The Angel of the North, perpetual symbol of all things Not-In-the-South. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: A "southern sod" discovers the north on foot

Moving at three miles per hour through the hinterlands of England gave us both the rare opportunity to experience what remains inhering in the physical topography of our cultural landscape.

There’s nothing that the great mass of us enjoy more than exercising our fine discrimination: “This is good,” we delight in saying, “while that is emphatically bad.” We point to the sky and announce, “Up!” Then gesture to the ground while weightily intoning, “Down.” We have no hesitation when it comes to branding things, convictions and even people as either U or non-U and, although our numerical system is decimal, we’d probably prefer it if it was binary. All of which explains, at least in part, why it is that we speak of “the north” and “the south” as if they were entirely distinct places, separated not by another debatable land, the Midlands, but miles of desert or raging ocean.

I say this mental foible provides only a partial explanation because the history of our false regional dichotomising is bound up with our history. I don’t mean to suggest that there is no distinctive culture in the north of England – I’m not suicidal – but the great extent to which we perceive it as so is, I think, paradoxical. As the first industrialised nation, we experienced the great homogenising impact of the railways earliest – and began accommodating to it right away. By the 1840s, you could travel from pea-soupers to mushy peas in a matter of hours and I’d contend it was the sheer pleasure in traversing this disjunction that helped to preserve it in the aspic of our anecdotage.

Today, with local dialects being steadily submerged beneath the estuarine mud and quaint customs crumbing into dust like desiccated corn dollies, we find only the strong contrast provided by rapid north-south transit gives us any sense of change at all – and so we laud it: “This is north!” We cry, clogdancing our way into Piccadilly, although we were soft-shoe-shuffling our way through the London one only a short time before. But if you want to understand how the south shades imperceptibly into the north, there’s a way at hand (or, perhaps, foot): simply walk there – which is what my 11-year-old son and I did this summer, setting off from our home in London on the morning of 12 July and arriving in Whitby, North Yorkshire, 15 days and 288 miles later.

Moving at three miles per hour through the hinterlands of England gave us both the rare opportunity to experience what remains inhering in the physical topography of our cultural landscape, because when you’re labouring up and down hills rather than caroming through cuttings, you register every minute alteration in vernacular architecture, in flora and fauna; and when you stop in a pub for a ginger beer and packet of crisps, you also register the equally subtle modulation of the barman’s accent as against that of the barman in the last pub. On the East Coast main line, Peterborough seems like an outer-London suburb, gained after an hour or so of clacking and snacking; but if you take five days getting there and spend the night before at Cromwell’s home town, Huntingdon, you’re in no doubt that you’re in the Roundheaded Midlands.

And if you then set off across the shimmering agri-desert of Lincolnshire – which takes another five days to traverse on foot – you begin to appreciate how this land is a great and dappled unity. Indeed, Lincolnshire is so very big that while its feet dabble in the metropolitan hugger-mugger, its head is in the northern fastness. In Spalding, there was still a nasal whine to the accent and the speciality in Turner’s chip shop was mushy peas with balsamic vinegar but by the time we got to Caistor on the northern edge of the Wolds, we were being served chip butties within eebah-gumming distance of the Humber.

Still, if I were forced to identify a precise point where south met north and it was quite impossible for me to exercise my own fine discrimination, then I’d say it came in the little village of Helpringham, about 111 miles due north of London. We came sweating in out of the heatwave to the Nag’s Head pub, got our ginger beers in and sat watching, enthralled, as a group of middle-aged men started performing calisthenic tricks in the public bar. One picked up a beer mat with his mouth while doing the splits, then a second – still more Father William – was encouraged to do his party piece: standing on his head. With jokey asides, we were made to feel that we were included in this display and while I’m by no means certain that such antics don’t go on down souf, nonetheless the sense of beery masculine sodality seemed, to this southern sod, very definitely of the north.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times