Phil who? This was the reaction of a lot of football fans when it emerged that the first major bidding war of the summer had broken out over a 19 year old Blackburn centre back. Liverpool looked as though they were wrapping up a deal for yet another promising youngster, as Kenny Dalglish looks to rebuild, but then Manchester United swooped in with Sir Alex Ferguson on his own reconstruction mission. A sizeable £16 million release clause in his contract was triggered and after a period of uncertainty, Fergie got his man.
Or should I say boy? Jones is currently with the England Under 21s for the European Championships. Against a Spain side much fancied to win the whole tournament, Jones won plaudits for his performance alongside another United youngster, Chris Smalling. Sir Alex bought him last summer and he has since proved himself as a top quality, capable defender, deputising for the increasingly injured Rio Ferdinand with composure beyond his years. The 21 year old was also praised universally by pundits and columnists and it was generally accepted that but for Jones and Smalling in central defence the Spanish would not have been held to a 1-1 draw.
It’s looking worryingly like the same old story for England fans, even at Under 21 level. On paper the squad of youngsters is stronger than most, bursting with names that have already gained considerable Premiership experience and demonstrated their skills on a tough stage. Some might even think it’s stronger than Fabio Capello’s first team and many players will be looking to break through. But following the promise of the hard fought draw with Spain, England drew 0-0 with Ukraine, with the only impressive performances coming once again from the defenders. Talented forwards with enormous potential simply didn’t deliver.
And literally as I write England have capitulated to a 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic in a must win match. Danny Welbeck had headed them ahead with just twenty minutes or so to go, but then it all fell apart with an equaliser and a snatched winner as England poured forward in stoppage time. Their tournament is over. Stuart Pearce’s boys are no better at winning trophies than the men.
None of this will greatly concern Sir Alex Ferguson. He is used to watching England internationals as accomplished as Paul Scholes, David Beckham or Wayne Rooney go off to tournaments and return dejected and defeated. It did not stop them becoming phenomenally successful Old Trafford legends. He will set about the task of moulding Phil Jones and Chris Smalling into the perfect readymade pairing to replace the ageing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
In an interview this week Smalling said that he liked to think both he and Jones had a mixture of Ferdinand’s passing ability and football brain, as well as Vidic’s hard as nails tackling prowess. This might be true because certainly Smalling has proved that he is no physical lightweight and Jones is versatile enough to play in midfield, so he can presumably pass a ball reasonably well. But there’s no doubt that Jones appears to be the tough tackling long term replacement for Vidic and Smalling the smoother operator to step into Ferdinand’s shoes. I mean he even looks a bit like Rio.
Jones proved his Vidic-esque credentials by almost singlehandedly taking United’s title challenge to the last day of the season. In the end a penalty earned the Reds a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park but Blackburn almost gave Chelsea hope thanks largely to Jones’ one man brick wall. Even on his Blackburn debut against Chelsea in March 2010, not long after his 18th birthday, Jones made his presence felt with some stinging but legal challenges on the likes of Frank Lampard.
Smalling meanwhile, as I said, has had a surprisingly key role over the last season at Old Trafford. I’m not sure even Fergie would have anticipated his rapid rise through the ranks, leaving the veteran manager contemplating selling the likes of Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and Wes Brown with not too much concern. Ferdinand’s fitness is unlikely to ever reach the heights of reliability and effectiveness again, meaning that Smalling will be called upon more and more often until eventually Rio is relegated to experienced squad member. The former Fulham man will grow in confidence the more he plays, so that he’ll be bringing the ball out of defence and looking for a killer pass as Ferdinand did in his prime, as well as covering superbly.
Jones and Smalling then have the potential to become a durable, formidable and complimentary partnership at the heart of one of the best teams in the land. Any understanding the two develop could also be transplanted beneficially into future England teams. But before such a partnership forms, they are going to have to compete against one another to play alongside Vidic for perhaps the next couple of seasons.
This time will test, trial and prove the individual ability of each player but will give them little chance to play together. If they have both been useful and their talents have passed the tests of high quality football on a regular basis at the Theatre of Dreams at the end of this period, then Sir Alex (or his successor) will have relatively cheap, and English, replacements for two of the best defenders the Premiership has ever known.
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Right now the internet is ablaze with debate and gossip. Alright it always is, but at the moment fans everywhere are wondering who will be cast in the next James Bond film, the 23rd in the franchise. Last week two pretty heavyweight acting names were linked to the project: Javier Bardem, reportedly as the villain, and Ralph Fiennes for a “complex role”, as supposedly director Sam Mendes seeks to start a new era of quality Bonds. Both rumours are promising but many will come and go and prove to be false before we see the final product. Daniel Craig’s last cinematic outing was a major letdown and many will be hoping for a return to form more in keeping with his debut, Casino Royale.
What are 007 fans to do during the long wait for the, hopefully much improved, next instalment in the franchise? Well they can watch the old classics again; discover the true Bond of the books perhaps. Or they can dive into the different medium of video games and experience Blood Stone, an original mission released by Bizarre Creations and Activision at the tail end of last year.
It looks pretty much like an entry in the world’s longest running film series. There are exotic locations, though due to the immersive medium the creators didn’t quite push the geographical originality as far. Bond travels from Athens to Istanbul, from Monaco to Bangkok, before rounding things off in the Burmese jungle. There’s a bombastic theme song, from powerful singer Joss Stone, and she also provides the virtual eye candy with her likeness and voice as Bond’s capable love interest. Judi Dench occasionally pops up as M, though the graphics render her a rather monstrous figure. Bruce Feirstein, an experienced Bond scribe, pens the script and story. The music sounds and feels the part; ultra-suave, ultra-cool, ultra-Bond.
Crucially for fans though the ultimate fantasy element a console provides that a cinema can’t is that you actually get to be Bond! Some people cannot imagine anything more exciting.
I’m not a pro-gamer but there’s no denying Blood Stone is short. I was expecting that but then I realised I shouldn’t have been. After all this wasn’t a rushed movie tie-in, like Quantum of Solace, which was padded out with sections from Casino Royale (the crane scene was simultaneously a bit crap and mind blowing, I mean you actually are Bond!); this was an original story. They had the time to make it really good and a challenging experience.
A lot of Blood Stone is brilliant fun, especially for a fan like me. The back to basics shooting and fighting is closely linked to Daniel Craig’s film outings and satisfying to see. Bond has an impressively wide variety of hand to hand takedowns at his disposal and if you move quickly through the game environments, utilising these physical moves in unison with some snappy gunplay, things really do look like an action set piece from one of the films. Sadly most of the game is spent unavoidably bogged down in cover. The controls and game mechanics for this work superbly well, even if they make it a bit easy at times. But the inescapable fact is that picking off hordes of enemies from behind a wall or crate makes you feel like a slightly sensible soldier as opposed to an iconic, bold and highly trained secret agent.
There are moments when you do feel wonderfully Bondian though. As I said, moving as quickly as you can through the levels, using the “Focus Aim” feature, which you acquire through physical takedowns and allows you to chain together one shot kills, looks cool. But it gets very repetitive, then mind numbingly samey and finally painfully undemanding. Thankfully the game is broken up with driving segments. There’s a basic tutorial on a boat in Athens harbour during the first level but you have the most fun in Aston Martins, which infuriatingly are often just conveniently placed. For example you pursue the villains around Istanbul docks in a vintage DB5, as seen in Goldfinger, without any explanation as to how you manage to stumble across such a nice motor in a hurry. Sure any reason would have sounded forced, in the end you get an Aston Martin because it’s Bond, end of, but they could have tried.
The driving is great fun and adds some much needed difficulty to the game. I felt a bit crap, constantly ditching my DBS in the icy water or careering through cargo into turquoise blue. But when you finally master it, or do it first time if you’re any good, the chases look amazing. You don’t have to be a racing game expert either, with most of the focus being on exciting handbrake turns.
Other good moments include a stealthy mission in a Monaco casino, with Bond all dolled up in his tuxedo. There’s an adrenalin pumping sequence in the catacombs beneath Istanbul as Bond jumps and sprints away across splintering scaffolding from some monstrous machinery. And perhaps the best level is in Bangkok which starts at a graphically stunning aquarium, where everything is bathed in blue. Then after a shoot-out, Bond (or if you prefer, YOU) chases an assassin across dirty, realistically contrasted city rooftops, before finally smashing your way through the streets in a vehicle based pursuit.
Ultimately Bond’s only gadget, his “Smartphone”, proves to be just a bit too clever and spoon feeds you information throughout. This makes the experience itself, the game-play, a letdown overall. But how does the plot compare to the 22 stories in 007’s film catalogue?
If I’m honest I still don’t understand what happened in Blood Stone. I’d like to think this wasn’t just my own stupidity and confusion; the story really was baffling. As plots go it was somewhat generic, predictably for a game but disappointingly so, given Feirstein’s involvement. Bio-chemical weapons, scientists and terrorist traders are all in the mix. As is some, in my view excessive, backstabbing and double crossing and betrayal (this is when it gets incomprehensible). Most of the cut scenes in which Daniel Craig’s likeness interrogates baddies or talks to M or another ally, are horrifically cliché. The dialogue is really atrocious and again this is really frustrating given Feirstein’s key role that standards were not elevated above the usual video game level.
Games are increasingly about engaging stories as well as thrilling action, with titles like Assassin’s Creed spawning sequels, novels and possibly movies. The industry as a whole is now one of the most lucrative in the world. For an original Bond tale to fall short, without the pressure of strict release deadlines and at a time when other games, even the latest Call of Duty also created by Activision, are excelling with their plots, is crushingly disappointing. The film franchise built its reputation on quality.
So film fans, if you like Bond Blood Stone can provide adequate but unsatisfactory entertainment until the coming movie instalment. But if you’re not so keen on the world’s favourite spy, Blood Stone is good for perhaps a couple of hours of mild amusement at best. Certainly if the dialogue and plot to Bond 23 isn’t better than this offering, those responsible deserve to lose their jobs.
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