Go team: John Craven (left) and the other presenters of Countryfile
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Vintage cheddar: Countryfile – John Craven’s 25th Anniversary on BBC1

While I understand the impulse to watch a show about otters and dry stone walling, I can’t understand the success of Countryfile at all. It’s so awful: so cheesy and laboured.

Countryfile: John Craven’s 25th Anniversary
BBC1

In 2001, at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis, I was in a car with a couple of friends and a man who is now very senior indeed in the Labour Party. We were talking about the burning of the animals. I was in a state of high anxiety about this – my father would give me more gruesome details every day in a phone call from his home in the Peak District – and said so. These horrible pyres would, I insisted, play very badly with many voters. The baby politician, however, was unbothered. “Not Labour voters,” he said. “They don’t care about the farmers.”

I remember feeling quite stunned by this. I thought about all the bearded, lefty, rambling teachers and lecturers I’d known growing up in Sheffield: the kind of men who headed out every weekend to stride across the moors; who would nod a grateful good morning to the farmers whose land they needed to cross; who thought nothing of pulling a marooned sheep out of a bog by its horns, knowing full well its value to its no doubt struggling owner. In my gut, I knew he was wrong.

I thought about this as I watched a special edition of Countryfile, in which John Craven celebrated 25 years on the programme (20 July, 7.20pm). Metropolitan media types and politicians might like to ponder that Countryfile is the most popular current affairs show on television, regularly attracting audiences of over six million (compare that to, say, Newsnight, which is watched on average by a paltry 600,000). People love and care deeply about the countryside and this goes for urban Labour voters as much as rural Tories.

The producers of Countryfile, at least, seem to get this. Their show is aimed at people like me who live in large cities and spend their lunch hour googling cottages in the Yorkshire Dales rather than at men and women who rise at dawn to milk their cattle. It’s Country Living magazine, not Farming Today. But while I understand the impulse to watch a show about otters and dry stone walling, I can’t understand the success of Countryfile at all. It’s so awful: so cheesy and laboured, so unchallenging and Pooterishly earnest.

Appointed editor of this special edition, Craven called his production team together for a meeting, which was a bit like watching Grandpa Werther interact with his “grandchildren”: all he required for the impression to be complete was a big bag of those famously smooth butter candies. He had, he promised, tasks for everyone. Matt Baker – yes, him off The One Show – would be driving a vintage Aston Martin down a Buckinghamshire lane, a “story” Craven had come up with thanks to his “own knowledge of the Chiltern Hills”. Tom Heap would be investigating the health benefits (or not) of organic cabbages. Ellie Harrison would be trying to work out the state of play for British wildlife (turtle doves: down by more than 90 per cent). Meanwhile, Adam Henson would, as usual, be on his Cotswolds farm, frolicking wildly with his new donkey foal.

“I remember when you were a new arrival,” Craven chuckled, on meeting this long-legged creature – which gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of links Countryfile favours script-wise. To put it another way: they make Miliband, Cameron and co sound utterly natural. Ah, the times Craven has had on the show. He has been to so many different places – Bedfordshire was mentioned – and met so many different people (Alan Titchmarsh, Jilly Cooper, with whom he once lay in a meadow).

The climax of this Radio 2-inflected nostalgia fest came at Henson’s farm, where a specially commissioned cake had been laid on, plus a bottle of bubbly (given the debate
about BBC entertainment budgets, we can only pray that this was Lidl cava rather than a bottle of Dom P purloined from some
high-up’s mini-fridge). The cake featured a model of Craven standing by a gate, a verdant field expanding behind him like green lava. It was, in sugarcraft terms, something of a triumph, though it struck me as weird that this tiny Craven, who looked a little like Brains from Thunderbirds, appeared to be wearing Ugg boots rather than wellies.

“Here’s to another 25 years!” said Henson, perhaps a little too loudly. Uh, oh, I thought, the ghost of Judith O’Reilly now suddenly on patrol on the undulating expanses of the elaborate confection. Behind his glasses, Craven’s currant eyes briefly widened, though whether in alarm or pleasure I could not tell.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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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