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.