Wednesday, December 11, 2019

This thing of ours - so lucky


I've said before how much I cherish our trips to the football with two of my lads. The rock on which this is built is partly our bond, but also the underlying foundation of football culture in our country. Sometimes it can be toxic and repellent, but for the most part we need to remind ourselves that it is a collective pursuit of a common good and something unifying in a time of division. Afterall, all living is meeting, and we have a really good laugh along the way.

We had a great fun day out in the sponsors lounge at Stoke with a mate and his business colleagues, who generously let the lads present the man of the match award to a gutted Joe Allen. He's probably our favourite Stoke player, though that's particularly for his international performances as the Welsh Xavi. 

Then the next Saturday, on the train home from our win over Derby, three lads from Finland got on my horrible Northern Rail train home at Manchester Piccadilly. They'd been to Everton v Chelsea, they were then heading for Norwich for a game the next day to see the Canaries Finnish striker Teemu Pukki. Clearly they were on the wrong train, having been as confused as I often am by Platform 13, and I so hope they managed to get to Carrow Road eventually. But in that short space of a journey to Stockport we talked about so much, mainly Shefki Kuqi, Stockport County and next year's European Championships, the first major tournament Finland have qualified for.

"You are so lucky," one said, while his mate shuffled anxiously through the Trainline app to find another route across our rail network. "To have this football culture in your country. We have nothing like this." He's so right, we are lucky.


Tuesday, December 03, 2019

New blog feature - Manchester lunches - and the first winner is... R&V



I've started a new feature on this blog and on Instagram. Manchester lunches.

It's not a fine dining extravaganza, but where I might go in the middle of the day, either with someone I'm externally engaging with (it's my job, afterall), or catching up with one of the sons.

I picked my best one each week through November, which included Tampopo (quality but pricey and in a poor location), Cafe Istanbul (solid and filling) and VietShack in Ancoats, which did a spectacularly spicy and dirty plate of Viet fries.

But the best all round lunch of this month was a new discovery, R and V on Oxford Street opposite Churchgate House, HQ of the Greater Manchester Mayor and other 'family' institutions. I went with a politician from one of the Boroughs who highly recommended it. He wasn't wrong. The ciabatta was a decent base for a Brasilien chicken salad sandwich with pineapple, cashews and salad. Really fresh and tasty. Another major plus was the space downstairs with a really chilled ambience.

The comments on the post also suggested that the owner really knows what he's doing and has the respect of some decent foodie types.

I’m getting quite militant about this now, there really is no excuse for eating crap at lunchtime in the city centre.

Friday, November 29, 2019

A grand day out in Sunderland - the People's Powerhouse


I came away from the People's Powerhouse convention in Sunderland earlier this month with two burning thoughts. The first was the way we use language and the way we refer to actual people. These can be emotional times and we have to be feisty to get what we want. And there’s a but coming. But there has never been a more urgent need to dial down the hate and to channel the anger. There are other people out there who want to build walls. I loved the Tortoise Media “think in” about how we can fix British politics, partly because I despair of the choice we’re faced with. But we need to go out and have conversations like that in communities, in cafes, in church halls, in schools and workplaces. I want to build bridges; and that means an urgent conversation with people when you might not like what they have to say.

The second thought was the power of “one”. Nazir Afzal’s talk was both joyous and shocking. Any conversation will shock and upset when it talks about victims of rape, grooming gangs, terrorists and, yes, family members who thought they were killing for ‘honour’. But it was joyous for how one man uses his impatience, persistence and canny sense of timing to correct wrongs. We need to take on bad people in workplaces and communities. That needs to fuel a narrative of love, against the easy answers of hate. And I know that’s hard.

I love the spirit of the People’s Powerhouse. I’ll be honest, I still like the idea of the northern powerhouse. But creating an unstoppable movement in the middle of perfect storm isn’t easy. But we don’t have a choice. We have no choice at all.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Two games in two days - and the goal of the season so far





I had the good fortune to go to two games this week. On Tuesday I was part of a group at work who took some international visitors to see Pep Guardiola's Manchester City in the Champions League v Shakta Donetsk, fully expecting them to present a masterclass in tika taka pass and move.

That came last night instead at Blackburn Rovers' 1-0 win over Brentford. In fact, if Raheem Sterling had scored that goal after starting a flowing move linking in Kevin de Bruyne, Fernandinho, Gabriel Jesus and Gundogan then it would be hailed as the goal of the season. For us it was a great way to win a game in some style. Something that says that on our day Blackburn Rovers are a decent team.

The stand out performances last night were Corry Evans and Danny Graham. I say that without any slight intended on any other player. They each of them brought the very best out of the other players around them, Evans to Travis, Graham to Dack. Danny Graham is such a leader on the pitch, he defends well at set pieces, he encourages other younger players, and he reads the game ever so well. He should be the first name on the team sheet.

Remind me of this day the next time I get all negative on them. See you all at Stoke.

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Missing Crypto Queen - the story of the year



My favourite podcast of the year has been a real roller coaster of a story, the gripping tale of Ruja Ignatova, the so-called Crypto Queen of the so-called crypto currency One Coin, who seemingly vanished in 2017. I tried to book Jamie Bartlett to come back and speak in Manchester last year but he said he was involved in something which would blow my mind, and recommended his mate Carl Miller instead. He wasn't wrong (and Carl was great, as I said at the time).

More than just a radio documentary, Jamie has managed to create a compelling platform of information and an active network around the story. Jamie's narration, the use of music, the trust of experts, the whole feel of the production crafted by producer Georgia Catt. Jamie has written a really useful long read, here, which provides background, captures everything, but shouldn't stop you from delving in and listening to the series if you haven't already.

In the days when I used to write about conmen and scams I came across several individual acts of callous nastiness, all helped along by added helpings of delusion and greed. This has all those hallmarks on a massive industrial scale, but also with the added dimension of One Coin being almost cult-like, exploiting some of the poorest people in the world. It brings in global money laundering, tax havens and the dark web. In short it's a belting true crime tale for these dark times.

I can't believe it's not been a bigger story, and I'm now avidly following the trial in New York of some of the players in this unfolding drama. You can follow that here on a fabulous site called Inner City Press, which is all over the detail.

It feels like a real frontier moment, not just for crypto currencies, but also for the methods the BBC have deployed to get the story out.  Highly recommended.

Vinyl Finals 1980 - what a collection

The New Musical Express throughout the 1980s was at the very centre of my world, not only musically but politically and culturally too. Reading writers like Stuart Maconie really made me want to be a journalist. So to see this astonishing list of the vinyl finals 1980, from my 14th year, is something else. And then there’s this iconic photograph of Joy Division by Kevin Cummins on a bridge that I casually walk across between buildings at work.

It's hard to pick a favourite out of this lot, but it’s either Atmosphere, Going Underground or Treason.

There’s a Spotify playlist so you can make up your own mind, here.

Afterall, that’s the biggest lesson I learned of all in that decade, think for yourself and change your mind if you want. I had a great reaction on Facebook when I shared this there. Enjoy.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Never felt less like singing the blues

Riverside Twitter Rovers - Me, Ian, Joe, Jim, Louis, David



I always want Rovers to win. Always. Any winning goal is worth celebrating. Every time. And there's nothing wrong with winning ugly. Nothing at all.

So why did we leave Ewood so flat last night? I don't really pay much attention to Rovers Twitter beyond my own small group of pals (above), nor am I on the message boards, so I'm not aware of the sentiment that actively wants a defeat in order to hasten Tony Mowbray's departure. Nor do I want that. And there have been Rovers teams in my fairly recent memory with far fewer players worth getting excited about. So I think it is about the roller coaster of emotions and that the highs of yesterday only just cancelled out the lows. Enough to cheer the final whistle, but not quite enough to dance along the front of the Riverside.

It's partly about expectations. Here were the pre match pluses: we pre-ordered our pies from Leavers, Darragh Lenihan was back, Lewis Holtby was playing, Lewis Travis was playing, Joe Rothwell was starting. But I tweeted before we set off that I fully expected a frustrating and dire 1-1 draw. That's what I've become conditioned to expect this season. Once the game got going, I just couldn't see it clicking for us. Every good thing Amari Bell did seemed to follow up with a mistake. Sam Gallagher was having a nightmare stuck out on the wing. Bradley Dack was up for it, he scored, but wasn't getting decisions, which riles him.

It seems there's a golden thread in this side that when it clicks then that thread shines out. Dack's unpredictable artistry, Holtby's intelligence, Lenihan and Toisin's desire to play out from the back. Rothwell. And Travis. But there's also a thread of crap that when you tug it, then the whole tapestry unravels. Then we're left looking at Elliot Bennett's hopeless crosses, Bell's errors, Walton flapping and a collective lack of energy that says to the opposition 'we're here for the taking'. Fair play to Barnsley for spotting that. John Buckley's introduction seemed to be to better protect Bennett. Rothwell looked a danger whenever he got space to run at. Adam Armstrong didn't. I get the argument that Danny Graham isn't the long term solution, but neither is lobbing long balls at a little bloke, and sticking a lanky striker on the wing. I can't quite get over that.

We can't make it on Wednesday to see the Brentford game, but will be at Stoke next weekend. I wonder which thread will turn up? And whether anyone will give either of them a hard tug.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Old habits and Blackburn Rovers




We have rules and habits and rituals around our football day out that probably defy logic and sense. We could probably park somewhere more convenient. My commitment to my health and fitness at an intensive gym session on the morning of a home match is directly contradicted by the consumption of a potato and meat pie from Leavers bakery three hours later.

It becomes a pattern, a formation for the day. Something we expect and price in to the whole experience.

Similarly, I think our reactions have become deeply programmed as well: confusion about who is supposed to be playing where as the team emerges and takes shape; frustration with the referee who gives Bradley Dack too few decisions; an intake of breath as Christian Walton receives a back pass; a groan of irritation as a free kick in the opposition’s half is squandered into a series of pointless sideways passes and a fruitless punt upfield. And finally the bafflement at Tony Mowbray’s substitutions.

It was all of that and more yesterday. But if we have our rituals it sometimes seems the players and the manager have theirs; ultimately ending in an interview on BBC Radio Lancashire where Mowbray says he has been left “frustraaaaaaated”.

Me too, Tony.

So it was expected to be yesterday when we conceded a bad goal with 5 minutes left on the clock. The heads go down, the fans go quiet, the away fans finally make some noise (almost as much as a tiny number of them did, disgracefully, during the minute’s silence for the war dead). Mowbray brings on 20 year old John Buckley - who I still think of as a nippy prospect for Signol Athletic in the Stockport Metro League under 14s - and I roar out: “what’s the point of that, Mowbray? Are you trying to destroy his confidence?”

But we never leave early. Despite all of what I’ve come to expect, all that is predictable and confirms our deep internal biases, football is beautiful because of what then followed. Rovers did come from behind to win a game by the same fine margins that could have seen it and many others go the wrong way.

You can attach a bigger meta narrative to everything that went on today, but all that it said to me was that against all my expectations, football is joyous because it can surprise us.

And though we might tweak any or all of the little things we do that contribute to a match day, the one thing we never do is leave early. We stay to the end. But not for the fireworks.