Monday, December 28, 2015

Rovers at Bolton, hopeless, clueless and ripe for a shakedown

Help me out here. Bolton Wanderers must be the unluckiest team in the division. Bust, bottom of the league, manager up to his neck in a sordid scandal, two days after getting thrashed 4-0 by Rotherham where the fans turned on the team, they have to face Paul Lambert's resurgent Rovers, who were spared a testing Boxing Day clash against Middlesbrough because of the weather, and were therefore fresher and injury free.

Why then have I just seen that excuse for a performance at Bolton just now?

I heard reports that Blackburn Rovers were pretty hopeless at Reading, but this was as bad as I've seen them this season.

It wasn't just the defeat, and it wasn't for lack of effort, it was the sheer incompetence that was so frustrating. Watching from a high position behind the goal the movement and positioning and passing was just dreadful. Jason Steele in goal punting a long kick straight at Bolton's centre backs while Rhodes and Koita lingered thirty yards away. Koita was hopeless, Akpan all over the place, Henley lightweight, Olsson missing, Marshall just lacking in basic footballing awareness. Worse though, never have I seen Jordan Rhodes so out of sorts. If the usual transfer window circus sees big money being offered for him in January, then snap their hands off. They won't have a riot on their hands, not on this showing.

Even when we were winning a few games Paul Lambert wasn't getting carried away. He said there was work to be done. Now we know quite how much. Forget the play-offs, there's a rebuilding job to be done here.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The 2015 reading pile - how did we do?

I've always had a pile of books I've hoped to get through. It's rare that I've ever finished every one, but here's the pile from the second half of 2015.

Fiction

I absolutely loved all three novels on the list which I read on holiday in Croatia back in August. My mate Dave Chadwick's historical novel Liberty Bazaar was my favourite of a strong three and the full review from August is here.

Dave Eggers' The Circle is a terrifying dystopian journey into the cult like world of Silicon Valley. Every time I've shared a moment on Facebook or Twitter, or even this blog about what books I've read I've thought about the twisted purpose behind the "free" Internet model we've all signed up for.

Anyone familiar with Roddy Doyle's writing will be both amused and moved by The Guts, a sometimes tragic return to the lives of the characters in his earlier masterpiece The Commitments. Cancer, post-crash Dublin, family strain. But still very funny.

Collections

The Blue Labour collection was published before the disastrous General Election and where ideas of community and Labour's traditions were trashed by a collective unwillingness to face up to the challenge of a Summer of hard truths. Same goes for Hope Dies Last, an inspiring collection of stories of community organising recommended by John McTernan. The Talk Like TED collection was good too, but I've only dipped in and out, to be honest.

Manchester 

The two books on Manchester are both by writers I know well - Phil Griffin and Jonathan Schofield. They present the city I love through very different lenses and with a different intended outcome. Nevertheless they both really capture the quirks and optimism really well.

The rest

I enjoyed Paul Vallely's biography of Pope Francis and something I kept returning to as the Holy Father continued his transformative mission throughout the Church. It was a good accompaniment to Terry Eagleton's superb revisiting of the Gospels and the view of Christ the radical.

I rediscovered Charlie Brooker's TVGoHome in the attic and enjoyed the old TV listings, Daily Mail Island and Nathan Barley - a real loo read.

A confession

There were loads that made it on after the photo was taken, including at least three Jack Reacher books by the prolific Lee Child, these are properly addictive. I didn't get round to to Rob Parsons Heart of Success or Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy. I honestly wasn't in the right place or frame of mind for either. I think I am now, so I'll give both another go when I get stuck into the new job.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Wipe our mouths and move on - life's too short

I've been reminded this week of the importance of embracing peace in our lives.

Feuds, rivalries, hostilities and resentments can eat us up. They provide a cruel spectacle for outsiders looking in, they can also be distracting and all-consuming. Sometimes we can be driven by a sense of justice and fairness, that our determination to right a wrong grows and grows. But all that really grows is negativity and bitterness.

I've witnessed this week a humbling and brave act of reconciliation, dwarfed though by the enormity of the life of a departed friend. Funerals tend to focus our minds on what is truly important, to reinforce our sense of humility.

Forgiveness is an important part of faith. It's right there in the Lord's Prayer - forgive those who trespass against us. Our friend Father Edmund Montgomery, former priest of our parish, describes purgatory as like a waiting room where you can't leave until you've made good all those feuds, conflicts and arguments.

You don't even have to be religious to see the sense of this. Even a stark utilitarian assessment of it tells us that we can have achieved so much more, but for the distraction of settling scores.

To me the greatest reconciliation is within our own hearts. We say to our kids, "come on, make friends, play nicely". I think about the people I've fallen out with and that's clearly impossible. You can't go back to what you used to have and in a busy and changing world it's important to recognise that what was once working, maybe now doesn't. Saying sorry can help, but it's become rather devalued once you attach the caveats of "if you were offended". No, maybe it's better to just wipe our mouths and move on.

I'm in the privileged position of looking back at an extraordinary year in my life, truly bizarre, but also looking to the future of a new challenge and purpose with hope and great expectation. Thank you all for your support, friendship and occasional comments on these Friday missives. I look forward to renewing our conversation in January.

Peace be with you this Christmas.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Chris Brown and the number 9 shirt at Blackburn Rovers

Every now and again during a dull and lifeless game at Ewood Park, I drift off. Sometimes I day dream. I lose myself in the mystery of my footballing faith. I recall the spirits, I evoke the memories and sometimes I truly have to pinch myself and say, yes, that really happened. 

Yes, we really used to watch a centre forward called Alan Shearer on that pitch. A player so good and so strong that defenders would bounce off him (except in the penalty area when his body transformed into a ragdoll whenever he made human contact). But he also had a burst of pace, a powerful shot, it was said that his only failing was he couldn't get on the end of his own crosses. 

He was truly the greatest centre forward the world has ever seen. Alan the king. And he wore the number 9 shirt for Blackburn Rovers Football Club. It is fitting that a road near the stadium is to be named after him, Alan Shearer Way.

Tonight's dull and lifeless encounter with Rotherham United was brightened by the appearance of another remarkable presence in the number 9 shirt of Blackburn Rovers Football Club and his name, was Chris Brown. At first I thought he had the appearance of an eager Dad at a Dads v Lads end of season game. Determined enough not to make a fool of himself, but still in possession of a few deft touches.

As the game wore on it was clear that was an unfair comparison and as we saw him close up it was clearer he instead bore a remarkable resemblance to the comedian Lee Mack, a fellow Rovers fan. In fact, that's not only who he looked like, but that's what his half hour on the pitch resembled. Lee Mack in a charity Rovers XI. To have earned the right to wear that shirt he has to possess some modicum of footballing talent, some latent ability that justifies his presence on the pitch and on the payroll of a club. Otherwise, Gary Bowyer wouldn't have bought him, would he?

I liked what Paul Lambert is doing, talking him up. That's what I'll do too. Chris Brown, number 9 Blackburn Rovers Football Club. The January transfer window opens in 21 days.

Finally, I am incredibly proud of Blackburn Rovers for stepping forward and hosting Carlisle United's game against Plymouth on January the 2nd while Brunton Park recovers from flood damage. It's not an ideal situation for everyone concerned, but it's a lovely gesture on the part of Rovers. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Manchester doesn't need to be edgier, just better

Some things get said so often they become accepted wisdom without a passing thought. Take the idea that an ever changing Manchester needs to stay "edgy".

I disagree with that, but first some context.

I did one of my "In Conversation" events for law firm Slater Heelis yesterday. It's a simple format, I interview on stage a senior Manchester person, there's no agreed script, I'm not hostile, but I'm not supine either. The idea is to present the audience with new and fresh insights. So far we've done regen lead Eddie Smith, Sir Howard Bernstein and the interim Mayor Tony Lloyd.

On a dark Thursday morning, that was wetter than an otter's pocket, I sat down at the front of Cinema Two in Home, Manchester's newest cultural asset, with Michael Ingall from property developer Allied London. I don't know him well, but I've always been impressed by his willingness to admit he doesn't know an answer, or has previously been wrong. You can do that when you take enormous calculated risks that prove you are usually right. This, lest we forget, is the man who has delivered Spinningfields as the established new Central Business quarter.

Three years ago at the MIPIM property conference he conceded that he doesn't know who will occupy the commercial buildings his business are constructing now. We have run out of large firms of accountants, large banks and firms of lawyers seem to be shrinking. That means reduced demand for large floor plates within glass boxes. Seeing that and still believing fervently that work will continue to be done in shared spaces but in very different forms takes some forethought and sets a tough test for your team.

Since then, within Spinningfields, he's had to admit - as he did in our conversation - that high end retail hasn't worked. Armani and Flannels have done OK, but the Avenue will become a home for the quirkier end of the well planned, well branded dining market - Fazenda, Comptoir Libanais and the Oast House, probably the unlikeliest success story of Manchester food and drink recently.

He also wants to transform the old Granada site into a place to live - really live, not piles of investment apartments - and to sit alongside the Factory, a World Class arts installation. I asked him about culture - especially as we were at HOME and although I don't recall his exact words I'll use mine instead. HOME is alright. It's badly needed, it's an improvement on the Cornerhouse, but in Paris they've got 50 of them and in Budapest about a dozen. 

So a frighteningly intelligent bloke who has been humble, bold, wrong and entirely correct also challenged the notion that Manchester needs to be edgy. I agree with him.

Being edgy is too often used an excuse for things that are a bit rubbish. Hulme in the 80s was "edgy". I remember a student inviting us to a party that would be full of "Hulme people". She didn't mean brewery workers or the unemployed and certainly not the criminal gangs. I'm sure a lot of good music and art got created there, but it was uninhabitable. I don't look around at people sleeping in doorways in the city centre and think that's "edgy". I think it's bloody awful that anyone should have a life reduced to that. I hate seeing it because it offends my sense of humanity. 

I don't walk through Piccadilly Gardens and think "this is good". To celebrate it as "edgy" as I'm sure no-one really does, is a cop out. It's scruffy, a magnet for criminality and it's ugly. I didn't even get round to asking Michael Ingall about it, it's not his immediate problem, but I wish it was someone's.

I'm willing to test this theory to destruction over the next week or so and invite you to do so as well. It's one of those things you start to see everywhere once you start to think about it more. Is it edgy, or actually just a by-word for a bit rubbish.

It brings to mind that Pulp song about the Common People, where the art school ponce is slumming because she thinks that poor is cool.

He also spoke fairly bluntly about the acquisition of the London Road Fire Station, opposite Piccadilly station and a gorgeous but derelict husk. The Friends of the building have done a remarkable job of keeping up the pressure on the owners, Britannia Hotels, who have rather let it rot. Now that Michael's Allied London own it, hopes will be high. But he will not be preserving it as a museum piece. It will be a significant statement of the city's willingness to be a grown up world class city. It will impress. It could include a boutique hotel, a high end gallery, somewhere that impresses big hitters when they get off the train from London. It will without question be better. But it won't be edgy.

Friday, December 04, 2015

The power of an idea - creativity, common good, Cottonopolis and the joy of good mates

There is something quite special about an idea that inspires and sparks the public's imagination.

We've had passers-by stop in the street and point up at our office this week. We've had TV crews reading the news as a backdrop and we've had tourists make a trip to come and look at the action. No, this isn't a shameful protest of intimidation against an MP, but a wonderful and uplifting visual campaign to commission original artwork and to raise money and awareness for the incredible work of the Wood Street Mission, a local charity helping poor and vulnerable people.

24 Lever Street in Manchester's Northern Quarter has been transformed into a massive Advent calendar, showcasing the creativity of the agency True North and hopefully brightening up what has been a scruffy corner of town. If you'd like to buy one, follow the whole campaign on the 24 Days of Lever Street website.

I ran a conference this week in Liverpool for the Institute of Chartered Accountants England and Wales (ICAEW), an organisation always looking to explore, push and challenge the future. Despite every prejudice you have ever had about the profession, trust is such a solid foundation from which to build. 

The keynote (and standout) speech of the day was from Mike Emmerich, who I'd invited to come and share his story about Manchester's journey to devolution and to weigh up the reality of the Northern Powerhouse from his new berth as the founder of Metro Dynamics. 

Having been at the centre of Manchester's recent triumphs and as architect of the devolution agreements and other economic development projects, like the renaissance of textiles in Greater Manchester, Mike is very much of the view that you have to create and drive ideas to make the future work. We are, in short, in control of more of our destiny than we sometimes dare to admit.

Mike's plea was for businesses in the North to "own the challenge" that the Northern Powerhouse presents. I still hark back to George Osborne's original speech at the Museum of Science and Industry where the three most important words were "You Tell Us."

By way of an example Mike evoked the Manchester textiles project he kicked off in his previous job at New Economy Manchester, which has now resulted in matched investment, a fund to back textiles innovation and the return of cotton spinning to a mill in Dukinfield. 

So I want to end this week's blog by paying tribute to two of my best pals, Mike Emmerich and Martin Carr, the principal at True North, the agency driving the Advent campaign. Not only do the pair of them regularly amuse me in ways that only good mates can, but they have also been there for me to advise, support and challenge in ways only good friends can. 

Between us we started DISCUSS, a debating forum where the best ideas can be explored, probed and challenged. We honour Manchester's spirit of innovation, but also the quirks of creativity, the pursuit of the common good and the combination of all of the above that make this city such a special place.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Viva la Rovers - and why music is ruining football


Who chooses the music at football stadiums? I ask this because I noticed today that Blackburn Rovers walked out to the instrumental bridge of Coldplay's Viva la Vida, a rousing soaring anthem about a guilty liberal wrestling with his childlike understanding of religion.

Maybe this has been the case for a while, I've stopped noticing. I find the whole invasive and intrusive use of loud music to create "atmosphere" to be symptomatic of football's vacuous loss of real soul.

At Old Trafford on Wednesday I was both repulsed and impressed by the use of the Stone Roses. Impressed because the writers of the song are at least United fans, repulsed because the song is utterly fantastic and yet it's just joined the same pile of advert fodder.

My personal nadir for pumped in, pumped up music was the use of Status Quo's Rockin' All Over the World in February 2002 at Cardiff as Rovers paraded the League Cup. It spoiled a genuine moment of joy.

Later that year I stood at Celtic Park as 60,000 Celtic fans were prompted to sing You'll Never Walk Alone by the tannoy. They didn't need to be told, it made something majestic just a little less so.

The match today was good. There was a greater professionalism about Rovers. Paul Lambert clearly sees the need to impose the team's strengths on a game. But at 70 minutes they looked shattered and are clearly not fit enough. It reminded me of how it took Mark Hughes a few games to tune his charges up in 2004. Maybe they need some better music in the dressing room. I'd just be happier if they'd drop it from before the match.



Friday, November 27, 2015

The inspiring life of Kevin Wilson and a Mao quote I hope it's alright to use

The trajectory of history sometimes shows how the smallest of events can have the most profound and positive of consequences.

First, a Mao story. Chairman Mao was allegedly asked what course history would have taken if it had been President Krushchev who had been shot in 1963 instead of President John F Kennedy. 

"I don't think Mr Onassis would have married Mrs Krushchev," he said.

This regular Friday blog is usually a summary of the week that was. This week it will be shorter than usual for reasons that will become apparent. 

Talking to people at the Bionow awards at Mere Country Club on Thursday night it was clear that the understated and modest Kevin Wilson, who died aged 64, deserves to be stated rather more.

This week I was involved in another Knowledge Exchange event. These thought leading seminars promote a greater level of understanding of issues to do with workplace design, productivity and culture. We held it at the Soapworks development at Exchange Quay next to where TalkTalk are building a major presence and a significant employment base. 

Had Kevin not met Ian Currie at Charlton Seal stockbrokers in the early 80s then the direction of Manchester as a financial centre may not have taken the successful route it has. RedX Pharma, a winner last night following a successfully flotation, was backed by Ian's business Seneca. My friend Neil McArthur was pondering this - Kevin's advice in 1998 took his telecoms business on a road that eventually saw the formation of TalkTalk.

But I've heard this week some profoundly personal ways in which Kevin Wilson will always be remembered. A maverick character who developed board games as a sideline, he trusted the judgement of a young admin assistant at Zeus Capital who was made to feel more confident and inspired by him as a result. Sally Williams is now the fantastic client services manager at Liberty, the pensions business I'm on the board of, and is one of the many who is reflecting on the special effect Kevin had.

I said this would be brief. But take any time you may have set aside to read this to instead go and read this tribute to "my funny and kind friend" Kevin Wilson from Steven Lindsay. Whether you know any of the people or not, it matters not. Just think of this: to have lived a life where you have friends who love you quite like this is a great life indeed. Just horribly short.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why I feel terrorised and what the former head of MI5 told me about leadership

Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5
(pic from JLA, speaker agency)
Are there things you know, that we couldn't know, but if we did know, maybe we'd think better of our leaders?

That was the question I put to Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, at an event I hosted in Manchester in 2012. Given she'd been on duty and in charge during the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 and we were discussing leadership it seemed a fair question to ask. It's at the forefront of all our minds now.

I'll admit this, I am terrorised. I shouldn't be, I can rationalise the numbers. And I'll sign up to any amount of "not afraid" pledges. I genuinely wasn't afraid when I lived in London through the early 90s. You just accepted it. Maybe I was younger and more reckless, but you always sensed the IRA usually intended to make life inconvenient and uncomfortable. That somehow the coded warnings would get us out of danger in time. That's how it felt. The deeper sense of fear and anger started when I made a trip up to watch Russia v Germany at Old Trafford during the Euro 96 Championships. That was the day when I heard a large boom in the distance - it was the IRA blowing up a big part of Manchester city centre. Warning or not, it made me angry and scared.

Three years later, while I was on constant standby for the birth of my first son, London was hit by bombings in three different spots - two of which were regular haunts, Soho and Brick Lane. The fourth target, before the maniac was stopped, was to have been Stamford Hill, the large Jewish area close to where I lived.

On September the 10th 2001 I looked around the Capitol building in Washington DC, visited Arlington Cemetery and gazed over in awe at the Pentagon building. Without illusions, but with great pride I enjoyed a few days steeped in the best traditions of a multi-cultural democracy. I flew home from Dulles Airport where I may well have been within feet of the murderous crew who hours later were flying the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 to Los Angeles into the Pentagon.

On the 7th of July 2005, my sister's birthday, I awoke to the awful news that London was under attack. I later found myself on a train from Manchester Piccadilly to Cardiff Central that day, both stations were closed due to security alerts, no coded warnings, no tactical avoidance of loss of life.

I mention those days of clammy mortal fear and anger, not just as a personal recollection, but to explain that I am terrorised. And that my pride for our society, how we congregate freely and how we celebrate diversity, universal human rights and the pursuit of love, however flawed, is who we are.

The London bombs were the work of Nazi nail bomber David Copeland. No one tried to say we were "reaping the whirlwind" of a society that was alienating him and turning him into what he was. Or that there was any basis to his justification that he was fighting the degeneracy encouraged by the Zionist Occupation Government. He is a murdering arsehole who deserves to rot in jail and so should the authors of the brainwashing garbage that turned him.

Likewise, I have no time for mealy mouthed moral relativism over terrorism, militant Islam and guilt about the West or that we "had it coming".

During a painful and emotional review of the Saturday papers for the BBC last weekend I could only conclude that being who we are, living as we do, is why they hate us. Why those people in Paris eating in an ethnic restaurant, watching football and going to a concert is an affront to a murderous death cult. It's who we are. I'm proud of who we are.

So, to come back to the point about leaders and what they know and how they react. I was fairly appalled by a paralysed George W Bush in the aftermath of 911 and impressed by Mayor Giuliani. Eliza Manningham-Buller confirmed I was right to be impressed by Tony Blair on all those occasions in London as well as all the threats we didn't get to hear about.

I'm not being mean spirited when I say I don't recall the statements of the leaders of the opposition back then.

Why then does it matter quite so much what the leader of our opposition says and does in the wake of the Paris attacks? It sort of matters to me because it's my party. And it matters because of everything he's ever said about terrorism, every caveat he's ever attached, every flaky position that the awful Stop the War Coalition have espoused, every element of the relativistic anti-Western "yebbutery" and "whataboutism" that has to find common cause with enemies of the rest of us.

Yet it wasn't really what Jeremy Corbyn was going to do or say this week that had me sitting up awake and anxious at 3 in the morning. I harbour a lack of confidence in David Cameron and don't yet feel he's gripped Britain's role in the world and has a strategy for a response to confront the threats we face, or to successfully project British values and Britain's interests effectively.

It all comes back to a point Eliza made three and half years ago in answer to my question - leadership is not about command and control, but vision and strategy. "You must be honest about difficulties, but demonstrate your confidence in the future and in your people."

That is quite some yardstick by which to measure our present leaders, is it not?

Friday, November 13, 2015

To offer hope - possibilities of devolution in Greater Manchester

At the Discuss Manchester debate on education this week I was greatly encouraged by a conclusion to some of the bright, startling and inspirational ideas being chucked around. Devolution is a possibility - not an inevitability. A challenge, not a solution. 

All the speakers were fantastic - I could listen to Debra Kidd and Melissa Benn all day long. But as ever our audience rose to that challenge of thought leadership and ambition. Overwhelmingly our audience agreed that education is failing our economy, despite a valiant and well-argued attempt to persuade us otherwise by Nick Bent and Alun Francis. The very deliberate word I asserted in that motion, by the way, was "our".

Our solution to our problem. Well, let's create a Manchester curriculum, for starters.

Since I raised it in the round table discussion with the PM, the Chancellor and other Northern leaders after George Osborne's Northern Powerhouse speech I've scratched my head as to why it hasn't formed a plank of the whole DevoManc edifice. Health and social care is arguably harder and riskier, while the direct benefits of education reform also potentially solve two problems in one - happiness and productivity.

Mike Emmerich has written a very smart piece for the Guardian on how cities need to scale up their ambitions on devolution. And I've written a great deal including this, also for the Guardian, about how devolution presents a real opportunity to shape the future, whereas to most people it's still seen as something that is done to you by "they".

I think a lot about "they".

At a meeting in our local area on Tuesday I witnessed one of those transitions from "they" to "we". Matt Grant is one of those special people in any community who cares enough to do something and uses his skills and resources to lead. He'd be reluctant to call himself a "community leader" or "organiser" but in addressing some of the acute traffic problems he's shown a great deal more vision than our local councillors.

Long story short, there's going to be a new by-pass that will link the A6 to the Airport road. It will inevitably change traffic patterns. We have a problem with speeding on local roads. Matt and the Windlehurst Living Streets Group (of which I'm a tiny part) have pushed and pushed through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, meetings with officers and councillors for information about whether we have a problem (we do) and what are the solutions (inadequate). This week Matt presented the start of "our" alternative strategy.

This is what devolution should be doing. Not just creating another structure slightly less far away that does stuff to you, but where decisions are taken at the appropriate level. Not just accepting what central government are doing but challenging it. Not just railing against an agreement because one side of it are Tories, who are very good at devolving other people's power, but seizing the moment because it has the possibility of better outcomes.

In another meeting I was at this week with a client we had a presentation on how HMRC are tackling the tax gap. Shortly after we hear that they are to be regionalised and rationalised, resulting in job losses and disruption to service. My old colleagues at the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAEW) are rightly sceptical about this. But what if it was a tax collection and incentive service that operated locally according to the priorities of an area? One again, the possibilities start to light up the imagination.

Finally, in the course of challenging ideas and exploring new areas of interest about how we work I attended a session on Tuesday about entrepreneurial wellbeing. I saw a terrific presentation by Kat Taylor on bipolar disorders and creative people. It was unsettling at times, but inspiring about how we must celebrate and embrace difference and diversity, however hard that can be.

So, an incredibly exciting, challenging and inspiring week - I'd like to think I can loll about on Saturday and think this through a bit more, but I'm up at the crack of dawn to review the newspapers with Andy Crane on BBC Radio Manchester. Maybe some of this will make it onto the programme.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Gary Bowyer, when "a right good go" just isn't enough and why I want Tim Sherwood

I have a small habit, a catharsis, of writing up a few thoughts on each Rovers match. Not a match report, just a few observations on our day out.

Except this week.

After the draw with Brentford I just couldn't be bothered. I'd stopped caring.

After the Burnley game a few fans I know we're trying to muster support for a Bowyer out campaign. That's never been my style, even with Ince and Kean, I thought it was counter productive. Much as I came to resent the pair of them picking up a big cheque for doing a job they were woefully unqualified to do.

Now that Gary Bowyer has been sacked I feel shocked. Mainly because the owners seem to have realised they own an actual football club with a manager. I had begun to suspect they would never be seen again and that change was a distant prospect while the transfer embargo is in place and any chance of promotion gone.

The strange world of Venky's is a mystery wrapped in an enigma buried under a riddle, or something. I can only imagine conversations were had to sell any player we could get money for, except Jordan Rhodes. I deduced that Bowyer was probably untouchable, because he kept his mouth shut and got on with it.

But if there was one thing from the Brentford game that summed it up for me, it was that there have been so many games where the style of the match is dictated by the opposition, Brentford play it quick pass and move and they press up the pitch, so we just let them. There didn't seem to be a game plan. time and time again I left games bemused about what type of side we are meant to be. The tormentors of Ipswich? or the torpor of MK Dons away? No consistency and no cohesion. His selections latterly of Chris Taylor and stubbornly persisting with Ben Marshall at right back were just daft. That wasn't why he was sacked though.

No, Bowyer committed the most unforgivable sin of them all. We lost to Burnley at home. There is no way back after that. He didn't have enough in the locker beyond "we gave it a right good go". Sure, all his mates, the football people, will say he had his hands tied, there was no money. But when there was he spent it on Chris Brown, Chris Taylor and various goalies we don't appear to need.

So, to the replacement. Now the owners have woken up I can only imagine the madness that may now ensue. I don't think they're likely to stop at the management team. Nor is the international break a coincidence. I would expect a sweep of the boardroom too. A new chief executive and chairman. That may then rule out my initial thought that Derek Shaw will lure his old mate David Moyes, just sacked in Spain. Just please don't appoint a global adviser. But given the mistakes of the past that I'm sure they want to learn from and atone for, let's assume they are capable of making rational and sound footballing decisions.

I would love one or more of the Class of 95 to come in - a dream ticket of Sherwood and Shearer, maybe. Not because they've proved themselves as top managers, but becuase it has to be about the passion, the fire and the glory. We had a glory year. We may never have one again. But playing it safe and appointing Alan Curbishley or Ian Holloway would be so boring.

OK, so Henning Berg and Colin Hendry haven't worked out as managers from that era, but Sherwood is different. He'd be my choice.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Taking Back Power by Simon Parker - book review in a lift

It just can't go on like this. Over centralised, inefficient and disengaged from the public. Not just the Labour Party, but government and politics. Simon Parker has created a lively and illuminating contribution to our understanding of how we are governed and how we may look to break out of this neck hold by Whitehall.

I've read more than my fill of policy pamphlets this summer as I've tried to digest Labour's defeat but the most upsetting one of all is the successful colonisation of the high ground on the devolution issue by the Conservatives. It's not like Labour never saw it coming. But instead of burying a good idea in a dense growth review - as Ed Miliband did to Andrew Adonis' important work - the Tories seized a moment, and made it plausible. That the excellent work of Labour local authorities is being made impossible through cuts to central grants is the difficult nettle to grasp, which this book attempts.

There's also more going on at a local level than Simon Parker has room to cover in this short and inspirational book - free schools, town teams and neighbourhood plans need more understanding.

I'm also not overly sold on the concept of a universal income - will have too high an inflationary effect - but loved the idea of a lottery for the second chamber. Just the kind of fresh thinking we have been lacking.

It's also really funny. Not something I expected from this neck of the woods, but one of the most enjoyable political reads in a long while.

This is a breezy book review in a lift, an idea started when I worked on the 8th floor and someone would point at the book and ask - what's that about then? 

Talking about 40 by 40 on TV with Fiona Fox of That's Manchester TV

Interview about my book 40 by 40 with Fiona Fox on That's Manchester TV.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Responding to my teenage lad who said: Corbyn's lot are burning police cars in London.

One of the kids, I won't say which one, burst into the kitchen last night and said - "have you seen what Corbyn's lot are doing? They're rioting and burning police cars in London." 

This poses a tricky dilemma as a parent. 

I had three choices, what do I do?

a) applaud his moral outrage at violence and disorder, but calmly point out that those rioting had nothing to do with the Labour leader.

b) berate him as a Tory lite lackey for swallowing the mainstream media line on legitimate protest against this vile Tory government who are literally slaughtering the poor while he does NOTHING.

c) say no, son, you're right. These are Corbyn's people, his mask of kinder gentler politics covers the ugly mob that have been emboldened and legitimised by the world view that says the correct response to anything you disagree with is to go on a march and protest against it, shout at it, thus attracting nutters who feed off the impotent faux outrage that will inevitably end in the same predictable way.

I ran this exercise on Facebook (which is for friends and family) and enjoyed the largely irreverant responses.

Anyway, game over, the correct answer was of course all 3. He has his own mind, he dislikes Jeremy Corbyn intensely - hence the highly visceral reaction to the burning of a police car. But there are many viewpoints to take on board, not least a more nuanced one about how angry people feel. But non-violence is a bit of line here for me.

Here's the Huffington Post's report on it following the appearance of Class War activist Adam Clifford on the BBC. http://m.huffpost.com/uk/entry/8490644

Friday, November 06, 2015

Crowd control at three events this week - the exciting life of an event host and chair

I've hosted three events over the last week where trouble and conflict was expected, but none came. I'd be flattering myself if I said this was because I established such a force of firm control, but there are ways to encourage debate without it getting testy.

Our speaker at a private dinner on Wednesday night was Tehsin Nayani. If you've never heard of him, that's his intention. For six years he was the PR man for the Glazer family. You could say he did a lousy job. That would be harsh, but he certainly had his hand tied behind his back with owners who simply didn't want to engage with public or media. As a result, the American owners of Manchester United have never improved upon their relationship with the fan base at Old Trafford and long periods of their ownership have been punctuated with protests and discontent. Tehsin gave us some fascinating insights into who his bosses were, what they were like and how the club is run. In his book The Glazer Gatekeeper, he explains just how frustrating his job was at times. He's no longer a spokesman for the owners of Man United, but clearly retains a respect for them and stoutly defended their tactics and strategy of ownership at Old Trafford. Did everyone leave convinced? Probably not. Did the guests of KPMG, NorthEdge and Rowan Partners manage to enjoy ourselves without falling out about it? Very much so, as Ron Manager would say.

I was delighted to be asked to open Manchester Policy Week on Monday. Arriving early I was surprised to see burly security guards on the doors to the room inside the Manchester Museum. The debate I hosted was on fracking, with an illustrious panel of geologists and climate scientists and for good measure, a senior executive from exploration business Cuadrilla, which seems to attract protestors like moths to a flame. We used electronic clickers to gauge the opinions of the audience - 70 per cent were against. By the end that number was reduced to 60 per cent (a mixture of latecomers and waverers). Interestingly, the argument against fracking from Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre is almost solely concerned with the end product, not the means. It's more hydro-carbons and that's enough to want to block any further gas extraction. Anyway, no protestors but a very robust and high quality debate as you can read on the Policy Week blog.

Last Saturday I took a trip to the seaside for Labour's North West conference where I was hosting a fringe meeting on how we can make Britain fairer in the next five years. As I said on my blog for the think tank Progress, there is a twin track approach needed here of community leadership and ultimately campaigning for Labour to be in government, wherever that may be. There is a golden thread of sanity through the Labour party that is exemplified by how we govern - Jim McMahon, the leader of Oldham and selected to stand for parliament in the Oldham West by-election is one - but also MPs like Alison McGovern who are thinkers and active campaigners. There is talk about conflict in the party, but I only detected a steely pragmatism. The advice I gave to Young Labour activists who didn't get elected to officer roles on Saturday was to just get on with the task in hand, put ideological differences aside and work for the people who need us. Sure, there will be ripe language and rule bending. Yes, some of them were a little shaken up, but that's politics, it can be a rough trade.

So, such variety and no bother. I do think it's important to maintain that safe and free space to express views and opinions. I saddens me that Universities are closing down debate and extending the dubious "no platform" policy beyond where it was ever intended. We're in the process of programming our 2016 Discuss series and I would dearly love to host debates on whether Islam needs a renaissance, why Manchester isn't as good as it thinks it is and the relevance of feminism.

I ought to point out that my agent, Nicky Wake of Don't Panic is taking bookings for conferences, debates and awards nights.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Getting stuff done - a week of substance, over and style

If you get the chance go and look around one of the Youth Zones in the North West. You can't just drop in, these are safe places for young people. But go and talk to the volunteers and fundraisers about the outcomes of the work they do, but also how humbling and personally beneficial it has been to everyone who has been involved.

I spent the morning at the Bolton Lads and Girls Club with Nick Hopkinson (pictured), who is a real force of nature. An entrepreneur, adventurer and fund raiser, he spends 80 per cent of his time "messing about and raising money" travelling the world while doing so and shining a great amount of light into this part of Bolton.

Substance

I'll be writing this up for Onside magazine, which I produce for my client Seneca, a business with real substance, incredible reach and deep humility amongst its team members. This was demonstrated in spades two weekends ago when a gang of them romped through Delamere Forest together in the Hellrunner half marathon, raising a chunk of money for the Bolton club. These exercises work on so many levels, yes, the funds for the kids of Bolton, but also the togetherness and greater sense of mission that doing something this engenders.

This connection to the values of a charity is particularly important at a time when Kids Co is being pored over and charities have undoubtedly suffered reputational damage through aggressive fund raising, high salaries and a lack of accountability.

Style

We went to see the new James Bond film on Monday. It was a rare full family outing to something we could all enjoy. Two things stood out. One was the fact that SPECTRE is like a James Bond Greatest Hits tour. The whole band back together for a huge rally for the true fans. The opening scene with skull masks was a top hat tipped towards Live and Let Die, and so it flowed. Secondly, I was struck by how dominant Daniel Craig was in every single shot. He was styled, choreographed, poised and dressed like each scene was a commercial or a pop video. His walk, his every look was an exercise in making the job of his successor an impossible one.

One of my own obsessions is with classic British clothing brands - John Smedley, Clarks, Loakes and the one that was featured in the film to luxurious effect, Sunspel. I love the well made crafted simplicity of their shirts and underwear. They produced the boxer shorts that Nick Kamen wore in the famous Levis laundrette commercial in the 1980s and changed how men dressed down below.

Over

This week has mostly been about getting over the crushing disappointment of the derby day defeat in the East Lancashire t'classico to Burnley. It's never good to lose a game like this, but all we can really do is remind ourselves for those thirty odd years when we were dominant we had a league title, a cup and two promotions to show for it. I can't imagine how unbearable that must have been for them. There is absolutely no danger that our claret cousins will achieve anything like that level of success. We just have to savour the memories.

Finally, we did a Discuss nuclear debate on Thursday this week at the Science Festival and an event in Liverpool to read from my book and sign a few copies. It was great to meet so many new faces, but also made me all the more determined to link everything that I do with something worthwhile. I'm going to start by donating all profits from sales of 40 by 40 to the OnSide charity.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The harder you work, the luckier you get - thoughts on Rovers v Burnley

I genuinely, honestly don't know if Burnley work any harder on the training ground than Blackburn Rovers. But I genuinely honestly can think of no other reason for the result I've watched today. Man for man, player for player, we had a definite edge. Big players put in some big performances. Grant Hanley was faultless. Jordan Rhodes did everything but score, indeed at set plays he's often our best defender.

But Burnley were far more cohesive, far more organised and therefore were always clear about what they needed to do to win, or draw.

And that old maxim, the harder you work, the luckier you get. They had the luck today. One chance, one goal, one opportunity. They didn't need to do much more. We did and we couldn't.

Two years on from Gary Bowyer's appointment I still have no notion of the kind of side we are. We're dependent on the rub of the green, a shining performance from a "black swan" player - like Tom Lawrence, for instance - or a snuffling out of the opposition's danger men. But Burnley had a strategy, we just have tactics and tricks. 1-0 down and we're happy to play it along the back six and lob it back to a keeper who isn't even that good at lumping it forward.

It could have been different today, sport always can, but this game is too important to us to be just another game that we dust ourselves down and bounce back from. It defines us. It defines them. And right now they are a solid, unremarkable, well organised side capable of winning a derby game and sending their fans home happy. They will go on and finish higher than we will.

Fair play to the ref today. Not a popular view I'm sure, but so many bookings are stupid and unnecessary. His judgement was to downplay everything. He got to 70 minutes without getting a card out and thought he'd see it to the end.

Where does this Rovers side go from here? I genuinely, honestly don't know.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Why challenge is so important in everything you do

I've been thinking a lot about the importance of challenge this week. I've had an induction for a new board I'm joining where constructive questioning and challenging of executive directors is not only encouraged but actively expected. This hasn't always been the case in cultures where I've worked before.

In any walk of life, it must be impossible to achieve anything if you have to make all the decisions yourself, but are then surrounded by "yes men" who tell you what you want to hear. New ideas and new thinking on any subject can help to refresh decision making and bring a confidence to any organisation.

Tristram Hunt first floated the idea of "algorithm politics" at the debate I held in September on the new politics. You can watch a video of his speech here.

He continued the theme in a talk at the University of Sheffield last week. "Google’s skill at offering you what it knows you like is now directing you towards what you want to hear, from people like you."

We have algorithms driving Facebook and Twitter that point us towards more and more people we agree with and like. We are herded towards those with whom we agree. This fuels a cycle of validation.

Jeremy Corbyn has created the veneer of being inclusive with his parliamentary party because he has no choice. The talent pool is so shallow on the left he's had to give jobs to poor calibre ranters like Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott, but is still forced to work with whoever will serve. In his own team he is less pluralistic, Seamus Milne is the latest appointee, but others in his ranks like Simon Fletcher and Andrew Fisher are brutal faction fighters who are there to consolidate, validate and enforce. Not to challenge. That's not on the agenda.

Flesh on the bones of history

I started this week as I started last with an evening at the Manchester Literature Festival listening to authors I've heard of, but never read anything by. Admittedly, they are both Labour grandees, but Robert Harris and Melvyn Bragg have both written recent works that attempt to put flesh on the bones of history. Harris by completing his Roman trilogy and Bragg with a novel about the Peasants revolt of 1381.

I haven't truly embraced the spirit of historical fiction (or Game of Thrones, yet) but it strikes me that we apply much of our own interpretations of history through the lens of modern life and morality. Melvyn Bragg was asked how on earth he can construct a character based on how someone will think and feel 750 years ago. But he has, and wasn't this the very basis of our greatest ever historical fiction writer, William Shakespeare?

Chinese state visit 

So Manchester is receiving the Chinese leader today, which I'm genuinely pleased about. But it comes at a time when the strains of globalisation and fetishisation of the Chinese success story are being felt, especially on Teeside. The social costs of a loss of our steel industry and the technical weaknesses to our infrastructure from inferior product are high prices to pay.

It's also important that as we respect the culture and history of our visitors we don't forget our own traditions too. Protest, mutuality, respect and democracy. There will be protests against the human rights record of the Chinese government, rightly, I just hope it can be done with dignity and without spitting and rape threats.

The nuclear question

I genuinely haven't made up my mind about nuclear power. Next week we're hosting a debate as part of the Science Festival  which might help. Tickets have been shifting fairly briskly and we're close to a sell out with just a week to go.

A few years ago, when I was pondering what to do next, I became very excited by the possibilities of curiosity and debate. Bringing people together to explore new ideas and bring original thinkers to a stage to lead a sharing of knowledge and query.

It was on a wet night in August 2011 listening to Tristram Hunt telling a packed audience at the People's History Museum about Peterloo that the idea that is now Discuss started to form. I was also excited by some of the libertarian free thinking displayed by an author called Douglas Carswell, who challenged conventions on politics and community organisation.

I hope we've been true to that mission and I hope we have been able to encourage more critical thinking. Now that is an idea worth fighting for.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Howard Kendall dared us to dream


Howard Kendall was Blackburn Rovers manager when we hit rock bottom. A 3-0 home defeat by Rotherham United in 1979 left us at the bottom end of the then Third Division. Fast forward to the 2nd of May 1981 and that morning, aged 14,  I set off on my own on the train to Eastville stadium Bristol, home of another Rovers, as we dared to dream of a promotion to the top flight.

It wasn't to be, football is full of such highs and lows and false dawns. Howard Kendall made me fundamentally shift my view of what it meant to be a Blackburn Rovers supporter. From that dismal September Saturday to the brink of something special. It was one of those amazing, reach for the stars times.

The football supporting life I bought into was safe, unthreatening and lacking any real ambition. It was part of something traditional and grounded, rather than modern and aspirational and successful. That promotion season and then the possibilities of a second surge the year after changed all that. He dared us to dream.

It was against Derby County in the play off semi final in 1991 where all that existential suffering and angst came to the fore again as we slumped to 2-0 after 20 minutes. What are we? Why are we? What is this curse that stops us reaching to that next level. Amazingly, incredibly, we won 4-2. It was the most emotional I've ever been at Ewood ever.

A minute's applause for Howard Kendall before last night's decent draw with the Rams doesn't come close to conveying what he did for the club. Read Jim Wilkinson's pain staking and brutally honest fans' account for what it meant, but take it from me, without Howard Kendall, there would not have been a Blackburn Rovers that Jack Walker could have deemed worth 'saving'. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A bad result in a bad place. MK Dons away.

I only came to Stadium MK because it was a new ground and so it had all the ingredients for a dismal afternoon, tucked away at the top deck in a flat pack stadium (next to IKEA) against the wierd soulless shapeless thing that is MK Dons.
I said when I bought the tickets that it felt a bit like I'm crossing a picket line at Parkside colliery circa 1985 while eating a Cape orange.


If the experience wasn't weird enough in this futuristic new town with its roundabouts, boulevards and no visible centre, the game was one to forget. Getting Henley sent off after ten minutes and going one down from the penalty that followed made it hard enough, but apart from a couple of brief spells that came to nothing it just wasn't our day.

A brief word on Rovers fans. Spotted at least three sets of grown men squaring up to each other as frustration took hold. Not big or clever. Is this normal on an away trip?

Bring on Derby, get over this quickly.

As a ground, it's alright as far as the sight lines and seating comfort goes, but it was half empty and devoid of atmosphere. Still, number 80 chalked off in my punk 92 and 68 in the total 92 and ground number 141. Happily, I need never to come here again.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The best business speaker I've ever seen is...

Kevin Roberts on stage (pic by Neil Price)
I get asked a lot who the best speaker I’ve ever worked with is. There are so many ways to answer that. Who works best in a small room doesn’t always light up an auditorium. A funny, wise and informative conference presenter can fall spectacularly as an after dinner performer – and I’ve seen Wayne Hemingway do both.

So obviously, it depends. But for emotion, danger, connection, wisdom, inspiration and, yes, entertainment the answer is Kevin Roberts, author of Lovemarks, chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, head coach at Publicis and, like me, he left Lancaster Royal Grammar School in a state of disgrace.

I saw him again this week for the first time in ‘too long’. He was doing the keynote address at the Annual Hotel Conference in Manchester, curated by my old chum Chris Eddlestone, the self-styled Earl of East Lancashire.

What struck me more than anything was his edge, an urgency to understand, keep up, interpret and act. But also to seek and maintain a higher purpose to whatever it is you do. He started by talking about millenials, the globally mobile digital natives – in particular how the hotels industry needs to think very carefully about what they want and need in the age of Airbnb. But, the algorithm can read the lines but only we can read between them and deliver emotional connections. 

His talks are always full of visuals, names, quotes and bursts of inspiration. This is the Age of the Idea, he said, and the biggest one of them all right now is disruption.  

Kevin took a lifelong love of rugby from his time at our school (I didn’t). And I remember an evening at the Town Hall in 2004 where he invited his mate Sean Fitzgerald to teach the first XV the Haka as part of a bawdy night of fundraising for a planned tour of Argentina. Raising money for privileged children, I think I called it. 

The mysticism of the All Blacks – the Haka is a part of that – does rather irritate me, just as Barcelona’s ‘more than a club’ creates the aura of semi-religious purity it so frequently fails to live up to. But if you’re going to do something well, then why not do it in such fine and grand style. I liked Kevin’s comment about the England Rugby team’s purpose and ideal was to win the World Cup on home soil. The All Blacks is to be the best rugby team that ever played the game. Wow. That’s really powerful. So he’s dead right when he says that no opposition is ever more intimidating than the legacy. There’s also a dressing room “all for one” culture of humility that doesn’t tolerate dickheads. Kevin said that a Kevin Pietersen would never have been an All Black. 

So why the war dance then chaps? 

A dose of Kevin is always a good part of any day, week, year. Truly, the best there is.

It got me thinking about the old school. I wasn’t happy at school and have been an avowed opponent of the selective system all my life, up to, during and after, my own experience of its harmful effects not just on me, but on my friends and family who “failed” their 11 plus, scarring them for life. The bright lads from tough backgrounds who got through, but who seemed to drop out and drift away from the culture of cold showers, Latin, housemasters, Big School, prefects and rugby. 

As I said on BBC Radio Manchester this morning, I’m disappointed that selective state grammar schools are making a comeback. I am all in favour of improving schools and improving the life chances of our brightest and best. But the flip side of this elitism in state education is too cruel and a massive distraction from the important project of raising standards across the board.

The problem with so much of our debate on all aspects of education is that it's fuelled by anecdote, gut feel and, frankly, picking the evidence to suit your prejudice. I have not seen any evidence whatsoever that grammar schools contribute to social mobility, higher earnings or leave anything positive in a community for the 90 per cent who don't pass the entrance exam.

So, for what it's worth, the fact that Kevin Roberts and I went to the same school and have taken the paths we have taken in life has absolutely nothing at all to say to the debate about the future of education in this country.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Wembley dream over for @hydeunited


When I was a kid, I have a memory that a headline in the Lancaster Guardian, following an early exit by Lancaster City in a preliminary qualifying round of the FA Cup, was Wembley Dream Over For Dolly Blues. So, to see the faces on the players of Hyde United today after a frankly ludicrous 2-1 home defeat to Northwich Victoria you'd have thought that's what they'd been denied too.

I don't think I've seen as one-sided a second half as we did today. Hyde threw everything forward and would have emerged winners from this re-arranged tie if there was any natural justice. The young goalie mistimed collecting a long back pass for the first and was bundled into his own net under a rough challege for the winner.

It was Non-League Day today, where fans of league clubs are encouraged to support their local teams. As it was a replayed game (Northwich had played an ineligible player in the original game) then it was only £8 for me and kid4. Sadly there were only 250 others on for a decent game. But the opportunity of a cup run is such a lifeline for players at this level. How they must dream of getting drawn at home in the First round proper to Sheffield United or some other team with a big away following.

A couple of seasons ago, at the depths of my disdain for the Venky's disastrous reign at Blackburn Rovers, I had a bit of a Non-League Season. I caught Hyde on an upward bounce and enjoyed it, even contemplating doing an away trip before sense took hold. It was familiar and robust again today; the Shed was in decent potty mouthed voice and we laughed a lot, even at the predictable cry of "Ref! Get him offf! He could have killed him!" 

We're sticking with Rovers, but Hyde feels like an old local pub that we pop back to. It's also something different that we can enjoy without any real emotional connection or commitment to. I do enjoy these experiences and am still keen to chalk off my Greater Manchester stadiums - Curzon Ashton, FC United and Man City's new bowl on the campus beckon. I also keep pondering doing a season following the FA Cup - starting at the nearest game to our house at the earliest possible stage and seeing how far I could do. Sadly, like the quest to do the 92 it's just not practical with the kids at the age they are and everything else that needs doing. 

So, today, for me the Wembley dream was very much over. For Hyde, it's back to the business of a long trip to Whitby Town for a league game on Wednesday night.

Friday, October 09, 2015

An afternoon with rogue trader Nick Leeson

I did an event in London this week with Nick Leeson, the “rogue trader” who broke Barings Bank in 1995. It was an absolutely fascinating encounter. He spoke candidly and purposefully to an audience of financial specialists about what happened to him and how it could have been avoided, but also where risk is managed now.

It was a fine end to a very hard working and productive conference organised by the Manchester-based financial technology (Fintech) business AccessPay. If I took three things from the event it was these: Cash is still king, knowledge is power and disruption is everywhere.

Just as my research earlier this year for the ICAEW on the changing role of accountants found, there is a platform shift in human behaviour that requires a far more nimble way of accessing information and accessing services and products. New ways of doing business are challenging these relationships every bit as Netflix and Uber are disrupting entertainment and taxis.

But as Nick Leeson’s talk demonstrated there is a human being at the centre of this digital world, hopefully making rational decisions and managed sufficiently within a complex system to mitigate against undue risk. When he joined me for a Question and Answer session we broadened the conversation to look at scandals like Enron and Volkswagen and how they can be prevented.

As I arrived at the Barbican Centre at 7.45 that morning I had an inkling we were in for a good day when I saw a queue of people in sleeping bags at the front desk waiting to get in. I never knew Global Treasury services and communications protocols in the banking industry were so popular. Turns out they were actually there for the sale of tickets for Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Coincidentally, the previous day in London had been a board meeting for mine and Benedict’s old seat of learning, the University of Manchester. Our Alumni Advisory board had met at the Wellcome Trust, where we followed up with an open meeting for Manchester Alumni. We heard from General Secretary of the Students’ Union, Naa Acquah. In addition, Hian Seng Teng, President of the Alumni Association in Singapore and is extremely active across Asia, working with his counterparts in Hong Kong and mainland China, and also with the Alliance Manchester Business School’s Global Centres in Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong. It was a great occasion and really cemented my view that the experience of Manchester is an exceptional one.

It was the second event this year where I’ve shared a stage with a real person who has had a major film made about them. The first was Frank Abagnale, who was played by Leonardo di Caprio in Catch me if you Can. Nick was of course played by Euan Macgregor in Rogue Trader.

I’m going for the treble now – anyone know if Jordan Belfort is available? Or can I count Graeme Hawley as Roger Cashmore?

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Best Rovers performance for years


Twenty three years ago this weekend I saw one of the most complete Blackburn Rovers performances I've ever seen. A 7-1 demolition of league leaders Norwich City gave a glimpse of the awesomeness of Alan Shearer but also the well-drilled team Kenny Dalglish had assembled.

Seriously, today we were that good again. Alright, so it's a division lower but you can only ever play what's in front of you. I simply can't fault a single player. Not every pass came off, but for sheer work rate, risk taking and bursts of sublime skill we were on our A game today.

I'm never that interested in who the opposition are, but I'm told Ipswich are much fancied. That they have a striker called Darryl Murphy who scores for fun. Well he must spent so much time in Grant Hanley's pocket I never noticed him. 


The only downers on a great day at Ewood were the crashing of the turnstile system which meant we missed kick off and the rumbling of our secret car park in Lower Darwen (pic, above). But this was some silver lining today. Feels like we've got our Rovers back.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Wolfsburg fans, Tory delegates - welcome to Manchester

I've been to a number of events this week where the role of sport in developing a sense of place has been rather profoundly highlighted.

I also met my old pal David Parkin this week, the founder of The Business Desk and the go-to business journalist in Yorkshire in the last decade. He and I both support Championship football teams. Where we differ however is that the city I work in has the top two in the Premiership, while Leeds United still appear stuck in the Championship wilderness with an eccentric and erratic owner.

On Wednesday this week Manchester was full of German supporters. There is indisputable evidence that the momentum of Greater Manchester is helped by the brand reinforcement of its success in sport. The same is true over in Yorkshire as the Tour de France last year ably demonstrated.

We talked about a piece in the Telegraph last Saturday where Gary Neville laid down the charge that the demise of Northern clubs in football is a symptom of the economic dominance and alure of an ever powerful London. Top players are turning down Liverpool and Newcastle in favour of Arsenal, Crystal Palace and even Bournemouth. You could realistically see Newcastle and Sunderland drop out and be replaced by Brighton and Reading. This is bad news on so many levels.

More locally, we have a situation down the road in Woodley where a very popular sports facility has grown and grown. This should be welcomed, but as access to it is via a residential housing estate it is resented. What should have been a welcome addition to a local community has become a blight causing traffic chaos and deep resentment. I was asked to go to a very angry public meeting on Thursday night to support local residents who had a number of questions for councillors and officers about their attempts to address this dreadful situation.

It's a classic case of poor forward planning. Why build something if you don't expect it to succeed? And what will the price of that success be? And how could it add to the sense of place and pride?

Finally, it's Conservative Party conference in Manchester next week. Roads will be closed - even more than usual. There will be snipers on the roofs, there will be a large protest march on Sunday and there are stickers on lamposts urging a week of action to "Take Back Manchester".

I was deeply ashamed to read the guidance given to Tory delegates to hide their ID. Some might say this is hype to demonise the protestors. I rather suspect it's common sense advice. Either way it saddens me. They clearly don't want to risk a delegate getting a punch on the nose, or worse. It's the kind of advice you get when you go to Millwall. Is that what Manchester city centre has become for visitors to our city? I do hope not.

For what's it worth, whether you're a Wolsburg supporter, a caravan club member or a Tory Party delegate you are welcome in Manchester.

Friday, September 25, 2015

What doing Sociology at Manchester REALLY taught me

Vikas Shah, Nancy Rothwell and Andre Geim
One of the reasons we set up Discuss was a frustration with playing it safe. So many events and discussions, even those purporting to be "great debates" tended to lack danger, jeopardy and a firm point of view. A diverse panel of people would gravitate around a mushy consensus. Often best summed up as "I agree with Howard."

We try and find the fault line. We try and root out the outriders, dissenters and free thinkers. It's one of the reasons I wanted Douglas Carswell to join our debate on politics last week, a task to which he really rose to.

Our next Discuss debate will feature Catriona Watson, who is part of a group of Manchester University undergraduates who set about challenging the economics syllabus and teaching methods at the university in response to the financial crash, demanding that they be ‘seriously rethought’. Their challenge is that, despite the Financial Crisis, students are still routinely taught that only one form of economics is ‘scientific’ and ‘correct’. Their aim is to build a national Post-Crash Economics movement, and students at Cambridge, LSE, UCL and Sheffield have started similar societies.

This brings me to the whole challenge of critical thinking and how innovation and invention is encouraged in a spirit of dissent and debate.

I've been involved in two absorbing events this week where this has loomed large.

One of Manchester's orthodoxies is that Graphene Valley will be our saviour. Sir Andre Geim (above), the Nobel Prize winning scientist, scoffed at such talk on Tuesday night in Spinningfields at an event my friend Vikas Shah curated. "There is no aluminium valley, no polymer valley. Silicon Valley is about software, not silicon." He told a story of how on a boat trip watching dolphins he experienced a magical moment. These magnificent creatures seemed to be communicating with the humans on the boat. Then, a little girl piped up "can we eat them?". This is what the rush to define and commercialise Graphene feels like, he said.

I was singled out by Vikas to contribute to a discussion with this Nobel Prize winning scientist and the president of our University, Dame Nancy Rothwell (also above) about what the Manchester method is and what it gave me. There is an absurdity that a 1980's undergraduate sociology experience can exist on the same moral and intellectual plane as what these two are doing, but humbly I offered "a rejection of dogma, a respect for the other point of view and a visceral suspicion of data." That answer, and the slightly better one I could have given, have been on my mind all week.

At a conference I ran on Thursday for eLucid we assembled a sparkling array of companies (Samsung, Bayer, GSK and our NHS) who were generous enough to share ideas on how wastage in how medicine is dispensed can be eradicated. It was a fascinating journey into health innovation. As Rowena Burns said in opening the event, "in Manchester we collaborate as a matter of habit, it is so deeply embedded in how we work." At first I thought this seemed to contradict what we'd spoken about on Tuesday, but it doesn't. It reinforces it. It also backs up my earlier view about resilience, toughness, generosity and a strong sense of mission and purpose. Never playing it safe, but challenging orthodoxies. Elsewhere, I'm researching the challenges of family businesses for a project. How does a professional chief executive running a family owned business make decisions that jar with the wealth preserving instincts of the family office? Is it easier or harder? How do families with different aspirations - preservation or innovation? - require outside help to navigate insurmountable internecine conflicts? I have a hit list of families I want to speak to, but I'm sure there are more - please get in touch if you'd like to suggest anyone who'll be willing to share a view.

As I've been absorbed in these fascinating business issues national Westminster politics seems to be something that goes on somewhere else. These challenges seem entirely unconnected to whatever it is that will be troubling the Labour leader before his big speech. But I find myself seeing the deeper importance of how a large membership of a party connects locally and provides that challenge. I remain convinced that organising, empowering and convening are the key to survival as any kind of meaningful presence in public life. On Monday we selected a candidate to contest one of our target wards in next year's council election who has excited me with a vision to just that and for the first time in months I feel upbeat at the possibilities of what can be achieved. I'm not afraid to say what I think about the disaster of the leadership, but it gives us a chance to reconnect with our purpose.

I also wrote a piece this week for Progress, my neck of the Labour woods, on the plight of the Liberal Democrats. How their resilience at local level could yet be their existential saviour, but how that lack of a clear moral compass will end up hastening their demise, as evidenced here in Stockport. In summary: "Local government reform and budgeting is hard enough in an age of austerity but it is this lack of a political ‘true north’ that has resulted in job cuts, poor service delivery and no coherent vision for Stockport’s ailing town centre or its profound transport needs. It remains the only borough in the Greater Manchester conurbation to border the City of Manchester and yet be unconnected to the successful Metrolink tram network."

Finally, I was reviewing the newspapers on BBC Radio Manchester on Monday morning. The producer was fairly adamant that there could be no discussion of the allegations made about David Cameron on the front page of the Daily Mail by Lord Ashcroft. We skirted around it, I tried not to ham it up. But aside from mentioning that this was a story of vengeance by a man scorned, and taking it with the barrel full of salt required, it all brought to mind the pompous rock ballad of Meatloaf - I would do anything for love, but I won't do THAT. This week, ladies and gentlemen, I think we finally discovered what THAT is.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Rovers win at last

That'll do. With 45 minutes on the clock, Blackburn Rovers having squandered easy chances, made mistakes and failed to make possession count, I turned to my Dad and said, "If they don't score from this corner they'll get booed off, Bowyer will panic and this could get ugly."

Rhodes scored.

The second half was a different game. We were confident, attack minded and never looked like the hesitant shambles that so frequently chucked away a lead like this. Even when we were wasting shooting chances, including a ludicrous 4 on 2 break that their only effective player (the keeper) prevented a certain goal. Even then the result shouldn't and wasn't in doubt. But, ever the cynic, I said to my Dad as it looked like a sub was coming on, that he'd take off a striker and stick Williamson in front of the back four. Instead young loanee Tom Lawrence made an immediate impact.

Rhodes scored.

Then Lawrence scored. Another one who knows where the net is. Bang.

We need to kick on from this.

We've got season tickets this term. Good view, half way line in the Riverside stand, near a few mates, including the lad who first brought me to Ewood in September 1977 v Orient. So much to thank him for.

Man of the match: Ben Marshall.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Judge, Jury and Executioner - this week and the search for purpose

Come on, be honest. We're all guilty of piling up books we dip into, but probably don't get round to reading properly. I think I've found a solution - using a library, so the return deadline forces you. I've done it this week with Mission by Michael Hayman, which I loaned from the RSA Library, always a delightful pit stop on a trip to London.

It's made me think a great deal about purpose. How businesses need to embrace that zeal of political campaigning in order to achieve a sense of destiny, mission and a very clear reason to exist. The examples he cites include Uber, Netflix and Airbnb, but we shouldn't fall into the trap of narrowing such an approach to disruptive tech businesses, but almost anything. It's going to get very noisy out there.

I was introduced to Michael last year by our mutual friend Martin Vander Weyer of the Spectator. I hope to see more of what he has achieved and test out his ideas for campaigning business.

Judge
With this in mind I spent Monday judging the Northern Marketing Awards. There were some really genius creative ideas, but I was as impressed by entries for mean clients with meagre budgets as I was by the consumer campaigns backed up by major advertising spend.

I have a personal policy of never saying no to the BBC. It's a great honour to be asked onto TV or radio to share your views and the experience never feels wasted. I also think about the programme I'm going on and what it is seeking to achieve. I have always preferred radio to TV, but did a two hour stint on That's Manchester's Late Night Live programme this week. I've had a long term interest in new TV channels, having been involved in the launch of a new station two whole decades ago. This felt eerily familiar, the difference now though is that YouTube has changed the rules of distribution.

Jury
We held a storming debate at Manchester Central Library last night. The motion before the house was "This is the age of political easy answers" which inevitably came in for some stick. The speakers - Tristram Hunt, Douglas Carswell, Seamus Milne and Vanda Murray - were all brilliant. As was the chair, Francesca Gains, the head of politics at the University of Manchester.

I believe Discuss could be immense. There has never been a greater appetite for ideas and meaning. So far, we produce these monthly debates, but we have dared ourselves to dream and think bigger.

I've also been throwing myself into my core business this week, creating compelling content for businesses and brands. I'm fortunate that the people and organisations I work for have such great stories to tell and whether it's helping businesses get investment or helping people take control of their financial future, the common link is that I can contribute to their success by bringing people together and exploring new ideas.

Executioner?
After the result of the Labour leadership election it's been a strange week. I was deeply disappointed at the victory for Jeremy Corbyn, but it's done now. I've struggled to find much positive to say, but I was impressed by both Corbyn and David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions. It won't last, but the weekly ritual represents so much that is wrong with public life. There is an opportunity to change it, which opens up politics to start happening in places other than the floor of the house.

Finally, I've been asked by our local priest, Father Michael Gannon, to join the management committee of the new St Christopher Centre which is being built next to our church. Our group met to make some early decisions this week, but Father Michael is crystal clear on what he wants to happen and what the centre needs to be, not a sports hall, not just any other space, but somehwere special for us to do important work - starting with the aim to be able to serve Christmas dinner to over 100 otherwise lonely and isolated parishioners on Christmas Day. Everything else is detail. How's that for a purpose?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Review of Liberty Bazaar by David Chadwick

I've had a recent burst of reading spy fiction. Partly inspired by the end of Spooks on TV and an endless fascination with security issues and the end of the Cold War. It's a genre that floats my boat far more than the current public's fascination with historical fiction.

I mention all of that because David Chadwick's Liberty Bazaar shares that light touch intensity of the king of this genre, John Le Carre. Though set in Liverpool at the time of the American Civil War, it matches the claustrophobia of 1960s Berlin. The intrigue, the rules of engagement of espionage and the double dealing.

Liverpool in 1865 was a city on the edge of an empire with conflicting interests in the American Civil War. The importation of cotton through the port was tricky enough, but the 20 miles of shipyards on either side of the Mersey also harboured ill deeds to construct warships.

The Liberty Bazaar of the title refers to an actual event held in St George's Hall to raise money for Confederate prisoners of war. The hidden purpose was to fund warships to beat the Yankee blockades. Placing Liverpool at the heart of the story, 150 years after the end of the war, is a stroke of genius.

That's the background, which is compelling enough, but the style is in itself the real triumph of the book. Bouncing between narrators it tells the tale through intertwined destinies of an escaped slave girl Trinity Giddings and a decent minded Confederate officer Jubal de Brooke who both end up in Liverpool. The other players in the story veer between outright treacherous and terrified self interest; the complexities of war blurring the boundaries between the good guys and the bad guys.

It's corny I know, but I ended up casting the film of the book as I read it. Imagining Kevin Spacey as the villainous southern spy States Rights Rankin, a dashing Matthew McConaughey as Jubal and Naomie Harris as Trinity.

This was a terrific read, funny, witty, clever, compelling and hugely informative about the forgotten role of our major port city in a moment of history.