Archive by Author

Knowing the Dancer from the Dance: The Two Andy Carrolls

28 Nov

I hate Andy Carroll, I love Andy Carroll. He’s the problem, he’s the solution. A thug, a folk hero. A provocation to anger, an emblem of hope.

We are all used to having to negotiate fiendish binaries when it comes to footballers. But surely we should learn how to know the dancer from the dance? Football is after all a highly surface-oriented art form. Founded in the lyrical grace of human interaction with angles and spheres, it doesn’t really communicate anything. As such, why should the off-pitch personae of players matter a jot? Aren’t they just “players” in the Shakespearean, dramatic sense? Aren’t they merely, as the Italian Futurists seemed to think, aestheticized robots, human conduits of speed and furious motion, abstract symbols at the centre of a modernist-formalist exercise in technique?

"Dynamism of a Football Player" by Umberto Boccioni (1913)

In a sense, this is what the doyens of the modern game would have you believe. For those with a commercial stake in the sport, the idea of football as an abstract formal entity capable of being transported into any conceivable leisure context is an attractive one. If you are Rupert Murdoch, Roman Abramovich, Malcolm Glazer, or Mike Ashley, football is basically a deracinated PS3 game, and football players exist solely as the expensive avatars of a high-level corporate roulette.

With this paradigm in mind, we can see how the contemporary situation has developed, in which players are sophisticated machines on the pitch and pathological childish psychos off it. If football is no more than aesthetic entertainment, a chemical compound of high-octane superstar skills, celebrity glamour, and a smidgeon of watered-down tribal emotion, to be paid for and ingested at the weekend or after work via satellite TV, then it really doesn’t matter where it’s coming from or who is taking part. If Andy Carroll is god-like for the duration of the 90 minute slot we have paid for, then that is that: the service expectations have been met. Exchange value stands in for any other method of valuation, and Andy Carroll is indeed a god, a hypertrophied superman perfectly inhabiting the role of the crowd-pleasing ingénue.

But football is not yet, despite the concerted efforts of the Glazerites, a wholly consumerized, leisure industry sport. Unlike, say, British pop music, British football still has some level of connection to a grassroots reality, to the places, lived experiences, and communities that have by some wild fluke managed to retain a central, if vastly underrepresented, position even in today’s thoroughly finance-oriented game. For a large percentage of the north-east population, Andy Carroll feels like an integral part of a community identity that extends on to the pitch. He feels like one of us. A good lad. A real-life embodiment of an inchoate spirituality. A representative of something.

So if he inspires and represents the genuine hopes of a group of otherwise marginalized, exploited human beings, isn’t Andy Carroll therefore a very real hero, an on-balance good thing? Shouldn’t we just leave it at that? I think not. It is precisely because he represents something tangible and important that I cannot accept a convenient distinction between the man and the player. Because Andy Carroll is not a computer game character, because he is a real person, playing for a real club, in a real city, I can’t ultimately justify celebrating the heroic footballer Jeckyll by ignoring the existence of the thuggish, lassy-bashing Hyde. In a world in which the heroizing relationship between club and supporters went both ways, and in which salaries and hyperreal celebrity didn’t put up concrete walls between communities and their representatives, we wouldn’t have to deal with these infernal dilemmas. In a better alternate universe, Andy Carroll really would be one of us. Make no mistake, I’m unequivocally glad he’s still scoring for Newcastle. But I’m equally certain that Carroll is part of the problem rather than the solution, and that his on-pitch genius shouldn’t obscure this fact.

Event of the Century thus far Pt. 2: Mike Ashley side project

10 Sep

The Guardian vs. Newcastle United

28 Aug

As underlined by this latest frisson over Andy “working man” Carroll, the feud between Louise Taylor and NUFC shows no signs of abating. I’m not sure how it started – perhaps those in the know can fill me in – but the animosity between the Toon fanbase and the Guardian’s wayward north east football correspondent raises some interesting questions. Is it another instance of the London media just not getting it (see Raoul Moat article below)? Or is Taylor providing a useful objective critique of a criminally run club and a group of supporters unwilling to look injustice in the face if it might harm the team?

In support of the latter argument, it should be noted that Ms Taylor was one of the few people prepared to highlight the outrageousness of Steven (no relation) Taylor’s treatment towards the end of last season. As the promotion battle entered its final, critical phase, Taylor was hospitalized following a training ground bust-up with Carroll. Chris Hughton took no action. Meanwhile Taylor was left feeding through a straw in a Newcastle hospital, and Carroll was photographed at a 50 Cent gig proudly displaying his bandaged hands. This was not only a shocking demonstration of Carroll’s questionable taste in hip-hop; it also represents one of the very few really dodgy episodes in Hughton’s otherwise exemplary tenure as manager. Would, say, Ferguson or Wenger have tolerated such scandalous intramural delinquency?

However, while the incident and its handling undoubtedly needed drawing attention to, the stridency and righteousness of L. Taylor’s response was way OTT:

Carroll’s continued involvement appears a thoroughly depressing victory for pragmatism over principles and Hughton has surely been diminished by the entire sorry affair.

Newcastle’s manager won a UN commendation for anti-apartheid campaigning but as Carroll waved insouciantly to fans at Doncaster it seemed Hughton had suddenly lost sight of the bigger picture.

After doing brilliantly to keep Newcastle top of the table this season, he now looks weak and it is not impossible that this affair could yet spark a chain of events that may lead to him being replaced by a manager such as Mark Hughes or Steve McClaren next season.

If you were being generous, you might call this an overreaction, or a muddled confusion of disparate issues: the Steve Taylor incident, Hughton’s position as manager, his anti-apartheid past (which is surely utterly irrelevant here). Many Newcastle fans, however, responded with something less than sympathy. “Football’s most risible muckraker” was the cry of nufcblog.org, while “that bloody woman” became her epithet over at nufc.com, a title she holds to this day.

Is there an element of male chauvinism in these attacks? Perhaps. Taylor is a brilliant, outspoken and articulate female football writer in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. Besides, the north east, and England in general, desperately needs people who are able to cut through the self-regarding bullshit and small-c conservatism of football fandom when the occasion demands, as with the Steve Taylor-Andy Carroll incident. L.Taylor’s “principles over pragmatism” stance has a lot to be said for it, especially in a culture that has for far too long now been characterized by apathy and blithe acceptance of corporate “realism”.

Nevertheless, it’s ultimately difficult to defend Taylor’s often fanciful, wildly unfounded and inappropriately politicized comments, like the condescending description of Gateshead’s “working man’s” culture (what do those speech marks mean?!), and her absolutely bizarre character assassination of Chris Hughton:

Giving power to Kevin Nolan, Alan Smith, Steve Harper and Nicky Butt, a man who as a Tottenham full-back had mixed in Trotskyite circles watched that ‘Politburo’ ensure his coaching drills and game plans were strictly adhered to.

Meanwhile the still left-leaning Hughton and the right-wing, brashly capitalist, Ashley formed an unexpectedly close union, their bond arguably deepened by mutual mistrust of the media.

At moments like this, Taylor embodies the substantial disconnect between Guardianista sanctimony and the brash – but essentially and invariably benign – mainstream of demotic north east football culture. In May, another Guardian journalist, Chris Arnot, published an article that included comments made by Chelsea’s “head of corporate social responsibility” Simon Taylor (no relation to either Steve or Louise) suggesting that there had been racist protests outside St James’s Park when Andy Cole made his debut there in 1993. The fact that these claims were so spectacularly and demonstrably spurious (combined with the minor detail that Cole had actually made his debut away at Swindon in the previous game) prompted a hasty retraction, but for many Toon fans the damage had already been done.

In similar fashion, on Monday the Guardian website ran with the headline “Joey Barton denies Nazi salute in Newcastle’s win over Aston Villa”. The victory was an emphatic one for NUFC, a strong intimation that maybe, just maybe, we might be able to stay up this year and reverse the long-running decline inflicted on the club by 15-odd years of corrupt and senseless administration. Yet Louise Taylor chose to draw attention to the meaningless gaffe of a player who surely now deserves one more shot at redemption. But by now this sort of condescension and misrepresentation has become wearily predictable. If Taylor and the Guardian continue to treat north east football players, managers, and fans as naïve, inarticulate punchbags on which to conduct personal vendettas cloaked as bien pensant, pseudo-ideological crusades, the discord is likely to continue for some time.

Raoul Moat vs. Newcastle, United

13 Aug
“And even those who still have the power to cry out, the cry hardly ever expresses itself, either inwardly or outwardly, in coherent language. Usually the words through which it seeks expression are quite irrelevant. That is all the more inevitable because those who most often have occasion to feel that evil is being done to them are those who are least trained in the art of speech. Nothing, for example, is more frightful than to see some poor wretch in the police court stammering before a magistrate who keeps up an elegant flow of witticisms”. Simone Weil, “Human Personality”.

Recently, The Sun published one of its classically vituperative articles, featuring allegations of pro-Raoul Moat chanting by Newcastle United supporters at the pre-season friendly against Carlisle:

Sections of the 2,000-strong away support sang “there’s only one Raoul Moat” during United’s 3-0 win at Carlisle.

They also copied an old terrace song about 1960s triple cop killer Harry Roberts when they sang: “Raoul Moat, he’s our friend, he shoots coppers.”

The Toon Army also tried to mock home fans with the chant “Who the **** is Derrick Bird?” – a reference to the Cumbrian gunman who murdered 12 people in a shooting spree last month.

There is subtle gallows humour in this passage, and some comic misreading on the part of a sanctimonious tabloid media of what is basically tongue-in-cheek, carnivalesque Geordie braggadocio (albeit of a wildly inappropriate kind). Nevertheless, it’s true that responses to the Moat Saga over the last few weeks have ranged from slightly misguided to downright alarming. Witness the misogynistic, vigilante-ish comments on pro-Moat Facebook groups, where epithets for Moat have included “total warrior and legend”,  “martyr”, and – my personal favourite, for sheer gall – “the British Mandela”.

Writers like Charlie Brooker, John Tatlock, Martin Robbins, and Mark Fisher have written brilliantly about the implications and resonances of all this. I mostly don’t have anything to add to these analyses. (Fisher’s phrase “Britain’s anti-Diana moment” is trenchant to the point of genius.)

However, I have to say that I think Tatlock’s Quietus piece, with its accompanying Spotify playlist on “how folk heroism warps reality”, is massively misjudged. Casual anti-establishment populism can warp, no doubt about that, especially with the help of media exaggeration. Raoul Moat was a deranged, pathological killer – of course he was – and any outright valorisation of the man and his actions is ridiculous. But there was undoubtedly something more to the story than media hype, more to the popular reaction than neo-right mob hysteria. Most importantly, and presciently, I think, was the clear intimation that what you might term folk-opposition remains a powerful extant force in British culture, even after 30-odd years of neoliberal hegemony.

END OF STORY? THE CENTRE AND ITS OPPOSITE

The word folk (and especially its German correlative volk) has extremely dangerous connotations, of course, and from a certain angle, the Raoul Moat narrative does seem like a frightening tale of Robin Hood-style mythologizing eliding with a resurgent thug-libertarianism. Nevertheless, this interpretation necessitates overlooking a number of important contexts. Most notably, there is the whole tangle of social, cultural, political and historical factors that constitutes the identity of the north east of England. What John Tatlock’s piece doesn’t allow for is the fact that: 1) The vast majority of the “support” shown for Moat was from this region, and 2) That such sentiments were, at bottom, an expression of a profound antipathy to the media, to London, and the police force, which may have been utterly misplaced as regards Moat, but must not thereby be dismissed as mere chauvinistic “Geordie nationalism” allied to a sort of anarcho-gangsterism.

The sources of such attitudes are too numerous to list here (though the 1980s would be a good place to start). Suffice to say, Tatlock’s blasé-rationalist dismissal of “folk heroism” does not entertain the fact that there might be entirely sound reasons for the anti-establishment, anti-media, anti-London attitudes which somehow – stupidly and unfortunately – found an avatar in the figure of Moat. Instead, Tatlock explicitly sides with David Cameron, whose “full stop, end of story” rejection of “public sympathy for the callous murderer” Tatlock finds “pithily accurate”. Anyone from the north east, mindful of David Cameron’s recent attack on the region – one of the places where the state has “got too big [sic]” and where “we need a bigger private sector” (surely the prelude to an imminent full-blown Thatcher-style jobs cull in the area) – would think twice before accepting Tatlock’s equable appraisal of Cameron’s good common sense in “taking down” Moat. (Charlie Brooker has interesting things to say about Cameronian sympathy, in a follow-up piece in The Guardian).

In light of such lofty, centrist disdain for populist feeling (however reasonable in the case of Moat taken in total isolation), and in addition to the frankly neo-colonialist, Boys Own-style behaviour of the London media in Rothbury (as reported by Brooker and Robbins), the actions of a minority of Newcastle supporters in eulogizing Moat begins to look, at the very least, a good deal more complicated and ambiguous than the narrow, Old Tory, “full stop, end of story” reductionism of Cameron and Tatlock implies.

As everyone knows, Newcastle United fans are used to being deprived of a voice, and to being treated as “mugs”; “dogs” if they happen to be female. (These two terms were first deployed by former NUFC director Douglas Hall in a Spanish brothel in 1998.) For decades now, Toon fans have been denied representation and dismissed as primitive imbeciles. In such circumstances, people will inevitably latch onto, and identify heavily with, desperate causes, outsiders, even homicidal loners. Hence the whole history of football violence eliding with far-right politics. Hence, “there’s only one Raoul Moat”. Hence, the tragic appropriateness of Gazza – a desperate victim of media celebrity if ever there was one – appearing in Rothbury with a can of beer, determined to go for a fish and “have a chat” with “Moaty”.

It is depressing that Gazza, along with a significant minority of north easterners, was able to overlook the very real crimes committed by Moat, sad and absurd that an apolitical, sociopathic individual should be posited as a kind of bizarre, postmodern Bobby Sands. But conversely, and more importantly, the whole narrative underlines the sheer depth of oppositional feeling in places like the north east to a London-centric nexus that is now, once again, unequivocally Conservative, hard-line, unsympathetic, given to scapegoating individuals, and wholly unapologetic about launching explicit attacks on entire localities like Northumbria and Northern Ireland.

RUMOURS OF COLLECTIVITY

While the pro-Moat chants at the Newcastle vs. Carlisle match represent the benighted, if lightly-meant, actions of an extremist few, there have also recently been signs of a more constructive, less macho and hot-headed, form of folk-opposition beginning to take root in the north east, with football at its centre. As Mark Fisher has written:

Football has been at the forefront of the total re-engineering of English culture, society and economy wrought by neoliberalism over the last thirty years.

This is self-evidently true, and Toon supporters know better than most what it is like to be on the forgotten fringes of an aggressive, market-driven regime. Neoliberal English football culture has not been kind to the north east. (This fact is reflected in the current England team, which consists almost entirely of players from West London’s Chelsea and clubs within commuting distance of Cheshire like Man United and Liverpool. Contrast this with the Italia ’90 north-east main artery of Bobby Robson – Bryan Robson – Waddle – Beardsley – Gazza. Added to this, the region’s main teams – Newcastle, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough – are all now firmly entrenched on the inferior “second tier” of club football.)

However, after years of muddled acquiescence to all manner of “inevitable” corporate encroachments (inevitable because “investment” is ultimately “for the good of the team”), the actions of the NUFC power-elite reached such an extreme of absurdity and anarchic ridiculousness in the past few years, that the support base has arguably taken the first steps towards radicalization, or at least to something resembling old-fashioned-style collective representation. The Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) is hardly the Fifth International, but the establishment of this independent body (and one that has a genuinely popular base) represents a significant milestone. The efficacy of organizations like this has not yet been proven, but their very existence is a testament to a more hopeful, less-fatalistic climate, and to ways in which the folk-sentiment that found an unfortunate outlet in the Moat debacle can be put to more positive use.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that football is the battleground on which many of the most vital political and cultural debates of the next few years will take place. Indeed, the growing popular discontent with the Premier League and the F.A. might represent first signs of a thaw in the neoliberal winter, the first chinks in the armour of an adversary hitherto regarded as unbeatable. With this in mind, it is encouraging that certain sectors of the Labour Party have sought to establish links with organizations like the NUST, in this crucial (to put it mildly) period of ideological renewal. Chi Onwurah, who represents Newcastle Central, is one of a handful of newly elected Labour MPs notable for being archetypically Labour in a way that has become increasingly rare over the past couple of decades. As an individual Onwurah offers a reminder that, for all the invidiousness of Blair and New Labour, there are still sizeable and numerous individuals and enclaves wholly resistant to being incorporated into the new centrist/centre-right political orthodoxy. Onwurah both symbolically and actually represents a constituency that is something close to the antithesis of David Cameron in almost every sense, so it came as no surprise when she recently announced her membership of, and support for, the NUST. Hers is a constituency that encompasses the extreme fringes of pro-Moat sentiment, but it is also the constituency of Newcastle United supporters who have finally exchanged apathy for a semblance of organized resistance.

Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central

In these sorts of oppositional matrixes, and these sorts of allegiances, there is an ocean of potential for the British left. Tragically, it seems that the only Labour leadership candidate who understands this is the otherwise arch-Blairite Andy Burnham, who was a member of the Football Taskforce in the late-nineties, and who makes great show of his role in opening the dossier on the Hillsborough disaster last year. For all his New Labour odiousness in other areas, Burnham at least has the prescience to recognize that a renewed British left must re-engage with its grassroots on the sort of “folk” territories of which football is by far the most prominent and pithy example. The Moat narrative underlines just how vital it is that the sort of folk heroism so disdained by Tatlock and Cameron, should not become the province of the far-right, that it should be re-channeled and re-directed to become a major bastion of its historical home, the Labour Party. Unfortunately, this a truth that will probably always evade the technocratic, mandarin, classically neoliberal sensibilities of the Miliband brothers (both of them), who appear most likely to shape Labour policy for the next few years. Meanwhile there are millions of Britons – and not just in the north east, of course – who hate the establishment, hate David Cameron, hate the media, who hate what was happened to football, and who hate neoliberalism, even if they couldn’t put a name to it. All they are lacking is someone better than Raoul Moat to speak for them.

screenshot from the NUST website

Where do they find these people?

13 Aug

Fulsome shite from the Guardian. Reads like a David Cameron speech.

Elsewhere in today’s issue, Alexis Petridis on why the new Hoosiers album is “surprisingly not that bad”.

You. Could. Not. Make. This. Shit. Up.

Event of the Century, thus far?

11 Aug

Bargain.