Thursday, 20 August 2009

We're all going on a summer holiday

Well, I am. I won't be writing anything for the next 10 days or so, for tomorrow I fly to Biarritz for a few days of sun, sea, sand and (dare I dream?) sex. Money-no-object frivolities will occur, guaranteed.

Until later, so long.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Good news for train passengers?

News today that train fares are set to fall next year, which on the face of it is good news for those of us who like using trains. Cheap, easily accessible train travel is important to this country, not only in providing a way for those without cars to get around but also in limiting emissions. Surely thois anticipated drop in train prices is a good thing?

Well, no, actually. Firstly, the drop will be a tiny 0.4%, though Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has done his best to put a bit of Labour spin on it. This reduction is by no means enough, as train prices remain astronomical unless tickets are booked a long way in advance. The prospect of getting a £60 train ticket from London to Leeds 0.4% cheaper is unlikely to persuade people to revert back to travelling by train.

Secondly, the private companies in charge of the trains will look to recoup their loss, such as it is, and thus unregulated rail fares will no doubt increase, meaning that savings made by booking tickets in advance will be wiped out. The problem with privatised rail travel is that the service providers are always unwilling to risk a loss of profits and will therefore find new ways to milk the travelling public for all it is worth.

Train prices have increased significantly since the railways were fully privatised, though this has occurred at the same time as a great improvement in services. Delays, cancellations and woefully inadequate trains are still as commonplace as they were when the system was under state control. The only change is that services are infinitely more expensive. If the government is really serious about encouraging people to use the trains, and therefore about cutting carbon emissions, then they should stop attempting to portray mediocre price cuts like this as a great step forward, and instead go for greater regulation, or preferably, though I realise this is very unlikely under the current government or a Conservative one, renationalise the networks.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Is the recession almost over?

Recently, some ecomomists and financial experts have predicted that the recession is drawing to a close and will soon be at an end. I will disregard the question of whether or not, given the economic debacle such 'experts' created for us, these optimists can be trusted, and instead focus on whether or not this claim has any justification in reality.

The BDO Output Index for the UK has predicted that the recession will end sooner here than it will in Europe, claiming that the speedy introduction of a fiscal stimulus package and bank recapitalisation scheme accounts for the relatively swift recovery. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has suggested that the low point for the British economy came back in March, and that the British economy would be the first to come out of recession. If such predictions could be trusted then it would without a doubt be a positive one for the government, and Peter Mandelson was quick to seize on such positive forecasts last month. Yet it seems that the Index's argument has already been disproved, with reports in the last few days that France and Germany have already exited the recession. So far, so incorrect for the optimistic economists, then.

There are those that are not prepared to admit the recession is at an end but can at least declare it to be softening. The IMF is a case in point. The prevailing opinion, however, is that the recession is set to continue, and some more pessimistic experts have even suggested that the worst could be yet to come. Begbies Traynor's Red Flag Alert suggests that the recession is still in full swing, with the most-affected sectors being Financial Services, Property Services and Construction. The likes of Retail, Advertising and Manufacturing also remain seriously affected. Though the recession does appear to be slowing in some sectors, for a large percentage it continues unabated. Given the negativity of such findings, it is wholly inappropriate for the likes of Mandelson to be giving struggling families false hope. Positivity is necessary to stimulate the economy, but barefaced lies are not. It could even be that the recession is not softening at all, but rather tightening its grip. Research has demonstrated that business leaders are less confident than they once were that Britain is on the way out of the recession. Indeed, there is a genuine fear that Britain could be heading for a "double dip" recession.

Not all government ministers are spouting false optimism, with Harriet Harman for once correct in expressing caution over the state of the economy. What is overwhelmingly clear is that there is huge disagreement and confusion over the scope and durability of this recession, and that nobody is sure how long it will last. The sensible money, however, appears to be on it continuing for a little while longer at least, and we must hope that fears over a "double dip" recession are wide of the mark. In the mean time, ministers should stop jumping on any positive forecasts they stumble across, and focus on steering the country through it. The real danger for all leftists is that a continuing recession could lend more weight to calls from readers of the Daily Mail in the minds of otherwise progressive people: "cut all the billions of foreign aid to zero, don't renew any work permits for non-EU workers, no more legal appeals for asylum seekers, give British workers priority for council housing, put British workers first". In the face of confusion over the recession and the possibility that it may drag on longer than many expect, let us focus on not letting economic recession translate into social regression.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Thank Bevan for the NHS

The recent American attacks on the NHS strike me as faintly ridiculous. The attempts of a largely discredited US Right to undermine Barack Obama's healthcare plans by pointing out defects in the British system would be laughable anyway, even if they had not resorted to the most surreal language imagineable, branding the NHS 'Orwellian' and 'Evil'.

We should try to avoid embroiling ourself in domestic American politics, but I feel it is important that we express our support for Obama as he attempts to extend the reach of American healthcare. That 50 million Americans have no access to healthcare is, in the richest country in the world, frankly disgusting, and if we were to resort to the outlandish language of the American Right we might call such a system 'Darwinist' or 'elitist'. That Daniel Hannan, an otherwise unknown Tory MEP, has chosen to weigh in reflects badly on both him and his party. I don't buy into the argument that his comments were unpatriotic, but to suggest that he would not wish the NHS on anyone is appalling and indicative of a culture of villification that has developed in this country towards the health service. Stating that the NHS makes people 'iller' is a ridiculous propsition, and one cannot help but think that Hannan is either lacking a degree of intelligence or self-promoting, perhaps both. The National Service may not be perfect, far from it, but I am willing to bet anything on the fact that millions of taxpaying American citizens wish a universal, free health service of its kind would be wished on them.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Premier League

My thoughts on the upcoming Premier League season, which begins on Saturday.


To my mind Arsene Wenger's side are the most vulnerable of the Big Four, with the departing Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor, the latter especially given that the club appears to lack someone capable of scoring 20+ goals a season, not adequately replaced at the time of writing. Too much depends on the highly-rated youngsters at the club raising their game, and to me it seems that Wenger is misplacing his faith. Signings of the calibre of January acquisition Andrei Arshavin are necessary if Arsenal are once again to challenge for the title, yet Wenger continues to favour younger talent. This is admirable, but one wonders how much longer Arsenal fans can cope without a trophy. Wenger's aura of invincibility has worn off, and it will take more than Thomas Vermaelen, the only signing of note, to make Arsenal a force to be reckoned with once more. More investment is needed, though the return from injuries of Eduardo and Tomas Rosicky should add some quality and experience to the squad. I still see them holding on to the last Champions League place, this season at least, given the likely teething problems at Manchester City and the lack of potential challengers elsewhere. A title challenge of the sort craved and expected by Arsenal fans, and allegedly by Wenger, looks unlikely though.

My prediction: 4th

Aston Villa

Looked like they might break into the Champions League places for large parts of last season, but ultimately their small squad and the loss of Martin Laursen to injury counted against them. The same will probably derail their challenge this year as well. Stuart Downing is a solid acqusition, though it remains to be seen how Martin O'Neill intends to fit him into a side that already includes Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young. Fabien Delph is another excellent acquisition that fits the bill in terms of the sort of player O'Neill prefers to bring to the club. The retired Laursen is replaced by Habib Beye, and much depends on how he beds in and shores up a defence that shipped goals galore in the second half of last season. Skipper Gareth Barry, however, remains unreplaced, and without investment in his small squad it seems unlikely that O'Neill can inspire Villa to improve on or even replicate their sixth-place finish of last year. Their biggest asset, however, remains their manager, and with him at the helm stability is guaranteed, though further strengthening is necessary if they are to progress.

My Prediction: 8th

Birmingham City

Promotion last season was a largely joyless affair, with dour football and a manager that remains unloved by the supporters. Takeover talk is rife, but Birmingham must not let it distract them in the way it did during their last season in the top flight, when it cost them the services of Steve Bruce and their Premier League status. Alex McLeish will swiftly be under pressure should Birmingham not immediately adapt to life back in the big time, but his summer transfer policy suggests that a season of struggle is ahead. £8.5m is a huge amount to spend on an untried Ecuadorian striker (Christian Benitez), while the likes of Roger Johnson, Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer hardly inspire confidence. Joe Hart, on a year's loan, is a shrewd acquisition, while most of the promotion squad has been retained. Uncertainty is in the air at St Andrews, though, and it is my opinion that both manager and club will struggle to keep their heads above water this season.

My Prediction: 18th

Blackburn Rovers

A quiet summer at Ewood Park, where the major business was the unsurprising departure of Roque Santa Cruz for the Manchester City bench. The new arrivals are largely uninspiring, and a lot rests of Nikola Kalinic's ability to step into the shoes of Santa Cruz. Sam Allardyce's track record of establishing small, unfashionable northern clubs in the upper reaches of the Premier League bodes well for Blackburn, however, and the current squad is strong enough to finish comfortably in mid-table, expecially if Benny McCarthy can rediscover his goalscoring form. Solid defensively, much will depend on whether Allardyce's side can find enough goals to secure their primary objective, avoiding the sort of relegation battle they found themselves in last season.

My Prediction: 12th

Bolton Wanderers

Gary Megson must feel like the most unloved manager in Premier League history, but his achievement last season in making sure Bolton avoided a survival struggle was significant. One feels that Megson's main crime is that of not being Sam Allardyce, but Bolton remain as dogged and resilient as they were under Big Sam, and signings like Sean Davis, Paul Robinson, Sam Ricketts and Zat Knight are certainly consistent with the sort of players the former manager used to sign. Megson would do well to stick with the tried and tested formula, and not give in to fans calling for a more visually appealing style of football. Bolton have been well-served by their combative, hard-working but hardly fluent style for a few years now, and there is no reason why they cannot again defy the critics and finish strongly. More goals from expensive flop Johan Elmander would be appreciated by Megson, however.

My Prediction: 13th


I have to admit to an element of bias here, as I am myself a Burnley fan. Yet I will not deny feeling a certain degree of optimism as the smallest town ever to have a team in the Premier League prepares to welcome the country's finest for the first time in 33 years. The nucleus of the promotion-winning squad has been retained, while the signings have been largely low-key: Steven Fletcher (at £3 million from Hibernian) is the club's record signing, while the likes of Richard Eckersley, Tyrone Mears, David Edgar and Fernando Guerrero and Brian Easton fit with Burnley's policy of signing young, hungry players whose value will increase. The cup performances last season gave an indication of what Burnley are capable of, and with talented young manager Owen Coyle at the helm there is no reason why Burnley, in spite of low expectations, cannot repeat the achievements of Hull and Stoke in staying up against all odds.

My Prediction:


Is Carlo Ancelotti the man to re-establish Chelsea as the force they were under Jose Mourinho? His record at Milan doesn't suggest so, for though he won two European Cups his league record was less convincing, as he collected just one Serie A title. Even so, the squad he inherits at Chelsea is laden with talent, and the additions of the mercurial Yuri Khirkov and pacey Daniel Sturridge can only enhance it. The club might regret not, thus far at least, being able to land the 'galactico' that Ancelotti has supposedly been chasing, but there is enough already at Stamford Bridge to suggest that a title challenge is certainly on the cards. If Ancelotti can pick up where Guus Hiddink left off, then the Blues are certainly a force to be reckoned with.

My Prediction: 2nd


Another quiet summer at Goodison Park, where David Moyes continues to work wonders in keeping his tiny squad competitive in the upper reaches of the league on a shoestring budget. Jo, returning on loan, is the only acquisition so far, but I'd expect Moyes to spend money on at least one player before the transfer window closes, especially if Jolean Lescott leaves. Injuries damaged them last season, especially up front, but a midfield up there with the best meant they were well worth their fifth-place finish. If Tim Cahill, Marouane Fellaini and Mikel Arteta can maintain their form, and Yakubu, Jo and Louis Saha start pulling their weight in the goalscoring department, then another high finish is likely, though Manchester City will undoubtedly be looking to overhaul Everton and Moyes will certainly be linked with any larger posts that become available.

My Prediction: 6th


Roy Hodgson worked wonders in leading Fulham into Europe last season, but a repeat looks less likely this time around. There is no money to add to the squad, and that the most famed of their summer signings is known only for being the brother of former-Liverpool defender John Arne Riise tells a story. Hanging on to Brede Hangeland is crucial to their ambitions, though the Norwegian continues to be linked with a move away. The nucleus of the side is strong, however, with Andy Johnson up front and Danny Murphy pulling the strings in midfield, and the ability of Hodgson to get performances out of his players suggests that Fulham will not struggle while he remains in charge. A season of quiet consolidation seems most likely.

My Prediction: 11th

Hull City

'Second season syndrome' seemed to kick in halfway through the first for Hull last year, with the side winning just one of their last twenty-two games as they clung desperately on to Premier League safety. A summer of frustration has followed, with numerous players rejecting the chance to move to the KC Stadium. Phil Brown, once touted as one of the best young manager's in the country, seems to have lost the respect both of his players and those looking in from outside, and his summer signings do not inspire confidence. Hanging on to Michael Turner would be a boost, but the lack of quality additions and the likelihood of his players going into the season low on confidence suggests that Hull are in for a tough season, with Brown a strong bet for being the first managerial casualty.

My Prediction: 20th


The kind of season Liverpool had last season, they were very unlucky indeed that they did not collect the Premiership trophy at the end of it. If Rafa Benitez and his side can repeat such levels of performance, then another serious title challenge is surely a certainty. There is no reason why Liverpool cannot do so. Glen Johnson is an excellent, though overpriced, acquisition, and Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres form a partnership comparable in its lethalness to any in Europe. The loss of Xabi Alonso is a blow, however, and questions have been asked about the ability of injury-prone Alberto Aquilani to step into his shoes for any long periods at a time. Injuries to Gerrard or Torres would be devastating to Liverpool's ambitions, as there is nobody of any real note to step into their boots. Over the course of the season, Liverpool might struggle to repeat the exploits of last time around, though they seem certain to be there or thereabouts in the end of season shake-up at the summit.

My Prediction: 3rd

Manchester City

Manchester City provide the intrigue for this season's Premier League. Will their expensively-assembled squad blend? How will they fit their numerous strikers into their starting XI? Will Mark Hughes survive August? Either way, it looks like being a fascinating season on the blue side of Manchester. There is no doubting the quality of new recruits Gareth Barry, Roque Santa Cruz, Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, while Joleon Lescott would further improve the squad. Add them to the likes of Robinho, Micah Richards, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Stephen Ireland, Wayne Bridge, Craig Bellamy and Shay Given and, on paper at least, you have a squad capable of challenging the best in Europe. Such hastily-assembled sides, however, take time to blend together, and it is unlikely Hughes will be given much time to get his team playing the way he wants. The quality evident in the squad means City will not struggle, but those expecting an immediate title challenge might be disappointed.

My Prediction: 5th

Manchester United

The main discussion has been about how Manchester United will deal with the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. Both are huge losses, particularly Ronaldo, and the acquisitions of Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia do not, on paper at least, compensate for them. Sir Alex Ferguson will have to find a new way of playing, and goals will have to come from elsewhere. He is relying on a lot: Nani developing in the same way as Ronaldo did a couple of years ago; Owen keeping fit and rediscovering his best form; Anderson starting to hit the net. If all these things happen, then United have a chance of being nearly as good as they have been for the last two years. It seems unlikely though, yet United's saving grace might be that none of their major challengers seem massively stronger than last year. The title chase will be even closer, but Ferguson has lost big players before and kept United competitive, so there is little reason to suggest it won't happen this season.

My Prediction: 1st


The outcome of Portsmouth's takeover saga will be crucial to determining the outcome of their season. Without it, a squad that has already lost Glen Johnson and Peter Crouch will be further depleted as the club attempts to balance the books. If it does happen, Paul Hart can look forward to being able to strengthen his squad- a striker is the priority- and stabilising a club that has been in turmoil since the departure of Harry Redknapp to Tottenham. Portsmouth have a solid squad, but how their season goes depends on whether they are able to add to it or forced to sell more of their prize assets.

My Prediction: 15th

Stoke City

The difficult second season has arrived for Stoke City. Manager Tony Pulis worked wonders in steering the club to twelfth place last season, but there is no doubt things will be tougher this season. Dean Whitehead, the only major arrival so far, hardly sets pulses racing, though Pulis will surely spend more before the window closes. Key men are Liam Lawrence, who will be looking to keep fit and supply some of the creativity that helped Stoke stay alive last year, and James Beattie, whose goals were vital after his January arrival. Much has been made of Rory Delap's long throws, but chances are that sides will be more prepared for Stoke's tactics this year, so Pulis will have alter his approach a little. It will be tough, but there are worse teams in the league this year.

My Prediction: 17th


Sunderland fans are this season placed in the bizarre situation of relying on a self-confessed Newcastle fan to help them avoid the relegation struggles of the last two seasons. In Steve Bruce, however, they have a manager who proved at Wigan that he was capable of guiding teams to safety, and the funds placed at his disposal mean they have the ability to attract players capable to taking the club to the next level. Frazer Campbell and Darren Bent are excellent additions to Kenwyne Jones in attack, Lee Cattermole came on leaps and bounds under Bruce at Wigan, and Paulo da Silva should add some steel to the defence. More additions are surely likely, and while Sunderland’s squad lacks the quality or depth to suggest they can seriously challenge for Europe, they should have enough to easily avoid a relegation battle.

My Prediction: 10th

Tottenham Hotspur

Under Harry Redknapp, Spurs will not struggle, but the question is whether or not he will be able to lead the club to the kind of heights they feel they should regularly be reaching. Peter Crouch and Sebastien Bassong are quality additions that should make sure Spurs keep moving in the right direction, but the ‘revolution’ spoken about during his honeymoon period is surely not now worthy of the name. In true Redknapp style, more additions are surely on the way, and if he can start getting the best out of Luka Modric, David Bentley and Robbie Keane on a more regular basis, then European football is well within the club’s grasp once again.

My Prediction: 7th

West Ham United

Gianfranco Zola made a promising start to his managerial career last season, with his West Ham side playing fluent attacking football. With no significant departures and the signing of Luis Jimenez on loan from Inter Milan, Zola seems set to pick up where he left of last year. Much depends on whether Carlton Cole can continue the goalscoring form that has propelled him into the England setup, but with youngsters such as Jack Collison and Mark Noble complemented by more experienced players like Robert Green and Scott Parker, another season comfortably sitting in mid-table beckons, while the club will eagerly await the outcome of discussions that could determine their financial future.

My Prediction: 9th

Wigan Athletic

The loss of Steve Bruce to Sunderland was a blow to Wigan, but Roberto Martinez did enough during his time at Swansea to earn himself a reputation as one of the best young managers in the country. Securing the signature of James McCarthy from Hamilton was something of a coup, but Martinez is pinning a lot of his hopes on former Swansea players Jordi Gomez and Jason Scotland recreating their Championship form at a higher level. The losses of Antonio Valencia and Lee Cattermole will also be felt, to the extent that Wigan are unlikely to finish as highly as they did under Bruce last year (11th). There is money to spend, however, and Martinez has enough ability to ensure Wigan avoid a dogfight.

My Prediction: 14th

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Champions of the Championship last year, but the prospects appear bleak at Molineux this season. Mick McCarthy hardly covered himself in glory during either of his two previous management stints in the Premiership, while his summer signings, though numerous, suggest Wolves will struggle. Following their last relegation from the top flight, the board admitted to regretting not spending enough money. They cannot be accused of that this time around, backing McCarthy to the tune of around £15m. A lot depends on Kevin Doyle, overpriced at £6.5m, rediscovering the form of his first year in the Premier League with Reading, while well-travelled full-back Greg Halford was one of Roy Keane’s expensive flops at Sunderland. Ronald Zubar, Nenad Milijas and Andrew Surman are all untried at this level. Michael Mancienne is a quality addition, but only a temporary one, and if Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Michael Kightly fail to make the step up, then struggle is likely.

My Prediction: 19th

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Damn the exchange rate

Just back from a few days in Barcelona, a brilliant city but perhaps amongst the most expensive on earth at the moment! A combination of general expensiveness and the awful exchange rate made it an expensive weekend.

Oh well, you can't take it with you.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Meeting the real world..

Tomorrow I start work at the Times for a few days, in a vain attempt to find out if (a) I can actually function as a journalist and (b) if I actually like functioning as a journalist. My nerves are jangling.

Don't worry, though, I'm not taking Murdoch's money. I would never sacrifice my principles in such a way. I'm doing it for free.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Terrible television

An evicted Big Brother contestant has slit his writs while watching the reality television show.

Not wishing to make light of this in any way, but has he not just become the first person to actually do what thousands of us have contemplated while watching the show?

RIP Sir Bobby

Football has lost one of its true gentleman. The death of Sir Bobby Robson, former manager of Ipswich, Newcastle and England amongst others, has lost his long battle with cancer at the age of 76.

Bobby Robson was a massively successful manager and, let us not forget, player. But he combined this success with such a tremendous amount of good humour, kindness and gravitas that, for once, the overwhelming amount of trubutes are all richly deserved. The world of football, and the world in general, will be a poorer place for the loss of this great man.