Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Under the weather

Yesterday, I could feel a sore throat coming on all day, gradually getting worse and worse. I knew what was coming. Last night, I barely slept at all, then overslept until 8:20 (I didn't set my alarm clock, deliberately).

So, today I have the sore throat, headache, blocked nose, sore shoulder (not sure that that's related) and other assorted symptoms of being NOT WELL. Yet, somehow, I decided it would be a good idea to come to work. Where all the magnetic fields could have their usual exciting effect of making everything just that bit worse. Genius! (Plus, since I got to work late, I have to finish late to compensate. Yippee!)

I don't really have any point to make or anything. Just felt like having a bit of a moan.

Corruption and Incompetence in one convenient package

I'm angry.

Last week, the government managed to lose the details of every parent in the country, by putting them in the post. So monumental was the incompetence of this, that they were forced to engineer a humiliating defeat by Croatia at Wembley to divert everyone from the fiasco.

This week, it has emerged that the Labour Party have accepted donations without going through the proper vetting procedures. In effect, they took money illegally.

I feel sorry for Gordon Brown. Most of this mess is not his doing, and he genuinely does seem to be a good statesman, and a moral man. Unfortunately, his leadership has been shown to be almost completely ineffectual, such that promises to sort out these various messes won't be greeted with any confidence. Indeed, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him removed before the next General Election. This, of course, won't help at all. Not only is there no clear successor, but it will do nothing to combat the underlying problems.

The very worst aspect of this, though, is that while we need a change of government Right Now, there is no viable alternative out there. We can stick with the current shower, or replace them with David Cameron's Tories, which almost certainly means a rerun of the Blair years. The Liberal Democrats have gone back to being a nothing party, and there just isn't anyone else.

Independence for Scotland is looking like a really good option right about now.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Breaking a rule

I have a rule that I don't start my Christmas shopping before the start of December. However, it should be noted that it is not the strictest rule in the universe, and I have been known to bend it on occasion. However, this year I have decided not just to bend the rule, but rather cast it to the winds.

My motivation for this is largely that work remains utterly insane, and December looks to be another tough month. In addition, the way the weekends fall cut down on 'good' shopping time considerably, as the weekend directly before Christmas it too close to Christmas to be of any real use. Further, with days 1 and 2 of the month being a weekend, a determination to not start until December begins would simply mean that that weekend would be wasted.

And so, yesterday I began the first planning in earnest, followed by the purchase of the first few presents. This places me at 45% done.

Better still, I now have the presents for perhaps the three most difficult people to shop for. The big dilemma now is: do I dare to get exactly the same present for three people with very similar tastes?

So, all in all, Christmas is going quite well. Next, on Sunday I will put up the decoration (yes, I only have one), and that will be my Christmas preparations all done. Huzzah!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Resurgence of English Football

I watched the match last night. Dear, oh dear. (Oh, in case you're worried, the title of this post is not meant sarcastically.)

One good thing that comes from the game, though, is that it gives me an excuse to share my patented "5-point Universal Disaster Recovery Plan". This is the procedure that I advocate for the recovery from any disaster, big or small. As the name may suggest, there are five steps, which must be followed in order. Any attempt to skip a step, or to switch the order is doomed to failure, and will probably only make the problems worse.

So, here it is:

  1. Stop assigning blame. This is mostly an instruction for those on the inside. It would be very easy for the players to blame the manager, for the manager to blame the players, for everyone to blame the keeper, or the FA, or whoever. It never helps, and just creates bad feeling, bad feeling that can utterly destroy the team. Besides, it's generally pointless; there is almost always enough blame to go around. There certainly is in this case.
  2. Stop making excuses. Again, it would be very easy to comment on how bad the pitch was last night, or that Rooney was well outside the box when he gave away that penalty to Russia, or note that England were suffering from a huge injury load. There is certainly some truth in some or all of these. However, once again, this does nothing to help the situation. The blunt fact is that England have failed to qualify, that they failed to win the game last night, and they did not deserve to do either of these things. It's invariably better to accept this as it is, and move forward.
  3. Soberly, and without blamestorming, work out what went wrong. In the case of England, I'm going to come back to this one. But for Scotland, the thing that ultimately made the difference was that our players froze in Georgia and failed to win that match. What this says is that the team have to go out and play every match as though it is vital to be at your best... precisely because it is. I'm not sure exactly why they froze up, but it's something that we need to sort out for the World Cup campaign.
  4. Determine what steps you are going to take to prevent the problem from occurring again. Again, from England's point of view, I will come back to this. From Scotland's, I don't think there's actually too much to do - just make sure you go into the next campaign with the same mindset as we did this one, and make sure we get the wins at Hampden and against the supposedly 'minor' teams. Oh, and don't start thinking the job is done until it is done.
  5. Execute the plan developed in step 4.

And that's it - the 5-point Universal Disaster Recovery Plan. It doesn't have a clever acronym, but that's okay - 'Universal' is such a great word that you want to say it in full anyway.

Now, about England... (the next bit may well read like a bloody Scot slagging off the English. If you are feeling especially sensitive, you might want to stop reading.)

The problems with England start at the top. It was right that Sven left after the World Cup, as his team had barely stuttered through their group, and only started playing in the tournament after Rooney was sent off against Portugal. However, the appointment of Steve McClaren was a mistake. It had become apparent that he just wasn't the man to take England forward, and even had England won last night he should have been replaced. If there is one good thing to come out of last night's result, it is that England won't waste another year on a manager who just wasn't the right man for the job.

Next, we have the players. Too many of them are automatic selections, despite the fact that too many of them have failed to pull their weight. It must be a damning indictment of English football that the best play of the night last night came from a half-fit has-been and the third-choice striker. Don't get me wrong, Beckham's cross was absolutely glorious, but what the hell was wrong withthe other twelve men (starting eleven plus three subs) who played for England last night?

A special mention must be made of the goal-keeping situation. A rookie keeper was installed for the match, and made at least one basic error. However, his selection was probably not a mistake. The blunt fact is that England have not had a decent keeper since Ronaldinho's free kick destroyed Seaman.

Oh, and finally... although they have no role in events on the part, some measure of blame should be levelled at the English media. The constant hype-ing of the team whenever they go into a tournament, followed by the inevitable slating any time they dare to not win a game 5-0 with a stellar performance does absolutely nothing for the players' confidence. There will come a time when England are genuinely amongst the favourites for a major tournament (assuming they apply a proper recovery plan, rather than just assuming that all their problems are solved by sacking the manager), but that time is a long way off. The media need to recognise that, and calibrate their expectations accordingly, or England are doomed to a repeat of last night's farce.

You'll note that I haven't discussed the number of foreign players in the premiership. There is no point in discussing that as a problem, for two reasons. Firstly, European law means that there is nothing that the FA can actually do about it. Secondly, if the English players were good enough, they would be getting games with their teams. As businesses, the various teams want to win, and that means employing and playing the best players available anywhere. If those players aren't English then the answer is not to artificially remove foreign players from the domestic game... it is for the clubs to start producing better English players. (Yes, that's a very superficial treatment of this issue; this post is already too long, and I'm only halfway done, so I hope you'll forgive me.)

So, what is to be done?

Well, in short, the answer is revolution!

As I mentioned above, I felt that Steve McClaren had to be removed regardless of the result last night. He wasn't the man to take England forward. I also felt that the successor had to be English and had to represent "a safe pair of hands". Had things gone well yesterday, said person could have shepherded them through the tournament, and then built towards the World Cup. And, my initial pick would have been Terry Venables, him being the most successful England manager of recent years. Obviously, that is now no longer an option.

Looking at the various names in the frame, I see no credible English option. That being the case, and looking at the options, I'm going to recommend the man who was my preferred option to succeed Sven - Martin O'Neill. I don't think England could land either Mourinho or Scolari (and I'm not sure either is really the best choice anyway), which puts the Irishman head and shoulders above the remaining choices.

Once a new manager is in place, he absolutely must be given time to work. In fact, I'm going to argue that England should write off the World Cup of 2010, and instead build towards Euro 2012, with a view to being serious contenders to win that competition. (Qualification for the World Cup should be considered a minimal requirement, but I think that even being eliminated at the group stage could be considered acceptable. The long game is, at this stage, more likely to produce results than any short-term strategy.)

Next up, what to do with the team? Well, the first thing to do is to look to youth. Too many of the players currently in place are not pulling their weight, and a lot of that is because they are automatic picks for the side. By bringing forward credible young players, and being ruthless about dropping underperforming established names, the manager should be able to light a fire under his stars.

As for the specifics of the game... I'm not an expert. However, it was very obvious yesterday that England played best when they were in a 4-4-2 formation, so I would go with that in all but extreme cases. There is a reason it's a classic, after all.

Up front, they need a bit more strength in depth. Owen and Rooney both seem to be unfortunately injury-prone, so the team should be built under the assumption that one or both will be permanently unavailable. So, more good players are needed. (Actually, I would also be tempted to promote Crouch to first-choice striker, since he seems to have been the most effective for England for some time.)

In midfield, England have the opposite problem, which is a surfeit of decent players. The only problem here is that Lampard and Gerrard just don't seem to be able to co-exist. So, you have to drop one of them and build the team around the other. Simply saying, "as professionals they should be able to play together" doesn't help; they each obviously under-perform while the other is playing. Gerrard was the better during the World Cup, so I would give him the nod, although neither played well yesterday.

Again, in defense England need more decent players, and they have to come through youth development. None of the players who were on the pitch last night are good enough, and although England were missing several key figures, your second eleven really need to be good enough to step in as required.

Finally, England must find a decent (no, scratch that, a superb) keeper from somewhere. Until they do, they can forget about being seen as a major force. However, looking around I don't see any candidates.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Absolutely Devastated

Well, the dream is over. Scotland have failed to qualify from the Group of Death, and won't be going to Euro 2008.

The thing is, though, it isn't failing to qualify that really hurts. It isn't even losing the match. But the manner of the loss...

The thing is, the group we were in contained Italy, France and Ukraine. The best two teams go through*, so it was always a long-shot. To have done as well as we have is simply remarkable, and we can be nothing but proud of all those involved.

And, if looked at objectively, we should probably have lost the match 2-0. The Italians had a goal disallowed for an offside that wasn't, while Scotland's goal was probably offside. And although we were actually the better team for much of the game, that only counts if you convert it into goals. So, we can't complain too much on that front.

But, lucky decisions or not, the score-line was sitting at 1-1 with 89 minutes on the clock. The Italians had spent the last ten minutes timewasting to run down the clock. A draw didn't really suit us, but it left us in with at least a chance on Wednesday...

and then the linesman gave what was clearly the wrong decision, the Italians got a free kick in an almost impossible position, and scored. And then the referee blew for full time early. Game over, thanks for playing.


Meanwhile, over in Isreal, England were getting the luckiest of lucky breaks. Suddenly, their destiny is back in their own hands. Now, officially, I don't care. Unofficially, it is somewhat galling to put the two side by side.

(On the other hand, it is worth noting that Euro 2008 will be considerably more interesting if England do qualify. So, perhaps I would prefer that outcome. Of course, the same is also true of Italy and France. I don't claim not to hold to double standards.)

* Another thing: Euro 2008 is hosted jointly by Austria and Switzerland, which means they both qualify automatically. If it was hosted by a single country, there would probably be a qualification spot for "the best third-placed team". Guess who that would be?

(Edit: well, possibly. I've just noticed that the champions from 2004, Greece, are having to go through qualification. It seems likely that instead of a "best third-placed team" spot, they would have given them automatic qualification.)

Oh well. Roll on the World Cup!

Friday, November 09, 2007

An Update

So, remember that adventure that I painstakingly wrote for Worldwide D&D Gameday? Well, it turns out that not a single person actually used it. Which is nice, obviously.

Meanwhile, things at the band continue to be incredibly tedious. It turns out that when the Pipe Major asked me to run the band on those occasions when he wasn't there, this was in preparation for a bout of absenteeism on his part. This is fine, except that the band aren't really learning any new tunes, aren't really preparing for anything, and are really really bored. So, we show up, we play, we go home. It's all very exciting.

However, we do have the Armistice Parade on Sunday, which is always an important event. It was a disaster last year, but it should be better this year. Or, I'll implement my 5-point Universal Disaster Recovery Plan. I have my poppy, although it's one of the completely useless plastic stemmed ones, so I'll have to look out my Emergency Poppy tonight.

And then it's onwards and upwards towards Christmas. Only six weeks more work to go. Yippee?

Itsy-bitsy Spider

Back in days of Yore, when I were but a lad (1988 to be precise), my extended family decided to have The Family Holiday, an event of such importance that it must forever be capitalised. So, that summer we all went to a camp site just outside of Morcambe, where we spent two weeks getting thoroughly soaked by the endless rain. At the end of the holiday we were all miserable, the children of my grandfather had all fallen out with one another, and we'd all had a Jolly Good Time. It would be seven years until many of us would see one another again, at the sequel.

We travelled home over the course of two days, stopping overnight in a little village called Lockerbie, that would very soon be known to everyone. The travel for the first day was largely uneventful.

However, an hour or so into the journey I started to feel a strange tickling sensation in my left foot. Of course, I paid it no mind, merely wiggling my toes to try to stop it. But stop it did not. Eventually, I had to take off said shoe, whereupon I found that the cause of the tickling was none other than a Giant Hideous Spider that had taken up residence in my shoe! Said Spider had spent the past hour sleeping, and when it awoke it had wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside my shoe.

Anyway, I looked around for a bird with which to catch the Spider, but none was to be found. (Besides, then I would have needed a cat, a dog, and so on through the sequence, until I got to a horse, and who has ever heard of horses in shoes?) So, instead I followed the alternative policy of waiting until the next stop, then banging said shoe against the ground until the Spider departed its new home, and continued on its malevolent way. In hindsight, it would have been more humane to seek a waterspout before evicting my arachnid squatter.

Unfortunately, ever since that day I find that, when wearing trainers in a car, I find that my feet spontaneously tickle. And there's always that doubt: has the Spider returned? Is it angry at being evicted, or was that event that finally caused it to shape up its life and make it make something of itself? Who can say?

A few weeks ago, there was a giant Spider in my appartment, at the top of the stairs. I, naturally, completely ignored it. I'm not actually scared of spiders, and it wasn't doing any harm, so I saw no reason not to leave it alone. Over the next couple of days, it made the adventurous trek down to the bottom of the stairs, where our hero keeps his trainers. At this point, I must confess to a little nervousness - no one likes to be ambushed by nursery rhyme characters while driving. Then, the Spider disappeared.

Now, if you've read this far, you may be expecting some sort of conclusion to the tale, or perhaps a moral, or something at least. Sorry, but life doesn't work like that. The Spider was not in my shoes, and I haven't seen it again. I think it might have died in the cold. As for morals, how about this: never blog while unutterably bored at work? (Honestly, if they ever revive He-Man, I must get the gig based on that one alone.)