Jonah Lomu 1975-2015

Jonah Lomu
Jonah Lomu 1975-2015

Considering it’s the sport I grew up watching and playing, it seems odd that I’ve never really written much about rugby. Maybe being a Bristol fan it’s just too painful to do so. Nothing really compares to the pain felt by the entire rugby world today though with the passing way too soon of All Black great Jonah Lomu.

For most people weaned on the amateur game, the arrival of a then 20-year old Lomu at the 1995 Rugby World Cup was an undeniable turning point in modern rugby. No longer were wingers always the scrawny kids with socks at half mast, they were now rampaging monsters built bigger and stronger than the majority of your pack.

Once Lomu had finished using Mike Catt as a doormat, a legend was instantly born, and the professional era really kicked in. There were even video game endorsements for the unstoppable All Black, and I for one will never forget the classic Sega Saturn outing where the pixelated Lomu was bigger than every player in the game, could hand off with ease and scored tries from everywhere, much to the delight of the commentating legend Bill ‘he digs like a demented mole in there’ McLaren.

Following the 1995 World Cup, Lomu was diagnosed with a rare but serious kidney disease. As was typical of the destructive wing, this didn’t seem to be much of an obstacle to him as he continued to play international rugby until 2003 before having a kidney transplant the year after. During his career, Lomu left defenders trailing in his wake time and time again and was the ultimate embodiment of strength against adversity, even when the injuries piled up.

I remember whilst at University in 1999, the money that was being pumped into Bristol Rugby at the time seemed to be on the verge of luring Lomu to the club. I pinned the Daily Mail article that broke the story to my bedroom wall, hoping and praying that we’d be able to pull off such a massive coup. Unfortunately it never came to pass and I was left ruing what might have been as Bristol eventually tumbled from the Premiership in 2003 and never really recovered to this day.

Once Lomu finally called time on his playing career, the world got to see how his brain matched his brawn as he tirelessly went about his duties as both an ambassador for the sport as well as for other charities such as Help For Heroes. Endlessly giving, Lomu even turned out in a charity match to support a local children’s charity in Aberavon, a game pulled together by friends he had made during his time playing for Cardiff Blues.

This year, Lomu came over to the UK to take part in promotional work during the Rugby World Cup. Having managed to get into the Heineken Lounge at Twickenham during the semi-final weekend, we decided we had to get in again before the Final, especially considering Lomu was the guest at the prestigious event. We donned All Black tuxedos, chatted up as many Heineken promotional girls we could find, but all to no avail; we got within yards of the big man, but sadly didn’t get what is now one final chance to meet him and thank him for all that he had done for the sport.

You can call anyone a legend if they happen to have been particularly successful in a sport, but Lomu never won the World Cup. His career was stop-start and plagued by injuries alongside his kidney issues. Despite this, for everything that Jonah Lomu did to prove that against all adversity you can be the best at what you do, Lomu was undoubtedly just that, a legend in life and in the game he loved. And for that, I thank him and hope that his legacy continues for all who participate in the game in the future. Thank you Jonah and rest in peace.

The Greatest Show On Earth – Part Two

St Pancras International St Pancras International getting into the Olympic spirit.

After the Olympics threw up such a stunningly golden day for Great Britain, I was full of anticipation leading into the event that I was due to attend on the Sunday afternoon. I was also pleased to know that if the previous day was anything to go by, my public transport fears would also be well and truly allayed.

Setting off from Croydon, I decided to take the scenic route to the ExCel Arena. The Olympic organisers had been trying to discourage people from using London Bridge Station after identifying it as a hot-spot for potential congestion, but ignoring this advice, i was pleased to see that it wasn’t too full at all. Quickly diverting to the tube, the Jubilee line took me efficiently to North Greenwich, and it was at this point I realised just how well planned the whole event was. Every route map of the City, in tube carriages, at stations, on buses, had all been replaced by new ones highlighting (in the Olympic brand purple) where to go for every Olympic venue. This must have been a mammoth undertaking and no expense was spared; these weren’t just stickers over the top of existing maps, every last one had been re-printed and replaced.

Secondly, Olympic ticket holders had all been supplied with a Travelcard for use on the day of their events. This one gesture probably saved hours upon hours of confusion and queuing, preventing tourists from having to try to figure out for themselves which ticket they needed to travel across town. A simple touch but one that no doubt worked a treat.

The Emirates Air Line”> High wire fun at Olympic time.[/captio
On arriving at North Greenwich I made the decision to try the new Emirates Air Line. A £60million, one kilometre cable car trip over the Thames, the Air Line links the Greenwich Peninsula with the Royal Docks. Originally, it wasn’t intended to be ready for the Olympic Games, but as it provided such a handy (and gimmicky) route straight to the ExCel, I scanned my Oyster card and boarded a pod. Departing every 15 seconds, the cable cars take passengers over 90 metres into the air, showing them stunning views across the City. Admittedly on this particular day it was a little moist to truly get a clear view, nevertheless it proved to be a quick and thrilling route to my venue.

Despite knowing it was unlikely that Team GB had an athlete capable enough to enter into the Greco-Roman wrestling tournament, I still looked forward to seeing something that won’t often be seen on these shores in my lifetime. The venue itself is absolutely enormous, and needed to be whilst playing host to so many spectators watching all forms of martial arts as well as boxing and fencing among others.

My tickets allowed me to see the 55kg and 74kg wrestlers compete across three mats in the ExCel’s North Arena 2, and after a brief run through of the rules and regulations, it was all systems go. Initially baffling, the first round saw three matches being competed simultaneously, so it was tricky to focus on one individual or match up. Nevertheless, you were soon warned to interesting goings on in another bout by the crowd’s roar and so the frenetic action was easy enough to follow.”> Olympic-level cuddling.[/caption]
Progressing quickly through to the quarter-final matches where only one bout occurred at any one time, I was then pleasantly surprised to see that in a change to the published schedule, the semi-finals were also going to be part of my session. The crowd in these later matches started picking their favourites and really hollering them along, whether they were old or young, British or Hungarian, there was a great atmosphere and a true Olympic spirit.

After the matches had finished, we were pointed efficiently towards public transport routes and I picked the Docklands Light Railway to get back to Bank from where I could get the tube towards King’s Cross. Sitting at the front of the driver-less DLR, I was reminded of how long it had been since I was last a tourist in our capital and also how much the place now has to offer with iconic sights everywhere.

After a couple of quiet pints of Suffolk cider in The Betjeman Arms in St Pancras International Station, watching the Eurostar trains come and go, I meandered to Euston and headed home, thrilled with every aspect of my first and maybe only Olympic experience.

So far, criticisms of the Games have come from all sources. Some say the events are elitist niche sports which the every-man on the street couldn’t possibly aspire to be a part of. I can’t disagree more on this; anyone can walk, run and even jump if they put their mind to it and if they put enough hard work into being the best they can possibly be. I agree that fencing and dressage may be a little pricey for the average punter to take part in, but that hasn’t hampered my enjoyment of watching events unfold at all.

I can honestly say that I will be sad to see the end of these Games. They may not have been as flashy as Sydney or Beijing but by God they’ve shown what Britain can do, both on and off the track. This truly is something for us and our children to be immensely proud of for many, many years to come.

The Greatest Show On Earth – Part One

Hyde Park - BT London Live Hyde Park – BT London Live

I still remember where I was when it was announced that London had been awarded the 2012 Olympic Games. It was Wednesday 6th July 2005, and I was about to be made redundant from my job. Topping that, the very next day, some idiots decided to set about blowing up half of London’s transport network. As much of  a juxtaposed euphoric high and terrible low as you can imagine, suddenly the enormity of what London was taking on became clear and the seven years to play with almost didn’t seem long enough.

Fast forward to 2011 and after the police shot dead Mark Duggan, riots erupted in the capital and across the country. One year away from the Olympic Games and England had become some sort of feral wasteland. Surely there was no coming back from this?

I’m proud to say that the country would not be beaten. The British media have desperately tried to destroy the event before it even kicked off, claiming Danny Boyle’s opening shindig would be too ambitious, that the weather would be the worst in human history, and that security would be abysmal. I’ve debated with many (including Doctor Who companion Peri, via Twitter, randomly) whether these stories are truly in the public interest or whether the press were just desperate to derail the games and give themselves more headlines throughout the month. I for one truly believe that media and public alike should unite behind such a once in a lifetime event,  and at this point, I’m pleased to report that all of the media scaremongering hasn’t proven to be true. The only headlines we have been seeing are about the fulfilment of golden dreams.

I admit that the event hasn’t been without its teething problems. I’ve been to four Olympic football matches at Old Trafford and have seen some shoddy organisation. From slow moving frisking queues and rammed trams through to the unforgivable lack of pies before half the matches had even kicked off, you’d expect better. Even so, the atmosphere at the events has been nothing short of electric, and these specifics appear more the fault of Old Trafford and Metrolink (who really should know how to cater for large crowds) rather than the Olympic organisers themselves.

But football 200 miles from the main event isn’t really what it’s all about and this weekend I was privileged enough to journey down to London to soak up some of the Olympic buzz. And what a weekend to do so.

The event for which I had tickets, the Greco-Roman Wrestling, was on Sunday, so I decided to travel down on Saturday morning. The Virgin train was typically rapid and pulling into Euston at midday I could already see the huge number of purple-shirted Olympic helpers, pointing punters in the right direction with a smile and a giant foam hand.

My intention was to head towards Hyde Park where the BT London Live event was showing loads of the action on multiple big screens, mixed with some live music and special guests. Knowing that the triathlon had taken place in and around Hyde Park earlier that morning, I was dreading how awful and crowded everything was going to be, but getting the tube from Russell Square to Hyde Park Corner was effortless. Straight away, you could see how much thought had gone in to moving people around quickly and efficiently. Regular readers will know my thoughts on how the general public can be zombies at the best of times so it was pleasing to see that megaphoned transport workers were ensuring all spaces were filled and that people kept on moving, all the while keeping a smile on their faces.

Getting to Hyde Park, I had to wait to cross a couple of inner park paths whilst cyclists zoomed through but again, the crowd control workers were friendly and chatty, making the experience far more pleasant than it had any right to be. Arriving at the gates to the Hyde Park event I was again filled with dread at the prospect of queuing for hours to get through the airport-style security. I had my man bag with me with all manner of weekend essentials inside; iPad, tail shine, bullet belt. Yes, I was one of those people they really hate when it comes to prohibited items and general idiocy. But once again, all fears were unfounded. I found a queue that was short and the guys and girls on the gate were polite and friendly, allowing me to nip through the scanners in no time at all.

It was a gloriously sunny day at this point, made all the more wondrous by the buzz around the park. Although not as full as it would be later that night for the big athletics finals, the crowds were certainly gathering and picking a decent spec was tricky. Eventually we plonked ourselves on a picnic table next to one of the screens and took in some tennis and hockey whilst relaying beers back to the group from one of the nearby bars. Once again, the refreshment side of things was where the organisation was let down a little, as despite beer pumping machines churning out 20 pints at a time, the tent always seemed to be devoid of Heineken and the staff appeared to be more interested in flogging souvenir cups than any actual liquids. I found out later that they had a competition going to see who could sell the most cups, which wasn’t really in the spirit of the whole event.

Nevertheless, with careful queue picking, getting a little snifter in wasn’t too tricky (but was pricey) and as the sun shone down on us and our new multinational friends (hello American lady and random table of Dutch folk!) we soaked up sports from all around the event, checking in for golds over on the cycling screen, a live appearance on stage from Sir Bradley of Wiggins and even a set from snotty upstarts McFly.

Having over-indulged in sun and shenanigans it was time to head out to my accommodation and once again, all was well. A short walk to Victoria and a train to East Croydon was simple, and with every stop the news of further medals kept the atmosphere electric.

Rounding off the day with Ennis and Farah’s heroics on the track, Saturday 4th August had truly been momentous, and I was honoured to have played a small part, all before I had even attended the event for which I had travelled…

Ticketing Websites – Creating A Racket From A Racket

This won’t be a surprise to anyone and it’s certainly nothing new, but it never fails to annoy and frustrate me when ticketing websites are less than clear and honest about just what we pay them our hard earned cash to do.

I used to buy gig tickets from the ticket counter of good old Our Price in Bristol. From there, you could not only get your ticket but have a chat with the staff about other upcoming local gigs and even buy coach travel to some of the further afield venues. It seemed to be a good, fair and relatively cheap experience and ensured that even as cash-strapped youngsters we could still get out to support live music. I remember specifically that a ticket to see Ash cost £5 with a 50p booking fee. A reasonable deal, I would say.

It appears that people do still go and buy tickets in person from ticket offices but only when the gig in question is likely to be a hotly sought after one. I’m guessing too that a fee is still charged to book tickets in this way, so for the sake of staying warm and dry and not having to queue for 12 hours, I don’t mind paying a bit more for the tickets to be bought online and posted to me, but some costs are just unfathomable.

The David Haye v Dereck Chisora fight at Upton Park is a current example. A top priced ticket is £220, in the block right next to the ring. This amount alone is staggering, but I guess that is down to the promoter to sort out. Standard post for this ticket is £2.75, but if you click on the expandable area next to the price, it informs you that of the £220, £20 is a “Service Charge.” Service Charge for what?!?! I’m not naive enough to think that a show doesn’t cost a lot to put on. There are a whole host of people who need paying from the performers, artists and sports stars all the way through to lighting technicians, stewards and drivers, but isn’t this covered in the ticket price? And if it is, are we paying £20 per ticket for someone to print a slip of cardboard (or sometimes just paper) and put it in an envelope with a label on it? Oh and don’t forget we’ll also be charged an additional £2.75 for a 60p First Class stamp.

It’s not just pricey for such large-scale events either. For a medium-sized gig at Manchester Apollo, (in this case Blink 182, picked at random) the price is £37.75, £32.50 per ticket, plus £5.25 in magical “fees”, plus £3.25 standard post. Hang on, why is it a different price to post this one out? Does it come in a gold-plated envelope? Maybe it is sealed with the tear from a unicorn? Perhaps only Ticketmaster themselves know the answer.

There’s also the excellent idea (in theory) of being able to get your tickets almost immediately with the print your own TicketFast service, whereby an email is sent to you with your ticket as an attachment. But wait! This costs £3.25 too!!! £3.25 to send an email?!?! Plus, it then costs you in paper, ink and effort to print the thing yourself. I’m really not sure why anyone would bother? Surely the ethical thing for ticketing companies to do would be to make this delivery option free?

There are also, of course, the “optional” extras such as Mondial Assistance Missed Event insurance at  £2.99 per ticket, which is massively highlighted, and I’m pretty sure used to be pre-selected so you had to click to remove it from your order. A bit like how Payment Protection Insurance used to be sold, and we all know what happened on THAT front. This insurance covers you in case you can’t make the gig for whatever reason, because obviously nobody ever tries to just sell on their tickets if they can’t attend now do they?

For years now, re-selling tickets on eBay has been condoned as mindless profiteering but there are a couple of issues with this statement. Firstly, gig tickets are generally non-refundable, so if you genuinely cannot attend for whatever reason, you have little choice other than to sell the ticket on, unless you’re with good old Mondial Assistance of course. And if the show is sold out and attracting high bids on eBay, you would be a fool not to try and get as much as possible for it.

Secondly, deliberately buying sought after tickets solely to sell on eBay only happens because people are willing to pay ridiculous sums for them.

Thirdly, touts are allowed to operate outside pretty much every gig and show I’ve ever been to, and these people offer ridiculously small amounts of cash for spare tickets, only to sell them on for massive profits. Again, they only operate because people are willing to use them, and venues appear to be unwilling to do anything about a transaction which according to ticket Ts and Cs is illegal.

To counteract the eBay issue, Ticketmaster appear to be running their own demand-based pricing model. I recently attempted to get tickets to Lady Gaga’s show in Manchester (I know, but I just adore her stance on masculine empowerment), and after numerous attempts I was surprised to be let through to a screen where I could buy some. Looking a bit more closely, these were listed as “Ticketmaster Official Platinum Tickets.” I hadn’t heard of this before so I read on. Ticketmaster describe these as “premium tickets to concerts and other events made available by artists and event providers through Ticketmaster. They give fans fair and safe access to some of the best seats in the house.” Hmmm, sounds like any other ticket that goes on sale through a ticketing agency doesn’t it? Only these are Platinum (capital P). Meaning they cost around SIX TIMES MORE than normal tickets.

I was utterly shocked by this. It seems that Ticketmaster are sub-contracting to themselves to sell the better seats and areas to gigs at even more of a profit, justifying it by claiming “Ticketmaster’s Official Platinum Tickets program enables market-based pricing (adjusting prices according to supply and demand) for live event tickets, similar to how airline tickets and hotel rooms are sold.”

Ticketmaster continue “The goal is to give the most passionate fans fair and safe access to the best tickets, while enabling artists and other people involved in staging live events to price tickets closer to their true value.” This translates as “We aim to rip off the most desperate fans by holding back the best tickets so that we can keep an eye on eBay prices and make just as much ourselves.” What an absolutely outrageous thing for the biggest ticket seller in the UK to do. And the nerve of them to call it “fair and safe” when in reality they are just as bad as any tout in the game only serves to increase my contempt for them.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Government looked into ticket pricing and fees, but the only result of that enquiry was to make it clearer how much of the ticket price was taken in fees. Companies continue to screw over those who are keeping the live music industry alive, and unfortunately they’ll continue to do so for as long as gullible idiots pay such extortionate prices to get their musical fix.

Self-righteous and Lazy Journalism

Over the past couple of days, the media has once again been in the spotlight, with Murdoch deemed neither fit or proper, and the role of England football manager being given to someone who the press hadn’t pre-approved and are now seemingly liable to destroy.

But are the media really in a position to be so holier-than-thou and what right do they have in 2012 to be judge, jury and executioner?

Since the launch of the BBC website nearly 15 years ago, the aim of most major news organisations has changed massively. All of them are now vying to get the big stories to the public before everyone else, and often at the expense of accuracy and decent journalistic standards. The public’s expectations have now been lowered so much, that the power of a picture and a quick quote has overtaken the respect garnered by a full length feature article. Many now prefer the cheap and cheerful likes of the Metro over tucking into a broadsheet during their supposedly time-poor days.

Unfortunately this has led to lazy practices from across the media world. Time and time again, the papers as well as the online media now rely solely on Twitter for their news, with one headline on Monday this week stating “Englandstars keep quiet on Hodgson appointment.” Strangely this was BEFORE Roy Hodgson had even been interviewed let alone appointed and based entirely on the fact that Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney hadn’t been as vocal as they were when Fabio Capello first resigned. Once again, the press were trying to goad a soundbite from professional footballers in order to create news themselves rather than wait for it to happen. It also appeared that they were trying to create a rift before Hodgson had even begun his new role, and even after the official appointment, they’ve continued to ridicule the man for his unfortunate speech impediment. No doubt these same organisations will be the first to criticise him when players don’t perform as they should in anEnglandshirt, and they’ll probably blame it on a lack of respect for the manager, something which they will ironically have helped to create themselves.

It can also be argued that what people put on Twitter, in the main, isn’t news. Yes, times change and more people are making announcements (Lady Gaga touringEuropefor example) via Twitter as it is such a quick and easy way to communicate to fans. But is this really news? Or is it just a modern day soapbox that just so happens to be accessible to most people across the globe? Surely it is far too unregulated to have any sort of journalistic integrity, missing many of the checkpoints that any good journalist should hit in order to prove the accuracy of their story?

Forgive me for going into detail, but being taught journalism isn’t just about telling people how to cut an essay down to a couple of columns, it’s about the legality and the accuracy of the writing that you are producing, and your responsibilities to the public interest. Any error, whether it is the spelling of a person’s name, or the date of a hearing could be hugely damaging and distressing, and journalists have a responsibility to check and check again before publishing any of their work in print or online.

The panic to be faster than everyone else to the big news stories of the day has resulted in some major errors, most recently during the recent Ched Evans rape case when Sky News “accidentally” revealed the name of the victim. This is something that would have been nigh on impossible to do only a few years ago, but instead it highlights just how poor standards now are. Interestingly, police have threatened to arrest those on Twitter who also revealed the girl’s name, but Sky seem somehow exempt from any sort of similar action, simply by claiming it was a mistake. To me, this simply isn’t good enough.

Maybe I am too pedantic. Maybe I am spotting things that don’t really matter, or mistakes that people don’t notice in their rush to skim the day’s news. I can’t help but feel though that by allowing standards to drop in the media, we are also encouraging poorer attention to detail and accuracy across the board. I’ve seen a lot of CVs in my time, and the amount of simple mistakes made which in my eyes disqualifies people from an interview immediately is unforgivable.

We need organisations such as the BBC to lead by example and I just wish that they would take more time writing and sub-editing their web news, rather than publishing it in a half-finished, typo-filled shambles. The Guardian used to be absolutely pilloried for their shocking mistakes (Private Eye even mocking them by calling them “The Grauniad”) but nowadays it seems to be an all too easily accepted part of media production.

Hopefully lessons are being learned, and in a post-Commons media committee/Leveson Inquiry world, the large media corporations will sit up and take note. If they don’t, we could see more than just the News of the World going out of business in the not too distant future.

La Dolce Vita – The Affs’ Good Life In Rome

Il Vittoriano

I’ve never done much travel writing before, probably because I haven’t travelled enough to warrant it, but having just been on a rather jolly excursion to Italy, I thought I’d wrap it all up in a bit of a report.

The trip to Rome started (as many holiday discussions do) in the pub as a tipsy pipe dream. Myself and a friend both agreed that the match that England play in Italy every other year in the Six Nations always looks like a great spot to take in a game of rugby. Open air stadium, sun shining, laid back Italian culture and a great atmosphere. The only difference between this and our plans to travel down under, or to Germany for Oktoberfest or pretty much everywhere else on the planet, was that this time we got hold of some match tickets. I say we, it was my friend who did pretty much all of the organising, but nonetheless, this time we were kick-started into action.

When the tickets arrived despite having bought them off the Internet via less than official channels, we thought we’d better actually get the plan sorted. Originally we thought we would fly out on Friday and return on Sunday, somehow fitting in a game of rugger in the middle. We soon realised that a) direct flights and b) any flights at all over this particular (Valentine’s) weekend in February were going to be costly, so suddenly the whole thing was looking less than cost-effective.

After compromising by swapping planes in Paris, and also by flying out on Thursday, we got the whole flight and three night hotel deal for around £250. Not bad at all. And so with about a second mortgage’s worth of spending money in my drinking wallet, it was time to fly out.

Or so we thought. During the week of departure I got wind that the French were looking to strike, up until and including the day we flew. We also saw on the news that Rome had experienced its first snowfall in 26 years only the weekend before. Our equivalent flight on the Wednesday had been cancelled, so we got to Manchester Airport with some trepidation…but somehow we got lucky. The flight went ahead and the change over in Paris was smooth. Touching down in Rome, we hopped aboard the Leonardo Express and headed towards the main city centre train station, Termini.

Termini Station
Ken Stott's personal train

First impressions of Rome sum up the city completely; it’s a bit scruffy. But to be fair to the Italians, this only adds to the charm. The trains (apart from the nice posh touristy Leonardo one) are scrawled from tip to toe with graffiti (much of it about Rebus, but we weren’t sure if this was some anti-Ken Stott protest, or the tag of the Italian Banksy). Arrivals in the airport also left a lot to be desired, but in all honesty we were more concerned with finding our way to our hotel. On the whole, the place oozed with the Italian attitude of “we don’t need to try too hard to dress things up, we know people will still come.”

We’d been leant a guide book by another friend and through this and other sources we had heard that the area around Termini was a bit dodgy, and our hotel, worryingly, wasn’t too far South of this. This made us a little apprehensive, but on arrival, the centre of town seemed just like any other. Yes, there were a few tramps about and some “interesting” looking shop fronts but overall the place seemed pretty relaxed and quiet as we meandered towards our hotel.

We stayed at the Hotel Santa Prassede which was, shall we say, functional. We had a nice comedy introduction to the chap on reception who couldn’t cope with the name Knight (Meester Cannicht!!!!!) and when we got taken to our twin room featuring only a double bed we were a little worried, but the chap let us have an adjacent room as well for the first night, offering to make the double into two singles after that. Overall, it was probably what we expected, and what we needed; somewhere to get our heads down after long days on the booze in an excellent central location.

We dropped our bags off and headed out to find some food. Upon finding an “Irish” bar and restaurant, Old Marconi’s, literally on the same road as the hotel, we couldn’t resist and soon found ourselves tucking into a pint of Guinness and a chicken-y and crisp-y potato-y plate of nosh. We thought we’d take it easy that first night, especially as it was about 10pm local time by the time we arrived, but for some reason the bar just didn’t close. There weren’t that many punters in there, although a few did come and go after us. Even so, the barman seemed perfectly happy to carry on serving as long as there was someone in there. A far cry from the strict British last orders system and this meant that I was already liking this city a hell of a lot.

The Colosseum
A rather shut Colosseum

We made an early start on the Friday with the intention of getting around as many of the tourist spots as possible by foot alone. Starting at the Colosseum we soon realised a flaw in the plan; Rome was pretty much shut. After getting mugged of a note or two by some long-johnned ‘authentic’ Roman Centurions for a few tourist snaps in front of the Colosseum, our new 2000 year old best friend Thomas (you from Manchester? Manchester Unite yes?) told us that the monument was closed, as was the Forum and the Pantheon due to predicted snow. Not actual snow, predicted snow.

Apparently the weekend before, the city had been caught completely off guard and they had to evacuate all tourists from the ancient ruins for fear of broken limbs caused by the ice. Luckily we could still get up close to these architectural works of genius but we were prevented from going in.

Il Vittoriano
Possibly the whitest the world

Moving on down the road we came to the impressive, if slightly Fascistic Il Vittoriana. Our guide book told us that the place was hated by locals for its imposing ice-white look, but I found the sight impressive even whilst getting moved away from the front of the building by scary looking police with guns. We would have liked to have gone into the building and even stood atop it to look out over the city, but as it looked like some official governmental event was going on, (flags were strangely at half mast throughout Rome whilst we were there), we hurried on with our journey before we got caps popped in our collective tourist asses.

We carried on pottering, and soon realised not only how easy it was to get around the place but also what astounding architecture there was at every turn. One minute we’d be walking down an alley only to emerge into a piazza boasting a massive, imposing obelisk in front of an equally impressive building dating back hundreds of years. Many were embassies or other governmental buildings and it was great to see such ancient buildings still in use.

We then went to visit the Trevi fountain, famous for its role in La Dolce Vita, and were amazed by its size and grandeur. Desperate for a coffee at this point, we took our first Espresso “at the bar” (where you pay less than at a table) and continued on our way West. The Pantheon was our next sight, a glorious old Roman temple which again was unfortunately closed. Despite this slight issue, there was still no denying the epic spectacle.

Trevi Fountain
La Dolce Vita woz 'ere - the Trevi Fountain

We eventually arrived at a bridge over the Tiber that would take us into the smallest independent state in the world, Vatican City. Despite the now-rainy weather, the sights we saw and the sense of occasion that is produced by the place was really amazing to behold. St Peter’s Square leading up to the Basilica is vast to say the least, and you can only imagine what the atmosphere is like when the throngs descend to witness one of the Papal addresses. Following our guidebook around the Basilica itself we heard the stories behind all the fantastic architecture and history of the place. To think that the building was first constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries and yet remains so intact and impressive is astounding, as is the fact that Michelangelo played such a massive part in its construction at such a late stage in his life.

St Peter's Basilica
Approaching the Pope's gaff

We continued around and down into the grotto beneath the Basilica, witnessing the tombs of Popes past, before setting off on a climb to the top of the tower. You can choose to either get a lift part way and then climb 300-odd steps or do the whole caboodle of 500+ by foot. We chose the latter, paid our money and began the journey. Towards the top, the spiral staircases tilt to such astounding slants that they give the place an Alice In Wonderland feel, and you begin to wonder how much narrower it will get. Once at the top though, the effort was definitely worth it. Despite the weather, the views across the city from atop the dome were incredible and after catching our breath and spending a few minutes walking around above the whole city, we began the descent.

After a pizza and beer lunch (we were in Italy after all), we went to the Vatican Museum, trying to avoid the ridiculous amount of umbrella sellers on the way. Featuring works collected over centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, the museum features just about every type of art and artefact you could imagine, from wall-dominating tapestries through to thousand year old sculptures and paintings from throughout the ages.

The Vatican Museum
Greek scholars doing their painted by Raphael

Of course, the one part of the museum that no-one wants to miss is the Sistine Chapel. The incredible frescoes covering every inch of the place leave tourists and pilgrims from across the world agog and you could spend hours just scanning the intricate works and finding parts that you missed first time around. Despite the warnings, pretty much everyone took photos in there, and you can’t really blame people when they’ve travelled from far and wide to see it.

After the museum visit, we began walking back towards our hotel, and by this time it really was throwing it down with snow, the ancient cobbles providing a hazardous walkway towards the city’s South-east. We decided we deserved a quick Peroni Red on the way back so we stopped at a café on the Piazza outside the Pantheon under an outdoor heater (we’re not completely insane). Whilst taking this breather we discussed the fact that we needed to scope out the best place to watch the Man Utd v Liverpool match the next day so thought we’d check out some “traditional” Irish bars on the way back. First up was Finnegan’s which seemed highly recommended in the guide book but in reality was pretty full of hateful Brits abroad, blasé bar staff and not the finest quality Bombardier or Nastro Azzurro. We thought we’d press on and find another couple of bars which sounded like they’d be smaller, and in no way were we disappointed.

The first, The Druid’s Den is a great little place. Run by JJ, a Scottish ex-pat, we struck up a rapport and enjoyed a few quality pints of Guinness at the bar. We mentioned we were also going to try The Fiddler’s Elbow, and JJ said to ask for Heather there, as the place (which was only round the corner), was run by one of her friends. Sure enough, The Fiddler’s also provided a great welcoming atmosphere with amazing bar staff, better Guinness than you get in some bars back in Blighty and all the laid-back joviality you need when on a trip abroad.

The Druid's Den
When in Rome...go Irish - at The Druid's Den

We then decided to head back to Old Marconi’s for a quick bite to eat before doing another tour of the pubs. We ended up on the electronic dartboard in The Druid’s and found ourselves on the receiving end of a bit of a hustle from three swarthy European rugby chaps. My form soon plummeted, especially as I failed to truly comprehend the rules of the darts variant “cricket” that we were playing. Despite the loss, we had some good banter and after a couple of hours realised they were Spanish rather than Italian as we had thought all along. Typical ignorant Brits abroad, but hopefully you won’t see us on some awful reality show that reveals our drunken idiocy on the continent.

The next morning’s hangover was special to say the least. We intended to get an early start to see some more sights but rolling out of the hotel at 11am, we thought it best to just focus on breakfast and getting to the pub for the football.

The previous night, JJ had agreed to open early for the lunchtime kick off so we headed down there after an Irish breakfast at Old Marconi’s accompanied by a couple of litres of Coke. Once again though, the snow became a worry. JJ had offered to ring for a few taxis for us and a few other chaps in the pub so we thought we had plenty of time to watch all the football and then potter on up to the Stadio Olimpico, but as the weather worsened, we began to get more and more concerned. At halftime, when JJ tried phoning through, the taxis had been taken “off line” just as they had the previous week – the police deeming it too dangerous for nutbag Italian taxi drivers to be out on treacherous icy roads.

Padlocks in Rome
On the way to the game - padlocks in the snow

Helpfully, JJ gave us directions to get to the Metro underground station, which would get us to the tram, and eventually the stadium. We decided to head off early in case of delay and negotiated the simple underground (cheap tickets, straightforward line layout) before hitting the tram queue. And what a queue it was. Snaking around a couple of blocks, it soon became apparent that this was going to be a cold, wet wait. One of the guys we were loosely following checked his iPhone and declared that it wasn’t too far (maybe a couple of miles) to walk to the stadium, so after some umming and erring, we decided to travel on foot. After a slushy, cold, slightly more than two miles walk we eventually arrived at the stadium, and rewarded ourselves with a big Peroni and a pig bap, which surprisingly was cheaper than the equivalent at the Manchester Christmas Markets, and tastier too.

As this was the first time Italy had played a Six Nations match at the Stadio Olimpico, we weren’t sure what the turnout would be, but my word, they and their fans put EVERYTHING into the occasion. With balloons and hats on all the seats, the near-capacity crowd became a sea of red, white and green, and the Italian anthem was a typically boisterous but good-natured affair. Despite the snow on the way to the ground (and indeed the snow on the pitch), we were on time, and the game went ahead. I won’t go into detail about the match itself, other than to say England were awful in the first half and after conceding two tries in two minutes towards the end of the first 40 minutes, I wondered what I’d let myself in for. England still triumphed, and the atmosphere really contributed to an enthralling, if scrappy game.

Stadio Olimpico
A snowy Stadio Olimpico

On our way out of the stadium we decided to walk for a bit and then flag down a taxi, as conditions had improved a bit. I suddenly heard a female voice to the side of me exclaim how “f**king cold” it was and when I agreed, she apologised for her potty mouth, and we soon struck up conversation. Debs (her name) was there with other half Phil, a great Essex couple who had experienced a rather warmer Italy v England match 10 years previously. We mentioned to them that we were intending to head back to The Druid’s to watch the France v Ireland game and they came along. Failing to find an available taxi, we eventually found a Metro and somehow beat most of the other punters back to The Druid’s, only to see the other rugby game called off at the last minute. Realising how lucky we were to actually see a match, we settled in for the evening, grabbing pizza from next door and nailing Guinness and Harp until the wee small hours with our new acquaintances.

Leaving Rome
Arrivederci Roma

On Sunday it was time to head on back home, so we meandered to the train station, sad to see the back of a now-sunny Rome. We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and experienced those typical heading home from holiday blues, made worse by being told that our connecting flight from Amsterdam to Manchester had been cancelled. Fortunately Al Italia got us onto a Paris flight and after some negotiation and tense moments at Charles De Gaulle, we successfully boarded a flight to foggy Manchester only a couple of hours later than planned.

All in all, the trip was an amazing experience. Arranging a holiday around a sporting event proved successful, and the freak weather meant we got to experience something that few others have or ever will. Yes, it was disappointing not to get into the big famous monuments, but we still made the most of our time, and were treated brilliantly by every single local we came across. As a first time in the country, it could barely have been better, and I must say that next year’s planned trip to Dublin is going to have to go some to beat it…

FIFA Through The Ages – A Love/Hate Relationship

You can tell it’s nearly Christmas when the latest video games all have a number in their titles. Unfortunately I’m a sucker for a decent franchise and do buy into the possibility that sequels can sometimes overtake their predecessors. One odd one to this rule though is FIFA.

Over the years I’ve been all over the place with footy games. I started on the Spectrum with Football Manager, watching my 80s Liverpool side trounce Crewe Alexandra et al each week after some tactical dealings in the transfer market and watching the highlights of the match in 8-bit jerk-a-thon.

Next up came MatchDay 2 (I must have missed the first game) and finally I had full control over my team of stuttering melon-headed players. Not a classic, but I had a few decent rounds of the game which was probably more akin to rugby than football.

The mid-90s then saw a football revolution. FIFA 95 and 95, the isometric utopia of soccerball fun arrived and I was as happy as a pig in the proverbial. Wonder goals would go flying in, and I even created an all-black kit-wearing team that consisted entirely of Pat Nevin from one to 11. Don’t ask. But they were world beaters.

At the same time, my computer-owning friends weren’t left out with the genius of the Sensible Soccer games coming to their Amigas and Atari STs. I still have fond, fond memories of sticking a finger up at hayfever by taking my Sega Megadrive joypad to my friend’s house to play hours of Sensi World over the school summer holidays, pausing only for a quick Southern Comfort and Tango raided from his parent’s drinks cupboard (it felt like a summer-y concoction at the time).

But after these glory years, it all went a bit, well, wrong. FIFA 97 on the Sega Saturn (I had upgraded my Megadrive) introduced what can only be described as “ice-rink” physics, with David Ginola and Chris Sutton alike skidding all over the place like demented penguins. The five a side mode was still fun, but the game had lost its spark.

Then a new challenger emerged, World League Soccer. Initially tricksy controls and a tendency to crash very, very frequently (most games did on the Saturn) didn’t put me off this little gem. On going to University, we played quite a bit of WLS until other’s loans arrived and PlayStations were soon being snapped up, leading to the inevitable return of FIFA.

FIFA at University didn’t need to be a world-beater. It didn’t need to be an in-depth, hugely involving simulation. It needed to be quick to pick up and play and addictive enough to play all night with only Asda’s own Scotch and a few friends for company.

And sure enough, FIFA did just that. I think I still have the hand-scribbled league tables of Liverpool doing the business over Sheffield Wedneday, Bolton Wanderers and Man Utd on regular occasions. It didn’t matter that many of the games ended 8-7 after over-use of the through ball that was a dead cert every single time. It still brought about some amazing all-nighters and some shockingly poor essays written with bleary-eyed regret the next day.

When I left Higher Education, I didn’t really know where to turn video game-wise. I’d always stuck with Sega, but Sony, this new pretender to the throne, seemed to be making all the right noises. The Dreamcast was a thing of genius but expensive and liable to be obsolete in record time, so I sided with the newly-minted PlayStation 2 in all its black boxy beauty.

Soon after, the decision had to be made, which football game do I go for on my new console? I’d played ISS Pro on PSOne at University and found it a bit too simulation-y for my liking, so I didn’t really fancy Pro Evolution Soccer, its natural successor. But could FIFA hold a place in my heart after a few years away? I tried to love FIFA again, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I decided instead to see what all the fuss was about Pro Evo, and I was instantly hooked. Absolutely, this was the game I had waited ten years for (albeit full of made up player names and stadia, but I could painstakingly hand-alter them). Even after three or four sequels, the game held up strongly against the cheap and tiresome cash in of subsequent FIFAs (I kept on playing the demos just in case), and their ghetto-based “Street” series. I even tried the FIFA games out on PSP, but they were probably even worse.

Suddenly though, EA knew they’d dropped a major clanger and shipped development of FIFA off to Canada of all places, and the magic returned, just at a time when the lack of official licenses was really starting to grate on Pro Evo. I dipped back to the dark side and haven’t looked back since.

The options. The licences. The likenesses. The animations. The shots. The online multiplayer. The genius of little dinked through balls and chipped shots over the on-rushing keeper. Playing with work friends over the Internet is now like playing out those epic confrontations on Sensi World in a friend’s bedroom circa 1995, albeit with less of the Diner soundtrack and more of the responsibility of having to get up at a ridiculously early hour the next day.

But with each iteration comes that inevitability that EA will change something that could be a game-changer all over again. FIFAs 09, 10 and 11 made subtle changes, but despite that initial joy-pad throwing hissy fit, after a couple of games, it’s always been easy to get back into the swing of things.

But FIFA 12 has arrived. It’s scarily got a bit at the start which teaches you how to defend all over again, fighting against three years of experience and instinct of doing it completely differently. It’s less arcadey. It’s….not quite FIFA. It’s going to be a rough ride…

The Magic of the FA Cup

So, after national cliche weekend, 16 clubs remain in the FA Cup. But how many people are sick of hearing about the supposed “magic” of “the world’s greatest club competition?” We had Les and Lee on Match of the Day banging on about “minnows” “major cup shocks” – the works. But what really happened?

Both the Beeb and Sky cocked it all up. Yes, for all their focus on the minnows of Havant & Waterlooville vs. “The Most Successful Club in England, Ever(TM)” Liverpool which matches did they pick to show live? The all Prem borefests of Man Utd v Tottenham and  Wigan v Chelsea plus perennial underachievers Middlesbrough v the mighty Stags of Mansfield. Oh and the balloon-pitched Sheff Utd v Man City match was over on Sky.

So come on telly companies, admit that you don’t give two hoots about showing a real “magical” cup match and that you would rather go for the predictable cash-ins. Hypocrites!