A busy week, the BBC sport website would undoubtedly claim. They do this every Saturday when Sky and Setanta haven’t colluded to move any more than six games to Sunday or Monday. So, let us get started…

The Rugby World Cup

Football will always be my sport, in the way that atheism will always be my theological bent. In fact, I almost have no interest in sport whatsoever outside football. That said, when a big tournament comes around, in whichever sport might be in season, I can find my interest piqued enough to watch a few games and read up on the rules. Thus, I am now fairly familiar with baseball, American football, cricket and now rugby of both codes.

My grandfather was a proper sportsman, who enjoyed watching football, rugby and cricket on a regular basis, and while I would occasionally watch the five nations tournament as it was then, I never paid much attention to rugby, other than a brief flourish of curiosity caused by national pride whenever Scotland were playing.

The game of rugby union has changed immeasurably in the intervening years though; professionalism has arrived and Italy (and apparently now Argentina) has joined the five nations. Players are now bigger, stronger, fitter and faster than ever, and I’ve become even less interested in the game, if that’s possible. I became even more disillusioned with the game when exciting players like Jonah Lomu and Gregor Townsend seemed to fall by the wayside, replaced by the sterilised, regimented precision of kickers like Jonny Wilkinson. Seeing someone score a flying try is thrilling, even to someone with a limited understanding of the game like me, as is a well worked touchdown in American football. Seeing a game settled by penalties and drop goals isn’t so exciting a proposal.

I have read up a little more on the rules in the last few weeks, having never had the inclination to do so before. And I’ve watched some interesting games, picking up some subtleties of the game along the way. Scotland went out in the quarter finals, but their conquerors Argentina played a thrilling 3rd place play-off game against the hosts France on Friday night. They scored five tries to France’s one as two running teams made a meaningless game far more interesting than the much more important game the following evening. A bit like last year’s football world cup in fact.

The final itself was a bit of a let down. Two kicking teams, with large ‘packs’ (that’s the forwards I think; they do all the scrum work, rucking and mauling, letting the more skillful backs get in to score tries. Or in the case of these two teams, kick for goal) each attempted to win by default after strangling the game as a contest, and in the end South Africa’s five goals to England’s two were enough to secure the trophy. England did have a seemingly legitimate try disallowed by the Television Match official, making a mockery of the whole concept, and some fella’s kid dropped the William Web Ellis trophy in the tunnel on the way to presenting it.

Now, the morning after the tournament ended, some observations from a rugby heathen.

If I could change any rules, I’d get rid of drop goals for a start, or reduce their score to one point. As long as they’re available and worth three points, they’ll become more and more appealing to sides struggling to break through their opposition’s forward line. And that brings me to my second change; I’d reduce the number of players on each side to 13, preferably removing two forwards in order to create a bit more space for running rugby. There aren’t hugely controversial points, but I think they’re changes that would get floating fans more interested.

And in connection with those points, I’m quite glad England didn’t win the world cup. I appreciate that one entitled to play powerful forward-based kicking rugby as any other style, it’s just that I prefer the other style. England scored just 12 tries all tournament, placing them eighth out of the world’s top ten sides, and behind Fiji who were knocked out in the quarter-finals. If they were a football side, I suspect they’d be like the George Graham managed Arsenal, grinding out one goal wins, and thrilling very few neutrals with their play. That is, however my opinion, and I think Sean Lamont is a fantastic player (although he was much outshone by Rory in this particular tournament).

 I think I’ll always have to accept that there’ll be a little more rough-housing in rugby than football, but I found the incident where a South African player, who was shepherding the ball into touch, was pushed legitimately by an England player over the advertising hoardings and into a large rostrum camera a wee bit over the top. No quarter asked and all, but a bit of common sense would be nice to see.

Football

Ah, football. As a Rangers and Scotland fan, I’m in a surreal pocket of excitement at the moment. Two huge games for Scotland have been followed in quick succession by and Old Firm game, and next Tuesday we play Barcelona; gosh. The funny thing is that Barça are one of the other teams I’m quite attached to, so I may feel some mixed emotions on Tuesday night. That said, I maybe only feel 30% for Barça what I do for Rangers. Or Scotland. And about the same as what I feel for Arthurlie and Mansfield Town. :p

As usual, I’m more concerned with controversy at the moment. Firstly, I’m thinking of adding MK Dons to my list of teams I have a soft spot for, purely because once in a while I’m reminded of how much I loathed their predecessors, Wimbledon. I should explain for people who don’t know that Wimbledon were bought some five years ago and controversially relocated from South West London to Milton Keynes, some 60 miles away. Among the more pious of (mainly) English football fans, this didn’t go down well, and all kinds of vitriol, including boycotts of games, have been rained down on the Dons. This suits me; any enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine. I despised the way Wimbledon played football, I hated their ‘Crazy Gang’ ethos, which more often than not seemed to boil down to vicious bullying of team mates and opposition players. Merton council pissed me off by not supporting Wimbledon find a permanent home near Wimbledon (they shared with Crystal Palace in Croydon for ten years), and Wimbledon pissed me off by not seeming to care about this fact. And when the furore started against them, I started to take a perverse pleasure in sticking up for them. The whole ‘franchise football’ move isn’t something I find entirely tasteful, but I can swallow a lot more easily than some of Wimbledon’s antics. In any case, MK Dons have been sponsored for the past few years by Marshall Amplification, which absolves them of almost any previous crime, in my eyes. 😉

Artur Boruc is still a bit of a goon though.

I’m watching the Italian football on five as I type this. My brother-in-law Chris doesn’t share my appreciation for continental football, but I just find it so much more technically sound and accomplished than the British variety. True, there’s not quite as much incident, and people dive a lot, but I can put up with that when the alternative is misplaced passes, bad ball control, and general ineptitude.

Music

I’m getting a bit fed up with music I must confess. As I’ve been writing a few reviews for a music fanzine (check the links column on the right hand side) and I have a little more disposable income, I’ve been listening to a lot more contemporary music these last few months. And to be honest it hasn’t gotten any better than it was when I stopped paying so much attention a few years ago. I downloaded the new Radiohead album last week, and while I was initially smitten with a few songs, I’ve gone off it rapidly. It doesn’t have the melodious edge of the first three albums, and it doesn’t have the impact Kid A does. Thus, it’s just an unfocused mess like Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief. I’ve been disappointed so much this year that I think one more crap album will kill my interest in music off altogether. My musical ozone layer is almost depleted, and soon I’ll be burned up by the sun of cockney accents, drainpipe trousers and Russell Brand hair.

Other stuff

I’ve been reading Schindler’s Ark recently. It’s the book that Spielberg’s almost eponymous film is based on, and as you’d expect it makes pretty tough reading. I’ve read a few books on the Holocaust recently (mostly Primo Levi), and I’m going to embark on Anne Frank’s Diary next, but my constitution’s struggling to keep up. I know how pathetic that sounds, and that reading about it isn’t a fraction of what living it was like, but it’s still such unrelenting terror I need to find some joy to counter balance it all. Still, I think the pay off of Schindler’s actions will be enough (I’m still not sure I understand it, but that’s another post come completion of my read), as is reading about Albert Göring, Hermann’s non-cunty brother.

I’ve also got to touch on J.K. Rowling’s outing of her character Albus Dumbledore as being gay. His sexuality was certainly never explicitly touched on during the stories themselves, and that’s led to a thought forming in my head that she might just be doing this to wind up the Christian groups who continually condemn the books for being ‘pagan’, while spectacularly missing the point about what she was actually trying to say; in many ways, Harry Potter is a far more shining example of Christian ethics than some people who parade their prejudice under the name of Christ. But there you go. Personally, I think it’s a great thing. In reality, the fact he was once in love with another wizard makes no difference to Dumbledore’s actions during the course of the books. Rowling announcing her character is gay has resulted in some subtle homophobia, which is all very interesting. Perhaps ultimately futile in doing anything about homophobia, but interesting nonetheless.

 This blog was brought to you by the word ‘interest’. I’m off to do more laundry and read the Observer.

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Every Scot could tell you that was coming tonight. If not encoded in our DNA, it’s allegedly written in our collective consciousness; the desire to wrestle mundanity and defeat from the jaws of glorious victory. It was observed during our World Cup campaigns of the 70s, 80s and 90s that we had a tendency to nick results against teams many times our size, and then illogically self-destruct against a team of plumbers from some remote corner of the world that doesn’t even have an international airport.

 At the outset of this European Championship qualifying campaign, in a group containing three of last year’s World Cup’s quarter finalists, not a huge amount was expected of Scotland. If some deity had approached me outside Celtic Park after that first 6-0 victory over the Faroes and offered me a third place finish, I would have snapped his/her/its hand off. Now, with one game left, and to paraphrase Jim Bowen, third place is safe. We can still qualify for the finals.

 And, predictably, we seem to have settled for glorious failure again. Tonight’s game against George in Tblisi was absolutely dreadful both aesthetically and technically. Georgia weren’t brilliant and fielded more or less three seventeen year olds, but they were more than a match for an appalling Scotland team.

 I once saw Hibs play a UEFA cup match against Dnipro in Georgia’s fellow former Soviet state Belarus, and I’d never seen a team so unlucky as the men from Leith; almost every single 50:50 and rebound went the way of Dnipro. That was before tonight’s game.

 Scotland were without five or six first team players. Naysmith, Hutton, Brown, McCulloch, Hartley and O’Connor all missed tonight’s game, and before long their absence was apparent. And apparently in beating Ukraine, and France, home and away, Scotland appeared to have used up their energy and some of their luck tonight. Playing on a ploughed field with a beachball, no player in an unfamiliar maroon shirt found the ball would stick at their feet. Georgians would emerge with the ball after every tackle, no matter how unlikely they appeared to at the outset, and while most of this could be put down to them having the greater hunger, you could feel the Scotland players’ heads go down almost as the same rate as yours did back in your house. Yes, we should have had a penalty for the second time in four days, but we didn’t. Georgia simply took their chances much more efficiently and ruthlessly than we did.

That leaves us facing the task of beating Italy at Hampden to stand even the faintest chance of qualifying, and I don’t think it’s likely. Because glorious failure is calling. Beating Italy would perhaps result in us qualifying, so that’s obviously a no-go.

But is this a genuine phenomenon? Are Scots really so institutionalised by defeat that we’ll go to any lengths to avoid victory? I’m not sure that’s the case; we boast world champions in motorsport, and Andy Murray certainly doesn’t seem impeded by his ‘ethnicity’, although as some have pointed out, he didn’t spend all his childhood in Scotland. I think that we just find ourselves spread too thin when faced with a qualifying campaign or a world cup; Graham Alexander, Graeme Murty and Christian Dailly were all late call ups to our squad due to injury, and all three are getting on in years, and not exactly working wonders at club level.

It’s still entirely possible for Scotland to qualify, but it now looks unlikely. It’s a crying shame, but in reality, in securing a third place finish, and boosting our co-efficient for the World Cup qualifiers, we’ve already achieved our main target for this campaign. It’s a small consolation for a spineless and toothless performance, but that’s another story…

So, to paraphrase Beth Orton, where do I start, where do I begin?

I am a 27 year old single man, in more-or-less rude health. I am on no medication, legal or otherwise save some painkillers I took for a headache earlier. I do have a niggling pain in my left ankle that would probably clear up if I didn’t insist on playing five-a-side football twice a week. I’m in charge of organising Tuesday’s game as both Johns are away on holiday, but let us not get ahead of ourselves. We really have to mention the Scotland vs. Ukraine game here.

 I missed it you see. Ostensibly I was helping my father, uncle and sister spruce up the formest’s house in preparation for its imminent sale, but that’s a somewhat disingenuous explanation. At around twenty past three, with plenty of time left for me to make it to a pub with Sky Sports, I turned on the radio to check the score. It was 2-0 to Scotland already, incredibly, and then almost immediately, Ukraine scored. So I removed myself from any means of following the game until five o’clock.

There is some form of reasoning at work here, even if it is superstitious; I watched the reverse fixture in this group and we lost. When I applied this logic to the France fixture last month, and stayed away from the game, we won again, having done so the first time I did it. I watched the last match against Georgia and we won, so I will be watching Wednesday night’s game, but I suspect I’ll be doing so through my fingers; the Scottish national football team, one beast more terrifying than anything Doctor Who has ever faced.

We’re so close to qualifying for Euro 2008, but there’s still plenty of time for us to heed our national programming and settle for glorious failure. I really hope we qualify; my great-great grandmother was Swiss, and there has been a residual interest in the country among our family ever since. My grandfather’s house was named, somewhat improperly ‘Arosa’, after a small village his father used to visit when in Switzerland. That said, if we do qualify, all our games will probably be in Austria…

I had spent most of the morning pressure-washing my father’s patio. Uncle Keith advocates jet washing your hard landscaping once a year to keep it spic and span, and he owns his own pressure washer to do so. The garden at dad’s other house has been somewhat neglected over the last five years, and a fair amount of dirt and lichens had started to take over. It took a while, but we eventually got down to the masonry, and it’s looking pretty damn good.

I’m having mixed emotions about the sale of the house; in one way its a must as its the only way my dad can really get on with his life after the shambles of the past few years, but on the other hand it’s the house that raised me, it’s where I first called home. Admittedly, it’s almost entirely different to that cold, mostly uncarpeted, slightly skew-wiff house in which I used to sprint up the stairs after doing the toilet at night because I half believed there was something down there in the dark waiting to pounce. The front garden by the bay window is where I first discovered the twin beauties of white noise and atmosphere. And once it’s gone, there’s no going back. Without being arrested. It’ll be sad to see it change ownership, but I suppose unlike one of my former houses and my former uni campus, it’ll still exist.

I’ve been listening to a bit more music recently. Yesterday I bought the Bluetones’ third album (after being impressed by them at Darvel) as well as an Electric Soft Parade album (I felt sorry for it; it’s been sitting there marked down to £3 for over a year now with seemingly no-one showing any interest). I still don’t have the latest Manics single/b-sides, but I did download the new Radiohead album. I paid £2.50 (the price you paid was up to you, and you could pay nothing if you so wished) while a few other people have downloaded it for nowt because I felt uncomfortable not giving them anything for what is a fairly magnanimous gesture. In any case, I bought the special edition version of Hail to the Thief, which is probably the worst album ever recorded. OK, that’s not true, but compared to OK Computer, it very nearly is. In Rainbows (for that is the name of said album) is quite good so far. I want to listen a little more before I make a commitment.

And that’s my life at the moment. I still have a few irons in the fire, but no doubt they’ll just burn my good shirt…

Wotcher kiddoes.

I’m in Darvel, home of the international lace race, preparing to go and see Hue & Cry (egads!) as part of the Darvel Music Festival tonight at the town hall. That kinda makes it sound as if I’m camping out like a demented Manics fan (is there any other kind?); I’m not, I’m in my faither’s house, and he just happens to also live in Darvel.

I’ve taken today and yesterday off work, mainly because public holidays aside, I haven’t been out of the office since the London trip. What I thought would be a relaxing Thursday morning before a leisurely game of five-a-side at lunchtime instead turned into me running about like a blue arsed fly trying to help my dad get from Darvel to Barrhead so he could continue to spruce up the other house in readiness for it being put on the market. I had planned to nip into Glasgow before football and buy a much needed new pair of boots (and the new Manics single), but as it was, I was only just able to get to the pitches in time.

And the game was quite enjoyable, mainly because John McD did us all a favour and booted the crappy under-inflated Nike ball on to the roof-net of the adjoining court, meaning we had to play with the brand new and rock hard Mitre ball, which I had perhaps over-zealously pumped up due to being pissed off with playing with said flat Nike ball. In the end, I think it was the best thing that could have happened, as playing with a good ball is better than playing with a shite one. So there.

I’ve started to feel fantastic after playing football (probably due to me actually getting fitter), and the fuzzy warmth continues long into the evening. Thus, when my father went out to the unsigned bands thing last night, I was able to lie with a packet of chocolate digestives in front of the TV, watching the Aberdeen and Everton games, and occasionally bashing out ‘tunes’ on the piano. That perhaps says more about what I expect from life than anything else, I’m perhaps sad to confess.

So, Hue & Cry tonight, Bluetones/Hedrons tomorrow night, and I’ve just this morning bought a ticket for the Manics gig in Edinburgh in December after maintaining for ages that I wasn’t going to go (mainly because I hate going to see the same thing twice when there are so many other things in the world to see and do). But I can never really resist the Manics. And anyway, Indian Summer is probably my favourite single of theirs since Tsunami, so I’m clearly not losing any interest in them at all.

Last year I was a cinema goer, this year I’m going to gigs far more than I have ever done before. So far this year I’ve seen the Manics, Muse, Drive By Argument (twice), Puressence and the Hamish Stuart Band, and there are more to come. Ok, that’s probably not as many bands as you’ve seen, but for someone who’s not entirely enamoured with the live experience, it’s not too bad.

Reading wise, I’ve just finished ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pirsig and ‘Cider With Roadies’ by Stuart Maconie. They’re vastly different books, and each enjoyable in their own completely disparate ways. ‘Zen’ has raised some interesting questions for me, while ‘Cider’ was a light-hearted memoir of Stuart Maconie’s experiences as a music journalist. I must confess to being quite the fan of Maconie’s writing; from the period I first became aware of his writing through the late, lamented good period of Q magazine, I really started to warm to the common sense, ingenuousness and nous he brought to his articles. I always liked his contributions to those nostalgia programmes that used to be on all the time, although this was probably because he was always on immediately after Kate Thornton, and so couldn’t fail to appear prescient and insightful.

I wasn’t really a conscious decision to read a book about music journalism at the same time I started writing reviews for something other than my own satisfaction. I’ve completed three album reviews in the last week, although I have stumbled across a minor setback in that I’m not quite being as ruthless as I could be. I think I’m over it now though.

I’m reasonably content right now; how are you?