Category Archives: Football

Commitment

I don’t think that hating other football clubs is a good way to show commitment to your own club. I’ll be at the game on Sunday, hoping desperately that Birmingham beat the Villa but once the game is over, I’ll calm down. I’ll remember that if my dad had been born three miles further north, I’d probably be a Villa fan myself.  

Most Blues and Villa fans have some connection with Birmingham and the two groups have much in common. Fans from both sides agree on many issues such as the Justice for the 21 campaign. The view that Villa are more middle class and Blues more working class is an opinion not a fact.  A thesis on the rivalry between the fans of Aston Villa and Birmingham City Football Clubs stated that: “the fan groups were actually relatively homogenous in terms of their demographics and their location”.   

This week, Blackpool fans have shown their commitment in a positive way, by cleaning up their stadium following the neglect of the Oyston ownership. Birmingham fans have helped in a similar way in the past. I can remember a game against WBA on December 28, 1993, when it had snowed before the game and the club asked fans to come early and help clear the snow so that the game could go ahead. 

Not every fan can get to games; some are prevented by distance, infirmity or other reasons. I hope that those of us who can be there will limit our aggression to non-contact competitions such as who can shout and sing the loudest. I would like both the Blues fans and the police to go home with smiles on their faces.

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Inadequate owners

Fan explaining Blackpool situation

Blackpool fans are rejoicing because their club has been put into receivership and that means the era of Oyston ownership is over. Blackpool’s game against Southend next Saturday will be the first home game since this happened and the Guardian reports that:

“Supporters are planning a party, starting with a celebration march from the promenade, and perhaps in some small way it can be a reminder for every other club that has inadequate or reviled owners, that things can change for the better, that it won’t always be one crisis after another, and that one of the reasons why this sport pulls us in, why it is so damn addictive, is that the bad times always make the good ones seem so much better.”

The same article includes accounts of other owners who have endangered the futures of their football clubs. Charlton’s owner has suggested that the Football League buy the club.  There are reports of Bolton not paying staff and players. Notts County is at the bottom of League 2 and HMRC has issued a winding-up petition against it. If Coventry City can’t find a place to play next season it could be expelled from the league.

Not all owners are inadequate or bad but there have been enough problems to suggest that the system needs changing.  There needs to be a better way of ensuring that people who buy football clubs are fit and proper and also know something about the football business. When problems occur there needs to be a way of sorting them out quicker.

Blackpool is one example of how long it can take to get rid of a problem owner.  Owen Oyston bought the club in 1988. His wife and then his son took over after he was convicted of rape in 1996. Valeri Belokon bought a 20 per cent stake in 2006 and became chairman. Owen and Karl Oyston began suing fans who criticised their ownership on internet forums. Five managers came and went in the space of two years and 27 players left before the start of the 2014-15 season. In 2016 some fans started to boycott games and pledged never to return until the Oystons had left. Valeri Belokon instigated court proceedings against the Oystons. On November 6, 2017 the Oystons were defeated in the High Court and ordered to buy out Valeri Belokon’s shares for £31.27m after it was found they had “illegitimately stripped” the club. You can read the timeline  yourself if you want all the gory details.

As a Birmingham City supporter, I know what it feels like to have an owner convicted of money laundering. I can sympathise with other fans whose clubs have inadequate owners. That is why I believe that there needs to be an independent regulator for English football. Let the English Football League concentrate on organising the leagues and let someone else regulate the business of football.

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Away day

I went to watch the game at Bristol City on Tuesday evening though I don’t normally go to evening away games. And I’m going to fewer away games because standing for 90 minutes feels like more of a chore as I get older. But one of my nephews lives in the Bristol area and I’d said I’d go to the game and also meet up with him.  It seemed rather wimpish to alter my plan just because the time was changed from a Saturday afternoon to a Tuesday evening.  

I spent about 15 minutes regretting my decision as the game concluded with Birmingham City only one goal ahead and Bristol attacking after their goal had restored their hope and awakened the home crowd. I was so afraid we wouldn’t be able to hold onto the lead. I was also wondering why on earth I chose to put myself through such agony; then the final whistle went, and I remembered why I support the Blues. It is always good to see them win.

It was also good to walk along the Avon Gorge on Wednesday morning, see the suspension bridge and the patterns in the mud sculptured by the tides. Then I met my nephew and enjoyed a meal and conversation with him.

Bristol used to be an important port in the triangular slave trade. Arms, alcohol and textiles were shipped to Africa and traded for slaves. The slaves were taken across the Atlantic and sold to the plantations.  Then the ships returned to Bristol with a cargo of sugar, molasses and tobacco. I saw traces of this dark past: a plaque commemorating the slaves and a large building called the Tobacco Factory, though it is no longer used for that.

I liked Bristol. The area around Ashton Gate has loads of street art and there’s also a statue of John Atyeo at the stadium. He made 645 appearances and scored 350 goals between 1951 and 1966.  I was impressed by that when I read it on the plaque on the statue and was even more impressed when I read his obituary and found he had never being cautioned by a referee in his senior matches, had played 6 times for England and was a part-time player, working as a quantity surveyor and then as a teacher. I can understand why they erected a statue of him.

I hope to go back there sometime, do a tour of the Banksy street art and maybe see Blues win again.

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Philosophy

In a recent interview, Harlee Dean said that a club needs a philosophy, a way of playing and that’s what Garry Monk brought to Birmingham City.  Monk has also talked about this; the Birmingham Mail published a quote in which he said:

“we felt the group needed to know what it meant playing for this club, wearing that shirt and what it means not just for them but for the fans and the community.”

Monk has concentrated on doing what he can with what he’s got. He’s focussed on getting the team to play good football and strengthening the bond between players and fans.

Many fans have said that Monk gets Blues, that he understands us.  I think his understanding is wider than that; he understands that football is not just a business and that fans are not just customers but an essential part of the game.  He also has emotional intelligence and does well at handling relationships with players and fans.  

Before Monk was appointed as our manager, the manager I would have chosen was Graham Potter, who also has emotional intelligence and understands the importance of fans.  Potter is now at Swansea and  that club is going through a hard time. The owners have sold senior players without replacing them and an article in the Guardian reports:

“Potter has relied on youngsters to such an extent that Swansea, who spent seven seasons in the top flight and were relegated from the Premier League nine months ago, are fielding a team in the Championship that, in terms of the age of their players, resembles that of a club operating on a shoestring in League Two. . .
Potter continues to diligently go about his work, refusing to sound downbeat and remaining totally committed to the job that he took on last summer. He is the glue holding a broken club together. ”

I would imagine that Swansea fans want to hold onto their manager as much as Birmingham City fans want to keep Garry Monk. 

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Time’s wingèd chariot

Loftus Road is a small stadium, the third smallest stadium in the Sky Bet Championship this season. It’s not a comfortable place to visit. When I went there, I felt like a sardine crammed in a tin. Respect to the Blues fans who are going today, and I hope they see a good game. I’ll be listening on the radio.

There are things I like about going to away games. Birmingham City’s travelling fans are incredible and it feel’s great to be among a loud, supportive crowd. But standing for 90 minutes is tiring and by the end of a game I feel very old.

More and more things make me feel old these days.  I just read about Albert Finney dying and that brought back memories of watching him at the old Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the 1950’s.  I remember seeing him as Henry V and also saw him in less memorable roles.  Once when I was clearing out a pile of Rep programmes, I noticed his name listed in the actors playing the crowd. That was over 60 years ago.

And it’s nearly 70 years since my dad first took me to St Andrew’s. I don’t remember exactly when that was but do remember Gill Merrick, Jeff Hall and the roar of the crowd. I also remember the first time I heard ‘Keep right on’ sung, at the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough in 1956. My memories may be rose-tinted but I think the crowd back then was very supportive. That’s why I’m thrilled by the atmosphere at games this season, with our crowd supporting effort and commitment even when it doesn’t end with a win. It reminds me of the crowds I stood in when I was a child and it feels good.

By the way, the title of this post is taken from Andrew Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near  
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Hope fulfilled

On Saturday morning. I said I was feeling hopeful and my hopes were fulfilled that afternoon.  Scoring early in the game meant we had something to lose so I felt nervous for most of the time. It would have only taken one lapse in concentration by our players or one great move from theirs and Nottingham Forest could have equalised. But this time, it was Blues who scored right at the end. Che Adams scored from the penalty spot in time added on to extend his scoring run to five games.

On the way to the game I’d wondered if I’d put on too many layers but once I got seated in the Kop, I was grateful for every bit of clothing I had on. The wind was cold and biting, but the football kept me warm. All the Birmingham City players played well and the referee kept the game flowing with not too many stops. Also our new signing, Kerim Mrabti, came off the bench to play for a few minutes. I was glad I’d gone but also glad to get home afterwards and have a hot drink.

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Feeling hopeful

It’s February and I can stop worrying about losing Che Adams; the transfer window has closed and we still have him.  This is the month for worrying about the EFL sanctions but I’m hoping that Daniel was correct in thinking that “if Blues are deducted points, I don’t think it will be an absolute disaster” and that “Blues have enough points on the board to be safe from” relegation.

So I’m feeling fairly hopeful at present.  Kerim Mrabti’s squad number is 18, which reminds me of Keith Fahey, whom I liked.  It’s totally irrational to feel that Mrabti might be a good player because I like his squad number but there’s a lot about supporting a team that’s irrational.  

I have updated my cheat sheet from last August by adding Kerim Mrabti and removing 4 names.  Steve Seddon spent the first half of this season on loan to League Two club Stevenage and is now on loan to AFC Wimbledon of League One. Three players left during the winter transfer window. Dan Scarr signed a two-and-a-half year deal with Walsall. Omar Bogle was on loan to Birmingham from Cardiff City but that loan was cancelled and he is now on loan to Portsmouth. Viv Solomon-Otabor has also gone to Portsmouth; he has gone there on loan until the end of the season.

As always, I’m looking forward to today’s game with a mixture of fear and hope.  Today the hope is a little bit stronger than the fear.

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Transfer window

I’ve never liked transfer windows.  I’m usually irritated by the silly rumours about who Birmingham City might bring in. This window I’m worried about who might leave. I feel bad that Omar Bogle’s loan has been cut short; he scored a great goal against Stoke and I would have liked to see a few more like that.  I will feel a lot worse if we lose one of our first team regulars. If someone like Che Adams is sold, it will feel as though the team is being ripped apart.

Birmingham City are playing Swansea this evening. It’s a place that has a lot of memories for Garry Monk and Pep Clotet, who has talked about his time there in an interview.  He said:

“We are better coaches now because of the difficulties we have faced,” says Clotet. “Garry has given me a lot of insight about British football and that has helped when dealing with players. I guess I have made him a bit more Spanish too. We have made each other better.”

I’ll be feeling a lot of respect for the players and fans, outside on a cold winter evening while I’m at home, keeping warm.  I hope they play well and get a point or three. I think it will be good to follow a game and think about that rather than the window. And it will fill some of the time until the window closes at 11 pm on Thursday.  We will know then which players we have and, even if it’s bad news, we can get on with the rest of the season.

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Partisan

It feels as though the world is getting more partisan, with people divided on various issues. I have nothing against people who strongly support something or some team but the word ‘partisan’ has further connotations. It is often used when people strongly support something without thinking carefully about it.

When Birmingham City supporters sing Keep right on, we describe ourselves as ‘often partisan’ and I don’t think many of us decided to support the Blues after a long and careful analysis of the merits of different teams. I support them because my dad supported them and he took me to games; he supported them because he was born in Sparkbrook.

I have already written on this blog about the sense of entering into a more splendid life that made me love going to football matches. I won’t repeat that except to say that what appeals to me most about watching football is being a participant in the performance, supporting my team.  The sense of belonging and togetherness is what I treasure most. For others, I know that the quality of the football is more important.

What I value in football puts me at the opposite end of the spectrum to those who want to see the best players in their team. I’m thrilled to see Academy players stepping up to the first team; those who want to watch elite football are thrilled when their club buys expensive star players. I’ve just read an edited extract from The Club: How the Premier League Became the Richest, Most Disruptive Business in Sport, by Jonathan Clegg & Joshua Robinson. It describes how the owners of the top six Premier League clubs want a bigger share of the TV money so that they can compete with the big foreign clubs. To me that just seems greedy, but I am partisan. 

The loss last Saturday felt cruel but, as we have come to expect from a team managed by Garry Monk, there was effort and commitment to applaud.  There was also a great goal from Che Adams. This evening, as always, I will be hoping for a win. I won’t be going to Norwich and those that go that far on a cold winter night have my respect. Our travelling fans are incredible.

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Inequality

We live in a crazy world.  Lionel Messi, the highest paid footballer last season, received $111,000,000. Does he deserve that much? More and more people in this country are relying on food banks. If you think that they deserve that, try watching I, Daniel Blake on BBC iPlayer and see if you change your mind.

Yesterday evening, I went to a performance of Commonism, at the Rep.  It’s a conversation between two men, one British and one Norwegian, talking about the world today and imagining how the future could be better. At the end, they hand out copies of their manifesto. This suggests a maximum limit on the economic resources any one individual can possess and a universal basic income. I imagine that it would be a lot easier to get poor people to accept a basic income than to get rich people to limit what they own. The performance was thought provoking and I had much to think about as I walked back to my bus stop, past all the rough sleepers.

When I got back home, I saw the news about the latest Brexit squabble in Parliament. It seemed a far cry from the conversation I’d just listened to, about learning to disagree well. There was also news of Burton’s heavy defeat at Manchester City and the nightmare journey to get to Manchester experienced by some of their fans. The result was not that surprising when you consider the value of their squads. Sky reported that,

“Burton Albion’s squad value this season is around the £6m mark   … Manchester City’s current squad is valued at just over £1bn, with their most expensive acquisition, Riyad Mahrez, joining the club last summer for £60m.”

In other words, one of Manchester City’s players cost 10 times more than Burton’s squad. That enormous inequality just doesn’t seem right to me, with most of the TV money flooding into the Premier League. I can understand why owners of clubs lower down the pyramid pay out too much in the hope of getting promotion.  Birmingham City paid out too much; we are still waiting to find out what price we’ll have to pay for that. We are not the only club with financial problems. The situation feels more serious than just a few clubs breaking some rules; it feels as though the whole system is broken.

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Thoughts on the weekend

Accounts

News of Birmingham City’s accounts broke on Friday, when they were filed at Companies House. It was not good news. The club lost £37,461,303 for the financial year. Read Daniel’s analysis on almajir.net if you want the details. This confirmed that I’d chosen the right picture for my mood indicator picture, with half indicating my happiness with the performance of manager and team and the other half showing my uncertainty over our financial situation.

West Ham

I went to the FA Cup game on Saturday and was glad I’d gone. West Ham won the game, but our team put in a good performance and our fans were incredible.  As I get older and find it more tiring to stand for 90 minutes, I treasure the away games because I don’t know how many more I’ll be able to attend. I feel privileged to stand among such loyal and loud supporters.

Newport County v Leicester City

I usually support Leicester when they play because I’m fond of Demarai Gray but I also like underdogs. When I watched Newport play Leicester on TV, my preference for underdogs was the strongest and I was delighted when Newport won.  There is still some magic in the Cup.

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Disappointing draw

Birmingham City’s goalless draw on Saturday was scrappy and I came away feeling disappointed.  Just over 4 years ago, I can remember watching on TV as Blues played at Wolves. They earned a magnificent 0-0 draw, which seemed wonderful because they had lost 0-8 at home in their previous game. Gary Rowett had been manager for less than a week and had managed to turn a group of demoralised men into a team that could defend.

Garry Monk has created a team that can defend and score goals. The upside to this is that he’s got the fans onside, providing fantastic support.  The downside is that our expectations have been raised and we find it harder to appreciate the value of a no-score draw and 3 consecutive clean sheets.  I also think that it’s good to be outside, look up from our screens, talk to the people around us, and feel part of a community. That feeling was reinforced by the Supporters Memorial. A list of Blues fans who died in 2018 was shown on the big screen and read out at half time.  Communities share their joys and their sorrows.

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Enemies and friends

In Omar Bogle’s interview on BluesTV, he talked about scoring a goal against Jack Butland, a former Academy team mate of his. He said he talked with Jack after the game, but he didn’t talk about his goal. It sounded as though he had the ability that professional football players need to have, to regard opposing players as enemies during a game and as friends at other times.

I believe that fans also need to be able to do this. During games we want to see our team play well and be lucky; we want the opposition to play terribly and have the worst bad luck imaginable. But, at other times, we can sympathise with fans of other teams. When Frank Knight, a Blackpool fan, agreed to pay £20,000 to the Oyston family, owners of Blackpool, so that they wouldn’t take him to court for his rant against them on Facebook, fans from many other clubs made contributions to pay that, an example of the football community at its generous best.

I’m reading a book that discusses this: What we think about when we think about Football, by Simon Critchley, a Professor of Philosophy who supports Liverpool.  He says that “there is an inherent rationality in football that permits both passionately held commitment to one’s team at the same time as being able to tolerate, understand and indeed encourage others’ deeply felt support for their teams.”  It is not easy reading, but it is interesting and has some great photos.

Critchley wrote that “a game can be a 90-minute anxiety dream”.  Wednesday’s game felt like 87 anxious minutes until Bogle scored his brilliant goal and I stopped worrying that Stoke might equalise. But I will remember it as a brilliant game, with two great goals, a large crowd and an atmosphere that reminded me of how it felt when I stood with my dad on the Railway end about 65 years ago.

Hope I’ll also have good memories of today’s game.

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Mind the gap

Don’t mind the gap

I’m not writing about the 1-point gap between us and a nearby team but about the financial gap between teams. According to the transfermarkt website, Stoke fielded the Championship team that cost the most on the opening day of this season and Birmingham City were 16th in that table. But, as Johan Cruyff said, “Why couldn’t you beat a richer club. I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.”

It’s teams that win football games and Garry Monk has created a team from a collection of individuals. He’s also narrowed the gap between players and fans. Players have been involved in community projects that help to connect them to the people who support them.  Three years ago, I wrote about a phrase, “naïve with power”, that expressed how rich and important people don’t understand ordinary people.  That may be true of some in football but it’s not true of Garry Monk; he understands Blues fans and what they want. We want to see players who work hard and give 100% and that is what we are seeing when we go to games now. There is a togetherness between players and fans that reminds me of the atmosphere I remember from my childhood, in the 1950s.

There have been times when I’ve gone to Blues games out of a sense of duty, feeling that my team was so bad it really needed my support.  Today, I am going because I want to and am looking forward to it.

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Cup money

The FA Cup replay this evening is a big game for SolihullMoors and Blackpool. Some of the magic of the Cup may have departed for the bigger teams but it is still there in the early rounds when teams compete toget through to the third round and a chance to play a big club.   TheMoors and Blackpool are competing for a chance to play Arsenal. 

There’s also the money, of course. TV money, gate receipts and prize money from the FA Cup are not important for Premier League clubs; they get far more from playing in the League.  But FA Cup money can make a tremendous difference for clubs lower down the pyramid.  For example, an article on the maths behind a jackpot FA Cup run reported:

“Warrington Town’s 2014-15 FA Cuprun made them around 70% more than their income for the whole of the previousseason. By far the biggest chunk of this came from their televised ties againstExeter and Gateshead.”

The same article reported that Arsenal’s winning cup run in 2013-14 made them £4.2 million but that was only 2% of their revenue for that season. This helps to explain why some of the bigger clubs don’t take the Cup too seriously and don’t use their best players in the early rounds.

Money is also the reason why only 10 of the 32 third-round FA Cup games will start at 3 pm on Saturday, 5 January. The FA has arranged a new £820m overseas TV contract and some of the games will be moved to different times because of this. Malcolm Clarke, the chair of the Football Supporters Federation, is quoted as saying,

“The third round of the FACup on the first Saturday in January was always one of the great highlights ofthe season, and to have less than one third of the games kicking off at threeo’clock on Saturday definitely to some extent diminishes the magic of theday,”

The 12.30 kick-off for Birmingham’s game against West Ham will also mean an early start for fans travelling down to London on the day. 

In the last game I watched, I saw my team lose but didn’t see them stop making an effort. In the game at Blackburn, they showed their character by the way they came back to get a draw. I believe that anything can happen in the Cup and that we could beat West Ham.  Moors fans will have similar feelings today and will have been dreaming about watching Arsenal play in their stadium. I hope their dreams and mine come true. There is still some magic in the FA Cup.

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