Monday, December 31, 2018

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Policing the boundaries of a community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where are we now?

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

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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Manchester City Way - a culture of commitment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy the book here. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

This day will forever be Pankhurst Day

Our Emmeline, photo by Sue Anders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Lancaster Story: City, hub & heartland.

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

Thursday, December 06, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

John Niven and Stuart Maconie in Manchester

Back in October, I took the eldest son to see the writers John Niven and Stuart Maconie in conversation. It was a brilliant evening, full of great stories about the music business, the film industry and the dire state of the world.

I took home a copy of Niven's latest novel, Kill 'em All, the follow up to one of my favourites, Kill Your Friends, the rip roaring tale of 1997 Britpop excess, which I bought for Joe as part of his essential reading list for studying Music Business at University. This one skips twenty years and to cut to the chase, the central character, the appalling Steven Stelfox, has become Simon Cowell and has a plan for total domination and riches based on dealing with the mess created by Lucius de Prey, a character no-one is even pretending isn't Michael Jackson.

OK, I enjoyed it. I had to look over my shoulder to check no-one was watching me laugh at some of the grotesque passages. I loved how it weaves Donald Trump into the story and how Stelfox's wicked inner voice provides a running commentary.

I've done two previous reviews of John Niven's more recent outings, Straight White Male and No Good Deed, and have been impressed how he's progressed as a writer - observant, dark, but not without sensitivity. Seeing him up close backed up the point Stuart Maconie made - how can this affable, kind, funny man I have before me, who I know well, create a dastardly character with such an authentic and believable inner narrative as Stelfox?

But with a POTUS like this, surely all bets are off. There's a nod too in the direction of the MeToo movement, highlighting the turning tide that so surely opened up for Niven to plot Stelfox's return. It must have just seemed too good a chance to miss. It's like a band cashing in on a greatest hits tour before getting back to the studio and banging out another classic.

Finally, I should really mention the event. Back in his NME days I was a fan of Stuart Maconie's humour, writing, observations. I don't listen to him enough on the wireless, but whenever I do I smile and probably learn something new. I've seen authors interviewed by people who have no idea about the context, or many who haven't even read the book. This was a real treat and I couldn't think of anyone better to do it.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Welcome to the future of work

We did a terrific event earlier this year with Gran Thornton. Here's a wee video.

Marple at the thin end of a GM wedge

There's a lot I love about living in Marple. It's friendly, convenient, relatively safe, there's a lot of people very committed to making the community better.

Maybe it's a positive sign that there has been an outpouring of outrage that an old school building will be demolished to make way for apartments.

Aesthetics are important, especially as they represent a link to the past. People care about the physical environment and good quality architecture. Hopefully it guides better decision making about what is acceptable in the future.

Some people at Manchester Metropolitan University who I help out have been doing some very serious work about how a place redefines itself. There's a glimpse of the work of Professor Cathy Parker and Steve Millington and their work here, Five Ways to Save Britain's High Streets. It's not particular to this country though, all over the world, there is a debate raging which is about one thing, shops, but should actually be about something else entirely, land and how we use it.

This issue has become the thin end of a very large wedge; that is, what we do in Marple is but a part of a bigger picture in Greater Manchester.

Flawed though the application for this building is - another retail unit??? - it does meet the requirement for 'brownfield first' that concentrates the minds of the councillors on the planning committee and the planning department, trying to follow complex rules.

Two things can and should clarify those rules, one here in Marple, the other at a GM level, which in turn is heavily influenced by central government.

First, I'm not a town planner, but to me it's fairly obvious that like many areas Marple suffers from poor traffic flows, a struggling central core and a sense of purpose. I like how Marple's Neighbourhood Plan has tried to take a long view on these issues, though the questionnaire rather leads the witness on some issues. But at least it looks up and onwards at the trends that shape our world: an ageing population, a lack of property alternatives for retirees to downsize to, a different kind of demographic and what they might require from shared civic spaces.

Change takes time, and much as it seems unrelated, a high priority should be a high frequency train service to Manchester and a line to Stockport, even if it looped through Guide Bridge and Denton. More than anything else that could ameliorate many of the other issues of overcrowding and air quality.

The second is the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, which I'm frustrated to see is stuck in the weeds. It needs all ten council leaders and the Mayor to support it. Bolton is on a bit of a knife edge, but the others are stacking up behind it and Andy Burnham looks like he's getting the rewrite he wanted. But Stockport's Labour leader Alex Ganotis has said he won't support the plan if a majority on the Council don't. Given it is under tentative minority Labour control, there's a real chance that it will eventually be sunk in this very area. In order for it to get through in Stockport would require a dialling down of the plans to build extensively in High Lane and Woodford, despite the opening of the new Airport road. In turn that may make it hard to swallow for leaders in other boroughs trying to sell it locally.

Even if it did, I still can’t see it getting support from a majority of members in Stockport. There is too much political advantage to be gained by Liberal Democrats and the very strong NIMBY voice will sway the Tory councillors at the southern fringes. Some concessions on numbers would be basic common sense, especially as the assumptions keep shifting. But all of this work, all of this vision, all of this serious attempt to address land needs of a future economy will be scuppered right here in SK6.

The irony of course is that without rules, without a plan, without a strategy for what an area requires, there will be a planning free-for-all. And when that's the case, there'll be even more isolated and opportunistic developments like this one.