11 February 2010

On the teams I support

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to begin this post by reviewing a football match. And I'll do so from a biased perspective: the match in question is Tuesday night's English Premier League tie between Wigan and Stoke, for which I put my Latics' Season Ticket to use, and saw from my usual vantage point of the East Stand (now known as the Boston Stand).

And what a bizarre game it was! The first half was amazing, with lots of open play, attacking football and good creative manoeuvres. Moreover, the bulk of the excellent play was coming from Wigan, who were doubtless playing according to Roberto Martinez's philosophy of playing one's way out of trouble. For once, the formula was working, and Wigan were rewarded when Paul Scharner scored. Indeed, the Latics were unfortunate not to add to their tally before the break, but the performance was a good one: Emmerson Boyce was solid in defence, Chris Kirkland pulled off some excellent saves when required, Charles N'Zogbia and Hugo Rodallega were both marvellous and even Jason Scotland was putting a good shift in: a Premiership goal still eludes him but his shots were, at least, on target. Stoke offered a few meaty challenges and had the occasional spell of pressure which they couldn't do anything with, so the Wigan players went back to the dressing room with their tails up and at that point, the Wigan fans were the loudest - that doesn't happen very often.

Then came the second half, and Wigan had a decent shout early on - including an overhead kick by Hugo Rodallega that missed the target by a whisker - but that, I'm afraid, was that. I have no idea what Martinez said in the dressing room, but whatever it was, it was bad advice. Maynor Figueroa's now routine abysmal performance - plenty of dicking around to no real consequence save the increased likelihood of the opposition winning the ball - served only to prove to me why he is, barring the amazing goal he scored against Stoke at the Britannia Stadium earlier on in the season, is the Most Overrated Player in England. Titus Bramble appeared to have left his brain in the dressing room (and why has Martinez made that idiot Captain in the absence of Melchiot?), alongside that of the manager's, who decided that to make room for Victor Moses, he needed to take off James McCarthy, who is having a decent spell. Right player to bring on, wrong player to take off. Then he compounded that error by replacing Jason Scotland with the dire Jordi Gomez, who clearly has bags of potential but is patently never going to realise it in a Wigan shirt. Sensible player to take off, but if Gomez is the answer, then I shudder to think what the question was. The only one that springs to mind is, "Who can we bring on to turn a perfectly competent midfield into a sack complete and utter shite?".

Similarly, Stoke were no great shakes either until the introduction of Ricardo Fuller, and it looked like they were going to squander every opportunity Wigan gave them to play well and get something from the game. And believe me, Wigan gave them far too many opportunities. We may as well have wrapped the ball in a ribbon and affixed a tag reading, "To the Stoke players, loadsa luv, the Latics xxx".

So it was no surprise that after almost half an hour of my life that I wanted back, Ricardo Fuller breezed through a gap between the hapless Figueroa and Bramble, and crossed the ball into the box, where it met the head of Tuncay and sailed past Chris Kirkland, who wasn't expecting it to come anywhere near him. Well, it did, but he didn't get to it and it landed in the back of the net.

This meant that a game which Wigan should have won convincingly was turned into a draw, and it was the team's good fortune that Fulham and Burnley both lost while Sunderland could only draw against Portsmouth.

So why I am telling you all this?

Simple. We are now well into the second half of the Scottish Parliamentary session. The first half saw the SNP victory, the Glasgow East win, the European election victory, the abolition of bridge tolls and the Graduate Endowment, the passage of the first minority budget and the eventual passage of the second when the opposition's initial tactics backfired, while the potential bunfight over Trumpton was deflected, but targets were missed: had the funds been there, perhaps more could have been done on student debt; the Local Income tax had to be dropped; and the success in Glasgow East was not followed up with comparable results in Glenrothes and Glasgow East. But still, the SNP were on an upturn, and opposition attacks weren't coming to anything.

We're now back on the pitch for the second half. And that organised performance appears to have evaporated: an attempt to raise party funds in response to a party that has Union backing and another which has Lord Ashcroft bankrolling it has turned into a '-gate' because before we get into a discussion of what's within the rules and what isn't, it never occurred to anyone to question what selling a lunch date with the First Minister would look like in the press, thereby forgetting the Basic Rule that in politics, facts take second place to appearances. Losing John McNamee might not be the worst thing in the world, but losing an exasperated Alex Dingwall, an SNP member of 31 years' standing, to the Liberal Democrats is not news you want to wake up to. This morning we discover that the Referendum Bill is to go no further than the limbo that is draft stage for the time being. And now, in an honest attempt to do the decent thing by a constituent, Nicola Sturgeon has ended up tethered by the press to a benefit fraudster, and will be expected to turn up in Parliament after the recess to explain herself simply for trying to be a good constituency MSP but by doing right thing with the wrong person.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this - and I apologise to those of you who don't like fruity language but it needs airing: What the fucking hellfire is going on in the Party?!

The need for the SNP to keep up the strong performances of the last two years is greater than ever: we're going into a Westminster election where the choice is clear. There are Labour representatives whose only priority is to stay in power at any cost, whose Whips advise new MPs to falsify receipts (that is, if we are to believe Jim Devine, the man elected as a Labour candidate, who admitted on Channel 4 that if he had thought that he'd broken the law, he'd try to cover it up), and who has seen Scotland as little more than a source of vote fodder. There are prospective Tory MPs, whose party has somehow contrived to have even fewer ideas as to how to improve people's lot than Labour presently do and whose Scottish Leader has basically told Scotland that it'll have to get what it's given (some respect agenda, that). There are those under the LibDem banner, who have given us no indication as to what lengths they'd go to to implement their programme should the opportunity arise, whose idea of liberal democracy is to deny people self-determination and whose idea of the new, consensus politics is to slag off Alex Salmond at every opportunity. In short, an SNP providing clarity and principle is just what Scotland needs right now.

And the ability to deliver on that is still there: the people are the same ones who delivered those early successes and their commitment is as strong as ever. Meanwhile, Iain Gray looks no more credible as an alternative FM than he did a year ago and is not helped by his frontbench - which strikes me as the political equivalent of an oversized novelty cheque: it might look good for display or PR purposes, but has no practical value whatsoever. That two of its members wish to look for alternative opportunities at Westminster is also damning. Annabel Goldie's comments regarding Scotland having to just put up with a Tory government that it didn't want proves that for all her bluster about the Labour Group at Holyrood, the "apologist for Whitehall" tag will simply pass to her when David Cameron enters Downing Street. And Tavish Scott? Well, somehow, he's ended up as the most constructive and mature of the three main opposition leaders in Holyrood. And he still wants to kill SNP Ministers simply to watch them die!

So the opposition, like Stoke on Tuesday night, is still playing a fairly dire game. And yet for reasons passing understanding, the SNP - just as Wigan did - is letting them in to proceedings, and giving them the chance to take a few shots. Wigan fans once again saw, as the team should have learned by now, what happens if one of those shots hits the target. Let the SNP learn from the Latics' mistakes.

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