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.


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.


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.


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.