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


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?

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Reflections on Soccernomics

 Saturday September 21 – Swindon Town 3 Bristol City 2

“To pass, or to stop the other team from passing, you also need to know exactly where to be.  The average player only has the ball for two minutes every game, so his main job is to occupy the right positions for the other 88 minutes.”
(Kuper, Simon and Stefan Szymanski, Soccernomics, p403 if it bothers you)

 Yep – I’ve been a-reading.  I’ve finally got around to picking up Soccernomics and reading the whole damn thing, largely on the journey from London to Swindon, and then back from Bristol the following day after an evening’s pleasant Pro Evo.

And quite simply: if you’re reading this, you should read Soccernomics, too.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you’ve at least a passing interest both in football, and in the Sean O’Driscoll model currently sputtering into life at Bristol City.  This feels like a good time to be writing this, actually – after two away performances, including what’s currently last night’s dignified elimination from the League Cup at the hands of Southampton, which have seen City play well without taking anything, it’s worth looking at what doing the right things long-term actually means for a team.

That’s precisely what Soccernomics does.  Written by a football writer and a statistician, it looks not at isolated incidents but at long-term trends (and therefore I was predisposed to enjoy it, given my little rant about sample sizes last time out).  There’s a section on penalty kicks, for instance, which doesn’t promise to turn the lay reader into an expert taker or scorer of penalties, but crunches the numbers to demonstrate what method gives you the best chance of scoring a penalty – and therefore, over time, what might help the professional score 85% rather than 80% of those penalty kicks.  Small margins, but if the penalty that sways those stats is in the 90th minute of a playoff final, highly relevant ones.

What stood out was that every long-term trend associated with failure reminded me of what City used to do, of the club that we were before Derek McInnes came in (yep, sorry – using that name with positive connotations – if I’ve not lost you now, I’m delighted).  And every long-term success reminded me of what we’re doing now.  The section on how best to get value out of the transfer market is a great example.  From Kuper and Szymanski’s 12 main secrets of the market I found the following interesting:

1 – A new manager wastes money on transfers – don’t let him (compare Steve Coppell’s transfer market splurge, on players he would only work with for two games, on O’Driscoll’s “if this vision outlasts me then so be it” approach to working with Keith Burt’s signings)
2 – Use the wisdom of crowds (Gary Johnson the benign dictator, whose chief scout was his brother, vs the clear Burt/O’Driscoll/Lansdown/Pemberton? committee)
3 – Stars of recent World Cups or European Championships are overvalued; ignore them (or Slovakian players who’ve played well against Aston Villa on ITV recently?)
9 – Sell any player when another club offers more than he is worth (the difference between cashing in on Steven Davies and hanging on to Marvin Elliott after his one great season)
11 – Buy players with personal problems, then help them deal with their problems (worked for McInnes when signing Jody Morris at St Johnstone, didn’t work when he brought him here. These aren’t guarantees – it’s about chance and value, not copper-bottomed sure things.  The principle is nevertheless right.)

But most of all:

5 – Older players are overvalued / 8 The best time to buy a player is when he is in his early twenties

That one does rather put the tin lid on it for me.  How different our transfer policy feels to the days when we put out David Clarkson, Peter Styvar and Patrick Agyemang and considered it an acceptable attack.  Isn’t it great to see us playing a team as young as the one we’ve been playing recently – yes, we’ve got Marv, as well as Nicky Shorey and Marlon Harewood, but they’re players Sean was lumbered with, or free transfers, or loans, to help the likes of Aden Flint, Marlon Pack, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and co perform to their full potential.

And that will take time, of course.  You learn the game by playing it – those 10,000 hours of practice everyone talks about are vital for technical development, but young players will learn how to spend those 88 minutes when they aren’t in possession by finding out for themselves what works and what doesn’t.  By definition, if you have to master a skill, you aren’t consistently able to demonstrate it yet.  We’re seeing errors, we’re seeing them lead to goals and yep, it’s frustrating.  We’re seeing players like Bobby Reid and Emmanuel-Thomas, blessed for skill at this level, spending large amounts of time in the wrong position and only coming to life when they get the ball.  It’s the City paradox at the moment – their individual moments are getting us into games, but the collective lack of experience is probably losing them.  Several times at the County Ground this weekend I saw Emmanuel-Thomas beg for the ball whilst clearly looking along the line in an offside position.  That’s what we need to get right to win games – get him thinking properly, whilst not losing the side of his game that means scoring wonderful goals is second nature to him, and we’ll kick on.

I don’t believe we’re far off that kicking-on moment now, by the way.  Other than the Peterborough game, our league defeats have been by a single goal.  Games that turn on single goals could normally have been drawn, or even gone the other way, quite easily.  Even the 3-0 loss to Peterborough turned on an Emmanuel-Thomas miss at 1-0, followed moments later by Britt Assombalonga’s fantastic strike.  It’s also a reason to stick with O’Driscoll – our good results coming in the Cup feels like a statistical fluke more than anything.  We’ll revert to the mean soon with or without him, I’d say, and we’re far more likely to keep doing those scientifically sensible things with the rational Black Country man in charge.

Please do read Soccernomics – it really helped me rationalise why a lot of things that City are doing which feel right actually are right.  It’ll challenge you, no matter what you think about football – its conclusions about the lack of excitement in an unpredictable league, and the fickleness of large swathes of football crowds, cut against what I believed, and were the sections I read most closely for all that.  It’s also got an excellent section on the Ashton Gate 8 – and how many other Waterstones bestsellers have one of those?

Let’s stay rationa, as much as we can at least, and genuinely give ourselves a chance.

Sunday, 15 September 2013


14 September 2013 - Bristol City 0 Peterborough United 3

Six games into the league season we met Peterborough.  Mid-September had us at different ends of the league, but hey; early days.  At any rate, three goals were scored, two by the in-form big money signing up top.  The away team left happy – nice to win again after two winless matches, it put them back on track – and even the events around Lee Tomlin’s penalty were forgotten.  A meaningless incident in the grand scheme of things.

That was a year ago, by the way, when Sam Baldock scored two at London Road to give us our third league win of the season.  Game six, that was.   A few days later we went to Watford and got a really impressive 2-2 draw.  We were set fair for a very decent season indeed.

Remember last season?  You probably still can; you might try to forget it, but I bet you can.  Like me, last season probably makes you think of defensive errors, dreadful capitulations and a horrible, cold, empty feeling at 4.45 every Saturday.

But six games in it wasn’t feeling like that at all.  A month or so earlier, we’d scored eight goals in four days to win two matches against teams who are now playing Premier League football.  Our new  
striker had hit four in as many games.  OK, we were doing as badly as we always had done in the Cups (knocked out by Gillingham in the League Cup’s first round) but otherwise there was a hell of a lot to be positive about.  Ross stayed with me in London after the Watford game; I distinctly remember him saying, later that evening “we’d have to go on a terrible run now to be in trouble again”.

I assume you know the rest.

The point is – a year ago we had what felt like a strong start, which was all the more encouraging on the back of the escape we’d pulled off the previous spring in order to stay in the division.  It turned out to be deceptive and we got relegated dead last after a season which contrived to throw low point after low point at us.  (For me the lowest point was angrily eating Baklava at a souk-themed wedding the day we lost 2-1 at Wolves – I mixed up port and red wine and things got a bit unpleasant.  No doubt you have your own mildly embarrassing memory.  I hope it demonstrates that you, too, can lose perspective entirely.)

This season’s start hasn’t been very good (in the league anyway – in another odd little reversal of last season, we’re doing well in the Cups, having started with a positive result against Gillingham).  It’s made more difficult because the fanbase is so disaffected due to relegation.  And it’s been crystallised by receiving our first sound beating of the season, our early defeats having been a freak 5-4 and a 2-1 against a side still receiving parachute payments.  3-0 against is always nasty, even if the performance wasn’t so much awful as flat, against a team well equipped to punish us for not being on our game.

I wonder whether anybody is, or should be, surprised by this happening.  We were expecting this young team to get the odd bad result, particularly early on.  We were expecting Peterborough to be a strong side (weren’t we? I certainly was).  Yet here we are, with the fanbase up in arms about a defeat.  It was unpleasant to be at, but come on.  Back to the lack of perspective.  Two months ago we all said that, as a club, we’d need to be patient.  An odd sort of patience, this; “yes, I’ll be patient, as long as I get what I want within no more than six weeks”.  I do sometimes wonder what my fellow fans were like on Christmas Eve.

And of course we’re only six league games in (with our form over the nine games we have in fact played rather more encouraging – you can’t pick and choose whether your better results come in league or Cup).  It’s dangerous to extrapolate anything from six games.  The sample size, in a season where most sides will play 50 at least, is pretty unscientific.  Waiting for 46 league games to be played would be a good start; if that’s genuinely not possible, 15 games is a third of the season and that starts to make sense as a benchmark.  But 6?  That’s what we call patience now?

I suppose it’s better than 1.  There’ve been a lot of debuts this weekend, and a lot of rushes to judgement based upon 90 minutes of playing time.  Christian Eriksen “can have a team built around him”.  Gareth Bale “can play alongside Ronaldo”.  Mesut Özil “has made a difference”.  Perhaps all of these things will be true.  But it’s ludicrously early to claim that they already are.  Football culture appears to be about immediate rushes to judgement based upon a tiny sample size.  That’s why Aaron Ramsey is now, for a reasonable swathe of Arsenal fans, definitely better than Jack Wilshere.  That’s why Roy Hodgson (whose England team have more goals per game than any England side since Walter Winterbottom) is under heavy criticism for being dull after producing a single flawed performance against Ukraine.  Getting a better result there than Capello did seems unimportant; a selective memory is a corollary of this cherry-picking.

It’s at the level of the national team that this sort of thing stands out most, I think.  Performance over time will always be a better indicator of future performance than performance in individual games.  Over time, England have reached a single major final – the same number as Sweden, Denmark, Greece or Hungary, and fewer than Uruguay, the Czechs and Russia.  Yet because we managed to win the single one-off final game we played, it’s a rare fan who will acknowledge that these teams are our international peers, rather than multiple finalists like France, Italy and the Netherlands.

City fans and England fans are both disappointed at the moment.  Failure to meet expectations feels like a common thread.  But you do wonder how often fans test their expectations with any rigour.  I know football is a passionate thing – this is what I wrote about last time.  I know losing is horrible, losing a couple of times worse.  But let’s wait until we’ve got something worth being upset about.  We know from recent experience what that’s like.  A bit of patience, a bit of perspective, and maybe a bit of sangfroid wouldn’t hurt anybody, right now.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Summer leaves fall from summer trees

The start of the 2013/14 season, including 3 August 2013 - Bristol City 2 Bradford City 2

Outside, it’s like the final lines of Pulp’s wonderful “David’s Last Summer”: And as we walked home we could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees / And the birds deciding where to go for winter / And the whole sound / The whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.  Summer’s finished, I think; this year I’d have said that Saturday 7 September was the final day, and Sunday 8 the first of autumn.

It’s a beautiful time of year.  Brown leaves in gutters doubling in number every three days.  Each day shorter than the last, not enough to notice day by day but certainly enough to notice week by week.  The smell of smoke on the air; sap, too, and that tang you get in the nostrils when they search for heat that isn’t there any more – apart from fleetingly on the back of the hand in the right light on one of your final evenings outside a pub, shivering and pretending you aren’t.

It’s also utterly, utterly perfect football weather.  Long shadows at quarter to five, the floodlights starting to come on in the second half, that first time you see your breath in front of you while you’re standing in the away end.  I can’t eat a pie during a summertime football match.  They’re revolting.  But give me a cold autumn day when I’ve underdressed slightly and that whitehot combination of steaming balti and stodgy crust becomes utterly essential.  Particularly at Vicarage Road, I find, not that I’ll be able to partake there for another year at least.

I’ve managed to miss almost all of the summer football this year.  Since the first game of the season I’ve not seen City kick a ball live, not even on Sky – pre-booked tickets for The Book of Mormon meant I even missed the derby, and my various August travels to Norway, Denmark, End of the Road festival and so on had the effect both of leaving me stony broke, and of cutting me off from football behind a kind of strange, semi-permeable membrane.

It’s odd.  Everyone’s got the internet on their phones these days, everyone’s got a device small enough to carry around with them, everywhere’s got Wi-Fi (and everywhere in Scandinavia doubly so).  So I’ve always been able to find out the scores pretty close to full time (12 hours afterwards at End of the Road being the longest gap – waiting half a day only to find out that we’ve drawn 1-1 at Gillingham whilst in a festival Portaloo isn’t a bad definition of pathos), watch the goals, all of that.  But it doesn’t feel real.  Over the last month or so I’ve felt entirely disconnected from football, and that at an interesting, formative stage of the season (because it’ll turn into a hell of a slog from here on in).  And that’s because I’ve been experiencing it in something approaching isolation.  It hasn’t been fulfilling the usual role for me of something which creates a common ground.  People I speak to either know a great deal less about City than I do, or a great deal more about what’s going on.  Watching Match of the Day on returning to England was a strange experience, like watching one of those Simon Pegg movies where the same actors he usually works with all turn up in different outfits.  “Ah, so Stewart Downing’s in this one too, is he, as The Hammer!  They didn’t mention that in the reviews.  Nice touch.”

Missing out on all but one of City’s opening to the season – which thanks to international postponements now has a self-contained feel, a prelude with three blank pages to turn before beginning Chapter One – has been odd as I’ve had so little visceral feel for it.  Every goal since Rory McArdle’s in front of the East End has been experienced post-facto, the confirmation of something I found out second-hand, through statistics, rather than first-hand.  Which has left me nonplussed about the very odd start we’ve had.

So we’ve played eight games so far.  Won three.  Drawn three.  Lost two.  That doesn’t sound so bad, fairly steady start for a newly relegated side.  Unbeaten in four at the moment.  That’s good.  Those four games included a first victory in 19 years against top-flight opposition, and a win in the Bristol derby?  Well then that’s excellent.

Yet we’re 20th in the division, the only positive about which is that I’d thought we’d be lower by now after the weekend’s postponement of glamour Shrewsbury tie.  We haven’t won a league game.  We’ve got Peterborough, having a mini-slump but amongst the strongest teams in the division, this weekend.  I’m there; I may well fail once again to see us win.

But it’s disappointingly hard to get that worked up about it when you don’t watch.  I’m reminded of my University days, cut off not only from the live games but from the Bristolian matchday buzz.  The appetite fades as the body learns to survive on what it’s getting – the occasional Match of the Day Cup appearance, odd game over Christmas and Auto Windscreens Final in Cardiff.  They weren’t immensely exciting days to be a fan, in all honesty, as we followed relegation by bobbing corklike around the top half of the division, but I certainly lost a lot of mojo for the club then and it’s disconcerting to realise how easy it is for that to happen.

I’m unbothered that we’re 20th, and I can’t work out whether that’s a perfectly levelheaded stance to take given that we’ve played five matches in the league, have a young squad, and have had three games against teams who have either just won 4-0 or would immediately go on to win 4-0, or it’s an apathy which has taken hold terrifyingly quickly.

Either way I don’t like it.  I want the buzz back.  I want to go to the game this weekend and really love it.  I barely know what the view from this season’s new, improved mid-Dolman seat is like, I’ve only experienced it for 90 minutes.  I’m already analysing City the way I analyse other football teams I don’t watch live.  See the outbreak of my inner Statto in the paragraph above.  Yes, it’s true, but it’s not really the point, and it’s certainly not how I’d have summed those games up if I’d been to more of them.

Going cold turkey has made me realise that, for all that I like football, I bloody love City.  I’m a geeky, analytical guy as it is, and I’ll never turn that off.  But augmenting it with something that makes me shout, cry, kick things, hug strangers, take absurdly long train journeys and sing along to songs that, on any musicological level, aren’t really very good – that’s the stuff of life.  That’s why we go, isn’t it?  That’s why I go.  Because you can read anything through stats.  But you can prove anything that way, too.  And I want things in my life that can’t be quantified.  That can’t be explained.  That just are.

Nobody’s ever succeeded in quantifying this passion, this thing that draws us back.  I hope they never do.  I want my unprovable, unendurable, unimprovable City.

Friday, 12 April 2013

A fate worse than...

1 April 2013 - Bristol City 1 Sheffield Wednesday 1

There’s almost no question about it – we’re down.  It’s all over bar the shouting, the fireworks, and the fat lady singing.  At least we know now, we don’t have to live out the slow dawning of the facts.  Each individual fan can take what he or she can from the final round of Championship games for at least a year, and then we’ve a summer off football to recuperate.  We already know that.

And yes it’s our first relegation in a long time, and yes it’s horrible.  This hasn’t been an enjoyable season in any way.  So much hope, dashed so quickly, so cruelly, and so bloody regularly.

But.  While what’s happening is both nasty and brutish, we should bear in mind that it’s short.  Next season we’ll still be City, still down the Gate, maybe winning a few more games at home – but basically life will carry on.  We’ll be playing football in a different league, sure; but we’ll be playing football, same as ever, hopefully towards the top of the third tier (one of our natural homes) as opposed to the bottom of the second tier (the other one).

I’m reconciled to this.  I won’t say I don’t care but it could be worse. It really could.  We’re playing in the lower tier, but there are some teams in a dreadful state compared with us.  You don’t get to choose in football – but if you did I’d rather be City than any of them.

I’d rather be City than Portsmouth, crashing down through the leagues like a fat elephant in a condemned building, victims of the mad dream-chasing that’s been football since 1992.  I’d rather be City than Leeds, swinging madly from one unfit and improper owner to another, a shadow of their former selves and a feeder club for Norwich.  I’d rather be City than Blackburn – of course – the worst of the worst in the boardroom as well as a disgrace on the pitch.  Halfway down the balance sheet of thoughtless, ponytailed millionaire trash whose antics have turned the club on itself, fans tearing their beloved side apart as they incoherently scream in anger for what’s gone.

I’d rather be City than QPR – throwing money away on overpaid, average players, changing manager when you could still smell summer in the air, blowing their relegation rivals out of the water financially in January, and look at them.  Still likely to go down, playing badly, with a time bomb of a wage bill and a struggle on their hands.  A manager not known for his appetite for a fight and the opprobrium of a division upon them.  Everyone hates teams who spend too much money, but often  those teams win things.  Becoming one of those sides but failing to achieve any success whatsoever must be the worst of all possible worlds.

I’d rather be City than Sunderland, staring relegation in the face and managed by a far-right nutjob whose appointment revealed just how morally bankrupt – and strategically inept – your club is.  I’d rather go down with O’Driscoll than stay up with Di Canio, even.  I want my club to mean something more than three points at the weekend and a replica shirt with a nickname.  I want to believe in it.

Thing is, these clubs are all easy – they’re disgracefully run and they’re going down.  But it is about belief, meaning, and value more than it’s about success.  So you know what?  I’d rather be City than Cardiff. I’d rather be the 24th out of 24 than 1st out of 24, if the price of being 1st is *every* *single* *thing* that’s important to me.  Cardiff are like Theseus' ship – every part replaced until a new ship stands where the old one did.  The perfect crime, sneaking a new football club in where the old one used to stand without anybody noticing.  Until the shell’s cracked and falls away, and everyone realises that they’ve been conned – that an entirely new club has been installed in the Premier League with the trappings of the old.  The sporting heist of the century.  A vast, bastard cuckoo baby, mindlessly fed by its tiny parents, donning red scarves and whooping for the visit of Man United while the interloper grows fat.    Cardiff mean nothing now, once our rivals, now a meaningless invention.  Making MK Dons look like Blackburn Olympic.  No heritage, no history, no value.  Nothing.  Club X, top of the Championship.  I’d rather be a real club dropping out of it.  Never doubt it.

The only club I’m jealous of in the league is Swansea.  The only club I’m jealous of anywhere, actually.  There are other clubs I respect, admire, or appreciate.  But it wouldn’t make sense for a Bristol City fan to be jealous of Borussia Dortmund, Ajax or Athletic Bilbao.  They exist in a different world, they’re not a club we can look at and say “that could be us”.  Swansea are.  Swansea used to be below us, then we were contemporaries, then they shot on – not by spending unfathomable sums, but through nous, strategy and level-headedness.  There’s no reason why the team who won the Carling Cup, who’ll be showcasing some of the best football in Europe in Europe, who are managed by a (very likeable) legend of the game – no reason that team couldn’t have been us.  For that matter it could have been Huddersfield, Doncaster, Tranmere, or any of our old League One playmates.  Swansea showed the entire Football League that there’s a way, a really good way, to do it.

And clubs have taken notice.  Brighton, for my money, look the most like Swansea II in the division.  Watford do a bit, too; although they’ve taken a different route, the emphasis on youth, flair, sustainability and realism is similar to what’s happening in South Wales.  Swansea’s rivals, Cardiff, have ignored the Swansea lesson and gone the good old unsustainable dream-chasing way with extra contempt for the paying public thrown in.  The South Wales derby next season will be the most slavishly covered in  generations, but I wonder how many media outlets will focus on the real story – the almost total clash of ideals the game represents.

Is this naive, outdated, empty sentimentalism?  Is thinking that football can mean something as relevant to 21st century football as an old Roy of the Rovers back-up strip, Hot Shot Hamish and Mighty Mouse vs Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil?  Is modern football’s victory as comprehensive as you’d back the Bernabeu pairing’s to be in my imaginary match-up?

Surely not.  Because what is football, when all’s said and done?  A group of people playing a game.  A kickabout.  A final score.  It’s empty, it’s inherently pointless – a bit of athletic activity and then two numbers at the end.

What’s important is everything else.  Everything that’s connected.  The stadium within the city.  The walk there, the pint, the pie.   The company; this blog is “to the left of Ross” not “quite a long way away from Cole Skuse”.  The group memory, unbroken since the 19th century.  The nostalgia, the joy, the despair, the narrative.  Everything that isn’t about kicking a football.

This isn’t a Hovis advert; Sky Sports get this more than anyone else.  Why else do they invest so much in paraphernalia, in flash and bang, in narrative, in shouting?  Football only has a meaning in context; we only understand it by the shape it creates in our lives.  When all your life's scoreboards are counted, the left-hand column and the right-hand column probably add up to about the same thing.  The results themselves, an exercise in futility.  The meaning you’ve taken from it, that’s what you’ll take to your grave.

So yeah.  The division doesn’t matter.  The result doesn’t matter.  Being City matters.  Being plugged into the indefinable essence of Bristol City, being part of that group and not having it taken away.  Relegation is just a kink in the fabric.  It’s the pattern that’s important.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Jogging on shale

 9 March 2013 - Bristol City 2 Middlesbrough 0

Something a bit different this week.  I was going to write a standard blog, but like many City fans at present, my mind is filled with permutations, with considerations of other teams’ results and with the vexed question of when we can stop running to stand still and start running to move somewhere.  Also, I’ve just watched the finale of Dexter series 4 and frankly haven’t much of my mind left for creativity just now.

Everyone watch Dexter.  It’s bloody amazing.

Anyway.  This week, a bit of maths to give me a sense – just a sense – of how the final Championship table might look.  And a few specious conclusions drawn from it.

Basically, I wondered how far our current form might take us. It’s vaguely encouraging – we’re closing the points gap between ourselves and the thin dotted line above us slowly but steadily – but my concern is that time will run out before we can turn it from the present -2 points to 2 or 3 points, and safety.  All the teams around us are giving a solid impression of being on equivalent form.  The teams above, Wolves aside, seem to just about resist being dragged in.  And we keep jogging on shale, unable to make a purchase.

So what I’ve done, purely as an experiment, is see where the teams from 11th down – ie those 9 points and below ahead of us, who one might reasonably consider to be in some danger of relegation – can expect to finish if they perform as well over their remaining 9 (say) games as they did over the 9 before.  I’ve taken the current points total, added to it the points gained over the last x amount of games (where x is the number of games remaining for that team) and worked out how a league table on that basis might look.

So we have:

BURNLEY             Points 48 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 6 Total 54
CHARLTON          Points 47 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 8 Total 55
BLACKPOOL        Points 46 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 12 Total 58
BIRMINGHAM     Points 46 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 15 Total 61
DERBY                   Points 45 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 7 Total 52
BLACKBURN       Points 45 Games remaining 10 Pts from last 10 9 Total 54
MILLWALL           Points 44 Games remaining 11 Pts from last 11 7 Total 51
HUDDERSFIELD Points 44 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 11 Total 55
SHEFF WED         Points 43 Games remaining 10 Pts from last 10 18 Total 61
IPSWICH              Points 43 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 11 Total 54
BARNSLEY           Points 41 Games remaining 10 Pts from last 10 20 Total 61
PETERBORO’      Points 39 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 13 Total 52
WOLVES               Points 39 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 6 Total 45
BRISTOL CITY      Points 39 Games remaining 9 Pts from last 9 14 Total 53

Final table:

11= Birmingham                              61 points
11= Sheffield Wednesday              61 points
11= Barnsley                                    61 points
14. Blackpool                                   58 points
15= Charlton Athletic                       55 points
15= Huddersfield Town                    55 points
17= Burnley                                       54 points
17= Blackburn Rovers                     54 points
17= Ipswich Town                             54 points
20. Bristol City                                  53 points
21= Derby County                            52 points
21= Peterborough United                52 points
23. Millwall                                         51 points
24. Wolverhampton W                      45 points

So.  What have we learnt?

A few things, I reckon.  Bear in mind that this isn’t science, despite using counting and adding.  I’m not saying that these are the final places.  Form will change – Kenny Jackett’s a good manager who may well use Millwall’s Wembley boost to improve their form, whereas conversely Blackpool might not get that many points as the Bloomfield Road surface deteriorates.  There's not a "joint 21st", but frankly I thought that including goal difference would be a shade tenuous even for me.  And I’ve not run this through the BBC Predictor to check whether it’s possible.  But chances are, the final table will look a little like this.

If it is, it would mean that the record high number of points for survival may well need to be equalled, but it won’t be an absurdly large figure that teams are aiming for.  That’s good news for City – our last nine games contained 5 home and 4 away, with those figures being reversed for the run-in, so 53 points (pretty narrow anyway) might be pushing it a little.  It would be nice to think we’re not aiming for 56 or 57.

It’s quite possible that anyone from Blackpool, at 14th, down could be within 3 points of the drop on the final day.   Since that includes Burnley, currently 11th in the real world, and given that my top 3 may well not in fact hit the heights of their recent form between now and May, I think that it’s “case proven” in terms of including all those teams in the relegation fight.  And I hadn’t realised how awful the run some of them are on is – Derby will want to pull this round pretty quicky, for instance.  Their young players were excellent at Ashton Gate earlier in the season.  But as Aston Villa are finding, a relegation battle (and Derby might soon be in one) is a tough place for an inexperienced squad.

Maybe Derby will be fine.  But if they do win some games, who will the wins come against?  Ipswich?  Blackburn?  Barnsley?  Peterborough?  Us?  It’s becoming the sort of scramble where it will only be possible to escape by pushing somebody else back down.  That’s not bad news for us, already down at the bottom.

But I’m clutching at straws a little.  Even our fine form, extrapolated until May, only saw us survive by a point in this experiment.  One rogue result could change that.  A significantly worse run would surely relegate us.  And given the closeness of the race, we’re unlikely to have pressure-free opposition late on.  Hull will presumably be going for a top-two spot when we play them a fortnight from the end of the season.  It’s hard to see Huddersfield already being more than six points clear when we meet a week later.  And the Valley will be a tough place to go on final day if Powell’s Addicks still need something from the game.

It’s not science.  That won’t be the final table.  It mightn’t be a million miles away though.  It’s going to be tough.  For everything O’Driscoll’s done, it might be unsuccessful.  But blimey, look at City above the line there.  That’s something to cling on to.  We’re bottom of the table.  It might very well get worse at the weekend.  But surely the likelihood that this one will go all the way is something positive to take at this stage.