Friday, August 31, 2012

Ted Smith - a true pioneer of football and an inspiration

Ted Smith, left, coach of Benfica
All of us have important early memories of our lives as football supporters. The noise, the crowds, a particular player, the cold night air, a sense of a special occasion, or the emotions of the people around us.

I was fortunate that my Dad wanted me to watch games from an early age. We'd take in matches at Preston, Blackpool, Blackburn as well as Lancaster City. But he was always keen to take in European nights and that meant a trip to Anfield or the Racecourse at Wrexham. One was a complete write off when a game against Anderlect was swathed in fog, but we particularly enjoyed a 3-0 win over Trabzonspur in about November 1976.

Obviously we never became Liverpool fans. But the root of my Dad's love of European football opens up an extraordinary story of an English football coach who played a vital role in the shape of the game in the 1960s as club competition became more intense and styles collided.

My Grandfather, Stan Taylor, had been a Commando in the war, served his country heroically and was a man of some stature in the community in Lancaster where he moved to be the manager of Woolworths. He became friends with a man called Ted Smith, pictured above, who at the time was the landlord of a pub in Skerton, just over the River Lune from the town centre.

Here's the amazing story. Ted Smith had been a player with Millwall and Crystal Palace. For reasons and circumstances I can't fathom, but am eager to learn more about, he became the coach of Benfica. The foundations of the team he built included the legendary Jose Aguas, the lynchpin of the side that went on to break Real Madrid's dominance of European football in the 1960s. Ted had brought Aguas from Angola to Portugal and the two had a strong bond. I know this because my Dad witnessed their emotional reunion outside the Park Lane Hotel in London in 1962 when Benfica were in town for a European Cup semi final at White Hart Lane against the double winning Spurs side.

Such magical memories, such a proximity to the extraordinary lives of ordinary people has become part of our family folklore, even if I didn't realise it. These exotic influences on my Dad's life - a trip to London, seeing the greatest club side in the world at the time, meeting such legends. These things weren't accessible or easy to find back then. They shouldn't be now, either, but somehow television makes them rather less mysterious. That memory, those moments, encouraged my Dad to seek out such experiences for me. Maybe that what was also behind the first Subbuteo sets he got me, Juventus and Ajax - after the 1971 final.

I notice that Google puts a previous post by me about Ted Smith fairly high on the search criteria. I've been contacted since by Ted's son Harvey, and by a bloke writing a Millwall A-Z. Beyond that the trail is cold - I've found newspaper cuttings from Lancaster that rather coldly reports how "Mr Ted Smith, the former Benfica coach," became the manager of Lancaster City FC in 1967, as if that achievement was on a par with Barrow or Bamber Bridge. But what more can we celebrate and know of these pioneers, these adventurers who saw football as a route to a new life and amazing experiences that shape our culture today. People laud Terry Venables for what he did at Barcelona, but surely this was greater?

Harvey has told me via email that his father passed away in 1993 and is buried in Lisbon, where Benfica looked after him in his final years, respect and love from a fine club who remembered a hero of their history.

Where great minds meet

It was the trailblazer event for the Manchester Literature Festival last night. Zadie Smith read from her new novel NW, and was then interviewed by journalist and broadcaster Anita Sethi.

To me though the real stars of the show were the Manchester public - smart, clever, engaged and enquiring. It struck me this is just what Stuart Maconie was referring to in his chippy love letter to the North in the New Statesman recently - yes, sure, London has loads of intellectual events, but we have them too. It's also given me tons of inspiration to do more.

While I'm banging on about the festival, make sure you book early for my event - an audience with David Conn and Rodge Glass, two authors talking about Manchester, football and literature.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Northern Monkeys - a book about growing up

Next month will see the publication of a book I've been working on for the last few years. It's called Northern Monkeys and it's a journey through working class social history in the North of England.

At its centre is the "casual/dresser" scene of the 1980s - lads going to football in gangs, dressed to the nines in designer sportswear and often with violent motives. For me and Bill Routledge, the prime mover and guiding hand of the project, it's the period that defined and changed everything. Fashion, sport, work, pride, politics and it all came together in this uniquely volatile period of recent history. The book covers where it was all rooted, what it was like to be there at the time, who was first, how the looks of the time quickly mutated and how the key figures at the time went on to use that mindset to influence music and fashion to this day.

But to see it as a book about football casuals is an epic understatement. Its central core is a way of interpreting that movement and putting it slap bang in the context of some seismic social and cultural changes.

We start with tales of post-war austerity, moving through the sharp suits, the Teddy Boys and the Cunard Boys - Liverpudlian seamen who would stock up on rare fashion items on their international jaunts - clearly influencing their sons and heirs in the Transalpino era. Male narcissism and looking good was nothing new, of course, and the pack look of football lads of the 1980s clearly cocked a nod in the direction of the Mods and even skinheads of the previous two decades. Different scenes also fed into it - we've got a whole section of memories from Northern Soul devotees and the look and lustre of nights at Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca.

Where this look differed for those of us in Northern towns was that it was more DIY than many have previously acknowledged. The early Scouse pioneers tracked down rare Adidas trainers in Germany, the Manc innovators plundered market stalls for flares and leathers as the look evolved. But my early memories of the developing style was rooting out a Fila tennis top at Lancaster University sports shop, finding Pringle in old man's shops and a Peter Storm cagoul in an outdoors shop. For many it was about buying the look off the shelf in Hurleys in Manchester or Wade Smith in Liverpool, for early adopters, it never was.

The compiler of this has been a lad I'm now proud to call a good friend, Bill Routledge. He's cajoled and persuaded a huge range of mates and contacts to contribute various tales, some going back to the post-war period of austerity and community building in Northern towns like Preston, others are boot boys, skinheads, rockabillies and the most dominant cult of them all at the dawn of this movement - the punks. Bill and his crowd in Preston in 1981, like me and my Lancaster mates (pictured, right, in 1984), made a transition from punk to "football lad" - it was a remarkable transformation. This was the closest I ever got to being in a "firm" - Lancaster, Morecambe and Carnforth lads all supported different teams, the picture above covers lads who followed Blackburn Rovers, Morecambe, Manchester United, Blackpool, Rangers and Spurs, from memory. Can you spot me, by the way?

I've always carried this look on. During Fresher's week at University in 1985 I was turned away from the goth and punk night at the Ritz in Manchester for wearing chinos, deck shoes, a Lacoste polo and a red Italian chunky jumper. It didn't have a name then, but this was the emerging Paninaro look. By the time of our third year my mates were well into looking smarter too - we liked Chevignon, Chipie, C17 and Timberland for a night at the Hacienda or the Venue, way before the Madchester druggie rave scene. By the time we moved to London, the treasure trove that was Shop 70 on Lamb's Conduit Street in the 90s was a delight, and a few pieces of Stone Island and CP Company still adorn my wardrobe as a tribute to that era and that look.

For my bit of the book I've interviewed Robert Wade-Smith, Barry Bown from JD Sports and Gary Aspden, the former brand director of Adidas, as well as commissioning a few tales from lads who were there with stories to tell. The stories are long and revealing and I like to think I get what they're about, the journey they've been on and how their interpretation of brands and street fashion influenced the high street today.

One thing Northern Monkeys is certainly not is hoolie-porn, there's been enough of that to be honest, but it doesn't try and sugarcoat a movement that had football violence as one of its core identifiers.

So, here's the Northern Monkeys website, have a nosy at that. There's a Northern Monkeys Book Facebook page which we're using to gather some extra pictures and messages and you can join in this majestic nostalgia fest on Twitter by following @MonkeyNorth.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Toast Deli in Marple is no more - very sad

I was saddened to see that Toast Deli in Marple has shut its doors for the last time today. They offered a pleasant ambience with a modern foody feel. We had a delicious cooked breakfast there one Saturday and their coffee was excellent. The chicken liver pate (pictured) is a delight, though I last bought mine from our butcher in Romiley. Toast also worked hard on the community events and there were rave reviews for the tasting evenings. But, it must have been tough competing with All Things Nice, just 30 yards away, and though I divided my loyalties between the two, this does nothing to assuage my feelings of guilt that I didn't go there more often, or genuine sadness for the lovely staff in a place that tried to be new and different.

But the grim reality of the demise is what it says about Marple. Toast would probably thrive in a different location, not so far away. Dutsons and Libby's are doing well in nearby Marple Bridge, while Bramhall has quite a restaurant scene these days. Toast would have done so much better there, it would seem.

As one door closes two more open - a cafe and sandwich shop called Truly Scrumptious on the old site of Grenaby Farm Bakers has just opened; while Rileys, a new newsagents and butty bar opposite Costa Coffee on Stockport Road, is up for it. I'd argue that Grenaby couldn't live with Greenhalgh's and Greggs for cheap pies and bread, which leads you to think why do more of the same. While the popularity of Costa must have really hurt Toast and near neighbour All Things Nice, it has gained a certain magnetism even with grumpy staff. I wish the two new businesses well, but it is a tough market with the ever creeping presence of multiples making it harder for quality independents.

I also posed the question on this blog last week as to whether Marple was a Waitrose or an Aldi kind of place. I rather think we've just had the answer.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Empty seats at Ewood Park

Here I am, pictured, surrounded by empty seats at Ewood Park, home of the club I have loved since I was 11 years old. Obviously I'm not qualified to sit in that particular seat, but...
I didn't go much last season - three times in fact - I managed more than that in 1988-1989 when I lived in Australia from September. Last season's stayaway wasn't a boycott as such, partly it was because of the toxic atmosphere that the angry fans had created, but frankly, I just wasn't enjoying it anymore. Now, it's more straightforward. I refuse to give the club a penny of my money while Venky's are in charge.

I'm not a glory hunter, who will only go to Premier League games. My first season as a regular was 1977-1978 and Rovers were a mid-table Second Division side with an average crowd of about 7,000. We were in the same division as Blackpool, Burnley and Bolton. Preston were in the division below. I chose this. I made a conscious decision to support a local team instead of Manchester United, Leeds or Liverpool. All the good times were a bonus, an unexpected gift from a rich fan who helped this club do great things. Without him, well, we'd be in the Second Division, on a level with the rest of our Lancashire rivals. So no, I'm a realist and I'm not a spoilt child, but what the Venky's are doing is as poor a job at running down an institution as football has ever seen.

There is hardly anything worth saying on the subject, because there is nothing they can do to change my mind. Even if they do things which on the surface seem like good moves.

Signing new players It may well be that by chucking a few quid at the squad that Venky's believe they can get back up. Some of the signings seem OK, but my heart and head says they have absolutely no chance. Steve Kean's record speaks for itself.

Communicating better The connection to the fans was lost a long time ago, gimmicks and stunts have backfired, I have never rated Paul Agnew either as a PR man, or anyway capable of running the club. This new director of football, Shebby Singh, came across as a bumbling buffoon on TalkSport. The reaction from the manager that his comments at a Fan's Forum were "disruptive" was further evidence of how manipulative Kean is with the media and how he engineers every situation for his advantage. Always the victim, never his fault.

Colin Hendry The recruitment of Colin Hendry as a coach is far more complex than a hero returning, in fact it's as tangled as Hendry's financial affairs.

Winning games Last night was the first home game of the season. And it had the lowest crowd since 1993 when Ewood was a building site. I had no excuse for not going, and I missed being there and I was glad they won, in fact, I hope they win all the matches at Ewood. If anything I'm quite looking forward to an away game soon - though I couldn't possibly take this moral high ground and go to the next one - MK Dons away!

Sacking Steve Kean This seems unlikely, but it is their ace card. The fans have worked themselves up into a frenzy on this issue and his sacking would make them happy, but he's not the problem. I want them to go, and take him with them.

Lack of performance on the pitch hasn't persuaded Venky's to give it all up, but lack of corporate, sponsor and commercial support will hit them where it hurts. That, and the sight of all those empty seats.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My holiday reading

Remember beach and villa holidays where you'd read a book a day? Vaguely. I ambitiously took a stack of books I've been looking forward to reading. I was mildly disappointed in them all.

Dom Joly's Dark Tourist wasn't as funny as I expected it to be, nor as angry about the way places like Lebanon, Cambodia and North Korea are like they are. It's a strange juxtaposition, an anarchic comedian known for his irreverence visiting places that require sensitivity and reverence. That said, I enjoyed his anecdotes.

Reading Owen Jones' Chavs is like sitting opposite someone on a train who just goes on and on, and you end up just losing the will to argue anymore and end up agreeing with them. His central premise that the white working class have been unfairly demonised is fair enough. Where I dispute his argument and his conclusions is his ascribing a raw agenda of class war to Conservatives and a rather rosy view of unions and their role in workplaces. As a polemicist he's entitled to use any device he likes to make his point, but it tends to come across as rather shrill. In his new introduction, and lately on Twitter, he's addressed the riots of last summer. It was not a protest, it was raw criminality. To fail to acknowledge that is the politics of fantasy.

I enjoyed Nick Cohen's book, but his punchy style left me exhausted. There's too much "yebbut" - who are the people he is attacking, through such a wide subject as freedom of speech and censorship? 

"Because they believe the real enemy is at home, Western radicals ignore the victims of dictatorial states," he says. I'm not sure what some idiots on Comment is Free have to say is that important, to be honest. I loved What's Left?, his broadside on the decline of the moral left in Britain, but there are bigger subjects involved and far more deserving of scrutiny.

The whole issue of freedom of speech is currently at the centre of so many warped and undeserving starting points - Julian Assange, people who set up fake Twitter accounts, racist footballers, internet trolls. The moral maze is complex indeed.

Is Marple an Aldi, or a Waitrose, kind of place?

Stockport Council is pressing ahead with plans to develop Chadwick Street car park in the centre of Marple. Kirkland Developments is in pole position and is in partnership with a retailer.

It throws quite a cog into Asda's plans for developing a large store on the site of the Sixth Form College on Hibbert Lane. All their calculations on demand and consumer need will need reforecasting. Asda may be used to getting their own way, and may still do so.

But where does any of this leave the balance of Marple's shopping offer? What effect will this development have on the butchers, the bakers and the other local shops?

I notice a few more subtle changes to the retail make up now that I work here a few days a week. There's a new newsagent and sandwich bar planned on Stockport Road opposite Costa Coffee. The likely occupier of the old HSBC unit is Domino's Pizza. The new American sweet shop Stars and Stripes has gone down an absolute storm during the kids holidays - I wish them well and hope they don't refer too much trade to the business next door - the dentists. My favourite new addition to the centre has been the dog grooming shop on the corner of Hollins Lane.

Like it or not, the brands in an area say something about the sense of place and start to determine which other retail brands will gravitate to a location, but as much as I'd like a bustling cluster of independents, there is a remorseless march of the multiples.

So who arrives in Chadwick Street will have a huge bearing on the character of Marple.

Waitrose are on a massive expansion drive and have opened in Alderley Edge, Poynton and Cheadle Hulme recently. I'm pretty sure many Marple people like to think of their home on the same par as these places.

But what of the other likely expansive retail player on the prowl at the moment, Aldi? What if Aldi were to add to their successful stores in Hyde, Hazel Grove and Romiley with a new store in Marple? I shop at Aldi and often fill a trolley at the Hazel Grove store for about £30, then spend the same amount again on a basket at M&S Food next door.

I enjoy the savings, but can't say I enjoy the experience. It's pretty stark and functional and OK for the basics. But here's the deal, there's a market for this kind of thing in Marple. The Co-op is expensive, the local shops can't offer the range. The German discount retailer would go down a storm with a large part of the population. But would signal a huge move in the identity and direction of what Marple represents.

The future of the centre is becoming a sideshow while so much attention, rightly, is looking intently at the dastardly deeds of the College and their sneaky deal with Asda.

The question is, what kind of place is Marple? The one we are, the one we had, or the one we wish we could be, but aren't? I honestly don't know.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Our Olympic legacy

I can't add very much to the wall of plaudits for the London 2012 Olympics. We all really enjoyed the spectacle, the only regret being that our application to buy tickets yielded only football at Old Trafford - like we can never do that. How brilliant must it have been to have seen the athletics on either Super Saturday, but even just to have soaked up the atmosphere at the Handball or the Badminton.

There has been a lot of talk about inspiring a generation - I so hope that happens, even if all the evidence is that it makes no difference. In JJB the other day the sales assistant confirmed that people are buying more sports equipment, there is definite interest in running, tennis and cycling.

I worry that the education agenda is being kicked around by politicians eager to meddle and jump on a passing bandwagon - the aim shouldn't just be to produce 80 odd Olympians from the millions of children who take part in school sports, rather to make every kid feel that exercise and ambition are for them. That's inspiring a generation.

So in our house we've all got bikes. Partly it was the inspiration of Bradley Wiggins and co, but also that we are blessed to live in such a great place for cycling - the former rail line, the Middlewood Way, and all the canal tow paths are perfect.

My bike is a folding Dahon (right), single speed, pedal brakes and not much else. I bought it from Will's Wheels, which has a bike shop in Marple. I mention the local angle because it makes me feel slightly better about the fact the bike was made in Taiwan. I was tempted to get a British made Brompton after meeting Will Butler Adams last month, the MD of the iconic British bike company, but £800 is a stretch. Maybe next time.

The Dahon is excellent for taking on public transport and whizzing around Manchester. I was able to take it on the train to cycle friendly Milton Keynes recently, and it was ideal - but everywhere I go I'm stopped to talk about the bike, it's a real show stopper.

So there we are, a bit more opportunity for exercise and a quicker way to get around. However good the kids are at any of this only time will tell, but it's so important to hold those great feelings of exhilaration and embrace this sporting life in all its forms.