Saturday, 13 March 2021



For most fans the battle that takes place on the pitch is the only one they’re interested in, and that’s mostly fair enough. No one has ever put a poster of their favourite chief executive on their bedroom wall. However, the current battle for ownership of our club is likely to prove more important than what the team achieved last season. The judgement is now expected in September but that might not be the end of it, given the likelihood of appeals. The outcome could influence this season’s prospects but also those of many seasons into the future, perhaps even decades. If I still haven’t got your attention: some say this could be the deciding factor in whether Wilder stays.

It is bewildering for fans, even those who have made an effort to read the reports and various interim judgements in a complex case. It’s easy to just block your ears up and go “lah-lah-lah.” You need a detailed understanding of company and contract law, and too much time on your hands, to understand it all. As fans we also rarely get a glimpse of what goes on behind the closed doors of the boardroom. What is clear is that it is about much more than money. It is a battle for the soul of our club – for what makes it special.

On one side are the McCabes who, for over 25 years, are estimated to have put £100 million into the club and have probably saved it from going into administration several times. A family who are as passionate about this club and about Sheffield as we all are.

On the other side is a Saudi who was only interested in owning a Premier League club, no matter which one, and who looked at Charlton, Leeds, and West Ham before settling on Sheffield United as perhaps as the cheapest route to getting his hands on one. A man who only attended a match at Bramall Lane three times in his first three years and who sees accusations of not understanding Sheffield or Sheffield United’s heritage and values as “xenophobia.”

For the anoraks who haven’t been following this case, this is what it is about: essentially Prince Abdullah saw a way to get control of Sheffield United for £5 million by pulling what any normal person would be called a “fast one.” He shifted his shares around to avoid owning 75% of the football club, which according to agreements would have meant he had to buy out the ground and academy at commercial rates. Instead he would get away with renting them off the McCabes at the advantageous rate they had set to put the interests of the football team first. This “fast one” may well be within what the law allows. What seems fair is irrelevant. The prince’s lawyer almost went as far as admitting this “fast one.” He described the prince’s actions as “acceptable.” He said that the McCabes’ claim rested “too much on good faith and equity which doesn’t get them very far.” Had good faith and equity been deployed – what would be fair play to you or I – he would have bought the football club for £5 million and then paid the market rate for the clubs assets. He launched the court case when the McCabes cried foul, and they put in counterclaims. A lot more has come out in the court case: the failure of the prince to invest as it was believed he would, that he can contemplate selling Shirecliffe for housing land, his trouble getting loans (including using his Saudi contacts such as the Bin Laden family), that he had to be taken to court to try to secure investment at the start of last season (a situation only saved by the sale of David Brooks), and just how toxic the relationship had become. It makes Wilder’s and the team’s achievements even more remarkable against such a backdrop.

I’m not saying Kevin McCabe is a saint – you don’t get to be a successful businessman without a hard edge and a certain ruthlessness, but he is a Blade and cares about the club and its fans. He has made mistakes – he will admit that – which one of us hasn’t. But it is lazy thinking to accuse him, as some fans do, of not spending money. Firstly, that is not true; secondly, have you invested anywhere near as much in United over the years? Even as a percentage of your income? No? Then you have not earned a right to criticize.

For the younger fans and those with short memories remind yourself of (or type into your search engine) “Deane and Fjortoft” to see what a shambles we were before he took over. Also, no one can deny just how unlucky we have been at times – had any one of those twists of fate gone the other way we wouldn’t be even having this debate.

With owners you have to be careful what you wish for. You could be made to pay homage to a Far Eastern king and watch cringeworthy videos before you know it. If you want a rich sugar daddy, he’ll only buy you champagne and truffles and take you on his yacht as long as it suits him. If later on he wants you to do things for him you don’t like you can’t complain, and you could end up being dumped having lost everything.

I have a test of people’s character: if I met them in a pub (or coffee bar) would they be happy to buy me a pint (or coffee), and would I be happy to sit and chat with them. Anyone who has met Kevin McCabe or his sons Scott and Simon will vouch that they would pass this test – they would also be able to sensibly discuss the merits of overlapping full-backs in the respective leagues and analyse the performance of the last game.

If anyone else wants to take me up on this test, mine’s a pint of Farmers Blonde (or an Americano). Ta.

Thursday, 12 September 2019


All Aboard the Rollercoaster?

A lot has been written about mental health in players and hopefully things are improving. Playing sport is undoubtedly good for your mental as well as physical health but it can too easily lead to destructive behaviours and expectations, especially at performance levels of the game. I write this on the anniversary of Gary Speed's death (there are too many others); however, there is a lot less said about the relationship between the game and mental health amongst us fans.

Being a football fan – I mean a fan, not just a Sky Sports subscriber – is a strange thing. It really doesn't make much sense if you think about it too much. I have a standard quip when people: neighbours and non-fan friends say: "Enjoy the game!" it is: "I don't go to enjoy myself.” It leaves them rather bemused and, without a subsequent half-hour conversation, wondering why someone they didn't have down as dim-witted would waste so much time and money to go to a branch of the entertainment industry if not to enjoy themselves. After all, they go to the theatre, cinema or whatever with that one aim.

None of that is to say that I don't sometimes, incidentally, enjoy myself at football – in fact there has been a much higher than average amount of enjoyment recently – so much that I've been wondering if recent bouts of good humour and optimism are normal in a human being. When life around you is shit, to be able to escape and think: "well at least the Blades are riding high" is such a good thing for us all, isn't it? And how refreshing. Going into work on a Monday after a weekend defeat at home to MK Dons with only a trip to Fleetwood to look forward to cannot have have been great for our mental health. But I suppose in football there is always hope, even when you're languishing in the third tier: that next match at the weekend could just be the turning point, it could just start to click, couldn't it? – when a Sammonesque player rediscovers early season promise?

I wonder if anyone has ever done a study on mental health in relation to team success. Don't they say that national productivity increases after England successes, and that Harold Wilson got to Downing Street on the crest of a post-World Cup wave of optimism? I have also read that domestic violence is a linked to football results. All a bit weird isn't it? Why does it assume such an importance? Would I even the say disproportionate importance? And I'm going to risk courting controversy by saying: particularly for men. I think it meets some very innate need; that the way it went from nothing to a huge phenomenon in the late 19th century shows it filled a void in people's lives created by migration from the countryside to industrial towns, and has become even more important since. Human beings have a need for affirmation, to feel part of a tribe, and football provides all that. And what better release after hours of graft and rule-following during the week than to shout, to sing, to rant, and abuse authority (the referee) without getting sacked? For men particularly it provides an outlet for emotion that society still doesn't normally allow. It provides a justification for friendship and bond between fathers and sons. When I left home and lived away I'd phone home and if my dad answered it was invariably the football we discussed; when that ran out it was: "I'll get your mum." But at least we had that. As I say, I think for men the importance of their team in their minds is greater than for most women fans, who are more likely to get fulfilment of basic needs of belonging and affirmation from elsewhere: from a different sort of friend relationship and from family. That Bramall Lane is family friendly is a good thing, that fan diversity is on the increase is a good thing, but I can see the arguments against too much sanitisation and gentrification of the game – I can see why some fans feel it as a threat. Long may football fans avoid being choreographed and having their behaviour restricted and patrolled (other than for reasons of safety) for the sake of us all.

So, Wilder has affected my mental health. Put an Arsenal fan in front of me that one time and I'd start one of my favourite rants about how crap Fever Pitch was and how pathetic Arsenal fans are with their self-pity, moaning about their lack of success – try a spell in League One, or supporting a club that's the most underperforming in the country I'd say (when you plot a graph of attendance as against trophies), where the last fan who remembered winning a major trophy died quite a few years back etc. Now I'm not sure I could be bothered – my mood has changed, see? I suppose there is a counter-argument that being a Blade has made us resilient over the years. That you're better off being a pessimist because you're constantly surprised when things go right, whereas the eternal optimist can only feel let down all the time. I wrote in Dem Blades Issue 1 about taking my son to his first match at 12 weeks old. As I climbed the stand with him dangling from my front, I remember someone shaking their head at me and saying: "Subjecting him to a lifetime of misery." Well, who knows? And which is more fun: a rollercoaster or a train, a cycle ride through rolling countryside with ups and downs or along a flat road in the Fens? I can't start to imagine what it must be like being a Bury fan right now. To have all that taken away from you – with just the prospect of a trip to the retail park on a Saturday afternoon: a milky coffee at Costa after walking around Boundary Mills.

As I write this I keep thinking about the weekend's game and thinking we could get something out of it. Thank you Wilder, Knill, McCabe, the players and everyone else at the Lane. You should be on prescription.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Here, a seed was sown, a spark was lit. These buttresses the oldest structure for miles around, though no one really cares – their value is function. Unlike the once vaunted seat of civic pride; blackened, abandoned, ashamed – it cannot even tell the truth about the hour, but for the middle of the day and night. Brown, glazed brick crenulations stand opposite the ghost of the castle, taken down stone by stone when family fought family. Useful building materials. We are makers not conservers.
Above, two men manhandle carpet roll ends from lorry to trolley. Below, where the heron often stalks statuesque, unnoticed, twin ducklings, caramel spots and vees on their chocolatey backs, nibble at some coins – three pennies and a five pence piece – dropped with forlorn wishes onto submerged plywood. The foam-flecked, beery current is too strong: one strays and is swept downstream, fighting its way back, dipping under till its feet hit shingle, carrying on like nothing happened, a protective wing briefly flashing iridescent blue. Will they ever know such carefree hours again?
Striking out from a tiny island, a scarlet-beaked moorhen pecks inquisitively at discarded chicken bones; then, hidden until now, black fluffy blobs, all allosaur arms and legs, make their move for the cover of native willow and forget-me-not, rubbing along with balsam and knotweed. Above, hard faced great granddaughters of buffer girls, with pushchairs; small boy with tight black curls, brown and blue ice-cream; Somali man, almost dancing as he crosses, purple velour tracksuit; green, gold and black bag on his back. A Chinese man runs, holding his daughter; then she is set free, pigtails bobbing, laughing, pink checked dress flashing.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

A Tale of Two Pigeons. Fitzalan Square. The Third Sunday of Advent. (A short story)

St Vinny's "loft"
(There's an audio version of this at: )

- Nah then, Darren, a’reight?
- Ey up! Is that Kev? Bloody hell, Kev. How’s it blowin’, lad?
- Sound mate, yeah.
- Not seen thi for yonks.
- I’ve been nowhere mate – just mi ol’ territory. Where’s tha been?
- Well, we ’ad to clear out of St. Vinny’s. Proper loft that were, but the upright pigs moved in and cleared us aht.
- Oh ar, I heard about that – didn’t they murder innocent eggs?
- Yeah, ’orrible it were. Smashed nests an’ everything. So me an’ t’ lads went up ’illsborough after Tramlines to clean up. It were a reight good scoff – should’ve been there, mate.
- All t’ decent lofts are disappearing, these days. What were it at St Vinny’s? Not more bloody student lofts were it?
-  Ar, reckon so.
-  Dun’t they build owt else? I were at Wharneliffe Works for a bit, then the upright pigs came and started blocking up the flights. Bastards!
- Ar... Bastards!
- I’ve gorra reight pad in the Old Town Hall nah.
- Nice. I might try gerrin’ in t’ Winter Gardens for the neet, me. Love it in theer. Burr it’s tricky gerrin’ in…. What tha had for thi tea?
- Good old Greggs’ pasty – only a tad squashed an’ all. Not bad pickings the neet. What about tha?
- Pizza vomit up West Street outside Nando’s. Allus decent pickings up theer this time of year.
- Ar. True enough.
- Ar....... Tha still seeing that Debs?
- Nah, mate. She copped it, poor lass.
- Oh, ar? Whar ’appened?
- We were having a scoff – load of noodles spilt on t’ floor outside Yep Yep Hotpot and this bloody falcon swoops dahn an’ nabs her an’ carries her off up t’ top o’ St George’s.
- Shame that.
- Ar. Tha don’t wanna go near theer – student leftovers or no. Still… plenty more pigeons in t’ sky, as my ol’ ma used to say. An’ I’ve still gorr’ it. I can still puff my chest out and strut my stuff. I might have a stumpy foot burr everythin’ else works; know what I mean?
- Here, does that old fella still tip aht a carrier bag o’ bread at t’ top of Angel Street?
- Ar, sometimes. Reight scoff that.
- Reight scoff! Bit like that up Hillsborough wi’ loads o’ duck bread… ’ere, I’m just goin’ up for a traditional festive crap on ol’ Eddie’s head. Tha coming?
- Don’t mind if I do. Honourin’ the old traditions and that pasty’s on its way through.
-  Take that, Ed.
- Haha. Season’s greetings, Eddie.
- ’ere…. I thought summat were missing. What happened to all t’ trees, Kev? It were a reight cosy loft of a summer’s night ’ere. Many’s a lass I’ve cooed to up in them branches.
- Bloody upright pigs weren’t it. Chopped ’em dahn – just to spite us I reckon – can’t be no other reason. Made a reight mess of it ’an’t they.
- What they gorr against trees?
- Buggered if I know. Bastards!
- Ar. Bastards..... Here, Kev – dahn theer! Them upright pigs are chuckin’ summat dahn.
-  Bloody hell, it’s mince pies – I’m on it. Landing gear engaged!
- Wait – I love a mince pie, me.
- I’ll be well set up for Chrimbo nah, Daz. I were going to go for a bit of a race round wi’ t’ gang over t’ Crown Court, burr I’m not sure I’ll be able to move after this lot.
-  Kev! It’s gone dark, Kev!
- I can’t move, Daz. I’m trapped!
- It’s not that Falcon is it?
- No it’s...
- K–

- Oh I say two nice fat ones. That’s Christmas dinner sorted, Nigel: pan-fried pigeon breasts served with a red wine jus, fondant potatoes, celeriac puree, asparagus foam and pea shoots!

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The plight of the novel in society when kids refuse to grow up

There is plenty of advice out there on how to get an agent, and much of it is similar. So, it must be right, yes?

Well, given that agents stand guard over the watchtower that protects the entrance to the fortress of publication, what they say goes. Without them you will not get a foot on the drawbridge; the portcullis will never be raised, no matter how much you shout at the thick stone walls. They all say they are on the lookout for new writers to excite them – to elevate some poor aspiring writer amongst the many on the outside all hoping to access the London literary citadel. And there are so many millions on the outside: too many people writing books, which quite frankly aren’t very good. It is therefore hard for even superb, new books to surface above the vast sea of mediocrity. The agent becomes a necessity.

But the focus of agents by necessity is on the inside of their castle – first and foremost they have to make money from their existing list of authors. That is how they pay their bills, buy their Prosecco. That means spending time and effort schmoozing with publishers and promoters to get those projects onto the mass market – selling tens of thousands on the shelves of Tesco and the newsagents at railway stations and airports.

They all claim to be in favour of diversity, but they cannot easily take a risk with something that is not like something else that has already sold well, or with a book by an unknown whose very name does not automatically generate interest in our celebrity-obsessed society. If you regularly appear on TV, your new children’s book / romance / kiss-and-tell is a shoo-in, whether it is any good or not. The book has to be a good bet to sell to the thirty-something, tube-riding, Pret A Manger-eating, aspirational female.

So, agents become the arbiters of taste. The advice that comes down from on high is advice – not on what makes for good literature – but what they might best be able to clinch a big deal on with publisher. Do they amount to the same thing? Sadly not.

An agent will spend a small proportion of their time looking at submissions. They will rarely read past the first page – if they even get as far as picking the manuscript up. They rarely waste their valuable time in correspondence, or the basic courtesy of a reply to an inquiry letter. So, what is the advice for that crucial first page? They all say they have to be grabbed immediately by what they read; they want to be in the story straight away. These are not people who are fond of a long slow chat-up or gentle foreplay. They want their pants down on page one. George Eliot would not get her novels looked at if she was around today. Adam Bede has one of the best introductions in English literature but it is long and slow and descriptive and you have been reading some time before anything much happens. It leads the reader gently by the hand rather than thrusting them rudely up against the wall.

An intelligent reader of these modern high-octane novels, soon tires of the formula, of immediate peril, of tension being cranked up, of being psychologically manipulated by an author who is writing to a recipe. Louise Doughty’s brilliant novel Stone Cradle is skilfully crafted, is languid. It is as near perfect as a novel can be. Yet it is the Alton Towers-ride, nauseating rush, of Apple Tree Yard that is popular and sold in large numbers.

What is going on? It is all symptomatic of an infantilization of society. Those who read Harry Potter, who proudly announce they favour YA fiction as a genre. Thinking is a trait to be discouraged – in fact, how often do you hear it proudly rejected – when you tell someone about a great book and they reply that they don’t read books but have seen the film because it requires nothing from them. It is mere passivity. Who but a crank would read Tolstoy these days? Anna Karenina is a terrible book by modern standards – badly plotted, dreadfully paced, parallel, largely unrelated stories (of Levin and Anna), far too wordy and full of description that does not serve the plot. And the title is just boring and says nothing about what the book is about.

As authors we are told we are competing not with other authors but with other forms of entertainment. What hope then for an author who wants to write intelligent adult fiction in a world where there are fewer and fewer grown-ups? Where people in their 20s, 30s or 40s go and watch Star Wars without even the excuse of taking their kids with them. Grown-ups who still drink fizzy pop, who prefer their coffee milky and caramelly, who dress like American teenagers, and who can’t be bothered to work out how to vote so trip out the mantra that “they are all the same.” That is of course the point. Large corporations want brand loyalty, they need you to be a slave to your smartphone, to upgrade it every year, and it suits governments who don’t want you to think for yourself – they want you to leave them to get on with it otherwise they might lose power and risk the overly large slice of the cake they and their friends enjoy.

If that has depressed you, take heart. Just as indie-music kicked down the doors of the stronghold of the likes of the EMI, RCA, Polydor and CBS in the late 70s, so there are more and more small and independent publishers out there who are not tied to huge print runs, who are fleet of foot, not tied to London, who run a tight budget and care more about great literature than shovelling stodge down the throats of the masses. The big publishers like to regard themselves as guarantors of quality, but as with music in the 1970s, they no longer have such a monopoly. The big publishers still have a stranglehold on the shelf space and tablespace in big bookshops, but readers are finding other ways to discover a more varied, richer reading diet.

Friday, 1 July 2016

A Mother's Love

A Mother’s Love

Joe stepped off the train and held the package close to his side. He adjusted his weight on his crutch and dropped his kit bag to the platform. It smelt like home – the grease and steam from the engine mixed with that distinct smell of man, beast and machine working flat out to produce shells and armour plate. And yet there was no joy in him.
    Mick’s mother lived in the notorious Crofts; he would take a cab from the front of the station: people moved aside, a look of horror mixed with pity in their eyes. Before he could attempt to rebuild his life he had to give her this – all that was left of Mick wrapped in, now smutted, brown paper – Christ! how was he going to explain to her. The Christmas table at Mick’s would have a very empty seat. Good ol’ Mick – what a bloody laugh they’d had last year – as he lost his last Christmas dinner over the side in the Bay of Biscay. Sailing to Egypt was just one big adventure then for boys who, until they’d enlisted, had never been further than Derby that happy September day in times of innocence when the United netted five.
The old horse strained to move the cab away – all the good ones had been blown to bits in France. Town looked just the same, and yet everything had changed. He fingered the string on the packet – Mick’s book – his Bible – his lucky charm – with a sniper’s bullet right through the middle of it. What sort of God was this? As he’d lain there next to Mick he felt warm liquid seeping over his own chest – he’d been hit too. Except, when he’d felt inside, it was just his pewter flask leaking whisky where it had been punctured by shrapnel. The bloody irony of that! The sweet boy who’d taken the pledge, shot dead through his holy book, and the sinner saved by his sin.
   Ten minutes before Zero on the first of July they’d left the trench, comrades side by side, as the mortars opened up a hurricane bombardment and a huge mine exploded to the south shattering the world and sending smoke and earth hundreds of feet into the sky, drowning out even the deafening noise of the bombardment. There they’d lain down in the middle of No Man’s Land as grenades and artillery flew over. Then it went quiet, momentarily – perhaps it wouldn’t happen after all? But Zero had arrived – the artillery started again and the whistles blew. They got to their feet – they had to walk with rifles raised, not run – and then all of hell descended. They were supposed to be going forward but didn’t: as the front line fell more targets took their place, bodies piled up and blood and humanity mixed with mud. Screams and moans and cries of “mother” from boys only just in breeches pierced through the din, the smoke, the blasts that shook and rent flesh. Him and Mick pushed on but the bloody wire was still there and they couldn’t cross the last few yards. Then Mick fell and he’d picked him up and dragged him towards a shell hole – then a grenade went off and he came round with Mick under him and a searing pain in his foot and across the side of his face. Mick was conscious; he tried to keep him talking but gradually he had faded in his arms. He kissed him, but he had never known just how much he meant to him. How could he ever?
   There were a few of the Pals in that shell hole. They’d had to fight like hell to defend that open grave until nightfall. Then he’d had to leave Mick – along with all the others they stepped over on their way back. All he could return of Mick was that precious Bible – the one with pressed poppies and wild flowers in.
   He had been amongst the one in three of the City Battalion that survived that day.
   He was shipped out to a first aid station and was spared those next three nightmare days clearing up the mess. He had tried to find out if Mick’s body had been retrieved and buried – he couldn’t bear to think of that beautiful boy – out there – being stripped by rats and maggots.
   The next day the post from home arrived and they were instructed to open it all – cigarettes, chocolates, socks, packed up with tender cards, letters of good wishes and prayers sent out to a God who just wasn’t there.
   No afterlife. Just this. One go at getting it right.
   No post arrived for Mick, for which he was grateful.

He tried to give the cabbie the one and six but he refused it – always that look in their eyes – he’d rather have their respect. He stood and looked round for the right courtyard. A child stood gawping at him.
‘Nah den kid, weer’s Mick Flannery’s ’ouse?’
The child, bare-footed and wearing clothes his own mother wouldn’t have considered fit for cleaning cloths, led him timidly into a soot-blackened courtyard. There was a stench of overflowing middens; some hens pecking near an open drain and the broken paving was coated in brown slime. He shuddered as his mind flashed back to July. His hand went up to the claret scar on his cheek. The boy indicated the house; Joe tossed him a ha’penny and approached the door. He took a deep breath and knocked. A girl pulled the door open, something in those blue eyes said she was Mick’s sister – how could he not know? – but Mick never spoke of his family.
‘Is Mrs Flannery in?’
‘Mother there’s a fella at t’ doo-er’
‘What’s ’e want?’ came a voice from inside.
‘I dunno.’
Joe waited. A dishevelled woman came out of the gloom. She was filthy; grey, matted hair, ancient-looking. Joe thought she had been drinking.
‘I’m looking for Mrs Flannery – Michael’s mother.’
‘Tha’s found ’er.’ Joe was shocked. This woman could surely never have given birth to someone so beautiful.
‘I’m a friend of Mick’s.’ He held out the package. ‘This was his Bible. I think he might have wanted you to have it.’
‘Tha can keep it. I’m not bothered.’
The door closed in his face. He didn’t move. She was supposed to invite him in, ask how Mick died, weep and wail.
How could a mother’s love be less than his own?

You can get the book that this story is taken from here
All author royalties go to War Child to help support children in conflict affected parts of the world.