Monday, 28 February 2011

Belfast - Bits missing and bits added.

Belfast is always changing but at the weekend there were a couple of things that stood out.

Maybe I've missed this one in the past because I'm not sure how long it might have been like this. On the side of the Belfast Telegraph building at the weekend, one of their signs read as follows:

Be Fast Elegraph Ewspapers

I can only think that there is a rush on for some graphs about the zoo for the next paper? Anyone else have a theory? Is it a cryptic message to the masses?

Whilst some letters might be missing from the Newspaper building, there were also some new additions in town. As I mentioned back in December when 2 of the 8 were installed, there were 6 more to go and they're now in place. Those 'things' being the Belfast Iconic Feature Lighting Masts.

Signature Lighting Masts Donegal Place Belfast

Currently they are without sails (for the moment) but the masts are now a feature that almost all visitors to the city will come across. I'm not sure if they're going to be everyone's cup of tea but I do see in them something that reminds me of Cardassian Architecture from Star Trek Deep Space Nine and I think I quite like them.

What does everyone else think of them?

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Belfast Graffiti

Walking around Belfast City Centre (amongst the mixture of great and horrible architecture) some real gems of art can be seen and they're not stuck away at the top of the Museum after having millions of pounds spent to bring the works to town. Here are my favourites:

Purple Faced Girl Graffiti

Sleeping Owl Graffiti

I've not a clue who the artist is but they're very close to one another - on what is a seemingly derelict building, whoever spray painted it did a brilliant job of cheering the place up!

Not all graffiti seems to be arty though, someone with a sense of humour gave me a smile with this one. I've heard of the Why Bird Stop, The Poppy Stop and the Playground Stop but if you head down Royal Avenue at the moment you can find The No Entry Jelly Stop:

It's the Jelly Stop

To be honest, I'm not usually one to appreciate graffiti, the usual stuff I see seems to be found on bus stops and tends to look like a big doodling mess:

Bus Stop Graffiti

Friday, 25 February 2011

The Big Society: Will All End Whelk?

Another cleaner fish who also enjoyed it's job of eating parasites off the backs of big fish came to the forefront of fishy pollocktics. This fish was more sympathetic to the small fish and at was elected at the next vote. Sadly though, the damage was already done by the Prime Fish who fully supported the big fish and the sharks, that fish who had pushed the branding of 'The Big Society'.

The reefs structure was irreversibly changed; the fish-public sector couldn't afford to buy back what it needed to work properly and struggled to keep the reef in one piece, the big fish continued to grow bigger and criticise the pro-public-sector fish in the hopes they could get their influence back and squeeze as much out of the small fish as they could. Corporation taxes went up but then big fishy business just left the reef, the government of the reef couldn't get the reef out of the social and economic mess left behind. The smallest fish still tried their best to have the best life they could but by now (for small fish) this particular reef was one of the worst reefs in the ocean to exist. The big fish society pre-branding still existed but social-capital was now weaker than ever and no good intentions from a Prime Fish sympathetic to the small fish could twist this around.

The future became bleak for the reef in general but the big fish turned a blind eye, the society of the reef was splintered but the big fish could always leave to another reef if things spilt over into their gated communities or it became unprofitable. In comparison, the small fish could not leave, they were stuck between a dying reef and dying on the reef. The Big Fish Society was indeed a Big-Fish Society but not the Big Society that the key Prime Fish of this story had portrayed to provide. The Big Fish Society was just superfishal.

There were of course booms and bust, but in the boom times the small fish only saw a little of the benefit of their hard work, during the bust times, as much of the burden as possible was unloaded their way. Life went on, but the reef never lived up to the potential it once had; it's potential to create a happy and healthy big society had passed. Instead of a happy and prosperous reef of the even bigger ocean community, it became known as just another unhappy mess of a reef whose leaders only seemed interested in growing their economy. It's environment and ecosystem soon succumbed.

But this is a fishy-tale, and stories can have happy endings outside the realms of reasonable possibility - after all, we are in a fishy world of fantasea.

Thankfully there was another reef. One far away from this reef at the other side of the sea.
There, they had a big society too but it was implemented by a cleaner fish who had much sympathy with the small fish. Though the fish on that reef were not as big, they didn't need to be, their sandbanks were less effected (even during the sandbank crisis) because they used fishy-sense and didn't cripple their social-capital many Prime Fishes ago. Their small industrial and resource providing reef towns had not been decimated decades before, the hard working fishes jobs had been slowly phased out and replaced by other forms of fishployment in a way that didn't decimate their local economies. They didn't cut public spending, they kept hold of many of the utilities that the reef depended on. A wise move for when global ocean energy prices went up the reefs fish-public sector found itself with a huge surplus to reinvest into it's society through research and development. This reef was leading the way in scientific discovery and had even harnessed the power of plankton in a way that didn't harm the oceans.

This far away reef had also invested a pot of money to encourage social enterprise many decades before, however rather than fish-public services being replaced, they were protected, it was the private sector whose enterprise's became social and the small fish knowing that the profit after reef tax from their goods and services was largely being reinvested back into their local area quickly took a liking to them. The social enterprises in the private market soon made a big impact and everyone felt valued. With less vulnerable smaller fish and more stability on the reef, all fish felt happier and small fish felt happy and had a real fair chance to become a big fish. Crime reduced as less fish had to turn to it to get by and more could be invested in reef defence and improving other reefs in need. The reefs economy was localised but competitive with the safety of a healthy public sector to help anyone who might fall off the reef and to provide key services.
This reef had free education to the highest levels. It's occupants had plenty of spare time to volunteer as their lives were easier for all. With more people free to be creative culture flourished and the reef grew.

The big fish didn't get so big but they had a reef and communities they could be proud of and a healthy and sustainable place for their spawn to grow up in.

Thankfully for the reef in trouble from the earlier part of the story, all the small fish from that reef who had good intentions were invited to come to the far away reef.

The old reef's economy collapsed as the only thing supporting the big fish and Sharks was taken away from their control. It was only a matter of time before the sandbanks collapsed again anyway so the small fish did not feel guilty leaving.

Back on the other reef, many of the big fish who didn't jump reef became small fish and realised what they had done, they were left to a decimated reef and were prey to the sharks they had encouraged and pampered.

The fish in the new reef didn't all live happily ever, even fiction has its limits, but they did live out their lives to the best of their ability and it did feel like they were truly a part of a big society. In time future generations learnt from the mistakes and positives of the past and evolved and adapted, eventually venturing out of the seas to other universes in time and space defying machines.

Fish with good hearts lived happily ever after.

The End.

Meanwhile... in a human dominated universe nearby... David Cameron had some choices to make... his Big Society guru Lord Wei led the BBC to describe the Big Society as:

A "coral reef" and we are the fishes.

Oh Carp. We're cooked.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Big Society – A Load of Carp.

The Big Society was a fishy government stance where professional and essential reef maintenance/services (which at the time were paid for by reef tax) were hoped to be largely taken off the fins of the fish-public sector to save costs and to allow the private fish sector to profit. Any voids in fish-public sector services would be filled by small shoals of local volunteer fish or private fishy businesses who were given more opportunities to make some more quick fishy money. This appeared on the outside like a good idea as it would save the indebted reef a lot of money. The trouble for the small fish was that the Prime Fish couldn't quite explain how The Big Society would work or what his plans of implementation actually were. The fish who were already playing an active role in the Big Society of the reef (those who already had a fin on the current), had their own ideas, but couldn't quite put their fins on the detail because it turned out there wasn't much there.

In an attempt to help the Prime Fish, one of his fishy party described it as being like a "human country" where the people of "the local citizen groups extend, vivify & shape their landscape".

As the reef was already a 'Big Society' many wondered what difference it would make. Several prominent fish stood up and watered their voices to the masses to ask what difference it would make to those smaller fish who needed the services more than most. The Prime Fish said his plans would go so far as to help small fish to help themselves but it did seem an odd way to go about it. After all, besides saving the big fish more money how could this help? The branding and scheme went ahead anyway, the prime fish decreed it his passion.

No one seemed to really understand the scheme fully, but here is what we understood it to be halibut at that time:

First - the fish-public sector was cut back to save funds; volunteer fish, social enterprise and private sector fishy businesses were urged to fill the wide open waters left behind.

Second, 'The Big Fish Society' that already existed was branded and claimed for the Prime Fish's own pollocktical agenda so whatever good was to come out of it in the future can now be claimed for the governing fishy-party.

Thirdly, a chest of fishy money was made available to those groups of fish who thought they could do a job through volunteering or setting up the reef structures and facilities required to replace areas of the fish-public sector run reef that had been cut.

Finally, a general trend underpinning this particular reef was the tax concessions to private sector fishy-business, given undemocratically accountable fishy business and private individuals concessions to fill any gaps in the reef and exploit it as they wished as long as the prime fish agreed. For anything unprofitable, other private groups of fish were asked to step up to fill the gaps and keep the reef in one piece, obviously for less than it would have cost the fish-public sector.

Simply, the big solution was to tell all fish something that they already knew; that they could do things for themselves. The underlying methods to giving out such control though resulted in leaving the poorest small fish worse off but very much helping those fish who already had the means to help themselves exploit the reef more. It turned out that the only underlying plan was for the small fish of the reef to pay to privatise their reef for the big fish and as well as that they were being asked to do more in their limited spare time to make this unfair reefy system even more detrimentally unfair.

And so it turned out to be: those areas of the reef where nutrients and resources were already still flowing and where the fish were already biggest, were able to take control of their needs and improve things further. They didn't miss the reef maintenance, their small part of the big fish society stood stronger for it.

The small fish soon saw their hopes start to unravelled when the bigger fish who gained from the changes didn't have any obligations in their contracts to help the bigger encompassing society of the reef. As seems to be fish nature, when they didn't have to, they tended not to, after all, it wasn't their problem. Wasn't that what the Prime Fish's government and the fish-public sector was for. They believed the small fish should pay to improve their own standard of life like they had.

For the Prime Fish and the big fish, the reef was being run the most efficiently it could be to give the big fish the best life possible and reach their goals, they could swim the sea so much easier with lots of fishy money in far offshore banks, from reef to reef they swam, gathering all they could - to do what with, no small fish knew, all they did know is that it didn't help the rest of the reef or the worse off fish in what became 'The Big Fish Society'. As life was great for these growing populations of big fish, they praised the prime fish for such a clever plan.

At the edge of the reef, things didn't swim smoothly at all. In fairness to the Prime Fish he did get some small fish into work who had been taking advantage of the reef-system such as with benefits and the likes, but the ways in which the Prime Fish did this also put strain on the already vulnerable fish who truly did need the help and now were left high and dry.

In many highly populated parts of the reef, the poorest fish struggled and this smaller part of the big society, if anything, degraded into poverty: The small fish tried to help one another, they swam together in small groups trying to keep going, as they always did do before this prime fish had come to power.

Lots of the smaller fish also struggled to volunteer because they were not in a position to do so: Many left their school at the age of 16 weeks, went straight into a minimum wage job and began to work long and unsociable hours just to get by, stuck in their jobs. Unfortunately though, with less and less fish-public services available, their health started to suffer, their coral accommodation and living situations became more transient and stretched. Some older poor fish couldn't even afford to cool their water and fried in the summer. Parts of the reef became no-go areas where sharks would prey on the vulnerable and no chest of money from the prime fish was enough to convince enough of the bigger fish to help, there just wasn't any profit in it. The fish-public sector was just a shell of its former self. Those who could afford private care still used it's resources but paid as little reef-tax as they could afford to. To compound issues, pollution soared all over the reef and it was left to the dwindling fish-public sector to tidy up the mess.

There were just more fishes in need and fishy problems then fishes able to help.
Around that time it was also reported that many homeless Squid seeking a shelter were inking themselves all over the reef as the fish-public sector couldn't afford to fund public toilets and voluntary homeless shelters couldn't afford to keep up with growing demand.

Originally when the chest of money was offered, even those with the means to help, those who already did valuable charity work ended up struggling with the fall in resources caused when the fish-public sector was hit and their income sources diminished. Their work suffered. The money that was given out sometimes went to private groups who squanderer it on schemes that were destined to fail but with no fish-public monitoring or accountability, these schemes continued helping waste the little money available. There was just no alternative, accountability or anyone to tell them to stop.

Those who did do a great job were up against it. The cleaner fish in charge of things didn't mind, they were deluded in the belief that market forces work just the same with fishy-social-capital as they did with fishy-financial-capital. The life of a fish in these poorest areas became much worse than it had before. The small fish had very few ways to hold to account those running the required services and provisions and it soon became apparent the big fish society didn't include them. They were as good as tinned.

Some divisions at the poorest end of fish society took it upon themselves to segregate themselves from the bigger society to get by, this compounded problems and lines of divisions much worse than in times of the not so distant past appeared. Fish tensions continued to rise as blinkered educational teachings and social segregation led to further introversion , ignorance and distrust. Small fish everywhere nibbled at the very foundations of the reef in order to get by and stay safe.

The big fish in the nice parts of the reef were disgusted by the small fish and wasted no time in getting their skates on to hire security fish to protect those well kept parts of the reef. Fish society on the reef became more divided than ever before. The Big Society had splintered, the biggest divide was between the poor and the wealthy and it was the small fish who got poorer and the big fish grew richer - society at the bottom of the reef was rock bottom. In the Ocean financial league tables, the reef still came near the top for its size, it's private sector was booming but very little was seen by the majority of reef and the reef and it's society were crumbling due to the divisions.

The Prime Fish however was still sure he had done the right thing and told the masses of small fish that he had given them the opportunity to improve their own lives and society. They had failed him and their society. To the Prime Fish, it was indeed all the fault of the small fish that his plan didn't work in raising social-capital and that the reef was not the Big Society he had envisaged. When the fish-press were not focused on the Prime Fish though, he was proud at how his scheme had risen monetary-capital for his friends the big fish and the Sharks and in turn were pleased with him.

What troubled the Prime Fish most other than trying to fix the mess his reef, was that the opinion polls were showing that he was probably going to lose the next fishselection.

The Prime Fish couldn't work it out in time and although a valiant attempt to put more spin on the whirlpool fishselection campaign, the prime fish was voted out at that next fishselection, but only just; 'Don't bite the hand that feeds you' was the campaign message but it didn't help.

The outgoing prime fish then went on to work for one of the fishy-companies he had helped to grow wealthy and powerful during his time at the top of the reef. He retired to the nicest part of another reef holding the same delusion that he had done to best for all his fishy-kin from the reef and indeed the sea. Other reefs even paid him to come and speak in-front of their leaders as they wanted their reef to be climbing those financial league tables too.

...To be Continued.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Big Society - A Fishy Tale

Hi I'm Simon, a life form living on a reef in the future of a parallel universe. I'm also the author of this fishy story about The Big Society.  Just between you and me, I'm in lots of fishy debt to the Sturgeon Loan Company and I'm very much priced out of even the cheapest and most densely packed coral home locations. As it turned out though, these are small fry problems compared to some fish, fish whose lives are about to be battered and this could turn out to be any Tom, Jack or Marlin. So for their hake, I thought I'd re-tell this cautionary story about a coral reef's Prime Fish.

Before I get into the depths of this story, first, let me set the scene: The setting in which our story begins is a big and populous reef, a small distance across the seabed from the reef where I currently reside. The big reef had been a home to fish for a long time since it first grew. Its fish over time were involved in many events of ocean history, and at the time where we begin our fishy tale, it is a well know reef with a lot of influence around the ocean. Generally there are many pleasant parts of the reef, nice and safe in the shallow waters of sea, tides aren't too strong and the flow of nutrients can easily be harnessed.

Sadly though, the reef has always had a more troubled side; since the early days when the fish population really increased, there have always been those edges of the reef, densely populated parts, where the most fish live, where poverty still lingers and crime is easy to find. Here, a gathering of small fish are led by bigger fishes who can use their time and effort to gain prestige and more fishy money, it's a fish eat fish world. As gloomy as that picture sounds, things aren't always that terrible on the edge, in fact many fish choose to live there for its mix of fish, culture and excitement, however, fish society is a little more tense on this part of the coral, especially amongst the smaller fish with less fishy money. It is a sad fact that some fishes on the reef are very vulnerable but in general the big fish society at this point held out a helping fin funded largely through reef tax and volunteer fish.

So with that in mind for a few moments before our fishy minds forget, let me begin...

One day the fishy reef had a problem. Some of the biggest fish around the oceans had allowed sandbanks to lend to sub-prime small fish in some of the biggest reefs, their greed and poor judgement had led to a lot of bad debt and in turn a distribution of fishy money that the big fish on other reefs didn't want to trouble themselves with, it just wasn't profitable, it was some other fish's problem. It left the governing fish of many reefs needing to take action or have their reefy economies collapse on the humpback of what  became known as the sandbank crisis.

The sandbanks couldn't be allowed to collapse. “They are too big to fail” the big fish of the reef had told their investors in the past, the big fish were clever. There comments were true but only true because without them, fish society would collapse, they had taken the trust of a reef and profited from it. The reefs around the world couldn't hold individual big fish to account, after all, they had been so helpful in lending to the reefs in the past and employed many fish too. So it was decided that the debt would be passed on to the fish-public, the every day Jack and Dori would take on the big fish debts because they couldn't disagree or say no, that would have involved too much churning up in the surf for a reef of this stature.

The outgoing Prime Fish of the day hadn't done anything to stem the Sandbanks Crisis. The motions which set this wave of destruction towards the reef spanned back to much earlier Prime Fish, it was just encouraged since then because life for a lot of fish on the reef had improved from it. You see, the reef is a democracy and this is a good thing but in this democracy not everything is conducted in a democratic manner. Although it may have seemed like the smaller fish supported what the bigger fish were doing, in reality the smaller fish had little choice. Only 3 Prime Fish from similar breeding grounds were available for selection. Small fish were not excluded from the process, but as we will find out, in this underwater world, only the fish with the means were able to do anything. Sure, even if a smaller fish could make it to a position of power, they'd be part of the reef system and unable to rearrange any meaningful without exposing the reef to the rest of the sea and be at its mercy. This was always going to happen since the first big fish set the reef on it's path to trouble.

Reef pollocktics became rather important at the time when the sandbanks were collapsing, it just so happened to be a time when the reef's population had to select a new Prime Fish.

As I mentioned, each leader of their fishy parties was a cleaner fish but there were some who cared for the bigger fish of the sea more than others and some who alleged to care for the smaller fish of the reef more than others. However, it always turned out that the cleaner fish liked to help the bigger fish than them, it was just their nature. Without the big fish and sharks who would fund the required bait for their fishselection campaigns? Indeed, it seems unlikely that some of the cleaner fish would be in a position to be fishselected without their bigger fish support.

In the fishselection that year, not one Prime Fish was picked, the fish of the reef could not choose a  ruling fish-party because not one had enough support from the small fish. Fish opinion was as split as the corpse of a clam. There were of course procedures in plaice for such a scenario and so the Royal Fish let two parties agree a compromise of a coalition government then gave their blessing on the small fishes behalf to the main cleaner fish of the new shoal. A blessing granted to them from Poseidon himself, the ocean god not all fish believed existed, never the less, a new prime fish had been hooked.

The Prime Fish leading this coalition shoal was to be a fish who didn't care much for the smaller fish compared to others. He didn't understand why so many small fish became problem fish, but then why would he, being a cleaner fish he was privileged from birth and have never lived amongst the most disadvantaged fish of the reef. The new Prime Fish was of course from the pollocktical party of fish who like helping the bigger fish stay healthy and aren't so concerned as other parties about looking out for the smaller fish even though they depend on them to maintain their lofty positions - and possessions - on the reef.

In the last fishselection it was largely the areas where reef life is already good that voted for this particular cleaner fish. The majority of the reefs population (the smaller fish who were earning the least fishy money in the most densely populated areas of the reef) either didn't vote in the fishselection or voted for a different party to that of our prime fish. Unfortunately the system was such that their votes didn't matter so much. The reef's fishselection process had led to so many disillusioned fish that they just didn't care any more, what did their vote really make any difference to? The reef was in a pickle that most knew it didn't want to be in but as they say underwater, “every air bubble has a silver lining”, in this case, at least the reef now had a Prime Fish to lead the way.

The biggest issue after the fishselection was still the sandbank problem. In order to resolve the immediate damage to the sandbanks, the prime fish shored up the sandbanks by redirecting the fish-public re-reefing funds. When the time came, the Prime Fish handed over a fortune to the big fish and Sharks of the sea as quickly as he could. This bail-out was done even against the advice of other cleaner fish but the Prime Fish was egged on by the big fish and Sharks waiting to take advantage and didn't disappoint them. Oddly enough, these were the same big fish and Sharks who very much helped in the collapse of the sandbanks in the first place - he told the smaller fish "My fins are tied".

This particular reef wasn't the only reef to experience this, there were many such reefs over the ocean. Some with more problems than others. The small fish were not happy, but they couldn't do anything about it. They could only sit back and see what little they had reduce whilst somehow the big fish (who still managed the Sandbanks that the small fish had been forced to help shore up) were still syphoning profits to the big fish. It was not fair, but life on the reef had never been fair. Why should the prime fish try to change this?

Never fear though, the prime fish (a former PR fish, brilliant in the art of convincing other big fish to swim his way) came up with the next stage of a plan, a plan that was said to be key to helping the reef to resolve both its financial and social issues. Initially it was a big surprise to the reef when the Prime Fish pushed his idea forward. In order to bring some re-reef to the fishy society, his plan was going to promote what he called 'The Big Society', an idea that would help the small fish help themselves - the small fish wondered if this was too good to be true or indeed if the catch was going to be in the detail.

...To Be Continued

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Crusaders FC, the season so far.

Exciting times for the wee Crues from the Shore Road. There are 4 months of the Irish League football season still left to be played and though things haven't gone perfectly so far, I'm bracing myself for a gripping ride following the season to it's conclusion in May and cheering on the Hatchetmen all the way. Here is my take on Crusaders F.C's season so far and a quick round up of what might still be to come.

Seaview Stadium Main Stand

Football can be cruel: Some results haven't been entirely kind and one particularly bad performance saw Crusaders end up on the wrong end of an 8-1 hammering to Linfield.

Football can also be kind: The Crues then beat Linfield 2-1 at home, scoring our goals with only ten men on the pitch and as you'll read below, that never say die attitude means the team still have a lot of opportunities awaiting them.

Currently the Crues sit 2nd in the 12 team league, 2nd higest scorers but also having the 2nd highest goals against record. The side's league form has blown hot, cold, then hot again, but despite the ups and downs, Crusaders still have quite the record in having scored in every one of the 35 games they have played in all competitions. Win, lose or draw it's been one crazy season so far but, like any roller-coaster ride, full of excitement.

To add to that excitement, it has to be said that the Crues have also sadly received the most red cards in the league. Having watched plenty of these games, I would say from observation that this particular stat has been compounded by what I would consider a fair bit of inconstant refereeing and this has tended to wind up both managers, players and fans alike. Not much you can do about that though, every team is in a similar boat. Earlier in the season it seemed like we were having a man sent off every game but thankfully that has since subsided.

On a more positive note, the for and against stats tend to reaffirm that the Crues are a team creating lots of chances and playing a lot of football rather than being a team keeping things tight and playing cautiously like a lot of the teams. This is certainly something anyone having seen Crusaders this season is likely to have appreciated, the attacking side of the style of play adds a lot of entertainment. I'm not to try to make any unjust excuses however with a small squad - injuries and suspensions have played a big part in the team conceding so many goals. Suffice to say, between all the talking points and all the goals there has hardly been a dull moment, great games to watch if you're a neutral.

Watching the Crues this season has at times been quite a pleasure. Norngirl hasn't much liked the cold of this winter but to create all those goals it's no shocker to say the Crues have some great attacking players in the team. The manager Stephen Baxter has continued to improve the side even from the highs of the Irish Cup Final in 2009.

It may still be early days but in my opinion the signing of the season so far has been Stuart Dallas.
Dallas was signed from Coagh United during the summer on the back of impressing in an Irish Cup game at Seaview last season. In my view he has been nothing short of a sensation (just enough for most of us to forgive him for supporting Liverpool ;) ).

I don't mean to give the guy a big ego but going by what we've seen it would be a travesty if he doesn't get signed by a club from across the water before long (hopefully to Leeds ;) ;) nudge nudge Simon Grayson). Whoever does snap him up will have a gem on their hands, if no one does, their loss will be Crusaders gain.

A lot of armchair football supporters might disagree but I believe Irish League players on their day can do anything a multimillionaire player in England can do, I mean look at the goal Matty Burrows scored for Glentoran against Portadown that got him nominated for FIFA goal of the Year.

The problem in terms of standard, as with footballers everywhere, is being able to repeatedly demonstrate the highest level of their skills on a very consistent basis. With some players you can just tell they have that ability in them. So far this season, Dallas has shown a lot of that consistency and typically his awareness and ability have been higher than his opposition who have often struggled to contain him. His control, movement and versatility is something you don't often see and you can just tell he has that something extra.

Aidan Watson and Stuart Dallas

Elsewhere in the team, Colin Coates has been solid and though the defence has conceded a lot, he has again been a rock when playing. He's a leader who has been able to influence games in the sides favour both in defence and up front.

Chris Morrow also deserves a big mention for his performances; having been out for a long time with a broken leg, he's now back to his post injury form this season. Arguably one of the best midfielders in the league, he has a trickery and finesse about his play that can easily open up a defence. Morrow has also been impressing elsewhere recently after being drafted into the role of goalie on two occasions, most notably 60 minutes in net in a 2-3 away victory over Newry City.

Another player who has shone more and more as the season has progressed is Aidan Watson. I'd say he hasn't had the plaudits in the press that his performances have deserved largely due to his position as a combative midfielder but ask any Crues fan and they'll let you know how much he's given to the side. Watson was signed by the Crues from Ballymena United at the start of the season and due to a bad leg break to Ryan McCann, Aidan gained a regular place in the side and has gone from strength to strength, the guy has quite a leap on him and doesn't let much past him or give much away.

I could sing the praises of so many of the side this season, with so many goals, there have been many highlights, some great goals and lots of dramatic twists both for and against.

What is certain, is that is that with four months left, the Crues still have so much to play for.
Though the league title is likely to be out of reach due to a dominant Linfield side whose depth of squad should see them through to the end, there is still the chance of a top 3 finish which would see the Crues make the qualifying rounds of European competition next season.

At the start of the season, my hope was just a top 6 finish and thankfully we're already all but mathematically there with 6 games to go before the split and to be honest that's me happy as it maintains the great progress the club has made in recent years.

Other than the bread and butter of the Irish League, Crusaders are also still in 2 cup competitions. Having reached the semi finals of the County Antrim Shield back in October - losing out to Glentoran 2-1, the team then missed out on a place in the CIS Cup Final on penalties against Lisburn Distillery in a one legged tie where we were the away side. With that in mind the team will be eager to go further in the 2 competitions remaining, especially the Irish Cup. This Saturday just gone saw the Crues reach the quarter finals with a hard fought 2-1 home win against a plucky Nortel side. 

Goal Kick Nortel Goalkeeper at Crusaders

In the draw Crusaders were drawn away against either Ballinamallard United or Lisburn Distillery. With Distillery likely to come out on top, it looks likely to be a re-match at Grosvenor with the Crues having a score to settle from that CIS Semi Final penalty shoot-out defeat.

The other cup competition is the Setanta Sports Cup. It will be the first time the Crues have been in this competition and we will be playing against opposition from the Eircom League of Ireland in a two legged Quater final tie in March. Whoever the Crues play, we're likely to be underdogs and it will be tricky but the good news is we'll be at home for the 2nd leg.

With so much still to play for I really can't wait for the games to roll around. There are some huge games coming up, games that are likely to make or break the heights the team can reach this season.
The first of those games is our next home game which is at 7.45 on Monday 21st February at Seaview, a game that is also going to be live on Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports HD1 if anyone wants a taster - though obviously being there in person holds many times the experience. 

Off the pitch there are also likely to be several developments with the clubs infrastructure in the months to come, as reported in the Crusaders FC match day program on Saturday, ..."contracts for the two new stands, turnstile areas, toilets and perimeter fence will commence on Tuesday 22nd February".

Good times, bring it on.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

14th February

Heart Shaped Balloons and ArrowTomorrow, the 14th Februrary, is the day that Norngirl and I try to forget. Sure we like a bit of romance and it's true we used to use this day as a day to portray our affections for one another in the form of presents and cards. I remember that we made some very sweet home made cards that would have been more epic and elaborate than most romantic comedies. It took us only a few years though to mutually begin to avoid the day altogether. With things like this hanging from the ceiling of Victoria Square Shopping Centre, it's still hard to avoid completely.

I'm not superstitious and I realise a lot of what I'm about to say comes down to chance and just an unfortunate sequence of events, the odds for which are long but as with any odds, always possible as long as the sequence can happen. The problem is, the alternative name for the unspeakable day seems to have a habit of being the day bad things happen.

It all began on our first Valentines day, that day Norngirl travelled over to England where I was at University. By 3pm on the 14th I was in an operating theatre and by all accounts, my appendix ruptured whilst I was on the operating table, spewing puss all over my innards. I spent the next few days wheeling a drip around a hospital ward as a precaution.

Sure, that could have happened any day but the next year, this day rolled around again, we went out for a meal and to the cinema. In the cinema, Norngirl received a call, her Granddad had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Since that day, any year we took part in such expressions bad things or bad news happened. We've tried to blank most of the smaller stuff from our memories. On years where we didn't celebrate, we blanked the day and did not speak of it's name, life continued as normal, no bad news received.

As I'm reading on other peoples blogs, not everyone is a big fan for their own reasons.

Norngirl obviously has a similar take to me on the issue and has recently blogged about siding with Team AntiCupid.

Angela over at Almost Incoherent Ramblings has expressed her dislike of this day too.

I think it would be fair to say that still somewhere on the fence, my favourite blogging Belfast Cabby over at Belfast Taxi has told us why he is likely to still participate.

There are also some people out there too who do seem to be looking forward to it, I don't want to pass on any bad luck so I'll not put up links of those not without an awareness of it's dark side, it's for their own safety!

Good look everyone, may your internal organs stay with you and may the day be quick and painless with no bad news. See you on the other side!

Friday, 11 February 2011

A Day in Dublin with a DUKW and a Duck

Vouchers and tickets stapled together, it was early morning on Saturday 5th February and we were heading down to the platform to board the Enterprise bound for Dublin. We've been down to the fair city of Dublin many times before, generally just to do the same old touristy things. This time was a little different, we didn't visit O'Connell street at all, what we did do was view the city from a Viking Splash Tour, take in some culture at The Chester Beatty Library and consume lots of food and drink, on the way seeing two forms of Duck and a full moon.

Dublin Cityscape on a wet day

It was an early start to the day - we were on the Enterprise and in the Republic of Ireland before the sun had risen. The Enterprise is the name of the train service which runs between Belfast and Dublin and it's quite a comfy ride. It takes about two and a quarter hours. We were heading down in relation to it being a friend's birthday and so it was early morning birthday cake and chatter as we coasted past the hills and by the shore of the East Coast of the island.

Smarties Cake on a Train

The sun wasn't out but the darkness had subsided. An overcast sky met us as we left Dublin Connolly train station and boarded the Luas (an overground tram service). We were headed to meet some friends of friends who were coming with us for the day out. After some Rooibos and some chocolate goodness, we headed back out into the thick of things through some light rain and wandered towards St Stephen's Green.

Entrance to St Stephens Green

As we passed by the sights and sounds of Ireland's capital city, we eventually arrived at a wet but well-kept St Stephen's Green and went to see if we could get ourselves on the next Viking Splash Tour. We couldn't get on the one just about to leave as there was too many of us but we were booked onto the next one so had a little time to pass by. We spent it with a quick trip to a chocolate shop that sold hot drinks followed by a walk around the Green.

St Stephen's Green pond

St Stephen's Green is pretty but on a wet day not really the most sheltered or idyllic place to be. We got a little wet but it was nice to see some ducks and some scenic landscaped gardens.

Duck eating leaves

Central Park in New York is now the park to beat in my experience and although St Stephen's Green is pretty for an inner-city park, there isn't a whole lot to do. We ended up just standing, chatting and taking photographs before it was time to head back and board the DUKW (pronouced Duck); these are former military vehicles designed for the Second World War and amphibious landings. As you can see, our DUKW was named Loki after the Norse God and as honorary Vikings for the trip, the tour helped us live up to the reputation of our boat's namesake.

Viking Splash Tours DUKW

We set off after a great introduction and everyone onboard was up for joining in; our driver and guide was very personable and funny too. On our first corner we were taking part in an event we'd seen unfold on previous trips that we'd always been jealous of. The people window shopping took it in good heart but they undoubtedly got a scare as this boat of tourists greeted them with a roar. In the past we'd have been on a red tour bus (one of those generic ones you see in every town) and been the ones being roared at. This time though, we were the ones doing the roaring and it was a lot more relaxed and funny.

The good-natured mischievous aspect of our tour was given back to us a little, though in a different form of medicine, by some dude who mooned the DUKW from outside a pub on the way up to St Patrick's Cathedral. That wasn't the only moon we witnessed because there was a construction worker later on in the tour who showed us a good half a moon by accident when climbing into the cab of his van. This wasn't really the craic we were after from the trip but it gave us all a bit of a laugh nevertheless.

The tour told us a lot about the city and compared to the other tours I'll certainly remember a lot of it. Something which is also both good and bad is that the Viking Splash Tour covers a slightly different area to the other tours. You'll not get dropped off anywhere on this tour and it won't go past the likes of the Guinness Storehouse but you do get to see some of the same streets and get a much friendlier experience - a lot of humour mixed in with the facts. The rest of the tour is different as you get to take a dip in the Grand Canal Harbour for one thing and roar at the Celt vessels and wannabe Viking Celts.

Dublin Grand Canal

The Splash part of the tour was fun but not as much fun as the driving around the city part. It did give a unique experience to a tour though and we got to see the likes of the Grand Canal Theatre.

Grand Canal Theatre

We were rather baffled when we heard the cost of its modern art frontage. It was nice to know it's not only Belfast that wastes far too much money on 'modern art'! From the water we also caught sight of the Wheel of Dublin as I mentioned here.

The tour was excellent and my favourite between that and the regular type of tour. Apparently there is a splash tour in Belfast too so I think we might have to give that a try sometime in the not-so-distant future. I'm not too sure though if it has the Viking theme which, it has to be said, added a lot to this tour.

After our swim it was back to dry land and back to the Green where we headed to the Metro Café to have a bite to eat. I had a BLT and though impressed with the service, I didn't really enjoy my BLT sandwich - too much sweet/vinegary stuff spread or absorbed into the bread for me. The portion sizes were good though and those who had the puddings said they were delicious.

In the late afternoon we had intended to go around Dublin Castle but as always seems the case with a day trip, we didn't have time to wait for the next guided tour.

Dublin Castle courtyard

The people at the desk there directed us to some alternative attractions around the area and we decided to take in a bit of culture and headed to the Chester Beatty Library to have a look at the collections there. The entrance price is FREE so it's hard to go wrong really. On the way we found a Garda office and some colourful buildings.

Garda light and window

Colourful buildings in Dublin

The first of the two exhibitions we visited were the Heroes and Kings of the Shahnama, which is an Iranian epic poem outlining many stories of morals and ethics with an almost nationalistic undercurrent. There were stories whose plots would be familiar from the myths and legends of the ancient Greeks and Romans, fairytales and even a character who holds quite a resemblance to the character of Dr Who.

The second exhibition we visited was the The Sacred Traditions Gallery, which was filled with a quick history of the some of the major religions of the world: Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. I learnt quite a bit about some of these, especially of those I'd heard little about before like Confucianism and Daoism. It was quite enlightening although I came out of it still thinking how mad it is that so many people believe so many different things, each thinking their one train of thought is the only correct path to some higher reward, their beliefs and customs generally passed down through history based on a geographical lottery and altered through time to suit and adapt to other cultures and the progress of rational thought. I've always liked toying with the idea of a cyclical existence though, almost like a game where the idea is to make it to the next level. Quite cultish I suppose but in a sci-fi kind of blue-sky thinking it could so easily be incorporated into many current theories of the universe and make quite a story, kind of like Supernatural meets Quantum Leap!

Once we'd read through these exhibits we left and made our way to a bar for some drinks. I can't remember the name of the bar we went to but I was told they change the art in there every few months. It had a lot of Irish Rugby fans watching the France vs Scotland game but we just wanted to rest our legs and have a drink so found a spot for us all in the corner. Rugby-mad and gay-friendly bars don't usually spring together in the mind but that's what this bar was and nice it was too, though as with anywhere in Dublin the drinks prices were a little extortionate. 5.50 for a glass of wine and 4.50 for a pint of Guinness - it did go down easier with the straw though.

Pint of Guinness with a Straw

We stayed for a good two hours or so then it was time to head to a restaurant for some dinner. Again I can't remember the name of the place we went to but it sold a mixture of Italian and Chinese dishes. Stir Fried vegetables and Chicken in a Blackbean/Soy sauce with Pasta is the dish I went for. It was yummy and we were very surprised by the bill in a nice way. It seems food = cheap and drink = expensive in Dublin which is odd for a place with so many bars and so many breweries!

River Liffey in Dublin at Night

As with all day trips, they tend to end quickly, and before we knew it we had to leave to make a quick dash back across the River Liffey in order to make it to the train station to get the last train home to Belfast. It had been a fun day and we had a nice ride home, the icing on top of which happened to be some great football results.

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Wheel of Dublin?

At the weekend we made it down to Dublin on the train. More about that shortly but in the meantime I just wanted to post the news of a quick celebrity spotting. It seems I'm just slow to realise these things but it turns out, the famous Belfast Wheel (located by Belfast City Hall from November 2007 to April 2011), is moonlighting in Dublin as the Wheel of Dublin!

The Wheel of Dublin

The operators of the wheel, WTA (World Tourist Attractions) opened the attraction at North Wall Quay back in July 2010 a few months after it was removed from Belfast. Maybe I should read more in the local press as Ken Sweeney in the Belfast Telegraph told us this at the time. Ken says that the developers hope to get 2 years out of the wheel. Maybe then there is a chance that with the plans for the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, the attraction might be able to be convinced to wheel it's way back into town... if not the same one, maybe it's twin or something similar?

I remember there was word on the grape vine back at the time that such a move might be part of the plans. I certainly hope they are true. After travelling over the flyover today by the Odyssey, it seems the first stages of construction of the Titanic Signature Building are well under way. I can't find a timeline at the moment for stage 2 of the Titanic Quater project but hopefully it'll be a big boost to Belfast once completed... perhaps enough to convince anyone involved, to bring this or other attractions into town?

As I mentioned in my belated farewell to the Belfast Wheel back in May last year, the Wheel has a special place in our memories as it was at the top of it where Norngirl and I got engaged back in 2008. It was nice to see it again. Maybe next time we're down in Dublin we might take a spin on it for old times sake. To us though, it'll always be the Belfast Wheel even if it now looks over a different City.


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