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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2 Responses to The parochial paradox

  1. njt1986Nath says:

    Good article there QE.

    On the defence spending bit, i’m with you but also not.

    I agree completely that, when it comes to the Royal Navy at least, there is absolutely no need to be whacking guns, cannons and so on to the ships that are being built now. Naval warfare is obsolete really, most wars now are Air/Ground wars with any naval input usually being in a transport/support capacity (with the exception of aircraft carriers)

    Not only that but apart from the Falklands, the only wars Britain has been involved in have been the two Gulf Wars, Afghanistan and Kosovo. None of which, as far as I can see, really involved much naval resistance.

    However, what I would say is that we do still need to spend a fair bit to make sure our Army and Air Force have the best equipment available. As an ex-RAF man, I can say that in my time the equipment wasn’t always the best, it was usually the cheapest! Luckily our American cousins had a tendency to be a bit dim at times and a lot of our guys swapped equipment with them and wrote it off as being “lost”, therefore creatively acquiring a better standard of equipment. Also a good number of them ended up taking their own gear, bought out of their own wages, because it was of a much higher quality and a lot more useful than the standard issue gear.

    It doesn’t help really that the MoD and Defence Estates have a tendency to sell off land extremely cheaply either and end up losing the taxpayer a lot of money as a result of the buyers developing that land into housing or a trading estate etc. and making a lot of money of them.

    The former Naval hospital at Haslar was up for sale at around £100m a few years back. That site is absolutely massive and will in all likelihood end up being turned into 1000’s of houses.

    Millfields (also in Plymouth) was a naval hospital until the 90’s and is now apartments valued at around £200k each – most likely sold off very cheaply.

    Also, to finish off my mini rant of the MoD being stupid, there were rumours I heard from techies in the RAF that we had bought a load of Apache’s off the US, cost a fortune but they were cheaper than buying them brand new, only for the yanks to shaft us when we found out upon taking delivery that although we had the Apache, we didn’t have the software needed to actually fly the damn things! They then charged us a fortune to get the software, making the Apaches overall cost to be pretty much what it would have been if we’d just bought them new!

  2. Matty Palmer says:

    Seems a rather pessimistic way to welcome a new manager to the club. I (as did many Boro fans) would have loved to have seen Mowbray and ‘The Boro Backroom’ succeed but that was clearly never going to happen and sooner or later a balance must be struck between the right way of doing things off the pitch and getting positive results on it. Pochettino has shown that you can balance locally produced talent with a continental style of coaching and tactics to achieve success (granted the long term success is yet to be seen).

    In an ideal world Boro would be owned, managed, coached and played for by people local to the club and with the clubs interests at heart. The reality is we’re playing week in and week out in a 3/4 empty stadium and someone or something needs to change in order to smash the crippling apathy that has taken hold of the club in recent seasons.

    Wholeheartedly agree with your point on MoD spending also. Ludicrous waste of money in these times of supposed austerity

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