Thursday, 30 July 2015

Liverpool's transfer strategy. What strategy?

Brendan Rodgers (cropped) 2
Both fans and media have praised Liverpool FC’s performance in the transfer window this summer, because its management team and owners are perceived to have acted quickly and decisively to sign players.  I don’t agree with this glowing assessment.  I’ve struggled to understand a recruitment policy which seems poorly thought out and haphazard.

I’m not querying necessarily the ability of the players Liverpool have bought.  Some of them are proven performers and others have the potential to do well, if they’re developed properly and given opportunities.  My question is whether the manager, Brendan Rodgers, identified where his team had problems last season and addressed them through the transfer market, or instead bought in volume, including for positions where his squad already has adequate cover.

Damien Comolli, the club’s former Director of Football Strategy, attracted fierce criticism last week when he suggested that Liverpool has taken a ‘massive risk’ by bringing in eight players in close season.  Comolli, who was in charge of recruiting talent to Anfield, was sacked from his post and he can’t be regarded as an impartial commentator, but he might have a point.

To field eight newcomers in the first match of the season - against Stoke - would mean incredible disruption, but, despite another significant investment by Liverpool, it’s almost inconceivable that Brendan Rodgers will make those changes.  Yet there are still positions where the squad has serious weaknesses.  So what was the strategy driving the summer spending spree?

At the end of last season, it seemed the ‘spine’ of Liverpool’s team was where its problems mainly lay. 

The goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, recovered well from a dismal start to the campaign, but the consensus was that some proper competition for his position was needed.  The Croat defender, Dejan Lovren, was an unadulterated failure and the club clearly needed a much better option at centre-back.  In midfield, Steven Gerrard’s departure left a void of dynamism & leadership, while injuries had taken their toll on Liverpool’s first choice holding midfielder, Lucas Leiva.   

Most famously, Luis Suarez had not been replaced after Anfield to go to Barcelona the previous summer and Brendan Rodgers badly needed another goal-scorer, particularly with Daniel Sturridge spending more time on the treatment table than in training.

There were other frailties too.  Particularly in the full-back positions, where the Spaniards Moreno and Manquillo had fallen short of expectations for a Premier League club aspiring to be in the Champions League.

Admittedly, there have been signings for some of these problem areas.  For instance, securing James Milner’s services was a genuine coup for Liverpool.  The Yorkshireman is consistent, experienced and he’ll attack effectively from midfield positions.  It wasn’t possible to replace a player like Steven Gerrard, but signing Milner is a decent attempt.

At right back, Nathaniel Clyne, purchased from Southampton, looks like he will strengthen the team, adding an unfussy, competent attitude to defensive duties, allied with the ability to get forward.  He inspires more confidence than an ageing Glen Johnson.

Brendan Rodgers has bought an expensive striker too.  Christian Benteke wasn’t most fans first choice candidate to lead the attack, but he has an international reputation and scored goals for Aston Villa, in the Premier League.  We’ll find out whether choosing Benteke is the right decision, but, in theory at least, he’s ready to go straight into the Liverpool team and addresses a genuine weakness. 
In other areas, though, the strategy behind transfers has not been so obvious.

Rodgers bought a goalkeeper.  However, Adam Bogdan is 27 years old and spent the last eight years at Bolton Wanderers.  He’s unlikely to challenge Simon Mignolet for a first team place, unless the Belgian plays catastrophically badly.  A young defender, Joe Gomez, arrived from Charlton.  He’s played well in a number of pre-season friendlies, but his role is likely to be peripheral for the time being.

The other three signings were attacking players, but not centre-forwards.  Danny Ings and Roberto Firmino are play-makers who can play in and around the front three.  Divock Origi is another un-prolific forward, who can play up front or a little wider.  Liverpool already has the likes of Coutinho, Lallana, Markovic and Jordan Ibe, competing for these positions.  That’s not to mention more conventional midfielders like Can, Henderson and Allen, the first choice centre-forward, Daniel Sturridge, or younger hopefuls like Brannagan, Rossiter and Dunn.

The arrival of Firmino, who cost £21 million, caused quite a bit of excitement.  I can’t pretend to know very much about his abilities, but I question whether Liverpool’s priority this summer should have been signing a Brazilian play-maker, given that they’ve already got a tremendously good one in Phillipe Coutinho.  Meanwhile the weaknesses at centre-back, left back and defensive midfield have not been addressed.

From the friendly games so far you would assume that Liverpool intends to play four defenders this year.  James Milner and club captain Jordan Henderson are likely to be selected in midfield, presuming they stay fit.  Having cost £32.5 million, Christian Benteke is going to be picked, more often than not, as the team’s centre forward.

That leaves three empty spots for the plethora of tricksy playmakers stroke forwards stroke attacking midfielders stroke wingers who Brendan Rodgers likes to collect (and, actually, for a balanced line-up it would be best if one of those positions were occupied by a deeper midfielder).  Phillipe Coutinho was the club’s best player last season and Firmino cost a fortune, so, even allowing for injuries and the Europa League, it’s difficult to see why so many similar players are needed.               

Have Brendan Rodgers and his colleagues really evaluated carefully how they want Liverpool to play and bought what they need to realise that vision, or have they bought on the basis of availability?  What is the point of buying someone who might be very similar or no better than a player you’ve already got?  Should there not have been clearer priorities, based on a smaller number of problem positions?

I hope the answers will be clear as the season progresses but, for the time being, I’m sceptical.  

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Tbilisi: romantic, but not dangerous!

The historian, Simon Sebag Montifiore, once described Georgia as “the most romantic and dangerous land in the world”.  He was reviewing Wendell Steavenson’s book, Stories I Stole, a quirky account of the author’s years living in Tbilisi, which I took with me to the Caucasus. 

It described the chaotic 90s and early 2000s when the majority of Georgians’ homes received only a few hours of electricity each day, members of the public frequently carried guns and some areas of the country were notorious for robberies and kidnappings.

With Tbilisi’s streets now completely unthreatening and everything from bridges to Ferris wheels illuminated showily after dark, it was difficult to believe that I was in the same city which Steavenson described.  Georgia, like many other post-Soviet states, has clearly changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time.

The country’s capital is now a vibrant, modern place, centred around its atmospheric Old Town and Rustaveli Avenue - a busy artery, flanked by museums, public buildings and fashionable shops.

Tbilisi is overlooked by an imposing fortress, called Narikala, and Mount Mtatsminda, which offers spectacular views, fresh air and a retreat from heat and exhaust fumes.  A funicular railway runs from a station not far from Rustaveli to a massive restaurant complex and a viewing platform, beside gardens and an amusement park.  It’s definitely worth a trip and the funfair didn’t open until lunchtime on the day we visited, so we had the place more or less to ourselves.

Georgia is particularly famous for its food and drink.  Georgians and Armenians both claim their ancestors were the first people to cultivate grapes for wine-making and the oldest winery ever discovered by archaeologists was in Armenia.  You can try good red and white wines in Tbilisi’s restaurants, particularly in wine-bars like g.Vino where knowledgeable staff will help you navigate local varieties, like the unusually named Pheasant’s Tears (which I consistently misheard as Peasant’s Tears).

These are perfect to accompany a plate of cold meats and local cheeses.  On the other hand, Tkemali, a sour sauce made from wild, green plums and herbs, improves any type of grilled meat.  Another Georgian speciality, Khinkali, is a spicy, filled dumpling, which can be eaten on its own or as a side dish.

Away from the dinner table, Tbilisi has some interesting museums.  The Dmitry Shevernadze National Gallery is a manageable size and it houses well-presented exhibitions of photographs from World War 1’s Caucasus Front and Niko Pirosami’s paintings. 

Pirosami may be Georgia’s most celebrated painter.  His portrait appears on the 1 lari banknote and he painted distinctive, atmospheric scenes from the region, in a primitivist style.  On a short visit to an art gallery, in my view it’s much better to see a couple of good exhibitions properly, rather than tramping for miles past endless floors of paintings, spanning century after century (then probably being too tired to appreciate the good stuff).
A few hundred metres along Rustaveli, the Georgian National Museum displayed an impressive collection of Colchian gold.  This was a fascinating window on Greco-Roman cultural connections which cast Georgia as the backdrop for classical myths like Jason and the Argonauts and Prometheus.

The upper floor was taken up with the more tendentious Museum of Soviet Occupation.  It set out the modern Georgian government’s interpretation of the Soviet period as a struggle for national liberation from Russian oppression.  It formed an interesting counterpoint to an exhibition on the ground floor, which emphasised Georgia’s contribution to World War 2, as part of the USSR. 

There was little mention of Georgian involvement in Bolshevism or the Soviet Union’s elite and the exhibition finished with the assertion that ‘the occupation continues’ in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  It was a reminder that debates about the past in the Caucasus are still felt keenly and inform current politics.

Georgia is a romantic destination, whose recent past and mix of cultural influences gives it a frisson for visitors.  Nearly every tourist will be introduced to the country through its capital, which is a great place to start, as well as a hub to travel on into the countryside.

Some practical tips, if you're going to Tbilisi:

Erekle II is a pedestrianised street of bars and restaurants in the Old Town.  If you’re confused about where to eat, the easiest thing is to go here.

The metro is a convenient way to travel around some areas of the city, but you’ll need a MetroMoney card to get on board.  This requires a deposit of 2 Lari (about 60p) and each journey is a further 15p.  There is Latin script in metro stations and the announcements are given out in English, so, if you know where you’re going, you shouldn’t get lost.

Tbilisi train station is on the third floor of a shopping centre.  A number of internet sources say that a particular kiosk is manned by an English speaker.  However, we were sent from one kiosk to another, so you might need to be patient.  If you want to book an international train ticket to Yerevan or Baku, remember to bring your passport.

Friday, 24 July 2015

James McClean isn't a political crusader. He's just a very rude and naughty boy.

Was anyone remotely surprised when James McClean, the Republic of Ireland footballer from Londonderry, turned his back during the UK National Anthem, before a pre-season match in the US?  The winger was representing his new club, West Bromwich Albion, and their American hosts had organised music and an English flag, in honour of the visitors.
FIFA WC-qualification 2014 - Austria vs Ireland 2013-09-10 - James McClean 01" by Michael Kranewitter - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 at via Wikimedia Commons -

McClean has been involved in controversy after controversy since leaving Derry City to play full-time football in England. 

He was still in the process of negotiating a transfer from his home town club, when he withdrew from the Northern Ireland international squad and announced his intention to defect to the Republic.  Subsequently he refused to wear team kit with poppies woven into the shirts when he played for Sunderland and Wigan Athletic, at matches on Remembrance Day weekends. 

McClean has also found himself in trouble several times following injudicious use of Twitter, causing public disagreements with managers Martin O’Neill and Giovanni Trappatoni.  Infamously, he used the social media site to express his appreciation for the IRA song, The Broad Black Brimmer.  The player’s Twitter account was deleted for a short while, as a result.

You might detect a thread running through many of the incidents around McClean.  He has cited his nationalist political beliefs and upbringing in the staunchly republican Creggan estate, in Derry, to explain involvement in various controversies.  There has been no lack of commentators, from inside and outside football, ready to do the same.

It could be argued that McClean’s issue with the poppy is a matter of personal preference and political opinion.  Still, it’s worth remembering that an act of remembrance from a football club, whenever it weaves a symbol onto its shirt, is primarily corporate rather than individual.  If a player has difficulties with the communal ethos of a club and its supporters, he should examine why he’s happy to be employed by them in the first place.      

That’s ultimately an internal matter for the clubs.  If they want each player to have a choice whether or not to wear an emblem on team kit, or whether, for instance, they wear a black arm band to mark a tragedy, presumably they’ll communicate that policy to their employees. 

There’s no comparable defence for McClean’s actions during the National Anthem in South Carolina.   It was a display of public disrespect and bad manners.  He didn’t need to sing, or put his hand on his heart or even acknowledge the tune in any meaningful way.  He just needed to stand quietly, show a little dignity and not draw attention to himself – like the rest of his teammates, who come from across the world, including the Republic of Ireland and other places where some people have historical or political issues with Britain.

McClean’s conduct shouldn't be excused either by constant references to his ‘upbringing’.  The player is 26 years old, which means that he was born in 1989 and cannot realistically remember the worst violence in Northern Ireland.  Indeed his unreconstructed attitudes hint at how Troubles era bigotries and hatreds are being passed down to a younger generation, in spite of decades of the ‘peace process’.             

Sportspeople, like anyone else in society, are entitled to voice their views and express their values.  However, it’s possible to espouse principles, even dubious ones, without being disrespectful and antagonistic.  James McClean is not some sort of political crusader; he’s just a very rude and very naughty boy.    

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Will Labour really choose Corbyn as leader?

Jeremy Corbyn

Labour’s members and supporters won’t do it, will they?  Are they really poised to lumber the party with “veteran left winger”, Jeremy Corbyn, as leader?  Everyone from Tony Blair to Polly Toynbee seems to agree that he would be a disastrous choice.

A YouGov poll this week suggested that Corbyn has a substantial lead in Labour’s leadership race.  However, tellingly, the bookmakers still think that Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper will win the contest.

Grassroots members and activists in every political party can be tempted to assert what they regard as “traditional values”, when times are bad.  In other words, to swing left, in the case of the Labour Party, or right, for Conservatives. 

Modern UK elections, though, are decided by a mass of people in the ‘middle ground’, who are nervous of any perceived excess.  They’re not caught up daily in every nuance of ongoing political debate, they don’t experiment with extreme ideologies and they almost always entrust the nation’s governance to someone they think will do the job competently.

Britain is not Greece, or Italy or even France.  There might be growing left wing militancy, but it remains the preserve of a noisy fringe.

If Jeremy Corbyn is elected, the people with most to celebrate will be Conservatives.  You’d suspect that the members and registered supporters who are entitled to vote in Labour's leadership battle will grasp this before the ballot closes in September.     

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Georgia and Armenia - are they in Europe or Asia?

Tbilisi looks a little like Prague from its hillside fortress.
Georgia and Armenia – are these countries in Asia or in Europe? 

Their status has been debated for at least a century, with commentators from outside the Caucasus region usually plumping for south-west Asia, until relatively recently.  Now, more frequently, they are described as European, although that trend is influenced at least as much by politics as geography.

I can’t answer this thorny question.  It is a sensitive matter, linked to the identities and perceived futures of Armenians and Georgians.  However I can give a few impressions of how it feels to visit two fascinating countries.

Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia is a sprawling, modern city, congested with traffic and, in July at least, hot and dusty.  Yet it also feels distinctly European.  Looking down from the Nariqala Fortress at the Old Town, with its narrow streets of stone houses and churches bisected by the Kura River, you could almost be in Prague.

The Georgian people certainly seem to have decided in favour of a future in Europe.  On Rustaveli Avenue the EU flag flies alongside Georgia’s national flag at the old parliament building and the symbol is displayed prominently across the city. 

On the other hand, the curly Georgian alphabet has a distinctly Asian appearance, although, in central areas, it is often accompanied by Latin script.  There are hints of a more Oriental atmosphere at the picturesque, domed sulphur baths or when eating the food, which has a  Middle Eastern inflection.

Outside the city, things are predictably a little chaotic.  Potholes aren’t the only obstacles on Georgia’s roads, as drivers frequently have to contend with cows, pigs and other livestock. 

We travelled into the mountains via the Georgian Military Highway, the traditional route into the southern Caucasus from Russia and the north.  We stayed in Stepantsminda (more commonly known by its former name, Kazbegi), in a stylish, modern hotel, affiliated to a German hotel group.    
The view from Rooms Hotel toward Mount Kazbek. 
The town stands on the banks of the Terek River which, in the lore of imperial Russia, marked the boundary between Europe and Asia.  It is a few miles from the border and about 40 minutes drive away from Vladikavkaz, where the Russian military would once muster before embarking on its campaigns further south.  

Stepantsminda is full of tourists from Russia, but the local businesses most frequently fly flags from the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, or countries in western Europe, pointedly omitting emblems from their northern neighbour.  In a bar in the town’s main square, some Russian tourists were eating and drinking below the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought on the German side during World War 2.  The symbol has been revived by modern Ukrainian nationalists.  

In some respects Armenia felt a little more Asian, or at least Middle Eastern, than Georgia, which is borne out by the region’s geography. 

The food is even closer to Lebanese and Persian fare, featuring Lavash flat-breads, baba ganoush and baklava for dessert.  The landscape around Yerevan is dry and arid in July, with barren hills dropping down to a parched plain, stretching toward Mount Ararat and the Turkish border.  The people often look a little more Iranian and a little less Italian than their counterparts in Georgia.

Yerevan is a delightful, laid-back city, less choked, last week at least, with exhaust fumes than Tbilisi.  It has lots of open spaces, wonderful museums and a thriving café culture.  You’ll see far more Russian language signs and hear more Russian spoken.  

The influence of the French, German and British cultures are also in evidence across the city.  In Republic Square the fountains ‘dance’ nightly to a soundtrack including Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Handel’s Messiah and Rule Britannia, complete with vocals.
Crowds enjoy Yerevan's 'dancing fountains'

In the lusher, greener north of Armenia, the town of Dilijan looks rather Swiss, with wooden chalets climbing the steep hillsides.  Lake Sevan’s shores are fringed with shady camp-sites and picnic spots which could almost be on the west coast of France.

The influence of the diaspora is evident in Armenia.  There were people of Armenian origin from the Unites States everywhere in Yerevan.  We met a French Armenian diplomat and witnessed the christening of an Armenian child from Switzerland, in one of the city’s oldest churches.  A priest even outlined a theory linking Armenia to Ireland, citing some unconvincing etymology based on the two countries’ names. 

In his excellent book about Georgia, Bread and Ashes, Tony Anderson concludes that the distinction between Europe and Asia is arbitrary and largely ‘irrelevant’.  ‘We might much more usefully think of one Eurasian continent and then annoying bits of geography like the Caucasus resolve themselves easily’.

In my view, the most interesting places lie where different cultures and influences converge.  Unfortunately the resulting confusion of ethnicities, identities and languages can also prove combustible.  The Caucasus region, which includes three disputed states and has witnessed numerous wars, is a classic example. 

I’ll be looking at some more aspects of Georgia and Armenia in the days to come. 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Setting the record straight on Northern Ireland firework incident

Northern Ireland’s last game in Group F of the Euro 2016 qualifying tournament divided opinion among fans.  Some viewed the 0-0 home draw as a missed opportunity, particularly because it allowed Hungary to move within 2 points of the Green and White Army.  Others thought that a point against the group leaders was creditable.

More worrying than the result, was an incident where a firework was thrown from the crowd in the National Stadium, hitting a photographer, who had to be treated for burns.  Home fans were convinced that the missile had come from the Romanian section, but the photographer and most journalists blamed Northern Ireland supporters initially .

Very quickly a video emerged proving that it had been thrown from the seats occupied by travelling spectators.  Not that this evidence affected a series of articles quoting Darren Kidd, the photographer, and repeating the allegation that a Northern Irish hand had launched the firework. 

Blink and you miss it, but a Romanian supporter clearly throws an object in the direction of the photographer - heads of supporters behind him follow it's path prior to the bang.
Posted by Our Wee Country on Monday, 15 June 2015

The Belfast Telegraph corrected its initial reports fairly quickly and even mentioned the matter in an editorial, but for two weeks the BBC kept a report on its website, repeating without context the unfounded claim from Mr Kidd.

Clearly, a firework being thrown from a football crowd is newsworthy at the time and details which emerge later become progressively less newsworthy, as the event recedes into the past.

The photographer made an allegation that a home fan had been responsible quickly and took almost three weeks to issue a retraction on Twitter.  Understandably, his correcting tweet has received little or no media coverage.    

While few sets of football supporters are saints, Northern Ireland fans have no history of setting off fireworks.  It’s worthwhile setting the record straight.  The missile came from a troublemaker among the (largely excellent) Romanian crowd and the victim of the incident has accepted these facts without reservation. 

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

How did Michael O'Neill get Northern Ireland flying high in Euro 2016?

Members of the GAWA with Hungary supporters in Budapest.
Before the Euro 2016 campaign started, hope among Northern Ireland fans that their side might qualify for the finals tournament was low.  Now, with six rounds of matches in Group F complete, rather alarmingly, many of the Green and White Army fully expect to travel to France next summer to watch the Ulstermen, who are second place in the table (two countries from each group qualify automatically and the third has an opportunity to do so through a play-off).
Whether or not that happens, the team’s manager, Michael O’Neill, has done an incredible job to oversee five wins and a draw in this competition, after securing only one victory in his first eighteen international games.  What’s made the difference?

You could argue that the draw for the Euro 2016 qualifying tournament was kind to Northern Ireland.  Certainly, none of the teams in Group F looks equipped to go to France and progress far in the finals.  However, Romania, Greece and Hungary were all expected to finish above O’Neill’s men, while Finland was considered to be at a similar level of ability and the Faroe Islands had tripped Northern Ireland up before.

Growing confidence among the players has contributed to their success. 

In the first match, in Budapest, they played conservatively for 75 minutes, despite the home team struggling to dominate in front of a restive Hungarian crowd.  When Hungary took the lead, it looked like another routine Northern Ireland defeat, but instead McGinn and Lafferty responded positively and combined twice, scoring one apiece to secure an unlikely 2-1 win.

There was an element of good fortune to that victory but it injected belief into a team which had little experience of winning away from home.  After a successful clash with the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park, Northern Ireland played masterfully against Greece in Athens to make it an unprecedented three wins in a row.

That stylish 2-0 victory fed the fans’ expectations.  It was the type of controlled performance no-one was accustomed to seeing Northern Ireland deliver and it pushed us top of the group.  The media, supporters and players all started to talk about qualification, with a seriousness not heard since the 1980s.

Alongside a renewed sense of confidence, Michael O’Neill made tactical changes which improved his team’s fortunes.  Toward the end of the unsuccessful qualifying tournament for the World Cup in Brazil, Northern Ireland set up in a 3-5-2 formation, which often looked more like 5-3-2, when opponents had the ball.  From the first game in Group F, O’Neill deployed instead a fluid 4-3-3 line-up, which switched to 4-5-1 when the team had to defend.  He maintained his previous emphasis on keeping possession, when possible.            

Like a number of supporters, I had my doubts whether Northern Irish players could implement a modern, technical system, but the manager kept trying to play clever, attractive football and his ideas started to work.  These flexible tactics allow Northern Ireland to flood the midfield with sufficient numbers to compete for the ball when they’re not in possession, yet also get players forward to support Kyle Lafferty in attack, when they win back the ball.  The result has been eight goals in six matches.

The task of qualifying for Euro 2016 is far from complete.  Northern Ireland travels to the Faroe Islands next; exactly the type of opponents the team has traditionally failed to score against.  The Islanders have had a remarkable campaign so far too, beating Greece twice, and they’re confident they can get a result in front of a sell-out home crowd.
Northern Ireland hasn’t qualified for a major tournament since 1986 and, with the fans’ expectations so high, nerves are almost bound to affect the players, before the group is over.  However, it is already likely the side will at least secure a play-off place and every one of the remaining four games, against the Faroes, Hungary, Greece and Finland, are potentially winnable.  The manager believes just five more points – which could be achieved through one win and two draws – will probably secure second place. 

It’s an exciting time to be part of the Green and White Army.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Pussy Riot go to Church at Glastonbury

Pussy Riot by Igor Mukhin
I’m not a big fan of attending music festivals.  I camped overnight at one only once, during the early 2000s. 

My ancient, flimsy tent fell down during a thunderstorm in the small hours and I shivered through an uncomfortable night in a soaking wet sleeping bag, before wandering about Punchestown Racecourse aimlessly until it was time for breakfast.  My friend and tent-mate decided instead to gather up his belongings and sleep in the car, which was parked in an enormous field where he was promptly mugged and relieved of his wallet.

Good times.

‘Punk feminists’ Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina have carved out something of a career courting politically minded, bohemain westerners.  Church, meanwhile, has embarked on her own attempts to become recognised as a left-wing ‘activist’.

The Independent has an account of the three women’s discussion at Glastonbury (above), which seems to have been as incisive as you’d expect.  “Can I join the revolution too”, it encouraged the Welsh singer to ask, “I want to be in Pussy Riot”.

Ironically, its two most famous members have actually been expelled from the punk band which doesn’t record music or stage concerts.  Pussy Riot’s performances were stunts masterminded by the ‘performance art’ collective, ‘Voina’, which traded on shock value and obscenity.  The idea of a politically motivated, female group of punk musicians has proved more easily digestible in the media outside Russia.     

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have become anti-Putin celebrities after serving gaol terms for recording an expletive-ridden video in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow.  Fame enough to secure an appearance at Glastonbury and the admiration of Charlotte Church.

Sunday, 28 June 2015


If you were a loyal reader of this site, you've probably fallen out of the habit.  I've turned into a very irregular poster.  However, that is going to change and there will be a great deal more content soon.

Independent comment about politics in Northern Ireland will resume.  Likewise content about the rest of the UK.  And you'll get news and views on Russia and Eurasia, as well as stuff about football and culture.

Soon, I'll be heading to the Caucasus for a short while.  Georgia has suffered floods recently, which caused a number of fatalities, and the media responded by publishing multiple photographs of hippos on the loose in Tbilisi.  In Yerevan, Armenia, protests against a hike in electricity prices have prompted comparisons to the Ukraine and its Maidan 'revolution', helpfully dispelled by Anatoly Karlin.

It's an interesting time to visit the region and I'll be writing about it all on the blog.

Do please pay me a visit.

Friday, 26 June 2015

State of the Union

It’s over four years since I last blogged regularly about constitutional issues in the United Kingdom.  During that time independence for Scotland was rejected at a referendum and we've had a Prime Minister who emphasised repeatedly his unionist credentials.   So is the Union in a healthier state in 2015 than it was in 2011?

If you look at its prospects for the very short-term, the answer is probably ‘yes’.

The ‘Better Together’ coalition managed to fend off a muscular movement for independence, in the Scottish referendum.  That campaign was polarising, ill-tempered and, at times, looked nail-bitingly close, but the Union between Scotland and England survived.  Whether it emerged from the fight unscathed, is another matter.

In the afterglow of victory David Cameron told the UK that there would be “no disputes, no re-runs, we have heard the settled will of the Scottish people”.  Even the ever-pugnacious Alex Salmond, winded by defeat, appeared to reaffirm his pre-poll pledge of no more independence referenda “for a generation”. 

Of course, ‘a generation’ is not a fixed period and, in any case, it is relatively brief, measured against the history and politics of a nation state.  Judged with reference to this longer time-scale, I believe the Union is weaker now than in 2011.

The differences between England and Scotland, politically, have widened during the past four years, and even since the referendum.  Rather than derailing the Scottish National Party (SNP), the unsuccessful independence campaign filled its ranks with new members and gave it enough momentum to destroy Labour in the 2015 General Election.  Nationalists now dominate overwhelmingly Scotland’s allocation of seats at the UK Parliament in London and form the devolved Scottish government in Edinburgh.

It’s possible to juggle numbers and statistics or philosophise about the unfairness of electoral arithmetic at Westminster elections, to prove that there is still a substantial, pro-Union majority.  But the SNP’s current position is remarkable, however it is measured, for the time being it is unchallenged and it allows the party to focus politics in Scotland round the independence debate to an even greater degree.

Fifty six of Scotland’s fifty nine Members of Parliament are there with the purpose of confronting the Westminster government and, ultimately, working toward the United Kingdom's dissolution.  That must have a corroding effect on relationships within the Union and the political bonds which hold it together.  The SNP has persuaded Scottish voters, successfully, that socio-economic issues are determined by an ongoing struggle between Edinburgh and London.  It is against that backdrop that the Labour Party was decimated in the General Election.

Aside from issues round leadership and organisation, Labour struggled to convince electors that it could be trusted to fight for resources and special treatment for Scotland, at Westminster.  The referendum cast the party as an ally of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and, while nationalists failed to win their war over independence, they won an important battle to claim centre-left Scottish votes.

This idea of politics as a 'tug of war' has shaped politics south of the border too.

Among voters in England, attitudes to Scotland seem to be more hostile, after a divisive independence debate, followed by a General Election where English nationalist themes were frequently implied.  It may have been fair to highlight the possible consequences of certain MPs having undue influence in a hung parliament but, in the unrestrained atmosphere of a Westminster campaign, a legitimate argument could quickly acquire an anti-Scottish, rather than an anti-SNP, colouring.

This atmosphere has continued after the election, with the new Conservative government confirming its commitment to grant ‘English votes for English laws’, in the Queen’s Speech.  Under these relatively benign proposals, procedures will be tweaked, with members representing England, or England and Wales, forming a committee scrutinising legislation affecting only those parts of the UK, before it is subject to a full vote in the House of Commons.  Opponents are already grumbling about the potential to create ‘two tiers’ of MPs.

The Tories claim their ideas will strengthen the Union, addressing English grievances before they develop into outright nationalism.  In the current atmosphere, though, any changes to the constitution will have to be drafted carefully and argued with extreme delicacy, if they are not to deepen divisions within the UK.

David Cameron says the Conservative government intends to introduce more cuts and rebalance the economy dramatically, with lower taxes and lower spending, especially on welfare.  Irrespective of whether these plans are right or wrong, there will remain an atmosphere of extreme sensitivity around public spending, over the course of the current parliament.

Against this background, English perceptions that the devolved nations get a great deal out of the Treasury, at their expense, are likely only to flourish, particularly with the Scottish Parliament due to get greater tax and borrowing powers soon.  The government’s policies toward Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland will be shaped, almost inevitably, by sentiment in England.  There is little appetite there for generosity and concessions toward the seemingly spendthrift Celtic regions.

Once, the greatest threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom was believed to come from Irish nationalists.  Yet Northern Ireland has been mentioned in this article only in passing, because the latest farce at Stormont is a side-show, largely irrelevant to the longer term future of the Union.  The UK’s fate will be determined overwhelmingly by the complicated knot of relationships between England and Scotland.

Disappointingly, in the aftermath of the independence referendum, little progress has been made on examining why these relationships have been unravelling.  Nor has there been a serious discussion about how to encourage people across four nations in the UK to feel more attached to their common British identity.  It’s these big conversations which are more likely to suggest how to repair damage caused by devolution and increasing nationalism, rather than tinkering with aspects of the constitution.   

There are still compelling practical reasons for a majority of people in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to choose to remain within the United Kingdom.  Yet the more emotional arguments for Union seem to be losing their power, at least in Scotland, where a younger generation is apparently enthused by the prospect of independence.    

This might look like a bleak prognosis from a pro-Union writer and I am certainly not suggesting, like so many separatists, that break-up is inevitable.  However the ‘no’ vote at the Scottish independence referendum did not signal that the United Kingdom is out of danger. 

The campaign and its aftermath damaged the Union profoundly.  If there isn’t a proper and concerted attempt to repair that damage, the UK may well encounter less surmountable challenges in the future.            

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Is Rodgers the man to oversee Liverpool's transfer window?

I last wrote an overview of the situation at Liverpool way back in April 2012.  A lot has happened in the intervening years, but, rather depressingly, many things remain the same.

Back then, Kenny Dalglish was  manager.  Liverpool had just been beaten at home by West Bromwich Albion and there was a sense among supporters that sweeping changes needed to be made in the summer close season.   Less than a month later, the club’s owners, Fenway Sports Group (FSG), invited King Kenny to an ‘end of season review’ in their home city, Boston, and sacked him suddenly and unexpectedly.    

Three years on, Liverpool has just lost at Anfield to Crystal Palace and Dalglish’s successor, Brendan Rodgers, has been summoned to the United States to debrief FSG after this Saturday’s game against Stoke.  It’s no wonder that some commentators wonder whether the meeting will have a similar outcome to the ‘review’ of 2012.

When I wrote that post, there was at least some silverware in the trophy cabinet.  Liverpool had beaten Cardiff City in the League Cup final and were looking forward to playing Chelsea in the FA Cup final.  This year, the club reached two cup semi-finals again, but lost both, including a devastating FA Cup defeat to Aston Villa. 

On the other hand, Brendan Rodgers’ team cannot finish below seventh in the Premier League table and is more likely to finish fifth or sixth, whereas Kenny Dalglish led Liverpool to eighth place in 2012.

There was also the little matter of a serious challenge to win the league title, masterminded by Rodgers last season.  Although the team failed ultimately to top the table, second place was regarded by most fans and commentators as a considerable achievement and the manager was thought to have exceeded FSG’s expectations.  It was an exciting season for Liverpool, full of masterful team performances and driven by outstanding attacking play by Luis Suarez.

As summer 2015 approaches, however, Suarez has long since moved on, to form part of Europe’s best forward line, at Barcelona.  His goal-scoring partner, Daniel Sturridge, spent most of the season injured and Liverpool has netted just over half the number of goals scored last term.  It also looks likely that Raheem Sterling, a talented nineteen year old forward, will be sold to Manchester City.

If the playing staff doesn’t need to be rebuilt in its entirety, it certainly requires extensive refurbishment.  Arguably only one player in the squad, Phillip Coutinho, could not be replaced easily enough with someone better, if the funds were available.

At goalkeeper - Simon Mignolet’s form improved dramatically after Christmas, when he overcame his reluctance to leave the goal-line and claim the ball from crosses.  However, his deputy, Brad Jones, will be sold during the summer and the club has to find a replacement who will compete with Mignolet for a first team place.

On this season’s evidence, Rodgers hasn’t decided whether Liverpool’s defence should contain three or four players.  Whichever system is employed next season, the club will surely decide to add one central defender to the (reasonably) solid duo of Skrtel and Sakho. 

A consistent pairing hasn't been established at full-back / wing-back either.  The Spaniard, Alberto Moreno, is young, but makes defensive errors and was recently dropped.  His compatriot, Javier Manquillo, played rarely, particularly as the season advanced.  Meanwhile, the inconsistent England international, Glen Johnson, whose wages are reputed to be high, will be sold in the summer.

Rodgers tried various midfield players and wide players at wingback.  Lazar Markovic and Jordan Ibe are youthful, fast and energetic, but their passing and decision making skills are a work in progress.  Other players, like Jordan Henderson, look more effective in central areas. 

Steven Gerrard’s departure deprives the team of its figurehead and captain.  Although his performances this season weren’t generally as powerful or dominating as previous years, he takes with him a store of experience and inspiration which will be almost impossible to replace. 

Henderson, the vice-captain, has spoken about filling the void left by the captain.  He has the enthusiasm and the work ethic required, but he’s not yet a world class player like Gerrard and, honestly, it’s not clear that he has the ability to become one.  That’s not to diminish Henderson’s contribution to Liverpool, which has been considerable.

Emre Can shows enormous potential, but Rodgers cannot decide how best to accommodate his skills.  Can played most games this season as a third centre-back, but at times looked uncomfortable defending.  In midfield, by contrast, he appears happier but is too often caught on the ball.  The German can almost certainly become an important player for Liverpool, but first his role has to be determined.

One of the chief criticisms of the team this year has been its inability to score goals.  With Sturridge injured, Rodgers was left only with Rickie Lambert, Mario Balotelli and Fabio Borini as conventional strikers.  None of this misfiring trio was able to establish himself in the first eleven.  As a result, Rodgers often used Raheem Sterling as a makeshift centre-forward, or, latterly, played Philippe Coutinho in the position known fashionably as ‘the false nine’.

The Brazilian’s creativity should surely be the hub of any Liverpool line-up next season, but he still needs proper strikers to feed.  Belgian international, Divock Origi, joins the club next year, but it’s worth remembering that he only recently ended a six month goal drought at Lille and isn’t regarded as a conventional centre-forward.  Top of Liverpool’s summer shopping list will be at least one goal-scoring striker. 

The club will have to do plenty of business in the transfer market this summer and the only question most supporters are asking is who should oversee the rebuilding exercise.  Should FSG give Brendan Rodgers a stiff talking to at the ‘end of season review’ or tell him to look for another job?

A lot of fans have made up their minds already, but I’m still undecided.

There’s a lot I like about the way Rodgers goes about his work.  He’s pragmatic and flexible about changing personnel and tactics; he encourages young players and reportedly works hard in training to improve their skills; he also seems to value and respect the history and traditions of Liverpool FC.

Conversely, his tendency to experiment with different line-ups and formations can seem like indecision or even cluelessness.  Sometimes, his readiness to give the media a quote borders on self-promotion and he doesn’t always appear to grasp the seriousness of a bad defeat.  Most seriously, there are concerns about his judgement in the transfer market.

Liverpool’s recruitment policy is famously implemented by a ‘transfer committee’, which includes chief executive, Ian Ayre and other officials, as well as Rodgers.  This body has allowed the manager to escape some of the blame for bad signings, but he is an important member and must have had significant input into the club’s investments.

Since arriving at Liverpool in June 2012, Rodgers has overseen one genuinely successful transfer window.  That was during January 2013, when Coutinho and Sturridge were added to the playing staff. 

Last summer the club spent £117 million on players, none of whom established themselves as unquestionable assets to the first team.  The arrivals included unqualified failures, (Dejan Lovren £20 million, Rickie Lambert £4.5million, Mario Balotelli £16 million), signings who seemed hugely overpriced and have not yet proved otherwise (Adam Lallana £25 million, Alberto Moreno £12 million) and young talent which may or may not eventually prove good enough (Lazar Markovic £20 million, Emre Can £9.8 million).

It’s likely that there will be lots more transfer activity this summer but it remains to be seen whether this will involve the owners ploughing significant sums of money into the squad or whether the manager will be expected to fund signings largely by selling players like Sterling and cutting wages. 

In either scenario, a manager will be required to recruit the right players and deploy them in the right formation to qualify for the Champions League and, preferably, win a trophy.  That will involve either having a firm idea of the system that he should play and the determination to buy personnel to operate it, or having the ability to find exceptional talent on the transfer market, then developing quickly the most effective tactical system to suit those players.

Is Brendan Rodgers the man to fulfil the task?  It’s possible, but I’m far from convinced.  If Rodgers fails to persuade Mike Gordon, president of the Fenway Sports Group, then he could be out of a job.  

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Demonising Russia won't stop bloodshed in the Ukraine

Despite a ceasefire agreement, signed in Minsk last week, the Ukrainian president, Petro Poreshenko, and his supporters apparently have ‘no doubt’ that the United States will provide their armed forces with weapons to fight anti-government insurgents in south-eastern Ukraine.  There appears to be an increased appetite among belligerent advisers in Washington to escalate a crisis which has caused devastation for civilians in the region. 

Providing the Kiev regime with weapons, openly, would likely transform a deadly civil war, complicated by the Ukraine’s delicate geo-political situation, into a genuine proxy conflict between the US and Russia.
Recently, I read Richard Sakwa’s masterful book, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands.  It’s a serious, academic analysis, which makes a change from polemical journalism cheering on one side or another in the war.  One of its important contentions is that the conflict, including the economic sanctions and breakdown in relationships, is one result of ‘the decay of contemporary diplomacy’. 

‘Abusive and condemnatory rhetoric took the place of rational debate’.

That tendency is continuing apace, despite the Minsk agreement.  Michael Fallon, the UK defence minister, has made pre-emptive noises about Russia ‘destabilising’ the Baltic States by promoting ethnic tensions in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.    It’s an interesting claim in some respects, because it rests on the fact that exclusive, nationalist regimes in those countries continue to foster discontent among their minority, Russian speaking populations.

Statements from both Washington and London, in particular, demonise Vladimir Putin, ignore  grievances of people in eastern Ukraine and gloss over the origins and character of the regime in Kiev.  Reports on the television and in newspapers, with very few exceptions, echo the same themes.  There is little emphasis on the scale of human tragedy engulfing south eastern Ukraine or how it could have been prevented.

Sakwa’s book identifies two separate but closely related crises, which have plunged the country into political turmoil and then into war.  Firstly, he says that there is a ‘Ukrainian crisis’ - the ongoing struggle between nationalists, who want to create a mono-cultural, Ukrainian speaking nation, within the Ukraine’s current boundaries, and pluralists, who want a state which reflects different cultural and linguistic traditions, particularly Russian culture and the Russian language.  The former he describes as ‘monist’.  This first strand is complicated by ongoing competition for power between oligarchs in the Ukraine, which he believes underlies many political clashes that are then coloured with a more ideological hue.   

Secondly, there is a ‘Ukraine crisis’.  This is the wider, geopolitical tug of war, between Russia and the west, which has taken place since the break-up of the Soviet Union.  Recently, it involved an attempt to bring the Ukraine into the orbit of the EU (and, by implication, Atlantic security arrangements), the finance and support of ‘regime change’ in Kiev and the installation of a government along the ‘monist’ model.  Moscow has responded with its own measures, designed to protect its strategic interests, including using forces based in Crimea to secure the peninsula and subsequently incorporating it into Russia.  It has also provided moral and strategic support, the extent of which it contests, to the anti-Kiev forces in eastern Ukraine.

If you want to read about the origins and the histories of these two crises since 1991, the breakdown of relationships which led to war and intrigues between Ukrainian oligarchs, I’d urge you to read Frontline Ukraine.  I want only to touch upon a couple of related points, as regards the latest developments around Minsk, as well as the way in which the conflict has been reported.

Most strikingly, there’s the failure of either western media or western politicians to acknowledge the ‘Ukrainian’ dimension of the war. 

The forces in eastern Ukraine, or Novorossiya, as leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk prefer, are referred to as ‘pro-Russian’, ‘Russian backed’ or even, simply, ‘Russian’.  The implication is that they have no agency of their own, that they don’t tap into real grievances about the legitimacy or policies of the authorities in Kiev and that they can therefore play no part in resolving the crisis.  The breakdowns of the ceasefire so far have been blamed on ‘pro-Russian separatists’ in Debaltsevo, while the Ukrainian army’s continued bombardment of Donetsk has been largely ignored, or the source of 'shelling' not specified.

This attitude is one of the biggest obstacles to brokering peace, or even a resilient ceasefire, in Ukraine.  The current government in Kiev has refused, for the most part, to talk directly to rebel leaders, relying instead on back-channels and intermediaries, like former president, Leonid Kuchma.  

It's an analysis which also encourages the assumption that President Putin has the authority or influence to bring fighting to a halt whenever the fancy takes him; a view which ignores the complicated relationship between Moscow and Novorossiya, as well as changes within the Novorossiyan leadership.

In the eyes of many of his so-called ‘proxies’, Putin has not done nearly enough to protect people in the Donbass from an aggressive, nationalistic Ukrainian army and there has been a 'Ukrainising' of leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk..
It’s impossible to gauge accurately from so far away whether opposition to the new Kiev government has hardened into genuine popular separatism across the region.  We do know that after President Yanukovych was forced to flee Kiev, demands from the east were relatively modest.  A degree of autonomy, formal recognition of the Russian language and, as conflict developed, an amnesty for fighters, would have satisfied most ordinary people from Donbass. 

Neither were anxieties about the legitimacy of the new authorities unfounded. 

The American Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, explicitly stated that the US government spent $5 billion on encouraging ‘regime change’ in Kiev.  A leaked tape also revealed that she discussed the composition of the new Kiev government, before it was formed.    Quietly, the sequence of events which led to protests in Independence Square, or Maidan, turning violent has been revised, even by media in the UK.  It seems likely that snipers from Right Sector, the virulently nationalist group which provided the shock troops of the ‘revolution’, fired the first shots. 

The important point is that, to most of the world, it is not evident necessarily that the US and its allies have a unique right to subvert governments that they don’t like and work to replace them with something more amenable. 

The character of the new Kiev regime caused understandable distress in regions where there were cultural affinities with Russia and where Russian was spoken.  One of the first acts of the new Ukrainian parliament was to attempt to repeal a law allowing regions to designate Russian as a second regional language.  The president continues to insist that Ukraine is a ‘unitary state’, where Ukrainian is the only official tongue.  

Ukrainian neo-Nazis have been part of the government, from its inception, and are disproportionately influential in the armed forces, with nationalist militias accorded official status within the Ukraine's military.  The ‘social nationalist’, Andriy Parubiy, who led Right Sector violence at Maidan, became security chief in the new government and now leads a military unit.

There is a civil war in Donbass, caused by genuine grievances, anxieties and problems, among people who speak Russian and often have cultural affinities with Russia but who, for the most part, were happy to be part of Ukraine, until its democratically elected government was forcibly removed.  Continuing to ignore their existence and their concerns can only prolong the conflict. 

It is also unhelpful to demonise every country which does not support the US / EU view of geo-politics.  Washington and Brussels might see pouring billions of pounds into ‘civil society’ groups which are explicitly anti-Russian, in countries which have cultural, linguistic and historical links to Russia, as ‘democracy building’, but it’s hardly surprising, nor is it unreasonable, that Moscow doesn’t share that view. 

Sakwa argues very powerfully that Putin has reacted to events in the Ukraine, rather than orchestrating them.  He also believes that expansion of the European Union didn't worry Moscow unduly, until EU and Nato defence policy became inseparably entwined; a position which was formalised by the Lisbon Treaty.    

In these contexts, Russia’s decision to annex Crimea, opportunistically and at the request of its residents, was a rational act of self-defence.  Sevastopol is home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, the peninsula is inhabited, overwhelmingly, by Russians and losing it to Nato was unthinkable.

The pro-Russia argument is that Cold War attitudes in ‘the West’ have yet to be decommissioned, leading to the current conflict in the Ukraine.  Nato has expanded aggressively into former Soviet territory and now aspires to advance into historic Russian heartlands, right along the borders of the current Russian Federation and well within its sphere of cultural and linguistic influence.  It is an organisation aimed at surrounding and containing Russia and it poses a direct security threat to Moscow, as well as an existential threat to Russian speakers and Russian culture.

You don’t need to accept this theory to be uncomfortable with the West’s portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a modern-day Hitler, or to lament the media’s failure to explore both sides of the civil war in the Ukraine.  You don't need to accept that Moscow hasn't had a single member of personnel west of the border, to question whether the 'pro-Russia' forces are made up predominately of Russian soldiers.  Why are so many people, who have no particular knowledge of or even interest in the region, rushing to take Kiev's side?    

Bloodshed in a neighbour, common to both Russia and EU countries, is a shared responsibility.  It’s likely to be stopped only by a genuine spirit of partnership, between the US, Russia and the EU, encouraging compromise between the warring sides  It could become much worse with the introduction of new weapons, the continued abuse of silly historical analogies and politicians demonising either party to the conflict.