Monday, 28 October 2013

Knulp - Hermann Hesse

The works of Hermann Hesse have been an inspiration and a comfort to me in recent times, and they never fail to engender a sense of well-being and equilibrium.  Feeling the need for those restorative qualities once again, I recently read his novel Knulp, originally published in 1915.

The novel is divided into three "tales", Early Spring, My Recollections of Knulp and The End. It touches on familiar territory for Hesse;namely themes of self-discovery and "closure". The character Knulp is a wanderer, who straight society would regard as "rootless", and who delights in his carefree existence, but is still somehow subject to occasional restlessness and soul-searching. The latter manifest themselves in the final chapters, as Knulp is afflicted by a serious illness, and wonders whether his life has had a purpose, after an old friend queries whether he has utilized his talents for the best.

The first tale Early Spring serves partly as exposition, detailing some of Knulp's traits and attitudes The second part My Recollections of Knulp is told from the perspective of a travelling companion of Knulp, and it is here perhaps that the first signs of ambiguity appear in our hero's mind, though it is not shown overtly in the narrative. The final portion, The End, is where Knulp goes home, both literally and metaphorically, returning to his home town, ostensibly for medical treatment, but also to ruminate on his childhood, and there he finds his "answer".

I found myself identifying more and more with the central character of the novel. He had embarked on a course, but was now assailed by self-doubt, uncertainty and even stagnation, wondering indeed whether he was indeed fulfilled, or possessed by self-delusion.

As with many Hesse books, there are some wonderfully moving little scenes, the one which touched me most here was the one where Knulp and the servant girl Barbele bade each other farewell after a night out.

There is some examination of the conflict and tension between, on the one hand, curiosity and inquisitiveness, and on the other, comfort and familiarity. This soon gave way to the question of what actually constitutes "roots" and "home" Is it a physical place, or a state of mind?

The regular Hesse concern of a "homecoming" as a metaphor for closure as death approaches is deployed here too. The closing passages centre on Knulp's encounter with "God", although it is tempting to see God in this context as a metaphor for the world at large and the character's friends and relatives. Concerned that his life since childhood has been worthless, Knulp receives assurance that his life has been of value, that although he has not been of "value" to others in a conventional "bourgeois" way, he has served a purpose by his cheeriness and warmth to others, and the way in which his demeanour and sheer presence precipitated thoughts in others. The memorable phrase "homesickness for freedom" is employed to describe the sentiments which Knulp might have instilled in people who have lived a more staid existence. Again, the equating of childhood with freedom and non-conformism is noticeable.

Knulp is another striking and thought-provoking work, subtly different from other similar Hesse works, mostly by virtue of its structure. Most of all, like many other entries in the author's bibliography, it has the capacity to make one feel glad to be alive, and to shake one out of any apathy and inertia which might linger.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Brilliant Orange - David Winner

Continuing my incessant posts about recent football-related reading, here are a few observations on another acclaimed work, Brilliant Orange, David Winner's exploration of Dutch football.  It is appropriately sub-titled "The neurotic genius of Dutch football".

Not your average football-themed tome, this one, drawing as it does parallels and connections between the Dutch approach to football and characteristics of the Dutch people and nation, even extending these analogies to its geography and topography. People may view some of Winner's arguments and theories as outlandish, or even pretentious, but they are so well presented and reasoned that they demand recognition and serious consideration.

The author observes how changes in post-war society, including some peculiar to Holland, affected the path which the game followed there. Much attention of course is focussed on the imperious Ajax team of the early 1970s, and the enigmatic and iconic Dutch national team from the same decade. The 1974 World Cup Final is analysed, both for how its outcome was determined by Dutch idiosyncrasies, and how that outcome in turn impacted on of generations of Dutchmen and women.

Another virtue of this book is its relative brevity. It says what it wants and needs to say without being excessively earnest or self-conscious. It is certainly not as laborious a read as some other books of its type. It employs diverse topics to get its point across. One is left in some awe of how the tale has unfolded,and with a much enhanced understanding of why it unfolded as it did....

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Leeds United 4 Birmingham City 0

Club managers often bemoan international breaks, because they tend to interrupt the rhythm of teams, painstakingly built up over a period of weeks or months.  After today's match, the Leeds manager Brian McDermott admitted that the World Cup qualifying hiatus had benefited his charges. Tactical fine-tuning, a pause for reflection, and a general clearing of the air were all evident in the 4-0 victory over Birmingham City at Elland Road.

After a nervy and scrappy opening couple of minutes, Leeds settled down and played some direct but composed football, with a welcome lack of anxiety. It probably helped that the shortcomings in the Birmingham defence made themselves apparent very early on, and gave Leeds encouragement. Another thing which was noticeable throughout was the physical commitment of the players, not shirking challenges or 50-50 situations.

It would be easy after this performance to say that everything in the garden is rosy, but this was one (admittedly impressive) display at home against a team clearly lacking both confidence and cohesion. We need to reserve judgement until this "new Leeds" has prevailed in more adverse circumstances, against more buoyant and resilient opposition. At points in the match, too, one can see why there has been speculation about the recruitment of more strikers to the club.

After half-time, Birmingham responded, either to the pull of professional pride, or to a diatribe from Lee Clark, or a combination of the two. It would be exaggerating to say that Leeds had to weather a storm, but when openings were carved out, United retained their shape and Paddy Kenny made a couple of good saves when called upon.  Yes, the post was hit, but I think Leeds have earned a bit of good fortune!

Another encouraging feature of the second half was the way in which Leeds used the ball. Despite having less possession after the interval, they were always looking to distribute the ball imaginatively and calmly, even when under pressure.

A good overall team performance, but Austin, Smith, Byram and Mowatt stood out.

Definitely something to build on, but beware of false dawns....

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Back Home - England and the 1970 World Cup - Jeff Dawson

Continuing the thread of a few of my recent posts, another football book which is well worth checking out is Back Home, Jeff Dawson's immensely readable and vivid account of England's campaign in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

When reading this book, I was almost persuaded that I had been transported back in time, and was looking over the shoulders of the members of the England party, and bearing personal witness to those dramatic and poignant events.

The author also weaves into the tale a sense of the changing times in the wider world, and how these were reflected in the realms of football. He evokes the tenor of the era; a period of uncertainty and opportunity, innovation and upheaval. Football was enduring its own parallel growing pains with the onset of commercialism, the increasing role and power of television, and a perception that artistry was being negated and marginalized by violent play, negativity and "pragmatism".

To be frank, I found the "behind-the-scenes" parts of Back Home, dealing with England's preparations and training camp, much more entertaining than what happened out on the pitch. The main incidents in England's four contests in the tournament have been recounted a million times over, but many aspects of the build-up and aftermath were less familiar.

The story is partially told through the eyes of the media and press, perhaps aptly, because 1970 was when the media and commercial circus and hype surrounding the World Cup really began in earnest.  Colour television pictures, beamed by satellite into every living room, coupled with the "reflected glory" from 1966, undoubtedly contributed to this. Dawson deftly conveys how the World Cup had become a global communal celebration, which of course it remains to this day. The novelty and freshness of this concept at that time is one of the things which created a mythic glow around the 1970 event.

The Bobby Moore/Bogota saga is covered in some detail, the most comprehensive account of it which I have encountered.

Alf Ramsey is treated quite sympathetically overall, I think, although the book does not shrink from pointing out his occasional lapses, and the shortcomings in his team from an aesthetic standpoint.

The over-riding feeling which emerges from this highly enjoyable work is how well prepared England were for the 1970 event, even more so than for 1966. Much is said about how they addressed the problems of altitude and heat. The first-choice eleven, and indeed the overall squad, was stronger, more experienced and more resilient than before. However, I think that the team fell victim to its own compactness. The preparation may have been too meticulous and rigid, failing to allow some slack for unforeseen occurrences, and possibly omitting any credible Plan B. The lack of wingers, and the consequent burden placed on overlapping full-backs, were also factors in the downfall.

Overall, Back Home really brings to life a fondly remembered event, being evocative, amusing and informative. Highly recommended.

England 2 Poland 0

Last night's match was agony to watch, and it can't have been much fun for the England players either. The expressions on the faces after the final whistle betrayed relief more than jubilation, of a great weight being removed from the collective shoulders. Anyway, the important thing is that qualification has been secured, and the hard work and planning for Brazil 2014 can commence in earnest.

On paper at least, England picked a more compact and solid formation, but still the defence was much more of a worry than the creative element of the team. In the event, the feared threat from Robert Lewandowski barely materialised.  Also, England did not require "impact" substitutes, but men to replace tired legs and help to run down the clock...

The game was surprisingly open and stretched for long periods, which was great from an entertainment perspective, but surely not totally to the liking of Roy Hodgson. Whilst England sustained some of the good habits which had been a feature of the match against Montenegro, particularly the interplay involving the front four players, in other respects they were patchy and tentative. The defence just about did enough whenever a threat presented itself, but no more than that.

Once again, Andros Townsend was a breath of fresh air with his uninhibited and direct runs at the opposition defenders. As has often happened in the past, England have discovered a valuable and potent new weapon from an unexpected source ahead of a major tournament. It is hard to see how, fitness permitting, he can be ignored when the party of twenty three is chosen for Brazil.

Much of the second half became very worrying for England, and it was a case of battening down the hatches, and hoping for the storm to pass. It seemed that Poland eventually lost heart and morale when they failed to convert their spells of pressure and dominance into goals. Once this occurred, it was a case of bolstering the midfield with fresh substitutes, avoiding mistakes and using up the remaining seconds.

It was appropriate that Steven Gerrard scored the crucial second goal, as the skipper has shown real commitment to the cause, in his understated way.  Quiet, unfussy leadership, in a similar vein to Roy Hodgson.

Thoughts naturally turn now to next summer, England's prospects, and the likely shape and composition of the team and squad which will go to the World Cup. If Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney and Cole are removed, then this group looks desperately short on experience. Lampard is clearly in the autumn of his career, but will Hodgson feel obliged to take him to Brazil, purely for his experience?. He may yet have work to do to fully cement his place.

The Baines versus Cole debate is very intriguing, and a healthy dilemma to have. It is one of the few areas of the pitch where England have an embarrassment of riches.  It would be very harsh on the Everton man to have to step down, despite Cole's excellence and consistency over a decade or more. Baines looks very much at home in the England side, and I would be tempted to give him the nod. The competition from Cole should spur him to maintain, or even surpass, his current standard.

Another issue which entered my mind when watching the Poland game was whether England need more of a focal point in attack, to hold the ball up.  Whilst the system exhibited in the past two matches has been effective and exciting, it is always nice to have a Plan B, particularly if the stronger nations work out how to effectively combat the likes of Welbeck and Sturridge.  In citing the need for a conventional "centre forward" however, one has to confess that no strong candidates for such a role exactly scream out for consideration!

More fine-tuning in friendlies will hopefully help England to find the correct balance, and the feasibility of the current style in Brazilian conditions will also have to be factored in. England have sometimes struggled when trying to maintain a high tempo mode of playe in warmer climes, although it seems that the weather in Brazil will not be uniformly hot as it was in, say, the two Mexico World Cups of the past.

It looks though as though Hodgson and the players have engendered a good spirit in the camp.  This group of players is noticeably less flamboyant and "showbiz" than previous generations, and this may be no bad thing. There appears to be a real determination to do well, coupled with realism and pragmatism.  You never know, the Three Lions might just surprise a few people....

Saturday, 12 October 2013

England 4 Montenegro 1

This was the most nervous I have been whilst watching an England game for a very long time, but after some alarms and nervy passages, the victory seemed relatively comfortable in the end.

England's brisk start, as embodied by the positive runs of Andros Townsend, turned out to be illusory.  The intent was not really matched by end-product, and soon a measure of frustration and impatience entered into England's play, and the crowd became restless. That all too familiar malaise of the national team, the grip of fear and anxiety, has not been remedied.

The widespread wisdom was that an opening goal by England would dissipate much of the tension. In the event, this did not occur. Even after Wayne Rooney's effort early in the second period, England were ill-at-ease.  Even the comical second goal did not fully liberate England.  Watching them is seldom a straightforward or serene business, and the Montenegrins, who showed occasional glimpses of real quality, duly pulled one back!

At times, another old England failing showed itself; the inability to control proceedings by retaining possession in order to soak up pressure and draw the sting from teams. The initiative is surrendered too regularly for comfort.

Andros Townsend really deserved his goal, having shown enterprise and drive all evening, and crucially lacking the inhibitions of some of his colleagues.

This match did throw up some intriguing questions about the shape of the England team going forward. The Rooney-Welbeck-Sturridge axis shows genuine promise, with the kind of interplay and pace which is required to unlock defences at international level. If Townsend manages to consolidate his position, is it not desirable in this system for a proper holding midfielder to be introduced to this system of play?  This would help to provide a more durable platform for the attackers. In addition, it would give some insurance in a defensive sense.  Whatever our technical deficiencies may have been in recent decades, England have usually been quite solid at the back, giving away comparatively few goals. The current occupants of the back five do not quite inspire such confidence.

I would be tempted to be more radical still, and have perhaps two "holding" players in the middle of the field, and leave out one or two prestigious names to accommodate this innovation.  I can't see Roy Hodgson doing this, though. The England coach should be applauded for playing such an adventurous formation against Montenegro.  Time will tell whether he will persist with that formation, but it does have potential.

Of more immediate concern is the match against Poland on Tuesday evening. It should be monumentally nerve-racking!

Friday, 11 October 2013

'66! - Roger Hutchinson

Just lately, football, and in particular football history, has acted as something of a "comfort blanket" for me. This process has extended to re-reading some football books.  One of these was "'66", by Roger Hutchinson, which describes itself as "The inside story of England's World Cup triumph".  Reading it, and studying other material, has given much food for thought.

As well as being a detailed and enjoyable chronicle of Alf Ramsey's stewardship of the England team from the time of his appointment to the end of the 1966 jamboree, this also serves as a dispassionate and frank assessment of the merits of that team, and its effects on football at home and in the wider world.

Even at the time, many football connoisseurs, including some in England, expressed unease about the methods employed to achieve the "triumph", even amid the patriotic afterglow of the tournament.  This book gives considerable rein to those sentiments, and the feeling is reinforced, rightly or wrongly, of a monochrome and functional team, surrounded by embittered and aggrieved opponents and detractors.

This is not to say that honest toil, organisation and endeavour should be deplored, but the author's contention is that the events of the summer of 1966 represented a defining moment in the ending of football's "Age of Innocence". The signs of corrosion had been there in defensive, cautious and violent tactics employed in various areas of the planet, but the World Cup seemed to place some kind of seal on the process, and looking back, was the 1970 event in Mexico perhaps an anomaly, conditioned by heat, altitude and a freakishly talented Brazilian outfit?

I don't altogether share the pessimism, and for me the football played in the early to mid-70s, particularly by Dutch and German teams, was intoxicating and exhilarating, combining technical excellence, tactical sophistication and physical ardour when needed. What the author, and other observers, seemed to judge correctly was the knock-on effect of Ramsey's approach on British football, its distrust of maverick, non-conformist talent, and the subordination of virtuosity to industry, and to the mundane and prosaic. The quotes attributed to some British footballing luminaries on this topic are especially eye-opening....

There are some fascinating quotes from the members of the England squad, providing an insight into the times, and Ramsey's own personality and methods. Long-forgotten episodes from the 1966 World Cup are recounted, many relating to the team's preparations and the national mood.

Despite the constant references to the contentious elements of his tenure, many of Alf Ramsey's admirable virtues and traits come through, including his man-management skills and his steadfast loyalty to the players. The respect which he commanded from the members of the team is also clearly evident.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Inverting The Pyramid - Jonathan Wilson

The past couple of decades have witnessed what appears to have been a boom in "serious" sports books, the ones which the "educated middle classes" like to read and smugly refer to at dinner parties.  Indeed, the market for such books has become so saturated that it is difficult to discern which ones are genuinely meritorious, and which ones have been hyped by wishful thinking and "praise by association".

Not long ago, whilst browsing in my favourite bookshop, I noticed "Inverting The Pyramid" by Jonathan Wilson, described as a "history of football tactics", and originally published circa 2008, I believe.  I vaguely recalled it being praised somewhere in the media, and it looked like the sort of book which might actually teach me something.

There is a real richness and immersiveness to this book, the sort of work which brims with anecdotes and insight. Like me, I dare say that most people will take very little time to read it from cover to cover. Wilson adopts a very readable and accessible style, emphasizing the nuances of his subject but refraining from indulging too much in the esoteric.

The author devotes much space not only to many forgotten pioneers and visionaries of football tactics, but also to influential events in parts of the world seldom given credit by the mainstream media.  Hence the passages documenting the innovations in the former Soviet Union, and those detailing the groundbreaking work of various coaches whose names will be unfamiliar to modern audiences. I found the chapters dealing with the "Danubian" school particularly compelling and vibrant.  The diversity of developments in South America is also explored in an illuminating way.

Another thing which I found commendable about "Inverting the Pyramid" was that it does not fall into the trap, all too common with such books, of attributing unwarranted importance to broader socio-political trends in the context of football.  Where this was clearly relevant and material then Wilson mentions it, but thankfully he presents a largely balanced and plausible picture.

There is some bemoaning of British (or more specifically, English) insularity and conservatism, but this is dealt with constructively, and the author is also quick to point out insidious and retrograde trends which occurred in other areas of the globe.

The book draws to a close by bringing the story up to date (i.e. the current millennium), and offering some thoughts as to where football may be heading in a tactical sense. Things end on an optimistic note, holding out the hope that football is going through one of its expansive and progressive phases, after a couple of decades of caution and negativity.

An enjoyable and thoughtful book, which will encourage its readers to seek out more knowledge.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


It sometimes troubles and mystifies me why certain music artists did not appear clearly on my radar until I approached middle-age.  One of these is the Canadian rock group Rush. When I was first becoming seriously immersed in music in the early 1980s, Rush was one of the biggest bands on the planet, by virtue of the sales of their albums "Permanent Waves" and "Moving Pictures".  Looking back, everything about them should have appealed to my musical instincts, but they largely passed me by.  I was aware of their existence, but little beyond that. Only in recent months have I begun to recognize what a talented and under-rated band they are.

What is the secret of their success and appeal, beyond identifying that they are exponents of well-crafted, melodic and intelligent rock music?  Well, they overlap several "constituencies", sharing some of the characteristics of "progressive rock".  In addition, their capacity for writing catchy melodies with universal lyrics has helped to secure some mainstream acceptance. The "power trio" format gives their music an energy and agility, permitting the music to breathe, and the individual members to express themselves.  The muscular and vibrant rhythm section is at times reminiscent of the Yes sound of the early 1970s.  Of course, Neil Peart's lyrics add another dimension. All of these factors somehow coalesce to give Rush a distinct identity and flavour, almost a separate genre by themselves.

The early material shows the band evolving, with a more homogeneous style owing much to Led Zeppelin. The debut album clearly lacks the stamp of Neil Peart, both rhythmically and lyrically. It would be easy to dismiss that first record as "meat and potatoes" hard rock, but this charge is negated by the clearly stylish and superior musicianship.  "Before and After" does offer some pointers to the future, sonically at least, and "Working Man" too shows hints of being a prototype for later endeavours.

On "Fly By Night",  a glance at the song titles alone is evidence of an advance, with the signature Rush sound gradually emerging; that uncluttered, almost crystalline thing which is less futuristic than timeless. The drumming of Neil Peart adds dynamism, and the rhythm section as a whole is more propulsive and prominent. On this second album, there is a more varied palette, and more finesse and subtlety is clearly evident. There is more scope for improvisation and virtuosity, but within a recognizable framework.

Quickly, the recordings show a band blossoming and gaining in confidence and musical ambition.  Longer tracks co-existed on the albums with more concise musical statements, and even the "epics" avoided many of the pitfalls of other "progressive" acts, the energy and spontaneity doing much to ward off any charges of self-indulgence.  The mid-to-late 70s witnessed probably Rush's most fertile period artistically, with grandiose lyrical themes fusing appealingly with that distinctive instrumental fabric.

As already highlighted, the early 1980s was probably the group's commercial zenith, and this period saw the recording of perhaps their best known composition, "The Spirit of Radio".  Purists may derjide this as a "sell-out" and a compromise, but for me it is a consummate rock single, breaking the rules without really drawing attention to itself in that sense. The song has instant appeal, in its evocative subject matter, but this tends to obscure the fact the song has depth, melodically speaking. Packing several genres into just under five minutes - hard rock, prog rock, new wave, power pop, reggae etc. It sounds as exciting now as it did over three decades ago.

I also feel that the members of Rush have not been given due recognition for their individual instrumental prowess. In a three-piece group, there is no place to hide, and each musician has to hold his own and play a central role in the action, bearing an equal share of the burden.  This was very much exemplified by Rush. Alex Lifeson in particular is under-estimated by the critics.

It is heartening to see the respect and affection with which Rush are still viewed by people around the world, even if the musical "establishment" seems slow to accord the same accolades and deference. A band whose talent and integrity are an example others could follow.