28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Six, The Farmgirl

In which Willard gets his first proper kiss since the project began.

It's fair to say a great many of my friends have commented on my dating adventures.

Most of them have just laughed, but a select happy few have pointed me in the directions of dating sites that they themselves or friends have used successfully - or alternatively, ones that they think me going on would be hilarious:

My friend Janine (who is now becoming a regular feature of the blog) would like to make it clear she's not into polygamy personals, or threesomes, she just thinks it would be funny to see me blunder into them. 

Another ludicrous favourite that has been suggested is Sea Captain dating, which measures your distance to your dates in Nautical miles - but more on that later. (Yarrrr).

While some of them have been a bit optimistic - for example, my friend who met her husband through millionaire dating ("I was sick of being taken out in Birmingham, decided I wanted to be taken out to Barbados") - there was one message from an old university friend that caught my eye.
Hi Willard,
I hope you are well. I saw your blog post - I think you beat some of my crackers! That said I thought I'd share with you that Tom and I met on Muddy Matches, it's an agricultural / country dating website. 

There were some astounding men on there, and not in a good way. Having been assessed by some as to whether I'd breed well (estimated breed value ebv is a common term in ag) I was lucky to find Tom. If you're in need of entertainment then it's worth having a look!

Just thought if you were looking for a different type of women it does have a good mix on there!!
So, farmer dating. Yes, we're definitely back in the twilight zone. As my ex-Sun journo housemate said, taking a drag on his cigarette "I dunno mate, Muddy Matches sounds like a cover for shitlovers.com".
As a confirmed urbanite - I live in the middle of London and love it - I was a little nervous about logging on to a site which enables you to meet "muddy" country types. I couldn't help flashing back to one afternoon in a rural barrister's chambers in my mid twenties, when a man wearing tweed with bushy white sideburns & wellies walked in, laid his double barrelled shotgun on the clerk's desk and said, in a broad west country accent "Oi'll be needin' a lawyer, Oi've just shot moi woife".
Indeed, much of my mercifully brief legal career consisted of defending tractor thieves who hailed from a hamlet near Bath called Norton Radstock. I was slightly worried anyone I might meet on the site would be the sort of ruddy faced person who chews tobacco and readily uses a bit of rope as a belt, but at least the Radstock experience would stand me in good stead if the conversation turned to the value of agricultural machinery. 
I was slight reassured that the site's "rate your own muddiness" calculator proclaimed me to be "Muddy at heart, but you think civilisation also has a lot to offer", but equally worried that the top three options on "how did you hear about this site" were "Horse & Hound magazine", "The Field" or "at a cross-country point to point", none of which were things I was that into. So, I put myself out there. 

After a couple of days, I had a couple of messages, but one leaped out at me. There were plenty of "country girls at heart" who lived on the King's Road (it seems very good for finding those - if you're a bloke who loves horse riding with women called Persephone, you probably couldn't find a better site), but there was only one actual farmer.

She was a fruit farmer from Berkshire, and she was very flattered by my offer to come out to her village for a swift pint. So, one evening, I jumped on a train from Paddington, and ventured out into the wilds. We'd agreed to meet at the station, and so I waited there for five minutes in the freezing rain before she pulled up, in her battered Land Rover. I laughed, but what did I expect? She flung open the door, invited me to jump in, and we sped off to a local pub.
She was very pleasant - late thirties, had worked in the City for a few years before jacking it in to take over the family farm. She'd been with the same bloke for about 8 years, but had broken up with him last year when it turned out he was a bit of a shit. We had a lovely chat in front of the pub fire, decided to extend the evening into dinner. 

We talked about how we'd both dodged the bad marriage bullet, politics, how rubbish the EU is, our families - we'd both had parents in the military, so we were able to compare notes on growing up as army brats. She had a great dirty laugh, and was seriously flirtatious, in a kind of wax jacketed, upper class, graduate of Cheltenham ladies college way.

She told me of the difficulty of meeting a man when her main concern was often making supermarkets pay on time for tons of raspberries; her last date was with a Bulgarian farm worker called Dmitar, although it was "less dating, more just sex really. His English wasn't really up to conversation". The mind boggles. Farming was never like this on The Archers

After dinner, she drove me back to the station, and I got my first proper kiss of the dating project! Hurrah!
This post originally appeared at 28 Dates Later. Stay tuned as we catch you up with all Willard's disastrous dates so far over the next week.
"So, farmer dating. Yes, we're definitely back in the twilight zone." Photograph: Getty Images.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit