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All that can adorn and bless

A piece I wrote for the latest edition of the FC United of Manchester fanzine Top of the World about how the club might commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre next year 

During this summer’s Euro away I bumped into a couple of FC’s newer supporters on their first trip abroad following the club. We chewed over recent events at the club for a while before swapping notes on where we stood in the ground; “oh, near the lefties then” said one as I explained my regular-ish location on the St Mary’s Road End, prompting me to blurt out something about how without “the lefties” this football club wouldn’t exist. It was something of a conversation killer and we drifted off into the night. Fuck knows what these supporters would have made of events at a fellow fan-owned football club in London this summer.

There’s nothing new about football clubs using their shirts to support particular campaigns or causes. Celtic players have worn a large cross on their shirts around Famine Memorial Day in recent seasons to commemorate the Great Famine in Ireland and, of course, the controversial red poppy is now emblazoned on shirts, merchandise and club websites in the run-up to Remembrance Day each year. But in August, before they had even played a competitive fixture, Clapton Community FC caused quite a stir with the launch of their red, purple and yellow away shirt inspired by the colours of the International Brigades who fought against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

Clapton Community FC are a fan-owned football club – formed this summer after a long running battle between the supporters of Clapton FC and its owner – whose supporters include a number of lifelong fans and a group known as the Clapton Ultras who, disillusioned with top flight football, boosted crowds at the club’s Old Spotted Dog ground in recent seasons. The supporters wanted a greater say in the running of the club and for the additional matchday revenue from average crowds, which rose from about 25 to more than three hundred over the course of five seasons, to be reinvested in the club. They staged a solid boycott of home matches throughout the 2017-18 season before deciding to establish their own club this summer, apparently seeking advice from FC’s former head honcho, Andy Walsh, amongst others. The newly formed club have begun life in the Middlesex County League Division One on the twelfth rung of English football’s ladder (for local equivalents, think of the likes of Heywood St James and Tintwhistle Athletic in Division One of the Manchester Football League) and is set up as a ‘one member, one vote’ community benefit society like FC United, run entirely by volunteers.

The Clapton Ultras have made no secret of their inclusive, anti-racist stance and, accordingly, the away shirt was designed to send out a clear anti-fascist message with the words “no pasaran” printed on the back. To everyone’s surprise it flew off the shelves after pictures of it being worn by players during a pre-season friendly went viral on social media, with around 6,000 orders for the shirt being received by mid-September. The club currently has around 400 members and had originally expected to sell just a couple of hundred shirts through its first season though, such has been the extraordinary level of interest, its website initially crashed and the small band of volunteers struggled to cope with demand. Much of this enthusiasm has come from Spain and, in a nice touch, some of the funds raised by sales of the shirt will go to the International Brigades Memorial Trust which commemorates those who travelled there in the 1930s to fight fascism.

You may have spotted a few red and white stickers in town or around Broadhurst Park bearing the name of the Clapton Ultras on them and wondered who they were. Living in London, I’ve been to a few of their matches – when the prices of Branson’s rip-off rattlers have prevented me from travelling north – and their fervent, vocal support reminds me of a smaller version of FC United’s away support. At least what it used to be like before we started drinking in ‘spoons. They’ve a fondness for flags, pyrothechnics, Polish beer and bouncing around and boast an extensive songbook that includes some familiar tunes but a fair few original ones as well; there’s a song to a Desmond Dekker tune that I particularly like (substituting Claptonites for Israelites) and the rousing Italian anti-fascist anthem ‘Bella Ciao’ invariably gets an airing and sounds great. In addition the Ultras have been active across their East London community, regularly collecting for food banks and refugees. There’s much to admire of these fans of a football club located in the heart of one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the world.

Meanwhile Clapton FC, whence the Ultras came, kicked off another season in the Essex Senior League and were forced to put out a statement clarifying that they are not connected to the new club after the popularity of the anti-fascist away shirt caused much confusion, with fans from Spain contacting Clapton FC (rather than the new fan-owned outfit) and people turning up at their Old Spotted Dog ground to buy the shirt. Clapton FC, formed in 1878 and one of the oldest non-league football clubs in the country, felt obliged to make clear that it has no allegiances to any political party and is focused on “football not politics”. A sentiment, of course, regularly voiced by FC United’s very own “leave your politics at the turnstiles” contingent.

So, what of our own politics and campaigning as we approach a very important anniversary? Next year will mark two hundred years since the Peterloo Massacre, when government forces charged on horseback into a crowd of around 60,000 people who had gathered in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to peacefully protest for representation in parliament. The troops slashed at the crowd with sabres, killing eleven people and injuring several hundred – an act of terrorism right here in the very heart of our city which, like all terrorist atrocities, was designed to engender fear. At the time only 2% of the population were able to vote in parliamentary elections and the London-centric government had no idea what life was like for workers in the north who had long grown tired of poverty wages, appalling working conditions and a lack of any say in how the country was run. Peterloo was all about putting these uppity mill workers who dared to protest back in their place.

And for a time it worked, as the lid was temporarily slammed on any form of dissent nationwide. But Peterloo marked a significant turning point in the fight for the right to vote, and ultimately led to greater democracy and the birth of the trade union movement. It also cemented Manchester’s place as a home for radicalism and protest which has continued over the following two centuries through socialism, trade unionism, the cooperative movement and conscientious objection to war, through to acid house, the “24 hour Peterloo peace people” and FC United of Manchester. Yes, this football club, like it or not, was born out of protest – a political act that can trace a long, red, radical thread back to Peterloo. Don’t believe me? Well, how come no other supporters of top flight football clubs around the country, protesting against the take over of their clubs by nefarious business interests, have gotten off their arses and formed their own football club? FC United is inherently political.

So how are we going to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Peterloo then? A special commemorative away shirt like Clapton Community FC? A pin badge? A flag? Summat with a bee on? A carefully worded statement on the club’s website that doesn’t offend any of our “stakeholders” or the delicate flowers on Facebook? Or are we just going to leave it to the Course You Can Malcolm volunteers to remind us, as we sit here with our small screened devices sounding off about nonsense, of how much we all owe to those who trekked to St Peter’s Fields to campaign for the right to vote two hundred years ago? It’s all a bit, erm, political isn’t it, let’s just leave it to “the lefties”. I hope not.

Business plans, debt repayments, governance arrangements and the club’s financial bottom line may have sapped much of our energy over the last couple of years – and rightly so, because we wouldn’t still be here otherwise – but beneath it all our proud rebel heart still beats. In 2019 let’s take the time to mark the events of two hundred years ago and recognise the long tradition of protest and Mancunian rebelliousness that this football club of ours is also part of.


Early doors (and late winners)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that watching United’s stirring second half comeback against Newcastle would have at least brought a smile to the faces of those FC United supporters who hung around at Broadhurst Park last Saturday evening to view the match on the telly in the main bar. Watching your side get knocked out of the FA Cup at home by a team from the division below whilst having three players sent off is no great shakes at the best of times but when you factor in that we’re currently bottom of the league with only one win in our first eleven games and are struggling to recruit a new first team manager it felt like the club hit a new low at around 4.50pm last Saturday – a where do we go from here, Crystal-Palace-in-December-1989 moment. Not to mention the pain of missing out on fifteen grand in prize money that would have come in very handy with one eye almost permanently fixed on the club’s need to generate sufficient income not only to cover its operating costs but also to pay off the substantial debts acquired in completing the building of the ground more than three years ago.

So when Alexis Sanchez’s last minute header hit the back of the net there was at least a momentary silver lining to an otherwise shite day. Many of us may no longer watch United in the flesh but they will always remain our first love so excuse us, wherever we are, if we momentarily go absolutely fucking batshit when a last minute winner goes in at the Stretford End. But seemingly this wasn’t enough for one FC United supporter who took to the club’s members’ internet forum later on in the evening to whinge about how the bar was closed shortly after the match finished at 7.20pm thus denying him (and others) another beer or two to toast United’s victory. Perhaps only a perma-grump FC United supporter could turn United’s crucial late victory on Saturday night into almost instant doom and gloom. The post bemoaned the apparent loss of the “our club, our rules” mantra, took a swipe at a steward “with a big gob” for pointing out that he’d like to get home before concluding with the question “where is this club heading?” 

Which is indeed the six point five million pound question and one that has been pondered, at great length, by a recent review of the club’s organisational structure, performed by three of its members and presented and discussed in detail at last month’s board meeting. The report spoke of how the club’s development has moved beyond our initial phase as a protest club focused largely on bringing the fun (remember that, eh) back to watching football again, through a second phase which saw us concentrating almost exclusively on building our own ground to our current state of affairs which demands that we take collective responsibility for owning and running a £1.2 million turnover business and a £6.5 million pound stadium and community facility. “We, the owners, need to evolve, act like owners and take our share of responsibility” the report concludes (***subtext: grow up FFS***). More than three years since our Broadhurst Park home was opened it’s a poacher-turned-gamekeeper evolution that’s proving problematic to say the least. 

There’s been some scratching of heads amongst members since the publication of September’s sixteen page board report (half of it devoted to discussion of the structural review) about what “responsible behaviour” actually means. After all, aren’t we meant to be rebels and all that – forever disillusioned and always kicking off about something or other? The structural review reckoned that around a quarter of office time (that’s staff and volunteers) is spent directly or indirectly responding to queries from members – referring to this as one of the hidden costs of being a supporter-owned club – and highlighted the need for a maturer approach that recognises that our resources (staff, volunteers, money etc) are scarce and that, as responsible owners of a sixth tier semi-professional football club, we must make the best possible use of what we have and avoid placing unrealistic demands on precious staff and volunteer time. 

What the “can’t get a beer at 7.20pm” post represents is yet another example of how we, as members, often expect far too much of our over-stretched staff and volunteers. Yes, no doubt it would be grand to sit back and have another pint or two in the bar having just watched United win but, at the same time, it would also only be fair, as responsible employers, to let hardworking bar staff, volunteers and stewards go home and put their feet up after a long day for many – there is, believe it or not, more to life than FC United. Of course one of the main reasons for screening these early evening United matches in the main bar is to boost our match day revenue but surely this pursuit of extra coin shouldn’t be at the expense of the wellbeing of our staff and volunteers? And it certainly shouldn’t mean that staff and volunteers get labelled as having a “big gob” simply for pointing out that they’d quite like to go home after a long day.

And why prattle on about what is essentially an operational issue about bar opening times on a forum which was established for us to ask questions of board members? What have bar opening times got to do with the board? We’ve got an operational management team (albeit currently comprising volunteers) in place whose responsibility it is to look after matters like this – the sooner we all recognise this distinction between operational and strategic matters and let the board get on with focusing on the club’s long term strategy, which is what we should be expecting it to do, the better for the long term health of the club. We can argue the toss over bar opening times and the use of plastic glasses and the availability of real ale blah, blah, blah until we are blue in the face but what the club desperately needs after more than three years in its own ground is for the board and the club’s membership to collectively don our thinking caps and set out a long term vision for the club.

Where indeed is this club heading? What are our plans for increasing attendances? Do those plans include the local kids (and their families) who simply cannot afford to come and watch FC United as it is too expensive (affordable football eh?) as was highlighted by the secretary of Moston Juniors at August’s board meeting? Or are we simply intent on wringing every last penny out of our existing supporter base? And what are our plans for using the wonderful redeveloped space under the St Mary’s Road End terrace? Where do we see ourselves, realistically, in five years time on and off the pitch? Where are the exciting plans to set in front of potential new members of staff and sponsors and say to them “come and join us on this journey”? Because without that strategic vision the real risk is that we continue, month after month, flailing around, struggling to simply keep our heads above water without ever getting anywhere. And there’s only so long that we can keep doing that before we will sink. 

We can’t go on expecting hard pressed staff, volunteers and board members (some of whom are regularly working more than 20 hours per week on club matters) to be at our beck and call twenty four seven responding to queries about bar opening times, the price of pies, the availability of chips, whether the shuttle bus will be running, what time the turnstiles will open and what brand of tea bags or bog roll we’re using this week. And oh can you get back to us in the next thirty minutes please, cheers. Questions that nine times out of ten have already been answered elsewhere or in the monthly board reports that are now shared with members only a few days after each board meeting – if only we’d take a few minutes each month to read the bloody things. And yes, you’re right, most of us didn’t bother reading the board minutes in the early days either (and look where that got us) but things, as you may have noticed, have moved on somewhat since then – we weren’t responsible for running a multi-million pound facility, with all the ball-aches that brings, and servicing a mountain of debt back then. It’s exhausting simply observing this regular merry-go-round month after month on the members’ forum let alone be one of those board members obliged to respond to the questions like a new parent perpetually on nappy changing duty. And as the number of board members dwindles the exhaustion is evident. There’s a huge difference between subjecting decision makers to scrutiny and simply bombarding them with a string of questions that have either already been answered or should be directed at someone else.

Typically two board members responded within hours to this latest example of whinge-baggery on Saturday night. By rights they probably should have had their feet up in front of Match of the Day with a few cans after a long day but sadly they felt compelled to respond, not for the first time, to an entirely operational issue and had the good grace to thank staff and volunteers for their graft on what was a long and, at times, difficult day on Saturday. I use the word “sadly” because it really shouldn’t be up to board members to have to point this out to us – surely we should all be fully aware of and thankful for the considerable hard work that is going on around the club at the moment, not only on match days.

Arguably, at this point in time, the value of our volunteering effort and the involvement of members in the day to day running of the club is greater than it has ever been – whether it’s pulling pints, ringing round potential sponsors, reporting finances, organising match day operations, searching for a new first team manager or reviewing the club’s organisational structure. The latter alone has so far involved more than 200 hours of work by three of the club’s members, all experienced in this type of work, who collectively travelled more than a thousand miles to attend last month’s board meeting to present their findings. All at no cost to the club. An organisation could typically expect to pay anywhere between £500 to £1,000 per day to buy in that type of expertise – I’ll let you do the maths on roughly how much money that has saved the club.      

Can’t get a beer in the club’s main bar two and a half hours after the match has finished? Well boo-fucking-hoo. Because, you know what, this coming Saturday at Course You Can Malcolm you’ll be able to turn up at Broadhurst Park THREE hours before kick-off and, in the company of fellow Reds, enjoy live music from a local band, a quiz, possibly a guest speaker or two and locally sourced beer and food (some if it homemade) all laid on by yet more of the club’s hard grafting volunteers and all inside your own football ground. There’ll be nothing else quite like it inside a football ground anywhere in the UK, or possibly Europe, this weekend. We may be bottom of the league, out of the cup and permanently grumpy but let’s take a moment to pause and look around at what we actually do have here at this club. It may not be enough, as looks increasingly likely even at this early stage, to assure us of a fifth consecutive season in this league but nevertheless, from where I’m standing (SMRE top left if you’re asking), even thirteen and a half years on, it’s still pretty fucking special. We do alright you know.    

Waterloo sunset

We submitted our reference costs for the 2017-18 financial year a few weeks ago. After weeks of number crunching and analysis it’s always a relief to wrap things up by inserting the final cost and activity figures into an all-singing macro-enabled spreadsheet and press the button that sends it winging across London to the Waterloo headquarters of NHS Improvement, the health service’s financial watchdog. Responsibility for overseeing this annual costing exercise transferred from the Department of Health to NHS Improvement in 2016 and they collect data from 234 NHS trusts across England and will publish the results later in the year.

By my reckoning it’s the fifteenth time in the last 18 years that I’ve worked on reference costs for three different NHS trusts – I’m something of an old hand at this game now. They’ve been collected annually since 1997 and are defined as “the average unit cost to the NHS of providing defined services to NHS patients in England in a given financial year” – typically an average cost per inpatient spell, or outpatient attendance or contact. The information, once published, has a multitude of uses not least as the national average costs that are derived from it form the basis of the set of prices (or national tariff) that are paid by commissioning bodies to providers of acute services in the so-called “internal market”.

But they are also used to answer questions in Parliament and to respond to queries under the Freedom of Information Act about how much NHS care costs and used by journalists to write the next big headline about how much money the NHS is “wasting” on this, that or the other. So earlier this year when the Daily Express plastered the headline “bed blocking costs the NHS £3 billion per year” on its front page the chances are that the costs bit of that headline was a hastily scribbled calculation on the back of an envelope based on figures extracted from the annual publication of reference costs – data that is available on NHS Improvement’s website for everyone to view whether you are a journalist, a politician, a patient or simply someone who is keen to learn a bit more about how much the NHS costs. So if you live in Barnsley and would like to know how much, on average, it costs your local hospital to treat someone with a urinary tract infection you can find this out (it’s £1,691 in case you’re interested). Or likewise if you reside in Barnet and are curious to know how much it costs for a child to be seen by your local child and adolescent mental health team the details are there too buried deep in the reference costs publication (I’ll let you work that one out for yourselves).

And this data, in turn, is based on figures that have been sweated over by cost accountants at more than two hundred NHS trusts, quite literally in the searing heat of this summer (air conditioning in an NHS finance department? You having a laugh?). Unlike management accountants harping on about budgets and variances or financial accountants with their fixation with debits and credits and balance sheets we cost accountants are striving to link the pounds and pence that the NHS spends on patient care to the patient “activity” (in the form of a spell in hospital as an inpatient or an outpatient attendance for instance) that we actually spend that money on. But when each NHS trust spends hundreds of millions of pounds each year treating hundreds of thousands of patients it is no easy task.

The role of the cost accountant is often portrayed as an unglamorous one – the very back of the back office populated by introspective nerds who prefer spreadsheets to social interaction. And there may be some truth in that – when was the last time, for instance, you saw Anna from finance quizzing Jac Naylor about the costs of her cardiothoracic surgery on Holby City? The reality is that Anna’s probably sent Jac an email with a bamboozling spreadsheet attached to it inviting her to comment but Jac’s likely to have ignored it as she’s a busy surgeon and, quite frankly, hasn’t got the time to engage in this financial nonsense. And as Jac, whilst recognised as a brilliant surgeon, can be a bit volatile at the best of times and Anna, who is also very good at her job but doesn’t let on about it, tends to shy away from confrontation, the email is neither replied to or followed up on. It can be tricky to get “clinical engagement” with the costing process at the best of times. As an aside, if there are any Holby scriptwriters reading this (unlikely but, hey, nothing ventured) then please message me as I have several ideas for a future costing based episode <inserts winking eye emoji>.

But, joking aside, the role of the NHS cost accountant can be an interesting and immensely rewarding one and behind the production of the annual accounts which are a legal requirement for all NHS organisations reference costs are arguably the second most important piece of work to emerge from an NHS finance department each year.

When I first joined the NHS in 1990 specialty cost statements, introduced in the late eighties, were the only attempt to assign costs to clinical activity. The costs were compiled by District Health Authorities for all the hospitals in their area but only covered a limited number of specialties and there was criticism that the costs did not account for the mix of cases treated by different hospitals. “Case mix” was far from a new concept – there had been calls for costing information to account for case mix as far back as the 1960s and ultimately this lead to the development of healthcare resource groups (HRGs).

The introduction of the internal market in 1990 led to something called “costing for contracting” – the production of cost-based prices to be charged by provider trusts to purchasers of healthcare such as District Health Authorities and GP fundholders. Most of this was done on spreadsheets and, unlike the national tariff introduced later, different prices could be charged to different purchasers for the same activity. Oh what fun we had during the contract negotiation season, munching on our late night pizzas, crumbs going everywhere, shifting costs from one purchaser to another in order to be competitive on price like less good looking versions of Bud Fox in a low budget production of Wall Street.

Reference costs represented an attempt to introduce a more standardised approach to costing and to provide a measure of the relative efficiency of different providers through the collection of cost information from all hospitals for benchmarking purposes. The first reference costs collection was for the 1997-98 financial year and marked, at the time, a significant step up in hospital costing to identifying a cost for a group of clinical procedures or treatments that were clinically similar and consumed similar levels of resources – the aforementioned healthcare resource group or HRG.

Previously a view prevailed that it was not possible to attach an accurate cost to a procedure or treatment as no two patients were the same – the variability of patients, doctors and diseases makes it difficult to assign costs with any degree of accuracy but the introduction of HRGs represented an attempt to get round that problem. However even when two patients have the same condition and are treated by the same doctor on the same day who is to say that their costs will be similar?

As a management accountant at a small northern mental health and community trust in the late nineties I remember a booklet introducing reference costs being plopped down on my desk and taking it home to learn more. We purchased a new piece of software shortly afterwards that would assist us in calculating unit costs for each of our services but it was not until 2001 when I took up my first costing role at an acute hospital that I got properly involved in actually calculating reference costs. Since then the annual reference costs exercise has tended to dominate my summer months. Holidays put on hold. Gorgeous summer evenings spent in the office. Bus journeys home spent scrutinising the 200 page tea-stained document known as the annual reference costs guidance. And worldwide and personal events framed by how reference costs is going.

While Brazil were beating Germany in the final of the 2002 World Cup in Japan I was sat in a portacabin in Mansfield frantically trying to complete our reference costs on time whilst listening to the match on the radio. In an Edinburgh strip club on my brother’s stag do in the summer of 2005 I found myself repeatedly tuning out of the flashing lights and scantily clad dance routines to ponder how I was going to clear all the validation errors in our reference costs return when I got back into the office the following Monday. What a saddo. A year later and I was trying to convince a maxillofacial surgeon, who was one of the finance department’s most outspoken critics, of the merits of reference costs. After weeks of meetings and emails and scrubbing up in theatre to watch an operation being performed we had managed to produce a set of average costs per procedure that we both felt were robust and clinically meaningful. And in 2008 when I moved down to London I got to experience patient level costing for the first time and witness at close quarters what a mini-industry it had already become.

As with most occupations we like to think that we’re continually improving things but in reality hospital costing information was being produced more than a hundred years ago – largely as a means of measuring the relative efficiency of different hospitals but also, interestingly, during the second world war this costing information was used as the basis of funding different hospitals for treating additional patients as part of the war effort. But reference costs as we know them are set to disappear soon as our Waterloo-based watchdog seeks to replace them with an annual collection of patient level costs from all provider trusts.

Many trusts have been costing at patient level since the mid-noughties but soon it will become compulsory for all 234 provider trusts – each one required to either upgrade their existing system or purchase new costing software (a new costing system typically requiring an initial outlay of between £30k and £100k) that meets the requirements of NHS Improvement’s Costing Transformation Programme. Half a dozen suppliers offer systems that claim to be CTP compliant but, and here’s the catch, there are significant doubts about the compliance of at least one of those systems and NHS Improvement, when pressed on this, are unable to clarify whether a system definitely meets the criteria set out in the CTP or not. Seemingly the risk of being sued for loss of business by one of these suppliers overrides NHS Improvement’s primary objective of offering support to NHS organisations to deliver high quality patient care.

According to the latest census by the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA), published earlier this year, there are 16,443 finance staff working in the NHS in England, accounting for less than 1.4% of the 1.2 million staff that work in the English health service. And of those finance staff, 352 were employed in costing roles across 234 NHS trusts in England (little more than 2% of the finance staff that are employed by the NHS) – equating to an average of around 1.5 costing accountants per trust. It’s apparent therefore that this is a specialised role that often requires you to look beyond your own organisation for advice. A costing lead often reports to a deputy director of finance who may have scant knowledge of the intricacies of costing so the opportunity to ask your manager or a colleague for advice is much reduced.

As a result it’s perhaps no surprise that something akin to a goalkeepers’ union formed in the early years of reference costs and it, somewhat bizarrely, provided my first experience of using an internet discussion forum as the Department of Health established a forum for those involved in costing to ask questions and exchange views. Although Department of Health staff offered some advice on the forum it quickly became a means for cost accountants all over the country to help each other out and became an invaluable source of information, and something of a comfort blanket, at the time for relative newbies like me. As was our local costing group that met regularly and brought together costing leads from across South Yorkshire and the East Midlands – we discussed problems, often had a good moan, but came up with solutions too. The likes of Sue from Derby, David and Trevor from Sheffield and Julia from Rotherham were experienced cost accountants and I learnt loads from them in those early years.

There were some who questioned the accuracy and usefulness of reference costs with its emphasis on averages and there were always rumours that some trusts paid little attention to the annual costing exercise, doing the bare minimum necessary to get through, but it was clear that many trusts with experienced costing staff spent many months on the exercise during which their costing teams built up a wealth of knowledge about the services that their organisations provided. In all my years working in NHS finance departments I’ve met very few finance professionals who are as knowledgeable about their organisation’s “business” as this group of cost accountants.

In the dash for the nirvana of patient level costing it feels like we’ve lost a little of that curiosity, empathy and genuine interest in what we are doing in favour of an almost robotic churning out of huge volumes of numbers that can be fiendishly difficult to interpret. All the while having to acknowledge that what we’re trying to do – accurately cost every single patient that our organisations see or treat or operate on (including every single dressing or drug or stitch or cup of tea they drank or minute they spent with a nurse, doctor or therapist) – is ultimately impossible and what we end up with is merely an approximation of the true cost just as reference costs are. The jury is out on whether the CTP will be successful and whether investment in yet more new systems (not an area where the NHS has a great track record) will be worth it all in the end. They’ve had their faults but I, for one, will be sad to see the sun set on reference costs.

From remembering Denis to table tennis

A piece I wrote for a recent edition of FC United of Manchester’s matchday programme on the club’s work in developing participation in sporting and other activities in the local community during 2017-18

Some supporters may be unaware that FC United of Manchester’s first team coach Tom Conroy is also the club’s sport development manager, a role that seeks to encourage participation in football and other sports in Moston and north Manchester for people of all ages and backgrounds. The work undertaken by the club in the local community over the last year was set out in a sixteen page report prepared by Tom for July’s board meeting and makes for fascinating reading. It’s available to read online, as are all the monthly reports shared by the board following its monthly meetings, simply by logging onto the members’ forum.

Whilst, on the football front, the men’s first team inevitably attracts the lion’s share of our attention the report highlights that a staggering 84 football teams currently use the facilities at Broadhurst Park on a weekly basis either for training or matches or both. This includes a number of Moston Juniors teams as the relationship with our partner football club has strengthened over the last twelve months and we have begun to work together more closely and develop a joint action plan. For instance, it is hoped that the development of the Wildcats girls’ football team, which sees us running weekly football sessions for girls aged 5 to 15 years, will lead to the formation of a Moston Juniors girls’ team that may ultimately provide a pathway to the FC United women’s team.

The facts and figures on our football development work come thick and fast in Tom’s report. A weekly pan-disability football session takes place at Broadhurst Park and we now have two disability football teams that play in the Greater Manchester Ability Counts League. The East Manchester Junior League continues to use Broadhurst Park for matches as thirty six teams and around 350 children play on the 3G pitch on Saturday mornings. A group from Freedom From Torture, a charity that provides support for victims of torture who arrive in the UK as asylum seekers, hold weekly football sessions on the 3G pitch and also took part in the Refugee World Cup in Manchester in June – FC United was the only football club involved in this tournament. Walking football sessions have proved popular with two weekly sessions at Broadhurst Park and a number of friendly matches with walking football teams from away teams took place on the 3G pitch prior to the first team’s match on the main pitch last season. And 2017-18 saw us begin to provide weekly football sessions for adults with mental health issues and may see us create a mental health team in future.

The development of other sports is not only one of the club’s strategic objectives but also one of our commitments for securing funding from Sport England and Manchester City Council for the building of our Broadhurst Park home. Few supporters may be aware for instance that, in partnership with Table Tennis England, we have purchased two table tennis tables for use in the community cabin and there are plans to establish a table tennis club in future. Similarly our school summer holiday multi-sports camps which see us working with the North Manchester Sports and Activity Forum to provide opportunities for kids to take part in a whole range of sports in the school summer holidays may also fly under the radar. Over eighty kids took part in sports such as cricket, athletics, tag rugby, football, dodgeball and baseball during the summer holidays in 2017 and this summer more than 150 were registered to take part.

But the club’s commitment to its local community stretches beyond participation in sport to encompass a whole range of non-sporting activities as we aim to offer a site that is of genuine value to the local community and is open and accessible to people of all backgrounds. For the second year running the club opened on Christmas Day to offer some festive comfort to local homeless people and this year that commitment expanded beyond the festive period to working with other organisations to help homeless people across the city including providing support (in the form of warm clothing, food and blankets) for a local mosque which had opened its doors to provide warmth and shelter for rough sleepers during bitterly cold weather earlier this year.

Meanwhile the Sporting Memories group continued to tackle the problem of social isolation with its regular Friday afternoon get together of around a dozen older football supporters, swapping sporting tales over a brew, even featuring in a piece in the Daily Telegraph last December as they reminisced about Manchester derbies in years gone by (including Denis Law’s infamous backheel). The group has been such a success that there are plans to take this on the road to care homes and sheltered housing and work with those that can’t necessarily make it to Broadhurst Park every week.

As Tom’s report explains there are plans to expand our community work as we use the soon to be opened redeveloped space under the St Mary’s Road End terrace to reach out to more community organisations and offer space for meetings, events and a range of activities including fitness classes, yoga, tea parties and weight training. And, as NHS budgets are increasingly stretched, we will also utilise this space to promote healthier lifestyles that will include us hosting a range of health clinics and drop-in sessions for local residents in partnership with local NHS organisations.

What happens on the pitch will always be our bread and butter but off it as we wrestle with the challenges of operating a sustainable, successful, fan-owned, democratically run football club Tom’s report offers a reminder that we can make a major contribution to creating a happier, healthier and more resilient community in Moston and across north Manchester. There’s much to be proud for all of us that own and support this football club.

Here to stay


A follow-up to a piece I wrote back in the summer of 2016 (Hey, we beat you guys) about a good friend of mine, and former work colleague, who had migrated, on her own, to the UK from Bangladesh in 2008.

A few weeks ago on one of those beautiful warm, cloudless summer mornings when anything feels possible we met at a South London tube station and wheeled Chisty’s large wheelie suitcase down the road. She could have been dashing off to the airport on her summer holidays but was instead heading for an appointment at an organisation that offers advice on immigration issues about applying for indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Chisty was by now approaching her tenth anniversary of arriving in England so was eligible to apply for ILR on the grounds of “long residence” and thus attain the right to stay in the country indefinitely, something not afforded by the time constrained student and tier 2 visas that she had held to date. It’s a potentially huge step that would allow much greater freedom to work and travel, access to public funds and provide an opportunity after a further twelve months of settled residency to apply for British citizenship, something that Chisty is very keen to do. Things that we take for granted such as the ability to move jobs (the tier 2 visa which Chisty held required an employer to sponsor her and any move to a different employer meant that a new visa had to be acquired) and the right to free hospital treatment without having to pay an annual charge for using the NHS would now be accessible to Chisty too.

I’d come along to provide some support (two pairs of eyes and ears are usually better than one in situations like this) but it was already apparent that Chisty’s preparation had been meticulous. Instead of holiday clothes, hair products and make-up her suitcase was full of papers from her ten years in the UK – it weighed a ton. She’d collected every scrap of paper that related to previous visa applications or interactions with the Home Office, pay slips, tax records, bank statements, any correspondence relating to the numerous rented properties that she’d lived in, college and university certificates and letters relating to her years of studying – all filed neatly in plastic wallets. Even details of every trip abroad during the last ten years (there are limits to the amount of time that someone applying for ILR is allowed to have been out of the UK during the qualifying period) – literally anything that would support what she had been doing and where she had been doing it for what amounts to almost her entire adult life. She explained that she’d assembled this paper mountain in the knowledge that, at some point, it would be needed and that day was nearly here.

We were greeted by an elderly gentleman who smiled warmly and explained that he’d been helping people with visa applications for more than forty years but added, apologetically, that the organisation used to offer advice for free but the creation of a “hostile environment” for immigrants over the last decade had meant that funding streams had dried up thus forcing them to charge for providing advice. Legal and other assistance available to migrants tends to be slashed when politicians want to be seen to be tough on immigration.

Chisty had downloaded a copy of the form for applying for indefinite leave to remain in the UK from the Home Office website and begun to fill it out and we spent an hour and a half going through it page by page discussing the best way to answer each question and provide the necessary supporting documentation – Chisty regularly rooting through the contents of her suitcase for the latter. The form, all thirty two pages of it, demands careful attention – a missing detail or something entered incorrectly or in the wrong box could render the whole application invalid thus sending you back to square one like a game of bureaucratic snakes and ladders. Worse still it could lead to an application being refused and possible deportation. Two years ago when she successfully applied for a job with another NHS organisation Chisty’s application for a new tier 2 visa was refused, through no fault of her own, as her potential new employer took too long to issue a certificate of sponsorship (they were not a registered tier 2 sponsor at that point) and quoted incorrect salary details. Although this did not affect her existing visa she was still sent a letter by the Home Office informing her that she “may have to leave the country” if she did not have any other legal basis to remain here. Simple administrative errors like this can change peoples’ lives and cause untold worry; the sleepless nights and the fear that migrants live with that, at any time, the rules could change and they could be sent home are rarely factored into the immigration debate.

So it pays to get some advice on how best to fill out an ILR application especially when you’re going to be forking out more than two thousand pounds simply to apply for the right to stay in the country. Chisty intended to use the premium same day service which costs a whopping £2,999 but even the basic service, which takes a few months before you find out if your application has been successful, costs £2,389. As recently as 2003 applying for ILR was free and the first charge introduced in April of that year was a mere £155. The fees have trebled since 2010 resulting in charges that are now ridiculously disproportionate to the administrative cost incurred in processing an ILR application (a typical premium service appointment takes no more than three hours) and simply add to the worry of an already stressful situation; another hefty obstacle thrown in the way of would-be residents.

A few weeks later in July and Chisty was leaping another immigration hurdle as she sat her Life in the UK Test at an exam centre in west London. The computerised test consists of 24 multiple choice questions about life in the UK (anything from medieval monarchs and tea drinking etiquette to Olympic gold medal winners) with a score of at least 18 being required to pass. Various websites offer trial runs of the test (there are hundreds of possible questions with 24 selected at random) and curious to have a go I scored 21 on my first attempt. Chisty, whose knowledge of the British royal family and popular culture definitely surpasses mine, passed first time taking only ten minutes to rattle through the two dozen questions. ILR applicants must also have sufficient knowledge of the English language but as Chisty had already gained a degree taught entirely in her second language there was no need for her to attend an English for Speakers of Other Languages course.

…seriously if ever you’ve thought that this country is a soft touch when it comes to immigration, that we basically let anyone in, that we’re being “swamped” by immigrants believe me you haven’t got a clue…

And so to D-day. It’s not often that good news emerges from the drab tower block in Croydon that is home to the UK’s immigration service but after years of grafting to build a new life in a foreign country; years of studying and working to be able to afford to study; years of not going out because she’s too knackered and couldn’t afford to anyway; years of gruelling bus and tube journeys from the arse end of town to work spirit crushing shifts in city centre fast food takeaways; years of sacrifice to try to ensure a better future for herself and her family; years of not being able to move jobs due to the restrictions of her visa; years of snotty letters from faceless Home Office bureaucrats; years of filling in forms and forking out thousands of pounds on visa applications, health surcharges and legal advice; years of uncertainty of not quite knowing whether she would be allowed to build her future in the UK or not Chisty emerged from Lunar House on a Friday afternoon earlier this month having been granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK – almost exactly ten years to the day since arriving in England from Bangladesh as a nineteen year old accompanied only by a wheelie suitcase, a scholarship to study business and finance at a London college and hopes of building a better life.

A Whatsapp message stating simply “#HereToStay” brought a smile to my face as I ate lunch. At times, over the last few years, it has felt like Chisty’s been trying to climb a mountain in a pair of high heeled shoes but, at last, the summit has been reached and a new horizon has opened up. She’s finally free to stay in the country and live her life as a Londoner, as an NHS worker, as a graduate, as a finance professional, as a friend, as a daughter, as a sister and as a young Muslim woman unencumbered by visa requirements and arbitrary lines drawn on maps.

“It feels like I’ve just come out of prison” she said when I asked Chisty how she felt now that she was free to stay in the country indefinitely. She said that it was a relief to know that she would no longer have to answer the question “do you have the right to work in the UK?” on job application forms by ticking the box marked “no” and that this would all being well, finally, enable her to make progress in her chosen career in finance. “A great weight has been lifted off my shoulders mentally and financially” she added and said that she particularly looked forward to not having to worry about having to pay two or three thousand pounds on visa applications every few years – perhaps she could “start saving money to buy a home of her own”. And, erm, maybe some clothes and make-up too!

Next week a small group of us will meet to celebrate this momentous occasion at a Bengali restaurant in Whitechapel in east London which is home to Britain’s largest Bangladeshi population and close to Altab Ali Park, the only park in London named after a Bengali – Ali was a young Bangladeshi textile worker who was murdered by racists in a nearby street in 1978. Along a path at the centre of the small park is a beautiful line from a poem by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore – “the shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly”. Several decades after those words were written, a young Bengali woman will now have the opportunity to set down some roots in the UK and come and go as she pleases.

Eine kleine shitmusik

A piece I wrote for the latest edition of the FC United of Manchester fanzine Top of the World

At the end of our latest Euro away match in Salzburg as the players came over to applaud the travelling fans and congregated on the touchline in front of us they were asked to “give us a song”. There was a momentary pause as they glanced at each other, the new players looking for guidance, and we waited for a tune. Which one would they choose from FC United’s extensive songbook? Well the answer turned out to be none as they instead launched into a rendition of “football’s coming home” with most of FC’s support joining in. The faces of a few of our older fans were a picture. But the choice of song shouldn’t have been a surprise as most of our support had been giddily belting it out at regular intervals following England’s World Cup quarter final win earlier in the afternoon, and it got played over the tannoy pre-match and again afterwards along with second album Oasis. At least the latter got a bit of stick from some supporters though.

There was even a suggestion pre-match that should England require extra time to see off the flat pack furniture specialists that the kick-off of our friendly match should be delayed. I guess it’s a sign of how much our support has changed over the years. Had this happened at the 2006 World Cup, say, I can’t imagine Baddiel and Skinner’s slice of Britpop would have been sung with anything like the same gusto. If at all, to be honest. And as for moving kick-off times, yer wot?

My own relationship with the national team can be split into two distinct phases pre- and post-1998 such that I was able to enjoy a pre-match beer in the centre of Salzburg with barely two hoots given for what was going on in Russia. As a youngster things were very different although my first memory of England in the World Cup is missing Robbo’s early goal against France in 1982 as we were still finishing our tea – the slightly avant garde notion of simultaneously eating and watching telly (or of rearranging our usual 5pm teatime) hadn’t quite caught on in our house back then. Eventually we settled down to watch England go on to beat a very good French side 3-1 and I was buzzing. Eight years later I was blasting out World in Motion several times a day through the month of June and six years on was gutted when “we” lost on penalties (again) in the Euro ’96 semi.

But the ’98 World Cup and its aftermath changed all that as David Beckham got sent off against Argentina and became public enemy number one as a well fancied England side were knocked out in the second round – the “silly little boy” had apparently let the entire country down with his petulance. Back then I still supported England. Well, if going to a pub and gawping at a TV screen for a couple of hours counts as “support”, which I guess by then it did. Leaving the pub afterwards I was gutted that England had been knocked out. But weeks later as abuse continued to be hurled at Beckham and United by the Anyone But United brigade and the tabloid press I decided that I’d had enough of the national side and its supporters. Fuck it.

That season after the World Cup in France following United home and away it felt like it was us against the world and it was magnificent. Arguably the treble might not have happened but for Beckham’s sending off in St Etienne as we circled the wagons, the siege mentality was cranked up to ten and we serenaded away grounds everywhere with chants of AR-GEN-TI-NA. We took on all comers including Murdoch and beat the lot.

By the summer of 2000 I’d gone backpacking and as I emerged blinking into the sunshine from a Los Angeles youth hostel late one June morning groups of crimson faced ex-pats were exiting nearby bars cursing Phil Neville as England had been knocked out of the Euros (to be honest I’d forgotten they were even playing). And two years later my masculinity was being called into question at work as I was the only bloke in the office on the day that England played Argentina in a lunchtime kick-off in the 2002 World Cup. I was pleased for Beckham that he scored that penalty (and for Nicky Butt who bossed the midfield that day) but that was as far as my level of arsedness with the fortunes of the three lions went. And by the time of the 2006 World Cup I genuinely found it amusing when they lost on penalties to Portugal – Gerrard and Carragher missed their spot kicks and our boy Ronaldo applied the coup de grace. Hahaha.

Of course we’ve got a lot of younger supporters for whom all this ABU tit for tat will probably mean little. So who can blame them for getting carried away, like most of the nation, about England doing alright in the World Cup. But some of FC’s older support really should know better. And what’s all this nonsense with inflatables? At times during the match in Salzburg I felt like I’d turned up at a Headingley test match mid-afternoon when everyone is six pints down and pissing around with a beach ball or summat oblivious to the action on the pitch. All that was missing was the fucking Mexican wave. And what’s with that inflatable crocodile? Granted the first time I saw it at York last season it raised a half smile but now that the scouser to whom it referred has disappeared why bother? Or is this the sort of wacky inflatable banana level of support we’ve sunk to now?

On the pitch from the brief moments I actually observed when I wasn’t muttering into my beer about the state of our support it looks like we’ve got the making of a half decent side – Tommy and his management team appear to be sorting things and it bodes well for the season ahead. It might be time for us to sort ourselves out on the terraces as well.

For starters we could do worse than take a look at SV Austria Salzburg’s support that, as with the match at Broadhurst Park a year and a half ago, was noisy, vibrant, colourful and never stopped singing and bobbing up and down all match. Frankly they were miles better than us. We may have won 3-1 on the pitch but we were soundly thumped off it perhaps for the first time in a Euro away where we have usually done ourselves proud and shown solidarity with the home support in the process; St Pauli and Babelsberg perhaps the best examples of that.

Should we be concerned or should we just live and let live? After all, there’d been a drop of golden sun, the beer had been flowing and it’s not every day that England get the better of Sweden. If some of our supporters want to belt out “football’s coming home” like they’re in a lagered-up Superdried Milton Keynes sports bar shouldn’t we just let them get on with it? To a degree, yes, I suppose but I’m genuinely puzzled as to why someone would bring a St George’s flag that simply said England on it (just in case you weren’t sure which nation it represented) to an FC United match – no mention of Manchester, United or FC United or any nods whatsoever to our red history. It’s not exactly bouncing up and down on an ambulance or trashing some Ikea furniture but I thought we had more class.

There are some amongst our support who have followed England for years including one of our board members who was out in Russia for the entire tournament. Fair play to them. But for many of us United post-1998 stood alone (bar maybe Liverpool?) as the anti-England – a clued-up, well travelled, diverse support that was everything England’s support wasn’t with its small town mindset, shit songs about the IRA and fondness for forelock tugging. Some would have it that FC United has become just another football club in recent times but I’m not having that as, despite our recent wake-up calls, there are still so many ways in which we differ hugely from a typical football club. But it’s apparent that over the last few seasons our support, away from home in particular, has gradually become a little less irreverent and inventive and a little more mainstream and Salzburg highlighted that. I know there was a cracking sing-sing post-match (which I missed) but, like belting out songs in the Bishop’s before a United match, it’s all very good and looks ace on social media but it’s in the ground during a match when it really matters. And for large chunks of the match in Salzburg, and on many occasions away from home over the last couple of seasons, it’s felt like we’ve been little different to any other travelling support in the country.

Let’s (not) talk about six, baby

When it happened in 2007 I hid in a cinema and watched a film about Joe Strummer. It was a cracking documentary with a rollicking punk soundtrack and being more than a couple of hours long was pretty much the perfect length to avoid what was going on elsewhere that particular evening in a far-flung corner of Europe. The campfire vibe relaxed me and being hidden away in a darkened room with only a big screen to focus on meant that I was safely out of range of any sights and sounds from outside. Perfect. In fact, such was my mood, that I would happily have sat and watched Love Actually or some such tosh for a couple of hours. After the events of two years before it felt like the most sensible course of action to avoid further suffering.

When the film came to an end shortly after ten and I emerged from the cinema, crossed the road and headed towards the bus station, I noticed straightaway that there were only two blokes left in the first pub that I came to and they were both wearing the same red and black striped top and were smiling broadly as they chatted. And when I peered through the window at a large television screen that lit up the far wall I began to smile too and almost skipped onto the 76 bus that was waiting for me when I got to the station. I didn’t have a smart arse phone back then, only a blue mini-brick of a thing that I used only for phone calls and texts, so I would have to wait until I got home to check the details. But really all that mattered was that the unthinkable hadn’t happened – the number six had been avoided. Nice one.

Then a few weeks ago it happened again. This time it was on a Saturday, rather than a midweek, evening and as it was a lovely warm early summer’s day we decided to head to the seaside – to Margate to be precise where we spent an afternoon boozing in micro-pubs (of which the Thanet coast has many wonderful examples), scoffing fish and chips and cake and wandering round the Turner art gallery. But even by mid-afternoon I’d seen several people who merely by their choice of crimson leisurewear I knew would be at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from me when it came to that evening’s main event.

So, rather than linger on the seafront where the pubs were already doing a brisk trade we opted instead to find a small Good Beer Guide recommended backstreet pub about a mile or so away from the beach and the harbour. It was almost empty when we got there and as the sun was still out we opted to get a couple of pints and sit outside at the front of the pub. It was a perfect spot to get away from it all. Or so I thought. But after about ten minutes and with the evening’s event that I was steadfastly trying to avoid rapidly approaching a group of people emerged from round the corner and headed in our direction. Two families with the four children kitted out in similar, but more up to date, red leisurewear to that I’d seen around the town earlier. Instead of paint and electrical appliance manufacturers bankers were now to the fore – a sign of the times indeed.

And my heart sank as they all trooped into the pub and promptly asked for the big screen telly, that filled almost an entire wall of the pub, and that I had patently failed to notice earlier, to be switched on. The kids were by now getting very giddy. The number six might only be a couple of hours away. We promptly supped up and headed back into town where we got another couple of pints at a television-less harbour side pub and gazed out to sea and watched the setting sun. From across the harbour there was a muffled cheer and then, a few minutes later, a louder cheer and I began to fear the worst. Later on as darkness descended we meandered back to the railway station and, after boarding a London-bound train, I checked my phone for the first time that evening – it must be almost over by now surely.

I must admit I’m a right wuss when it comes to looking up football scores on the internet as, rather than cut straight to a website where I’ll see the score instantly, I prefer to fumble around on Twitter instead – if there is pain to be dealt with I’d rather it be softened a little by the cyber-embrace of others that are feeling it too – it’s like an online support group really. You can ease yourself in gently by seeing a scoreline filtered through the thoughts of like-minded people. So when, fearing the worst, I began scrolling through my timeline I was surprised to almost immediately hit upon a “happy Treble day” message (the 26th May is, of course, our day). Ah, someone’s just trying to make the best of a bad evening I thought – fair play to them. But then a few tweets on the scoreline from the thing I’d been trying to avoid all evening zapped into my eyeballs – Real Madrid 3 Liverpool 1. Get in there you fucking Franco-supporting bastards. Somehow, it appeared, a sixth European Cup win for Liverpool had been avoided again. Later the match report with its tales of goalkeeping howlers and Spanish subterfuge would make for beautiful reading.

Which is all a bit daft, not to say third year infant playground stuff, when I think about it in the cold, non-footballing light of day as one of my best mates is a Liverpool supporter. He lives abroad these days but usually the Whatsapp messages flow between us on music, football, politics and books but for the last few weeks since the 26th May the airwaves have gone a little quiet and we still haven’t exchanged thoughts on Liverpool’s quest for a sixth big pot.

On Monday morning when someone at work asked me if I’d watched the match and I told them how I’d spent my Saturday they likened it to that famous episode of The Likely Lads. But this wasn’t anywhere near as likeable or amusing as Bolam and Bewes. In a televisual sense it was more akin to watching Doctor Who when you’re a kid and shitting it behind the settee when the Daleks appear. Pure unadulterated fear. At times like this the energy that we invest in football rivalries and watching (or not watching) twenty two men kick a bag of wind around a patch of grass is completely irrational, utterly absurd and totally bloody emotionally exhausting.

Still, at least the scouse bastards didn’t win number six, eh 🙂