Project Restart

I have just read Project Restart: From Prem to the Parks, How Football Came Out of Lockdown. It includes case-studies of how nine teams fared during lockdown: Burnley, Swansea, Tranmere, Forest Green, Solihull Moors, Royston Town, Northumberland Park, Stonewall and St Albans City Girls. These were chosen to represent a spread of clubs from the Premier League down to grassroots football.  They were also chosen from the clubs that the author could get information on; many football media teams were inaccessible.

He writes about the contrast between communicating with people at the higher levels of the game and those lower down. Attempts to talk to those at higher levels usually came to nothing.  But when it came to Zooming and phone calls to those from lower levels he says, “my only function was to sit back and listen as they told me about their achievements, plans and ambitions . . . what they had in common was an enduring love of the game and what it can do for people.”

The author, Jon Berry, is a Birmingham City supporter so he mentions that club too. In the chapter on Solihull Moors he writes about Darren Carter and his decisive penalty that took Blues up to the Premier League. Jon Berry believes that football is one of the most important of the unimportant things. Reading his book is like chatting to another fan and it is a good book to read if you are missing football conversations.

Jon Berry writes about hope; hope for next season; hope that the Covid-19 restrictions will end.  He says, “And that hope, among talk of second waves and localised lockdowns, might just be one of the reasons that football really is important.”

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Hope

I hope that Birmingham can play well and get a result on Saturday but I wish we were not playing Bournemouth.  The last time we played a League game against them at St Andrew’s was on October 25, 2014, and it was the nightmare game that we lost 0-8. Unlike many others, I stayed until the end of that game and it left a mental scar that will probably remain as long as I live. 

I can imagine bouncing back and getting a win against almost any other team but when I think of Bournemouth, I just remember watching my team trudging off the pitch, completely dejected and defeated.

I do expect us to perform better in tomorrow’s game.  The team is in a better state than it was in 2014.  Back then, Lee Clark had left, Gary Rowett hadn’t arrived and there were two caretakers in charge: Richard Beale and Malcolm Crosby. Now we have an experienced head coach, Aitor Karanka.  Whether we win, draw or lose I don’t expect our team to collapse as it did in October 2014.

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Two wins and three departures

We won two games last week and are in the top half of the table.  I’m struggling to believe it and have to keep checking to make sure it’s true.

The timing was different but the goal scoring order was the same in both games. Birmingham City scored first, then the other team scored and then we scored another goal and won.  My thoughts were similar in both games. We’ve scored, great, but can we hang on to the lead?  They’ve scored; can we hang on for a draw?  We’ve scored again; ref, please blow the final whistle now; why is the time going by so slowly? 

I do believe that Aitor Karanka, given time, will get our team playing more successfully. But I find it hard to believe that Blues will win the game I’m actually watching.  That is why I chose Puddleglum as a nom de plume; he’s a character in a children’s book who always expects the worst: enemies, floods and dragons.

The off the field news from Birmingham City was not so good.  An article by Brian Dick confirmed that three experienced members of staff had left the club:  Colin Tattum, head of media and communications;  Rita Greenaway, first team PA, and Suzanne Smith, erstwhile PA to the board and club coordinator.  I wish them well and think they will be missed. A Tweet by Panos Pavlakis said, “When it comes to Blues as an organisation, Tatts, Rita and Sue were three of the most trustful, reliable, switched on and straightforward persons I came across during my time there … shocking news for me tbh”

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Here we go again

I have to admit that I feel nervous about today’s game with QPR.  As always, I think anything could happen and if we end up losing our third game in a row then I’m going to feel miserable. 

Even if we do lose, I won’t despair completely. I believe that Aitor Karanka is working on a long term plan and that it will bring us stability and safety eventually.  It will take time to get all the players  we need and to work our way up the table and I believe that he should be given that time.  And if he is allowed to continue for two or three seasons, I do believe that we’ll see an improvement in performances and results.  My prediction for this season is that we won’t be in danger of relegation at the end of it.

I’ll be watching the game online and hoping we will get something from it.   I do know that football is just a game and that losing is not really an enormous tragedy but I don’t remember that during a game. It take me about a couple of hours to calm down after a bad game.  But if the team plays well and gets a result, the good feeling lasts the whole weekend.

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Will the pyramid collapse?

It is not unusual for my feelings about football to oscillate between fear and hope. What is unusual this season is that most of the hope is related to my own club, Birmingham City, and the fear is about football in general.  I came across a headline of an article recently that asked, “Football pyramid on the brink of collapse?” and that’s what I have been worrying about.

Here’s a chart of the top of the pyramid that I took from the Wikipedia article on the football league system. (Note that the Pyramid Image is by Simon Steinberger from Pixabay)

The Premier League was launched in September 1992 and the money from the Sky TV rights did not have to be shared with the clubs in the English Football League (EFL). People from the lower divisions and some League officials were against this breakaway. In his book The Beautiful Game, David Conn includes a quote from Gordon Taylor saying,

“The FA is trying to diminish the Football League and with it most of the professional clubs in this country. Its blueprint is a way for the leading clubs to seize virtually all the money, leaving the remaining clubs to wither and, for some, die.”

It feels as though the dying is starting to happen. Bury FC were expelled from the EFL and Macclesfield Town were wound-up.  Other clubs will struggle without gate receipts.  When giving evidence about the impact of coronavirus, EFL Chairman Rick Parry said it was “difficult to answer” how many might go out of business.

This makes me sad because I think of football clubs as community organisations and part of the glue that holds society together. I support my team because they are my team, not because they play the best football. I went and watched them play when they were in Division 3. I also think that the football pyramid helps to provide players for the top clubs and if there were fewer lower level teams then fewer talented players would be discovered.  That’s why the idea that the pyramid might collapse worries me.

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Thinking like a Norwegian

There was a very interesting article in the Guardian on Saturday, about how the inhabitants of Tromsø, in Norway, cope with living in a city which does not see the sun from mid-November to mid-January.  It seems that they cope with it well because of their mindset. The article said: 

“People who see stressful events as “challenges”, with an opportunity to learn and adapt, tend to cope much better than those who focus more on the threatening aspects – like the possibility of failure, embarrassment or illness. These differences in mindset not only influence people’s mood, but also their physiological responses, such as changes in blood pressure and heart rate, and how quickly they recover after the event.”

I have decided that I’m going to try to think like a Norwegian.  Watching Birmingham City play can be stressful but I’m going to try to think of it as a challenge to find something positive. After Saturday’s game I can say that we haven’t lost a League game this season and have scored twice the number of League goals that have been scored against us.

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Rotherham

Birmingham City have played two teams that were in the playoffs last season and got a win and a draw.  Today we are playing Rotherham, who were promoted back up to the Championship last season, and  I suspect I am not the only Blues fan fearing that we wll lose.  So often in the past, we have played well against good teams and then been beaten by a team that’s not so good.

I’m encouraged that Aitor Karanka seems to be aware of the danger of complacency.  In his press conference he said that it was a mistake to think you were better than your opponent. He also said that the Rotherham game was our toughest game so far. From what George Friend said in his interview, it sounds as if he is not complacent ahead of the Rotherham game and I hope the rest of the team feel the same. If Karanka manages to avoid losses against poorer teams then he will have achieved something important. If we lose today, I’ll think that it’s typical Blues. But if we win, then my hope for this season will be boosted.

Already, I am hoping that we will stay well clear of the relegation places this season.  I’ve tried to remind myself that it is the hope that kills me but I can’t help hoping.  It hasn’t helped to tell myself that you can’t forecast how a season will go from the first two games. I also know that it is too soon to judge if Karanka is a good manager for my team but I can’t help believing in him. I like the way that he is bringing in players who are good people as well as being good players.

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Blues News Poster

My copy of the Blues News Poster arrived yesterday. Buying this was a departure from my usual practice; I don’t usually buy any programmes, apart from the one for the last home game that contains most of the results. I think I must be missing Blues games more than I care to admit.

One thing I wanted to see was their list of players.  It was almost the same as my list but with two exceptions.  Connal Trueman was not on their list.  He’s been loaned to AFC Wimbledon to get more game time.  Click here to see his interview about this. The other difference was that they didn’t have Neil Etheridge on their printed list.  He obviously signed too late to be included.  

The back of the poster also included a nice message from Aitor Karanka, saying he was extremely happy to be head coach of the club.  I’m also happy that he is coach.  Somehow he has got past all my defences, built up to spare me from despair when things don’t work out, and I’m looking forward to this season. 

I’ve removed Connal Trueman and added Neil Etheridge to my list, click here to see what it looks like now.  I will add it as a cheat sheet when the transfer window has closed on  October 16.

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Smile

My expectations for this new season should be based on sensible reasons but they aren’t. I’m feeling hopeful because I like the manager and I like him because he has a nice smile. I’ve just watched his press conference and when he smiles, I feel he can work wonders. That feels like a stupid reason for a fan to hope but maybe it’s not as stupid as it seems. A manager needs to be able to encourage players and maybe his smile and some encouraging words can work wonders. Surely a manager who smiles can raise team morale more than one who looks to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And a team that hasn’t won a game since February, needs its morale lifted.

Aitor Karanka has already forged an arrangement with Xuandong Ren and seems to have more of a say in transfers than previous managers did. That’s an achievement. If he can also get the players to trust him then this season could be the start of something good.  I hope it is.

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New Season

When Saturday Comes has published its new season special and Birmingham City play Cambridge today in their first competitive game of the season.  I feel that I should be excited but it’s hard to get excited sitting in front of a computer watching a game being played with no spectators.

For me, going to a game is about more than the football. It’s about being part of a community that supports our team, a community that celebrates or cries together.  Football without fans at the game is not the same. 

When the squad numbers were published yesterday, I was pleased that Maxime Colin had swapped the number 5 shirt for number 2.  He is one of my favourite players and now he has the same number as my all-time favourite, Jeff Hall. I’ve been looking at the list of players and trying to work out who they all are.  You can see my attempt at a list here, but it was done in a hurry so there may be mistakes.

In WSC’s  new season special, the Blues writer predicts a mid-table finish, which seems possible to me.  However, I did think it rather unkind to suggest changing the name of the Tilton to the Marc Roberts Stand to commemorate a full season of “long throws straight into the keeper’s arms.” If we score from a Roberts throw today, I might get a bit excited.

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Hope

It’s the hope that kills you they say. And they are right. If I could stamp out hope and expect the worst before every game of football, I wouldn’t feel so crushed when the worst happens and there would be times when I’d be pleasantly surprised by Birmingham playing quite well. 

But I can’t help feeling hopeful about this season. It started when Xuandong Ren appeared at the press conference introducing Aitor Karanka as the club’s new head coach. When Ren said that he had been looking for a partner to take the club forward, I started to hope that he had found a coach that he could work with and whose views he would respect. He said that Karanka would  have the time and authority to build and lead this football club going forward.

My hope has continued to grow as the club has taken time to bring in new players and they seem to be the ones that Karanka wants, players who play in a way that fits in with his plan and have the kind of personalities that will contribute to a good atmosphere in the squad. The performances in pre-season have helped me to believe that we have a head coach who knows what he’s doing. And the three goals against Walsall were encouraging.

I’m not hoping for promotion this season or that we’ll win a cup. I’m just hoping for steady progress and that we’ll be well clear of the relegation zone at the end of the season. It takes time to build a winning side and I’m hoping that Karanka will be given the time he needs to do that. 

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Hugging Strangers

I enjoyed reading Hugging Strangers: The Frequent Lows and Occasional Highs of Football Fandom by Jon Berry. It is well written and many of his stories about supporting Birmingham City resonated with me.  When my dad took me to games, I was one of the few little girls there and it felt like being in a different, much louder and more exciting world.

I took a long break from attending games when I went to university and lived abroad but I always checked their results. I went to only one game in the 1980s, an end of season relegation escape on May 15 1982, in which Mick Harford scored the goal that kept us up. I enjoyed the game but what I saw of destructive fans and aggressive policing made me decide never to go to any other games. I changed my mind about that when I went to the Leyland Daf Cup Final at Wembley, on May 26 1991. I went to the game feeling apprehensive about the possibility of hooligans being there but my mind was put at rest by the friendly group of men sitting around me. And when a stranger, celebrating our victory, kissed me on the way out of Wembley, I didn’t mind at all. I started going to games again.

Cover of Hugging Strangers book

Reading Hugging Strangers is like chatting to a friend about Blues, except than none of my friends deliver such quotable expressions as Jon Berry writes. I liked his description of Blues’ story as  “great moments, dreadful half hours”.  He wrote that “Fry was quite mad . . . the perfect fit for us.” He also aptly described my habit of protecting myself “by starting off expecting the worst and then being happily surprised if it doesn’t happen.”

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Uncertainty

Uncertainty is one of the attractions of footfall; not knowing what the result will be adds to the excitement. But uncertainty can also be a pain. In seasons in which relegation is a possibility, I look forward to the last game and knowing whether or not we will be staying up.

This season is different. An EFL statement has said Wigan will have points deducted after their game but that they can appeal. So there is a possibility that we might not know tonight if we are safe or not. If Wigan get 12 points deducted and end up in 22nd place and Birmingham City end up just above them in 21st place, we won’t know if we are really safe until we know if Wigan’s appeal is successful.  If it is successful then I think Wigan would stay up and we would go down.  I’m quite good at thinking about things to worry about. I hope we win tonight but don’t expect we will.

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A sad ending

Pep Clotet left Birmingham City yesterday, after we lost 1-3 to Swansea.  He was given an impossible job and tried to do it. 

Brian Dick said in his article that he was given a hospital pass, a term used to describe a pass that makes it likely the recipient will get heavy contact from an opposing player and could end up in hospital.  He wrote,

“Yet it’s all sadly predictable. Clotet was chucked a hospital pass from Day One – thrust into the hotseat and an atmosphere of acrimony. Deprived of the club captain, leading scorer and record signing and told he would have little influence on transfers. ‘And while you’re at it get us playing attractive football, with young players in the top half of the division. Cheers’.”

I have no idea what will happen next. I’d like a good manager to arrive and save us from relegation. But I fear that no good manager would want to work under the same conditions that Pep Clotet worked. 

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Fulham

Craven Cottage is one of my favourite away grounds.  The walk from Putney Bridge underground station to the ground has to be one of the pleasantest approaches to a football ground in this country.  I enjoy going there even when we don’t win.  And when we win, like we did in 2015, the game is lodged in my brain as one of my favourites. 

I won’t be walking alongside the River Thames today, hoping for a good game.  I’ll be looking on my laptop, dreading another loss. At least nobody will see me if I’m crying by the end of the game. 

Whatever happens, I feel sad that I’m never again going to be in a stadium watching Jude Bellingham play in a Birmingham City shirt.  I hope that his move will work out well for him.

I’ll include some pictures from 2015 to cheer myself up.

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