from La Liga (thanks, of course, to Spain's limp performance in the World Cup).

Clearly it hadn't, and even if injury, suspension and fatigue has, respectively, removed Costa from the battle and Fabregas from effectiveness in the second half of the season, their contribution in the first half must not go unrecognised. The fact that suspension and a recurring hamstring injury has limited Costa's involvement since Christmas is all the more remarkable when you consider a goals-to-games ratio of almost 80% for the season as a whole.

Picture courtesy of chelseafc.com

When the season began, a large majority of pundits noted how well balanced Chelsea were. That, with Costa up front, Hazard, Oscar and a choice of other attacking midfielders, Matic in the holding role, a solid defensive quartet and Courtois in goal, Jose Mourinho had the potential to make good his prophesy last season about the little horse winning the title this time.

What the experts didn't note, however, was the intellectual aspect of Mourinho's game, that he hadn't just assembled a squad of some potency, but that his tactical nouse was pretty much the 12th man in Chelsea's team. And thus it has proven to be: blitzkreig before Christmas, a "strategic" (his words) approach when injury denied him his main battle tank. 

Love him or loathe him - and we all know there are plenty in the latter camp - you simply cannot deny that Mourinho is a special one: 22 career trophies as a manager (an average of one every 34 games), league titles in four countries, and a win rate of 135 out of 193 Premier League matches played. A staggering achievement.

So, then. Chelsea boring? There's no doubt that in being "strategic", Mourinho has had to abandon creativity for pragmatism. The loss of Costa was significant, the decline of Fabregas a pain. But Mourinho managed to conjure team performances that compensated for this. And as for all that 'parking the bus' nonsense, how many teams have come to Stamford Bridge to do just that? It takes two to tango.

Picture: Facebook/Chelsea FC
There's no point comparing Chelsea and Barcelona. Barca are Barca, in their own world, surrounded their own romantic notion of football. Madrid too. I watch a fair bit of Italian football, as well, and while I love the theatre of it all, theatricality is too often what you get. 

For that reason, it still pains me to see a Chelsea player go over like a dying swan. And, yes, Eden Hazard, I do mean you. A little.

On the other hand, the arguments about Chelsea being boring lack any intelligent rationality: with striking options limited, what was Mourinho supposed to do - just say "fuck it lads, knock it about a bit, play some tikka-takka, and if we win, we win, and if not, we've had fun trying"?

That does not cut with any Premier League team. The object is to win. Sometimes you win pretty, sometimes you win ugly. Sometimes you face an opponent who gives you the space to play elaborately, another game, you're up against the proverbial wall. Chelsea can't be derided for mixing and matching their style of play to the opponent they face. Winning is the objective. 

As a Chelsea fan I am, of course, beside myself with glee that the club I've supported since childhood, and until a decade ago hadn't won more than a couple of major trophies since 1955, has won its fourth Premier League title in ten years. Of course they've done it with Abramovich's money. Yes, they've done it three times with Mourinho's intelligence, guile and tactical cunning more than any discernible style. But, yes, they've done it at all.

Picture: Facebook/Chelsea FC
I'm always amused by the baying, braying chants of opposition fans, especially those challenging the apparent Johnny-come-latelys that the gentrified Stamford Bridge has drawn. 

"Where were you when you were shit!" is the most popular. "Right here", is my usual retort, remembering seeing the tail-end of Mickey Droy and Ron 'Chopper' Harris's careers, the Second Division mudbaths, the so-called "new stand" that almost bankrupted the club (and which I still sit in...and refer to as "the new stand"), and the dismal, 7,000-attendance bores during which would look up at the old away end and see no more than a handful of brave souls who'd trudged in from the provinces to watch a low-end encounter.

That, by the way, isn't a sob story. And nor is it a story of genuine survival and progressive betterment, such as the remarkable rise of Bournemouth, and their well-deserved ascent into the Premier League next term. 

No, it's the reality that after decades of watching Chelsea trade off its supposed 1960s glamour and Hollywood connections (Sophia Loren anyone?) and be perennial underachievers, that we're enjoying the sort of sustained success that I and many others moaned about Liverpool in the 70s and 80s, and Manchester United and Arsenal in the 1990s. And like them, Chelsea can now join that small band of clubs whose fan refrain is "no one likes us, we don't care". Perhaps the highest accolade of them all.

Monday, April 27, 2015

We were only being boring...for a reason

The general consensus this morning, following yesterday's predictable 0-0 draw between Arsenal and Chelsea, is that the Blues are boring. Oh, what delightful irony.

No one is any doubt that yesterday's match at the Emirates lacked goals - actually, it lacked shots on goal, too - but it certainly didn't lack excitement. Barclays Premier League football simply can't. The pace and physicality alone means that you'll always have something to keep you occupied. Of course, we don't watch football for the spectacle of two teams going at each other like rutting wildebeest. Goals, and preferably spectacular goals, have to be a part of the entertainment.

And, despite the bilious nonsense about Chelsea killing football from those flooding radio phone-ins, Twitter and comment boxes yesterday evening, it shouldn't be forgotten that in being ten points clear at the top of the league, Chelsea have taken 65 goals from 33 games, and have a positive goal difference of 39, five more than Manchester City. That doesn't strike me as particularly boring, although I'll readily concede that Chelsea were at the most entertaining best up until Christmas, with Costa scoring almost every time he was on the pitch, and Fabregas providing some of the best delivery play I've seen Chelsea produce in the 35 years I've been visiting Stamford Bridge.

But yesterday, with the Premier League's runaway leaders and a resurgent Arsenal going up against each other just over a month from the end of the season, what were people expecting? Free-flowing carelessness?

That the blame for a 0-0 result should fall solely on José Mourinho is ludicrous. It takes two teams to make a game and Arsène Wenger would have - or, at least, should have - known that this fixture would have found Mourinho at his most infuriatingly pragmatic.

If it hadn't been apparent in the build-up, it was certainly obvious when the teamsheet was posted: no recognised striker (albeit the ageing Drogba on the bench), a frontline featuring the mercurial Hazard (and, now, deserved PFA Player of the Year) flanked by the increasingly anaemic Oscar and the talented but uneven Willian, Matic and Fabregas holding the midfield, and the Premier League's most efficient back four behind them.

Let's not be naive: if you or I were managing Chelsea, sitting on top of the league since God-knows when and with points to spare, the electric striker who mostly put you there out injured, and the rest of the squad visibly looking jaded, what else would you do, when a prize that has eluded them since 2010 lay so tantalisingly close? You wouldn't want to blow it now.

I won't deny that the game lacked flair, or that Mourinho packed the midfield, but that should have been Wenger's problem to solve. Arsenal have clearly shown their mettle in recent weeks, and have been particularly good at home. But yesterday they simply didn't ask enough questions of Chelsea. They just didn't have the approach. I've seen the same at home: teams coming to Stamford Bridge simply to park the bus and thwart their hit-on-the-break play. Thus, there have been times when I've trudged out of the Bridge, just about happy with three points from a goal nicked in the final minutes after an hour or more of similar to what we saw yesterday, albeit with the bus parked by the visitors.

At the Emirates, Chelsea were disciplined: John Terry defied his age to earn Man Of The Match with distinguished aplomb, with Cesar Azpilicueta, in particular, brilliantly solid at left back. Their organisation overall, as the visiting side, was impeccable. And Arsenal? They are the side people should find frustrating. They have the talent - their league position says so - but they lacked the nouse to unlock Chelsea. They've won just two of their last 13 league games against the Blues, and have gone eight hours without even scoring against them. Add to that, they've had just one shot on target in their two league fixtures against Chelsea this season.

Arsenal and Chelsea: "what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object"

Can Chelsea be "blamed" for that? Well, sorry if I misread the instructions, but I thought the object of the exercise was that one side aims to score more goals than the other in order to win. Which, if I understand the principle further, means that each side has to do as much as it can to prevent the other from scoring.

Somewhere between the two, I agree, should be exciting attacking football. And if not, we end up with, to quote The Joker, "...what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object."

If, as expected, Chelsea do win the Premier League this season, there is only one message for the teams around them who failed to beat them: do better next season.