These days I always get the urge to herbal

I can’t remember the first time I enjoyed Campari but I’ve a clear recollection of the second. . .

I never liked Campari, until I fell in love with it. The bitterness curled around my tongue like a warning: isn’t that precisely what bitterness is for, to alert us to danger? And what could be more dangerous than a peculiar herby drink the colour of a stop sign?

Look up bitter in the thesaurus. Unpleasant will be offered and so will disagreeable. Oddly, though, contradictory doesn’t show up anywhere – yet bitterness is the most contradictory of emotions and, it turns out, drinks. Love sours, friendship turns, success fades, and we become bitter – yet it is only remembered sweetness that makes us so. And Campari, as Victoria Moore’s book How To Drink points out, becomes sharper the more you dilute it, an attribute so perfect that I wondered whether she’d made it up. (I researched. She hadn’t. Something to do with our finetuned sensitivity to bitterness. Sweetness can be chased away but sourness stays with us – even in beverages.)

I can’t remember the first time I enjoyed Campari but I’ve a clear recollection of the second. I’d arrived for lunch at Pitt Cue Co in Soho, slightly hungover. I needed greasy meat of excellent quality, which I duly got; I’m still puzzled as to how I ended up with something called a Camp America, containing Campari, Bourbon and marmalade. I may not recall ordering it but I was happy to pay for it. Citrus and sugar found oak-aged corn liquor and the herbs that infuse Campari. Love blossomed. My hangover evaporated. I wasn’t stupid enough to try more than one.

Ever since, I get cravings for Campari. The tastebuds down the side of my tongue start to tremble. I salivate. A glowing red mist obscures my vision. I may need a simple drink with ice and soda, or a Baby Joe, that splendid combination with Prosecco and blood orange juice named by Victoria for her godson. I may require a Negroni, or to commit sacrilege and dilute a Negroni with soda water. (Don’t judge me. Sometimes the sour smack of Campari, gin and red vermouth needs a little cushioning.)

Occasionally, I lose the gin, and raise my Americano in admiration of Gaspare Campari, the 19th-century Lombardian who transformed his childhood trauma (pure speculation, this, but surely with that name, he was bullied at school?) into a booze business that exists to this day, invented a drink as Italian as passata and about the same colour, that’s known all over the world – and got away with naming a cocktail made with a liquor from Turin and another from Milan after the Yanks without causing a revolution. To be fair, there already was a revolution going on in the 1860s, and while I’d like to believe that Garibaldi was galvanised to unify Italy by the outrageous misrepresentation of one of its finest beverages, even with my slack grasp of history I have to admit that’s a little unlikely.

At least the Italian Risorgimento never invented anything as horrid as prohibition. Across the Atlantic, while Gaspare was selling aromatic vermilion liquor to his newfound countrymen, poor John Pemberton was being forced to come up with an alcohol-free version of his Wine Coca: a drink that would eventually unite the entire world in sugar-worship beneath a Campari-red banner.

Both companies still jealously guard their recipes but both certainly contain sugar syrup. What they do with that cloying substance tells you as much about the differences between Italy and the US as does a study of the differing ways they went about unification in the 1860s. I don’t think you can draw too many conclusions from the fact that one beverage is overpoweringly sweet, the other lastingly bitter, but if far more Italians drink Coca-Cola than Americans consume Campari, the former do at least have the comfort of knowing that their Americano will always be, to my mind at least, even better than the real thing.

 

A glass of Campari. Photograph: Getty Images

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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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