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Book review: Kicking Off in North Korea

Saturday sees Cardiff City come to Craven Cottage attempt to win their sixth game out of sixth in what has been an incredible start to the Championship campaign for the Bluebirds. It also appeared an appropriate time to review one of the finest football books I’ve read in a while – almost a globetrotting tour-de-force of the beautiful game and some not-quite-so-pretty geopolitics by former journalist, Cardiff City and Wales fanatic Tim Hartley. This site has always indulged the idea that the true football fan’s eye is cast wider than that of their own team and that’s why I think this book belongs on these pages.

I’ve known Tim for a while as he’s a regular at the various supporter conferences and events that see fans push for more influence in the modern game. He was one of the driving forces behind an ultimately successful campaign to see Cardiff return to playing in their traditional blue kit – having switched to red at the behest of their breathtaking bizarre chairman Vincent Tan – and has recently stepped down as the chair of the Cardiff City Supporters’ Trust. Tim also ventures right around the world to watch Wales, which means we both share an adoring love of Chris Coleman, and his charity work in support of the Welsh supporters’ charity Gol! is simply incredible.

Tim’s travels are not just about the football and finding a good boozer. He’s written a number of books before but this one, intriguingly entitled Kicking Off in North Korea, grabbed my attention from the moment it was mentioned to me by a Welsh-supporting work colleague. He’d read Tim’s chronicling of the remarkable journey to the Euro 2016 semi-finals, which unfortunately is a little more difficult if you don’t speak Welsh, and said that this one would be worth a look as well. I finally got my hands on a copy during the Supporters Summit in Burton this summer – and it proved so absorbing that I read half the book in one sitting that night.

The book belongs to a genre of football writing that first appealed to me as an inquisitive schoolkid. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is a domestic classic, but accounts that placed football in a social or political context – especially in foreign climbs – fascinated me. I devoured Simon Kuper’s outstanding Football Against the Enemy in a week and greatly enjoyed the American writer Joe McGuiness’s Miracle of Castel di Sangro. It certainly isn’t a stretch to put Hartley’s effort in that company. It is definitely diverse enough – we are taken to the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia, Azerbaijan, Kenya, Bosnia, Georgia and Brazil to list just a few destinations – and introduced to paranoid security guards, football lovers, reindeers as well as activists who wish to change the world.

Football isn’t far away, even though Hartley rightly focuses on the shameful poverty or the favelas and just how unsafe some of his destinations are for the ordinary citizen. He expertly weaves in the tales of how he and his son Chester had different responses to Tan’s egotistical approach to running their beloved Cardiff almost as matter-of-factly as he describes the surreal scenes he encountered whilst watching football in North Korea, where his attempts at introducing British chanting proved unsuccessful. A passion for the game and its impact on our local communities shines through on each page.

I felt like I knew Tim, the football fan, before I read this book. But I’ve learned more about a very special man as he takes the reader on one mesmerising journey after another. The joy of the tale comes often from the people he means and the stories they recount that often leave you pausing for thought. It is almost as if Hartley had set out to answer his mother-in-law, who – we learn courtesy of the publisher’s blurb about the author – asked him: ‘How many trips of a lifetime can you have, boy?’ Going by this book, the only suitable reply has to be, not enough.

Kicking Off in North Korea: Football and Friendship in Foreign Lands by Tim Hartley is published by Ylolfa and is available here.

Parker: Confidence is high ahead of Cardiff game

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Fulham skipper Scott Parker says that there is a strong belief amongst the squad after their unbeaten start to the new season.

The Whites return to Craven Cottage to face Cardiff City this weekend after three consecutive away games and aim to continue the impressive form that has taken them joint top of the early Championship table. Parker told the club’s official website that he believes much of the groundwork was laid during a tough pre-season and wants to replicate Fulham’s eye-catching football against their Welsh visitors.

I think confidence is high. Obviously, we’ve come off pre-season, done very well and I think I said in an interview a little while ago that sometimes you’re not going to take anything from that, obviously winning games is always good, but once the season starts it’s a big test. We’ve had some very good results, played very well again the other night against Leeds, probably a little bit disappointed we didn’t win the game in the end after conceding a late goal, but confidence is really high. We are playing some good football as well – hopefully long may it continue.

The 35 year-old, who has formed an effective partnership with new signing Kevin McDonald at the base of Slavisa Jokanovic’s midfield, could feature in his fourth fixture in twelve days and knows Cardiff, who have been inconsistent at the start of their season, will prove a difficult challenge.

I think whenever someone asks me about the team we are coming up against, it is always going to be the same message. We understand what the league’s like. Cardiff are a very good side, it will be a tough, tough game. They will be coming to Craven Cottage to obviously try and get the points, so it will be very difficult for us, but like I said confidence is high and I think we’re in a good place to go and do well in the game.

Parker, who scored Fulham’s equaliser in the corresponding fixture last season, says the players are relishing the return to the Cottage after the atmosphere and euphoria of the opening night victory over Championship promotion favourites Newcastle.

The first game of the season was electric. The fans were fantastic, probably the best they’ve been for a long while at Craven Cottage and, the way we’re playing this year, we’ve only experienced that once – and that was against Newcastle – so to be back at the Cottage on a Saturday, I’m sure the fans will come in their droves again and hopefully we can show, exactly what we’ve been doing on the road for the last couple of games and put in another good performance.

He has called on Fulham to put their disappointment of conceding a late equaliser at Leeds on Tuesday behind them by putting in a strong showing against Paul Trollope’s side.

We were all a bit disappointed with didn’t get the three points [at Leeds]. I think there’s a couple of factors. I think we all want to go out there on Saturday in front of home fans and we want to show exactly what we’ve been doing and I think part of us will want to get rid of that frustration from Tuesday night as well.

Moving On

 

Tu ne cede malis sed contra audientior ito
Yield not to misfortunes but advance all the more boldly against them

I have refrained up till now of canonising my thoughts on the matter of Fulham’s management into words, preferring to give a team and a manager the common decency of time to improve.

There is, though, a quote by Oscar Wilde that sums up most of the opinion swirling around the Fulham managerial position that has now reached a crescendo; “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad, people are either charming or tedious”.

As it is, after another largely lifeless late loss, Martin Jol’s tired and passionless attempts to lower expectations in post match interviews have crossed to the point of tedium.

Change will not come if we wait for some other time, for some other moment of despair. The time for action is now, not posturing or equivocation.

The current situation at Craven Cottage is not something that has just arisen out of the blue either. Calls for the manager’s head are not new and they are not unexpected. Form has long been a matter for concern and it has now reached breaking point.

Had we not won at Swansea on the last day of last season, it is not unreasonable to believe we would be under different management already.

Three weeks ago the excuse was that at least we were still mid-table. Well now we are in the relegation zone and at risk of being cut adrift. Our points tally this season is also somewhat misleading with the one shot opening day win at Sunderland masking glaring deficiencies from back to front.

The match yesterday felt like a dead man’s walk to the gallows. The midweek victory over Everton seems little more than a stay of execution. If body language tells more about a person than their words, then this Fulham team and its management are in deep trouble.

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Following Jordan Mutch’s spectacular but deserved winner for Cardiff yesterday, Martin Jol slunk into the dugout like a man resigned to his fate. While Paolo Di Canio’s opposite tact of standing in front of fans taking the flack was the polar extreme prior to his dismissal last week; the lack of any passion from Jol was a similar moment of separation from his people. While we had to stand there and take it and then share a walk through Bishop’s Park with swooning gleeful Welshmen, our manager was making excuses and attempting to lower expectations.

This side, like their manager, appear passionless.

Brede Hangeland, club captain, is playing like a dethroned monarch; sunken, sullen and afraid to gee up his troops. His worst performance, or close to it, in a Fulham shirt yesterday shows that he either doesn’t like working with Jol or the manager has failed to spot a glaring lack of leadership from Fulham’s would be defensive talisman.

While the substitution of Alex Kacaniklic worked tactically, the young winger was then promptly ignored by his manager upon reaching the dugout. For a manager who has a reputation in hushed tones for behind closed doors favouritism and as a bully boy [example Kasami’s 18 month extrication, Kerim Frei’s sale and the disappearance of Ashkan Dejagah], this cold hearted and callous gesture showed more than he’d care for it to. The shift in tactics to a never before seen 4-3-1-2 also the act of a man scrambling for a lifeline.

Martin Jol referenced Danny Murphy’s late winner at Portsmouth in 2008 and Clint Dempsey’s goal against Liverpool in 2007 seemingly ignoring three top ten finishes, two 12ths and two European campaigns that have taken place since that day at Fratton Park 5 years ago. I can only imagine his insistence on tempering expectations is a tactic to keep himself employed.

A Dad’s Army summer recruitment strategy, narcoleptic defending and schizophrenic tactical pack shuffling has left Fulham as a team as bereft of confidence as they are points.

Yesterday’s game against Cardiff was embarrassing. Bryan Ruiz’s magical equalizer served merely as temporary pain relief, with the problems running deeper than one or two abhorrent performances.

There are rumblings that Martin Jol has lost the dressing room. Despite his nepotistic recruitment it is evident this team are not playing for him, while some of them don’t even seem to be playing for us.

Even if he hasn’t yet lost the players; inside the ground, talking to fans of all ages and creeds, there is one thing that is blindingly evident, he has lost the fans. Fulham is a family club, and there is a large proportion that won’t holler, scream and boo, but the near unanimity of season ticket holders in our section in the Riverside is that change, starting with the manager, is immediately necessary.

It is never nice to see vitriol pointed at one man, but a football club’s manager is its figurehead. Cardiff yesterday out shot us 22 to 9, had more possession at 51.5%, had double the number of key passes and out passed us in general 432 to 386 with a better completion percentage. All this against a team without a top-flight away victory since 1961. It simply isn’t good enough.

There is also talk of a justifiable split inside the club, with the seeming insistence on keeping the talented academy and the first team as separate entities at the whim of the Dutchman. The out-of-the-blue first team debut of Mesca at Chelsea last week an obvious reaction to the catcalling for more youth from many after the West Brom debacle the week before.

Life moves on, and so should we. The quicker Mr Khan and Mr Mackintosh let go, the sooner we can begin to improve. Yes inheriting an aging team such as ours is not an easy job for any manager, but this Fulham team isn’t far from being half decent, it just has no idea how to get there.

If change doesn’t come, we are in danger of leaving it too late.

COYW

Frei feels Cardiff can sustain promotion push

Kerim Frei has settled in well on loan at Cardiff City and, after a brief debut as a substitute on Saturday, believes the Bluebirds should be able to maintain a genuine promotion push this season and have all the hallmarks of a side that could stay in the top flight if they manage to go up from the Championship.

The teenage Turkish midfielder, who joined the Welsh side on a month’s loan from Fulham on Friday, made his first appearance for Cardiff as a late substitute in their 4-0 win over Burnley and is already comfortable at the club. The 18 year-old, whose untimely injury whilst on international duty with the Turkish under-21 side has seen him slip down Martin Jol’s pecking order despite an impressive introduction to the Premier League last term, is looking forward to regaining his match sharpness under Malky Mackay.

Straight away I can see what a good side Cardiff are. You only have to look at some of the players here. It’s a very professional club and everyone has been really helpful and will go out of their way to do something for you. I already feel very settled.

On the pitch, Cardiff want to play football and that is great. That is what is important in the Premier League. We want to score goals and you could see that against Burnley. Cardiff are top of the league now and they definitely have the quality to go up and when they do, in my opinion, they will stay there.

Frei is relishing the opportunity to continue his development on loan having made 25 appearances during his first season in the Fulham first team picture last year.

I came here to play football and I’m hoping that’s what will happen. I had about 10 minutes against Burnley and I had a couple of nice moments. I hope maybe the Cardiff supporters saw a little bit of what I am about. I really want to enjoy my time with Cardiff and I think I am going to do that.