Wednesday 26 August 2009

Britain is not like The Wire!

Yesterday I read in the Times that the Conservative Party's Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling argued that Britain had reached a US style 'Culture of Violence' as a result of a 70% increase in violent crime in the UK since Labour came to power. Mr Grayling made the point that in many parts of the country the US police drama The Wire had become part of real life! My immediate thought was don't be so ridiculous!

This is such a misleading and inaccurate comparison to make. There are obviously areas of the country with high levels of violent crime and social deprivation, but I don't believe you can compare anything in this country to some cities in America.

At times watching The Wire you have to remind yourself that this is America, the world's richest country. Yet many of the inhabitants portrayed in the series are living in areas that a nothing more than war zones, and were the standard of living appear to be at Third World levels!

I was glad to read today that the Evening Standard's Anne McElvoy agreed with me. She rightly pointed out that despite our problems with gun crime in some inner cities, gun violence is tiny in comparison to Baltimore where the series is set.

Chris Grayling has highlighted the direct link between the most deprived areas in the UK having the biggest rise in violent crime during the last year. This is all part of The Conservatives portrayal of Britain's 'broken society'.

Of course there are parts of society which are experiencing serious social and economic problems but it's wrong to say that our entire society is broken which is what the term implies.

I remember reading an interview with David Simon creator of The Wire in which he basically said that he'd walked down some of the supposedly worst streets in London, and also in other European cities but he still didn't think any of them compared to Baltimore.

Maybe Chris Grayling should get in touch with Simon to discuss this.

West Ham and Millwall fans in hooligan clash!

Well what a predictable news headline this is! Probably the most predictable news story of the week! I can't believe there are any football fans out there surprised by last night's violence! People are saying it was a return to the bad old days of the 70's and 80's but the truth is football hooliganism never really went away!

It's extremely rare to see football violence at most football grounds these days, but that doesn't mean to say that it no longer goes on.

We're never going to return to the dark days of the 70's and 80's where football violence took place every weekend, but there are certain football fixtures in this country where hooligans will come out of the woodwork to specifically target.

West Ham/Millwall games are in that category. What makes it worse with these two clubs is that they rarely play each other so when they do the occasion is even more intense. The hooligan element of both clubs will make an effort to come out and have 'a row' as they say.

As a Birmingham City fan I have seen this first hand. Our club has always had a hooligan element known as the 'Zulus'. Certain Birmingham games over the years always attract trouble. These include matches against Cardiff, Stoke, Aston Villa (naturally) and also coincidentally Millwall.

I inadvertently witnessed some football hooliganism back in 2005 when I went to a League Cup game at Millwall. About a third of Birmingham's away support that night were hooligans who after getting into the ground 10 minutes late, began to smash up many of the seats before beginning to goad and shout abuse at the Millwall fans in the opposite stand.

Me and my Spurs supporting friend (I still feel guilty about dragging him along) watched this in complete and stunned silence as we'd never seen anything like it! There was no 'hand to hand' combat between the fans as they were separated by the stands, but we were kept back after the game by the police for our own safety.

Although it wasn't a particularly pleasant experience, in comparison to the scenes last night at West Ham, it was like a picnic in the park.

The thing is, many of those Birmingham fans that night were not the sort of people I usually see at London away games. They went to that game specifically because it was Millwall. I'm convinced that many of the people involved in the troubles last night had come out because it was West Ham/Millwall.

What makes me laugh is that many of the main ringleaders of such violence are blokes in their 40s and 50s. It's as if they're trying to turn the clock back to 1983. You then get younger kids who have grown up watching films like The Football Factory and reading the never ending number of football hooligan (Hoolie Lit) books out there on the bookshelves.

What I don't understand is how the police and the club stewards weren't prepared for this. I'm sure they were up to a point but clearly not enough.

I can imagine that the atmosphere would have been horrible for many ordinary fans, but when I hear about some people who were at the game with young children under the age of 10 I do wonder why an earth they would take kids to such a match!

They must have known that things could potentially turn ugly, its the nature of the fixture! I will never attend a Birmingham/Millwall game ever again in my life, and certainly not with young kids!

I know ideally we should be able to attend any game we like without the worry of trouble, but West Ham/Millwall is not one of them. Whether we like it or not there are still a number of explosive fixtures out there that fans must approach with caution.

Goodbye Big Brother

It was announced today that Big Brother will be finishing next year after its 11th series. I can't say I'm surprised, it's just run out of steam and come to the end of it's natural shelf life. It's no longer must see TV and we've seen it all before!

This is the first year that I haven't really followed or got into Big Brother properly. I've watched the occasional show almost through habit as I've always watched it during the summer over the last 10 years.

I knew the writing was on the wall for the show when I gave up watching half way through last year's series.

I was just bored with it. I can't even remember the name of the girl who won last year, yet I still remember those contestants who won the first 4 or 5 series.

This year has seen the lowest audience viewing figures in the show's history. I don't think it's the show's fault, people have just moved on.

Back in 2000 before Big Brother began, I remember reading about the original first series which started in Holland. I thought the whole concept sounded really interesting and I was determined to make sure that I watched the series when it started in the UK.

The novelty of watching a house full of strangers has worn off. The first set of contestants didn't know what they were letting themselves in for, the programme was still seen as being some sort of psychological social experiment.

As we all know this soon changed, and contestants emerged from the experience as minor celebrities and before you knew it the whole show became a vehicle for any talentless wannabe to try and become a Z list celebrity!

Well we've seen it all before now. All the same types of characters, having the same types of relationships, arguments, and ups and downs.

Perhaps if the programme makers had tried to return the series back to its original concept of a social experiment, and picked more 'normal' people who had no interest in showing off to the camera or trying to forge a celebrity career, then the programme may have been able to continue and appear interesting and relevant, but they haven't.

When I go to work nobody talks about the show anymore in the way that they used to in previous years. What I find most telling is that none of the tabloid newspapers have even bothered to cover the show in any real depth this year.

Instead we've had a relentless daily diet of stories about Jordan and Peter Andre's breakup. If the tabloids can't even be bothered anymore you know the programme is on its last legs.

I will probably make an effort to watch some of the series next year as a way of saying goodbye, but all I can say is that Big Brother has had a good run, and it's a good time to bring it to an end.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Where does Usain Bolt go from here?

Last week I spoke about how amazing Usain Bolt's 100m world record was in the Athletics World Championships in Berlin. Just when you thought he couldn't possibly top that he then runs 19.19 in the 200m to shatter his own world record! This is phenomenal sprinting at a level we've never seen before in Athletics. With no real competition to challenge him at the moment, where does he go from here?

At the weekend, Bolt won his third gold medal in the 100m relay. He ran a decent third leg handing over to Asafa Powell, but it didn't compare to his third leg in last year's Olympics, and there was no world record. I was almost a disappointed!

The thing is, you can't really expect Bolt or any other athlete to break world records everytime they step onto the track. People will come to watch Bolt sprint knowing full well he's going to win but expecting to see amazing times. Is there a danger that people will get bored?

I hope not as Usain Bolt is without question the greatest thing to happen to world athletics in years. I'm a huge athletics fan and consider it to be my second sport after football.

Athletics has been in the doldrums for quite some time now. It's certainly not as fashionable or as popular as it once was. The sport's also lost credibility with the numerous drug scandals which have taken place over the years.

Bolt has come along at just the right time. His amazing performances have meant he's now one of the most famous sports stars in the world and he's brought athletics back to centre stage and for all the right reasons. It's not just his performances though, but his personality as well.

It's amusing to see so many more athletes dancing, pulling faces, and waving to the crowd before the start of their races; all in imitation of Bolt. He's quite clearly the biggest face and ambassador for the sport.

World athletics and in particular the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) need to use Bolt in the best way possible to promote athletics in a positive light and restore the credibility of the sport.

Returning back to what challenges he still has on the track, there are still a number of targets for him to aim for. It's commonly agreed that he can lower the world record in 100m but even more incredibly he could possibly go under 19 seconds for the 200m.

I still think he should at some stage have a go at the 400m. From what I can tell he's not overly keen on the idea, but I just know he could run some great times at that event, and who knows if he really put his mind to it, challenge Michael Johnson's 400m world record.

I've now heard reports that perhaps the Long jump would be the next new challenge for him and not the 400m. This is intriguing as he's never done the long jump before.

Clearly there would be no problem generating speed on the runway, but even though he's a gifted athlete he would still need to learn the technique of using that running speed in such a way that he can gain the necessary height and distance when he jumps.

If he does at some point decide to take up the long jump and he becomes successful, he'll be following in the footsteps of the great Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis, but he would surely eclipse anything they achieved, although you could argue he's already done that.

My hopes for the next few years is that Bolt remains fit, motivated and keeps doing fantastic things on the track. With him onboard athletics has a much brighter future! We need him!

Where does UK athletics go from here?

Following on from my where does Usain Bolt goes from here, I wanted to ask the same question of UK Athletics.

UK athletics has also struggled in recent years. We don't have the same household names that we had in the past. The sport seems to struggle to attract the public attention in a way that it used to and doping scandals have discredited the sport. I discussed this issue with a friend from school over the weekend, who questioned how good the viewing figures would actually be for this World Championships.

I understood where he was coming from and excepted that there could be an argument to say that the BBC should no longer cover athletics if there isn't the public interest for it.

If this ever happened I'd be hugely upset as I still believe that athletics is one of the few truly world sports along with football. You can argue that we don't have the star names that we had in the past, but there have been some very good performances in Berlin.

We can't expect to encourage and inspire children to take up the sport and become potential future champions if they never get the opportunity of seeing the sport on television.

Secondly, we have the Olympics coming up in 2012 , people can say whatever like but the truth is, track and field is the focal point of any Olympic Games and it's crucial that UK athletics is ready to perform to its maximum capability when the Games take place in London.

Great Britain actually performed extremely well during these World Championships, winning two Gold medals and winning 6 medals overall; But it's not just about the medals won but also the number of athletes that reached finals. We had 20 top 8 finishes. It was actually our best performance in 16 years in these championships.

This all bodes well for 2012, and we have at least 2 realistic gold medal prospects in Jessica Ennis and Phillips Idowu who won gold in the heptathlon and the triple jump. Both have been great prospects over the last couple of years and it was great to see them deliver. It again shows that we can produce winners and helps raise the profile of the sport.

What many people don't realise is just how competitive world athletics really is. It's incredibly difficult to win gold medals. What other sports are out there where Third World countries like Kenya and Ethiopia can dominate in events like the long distances, and then an island of 2 and half million in the case of Jamaica can clean up in the sprints.

Athletics in this country is heading in the right direction, but can't get complacent. The head of UK athletics Charles van Commenee knows this and I like a lot of the things that he has to say on the state of athletics in this country.

He doesn't sound like the sort of person who will let Britain's top athletes cruise along in a comfort zone, we cant afford to do that. I'm optimistic that what we're doing in terms of training and preparation is right, and we'll hopefully see the rewards in the next few years.

The sporting landscape in this country is already crowded as it is what with football, cricket and rugby competing for the nations attentions. Athletics needs to work really hard to keep producing and nurturing talent so that we can compete and win medals at major championships, and hopefully keep the sport fully in the public eye.

Ashes Euphoria!

It was great to see England reclaim the Ashes on Sunday, following their victory in the final Test at the Oval. The performance was quite a turnaround from the crushing defeat in the Fourth Test, but then it’s been a very up and down series for both sides. It was never going to match the drama of 2005 (what Test series could). But I’ve still thoroughly enjoyed the cricket that’s been served up.

Now that we’ve got the Ashes back, I’ve been amazed at the reaction to this latest victory, the outpouring of joy and jubilation. It made me think ‘When did cricket become this big?’

The obvious answer goes back to the series of 2005. That was a once in a lifetime Test series. With England winning the Ashes for the first time in almost 20 years the public reaction was understandable. Not only that, but both teams captured the public imagination with the cricket that was played. I thought the adulation was fully justified although the open top bus ride was a little bit much!

With this latest Ashes win, it’s being seen as lifting the nation’s spirits, cheering everyone up in these dark times of economic recession.

Now I'm old enough to remember when England won the Ashes during the mid 1980’s and although obviously still a huge series, and I don’t remember there being this sense of national celebration.

I was too young to remember the ‘Botham Ashes’ of 1981, but the following victories in 1985 and 1986/87 seemed to be viewed as good sporting/cricketing victories. Nothing more, nothing less.

What I want to know is why has the Ashes become so big?

Having thought about it, I think there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, even though the Ashes have always been the biggest event in English cricket, it’s certainly snowballed in significance since 2005. I think this is to do with the fact that Australia from the late 1980’s onwards became the best Test Match team in the world.

They had some of the greatest players of any cricket era playing for them, in particular the bowlers Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. England could barely compete during much of the 90’s and as time went on, the dream of recapturing the Ashes started to evolve into the English cricketing version of the Holy Grail. After the 2005 victory, the Ashes series just became even bigger.

My second main reason is to do with the rise of sport in general. When I say this I mean the importance and profile of sport has increased drastically in recent years. The profile of football, cricket, and rugby are so much bigger now than they were when I was growing up.

For example the money that’s involved, the increased professionalism,the media scrutiny and analysis that sports receive. I regularly spend and up to 2 hours reading the sports coverage in the Sunday newspapers each week

I think following sport has become a more significant part of people’s lives. My manager at work touched upon this point a few weeks ago whilst we watched some of the Third Test after work.

His theory was that today peoples lives are more complicated and stressful then they might have been in the past. Sport not only offers a form of escapism, but it allows people to witness and experience great moments and events in their lives.

I thought this was a such a good point, as it explains why thousands of people in this country are happy to travel all over the world following England playing football and cricket. It's not just about watching the games it's a whole life experience.

Despite the recession people pay hundreds of pounds a year for season tickets at football clubs; and this summer we still had over 30,000 fans travelling to South Africa for the Lions tour.

Following sport enriches our lives further, it inspires us, and gives us great emotional highs and lows. I know that sport has always done this, but I just feel that it’s at a more intense level then previously.

What's been hard to avoid and has amused me at times is the coverage surrounding Andrew ‘Freddy’ Flintoff. He’s been portrayed as some sort of real life super hero, here to save the day, crush the Aussies and recapture the Ashes! Of course ably supported by the rest of the England team.

It’s that classic example of sport being used to create larger than life super hero characters that we can all look up to, but in Flintoff's case they've cranked it up to another level.

There’s talk of Flintoff receiving a Knighthood, which without wishing to take anything away from his achievements I think it’s a bit much at this moment.

That’s not to say that I don’t have a lot of time for Flintoff as I do. All great sporting teams need that talismatic inspirational type player, but he did have a very quiet game by his standards, apart from the run out of Ponting.

I say he had a quite game but you’d never know this reading and listening to some reports; you’d think that run out was the most significant moment of the match! Surely the turning point was Friday’s afternoon session and the bowling performance from Stuart Broad, and lets not forget Jonathon Trott’s brilliant debut Test Century.

So what next for English cricket? Well I’m glad that the player’s celebrations are going to be a little more low key this time round. It’s probably because there’s still a huge amount of cricket to be played over the next few months.

England’s performances in this series and over the last couple of years have been a quite erratic at times. It would be good to find some real consistency in future Test series both at home and on overseas tours.

It’s all very well beating the Australians, but I’m not sure that they’re even the best team in the world anymore. I think South Africa and maybe India are the teams to beat.

It’s good to hear the likes of Flintoff and other players talking about England becoming the best Test team in the world, there has to be a long term of goal in English cricket outside of just competing and winning the Ashes. This year’s tour of South Africa will certainly be a serious test of England’s credentials.

But for now I'm happy to celebrate a great series win by England, and lets look forward to the One Day internationals coming in up next month.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

The new Premier League season

The football season’s a couple of weeks old now and the Premier League began last weekend. I haven’t even got round to writing down my thoughts and opinions on how this season might turn out yet! Well I’m putting that right now with my slightly late preview to Premier League season.

I have to say I quite enjoy having a bit of a break from football during the summer. Football dominates so much these days, that it’s good to have a bit of a rest, take in a few summer sports,(I’m well into the Ashes at the moment) recharge your batteries.

My attentions are now slowly returning to football. I’ve been impressed by some of the attendances so far, both in the Championship and the first Premier League games. It goes to show that despite the current economic climate fans are not going to give up on football.

It’s probably because life these days can be so stressful and complicated that football along with other major sporting events offers people some form escape and excitement from the realities of everyday life! Even the predictability of the Premier League doesn’t seem to be putting fans off.

Anyway back to the football, my assessment on the Premier League goes like this, one league made up of three or four mini leagues.

‘The Big Four’

Out of the so called Big Four only 3 of them can win the title this season. We all know how good Arsenal can play football, but they’re no longer good enough to win the title. They might just have enough to hold off the challenge for 4th place but they could be run close by Man City who will surely push them all the way.

That leaves Chelsea, Liverpool and Man U for the title. All 3 appear weaker than last season. Any team is going to miss Ronaldo, but it may give Rooney the chance to really be the main man at Utd.

Liverpool may regret letting Alonso go, I’ve always thought he was a superb player. Can Torres and Gerrard play enough games together? If they can they're in with a shout.

Although Chelsea have an ageing squad they're still really strong and will be difficult to beat. I’d personally like to see Liverpool win it this year after a 20 year wait, but I think the title will go to Chelsea.

The next big four (Everton, Villa, Spurs, and Man City)

In this group you've got Everton and Aston Villa, who arguably have been the two best performing teams in the League over the last couple of years in terms of management and the resources at their disposal.

In saying this they're going to find it tough to finish in the top 6 again as both look weaker in terms of their squad. Villa’s is too small, and they’re really going to miss Gareth Barry as well as Martin Laursen at centre back.

David Moyes continues to do a brilliant job, but obviously something is not quite right following their humiliating 6-1 defeat at home to Arsenal on the opening day. They might as well sell Joleon Lescott as he clearly now wants to join Man City. In modern football as soon as a player makes it clear they want to leave, you’re only fighting a losing battle by trying to keep them.

Everyone will naturally be looking at Man City, and obviously we’ll have to see how quickly the squad can gel. There’s a huge amount of pressure on Mark Hughes and I think anything less than 5th will be seen as failure. They really need to be pushing Arsenal for 4th spot.

That leaves us with Tottenham. They’re a funny club Spurs, but I think they could really do something this year (we say this every year about Spurs), they certainly deserved to beat Liverpool last Sunday, and they have real strength in depth, and I’m expecting them and Man City to replace Villa and Everton in 5th and 6th place.

Mid table (West Ham, Fulham, and Sunderland)

These 3 clubs are in a little league of their own, I can’t see them challenging the likes of Villa, Spurs, Man City and Everton, but they certainly shouldn’t be anywhere near the relegation battle.

Zola’s doing a great job at West Ham in difficult circumstances, and Roy Hodgson has turned Fulham around after they were almost relegated a few years back. Sunderland should be ok, they’ve got quite a bit of money behind them, Steve Bruce knows what he’s doing, and Darren Bent should prove a good signing.

The rest

The rest is basically half the division who could all potentially be involved in a relegation battle. The two least likely to be so are Bolton and Blackburn. They’re not pretty but they’ve got too much battling qualities to see them go down. I might include Stoke with them as well.

This is a big season for them, it’ll be interesting to see if they adapt their style of play and try and play more football. I don’t mind Stoke, they did brilliantly last season. Too many people were a bit snobby about how they played their football.

That leaves another 6 clubs to go down, which includes my own club Birmingham. Well I’m not tipping Blues to go down as I’m going to remain positive and say we’ll stay up, but it’s going to be tough and not very pretty! (That’s how it always is with Blues) We beat Pompey tonight with an injury time penalty in a game described as awful!

Pompey are in real trouble, they’ve spent the last few years living way beyond their means and are now paying the price for it. I can’t see who’s going to score their goals and their whole squad looks poor.

I’m tipping them to go down along with Hull who were dreadful in the second half of last season, almost as bad as Derby were a couple of seasons back. They just don’t have the quality and have difficulties attracting decent players.

Wolves should just survive. As fellow West Midlanders I want them to stay up. They’ve got a young squad which might work against them at times, but if Ebanks Blake and Kevin Doyle score goals that should keep them up.

That leaves Wigan and Burnley. Wigan are always going to find it tough in the Premier League. They don’t have the fan base there in terms of support, and they’re one of those clubs that players and managers either use as a stepping-stone to better things or a stop off point in resurrecting careers. Once players and managers move on it’s always difficult to keep finding good enough replacements.

So that leaves Burnley filling the last relegation spot. Now I know Burnley have just beaten Man Utd this evening, and yes it’s a great result but I still think they’re going down.

I’ve been surprised by the amount of people who think they’ll stay up. They’re getting carried away with the whole romance of the story. Again their squad it very thin, and once the novelty of the Premier League wears off, and things become a bit of weekly grind they’ll find the going tough.

So there you have it. Probably quite predictable, but then the Premier League has become predictable in many ways.

It doesn’t matter though as we all still love it!

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Usain Bolt - 9.58 for the 100m!

At last year’s Beijing Olympics, I thought Usain Bolt’s 100m victory was one of the most amazing athletic performances that I’d ever seen in my life! How could anyone run 10.69 whilst easing down and celebrating in the last 20m. What would he do if he ran flat out for the full race? Well we found out on Sunday, when he broke his own world record to set a new mark of 9.58!

9.58 is a ridiculous time for the 100m. But what’s even more incredible is the margin by which he smashed his previous record. He ran a whole tenth of a second quicker then when he won Olympic gold. That might not sound much, but in 100m that’s not breaking a record, it’s smashing it to pieces with a sledgehammer!

After the race I immediately thought that he could perhaps run as quick as 9.5 seconds, but now he's saying he could go as low as 9.4

The former three time 100m World Champion Maurice Green agreed with Bolt in believing he could run 9.4 seconds. He went onto say:

"I've always said as time goes on, that man will progress. Man will get faster and technology will build things to make man faster.’

Now this comment got me thinking, there has to be a limit to how fast any human can run over a certain distance, just as there has to be a limit as to how far we can jump of throw something.

I remember ages ago reading an article, which said that we’ll eventually reach a point in time where no more world records will ever be produced, as Man will finally reach his optimum capability in athletic performance. I think the article said we might get to this point in 60 to 70 years time from now.

When I say that there has to be a natural limit to what humans can physically achieve, I'm saying this under the assumption that no performance enhancing drugs are used; and secondly that we don't reach a stage in the future where athletes are genetically modified by scientists so that they start performing super-human feats.

Over the last 100 years through the advancement of technology, training methods and techniques; improvements in diet and nutrition, all athletes have naturally become quicker, stronger, and more powerful.

This goes across the board in all sports, but again going back to my first point, no matter how much progress we make in terms of technology there must surely still be a limit to what is achievable in natural athletic performance.

In terms of athletics I think we're approaching the point already. If you look at womens athletics you rarely see any world records set anymore!

Just thinking off the top of my head the world records in the women’s 100m, 200m, 400m, and 800m have all stood for over 20 years. The thing is, no female athletes ever come close to breaking these records, they're all practically unattainable.

The women's 100m record is 10.49. The winner of this week’s World Championship, Sally Anne Fraiser from Jamaica won in a time of 10.73 which is the third fastest in history, yet nowhere near the record!

There’s a simple reason for this, and it's because all the women's world records from 100m up to 1500m have serious question marks hanging over them concerning the use of drugs!

The 100 and 200m records are still held by Florence Griffith Joiner, who shortly after setting both records at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 retired from athletics. She then died in her sleep 10 years later after suffering an epileptic seizure at the age of 38! The 400m record of 47.60 set in 1985 is still held by the East German athlete Marita Koch, yet it’s still rare to find women running under 50 seconds for 400m.

It’s now commonly acknowledged that during the 1970s and 80s East German athletes, particularly in swimming and athletics were using performance enhancing drugs so like many people I'm slightly sceptical about that 400m record.

If we assume that no drugs are being used we may need to start getting used to the idea that we'll see fewer and fewer world records being set, but in regards to Usain Bolt there’s still a lot more to come from him. Any further records he sets are going to last for years to come.

A lot will depend I suppose on how fit and motivated he remains in the next few years. There’s nobody who can really compete with him at the moment. It’s just him against himself and the clock.

What I’d like to see him do, perhaps in a few years time is step up to 400m. He’s got almost the perfect build for that event. He’d have to work on his stamina and endurance, but I believe he’s got so much talent he could probably set world records at 400m to.

In the meantime I will look forward to seeing what he can produce in the 200m later this week and the relay. You just know it’s going to be something special!

Thursday 13 August 2009

Obama may be president, but some Americans refuse to believe!

With all the euphoria and joy that greeted the Barack Obama’s presidential win last year, it’s easy to forget that huge amounts of Americans didn’t actually vote for him, especially right wing Republican voters. Even now many are still struggling to come to terms with his victory, and conspiracy theories are increasingly being used to undermine the new president, the latest one being that Obama wasn’t even born in America and therefore shouldn’t be president!

During the election campaign some Republicans tried to portray Obama as being ‘un-American’ one theory I heard on a number of occasions was that Obama was really a Muslim who converted to Islam during his time in Indonesia as a child. On top of that his middle name is Hussein, which must make him a Muslim! I’ve now been hearing a new conspiracy theory which states that Obama is an ‘illegitimate’ president as he wasn’t really born in America at all, but instead was born in Kenya!

There’s a movement, which has developed in the US around this theory, which is known as the ‘birther movement’. They believe that Obama was born in Kenya and then later smuggled into America by his mother. This conspiracy supposedly developed because there was no paper copy available of Obama’s birth certificate, but in Hawaii where Obama was born they digitalised their records some years back. Print outs of this digital version show that Obama was born in Honolulu in 1961, but for many this is still not good enough.

What’s amazing to think or maybe more worrying, is that many Republican voters either don’t believe or aren’t 100% convinced that Obama was actually born in America. Senior republican politicians and right wing TV and radio commentators are now promoting this belief further.

One of the most high profile commentators is the radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh who is quoted as saying that Obama is:

‘yet to prove that he is actually a citizen’

If you choose to believe the conspiracy, then you have to except that Obama’s mother travelled to Kenya whilst pregnant to give birth to him. Why would she leave America to give birth in a poor African country? Secondly how would she have got Obama back into the US when he wouldn’t have had a US passport? None of it makes any sense, and how would she know she’d just given birth to a future American president?

In this country we look at America as being our closet political ally, we like to think we have a similar culture and outlook, but conservatism in America particularly right wing Republicanism is something from another planet! I’m constantly amazed at the views and opinions that emerge from such people.

Whether it’s on abortion, gun control, religion, stem cell research the list is endless. I constantly shake my head in disbelief! It would be easy to laugh off many of the views on such topics along with this Obama ‘birther’ conspiracy if you thought it was just a small extremist minority, but it isn’t! It’s ordinary Americans, and many senior politicians.

It’s as if after 8 years of Republican rule under George Bush, they just can’t except that the majority of the American electorate have voted for an alternative. During the election campaign it didn’t surprise me that various conspiracies started to emerge that Obama was a Muslim, or some sort of ‘Trojan Horse’ communist. Fair enough that was during the election campaign, politics is a dirty business.

But even now after losing, Republicans still can’t except that they lost and are thinking up even more ridiculous and outlandish conspiracy theories to prove that Obama shouldn’t be the President of the United States.

It’s funny how they’ve quickly forgotten that in 2000, George Bush didn’t even win the majority vote against Al Gore, but still managed to get elected. They never questioned the legitimacy of Bush’s first term in office.

To be honest none of this comes as a surprise, because the Republican right acted in exactly the same way during the 1990’s constantly plotting against the Clintons, particularly during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In trying to impeach Bill Clinton, their actions increasingly looked like a classic witch-hunt to oust the then president from office. I wouldn’t surprise me that the longer Obama stays in power, the more desperate Republicans will become to find ways to discredit him.

It’s as if even when Republicans lose an election they still seem to think that they should be in office. To them having a democratically elected Democrat president is actually some sort of Liberal Coup!

The more I read and hear about US politics the more I find right wing Republicanism nasty and distasteful. To think in this country the Conservative Party used to have a reputation as being the ‘nasty’ party of British politics. They’re like cuddly teddy bears in comparison.

I’m just grateful Obama won the election last year, but you just know that the Republican right, will be coming at him even harder as his presidency unfolds.

Sunday 9 August 2009

Is booing now part of cricket?

England lost the Fourth Ashes Test today, in pretty humiliating fashion losing by an innings and 80 runs. It means that the series now stands at one all with the final game of the series to be played next week at the Oval.

Ignoring England’s shambolic batting display, one thing that did interest me in this fourth test match, and which occurred during the third match at Edgbaston, was the booing of the Australian captain Ricky Ponting. To use a classic cricket phrase ‘It’s just not cricket’ to boo opposing players, but maybe it’s something we should now get used to.

The most interesting comment I heard regarding this incident came from veteran cricket commentator and former Australian captain Richie Benaud who basically said that cricket reflects what goes on in the outside world. If people are abusive and aggressive out on the streets, why should they act any differently at cricket match or any other sporting event? I think he's raised a valid point here.

Personally I haven’t really understood why some England fans have decided to boo Ricky Ponting. Is it purely because he happens to be the Australian captain?

I can’t remember him saying anything overly controversial or insulting about English cricket to merit such hostility. It just seems that because it’s the Ashes, and he’s the captain and best batsman, then he's fair game for abuse.

I don’t see the point of it to be honest. Fair enough in football, fans routinely abuse opposition players, but that’s part of football culture, you’re almost encouraged from the moment you become a football fan to engage in the abuse of opposition players.

It’s the sort of thing you don’t see in cricket and also rugby, but again rugby had a similar problem last year in the autumn internationals, with some fans booing the penalty kicks of the opposition.

I don’t want to get into a debate between football fans and that of cricket and rugby, but you become accustomed to how people behave at particular sporting events. I’ve just never seen booing the opposition in cricket as being part of the game.

What Richie Benaud talked about which caught my attention was that he said verbal and physical abuse is now commonplace in today’s society. In his own words he believed people see and regard it as their right. If people behave in that way in their day-to-day lives then if you take his argument, is it really a surprise that people act in the same way at cricket matches.

I think that what’s happened in the last 10 - 15 years is that attending any sporting event in this country is a real event in itself. Tickets for some Premier League football matches are now like gold dust, attending international Rugby is expensive (I paid £70 to watch England v Australia last year) The Ashes is the biggest thing in English cricket. To be able to go to such events is a real privilege.

I think that because people have paid so much money and in some cases made sacrifices to go to these events, they think they're fully entitled to say and act in whatever way they want.

If you’ve spent however much on travel, match tickets, buying food and drink and whatever else, why shouldn’t you feel entitled to shout abuse at opposition players? I don’t necessarily think it’s right, as I wouldn’t do the same at a cricket match myself, but I could understand if people want to act in that way.

It's becoming more noticeable these days that people are set up to be insulted and ridiculed, whether it’s politicians, celebrities, anyone in the public eye, everyone is fair game for a bit of abuse regardless of whether they deserve it or not.

So yes, I think Ritchie Benaud is right. Cricket is getting more boisterous grounds like Edgbaston and Headingley do have more hostile, partisan atmospheres, but I still don't think booing opposition players is necessary in cricket.

Murdoch to charge for online news content!

Earlier in the week I was reading about how media mogul Rupert Murdoch is making plans to charge people for accessing his newspapers online web content. This would mean that in future if you wanted to read the Sun, The News of the World or The Times online you would need to subscribe and pay a fee to do so. If this was to come into practice, and from the reports that I’ve heard the Sunday Times may be used as a pilot project, this would be a pretty revolutionary development in print journalism.

Murdoch’s media empire News Corporation has suffered huge financial loses in the last year, mainly as a result of the lose of advertising revenue which has affected so many other media groups. Apparently the Sunday Times made a financial loss last year after previously posting a profit, and although The Sun and The News of the World recorded profits they were still not as great as what might be expected. Clearly Rupert Murdoch has decided that something has to change. He was quoted as saying:

“Quality journalism is not cheap”

Now I know that many people will say that quality journalism doesn’t exist in newspapers like The Sun and The News of the World and reading a number of comments from people on the Guardian’s website on this story the general consensus was that Murdoch had ‘lost the plot’ (my own words) if he thought people would seriously consider paying for journalism output produced by those tabloid papers. But personally I think they’re missing the point to be honest.

Admittedly one of the great challenges that such action would create is that other people would quite happily lift this content and publish it for free on other websites.

To combat such action Murdoch as already pointed out that serious litigation maybe needed and in his own words:

"We'll be asserting our copyright at every point."

Even though I read the Guardian on a regular basis, I don’t have a typical Guardian reader attitude in seeing Rupert Murdoch as a ‘Prince of Darkness’ type figure of the media world. I think he’s hit the nail on the head and that we cannot expect newspapers and journalists to produce copy completely for free on websites.

Secondly and I say this as someone who still buys newspapers, why should those of us who still buy newspapers subsidise those people who read news content exclusively on the net?

I don’t think Murdoch’s proposals would affect me too much personally, as the only newspaper website that I read on a daily basis is that of the Guardian.

I occasionally read the Times, but rarely any other newspaper. If the situation arose where the Guardian decided to charge for their online content then I do think I would be happy to subscribe.

With declining newspaper and advertising revenues, newspapers and media organisations will need to look at other alternatives to make a profit, and as far as I can see charging people to read online content is a logical choice.

I read some comments from people on the Guardian who argued that Murdoch’s idea wouldn’t work because people would naturally go to free sites in order to find the news they wanted. This could be online news websites or blogs.

I’ve touched upon this before in previous blogs I’ve written. Just because something is free doesn’t make it any good! Obviously I’m writing this in my own blog which is free, but my blog is my own personal opinions and thoughts. I don’t claim to be reporting hard facts on current news events.

What I don’t understand with some people, is that they think because they can get something for free they automatically believe that it is somehow better then something you have to pay for? On what basis? Is there always real quality in a free product?

Some people fail to understand how much money and resources is actually required in producing news content. Murdoch highlighted the Daily Telegraph’s recent scoops on MP expenses as an example of a newspaper producing an on going news story which the public were quite willing to pay money for to read about. I agree with this as The Telegraph’s sales increased as a result of the story.

A couple of months ago I went to an event organised by the Front Line Club , a members club which champions independent journalism. They held a talk about MP expenses which was chaired by the media analyst Roy Greenslade, who writes in the Guardian and Evening Standard.

One of the guests was Andrew Pierce from the Daily Telegraph who spoke at great length about how the Telegraph managed to obtain the computer disc that contained all the info about MP’s expense claims.

What was really interesting was hearing about the time and resources that was needed by the newspaper and the journalists to actually decipher all the information they had and then produce a coherent story.

This was real investigative journalism; from what Pierce described, it sounded like they had a team of journalists accompanied by lawyers working in an underground bunker trawling through hundreds of expense claims.

If anything it sounded quite boring and tedious, but my point is they needed a certain amount of money, time and resources to produce this story.

The story didn't just appear from nowhere, it had to be produced!

This is why I don’t have a problem with what Murdoch is trying to do. It will be interesting to see whether other newspapers will follow his lead or continue to allow their online content to be accessed for free.

What appeals to me most about what Murdoch is trying to do, is that it demonstrates that journalism is a product that should be valued highly and that means that it should be paid for, something I certainly don’t have a problem with.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Bobby Robson

I was saddened to hear about the death of Bobby Robson on Friday. There’s been some emotional and poignant tributes paid to him over the last few days which I certainly agree with. What I have found interesting though, is how people's perceptions and opinions of one person's career can change and evolve quite drastically over a period of time. This is something that I think is true of Robson's career.

The admiration and respect that the football world is currently showing for Bobby Robson has definitely taken some time to develop. It's as if his sheer longevity in the game eventually showed people his real talent as a football manager and his qualities as a person.

When I first got into football in the mid 1980s Bobby Robson was the manager of England. I can pin point the moment that football suddenly became important to me and that was the World Cup in Mexico 1986. That World Cup along with the following World Cup in 1990 represented the roller coaster ride of watching England under Robson.

In 86 England went out to Argentina in the quarter finals due the brilliance and cunning of Diego Maradona, but I remember watching the game and thought England acquitted themselves quite well in that game and the tournament overall. This was something of an achievement when you take into consideration the terrible start England made, losing to Portugal and drawing with Morocco in the opening two games.

The next tournament involving England was Euro 88 in the old West Germany. This was a total disaster for England, losing all 3 games in the group stage. England were a little unlucky to lose to the Irish, and played quite well against the Dutch in the second game.

The real difference was that the Dutch had Marco Van Basten who scored a brilliant hatrick The final game against the USSR was terrible but we were already out at that stage.

The abuse that Robson received during that tournament was incredible, the pressure on the England manager position was just as great then as it is now. Robson did well to hang on to his job after those results and it was arguably the lowest moment of his England career. When I think back to that year it makes the tributes made over these last few days seem even more remarkable!

Robson survived to lead England to the World Cup in Italy in 1990, which turned out to be a watershed moment for English football in so many ways. I look back at that tournament as being almost like year zero for English football. For me the modern experience of football in this country begins with that tournament. I also think it was a watershed moment for Bobby Robson.

Italia 90 wasn’t a great tournament in terms of the football, England played a dreadful 0-0 draw with the Republic of Ireland in Sardinia in the first game, drew 0-0 with the Dutch in the second game, which wasn’t too bad and then beat Egypt to progress to the next round.

At the time people knew Robson was standing down after the tournament, but if people were being honest there was no great clamour for Robson to stay on. It was almost as if familiarity breeds contempt and people were happy for Robson to stand down.

In the second round, England beat Belgium with a last gasp extra time winner from David Platt before being totally outplayed in the last eight by surprise package Cameroon. England somehow managed to scrape through 3-2. This set up a Semi final against West Germany! I remember thinking we’re one game away from the World Cup final this is amazing!

That Semi Final was the type of game that reminds England fans that every so often England can compete with the very best in the world at football. It was one of England's best performances under Robson. At times during that game we outplayed the Germans who were probably the best team in the world at the time.

Again we all know how the Semi Final finished, Gazza’s tears, the penalty misses from Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle. Things were never the same for anyone after that game. Robson’s reputation was enhanced, after all the ups and downs he wasn’t that bad after all!

England had gone out as heroic losers, football was suddenly fashionable and respectable! The BBC had Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma as its theme tune, football was now even cultured! For me Robson will always be associated with this 'rebirth' of English football.

After that World Cup Robson went on to manage in Holland, Portugal and Spain, and this is when the respect, feelings and admiration that have been shown for Robson over the last few days really started to develop.

Robson was hugely successful in Holland and Portugal, winning titles with PSV and Porto. For me it showed that even after the pressures of managing England he still had a great desire and motivation to continue in the game.

Also from a personal point of view it was good to see an English manager going abroad and being successful. Before Italia 90 English clubs had been banned from Europe for 5 years, it was important that English football culture could still be seen to be successful on the continent.

This was certainly true when Robson was appointed manager of Barcelona in the 1996. To manager a club like Barcelona was almost some kind of recognition that this was a man who was highly respected and valued in world football. It was good to see someone representing English football abroad and being successful. I’ve read a few comments from ex players he managed in Spain and Portugal, and I felt some sense of pride that they spoke so highly of him.

At Barcelona he only lasted one season, but that was more a result of the internal politics of the club. He eventually returned to English football in 1999 taking over at Newcastle. At the time I thought it was great to see him back in English football.

It was almost 20 years since he’d last been a club manager in this country and looking back it did an excellent job, getting Newcastle into the Champions League. How Newcastle fans would love to have him now, pity the club sacked him when he suffered a poor start to a season a few years back.

After hearing all the tributes paid to Bobby Robson over the last few days, and looking back at my own memories of him as a football fan, the thing that I can admire most about him is his passion and enthusiasm for football. The word 'enthusiasm' seems to crop up time and time again in people's thoughts, and this enthusiasm must surely explain why he stayed in the game for so long.

Football has changed so much since he began his career in management back in the late 60s. Not everything has changed for the better, but it didn't seem to have put him off the game. To his credit he seemed able to adapt and accept the changes in football.

Bobby Robson’s death is certainly the end of an era, but overall I will always have fond memories of his personality and his time in football.