The Silverstone premium

Last week I read an excellent piece on dailysportscar.com, which you should probably read before continuing with this. It’s here: DailySportsCar

If you’re far too busy to be clicking secondary blog links, allow me to summarise the main points here:

- the FIA (world motorsport’s governing body) runs two different high-profile World Championships, one for “single seaters” – Formula One – and one for sports cars of various types over longer distances – the World Endurance Championship;

- at Silverstone (“The [self-proclaimed] Home Of British Motorsport”), the WEC is vastly cheaper to get in to (like, a quarter of the price);

- when you get in, the WEC seems to want you there, while F1 would rather you weren’t;

- fans want to be as involved as possible, not (necessarily) sipping champagne at £stupid000 per Paddock Club ticket.

I don’t disagree with any of that. I’ve not been to a WEC event, but I’ve been to plenty of F1, BTCC, British GT and so on, and all the other series are far more welcoming and open than the deliberately closed shop that is F1. I just think the author, Richard Leach, is being a little too lenient on the circuit itself.

I need to add what I can legitimately call “The John Hindhaugh Disclaimer” here. I love F1. I watch every session, fascinated by the drivers, the technology, the circuits…but knowing it could be so much better.

The first time I went to an F1 race, I was a kid and it was on corporate hospitality, a decade and a half before such things were banned under the Bribery Act. In my memory, I actually saw Mansell giving Senna his famous lift back to the pits, but I’m pretty sure there were no Jumbotron screens and we were in the pit straight grandstand, so I’ve probably superimposed the image from the 876 times I’ve seen it on TV since.

When I’ve been paying the bill, I’ve been to eight races: Silverstone four times, Spa (Belgium) three times and Monza (Italy) once. And it’s the European experiences that make me less than impressed with the Northamptonshire version.

This year, as Richard said, Silverstone were trumpeting their “Centre Access”. For the first time in living memory, said the breathless blurb, fans with General Admission tickets would be able to stand on the bit of grass inside the circuit as well as the bit outside. GASP as you see the right-hand side of an F1 car. SWOON as you step aside for a Finnish man in mirrored shades and checked shorts before he hits you with his rucksack. GIVE THANKS as you part with an extra £60-odd for the privilege for the weekend.

In Belgium, the footpaths criss-cross the circuit. If you want, you can stand in the trees on the inside at the point where the track crosses L’Eau Rouge; the viewing bank at the Pouhon “Double Gauche” is entirely inside the circuit; the walk from La Source to L’Arrete d’Autobus (sorry, I’ll stop now) involves filing past the support race paddocks and last year watching Ted Kravitz filming his notebook.

Spa

Spa

In Italy, the track winds around the General Admission, rather than the other way round. The paddock exits into GA areas at both ends, so Ross Brawn strolls through the crowds with his briefcase, Lewis Hamilton signs autographs without a ten foot fence in the way, and Kimi Raikkonen still barges through in mirrored shades and checked shorts. The impression is much more of a park that happens to have a racetrack in it, than a military airfield behaving like, erm, a military airfield. This is probably why The Supreme High Ringmaster has started making noises about abandoning the place.

Parco di Monza

Parco di Monza

Then there’s the pit walks. Again, Silverstone trumpets its accessibility. LOOK! We’re letting you in to the pit lane on Thursday! Form an orderly queue, don’t loiter, move along please, everyone must have equal time to study the nose on the Caterham and admire the whine of the Red Bull driver – sorry, transmission. This is the first time EVER that such access has been allowed.

Unlike in Belgium. Or Italy. Where it’s been a well-known part of the weekend for years. And where you can stand outside Ferrari all afternoon if you want, until Fernando comes out and signs something for you. We decided on a less populated area…

20120906_172007

Quick! The safety car!

The point is, F1 manages perfectly well to be a little less aloof and untouchable outside the UK. And, comparatively, it also manages to be a lot less expensive.

Mrs Q and I are lucky enough to live within 20 miles of Silverstone’s front gate. We can go to a Grand Prix weekend and spend the nights in our own bed. If we want to drive our car there and park, the whole weekend (cheapest admission, fuel and parking) will cost us £425. Four hundred and twenty five pounds. £350 for the ticket, £60 for the parking, and a bit of diesel.

If we lived a similar distance from the Circuit Spa Francorchamps, the same thing would cost £258, even if we booked now, a few weeks before the event. If we’d got the early bird discount, even less expensive.

And if we had an apartment in Milan, we could do the whole Monza weekend for £197. Well under half the cost of Silverstone’s offering, with much less notice.

Let’s say for a minute we wanted to stay on site, to soak up the atmosphere, stock up on calories and be pestered by a slightly deranged Irish former team owner (Silverstone) or musically anaesthetised by a dozen completely deranged Dutch techno fans (Spa). And let’s say we were driving to the European races, not from a theoretical home 20 miles away, but from our actual home in Milton Keynes.

Silverstone including camping: £512. Spa including camping, driving there and back and a return Channel crossing: £508. Monza, ditto: £539. OK, that’s cheating a little bit, because you’d need an extra night either way to get to Monza and be comfortable, but you get the idea. In price terms, it’s no different to go to Belgium or flaming Italy than it is to go to somewhere on our doorstep.

OK, F1 as a sport doesn’t help itself. But Silverstone is complicit in making it appear even more inaccessible and expensive than it needs to be.

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A developing obsession

I had warned myself and my nearest and dearest beforehand. I know everyone says this, but I was genuinely watching mainly for the scenery. France is a land of breathtaking variety, only enhanced in the summer by vast sunflower fields and acres of lurid Lycra.

I also knew what I’m like, though. If I get interested in something, I get REALLY interested in it. I never find a Formula 1 race particularly boring, even if it’s not exciting as a single spectacle, because I watch every session all season, competitive or otherwise, so I have an idea about what’s going on, and the nuance and dynamic behind it. If I switched on at 12.55, and off as the champagne started flying, I wouldn’t understand any of that, and would probably find it boring.

As it is with F1, so it is with Test cricket. I can’t dip in and out, because no matter how Boycottesque the innings, I might miss THE controversial moment of the summer. Or the sparkling interview with a legend of the game. Or the painfully contrived innuendo which finally displaces 1991’s “leg over” comment as the cause of the longest giggling fit in radio.

You can see why this completism might be a problem. Test cricket, if it’s reasonably competitive, takes up maybe 60 days a year. F1 consumes at least half of another 60. And here I was, approaching my mid-thirties, sitting down to see if I could drum up a passing interest in something that lasts three weeks at a time.

At the time, I only knew what anyone who listens to the sports news on Radio 5 knew. Lance Armstrong won everything. Before that, Miguel Indurain won everything. (Don’t forget that as far as the sports news on Radio 5 went, the Tour de France was “everything”.) Sometimes everyone got caught taking drugs, and pretended to stop.

So that first Tour was only ever going to be a learning experience. I vaguely remember some fuss near the start about riding over some cobbles, and one of the favourites for the race fell off and broke something. They wouldn’t repeat THAT mistake, I probably thought.

And then The Thing happened. Two of the other leading contenders were riding up a hill when one’s chain fell off. (It turned out he was the brother of the chap who fell off on the cobbles.) What happened next will shock and horrify you. The other leading contender, chain still attached – wait for it – TRIED TO WIN.

This single incident was probably responsible for hooking me in to cycling for life. Why was there such a reaction? What kind of unwritten code made someone try their hardest to beat everyone else for three weeks, until it looked like they might have a chance to do so? Why, if this was not the correct thing to do, did Michael Schumacher never pull up at the side of the circuit and wait until Fernando Alonso’s engine was fixed? And just how bloody good was the little stroppy bloke who kept winning the sprint stages?

I haven’t stopped learning since. And I never will. I feel like I have known cycling for about four minutes, not four years – and yet this weekend, I felt like a diehard. Last year, in Tours and in Saint-Amand-Montrond, where I achieved a short but burning ambition to see Cavendish win in the flesh, I was an outsider in a land of pompiers and gendarmes, organisers in smart blazers and old ladies wilting in the heat, and the previously unknown hazard of projectile packets of Haribo.

A successful sprint

A successful sprint

Earlier this year, I was a novice, in awe of the Belgians thronging the Arenberg trench, shouting good-natured abuse at each other just because of which side of the road they were standing, wondering whether I would get in trouble for parking on the hard shoulder to scramble down a bank at the start of the Orchies secteur, wandering into the Roubaix velodrome with half an hour or so to spare until Niki Terpstra charged in alone and elbowing my way as near to the front as possible.

Trouée de bière

Trouée de bière

Vantage point

Vantage point

And then suddenly I was a veteran. On Saturday in Harrogate, standing for hours opposite the podium in an ever-decreasing personal space, almost nobody else seemed to recognise the red-haired middle-aged man fetching the coffees for his Eurosport commentary partner. Almost all the “why do they do that?” “who is he?” “why do they keep saying Shut Up Legs?” questions from the crowd were ones that I knew the answer to (not that I chipped in and answered them, of course. There’s only one thing worse than not knowing the answer, and that’s having a smart arse tell you it).

"Do we have to keep bringing William?"

“Do we have to keep bringing William?”

I couldn’t be in York, Sheffield or Last Of The Summer Wine on Sunday, for no other reason than the fact that F1 still takes precedence, but by 10:15 on Monday I was in the centre of Cambridge, and five hours later in east London, surrounded only by a smattering of internal auditors and maintenance workers from the adjacent Excel conference centre. While everyone else speculated about the time the riders would arrive and looked nervously at the approaching rain cloud, I compared the time schedule in the road book with the Eurosport feed on my phone, noticed a helicopter high in the sky to the north, and got my camera ready.

And I knew that a short walk to London City Airport, followed by a nice cup of tea and a cake, would yield not only an opportunity to dry out, but also a pleasing array of cyclists in varying sizes of headphones wandering through on their way to one of four flights chartered to whisk them beyond the Eurotunnel chaos to a place that calls itself “Paris Plage” like Luton Airport claims to be in London.

Gorilla beatz

Gorilla beatz

As they came through, in their teams as in the race, I watched a wiry chap moving between them with an autograph book, and it hit me. Out of all the eighty-seven million reported spectators for “Le Tour De Yorkshire et un peu de Derbyshire avec Les Departements du Maison” ™, only three were in the airport. Him, me, and the long-suffering (but secretly moderately interested) Mrs Q. Cycling, it seemed, had achieved the same level of interest/completism/obsessiveness in my psyche as the other sports I’ve known for so long.

I should say several things in mitigation. I wouldn’t have gone to the airport if I’d been watching in The Mall, but I didn’t fancy a third enormous crowd and I guessed that the Beckton Badlands would be relatively quiet. I needed to marvel at the genius of an organisation that could route its race DELIBERATELY to have the roads closed from the finish to the airport, so everyone could get back quickly. If I’m going to spend time following a sport obsessively, my taste for croissants and artisan markets means I’m better off in Chateauroux than Chesterfield. I have yet, after four Tour stages, a Tour of Britain and a Paris-Roubaix, to pay a single penny for entry to a cycling event. And best of all, my wife, who I’d do more or less anything to make happy, actually appears to enjoy coming along (or at least doesn’t fall asleep, as she spent most of the late 90s doing in various football grounds).

In short, cycling has the potential to be the most civilised, exciting, pleasurable obsession I’ve yet found. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to book a hotel in Compiègne for next April.

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Getting a good start

Two quick graphs for people wondering what a difference a change of manager can make to a football team – in this case, Middlesbrough. Obviously.

These assume that everyone starts from the same point – namely, the ten-game points total that their predecessor left them. This means that everyone starts from a notional “100%”, whether the team had gained 0 points or 30 in the previous ten games. It’s a relative comparison of what difference the managers apparently made, in their first twelve games.

It’s worth noting that some of these took over mid-season, and some in the summer. I haven’t taken any account of that – my hypothesis would be that you would give *more* allowance to someone taking over mid-season.

The only reason there are two charts is to allow the scale of the managers who aren’t Terry Venables to expand a bit. Clicking on them will give you a bigger version.

Comparative starts

Comparative starts without Venables

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And the markets….

Every financial report on the BBC ends with the phrase “And the markets…”, followed by a parade of numbers that mean almost nothing to 99% of the listenership. Yet they are delivered, even on Simon Mayo’s Drivetime, with a gravitas that suggests that nothing could be more important to our continued existence.

Obviously the people involved in “the markets”, the drivers of our economy, are without exception talented and clever individuals, but what is the mechanism that governs the system? What is the defining strategy? What are the checks and balances? If the system fails catastrophically, what lessons are learnt?

Of course, everyone who’s thought about it for five minutes, rather than swallowing the panicked mainstream media “what will the markets think?” bullshit, knows something close to the real answers to these questions. This isn’t really a post about markets. It’s about how satire and satirists can expose the truth all they like, but nothing fucking changes.

Here’s eight minutes or so of that. They did donkeys’ years of it. Nothing changed, but at least they tried.

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The parochial paradox

This week, I spent an interesting hour on a boat tour around Portsmouth Harbour. We were there to see the Mary Rose museum, and the harbour tour was the only other thing we didn’t do when we last went to the Historic Dockyard a couple of years back.

(Incidentally, if you’re REALLY into your maritime history, you can easily make a full day of the £26 admission charge. We were in the Mary Rose bit for over two worthwhile hours, and there’s two full ships and a naval history museum as well. But if, like me, you’d baulk a bit at the 84th cannonball, use your Clubcard vouchers.)

I was a bit apprehensive about the tour. The rest of the dockyard is “look at how we did things 100/200/500 years ago.” This bit is more “look at how we do things now”. And while I’m fascinated by large-scale engineering in general, I’m not sure that we should attach guns to quite so much of it these days. There’s a lot of talk about how the £42 billion earmarked to build HS2 could be better spent on [insert favourite public service here] – but that’s only about 15 months’ worth of spending on “military defence”, which as far as I can work out has not seen active service in defence of Britain itself for 31 years.

My lack of enthusiasm for “defence” – which I think is now more “post-imperial showboating” – might well spring from a belief that patriotism is – how can I put this? – a bit laughable. Pledging personal allegiance to an arbitrary bit of land, by accident of birth, confuses me. Looked at rationally, most places have their positives and negatives. I’m astonishingly lucky to live in a rich, well-fed democracy, but I wouldn’t place Britain on any pedestal beyond that. If money is to be spent on ‘reaching out’ to less fortunate places, I’d rather it be done as a co-ordinated supranational humanitarian effort, instead of kitting out “our boys” with the latest instrument of death to come out of BAE Systems.

The more I travel, the more I realise that patriotism is a bit, well, parochial. I feel no more affinity with Dorset than I do with the Dordogne, or with Gloucester than Göteborg. Especially when returning from those places means you have to interact with the execrable UK Border Agency.

“We’ve been quite parochial in the past and we have gone for English managers, we’ve almost had a little Englander syndrome.”

Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson, talking to the Evening Gazette

So is parochialism ever a good thing? Here comes the paradox – I happen to feel that being parochial is what makes sport. That’s not to say I’ll join in with “we hate Geordies” – I don’t, as a rule; they seem like quite a friendly bunch, the ones in my family particularly – but if sport doesn’t have a representative element, it gets dangerously close to becoming just another business.

Middlesbrough have been quite good, by that measure, over the last couple of decades. The club’s Academy has produced a raft of players capable of holding their own throughout professional football. The list of current pros “spotted” in the club’s catchment area includes Stewart Downing, Lee Cattermole, David Wheater, James Morrison, Tony McMahon, Ross Turnbull and Joe Bennett, as well as 2013 Boro players Jason Steele, Richie Smallwood and Ben Gibson. In May 2006, outgoing manager Steve McClaren made a point of fielding an all-English team of academy products in a Premier League game (although this was partly PR exercise, partly to ensure his first team players were as fresh as possible to appreciate how much better Sevilla were a few days later).

Behind the scenes, the club has become more and more “local” over recent years. By the end of the 2012/13 season, the majority of the coaching staff were local-born ex-players, plus honorary Teessider Craig Hignett and Boro-fan-but-not-ex-player Mark Venus.

Writing in Boro fanzine Fly Me To The Moon in September 2011, Chris Bartley said:

If we look at the set up now, it is clear that the past Is shaping and nourishing everything we do. [Mowbray], [Mark] Proctor and [Steve] Pears have a day to day involvement with the first team squad…
I think we learnt a lot of lessons in the ten years following our move to the Riverside…I won’t be a Pinocchio nose and say I objected to the purchases of Ravanelli, Emerson and Boksic. But little by little the soul of the club was being eroded…
Middlesbrough Football Club circa 2011 still has foreign players but I’m sure with [Mowbray] in charge, they appreciate the value of putting on a Middlesbrough Football Club shirt.

This is exactly how I felt about the project. After Gordon Strachan’s insistence on pugilistic, usually elderly, preferably Scottish players, it was a refreshing change, a chance to improve on the abortive experiment with Gareth Southgate’s promising principles.

Even at the height of the club’s success, from 2004 to 2006, I was struggling to identify with the team. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was one of my favourite players before he arrived. Mark Viduka is among the top five players I’ve ever seen live. George Boateng was an accurate pass away from being one of the best midfielders in the country. But none of them were at Boro for the love of it. As Chris Bartley says, this didn’t dim the enjoyment of the league and cup successes; but it left a nagging doubt as to whether I was supporting Middlesbrough rather than a franchise called something like Riverside Raiders.

Now the wheel has turned again. The alarm bells started to ring when Mowbray was dismissed, apparently at least in part due to concerns that his continued presence was keeping down home attendances.

With Financial Fair Play, gate money is king and the club really can’t afford thousands of supporters to stay away, no matter how sincere their intentions.

Anthony Vickers, Evening Gazette

But Mowbray’s removal was more than PR-driven symbolism – Proctor and Pears have followed in short order, with Hignett and Colin Cooper already departed to Hartlepool, leaving the localism almost completely demolished.

In the last four or five weeks, it has become clear that chairman Gibson was being influenced by former Chelsea and Manchester United chief executive Peter Kenyon, who in turn has a long-term relationship with “agent to the ridiculously overpaid stars” Jorge Mendes. These two have previously been “advisers” to a Jersey-based fund called Quality Sports Investments. Although Kenyon was subsequently reported to have left QSI’s parent company Creative Artists Agency, he has obviously retained close links with Mendes. The Daily Mail suggested last year that Kenyon could profit from selling a player to his old club, and the Wikipedia entry for QSI deteriorates into the kind of impenetrable company structure that is characteristic of groups that don’t want the outside world to know who they are or what they’re up to.

Kenyon has been involved with some of the more depressing aspects of modern football – some detailed in Daniel Taylor’s article on Manchester United, others as a result of his being Roman Abramovich’s representative on earth for a few years. It doesn’t seem outlandish to worry that his involvement at Boro isn’t wholly out of altruistic friendship with Steve Gibson, let alone an adolescent admiration for Dickie Rooks.

Nobody, including Gibson, Kenyon, Mendes or Jose Mourinho, knows how Aitor Karanka will get on as a manager in English football’s second division. The sports economists will tell you that, unless he is a genuine Clough-grade genius (or a bona fide Strachan-grade bonehead), the club’s league position will continue to reflect its wage expenditure. The UEFAphiles will say that employing Mourinho’s ex-assistant, someone who has worked at Real Madrid, cannot be anything but good. But in reality, nobody knows, or can know. “It remains to be seen” is the best and worst anyone can say.

What is undeniable is that Karanka is a client of Mendes’ Gestifute organisation. This is being sold to fans as a fantastic opportunity to access un-dreamed-of talent from across the continent. It could just as easily, though, be seen as using Middlesbrough as a proving ground for a rent-an-Iberian-teenager operation. While third party ownership of players is not allowed in England, both Spain and Portugal are happy with the practice. Perhaps an enterprising sports management company could showcase its latest talent “on loan” at an English second division club, attracting the big transfer fees (and associated percentages) from top-flight clubs across the continent after the loan spell ends.

“What’s the matter with that?”, ask the pragmatists. The thinking goes that anything’s fair as long as it brings results. Gibson and Middlesbrough use Kenyon, Mendes and Gestifute to their own ends, with the loanees firing the club to the Premier League, bringing back the all-important crowds and broadcast income.

Well, that’s the optimistic way of looking at it. The pessimistic one might be that, having tightened the rules since Carlos Tevez and Alejandro Faurlin tested them over the last few years, the English authorities might want to clamp down – and indeed, the FA site suggests that any players where Gestifute, or any other third party, hold an economic interest, would not be eligible to play in England.

Perhaps Kenyon and Mendes would simply channel their client players, rather than their “owned” ones, through Hurworth. Perhaps Boro could have an entirely legitimate procession of loan players trundling through the doors, a season at a time, moving the club further up the league at little to no cost. Perhaps they could – but would that, along with Kenyon’s baggage, be a Boro that a conflicted idealist, unpatriotic in life but parochial in sport, could identify with?

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Lifting the Loftus Road gloom

I tend to be out of step when it comes to Loftus Road. Four years ago, at the Dawning of the Age of the Wee Idiot, Boro went there and scored five. I said afterwards that the scoreline was pretty flattering, playing Arca at right back was bewildering to the point of perverse, and, to use everyone’s favourite phrase, there were a certain amount of cracks being papered over.

Today was different. QPR comprehensively outplayed their visitors, and could, had they particularly wanted to, have added to the two goals they scored. For Boro, Kamara made a nuisance of himself, and was greatly helped by the introduction of Jutkiewicz in the second half, but the big comeback never really looked on.

But that doesn’t mean we were rubbish. It just means the other lot were better. Given Boro’s resources and recent history, we can’t expect to be living with teams that populate the No Man’s Land that consists of “not good enough for the Premier League but too rich for the Championship”.

There was actually a lot more pressing, higher up the pitch, than I remember in recent months. Whether that’s my memory, or a Hoops-specific tactic, I don’t know – but against lesser opponents it would have caused panic. It nearly did one on or two occasions today. But Clint Hill and Richard Dunne, while they’re never going to dominate Premier League strikers, can play their way round even persistent pestering from Kamara and Leadbitter.

Speaking of Kamara, I enjoy his workrate and enthusiasm. He needs, like Emnes, to be more proactive in actually propelling the ball towards the goal, but as a forward player he does what you could definitively call “a job”. The problem today was a lack of support – Adomah tried his best to come in from the right wing, but Leadbitter on the other side isn’t that much of an attacking player.

Sometimes the 4-5-1 formation comes with one deep central midfielder and two more advanced. Today it started the other way round, with Whitehead and Varga deep and Butterfield further up. I think you could have rotated these three to any of the positions, or moved one further forward, to no extra effect either way – the imbalance came with Leadbitter on the left. Mowbray tried to get Varga and Leadbitter to swap positions during the first half, but they didn’t really seem to totally grasp it and the Hungarian disappeared at half time.

This is where I start to differ with Mowbray’s approach. At 2-0 down, I honestly don’t care if we get beat by five or six – I want us to have a go at getting it back. OK, Jutkiewicz arrived to give the support I wanted for Kamara – but actually a bit of pace and directness might have done the job better. The obvious option to do that was Carayol, and indeed he looked like he was getting ready to come on before half time, but it never happened.

But all the way through, I didn’t feel that Boro were “clueless” or “pedestrian”, words I would readily have used around the time of the Strachan visit to Shepherd’s Bush. I’ll say it again – against lesser opposition, we would have had a much easier time. That may sound obvious, but it bears remembering in the context of the gulf in class and resources.

Ben Gibson stood out for special mention. It’s long been my opinion – out of step, again – that any defence containing Jonathan Woodgate is going to have to do more work than is strictly comfortable. Gibson, making only his second Championship start, seemed confident and competent, and gave the impression of being quite happy to run the show if required. He didn’t put a foot wrong, although an errant hand caused one of the less arguable penalty decisions you’ll ever see. With Rhys Williams showing Felipe Massa-like levels of post-injury long-term collapse in form, it’s pleasing to see a solid new central defender coming through and looking like he’s ready to be first choice.

Do I always understand what Tony Mowbray does? No. I didn’t always understand what Steve McClaren did, either, but more often than not it worked. At the moment, Mowbray is struggling for a formula that sits together. Before the game at Forest, I said to Rob Nichols that I thought we just needed a proven striker – and then the defence folded, while we scored five from open play in two games. It’s like fixing a leaky tank – just when you get the putty set in one place, you notice a drip on the other side.

But that, I suspect, is what comes from having a middling second division side. At risk of sounding very old indeed (yes, again), the section of Middlesbrough’s support with short-ish memories, whether through youth or choice, has been spoilt by the now-defunct ‘Riverside Revolution’. The period from 1994 to 2006 was a glorious, out-of-character spell. The current situation is more like normality.

Unfortunately, the “Sky Sports era” doesn’t lend itself to the continuity and stability that Steve Gibson usually likes to encourage. A sizeable chunk of the support clearly thinks that changing the manager whenever results aren’t right is the way to go. I’d prefer to save it for terminal cluelessness or downright unpleasantness (that’s a double whammy for you, Gordon). Given the choice, I’d sooner support a financially-stable Middlesbrough in the third division with Tony Mowbray as manager, then a club on the edge, dependent on the banks, scrabbling for Premier League survival with [insert rent-a-manager here]. But I suspect that leaves me out of step again.

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The ideal calendar

I’ve been thinking about Formula 1 a bit too much. Partly because I think about it a lot anyway, and partly because I’ve just been to Belgium for the Grand Prix, which I’ll write about shortly.

In the meantime, I’ve been playing Fantasy Calendar. Not the type produced by the well-known tyre manufacturer, but the type produced by geeks like me who, every time Bernie Ecclestone and the circuits start playing politics, wonder “how hard can it be?”.

I’ve worked with just a few constraints. Some of them are real F1 issues, and some are introduced by me just to make F1 a bit better.

1. The season should have twenty races.

2. Half the races should be in Europe.

3. No races in January, February or December.

4. The Monaco Grand Prix is on 25th May.

5. There is no race on 15th June because of Le Mans.

6. There is a four-week gap between races at some point in the summer – ideally halfway through the season.

7. The Belgian Grand Prix is on 24th August.

8. Tracks that are poorly attended, rubbish or favoured by Vladimir Putin are not allowed.

With those in mind, here’s the calendar. There are six Asian races, three at the start of the season and three in the autumn; four in the Americas, most at the end of the season but with Canada in its traditional late spring slot; and 10 in Europe. Two of these (marked *) are in places where as far as I know there are no plans to have a GP any time soon – but where it would be great if they did.

Test 1: 02/02/2014 Jerez
Test 2: 16/02/2014 Barcelona
Test 3: 23/02/2014 Abu Dhabi

16/03/2014 Australia — Albert Park Circuit, Melbourne
23/03/2014 Malaysia — Sepang International Circuit, Sepang
06/04/2014 India — Buddh International Circuit, New Delhi
20/04/2014 San Marino* — Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Imola
04/05/2014 Spain — Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona
18/05/2014 Austria — Red Bull Ring, Spielberg
25/05/2014 Monaco — Circuit de Monaco, Monte Carlo
08/06/2014 Canada — Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Montreal
29/06/2014 Britain — Silverstone Circuit, Silverstone
06/07/2014 Germany — Hockenheimring, Hockenheim
03/08/2014 Hungary — Hungaroring, Budapest
17/08/2014 France* — Circuit Paul Ricard, Castellet
24/08/2014 Belgium — Circuit de Spa Francorchamps, Francorchamps
07/09/2014 Italy — Autodromo Nazionale Monza, Monza
28/09/2014 Abu Dhabi — Yas Marina Circuit, Yas Island
12/10/2014 Singapore — Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore
26/10/2014 Japan — Suzuka International Course, Suzuka
09/11/2014 USA — Circuit of the Americas, Austin
16/11/2014 Mexico — Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, Mexico City
30/11/2014 Brazil — Interlagos, Sao Paulo

What do you think?

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Why always Barnsley?

Back in August, at a time when any football supporter should be looking at the top of the table with the phrase “this is our year” running through their mind, I was contemplating roadkill, helplessness and my growing disaffection with football.

Since then, Middlesbrough’s season has progressed with, shall we say, predictability. Several wins, some losses, Manager of the Month, scrappy cup victories over minnows, glorious cup defeats to superiors, no league points between the decorations coming down and the daffodils coming out. There’s no point attaching a year to the story – it’s just the same one all Boro supporters know off by heart.

So it’s slightly curious that the return fixture should be the one to bring me back to my keyboard. It’s the first league game I’ve seen since it became obvious that the New Year’s Day surrender at Derby was the start of a pattern, rather than a blip, and I was interested to see if there was anything glaringly obvious going on.

Turns out, there is. We’re not keeping the ball.

There’s a lot of talk in football about systems, positioning, tucking in, overlapping, matching up, dropping deep, and all the other assorted expertisms that come with people who think that Andy Gray drawing lines on a screen was the single biggest innovation in the game’s history.

I’m sure these things make a difference, at the margins. To use a motorsport analogy, they are the little slots, geometries and winglets that give the last point of downforce that makes the difference between a championship-winning Red Bull and a midfield-plodding Mercedes.

None of those things will be any use to any car, however, if the driver points the thing the wrong way, or the team don’t put enough petrol in the tank. Or, in football, if the players keep giving the ball to their opponents.

Boro started doing this very early in the game. I read an opinion that Barnsley’s first goal, after five minutes, was the fault of left-back George Friend, who left too much space between himself and the scorer O’Brien, so he couldn’t get a decent block in when the shot arrived, and instead deflected it into the net. I assume it was a lack of space that meant the Coriolis effect on the spin of the ball (given the high latitude of the stadium) wasn’t considered.

What actually happened was that Boro gave the ball away. The visitors punted a hopeful high ball towards Rhys Williams, whose performance all afternoon could politely be described as “woeful”. If Williams had been playing up to his “Rolls Rhys” reputation, he would have taken a pace back, chested it down, sidestepped his opponent and played a neat pass down the line. If he had been playing as a basic defender, he would have launched a forceful header 50 yards forwards, or at the very very least put it into touch.

Instead, he stood underneath the ball and wafted a weak header to the nearest Barnsley player. A few passes later and the “killer ball” (quite a good one, by the way) was leaving Friend cursing his geometry and Steele pawing at thin air, like a cat vainly trying to catch a bluebottle.

And this continued throughout the first half. Williams repeated the same trick at least once, and spent the rest of the time heading down blind alleys and making half-hearted passes. Over on the left, Friend followed his captain’s example. Passes from the midfield, none of whom stood out for special mention either good or bad, found opposing fullbacks or the touchline more often than they found a colleague. Up front, Lukas Jutkiewicz gave a perfect demonstration of why having one designated “forward” player very rarely works, at one point having to try to hold the ball while surrounded by five defenders.

The second half brought a brief demonstration of what happens if you make a good, accurate pass. Ledesma, in his own half, swivelled and played a low, fast ball into the path of Carayol. This caused such panic in the away defence that all Muzzy had to do was keep running while the inevitable mix-up played out, then pop the ball into an empty net from six yards.

The second goal was a good deal scrappier, albeit after a half-decent build-up, and then a double substitution put the Tykes (who lived up to their terrier-like nickname all afternoon) back on top. Steele flapped at a Delap-alike Delap throw-in, Dyer backed out of a challenge in the box, and the ball bobbled through to Golbourne who did his best to miss from even closer than Carayol.

Happily, the winner came with a couple of elements of comedy. Hines made the 873rd backpass of the afternoon, and this time Steele slipped while trying to perform his normally-effective drag back. He then did what goalkeepers do naturally, conceding a free kick thanks to yet another of football’s Rules With Unintended Consequences.

It was at this point that the visiting supporters appeared to descend into some kind of collective delusion. To a man, woman and child, they jumped up and began baying for Steele to be sent off. When it became clear that the referee was somewhat better versed in the Laws of Football than they were, their song of “You don’t know what you’re doing” was surely aimed at each other rather than the blameless official.

He even tried to level up the cheating at the free kick. Barnsley widened the angle by taking it a yard or so further in from the goal line, so he let the wall stand about seven yards away. Perhaps if Friend had got even tighter he would have managed to get a better block on it, rather than putting his second deflection over a similarly-helpless Steele.

And that, barring some huff and puff, was that. Only Andre Bikey came out of the game with any credit – for a couple of barnstorming runs when he got sick of the dross around him, for bullying Marlon Harewood out of the game (not something I think I’ve ever seen before), and for the incredible feat of running twenty yards, arms waving, to scream at an official yet avoiding a booking.

(If Bikey wants to learn to be PROPERLY demonstrative, by the way, he needs to watch Barnsley manager David Flitcroft. Every time the ball came near him, he was jumping up and down, running on the spot and flapping about like a demented 118 advert. I don’t know if the bookies have a market on “manager most likely to be sent to the stands”, but he must be a short-priced favourite if they do.)

In the end, all three goals came from allowing the opposition the ball too easily in one way or another. What Boro need to do is to keep it as simple and accurate as possible. Think back to the tiki-taka way they walked round Watford at Vicarage Road (with the help of a dodgy dismissal). Perhaps Tony Mowbray’s habit of tinkering with the team means that they’re not familiar with who will be where, and what they will do. Perhaps playing somebody at right-back who can play at right-back would help. But above all else, the other team cannot score unless they have the ball (or you have Frank Sinclair on your side).

As for me…well, sorry, but I laughed when their third goal went in. The combination of comedic factors outweighed the disappointment at the goal. Like in August, I can’t get too upset about it. Like in August, the ancillary distastefulness of elements of football crowds manifested itself, this time in the form of some middle-aged shaven-headed men squaring up to each other after the game.

And like in August, the roadkill made an appearance. On the last half mile of the most boring drive ever, I hit an already-dead-and-bloodied fox. Perhaps that completes the cycle, and we can start again on Tuesday.

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An unusual complaint

First things first. This feels out of my comfort zone. I might have second thoughts later and delete it. Footballers and football, I can do. Formula One – no problem. Gender politics? Not really my thing. Which is to say, it must be a perfect storm of bad stuff to make me break the habit of a lifetime and complain to a newspaper. If you want to read the article that provoked the letter below, it’s here.

Dear Sir

I’d like to open this by saying that I don’t make a habit of complaining to newspapers. In fact, I can’t remember ever doing so, other than on inconsequential sporting facts when I was a kid. Equally, I wouldn’t bother complaining to newspapers that are only in it for the aggro. Such as those based in Kensington, for instance. I mention that in the hope that this won’t get filed with the “another Twitter mob” pile which I am fairly sure will exist in all national media organisations, just next to the Recycle Bin.

Another thing I try not to do is get involved in “my minority is better than yours” arguments. People who are persecuted/oppressed/bullied, for whatever reason, shouldn’t be. I didn’t have much of an opinion on Suzanne Moore’s throwaway line earlier in the week, nor the slanging match it caused.

With all that in mind, I think the best word for Julie Burchill’s piece in today’s Observer is “reprehensible” (although “disgusting” isn’t far off). To be specific, it’s not the language, nor the outrage at her friend’s treatment, nor even really the underlying debate as to whether women’s issues and transgender issues “intersect” to a greater or lesser degree. The damage, to my eyes, is caused by the viciousness of the contempt for a particular group of people, as a direct result of their membership of that group. I don’t need to point out the many historical examples of where that leads.

I’m aware that some people will cry “freedom of speech” when complaints are raised about opinion pieces. But as I understand it, one of the qualifications to freedom of speech is that it shouldn’t really be used to incite hatred, and even if that was not the intention, this piece could quite clearly have that effect.

Finally – and this is probably the weakest part of my complaint – it’s just disappointing to read something like that from the Guardian group. It’s difficult enough to find a sober, inclusive voice in the British media, without this kind of “tabloid plus long words” rant.

On reflection, although that last paragraph may be the weakest part of the complaint, it’s also what prompted me to make it. The fact is, if the piece had been in the Mail, I wouldn’t have bothered. The only thing I can think is that it’s about relative levels of trust. That probably says more about me than it does about the media, but there you go.

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Conversion rates

Just a quick post, this one, on something that’s been bugging me for a few weeks.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about Middlesbrough “failing to take their chances”. The impression is that the strike force needs loads of attempts at goal before one fortuitously sneaks under the goalkeeper’s body or something.

This has been reinforced by performances like that at Leeds just before Christmas – one goal from 14 attempts, compared to the home side’s three two from nine – and Cardiff a month or so earlier, where 19 chances failed to produce a single goal, while the Redbirds nicked the points with one goal from six attempts.

Is it true more generally, though? Do Boro’s strikers need a succession of “gilt-edged opportunities” before they finally trouble the scorers?

Before I present the results of a few hours’ data entry, just a couple of warnings. First, these figures ONLY tell you how good the team is at converting the chances it gets. A team could have lost every match this season 11-1 and still be top of this table by scoring with every attempt on goal. That would just mean the defence was REALLY rubbish, and the ball was never getting anywhere near the opponents’ goal.

Second, the accuracy of the figures rests entirely with the people who do the match stats for the BBC website. I’ve worked out that they do not include penalties as “attempts on goal”, as you will see from this page – Nottingham Forest and Hull City managed to score three goals from one attempt on target between them.

Bearing those things in mind, are Middlesbrough particularly bad at taking chances? No. Quite good, actually. Fifth best in the league, to be precise, with 6.42 attempts per goal. Here’s the table:

summary

Is that level of accuracy costing us against promotion rivals? Not really – or at least it’s swings and roundabouts. Of those higher than Middlesbrough in the league, Cardiff need 6.87 attempts per goal on average, and Hull’s performance is really quite poor on 8.30 (16th in the league). Crystal Palace and Leicester, in the two positions below, are the two best chance-takers by miles.

(The more curious among you may wonder where Boro rank in the accuracy of their shooting: what proportion of total attempts are “on target”? 18th on this one, I’m afraid, with 49.13%. Hull and Palace are both around the same mark, though, Cardiff a bit better on 51.39%, and Leicester streets ahead of anyone else on 61.32%.)

Conclusions? 1. It takes until the second week of the Christmas break to have the time to sit looking at football stats for half a day or so. 2. It might be frustrating watching your team fail to score from nearly 20 attempts, but it’s not necessarily indicative of a long-term problem.

Happy New Year!

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