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.

Monday, 12 May 2014

An insular life

Saturday 3 May - Crawley Town 1 Bristol City 1

I think most people who were at this match would agree that it was a particularly strange occasion. For most of the crowd, events on the pitch had already ceased to be the focus of attention long before Simon Gillett scored his equaliser just after the hour. The celebrations at the final whistle had nothing to do with a bang mid-table finish taken from the teeth of a second successive relegation and everything to do with Bristol Rovers dropping out of the Football League for the first time in 94 years.

We were celebrating the end of a two-club era in Bristol football; the new state of affairs may last for a year or a decade, we don't know yet. But undeniably things are changing. Back in Bristol, the Ashton Gate pitch had already been torn up, the scoreboard of the East End was about to come down, the seats had been sold and the ancient home end at BS3 began the process of being removed. And Louis Carey, our record appearance holder, would be released within the week as expected.

Furthermore, the club appears to have arrested the spiral of decline it's been on for four or five years; certainly as long as I've been writing this blog. And with half the team, including loanees, departing it'll be very different watching a new side, with a more optimistic crowd behind them, in a three-sided stadium come August. At the very least I'll need to pick on a new player for miscontrolling the ball out of play.

That's not the only amendment I'll have to make to that box at the top right though. Because this is a personal end of an era as well. For the first time in six years I'll no longer be a season ticket holder.

You see, we're all in our thirties now, me and my friends from Bristol. That meant a spate of weddings which we seem to be coming to the end of now, which has given way to the spate of pregnancies one might expect. And Ross, being the virile chap that he is, has played a full and active part in all this. Ross Jnr is on its way, with paternity leave handily scheduled for the middle of the World Cup.

Perfectly understandably that makes his season ticket an unrealistic commitment both financially and temporally; you don't want to guarantee nineteen Saturday afternoons and four Tuesday nights out of the house when you're raising a not-even-one-year-old. So my gesture of solidarity-slash-acceptance that regular solo football is less fun has been to not renew my season ticket either.

This may not, initially at least, make a huge difference. I still have a pool of friends I can go to games with; Ross himself will no doubt be back at some stage; and certainly until and unless City make a major promotion push, getting home tickets ought to be possible even given the reduced capacity. But the significance of it is clear, and was rammed home against Crawley. As he has done for many years, Ross spent the Saturday night at my place in Peckham. He won't be doing that again for a long, long time. And without the need to justify the already-outlaid spending on a season ticket, I quite possibly won't find myself booking the long winter journey to home games against mediocre opposition as often in the future. Even recently it's felt like lunacy sometimes and I think that this blog has become a way of ameliorating that.

I've had many moments in those dark, horrible, 2-0 home defeat, 23rd in the table train journeys where I've questioned the purpose of the trip; when I've sat alone on a cold night in some southeastern retail park backwater and wondered what it's all about. Why am I dragging myself to these painful encounters; why is so much of my income and leisure time going on watching football matches when there are football matches on TV and all over London, when I have options other than going to football matches at all? Why?

It's not even as though I'm the obsessive sort of fan, although I know people who'd snort derisively at that comment. I don't have to do the 92, I don't have to watch every Premier League game on Sky, it doesn't bother me that the Spanish title decider clashes with the Cup Final. So my journeys cannot realistically be in the pursuit of football, that strange 90 minutes of shouting and wrestling and occasional magnificence. There must be something else that keeps me going. I think it's the part of football that really is more than just a game. With a resounding capital F I am travelling for Football.

I am travelling because Football has, in the 24 years (to the day!) since I watched Manchester United and Crystal Palace contest the FA Cup final, become the major narrative of my life. That's not to say that it has been all-consuming – there's no programme collection, no set of ticket stubs – but it has become the bedrock upon which the rest of my life, school, university, work, falling in and out of love, friendships, nights out, days in – has been built. I haven't been in education for over a decade now but I still think of years that start and finish in late summer. Not school years. Football seasons.

1998 means Zidane and Ronaldo and Guivarc'h before it means anything else. 2008 is Xavi, Iniesta and Torres. 1994, true, has competition from Parklife and His 'n' Hers (a certain strand of indie music being the countervailing narrative) but it still means Baggio's penalty when it comes down to it. Now we're in another World Cup year and I'm sure that I'll look back at 2014 and remember this summer's heroes, Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi or whomever it is, before anything else springs to mind.

Partly this is because these events are always connected with the dates – France '98 is called France '98, none of my other memories from that summer are so denoted – but if you're reading this you will have a similar highlights reel for each year, I'm sure. Anyway it's not just the dates, it's the way that the brain can mix up memories based on what really mattered – your life – and what felt like it mattered – football – because the feelings at the time were exactly the same. I can't think of one breakup without remembering that the 7-1 defeat at Swansea coincided with it. Nor can I forget starting to fall in love again the night after Gary Johnson's first game, a 3-2 victory at Brentford.

(No, there wasn't much time between the two. Dirty stopout.)

And Football has brought me so much closer to so many friends because my narrative is also theirs; doubly so for fellow City fans but it goes for fans of Arsenal, Tottenham, Blackburn, Northwich Victoria or any team you could name. There's a lazy cliché about men together always talking about football, but take away the sexism and it's close to irresistible. You forge friendships, relationships, through common ground, and if two people have that same narrative then it makes perfect sense to share it.

But for Ross, Football won't be the main narrative any more. He'll be a father, and while the two will chug along nicely together (particularly given the expected date of birth of his child, which does make my point rather fabulously) he won't have the same time to invest in Football for a while. No more should he, of course. It's right that his priorities will shift. His awfully big adventure won't be next season's promotion battle but his first chance to nurture and inspire life.

As for this blog? Who knows. I'll be going to fewer games, sure, but I don't update every time I go to a game (you can have too much reflection, you know) and I've always tried to write about more than just football – I've tried to write about Football, what goes on around the game, principles, philosophies, bad jokes. That will all still exist in future. And it doesn't just happen at Bristol City. Perhaps going to fewer games will allow me to get up to Dulwich Hamlet from time to time; to go with my friends to Arsenal matches; to watch more of the big games in the Premier League that kick off when I'm normally arriving at Temple Meads these days.

And, just as I sometimes am now, I'll be to the left of other people in future. I know some great people through shared love of Football. Maybe their stories are worth telling as well.

I don't know what life To The Left of My Friends looks like. I do know I'm not going to change the name of the blog. And I'm sure I'll continue – an unexamined life not being worth living, and all that. I may not be to the left of Ross every week in future, but it's far too late for my narrative to change. I expect to continue exploring my relationship – everyone's relationship – with this mad, stupid game for as long it feels right.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

What of our future?

26 April 2014: Bristol City 0 Crewe Alexandra 0

I'd not looked forward to the opening day of the season with such anticipation in years; probably not since we responded to reaching the Championship playoff final by signing Nicky Maynard, and anyway the first game of the season that year was in Blackpool so I didn't go. The summer of 2013 saw phase one of a clearout of the older, more expensive players – or those we were able to clear out – and an influx of young, talented ones. Jordan Wynter, Frank Fielding, Derek Williams, Marlon Pack, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, all under the tutelage of Sean O'Driscoll. Relegation or no relegation it was an exciting concept.

And that first game, that 2-2 draw with Bradford, was encouraging in itself. OK, it wasn't a perfect performance; the first of those Frank Fielding moments that perhaps defined Phase 1 of the season took place, the keeper dashing madly out of his area and allowing Nakhi Wells to equalise in the first half. But it was an entertaining, attacking game of passing football, plenty of goals, and a real sense of a new beginning.

This weekend I went to another draw at Ashton Gate, and it was awful; very few attacks, neither goalkeeper massively stretched, a pathetic pitch celebration at the end, a simultaneous victory for Bristol Rovers, all against a poor Crewe side who may still go down. I can't, of course, criticise the team too much – our lack of vigour was surely borne from our status as mid-table survivors, and I'd hoped earlier in the season that Cotterill would bring the season to a humdrum end simply because it'd mean we weren't fighting a relegation battle. So in that sense I got what I wanted, but it wasn't much of a football match, and it wasn't a patch on that opening day 2-2.

But you can pick and choose selectively to prove anything, and everyone reading this knows that a hell of a lot happened between those two draws bookending the Ashton Gate season. We know what happened to that “project”, to use the footballing term, before winter had really set in.

Because the first third of the season was an attempt to do something for the long-term, an attempt sunk by poor results, only one of which came anywhere near the date at which the manager was removed.

That first third ranks as one of the most frustrating three-month spells of my life as a City fan, which is saying something. The consistent promising talk. The periods of games which would seem to live up to it. The periods of games which, yes, composed of sterile domination followed by a loss of nerve and a long ball to a short man. Those knocking-on-the-door 0-0s which looked like turning into 1-0s only for two great chances to come and go, and actually turned into 0-1s thanks to the outstretched foot of Aden Flint.

“Nearly” will always be the most disappointing, and perhaps the most damning, word in the football vernacular. Better to not compete than to lose in the 90th minute, perhaps, and we lost in the 90th minute a lot. We didn't take our chances, defenders made individual errors, things didn't quite click. But would you expect them to? A rebuilt team, half the wage bill on the treatment table or out of favour in the pockets of Pearson, Kilkenny, Fontaine, Marv. A side learning, a side chronically unable to get that bit of confidence that a win would have given them.

And then of course the infamous seven-game mini run, with its single defeat that was leapt on and picked over. It counted more because it had happened at home, one felt, a fine performance at Prenton Park seven days before unaccounted for. And more frustration now as, one good performance later, the die was cast. Frustration for those who thought they'd seen signs of things coming together, but would never, ever know.

Which took us into the second section of the season. The section that made you long for mere frustration, the section that was agony.

Steve Cotterill ripped it up and started again. And why not? He'd been given a different goal, the transfer window was evidence of that. In came experience, out went youth (a single start and plentiful sub appearances for Wes Burns not outweighing the sudden dearth of opportunities awarded to Bobby Reid and Joe Bryan), Steve: you have to keep us up and this time ain't doing it. Build another one.

And Cotterill's Survival Machine Phase I didn't work. No reason it should, it had been pulled together quickly enough from spare parts, made out of this and made out of that and whatever was at hand. But the early weeks of 2014, in particular, were painful, the defeat at Brentford probably the nadir – Parrish, El-Abd, Flint and Barnett will probably never be in the same City team again, and without writing them off too much, thank Christ.

Still learning about his players, players we largely knew better than he did, the manager didn't seem to get his formation right from week to week. In a rare spell of good fortune I saw both of our wins in that period – a 2-1 at home to Carlisle in a real pig of a game, and a 3-1 at Leyton Orient that was pleasant at the time, but was followed by two more poor performances and poor results leading up to that nadir at Brammall Lane. I am a man of an optimistic disposition, however I try and hide it: I walked out of that Sheffield United game telling my friend Rich not to be silly, of course we weren't going down. But earlier this year I was working out the route from Peckham to Dagenham (or is it Redbridge?).

And then. And then. Things started to click, and the final phase of the season turned into our most enjoyable in years.

It was The Redemption of Frank Fielding that night at London Road that did it for me. Peterborough's borne witness to both false dawns (the Sam Baldock-inspired 2-1 win last season) and indeed false sunsets (after a 3-0 defeat there the season before I was convinced we were fading out of the Championship. And a bit of me wondered if this wasn't another inaccurate omen; after all a backs-to-the-wall 10-man performance is something even the poorest sides can pull out of the bag once in a while. But it really did feel like a turning point, trailing into the cold Cambridgeshire air that night. It was a third win on the bounce and we were only to lose once more between then and now. It was the moment Steve Cotterill found himself playing the right defence. But more than that it was when we became a team again, not the hesitant collection of footballers of the autumn, nor the disparate group of near-strangers we'd seen that winter.

It was Bristol City. It was constructed of loanees, it was designed to float rather than to fly, but no matter – it was Bristol City and it was a joy to watch. How much of it runs out at Ashton Gate in August we'll have to see. But this spring it was a team, and it was ours.

A baffling season, with some of the strangest swings in quality and in apparent ability I can remember. And probably one we'll never be able to agree on.

To some, nothing happened bar the removal of a poor manager not getting results. To others – including me – an exciting concept prematurely dispensed with due to teething troubles. We'll never know what would have happened if the board had kept their nerve, or perhaps more accurately swallowed their apparent dislike of O'Driscoll the man.

I'm not getting into the SOD v Cotterill argument because we'll never have enough data, or I don't think we will. I was into the promise of the future that the Board and SOD sold, and I thought it was abandoned far too quickly. As the team developed experience, both in terms of playing more games together and in terms of being augmented by experienced additions, it became a better side – something that could quite easily have been predicted in September, and certainly came true in March.

But what future do we have now? The next few months will be important as we really ought to be preparing for a promotion race. The fans' expectations have been raised – Cotterill has shown he can get us performing to the level our wage bill indicates we should reach, and that will surely be a Top Six wage bill next season. But coming with that will be the increased expectation of fans who will, surely, no longer accept a 0-0 home draw with Swindon followed by the loss of a 2-0 lead at Colchester with such equanimity. Equally the manager will have to start talking less about the form table, a mathematical construct with no prizes attached, and more about the real table for which he will have complete responsibility.

In order to do that one assumes we will need to hold on to some of that external experience, or to similar sorts of player. You can make a case either way for Wade Elliott's signing – he's been excellent but he is, after all, 36 – but the improvement we've shown with him and Simon Gillett in the centre has been plain. The balancing act between doing this and continuing to develop younger players will be key, though; we're in League One in part because of a series of short-term decisions, and now we're safe we cannot neglect the long-term.

We may need to replace the goals, and the leadership from the front, of Sam Baldock, although the size of bid you'd assume we'd need to cover a) the remainder of his contract, b) transfer and signing-on fees for his replacement, and c) a bit of profit for the books is starting to make me think he might stay after all. (That said, if the right offer comes in we must accept it; we cannot find ourselves in a Maynard situation if it can be avoided.)

When Steve Cotterill came in I said I'd judge him after two years, and I'll stick with that – fans have to be as serious about the long-term as they expect the club to be. But this is an important moment because, for the second time this season, we've been shown a vision of the future that is attractive. It's the near future, rather than the medium-term, this time; but it's exciting, and it could be an enormous amount of fun. We'll know by Christmas whether we've arrived. But what we do in the next few months will have a lot to do with whether we get there, or whether we go down yet another Bristol City dead end and find ourselves starting over again in a year.

An odd conclusion to draw after this weekend's game, but: it's never boring, is it?

Saturday, 12 April 2014

What maketh a football club?

19 April 2014 18 April 2014 - Bristol City v Notts County

Running a football club must ultimately be a difficult business. With tens of thousands of fans, each of whom has different priorities, different levels of support and a different idea of the ideal football club in their mind, it's hard to unite every member of the fanbase over one clear, simple issue. But to give them credit, City's management succeeded in doing so this week. By moving the Notts County game forward by a day from next Saturday to Good Friday, they managed to bring every fan together in condemnation of an absurd decision.

It barely needs explaining why it was so appalling. Over Easter, when people tend to plan time away from work, to relax with friends and family, to enjoy the spring, the club's decision will have meant that many supporters will have to decide between dropping keenly-anticipated activities and supporting the team in a big game that could well seal the deal of City's survival. Not to mention those fans who will have long ago arranged cheap trains (and even flights!) to get them to Ashton Gate by Saturday afternoon. (Full disclosure: I am not one of those people this time. The game will be the last I miss all season, and was always planned as such.)

This was announced by means of a terse, unapologetic statement on the website, followed up a day or so later by the club's reasoning for doing so. The fact that this took a day makes it pretty clear that the club, somehow, hadn't expected fans to be outraged by the decision, as though saying it's “for football reasons” would be enough. The explanatory statement wasn't great either, easily interpretable as pinning the blame on the previous management team, who happened not to be in the building any more, since they hadn't requested a move of the fixture initially.

This won't do for a couple of reasons. The previous management team may well have been targeting points from home games, and seen an extra day's recovery time after this weekend's trip to Walsall as more significant than a lost day's preparation for the Stevenage game. That's their prerogative; we'll never know how that decision would have played out. The new management team have the prerogative to disagree, of course; but to be apparently unaware that the FA rules permitted a switch of dates until prompted to ask by another club, Sheffield United, changing their Easter Saturday game, is pretty lax, and it's tempting to suggest that once months in advance turned into nine days in advance the club should have gone ahead with the hand dealt.

While we can argue as much as we like about the rights and wrongs of this particular incident, the question of taking a perceived sporting advantage at the cost of significantly inconveniencing fans bears further thought. Ultimately the issue at stake here is what's more important for a football club; to pick up as many points as possible, or to maintain a good relationship with its supporters and the community in which it sits.

There's not a right answer here. By purchasing tickets, rather than expecting entrance to be provided for free, we accept that maintaining a competitive football club at this level comes at cost, that without requiring money in exchange for access the club couldn't exist. Volunteer players and Sport England funding won't, we realise, allow City to challenge for the playoffs next season.

But does this mean that the club is entitled to go to the other extreme, to charge whatever the market will bear for football tickets, to accept money to change its name, its colours, to close down the Community Trust and to kick off games late at night in order to hit peak time in Hong Kong? Is that OK? And at what extreme does it stop becoming OK, for you?

We've seen clubs that begin to push in that direction, such as our friends Cardiff City from over the bridge, get a certain level of success. Cardiff shrugged off the loss of a section of their fanbase on the basis that promotion to the Premier League would see those seats filled by new fans, there to see Rooney, Suarez and co, as much as to see the Bluebirds. The Redbirds. Whoever. Vincent Tan will think he's been successful, that he got his decision right – whatever he may now be thinking about his later decision to remove Malky Mackay – and there's no covenant a football club owner has to swear that stipulates the traditions by which they must be bound.

But this logic only works if you see the club and the fans as two distinct actors, rather than two parts of a weird gestalt entity. The less a person knows about football culture, the less I suspect they will appreciate this symbiotic bond – the thing that causes us to talk about how “we” did at Walsall today, even if “we” didn't play, didn't go, or even weren't in the country at final whistle. In order for football to be anything more than a combination corporate muscle/feats of skill demonstration – in order for it to avoid becoming Formula One, essentially – that emotional connection is vital (and the smart ones know that and exploit it to sell Sky Sports subscriptions, third kits and mousemats). It's not just a sense of affection, it's a sense of belonging.

Robert Peel, the man who codified what we understand as the modern police force, famously said that “the police are the public and the public are the police”. The truer we feel that is, the more we trust the police and, in theory, the better they should do their job. Every racial incident and dead newspaper vendor tests this, but policing by consent – essentially, we allow them to lock us up because we think that the consequences of not doing so would be worse – requires this bond to be seen to exist. Football support is the same really. The fans are the club, and the club are the fans. If they lose our trust they begin to seem like a separate entity, and no longer deserve our support. It's why the club's off-pitch actions matter, and why having a club that isn't just a three-points generating machine (fat chance, but still...) is important. We need, as far as possible, for the club to do right by the fans.

The Notts County mistake alone won't, of course, threaten that tension in the long term. Of course it won't – it's an isolated, stupid decision which I still trust we won't see repeated. But football clubs need to be careful, and need to consider the less quantifiable consequences of any decision they make that effects the fanbase.

For what shall it profit a club if it shall gain the whole world and lose its own soul? Or, put another way, if City get three points and nobody's there to see it, did it happen?

Or, if it's only seen on pay-per-view TV and by day-trippers from afar, when do we have to say that it simply isn't City any more?

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Long way south

1 March 2014 - Bristol City 2 Gillingham 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The tale of the Rich Merchant and the Six Architects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 27 January 2014


17 January 2014 - Bristol City 2 Milton Keynes Dons 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Entertain me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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