Saturday, October 09, 2021

My internal dialogue on football, Newcastle, oligarchs and Venky's

Why haven't you done one of your self-regarding and pompous blogs about the Newcastle takeover? Don't you care about murdered journalists?

I feel genuinely exhausted by all the commentary and back-and-forth on the Newcastle United takeover and pretty much every conversation about global football, investment trends and how everyone from your barber to the bloke that stands next to the fruit machine in the pub are now experts on sovereign wealth funds and cultural relativism.

So, you think you're above such banalities then? It's fine for you as the one-time editor of a business magazine, friend of football club directors and would-be owners of your club to have an opinion, but not now, right?

Everything that has been said and done has been said and done. Proper journalism's David Conn, a very good piece on an Arsenal website, and another piece by David Goldblatt in the Guardian, of course, which blames New Labour, obviously. It's the natural progression of the modern form of capitalism, acquisition of soft power assets by sovereign wealth funds to either greenwash or sports wash their reputation for a time when the oil runs out, or a UK passport gets secured. And something to do with TV rights and piracy in the Middle East and Qatar, or something.

Ah, so it's a government issue, not a moral one, that if only there was better regulation and enforcement of the rules on fit and proper persons who can own a football club, is that what you're saying? 

Do you know how many current Premier League and Championship owners would be barred from owning a club if the rules could by some miracle be enforced retrospectively? None. Not a single one. They aren't designed to block global tycoons, nation-states or oligarchs, they're meant to be a bar to the kind of local crook too thick to operate through an offshore trust.

Or a rapist?

Indeed. But equally I don't remember Blackpool fans complaining about Owen Oyston when Blackpool got promoted to the Premier League. Only when he took all the money, stiffed his Latvian business partner and laughed in the faces of the fans did it become an issue. Nothing in the rules prevented him from doing any of that.

So clubs should be co-operatives of local basket weavers run for the benefit of that nebulous and slightly contorted word "the community"? Basically, you're just tilting at windmills here, aren't you?

So if you follow the logical progression of football club ownership, this is all inevitable and therefore you price it in and swallow it? Skint local businessman gets bailed out by either highly skilful overleveraged and very lucky local businessman, who then flips it to national semi-celebrity businessman, or possibly a European with UK connections to the financial laundry of the City of London, who then realises he then needs to cash-out to either an oligarch, a nation-state, or a financially engineered American. 

Go on...

So if every club goes through a version of that progressive game of snakes and ladders, then the end result is a very wealthy Premier League, an ever more desperate Championship of clubs desperate to get into that cycle, and you just have to hope your club is owned by someone at the top of that slightly grotesque foodchain.

There's the German model?

If we had the German model of fan ownership then one of the big red teams would win the league every season, for a start. Plus, I used to have similar discussions when I worked in the education sector. You have to fix the fundamentals of the economy to get that model. The European Super League thing hasn't gone away you know.   

So you walk away from football then? Boycott it?

I see what you did there. So you either bail out of football entirely, go and support a non-league club, or suck it up. I think that's led us to the moral cop-out that says we can no more boycott football - it's too important - than we can give up using electricity.

But what about the long-suffering Newcastle fans burdened by the trauma of the Mike Ashley era, don't they have the right to a better future?

I don't care. Why do they think they're going to win anything anytime soon? In that world where every club is super-wealthy, only one team can win the Champions League, only one can win the league. And here's the other uncomfortable truth. Three of them have to be relegated. And who says it's a better future?

Will foreign ownership of football clubs end up being the same as the colonial slave trade issue of the future? Shamefully hiding their human rights reputations in investments into failing clubs…

Yes, kind of. But if you look at Manchester City it's been a well-run investment in a successful club that has also managed to project the new modern image of the UAE. As long as things are going well, the projection of that image looks good. You'll also see in the next year a series of well crafted long reads about Saudi Arabia's new generation of leaders moving on from Wahabi Islam, becoming a more tolerant and cohesive society, rooting out corruption and the old ways. How the ownership of Newcastle United is a gift to the people of the North East, consistent with the mainstream values of a technologically connected world. How tolerance and mutual respect for diversity of cultures is part of Saudi Arabia's step out of the dark ages.  

You're just jealous. I saw what your fans were saying on Twitter. Hoping for a rich Saudi to buy Blackburn, and you didn't stop supporting your team when a tax-dodger bought the Premier League, did you? Wouldn't you want Blackburn to be owned by a billionaire?

Blackburn Rovers literally is owned by a family which at the last time of checking was valued in the billions. But Venky's aren't stupid enough to break the rules of financial fair play on a gamble that may get us into the Premier League, but they are also somehow unwilling to walk away and plunge the club into liquidation. And I'd contest the Jack Walker description, a little bit, but Blackburn Rovers are very much on that conveyor belt of ownership. We got very, very lucky, played our hand well, then got very, very unlucky and were financially rinsed by a series of disastrous decisions made by people who didn't have the long term interests of the club at heart. No one truly knows what went on there except the Rao family, Steve Kean and Jerome Anderson. Portsmouth went through something similar too, they even went down the fan ownership route after having a financial disaster - and opted for the rich American option. But there's a long term structural reason why our club is currently where we are, the fan base, the tradition, the size of the town and the catchment area. As for expecting me to defend "your fans" though, really?

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Radcliffe to Wembley - the latest twist

Thanks for having me, Radcliffe, it's been great getting to know you.

It was a bruising physical duel at Radcliffe today that saw Morpeth Town upset the odds with a 3-1. The damage was done in a first half performance that saw luck on their side as they snatched three goals that proved too big a margin for the hosts to overcome.

I can't put my finger on what Radcliffe lacked, the first goal felt like it was against the run of play and that they'd get one back quickly. The second was a scramble from a corner, and the third had them shell shocked at how easy Morpeth swept it in, but it takes nothing away from a gutsy defensive showing from the visitors from the North East, who consistently played out from the back with real confidence. 

My friend Steven joined me for this stage on the journey and once again we were greeted at the gate by our mate Alan Townley, a Boro director, who is a popular and well-known local personality, known by name and reputation even amongst the young lads behind the goal who chanted his name at one point. 

I'm now anxiously awaiting Monday's draw and hoping Morpeth's name is paired with somewhere new and interesting (and not too far away).

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Lunch of the month - Cafe Marhaba

We're supposed to be back to some kind of normal, so this blog is resuming the tradition of picking a 'lunch of the month'. I'm not going to be testing the steaks at Hawksmoor, or trying to make a pitch to be some kind of foodie blogger, it's more of a thing about what you might grab in and around work, pitched at under a tenner.

The variety this time will be that I mainly work from home, so I might pop into Marple and other spots locally. For that reason, the new butty shop in Bredbury - Bread- Brie - is an early strong contender. Their steak canadienne with gravy and onions was sumptuous. I've also had decent bacon butties at both The Locks and Red Pepper in Marple.

I've got a few things going on in Stockport as well, and there's much to commend the Produce Hall, the market area and some other gems. 

Then there's Tameside, where I need to get out and about. As a local radio personality and newspaper columnist I need to know my patch much better. So far, I haven't found one that can top Lily's in Ashton, which the recent Manchester Food and Drink Awards also acknowledged.

Being only a hop skip and a jump from Manchester means there are plenty of choices within easy reach, but it's a slightly different dynamic than when I started this a couple of years ago and I was permanently based near Oxford Road.

I've had a couple of trips into Manchester to try and drum up business and do a day's work, that have also involved food, and my eldest son Joe lives in the city centre. All have been pretty good, but one was outstanding. Gorilla's burger was as good as I remember it. I tried the Levenshulme Bakery shwarma and it was decent. Wing's in the Arndale Market is reliable, and a bit of a guilty pleasure.

But the winner was Cafe Marhaba in Back Piccadilly, an unlikely setting, but their Instagram page has tantalised me for 18 months. It has a deserved cult status amongst those who know of its clay oven, the delicate bread, the taste of texture of the curries. I have really missed it, so much so I couldn't settle on what to have so I went for the trusty rice and three, lamb, chicken and keema. Astonishing. Other places do dependable rice and three, but no-one comes close with bread like this. I had a garlic naan, my pal had a chilli one. Superb.

If you fancy joining me or suggesting somewhere - and I tagged a few potential lunch chums on the Twitter - then let's do this.


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Playing the long game - some big university deals come off

I had a couple of little tickles of pride this week as a few things I'd been involved in at Manchester Metropolitan University came to fruition.

In 2018, I made sure the University was fully part of the Civic University Commission inquiry, led by Lord Kerslake, eventually leading to the signing, with Mayor Andy Burnham, of the Greater Manchester Civic Universities Agreement this week. It covers degree apprenticeships, equipping our public services, contributing to the strategies of the city region. and making sure research has true impact locally.

I wasn't sure where we'd get to when I introduced Health colleagues to officers from Stockport Council, but Stockport's Academy of Living Well looks like a glorious legacy of that ambition.

I picked up National Geographic Traveller magazine today and was really chuffed to see trails for the new Poetry Library as one of Manchester's new cultural jewels. I remember when I first started to talking to the VC about joining back in 2015 and it was his passion for this project that convinced me he was taking the institution on an exciting journey. 

But the pet project I most want to see is tantalisingly close and I wish everyone involved the very best of luck.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Always judge a magazine by its cover

I'm still a sucker for a new magazine, not just as a reader, but as someone who's been into the whole process all of my working life. I love to pick up something I've never seen before and thumb through it, check out the advertisers, think about the production meetings that led to the different design decisions that were made. I always ask, who it is for? And wonder if there are enough of them to sustain it.

A few new titles I've liked recently have included a trendy business magazine called Courier, which feels a bit like Monocle. A men's fashion concept aimed at old hooligans like me, Paninaro. The design style is striking and it has a real clear personality and a curiosity about it. The interview with JJ Connolly in issue 002 is very good indeed. I really liked Faith magazine, a freebie about clubs and house music that was packed with really good interviews and recollections. I've not sat down to read my latest purchase, but it's a niche wee project called Turnstiles, produced by a Blackburn Rovers fan, Chris O'Keefe.

The most important page in any magazine is the cover. It's the one that I would think about first and last whenever I was the editor, and planning ahead or thinking through the bigger message any title needed to say. The first magazine I edited I worked with the fantastically talented Andrea Horwood, who went on to build Australian Style magazine. She was a fabulous stylist and I bowed to her judgement on her choice of interesting looking cover models. I've just found a print of a cover featuring Kylie from 1994 that's on sale at an auction for A$1200, which rather proves the point.

When I worked in the UK Britfilm magazine sector in the 1990s we were spoilt for choices of imagery, given the subject matter, but I tended towards something with an eye-catching visual effects story to draw the eye to the cover lines. Or something from a TV series I liked, such as Cold Feet.

At Insider I was much more interested in conceptual stories and created some great covers with designer Damien Wiehl. I think of only a handful of single personality led covers, I just don’t think anyone in the regional business community could justify that kind of rock star status. In my office now I still have the framed print of the cover from 2007 bearing my award-winning story of the collapse of retailer Music Zone. For me it has everything, it's brash, it's about the story, it projects it accurately and it's remarkably simple.

All of this is pointing towards a trip to Rare Mags in Stockport's Underbanks, a delightful shop with a love of design and print that still gets me excited.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Binge reading

I've written before (yesterday, in fact) how I tend to jump in and absorb everything I can from certain authors. It isn't a recent thing either, in my early 20s I ripped through all the output of Carl Hiaasen, Mark Timlin, Elmore Leonard and James Crumley in a splurge of murder and mayhem. I loved the American literary brat pack - Donna Tartt, Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInernay. In my year in Australia I couldn't get enough of Milan Kundera, which then switched me on to Raymond Carver in pretty short order. Even as a young kid I think I read all of Enid Blyton, Rev W Awdry, Herge and Michael Hardcastle.

It was a good job George Orwell was a set text at English A level, because I'd read everything he'd done by the time I was 16 - diaries, journalism, all his novels and most potently of all Homage to Catalonia. We studied 1984 and it provided no challenge at all.

Sometimes this doesn't leave much space to let others in. Maybe it should.

One of my guilty pleasures is Tony Parsons (the other was Lee Child, but he's basically given up now). I know it's fashionable to diss him and he does himself no favours with his opinionated column in the newspaper I refuse to buy or refer to, but I do like his new series of Max Wolfe dark detective novels. It seems that the hard-boiled crime genre I was so taken with is now the resting place of different types of novelists. 

There is nothing guilty about liking Chris Brookmyre and his excellent Parlabane series, but he's definitely gone darker and more noir. 

I'd say my favourites currently are Val McDermid, Joseph Knox and John Niven.

As a latecomer, I'm a little daunted at Val's output but life will always be worth looking forward to as long as there is another Val to go to; I'm up to date with John Niven though his first book, Music From Big Pink, must have passed me by and I've just borrowed it from the library. I think my favourite is No Good Deed, but nothing prepared me for the sheer unadulterated splenetic joy of the 'gateway Niven' experience of Kill Your Friends

This weekend I binged on Joseph Knox's True Crime Story, set in Manchester, which I've written about in my column in the local paper and will link to it here when it's out. It is one of the most startling and different crime books I've read. Really smart and very well written, just like his previous three, but a real game-changer. 

Next up for me is The Survivors by Jane Harper, an Australian writer who I picked up on a couple of years ago. And as soon as she's got another out, I'm on it.


Sunday, September 26, 2021

Lancashire folk horror - a dark place

Last year, as we lurched into lockdown and I was task-avoiding the final flourish on writing my thesis, I got absorbed in folk horror. It sort of coincided with a ratcheting-up of my enthusiasm for fell walking and discovering the countryside. 

Maybe it was the shrinking of our world to what was within reach that made me deeply yearn for what lay beyond. My morning walk and cycle ride saw me become fascinated with things that hadn't caught my attention - a disused piece of farm machinery became my companion and I would stop and speak to it every day, an emotional crutch and a recipient of dark thoughts. I even gave her a name - Darkness. I would also seek out abandoned barns and remote dwellings, sometimes off the beaten track, but also sometimes just tucked away, and let us remember here, they all had a Greater Manchester postcode.

I'll lay my cards on the table. Folk horror is a sometimes shocking but always dramatic film genre, never passive, never unchallenging, I can take it in small doses, but horror still works better in film than in literary fiction. The origin story starts with Michael Reeves’Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) but the most shocking modern film that can trace a line back - particularly to the latter classic - is Midsommar (2019), directed by Ari Aster, also responsible for the seriously terrifying Hereditary (2018).

Here's the thing though, seeing something grotesque, otherworldly and weird is terrifying and the tricks of light and sound make it all-consuming. Reading about it is just a bit odd, but far harder to accomplish as a writer. 

I say this because in fairly short order I read all three of Lancashire writer Andrew Michael Hurley's novels - the Loney, Devil's Day and Starve Acre. What I liked about all three were the dramatic descriptions of place. All three were set in locations I know a little of - the Lune Estuary, the Trough of Bowland and, less so, the Yorkshire Moors. Life feels hard for all of the characters in them, the plots are all tight, odd, and well-paced. Hurley told my friend, the writer Mark Sutcliffe, that the greatest compliment he could receive would be that if you felt you were there, in the mud, on the moors and feeling the rain, then he's done his job. I'd agree with that, and he is very, very good at atmospheric descriptive writing.

Yes, there's a but coming. 

I couldn't quite buy the supernatural elements, yet in each story they are the things I remembered most vividly, and it's what gives me the shivers. I wonder out loud whether stripping them out would make them well-told thrillers, worthy of something a writer of the output and pedigree of Val McDiarmuid would do, but otherwise just bleak Northern noir. 

I note that Hurley has a contribution to a horror collection out soon, and maybe, just maybe, a writer of his skill and growing confidence could win me over to the deeply weird and the terrifyingly eerie.