Dial M for Mystery

justice, southampton, scales, street furniture

Suppose you were on trial for murder, in a country where the death penalty was still applied. With the trial more than two-thirds complete – just a few more defence witnesses and the summings-up to go – suppose a virus put a halt to court proceedings, as jurors fell ill and social distancing made further hearings impossible.

How would you want the thread to be picked up when the court system could begin functioning again?

Three possibilities come to mind:
The judge reaches a verdict based on the evidence heard so far
The trial is resumed from the point at which it was interrupted as soon as it is possible to do so
The trial is abandoned. A new jury is sworn in and the process begins all over again.

Surely the first option can be dismissed out of hand. Without all the evidence having been heard and, in cross-examination, tested, no final verdict is possible. Unfortunately, then, Liverpool cannot be awarded the Premier League title. Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich cannot be relegated with 27-30 points each yet to be contested.

The third option also presents problems of consistency and fairness. Starting again does not move all the pieces back to where they were. In the courtroom analogy, a new jury might have other sympathies; witnesses might no longer be available; new information might have come to light. The trial could be quite different.

Regardless of your view of the concept of natural justice, or of Liverpool FC, for Liverpool to be denied the title arbitrarily would be grotesquely unfair. As the table stands with the league programme suspended, Liverpool need just two wins from nine games to be sure of the title; they have 27 wins from 29 at this point.

Elland Road, Leeds United, Leeds, promotion, Championship
Elland Road: must surely have Premier League football again next season

And so on down the leagues. In the Championship, Leeds and West Bromwich have pulled away in the automatic promotion places, as have Coventry in League 1. They and their fans would justifiably feel hard-done to if their efforts to March were expunged. At the darker end of the tunnel, poor Bolton are almost certain to be relegated from League One and Stevenage from League Two. Reprieves for them might condemn two other clubs next year.

But there is a quarter of the season outstanding and few issues are clear-cut. The problem with the second option is time. Nobody knows when football might resume. As things stand the Premier League has proposed fixtures from 2 May, but that seems optimistic. Beyond that point, the 2020/21 season will become a factor in calculations.

One idea offered as a potential solution is quite ingenious. The Premier League is apparently looking at the possibility of an accelerated finish to the season in conditions resembling an international tournament: all the clubs gathered in a small number of neutral locations, playing out the remains of the season behind closed doors.

They would hope to be able to do this through June and July. The close season, officially defined in FA rules as June, would thus be sacrificed. But everybody would arrive at the 2020/21 season in the same state of exhaustion. And the investments of time, effort, money, emotion etc in the 2019/20 season would not have been wasted.

It may not happen. First, the infection curve may not be sufficiently flat for anyone to embark on such a project with confidence. Second, complications may arise not only from the fitness and health of players but also from their registrations and contracts. The expectations of broadcasters and sponsors will also be a factor.

Even so, a continuation of the present season must be the fairest course. Even if it runs well into 2020/21. Clubs should be allowed to complete this season’s competitions on the terms under which they entered them; if those terms need to be adjusted for next season, so be it. No League Cup, perhaps, to free up mid-week nights; only one league fixture between clubs, to halve the length of the season; no winter break. If the terms are understood and accepted before the 2020/21 season begins, there should be no problem.

But the example of the play-offs gives grounds for doubt that the current season will be allowed to finish. The play-offs suggest that the people who run football have little regard for the time, effort, money, emotion etc invested in a season by a club and its supporters. Ask anyone whose team has ever finished in third place, streets ahead of fourth but obliged nonetheless to play three more games at the end of the season to gain a promotion it has already earned.

In the Dark

The idea of football tourism as a leisure pursuit depends rather obviously on two things. With football no longer a possibility, is tourism alone a legitimate substitute?

Venice, FC Venezia, replica strip, football tourism
‘People flock to Venice in their millions without the city having had a decent football club for decades.’

Of course it is under normal circumstances, although even then it might seem perverse in some cases. At one end of the scale, people flock to Venice in their millions without the city having had a half-way decent football club for decades. But at the other, the questionable lure of the sights is now compounded by the closure of many attractions and facilities.

Towns of Two Halves has always maintained that any town can be regarded as a tourist attraction if you approach it with the right attitude. That becomes a difficult position to maintain when towns are shutting down. You’ll have seen a lot of newspaper columnists lately pretending to have read La Peste by Albert Camus; Nevil Shute’s On the Beach also comes to mind, with the old boys in the Melbourne club wondering whether they have time to drink their way through the port collection in the cellar before the fallout cloud arrives.

FC Halifax Town, Ebbsfleet United, The Shay, National League, free-kick, last match before the shutdown
Jack Redshaw’s free-kick grazes the Ebbsfleet bar; as close as Halifax came to an equaliser in English football’s last match until further notice.

It was possible on the 14 March to watch Halifax play Ebbsfleet in the National League and to visit the Calderdale Industrial Museum, Halifax Minster and the Square Chapel Arts Centre. A handful of days later, all were closed until further notice. Now public transport is beginning to wind down – by this time next week travel in general might be discouraged, which would finally knock any idea of tourism on the head.

When the crisis has passed – and China appears to have got on top of the coronavirus in about four months – both elements of football tourism will probably take much longer to recover. Many football clubs seem ill-equipped to cope with the routine demands of the season; a prolonged shutdown will sorely test their viability. The EFL has made a fund of £50m available for clubs in difficulties. It’s a tidy sum, but if all 72 clubs applied, it could pay their players’ wages… for a month. Some of the local museums, galleries, country houses and other establishments so beloved of Towns of Two Halves also exist only where tolerances are so fine that a feeler gauge is necessary.

They will need all the help they can get. It’s hard to imagine that lower league football clubs or local cultural enterprises will be high in the Government’s list of priorities. When football returns, revel in the chance to be a tourist again. Any day can be a festival, just as any town can be a tourist resort.

Momentito!

subutteo stopwatch headline pun

Football is having a moment. As in so many other regrettable cases, foreign imports are to blame.

‘Moment’ is the word on almost every manager’s lips, and of one or two players. When they are not using it incorrectly they’re using it too often, and the habit is spreading into journalism.

First it was the managers. Perhaps because time is such an elusive quality, their otherwise exceptional English lets them down when it comes to expressions of time. Even the best succumb. “Right now is maybe the best moment in their season,” said Pep Guardiola about Manchester United before the derby on 8 March. “We had a few good moments,” Ralph Hasenhuttl reflected after Southampton’s home defeat by Newcastle. Mikel Arteta produced a masterclass after Arsenal’s FA Cup win at Portsmouth on 2 March. Of his young players he said: “I knew that they were going to have difficult moments during the game, they have to learn from those moments, they have to manage their moments better than we did in the first half in some moments.” The first mention is justified and accurate, the rest are increasingly redundant flourishes and the effect is of an arpeggio. Magnifique, Mikel!

English managers are not immune. Frank Lampard, speaking after Chelsea’s 2-0 cup win over Liverpool, said: “We’ve got to celebrate these moments.” It’s not exactly wrong, but there are better words. ‘Wins’ springs to mind, or ‘days’, or even perhaps ‘anomalies’. It’s important that such alternatives don’t disappear altogether; it could happen, especially as the habit is spreading beyond the game into the media.

The commentator at the same Southampton match called the winning goal “a brilliant moment for Allan St-Maximin, a horrible moment for Yan Valery”. The BBC’s Laura Scott commented on 3 March that the coronavirus “was mentioned at several moments” during a FIFA meeting. We can expect rapid contagion. BBC personnel already show signs of trimming their vocabulary down to a single adjective, ‘iconic’, a single future time expression, ‘anytime soon’, and the general-purpose ‘epicentre’ when the location of almost anything is at issue.

What is a moment? In cosmology, there’s an adjunct to the Big Bang theory known as Cosmic Inflation. According to science, Cosmic Inflation lasted from 10-36 to 10-33 seconds after the ‘singularity’ that is regarded as the start of the universe. That’s a very short period of time. Even for a moment, it’s quite brief. But it makes the point. Moments do not last long. They turn into something else – seconds, periods, intervals etc – when they are extended.

All is not yet lost. “It’s been a difficult period for us,” said Deli Alli in early March. The young man’s choice of the word ‘period’ to cover the months since Harry Kane’s injury offers grounds for hope.

VAR: An exercise in Artificial Intelligence?

VAR, Video Assistant Referee, Robocop, montage

When The Guardian (26 Feb) announced Jonathan Liew’s silver award – congratulations, by the way – in the British Sports Journalist Awards, it published a column by him that opened: “I don’t really have a position on VAR.”

That’s an odd attitude to take when your stock-in-trade is to hold an opinion. Very few people, surely, “don’t really have a position on VAR”: those with negligible interest in football, mainly. Until the turn of the year it may have been legitimate to suspend judgement, arguing limply that it was ‘too early to tell’. But the season is now two-thirds over (nine-tenths, from a Liverpool point of view). It’s high time opinion-formers in football decided where they stood on VAR.

The difficulty they face is that VAR is not consistently atrocious. Yes, its decisions are occasionally baffling. But occasionally it comes up with what appears to be if not the right answer then at least a reasonable stab at it. And therein lies a plausible explanation.

Many times this season it has been almost impossible to imagine that the Video Assistant Referee is watching the same incident as the rest of us. Is it possible that in imagining this we’ve stumbled on the truth: that nobody in the famous Stockley Park Incident Room is watching it? But an experimental Artificial Intelligence (AI) system is?

VAR has all the hallmarks of AI:
Mystical faith in technology on the part of the authorities (see also NHS records, smart motorways and, looking nervously right, left and right again, autonomous cars)
Nit-picking Assuming its lines are accurate, as VAR has to, the width of an armpit or an instep is as good as a mile
No understanding of the soul of the game Some goals (eg Teemu Pukki for Norwich (2:10) against Spurs in December 2019) are works of art and should not be ruled out for anything less than the personal involvement of Vladimir Putin in the build-up
Incredibly slow.

In addition, three hitherto puzzling factors can now tentatively be explained:
The reluctance of referees to consult pitch-side monitors. The interface must still be in beta testing. The referee would have no control over the process and would be obliged to wait for VAR to shuffle its replays, lines and angles, pausing occasionally to flash up an eternally gyrating icon
The inability to distinguish between clear and marginal errors by the referee. Computers are much better at black and white than grey, even when the grey might be mistaken for Farrow & Ball strong white
The abandonment of any attempt to police penalty-area grappling at corners. VAR is clearly programmed to regard arms as a legitimate part of the game except when the ball strikes a Bournemouth defender’s shoulder.

If VAR is an AI application, should we expect it to improve? Typically, AI systems use vast quantities of incoming data to build on the original algorithms their creators supply and to fine-tune their own performance. Unfortunately, that can mean their mistakes become more ingrained and alarming, depending on the mentality of those creators. In this case we should assume teams of programmers and referees. It doesn’t augur well, does it?

The Emperor’s Green Clothes

floodlight, tokenism, BBC Sport, Sport Positive Summit

The BBC is making a big deal today of initiatives by Premier League clubs to do their bit for the environment. Research by BBC Sport and the ‘United Nations-backed’ Sport Positive Summit puts Arsenal and Manchester City at the top of its ‘sustainability rankings’.

Arsenal and Manchester City, you can’t help but notice, are both sponsored by airlines.

But long-haul pre-season tours did not feature in the research. Nor did the multiple strips the clubs change every season to sell anew to supporters. And yet the producer of the research claims it focuses “on categories that clubs control”.

If you accept the science of the climate crisis, as the BBC affects to, this all looks suspiciously like a form of tokenism known as ‘green-washing’.

* Towns of Two Halves concentrates mainly on Shank’s Pony and public transport in guiding you round the attractions of towns with football clubs, green or otherwise.

Support the Lower Leagues

The lamentable fate of Bury makes it plain that clubs in the lower divisions need all the support they can get. The international break gives you a perfect opportunity to express your solidarity.

Bruce Willis, Bury, Support the Lower Leagues

The break applies only to the top two divisions. Football continues to be played in Leagues 1 and 2. Meanwhile, England’s game against Bulgaria doesn’t kick off until 5pm. So if you want live football next Saturday afternoon and you could stand to miss the first half-hour or so of the England game, why not go to your nearest lower league club? They certainly need the income and you might be surprised how much you enjoy it.

Chappel Beer Festival, Colchester United, Walsall, East Anglian Railway Museum
Here’s to Colchester v Walsall, with the Chappel Beer Festival at the nearby East Anglian Railway Museum
If you want an extra inducement:
* Norwich fans could choose between a beer festival near Colchester or retro microcomputers in Cambridge
* For any discriminating Burnley or Blackburn fans in the southwest, Accrington Stanley play at Bristol Rovers – not far from a coffee festival and a record/CD fair
* Morecambe has the seaside, a Dinosaur Day, a comedy festival and Salford City to attract any Mancunians attracted by the idea of a day out
* There are food festivals of one sort or another at Cheltenham, Leyton and the Wirral. The latter two are within easy reach of Londoners and Liverpudlians respectively; might Stevenage’s trip to Cheltenham attract one or two matchless Spurs supporters?
* Supporters of East Midlands clubs will note Mansfield Town have a home game against Scunthorpe and something called The Full Shebang going on in the town. It sounds as if it could be quite something – don’t miss it!
* At Milton Keynes, choose between a Cheese Festival, a Handmade & Vintage Show, Bletchley Park and AFC Wimbledon, or take in all four.

Would you rather be in front of the box at 2pm for Kosovo against the Czech Republic on Sky? Really?

Nostalgia

Nostalgia may not be what it was, but don’t let that stop you wallowing at an away venue this August. There’s a chance to step back into various bygone Golden Ages near the grounds of:

Stephenson's Rocket Manchester Science & Industry Museum Chelsea Spurs Palace Brighton
Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ on display at Manchester’s Science & Industry Museum until 8 Sep

Chelsea Wartime (where the visiting teams are Leicester on 18 Aug, Sheffield Utd on 31 Aug); and at Milton Keynes (Shrewsbury 10 Aug, Lincoln 20 Aug, Peterborough 24 Aug); and at Oldham (Crewe 10 Aug)

Derby Magazines & Dressmaking Patterns of the 30s (Swansea 10 Aug, Bristol City 20 Aug, WBA 24 Aug)

Leicester Ladybird Books (Wolves 11 Aug, Bournemouth 31 Aug); and at Reading (Sheffield Wed 3 Aug)

Manchester Stephenson’s Rocket (Chelsea 11 Aug, Spurs 17 Aug, Palace 24 Aug, Brighton 31 Aug)

Morecambe 1940s Revival (Grimsby 3 Aug)

Norwich The 1950s (Newcastle 17 Aug, Chelsea 24 Aug)

QPR Toy Brands in the 50s (Huddersfield 10 Aug, Swansea 21 Aug, Wigan 24 Aug)

Stevenage Design Icons of the 60s-80s (Exeter 10 Aug, Southend 13 Aug, Bradford 20 Aug, Macclesfield 31 Aug)

50s Toy Brands Museum of Brands QPR Huddersfield Swansea Wigan
Toy Brands in the 50s at the Museum of Brands near QPR’s ground

This is a sample of what you’ll find to do (apart from watch the match) when you follow your team around the country. Check out all the destinations at Towns.

Open-Air Theatre

This is something of a long shot. Tickets often go quickly for open-air theatre – to watch a play in the gently cooling evening of a summer’s night is such a treat. But if you were planning to follow your team to one of the following destinations, it might be worth checking availability and adjusting the time of your return accordingly:

Kew Gardens Brentford Hull City Alice in Wonderland Open-air Theatre
Alice in Wonderland at Kew: ‘it’s always tea-time’

Alice in Wonderland at Brentford (where the away team is Hull 17 Aug)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Exeter (Macclesfield 3 Aug)
Comedy of Errors at Brighton (West Ham 17 Aug)
Frankenstein at Mansfield (Morecambe 10 Aug)
Gangsta Granny at Shrewsbury (Portsmouth 3 Aug)
Love’s Labours Lost at Northampton (Walsall 3 Aug)
Moby Dick on SS Great Britain at Bristol (Tranmere 20 Aug, Oxford 24 Aug)
Sense & Sensibility at Sheffield on 23 Aug (Leicester 24 Aug)
Theatre on the Square at Accrington (Bury 10 Aug)
The Secret Garden at Gillingham (Blackpool 20 Aug)
Treasure Island at Peterborough (Ipswich 17 Aug)
Twelfth Night at Oxford (Peterborough 10 Aug)

Summer awaydays

If you can remember far enough back you’ll know what a treat it is to be taken to a match, home or away. But you can earn even more gratitude from your kids if you plan an away game around them. You’ll find summer events through to late August in many towns around the country. The list below is a sample; some are the civic events, but adventure parks, heritage sites and shopping malls will often have similar programmes – check out the destinations at Towns

Bournemouth Summer Live Sheffield United Manchester City
Summer Live, Bournemouth – photography by Sirius Art (Guy Wood)

Blackpool (where the away teams are Bristol Rovers 3 Aug, Macclesfield 13 Aug, Oxford 17 Aug, Portsmouth 31 Aug)
Bournemouth (Sheffield Utd 10 Aug, Manchester City 25 Aug)
Carlisle (Crawley 3 Aug, Mansfield 17 Aug, Salford 24 Aug)
Doncaster (Gillingham 3 Aug, Fleetwood 17 Aug, Lincoln 24 Aug)
Hull (Reading 10 Aug, Blackburn 20 Aug, Bristol City 24 Aug)
Plymouth (Colchester 10 Aug, Orient 13 Aug, Salford 20 Aug, Walsall 24 Aug)

Food Festivals

Is the highlight of your matchday experience the pie at half-time? Did you ever suffer the cheese and onion pastie at Harrogate Town and wonder whether life might not have more to offer? Well, it does, and especially for a few lucky sets of supporters.
Food-loving Leeds fans can view the start of the season with particular satisfaction. Their game at Wigan Athletic coincides with a Food Festival and that’s in addition to the justly famous Wigan Tapas. Leeds are also at Stoke during an event called The Big Feast, but that turns out to be an arts and street performance festival. Follow your nose to the following Food Festivals:

Hairy Bikers Bolton Food Festival Towns of Two Halves Football Tourism Ipswich Town
The Hairy Bikers: in Bolton for the visit of Ipswich on 24 Aug

Barnsley (where the away team is Luton 24 Aug)
Bolton (Ipswich 24 Aug)
Wigan (Leeds 17 Aug)

Speciality food events are on the schedule at:
Cheltenham Flyer Fish & Chip Special (Scunthorpe 10 Aug)
Vegan at Coventry (Southend 3 Aug) and at Port Vale (Northampton 10 Aug)

And it would be surprising if food didn’t feature at these exotic carnivals:
Caribbean at Manchester (Chelsea 11 Aug)
Magic of Thailand at Brighton (West Ham 17 Aug)