Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Doing bad things

I’ve done a couple of things I’m not proud of this month. I’ve handed over money for service I won’t boast about. And the worst thing is that, I know, I’ll go back.

I’ve bought Forever Bristol membership, and I’ve bought a ticket to Hillsbrough for the opening game of the season. While neither of these are shameful, precisely, both of them have left me at the very edge of my moral comfort zone.

Second things first. The ticket for Sheffield Wednesday cost me £39. Which, undeniably, is a hell of a lot; enough for a lot of people, very reasonably, to decide that it’s not worth the candle. And the Supporters’ Club and Trust have gone further, and announced that they’re not going to attend. They’ve stopped short of calling a boycott because some people have already booked travel, but they’ve made it very clear that this is the next best thing.

They are, of course, absolutely right. Exploitative pricing is a major issue in football at the moment, especially in the revoltingly rich upper divisions of the English game. Fans prize loyalty above any other trait, but the clubs upon which they bestow this prized characteristic strip-mine it for money. It’s a bad, bad business, and City fans are right to stand up to it.

But. This was the game I looked for when the results came out. This is the game which my friend Dave the big Sheffield Wednesday fan were planning to organise a night out around. And there it was, first game of the season, barely a month after the fixtures came out. It was too perfect not to.

So I'm going up on Saturday; I've held my nose, not looked at the bank account, and bought a ticket. I'll send some money Sheffield FC's way, but I won't be able to pretend that's any better than giving a quid to one homeless guy in every twenty as an assuaging of the conscience. I'm looking forward to the first game of the season, looking forward more to the evening out in a lovely city – but don't get me wrong, if the SC&T had announced a full boycott I'd have fallen in line. I'd never break a boycott. I'm all too aware I'm using a semantic distinction as justification; but it has to be enough.

Before I even bought that ticket, though, I'd caved and bought Forever Bristol membership – and that really stuck in the craw. I dislike the concept of Forever Bristol immensely. It's the Speedy Boarding of the football world – an opportunity for the seller to monetise, rather than the provision of a service, the non-removal of an already existing service. If you don't offer Speedy Boarding, everyone gets the same chance to board the plane – as soon as you do, you take away that first chance from passengers who don't pay the premium. Forever Bristol is precisely the same. If it didn't exist, everyone would have the same chance to buy tickets. Introduce it, and suddenly you create a second tier of fans, which we all have to pay £20 to avoid joining. The club has to do nothing – literally nothing – extra, except stick out a virtual hand and extract a crispy purple note from fans who'll be buying tickets anyway.

The only way this can work, of course, is by frightening people into joining the upper tier. After all, if nobody bought Speedy Boarding, nobody else would feel they had to. There would no longer be a queue to jump. And all last season the club's website yelled at us that we had to become FB members if we wanted to see the games. This reached a particular nadir after the FA Cup draw pitting us against West Ham when a Forever Bristol membership ad, rather than news of the fixture itself, took pride of place on the website.

The West Ham game still didn't sell out to members, mind; I think only the last game of the season did. Which must have provoked sighs of relief from the accounts department. A Cup game hadn't, the game where we sealed the title hadn't; thank God that at the very last minute they showed the fans that without paying the premium you risked getting bupkis.

Hang on... now I think of it, it's odd that a match didn't sell out to members until the last possible opportunity for one to do so...

...and after some more attractive games had failed to. You don't think...?

Surely not...?

No. I'm sure it was all above board and honest.

Now I'm not an idiot and I understand that scarcity = demand = increased pricing. I get that. But we seem to have the worst of both here – increased prices this season and a membership fee if you actually want the opportunity to pay any of them.

And yet I know all this, and I complain about it, but once again I have the wallet out. Why? Why have I chosen willingly to be exploited, once by my own club, once by a bunch of Yorkshire blue-and-whites to whom I have no allegiance?

As ever, the answer at its most reductionist is: because football. But that won't quite do. The simple action of walloping a ball into a net can be exciting, sure, but it's hard to believe it's exciting enough to mesmerise us all into agreeing to this mechanised asset-stripping.

Football isn't just football for most of us. It's not the 'bunch of lads kicking a ball around' of repute. It's a weird bundle of connections in our mind, pre-season most of all – echoes of triumph ringing around the brain, the chemical memory of those endorphin rushes, those odd moments when everything aligns in a wonderful, natural high. It's the friendships it's connected with, the old friends I most often see at Ashton Gate now, the new friendships the game throws our way, the sharing of something mutually beloved. And more than that it's the primal sense of identity, of belonging; as humans we congregate, if not at football games then music festivals, airshows, comic book conventions, whatever you like. For everyone reading this, football provides something – several somethings – that I think drive us as animals. Great swathes of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can be fulfilled at your local Championship ground, 3pm every other winter Saturday.

That's why advertisers are so desperate to stick Ray Winstone's stupid face into the Champion's League; why David Fishwick Minibus Sales hangs on to that prime location at Turf Moor; why Manchester United have an Official Office Equipment Partner. Everyone knows that – but it's indirect. “When football strips away their higher brain functions” runs the commercial logic, “we'll step in and shove our tat right down their pleasure centres”.

What I've been paying for is the real thing. The direct hit. Liquid football. And like anyone who comes back for more when they know they shouldn't, who spends money they don't really have, who has an order of priority they probably won't admit to anybody, I'm far too tarnished to start pretending my hands aren't dirty.

And I can't wait for the season to start, so that my millions of fellow-sufferers and I can debase ourselves once again.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

A theory of relativity

I remember another sell-out home game against Coventry City. An equally vital one, potentially decisive in terms of the division we'd spend the following season in; League One or the Championship.

Three years and nine days earlier, we met Coventry in a massive relegation tussle at the bottom of the Championship. Tied at 1-1 after Jon Stead had scored at both ends (or rather, the same end in different halves), Derek McInnes brought on a raw young winger called Yannick Bolasie. You'll remember him – he's apparently now worth £20m, although in fact he probably isn't. His goal with his first or second touch has evidently “lived long in the memory”, since I can remember it now. I can remember calling “go on, Yannick, make yourself a hero” when he came on; well, didn't he just.

And I can also remember that goal taking the lid off the place. According to Google it was in the 82nd minute and put us four points clear of relegation with four to play. So you'd expect the fans to have been pretty damn chuffed.

But it's perhaps still odd that the atmosphere that day – at the end of a completely awful season – was so much better than the atmosphere against the same opposition this weekend, when we won League One at the end of a completely brilliant one.

We know the facts: we've just claimed our first league title of any kind for sixty years and we'll set our highest ever points total in doing so. Yet Ashton Gate was a little flat on Saturday afternoon, there's no question about it. The pitch invasion at the end felt a bit token, a bit forced, the product of obligation rather than effervescence. Having been at all three matches, I'm fairly sure much less of the pitch was covered than after the game in 2012 against Barnsley which kept us up, let alone after our last promotion, in 2007. And yet these games came at the end of seasons which were, in the first instance, pretty awful, and in the second, really good but still not title-winning.

I think there are a few contributing factors here but I think one is absolutely key.

First of all, of course, we've now got a smaller capacity as a result of having a three-sided ground. So not only were fewer people present, but the atmosphere wasn't locked in – it wasn't bouncing off every side, being sent back into the centre with interest by every group of City fans. But that's not all. It can't be, because not everyone went on the pitch anyway, and because there were large sections of the ground where not much singing was taking place at all – including around me, in the north end of the Williams.

Secondly, it was in the end a 0-0 draw. There's always been something slightly unsatisfying about 0-0 draws; the lack of a goal denies you the release of tension which elation in football is all about. After Tuesday's astonishing result at Valley Parade, I expect that most people (including me) were expecting the odd goal on Saturday. But that's not all either. It can't be, because we've all seen occasions in which a draw (or even a defeat – see Monaco v Arsenal earlier this season) has led to untrammelled joy.

Thirdly, let's be honest; we all knew we were going to win the league, didn't we? I'm not sure that anyone would have expected Preston to win every remaining match, not in this league that's wanted consistency throughout. And we've not lost three in a row all season – clearly it was unlikely we'd start now. But that's not all either. It can't be, because you can be damn well sure that Chelsea fans will celebrate when they win the league. And I assume Bayern fans will as well, although even that must be getting a little dull for them, now.

I think the fourth reason has a lot more to do with it. In the end, what we did this weekend was win a league we should never have been in to start with. Sure, after six promotions in which we don't win the division, finally breaking that statistically anomalous run was great. But if someone had said to you, five years ago, when Keith Millen was in caretaker charge of a team that had spent a couple of years starting to slip “don't worry, it gets better, you'll win the League One title soon” I'm not sure that would have been much comfort. You might in fact have been tempted to hit your imaginary comforter.

This is the problem with a lot of what we've been offered this season – all of this “once in 60 years we get something this good”, “best season ever” narrative. It just isn't true. It can't be. Because this season came with a ceiling, and that ceiling was “45th best club in Britain”. We've just had several years of beating that automatically, of being unable to finish below 44th. I think it's reasonable to be slightly nonplussed at finishing 45th.

Nothing says more about who we are as a club than our record for winning the Football League Trophy – whether you call it the Freight Rover, the LDV or the Johnstone's Paint – more than any other side. It means we're theoretically a bit too good for this level, but we keep finding ourselves here all the same. Lots was made about Mark Little “retaining” the JPT having won it with Peterborough last season, but again I wonder whether that's the accolade it sounds like. Is he, too, better than this division but not quite Championship level? We'll know in a year, I suppose; certainly I think you can only call someone a record-breaker if it's a record anyone ever mentioned or might conceivably have hoped to claim. I'm not sure any young player dreams of winning the thing once, let alone twice on the bounce.

None of this of course means that we shouldn't enjoy winning a competition or two, if because of systemic mismanagement we end up in them again. Of course we should. But there's always going to be an upper limit to the joy you can take from winning a division containing Crawley, Fleetwood and Rochdale. The game I enjoyed most this season was the away-day at Preston because, you know what, it felt like the Championship again. It felt like the sort of game we'll get a lot next season. Two good sides, in a proper stadium, in a proper city, going at it. It's worth a thousand 2-1 wins at “the stadium” and I'm looking forward to lots more of that. I'm also very pleased we got this done in what felt like, when we went down, the minimum time possible; we haven't got stuck like poor old Sheffield United, and that's a good thing.

But if we were to accept this as “one of the great Bristol City seasons”, we'd also have to accept that in finishing in the Conference's top two, Bristol Rovers are currently enjoying one of the greatest in their history; their first placing this high in a generation. And come on. Nobody's going to accept that, are they?

Context is important. That's why we can't go too mad at success in League One, but why we had damn well better enjoy next season more, whatever we do and wherever we finish.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Forced perspective

11 April 2015 - Preston North End 1 Bristol City 1

Over the last 18 months, Aden Flint has metamorphosed from lumbering, gaffe-prone lummox to the latest member of that part-lovable, part-tiresome gang, the “Cult Hero”. From Gary Caldwell to Robin Friday in 50 matches is quite the achievement, but this is a man with every qualification for the job. He used to be a tarmacker, he's hard to miss on the pitch at 6'6”, and he's inherently likeable, with a dry turn of phrase it's difficult not to warm to. Plus he's playing extremely well at the moment; the current League One Player of the Month, he's responsible for the unsual sense of calm amongst City fans when a high ball swigs into our box (a favourite stratagem at this level), as well as the sense of anticipation when we win a corner.

Oh, and when he was asked whether he wanted Swindon Town to go up, he used his mastery of repartee, of the easy bon mot, and came out with the timeless quip, “no”.

Maybe you had to be there.

I'm being a bit harsh, perhaps. City fans may have adopted this as one of the great footballing witticisms of the ages, up there with “we discuss it and agree I'm right” and all those times Lineker reminded Hansen that he'd been wrong about Manchester United's youth policy, but Flint wasn't trying to be funny. He was simply speaking his mind. His lack of diplomacy is a significant component of what we like about him; he's a bluff Northerner whose head is for heading balls rather than weighing words. But following the enjoyable victory over Swindon Town, the travelling contingent at Deepdale this weekend had made up a cheery little number set to that great Oasis B-side “Cum On Feel the Noize”. The main difference is that the lyrics aren't about a weekend on the razzle in the Black Country any more, but about how Swindon won't be promoted and serves them right too.

Now there is, obviously, nothing wrong with this. That needs saying now. In a division short on obvious rivals Swindon fit the bill well. They're from up the road (although if you have to specify why a derby is a derby, pace “the M4 derby”, it probably isn't a real derby) and they've been near us in the league for most of the season. So we can not like them at we can sing songs about them, fine. But, to borrow terminology from the election campaign, making Swindon's non-promotion a red line – saying “I'm not bothered who else goes up as long as it's not Swindon” - well, that just won't do, I'm afraid.

I think most of us would agree that there are levels of good and bad within football. Bad, especially. You've got the things people say are bad: swapping shirts at half-time, not returning the ball if your opponents have put it out of play, whatever. These mostly exist within the game itself. And then you've got the things that are actually bad: major tournaments consistently being awarded to oil-rich despots, say, or the pricing out of the working class, or Robbie Savage. These are things that exist outside the game – meta-football, if you like. What happens on the pitch matters, I'm not arguing that it doesn't; but it doesn't matter anything like as much as what happens beyond it, in the superstructure of football, where actual people's actual lives are affected. It doesn't matter one quintillionth as much.

And yeah, that brings me to MK Dons.

I've been fed up with MK Dons all season. Them beating Manchester United early on, that was amusing, of course, but when they kept hanging around the novelty wore off. The joke wasn't funny any more when City fans congratulated themselves for buying 5,000 seats at Stadium:MK, and it was positively tiresome when some cheered MK's victory at Swindon, of all people, the other weekend.

In terms of what they do on the pitch, MK Dons don't seem that bad; they play neat football with young players and they do it quite well. The manager's a bit difficult to swallow, but a lot of them are, including some a hell of a lot closer to home than Karl Robinson. They're a bit bland, because there's no half-century of animus with them as there is with most teams in this league, but not unpleasantly so. And they produced Sam Baldock, so cheers to them for that.

But off the pitch, in the realm of the important, they are quite obviously loathsome. They shouldn't exist, not only because they're objectionable but because they're dangerous. Their existence serves as a permanent threat to 91 other league clubs, or more precisely to their fans. MK Dons are a totem, sending the message that anyone could take your club away from you and there's nothing at all the football authorities can do about it.

Sure, we play this game about not liking teams. We don't like Crystal Palace because we used to play them a lot and we got grumpy with one another. We don't like Rovers because they're the other lot in Bristol and we want to be better than them. It spices up football, it creates a bit more narrative, a bit more fun. But it's a game; it has rules, and one of them is that we'll have a drink with a Rovers fan or a Palace fan later. I think we'd all believe that someone not prepared to do so would be taking the whole thing a bit too seriously.

MK Dons exist outside that. (Cardiff, of course, rather beautifully combine being game-rivals with an actually unpleasant football club beyond the pitch as well, and it's hard not to look forward to playing that lot next year.) Even if we don't have game-reasons for not liking them, the real reasons to despise them are clear, present and unignorable.

My local team, Dulwich Hamlet, have a slogan amongst the fans; “Ordinary Morality is for Ordinary Football Clubs”, they say. Now if I'm honest I'm not quite sure what that means. I think most football clubs are quite a few moral niches below ordinary; amoral at best, the 92 collectively are. But if a football club has any value, if those colours, that history, that dear old stadium has any meaning whatsoever, it must be morally right to resist the trend of devaluing, asset-stripping and preying upon those dear old associations for the sake of a quick, dirty buck. And as an ordinary football club, which is the most important thing in the the British sporting tradition, let's aspire to a bit of ordinary morality.

Let's keep Swindon as our rivals. But let's not forget what's really important. And if Swindon play MK Dons in the playoff final, let's be Robins together for a day.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Unmoved by success

24 February 2015 - Millwall 1 Sheffield Wednesday 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Big in Lincolnshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where will Saturday’s game be won or lost?

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

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

How I tried to stop worrying and love Bristol City

13 September 2014 - Bristol City 3 Doncaster Rovers 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 25 August 2014

The fan who knew too much

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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