Saturday, August 30, 2014

Mental strength and football

Quick one. Went to Manchester City v Stoke City today and was reminded of why I so fondly remember Mark Hughes' time as Rovers manager. They mugged a 1-0 win with a goal from Diouf which he scored too few of for us, but the resolute defending took me back to the Samba, Nelsen pairing at their "never say Dai" best under the Welsh management team of Hughes, Bowen and Niedweski.
Stoke parked the bus, for sure, but they had more clear shots on goal over the game than Man City who tried to play it through the middle via Toure and Silva when that clearly wasn't working.
I also noticed that Gary Bowyer today has said Rovers need to toughen up defensively. Go and watch how Stoke set up and have a plan Gary. Surely there's a Sparky manual left around in the dressing room somewhere.

Douglas Carswell and the end of politics

I was shocked and taken aback by the defection of Douglas Carswell MP to UKIP. This isn’t some swivel-eyed loon from the back benches trying to shore up his declining local popularity. 

I have watched him with interest and he is a serious thinker about how to modernise politics and how technology is forging an entirely new relationship between the individual and the state. Though he was never a mainstream Tory, his departure into the UKIP fold is a massive shock to the Conservative central nervous system and, I hate to say it, a huge lift for the credibility of UKIP.

I think the major parties need outriders and mavericks. Good constituency MPs who don’t toe the party line, energise local campaigning and reflect the broad coalitions of position and philosophy that makes up our otherwise dreary party system.

It's a bigger jolt to the Tories than it is to Labour, obviously. It exposes the position on the referendum  for what it is, a patronising sop to the Eurosceptics, thinking it will shut them up just kicking the can along the road.

But for Labour it helps because it paints the emergent threat as a Tory problem. Suddenly the second most prominent UKIP member is a libertarian thinker who wants to reduce the state. Not sure how that will play down in target seats like Rotherham, where Labour is rightly vulnerable for the unforgivable sins of the past and in other parts of the North where "they're all the same" is a frequent complaint.

His book The End of Politics and the birth of iDemocracy is a terrific handbook for anyone who wants to understand how society and politics are changing. It now gives UKIP something I've never really thought they had - ideas.

Netwalking, not working and a fantastic day

I have a sore knee, aching feet and a warm glow. Yesterday was the culmination of an idea I first had two years ago. To take a party of people into the Peaks for a day out. Anyone who knows me well will understand that the logistics and delivery of something like this is beyond me, but the core idea - the simplicity of netwalking - was something that got me excited.

Enter stage left then my good pal Michael Di Paola, a branding genius, a bundle of energy, with a personal magnetism and a following gained from his status as Man of the Year. Michael made sure we had the full turn out we needed - and a good mix of people who made the day so special.

As with all good plans, they adapt and we were blessed to have Thom Hetherington, the one man Glossop tourist board, who offered to guide us on a route described as Bleaklow from Old Glossop.

It was a physical challenge - at my age walking 9 miles to anywhere will be - but the initial steady 2 mile climb was gruelling and a shock to the system. The wind on the next leg was bracing and invigorating and a relief it wasn't colder. The yomp across the peat moors to the summit, and then to the site of a crashed American WW2 plane was a test of your balance. But mostly it was just a matter of keeping your footing and spending time with the rest of the party. That's what these days are about - not passing out business cards and schmoozing, but getting to know people a little better, seeing ways you can help one another, working people out and being amazed by what they do and what they know.

The rain started five minutes after we landed at the Wheatsheaf pub in Old Glossop. A sure blessing, but a fine piece of luck on a day when a plan really came together.

There are more pics on my Facebook, Chris Marsh took some crackers and on the Twitter hashtag #netwalking.

The business club with altitude.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

I accept the Ice Bucket Challenge

Accepting the ice bucket challenge and will be donating to Macmillan Nurses in memory of our much loved friend Martin McDermott.

I nominated Gareth Burton, Father Edmund Montgomery and Graham Jones MP.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A day of surprises - why beating Bournemouth doesn't feel as good as it should

Who would have thought that after 10 minutes of hardly touching the ball against a decent Bournemouth side, Blackburn Rovers would have been impressively 3-0 up after half an hour?

And who would have thought that an hour of football later we were hanging on for dear life?

Well, me for one. This Blackburn Rovers side is capable of great things. The ball control, fluidity and goal poaching is something else. The defence is strong and athletic. And this was a bold team, designed to attack and supply Rudi Gestede and Jordan Rhodes.

But that niggling thought I've had about mental strength. It was always there. It was especially there when Rhodes was subbed for a veteran midfield player, David Dunn, with 20 minutes to go. And it was there again when Paul Robinson took back passes from the half way line with 15 minutes to go.

I have seen Rovers sides with commanding leads at Ewood Park go on to destroy a defeated opposition - Norwich in 1992 (7-1), Forest in 1995 (7-0), Sheffield Wednesday in 1997 (7-2) and West Ham in 2001 (7-1). This could and should have been such an occasion, but it wasn't and never will be with Gary Bowyer as manager.

Had we done so it would have sent a powerful message to the rest of the league. Wow, this Blackburn team are ruthless. Wow, this Blackburn team mean business. They're not the bottlers of last season.

That issue of mental strength comes from the top. Letting teams back into games has become a habit. The quality is there, but the killer instinct is not. Not through the spine of the team when the pressure mounts.

This is going to be a long hard season and the issue now, more than ever, is mental strength.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Cardiff City stadium - Real Madrid v Seville - or the Cristiano Ronaldo Show

What a day out. Seeing so many incredible footballers on one pitch - apparently the most expensive team ever assembled - was an experience. I'm not impressed by all of that big club stuff to be honest. But it was still a treat to witness Ronaldo on one of his good days.

When I told people beforehand that I had secured tickets for the Europa League Final, hardly anyone knew it was in Cardiff. "You do know it's the women's Europa Final, don't you?" said one pal. Even those that did assumed it would be at the Millenium Stadium, scene of a famous cup win in 2002. But no, this was at a ground I'd not visited before and one I didn't fancy trekking to for a Championship game to be honest.

It was an artful, tactical passing game, with a few hard challenges going in, but quite a contrast to what else we're going to see this season, I suspect. I was taken in particular with how the movement off the ball was so impressive by both sides, but also how hard they had to work, just to close down an option for an attacking player.

All in all, we had a fantastic day out. One of the lads mentioned towards the end how Spanish fans were so much better too. Maybe this was a one off - a final - and maybe we were sat amongst polite Spanish people as opposed to some of the louts we've encountered recently, but the displays of colour and noise from the Seville fans was something else.

As a day out it was also good to visit Cardiff again - a city centre that has improved massively in recent years, but still could do with a bit of love in places. The St David's Centre is good as far as sterile shopping centres go, even Chip Alley (Caroline Street) seemed to be a bit smarter.

The stadium has a good atmosphere, excellent site lines and I was pleased to see blue seats. Cardiff will always be blue and it upsets me to see the mess Vincent Tan has made of the club with his colour change.

And it was a new ground for me. Of the current 92 it is number 67. I lost Torquay and Macclesfield recently, but regained Mansfield and Cambridge. I have Rotherham, Fleetwood, Morecambe and Millwall in my sights. Oh the joys. And of the grand total it's 140.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

League 3 was about Premier League Power - for STAND fanzine

I did a piece for the award winning STAND magazine about League 3. The rest of the mag is available from Distant Echo for £2.50 and it's full of wonder.

Do you know what the 9th most watched sports league in the world is? Well, I’ll tell you, it’s the Championship. The league that will have Rotherham, Blackpool, Millwall, and my team, Blackburn Rovers in it. It’s bettered by Baseball in Japan and the USA, North American Ice Hockey and that weird form of rugby in crash helmets they play in America – and of course by the major football leagues of England, Spain, Germany and the USA.

The 552 games in the 2012 season were watched by an average of 17,738 people. On a league of averages the Championship ranks higher than the premier leagues of Brazil, Russia and Switzerland.

Even lowly League One records higher average gates than the Premier Leagues of Greece, Chile, Bosnia and Uruguay – all countries who qualified for the World Cup.

I started looking into this when I read The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, a neat little book by American writer Joe McGinniss following a team in a small town in southern Italy when they reached Serie B. It struck me that Italian football had a sort of Premiership Lite, then a sparsely watched second division and then the equivalents of Conference North and South.

Football as an ingrained part of our national culture is unique and special. And they hate it. They. The London-based marketing department of Manchester United hate it. The directors of the ‘project’ at Manchester City and the owners of the franchise at Liverpool. How it must mystify them.

All this talk of a competitive League Three was said to be motivated by getting match practice for the large squads of the Premiership clubs. You were encouraged to get excited about Chelsea B getting promoted into League Two and scrapping it out against Chesterfield and Carlisle. The example is cited that what’s good enough for Barcelona and Bayern to have B sides playing competitive matches should be available to our big clubs.

And of course our good English boys would be the best place to toughen them up on their road towards turning out for the national team, much better than any three month loan spell at Preston North End.

Even if the argument for match practice was a factor, don’t you think they’d just double the foreign intake? You always retain that suspicion about the deeper, darker motivations of any move which serves to further the interests of the Premiership, especially the bigger clubs.

What you suspect they are looking to chip away at is the season ticket holder at Rochdale and Walsall, who should be following a “major brand” winning over these fans and selling them all the tat that follows. You can’t help but wonder that the progress of newly purchased “franchises” wonder why on earth people would watch other clubs in their catchment area.

Look at the plans for the Etihad Campus next to Manchester City’s home, these include a mini-stadium with 7,000 seats – their reserves, sorry Elite Development Squad, currently attract a few hundred fans to watch them at Hyde. When that ends, City will be punting the possibilities of a match day experience against the stiffs of Juventus and Liverpool.

For all its faults, the popular pyramid league system we have in this country is nothing short of miraculous. A national culture of loyalty to a club, a centre of a community – a totem for a town. Something that matters, even when deep down we know that some of the football is pretty crap. All the scandals of owners cocking it up, clubs going bust, foreign players coming in at every level – it still carries on. Something still sustains it as a spectator sport that thousands upon thousands of people take part in every week.

Make no mistake, the close on half a million people who watched non-Premier League Football on one weekend in May is a barrier to the onward march of the greed league. League Three would just be another way to chip away at the foundations. That daft idea might have been kicked into the car park for the time being, but there will be something else equally as mendacious and stupid soon enough.

Protestors on King Street - idiots, all of them

A pal of mine has had two conversations with the protestors on King Street outside the Kedem cosmetics store.

The first, with the Palestinian lot, was along the lines of do you support Hamas? The initial response was 'yes, of course'. The next question was "have you read what Amnesty International have to say about Hamas?" was met with a blank look, a wiser counsel then intervened, but the point was made. This is knee-jerk unthinking idiocy.

Then there are the protestors against the protestors, who handed out a leaflet claiming the shop is owned by people in England paying English taxes to the English government. No they don't. There's no such thing as an English government, my friend said. "I thought Scotland was a separate country," the protestor replied. Where do you start?

I've blogged about my disapproval of this on the Downtown blog, but I support what top cop Peter Fahy has to say this week - time to think again as it's achieving nothing and causing further problems.

But if this is the level of sophistication, debate, protest and the kind of ignorance we are dealing with then they should all be prevented from protesting on the grounds of stupidity alone. Or maybe we should protest against this protest in order to defend the union. Down that road madness lies, but I rather think we're some way down there already.

50 shades of blue - the new kit and the first game - reasons for optimism at Ewood last night

It was a perfect evening for football last night. It was an imperfect night, but on balance you have to be pleased with a point and the performance.

I never got round to doing a season preview last week, but frankly I couldn't really add much to the peerless optimist Mikey Delap on his Wild Blackburn Rover blog. I thought his most important point was this one:
"What we lacked last season was that mental toughness and confidence to close games out. Sure part of it can always be apportioned to organisation and the system you've set up - but ultimately calmer heads and better retention of the ball turn those desperate late defensive lunges into a routine defensive clearance and that hoofed clearance into a more astute, pressure relieving pass."
It was heartening that we came from behind last night. Tom Cairney still has that urgency and energy to unlock teams and pull rabbits out of the hat, but last night in the second half we dominated midfield and possession because of the protection and cover and challenges of supersub Lee Williamson, who I thought was our best player. Kilgannon was the strongest in the first, despite conceding at a set piece, something that needs to be worked on as the better teams will have a strong physical striker like Jones to be bully around the box.

I loathed the new kit before last night. I thought it was a departure from tradition and made us look like Coventry City (nothing against them). But seeing it close up it's actually remarkably close in shades to the 1991-92 shirt. That away kit is dreadful though, the worst we've ever had.

I was staying away from Ewood in protest and just doing away games, but last night was another step back. Last season we had a few invites and comps, but this was putting money on the counter.

Finally, Venky's were there last night. Most fans will never forgive them for allowing our club to be wrecked. But it's fair to say now they are propping up a loss-making business, proving that their greatest error was to trust certain people who took them for fools and by their stubborn refusal to listen to sense, but we are where we are. Better this than what is happening at Leeds and Blackpool. Hopefully dialogue will soon follow with the Trust and other positive potential partners.

Arte et Labore.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Salford City v the class of 92 - another new ground - but does it count?

Went to see a football match in a rugby stadium last night. Except it wasn't much of a match. It was the Class of 92 All Stars - Giggs, Butt, Scholes and the Nevilles - turning out with some friends against Salford City, the club they've recently acquired.

Salford beat the old fellahs pretty comfortably, 5-1, but Giggs scored a Perlo penalty which was very entertaining.

The spectacle was spoiled by a few idiots running on the pitch during the match (not just Robbie Savage either). It had a feeling of young United fans day out. There was pretty much a full house in the stadium, used by Salford Reds and Sale Sharks rugby clubs, and the traffic and parking was a bit of a joke.

There was a defiant and jubilant atmosphere in the lounge afterwards where the stars did a Q&A. United fans are pretty optimistic about the future - they've put the whole David Moyes episode behind them and think things are going to start getting much better under Van Gaal.
The Salford City experiment is an intriguing one. Chatting to one of the directors last night it became clear this is no whim. Gary Neville in particular is a driven and ambitious businessman - he has all kinds of plans for the future in all kinds of different businesses and this is being done properly. Part of the mission, they explained last night, was to get local lads playing a decent standard of football and getting this club into a higher league.

Greater Manchester is pretty well provided for with football clubs. Each borough has a first class team that the community should support - Wigan, Bolton, Bury, Rochdale and Oldham. Tameside has a few non-league teams and Stockport has a club which is temporarily in the doldrums. Salford has always been the exception, but it is the one borough most closely associated with United's hardcore support, even more so than the bulk of Trafford, which has Altrincham.

Plenty of people thought the fund raiser last night was the first move of the club from Moor Lane in Kersal to the brand new AJ Bell stadium. I wouldn't bet on it. There is more development potential at the present ground and they'll have been charged an arm and a leg to play in someone else's asset. Why do you think FC United wanted their own place and why have Stockport County got into such a mess?

I don't imagine it's going to be a cakewalk either - achieving Championship standard in 15 years. New players will think they're going to get big money (they won't), fans will take a long time to get behind the club. Salford is a proud place with it's own identity, it's got a feeling like it's Manchester's East End (even if it's west, I know). But as we'll see from the BBC fly on the wall documentary that's being made about the club, there will be twists, turns and heartbreak.

So, does it count as a new ground? I'm claiming it. It's not going on my 92 as it wasn't any kind of league game, but it was a football match in a stadium. Number 139.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Mixing pop and politics, ask me what the use is

My musical and political formation took place in the 70s and 80s. I only have to listen to a few bars of a clutch of 20 songs or so on a playlist I've made (or a mix tape, if you prefer) and I'm transported back to CND marches, strikes, strife, Mrs Thatch and Rock Against Racism.

Here are six songs from that playlist that with a bit of fine tuning, updating and downright fisking are still as relevant today.
Up Against the Wall - Tom Robinson Band

The whole burst of energy from Robinson's music from the late 70s takes you to a London of the Grunwick pickets, Grange Hill, National Front marches, the winter of discontent, multi-racial London and the imminent election of the Conservatives. There's a beautiful sequence in this angry anthem, which sounds phenomenally relevant now.
High wire fencing on the playground
High rise housing all around
High rise prices on the high street
High time to pull it all down
Then there's an attempt at portraying a two-track London that hasn't quite stood the test of time as West London becomes a wealthy bubble and the edges push further and further out.
Consternation in Mayfair
Rioting in Notting Hill Gate
Fascists marching on the high street
Carving up the welfare state
I'm sure Tom Robinson tweaks that whenever he sings it in the bath, but it still works for me.

Bloody Revolutions - Crass

If there is one song, one band and one lyric that turned me against ideological socialism it is Crass and this, quite the wierdest, widest ranging, oddest song I have in my collection. It is a powerful destruction of the left's departure from humanity in the course of developing revolutionary rhetoric. Crass were impressive and persuasive propagandists, railing against everything. But even now it screeches a loud hailer in the face of tupenny ha'penny placard wavers urging solidarity with struggles they don't understand. At a stretch, you could imagine Christopher Hitchens coming up with some of this. Crass, eh? An anthem for the Neo-Con generation.
"It all seems very easy, this revolution game
But when you start to really play things won't be quite the same
Your intellectual theories on how it's going to be
Don't seem to take into account the true reality
Cos the truth of what you're saying, as you sit there sipping beer
Is pain and death and suffering, but of course you wouldn't care

You're far too much of a man for that, if Mao did it so can you
What's the freedom of us all against the suffering of the few?
That's the kind of self-deception that killed ten million Jews
Just the same false logic that all power-mongers use"

Heartland - The The

This whole Infected album was a masterpiece, a magnificent production, a multimedia experiment and a remarkable commentary on international tension, global relations and just the gut wrenching feeling of unrequited love. The Heartland track takes me to the 1987 election and the fear that the North of England would be cut off forever, ripped asunder and forgotten in a world we don't understand any more.
"All the frightened people running home before dark..."
The image then that follows as Matt Johnson drops a key and warns of a dystopian nightmare we can't comprehend...
"All the banker's getting sweaty beneath their white collar,
as the pound in your pocket turns into a dollar ... "
It all evoked a new world order, Airstrip One, the dark conspiracy of American power. We've been through it and out the other end now. But it's very Naomi Klein, don't you think?

Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards - Billy Bragg

Our youngest lad asked me what this was about yesterday. To me it's about wanting something better, even if there's a sadness about it that seems to belittle a lot of political activism.
"So join the struggle while you may, the revolution is just a t-shirt away". 
It's actually a wonderful joyful celebration of campaigning and politics that takes you through the lost causes, misplaced optimism and shattered dreams.

The British Way of Life - The Chords
There's a sadness around The Chords, they attached their wagon to the short-lived, ill fated 1979 Mod revival and sank without a trace thereafter. But they were always so much more than just another Jam tribute band. This track may be a bit too much like This is the Modern World in the chorus, but it was a forerunner to many of Paul Weller's later classics which spoke to the army of kids who hung off his every word from the estates and streets of England. It may not have the demons of the Tories and the cops to rub against, but it does speak to solid conservative working class values, dreams, friends and family, shared experience.

"A cinema, a bowling green,
No culture to preserve,
everyone's always staring at each other,
but no-one speaks a word."

I took that as a positive, even then. Even the bitterness and empty predictable routines of football, marriage and Sunday dinners.

California Uber Alles - Dead Kennedys

An interview I read with Jello Biafra shook me to my core when I was about 13. Many punks completely misunderstood what they were all about, enjoying the shocking lyrics and the anger over the deeply political message that these slightly more sophisticated American punks were peddling. It stood somewhere between the hollowed out nihilism of the Exploited barmy army and the agit-prop of the Anarchists like Crass and Conflict. They ultimately had to record a track called Nazi Punks F*** Off because the message hadn't got through. This song though, to me, was another reality check for a rebellious youth in the best country to have been born in. To be born British in the late twentieth century was a lucky time, really. As the song goes:
And it's a holiday in Cambodia
Where you'll do what you're told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul
 Who says Americans don't do irony?