Union City Blue

GROWING up I loved Coventry City Football Club, first in that sky blue home top and green and black away strip, later in the famous Admiral tramline kits. Sky blue, red and brown.

In my road, other kids were fans of Leeds, then Liverpool; of QPR, Man City and Arsenal. I was in the minority in my Cov tops. Only one club for me, regardless that my grandfather had played for Coventry City.

Except I also fell in love with the blue and white of the other Coventry football club. My memory is probably wrong, but I’m sure as the 5A bus took me past Coundon Road the legend was Coventry Football Club. After all, footballing skills are not solely the province of the 11-a-side game.

At one stage, both city football clubs – association and union – donned the same Oxford blue and white colours. A city united on the sportsfield. It was more than just about sport. It was about the city. My city.

When Jimmy Hill led a new era of success for the Highfield Road boys, the Coundon Road men were already head and shoulders above the rest.

How things have changed. Both have suffered in recent memory. Cov RFC have struggled for direction in the professional era and CCFC have been victim of profiteering and decision-making that would have left Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking confused. And SISU are not the only guilty party.

Out of the blue and white and sky blue, for the first time ever, both clubs have achieved promotion in the same season. The Sky Blues out of the fourth tier of English football, the rugby club into the second.

And it’s brought a wave of excitement that this Cov Kid sensed nearly 300 miles away in Cornwall. Excitement the like of which we haven’t enjoyed since 1987 on the Sky Blue front and back to the 1970s for the rugby side.

Except, while Coventry RFC is gearing up for the challenge ahead, CCFC owners SISU have already stated it will be business as usual for Sky Blues boss Mark Robins. No extra investment will be forthcoming bar a budget already decided on.

It is an echo of how Noel Cantwell and Gordon Milne were left walking a financial tightrope to survive in the old first division after money had been readily available to make it there.

Which of city’s star players might be the next sacrifice as the budget gets balanced?

It’s particularly galling, because of the way the hedge fund has treated the fans since it took over the Sky Blues a decade ago, after the ill-fated move from Highfield Road to the Ricoh Arena. I was still a reporter at the Coventry Evening Telegraph when the first plans for the former gas works site got everyone on board.

That included a 50,000-odd seater, with a sliding roof and also a sliding pitch. While it has managed to host a slew of international matches in various sports and pop concerts galore, as hoped for, the original plans were butchered and the city, as so often in the past, got second best.

Not that SISU seem to care. They’ve slashed budgets, overseen the worst period in the club’s history including relegation to the old fourth division and with no sign of anyone on the board giving a damn.

They botched the Ricoh deal, allowing a nomadic, erstwhile London-based rugby club to take pole position, soured relations with the city council and even did a Wasps, by taking the football club away from its roots, playing for a while at Northampton.

Now while SISU have waged anything but a popularity contest, the bosses there have a huge opportunity to make amends. The goodwill towards Coventry City is tremendous. Witness the turn out for the victory parade. Witness the fact that the Sky Blues took 37,000 fans to Wembley.

Success breeds success and both Coventry clubs will be hoping to attract better crowds in the coming season.

But while Cov RFC have made some exciting and eye-catching signings, the future for CCFC is less certain.

With people backing the club again, a club on the up and young players maturing, SISU have this chance to win some friends – and make some money, too.

Invest a bit, help this Coventry side push for Championship football next season and win at the turnstiles and the club shop.

Turnaround the evident hostility towards SISU from pretty much every area, from fans to press, to other football teams and owners; make money available to Robins and win the plaudits.

Take a leaf out of the Jimmy Hill model, or look to the rugby club, under the stewardship of Jon Sharp and Rowland Winter. Invest wisely, build, don’t overstretch, but understand the history, the club, the fans and most importantly the city.

That approach  is paying dividends for the rugby club.

With so much goodwill towards the Sky Blues, SISU could well be on the road to Damascus. The bright lights of Wembley success and promotion are there for the owners to decide that they can make a success out of Coventry.

In more ways than one.

 

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Long Hair Music

DON’T you know that it’s different for girls?

Girls have it bad. Boys have it bad.

Women have it bad.

And as a man – well, depending on the definition – I know we have it bad.

Sexually, we’re at our peak in our teens, for a start. Who decided to waste all that fun on the ignorant unwashed?

Then, in our age of wisdom we lose our hair on our head, the hair on our chins goes grey and then we struggle to contain the growth on our ears and stretching out of our noses.

Hardly the most attractive picture.

Except, our appearance doesn’t, shouldn’t, define us.

I’ve male friends who have been bald since their teens, others with a fine head of hair in their sixties and seventies.

Who cares? Surely, the person behind the mask is key to their worth in this life.

Yet there is a palpable sense of appearance marking us out for who we want to be. I guess it’s different for me because I’ve had more looks than John Inman in recent years. I’ve had beards in my natural hair colour of dark brown. I’ve had beards that were grey, white and brown.¬† I’ve had shaggy beards and trimmed beards.

I’ve let my hair grow wild, I’ve cut it short. I’ve looked like the love child of Leo Sayer and Max Wall, I’ve had the estuary hair of Phil Collins at the front, that of Friar Tuck on top. If anybody thinks my hair defines me, then they’re out of touch with reality, honesty and likely to miss out on my good qualities.

Not that I’ve many.

Okay, I’m nudging 50. I can’t bowl a cricket ball as fast as I once did, but a couple of years ago was told I was still able to make batters nervous.

I can still kick a rugby ball over a tall tree.

My friends will tell you I’m as honest as they come.

Most will tell you I’m generous with my money and time. Not that I’ve got much money these days as a parent.

There are other positive qualities many will tell you I possess.

Who cares about a hair line?

Apart from the sole hair from my previous hair line, still poking out, a lone survivor of the years. Taunting me at my morning shave, reminding me that the difficulty I have in bending down and stretching is down to age.

I’m overweight. It’s something I’ve been before and battled. I went from 18 and a half stone to a healthy 12 and a half stone, via 11, which didn’t suit me.

I went from 30 minutes at the weekly five kilometre Parkrun to 22.43. Starting at 45.

I went from lifting 20kg at the bench press to more than 100kg. Again, starting at 45.

Injury stopped me dead in my tracks. So here I go again.

Judge me by my appearance and you’ll miss that steely resolve. You’ll miss the stubborn bloke that wants to succeed, wants to defy convention and middle age and get back into running and break new personal bests at Parkrun.

Who wants to get back at the levels he was in the gym, to be involved in sports clubs again, maybe even back to drumming and playing in bands.

A man who remembers what he did, rather than what he looked like. The perfect face for radio and to write articles for newspapers, maybe, but someone who achieved.

And I think warmly of a friend of mine, who has been battling against the day he had a haircut, that acceptance of the years hitting back. People dislike change, but it’s ever present.

But while he’s been open about his upset, he’s more than a haircut.

This is a bloke who shows such warmth of character, friendliness, positivity, and who has achieved lots in his life. Musically, fitness-wise…in life.

He’s played on stages most would give their right arm for. He’s played on three albums worth their weight in gold.

He’s posted a regretful picture on social media, but actually, his new cut suits him. Whether it suits him better than his old look will be for others to decide.

But then I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon. Even in my youth, with hair on my side, I’ve never settled on a particular look. I’d grow a beard and then shave it off in stages to confuse my colleagues.

Bearded with hair on a Monday, goatee on a Tuesday, moustache on a Wednesday – and moustaches don’t suit me, well unless you’re looking for a Freddie Mercury lip-syncing tribute act – clean shaven on a Thursday and a new haircut for Friday.

Boy, the childish entertainment I’ve had down the years.

Sometimes we just need to be kind to ourselves most of all. I saw a photo of me and thought it was someone else’s uncle. The only thing I could do was shave the beard, cut the hair short and pick up the weights. The flab I can tackle, the wrinkles, the hair loss, the teeth bashed out on the rugby field and pub fights aren’t being replaced.

I maybe an ugly old sod, but my wife and friends and children think beyond my looks. And despite all the fears, I’m not doing too badly as a husband – well, this time around – or a dad. Or a person.

I might still act like a big child, of course, might still think I’m that silly teenager I once was, but I’m now a middle aged man, with responsibilities. I’m allowed to be my age, be who I am, be liked for ‘me’.

Which to my mind is most important of all.

 

 

My Father’s Eyes

MY ALARM went off at 3.30am today.

Ahead of taking my son to school for a three day, fun-filled trip to London. The highlight of the school calendar for the Year Sixers, fresh from their Key Stage 2 test week.

There were, of course, the inevitable arguments about what to pack. The school said pack clothes to suit all elements. A set for warm weather, a set for cool.

Henry, as most 11 year olds, wanted his favourites. Not exactly warm, but with his desire came the pleading, the pouting, the ‘pretty pleases’ and then the posturing.

I was the brick wall, unyielding; my explanations of being ‘sensible’ falling on deaf ears.

An impasse. A playing of the ‘Dad card’, the ‘responsibility’, the parent trap to snare a boy’s hopes…

While he got to pack his Minecraft Creeper hoodie, it’s not warm enough and I gave up the discussion and simply told him he had to pack something warmer. There were still mutterings and mumblings that he would be warm enough, until, in Saltrock fleece-lined hoodie, he stepped out into the cool Cornwall night air this morning.

After all the begging, angry faces and silences – from him, not me, but don’t tempt me! – he agreed the Saltrock hoodie was necessary.

Once again, I’d succeeded as a parent.

Until, that is, I got to the school to see the dozens of his fellow classmates togged up for a day on the beach. Thin tops, shorts, T-shirts. Not exactly dressed for a grey day in the capital.

Being a parent is such a difficult job. In hindsight I know I should have let Henry have his way, to let him shiver when he exits stage left into the Covent Garden night tomorrow after enjoying a performance of School Of Rock at the New London Theatre.

But I guess I wasn’t the worst parent. To witness some of the behaviour of the adults seeing their pride and joy off was bizarre. The children will be back Thursday evening, but some of the parents seemed to think they were packing them off for a year.

One even turned up with her cat, cradled in her arms, to say goodbye to child number one. And then talked to the cat once said child was safely on the coach.

‘No, you’re not going to London, Kitty,’ came the loud voice. ‘You’re staying at home.’

Suddenly I felt a bit better about my parenting approach.

Henry is happy, comfortable, doing well at school, and I couldn’t ask for more. I don’t really care too much about his SATS results, although he’s expected to do well.

For me, I need to learn. To pass my own SATS of being a parent. To allow him to make his own mistakes and for him to learn from them, or suffer them and grow. I sometimes learned the hard way – still do as a parent.

I fought and won a needless argument. My approach has been to fight the important battles, to try to win him over and see sense. To let the less important issues float down the river harmlessly.

Yes, Henry has to learn. But miles away from my father’s eyes, I know he’ll do what he wants anyway. He snuck in his favourite teddy bear without my knowledge, after all.

Eat To The Beat

LOSING weight is a simple theory.

The fewer calories you consume, the more weight you lose.

Except it’s not that easy.

Nothing is ever that easy.

Now I’m back on that road to fitness after injury and illness, the hardest part of watching what I eat is not consuming fewer calories than I should, but getting near the amount prescribed.

Because it seems I’m on a near starvation diet, according to the facts and figures.

I’ve downloaded a fitness app, MyFitnessPal, which is free and counts the calories of everything you eat. It has a barcode function to scan in specific items and breaks down your daily table of nutrients, fibre, protein, fat and carbs.

Obviously it depends on user honesty and works a little differently to other methods of calculating how many calories you should be eating.

For me, it hasn’t changed my calorie goal since I lost four pounds, so I’m still monitoring its effectiveness.

But where it does come in handy is keeping a tally of my calorific efforts.

Now according to tried and tested methods of working out my basal metabolic requirement – how many calories I need to keep my weight as it is – I should be chomping my way through 1,917 calories a day.

MyFitnessPal talks about 2,090 – with the intention of losing one pound a week.

How difficult is that, now I’m resisting the siren call of custard creams, packets of salt and vinegar crisps and the odd Cornetto-substitute from Morrisons? I don’t drink much these days, but when I’ve been unable to resist a glass or two of Tarquins gin I’ve munched through a few Maltesers.

Alcohol to the rear. I’m looking to get a little fitter.

Yet it’s depressing, mulling over my food intake every day and failing to hit my targets.

No wonder I’ve lost a bit of weight, because, according to the app, I’m several hundred calories short of a picnic.

Yesterday, I had two breakfasts. One at 7am with my wife, before walking my son to school, and one at about 9am with my baby daughter. Two slices of toast with Marmite, a bowl of multigrain hoops with skimmed milks and two cups of tea totalling 471 calories, almost a quarter of my 2,090 goal.

Great start, you’d think.

I had chicken and mushroom pasta for lunch, followed by a protein shake. That would be enough for any man with middle aged spread. Alas, it was a fail – only 352 calories. The slip had started.

Dinner was scrambled egg on toast, again with a slap of Marmite (try it, it tastes yummy with scrambled egg), a slice of bacon and a slew of baked beans. Calories? A whopping 577. Yes!

Except despite another mug of protein shake, more cups of tea and fruit I still ended the day 560 calories short of my goal.

This was compounded by the ‘exercise’ I did, even though it was a ‘rest’ day.

I walk my son two miles to school pushing my daughter in her buggy. A cool eight miles a day, which the app suggests takes 689 calories from my overweight bod and then demands of my diet.

So I was basically 1,249 calories down.

What more can I eat without resorting to crap?

Where can I find the time to sit down, prepare or cook it?

While I’m no longer in gainful employment, I’m busy running around after a one year old and entertaining her between my walks to school. I tried eating a banana yesterday and she scoffed the lot.

And trying to eat lean means fewer calories, although I’m not as hungry as when I was stuffing my gob full of rubbish.

Grilled chicken, raw spinach, bananas, cottage cheese, Ryvita – they all fill you up – and drinking more water means the hunger pangs are few and far between.

The true difficulty will come when I start weight training, when my basic metabolic rate shoots up. I’ve been there before. I want to lose bodyfat not muscle.

Building strength and muscle requires a calorific overload. After shedding seven stone on my return from Cyprus in 2012, I struggled to go from 76kg to 80kg. It took weeks of stuffing myself full of ‘healthy food’ at every given opportunity. It wasn’t good, but I made it.

My bodyfat percentage slipped to about 11, I was lifting heavier in the gym, my Parkrun times went below 23 minutes…life was sweet.

Until the accident.

Now I’m facing those challenges again. With 50 on the horizon and racing at me.

The first battle is eating enough, eating healthily enough and winning the calorie battle from the other side.

I’ll do it. But with the constant sound of custard creams crying in my ear.

 

Embarrassment

‘THE camera never lies,’ Bucks Fizz educated me back in my schooldays.

And boy is it unforgiving.

There’s a picture of me, with a ‘me’ I don’t recognise. Like someone else’s middle-aged uncle.

And I’m thinning far worse on the back of my head than I realised. I mean, I can feel hair there. Lots of it on the crown of my bonce.

It’s just in hiding for everyone else.

I was relatively fit until my late 20s when illness robbed me of half my back to a surgeon’s knife.

Since then ill health and injury has seen my weight, and waist, dip and dive, soar and spiral like a ride at Alton Towers.

A partial lung collapse in Cyprus, when I worked out there, saw me turn into an oomp-loompa.

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My waist size was 54 inches. Not good for someone 5ft 8in tall. June 2012.

Astonishingly, about two months before I was due to return to England in July 2012, the lung issues seemed to vanish – the constant pain I felt even simply walking, for example – and I was able to play football with my son, Henry, who was five and a half.

Fighting back to fitness, first running and then in the gym, was bloody hard work. Parkrun was a revelation in meeting people and giving me a reason to forgo any chance of a Saturday morning lie in for five kilometres of hell.

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September 2014. And down to a 30in waist.

 

I felt my old self again. Closer to the ‘me’ I remembered.

Yet, it can’t just be me that has an idea of ‘me’ that is so deceptively wrong and far-fetched?

For example, I always think people are older than me. I’m sure I’m still that naive teenager in my head. Expecting people to be older and know better. I don’t expect to be slim or fit, but not overweight and bulging.

So imagine my horror when I saw a picture of me taken at a services on the way home to Cornwall with Henry, now 11, and daughter Elizabeth, one.

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I remind myself of someone else’s uncle.

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Less than three years earlier.

The picture above was taken weeks before I got knocked off my bicycle in Coventry in August 2015. On top of whiplash and bruising, I then suffered delayed onset frozen shoulder, which essentially stopped me exercising.

Since then I’ve had other accidents, which left me unable to work, and then a congenital stomach problem made itself known and hit me back further.

Coupled with the arrival of a baby daughter and a decision to be a stay at home father, robbing me of further time to myself, I’ve gone from bad to worse.

Today, I make the first step towards positive change.

Because this state of body and mind hasn’t been as life-threatening as it was in 2012. I’ve ignored it, taken the lazy route. Yes, I’ve had setbacks galore, but I’ve not made the most of times I have been fit enough to get off my backside and do something.

I’ve felt sorry for myself.

No more.

Because while the image of ‘me’ I have in my mind is nothing special, it’s a world removed from the flat bloke with white beard and thinning hair.

The beard has already gone. Today, the hair gets the chop.

The weighing scales, cruel as they can be, will be asked to stick the knife in further.

And there is inspiration. In a picture. And not for the obvious reason. Not for the fat fella in a rugby top, but the young fella cuddling his sister, and the little girl, showing she will not co-operate for anyone, least of all mummy with a camera.

I need to start caring about myself so they get the best of me.

I’ve done it before, so I know I can do it.

I’m wishing ‘me’ luck as I wave that ‘me’ goodbye.

 

 

 

 

Moments Of Pleasure

THE film of my memory takes me back to a Saturday afternoon in the Cowshed at Coundon Road.

The ball is kicked towards the Coventry posts at the railway end and a solitary figure catches it and runs back upfield. At first the running is nothing special, more Jack Black than All Black.

Then, as the defenders swarm, the legs pump, the shoulders swell and the class oozes for all to see.

Shayne Philpott’s debut for Coventry, sometime in the early 1990s. A man in black now playing in the blue and white. A snapshot stored in my banks of recall.

And there are plenty. It’s the joy of watching matches live. You tend to see bits of rugby that catch the eye, rather than appreciate some of the great work being done off the ball. Some of the hard yards in the tackle, ruck and maul sadly go unnoticed for a second or two of magic elsewhere.

For they’re the moments of pleasure you remember.

From Eddie Saunders swerving and putting on the gas and racing for glory in the 1980s through to Max Trimble’s confidence and dash to touch down for the final time in National League One. Gone is the hard work that put the ball in their hands, the eyes on the finish.

And there have been plenty of moments to savour down the years, more so these last two seasons for obvious reasons.

The thought came following a conversation with my son, Henry, about who his favourite player is. He’s still learning about the game and it’s easier for an 11 year old to be inspired by the flashy backs. He’s seen great breaks and pace from Heath Stevens and Alex Grove to put a smile on his face. He’s watched and cheered as the triumvirate of Rob Knox, Max Trimble and James Stokes have carved through defences like dolphins through water.

No appreciation yet of the engine house, the strength of body and mind, the unwavering unselfishness of the forwards in providing that platform for the jet-heeled gents behind them.

Except the exploits of men like Scott Tolmie, with those dancing feet, the eel-like qualities of Niles Dacres, the shire horse runs of George Oram and Brett Daynes. Those have caught his eye.

And I remember my introduction to Coventry Rugby as a boy. I remember the names talked about rather than the players on the pitch. People talked about the great players of yore more than those donning the blue and white those days. David Duckham, Peter Jackson, Harry Walker, Ivor Preece, John Gardiner – supporters still dining on their delights years afterwards.

I am sure I saw Peter Rossborough play in the 1970s, because his was another name mentioned. But I didn’t really understand. For me rugby was about passion, big hits, big runs and the sound of the crowd.

After four games, Henry is still undecided, wants to watch more of our club play before he can confidently point to his favourite. Who can argue with that?

And next season will see more changes rung. More choices.

For me, I look back on those moments that remain with me. Of Mark Lakey, playing at 12 finding a tiny gap in a defensive wall in front of him that looked solid. It then seemed to part like the Red Sea before Moses.

Of Stuart ‘Louie’ Hall getting a hospital pass, thumped by two defenders yet still making 40 yards with men hanging off him.

Of Horrobin and Eves, Addleton and Grewcock resisting the superstars of Newcastle, on their way to the top flight and briefly stung by Cov.

Then there are the Butts Park Arena memories. Of Matt Jones, Callum McBurnie, Rob Knox and Will Hurrell making rugby look easy in providing a try for the latter. Pace, pass and repeat.

It’s funny. I rarely remember the opposition, rather the phase of play. Of Dom Lespierre making a mockery of space to squeeze across the whitewash. Matt Price leading from the front with a lineout throw, catch and drive and him racing to the back, seemingly pushing the rest of his mates with a touch of his hand, accepting the ball and then burrowing to glory.

Tom Poole, sadly having now departed through injury, but proving a powerhouse in the set-piece and loose. His turn of pace a few years back got the BPA crowd to their feet as he made scoring look easy with a run from outside the 22, past defenders aplenty to under the posts. It wasn’t a one off.

In the Rowland Winter era, last season there was a slice of heaven from Olly Povoas, showing not only strength and graft but a footballer’s mind. Sensing a gap, he closed it, tackling the opposite man, bringing him down and somehow managing to turn the ball over as he was swarmed by the opposition. One of those heads you lose, tails I win moments.

There are the aforementioned breaks by Stevens and Grove that we were lucky enough to witness, including at mud-soaked Brickfields against Plymouth leading to Tom Jubb’s score.

The Support

The pace and trickery of Trimble against the same opponents at BPA some months earlier, ghosting past defenders.

And from video highlights, the scything power plays of Rob Knox against Cambridge, Anthony Matoto’s second against Blackheath and James Stokes against Bishops Stortford. The fast men combining superbly to put Alex Grove in against Moseley.

Except, I’m trying to teach Henry about all facets about the game. Cue the video reels showing the team work, the sleight of hand, power and precision and pace, vision and Strictly-worthy footwork, balance and grace.

Of forwards and backs running hard with unity, Olly Povoas’s pacy score against Loughborough, Anthony Matoto’s classy break against Plymouth, of the forwards in support making the ball available so quickly for it to make it’s way to that man Trimble again.

Above all, the move which led to James Stokes’ score against Caldy at BPA. There’s so many hands involved and, unfortunately, the quality of the video means I could be very wrong, but there’s a superb, pacy and powerful break by Nathan Titchard-Jones, who feeds Will Maisey and then it’s Scott Tolmie punching forward. I can’t work out who adds momentum next from his pass, but it’s speed of thought and deed that sees Tom Kessell feed Stokes.

For a rugby education and moments of pleasure, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Thank you Coventry Rugby for some great memories.