- I'm on a real short story kick at at the moment and the best young short story writer I've recently come across is named Wells Tower (which, yes, is his real name). His collection, "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" is fantastic, full of finely honed, beautifully written stories which are remarkably well-observed and funny, truthful and occasionally disturbing. Yet they are generally heavier on plot than the microscopic observation which dominates the form of the modern short story. Things happen in Tower's stories. There are unexpected twists and turns. Never more so than in the title story of the collection, a story of a Viking Raid on a coastal town and its consequences, narrated in a modern American idiom by a decidedly reluctant pillager. The first line gives a little of the flavour: "Just as we were all getting back into the mainland domestic groove, somebody started in with dragons and crop blights from across the North Sea." It is a great story, unlike anything else I've ever read. And you can find it in its entirety right here.
- The pictures of Megan Fox dressed as the hottest Old West Whore since Claudia Cardinale on the set of "Jonah Hex" set me to pondering on the character of Jonah himself and Western comics in general. I like Western Comics. From the classic Fleischer Hex stories (particularly those with Garcia-Lopez art) to Mobius on "Blueberry", to "Lucky Luke" and Azzarello's "Loveless", Westerns make for good comics. All this in turn led me to check out "High Moon", a Western-Horror on DC's web-comic imprint, "Zuda". I don't read many web-comics and this is an interesting read on that basis alone, for what it suggests are the strengths and drawbacks of the medium itself. The story and art are ok, but the premise is pretty good and its worth a glance. The image above, on the other hand, is a classic Nick Cardy "Bat Lash" cover that I just had to include because its so lovely...
- "Batman: Dead End", the impressively slick and assured 2003 short fan film featuring Batman, the Joker and Alien and Predator, was primarily intended as a showreel for the directorial skill of Director Sandy Collora. Well, it worked, as "Hunter Prey", Collora's debut feature, is nearing release. A determinedly 70s-retro feel to the photography and design instantly marks it out as something different to most mainstream SF. Basically, it looks somewhat like a Star Wars fan film. But a really good one, with lots of violence:
- As I've written before, there are only a handful of Playmakers in the classic mode surviving in modern football. Riquelme, Diego, Gourcuff, to name a few, as well as the Brazilian Ederson, who is being played out of position at Lyon to accommodate the waning talents of Juninho. In previous seasons however, he was phenomenal for Nice, scoring regular belters like this one:
- Next Season, Arsenal will wear a Green ("Hunter Green", to be precise) away kit in Europe. Supposedly in homage to the (reputedly unlucky) away kit worn in 1982-83 and rapidly abandoned (in a similar vein, Man United's new kit is a tribute to thier 1909 kit, White-V from the shoulders and all). Not too many clubs play in green, is the thing. Countries (Ireland, Ivory Coast, Mexico for instance) do, since its a staple of many flags and even key to certain National identities and myths. But disregarding those that wear green stripes (like Celtic, Betis and Sporting Lisbon), how many Big clubs play in Green? None in England, unless you count Plymouth Argyle as a Big club. Saint Etienne in France, Werder Bremen in Germany, Palmeiras, Panathanaikos...In a world inescapaby dominated by red and blue, green is an unfashionable colour for a football shirt, it seems. A friend suggested to me that this was down to the folk superstition associating green with bad luck, which makes some sense, I suppose. What also makes sense is that Nike would ignore any such superstition in its lust for money through increased sales of as many new kits as it can churn out.
- One of the great voices of 90s Indie, singing one of the best songs of 90s Indie:
Topside? Jacqueline Bisset, officially the most beautiful woman in the world back then. Seriously.
Part 1. How the hell do you get out of the hole you're in?
The TV Option
Val Kilmer needs a TV show. He's got to that stage in his career, hasn't he? Slightly desperate. On the verge of Direct-to-DVD forever. Only TV can save him. its where old Movie Stars go when their movies get too TV, anyway... I know he played the voice of KITT in the Knight Rider remake last year, but thats not quite what I have in mind. A different kind of vehicle entirely is required. He needs to play an unusual or eccentric lead character in a show named after him. Either a dazzlingly brilliant Attorney, a dazzlingly brilliant Surgeon or a just bemusedly brilliant Cop. I think a Cop is the best fit, given that he's a big guy and he went through all that Weapons training with Andy McNab for Michael Mann's "Heat" (US army training uses a clip of Kilmer changing a magazine from the legendary gunfight sequence as an example of how it should be done) and has carried the gun convincingly in any number of other movies. Shame to waste all that know-how and experience. He can do Cop. He's also not quite as svelte as he once was - he seems to veer from chubby to stocky-with-padding - but he carries it off with a middle-aged male swagger that is reminiscent of a long line of vintage Trenchcoat-wearing Movie Cops. You know the type; never quite finishing that cup of coffee, shirt absolutely never ironed, tie always just that little bit out-of-line, never quite free of that five o'clock shadow...Kilmer can do that in his sleep.
This show should have a one word title. And he - Kilmer's eccentric, brilliant Cop - must have some sort of quirk. I'm thinking he can break suspects somehow. Can tell when they're lying. Intuition, maybe, brilliant observation and peerless logic, perhaps...But this is better: He can smell it. He has an acute sense of smell. He can smell deception. He can smell nervousness. He can detect unusual hormonal surges. At a crime scene, he picks up scents traditional CSI-type methods would usually miss. He always knows when he's got his man, because he's caught his scent. The show should be called "SNIFFER". Or maybe "Nose". I'm not sure which is classier. If it was a movie, they could call it "Scent of Danger". But its not a movie, its high concept enough to run and run on TV. And Val can do it. Val should do it.
He could have a Lady Cop partner, preferably either a little Southern Spitfire with a strong accent and a take-no-shit attitude or a little Latino ballbuster with a strong accent and a take-no-shit attitude. Of course her love and devotion to his unusual, sometimes jarringly rude ways would be evident despite their constant sparring, the will-they-won't-they tension dragged out endlessly until nobody cares anymore. Perhaps she would have a young son and an absent husband who knocked her up as a cheerleader. Perhaps he would have a tragic past involving lost love and his own pride and arrogance being somehow at fault. Perhaps all of this would only be revealed near the end of the First Season, or if its a really big hit, in Season 2. He should have an arch-enemy. An odourless man. Perhaps a serial killer. An odourless serial killer. Who becomes fixated with our Sniffer (hes not really called "sniffer", he's probably called either something like Jack or Jim or something to underline his apartness, like Cornelius or Francois) and sends him letters on utterly odourless paper. This game of cat and odourless mouse could flit in and out of Seasons while standalone storylines come and go. It would be exceptionally gripping.
On the back of it's undoubted success, Kilmer could return to movies - of the sort that actually get released into cinemas, I mean - and it would be as if all the movies he's made in the last few years, the ones you've never heard of and never want to hear of but oh alright if you insist :"Summer Dreams" (2006), "Have Dreams, Will Travel" (2007), "Conspiracy" (2008), "Felon" (2008), "2:22" (2008) and "Columbus Day" (2008) , it would almost be as if they had never happened.
But they did happen. And in my next Kilmer post I'll look at one or two of those films and ponder exactly what they say about Val and wonder just how in the hell he got here from his position in the 1990s when he was the Leading Man in several massive Studio summer tentpole blockbusters. Instead of needing to make a TV show called "Sniffer". Which he does.
Deserted factories, cavernous warehouses, industrial spaces lit like football stadiums, rundown backlots, dingy taxi offices, parks and fields lost in the urban margins, the outskirts of industrial estates, grim suburbs, and isolated nocturnal petrol stations. These are the locations in which Alan Clark's "Elephant" (1989) takes place.
Clark made two films for the BBC in the 1980s about Northern Ireland. The first, "Contact" , follows a single patrol of British Soldiers on Patrol in "Bandit Country", the rural areas around the border. In contrast, "Elephant" is a series of short sequences depicting murder, assassination, killing. It is stripped down, without any exposition or explanation. Indeed, if one came to it without any knowledge of its relation to the Troubles, it would be difficult to specify where it was set and indeed what it was saying, exactly. It has a certain universal quality, in its emphasis on the banality of murder. These are assassinations which occur in the most everyday locations, the men involved anonymous, everymen.
Clark's technique was groundbreaking. He uses a steadicam on every scene - following alongside or behind a man walking. Across a car park, along a street, bordering a field, and through a factory his camera keeps pace, negotiating corners, a smoothly gliding presence, always on the shoulder of these men like some angel of death. The men draw guns from their coats, their wastebands. The shots are loud, thunderously so in some cases, victims thrown against walls, across carpets. Blood smears on walls. The gunmen flee, the camera refusing to follow. Instead Clark cuts back and shows us the victim, a corpse now, slumped over or splayed upon the ground. Then he cuts away, the flat affectlessness of it all impossible to ignore, likewise the absence of any glamour or heroism or dignity. We see another man walking.
And just when we have accustomed ourselves to this technique he throws in a little twist. The man we follow on a walk is the victim, suddenly, somewhat shockingly, shot from behind by a previously-unseen assassin. Clark appears to be underlining his wider point here - the universality of death, the banality of murder. The emphasis on the walking suggests that he wants us to see the everyday, functional aspects of murder. These are men committing these crimes, not political symbols - they walk to these murders, then they walk or run away. They could be anybody, hence the switch from following killer to following victim. The physical aspect of it linked also with those flat, faintly sad shots of the corpses of the murdered. Even the anonymity of the men and the setting speaks to this idea: Clark decontextualises these acts to give them only the weight of the act itself - the stealing of another's life.
Here that is almost abstracted. Some of the sequences are so stretched that it must be the case that Clark is inviting us to give them longer consideration, to examine their meaning as we watch instead of doing so afterwards. We gaze so long at a man walking at a fair clip down a lane that eventually we wonder at the nature of the image, what exactly it is telling us, and then perhaps our thought processes widen and we consider the meaning of the scene and even our complicity in watching it. Then there is the effect of repetition. Again and again Clark depicts murder. By the end these acts lose any impact they may have possessed, the audience feels somewhat numbed. And interestingly, this is exactly the effect of something like the Troubles on the general populace - people become fatigued by murder, then accustomed to it. It no longer means as much as it should. But at some point, it has drawn anger. A few scenes into "Elephant" the film itself seems a little insane in its stubborn insistence on depicting this series of killings in such unblinking, undramatised fashion. Again, this insanity reflects the actual situation in Northern Ireland in 1989. And then it drains away, and you wonder just how pessimistic Clark was. Giving all of this an almost disturbing streak is the fact that each of the murders is based scrupulously on an actual killing, which may help to explain the incredible flatness of the setting and playing of each.
To the modern eye, one aspect might seem terribly dated and almost naive. The killers are amateurs. Many of them draw and shoot from the hip, from waist level like in childhood cowboy games. Rarely - twice in the entire running time - men are finished off with shots to the head. Generally, death is assumed after bullets have disappeared into the torso. The gunmen turn and flee without making sure, without even a second glance at the victims. In the modern age, when anyone with a passing interest in action cinema or video games could probably map out and execute a textbook assassination, this seems an unnecessary flaw in what is otherwise a thrilling and provocative piece of work.
The title, "Elephant" originated in screenwriter and novelist Bernard MacLavery's term for the Troubles as "the elephant in the living room" of Northern Ireland. Its enigmatic quality suits the film perfectly. It was borrowed, of course, by Gus Van Sant for his 2003 film, "Elephant", which also borrows Clark's fondness for long steadicam shots of characters walking, alongside some of his visual economy.
There are echoes of this great little thriller from 1984 in "Sexy Beast" and "The Limey", and as if that wasn't enough, its got a fantastic cast of English actors: Tim Roth, John Hurt and Terence Stamp. Stephen Frears, comfortable as he is across many genres, has never done better work than when he tackles the crime genre, here and in "the Grifters". Its out in the US on a Criterion DVD this month and everyone should buy it:
It can be hard to judge the talent of a foreign actor until you have seen them act in their native tongue. Imagine evaluating the talent of Gerard Depardeau, for example, based soley on his work in "My Father the Hero", "Green Card" and "The Man in the Iron Mask". He would surely seem an oafish, one-dimensional performer. Few non-English speaking actors would come off well in such a test.
Especially those whom we see only in big American films. Taking the thankless parts in blockbusters, playing the villains. How many great foreign actors have sold their souls to the Bond brand over the years, playing the evil Mastermind in one film or another, from Gert Frobe to Curt Jurgens to Michael Lonsdale? Most recently we had Matheiu Amalric, a legitimately brilliant actor, bulging his eyes a little and smirking through every line in "Quantum of Solace". Before him, it was Mads Mikkelsen. You may remember him from "Casino Royale", where he put that stone-faced glare to fine use. And wept tears of blood. And was utterly wasted.
He had appeared in one other Hollywood movie, as Tristan in Antoine Fuqua's stodgy "King Arthur"(2004). He's the tracker, the one whose action figure would come with his pet hawk in the packaging, ready to grip his forearm with its talons. But here is the difficulty for Hollywood with foreign actors - in Denmark, Mikkelsen is a Massive Star, perhaps Danish cinema's prime leading man. In "King Arthur" he is reduced to playing third or fourth banana behind the likes of Clive Owen and Ioan Gruffudd and Ray Winstone. But he can't turn off that star quality, that charisma, and he makes an impression. In his scenes with Owen, in particular - who is a fine actor in the right role, but too often miscast - he is the one who commands the screen, he is the movie star. He makes his silly character interesting, with only a few lines of dialogue and a few scenes. This makes movie stars look silly and unbalances narratives. So Hollywood feels safer casting foreigners like him in villain roles where their charisma and thespian chops can be put to narrative use. No doubt Mikkelsen was bored stiff by the experience anyway. At least in "Casino Royale" he had, in Daniel Craig, an actor of equal presence and charisma to play off and a half-decent script to work from.
He is accustomed to much meatier drama, however. In Denmark he has established creative partnerships with both Susanne Bier and Nicolas Winding Refn, two radically different but equally talented filmmakers. For Bier he has been magnetic in realist dramas "Open Hearts" (2002) and "After the Wedding" (2006), revealing a sensitive, vulnerable everyman quality rare in an actor of his range and skill. "After the Wedding" is particularly fine work, a subtle and truthful portrayal of a man who is torn between the new life he has built himself and the legacy of his past. The impossibility of such a choice is beautifully, painfully conveyed by Mikkelsen. Tellingly, when Bier made her first American film in 2007 with "Things We Lost in the Fire", she used Benicio Deltoro in the role Mikkelsen would have played had she made the film in Denmark, which gives you some idea of his profile and ability. For Refn, he played the doltish and doomed Tonny in the first two chapters of the magnificent "Pusher" trilogy, and also appeared in "Bleeder" (1999). His Tonny is a great creation; stupid and self destructive, yet fragile and boyish in his boorish defensiveness, and Mikkelsen is uncannily convincing. If he was American, he would be a megastar. But only a few foreign actors ever really cross over into US Cinema. They have to be exceptionally handsome (Antonio Banderas, say) or able to convincingly play an American character (like Viggo Mortensen). The others are restricted to stock parts; either as villains, latin lovers, drug barons or worst of all, as the local colour in US travelogues.
Mikkelsen is too big in Denmark and too good to stay there, and so his next two projects together offer a telling statement about exactly where his career lies at the moment. He is due to apear in Louis Leterier's remake of "Clash of the Titans" alongside Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. Something about him evidently suits historical or even mythological roles; that Nordic, Viking bone structure, perhaps, or his easy access to a certain unreconstructed masculinity. For alongside the Hollywood behemoth, he has reunited with Refn for "Valhalla Rising", which looks a sort of Viking "Southern Comfort". It involves Mikklesen as a mute warrior of near-supernatural strength called "One-Eye", bounty hunters, a manhunt, and apparently a trip to the pre-Columbus New World. Refn has yet to make anything other than a fascinating film (even the little-seen "Fear X" is great in its unique way), his technical ability is unquestioned, and it is exciting to speculate just what he will do with a period setting and a decent budget, filtered through his particular, distinctive sensibility...especially with Mikkelsen aboard.
When I first really got into cinema, when I realised that it was what I was going to be interested in, when I started to take it all seriously, back then Russell Mulcahy was still a contender. That seems silly now. It seems almost ridiculous. But this was the mid-to-late 1980s. And Cinema was different in the 80s. American cinema was dominated by bad comedies, worse action movies and cheap horrors, with the Independent movement struggling and still in its infancy. The dominant movement in World Cinema in that decade was the "Cinema du look" from France. French cinema has never shunned a bit of pure style, granted, but this was cinema where there was nothing going on but pure style. Advertising imagery had gained a currency within cinema that it would never really lose, given a push by the ubiquity of MTV, where directors were given more time to explore the same looks and moods that had previously been restricted to ten or thirty second snatches. These directors were inevitably given control of motion pictures. Russell Mulcahy was one such director.
Mulcahy is the undisputed King of the 80s Pop Music Video. The videos he made are inextricably linked in my head to the songs they accompanied. I cannot hear either "Rio" or "Wild Boys" by Duran Duran, for instance, without seeing images of Simon LeBon on a yacht and a painted girl writhing on a beach or a load of post-apocalyptic road warrior types in some sort of thunderdome filled with dry ice. Add to those "Vienna" by Ultravox, "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler, "Video Killed the Radio Star" by Buggles (the first video MTV ever played), "True" by Spandau Ballet and "I'm Still Standing" by Elton John, and you get some measure of how influential Mulcahy's visual aesthetic was in shaping the way that decade saw itself. So what was that aesthetic? Well, it was a profoundly slick and glossy vision of a world which was beautifully and precisely photographed. It was thrillingly cinematic, at least when encountered in the form of a music video. It was carefully designed, and nicely lit. It was empty.
In the 80s, that frankly didn't matter all that much. Mulcahy was a competent, frequently inspired technician. He had an eye for an arresting image. The choir with the glowing white eyes in the Bonnie Tyler video are creepy, startling and strangely beautiful. He could shoot a bright, nicely choreographed dance routine with a modicum of style and colour. "Wild Boys" may just be the most insane, ridiculous pop promo ever. How to describe it? How about: in a vast hanger filled with columns of fire and platforms of metal and a steel pyramid and a dark pool of water, a dance troupe perform in one corner amidst a sea of schooldesks. Meanwhile, Simon LeBon is tied to a Metal Windmill as it circles, periodically dunking him headfirst in the water. John Taylor is strapped to a car, turned on its end. Clips of Barbarella and horror films I couldn't identify play on gigantic screens throughout the dark space. Dry ice swirls everywhere. Men somersault from trapdoors over jets of flame. Other men with tales and forked tongues cavort half-naked on the floor. Other men wear metal wings and circle above. A giant animatronic head spits fire and turns from side to side. Everybody is dressed in rags and warpaint or in leather strapping. LeBon finally falls into the water, whereupon he is attacked by a swine-creature with big teeth, no eyes and tiny arms, which lives in the water. He escapes, because he is the singer. An extra is not so fortunate. It is all absolutely bugshit crazy:
But somehow Mulcahy pulls it off. The song was even his idea, since he was trying to get a film version of William S. Burroughs' book "The Wild Boys: A book of the Dead" off the ground, and had suggested to LeBon that the group could provide the soundtrack. He saw this video as a sort of trailer, and as such, it cost a then-unheard-of £1 Million to make on Pinewood's 007 Stage. All of this suggests just how influential he was at that time, and how sure of his vision. He was obviously adept enough to work in features, and indeed he already was. His "Razorback" (1984) is a taut and relatively nicely shot pulpy piece of Ozploitation with a streak of insanity running through it that acted as his Hollywood calling card. But his first real success came with "Highlander"(1986), a sci-fi action potboiler which now seems an intrinsically 1980s product despite its longevity as a franchise on film and TV.
Its flaws are not entirely Mulcahy's fault - but then nor are its strengths. He has a weakness for crane and dolly shots, and he just can't abandon those pop promo touches, but the script is frequently creaky, and Christopher Lambert is so wooden and awful that even Sean Connery pouring on the finest ham cannot make the casting balance. Especially when their accents are taken into account - Connery playing a Spaniard but making no attempt at an accent, Lambert playing a Scot and essaying a poor brogue. But Mulcahy's ambition does undo him in numerous scenes - there are sloppy cuts and bad framing choices which make it seem like the production ran out of money. Clancy Brown's villainous Kurgan is good value, and Mulcahy pulls off a couple of decent action scenes, and in the 80s, that seemed to be all that mattered. The film is a cult classic of sorts, by now. But it got worse, much much worse. "Highlander 2: the Quickening" (1991) makes the original look like a masterpiece. A horrendous, incoherent mess of a sequel that contradicts much of the original and crowbars Connery in for less than ten minutes of highly paid screentime, filled with bad acting, worse scripting and tedious action, it was a massive and deserved flop. Mulcahy issued his own, reportedly quite different (though not much better) "Renegade Cut", and then the whole thing was ignored by all of the subsequent Highlander films and TV shows, as if it was the Star Wars Christmas Special. Thats how bad it is. So bad its almost good bad.
But Mulcahy had moved on, seeking a mainstream career. "Ricochet" (1991) is, in its way, a perfect example of an early-90s action thriller. Tasteless, formulaic, ultra-violent, misogynistic and utterly empty, Mulcahy made it as flashy as he could and trusted in his classy leads (Denzel Washington and John Lithgow) to make it work. Lithgow is hilarious, enjoying himself as the villain, but Denzel is somewhat stranded, his usual brand of realist repressed emotion incongruous in such a gaudy fantasy world. Mulcahy was losing some of his Music video credibility and seemed increasingly like some sort of poor man's Tony Scott. His next movies only increased this journeyman status. "Blue Ice" (1992) is a drab London noir starring a bored Michael Caine. It could almost have been made by anyone. As could the equally generic "The Real McCoy" (1993), a confused caper with Kim Basinger and Val Kilmer that runs out of steam about halfway through and never recovers. "The Shadow" (1994) would seem to have been the perfect opportunity for Mulcahy to reassert the importance of visual style in his career, but instead it plays as if somehow castrated; never quite stylish enough, never quite dark enough, never going far enough in its design or story choices. The titular character is one of the great pulp creations of the 20th Century. Mysterious, frightening and visually bold, he should have been a natural for a film. Yet the chance was fudged, the iconography wasted, the Shadow barely a presence in his own movie. Mulcahy was still capable of an eye-catching sequence, a stunning shot here or there, but he was no longer the hot young director who had been so influential almost a decade before. And none of these films was a success. Mulcahy's chance had gone.
Over the next decade or so his career was a mess. He directed further generic feature films ("Resurrection" (1991), "Swimming Upstream" (2003)), many TV movies ("On the Beach" (2000), "The Lost Batallion" (2001)) and pilots and episodes for a variety of Television dramas ("Queer as Folk", "Jeremiah", "The Hunger"). Then, in 2007, Paul W Anderson gave him a "Resident Evil" sequel to direct. Seeing his name on that project was the first time I had even thought about Mulcahy in years. And thinking about Mulcahy, I was interested in a Resident Evil film for the first time, perhaps just out of nostalgia. Not interested enough to actually bother to see it, but you have to start somewhere. Mulcahy went back to TV movies.
But he has a forthcoming Feature in the can. "Give Em Hell, Malone" is a Private Detective Action movie starring Thomas Jane. From the promo trailer it looks like its semi-period, but not entirely. It also looks like a lot of pulpy schlocky fun. And Jane, one of the few American leading Men of his generation capable of playing old-fashioned masculinity convincingly, is almost always worth catching. And here, he gets to wear a hat and wave a revolver around. And the trailer begins with a Mulcahy crane-shot. Interrupted by a body flying out of a window. For all that he is now revealed as the hack with a sporadically nice eye he always was, its good to see Mulcahy back with decentish budgets and name actors. Where he belongs. Bringing dry ice back to the mainstream, hopefully...
On Football - No. 19 : Andy Reid & Stephen Ireland
"Football is a beautiful game, and it should be played beautifully" - Brian Clough, The Damned United
If you love football, it can be really depressing coming from a small country. You don't qualify for most tournaments. When you do, you don't go very far. Because of this you get horrible seeding, which means you get awful draws in qualification groups, so ensuring that, yet again, you don't qualify. Each generation has a maximum of two top-class players, if you're lucky, and none if you aren't. This lack of quality encourages coaches to opt for percentage football - style is sacrificed. Results are paramount. The football is dire. Your club sides are terrible, the play unexciting, the best players swept off to bigger, more lucrative markets at a young age. You, like most lovers of football in this small country, look abroad for entertainment, for a team to care about. But you still love your national team. How could you not? Even though its an ugly beast. Its your ugly beast, dammit.
Ireland haven't qualified for a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup. Under Manager Brian Kerr we came very close. In a tough group with France and Israel, the team played nice, attractive football, but choked in the big games and narrowly missed out on qualification. Under his successor Steve Staunton Ireland hit a nadir - the worst results since the Charlton era, bad football, a lack of any tactical nous, and awful results. So Giovanni Trappatoni, legendary and incredibly experienced septegenarian Italian coach, was given a Big Money contract. Results immediately improved. Trappatoni knew exactly what he wanted and he knew how to get it. He placed two holding midfielders at the centre of his team, leaving the flair to the wingers and the forwards, knowing that his two midfielders provided security to the defence above all else.
In theory this is not an entirely bad idea. But it depends on the calibre of the playing staff for its success. A key player for Ireland in this system would be Blackburn midfielder Steven Reid. He is a good example of the modern central midfielder; strong, fast and incredibly fit, he has the stamina to run all game, to cover the entire pitch, to go ceaselessly from box to box. He is good at almost everything - he can tackle, run the ball, shoot from distance, his awareness is good, his passing varied, and he is fine in the air - but exceptional at nothing. He would work beside a journeyman destroyer in such a midfield, because his energy and pace would allow him to join the attack when required, and he can be a danger in the opposition half, but he would also so his share of defensive work. The destroyer could hold back all game, making Trappatoni happy.
But Reid is injury-prone, and he is suffering from a long-term injury at present. So Trappatoni has been forced to use lesser players in the midfield roles. Players like journeymen Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews. Or Darren Gibson, a Youth team player on the fringes of Manchester United's first team, who had played for Ireland at senior level before he ever played in a serious competitive match for his club. Or Liam Miller, who has consistently had to drop down a level to the Championship to find first-team football. None of these men is really fit to play in a midfield that has, over the years, been filled with the likes of Johnny Giles, Liam Brady, Ronnie Whelan and Roy Keane. Meanwhile, Ireland's two most creative Midfielders are absent from Trappatoni's Squads. Andy Reid and Stephen Ireland.
Lets start with Reid. Arguably the most creative Irish player of his generation, he is perhaps better known for suffering from recurrent weight problems than for having one of the best left feet in the Premier League. Not only that, but Reid knows how to use it, deploying a range of passing that seems more Latin in its variety than Northern European. Indeed, when he signed for Charlton Athletic a few years ago, a profile in a club match programme claimed that early in his career he was called the "Irish Maradona". I don't remember anybody ever being called anything so silly, but Reid's sheer talent has never really been questioned (and during his stint as Irish Assistant coach/Advisor, Bobby Robson echoed the sentiment by claiming that if Reid was Argentine, the media would rave about the purity of his technique). His first coach at Charlton, Les Reed, compared him to Ferenc Puskas. On a good day he has the kind of gift that inspires these sort of comparisons. He can pass accurately over distance or can play a rapid short game as well as anybody from these islands since Paul Scholes. He also takes a mean free kick, his control and touch is lovely, he has a few close control tricks in his arsenal, and his shooting is ferocious. That all makes him sound like a luxury player, a lightweight technician of the type the modern pragmatic Coach has little time for. But no, Irish football culture prizes effort as much as (if not more than) skill, and so Reid closes down, clatters into tackles and generally runs himself into the ground for his team.
The problem is his build. He is typically Irish - short and squat, barrel-chested and broad-shouldered. He would need to be super-fit to even look like he was moderately fit, and Reid generally looks a little out of shape. Paunchy. Carrying a half stone too much weight. Sometimes he obviously is out of shape, but the point is with his sort of build, he always looks tubby, no matter how hard he works or how much ground he covers. For Nottingham Forest and Spurs he usually played on the left-wing, and people expect wingers to look a certain way: whippet-thin, rangy, all angles and bones. They also expect wingers to operate using pace above all else. Reid was never about pace. As a winger his game resembled (to a certain extent) David Beckham's - he could send in a brilliant delivery with the minimum space. He could lose a full back with a trick and shoot from outside the box. The main comparison he endured was to Forest legend John Robertson. At Spurs, the crowd got on his back early, he struggled with his fitness, and despite securing a regular place in a team with far too many midfielders in its squad he never seemed to settle, and he was moved along relatively quickly. Charlton embraced his talent more enthusiastically, and he thrived once more in the Championship. Partly this was he was given more freedom in his role. He drifted infield in possession, his passing able to damage teams, his confidence increased by the trust placed in his creative ability. His form earned him a move to Sunderland, where he was a key player in keeping the club in the Premiership, as manager Roy Keane acknowledged. Reid had the ability to put his foot on the ball and use it intelligently, something missing in all too many struggling teams, who descend into panicked kick-and-rush. Take this Daryl Murphy goal against Wigan. Reid had just come on as substitute, and this is effectively his first touch:
Steve Staunton, for all of the horror and ineptitude of his stint as Ireland coach, placed similar faith in Reid's ability. He played Reid as playmaker - surely the position he was born to play - in a European championship Qualifier against Germany at Croke Park. Reid virtually ran the game, pinging first-time passes across the pitch throughout, fighting a strong German midfield for possession and holding his own, and setting up numerous chances for the strikers with his astute through-balls. But his development in the position was not enough and Staunton's replacement by Trappatoni sealed Reid's fate. Included in the first few squads selected by Trappatoni (presumably at the behest of Assistant coach Liam Brady, a confirmed fan of Reid) he went unused and had a screaming match with the Coach after a late-night singalong went on past curfew. He has not been selected since, altough Trappatoni says that this is because Reid does not fit in with the system he uses. He doesn't work hard enough, in other words, he is too creative, too much of a passenger. Setting aside the fact that this is not the case, games like the recent 1-1 draw with a 10-man Italy in Bari were crying out for a bit of creativity, for somebody - anybody - to put their foot on the ball, look up, and find the right pass. Instead, Ireland's 80th minute equalizer came from a long ball lumped upfield. without the injured Damien Duff, all of the other creative players were either stifled (Robbie Keane) or not creative enough (Stephen Hunt). Where was Reid? At home, thats where.
As was Stephen Ireland. His case is more complex. Primarily, he is obviously a young man with some issues. In brief - he fell out with Irish Youth team Coach Brian Kerr over an incident with the Under-18 team after being dropped from two successive games. Kerr told him he would never again play for Ireland while Kerr was Coach. Kerr then became Coach of the Senior National team, and Ireland has claimed that at that point he considered declaring for England or Italy, for both of whom he has eligibility. However, Steve Staunton's appointment brought Ireland into the team, and he scored a couple of important goals and delivered some impressive performances in his first few games in an Irish shirt. Then, on an away trip to play the Czech Republic in a crucial european Championship Qualifier, Ireland spun a ridiculous web of lies in order to leave the team camp on compassionate leave. His girlfriend rang and informed the squad officials that Ireland's Grandmother had died. Ireland backed this claim and a private jet was chartered for him. However the Irish media soon discovered that this story was untrue. Confronted, Ireland claimed it was his other Grandmother. Again, the media disproved this story. Ireland now claimed it was a Step-Grandmother by Marriage before finally admitting that his girlfriend had suffered a miscarriage, and that he had hastily lied out of a stress-induced panic, believing that the Grandmother story would more easily provide the compassionate leave he sought. The Irish public and the rest of the squad was baffled, the team lost the game, Staunton was sacked, and Ireland has not played for his country since.
There have been rumours of bullying in the camp - Ireland is plainly a highly sensitive individual, and mockery of his hair (or lack of it) are alleged to have disturbed him enough that he is reluctant to return. But he is desperately needed. For, despite his stupidity in the Granny-Gate affair and his silly goal celebrations, he is an outstanding young footballer, an outside candidate for player of the season this year, and he seems already twice as effective as he was when last he played for Ireland. In my dream Irish line-up, he plays in a three-man midfield alongside the two Reids, with a front three of Keane in the centre with Duff and McGeady on the wings. Ireland is talented enough to make such a formation work. He is almost as gifted as Andy Reid in his passing, has a pleasing directness in possession, and is increasingly adept at nicking the ball from opposing players with quick challenges and hard running. His football brain is excellent, and the way he has linked up with the likes of Robinho and Elano at Manchester City in the last two seasons displays his true level.
Added to that is his habit for scoring insanely spectacular goals. Last minute volleys of balls crossing his body? No problem. He has a cavalier flair to his game that is balanced by his work ethic. Trappatoni has admitted he would love to have Ireland back in the team. He and Liam Brady have met the player, and were informed that he would come to them at such a time as he was ready. That has not happened yet, despite the comments from his fellow Irishmen in the Man CIty team.
To an Irish football fan, none of this is news. The absence of these two players has been the biggest story of the early portion of Trappatoni's stint as Ireland Manager. Irish football journalists want to see both of them in the team. Reid is highly rated at home, and Ireland's form is impossible to ignore. Pressed on the issue at a recent Press Conference, Liam Brady lost his temper and said "Have some pride in your country" in apparent reference to Stephen Ireland. Trappatoni, meanwhile, is unrepentant about the exclusion of Reid, and justifies his tactics with his results. He also claims that he doesn't believe Ireland will soon return to the national team, based on the players body language and attitude when they met.
Which means we will continue to play a plodding sort of low-risk football without any real beauty or imagination. We may qualify for the World Cup - we are big on fighting spirit, and sometimes that is enough, if a team is properly organised. But if we do get there, we will go out at the group stage. Or maybe in the first knockout round. We won't score many goals. We won't concede too many either. Ho hum. If you love football, it can be really depressing coming from a small country.