Sunday, 25 October 2015

Early Class Influences on Football

Article first published in issue 9 of The Football Pink
One of the greatest things about football is that no one can claim to own it, though many have tried. All you need to play some form of the game is the ability to stay upright and a loose object to kick. It is probably as old as language or music.
It was certainly played in Britain in a relatively organised fashion throughout the Middle Ages by all classes. Then in Victorian times there was a step change in the evolution of the game: what was clearly a widespread, “folk” or children’s game in the early part of the century started to be codified in several places at once. Several things led to this.
One was the increase in demand for education both in the public school system and for the masses. One of the dilemmas for the advocates of “muscular Christianity” was what to do to keep adolescent boys from their vices and in particular the scourge of “self-pollution,” something which seems to have worried our forefathers inordinately. Vigorous outdoor sport was seen as a means of teaching discipline, morality (through a sense of fair play), and of tiring boys out physically so that when they went to bed they would sleep. (For a more detailed exposition of these ideas see David Winner’s Those Feet, 2005.) When the 1870 Education Act made education universal, sport was taken up within Board schools as a means of improving the health of the working classes, who were causing employers concern because unhealthy slum living (and unhealthy acts) were creating physically incapable workers for their mills.
A second factor was the increase in leisure time created by improved standards of living. The middle classes had enough time for regular pastimes and the working classes could afford to take time off to watch if not play – unofficially through traditions like honouring “Saint Monday” in Sheffield (unapproved absences from work on Mondays) or through the eventual right, obtained through the 1850 Factories Act, to Saturday afternoons off work, which slowly displaced the Monday habit.
Improved mobility through the railways meant that teams not from the same district or institution could play each other – and how would they do that if they had different rules?
Also a natural Victorian British desire to impose order undoubtedly came into play.
The fact that different codes sprang up was one of the seeds of a later class struggle sown in the early modern game. The public schools in the south of England and Cambridge University played their own versions of football and naturally, given their desire for order, imposed rules. These men were the country’s elite and laid claim the game as of birth-right. “The game of football, as originally played at the Wall at Eton, was the author of every sort and condition of football now played throughout the United Kingdom,” wrote someone in The Etonian in 1884. This myth that football was handed down from the public schools persisted and infected the game. (There is an ongoing, somewhat esoteric debate in academic circles as to who can claim the birthright of the modern game – the public schools or ordinary people (for example: Adrian Harvey: Football: the First Hundred Years, The Untold Story, 2005, and Graham Curry and Eric Dunning: Association Football: A Study in Figurational Sociology, 2015).
History is the account written by the powerful, whereas the working class footballers of the time let their boots do the talking, the fans doing theirs in the pubs afterwards. As a result their voices are few and far between. The football played on village greens, and that in the streets and backyards by generations of children would not have been written about. There are some accounts of matches outside of the public schools, often the newsworthy ones at holiday times and the traditional Shrove Tuesday games. (For example, it was worthy of note in Derby in 1848, because of attempts to ban it and the locals ignoring their betters: the military were called and the Riot Act read.) In this sense the public schools can only be said to have codified the popular game.
You also cannot ignore the fact that the first strong footballing sub-culture took off in Sheffield following the establishment of the Sheffield club of 1857. This club also drew up rules not long after those in the public schools. Sheffield Club was set up by young men from Sheffield’s higher classes: largely ex-pupils of Sheffield’s best school, the Collegiate (now King Edward VII comprehensive school), who drew on their experiences of versions of the game, probably those they grew up with in the district, as well as drawing on what they knew of the public school games.
The Football Association was founded in 1863 largely as an association of a handful of London clubs that set out to draw up an agreed set of rules. They were not uniquely ex-public school men so felt no strong bond of allegiance to any one set of rules. Also the Sheffield Club appeared to have sent observers to inaugural meetings. There was communication between Sheffield and London, and they played against each other. The strength of the Sheffield game was certainly a key influence over the FA in those early years, as was an increasingly critical mass of footballers in London (but neither were playing according to the nascent FA rules). In 1877 a single set of rules for the game was finally agreed, a synthesis of the Sheffield rules and that grew out of Cambridge and the public school versions.
There remained, though, this tension: that the game meant different things to different classes. This increased as the game took off and got worse as football finances became important: money was needed to run clubs, buy kit, develop grounds etc. Spectators with leisure time were willing to pay to watch, but, to continue to draw in spectators, there was competition to attract the best players. The issue of professionalism came to the fore.
The “old boys” clubs saw paying players as dirtying their sport – contaminating their moral purity. Beardshaw of the Sheffield Club said that “Professionalism in football is an evil, and as such should be suppressed” – little more than rank snobbery (though later he had live with it as a Sheffield United committee member).
Some of the attitudes of the higher classes are best revealed by looking at early fiction: literature being almost exclusively their domain at the time. I recently published a collection called Historical Football Stories taken in part from an earlier collection written at the end of Victorian era. I believe these to be the oldest football stories in existence. Fiction can provide better insights into some aspects of life than factual accounts, particularly emotional life. The curse of professionalism is a recurrent obsession in these stories. For example, in An International Proxy we read: “He was an amateur to his finger-tips. The association of money with sport was abhorrent to him. He was an opponent of the League system because it drew an invidious distinction between “League matches” and “friendly matches” — as if they were not all friendly!” Then in A Matter of Luck: “ ‘I like you Jack,’ he said, ‘and Nell loves you, but I can’t give my lass to one who makes his play his work. If you wish to win her you must give up soccer… ’ ”
Amateurs saw money as distorting the game in other ways. When penalties were introduced in 1891, it was claimed to be an effect of professionalism — of those who had not “imbibed the sporting spirit of the game at school” (i.e. public school). The famous amateur C B Fry said “It is a standing insult to sportsmen to have to play under a rule which assumes that players intend to trip, hack, and push their opponents and to behave like cads of the most unscrupulous kind.”
Jack Kelly: ' yankee oik'
The Amateur Rowing Association, custodians of a sport even harder for oiks to break in to, kept a tighter hold: their rules excluded, not only anyone in receipt of payment for rowing, but also anyone who had been by trade or employment a “mechanic, artisan, or labourer or engaged in any menial duty.” Even up to 1920 rowing banned Olympic gold medallist Jack Kelly from Henley because he had once earned money as a bricklayer.
The middle and upper classes did not like their loosening grip on power in the domain of football any more than they did in the political one.
The rugby version of the early game had split away following the codification by the FA over an argument over the legality of “tripping and hacking.” The association game could have split again in 1884/5 over professionalism. The “old boys” at the FA initially tried to resist, Canute-like, and threw Preston out of the Cup for fielding professionals – this nearly led to a breakaway “British Football Association,” but to everyone’s credit they drew back from the brink. Instead the FA tried to regulate professionalism by placing additional restrictions on the ability of professionals to participate in competitions, for example, based on two years residence within six miles of the ground, and banning them from any football administration role. The professionals were to be treated like servants to their club committee masters. There was one rule for amateurs, one for professionals. For example, when England faced Ireland in Belfast in 1888, the amateurs Lindley and Walters refused either to travel on the same boat or stay in the same hotel as the professionals.
The response of the gentleman-players was to largely reject football and seek refuge in the unsullied game of rugby, and an ultimately failed attempt to set up a rival Amateur FA. Another response was the setting up of the Corinthians in 1883 – to try to uphold the ideals of amateurism. It was in truth “sham amateurism” – they demanded and obtained financial guarantees to play friendly matches, didn’t publish balance sheets, and handed out lavish expenses to playing members who were believed to earn more than professionals, in addition to their independent means. They competed for a while because they had learnt and practised the game through school and Oxbridge, were better fed, housed and protected by medical advice. Professionals soon overtook them, but nevertheless, the FA continued to give them a bye to the third round of the FA Cup as late as the 1930s.
The other side of the story, that of the working class footballer is rare for the reasons previously stated. One exception was Ernest Needham of Sheffield United and England – one of the few working class men whose voice was heard: he wrote a book in 1901, simply entitled, Association Football. He strongly defended the right to earn a living from the game: “Would that all could play for love, and be the perfect gentleman on and off the field, as so many of my amateur friends are.” He talked of: “the advantage to the style of the game, and the necessity for paying those who devote themselves to its improvement. I might claim for payment of players all the arguments in favour of the payment of Members of Parliament. To play the game scientifically a man must bring to it a mind free from fear of personal or family difficulty in case of disablement or retirement and only substantial pay will guarantee this.” (Needham earned about £5 per week at that time, just over twice the pay of an ordinary working man — which gives you an idea what he meant by substantial.)
Another obsession of the middle classes comes through in Historical Football Stories – that of gambling. The Victorian amateurs often raised this demon in arguments against professionalism. The middle classes were in fear of the depraved lower classes, their lack of morality, and this leading to riotous behaviour and a threat to order and security of property. Sport was encouraged as a way of counteracting vice. So to see money as the motivator was anathema — and then to see large riotous crowds assembling and betting on the outcome was abhorrent. Needham dismisses this. He says: “We hear a lot of talk about betting at football matches. Some people given over strongly to romancing have likened the game to the racecourse — with bookmakers and all their paraphernalia. Such highly spiced tales are nonsense. Betting there is, but it is done more or less secretly; and once let the delinquents come within the clutches of the officials of any club, let alone the police, and I will vouchsafe a bad quarter of an hour for them. Any sane person who attends matches knows that betting is not allowed openly and it is only so asserted by those who decry the pastime.”
Another aspect of the early game shown by Historical Football Stories is its physicality. Early football was far more brutal and dangerous than the modern game. By the late 1890s, ten years into the League structuring of the game, the rules were largely as they are now, partly in response to an understanding that the game needed to improve its safety record. Hacking, tripping, jumping at a player and charging from behind were not allowed. The main differences in risk were probably down to factors such as interpretation by referees, equipment and condition of pitches: matches were almost never abandoned unless fog was so dense that neither the spectators nor, more to the point, referees could see whether the ball had gone in the net. Frozen pitches, mud, hale, snow etc, were not reasons to call games off.
The physicality of the game provided different responses in Victorian society. They upheld virtues of manliness and codified aggression that sport provided — as can be seen in the stories by players continuing despite broken bones. This is as common a theme as that of bribery in these stories. A player playing on with a broken collar bone was something to be admired — and this was not just a fictional device. In those days substitutes were not allowed, so there are frequent accounts in contemporary match reports of bloody and broken players playing on. (Can modern players who roll about in agony at the slightest touch please take note?) The physicality of the game was, however, something that provoked feelings of horror amongst some in society; particularly the idea of working class men being violent — how could you possibly trust them to be aggressive with chivalry, like a gentleman?
 There are arguments that these class prejudices continue to afflict British football right through to the modern era. This amateur belief that talent is inherent, and that learning of skills from an early age, techniques, and all the myriad of minor improvements that go towards building success (diet, kinetics etc.) are somehow akin to cheating or an excuse for insufficient pluck, and best left to “Johnny Foreigner.” An approach that has clearly worked well…


David Winner, Those Feet, 2005
Richard Sanders, Beastly Fury, 2009
Adrian Harvey, Football The First Hundred Years, 2005
Graham Curry and Eric Dunning, Association Football: A Study in Figurational Sociology, 2015
Ernest Needham, Association Football, 1901
Frederick Wall, 50 Years of Football, 1884-1934, 1934
JAH Catton, The Story of Association Football, 1926
Percy M Young, Football in Sheffield, 1981
Percy M Young, A History of British Football, 1973
James Walvin, The People’s Game, 1994
Graham Curry, Football Spectatorship in mid-to-late Victorian Sheffield, Soccer and Society, Vol 8, No.2/3 2007
Steven Kay, ed., Historical Football Stories, 2015

Monday, 15 June 2015

Calling all writers - short stories wanted

I am looking for help from writers in putting together a collection of short stories as a charity fundraiser for the charity ‘War Child.’ I have collected eight stories which are in various stages of draft (5 of mine and 3 written by a friend). A version of one of them is up on this blog here

So far all the stories have a 1st World War or 2nd World War theme, (but there’s no reason it couldn’t extend beyond that to other conflicts – that was just our cultural perspective). They are all about people reflecting on war or affected by it (I am not interested in anything glorifying war or violence though). I would love to collect stories from different cultural perspectives.

The rules are: they must start with “Joe stepped off the train and held the package close to his side” (or “Jo stepped off the train and held the package close to her side,” or using a similar name – I don’t want to close off other cultures by restricting it to European-centric names). I’d like to keep them quite short – up to about 2000 words long, but it is quality that counts, so I won't rule anything out on length - a story is as long as it needs to be.

Because it’s for charity I can’t pay you for them, but I’d do my best to give you a plug. I can’t promise your work will get in, but if I can see it working, even if it's not quite what I was after, I will look to work with you in editing. But, that said, I don't want to teach granny to suck eggs, and I accept I am no expert.

Look forward to your ideas. The easiest way to get in touch would be via Twitter: @stevek1889.


Thursday, 14 May 2015

How Michael Doyle kept me awake last night

 I listened to Michael Doyle’s interview ( in the evening and when in the night I couldn’t sleep it was this my mind turned to. At 3 in the morning my mind often focuses on something unresolved, without me being able to stop it. Something here was troubling me deeply – it’s often a sign that I need to get my pen out – it was clear what is was – it all seemed so cheap and dirty. Here was our captain, our longest serving player by far with 217 appearances, being booted out by the back door. No official word from the club, no message of thanks, no final appearance for the fans to say thank you, like when Monty left and walked round the pitch – nothing. It is not the United way. It has sickened me.
Michael Doyle was squeezed out slowly – like a victim of bullying in the workplace – when you turn up and find yourself marginalised and given less favourable jobs and no-one remembers to invite you to the pub. The arm-band went to Brayford, and he was benched in favour of the less-than-impressive Coutts. Then in the play-offs, when he could have contributed, he was left out. Even when Brayford went off at half-time in the first leg and Basham dropped back to centre-back, the natural replacement in midfield was Doyle to stabilise, contain and organise the midfield. But no, Clough brought on the lightweight Scougall instead. It was a mistake, Basham was sorely missed in midfield in the second half and the replacement was inadequate.
With Brayford sidelined bringing on a leader for the second leg was surely the wise move – but Doyle stayed on the bench.
At 3.10 a.m. I then moved on to the “why?” Clough clearly tried to sideline Doyle (along with Collins) at the start of the season – no appearance in the first two league games for either. It was baffling and as an experiment failed – they were the experienced spine of the team. You felt he only brought them back reluctantly. Collins he got rid of at the first opportunity. With Doyle he waited a bit longer.
    It is bewildering for us fans to work out what goes on behind the scenes – what the mood in the dressing room is like. We can only speculate  based on what we see on the field and read between the lines of set-piece interviews. Clough criticises fans who have a go – “that’s why were here and they’re in the stand,” he said, or words to that effect. But we’re not stupid. We know Collins was not dropped because an analysis of the game showed he was defending too deep or whatever it was. The solution to that is to practice defending less deep in training surely, not to play a small right back in the middle. Most of us fans couldn’t see what he was on about. Of course Collins, like Doyle was not perfect, but over the seasons we’d seen him progress and come to appreciate his commitment and the way he helped bring on Maguire. Nothing had changed out on the pitch. Then it was a “calf-strain” keeping him out. Then he was loaned out at a time when we had no recognised centre-back – when we really needed him, it seemed – when we were vulnerable to corners and set-pieces and his height and experience would have counted. Instead Clough preferred to play at centre back a 5’8” right-back whose strength was in forward runs. (And God only knows what happened with Butler – we only saw him once to my recollection.)
    Clough said in an interview that players who weren’t prepared to give their all weren’t part of his plans – this seemed a reference to Collins and Campbell-Rice, and possibly others. But you couldn’t say that of Michael Doyle. He was not the most talented of midfielders to pull on a Blades shirt – but his effect on a game was often lost on many fans I believe, because he got on with things quietly – breaking down play, motivating and making room for others to do their thing – like Kevin MacDonald. Doyle clearly loved the club and always gave his all and for me that goes a long way.
    The way he has been treated really disturbs me. What does it say about Clough’s man-management? In management you don’t let differences of personality get in the way of greater team goals.
    You have got to fear that what has happened suggests something is wrong with team coherence. At the very least Clough does not seem skilled at taking pressure off players to allow them to play without fear.
Why does he slag off McNulty when strikers surely feed off confidence? Some may respond to criticism, but why do it in public – what does that achieve? And, even if you are of the school that a boot up the backside is needed sometimes instead of wise words and an arm round the shoulder, why publicly criticise him at the end of the season when he cannot go out on the training ground and put it right, and then prove himself in a game?
    I wanted Brian Robson out from the moment he started criticising Chris Morgan – saying he wasn’t good enough on the radio. Morgan was more a Blade than Robson could ever have been – for so many years the heart and soul of the team. You attack him, you attack everyone – that’s how it seemed to the man on the terrace.
    I don’t know what the conclusion is. Do I trust Clough? Not yet. I really want to believe in him. He usually comes across well in interviews and in his programme notes. Some may see his interviews as excuses, but often he reads what happened well: perhaps he’s better at hindsight than foresight. The style of play? For me winning is more important than the style – at least for now – just get us out of this hell that is League 1! I confess to having liked Kevin Blackwell – I liked a team that was tough to break down and he had to manage, and did it well, with dramatically declining resources: our demotion coming at the time of the property crash didn’t help. Clough’s team has been too easy to beat – close them down, rough them up a bit, use quick breaks, corners and set-pieces. That must stop.
    I am putting my trust in the McCabes and  Jim Phipps to do the right thing – whatever that is and I will support them in their decision. Kevin McCabe rescued this club, and the McCabes are true Blades and can be relied on to put the long-term interests of the club first, of that I have no doubt. Fans have always been too quick to criticise others for not spending money they haven’t got. Jim Phipps I have been impressed by (as with Selahattin Baki) – the evidence is that they “get it.”
    We are the most under-performing club in the country – if you compare gates to trophies. There is no one alive who remembers the last time we won anything (unless you count the Division 4 title). That must change one day – we have had more than our share of disappointment.

So, good luck Michael Doyle – we appreciate what you have done – even if the official channels won’t say it – and your Cockney walk will stay in our hearts forever. A true Blade. You are guaranteed an ovation if you come back to the Lane. And at least we can be fairly comfortable in knowing you won’t score against us – though knowing our luck…

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Historical Football Stories

This is my new e-book, available at:  
    So far as I am aware these stories are the earliest football stories known. Most of them were first published in  a book called Twenty Five Football Stories in 1908 by George Newnes, who published the Strand Magazine, an illustrated monthly magazine of stories, topical articles, and trivia, best known for first publishing the Sherlock Holmes stories. The collection was actually 14 association football and 11 rugby union stories: back then, when the codes were still quite novel, less of a distinction was made. For this collection I have just published the association football ones (rugby being to me something very different and alien — coming from Sheffield where we have no strong tradition of either rugby union or rugby league).
    The collection includes an early P G Wodehouse story: Petticoat Influence - a story told from the point of view of a female Bertie Wooster type. Typical Wodehouse humour comes through.
    There are also four new stories: three of mine and one by Niall Kennedy, a Partick Thistle historian.
I first came across these stories when researching my novel The Evergreen in red and white. I wanted to get a feel for how football was perceived outside of the newspaper match reports, and fiction can provide a better insight into some aspects of life than factual accounts: particularly emotional life.
    These stories provide huge insights into the obsessions of a certain class, with regards football, at the end of the 19th century. As history is the account written by the powerful, so these stories are football as told by the literate middle classes, and so should be read in context. The working class footballers of the time let their boots do the talking and fans did their talking in the pub afterwards — consequently, their voices are few and far between.
    I'd love to hear what people reckon to them.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Review of Stone Cradle by Louise Doughty

Stone Cradle is a book that makes me want to give up writing. It is as near perfect as writing can get, and makes me question whether I can ever get even half-way as good.
    I read quite analytically these days – all too often I spot the strings on the puppets or the hand of the puppeteer, or their bald head poking up. But Stone Cradle is flawless – all I could do was stand in awe of the writer’s skill and get carried away with the story. It’s one of those books I want to buy for everyone I know.
    There are two main points of view – Clementina and Rose. It is not that they are unreliable narrators, to use the jargon – both tell different aspects to the story and though their accounts are often contrary you find yourself empathising with and believing the credibility of both.
    The research behind it is thorough – so much so that most readers probably won’t realise the hours that went into constructing the story, brick by brick – it all seems to flow so effortlessly.
    The novel captures superbly a core truth about families: their strifes, misunderstandings, loves and missed opportunities.
    I don’t like giving stars to books – they all have their own merits and many deserve reading for different reasons, but I have no hesitation with this – it is one of the best novels I have read in years – Booker winners and classics of English Literature included.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

How to insert pictures to a MOBI file using Notepad++ and Calibre

This post complements the one on Indie-publishing on a Shoestring at:
I had struggled to work out how to do it until I found a YouTube video by a lovely guy called Lindsay Woolcott who describes how to build a website using Notepad ++. It is using these same techniques that you can add images to your MOBI file for producing a professional Kindle file. Lindsay’s video is at: , but I’ll describe here how it’s done for an e-book file – with you keeping control over the layout and formatting.

The first thing to do is set up a new folder in Windows Explorer or whatever you use. Save the HTML file of your book, created using Notepad++ to this new folder. This is what it will look like:

The sub folder within this folder is for the saved MOBI files from Calibre.

This is what I did for my book, Spirit of Old Essex – a compilation of Arthur Morrison work. You save all the images you want to use to this file. You need to name each of them distinctly. I chose essex1, essex2 etc.
The next step is to insert the following instruction into your Notepad++ document at the point you want each image to appear:
<img src="essex1.jpg" width=100% alt="Cunning Murell's cottage" />

Obviously yours will be named “image1.jpg” or “image1.png” or whatever you decide to call them. 
The alt= bit is the description of what the image is. I don't know how important it is to get this right.
Then when you 'save,' the new HTML file magically picks up the images from your folder. I still can’t quite get over how it does this but it is very clever. If you want to vary the image size try experimenting with the percentage shown. Also if you want a space after the image you can add a break: <br/> at the end of the line and it puts in a line of space.
This is what my Notepad++ screenshot looks like with the pictures inserted:

You can also use it to insert little vignettes at the chapter ends, like they had in old books – though, personally, I’d go easy on this sort of thing – it won’t make your writing any better.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Starting to Frame by Roger Gordon - a memoir

I’ll start off with what this book is not. It is not some slick, ghost-written, celebrity memoir, much of which you suspect is embellished and re-imagined to make the celebrity look good. What you get with Starting to Frame is an account of the life of an ordinary bloke (I mean that in a good way) – but that is what makes it special.
Roger Gordon (“Soft Ayperth” to give him his ‘Sheffield Forum’ moniker) tells the story of his upbringing in the late 40s, 50s, and 60s, in a working-class/aspiring middle-class family. It contains elements that many Sheffielders will recognise, and I think anyone who lived through those years will enjoy the trip down memory lane. For younger readers the interest will be sociological: a description of the world their parents or grandparents grew up in during the post-war years. (It is a factual account that complements the Brian Sellars novels reviewed in my Sheffield novels blog post.)
Every memoir is, to an extent, a work of fiction, and I even debated with myself whether I should put this review in with Sheffield novels – the very fact it contains dialogue gives it a fictional element, but there is no doubting that this adds to the truth and honest telling of those events. As I have written elsewhere, fiction is often is a closer representation of the truth than a ‘factual’ account. Like a novel, this is a well-rounded story, not just a stringing together of life events. Roger Gordon tells the tale of a tough, but in many ways not uncommon, childhood. The story of a dysfunctional family – but are fully-functional families the exception anyway? He openly describes bouts of mental illness which he continued to live with throughout his adult life. These led to short periods of hospitalisation, but the illness didn’t stop him pursuing a very successful academic career and fulfilling life. As he says: “I have learned to face these setbacks as one would any recurrent medical condition – a strep throat, sinus infection or a sore bowel. Something that is hard-wired into my genome, as the lives of my parents attest to. Definitely not a personality flaw.” This openness about mental illness is a very positive thing and can only contribute to the drive to change attitudes such as the Mind/ Rethink Mental Illness “Time to Change” campaign seeks to do.
This book is indie-published, something which makes it an even greater achievement in my view. It is therefore not as slick a piece of work as if it had been through the commercial route. It is, however, well written (you’d expect a retired university professor to be able to string a couple of sentences together). It could be said the little flaws just lend to its authenticity. The book is professionally produced and typeset, and it probably takes a pedant like me to even think: “it would have been a bit better if…”
Another interesting aspect is that Roger moved to Canada in his late twenties to only return occasionally thereafter. That detachment enables him to write about his Sheffield years in a special way – looking, not only back in time, but also from a different world. He uses dialect in the dialogue, but also explains things for a North American audience, things that it wouldn’t have struck me to explain. He remembers things as they were, but slips in words like “recess” for “school playtime/break” and uses “jock” in the context of a sporty kid at school. It just adds to the charm. The title, Starting to Frame, uses the verb ‘frame’ in a way I have not heard recently – not since I was told “Come on! Frame, lad!” – as in buck your ideas up.
I saw a copy of this book at Sheffield Scene on Surrey Street the other day, so you can buy a copy of it locally. It is also available through Amazon. It would be interesting to see what other people think of it.

Friday, 6 March 2015

My (failed :-( )bid to represent the Blades at Wembley at the FA Cup

This is my entry for the Songs of Praise competition for the fans "Abide with Me" choir. They wanted stories that reflect the personal memories and passion of the cup. In 300 words they were after something that would be judged on the following criteria:
Uplifting/ illuminating/ exciting/ original/ demonstrates a different perspective/ unusual, quirky and imaginative/ demonstrates genuine fandom for their team
- not much to ask then! At least they weren’t to be judging my singing ability!

Christmas 2013 over. Up for work in the dark, home in the dark, a long haul to summer, the Blades stagnating just above the relegation zone in League 1. What better than to book a family holiday in Spain for Easter week? Quick look at the fixture list: only Oldham away. Sorted.
 After clearing Colchester and Cambridge in rounds 1 and 2, the Villa were going to knock us out the following Saturday:  concentrate on the League. Instead, we won – in style.
The Blades dropped to second bottom; still, we bettered Fulham – then Forest. We out-classed Charlton to get to Wembley – when we were in Spain!
Nigel Clough said: “You go to the seaside for a day out, you go to Wembley to win.” Sheffield United and 32,500 (minus two) went to Wembley. We went to the seaside.
Me and my son, incongruous in our red and white in the Spanish sun, elsewhere in spirit, sat with ice creams (vanilla and strawberry – what else?), and took a selfie. We were comforted by finding a bar, owned by an expat Blade, screening the match. Beautiful signed shirts on the walls. So long as they aren’t humiliated, I said. They were not. For forty-five minutes Hull were out-played.
More San Miguel, more lemonade. Dare we even dream after 89 years of hurt? Then Steve Bruce changed his team around and they took the game to us.
We still regard Stephen Quinn as one of us. When he came on it felt like an omen –  Fate’s wheel turning. Quinny is barely five feet six in his studs, but rose for that header like a giant, to break our hearts. We walked back to the beach; that feeling of bitter disappointment and pride that only football and the magic of the Cup can bring.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Nick's Game - a short story by Mark J Howard

I first read this story on the writing website: YouWriteOn. It is a superb story. The author, Mark J Howard has kindly given me permission to share it. Take just 5 minutes out to tread it - you won't regret it. Mark is a currently homeless and does all his writing on an old BlackBerry phone! Inspiring! An interview with Mark follows.

Mornin,’ Father. Whoa! No need to panic – I don’t mean you no harm. The knife ain’t for you. Come over here an’ sit down.

Guess you’re wondering why I’m here so late, with dawn mass finishing an hour ago. Truth is I was waiting for everyone to leave, hid under the pews while you was locking up so it’s just you an’ me. Real cosy, like. I need to say some things to you, Father, and it’ll be truth, every word. I swear it on that big fancy Bible you got over there. Swear to him up on that cross.

Don’t fuck me about, just sit down and listen. Your breakfast can wait, okay? That’s better.

You heard of Nick Malvagio? He’s a big-time hood operates out of Queens: Astoria, I think, up by the Hell Gate. Got his fingers in lotsa nasty little pies, knows just about everyone decent folk don’t wanna know. He’s kinda connected, too. Knocks around with some real bad men, does Nick, real bad men. Yeah, I see you’ve heard of him. Thought you might have. Him nailed up there, he knows the guy too.

I’m not a bad man, Father, not as a rule. I’m a card player and I’m a damned good one. It’s how I pay the rent, run the Honda and spend a couple of weeks a year back home in Maine. I know the secret, see? The Golden Rule: don’t be greedy. Greed’s a sin. But I guess you know that, considering where we are, with that poor schlep looking down on us. More than a sin, though, greed can get you killed. Or worse.

Sometimes the art of winning is knowing when to lose. My old pa’ used to say you can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin it once. You play smart, you can make a decent living; you play dumb, you end up with less than nothing. I seen it. I know.

You gotta know when to walk away. Know when to fold, see? It don’t matter what hand you got – sometimes it’s best not to play it. Some guys, though, guys like Nick Malvagio, they don’t see it that way. They don’t respect the secret like I do.

He knows it too, poor bastard. Tried to do a bit of good but played his hand wrong, skinned the wrong sheep so they nailed him up. Son o’ God he may be but my guess is he’s a lousy card player. 

Don’t look at me like that, it ain’t blasphemy to say so.

I was looking for a game, see? Things’ve been quiet for a stretch, just low level shit. Couple of tourists and some frat boys, nothing challenging. Nothing lucrative. I was itching for some real action, looking to win me a bit of cream, enough for a new TV since my old one went on the fritz. 

I thought Lenny would know of a game, Lenny Doyle from the betting shop in Hollister’s basement. I don’t do the horses, too much blind chance involved for my taste, but Lenny knows every card game going and spills for bucks. The better the game, the more he charges for the skinny. He’s a cranky bastard, too. You gotta know how to approach him. You come at him straight and he’ll flip, like he’s scared you’re wired or something. Not that the cops’d ever be interested in the little runt, I shouldn’t think. Lenny’s a minnow with a set of plastic piranha teeth and he’s a pain in the ass but his information’s always good.

He’s reading the paper as I walk in, bent under one of the lights in the gloomy basement, all outrage and morality. I say hello to few faces and grab an awful coffee from the vending machine before going over and saying hi.

He ignores me, a good sign, and then starts jabbering on about how the city’s all gone to rack an’ ruin and how there’s no respect any more. He’s got a burger in one hand and a joint in the other and carries on talking where most polite people would be chewing. Grease stains all over the place, messy bastard, and I don’t think he even knows what shampoo is. In no time, there’s nothing left of the burger except for the ketchup stains down the front of his crummy Hawaiian shirt and the stink of processed cheese on his breath. Lenny makes some fair scratch out o’ me, out of lots o’ people, beats me why he’s such a bum. Camouflage, I guess. 

He finally looks at me and stabs his finger at the front page of his newspaper, leaving greasy smudges all over the photo of a dark-eyed hero cop being buried today. I’d heard about it on the Honda’s radio. The cop, Carver or Curtis or something, was a big blue superstar from the 49th precinct. Charmed life, lotsa big busts. On his way to the top, they said, until he ran into half a dozen dum-dums tryin’ to bust a sex-slave ring operatin’ outta some old cemetery, of all places.

Lenny goes on for a bit, language not suitable for these surroundings, but you’ve gotta let him get on with it and nod like you give a shit. Twenty minutes, fifty bucks and a fifteen percent kickback on any winnings later, I’m on my way to a warehouse on Twenty First Street, over by the Triboro Bridge.

It’s a cold night out, but that Honda’s got a real good heater, I mean, real good. It’s like there’s a nuclear pile in there or something, so I don’t notice the frost until I find the warehouse and park up. There’s a cold wind blowing and the warehouse don’t look like the cosiest of places, full of cracks and holes. I nearly don’t go in. Nearly call it a night and go home to my warm apartment, watch a bit of TV. But the TV’s on the blink, so what the hell, right?

There’s a couple of guys inside the door, all steroids and fake commando, muscles like cats in a stocking leg. The kind of guys who can crack walnuts with their ears, the kind of guys certain other kinds of guys like to call security. It’s nothing new to me, lotsa people like to keep the low-life outta their games. I just tell ’em Lenny sent me and they check me out using CIA-style mikes and earpieces. Nice touch, I think, a little OTT maybe but hey, we live in uncertain times, right? 

They let me in like they’re disappointed, itching to turn some poor chump away and slap him if he argues. Keen to show the boss how tough they are, to prove themselves worthy of being more than just doormen. Miserable apes, they got no idea they’ll never be anything more in this life or the next.

The warehouse is full of crates with Chinese writing on them and smells of pepper, old newspapers and wet matches. It’s cold inside, too, draughty and dismal enough to have me pulling up the hood on my coat and cursing my decision to come in. I follow the directions the doorman grunted at me and find an office at the far end of the building. 

Inside it’s a lot warmer and there’s a few card tables and a roulette wheel. There’s even a makeshift bar staffed by a couple of honeys in sexy dresses that really don’t suit the place. The main strip lights are off and the room’s lit by small desk lamps so it’s cosy enough. The air’s so full of cigarette and cigar smoke it stings my eyes for a minute before they can adjust. It’s obviously a working office by day but most of the desks have been pushed to the far end, making more room for the twenty or so people there. I know a few of them but most are strangers to me. 

One of the honeys takes my coat and gives me a flash of teeth. I gotta say, both those girls were gorgeous. I mean, like, Broadway gorgeous. The kind of gorgeous you see on billboards trying to sell panties and scent. You gotta wonder what gals like that are doin’ serving drinks to guys like me in a crappy warehouse in the small hours of a frosty Wednesday morning. There’s no justice, you know? A crying shame, so it is, an honest-to-God fucking tragedy so far as I can see.

Anyway, she offers me a drink while I wait and I ask for a coffee but, before she can bring it, there’s a big sigh from a table in the middle of the room. The Big Table. Somebody’s just lost, and lost big. The somebody turns out to be a kid, fresh out of college maybe, and he gets up in silence, unsteady on his pins. He’s got the look. The look like he’s just been shot in the head.

He gets up and staggers away for a few paces before stopping and turning around. He’s shaking like a shitting dog as he goes back to the table and the four players still sitting there look at him all suspicious, ready for trouble. He’s just a kid, maybe he don’t know the rules, but it’s okay. He pulls his jacket from the back of his chair and then turns to leave, for good this time. His face is red as fresh cut beef and there’s tears all down his cheeks. He rushes out as fast as he can, not looking anybody in the eye, and is gone. The boss, sitting at the head of the Big Table shuffling the deck, nods at a big guy in a shiny suit. The big guy follows the kid out with a determined look on his face, like a football player thinking about his next drive.

“We seem to have an opening, if you’d care to join us,” Nick Malvagio says. I’d never met him before, but I’d heard of him. He’s the owner of this game and he’s just invited me to his table, so I can’t refuse. Wouldn’t have, anyway. I’d heard he was a good player and I like to test myself against good players from time to time. Win or lose, it keeps me sharp enough to shear the lesser sheep. So I accept. Malvagio offers me the deck to cut and I just tap it – mark of respect, see? Shows I trust the table to shuffle right. Besides, I’m busy taking my jacket off, rolling up my shirtsleeves, settling in.

I introduce myself and take my seat while one of the honeys exchanges my cash for chips, just a couple of grand’s worth.

“I have heard of you,” Nick says, “ hear you can play cards.”

I smile and do the modesty thing, it’s what they all expect, a kind of unwritten etiquette. You’ve gotta be careful in games like this; lotsa the players are heavy guys so you don’t want to screw with them. You win off them fair and square and they get vindictive on your ass, their buddies jump in and stop it. These people don’t tolerate bad losers and they tolerate bad winners even less. Like I said, you gotta be careful, tread a fine line. Laugh at their jokes, join in the conversation, pretend you ain’t spotted their tells. Still, I’m kinda happy to know he’s heard of me, and he’s given me an intro the table will respect. They know I’m a player now, so they know I’m here for just one thing. It calms them down; now they’ve got an excuse if they lose and a tale to tell if they win. 

“You know me,” he says, “Nick Malvagio, owner of this... magnificent establishment and this delightful little game. The gentleman to your left, if such an appellation can be attached to so rough a beast, is Charlie ‘Hotdog’ McMahon.” This is how he talks, I shit you not. His accent sounds real enough but he don’t talk like any Italian I ever met. “Twixt Charlie and I sits possibly one of the greatest minds fork lift truck driving has ever produced, Dickie ‘The Fork’ Miller.”

I shake the guys’ hands as they’re introduced and already I’m getting the measure of them. Poker ain’t just about the cards, see? Fact, the cards are probably the least important part of the game. Poker’s about people. You can calculate all the odds you want but if you can’t read people you’ll never be a real poker player.

“And finally, to your right, Albert Meadows; the only accountant ever to have shot himself in both feet, with two different guns, on the same day.” The rest of the guys laugh, even old Albert laughs in a ‘screw you’ kind of way. So, all these guys know each other and they’re pretty tight. I’m the outsider, and that can be dangerous, but it’s also a big plus. They don’t know anything about how I play but they know how their buddies play. So I can key off how they react to each other, see? Gives me an edge. It don’t matter much. After a couple of hands I can’t see any of them posing a serious threat. None of them except Malvagio. He’s as good as I heard he is.

An hour later an’ I’m hittin’ my stride, winning steady, bit at a time, enjoying myself. Outside, in the cold, New York’s curled up around us like a sleeping cat. Only us fleas are still up and about.

The Accountant gets himself a real good hand, his nostrils give it away, and I know he’s going for it. I got nothing so I fold and soon it’s just Malvagio and the Accountant with bullet holes in his feet. I can’t read Malvagio at all, there’s nothing gives him away. It’s a joy to behold, you know? Like watching an artist or something.

From the cards on show I can guess what the Accountant’s holding but I’ve no idea what Malvagio’s got. The Accountant finally makes his move and goes all in. One of those silences falls, you know? Everybody watching, waiting to see what’s going to happen. The door opens behind me and somebody comes in but nobody takes any notice, not even the honeys.

Malvagio stares at the Accountant for a long time. He’s got a face like Marlon Brando but younger and a lot thinner. His suit’s the best one in the room by a long shot and even an alien from Mars would know he owns this game. Eventually, he goes all-in too and the cards are turned. The Accountant’s toast but he takes it on the chin. I reckon he’s just burned eight grand but the money don’t seem important to him. Cleaned out, he makes his excuses and limps to the exit, throwing cheery farewells to the honeys. Nobody follows him.

“Carter!” Malvagio shouts to the guy who just came in, “join us.”

A youngish, dark-eyed man in jeans and a Yankees sweatshirt drops into the Accountant’s old chair. He looks determined, a bit too determined, and empty. Like he’s already lost big tonight. I’ve seen him somewhere before, but I can’t place him. Probably at other games around the city. He doesn’t recognise me so I let it go. Lots of faces in the poker game. 

There’s something about his face, though, you know? Something defiant. He reminds me of your man up there, when he was in that garden waitin’ to be pinched. Gethsemane, was it? Yeah, that’s the place. Like he knows he’s on the very last hand of his very last game and can only figure one way to play it out. There’s undercurrents here. I see it but I’m too dumb to be worried, thinking I can take advantage of the new guy’s distraction.

“Gentlemen, meet Absalom Carter, pride of the NYPD and current holder of the Tri-State most-hookers-banged-in-one-afternoon award.”

Carter doesn’t like his intro, but listens as we all get introduced. He doesn’t shake hands. When Malvagio introduces me, he calls me “a very good card player whom I suspect is holding back for fear of getting a little bit shot at if he plays to his full potential.” I can’t tell if he’s joking with me or making a challenge.

Carter plays competently but impatiently. His mind’s on more than the game and he’s waiting for a good hand. It’s clear he wants to go up against our host but Malvagio gives no sign he’s noticed. I take advantage of the cop’s distracted state to win me my biggest pot of the night, two and a half grand. Nick Malvagio nods at me but I can’t read what the nod means. God, but he’s good. Really, really good. Perhaps the best I’ve ever played. 


Carter gets the hand he’s been waitin’ on and makes his play. I stay with it for a while but the last card’s a nothing and I fold. Malvagio bets six grand and there’s that silence again. Carter’s got about four grand in front of him in untidy piles. He’s been disdainful of it since he sat down but now he needs it bad and he ain’t got enough. What happens next is as old as poker, old as dice, old as the world, maybe. Carter don’t want to quit. He’s got faith in his hand but air in his pockets, an arrangement needs to be made.

“There’s only one thing of yours I want,” Malvagio says. “The thing you already owe me.”

Carter knows what he means and tries to cry off. He was expectin’ somethin’ less, I think. There’s real fear in his eyes now, he’s wavering. The other players look at each other. They know what’s going on and I know better than to ask. I’m in too deep now, gettin’ dragged to places I don’t wanna go. I’ve won enough, so after this hand I’m gonna dust off. Maybe swing by Gregor’s all-nighter and pick me up a new TV. Nice plasma screen or something. Go home, pour me a stiff Jack and watch Max Keiser on RT. It’s a good plan, the best one I’ve had all night I think, and I just need to wait for Carter and Malvagio to finish up before I can git gone.

“I’ve known you for a very long time, Carter. You’ve made a lot of money out of me and you’ve also, to my eternal regret, betrayed me. There will be a reckoning, have no illusions about that, but if you bet what I desire then we will be square. If you fold, of course, the problem of what to do with you – and her – remains.”

That’s what Carter’s been waiting for. If he wins this hand he’s not only a lot richer but also off the hook for whatever it is he did or didn’t do. It’s pretty clear that he’s a cop on the take and that Malvagio’s got him cornered. Now Carter wants out and this is the only way he can think to get there.

He agrees and turns his cards. Time does that thing where it stops and has a look at what’s going on. Malvagio turns his cards and it’s all over for Carter. Two heavies loom up behind him.

“Take officer Carter away and make sure he hands over my winnings,” Malvagio says, pulling the chips in the middle of the table into his own enormous stack. The heavies grab Carter by the arms and pull him away. He doesn’t resist. He’s got the same look on his face as the kid I saw on the way in. They drag him out the door and away. It’s time for me to quit but I don’t get the chance.

“I want you and me to play a hand,” Malvagio says, “a real hand. Just the two of us. I want you to give me your best shot. I’ve been waiting for you to play properly all night and your holding back is becoming tiresome. Fear not, there will be no use of firearms, should you win.”

I try to bail but he doesn’t listen. He just deals the cards and, like it or not, I’m in. How did things turn to shit so fast? I should’ve left when the cop arrived, I should’ve seen this coming.

First card he deals me is the king of hearts, the second is the nine. I do as he’s asked and slip into play mode, betting high. Jack of hearts, and my heart is starting to beat a little faster. I’ve got just shy of twenty one grand in front of me, way more than I’d planned on walking away with. The next card he gives me is another heart, the ten this time, and I’m on the promise of something decent. I bet big, but not too big. Taking my time, feeling Malvagio’s gaze on me and hoping he doesn’t know what I’m thinking.

The last card comes and it’s an atom bomb. The queen of hearts. I’m holding a straight flush, the nine to the king of hearts. The best hand I’ve held in all my life and almost the best hand there is. Almost.

Malvagio doesn’t even think about it.

“All-in,” he says, pushing his chips into the middle of the table. There’s fifty grand there, easy, and I can’t remember seeing so much in front of him before but there it is. Beautiful. Terrifying.

I haven’t got that kind of money on me. He knows it but he can’t know what cards I’m holding. Only one poker hand can beat mine and he can’t have it. The odds against are astronomical. I have to play. I have to. We must dance the credit dance. But what do I got that he needs?

“There’s a man I want killed,” he says and, at first, the words refuse to go into my head, you know? “His name is Joe Turner. He used to do some work for me but he’s strayed rather badly of late and seems to think he’s found God, or some such nonsense. I’m informed that he spends most of his time at a certain church, helping out, stacking chairs and other such morally stout activities. Bet your services in this matter and I shall regard the pot as covered. I will even provide you with a gun and an alibi, should you lose the hand, of course.”

I look at him but it’s no joke. He wants me to murder somebody. If I lose. Holding the best hand I’ve ever seen. I look at him for a long time, weighing up my options. He hasn’t bluffed all night but that don’t mean shit. I study his face for some clue, no matter how slight, but there’s nothing until, just for a second, I get this feeling. 

Maybe I’ve seen something, something that doesn’t register consciously, but suddenly I know him; I know who it is I’m playing against and a shiver trickles all down my spine and into my nuts. But my hand is still strong, still the strongest I’ve ever held. All my life boils down to this one moment; win a small fortune or kill a man. Damnation or salvation. Play or fold.

Then it hits me, right out of the blue; I know where I’ve seen the cop before. He was in uniform then, which is why I didn’t recognise him from the photo on the front page of Lenny’s newspaper. A dead hero covered in greasy fingerprints. 

So that’s why I’m here. You might say it was on the cards. You know who I really played poker with today and you know that there will be consequences. He’s looked into my eyes and he knows me now, knows that I exist, so what else could I do with that straight flush?

I need you to tell Joe Turner, Father, warn him to get outta Dodge fast as he can; and I need you to give me the Last Rites.

The end.
© Mark J. Howard 2008/2015

Interview with Mark: 

1) Nick’s Game is on of the best things I’ve read on YouWriteOn. Where did the idea come from?
Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. The idea for Nick’s Game came from the same place most of my ideas come from – daydreams!
We all take stuff in all the time – images, stories, facts, ideas, colours, sounds, smells, perspectives, feelings – a whole universe of disparate stuff. The trick is to notice as much of it as I can and then just take time to sit with a pencil and just daydream – let it all play on its own. The ideas are all there, crashing together, it’s just a case of catching them and writing them down, like fishing. Most of the ideas turn out to be tiddlers or old boots but occasionally I hook one like Nick’s Game and develop it. So, to (finally!) answer your question, the idea came from a mixture of The Sopranos, Goodfellas, a late-night poker show on the telly and ideas about evil and the nature of the Devil. All these ideas kind of stuck together like clay and I just refined the shape.

To answer truthfully – I don’t know!

2) I read the story believing the author was a native New Yorker. How did you pull that off?
Again, thank you. I think that’s a great compliment for a Lancashire lad like me – I’m more Alan Bennet than Al Pacino. Again, it’s about paying attention to things, in this case accents and rhythms of speech. In the case of Nick’ Game, it was always set in New York for some reason so I had two choices – either the Brit abroad or the local. The Brit abroad voice didn’t feel right but the local voice would be a challenge. To approximate that New York underworld kind of speech I cheated – I watched Goodfellas and imagined it was Joe Pesci telling the story. I basically tried to simulate that tough-guy-poet thing he’s so good at. I think I got it half right but I don’t know any New Yorkers so I might be miles out.

3) Tell me a little about your background as a writer. How long have you been writing? Why do you write? - that sort of thing.
I’ve been writing and reading for as long as I remember. I was never happier than when I had a pencil in my hand. There were always these ideas in my head just dying to get out and I spilled them onto paper like they were the most precious things in the world. It was mainly trash, of course, un-focused and with nothing much to say. I wrote then because I wanted to be a writer – I wanted it more than anything and I suppose I thought I deserved it. It was as if the act of putting a story on paper somehow validated it. I had some short stories published in tiny fanzines and thought I was a genius. I became convinced that I was a good writer and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get published. So I gave up on it for a while. I concentrated on my first love, writing comic scripts for the Small Press.  Now nearly 50, I’ve decided it’s time for me to learn to write, which is why I find YWO invaluable. I’m still having the same ideas I’ve always had and I’m still scribbling away. The difference is that I don’t want to be a writer any more. I’m just a man who enjoys writing and anything else is just a bonus.

4) What else have you written?
Not much, really. Apart from the bits and bobs on YWO, I’ve written
four full-length novels, two comedy sci-fi, a comedy fantasy and a
James Bond-style adventure (all mercifully unpublished). Maybe a dozen tiny fanzine stories. From about 2008 I started having success with comic scripts for Small Press comics FutureQuake, Zarjaz, DogBreath and Paragon. Comic scripting is great training (not that you’d know it from my rambling answers!) in brevity. The scripts I have had published are Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and MACH 1 (from the comic 2000AD), the major episodes of Jikan, a time-travelling, demon-hunting rogue Samurai created by Dave Candlish and a handful of original sci-fi/horror/fantasy/humour strips. I have several similar scripts accepted by editors either being illustrated or in the queue, including an entire graphic novel of Jikan. I wrote a newspaper column for a local Polish newspaper lasting all of two issues and created and edited a factory magazine. Oh, and I once wrote and illustrated The Adventures of Burnley Smith for Trout comic, an ill-fated Viz clone from the 80s.

5) Have you ever had anything published?
Apart from the comic scripts, only once. The story is a straight sci-fi tale titled In the Wink of an Eye and appeared in either the first or second YWO anthology. We had to buy our own copies, so I’m not sure it counts.

6) Is it true you do all your writing on an old BlackBerry mobile phone?

At the moment, yes. I was recently made homeless and everything’s gone a bit wrong. Not as wrong as it might have gone but wrong enough.
My only link to the web right now is this fantastic old BlackBerry
(Hint, hint, Mr BB!) so yes, all my revisions and YWO reviews, and a
couple of new short stories, even this, all on a tiny ‘phone. It’s amazing, really – I may write a novel about it. Well, I will when I
know how it ends...

7) Do you have a particular place you like to write, or can you write anywhere?
With my fantastic old BlackBerry (hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying) I can write anywhere. Just somewhere out of the way but anywhere, really. I think that if you have a special place you limit
yourself, become anchored to it. You convince yourself that you can’t
write unless everything’s just so and I think that stifles creativity
– certainly spontaneity.

8) Are you any good at poker yourself?
Well now, that’s the question, isn’t it?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

AFC Unity women's football club

AFC Unity first attracted my attention back in the summer when they put out a call for players to start a new team (… not that I qualify). They seemed something a little bit different in women’s football. There’s a lot of talk on their website about their ‘ethos’ of being anti-discriminatory and socially inclusive. And they also have a really cool social-media profile. I was interested in the substance that lies behind it, so I went along to watch a game and to find out more.
AFC Unity play in the Sheffield and Hallamshire Women’s County Football League Division 3 – the 7th tier of women’s football. I admit to not having seen much women’s football, except for the odd match on the TV, and to not being much of an expert; but I can see it is an exciting time for the women’s game. More schools are giving girls the chance to play and the image is changing. The BBC have at long last taken an editorial decision to cover women’s football; and the game itself, and the way it is played, is demanding a higher profile – with the increasing support that the England women’s team is attracting, and the forthcoming World Cup in Canada shaping up to be quite a pull.
Unity's Nathalie Silver, happy with her hat-trick
You will be disappointed if you set out wanting it to be the same as the men’s game. Most obviously, it is less physical (although that doesn’t mean the tackles are in anyway dainty!). Nevertheless, the skill levels are getting better all the time (for proof, look no further than Stephanie Roche’s Puskas award-contending goal).
It is wrong to judge the women’s game by the standards of the men’s. Put those pre-conceptions to one side and it is entertaining, and, of course, once you start wanting one team to win more than another, you are drawn in to the personal and team battles going on out there on the pitch – as in any sporting contest.
Seeing a live game might also answer daft questions I had from watching on the TV – like what do they shout when an opposition player is coming up behind a team-mate?
These women are also part of a long tradition of the women’s game: it was widely played at the beginning of the 20th century and attracted very large crowds. In Sheffield during the First World War, teams of women munitions workers played regular fixtures against each other. It died a death when the old-school-tie codgers of the FA banned women from playing on football grounds under their auspices because  “…the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”
The match at Hillsborough College between AFC Unity and Rotherham United Ladies Development was that old cliché – a six pointer. Unity were lying in third place in the league, one point behind Rotherham and 5 points behind Beighton Magpies, whose game was postponed today. So, Unity’s victory narrows the gap behind Beighton to 2 points; although Beighton now have three matches in hand.
Silvers floating shot that went in off the bar.
Unity were the first to score on 23 minutes. Great pressure down the right wing from Jodie Spillings kept the ball in play, only for her to put the ball out for a goal-kick. Goal-kicks, at this level are more like in junior football, the ball sometimes not being cleared much beyond the box, creating an opportunity for the attacking side to steal. This is what Unity did: Nathalie Silver floating the ball in off the cross bar.
Their lead was short-lived. Three minutes later Rotherham forced an error from Unity’s keeper, Chess Hollingdale: the ball was spilled right at the edge of the goal and bundled over the line.
Both sides created further chances. Silver had a corker of a chance from a great ball pushed down the middle and found herself with only the keeper to beat, but the keeper did just enough to put her off and she put it wide. Minutes later a cross was put in from the right and travelled across the goalmouth with no one making the movement to get onto it.
The second Unity goal came 15 minutes into second half when Silver made her superior pace count, and again dashed forward onto a skilful through-ball from play-maker Jane Watkinson; this time she skipped beautifully passed the keeper and slotted it home – it’s not often you get a chance to replay an earlier miss, but that is exactly what she did: almost a replica of the 1st half chance.
There was a lot of honest graft by both sides, but Rotherham couldn’t find the break, and it was Unity who finished the game off with the best goal of the game, some great skill being shown in crossing the ball from the right and Silver again stepping round the keeper to side-foot it in for her well-deserved hat-trick.
Rotherham squandered two late chances to take something away from the game and it finished 3-1 to AFC Unity.
Unity's keeper, Hollingdale, palms one wide
Afterwards, I spoke to the co-founders of the club: Jane Watkinson, also AFC’s captain, and the manager Jay Baker, in the Old Crown Inn.
They decided to set up AFC to provide a different, more progressive, sort of club – with a community, grass-roots base, as Baker says: “raising awareness of certain issues and tackling misconceptions of what sort of people like, or don’t like, football.” For example, challenging stereotypes that women have to: “take on a macho guise or be aggressive towards their own team mates.” It is early days, but one of the things they do is to run open-access sessions at the U-Mix Centre to encourage women, who have never kicked a ball, to try it out. I asked if there was a lot of untapped potential – women sat about doing nothing who could walk into a team in this league. Watkinson said there was: “I think it’s sometimes down to lack of publicity. It’s something we do well –  our advertising through social media. I also think it’s sometimes the case that teams only offer one route – just competitive football – which is why we try to offer informal football – so that women can get involved without having to commit every week. If people have kids they can’t always get to training – it’s about being flexible.” Baker added: “there are probably women out there who would be phenomenally good at football, but who might be more inclined to have a go at tennis, for example, because of ideas that it might be more socially acceptable.”
 They also want to raise funds for things like work in schools, youth groups, and with women’s groups in the city. They are also hoping to do some sessions with women who have been through the Criminal Justice System, to get them back into meeting other women from the area.
I asked what makes AFC Unity different. They said while they are competitive, it is not the be-all and end-all. Watkinson says Baker’s management style is: “different to any managerial style I have known before, because it is friendly and individualized – making people comfortable.”
It was clear to me that it is a friendly club. It may seem a paradox, but, just by not obsessing about being competitive, it may actually strengthen the side. Unity’s results show that this approach can have benefits in building a winning team through good team spirit. They have also attracted what Baker called “great players” who want to play in a supportive atmosphere – you don’t need to sacrifice competitiveness just because you reject certain attitudes.
Unity shot goes wide
It would be easy for some to fall into cynicism, and knock their earnest approach, but I came away believing in what they were trying to do. They are genuinely trying to make a difference, and that deserves support. I would encourage anyone with an hour or so on their hands on a Sunday afternoon to get down to Hillsborough College and support them: something quite special is happening in women’s football on our doorstep.

And, that question about what to shout when about to be tackled from the blind side: “man-on” – what else could it be!