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Justice for the 21

Two things in life I’m fiercely proud of are my Irish heritage and my Brummie roots, and it’s always been heartening to see the city I call home embracing the culture, history and valued contribution of my ancestors.

It wasn’t always like this.

40 years ago, on this day, bombs planted by groups purporting to represent the Irish people tore through two pubs in our city, resulting in the senseless slaughter of 21 predominantly young people who were simply out to have fun. Ordinary folk enjoying their lives.

They weren’t the only victims. There’s the six falsely accused men who spent 16 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, of course. But let’s not underestimate the impact on Birmingham’s Irish community, who despite unanimously denouncing the horrors that unfolded, suddenly found themselves treated as outcasts in their own city.

Mercifully, tensions eased and wounds healed. The bombings occurred ten years before my birth and I’ve grown up in a region where Irish culture is celebrated, as demonstrated by the fact that Birmingham now hosts an annual week-long Irish festival culminating in one of the world’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parades.

Nonetheless, there will never be closure while so many questions remain unanswered. Us Brummie folk are the sort to keep our heads down, to accept our lot and carry on regardless. Public grief or impassioned campaigns for justice don’t really sit too easily with our psyche.

But until we achieve justice for those people whose lives were so abruptly ended on that night 40 years ago, the cloud over our heads will never clear.

It’s time for Birmingham’s Irish to stand up once more and say ‘not in my name’.

It’s time for us to maintain our united front whilst finding our voices.

It’s time for Justice for the 21.

You know it is. It really is.

Farewell old friend.

I’m off to Snobs in a bit.

If you’re a Brummie, you’ll know.

If you’re not, allow me to explain. It’s dark and dingy. Hot and sticky. An underground sweatpit, frequently overcrowded with hordes of monumentally pissed people. A shithole. A complete and utter shithole.

Oh, I nearly forgot. It’s also one of my favourite places in the entire world.

I’d never been hugely into nightclubs. I’m still not. Dresscodes, crap music, pissed up twats, all that jazz. But the moment I walked into Snobs, it was like an epiphany. I fell in love. I was home.

I was 22 that first night, and ended up there after an afternoon of drinking whilst watching England getting knocked out of the World Cup. Hearing that the plan was to hit a club, I popped into Tesco to buy the cheapest pleather shoes and collared shirt I could buy, assuming fully that the usual restrictions that typified my city centre nightlife experiences would be in place.

What I found instead was a utopia of people dressed how they wanted, and not like a walking advertisement for Burtons’ smart casual collection. “This is promising”, I thought.

Then there was the music. My word, the music. A smaller room, a little emptier, playing sweet sixties soul, with a dash of The Who, The Kinks, things of that ilk. Moddy. The stuff my dad played for me as I grew up.

Through the mirrored corridor was the main room. A hedonistic temple of indie rock’n’roll, a catalogue of the genre, journeying from the Stone Roses to Oasis to Babyshambles, and everything in between. A place to sing along, loudly, even though you didn’t know the words. A place to lose yourself. A place to forget about the fact you were wearing a truly terrible shirt and shoes combo.

I wish I could say that was the start of an era where I became a regular visitor. Lamentably, that’s not the case. Thinking about it, I’d estimate that I’ve certainly been there more than 10 times, but probably fewer than 20.

Why so little? I’m not sure. There’s certainly been occasions when I’ve wanted to go there, but found myself in the company of people who refused point blank to accompany me. Weirdos.

In many ways, I’d compare Snobs to the blue Gap hoody that’s been in my wardrobe since I was about 16. Something that I could go months, perhaps more than a year forgetting about, before slipping it on and enjoying its warmth and comfort.

It’s a place that never changes, that’s exactly the same now as it was when you first set foot inside. Somewhere that you feel eternally young, because, after all, if nothing around you is any different, then neither are you as a person. Does that make sense?

One thing that’s certain is that tonight marks my final ever visit to the old place. This weekend, it closes its doors forever, making way for some development of a hotel, or offices, or some crap like that. I don’t even know.

By pure coincidence, this is happening at a time of seismic change in my life. At the age of 30, and I’m sure to the delight of my parents, I’m finally moving out, and going to live with a real life girl, as if I’m an actual functioning adult human being, or something.

As for the blue gap hoody? It’s currently sitting in a recycling bag, ready to go to the charity shop. Essentially, I’m in the midst of waving goodbye to my youth. It’s like fate is saying “Snobs is gone. Time to be an adult now”. And there, by the grace of God, go I.

Of course, I should point out that the spirit of Snobs goes on, and it’ll open the door of its new home next week. And while it would suit the purposes of this coming of age narrative to declare that I’m done with it, I’m certain that, in time, I’ll squeeze into my skinniest jeans once more and pretend I’m a man in my early twenties. In the main, though, it’s time for the young’uns to create a new legend.

Before that, there’s still tonight. So I suppose I’d better go and get ready. And to retrieve that hoody from the bin liner…

Snobs is dead. Long live Snobs!

You know it is. It really is.

P.S. The brilliant pictures above have been stolen from Jack Spicer Adams. Click the link for more. Here are some bonus pictures of me snogging the wall of faces – my personal Snobs tradition.

The Bite – A PR perspective

At work today, I was asked to write a short piece analysing the fallout of the Luis Suarez biting incident from a PR perspective. I got a bit carried away, wrote too much, and had to cut it down. Which is good news for you lot, because it means I can use the unabridged version as a blog. Reduce, reuse, recycle, as Bob The Builder might say…

You know he might. He really might.

They say there’s a fine line between genius and madness, and there’s few better examples of that than the case of Luis Suarez.

The full scale of his ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character came into full focus this week when, fresh from demonstrating his brilliance in effectively dumping England out of the World Cup, the mercurial Uruguay forward hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons after sinking his teeth into the flesh of the Italian defender, Giorgio Chiellini.

Amid a widespread outpouring of shock and condemnation as Suarez became the centre of a storm of controversy for the umpteenth time, there was also room for some quirky creativity from brands who quickly capitalised on the incident.

Serial stunt specialists Specsavers leveraged its iconic ‘Should have gone to Specsavers’ line by alluding that Suarez may have confused his opponent with the popular Italian dish, cannelloni, while Snickers referenced its ‘Eat a Snickers’ campaign with the slogan ‘More satisfying than an Italian’.  Official World Cup partners also got in on the act, with Budweiser pointing out the virtues of its twist cap Bud Light bottles, while McDonalds in Uruguay were keen to stress that biting on a Big Mac is preferable to chowing down on Chiellini.

However, while some brands reveled in the limelight, there were others left scratching their heads as they pondered their next move. Suarez’s boot sponsor, Adidas, has announced that it is to review its relationship with the striker, and with a four month ban from all football activity now in effect, he has already been dropped as the worldwide ambassador of 888 Poker.

Most fascinating of all, though, will be the response of Liverpool Football Club.

With its questionable PR activity surrounding some of Suarez’s previous controversies still fresh in the minds of the powers-that-be at the Anfield club, including the disastrous t-shirts stunt after he was charged with racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, its reaction to this incident will require careful consideration.

While there will be a temptation for the club to rid itself of a player who has once again dragged its reputation through the mud, losing somebody of his unquestionable quality would without doubt reduce its prospects on the field.

In this case, the most fascinating clash for Liverpool this season is the brand versus the team. What will the outcome be? Now there’s a debate to really get your teeth into.

Lessons Lern-ed as Villa sale looms

I’ve often marveled at the human mind’s capacity to eliminate memories of humdrum events, leaving our brains filled largely with moments of happiness and contentment. Having just completed my 23rd year as an Aston Villa season ticket holder, I’m particularly grateful for that.

You see, it’s this capacity that allows me to forget the countless turgid performances I’ve seen from the boys in claret and blue over the years, whilst maintaining happy thoughts of those all too rare moments of delirium that make it all seem worthwhile.

Saturday 19th August 2006 will always fall firmly into that category.

I love the smell of a new season. New kits, new signings, hope and anticipation. It was particularly palpable as the curtain rose on the 2006/07 season, thanks in no small part to the sparkling new Emirates Stadium, which would host its very first match that day. However, that was only part of this story.

Villa marched into North London with a swagger that hadn’t been seen in a number of years. Amid a summer of tumultuous restlessness and drama, the deeply unpopular David O’Leary was ousted as manager, before the club’s much maligned octagenarian owner, Doug Ellis, finally gave in to public demand and sold up.

In their place came the revered former Celtic boss, Martin O’Neill, to take over team affairs, while the arrival of a new American billionaire owner in the form of Randolph D. Lerner brought a sense of unbridled optimism to the long suffering Villa faithful.

The ‘New’ Villa demonstrated remarkable verve and vigour that day, coming tantalisingly close to playing the role of party-poopers on Arsenal’s first day at their new home. It took a late Gilberto strike to earn a draw for the Gunners after Olof Mellberg made history by becoming the Emirates’ first ever goalscorer.

ImageVilla celebrate after scoring the first ever goal at The Emirates Stadium to kick off The Lerner Era

But, despite the disappointment of the late leveller, the carnival atmosphere among the travelling Villans couldn’t be abated. Players tossed their shirts into the celebrating crowd, as chants of ‘There’s Only One Randy Lerner’ filled the air. We had our Villa back, and it was wonderful.

Fast forward eight years, and we’re back in North London. Again, disappointment on the pitch did not abate a party atmosphere in the away end. But, unlike that day at The Emirates when it was the anticipation of a new beginning that excited the fans so, at White Hart Lane, as Villa lost 3-0 in an abject display, it was more a sigh of relief that it was all over.

This time, it was chants of “We want Lerner out” that echoed across the stadium. From being hailed as the saviour of Aston Villa, the very mention of Randy Lerner was enough to provoke disdain, disappointment, and even disgust among a number of the Holte End faithful.

Where did it all go so wrong?!

Let’s rewind back to the start. From that opening day at the Emirates, the wave of optimism continued in the early stages of 2006/07 as Villa went unbeaten in the first 12 games. Things would level out over the season, with Villa securing a solid, if unspectacular, 10th place finish.

The final weekend marked the 25th anniversary of Villa’s European Cup triumph, and a reception for the heroes of 1982 ahead of a 3-0 victory over Sheffield United. The weekend also saw a series of events which acted as a statement of intent for what was still to come, with the unveiling of Villa’s new crest and the opening of a state-of-the-art training complex at Bodymoor Heath. As Villa Park rocked to the sound of over 40,000 delirious fans, full focus fell on the slogan which was woven into the free scarves they each twirled above their head: ‘Proud History. Bright Future.’

And so the work truly began. Villa Park was carefully restored to former aesthetic glories with the £4m renovation of the Holte Pub, and the installation of the fine Roman mosaic work, mimicking that which once sat on the Trinity Road Stand, upon the frontage of the Holte End. A mammoth five year partnership with Nike was seen as a major sign that Villa were ready to step into the elite, while the stadium’s corporate hospitality facilities were overhauled in readiness for the movers and shakers who would no doubt be seduced by the team’s compelling play.

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Lerner helped restore the stately aesthetic of Villa Park

Most importantly though, for the fans, was the significant investment in the playing side which saw Villa become one of the Premier League’s biggest spenders as Martin O’Neill shaped his forces into his vision.

Everything seemed positive for the three years that would follow. O’Neill built an effective, if at times rigid, unit, and mounted campaigns which saw Villa mount serious challenges for the promised land of the Champions League, falling just short every time as they recorded three successive sixth place finishes. A few minor gripes aside, not least the debacle surrounding a 2009 visit to Russia, all seemed rosy in the Villa garden.

Behind the scenes, though, little did we know that all was not well. Having invested millions in going for Champions League or bust, the money was starting to run out. August 2010 saw O’Neill, the poster boy of the Lerner era, walk out in dramatic fashion on the eve of the season. And thus began a catastrophic series of decisions which saw the goodwill towards Villa’s owner dissipate rapidly.

Gerard Houllier was the unexpected choice to replace O’Neill, and despite his likeable demeanour and admirable philosophy on how the game should be played, somehow he never quite seemed to fit in at Villa. Among the chief concerns was that regarding his health, given the heart attack he suffered whilst managing Liverpool a few years earlier. Despite his protestations that he was in fine fettle, it was with a degree of inevitability that he failed to see out the season on health grounds.

If Houllier had been a surprise appointment, the arrival of his replacement was positively mind-boggling, and marked the major turning of the tide against Lerner. For Aston Villa to target Birmingham City’s manager in any circumstance would be worthy of a raised eyebrow or two. To do so immediately after the relegation of the traditional Second City rival, amid much criticism of his style of football, beggared all rational belief.

A dark and toxic cloud enveloped Villa Park during that season, and despite glimmers of sunlight breaking through as Paul Lambert seized the helm, the situation never fully recovered, and eventually became yet more desperate.

Still suffering from the folly of offering long and lucrative contracts to players of limited ability and low sell-on value, a philosophy of bringing in talented young players from overseas or lower leagues has failed to propel Villa to become anything more than a perennial relegation struggler – and that’s simply not good enough for a fan base which still expects the club to challenge the upper echelons of the top flight.

randy lerner_0Moving on: Lerner prepares to leave Villa

And so, it seems, that the Lerner era came to its likely end at White Hart Lane, the early promise and excitement giving way to weariness, resignation and, in some cases, anger. The biggest shame, for me, is the fact that so many fans seem unable to disassociate between the need for change and their perceptions of a person. In my view, much of the personal abuse and criticism has been out of line.

Has he been the perfect owner? No. Has he been outright incompetent on occasion? Absolutely. But is it fair to say that Randy Lerner doesn’t care for Aston Villa? Even when this sale is done and dusted, I’m sure he’ll be able to point to at least a hundred million reasons as to why that’s not true.

While the on-field state of the club is undoubtedly not where it should be, Lerner does leave a legacy in that he has respected and restored the traditions of the club. He has frequently described himself as a custodian of the club, and has performed this statesmanlike role with aplomb.

In the statement announcing his intention to sell, Lerner referenced the McGregor tradition of the club, and this philosophy has been apparent throughout his tenure. A spirit of philanthropy was one of the major pillars around which McGregor built Aston Villa, and the club’s relationship with Acorns children’s hospice is rightly viewed as a pioneering partnership. The decision to forego a shirt sponsor in favour of displaying the charity’s name on Villa’s shirts for two seasons, together with the untold great work done by the club with Acorns, is something that must remain a great source of pride for all Villa fans.

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Villa’s pioneering Acorns partnership will serve as Lerner’s biggest legacy.

Lerner’s custodianship also heralds comparisons with another great Villa leader, Frederick Rinder, who served the club between 1881 and 1925. He is best known for a famous quote, in which he said: “Finance is important, but we should never forget that we are not talking about a mere business. This is the Aston Villa football club, and it deserves nothing short of the best.”

Lerner embodied this by, both physically and metaphorically, removing the slap-dash corrugated metal, plastic and plasterboard facade of Aston Villa, and replacing it with red brick and mahogany panelling. He re-established the ideals of tradition, philanthropy and honour which for so long were its very foundations.

More than anything, he GOT Aston Villa. He understood the club, its history, and its values. Put short, he got the ‘Proud History’ part spot on, but the ‘Bright Future’ was harder to come by.

Just as Frederick Rinder was in 1925, it seems that Randy Lerner is to be hounded out of Villa Park in ignonimous fashion. But also like his predecessor from almost 90 years ago, I’m certain that, in time, Villa fans will look fondly on Randy Lerner – the honourable man who tried manfully, but ultimately failed, to make Villa great again. Of course, that’s a process that could be expedited depending on the owner he chooses.

It’s going to be an interesting summer. Whatever happens, here’s hoping that the first day of next season will remain as memorable as that day at Arsenal eight years ago.

You know it will. It really will.

ART REVIEW: Chiharu Shiota, The New Art Gallery, Walsall.

This is a blog about modern art.

I know, what a pretentious twat.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming to be an art expert, or even that I know the slightest thing about the subject, because I most certainly do not. I just like looking at it.

Modern art is much maligned, and I can understand why. After all, I leave my bed unmade most days, and there’s nobody queuing up to come and look at it. But modern art makes me think, it challenges me, and it makes me want to understand what makes it art, what was the artists’s inspiration, and how it came to be.

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IS THIS ART? – Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’

I just don’t get this with traditional portraits, landscapes, sculptures and the like. I mean, I completely appreciate the immense talent involved in the craft of it. I certainly couldn’t do it myself. But I’m largely unmoved when I look at them. Essentially, I find a strong reaction infinitely more entertaining than no reaction at all. Even if that reaction is just ‘What the hell is this crap?’

Put it this way: I’ve never heard a piece of classical music I really dislike, whereas I actively despise the work of many current artists. Yet, given the choice between listening to Classic FM or Capital, I’m going for the hit music station every time.

During my recent trip to New York, its renowned Museum of Modern Art was right up there on my list of places to visit. I spent a hugely enjoyable couple of hours ambling around its famous galleries, a journey which brought feelings of awe, confusion, intrigue and, at times, sheer bewilderment. It was good. It was very, very good.

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Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ at MoMA, New York

 Fast forward a couple of weeks to yesterday. The excitement of my adventure in The Big Apple all but a distant memory, it was back to the mundaneness of real life as I dropped off my car for its MOT. Little did I realise that this would be the gateway to one of the most breath-taking interactions with art I’ve ever experienced.

The New Art Gallery in Walsall has always stood out in a town which has for a long time been pretty rough round the edges. Upon its opening in 2000, despite its largely drab surroundings, the eye-catching building would quickly make its mark, winning several architectural awards, including a nomination for the prestigious Sterling Architecture Prize.

Needless to say, the building divided opinion. From a purely aesthetic point of view, there were those who questioned whether such a modern and striking building was in keeping with Walsall, if a more modest construction may have been more appropriate. Many queried the cost of the building, and whether the money would have been better spent elsewhere. Many simply wondered if the project was something of a white elephant, if an industrial town like Walsall could sustain such an ambitious cultural project.

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The New Art Gallery, Walsall

Since then, a sustained regeneration project in the area surrounding the gallery means that today, it looks altogether more at home in its environment, and the sheer quality of its exhibits has established its reputation as a widely respected gallery, and a genuine jewel in the crown for the town.

As I say, I know nothing about art whatsoever, and my occasional visits have always come at times when I’m wondering around the town with not much else to do, rather than any pre-defined appointments to visit.

And so, with an hour or so to kill before my MOT was complete, off to the gallery I went. And boy was I satisfied with that choice.

After ambling around the more traditional artworks on the second floor, I made my way up to the modern art mecca where the gallery’s guest installations usually reside. As the lift doors opened (these days sadly lacking the accompaniment of Noddy Holder’s voice, much to my chagrin), I was greeted by two things: firstly, the smiling face of my friend Zaynul, who works at the gallery, and hilariously seemed almost to be expecting me despite the spontaneous and unannounced nature of my visit. Secondly, behind Zaynul, was the most visually stunning cascade of battered and worn suitcases, each one suspended from the ceiling.

I would soon find out that it was part of the gallery’s current Chiharu Shiota exhibition, showcasing a host of the Japanese artist’s dramatic and spectacular work.

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Before even contemplating the artistic nature of the piece, the sheer scale and craftsmanship of the installation was absolutely breathtaking. The installation became all the more fascinating as Zaynul explained that it is made up of over 400 suitcases, each of which tell the story of a different person. From the places they’ve visited, the things they’ve experienced, and the belongings they took with them along the way. It sums up journeys and the individuals behind them, the loves, the losses, the adventures and the new beginnings. The nature of the installation means you are able to walk all around, and even underneath it, enabling you to explore the art from every angle, and become fully immersed in it.

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We ventured into the adjoining room, where we were greeted by – and please forgive this uncouth comparison – what looked to be a giant spider’s web of pubic hair, arranged into a tornado shape surrounding its focal point.

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Naturally, it wasn’t. The structure is made of unraveled balls of black wool, painstakingly arranged to surround hundred of handwritten letters sourced from Japan, again containing a wealth of thoughts, feelings and experiences from a host of people unknown to us. The piece allows you to walk around its focal point, again resulting in a fully immersive experience to be enjoyed and explored from all angles. It’s a truly visually stunning piece of work.

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It’s funny sometimes how you can ignore what’s available on your own doorstep. I traveled to New York and went out of my way to experience to MoMA’s assortment of works. Yet, it was just circumstance and time to kill that led me to venture into Walsall’s New Art Gallery yesterday. Who knew that it would be there that I would see art that left me truly inspired?

Shiota’s installation will remain in place until March 30th, and it’s absolutely FREE to visit. If you’re shopping in Walsall, or just have some time to kill, pop in and have a look. Pictures cannot do it justice – it just has to be seen.

You know it does. It really does.

The Fairytale of New York

statueI made my long-awaited first ever visit to New York City this week, arriving amid a hubbub of excitement concerning a shift-change in the USA’s iconic late night chat show schedules.

22 years after landing the gig for the first time, Jay Leno has relinquished his hold on ‘The Tonight Show’, which will instead be held under the custodianship of Jimmy Fallon, returning to its original home of The Big Apple in the process.

Of course, it’s not the first time Leno has handed over the reins. In a notorious 2009 palaver, Leno initially passed the torch to Conan O’Brien in order to launch ‘The Jay Leno Show’, which aired on NBC during prime time.

True to many commentator’s predictions, however, Leno’s new show quickly bombed. Yet, bizarrely, O’Brien was the man to take the fall. After weeks of speculation, Leno returned to his old ‘Tonight Show’ chair, while O’Brien was unceremoniously removed from NBC’s schedules, albeit with several million dollars’ worth of severance safely banked.

Whilst hosting his final show, O’Brien delivered what was one of the most impactful speeches I’ve ever heard, maintaining his dignity when many lesser mortals would have hit out at the shoddy treatment he received.

It was one part of the speech in particular which stood out for me, which I will reproduce for your reference, dear reader:

“All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism, for the record, it’s my least favourite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

I often come back to that speech whenever I have some soul searching to do. I try hard not to be cynical, really I do. But often, in this world where the actions of others can shock and disappoint you, it’s easy to slip into a ‘glass half empty’ point of view.

So, with that in mind, it’s always nice to rediscover your faith in the generosity of human spirit.

I was in the States to watch Ice Hockey, supporting my Edmonton Oilers in back-to-back away games against the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils.

Following an NHL team away from home can be a strangely isolating experience. Unlike football in the UK, the sheer distances between teams in North American leagues means that there’s no real tradition of away support, and any visiting fans are dotted disparately around the arenas.

Sitting among the fans of the home town favourites, supporting a Canadian team in the USA, no less, the feeling of being an outsider is always there at the back of your mind. For me, being an actual foreigner all the way from the UK, that feeling is heightened.

Prior to heading to New York and New Jersey, I’d watched the Oilers on the road in Chicago, Calgary, Los Angeles and Anaheim, and the best experiences were the couple of occasions when lady luck had intervened to ensure I had a fellow Oiler, a brother in arms, beside me.

Until now.

My first game of the trip took me to the legendary Madison Square Garden, a venue oozing history and prestige. Walking around the concourses, there was the usual dotted assortment of away fans, and the customary high fives and nods of acknowledgment that come from your fellow outsiders. Inside the arena, no such luck, as I was surrounded by myriad New York blue shirts.

As the man sitting next to me took his seat, there was the usual awkward banter that goes on when you discover an away fan seated next to you. “Hey, you better sit down and be quiet, you’re getting nothing here today!” nudge, nudge, wink, LOL, etc. etc.

Yet, despite our opposite leanings with regard to the sporting spectacle going on before us, I found myself enjoying the company of my seat companion, whom I knew only as John.

Conversation flowed despite the nail-bitingly close nature of the contest, albeit with a few inaccurate cultural generalisations thrown in… “So, have y’ever been in a soccer riot?”

The prompt for John’s random act of kindness, though, came when I divulged I’d been unable to whet my whistle at the game. This was thanks to Madison Square Garden’s strange policy to only accept passports as a valid form of photo ID for foreign visitors, a fact I’d only discovered when I’d hopefully presented my driver’s licence at the concession kiosk. The surly assistant duly rejected my futile advances, seemingly genuinely angered by my audacity to want to buy a Bud bloody Light for the princely sum of $10.

John disappeared during the intermission, and I enviously eyed the tall, frosty lagers he brandished as he returned to his seat, only for him to quickly thrust one into my clammy palm. Immediately I moved my free hand towards my pocket to reimburse John for his kind gesture… but he waved it away. “This one’s on me”, he said. “Welcome to the States”.

I was slightly taken aback. It seems like a small gesture on the face of it. But again, consider this – we were there as adversaries, supporting opposing teams, with nothing in common other than the fact that fate had placed us in adjoining seats in an arena of almost 20,000 people. Yet this man had taken the time to part with his money, and buy me a beer, a gesture of nothing but pure kindness and generosity of spirit. Human beings being nice to one another. What could be lovelier?

But that’s not where it ends.

The following night I crossed the river to Newark to watch the Oilers take on the New Jersey Devils. I was particularly excited about this one, as I’d splashed out on second row tickets, the closest I assumed I was ever going to get to the hockey fan’s holy grail of a front row spot – the prohibitive cost usually putting pay to any ambitions I ever had of securing such a position.

That was, until, the man in front of me gestured to the empty seat next to him, and invited me to take it. Again, it seems like a small gesture. If the seat was empty anyway, then of course he should have asked somebody to take it.

But it was the significance of it that struck me. There I was again, a foreigner, an adversary, supporting the other team. Yet something had made him reach out with an olive branch to ensure that my experience was a memorable one, offering me a seat worth several hundred dollars to boot.

frontrowWhere’s Wally? (On the left, in the blue and orange top!)

If that wasn’t enough, he ventured up to the concourse at the intermission and returned with chicken nuggets and chips for me, which I was entirely grateful for, albeit not in great need of, having earlier filled my gut on what was a nominated $1 hotdog night.

Two cities, two rival fans, two acts of incredible kindness, two people I’ll never see or hear from again. That’s a shame, really, isn’t it?

I was reflecting on that as I boarded the train to Manhattan when, finally, I found myself sitting next to a group wearing the same orange and blue jersey as me. As we discussed the game, whilst also inevitably establishing exactly why a lad with an English accent was supporting a Canadian team in the USA, they invited me to join them as they headed out into the city that never sleeps to paint the town red.

That night, the conversation flowed as freely as the beer and scotch we poured down our necks, while my stomach, already bulging with hotdogs and nuggets, was lined further with chicken bites, potato skins, and enchiladas as I savoured every moment with my fellow Oilers. Diet be damned.

And it was here that I received my third incredible gesture of human kindness in little more than 24 hours. For as our sizeable bar bill was delivered, I was informed that I was not to pay a penny. It was all on my new mates.

Facebook ‘adds’ were soon exchanged. New friendships with folks from thousands of miles away, forged purely based on the logo we wore on our chests. Marvellous.

Let’s not be fooled into thinking the world’s all candy canes and happy smiles, though.

Cast your mind back to my first game in New York. You know, the one where I sat next to kindly John who bought me a beer?

I got a little excited at the end. A late Nail Yakupov goal meant the Oilers recorded an all-too-rare victory at The World’s Most Famous Arena™, and despite my position as the sore thumb among a group of Rangers fans, nothing was to prevent me from roaring my approval.

“HEY BUDDY!” came a shout. “WHAT’S YOUR RECORD ON THE SEASON?”

The Oilers currently stand 29th out of 30 NHL teams.

“WHAT’S YOUR RECORD ON THE SEASON?” he repeated, almost as if he wasn’t already completely aware of the answer.

“It’s shit, mate.” I replied. “But I’ve come all the way from England for this.”

Suddenly the man’s face, previously etched with pure apoplectic fury, gave way to a forgiving smile. Off he went, confrontation avoided.

So, the moral of this story: Generally, you can rely on human beings being quite nice. If they’re not, all it takes is a Hugh Grant-esque display of British fopphishness to get you out of a tight spot.

And sharing that wisdom is my gesture of kindness to you.

You know it is. It really is.

An ode to Louis Tomlinson

I ruddy love Gabby Agbonlahor. And who wouldn’t?

There’s the endearing stupidity. The last minute goals. His short-lived flirtation with Twitter before he got shut-down, thanks to the aforementioned endearing stupidity.

But one thing that I love about him more than most things is the fact that he’s a world-class wind-up merchant.

‘Shushing’ gestures to opposition fans. Applauding red cards. You’d maybe hate him if he wasn’t one of your own. But he is, so I don’t.

Today, though, Gabby has excelled himself. He’s gone and incited pure, unadulterated rage among millions of teenage girls across the world. And frankly, I couldn’t be more excited about that.

For, at Celtic Park, was a benefit game for the Villa and Celtic legend, Stiliyan Petrov, commemorating his recent retirement following his brave battle with Leukaemia. A team of all-star legends, including our Gabby, up against a team of Celtic legends which included One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson for reasons unknown.

Every touch of the ball from the 1D popster was greeted by a loud chorus of girlish squeals and boarish booing, while everyone looking on was secretly thinking to themselves: “Wouldn’t it be funny if he got clattered?”

Cometh the moment, cometh the man…

It would soon get worse.

After being floored, Tomlinson immediately demanded to be substituted and then, to compound his humilation, promptly vomited as he made his embarrassing exit.

Now, before I incur the wrath of any mental #Directioners, let me be clear: I don’t dislike One Direction. I secretly quite like One Direction. It’s just that I have a bit of an obsession with pro-amateur football, and the bizarre scenarios it can throw up. Think Boris Johnson taking out a German, or Woody Harrelson scoring the winner past Jamie Theakston in front of 76,000 people at Old Trafford. Just so strange, so unlikely, and so very, very brilliant.

Our Gabby, Villa’s Gabby, taking out a global pop sensation could hardly fail to appeal to me, could it?

So, I thought I’d commemorate the event in a fitting manner, by writing a little song.

It’s to the tune of One Direction’s fabulous pop hit, ‘What Makes You Beautiful’. Here’s an instrumental version if you fancy some impromptu karaoke.

Are you ready? Then we’ll begin:

He’s on the floor,
Don’t know what for,
He got knocked down by a lad named Agbonlahor.

His number’s up,
He’s getting subbed,
It’s pretty clear that he just isn’t good enough.

Everyone else in the ground can see it…
Everyone else but you…

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And now the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

You’re only doing this for charity,
Playing against all the boys from the Premier League.
Right now we’re looking at you and we all believe
That you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football…
Oh oh,
So sing your songs, don’t play football!

So c-c’mon,
You got it wrong,
Should be on stage singing your very catchy songs.

We don’t know why,
You’re in green and white,
Regurgitating your half time pie-ie-ie.

Everyone else in the ground can see it…
Everyone else but you…

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

You’re only doing this for charity,
Playing against all the boys from the Premier League.
Right now we’re looking at you and we all believe
That you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football…
Oh oh,
So sing your songs, don’t play football! 

Na na na na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na

Na na na na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

You’re only doing this for charity,
Playing against all the boys from the Premier League.
Right now we’re looking at you and we all believe
That you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football… 

Oh oh,
Boybands shouldn’t play football…

Oh oh,
So sing your songs, don’t play football!

I just spent far too long on that.

You know I did. I really did.