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Don’t cry for me Margentina

So the end of an era at FC United as our first and, up until now, only manager Karl Marginson has departed, by mutual agreement, after twelve years at the helm. A board statement thanked Karl for his loyal service and referred to a difficult decision that was “tinged with sadness”. And whilst it might not have grabbed the headlines like the recent high profile sackings of Koeman and Bilic it was nevertheless big enough news to attract a smattering of national media interest as the likes of the Guardian’s Danny Taylor kept a close eye on events. After all, in the upper reaches of the football pyramid only Arsene Wenger has been in charge of a club for longer.

I’ve only really had one proper conversation with Karl down the years and rather than banging on about football we ended up talking mushrooms. The non-hallucinogenic variety that is. Along with then head honcho Andy Walsh, Margy was attending one of our supporters’ branch meetings and, this being giddy London, the pub grub included a stuffed portobello mushroom as a starter. Margy wasn’t having it though and revealed that whilst he was a fan of the more common button mushroom the fancier portobello with its big flat cap didn’t really float his culinary boat. I’ve often wondered since if this was emblematic of some of the odd team selections later in his career? <<searches for the raised eyebrow emoji thingy>>

Anyway you might want to look elsewhere if informed footballing comment or juicy quotes on Karl’s departure is what you’re after. Especially when you consider that historically I’ve tended to be something of an ill-judged conservative when it comes to football managers – preferring not to reach for the P45 even when the football’s been turgid. When United were pants in the autumn of 1986 there was me scribbling a letter, on our finest Basildon Bond, to Shoot (or it might have been Match I always get them mixed up) appealing for United not to sack Ron Atkinson. Fat use that was mind as the following week United were dumped out of the League Cup and Big Ron was shown the door.

And my irrational loyalty to football managers was much in evidence until very recently when it came to Karl Marginson. There I was at the end of each match, win, lose or draw, screaming Margentina (an FC version of the Argentina chant with which United supporters regularly goad little Ingerlunders) often for no other reason than that I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the four syllable simplicity of that particular chant, especially the penultimate syllable which drags out the “ti” like a rubber band before the release of the final “na”. But perhaps it had simply become a habit and one that brought back fond memories of trips to Lancashire mill towns when we sang it with gusto.

Back in the summer of 2005 Margy, having quit playing football, was a fruit and veg delivery man when he was appointed FC’s first manager taking on the role with no previous managerial experience at a supporter owned and run football club that was only a matter of days old. Quite a challenge. And he proved more than up to the job in those terrific first few seasons with three consecutive promotions (two as champions) seeing us arrive in the Northern Premier League in 2008. We fell in love with football again and with our new manager too. After years of Fergie seemingly being at war with everyone and everything it made a pleasant change to have a sound, easy going and humble bloke in charge of our football team.

But it was seven years and four painful play-off defeats before we were finally able to move up to the next level. As early as the second season in the Northern Premier League as the season petered out into an underwhelming bottom half finish there were the first 606-style murmurings of discontent with Margy’s management; “he’s taken us as far as he can, it’s time to look elsewhere…..”. Some supporters were of the opinion that with our higher crowds we really ought to be able to assemble a team good enough to trouble the Conference North at least. Others were happy simply to enjoy the ride and take pride in other aspects of the club. And what a ride it was, at times, with the raucous Bonfire Night victory at Rochdale in 2010, the club’s first ever appearance in the FA Cup first round proper, and the trip to Brighton in the next round being the highlights.

The moans and groans went on for several seasons, following a cyclical pattern as the team always seemed to begin the season slowly before embarking on a decent run of form in the new year which was usually enough to see us in contention for a play-off spot or better. Each time Andy Walsh attended our branch meetings, usually around Christmas time, concerns were expressed about current form and were mostly shrugged off with a simple “we’ll be fine”. We always seemed to be fine muddling through in those days but evidence of any coherent strategy or planning of the football side of things, like much of the rest of the club, was scant. As borne out by then centre forward Mike Norton’s revelation at one branch meeting that the players never practiced set pieces which certainly raised a few eyebrows. And later when Walsh was quizzed as to the circumstances under which he’d sack the manager he simply said that he wouldn’t. It appeared that Karl was unsackable.

What was never in question though was that Margy embraced the club and everything it stands for in a way that is all too rare in modern football. Donating the fee he received for his television punditry during last season’s FA Cup second round match between Curzon Ashton and Wimbledon to the club was his typically generous response to a board statement a week earlier that had highlighted the club’s precarious finances. And a few weeks later he was at Broadhurst Park on Christmas Day as the club opened the ground and its facilities to help the homeless. His by now full-time Head of Football role encompassed involvement in the club’s extensive community work but he always appeared willing to go the extra mile actively supporting regular club initiatives like Big Coat Day and one-off collections to support refugees. And it endeared him to the fans no end. As did his appearances back in the day at the pre-match Course You Can Malcolm at Gigg Lane where he would dazzle us with one of his repertoire of magic tricks or tell one of his bad jokes and get booed off stage.

But FC’s start to this season, our third campaign in National League North, certainly hasn’t dazzled us as we languish in the relegation zone a third of the way through the season and were denied a potentially lucrative place in the FA Cup first round proper by injury time goals at Telford a few weeks ago. After weeks of unadventurous football, which followed a shambolic pre-season, and a lack of any sense of responsibility or ability to explain the poor start to the season even I ended up ditching my traditional loyalty to the manager. On balance this feels like the right decision for the club and for Karl whose body language increasingly conveyed a lack of enjoyment in what he was doing.

Off the pitch Margy appeared unwilling to embrace a more professional approach to the management of the club spearheaded by Chief Executive Damian Chadwick who was appointed last November. This meant that Karl’s role as Head of Football, along with all staff, was subject to an agreed set of targets (or key performance indicators as they are referred to) against which performance would be measured through the season. The sort of appraisal process familiar to modern workplaces and certainly one which a full-time employee pocketing more than thirty thousand pounds a year should expect. Yet when pressed, at a board meeting early in the season, for evidence of progress on targets around improving communications between playing staff and supporters and on furthering his own coaching qualifications in the year ahead he resembled more a monosyllabic teenager who’d been asked to do double homework than an experienced non-league football manager.

Karl Marginson’s departure from FC has undoubtedly split the support with considerable scepticism amongst many about it being “by mutual agreement”. Many reckon that he was pushed. But it’s clear from those who know Karl that he was ready to go, it was simply a matter of time. Others however are pleased that a period of stagnation and uninspiring football may now be at an end and we can look forward hopefully to a brighter, more professional, more imaginative approach to our football. Popular centre forward Tom Greaves has taken over as caretaker player manager and the club have apparently been “inundated” with applications for the vacant role with a first set of interviews to be held shortly.

So thanks for the good times Karl and good luck with whatever you decide to do next. It’s been a heck of a twelve years filled with so many wonderful memories. I’ll miss singing Margentina at the end of each match. And the blue jeans and singing about the blue jeans and selling asparagus and “fruit, fruit and more fruit”. And the Margentiferous programme notes. But now a new, and hopefully fruitful, chapter is set to begin at FC. Onwards and upwards.

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Two hot chocolates please

images-79Many moons ago we drove up to Dumfries. It was 1997. I know it was deffo ’97 as, for part of the journey, we listened to Oasis’s new album Be Here Now as we zoomed up the M6. I’d bought the CD the day before and taped it so that we could listen to it in the car. It had been out for a few weeks and the NME had trumpeted its arrival with a gushing ten out of ten review. We were easily impressed back in those days; Blair, Oasis, the peoples’ princess etc. We played it once and then pushed the tape back in and played it again but the second time around it still sounded like a load of overblown pub-rock toss. The cassette player spat it out again and that was that. 3 out of 10 at best.

We pressed on northwards, over the border and eventually arrived at our destination; a B&B on the outskirts of the tiny village of Auchencairn. That night as we headed back from the village’s only pub, refreshed by a few pints of eighty shilling, we needed a torch to guide us back to the guest house. The following morning we drove along winding country lanes through a rolling landscape of lush, dew drenched fields and dairy farms to the local town Kirkcudbright (it’s pronounced Ker-koo-bree) and wandered round the town centre before a downpour had us diving for cover.

We ended up in a cafe and ordered a couple of hot chocolates. It was that sort of day. One of those lovely, bright and breezy autumnal mornings with clouds scudding across the sky, occasionally depositing their precipitation before moving on and leaving the sun to it again. As we sat by the window and lingered over our steaming mugs of chocolate, the rain stopped, the clouds galloped on and the sun reappeared and bathed the surrounding streets in a golden glow and we looked and smiled at each other as if to say “it’s alright for a Monday morning this isn’t it”. No words were necessary; simply to be here now, in the moment, with someone very special is truly wonderful. A lovely moment in a lifetime full of moments, some of them shared, some of them not. We’d probably fiddle with our phones now and miss it.

As the greens turn to brown and the mornings get chillier and September eases into October it reminds me of them two hot chocolates.

xxx

Red Rebels

Roughly two-thirds of the way through Red Rebels: The Glazers and the FC Revolution the tone of the book changes from a rollicking, scarf twirling love story imbued with Mancunian rebelliousness to almost Private Eye style, forensically detailed investigative reporting. The story of how a group of Manchester United supporters who having fought and lost the battle to save the football club they adored from a hostile takeover went and formed their own football club, FC United of Manchester, has been well documented down the years. But when that story is told by the person credited with founding the club then it’s worth paying attention.

There will be many outside of Manchester unfamiliar with the name of John-Paul O’Neill. He’s the editor of the United fanzine Red Issue, which even though it no longer exists in print form continues to ruffle self-important feathers on Twitter, and it was his piece in the fanzine in early 2005, as a leveraged buy out of United by the Glazer family loomed large, that first posited the idea of FC United. Thus setting in train a chain of events that saw, only weeks after the takeover was complete, the newly formed FC United taking to the field, in red, white and black, to compete against Leek County School Old Boys in the North West Counties Football League in front of a crowd of 2,590 (the Staffordshire side typically attracted gates of about 50). Red Rebels provides an insider’s account of the formation of the club as JP describes the painstaking graft of the original steering committee to get the club off the ground, despite the early doubts of many, including O’Neill himself, that they had sufficient time to do it.

What little football there is in the book relates mainly to FC’s first few seasons as we gallivanted round Lancashire mill towns and secured three consecutive promotions to the Northern Premier League. Typically described as “disenfranchised”, “disaffected” or “disgruntled” in away match programmes the truth was that we were having a whale of a time and it shines through in the book. That many time-served Reds, with years of following United round Europe, describe these years as amongst the best of their football supporting lives tells its own story. There was an element of “if you can remember it then you weren’t really there” about the joi de vivre of the club’s early days so it’s nice to be reminded those times and read a few new stories as well. The book is worth reading for the little Roy Keane anecdote alone.

The final third of Red Rebels examines the less publicised story of how FC United’s members and supporters were betrayed by its chief executive, board and an assortment of hangers on many of whom were given well paid roles at the club that they simply weren’t capable of performing. Although it’s only really been in the last two years that the club has been mired in internal strife, arguably the rot set in in 2011 with the disappointment of the club losing out on Ten Acres Lane in Newton Heath, the site which FC were originally granted planning permission by Manchester City Council to build our own ground on. But the council, pandering to the powerful interests of nearby Manchester city’s Abu Dhabi owners, went back on their decision, blaming it on the new Tory government’s cuts to local government spending.

It was a huge kick in the teeth for the club which had already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds, painstakingly raised by supporters, on planning, legal and other fees associated with the new build. It should have set alarm bells ringing there and then about the club’s management. Why was no deal signed with the council that protected our interests? How could the club’s management team be so frivolous with the Development Fund money that we had collectively grafted for years to raise? There were other events around the same time that should also have prompted concern such as the shoddy treatment of the volunteers running the unique pre-match event Course You Can Malcolm. So it felt apt that, earlier this month, JP was able to sell the first few copies of his book and take part in a brief Q&A session at the first ever Course You Can Malcolm event to be held under the St Mary’s Road End terrace, given that the previous board had informed us that events involving live music could not take place there.

O’Neill kicked off a rebellion against what he perceived as abuses of power by the club’s management team and board in the summer of 2015 a short time after FC, recently promoted to the National League North, had moved into our new Broadhurst Park home with a prestigious friendly match against a Benfica team. As the match was played out in front of a packed crowd, surfing on a wave of promotion-and-new-ground giddiness, on a balmy late May evening it felt almost too good to be true. And it was.

Over the next few months a mind boggling series of revelations of shambolic management and nepotism, barely believable at first, were made by JP O’Neill on internet forums. It kicked off with the board’s lies regarding the 50p increase in programme price for the Benfica match, plainly in breach of the club’s principle of avoiding “outright commercialism”; lies that resulted in the resignation of the programme’s editor after he had been shamefully hung out to dry by the chief executive. It was the wake-up call that the club’s supporters and members needed and what started as a one man rant on a Zola-esque forum thread entitled “J’accuse” culminated, less than a year later, in mass board and staff resignations and Andy Walsh stepping down as chief executive after eleven years at the helm of the club. Indeed there were echoes of Emile Zola’s exile for speaking out when O’Neill was incredibly denied membership of the club he founded, his criticism of the board and management team interpreted as online abuse and intimidation, until he was exonerated by an independent report ordered by the new board in the summer of 2016. By this point the rebellion had gathered sufficient momentum that the biggest turnout in the club’s history had elected an almost entirely new board in June 2016.

It was a remarkable twelve months by the standards of any football club. Yet until Danny Taylor’s piece in the Guardian in March 2016 (FC United of Manchester: how the togetherness turned into disharmony) to the outside world, it must have appeared that all was well at FC United; the team playing in front of crowds that regularly exceeded three thousand had managed to secure their highest ever league placing. One of my few gripes with the book is that it occasionally ignores the roles played by others in the battle for the club’s soul. For instance, despite JP’s best efforts to attract national press attention, it was actually an article on the A Fine Lung website (Bath time at FC United) that prompted Lung reader Danny Taylor to get scribbling as the calls for the board and management team to step down were now emanating from a significant chunk of the club’s support. Taylor’s article was a watershed moment as, for the first time, the turmoil at the heart of the club, was laid bare for all to see.

It’s ironic that it was left to Danny Taylor to report this given that the darling of investigative football reporting, his Guardian colleague David Conn, was a longstanding patron of the club’s Development Fund and was tweeting from the St Mary’s Road End terrace only days before Taylor’s article was published. In fact, not only did Conn ignore the story of managerial incompetence and rampant nepotism that was right under his nose but he also, under pressure from FC United’s so-called Press and Communications Officer Andy Walker, apparently tried to persuade Taylor not to publish the story in order to protect friends of his at the club from the likely fall-out.

A theme of the book, as it has been of much of O’Neill’s writing over the last two years, is the need for the club to be run as professionally as possible – the desire to simply “wing it” that characterised Walsh’s leadership was no longer sufficient for a club that now has a multi-million pound facility to look after. Indeed the difference between our former nomadic existence and having our own £6.5 million ground to take care of is stark, much more so than perhaps any of us imagined.

Towards the end of the book this starkness is magnified by a quote from Damian Chadwick, the club’s chief executive, about Broadhurst Park that I had to re-read several times to make sure that I’d properly understood it. Chadwick, who was the former venue controller at Bolton Wanderers before he joined FC and plainly knows a thing or two about football stadia, reckons that if he had £7 million to spend it would be better “to knock the place down and start again”. Hang on, that’s the football ground that for months and months we sang about, talked about, got ridiculously excited about and invested hundreds and thousands of our hard earned cash in, some of it money that we could barely afford, simply because this was us showing the world that this is what a football club should be. And yet it is this partly finished, could-do-better football ground that is the main source of our current financial problems which, in turn, threaten the very existence of our club. It could almost make you weep.

The debt that the club has incurred in building its own ground, in the form of more than £2 million worth of investment in community shares by the club’s supporters and money borrowed from the council at a time of austerity, mean that the club’s finances must be managed expertly over the next few years. It’s no longer sufficient for the club to merely break even but we must, through a more commercial outlook, generate a level of profit that will enable interest payments to be met and debt repaid. But despite our financial problems the seven core principles of the club’s manifesto remain in tact and the task for future boards will be to ensure that the practicalities of running the football club fit with its underlying ideology. It won’t be easy but at least the future of the club remains in our own hands.

As O’Neill highlights, there is a cruel irony in the fact that the football club that was formed partly as a protest at Manchester United being taken over and plunged into debt is now fretting about being able to afford the interest payments on loans from the council. Let’s hope that we can find our way out of this mess. In the meantime this excellently written book, as difficult to digest as it may be for some, provides a salutary reminder of how we got here in the first place.

Two thousand words by Milton Keynes Central

Once a month, for the last year, I’ve boarded a Monday afternoon train from London to Manchester, and then hopped on a tram to Moston, to attend FC United’s monthly board meeting where, for four hours or more, I listen and frantically scribble notes in a notepad before sitting on a tram back into town gazing at pages of barely legible scrawl and crossings out and pondering “how the bloody hell am I going to make sense of this lot”.

And the following morning after porridge and a brew I’m on another of Branson’s rip-off rattlers heading south again tapping away on a laptop desperately trying to assemble my Monday night scribbles into something approaching an informative “summary” of the meeting for the club’s information-hungry members. If the word count’s nudging two thousand by the time the train rolls into Milton Keynes Central I know I’m doing alright. If not, then it’s around this time that I begin to wish I was a thirty a day smoker.

This labour of love began last summer when the new board, elected in the middle of a tumultuous year at the club, committed itself to operating with much greater openness and transparency than in the past, a commitment that included a promise to provide the club’s members with timely information on matters being discussed at board meetings. As a result, instead of having to wait over a month for the official minutes to be published before finding out what their elected representatives have been discussing, members now have access to a report that summarises the key discussions at the meeting within four working days of each meeting (it’s usually available to read by the following Friday lunchtime).

That it is referred to as a “summary” is something of an understatement given that it regularly stretches to four or five thousand words – a reflection of the breadth and depth of the issues under discussion including everything from season ticket sales and ground redevelopment works to events in the function room and the club’s extensive community work. I’d like to think it’s a half-decent read. Wading through a four or five thousand report can be tedious at the best of times so I (often clumsily) try to introduce a little bit of humour to break it up. The April report, around the time of the world snooker championship, was sprinkled with snooker-related puns and there’s even been room for a quote from Donald Rumsfeld and a mention for early nineties acid house pranksters the KLF in past reports. Daft, I know, but it’s a nod to the irreverence of the fanzines that played such an important role in the formation of FC United. Keen eyed readers will also spot the use of the little “c” whenever Manchester city get a mention – old habits die hard.

But I suppose it’s a sign of the times when a tongue in cheek comment about FC United signing a deal with an “official sausage partner” in the latest monthly board report was met with genuine “are you serious?” bamboozlement by some supporters. Time was when almost everyone would have spotted, a mile off, the mimicry of Glazer-era United’s regular announcements of official noodle and kitchen detergent partners and the like. But with our own mini-mountain of debt to service and much talk of the need to boost revenue streams I guess a dose of scepticism is understandable to a degree.

The idea for the report came from AFC Wimbledon whose supporters’ trust publish a summary report of their monthly meeting (I nicked the idea for the introductory paragraph from their report) but they generally take more than a week to get it out and the report isn’t anything near as detailed as the one that FC United now publish. In fact, I’m struggling to think of any organisation, public or private, that shares such a detailed report of board discussions so soon after a board meeting.

All told, each board report generally takes more than twenty hours to produce including attending the meeting to take notes (usually more than four hours), writing the actual report itself (typically about 12 or 13 hours solid; I’m usually chuffed if I’ve completed a first draft by the time the ten ‘o clock news comes on the box) and making any subsequent changes to the report (roughly an hour depending on how many amendments are required). In addition, there’s the time spent preparing for the meeting reading through the various reports and familiarising myself with all the issues that are on the agenda which can easily take another two to three hours.

I’ve only missed a couple of board meetings over the last twelve months – one due to a holiday and the other when I struggled to book a reasonably priced Monday night hotel room in Manchester (it was only afterwards that I realised it was due to the Ariana Grande concert at the Arena) – but I would estimate that it’s taken at least 200 hours to knock out the reports for the ten meetings that I’ve attended. Not to mention days off work and more than a thousand pounds spent on hotels and rail fares. It’s like organising a Euro away each month but instead of getting pissed with your mates you just end up with writer’s cramp and a vague sense that whatever you’ve written could have been written better.

The board summariser remit is part of my wider role as a volunteer for the club’s communications team which also involves writing articles for the website and programme on a range of FC United related topics from the welcome return of Course You Can Malcolm and the club’s ongoing support for refugees to a piece about the shared history of our mid-season friendly opponents SV Austria Salzburg and an overlong end of season review. Basically anything that’s not really about football tends to get slung my way. Someone referred to them as “thought pieces” but that sounds a bit Orwellian to me.

Perhaps the article that I most enjoyed writing last season was the one on Nobby Stiles that we ran towards the end of the season as the club, very fittingly, chose to rename its award for the young player selected as the Academy player of the season after the United legend. I typed it up one afternoon in a coffee shop at Stafford railway station (the glamour eh?) waiting for a delayed train back to London, and managing to annoy several already stroppy fellow travellers by lingering rather too long over a single mug of tea just so I could use the free wifi. I’ve rapidly become the sort of free loading, one drink coffee shop malingerer that no one likes.

On average last season I reckon I was spending around ten hours a week working on FC United related stuff, doing my best to juggle that workload around a full-time job. Yet that pales at the side of the staggering workload of the communication team’s lead who regularly spent more than twenty hours a week volunteering for FC last season. An incredible level of commitment on top of a full-time job. It’s been bloody hard work at times hitting some ambitious deadlines but I’ve enjoyed it immensely. There’s something lovely about still being able to help out the club, doing something you love on a regular basis, despite living more than two hundred miles away. In most cases the articles and the board reports have been well received but inevitably there have been a few grumblings. Ironically the only personal abuse has come from those bemoaning the loss of volunteers in other areas of the club over the last two years.

Whilst it’s true that the number of match day volunteers has dwindled in recent seasons (for various reasons) in other areas of the club the level of commitment displayed by volunteers is arguably at its highest level in the club’s history. A recently formed IT advisory group, a collection of IT literate supporters established to assist the club on techy issues, joins other long established volunteer-run groups advising the club on financial and governance issues. Meanwhile over the summer some supporters have once again been busy assisting with building works and general maintenance around the ground. Work that is done purely out of love for the football club and costs the club nothing. And let’s not forget the board, volunteers themselves, who have collectively put an immense shift in to keep the club afloat over the last year.

In addition, the volunteer-run communications team alone comprises around forty to fifty people performing a vast range of tasks including reporting on matches, updating the website, producing the match programme, commentating on the match for the club’s television or radio stations, writing board reports, updating social media or dealing with press and media enquiries. It’s been a privilege to be a part of that team over the last year and a quarter and, on a personal level, it’s been wonderful at a time when almost everything seems to have a price tag attached to it and people moan about others getting “something for nothing” to turn the world on its head and do something, not because it’ll look good on your cv or earn you a few quid, but simply for the love of it. Anyway, I’m off out for a new notepad, this new football season won’t write itself….

STP me if you think you’ve heard this one before

images-15There’s a fair chance that, whatever you’re up to, if you’re incurring the people hating wrath of the likes of Jeremy Clarkson or the Daily Mail then, quite frankly, you must be doing something right. So after going on strike to protect our “gold plated” NHS pensions in the autumn of 2011 to return home after a day on the picket line to hear Clarkson spitting feathers on The One Show claiming that he would have the strikers taken out and “shot in front of their families” was music to my ears.

Back at work the following day our hospital’s finance director expressed some admiration for the strikers for standing up for what we believed in but her bleak assessment was that there was “no alternative” for the NHS and the rest of the public sector other than to face up to the reality of years of cost cutting (dressed up in management speak as “efficiency savings”) following the financial crisis of 2008. It was a view that was widespread at the time, and still is, amongst NHS bigwigs. A view that we must pay the price for bailing out the banks by shrinking our public services; it’s considered the “the right thing to do” in the circumstances.

The 2011 strike was the first national walk out by NHS staff since the ambulance dispute of the late eighties (when then Health Secretary Ken Clarke infamously labelled ambulance workers as little more than “professional drivers”) and for many NHS workers it was about much more than simply protecting our pensions; it was a protest too against the wider destruction of the NHS about to be unleashed by the Health and Social Care legislation that was, at that point, trundling through parliament. We’d had enough of the relentless “private sector good, public sector bad” market-based twaddle that had infused health policy for more than two decades – it was time to stand up and be counted. And, as we stood with our placards on the picket line in front of the hospital on that November day the tooting of horns of passing cars, lorries and buses and supportive comments from patients and members of the public told us that we weren’t alone in our view that enough was enough.

NHS workers strike in London over pay increase disputeThe slimming down of the NHS over the half dozen years since that day has inevitably meant that the quality of care that patients receive has suffered. You can see it in the longer waiting times for routine operations and in the struggles of Accident and Emergency departments to cope. It’s apparent too in the increase in the numbers of patients who are forced to stay longer in hospital than they should because huge cuts to funding for social care often mean that there is nowhere for them to go (the government’s pretence that the funding of healthcare has somehow been “ring-fenced” whilst simultaneously plundering local authority social care budgets is surely one of the biggest political con tricks of our time). And it’s visible too in the lack of time patients are able to spend with their GPs; in the rationing of healthcare such that certain procedures are only available to those who are in the most pain; and in mental health services across the country that are stretched to breaking point. The Red Cross, not given to hyperbole, has spoken of a “humanitarian crisis”.

The roots of the current obsession with cost cutting and running hospitals as businesses can be traced back to the early nineties when the Tories began the process of carving up the NHS into purchasers and providers of healthcare; a system referred to as an “internal market” and a precursor to encouraging greater private sector involvement in the NHS. The NHS, as an example of socialism in action with everyone arriving through the doors of a hospital treated equally regardless of their economic status, has long been anathema to the Tories particularly those in thrall to the market.

That there is a “market” at the heart of the NHS is a point completely lost on the vast majority of patients and members of the public. And that this system is estimated to cost around £10 billion a year to run (to pay for an assortment of accountants, data analysts, contract negotiators, management consultants, legal advisors, computer software etc) is barely mentioned by any senior NHS figures, politicians or think tanks when discussing how the health service could save money. Remarkable given the near obsession with cutting costs. Having worked in various NHS finance departments for over twenty five years I’m at a loss to point to a single benefit that this market system has brought to patient care.

And now along come the so-called Sustainability and Transformation Plans which break the NHS down into 44 regional “footprints” and provide the means by which NHS England hopes to extract a further £22 billion worth of savings by the year 2020. This is on top of the £20 billion already squeezed out of the system in the first half of the decade; a programme of cost cutting that sold us the lie that the dire economic situation following the global financial crisis of 2008 somehow presented the NHS with an “opportunity” to simultaneously strip £20 billion out of its budget and improve the quality of patient care. That this “challenge” was inflicted on the NHS at the same time as a major reorganisation of services following the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 simply rubbed our noses in the dirt.

These STPs are based on work that has been going on across the country for several years now looking at “reconfiguring” health services and labouring under such nonsense-names as “fit for the future”, “healthier together”, “shaping a healthier future” and “better services, better value”; words stripped of their true meaning to concoct meaningless slogans that are, in turn, fed to a public too busy fiddling with our phones to be unduly concerned about the potential closure of our local Accident & Emergency department. Or so they think.

This ideological assault on the NHS has brought us to a situation where more than eighty per cent of hospitals are in debt and during the last financial year the NHS as a whole was £2.5 billion in deficit. To put that into some sort of perspective, when the Tories came to power in 2010 the health service was breaking even. Ironic that the party that prides itself on “balancing the books” should make such a mess of the finances of the NHS.

But the dire financial situation that the NHS currently finds itself in is far from accidental or somehow inevitable as the government would prefer us to believe – it is the result of a stark political choice, pure and simple. The government has chosen to starve the NHS of much needed funds with the result that since they came to power in 2010 they have overseen the biggest sustained cut to the amount of money that we spend on health care since the birth of the NHS in 1948. This means that we now spend 8.5% of our gross domestic product on healthcare, considerably less than the Netherlands and Germany who spend around 11% and also less than the likes of Greece, Portugal and Austria.

imagesThis fact alone makes a mockery of the argument that is continually trotted out that the NHS is overspending, that it is inefficient and that if only those doctors and nurses, instead of protesting and walking out on strike, worked a little bit harder then we would not be in this mess. Far from being the result of inefficiency on the part of its hardworking clinical staff the financial crisis that the NHS currently faces is ultimately the product of a world view that huge multinational banks are too big and too important to fail but the health of the nation is not. That we can justify spending billions on weapons with the capability to wipe out hundreds of thousands of people but refuse to adequately fund our health service is difficult to stomach.

By rights we should be on the streets protesting at this government’s dismantling of our heath service. Far from being unaffordable a fully functioning NHS is absolutely essential to a successful economy. How can we hope to have a booming economy if we are too ill or too frail to go to work? A point that is often overlooked in the debate on affordability is the fact that for each one pound that we invest in the NHS we receive three pounds worth of benefits to the wider economy.

Yes, the NHS has its faults, but let’s face it what other organisation of similar size doesn’t? It’s a vast organisation that sees and treats around one million people every thirty six hours. However, despite the many pressures it faces it is a wonderful system that bears comparison with any other healthcare system in the world. In fact, it does more than that, it’s the top of the pile according to a 2014 study by the Commonwealth Fund that compared different health systems around the world.

So it comes as no surprise that when we finally get a political leader who challenges this deeply entrenched view that there is no alternative to austerity that, of course, it scares the living daylights out of the press barons and broadcasters who fail to hold the government to account, protect this mainstream view and in the process label anyone who makes the case for an alternative, be they a politician or a striking NHS worker, as some sort of extremist.

As well as committing to properly fund the NHS Labour’s recent “radical” election manifesto also promised to reverse the privatisation of the NHS and return it into public control; thus signifying the rejection of more than two decades of the NHS snuggling up to big business. At last, in Jeremy Corbyn, we have a political leader prepared to take on the might of the huge multinational companies who are itching to grab a slice of the billions spent annually on the NHS. It’s wonderful to see and provides a glimmer of hope that the NHS can survive the ideological onslaught that has been waged on it for more than two decades.

The NHS is something that we, as a nation, should be immensely proud of and provides proof that putting people before profit can work. Established in the aftermath of war and when the country was on its knees financially, it remains one of our greatest achievements and “an example of real socialism” as its founder Nye Bevan declared. In a world where almost everything comes at a price to know that if we fall ill or have an accident that there will be trained people who will treat us with kindness and compassion, look after us and nurse us back to full health regardless of our social and economic status and without checking our wallets is something very special indeed. That we should celebrate the 5th July, each and every year, as national NHS Day feels like, to coin a phrase, “the right thing to do”.

#MakeJuly5NHSDay

As thick as mince


In the basement of a central London bookshop the London Festival of Football Writing took place a couple of weeks ago and I bussed it across town one evening and joined an audience of about fifty nodding sagely and slurping on six quid craft beers whilst listening to a discussion on football, community and, erm, working class culture. Manchester’s staged a similar literary football event for a few years now but this was the first one in the capital. Where Manchester leads, London follows.

Much of the discussion centred on the historian Anthony Clavane’s recent book “A Yorkshire Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of a Sporting Powerhouse” in which he argues that as Thatcherism ripped the heart out of the industrial north and economic power has migrated south over the last thirty odd years so footballing and sporting power has shifted with it leaving Yorkshire and the rest of the north feeding off scraps. I won’t bore you with the details of what was, on the whole, a thoroughly bleak discussion except to say that it quickly lapsed into that familiar territory of portraying working class folk as principally the victims of events beyond our control. The “things are shite and they always will be” view of the world. We need to suck it up.

When the mood brightened a little and someone in the audience suggested that supporter ownership of football clubs is a means of reclaiming football for the working class one of the participants in the discussion, football journalist Rory Smith, was quick to note how things at FC United, once the poster boys and girls of the supporter ownership movement, had all gone “a bit political” recently. A reference, no doubt, to the off-pitch troubles that have affected the club since it moved into its own ground two years ago. To be fair, he probably reasoned that there’s unlikely to be anyone in a London bookshop that has the foggiest what’s been going on at FC in recent months but nevertheless it was the type of glib, dismissive comment that typifies the view of many journalists and media commentators towards those members of the working class who actually get off their arses and try and change things (football or wider society) for the better. What, the FC United supporters actually wanted to run their own football club? A membership card and a flag with some Stone Roses lyrics on it wasn’t enough for them? They wanted real power?

Of course, as we own our own football club we were able to prevent a discredited leader and his freeloading mates from driving the club into oblivion. It’s one of the beauties of true supporter ownership. Membership is more than a laminated card. Twelve months ago we were able to elect a new board that has done much to turn the club’s fortunes round. We’re not out of the woods yet by any means but things are looking up and it feels once again like “our” football club, a collective effort. It’s an intriguing and ultimately uplifting story that ought to be worth telling by any journalist prepared to do a bit of digging. David Conn anyone?

But as is often the case when working class people change things for the better rather than submissively accepting their fate it tends to be sneered at by those who prefer the image of the plucky underdog, gamely trying to change things but ultimately doomed to failure rather than those striving to change the world around them and actually succeeding against the odds. The current general election campaign is full of this condescension.

Look at the abuse hurled at Diane Abbott simply for getting some numbers wrong in a radio interview. The subtext: how dare this opinionated black woman want to hold office in a future government. Think of how difficult it must have been for Diane Abbott to get where she is, the amount of racist and sexist shit that she’s had to put up with down the years. And compare that to Mrs Strong & Stable who, by comparison has had pretty much everything, including the Tory party leadership, handed to her on a plate. Look too at the coverage of others in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow team. Take Angela Rayner, for instance, a Manchester MP and the youngest ever shadow education secretary. What could someone who left school as a pregnant teenager with no qualifications after being raised on a council estate by a mother who couldn’t even read or write possibly know about education? Someone replying to one of her recent tweets described her “as thick as mince”.

Or what does Salfordian Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, who grew up with an alcoholic dad know about the health service? Probably not much given that he went to school in the Bury without the St Edmund’s bit at the end. Or what about John McDonnell who left school at seventeen and proceeded to have a series of dead end jobs before finally studying for his A Levels at night school. Future Chancellor of the Exchequer? What would someone who’s had to struggle for a living possibly know about managing the nation’s finances?

I’ve been genuinely excited by Labour’s general election campaign but, at the same time, as that Tory lead in the polls narrows I’m trying to resist the temptation to go full on 1992 “we’re gonna win the league” about it all. That’d be daft because you just know that by 10.01pm on Thursday night we could very well all be sad faced emoji again. But whatever happens on Thursday there’s no doubt that it has been a remarkable campaign by Labour and wonderful to see Jeremy Corbyn grow into it. Far from being the weak link that many thought (and hoped) he seems to be relishing the opportunity to make the case, unfiltered by the Tory supporting media, for the most progressive election manifesto for more than thirty years. Win or lose, the debate has shifted to the left and after years of having neoliberal economics rammed down our throats and being told that there is no alternative to rampant capitalism at last we have politicians making the case for a society rooted in fairness and social justice and above all one that offers people hope. Things are looking up again and for that we owe a lot to Corbyn.

But for me this Labour campaign has been much more than a one man show. Whilst the Blairite plotters and slimeball careerists have slithered into the background desperate to preserve their precious careers and remain untarnished by any association with a left wing loser like Corbyn it’s given others a chance to emerge, blinking, into the spotlight. And how well this supposed B team has performed; it’s been wonderful to see the likes of Angela Rayner, Jon Ashworth and Rebecca Long-Bailey (to name but a few) step up to the plate. People who know what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet and who have had to graft to get where they are. What a refreshing change to see politicians from working class backgrounds making the case for putting people rather than profit at the heart of government policy. Wouldn’t it be great too if those journalists who prattle on about money trees and view the fully costed spending commitments in Labour’s manifesto as marking a return to the seventies did so objectively rather than as part of the 5% of people who would pay more tax under a Labour government. Where are the genuine working class voices in our mainstream media?

Listen to Angela Rayner talking about the Labour plans for a national education service free at the point of access and tell me that you’re not welling up with pride at what this country can achieve when it puts its mind to it. The media, seemingly more interested in nuclear bombs and Hamas and the IRA, have laughably framed Labour’s plans for education as a cynical attempt to buy the youth vote by abolishing student loans and replacing them with grants. But that’s as wide of the target as a John Terry penalty; there’s so much more to these plans than simply university education, in fact they almost deserve a television debate of their own. When Rayner talks passionately about pre-school education and adult education you know she’s speaking from the heart and from personal experience. Compared to the focus grouped policies beloved of the career politicians scared to death to upset the curtain twitchers of Hemel Hempstead and Harpenden it’s a breath of fresh air and light years away from the present government’s slashing of school budgets – something that offers hope to millions of children and adults for whom getting a decent education can be tough.

The Theresa May mantra of “strong and stable” leadership repeated like a stuck record throughout this utterly joyless Tory election campaign is a direct appeal to the “not for the likes of us” tendency that would prefer working class people to leave the big decisions in life to their supposed better qualified social superiors. Carry on gawping at that fifty six inch idiot lantern in your living room and keep on getting pissed and talking shite about football and reality television and leave the important stuff to us hey. Well balls to that. We might struggle to match the towering intellect of the likes of Theresa and Boris and Amber but, hey, when we put our collective minds to it we’re capable of truly wonderful, life enhancing achievements as well. The NHS is one. The safety net of the welfare state is another. And the national education service could be a wonderful addition too. And a football club wholly owned and run by its supporters that, despite troubles of its own, reaches out to some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in its community plays its part too. FCUM. The Labour Party. There’s life left in us yet you know.

Vote Labour.

You must be somewhere in London*

The sun had returned after a late afternoon thunderstorm and everywhere was crowded, inside and out, on a gorgeous summer evening. We began in the Rake then wandered through Borough Market and into the Globe Tavern which was in the Bridget Jones film apparently. They had a few decent beers on so we settled in.

Since we moved to London nine years ago we’ve met up pretty much every Friday evening for a drink after work, just the two of us. It’s become the time of the week that I most look forward to; an opportunity to relax with a beer with someone special and mull over the week’s events and look forward to the weekend. What could be better? We usually go somewhere fairly central like Holborn, Covent Garden or Soho but occasionally we’ll head over to London Bridge and around Borough Market. It’s typical central London drinking territory; trendy tapas bars and swanky restaurants cheek by jowl with traditional boozers and the newer ones with their craft beers and “artisan” gins.

After leaving the Globe we crossed the road to the Southwark Tavern before walking home across London Bridge with Tower Bridge lit up to our right and the floodlit dome of St Paul’s prominent to our left. On midsummer nights like this London can feel like a wondrous, gigantic film set.

So to switch the telly on barely twenty four hours later and see Borough Market cordoned off and surrounded by police and flashing lights and hear reports of how a van has driven into pedestrians on London Bridge and someone armed with a foot-long blade has wandered into the Globe Tavern and, by the sounds of it, started slashing at everyone, bodies, legs, anything, with blood everywhere is both shocking and difficult to get your head round. Imagine going out for a drink on a summer evening and something as terrifying and horrific as that engulfs you? What if it had happened 24 hours earlier? What if……..

But imagine too, for one moment, after a long day of fasting at the start of Ramadan queuing outside an ice cream parlour and being blown to smithereens by a car bomb. It happened the very same week in Baghdad with seventeen people, including children, killed in a bomb blast. And also in the same week 90 people were killed in the Afghan capital Kabul by what was described as an “earthquake-like” blast from a truck bomb. Isis were responsible for both attacks. You see, what we often don’t acknowledge is that those bastards love to butcher Muslims too. In fact, around the world Muslims are seven times more likely to be the victims of terrorist attacks than non-Muslims.

Yet as sure as night follows day each time a terrorist atrocity occurs in the west it’s followed by a wave of Islamophobic attacks, ranging from online abuse to the firebombing of mosques, and very often it’s Muslim women, more visible in the way that they dress, who suffer the most aggression. Tell MAMA, an organisation that monitors Islamophobic attacks, point to a 326% increase in attacks on Muslims in the last year alone. Only a month ago a young Muslim woman in Leicester was left with serious injuries after a car was deliberately rammed into her as she returned home from dropping her kids off at school. The incident is being treated as a hate crime and a man has been charged with attempted murder. Newspaper headlines referred to an attack by a “motorist” rather than a “terrorist”. The way that we comment on events like this can be revealing.

Equally telling can be the absence of comment. Only a couple of weeks ago more than 350 people were slaughtered, and hundreds more seriously injured, by a truck bomb in the centre of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. The militant Islamist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility. Yet this devastating attack, as big as the 11th September 2001 suicide attacks that unleashed the so-called war on terror, received scant coverage from mainstream media in the UK. No official buildings hoisted the flag of Somalia in a gesture of solidarity with hundreds more victims of terror. No one rushed to change their social media profile to incorporate the Somali flag or an “I heart Mogadishu” tribute. There was no minute’s silence. No charity concert. No smiling photographs or tear jerking back stories of the men, women and children who were killed appeared on our screens. It’s almost as if we’re simply not that bothered when the victims of terrorist incidents are thousands of miles away and mainly Muslim.

No one lost their life in the recent botched attempted tube bombing in a wealthy enclave of west London yet the scale of the media coverage given to the Parsons Green incident will ensure that its name lingers on in the minds of most British people far longer than Mogadishu. “I didn’t think this could happen in Parsons Green” was the oft-heard refrain of locals. But shouldn’t we feel the same way about similarly horrific events in Kabul, Baghdad, Raqqa and Mogadishu?

After sixteen years the so-called “war on terror” simply isn’t working. It’s failed us all and people continue to be slaughtered or injured, irrespective of their religion, simply for going about their everyday business or having fun. Isn’t it time for a change in the way that we tackle terrorism? Whether we’re going to a gig in Manchester; enjoying a drink on a summer’s evening in London; dropping the kids off at school in Leicester; waiting outside an ice cream parlour in Baghdad; praying at a mosque in Kabul; popping down to the market in Mogadishu or simply sat on the District Line gawping at a phone whilst clutching a cardboard cup of overpriced coffee we all have the right to live a peaceful life away from bombs and guns and knives.

But until we begin to attach equal value to all human life this deathly cycle of “callous”, “cowardly” and “indiscriminate” attacks looks set to continue. Politicians will trot out the stock phrases of how we “stand tall against terrorism” and “will never be defeated” but, in truth, each time violence is met with more violence and weak political “leaders” look for scapegoats and promise to “tear up the Human Rights Act” we are neither standing tall or victorious. Quite the opposite.

 

 

 

 

*Or Baghdad. Or Manchester. Or Kabul. Or Leicester. Or Mogadishu. Or New York. Or anywhere.