Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Home and away

Last weekend's draw for the FA Cup semi-finals which saw Manchester United picked to play Tottenham Hotspur in the last four of the competiton has produced an anomaly, and not a little controversy.

Even though Spurs are officially the away team, they will in fact be playing at their current home ground, Wembley, the stadium used for semi-finals since 2008 and by them this season whilst their White Hart Lane home is being remodelled and expanded.

This situation wouldn't have arisen of course had the Football Association not devalued the competition by playing semi-finals at Wembley rather than at a large neutral club ground roughly equidistant between the two teams, such as Villa Park, which is what happened before the switch to the newly-opened national stadium a decade ago, but is of a piece with the other money-making schemes they have introduced: sponsorship of the competition by corporate bodies, executive seat packages which include all events at the stadium across a number of years, the moving of matches from three o'clock to early evening to maximise profits from global TV deals, with the travelling supporter low down on their priority list, all supposedly justified by the cost of construction, just as the later kick-off time is supposedly more "family friendly" (by not interrupting Saturday afternoon shopping) and finals on the same day as League matches, rather than later in May when the season had finished, were supposedly to help England prepare better for international tournaments, hence their stellar performances at them since 2008.

I know that in international and European club competitions, teams have played finals at their own home grounds, and that England won the World Cup at theirs, the old Wembley, in 1966, just as West Germany, Argentina and France have at theirs since then, but that is pretty much unavoidable when the tournament venue has been picked years in advance and the teams have travelled thousands of miles to play there, but apart from money there is no reason why Spurs should be handed home advantage rather than the tie being played at a neutral ground.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

It’s a No from me

I’ve just cast my vote on the so-called Revitalisation proposals which the CAMRA National Executive are putting forward, including those which seek to embrace “quality beers” beyond the cask ales that the organisation was founded to save in the early seventies.

Traditionalists/conservatives and progressives/modernisers have been battling each other in architecture, classical music, jazz, the Catholic Church, and about reform of counties, money and measurement, for much of the last century, and now inside CAMRA: you could call it the organisation’s “Clause Four” moment.

The sixties marked the height of this process: probably as a reaction to the militarisation and shared experience of suffering in World War II, revolutionary changes took place in each of those spheres, all predicated on moving with/keeping up with the times, attracting young people, engaging in renewal, modernisation, revitalisation, and stripping away what seemed outdated and unattractive.

I voted against the Revitalisation proposals and hope that if you're a CAMRA member you will too. Here are five reasons to vote against:

1. The proposals dilute the core thing CAMRA stands for, and introduce a new category, “quality keg”, or “craft keg” as it’s usually referred to, which – unlike cask beer/real ale – is not only subjective, but, as the official documents tacitly admit by describing cask beer as “pinnacle of the brewer’s craft” is an inferior product (that’s their opinion, by the way, not mine: while I’ve drunk nitrokeg stouts and keg bitters, I don’t think I’ve ever drunk craft keg, mainly because, and almost uniquely for a preservationist movement like CAMRA, it’s usually served in pubs which also have cask beer. But, having drunk non-bottle conditioned and canned beer from some of the breweries which produce it, I can imagine that at its best it’s as good as some cask beers).

2. They attempt to attract younger drinkers by including craft/quality keg when that may just be a passing fad (many modernisation projects, by attaching themselves to what is currently fashionable, soon come to look dated themselves when fashion and young people move on to something else, sixties clothes, music and architecture, including pubs, being examples of that, and only a small number of young people drink craft keg – most drink lager, spirits or wine, at home rather than in the pub, or not at all).

3.  Snobbery/ageism: underlying the proposals is I think the idea that the older, male, working-class drinker supping a pint of boring brown bitter produced by a national brewer in an estate, town centre or dining chain pub with a single hand-pump should not be championed in preference to younger, trendier drinkers sipping thirds of super-hopped IPAs, kettle sours and bourbon barrel-aged strong ales dispensed in keg form in specialist bars and beer-houses.

4. They will not in fact attract many young people not only to join CAMRA but to become active in the organisation: like many other organisations with large but inactive memberships and fewer, ageing volunteers (some of whom will leave the organisation if the proposals are approved), CAMRA is likely to become a more professional, HQ/full-time employee-led group in the future, with fewer, probably bigger, branches, and more emphasis on socials and festivals rather than the current democratic structures of branch and regional meetings. Online voting – as is now happening before the AGM – is likely to be extended, with virtual rather than “real life” events making more decisions.

I also agree with the point Phil at Oh Good Ale makes here, that what CAMRA needs to keep its local structures going is not necessarily more young people – although they of course should be welcomed – but just more new people, of whatever age.

5.  CAMRA, as the name suggests, is a campaign, formed to ensure the survival, and also quality, of real ales/cask beers (and, later, other traditionally-produced drinks, cider and perry), when it looked as though they might disappear in the wave of new, heavily advertised and promoted keg beers from the national brewers. Craft keg is a niche product which does not need a campaign to ensure its survival, which is not to say that there are others things CAMRA does and should campaign on: preservation of historic pub interiors, the level of tax imposed on beer and the rents pubcos charge their tenants, the hike in business rates and, perhaps most importantly, against the anti-alcohol lobby who are also vying for the Government’s ear.

As well as voting against Special Resolutions 1, 5 and 6, I also voted for Lynn Atack, the “traditionalist” candidate running for a place on the CAMRA National Executive.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The Welsh Codebreakers

I've just watched The Rugby Codebreakers, a documentary shown on BBC Wales last night about the Welsh rugby union players who were forced, as the saying had it, to "go North" and become professional rugby league players in Lancashire and Yorkshire when the union game was, at least officially, still strictly amateur.

Stories about the social ostracism imposed on those who converted from union to league are legion, as are those about the subterfuge scouts and directors of the Northern clubs were compelled to resort to when heading into Welsh rugby union territory to obtain the signatures of star players from the working-class mining villages of the South Wales Valleys and dockland districts of Cardiff - a history outlined again last night, with much of the archive footage coming from the 1969 documentary The Game That Got Away - but I hadn't quite realised the extent of the racism amongst the Welsh union's selectors which meant that up until the mid-1980's the chance of a black Welsh rugby union player being picked for the national side was effectively nil, all but forcing them, as some of their black South African counterparts also did, to accept the generous financial inducements being offered them by the top rugby league clubs in the North.

Wigan's legendary Welsh wing Billy Boston

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Lancashire League

The Rugby Football League, the governing body of rugby league in England, has announced that it is relocating its headquarters from Leeds to Manchester.

By the start of the 2021 World Cup, the RFL will base itself at the Etihad Campus in east Manchester, the sporting complex which already includes national cycling and squash venues, an athletics track and the two stadia where Manchester City's first, youth and women's teams play their home matches, where the England rugby league team will also train ahead of international fixtures.

Manchester being pretty much equidistant between the sport's two main heartlands, southwest Lancashire and west Yorkshire, with road and rail links between them going through the city, was the reason why the Magic Weekend, the annual event where a round of Super League matches is played across two days at the same stadium, was held here from 2012 to 2014, before moving up to Newcastle's St. James' Park when Manchester City began expanding their ground, towards a projected final capacity of 61,000. I can now see that event taking place here permanently, as well as perhaps the Super League Grand Final now played at Old Trafford (although the showpiece Challenge Cup Final is unlikely to head North again from Wembley, its home since the late 1920's), and international and World Club Challenge matches too.

Although they are unlikely to relocate permanently outside the boundaries of their city, I'd also like to see Salford rugby league club play a few matches at the 7,000 capacity Academy Stadium there (pre-season friendlies to start with, say), both because of the much better public transport services to it compared to those to their home ground at Barton-upon-Irwell (itself outside the historic boundaries of Salford) and as part of the wider missionaty effort to extend the appeal of the game beyond its traditional heartlands.