Monday, January 14, 2019

Millwall Away

When Tony Mowbray said that Blackburn Rovers’ 2-0 win at Millwall was a terrible game of football, he was obviously right. But it reinforced to me once again how these days are about so much more than the 90 minutes that we forked out decent money to see.

Even the heading for this – Millwall Away – conjures up an adventure, a sense of danger that any football fan will relate to. We were as far away from any of that as we ate artisan snacks in Borough Market before the game, sharing stories with friends old and new in the Market Porter.

Yes, I was delighted to see Rovers win, I always am. But it reminded me of many of the games last season where I felt we were a better footballing side, but had that slight doubt we might not be physically strong enough and could come away empty handed (Walsall, Northampton, Oldham). 

Sure, Rovers contributed to the dire game; lots of mistakes, hoofing up to Bradley Dack (who was off the pace) and Joe Nuttall (who needs match practice), no shots on target until the bitter end and some pointless passing around. But I always take something from a game and for me it was the solid defensive pair of Darragh Lenihan and Jack Rodwell, and once again the role of Lewis Travis in picking out some terrific forward passes and properly mixing it when required.

What will live with me longer in the memory though was the experience of visiting The Den. I went to their old ground a couple of times, even meeting Jack Walker outside on the second occasion and getting a quote from him for the Lancashire Evening Post. I didn’t meet anyone like that this time but Matt Smith (Doctor Who) was stood just behind us. Such is the mythology around Millwall that I did vaguely consider asking him for a lift out of there if he had his blue phone box with him. I’m not going to lie, it is intimidating, it is grim. Everything about getting to the stadium; the heavy police presence, the cages guiding the walkway to the stadium, the fact visiting fans are placed only in the upper tier all create the feeling of being in a state of siege. That in turn encourages a certain type of swaggering dickhead among visitors and ours were no different. We also saw a gang of Dutch lads at London Bridge earlier in the afternoon, and I spoke to another group of PSV Eindhoven fans on the train from South Bermondsey. I doubt there’d be the same attraction for this kind of football tourist to go to Brentford or Charlton.

That makes it another new ground I’ve watched football on, the 158th. I’m on 84 clubs out of the current 92 clubs (the Punk 92), and I’m up to 80 of the current 92 grounds.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

New Statesman - an appreciation

From an early age I've always had a magazine that I have consumed avidly and which pretty much defined my world.

At various times that dubious and fragile honour has fallen to the NME (mid-80s), New Society, Marxism Today, Arena, The Face, When Saturday Comes, Loaded, Monocle and The Word. In recent years I've drifted a bit, as I think magazines have.

In all of that time, I've dipped in and out of reading the New Statesman - particularly when it absorbed New Society in 1988, before erasing trace of it 8 years later. It sort of baked in my politics around the 1987 General Election, but I think it probably lost its edge when Labour were in power. At that time, I found The Spectator the better of the political weeklies.

Yet now I look forward to my regular Friday treat of the New Statesman. It’s not only really helpful for work, providing the best insights into British politics, but it’s also a great commentary on a really rich cultural hinterland.

The present editor Jason Cowley has been in the job for a decade. When he was announced I remember a rather snooty backlash against his appointment, given he was a bit of an outsider from the political commentariat and had been editing Observer Sport Monthly, before a relatively short stint at literary journal Granta. Yet it was pretty clear that he's proved those doubters wrong and taken the title in a really bold direction.

In the 2018 end of year edition, he talked about what his original plan was:

"Take the New Statesman upmarket; make it more politically sceptical and unpredictable; free it from the clutches of the Labour Party; publish longer and better-written pieces; burnish its literary pages; create a dynamic website; and discover and nurture a new generation of political writers."

What I think I appreciate more than anything is the careful blend of freshness and intellectual discomfort that it brings.

Of course it's a bit London-centric, all of our media is. I've spent a lifetime trying to do something about that, and I wish they'd make more of an effort. Having a conference on the Northern Powerhouse in Leeds in February is good. More, please.

But I don't think I've read a better series this year than Matthew Engel's tour of Europe. It proved hugely useful to us before our trip to Estonia and I really liked his last essay on train travel.

Kate Mossman, ex-The Word,  is a wonderfully deft culture writer and a perfect accompaniment as a columnist to Tracy Thorn. Having John Gray doing expansive moral philosophy pieces is a real coup. I always enjoy Anna Leszkiewicz's media columns, but her piece on the future of television was the best synthesis of the issues for the business, showing a real grasp of what lies behind the rise of Netflix and the challenge to the conventional TV channel model. I also think the political commentators Stephen Bush, George Eaton and Helen Lewis, all do a particularly good job of  providing steady, solid political commentary on the chaos of our failing system.

It's not just because I agree with everything. I'm at odds with Paul Mason on many things, but he does reserve his best strategic analysis pieces for this outlet than any other he writes for. I also welcome Grace Blakeley joining as an economics writer, because she reflects a particular thread of UK leftist thought that is at the  heart of the debate that has been opened up by Mason and Yanis Varoufakis.

The great skill of an editor is to curate a publishing space that can welcome new voices and nice surprises. There's a fairly high bar here, where the age ranges of the contributors give you a sense of a world observed from a wide perspective. I like seeing Howard Jacobson popping up as a reviewer and guest diarist alongside as towering figures like Michael Heseltine, Gina Miller and Mike Brearley.

As well as the writing I enjoy the political podcasts with Helen and Stephen, while Jonn Elledge's CityMetric podcast has a marvellous geeky streak that I just adore. Whatever it is they do, you pretty much know there's a high standard of insight and commentary you come to expect. I even think they make a decent job of the advertorial supplements, which newspapers manage to make unreadable, whereas the NS ones are usually very useful.

When I used to lecture at UCLAN on the magazine journalism course, I used to emphasise the importance of knowing the reader, creating a clear personality of what the title is about and how it improves their life. As the editor of a business magazine group for twelve years I aspired to make our titles this relevant and with that single minded commitment to high quality. When you have writers, designers, sales staff and a publisher who share that vision, then you are on to a winner.

It's been a challenge for magazines to transition to digital and to keep on innovating with events and podcasts and other brand extensions, but I think they have everything at their disposal to do so.

Congratulations on 10 years Jason Crowley, you’ve done a top job.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Rovers put faith in youth - but there's no plan

If we have a lesson to learn from recent performances, then it must be to trust the youth policy. New blood into the squad has yielded some excellent results. No, not the Rovers team at Sheffield United but the injection of young Matt and our Louis into the BRFCS podcast.

I'll not linger much on the game that followed, but we got what we deserved. It's no good matching the best teams for 70 minutes, 80 or even 90 as we did at Leeds. The team has to get much, much better at game management. The line up against the Blades was ambitious. I'm all for bringing in Rothwell and Travis as I rate them both very highly. But they seemed to be unable to provide a killer final ball, understandably as the the whole game plan this season has been to serve two players who weren't on the pitch, Dack and Graham. It pains me to watch Palmer and Brereton, every sinew in my body is willing them to make a liar of me and to perform like match-winning footballers. One reminds me of Grabbi, the other of various loanees who have ghosted in and out to make little impact. The other source of goals has been Mulgrew at free kicks and penalities, which may explain some shameful diving by Palmer and Rothwell.

So, please enjoy the podcast, it's the most enjoyable aspect of supporting Rovers at the moment. I'm not worried about the team yet, but I probably should be.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Policing the boundaries of a community

When I pitched up in Manchester in 2000 to edit North West Business Insider, a well-established regional business magazine, it took a while for the scale of the responsibility to sink in. I barely had a contract, let alone an instruction manual. And certainly no-one took me into a back room and handed me the keys to the secret files.

On the one hand, the sales team had one set of expectations - come up with good ideas that they could sell advertising and sponsorship around. But the far harder responsibility was to make the publication and the brand relevant in the long term. The previous editors all bequeathed me a mixed set of expectations: one was to be accessible, commercial and of good quality; another was to be spiky and brave; and the third was to have a witty, yet powerful voice. All of them had a sense of what would attract readers, which is what the advertisers needed to be sure we had. I was also fairly wedded to strong magazine aesthetics and thought the design was dated and needed refreshing in time.

But this piece isn't a memoir, or a reflection on the nuances of magazine editorship. It is, however, something that's been burning inside me for a while. One of the mantles I was handed was a deeper moral duty, part of a wider purpose as a community clarion to take very seriously what it meant to transact good business in the regions of England. It came with a responsibility to expose crooks and chancers. The magazine was a sustained success because it was part of a community. In so doing we were happy to celebrate the successes of businesses and entrepreneurs who were doing well, who were working hard in pursuit of a common good, but also we were all trying to explain the new rules of an ever-changing world. But that community was also sustained by resolute policing of the boundaries. 

Grimly, sadly, sometimes we'd get taken for a ride. Before I arrived, we had featured a character in the list of the 42 under 42, an annual roll call of new emerging talent. He called himself Paul Raymond Versace, yes, after the fashion label. He popped up as a charitable philanthropist and posed for a photograph with the great and the good of Manchester's business community. His inclusion in the Sunday Times Rich List, and disgracefully, our own, triggered a number of incredulous phone calls from people with an altogether different view of this character. He was using his media and charity connections for personal advantage, opening doors and building credibility. With the help of good sources, and in a fairly short space of time, we had enough to piece together a damning story. Some of the national press waded in with far less subtlety, and he was placed right out of circulation.

Other tip offs followed and we started to get a reputation. I'll be honest, our rival publication, EN magazine, also got stuck in to a few targets and upped their game. Simon Donohue from the Manchester Evening News did a blistering series of articles exposing Reuben Singh. I got a bee in my bonnet about the fact that chancers were turning up to meetings at banks with a clippings file of positive media stories, sometimes with the name of my magazine included. I became obsessed, even chasing down two stories when I was on holiday in Marbella with my family. I formed an alliance with Sue Craven from Armstrong Craven, who remains a good friend to this day. She would help me understand detailed research reports, on labyrinth corporate structures, which helped me to get my head around credit reports and see what the data was saying. One was on a target called The Accident Group, which I long suspected was a house of cards. It turned out to be far worse than that.

A lot of this became self-sustaining, lawyers, corporate finance advisors and property agents would use their intelligence and their networks and tip me off about the latest shyster doing the rounds. 

There were gangmasters, VAT scammers, celeb chasers, phoney football agents, jolly chaps telling stories in the Stag's Head and asking the lads to chuck in a cheeky 50k for a deal that wouldn't happen. You literally couldn't invent a fictional character like Paul "The Plumber" Davidson, but he proved to be the gift that kept on giving. Our hounding of him won us many friends.

In all of these cases, the front of the brain would compute one set of responses, the back of the brain was screaming a different set of messages. Sometimes I'd spend far too long looking for evidence on someone I wasn't sure about. Often it wasn't the money, but the tales of sex, or drugs. I had good lawyers and solid media law training so I knew when to stop, when to draw the line, it was beyond me to expose Manchester's Harvey Weinstein, were we to have found one. In those instances where you know something isn't right, you just had to exercise the one remaining option left, ignore them. Let someone else do their propaganda for them.

Time and again I'd see the same patterns emerge. Grand gestures around charitable giving, associating with genuinely successful and credible people, the desperate seeking of honours and the ostentatious wearing of the badge of corporate social responsibility, which my late great friend Walter Menzies called "the icing on the shit".

That was a different time, but it's not a different place. The resources and reach of the media have been transformed in recent years. I lost my capacity to do anything meaningful over time and created a satirical outlet instead. 

So where are we now?

I've never known a time when businesses in Manchester and the North West have needed someone, something, to police the boundaries more than now. 

I'm firmly on the record for welcoming a Mayor of Greater Manchester. But as much as such an office holds power and leverage, so too it needs protection from those that see it as a quick route to credibility, power and glory. I believe in it too much to see its credibility and moral authority undermined. Same goes for business organisations who have incredible convening power. I have a few opportunities working at a university to promote good work, networks and sound causes. But I'm well out of the media game these days. And I'm not even sure the business press, online and print, is up to it.

But just as campaigns and political movements have been transformed by technology, so too can scrutiny and community protection. I don't know how, I don't know who, but I'm very open to ideas.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Manchester City Way - a culture of commitment?

Damian Hughes came to speak at Manchester Metropolitan University recently and he was every bit as impressive as I've come to expect.

I've worked with him a few times, delivering client events for TSK and I've seen him speak here before. This was remarkable. His latest book focuses on one of the most successful sports teams of my lifetime, FC Barcelona.

At the heart of this success is "culture". As Damian said to the i newspaper: "As someone who has worked with a variety of elite sports teams and blue chip companies, I always seek to impress upon management the importance of culture. The results bear this out. Research suggests that culture can have as much as 22 per cent impact on performance. Pep Guardiola’s current boss, Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano, emphasised this point – 'culture is a crucial ingredient in all organisations' and is especially crucial at football clubs."

Guardiola's footballing style, his methods and his philosophy were formed when he was a player in Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona team, lifting the European Cup in 1992 at Wembley, a game I was fortunate to have been at.

As Damian says in the book: "Cruyff had his very own interpretation of what doing things the ‘Barcelona Way’ actually meant. It was centred around three trademark behaviours: humility, hard work and putting the team above your self-interest."

I'm going to do Damian a grave injustice in attempting to summarise a whole book stuffed full of stories, evidence and research, but he calls what was created at Barcelona an example of a commitment culture.

I've said before that Barcelona’s ‘more than a club’ irritates me, a little bit like the mysticism of the All Blacks, of which their Haka is a part. Both create the aura of semi-religious purity that so frequently they fail to live up to. But life would be duller without them, granted.

You start to think what other possible cultures any other winning team could adopt. Damian's book highlights five which apply in business and in sport, and from memory, in brackets, are where you might find examples of each one.

The Superstar Culture – Companies would bring in the best talent on the biggest salaries and give the stars the best resources (Real Madrid)

The Autocratic Culture – The will of one person in charge (Man United under Sir Alex Ferguson)

The Bureaucratic Culture – Where middle managers rule (the Moneyball approach, Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers and late period Arsenal under Wenger)

The Engineering Culture – Based on problem solving (Klopp at Dortmund, and now at Liverpool, maybe?)

The Commitment Culture – Getting employees to really buy in to what an organisation is trying to achieve.

I've become curious about what Guardiola is attempting to create here in Manchester, with City. The football they play is magical, based on movement and possession. They've definitely created a winning culture where excellence and preparation have produced outstanding results, but, let's not be coy about it, amidst a setting where money is no object.

I had all of this in mind when I went to the Etihad last night to watch City come from behind to beat Hoffenheim and top their Champions League group. The stand-out player was Leroy Sane, who was left out of Germany's World Cup squad. Also impressive was Phil Foden, who has emerged through the Academy and the great youth set-up at Reddish Vulcans Junior Football Club. Both examples of hard working, humble players who do it for the team.

Damian makes the argument that the foundation of the team at City has obvious parallels with what Pep did at Barcelona – "he quickly dispensed with Joe Hart and Samir Nasri and allowed an ageing Yaya TourĂ© to drift to the fringes of the first team, whilst allowing the humble Kevin De Bruyne, quick-witted David Silva and the selfless Fernandinho to emerge as key figures within the dressing room."

On the back of reading Damian's book I lapped up the Amazon Prime series, All or Nothing. In different ways it told me everything and nothing. For all the claims that it is an access-all-areas and unexpurgated insight behind the scenes it is actually City's tightly controlled commercial exposition of what they want the rest of us to think of them.  As Simon Hattenstone said in his review in the Guardian: "For in the end, this is nothing but a gloriously glossy commercial for Manchester City – a great big blowy for the club from run-down Kippax Street determined to become the world’s leading football brand." And that, in a way, tells you more about humility and culture. So I think there's some real hard traces of all of the above cultures at work in the Manchester City Way.

Much as City have built a team and created stars of real quality, forged around a commitment culture, they have used engineering and bureaucracy to source a tier of superstar. And it was Yaya Toure who rather brutally laid the charge that Pep is an autocrat in the way he enforces his FIFO culture.

To come back full circle to Damian's point about culture, it is always an aspiration. Performances dip, things go wrong. It is a touchstone, a guide, defined as much by what is included as by what is left out. For the moment, it's for football fans to savour the potential of City coming up against Barcelona in the final in Madrid in June 2019.

Buy the book here. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

This day will forever be Pankhurst Day

Our Emmeline, photo by Sue Anders

This Friday, 14 December 2018, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in her home city of Manchester, exactly 100 years to the day after the first women cast votes in a UK General Election. 

Amidst a deeply turbulent and depressing period of history, it's sometimes worth celebrating the achievements.

The statue in St Peter's Square has been designed by sculptor Hazel Reeves and will be the highlight of a campaign to celebrate the significant contribution of women to the city and will take place on the day that exactly 100 years ago the first women voted in UK General Election for the first time.

Credit where it is due to Councillor Andrew Simcock who in May 2014 kicked off the Womanchester Statue Campaign to commission a new statue for Manchester to recognise the significant contribution of women to the city’s history. The campaign was prompted by the fact that of Manchester’s 17 statues at the time, only one represented a woman, a monument to Queen Victoria that was erected over 100 years ago, which is situated in Piccadilly Gardens.
Andrew Simcock and Hazel Reeves 

From a long list of 20 potential figures, through a series of public events, a shortlist of six finalists was reached, with Emmeline Pankhurst emerging as the people's favourite.

Once 'Our Emmeline' was chosen, and the artist selected in a public competition, the build up has been fantastic with schools, with parades to the unveiling in St Peter's Square. It is a day that everyone is invited to participate in that will embrace and bring together all those who have supported the Our Emmeline project. To reflect the coming together of people, two symbolic meeting points have been selected; the Pankhurst Centre, the former home of Emmeline Pankhurst and the birthplace of the suffragette movement; and People’s History Museum, the national museum of democracy. Those taking part are invited to meet at locations near these points, or along the route, which we will be doing from Manchester Metropolitan University at All Saints Square, before converging at St Peter’s Square to greet Our Emmeline.

Our Lancaster Story: City, hub & heartland.

Wow. What an inspiring and gorgeous film by my old pal Daniel Kennedy of Paper Films. So many of these place-punting pieces of propaganda get it wrong, but I think he's really pulled in the very best of Lancaster here. Something for everyone.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Our new Met Mag is out now - it's a cracker

I've said before, there's something special about a freshly printed magazine arriving in the office ready to hit the streets. That was the sense right through the comms team at work as the the sixth issue of Met Magazine, the magazine of Manchester Metropolitan University was published. This edition has been an incredible team effort and a real celebration of our greatest assets and achievers – our students.

I was pleased to contribute to the a feature about Students’ Union Presidents past and present, interviewing Paul Scriven, a LibDem peer and Councillor in Sheffield who was President in the early 1990s. It's quite a thing to hold a post like that and as Paul explained to me it shaped his future career in so many ways. I found him to be an absolutely fascinating character, both in the personal struggles he's fought, but his sheer tenacity and decency. There were a few stories that didn't make the cut which I'll use elsewhere.

When I was editor of Insider I used to pick the best interview assignments for myself, but then realised certain people would respond better to a particular writer. So, now I get the politicians and someone else gets the rock stars. Alongside my own modest contribution is one I'm going to confess to a bit of envy that it wasn't me that got to do it. We also cover two diverse and hugely interesting feature interviews. The first is with Guy Garvey, songwriter and lead singer of multi-award winning band Elbow and now a visiting professor at Manchester Metropolitan. He talks about his creative influences and his love of Manchester and its students.

The other big interview is with Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the recently-formed Office for Students, an important regulator for the higher education sector.

As part of our work with MPs, I was also keen to commission a piece from Afzal Khan MP for Gorton and one of the many Manchester Met graduates now sitting in the House of Commons. It is important that people know what we are doing and the impact we have. Met Magazine is a powerful platform to profile our stories and I hope colleagues and friends will share the content and help us to show the way that we change lives for the better, and how we shape our world.

Visitors to campus can pick up the latest edition at reception areas, or if you prefer to read an electronic copy, you can find our new-look digital version. This is a new web version which includes videos and a fantastic podcast featuring an interview with Guy Garvey.

But message me through this site if you want the joyful experience of a beautiful and classy copy of the proper print version.