Saturday, October 30, 2021

Lunch of the month for October

It's a very strong shortlist for lunch of the month for October.

I'll take you round, clockwise from the top left.

It was a flying visit for a few snacking pots at the new Oxford Street branch of the exceptional Bundobust, brightened by the company of Professor Andy Westwood who had just been on a panel at Tory conference and probably needed to come back down to earth. The okra fries I've had before, and are a must. The dahl was smooth and full of flavour. We probably could have tried a Dhosa and a rice dish, but this was really high quality.

Next up was another trip to an old dependable, the Ashton branch of Five Guys. I know it's expensive for a burger, but I think they are the best burgers you can get, bar none. I love the way they offer a customised burger. Me and Matt share a massive portion of fries, again, as good as any you can get elsewhere. Sadly, for the first time ever they got my order wrong, no mushrooms and onions. Still good, but one to keep an eye on, Five Guys.

Up to the Lakes next and these next two were just the job on walking days. One is a perfect egg on toast from the Black Bull in Coniston, the other is a thick juicy steak pie from the Old Cobbler's Cafe in Hawkshead. Both were sensational. Genuinely amazing food and just right for the day.

After last month's swoop by Cafe Marhaba with their twist on the rice and three (curries), my good friend Neil pointed out that the best ethnic cafe in that part of town was Kabana. His love is not misplaced. I have enjoyed many a delve into their menu, not least with Kevin Gopal, the editor of Big Issue in the North. I popped into Kabana after a meeting and was delighted to run into Jim from Planks Clothing, which is part of what makes Kabana so cool. I like the new interiors as well. The keema with salad on nan bread was exceptionally good, but I'm not being drawn on whether it's better than Maharba just yet because it's not really comparing like with like.

Finally, there will be worse places than Vertigo to spend an hour in the wind tunnel that is MediaCity, Salford Quays, especially listening to Rishi Sunak's budget as I did so. Lovely service, excellent wifi and a very good mushroom soup and cheese with piccalilli sandwich. 

The winner, by an okra fry, is Bundobust. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Writing for The Mill

I am dead chuffed to have made my debut writing for The Mill, a fresh and high-quality online newspaper for Manchester. It has the potential to grow and be so much more, so I'm strapped in and ready for the journey ahead.

Founded in June 2020, The Mill is for people who want a new kind of local news and don’t have the patience for pop-up ads and endless scrolling on social media. The newsletters recommend local events, keep you up to date on what’s happening in Greater Manchester and investigate important stories in politics, education, business and culture. There's a long read about it here.

I've wanted to delve into the burgeoning Manchester fashion sector for a while. I used to love looking around factories and workplaces when I was editor of Insider, so visiting Private White V.C. in Salford (pictured), English Fine Cottons in Tameside and the Manchester Fashion Movement in Manchester's appropriately named Ancoats was just great. The piece is here

I'll say this as well. Joshi Herrmann, the editor, is excellent to work with. Really innovative, challenging and curious. Hope there's more.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

FA Cup odyssey - a twist in the tale

The FA Cup journey - or odyssey of oddities - has taken on a curious twist in the last few days. Having followed the happy scrappy grafters of Morpeth Town, the Highwaymen, from the mugging of Radcliffe, which earned them a trip to the slick and sophisticated new home of York City, I hadn't really contemplated the consequences of a draw. These are scheduled to happen on the Tuesday after the main event and have to be wrapped up on the night. Extra time and penalties if necessary. 

Morpeth is a long way to travel at any time. If you drove, you'd still have your pedal on the metal forty minutes after you passed the Angel of the North. The last train back is at half ten, getting me home at half four, which is some going on a Tuesday night, with the prospect of still leaving before a potential penalty shoot-out. My new mates who I watched the second half with at York chided me at the conclusion to the game - a 1-1 draw - that I would now have to do it. Of course, I don't have to do anything, this is a casual challenge driven only by my own curiosity, nerdishness, and neediness for purpose. 

When the draw was made on Sunday, however, things got interesting. The winner of the replay in Morpeth would be at home to either Kettering Town or Buxton, who would be hosting a replay just over half an hour down the A6 from home. This way I would get a sneak preview of the opponents in the next round on November the 6th, which I am totally committed to. Maybe the chance of penalties and giant-killing and drama was too alluring, but amazingly my wife Rachel opted to come with me. As our friend Patrick Loftus said on Twitter - "you are mad". Or maybe it's true love.

On Saturday it was a bit of a rush to get to York, and I sadly saw very little of one of my favourite British cities. The new stadium is situated well out of town but is easy to get to by shuttle bus. I laughed when the directions to the ticket office were to pass the cinema, cut through the leisure centre, and turn left at Starbucks. It's very modern, very unlike what I expected to see watching a home game involving a team in National League North, as was the crowd of 2,258. 

I've had form watching York City in the FA Cup. In 1985 a trip with my mates from home to see Morecambe in the First Round proper at Bootham Crescent was the preferred option to a fight in Stockport with the National Front. I was committed to the cause, but I rather suspected the students I would have been with would get properly battered. It turns out the local Stockport hooligans turned on the Nazis and that I rather underestimated how game the Jewish Student contingent from Manchester were. The game ended 0-0 and the replay, shamefully, though conveniently for me, was at Maine Road.

I also saw York City's last ever game in the Football League, at Morecambe, in 2016, which I blogged about here. Things have been rough for them since, dropping down even further, but emerging with a nice new home. The only way will be up, but there were rumblings of discontent that the board should be sacked. I probably need to investigate, but it wasn't a director who flapped at a header in the 75th minute.

All told it was a feisty game, clash of styles, a game of two halves, end to end action and some late drama. Knowing what I noticed from Radcliffe, Morpeth are fighters. Despite being frankly played off the park in the first half, they came out in the second with no intention of rolling over. By the end, York's slick passing game was gone and they were hanging on and in relative disarray.

The football is the prime fascination, but I always seem to meet nice people too. I watched the second half with a stag do spin off pair from Norwich, who I caught taking pictures of a pie whilst sporting a niche French football training top. I also enjoyed chatting to Morpeth's chairman after the game, who was absolutely thrilled.

We only just made the kick off at Buxton due to traffic, having no cash, and then queing up to get in to see Buxton try and get to the First Round of the FA Cup for the first time since 1962. That wouldn't have been the most heinous error of the night though. I do prefer to do this jaunt on public transport, but we were slightly concerned that the last train from Buxton to Disley leaves at 22:55. Extra Time, penalties and a celebration would cut it a bit fine. As it turned out, so would the ensuing chaos caused by the planned floodlight shutdown on the stroke of 10pm, which no-one thought to override, stretching the evening's entertainment out a bit.

Buxton went 1-0 down to a second half goal by Kettering's unit of a centre forward, Kyle Perry. It's sensible they have an artificial pitch in the Peak District, but although the ball can roll freely, the swirling wind was a major factor for both sides. Buxton are a good team though and their talisman is Diego De Girolamo, who has played professionally at a high level, and probably could do so again. He struck two good chances that fell to him in Extra Time and could have had more, as the Northern Premier League side humbled their National League North visitors.

I often wonder when I watch non-league players what fine margins led them here, rather than the riches of the Premier League, or even the more modest achievements of a career for a club in the Championship. De Girolamo seems to have had bad luck, signing for clubs in crisis. I imagine he's enjoying his football at this level now, more than he did as a Bristol City reserve player.

As for the stadiums, York Community Stadium is a modern, neat and well-built facility with a good view and a good surface. Should York ever need to, it could be extended. It's the 163rd ground I've paid to watch football on.

Buxton's Silverlands stadium (the 164th) is tidy, with a raised viewing position at the side, where I like to stand, ideally, and a tall compact stand. There were 1,017 there to see history being made and most seemed to have queued for a pie and a cup of tea at some point in the evening. 

Meanwhile, up in Morpeth, York did a professional job on them and cruised to a 3-1 win. So I'm back to York on the 6th of November and a little bit of history being made between two teams from lovely places.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

My internal dialogue on football, Newcastle, oligarchs and Venky's

Why haven't you done one of your self-regarding and pompous blogs about the Newcastle takeover? Don't you care about murdered journalists?

I feel genuinely exhausted by all the commentary and back-and-forth on the Newcastle United takeover and pretty much every conversation about global football, investment trends and how everyone from your barber to the bloke that stands next to the fruit machine in the pub are now experts on sovereign wealth funds and cultural relativism.

So, you think you're above such banalities then? It's fine for you as the one-time editor of a business magazine, friend of football club directors and would-be owners of your club to have an opinion, but not now, right?

Everything that has been said and done has been said and done. Proper journalism's David Conn, a very good piece on an Arsenal website, and another piece by David Goldblatt in the Guardian, of course, which blames New Labour, obviously. It's the natural progression of the modern form of capitalism, acquisition of soft power assets by sovereign wealth funds to either greenwash or sports wash their reputation for a time when the oil runs out, or a UK passport gets secured. And something to do with TV rights and piracy in the Middle East and Qatar, or something.

Ah, so it's a government issue, not a moral one, that if only there was better regulation and enforcement of the rules on fit and proper persons who can own a football club, is that what you're saying? 

Do you know how many current Premier League and Championship owners would be barred from owning a club if the rules could by some miracle be enforced retrospectively? None. Not a single one. They aren't designed to block global tycoons, nation-states or oligarchs, they're meant to be a bar to the kind of local crook too thick to operate through an offshore trust.

Or a rapist?

Indeed. But equally I don't remember Blackpool fans complaining about Owen Oyston when Blackpool got promoted to the Premier League. Only when he took all the money, stiffed his Latvian business partner and laughed in the faces of the fans did it become an issue. Nothing in the rules prevented him from doing any of that.

So clubs should be co-operatives of local basket weavers run for the benefit of that nebulous and slightly contorted word "the community"? Basically, you're just tilting at windmills here, aren't you?

So if you follow the logical progression of football club ownership, this is all inevitable and therefore you price it in and swallow it? Skint local businessman gets bailed out by either highly skilful overleveraged and very lucky local businessman, who then flips it to national semi-celebrity businessman, or possibly a European with UK connections to the financial laundry of the City of London, who then realises he then needs to cash-out to either an oligarch, a nation-state, or a financially engineered American. 

Go on...

So if every club goes through a version of that progressive game of snakes and ladders, then the end result is a very wealthy Premier League, an ever more desperate Championship of clubs desperate to get into that cycle, and you just have to hope your club is owned by someone at the top of that slightly grotesque foodchain.

There's the German model?

If we had the German model of fan ownership then one of the big red teams would win the league every season, for a start. Plus, I used to have similar discussions when I worked in the education sector. You have to fix the fundamentals of the economy to get that model. The European Super League thing hasn't gone away you know.   

So you walk away from football then? Boycott it?

I see what you did there. So you either bail out of football entirely, go and support a non-league club, or suck it up. I think that's led us to the moral cop-out that says we can no more boycott football - it's too important - than we can give up using electricity.

But what about the long-suffering Newcastle fans burdened by the trauma of the Mike Ashley era, don't they have the right to a better future?

I don't care. Why do they think they're going to win anything anytime soon? In that world where every club is super-wealthy, only one team can win the Champions League, only one can win the league. And here's the other uncomfortable truth. Three of them have to be relegated. And who says it's a better future?

Will foreign ownership of football clubs end up being the same as the colonial slave trade issue of the future? Shamefully hiding their human rights reputations in investments into failing clubs…

Yes, kind of. But if you look at Manchester City it's been a well-run investment in a successful club that has also managed to project the new modern image of the UAE. As long as things are going well, the projection of that image looks good. You'll also see in the next year a series of well crafted long reads about Saudi Arabia's new generation of leaders moving on from Wahabi Islam, becoming a more tolerant and cohesive society, rooting out corruption and the old ways. How the ownership of Newcastle United is a gift to the people of the North East, consistent with the mainstream values of a technologically connected world. How tolerance and mutual respect for diversity of cultures is part of Saudi Arabia's step out of the dark ages.  

You're just jealous. I saw what your fans were saying on Twitter. Hoping for a rich Saudi to buy Blackburn, and you didn't stop supporting your team when a tax-dodger bought the Premier League, did you? Wouldn't you want Blackburn to be owned by a billionaire?

Blackburn Rovers literally is owned by a family which at the last time of checking was valued in the billions. But Venky's aren't stupid enough to break the rules of financial fair play on a gamble that may get us into the Premier League, but they are also somehow unwilling to walk away and plunge the club into liquidation. And I'd contest the Jack Walker description, a little bit, but Blackburn Rovers are very much on that conveyor belt of ownership. We got very, very lucky, played our hand well, then got very, very unlucky and were financially rinsed by a series of disastrous decisions made by people who didn't have the long term interests of the club at heart. No one truly knows what went on there except the Rao family, Steve Kean and Jerome Anderson. Portsmouth went through something similar too, they even went down the fan ownership route after having a financial disaster - and opted for the rich American option. But there's a long term structural reason why our club is currently where we are, the fan base, the tradition, the size of the town and the catchment area. As for expecting me to defend "your fans" though, really?

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Radcliffe to Wembley - the latest twist

Thanks for having me, Radcliffe, it's been great getting to know you.

It was a bruising physical duel at Radcliffe today that saw Morpeth Town upset the odds with a 3-1. The damage was done in a first half performance that saw luck on their side as they snatched three goals that proved too big a margin for the hosts to overcome.

I can't put my finger on what Radcliffe lacked, the first goal felt like it was against the run of play and that they'd get one back quickly. The second was a scramble from a corner, and the third had them shell shocked at how easy Morpeth swept it in, but it takes nothing away from a gutsy defensive showing from the visitors from the North East, who consistently played out from the back with real confidence. 

My friend Steven joined me for this stage on the journey and once again we were greeted at the gate by our mate Alan Townley, a Boro director, who is a popular and well-known local personality, known by name and reputation even amongst the young lads behind the goal who chanted his name at one point. 

I'm now anxiously awaiting Monday's draw and hoping Morpeth's name is paired with somewhere new and interesting (and not too far away).