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Sun 18th July - Back Home!

I’ve been home for a week now, but my feet have barely touched the floor since touching down at Heathrow last Saturday morning.

There is definitely something to be said for taking a break after such a hectic June and early July, but broadcasting is no respecter of schedules at the best of times and it’s something you have to learn to live with. Be flexible, be available and be professional, or be off with you. That’s not to say I’m not having a holiday this year – far from it – but not quite yet…

I think as broadcasters we’re all going to have to be very careful about which players we label as being ‘world class’ from now on. Those English players on whom we’ve bestowed such accolades have looked marginally better on the ball than yours truly in recent weeks. It’s hard to decide who’s been lazier – the players for their efforts in South Africa or the media for trotting out the same old clichés about their abilities.

“Under-achieved” is another phrase you’ll have read all to often since the Germany debacle. Have they really though? Were the 23 sent out to represent England talented and skilled enough to get to the quarter finals and beyond? I really don’t think so. As I’ve blogged before, dozens of individuals and organisations will be blamed for England’s failure, but playing the blame game is easy. Finding realistic solutions is far tougher.

If it were down to me, coaches like Doncaster’s Sean O’ Driscoll, Bristol City’s Steve Coppell and Peterborough’s Gary Johnson would be involved in the national coaching set up. Gentlemen like these are smart, tactically aware and dedicated professionals who’ve been at the coalface for long enough to know the vaguaries of 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and all the rest, but it seems that they’re not on telly enough to be viable to the FA. Scandalous isn’t it? We live in an era where TV now decides who ‘looks’ the part as a prospective coach, and we end up with posterboys rather than pragmatists.

I wish Noel Blake’s squad of U19’s every success in the European Championships this month, by the way. Blake never seemed likely to carve out a coaching career when you consider his on-pitch persona – ‘uncompromising’ sounds too soft for him, really. But he was loved by Blues & Pompey fans alike, and maybe I’m being unkind to think that because he wasn’t blessed with mercurial talent, he wouldn’t be my first choice to put his coaching doctrines across to our most talented youth stars. Hope I’m eating humble pie again soon.

Oh and by the way, expect to see shedloads of 4-2-3-1 being deployed in all levels of domestic football this season, after 3 of the 4 World Cup semi finalists used the system. Trouble is that whilst the top coaches understand the balance required to make it work, there’ll be way more bosses who, having been seduced by the idea of making his side look just like Spain, Holland or Germany, end up playing 4-5-1 by mistake and boring us all rigid. And just when it seemed last season that ‘fear football’ was starting to disappear.

But if you get the chance, watch a side like Doncaster Rovers this season – because their boss will have taught his squad how to play that formation yonks ago, along with many other systems to scare the shit out of Charles Hughes. Not only that, but you can marvel at how Donny can change systems 2 or 3 times in 1 game seamlessly – no sign of players looking across at the bench helplessly in a desperate desire to know where the hell they’re supposed to be running. That last vision sound familiar? We saw it all too often during June.

I notice David O Leary - singularly and without question the nastiest individual I’ve ever met in my 13 years as a sports reporter – has a new job coaching a side out in the UAE. Well, he was never going to get a job in this country, was he? A man who’d blame anyone except himself for his inability to take Aston Villa forward; a man complicit in the slow death of Leeds United, having inherited George Graham’s supremely gifted squad; a man who had the best banner ever flown in his honour at Villa Park one Saturday (“We’re not fickle – we just don’t like you”) has lucked his way into megabucks on the other side of the world. Fabio Cannavaro will be the mainstay of his defence at Al Ahli, and I’ll bet you the first training session O’Dreary takes will involve a little chat with the World Cup-winning centre half along the lines of “Er, Fabio, I feel dere’s a couple of areas where you could improve dere, let me give you the benefit of my experience as a centre half in dat way muy friend.”

You wait until he finds a local journalist, chairman or playing surface he can blame for the side’s inability to win the title. It won’t be long I promise you. Horrible man.

I have a very emotional night this coming Friday at The Asylum venue in the heart of Birmingham. Last year, my great friend Stu Clarke, a truly gifted guitarist, sadly died of complications from diabetes. Stu was a member of 80’s Brummie rockers Cryer, a band who were seemingly destined for great things at one stage, but despite releasing an album, it never took off for them. Stu went on to open a recording studio and rehearsal complex near Birmingham City centre, formed Dizzy Lizzy, a stunning tribute to Lynott and the boys, and also came back to work at Musical Exchanges music shop whilst I was there in the early 90’s.

Stu was undoubtedly a complicated character but intensely loyal to those he trusted, and I remember how gobsmacked I was when he asked me to play drums for Ian The Goat Sings Black Sabbath, a band where he was not only guitarist but also ‘straight man’ to Ian The Goat as a manic, vodka-swilling, spliff-smoking pantomime Ozzy character. My friends and I had seen the show several times at either The Railway in Digbeth (RIP) or The Bear in Bearwood and pissed ourselves laughing right royally at the sheer brilliance of it all.

Imagine a tribute act where the lead singer and focal point is sacked after 2 numbers for bringing shame on Black Sabbath by a power-crazed guitar player who insists that it’s his band, his riffs, his solos and that he should be in the middle, not Ozzy – it was how we’d all imagined the real Sabs to have been in the late 70’s just prior to Tony Iommi sacking Ozzy and replacing him with Ronnie James Dio – ITGSBS simply made that notion a reality, and it was genius.

Stu was a large part of the success of the show. Ian The Goat as Ozzy is one of the funniest men I have ever met and I regularly struggled to keep time through laughing so hard at his comedy routines he performed during the shows, but Stu’s contribution as the increasingly frustrated and misunderstood guitarist was just as inspired. And it was a bloody great band musically speaking – I was playing with musicians on a different level to me and I had to improve my drumming to earn my place amongst them.

But sadly things like this are not always meant to last and the band reached a natural end around the turn of the century when Stu went to live in Tenerife, and we only reconvened now and again up until Stu’s unfortunate passing. At Stu’s funeral, the great and the good of Birmingham’s rock scene were there to mourn, but also to make plans for the future – specifically the other members of Stu’s old band Cryer, who resolved at the wake to reform and play a show in tribute to Stu and his brilliance as a guitarist.

And so Cryer are headlining at The Asylum on Friday with all profits going to the Diabetes UK charity – but in another weird twist, I’ve been asked to play the ‘role’ of Stu on guitar for a support slot by Ian the Goat Sings Black Sabbath!! I used to do a regular impression of Stu’s Brummie drawl which even he found funny (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery) which led to a night once playing his part as guitarist at JB’s in Dudley when Stu was on holiday and unable to make a gig. I’m reprising that role on Friday with my bandmates Ian, Gary & Tim which will feel weird with Stu not around, but it’s an honour to know that all Stu’s close friends really want me to do it and honour his memory by ‘being him’ for a half-hour set.

That does mean practising my guitar, which I haven’t done properly for a while, but hopefully it’ll all come back to me somehow!! It should be a terrific night’s entertainment – Cryer, Ian The Goat Sings Black Sabbath and Totally Suspect (another fantastic Brum band from the 80’s & 90’s who deserved better) all in aid of Diabetes UK at The Asylum in Birmingham City Centre. If you can make it down there, you won’t be disappointed I promise you.

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