Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Blackburn Rovers, overcoached, and not experienced enough at winning

The old fellah behind us in the Riverside drips with sarcasm and berates this team with a cutting savage wit. But he said something to us at half time that struck home for me; Tony Mowbray’s side is overcoached. They work too hard on the complicated things that they’ve forgotten to get the basics right.

The same ball lofted in towards the useless Danny Graham. Ryan Nyambe’s desperate seeking out of a square ball or a back pass to Mulgrew. It all smacks of a rigid training ground plan that has no alternative.

What’s worse, looking through the team, is that there are no winners. Who has won anything? Who has been part of a strong, sustained winning team? Mulgrew and Caddis at Celtic? No, that doesn’t count.

That was awful stuff. This division is where we truly deserve to be, get used to it.

PS - fair play to Plymouth fans for making that trip in such numbers.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Not fit to wear the shirt?

There’s a word that I’ve come up against in a child-rearing and mental health context recently that I haven’t quite been able to shake.

Catastrophise.

I could add the dictionary definition here for you, but here’s what I think it means. To react to something disappointing, some kind of setback, in a completely over-the-top and irrational way. To deduce from one event or situation that there is a catastrophe, a crisis, a disaster.

That’s what happened at Boundary Park, Oldham, yesterday. We lost 1-0. We deserved to lose. The performance was way below what Rovers fans have come to expect this season (more on that later). At the final whistle, fans near me were swearing, shouting, venting. The cry was ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’. During the game there were people around me shouting for multiple players to be subbed off, even when we only had one more change to make.

Rewind to last month’s trip to Shrewsbury. The team were undeservedly cheered off the pitch. Personally I thought that was a far worse performance than Oldham and we were very lucky to get a point. We didn’t deserve anything.

Would they have been lauded yesterday at Oldham if Elliot Bennett hadn’t missed an open goal? Or Peter Whittingham’s shot bounced under the crossbar and in and if somehow we managed to not fluff a goalmouth scramble? Probably. Sport is all about fine margins, but ultimately about scoring the goals, or winning the race, or building the points total.

I’ve got my own opinions about the players we’ve got, and I respect that my view is as subjective and potentially flawed as anyone else’s, but the following may put me at odds with the consensus:
  • I like Peter Whittingham, he rarely gives the ball away, he creates space and makes good passes. I don’t expect him to run fast any more than I expect David Raya to take good throw-ins. 
  • Harry Chapman can glide past the first player, but not the second. He’s got a petulant streak and I don’t think we should start with him. 
  • Bradley Dack is great. We need more of him and he contributes something to every game he plays in. If we go on and do well, he will be key. 
  • Defensively, Charlie Mulgrew is a liability. If he doesn’t take a good free kick or a corner, and he didn’t yesterday, then he’s not much better in a game than the hapless Elliot Ward, who gets all the blame and no credit for anything he contributes.
  • Richie Smallwood, battler though he is, gives the ball away too much. Jack Byrne taught him a lesson in how to power a midfield engine room yesterday. 
  • Danny Graham has nothing to offer at this level.
The trouble is, we’re a third division team now. I thought the result yesterday was disappointing. The performance was inadequate. The reaction though was depressing. I’m up for this season and I’m prepared for more days like this. How much of this will be forgotten if we beat bottom of the table Plymouth on Tuesday? Will it be a return to form and a team of world beaters again? Time for us all to toughen up and stop catastrophising.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The problem with the Conservative Party

This could be a very long blog, such are the depths and the extent of the problems "in" the Conservative Party, but this series of remarks are intended primarily to address the problem "with" each party. That said, the evidence is plentiful. Given I've been up close and personal with six different ministers during their party conference in Manchester, the insights and observations just keep coming thick and fast. In some cases 'thick' being the operative word. I don't honestly believe that the Tories are evil, nor do I think they are the 'stupid' party, but their collective and individual ability to commit acts of great stupidity simply reinforce the view that they are (to quote one commentator this week) "malevolent privileged scumbags". It is the gift that keeps on giving to their political opponents.

The embodiment of all of this is Boris Johnson; too clever by half, boorish, bumbling and yet deeply loved by the activists. Sometimes his excesses can be tempered by the boring sensible technocrats in his own cabinet - likable ministers like Greg Clark and Damian Green - or even in his own family. Though his more clever younger brother Jo committed a gaffe about students having the choice to live frugally, which played directly into the narrative that they are detached from how most people live their lives.

At the start of the 2017 conference there appeared to be a deep desire for this gathering to reset their core values, to take their base philosophy apart and come up with a sensible vision of the future. In so doing it would discover the reasons why their support among every expanding demographic is declining, this, from CapX is good on that. Fair play then to Tim Montgomerie and his new venture UnHerd and this piece on ten things every Conservative should dwell on; respect to Roger Scruton for this radio piece on what conservatism is (they are for responsibility, liberals for freedom, socialists for equality); here is Ruth Davidson on reforming capitalism; and probably the second most interesting Tory politician around is George Freeman, who created the Big Ideas Festival which Jamie Barttlett does a decent job of dissecting here.

But none of that has been the story. None of that seems to have any cut through. The mess of Brexit, the weak divided government and an aimless Prime Minister was summed up in the omnishambles of her conference speech. The coughing, the stunt with the P45, the letters on the backdrop falling off, the coded body language of her cabinet members all rendered all of the above efforts utterly useless. Even her own laudable policies to tackle big systemic issues like housing, skills and energy prices will have fallen apart before I've hit 'Publish'.

But this is the biggest learning of the Tories, despite all of this, they're going to stick with Theresa May for a couple of years. They're going to torture this poor and unwell woman because they can, but also because they have no alternative yet. IBut they also have the time, they have the one thing the party exists for - to secure power and to never let it go.

The topline narrative is that the Tories are playing out a succession drama but as Matthew D'Ancona says they still need to confront that deeper and more profound existential question and develop a vision of the future that people can get: "That proposition needs to be explained in language that speaks to every home and those who long for their own home; to people who believe with every fibre in their being that they have no stake in the status quo, and that more Toryism means more poverty, more inequality, more misery."

The trouble is, this is the sort of thing that usually goes on inside an opposition party as they dust themselves down after a defeat. The immediate problem for the Tories is that they are in government and don't seem to have the foggiest as to what to do.

Next week: the problem with a new centre party

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The problem with the Labour Party

The party transformed, cartoon from Progress
This could be a short blog. The problem with Labour is it is now a left wing political party. In itself that is the problem, but it doesn't answer the point as to why that's problematic. But this phase will persist. The party of Attlee, Wilson and Blair is no more.

Over the summer Paul Mason said, quite rightly, that this is a left wing party now, it is Jeremy Corbyn's party and that anyone who doesn't like it can go. Here's another Corbyn loyalist, Claudia Webbe, demanding not just unity, but surrender. George Eaton in the New Statesman writing on how the left triumphed still doesn't answer the question about whether the solutions they offer will work, but it speaks to the paucity of sensible, practical ideas in the centre of British politics and instead the triumph of easy answers that worked for Donald Trump and the campaign to Leave the EU.

But it's not just a left wing party, but something worse: a home for those who revel in it as a truly nasty party. I literally run out of examples on a daily basis, but this is bad enough. For a significant part of the membership and the Corbyn fans, the story of a BBC journalist needing a bodyguard for her personal safety isn't something to be ashamed of. This betrays not a kinder gentler politics but a world in which there aren't journalists and opponents, but enemies. The comments and tweets under the line on this piece by Gaby Hinsliff are horrific, as is the call for the Jewish Labour Movement to be expelled from the party. That this is even being discussed, applauded and tolerated at the conference fringe of a mainstream party is a stain on our democracy.

But for me one of Labour's biggest problems right now is that many in the party seem to think it won the 2017 election and that the giveaway manifesto was a work of unimpeachable genius.

Here's Bridget Phillipson, a thinker, and the Labour MP for Sunderland, on the manifesto and where the party is at: "The shopping list feel to the manifesto reflected a second, deeper problem: there was no vision or strategy behind our electoral offer to engage in any detail with the context in which we find ourselves. Last year I wrote an article highlighting Labour’s failure to properly come to terms with the transformation of our economy, culture, and society since we last won an election. There was little in our manifesto to give me confidence the leadership is rising to that challenge."

The events at Labour conference in Brighton have proved her right. But constitutional party matters are deemed more important than Brexit, while there was no platform for the Labour politician with the second highest personal vote of any politician in the country, Andy Burnham. You can draw your own conclusions about why that might be.

Having nothing to say about Brexit sits high on Labour's charge sheet, save for kicking the can along the road again. Thirty senior Labour MPs write a letter calling for retaining Britain's membership of the single market and Jeremy Corbyn just laughs at them. His priority, effectively, is that state control of the commanding heights of the economy is more important than sustaining jobs dependent on the European single market.

Labour also has next to nothing to say on foreign policy challenges of the 21st Century, the instinct from the leadership has been to support anyone but the west, and to unleash some fairly unpleasant tropes about Jews and the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. For the most part though the line is to wisely keep quiet about past alignments and hope that no-one notices, or remembers.

There are clever and forward thinking people in the Labour Party. The most innovative local government leaders amongst them, including Nick Forbes in Newcastle, Andy Burnham closer to home and Sadiq Khan. These are grown-ups, as are the diligent back benchers who are prepared to debate Brexit and think about the future, whether that be Caroline Flint saying we just need to get on with Brexit, or Alison McGovern arguing to stay in the single market and customs union. But it is an illusion to think they are representative of the party now.

How will this end? The British people punish hubris and overreach. John McDonnell has displayed traits of epic self-delusion in his pronouncements on the nationalisation of the railways, utilities and the construction industry. It is always a mistake to assume that the adoration of the rally, the snarling mandate of conference and the support of the membership is the same as a country that is ready for full-throated socialism. The British people don't like it when their support is taken for granted. Just ask Theresa May.

Next week: The problem with the Conservative Party.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

First World Problems put into context in Shrewsbury

The impressive stained glass window at Shrewsbury's small but stunning Catholic cathedral depicts the desperate and gory history of England's Catholic martyrs. Tortured, executed and persecuted for their faith. Being able to take that in and then order a cup of herbal tea and a freshly baked cake in a beautifully appointed cafe underneath speaks to the progress towards civilisation we have made.

It's also a reminder that we live in a society where we do what we want, say what we want and live within rules, for the most part. Our discourse dwells endlessly on our divided and fractured society. Social science focuses relentlessly on breakdown, schism and threats to the social order. I'm frankly amazed at how it actually holds together for the good most of the time. My anger and frustration at the sight of broken lives sleeping in doorways is not that society can't prevent this, but that the solutions are so remarkably within our grasp.

I got to know how to get around the country by train at a remarkably young age, taking summer holidays by buying British Rail runabout tickets that took me from Wales to the Scottish border, just because we could. I'm also reminded now quite how much of our country I want to see, either revisit or see for the first time. Either way it's a journey of discovery. At different stages of life you view places as through a lens. I first wandered the streets of Shrewsbury as a teenager, bored with the frankly pointless collection of train numbers on Crewe station, so I jumped on a train to Shrewsbury and looked around the town. I was on the hunt for record shops, probably, and somewhere to eat. I certainly didn't go to the Cathedral.

Shrewsbury is a lovely place for a day out. If you've come to this blog to read about the football match I went to, then can I politely direct you here, where Old Blackburnian, who we sat next to at the New Meadow, summarised it perfectly.

The New Meadow is another new ground chalked off. I make it the 151st ground I've watched football on, I'm still on 80 out of the Punk 92 as I went to the previous ground, Gay Meadow a few times, and it marks my 73rd of the current 92. Doing the 92 isn't just a way of chalking off identikit grounds, but a way of rediscovering this land.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The problem with the Liberal Democrats

I read an extraordinarily disappointing pamphlet over the weekend. It started well enough because it was entitled Reinventing the Liberal Democrats - how to build a party for tomorrow. At last, I thought, they've got it. Given all of the political turmoil, the mess that the Tory government are in, the lack of focus from Labour on the biggest issue of the day, then it should be a golden opportunity for a centrist party to surge through the middle and offer a compelling vision for the future, as Macron has done in France.

It's a pipe dream though. The Economist's Bagehot summed up the Liberal Democrats pretty well describing the party as "feeble", going on to sketch their predicament in stark terms: "The party's implosion after the coalition coincided with the opening up of its biggest opportunity in decades: the Brexit vote. Had the party entered the post-referendum world with 60 seats and a charismatic leader it would have had a chance of engineering the political alignment it always dreamed of. Instead it entered that world as a political husk."

The pamphlet, timed to fire up the activists at this week's conference in Bournemouth, backs that up with its central call: "Set out an inspirational purpose that is illustrated by signature policies and communicated through everything we do." The fact that it states from the outset something so obvious, so fundamental and so basic to any brand; especially so a political party, only serves to accentuate the crisis the party is in. The rest of it is standard stuff - digitise the party, lower the barrier to entry, be welcoming and nice - none of which anyone in any campaign group or party should have a problem saying. But that isn't why the document is disappointing, it's the lack of reach, the lack of ambition and the lack of generosity.

I've consistently argued that the LibDems are a party without purpose or point. Here, in July 2010, again in 2011 here, and again in the aftermath of the 2015 election, where I found them to be the ultimate "say anything, believe in nothing" party. At their high watermark they were the beneficiaries of protest votes from the New Labour dominance. Such an existence is unsustainable. It manifests itself in the pitch at election time which purely focuses on the negative. Positioning themselves in opposition as the party in the best place to beat the other party you hate the most. Laughably, this is illustrated to almost comic effect by their obsession with mathematically illiterate bar charts, something I've created my own Pinterest board - Ludicrous Lib Dems - to record for political posterity. This betrays more than just a readiness to fight dirty, but an acute lack of confidence in their own purpose.

More than a few times I've overheard people saying that history will be kinder in its analysis of Nick Clegg's part in a coalition government with the Conservatives. It was an extraordinarily brave and bold thing to do, but one for which their 'core vote' or more accurately their 'peak vote' have never really forgiven them for. It's not the point of voting LibDem for them to be in power, but to salve your conscience that you are doing something positive. I'm not even so sure about that any more. Times have changed to such an extent that the opportunity is staring them in the face, but the party no more seems to want another tilt at power than a return to their comfort zone.

Next week: The problem with Labour.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Doing the 92 at Scunthorpe

Mushy, me, Smithy and Martin at Glanford Park
Scunthorpe last night was an oddity. A newish stadium, opened in 1988, on an out of town retail park that felt old, certainly older than Rochdale on Saturday, which has been tweaked and improved substantially. There were no corner stands, steel beams held up each stand roof, which isn't ideal with low sight lines, and the pitch felt very close to the crowd. Not surprisingly, I hear they're looking to move.

On my groundhopping journey I've started to see patterns in stadium development. On one level it's binary, there are old grounds and new ones, obviously. Of those some are finished, others are constantly evolving.

There are old grounds that exude character, like Everton, while some new ones look they have been knocked up out of an Ikea flat pack. The constant is that I find something to like about the experience in all of them. The thought never leaves you about how a new stand came to be built, the compromises, the budgetry limits, the vanity of the naming or the expediency of working with needy sponsors.

Quick point on the game - I thought Scunthorpe were the best side we've played this season. Graham Alexander, their manager, thought they were at their best. It wasn't always pretty and David Raya was our best player overall. Which tells you that we ground out a decent 1-0 with some solid defending and good counter attacking play.

Glanford Park is another new ground chalked off, and was my first visit to Scunthorpe. I make it the 150th ground I've watched football on, I'm now on 80 out of the Punk 92, and it marks my 72nd of the current 92.