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31 May
The Pullin Football Awards, 2010-11

The “English” football season ended properly yesterday with the promotion of a Welsh side, Swansea City, to the Premiership, and the “English” cricket season started properly yesterday with a fairly miraculous Test victory over Sri Lanka in Cardiff. The Welshness of the English sporting scene is a subject for other, more bardic voices than mine. But what was particularly good about yesterday was that it eased the transition from winter to summer sports for those of us who follow both, but don’t have the energy (or mental capacity) to manage the two at the same time. Usually there’s a wasted month or two of the cricket season when I’m still mentally following the football, even though it’s gone; the same thing then happens in reverse in August and September. But not this time.

So it’s a good time for me to wrap up my (very limited) football coverage for the season with some of my 2010-11 highlights. Total games this season: 38 involving the major clubs, plus four in the Conference. Total number of teams seen: 51 Premiership and Football League clubs, plus five Conference sides (Bath City four times, of course, all of them away from home). New grounds for me this season: four League grounds (Coventry, Stevenage, Exeter and Torquay) plus four Conference grounds (Crawley, AFC Wimbledon, Hayes & Yeading and Histon – two of them will be League grounds next season, which means I’ll be back). London teams seen this season: all except Arsenal; London grounds visited: all except Arsenal and Spurs (who I saw twice at Fulham).

Now for some gongs for teams and grounds.

Best football? Tempting to say Swansea City, slick and direct and entertaining, or Watford, who beat Millwall 6-1 at Millwall (a brave thing to do) in a match that was strangely even (Watford took all their chances, Millwall only one of theirs). I enjoyed Leyton Orient a couple of times as well this year, which hasn’t always been the case in the past. But Manchester City, on a chilly Sunday afternoon in November at Fulham, played football with a panache that I suspect will have to be drilled out of them if they’re to be serious and serial challengers for top titles.

Worst football? Two contenders here. Sheffield Wednesday had a reasonable and even first half against Leyton Orient, and then capitulated 4-0 in the second half with defending that was mostly just plain sad and wrong (though Orient played well). But worse still were Sheffield United at Watford: two players rightly sent off in the first 35 minutes at a point of the season where they really needed to start winning to have any hope of avoiding relegation – that Watford then won only 3-0 was commentary on the fact that they didn’t play well either. But they didn’t need to.

Worst game as a whole. Aldershot 0 Macclesfield 0. Nuff said. Though it may have been better than last year’s game between the two, which also finished 0-0. I don’t learn… but I do try to forget.

Best ground? This is difficult because you’re not really comparing like with like. But if your criteria are, like mine, a decent seat with a reasonably-close view and enough leg-room, plus a decent cup of tea and easy access and exit, then Aldershot, Bristol City and Wycombe are pretty good, and of my new grounds this season I enjoyed Exeter the most (it probably helped that it was dry). Watford has the merit of draught beer worth drinking. If standing is your thing, I did it this year at Dagenham, Torquay and Barnet, plus all the Conference grounds. But nowhere is horrid. Which makes the next one difficult…

Worst ground? For leg-room and comfort, Queens Park Rangers and Brentford are cramped; Barnet’s main stand loos have no washing facilities; Chelsea’s supporters keep coming and going throughout the game; Oxford’s parking and traffic management is a bit off-putting, as is Reading’s; and Hayes & Yeading somehow counted only 328 people in the ground when I went, when I’d reckon there were three times that number (something odd about that: is there a tax reason for this?). None of those gripes will stop me from going to these places again.

But that’s for the future. The football season is now officially over and the cricket season has begun. It’s summer. And I’m ready for it.

28 May
My Match of the Day

This weekend is the culmination of the 2010-11 football season, and for those of us who spend most winter Saturdays at some or other stadium, the lure of the big match on TV will be irresistible. No, not Barcelona v Man United. But Stevenage v Torquay United. You see, aside from being European Champions League final weekend, this is also when the play-offs in the Football League are decided and we’ve got League 2 today, League 1 (Huddersfield v Peterborough) tomorrow and then on Monday it’s Swansea v Reading for the right to perform in the Premiership next season.

My football watching is mostly in the lower divisions, and of the six teams contesting the play-offs this weekend, I’ve seen four this season. They’re among the 50-odd teams I’ve seen in 38 league and cup games (plus four in the Conference), slightly more than usual, despite the mid-season break for snow and then Australia. I’ll do an end-of-season round-up next week of my impressions of 2010-11 when it’s finally all settled. For the moment I’ll concentrate only on the play-off contenders.

Today’s opponents, Stevenage and Torquay, I saw play at home and in both cases they were new grounds for me: I also saw Stevenage at Aldershot, and Torquay at Gillingham. Impressions? Well, Stevenage seemed to me to be quite a robust team, defensively solid and fairly crunchy in tackling. That said, both times I saw them they were held 1-1, at Aldershot and at home to Shrewsbury, and they seem to lack a bit going forwards. Torquay I’ve seen several times over the years, and usually enjoyed their matches, because there always seem to be goals involved. Their goal in a 1-1 at Gillingham came right at the death, but was deserved, and at home to Cheltenham a couple of months ago they attacked non-stop but only scored twice, allowing Cheltenham to pull one back late on. My suspicion is that this will be a tussle between Torquay’s attacking flair and Stevenage’s defensive set-up. I rather hope Torquay win out, but wouldn’t put money on it.

I’ve not seen either of the League 1 contenders, Huddersfield or Peterborough, so can’t pass comment. Of the Championship pairing, I saw Reading early on in the season in a match distinguished by a kamikaze performance by one of the Ipswich Town defenders (Roy Keane was still manager at that point): quite how the defender, a young chap, not a cynical old pro, managed to stay on the pitch for almost two-thirds of the match before being sent off puzzled me and most of the people around me. But both before and after he went, Reading were unable to conjure a goal until a very late effort won them the game. Since then, I imagine, Reading have got their goal-scoring together a bit better.

Swansea I saw only a couple of weeks ago at Millwall and the seasoned football-watchers there said that Swansea had been the best team they’d seen all year, and I’d certainly believe them. Fast, deft passing, positional and tactical awareness: this was some of the best football I saw all season too, bettered, probably, only by Manchester City at Fulham. The winger Nathan Dyer was the star man, but Swansea impressed as a unit. So will they beat Reading? On my limited watching, they ought to. But again I’d not wager on it.

And the other match that’s on today? Well, I have seen Manchester United once this season, which doesn’t happen to me very often because I don’t tend to go for the “big” games. And the one I saw was a 4-0 drubbing inflicted on what was, in essence, a Man U second team in the League Cup by West Ham United. So you can see, my football-watching isn’t much of a guide really. Is it?

27 May
Industrial indifference

I had more of a thought about the stuff I wrote yesterday (apropos Lord Digby Jones’s comments) and wanted, briefly, to make a couple of other points. Or rather to pose a couple of other questions, to which I don’t know the answers.

One of the things that Jones’s speech seemed to be about is a long-running theme throughout UK history, which is a perception that the UK has an anti-industrial, anti-manufacturing, anti-engineering culture. I wonder whether this is really true: the “anti-” bit, I mean. I can see that in terms of the figures, we seem to punch our weight less than we did in terms of global output, numbers of patents, productivity, numbers of engineering graduates etc etc. But that always seems to be comparing ourselves with the UK of 100 years ago, which was vastly different, and putting us in the context of a global economy that hasn’t stood still either. And then blaming ourselves for the fact that on these rather spurious measures other people seem to have done better than we have.

So, two questions. One is, do we have any view about whether, as a nation of 60 million people, less than 1 per cent of world population, we are above or below average on realistic economic measures? My betting is that we’re still some distance above on most of them, but maybe not as much above as we were 100 or 150 years ago, and that that’s as much to do with the rise of others and with changes in political economic circumstance elsewhere as it is to do with ourselves and our performance. But maybe I’m wrong.

The other question is perhaps unanswerable, but I’ll ask it anyway. Are the “problems” of UK manufacturing, industry, engineering etc due to positive anti-industrialism? Or more to do with indifference and a lack of knowledge? It’s a strange paranoid mind-set that equates indifference with antipathy, or ignorance with antagonism. But I suspect that perceptions that the UK is “anti-industry” are wide of the mark: for a lot of people, they either don’t know or, more likely, don’t much care. Which is a different “problem”.

What do others feel?

26 May
Back to the blame culture

I see that Lord Digby Jones, the Brummie chap who used to be head of the Confederation of British Industry and then got caught up being one of Gordon Brown’s “non-political ministers”, has been up on his hind-legs again talking about the poor image that manufacturing has in the UK. And one of the reasons he gives is that the press in the UK doesn’t report the good news, only the bad.

This really is a very lazy argument and I’m a bit depressed to find it still being peddled. It proceeds from several contentions which are all, I reckon, pretty dubious in their own right. I suspect it gets Jones a cheer whenever he gets up and says it. But that doesn’t make it accurate. Or, for someone with a degree of influence, the right kind of thing to be saying.

Let’s look at some of the “reasoning” inside this argument. Only reporting the bad news? Well, in the past week or so we’ve had, as perhaps an example, Tata Steel saying around 1500 jobs will go at Scunthorpe and on Teesside. Should that not be reported? What I noticed in the reports that I read on this story was that virtually every reporter made mention too of the recent “good news” of the Teesside steel complex coming back into production – and there were sensible comments too about the apparent fragility of the UK recovery and the difficulties countries such as the UK face in global markets for bulk commodities such as steel. Elsewhere, the Tata group has had some really good press for its Jaguar Land Rover business in the past week or so. Maybe Jones only read the bad news because that was what he wanted to see, but there was plenty of other stuff, and there was informed commentary too.

But there’s something else here too. In my mind, the job of the press is to report: accurately, fairly, comprehensively, and informedly… as far as possible. The job of the press is not to be a propaganda arm for UK plc, or for UK manufacturing plc versus some other branch of the economy. The press’s role is to provide information. I suspect Jones confuses journalism with public relations. And why should he know the difference? Well, if he’s going to attack one for not being the other, then I think he should learn before he opens his mouth. I’ve been highly critical of some reporting in the past year or so, mostly on account of factual accuracy and sloppy unquestioning acceptance of PR spin. But at least I think I know what I’m talking about.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, I would really like to know whether Jones’s view, that manufacturing has a poor image in the UK, remains true. I’d be fairly convinced that it used to be so, but I’m much less sure now, particularly among younger people who know what’s what. For my generation (which is also Digby Jones’ generation)? Perhaps, but certainly not in the same way that we might have thought 20 years ago. I suspect a bigger problem is that manufacturing often isn’t thought about at all, rather than that it’s thought of badly. But that’s only my perception, and I’d be very cautious about standing up on my hind-legs and pontificating about it. Or blaming anyone for it.

And that’s the really depressing bit about this rather old-fashioned and outdated speech: its negativity and its keenness to blame. If you wanted to point to things that are wrong about UK business and industry, those two factors would be top of my list.

9 May
Recurring dreams in transport

I’ve knocked around in the business, industry, engineering end of journalism for rather a long time now, and there are two stories in slightly related areas that seem to crop up with reliable regularity over the years. One is the story that someone has a plan to bring the UK’s canal system up to scratch as a low-energy, high-capacity transportation system for bulk goods, taking freight off the roads; the other is that airships will take to the skies again, providing similarly a gentle way of transporting non-perishable stuff at no great speed but with little environmental impact. It’s this second one that’s reared its head again with a new story this morning.

At various times in the past, I’ve written these stories myself and I’d very much like them to be true. But as I grow older and more cynical, I increasingly suspect that they aren’t going to happen. At least not any time soon.

The attraction of both, of course, is not just that they are probably greener options than the way we often transport bulk items at present. It’s also that they hark back to a gentler pace of doing business, more civilised, less bustly. There’s something in the overall vision here that’s akin to the appealing nostalgic view of a prewar Britain much cited 20 years ago by John Major (or 70 years ago by Stanley Baldwin), or even to older myths about “Merrie England” generated by Victorian fabulists.

There are at least two difficulties, though. One is that deliberately going slower and being competitive are pretty much incompatible notions in the way we do business and industry now. We can wish it wasn’t so, but the number of commodities that could be transferred from “fast” transport to “slow” is probably pretty limited: a lot of bulk chemicals, aggregates, components, fuels etc etc already use continuous delivery systems of the kind that waterways and sea-routes can provide. Where is the additional traffic that’s suitable for this more relaxed scheduling that isn’t already using it? We’re not going to reinvent, at this stage, the china industry of the Potteries and expect our teacups to be delivered by canal, as Josiah Wedgwood did 200 years back. We’re all stuck on deadlines, just-in-time, lean ideas.

The other difficulty is that both of these ideas need a lot of infrastructure: docks, warehouses, airstrips, routes across country and through airspace. I’ve no doubt that providing different kinds of infrastructure – for hydrogen-powered vehicles, for example – will be a big issue in coming years. A related point is perhaps a wider debate about whether we should be thinking about systems and ways of working that require less infrastructure, not more – local manufacture rather than global, maybe. Either way, would canals or airships be top of the priority list? I suspect not.

I’d like very much to be proved wrong with all of this, and for one of these tales of canal regeneration or airship revival to have a happy and profitable ending. But much though I enjoy reading them, I’ll not hold my breath.

8 May
The Battle of Barnet, part II

My previous post on here was, as anyone who follows English football’s lower reaches could now tell you, too pessimistic by half. I went to watch Barnet’s match with Port Vale yesterday pretty much expecting to be witnessing the last act in a none-too-glorious Football League career: this time around, it has been Barnet’s sixth season among the “elite” and they’ve flickered into the top of the final table only once in that six-year period. Yesterday, they had to win to stay in the League and hope that Lincoln City, the only team they could hope to catch, would fail to win and therefore be demoted in their place.

Well, of course, it happened just that way. Barnet huffed and puffed up the hill in the first half and created a hatful of chances, all of which they spurned. Then, virtually from the second half kick-off, their large centre forward, the curiously-named Izale McLeod, dribbled his way in rather slow motion towards the Port Vale goal. No one challenged him until he reached the penalty area, where a defender stuck out a lazy leg, McLeod fell over it with apparent relief, and the crowd and referee shouted “Penalty”. McLeod, possibly the only person since the fictional television cowboy Bronco Layne 50 years ago to be named after toilet tissue, duly sent the keeper sprawling (he dislocated his arm in the process and played no further part).

Cue wild celebration, which was then periodically augmented through the second half as it became apparent that a.) Port Vale had no intention of spoiling the party by displaying any discernible talent of their own and b.) news filtered through from Lincoln that the home team there had read the script and knew what their role was. There were no further goals at Barnet and at the final whistle, schoolboys, both real ones and overgrown ones, invaded the pitch in orange celebration.

So I shan’t be coming back to Barnet next season to watch Bath City or other Conference sides; I’ll be back to see Football League stuff again, and I’m all told pleased for them. But not everyone is. Grumpy contributions on various websites I saw last night thought it a travesty that Barnet, quite possibly the most basic of all the Football League venues, should survive on the last day of the season for a second year. To which the rejoinder is: the table doesn’t lie and two teams were, over the course of a season, worse than they were.

It is though perhaps fortunate that football status is decided on footballing grounds rather than on football grounds, for Barnet’s is pretty dire. Is this the only ground in the country where the Gents in the main stand doesn’t have a washbasin? I do hope so. Perhaps they’ll put one in now that their future is assured – for another year. The followers of Izale deserve no less.

6 May
Intruding on private grief

It’s the last proper day of the 2010-11 football season tomorrow. Yes, of course I know that the Premier League still has a couple of weeks to go, there are play-offs and cup finals to come and this year, almost certainly, a round of points deductions, high court challenges and bitter tears. But proper football, as played in the English Football League over 46 rounds from August to May, reaches Round 46 tomorrow. So it’ll be my last game of the season.

And what a game. I’ve picked one of the few matches where the outcome will make a big difference. I’m off to Barnet v Port Vale. It’s a match that Barnet have to win, or they’ll not be in the Football League next season. And even if they do win it, they could still go down if Lincoln City, the only team they can catch at the foot of League Two, manage a victory against Aldershot Town. So Barnet’s strategy for the match has to be very simple: just win it. And then hope.

I’m not a regular at Barnet, but I’ve been often enough – a dozen or more times over the past five or six seasons – to appreciate that they bring something different to the Football League. The ground now sports a new, slightly temporary-feeling stand behind one goal, but otherwise it’s all small-scale, somewhat ramshackle, comfy and cosy. Along the length of the east side is a standing terrace, these days much of it given over to the away supporters*: there aren’t many grounds now where you can stand to watch at the halfway line. And then there’s the slope. Yeovil Town’s slope did for Sunderland, famously, in the 1949 FA Cup, and Barnet I’m sure derive some benefit from theirs: I’ve noticed that, given the choice, they usually play up the slope in the first half, and down it in the second. In the games I’ve seen, I reckon twice as many goals are scored downhill as uphill.

For this and other quirkinesses, I’ll be rooting for Barnet tomorrow and then hoping. I’ve been in this position at the end of a football season once before: in almost identical circumstances, I went about five years ago to see Oxford United play Leyton Orient. Orient won 3-2, Oxford went out of the league, I slunk away, feeling a bit of a heel because, unlike everyone else around me, I wasn’t entirely devastated, as I’d harboured an irrational hatred of Oxford United ever since (as Headington United) they pipped Bath City to the Southern League title in 1961. I was intruding on private grief, but not grieving.

But tomorrow will be different. I have a good record over the years of seeing Barnet win. Come on the Bees. At least win the game. But if you don’t then I’ll probably be back next year anyway, because your demotion will mean I can get to watch Barnet v Bath City next season in the Conference. So I win whatever happens.

*Post script: Actually, for this match, Barnet sensibly left the East Terrace to their own supporters and corralled the 400 or so Port Vale folk to the North Terrace, at the top of the hill, and the small seating area that’s up there too.

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