Sportsthoughts (158) – Those Premier League predictions!

So, it’s that time of the year to ‘fess up and check my predictions against the outcomes in the Premier League, with the season finishing yesterday. And it’s fair to say that they were even wider of the mark than usual – even though I thought I was being rather dull and conventional at the time, with one exception.

This was my top eight, with, in brackets, where the team ended up.

1st – Man City (3rd)

2nd – Man United (6th)

3rd – Arsenal (5th)

4th – Leicester (12th)

5th – Tottenham (2nd)

6th – Chelsea (1st)

7th – Liverpool (4th)

8th – West Ham (11th)

Well… only one of my top four made the top four. The only one that went against the grain of most forecasts at the time was the punt on Leicester, champions in 2015-16, remaining in the top four. They were pretty disastrous for most of the season, but recovered remarkably after Claudio Ranieri was sacked. I thought that decision was a shocker, but it certainly transformed the team. Player power, clearly.

Let’s have a look at where I went wrong. I guess my forecasts for the two Manchester teams were based heavily on the new managers – Guardiola and Mourinho – and, in United’s case, some significant player purchases. City came third, but definitely under-achieved. In most games I watched involving them, they were the dominant side in terms of possession and attacking, but just couldn’t convert their superiority into goals. And without Vincent Kompany for most of the season and with a dodgy goalkeeper – Bravo – they had a soft centre. Still the best squad, player for player, I think. Must do better next season – or goodbye Pep. United, on the other hand, were crabby, cautious, unexciting – all the things their fans hated under Van Gaal. They won the League Cup and may win the Europa League later this week; but I’ll be interested to see how long their fans tolerate Mourinho’s negativity next season. Really, with their squad and the amount it cost, coming sixth is really poor.

As for Arsenal, more of the same, but that bit worse. All the same issues still. Brilliant going forward when confidence is high, but a mood team, and still hopeless at defending at times. Especially defending from the front. The injury to Cazorla for much of the season hurt them, as did the loss of Mustafi from the back. But they should have had good enough cover. I do think that Arsene should retire with grace now, hopefully after winning the FA Cup on Saturday (though Chelsea stand in their way). They have failed, for the first time in 20-odd years, to qualify for the Champions League. A time to take stock and change the way things are done. They are stagnating. Apologists will say they got more points than last season, when they came second. Yes, but… it’s all relative. And they have lost ground.

Leicester I mentioned earlier. They had a good run in Europe, but something went wrong in the relationship between Ranieri and the players, and the players won.  Shame on them, but football is a results game (cliche alert!) and they recovered to a position of easy safety, after contemplating the unthinkable – relegation in the year after winning the league.

Spurs I underestimated. I thought they’d burn out again. They didn’t – they got better at the end. They were lording it towards the end of the season – Kane scoring at will. That player who couldn’t pass or trap a ball for England against Iceland in the Euros now a world beater. They were so dynamic and a real pleasure to watch. My son, an Arsenal fan, doesn’t like me praising Spurs, but credit where it is due.

Which brings me to Chelsea. Bloody hell! 10th last season. In turmoil. Tentative start to this season, and blown out of the water by Arsenal on 24 September. And then manager Conte turned it around. Went to his preferred 3-5-2 system (the 90s are back in football, as well as music and fashion!) and went on the rampage. The result? Chelsea win the league with 93 points and 30 wins out of 38 – the most ever. Respect. Getting Kante from Leicester gave them stability in midfield, and that released the flair players, Hazard in particular. David Luiz became a rock in the back three, rather than an entertaining liability in a four. How to explain? And Costa, arsey as ever, concentrated a bit more on scoring rather than fighting. I can’t celebrate a Chelsea victory, but I acknowledge the achievement – the best team by a mile.

Liverpool did a lot better than expected too. Still a bit flaky at the back, but high energy and entertaining. Jurgen Klopp is getting them where he wants them to be. Some inexplicably poor results at home to lesser teams hampered any bid for the top spot, but getting into the Champions League is a good return for Klopp in his first full season. They’ll need serious investment to stay in the top four though.

Er, and then West Ham. What can I say? Awful for much of the season. Intimidated by their new surroundings in the Olympic stadium? Undermined by Payet’s behaviour and then departure? (Note – he still provided more assists than any other player, although he left in January, and stayed in the Premier League top ten). Hampered by some terrible buys last summer, like Andrew Ayew – £20m, unbelievable! Mismanaged? Maybe I shouldn’t be too harsh – they came 11th in the end. But with 45 points, against 62 the previous season. Let’s put it down to the new stadium transition – and hope.

I’m really not optimistic though.

You see, something happened this season. The elite became even more elite. Its membership does change – Spurs weren’t really there until the last two seasons; City bought their way into it a few years ago. But let’s look at the top six. In 2015-16 they amassed 417 points between them. In 2016-17 that figure increased to 477. Chelsea won the league with 93 points; Spurs got 86. Leicester won it the previous season with 81. Arsenal slipped from second with 71 points to fifth with 75. They sucked those points from the middle-rankers. In 2015-16, Liverpool, in eight place, got 60 points, Sunderland in 17th, 39. This season, Southampton in eighth got 46, Watford in 17th,  40. We have a squeezed middle! Will it last? Who knows? But money talks and talks. Everyone says how competitive the Premier League is; but this season the stats don’t really back that up. There are a few teams that are challenging for the top positions; and the rest are in a dogfight to avoid relegation.

Can West Ham get in that elite? With the “London” Stadium, that should be the ambition. Last season it looked possible. This season, relegation was a fear for much of the season. The whole management of the club doesn’t yet feel serious enough for a true push into the top bracket – in the way Spurs have done in the last few years. Can that change? I’m not sure. Historically, mid-table in the top division is where we belong. The only way that will alter is with a serious infusion of money, Man City style. And you know, I’m not even sure I really want that. It’s so fake. Even West Ham now have only one player in the first team who came up through the club – Mark Noble. There’s always talk of new stars – like Reece Oxford – but what happens to them? Out on loan and fade. The fate of so many promising young English players. And we see the impact on the national team. The pool of high quality players, with experience in the top echelons, is shallow.

Never mind, come August, we’ll be full of anticipation again – and there will be a new round of predictions, with the same chance of coming true!

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lovelondonscenes 131 – Brick Lane, on reflection

In April I had a walk through the City and onto Brick Lane and Spitalfields. This one I took of a building which fired the image back at me.

My favourite Brick Lane moment was just off Brick Lane. The very fine record store below. Still going strong. I don’t often buy CDs or vinyl these days, but I did buy a couple of interesting books while I was there: Kim Gordon’s “Girl in a Band” (the band being Sonic Youth), and David Byrne’s “Bicycle Diaries”. For those who don’t know, he was the singer in Talking Heads, and a truly great man. Wrote a brilliant book called “How Music Works”, which I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in music.

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lovelondonscenes 130 – View from Millbank Tower, 28th floor

Back here for another work team event – we are next door. The views are stunning, especially over Lambeth Bridge and into the City. The Thames, fairly low tide, looked very muddy today. Maybe it’s the perspective from this height.

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The Hanwell Hootie, 7 May 2017

Hanwell is a West London suburb, in between Ealing centre and Southall. Like quite a lot of west and south west London, it is part of the history of the 60s blues and rock’n’roll artists who took their cue from America’s traditions and made the sounds universal. Marshall amps began in Hanwell too. In 2013, the Hootie began. In that first year there were 13 bands in there official pubs. This year there are 85 bands in 14 venues, including two new outdoor areas, one by the historic Hanwell Viaduct, built by Brunel, and still a railway line into Paddington.

Strangely, I only went for the first time last year. It was pouring with rain, the pubs were all packed out and it was almost impossible to get a beer. I felt like it had become a victim of its own popularity. It was still really busy this (dry) year yesterday, but I sense that the two new park venues will have taken some of the pressure off. They also allow families to stay on longer.

Kath and I went along at about 7pm. Other duties called before that. Mainly, in my case, recovering from two work leaving do’s in two days and watching Harlequins last game of the season away to Northampton on BT Sport! We got the losing bonus point that means we qualify for the European Champions Cup next year, as sixth-placed team in the Premiership.

We saw three excellent bands while we were there. None are big names yet, but they all could be. First up were Rews, at the Village Green pub. It was rammed. Rews are Shauna Tohill and Collette Williams, one from Belfast, the other from London. Guitar and drums. Just like Honeyblood! I read the blurb that said BBC Radio s 1 and 6 were already interested and thought they sounded just right. And they were. They rocked! And the crowd reception was brilliant. Live of course, the guitar is louder, more distorted, and the drums piledrive. There were melodies in there, but the riffs were the thing, and they were good.  When we got home I checked their videos of four singles they’ve released, and the melodies got a bit more space. The parallels with Honeyblood are definitely there, if not quite the celtic melancholy of some of Honeyblood’s best – yet. I’ll definitely be looking out for Rews.

(Couldn’t get a decent photo of the band – too many tall blokes taking pictures. Er, like me!)

We tried something different after that – some jazz funk in the Viaduct meadow big top from a band called Okapi. They looked every inch the Shoreditch hipsters, though I’m not sure any of them are actually from London. All three guitarist/bassists had beards and the required clothing. They played some sharp rhythms, while singer Gina Tunbridge had a strong and soulful voice. I was getting a bit of the Brand New Heavies, a band I really liked in the 1990s.

We then went over to Sandy Park, which is bang in the middle of housing, so I wonder how they got permission. But it had a really nice vibe. It was close to many of the pub venues, and there were still loads of kids running around as Du Bellows laid down their 70s rock riffs and conscious lyrics. Jimmy Page is apparently a big fan, which is quite an endorsement. They are heavier than Zep, on the basis of last night’s performance. Somewhere between Zep and Black Sabbath, but with singer Jade Williams doing a bit of a Grace Slick/ Robert Plant thing too. I really liked them, and there were vociferous demands for an encore from a decent-sized crowd. Didn’t happen – they have to keep to time. They are playing at the Half Moon in Putney in June and I shall try to catch them again there. Still love a good bit of metal!

We called it a day after that, at 9.30. There were still a couple of hours left and I’m sure we would have seen some more excellent artists – if we could get in. It’s not a festival for fully established bands, but many of them are making strides, and from what I heard this year, deserve success. Competition is hot though. I wish Rews, Okapi and Du Bellows the best of luck!

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The Big Moon at Village Underground, Shoreditch, 2 May 2017

About six months on from seeing The Big Moon’s excellent gig at the Scala, I was at the Village Underground in Shoreditch – fast becoming one of my favourite venues – to see them again. This time they had their debut album “Love in the 4th Dimension” to promote. It’s a good pop-punk album, one that I think should appeal to the youth who don’t like their riffs too hard, and enjoy a good singalong. Which I don’t mean disparagingly – pop makes the world go round.

But it explains why I didn’t get too excited by the album, along with the fact that I’d heard and downloaded the best ones like “Sucker”, “Cupid”, “The Road” and  “Silent Movie Susie” before. And songs like “Formidable” and “Bonfire” sounded like they were still templates for the live performance. Most Big Moon songs are based on a slow-quick-slow-quick format which really comes alive on the stage. On record, that sometimes feels a bit samey.

But live, The Big Moon rock – and the audience rocks. The riffs are louder, more distorted, and the dynamics of those songs like “Formidable” and “Bonfire” really reveal themselves. The (relatively) old favourites are at key moments in the show. “Susie” was the opener, “Cupid” kept things going after two or three, and “Sucker” was a rousing closer.  And the  Madonna cover “Beautiful Stranger”, which they’ve played whenever I’ve seen them, was a chance to get the moshers going. Doesn’t bear too much resemblance to the original, but who cares? This was the last date of a successful and pretty lively tour, judging by the reports, and I could see how the band have become slicker and more confident six months on. And they were good the last time! Nothing succeeds like practice – and success.

The Big Moon are Juliette Jackson on vocals and guitar, Soph Nathann (guitar, backing vocals), Celia Archer (bass, backing vocals and song intros a lot of the time) and Fern Ford (drums, the person who holds it all together). These next three photos are Juliette and Celia.

I’ve predicted success for a few bands recently. Time will tell. But I suspect that The Big Moon have a better chance than most “indie” bands, because their formula looks right for the older teenage market. I’m waiting for that moment when one of my daughters says, “why are you playing Big Moon?”  I’ll resist saying, “well I discovered them at End of the Road in September 2016 and then saw them at the Scala and Village Underground.”

Or will I?

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Sportsthoughts (157) – A tribute to Nick Evans, Quins fly half

On Friday evening just gone, Harlequins played their last home game of the season, against league leaders Wasps. My friend Jon and I duly went along, fully expecting the team to be whupped, particularly after the collapse against Exeter in the previous home match. Of course Quins left until this game for their best performance of the season. After an even first half, with Wasps marginally ahead on the scoreboard, they put on a brilliant display, full of intensity and pace, and beat Wasps 32-13. It showed what they are capable of – but why does it happen over the whole of a game so rarely these days?

So we went away on a high, but not just because of the victory. We also had the privilege of saluting Nick Evans, Quins’ fly half, now 36, in his last ever home game for the team. And Karl Dickson, dependable deputy at scrum half to Danny Care. “Nev” has been the star of the team for all the time Jon and I have had season tickets. He joined the club from the Auckland Blues in New Zealand for the 2008-9 season. I’m pretty sure that was the first time we had season tickets – we started going to a few games the season before. And with perfect symmetry, as Nev retires, we are ditching the season tickets. Too many mediocre games for the last three seasons, and with half the team missing for the long periods when there are internationals. The price of a successful academy, which develops players who go on to represent their country. Quins are hardly unique – it affects all the top sides – but, for a while now, the overall squad hasn’t been good enough to challenge for honours. So we will pick our games next season and hope things get better. But it will take investment by the club.

But back to Nev. What a player! The consummate fly half – probably the best in the Premiership in his time here. Before he came over to England he won 16 caps for the All Blacks. But he had the mighty Dan Carter in his way, and he decided to take the more lucrative route in England. Play here and you don’t get picked for the All Blacks. He had all the skills: vision, game management, a cool head, the eye for a gap, pace off the mark, delicate footwork, a good kicker of penalties and conversions (most of the time), and bravery. He isn’t that big by rugby standards, but you’d never see him shirk a tackle or avoid going into the areas where he’d get hit hard by some flanker or second row.

He has been associated with all of the most memorable moments at the Stoop and Twickenham. The ice cool penalty at the end that gave us a 26-26 draw against Leicester  in the first ever Christmas Big match at Twickenham in 2008; the amazing victory in the same year over Stade Francais in the Heineken Cup, when Nev won it with a drop goal after 20-odd phases of play in overtime; victory in Cardiff in the second tier European tournament, the Amlin Cup in 2011 in Cardiff, against Stade Francais again (after the amazing away win at Munster in the semis); winning the Premiership final in 2012, 30-23 against Leicester, Nev scoring 20 points. And so on, although there was a slow decline after the Premiership title peak. The best moment since then was the European Challenge Cup final in Lyon in 2015, which Jon and I went to. Nev went off injured in that, and his – for a while – heir apparent Ben Botica made a complete hash of things at the end against Montpellier, which consigned us to defeat. Ben had shown great promise, but didn’t fulfil it. Unlike Nev, he played with his head down, didn’t read the game like the master. He moved to Montpellier – straight after that defeat!

The recent seasons of mediocrity have been marked by long periods of absence for Nev, through injury. That bravery against the hulks started to take its toll as he advanced into his mid-thirties. So it makes sense for him to retire while he can still put on a display like the one against Wasps on Friday night. Another twenty-two points. The man who made Harlequins tick, along with the inspirational Chris Robshaw in the forwards, in the glory years. Let’s hope there will be more success – there is always hope with so many good youngsters coming through. Joe Marler and Kyle Synckler are both on the plane for New Zealand and the Lions tour. Jack Clifford has broken into the England team, and centre Joe Marchant must do so soon. He’s on the Argentina tour this summer.

So expectations are not that high at the moment, but there are still grounds for optimism that things will improve. Meanwhile, thanks Nev for some of the best rugby we’ll ever see down at the Stoop, and best wishes for whatever you do in the future.

Come on you Quins!

 

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lovelondonscenes 129 – Rattus Brentfordicus

Down by the canal…

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