Birmingham or Manchester: Which is Britain's second city?

Obviously, it's Birmingham.

Ten years ago, one of the most iconic buildings in the Birmingham skyline, Selfridges, was added to the Bullring shopping complex. It was part of a massive regeneration project, which is continuing today with "The Big City Plan". New Street Station is being transformed. The architectural marvel that is the new Birmingham Library opens next month, and there is even an inner city park being built on the Eastside, the first park in the city centre since Victorian times.

All are part of an attempt to rebrand Birmingham. It longs to reaffirm its status as Britain's second city, after Manchester's has increasing dominance over a title it has held since World War One.

As a born and bred Brummie, with a mother and girlfriend both from Manchester, I feel that I am better placed than most to judge the relative claims of each claimant to the princeship. And in all honestly, there is just no competition.

Hands down, Birmingham is Britain's second city. Why? Most obviously because size does matter. With the largest population and GDP outside of London, in quantifiable terms, the Midland metropolis trumps Manchester. But of course, Manchester’s declaration of superiority has never been based on size, but rather on "culture", supposedly based on quality, not quantity. However, as I see it, even if we analyse the supposed "Capital of the North" in terms of its cultural attractions, Birmingham still comes out on top.

Oasis, the Stone Roses, New Order, the Smiths, Joy Division, et cetera are listed on demand when you ask a Mancunian about their music scene. OK, so they were brilliant bands. They were. The up-and-coming music scene of today is centred in Digbeth, the "Shoreditch of Birmingham", as the NME calls it. As the likes of Peace and Swim Deep demonstrate, the ‘B-town’ scene is fast eclipsing Madchester as a hub of new indie bands.

Even if one does insist on harking back to past musical giants, it’s not only Manchester that boasts a proud history. Pioneers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Napalm Death, and Godflesh, all originate from Birmingham, lest we forget that Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, UB40, the Electric Light Orchestra, Duran Duran, and the Streets were all Brummie's who created an eclectic mix of genres and should not be dismissed.

Beyond music, admittedly, the recent move of elements of the BBC to Salford Quays and the enduring national treasure that is Coronation Street has brought greater media exposure to Manchester. Such exposure has fuelled misconceptions, demonstrated in a recent poll carried out by Trinity Mirror Data Unit. 28.8 per cent of people living outside of Manchester defined it as the second city, compared to only 18.3 per cent of non-Brummies choosing Birmingham.

However, again, if we delve beneath the perceptions, Birmingham boasts a range of oft-forgotten cultural gems. The city has more canals than Venice, lined with beautifully quaint barges, the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world (which surely rivals Manchester’s Lowry centre), Digbeth’s Custard Factory with its vintage stalls and jazz music, the world-renowned acoustic haven that is the Symphony Hall, Birmingham’s Royal Ballet and of course, Cadbury World, a treasure-trove of unlimited chocolate and life-size drumming Gorillas.

Manchester’s curry mile must also bow down to Brum’s "Balti-Triangle", internationally recognised as the home of curry. Don’t just take my word for it, the New York Times listed Birmingham 19th in its 45 Places to Go in 2012 last year, thanks to the spectacular nature of its baltis. Space was one place behind in 20th, and Manchester didn’t even make the list.

Perhaps with all of this in mind, supporters of Manchester’s claim to the title cling on to the success of their hugely prolific and famous football sides, claiming that the prowess of United, and more recently, City, justify their sense of superiority. But by that logic, following their FA Cup win last season, surely Wigan should be considered one of the most important towns in the country, at least temporarily? Surely Swansea can claim to be the 9th most important city in Britain following its 9th place finish in the Premier League.

Even in football, one of Manchester’s strongest claims to superiority, if we delve beneath the surface, it is clear that Birmingham more than rivals its strength. A survey that featured in the Telegraph in 2011 tallied the hometown of every top flight footballer since 1992, and found that Birmingham had produced 55 Premier League players, while Manchester could only boast 42.

Whether it is due to the abysmally poor standard of Birmingham-based soaps such as Doctors and Crossroads, or the lack of media centres in the Midlands, non-brummies increasingly doubt their second city status. This needs to change. Birmingham possesses all of the ingredients that make a great city, and is still improving, as its "Big City Plan" continues to transform the centre’s architecture. All it needs is more a little self-confidence, so chins up fellow Brummies - our time is now.

10 years on from its construction, Birmingham's Selfridges building has become an iconic landmark. Picture: Getty Images.
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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

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 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood