World Cup 2018: Rankings (32-17) And Second Round Predictions

The group stage is done, so lets start ranking teams. They are separated in order of points, goal difference (GD), goals scored (GS) and then disciplinary record, before noting where they came relative to their place in the last World Cup.

32. Panama: 0 Points, -9 GD (NA)

I suppose it should not be too surprising that the side with the worst GD in qualifying of all qualified teams wound up at the bottom of the pile in the finals. Panama’s resistance to the big guys lasted little over a half of football against Belgium, and from there the flood-gates opened, with Belgium romping home, with a well-earned hammering from England, and a routine come-from-behind from Tunisia. Panama should never have been here, and their disastrous input will only increase the misery of the United States, who even in their recent bout of awful form would have done better.

31. Egypt: 0 points, -3 GD (NA)

The Salah show came a serious cropper in Russia. Whether playing injured or left hopelessly isolated by his inferior national team, Salah was unable to influence Egypt’s fortunes much, as they suffered from an overly-cautious approach to Uruguay, were undone by the hosts with remarkable ease, and then faltered to a very disappointing loss to near-neighbours Saudi Arabia. Having consistently been hailed as one of the best teams to miss the World Cup every time since their last outing, you would have expected more.

30. Iceland: 1 point, -4 GD (NA)

The strength of the spirit was undimmed, but the spirit just wasn’t enough. The pre-tournament injuries and the inexperience at this level obviously told past the first game, when Iceland put up a very creditable performance against Argentina, but the failure of the game-plan against Nigeria was critical and, in combination with a similar pattern against Croatia, showcased a team who need to start performing better in front of goal if they want to prevent a regression. All going well, the experience of this tournament will stand to them, and they can now start focusing on the run to 2020.

29. Australia: 1 point, -3 GD, 2 GS, 7 yellow cards (+1)

It’s another case of “Difficult to beat, but hard to lose to” for the Socceroos. It’s undeniable now that Australia have reached some manner of ceiling, having performed much the same way in several tournaments in a row. They can frustrate and grind out draws if fortunate, but when it comes to the other end, only two penalties got them on the scoresheet. France were too good to be held and Peru brushed them aside, with only Denmark failing to get a winner. The managerial turmoil obviously didn’t help, and you would hope that over the next few years Australia might revert back to the more attacking mindset that got them through qualifying.

28. Costa Rica: 1 point, -3 GD, 2 GS, 6 yellow cards (-23)

Let the calls of fluke begin. A terribly disappointing result for a Central American team that has pretensions of being considered a consistently major player in their federation, Costa Rica never got going after that first game defeat to Serbia, content to frustrate, time-waste and generally act the maggot against Brazil, before deservedly conceding two in injury time. An all-too-late rally and showcase of their quality against Switzerland wasn’t enough to redeem them fully. This was a talented squad, but 2014 appears to have been their peak, and only lows seem possible in the future.

27. Morocco: 1 point, -2 GD (NA)

The power of their final game performance was impressive, but it should not hide the reality that this is a disappointing performance from a side that could have done more to challenge the top two of their group. Failing to go all-out in the first, very winnable, game against Iran was a killer, and though the concession was cruel, it was hardly a gigantic injustice. From there they needed to give it their all against Portugal but failed to, ineffective in attack, and never exerting the kind of control on the game that they needed to. Battling hard against Spain was all well and good, but the conceded goals were sloppy. Another World Cup, another underwhelming African side making up the numbers.

26. Saudi Arabia: 3 points, -5 GD (NA)

Hard to believe, after the first match, that the Saudi’s aren’t anywhere near the wooden spoon. The thrashing doled out by the hosts was embarrassing, with Saudi Arabia showcasing their lack of quality and lack of fitness. A lackadaisical Uruguay outfit still managed a win without undue trouble, and it was only against Egypt, in a dead rubber, that they showed why there are signs of hope in the Saudi camp, with a bit more of an effective attacking display. But signs is all they are, and there are no firm indications yet that Saudi Arabia are anywhere near where they want to be.

25. Poland: 3 points, -3 GD, 2 GS (NA)

The highest-ranking side to go out this early, Russia 2018 has to be considered nothing short of a disaster for the Poles, who simply failed to turn up in their first two games. Officiating misfortune was only one part of the defeat to a more capable Senegalese team, and they looked distinctly ordinary against Columbia, before salvaging some pride against the a Japanese that didn’t even try for the last ten minutes. Lewandowski never performed, and the team’s fitness levels generally were poor. Is Poland’s nadir upcoming?

24. Tunisia: 3 points, -3 GD, 5 GS (NA)

It was always going to be a struggle for the North Africans, as soon as Harry Kane won all three points for England in their opening game. Tunisia’s backs to the wall mentality failed to pay dividends there and, forced to come out of their shell and play football against Belgium, they got over-run and annihilated, with frailties exposed in all parts of the pitch. A final game win against Panama spares only a few blushes. Their WWE-style defensive philosophy has won them few admirers.

23. Serbia: 3 points, -2 GD, 2 GS, 9 Yellow’s (-9 disciplinary points) (NA)

It was a tough group for Serbia, and of four teams with a chance of progressing, it was their lot to miss out, largely due to coming up short to Switzerland in game two, albeit in somewhat controversial fashion. Serbia, once genuine dark horses, have had to settle down into the role of “happy to be here”, despite the obvious talent in their team. The inability to contain Brazil, and their lack of counter-punch when they conceded in that last game, is proof enough that they aren’t up to the very top level right now.

22. Germany: 3 points, -2 GD, 2 GS, 1 Red, 2 yellows (-5 disciplinary points) (-21)

Oh boy, what to say? Germany become the third straight defending champions to go out in the first round, bamboozled by the strength of the Mexican counter-attack, scrapping over the line against Sweden, and then failing spectacularly against South Korea, when a single goal would have seen them through. The defence looked shockingly ragged at times, and the previous star-men, most notably Ozil, didn’t show-up, in a series of flat, toothless performances. Apparently suffering from squad discord, it might be time for Loew to consider his position. This is real “end of cycle” stuff, and the re-building should start now.

21. Nigeria: 3 points, -1GD (-5)

A bitter ending, where blind luck as much as anything decided things for Argentina, is bound to dominate Nigerian thinking for this tournament, but there are positives. After an opening disaster against Croatia, they bounced back very admirably, putting Iceland to the sword before dominating large stretches of the final game, a game they really should have gotten something out of. Despite failing to progress, this was a big step-up from previous tournament performances, and speaks well of recent efforts to reform the Nigerian FA and promote a greater unity within the senior team.

20. Peru: 3 points, 0 GD, 2 GS (NA)

This has to be considered a disappointing return for a side so high up FIFA rankings, that overcame the legal obstacles placed in front of star man Paolo Guerrero. Perhaps inexperience at the top table played a part in the lack of finish, and the lack of composure when things went wrong against Denmark and France. The Danish game especially, with the one goal being a killer blow, seemed to knock the confidence out of Peru, and it was only in the last game that they seemed to play to the level that you would expect. Something to build on, and they’d want to be quick about it, because this squad won’t be at this level forever.

19. South Korea: 3 points, 0 GD, 3 GS (+8)

The positive final result against Germany should not hide the reality that this tournament was another Finals failure for South Korea, who have never come close to matching the heroics of ’02. They never really looked likely to beat Sweden, were undone fairly easily by Mexico, and needed injury time goals against a dis-spirited flat German side to claim their only points, one of them aN “empty-netter”. Lacking in all areas of the pitch, and bizarrely willing to fall back on time-wasting tactics in their last game, even as they still had a chance to progress, really leaves a sour taste.

18. Iran: 4 points, 0 GD (+10)

The highest ranked Asian side could not progress out a difficult group, largely due to a simple “too little, too late” performance against Spain in the second game. A gift of an own goal had given them a real shot at getting out of the group, but their willingness to sit back and let an otherwise unexceptional Spanish side come at them cost them dearly. Just like with the last game, by the time they decided to play football, it was too late. That bad-tempered final game against Portugal, where the Iranians and their coach looked like they preferred to blame VAR for all of their self-inflicted ills rather than face up to them, was the cherry on top of a final position and points out of kilter to their actual performances. They are no nearer to making the breakthrough than they were four years ago.

17. Senegal: 4 points, 4 GD (NA)

The best of the rest caps an utterly miserable tournament for the CAF sides, with all five of them crashing out in the First Round. It didn’t seem likely for Senegal after a quickfire win against Poland and a 2-2 draw with Japan where they arguably should have put the game to bed before Japan were given the chance to bounce back. All they needed then was a draw against Columbia, but then the flaws really came into plain sight: an over-reliance on opposition mistakes, all-too-easily simulating and no plan B when everything went wrong. Senegal were Africa’s best hope, and that says a lot.

So, how did I do prediction wise? Looking at group position and qualifiers for a total of six predictions per group, for an overall total of 48 I got: 27! A solid 56%!

Looking ahead at the Last 16, here’s my picks for who is going on to the quarter-finals.

It took a while for Uruguay to get going, but they showed the real quality in the Russian game. Portugal, in contract, have played poorer in every game and, barring another showcase from Ronaldo, I think they are going home. Prediction: Uruguay.

France eased home in their group and have yet to really be tested. But judging from the state of Argentina’s squad cohesion and tendency to buckle under pressure, France’s test might have to wait until the next round. Prediction: France.

In a re-match from their fractious draw in 2014, Brazil should on paper, be more than good enough to account for Mexico. Much will depend on who can get the first goal, with Brazil still showing some mental fragility, and Mexico going into this game after a woeful loss to Sweden. Despite improvements, another Second Round exit beckons. Prediction: Brazil

Probably the most impressive team in the tournament so far, Belgium has dispensed with all of their opposition with relative ease, and this game should be no exception. Japan have impressed, playing far better than expected, but getting this far is a result in itself. Prediction: Belgium

Spain appear to have weathered the managerial turmoil that threatened calamity, and their reward is as easy a Second Round match as they could get, on paper. Russia have done far better than it appeared they would do, but this really should be the end of the line. Prediction: Spain

Croatia have rivalled Belgium for performance, and need to be considered among tournament favourites now. Denmark, in contrast, struggled at times in the group stages, and it’s hard to see them going any further. Prediction: Croatia

One of the major beneficiaries of Germany’s collapse, Sweden have proven themselves one of the tournaments most hard-to-play sides, with an attacking threat few perceived when things started. Switzerland, for their part, have also proven hard-to-beat, and after getting by Brazil and Serbia will have no trepidation of this challenge. Prediction: Sweden

But for that early red card, Columbia might well be considered the team to beat in the knock-out stages, with a rip-roaring return to form in their second and third group matches. England haven’t looked as convincing, even with a demolishing for Panama, and arrogant talk of the “easy side of the draw” could easily back fire. Prediction: Columbia

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The Hobbit, Chapter-By-Chapter: Inside Information

This is the last large chapter, before the story really breaks into smaller bitesize chunks: here, just as in “Riddles In The Dark” and “Flies And Spiders“, Tolkien lets loose, crafting a large self-contained narrative, with its beating heart being another of literary fantasy’s great moments. Like the riddle contest, like the showdown with the spiders, here is something that makes The Hobbit truly remarkable: our first look at, and a very important conversation with, Smaug.

This is Bilbo’s chapter – I suppose they all are, but this one especially so – and that is clear right from the beginning. Thorin begins a bombastic speech praising Bilbo before he sends him into the mountain, and the narrator frames it as being from Bilbo’s perspective:  “It certainly was an important occasion, but Bilbo felt impatient. By now he was quite familiar with Thorin too, and he knew what he was driving at.”

Bilbo’s reply to Thorin’s unsubtle buttering is spectacular:

If you mean you think it is my job to go into the secret passage first, O Thorin Thrain’s son Oakenshield, may your beard grow ever longer,” he said crossly, “say so at once and have done! I might refuse. I have got you out of two messes already, which were hardly in the original bargain, so that I am, I think, already owed some reward. But ‘third time pays for all’ as my father used to say, and somehow I don’t think I shall refuse. Perhaps I have begun to trust my luck more than I used to in the old days…but anyway I think I will go and have a peep at once and get it over.”

Bilbo not only shuts Thorin down immediately, cutting across his grandiose speech, he stands up for himself, refutes the idea that he has not yet earned his share of the treasure, and even goes so far as to suggest, even threaten, that he “might refuse” the idea of going down into the deeper halls. It’s a remarkable show of backbone from Bilbo in the face of dwarven royalty. He shows here that not only is he a much stronger character than he was before, he has a very firm idea of his own worth, that he certainly did not have before, in the not-too-distant days when he was just walking baggage.

More than that, Bilbo also displays a certain cynicism we have not come to expect of him, referring wistfully to the “old days” when he did not need to rely on his luck as much, and resignedly declaring that he will, after all, go and “have a peep” at what lies beyond. The impression you take away from Bilbo is of an aged tired veteran of adventuring, not a countryside hobbit who is on his first trip outside the Shire.

The only one of the dwarves that volunteers to go with Bilbo is “decent” Balin, and even that will only be to a certain point and no further: “He did not expect a chorus of volunteers, so he was not disappointed.” This leads into an unexpected mini-essay from Tolkien on the nature of dwarven courage, concept of value and loyalty. It reads as if the narrator has suddenly realised that the consistent depictions of the dwarves as uncaring of Bilbo’s well-being, and frequent about-face’s when it comes to their gratefulness, require some attention, and this is as good a moment as any. I wonder if maybe Tolkien’s children made the point to him here, and he felt compelled to address the issue. He makes the valid argument that the dwarves tried to save Bilbo in “Roast Mutton” when they barely knew him, but then makes his own counter-point: this such an action may well have just been to preserve an investment, as “dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money.”

This does not mean that Thorin and company are bad people, just practical: it’s their other actions that define them as decent, in comparison to other unseen dwarves. The trick is to not “expect too much“. As we near the end of the books second act, and the beginning of Thorin’s descent into tyranny, this serves as ground-laying, but does not mesh well with some of Tolkien’s later depiction so the race. Gimli is certainly a hero, and even the actions of the company in the Battle of Five Armies will be heroic. There are some who infer anti-Semitic thinking, conscious or unconscious, in this bit of writing, as the dwarves share undeniable similarities to the Jewish people in both positive and negative stereotypes, and to then declare the entire race as “not heroes, but calculating folk” seems odd.

I understand the connections some will draw, but I’ve never considered Tolkien anti-Semitic, and I feel that using this section as evidence of such a sentiment is a bit of a reach: Tolkien’s views on the Jewish people were made obviously plain by the man himself, and I find it curious that other influences on the dwarves, be they Norse, Germanic, or anything else, tend not to receive the same kind of attention when it comes to assigning motives for depictions.

Bilbo begins his journey into the mountain, with Tolkien using some beautiful imagery to see him off, that calls to mind the task he has to do and the fortress he is entering: “The stars were coming out behind him in a pale sky barred with black when the hobbit crept through the enchanted door and stole into the Mountain.”

Once Balin leaves Bilbo’s side, it’s just us and the hobbit, with the narrator laying out the reality very clearly: “Already he was a very different hobbit from the one that had run out without a pocket-handkerchief from Bag-End long ago…“. As if to emphasise this point, when noting Bilbo has not had a pocket-handkerchief in some time, the next thing noted is Sting, which Bilbo loosens from its sheath. To go from a piece of cloth to a blade as an item of comfort: truly this is as meaningful a sign of change as anything else.

The Baggins side takes over briefly, noted very directly: “Now you are in for it at last, Bilbo Baggins,” he said to himself. “You went and put your foot right in it that night of the party, and now you have got to pull it out and pay for it!” But this is more of a resigned nod back to what Bilbo used to be, much like the earlier reference to the “old days“. Still, it works as a simple way to showcase the position Bilbo is in: alone, with only his own gallows humour for comfort.

Bilbo’s path takes on the appearance of a descent into hell, as a red light appears in the distance, the heat increases, and wisps of vapour start to coalesce. Such a vista, without knowing exactly what is at the other end, is certainly terrifying, and this paragraph carries a certain air of a descent to the underworld of antiquity as well, of Bilbo passing from the world he knew, with air and the dwarves and the Shire off to the west, and into a world of darkness, fire and, well, dragons.

Tolkien keeps things ticking over with the tension, with the dragon described first as just noises in the distance: “a sort of bubbling like the noise of a large pot galloping on the fire, mixed with a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring.” The cat-like imagery will come again, and is appropriate for Smaug, as we will see. The picture we form is of some immense monstrosity, but unless we think of a literal cat, it must yet be shapeless.

At this point, Tolkien describes Bilbo’s choice to keep going as “the bravest thing he ever did“, which is a very simple yet very effective way of making clear how momentous this event is. Pick-pocketing the trolls, leaping over Gollum, charging into a colony of giant spiders, the break-out plan from the Woodland Realm are all preamble, to this lonely scared hobbit simply deciding that he isn’t going to turn back, and will keep going to take look at the monster around the corner. If we had doubts, they should be dispelled: Bilbo has become the hero of this story, and nothing that comes after will be as heroic as this simple choice. And then we see him.

The first physical description of Smaug is surprisingly limited, especially on an analytical reading. “There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber…with wings folded like an immeasurable bat.” From there, Tolkien is almost more concerned with the horde of treasure, which I will get to in a moment. Perhaps the author assumes that the reader will have a picture of a dragon in their mind: a large fire-breathing winged lizard, with a long tail, fearsome claws, and towering wings.

The concept of a “dragon” – from the Latin “draco“, or “large serpent” – is one of those unique mythological things that has popped up independently in a wide variety of cultures and traditions, possibly as a result of common fears of reptiles and lizards inevitably becoming exaggerated stories of giant beasts. Dinosaur fossils may also have played a part. Perhaps the earliest references are from Mesopotamian literature which sometimes featured a large horned snake called an “usumgal”. From there, you see it everywhere: Ancient Egypt, the Levant, Greek and Roman traditions, the Far East, medieval west, and so on.

The exact form and nature of dragons changes drastically from place to place though, with whatever mix you like of morality, size, intelligence and supernatural power. Probably the two most famous depictions of dragons are the traditional medieval version of a large four-legged fire-breathing antagonist that usually forms the end point of a hero’s journey, had the Chinese/Japanese traditions, where dragons are frequently less dangerous and more spiritual, especially associated with water deities. We also should be mindful of off-shots, like the half-breed “wyverns” or sea serpent “wyrm” with dragons frequently described as “worms” in the western European tradition, including Tolkien’s works, a reference to their long narrow bodies, as well as being just an insult. From antiquity, we pass into the present day, where dragons are a standard part of numerous fantasy universes, from Harry Potter to Game Of Thrones, though the modern depiction tends to be more animalistic than sentient.

Smaug specifically takes a lot of cues from the dragon of Beowulf, a text Tolkien would have been intimately familiar with. There, the titular hero’s final act is a showdown with a fire-breathing “draco” that rests atop a golden horde, and has ben roused to furious anger after a single cup of its treasure was stolen. Beowulf defeats the dragon at the cost of his own life. Smaug differs in his intelligence, but the similarities in the story are obvious.

Smaug is far from Tolkien’s first rodeo when it comes to dragons. The terrible creatures were bred for evil work by the Dark Lord Morgoth, with the most prominent being the wingless Glaurung, who plays a very prominent part in the most important sections of The Silmarillion, and Ancalagon the Black, one of the last terrors that Morgoth unleashes on the world. By the time depicted in The Hobbit, dragons appear to have become exceedingly rare, with the only other “recent” one mentioned in The Lord Of The Rings’ appendices being Scatha, who is defeated sometime prior, and from whose horde the Horn of Brandybuck is acquisitioned.

Tolkien himself drew an illustration, “Conversation with Smaug”, that represents his own image of the dragon, a simple picture that emphasises Smaug as worm-type, long, slender and scaly, with a head that is almost dog-like. Other depictions of Smaug have differed; John Howe’s illustration, my favourite, emphasises the reptilian nature of Smaug, presenting him as snake-like, while visual adaptations have a range of influences, with Rankin and Bass’ animated movie showing Smaug as feline in many respects, while Peter Jackson’s CGI behemoth is part dinosaur, part Komodo dragon. The central tent-poles of the description remain the same: four legged, winged, fire-breathing, and quite large.

And yet, not large enough to grab the most of Bilbo’s attention, or the narrator. That is reserved for an image almost as important, maybe more important, than Smaug to the story: the long forgotten gold. Like a besotted dwarf, the narrator zeroes in on the wealth piled beneath the dragon, framing the sight in terms that make language insufficient to describe it all:

…countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light…his long pale belly crusted with gems and fragments of gold from his long lying on his costly bed. Behind him where the walls were nearest could dimly be seen coats of mail, helms and axes, swords and spears hanging; and there in rows stood great jars and vessels filled with a wealth that could not be guessed. To say that Bilbo’s breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful…

So, like, a lot. A lot, a lot. It’s taken so long to get here that the actual reward for the fulfilment of the quest might have fallen out of our heads – 1/14th share, etc – but Tolkien clearly wants it front and centre again. And, importantly, he wants us to consider the impact of this sight, especially on a countryside hobbit with no concept of such extraordinary wealth. Bilbo’s very soul is “filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.” Such paralysis both serves to maximise the effect of the gold, but goes beyond that, to form a sort of literal sickness, that the author will elaborate upon later. Suffice to say that such boundless riches can infect and poison a mind, and this effect goes hand-in-hand with the effect of dragons.

Bilbo, echoing Beowulf, steals across the floor, grabs a single cup, and makes a break for it, thankful to avoid waking the monster. This is Bilbo’s apparent reason for being here, apart from finding a way into the mountain, and I suppose he does it well. But the act calls into a question what would appear to be a gaping hole in the company’s plan, that we will be getting into more detail later.

For now, it is enough to note that the dragon is not just some mindless beast, as he dreams of “greed and violence“, an indication that we are dealing with a more potent force than might be immediately apparent.

The celebrations of the dwarves at Bilbo’s return and even greater joy at getting their hands on a piece of the horde, are inevitably short-lived. Indeed, at this point the reader will already be expecting the turnabout, and can envision the dwarves joy turning to despair in a few short pages. Any politeness or niceties sent Bilbo’s way always seem to get flipped around eventually. The frenzy over the recovered cup is also telling of the dwarven mindset, as they, like addicts, pass the thing around excitedly, as if the guardian of the treasure is no longer something to worry about. But of course, he is, and Tolkien makes the point in language that is almost Biblical: “…suddenly a vast rumbling woke in the mountain underneath as if it was an old volcano that had made up its mind to start eruptions once again…up the long tunnel came the dreadful echoes, from far down in the depths, of a bellowing and a trampling that made the ground beneath them tremble.”

We pass backwards in the narrative a few moments and get our first proper examination of Smaug the being, as opposed to Smaug the fearsome monster. We learn some important things in this paragraph. Firstly, Smaug has intelligence to the extent of practical thinking, wondering about “that little hole” and thinking it’s about time to seal it up. Secondly, his intelligence extends to a minute understanding of what his gigantic horde of stolen wealth contains, right down to individual cups, that he misses from even the briefest glance. And thirdly, he dreams, as already noted, but his dreams have a shape and a form to them that is reminiscent of more human characters. And the one that has disturbed him is prophetic, calling to mind Shakespeare’s Richard III on the eve of Bosworth Field: “He had passed from an uneasy dream (in which a warrior, altogether insignificant in size but provided with a bitter sword and great courage, figured most unpleasantly)…“. Has Smaug been sent a vision of his own end? Sort of: it will be a bow and arrow that does him in, not a sword. Perhaps this is a direct nod, again, to Beowulf.

Smaug’s wrath upon learning of the burglary is immense, and the language used again has a sort of Biblical tone to it. There is a unique tense used here as well, a sort of in the moment detached description:

Thieves! Fire! Murder! Such a thing had not happened since first he came to the Mountain! His rage passes description – the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted. His fire belched forth, the hall smoked, he shook the mountain- roots…coiling his length together, roaring like thunder underground, he sped from his deep lair…To hunt the whole mountain till he had caught the thief and had torn and trampled him was his one thought. He issued from the Gate, the waters rose in fierce whistling steam, and up he soared blazing into the air and settled on the mountain-top in a spout of green and scarlet flame.”

Notable here among the doom and gloom is Tolkien’s line on “rich folk” which could be construed as an attack of capitalistic thinking. Certainly Smaug, a greedy destroyer of lives who sleeps on a bed of wealth created by others, and flies into a range at even the slightest hint that it might be taken away, could be seen as the sort of industrialist that Tolkien would have had, putting it mildly, very little time for.

Out on the doorstep, it’s time for Thorin to be the man of action, an important thing after Bilbo has taken up the lion’s share of focus so far. The company despairs at the coming of the dragon, and seem intent of leaving those in the valley below for dead:

They will be slain, and all our ponies too, and all out stores lost,” moaned the others. “We can do nothing.”

Note the word “moaned” there, like a petulant whinge as opposed to a genuine cry of distress. Thorin is having none of it:

Nonsense!” said Thorin, recovering his dignity. “We cannot leave them. Get inside Mr. Baggins and Balin, and you two Fili and Kili-the dragon shan’t have all of us. Now you others, where are the ropes? Be quick!

Thorin’s commanding air helps save the lives of all the dwarves, and as with his high manner in “A Warm Welcome“, indicate again that is now taking on a more Kingly bearing. The dwarves down below are dragged up with the ropes – even poor overweight Bombur who was convinced such a thing was impossible in “On The Doorstep“, and the company is saved from Smaug’s terrible wrath “licking the mountain-sides with flame, beating his great wings with a noise like a roaring wind“.

The dwarves are able to escape, but the episode is a frank look at how terribly unprepared they seem to be. Trolls, giants, goblins, wargs and spiders, these are all foes they have been, to some extent or another, been able to handle, but this giant fire-breathing dragon, that causes the earth to tremble and the rocks to scorch, is something else altogether.

Trapped in the corridor, the company are left considering their next move. Smaug is impossible to escape from easily now that he has eaten their ponies, and the idea of taking on the dragon remains little thought out – “which had always been a weak point in their plans, as Bilbo felt inclined to point out” – so, what now? As it has before, the gratitude to Bilbo turns to grumbles in such seemingly dire circumstances, as captured gold becomes soon forgotten. Bilbo, established now as very much not tolerating this kind of moping and finger-pointing, snaps back acidly:

I was not engaged to kill dragons, that is warrior’s work, but to steal treasure. I made the best beginning I could. Did you expect me to trot back with the whole hoard of Thror on my back?…I am sure it reflects great credit on your grandfather, but you cannot pretend that you ever made the vast extent of his wealth clear to me. I should want hundreds of years to bring it all up, if I was fifty times as big, and Smaug as tame as a rabbit.”

Bilbo’s annoyance on the point of how big the burglary is is important, as it will be used against him in a battle of verbal wits very shortly. But he’s right when he says the apparent plan of him stealing the gold bit by bit is absurd. I find Peter Jackson’s method to fix this apparent problem interesting, in making Bilbo’s task the burglary of the Arkenstone specifically: a tad more doable than “the whole hoard of Thror“.

Thorin defers to Bilbo’s thoughts on what they should do next, which includes practical suggestions of waiting it out and going outside only when it is safe to do so. And then he volunteers to go back down the tunnel for another look at Smaug and the great cavern of gold: “Perhaps something will turn up“.

There are two sides to this. Firstly, Bilbo is stepping up, one of only two members of the company trying to be pro-active, and find a way out of their predicament. He does so placing himself at great risk, and for people whose idea of gratitude is based very much on contextual surroundings. For the first time, the narrator places the title of commandership on Bilbo: “Now he had become the real leader in their adventure.”

However, there is a negative side to this as well. In this section, it seems Bilbo has begun to believe his own press a bit, and one can detect a very obvious hint of pride, and even arrogance, in the way he presents himself as the company’s only hope, and then as capable of out-smarting a dragon. The narrator is scornful of Bilbo’s sudden big-headedness: “Had he known more about dragons and their wily ways, he might have teen more frightened and less hopeful of catching this one napping.” It’s hard to fathom how Bilbo is suddenly so confident –  “He can’t see me and he won’t hear me. Cheer up Bilbo!” – and one suspects a lingering influence from the hoard of gold that so enraptured him earlier in the chapter. Tolkien is eager to set-up the coming moment properly, inserting a paragraph break between Bilbo suddenly realising that Smaug is not so sleepy as he appears and the subsequent conversation, ending this section with the tantalising line “And then Smaug spoke“.

Compare Smaug here to the way that other antagonists have spoken and acted. The trolls were low-brow and prone to bouts of sudden mindless violence. The goblins were a communal hive-mind of wickedness, smart in their way, but lacking any kind of subtly or cunning. Gollum was a loathsome, frightening individual, but pitiable and sad at the same time. The wargs were just a step-up from beasts, interested only in bloodshed for bloodsheds sake. The spiders were animalistic and wanted nothing but meat. And the wood-elves were not really antagonists.

But Smaug, oh Smaug. He’s so well-spoken, something Tolkien places in the mouths of those to be taken truly seriously. He’s so smart. He’s so capable, and I don’t mean physically. Every word out of his mouth is a masterful psychological ploy, showcasing how his strength is not just in fire, but in brain. He knows how to manipulate his targets to get what he wants, even if that is just to be left sitting on a giant pile of gold.

Before we get into it, when reading The Hobbit before Peter Jackson’s adaptation more firmly defined the voice, I always imagined Smaug sounding like English actor David Warner, well known for his live-action and VA antagonist roles. That posh, smarmy, and undeniably evil tenor is what’s required. Cumberbatch does fine, aided by a bit of audio work to make the voice rumblier, and his received pronunciation is also a good fit. But I do still think the voice needs a bit more of a sneer.

Smaug’s opening gambit would be a fairly blatant attempt to entice Bilbo out of hiding, if it wasn’t so dripping in sarcasm: ” Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!“. Bilbo thinks himself too quick to fall for this, and proceeds to try and outwit Smaug at wordplay, a very dangerous game that will get Bilbo, and others, into serious trouble. The two have an enthralling back and forth:

I only wished to have a look at you and see if you were truly as great as tales say. I did not believe them…Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of the reality, O Smaug the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities,” replied Bilbo.

 You have nice manners for a thief and a liar,” said the dragon…Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?”

“You may indeed! I come from under the hill, and under hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air, I am he that walks unseen.” 

“So I can well believe,” said Smaug, “but that is hardly our usual name.” 

“I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number.” 

“Lovely titles!” sneered the dragon. “But lucky numbers don’t always come off.” 

“I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me.” 

“These don’t sound so creditable,” scoffed Smaug.

“I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider,” went on Bilbo beginning to be pleased with his riddling.

“That’s better!” said Smaug. “But don’t let your imagination run away with you!”

The conversation is laden with meaning. Note Smaug allowing himself to feel flattered even as he knows that Bilbo is trying to distract him. Note Bilbo’s continuing pride as he feels he is getting the better of Smaug, wrongly. Note Bilbo’s wit and intelligence in coming up with this “riddle-talk” from the sum of his own adventures, like a mini clip-show, while Smaug eagerly maintains control of the conversation by egging Bilbo on. Most importantly, note that Smaug is getting far more out of the conversation than Bilbo, learning about this adversary bit-by-bit.

Case in point: while Bilbo is right in “the way to talk to dragons“, seeking to confuse and befuddle them by appealing to their own logic and inquisitiveness, he’s just put Lake-town in a whole heap of trouble:

I thought so last night,” he smiled to himself. “Lake-men, some nasty scheme of those miserable tub-trading Lake-men, or I’m a lizard. I haven’t been down that way for an age and an age; but I will soon alter that!

Smaug follows up this terrifying thought process with a brutal combination of insult and threat:

Very well, O Barrel-rider!” he said aloud. “Maybe Barrel was your pony’s name; and maybe not, though it was fat enough.”

Before going right for the jugular, reminding Bilbo of his own history and playing on his issues with the dwarves:

In return for the excellent meal I will give you one piece of advice for your good: don’t have more to do with dwarves than you can help!…I know the smell (and taste) of dwarf-no one better. Don’t tell me that I can eat a dwarf-ridden pony and not know it! You’ll come to a bad end, if you go with such friends. Thief Barrel-rider. I don’t mind if you go back and tell them so from me.”

Smaug, of course, can’t have any idea of which dwarves exactly are behind this intrusion (though, once again due to Bilbo’s openness, he knowns their amount “Mr Lucky Number“), but he knows dwarven nature very well, picking on the stolen cup and what reward Bilbo received for taking it:

Come now, did you? Nothing at all! Well, that’s just like them. And I suppose they are skulking outside, and your job is to do all the dangerous work and get what you can when I’m not looking-for them? And you will get a fair share? Don’t you believe it! If you get off alive, you will be lucky.”

If Smaug can’t pin the invisible and unknown hobbit down, then he can use his words to cause a divide, working on a very real fear. And it works: “Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug.” This kind of magic hypnosis, that calls to mind the general effect of the gold, adds a rising tension to the scene, as if it needed it. It’s not hard to think of Saruman reading these pages, and the mesmerising power of his voice in “The Voice Of Saruman”.

Smaug continues on. The seed has been planted, now it’s time to water it a bit, as the dragon goes into very pertinent details:

I don’t know if it has occurred to you that, even if you could steal the gold bit by bit-a matter of a hundred years or so – you could not get it very far? Not much use on the mountain-side? Not much use in the forest? Bless me! Had you never thought of the catch? A fourteenth share, I suppose, Or something like it, those were the terms, eh? But what about delivery? What about cartage? What about armed guards and tolls?” And Smaug laughed aloud.”

It’s a great tactic, a combination of using dwarven greed and ingratitude with the practicalities of how to get gold half-way across the world. Bilbo is risking all for a dwarven company that tends to turn on him at the drop of a hat, and are too cowardly to accompany him to such a critical moment, and he’s doing it all without any firm guarantee that 1/14th of the treasure will make it back to the Shire. Smaug’s strike lands home wonderfully: “Now a nasty suspicion began to grow in his mind-had the dwarves forgotten this important point too, or were they laughing in their sleeves at him all the time?

Bilbo tries to re-assert some control over the conversation, to “keep his end up“, by, of all things, threatening Smaug:

I tell you…that gold was only an afterthought with us. We came over hill and under hill, by wave and win, for Revenge. Surely, O Smaug the unassessably wealthy, you must realize that your success has made you some bitter enemies?”

It’s a desperate and clumsy verbal ploy, and Smaug pounces with glee:

Then Smaug really did laugh-a devastating sound which shook Bilbo to the floor, while far up in the tunnel the dwarves huddled together and imagined that the hobbit had come to a sudden and a nasty end.”

It’s a terrible thing to envision, this tiny hobbit being outplayed so easily, and by a creature so massive and powerful. If Bilbo had aimed to get one over on Smaug, he’s failed miserably, and the dragon is only warming up.

What follows is Smaug’s threat, a verbal thesis of his own power and might, full of intimidating imagery and genuine menace:

Revenge!” he snorted, and the light of his eyes lit the the hall from floor to ceiling like scarlet lightning. “Revenge! The King under the Mountain is dead and where are his kin that dare seek revenge? Girion Lord of Dale is dead, and I have eaten his people like a wolf among sheep, and where are his sons’ sons that dare approach me? I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong strong. Thief in the Shadows!” he gloated. “My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”

Smaug comes off as an unassailable god of death, who kills and eats as he pleases. The final thundering outline of his own weapons and strength would be enough to floor anybody.

But, there is one sign of weakness there. “Girion Lord of Dale is dead…and where are his sons’ sons that dare approach me?” The descendants of Girion do still exist, and one is not all that far away: is this another little hint of prophecy, similar to the nasty dream that disturbed Smaug earlier in the chapter?

But then, Bilbo actually does get the upper hand, even if Smaug does not realise it:

I have always understood,” said Bilbo in a frightened squeak, “that dragons were softer underneath, especially in the region of the–er– chest; but doubtless one so fortified has thought of that.”

The dragon stopped short in his boasting.Your information is antiquated,” he snapped.”

It’s interesting that Smaug is stopped dead in his tracks by this statement. Clearly, someone in his position has had some time to consider weaknesses. And now, Bilbo successfully goads him into revealing his:

He did not know that the hobbit had already caught a glimpse of his peculiar under-covering on his previous visit, and was itching for a closer view for reasons of his own. The dragon rolled over. “Look!” he said. “What do you say to that?”

“Dazzlingly marvellous! Perfect! Flawless! Staggering!” exclaimed Bilbo aloud, but what he thought inside was: “Old fool! Why there is a large patch in the hollow of his left breast as bare as a snail out of its shell!

And thus is Smaug’s fatal flaw, his Achilles hee,l revealed. It would be no fun if Smaug was invulnerable after all, but it remains to be seen how the company, or anyone else, can exploit this weakness.

I suppose we can call this verbal duel a draw then. Smaug has manipulated Bilbo for fun, manufacturing a wedge between him and the dwarves, as well as learning some valuable information about both Bilbo and where he has come from. And Bilbo has managed to find out a way that the dragon can actually be felled. But Bilbo, remarkably, lets his big head cause him serious peril before he’s done:

Well, I really must not detain Your Magnificence any longer,” he said, “or keep you from much needed rest. Ponies take some catching, I believe, after a long start. And so do burglars,” he added as a parting shot.”

If Bilbo has said something thick, Smaug loses what composure he had in the face of the insult:

…the dragon spouted terrific flames after him, and fast though he sped up the slope, he had not gone nearly far enough to be comfortable before the ghastly head of Smaug was thrust against the opening behind. Luckily the whole head and jaws could not squeeze in, but the nostrils sent forth fire and vapour to pursue him, and he was nearly overcome, and stumbled blindly on in great pain and fear.”

If that isn’t enough to shake some sense into Bilbo, you’re not sure what will, but both he and the narrator decide to turn the moment into a bit of well-earned, and badly needed, comedy:

Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool!” he said to himself, and it became a favourite saying of his later, and passed into a proverb. “You aren’t nearly through this adventure yet” he added, and that was pretty true as well.” It’s interesting that Bilbo quotes words of wisdom from his father twice previously in this chapter, but the third time pays for all as the elder Baggins once said, with Bilbo coming up with his own, another small sign of growth.

Bilbo is able to return to the astonished dwarves who, feeling Smaug’s earthquake one more time, assumed the worst. Bilbo finally cops on that some of his verbal sparring with the dragon may have an unintended consequence:

…he was now regretting some of the things he had said to the dragon, and was not eager to repeat them…”I am sure he knows we came from Lake-town and had help from there; and I have a horrible feeling that his next move may be in that direction. I wish to goodness I had never said that about Barrel-rider; it would make even a blind rabbit in these parts think of the Lake-men.”

How responsible is Bilbo for what is about to occur to Lake-town? To a certain extent, it is fair to say, but we should, like Balin, think better of Bilbo than the hobbit apparently does. The company’s presence on the mountain was inevitably going to result in a confrontation with Smaug, and we’ve already seen Smaug’s thought process regards the theft of any of his treasure: “I thought so last night” is what he says to himself when Bilbo drops the “barrel-rider” clue. That Lake-town will be the ones to suffer most for the quest is unjust, even if the town was all too happy to welcome and embrace the commonly before, but Tolkien does not shirk from the natural consequences of this turn of events, as the Lakemen’s anger at what has occurred will form the backbone of part of the finale. We can’t place all the blame at Bilbo’s feet: when you’re out to kill a dragon, there is going to be some collateral damage.

Bilbo’s recitation of his story is partially interrupted by a curious thrush, that unnerves Bilbo but finds a friend in Thorin, who explains the breed who live around the mountain are of the somewhat magical sort, living for centuries and capable of speech with (some) men. It seems like nothing on a first reading, just Bilbo being nervous for no good reason, but this is Tolkien’s method of justifying Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug, by getting the news of Smaug’s weak-spot out to the people who need to hear it.

The talk turns to how to actually take Smaug on and win – How to Kill Your Dragon as it were – and its somewhat uninspiring how there is no firm plan or scheme in mind for how to actually eliminate their primary enemy. Catching Smaug asleep seems unlikely, but the apparent preference for a “bold frontal attack” is really no better. In Tolkien’s back catalogue, the deaths of dragons are limited, including Turin’s slaying of Glaurung with a stroke to the belly, and Earendil casting down Ancalagon the Black in a sky-battle, all written in a legendary style, and offering little pointers to the practical realities.

Bilbo can’t help but broach the topic of his share of the treasure and transporting it back to the Shire, indicating clearly that Smaug’s words have done their work. Thorin is forthright in his response, indicating that the venture is desperate and needs their full attention, and there will be time aplenty afterwards to discuss the minutia of transporting treasure. It’s a fair response but will take on a deeper meaning later when Thorin is not so friendly about the issue of the treasure. “…you shall choose you own fourteenth” is what he says, words the dwarf will regret, and you can’t help but get a queasy feeling at the way he closes the conversation, stopping any further discussion and putting Bilbo in the position of having to pick between Smaug and Thorin’s words: “Believe me or not as you like!

The conversation turns to a more grounded outline of the works that the dwarves made in the forges of Erebor than has been previously outlined, a recitation mixed with sadness at glorious pieces of art and craftsmen ship “never delivered and never paid for“. There are nods to mithril and again to the power and majesty of Girion, Lord of Dale, whose descendants will soon rise to prominence. And then there is the Arkenstone, the “Heart of the Mountain“:

The Arkenstone! The Arkenstone!” murmured Thorin in the dark, half dreaming with his chin upon his knees. “It was like a globe with a thousand facets; it shone like silver in the firelight, like water in the sun, like snow under the stars, like rain upon the Moon!

It’s the first mention of this apparently extraordinary gem, a late addition to the narrative that feels a little forced. It’s not difficult to see some religious allegories here, most notably with the Ark of the Covenant, a thing longed for by a displaced people, only in a form more suitable for the wealth obsessed dwarves. The name itself may be derived from the Gothic “arkins” or “holy”. The Arkenstone is going to become the ultimate cipher for Thorin’s increasing obsession and eventual quasi-madness, and that is clear here, as Thorin describes the thing “half-dreaming“, like an addict on a brief high.

There are some who think the Arkenstone, as it is described later, may have been intended to be one the Silmarils of the First Age, the one that Maedhros cast into a fiery pit when he could no longer stand the pain it gave him. But this is wishful thinking I feel: Tolkien’s own account of his end of days, the Dagor Dagorath, involves the Silmarils all being taken from their places of rest, sky, sea and earth, and brought back together. There’s no hint that one of them is found again in the Third Age, and the Arkenstone lacks other chrematistics of the Silmarils. You can’t imagine that a creature like Smaug would have carelessly tossed the Arkenstone into his pile of treasure of it was a jewel that literally burned with the radiance of the Blessed Realm.

The final crisis of the chapter comes from a different demonstration of Smaug’s threat, and a very unexpected one as, with “silent stealth“, he glides to where the company is and threatens to bury them in rock. This again showcases the dragon as a terrible enemy, one with cunning and guile, and not just a monster who will use his strength and fire at all times. But he still lacks a certain control all the same: “This was the outburst of his wrath when he could find nobody and see nothing…After he had let off his rage in this way he felt better…

The company survives thanks to a premonition of Bilbo, a lingering effect of the dragon-sickness perhaps, that allows him to sense when Smaug is close to a degree. The chapter ends, for both the company and Smaug, on a bit of a cliff-hanger: the company trapped inside the mountain, and the dragon turning for “vengeance” on “those men on the lake“. His final words on the subject are a terrifying pronouncement of power, as well as a rejection of any dwarven claim on Erebor: “They shall see me and remember who is the real King under the Mountain!” The chapter’s last image is a potent one of the dragon rising “in fire” and aiming directly for Lake-town.

“Inside Information” is one of The Hobbit’s great chapters. It’s lengthy, but never plods like other lengthy chapters in the story have, being excellently paced with a number of thrilling and well-constructed set-pieces. The obvious highlight is Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug, an iconic fantasy moment that may be one of the author best examples of meaningful dialogue between protagonist and antagonist. Smaug is a hugely impressive character, even if we won’t actually be seeing all that much more of him, and the chapter’s well-rounded treatment of Bilbo, from his arrogance, to his humbling to his continued usefulness to the company, is also excellently presented.

That’s not so say that there aren’t a few issues. Here, at what we can describe as the conclusion of the second act in progress, there are signs that Tolkien is cobbling together a few things, like the Arkenstone, the dwarven plan to regain their treasure and dealing with Smaug himself. That last point is particularly important, and I’ll be discussing some of the deficiencies in story-telling once we get to Bard’s showdown with the dragon in a couple of chapters. And there is also that paragraph on the nature of dwarves, and how they are “not heroes”, which reads so strangely.

But these are relatively minor things, that are easily covered for in the quality of the rest of the chapter. As the last of the really lengthy offerings, a lot of set-up for what is left has been done here, and whole things are going to slow a bit in the next few pages, they will still be well-worth reading.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Ireland’s Wars: The Curlew Pass

While the Earl of Essex was marching through Munster, taking the long way back to Dublin and losing most of his army in the process, and before his final downfall, events in the Nine Years War elsewhere continued apace. As mentioned in the last entry, there is an incident that occurred in Connacht around this time that is worthy of greater study.

Hugh Roe O’Donnell, the chief of Tyrconnell, was tearing Connacht up for fun at times during the late 1590’s. In the early years of the war, O’Donnell proved himself capable again and again, leading raids deeper and deeper into English territory, outmanoeuvring any force sent to stop him and generally making a mockery of the crown administration in the area. His allies in the province, such as the O’Rourke’s and the MacDermots, swelled the Tyrconnell army measurably and it was a frequent thing for the English to have next to nothing in response. In comparison, the Lord President of Connacht Conyers Clifford, based in Athlone, was popular enough with the people of the province but had no great martial reputation in Ireland to speak of. He was lacking troops and supplies, operating in unsuitable terrain. His allies among the native Irish were unreliable at best, and many had deserted to the rebel side after the Yellow Ford. While Tyrconnell does not seem to have had the strength to defeat the English totally in the last years of the 16th century, it is fair to say that he was dominant.

Of those native Irish who were allied to the English, the most prominent were the O’Connor’s of Sligo, but even they had been left vastly reduced by the predations of Hugh Roe. Of their formerly substantial estates, now only one fortification – the castle at Collooney – remained in their power. In truth, O’Connor and his men were deemed of more use to Essex in Munster, but even their involvement there could not turn that campaign into more of a success.

Essex wanted the situation in Connacht to change to his advantage. While preparing a thrust against Hugh O’Neill in the north-east, he instructed Clifford, now backed up by reinforcements from the new army sent over from England, to advance north and re-capture the territory and fortifications that Hugh Roe had conquered in the previous years, especially at Sligo. That area was the gateway into Tyrconnell itself, and Essex hoped any offensive move in that direction would at least weaken the overall power of the Ulster rebels.

Essex furthered ordered a naval element to be dispatched from Galway to land behind the rebel-held positions, furthering tightening the noose, and for materials to be made available for a new castle to be built in the area once secured. Such a limited strategy was not exactly the order of the day, but Essex seems to have recognised that a frontal assault would be pointless and that a garrisoning policy was preferable. In that, he was not far off the strategy of later English leaders.

But while Essex and Clifford were drawing up their plans, O’Donnell decided to launch his own strike. In the height of summer 1599, he and a force of 2’000 or so besieged the castle at Collooney, with O’Connor inside it. O’Connor had no means of escape or martial resistance, but the castle was a strong, sturdy fortification, that Hugh Roe had no means of getting into. But, with the weather right and an advantage in men, he was willing to try the option of starvation.

Upon learning of the siege and the peril that one of their strongest native allies now found himself in, Essex had no choice but to order Clifford northwards as soon as possible, with the goal of relieving the siege along with his other responsibilities. Clifford had 1’500 infantry and 200 horse, and moved towards Collooney as fast as he could. Clifford had some military experience, but suffered from a rash streak that Essex apparently warned him about. The resulting combat illustrates a man who was not in full grasp of the situation and was far too impetuous for his own good.

O’Donnell heard of the English force heading his way, his network of intelligence being considerable for the day. Perhaps Hugh Roe always wanted such a confrontation and the siege was just his way to get it. Whether he was prepared for it or not, he quickly enacted a new plan. Leaving 300 men under his cousin Niall Garbh to continue the siege of Collooney and 600 to prevent a naval leading near Sligo (intelligence network again), he moved south-east, joining up with the forces of local allies to increase his own army to its original size. Knowing the road that Clifford would have to march through, he was able to pick his preferred ambush point.

The Curlew Mountains, in County Roscommon today, are a small set of peaks not too far from the town of Boyle. At a hilly pass through these mountains, Hugh Roe laid his trap, creating obstacles from felled trees and arranging his troops to his liking: missile and musket troops up front on the sides of the road, with melee armed infantry hidden behind the ridge of the mountain.

This was in mid-August and the weather was very hot from accounts. Clifford’s troops, on a long march from Athlone and still moving deep into the afternoon of the 15th of August, must have been tired, hungry and thirsty. They should have camped for the night instead of trying the pass, giving themselves a chance to rest and recuperate, or perhaps stayed in Boyle, but Clifford pressed on. It has been suggested that he was operating on bad intelligence regards the mountains defences (having expected an ambush) and wanted to force a passage while there were no enemy troops lying in wait. As such, it was most likely an exhausted army that started through the pass of the Curlew Mountains that afternoon.

The men they were facing were anything but, and well warned about the approach of the enemy force. Gunfire broke out when the English vanguard approached the first barricade, with spears and pikes also being used. The fight here was brief, as the Irish fired and ran almost immediately. The English, perhaps buoyed by this apparent retreat, and expecting this to be the limit of Irish resistance, pressed on up the hill.

The road was badly kept, in boggy ground, with thick forest on one side, severely limiting English options of manoeuvre. As the vanguard advanced, they came in contact with more and more Irish troops from the left and right, receiving a hail of arrows, spears and shot. A firefight of around an hour and a half resulted. It was the English, worse supplied then their opponents, who got into trouble first, running out of ammunition, and then nerve.

The English vanguard, suddenly lacking the ability to fire back at a well-defended enemy, started to break, with the vanguard retreating into the centre group, creating a situation of confusion and panic. The death of van commander Alexander Radcliffe, while he was trying to marshal his forces, must have made matters worse.

With the English clearly in much distress, the Irish infantry were ordered into the fray, appearing from behind the hills and charging into the enemy at speed. The hand to hand fighting must have been brutal. Clifford, after apparently being absent from the battle up to this point, dove into the fray and tried to re-exert his command, but to no avail. While we don’t know how exactly it happened, he fell in this melee, perhaps by a pike to the gut, or a gunshot to the chest.

The English army, now totally disorganised, began to rout back to Boyle. With the arrival of Irish reinforcements belonging to Brian O’Rourke, the pursuit of them could well have turned into a slaughter that may have surpassed the Yellow Ford. However, the commander of the English cavalry, Griffin Markham, had enough sense to lead a charge against the Irish lines, through incredibly dangerous terrain, to break up the attack and buy the retreating infantry time. He had his arm broken for his trouble in this brave act, but his sudden charge probably averted a total disaster. One Irish source excuses the lack of pursuit by simply saying that there were too many fleeing to cut down.

The English made it back to Boyle, and safety, with O’Donnell not interested in further pursuit. The number of English dead is hard to know, estimated by various sources from 120 to 500. It was probably closer to the higher number, judging on the situation.

O’Donnell did not actually take part in the fight, with subordinates like Brian O’Rourke apparently doing most of the actual commanding on the ground. Hugh Roe, for whatever reason, stayed to the rear. His latest victory has been put down by Irish sources to divine intervention from the virgin Mary (this battle does have a lot of religious language attached to it, more so than others), but was more up to his correct positioning of his forces, the way Clifford marched his troops into a bad situation and the typical English underestimation of the Irish.

Clifford was decapitated after death, his head taken to Collooney as a message to the besieged O’Connor. Realising that no relief was coming, he surrendered the castle and further agreed to join the rebellion against the English. It had always been a fickle alliance. Similarly, the naval element of the expedition was aborted, the fleet and its leaders uninterested in pushing the issue.

The Battle of the Curlew Pass was not a defeat on the same lines as Glenmalure or the Yellow Ford, but it was still a defeat, another example of effective Irish troops outperforming supposedly superior English counterparts. It was more lives thrown away recklessly, more propaganda for the rebels, who saw a marked increase in recruitment afterward, especially from Irish soldiers previously finding employment with the English. More and more, the constant march of victories was making the Tyrconnell/Tyrone alliance seem like a viable option for allegiance. The territorial effects of Curlew Pass, with the turning of O’Connor and complete Tyrconnell dominance in North Connacht, was just as important as the actual results of the battle itself. It also led to the creation of a rather compelling remembrance on the site of the battle, the “Gaelic Chieftain”, one of the few such monuments to the Nine Years War in Ireland today.

The battle added to the woes of Essex in Dublin, and was seized upon as another example of his incompetence by enemies back home. Such affairs empowered the push for him to advance an expedition northwards to face Hugh O’Neill, from which he got only his own downfall and eventual death.

We’ve come to a critical point in the Nine Years War. Up to now, it really does seem to have been one rebel success after another, with poor English military leaders blundering to defeat over and over and over again. The rebels, as the 17th century dawned, were in a strong position.

This only makes everything that occurred afterward more interesting of course. Certainly, the fortunes of war seemed to have favoured the Irish, and while it is important to recognise their own strengths and martial ability, we must too recognise the foolishness of the English in regards tactics, supply and knowledge of terrain. It might be fair to say that the Irish got lucky numerous times.

The English only needed to be lucky once. And their luck would slowly start to change, beginning with the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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World Cup 2018: Need, Should And Will For Matchday Three

Matchday Two for all sides is in the books. From NFB’s perspective, here’s what the teams need to do, what they should do and what they will do in Matchday Three.

Group A

Russia

What They Need To Do: Win or draw against Uruguay to top the group.

What They Should Do: Use the game as a chance to set-up for the coming Spain/Portugal clash, with Uruguay’s attackers the perfect warm-up for either Costa or Ronaldo.

What They Will Do: Throw on the back-ups and try and ride it out.

Uruguay

Need: Win in order to top the group.

Should: Make this the final part of the tuning up the group stage has been.

Will: Limp to another sort of positive result and hope the cobwebs vanish for Round Two.

Egypt:

N: Win or draw to secure third.

S: Go all out and leave nothing on the table after a dire World Cup.

W: Get an all too easy consolation victory.

Saudi Arabia

N: Win to secure third.

S: See above. The Saudi tournament has been a disaster.

W: Huff and puff for a while before being overrun.

 

Group B

Spain

N: Match or better Portugal’s result to secure first.

S: Go all out to send a message that the turmoil is over, and this attacking force is ready to reclaim a favourites tag.

W: Probably labour to a one goal win and hope Portugal don’t.

Portugal

N: Better Spain’s result to secure first.

S: Like Uruguay, approach the game all-in to shake off the rust.

W: Probably labour to a one goal win, from Ronaldo, and hope Spain don’t catch up.

Iran

N: Beat Portugal to grab second.

S: Play football, which they showed they could do against Spain, and not just set-up to frustrate.

W: Set-up to frustrate, and rue their luck when they lose by a goal.

Morocco

N: To beat Spain to have a chance at third.

S: Aim to play a more cohesive, complete game from start to finish, and to set the pace in a way they didn’t against Iran or Portugal.

W: Will struggle through their dead rubber, and lose by a goal or two.

 

Group C

France

N: To at least draw with Denmark to secure first.

S: Rest some superstars ahead of tougher opposition to come.

W: Settle for an unadventurous draw to the advantage of both sides.

Denmark

N: To match or better Australia’s result to be absolutely sure of progression.

S: Seek the win against a less-invested French side, while tightening defensive discipline.

W: Settle for an unadventurous draw to the advantage of both sides.

Australia

N: To beat Peru and hope Denmark come a cropper against France.

S: Go for broke, with GD potentially being crucial.

W: Maybe get the win, depending on Peru’s motivation, but it won’t be enough.

Peru

N: To beat Australia to get to third.

S: Play like the last two games didn’t happen, with a special emphasis on attacking cohesion.

W: Struggle to stay interested, and bow out 0-3.

 

Group D

Croatia

N: Get at least a draw with Iceland to secure first.

S: Use the game as useful practice for a likely clash with Denmark in the next round.

W: Top the group with a routine score draw.

Nigeria

N: Match or better Iceland’s result to progress.

S: Harry the badly demoralised opposition from the off.

W: Get progression with a tight, but well-earned win.

Iceland

N: To beat Croatia and hope Argentina beat Nigeria.

S: Trust the game plan that got them a draw against Argentina, and forget the Nigerian game.

W: Struggle to get a win when they absolutely have to, and go out valiantly.

Argentina

N: To beat Nigeria and hope Croatia limit Iceland to a draw.

S: Commit themselves to, if it is their fate, leave the World Cup with a more cohesive performance.

W: Blunder to another loss, and another media roasting.

 

Group E

Brazil

N: At least a draw with Serbia to go through.

S: Try to kill the game early, and maintain the pressure throughout.

W: Struggle over the line after another mis-firing performance.

Switzerland

N: To match or better Serbia’s result to go through.

S: Stick to what they’ve been doing, which has been working.

W: Take care of Costa Rica easily enough.

Serbia

N: To better Switzerland’s result.

S: Go toe-to-toe with the Brazilians for as much as they have to.

W: Say goodbye with a functional but ineffective performance.

Costa Rica

N: To win big if they want third.

S: Go for it, as hard as they can.

W: Go home empty-handed.

 

Group F

Mexico

N: At least a point to secure first.

S: Suck-in Sweden, who need goals, and utilise the counter-attack.

W: Win easily enough, as a result of the above.

Sweden

N: To better Germany’s result.

S: Go at Mexico as much as they can, they have no choice.

W: Go at Mexico, and lose from a counter-attack.

Germany

N: To better Sweden’s result.

S: Do what they have been doing, which will work better against the ROK.

W: Beat South Korea easily enough, and progress.

South Korea

N: Beat Germany big to get third.

S: Give it a go I guess?

W: Lose badly.

 

Group G

Belgium

N: To beat England to secure first, or let disciplinary record or lots settle it if a draw.

S: Do exactly as they did against Tunisia, and practice the gameplan against more capable opposition.

W: Win the group with a narrow but deserved win.

England

N: To beat Belgium to secure first, or let disciplinary record or lots settle it if a draw.

S: Steel themselves for a harder task than they’ve had so far, and be prepared for more defensive football.

W: Struggle against better opposition, and be happy with second.

Tunisia

N: Beat Panama to secure third.

S: Play as they did for portions of the Belgium game, since it will work better here.

W: See out an otherwise disappointing World Cup with a win.

Panama

N: To beat Tunisia to secure third.

S: Go for something more akin to their set-up for Belgium.

W: Secure 32/32 with another bad performance.

 

Group H

Senegal

N: Beat or draw with Columbia to secure progression.

S: With either Belgium or England awaiting, use Columbia as decent practice for facing a young attacking side.

W: Head on through with a score draw.

Japan

N: Beat Poland to be sure of going through, hope things go their way in the other game otherwise.

S: Play as they did in the second half against Senegal, but a bit more shooting practice in the meantime would be beneficial.

W: Get through with a draw.

Columbia

N: Beat Senegal to secure progression.

S: Bring the same energy they had against Poland, and push the opposition at every opportunity.

W: Come just short after a hard-fought draw.

Poland

N: To beat Japan to have a chance at third.

S: Take their only opportunity for points while they still can.

W: Head home with just a point.

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Review: Manhunt, Orbiter 9, FullMetal Alchemist

I have a lot of films backlogged right now, so here’s another set of short reviews.

Manhunt

Trailer

m1

Now kiss…

When Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu), the lawyer for a major pharmaceutical firm, finds a dead woman in his bed, he is forced to go on the run from a police force happy to believe he is the killer. One of the only one who doubts the convenience is veteran detective Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama): his own hunt for Du will eventually unearth a conspiracy of epic proportions.

I am not as familiar with the back catalogue of John Woo as I perhaps should be, given his apparent importance for a whole geographical portion of the film industry, and that was one of the reasons I decided to give Manhunt, an adaptation of a Japanese film, a go. Part of my issue with Manhunt came from blinkered expectations: it being John Woo, I was expecting lots of kinetic action sequences wrapped around a half-decent, but grounded, plot.

What I got instead was some sort of bizarre amalgamation of The Fugitive, Serpico and The Winter Soldier, as Manhunt rapidly goes from “Man on the run for a crime he didn’t commit” combined with “The one good cop” to vast government conspiracies, secret labs and super-soldier serum(!).

You read that last part right. To say that Manhunt goes off the rails in the latter half of its very lengthy running time would be an understatement, but it is not without its charms. It’s a weird mix of boilerplate and absurd: the man on the run, the corporate intrigue, the cynical veteran and the naive rookie working together, like any one of a million crime dramas you’ve seen, but then throw in the insanity: a sibling pair of genetically altered assassins, increasingly improbable fight scenes (one, in a country house, just won’t stop escalating) and the aforementioned super-soldiers. The film goes so far past its start point, it’s like you’re watching a different one by the time the credits roll.

It’s acted fine, even if the script the cast is given goes from hackneyed to bizarre at the drop of a hat (“There’s only one end for a fugitive…a dead end”), and the clunky manner of the editing doesn’t help. Woo is clearly more interested in the action, and his operatic slow-motion style is well in evidence here, it being the bread-and-butter style film-making that keeps Manhunt from being a complete disaster. Hand-to-hand, gunfights, even a jet-ski chase, they are all here, and some of them are quite diverting, but there is nothing in Manhunt that would stay long in the memory. If Woo is seeking for this to be a revival of what appears to be a somewhat flagging career, then he is just going to have to keep trying.

Perhaps I’m better off with Woo’s western efforts, like Face/Off or Mission Impossible II, engaging action thrillers that were polished, enjoyable experiences even if they crossed into the realm of silliness or satire. Like them, Manhunt features lots of doves (some of which literally interrupt the action), but it simply isn’t as entertaining or watchable. Not recommended.

Orbiter 9

Trailer

o91

Wink, wink

Isolated on a long-haul colonial trip, Helena (Clara Lago) sees another person for the first time in years when Alex (Alex Gonzalez) arrives for a brief stop-over to fix a mechanical problem. Their limited but entangling time together leads to explosive revelations, as every part of Helena’s life is revealed to be a facade.

Now this is a bit better. A Spanish-language film out of Spain and Columbia, Orbiter 9 could easily devolve into a maudlin and insipid love story to the detriment of the science-fiction thesis it wants to make. Instead, it manages to skilfully combine the two, in a low-budget production that makes excellent use out of its numerically limited sets, cast and scope.

The first act plays out much as the premise would suggest, an interstellar liaison between a lonely colonist and a stand-offish engineer.  The inevitable happens, and there is a certain quiet, desperate melancholy to the whole thing that is very affecting, as Helena awkwardly makes dinner, attempts small talk and then gives up the pretence and makes her intentions and desires clear.

The twist, if it can be called that, comes at the top of the first act, and considerably alters the nature of Orbiter 9, turning it into a mix of identity crises, Bourne and frantic love-story, like Passengers only not terrible. Only 90 minutes + change, Orbiter 9 manages to keep things going at a refreshing pace, neither break-neck nor slow, giving space for the film to be more than it easily could have bee, asking questions of the audience, like what your identity means when the very basics of it have been stripped away, the nature of efforts to save the species running up against basic moral qualms and whether, simply put, love really can conquer all. Orbiter 9, without ever becoming preachy or overly-sentimental, lays it all out competently.

Both Lago and Gonzalez, relative unknowns in the wider film-making scene, put in a good shift here, especially Lago, who has to mix potent blends of despair, loneliness, inquisitiveness and wonder into her performance. She and Gonzalez have a good on-screen chemistry, which is critical to the film’s success. Some of the supporting cast aren’t as good – Andres Parra’s bureaucratic antagonist  and Kristina Lilly’s trippy future therapist are by-the-numbers – but by and large Orbiter 9 does a good job with its principals.

The surrounding “not too distant future” is well realised enough, an aura of over-crowding and impending doom papered over by a facade of clean government buildings and pristine forests. Parts of the world, like Alex’s apartment, seems remarkably lived-in, a far cry from the quality of other productions with larger budgets (see below) and it is the little touches that make the most difference.

Low-budget sci-fi offerings like this are few and far between: even if it’s only on Netflix, it deserves an audience. Recommended.

FullMetal Alchemist

Trailer

fa1

Yes.

As children, brothers Edward (Ryosuke Yamada) and Alphonse (Atomu Mizuishi) tried to use the magical art of alchemy to resurrect their dead mother, with terrible consequences. Now, Edward works as the famed “FullMetal Alchemist” for the military government, seeking to find the Philosophers Stone, a mysterious object that may help him find a way to recover his brothers body.

I think the sum-total of my exposure to the manga/anime property that this is based on amounts to a single episode of Brotherhood, that felt like being dropped into the middle of a potentially compelling story, you just don’t have a clue what’s going on. The live-action version, from director Fumihiko Sori, has much the same flaws, presuming prior knowledge of its plot, characters and universe, but ultimately does not come with something entertaining.

Despite being standard for fantasy films of this type, it’s the length that is the real killer, as FullMetal Alchemist is an astonishing 135 minutes, and boy does it feel it. The film’s somewhat episodic nature, taking its cues from the other visual adaptations, simply does not work bundled up together, with every sequence, especially a truly execrable finale, padded out to the utmost with unnecessary lines of dialogue, slow-motion cinematography and lame action sequences. The editing choices here, especially regards the gradual reveal of the brothers’ backstory, are rather bizarre in their truncated and randomised nature. A multitude of characters, some of apparently great importance, come and go so fast it’s hard to get a read on them or the world they inhabit, a sort of Steampunkish Renaissance Italy with some nods to Nazi Germany.

While Yamada is alright as Edward, giving the film someone interesting at its core, and the general premise of him seeking a way to atone for the past mutilation of his brother keeps you hooked, the film aims way too high with its plot, where super-powered personifications of the seven deadly sins are trying to take over the world, or something. Much better would be a more down-to-earth tale, perhaps involving the morally dubious scientist archetype who takes up so much of the second act, or more involving quasi-love interest Winry (Tsubasa Honda) the only female character of note (beyond the ridiculous villains.

The CGI is decent enough, but the film has a sort of cheapness to it in other ways, with the world depicted as bare and lacking much life, and the sets being a multitude of empty warehouses, red-stone buildings and abandoned military barracks. You can’t help but think that the perfect costumes make the experience seem more like an anime convention cosplay than a universe you want to settle into.

If the aim of a film like this is to get people hooked into the larger priority, then FullMetal Alchemist is a dismal failure. If the aim is to a be a sort of official fan-film for those who already know everything there is to know about the “Law of Equivalent Exchange”, then I guess it’s a success. But for the rest of us, not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Media Asia Audio Video Distribution Cactus Flower, Dynamo, Mono Films, Telefonica Studios and Warner Bros. Pictures).

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World Cup 2018: Matchday One Questions

I thought that, for a change of pace, I would frame my review of the opening matchday in the World Cup in the form of answers to questions I had about the various teams, before commenting on whether my predictions have changed for their prospects. In order of matches played:

Group A

Russia

Q: Can Russia harness the power of home support to improve their recent lackadaisical performances?

A: So it would seem. While the home crowd in the Luzhniki were quiet at points, they certainly appreciated the goals and the win, and the hosts were able to avoid anything too negative emanating from the stands. But the ease of the task was a considerable contributor to that. They will still struggle against remaining opposition.

Saudi Arabia

Q: Can Saudi Arabia translate their greater attacking focus in qualifying into goals during the Finals?

A: Not in the first game anyway. The Saudi’s huffed and puffed for a time, and had an astonishing 62% possession by full-time but Al-Sahlawi lacked any kind of decent service, and his team generally looked out of their depth both in terms of general quality and in fitness levels. They were unable to muster a single shot on target all game, and this was, on paper, the easiest game they had. The wooden spoon awaits.

Uruguay

Q: How will the Uruguayan youth get on in their first World Cup?

A: They struggled for a while, but then again sos did the veterans. Uruguay as a whole seemed incapable of breaking Egypt down, but in the end it was 23 year old Gimenez scoring the winning goal from 33 year old Sanchez’ cross. You would expect they will play better next time.

Egypt

Q: If Salah plays, is he fit? And if he doesn’t, can Egypt cope?

A: He didn’t, but they did cope for a while, though the lack of cutting edge upfront was obvious. They may regret not putting him on even for the 20, or even 10, minutes. With him on, they should bounce back still.

Group B

Iran

Q: Can Jahanbakhsh replicate form on the big stage?

A: Not really. Iran got away with the win, but Jahanbaksh got just one shot on target before going off injured. His status remains unclear. Iran have given themselves a shot, but the really hard part is next.

Morocco

Q: Will Herve Renard be able to maintain his usual defensive solidity on the biggest stage?

A: He nearly did, in fairness. Iran were limited to just two shots on target, and it was only an unfortunate fluke of an own goal that decided it. It’s likely to be a mortal blow to Moroccan chances.

Spain

Q: How will Spain cope with the sudden turmoil in their management structure?

A: Despite the final result feeling like two points lost, rather well I would say. Spain came from behind twice, and were just a few minutes and one moment of genius from claiming a very impressive win. Once the disappointment fades, this game will stand to them. They should win the group.

Portugal

Q: If you took away Ronaldo, how good are Portugal really?

A: Not very. Friday’s game was Ronaldo’s moment, arguably his greatest tournament performance ever. But for him – his movement, his finishing, his set-piece ability – there is no way Portugal would have got anything from this game. If he keeps playing to this level, advancement is inevitable.

Group C

France

Q: Will they pull together if things don’t go smooth?

A: Needing the better part of an hour to score against Australia, and then conceding within minutes with a hare-brained penalty infringement might be considered as “things don’t go smooth”, but France did pull together, and they did get the win, even if they never really looked stellar doing so. You’d fancy this to be a wake-up call.

Australia

Q: Will the new coach’s more reactive philosophy pay dividends?

A: No, not really. One lone shot on target – the penalty – illustrates Australia’s defensive mindset, but they just weren’t good enough to see the game out after equalising. They’ll struggle to get anything here.

 

Denmark

Q: If Eriksen plays, is he fully there? And if he doesn’t, do Denmark lack bite?

A: He played, and played well, master-minding Denmark’s midfield play and providing the crucial assist for the only goal, after welcoming his first child into the world on Monday. It’s a huge result for the Danes, who can look forward to progression now.

Peru

Q: After all the fuss, does Guerrero live up to the hype?

A: He only played a half-hour, providing some counter-attacking impetus, but he didn’t have the time or the space to provide the kind of impact Peru needed. The result leaves them needing something spectacular against France, that may not come.

Group D

Argentina

Q: Will the rest of the team step-up and take the pressure off Messi?

A: Emphatically no. At times it was like ten men waiting for the eleventh to do something, anything, to break Iceland down, and Messi couldn’t do it. If they slipped here, they can slip elsewhere, though they should still pip Croatia.

Iceland

Q: Will the strength of the spirit make up for the injuries to the squad?

A: Emphatically yes. The draw may now be Iceland’s new defining result, where they contained an attack that finished runner-up four years ago, and looked threatening at the other end with their counter-attack. Disciplined, committed, all-in: Iceland can win this group.

Croatia

Q: Will the strength of the midfield show itself on the field?

A: Yes, but they had such limp opposition to oppose them, the domination of Modric and company was as inevitable as the tides. The other teams in the group may prove much harder.

Nigeria

Q: Will Uzoho’s lack of club game time prove critical?

A: Not especially, with the Nigerian keeper not really at fault for the opener, and blameless for the penalty. It doesn’t matter, as Nigeria are going nowhere playing like this.

Group E

Costa Rica

Q: Well, was it a fluke or not?

A: Kind of? Costa Rica didn’t play especially badly on Sunday, but lacked a cutting edge up-front. But for a very special piece of set-piece skill, they would probably have walked out with a point. Better attacking opposition should put paid to their hopes.

Serbia

Q: When the chips are down, how will Serbia react?

A: The chips were never really fully down, were they? Serbia played to a decent level, got the only goal, and were more than good enough to see the game out without too much discomfort. But they’d need to step things up big time to edge past the Swiss.

Brazil

Q: Is samba soccer back?

A: In brief little bursts maybe, but for large stretches of the game, especially in the second half, it was 2014 all over again, with Brazil labouring against a tough Swiss defence not adverse to going in hard. Perhaps they will learn from this and improve.

Switzerland

Q: Will the lack of an obvious forward threat be critical?

A: In a way. Switzerland came from behind to claim a point, but arguably could have gotten more from the game, especially in the second half where they were able to assert themselves a bit more. But they showcased why they are the team to beat for at least second place.

Group F

Germany

Q: If he plays, is Neuer up to scratch? Is he doesn’t, is it a serious issue?

A: Neuer played, and he was relatively blameless for the goal, but his standard solidity did not help Germany in a performance where they showcased defensive frailties that were altogether abnormal. You’d imagine this is a once-off: if not, it’s Spain in 2014 all over again.

Mexico

Q: Will they match the intensity of the 2014 group performance, or have they regressed?

A: On the basis purely of tournaments, they’ve improved if anything. Sunday was a showcase of how to properly implement a reactive counter-attacking game, and they should really have scored a few goals. They now stand a very good chance of topping the group.

Sweden

Q: Will the solidity of the back make up for the loss of Zlatan?

A: A 1-0 win and a clean sheet. I’d say so. But better attacking forces await in this group, and Mexico just showed their quality.

South Korea

Q: Have the defensive issues been sorted in time?

A: To an extent. The ROK conceded from a penalty and kept the Swedes out otherwise, but it was their problems further up the field that ruined them, as they registered no shots on target. They aren’t going anywhere but home.

Group G

Belgium

Q: Are they as good as they think they are?

A: In the last half an hour at least. Panama didn’t have the legs to keep up their resistance, and Belgium’s star-studded attack was not going to be denied this most basic of tests. A stroll to top spot is on the cards.

Panama

Q: Can they muster anything up?

A: Yes, for an hour or so. Unfortunately for them, game last 90 minutes. The flight home will be a good bit longer.

England

Q: Are they mentally ready for this challenge?

A: Yes and no. England kept going at Tunisia and were rewarded in injury time, but their attacking focus in the second half was terrible, and indicates they aren’t in a position to be considered serious contenders, even if second place in the group remains a lock.

Tunisia

Q: Are the injury problems too much to overcome?

A: If they have any ambitions of getting out of this World Cup group, then yes. Tunisia’s midfield was decent on Monday night, but the defence was a real touch-and-go operation, and the attack was anonymous. They now need to beat Belgium, and that isn’t going to happen.

Group H

Columbia

Q: Has the stuttering from qualifying stopped?

A: Based on the first two minutes, when they self-destructed spectacularly, no. Based on the rest of the first half, where they exerted dominance on the game and equalised, yes. Based on the second half, where they fell away and let Japan dictate things, no. Columbia have some work to do, but should still qualify.

Japan

Q: Is the aging spine of the team up to this level anymore?

A: While it is not altogether fair to judge Japan on the basis of a game where they played 88 minutes against ten men, they did appear to be up to this level, dominating the second half and weathering periods of Colombian control. A 28 year-old and 29 year-old scored the goals. With this result, Japan have given themselves an unexpectedly great chance to progress.

Poland

Q: Can Lewandowski replicate his club form?

A: Not in the first game, with the star man as frustrated as the rest of the Polish side, the closest he got being a free kick early in the second half. A huge game to come against Columbia will decide their fate.

Senegal

Q: Will Mane create the service that he needs to?

A: He didn’t have to. Senegal’s two goals came from Polish errors, though Sane was useful throughout. Lucky here, Senegal still stand a decent chance of progressing as it stands.

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Ireland’s Wars: Essex’s Downfall

This was originally the second half of a larger entry, that I have decided to split as part of a revision/expansion. The first part can be found here.

The first campaign that the Earl of Essex had led in Ireland had been a disappointment, after such hopes that it would prove to be the undoing of the whole rebellion. The government hold in parts of Leinster and eastern Munster had been improved, and the taking of Cahir Castle was, despite what the Queen and others may have thought, no mean accomplishment. But the cost had been extremely high, and the rebellion in Munster had not been in any way quelled, with the forces of the Sugan Earl still dominant throughout the largest part of the province. Essex’s army was not kept adequately supplied and there does not seem to have been any kind of alternate plan prepared if a decision was unable to be found with the initial march. The Munster rebels, well versed in the local geography and the ways to fight in it, were able to keep the army of Essex under immense pressure while avoiding any really dangerous encounters. Even worse, around the time of Essex’s campaign, Thomas Norris, while successfully fighting a brief skirmish action with the rebels in County Limerick, was wounded by a pike, eventually dying in great pain a month and a half later.

Around this same time, Wicklow was again in arms. The O’Byrne’s, now under Feilim, the son of Fiach McHugh, were inflicting some damage on the local occupying forces of the English, to enough of an extent that Essex, rather than simply sail all of his force from Waterford to Dublin, choose to march back along the eastern coastline. This section of the expedition was, again, largely fruitless and damaging to the English. Essex’s men were able to burn a number of rebel-friendly villages and fight a brief encounter with the O’Byrne’s, where they forced the local Irish opponents to scatter in the face of a cavalry attack, but the result was hardly the kind of dominating victory Essex wanted. It was Feilim, who had led many ambushes and caused the English under the local commander Henry Harrrington to run away at one point, who came out looking better of the whole affair.

Essex and his greatly reduced army marched back into Dublin eight weeks after they had first left it, having completely failed to carry out their stated objectives. Hugh O’Neill had never moved to Munster as expected and remained a key threat, while Hugh Roe O’Donnell was still looming over Connacht, despite the reinforcements that had been sent in that direction. It is not surprising then that Elizabeth was greatly displeased, not just due to the results of the campaign and the associated costs, but because of the perceived wastefulness of Essex, who by most accounts spared nothing in providing “entertainments” in Dublin.

She insisted that Essex do something about O’Neill, severely criticising the Lord Lieutenant in a series of letters for weakening his army in his excursions south without doing anything to try and bring the Tyrone leader to heel. Essex attempted, against Elizabeth’s orders, another campaign to defeat the Leinster rebels in July of 1599, fighting a limited war in Offaly, Leix and Westmeath with the help of Conyers Clifford’s Connacht army, but was unable, again, to get a lasting success. English fortresses at Maryborough and Philipstown were re-supplied and some bands of rebel troops successfully engaged, but nothing of lasting effect was won. Clifford lost a number of very valuable men in the process, and those losses would be sorely felt within the year.

The later part of 1599 was a desperately unhappy time for Essex and the English in Ireland. He and his strategy were being continually censured by both Elizabeth and her council, who were further unhappy with the number of knighthoods that he was giving out. He and a large part of his army was laid up with sickness for a time, in his own case perhaps a bout of kidney stones. Setbacks in Connacht (which are important enough to merit their own entry in this series, which will come next week) were preying on his mind and making him look even worse. Morale was low, as were funds and supplies. Essex’s pleas for more men to be sent from England were answered, but subsequent inaction only inflamed the feeling against him. He seems to have frozen in the face of numerous setbacks, and was heading an effort struck down with a debilitating malaise.

All the while, Hugh O’Neill tightened the noose. The English setbacks produced a rake of defections, including members of the Burke clan in Sligo, who up to then had remained loyal. O’Neill’s network of allies, growing as a result of self-preservation, careful diplomacy, outright threats and even assassination, had become a confederation that seemed in many ways to be on the verge of forcing the English out of Ireland, through simple strangulation instead of open battle. The government, beyond the Pale, extended mostly as far as their various fortress walls. O’Neill, still situated for the most part in the heart of Ulster, was able to direct a war effort, and a war economy, with apparent ease, maintaining his own harvests and incoming supplies, building up his own capacity to manufacture needed war material and commanding distant rebel groups to harry and raid as he saw fit.

An English council of war in late August decided against any offensive operations in Ulster for the time being, owing to the poor state of the army, now reduced to barely 4’000 men under Essex’s direct command. The long hoped for amphibious landing on the north coast was no longer feasible in the short term, and the idea of marching into O’Neill’s heartland seemed one of limited possibilities: at best, the English would be able to place another fort they would then struggle to maintain. But the realism of the commanders in theatre mattered not: Elizabeth was furious with the defeatism being shown, and on her direct order Essex and his army moved north. The initial aim was the capture of Cavan Town or Kells, but Essex ran into almost immediate trouble when he found the passes into Ulster fortified and held against him.

On the 6th September Essex, incredibly wary of his task and suspicious of political manoeuvring back home, faced off with O’Neill’s army on either side of the Lagan river, near Ardee, Louth.  While estimates vary, it can be accepted that O’Neill’s army was larger, further adding to the apprehension of Essex, who must have spent a great deal of time thinking about the defeat at the Yellow Ford. So threadbare was the state of the English military in Ireland at the time, that Essex was obligated to forbade any operations in the midlands while he marched north, just in case the scant number of troops there were needed to defend a vulnerable Pale region.

The two armies formed up on either side of the river in battle array, but in the end no fight occurred. On suggestions from envoys, and after an initially bombastic offer from the English commander for a ceremonial duel between the two, Essex and O’Neill agreed to meet with each other the following day, at a ford of the nearby River Glyde. On the 7th, that famous meeting took place with O’Neill wading up to his horses belly in the Glyde in order to confer privately with Essex on the left bank, a gesture of humility and respect in some eyes, though maybe it was just practicality: already in the course of the war a parley had turned into a bloodbath.

What the two talked about that day, out of earshot of any witnesses for around a half hour, has long preoccupied historical detectives of the period. From what Essex stated later it would seem O’Neill spoke cordially to him (the Tyrone chieftain apparently knew and served under Essex’s father earlier in his life) and laid out a list of terms for peace: freedom of conscience, the restoration of Irish lands to their rightful owners and one treaty to be signed with all the rebels. Essex mocked O’Neill’s first demand – “…thou carest for religion as much as my horse” according to one source – but agreed to present the terms that O’Neill laid out to the crown, with a six-week truce to take effect in the meantime. O’Neill apparently insisted on the speedy sending of the message, fearing that news of his attempted peace would reach Spanish ears.

The more conspiracy minded may outline a very different conversation, whereby the two men attempted to orchestrate the carving up of the Kingdom between the two of them, with Essex taking the royal chair in London and O’Neill a crown in Ireland, perhaps with Spanish support. While subsequent events might suggest that Essex had grander aims in mind for his personal power, there is simply nothing to back up this theory other than contemporary propaganda and the words of Essex’s enemies.

Essex, against orders, went back to England to present O’Neill’s terms to Elizabeth. The Queen, by now having no trust in the word of O’Neill due to earlier broken cessations, rejected them, though she later commented positively on the truce at least. Essex, for dereliction of duty if nothing else, was placed under house arrest. O’Neill, apparently not too in love with the idea of peace and being pressured by O’Donnell on the perceived generosity of the terms, broke the truce after a while and declared his aims of Catholic freedom publicly, a popular declaration that elevated the struggle to that of a “holy war” for many. I believe Essex was dead right when it came to Hugh’s true feelings on religion, but it is undeniable that it was an effective way of rallying support.

Essex and his plans were undone. Going to Ireland to command a major military expedition was a dangerous gamble in regards his personal position. If he had somehow defeated the rebels he would probably have gained a great degree of power and influence in the waning years of Elizabeth’s reign, enough to oversee the coming succession. But this was always unlikely. Essex lacked the knowledge of Irish military affairs, but also a certain amount of will, to see such a task through.

His mental well-being given such stresses can be questioned and his final end gives weight to the idea that he was not truly himself in his last few years. Though freed from arrest after a time, he grew resentful and bitter towards Elizabeth and her court, eventually leading a slapdash coup attempt in 1601, which was easily defeated. He was tried for treason, found guilty and beheaded.

Essex’s campaigns were poor ones. While many local garrisons had been strengthened and some damage had been inflicted on the rebels, nowhere had things been irrevocably changed or stabilised. His army had been considerable but had been used in a foolish way. Efforts should have been fixated on the north and more credence given to the suggested Lough Foyle operation. The army was whittled away and wasted on needless marches to Munster and back and Essex allowed its morale and operational capacity to be destroyed in just a few weeks. His negotiations with O’Neill may have come from a positive place – ending the war by whatever means – but in so doing he allowed himself to be easily targeted by enemies in London.

The two Hugh’s and their allies were still in place. The English would have to pick someone new to head their operations in Ireland. But before we move on, next week I’ll skip back in time just a little bit to discuss an important battle in Connacht that aided the eventual fall of Essex.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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