Little Chef – the big man of motorway service stations. Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

Stop off at the roadside garage for petrol, some crisps, Zovirax, porcini and a cup of crappuccino

No one in their right mind would ever visit a garage for the love of gastronomy, yet everybody who’s passing through seizes the opportunity to put something in their mouth.

If motorway service centres with their sweaty agglomerations of Burger King, KFC and Costa are the brothels of fast food, then garages are its knocking shops: the places where stressed-out people commit unspeakable and degrading acts with Peperami. No one in their right mind would ever visit a garage for the love of gastronomy, yet everybody who’s passing through seizes the opportunity to put something in their mouth. Why, when the combination of foods that are necessarily high in salt and preservatives with the tension of driving almost always results in flatulence, heartburn, or – a meal deal – both?

My theory is that garage food feeds that portion of our psyche that, through long association, has begun to mutate into a car’s on-board computer. Every habitual driver knows the strange melding that occurs between them and their wheels: feet rubberise, eyes acquire two semicircles of clarity and girth expands to fit the carriageway available. After hours in this altered state, when the fuel gauge indicates that you’re hungry, you pull on to the forecourt and ram the nozzle in, only to discover that nothing is glugging into your stomach.

The human-car chimera next enters the kiosk. Once upon a time, this was just that – a small booth in which a man in an oil-stained boiler suit counted out half-crowns while sucking Spangles – but now this has prolapsed into a supermarket-sized zone of commerce, offering everything from foldaway barbecues and lottery tickets to hormone supplements for pre-op transsexuals … and stupid amounts of food.

There’s a garage at the Woodstock Road roundabout on the outskirts of Oxford where I regularly stop. On heading in to swipe the plastic, I am every time freaked anew by finding myself inside a fully functioning M&S Simply Food outlet, complete with north-Oxford yummy mummies wandering around putting duck à l’orange in their baskets while little Tansy kicks off in her Maclaren buggy. The gathering pace with which supermarkets have gone into coalition with petrol stations suggests that complete mutation is not far off and that soon consumers will fill buckets with a mixture of Strongbow and V-Power unleaded, add Cadbury Mini Eggs and a tube of Zovirax, then knock the whole cocktail back. There’s still a Wild Bean Café tucked into the far corner of this giant garage but once you’ve ploughed your way along furrows full of porcini and cod in miso sauce, will you feel like putting a flaccid, microwaved sausage roll between your lips?

Yes, of course you will! You’ll also drink the piss-poor crappuccino and buy lots and lots and lots of crisps. After all, there are the kids to consider (even if you’ve never had any or they’re grown-up) and everyone likes different flavours, so you’d better get at least three bags of Walkers and one of those big, white ones of Kettle Chips seasoned with sea salt, because they’re sort of healthy, aren’t they? And they suggest to you – subliminally, at least – that modern Britain is a sophisticated sort of place where, for a modest outlay, you can stab your gums until they bleed with spears of deep-fried potato and at the same time rub salt in those wounds. Oh, and then there are Jelly Babies and Bisodol and two folding chairs for a tenner and a bottle of vintage Taittinger, which you buy simply because it’s so bizarre to see such a thing – and, what with the petrol, the cash register doesn’t stop sticking its paper tongue out at you for quite a long time.

I was in the local garage at lunchtime today and a man in pale jeans and trainers was holding a “light” chicken teriyaki sandwich and a package of two “individual” Melton Mowbray pork pies while he filled out his form on one of those National Lottery stands that looks like a giant, upended, blue turd. I considered the croissants and pastries that had been “baked in-store throughout the day” and meditated on the “savoury eggs”, neither of which seemed any more appetising than Go-Cat, which was also available in bulk. I’m not trying to pretend I’m some sort of hardened ascetic, I can assure you. I’d have been sucking on that ageing breakfast muffin full of warm bacteria like it was my mammy’s teat if it weren’t for one limiting constraint: I’d walked to the garage, rather than driven there. Try doing this and I guarantee you won’t buy any garage food at all – except for crisps.

Next week: Will Self’s Psychogeography

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 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Getty
Show Hide image

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