Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Alphabet Lottery

As years go, 2012 hasn't been a bad one from a sporting perspective. So it was always going to be interesting to see who got what when it came to the traditional New Year's Honours announcement.

Whatever your opinion of the honours system and whether it should exist at all, it gives a reflection of what the "establishment" thinks of the recipients achievements during the year.

The higher up the MBE-OBE-CBE-Knighthood-Peerage ladder you appear, the "greater" your achievement is regarded as being.

Some honours were fairly obvious. Nobody would deny that Bradley Wiggins career achievements, both on the track and on the road, are not worthy of a knighthood given the precedent set by giving one to Sir Chris Hoy.

Likewise Dave Brailsford, who has revolutionised British cycling with his approach to the sport making it the most successful track cycling nation in the world.

Staying on the cycling theme, Sarah Storey's achievements both as a Paralympic cyclist and previously as a swimmer mark her out as being more than worthy of a Damehood. And this is where things start to get a little complicated and in my view, discriminatory.

Let me get this straight. I have no axe to grind with Jessica Ennis. She's done well for herself, winning titles at major Championships. Being a multi-eventer is the most difficult challenge for an athlete. She was under immense pressure heading into London 2012, and coped with it admirably to win gold. She was rewarded with a CBE, same as Mo Farah who achieved something only six other men in history had achieved - the 5 and 10k double.

Let's compare their career achievements with our next recipient of the CBE.

Six time Olympic gold medallist.
Six time World Championship gold medallist
Six time London Marathon Winner
Four time Great North Run winner
Winner of the New York Marathon

No offence to either Ennis or Farah, but I don't think you can possibly say that their career achievements are even close to being on the same scale.

The winner of all these honours is a guy called David Weir. So why isn't Weir getting a Knighthood?

Pretty simple really. He's in a wheelchair. This, in the eyes of those responsible for dishing out the honours, clearly diminishes his achievements somehow.

Much was made after the massive success of the Paralympics about the terrific example set by the athletes in their triumphs over personal adversity, and how it would change the UK's attitude to disability and disability sport in particular.

While it may have had a short-term impact, it appears that warm glow has worn off and the disabled and disability sport have returned to their normal place in the public consciousness.

More's the pity.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"On Starbucks, On Google, On Amazon etc..."

As someone working within the tax industry, I've watched the feeding frenzy developing over the "tax avoidance" activities of major multinationals trading in the UK with a mixture of bewilderment and laughter.

Starbucks decided to try and mitigate some of the bad publicity recently by offering to pay an additional £20m over to the UK exchequer, as some sort of goodwill gesture. In the best traditions of the well-advised, they of course stopped short of admitting any liability or malfeasance in their tax affairs.

They will also cease to use what is referred to in the trade as "transfer pricing" arrangements with their US parent company. These are arrangements common to all multinational groups of companies, where one part of the business in one country buys a product or service it needs from another part based elsewhere. It might be a part or a piece of equipment, or something you can't lay your hands on like the rights to use a trademark.

While the purchaser gets to claim the cost of whatever it is they have bought as an expense in their accounts, the seller has to show that income in their accounts and will pay tax in their jurisdiction on whatever profit they make.

These sort of arrangement are commonplace and are perfectly legal, indeed HMRC has a whole team of people dedicated to making sure these sort of arrangements are not being abused by the setting of artificially high or low prices between parts of the same group.There are plenty of British companies out there using transfer pricing to reduce their tax liability in one part of the world or another.

If Starbucks in the UK stops making these payments to its US parent, it will make more of a  profit and potentially pay UK Corporation Tax. Starbucks in the US however, will make less of a profit as it no longer has this income stream, and therefore pay less US tax. The net effect on Starbucks the worldwide group is going to be absolutely minimal.

Let's be clear here. Starbucks have, based on the facts that are in the public domain, done absolutely nothing wrong. Once the payments they make to the US parent company, which they are entitled to claim as a deduction, are taken into account they make a loss on their UK operations.

So what of this £20m they are paying over the next two years then? It's not tax, as they don't owe any based on their accounts as submitted. HM Revenue & Customs have said that they are not set up to accept "voluntary" payments, just payments of actual tax liability. Indeed if you overpay your Corporation Tax to HMRC, they will usually just send you a cheque back in the post.

So presumably, when Starbucks attempt to pay it, HMRC will be unable to accept it. If it does, this sets an uncomfortable precedent for public opinion - rather than fact - being what dictates how much tax an entity should pay.

That Amazon and Google have got sucked into this furore shows how wide the lack of understanding of their tax affairs actually are. Neither company is based in the UK. When you order something from Amazon, you are not making a purchase from a UK company. When you click on a link or advert that generates income for Google, that income is not going to a UK company. So why should they have to pay UK Corporation Tax on their profits, rather than tax in the country in which they are based?

Don't like it? Don't buy from Amazon and don't search on Google. Use a UK based company, if you can find one.

Politicians through the ages have used tax as a tool of social or economic engineering. This time, before lighting the torches and storming the castles of the rich and powerful they might want to stop and consider whether there is any legal or ethical basis for what they do. Otherwise, the UK is going to become a much less attractive place for multinationals to do business, and that's in no-one's best interests.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Please Give Generously

This is an urgent appeal on behalf of the British Red Tops.

You may have seen in the media recently about the impact Hurricane Norman has had on the Fourth Estate. Lasting thousands of hours and causing millions of pounds of expenditure, Hurricane Norman had serious and far reaching consequences on the future of the British press.

This is Rebekah.

Prior to Hurricane Norman, she was one of the most powerful women in the British media. Norman has left her with no job, no hope, no future. She may be forced to sell one of her horses just to meet the mortgage payments on her big house in the Cotswolds.

Rebekah is not alone.

There are dozens more like her, struggling to survive in the aftermath of Hurricane Norman. These people face being deprived of their most basic human rights:

The right to bribe police officers for sensitive, confidential and potentially prejudicial information.

The right to access the emails, text messages and voicemails of anyone they think might be newsworthy.

The right to manipulate politicians into setting standards and legislation in a way that best suits their needs, under threat of withdrawing their support otherwise.

If you believe that the likes of Rebekah should have these basic human rights, please give generously.

Send a cheque, made payable to Murdoch, Dacre and Co to:

Save The Scumbag
Murdoch Towers
A Tax Haven

On behalf of Rebekah, Andy and others like them, thank you.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Big Society...and other Fairy Tales

You remember the "Big Society", right?

It was one of those soundbites the current government liked to throw around way back when, up there with "we're all in this together".

As time has passed and policies have been unveiled however, it's become apparent that what "Big Society" actually means is "don't blame us, it's your own fault". It's the ultimate smokescreen, with "choice" being used to deflect blame away from local and central government.

Don't like the way your child's school is being run? Don't blame your local authority, talk to the philanthropist who paid for it turning into an Academy and can now set the curriculum to suit their own political or religious agenda.

Not getting a good enough service from your local NHS? Don't blame the government, talk to your GP who has suddenly found themselves in charge of a multi-million pound commissioning budget that they have no clue how to manage.

Miffed that your local police force doesn't have the resources it needs to fight crime effectively? Not the Home Secretary's fault, blame your local Police and Crime Commissioner. After all, you voted for them (or more likely, didn't).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that every aspect of our lives needs to be micromanaged by politicians. "Choice" and "small government" should not be dirty words.

At every policy trick and turn lately, the connect between local and national politicians, the services they provide and the users of those services is getting weaker and weaker. Firewalls are being put in place so that when services fail, the politicians can simply wash their hands of the whole mess and point the finger back at us, the public who voted for them in the first place.

There is some good news on the horizon however. In a couple of years, you'll get your democratic opportunity to give your opinion on the way the country is being run. Don't miss the opportunity to show the coalition just how a Big Society can really work together to sort out its problems.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

It Wasn't Me...

So sayeth Bart Simpson and Shaggy, anyway. The reggae singer, not the Scooby Doo character.

Yesterday, the BBC Director General George Entwistle decided that even though the whole Saville/McAlpine/child abuse mess started before he was even in the job and he has no direct editorial control over Newsnight, he should take the bullet for the BBC's collective mistakes.

It was the act of an honourable man, throwing himself in the way of the criticism his staff and his organisation have received of late in the hope that by doing so it would free them to carry on doing their jobs out of the spotlight.

He could easily have sought out those directly responsible for the editorial errors that led to this mess and make an example of them. Nobody works to their potential when they are looking over their shoulders in fear however, so Entwistle decided that if anyone was going to go, it should be him.

Contrast if you will with those who are running newspapers in the UK. The phone hacking scandal centred around News International publications. Ultimately, the newspapers were under the control of Rupert Murdoch and his son James.

Both have consistently denied responsibility for the actions of those below them in the managerial chain, many of whom have subsequently either fallen on their swords or been dismissed. The Murdochs justified their stance on the basis that as heads of such a massive organisation they couldn't possibly have day to day control or knowledge of how their businesses operated.

Back in December 2010 when Bristol landscape architect Jo Yeates went missing, the UK newspapers were almost unanimous in pointing the finger at her landlord Christopher Jefferies, on no more scientific a basis than "he looked a bit of a wrong 'un".

Jefferies brought successful libel actions against several newspapers for the allegations aimed at him. Both The Sun (a News International publication) and The Daily Mirror were also found guilty of contempt of court for publishing information that could have prejudiced a fair trial.

All in all, a not particularly glorious period in the history of the British press.The number of editors, directors and CEOs of newspapers who resigned as a result of the potentially prejudicial errors in their reporting of the Yeates case? Zero. Not one.

And yet, some of those same editors and CEOs have been driving the agenda of blame aimed at the BBC over recent weeks. Hypocrisy doesn't even begin to describe it.

Clearly some of them could have benefited from taking lessons in corporate responsibility from George Entwistle. It is arguably they who should have been spending their weekend considering their position, rather than him.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Close The Dorries On Your Way Out

Politics hates you.

It does. Really. No matter how much you try to engage with it, politics would much rather you just pissed off and left it alone to run your life for you.

Once upon a time, in order to get involved with Parliamentary politics you needed to be landed gentry, or a decorated general, or a wealthy industrialist. The agenda you pursued when you got there was most likely to be one of preserving your own position and feathering your own financial nest.

Over time, things changed. Politics became no longer something that only rich people had the time and money to get involved in. The middle classes, trade unionists, even athletes and television news reporters could get into Parliament. A good thing, making the Lower House more representative of the population as a whole.

Agendas changed too. Politics became no longer about feathering your own nest, and more about feathering the nests of those who were most likely to vote for you so they would do it again.

Events of recent weeks however, would suggest that we have gone full circle.

First we had Denis MacShane, not only getting caught with his nose in the trough but having the balls to then try and blame it on a "co-ordinated BNP vendetta" based on his work campaigning against far-right groups in the UK and Europe.

MacShane claimed £20,000 per year for the costs of running an office, which was actually based in his garage at home. He invented a fake general manager to sign off on purchases, and submitted 19 false invoices designed to mislead the Parliamentary authorities.

This was just the latest of a range of expenses claims by MPs which have come to light indicating just how far some are prepared to "play" the expenses system. A system which takes public money and distributes it so MPs no longer have to rely on their own personal wealth to fund their own constituency activities.

No sooner was that off the front pages, than Conservative MP Nadine Dorries decided that her political causes and career would be much better served appearing on an ITV "reality" show than working in Parliament or in her constituency.

Dorries will be paid up to £40,000 by ITV for taking part in the show, filmed in Australia. Her rationale for abandoning her day job and the interests of those who voted for her, is that the show will enable her to reach a much wider audience than her views would get in the UK.

I can only imagine she hasn't seen the show, however. A whole day can be edited down into 10-15 minutes of "highlights". If Nadine's pronouncements on economic policy or the abortion limit make those highlights, the producers have clearly done an awful job of picking their cast.

She's not the first serving MP to do such a thing. George Galloway was MP for Bethnal and Bow when he entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2006 and made an enormous tit of himself in the process. Certainly nobody remembers anything about his politics from his appearance on the show.

Dorries did not seek approval from her party to appear on the show. Neither did she even go to the bother of informing her own constituency office, who found out about it in the same way the rest of us did.

She just decided to take four weeks off work, expecting of course to be paid throughout, to pursue her own interests. Treating your employers and customers like that in any other walk of life would probably lead to you appearing on the dole queue shortly after.

Denis MacShane and Nadine Dorries are just the two latest examples of the contempt with which the modern professional politician and politics in general treats the public.

When those in Westminster start bemoaning how disengaged people are from the political system, they would do well to hold up a mirror to themselves. They may well see the answer right there.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Sound Of Silence

Much has been said elsewhere about what Mark Clattenburg might or might not have said to upset the Chelsea club and its players last weekend. The allegations that he used language of a racial nature will go through their due process, so I'll stay away from offering comment until they have done so.

Had Clattenburg been in charge of a high profile, televised game in either code of rugby however, this incident would already have been put to bed.

Both rugby union and rugby league allow their referees to be miked up and for their comments and instructions to players to be broadcast. It's a useful tool for those who may be relatively new to the game, as by listening to the referee they can understand why he may have given a particular decision which might otherwise have not been apparent.

Occasionally the odd bit of foul language might end up being broadcast when a player forgets that the microphone is there, but it can usually be dealt with through a swift reminder from the referee that their expletives are being broadcast and an apology from the commentators.

Football also has its referees wired for sound. The referee, his assistants and the fourth official can all hear each other and communicate during the game. Yet in football, this is very much a closed circuit. These communications are not recorded, nor are they monitored by anyone other than the four officials involved. They are certainly not broadcast live to the viewing public.

So why not? Football has no problem putting effects microphones on the side of the pitch so it can pick up all manner of inappropriate noises coming out of the stands. It has no issues with shoving microphones under the noses of its players and coaches immediately after games.

So what is this dirty little secret that football is trying to hide from its adoring public?

It is simply, this.

Football is out of control. 

Neither FIFA, nor the national associations, nor the referees at the elite level have any control over the way players behave on the field of play. Sure, they might give the occasional high-profile target a ban for something or other just to make it look like they've got a tight grip of the reins, but the reality is that the players and coaches are a multi-billion pound juggernaut with nobody at the wheel.

For a sport so reliant on the commercial goodwill of sponsors and broadcasters, that's one evil twin that needs to remain firmly locked in the attic. Exposing companies that pump billions into the game to what it is they are actually endorsing could be an unpleasant wake-up call to many.

Football, argues its governors, is a high pressure, physical sport where "industrial" language is often used in the heat of the moment. Anyone who believes that this should somehow set it apart when it comes to broadcasting the sounds of the game might want to consider how it is the oval ball games manage. They are certainly no less intense and definitely no less physical than football, yet their players and coaches behave in a respectful manner towards the officials and opponents.

Were I in the shoes of Mike Riley, head of the Professional Game Match Officials - effectively, the referees union - I would be pushing for one game to be recorded and then aired unedited with the referees microphone turned on. Put it on after the watershed so you don't have to bleep anything, and let the general public see exactly what his members have to put up with on a weekly basis.

It is time that someone opened the door to the attic and exposed football's dirty little secret to the world. Only then will its attitude change.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hit The Reset Switch

The economy is in the crapper. Savings have to be made. There's no money to carry on as we are.

I get it.

At some point however, someone needs to step in front of the efficiency juggernaut and say "enough".

The Metropolitan Police have been tasked with saving around £500m over the next three years from their budget by the London Mayor's office. As part of these cuts, the Met is looking at its estate, and in particular which buildings it might be able to get rid of. All good so far.

Part of the plan includes moving out of New Scotland Yard, an old and inefficient building with a 1960s infrastructure, and moving into smaller new premises in nearby Whitehall. The £11m a year it costs to run the current building would be significantly reduced.

Now we get to the hard bit. Also up for sale are five police stations in various London boroughs. The axe is also hovering over a large number of the 136 front counters the Met provides for Londoners as a first point of contact. The Met's proposed solution to this reduction in places where you can find a police officer when you need one?

Neighbourhood teams to be based in popular locations, such as shopping centres or supermarkets.

Presumably these will have to be shopping centres and supermarkets that are open around the clock, in the same way that current police stations and front counter services are. Or is being a victim of or witness to a crime something that only happens during Waitrose opening hours these days?

To adapt a Victorian music-hall song, if you want to know the time ask a member of Tesco Express staff to point you to the nearest police officer. They will be somewhere in aisle four, eyeing the doughnuts.

On a similar note, Leeds City Council have announced that their children's centres and child welfare teams will be closed between Christmas Eve and January 2nd in order to save money. The anticipated savings - the grand sum of £10,000.

Christmas, and the run up to it, is widely recognised as a stressful time. This is enhanced for the poorest families with children, who struggle to deal with the expectation and subsequent disappointment created by a consumer society and peer pressure. Having a trained professional that you can go talk to or somewhere that your children can go to let off steam represents a significant safety valve.

If the removal of these services contributes to the breakdown of one single family unit and the placing of children into local authority care, the £10,000 "saved" is going to be swallowed up in no time at all.

Again, I appreciate that public bodies have to wise with how they spend their money through economic mismanagement not of their making. However, cuts in the quality of service in vital areas such as policing, health and social care in a mad rush to balance the books are cutting off our collective noses to spite our faces.

How much money, for example, is being spent on elections for Police Commissioners that nobody really wants or needs that could otherwise have been devoted to front-line policing?

It's time to stop, collaborate and listen - as Vanilla Ice would say - and work together to bring about a change in the way our society prioritises the money it spends. The current path of slashing services to the bone is simply unsustainable, and benefits no-one.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Beyond The End Of Your Nose

Don't get me wrong, I love watching Champions League football.

Having been brought up in an era when the only football on TV was highlights of the top division on Match Of The Day or The Big Match plus the occasional England game on Sportsnight, I love the fact I can now pick which game I want to watch on any particular match day.

If I'm going to make the effort to watch however, would it kill those getting handsomely paid to commentate or provide analysis on games to put some effort into learning about the teams they're going to be telling me about?

Everyone (some more than most, naming no names Chris Kamara and Paul Merson) occasionally falls over a difficult to pronounce foreign name. It's a high profile job, you're doing a lot of talking and sometimes, your tongue and brain appear to be on different wavelengths.

Repeatedly getting it wrong though, simply because you've not put the effort into finding out how to say it properly in the first place, is just lazy.

That's not what irks me the most however. That particular title is reserved for the assumption (particularly among Sky's commentators and pundits) that any team which does not play in the Premier League or La Liga (coincidentally leagues that feature heavily in Sky's sporting portfolio) is somehow automatically inferior and a plucky underdog.

I watched last night's Ajax-Man City game open mouthed in large parts, primarily at the tone set by Martin Tyler's commentary. I appreciate that City are a team expensively assembled from across the globe. I also appreciate that Ajax play their domestic football in a league with much less money, and are reliant on their legendary youth system to provide them with a stream of players they can sell on at a profit.

Yet for probably 75 minutes of the game, despite Ajax looking the much better and more confident side in possession, the tone of both Tyler and Gary Neville was one of patronising praise for them at least having a go at mixing it with their illustrious opposition. All City needed to do it seemed was put their mind to it, and their perceived superior strength, size and technical ability would overrun the noble efforts of the home side, surely?

In the same group yesterday, Borussia Dortmund beat Real Madrid. This was described in Sky's summary post-game as being the "shock of the night", presumably on the basis that those who work for Sky get to see a lot of Madrid through their La Liga coverage, and next to sod all of BVB given the Bundesliga is on rival broadcaster ESPN.

Dortmund, it may surprise them to learn, have won the Bundesliga for the last two seasons. Last season, they complete the league and DFB-Pokal double. In a traditionally strong footballing nation such as Germany, this is no small beer. In doing so, they broke the Bundesliga record for the most points in a season. Their team is littered with internationals.

That they beat Real Madrid, at home, by the odd goal out of three, shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. At least not to anyone with even the most vague knowledge of European football.

Still, to give the top sides in German, Dutch or other European leagues their due might just threaten Sky's frequently insecure boasts that the Premier League is "the best league in the world", and we can't be having that now, can we?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A little bit of politics

Yes, I know it's a diversion from my normal output, but variety is the spice of life and all that.

Back in 2001, Jo Moore - special adviser and press officer to Stephen Byers in the Department for Transport, Local Government and The Regions - found herself in hot water for suggesting that 11 September was a "good day to bury bad news". Earlier in that day the attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon had ensured that any domestic news was going to be well down the media's list of priorities.

When her e-mail was leaked, Moore found herself in an untenable position and was eventually shown the door. She won't have been the first special adviser to make such a suggestion, nor will she have been the last. Just the one who unfortunately got caught out taking advantage of a tragic situation.

Events of the last couple of months have created a news climate that any budding Jo Moores in Conservative Central Office must have seen as manna from heaven.

On 1 October, five year old April Jones went missing from her mid Wales home. The following day, Ed Milliband stood up and gave a well structured, inspirational speech at the Labour Party Conference. Guess which was the lead item on most news outlets? Rightly so, a missing child takes priority every time, but the Conservatives couldn't have scripted it better if they had tried.

The same week, ITV screened its documentary allegations that Sir Jimmy Saville had been a prolific paedophile and abuser of children during his years working for the BBC. In the three weeks since, the BBC has attempted to devour itself from the inside with the rest of media circled around egging it on.

In the meantime, all sorts of muddled thinking has been emerging from the government and sliding into mainstream media obscurity.
  • Energy Minister Ed Davey has contradicted the Prime Minister on energy tariffs.
  • Developers have been given the green light to renege on deals for affordable homes
  • The "shares for employment rights" announcement, enabling firms to offer potentially worthless shares in themselves in exchange for protection against employment law
  • At best misleading, at worst downright false statements about the availability of clinical trial data for drugs the NHS is spending millions of pounds on
  • Plans to put core elements of the Probation Service out to private tender
It has been left to the bloggersphere and social media to pick up and run with these stories, while the mainstream media contents itself with lascivious muck-raking and speculation on who might have known what about whom thirty plus years ago.

Just an additional thought on the last one of those bullet points. One of those considered most likely to tender for Probation Service work is G4S. You remember them, right? They used to be called Group 4 Security, before their name became synonymous with losing prisoners in transport or at court.

In recent months they have managed to muck up recruiting for security personnel at the Olympics to the extent the armed forces had to bail them out. They sent a private security contractor to a war zone, who subsequently shot and killed two colleagues despite warnings about his mental state and past behaviour. Their staff physically tipped a heavily pregnant woman out of a wheelchair in an immigration centre, putting her and her unborn child at serious risk of injury according to an independent report.

I wouldn't trust them to look after my pets while I am on holiday, yet they could very soon be responsible for ensuring that re-offending rates in your neighbourhood come down. Hands up everyone who has confidence in their ability to deliver?

Still, who cares about efficiency and delivery in public services when can dissect them and flog their vital organs to your private sector donors and partners eh?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Take a deep breath...

Up until last night, I was wondering what I might possibly have to talk about.

Thanks to the actions of a significant minority of fans at Hillsborough, and one idiot in particular, there wasn't really much doubt when I woke up this morning.

I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of the behaviour of those involved - the pitch invaders, the vandals, those who think it's funny to sing songs about child abuse allegations or murders. Not much left to say on those things, we've heard and seen them all before.

What worries me equally is the insistence of the media on sticking a microphone under the nose of both managers within minutes of such highly charged incidents, desperately seeking a reaction they can splash all over their pages or radio shows.

Dave Jones was falsely accused 12 years ago of child abuse. Up there with rape and murder as possibly the most hideous thing you can accuse another human being of doing. Since being cleared, he's been in the firing line most weekends for what passes these days as terrace "humour". Not surprisingly, after the game last night he was upset, angry and ready to let rip. His side have thrown away a lead, his keeper has been assaulted and he has been loudly and persistently abused from the stands.

So what happens? Does he get to go away, take an hour or two to gather his thoughts and think about what he wants to say? No, because the game was on live TV he immediately gets shoved in front of a wall of sponsors hoardings and asked for his opinion on events not just on the pitch but off it too.

Not surprisingly, he said some things that have attracted a lot of attention. He described a section of the visiting support as "vile animals" and suggested that Leeds shouldn't be allowed to take fans to away games if that's how they behave. He was angry at Neil Warnock's insistence that his players go over and applaud the travelling support at the end of the game, perceiving that as praise and justification of their behaviour.

Warnock for his part condemned the actions of the fan who ran onto the pitch, but also said he "didn't mind the atmosphere". He also insinuated that Kirkland had been faking, accusing him of "going down like a tonne of bricks". Leeds United have issued a statement condemning the assault, but saying nothing about the tasteless chanting of a large section of their support towards Jones.

As I understand it, if Jones had declined to give a TV interview or attend the post-match press conference he could have faced action under the Football League's disciplinary procedures.

While I appreciate the need for the media to get reactions from those involved in games, and that nobody at an evening kick-off wants to be still sat there at midnight waiting for someone to have calmed down enough to give a statement, is it really appropriate to ask a clearly angry man exactly what he's thinking and then be shocked at the responses he gives?

It is time the LMA took action to protect their members and negotiated a cooling-off period for interviews after games, rather than letting the multi-headed media beast that funds professional football call the shots. Say half an hour after the final whistle, time to give managers (and players) the opportunity to think about what they want to say and how they want to get their point across.

What we have at the moment, particularly after the events during the 90 minutes at Hillsborough, is something akin to a bear pit where we poke someone for our amusement until they snap. Time football got a bit more Newsnight and a bit less Jeremy Kyle.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Great Expectations

We expect a lot out of our sporting heroes.

We expect them to be at the top of their game every time they step onto the field of play.

We expect them to be paragons of virtue and role models in their personal lives.

Most of all, we expect them to be bulletproof. To be able to absorb whatever life throws at them and come out swinging.

When it comes down to it however, they are only human. The same as the rest of us. They have the same feelings, the same emotions, the same sensitivities.

A professional sports changing room isn't always the place you imagine a bunch of people sitting around, talking about their feelings. So things get bottled up, get taken home into their private lives until they explode, usually in a splattering of tabloid headlines.

For the likes of Tony Adams, solace came in the form of drink. Others turn to drugs, or gambling, or affairs as routes of dealing with the mental strain their work puts upon them.

In some cases, these coping mechanisms aren't enough and sportspeople take their own lives. Former German international goalkeeper Robert Enke stepped in front of a train at the age of 32 after struggling with depression since the death of his daughter.

On 26 September 2010, former Great Britain rugby league international Terry Newton took his own life. Nobody who came into contact with him in a professional environment would ever have considered him to be mentally "weak" or "soft". He was very much the tough guy on the field, sometimes crossing the line of legality.

At the time of his death, Newton was suspended from the game he loved as a result of a doping offence. The work life that kept him focused had been taken away. His post-mortem found traces of cocaine, amphetamine and prescription anti-depressants.

Help that wasn't available to Newton is now at hand however, through the State Of Mind campaign ( The programme was established in 2011 with the aim of improving the mental health, well being and working life of rugby league professionals and communities.

Developed with mental health professionals, it offers sessions and advice on practical ways to look after your mental health, irrespective of what you do for a living. Ambassadors for the programme include Adrian Morley, Andrew Johns, Paul Merson and James Wade. Word is clearly spreading across sports and across communities that thinking about and looking after your mental health is not a sign of weakness.

Just knowing that there is someone you can talk to, or techniques that you can use yourself to help improve your mental health will save lives. Those behind State Of Mind deserve a massive vote of praise for the work that they do.

By encouraging the sporting heroes and role models of young people to talk about mental health, they will hopefully help improve attitudes around it for future generations. Take the first step yourself, and think about your attitude next time you read about well-paid professional sportspeople who seem to have it all talking about stress and depression. After all, they are only human.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My Game Is Better Than Yours...


Rubbish, isn't it? Full of overpaid nancies who fall over as soon as look at each other, racists who constantly abuse each other and watched by baying mobs of knuckle-draggers.

Rugby League.

Now there's a proper game. Working class. Salt of the earth. Fans mingling together before, during and after games. Real tough guys knocking seven shades out of each other then shaking hands and going for a beer afterwards.

Last weekend, the actions of a couple of individuals brought the perceived gap between the two sports into sharper focus.

Luis Suarez was, quite rightly, roundly criticised for this feeble attempt to con his way to a penalty against Stoke City. Not the first time Suarez has been in trouble for what the football authorities call "simulation", or what you and I would call cheating.

Meanwhile, Paul Wood of Warrington Wolves was left to count the consequences of this particularly nasty knock to his "gentleman's area". Wood has found his story spreading from New York to Sydney as media outlets pick up on his bravery.

The two incidents have been held up beside each other as an example of how footballers are indulged poor behaviour that would not be stood for in other sports. As it was during the Olympics, footballers are taking a media kicking that even Ron "Chopper" Harris never dished out to the trickiest winger.

Not exactly the full picture though. Dig a little deeper, and you find that football doesn't have an exclusivity contract when it comes to badly behaved sportsmen or clubs.

Stuck away on the inside pages of the local press was the story of a couple of Castleford Tigers players accused of being part of a group which assaulted three men in Santa fancy dress in the early hours of Christmas morning. One of their number, a first team player of some promise, is back in court next month facing charges of affray and GBH. If found guilty, he faces a custodial sentence.

In April 2010, Melbourne Storm were found to have breached the NRL salary cap. No scandal there you might think, these things happen - accounting oversights and all that. Except that Melbourne got around the cap by maintaining a completely separate set of false accounting records. These got shown to the salary cap auditors, while the real ones remained hidden. In other words, they cheated.

There's a saying about people in glass houses. Some rugby league fans quick to throw stones in football's direction may be wise to consider just how big their windows are before they do.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Who's The £&@! In The Middle?

Referees. Umpires. Match officials.

Call them what you want, there's no game without them.

Sometimes though, you do wonder what would make someone want to take it up as a career, or even a hobby for that matter.

A couple of weeks ago, Mark Halsey had the temerity to send off Liverpool midfielder Jonjo Shelvey in his side's highly-charged local derby against Manchester United. Halsey has only recently returned to top flight refereeing after recovering from cancer, while his wife Michelle continues to undergo treatment for the disease.

Without minutes social networking sites were buzzing. Nothing unusual there, a key decision in a high profile game between two well supported teams is always going to cause a lot of comment and controversy.

What was more unusual - and worrying in this case - is the content of some of the messages seen on Twitter, including ones wishing that both Halsey and his wife would have died of cancer. Irrespective of the passions inspired by the game, there can be no excuse for that level of vile personal abuse.

Yet who amongst us, as a sports fan, hasn't sat or stood in a stadium and said or sung something derogatory about a match official? I know I have, and I'm not proud of it.

It's not just at the elite level either. No matter how much campaigns like Respect might try to improve the lot of grass roots match officials there are still plenty of cases of abuse and violence against them both by players and spectators. So why do people do it?

Simply, their love of the game overrides any negative experiences they may have. It keeps them coming back for more, either at grass roots level or as they move up the officiating pyramid towards the elite level.

Without them, we would have no professional sport to support. We owe them a debt of gratitude, not abuse.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

I'm Only Happy When It Rains

So sang Garbage, once upon my youth.

It's a song that could also be associated with fans of Leeds Rhinos, given the team's propensity to raise it's performance at this traditionally inclement time of year.

Friday saw the Rhinos book their fifth visit to Old Trafford for the Super League Grand Final in the last six years with a win over Wigan Warriors. It was a game which demonstrated all that was best about rugby league - bruising, enthralling, total commitment from first whistle to final hooter.

You would think such a game would be the catalyst for widespread praise to be heaped on the game, particularly from those already working within it. Alas, this is rugby league. That kind of thing doesn't happen here. No sooner had the game finished, than the knives were out for the current play-off system.

Super League has decided its champions by a play-off system at the end of the regular season since 1998. Prior to 1974, it had also been the accepted system for deciding the rugby league champions. The period inbetween when the league table decided the champions was a break from tradition for the sport.

At various times since 1998, the play-offs have been contested between the top five, top six and currently the top eight clubs at the end of the weekly rounds. Since the league expanded to 14 clubs, it's been the top eight that have gone into the play-offs with a chance of lifting the SL trophy at Old Trafford in October.

Between 1998 and 2010, the Grand Final was contested exclusively between clubs who finished either first, second or third during the weekly rounds. Last year, the Rhinos bucked the trend and finished fifth before going on to victory in the Grand Final, beating the first and fourth placed clubs away from home before triumphing over third placed St Helens.

Leeds finished fifth again this season, and to get to the Grand Final have beaten eighth placed Wakefield at home, before going to fourth placed Catalan Dragons and first placed Wigan and winning both games. Apparently, this now means that the play-off format is flawed and needs to be changed. Some of their performances during the weekly rounds have been miles away from those they have produced in the play-offs, leading some to conclude that there's no point in even trying for the first 27 weeks. Just wait for the playoffs to get going and throw all your energy and effort at those last few weeks.

The weekly rounds have now in effect become a qualifying competition, bit like those for the World Cup or European Championships in football. Nobody derides those as being "meaningless", in the way that some rugby league fans and writers have been doing since last night. The trophies are then getting handed out at the finals themselves, not an uncommon occurence in sport.

The better you do in that qualifying competition, the higher your seeding in the finals and the easier your route to the big prize. Finish atop the table after 27 weeks and you will have home advantage during the playoffs coupled with a second bite at the cherry should you lose. Finish eighth, and you're faced with going away from home against much better sides and no safety net. Any coach who says they don't want their team to finish as high as possible up the table and get as easy a route to Old Trafford as they can is telling you porkies.

This current Leeds Rhinos side is freakish. Its ability to peak at just the right time defies all logic and history from the rest of the play-offs since 1998. That they have achieved something beyond the abilities of every other club in the last 15 years should not, on its own, be cause for throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Monday, September 24, 2012

From Wayne Bennett to Wallace Arnold


In rugby league, like in any other sport, they divide opinion amongst fans of their particular teams. Nowhere at the moment is that division more apparent however than in the case of Brian McDermott and fans of Leeds Rhinos.

Approaching the end of his second season in charge, McDermott has had a total of seven trophies to compete for. Of these, he's won two (the 2012 World Club Challenge and 2011 Super League Grand Final), still has a chance of winning a third and has finished runner-up in two (the 2011 and 2012 Challenge Cup finals).

It's a record that stands comparison with any other coach in the competition over the same period. Yet there is still a loud rumble of discontent from many Leeds fans about both performances and results.

Why? Simply put, Leeds fans have been spoiled rotten. Prior to McDermott, under the coaching of Tony Smith and Brian McLennan, Leeds were the dominant side in the competition - at least when it came to winning Grand Finals and World Club Challenges.

The emergence of an outstanding crop of young local players early in the last decade, coupled with some astute signings from overseas and other SL clubs, made Leeds the team to beat. Grand Final winners four times in six years between 2004 and 2009, they set the standard for all else to follow.

Sport however, is cyclical. Leeds were never going to remain the dominant side for ever. As the team began to age, its ability to raise its game every week of every season began to fade. There have been some frankly embarrasing results at the hands of the likes of Wigan, Warrington, St Helens and Huddersfield, yet in big knockout games they have been able to turn the form book on its head.

So how much of what a team does is down to its coach? As much as the man in the stand and his staff can do during the week, once the players cross the line the coach is virtually helpless in terms of influencing individual performance. He can maximise it by making the most of his interchanges or make tweaks to strategy, but he can't make tackles, put out passes or kick goals. He's very much at the mercy of his players.

In some cases, in my opinion, the Leeds players have let their coach and fans down over the last couple of years. Conversely, they have also pulled out results that neither coach nor fans had a right to expect, the Challenge Cup semi-final against Wigan in 2012 being a case in point.

The received wisdom on forums seems to be that when a team wins, it's down to the players. When a team loses, it's down to something the coach did wrong. I'm reminded of the comments of great Australian coach Wayne Bennett, who said "If you start listening to the fans, it won't be long before you're sitting with them".