Football

Manchester United have one objective left this season

Out of both domestic cup competitions and with a fix on the heady heights of sixth place, it is almost a relief to see the return of the Champions League.After the disappointment of lacklustre league performances, there is a sense of redemption that comes with facing continental opponents. Hope springs eternal and any team can beat anyone over two legs so not all may be lost in this difficult season. Who knows what might happen come what May.

While no-one at the club would admit that fourth place is a distant dream, this could be the last Champions League campaign for at least a year. Let’s be honest, to reach fourth spot United would have to achieve a string of victories and a level of consistency that has eluded them all season. Other contenders would need to suffer a collapse and that looks equally improbable. Could United take inspiration from their most despised rivals? Could the easier route to Champions League football next season come from winning the competition itself?

Strangely, the Champions League has seen United at their best this season with some positive performances. Stranger things have happened than a team suffering from a substandard league campaign actually winning the elite competition, you only need to see who won it in 2005 to see that.

When Liverpool last won the European Cup it was seen as far-fetched. Their league form was patchy and from a position where reaching the top four was tough, they concentrated on their European campaign. By fielding weakened line-ups in the run to the final, they effectively sacrificed their league campaign in an effort to keep key players fresh. We all know what happened in Istanbul and while it seemed like a miracle, having decided to concentrate on the final their chances improved.

The likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid,Chelsea, Bayern Munich and PSG should all have domestic campaigns to juggle alongside the knock-out stages. The Champions League remains the only competition left for United so few could argue against concentrating on it. For David Moyes, the competition has the added incentive of a chance at redemption. There is still a rebuilding task at hand yet progress into the latter stages would prove a few doubters wrong while the players will also see this as an opportunity to prove themselves.

As the season reaches ‘squeaky-bum time’ regular starters like Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie may find themselves oddly refreshed. The challenge for the league title has already ebbed away and without domestic cup fixtures, there are several opportunities to rest and recuperate. While these players will be used to fighting on multiple fronts you would not blame them for trying to make the most of a difficult situation and concentrate on the Champions League.

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Football

Wayne Rooney : Why Manchester United had to shell out

No matter how eye-watering the figures there was a certain sense of inevitability that Wayne Rooney would be awarded a bumper extended contract. While firemen, nurses and policemen will be looking on in painful shock and awe they should not be surprised at all, this has been coming since October 2010.

Make no mistake, while Rooney will be counting his blessings (and the zeros) he should really be congratulating his agent. To secure such a deal for a player going into their 30’s is Bollinger-poppingly great work. Since the cleverly coordinated transfer request/U-turn/contract re-negotiation shenanigans his management team have had United over a barrel. If the reports are correct the new deal is worth £300,000 per week yet this is damage limitation from the club.

Try to look at this from the club’s perspective and you should soon realise that there really was not another option.
. Losing him would be a PR disaster when the club needs to be seen to be keeping its best players to retain stability and a strong position for the future.
. The player needs a new deal to prevent the club losing him on a free transfer. Thanks, Marc Bosman.
. Already on £250,000 per week, £300,000 is a nice round number.

Consider the maths as well if Rooney was allowed to be sold. Forget for a moment that the only club deemed to be interested would be Chelsea. You need to think about the going rate for Rooney in today’s market. At 28 any club is only really going to get 6, 7 years maximum out of him and that’s being generous considering Rooney’s susceptibility to kebabs and the odd bender. Let’s say, £30m would be considered as tempting.

The cost to replace a player of his stature would arguably be a lot more. To assess Rooney’s value you have to think of his potential and what he can do on a football pitch. Whether he demanded to be captain or not he is a leader on the pitch and one of few players who can drag and bend a game to his will. He can also provide moments of inspiration; an inch-perfect ball over the top (Van Persie v Villa 2013) or a bicycle kick (v Manchester City 2011). These are moments that make being a football fan worthwhile and despite his recent drop in form he remains one of the club’s best players hence keeping him was considered essential.

Players like that are in short supply so you are looking at an initial outlay of £50m, maybe £60m. Considering that the player and his agent are fully aware of how much Rooney was earning the negotiating position is strong, arguably on par. Then you have to consider if this player can prove himself in the Premier League. Then there are other figures to look at, a decline in shirt sales etc. Looking at the situation like that you can see why the club took the option of a bumper deal.

Keeping him also attracts players to the club. Not only for the fact that the wage ceiling has now been creaked open a little wider and transfer targets can demand a bit more it shows that the club mean business. The deal shows that the club are prepared to spend if it means that great players remain, put short it shows that United are a buying club confident of the future ahead.

Should Rooney become the club’s leading scorer in the next few years are fans really going to say, ‘Yeh, but he was on £300,000 a week.’ Doubtful. Wayne Rooney could be a legend at this football club and one of the leaders in the club’s ongoing rebuilding process. Sure, the club should expect a high level of performance yet Rooney will be seen as a player essential to their plans. No football player is worth such an obscene amount of money but should fans be pleased that one of the club’s best players has signed a new contract? Yes.

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Lifestyle

Who needs Valentine’s Day anyway?

The supermarkets have stacked up their heart-shaped boxes and bottles of pink bubbly. Hell, even the Post Office have stocked up on fancy cards. It’s that time of the year again when Zac Efron appears on billboards while restaurants and florists are rubbing their hands in unadulterated glee. Yup. Valentine’s Day.

Unless you work in a business that directly profits from the 14th of February then chances are you are dreading it. No-one ever seems to win so who needs it anyway?

Boyfriends are hoping that the dozen roses they have organised to be delivered at great expense to their girlfriend’s office is significantly large enough to impress. Incidentally, the girlfriend is hoping that whatever the boyfriend has had delivered is going to be 1. More impressive than last year and 2. More impressive than every other delivery in the office. Anything falling below those standards and they might as well not bother.

Then there is the poor girl that merely expects a single rose then glumly sits at her desk come 3.45pm when it is obvious that nothing is forthcoming.

That’s the expectation of Valentine’s Day and the pitfalls that come with it. For decades it has been the norm that couples buy each other gifts to show that ‘You’re the only one for me, baby’. Hang on. Why do you need to go to a shop and find something to say that? It’s such a façade. Just SAY IT EVERY DAY TO THEIR FACE.

Who needs Valentine’s Day anyway? Who needs to HAVE to prove to their significant other that they do actually love them in the form of flowers/chocolates/dinner/any other extravagance you wish to name? Because it’s romantic? Because everyone else is doing it? Because the TV told them to?

If anything, the day seems to be more for those struggling relationships where the day is set up to be make or break. Sure, going over the top with a weekend away may patch over the abysmal other 364 days of the year but then again, it might not.

Surely there is something wrong if you NEED Valentines Day. If you do love your partner then you should not need a defined day in the calendar to declare it. Simply show that you adore them every day and it only needs a tiny gesture that comes for free. You don’t have to turn up with flowers, simply give them a kiss and ask them how their day went. Hold their hand, hug them, surprise them with a home-cooked meal once in a while. Sometimes the smallest gesture can matter more than a dozen delivered roses, I’d like to think that’s the case most of the time.

For the last two years I have found myself in a major Australian city and seen the extent to which some people will go to impress on Valentine’s Day. I’ll sit on a bench and watch office girls struggling to carry the huge bunch of flowers they have had delivered. At home they’ll sit in a vase and eventually wilt, perhaps as a fitting end to the suggested heartfelt feeling with which they were purchased. By the time the flowers are worthless, will the gesture seem the same?

Money is to be made and Hollywood gets in on the act with a plethora of instantly forgettable films that arrive just in time for ‘Love Day’. This year there is ‘Endless Love’ (this years Romeo and Juliet remake though there is another film out which is actually called Romeo and Juliet) and ‘The Awkward Moment’ starring Zac Efron, of course. Though it’s probably a blessing they’re so forgettable as it means the couples on the back row and in the dark corners can keep themselves occupied.

This year I am having another Anti-Valentines Day. Put simply, I don’t see the point in the day so I’ll spend an evening alone with a bowl of popcorn, a couple of horror films and a bottle of wine that may or may not be part of a supermarket offer. See, even though I don’t want to be a part of it the supermarket has still suckered a couple of quid out of me. At least the supermarkets can say they need Valentines Day.

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TV

The Sopranos : Why it was truly the greatest TV series of them all

It was only after hearing of the untimely death of James Gandolfini that I decided to dip into the world of The Sopranos. Having gone traveling and demolished season upon season of The Wire as well as working my way through Homeland, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead I was already well aware that America was the King of Primetime TV. When the Writers Guild of America named it the best-written TV series of all time I knew The Sopranos was going to be my next TV fix. Gandolfini’s death merely pushed me to it sooner.

Some TV series’ take a while to impress. You take in a couple of episodes and decide if it is for you or not. Some entice you in while others grab you by the balls and do not let go, The Sopranos was the latter for me. Taken at face value the dialogue is snappy and loaded with reference points that demand your attention. Then there is the acting which makes every character seem not just plausible but real. Some TV series’ can be judged by the amount of tedious episodes or even seasons, not The Sopranos.

Would the show exist if it was not for films like The Godfather and Goodfellas introducing a crash course of Mafia culture to the fore? Perhaps not but to compare the films to the TV show would be unfair. The Sopranos is so much more than those two films. From a runtime perspective there is only so much of a story you can tell in three hours on a big screen. Given tens of episodes you can truly begin to explore the world of the underworld.

There are several plot arcs in The Sopranos and the beauty of the storytelling is how they intertwine and co-exist. While the aforementioned films mainly concentrate on the power struggles of the Mafia, The Sopranos can slowly reveal the underbelly as well as the façade. The drama as well as the domestic, the spectacle as well as the sedate. While a film can showcase the violence and briefly provide explanations, The Sopranos can deal with the repercussions of every ‘whacking’. When any character meets their demise you can bet there will be the painful phone call home, the funeral and the emotional heartbreak of those left behind picking up the pieces. It shows the whole picture of the whole family.

There is always the distinct possibility that someone important may die in any episode which makes it gut wrenchingly compulsive viewing. In such a complex world lives can hinge on every difficult decision or even less. You could get ‘whacked’ for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, something questionable in your private life or simply a bad joke. Everyone is walking a tightrope.

When innocent bystanders are shot in the street as a safety precaution you can wonder about the ethics of the show. Sure, there is the law of the gun yet there is also a high system of values in operation too. Obviously there is ‘Omerta’ and the code of honour is paramount to the show. It brings into play the code of silence, vendettas, the non co-operation with authorities and non-interference in the illegal, as well as legal, actions of others. Gradually the code can be seen as the unwritten rulebook governing every single decision.

With such stringent, traditional governing it is often intriguing to see how the value system operates in a changing world. Common views on what is acceptable in anyone’s private life have changed markedly through generations yet the system remains. What may have passed as abhorrent fifty years ago is now seen as accepted yet those with a conscience can either choose to be dictated or updated.

You see this with Tony Soprano, brilliantly and brutally played by the late, great James Gandolfini. It is a role that you simply cannot see any actor performing. This is a man who truly looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders as he balances his business and family life with such delicacy. Rarely do you see him at peace, how could any Mafia boss be at peace when he has so much on his plate? The man is always on call to keep a lid on everything he holds close; the family business, his own travails at home, keeping ahead of the authorities, his goomahs and you can see the stress weigh him down.

Few could perform such forceful acting for so long and the sheer physicality of Gandolfini’s portrayal is a revelation in itself. Italians are hotheads yet Gandolfini often finds himself hurting the ones he loves simply because he cannot control himself. He is a man of conflict and one of weakness, every character has at least one.

While the films tend to show the macho side of every Mafia member, The Sopranos goes some way to show the other side. Tony as a man who regularly attends therapy, Paulie is devoted to his mother, Christopher has his drug problems and Ralphie has his creepy bedroom behaviour to name but four. Amidst the intimidation and shootings there is a strong sense of humanity too. Tony is always trying to do right by his family yet when his business and private lives combine then you see Tony at his most stretched and you often wonder how he can play the juggling act for so long.

Quite how the show’s creator, David Chase, manages to keep a strong definition of the two separate sides to the story is a wonder. To delve into The Sopranos means trying to keep up with several different battles that are playing all the time. There’s the FBI v The Mafia, the wars between each Mafia family and of course the infighting. It takes a master storyteller to keep all that together yet Chase managed it over six brilliant seasons.

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Football

United v Fulham – Forgetting How To Win A Football Match

Right now, David Moyes does not know what he has to do to win a football match. Neither do the players it seems. Just when you think that season defining hard-earned comeback win has arrived it has just as quickly been snatched away again. If you wanted a match to sum up United’s fortunes so far this season the 2-2 draw against Fulham was it.

It’s the hope that kills you. The feeling that finally, FINALLY, this team has turned a corner and they go and throw the points away again. Darren Bent’s equaliser was as heart-breaking as it was almost inevitable. Call it luckless, call it schadenfreude, call it whatever you will but it seems that this team has forgotten how to win.

There are several match-winners in this team, the trouble lies in forging them into a winning team. The creative quartet of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata seem truly wasted when you attempt to simply move the ball out wide and cross it in. Surely their talents would be put to better use with some intricacy involved, hurting teams through the middle instead of flooding the box. With such dated tactics it is little wonder that this team seems so easily outwitted so often.

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. At times in the game against Fulham you wondered if this was a training ground exercise as it was simply so predictable. A total of 81 crosses were attempted in the game against Fulham with only 18 finding a red shirt. That’s a truly ludicrous statistic which shows a portent level of ineptitude, especially playing a side at the bottom of the league who are fighting for their lives. You would expect Fulham to defend deep and in numbers so these tactics were playing into their hands.

Remember those days when you simply knew a 2-0 win was on the cards? Those days are long gone and while victories will seem harder to earn there is some joy in that. However, had United held on against Fulham the victory would have been seen as the hard-earned win that Moyes has needed for so long but hardly a deserved one on that showing. A win would have masked what was a poor performance against a poor side. Occasionally a football match offers up some unavoidable truths and for this United side the cruel blow of a last minute equaliser appears deserved. If it means that a radical change in tactics occurs then great, if it means finding a better way of utilising some fantastic attacking players then super.

After Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement it was always going to take some time for the club to settle down. Sneaking into the top four already looks a distant enough aim this season and next season may come too soon for another successful side to return. At least by then you would hope that David Moyes will have learnt how to win a football match with this team.

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Food

My Top Ten Biscuits

Due to a playful yet strenuous discussion over the merits of certain biscuits I have decided to come up with this, a definitive list of my top ten biscuits. This was difficult and there were some hard decisions and several compromises. Of course, this is wholly down to my opinion so feel free to nod in approval or hurl abuse in disagreement or even add your own top ten in the comments. There are some old-school favourites and some controversial choices (one goes against The Queen but sod it) yet top ten lists are never going to please everyone so here goes.

10. Malted Milk

A grossly underrated biscuit and one of my childhood favourites. Just thinking of them takes me back to wondering if my head would explode with joy if I dunked one in a glass of milk. It didn’t and it so worth the dare.

Malted Milk

9. Fig Roll

The first of a few controversial entries which ponders the eternal question – ‘What exactly is a biscuit?’. I shall give you a clue to my thinking, all of these entries can be found in the same supermarket aisle. Anyway, you could argue that this is actually healthy and constitutes one of your five a day yet after eating a pack in one go I doubt your doctor would agree. Still, I wouldn’t blame you due to their rich, sticky interior and modest, complimentary casing.

Fig Roll

Fig Roll

8. Fruit Shrewsbury

Another fruity favourite is the Fruit Shrewsbury which, unlike most of these inclusions, is actually a little posh and tricky to find. That sweet combination of lemon, rosewater, caraway seeds and raisins is well worth tracking down though.

Fruit Sjrewsbury

Fruit Shrewsbury

7. Oreo

Yes, there’s a zillion varieties. Yes, the Oreo is American. Yes, it is still a damn fine biscuit. Up until my recent trip to America I thought I had tried every variety available but how wrong I was. Thanks to my Auntie I am now aware of the Heads or Tails (one side is chocolate biscuit, the other is vanilla) and the BerryBurst Ice Cream which tastes as orgasmic as it sounds. For the sake of argument I am going to include the mere classic black and white version; perfect for splitting, licking and dunking.

Oreo

Oreo

6. Jammie Dodger

Another childhood favourite. I’m not sure if it’s the playful heart shape or the sweet, gooey filling that lures me in. Incidentally, one of the most difficult omissions was shortbread and since that is the biscuit used here this inclusion proves a compromise.

Jammie Dodger

Jammie Dodger

5. Ginger Nut Creams

Another near-miss for this list was the humble Ginger Nut which is such a favourite I have even tried to re-create my own. Still, it’s tarted up comrade does get in as proof that nearly any biscuit can be improved with a layer of cream.

Ginger Cream

Ginger Cream

4. Dark Chocolate Digestives

As with most foodstuffs, a layer of chocolate also elevates many a biscuit. The humble Digestive is a favourite of my parents as it remains a solid, dunking biscuit; unpretentious, dependable and you know exactly how long you can leave it in your brew. However, the dark chocolate simply adds a layer of sophistication to it.

Dark Chocolate Digestive

Dark Chocolate Digestive

3. Penguin/TimTams

The biscuit that began the debate. It was not until I arrived into Melbourne that I discovered just how amazing this chocolate sandwich is. One of my housemates, Zoe, got me a cup of tea and excitedly produced a packet of TimTams (basically the Australian equivalent of a Penguin) and asked if I had heard of the ‘TimTam Slam’. I had not so she instructed me to dunk the biscuit into the tea and suck through the open end. My mind was blown. Not only is this an improvement on dunking but shortly after sucking through a gulp of your beverage you know it’s exactly the right time to scoff down the moist biscuit. After all that, it is still only ranked third.

TimTams

TimTams

2. Jaffa Cake

Apologies Maam. The Queen will disagree yet as the Jaffa Cake resides in the biscuit aisle I am implored to include it. Those unaware of the historical debate of whether a Jaffa Cake is a biscuit or a cake will be heartened to know that this actually went to a court of law, I certainly was. Under UK law when a biscuit is covered in chocolate it becomes a cake and subject to the standard VAT rate. However, in 1991 McVities challenged this ruling and came up against Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. The case went to the courts who were forced to settle the debate and they ruled in favour of McVities. One of the critical arguments being the difference between what happens when biscuits and cakes go stale. Of course, biscuits go softer yet the Jaffa Cake actually goes harder. Case closed.

There are few things I truly missed more than Jaffa Cakes when I was traveling, so much so that my Mum posted a few boxes across to Australia. It’s been well known that I can scoff a whole packet in one go and have even gone to the extreme of pimping it to a full size cake version. For the record, the jelly is not orange flavoured but tangerine.

Jaffa Cake

Jaffa Cake

1. Monte Carlo

Top of the pile is the Monte Carlo. Sorry. What do you mean you’ve not heard of it? Shame that. Australians are rightly mocked for their lack of culinary expertise yet in the Monte Carlo they have created a gem of a biscuit. Two oval shaped biscuits of golden syrup, honey and coconut are sandwiched with a layer of rich vanilla cream and raspberry jam. Every component compliments each other and having worked in several Australian offices I can vouch for it’s versatility in the dunking and splitting stakes. You can also gauge it’s popularity by the very fact that it’s own secret fan club would get to work early just to hoard a couple.

Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo

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