Being Charlie Adam (Revisited)

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Being Charlie Adam was originally published on my now defunct Imposturous blogspot, on June 22nd 2010. It was an article that partly addressed the serious dearth in creative footballing talent within Scotland at the moment (something Pat Nevin has since pursued in his Radio documentary, The Perfect 10), whilst giving an overview of one of the few Scottish players who has really set the pulses racing over the last few years. Back at the start of last season Adam had resuscitated a career that had looked almost flatlined in his last few months at Rangers, under Walter Smith. This was in part thanks to the midfield responsibilities Blackpool manager Ian Holloway assigned his captain, in what was a very, almost suicidally so, attack-minded team. Everton were seen as the main suitors for his signature last summer. However, Blackpool managed to cling onto him for an entire season, and although he ultimately failed to keep the team in the top division, he didn’t half impress with his spectacular range of passes and his dead-ball excellence. In the January transfer window, Liverpool’s returning hero Kenny Dalglish, attempted to bring Adam to Merseyside. In the event his arrival was simply postponed for six months and now Adam is in the perfect place to realise all of that early promise that the much-maligned Paul Le Guen first saw in him. The impressive start both Liverpool and Adam have made to this new season promises much, particularly if Adam continues to create such a strong on-pitch relationship with young Jordan Henderson and the wily Uruguayan Luis Sanchez. I’ve a gut-feeling this could be a very good campaign for Liverpool, and what better person for Adam to develop into his golden years under, than perhaps the greatest ‘number 10’ figure Liverpool ever had. If only more Scottish players would take a leaf out of the Adam playbook. On the continent he would be heralded as the midfield maestro, he surely is, whereas in Scotland (much as in England, in the recent past), he’s seen as a maverick throwback to the days of Jimmy Baxter and Alan Gilzean. I believe that Craig Levein is trying very hard in a near thankless position at the SFA, but unless that clownish organisation manages to put its house in order and come up with a top-to-bottom regeneration programme for the Scottish game, then the likes of Charlie Adam will continue to be the exception, rather than the rule.

Why are so many talented Scottish footballers so bloody enigmatic when it comes to displaying their talents consistently at the highest levels? Despite the greats of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, such as Laws, Hansen, Bremner, Jordan, Souness, Dalglish and Robertson, there has been a steady stream of untapped, or not fully realised, talent frittered away before a generation of Scots’ fans teary eyes. Think of the sublime gifts of Jimmy Baxter, or Davie Cooper, that, due to the traditional Scottish disdain for healthy living, were so infrequently shared with the Rangers, Raith and Motherwell fans who worshipped them. What about the myriad talents of Giggs’ contemporary Eoin Jess, a player that back in the early 90’s had many Scottish football journalists predicting a similar career trajectory to the Welsh wizard? Aside from his all too brief halycon years at Pittodrie there is now as little to admire of Jess’s career, as there are trophies on his CV.

 

In recent years the youth teams at Motherwell, Kilmarnock, Hibernian and Hearts have developed a number of promising young talents, only for the Old Firm to come-a-calling and set their development back a few years at best (Kevin Thomson, Steven Naismith), or leave them cryogenically frozen at worst (Derek Riordan). Part of this is down to the players themselves, groomed in the goldfish bowl that is Scottish football, they nowadays tend to have an over-inflated opinion of their own talents, achievements and self-worth from a ridiculously young age and quickly fall into all the extracurricular traps their relative affluence allows them. Often it is only on descending down the Scottish League that such players begin to realise a fraction of that potential that initially got them the big pay cheque (just take a look at where some of the journeymen assembled by Derek Adams at Ross County this season started their careers).

One of the most glaring details about talented Scottish footballers’ habits (much like many young English players) in the past few years has been their relative inability to seek out better opportunities in leagues other than their own. Since the tail-end of the Merseyside duopoly of Everton and Liverpool in the 80’s and the likes of McClair and Strachan at United, successful Scots’ players abroad have been an endangered species. Gary McCallister was perhaps the last truly great Scottish player to achieve tangible success abroad, although the mercurial gifts of James McFadden helped David Moyes settle into the Goodison hotseat and perhaps Manchester United’s most consistent performer of the last few seasons has been the tenacious midfield dynamo Darren Fletcher. There really is though no comparison between the current crop of Scots’ players parked in mid-table Premier League and Championship outfits and the greats of the Leeds, Liverpool, Everton and Forest teams of old, not to mention the continental pioneers like Souness, Jordan and Archibald, unless you harbour an ironic soft-spot for Holland’s favourite Scotsman Scott Booth.

Amongst the current crop of Scotland players, I would argue that only McFadden (and where has McFadden disappeared to???) clearly has more natural skill and ability than the former ‘Ger Charlie Adam. Darren Fletcher has grown into a truly world-class talent more through ferocious willpower and sheer, Ferguson-implanted, single-mindedness than by dint of being blessed with fantastic football skills. Adam, much like his former team-mate and club captain Barry ‘pass-back’ Ferguson, comes across in interviews as somewhat lacking in the verbal skills to adequately discuss the weather, let alone his footballing ability (since when has that been an issue for English, French, or Spanish footballers andtheir bland, airbrushed platitudes), yet unlike Ferguson he seems to have an awareness of these limitations. In his most recent incarnation for Championship outfit Blackpool, Adam has literally been following that tired old cliche and doing his talking on the pitch, orchestrating Blackpool’s frenetic brand of attacking football from the centre of the park, turning into a box-to-box midfielder in the Steven Gerrard mould.

As manager Ian Holloway’s club captain and Blackpool’s most expensive signing (at a paltry £500,000 pounds), Adam has embraced the tough fitness training sessions and pass’n’move offensive play of his new club and in the process has blossomed into the player that Paul Le Guen considered to be one of the most promising youth products coming through the Ibrox ranks in his short tenure at the club. It is somewhat troubling to consider that Adam has clearly performed for the likes of Gus MacPherson, Le Guen and Holloway, all managers who demand high fitness levels of their players and yet frequently throughout his time at Ibrox was the object of terrace abuse and derision, due to his ballooning weight and propensity to jog, or waddle, after the ball. He would not be the first player, nor the last, to let Glasgow living get the better of him. I seem to remember Peter Lovenkrands having similar weight issues in his time atIbrox, as well as Riordan, Caldwell and Boruc in more recent times at Celtic.

Despite being given his first Scotland cap by Alex McLeish, at club level Adam clearly did not win Big ‘Eck’s trust on the football pitch, being farmed out first to Ross County and then to his successful stint at St. Mirren under MacPherson. Le Guen succeeded McLeish in the summer of 2006 and after a pre-season goal blitz by Adam the Frenchman regularly selected, and got the best from, him. However, Le Guen’s brutally short reign at Ibrox saw Walter Smith takeover in early 2007 and gradually the dynamism of the last 18 months drained from Adam’s performances. By 2009 Adam was a peripheral figure at Ibrox, seemingly resigned to never quite making the grade for Rangers. It was at this juncture that Adam initially took up a loan option with relegation threatened Blackpool, a move he would later make permanent under the stewardship of Holloway in August 2009.

Adam in the few, mostly dull, football interviews that he has given, has frequently alluded to his need to ‘feel wanted’ and his willingness to ‘play anywhere’ as long as it meant playing regularly. Being a natural left-footer with a thunderous shot, he frequently found himself being asked to play out on the wing at Ibrox, cutting inside when necessary. Yet under Holloway at Blackpool Adam has found himself being utilised in a more demanding central role, where he can show-off his full range of passing and his previously much-maligned capacity to intelligently link up defence and attack with well-timed charges from deep. As a result his goal ratio has also swollen, acceding the near-double figure tally he clocked up in that excellent season in Paisley. A look at some of Adam’s more outrageous finishes against Stuttgart, Celtic, Queen of the South and West Brom, demonstrates his inherent strengths: a precision delivery from dead-ball situations, an excellent first-touch, the ability to turn defenders with intelligent movement and a rocket left-footed finish. Why is it then that it has taken Adam so long to fulfill the potential observed by MacPherson and Le Guen way back in the 2005-06 season?

Adam’s personality in the past has seemed to be a fairly benign one, that demanded the strict motivational abilities of a hard task-master to get the best from it on the training pitch. Adam also seemed previously resistant to playing a strict role within a tactically disciplined side, which both McLeish and Smith frequently demand of their charges. Under MacPherson and Le Guen, Adam seemed to blossom by being given a degree of freedom to run at defences and utilise his strength and balance to break teams down from a number of different positions across the midfield. Holloway has seemed to encourage this with his own preference for open, attacking football, played through the midfield, yet he has also managed to harness Adam to a stronger work ethic by placing the responsibility of the captaincy squarely on his young shoulders. Adam has certainly risen to the occasion this season, dominating a number of key matches for Blackpool with his ability to pick the right pass and his set-piece expertise. In fact Holloway, often derided as a clownish figure in the past, has managed to imbue Adam not only with the confidence to take his abilities to the next level, but also the willingness to sacrifice for the team and also to demonstrate a strong streak of loyalty that few had previously thought possible once Adam’s Rangers dream lay in tatters.

Ominously for Blackpool their captain’s revitalisation has won him a new group of admirers, including McFadden’s former mentor/nemesis David Moyes at Everton. If rumours are to be believed Adam has a tough choice to make this summer between the comfortable existence he has established for himself at the Premiership’s newest club, or pushing himself to achieve further success as part of Moyes robust and competitive Goodison midfield. He would do well to look at the example of a former team-mate who has excelled since arriving on Merseyside. Mikel Arteta had a miserable spell at Rangers in the early part of the decade and yet has become one of the key creative influences for Moyes’ team. Adam may yet become a proper Big Time Charlie.

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Telly Head No. 2:- Just why is Breaking Bad, so Bloody Good?

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I’m simply unable to hold myself back from reviewing this exceptional show any longer. I’d initially planned to do a Telly Head retrospective at the end of the present fourth season, but having just witnessed yet another immaculate 45 minutes of television (Episode 4:7, Problem Dog) I have to fast-forward the timescale a little. For some inexplicable reason Breaking Bad, despite awards galore and a hardcore following of around two million people, hasn’t really been well served by British broadcasters. Buried away at the backend of FiveUSA’s schedules, or dropped from FX’s sparkling roster of shows, barely two seasons of this intense psycho-drama have been readily available on UK television screens. That’s why it comes as no real surprise that the general recognition level, of what may now be AMC’s premiere show (even taking into account Mad Men), is pretty poor across the UK media and television viewing population.

On paper it’s partly understandable, as the concept for the show seems a pretty hard sell. The general plotline can be summed up as follows:-

A depressed chemical engineer, stuck in a high-school teaching job that bores him, finds out that he has cancer and maybe only a few months to live. Realising that he has achieved nothing with his intellect and scientific talent and that his wife and partially disabled teenage son are going to be left in penurious financial straits, he desperately tries to plot a path toward a financial nest-egg for his family. Stumbling upon a drug-dealing former pupil, the chemistry teacher see’s the possibility of entering into a partnership with this hapless young tearaway, one that will see him manufacture the best crystal meth in New Mexico, whilst the former pupil takes care of the dealing side of the operation. Pretty rapidly the teacher and his former pupil/new business partner find themselves in way over their heads.

Breaking Bad also doesn’t take the preferred route of easing the audience into its narrative slowly. The pilot episode begins with a pre-credit sequence (a device that is used frequently by the show to add layers of intrigue and narrative dynamism) that shows the chemistry teacher Walter White (played superbly by Malcolm in the Middle co-star Bryan Cranston) driving a Winnebago at high-speed through a desolate desert landscape. Walter is wearing a gas mask and is dressed only in his white Y-fronts, whilst an unconscious figure, that will turn out to be the former pupil Jesse Pinkman (an equally strong performance from Aaron Paul), rolls across the dashboard on the passenger side. Crashing the Winnebago off the road, police sirens can be heard closing in and Walter runs from the vehicle, tearing his gas mask off his face. After a moment of frustrated gesticulation, Walter grabs a camcorder, a gun and a shirt, from the Winnebago and then rushes past two prone bodies in the back of the vehicle to grab his possessions. Outside, with the sirens even louder, he films a gut-wrenching apology to his wife and son, before taking to the centre of the road, in a nonchalant John Wayne pose, and pointing the gun in the direction of the oncoming police cars. Cue opening Periodic Table credit sequence.

So disconcerting and disorienting is this opening sequence that I can fully understand why many viewers fail to make it much further into the show. Breaking Bad takes a dispersed approach toward time, subtly winding its way backwards, forwards and sideways through its narrative, without ever sacrificing its reckless forward momentum (initially an extension of Walter’s new found impulsivity in the face of his cancer). Events frequently occur out-of-sequence, with some only being elucidated seasons later. As well as this careering, headlong approach to narrative, the show also is not afraid to stand time on its head, taking a whole episode to fixate on the central pairing’s pursuit of a fly in their meth factory. Generally Breaking Bad’s narrative arc is unlike anything else on television, as it manages to mine deep caverns of pathos, whilst providing the kind of energetic, action-packed excitement of a mid-eighties Hollywood blockbuster and the unremitting tension of the very best Polanski or Hitchcock thriller.

Furthermore there is a grimly black humour at work amidst the dramatic concerns. In only the second episode (1:2 Cat’s in the Bag…) Walter and Jesse find themselves having to dissolve some bodies in acid. Jesse opts to do this in his upstairs bathtub, only for the acid to eat through the bathtub and the floor, depositing some very messy remains all over his aunt’s downstairs hallway. It is sequences like this that Breaking Bad excels at, as no other show has continually pushed into seriously uncomfortable terrain whilst continuing to deepen your affection, or understanding of the central characters.

Another ingenious aspect of the show is the way in which it rations out the main speaking roles. Breaking Bad has a ridiculously small cast for a major drama series, which has allowed Gilligan and his co-writers to focus their considerable energies on creating 8-10 really strong characters, something that shows like The Wire and Mad Men have neither sought to do, nor even really needed to do. Breaking Bad is a very different beast from these heavily-acclaimed contemporaries. In terms of tone, or attitude, it bears a stronger comparison with Shawn Levy’s cop drama The Shield. However, whereas that drama depended upon an episodic, fragmentary structure and the charisma of its central character, Breaking Bad has increasingly developed ever more densely structured plotlines, switching the focus of the show from Walter, to the characters of Jesse, Skyler (Walter’s wife, played by Anna Gunn) and Hank Schrader (Walter’s brother-in-law and DEA agent, played by Dean Norris).

Season after season Breaking Bad has improved and refined its formula, until by the middle of the third season that formula seemed to consist of an impressive capability to convincingly realise the completely unexpected. Anyone who managed to get over Breaking Bad’s initial strong medicine, will have been amazed by the richness of the character development throughout season’s three and four. As Walter and Jesse’s relationship has gradually shifted from one of teacher and pupil, to a much more ambiguous dependence, so the narrative possibilities have multiplied exponentially. Has any other show dealt with such a mixture of thematic concerns as:- the realisation of one’s impending mortality; the moral transcendence of murder; the graphic effects of hardcore drug dependency; the difficulties of having a physically disabled first child; the impulsive kleptomania that acts as an easy, if ineffective, balm to bland, consumerist living; the sheer arduousness of recuperation from partial paralysis; the idea that the drugs trade is an industry that exists due to the inability to institute free markets; the notion of gradual, creeping corruption (very similar to The Shield and The Soprano’s); the brutishness of power; the ability to do anything once you are aware that nothing has value; the compulsive need to lie to protect a lie; and the singularly abhorrent culture we have created that allows us to indulge our basest impulses, whilst shirking responsibility for absolutely everything else.

It is this latter theme that has been to the fore in the major plotlines of this fourth season, with so many peripheral characters now entangled in Walter’s quick-fix solution to his ‘worthless’ existence. Jesse, played to the hilt by Aaron Paul, has become a character overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of his actions and appalled by the almost complete absence of guilt that he feels. In Pinkman, Breaking Bad, has presented us with the first television character to question the very idea of ‘pain’. For Jesse Pinkman, his pain appears to be utterly divorced from his actions and his experiences, it has become a hideously indulgent thing, merely serving to remind him that nothing he has done is truly being ‘punished’. There is no retribution here and in the absence of retribution, the purgatory that Pinkman seemed to at first inhabit, has merely become an aperture through which he can perceive the utter meaningless of his every move.

Early in the show’s run Walter tells his class about the major lesson of chemistry, all things ‘change’, nothing remains in its initial state. Breaking Bad has pushed this theory to its very limits in an all too human way. Ultimately, Walter finds himself now hanging on, like a prisoner, just trying to maintain the status quo, falling back into familiar patterns of anger, frustration, hubris, guilt and recalcitrance. It is with Jesse Pinkman that we see the utter flux of human existence, as his character absolutely refuses to remain locked in place, even though he is abundantly aware of the continued futility of action. Being a show that is obsessed with the idea of ‘nothing’, Breaking Bad has all of the propulsive dynamism that comes from both the horror and the acceptance of such a state.

MINOR-LEAGUE MUSINGS:- Vince Gilligan, whilst being interviewed regarding the creative process on season 3 of the show, said the following:-

“We’re actively moving these chess pieces around, not so much playing 10 or 15 or 20 moves ahead, but we are kind of running for our lives. It’s scary. I don’t want it to sound like it’s a slapdash operation. It doesn’t feel that way when we’re doing it. We put a lot of thought into everything, and we try to play the game several moves ahead. But we’re only human, and it’s tricky sometime. All of this is a long-winded way of saying this was not pre-planned from the get-go. It was kind of a living, breathing thing that took on a life of its own as the season went along.”.

Perhaps this goes some of the way to explaining the unique qualities of the show. I also have to take a second to mention the sterling work of three of the supporting actors onboard. The comedian Bob Odenkirk is the absolute definition of unscrupulous, in the role of the shyster lawyer Saul Goodman (not his real name, but chosen because of the Jewish cache). Giancarlo Esposito’s druglord Gustavo Fring is one of the most chilling screen creation’s since Kurt Sutter’s turn as Margos Dezerian in The Shield. Whilst Jonathan Banks Mr. Fixit, Mike, is an insane mixture of zen-like, droopy-jowelled calm and ruthlessly efficient violence.

Breaking Bad is currently midway through its fourth season on AMC. The first and second seasons have appeared on FiveUSA, but the first season originally aired on FX in the UK. There are currently no UK rights holders for the third season.

Power-To Disap-Point

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Article Prompted by:- The Political Party That Wants to Ban PowerPoint (Julie Bindel, The Observer, Sunday 28th August, 2011)

I occasionally worry if Orson Welles (as Harry Lime) wasn’t really on to something after all with his wonderful justification of amorality from atop the Ferris wheel of Vienna’s Prater amusement park. Switzerland occasionally bursts into the public consciousness with global projects like the LHC, but more often than not it drifts about in a willfully decadent obscurity of its own making, seemingly disconnected from the global events that besiege other wealthy nations. This belies the fact that Switzerland tends to do a fairly good job of tackling social crises’, such as their growing urban heroin problem in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Far from being an unresponsive and sluggish politics, the Swiss approach to national governance, with its tendency toward direct representation and reasoned consensus, actually seems to do an admirable job of empowering its citizens, given them most of what they want, whilst managing to ensure economic stability. In many ways it is a shame that Switzerland doesn’t take a more vocal role upon the international stage, where for many, it is nothing more than the low-tax playground for the privileged and the pompous (Phil Collins, anyone?).

How irritating then that the one story involving the Swiss political landscape that does get a bit of serious media mileage, is the almost too laughable tale of Matthias Poehm, a former-software engineer turned experienced public-speaking trainer. Mr. Poehm has seen fit to try to establish a serious political party around one of the most pressing issue of the day – the overuse of Microsoft’s PowerPoint presentation software at conferences, seminars and public-speaking events. For Poehm, who is at pains to highlight on his website the fact he is “organizing the most expensive public speaking seminar in Europe” (penis envy, anyone?), the scourge of modern society is Microsoft’s all too-handy presentation utility, which reduces even the most enthralling talk to, as Bindel puts it, an exercise in boring an audience to tears “with fiddly slides consisting of flying texts, fussy fonts or photo montages”.

Whereas Bindel, in her article, is actually highlighting a more crucial issue, namely the wastefulness of many an ‘academic’ conference, in terms of the money required to front the proceedings and the likelihood that said conference will actually generate any stimulating work, beyond that which could have been printed on a blog, or in a journal/book, Poehm seems to be more obsessed with the idea that the software itself is responsible for a CHF 2.1 billion loss in the Swiss economy. Poehm puts together his economic theorem by pulling a whole lot of statistics out of the ether (4.1 million employees in Switzerland, including school children; 11% of whom are involved in PowerPoint presentations regularly, at least twice a week; 85% of participants in these presentations are demotivated by them, the swiss average hourly wage is CHF 56.30). As you can see this ragbag of statistical data lacks even the slightest pretence at contextualisation. How are school children employees? Where does his ‘conservative’ estimate come from? How can he regulate for presentations twice a week? Where is the economic model to quantify the damage of demotivation? Oddly this impressively vague and random assortment of information, actually makes one wish that Poehm was more versed in presenting statistical data, using software like PowerPoint, as an example that comes quickest to mind.

Bindel’s justifiable ire at the shoddy state of much academic discourse (particularly in the Humanities), conducted through the flawed medium of the Conference, has somehow attached itself inscrutably to a kneejerk neo-Ludditism and found something of resonance in Poehm’s frankly farcical political campaign. In many ways Bindel and Poehm’s complaints are nothing more than the blaming of one’s tools for the poor quality of work one produces. Is it not far more likely that the poor-standards of presentation are perhaps more to do with the poor quality of the ideas behind them, or even the inability to execute the presentation of these ideas properly using the software selected. Rather than talking up a relatively politically pointless Anti-PowerPoint agenda, perhaps we should be targeting the more serious ineffectiveness of multiple conferences, presentations and seminars, or the poor standard of computer skills training within many institutions (particularly of the educational variety) and companies.

What confirms the absurdity of Poehm’s position is the solution that he floats, as if it were something people had never considered doing before, of utilising a flip-chart in presentations. Bindel stands by her man here, by claiming that she turns up to conferences nowadays with “a set of index cards on which I have jotted down key points”. What, both Poehm and Bindel, genuinely seem frustrated with, is the notion that a person can get up in front of a room full of people and stumble through a flashily animated computer presentation, without having devoted any time to what they wish to achieve with the presentation. They are right to suggest that there is more to public-speaking than some computer-generated fireworks, yet their obsession with PowerPoint, or more broadly computer technology, as an obstacle to direct human communication, strikes me as more than a little fallacious, knowingly or otherwise. The absurd statistic that Poehm produces, and cannot even justify in his video address, that 95% of PowerPoint presentations would be as effective, if not more effective, if delivered on a flipchart, is just another reason to deeply mistrust the political ethos at work here.

One area in which Poehm’s agitation does seem to be appropriate is with the idea that PowerPoint has become an enforced requirement of presentations within schools, academies and workplaces. Here he is absolutely right to criticise the fetishisation of Microsoft software (and similarly Macintosh products), particularly by educational institutions who should really be resisting applying such restraints on creativity. In his own rather silly way, Poehm is stumbling upon a key reason why Microsoft has managed to achieve such market hegemony in the computer software sector. Alas, after repeated viewings of his political address as President of the APP, I can’t shift the sneaking feeling that this is all some sophisticated (and impressively po-faced) piece of Swiss satire, as Poehm seems to be wishing nothing more than “wanting only people to talk about it”. If not, then I return to my Orson Welles opening and suggest Harry Lime may well have called it right, in discussing the CUCKOO clock.

FutureShots, No.2:- Marc-Andre ter Stegen

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(Goalkeeper, Borussia Monchengladbach & Germany U19)

DOB:- 30/04/1992

POB:- Monchengladbach, Germany

Previous Clubs:- None

Notable Achievements:- Established himself as his club’s first choice keeper at just 18 years of age.

Anyone who has watched the Bundesliga regularly over the last eighteen months will be able to tell you that Germany’s youth squads are in the rudest of health. It seems that the school of 2008, that came to prominence so explosively in the 2010 South African World Cup is merely the start of a great avalanche of talent. Everton and Liverpool have two quality defenders on their hands in the shape of Mustafi and Sama, respectively. Whilst 1860 Munchen have a promising young marksman in the form of Kevin Volland and Wolfsburg have the gifted creative midfielder Tolga Cigerci. Joachim Low has transformed German International football by threading together a youth system that truly reflects the mixture of national identities that have made modern Germany a vibrant multicultural society.

Of the youngsters that have come through this system the most consistently impressive over the last six months has been Borussia Monchengladbach’s determined and acrobatic shot-stopper, ter Stegen. Making his full debut as recently as the 10th April, 2011, in the 5-1 annihilation of FC Koln, the 6’3 keeper has repaid the faith shown in him, by new Borussia Monchengladbach coach Lucien Favre, tenfold. With Borussia having a bit of a goalkeeper crisis (Christofer Heimeroth was in the worst form of his career and his deputy, young Belgian, Logan Bailly was only ever a few steps away from the next clanger)Favre had thrust ter Stegen right into the middle of a relegation dogfight. The fact that ter Stegen not only survived this baptism of fire, but in many minds became one of the key reasons as to why Borussia remained in the Bundesliga at the end of a hellish season, speaks volumes for the presence, organisational capabilities and supreme agility the local boy has shown since becoming Borussia first-choice keeper.

In the twelve first-team starts ter Stegen has now made for Borussia Monchengladbach he is still yet to concede more than a single goal in any individual match. Not only was he a key part of Borussia’s escape from the dropzone at the end of the 2010/11 season, but the confidence that he has given to the Monchengladbach backline, allied to his fast-improving distributional skills, has seen Borussia come out of the blocks flying this term. If not for a minor injury, suffered against Schalke 04, he would have made his U-21 debut in the coming International fixtures. Much like Spanish legend Iker Casillas, ter Stegen has shown a maturity, consistency and confidence well beyond his years. If his development continues in this manner, it is only a matter of time before the International No.1 jersey is his.

Film Review:- The Incredibles (2004)

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Dir:- Brad Bird

Starr:- Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson

Pixar have genuinely revolutionised the way that families experience the cinema together. Even in Disney’s golden-era pomp (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Bambi, Pinnochio), or their second-coming (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin), there was always a sense that no matter how lovingly rendered and sophisticated the animations were, they were primarily aimed at children. Pixar have made no such complacent assumptions about their audience, and their wonderful computer animated worlds, frequently incorporate twin planes of meaning, that satisfy child and adult alike, without ever being condescending.

The Incredibles was the first Pixar movie to be helmed by Brad Bird, who had previously worked on The Fox and the Hound (back in Disney’s dark old days) and The Iron Giant, as well as providing the video for The Simpson’s chart-topper ‘Do the Bartman’. This appointment saw a slight change in approach at Pixar, showing the company possessed a willingness to attempt more daring material, that would ultimately lead to the later Bird masterpiece Ratatouille, as well as the moving oddity that was Up. For some reason, despite being a comic-book/superhero obsessive, I’d managed to give this Pixar effort a wide berth, despite the very best efforts of my young nephew. Although I can’t say the movie blew my mind, I am more than a little sorry that I waited so long to catch up with the escapades of the Parr family.

The Incredibles starts out with an America that has become complacently certain of its own security – ring any alarm bells. The super-heroes that have been patrolling society so well, for so long, are seen to be more of a hindrance than a help. After a particularly destructive days work, Mr. Incredible (so good to hear the reassuring childhood voice of Craig T. Nelson) finds himself being sued by the citizens and the town council, for all the unnecessary damage his super-hero antics lead to. In a wonderfully ironic touch he is also sued by a suicidal individual whose life he saves. It is these little jabs at our smug modern societies that makes The Incredibles, at times, a fairly impressive satirical piece.

From this promising opening, the movie fast-forwards a decade or so, to show Mr. Incredible as a family man, married to Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter), stuck in a dreary, dead-end office job (working for an insurance firm) and, like his fellow retired super-hero Frozone (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), desperately seeking out the thrill of the daring rescue. What is fascinating about this part of the film is the way in which Bird establishes an all-too-believable domestic reality in which his super-heroes have sublimated there bolder civic urges. The children within this family Jack Jack, Dash and Violet are all struggling to cope with their various abilities, with Dash’s sports-day quandary illustrating this most clearly.

When the chance to get back into super-hero mode comes Mr. Incredible’s way, he cannot help but pursue it, even when there is a clear dubiousness in Mirage’s (voiced by Elizabeth Pena’s) proposition. It is this combination of neediness, attention-seeking, hubris and an over-arching sense of ‘duty’, that places the whole Incredible family in grave peril and propels the action along a storyline that has elements of Dr. No, Moonraker, The Running Man and Godzilla pulsing through it.

The Incredibles has some superb attention to detail throughout, which in many ways give it the air of a geeky fantasy. Two superb visual features grabbed my attention for entirely different reasons. I was first of all amazed by the lovingly recreated alien/monster/robot from Firaxis’s Sim City games. Seeing the spider-like cyclops scuttling around the city, intent on destruction was like stepping into a wonderfully precise time machine. The other thing of note was the improved imaging that Pixar were able to show-off when it came to the detailing of human motion. Throughout the film Elastigirl’s rotund, middle-aged mum butt was at once a supremely accurate caricature and a bewitchingly sexy thing of beauty, that would frankly never be allowed to grace a Hollywood live-action feature, with all the absurd idealisation of the female figure, inherent in that form.

The Incredibles was also packed with breathtaking moments of action, that genuinely impressed me with their innovativeness. One chase sequence through the forest, involving Dash and a band of guards could be placed alongside films like Bullit, Star Wars and Point Break, in the way that it broke new technical ground. Whilst early on in the film there were some wonderful high-perspective shots, that pointed the way forward for the use of CGI-technology in later movies like The Dark Knight.

Aside from the fluid action and attention to character detail, I was intrigued by the ideas that seemed to be battling each other at the movies core. The Incredibles is a very pro-family movie, clearly demonstrating how the combination of powers a loving family generates is preferable to their individual powers, used in isolation. However there was also a kind of veiled Randian idea of enlightened selfishness at work in the notion that an ‘evil’ character like Syndrome, would seek a world in which everyone had access to the ‘special’ powers that only the likes of the Incredibles presently have. In Syndrome’s ideal world everyone has special powers and therefore nobody is special. This is something that Mr. Incredible, in particular, cannot in good conscience allow to happen and he is regularly seen to advocate a need to flaunt one’s ‘special’ powers, rather than ‘normalise’, by not using them.

Ultimately the movie’s ending confuses matters further, by showing the Incredibles to have actually compromised, in essence only using their abilities for the purposes of ‘serving the greater good’, something that cannot be reconciled with the Randian philosophical elements that otherwise poke through the cracks. I am somewhat surprised to see that Pixar haven’t sought to cash-in on the franchise potential of this feature, in the same way as they did with the superb Toy Story trilogy. However, this is part of the joy of this consummately professional animation company, as they have yet to dilute the quality of their product, even when it must have been financially tempting.

Armand Traore on a Train to Auschwitz?

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holocaust n 1 great destruction or loss of life or the source of such destruction, esp. fire. 2 (usually cap.) the Also called: Churban, Shoah. the mass murder by the Nazis of the Jews of continental Europe between 1940 and 1945. 3 a rare word for burnt offering

Sometimes it is important to start an essay with the lazy, or overly literal, students favoured opening gambit, namely the dictionary definition. Before discussing some of the truly simian outrage that has greeted Tony Cascarino’s use of a word, even a word that is showily hyperbolic, I’d just like to fall back on the students favoured follow-up, the etymology of a word. The etymology of the word holocaust, is from the Late Latin holocaustum, meaning whole burnt offering. Which in turn was derived from the Greek holokauston, which is Holo + kaustus (or kaiein), meaning to burn the whole.

I have to begin in this manner, as those simian yelps and howls make it really, really difficult to focus, so apologies if you actually know the rudiments of the English language. Now granted Tony Cascarino, during Sky Sports News’s coverage of the Arsenal vs Man Utd match, is maybe going a bit far semantically (that hyperbole) when applying the noun to the following sentence: “Poor Traoré at right-back is having a holocaust because he’s finding himself against Nani, who’s literally running him from everywhere and Arshavin’s just not tracking his runners.”. However, can anyone truly say that Cascarino is making a wantonly historically ignorant remark, that is truly offensive to people in a directly harmful and hurtful manner, like Ron Atkinson’s more furtive indiscretion? Apparently they can, as the internet has been abuzz with the kind of jive-talk that seems to come up whenever there has been a dearth of sensation in the media.

Marcus Dysch stated that: “Tony Cascarino said Traore was having a ‘holocaust’ against Utd??Fantastic. I’ll enjoy ending Mr Cascarino’s career this wk at work.”. Nice to see Mr Dysch, a journalist for the Jewish Chronicle, taking a reasoned approach to Cascarino’s utterance. Whilst Steve Busfield, took a slightly more attenuated position, claiming: “Arsenal’s performance was bad, but Tony Cascarino’s “holocaust” description is stupid”. Steve Busfield being the Sports Blog Editor at the Guardian was generally bucking the trend of hysterical condemnation, that the usual suspects from the red-tops, as well as the Daily Telegraph, were all too eager to embrace.

As someone with more than a passing interest in keeping the idea of The Holocaust at the forefront of societal collective memories, I actually take offence at the apparent willingness of commentators to leap to the assumption that there is something overtly racist, tasteless and/or politically loaded in Mr Cascarino’s outburst. When looking for live comment from ex-football players it is rare to hear them do a credible job of anything more than describing the action. Cascarino on the other hand, in a similar way to Pat Nevin and Lee Dixon, has tended toward the insightful, if occasionally impassioned, in his reportage and his columns for The Times. Do I think that Tony Cascarino is seeking to make an equivalence between the organised slaughter of six million people (predominantly of Jewish origin) in Europe during 1940-1945 and an aberrant display from an Arsenal squad football player, positioned on the left-side of their defence during a mauling from Man Utd at the weekend? No, I do not. Do I think Tony Cascarino was utilising the term as an acceptable, if overly hyperbolic, way of describing the devastation Traore’s performance was causing down Arsenal’s defensive left-side? Yes, I do.

If Mr Cascarino had said something like ‘Armand Traore is playing football like a Jew trying to escape The Holocaust’, then I would have been jumping in with the condemnation myself. As it is, he didn’t even prefix the word with ‘The’, suggesting we perhaps shouldn’t be reading ‘Holocaust’, where it may well have been ‘holocaust’ that was intended. To demand a pundit’s head for such a remark only highlights the modern tyranny of ‘fixed semantic interpretation’, that seems to make a mockery of more serious and verbally wounding outbursts. In policing the ways in which we talk freely, on air, or otherwise, we are merely creating a futurescape in which thoughts lead to actions, with very little discussion, or reasoned debate – in fact not so dissimilar a set of social conditions as that which existed in Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. Our freedom of speech should be what we protect robustly, not the questionable sensibilities of the eager-to-be-scandalised.

Attempting to side with some of the sensation-hungry out there, I’ll go along with this condemnation of Cascarino’s use of a ‘word’ (a word that clearly must only ever now be used in one, historically accurate, context) and let Cascarino be fired by his employers, despite his apparently contrite apology (his more stupid move, if you ask me). In the future live sports broadcasters such as Sky, the BBC and ESPN, will then need to ensure that all broadcasts are scripted and vetted as the action unfurls and the Gareth Southgate’s and Alan Shearer’s of this world can then be safe in the knowledge that their teleprompter will never let them stray into the choppy waters of poor word selection.

Alternately, you could condemn Cascarino with the questionable grammatical accuracy of his noun selection and read Martin Gilbert, Hannah Arendt, or Primo Levi, safe in the knowledge that The Holocaust hasn’t suffered a significant devaluation in meaning. Oh and spare a drop of sympathy for the recently immolated Armand Traore.

Free Scots: The Great University Fee Non-Debate

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The SNP rolled back student tuition fees legislation in 2008 by passing The Graduate Endowment Abolition Bill (Scotland). This established the right for Scottish-born citizens, or legal residents within Scotland, to receive a free higher education at any of the Scottish Universities. However the policy prevents those born in other parts of the UK from enjoying similar privileges at Scottish institutions, whilst, thanks to EU interstate policy, allowing students from other EU countries to benefit from financially unfettered access. In the light of increases in tuition fees expected at most of the English, Northern Irish and Welsh Universities in 2012, questions are beginning to be asked as to whether the Scottish policy is fair and tenable.

 

On the 28th February 2008 the Scottish Parliament, led by the SNP for the first time, flexed its new-found muscle and abolished the Education (Graduate Endowment and Student Support) Act 2001 (Scotland), that had been implemented by the initial Labour/Lib Dem coalition in the Parliament’s inaugural term. The 2001 Act had been a response to the Cubie Committee’s report on higher education funding in Scotland, that suggested a fee repayment model post-graduation, rather than the up-front fee delivery and loan system required by the 1998 UK-wide Teaching and Higher Education Act, introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government (but originally recommended by The 1997 Dearing Report, commissioned by John Major’s Conservative government). By passing the Graduate Endowment Abolition Bill (Scotland), the SNP were further emphasising a growing schism between Scottish Parliament legislation and Westminister-initiated UK policy.

The vote to pass the abolition legislation was a tight one, with the SNP and its allies pipping a Conservative and Labour coalition, by 67 votes to 61. It mirrored an equally tight vote to ward off an inquiry into the issues of tuition fees abolition, which was won by the SNP 65 votes to 63. Critics of the policy, such as then Labour shadow minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, Rhona Brankin claimed that there was no conclusive evidence that scrapping the charge would increase access to University places, particularly for those from the poorest communities within Scotland. Furthermore, there were early warnings that such a policy could only have serious financial repercussions for Scotland in the long-term.

Recently an article by Scott MacNab in The Scotsman, detailed “a looming £263million financial timebom”’ in the Scottish economy, if the SNP didn’t urgently review their policy on tuition fees. These gloomy projections were based on the idea that a funding gap would naturally emerge between Scottish and English academic institutions as a result of the massive increase in UK tuitions, outside of Scotland. Until recently the SNP has claimed that free-access to higher education for Scottish citizens is a central tenet of their manifesto and a crucial electoral pledge. Questions over funding have been partly addressed this year, with new policy in June, enabling Scottish institutions to charge English, Northern Irish and Welsh students increased fees (in line with UK-wide tuition increases), being broadly supported by Universities Scotland, the lobby group set-up to defend the interests of Scotland’s higher education institutions.

Intriguingly the SNP’s actions in Scotland have not led to increased pressure for the repeal of student tuition fees in other parts of the United Kingdom, aside from within the already active NUS and other student bodies. Rather than a debate about the legitimacy of charging tuition fees, what has instead occurred is increased criticism of Scotland’s two-tier approach. This criticism has now become focused upon the issue of English, Northern Irish and Welsh students being forced to pay fees, that not even a Greek or Portuguese student has to pay, seeking to emphasise the absurd hypocrisy of the Scottish Parliament’s position. As pointed out in a recent NS Leader, Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers (a law-firm representing Callum Hurley and Katy Moore, two students who have brought about this action), believes that Scottish Ministers have “misinterpreted the law” and “the Scottish fees system contravened the European Convention on Human Rights and could be in breach of Britain’s Equality Act”. Disturbingly (or not as the NS is after all a Labour rag) the NS Leader doesn’t highlight the fact that this lawsuit being brought against the Scottish Parliament is merely an adjunct to a legal action that Shiner, Hurley and Moore have been pressuring the coalition government with. In effect Shiner has drafted a similar Judicial Review against the UK government, and in particular Vince Cable, back in February, arguing that the increase in tuition fees contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 14, as well as failing to promote equality under the Race Relations, Sex Discrimination and Disability Discrimination Acts. Thus, the Scottish Parliament is being served with an almost identical legal action, not necessarily as a result of their two-tier approach to fees application, but rather as a result of having introduced the same fees policy as the rest of the UK, toward non-Scottish citizens. The NS’s scandalised pronouncement that “It is absurd that EU students receive a free University education in Scotland while UK students pay full fees”, seems a little less scandalous when one of the central linchpins of their argument is duly contextualised.

Away from these legal distractions and shenanigans there is actually a more pertinent  and pressing discussion to be had. Is it possible to fund “world-class” academic institutions, in the highly competitive global environment of the 21st Century, from central government coffers? Also, is the Scottish approach to funding, one that can be justified considering the trend toward increasing global mobility amongst relatively affluent national populations?

It has taken a long time for many European nations to even consider the notion that Higher Education, at University level, needs to be paid for by the student utilising the service. This is in part down to the fact that with often prohibitively high levels of taxation, it would be seen as a particularly hard sell to an electorate. There has also been a culture within many European nations, post-World War II, to see the expansion of University education as a direct correlative to an enlightened and socially mobile society. The trend, therefore, has been toward viewing a University education as not just a desirable asset in the jobs market, but as a prerequisite of good, solid career and personal development (with all the meritorious benefits that faith in such a system may bestow).

The rapid expansion of Universities in the United Kingdom has led to the situation where there is now over a hundred such institutions throughout the country. Some of these institutions will undoubtedly provide specialist courses only provided by a handful of Universities, however the vast majority of these institutions replicate the core subject areas of the Arts, Humanities and Sciences, with varying levels in teaching standards and facilities. Going back to the pre-1998 model of University funding is it genuinely credible that central government would have been able to fund such a vast array of institutions, whilst competing with the very best universities around the world and ensuring that year-on-year increases in student numbers were catered for?

A considerable concern was expressed in the Dearing Report with regard to the continued provision of a quality educational experience in circumstances that saw a rapid expansion in student numbers, a 45% increase in public funding requirements for higher education costs (not related to the already dwindling grants and bursaries scheme) and no significant ‘positive’ effect being felt in terms of GDP, as a result of higher educational standards. The decision by the Labour government to follow the suggestions of the Dearing Report and implement an initial £1,000 tuition fee, combined with a larger low-interest government loan, helped to relieve central government of some of the burden of spending, but only deferred much more important decisions indefinitely.

With approximately 115 Universities in the UK by 2009, the academic year 2009/10 saw 2,493,420 (2,087,615 domestic, 125,050 EU) students involved in some course of study at higher education institutions in the UK. These figures meant that over half of UK citizens aged 17 to 30 were in University education in 2009/10. Despite considerable budget cuts, lay-offs, staff restructuring and other cost-cutting measures approximately 20% of universities were running an annual deficit. The new Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government came to believe that there was an urgent need for Universities to have more flexible means of acquiring funding. The decision to dramatically cut Higher Education funding by central government (slashing £450 million from annual university budgets), was balanced off with the possibility for institutions to charge up to £9,000 per year, for a degree from the 2012/13 academic year. Since the government announcement of a tuition fee increase in November 2010, there has been notable unrest and continued demonstrations from students and activists, although this hasn’t deterred some academic institutions from charging the maximum available fee. For some this appeared to be a Conservative government barricading off the hallowed halls of academia to a those incapable of finding the finances to afford a University education.

Paying for a University education is nothing new if you happen to live in the United States, where the average domestic tuition fee is approximately £4,000 per annum (many of the most prestigious institutions charge much greater sums, with a four-year degree at Harvard totalling $50,000). Tuition fees are also charged in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany (with, funnily enough, a few regional exceptions), Ireland, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland (amongst others). If you look at the countries where the greatest tuition fees are charged (the US and now the UK) you should see a significant number of academic institutions in these countries ranking high on the annual QS World Rankings (bearing in mind that tradition, the international spread of the English language and prestige also play a significant role). Within the top 100 Universities in the world 32 are based in the US and 19 within the UK, meaning that fee-charging institutions make up around 50% of the best academic institutions in the world (remembering that Scotland’s Universities no longer contribute to this tally). Of countries that do not charge tuition fees, only China (5, including 3 former HK institutions), Denmark (2), France (2), Finland (1), Norway (1) and Russia (1) appear on the list. It should be noted that both Norway and China charge considerably higher rates of annual taxation than the UK, whilst countries such as Belgium charge comparatively low annual tuition fees (totalling around 500 euro in most cases). Tuition fees would appear to have the benefit of not only unburdening the central government of the need to fund continual academic expansion, ideally freeing up money to be focused on things like healthcare, but they also seem to help institutions compete globally in terms of research and innovation.

If you have private businesses that are willing to pay astronomical wages to get the best designers, technicians, specialists, theorists and practitioners working within their organisation, how on earth can a state-funded academic institution compete? If Universities cannot compete in terms of wages, then what they can attempt to deliver are the more relaxed and ‘liberal’ conditions in which certain types of research are more likely to thrive. The kind of infrastructure that is required needs high levels of funding, something that is frequently overlooked when focusing too intently on the cost accrued by a student.

How else is a University to find necessary funding than by introducing a fee for the services it provides to the clients that utilise them? Here the Scottish funding model actually offers a possible alternative solution, but one that goes against are current concerns, within Europe, for an equality of access that is international, rather than national. If the nation-state were to take care of the educational opportunities of its own citizens, by offering a free, or heavily subsidised University education, then all other nationalities wishing to utilise these services would have to front a fee cost, that they wouldn’t otherwise contribute in the form of taxation. This sounds quite similar to how things operated post-grant, but pre-fee, back in the UK of 1997. What this system relies upon too heavily is that there is enough money in central coffers to handle educating 50%, or more, of the national population (between the ages of 17 to 30) at any one time, so that in the event of a lack of ‘International’ student funds the Universities do not run a shortfall.

Perhaps a more coherent policy approach would be to dramatically restructure the UK Universities. Is there really a need for 115 academic institutions? Clearly the fact that 20% of them are running an annual deficit, even with the injection of fees, suggests not. Would it not be more beneficial to curb the financial failings within the higher education system itself, by closing institutions that are running deficits, or by merging successful institutions with failing neighbours, where possible? Yes, there are arguments to be made about the unique regional role that certain academic institutions provide, but how many of these institutions are running a deficit?

The partly difficult nationalist position that the Scottish Parliament may appear to have taken, vis-a-vis University access, certainly can be read as going against much of the EU’s ethos about free movement and parity of access amongst member states. However, a more careful reading than that put forward by the belligerently Labourite NS would have noted that the issue here isn’t really that Scotland is penalising the English, Northern Irish and Welsh, but that in fact the Scottish Parliament is being hindered in implementing a broader fee-charging system for foreign nationals, by ill-fitting EU legislation. The SNP have actually proposed that if Shiner’s legal action is successful, then they will have little option left than to question the validity of the EU’s policy on ‘discrimination between states’.

One possible solution here would be to review the EU legislation, making the necessary amendments so that ‘discrimination’ was not viewed as originating from the actions of the state to which a person was moving in the EU, but rather as part of a comparative analysis of conditions between member states. In such a case, Scotland may continue to provide a free education for its own nationals and any EU nationals who come from countries in which they would also be provided with a ‘free’ (i.e. state-funded through taxation) education. However, as would be the case with many of the nations within the EU, Scotland would be able to levy a comparable fee for education within Scotland’s Universities, to those students coming from an EU member state that does charge student tuition fees. This system seems to take into account the fact that discrimination must be based upon depriving someone of the ability to do something that they would have otherwise been able to do within their own nation, not something that they would have been unable to do. Of course, there is still the issue to be resolved as to how England, Northern Ireland and Wales relate to this proposal, seeing as Scotland has used the loop-hole of non-EU status so effectively in its current policy. I’d like to think that this issue may well be resolved by the end of this Scottish Parliament, but I guess we will have to wait and see.

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