More of this please, Brentford 

Well, it has been a strange season, but how great to end with seven wins from the last nine games culminating in this 5-1 drubbing of Huddersfield away! That’s the sort of form Leicester ended last season with so perhaps I can dream about where Brentford might go next season…

After the excitement last season of making the Championship play offs while under the cloud of rumours and debates about the departure of Mark Warburton, the manager who’d taken us from League 1 to our highest finish in over 60 years, this season has been often tortuous. From the appointment of Marinus Dijkhuisen, through the sales of such star players as Gray (now Championship player of the year with Burnley, promoted back to the Premier League), Odubajo, Dallas (Leeds’ player of the year), Diagouraga (who’s actually scored goals since leaving!), and Tarkowski, an injury list too long to recount but which led to the team naming 2 sub goalies away at Middlesbrough just to fill the bench, a dangerously relaid pitch which ruled our most expensive signing, Bjelland out for the season, Lee Carsley rescuing the team on the pitch but stating he wanted his tenure to be as temporary as possible, the appointment of Dean Smith followed by a weak FA Cup exit to his old club, Walsall, and injury to Judge. Phew, that’s a long list. As owner Matthew Benham put it, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. 

Yet we are going into our third season at this level. We’ve finished a very respectable 9th- remember that but for all the stars aligning for us in Derby and Wolves failing on the last day of last season we could have finished that in 8th. 

This bare summary of the match actually tells a lot of of the story of the game and why we should be optimistic for next season. The headline of course is Hogan’s two goals, taking him to an incredible 7 in 157 minutes on the pitch after 18 months out injured. But alongside this it is also heartening to see that both goals came from excellent through balls from Kerschbaumer (as did his first against Fulham last week) and that that same combination nearly got him a hattrick today. Heartening because Kerschbaumer has been perhaps the most heavily criticised of the new recruits- one fellow fan going so far as to describe him as one of the worst players he’d seen in 40 years of supporting the club. 

Vibe’s return to scoring was a big part of the start of the revival in the last 9 games so it was good to see it continue after Hogan went off, his job done and to get an assist for Swift’s closing goal. Both that and Canos’ unbelievably quick opener on 21 seconds were fitting ends to their loans at the club. Getting them both back next season would be good, Canos in particular. Well I can dream. 

Another noteworthy feature was the solidity of Yennaris and Woods in defensive midfield. Many saw Yennaris’ contract extension as a sign of our lack of ambition but he’s developed well and shown himself capable both in his preferred midfield and as cover at right back (only as cover- Colin is the one new player who I’ve thought consistently to be an improvement on the also excellent Odubajo). Woods has stepped up from League 2 well and the interesting thing shown by the picture above is his yellow card. 

The thing we’ve lacked for much of the season has been bite in midfield. McCormack brings it and his return to the team after injury coincided with our good run, but his age means we can’t rely on him forever. While the challenge for which Woods was booked was terrible, for me it was also encouraging because it showed that despite looking slight enough to blow away in the wind he’s developing the aggression we’ve too often missed to remind the opposition that we’re not just there to play tippy tappy. Notably he didn’t shy away from challenging for the next 83 minutes and didn’t look even close to getting a second yellow. The message got through to the opposition. 

Even better, Huddersfield were not especially bad so the result was not like the hammering of 42 shots against Blackpool at home. As against Fulham we actually had a clear minority of possession and passes whereas typically  for the last few seasons, even in the depths of our winless losing run this winter, we’ve had more of the ball and made more passes. As with last season’s game at Huddersfield, Scannell looked their best player and caused problems down their right wing until he went off at half time, presumably injured- he’s someone I’d happily see play for us. When they equalised early in the second half I half worried that this would Peter out into a draw against a team that was less good than us, just as away against Bolton and Blackburn under Carsley. Although I didn’t have long to ponder this before that man Hogan popped up to score and the rest is history!

I suspect there will be a couple of new faces next season but nothing like the rebuilding of the squad this season. The last 9 games have shown that we have a decent squad and that Smith is beginning to make his mark in addressing the defensive Achilles heel we’ve had for a couple of years without sacrificing attacking fluency. The big test will be whether we can do enough to address our weakness against the very top sides (we took only a solitary point out of the 36 available against the top 6). 

All told, a great day and a great end to a turbulent season. But an even better one for the fan with the yellow number 9 shirt who was spotted by the real number 9, that man Hogan and got his match shirt for his troubles. 

Steel Yourself

Over the past week steelworks in the UK have ceased production one after the other. First SSI in Redcar, then Caparo and Tata Steel. The basic reason for this is that the global price of steel has fallen significantly from $500 a tonne when SSI spent £1bn on taking the Redcar plant it acquired from Tata out of mothballs five years ago to $300 a tonne now. Even without looking at the economics in any detail that sort of a price crash in such a short period of time would cause any business serious difficulties and even more so in an industry for commoditised products with typically low margins like steel.

Many commentators have said, “surely something can be done”. Britain has a long and proud industrial tradition in the manufacture of steel. Middlesbrough even briefly had a league football club called Middlesbrough Ironopolis and at one point produced more steel than the rest of the world combined. It seems wrong that apparently at the stroke of a liquidator’s pen so much history and so many jobs could vanish. While it seems that Tata Steel will be mothballing its remaining plant (as it did with Redcar in 2008*), the furnaces have been switched off at Redcar. This means that they cannot subsequently be restarted so this really is the end for much British production. But, the sad reality is that there is probably nothing which can be done quickly enough to save production, jobs and heritage, even if the money could be found to support the steel industry until global prices rose sufficiently to make it viable again (and that itself is unlikely to happen while there is substantial overcapacity elsewhere in the world).

However, even if there were the means for the government to afford to rescue British steelmakers, there’s a bigger obstacle in the form of the EU State Aid rules. In brief, these prohibit the provision of state support where that could distort competition. In a market economy that means that bailing out bankrupt businesses is almost always prohibited. There are provisions for notifications of proposed aid to be made to the European Commission to seek approval and these have, for example been used when RBS and Lloyds/HBOS were rescued during the crash of 2008. The approvals granted then were subject to significant conditions involving divestments of profitable parts of the business and spinning off divisions which had too large a share of the market. These were then updated later in the process of nursing those banks back towards health to include prohibitions on paying out dividends.

Well, why not provide aid to the steel companies and have some conditions like this? Unfortunately, steel has been considered a special case, along with coal, since the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) Treaty of 1952 which predated the Treaty of Rome establishing what is now the EU (the existence of this treaty and the community it established is the reason you sometimes still hear references to the European Communities rather than European Community, ECSC, the European Atomic Energy Community and the EEC were merged in 1965 and the UK joined the merged Community in 1972). The ECSC Treaty arose in the aftermath of World War II and specifically sought to create a single market across its signatory states for coal and steel. The reason for this is that coal and steel were at the time the raw materials for the building of national military strength. By looking at capacity requirements on a transnational basis the thinking was that it would not be possible for any country to ramp up production in preparation for building a load of tanks, planes and warships as had occurred prior to both World Wars. Article 4(c) abolished and prohibited “subsidies or state assistance… in any form whatsoever” and the Treaty more broadly set out the basis for competitive markets in coal and steel to operate in the absence of such subsidy.

The ECSC Treaty expired after 50 years in 2002 and the case law and guidance which had built up over the previous 50 years on what was covered by the prohibition of subsidies was summarised in the Commission’s Notice under EU law of 19 March 2002. This was titled “Rescue and restructuring aid and closure aid for the steel sector” and covered two different scenarios. First, the rules to apply in respect of aid for rescuing or restructuring steel firms in financial difficulties and second, the rules in respect of assisting steel workers who lost their jobs when steel works closed.

Article 1 of the Notice concludes:

“In these circumstances [referring to prior decisions], the Commission considers that rescue aid and restructuring aid for firms in difficulty in the steel sector …are not compatible with the common market.”

Under the EU State Aid laws, it is up to the Commission to decide, where a proposed aid package is notified to it (such as with RBS), whether that aid package is “compatible with the common market” and therefore can be approved. This Notice makes it clear that the Commission does not have any power to determine whether aid to bail out a steel company is compatible with the common market by deeming that it never would be. Although the Notice expired in 2009, this is very unlikely to make any difference at all to the position because the previous history of the industry and its regulation by the Commission is so clearly against the provision of such aid in any circumstances. The Commission would technically have discretion to consider a notification, but it is difficult to see how it could conclude that aid of a form which had been prohibited for 57 years could now be seen as compatible with the common market. This can be simply illustrated by putting yourself in the position of say a German steel maker which had managed to remain solvent despite the drop in steel prices. That business would rightly feel aggrieved that the reward for having run itself so as to be able to bear a 40% drop in steel prices was to find its British competitors being given a handout to let them carry on trying to win business from them. 

So, why not do as Nigel Farage suggested and simply ignore the EU rules? After all, apparently we Brits are far too overzealous and scrupulous about complying with them, whereas those perfidious Europeans simply ignore them if they aren’t in their national interests. The problem here is that the sanction for illegal state aid is that the amount provided has to be repaid immediately and in full. As the businesses in question here are bankrupt, if the aid is considered to be a loan which is repayable when the ECJ gets round to making an order, the value of those loans would have to be calculated on the basis of the sort of interest rates which a significantly distressed borrower might have had to pay (ie a very high interest rate!). It is not too fanciful to imagine that SSI, Tata and Caparo would not wish to borrow at those sorts of rate and so would not accept an offer of aid, which is probably why one thing which has not been reported is any of those companies complaining they couldn’t get any financing from the government. It is also worth noting that when in 1993 the Italian government wanted to write off €4bn of debts for the Italian steelmaker, Ilva, as part of the preparations for privatisation this was blocked by the Commission. This is also noteworthy because investment by a state in a nationalised industry with the intention of maximising the return on privatisation is something which is generally allowed as long as that investment is proportionate to that aim.

An alternative might be to nationalise and then pump whatever was needed in. At least this would in theory take away the risk to the business of repayment, right? No, unfortunately not, the Commission isn’t that stupid! It would be as if after the government bailed out RBS it was told it was not allowed to guarantee its massive debts. Instant collapse of RBS. Or here, instant collapse of “National Steel”. At the moment, the Commission is in fact investigating a complaint about the aid Italy has given to Ilva this year (Ilva having been renationalised in January to protect it from the consequences of breaches of environmental law) so nationalisation is no magic bullet either,

In summary, while remaining in the EU, the state bailing out the steel companies is not an option. It probably wouldn’t be an option even if we were outside the EU as enabling them to export steel at market price while it cost 40% more to produce would be a pretty clear violation of the anti-dumping rules, but that is another set of laws entirely (as is the question whether the global market price has been artificially depressed by the Chinese or Russians subsidising exports – which might in theory provide a defence were either of them to bring an anti-dumping case against a hypothetical non-EU UK). The best we could do would in those circumstances would be to require the use of domestically produced steel by British users of steel for products which were not to be exported.

Sadly, those who think more could be done are I think indulging in wishful thinking.

* After Redcar was mothballed in 2008 I advised various public sector funding bodies and possible users of the site on what uses for the facilities could be supported by the state without falling foul of the State Aid rules. From memory, these were largely confined to using the testing and laboratory facilities to develop new product prototypes and research rather than any form of commercial production. I did enjoy a few Parmos while taking the bracing sea air though. 

Botzarelli’s Third Law

There’s a lot of talk these days, particularly with respect to politicians and public figures about authenticity. What does it mean? I’m not sure it means much more than just acting normal. What does that mean? This is where my Third Law comes in to help.

“Almost everybody thinks their life is normal. Not that it is the same as everybody else’s but that it is ordinary. And almost everybody is right when they think that.”

Of course, some people have completely unusual and obviously extraordinary lives. Some of them can’t really avoid this – for example, the Royal Family are born into very peculiar circumstances which they have little real way of changing. But even they don’t have to be so different in their private lives as can be seen by the sheer cringeworthy embarrassment of the details of Charles and Diana’s accounts of their relationships or on a happier note, the very natural way in which Princes William and Harry talk of the Queen as their grandmother. Others choose to design extraordinary lives for themselves, particularly professional celebrities who deliberately turn their lives into public soap operas with differing degrees of stage management and artifice. Some are better at this than others – Jordan is the consummate professional at this, as are the Kardashians. Peter Andre and Kerry Katona on the other hand can’t stop being themselves or letting this break through the facade of PR gloss. 

But, once you get onto pretty much everyone else, the reality is that behind closed doors their lives (rather than the jobs they do) are ordinary to them. Whether you are very wealthy or desperately poor, most of the time I don’t think you spend a lot of effort ruminating on that but on the relationships you have and the pleasures and pains that life visits on you in reality. Life would be largely intolerable otherwise. We all get ill, fall out with people, fall in love, fight, get bereaved, worry about our children, laugh with friends, enjoy our leisure activities and all the other petty things that make up ordinary everyday life. If someone we are close to dies the grief we feel is not greater or less if they or we are rich or poor. The joy of the Kolkata street children on winning a game of cricket improvised on a street with a running sewer is not different in kind to that of the Etonian hitting the winning runs against Harrow at Lords.

None of this means at all that there aren’t differences and that we shouldn’t try to improve people’s material position or support the vulnerable. Rather that it is dangerous to start to think of there being only one way of being authentic and normal and that those whose lives are not like ours are somehow not normal or could not understand ours just because we refuse to understand theirs.

If you observe Botzarelli’s Third you can avoid the peril of seeming odd because it is the key to how to act normal. People who have to try to act normal almost invariably come across as odd. You can only act normal if you are a very good actor and few really are – in Jon Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test, he interviews a psychopathic prisoner who comes across as incredibly normal and reasonable, but it is that which is the real giveaway. Everyone else, in attempting to act differently in presenting themselves as themselves will just emphasise what others might already have thought made them a bit unusual. That’s why the more poor Ed Miliband tried to look and sound what he had been told was “normal” the less like himself and the more peculiar he looked and sounded. And its why the actually quite odd Boris Johnson can “get away” with looking and sounding odd because he doesn’t seem to try to be any other way and it is hard to imagine him in private stopping looking and sounding like an overgrown and unruly schoolboy. It’s also why I think it’ll be a mistake if Jeremy Corbyn really does spend a lot of time trying to persuade people he really does love Britain in his first Labour Conference leader’s speech later today rather than just shrugging it off.

Don’t act normal, just be.