Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Unmoved by success

24 February 2015 - Millwall 1 Sheffield Wednesday 3

My mate Dave is a big Sheffield Wednesday fan. That is to say he's a fan of the Owls who happens to be sodding enormous – clear of 6' 6” I'd guess. He follows the team a bit, and he'll go and watch them when he can work attendance at their game into his real hobby, which is getting drunk with pretty women and silly men.

Somehow he talked me into attending this one to fill the “silly men” quota. So I dragged myself out to South Bermondsey when I could have been watching Barcelona beat Man City, under the specious rationalisation that I was scouting the sort of mediocre opposition from which I expect City will need to take points next season.

(On which point, by the way, I have few concerns. Despite Wednesday's excellent performance in the second half, which owed a lot to the genuinely fine attacking play of Jacques Maghoma, I felt that on present form City would beat either team relatively comfortably. We'll have no problems adapting to the middle of that division, I suspect.)

I went in the spirit of companionship and bonhomie, and as someone who always enjoys live football, rather than because I was expecting the team third-bottom of the divion and the team whose previous seven-game form read D3 L4 to produce an encounter for the ages. And the first half lived down to my expectations, a scoreless heap of nothing in particular distinguished perhaps by the moment Wednesday left-back Claude Dielna took a touch of the ball, found himself with time to think, considered his options, and very calmly and deliberately lobbed it over the left-hand touchline and out of play.

After the break though things were different, and once the badly out of form Yorkshiremen had scored the goal that gee'd them up whilst demolishing the fragile confidence of Ian Holloway's men the game was almost entirely played in one direction – right down the pitch towards the voluble travelling support. We were up towards the back where, at the Den as everywhere, the loudest and least inhibited of the away support tend to congregate. I found myself almost entirely sucked in by the frisson Wednesday's performance generated, and celebrated the goals like I had swallowed Henderson's Relish from the teat. It was exhilarating.

It was also probably the most exhilarated I've been at any football match this season. Since my team is top of the league, and I've been to quite a lot of their games, that has to be a concern.

Part of the reason I think is that I was caught in a very particular mood felt by the Wednesday fans. Both behind me at the ground, and on the train back home, I kept catching variations on the same theme. “Two goals from open play!” a Wednesdayite would exclaim in great surprise. “An away win...” sighed another lad in reverent, mine-eyes-have-seen-the-glory tones.

You know what that's like, don't you? When you come away from a game thinking “we won. We actually went and bloody won!”

It's the best feeling in football. There's satisfaction in winning a game you ought to win by a nice, routine 2-0. There's great pleasure in seeing your team demonstrate clear superiority when running goal after goal past some hapless bunch of lower-league chancers. But coming into a game you may not win, entering an uncertain situation, scales balanced, nervous, turning up because it's what you do rather than because of your scintillating run of form, then scoring all the goals and claiming the points – that, my friends, is the good stuff.

And League One just doesn't offer that. Not when you've been there less than a couple of years it doesn't, anyway. Sure, last time around, when we'd had seven solid seasons before the glorious eighth, we'd become accustomed to playing at that level and really didn't expect to beat the better sides. So when we did it was terrific.

But this time is different, isn't it? It feels that way to me, certainly. We've not been in the doldrums long enough for victories to have the same meaning. We had two understandable wobbles in the first season, a just-relegated-building-a-team one and a new-manager-not-getting results one, overcome them, and been doing absolutely fine thankyouverymuch since then. We'll get promoted this season. We've been favourites, probably, since the opening day. The game we played that day, at Sheffield United, may in fact have been the most recent game we didn't expect to win, but did.

I've not once walked out of a game feeling utterly thrilled to the core, that wonderful pinch-myself thrumming through me like a plucked string. I've been happy quite a lot. I've thought “that's absolutely fine” a fair bit, I've thought “didn't we play well” from time to time. But overjoyed, no; not by winning a game comfortably in this dreary League One.

Because it plainly is dreary. What came down was so much worse than what went up that it was pretty clear this was a major opportunity to get out of the division. I'd guess we have a bigger budget than 21 other clubs. The two of a comparable size – Preston and Sheffield United – are underachieving, not because they're behind us but because they're scrapping with Bradford, Doncaster and Fleetwood. That won't do for famous sides like those two. And it's left the way open for us to run the division simply on account of hitting par for our budget whilst they fail to do so.

There's also the fact that even our close competitors are failing to give us a run for our money. The main reason we're seven points clear of third is that in both of the last two weekends, we've lost but so have Swindon. That's it. They could be a point behind us, but they're not. That's because they're a League One club on a small budget, so they'll be inconsistent and drop silly points. It's perfectly reasonable but it hardly adds to the tension of it all. And a break in tension is what creates real joy at football. It's why a late winner feels so much better than a fourth goal midway through the second half.

This time last year, our record – 67 points from 32 games, with a goal difference of 31 – would have put us third in the table. We'd have been level on points with Orient and Wolves above us, though – a three way tie! - having played a game more than Orient and a game fewer than Wanderers. Brentford would be a point behind us in fourth with a game in hand. It would have been completely brilliant. Imagine how vital every game would have felt. Imagine those clashes in Wolverhampton, in East and West London.

But there we are. Instead we're competently navigating a mediocre iteration of the division. We'll go up, great, but as far as I'm concerned the real thing will only start then. Getting back into the Championship and having to play well every week just to keep our heads above water. Real competition. Parachute payments. International players at the Gate. Difficult matches every week. And once again, that most underrated of footballing emotions – relief. The same relief, breeding the same delight, those Sheffield Wednesday fans felt last night.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Big in Lincolnshire

The full version of the Scunthorpe Telegraph "Spy in the Camp" article I provided ahead of this weekend's game with Scunthorpe United.

City have been top of the table for much of the season and are clear favourites with the bookies for promotion - is there any fear they won't go up?

No football fan would ever say his team's a certainty for promotion, surely? But at time of writing it's hard to deny that things look good. We're duking it out with Swindon for top spot at the moment, but we've played a game fewer and are starting to put a bit of space between ourselves and third spot in the table.

That said, we know from earlier in the season how quickly a gap of several points can become a gap of just one or two, and the other three teams up there with us – MK Dons and Preston, as well as Swindon – have done a good job of keeping us honest so far. It seems fairly clear that two of the current top four will go up automatically, simply because it would take a surprisingly collective stumble for a Sheffield United or a Rochdale to catch three of us up. But we will have to continue to play well in order to stay at the front of the group. That's fine with me, I don't want us to go up by default – I want us to win the division with a bit of style if we can.

I think every City fan would also be terrified of a drop into the playoffs, since our record in that competition is so poor. Even a comfortable third-place finish would leave nobody at Ashton Gate confident that we'd navigate the end-of-season shootout with out opponents.

Have the Robins been as convincing as a glance at their results would suggest?

Largely yes. We had a little spell at the end of 2014 when we were only winning games by a single very late goal, but I'm not convinced that's a sign of weakness. We're capable of dominating games against any side in the bottom two-thirds of the division, and at home we mostly do so. Away from home we're quick on the counter-attack, comfortable moving the ball around and a difficult team to beat. The squad balance between canny old pros with Premier League experience and young players coming into the prime of their career is impressive, and we always look to play on the front foot and attack.

Our main weakness is that we can always concede goals, the inevitable consequence of our attack-minded style and formation – although we haven't actually conceded more than anyone else in the division, I think we'll always give opponents a chance to score away from home. We've not been too bad at outscoring teams, though, and we're yet to lose a league game in which we score.

Steve Cotterill has been at the helm for a year now, could he have done a better job?

In terms of this season at least, it's hard to think how! The manager is a wily old football man with something of the old school about him, a motivator and team-builder with infectious enthusiasm. He's well supported by our transfer mastermind Keith Burt, and by a chairman who obviously has a lot of faith in him.

Looking back over the year it's often forgotten that it actually took a while to come right for Cotterill – he got us out of the relegation zone after arriving, but plunged us back in, too, and was bailed out by some critical loan arrivals last February. But since the spring he's done little wrong and a lot right. I have my own concerns about his tactical flexibility and his ability to change a game, but it's looking increasingly likely that those aren't weaknesses many other teams in League One are well-enough equipped to exploit.

• City seem on course for a trip to Wembley in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. That doesn't appear to have been a distraction thus far, can you see that changing?

With a maximum of two games left I'd be surprised if it did! Cotterill has been adept this season at rotating his squad when we have two or three games to play within seven days. Most of the players have looked fresh game after game, which is an advantage of having a largely young side, and progress in the JPT and FA Cup has if anything helped us keep our momentum up in the league. The truism is that when you're winning you want to keep playing games, and that's certainly how our players appear to have been thinking this season.
Inevitably there will be now extra games to play on the wet pitches of February and March, and that's where we might suffer any consequences of our success, but I think that our progress in the knock-out competitions has actually helped us get to where we are.

If they do back up to the Championship, what will they have learned from their last season at that level?

I hope we'll learn from our last three seasons in the Championship, which saw a slow, inevitable slide down the table culminating in a failure to escape from relegation at the third attempt. In those three seasons we had four different managers and that, rather than anything we might choose to criticise any of those individuals for, I think was the critical factor. The club wasn't being run well at that point – Steve Lansdown is a wealthy benefactor but a deeply impatient man, and regular chopping and changing was never more likely to produce survival than picking a man and giving him a couple of years to make the squad his own. I think Keith Burt's arrival as director of football pretty much as soon as we got relegated demonstrates that we have learnt, and we accept that a good club needs to be coherent in the medium term.

Part of the reason those four managers had a difficult job to do was because they inherited a club which had massively over-spent under Gary Johnson, and at one point was paying more in wages than it made at the gate. Clearly that's unsustainable and both McInnes and O'Driscoll did a lot to change that around, however unpopular they may now be in South Bristol! But I hope we don't get over-excited again and mortgage our future on an attempt to reach the top flight. I'd be happy with progress and with squad development linked to our ground improvements, even if that means sitting in mid-table for a few seasons. The Championship's a great division to be in, after all – we needn't be quite so desperate to leave it this time.

Matt Smith looked a good recruit on loan, but seemed to be getting a bit of stick prior to Christmas. Has his eight goals in four games going into the weekend silenced his critics?

I don't think we're the only club in the League whose supporters can be guilty of taking a short-term view! Matt Smith arrived short on match practice and therefore on sharpness, but since Boxing Day he's found his rhythm and has scored in every game since. A particular highlight would be the four he scored against Gillingham, which demonstrated his range of ability – he gets headers, sure, but he's far from a League One clogger. His third that day was a backheel reminiscent, go on then, of Thierry Henry, and his fourth was a left-foot volley from the edge of the box with a touch of Van Basten about it, if I'm allowed to keep getting overexcited.

Scunthorpe fans probably shouldn't expect him to play like an Henry/Van Basten hybrid on Saturday, and City fans shouldn't expect it every week. But it's fair to say that you won't find many in the away end who expect him not to score this weekend.

Speaking of strikers, Keiran Agard and Aaron Wilbraham led the line when the Iron were beaten 2-0 at Ashton Gate in September. What's happened to that duo?

Both have suffered from relatively long-term injuries which have limited their appearances in the past couple of months. I think one of them might be fit enough for a place on the bench at Glanford Park but I can't be certain.

Even if both were now fit I wouldn't expect them to start because, in their absence, Smith and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas have struck up quite the rapport and on merit are clearly now our first-choice partnership. Squad depth like this is a reason I don't expect the JPT to have too much of a negative effect on us – I can't think of another club in the division with four attackers of this calibre available to them.

Where will Saturday’s game be won or lost?

In wide positions. The speed and intelligence of our wing-backs, Joe Bryan and Mark Little, has caused problems for every team we've played this season. Shut them down and you remove a good part of our threat. They also tend to leave gaps behind them when they attack – our centre-backs are good at covering for them, but nevertheless a pacy winger if you have one is just the sort of player likely to cause us problems.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

How I tried to stop worrying and love Bristol City

13 September 2014 - Bristol City 3 Doncaster Rovers 0

This was a formality. Against a team with, hitherto, a 4-from-4 perfect away record, City had control of the game from its outset, capitalised on – sure – some poor defending to score the first couple of goals, but hey. It was an easy afternoon, and following one of the stupider dismissals you'll see in a professional football game (first yellow for a dive, second for kicking the ball a long way away) it turned from “comfortable win” into “stroll in the park”. Even with the game dead at 11v10, City played a very composed, mature, sensible game, keeping possession, not taking silly chances, and scoring a well-worked third goal to bury the men from Yorkshire.

A satisfactory afternoon on its own terms then, and as part of an unbeaten League run that (at time of writing) encompasses the first nine games of the nascent season to take us five points clear at the top of the young League One table, the bigger picture is all the more impressive. Win has followed win, three goal haul has followed three goal haul, with metronomic regularity. After all those years in the bottom half of divisions it's a refreshing, not to say somewhat surprising, state of affairs.

So why haven't I been enjoying it as much as I ought to've been?

I haven't, you know; not really. Oh, it's been fun going to the games. And even from afar, it's certainly been nice not to have that heartsinking feeling as Twitter informs me that we've conceded yet another early goal. I've been pleased when we've won, but that's a long way from the delight I really ought to be feeling; the delight I've every right to enjoy now after what City have been putting me through in recent years. Given how impressive the results have been, I've been feeling oddly flat.

There are a couple of things which, while not major contributors, are probably relevant. The first is having given up the season ticket, which has slightly reduced my exposure to the team and players (especially as we've not yet had a south-eastern away game I can easily reach). I haven't formed any sort of bond with these players yet; of our current first XI, six didn't play for City last year, one did so only on loan, and 50% of the remainder I'm working hard to forgive for their poor performances this time last year which led directly to our poor start to the season. It's only Williams and Bryan for whom I have that affection born of a season's exposure. I think they're the only squad members Ross and I have come up with nicknames for (“Degsy” and “GI” if you must know) and that tells its own story.

Combine that with not living in Bristol and the emotional side of the game takes a further blow. If you live in Bristol your investment in the team is, I think, just as much about getting the win so that on Monday morning you're quicker on the draw when you bump into the Gashead you work or study with. Certainly that was the case when I was at school. My best friend Pete lives in London, and is a Gashead, but he makes about one game every five years so isn't much of a whetstone for the rivalry. For this reason the entire rivalry, when conducted two divisions and a league structure apart, seems a feeble affair; the cult of Colin Daniel leaves me rather cold, I'm afraid, as the effect is that the only thing reminding me of the existence of Bristol Rovers is, um, Bristol City fans. As I say though I can understand why it continues to matter within the city itself; but there's an entire buttress of passion which I'm not really part of.

No, Buttress of Passion is not an architecture-themed adult movie. Let's move on.

A more fundamental reason, I think, might be that so far it's seemed almost too easy. I feel nervous writing that, as though I'm the character in the horror film describing something as “too quiet”; but you know what I mean? One of our main targets in summer 2013 was Britt Assombalonga. We couldn't match his wage demands, so he went to Peterborough, scored lots of goals, and has earned them a £3m profit moving to Forest. This summer, finally free of the squad's deadwood and in a weaker division, we were the ones able to take on the players you'd have to assume the whole division was after. This isn't just a guess; a right-back from direct promotion rivals, an attacking midfielder we'd all been talking about since January, the a third member of the top four goalscorers from last time (the other three of whom all now play in the Championship); the young, impressive captain of a good passing team. Keith Burt has spoken openly about the policy being “buy the best players in the division”, and there's a pretty clear Championship Manager logic here – if you buy all the best players you will have the best team. Indeed, we know that league placings, by and large, follow wage bills rather than the other way round. I would be quite surprised if we're not paying the second-highest wages in the division, and since we are now spending our wages on first-team players it ought to follow that we finish in the top two.

Now of course that doesn't always work; we all know that. And Cotterill deserves great credit for getting through one transfer window at the speed it would normally take to get through two, and then being able to create a proper team out of the group of players so assembled. But it still means that the early part of the season has had a slight sense of unreality, of playing Pro Evo with the settings on beginner (or indeed just playing against Pete the Gashead). It's nice to win, but the games just haven't seemed all that competitive yet. Again, though, this is from afar – the experience may have been different at many of the matches – but certainly the Doncaster game only reinforced that view. That second goal! That sending off! Dickov may as well have asked Cotterill if he wanted to take advantage of the gift-wrapping service at no extra cost.

I'm sure the pressure will come – quite possibly against MK Dons this weekend. I'd like us to be in a heartracing promotion battle with four points separating first and sixth. That's something I could get behind.

And while this gets closest to the matter at hand, I don't really think that's what's going on here. I think that, building on my last blog, my disaffection has actually come from a less obvious result of being an exile in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Having to follow a successful football club on Twitter.

I mean, this can't be specific to City. I'm sure many other clubs have the potential to be this awful, if you follow the right (wrong?) people. The problem with fandom, though, is that it's your own side you're exposed to the most. And the Soccer AM-ification of modern football is something I experience most as a City fan.

I'm talking about the retweets of imbeciles with their endless hashtags and breezy disregard for anything approaching originality. I'm talking about the match reports providing enough material for @FootballCliches to write his second book (yes, I know they're written fast, and partly I think that's the problem – we can wait that extra hour for a genuinely illuminating report, surely?). But most of all I'm talking about the #banter. The awful, ongoing, never even remotely funny #banter.

A few quick caveats. I know this isn't only my club that does this; but it's only mine I see. I know the media team have a bloody hard job pleasing every fan and I think their coverage is often excellent – the Botswana tour videos were wonderful, even the one where every player universally describes a safari as “great experience” as though they've just played out a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful cup tie against Liverpool. And I follow, and am fortunate enough to be followed by, a number of intelligent, witty, grounded Bristol City fans who I would not have met otherwise and with whom I greatly enjoy discussing the club.

But the most important caveat is that I don't have to watch the stuff. Advice I've given myself for some time now, but have only just got around to taking. Because of my attachment to City I've been trying to consume everything we produce, and it's been an enormous mistake. Much of it simply isn't targeted at me, and that's fine. We'd be in a lot of trouble if it was. So I am doing something that we now all have the opportunity to do; I am tailoring myself a bespoke interaction with the club.

I've got rid of the Twitter accounts of buffoons like Scott Murray, the matchday DJ and (for the time being at least) the head of media, thus at a stroke removing vast amounts of guff from my consciousness; it's still there, and it's not funny, but I don't have to know about it. I'm focusing in on the matches, what the players do, and what the manager says. I really miss having the manager's programme notes on the website and I wish they'd come back. I've realised that while I love much of the experience of football, it doesn't follow that I must love all the extraneous noise and confusion around it. We all know that 90%, at least, of what any football club says is nonsense. Get rid of that – pare back to the game, the experience of going, travelling, watching it, spending time with friends, all of that – and the whole thing is a lot more satisfying.

This is where it all connects up I think. I've lost a fair bit of the experience of going to games this season, but like someone who loses their vegetable garden so eats Haribo to make up the difference I've become bloated, unsatisfied and left with an unpleasant taste in my mouth. I need to focus on the real nutritional stuff and maybe I'll be served up something I can really look forward to.

I want to salivate again. And I hope the new diet will make me do that.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The fan who knew too much

Saturday 16 August - Bristol City 2 Colchester United 1
Saturday 23 August - Dulwich Hamlet 2 Lewes 0

Growing up is a process of complication. That's a given, right? Experience means seeing a series of tiny fragments of the whole – nowhere near enough to understand, but enough to learn how complicated, and how ultimately incomprehensible, existence is. Paradoxically, the more you learn, the clearer it becomes that you can understand only an infinitesimal sliver of the totality. (Which may have been what Paul Weller was getting at.) And that's why we get nostalgic – if we miss anything at all, we miss that time when the world seemed simpler, possible to observe and catalogue in its entirety if only one could live long enough and find the right vantage point.

And clearly football's no exception to this. In fact there's a whole class of websites, magazines, and cheap late-night ITV4 clip shows pandering to our desire to return to that simple time somewhere between Toto Schillaci's brief spurt out of obscurity and Gareth Southgate's underhit penalty, when the world – by which we mean major football tournaments – seemed a simpler place.

I remember going to Ashton Gate in the early '90s, and supporting City in just that uncomplicated, no-strings-attached way was the simplest thing in the world. I knew we were the ones in red; I knew which way we were shooting in each half; and I picked up the players' names. Their names – Gary Shelton, Rob Newman, Junior Bent - were all I really needed to know. Where they'd come from, how old they were, how they had been playing recently – these were irrelevancies. Less than irrelevancies, they simply didn't occur. I knew that Bob Taylor scored the most goals, both from watching him do so and from seeing his name followed by a number between 1 and 90 beneath our score in the Evening Post, so he got his poster on my bedroom door. Other than that City were just the red team, with players as interchangeable as those in a game of Sensible Soccer (and, to my lasting frustration, a kit the manufacturers of Subbuteo considered to be interchangeable with that of Wrexham, Benfica, Barnsley, and even hated rivals Swindon Town).

It's not like that now, is it? Partly because we've come to learn more about the world, and partly because the process of doing so has expanded from Match magazine to Wikipedia, YouTube, Football Weekly and all that, the idea of watching the game in this charmingly juvenile way has become a remote, prelapsarian dream.

Now we know so much – in fact we know too much. Every touch is contextualised, becoming either an OptaJoe stat, ammunition for one side of a tedious forum argument, or both. Adam El-Abd came on for Bristol City against Colchester and did fairly well. However his first touch was misjudged and saw him pass the ball out of play rather than knock it in front of Derrick Williams. My first reaction wasn't to think that losing possession cheaply was a shame; it was to think about the “narrative” of Adam El-Abd, more construct now than human being, and how him giving away the ball played to one part of it just as his thereafter solid defensive performance played to the other. Shouldn't I just have been watching the game?

To a degree this is my fault – after all it's up to me what I focus on – but it's no great surprise if my internal football brain has been contaminated with the same asides, pop-ups and captions that plague televised football now. And the problem with this exposure isn't just that it's distracting; it's also something that can actively damage my perception of my club and reduce the wholeheartedness of my support. I should have been pleased that the Reds beat the Blues 2-1. Instead, I was thinking about how we've got the bigger wage bill by quite some distance and therefore 2-1 is a par score at best – about how Colchester would have been delighted to have players of the calibre of Luke Freeman, Wade Elliott and Luke Ayling lining up in their shirts.

This stuff spreads. We signed Kieron Agard the other day for a fee reportedly not too far off a million pounds. Agard scored plenty for Rotherham in this division last season and will, I'm sure, do something similar for us. Yet a colleague at work pointed out how unexcited I seemed. He was right; I was thinking about how we'd become a huge spender in the division and therefore far from an underdog. Given my natural sympathies to the less resourced and funded sides I was having trouble squaring the circle. I've no natural inclination to want a bigger side to go to Rochdale and pound them yet my 24-year support of City tells me that I must. It's heinously complicated.

Then there's the rest of it – the former club legend, now kit man, who spends his time on Twitter trying to see precisely how close to overt sexism and transphobia he can get before anyone at all calls him out on it (oh and Twitter, my God, how it fuels this stuff with its constant retweeting of facts, “banter” and awful, awful jokes); arguments about net spend, FFP compliance and all the other accountancy shite which were not contributing factors to any of our love affairs with football; the very existence of Jose Mourinho. From micro to macro it's just offputting and every single bit of extra information corrupts the basic purity of a game a five-year-old can enjoy, and enjoy for the right reasons.

So last weekend I went to Dulwich. And my God, what a relief; what an incredible relief.

Suddenly the team I want to win is just the team in the right colours (and the pink/blue combination is clearly the right set of colours). The manager doesn't have a Wikipedia page. The only player I've heard of is Terrell Forbes, who captained them and played for Yeovil for a bit. Their star man, Ashley Carew, sounds like a Championship Manager regen. I couldn't name the goalkeeper.

I stood by the side of the pitch, drinking a pint or two of local ale, in an atmosphere akin to a village fete's attempt to recreate the Curva Sud on derby day – but even better than that sounds. I spotted some people I vaguely recognised. The matchday sponsor was my local, which happens to do the best pizza in London. The local butcher sponsors the dugouts. The fans were wonderful – behind whichever goal the home side attacked, they chanted for 90 minutes and spent almost no time moaning about misplaced passes or an insufficiently gung-ho formation. Nobody appeared disappointed that the right winger failed to combine Ronaldo's power and energy with Cruyff's football brain and Makelele's workrate (something that enrages certain residents of BS3). In the inevitably transient world of lower-league football this was support for a team, a set of colours, an ideology even, far more than a group of men looking forward to being disappointed by a signing fee/goal return ratio.

It was hard to feel that I hadn't found a gateway to a simpler, better time. Whether it would feel the same without the trappings above I'm not sure, but as a release from all the noise of modern-day football without having to give up football it was unbeatable.

And yet – I now know some of the players. I know how they play. I know how a kid called Abdul came on and changed the game, injecting genuine craft into the attack. I know about Ashley Carew and Xavier Vidal. I know how much I like Terrell Forbes. Surfing the internet after the game I found an article about Rio Ferdinand supporting the club's academy and I turned away quickly. A little learning can indeed be a dangerous thing.

I can already feel the taint of knowledge starting to ruin Dulwich Hamlet for me, turning what is at present a delightfully idealised little crush into a tediously flesh-and-blood pursuit. It'll happen, of course it will – and that's good, because it means that Bristol City, flaws, financial aggression and all, will always be number one. But I'll keep spending the odd Saturday at Champion Hill, little enough to avoid developing insidious opinions, sufficient however to scratch the itch of football for the sake of football, rather than as fodder for an argument. If I'm very lucky then some of the love rekindled that way will spill back into the old relationship and we'll all benefit. If not then hey; the Dulwich scarves will make a lovely accessory this winter.

Monday, 12 May 2014

An insular life

Saturday 3 May - Crawley Town 1 Bristol City 1

I think most people who were at this match would agree that it was a particularly strange occasion. For most of the crowd, events on the pitch had already ceased to be the focus of attention long before Simon Gillett scored his equaliser just after the hour. The celebrations at the final whistle had nothing to do with a bang mid-table finish taken from the teeth of a second successive relegation and everything to do with Bristol Rovers dropping out of the Football League for the first time in 94 years.

We were celebrating the end of a two-club era in Bristol football; the new state of affairs may last for a year or a decade, we don't know yet. But undeniably things are changing. Back in Bristol, the Ashton Gate pitch had already been torn up, the scoreboard of the East End was about to come down, the seats had been sold and the ancient home end at BS3 began the process of being removed. And Louis Carey, our record appearance holder, would be released within the week as expected.

Furthermore, the club appears to have arrested the spiral of decline it's been on for four or five years; certainly as long as I've been writing this blog. And with half the team, including loanees, departing it'll be very different watching a new side, with a more optimistic crowd behind them, in a three-sided stadium come August. At the very least I'll need to pick on a new player for miscontrolling the ball out of play.

That's not the only amendment I'll have to make to that box at the top right though. Because this is a personal end of an era as well. For the first time in six years I'll no longer be a season ticket holder.

You see, we're all in our thirties now, me and my friends from Bristol. That meant a spate of weddings which we seem to be coming to the end of now, which has given way to the spate of pregnancies one might expect. And Ross, being the virile chap that he is, has played a full and active part in all this. Ross Jnr is on its way, with paternity leave handily scheduled for the middle of the World Cup.

Perfectly understandably that makes his season ticket an unrealistic commitment both financially and temporally; you don't want to guarantee nineteen Saturday afternoons and four Tuesday nights out of the house when you're raising a not-even-one-year-old. So my gesture of solidarity-slash-acceptance that regular solo football is less fun has been to not renew my season ticket either.

This may not, initially at least, make a huge difference. I still have a pool of friends I can go to games with; Ross himself will no doubt be back at some stage; and certainly until and unless City make a major promotion push, getting home tickets ought to be possible even given the reduced capacity. But the significance of it is clear, and was rammed home against Crawley. As he has done for many years, Ross spent the Saturday night at my place in Peckham. He won't be doing that again for a long, long time. And without the need to justify the already-outlaid spending on a season ticket, I quite possibly won't find myself booking the long winter journey to home games against mediocre opposition as often in the future. Even recently it's felt like lunacy sometimes and I think that this blog has become a way of ameliorating that.

I've had many moments in those dark, horrible, 2-0 home defeat, 23rd in the table train journeys where I've questioned the purpose of the trip; when I've sat alone on a cold night in some southeastern retail park backwater and wondered what it's all about. Why am I dragging myself to these painful encounters; why is so much of my income and leisure time going on watching football matches when there are football matches on TV and all over London, when I have options other than going to football matches at all? Why?

It's not even as though I'm the obsessive sort of fan, although I know people who'd snort derisively at that comment. I don't have to do the 92, I don't have to watch every Premier League game on Sky, it doesn't bother me that the Spanish title decider clashes with the Cup Final. So my journeys cannot realistically be in the pursuit of football, that strange 90 minutes of shouting and wrestling and occasional magnificence. There must be something else that keeps me going. I think it's the part of football that really is more than just a game. With a resounding capital F I am travelling for Football.

I am travelling because Football has, in the 24 years (to the day!) since I watched Manchester United and Crystal Palace contest the FA Cup final, become the major narrative of my life. That's not to say that it has been all-consuming – there's no programme collection, no set of ticket stubs – but it has become the bedrock upon which the rest of my life, school, university, work, falling in and out of love, friendships, nights out, days in – has been built. I haven't been in education for over a decade now but I still think of years that start and finish in late summer. Not school years. Football seasons.

1998 means Zidane and Ronaldo and Guivarc'h before it means anything else. 2008 is Xavi, Iniesta and Torres. 1994, true, has competition from Parklife and His 'n' Hers (a certain strand of indie music being the countervailing narrative) but it still means Baggio's penalty when it comes down to it. Now we're in another World Cup year and I'm sure that I'll look back at 2014 and remember this summer's heroes, Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi or whomever it is, before anything else springs to mind.

Partly this is because these events are always connected with the dates – France '98 is called France '98, none of my other memories from that summer are so denoted – but if you're reading this you will have a similar highlights reel for each year, I'm sure. Anyway it's not just the dates, it's the way that the brain can mix up memories based on what really mattered – your life – and what felt like it mattered – football – because the feelings at the time were exactly the same. I can't think of one breakup without remembering that the 7-1 defeat at Swansea coincided with it. Nor can I forget starting to fall in love again the night after Gary Johnson's first game, a 3-2 victory at Brentford.

(No, there wasn't much time between the two. Dirty stopout.)

And Football has brought me so much closer to so many friends because my narrative is also theirs; doubly so for fellow City fans but it goes for fans of Arsenal, Tottenham, Blackburn, Northwich Victoria or any team you could name. There's a lazy cliché about men together always talking about football, but take away the sexism and it's close to irresistible. You forge friendships, relationships, through common ground, and if two people have that same narrative then it makes perfect sense to share it.

But for Ross, Football won't be the main narrative any more. He'll be a father, and while the two will chug along nicely together (particularly given the expected date of birth of his child, which does make my point rather fabulously) he won't have the same time to invest in Football for a while. No more should he, of course. It's right that his priorities will shift. His awfully big adventure won't be next season's promotion battle but his first chance to nurture and inspire life.

As for this blog? Who knows. I'll be going to fewer games, sure, but I don't update every time I go to a game (you can have too much reflection, you know) and I've always tried to write about more than just football – I've tried to write about Football, what goes on around the game, principles, philosophies, bad jokes. That will all still exist in future. And it doesn't just happen at Bristol City. Perhaps going to fewer games will allow me to get up to Dulwich Hamlet from time to time; to go with my friends to Arsenal matches; to watch more of the big games in the Premier League that kick off when I'm normally arriving at Temple Meads these days.

And, just as I sometimes am now, I'll be to the left of other people in future. I know some great people through shared love of Football. Maybe their stories are worth telling as well.

I don't know what life To The Left of My Friends looks like. I do know I'm not going to change the name of the blog. And I'm sure I'll continue – an unexamined life not being worth living, and all that. I may not be to the left of Ross every week in future, but it's far too late for my narrative to change. I expect to continue exploring my relationship – everyone's relationship – with this mad, stupid game for as long it feels right.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

What of our future?

26 April 2014: Bristol City 0 Crewe Alexandra 0

I'd not looked forward to the opening day of the season with such anticipation in years; probably not since we responded to reaching the Championship playoff final by signing Nicky Maynard, and anyway the first game of the season that year was in Blackpool so I didn't go. The summer of 2013 saw phase one of a clearout of the older, more expensive players – or those we were able to clear out – and an influx of young, talented ones. Jordan Wynter, Frank Fielding, Derek Williams, Marlon Pack, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, all under the tutelage of Sean O'Driscoll. Relegation or no relegation it was an exciting concept.

And that first game, that 2-2 draw with Bradford, was encouraging in itself. OK, it wasn't a perfect performance; the first of those Frank Fielding moments that perhaps defined Phase 1 of the season took place, the keeper dashing madly out of his area and allowing Nakhi Wells to equalise in the first half. But it was an entertaining, attacking game of passing football, plenty of goals, and a real sense of a new beginning.

This weekend I went to another draw at Ashton Gate, and it was awful; very few attacks, neither goalkeeper massively stretched, a pathetic pitch celebration at the end, a simultaneous victory for Bristol Rovers, all against a poor Crewe side who may still go down. I can't, of course, criticise the team too much – our lack of vigour was surely borne from our status as mid-table survivors, and I'd hoped earlier in the season that Cotterill would bring the season to a humdrum end simply because it'd mean we weren't fighting a relegation battle. So in that sense I got what I wanted, but it wasn't much of a football match, and it wasn't a patch on that opening day 2-2.

But you can pick and choose selectively to prove anything, and everyone reading this knows that a hell of a lot happened between those two draws bookending the Ashton Gate season. We know what happened to that “project”, to use the footballing term, before winter had really set in.

Because the first third of the season was an attempt to do something for the long-term, an attempt sunk by poor results, only one of which came anywhere near the date at which the manager was removed.

That first third ranks as one of the most frustrating three-month spells of my life as a City fan, which is saying something. The consistent promising talk. The periods of games which would seem to live up to it. The periods of games which, yes, composed of sterile domination followed by a loss of nerve and a long ball to a short man. Those knocking-on-the-door 0-0s which looked like turning into 1-0s only for two great chances to come and go, and actually turned into 0-1s thanks to the outstretched foot of Aden Flint.

“Nearly” will always be the most disappointing, and perhaps the most damning, word in the football vernacular. Better to not compete than to lose in the 90th minute, perhaps, and we lost in the 90th minute a lot. We didn't take our chances, defenders made individual errors, things didn't quite click. But would you expect them to? A rebuilt team, half the wage bill on the treatment table or out of favour in the pockets of Pearson, Kilkenny, Fontaine, Marv. A side learning, a side chronically unable to get that bit of confidence that a win would have given them.

And then of course the infamous seven-game mini run, with its single defeat that was leapt on and picked over. It counted more because it had happened at home, one felt, a fine performance at Prenton Park seven days before unaccounted for. And more frustration now as, one good performance later, the die was cast. Frustration for those who thought they'd seen signs of things coming together, but would never, ever know.

Which took us into the second section of the season. The section that made you long for mere frustration, the section that was agony.

Steve Cotterill ripped it up and started again. And why not? He'd been given a different goal, the transfer window was evidence of that. In came experience, out went youth (a single start and plentiful sub appearances for Wes Burns not outweighing the sudden dearth of opportunities awarded to Bobby Reid and Joe Bryan), Steve: you have to keep us up and this time ain't doing it. Build another one.

And Cotterill's Survival Machine Phase I didn't work. No reason it should, it had been pulled together quickly enough from spare parts, made out of this and made out of that and whatever was at hand. But the early weeks of 2014, in particular, were painful, the defeat at Brentford probably the nadir – Parrish, El-Abd, Flint and Barnett will probably never be in the same City team again, and without writing them off too much, thank Christ.

Still learning about his players, players we largely knew better than he did, the manager didn't seem to get his formation right from week to week. In a rare spell of good fortune I saw both of our wins in that period – a 2-1 at home to Carlisle in a real pig of a game, and a 3-1 at Leyton Orient that was pleasant at the time, but was followed by two more poor performances and poor results leading up to that nadir at Brammall Lane. I am a man of an optimistic disposition, however I try and hide it: I walked out of that Sheffield United game telling my friend Rich not to be silly, of course we weren't going down. But earlier this year I was working out the route from Peckham to Dagenham (or is it Redbridge?).

And then. And then. Things started to click, and the final phase of the season turned into our most enjoyable in years.

It was The Redemption of Frank Fielding that night at London Road that did it for me. Peterborough's borne witness to both false dawns (the Sam Baldock-inspired 2-1 win last season) and indeed false sunsets (after a 3-0 defeat there the season before I was convinced we were fading out of the Championship. And a bit of me wondered if this wasn't another inaccurate omen; after all a backs-to-the-wall 10-man performance is something even the poorest sides can pull out of the bag once in a while. But it really did feel like a turning point, trailing into the cold Cambridgeshire air that night. It was a third win on the bounce and we were only to lose once more between then and now. It was the moment Steve Cotterill found himself playing the right defence. But more than that it was when we became a team again, not the hesitant collection of footballers of the autumn, nor the disparate group of near-strangers we'd seen that winter.

It was Bristol City. It was constructed of loanees, it was designed to float rather than to fly, but no matter – it was Bristol City and it was a joy to watch. How much of it runs out at Ashton Gate in August we'll have to see. But this spring it was a team, and it was ours.

A baffling season, with some of the strangest swings in quality and in apparent ability I can remember. And probably one we'll never be able to agree on.

To some, nothing happened bar the removal of a poor manager not getting results. To others – including me – an exciting concept prematurely dispensed with due to teething troubles. We'll never know what would have happened if the board had kept their nerve, or perhaps more accurately swallowed their apparent dislike of O'Driscoll the man.

I'm not getting into the SOD v Cotterill argument because we'll never have enough data, or I don't think we will. I was into the promise of the future that the Board and SOD sold, and I thought it was abandoned far too quickly. As the team developed experience, both in terms of playing more games together and in terms of being augmented by experienced additions, it became a better side – something that could quite easily have been predicted in September, and certainly came true in March.

But what future do we have now? The next few months will be important as we really ought to be preparing for a promotion race. The fans' expectations have been raised – Cotterill has shown he can get us performing to the level our wage bill indicates we should reach, and that will surely be a Top Six wage bill next season. But coming with that will be the increased expectation of fans who will, surely, no longer accept a 0-0 home draw with Swindon followed by the loss of a 2-0 lead at Colchester with such equanimity. Equally the manager will have to start talking less about the form table, a mathematical construct with no prizes attached, and more about the real table for which he will have complete responsibility.

In order to do that one assumes we will need to hold on to some of that external experience, or to similar sorts of player. You can make a case either way for Wade Elliott's signing – he's been excellent but he is, after all, 36 – but the improvement we've shown with him and Simon Gillett in the centre has been plain. The balancing act between doing this and continuing to develop younger players will be key, though; we're in League One in part because of a series of short-term decisions, and now we're safe we cannot neglect the long-term.

We may need to replace the goals, and the leadership from the front, of Sam Baldock, although the size of bid you'd assume we'd need to cover a) the remainder of his contract, b) transfer and signing-on fees for his replacement, and c) a bit of profit for the books is starting to make me think he might stay after all. (That said, if the right offer comes in we must accept it; we cannot find ourselves in a Maynard situation if it can be avoided.)

When Steve Cotterill came in I said I'd judge him after two years, and I'll stick with that – fans have to be as serious about the long-term as they expect the club to be. But this is an important moment because, for the second time this season, we've been shown a vision of the future that is attractive. It's the near future, rather than the medium-term, this time; but it's exciting, and it could be an enormous amount of fun. We'll know by Christmas whether we've arrived. But what we do in the next few months will have a lot to do with whether we get there, or whether we go down yet another Bristol City dead end and find ourselves starting over again in a year.

An odd conclusion to draw after this weekend's game, but: it's never boring, is it?

Saturday, 12 April 2014

What maketh a football club?

19 April 2014 18 April 2014 - Bristol City v Notts County

Running a football club must ultimately be a difficult business. With tens of thousands of fans, each of whom has different priorities, different levels of support and a different idea of the ideal football club in their mind, it's hard to unite every member of the fanbase over one clear, simple issue. But to give them credit, City's management succeeded in doing so this week. By moving the Notts County game forward by a day from next Saturday to Good Friday, they managed to bring every fan together in condemnation of an absurd decision.

It barely needs explaining why it was so appalling. Over Easter, when people tend to plan time away from work, to relax with friends and family, to enjoy the spring, the club's decision will have meant that many supporters will have to decide between dropping keenly-anticipated activities and supporting the team in a big game that could well seal the deal of City's survival. Not to mention those fans who will have long ago arranged cheap trains (and even flights!) to get them to Ashton Gate by Saturday afternoon. (Full disclosure: I am not one of those people this time. The game will be the last I miss all season, and was always planned as such.)

This was announced by means of a terse, unapologetic statement on the website, followed up a day or so later by the club's reasoning for doing so. The fact that this took a day makes it pretty clear that the club, somehow, hadn't expected fans to be outraged by the decision, as though saying it's “for football reasons” would be enough. The explanatory statement wasn't great either, easily interpretable as pinning the blame on the previous management team, who happened not to be in the building any more, since they hadn't requested a move of the fixture initially.

This won't do for a couple of reasons. The previous management team may well have been targeting points from home games, and seen an extra day's recovery time after this weekend's trip to Walsall as more significant than a lost day's preparation for the Stevenage game. That's their prerogative; we'll never know how that decision would have played out. The new management team have the prerogative to disagree, of course; but to be apparently unaware that the FA rules permitted a switch of dates until prompted to ask by another club, Sheffield United, changing their Easter Saturday game, is pretty lax, and it's tempting to suggest that once months in advance turned into nine days in advance the club should have gone ahead with the hand dealt.

While we can argue as much as we like about the rights and wrongs of this particular incident, the question of taking a perceived sporting advantage at the cost of significantly inconveniencing fans bears further thought. Ultimately the issue at stake here is what's more important for a football club; to pick up as many points as possible, or to maintain a good relationship with its supporters and the community in which it sits.

There's not a right answer here. By purchasing tickets, rather than expecting entrance to be provided for free, we accept that maintaining a competitive football club at this level comes at cost, that without requiring money in exchange for access the club couldn't exist. Volunteer players and Sport England funding won't, we realise, allow City to challenge for the playoffs next season.

But does this mean that the club is entitled to go to the other extreme, to charge whatever the market will bear for football tickets, to accept money to change its name, its colours, to close down the Community Trust and to kick off games late at night in order to hit peak time in Hong Kong? Is that OK? And at what extreme does it stop becoming OK, for you?

We've seen clubs that begin to push in that direction, such as our friends Cardiff City from over the bridge, get a certain level of success. Cardiff shrugged off the loss of a section of their fanbase on the basis that promotion to the Premier League would see those seats filled by new fans, there to see Rooney, Suarez and co, as much as to see the Bluebirds. The Redbirds. Whoever. Vincent Tan will think he's been successful, that he got his decision right – whatever he may now be thinking about his later decision to remove Malky Mackay – and there's no covenant a football club owner has to swear that stipulates the traditions by which they must be bound.

But this logic only works if you see the club and the fans as two distinct actors, rather than two parts of a weird gestalt entity. The less a person knows about football culture, the less I suspect they will appreciate this symbiotic bond – the thing that causes us to talk about how “we” did at Walsall today, even if “we” didn't play, didn't go, or even weren't in the country at final whistle. In order for football to be anything more than a combination corporate muscle/feats of skill demonstration – in order for it to avoid becoming Formula One, essentially – that emotional connection is vital (and the smart ones know that and exploit it to sell Sky Sports subscriptions, third kits and mousemats). It's not just a sense of affection, it's a sense of belonging.

Robert Peel, the man who codified what we understand as the modern police force, famously said that “the police are the public and the public are the police”. The truer we feel that is, the more we trust the police and, in theory, the better they should do their job. Every racial incident and dead newspaper vendor tests this, but policing by consent – essentially, we allow them to lock us up because we think that the consequences of not doing so would be worse – requires this bond to be seen to exist. Football support is the same really. The fans are the club, and the club are the fans. If they lose our trust they begin to seem like a separate entity, and no longer deserve our support. It's why the club's off-pitch actions matter, and why having a club that isn't just a three-points generating machine (fat chance, but still...) is important. We need, as far as possible, for the club to do right by the fans.

The Notts County mistake alone won't, of course, threaten that tension in the long term. Of course it won't – it's an isolated, stupid decision which I still trust we won't see repeated. But football clubs need to be careful, and need to consider the less quantifiable consequences of any decision they make that effects the fanbase.

For what shall it profit a club if it shall gain the whole world and lose its own soul? Or, put another way, if City get three points and nobody's there to see it, did it happen?

Or, if it's only seen on pay-per-view TV and by day-trippers from afar, when do we have to say that it simply isn't City any more?