Saturday, 18 June 2011

A few days of Ska: Gangsters / And fitba (1)

The Specials on Saturday Live, 1980

I suppose it is Ska's compressed energy in a confined space, the menacing yet joyful Caribbean-flavoured party music, the whole borne out of a kind of intensely British urban grimness, that I find so attractive. The Specials' Ghost Town is the masterpiece in this genre, though I've had that before. The link above is to a BBC commemoration of Ghost Town. I far prefer these tight spaced gigs to the big spectaculars. The bands are not superhero idols but people like those listening to them. I will close this brief series with a Specials performance that demonstrates that. The energy is close to violence but is violence contained and formed. It's not about sex as a great deal of contemporary material is: it's about streets and small front rooms and old cinemas. It is these things that make the heart beat faster, not the gigantism.


Another United Era

For years people have been forecasting the end of an era at Manchester United. This time there is truth in it. Scholes, Neville and Van der Sar retiring, noises about Wes Brown and, possibly, John O'Shea leaving. Giggs? Who knows. At least he has the summer to think. Assuming he doesn't retire or lose form, it is the first three that matter most.

Like most people, I love attacking football but teams are built from the back - in fact from the very back. No matter how good the defence, if defenders have no confidence in the goalkeeper they are vulnerable. This was the case with Kuszczak in the last Blackpool game. Nobody knows what a shaky keeper is going to do, how much cover he'll need, where to position himself in case the keeper is in the wrong position or is liable to drop the ball. The organised defence immediately becomes disorganised. Systems fail. Great teams have great goalkeepers. They don't necessarily need to be great shot-stoppers, though that helps. They have to be decisive, firm and assuring. Every keeper will let a soft goal in now and then, but he has to control the area. Van der Sar was a great keeper in this respect. Maybe de Gea will be, if he really is coming.

Next to the goalkeeper it is the last line of defence that matters. That is taken care of in the middle for a good number of seasons. Smalling, Jones, Evans, Fabio and Raphael are young and look right.

If your centre backs have some grace and poise that's a bonus, but at least one of them has to be feared and imposing. Ferdinand has grace (but for how much longer) and Vidic is fearsome. Vidic is a good steely captain. Smalling has grace, Jones has power, Evans can recover.

The backs need timing, strength, speed and the ability to hold out against skilful wing players. Neville at his best was outstanding at that, and did more. He was a fiercely partisan footballer who annoyed the opposition wherever he went and didn't care. The backs need some fire now. Neville has been at the heart - at the furnace - of the team for fifteen years and more. The Brazilian twins are rather wonderful without quite the Manchester grit yet, but they have other qualities beyond those possessed by Gaz.

Scholes is the man though. When I first started watching him I didn't know what he was about. With Beckham, Giggs, the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt it was clear what you were getting. Scholes was like a mysterious force in the middle, cruising here and there, playing ambitious passes, occasionally crashing a spectacular goal into the top right corner. His work was partly undercover work - but regular OT fans loved him and the very greatest of his international contemporaries spoke glowingly of him. Little by little I understood his importance and his gifts, though he could be laughably clumsy in a tackle (the 'dark side' of Scholes that Wenger spoke about). As a character he was more Van de Sar than Rio, but to an extreme I haven't seen in modern football and would not expect to see in the future - a man who loathed attention.

There have, of course, been men like him, especially in England: men who hate a fuss, who say what they think but only when asked, who seem to tuck themselves away into a life so private it never registers on the tabloid scales.

Replacing Scholes? Great players are never replaced: people fashion new greatness in their own image if they have the talent and the luck. But it is interesting that United fans never took to Ronaldo or Beckham or even Giggs in quite the way they took to Scholes. The key to Ferguson's United teams lies somewhere in the area between Scholes and Cantona. 'Not arrogant, just better' say the dumb emblems. Canton was possibly both: Scholes was just the latter. 'The ginger knight', the ginga ninja' passed through games like a brilliant shadow, exploding now and then into a power no other United player had. At other times he'd just throw himself at an opponent as if he himself were an explosive. This season too he has received more yellow cards than the rest, except Vidic. Even so he had the best pass rate in the team.

But things change, and have changed, several times in Ferguson's time. Now they are changing again. I hope he hangs on to Berbatov. As everyone says, and Fergie surely knows, it is the midfield that needs reinforcement. If not Modric, then Sneijder, or...or...maybe someone from within - Pogba, Cleverley... That's beyond me. Maybe Rooney can be redeployed in that area. Fame is not the same as success. But there was a time no one had heard of Scholes, and you weren't ever going to win anything with kids.

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