31
Oct
13

Porting ‘Premier Manager 64’

SDC12335Porting football management games to consoles can be tricky.

After all, it is a mammoth task to squeeze as many statistics and leagues as possible in one Sony PlayStation disc.

And, over the years, the genre has technologically progressed.

For example, Codemasters, the makers of ‘LMA Manager 2006’, launched a downloadable patch in early 2006 that updated squads and statistics in line with the latest transfer window. The aforementioned PlayStation 2 game was the first of its kind to offer this feature.

But imagine trying to fit the latest leagues, players and options in just one cartridge.

Gremlin Interactive attempted this in 1999, when they released ‘Premier Manager 64’ for the Nintendo 64, and they came mighty close to making it work.

Enter the PlayStation

SDC12413For starters, and perhaps most importantly, the gameplay is more than adequate.

While its Career mode, where you can manage one of ten Division Three teams, is not as addictive as Sports Interactive’s ‘Football Manager’ series, it is a game that merits repeated plays.

And taking an underdog to the Super League – essentially, the UEFA Champions League – is very rewarding.

The game’s difficulty level, however, is arbitrary, meaning that winning the Premier League with Charlton Athletic is just as likely as being involved in a relegation scrap with Tottenham Hotspur.

But the flaws of ‘Premier Manager 64’ are all too evident when it is compared to its PlayStation counterpart, ‘Premier Manager Ninety Nine’.

A number of the latter’s features – including profile pictures of footballers, two Italian leagues (Serie A and Serie B), and the ability to change the screen position – were excluded from the Nintendo 64 version.

The TV-style match highlights were kept, though, but many of its selling points were sacrificed. Replays, goal details (such as speed and distance) and name bars were all ditched and, unlike the PlayStation version, Barry Davies’ commentary lacked variation.

The highlights on both versions were graphically undeveloped by 1999’s standards, but the Nintendo 64 version looked a bit like a low-budget conversion.

To a certain extent, this is understandable. The capacity of the ‘Premier Manager 64’ cartridge is 128 Megabits – twice the size of the typical Nintendo 64 cartridge and equal to 16 Megabytes.

In contrast, a bog-standard PlayStation CD comfortably contains over 600 Megabytes. This meant that the Nintendo 64 was not suited to stand-alone features and options, such as pre-rendered music and film, hence why so many various presentational enhancements had to be scrapped from ‘Premier Manager 64’.

Konami’s ‘Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon’ was another example of this problem, as it needed a 16 Megabyte cartridge just to fit two short, but delightfully eccentric, songs (‘I Am Impact!‘ and the opening theme). This led to a £60 price tag and disappointing sales.

64-bit graphical enhancements

The Nintendo 64, however, was still a powerful machine, and capable of other pre-rendered elements that were not imaginable on the PlayStation and Sega Saturn.

And, thanks to its Reality Immersion system, it had the main components of a £10,000 Silicon Graphics machine.

According to N64 Magazine, this meant that – in games such as ‘Super Mario 64’ and ‘Pilotwings 64’ – it was possible to create massive 3D worlds “just by specifying a few polygon co-ordinates”.

Games could also be anti-aliased – which meant that jagged lines were minimised – while frame rates were maintained without resorting to fog.

The console’s other advantages, such as texture mapping and detailing, led to the critical acclaim of Major A’s ‘International Superstar Soccer 64’.

It was the Konami subsidiary’s first attempt at using motion capture and programming with polygons, and the game ran around 100 times faster than its Super NES counterparts.

Yasuo Okuda, who directed and co-programmed the game, told N64 Magazine that although the game could be converted to the PlayStation or Saturn, “we’d [Major A] have to delete quite a bit from it because of memory size restrictions”.

Katsuya Nagae, who was in charge of Konami Computer Entertainment Osaka’s research and development department, also added:

“The N64 is definitely the best machine to write a soccer game for, because it uses cartridges rather than CDs. Other machines have a limited memory to store information read from the CD, but the N64 can get information from the cart at any time. The PlayStation, on the other hand, has to load everything in and store it in its memory.” (April 1997, p.82-83.)

This meant that ‘International Superstar Soccer 64’ was able to master the Nintendo 64 in the same way as Nintendo’s two launch games – by using its 3D powers to produce real-time graphics.

But ‘Premier Manager 64’ was graphically basic, meaning that the concept of creating 3D worlds was irrelevant for such a statistically and text-heavy game.

Even though its processing time – which was regarded, for example, as the main fault of ‘LMA Manager 2003’ on the PlayStation 2 – was much faster than many 128-bit console football management games, Gremlin’s mastery of the Nintendo 64 was always going to be lower than Major A’s capabilities.

16-bit depth

SDC12407But what remains puzzling is the fact that the Sega Mega Drive version of ‘Premier Manager’ – released in 1995, with only 32 Megabits – has more detailed options than the Nintendo 64 AND PlayStation versions.

In ‘Premier Manager 64’ and ‘Premier Manager Ninety Nine’, for example, players could only choose between three sponsors.

In the Mega Drive version, however, players could decorate their ground with a variety of, mainly Sega-themed, advertising hoardings.

Floodlights, scoreboards, covered areas, under soil heating, car parks and a supporters’ club could also be developed, as could the stadium’s capacity and safety rating.

The 32 and 64-bit versions, though, only had two options: improving stadium facilities and increasing its capacity.

The Mega Drive version also allowed players to buy players via a transfer auction – which made for a refreshing change – with options to develop a youth team, and appoint coaches and physios.

Overdrafts could be extended, details about referees were provided, and a fictional fax machine displayed the latest results and transfers.

But none of these features were available on the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation versions, while the original console version of ‘Premier Manager’ offered a wider range of tactical options.

It’s still enjoyable

SDC12627Although the limited number of features and options are frustrating, ‘Premier Manager 64’ remains one of the best football management games on a home console.

‘Premier Manager Ninety Nine’ on the PlayStation, for example, has a couple of minor bugs, and ‘Premier Manager’ on the Mega Drive has a learning curve that is too steep for novice gamers and thus lacks immediacy.

And, even in the 128-bit era, simplistic options were still a niggling issue. For example, Ben Richardson’s review of ‘LMA Manager 2006’ in Official UK PlayStation 2 Magazine included the following passage:

“Selecting tactics is pretty painless as well, although a main ‘summary’ page would have been a nice addition, as the constant switching between windows can cause confusion as you try to figure out what you’ve actually changed. Mid-match options are a little restrictive, too. You can assign only four tactics to trigger during a game, and you’re unable to use them together – for instance, like setting up Counter Attack and Wing Play at the same time, which makes complete sense to us.” (December 2005, p.108.)

‘Premier Manager 64’ has all the makings of a brilliant game: it is easy to play and navigate, while having enough challenge to ensure that it has an excellent lifespan.

Despite its noticeable problems, it’s still an enjoyable game. But it will leave the more cynical player feeling short changed.

If only Gremlin could have produced a console-based game that had the accessibility of ‘Premier Manager 64’ and the depth of earlier versions. It certainly would have made for a different conclusion.

29
Sep
13

(Bad) Cover Version #18: ‘Simon Says’ by Peter Simon (1990)

The origin of the cover: Released as a single
Original recording artist: 1910 Fruitgum Company
Grade: F

‘Going Live!’, most likely, is one of the few television programmes where the majority of its regular human cast members released a single.

Phillip Schofield’s ‘Close Every Door’ – a blatant cash-in from ‘Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ – was the most successful of these releases, reaching Number 27 in November 1992.

Jennifer Juniper’ – a charity single for Shelter – by the Singing Corner meets Donovan (AKA comedy duo, Trevor and Simon, and *THE* Donovan) also charted, peaking at Number 68 in November 1990.

Meanwhile, Sarah Greene’s only single, ‘Eeny Meenie’, flopped in 1983. Both of those releases had some interesting ideas, but were nothing more than short-lived curiosities.

And there was also Peter Simon, the presenter of game show segments ‘Double Dare’ and ‘Run The Risk’. Incidentally, Shane Richie, who was Simon’s first co-presenter on ‘Run The Risk’, had a Number 2 hit with ‘I’m Your Man’ in November 2003.

The concept of Peter Simon covering 1910 Fruitgum Company’s ‘Simon Says’ sounds ludicrous enough to work, but it also seems well suited to his affable personality. After all, he manages to make the shopping channel, Bid, look entertaining.

Unfortunately, though, the reality of this cover version leaves an unpleasant taste.

Although it is faithful to the original – with the exception of Simon’s troubled Poochie-esque rap – it still ends up being the musical equivalent of Bombalurina covering a Black Lace song.

The backing track is like a dentist’s drill being inserted into your brain, but it’s Simon’s complete disregard for dignity that is most concerning.

The song’s strong whiff of cheese is excusable, but it also sounds nonsensical and hideously puerile to the extent that it makes Roland Rat Superstar’s ‘Rat Rapping’ sound as deep and meaningful as Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.

‘Simon Says’ is simply inadequate in every single department.

This is, without a doubt, Peter Simon’s lowest moment. It’s even worse than ‘Star Pets’, which says it all.

31
Aug
13

Smash Hits, Tony Currie’s testimonial match and The Housemartins

For my sins, I support Sheffield Wednesday.

But even I can appreciate the brilliance of Smash Hits’ feature about Tony Currie’s testimonial match and The Housemartins (you can read it here, and here).

Tony Currie was once named as Sheffield United’s greatest cult hero but, rather amusingly, he was also described as “some bloke or other”.

Norman Cook, meanwhile, managed to top a visit to a Sheffield-based greasy spoon by meeting George Best AND the St John’s Ambulance crew.

And a feature really isn’t a feature until the words “8.23 Inter-City Saver” and “Dennis Waterman Showbiz XI” (featuring Blades fan Paul Heaton) are mentioned. Bless you, Smash Hits.

18
Jul
13

Ten of the most successful video game-related singles

You might think that singles based on video games are likely to become one-hit wonders, but that is not entirely true.

In fact, a number of these records were released by some unlikely names with good track records.

And some musicians have a close relationship with video games. For example, in 1992, the Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield told the New Musical Express:

“Spiderman [for the Sega Mega Drive] is the perfect metaphor for my life, much more than any records of the past five years.” (1 February 1992, p.20-21, 41.)

Plenty of video game singles have also charted in Europe. Rayman Contre Les Lapins Encore and Crétins’ 2007 single, ‘Making Fun (Of Everyday Life)’, attained a chart peak of Number 49 in France and spent 16 weeks in the Top 100.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All’ by 50 Grind and Pokémon All Stars, and Pokémon’s ‘Pokédance (Remix)’ and ‘Un Monde Pokémon’ were also French Top 50 hits in 2000 and 2001.

Pokédance (Remix)’ was particularly successful, peaking at Number 21, while ‘Pokémon Welt’ by Noel Pix reached the Top 50 in Austria and Switzerland.

There were ten other singles, though, that charted in the UK Singles Chart.

1. ‘Computer Game (Theme From The Invader)’ by Yellow Magic Orchestra (1980)

The majority of video game-related songs from the late 1970s and 1980s were included on albums, such as ‘Space Invader’ by The Pretenders (although it was also the b-side to ‘Brass In Pocket’ in Canada, Japan and the USA) and ‘Ivan Meets GI Joe’ by The Clash.

One notable exception, however, was Yellow Magic Orchestra’s ‘Computer Game (Theme From The Invader)’, which sampled arcade sounds.

David Toop’s book, ‘Exotica: Fabricated Soundscapes In A Real World’, said that it “factored the technological ‘folk art’ of arcade game soundtracks into the history of electronic music”.

But, given their long association with video games, this wasn’t much of a surprise.

Principal member Ryuichi Sakamoto, for example, composed the start-up sound for the Sega Dreamcast, and their 1979 track, ‘Rydeen’, was sampled in four games: ‘Super Locomotive’, ‘Trooper Truck’, ‘Ocean Loader’ and ‘Stryker’s Run’.

Although the Japanese group’s export sales were limited, ‘Computer Game (Theme From The Invader)’ became their only hit in the UK Singles Chart when it peaked at Number 17 in July 1980.

The single – which was originally released as an album track in 1978 – also had good chart longevity, as it spent 11 weeks in the Top 75. Furthermore, eight of those weeks were spent in the Top 40.

2. ‘Pac-Man’ by Powerpill (1992)

A number of dance singles were based on retro children’s television programmes in the early 1990s – such as Smart E’s ‘Sesame’s Treet’, Urban Hype’s ‘A Trip To Trumpton’ and Shaft’s ‘Roobarb And Custard’ – and many of them became Top 10 hits.

Unsurprisingly, due to the success of the Sega Mega Drive and Super NES, dance records were also based on video games.

But the big surprise is that Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, was the man behind Powerpill’s ‘Pac-Man’.

James was no stranger to the UK Singles Chart as ‘Digeridoo’ became his first hit single when it reached Number 55 in May 1992.

Four weeks later, ‘Pac-Man’ went one better with a chart peak of Number 43.

In fact, it was James’ highest chart placing until ‘On’ made a Top 40 breakthrough in November 1993.

3. ‘Pacman’ by Ed Rush & Optical (2002)

Ed Rush & Optical have released five albums, but ‘Pacman’ remains their only single to have charted in the UK.

It reached the dizzy heights of Number 61 in May 2002.

Unlike Powerpill’s happy hardcore style, this is a much more sinister version that only sporadically samples Namco’s classic game.

4. ‘Tetris’ by Doctor Spin (1992)

The Really Useful Group are associated with the likes of Jason Donovan’s ‘Any Dream Will Do’ and Marti Webb’s ‘Take That Look Off Your Face’, but it was also responsible for Doctor Spin’s ‘Tetris’.

The single – which was released by Polydor and Carpet Records in September 1992 – was co-arranged and executive produced by Baron Andrew Lloyd Webber, and peaked at Number 6 within its first month in the charts.

It is a mildly catchy slice of Eurodance, and the involvement of Lloyd Webber remains strangely appealing, but its real success was down to some strategic market positioning.

For example, in the early 1990s, the core age groups in the UK singles market were nine to 12-year-olds and young teenagers, while nearly 40% of all UK Top 75 hits were dance singles in the first quarter of 1992.

While the ninth edition of The Guinness Book Of British Hit Singles claimed that video games were outselling singles by a 5:3 ratio, Virgin Games’ General Manager, Nick Garnell, stated that British children bought music AND video games. He also said that game centres were a “parallel development to music stores for Virgin”.

When you consider the popularity of video games and singles among children – and the fact that the Eurodance stylings of ‘Tetris’ would be more accessible to a pop audience than Powerpill’s ‘Pac-Man’ – it is easy to see why it was such a big hit.

Inevitably, more recent versions of the game’s soundtrack by the likes of DJ Joystick and Doctor P have failed to replicate Doctor Spin’s success.

5. ‘Playing With The Boy’ by Technician II (1992)

Inane is the best word to describe Technician II’s ‘Playing With The Boy’, which was used in a series of Nintendo Game Boy adverts in 1992.

The sound effects are plonky at best, and its breakbeat style sounds contrived, but it defied the odds by making a minor dent in the UK Singles Chart.

It spent one week at Number 70 in November 1992, which was more than it deserved.

Technician II member Ben Keen attained modest solo chart success as BK, though, with six Top 75 entries between 2000 and 2003.

High Score Warrior’s ‘Will You Ever Reach The End?’, meanwhile, was given a European release in 1993, after being used in a Super NES advert.

Although it was a more tuneful effort, it never charted.

6. ‘SuperMarioLand’ by Ambassadors of Funk featuring MC Mario (1992)

Ambassadors of Funk weren’t the first act to release a Mario-related single, as Turntable Hype’s ‘The Mario Brothers’ was released in 1991, but it was the first to reach the UK Singles Chart.

And, just like Doctor Spin, they had a big hit on their hands, as ‘SuperMarioLand’ reached Number 8 in November 1992. In fact, it entered the Top 10 just as ‘Tetris’ fell out of it.

The charming thing about ‘SuperMarioLand’ is that it was faithful to the game.

The song referenced Princess Daisy – who, rather than Princess Peach, was the hostage in Nintendo’s ‘Super Mario Land’ – and killer bees, who also featured in the game.

It was clear that it was a song made by video game fans for video games fans.

And the video’s setting was Chessington World of Adventures. Which is awesome.

An album, ‘Super Mario Compact Disc’, failed to chart in the UK, but Simon Harris and rapper Einstein were not one-hit wonders.

They had previously collaborated when their single, ‘Another Monsterjam’, reached Number 65 in November 1989.

Einstein featured in two other singles: ‘Turn It Up’ by Technotronic [featuring Melissa and Einstein] and Snap!’s ‘The Power ’96’. Both of them charted at Number 42 in December 1990 and August 1996, respectively.

Harris, meanwhile, released four further records between 1988 and 1990, which included two Top 40 singles: ‘Bass (How Low Can You Go)’ and ‘Here Comes That Sound’.

He also founded the Music of Life label, whose rooster of hip-hop starlets included chart acts MC Duke and She Rockers.

7. ‘Street Fighter II’ by The World Warrior (1994)

Believe it or not, ‘SuperMarioLand’ was not the only video game-related collaboration between Harris and Einstein.

They teamed up again in April 1994 to release their take on the ‘Street Fighter’ franchise.

Once again, it was faithful to the series, but the cheese of ‘SuperMarioLand’ was replaced with a dollop of slickness.

Harris and Einstein’s attention to detail remains admirable, and it’s hard not to get affectionate about it.

‘Street Fighter II’ struggled to break into the charts, unfortunately, and could only manage a chart peak of Number 70.

Additionally, another beat-em-up spawned a single in the form of The Immortals’ ‘Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat)’ in 1993.

It failed to chart in the UK but, nonetheless, they released ‘Mortal Kombat: The Album’ a year later.

8. ‘Lemmings’ by SFX (1993)

Can you imagine recording a song about the video game, ‘Lemmings’?

I thought not and, despite their enthusiasm and energy, SFX didn’t quite make the grade with this single.

This was a shame, as it was co-written and produced by Ian Richardson and Nick Coler.

Both of them were secondary members of The KLF, and Coler was also a member of Xenomania.

It might have worked if it had been an instrumental but, seeing that ‘Lemmings 2: The Tribes’ always had a wafer-thin storyline, lyrics were always going to be an implausible addition. Even if the Lemming puppets in the video are adorable.

The public’s reaction was very predictable, though, as it failed to peak beyond Number 51 in May 1993.

As far as British strategy simulators go, though, it fared better than DuBerry featuring Elaine Vassel’s ‘Mega-Lo-Mania (Goin’ All The Way)’, which flopped.

Steve DuBerry, the song’s writer and producer, was also a member of Definitive Two.

They were best known for releasing ‘I’m Stronger Now’, which was used as the theme music to Channel 4’s ‘Gazzetta Football Italia’.

9. ‘Supersonic’ by H.W.A. featuring Sonic The Hedgehog (1992)

This single, rather disappointingly, didn’t feature Sonic The Hedgehog, but H.W.A. were another act with chart pedigree.

Jeremy Healy – a former member of Haysi Fantayzee, who attained four Top 75 singles in the early 1980 – co-produced the track.

And, after teaming up with Amos in the mid-1990s, Healy achieved two further Top 30 hits with ‘Stamp!’ and ‘Argentina’.

However, the techno production and vocoder samples of ‘Supersonic’ were rather uninspired. Unlike ‘SuperMarioLand’, the love of video games was not apparent and it sounded soulless.

In fairness, though, all of Sega’s proceeds from the single were donated to the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre.

The track, despite its failings, still performed fairly well in the UK Singles Chart, as it reached Number 33 in December 1992 and spent an impressive five weeks in the Top 40.

Interestingly, a number of Sonic The Hedgehog singles were released in Germany, Austria and Switzerland during the 1990s such as ‘Super Sonic Dance Attack’ by Inter Galactica Dance Club, ‘The Better One Wins’ by T.I.C. featuring Michelangelo and ‘King Of The Ring’ by Sonic.

10. ‘Wonderman’ by Right Said Fred (1994)

Right Said Fred’s ‘Wonderman’ is unusual in that it wasn’t originally influenced by a video game. Hence why Hydrocity Zone was inexplicably portrayed as an abandoned warehouse in the video.

Prior to its release in March 1994, it had already been included on their second album, ‘Sex And Travel’, in November 1993.

‘Wonderman’, however, was rearranged so that it could promote the release of ‘Sonic The Hedgehog 3’ on the Sega Mega Drive.

For instance, “[h]e’s number one, he’s double cream/[h]e’s the naked truth in magazines” was rewritten as “[h]e’s number one, he’s el supremo/[a]ttitude and power sneakers”.

Although ‘Wonderman’ was featured in a television advert for the game, it stuttered at Number 55 in the UK Singles Chart.

However, it was a faint improvement on their previous single, ‘Hands Up (4 Lovers)’, which flopped at Number 60 in December 1993.

Along with various clips from ‘Sonic The Hedgehog 3’, Steven O’Donnell, best known for starring in ‘Bottom’ and several Sega adverts from the early 1990s, also appeared in the video.

Amusingly, his ‘Bottom’ co-star, Rik Mayall, fronted a number of Nintendo adverts during the same period. It’s a small world, isn’t it?

29
Jun
13

(Bad) Cover Version #17: ‘Connection’ by Collapsed Lung (1995)

The origin of the cover: Released as a single (part of the Deceptive Christmas Singles 1995 series)
Original recording artist: Elastica
Grade: C-

The pop culture website, Freaky Trigger, published a poll about Britpop bands yesterday, which got me thinking about the genre and its cover versions.

While there have been plenty of cover versions by Britpop bands – The Bluetones’ version of TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ and Sleeper covering Blondie’s ‘Atomic’ spring to mind – I can’t recall many covers of Britpop songs that weren’t by Blur, Oasis and Pulp. [EDIT: one of the few was Elvis Costello’s fine cover of Sleeper’s ‘What Do I Do Now?’, which delighted Louise Wener on ITV’s ‘The Chart Show’; thanks goes to Simon Tyers for reminding me about it.]

Even discovering covers of the biggest Britpop hits – such as ‘The Day We Caught the Train’, ‘Wake Up Boo!’ and ‘Alright’ – would be difficult.

That’s a shame, to a certain extent, because many Britpop acts – including the likes of Shed Seven, Sleeper, Space and The Bluetones – were similar in that they had a number of good singles to their name, but struggled to come up with an equally good album.

Some of their worst moments were formulaic at best but, in essence, many of their singles had strong beats and structures. Songs such as ‘Nice Guy Eddie’ and ‘Slight Return’ would make good cover versions – by the right artist, of course.

One exception to the above was Elastica’s ‘Connection’, which was covered by Collapsed Lung in 1995.

I wouldn’t lump Collapsed Lung into the Britpop genre – interestingly, their Wikipedia entry describes them as “Rap rock” and “[B]ritpop” – but I can see why people would want to.

When you think about it, the definition of Britpop is so broad, and subsequently vague, that any British guitar band from the mid-1990s could – rightly or wrongly – be described as Britptop.

But, even if this cover doesn’t work particularly well, it doesn’t suffer by comparison to Elastica.

This is because ‘Connection’ isn’t a good song to cover in the first place.

Not because it’s a bad song – far from it – but because its success was based on a limited number of unique qualities: the sample of Wire’s ‘Three Girl Rhumba’, the aggressive groans during the breaks, and the presence of Justine Frischmann.

It initially sounds very robust but, when you take away those three elements, substance really isn’t the song’s strongest point. And, because it is such a simple and distinctive song, ‘Connection’ is difficult to reinvent.

To be fair to Collapsed Lung, this cover has some depth and intrigue – even if it isn’t as fun as the original. Adding a gritty electro element is a nice twist, but it really lacks Elastica’s slickness.

The main problem lies with its muddled approach: Collapsed Lung’s attempt to change the dynamics of ‘Connection’ is conflicted by going for damage limitation and staying faithful to the original.

It never sounds sloppy or awkward, but the song’s confused state of mind lingers throughout. And, even if the structure of Elastica’s version is more throwaway, at least its signal of intent is clear from the very start.

It’s not a fantastic cover version, and it’s also one of Collapsed Lung’s lesser moments, but it remains faintly worthwhile.

31
May
13

Record Mirror does football

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I have recently acquired an issue of Record Mirror from 25 August 1984. Apart from confirming that 1.6 million homes in Europe had access to cable television, it was also a football-related special to tie in with the start of the 1984/85 season.

Within the first two pages, there were details of ‘Back On The Ball’, a single by Chelsea FC that celebrated their return to the first division, a list of the ten worst chants (including those by Birmingham City, Exeter City and Torquay United supporters), and a mini-review of ‘Football Manger’ (“I felt pretty pleased with myself when I got Swindon Town promotion [sic] on Level Five”) for the ZX and Spectrum 48K.

And the issue got even better. There was a Roy Of The Rovers-esque comic strip, featuring King’s Paul King and his magic boots, and a spoof review of the season, entitled “Everything But The Goal”.

The sporting highlight of the season was arguably in January when: “The BBC run a soap opera called ‘Palace’, wherein a wicked, bearded football commentator tries to take over an ailing second division club, have an affair with Gladys the tea lady and have breakfast on the freezing cold of his Ruislip patio every morning.”

Gary Crowley, unfortunately, was also on hand to pen an article about his love of football. Describing Roy Of The Rovers and Billy’s Boots as “trashy football story magazines” suggests that he couldn’t even hit the post, though.

However, and thankfully, there was also Pat Nevin, Record Mirror’s guest singles reviewer.

And I can assure you that a footballer who cares about music formatting is worth their weight in gold. It looks like that he wasn’t much of a Marc Almond fan, though.

Also, in a later interview, he admits that the first record he bought was ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ by Genesis.

Former Norwich City striker Mick Channon, a man who likes “everything from Adge Cutler to the B52s” was put under the spotlight, and said: “There’s no need to buy records now, is there? Whether you like it or not, there’s home taping, everybody’s doing that.”

There was also a short feature about football chic, while pop stars were given the chance to chat about football. Hibernian fan John Robertson, from The Questions, and Sheffield Wednesday supporter, Martyn Ware, from Heaven 17, were interviewed.

But the star of the issue was Baz from the Farmer Boys, who tipped Port Vale for promotion “because I don’t know where they come from”.

And last, but not least, there was pop’s memory man, Alan Jones. Rather than his weekly Chartfile, a very rare Soccerfile appeared in this issue.

Jones published numerous football-cum-music facts; such as Don Revie’s daughter, Kim, releasing a single in 1982, and Nottingham Forest’s ‘We’ve Got The Whole World In Our Hands’ reaching the Top 10 in the Netherlands and Belgium.

He also announced that George Benson was football’s favourite pop star – by a landside. Who said that footballers lack good taste, eh?

28
Apr
13

Has ‘The Football League Show’ improved?

I don’t like to use the word infamous lightly, but it is a word that I would use to describe BBC One’s ‘The Football League Show’.

The programme was launched in 2009 – after the BBC obtained the rights to show live Championship matches and highlights from the Football League – and the remit was very much focused on offering something new.

Unlike ITV’s Football League highlights package, which included ‘Football League Extra’ and ‘The Championship’, it was presented in a studio rather than an empty ground.

It certainly wasn’t seen as a low-key affair; the package was a big thing for the BBC and the programme’s producer, IGM Sports Media.

The early days

Even the opening titles were different. Again, unlike ITV’s offerings, there weren’t any shots of crests and managers in 2009. There were fans wearing their replica shirt over a Hi-Viz jacket, and doing cartwheels outside a train station. It was meant to be real football for real fans.

The opening minutes of the very first edition were bold, too. Take, for example, presenter Manish Bhasin’s introduction on 8 August 2009.

He proclaimed:

“Yes, good evening and a warm welcome to the brand new ‘Football League Show’ as we aim to bring you every goal across all three divisions. By the way, there’s only 95 just to squeeze in tonight. Over the next 40 weeks, we’d also love to hear from you. Have you got the right manager in charge? Have you got the right players in the team, perhaps? What about your result this afternoon? Here’s Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes as to how you can get in touch.”

And the second edition was no better, with Bhasin saying:

“The best opening day attendance figures for nearly 50 years show exactly what the Football League means to its fans. And, if that first week threw up some extraordinary results, then let me tell you, today was no less dramatic.”

The attitude taken by the programme – and Bhasin – was overzealous and condensing. They felt that the Football League was exciting; so exciting that it should be alike forcing half a dozen chicken balti pies down your throat at once.

Other elements of the programme were just as preachy. Steve Claridge was recruited to act as the programme’s pundit. During the first edition, Bhasin described him as “a man who knows the Football League inside out”.

But, at best, he has been unbearable to watch during its tenure. Clichés were often, and incoherently, bandied around with a swagger of arrogance. For a show that is broadcasting beyond midnight on a Saturday, it was the wrong tone.

There was also an ‘interactivity’ element, where Greenwood-Hughes read out texts and e-mails from viewers.

As a troubled indictor of this segment’s quality, the first five messages were about Newcastle United: four of them stated that Alan Shearer should become their manager, and one was about Tim Krul being stung by a wasp. A further two messages, during the first edition, supported Shearer.

Greenwood-Hughes also patronisingly said “well done” to a Peterborough United fan, who thought that their defeat at Derby County was a “starting block for a good season”.

During the first series, there was a slight obsession with Newcastle; on most occasions, their matches were shown first.

Within just a few minutes of the first edition, Bhasin said:

“Well, you [Claridge] mentioned the big teams, no doubt the big talking point of the Championship is Newcastle. Who’ll buy them? Who’ll be their manager? And can they bounce back at the first time of asking? Well, we got some sort of pointer to that last question, at least, when they travelled to West Brom, a game you might have seen a little earlier on BBC One.”

And then there was Mark Clemmit, a man who was equally enthusiastic talking about Torquay’s “postcard image” or about “Cardiff City’s swanky, new, £15 million stadium”.

That’s perfectly fine, but there was no light and shade to his presentation – the joviality felt like a façade, at the very least.

He presented two items: a feature about a team in the Football League – particularly if they had changed stadiums or managers – and ‘Potted History’, a collection of ‘wacky’ facts about another team.

These two segments rarely lasted more than a few minutes, but listening to Clemmit often felt like being forced to down a couple of pints after vomiting on the balti pies.

However, the amount of actual football shown was proportionally low. Over 22 minutes of the 75-minute time slot was spent on Championship football, and just under half of that was used for two games: Newcastle United v West Bromwich Albion and Derby County v Peterborough United.

Over 11 minutes was dedicated to League 1 highlights, while nearly nine minutes was used for League 2 football.

The format factory

In a way, you could say that ‘The Football League Show’ was an experiment during its earliest editions. Before 2009, there were two other similar experiments that flopped: ITV’s ‘The Premiership’ and the launch of Channel 5.

The former, which started in 2001, had a number of new features including a teatime screening, Townsend’s Tactics Truck and Terry Venables’ ProZone analysis. All three of those items were scrapped within a matter of weeks.

Channel 5’s launch in 1997 was also troubled. Its flagship programme, ‘Family Affairs’, wasn’t originally a soap about a community, it was pitched as a soap about just one family.

Its early schedules were also “stripped”, a tactic that was normally reserved for digital television. In fact, it often felt like a satellite channel.

Furthermore, two of its main sport presenters were Dominik Diamond, best known for presenting Channel 4’s ‘GamesMaster’, and Gail McKenna, a former Page Three model and future ‘How 2’ presenter.

The channel quickly obtained broadcasting rights for the Poland versus England international, but it was transmitted from a London sports café with stars from ‘Family Affairs’ and ‘Gladiators’. Claridge was also given his own role, in the form of providing betting news and analysis.

Channel 5’s reputation for its sports coverage never recovered from this moment – even if they managed to take an interest in the UEFA Intertoto Cup, Eredivisie and Primeira Liga.

The problem with these two examples, and ‘The Football League Show’, is there was an eagerness to please that went too far. They tried to add too many new gimmicks at once, while failing to get the basics right.

A slow improvement

But changes have been made to ‘The Football League Show’. The show is now pre-recorded, which led to the interactive element and Greenwood-Hughes being dropped in 2011.

Clemmit remained, despite the quiet axing of his ‘Potted History’ segment, although the insufferable enthusiasm remains.

Claridge’s role has also been reduced, being partially replaced by Leroy Rosenior. His gentle tone is suited to the programme’s late transmission time, and he also comes across as intelligent and well informed on occasions.

Bhasin’s interest in the Football League seems more genuine in 2013 than in 2009, and the programme’s overzealous attitude has been toned down.

For example, Bhasin introduced an edition, on 23 February 2013, by saying:

“Good evening, and we’ve become increasingly used to managerial chopping and changing in the nPower Football League. But this week, though, it seems to have stepped up a gear. Out went Paolo Di Canio and Dean Holdsworth, while in came Paul Ince, Simon Grayson and Andy Scott. Not to mention Alan Knill, now covering for Martin Ling over at Torquay. And they’ve all, of course, got to hit the ground running with points becoming more precious by the week. A warm welcome tonight to Steve, as we reflect on a busy day across all three divisions.”

This change in tone is seen in the new titles sequence, which was introduced in 2012. The focus is on the past – with images of Brian Clough and Glenn Hoddle – to remind viewers that football existed before 1992.

It isn’t ideal, but it is a sight more preferable than a John Westwood-esque figure dancing around in a circle.

Also, in 2013, ‘The Football League Show’ is now broadcasting more football than in 2009.

For example, on 23 February 2013, nearly 28 minutes were dedicated to Championship matches and nearly 15 minutes were spent on League 1. Furthermore, there was over ten minutes of League 2 football.

By comparing the editions on 8 August 2009 and 23 February 2013, the amount of actual highlights being broadcasted has increased by 20.32%. It must also be mentioned that both shows were 75-minutes long. (NB: this chart provides a more detailed comparison.)

The programme’s quality has slowly improved to an acceptable level and, for the most part, it is now perfectly watchable.

The future?

But there are still doubts of whether the programme requires a punditry element, particularly when Claridge is at the helm.

A back-to-basics format is recommended, where just the goals are shown, à la ITV’s ‘Football League Extra’.

If its length remains at 75 minutes, then more action can be shown – particularly as its coverage of League 2 feels rushed – but the producers would be wise to reduce the running time by 15 minutes or even half an hour.

It may look like a step backwards, but it would get the most out of a format that is difficult to produce with such short lead times.

‘The Football League Show’ may have its critics, and there is still room for improvement, but it has changed since 2009. And it is all the better for it.

17
Mar
13

(Bad) Cover Version #16: ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ by Metal Mickey (1983)

The origin of the cover: Released as a single
Original recording artist: The Beatles
Grade: D

The act of a fictional robot covering The Beatles sounds abnormal and fey. It even sounds slightly deranged.

But what remains even stranger is that this cover was not Metal Mickey’s début single. He had already released FOUR singles prior to the release of ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’.

His first single, a version of the Chordettes’ ‘Lollipop’, was issued by EMI in January 1979, just months after the robot made one of his earliest television appearances on Southern Television’s ‘The Saturday Banana’.

Meanwhile, on BBC One’s ‘Nationwide’, John Stapleton described him as a “friendly and an occasionally tuneful robot to keep you company while you work”. Yes, quite.

After the arrival of London Weekend Television’s family sitcom ‘Metal Mickey’ (produced and directed by Micky Dolenz, fact fans) in 1980, three further flops were released on Mickeypops Records: ‘Metal Mickey Magic’, ‘Sillycon Chipp’ and ‘Do The Funky Robot’. They all, quite frankly, sound terrible.

And then came ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, a cover that doesn’t have any right to be good.

The problem with covering this particular song is that some artists can easily fall into the trap of coming across as needy and desperate, or just plain creepy.

Even worse, they could be dealt with a triple whammy of sounding needy, desperate AND creepy.

And this problem can be multiplied by a hundred if it involves a robot of some kind – especially one that has most likely uttered the words “[c]all my baby lollipop” on vinyl.

But, to be fair, this is a sweet – albeit extremely dated – version, and its relaxed tone certainly prevents it from becoming sinister.

More pressing issues, however, lie with the song’s production. Not only is it flimsy and sluggish but – astonishingly, for a song that lasts just over two minutes – it starts to outstay its welcome at the end.

The production ends up being far too weak to make any long-lasting impression, and it really lacks the glam rock fun of the theme music to ‘Metal Mickey’.

As a cover, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ just about makes the grade but, in all honesty, it offers nothing more than a brief fling of intrigue.

06
Feb
13

(Bad) Cover Version #15: ‘Teenage Kicks’ by Crush (1996)

The origin of the cover: Album track on ‘Teenage Kicks’
Original recording artist: The Undertones
Grade: D-

Regarding chart success, spin-off singles from the children’s television drama, ‘Byker Grove’, have been a very mixed bag.

PJ & Duncan AKA, Point Break, Freefaller and Summer Matthews all reached the UK Top 40, but a similar number of acts flopped.

Grove Matrix, whose line-up featured PJ & Duncan AKA, failed to reach the Top 75 with their only single, 1993’s ‘Rip It Up’. Charley had also suffered the same fate in 1990 with ‘The Best Thing’.

Two other flop acts, meanwhile, included two ‘Byker Grove’ actresses: Jayni Hoy and Donna Air.

In December 1994, Hoy and Air teamed up with fellow ‘Byker Grove’ star Victoria Taylor to release ‘Love Your Sexy…!!’, under the Byker Grooove! band name, for the Christmas market.

The one-off single sounded like a no-frills version of Shampoo and, unsurprisingly, never peaked beyond Number 48 in the UK Singles Chart.

And, although the trio still participated in music magazine shoots during the early months of 1995, Taylor left the music industry, and Hoy and Air were known as pop duo Crush by 1996.

Their sound was lighter, and had some traces of airheaded Britpop, but they still struggled to make a commercial breakthrough: ‘Jellyhead’ stalled at Number 50 in February 1996 and their follow-up single, ‘Luv’d Up’, fared little better, peaking at Number 45 in July 1996.

However, in the USA, ‘Jellyhead’ became a minor hit in the Billboard Hot 100, and they were tipped to “give the Spice Girls a run for their money”.

Also, they released their début album, ‘Teenage Kicks’ (which included THREE songwriting collaborations with Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell), in Japan and South Korea. And that’s where it begins to look a bit more interesting.

‘Teenage Kicks’ featured three covers: The Go-Go’s ‘We Got The Beat’, Blondie’s ‘Picture This’ and, inevitably, The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’.

Yes, that’s right, the album showcased DONNA AIR COVERING ‘TEENAGE KICKS’. And that’s exactly when this cover stops being interesting.

Technically, there isn’t much wrong with it; there’s a little bit of light Garbage, with splodges of Sleeper and Pulp elsewhere.

But, while ‘Jellyhead’ and ‘Luv’d Up’ were faintly catchy, this cover has very little to offer.

Crush have gone down the credibility route and, even if it does sound perfectly competent, no thought or imagination has been put into this cover.

‘Teenage Kicks’ just sounds depressingly familiar to the original, and not a single foot-tap was made while listening to it.

Don’t get me wrong, this could have been a lot worse. After all, the sheer thought of Donna Air covering John Peel’s favourite song is enough to drive anyone to the bottle.

But, to be perfectly honest, hearing a car crash of a cover would have been more entertaining than a vapid interpretation that just plods along to the next album track.

You won’t remember a single second of it, trust me. It’s that pointless.

08
Jan
13

Revisiting 90 Minutes’ Nightmare League

scan0003During the 1990s, 90 Minutes ran an annual Nightmare League.

Think of it as an alternative to Fantasy Football.

Readers of the defunct magazine – instead of choosing the best players in the Premier League – picked who they thought were the worst players, and competed in regional and occupational leagues.

Premier League footballers were ranked on various statistics.

For example, they would be awarded three points for every goal that they scored and four points for every clean sheet kept by a defender or goalkeeper.

However, if they scored an own goal or received a red card, they would be deducted five points. Meanwhile, yellow cards would be rewarded with minus three points.

Also, whenever a defender or goalkeeper conceded a goal, they would score a single minus point.

And, for every time a midfielder or striker played a minimum of 45 minutes without scoring, they would be deducted one point.

Therefore, the worst players would attain a significant minus score at the end of the season and the readers, who had the lowest marks, would win their regional or occupational league.

And, while the magazine published a “worst players of ’95/96” list, they never picked a Nightmare League XI.

This was surprising, considering that they published “The Chaos Theory XI”, “Hoddle’s First 11 – the players that could figure in the new England manager’s plans” and the “Nightmare Team of the tournament [from Euro 96]” during the summer of 1996.

However, after scouring through old editions of 90 Minutes, here are their worst players from the 1995/1996 Premier League season.

GK: Keith Branagan

Club: Bolton Wanderers
Nightmare League points total: minus 40

Surprisingly, goalkeepers were a rarity in the Nightmare League.

For instance, only three other goalkeepers scored less than minus ten points: Sheffield Wednesday’s Kevin Pressman with minus 22 points, Leeds United’s John Lukic with minus 15 points and Nottingham Forest’s Mark Crossley with minus 11 points.

But, after conceding 59 goals in 31 games, Keith Branagan was easily the worst goalkeeper in this league and joint 20th worst player overall.

LB: Alan Kimble

Club: Wimbledon
Nightmare League points total: minus 43

Although Wimbledon finished 14th in the 1995/1996 Premier League, they had defensive problems following Warren Barton’s move to Newcastle United.

The Dons conceded 70 league goals and only Bolton Wanderers had an inferior defensive record.

Therefore, it should not surprise you that Alan Kimble is in this XI – after scoring minus 43 points and grabbing a joint 14th placed spot overall.

His form was so bad, Kimble’s only realistic contender was Sheffield Wednesday’s right-footed left back Ian Nolan with minus 37 points.

CB: Jimmy Phillips

Club: Bolton Wanderers
Nightmare League points total: minus 58

The Nightmare League was full of centre backs and the worst of them was Jimmy Phillips.

The second-worst player in this league was one of just six players to score minus 50 points or less.

No one can argue about the fact that he was one of the main reasons why Bolton struggled so much in their first Premier League campaign.

CB: Paul Williams

Club: Coventry City
Nightmare League points total: minus 49

Paul Williams’ first season in the Premier League, after his move from Derby County, won’t be remembered for the right reasons, and the Sky Blues conceded 60 league goals during the 1995/1996 season.

Bolton’s Chris Fairclough was only two points ahead and, if he had played more than 24 games, Wimbledon’s Alan Reeves could have nicked this spot after scoring minus 42 points.

Queens Park Rangers’ Steve Yates, meanwhile, also came close with minus 46 points.

RB: Kenny Cunningham

Club: Wimbledon
Nightmare League points total: minus 78

Kenny Cunningham may have gained some plaudits over the years but, according to the Nightmare League, he was the worst player by far, after being minus 20 points behind Jimmy Phillips.

Interestingly, two other right backs were in the top six worst players: QPR’s David Bardsley and Sheffield Wednesday’s Peter Atherton, who both scored minus 50 points.

LM: Alan Thompson

Club: Bolton Wanderers
Nightmare League points total: minus 39

Alan Thompson may have played for England in 2004, but he was this league’s worst left-footed winger. This was after being placed 23rd in the league with minus 39 points.

However, this does not come as a surprise because, after scoring Bolton’s first league goal of the season against Wimbledon on 19 August 1995, he failed to score in his other 25 appearances.

And, as competition for this position was so scarce, Thompson’s closest rival was Newcastle’s David Ginola with minus 31 points.

CM: Garry Flitcroft

Club: Manchester City
Nightmare League points total: minus 54

Another relegated club means the inclusion of another footballer in the Nightmare League.

This time it’s Garry Flitcroft, the worst midfielder and third-worst player in this league.

90 Minutes couldn’t even spell his name correctly in the final listings.

CM: Barry Horne

Club: Everton
Nightmare League points total: minus 47

This was actually a tie, as two other central midfielders had accrued the same amount of points.

But, as Barry Horne had played less Premier League football in the 1995/1996 season than Coventry City’s Kevin Richardson and Middlesbrough’s Jamie Pollock, Everton’s lowest ranked player gets the final central midfield spot.

Horne was the joint eight-worst player in this league – but the aforementioned trio faced tough competition from Chelsea’s Dennis Wise (minus 45 points), Everton’s Joe Parkinson (minus 43 points), Aston Villa’s Andy Townsend (minus 42 points) and Manchester United’s Nicky Butt (minus 41 points).

RM: Steve Lomas

Club: Manchester City
Nightmare League points total: minus 50

There was a real lack of right-sided midfielders in this league; therefore, Steve Lomas is the midfielder that best fits this slot.

Lomas was the joint fourth-worst player in this league and, along with Flitcroft, Manchester City had the two lowest ranked midfielders.

The only right-footed winger that came close was Coventry’s Paul Telfer, who was placed 24th and scored minus 39 points.

FW: Mark Hughes

Club: Chelsea
Nightmare League points total: minus 40

With the potential to score lots of goals, it was difficult to score lowly in the Nightmare League. Even Forest’s Andrea Silenzi scored minus six points.

However, due to his 11 yellow cards and one red card, Mark Hughes is the second-worst striker in this league.

During a difficult first season at Chelsea, the Welsh forward only scored eight league goals in 30 games and, if he hadn’t scored four goals in his final four games of the season, a joint 20th placed finish could have been beyond him.

FW: Trevor Sinclair

Club: Queens Park Rangers
Nightmare League points total: minus 43

Some people could suggest that Southampton’s Matthew Le Tissier should be in this XI, after scoring minus 38 points.

But, during the 1995/1996 season, he often played in midfield, as Gordon Watson and Neil Shipperley were Dave Merrington’s preferred strike partners in a 4-4-2 formation.

What’s even more surprising, though, is that Trevor Sinclair bags this final spot after a joint 14th placed finish.

Although he has played on both sides of the wing, Sinclair was regularly utilised as a striker during the 1995/1996 season.

90 Minutes, meanwhile, claimed in July 1996 that “he insists on playing down the middle of the park”, making it more likely that some saw him as a forward in the mid-1990s.

Despite being named in five consecutive England squads, during the build up to Euro 96, Sinclair only scored two league goals and failed to score in his final 26 games of the season.

The only real pretenders to the strikers’ throne were Bolton’s John McGinlay and Wimbledon’s Dean Holdsworth, who both scored minus 20 points.




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