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EY, oh why, oh why

The recent collapse of Carillion not only threw a long overdue spotlight on the billions leached from the NHS and other public services by the Private Finance Initiative but also severely dented the notion that “private knows best” when it comes to running public services which has seen the public sector’s use of management consultants grow exponentially since the early 1990s to the extent that the use of consultants by the public sector now accounts for over a fifth of the total turnover of management consultancy firms. For as long as I’ve worked in the NHS (I joined as a trainee accountant in 1990) a view has persisted that, whether we’re caring for patients or supporting those who do, no matter how hard we work or how good at our jobs we are we’ll never quite be as efficient as our private sector counterparts; forever the lower league journeymen to their Premier League superstars.

I’ve lost count, down the years, of how many times I’ve seen management consultants (more often than not from one of the Big Four accountancy firms) brought in, at considerable expense, to do jobs that people in the NHS with vastly more experience in the relevant area could have done much better for a fraction of the cost. The sums involved, when viewed in isolation, often aren’t headline grabbing but collectively they add up to a substantial flow of money out of the health service and into the coffers of huge multinational corporations. How much exactly? Well, precise figures on how much the NHS as a whole spends on management consultants are difficult to come by but in December 2014 the British Medical Journal reported that NHS spending on management consultants had risen to £640 million per year (compared to £313 million in 2010) as they cashed in on the chaos created by the implementation of the Health and Social Care Act with some consultants charging a whopping £4,000 per day for their services.

To illustrate the impact of the health service’s often unnecessary use of management consultants here’s a recent example from my own experience working in an NHS finance department. It comes nowhere close to the scandal of PFI but it’s typical nonetheless of how the NHS has become reliant on the private sector to do work that could quite easily be done in-house. I’ve chosen this particular example as it’s the most recent but, to be honest, there are dozens of others that I could have drawn from ranging from project managers on eye watering sums per day brought in to lead the implementation of new systems or inject commercial rigour into dull old NHS accounting practices to poacher-turned-gamekeeper consultants drafted in to advise on the impact of government policy that they’ve already had a hand in writing (the current work on sustainability and transformation plans (STPs) being the latest in a long list of examples of the latter).

NHS Improvement, the body responsible for overseeing the financial performance of NHS trusts, is currently driving a move towards trusts identifying the costs of individual patients, rather than averages, under its costing transformation programme which is a major focus for me in my role as the costing lead at a mental health trust. One strand of this programme involves independently assessing the accuracy of the costing information that trusts produce and in 2016 NHS Improvement awarded a three year contract to perform this work to EY (in previous years the work had been undertaken by PwC and Capita). You might know EY better as Ernst and Young, one of the Big Four multinational accountancy firms who were rebranded in 2013 and are headquartered in smart offices close to Tower Bridge in London. In October of last year EY were fined £1.8 million, by the UK’s financial watchdog the Financial Reporting Council, for “failures to obtain reasonable assurance” about whether the financial statements of global technology company Tech Data “were free from material misstatement”. Not particularly reassuring for the NHS but, hey, away from the beady eyes of the FRC a handy NHS contract like this is money for old rope for the likes of EY. Firms can typically walk away from NHS contracts such as this without any repercussions no matter how shoddy the work.

The contract involves auditing the costing information produced by around one-third of NHS trusts each year over the three year period. In December 2015 NHS Improvement invited tenders to undertake this work and stipulated a maximum price of £3.9 million but details are sketchy on the actual price agreed with EY with NHS Improvement’s board papers from around the time being rather coy and indicating only that six companies were invited to tender and that EY had won the contract. Later on the board papers from its meeting in July 2016 referred to a saving of 36% on the contract value after the initial costs and activities within the scope of the audit were challenged. Which represents quite a saving and looking back at footage of the meeting (the public part of NHS Improvement’s board meetings are filmed and available to view on their website) there is more than a little surprise amongst board members as this substantial saving is noted.

Such cost cutting is often a false economy though and usually means cheaper, less experienced members of staff being employed on the contract and this was evidently the case when EY visited our trust in February last year as very early on in the audit it became apparent that, beyond the basics, the auditor’s knowledge of NHS costing processes and mental health services was scant. In the end, the auditor spent a mere two and a half days on site and this was followed up with a handful of telephone conversations and email queries which barely skimmed the surface of the figures being audited.

A first draft of the audit report, when it eventually turned up, after much chasing, over four months later was strewn with errors including reference to “urology IAPT services” which given that IAPT refers to improving access to psychological therapies makes the mind boggle. The errors were eventually corrected and a second draft was sent out a month later, in the middle of July, requesting our formal management responses to each of their audit recommendations within two working days. That this tends to be the busiest time of the year for anyone involved in NHS costing (the deadline for submitting the annual reference costs return is usually towards the end of July) was seemingly completely lost on EY. The report itself, once published, was lacking in any real insight, full of half-baked recommendations and with the overall feel of a piece of work that had failed to get to grips with the topic that it was meant to be reporting on.

It’s staggering that at a time when the health service is enduring the longest squeeze on its finances in its seventy year history that it can afford to spend a few million pounds on poorly executed work such as this. In the absence of knowing the actual cost of the contract let’s assume, not unreasonably, that EY’s original tender value was close to the maximum price of £3.9 million. In that case a 36% saving would suggest a contract value of around £2.4 million. Now, in the context of an overall budget for the NHS of more than £120 billion that may sound like small beer and indeed when you spread it, rather crudely, across all the trusts that will be audited during the contract period the cost works out at around £10,000 per organisation. Not too bad, you might think, but it’s a frankly ridiculous sum for barely a week’s work and a report that told us nothing about our costing process that we didn’t already know.

Yet we have been told repeatedly down the years that the expense of management consultancy is more than off-set by the beneficial effects it has on the efficiency of public sector organisations. However a recent study by a group of academics at Bristol, Seville and Warwick universities on the impact of the use of management consultants on public sector efficiency, perhaps the first of its kind to measure the quantitative impact of using consultants, concluded that far from boosting efficiency the use of management consultancy actually decreases it. And this didn’t even take account of the, often ignored, demoralising impact on NHS staff of continually seeing management consultants brought in to perform tasks that they could and already are paid to do. One of the authors of the report, Ian Kirkpatrick from Warwick Business School felt that in the current financial climate the NHS must consider “whether it is appropriate to continue using external consulting advice at the current level”.

It’s disheartening to say the least to see others brought in, time after time, to work on “exciting” projects and produce work of questionable benefit whilst we get on with our day jobs and are invariably left to pick up the pieces when external consultants depart. Much of this work could be brought in-house and would offer talented, experienced and dedicated NHS staff the chance to look beyond their day jobs to improve the quality of care that patients receive at a fraction of the cost of using the private sector. We might not be as good at spouting the fancy management-speak and preparing the snazzy Powerpoint slides but at least give us a chance. EY’s work on the costing assurance programme could, and should, have been performed by costing leads at other trusts – a form of peer review that would subject the costing processes of each trust to proper scrutiny and offer valuable insights into how those processes might be improved. All this for a mere fraction of the cost of involving the private sector.

So it’s refreshing to read the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell refer to Carillion as a “watershed moment” and promise that a future Labour government would end the “private knows best” rip-off. For too long huge multinational corporations like EY, McKinsey, PwC, KPMG and Capita have been riding this NHS gravy train. Only last week it emerged that NHS Improvement has awarded a £500k contract to McKinsey to apparently help it define its “purpose”. This comes less than two years after a similar deal, worth £1 million, was struck with yet another management consultancy firm KPMG on defining NHS Improvement’s role. Enough is enough, it’s time to bring this nonsense to a halt and let NHS employees get on with what we are paid to do.

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Missing the ap-point-ment

As accountants we are taught, during years of professional training, to be right miserable bastards. Pessimists. Doom and gloom merchants always looking to spoil someone’s fun. We give it a fancier title though and call it being prudent. And a consequence of this prudence is that we learn to treat numbers, especially ones with pound signs in front of them, with a dose of scepticism. If we think something looks odd then we examine the evidence and challenge it if necessary. That’s our job.

And it’s no different for those of us who crunch numbers for a living in the NHS; poring over our spreadsheets and budget statements we are there to assist clinical colleagues to manage the increasingly limited resources at their disposal as well as they possibly can. All of the time being careful not to deliberately over-state or under-state a number to make it look better or worse than it actually is. So when these figures that we’ve sweated over for days, weeks and sometimes months are released into the public domain and are, in some cases, misused and abused you’ll excuse us if we get a bit annoyed.

So it was disappointing to say the least to see the recent Guardian headline “patients missing their appointments cost the NHS £1 billion last year” merely repeating, word for word, the comments of NHS England’s chief nursing officer Professor Jane Cummings. You’d like to think that when journalists are presented with a large number like this that they would perhaps do a little bit of digging to verify its accuracy. Even a five minute search on the internet would begin to cast some doubt on its robustness.

To put this figure into some health-related context for starters; it cost just over one billion pounds to run the trust that provides hospital care for the adult population of Sheffield in the 2016-17 financial year which includes two large city centre hospitals and a total workforce of around 16,000 staff. Which begs the question, if more of us turned up for our outpatient appointments or gave sufficient notice of any cancellations would we really save enough money to provide hospital care for one of the largest cities in the country for an entire year? Really? Alternatively, according to NHS England the money “wasted” by missed outpatient appointments could fund one million more cataract operations or 250,000 hip replacements in some make believe health service where doctors in, say, cardiology sat twiddling their thumbs as a result of patients not turning up to their clinics could scurry on down to the operating theatres and knock out a few cataract or hip operations.

At times it really does feel like we’ve entered a so-called “post-fact” age where anyone with more money than sense can make up a big number, plaster it on the side of a bus and drive it round the country and no one’s going to go “hang on a minute mate, how did you work that one out?” Or have we simply become too inured to the mind boggling array of numbers that are scatter-gunned at us on a daily basis that they cease to have any real meaning beyond looking large and, occasionally, quite scary? £45 million pounds for a bridge across the river Thames that they never started building? £100 million pounds for a half decent footballer? A one billion pound bung to the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up the government? £5 billion for the rights to televise twenty two men kicking a bag of wind around a patch of grass? £133 billion of taxpayers’ money to bail out the banks following the 2008 financial crash? A billion pounds worth of missed hospital appointments? Oh, go on then, I suppose that seems reasonable.

So where does this £1 billion figure come from then? Well, NHS England have derived this number by multiplying the 7.9 million missed hospital appointments in 2016-17 by the average cost of an outpatient attendance (£120) in the same year. But if we take a peek at both of those figures it’s apparent that this calculation is barely more than a quick multiplication on the back of a fag packet. Two figures plucked from the mountain of data that is collected annually about NHS services and multiplied together, with scant regard for how the figures are calculated or what they represent, to produce a figure that is ridiculously misleading and blatantly incorrect.

Firstly let’s look at the number of missed appointments. Figures compiled by NHS Digital (formerly the Health and Social Care Information Centre) show that there were 118.6 million outpatient appointments in 2016-17 with 7.9 million (or 6.7%) of those missed by the patient. That’s a combination of patients that simply didn’t turn up for their appointment and those that turned up late and were unable to be seen. Those in the latter category may have been stuck in traffic or struggled to find a parking space or couldn’t get to hospital because of bad weather and through no fault of their own missed their appointment. It could happen to any of us.

What’s perhaps more interesting though is that if we delve into the NHS Digital outpatient statistics for 2016-17 it’s apparent that the real story isn’t the one that’s generating the headlines; the percentage of missed hospital appointments has actually decreased over the last ten years from 8.4% in 2006-07 and, for the first time in the last decade, more appointments were cancelled by hospitals in 2016-17 (8.3 million) than were not attended by patients – a huge increase in hospital cancellations from 3.0 million in 2006-07 that is indicative of an under-funded healthcare system that is struggling to cope with the demand for services. But clearly that’s not the message that the government and NHS England want you to hear – it’s your fault, remember, for missing all those appointments.

As for the cost of any missed appointments, it’s probably worth noting to begin with that hospitals are not actually required to cost missed appointments. Instead, to come up with that £1 billion figure NHS England has looked at the publicly available annual reference costs that are collected from all hospital trusts. But the first problem with that is that the costs submitted in the annual reference costs exercise are those of an appointment that the patient actually attended – that’s why we refer to an average cost of £120 per “attendance” rather than per appointment.

The second problem with this calculation is that the average costs of hospital attendances taken from the reference costs are “full” costs i.e. they include not only the costs of the doctors, nurses and therapists who deliver care to a patient but also the costs of running and maintaining the buildings in which those services are provided and the “overhead” costs of an array of hospital staff who, whilst they do not treat patients, support those staff who do by providing expertise in areas such as finance, information technology and human resources. Typically these overhead costs can account for around 30% of the total cost of an outpatient attendance. But clearly if a patient does not turn up for an appointment this doesn’t impact directly on the workload of someone, say, working in the hospital’s finance department. So, again, it’s nothing like a true reflection of the actual cost of a missed appointment.

The true cost of a “did not attend” really boils down to the cost of any action that is required as a result of the patient not attending the appointment. For instance, a consultant will probably need to review the patient’s notes and decide whether another appointment should be booked or the patient should be referred back to their GP. In addition, there will be the administrative time spent typing letters and confirming the ongoing course of action. All of this is likely to cost closer to £20 per missed appointment rather than the £120 used by NHS England. Indeed, many hospitals, particularly those that over-book clinics to allow for some patients not attending in the same way that airlines over-book flights, see the costs associated with missed appointments as being relatively immaterial.

Not turning up for hospital and GP appointments clearly risks wasting precious NHS resources and we all have a role to play in turning up to our hospital appointments or, if we can’t make it or the appointment is no longer required, cancelling them in good time. As a result, many hospitals now send text messages to patients in advance of their outpatient appointments warning them of the cost to the NHS if they do not turn up and a study by Barts Health NHS Trust in London in 2014 revealed that sending a text message that specifically referred to the cost incurred by the NHS as a result of a no show reduced the level of missed appointments by 23%. But trotting out meaningless figures like the £1 billion risks deflecting attention away from a government that is simply not committed to a publicly funded health service and since 2010 has systematically under-funded it.

Since the NHS was established spending on health care has grown by an average of 4% per year yet the Department of Health budget will have grown by an average of 1.2% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2020-21; the longest squeeze on NHS funding since it was established seventy years ago. Yet I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Tory politicians on the box boasting of how they are pumping “record levels of spending” into the health service without being pulled up on it. The health service requires additional spending each year to simply stand still and cope with inflation, technological developments and the additional demands that are placed on it by an ageing population and not least by the failures of government policy on social care and the increasingly obscene levels of inequality. A GP in Salford estimates that poverty is a major factor in around 60% of the patients that she currently sees.

The real story here is not that we, the patients, are endangering the NHS by failing to turn up to our appointments but that the health service has been deliberately under-funded since 2010 – yes, spending has gone up but by nowhere near enough to cope with demand. It’s time we all, particularly those whose job it is to investigate and report on such matters, turned into right miserable accountant-like bastards and began questioning what’s happening to our NHS rather than simply regurgitating the “facts” that are presented to us.

Football taught by Matt Busby

For a few years at school I was into drawing. Although I wasn’t particularly creative so mainly ended up sketching cartoon characters or copying pictures from books. So when Manchester United brought out a magazine to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Munich air disaster in 1983 I was instantly drawn (if you’ll excuse the pun) to the picture on the front cover of a smiling Matt Busby overlooking various scenes from United’s past and present; Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, George Best and Norman Whiteside were a few of the figures that stood out. It was cracking picture and I bought a large piece of card and tried to copy it with a view to sticking the finished product on my bedroom wall. I didn’t finish it though – it took me several weeks just to sketch Matt’s head and by the time I’d made a right horlicks of Norman Whiteside’s nose I gave up and for years the unfinished picture sat gathering dust at my mum and dad’s with all my United programmes and other memorabilia.

But what was of more significance is that it was only when I delved inside the magazine and started to read the various articles that I began to fully appreciate the scale of what happened on that Munich airport runway on 6th February 1958. My dad had been due to go to his first United match the Saturday after Munich and although he never saw the Busby Babes in action he still recalls his giddiness at the prospect of seeing the likes of Duncan Edwards and Eddie “Snakehips” Colman in the flesh. Whilst my own first United match was only nineteen years after the Munich disaster (the same as the gap back to the treble season now) for an eight year old it might as well have been ninety years ago.

So the enormity of the tragedy didn’t really sink in until the day of the 25th anniversary when, lying on my bed, I read through the magazine cover to cover blubbing my eyes out well before I got to the end. Being an out of town fan our football-daft school playground was full of kids that supported Liverpool and Forest and as they seemed to be celebrating a trophy or two almost every season, whilst United won nowt, I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t moments when I had more than a few doubts about this team that my dad had saddled me with.

But that Munich commemorative magazine changed all that and made me begin to appreciate the glorious, yet tragic, history of this football club. Learning for the first time about how Matt Busby had built a team brimming with youthful talent and how he had defied the Football League and taken United into Europe, the first English side to play in European competition, filled me with pride. But there was overwhelming sadness too at how a group of young players with so much to look forward to never got the chance to fulfil their undoubted potential. Eight of that team, the pioneering champions of England, died in the Munich disaster and Busby himself was so badly injured that he was given the last rites at one point before eventually recovering.

Which makes it odd that after expunging that teenage self-doubt thirty five years ago that I now spend Saturday afternoons watching a different football team. Although they also play in red and have Manchester and United in their name. Whilst many FC United of Manchester supporters no longer go to Old Trafford there remains a red thread that connects us to Manchester United and back to the Busby Babes like a footballing umbilical cord. That’s why on their way to the match at Nuneaton on Saturday a group of FC United supporters visited the cemetery in Dudley where Duncan Edwards is buried and, as they have done in previous seasons whenever FC have played in the West Midlands, paid their respects to Big Dunc. And it’s why some FC United supporters have travelled out to Munich this week to join hundreds of other Reds in remembering those who lost their lives in that plane crash sixty years ago. And why those of us stood on a cold, damp terrace in Warwickshire on Saturday were singing songs about football taught by Matt Busby. And why too that the superb 1878 Manchester United nostalgia magazine, it’s latest issue devoted entirely to the Busby Babes, is sold at FC United home and away matches as well as at Old Trafford. Two United’s, one soul.

As I headed home from Nuneaton on Saturday night and boarded a Northern Line tube train at Euston on the last leg of my journey I couldn’t help noticing the two clear plastic bags that the young couple sat opposite were carrying which appeared to include a small black book with the words “The Flowers of Manchester” on the cover. I pointed to one of the bags and asked if they’d been to the United match and whether I could have a quick look at what was inside.

They said that yes they’d been to Old Trafford, passed one of the bags over and as I flicked through the book and the commemorative programme (which had been given out free to all supporters attending the match, the closest United home match to the 60th anniversary of the Munich disaster) there followed one of those oddly asymmetrical Saturday night conversations that I’ve grown familiar with over the years; them telling me about the match at Old Trafford, who scored, who played well, what the atmosphere was like before asking me which league FC United are in. After briefly informing them that we’re five divisions below United and had lost to Nuneaton Town today I think they decided to take pity on me and offered me one of their commemorative packs.

They explained that one was enough for the two of them and that they would be happy for the other one to go to a good home. To be honest, I was a bit taken aback by this kind gesture, reduced to gibbering “are you sure?” and “that’s very kind of you” several times before getting up to leave the train at my station with an unexpected plastic bagged gift. I have a tendency to generalise about many of those who go to Old Trafford these days which is a shame as most of the match going United fans I’ve met in London over the last decade have been sound.

Later on as I sat with a brew flicking through the slim black Flowers of Manchester book and the commemorative programme that had been very generously given to me I realised that sometimes, just sometimes, the football club that I adore but ultimately parted company with as a result of its overbearing commercialisation can still get some of the important things right. Opening the programme (the first time I’ve browsed a copy of the United Review in many years) the repetition of the Glazer name in the section informing supporters of the names of the directors of the club undoubtedly jars but both publications are well presented and a wonderful tribute to the memory of those who died at Munich. As is the smart pin badge adorned with a picture of the Old Trafford Munich clock that was also in the plastic bag. And giving them out for free, as a commemorative pack, to all supporters attending the match was a touch of class.

So as we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Munich disaster this week and remember the twenty three people who lost their lives (including eight of the Busby Babes) I hope that there are more than a few young United supporters reading through that small black book that they picked up at the match on Saturday and, perhaps with tears in their eyes, learning about the proud history of their football club and the football taught by Matt Busby. RIP the Busby Babes. We’ll never die.

From Fylde to Finchley – where I watched football in 2017

For a few years now the editor of the award winning Doncaster Rovers fanzine Popular Stand has published an ace end of season collection of photographs of all the matches that he’s attended that season. You can take a peek here. Although I’m mostly useless with a camera I love gazing at football photographs so, partly inspired by the Donny fanzine, I’ve been snapping away at all the matches that I’ve been to over the last year and below is a selection of those photos; one from each of the matches that I attended in 2017 and all taken on my phone (with the exception of one that I’ve shamelessly nicked from someone I was at the match with).

They’re mostly nothing to do with the action on the pitch because, let’s be honest, going to the match is not really about watching the actual match is it. In fact, looking back through them I think they probably feature more trees than players – the conifers at Tadcaster were particularly striking. Anyway, aside from watching a live stream of the second half of the Europa League final on my phone these thirty one matches represent pretty much the entirety of my consumption of live football over the last twelve months. Enjoy.

 

Match 1 – Fog at Fylde

AFC Fylde 3 FC United of Manchester 1, National League North, Mill Farm, Saturday 7th January 2017, Attendance 2,821

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Match 2 – Fan-owned football across the river from the bankers

Fisher 0 Whitstable Town 2, Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division, St Paul’s Sports Ground, Saturday 14th January 2017, Attendance 149

 

Match 3 – Art Deco fan-owned football at Enfield Town

Enfield Town 2 Grays Athletic 0, Isthmian League Premier Division, Queen Elizabeth Stadium, Saturday 21st January 2017, Attendance 575

 

Match 4 – We’ll carry on through it all

FC United of Manchester 0 Salford City 3, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 28th January 2017, Attendance 4,158

 

Match 5 – Stop mad cow disease

FC United of Manchester 3 SV Austria Salzburg 0, Friendly match, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 4th February 2017, Attendance 1,562

 

Match 6 – Going to the match

Stockport County 2 FC United of Manchester 1, National League North, Edgeley Park, Saturday 18th February 2017, Attendance 5,630

 

Match 7 – Second half comeback

Gloucester City 2 FC United of Manchester 3, National League North, Whaddon Road (home of Cheltenham Town), Saturday 25th February 2017, Attendance 795

 

Match 8 – Pre-match beer under the arches at Piccadilly station

FC United of Manchester 1 Kidderminster Harriers 0, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 4th March 2017, Attendance 2,456

 

Match 9 – Hamlet prove a handful for Merstham

Dulwich Hamlet 5 Merstham 0, Isthmian League Premier Division, Champion Hill, Saturday 11th March 2017, Attendance 1,564

 

Match 10 – Under grey Derbyshire skies

Alfreton Town 2 FC United of Manchester 1, National League North, North Street, Saturday 18th March 2017, Attendance 898

 

Match 11 – Pre-match art battle at Malcolmses

FC United of Manchester 0 FC Halifax Town 3, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 25th March 2017, Attendance 3,149

 

Match 12 – Last minute equaliser

FC United of Manchester 2 Stalybridge Celtic 2, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 1st April 2017, Attendance 2,375

 

Match 13 – If the Reds should play

FC United of Manchester 1 Brackley 2, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 15th April 2017, Attendance 2,823

 

Match 14 – End of season party

Nuneaton Town 1 FC United of Manchester 4, National League North, Liberty Way, Saturday 22nd April 2017, Attendance 777

 

Match 15 – She wore a scarlet ribbon

FC United of Manchester 1 Stalybridge Celtic 0, Manchester Premier Cup Final, Boundary Park (home of Oldham Athletic), Thursday 4th May 2017, Attendance 1,592

 

Match 16 – Allez les rouges

FC United de Manchester played in a futsal tournament at the L’Aeronef concert hall in Lille, Saturday 10th June 2017

 

Match 17 – Bohemian like you

Bohemian FC 1 FC United of Manchester 2, Friendly match, Dalymount Park (Dublin), Saturday 8th July 2017  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Match 18 – Here we go again

Brackley Town 2 FC United of Manchester 1, National League North, St James’s Park, Saturday 5th August 2017, Attendance 654

 

Match 19 – Forget 4-4-2 check out those cloud formations

FC United of Manchester 1 Kidderminster Harriers 2, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 12th August 2017, Attendance 1,946

 

Match 20 – Brewers drop points at home

Tadcaster Albion 1 Prescot Cables 2, Northern Premier League Division One North, Ings Lane, Saturday 26th August 2017, Attendance 262

 

Match 21 – Revenge for 1995

York City 0 FC United of Manchester 2, National League North, Bootham Crescent, Monday 28th August 2017, Attendance 3,411

 

Match 22 – Red rebels and spa town blues (again)

FC United of Manchester 1, Leamington 2, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 2nd September 2017, Attendance 2,380

 

Match 23 – Are we still in London?

Hampton & Richmond Borough 1 Concord Rangers 1, National League South, Beveree Stadium, Saturday 23rd September 2017, Attendance 496

 

Match 24 – Out of the cup

AFC Telford United 3 FC United of Manchester 1, FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round, New Bucks Head Stadium, Saturday 14th October 2017, Attendance 1,451

 

Match 25 – A new era begins

FC United of Manchester 2 Nuneaton Town 1, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 28th October 2017, Attendance 1,781

 

Match 26 – 1988 FA Cup winners beat team beginning with “L” 1-0 in the cup again   

AFC Wimbledon 1 Lincoln City 0, FA Cup 1st Round, Kingsmeadow, Saturday 4th November 2017, Attendance 3,394

 

Match 27 – Sad news about the match sponsor at Gainsborough

Gainsborough Trinity 1 FC United of Manchester 0, National League North, The Northolme, Saturday 18th November 2017, Attendance 782

 

Match 28 – Tommy Greaves’ red and white army

FC United of Manchester 3 Harrogate Town 2, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 2nd December 2017, Attendance 2,394

 

Match 29 – Snow doesn’t stop play 

FC United of Manchester 1 Brackley Town 1, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 9th December 2017, Attendance 1,893

 

Match 30 – No football at White Hart Lane this season eh?

Haringey Borough 1 Leyton Orient 2, FA Trophy 1st Round, Coles Park, Saturday 16th December 2017, Attendance 1,133 (club record attendance)

 

Match 31 – Wingate in the wind

Wingate & Finchley 1 Needham Market 1, Isthmian League Premier Division, The Maurice Rebak Stadium, Saturday 30th December 2017, Attendance 151

Murray’s mint

I’ve never been to a tennis match and probably never will to be honest. I doubt that the close proximity to all them Pimms-upped poshos would be good for my blood pressure. And I rarely watch it on the telly either. Aside from Wimbledon there are few opportunities to see it on the box these days without lining Murdoch’s already comfortably lined pockets. Which makes it odd that I bloody love Andy Murray. It’s probably the most love I’ve felt for any sportsperson who doesn’t kick a ball around or wield willow or leather for a very long time. Possibly since Alex Higgins in his early eighties pomp.

I’m not sure exactly when this love affair was ignited but it might have been around the time that a youthful Murray was asked who he wanted to win the football World Cup and he replied, with tongue firmly in cheek, “anyone but England”. Cue little Ingerlunders flying off the handle all over the shop but I loved it. And why the hell would he want England to win the World Cup anyway, he’s a Scot after all. But it’s not only that deadpan sense of humour that I find a bit of a turn-on but also his apparent shyness and awkwardness around talking to the media.

In a world that increasingly expects all our well-paid, media-trained stars of sport, stage and screen to be “larger than life” role models always ready with an easy smile and a sound-bite quote when a microphone is thrust towards them it’s somehow refreshing to observe someone who finds the whole thing something akin to visiting the dentist for some root canal work. It might lack the intensity of the I-want-your-babies man love that I feel for a certain Franco-Mancunian footballer but this slow burning affection for a fellow member of the diffident, slightly awkward squad is powerful nonetheless.

But despite this admiration, I rarely watch Murray play tennis as I get too nervous. I’ve always struggled watching or listening to sports events on the television or radio when I’m really rooting for one of the participants; I spent large chunks of the 1983 FA Cup final riding round the block on my bike, stomach churning and even now, when I can’t make it to a match, I rarely listen to FC United on the radio, preferring instead to check the latest score on Twitter and maybe tune in for the final few minutes if we’re winning. It’s different when you’re there at the match; you can scream, shout, sing or just get pissed as a means of coping with the tension. Watching or listening from afar can be emotionally draining.

So on that Sunday afternoon in 2013 when Andy Murray won Wimbledon for the first time instead of being glued to the box like millions of others I was in full-on hiding-behind-the-sofa-while-the-Daleks-are-on mode scrolling through Twitter to check on his progress with the oohs and aahs of neighbouring flats stoking the tension; was that an “ooh” of admiration for a Djokovic cross-court winner or a relieved “aah” as the Scot clinches a break point with a well executed overhead smash?

Then when he was two sets up and serving for the match I finally felt comfortable enough to switch the telly on and watch that gruelling final game, its ebb and flow producing almost a match within a match, which finally ended with an exhausted Murray becoming the first British man to win the Wimbledon men’s title in seventy seven years. As he lifted the trophy I headed to the kitchen to make a brew mentally drained by an afternoon fiddling with my phone. Thankfully when he won his first grand slam tournament at the US Open the match took place in the middle of the night sparing me four hours of frenetic Twitter scrolling.

It seems a long time now since the final weeks of the 2016 season when Murray finished the season as world number one after winning what seemed like a tournament every week for several weeks in order to amass sufficient ranking points to claim the number one berth. It was an incredible effort that in hindsight may have had a longer term effect on his form and fitness in 2017. He’s been out of action since exiting Wimbledon last year and possibly won’t play again until this summer having undergone hip surgery in Australia earlier this year. By then he’ll have slipped down the rankings but hopefully will return fitter and ready to take on the world again.

Despite his lack of game time in 2017 the finest sporting moment of the year, without a doubt, occurred after Murray had been knocked out of Wimbledon by Sam Querrey. Murray was the defending champion but had gone into the tournament not fully fit and it must have irked him that, having played the last two sets against Querrey on virtually one leg, he wasn’t able to defend his title properly and exited the tournament so meekly. In the press conference afterwards he was asked by an American reporter for his thoughts on Querrey becoming the first American player in many years to make it to the Wimbledon semi-finals – the reporter plainly choosing to ignore half the players at Wimbledon and the Williams sisters’ domination of the tournament in recent times.

Murray, though, wasn’t prepared to tolerate such casual sexism and interjected with “male player” before the reporter had even had chance to spit out his question. The look on Murray’s face was an absolute picture of disgust, barely able to make eye contact with the reporter as he is asked to repeat his comment before the reporter belatedly recognises his error and guffaws nervously and goes “yes, first male player, that’s for sure”. Stick your SPOTY, aside from the football supporters of Cologne invading the Emirates en masse, this was the finest sporting moment of 2017.

It’s wonderful to hear such a high profile male sporting figure react so quickly to the sort of lazy, casual sexism that has surrounded sport for years – this wasn’t someone monotonously reciting carefully scripted lines to assuage a multi-million pound sponsor, it was an instinctive from-the-heart response from someone who is not afraid to speak out on an important issue. And it was a timely reminder too that we must all do our bit to stamp out this sort of lazy sexism – whether it be at work, down the pub, playing or watching sport or on social media.

Murray has made no secret of his support for women’s tennis acknowledging the huge influence of his mother Judy on his career and in 2014 he became the first winner of a men’s grand slam tournament to recruit a female trainer when he appointed former Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. A move that was greeted with cynicism in some quarters – the notion of a successful sportsman being successfully coached by a successful sportswoman was seemingly too much for some to contemplate.

Serena Williams however says that Murray’s efforts to ensure that women’s tennis isn’t merely treated as a glamorous sideshow to the main event are hugely appreciated on the women’s tour. Big deal you might think. But when Hope Solo, the longstanding US women’s football team goalkeeper and a World Cup winner and two-time Olympic gold medallist, states that “sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour are rampant at every level in women’s sport and it needs to stop” you realise that, actually yes, this is a big fucking deal. Particularly when it’s set in the context of the last twelve months when barely a day seems to have passed without news of some sexual scandal rocking the worlds of entertainment, sport or politics.

It’s possible that we may be only weeks away from some allegations of tax avoidance or for him to be outed as a lifelong Tory or a Liverpool fan or summat. Or for Andy Murray to make a tit of himself on social media like Lewis Hamilton. I doubt it though, he just seems like a sound lad to me. Either way, he might not have played for ages and he’s probably missed so many tournaments that he’s not even in the world’s top one thousand tennis players by now but let’s take a moment to bask in the magnificence of Scotland’s number one male tennis player Andy Murray. We’re lucky to have him around.

Stick Ceefax on…..

I’d only just got home from work and was making a brew when the phone started ringing. The phone in our shared house very rarely rang for me but I picked it up anyway curious as to what could possibly be so urgent or important at six on a damp November Thursday evening. It turned out it was both.

“United have signed Cantona”. It was my mate George dispensing with the usual pleasantries and cutting straight to the action.

“Yer wot?”

“Stick Ceefax on if you don’t believe me…..United have signed Cantona”

I put the phone down and scurried into the living room, switched the telly on, fumbled with the remote and selected page 300 on Ceefax. And there it was, the sporting headline news of the day; Eric Cantona was indeed heading across the Pennines.

“Fucking hell, you’re right” I said picking up the phone again trying to make sense of what I’d just read.

To say it was a shock was a huge understatement. Dion Dublin’s broken leg had left us short up front but only a week before a bid in excess of three million for Sheffield Wednesday’s David Hirst was turned down. Now here we were seemingly snapping up the Gallic George Best for barely a third of that. But already I was getting giddy at the prospect of what Eric could bring to a side that had narrowly and cruelly missed out on the league title only six months before. Could this be the final piece in our title winning jigsaw? I was doing accountancy exams at the time and was gazing at profit and loss accounts and balance sheets that evening but the only asset on my mind was the one we’d just snaffled from Leeds for little over a million pounds.

The following morning I popped into a newsagents on my way into work and had a glance at some of the papers to see what the “experts” made of it. Not many of them seemed to rate Eric’s prospects at United and one particular comment that stuck in my mind was the laughable Emlyn Hughes labelling him as “a flashy foreigner”. Meanwhile over in Yorkshire the sheep appeared to be getting restless with some Leeds United season ticket holders threatening to boycott Elland Road in disgust at Howard Wilkinson’s sale of their most gifted player to the club that they despised more than any other. Hahahaha. Schadenfreude indeed.

Back then I had absolutely no idea that almost exactly a quarter of a century on I’d be stood on a terrace at Gainsborough Trinity singing the name of a footballer who completely transformed my United watching life. The rest of that 1992-93 season from late November through to us finally, finally winning the league the following May was an utterly joyous, barely believable, experience; a marked contrast to the first few months of that season.

Eric made his debut on the first weekend in December coming on as a sub in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford as United beat city 2-1 and the following week he scored his first goal for United, equalising on a sopping wet afternoon at Stamford Bridge. Whilst all around him players struggled in the conditions Eric seemed to glide across the puddles as he orchestrated play – he was magnificent in only his first full appearance in a red shirt. I tubed it across London afterwards to watch Morrissey at Alexandra Palace, looking like a drowned rat but buzzing off seeing Eric bag his first United goal.

He scored another late equaliser on Boxing Day at Hillsborough as an electrifying second half saw us recover from three goals down to draw 3-3. It was a scrappy one but already he had developed a knack of scoring crucial goals. I missed his towering far post header that put United in front against Spurs as I’d gone early for a half-time piss but the header that sticks in my mind the most was the one at Maine Road a few weeks later; Sharpey’s cross from the left and there was Eric leaping unchallenged to plant the ball powerfully past Coton. One all. A small group of us behind enemy lines on the Kippax, with our forged city membership cards, were outwardly serene but inwardly doing cartwheels.

Better was to come in early April as a breathtaking first half display by United at title rivals Norwich saw us three up after twenty minutes. The football was sublime that night, with Eric pulling the strings, and when he scored the third (“and here is Cantona….and that’s three”) I was daring to believe that we might, just might, go on to win the league. I’d thrown a sickie that afternoon to make the journey to Norfolk but got spotted in the crowd by my boss watching the match on the telly. Having floated into work the following morning I was invited into his office for a chat.

My personal highlight from that wonderful second half of 92-93 was the chipped pass for Denis Irwin to score against Middlesbrough – viewed from about a third of the way up K Stand and almost in line with the right hand post it truly was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on a football field. A work of art as good as anything in the Musee D’Orsay. The next few seasons brought so many more Eric highlights but that 92-93 season remains my favourite ever football season.

I’ve never met the King (I’ve always had that thing about preferring not to meet your heroes lest they disappoint) so the nearest I’ve been to hearing him speak in real life was at a packed London Palladium on a Friday night in February this year. This wasn’t your typical West End audience mind – it was full of excitable United fans, many in the middle of a four day bender starting with a Thursday night in Saint Etienne and finishing with the League Cup final at Wembley the following Sunday. A lively atmosphere was stoked by a big screen showing some of his finest moments in a red shirt before the great man was introduced on stage.

An Evening With Eric Cantona lasted barely an hour and a quarter but it was fascinating listening to the bloke and the breadth of topics (films, art, music, politics etc) with which he was comfortable talking. But there was plenty of football too; favourite matches and goals, his team mates, the fans, playing under Fergie, THAT kick (“I wished I’d kicked him harder”) and the infamous quote about trawlers and seagulls.

For those of us too young to remember George Best and Duncan Edwards Eric was the greatest we’d ever seen. And still is. He had it all; skill, flair, technique, balance, power and he was hard as nails too. Simply winning wasn’t enough he always had to do it with style – in so many respects he was perfect for United. And off the pitch he was that rarest of creatures – a cerebral footballer as happy talking about Albert Camus and the films of Ken Loach as he was about scoring goals. His arrival at the club, twenty five years ago today, marked the start of the most glorious period in our history. Let’s, once again, drink a drink a drink to Eric the King.

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.