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Review: Roy Keane The Second Half

October 16, 2014 Tags: , Reviews 13 comments
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The relationship has long been uneasy; once hero to the massed hero-worshipers, now the cynic and the increasingly cynical. But Manchester United supporters have not yet fallen completely out of love with Roy Keane, the player who remains the finest all-round midfielder in the club’s modern history. Indeed, the player – and man, some might say – that United has not genuinely replaced since the Irishman was forced out of the club by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2005.

The affinity has, of course, evolved, not least with the publication of Keane’s second autobiography, The Second Half, last week. No longer an Old Trafford insider, Keane’s vocal and public spat with Ferguson over the past nine years often divided loyalty. Lurid headlines have run with the Irishman’s criticism of Ferguson’s management, while Sir Alex’ analysis of his former player’s personality has often landed below the belt. This, a tiresome spat, has often threatened to turn ugly in an era of sweeping media focus. Two giants of the modern game that cannot find a reason to make nice.

Little wonder Keane should address the relationship with his former manager so thoroughly in the new book. Yet, beyond the tabloid headlines and pithy quotes The Second Half is a remarkably frank work in Keane’s now familiar vernacular. Ghost Roddy Doyle has captured both Keane’s complexity and frustrating superficiality: “Take that you c*nt,” said the Irishman of Alfe-Inge Haaland in his first biography, Keane. It is a quip now replaced by an equally blunt assessment of one John O’Shea performance – he played “like a f*cking clown.”

The Second Half is both an exercise in self-effacing honesty and laboured self-pity. “There are things I regret in my life and he’s not one of them,” says Keane of Haaland, the former Leeds United and Manchester City player, on whom a 2001 tackle earned Keane a substantial fine and double-length ban. The passage contrasts unfavourably with a lengthy account of Keane’s “self-destruct button” – a tendency towards heavy drinking and an inability to think clearly in times of stress.

There is an admission of Keane’s failings in management at Sunderland and Ipswich Town, but also the pitiful bellyaching when it comes to his dismissal by Mackems’ chairman Ellis Short. And then there is the implicit criticism of Ferguson’s managerial failings, including a deconstruction of the Scot’s relationship with, among others, Ruud van Nistelrooy. Ferguson and Keane hold very different accounts when it comes to the Dutchman.

To varying degrees Keane berates Robbie Savage, Peter Schmeichel and Carlos Quieroz, while admitting to admiration – of sorts at least – for the former pair. Keane is at once angry, melancholy and seemingly without empathy. Make of those contradictions what you will.

Roy keaneThe Second Half opens with the topic that dragged the Irishman into trouble with football’s authorities in Keane – that studs-up challenge on “the absolute prick” Haarland. It earned United’s captain a four-match suspension, followed by a further five game ban when biographer Eamon Dunphy claimed at an FA hearing that the midfielder had “without a doubt” set out to injure the Norwegian. It is a claim that the midfielder continues to deny.

“Was I going around for years thinking: ’I’m going to get him, I’m going to get him’?” asks Keane in his new book. No, comes the answer. “Was he at the back of my mind? Of course he was. Like Rob Lee was, like David Batty was, like Alan Shearer was, like Patrick Vieira was. All these players were in the back of my mind: ‘If I get a chance I’m going to fucking hit you, of course I am.’”

The passage is typical of the book; forthright, entertaining – and often self-serving.

Yet, the real value is in another perlustration of Keane’s relationship with Ferguson – a man for whom the 43-year-old seemingly has little respect. Would he forgive Ferguson for prior criticism; and for driving the Irishman out of United in 2005?

“Not sure, not sure. Football is a small world, you will cross paths with people again,” said Keane at last week’s book launch. “But to criticise people who have earned him success … would I forgive him? I don’t know. When you think what he made out of it, millions of pounds, statues. Lots of stuff I let go, but eventually you have to go, enough is enough. You have to defend yourself.”

This is Ferguson characterised no longer as the father-figure of lore, but as a duplicitous control-freak; untrustworthy and ungrateful. And where self-interest comes to the fore it is worth noting Keane’s admission to profiting from the 2005 Glazer takeover. The Irishman owned “a few” shares as part of his package and – like more than 30,000 small-holding supporters (Rant included) – had no choice but to sell when the Board accepted the Americans’ 300p-per-share offer.

It opens up an interesting question: whether Ferguson also owned shares as part of his compensation pre-2005 and, more importantly, whether profit influenced the Scot’s decision not to speak out against the takeover. It is certainly a nuanced argument; one that has admittedly been raging without resolution for nine years.

The Second Half offers no further clue, although Keane’s defenestration of Ferguson’s character and motives is complete. Not least in the description of the end-game, after 12 years as a United player. Did that MUTV interview really end more than a decade’s service at Old Trafford? No, says the Irishman – it was a decision driven by personality clash above all.

“Even now people still say: ‘The video had to be destroyed.’ Like it was a nuclear weapon or something,” writes Keane. “Did someone drive out to the countryside and bury it in the f*cking ground? Or did a bomb disposal unit come and explode it? It had to be destroyed.

“I wasn’t worried about the dressing room. It was getting a bit silly so I got the players together in the dressing room and told them it was f*cking nonsense. Not one of them had an issue. Not one.”

In this The Second Half reflects Keane the post-United personality more than Keane the player. The Irishman’s tough talk as a pundit on ITV has often demonstrated less bite than his tackling. Somehow, after largely failing as a manager, Keane became a parody – those piercing eyes and unrelenting intensity failing to find the right balance between critique and analysis required of top pundits. Not that many reach that rare status.

The enduring impression that The Second Half brings is of a man who regrets little, but still holds a keen sense of injustice. “The hardest part of Roy Keane is his tongue,” wrote Ferguson in 2013’s My Autobiography. There is something in the analysis even if Ferguson’s quip is not entirely true. Yet, at no point does The Second Half descend into petty one-upmanship in the manner of Ferguson’s error-filled, narcissistic, tome.

One nil to Keane? Perhaps so.

The Second Half by Roy Keane and Roddy Doyle is published by W&N Books.

Review: “The Class of ’92”

November 27, 2013 Tags: Reads 8 comments
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It’s ridiculous, when you think about it. Six mates, two of them literal brothers, the rest of them brothers in all but blood are possessed of a profoundly driven will to win and a deep personal love of a football club. They learn their trade together, bonded forever by their experience, and then they set about winning absolutely everything. How appropriate, then, that the people behind the “The Class of ‘92” have set about making a cinematic documentary out of the story, given that it could so easily be the plot of a perfect Hollywood ‘sports’ movie.

We all know the story of the class of ’92, but we have never seen it told quite like this. We may have had front row seats as it unfolded, marvelling in their triumphs as they gave us most of the greatest moments (and unquestionably the single greatest of all of them) of our football supporting lives, but this is essentially a backstage pass – finally free of the media machine, the film shows them more relaxed than they have ever been allowed to be, in public.

I am deliberately avoiding sharing anecdotes from the film in this review, as for those of us who know every iota of the plot details already, the anecdotes are the draw, and what a draw they are. They are beautifully captured – one-to-one talking heads with each of the players, with some genuine personal moments, and quite a lot of what people mean when they say “banter” in a non-pejorative way.

The dinner table scene, returned to again and again as the story plays out is an absolute joy to behold. I think most of us know that Paul Scholes is secretly funny, and he really is, but Ryan Giggs steals the show. The devil might have all the best tunes, but the Red Devils have all the best lines.

When speaking with one of the Directors, Ben Turner, for this Friday’s podcast, he said that the filmmakers were concerned with ensuring that the story would be cinematic, and accessible and interesting to a non-Manchester United supporting fanbase, as well as providing a deep enough experience to satisfy hardened reds. They are mostly successful; for those of us who lived through the story the first time around, it is nostalgic bliss, and for those unfortunate enough to support other football teams, the film looks lovely and the soundtrack is perfect.

There are a lot of efforts to set the rise of the class of ’92 into the wider context of 1990s Britain, and the sense of youth and optimism that genuinely pervaded at the time. The best aspects of this cultural contextualisation take the form of the soundtrack – heavy on the Stone Roses, as it very, very much should be. The worst come in the voices from outside football. Perhaps understandably, the bits not aimed at hardened reds are the bits I enjoyed least.

I have heard Danny Boyle talk about the sense of optimism in 90s Britain enough not to find it of particular value here, but at least that was not offensive. I found the inclusion of Tony Blair somewhat more dubious. Turner made the point that Blair represents a huge turning point in the relationship between British politics and football, and this is fair enough, but there is something painfully ironic about watching Blair talking about an optimism that he essentially destroyed in throwing our lot in with the Bush regime. Much as documentaries about the optimism of the sixties end with assassinations and the Vietnam war, so nineties optimism ends with Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Class of 92But enough about politics. There is mercifully not that much of Blair. Who wants to listen to him when you can listen to Eric Cantona talking about the joy of seeing the greatest crop of United players for forty years coming through the ranks together? When you can listen to Mani talking about trying to get tickets to the ’99 final? When you can watch the people who wrote the greatest sporting story of the modern age together look back and laugh and tell you what they really think of each other and the people around them?

The Class of ’92 is a wonderful film, it really is. It wouldn’t be quite as wonderful if I wasn’t a Red (but then again, what would?), but there is definitely enough in there to keep anyone with a passing interest in stories of profound human triumph involved. And for those of us who have been with the class of ’92 since rumours of a player who might be “better than Lee Sharpe” started to emerge from The Cliff, the fact that their story has been told with such love and respect makes for an unforgettable 90 minutes. Something that Giggs and Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Phil and Gary Neville know about only too well.

The Class Of ’92 is out in selected cinemas on the 1st December and DVD on the 2nd December.

Book review: Manchester United’s Golden Age 1903-1914

May 27, 2012 Tags: , , Reviews 2 comments

Season’s over and it’s time for ‘trusted sources’ and those ‘in-the-know’ to shine – the period when wild transfer speculation takes over. Considering that the summer ahead is arguably the most important for Manchester United in recent years, and the  Glazers’ generosity is to be tested once again, it’s hard not to find the guessing game more than a little annoying and ultimately disappointing. So step away from it all with a great read – one featuring a world-class United midfield, Championship winning glory and FA scandals to boot…

There are few books covering the birth of the club, while many writers have explored United since Sir Matt Busby’s era. But just as Busby discovered in 1945, United has never been just another football team; it is a club with a rich history. And for the most part, the expectation of success that has endured for so long in the modern era was in no small part due to the period of time squeezed between the yearly years (1878-1902) and the crisis years (1919-1932).

They were years that saw United develop into a team that became champions twice, won the FA Cup and became inaugural Charity Shield holders. It is a period that would come to be known as the ‘Golden Age’ of football.

Thomas Taw’s Manchester United’s Golden Age 1903-1914 – The Life and Times of Dick Duckworth does not attempt to review every match of every season, instead each chapter presents an overview of a significant period in that Golden Age. In 1903-1906: Towards the Holy Grail Taw takes the reader through United’s struggles on the way to the First Division; the final chapter 1911-14: Towards the Precipice recalls the reasons behind United’s subsequent fall.

Manchester United's Golden AgeOften what’s happening on the pitch is not the most important part of the story. Taw reveals the stories behind the curtains; the war between the Outcasts and FA, or the consequences of building Old Trafford, for example. Frequently, Taw’s curiosity simply reflects on the issues of the day, touching on Edwardian era life, and football’s role in it.

Unusually, Taw tells the story through a central character, Dick Duckworth – the only player to play for United throughout 1903-1914. In it Taw contrasts the hidden tale with what Taw calls “public story of Dick Duckworth and Manchester United.” It’s a fascinating portrait, marrying the struggle faced by both Duckworth and United to break through.

Duckworth gained his place in the first team just in time to lead United side to success, staying with the club for over a decade. A “Manchester lad, a true local hero,” Duckworth was an integral part of the best midfield in the country – Duckworth, Roberts and Bell.

Manchester United’s Golden Age is also a story that Taw tells “through the medium of contemporary newspapers,” offering the reader plenty of quotes – and at times quotes within quotes, and then some. It can be hard to tell where one ends, and another begins, but the humour shines through. From “…the cup-ties bring caperings which serve as a foil to the stately minuet of the League tournament,” to the “… fizzing, explosive excitement… warm the average man in “shivering times”… It is a force as mysterious as electricity.”

Perhaps the only complaint, especially the for the stats nerd, is the absence of a results and achievements section to offer the detail behind the story. In The Matt Busby Chronicles…, a book by the same publisher, the huge chapter devoted to tables on all matches played enhances the reader’s understanding of an important era.

Despite this Manchester United’s Golden Age offers great insight into a pivotal time in United’s story. And at a time when there’s little fit to print other than transfer rumours readers will find no disappointment in a fascinating period in the club’s rich history.

Manchester United’s Golden Age 1903-1914 – The Life and Times of Dick Duckworth by Thomas Taw is available in paperback and hardcover. Published by Desert Island Books and retailing on Amazon from £11.99. Also in Kindle edition.

Football Manager 2012 review

October 31, 2011 Tags: , Reviews 6 comments

Football Manager 2012 is absolutely, totally and utterly brilliant. I can’t imagine that surprises you much, dear reader. Football Manager has been absolutely, totally and utterly brilliant since it was called Championship Manager, and there was a Mitre Magma on the cover. What is really such an extraordinary achievement is that they really do just keep making it better and better.

I’m writing this assuming you have a working knowledge of the Football Manager series. In case you don’t, as the name suggests it’s a football management simulator in which you take on and run a club as you see fit. You handle tactics, transfers, the media, keeping your players sweet, hiring and firing backroom staff and trying to stop the board from sacking you and hiring Steve McClaren as your replacement – the ultimate ignominy.

The thing is, they put one of these out every year. This means they ask us to part with our hard-earned £30 or so for what will inevitably be an incremental upgrade on the previous year. Without the demands of a large multiplayer audience (FM does have multiplayer, but it’s far from the predominant pull to the given the time investment required), the need to have the latest and greatest version is based more on the quality of the product than it is on being part of a community who all need to be playing the same version of a game.

Feature creep is a big part of annualised sports video game franchises – every year the publishers of these games need some bullet points to put on the back of the box. According to Sports Interactive (SI), which makes the game, you would need a pretty big box in this case, being as there are apparently more than 800 new features. There’s an in-depth new tutorial system, and having played the best part of a season attempting to do a better job than Steve Bruce of managing Sunderland, I can’t say I could pick those 800 features out of a line up, but I can say that I am having an amazingly good time.

If you want a detailed breakdown of what all the new features are, I’d recommend putting “what’s new in Football Manager 2012” into Google, but what really jumped out at me were three key changes. The first of these is the most visible – the presentation of information has been fairly radically overhauled. The higher the resolution the screen you are playing on, the more information you’re given on each screen. This is particularly useful on the player information screen – having an overview with attributes, positions, contract, training, form, all displayed at once is incredibly useful and saves many a click. Each section can be clicked into for more detailed information. And my goodness, there is an incredible amount of information.

I mentioned that I haven’t finished a season yet. Sadly, unlike when CM 97/98 came out (shout out to Ibrahima Bakayoko), I have a proper job, so I can’t just sit up all night playing Football Manager. It is not just my life that has changed beyond recognition, though – it’s the game too. It takes a long, long time to play through a season. The most time-consuming period, for me, was pre-season. There is such a lot to do. Finding new staff, somehow managing to bring in new players (the improvements to scouting are brilliant), getting used to the squad, and getting used to the new tactics interface – it all takes time, but there is no doubt that it is a very engaging process. Incidentally, I managed to sign Darron Gibson and immediately changed his nickname to “The G Bomb.” This was an important step toward success. I think SI might rate him a bit higher than we do. Seeing the words “click here to view the G Bomb’s profile keeps making me laugh like the idiot I am.

Football Manager 2012

Football Manager 2012

The second of the changes which has had the most impact on my experience of playing the game is the new “Tone” system for interacting with players, and the vastly improved team talks. You instantly see the effect of your overall team talk on a player’s body language, and can make adjustments by then providing a specific talk to your players by position, or as individuals. You can choose the tone you use, and varying this made it feel like you had a good deal more control. In previous years I have found that I essentially said I was pleased if players got 6.5-7.9 and delighted if they got 8 or better, which soon stopped having an impact. It now seems that you have a greater chance to actually influence the morale and performance of your team through the team talk which has made it into less of a chore than it felt before.

The third big marquee change which has had a noticeable impact on my experience is the vastly improved 3D match engine. I’m old enough to remember the stick figure match engine of the original Football Manager (which came on a tape, kids.) (A tape being like an MP3 player, but in the olden days). Some of my richest childhood gaming experiences came through those stick figures and whilst the actual figures and animations aren’t that really that far removed from their stick figure forebears, what is so impressive is how closely watching an FM simulated game looks like watching a simulated game of football, not in terms of graphical fidelity in a FIFA kind of a way, but in how well the representative figures move, and use the ball. They make the runs you hope they will, make passes which look like real passes and hit every kind of shot. The ball flies like a real ball should. It just feels like football. Sometimes all the players start running on the spot for a bit, and the frame rate wasn’t great on the battered old PC I’ve been playing on, but these are minor annoyances, and certainly not game breaking.

There is a new option – the Director’s camera which mostly uses the up in the stands angle, but cuts occasionally to a different view at key moments – behind the back for a direct free kick or penalty, for example. It’s a view which mostly works well, but does not seem to know the 180 degree rule. If you’ll allow me to quote Wikipedia – “In filmmaking, the 180° rule is a basic guideline that states that two characters (or other elements) in the same scene should always have the same left/right relationship to each other. If the camera passes over the imaginary axis connecting the two subjects, it is called crossing the line” This might seem like an overly technical complaint, but it actually makes a big difference to the experience of watching matches – it’s disorienting when this rule is ignored.

Football Manager 2012

Football Manager 2012

My only other significant gripe is one which has been a problem for a long while with the FM series – it takes a really long time, sometimes, for it to simulate in the background, all the games that you’re not involved in. This is a particular problem in international weeks, it seems. I was running one league with a small database (because of the aforementioned battered old PC) but the game really chugged in those spots. They have tried to moderate this problem by giving you the option to browse the standard menus and information whilst it processes matches in the background, but I still found there was a good deal of downtime.

So it’s not flawless, then, but Football Manager is one of the crowning achievements in the medium of computer games. There is a lot of debate in video game criticism about the real strengths of the medium – especially when it comes to providing a narrative experience, Football Manager allows you to create your own narrative – relationships with players, ups and downs, key games won or lost on the form of a star striker, or a poor offside decision. As a manager you have enormous influence, but not omnipotence. Which, of course, is very much like real football. You need patience, and some time on your hands and be prepared to sift through an enormous amount of information to get the best out of this game. If you do, though, it’s an incredibly rich, deep and rewarding experience and incremental update on last year or not, really fantastic value for money.

Football Manager 2012, developed by SI Games and published by SEGA, is available now.

Review: “Red” by Gary Neville

October 4, 2011 Tags: , , Reviews 11 comments

There are moments in “Red”, Gary Neville’s autobiography, when you are reminded what an absolutely extraordinary career he, his brother and – as he never fails to refer to them – “Butty, Becks, Giggsy and Scholesey” had together. In the second batch of photographs included there is an image, captured in the dressing room before Neville’s testimonial, of the six of them with Sir Alex Ferguson, and I am ever so slightly ashamed to admit that seeing it again made me  well up. Six pals who have achieved extraordinary things, many of them together.

That this image had such a profound affect on me is perhaps not a great reflection of the quality of the prose. It feels a bit hacky to compare Red’s functional, consistent and only rarely exceptional style to its author’s playing career, but I am going to do it anyway, because it is just so appropriate.

Gary tells his story in strict chronological order, cataloguing the highs and lows of a career spent living out a childhood dream. The title is not an accident, the song sung throughout his career is true – Gary Neville really is a Red.

Spending a few hours in his literary company is enjoyable enough, because for any United fan it means spending a few hours on a pleasing trip through the incredible successes of the past twenty years. Incidentally, if you are not a United fan and have somehow stumbled across this review, I’m not sure Red is for you…

There is not much in the way of new insight in this book – the United way means being hard working, never complacent, and not knowing when you’re beaten. Sir Alex shouts at players when they don’t play well and occasionally they shout back and that never ends well. Eric Cantona was good.

The few titbits of new information I won’t share here because they are a rare treat to discover yourself. Generally speaking, in spite of the lack of sparkling prose, the momentum of United’s triumphs are entertaining enough to keep the reader engaged.

The momentum is only broken by the chapters covering Nev’s England career. Much like actually watching England’s underachievement on the pitch for the last 20 years, reading about it is pretty dull. If I’d played 85 times for my country, I’d probably devote a fair chunk of my career memoirs to it, but there are few surprises in his recanting of his time with the national team. Venables was good, Hoddle was tactically astute but a terrible man-manager, Sven’s reign started promisingly but then the indiscipline around the squad got out of hand. There is a chapter for each England manager – this could have been the work of a single chapter, and I would have been satiated.

Red is a perfectly decent sporting autobiography, rather than an excellent one. Still, because of it, I have spent the last five days with a song stuck in my head. Altogether now…”Gary Neville is a red, is a red, is a red! Gary Neville is a red, he writes boo-ooks.”

“Red: My Autobiography” by Gary Neville is published by Bantam Press and available in hardcover now.

“Life With Sir Alex” by Will Tidey

My Life With Sir Alex - Will TideyTidey’s book, published in paperback by Bloomsbury, benefits and suffers from all chronicles of supporter experiences. Tidey’s prose draws readers into the action as if not solely recalling the experience but reliving it. The book is, after all, Tidey’s personal experiences of supporting the club since childhood.

These are emotions – the highs and lows of supporterdom – with which all Manchester United fans can identify. The preface to ‘My Life’ is a case in point, describing the explosion of passion and joy as Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer’s flicked winner lit the fires of joy at Camp Nou in 1999. It was the seminal moment of Sir Alex Ferguson’s time in charge of United.

But Tidey’s work also is recollection of events over the course of 25 years of Ferguson’s tenure at Old Trafford, and in strict chronilogical order at that. There is much to enjoy in the many victories; plenty to rue in the defeats. Each has made Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford so memorable. Tidey’s work is also a remembrance of the minutiae, as well as the improbably glorious. There are moments that the reader will simply have forgotten, or placed in the deep recesses of memory at least. There is joy in that too.

And yet for all that there is nothing particularly revelatory here. Why should there be? Tidey’s work, almost a personal diary over a quarter of a century, was never intended to be. Passionate, witty and smart, Tidey neatly sums up the fans-eye view of Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford. For that, it is well worth the read.

“Life with Sir Alex” by Will Tidey is published by Bloomsbury and available in paperback now.

This article originally appeared in Rant Monthly Issue 3, October 2011.

Competition: win United books

March 18, 2011 Tags: , Shorts 53 comments

“People get nothing out of books but what they bring to them,” Nobel prize-winning Irish playwrite George Bernard Shaw once wrote. And to thee, Rant readers, we bring you two fine Manchester United books from the past year, each in glorious hardcover. By this time next week one lucky reader will win this fine pair!

First, a book Rant described as a “prescient tale of modern football” – Rooney’s Gold – by BBC Panorama journalist John Sweeney. Published by Bite Back, Rooney’s Gold looks into the murky underworld occupied by those on the make and take; a legion of agents and criminals seeking to profit from the United striker.

The other prize in this competition is Football – Bloody Hell! by Times columnist Patrick Barclay, published by Yellow Jersey. Barclay’s recap of Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial career is particularly strong on the Scot’s early days, offering new insight into the world’s greatest coach as he approaches retirement.

To win this pair of books simply complete the following sentence in 140 characters or less and post below, on twitter (tagging @unitedrant) or better still – do both! Our favourite answer will win!

“Rooney told Ferguson to read United Rant because….. ”

Competition closes 11.59pm, Friday 25 March 2011. Winners will be notified by email/twitter.

Fifa 11 Review – the best football game in the world but is that enough?

December 19, 2010 Tags: , Reviews 7 comments

Rant almost always refers to itself in the third person, but when you’re attempting to critically appraise a work of art or entertainment, there really is no room for the third person – none of this is “Rant’s” opinion – it’s all mine. For the purposes of establishing credentials, I have a long history with video game versions of the football.

Me and the esteemed editor of this very website once had an actual 90 minute game of Match Day 2 on his Amstrad CPC464 – the scoreboard broke after 10 goals, and I think I may have won by infinity to infinity minus 3.

We’ve all come a long way since then and FIFA 11 from EA sports will be in many a video game playing football fan’s Christmas stocking next week.

That imaginary video game playing football fan will have much cause to be please with their gift because, with the exception of a few hold-outs waving the Pro-Evo flag, most people acknowledge that FIFA, long the slickest and best presented football game going, is now also the one with the richest, deepest and most satisfying game-play engine. That this is an uncontroversial position to hold is a remarkable turnaround for a franchise long dogged by accusations of style-over-substance.

The difficulty in reviewing annualised sports franchises comes in asking the question “who is this review for?” If it is for people who are getting their first 360 or PS3 for Christmas then there’s absolutely no question that if they have any interest whatsoever in playing football on it, they should run out and buy FIFA 11.

In return for their hard-earned they will be getting a product chock full of features – licensed leagues from across Europe, some startlingly accurate player likenesses (and some not quite so accurate – Darren Fletcher’s hair has NEVER been that colour), wonderful animation, and in spite of a limited number of properly modelled grounds, Old Trafford is replicated in all its glory. So who cares if Fulham, Aston Villa and Bolton all play in identical generic stadia?

The control scheme has been incremented upon – last year’s genuine analogue directional movement remains, shooting from range is improved (I scored an absolute belter with Nani the other day), and whilst I still can’t score from or even hit half decent free kicks, that could just be me.

In fact a good few of my criticisms of the game play may stem from the fact that nowadays, as may be inferred from my reference to 8-bit games, I am a grown up and don’t have the time or manual dexterity to truly master everything on offer here. Games occasionally become very bogged down in midfield because I lack the subtlety to implement much of the right stick skill moves which I imagine could cut open stubborn defences in a way my hopeful through ball can’t.

If the review is for someone who has last year’s edition, or even, as is the case for me, 09’s then the value proposition becomes very different. If what the Americans call “The Roster Update” is appealing to you and the nuanced visual appeal that comes from more years of graphical polish and engine refinement then you won’t be disappointed. And, of course, if online multiplayer is important to you, then the new edition means drastically reduced numbers playing last year’s edition.

For me, though, I think if I hadn’t been sent a review copy I would have thought long and hard before parting with the £35+ needed to pick up a new copy of this badboy. The differences are so incremental, and my own abilities so relatively unsophisticated as to render the game play changes of minimal effect. And the big shiny new addition of playable goalkeepers, whilst competent, is hardly earth earth-shattering.

Be a pro mode has been through some pretty serious changes, some very much for the better, some for want of a better word, bizarre. Instead of playing matches and being assigned points based on your performance after the game to improve your dude’s skills, your skills improve as you pull off moves in games – so running with the ball might improve your stamina, making successful short passes may improve your passing, and so on.

You can also use your pro across all modes of play now, rather than only in “be-a-pro” seasons, which is very neat, and the fact that progress made in exhibition games, or even the arena, is a really nice touch. What isn’t such a nice touch is that, as far as I could work out, you no longer get to play in reserve matches when you’re not in the first team squad, and EA Sports have implemented their terrible, terrible, terrible calendar system which “sims” other matches whilst you SIT IN FRONT OF YOUR TELLY HITTING X AND NOT GETTING TO PLAY YOUR GAME!

Fight Night Round 4 had a very similar problem – I’m not familiar with Madden or the NHL games, but I believe they may have this problem too. This is bad enough when you’re playing a season as an entire team, and having to wait in between matches, but when you’re only getting picked once every six games or so, as you are at the start of your be-a-pro career it’s an absolutely disgrace of a design decision. (Hey, this website does have rant in the title). The long and the short of it is – I just want to play the game. I don’t care that you accurately sim the result of Fulham vs Chelsea.

Enough of the griping though, about value and the very silly calendar thing. Playing local multiplayer is a huge amount of fun, as it always is with good sports games. The AI is the best it has ever been and means that when you don’t have friends round, and you don’t want to be pwned by 12-year-old ninjas on Xbox live, you can still get plenty of enjoyment out of this.

I cannot stress enough how fantastic it looks, and the sound design is great – they’ve added some more texture to the commentary, certain fixtures and individual players get extra attention from Martin and Andy, and whilst Andy’s still occasionally a bit on the wooden side, it certainly works well enough that I left it on for a few games before giving up on them.

FIFA 11 is a must buy if you don’t have a football game, and my personal upgrade cycle for sports games means it’s probably a must buy if you have FIFA 08. Even if you do have 10 though and fancy treating yourself, you know that you’ll be getting a pretty fantastic package, just perhaps not one that’s that different from what you’re already playing.

I’m off to level up my pro – I do feel a little guilty though – I’m keeping Berba out of the side.

FIFA 11 is available on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.

Review: Championship Manager 2011 for iPhone

October 31, 2010 Tags: , Reviews 12 comments

Championship Manager, the granddaddy of football management brands, returns to iPhone, with a raft of changes for the 2011 edition aiming at producing a more intuitive game. The name evokes memories of hours stolen away trying to steer Manchester United to domestic and European glory, while sealing that new multi-million signing.

The PC version of CM is no longer developed by Sports Interactive of course – the development studio released the first edition in 1992 but split from EIDOS in 2005 and reformed the rival Football Manager brand for desktop and handheld.

Indeed, CM 2011 for iPhone, developed by Beautiful Game Studios, is a very different beast from the behemoth spreadsheet monster that is FM on PC.

Whether that is good very much depends on your outlook. CM 2011 for iPhone very conspicuously concentrates on producing a lighter game experience than either its PC brother or the Football Manager brand on any platform. The inherent usability of the iPhone is exploited, with many elements within the game touch-to-click, although frustratingly not all.

The game loads with speed and within minutes the new manager is settled in at his club; buying, selling and training players, setting up the tactical system and playing matches. Matches are played at speed and – crucially for an iPhone game – chunks of the management experience are concluded at such velocity that it is almost impossible to be caught at the end of a bus, train or tram journey with a match in progress. The same certainly could not be said for Football Manager Handheld 2010.
Championship Manager 2011 iPhone
The flip side of the coin is that CM 2011 for iPhone feels lightweight. So much of the management experience is glossed over. Tactics are basic, comprising of positions, runs and pre-defined playing styles. The playing styles are essentially those of around a dozen famous European Cup winning teams.

Training too is limited, with managers choosing from a set of pre-define groups which appear to have random effects on individual players. Training becomes a system of trial and error, with ‘attack’, ‘defend’, ‘skill’ and others groups not obviously working for individuals.

The transfer market is simple – read basic – too. Much like its big brother scouts can be sent around to world to discover new players, although since there are no hidden attributes this is often an exercise in vanity since the search filter system is pretty comprehensive. Values are unrealistic though and the manager takes little part in the negotiations with potential new signings, except over price.

Rant secured the services of Maicon for £10.6 million, Wolfsburg’s Diego for £12 million and Sebastian Giovinco for £8 million. Who said there is no value in the transfer market?
Championship Manager 2011 iPhone
Conversely Rant could not offload John O’Shea, Wes Brown nor Oliver Gill for love and certainly not money. Although repeatedly fining the latter simply for being the ceo’s offspring brought superficial joy. What Larnell Cole was doing in United’s first team squad is a mystery known only to the developers.

The game’s low AI becomes apparent when matches are played, which follow a similar simplistic pattern to the rest of the game. Most frustrating of all, it is nigh on impossible to work out which players are performing well and which poorly, although there is at least a simple graphic to show a player’s condition. Is there truly no in-match rating system? It seems so. As such, substitutions become little more than a cosmetic exercise.

The 2D moving tactics board produces such bizarre movements at times it is rendered useless as any true representation of a match. One goal scored by Dimitar Berbatov, for example, came when the United striker ran fully 40 yards towards his own goal before turning and lashing the ball into the opposition’s top corner.
Championship Manager 2011 iPhone
Not that CM 2011 for iPhone isn’t playable. It very much is and the desire to win and develop a team is every bit as strong as with the game’s bigger CM and FM brothers. The strength of the game is in its ease-of-use and bite-sized chunks of play, not its depth.

For the casual user this is undoubtedly a boon. It is easy to dip in and out and the game is reasonably priced to reflect the casual user audience. For anybody wanting to replicate the PC experience in any form, the iPhone version leads largely to frustration.

Championship Manager 2011 iPhone is available now on iTunes, priced £3.99.

Book review: Manchester United’s First Championship

September 14, 2010 Tags: , Reviews 1 comment

When Ernest Mangnall’s Manchester United secured the club’s début First Division championship in 1907-8 it began a sequence of 18 record-equalling titles over the next century. But far from the mega-corporation that United has become today, the club was a more modest affair having been close to bankruptcy just five years previously.

Released by DB Publishing, Mark Metcalf’s match-by-match account of the dramatic 1907-8 season offers a unique insight into the club’s rising fortunes at the turn of the century. From the rebirth of Manchester United in 1902 after Newton Heath’s near demise, to glory in April 1908, Metcalf’s is a forensic account of an historic season.

“Like all great clubs it all had to start with a first success,” writes Metcalf.

“In the case of Manchester United it came just over 100 years ago when only a few years after almost going bust they captured the First Division title at the end of the 1907-8 season with a then record number of points.”

Manchester United 1907 CoverIncluding pen profiles of the players, original images, match reports and vital statistics, Manchester United’s First Championship offers a fascinating insight into the very different world of professional football in the early 1900s.

Based at Bank Street Clayton – near to the City of Manchester Stadium today – United attracted crowds that rarely broke 20,000, boasted a star outside-right, Billy Meredith, who cost £500 from neighbours City, and had languised in the Second Division just two years earlier.

Indeed, 1907 proved a pivotal moment in the development of United with four players, including Meredith, joining from City that season. The FA had exposed City’s  flagrant breach of maximum wage regulations that had enabled the club to gain promotion in 1903. City over spending on wages – some things never change!

By April 1908 United had gained 52 points, winning the first division by nine and taking the Charity Shield and Manchester Cup with it.

But Metcalf’s narrative offers more than a description of events – it takes the modern fan on a journey through a remarkable season. One that it many ways defines United today.

Manchester United’s First Championship is released by DB Publishing and available on Amazon.

Book review: On the Road

August 9, 2010 Tags: , Reviews 5 comments

Published by Speakeasy, with a foreword by Michael Crick, On the Road: A journey through a seasonhas little to do with the music and drugs that inspired Jack Kerouac’s ’50s namesake masterpiece, but if Daniel Harris is to the Glazer-era fan what the American writer was to the Beat Generation then that is praise indeed.

Originally filed as a weekly blog for ESPN Soccernet, On the Road is the story of Harris’ season following Manchester United in England and Europe during 2010/11, with a simple premise: the author attends matches solely away from Old Trafford.

Harris’ smart and witty week-by-week posts take the reader on a journey, often at a tangent, through United’s ultimately unsuccessful season. Although for even hardened United supporters the promise of after-the-fact match reports on an entire season holds little appeal, Harris’ acerbic wit, ability to draw readers into the unfolding drama and intelligent humour make On the Road a worthwhile read.

Catching the headlines, Harris’ account of Sir Alex Ferguson’s role in the Glazer family’s ownership of United is both angry, funny and from the heart. It is also painfully spot on the money.

“When Morrissey declared that he had forgiven Jesus, he was criticised by some for daring to suggest that could possibly be necessary. In similar vein, there’ll doubtless be plenty who’ll criticise me when I say that I haven’t, and will never, forgive Fergie,” writes Harris.

“That heroes always let you down is a cliché for a reason, but even so, you’d have thought that Fergie had racked up sufficient credit to remain one forever. Although Busby status became unobtainable following unsued-upon allegations made in two BBC documentaries – the first based on a biography wriiten by eminent United historian Michael Crick, the second a similarly authoritiative investigation into his agent son Jason – the reported indiscretions are dwarfed by achievements that won him significant slack.

On the Road“However, his ushering in of the takeover reeled it all in and then some, imperilling the club in a way that was not only unacceptable but entirely avoidable.”

But On the Road is more than a diatribe against Ferguson or the Glazer family, even if its premise is born in the 2005 takeover by the Americans. Harris, who says he had no intention of helping the Glazers pay off their debts, faced the dilemma many supporters confronted in 2005 and once again this summer: how to support your team while withholding custom.

As Harris says, “I retain a large helping of pride in the resistance that we offered. Enough to defeat Murdoch in 1998, although we failed second time around, at least we were savvy enough to realise we were being screwed and bothered enough to try doing something about it.”

On the Road: A journey through a season is available at Amazon.