QPR 2 – 1 Sheffield Wednesday: Frankly Vulgar Matchday #1

Joey Barton. A triffic lad and the right sort by all accounts.

Joey Barton. A triffic lad and the right sort by all accounts.

Is it possible to make a triumphant return to the Championship? Surely such wordplay is an oxymoron, particularly given the circumstances in which QPR sunk to English football’s second tier last season. This quibble about words is nothing more than a thought experiment anyway, as QPR’s win yesterday was not particularly triumphal. A performance marked by some promise and a little awkwardness is unlikely to have the likes of Wigan and Watford running scared just yet.

In a packed and surprisingly jovial Loftus Road there was initially little sign of the trepidation that might be expected given that on the last two opening days Rangers managed to concede an impressive 9 goals without reply. The faithful even managed to loudly cheer the odious Joey Barton’s name from the outset. Nobody even having the temerity to abuse Joey for the rather Tevez-ish alice band he was sporting (clearly he feels entitled to such a dismal accessory after spending some time as a ‘continental’). They were rewarded with a reserved sort of sub-Beckham display from his position tucked in on the right wing, where he delivered a succession of ruminative passes and crosses until he was substituted in the second half. There was even the bizarre sight of Barton and the man he once described as a ‘pub player’, new signing Karl Henry, chatting happily with each other during a break in play. A forgiving mood was indeed abroad.

A mood punctured when Wednesday’s large and menacing striker Atdhe Nuhiu opened the scoring in the 19th minute. I feel a great deal of responsibility for the goal itself, due to a perverse, reverse curse of the casual commentator. As Nuhiu picked up the ball on the edge of the box I noted what an impressive start to the game he had made, he then of course spiralled the ball past Rob Green’s paw. Oh dear Will. There followed a pregnant twenty minutes that seemed to promise the rebirth of all the ugly feeling that had festered at QPR in previous months. As Barton and Alejandro Faurlin sent overly lavish passes into the stands one could sense the pressure of the previous season on all involved at QPR. ‘Arry Redknapp’s face was the colour of a slowly setting Hawaiian sunset and this condition was not just down to the heat of such a fine summer’s day.

Thankfully Rangers picked up and scored two quick goals to take the lead, first was Nedum Onuoha’s tap-in, celebrated with all the panache of a man wandering to the fridge to see if there is any milk left, and followed by a neat strike from the lesser-spotted Andy Johnson. The latter looked sharp throughout the match giving his best impression of an angry gnome chasing confused mammalian intruders from his favourite garden patch. Johnson, with his tendency to make Louis Saha look like the patron saint of physical fitness, will be an important asset to QPR if he manages to stay on the pitch and out of the physio’s room.

I’m required in the interests of fairness to say something about Sheffield Wednesday. Their wonderfully priggish and priapic away support was certainly refreshing after two seasons of mostly crap fans from The Best League In The World™ – good effort gentlemen. What was less refreshing was the return of the lamentable former Cardiff boss Dave Jones to Loftus Road. Jones, his fat face now resembling a cross between the owl that adorns Wednesday’s crest and Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, used his post match comments to make dubious remarks concerning two “penalties” he felt should have been awarded to his side during the game.

“It’s an embarrassment for the officials to miss two clear-cut penalties” blathered Jones. “We’ve been told by the League Managers Association and the Referee’s Society not to talk about it but something has to be done. How does he miss it?”

It’s safe to say Jones is one of those perennial Championship annoyances that I have not missed. A decent if unspectacular start for QPR though, although far better teams than Jones’ tinpot outfit lie in wait.

Star Man: Chris Kirkland really stood out. I read before the game that Wednesday’s keeper had almost single handedly kept them in the division last season and on the basis of this display it was easy to see why. Junior Hoilett impressed for QPR, looking particularly spritely in the first half.

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Papiss Cissé and The Hypocritical World of Buffet Religion

Papiss has been rolling the dice with his Newcastle future during the off-season. (Photo: Guardian.)

Papiss has been rolling the dice with his Newcastle future during the off-season. (Photo: Guardian.)

Papiss Cissé is a striker for Newcastle United and he is a muslim. He could also probably apply for an honorary doctorate in hypocrisy if such things existed. Newcastle’s new shirt sponsorship by the pay day loan firm Wonga has conflicted with Cissé’s belief, common under some interpretations of Sharia law, that Muslims must not benefit from lending money. The row has reached a stage where the player left the club’s pre-season tour of Portugal as he continued his anti-Wonga stance, although he’s clearly not anti-wonga per se as he earns a not undismal £40,000 a week.

Cissé has already been accused in some quarters of a cynical attempt to force a move from Newcastle for two reasons: Firstly he had no problem abnegating his religious beliefs before when the club strip was branded with financial services like Northern Rock and Virgin Money (he wore both kits). Secondly all the other muslim players at Newcastle of which there are quite a few, like Hatem Ben Arfa, have no problem wearing the new kit.

Then it was revealed that old Papiss enjoyed doing stuff like this in his spare time:

Papiss, pictured here in the fetching black gilet, fingering some chips.

Papiss, pictured here in the fetching black gilet, fingering some chips.

 

A spokesperson for Aspers Casino described Cisse as “an occasional visitor” who was “very well behaved and very welcome”, but would not confirm whether or not he placed any bets.

In Islam gambling is an even more grievous sin (or so I’ve been told anyway) than money lending. In the Holy Qur’an it is labelled as “Ithm al-kabir”  or “a very great sin”, a description incidentally only used elsewhere for the practice of drinking (not rape or slavery or murder eh?) It is probably for the best that Cissé hasn’t been papped sporting a pint of Newcastle Brown Ale in the city centre somewhere.

The player’s actions have of course been granted with all the usual vehemence you’d expect. Newcastle city councillor Dipu Ahad had this nugget of wisdom to share with us:

“People will say, ‘look, this is Islam they can pick and choose whatever they want’, and Islam isn’t about picking and choosing”

Ahad is of course utterly wrong. Life and by extension, religion is about picking and choosing things, and the process easily makes hypocrites and liars of us all.  A short quote from Dostoyevsky ought to be sufficient to cool the councillor’s umbrage:

But,  finally, there are things that man is afraid of divulging even to himself and every decent man has quite an accumulation of them.

I’d love to find someone who could honestly say they were not the same as the above. We all do things we shouldn’t sometimes and often these are not things we want to share with anyone else. It is easy (and will no doubt be commonplace) to argue that Newcastle deserve better than such duplicitous treatment from one of their star players. The football cliché of choice would be that he has ‘sullied the shirt’ or whatever. Personally I’d argue that Cissé’s objection to Wonga is not entirely without justification as by all accounts they are a horrid company. Yet it is Cissé who has been damaged most in this affair, simply because he now appears a hypocrite to all the world, however noble his original intentions.

Papiss is no different to the vast majority of religious believers on earth. Only by being a product of Catholic education was I able to spend a great deal of time observing this ‘pick and choose’ phenomenon first hand, and in my time at school contradictions such as the one so aptly displayed by Newcastle’s want-away striker were as common as rain in Wales.

I’ve met many inspirational and intelligent Catholics and to a man and to a woman they were just as flawed as me, except that the flaw was dug even deeper into them by their poisonous subscription to a pointless faith. Some of these people, who professed to love everybody equally, would happily envisage condemning homosexuals to fiery torture sub specie aeternitatis. Religion makes it easy to believe and espouse two completely contradictory notions at the same time. Confront any believer with whatever obvious discrepancy of their faith you can find (there are thousands in Christianity alone) and you will be confronted with some wretched theodicy or breezily unsatisfying explanation. They may as well be as mute as a stone.

This kind of thing is not a good symptom for us humans. Samuel Butler claimed that life is a bit like playing the violin in public and learning the instrument as you go on. If we attempt to be the best we can be without recourse to the blood-flecked codicies and manuals of laughably primitive tribes, hypocrisy won’t disappear, but it will certainly be less pervasive as it is now amongst the parties of God. If Cissé had the good fortune to be an atheist he wouldn’t have been able to undermine his own cause quite so easily.

Losing Suarez Would Gnaw at Liverpool’s Ambitions

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“Thats the only taste of the champions league he’s had this season” – HAHA STOP IT YOU’RE KILLING ME.

Luis Suarez bit somebody yesterday. Whilst playing in a football match. Unfortunately for him this time there is no Uruguayan cultural precedent he can fall back on, no ancient tradition of biting opponents forearms that goes back four generations that he can use to shield himself from the shrill and hysterical opprobrium of the football classes. Racism is one thing apparently. But biting somebody, going full on fucking Dracula? Woah. Thats a whole other case entirely.

Reading online forums and listening to phone-in shows yesterday you’d think that Suarez had ripped Ivanovic’s arm off and beaten the poor bloke into chunks of bloody Serbian meat in front of the Kop, such was the level of anger, the simmering rage that was out there last night. The calls were like this: ‘Suarez should be banned for six months.’ ‘Suarez should never play for Liverpool or in this country again.’ ‘Listen Alan, I’m as nice a guy as any of your callers, but I want to see Suarez’ head on a pike somewhere prominent on the Anfield Road, so we set an example to all the young kids out there.’ The level of hysteria was somewhere between the arrival of bubonic plague in Western Europe in the fourteenth century and that time when everybody saw Janet Jackson’s nipple during the Super Bowl half-time show.

Imagine if Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick happened in this environment. There would be an emergency session of Parliament. Spontaneous rioting would break out. In scenes akin to the final act of The Wicker Man, poor Eric would be dragged by his heels by a braying pagan mob to a giant effigy of Sir Alex Ferguson in the middle of the Old Trafford pitch and burnt alive. Only then would our public bloodlust be satiated.

Away from my sarcasm for a moment and it is possible to see why Suarez’ bite has made such a mark. England is a country of meadows, lanes, sloping green hills and cricket squares. It’s the county of Milton, Orwell and Auden. Notions of fair play, of sportsmanship are ingrained into us from an early age. One sportsman biting another one on the field of play is completely at odds with these ideals.

I’ve been told by Liverpool fans that Suarez fits into another bracket, another part of our sporting culture, apparently he is a ‘maverick entertainer’. Personally I never conflated ‘maverick entertainer’ with being a racist, biting, diving scumbag. It is very hard to feel sympathy for those Liverpool fans who are only now angered and offended by Suarez. Anybody with an internet connection could see that he was hardly the sharpest crayon in the box, that he wasn’t so much a loose cannon but one that is hurtling down a steep hill at an alarming velocity.

This is even before he moved to Liverpool. In the years since Suarez has played some sublime football, racially abused a fellow professional and spent as much time rolling around on the floor looking for a penalty as he has slaloming through opposition defences with his trademark dribble. The only people who should really panic about this incident are the management of Liverpool FC. Suarez has only been there for two full seasons and he is not only the best player at Liverpool, but on the evidence of this season, the best player in the league. He will find another club. When Liverpool have to sink their teeth in to the transfer market to replace him they will do well to find a player with footballing skills as delicious as the ones Suarez has.

Adel Taarabt (A love letter to)

 

“Nutmegs… I prefer.”

Words can make a man. In the case of Adel Taarabt the three words above and the aphorism they form embedded him, and his unique brand of football even deeper into the folklore of Queens Park Rangers. Maybe its the way he says them, a  little smile as he talks, the pause and then “prefer” – words to accompany his deeds. These words aren’t idle, they aren’t empty: Adel means it when he says he prefers nutmegs. From Joe Allen to Joe Cole, ‘Fat’ Frank Lampard to occasional “Splash” contestant Ashley Young, there aren’t many players left in the top two divisions of English league football who haven’t endured this Moroccan’s particular brand of footballing humiliation. His skills have become something ritualistic, a sacrifice Adel makes to appease the crowd, and to satiate his own artistic lust.

A winger and a prayer.

A winger and a prayer.

Life always throws up mavericks, originals in the truest sense of the word. These people tend to end up in one of two places; under the Westway, living in a cardboard box surviving off chewing gum spat out of the windows of passing cars or they become outrageous success’. Taarabt is heading for the latter. Why is he an original? For a start he doesn’t look like a footballer, in the same way that Andres Iniesta looks like a concierge or the bloke who sorts letters in the post office, and Michu looks as if he should be a roadie for Nickelback, Taarabt simply doesn’t have the svelte, streamlined body of today’s standard professional footballer. He is stocky, squat and boxy, his arms are unhinged and move as if they constantly caught in a strong breeze. There is a nonchalance to Taarabt, a swagger not seen at QPR since the days of Stan Bowles. 

Unhappy bedfellows: Taarabt and the Tottenham shirt.

Unhappy bedfellows: Taarabt and the Tottenham shirt.

“We used to play in the French national team and he was just nutmegging the same guy for maybe four or five times, the manager used to tell him, ‘If you don’t give the ball, you come off.’ And he didn’t care. He was bringing us penalties, scoring goals.” – Armand Traoré

“I arrived to find that, at three o’clock in the afternoon, it was already night. I played for the Tottenham reserves against Chelsea and I could not understand how the English played. Somebody put me on the floor but there were no free-kicks, nothing. The referee just played on. When you play in France it’s quiet, the players do not talk. In England I hear players saying, ‘F**k off. Man on. Come on’. Players in my team, they are shouting at me. I think they’re insulting me.” – Adel Taarabt

Becoming a success wasn’t easy; Taarabt’s natural game as a teenager, his desire to play unencumbered by little things like positioning and tactical discipline, his bad attitude and his inability to speak the language made him the latest in a long line of enfant terrible’s to arrive in England, at Tottenham in this case, in January 2007. After two weeks in England he wanted to leave and by his last season at Spurs Juande Ramos refused to even give him a shirt number (the same fate befell Kevin Prince-Boateng who is now a superstar at AC Milan).Taarabt’s time at Tottenham, with its fall outs and frustrations, damaged his reputation amongst the mainstream media and football fans in general in a way in which it has yet to recover. Having arrived at Tottenham in 2007 hailed as the next Zidane, Taarabt wound up at Queens Park Rangers, a player with a reputation for being a ‘fruitcake’ found himself at a club run by fruitcakes.

It worked though. The things Taarabt did in the Championship for QPR between 2008 and 2011 won’t be repeated soon by any player in the division. Take the goal against Preston above. Taking the ball down from a goal kick inside his own half, Taarabt turns, brushing aside two challenges, rinses a third Preston player with a nutmeg, pushes the ball a few yards further and then nonchalantly swerves the ball into the top corner from 25 yards outside the goal. C’est magnifique. Watch it again. Few players at any level score goals as good as that. Few players are capable of that at any level.

He promised so much in his early loan spells at QPR. Neil Warnock took Adel under his wing once he became manager in 2009. For both it was a revelatory experience:

“Warnock’s wife [Sharon] has looked after me and his kids have been like family to me. I cannot describe our relationship. Sometimes I think God has brought this guy to me, I am very difficult guy to control but Neil does it.It is special between me and him, he changed my life. He tells me to just go out onto the pitch and enjoy it. After all that he has given me I try and repay him.

“When a manager tells you, ‘I want to play the team around you,’ then you think, ‘This manager loves me’. At half-time against Preston [in November], I wasn’t playing so well. Neil knows I don’t like it when the other players shout at me. So he took me to the showers and said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And in the second half I scored two goals.” – Adel Taarabt on his relationship with Neil Warnock.

Thanks to Warnock’s shrewd management, 2010/11 was the most entertaining season of Taarabt’s career to date. It encompassed a sensational series of displays – his movement, his strength, ability to keep the ball in seemingly impossible spaces, his link-up play, his willingness to shoot (rewarded with a plethora of outrageous goals such as the one against Swansea above) all made him a worthy player of the year that season. With Wilfred Zaha moving to Manchester United for a fee that could rise to £15 million pounds, it is worth bearing in mind that the former has done nothing in the Championship consistently comparable to Taarabt – yes Zaha is a good dribbler, yes he is less ‘risky’ but he doesn’t have a talent anywhere near as off-the-wall, as enigmatic as Taarabt’s.

What was astonishing about that season was the ease with which Taarabt did extraordinary things. Here was a man who played like a boy; as if this was his own game, as if normal considerations didn’t apply. It was a destructive season – Taarabt destroyed teams and reputations, in a way that was as thrilling as it was unconventional. Having had the pleasure of witnessing it I would say it’s the finest individual season any player has had in the second division of English football in the last decade.

“Mark Hughes had a big impact on him, showed him how much of a good player he is and on the other hand he has to work hard. I think it was a really good step for Adel to have that manager.” – Armand Traoré

“He can be a top, top player. He’s like Di Canio, doing things nobody else can do. He nutmegs people, he goes past two or three and they’re hanging on to him, but they can’t get the ball off him.” – Harry Redknapp 

If Mark Hughes has any legacy at QPR other than potential ruination in the years to come, it is his impact on Taarabt. Hughes turned him into a professional footballer again after a poor start to the 2011/12 season when injury, wasteful immaturity and the arrival of Joey Barton at the club derailed his progress. Taarabt in 2013 is a different proposition to the player of years past. He is more mature, more of a leader and far harder working than ever before. In a QPR team riddled with rank inadequacies this season he has stood out like a particularly obese man in a crowd full of flesh-eating cadavers.

“There were, inevitably, times when he overcomplicated things and lost the ball in unnecessary situations, but his skill and imagination when playing the false nine role was marvellous. Taarabt saw little of the ball in dangerous positions, yet managed to manufacture genuine goalscoring opportunities” – Michael Cox on Taarabt’s performance against Tottenham

Harry Redknapp quickly realised that Taarabt is the only player at QPR good enough to drag them out of the mire they are in, even playing him as a lone striker in impressive performances against Chelsea and Tottenham. Playing as a ‘false nine’ Taarabt dispelled the stereotypes that have followed him around since his teenage years. He has come of age. People who sit in their armchairs tweeting about Taarabt being “lazy” and “arrogant”, are lamentably lazy and arrogant themselves.

Redknapp indicating the length of a certain part of Stephane M'bia's anatomy.

Redknapp indicating the length of a certain part of Stephane M’bia’s anatomy.

Personally I feel great affection for Adel Taarabt. He is symbolic of certain qualities – a triumph of imagination and talent over the mechanical, statistical side of modern football. In England we don’t appreciate this. Especially if the player is a foreigner. I get the impression that metaphorically, most people would rather watch James Milner slowly peel an orange instead of seeing Taarabt juggle five of them in the room next door. They want order, not chaos. Yet if QPR are to stay up this season it will be by playing to Taarabt’s strengths not ostracising him for his occasional bouts of carelessness. After two years of transfer business at QPR that has seen millions of pounds wasted, it remains a fact that it will be by embracing Taarabt’s chaotic talent that the club remains in the Premiership.