VAR / Referee / Solution

VAR has come to The World Cup – which is an event staged to attempt to distract Bradford City supporters from their lack of a manager, which is failing – and it is all not as it seems.

Bradford City’s own Ryan McGowan was furious when VAR was used to The French looked needlessly poor in this match. The lack of pressing in this post-Klopp world was odd. team he had a half decent chance of being in while Iceland seemed to get away with a foul against Argentina largely because there was something amusing about Iceland getting away with a foul against Argentina.

Both tackles seemed to be penalties – if you watched the footage at a speed other than the speed in which it happened, and deliberately pretended that a 2D image can replace a 3D one at giving depth perception, and then squinted – but VAR was deployed for one and not the other and so one was and one was not.

If this seems to you, dear reader, to be business as usual that is because it is. Referees have – for the entirety of football – been giving decisions on the basis of what they may or may not have seen and while VAR gives them some more sight in which to give those decisions it does not change the nature of a refereeing decision, in that it is a decision.

Technology

A digression on technology in football. We – the supporters of the game – were promised for decades that VAR would solve the problem of wrong decisions in football and obviously it will not.

This contrasts with Goal Line Technology which does a single job well and highlights the problems that technology should be used to solve in football. The factual – the discussion of what has happened – is subject to technology while interpretation is not.

A system which gives accurate GPS positions of players and the ball would be excellent at telling a referee if a player is in an offside position but that would not make that player offside.

Technology in football is best used in that context.

Decision

Decision by referees are judgements made, hopefully, in as unbiased a fashion as possible and it may be worth recognising that. The opaque thing in Refereeing is not that a decision was made – one can see that – but the reasons for that decision.

The consensus from Football’s authorities from top to bottom is that Referees are infallible. This has led to a contortion of the laws of the game – and the interpretation of those laws – around the idea that the Referee is never wrong they are just perceiving a judgement you did not. Charlie Wyke’s frequent withdrawn sending offs for Bradford City always come with a side of some official insisting that the decision was accurate even when it is repelled.

The solution to this problem would seem to be simple. The Referee submits a report on the game he has been in charge of – this happens at most levels if not all – and those reports are kept by the authorities. It seems to be a merciful gift to officials to make those reports both more verbose and public.

More verbose in that one has to believe that in the case of Iceland vs Argentina the Referee may be of a mind to write about the missed penalty decision that he did not see a foul during the incident, nor did VAR, nor did the linesmen or other officials.

Public because find the reasons for a Referee’s actions might highlight to supporters the judgements involved, even if those judgements are wrong.

Because judgement calls are never going to get any better than they are now. Technology can tell us if the ball went in but everything else is interpretation of events and good Referees are the ones which interpret events correctly.

Which is the key skill in Refereeing. A Referee needs to know the laws of the game and apply them to the action they have seen which is an act of interpreting the abstract of the law into the practical of the game. To be a good Referee is to be able to do this and, as evidenced by years of watching Referees, this is not the trait selected for.

Broadening and opening up Referee’s reports to the public would highlight this, and make everyone in football better able to know the good Referees from the poor ones rather than wasting time and effort discussing technologies which can never address the main concerns.

The alternatives to how Premier League football runs the game

How could it be any other way?

The Thierry Henry campaign to launch the return of the Premier League on Sky Television was predictably a hit. A video showing the Frenchman wandering through moments in the last 23 years of football history like some kind of Gallic Forrest Gump has been watched millions of times.

And right now there are sponsorship deals being made which will see logos for betting companies or pay-day lenders – or airlines and insurers – emblazoned on shirts.

Soon football will be returning from a Summer break that hardly seems to have happened. Which is wonderful.

Because we all love football. I know I do, but I know I do not love all football, and increasingly I recognise that there is a lot about football that I do not like at all.

It’s all about the money, Dick

This is not the prelude to a moan about money in football. I have no problem with a player earning the salaries they do.

In the most general terms the money in football comes from footballer supporters subscribing to the game through season tickets and television rights, from a pie at the game to a pint in a beach bar under the omnipresent sight of Premier League football on a screen suspended from a rattan roof.

Most of the money which comes into football goes out to players. This is often the source of consternation but it is probably not the case that if as money did not go to players it would result in cheaper shirts and lower admission. It would go to Directors and Owners.

I enjoy watching players play, I don’t enjoy watching Directors direct nor spend their dividend payments. If I had the choice of how money flows through a club, if I have a choice between Players and Directors, it would flow with the players.

Encapsulated in that choice is the perception problem we have with our football. We set the game in the tone of excess. What to do with the massive amounts of money that the game generates?

What are the ethics of a £100m transfer fee? Or a player who earns £1m a week? Should clubs use money to reduce admission prices? Who should be allowed to own a club? Should the owners of a club be allowed to relocate the club to another City? Should they be allowed to rename or recolour a club? Or to fund club to success at the expense of other clubs who have not been given huge financial injections? Or to strip out assets as someone might do with any other business?

These are the debates in football over the last few years, and they will be the debates we have for the few years to come. These debates are all framed around one central theme: the massive amounts of money generated by football, and what should be done with it.

Dead Irish Writers

Standing on the roof of Croke Park and looking out to Dublin Bay you can see Howth Head. It is the spot where Leopold Bloom asks wife Molly to marry him as recalled in her soliloquy which closes Joyce’s Ulysses.

The roof of Croke Park is a horse-shoe shape leaving one end uncovered. It seats 73,500 people which along with the 8,800 on the terrace create the third largest stadium in Europe.

It is a towering structure and one which is used almost exclusively for Gaelic Games and specifically Gaelic Football and Hurling.

The Gaelic Games are amateur sports. When more than 82,000 people go to Croke Park – and they do – they go to watch players who do not get paid anything more than expenses to play for the county of their birth. The teams in the Gaelic Games are regional and there is no transferring between them. Of course you can find example of players who get paid in some way, and who have managed to find a way to switch clubs, because abuses exist in every system, but standing looking over the expanse of Croke Park the contrast to the oncoming rush of Premier League football is stark.

And it is stark in this way. We have been told – as football supporters – that there is only one way that a sport can operate and it is the way of the Premier League.

Since the launch of the Premier League in the early 1990s all football has been mutated around it, becoming focused on what is more or less the same approach to a game at every club.

There is a circular model which operates at every club which is about trying to achieve as a high placed league finish in order to generate money through sponsorship and advertising which is put into trying to achieve a high league finish.

Its is important to make a distinction between this model and trying to win a league. Newcastle United are our model in this analysis. They aim to finish as high as they can but know that that will not be able to win the Premier League. The aim is to maintain position.

The method is to recruit a team from all over the world without any specific connection to the team or the area it plays in, or the people who support it. That team is paid for by advertising almost anything that can be advertised. There is no ethical, or interest, test employed other than the commercial one.

Barcelona – a team who said that no sponsor would dirty the shirt – accepted one in order to compete in UEFA’s world as defined by Financial Fair Play. The rules that football is played under demand that income is maximised by any means. That is the way that football is.

There is little which is not sacrificed in pursuit of the circular model. Cardiff City change the colour of the team’s shirt, Hull City try to change the name. Manchester City seem to have been prepared to change everything about the club other than those two things. Newcastle United will change the name of the stadium, West Ham United will change the stadium, Coventry City will sell the stadium. All in order to turn the wheel faster on the circular model.

Which makes sense if the circular model is the only model – the only way to run a football club – but is it?

FC Romania v Sporting Bengal United

FC Romania play in the Essex Senior League and have a place in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round this month. They are a team set up to give a place where Romanian community can play football together. Sporting Bengal United who were formed to encourage more London Asians to play the game and play in the same league.

FC United of Manchester have opened a community stadium. AFC Wimbledon seemingly exist to show that community football is viable.

To greater and lesser extents these clubs operate away from the circular model in that they have priorities other than success be that financial success or success on the field. AFC Wimbledon, for example, could make more money to spend on the team should be agree to the many attempts to create a kind of WWE style Smackdown rivalry with MK Dons but they prefer to stay quiet and dignified.

These have things which they consider more important than being successful, and which they would maintain at the cost of success. They would rather be “a thing” than be successful in the way that football measures success.

They create their own terms for success which are tightly weaved into their clubs.

Hill 16

Hill 16 is the standing area not covered by the Croke Park roof. “Why isn’t the stadium finished?” asked a tourist, “That’s sacred ground.” replied the tour guide.

On 21st November 1920 the stadium was the scene of a massacre by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Thirteen supporters and one of the players were killed by gunfire described as indiscriminate. It was a reprisal attack on a day which is known as Bloody Sunday.

Hill 16 is set as the location of the attack and as such is the focal point for the mood of defiance that surrounds the Gaelic Games. That defiance is not just nationalistic (if it is nationalistic at all) it is also anti-establishment, or at least anti-corporate.

Recently Dublin has had to contend with the news that the Irish FA, smarting from being knocked out of the World Cup by a Thierry Henry handball, were paid and accepted hush money. The Henry advert for Sky is probably not as popular in Dublin. Football and Rugby Union are popular and are part of Global sporting movements.

It is not hard to see how the Gaelic Games stands apart from that. In the bowels of the massive stadium is a small museum dedicated to the history of the games, and of what the games represent in Irish independence, which talks of a community pride and tradition.

Again the contrast to the “whole new ball game” of the Premier League is marked.

Hill 16 stands as a part of that tradition. To continue the roof of Croke Park around would be to intrude on what is sacred ground to some. It would also be to miss the point of what Croke Park is and how it is a focus of a feeling that is at the heart of the Games played there.

Hill 16 is not sold as a part of the brand of Gaelic Football. It is intrinsic to that game itself.

Reading, writing and arithmetic

I go back in my mind to that week when Bradford City played three distant away games in six days culminating in one of the biggest games in the club’s history, an FA Cup Quarter Final.

The heavy legs, the weary players, and the sense of unfairness that had come from what was the luck of the draw of fixtures on one hand, and the fixed nature of the replay date because of the demands of Television and European Champions League football.

Had I been watching that game as a neutral I would have wondered how it could be that such a handicap would be applied to one of the teams. Alan Greene said as much during his Five Live coverage of the game.

The answer is as depressing as it is predictable. The money which fuels the circular model comes from the same sources that have created the environment where that game was considered to be an acceptable part of a top level football competition in this country.

And that poises obvious questions as to who decisions are being made for in football, and made by.

The Duke

At Bradford City we have enjoyed and endured a narrative over decades which (in some contexts) sets the club apart. In the Fire of 1985 we have out Hill 16, conceptually at least, and there is a sense of priorities which does differ from other clubs.

On most occasions those priorities are folded into the fabric of the wider game seamlessly enough. When it clashes such as in the Diadora advert for example a kind of reparation is made quickly and everyone moves on.

There are serious people who have reservations about how clubs like Bradford City, or Liverpool with Hillsborough, Spartak Moscow at Luzhniki, or Torino with The Superga Air Disaster have the tragedy build onto their sporting brand often without the permission of the club or its community, and sometimes against the will of supporters involved.

There are times when it is apt to talk about 1985 at Bradford City and times when it is not.

Bradford City the football club and Bradford City the community of supporters do not always overlap. Asking a player under twenty eight years old at the 2013 League Cup final if they are (para) “doing it for the victims of the fire” is one of those times.

Matt Duke, who played in that 2013 final, having survived cancer earlier in his life and saw his achievement on the field set entire in the context of his illness. The tone was not quite that had Duke not made a major final his recovery would have been lesser but the nature of the coverages showed the inability of the football media to consider matters out of a sporting context.

When, in the build up to the 2013 League Cup Final, Liverpool born pair Gary Jones and Steven Darby were asked what their thoughts on City accepting coverage sponsorship from The Sun and replied that they would rather it did not happen and the club (to the credit of all) respected those wishes.

The media ignored that story and still do perhaps because there was no way to set that in the context of “the boys doing good”.

The Chelsea Museum

If you arrive at Stamford Bridge early on that glorious day you could have walked around The Chelsea Museum. It is as far from Croke Park which has a delight in history and the amateur codes as you would ever see.

A celebration of Chelsea, and Chelsea winning things, and the fact that Chelsea had won things largely (but not only) because of massive amounts of money which were questioningly amassed by Roman Abramovich and lavished on the club.

Perhaps there should be a corner of the Chelsea Museum donated to Dubliner Mark Yeates wheeling away after he scores the fourth goal in City’s 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge?

The Shed End full and bouncing celebrating a team of hard working players scoring a massive upset. It contrasts sharply with what Chelsea have become since Abramovich’s arrival but it seems to speak to something at the heart of the football experience for supporters.

This might seem a comic idea – and it is presented tongue in cheek – but to a person who pre-dates the Premier League standing in the Chelsea Museum celebrating someone’s success because it happened at Stamford Bridge is very much what the club is about.

The phrase “easy to rig and was in fact rigged” is the heart of the Chelsea story. It does not feature in the Chelsea Museum, nor does it feature in the advertising for “23rd Year of The Best League In The World” which is bombarding out media this week.

Who does English football serve?

Who does English football serve? We have a simple question which quickly diverges into complexities.

Is English football here to serve the season ticketed rank and file supporter? Is it to serve the wider nation that flags up every two years and consumes the game passively? Is it to serve the overseas audiences who we are told are “increasingly important markets”? Is it to serve Oligarchs and Billionaires who own clubs? Or the Millionaires who play for them?

And when we get to an answer to those questions do we think that English football serves its aims well and for the good of the people it claims to serve.

It is nothing new for a season ticket holder at a club like Bradford City to suggest that the game is expensive to follow and does not seem to have his interests at heart and this sense is not lessened the higher up football one goes. Newcastle United supporters have been given a 12:45 kick off in Bournemouth in a move “by TV” which used to cause more outrage but now is just part of the fabric of the game.

We just assume – as supporters look on – that someone else’s interests will always trump our own. If we were at Croke Park we would just assume that Hill 16 would be demolished because someone else wanted it to be, or could make money from it.

And in that we assume that the someone else benefits appropriately but are we that convinced that the overseas audience the Premier League loves so much is best served by watch it? Would football energy not be best spent making better local leagues? The one hundred year plan in Japan, and the progress of the MLS, have shown what a country that is able to get the space to create its own league can progress.

Think about the ramifications of this football Imperialism the next time you see a Real Madrid shirt in Bradford City Centre. The people at FC Romania v Sporting Bengal United are building real communities around football. How does having to compete with Real Madrid help with that?

And how is it less obvious how the expansion of the Premier League to overseas markets is not equally counter-productive for other communities?

How is it not obvious the damage being done to us all?

The number of psychopaths watching Bradford City and the impact that has on football supporting

150 psychopaths

If I told you that somewhere in Bradford 150 psychopaths would be getting together you’d probably only want to know where that get together was so you could avoid going at all cost but I am going to tell you that and you are going to go to that get together.

Medulla Oblongata

The word “psychopath” has been mangled by popular culture.

When we use the word we mean a kind of a mad axe-murder set apart from society. Alfred Hitchcock, Thomas Harris, and Bret Easton Ellis have given us the timid psychopath, the charming psychopath and the slick psychopath underlining the fact that psychopaths can come in many forms but the word is always linked in our minds to murder.

This is a problem for people who study “psychopathy” because the personality disorder itself was not medically defined as being linked to violence. Some psychopathy researchers used the term “sociopath” to try get around the horrific connotations. In the precise world of medical research licence is given for the terms to be used interchangeably.

It is thought that psychopathy is caused by a misfiring in the brain so the unconditioned fear stimulus in the medulla oblongata does not work in some people as it does in what we call “normal” people.

Because of this they lack the ability to comprehend how other people have fear, and so in some cases they think that other people’s emotional states are a facade. They cannot feel what it is like to be someone else, because they cannot feel or at least a large amount of feeling is not open to them.

Most people do not understand the ramifications of that (including myself) until they are spelled out.

A psychopath has no empathy. They don’t feel bad about bad things they do.

How to find out if you are a psychopath?

According to author and Harvard lecturer Martha Stout you are not a psychopath if you have enough sense of your feelings to ask if you are one.

So worry not, dear reader.

Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door postulates that one in a hundred of the general population is a sociopath and that the condition is much more common than we give it credit for.

Stout’s research presents us with the sociopath as a mimic and as a Little Hitler. They try to copy other people’s emotions to fit in with society not because of a need to join society but to try exploit society to control their part of it.

If by now you are thinking that you know a half a dozen psychopaths then you are not alone and owe it to yourself to read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. Ronson learns how to spot psychopaths from the man who wrote the checklist that defines what psychopathy is: Robert Hare. The list is the PCL-R and when answering the twenty questions on it one can spot a psychopath.

And when Bradford City play Shrewsbury in the first game of next season we can expect a crowd of around fifteen thousand people you will have plenty of practice because – as I promised and as Stout suggests – you will willingly get together with around 150 psychopaths.

Why Mark Lawn is not a psychopath

The ability to empathise is what stops people from doing all manner of things.

It is what stops you cutting queues in traffic understanding how angry people cutting queues in traffics makes you. Its what stops you from cutting the throat of someone who does cut a queue because not only can you imagine how horrible murder is, you always imagine how bad the family would feel, and how bad prison would feel for you, and you going to prison would effect for your family.

Of course if you do not feel empathy you might cut the queue. In fact having no empathy allows you to cut all sorts of things. Like jobs. Being good in business is about making hard decisions – or so the cliche goes – but decisions like who to put out of work are far easier if the person making the decision does not think about the emotional effects on the person out of work, on their family, on their community.

In fact a lot of the business cliches are about removing emotion from the world of work. “Leave it at home”, “Don’t bring it to the Office” and so on. You can hear phrases like this banded about every office and not by the percentage of people who are psychopaths but by many people. The workplace in this sense he been shaped to lack empathy by people who have no empathy.

Stout and her peers suggest that the business world has been remodelled around the most successful people in the business world and that the most successful people in the business world are psychopaths.

The higher up in business one gets – Stout et al say – the more instances of sociopathic behaviour one finds. At higher levels rather than one in a hundred people being a psychopath, one in twenty-five are.

This is not, oh cynical reader, building up to a claim that Mark Lawn is a psychopath.

In fact his obvious emotional outpourings on TV and in interview, his emotional attachment to the club which struggles for most of his life, and many, many other things would see him score low on the PCL-R.

I’m not entirely sure that the same could be said for everyone who has been in the Bradford City boardroom though and Stout’s findings would suggest that it is absolutely not the case and that at some point presently, or past, on of the people inserting a control on Bradford City is a psychopath.

The same is true about Prime Ministers and Presidents. The higher up you go the more the prevalence of psychopaths. Obviously some have held the top jobs. Christopher Hitchens stated that Henry Kissinger – who he charged with responsibility for the massively destructive Vietnam war – had “the mind and record of a psychopath.”

Robert Hare and others are of the belief – and I paraphrase – that psychopathy is what makes the world go round.

Deep breath, and back to football

Football is a microcosm of the world. If it happens in the world it happens in football and so if we are prepared to consider the suggestion that psychopathy is the driving force in the world it stands that we should consider if it is the driving force in football, and, in football support.

The game itself is governed by a set of practical laws and punishments. The reason to not handle a ball is not because it will make the other team feel bad, it is because the punishment will follow in short order. I’m sure that there is something to be said for the role of psychopathy in creating determination in players but it is beyond my (limited) understandings.

Off the field though what are we to make of football’s level of empathy? Very obviously not much. The FA accuse FIFA of acting badly while in turn being accused of only acting for The Premier League who propose ideas which seem massively out of step with the Football League and on and on downwards.

But Hare et al have an approach which says that structures like these are shaped by people – the people in them – and as such a question like “Are Manchester City a psychopath?” is wrongly phrased.

I think that a lot of – but not all – people at boardroom level are exonerated too. I am certain that there are people working at and owing football clubs who would score highly on the PCL-R but only because they are the product of a merger between the corporate world and the world of football support. So perhaps it is worth looking at the world of football support to see how it is shaped by psychopathy.

Where is the psychopathy in football?

The first thing to point out is that the PCL-R is a nuanced tool and that it is not applicable to entire subcultures in any other way than to look at specific people within that subculture. I’m not about to declare that football support is a psychopath.

What I wonder though is is football support (inside and outside of the structures of the game) shaped by psychopathy in the way that Stout et al suggests business is? If we look at the PCL-R do we recognise the traits we see in football supporters beyond the 150 psychopaths at a Bradford City game.

Some of the traits on the list we strike off immediately as not being knowable: Sexual promiscuity (point eleven) and the tendency to many short-term marital relationships (point thirteen) for example.

Others leap from the page at us. Who could not say of the modern football supporter that they do not display a need for stimulation. This is the third point on Hare’s PCL-R and one only need to think about the 24 Hour Sky Sports News or the relentless monitoring of players on Twitter to underline how football support seems to need that constant stimulation.

Points two and thirteen on the list are “grandiose estimation of self” and “lack of realistic long-term goals” which are a given in football. It is rare that there is not a football supporter who genuinely believes that his club is different and by different we mean better than others and often the thing that stops that being better is that the people running the club are seem to be holding it back and if only they would do differently then the long term future would be glorious.

Others one may make a case for. Over a third of football clubs have been in some form of administration over the last twenty years but rare is the supporter who takes responsibility for their role (often a minor one as a supporter) in cheering the signing of a Benito Carbone or a Seth Johnson which led to financial problems. This could be point sixteen: failure to accept responsibility for own actions if one wanted to make the case.

I could carry on mapping on the traits the PCL-R covers to the world of football but to do so would be to labour the point, and to take empathisis away from the disproprtionality that psychopaths represent.

Me. I like a laugh, me

Last season, after the Doncaster Rovers defeat, Oli McBurnie and Aaron McLean shared a joke on Twitter. If you missed this moment do not be surprised. Of the things that matter most it could hardly be more remote but it was the cause for some complaints. The two players, strikers for a team which was then struggling, should have been focusing more on scoring and less on joking was the inference as if the one took away from the other.

It is asinine even to mention it were it not for the reaction. Most ignored the joke and the follow up, other responded with utter indifference if they did note it, but a few felt it worthy of their input (point three, need for stimulation) and decided to challenge the players (point fourteen, impulsivity. Point ten, poor behavioral controls.) because they should not be larking around (point eight, lack of empathy) when something so important as a defeat had occurred (point two, grandiose estimation of self).

The thousands of people who did nothing, or did not care, or did care but did nothing are not noticed next to very few (two or three) who did showing the traits. So these traits, these traits that are part of psychopathy, frame our the world of football supporting.

As football supporters we are always being defined by the combination of psychopathic traits because they are present in a few of us but not in all of us. And of course it is dangerous to sit with a checklist like the PCL-R and looking at isolated actions declare that they are the actions of psychopaths. Ronson details how becoming a Psychopath spotter power crazes him and he is right. Once you start studying the PCL-R you start seeing psychopaths everywhere.

Aaron McLean and Oli McBurnie might seem like a storm in a teacup but nothing in the the psychopathic tendency talks about the size and impact of the actions. I’m not saying that anyone involved in that is (or is not) the sort of person who would score high on the PSL-R but many people might conclude that – for example – the people who tell Jessica Ennis they hope she is raped would score highly.

Abuse on Twitter stops players communicating through Twitter. Racist chanting by a hundred people can have a whole stadium closed down. One person can throw something in a town centre on a Saturday and we are all branded hooligans. When we are branded hooligans we are policed accordingly by a Police Force which – logically – is run by a number of people who are psychopaths.

This might sound needlessly pessimistic but I went to football in the 1980s and I stood behind fences, and I was pushed into pens, and I was marched through streets by armoured Police. The people who decided that that was the way to treat a teenage boy who had not committed, nor wanted to commit, an offence seem to convict themselves of lacking empathy and you only need to look at the massive high level cover up that followed the result of that style of Policing at Hillsborough to see lack of remorse or guilt, and the Failure to accept responsibility for own actions.

Let me be clear what I’m not saying here. I am not saying that Hillsborough was caused by mass-murdering psychopaths. I am saying that it was caused (and covered up) by institutions like South Yorkshire Police, The Sun Newspaper and the Thatcher Government which had been in turn shaped by people who would have scored high on the PCL-R.

This is hard for people to accept or understand – and of course it is a contention rather than a statement – but that is because if you are part of the 99% who have empathy you assume that everyone else has it and when you assume that you assume everyone else has the same operational controls as you.

Hare’s work suggests they do not.

So now then

What is to be done? Football is a part of a world and the world is shaped by the traits of psychopathy.

As the Internet opened up communication channels a number of maxims started to fall away from media industries. It was said in newspapers previously that one letter represented a hundred dissatisfied readers but now all hundred readers can tweet furiously and so it has become safer to suggest that one unhappy person represents one person.

Perhaps even that is inadequate. Perhaps knowing the destructive nature of psychopathy we should seek to make sure it is under represented? That we should try exclude the voice from discussion because the voice is in its nature destructive. All domains of expertise exclude destructive voices. Is the psychopaths insight into the community of football support any more valid than his input into any other part of society?

I have trouble with that path of reason and where it ends up but I have similar trouble with how any of the communities I am in is defined by its extreme and destructive elements just as we all have trouble with the idea of those 150 psychopaths at Bradford City vs Shrewsbury Town.

Another week passes and there is another story of how football supporters have behaved in a way that I do not feel reflects football supporters as I know them and this story repeated in an echo chamber by media which has a section which is determined to misrepresent what has happened leading to attacks by politicians who seem to lack empathy and are playing to a different constituency and all the time this is exploited for sales by businesses who only can look at their bottom line.

I end up remembering John Yossarian‘s comment in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 when asked what would happen if everyone felt like him and did not want to fly bombing runs just because the enemy he had never met wanted to kill him, and so did not want to fight in the war.

“Well I’d certainly be a damn fool to think any other way wouldn’t I?”


I heartily recommend reading Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test.

Playing football for nobody

Urawa Red Diamonds are one of Japan’s biggest teams but no one watched them play Shimizu S-Pulse. The 63,000 capacity Saitama Stadium was closed as a result of a banner erected at the last home match which read: “Japanese Only”.

That message reverberated around Japanese football.

Football is a sport on the rise in the Land of the Rising Sun. The days of aging Europeans such as Gary Lineker and Pierre Littbarski seeing out the end of their careers in Japan are over and J-League – 20 years into a 100 year plan to create a league to rival anything in the world – is a respectable competition boasting a new third division and a charter that demands standard in professionalism, in supporter engagement and in financial stability.

It is not a perfect model, but it is a typically Japanese attempt to create one. Take by way of example the Urawa chairman taking a 20% pay cut in response to the racist banner. Very Japanese.

Football in Japan it attempts to rival Baseball – the nation’s leading game – for the hearts of a country who have seen the national sport of Sumo rocked by scandal that football was proud to avoid.

Until now football had been largely seen positively in Japan and was supported because of that. The role of honour in Japanese society is not to be understated and the effects that the Black Mist match fixing scandal had on baseball is coloured in that socio-context. After twenty years Japan had created football that was proudly Japanese in its off the field organisation while importing parts of worldwide football culture into its rich bricolage.

Racism had previously not been a factor although it is a part of Japanese society although not one that isdiscussed. The country has no laws around hate speech but public protest against it is not uncommon and that was the form of protest that reverberated around the J-League.

Clubs included anti-racism banners and messages to the impressive display of flags they carry and a unity was achieved that racism was to be called wrong.

The rules of the J-League which allow for only four non-Japanese players in a match day squad and only three non-Asians. In every J-League game fourteen of the players are Japanese. This idea of teams which reflect the environments they play in used to be a concern for English fans (and may still be, although it is rarely verbalised these days for want of the spark of debate) and it is suggested in how players like Alan Shearer and Steven Gerrard are lauded by their clubs that that affinity is still strong.

The supporters respond to the way teams are constructed in Japan too although there are many other factors in play. The players are paid less and are more involved in the people though clubs which embrace a community based ethos. The culture of Japan would seem to exclude Tweeting players to swear at them after an away loss.

On the whole I would characterise as a more healthy relationship between supporters and players but its a relationship which was visible broken as Urawa and Shimizu played out a 1-1 draw in a silent stadium.

Wembley: One year on and 176 miles away

Less than a year on from Bradford City’s League Cup final at Wembley it is not hard to see the difference between where the club sat then and where it is now in Yorkshire. In Wales though on the night our opposition that day Swansea City sack Michael Laudrup from his position as manager the improvements in the Principality are under question.

Swansea City’s League Cup win was the coming out party for a club run well by chairman Huw Stephens who has reportedly fallen out with the Dane over his desire, or lack of desire, to sign a deal for next season. Managers had come and gone at The Liberty Stadium but a principal of good football with players who fit the budgets remained.

Giving Stephens the benefit of the doubt it probably still does unless he has – Geoffrey Richmond style – decided that modest success one year must be translated into massive gains the next. Let us hope for our sporting vanquishers of March 2013 that he has not.

Laudrup has performed the brief of Swansea manager this season well. The spell of defeats his team was on was surely not the whole reason for his exit. The campaign in Europe included some impressive wins and the team recorded a first ever victory at Old Trafford in the FA Cup. 12th in the Premier League is nothing to be sniffed at. If the issue is about contract length and signing up beyond the end of the season one hopes that Stephens does not come to regret that decision.

Indeed one recalls the sacking of Colin Todd as City boss after the misanthropic manager suggested he would not be interested in a new deal in the summer. David Wetherall was given a chance and relegation followed. Todd’s team were in no danger of relegation whatsoever and it was the change was the cause of the problems.

The progress Laudrup has made is now in the hands of such a situation. The team he leaves is in the same position this year as last – the middle of the Premier League – but watching them this season they seemed more at home in the top flight. No longer wide eyed they played their brand of impressive passing football not trying to prove that they were worthy of a top flight place but being worthy of it. They were on the verge of being Premier League rank and file.

The new Fulham, so to speak, as the old one beats a path back to the Championship.

Stephens believes what he has done in removing Laudrup has made that more likely, one worries that it has made it less.

It takes twenty to tango

There is nothing new about the idea that Liverpool’s Ian Ayre floated this morning would allow clubs to negotiated certain television rights as individual entities rather than a part of the Premier League collective bargaining group but the idea remains a poor one.

Ayre’s logic seems sound when he talked about international rights being sold on the basis of watching the higher profile teams like his club, Manchester United and Arsenal but he is wrong to consider the reason for that that the teams themselves are available to watch.

When Manchester United play a friendly tour the rights are sold for less than the Premier League games because the competition is less. Even though Ayre’s team might be the star of the show, the show is all twenty teams and the league, and what is good for the show is good for all involved.

All of which seems like a simple concept. The concern of Ayre is that the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid who are able to individually bargain for rights will leave the Premier League clubs behind in revenue for those rights but an unbalance in a league which has to automatic righting system (the Premier League – because it has no promotion to take away the cream – is prone to unbalance) is never an attractive one and ultimately that will cause revenue to suffer both domestically and internationally.

What Ayre gathers with one hand, he loses with the other. He is not a stupid man, he knows this, but his primary aim is not the long term health of English football it is the medium term finances of Liverpool football club.

Which is the problem with Ayre and people in his position at the clubs who are at the top of the European pile. The aims that their positions dictates they have are not those which would guarantee long term health for the top flight, and thus the rest of the game.

Ayre raises the ire of the smaller clubs and some of them smaller clubs are pretty big. It was clubs in the position of Bolton Wanderers – a team listed as unattractive by Ayre – who voted for the establishment of the Premier League. The appeal then was that a line would be drawn below clubs in that position, now that line creeps higher.

There is a need for football in all its spheres to look at what the aims of the Premier League are and address them towards the long term protection of that league and alls its members now and in the future.

Alas though while such changes are so far away from taking place the game instructs the likes of Ayre to find whatever ways of making money he can regardless of the impact it might have in the longer term.

The solution – perhaps – lays with the 75% of the Premier League who enjoy the excess at the top but would lose out in this and perhaps that solution is to start mandating a more level playing field all the way from top to bottom rather than standing at the top of one ladder trying to make sure they can grasp the next one as the kick the previous away.

Picking a football manager out of the crowd

There is no footage of Andre Villas-Boas playing football.

The new Chelsea boss did not light up the International stage for Portugal, nor did he play for his favoured club FC Porto. He did not achieve minor success in the shadows of the bigger clubs. Andre Villas-Boas, 33 and the youngest Premier League manager since Paul Jewell, did not play football at all.

That is probably not correct. As one reads the story of the rise of Villas-Boas one doubts that he has never booted a ball in earnest but unlike Arsene Wenger, Sven Goran Eriksson and perhaps Jewell who had minor careers Villas-Boas has no clubs on his CV. He is – for all intents – a football manager who has never played football.

He has some good company too. Carlos Alberto Parreria won the World Cup with Brazil in ’94 but never played the game while Arrigo Sacchi, in the other dug out when Parreria’s side claimed the lump of gold, also never played having come into football via a career selling shoes but on the whole even – if like Monsieur Wenger – the most one amounted to was a few lower league games the vast majority of football managers have played football.

But need they have? Is having played football a requirement for a manager not only at the top level, but at any level?

Villas-Boas has a few Portuguese leagues and a Europa Cup to suggest his name to Stamford Bridge and while his appointment will raise eyebrows he is proven. One wonder what the reaction should a League Two club plump to give their big chair to a man who has never got his boots muddy.

There is precedent. Cambridge United once appointed – in a caretaker role – their marketing manager as gaffer but it seems that either my memory or a gentle airbrushing of history has forgotten his name since the early 1990s. Current Tranmere Rovers manager Les Parry made the increasingly popular move from Magic Sponge man to Manager having never played the game.

The track record is hardly inspiring though and in the annual Bradford City March Manager recruitment no name of non-footballers seem to emerge prompting the question would we accept a Bantams Boss who has never played not just for us, but for anyone?

The key, perhaps, is in the skills each person believes the football manager must have. None of them are exclusive to former players but most of them are best tested within the arena of playing the game. The ability to know a player who will do “the business” for you as a gaffer is helped – perhaps – by twenty years lining up next to ten other case studies while the domain knowledge which comes from 500 games of being the subject to different tactics must help when one starts to form them. While these things come best from a life in football as a player the story of Villas-Boas suggests that immersion in football can come in other forms than just pulling on the shirt.

Chief amongst the issues for the manager who has never played would seem to be commanding the respect of the players and it is oft said that when a manager has “done it all” the players will look up to him. Glenn Hoddle – who became frustrated when his players could not pass as he could – provides the counterpoint but like his colleague with dirty boots the never a footballer manager draws his respect from winning things. The one thing which unites Villas-Boas the never played, Arsene Wenger the might as well not have bothered playing, the decent enough like Sir Alex Ferguson, and Kenny Dalglish the highly decorated player is that they are employed on the basis of what they have won now, not what they did kicking a ball.

Dalglish though was given Liverpool aged 36, Ferguson got to Aberdeen in his early 40s, Wenger took longer still. It seems the better the playing career, the easier the foot in the door. The never playing manager puts his CV on a pile with former internationals, club legends and experienced gaffers. There is little to suggest his name.

Perhaps Villas-Boas, Sacchi, Parreria and in his own way Les Parry show that the manager who can get past that rigour might have something extra to offer. Perhaps if you can outshine names which inspire awe in football boardrooms then you have that extra something which makes a – if one pardons the phrase -a special one.

However Villas-Boas begs an obvious question. If having played football is not needed to be a football manager could any of us be potentially successful? Could the person shouting from the stand behind Peter Jackson be a better choice for Peter Jackson’s job than the manager himself? Could you pull a better football manager out of the crowd?

BfB watches the play off finals: Part three, Reading v Swansea

Football is regularly referred to as a soap opera and, as Reading and Swansea today battle it out for a place in the Premier League next season, one can take comfort in the fact that, for all the cliff hangers we go through, it apparently will never end.

Aside from the occasional doom monger declaring there are too many teams in the Football League and it should be cut – plus the very real threat at times of some clubs going bust – the ongoing narrative of football, with its up and down snakes and ladders system, keeps us enthralled and keeps us believing in the sentiment “there’s always next season.”

The idea that Bradford City could be one day back in this position, looking to return to the Premier League, seems ludicrous after the season just gone. Yet when we were enjoying our brief spell among England’s elite a decade ago, Reading and Swansea fans would scarcely have expected to be in this position today.

10 seasons ago, the Royals and the Swans were playing each other in England’s third tier. Whereas this afternoon both clubs completely fill Wembley, the attendances for the two league meetings that season were 11,003 at the new Madejski stadium and 5,073 at the old Vetch Field. Reading lost the play off final to Walsall that year, while Swansea dropped into the basement league. In the following two seasons, the Welsh team were almost relegated from the Football League.

Only 3,000 or so fans were turning up at their low point, but in their attractive new stadium they are now looked upon as a big club. Although they’ve gone through a number of managers climbing back up the leagues, they’ve maintained a certain philosophy of always playing attractive passing football which has shaped their management choices. While City seem to change what they’re looking for in a manager every time they get rid of the last one, the Swans have worked out a plan that today sees them on the brink of the Premier League.

Reading too have done superbly. Making it to the Premier League in 2006 and successfully reversing the decline so many clubs can’t get out of when they are relegated from the top flight. The internal appointment of Brian McDermott – ironically replacing now-Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers – has worked wonders and their overturning of Cardiff in the play off semi finals was joyous. Especially given the less than ethical way Cardiff have gone about their business this season.

As the two Premier League hopefuls march out into a deafening Wembley stadium, it’s worth pausing to consider how unlikely this all – City in League Two included – would have seemed a decade ago. And, as motivating as the Reading and Swansea stories should act to us and others now, how much their ascent might have initially been inspired by the manner City had made it from Division Two to the Premier League at the end of the millennium. The soap opera never ends.

Today’s instalment unsurprisingly begins in cagey fashion, and the tension is aided by a certain amount of needle between the two clubs that sees fouls reacted to angrily and referee Phil Dowd routinely surrounded by complaining players. One such incident five minutes in sees Reading’s Zurab Khizanishvili harshly go in the book, following long and loud Swansea protests. It would become an interesting talking point not long after.

Reading start the game better, with winger Jimmy Kebe causing plenty of problems down the right flank and some panicky defending seeing Swansea players uncharacteristically hoofing the ball down the pitch. Reading are clearly more pragmatic and physical in style, and you begin to wonder if they will bully the Welshmen into defeat.

But then a rare Swansea foray forward ends with Khizanishvili flooring Scott Sinclair in the box, leaving Dowd with an easy choice in awarding a penalty. More difficult is what to do about the already booked Reading defender. It could be argued it’s a straight red offence; at the very least it should be a yellow. Dowd elects to take no action; perhaps balancing out the dubious early booking for Khizanishvili. Still Swansea don’t seem to mind as Sinclair converts the penalty to put them in front.

36 seconds after the re-start, it’s 2-0 and might already be game over. Stephen Dobbie bursts down the right, exposes Ian Harte’s lack of pace as he drives into the area and Sinclair is eventually left with a tap in. The club’s record signing, at £1 million, could have – depending on which over-hyped media story you read about the value of this game – earned the Swans between £60 and £90 million with his double strike. Three quarters of the game to go, but it’s a long way back for Reading.

Their reaction is limited, with the occasional attack lacking in purpose and belief. The Swans fans “ole” every pass from their players, who now look in control. The game goes quiet again, but then five minutes before the break Nathan Dyer races past the immobile Harte before pulling the ball back for Dobbie to stroke home. Reading’s misery is compounded by sub Jay Tabb and assistant manager Nigel Gibb being sent off on half time following arguments with the officials about a penalty claim rejected. They might have been second best for 20 minutes, but at the interval it’s difficult to begrudge Swansea their 3-0 lead.

Reading need a response, and immediately pull a goal back in the second half through Noel Hunt’s deflected header. Seven minutes later the always impressive Matt Mills heads home another corner and the game wakes up from its dreamy like state into a nerve-wracking hum-dinger. While Tabb and Gibb argued with Dowd for no obvious reason, McDermott was clearly giving the team talk of his life.

The physical and height advantage Reading enjoy is finally proving a factor, though they can play football too as Kebe and Jodi McAnuff attack down the flanks. Jem Karacan’s shot hits the post, with Hunt’s rebound effort brilliantly blocked Swans defender Gary Monk. Royals corner follows Royals corner as the pressure builds, but in time Swansea’s fluster is replaced by composure and they begin re-gain control.

A daft and unnecessary challenge in the area by the experienced Andy Griffin floors Fabio Borini, leaving Swansea and Sinclair with a second penalty of the afternoon to kill the game off, with 12 minutes to go. Sinclair’s effort is almost kept out by Adam Federici, but ends up in the back of the net to seal a hat trick. Reading pile everyone forward in the final stages, but Swansea’s defence has seemingly sorted itself out and they keep clearing the ball. Reading are defeated by the better side, but have been too much the architects of their own downfall to avoid a summer reflecting on what ifs.

So Swansea will become the 45th different club to play in the Premier League – for which next season will be its 20th following its formation in 1992. For all the justified criticism the top flight receives for keeping all the money and not caring about the rest of English football, that almost half of the 92 league clubs have played in it demonstrates it’s not the closed shop so often portrayed.

That, however, is more due to the enduring competitiveness of the Football League rather than anything Richard Scudamore is responsible for. And for all the glamour and success the Premier League isn’t shy of congratulating itself for, the numerous great stories newly promoted clubs – City included – have provided is still an essential backbone to the top end of this sport.

Whether Swansea can take Blackpool’s place in the heart of neutrals next season remains to be seen; but whatever happens, the majority of the 72 Football League clubs can dream with conviction – rather than delusion – of one day emulating them.

BfB watches the play off finals: Part two, Huddersfield Town v Peterborough United

Old Trafford, not a happy place yesterday unless you were a Stevenage fan, has been pressed into action for the League One and League Two play off finals owing to a double booking at Wembley for the Champions League final but – in a way – the shifting down of this season’s promotion finals seems to fit in with the mood in football from half way down the leagues.

Wembley is the place to battle for a place in the Premier League – the suggestion is – and everyone is at some point on the road to that destination. Stevenage showed the power not of performance but of momentum, as have Norwich City and Leeds United in the Championship this year. While this morning’s newspapers are full of praise for Lionel Messi the difference between this Barcelona side and the one which contained similar talents but went unrewarded is the momentum with which it approaches games.

The winning habit seems to have become ingrained in Lee Clark’s Huddersfield Town and with thirty games without defeat it seems curious that the Terriers were not automatically promoted. Perhaps the truth lay within their play off semi-final results, two draws and a win on penalties.

Having switched managers reasonably seamlessly mid-stream Peterborough United’s season with the club arresting the downturn that started with a woeful year in The Championship that saw the now returned manager Darren Ferguson replaced and chairman Darragh MacAnthony lambasting the squad. Posh fans were glad that the likes of Craig Mackail-Smith, George Boyd and England call up keeper Joe Lewis were not able to exit the long term contracts that MacAnthony talked of them signing in his rant.

MacAnthony and his opposite number at Town Dean Hoyle have both kept expensively assembled squads together for this season after disappointing returns last time out. Mackail-Smith has scored 34 goals this season – not as many as Messi or Ross Hannah but a good return – while Lewis is hunted by Everton. Promotion is the reward today for the winner, the loser’s punishment could be the loss of momentum which has brought them to this point.

Huddersfield’s supporters outnumber the Peterborough fan but are left with hearts in mouths as Mackail-Smith hits the post within the opening minutes. Town are on the rack as George Boyd – playing in a free role behind Mackail-Smith – but have the out ball of Benik Afobe as constant and effective.

The tier three play-off final is the only one of the three which Bradford City have ever been to – the 2-0 win over Notts County being the first hurrah of the push that led to the Premier League – and while the game that day seemed to be fated the Bantams way from kick off this match is more in the balance despite the vocal and visual overpowering of the Town support.

Town’s first chance comes when Bolton loanee Daniel Ward does well to get the ball to Peter Clarke but Paul Jones saves well and hurls the ball to Mackail-Smith who hurtles away. This is a theme for the afternoon, hitting the striker quickly and seeing if the Town central defensive pair can handle the pace of the forward.

So the game is set with Town parrying the speedy attacks of the Posh and the Posh defenders – especially the excellent Ryan Bennett – trying to keep Town’s more physical force at bay. Blows are exchanged up to half time and perhaps there is a sense from both sides that there is more to lose than there is to gain.

That a season in the Championship is good, but that the pain of the lack of progression which defeat represents is too hard to swallow. In a way both teams represent different way to progress. Hoyle has looked at Huddersfield’s near peerless (in the lower leagues) off the field set up of Academies and Training facilities and asked how he could make it better. £5m of new pitches and set up are bolstering the Terriers next season.

MacAnthony backs his squad – despite the criticism – with lengthy contracts which protect the investment in the squad with the prospect of transfer fees should any exit and with a continuity which allows for stability despite manager movement. Both are excellent paths to follow for clubs looking for a competitive advantage and neither approach is discredited with defeat.

The worry though is that it might appear that it is. Talking to Mark Lawn this season the City chairman pointed out that Middlesborough were doing poorly in the Championship despite having spent money on youth development as if to suggest that youth development itself was discredited. Boro survived the season while Posh and Town climb above the morass of League One by having a plan for success and following it regardless of set backs.

Yet a set back for one is inevitable and and Daniel Ward looks like inflicting that set back on Peterborough coming out in the second half like a live wire but still Town struggle to cope with Mackail-Smith and the speed of his counter attacks – and the speed in which Posh get players alongside and past him – worries the West Yorkshire side.

It is not Mackail-Smith who provides that breakthrough ten minutes from time – that comes from Tommy Rowe heading in a Grant McCann cross – but the striker combines with George Boyd for a second goal two minutes after the first and the few are out singing the many, celebrating promotion with a swagger as McCann adds a third as the game ebbs away.

To the victors, the spoils and a quick return to the top half of professional football for a second go at what went so badly wrong last time. The big names enhanced reputations and values and should the Posh cash in to march into next season they are well positioned by virtue of adopting an approach of putting their faith in a playing squad which they believe has the quality and back with contracts that give security and stability.

For Huddersfield Town one would expect any self-respecting Bradford City organ to be gloating but I find it hard to celebrate another team in defeat and it gives me no joy. Town are a club with more money than most at this level for sure but more significantly they have a set of priorities off the field which allow I’d rather City learnt from than shake a fist at. Indeed despite the talk of City having to make do with the facilities we had David Baldwin announced that – at no cost to the club – the Bantams were going to have better facilities next season. Danny Cadamarteri – on the bench for Town in his second spell with them after being another one of those mystery under performers for City – might have faired differently at the new Apperley Bridge set up.

The nature of the play-offs – as with any final – is to create winners and losers and for a second year Lee Clark’s side are dubbed as losers. If sense reigns to the South West of Bradford then next season will be a same again for Huddersfield as they carry on carrying on. If they lose their bottle then they will make unnecessary changes.

Darren Ferguson – a former Manchester United player who celebrated victory at Old Trafford – and his chairman Darragh MacAnthony might reflect that three changes of manager following the sacking of Young Fergs it was going back to the original plan which took them forward.

BfB watches the play off finals: Part one, Stevenage v Torquay United

45 minutes before the League Two play off final was due to start, it was announced kick off would be delayed by 15 minutes due to both sets of supporters struggling to get up the M6. It was just one of a number of indications over the unsuitability of Old Trafford as the venue for this showpiece occasion.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, and the booking of Manchester United’s home – with the Football League forced to find an alternative venue when their Wembley booking was torn up due to make way for the lucrative UEFA Champions League Final being staged in London – was made months before the play off line up was confirmed. But the 269 miles Torquay fans had to travel and 185 mile journey for Stevenage supporters meant Old Trafford was hardly an appropriate neutral venue for everyone involved.

And as the team’s walked out 15 minutes later than planned, the number of empty seats outranked those with occupants by some 6 to 1. The 76,000 capacity Old Trafford has just 11,484 attendees, as both clubs surely rue how many of the town’s floating supporters had elected to watch the game at home on TV rather than getting up extra early today.

Seeing Old Trafford so under-utilised only throws up more regret from a Bradford City point of view too. Of course we were nowhere near getting into the play offs this season, but – aside from the basement division’s promoted top three and the two teams involved today – every set of League Two supporters in the land were today wishing they could swap shoes with Torquay or Stevenage. 15 years on from City’s 2-0 victory over Notts County at Wembley, where over 30,000 Bradfordians amassed down South, one can’t help but wonder how much fuller Old Trafford would have looked today with City’s presence.

And what an advantage tens of thousands of our supporters could have offered the players compared to the 5,000 Torquay and Stevenage each took today.

Alas it was not to be for us, again. And viewed on Valley Parade evidence it seems Torquay will be clear winners today. Their 3-0 victory over us some seven weeks ago may have been aided by injury and contract issues that left us with without a right back, but the manner Paul Buckle’s men had zipped the ball around suggested a team on the brink of something special. We saw Stevenage last August, in one of the season’s strangest occasions. An unconvincing 1-0 victory over the newly-promoted visitors was infamously greeted by boos at the final whistle. It didn’t feel clever at the time, but viewed in the context of how both sides’ campaigns went the reaction now seems astonishing.

Yet Stevenage start much brighter this afternoon, attacking an anxious Torquay down both flanks with Darius Charles catching the eye out wide and Stacey Long probing in the centre. They create a couple of early half chances that cause Gulls defender Guy Branston into some timely blocks, while Charles heads over a glorious chance. Stevenage’s always lively supporters maintain the dale cavese chant, out-singing their counterparts.

Torquay gradually come more into it, despite star player Chris Zebroski looking somewhat below par on the right hand flank. On the opposite side Jake Robinson is in the thick of the action, befitting a man who has dominated much of Torquay’s headlines this season.

Robinson, you may remember, began the campaign with a hat trick against City for Shrewsbury. In late January he was loaned to Torquay, and the paperwork caused headaches for both clubs. First United played him before he was eligible – eventually leading to a one-point deduction. Shrewsbury, amazingly, failed to prevent Robinson from playing against them; an administrative error which came back to bite when Jake netted twice in a 5-0 romp for Torquay over Town. He also played twice against Shrewsbury as Torquay overcame them in the play off semis.

Just before half time Stevenage got the goal they deserved through a long range effort from the impressive midfielder John Mousinho. It opens up the game more and Branston almost equalises when he heads wide from a corner, but as the half time whistle goes he knows his team must improve.

There is a renewed determination as they attack towards their fans, with Zebroski forcing a good save from Chris Day and then Billy Kee messing up a great chance when played through one-on-one. Stevenage, who have built a reputation for playing physical football and possessing strong levels of fitness (training sessions last 10-5 each day), seem happy to soak up pressure and play on the counter attack. From a rare set piece, an unmarked Darren Murphy heads wide when he should make it 2-0.

It doesn’t look like Torquay’s day, a feeling reinforced when Robinson’s long range belter smacks the cross bar. The longer the half goes on, the rarer Gulls attacks become and the game seems decided before the four minutes stoppage time are signalled. They may be rattling around in an empty stadium, but the roar of Stevenage fans at full time is still impressive in volume.

Stevenage probably haven’t had the credit they deserve this season – the play off semi final win over Accrington widely put down to Stanley underperforming; while it can be argued Torquay didn’t turn up today, causing the defeat – but they will probably cope better in League One next year than last season’s play off victors, Dagenham & Redbridge. And there provide interesting ideas for others to consider – how many other teams will next season train until 5pm?

But in addition to feeling jealous at Stevenage celebrating, for us City fans the day ends back where it started in considering long distances. Next season’s League Two is already much more southern-based, so for the shorter journey of two clubs – Stevenage – to go up and Torquay to stay down is disappointing.

305 miles from Valley Parade to Plainmoor, though the distance between City and Stevenage is now much further than we’d ever have expected 10 months ago.

Man City’s Got Talent

With no game to watch and a body aching from gardening I rooted to the sofa for what proposed to be ITV’s feast of football and fun, or so they said, but you will have your own views dear reader on the Manchester Derby semi-final followed by the reappearance of TV talent show Britain’s Got Talent.

I’ll preface this by saying that I do not view the TV talent show as illegitimate entertainment, but that I do not view them. I like to hear a scruffy girl belting out Shakespears Sister covers as much as the next man and always have time for a dancing dog act but the reason why I find such shows not worth watching is because they have a very limited set of narratives which are quickly exhausted.

A girl who has had a bad time but singing got her though, a guy who looked like he is a moron but raises a smile, a guy who has been earnestly doing his act for years and this is his big break. In the end there is only so many ways that those who spin these things can spin these things. Only so many ways to present the same story.

Which brings us back to the Manchester Derby or – as it was known around our gaff – The match to see who we want Stoke or Bolton to beat. Not that there is any resentment to Manchester in our bit of Clayton (As evidenced by the number of The Smiths albums perhaps) but rather that one feels a sense of tedium in those teams.

United are United and we know the narrative they present. They are awesome, a freight train of football on the tracks to success. Paul Scholes put in his usual knee high horror tackle and the usual talk of how great a player he is and how it is a shame that he does that sort of thing was heard. The only surprise that the afternoon offered for the Red Devils was just how poor Anderson was. Brought on to drive the ball forward he started trying Glenn Hoddle like passing and was – in his own way – as poor as Gareth Evans was against Torquay United two weeks ago.

Manchester United players do not normally choke. That aside and for all the hilarious gags about Sir Fergs sounding curious on the wireless cause while the volume and bass knobs were in place the treble was off it was same old same old by them. They will recover. Part of the great United story is how they lose the odd game but win the war. That narrative is as tired as the girl on X-Factor who really needs this.

Across Manchester though the rise of City should provide some interest but fails to. It is not for a lack of talent in the team – Man City’s Got Talent – but rather that they tell a story which has been done to death.

Rich man comes to a club and starts spending. He ruffles feathers by replacing a popular manager with someone else but in the end the fans are seduced by the idea of success more than they are loyal to their cause. They spend money recklessly buying quantity of quality to make sure that any “dodgy signing” does not hamper them too much.

That is Manchester City but it could equally be Chelsea (or Blackburn Rovers for that matter) and there is the problem. There is no surprise in this story. It ends of course, as it has at Chelsea, and that end is probably not going to be an unhappy one but the narrative offers nothing new.

I am sure though that is is good to be involved in and that yesterday’s victory was sweet but in terms of offering something new, different and interesting Manchester City are like Britain’s Got Talent. For sure it looks different to last year – and the people on stage are loving it – but the story stays the same.

Well done to Manchester City but I think I will switch channels.

Liverpool bow to pressure, not reality

A look at the Premier League table – frozen over a cold FA Cup weekend – puts Liverpool under Everton and above Blackpool as Roy Hodgson leaves the Anfield club by mutual consent. The position tells much.

Blackpool are much lauded this season under Ian Holloway who is being talked as a potential England manager with his maverick style likened to Brian Clough and the idea of him being passed over representing the same kind of error. Nevertheless his side sit down Liverpool who now have Kenny Dalglish returning as manager.

The natural reaction by many, if not most, is that the two cannot be compared and that what is a good performance for the Seasiders is unacceptable for the Reds. That Liverpool should be being far better than Blackpool, not one place.

And this is true at present. Blackpool were a fine team in the 1950s when every factory shut down for a week and whole City’s headed East for the coast, sea and a week of a good time but when the package holiday arrived Blackpool descended the leagues. At 13th in the Premier League Blackpool are “over performing” but taking their highest watermark they are some way off the days of Stanley Matthews. The money to sustain the club, the affluence of the town itself, had diminished.

Blackpool are by no mean alone in this fall from grace and no better example is needed than Bradford City in this the anniversary of the 1911 FA Cup win. The Glorious 1911 is well worth a read detailing (one of ) the best team(s) in the country who played at Valley Parade in a Manningham that ranked as one of the most productive and affluent areas of the United Kingdom.

Walk around Manningham and look at the housing on the crescents, the stone work, the beauty of it all were one to strip away a hundred years of industrial decline. As with Blackpool and the package holiday the artificial fibre and end of the wool trade is the underlying story of the decline of Bradford City. The tide ebbing out.

It is this tide which ultimately decides the success or failure of clubs. Looking over Europe and it is rare for the town on its uppers to have a successful team and often the decline of an urban centre is mirrored in the decline of the club that it supported and other clubs rise up and up as a result of money coming to a City. Wander around Manchester and see the affluence of the reinvented City Centre or the new Salford Quays and then look at the top two in the table.

Now anyone who talks ambition at Valley Parade talk about getting the club “To the Championship, where it belongs” which is a point one could debate all day without resolution. Bradford being a City in the top ten of population one might ask why the target is set so low? Bradford being a City with so many scars of financial turmoil one might ask why so high? Certainly the ambition is no bad thing.

Back to Liverpool and like Blackpool and Bradford the City is not what it was. Various statistics from various Government departments conflict on population sizes and relative wealth but the overall view of Merseyside is that it has lost a lot of people to other parts of the country and what remains is not that well off.

Like Bradford and Blackpool Liverpool the City has declined and with it has gone the two football teams. Everton used to win UEFA Cups and were two weeks off doing the double but now their aims are more modestly set at getting as close to fourth place in the League as possible.

Liverpool, however, still maintain the aims of the times when they were dominant in English football and talk about challenging for the Premier League title. As a recent Champions League winner they certainly have cause to talk in such a way – although that was before the First Americans and their abuse of the club – but they do so swimming against a tide that ebbs away as surely as it has done at Valley Parade or Bloomfield Road.

There is a benefit in the brand of Liverpool which is built on the belief that the club is a successful one and the aims that see them want to be performing better than they have this season. Setting high aims and (more importantly) believing they can be achieved is a vital part of creating success and it is no coincidence that all successful teams are often dubbed “arrogant”.

Hodgson’s exit from Liverpool is thus painted as useful. It says that Liverpool expects better performances and in doing so continues the (perhaps healthy) belief amid the players, the fans and the world at large that the higher echelons are the club’s rightful home.

It staves off the reality of a situation – a reality which has become endemic at clubs and in cities like Blackpool and Bradford – which redraws the map of football.

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