Sunday, 29 September 2013

After Di Canio, it's due diligence from here on in

by Bryan Cooney
EARLIER this week, a quixotic Texan called Ellis Short declared time on a volatile Italian called Paolo Di Canio. Sunderland’s carbolic soap opera had ended.
That the opera lasted only a few days short of six months was in itself a genuine surprise. Most people possessing logical football minds wondered why the hell it had been put into production in the first place.
Let’s concentrate initially on the Di Canio factor. The dramatic content in his life has always been such that it would be easy to visualise him in regular collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
His managerial engagement at the Stadium of Light evolved into a riot of cussedness, craziness and confrontation. Single-handedly, he attempted to destroy the theory that millionaire footballers are blessed with omnipotence.
But, by insulting them publicly and thus humiliating them, he took on the Mackem world in a catch-weight and un-winnable contest.
So, how could one man thrust himself into so many improbable and foolhardy situations? A small yet crucial part of the answer can be found by reverting to his one season with Celtic.
Having burned a veritable armada of boats in Italy (he played for Lazio, Ternana, Juventus, Napoli and AC Milan and tested the temperaments of managers such as Giovanni Trapattoni and Fabio Capello), he came to Britain in 1996. He became a short-term hero, not only one of the pioneers of the Fergus McCann revolution, but also a particular favourite of the then manager, Tommy Burns.
Burns, of course, was biased. Fifteen goals in 37 outings provided a foundation for that bias. His player, proud owner of the washboard stomach, was all about towering standards. Paolo, playing the role of the comprehensive professional, gave everything of himself and demanded everything from those around him. Celtic prospered and so did the player. He was refreshed and reinvigorated and ready to try his luck in England with first Sheffield Wednesday and then West Ham.
There had been, however, troubling signs of deficit in Glasgow. It seemed this man possessed an innate capacity for causing chaos if not on the park then off it. Never more so on a Thursday evening when the rain was pummelling the city with an almost unnatural ferocity.
Andy Ritchie, a scout who assisted in taking the player to Celtic Park, received a phone call from a man who sounded as if someone had applied a blowtorch to his backside. Di Canio summoned him to his house immediately.
Ritchie consulted his watch. It was 11.20p.m. He didn’t wish to waste time asking any further questions. But that didn’t stop his mind engaging overdrive. God Forbid, had something happened to Di Canio’s wife…or his family? He jumped into his career and broke speed records to reach the player’s home.
Thankfully, the emergency services were not required: there was no illness, no injury, no authentic trauma. No actual crisis, either. Di Canio pointed out a set of dirty windows that hadn’t been cleaned for a fortnight. The thought of being unable to see clearly was driving him to distraction.
But why had the panic button been punched at such an ungodly hour? Only Paolo could explain such a conundrum. There would be no explanation, however. Paolo doesn’t do explanations for eccentric behaviour.
The memories still live with Ritchie. “I remember being tipped off by a guy from Juventus. He said Paolo would be fantastico for Celtic as long as we treated Paolo double fantastico. And that we did. But sometimes things went above and beyond the call of duty. Look, I liked Paolo, but sometimes he was hard work.
“He set himself high standards, but he was a very self centred person who never really gave me the impression that he could be a leader of men. He was someone the fans would love…but the chairmen would hate.”
This anecdote brings us back to Ellis Short. We know rather less about him than we do about his former manager. What we know is that he is the owner of Sunderland FC and proprietor of Skibo Castle - Andrew Carnegie’s creation in the Scottish Highlands. He is also said to thrive on anonymity.
Apparently, he’s an expert in private equities and can provide personal funds of nearly two billion dollars -  a fraction of which was splurged in the close season when 14 new players were recruited to bolster the Di Canio regime.
Expertise in business doesn't transfer easily to expertise in football matters, however. Short, remember, had sacked Martin O’Neill after Sunderland became unfamiliar with the art of winning football matches. He needed someone to send a jolt of electricity into flagging, perhaps recalcitrant, bodies.
Di Canio was chosen to provide the necessary energy surge. And he assuredly did in those last few weeks of the season when the club held onto their blue chip status by the narrowest of margins. But, come on, consult your wildest dreams: did this form the basis for a long-term arrangement?
Look, many chairmen, blessed with business brilliance, are flummoxed by the idiosyncratic nature of the beautiful game. They take over clubs and almost immediately seem to forfeit their wits. Did Ellis perform due diligence? Did he peer into the Di Canio cupboard and risk disturbing any skeletons? Did he not recognise the unpredictable, enigmatic ways of the man? Apparently not. Incredibly not.
At the time, Di Canio had registered some managerial success with Swindon Town, but his methods were unconventional, to say the least. To become a success in the Premier League, the imperative is to alter the management psyche. Di Canio was not prepared to do that. Perhaps he was not capable of adjusting that Latin temperament to a more moderate setting; he needed to reason rather than rant.
But Di Canio is not the authentic culprit here. It is Short who should be humbled by the experience. Embarrassed even. But billionaires don’t embarrass easily. There are already signs that he has not learned from this costly experience. According to one newspaper, he has asked the players - yes, the same ones who complained about the Di Canio management style - who they would prefer to lead them. This mind is boggling already.
Meanwhile, it’s onwards and hopefully upwards for a quixotic Texan and his football club. Due diligence at all times, of course. If only…


Thursday, 19 September 2013

Boxing's Shame - by Jim Black

BOXING is clinging onto the last vestiges of credibility by its fingertips in the wake of Ricky Burns’ world title bout against Mexican Ray Beltran.
What other conclusion can possibly be drawn from the shameful events of September 7 at the SECC?
Burns retained his WBO lightweight crown by dint of a points win that once again exposed a system of scoring that is wholly inadequate, given that it is so flawed and open to abuse that it is no longer capable of shocking.
One judge awarded the fight to Burns, 115 points to 112, another to Beltran, by 115-113, with the third scoring it a draw, 114-114.
Hispanic-American Jose Ortiz was probably the only person who witnessed the contest who actually thought Burns had won, including, one suspects, the fighter himself.
Even Burns’ promoter, Eddie Hearn expressed the belief that the challenger had truthfully prevailed.
Jim Watt, the former world champion and highly respected Sky pundit, delivered a damning indictment of the verdict when he declared: “Sometimes I really don’t like this business.”
He is most certainly not the only one.
It was not Burns’ fault, of course. Having courageously boxed for 10 rounds with a fractured jaw, the 30-year-old from Coatbridge was, like Beltran, at the mercy of the judges.
Scoring in boxing is dependent on opinion rather than fact and that is the nub of the problem.
May it now be time to consider the amateur system of points scoring where scoring shots are registered electronically and the ringside judges score in tandem?
At the time of writing, I understand that a probe in underway into the discrepancy in the scores that shamed the sport yet again.
That is the least that must happen and if the WBO has the courage of its convictions, Ortiz will never again officiate at a world title bout.
But none of this should be allowed to sully Burns’ achievements. He has been an outstanding champion at two weights and deserves to be regarded as one of the country’s true sporting icons.
However, Beltran must be given a rematch in the interests of fair play. Otherwise, there is a danger that Burns will be remember as the champion who got lucky rather than one who has done his country proud.
Still on the subject of boxing, the sport has lost one of its unsung heroes.
I refer to Dean Powell, promoter Frank Warren’s 47-year-old matchmaker who died as the result of a tragic incident at New Cross Gate train station earlier this month.
Investigations are ongoing, but witnesses have testified to seeing Dean leave the platform as a train passed.
If so, the tragedy is all the greater, given that none of those closest to him were fully aware of his state of mind or the affects of the pressure he clearly felt under.
Warren writing in his weekly column in The Sun said that he has become aware that something might be wrong when Dean texted to ask that his family be looked after before switching off his phone.
Having some years ago suffered from a bout of depression, I can only imagine the degree of turmoil in Dean’s mind that drove him to deliberately end his life, if, indeed, that was the case.
One thing is certain, the sport is all the poorer for the passing of a genuine “boxing man” and someone who was a friend to many.
At first glance a dog dressed in a Celtic top may appear mildly amusing.
But when the animal in question – a boxer – is subjected to a kicking for “wearing the colours”, no sane-minded person can feel anything other than revulsion.
It must be hoped that the morons who attacked the unfortunate animal on a Glasgow bus are caught and dealt with.
But what does it say about the dog’s owner that he felt a need to express his allegiance through his pet? 
I have the upmost respect for the various anti-sectarian groups who campaign to rid us of this blight on society. However, I fear they are wasting their time.
Meanwhile, apologies to my friend at the BEEB, Phil “Good Lad” Goodlad.
I stated in a recent blog that Phil hails from Stornoway. Let the record show that he is a Shetlander – and rightly proud of the fact.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Berlin culture clash - By Derek Lord

Recently my son and I boarded a plane for Berlin. After a short-lived relationship with a young lady from that city Barry had developed an urge to see the place and since I have always had a certain fascination with the former capital of the Third Reich we had booked a city break through our local travel agent a few weeks before the Icelandic volcano brought air travel to a standstill. It was doubtful whether we would get away or not  and, if we did, whether we would get back home on Monday as scheduled. The travel agent assured me that if we had to stay on for a few more days they would reimburse us for any added costs so that alleviated some of my worries. As we took our seats on the plane we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by a large group of inebriated Glaswegian males sporting T-shirts with the slogan Berlin Stag Tour 2013 emblazoned on the back. This was followed by a list of the names of all the participants in this Germanic odyssey.  This was perhaps not too wise a move given that there was every chance that this mob would fall foul of the law during their booze-fuelled stay, in which case the polizei would only have to catch one of the gang to know the identity of every one of his mates. On the front of their shirts was a picture of a large banger with “Would you like a sausage” printed underneath. Whoever designed the shirts had obviously some inkling of the eating habits of the German citizenry. As I was to learn over the next few days Germans seem to exist solely on one form of sausage or another. The members of the stag party commandeered the drinks trolley as soon as it appeared among them and it didn’t move for the next two hours as the stewardesses dispensed every alcoholic beverage they had. Tough luck on any of the other passengers who fancied a tipple but the trolley dollies seemed only too happy to lap up the attention they were receiving from the revellers and given that they were not the most pulchritudinous stewardesses I have ever seen this was hardly surprising. As the drinks went down the noise levels went up. By the time we reached our destination it felt as if we were sitting in the middle of a riot. I was never so glad to get off a plane in my life.

The following night I bumped into the party animals once more when I went into one of the many so-called Irish bars in the city. They were on an extended pub crawl and didn’t stay too long. I was relieved to hear that they were going home a day earlier than me. I couldn’t have stuck another two hours with that crowd.

The only other heavy drinkers I came across over the weekend were a squad of Englishmen. At no time did I see anything like the sort of behaviour that we get in any Scottish city at the weekend with drunken lassies tottering along uncertainly on their six-inch heels, screaming at the tops of their voices, while the young men throw up in doorways. And yet the Germans have much more lax laws when it comes to drink. There is no ban on drinking in the street. In fact every second young person is carrying a bottle of beer. This is possibly because a bottle of beer costs about 30p in a shop and about £4 in a bar. And you thought that beer was cheap in our supermarkets. So much for our politicians’ minimum price argument. In Germany the beer is less than half the price in the shops that it is here but the Germans don’t take advantage of the cheap booze to drink themselves into a coma. They drink sensibly. Their idea of a good night out is to sit in a restaurant with their friends and have a good blether while they eat and drink in moderation. One upmarket bistro that I visited even had a large smoking section sandwiched between the eating areas with huge extractor fans cleaning the air. Perhaps the Germans have learned not to be dictated to by their politicians after the trouble it got them into last time. In one pub I visited the topers were smoking away to their heart’s content. I asked the publican how he got round the law and he explained that he was willing to take the chance of being caught. It was either that or go out of business as his customers would just go somewhere where they could smoke and there are plenty of other pubs who cock a snook at the authorities. He said that he was amazed at the way the Irish and Scots had caved in to the anti-smoking legislation without a fight but he suspected that it was because the fines here are three times what they are in Germany. 

By Derek Lord

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Trident: Bomb or Bust - by Derek Lord

The first thing I ever had published was a short poem that appeared in my school magazine. Its subject was the atomic bomb. I can’t remember a word of it but I’m sure it wasn’t in Wordsworth’s class. However it must have struck a chord with the teacher who edited the magazine. Either that or the rest of the stuff he had to choose from that year was total rubbish. Either way my mother was delighted that her wee boy’s talent had been recognized. She kept that school magazine till her dying day. I’m not sure why I chose to write a poem about nuclear weapons at the age of 10. I suppose I must have seen newsreels of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when my mother took me to the local fleapit to see the latest Disney cartoon. 
Over the years I have managed to put any fears I may have had of sharing the same fate as the denizens of those Japanese cities to the back of my mind. But thanks to the location of my present abode those fears are once more coming to the forefront of my thoughts. Perched as it is on the banks of the Firth of Clyde my house provides me with a view of the nation’s submarines as they make their way to and from their base at Faslane. They are an awesome sight with their massive conning towers – a tiny sailor or two barely visible on top of the great, grey behemoths as they glide past the Rothesay ferry carrying their weapons of mass destruction to some secret ocean lair. 
When I watched the BBC documentary “Who needs Trident?” I had no idea just how many of those weapons the subs carried. At a guess I would have said two or three.
After all a nuclear missile is a pretty big piece of kit. I was amazed and alarmed to learn that each sub carries 48 of the things. And each one, we were told, carries a war head considerably more powerful than the one dropped by the Enola Gay. So each one of those sinister vessels has the power to wipe out 48 cities and destroy millions of lives at the touch of a button. The commander of one of them assured us that he would only press the said button if he was instructed by the current prime minister to do so, but, rather worryingly, he added that if all radio communications ceased he would open his safe and find out what his next step should be. Presumably it would be to target whatever country he felt was responsible for vaporising David Cameron and his cabinet. It’s at that point that even the most disciplined submarine commander would surely question the wisdom of slaughtering millions of innocent civilians in some foreign land simply as an act of revenge. It certainly wouldn’t have any strategic value. It would just be killing for killing’s sake. And how would he and his crew live with themselves after the event?
Of course, by that stage I would have no further interest in the proceedings since the submarine base and everything and everybody within a twenty mile radius of it would just be so much radioactive dust. It’s quite obvious that Faslane would be a priority target for any aggressor in the event of a nuclear war, yet the good people of Helensburgh that we saw interviewed for the programme are desperate to hold on to the base because its closure would be bad for business. Well, a nuclear strike a few miles up the road would be considerably worse for business. I get the feeling they haven’t really thought this thing through, or perhaps they are convinced that a nuclear war will never happen. If that’s so I would draw their attention to the findings of a group of scientists who, many years ago, used the services of a state-of-the-art computer to explore the possibilities of human inter-stellar travel. The computer concluded that humanity would wipe itself out long before it had acquired anything like the power needed for space travel. 
And the way things are going I’ve a feeling that the computer got it right.

Derek Lord