In praise of Pep

Pep Guardiola comes across as a decent human being and a good manager of people, not just of football teams. On Saturday evening his (and my) Manchester City side played their first ever European Champions League final. City lost and, by common consent, Guardiola made mistakes in terms of tactics and selection. He did so in good faith but he unarguably owns those mistakes.

(Of course it takes two teams, and the opposition played well and deserved to win; in other words, it's not just about us. I feel contractually obliged to point this out.)

Just to give a brief idea of what a good manager of human beings he is, after one particularly emotional defeat, Pep was asked what his plans were for his team. Did he tell them to snap out of it, shake it straight out of their systems, with other big matches coming up soon? No, he replied, he told his players to go home and feel that sharp sadness for 24 hours, then to come in to training refreshed and looking ahead to the next match.

This, remember, is a man who has made his millions — he owns a restaurant in Manchester and lives in a swanky apartment in town. He could easily settle for an easy life. But no, he chooses to stand on muddy touchlines every three or four days and test himself and his tactical nous.

A friend texted me after the big match on Saturday to offer commiserations on the result, but then suggested that Pep 'had to go' because he'd failed to land the big prize. The argument goes that he'd been brought in by the owners to win that Cup (referred to glibly by some in the media as the holy grail — see point 8 below), had failed and therefore no longer had any business being our manager. I firmly told my friend that I wholeheartedly disagreed with that view.

This is what I said:
1. This season has been a big improvement on last season.
2. The Premier League is a killer, in many ways much harder to win than European cups, and we won the league by 12 points.
3. The Champions League is a knockout tournament in which anything can happen.
4. Pep loves Manchester and loves the club.
5. Pep is a genius. That's not to say he doesn't make mistakes and
god he got it wrong tonight. He's human. But he is indisputably a football genius.
6. When we eventually look back on season 2020/21 we'll have some golden memories, in spite of the pandemic. The team surpassed expectations when many including me thought this was going to be a transitional season.
7. Pep's 5 years into his City career, with two left on his current deal. With a bit of fine-tuning, this team is only going to get better.
8. The Champions League is fine and I was obviously desperate for us to win tonight, but I don't buy all that 'holy grail' bollocks.
9. Pep conducts himself incredibly well. There's no one else I'd rather have in charge of our club.
10. Now leave me alone.

[Note. This is a slightly embellished version for a social media post on the topic — I never actually told my friend to leave me alone (point 10). However, it was still just  one hour after the final whistle and in the circumstances I think it's quite measured and coherent.]

April 14 2021 at 10.14pm CET

Chucking this out there unedited (tempting as it is to mess around with it and try and make it read more nicely) as it appeared on facebook the morning after the match. I was still really feeling it from the night before.

It's 10 minutes into the second half. City are losing 1 nil and, as things stand, they're going out of the Champions League. They're turning up the pressure and Dortmund are getting increasingly tired. But it's tense out there.

Dortmund are no mugs and they're defending well. Come on Blues, you can do this!
Foden crosses, Can leans into a header and... the ref points to the penalty spot.

Emotions at this point?

Please, City, yeah I know our record on penalties is dodgy but what a chance, please score...

But hang on, the decision has gone to VAR. Oh shit, the commentators are talking about a technicality in which the ball has glanced Can's head and it therefore might not be a penalty.

A minute ticks by. Close-ups of Can looking worried but also pointing to his head. But surely that arm is too far from his side...

It IS a penalty!

Oh wait, it's Mahrez. Are you sure about this, lads? I sigh and close my eyes. He's had the nuts to volunteer but - though he's playing well - Mahrez has a poor penalty record and my thoughts turn to Anfield when he ballooned that pen into the Mersey.

Steps up and...

He's done it! What a penality - no keeper would've got near that. Well done, Riyad, fella. Look at the air-punch, look at the relief, look at the joy.

And breathe.
Posting this because it was a crucial turning point in the match and the season.
Come on City!!!


Slovakia early 90s. The night was quite young but I was already on the way being off my face by the time 'The Havels' came on stage. This was not the kind of music I was listening to at the time - or any time as it is its own kind of music - but it fitted perfectly that evening. So gentle and quiet it forced you to press your ear a bit closer. I understood almost nothing but I remember thinking of it as being a dreamlike celebration of the sound of the Czech language. "A festival of sibilants" I recall saying at the time.

Yesterday, nearly 30 years later, browsing the internet, their names pop up again, as a compilation of their music has just been released, and it takes me a moment or two to realise who it is and what it is that connects me to them. I'm a generally responsible and sober man these days but it feels intoxicating to listen to this music again.

Nostalgia is fine and listening now I'm taken back to that night, but I like to think there's a bit more to this mysterious whispered music, and having found it again I'm not about to let it go for another 30 years.

(Posting this is my way of ensuring that the memory is this time built on more solid foundations than a vague recollection of a support band half a life ago.)

a recent photo I'm proud of

Hot-chocolate speed-cooling system. (Photo taken in Rindschleiden, northern Luxembourg)
Hot-chocolate speed-cooling system. (Photo taken in Rindschleiden, northern Luxembourg)

 Bit of a stretch to call it recent — it was taken in January — but I think it's my favourite photo of the year so far.

irrational rant #1 — Standup

So yeah comedians, right? You know that feeling when

You're watching standup and you find yourself thinking what is this unseemly festival of joviality and why aren't I enjoying it?

First off, let's get this out of the way: standup comedians are owed some serious respect. They have to be highly skilled and need balls of steel to do what they do. And that's just the women.

(There you go. Maybe it's because I'm not very funny that I resent people who are. My sense of humour tends to consist of silliness along the lines of the viz book of crap jokes and Police Squad.)  
So what's going on here?

Jokes are good things. Laughter is fine, too. My mates make me laugh, for example. It's just that the idea of spending the evening with people who are on constant laughter alert puts me back into my shell and sets off unkind thoughts. All that shit about laughter and medicine; it's more like a really annoying narcotic that might be fun for the user but is tiresome for everyone else.

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The Quizmaster Ritual

During lockdown, in the absence of pubs, gigs and other stuff I like doing with humans not in my family, online quizzes have been a bit of a lifeline. I hadn't previously hosted many quizzes but I'm getting quite used to it now and the technology doesn't feel daunting any more (I'm a wretched technophobe). Getting a quiz right — whether the contestants are close friends or complete strangers — is not easy and there's always the potential to sour the atmosphere if it doesn't go well. With that in mind, I reckon that if you bear the following pitfalls in mind you should be able to enjoy the experience without pissing anyone off. So...

10... go on then make it 11... quiz-hosting traps to steer clear of:

1. Don't make it too difficult. Across-the-board scores of zero doesn't always reflect well on the host and, however classy your information, this is probably not many people's idea of fun. The purpose is to entertain rather than teach.  

2. Don't make it too easy. When I do, say, online quizzes and get every question right I wonder why I bothered. Getting your own name right doesn't carry a great sense of achievement. Questions should tease with hopefully the right level of challenge.

2a. If in doubt, err on the side of easier. It's never easy to know where to pitch it, even if you know the contestants well. But every sealion needs to be thrown a fish from time to time. If you have your heart set on giving them a toughie, it really needs to be enriching, ingenious or entertaining in some way (a set of obscure stats, for example, is none of those things).

3. Don't announce to the contestants whether you think the next question is easy/tricky/difficult/*one for Kev. One of my bugbears in the quiz world is being told 'easy one coming up...' only for the question to prove anything but. I've lost count of the number of times I've had thought: 'well, any question is a doddle if you've got the fucking answer in front of you'. [*see 5 below]

And then, later, the quizmaster says 'oh I thought more of you would get that.' 

Talking of running through the answers...

4. ...don't say ' And the answer is, of course...'. This may make you sound like a smooth quiz-show host, but contestants who got it wrong may find it a little dispiriting.

5. Don't be cliquey. All too often I've heard things like 'Kev, this one's for you' or 'if you don't get this, Kev, you'll never forgive yourself'. Worse still is, after a round, saying 'So Kev how did you get on? What did you think of [this question or that question]?' Save that for when you chat by yourselves after the quiz.

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post-COVID diaries - 6/10

Happily, I've been symptom-free for around two weeks now. Altogether I suffered two weeks of sickness and fatigue.

Donald Trump somehow managed to get it on the Friday and be well enough to resume his duties on the Tuesday. Well done, him, eh? [wink emoji]

I just had a call from a journalist from the Luxembourg Times. I'd responded to a social-media post inviting people to discuss their experiences of the Ministry of Health's contact-tracing scheme. I took the opportunity, during the call, to sing the Luxembourg government's praises for its handling of the crisis so far. If I think back to the start of the crisis, the messaging has always been clear, multilingual and accompanied by superb illustrations depicting what is and isn't allowed. These messages were regularly updated and sometimes dropped through people's letter boxes. Some might say: well, Luxembourg is a wealthy country that can afford to do things properly and its size (population just over half a million) makes it easier to govern. What is clear, though, is that the government here has used its money, resources and political acumen wisely and has listened to expert opinion from the outset.

I remember saying to people early on in the crisis that I didn't envy our lawmakers and decision-makers having to face a situation that is unprecedented in our lifetimes (unless anyone remembers Spanish flu). My feeling was that, as much as I find Boris Johnson obnoxious, dishonest and consumed by self-love, and although I would never vote for his party, I wouldn't wish this shit on anyone. When people's lives are at stake it doesn't matter what the political stripe of the government is. If I remember correctly, Keir Starmer — sworn in as opposition leader near the start of the crisis — was reluctant to be too critical of the government, at first.

And yet, the UK government has, to put it kindly, made a whole series of missteps. I won't go through the whole time line, though March 3rd 2020 - when Johnson was going around a hospital shaking hands with all and sundry and saying there was nothing to worry about - stands out; oh and there was the government's chief adviser flouting the rules he himself had helped devise. During a pandemic bad decisions can have grim consequences.

In other words, although they're all in unenviable circumstances, not all governments have approached the matter in the same way.

And here in Luxembourg, Prime Minister Xavier Bettel and Health Minister Paulette Lenert have so far acquitted themselves admirably in these unusual, trying times, unafraid to make unpopular decisions in the interests of public health.  

Coming back to this morning, the lady from the Luxembourg times got more than she bargained for when she called to ask me a couple of things about the health system, poor thing!

In terms of the substance of what she really wanted to know, minus the tangents, I told her that I was glad the Ministry had called me so promptly after I tested positive. Forty minutes is a long time to be on the phone, especially when you're not feeling well, but I understood completely what they were doing and why they needed to enter into such detail. (See my COVID DIARIES entry on 17th September.)

I'll be interested to see what sort of article she manages to put together on the subject. I wonder if others have had similar experiences or if the system has been working as well for everyone else as it did for me.

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Lost Horizons

I love this.

. The first album by Lost Horizons blurred the boundaries between goth, ambient and soul. This On-U sound remix of new Lost Horizons material suggests that on the forthcoming second album they're embracing dub, which is both welcome and an entirely logical progression:

Gaps in my musical education

1. My Beauty by Kevin Rowland

21 years ago, Kevin Rowland, singular lead singer of spiky soul legends Dexys Midnight Runners released an album of cover versions. Called My Beauty, the album's sleeve art featured Rowland with a half-on half-off dress that he pulls back to reveal some fetching lingerie. As sleeve art goes, it was some statement.

You can read more about the record in this interview with Rowland on the occasion of its re-release this summer.

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COVID diaries - 27/9

Like a mole emerging from its hole, I'm starting to see properly. I'm still tired but that's really the only remaining symptom.

Four more days of isolation after today and I've started to fantasise about where I'm going to go and what I'm going to do when isolation is suddenly over later in the week.

That said, to offer a bit of perspective, we were locked down for 100 days or so back in the spring, including the first few weeks or so, which were very strict (non-essential shops and services closed, no travel, borders closed [an issue here in Luxembourg] and no visits to friends...) with no clear end in sight. So these two weeks have been a breeze by comparison. The kids are a bit older and wiser too, now. Alex did his homework today without complaint and after only a single, short-lived sigh about how impossible it was. I imagine that we will get locked down (as opposed to self-isolated) again soon and my hope is that we'll be better prepared — we will at least know what we're dealing with - and that the kids will have a saner approach to getting schoolwork out of the way.

A friend in Prague told me yesterday that his teenage son got a very bad dose of the virus, involving serious breathing difficulties. He's fine now. Not to mention the death toll around the world, which as I write is approaching 1 million. It really seems as though I got off very lightly.