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April 5th 2011. D&D, AC/DC, and OMG! MJ?

Honest-this IS the statue of Michael Jackson outside Fulham FC-the mind boggles.

Two weekends full of work, despite the fact that the Premier League & Championship were on hiatus for the first 12 days of it. I was originally down to work the first Saturday afternoon of International weekend as well as my usual Sunday evening stint on talkSPORT, but got a call Friday morning to come down early and cover Friday evening’s Kick Off show. Not only that, but my Sunday schedule was now to be an afternoon shift presenting live coverage of Scotland’s friendly with Brazil live from the Emirates Stadium. I hope my usual Sunday evening listeners miss me ;o)

3 days in London meant a couple of nights in a City Centre hotel for me. The hotel in question was a short walk along the South bank from talkSPORT Towers, and very nice it was too. I had no need to make use of the microwave, coffee machine, computer, nest of tables, robes, slippers or the plethora of toiletries provided for me along with the necessary bed, table and bath/shower room. When I was on Dressed To Kill weekends, (or indeed gigs away with Dizzy Lizzy or Toxic Twins etc) the type of hotel we stayed in was almost irrelevant – all we needed was a bed and a shower as we’d be too knackered from the gig we’d just come from to care about any ‘posher’ facilities.

Even though I had much more time to appreciate what was laid on for me in my room on the South Bank on Friday night, I was just too dog-tired to investigate too far…anyone who is bringing up 4 children all under the age of 11 and gets a night away on their own will empathise with me on that one.

Anyway, it was an early start required to prepare for Saturday’s Matchday Live show, where I’d have Ray Parlour, Alvin Martin & Stan Collymore all alongside me in the studio to run the rule over Wales/England in the Euro qualifiers. I felt as though I should present the entire 5 hours in a Welsh accent in the interests of balance!! But then thought better of it…I don’t often get the chance to work with Stanley Victor but I always enjoy it when I do. Stan is a real ‘thinker’ about the game and therefore makes YOU think in a different way about what is playing out in front of you.

What all 4 of us spotted at the same time watching England race into a 2-0 lead was that the Villa players in the side were playing much better for country than for club – which was largely down to Capello playing Ashley Young in his best position of wide right/left as opposed to the ‘No 10’ role that Gerrard Houllier has had him playing at Villa Park of late. Young seemed like a bird released from a cage, and suddenly he and Bent had an attacking understanding again – witness the 2nd goal – and the game was effectively over as a contest way before half time.

Rooney’s poor touch and desperation to drop as deep as possible just to get possession of the ball was concerning. He may have scored that extraordinary overhead kick in the Manchester derby recently, but that aside he has flattered to deceive – I watched him live at Molineux last month and he was poor…an angry young man who became more and more frustrated with the technique that kept letting him down as well as the scoreline that was going against his team.

And yet he is bullet-proof for England. We’re always promised that players ‘in form’ will play for Capello (as previous managers have also promised) but once again, we had a player in Rooney who was out there trading on his heritage as a striker rather than any consistency he’d shown for his club manager. I’m a Rooney fan, by the way – I still remember one of his early England performances as a sub against Turkey at the Stadium Of Light where he ran at the visitors’ defence terrorising all and sundry every time he did so. It was an epiphany for England fans watching that, in the same way that Gascoigne made everyone sit up and take notice in the run-up to Italia 90.

Well, maybe Jack Wilshere is the next in line to inspire those sorts of emotions in England fans – he has it all it appears. He hopefully isn’t the only young English talent who can appreciate how to play the game without just seeing straight lines all the time.

(I’m now typing a week later – Rooney’s scored a hat-trick for Man Utd and Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Darren Bent all combined for Villa’s 2 goals at Everton – that’ll shut me up saying Rooney’s out of form and that the Villa boys look different players for their country!! But then, maybe one swallow doesn’t make a summer etc etc)

On my way back to the hotel after Wal/Eng I walked past a shop front in Waterloo and looked inside to see about 16 or so men of indeterminate age (most middle-aged but some late teens too) all quite obviously playing some kind of Dungeons & Dragons role-play game.

Well there’s a way to spend your Saturday evening and no mistake. It took me hauntingly back to my early years at secondary school, where I befriended the ‘new guy in class’ Nick who, as it turned out, was a D&D aficionado and quickly conscripted me and 2 other classmates into his world of orcs, hit points and 23-sided dice. I bet dear old Ronnie James Dio played a shitload of D&D in his time, judging by his lyrics over the decades – in fact I should have insisted that we played Rainbow Rising in the background at every session the 4 of us undertook, just to suspend disbelief that bit further.

I created 2 characters - a wizard called Thorg and a dwarf called Bigon. I remember precious little about the adventures these and the other creations my friends came up with undertook, but it essentially involved a lot of orc-slaying and an awful lot of time rolling these odd-shaped die which littered the table we sat around.

I’m not ashamed to say that I got bored with the entire thing very very quickly. I was too interested in my budding career as a drummer and would rather have been either smacking away on my empty ice cream tubs or thumping a football around the back garden. Before long, I was pitching both my characters into fierce battles knowing full well that they stood a bloody good chance of dying and therefore ending my participation at a stroke. My friend Nick suspected this I think, and the dice somehow never quite rolled the way I would’ve wanted for a swift exit. Bugger.

I haven’t seen Nick for many years, but I could very well have passed him in that Waterloo shop window and just not spotted him – he might have been the one with the beard, cardigan and Ian-Anderson style pipe…or it might have been Ian Anderson actually, sending Jack In The Green into battle or something. Anyway, I didn’t get it then, and even more so now. Each to their own.

I crossed another stadium off the ‘to visit’ list the next day by rolling up at the Emirates Stadium for the Scotland Brazil friendly with producer Villa Matt. We were met at the press entrance by our own Ray Parlour, who proceeded to give me an impromptu tour of the Arsenal facilities behind the scenes, including the sumptuous players’ lounge and both dressing rooms. The size and splendour of the home dressing room bath was quite unbelievable. Almost the size of an Olympic swimming pool, it looked so inviting I suddenly realised why the Gunners get so many players red-carded with 20 minutes to go (kidding)

The press room food was every bit as good as I’d been led to believe (pumpkin ravioli anyone?) and the Scottish fans made it a memorable afternoon with their singing and their national fervour. It’s been too long since their fans got the chance to enjoy a major tournament, and although there’s a desperate need for Craig Levein to find a good young centre-half pairing, they might just sneak 2nd in Spain’s group and then who knows? Oh, and Lucas Rodrigues looks a player from what we saw of him in a Brazilian shirt for the 2nd half. He won’t play in his home country’s league for much longer I reckon…

The madness continued this past weekend with a trip to Everton to report on their clash with Villa, prior to nipping over St Helens way for a gig with my Dizzy Lizzy buddies and then back down to London via a swift snooze at home to commentate on Fulham/Blackpool for talkSPORT. The drive to Merseyside was a sinch, and despite the antiquated press box set up at Goodison Park it’s a lovely stadium to visit. Gives you a real sense of history & heritage when you walk up stairways panelled with oak, which are lined with photos of Everton players, managers and moments down the years which have been littered with successful sides.

The current Everton side is as threadbare as Rab C Nesbitt’s vest – and I thought Villa had a tiny squad! The absence through injury of Fellaini, Arteta, Cahill & Saha affected the Toffees so badly that David Moyes’ bench was full of players without one second of Premier League experience. Never mind being ‘done to the bare bones’ as Harry would put it – ‘down to the marrow’ might be more appropriate.

Compared to that, Villa had an embarrassment of riches in their substitutes…Heskey, Pires, Albrighton etc etc. Despite that however, Everton started by far the brighter and took the lead before half time. It’s safe to say though that without Darren Bent, Villa would be in an awful lot more trouble than they already are, and his 2nd half brace looked to have won it with Everton tiring very early on. But a goal that wasn’t was ruled out for Everton with the score at 1-1 and Villa got their 2nd not 30 seconds on from Jermaine Beckford’s shot cannoning off the crossbar and JUST over the line.

Would a chip in the ball have correctly registered that the ball was over so that justice could prevail? Were the ref and his assistant negligent in not spotting the ball was in? Why does Gerrard Houllier always say ‘I am proud of my pliers today’? These are all important questions that need answering – it’d be lovely to think that a microchip shoved in a Mitre matchball can solve all the problems of 1966, Lampard in South Africa and the Everton ‘goal’ I saw on Saturday, but I still have my concerns. For example, if a groundsman painting the goal lines wobbles just a tad at a vital moment, and that slight kink in the line just happens to be the place where a ball does/doesn’t go in during a game with the chip saying it has gone in and the naked eye suggesting not so, then what? If such a decision goes against Fergie either way, the fallout from it will potentially render the millions invested in such technology as worthless.

Talking of dodgy decisions, Everton’s late equaliser from the spot came from the softest of challenges by Makoun on Jagielka. Apparently this was Everton’s first penalty of the season, and it’s clear from the centre-half’s fall under minimal pressure that you can see why it’s their first – they’re not very convincing at winning them. But maybe justice was done after the earlier ‘goal’ and 2-2 was how it ended.

It then took me about as long as it took to get from home to Everton to drive the 10 miles across the A580 to St Helens. One 20 yard stretch of roadworks which took up 2 lanes of 3 (with nobody working on them) totally banjaxed everything for the thousands heading away from Goodison including me. I am a terribly impatient driver when something/one holds me up for no good reason, but thankfully on this occasion I didn’t go into full-on flap mode as I knew I wouldn’t be needed for soundcheck at The Citadel until way past 6 o clock.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before in blogs just how much fun it is playing the occasional show with Dizzy Lizzy. H & Tony have been good buddies for many years and it’s nice to hook up with them at places like St Helens and have a good old blast through some Lizzy tunes. I remember that ‘Live & Dangerous’ was one of the first rock albums I ever heard courtesy of my older brothers, and Brian Downey was right up there with Ian Paice, Phil Collins & Cozy Powell as a wonderful early drumming influence. His rock/swing style looks so effortless but requires such concentration to pull it off.

When I saw Lizzy with Tommy Aldridge on drums some years back, I thought it sounded appalling. Tommy’s style suits Ozzy/Whitesnake just fine, but it was just far too linear for Lizzy – Michael Lee (RIP) did a far better job for them on another tour…thankfully Downey is back with Lizzy and they’re immeasurably better for it.

I do take pride in replicating a style like Downey’s as much as possible when I gig with Dizzy Lizzy, and the fact that I don’t have to sing backing vocals is another blessing so nothing breaks my concentration on the shuffling hi-hat work you have to do etc etc. The place was packed (nice venue-about 250 in?) and by the time we were on Whiskey In The Jar the whole place was grooving with us. Magic.

The Dizzy boys were playing support to AC/DC UK, who I had yet to see. I’d clocked AB/CD in the past supporting Tigertailz in Wolverhampton and loved them, despite the ‘look’ being not quite right. I mean, the singer WAS Kenny Rogers, the bassist was a ringer for Grizzly Adams and a 6’2” Angus is always going to be tough to reconcile. But bloody hell they sounded like DC! Especially old Kenny on vocals, whose Bon Scott was jaw-droppingly good.

But based on that from the past I have to say AC/DC UK surpassed that on all fronts. The ‘Angus’ for example was spookily like his hero – tiny, wiry and those perfect knobbly knees that are required. He was spot on – they have a ‘Brian’ on vocals rather than a ‘Bon’ but played songs from both eras and were tight as a gnat’s chuff all night.

Couldn’t stay too late, though, as I was needed in London the next morning to do a commentary on Fulham/Blackpool for talkSPORT. As I arrived via train/tube/walk at Craven Cottage it quickly became clear that the game would be a mere sideshow to the unveiling by Fulham owner Mohammed Al Fayed of a Michael Jackson statue outside the home end stand. Fellow journalists like Nigel Addderley from 5 Live and Darren Lewis from the Mirror watched in utter bemusement as said statue was unveiled with Al Fayed dancing with little girls to Jacko’s music and declaring that any fans who didn’t like it could “go to hell…they can go to Chelsea”. Tough call that.

It’s a bloody dreadful statue too; as you can see from the pic I’ve put in the gallery. My stepdaughter could make a better one out of Moon Sand and she’s 5 years old…and anyway, I thought Jacko was Exeter City through & through??? Uri Geller won’t be happy you know. It reminded me of Southampton FC commissioning a statue of former boss/player Ted Bates in 2007 and then having to re-work it when fans complained it looked nothing like Bates. Embarrassing. And then some. But Al Fayed won’t care at all – the Fulham media staff did their best to suppress any chuckles of their own about the most bizarre erection since…well you can think of your own gag to finish that line.

We were all still having a good old guffaw about it all in the press box when kick off time came, but 90 minutes later Ian Holloway would have had any lingering grin wiped from his face as Fulham coasted to a 3-0 win against a creaky, slow-witted defence to leave Blackpool bottom of the form table and precariously close to the bottom 3. Once Dickson Etuhu had made it 3-0 during the 2nd half, the only incident worthy of note was the Fulham supporter who took advantage of a break in play to dance up and down the steps of the stand away to our right in full Bo Selecta ‘Michael Jackass’ gear. That’s right. Check his shit out.

A word for Bobby Zamora before I wrap up. And that word is ‘class’. It’s clear how much he enjoys his role at Fulham, having lost his way at Spurs & West Ham somewhat, but if his 2 goals in this game (just back from injury too I might add) are anything to go by, then surely he’s in the frame for England/Switzerland in June.

But then you just can’t have players in form playing for their country can you? Silly me.

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