15 February 2008

Robson's choice


So, with a crushing sense of inevitability, Bryan Robson has been relieved of his duties at Sheffield United. The big mystery for me isn't why it has only happened now, nor why they tried to keep him with some made-up paperclips role called Head of Football, but, very simply, why they hired him in the first place.

Robson fits more than adequately the slightly unscientific theory that the greatest players don't ever make great, or even good, managers. There are exceptions to this, of course - Franz Beckenbauer leaps to mind here. I can't think of many more right now though.

The man who won 90 England caps and played at three World Cups was, as a manager, relegated at Middlesbrough despite buying Juninho, Ravanelli and Emerson; in the same season he reached two domestic Cup finals without winning either (and should have gone out of the semi-finals of one to a club two divisions below, but for a rotten piece of refereeing) and ultimately needed to bring in Terry Venables to stave off more battles with the drop when money alone got his side promoted again. He lasted so long because his chairman, Steve Gibson, is simply the most patient and loyal in the game.

On he went to Bradford City, a side and club beyond anybody's help but he quickly left when he realised the club's ex-Premiership status was going to become an even more distant memory the longer he hung around.

His first club as a player, West Bromwich Albion, then took him on in an effort to stave off a seemingly unbreachable plummet out of the Premiership. A combination of immense luck with other results, inadequacies of three other teams and a little inspiration from showing Geoff Horsfield the gold watch he won for scoring the World Cup's fastest ever goal, earned Albion safety on the final day. For this he deserves credit, but don't believe for a moment that high-quality coaching had anything to do with it.

West Brom still went down the following year (with Robbo seen shouting "you f**king faggot" at Jose Mourinho when Chelsea visited the Hawthorns) and in the Championship they struggled, naturally, and they ousted him. He seemed damaged goods by this point, with surely nobody foolish enough to employ him again.

Then along came Sheffield United. Relegated despite Neil Warnock, not because of, they nonetheless parted company with a superb manager who bled for his club - and hired Robson. Fans elsewhere in Yorkshire, not least in the Hillsborough area, laughed heartily. Warnock, still a supporter of the Blades, must have been raging. Here we are in February, with Robson's underachievement and Sheffield United's myopia in appointing him resulting in a surreal summit in, naturally, Brussels (what was wrong with Killamarsh or Owlerton?) and the final parting of ways.

This isn't meant to be as harsh on Robson as it reads. He was a magnificent player, a courageous, spirited, resourceful midfield general who led by example, tackled with venom and scored wonderful goals. He is Manchester United's greatest captain and, to me, second only to Bobby Moore as England's finest leader on the pitch. The Captain Marvel tag, hung garland-like round his neck by Bobby Robson, was well-deserved and appropriate. We shared his joy at that record-busting goal in 1982 for which the watch was the prize; we agonised with him as his shoulder gave way four years later; we hoped the last-resort faith healer would be able to help him through his injury in 1990. As a player, he was peerless among Englishmen between 1980 and 1990, and his international record backs that up.

But as a manager, he's awful. It's a sad truth. I hope he now decides not to try it again. He doesn't need the money. If he stays out of the dugout now, it might just make us realise once again what an awesome player he was, first and foremost, because he deserves that. And clubs looking for managers can help by not going all dewy-eyed over his playing career if he declares his interest in their vacancy.

Round the blog

Some bits which recap past blog musings are all happening together.

First, we suffered Valentines Day. Despite my views on it, mine went painlessly. The Natural Blonde and I exchanged cards. She liked her flowers and Chinese takeaway; I got the ultimate in practical presents - a new set of computer speakers.

Romance...

Don't be alarmed or judgmental about the takeaway thing - her favourite meal is a Chinese takeaway on her own crockery while seated on her own couch watching her own telly. I was happy to oblige. Chicken in green peppers and black bean sauce for me, since you were wondering. Scrummy.

Later, I gave my speech. It went down quite well - the anecdotes about Carlton Palmer and dildoes got mild guffaws. They asked good questions and gave me a bottle of Teachers as a thank you. My signature is in the visitor's book, along with luminaries in football such as Peter Taylor (ex Hull City manager) and Jack Taylor (ex World Cup final referee and no relation). I used the Gary Lineker gag, and it got knowing chuckles. So, mild guffaws and knowing chuckles. I think when you are a not naturally funny person trying to be funny, mild guffaws and knowing chuckles are as good as it gets.

It's now early Friday, and despite his wishes for a Saturday service, Charlie Smith will be buried later today. Afterwards, a night out in Hull with Alex Lester, Simon Hirst and Paul Burnett, among others.

Serious showbiz going on here.

Feel free to click every damned link within this post. Go mad, it's the weekend.

14 February 2008

"It's F.O.G. - Foot Off Gas"

I'm impressed with Norwich. The section of the city near the football ground seems to have undergone a serious regeneration programme. We parked up, walked through a new expanse of smart flats and elegant shops and found our fellow bescarfed colleagues in the local Wetherspoons. We only had time for one drink, as finding the right parking place, according to the rules of the stewards and police, had left us with little time to stretch legs and activate livers prior to the kick off, but I liked the look of the area greatly as we walked, drank and then walked back.

Into the stadium then. At fourteen quid a ticket, it was a sell-out (Wolves charge twice as much as that, and more, for away supporters) and as the discount had been extended to away support (which was nice of them) we also took our full allocation and took every seat available. Both teams were on good runs - us losing just once in nine matches, Norwich undefeated in a dozen - so a mouth-watering occasion was ahead of us.

The match didn't disappoint and ended 1-1, not doing either of our chances of further Championship progress any harm whatsoever. I missed out on Delia's extremely tempting-sounding cheese, mushroom and garlic pie at half time because they'd run out by the time I reached the front of the queue, but the sausage rolls were very good.

So, all in all, a good evening. With one exception.

Would somebody controlling the purse strings in the Department of Transport please give the furthest eastern patch of the country a motorway? I found myself wondering whether the reason Norwich seems so pleasant and unspoiled is because nobody can actually get there.

From Hull, it should be straightforward. The sensible commuter crosses the Humber Bridge and heads downwards. Except you can't, as from north Lincolnshire down to Suffolk - a hell of a distance - it's all A-roads, of the type which involve multiple roundabouts, accident blackspots (Lincolnshire is awful for these), sharp bends, archaic speed limits and cameras, unlit areas, tractors and cattle grids. A lone driver without satellite navigation needs also to be able to read pre-printed directions while negotiating these numerous obstacles. And woebetide you if any of your bumpy, narrow thoroughfares are closed, as it is illegal to re-programme your satnav while at the wheel...

All of this, apart from the road closure bit (mercifully) happened to me the first time I ventured from Hull to Norwich. I took the nearest route to crow flight and very nearly didn't make it. And I was commentating, so it wasn't even Hull City I went to watch. So this week, my third visit in total to Carrow Road but the second one from Hull, I decided to take the longer mileage route which would be recompensed by easier roads (the M62, M18, A1 and A47 - all three-laned, 70mph byways except the latter) and therefore would still get myself and my willing four passengers to the game in time for a quick livener in that very Wetherspoons.

This was fine in theory, although I eventually switched the satnav off as it kept telling me to U-turn back to the Humber Bridge (even as we passed A1 junctions for Newark it was doing this) and then insisted I took every single turn off for some miles prior to the one at Peterborough, the A47, for which I actually had opted.

We got to the A47 in reasonable time and had 80 miles of it to traverse in order to reach Norwich. This was the longest 80 miles of my entire life. My companions, always tolerant on our long journeys, even regressed to the age of seven apiece as their patience snapped (apparently due to unduly numb buttocks) and, with about 20 miles left, asked: "Are we nearly there yet?"

I didn't blame them. I was bored, thirsty and unmotivated. This was because of the 80 or so miles we needed to cover, only about ten of them in total were dual carriageway. This is a major route that connects the easternmost area of the country, on the chin of England and including a major city in Norwich, to the rest of the nation, and yet the traffic is largely expected to trudge through in single file. As it was around 6pm by this point, it was also rush hour as the Midlands commuters made their way back to their idyllic homes in Swaffham or King's Lynn.

And let me throw in one final word.

Fog.

I can drive when it's snowy or icy, as our council tax has, in recent years at least, finally persuaded our local authorities that gritting our motorways and major roads is A Good Thing To Do whenever a threat of sharp or extreme weather and temperatures is predicted by meterological types. Driving rain is fine. Heatwaves? Not an issue.

But fog? You can't do anything about it.

You can put on your fog lights, of course, but these crucial attachments to the back of your vehicle are of no use in slower fog-bound traffic, as the pace of the movement means you can see what's in front of you most adequately. Sometimes they do more harm than good, as I would say more drivers than not forget to switch them off when out of foggy conditions, thereby blinding whoever is behind them.

Fortunately, the fog was only sporadically heavy in East Anglia and, indeed, when we got close to Norwich it had disappeared, thereby making the game not a doubt.

Driving home was different.

Fog lights are more vital on roads clearer of users at off-peak times, naturally, and that's what we had on the A47 on our return journey. But if you think driving on a mainly single-carriageway road, in the dark, in fogs of varying levels of thick (from quite thick to peasoup), with tiredness setting in, is in any way a doddle or joy, you're mad. Or sadistic.

I have a comfortable, warm and reliable car, and eating 80 miles up is something it can do in no time at all on a proper road at a proper hour in proper weather. But what is proper in our world had ceased to exist. Conversation among my passengers about the game we'd just seen was restricted and muted as each of us tutted and wondered out loud about how much road I could see and how quickly or otherwise I could get us all home.

We trundled along, feeling like the only car in the world at the time, while also feeling thanks to the density of this ridiculous meterological phenomenon that the world was about 14 square yards big. Once the local football traffic had died out, it was ages before we saw another car, and the hours passed with much fewer miles covered than we could have wished for. Each road sign which told us how many miles to Peterborough, and the hoped sanctuary of the A1, brought a collective groan from my compadres (aside from the one who had fallen asleep when we were still in Norwich) as we realised we had wished for more miles than we'd covered.

We stopped at a Shell garage about ten miles from the A1. I wanted fuel and was gagging for a cup of tea, as were the weary boys in the back. A very British scenario - British weather, British activity, British drink. The chap behind the counter, shouting through the kiosk shutters, served us with a smile and a degree of patience. What a dispiriting experience that must have been for him - a nightshift in a garage on a quiet A-road with no town nearby and such thick fog that fewer people would have decided to set out on their journeys. I'm really grateful, and even impressed, that he was polite to us as we each ordered varying drinks and refreshments and he ran around his empire collecting them.

The tea was good as I set off again. One by one the other boys fell asleep, waking only when I announced, not caring if I woke them briefly for my joy was so real, that we had finally reached the A1 - two and a half hours after getting out of Norwich. They were a little mumbly in their response but their gratitude was obvious, and now we had a lit road. It was still foggy, but there was light, literally, at the end of the tunnel.

The A1 has patches where it forces you to slow down to 50mph because of a nearby village, and the odd roundabout to cause you consternation, but largely you can do a straight run through and allow the pedal to go downwards a tad. But in fog, you have to make a decision now that you have open, lit road - do you try to get home quicker and defy the fatigue, relying on the fog lights on vehicles ahead to guide you round the bends etc, or slow down and make the journey more arduous but microscopically safer? Tough choice for some, but not me. The foot went down in the clearer areas.

Before too long, 70 miles had been eaten up and we were at the M18. Sorry if you feel like you're on the whole journey with us, and well done for getting this far, but it's quite symbolic that you are still reading this, considering what we went through...

The M18 is a crucial motorway for Hull folk when travelling south and back, as it means we can get to and from the A1 or M1 without having to do so at right angles via Leeds. So, it was our gateway to East Yorkshire as we reached it. James, Chris, John and Ian all expressed more gratitude for our arrival at the junction (Doncaster area) as it indicated that home was, at last, a possibility before daylight.

The M18, however, was chocka with roadworks. Now I hate roadworks, while allowing for their necessary evildom, but when they are restricting you to one lane on a three-lane motorway in fog, with "average speed cameras" primed to make you even more miserable, I get annoyed. The fog was so bloody thick here, I was fearful that I could actually give up, go to the hard shoulder and offer the lads two hours' kip (which is illegal on a hard shoulder anyway). But I ploughed on, and it felt like I really was ploughing, as the car gamely cut through the mass of woollen air which had, as we managed to conclude, done for the whole of eastern England, not just Norfolk.

Eventually, we got to the M62, the last great passage to home. Ten miles on here and we'd hit the A-road into the city. The fog remained dreadful, and our frustration was heightened by those rotten matrices at the side of the road which just flash the word 'FOG' at you. Honestly, what are they trying to tell us? That we don't know what fog is? That we would assume we'd been hit by a mushroom cloud and were all about to be systematically choked to death through our aircon systems? And, in fog this thick, we never saw the flashing signs until we were almost adjacent to them, thereby making the warning signs beyond pointless.

What would have been more useful would have been an alert via the matrices above the road on the A1 and M18 to tell us that the M62 was shut.

But no. That would be too sensible and helpful.

Had we known when on the M18, there was an alternative route via the M180, the Scunthorpe and Grimsby motorway*, which we could have used and then the Humber Bridge could have got us home, albeit three quid worse off than initially expected.

But the closure of a crucial bit of motorway was not deemed important enough at 1am for a mere matrix to tell common folk like us. So we were almost smiling as we crossed the large M62 bridge over the River Ouse at Goole, a junction away from our beloved A-road, as the cones started to fall into view.

Down to one lane, we thought. Oh well, it won't be for long. Then we ended up on the slip road.

I rather like the East Yorkshire towns of Howden, Gilberdyke and Newport. But at 2am, I really don't want to be driving through them in thick fog, dodging their pointless speed cameras. Not without good reason.

I never have found out why the motorway was closed. You don't close sections of motorway because fog is too thick. In such weather, you ask drivers to be ultra-careful. You don't prolong an already agonising journey. I was livid. I was close to tears. But, in a carful of men, I showed no emotion beyond a mild expletive and went through the diversion route.

Finally, we hit Hull. Text messages were swapped with other supporters, who had chosen different routes. Honestly, you could have gone four or five different ways, but the result was pretty much the same. The fog had significantly delayed everyone, but it became evident that an eastern motorway - Lincolnshire to Suffolk - would be most useful. Not for once a year football fans, but for everyone living in those areas. Lincoln, Skegness, Gainsborough, King's Lynn, Norwich, Diss, Ipswich - big, important, populated urban areas, and yet they have little more than a single carriageway, winding, unlit road - in all directions - to use when they need to see more of the nation. I admired Norwich City's supporters for selling out their ground for their game against us; the pocket of them which jolly it round the country for away games I admire even more.

I gamely drove round the western areas of Hull to drop each of the lads off at their respective addresses, and then headed home. I climbed into my lovely bed at 3am exactly. I'd taken the nightshift off because I thought I would be too tired to do it justice; I'm even more glad I did now, as I would have been more than an hour late for work, and the hardest thing any overnight presenter ever has to do is find someone at 3am with a) a mobile switched on; and b) a forgiving and helpful nature, willing to do a short-notice bit of deputising.

I'm sorry this has been such a long post, but it kind of fits the theme of that journey. If Hull City get promoted it'll be worth it.

*It turns out that route was closed too...

11 February 2008

"For Halifax and Calderdale - 106.2 Spark FM!"


Another photograph of me, in a bar, with some disc jockeys. These three lads, however, are also the closest friends I've ever had.

It was taken in Halifax, circa 2002. I'm second from the left. The four of us knew each other from the RSL project Spark FM, a mish-mash of a temporary station based at the Dean Clough complex in Halifax. It was a mish-mash because numerous mishaps befell it, but it survived its 28 day run because of a hard-working bunch of people.

I'll always be personally grateful to it, not just for introducing me to the chaps above, but also because the shows I did on it gave me the confidence to decide I could now really have a go at making a career from radio - and two months later, I was on Hallam FM in Sheffield and my life changed course.

I've done loads of RSLs over the years. They are Restricted Service Licences, handed out by the (former) Radio Authority (now Ofcom) either for community or fundraising reasons, or because they are considering advertising a licence for a full-time station in the area and want to gauge local reaction and the strength and keenness of potential bidders. The station I work for, KCFM, had an RSL in 2005 (which came from the KC Stadium), as did numerous other radio groups hoping to win the permanent licence.

Spark FM was a bit different. In the 1990s, RSLs were commonplace to emphasise that commercial radio could have a more localised and community feel to it. There are numerous community stations, which are run or regulated by councils and do not use RAJAR, around the country - examples being BCB in Bradford and Pure FM in Stockport. The Radio Authority decided, almost seemingly by random selection, that the town of Halifax could do with a temporary station and so Spark FM came along to have a go, as did others.

The chap on the right of the photo, Tim Morsley, was one of the directors of the Spark FM company, along with his then-girlfriend and a couple of other local radio devotees. I was living in Huddersfield at the time and had just done an RSL there (called Huddersfield FM, a station which then won a permanent licence for the town a few years later and is now corporately owned, broadcasting as Home FM) and had asked the man running this RSL if he knew of any others. He gave me Tim's number, and so began a friendship which continues to this day.

Tim is a music fanatic, and more specifically, a chart fanatic. He owns every single ever to reach the Top 40 (apart from Junior's Mama Used To Say which I managed to snap accidentally while taking it from its cover on Spark FM and never got round to replacing) and continues to update his collection depending on chart positions each week, as well as sending a weekly text message to loads of people in his phone with chart news, updates and predictions. He also knows the order in which every single chart-topper went to number one - so give him a date and he'll tell you who was there, when they initially got there and how long they stuck around.

He's also a talented radio DJ, having worked on Radio Calderdale (Halifax's hospital station) for numerous years, but for one reason or another, has never turned professional even though he has the skill to do so. He remains a decent, honest and unflappable bloke, now a proud father of two.

On the left is Matt Wilkins, the youngest of us - he was just 18 when Spark FM went on air but was irritatingly talented even then. Like me, he used his Spark experience to get on Hallam FM and we did the swing shifts between us for a while after. He went on to a very successful career in commercial radio - he did mid-mornings for Radio Aire, then joined BRMB to do evenings and earlies, before joining Galaxy in Leeds to host mid-mornings. He's now on the late show at Radio City in Liverpool, and he's still irritatingly good.

Next to Tim is Mike Earnshaw, of whom I have the best memories of Spark FM. Mike is a Lancashire lad, a Morrissey fanatic who aped his hero's hairstyle then (and still does) and presented radio programmes with exactly the sort of enthusiasm any heroic amateur presenter, as we all were, should. He did a couple of alternative shows a week, and would turn up at the studios, fag in mouth, with a huge pile of long players and 12" singles under his arm. He would then spread them out on the floor, occasionally stopping to pick one up and tell a story ("that's a test pressing of Spear of Destiny's Never Take Me Alive, isn't it great?") before going into the studio with just one of them. He'd then introduce himself and his first song ("Hi, I'm Mike Earnshaw and this is Killing Joke") before coming back into the office to stare at the impromptu carpet of vinyl, agonising over what to play next. A whole three hour show would be done like this.

Spark FM was a fantastic time. It was gloriously amateurish, and that's meant in a thoroughly nice way, as RSLs are meant to be like that. Even RSLs which have a long-term of goal of winning an Ofcom licence can have an amateur sound to them, due to the need to recruit volunteers and a lack of studio training time. This isn't true of all RSLs - most of the ones here in Hull all vying for the permanent prize were of a good quality - but back in the 90s when permanent licences were by no means a guarantee, they were there for the unambitious music lover or the young wannabe DJ to indulge in their passions and fantasies.

We had three rooms at the Dean Clough complex - one was a relatively big office, then there was storage at the back and slightly cramped but well-equipped studio. There was a minicab firm next door, who doubled up as our traffic and travel correspondents on the breakfast and drive shows.

There were some belting mishaps. The studio microphone was not wholly reliable at being switched off when the fader came down, leading to one indie presenter shouting "oh shit" after garbling his speech and fading out the mic, only for his expletive to go out on air. Another presenter was dismissed for playing a Public Enemy record with its expletives unbleeped at 7pm (and he was supposed to be doing a soul show); a third was tumbled for doing his show drunk and high; a fourth couldn't do his first couple of days on the afternoon show because he was on trial at Calderdale Magistrates Court.

Tim had used some of the budget to buy a cheap but reasonably produced package of jingles, one of which contained the name of every presenter recruited to do a programme, with the v/o just announcing the names in list form. This was made a little too far in advance to be accurate by the time the station launched, and after a fortnight you could play the jingle and after each name add a word or two of your own ("sacked"; "quit"; "never turned up"; "dead"; "who?"), while by the time the month was up, the jingle contained nobody on the weekday schedule except the breakfast show host, but people still played it - just so we could all fill the gaps.

Although I was only recruited a week or so before launch and was only given one show a week as a result (Saturday breakfast, which I enjoyed), I fortuitously ended up being the launch presenter at midnight. This was because only four of us were in the building at the time, and Tim's plans to be the first presenter himself were scuppered by an almighty row with his girlfriend on the telephone which ate into his preparation time. We launched a little earlier than planned due to technical mishaps elsewhere, and when Matt Wilkins was making his promotional trailer in the studio before launch, his request for "one of the shittier sounding" jingles to go on the end was, sadly, broadcast.

So, at midnight, a switch was flicked somewhere and I played a jingle. A thumbs-up from those standing next to a radio in the office confirmed we were on air. Then, as if to emphasise that cheese and predictability (of which I remain totally unashamed) were at the forefront of our minds, I began with The Final Countdown by Europe. We received our first telephone complaint during this record, and the caller wasn't complaining about the record, I should add. He was in Todmorden - a bit of Calderdale which is on the border with Lancashire - and was moaning that the reception didn't get to him very clearly.

My memories of that RSL are very fond. I was single at the time and was a little successful, though I say so myself, with one or two of the twentysomething ladies who did shows there - though when one of them punched me square in the face for no reason in front of Tim (and I mean it when I say no reason) I realised she was probably not ideal girlfriend material. We got some reasonable listener correspondence, with one bloke ringing every night without fail to ask for a dedication for the nurses and patients at Northowram Hospital. There was a jazz show one evening a week, hosted by two students who would bollock the listeners for not ringing up when they had a prize on offer. Two mad women called Audrey and Linda had a weekly programme which garnered the most callers for any one show when someone dared them to play Bang And Blame by REM for the whole of their two hours. And the community element was fulfilled - the station got newspaper publicity and good local guests, and tried at least to cover local news although I stopped them from reporting court cases when it was obvious there was no legal training among any of them...

Most of all, I have a lot to thank Spark FM for because it gave me three fantastic friends, whom I still see sporadically on nostalgic nights out in Halifax. They all attended my wedding - Tim gave the reading and Matt was one of the ushers. Mike didn't have a specific role on the day but was there nonetheless, and he did do his fine Jarvis Cocker impersonation in the evening.

Moreover, Spark FM gave me a career. I'd done better organised and less chaotic RSLs prior to that autumn of 1996 in Halifax, but only Spark made me realise that I could actually do this radio lark as a career. I've been thanking it ever since.

Halifax now has a community station entitled Phoenix FM which is run full-time thanks to European Grant funding.

10 February 2008

Just tell us a joke!

I'm sure they're all very nice (apart from Gervais), but these are ten people I have never found funny:-

1 - Ricky Gervais

2 - Gina Yashere

3 - Russ Abbot

4 - Dave Spikey

5 - Josie Lawrence (pictured)

6 - Frankie Howerd

7 - Alistair McGowan

8 - Kevin Day

9 - Tim Lovejoy

10 - Mark Steel

To me, Alistair McGowan has always been about great impressions without a great script. I always found Frankie Howerd interesting but he never made me laugh. And Kevin Day did once direct me to the lavatory at LWT, so he's not all bad...