When Latin was taught in schools, back in the Dark Ages, every schoolchild knew that Rome was founded by refugees from Troy. According to a vaguely related legend, one Brutus, great-grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas, subsequently wandered into the North Atlantic and became the first king of Britain.
The legend is colourful nonsense. But there are still parts of this country where the sense of strangeness (from the French ‘étrange’, meaning ‘foreign’) is so strong and inexplicable that legend retains some appeal.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Halifax is an unexpectedly exotic and cosmopolitan town.
On a sunny afternoon you could easily imagine its Piece Hall in the Mediterranean or in some Roman province. It’s a large quadrangle bounded by two- and three-storey colonnades, backed by arched rooms in which worsted and woollen goods were traded. It opened in 1779 and was beautifully restored in 2017. Today it houses specialist shops, some historic displays, the information centre and places to eat and drink.
After dark, parts of Halifax town centre – around the Town Hall and the Borough Market especially – feel improbably French; it may be the lighting and lamp standards, the sandstone and style, the mansard roofs and turrets, an occasional tall, slim gable end, diners glimpsed through an aqueous window or the tolling of the hour on the Town Hall clock. Around the town the lights on the hillsides are a profoundly nostalgic sight.
In other respects Halifax is thoroughly Yorkshire: a dark, culverted river; dramatic public buildings; old mills converted to contemporary purposes; a fine local industrial museum measuring the breadth of Halifax’s contribution to the Industrial Revolution; a lovely Minster with a feeling of great age, unusual even for a church; and Eureka!, the National Children’s Museum to which you aren’t admitted if you don’t have a child in tow.
The people were lovely too, by and large, though not in all cases with an unusual feeling of great age. It was a strange atmosphere: just two days later the Government tightened its advice on the coronavirus. Meanwhile people strolled around the Piece Hall, they went to pubs and restaurants and at 5.20pm they attended what would be the last professional football match for some time. The National League fixture at the Shay, between Halifax Town and Ebbsfleet United, kicked off at 5.20pm for the cameras. On public transport, in the street, indoors or at the Shay they gave each other space but were friendly and helpful.
At the Calderdale Industrial Museum, some of the volunteers must have been in the ‘vulnerable’ category but that wasn’t going to discourage them. Stationed around exhibits in the four-floor building, each was a mine of information (especially the gentleman in the mining section). Much of the equipment on display, though static, is impressive enough; but many machines still work and are eagerly demonstrated. At the automated sweet-wrapping device you’ll even be offered a sample of the product.
The museum celebrates the industrial history of the town in all its diversity: pottery, mining, engineering, machine tools, textiles, carpets, confectionery. It also records the contribution of individuals and, when I was there, specifically Laurie Annie Willson MBE. A suffragette, she was instrumental in getting women into the WWI war effort, pioneered works canteens and, after setting up her own electrical engineering company, she built quality homes for working people. Four of her estates are still part of Halifax’s housing stock.
Another notable Halifax woman is remembered at the Minster. Anne Lister was the Gentleman Jack of the recent BBC series. She owned Shibden Hall, just outside Halifax, was an active local parishioner and her tombstone is in the Minster.
Dean Clough sounds like a junior offshoot of a footballing dynasty, until you consider the northern geographical meaning of ‘clough’ – a valley or ravine. Here, a collection of 19th century buildings and mills has been converted into offices, a shopping village, galleries and leisure spaces.
The galleries are a rabbit warren but the printed guide helps and it’s worth persevering. In a random corridor you’ll find a Hockney; above a staircase, Tom Wood’s portrait of the Prince of Wales; and in a room to itself, a sensational Lego model of the complex.
I was in Halifax on a Saturday. By the following Tuesday a number of the places I visited were closed – the Industrial Museum, the Minster, the Shay – until further notice. This was football tourism to the finest of tolerances. On the day football closed down in England, then, 52 Ebbsfleet supporters made their way to Halifax and were rewarded with an away win. Some of the Halifax team played as if they were feeling under the weather.
FC Halifax Town 0 Ebbsfleet United 1 The Shay Stadium, 14 Mar 2020
When Norman Hunter died last week it was natural that the broadcast news should include clips of his career highlights, however unedifying. Hunter was one of the most significant footballers of his generation. In an era of hard men – in a teak-hard Leeds United team – he stood out.
But the highlights reels revealed an aspect of Hunter’s play that can’t help but catch the eye, 50 years later. All the fouls featured were committed with the boot. Hunter was indeed a footballer. Neither on the BBC News nor in many of the YouTube compilations will you see Hunter grappling with an opponent. He summarily chopped men down, rather than hauling them down with his hands, arms or upper body.
Is that to Norman Hunter’s credit? No, it probably made him more dangerous than would be tolerated today. But the famous ‘duty of care’ that players are said to owe opponents seems a convenient piece of hypocrisy anyway. Grappling has not replaced hacking, stamping, scraping etc – it has joined them in the modern footballer’s armoury.
On the other hand… there is a certain honesty, perhaps almost purity, about the way Hunter played. His job was to stop opponents from scoring. How much easier it would have been had the use of the arms been legitimate – or even mandatory – in his day.
In the event it was one of Hunter’s team-mates who changed football in that respect. When Jack Charlton was allowed by referees to get away with standing on the goal-line in front of the goalkeeper at corners, the game changed forever. In particular, the days of an offence previously referred to as ‘obstruction’ were numbered.
The argument Leeds made was that Charlton was entitled to stand where he liked at a corner-kick. That much was true; but his purpose was to impede, distract, perhaps intimidate but certainly to get in the way of the goalkeeper. From there it was a short step to other overt forms of obstruction – ‘shepherding’ the ball out for a throw-in or goal-kick, for example. And with obstruction effectively part of the game, it was natural that use of the arms should follow. When, then, was the last time you saw an indirect free-kick awarded for “impeding the progress of an opponent”? Instead, something similar to rugby’s ‘hand-off’ is routine whenever the ball goes near a player with a marker within reach.
It is to be expected that in half a century the game might have changed. Norman Hunter was a good enough footballer to have made a career in it if he were starting out again now.
One of the unexpected victims of the much-maligned VAR could be goal celebrations. Players who aren’t sure they’ve scored can’t help but be inhibited. Celebrating prematurely will expose them to the mockery of opposing fans, as when half the ground sees a shot hit the side-netting and the other half thinks it’s a goal.
Surely, you might reply, only an old curmudgeon would find anything objectionable about goal celebrations. Speaking as an old curmudgeon, I agree – but only up to a point. Some goal celebrations are genuine (if premeditated) expressions of joy. But others are no better than brand-building. They belong to the world of marketing and image rights. They are yet another lamentable demonstration of football’s eagerness to sell its soul.
Alex Young, the Golden Vision (Everton 1960-68), on scoring one of his 89 goals for the club, would offer a firm handshake to any team-mate in the vicinity before trotting back to the centre-circle looking godlike. That was how it was done in those days, though few managed to look godlike in the process.
The first vaguely modern, exuberant goal celebration may have been Roger Milla dancing with a corner flag at the 1990 World Cup. Cameroon illuminated that tournament and Milla scored enough goals to have partnered each corner flag in turn. He was, incidentally, the oldest footballer to score a goal at the World Cup finals at the time, but nobody spoke of dad-dancing then. And Peter Crouch’s robot was 16 years in the future.
But celebrations are becoming more and more reprehensible. Anything involving hand shapes or messages on undershirts should be outlawed, with the exception of Owen Farrell’s ‘JJ salute’ in which Farrell is promoting a charity. What Gareth Bales’s heart, Ellen White’s goggles or others (including the Mobot) are promoting is anybody’s guess. Joy unconfined?
VAR often takes an age to come to a borderline decision. That is clearly not what the procedure was intended for, and is one of the many valid objections to it. But if it takes the ‘spontaneity’ out of goal celebrations, would that be a bad thing?
Dover Western Docks was once one of the most romantic destinations on Britain’s railway network. To have a ticket to Dover Western Docks meant you were traveling on the boat-train; your eventual destination was probably Paris. If, like me, you were thrifty, you were probably traveling at dead of night into the bargain, which added to the romance. Theoretically, at least.
Before ever I made the trip I thought the boat-train somehow trundled from the pier right into the bowels of the cross-Channel ferry. It was a disappointment, then, to have to disembark at a cold, dark, anonymous railway terminal and walk the last couple of hundred yards. Any remaining shreds of romance were irrevocably whisked away on to the chill night breeze by the state of the vessel at dead of night. Squalor is the word that comes to mind. And yet when I think of that first trip the chief memory is of Ilse and the sense of romance returns refulgently.
The last train arrived at Dover Western Docks in 1994. The listed station building remains on Admiralty Pier but the lines are long gone. Trains to Dover now deliver you to Dover Priory station, which sounds an acceptably historic alternative. Don’t get your hopes up.
In March 2020 it was hard to be sure whether they were knocking down Dover Priory station or renovating it. Perhaps they plan a future diametrically opposed to the fate of Western Docks – the rails will stay but the station will disappear. Either way, any romance or sense of history attached to this element of your visit will depend entirely on how you feel about your companion.
One final announcement from Platform 1. In March 2020 the UK, as elsewhere, was trying to keep Covid-19, the coronavirus, under control. The official advice was for us to wash our hands, long and often, with soap and hot water. The Gents at Dover Priory had neither soap nor hot water. This comment is not aimed at the station management; I mention it to illustrate a common British inability to match ideals with the daily reality experienced by most of the citizenry.
If Dover were a golf course, you’d splash out on a buggy. The flatlands of the town centre don’t require it, and here you will save further money by finding the Transport Museum and the Roman Painted House closed through the winter and Dover Museum is free. But up the hill to the west are the Western Heights and associated redoubts, plus the Templar Church. Up another hill to the east is Dover Castle. Even the football ground, at Crabble, is up a slope that would be regarded in most towns as challenging.
From the railway station, the hill closest takes you up to the Western Heights. The fortifications here are from the Napoleonic Wars originally. “The exterior and moat can be viewed daily during any reasonable daylight hours,” says English Heritage. As for the rest, then, you’d have to be lucky about the date of your visit.
It may nonetheless be worth trekking up there. For one thing, it will warm you up for the walk to the castle later. For another, it gives you fine views across the town, harbour and, indeed, the English Channel. Dover Castle is at a similar altitude on the other side of the town but unfortunately the photo opportunity is compromised from some angles by a pair of masts rising out of the landscape beyond.
Alternatively, if you turn left out of the station you’re into the town centre very quickly. Here you will find Dover Museum.
The Dover Museum has galleries on three storeys, one of which was closed when I was there, for an exhibition to be set up. No matter; the remainder was excellent. They soften you up with attractive displays of Dover through the ages, including an especially effective room devoted to the town’s military history. This included a sequence of seven or eight chronological models and, suspended from the ceiling, a V1 flying bomb. Not as obvious but worth equal attention is a portrait of Elizabeth I painted in about 1598 and displayed in Dover Town Hall during her reign.
And then we come to the pièce de résistance, the Bronze Age boat which merits its own gallery. This is fairly dark. If you have reactolite spectacles you may need to give them a few minutes to calm down.
The boat is apparently the “oldest sea-going vessel known”. It may be 3,500yrs-old. Laid out behind perspex in the middle of the room, it was apparently built of hollowed-out trunks strapped together. At intervals along the length of the base are what look strangely like the wheel-arches of a small car. At either end there are obviously bits missing, but most of it is astonishingly complete. Around the sides of the gallery, related exhibits and explanations complement the vessel perfectly.
From there, it is no great distance to Dover Castle. But Castle Street, encouragingly flat for the first hundred yards or so, soon takes a turn for the worse. Experienced travellers will think nostalgically of European cities like Ljubljana and Salzburg, where castles are served by funiculars. Press on. It’s worth it, even at £20.90 a pop.
You could probably spend most of a day at Dover Castle. It covers an enormous area and has several set-piece attractions from various eras. The castle itself includes a keep with rooms presented as period halls, kitchens, bedrooms and so forth, and with access to the roof with wonderful views. Around the keep’s courtyard is a museum devoted to the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment and The Queen’s Regiment and these help to maintain a sense of chronology. And that’s not easy, partly because the eras rub shoulders with each other on a large scale – a Roman lighthouse alongside a Saxon church – and in the general feel of the place, with WW2 artillery pieces in one direction, a trebuchet and cannon in another. Some of the more prosaic buildings are equally intriguing, from barracks to holiday accommodation.
The Naafi Restaurant attached to the castle was closed for refurbishment. English Heritage broke that lamentable news in a peculiarly jolly-hockeysticks fashion. “We’re excited to announce that major work has begun to improve our catering facilities.” So I looked for lunch down the hill and wandered at random into the White Horse on St James St. It was an inspired choice.
When a pub is busy and you have a deadline – 3pm in my case – it helps for the staff to warn you that you might wait 40mins for food. But when they realised I was a party of one (no-one Ilse on this visit) they accommodated me and fed me promptly and well.
The pub itself is extraordinary. All over the walls, ceiling and doors are notes left as in a Visitor’s Book but in this case by Channel swimmers. A typically matter-of-fact entry, on the back of the main door, reads: “Cedric Bird, Jersey, E-F 13/9/08 11hrs 46mins For Charlie & Hannah”. Some include an inspirational message: “Life dream is now a reality. Chase your dream!” Many immortalise the support crew. One or two are illustrated, especially with flags. And there is humour: “For Lil and George, It Was Only One Length! Rebecca Simmons, First Guern! 19-9-09 11-4.3”
London Road is down-at-heel, enlivened by some notable architecture. The shabbiness increases with distance from the centre. Or, to be more generous, the grandeur fades. The Royal Victoria Hospital and its annex are still pretty grand. But Kings Hall, described by the estate agent trying hard to drum up interest as “an impressive and attractive theatre hall”, is startling. Certainly, very few English towns are too grand for a bit of Romanesque frontage and a pair of Doric columns, but painted yellow, white and sage green? A little further along is Jasper House, built I believe in 1954 as a Working Men’s Club. Is this very late Art Deco or early retro?
I realised too late that I had been walking parallel to the River Dour, and that it might have been possible to walk alongside it rather than beside a busy road. On the other hand its name doesn’t inspire visions of sylvan tranquillity. In the long run, it supplies the adjective that my memory will attach to the fixture at Crabble that afternoon.
‘Confident’ is the word for a football club that prints the its name in type no bigger than 8½pt on the front of its match-day programme, relying instead on the initials COYW as a masthead. Come on you whites… and with cliffs that colour, what else would Dover Athletic play in?
Dover Athletic 0 Yeovil Town 1 Crabble Stadium, 7 March 2020
YouTube preserves many wonderful treasures from the past, rarely more golden than when Eric Cantona bestrode the earth. And in almost all the epic goals that decorate this five-minute compilation, Eric is wearing a long-sleeved shirt.
At some point in the intervening quarter-century long sleeves, along with the Anglo-Italian League and black football boots, have disappeared from the game (though not racism, homophobia and intolerance of all kinds). And yet football is a winter sport, surely ill-suited to what is in effect a T-shirt (albeit with miraculous wicking properties). Have footballers become more hardy and virile?
‘No’ is the short answer. On the contrary, it can only be a matter of time before players take the field in overcoats. Sir Stanley Matthews would not have rolled his socks over his knees. He would not have worn cycling shorts except perhaps on a bicycle. If he ever played in gloves it would surely only have been as an emergency goalkeeper in the days before substitutes. As for tights, in Sir Stan’s day running around kept you adequately warm.
‘No’ is also the longer answer. Short-sleeved shirts enable players to get away with a bit of layering. Beneath the maillot du jour, the colour, design and detail of which will vary according to venue, occasion and time of year, players wear long-sleeved undergarments. This untidy habit is only slightly mitigated by the regulatory insistence that the visible long sleeves should match the colour of the outer short sleeves. Such under-sleeves do not, of course, bear any stripes or other patterning. They do not have a noticeable cuff. They aren’t always a particularly good colour match. They can, however, bear a logo or message to be revealed when a goal is scored. No doubt footballers think they are ‘edgy’.
Can clubs not afford two sets of shirts, then? Again, ‘No’ is the obvious answer. Clubs produce new strips at the drop of a hat and customise them to commemorate special events. In former times a player would have been offered a choice of short or long-sleeved shirt. His selection would then have been drawn from a hamper containing 20 freshly-laundered shirts: one short, one long-sleeved for each of the 10 outfield players. (According to legend Arsenal was an exception: there, the captain decided what sleeves the whole team would wear.)
Does any of this matter? Once again, no. But you can’t help feeling that it’s all part of football’s determination to milk as much revenue as it can from fans, perhaps in this case by getting them to buy twice as many shirts as they need.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
Barrow people must be heartily sick of seeing their town stereotyped. A couple of days before my visit Barrow happened to appear on the ITV News. The reporter was flogging a ‘Death of the High Street’ horse. Boarded-up premises and proprietors with stiff upper lips were prominent. If ITV found anything attractive to point their cameras at, the editors chose not to show it.
Where might they have looked? The snowy uplands of the Lake District, perhaps. Or the Walney Island seashore, barely 20mins walk from the town centre. To get there they’d have passed the Dock Museum and crossed a bridge with views Constable might have painted, in either direction. On the natural skyline, brooding promontories slope down to the sea; above the town’s streets, dramatic Victorian towers and spires soar.
Barrow is a town of sweeping vistas and unexpected
panoramas. In part this is a result of Victorian town-planning. The town
centre’s grid system carries the eye down otherwise ordinary streets to
horizons improbable distances away. A number of the principle thoroughfares are
so wide you’d wonder whether Baron Haussmann did some moonlighting here. They
tend to flow into each other at elaborately decorative roundabouts.
One such boulevard is Holker Street, which older readers
will recognise as identifying Barrow AFC’s ground in days of yore. Holker
Street runs from the railway station to the Progression Solicitors Stadium and
has pavements that must be 10 or 12ft wide. If these are not the widest
pavements expediting the movement of large numbers of people to or from an
English football ground, I’d be very surprised. (As if to compensate, the
Wilkie Road pavement running along the north side of the ground is so narrow
you’re more or less obliged to jaywalk.)
Barrow is also a town of unexpected squares, many of them
given over to car-parks. During the last war the German bomb-aimers were
notoriously inaccurate, hitting the town as often as the docks; if these
squares are the result at least some good came of it. Even where there are cars
there are generally also encircling trees. In the absence of cars, you’ll find grass
and an occasional memorial, often complemented by statuary, plaques or other
features. Barrow is a town of oddly shaped benches: some commemorative, some
sponsored, some just expressive of a bench-maker’s joie de vivre.
The statues also vary. In the middle of roundabouts and outside
the magnificent town hall there are conventional frock-coated Victorians.
Elsewhere monuments of different characters recall Barrow’s industrial,
nautical and sporting past. Emlyn Hughes is one of the first you’ll encounter
if you arrive by train.
In the centre of the shopping district a bronze grouping
called The Spirit of Barrow is particularly wonderful. From some angles the
four large shipyard workers have a Soviet-era look, and the words ‘Courage’,
‘Labour, ‘Skill’ and ‘Progress’ around the base reinforce that. But the quartet
suggests Pride in and Affection for the town and it lifts the spirits.
There’s more Barrovian baroque at the Dock Museum. This occupies an old dry dock close to the Walney Island bridge. On the day I visited, the Significant Form exhibition of the South Lakes Art Collective opened in the atmospheric space at the lower level of the dock. Above, there are displays celebrating Barrow’s history – natural and industrial. Not surprisingly, the models of vessels built in Barrow are sensational (and in the case of one submarine in particular, quite chilling). Equally sensational and not at all chilling was the flapjack in the museum café.
Notable buildings (aside from the Town Hall) include the one
now occupied by the Citizens Advice Bureau. This was formerly the bath-house
presented to the town in 1872 by Sir James Ramsden, the town’s first mayor and
the man most regularly credited with bringing industry and prosperity to it. He
also brought the most remarkable pair of mutton-chops.
Next door on Abbey Road is the Nan Tait Centre, now an arts
centre but originally in 1900 Barrow’s Technical School. Redbrick, terracotta
and vast panels representing Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Labor Omnia Vincit –
what more could you want?
Devonshire Dock Hall sounds as if it could be another
Victorian palais, perhaps where Music Hall breathed its last in 1914. It is,
certainly, one of the most prominent buildings in the town: it’s the six-pack
on steroids that butts into the town’s southern horizon like a theatre flat. Occupied
by BAE Systems, it is an indoor shipbuilding complex.
The sea-front is well worth a detour. Apart from anything
else it’s a pleasant walk (or a short bus ride). It takes you through
Vickerstown, a UK example of a phenomenon more common – and notorious – in the
USA: the company town. The provision of housing for employees sounds
enlightened but it could equally represent self-interest as companies sought to
discourage unionisation, offset wage rises by rent increases etc.
Along Central Drive, the Irish Sea soon fills the skyline. The
horizon looks as if it is ring-fenced by turbines: what you’re looking at is the
Walney Wind Farm, the largest offshore wind farm in the world according to the
BBC. Opinion will vary about whether it’s unsightly: I’d say No, and I’d offer
in support the decision of ITV not to show it. The turbines are far enough away
to be matchstick figures on the horizon and you could make a case for them
providing points of interest in the view.
The beach here is of pebbles. I’m told you’ll find sand
further along the front in both directions; behind Walney there are mud-flats
and to the east is Morecambe Bay. In other words, the variety of marine
environments is wide. And in the background is the Lake District. It’s quite a
* While I was taking a photograph of The Spirit of Barrow, a couple of buskers offered a spirited version of Wish You Were Here. I happily made a donation but I was less sure about the sentiment. Did I wish You were here? If I’d invited You to Barrow, in January, You might think the magic had gone. But I was guilty of the stereotyping decried at the top of this piece. I withdraw the remark and apologise. Don’t let anything discourage you from going to see Barrow, at any time of year – and go by train.
Barrow 2 Bromley 0 Progression Solicitors Stadium, 18 January 2020