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?

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Long way south

1 March 2014 - Bristol City 2 Gillingham 1

Farthest South is one of my favourite pages on Wikipedia. A lot of the Wiki-holes I fall down have started there, terminated there, or led me there apparently by chance. I tend to find polar exploration endlessly fascinating. The true stories of men (pretty much exclusively men, I'm afraid) from our past battling against an environment as far removed from their experience as the surface of the Moon is from ours today is the closest real-life equivalent I've found to the beloved science-fiction tales of my youth; and the way in which one can see every facet of a person cast against that bleak white ice makes for some of the most enthralling historical character studies you'll find.

Getting to the South Pole was an incremental process spanning centuries, each expedition besting the last by degrees of latitude, ranging from the ten degrees Captain Cook gained in 1773 to the half-degrees and fractional degrees that the focus narrowed to as explorers in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries closed in on 90°.

There's not much, really, that separates an expedition like James Ross' which gets to the edge of the Antarctic landmass from an expedition like Roald Amundsen's which makes history by reaching the South Pole. Not to the untrained eye, at least. If you saw two boats preparing at the same dock, the gear they'd be loading would like rather similar; furs, grease, dogs, sledges, Bibles, scientists, risqué postcards, and so on. But the differences would be there, those fractional anomalies marking one expedition out for success and the other for (relative) failure. It's the equivalent of what sportspeople, proper, Olympic-gold winning athletes, trainers and team managers, talk about as the 1% - those marginal gains that make all the difference. One set of provisions and equipment will get you to 88°23', which is a long old, cold old way, but it's not all the way. You need a (only very slightly) different set to 90°.

And I guess footballers must be like that too. Sure, we've got that trained eye to a degree, we can tell Iniesta's control from Elliott's; but to the non-fan there's no difference, they're two footballers. Frankly if Andrés and Marvin turned up to your local five-a-side kickabout they'd probably impress you roughly the same amount; Marvin might even have the edge if you principally wanted stories about Ivan Sproule.

All the difference here, as you and I well know, is in technical ability – and while the two seem sometimes to be worlds apart, there probably is only 1% between being able to manipulate a football to professional level, and to manipulate it at world-class level. While we do, of course, hear from time to time about players who didn't make it because their head is “not right” - a Michael Johnson or, frankly, a Jay Emmanuel-Thomas – by the time you've become a professional this cannot commonly be a deciding factor. We don't like to admit it sometimes but becoming a professional footballer is hard. It requires great discipline, great self-denial, the commitment and focus to carry on during your developing years when other temptations present themselves, the resilience to deal with knockdowns, get up and do it all again; all that Rudyard Kipling stuff. The process of getting to professional status is in many ways a process eliminating those who don't have that stuff. It's not perfect, sure, no process is; but you weigh those with the discipline it must continue to take in order to draw a paycheck from Rochdale, Alloa or FC Paris month-in month-out against those identifiable-by-name outliers with the talent but not the application, and the proportion who fall at the last hurdle looks fractional.

What I'm describing and saying is a given is that intangible thing which we like to call “passion”. By definition a professional footballer has that, just as a well-off scion of the British ruling class who decides to brave possible death and certain frostbite in the Antarctic has passion for his calling. Yet football fans are obsessed with it; in this country, at least. It's the thing which makes our boys different from everybody else – the passionate Brit vs the milquetoast foreigner with his diving and his technical ability. As though the sacrifices to be made to become Francesco Totti are lower than those necessary to become Smokin' Jack Wilshere.

The other thing we're painfully guilty of doing is conflating “passion” and “effort” with winning and losing. This weekend, you can be sure that City would have been criticised for “not wanting to win enough”, “not trying enough”, or “being pampered” had Simon Gillett's fabulous effort caught the outside of the post and bounces harmlessly out of play. Even if every other move in the game had been identical, our superstitious search for uncountable outside agencies would kick in. Just as when City played Tranmere the other week it was, on certain forums, unacceptable to describe the players as “tired”. They've got large cars you see, they don't work 40 hours weeks, so tiredness isn't acceptable. The scientific fact that a set of athletes exerting themselves for the second time in five days will always lag behind a similar set for endurance, technique and reaction time doesn't come into it. They shouldn't be tired; they should want it enough to overcome it, and their pay packet should somehow guarantee it. The unquantifiable triumphing over the factual.

(None of this of course absolves the manager from a) refusing to make subsitutions until very late in the previous game; b) naming an unchanged side; or c) failing to take advantage when presented with identically disadvantaged opposition at Bramall Lane the following weekend. But that's a side issue.)

It's handy to have something science can't account for in order to explain the outcome bias we all suffer from when it comes to football – the feeling that if a manager did something, and the team won, then it must by definition have been a good decision, rather than simply a rebalancing of risk and probability in what becomes a largely random environment. In the same way that arguments about football (this happens a lot on TV) often boil down the attempted refuting of statistical evidence based upon “the evidence of my own eyes”; a canard used by those who then mistakenly believe themselves to have won, rather than conceded, the debate. We all have eyes, but we also have brains riddled with confirmation bias to interpret our optical input. And it's helpful to invent a perceived gap – a mythical disjoint between one player's ability to “run through brick walls” - in order to smooth over the equivalent gap between reality and interpretation. “Desire” then moves from useful idiot to crucial lens through which the game must be seen. The cheer that goes up at the Gate every week for the player who loses the ball, but pursues his tackler twenty yards toward our goal to win it back at the cost of a throw, losing possession and territorial advantage but demonstrating desire, never fails to amuse me.

The 1% isn't desire. Apart from in the rarest of cases, that's a given. It's technique, ability, and crucially making the right decisions consistently that gets you success. Scott of the Antarctic had every ounce of desire you could possibly want, and by all accounts was a leader of men. Roald Amundsen was a colder, more obsessive character. But he had the sort of obsession that led to living with the Inuit to prepare for polar conditions; using dog-driven sleds to go above the ice rather than ponies to trudge through it; understanding how the food they ate and their customs allowed them to maintain a society in some of the most inhospitable conditions on the planet. That's the learning that allowed him to stock that boat in such a way that everything on board would take him to the South Pole.

Scott's passion got him damn close. But his British belief that “how it has been done” is “how it should be done”, and his conviction that our way was right and there was little to learn from others, saw him prepare that marginally different ship that was marginally unfit for purpose. Not totally wrong. But maybe 1% out. That crucial 1%.

I don't know what you want from football. Personally I'd like to see us win enough games to stay up. And I'd like to see us do that by having a bit more than the opposition on sufficient occasions. So I'll continue to be interested in what's quantifiable and measurable, understanding that in a one-off game, or even a dozen one-off games, cause and effect don't necessarily exist as two points on a nice clear line. What I won't do is waste my time shouting for a given.

We've all got the same Bibles on the boat. But faith alone won't get us to the Pole.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The tale of the Rich Merchant and the Six Architects

In the reign of Caliph Haroun Alrashid, or perhaps even later, there was a wealthy merchant in a city called Bagdad, or Balsora, or something of that kind. The merchant had become not by selling his own merchandise, but by advising all of the other merchants of the bazaar what to do with their gold; where to hide it, and how to spend it, and who would best look after it. And, as is often the fashion with men who advise wealthy men on how to spend their gold, he had plentiful gold himself.

Now this merchant had a home unbefitting newly acquired status; less a house than a mere shack, with rotten walls, unglazed windows, and an insubstantial roof which allowed in the rain. As a man of some substance, he would that his home was decorated to the same rich standard as his vestments, the caparison of his horse, and the cane with which he disported about the city. His home, he decided, must stand comparison with the finest homes in the country. He must be able to invite the visier Giafar there to dine without feeling shame for this reminder of his humble origins. So he cast about for a man who could transform his humble shack into a palace.

It happened that in a nearby town there was an architect of some repute who had taken a shack humbler even than the merchant's and had transformed it into a pagoda which made all the people of the town proud. But this town was humble, and stricken with great poverty. The merchant went to the town, and by offering more pieces of gold than the architect had ever seen, he persuaded him to return to the city and build him a palace. And this was the First Architect.

The First Architect knew that the job was too much for any man alone to contemplate, so he used a portion of the gold to acquire the services of a young man of the town as his assistant. And between them the First Architect and his assistant designed a palace which outstripped anything the First Architect had dreamt of creating. It had walls of stone, a flat roof of slate and cement, and four small minarets, one at each corner, which presented a beautiful aspect of the town. The First Architect presented this plan to the merchant, who saw that it was good, and handed the Architect all the gold he needed for the materials.

But, said the First Architect, I cannot turn this shack into this palace. It is not possible to build a palace like this by adding to the shack, piecemeal. I must first destroy the shack and clear the site before the palace can be built.

Of course, said the merchant, I understand; and he bought a tent, and slept in the tent for two whole years, while the Architect prepared him a great palace.

The merchant was most involved with the design of the palace, and he and the Architect spoke regularly; and often the Architect asked the merchant if he might have the honour of offering him hospitality, so as to relieve the merchant of the drudgery of sleeping beneath canvas. And the merchant was so humble as to accept. And so they became close friends.

Eventually, the palace was prepared, and the merchant was installed. He was pleased that the palace had been built, and built so quickly; and he held a great feast that night, and suffered the Architect and his assistant to attend, and to sit at table with the other merchants and wealthy folk of the town.

The merchant, all swollen with pride, asked the Architect if he had not truly built a palace equal even to that of the Caliph himself. It is true, said the Architect, that the palace I have built for you is very beautiful; but the Caliph lives in the finest palace in the nation, and sleeps in a bedroom whose curtains keep out all light but the light of the moon, that he may always dream the most beautiful dreams.

The merchant was covetous that he might dream like the Caliph himself, and demanded of the Architect that he order such curtains to be woven for him. Of course, said the Architect, I can have these curtains woven; but I will need the finest spun gossamer for this, and it will cost you ten thousand pieces of gold.

Although the merchant was uneasy that he should spend so great a sum on curtains for his bedroom, his desire to have the finest palace overtook him, and he ordered his slave that the Architect be given ten thousand pieces of gold, and ten thousand more to hire the finest weaver in the kingdom; and the Architect arranged for the curtains to be woven, and hung them himself later that month.

When the curtains had been placed across his window, the merchant saw that they did not keep lights other than that of the moon from his room; the lamps of the city could still plainly be seen. But he was desperate to believe that he lived in a state as fine as the Caliph, and he said nothing of this, rather asking the Architect whether now his palace was equal even unto that of the Caliph himself.

It is true, said the Architect, that your palace is fine; but of course the Caliph has no metalwork about his palace but gold, that he is not connected to the baser things of life; even the pipes and cisterns of the Caliph's palace are made of finest gold.

The merchant was covetous that he might be no less base than the Caliph himself, and demanded of the Architect that he order such plumbing to be installed for him. Of course, said the Architect, I can have this plumbing installed; but I will need freshly mined gold ingots for this, and it will cost you twenty thousand pieces of your own gold supply.

Although the merchant was uneasy that he should spend so great a sum on plumbing for his home, his desire to have the finest palace overtook him, and he ordered his slave that the Architect be given twenty thousand pieces of gold, and twenty thousand more to hire the finest plumber in the kingdom; and the Architect arranged for the pipes to be built, and oversaw their installation later that month.

When the plumbing had been laid beneath the boards of his floor, the merchant saw that they did not hold water as well as lead had; beneath his feet, and above his head, the paintwork darkened and began to spoil. But he was desperate to believe that he lived in a state as fine as the Caliph, and he said nothing of this, rather asking the Architect whether now his palace was equal even unto that of the Caliph himself.

It is true, said the Architect, that your palace is fine; but of course the Caliph has a fine harem, with a beautiful young slave girl for each day, that he may lie with another one every night for a whole year.

The merchant was covetous that he might be as well satisfied as the Caliph himself, and demanded of the Architect that he arrange for such an array of slave girls to live with him. Of course, said the Architect, I can have these slave girls brought to you; but I will need to barter with the chief slave-owner of the city, and it will cost you thirty thousand pieces of gold.

Although the merchant was uneasy that he should spend so great a sum on his own urges, his desire to have the finest palace overtook him, and he ordered his slave that the Architect be given thirty thousand pieces of gold, and thirty thousand more for diverse activities the Architect convinced him were essential; and the Architect arranged for the slave girls to be purchased, and brought them to the palace later that month.

When the slave girls had been brought into his harem, the merchant saw that not all of them were equally fair; and that they required bedding, and food, and entertainment, in order that they were minded to fulfil his desires. And he saw that the golden pipes were releasing such water that his ceilings were crumbling; and he knew that he could not sleep; and he understood that the more money the Architect had spent, the worse the results had been, and he brought the Architect to him and with great demonstrations of grief (for they were still close friends) he released the Architect.

I shall no longer give such sums of money to an architect who has never built such a palace before, vowed the merchant. I will entice an architect of great repute, who has built many fine palaces, and who I know can deliver me a home to rival that of the Caliph himself.

So the merchant went into the kingdom and saw the finest palaces in other cities. And he asked who had built them and, on being told, took a purse of gold and jewels from his treasury, and offered it to this architect that he might build him a palace of equal grandeur. And this was the Second Architect.

The Second Architect came to the merchant's home, and saw the harem that cost so much, and the golden pipes that leaked, and the curtains that did not allow the merchant to sleep, and he said, yes, I can make this palace more beautiful, but there is much work to do. I will need the First Architect's assistant and I will need time.

Of course, said the merchant. You may have his assistant and you may have time. But the first task I have for you is to make this palace beautiful. And he had a cart arrive from the jeweller's; and the cart contained sapphires, and diamonds, and garnets, and rubies, and a statue of the merchant himself made from finest gold, and told the Architect that his first task was to make the palace shine as the Caliph's did.

But, my lord, said the Architect, there is much to do before that in order that your palace is sound; for it drains your purse and it may collapse.

No, said the merchant; it must be beautiful, and it must shine like a million stars. I have purchased another home, away from the brigands and the Caliph's tax collectors, where I will live; this palace will be my second home and it must be decorated in the opulent fashion that I demand. This is what I pay you for; and if you do not fulfil the task then it is within my power to have you arrested and put to death.

Saying this, the merchant took the now unloaded cart and made for his new home.

The terrified Architect, with the help of his assistant, set to work. He was a fine Architect and knew that a palace which caused its master's money to be spent on a redundant harem, while water dripped down the walls, needed more than jewels; but in fear of his life he installed the statue, and began to emblazon the walls with jewels. Yet as he worked he felt the walls buckle under the weight of the fine jewels they had never been designed to bear; and he knew that the statue would spoil in the damp; and he became sure that he would be put to death whatever he did. So, in that first night, he fled the town and was never seen again.

His assistant awoke that morning to find that the palace was beginning to collapse upon itself. Having not personally been commissioned to install the jewellery, he went into the town and bought wood, and stone, and a mixture for cement, and began to set struts inside to prevent the collapse; and while these struts were not pleasing to the eye, they did keep the palace from collapsing. And so he became the Third Architect.

The Third Architect continued to repair the building for some time, but he had never designed a building alone but rather been a stalwart assistant, and without the merchant to guide him the palace became ugly, and less like the Caliph's palace than ever; together with which, he had no mind for figures, and the repairs he made to the ceiling were expensive, and he threw out the gossamer curtains for no financial return, and he allowed the harem to drain the treasury of the merchant.

And when the merchant returned from his other home to spend time in the city, he saw that his palace was less beautiful than ever, and that parts of it continued to decay, and that the statue of himself had become tarnished and spoilt. He did not credit the Third Architect for keeping the building standing, but cast him out of the city. And understanding that the greatest architects came from the Northern kingdoms, he made a pilgrimage North to find the next Architect, who could repair the damage and make his palace fit for entertaining rich and powerful men.

Arriving in the North, he asked the people who would be the finest architect for him. And each of them said, it should be this man, who is young, but already has a great reputation and will one day build the finest palace in the kingdom; you should see that he builds it for you. And the merchant met this man, and brought him back to the city, and made him the Fourth Architect.

He charged the Fourth Architect with repairing the damage his predecessors had made to the palace, and making it finer than ever; but he also told the Architect that the palace had become a drain on his treasury, and asked that the new palace be made so that it cost only one-twentieth as much to maintain. And with that he returned to his new home.

The Fourth Architect saw the damage that had been done by the ugly constructions of the Third Architect, and the unfinished follies of the Second Architect, and the expensive installations of the First Architect, and he quaked; but he was young, and he believed he could do as the merchant had instructed. So first he sent the slave women forth and disbanded the harem, to save the money spent every day on their upkeep. And he took the spoilt statue and he removed it to a far part of the town where none knew of the merchant, that it no longer be a centre-piece of the palace. And he removed the jewels from the unfinished walls. And he began to replace the golden pipes with iron pipes better suited to the transport of water.

But to remove the statue, and the pipes, and the jewels, meant tearing away the bricks and plaster of the palace. And the palace became cold, and let in rain, and insects began to make their homes in the exposed walls. The Fourth Architect knew that this need not be how the palace was forever. But when the merchant next returned from his other home to spend time in the city, he did not know that. He saw that his palace was less beautiful than ever; that there were no slave girls to pass the time with; that the walls had been stripped of jewels, and that gaping holes appeared in the walls. And he raged, and he sent the Fourth Architect back to the North, where he was welcomed by the people and began to build beautiful palaces once more.

The merchant decided that he would no longer employ young architects, as he blamed the Fourth Architect entirely for the state into which his palace had entered. And he took on the services of a more experienced architect, who looked at the crumbling palace and said, yes, this can be made good, and yes, you will never again have to give so much of your treasury away; I have done this before and I know how it must be done. But it will take time. Of course, said the merchant, I understand; and he returned to his new home, and this architect became the Fifth Architect.

At first, the Fifth Architect felt that by cementing the walls together, and turning the room which had held the harem to a new purpose, and plastering over the cracks in the foundations, the palace could be restored. But as he worked, it continued to collapse; and he would no sooner support one wall than another would sag to the ground; and he knew that it could not be done. He was too experienced to waste his time on this endeavour, and it was clear that the only palace this site could support would be a new one, built on fresh foundations with a single guiding intelligence behind it. So he employed local men to demolish the palace, and made a new plan for a beautiful palace that at last truly would rival that of the Caliph; and found that he could do it without depleting the treasury; and set to work upon the foundations.

And at this time the merchant returned to the city, and he was struck with horror to see what had become of the palace; and he called the Fifth Architect to him in a passion. You told me that you would build me another great palace, he raged, and yet I return to find that I am further from a palace than ever I was! You have failed more grievously than any other Architect, who at least built a home for me – now I must return to the tent which I felt sure I would never sleep in again. I dismiss you from my service, never return to this city.

And the Fifth Architect rolled up his plans and left the city.

And while the merchant began to put up his tent as though he were a beggar, he was approached by a cunning man from a nearby town; a man who had built homes for men of moderate income before, although he had never constructed a palace. I understand, said the cunning man, that you require a home upon that site? I have built homes before; and although, perhaps, that site could never support a palace, I am moved almost to tears to see a man like you, accustomed to finery, sleeping upon the earth because you have paid so many fraudulent architects. They have claimed that palaces can be built, but I say the home you have here must be limited by what is possible.

And, angry, tired and weary of spending money on the palace, the merchant employed this man as the Sixth Architect. And the Sixth Architect, who had not built a home for some years, constructed a shack – and it had rotten walls, and it had unglazed windows, and it had an insubstantial roof that let in the rain. And he said, my lord, move in here; for am I not the first to give you walls, and windows, and a roof. And the merchant accepted that the pragmatic Sixth Architect had at least provided him with a home in which he could live whilst in the city. And he moved in to the same shack that once had thought he had left behind; although he was older, and poorer, and apparently little the wiser for the experience.


And so we leave the merchant and his Sixth Architect. And as we move away we hear the Architect assuring the merchant that he can build him a palace on the site, if only he is given time – and ten thousand gold pieces for his expenses...

Monday, 27 January 2014

Plans

17 January 2014 - Bristol City 2 Milton Keynes Dons 2

City fans are a naturally divided bunch. Whether that's truer of us than the fans of any other given club, I couldn't tell you, but from Lee Johnson to Sean O'Driscoll the fanbase has never been short of subjects to disagree vehemently about.

Chief amongst those this season might well be the 'Five Pillars'.

The Five Pillars were announced towards the end of last season and represented the distillation of City's strategy; the five key principles which would be adhered to in order to build a sustainable club with a sound base. By prioritising Community Engagement, Academy and Youth Development, Player Recruitment & Talent Identification, Financial Prudence & Control, and Facilities, City would begin to take a genuinely long-term view. No more quick fixes, no more sticking plasters. Decisions made today would now be on the basis of the effect tomorrow. In turn, these Pillars ought to guarantee that there would be City fans in the future, that they would have home-grown players to support, that their club would no longer offer long contracts to declining players, that the club would not be vulnerable to administration or predatory owners, and that there would be a fit-for-purpose stadium together with good quality training facilities.

Personally (while I had a slight concern over nicking the way a major world religion expresses its tenets to talk about the strategy of a football club) I welcomed the articulation of a clear strategy. Some fans argued that this is simply codifying what all football clubs do as a matter of course, but I didn't buy that argument; while all football clubs presumably have some sort of community programme, academy, scouting network etc, there are also a number of other things football teams do: maximising commercial appeal, say, developing their profile away from their home city, and looking after long-term and older fans. City probably do all of these things too, but the point of the Five Pillars is that they comprise the things that can't be messed around with, that the club will stick to when choices have to be made and when push comes to shove.

For my sins, I spend a fair bit of my professional time analysing strategies, and the Pillars don';t feel too bad. They're relatively forward thinking and mark out the type of club we aspire to be – a Swansea or a Southampton rather than a Cardiff or a Hull. The very fact that I can say “these are clubs that seem to do this sort of thing, these are ones that don't” I think proves the point that the pillars aren't just best practice – they're a more important statement of intent. They're clear enough to be comprehensible and thorough enough that everything we do should contribute to them.

Thing is, though, it seems that they're also transient. There's been a lot of talk about this recently, and there's no doubt for me that the spirit and letter of our “Player Recruitment and Talent Identification” pillar has been moved away from, for the time being at least. The wording of this pillar, in part, is:

Revealed by the club’s majority shareholder Steve Lansdown in January, the club has taken a major change in direction with regards to its policy on recruitment.

The club aims to sign players aged 24 and under more often than not, with older recruits becoming an exception, rather than the norm.”

In Steve Cotterill's first transfer window we've signed two players permanently – Karleigh Osbourne, 25, and Adam El-Abd, 29. Both are defenders. We signed two defenders in the summer, too – Aden Flint, 24, and Derrick Williams, 20. This is a pretty clear shift. All are most comfortable at centre-back so with the best will in the world they can't all play regularly. And entirely reasonably the new boss is likely to prefer his own players.

A lot of people have been prepared to accept this on the basis that we've not been doing very well of late, and the long-term plan has to be put on hold while we sort out the short-term. I can understand this argument, but it speaks to some fairly terrible strategic thinking at Board level if we do indeed have a strategy that we can only adhere to when we're winning games.

The point of a strategy is that your short-term tactics, whatever they may be, need to measure up to it. If a strategy is so poorly defined that under certain circumstances it's impossible to stay with, then frankly it's pretty ill-thought-through. Anybody developing a strategy needs to know what the risks, short-, medium- and long-term are, and they need to know how those risks are mitigated in line with the strategic aims, the pillars.

Having a bad start to the season was always a possibility given the level of turnover in the summer. It's ridiculous to say it wasn't; so many new players in a division that's infamously tricky always made that a chance. And as well as being reasonably likely, such an eventuality would have a significant impact on the club. For that reason it should have been one of the main risks the club foresaw, and they should have had a decent plan available for dealing with it. Clearly they didn't – the action we got was divergent from the strategy, which means one of two things. Either the response was wrong, or the strategy was.

I don't think the strategy was wrong, at least not that part of it. I think that bringing in predominantly younger players is a very, very sensible policy, and one has to accept that losing games due to to mistakes, or not being able to control matches as we might prefer, is the only way a club like ours can thrive in the long term. Doing the opposite is what got us here. I can understand the word “exception”, but if there was latitude to make exceptions in January then there ought to have been latitude to permanently sign an exceptional, experienced centre-back in August (O'Driscoll's loan market activity makes it quite clear to me that he knew the squad was missing one). A change of policy here makes the entire thing meaningless. If your strategy's right, you don't change it in response to events; you respond to events in line with the strategy.

Cotterill and the board have obviously agreed to change it. The problem is that the only guarantee here is that young players don't develop if they don't get played. And while we've seen a fair bit of Williams I'd be surprised if he keeps his place – even more surprised if he and Flint both play when we're at full strength. There's no guarantee, however, that Adam El-Abd is the man who'll keep us up. Clearly having an experienced Championship level centre-back improves your chances. But it doesn't, can't, guarantee anything.

Cotterill's brief seems to be different to O'Driscoll's – he's been told to keep us up then worry about improving the team, rather than doing the two at once. But focusing on the short-term hasn't yet paid dividends – his first seven games in charge have produced precisely as many points as O'Driscoll's final seven, with the only difference between two surprisingly similar records being that we've conceded one goal more under Cotterill. This isn't to have a go at the new boss, who's done much right since arriving. It's to point out that there are no guarantees in this business – our form, which had been steadily improving until O'Driscoll was removed, has plateau'd. Given the counteracting effects of a new manager bounce (positive) and a lack of continuity (negative), you might have expected something roughly along these lines. But plateauing won't do if we're to stay up. We need to get our form improving again, just as it did in November and December.

Cotterill's lack of strategic restrictions mean, perhaps, that he has more cards to play when it comes to keeping us up. But if we do go down now, we go down in worse shape than if we'd done so after a season of bringing through young players and developing a style. Given that we can't know what would have happened had we kept O'Driscoll it seems an odd gamble to take. We've not learned the lessons of the past, we risk reaping the consequences of abandoning the strategy because, frankly, we don't seem to have realised why one was a good idea in the first place.

Funnily enough I think Steve Cotterill just might be good enough to keep us up. And he'll have done well if he does. But if so, we need the board to recognise that long-term planning isn't only for times of plenty. Football is a constant gamble, with too many factors in play to guarantee anything over a game, a month, or half a season even. Like any gambler a good football club needs always to minimise its losses. And in my view City have been guilty of failing to do that.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Entertain me

29 December 2013 - Bristol City 4 Stevenage 1
4 January 2014 - Bristol City 1 Watford 1


What a strange feeling I had leaving Ashton Gate on Saturday. A new and unusual one: fun. Pure, uncomplicated pleasure. Not something I'm used to feeling washing over me after a day spent in the cold and the rain in BS3.

Mad, really, isn't it? I spend £400 every summer on a season ticket. I spend £30-£50 on rail fares for every game I go to; half that again on overpriced First Great Western food and drink; and perhaps most costly I give up 20 or so of my precious Saturdays every year. And I do it for something that I rarely enjoy. What was striking was the genuine sense of novelty provoked in my by feeling that I'd enjoyed my day's leisure.

Everyone knows how painful it's been to go to Ashton Gate for the last couple of years, but this isn't really about that. Because I've also come away from the stadium feeling triumph, elation, or even out-and-out joy. (Honest I have, albeit not much in recent years.) And each of those moments has been worth the financial outlay above times several, which is good as it's the only basis on which I can justify it – that what I'm paying is the mean value of a fervour which may hit me only once in ten visits, but when it does is worth ten times what that particular trip cost.

It's unusual therefore to simply feel that I've paid the right amount for a good afternoon's entertainment. But that was Saturday. With the pressure already released by value of a) no league points being up for grabs, and b) being the underdogs by a division-and-a-bit, this didn't ever feel like a day that was likely to be upsetting. For that matter, we took the opportunity of the FA Cup to sit in different seats, breaking another unconscious link between this game and the numbing routine of League One.

For all these reasons it didn't matter that we didn't win. Sure, it would have been nice to do so, but what we did was just fine. We matched a side who aren't just in a higher division, but who made a habit of finishing above us even when we were in the same division. We equalised 60 seconds after going behind, which was lovely. We played good football, produced a fair few portents of continued league success, and yeah – we entertained a crowd who were there to be entertained, to support their team and to enjoy the day. It was terrific, and the fact that it set up a replay a short train journey from Euston (and therefore another game I can go to) was an extra bonus.

It was actually a lot more fun than the previous weekend's game. Then, we'd beaten a relegation rival 4-1, our greatest margin of victory for well over a year, we'd pulled closer to safety and we'd completed the taking of six points from two games about which everyone said we damn well needed to take six points. That was great – winning important games is a terrific feeling, winning them well best of all. But for pure entertainment? The Watford game beats it hands down.

Partly that's because matching Watford blow for blow is a hell of a lot more satisfying than matching Stevenage; we were made to play better football in order to compete, and we did. Partly it's because 4-1 was, perhaps, a flattering scoreline, two quick goals followed by both sides conceding possession startlingly cheaply, a lot of rocky defensive moments so that the bottom side's consolation goal came as no surprise, but all of this hidden by the decisive, matchwinning, potentially season-saving finishing of our front two. But I think that a key factor is the lack of tension. Every time you arrive for a game (particularly if you support Bristol City, I concede) you're thinking about what a win will do for you, and where a defeat will leave you. The crowd follow goals going in elsewhere and get swept away with rumour, speculation and bullshit.

And goals are the release of all that tension. They're not just something we applaud because we like to see them, they're something we can't help but wildly cheer because that's when the levy breaks. That's the moment of “thank Christ, maybe not today after all”. They're a mini-death row pardon in a spectator experience that really is normally execution by a thousand defensive errors.

OK, it's fair to say that by 3-0 most of the tension had drained from our crowd, but I'd say not before – the third goal was great because at that point I wasn't convinced that Stevenage weren't about to score. And nobody wants a 2-0 lead to start slipping. We've seen what happens then too often. So it wasn't until the end that we could really relax and enjoy ourselves, and inevitably at that point our very poor opponents helped themselves to a goal. City can't, it seems, stop being City.

It's obviously terrific fun having tension released like that (cheeky) – indeed there are, tragically, one or two tension-releasing goals which I can remember as clearly and with as much joy as nearly anything else in my life – but I'm not convinced it's entirely good for you. I've never pretended to be a cardiac specialist, but something tells me that voluntarily placing oneself in a situation of slightly scared anticipation interspersed with random adrenalin shots isn't how those recovering from heart attacks are advised to recuperate. That said, crushing despair week after week obviously isn't ideal either. So, short of not watching football at all (plainly not on the agenda), or just watching football in which one is neutral (perhaps worse) having a game that you can treat as entertainment, a valid option like the theatre or a gig, once in a while is – in the original sense of the term – a tonic.

And I'd like more of this tonic, please. I'm fed up of every game mattering so much. Since the mid-table seasons, the ones that eventually did for Gary Johnson when he looked treasonably more like finishing 15th than 9th, it's been relegation battle after relegation battle. Before that it was two promotion fights immediately following a relegation fight. Frankly it's too much. You don't want football to lose all meaning, but surely, surely, at some point you're supposed to enjoy yourself?

The season after Johnson left, Steve Coppell came in, destablised the club, left after two games and asked Keith Millen to pick up the pieces, which Keith did admirably. He kept us up with a few games to spare, and I vividly remember going to the final game of the season. We beat somebody (memory says Preston?) 3-0. I remember Jamal Campbell-Ryce grabbing the last one. It was meaningless, and after all that heartache it was great.

Steve Cotterill may after all have been dealt a decent hand. The squad's a transfer window or two away from being perfect, but he has an opportunity that managers who take over sides in the relegation zone rarely have. He doesn't have a lost, despondent, directionless group of players. He's got a well-drilled one with some rough diamonds and a little quality. A side who have been improving all season, particularly since November – momentum which, to his credit, he's maintained and developed. He's been able to skip that standard attritional thing new managers do. We were already getting harder to beat. This is not a lost cause at all. All the work done to this squad could yet pay off, and that good second half of the season I predicted way back in July may well transpire.


There's a chance – just a chance – that we might enjoy more matches than just this one. And who knows? Next season, if we're really lucky, we might do so well that we don't enjoy any at all.

Monday, 25 November 2013

When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed

23 November 2013 - Bristol City 0 Sheffield United 1

I understand – really, I do. I was there. It wasn't a great deal of fun. Sheffield United are a bad side, we couldn't break them down, we ran out of ideas and we gave them the goal that beat us. I've had better Saturdays at Ashton Gate, although I couldn't name too many of them in recent history.

But still. Aren't we better than this? Can't we do something better, as ten thousand souls who (after all) want the damn team to win, than purse our lips and come out with that all-pervasive, awful

“BOOOOOOO”?

I'm trying not to be unreasonable or holier-than-thou. I don't think that it's wrong or inappropriate in every context; at the end of our defeat to Leicester in January, for instance, it felt like the only reasonable response. But like so much in football these days, the more people do it and hear it, the more they want to do it at other times, when it's not just inappropriate but harmful.

I didn't see any lack of application on Saturday. I saw a lack of technique, a lack of ability, and most of all a lack of composure. But the team worked hard, were perhaps unlucky not to claim a clean sheet, were almost certainly unlucky to be denied a late equaliser, and were absolutely not second-best on the balance of play. While I'm not arguing that being no worse than a team like this Sheffield United is particularly laudable, it's not a dreadful disgrace either.

Nevertheless, particularly at 0-1, I heard a lot of booing. I heard players booed for miscontrolling the ball and conceding possession. This makes little sense; effectively, players are abused for not being any better than they are. We're in League One, we have a team of players who aren't highly valued at levels above us. Are our players likely to have the immaculate, consistent touch of Ajax's 1973 midfield? Or are they going to be a mixture of the inconsistent (Scott Wagstaff, Nicky Shorey) and those who make up what they inherently lack in technique in other areas (Marvin Elliott, Aden Flint)? Yelling at players for failing to be Andres Iniesta isn't even self-defeating; it's just weird. It's not as though we're an ex-Premier League side fallen on hard times and struggling to come to terms with our new surroundings. When wasn't watching City like this?

And then there's the booing for not doing what the crowd want you to. I got very angry when Derrick Williams, presented with few options in terms of midfield movement and decent passes, moved the ball back to the goalkeeper and was barracked and booed for doing so. I got angry to the point of shouting “can we not fucking boo 21-year-olds?” at nobody in particular.

You could make the case that the crowd wasn't booing Williams for his perceived failure to “get it FORWARD!”, but the entire team for not providing him with options. That'd be much more reasonable, but would suffer from the microscopic flaw of being bollocks. The boos didn't come while Williams considered his options and the other 10 players stood still and stared at him. They came when he made a reasonable decision and executed it competently. Even if the boos had been aimed at the whole team (though they definitely weren't) it's a blunt instrument, you can't differentiate. There's no room for special pleading on the grounds of lost nuance in the arena of the boo.

This kind of thing is bad news for all sorts of reasons. Many of us will have sat in uncomfortable seats behind the goal in unfamiliar stadiums listening to a home crowd booing their players and thought, “good”. Thought “we're winning”. When the crowd turn on their players you know you've got them. And if you feel that as a fan, it must be all the clearer when you're one of those being booed. It must sap your spirit, just as it raises the spirits of the man in the different coloured shirt who's trying to beat you. 0-1 down at home on a cold day in November, with 10 minutes to go – not the moment to experience a shift in confidence away from you and toward your opponent. But I'm sure the crowd made that happen.

It also can't encourage the players to do the right thing. O'Driscoll talks about getting them to think about their decisions, do what's right not what's easy, and he's absolutely correct to do so. But the more pressure one feels to make a decision, the more one can hurry it, and the more one is tempted either to do the easy thing or to pass the buck entirely. To play the five-yard pass you know you can make, not the twelve-yard one you may not be able to, even though the first won't advance play and the second might. Or to give someone else the ball and make it their problem, even if they're double marked or in a worse position. (The perfect storm here comes when a player is moaned and groaned at for being unable to control, under pressure, a ball fired at them by a team-mate who is refusing to be the one who tries to solve the problem.) And in games like this weekend's, when we're suffering from a lack of composure, extra pressure from the stands will exacerbate, rather than solve, one of our most pressing issues.

What frustrates me is how obvious all of this sounds to me, sitting here writing it. Of course booing during a match, booing players who are learning, working hard and giving all their ability will allow them, is a destructive thing. It's self-evident. But that just brings me round to the question “so why do people do it”? As I said at the beginning, I understand how frustrating that game was. I hated those last 20 minutes. But surely we're not animals bound to stimulus-response behaviour? Is it impossible for the football fan to experience an emotion and not act immediately, without their higher brain functions getting involved? What's it for?

I don't have an answer. I suppose that, as is so often when the question “why act in that stupid, counter-productive way?” is posed, alcohol may have something to do with it. I wonder whether we regress a bit at football, whether the adrenalin and the shouting and the men, the omnipresent men, push us into some atavistic, combative mode where rational thought would be a disadvantage. But I've been bored at enough football games to suspect that this isn't, in fact, the case.

Ultimately it's a selfish act. It's saying “it's more important that you hear what I personally think than that our chances of winning are improved”. It's irrational, it's lunatic, and it's frustratingly stupid. Perhaps it comes from a sense of disenfranchisement, of not being listened to in everyday life, of taking the only possible opportunity to express yourself to people whose actions matter to you.

Large groups of people acting collectively against their best interests appears to happen on only two occasions – football matches, and whenever Conservatives win elections. It's the disenfranchisement that does it on the latter occasion as well. So maybe there is something in it.

But it still makes me want to dash my brains out in disbelief when it happens. I'd quite like City to win whenever they play. For that to happen, the environment needs to be as favourable as possible. And for that to happen they need positive reinforcement not negativity. Like Alan Partridge, they need two positives.

We've got another home game tomorrow. So please, if we give the ball away trying to do the right thing, if our young players make callow errors, if we go a goal or two down against a good side, and if you really can't bring yourself to offer encouragement when it's most needed, then take the advice you'd give fans of the other team.


Sit down. And shut up.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Cognitive dissonance and the football fan

2 November 2013 - Bristol City 1 Oldham Athletic 1

Are you a football hipster?

The odds have to be pretty good here.  You’re voluntarily using your spare time to read a tiny blog about the experience of being a fan of a third-tier Football League side.  It’s quite niche.  It’s cultish.  It’s a long way from arguing about whether Van Persie ought to celebrate.  Just being here means you must be a bit of a hipster.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, or you’re not sure whether you are or not, you can (sort of) scientifically find out here, by using this excellent Guardian quiz.  (I am, by the way, A Bit of a Hipster, but I think I’d have done better if it weren’t for the fact that I already own that Dortmund shirt).   It’s a fun quiz – witty, clever and interesting, I liked it a lot. 

But one of the things I found most interesting about it was question three, the one about what you watch on TV.  The first two possible answers are “Manchester United v Milan on ITV1” and “Athletic Bilbao v Shakhtar Donetsk on Sky Sports Red Button”.  It’s clear what the implication is – yer true connoisseur of off-the-beaten-track football is far keener to watch the encounter between the men from San Mamés and the team of Dario Srna, Eduardo and Bernard than the game between boring old United and the dwindling power that is AC Milan.

What I found most noteworthy, though, is the identity of the TV Channels in particular.  The ITV of butt of a thousand jokes Adrian “Toby jug of warm piss” Chiles, the deranged Keane and the appalling Townsend.  And the Sky Sports of the great Gary Neville, the affable Stelling and the “legend” that is Chris Kamara.

Or the free-to-air ITV and millionaire behemoth Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports, depending on how you look at it.

You see, I think there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance happening here.  Because one often finds that the people most knowledgeable about obscure football, most in love with the game beyond the endless United/Chelsea/Barcelona/Real Madrid axis, are the ones who are most vocally Against Modern Football.  While accepting that all-seater stadia have done a lot to make the game more accessible, they bemoan the demise of the relatively egalitarian football world of the past, where the game belonged to the local community, Anderlecht could reach the European Cup final, and the world’s greatest players were unknown geniuses appearing out of the mist once every four years for a World Cup.  They are often, in short, Against Modern Football.

As far as I can see, to be Against Modern Football means to be against the extreme haves-and-have-nots-based market economy that football has become.  Nobody denies that some clubs have always been wealthier and more successful than others.  It didn’t take the establishment of the Champions League to ensure that Arsenal’s roll of honour dwarfs Shrewsbury’s.  But it’s undeniable that the last 20 years or so have seen the vastly expanded sums of money in football roll disproportionately towards the “establishment” (or at least the version of it which happened to exist in the early ‘90s and was then set in aspic) and away from the smaller clubs.  The TV deals, the sponsorships – you know the stuff.  But it starts with the TV deals.  It starts, effectively, with Sky Sports.

Sky Sports created modern football. Indeed, they didn’t just create it – they sustain it.  And with every subscription taken out they become more powerful.  Yet there’s rarely any sense that they themselves are a bad thing. Cause and effect aren’t always linked, sure, but it’s odd for cause to be celebrated whilst effect is bemoaned.  Listen to the Guardian’s podcast – you’ll hear forty minutes of complaints about the state of things followed by an enthusiastic list of games available that weekend on Sky or BT.

Ah, BT – the channel that hired Baker and Kelly, Richardson and Honigstein, dressed itself brilliantly in the clothes of the savvy, intelligent fan and then, just as it was established, threw more money than ever at the big clubs of UEFA, whilst taking away from the fan who can’t afford to pay for more TV at home, or whose parents can ‘t be persuaded, the guaranteed Tuesday night Champions League treat.  You have to admire their business acumen, even if you can’t admire the result.  The attempt to stop Sky having a monopoly has just increased the cost to the fan who does want to watch everything, and therefore the cash tipping into the pockets of the biggest clubs.  Who saw that coming, eh?

You win this round, capitalism.

This stuff matters not just because intellectual dishonesty is a bad thing.  I’m not really mad at the football hipsters.  Shock reveal: I am one.  And I watch the Champions League like everyone else.  I’ll go to the pub if Dortmund v Real isn’t on free-to-air, but I’ll watch it.

It matters because I support Bristol City.  And there’s a good chance you support Bristol City.  If you don’t, I’d like to think you support one of the 85 or so English league sides who missed out on the golden tickets, although statistically you probably don’t, you probably do support one of the lucky few.

There are enough closed shops in British life.  Very little social mobility.  The rich get richer, the poor get shat on.  You die in the class you were born.  When John sodding Major makes the point that this is a problem, you know it’s a hell of a problem.

It’s depressing seeing football, still ultimately two villages kicking a pig’s bladder at one another, come to this. And while it’s perhaps inevitable (why should football be unlike basically any other aspect of modern times) that doesn’t mean just taking it.

Ultimately, while I’d love to sit at home and watch that Bilbao – Shakhtar game (it does sound very good) I’m not going to consciously prop up the edifice that sustains those at the top by feeding on those at the bottom.  That’s no exaggeration – read about the way clubs get remunerated for losing their best kids nowadays.

And while I’m not naïve enough to think that anything I do or say, ever, can particularly change the status quo, I do wonder whether we have enough football hipsters, and enough Bristol City fans, to at least knock a few bits of masonry off kilter.  Otherwise, ultimately, we accept that we’re sacrificing the spirit of the game purely because we want to watch more of it, in comfort and convenience.

Hipsters.  Bristol City fans.  Shall we start with not subscribing to BT Sport and to Sky?


And then shall we work from there?