Sunday, May 07, 2017

The precise moment when I realised my Rovers were going down

I think I can pinpoint the exact moment when I should have realised Blackburn Rovers were heading for the Third Division, or League One in new money. It wasn't today, as news filtered through that Forest were romping home and that Bristol City had given up on spoiling Birmingham City's day. That's when it was confirmed.

It wasn't before the game when I heard Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy, I song I always associated with sadness and grief.

No, I'm not even going to pretend to be a sage and say I've long feared we were heading that way, though I did say as much at the arse end of last season. It wasn't on the opening day when Norwich humiliated Owen Coyle's ragbag side in the first home game, or when Wigan humiliated us in the worst performance by a Rovers side in my living memory. It wasn't when a late headed goal sent all three points to Leeds, though that was a sickener.

It wasn't when the fans properly turned on Owen Coyle after more misery at Barnsley, making his sacking a matter of time. It wasn't even when we capitulated in such lame fashion to Barnsley, or let Bristol City control a game we should have stormed.

No, in my heart of hearts it was that late equaliser by Aiden McGeady for Preston North End at Ewood Park in March. I said at the time it was a cruel end to a game where we played some great football, that it still extended our unbeaten run, but that we'd be alright and get 51 points. Well, we did, but it wasn't enough. That result will have encouraged Burton and Bristol City. It said to every team we were going to play that we weren't a serious professional outfit, but naive bottlers. That was also before two tough trips to Brighton and Reading, where we got nothing. It wasn't the continuation of an unbeaten run, but further stagnation in a winless rut. There was never really a way back from those two points dropped.

Amazingly, of those 51 points, 24 of them have been won against just four teams - Forest, Derby, Brentford and, inexplicably, the champions Newcastle.

I liked the starting line-up today and hope we keep the guts of it. The spine of Raya, Mulgrew, Lenihan, Bennett and possibly Graham. Next season there'll be a clear out of players who are on too much money, which may include some of those I've just mentioned, and those who think they deserve to be playing at a higher level. Some are assets, but we've been lumbered with a lot of liabilities as well - the ninth highest wage bill in the division for a team that underperformed by 13 places is disgraceful. Why are Wes Brown and Anthony Stokes even on the payroll?

This is a dark time. I really don't know what's next, I'm too tired after driving there and back and having all that emotion drain out of me today. On the way home we went through all the away trips we want to do next season - 15 of them, 15! One of them will be Portsmouth. And do you know what? If there's one place that can give all fans of clubs with dodgy owners some hope, then it's Pompey.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Watching my eldest son play for his football team for the very last time

It was Joe's last ever competitive match for Marple Athletic on Sunday. The lads will be dispersing to university, world travel and faraway jobs this summer. So that's it. The final. 

But what a journey it has been over the years; tournaments and trophies, tantrums and tears - and that's just the parents.

 The team on Sunday included seven players who were involved in the very first season in 2006 when they were just 6 years old.

 In the times I've been involved, there's always been a voice in the back of my head whispering - "who's it for?". It started with Jim White's excellent book - You'll Win Nothing With Kids, fathers, sons and football - which I reviewed on this blog in 2008. Routinely, before every game, I've said to my son, "Joe, remember what you need to do today. Enjoy yourself." After a while, I didn't need to say it, but we did it anyway, like one of those private family jokes.

I did jump for joy at times and probably over-celebrated on other occasions. I also felt their pain when they lost. But as much as I am totally convinced I'm absolutely not living my frustrated football dreams through my son, I will concede that watching this team is one of those rare occasions where I truly live in the moment and as a consequence feel a particular type of happy. As I walked off Brabyn's Park on Sunday it hit me that this would be the last time I'll ever do this. The very last time I'll ever be in that place of contentment, of belonging. Maybe it's also because in all the years I've watched Joe play I have never once come away thinking he's let himself down. It's a public and open arena for an expression of his developing character and a certain set of virtues which are expressed through how he plays. I see these characteristics in other ways, but maybe none so routinely and where they impact on others so publicly. And we passed the point long ago where this was any kind of displacement. Joe is a far, far better footballer than I ever was. That isn't just the blinkered parent speaking, by the way, it's something to do with the whole way these lads have been brought up and the expectations they have of themselves.

As our twin lads have stepped into refereeing I've witnessed again what I call "PlayStation managers" who scream from the touchline and move the players around the pitch vicariously. What has happened with these lads, as they showed in their final game, coming back from a goal down to win 4-2 against a decent Weston Rangers team, is that ability to make their own decisions. They just seem to know what to do. They can be tricky when they need to be, they look after each other on the pitch and they know how to win games of football.

I will always owe a massive thanks to the managers who've coached, cajoled and inspired my son and all the boys in this team, from those days to today - Padraig Walsh, Jason Isaacs and in the early days, Clive Breed. As Clive said over the weekend, if these lads apply themselves to their careers in the same way, then they'll do just fine. So I know who this has been for. It's been for the kids. For them as they are and for their future selves. It's always been for them.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

How I voted in the Greater Manchester Mayoral election today

Today was the Greater Manchester Mayoral election. This has been a long time coming and is an idea that has truly found its time. For me, it's been something of a mission, to campaign for a different way of doing our politics and for a decentralisation of the UK.

So, apologies for the clickbait headline, I voted with considerably more enthusiasm than I will on June the 8th.

I supported a regional assembly for the North West in 2002 to 2004. I was part of Tony Wilson's Necessary Group, suffering that excess of civic pride that led us to commission Peter Saville to design a North West flag.

I campaigned against the weak directly elected Mayor option for the city of Manchester in 2012. I despair of anyone who thinks what we voted for today was what we rejected then (though of course I didn't actually have a vote).

I sat on the second row at the Museum of Science and Industry to listen to George Osborne make his first ever Northern Powerhouse speech in 2014, next to Susan Williams and Joe Anderson. I applauded with great gusto.

In 2015 I described how I'd got my political mojo back through the possibilities of devolution.

I blogged about the issues in the contest at the start of the year. If I got anything wrong it was how the national parties have had a negligible effect on the contest. If anything I was worried they'd taint it.

You see, at heart all politics is local. If the Brexit vote told us anything it was that mantra about taking back control has to actually mean something. Where we live there have been a few attempts at an insurgent break with the political norm. A new one is starting around opposition to the sitting MP. I'm intensely relaxed about people getting involved in politics, as long as they play by the rules.

As for the Mayoral contest, I've been really impressed by Andy Burnham and Sean Anstee at different times during the last few weeks. And on Sunday at the Lowry, the Citizens Assembly for Greater Manchester laid bare some of the knotty challenges the new Mayor will have to confront. The Times podcast on the West Midlands election showed how capable the likely winner of that contest will be and how our Mayor needs to be on top of their game in winning business and attracting investment.

I accept the turnout for this first election will be low; it's a vote for a role that's not widely understood. But the Mayor can truly bring together the disparate parts of the city region into a coherant whole. Hopefully too he can create an identity beyond national party politics. It can bring innovation, brio, verve and ideas to a political stage, while the national picture is stained with the bitterness of Brexit. So yes, I'm pretty excited about the possibilities, as you can see.

A new dawn has broken, has it not?