Slowly, painfully, I open my eyes and lift my chin up from my chest. I’d fallen asleep on the couch, and Annie is standing in front of me, her little hand nudging my knee.
“What is it, love?”
“Dad, can we go to the playground?”
Christ. The fucking playground. That’s the last thing I need right now. I’ve got a vicious hangover that I was hoping to kill off by spending the afternoon dozing on the couch. I’d put on Annie’s ‘Moana’ DVD for her to watch for what must have been the hundred and fiftieth time.
“Just watch your film, Annie,” I say, closing my eyes again. “Daddy’s tired.”
“But it’s finished.”
I open my eyes again and look over at the TV. Sure enough, the end credits are rolling, as that song from the soundtrack that she’s always singing plays over them. My head’s pounding and my guts are in turmoil. I curse myself for getting into the kind of state I must have been in last night. I knew it was my weekend with Annie, I knew I should have been having an early night. In fact, I was all lined up to do just that, when my phone pinged at about seven o’clock. It was Nick. ‘Coming to watch Rovers?’ It said. I’d forgotten they were at home. Friday night matches, hard to resist.
“I’ll just go the match,” I thought. “The match, then home.”
Yeah, big fucking LOLZ at that. Of course, it didn’t happen that way. Never fucking does with me. I decided to have a quick pint in the Prenton after the match. That turned into three or four. Then it was three or four more in the Halfway House. Then a few of us got a taxi downtown. Before long, Nick had the beak out. Fucking Nick and his beak. He must be at least fifteen years older than the rest of us. Married, two kids, good job, in his late forties, but still behaving like he’s twenty five, wearing those skin tight tapered jeans, despite the fat legs and the waist line that’s expanding at the same rate at which his hair line is receding. He seems to think cocaine is some sort of elixir that’ll keep him forever young, especially if he snorts it in the company of lads far younger than him. I lost track of who left at what time, and from what shitty bar, but I remember me and Nick, the last men staggering, piling out of some Birko shithole dive or other at fuck knows what time, and into the BKH for a kebab. It was filled with the usual flotsam and jetsam of Birkenhead on a Friday night. There was some fella with all his front teeth missing, sitting on the floor, sucking a pizza through the gaping hole at the front of his mouth, a gaggle of women in their fifties, all loudly discussing their respective husband’s lack of sexual prowess, and the obligatory bloke in his thirties in a Ben Sherman shirt, so pissed he could barely stand, struggling to make himself understood by the Turkish lad behind the counter. The language barrier was far less of an inhibiting factor than the amount of alcohol the fella had imbibed.
“Fucking hurry up, will you mate”, Nick shouted over the cackling women. “There’s hungry people here. Just order your fucking food.”
Here we go. Typical Nick, this. As well as the class A’s, his other preferred method of keeping himself down with the kids is getting into some pointless fucking scrap. Usually with some poor, unsuspecting sod like this one. As though punching a stranger in a takeaway is gonna turn him into Lestat. He could drink the blood of a thousand virgins, it wouldn’t change the fact that he was around for the dawn of punk.
The man turned round, struggling to focus, first of all on the women, then Toothless in the corner, then on Nick.
“Oi! What gives you the fucking right, eh? I’ve as much right to be here as you have.”
“Not when you’re taking all night to order a fucking kebab, you haven’t.”
He gave Nick a look of indignation.
“I’ll have you know,” he said, his feelings genuinely hurt, “that I fought in a war.”
Nick was obviously considering whether to come up with some punchy retort, or just a punch, when Toothless unexpectedly piped up.
“Yeah? Well it looks like the war won.”
The man’s focus, such as it was, shifted from Nick to Toothless.
“You want a fucking war, you gummy twat? I’ll give you a fucking war!”
He charged in the direction of Toothless. As he ran past us, already off-balance, Nick decided to stick his foot out and trip him up, sending him barrelling into the group of women, knocking them down like a set of middle-aged bowling pins, all crashing down on top of Toothless. Arms and legs flailed wildly in the brouhaha on the floor, the women taking their high heels off and swinging the spiked end at any male head they could reach. We stepped towards the counter as the Turkish lad looked over at the chaos by the window, and shook his head slightly.
“What can I get you?” He asked, as though this kind of thing happened every night. Which it probably does.
We sat on the wall by Argyle Taxis eating our grease-fest, throwing the boxes onto the floor with the dozens of others when we were finished.
“Fancy going over there?” Nick said. “My treat, like.”
I looked over to where Nick was pointing. He was gesturing in the direction of Magoo’s, the notorious brothel next to The Waterloo pub. This was a new low, even for him.
“Errr, no thanks mate,” I said.
“Come on mate, what better way to end the night?”
I shook my head. I may have been in a bit of a state, but the prospect of Nick paying for me to shag some poor bird who had probably been illegally trafficked from some country I’d never even heard of was enough to sober me up sufficiently to remember that, in about five hours time, my six year old daughter would be getting dropped off at mine.
“No, honestly mate, I need to get off. I’ve got Annie coming round in the morning.”
“Who the fuck’s Annie?” Nick asked.
“Oh right, yeah. Of course. OK, fair enough mate, you get off. Nothing more important than family, mate. Nothing.”
And he walked off in the direction of Magoo’s, to catch venereal disease from a prostitute while his own family slept.
I slept soundly through my alarm, only to be woken by the sound of banging on my front door. I stumbled out of bed and down the hall, opening the door to see Rachel, looking stunning as usual, and, holding her hand, Annie, looking just as beautiful as her mum, gripping her favourite stuffed toy, Mr. Pink Ears the rabbit, in her other hand. I bent down and gave her a big kiss, and she gave me a massive hug. Rachel looked me up and down as I stood back up, taking note of the bleary eyes, the hoarse voice and the whiff of booze presumably coming off me.
“Late night, was it?”
There she goes, with that self-righteous tone. She’s constantly fucking judging me, and it pisses me right off. Mainly, because I know she’s absolutely right to be judging me. Two weekends a month I get with my little girl, and I couldn’t even keep myself sober for one of them. It’s fucking pathetic. I’m fucking pathetic. Going out drinking and doing drugs with some dickhead I don’t even really like when my daughter’s coming to stay the next morning. What the fuck’s wrong with me? It’s no wonder I’m living alone in this pokey fucking flat, instead of with Rachel and Annie. What kind of fucking dad am I? Regardless of that, of how much I knew I’d fucked up again, the fact remained that I had a stinking hangover, so I brought Annie in, sat her on the couch with some toast and juice and her DVD, got myself some alka-seltzer, and tried to sleep it off next to her.
Now though, she’s shaking me awake, imploring me to take her to the playground, looking at me with those beautiful green eyes of hers. Eyes that can penetrate the fog of even the deepest hangover just enough to shift a deadbeat dad from his couch on a sunny Saturday morning.
“Come on then darling,” I say, reluctantly dragging my arse off the seat.
“Can Mr. Pink Ears come too?”
I get dressed and we get in the car, parking up at the Sainsbury’s by the playground. We go inside and get some provisions; sweets for Annie, a big can of Monster and a sausage roll for me, and take them over to the park. Annie’s straight onto the swings, demanding that I push her. I give her a few shoves, but my heart isn’t in it. I feel like I’m about to puke every time I move more than a few millimetres, the sun isn’t helping my headache, and nor are her squeals of delight. I direct her over to the slide, and take a seat on the bench. I crack open my energy drink and take a big swig, and attempt to eat a few bites of the sausage roll, but I can barely chew it without retching so I lob it into the bin and continue to sip my drink, hoping the caffeine, sugar and taurine will sort me out a bit.
I haven’t been sat down two minutes when another dad wanders over and sits next to me. The worst thing about brining Annie here is the other parents, always trying to strike up some sort of mundane conversation. And this fella’s the worst for it. He’s nice enough, and all he’s ever doing is trying to pass the time of day with a fellow dad of similar age. But fuck me, he’s boring. Last time, he was telling me about how he was off to see fucking Mumford And Sons for the fifth time, how they’re the best live band he’d ever seen. This is a man who probably thinks the later Kings Of Leon stuff is a bit too edgy. Now he’s telling me about his festival plans for the summer.
“Yeah, so we’re definitely doing Cornbury, of course. And Glasto. We haven’t been there since Thomas was born. We’ve booked a hotel a few miles away though, and we’ll just drive into the site each day. Couldn’t subject Thomas to the conditions on a festival site. Especially not with his allergies. Great line-up this year, though. They’ve got Kylie, Janet Jackson, The Killers-”
“I think King Crimson are headlining the second stage too, aren’t they?” I ask, facetiously.
“Erm, not sure about that, I’ll have to check.”
He takes out his phone and starts searching for something. I look up to check on Annie. She’s just reaching the bottom of the slide. Before she can get off, though, another kid, a lad of about the same age, slides down and goes feet first into the back of her.
“Ow!” She shouts, but the kid just gets up and runs over to the roundabout.
“No,” the dad next to me says. “I can’t see a Count Cristoe on the bill. They’ve got Snow Patrol though.”
But I’m not listening now, not that I really was before, as my long-dormant parenting instincts prick up a bit. I watch this lad as Annie follows him onto the roundabout. She tries to step on but he holds out his hand to stop her.
“Hey,” she shouts, but he keeps trying to fend her off, like he’s king of the fucking roundabout.
“Whose lad is that?” I ask the Cornbury Kid next to me.
“Erm, not sure, haven’t seen him here before.”
I do a quick scan of the other parents in the playground, but none seem to be paying any attention, so whichever one of them spawned this little bastard is either unaware of, or disinterested in, his current cuntish behaviour.
“Are you alright, Annie?” I shout over, in an attempt to draw their attention to it.
“The boy won’t let me on the roundabout,” she shouts back. Still none of the assorted mums sat around the other bench look up.
“Really? The boy won’t let you on the roundabout?” I shout, unsubtly. Still nothing. “Well it’s not up to him, Annie. You can go on the roundabout if you want.”
The kid glares at me, clearly unaccustomed to anything other than getting things his way, but reluctantly deigns to share something that he has no ownership of. I settle back into the bench, my hackles lowered, but not completely down. Horrible little shit. I keep an eye on him for a minute, then on the mums who continue to chat away, still with no acknowledgment of this lad’s behaviour. My attention is drawn away from the Real Housewives Of Prenton though, as the lad has started jumping up and down on the roundabout, the sound pinballing around my skull.
“Hey,” Annie says, “don’t do that, you’ll break it.”
The lad stops it, but runs over to where Annie is, and shoves her straight off the roundabout, onto the floor. Thank fuck it’s only woodchipping, or she might have been badly hurt. But she’s hurt enough, and instantly starts crying. This time I don’t even bother looking over at the Stepford Wives.
“Oi! You little twat!” I yell, instinctively. I run over and pick Annie up. “What the fuck did you do that for?”
I look over at the mums. Still none of them intervenes, other than staring at me, their mouths wide open in shock.
“Who the fuck are you calling a little twat?” A voice booms out from behind me.
I turn around, and stepping over the bench I’d been sitting on, is a massive, chrome-domed ‘roid head the size of a fucking shaved bear. He must have been sitting on the grass behind me the whole time, which explains the indifference of the mums. But this fucker is anything but indifferent as he strides towards me, casting a huge shadow over the boring get on the bench. He reaches me, and towers over me. He’s at least six foot two, and made entirely of muscle and fat. Probably an ex-squaddie, almost certainly from the Woodchurch Estate. Trust me to come here on the one weekend the EDL aren’t marching somewhere. Coz if they were, you can guarantee this one would be there, smashing fuck out of some town centre or other, shouting at Muslim bus drivers.
“I said who the fuck are you calling a little twat?” He repeats, his breath reeking of bacon and Brexit. His fists are already clenched, one of them crumpling a copy of the Sun. Someone from Merseyside, reading The Sun. That tells you all you need to know about him, even before you get a look at the ‘Only God Can Judge Me’ tattoo he’s got emblazoned across his neck.
As with all large, dumb animals, I decide not to make any sudden movements, and talk in a firm but measured tone.
“You lad’s just shoved my daughter off the roundabout”, I say, my voice quaking slightly less than I expected it to. “While it was moving. And he kicked her in the back on the slide.”
He looks over at his son, who has now come and stood next to Annie, to enjoy the site of his dad kicking the shit out of someone other than his mum.
“Is that true?”
“No, she fell, Dad.”
“Liar!” Annie yells at him.
“Don’t call my son a liar,” the big bastard says.
“Woah,” I say to him, “you don’t need to be saying anything to her, mate.”
“You don’t need to be saying anything to my son, either, you little prick.”
“He is a liar!” Annie yells back at him. I love her bravery, her refusal to back down and be pushed around, whoever it is, man or child, that’s doing the pushing. It’s one of her best characteristics. But it does occur to me that if she had just backed down a few minutes ago, I wouldn’t now be facing the prospect of a good shoeing from the leader of the local branch of the Tommy Robinson Appreciation Society.
“Look, I saw him do it with my own eyes,” I say.
“Oh, so now you’re calling my boy a liar, is that right?”
Ok, now it’s clear, if it wasn’t already, that this fella knows only one way to deal with conflict of any kind. He plans to intimidate me into backing down, and if that doesn’t work, he would much rather batter a stranger in a playground full of kids, than admit any wrongdoing from his child, and therefore any acknowledgment of his own poor parenting skills. I could explain to him that, however bad a parent he is, I’m not much better, but he’d probably be unable to process the information, and interpret it as a sign of aggression.
“Well,” he says, “are you calling my son a fucking liar or what?”
I make a quick mental assessment of my options. I look around for any signs of support. The mums are watching on, but only with an air of morbid curiosity, and I certainly can’t count on fucking Centrist Dad over there to get involved. Finally, I look at Annie, and she looks back at me. Our eyes lock, and something passes between us. An understanding. Some sort of unspoken, extra sensory connection. Something clicks in me, and for perhaps the first time since she was born, I truly feel like a father, not just some waster of a weekend dad. She gives me the barest nod of her head, and I return it. She turns to the boy that has caused all this trouble, and head butts him square in the face. He goes down crying, and his dad, distracted for a moment, doesn’t know whether to run straight to his aid or to twat me first.
“What the fuck? Your fucking daughter’s just nutted my-”
Mid-sentence, I volley him as hard as I can in the bollocks. Protected as they no doubt are by a scrotum strengthened by twenty years of naked sunbathing by hotel pools in Mallorca, he doesn’t go down completely, but it gives me and Annie enough time to act.
“Run, Annie,” I shout, “grab Mr. Pink Ears.”
She picks him up, and I scoop her up in my arms, and run towards the car.
“Enjoy Glasto,” I shout at Centrist Dad as I run past him.
I glance back to see the other dad, down on one knee, clutching his knackers, and still clearly undecided whether to go after me or look after his son. The fleeting eye contact with me makes up his mind, and he straightens up and takes off after us. Despite his size, he begins to gain ground, as carrying Annie slows me down. He speeds up as I run through the gate. I try to do likewise but Annie is starting to slip from my grasp, slowing me down further as I re-secure her. He’s just a few feet behind us as we reach the road between the playground and the Saino’s car park. If I have to stop for any traffic, he’ll catch us, but a quick glance tells me it’s clear. Despite that, he’s still gaining on us as I step off the kerb. Halfway across the road, I turn round to see him step off, but the big clumsy fuck miss-steps, and loses his balance. He tries to right himself, but staggers forward, trips over his own legs, and lands, face down on the concrete. The satisfying sound of shattering gammon face, as well as the site of his right arm being crushed under his own considerable weight, is enough to tell me we’re now in the clear, but I don’t hang around anyway.
I get to the car and throw Annie in, fix her seatbelt and drive off.
We have to drive past the scene of the face plant, and he’s being helped up off the asphalt as I reach him. I drive around the melee, keeping my head down as much as I can. I look back at my daughter in the rear-view mirror, and resolve to do my best for her from now on. No more fucking around, no more drinking with nobheads. No more drugs. From now on, I’m determined to be the best dad to her that I can possibly be.
“Are you alright, Annie?”
“Is Mr. Pink Ears OK?”
“That’s good. Love you, darling.”
“Love you too Dad.”
My little angel.
The big man opened his eyes. Rolling onto his side, he spat out the chewing gum he’d been chewing on vigorously, even as he slept, reached over to his bedside table, picked up another stick of Wrigley’s, and inserted it into his mouth. After a few chews, he attempted to lift his body off the mattress, but, held down by the sheer weight of his own genius, was unable to do so. He reached over to the bedside table again and pressed the buzzer marked ‘Sammy’. Within seconds a small, perfectly rounded ball of human literally rolled into the room, coming to a stop at the side of the bed.
From this rotund creature emerged a head, two hands and two feet.
“Lift me up will you, Sammy? I’m stuck again.”
“It’s Mr Allardyce to you, you little scouse prick! That or Boss. Or Gaffer. You hear me?”
“Yes Boss. Sorry Boss.”
“Right, now fucking lift me up, will you?”
Sammy used the hoist to lift his lord and master up from the silk sheets of his four-poster bed and carried him through to the bathroom. Carefully, he lowered him onto the reinforced, gold-plated toilet, to perform his morning bowel evacuation, a process which, given the impacted state of his colon, usually took upwards of an hour. As he strained to squeeze out the first monstrous log, a small jet of urine erupted from his penis, still in a state of morning semi-erectness, and landed on his thick inner thigh. As always, Sammy found this intensely erotic but averted his eyes respectfully. When he raised them again, his master was looking at him, his face reddened and focused, until there was a heavy, tell-tale ‘sploosh’ sound from the bowl.
“You too, Sammy,” he said, pointing to the miniature version of his own toilet, positioned just a few feet away.
“But boss,” Sammy said, “I don’t need to go.”
“YOU’LL FUCKING SHIT WHEN I SAY YOU SHIT! NOW SIT DOWN!”
Downstairs, at an enormous dining table of glass three inches thick, Allardyce finished his breakfast, comprising of the meat of various rare and exotic animals, and gazed out of the window of his castle. He had acquired this castle with severance pay received after his dismissal from his most recent post as Azerbaijani national coach. The breadth of his domain was vast and beautiful. And yet, there was disquiet in the heart of Allardyce. Disquiet not caused by the Herculean consumption of red meat. Once again, he summoned his loyal, rounded man servant.
“What is it, boss?”
“Sammy, lad. It’s time. Assemble the team.”
Descending into the bowels of the castle, Sammy Lee tapped the security code into the control panel, and waited for the screen to flicker to life. When it did, he was greeted, as expected, by the face of Ray Parlour, standing beside a giant floatation tank
“Sammy me old son, is it time?”
“It is, Ray. It is. Time to drain the fluid.”
Parlour nodded solemnly, and performed the duty with which he had been tasked. Sammy watched as he stepped back towards the tank, and entered his own security code. Instantly, the tank was illuminated, to reveal the gargantuan, naked form of Alan Brazil, suspended in a thick, translucent brine, an oxygen tank attached to his nose and mouth. Parlour entered another code, and the thick brine began to slowly drain away. He opened a door at the side of the chamber and entered, removing the oxygen.
“Is it time?” Brazil asked, gasping for breath.
“It is, Alan. It is.” He turned back to the screen. “Tell the Big Man we’ll be there. You just tell us when.”
Meanwhile, in a Doha penthouse, Richard Keys stood in his bath, as Andy Gray sprayed his body with the shower head.
“You’ll need to get the scouring brush again, Andy. The feces has become even more matted in my chest hair than usual.”
“Jesus Christ, son. I wish you’d find yourself a more wholesome hobby. Wait while I get the brush.”
But he was stopped in his tracks by the alarm. The alarm that meant only one thing.
“You hear that, ya big hairy, shitty chested bastard?”
“I hear it you Scotch twat. Answer it before he disciplines us.”
Gray turned off the alarm and activated the communication console, to be met by the site of an empty room on the screen. Gray and Keys looked at each other in confusion.
“Hello?” Came a disembodied voice from the screen. “Are you there?”
“Sammy, we cannae see ya fer focks sake!”
“Oh right, hang on a sec, lads.”
Sammy clambered up onto a chair, where he could be seen.
“That’s better,” Keys said. “We can see that lovely, chubby little face of yours now. Tell, Samuel. What tidings do you bring from our master.”
“He needs us, lads. He wants the whole gang at his castle, first thing tomorrow morning. Can you be there in time?”
Keys was already holding up his hand before Lee had finished speaking.
“If the big man needs us, then he knows we’ll be there. If we have to move heaven, earth and hell, we’ll be there for him. Tell him I said that.”
“Aye, tell him I said that too. Tell him, say ‘Andy said, whatever the big man needs, the big man gets.’ You tell him I said that, alright Sammy?”
“Just be there, lads. I don’t know what he’s got brewing, but I think it’s something big. Something special.”
“Whatever the Big Man has planned, it’s always something special. You tell him I said that, right? Tell him Richard said-”
“Oh dinnae be such a fucking kiss-arse, Richard. The big man has nae fucking time fae kiss-arses, does he Sammy? Tell him I said that, wee man, tell him-“
“Look, just fucking be there, ok?”
Back at the castle, Allardyce was out on the lawn doing his morning exercises, his velour trackie stretched tight over his rhino-like frame. Sammy came rolling down the steps excitedly, to be greeted by the site of the boss doing his final hamstring stretches, further constricting his trackie bottoms across his colossal arse, the word ‘BIG’ spread across one bulbous arse cheek, and ‘SAM’ across the other.
“Boss!” He yelled out as he reached him. Allardyce turned around and slapped him hard across the face.
“Don’t interrupt my morning exercises you little left-wing bastard!”
“Sorry, Boss. I thought you’d finished,” he said, rubbing his face.
“I had, but that’s not the fucking point, is it?”
“And I’m not left-wing, Boss. Honest.”
Allardyce narrowed his eyes.
“Good. Just testing. Now, is everything in place?”
“Yes, Boss. They’ll all be here, as ordered.”
“Good,” he said. “Good.”
The next morning, preparations were made for the arrivals. A banquet was laid on, steaks made from one each of every animal on the endangered species list, eggs stolen from the nests of rare birds, and, as each chauffeur driven car pulled into the drive way, scantily clad women handed out pints of white wine spritzer, and led the visiting dignitaries into the main hall. Seated at the head of the table was the man they’d all come to see. The man who had never been relegated in his career, who was revered by each of them. The man who inspired unquestioning devotion from all present.
“Gentlemen,” he said, standing as they were each guided to their seats. “Welcome. You’re probably all wondering why I’ve called you here today. Well, chaps, I’ll get right to the point. It’s because there is a pestilence upon this land, this once-great nation of ours. And this pestilence presents itself in many forms.”
Already, those assembled were nodding their heads in agreement, mumbles of approval spreading through the room.
“Just look around you, lads. What do you see? Feminist Remoaner TV presenters. Transgender newsreaders, Foreign coaches treated like royalty.”
He began circling the table as he spoke, patting the shoulders of his guests for emphasis, as he began to slowly work the room up into a frenzy. The low mumbles of approval were now building up into something more potent. Alan Brazil had begun to swell with rage, to the point that Parlour had to open the tap in Brazil’s flank and drain off some of his fluid into several pint glasses.
“Can I have a bit of that?” Asked Neil Warnock, as the last of the fluid drained.
“Of course,” Brazil said, and Parlour handed one of the glasses across to him, and watched as he took a big swig of it.
“Mmm, nectar,” Warnock said, handing the rest of the fluid to Tony Pulis. Allardyce continued.
“You can’t say a bloody thing without being accused of being racist, homophobic, misogynistic and God-knows-what-else. Poor Andy and Richard here lost their bloody jobs just because some uppity tart of a make-up girl didn’t like being sexually harassed while doing her job. And you know what now? BLOODY FEMALE PRESENTERS ON SKY SPORTS, AND EVEN ON OUR SACRED MATCH OF THE DAY!”
“THE HORROR!” Richard Keys said, clutching his heart, doubled over in pain. “Disgusting!” He managed to shout, as his heart threatened to give out on him.
“I know, Keysie, lad,” Allardyce said, resting a firm hand on the shoulder of his stricken friend. The touch was enough to alleviate Keys’ suffering in an instant, and he straightened back up in his chair, as much as his body shape allowed. “I feel it too, Keysie. You see that, gents?” he asked, turning back to the rest of the room and gesturing at Keys. “This is the fate that awaits us all. These lefties, liberals, Muslims, gays and women won’t be happy until they’ve killed every one of us off. Buried us and danced on our graves. Our very future is at stake, and with it, the future of this nation. With us gone, who will defend the honour and integrity of Great Britain? Gary Lineker? Pep fucking Guardiola? No, lads. It’s down to us, and us alone. Only we can arrest this slide into madness, and you have all taken a blood oath to do so. Now, the only question is, can I count on you?”
“YES! YES!” Came the chorus of replies. He already knew the answer, of course. These were a cracking set of lads, good men and true. Honest, decent, old-school football men. He had chosen them all for a reason, and he had chosen well.
“Good, that’s good to know, lads. Now, finish your feast, and then go back to your lairs, and rest, for I am formulating a plan, a plan to bring an end to all this insanity, and I need you all at the very top of your game. There is much work to be done.”
To be continued…
At first, I just thought I was thick. So did my teachers, I think. In the early 1980’s, attitudes towards dyslexia weren’t particularly well evolved. Compared to what they are now, I’d might as well been attending primary school in the 1880’s. So when I struggled with basic reading and writing, even with writing my own name, they just thought I was ‘slow’ and 'lazy'. The school simply didn't recognise dyslexia. The fact that, having been born a southpaw, I was forced to write with my right hand didn’t help, meaning my handwriting was even more of a mess, and probably obscuring the main issue. As a result, my first couple of years in primary school were difficult and stressful, and only got worse when we moved house when I was six, necessitating a change of school, where I was unfortunate enough to land in a class with a genuinely unhinged teacher who decided to channel her psychosis by screaming into the face of an already shit-scared and struggling six year old boy (still got several of the facial tics I developed as a result of that, cheers, Mrs Thompson, but as least you’re dead now). After being told repeatedly I was slow or ‘mentally behind the other children’ by various teachers, the headmaster of the school eventually acknowledged there was something more going on, and although he wouldn’t officially use the word ‘dyslexia’, in private he did admit to my mum that this was the issue, and provided her with a variety of exercise books to take home and work on with me.
That was the extent of any official educational support my school gave me. The rest was down to my mum, who worked through the books with me at home for thirty minutes each night, just so I could try and keep pace with the rest of the class, until I managed to reach the giddy heights of being a distinctly average pupil, but able to at least write my own name. In fact, at the age of about eight or nine, I managed to write a story called Pitches For Titches, about a baby football team, Baby United (and their fierce rivals Nappy Rash Rovers), which my teacher made me read out to the class. I was terrified, but I remember the feeling of pride when my classmates actually laughed.
Though my reading and comprehension had improved to the extent that I could get by at school, that was probably the only time I had taken any real pleasure from reading up to that point, other than a family holiday in France around the same time. I’m not sure who purchased them, but, to pass the time on the long coach journey from Birkenhead to St. Tropez, I was given a collection of classic books, abridged for children. I’m not sure why my parents thought a collection of books was a good gift for a child who resented anything to do with reading, but I suppose they had to try and distract me from the garish live sex shows visible through the coach window as we passed through Paris.
Amongst the books were a few Dickens novels, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and A Tale Of Two Cities, but the one that really got to me was the collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. I couldn’t tell you why, or what it was about them, but those stories had me gripped instantaneously. I read through them like Johnny Five in Short Circuit, then, having also read the Dickens works, read them again, and at least a third and fourth time on that holiday. Finally, I had discovered what it was to read for pleasure, to read without having to do so. The full, unabridged Sherlock Holmes stories followed when we got home, and after that I never looked back.
A growing love of football led me to begin reading the sports pages, with Hugh Mcllvanney's football writing in the Observer being a particular favourite.
While it continued to be a challenge, I began to enjoy reading in school, as well as at home. English became the subject I cared most about, something which grew as I reached secondary school. I was one of the few boys in my class, and probably the entire school, who looked forward to reading poetry, stories and books. By the age of about thirteen, not only had I caught up with my contemporaries, but I had developed reading tastes beyond my years. In English Literature, we had a choice of choosing books from the syllabus to study, or we could pick our own. Most picked one at random from the list, I was American choosing Phillip K. Dick, Thomas Harris and Roddy Doyle, whilst reading Brett Easton Ellis at home (I knew American Psycho would have been pushing my luck in school, having got into some trouble with Silence Of The Lambs).
While some difficulties remained, and still do, by this point, the fear around reading was gone. The anxiety and embarrassment it had previously caused me were things of the past. Now it was all about enjoyment.
The main legacy of my dyslexia now is my terrible handwriting, which is often completely illegible to others, and often even to me. I still have trouble with spelling, and am glad of Word’s spell-check facility. Most frustratingly for someone who takes such pleasure from reading, it also makes me a slow reader. My poor concentration and memory may also be connected to my dyslexia, but they may just as likely be a result of heavy drug use in my twenties.
Despite the dyslexia, I have managed to have a couple of novels published, and co-run my own indie publishing press, both things I doubt anyone ever imagined happening when I was a kid, myself included.
The point is that, while it can make life tougher than it would be without it, there’s no reason why, with the right support, dyslexia should stop sufferers from doing anything.
Although Oasis had been gigging solidly for a couple of years by this point, like many people, my first exposure to them was the famous live performance on The Word in March 1994, where they performed their debut single Supersonic. If memory serves, I had tuned in mainly to watch American proto-grungers turned MTV darlings Soul Asylum, and hopefully catch a few glimpses of the Friday night boobs that The Word and Eurotrash usually guaranteed. Of course, the performance everybody remembers from that episode is the Oasis one. This was the first time most people had been exposed to the Oasis live template; the four band members almost motionless, Liam leaning into the microphone and snarling out his vocals (though at this point he'd yet to perfect his hands-behind-the-back trademark stance, instead clinging onto the mic like a drunk hanging onto a bus stop). It was a brilliant performance, one that prompted me to buy a ticket for a lively gig at the Lomax in Liverpool a few weeks later. Apparently everyone from Peter Hook to Lee Mavers was at that gig, but I don't remember seeing them. But then, they've claimed not to have seen me there either.
Supersonic was released as a single a couple of days before the Lomax gig. It peaked in the charts at a modest 31, but soon after that, Oasis quickly became huge. A couple of hit singles followed, before the release of debut album Definitely Maybe ensured they were now easily the biggest band in the country, and one of the biggest in the world. Much more prestigious was their status as one of my favourite bands. Most of the stuff I was listening to around the time were either American underground and grunge bands, or British shoe-gazer indie, and the old-school, raucous rock'n'roll swagger of Oasis offered a nice contrast to that.
Things between me and the Gallagher brothers soured pretty quickly, though. It was one thing to witness a sudden explosion in parkas, modish haircuts and funny walks on the streets of Birkenhead and Liverpool, but it was another thing when they started turning up in my nightclubs. Stairways in Birkenhead, and The Krazy House in Liverpool were havens for skinny indie kids, goths, punks and rockers. They were some of the few places where we could dress how we wanted without the significant risk of getting a fucking shoeing off some local scallies. But now, those scallies had discovered guitar music through Oasis, and were strutting their lame approximations of Liam's gait in these places, when just months earlier, they'd be more likely to have been waiting outside to take the piss of the of the freaks coming out in the early hours of a Saturday or Sunday morning. They were on our turf now in significant numbers, and thanks to them the dance floors were filled with less Sonic Youth and Mudhoney, and more Northern fucking Uproar. I know I wasn't alone in resenting it, and holding Oasis directly responsible for it.
Second album (What's The Story) Morning Glory offered a little more interesting tonal texture, but I'd already long since lost interest in the band before they released third album Be Here Now in 1997. Thereafter, a few isolated decent tunes aside, their music became gradually more conservative and regressive, their songs good only as staples of gangs of drunken lads, who'd belt out their songs at the end of a night of drinking and fighting, or intimidate buskers into playing them on Liverpool's Church Street late at night; a phenomenon I witnessed a bizarrely high number of times. They'd been an 'indie' band only briefly, but in a remarkably short space of time, they'd become the band that your mate at work who essentially had no interest in music, would declare as his favourite band. Wonderwall, in particular, came to occupy a place in the musical landscape (somewhere between drunken karaoke favourite and half-arsed repentant serenade of a boyfriend dumped for shagging his girlfriend's sister) right next to Robbie Williams' Angels.
By this point I'd gone from loving them, to hating them, to being utterly indifferent to them, an indifference that continued as the band released increasingly poor albums before finally splitting in 2009.
The only interest I had in them since was occasionally reading Liam's tweets to see if he'd called Noel a potato lately. That was until recently when, somehow, my two sons discovered them. I'm pretty sure their sudden obsession can be traced back to Christmas Eve 2017 when we were listening to Matt Everitt's The First Time on 6Music. As per the format of the show, in between sections of interview, Everitt would play a classic Oasis track; Live Forever, Wonderwall, Supersonic etc. "What's this song called?" My boys (8 and 6) would ask each time.
Immediately, our nightly bedtime ritual of them asking to watch music videos on YouTube before bed - with requests usually ranging from Bob Mould to Morrissey to Aztec Camera to Men At Work- became an exclusively Oasis affair. Not content with watching one each of their videos every night, my wife and I also faced a constant barrage of questions about the band. Where were they from? Which football team do they support? Why does Liam call Noel a potato? Inevitably, they began asking me to do their hair "like Liam's" after they'd had a bath. At one point my 8 year old then went and grabbed my tambourine and started shaking it while doing the Liam walk up and down the landing. I had to repurchase the first two albums so they could listen to them at home and in the car, and learn the chords to a few songs so we could sing them together.
Though relentless, it was great to see them getting into a band that they'd mostly discovered themselves, and having to come up with different song suggestions each night so it wasn't constantly Live Forever or Acquiesce meant I had to delve back into a time when I was a genuine fan. Along with Mat Whitecross' brilliant documentary Oasis: Supersonic, which was shown on BBC2 around this time, it was a reminder that, although Be Here Now onward, they basically seemed anti-music to me, those first two albums really were a bit special, and I think will now always remain so to me.
My kids' new-found obsession coincided with the release of Liam's solo album, which put him heavily back in the limelight. What was surprising and refreshing to see was that, in direct contrast to his brother's trajectory into full-on, Farage-endorsed Tory gammon, Liam had somehow gone from being the belligerent loudmouth brother, to being almost a voice of reason. It's hard to imagine Noel allowing himself to be subjected to interrogation by a class full of six year olds.
Though this may have rekindled my love of the band to some extent, I'm sure it will grow tiresome pretty quickly, so I have to remind myself that for many, Oasis were a gateway drug to better, more interesting music. As they get older, if their love of Oasis grows, maybe they'll get into the Las', then maybe The Smiths. Who knows, in five years time, they might be listening to Leonard Cohen or Leadbelly.
Until then kids, as you were.
aThis isn't the first time I've donated profits (such as they are) from one of my books during a given month to a charitable cause. I've donated to Wirral Ways To Recovery, a drug and alcohol support service in my home town of Birkenhead, and to the Big Issue Trust. During April and May I'm donating any profits I receive from sales of my first novel 'The World Is (Not) A Cold Dead Place' to Campaign Against Living Miserably. Though Wirral Ways To Recovery and Big Issue Trust are both causes I care about and believe in, my reasons for choosing CALM, at this time in particular, are a bit more personal.
Thanks to the work of CALM and many other organisations and individuals who are trying to challenge the stigma around mental illness, we are becoming increasingly aware of the stats; 1 in 4 people will experience some form of mental illness every year. 20.6 in every hundred people will have suicidal thoughts, while 7.3 in every hundred will self-harm in some way.
I am one of those statistics. I'm one of the 7.3. I'm one of the 20.6. I'm the 1 in 4. I have been one of those statistics for as long as I can remember. I've been self-harming in some form or another since childhood, and was first diagnosed with depression and placed on medication in my mid-teens. Since then I've experienced varying levels of mental illness, ranging from anxiety disorders to severe depression, and neurosis that bordered on psychosis, and been off and on a variety of medications.
Now, that's not something I've ever said openly, outside the confines of regular therapy sessions, or conversations with my wife, or one or two very close friends, and even then only friends who I know for a fact have experienced similar or worse mental health issues. Why is that? Well, quite simply, it's because I'm embarrassed. No, ashamed. I'm ashamed of my depression, ashamed of my anxiety disorders, ashamed of my thoughts of self-harm. It's the typical male response to something that affects so many; bury it as deep as possible, self-medicate with drink and drugs, and, no matter what, at all costs, avoid talking about it.
In recent years, I've been doing my best to overcome that innate resistance. Even being open with my wife about these things has never come naturally, but I've worked hard on being more honest with her, which is helped by the fact that she has learned to spot the warning signs of my health deteriorating, and has been very patient and supportive through what have been some very difficult times. There was one summer about four years back where my mental health deteriorated to such an extent that I was so heavily medicated, I basically slept for three months. An entire summer was more or less written off as the only way to lower the risk of me killing myself to anything like a manageable level was to drug myself to the point where I was pretty much incapable of feeling anything. This is in no way meant to be critical of anti-depressant or anti-psychotic medication. It was entirely necessary for me to be medicated to that extent at that time. Using prescription medication to combat depression or mental illness isn't just about 'taking the happy pills'. Sometimes it's as simple as keeping you alive. That was the second, and worst, breakdown I've had since being with my wife, and although it still isn't easy, being as open as I possibly can with her, and keeping in regular contact with a therapist, are two ways to try and stop things ever getting as bad as they did that summer.
But being open with a few of the people closest to you, or with someone who is paid to listen, is one thing. Being open with the wider world is another thing entirely. And that is primarily, to quote Alan Partridge, "coz I'm a bloody bloke." The stats tell us that roughly 12% of woman in the UK suffer from depression, compared with approximately 8% of men, yet over three quarters of suicides here are men. That tells us not that men suffer less, but that diagnosis is much more difficult in men because we are naturally resistant to discussing it, and this resistance is killing us,
So I'm writing about my own illness because, as with most things, writing about something is a method of processing it that comes more naturally to me than talking about it, and my hope is that in doing so, I'll be able to talk about more in the future.
Another reason I've decided to write this is that, in not being more open, I've often felt like a bit of a fraud. I'm forever telling other people that they should talk about depression and mental illnesses, either with their friends and family or with a professional. I'm always telling people that it's nothing to be ashamed of, that it isn't a form of weakness, while being guilty of exactly the kind of behaviour patterns I'm trying to discourage in them; bottling it up, believing it's a form of weakness. It seems that for many of us, even those of us who consider our attitude towards such things to be pretty evolved, it's far easier to advocate for others than it is to advocate for oneself.
I'm not stupid enough to think that me writing a blog post that only a handful of people will read and donating a few quid from my little booky wook is going to single-handedly smash the stigma of male metal illness once and for all, it's more about being a step forwards for me personally. Very few may read this, but the fact that I'm putting it out there at all is a pretty big deal for me.
Plus, while 84 men take their own lives every week, or one every two hours, in the UK alone (as illustrated by CALM's recent Project 84 campaign), and while suicide is the number one killer of men under forty five, we all have our part to play, no matter how small, in moving the conversation around mental illness, and male mental illness in particular, forward.
This is one small way in which I hope I can play my part.
My memories of first seeing The Big Lebowksi are not yet quite twenty years old. Though released in USA on 6th March 1998, it didn't hit the UK until a few weeks later. So, it was on or about 24th April that my housemate Andy and I, living in Carlisle at the time, went to the city's Warner Village (now Vue) cinema. Both hardcore cinephiles and Coen Brothers fans, our expectations were naturally high, especially following on from the success of their previous effort Fargo, which had won two Oscars and been a critical and commercial hit. The fact that I feel moved to write a blog post about it two decades later tell you that we were not disappointed.
Just a few hours later, we were annoying people at a party who hadn't yet seen the film by quoting lines from the film back and forth at each other, particularly most of Jesus Quintana's dialogue, and "this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass", a line we also employed when leaving the party, as we kicked over a bike belonging to a lad we didn't like for reasons I can't remember.
So I loved Lebowski instantly. It was endlessly quotable, and demanded repeat viewings, in fact I went back a couple of days later to watch it again, and retain some more of the dialogue to drop into everyday conversation. Many of the actors involved did some of their very best work. Jeff Bridges, having made a career of playing charismatic, handsome but morally ambiguous characters, completely let himself go to play the slobbish, overweight Dude, his fat gut hanging out over his shorts, unkempt beard stained with White Russian. John Goodman, reteaming with the Coens having worked with them on Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, was allowed to go all out as paranoid, combustible Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak, pulling a piece out on the lanes and caring for his ex-wife's Pomeranian. Completing the unlikely trio of friends was Steve Buscemi's Donny, the quiet one of the group, about whom we know little beyond him being told to shut the fuck up by Walter, and that he loved bowling and surfing, a fact made clear to us in Walter's clumsy eulogy after Donny has continued Buscemi's tradition of being killed off in Coen Bros' films. Perhaps most instantly memorable of all was another Coens mainstay, John Turturro as Jesus, the hairnet wearing pederast who can fucking roll, man.
But, much as I did love the film, it certainly didn't instantly take on the status of my favourite film. Or even my favourite Coen Bros' film. For a good few years later, I maintained that Fargo was their best work, occasionally arguing the case for Raising Arizona. But, as the film found its true home on DVD (it was considered something of a box office flop, and reviews were lukewarm), it was in this format that, over the course of several years, I grew to appreciate its true genius. There was just something irresistibly compelling about this film, and, during a period on the dole, I fell into a pattern of watching it several times a week, late at night. I came to realise that the lack of enthusiasm from many critics and even some fans was due to the fact that, with so much going on, it was hard to process everything in one sitting, or even several sittings. There's so much great dialogue, so many quotable lines, so many great gestures and facial expressions, that it's hard to keep track of them. A perfect example is the scene where The Dude confronts Da Fino (played by the late Jon Polito). Their inept attempts to square up to each other, and Polito's odd attempts to placate The Dude by making bizarre shapes with his arms, are so funny that one could easily miss the genius 'like an Irish monk?' line.
The fact that it rewarded so many repeat viewings was always its greatest strength. Throughout the script, there is not one line of dialogue, one single utterance, or even facial gesture wasted. Not only does The Big Lebowski reward repeat viewings, repeat viewings are absolutely essential to appreciating the level of its brilliance. I don't know how many dozens of viewings it was before I picked up on the nuances of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Brandt, lickspittle to the titular 'Big' Jeffrey Lebowski. Witness the scene before The Dude meets his namesake where Brandt is showing a disinterested Dude around the many awards his boss has acquired. Several times he asks The Dude to stop fingering a shoe-shaped plaque. As The Dude has one last touch, the discomforted reaction of Brandt is exquisite. Rarely if ever has a film revealed so much hidden depth that you can watch it literally a hundred times and still find something you'd missed before.
For all the hilarious dialogue, at its core, this is also a film about friendship. These three lonely men, who seemingly have little in common other than their love of bowling, need each other. As unhinged as Walter is, he's the kind of friend you'd always want in your corner when confronted by three nihilists in a dark parking lot. And when he tells The Dude "nobody's gonna cut your dick off, not while I have anything to say about it," you absolutely believe him. As mean as he seems to Donny at times, when Donny suffers at heart attack, Walter cradles him in his arms with genuine love. Even when he makes a mess of scattering Donny's ashes, covering The Dude in the incinerated remains of their friend, The Dude can't stay mad at him for long, eventually accepting the borderline psychotic veteran's embrace.
Only a handful of comedies have stood up to such repeat viewings over the years. The Producers, This Is Spinal Tap, Withnail And I, and The Big Lebowski stand out, with Alpha Papa likely to join them. But The Big Lebowski stands head and shoulders above all of them. But it's not just the greatest comedy of all time, it's the greatest film of all time.
And if you disagree, well, that's just, like, your opinion, maaan.
Football fans. We're an emotional bunch, aren't we? Full of rage and bile through the emotional turbulence of a match, yet precious and easily offended at the same time. Our lack of reason is never better encapsulated than when a player decides he wants to leave our beloved club. Terms like 'loyalty' and 'respect' are thrown around with abandon, and we can never quite believe that any footballer would have the temerity to ditch our club. Not our club. It's a mentality I've never quite understood. I always make the argument to friends labouring this point that if a better company offered them the opportunity to do their job for twice their current salary, in better facilities, with better career prospects, surrounded by more skilled and able colleagues, would they remain 'loyal' to their current employers? Would they fuck, but I'm told that it's somehow 'different' for footballers. They apparently should disregard the opportunity to make more money and achieve more in their profession. And, ultimately, that's what it is for them, a profession. It's how they make their (admittedly incredibly comfortable) living. Why shouldn't they maximise both their earning potential and their ability to achieve things? Obviously, being professionals, they should at least have the decency to continue to always do their job to the best of their abilities, even when they're determined to move to another club. Joleon Lescott is the perfect example of how not to behave in these circumstances. Declaring himself not mentally right to face Arsenal on the opening day of the season when we were resisting efforts from Manchester City to sign him, Lescott left us defensively shot. Forced to play Phil Neville at centre back, we inevitably got stuffed. John Stones on the other hand, although he had made it clear he wanted to leave, continued to perform well up until his transfer to the Etihad inevitably went through.
The feeling of betrayal when a player wants to depart your club is amplified many times over when the player in question came through the club's youth system and is a boyhood fan. It happened to us with Francis Jeffers, it happened with Wayne Rooney, and now it's happened with Ross Barkley. Creative midfield players aren't easy to come by in the modern game, unless you've got £100m to chuck around, so it's always exciting when one emerges through your own youth set-up. That he was 'a Toffee who comes from Wavertree' added an element of romanticism that I'm certainly guilty of indulging in. I've always idolised attacking midfielder players, and one that has come through the ranks will only receive greater adulation. Just to add to the sentimentality about him in my household, he was my eldest son's (now 8 years old) first favourite player. He has the 'Barkley 8' kit, and insisted on taking the same number when he joined a team himself.
Although for my son's sake if nothing else I hoped it wouldn't happen, there has been a creeping feeling that this departure would happen since the early days of Ronald Koeman's doomed tenure at the club. Seeming not to rate Barkley, he was publicly critical of the player, and dropped him to the bench, perhaps to make the point that, having been the main man for a few seasons, he was going to have to elevate his game now. Say what you will about Koeman and his pretty appalling way of treating some players, but, rather than spur him on, Koeman's methods seemed to reveal an emotional fragility in Barkley. Evertonians have a history of expecting the world from promising young players, and quickly turning on them if they fail to live up to expectations, and Ross, an exciting, talented and attack minded midfielder, was just the type of player we all like to see. Capable of scoring spectacular goals, and showing a decent understanding with Romalu Lukaku in the early days of Roberto Martinez, fans sang his name from the terraces, and England fans even wondered whether he might develop into the type of complete attacking central midfielder we've lacked since Paul Gascoigne. Even at his best, though, there were always niggling shortcomings in his overall game. His decision making wasn't good enough. He often took too many touches. He attempted the spectacular when a simple sideways pass was the better option. Under Martinez, Barkley was given free rein to make those occasional mistakes and develop his game, but over the course of a few seasons, those mistakes never really disappeared. The stricter, more pragmatic Koeman clearly wasn't going to be as patient, and given Ross' growing seniority within the squad, those mistakes became more and more glaring. Even his biggest fan couldn't deny that he wasn't developing at the rate we'd hoped, and many thought that, for all the natural ability he clearly had, he just didn't have the footballing brain required to be a top player, the kind who can control games for both club and country. Barkley would no doubt argue that he needs to move to a 'bigger' club to take his game to the next level, and maybe he'd be right. But couldn't he have just gone through with the deal that was agreed in the summer, rather than pulling out of the move at the last minute, a move that would cost us in the region of £20m? One also has to question whether this move is the right one for him. Is he just going to Chelsea to increase their English player quotient? Will he get into the first team ahead of the likes of Fabregas, Bakayoko, Kante and Drinkwater, or will have just be another squad player? Does Antonio Conte even rate him, and given the insecurity of any Chelsea manager's job, will he even be there long enough to develop him? Will his career ending up taking the Jack Rodwell trajectory, with him ending up at Sunderland or somewhere similar within a few season?
Do we care? Probably not. These questions about Barkley's long-term future are ones Evertonians needn't concern themselves with. Our concern is more about who will replace him. Ultimately, as he hasn't played for us all season, his departure now will make little difference to our current plight. Even my son gave a shrug worthy of Alan Partridge when I told him the news at school pick-up time today, and he even said he's going to take down his Barkley posters in the morning. He's moved on, and so should the rest of us.
A colleague in my work break room nearly dropped her sandwich.
“What is it?” she asked.
“We've finally sacked Koeman.”
Apparently not a football fan, she didn’t even ask me to elaborate, and went back to her lunch, while I went to find another, Leicester-supporting colleague to argue over who's club was in a worse state.
It's not easy being a football fan, not even a predominantly armchair-based one like me. Even fans of the biggest, richest and most successful clubs would argue that their team doesn't make life easy for them. Evertonians, however, will feel they have more right than many to make this claim.
I was born in 1978, so when I first got into football aged about four or five, being an Evertonian was pretty fantastic. League titles, F.A. Cup wins and even a European trophy became the norm, but it wasn't to last. Our last league title came in the 1986/87 season, when I was nine years old. In the ensuing thirty years, it has often felt like Everton have simply been trolling me.
Another F.A. Cup win in 1995 aside, there hasn't been a huge amount to cheer about. We've been through malignant Mike Walker, woeful Walter Smith, and dependable but dour (and often dire) David Moyes. The arrival of Roberto Martinez promised much in the early days with the kind of attacking football not witnessed at Goodison for a long time. We even beat one of the big four away from home (Man United, 1-0). But the occasional pasting revealed defensive frailties that came to define his short reign. Conceding late goals was something he seemed to specialise in. Usually when your team goes 2-0 up with twenty minutes remaining, it's time to relax. During Martinez's last eighteen months, our second goal usually signalled the start of our capitulation and eventual 3-2 defeat.
Towards the end of Roberto's time in charge, Farhad Moshiri, a billionaire hedge fund manager with money to spend and big ambitions, became majority shareholder of Everton. A few months later, Martinez received the sacking that was long overdue and after protracted negotiations with Southampton Ronald Koeman was appointed manager.
A decent first season for the new manager followed. In contrary to the sometimes annoyingly rhapsodic Martinez, he was pragmatic and calculating, and ruthless when he needed to be, unafraid to make changes early on if needed, and steadfastly refusing to pander to the fragile ego of Ross Barkley. Some shrewd signings were made, and though a slow start and slight lack of quality prevented us from competing for the Champions League places, there was enough to believe that, once he was able to truly build his own squad, we could be onto something. And during this past summer transfer window, he practically brought in an entire teams worth of players. After years of David Moyes being forced to scrabble around in the bargain bin with the few groats Bill Kenwright managed to fling him, we were able to compete with the big boys. And it was more than just new players giving us reasons to be cheerful. Having had to endure years of toilets that would embarrass a biker bar, we had the prospect of a shiny new stadium on the banks of the Mersey, sixteen years after a similar plan fell through due to, of course, a lack of sufficient funds. For the true romantics there was even the return of the prodigal son, Wayne Rooney. Older and slower, yes, but at least with a hair weave that now seemed to be working. So we'd sold top scorer Lukaku, but that had been inevitable for some time, and new signing Gylfi Sigurdsson gets so many assists we all assumed he'd probably even be making a few for record-breaking goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. These were exciting times indeed to be an Evertonian.
As is usually the case with Everton, though, things haven't gone entirely according to plan. So far we've looked slower than my local non-league team, as likely to score as Adrian Mole, as shapeless as Steven Seagal, and had so many numbers 10's crammed into the team we've looked like a sheet of binary coding. And all this from a man who Johan Cruyff practically built a Barcelona team around. Hardly totaalvoetbal, is it? I took my boys, aged five and eight, to see us scrape a 2-1 victory against a poor Bournemouth team. As my five year old continually lay his head on my lap, the boredom driving him almost to tears at what was his first Everton match, I considered the act of cruelty I was inflicting upon them both by taking them to watch this display, and was grateful that they at least enjoyed the foot long hotdogs. Watching the following Sunday's dire display against Burnley with my eight year old, and seeing his growing anger and frustration, I felt similarly. "Get used to this," I told him, "they've been doing this to me for thirty years now." The next week we listened to an excruciating ninety minutes at the end of which we needed a late penalty to rescue a point against Brighton, before watching a defeat to Lyon in which the most interesting part of the game was Ashley Williams almost starting a riot by shoving the Lyon goalie into the hoardings. Things finally came to a head on Sunday after a home drubbing to Arsenal, where the 5-2 score line frankly flattered us. Finally, in an event as inevitable as Fredo's death in 'The Godfather: Part 2', Everton's manager received his marching order early this afternoon.
So what else could have been done? Was it possible to persist with a manager who seemed unable to recognise the basic tactical errors that even my eight year old can spot? This is a manager who spent over £20m on six separate players, including a club record £45m on Sigurdsson in a transfer that was so protracted, even when he eventually signed, I think most people were actually past caring. Of course players take time to bed in, especially those coming from foreign leagues, but that can't excuse the awful tactics, the lack of confidence, and the excuse making. Some fans argued that we shouldn't sack Koeman as there was no obvious replacement, a position akin to arguing that you shouldn't have a gangrenous, infected limb removed because another one won't grow in its place.
Excuse me while I get all misty--eyed and nostalgic, but Howard Kendall won leagues and cups with a squad that was cobbled together with players from lower leagues, Liverpool reserve team players and experienced pros like Peter Reid and Andy Gray who were thought practically finished due to age and injuries, but Kendall got the best out of each individual player. The team was perfectly balanced and everyone knew their job and their position, whereas at time against Burnley, Gylfi didn't seem to know whether he was playing number ten, left midfield or somewhere in between, and we were so devoid of balance you'd have thought we were playing on the rotating platform Flash Gordon is forced to fight Prince Barin on. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, a young striker possessing a bit of pace, that commodity so valuable in the modern game but one that Koeman seemingly has some sort of anaphylactic reaction to, has spent as much time out on the wing as he has in the centre forward position.
Along with Spanish striker Sandro, Koeman had also been persisting with Davy Klaassen, yet another number ten whose main contribution so far has been to be filmed dancing in a Liverpool nightclub to shouts of 'go on Davy lad'. You don't get to captain Ajax unless you're a very good technical player, but he's struggling with the pace of the Premier League. Surely it would be better to bring these players in once the team finds some form, rather than asking them to adapt to the pace of the league in a team that is struggling. Klaassen and Sandro were at least taken out of the line if fire against Arsenal, but a team full of internationals looked no better for it.
It's hard to look at these failings and conclude anything other than that Koeman wasn’t drinking in the last chance saloon so much as he'd been barred from it for taking a swing at the staff and shitting all over the pool table, especially when you consider that in just over one season, he has already spent more on transfers, both gross and net, than David Moyes spent during his entire tenure. And in that time, we've had a seventh place finish, and are now in the relegation zone. Having smashed our transfer record, Koeman also signed six of our ten most expensive players ever, with Moyes responsible for just two. All this money spent, and we couldn't even worry Burnley or Brighton, while Moyes got us into the Champions League. With Marcus Bent as the main striker.
Who are next manager will be is obviously the next question, and personally I'd like us to get Carlo Ancelotti in the short term, with maybe David Unsworth as a long term successor. Ancelotti may seem ambitious, but, despite our awful form and precarious league position, we remain a major Premier League outfit, and finally have a bit of money to spend, so I imagine plenty of out-of-work managers, and a fair few already in a job, would see us as a very attractive proposition. This being Everton, though, I wouldn't be too surprised to see a certain flame-haired Scotsman back in the dugout sometime soon...
Earlier today Ewan McGregor, doing the promotional rounds for the forthcoming 'Trainspotting 2', was scheduled to appear on 'Good Morning Britain' or 'GMTV' or 'TV A.M' or whatever the current incarnation of ITV's morning output is called. The reason for this was that McGregor took issue with comments and tweets from host Piers Morgan about the Women's March On Washington that took place the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as 45th President.
Predictably, the Twitter reaction was, on the one hand, one of vitriolic condemnation, with the usual epithets of 'snowflake' 'leftie luvvie' and 'coward' being thrown around. On the other hand, there was unquestioning support of his decision. Morgan's reaction was one of predictable petulance, both via Twitter and on the sofa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9UhDMmo7AE
where he urged McGregor to come on and debate the issue, whilst simultaneously stating that actors should stay out of politics because it's "not really their game". Morgan probably has a point there, as most actors have very limited experience of printing faked front page pictures depicting abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Personally, I think Ewan McGregor, on balance, did the right thing, though I'm more than a tad uncomfortable with a man taking a stance on women's issues having previously worked with and defended self-confessed statutory rapist Roman Polanski.
The main reason he was right not to go on the show, and to ignore any offers from Morgan to debate this or any other issue is that, quite simply, ignoring Piers Morgan is the only reasonable response to anything he ever says or does. I wouldn't be surprised if Morgan (who looks like the kind of man who'd get a semi-on from belittling a waiter or cleaner) didn't even believe what he said about the marches, and simply said it, like everything else he says publicly, for the attention. If taking the complete polar opposite viewpoint on the issue could have garnered him as much attention, he would have taken it. He knew full well what the response would be. He welcomed it. He needed it. Without it he'd probably wither and die. Morgan realised some time ago that the old adage about all publicity being good publicity doesn't quite ring true. He realised that bad and negative publicity is far more sustaining for someone like him than good, so he seeks out the points of maximum controversy, and tweets from there. His cuntery ratcheted up several notches during Trump's campaign, and I imagine his narcissism is of sufficient potency to convince him he is in some way responsible for his win.
I feel fairly sure that Morgan's response was not fully born out of the fact that he felt McGregor should actually come on the show and debate the issue, but the fact that, according to his tweet, McGregor genuinely seemed not to know that Morgan was the presenter of the show he'd been booked to appear on. Imagine how wounding that must have been for old Piers, a man so desperate for vicarious fame, so desperate to attach himself to the powerful, as seen in his loathsome, lickspittle toadying to Trump (he actually described Trump as a 'mate' on Twitter. Clearly Trump is a man who doesn't have 'mates', and so is Morgan. Morgan probably just has work associates who are unable to fuck him off due to some sort of professional obligation, or he keeps around just so he's got someone to show off to). Such is his craving for power and recognition, one can only surmise he was subjected to bullying in childhood, and just wants, needs those same bullies to see how successful he's become. Not that I'm in any way denigrating the effects of bullying, but there's better ways to process it.
'Come on and debate'? What would be the point? Any debate with Piers Morgan would be about one thing; Piers Morgan. McGregor did the right thing in simply deciding not to engage with him. And that is what the rest of us should do. Mute him on Twitter, don't tune in to his TV show, and certainly don't read or react to his Mail Online columns. Obviously this last one goes without saying. Just deprive him of the attention he craves, and hopefully, eventually he'll just...go away.
And by the way, I'm aware of the irony of writing a blog post about a man to urge people to ignore him, so don't bother to point that out.
This month's Total Film magazine has just been posted through my front door. The front cover is adorned by the goatee'd face of Benedict Cumberpatch as Doctor Strange. It has now become pretty much the norm for the cover of Total Film (and Empire) to put the latest superhero franchise movie on the cover. Even on the rare occasions when there isn't currently one on general release, they will carry a preview of all forthcoming releases, as they have done this month. In the last few years, the superhero movie landscape has been dominated by Marvel franchises. The Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Ant-Man and Deadpool, and the many associated sequels have made the studio omnipresent and, judging by the huge box-office success, omnipotent. By contrast, D.C. comic properties, the rights to which are currently owned by Warner Bros. have been lagging behind its rivals.
This wasn't the case a few years back. Though Bryan Singer's attempt to revive Superman had fallen somewhat flat in 2006 (I enjoyed aspects of the film, but it was too reverential to the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve original and lacked an identity of its own), this was offset by the success the year before of Batman Begins. Thanks to Joel Schumacher's appalling Batman And Robin, Batman had been moribund since 1997. After a few years of knocking around various projects, Warners eventually made the inspired decision to hand the franchise over to Christopher Nolan, the genius behind Memento. What followed over the next seven years was a trilogy, continued by The Dark Knight in 2008 and completed by The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, that remains unsurpassed in terms of comic book adaptations. Nolan's trilogy had everything; respect for the conventions of the genre, great stories, huge action sequences, political allegory, and note-perfect casting- Christian Bale coming from relative obscurity to make the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, supported by an array of reliable, quality character actors like Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. The baddies throughout the series were also perfectly cast; Liam Neeson as Ra's Al Guhl, Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow, Tom Hardy as Bane, Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two-Face and, most iconically , the late Heath Ledger as Joker, a role for which he deservedly won a posthumous Oscar. Though not without flaws, it was a towering trilogy. Dark, intelligent and complex enough to interest adults, even those with no interest in Batman, and with enough action and set pieces to please the kids. Nolan had revived the character magnificently, as well as making Warners a boatload of money.
Understandably, the studio wanted to continue this revival of its D.C. properties, and a new Superman film was quickly given the greenlight. Despite attempts to persuade him to helm the project, Nolan stayed on only as producer, with Zack Snyder signed up as director. And this is probably were things started to go wrong.
In some ways, Snyder was the obvious choice; a huge comic book fan who had had some success adapting Alan Moore's classic Watchmen for Warners, as well as an excellent Dawn Of The Dead remake. But Watchmen's success masked several shortcomings, including an over-reliance on the kind of slow-mo fight scenes that seemed to largely miss the point of the original graphic novel, as well as the fact the Snyder seemed to lack any real originality; his successes were remakes and adaptations, while his only original screenplay, Sucker Punch, was a dreadful flop.
Despite this, early signs were fairly encouraging. Snyder assembled an impressive cast, following Nolan's blueprint by casting the relatively unknown Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, and surrounding him with heavyweight dramatic talent; Russel Crowe as Jor-El, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, and best of all, the brilliant Michael Shannon as General Zod. The positive moves were enhanced when, in the lead up to the film's release, Warners released a series of superb trailers. To this day, I honestly think these are the best trailers ever seen. Emotional, ethereal, powerful and beautifully shot, featuring a soulful voiceover from Crowe, they captured the essence of what a modern Superman film should be. I'm not sure I've ever been moved to the verge of tears by a trailer before, but the first few teasers for Man Of Steel managed it.
Alas, the trailers were in stark contrast to the film itself. Despite solid if unspectacular performances all round, the film was utter garbage. From the outset, it was unforgivably boring. When it attempted to be contemplative, the dialogue was clunky at best, and for the most part, Snyder simply relied on visual stylistics, the film ultimately degenerating into the worst kind of destruction porn at the films long-overdue climax. Man Of Shite would have been a more apt title. I left the cinema fairly sure I had just watched one of the very worst films ever made.
Having already made a hash of Green Lantern two years earlier, Warners needed a hit to revive their superhero stable post-Nolan and, undeterred by the critical savaging Man Of Steel deservedly received, pushed ahead with plans to match Marvel's Avengers success with a Justice League movie, preceded by the scene-setting Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
The Man Of Steel cast was supplemented by the casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne, a decision which sent the internet into meltdown. Despite his resurgence in recent years as a filmmaker of some caliber with Gone Baby, Gone and The Town, clearly the memory of the J-Lo years and Gigli were too fresh for a fan group notoriously protective of their beloved superhero characters, and it was hard to find a single positive response to the casting of someone who, even at the height of his late 90's/early 00's fame had hardly been one of the best actors of his generation. As it turned out, Batffleck was the least of the film's problems.
Since Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, there has been a fixation with making superhero films 'dark', especially when it comes to D.C. characters. Unfortunately, the difference in what constitutes a dark film for a visionary like Christopher Nolan, and a hack like Zack Snyder, is a marked one. Nolan's trilogy was undoubtedly dark, both visually and thematically, using the superhero template to address modern, existential issues such as political corruption, the financial collapse and, most significantly, the war on terror.
Snyder's answer to this, especially in Batman Vs Superman, was simply to saturate everything with rain, and have his characters staring into the gutter. Even during the darkest spells of Nolan's films, there was humour; the relationship between Bruce and Alfred bringing not only pathos, but several genuine chuckles, whereas BvsS was utterly po-faced, and took itself as seriously as a Shakespearean drama. Narratively, it was all over the place, and had the feel of having been rewritten 2 or 3 times too many, and had some lazy and hurried resolutions. At times it also felt like a $200m, 150 minute trailer for the Justice League film, with an embarrassing piece of expositional set-up giving us glimpses of Cyborg, The Flash and Aquaman. The only things to be said in its favour were that the action scenes benefited from the fighting style Snyder over used in Watchmen, most notably one fantastic sequence in which Batman takes out an entire warehouse's worth of heavies. Also, surprisingly given the reaction to his casting, Batffleck is another saving grace. He actually does fine here, playing the grizzled, ageing crime fighter seen in comics like The Dark Knight Returns. He's no Christian Bale, and certainly over-relied on looking sad/angry, but frankly he deserved an Oscar for managing to keep a straight face while delivering some stinking dialogue. There are plans for a stand-alone Batman film, which Affleck will also direct, and one can only hope the skills he has honed in the director's chair in recent years will help to revive the DC universes fortunes.
All in all, the best thing one could say about Batman Vs Superman was that at least it wasn't as bad as Man Of Steel, but that would be the very definition of damning with faint praise. Critics mauled the film and, despite a strong opening weekend, even the fans stayed away. Not to be deterred though, Warners will be throwing the first Justice League movie our way next year and, judging by an early teaser trailer, they seem to have responded to critics, with a certain lightness, even some jokes present.
But while Warners struggle to even get the basic tone of their films right, Marvel continues to hoover up at the box office, as well as receiving consistently positive reviews. There can be very few people over the age of 12 who aren't fed up to the back fucking teeth with superhero films, but every Marvel release has been a commercial and critical hit, with the right balance of humour, pathos and action.
With Batman, Warners possess the rights for a character that remains, in my opinion, the most enduring in fiction. Only Sherlock Holmes comes close, and Superman is perhaps the most universally recognised and loved of all. It takes an extraordinary level of incompetence to take what Christopher Nolan had given them, and perform a kind of reverse alchemy in which they spun gold into shit. Yet they manage to fuck it up time and time again. It's pretty damning to think that a relatively unknown character such as Ant-Man can surpass the success of the two biggest superheros of all.
And it also says something when the best thing about your franchise is Ben Affleck.
Last Regrexit To Brooklyn
Ever seen 'The Rock'? Where Ed Harris plays a disillusioned former US Army Colonel who, pushed too far by the indifference from the government and his army superiors to the losses his men have endured, employees a crack team to take over Alcatraz Island, holding dozens of tourists hostage for ransom? Yeah, it's a load of stupid, escapist fun isn't it?
Remember the scene where a load of marines are slaughtered by his team attempting a rescue mission? "I didn't want this, God I didn't want this," he mumbles mournfully. Well, I was, strangely enough, reminded of this scene last Friday morning when a phenomenon, quickly termed 'Regrexit', swept the nation, among many people who had voted, successfully, for Britain to leave the European Union, yet woken up the next day and asked themselves 'what have I done?'.
Clearly, the majority of Brexit voters did so with conviction, and woke up celebrating on Friday morning. And fair enough. It was the result I was expecting yet dreading, but they got what they wanted. That's democracy, someone wins, someone loses.
But the not insignificant numbers of people who instantly regretted what they had done fascinated me.
One common theme that seemed to emerge was that, for too long, people had simply felt they were being ignored, that their voice wasn't being heard (and they were undoubtedly right to feel this way), and that voting Leave had been their way of 'sticking it to the man', of getting one over on those in power for once. But quickly, a lot of these people realised this was a misguided revenge, one that simply left them feeling bad about themselves. Kind of the equivalent of having a twat of a boss who pushes you around, makes you work long hours, and never listens to your ideas or concerns, and deciding to get one over on him by wanking over pictures of his fit wife. Yes, at the time it may have felt thrilling in an oddly unquantifiable way, but the initial rush of malevolent euphoria was instantly followed by a feeling of regret, shame and a sense of 'surely I'm better than this'.
The inevitable spike in hate crimes has certainly left a lot of these voters feeling tarnished, guilty by association. Plenty of them didn't vote because they're racist or xenophobic, and the knowledge of friends or colleagues being abused in the aftermath of the result left them feeling like they'd picked the wrong side.
Unfortunately, like Harris' General Hummel, it's now too late to turn back. The damage has now been done.
SUBTERRANEAN BREXIT BLUES
Perhaps the most depressing thing about the vote to leave the EU is that, what really swung the vote for Leave (as well as the obvious things of stupid racists and old people with a rose tinted view of the past) was ordinary, hardworking working class people who've been shafted by successive governments, and were then abandoned by Labour, the party they traditionally thought represented them. They were ditched as Blair courted the middle class vote, and became so pissed off they were targeted by the BNP and then UKIP, who used their anger and disillusionment to convince them that the main parties didn't care about them (which they didn't) and that immigrants were to blame for their plight (which they weren't). Most of these people aren't naturally racist, and they aren't naturally horrible or mean-spirited, they're just very very pissed off. The sad thing is, now they've got what they want, nothing will improve for them. Do they really think Farage, a multi millionaire stock broker who has somehow positioned himself as a friend to the working man, will do anything to help them? He cares even less than Blair did. They are the last people who will benefit from this. They'll see their working rights squashed, their maternity and sick pay cut. And when it takes a toll on their health, they'll find a health service even more crippled than it is now, and that they will eventually have to pay for. They've voted for 'change', and they've got it. Thing will get even worse.
Many of us now also find ourselves in a very strange position whereby we're desperately hoping we were wrong, and that all the experts were wrong, and that just about everyone we respect was wrong.