Fantastic Bees and where to find them

As the sharp-eyed will have spotted, I intended to write this after last week’s emphatic 5-1 FA Cup third round victory over Eastleigh. However, the praise that I would have then given would have been heavily caveated to take account of the relatively weak opposition. Although Brentford played very well it was against a team in the middle of the table in the Conference National, three divisions below, who were weakened by injuries and cup-tied players so much that they couldn’t name a full set of substitutes. Still, the performance was good in showing how the team could play and score without Scott Hogan (about whom more anon) and this was helped by the surprising decision of Griffin Park’s favourite ex-manager, Martin Allen, now at the helm at Eastleigh, not to use the typical non-league v league club approach of being fired up to make a physical challenge of every ball but to themselves attempt to play a patient, passing game. This made the game look almost like a practice game at times during a first half in which all 6 of the match goals were scored. The second half was less exciting as Eastleigh had clearly been instructed to defend to the exclusion of all else so that they could emerge with a little dignity rather than let Brentford aim for double figures.

Apart from that, the major excitement of the match was the return of Jota after his loan back to Eibar in Spain triggered by his family situation. I don’t remember any player ever receive the reception he got from the fans before the match when his name was read out as a sub, or the cheers he elicited from the crowd whenever he emerged to warm up during the game. But those were as nothing compared to the ovation he got when he finally came on to the pitch and looked, if anything, to have improved as a player from his experience in Primera Liga (even if he didn’t make many appearances for Eibar at that level).

Those of you who have seen the result of today’s game at Griffin Park against Newcastle might now query why I didn’t change the title of this blog. What is so fantastic about a 2-1 home defeat, even if to a massive club managed by Rafa Benitez with a squad which cost more to assemble than the total spent in Brentford’s whole history?

The answer to that is that the team was supremely unlucky not to have got at least a point if not all three from the game and showed against top quality opposition (the win took Newcastle to the top of the table) that they can play exciting, attacking football and be competitive without top scorer Hogan making it onto the pitch.

Hogan was named as a substitute but it seems highly likely that he will be sold during this transfer window after having scored so freely since his return from injury back in April and it was no real surprise when with a purported price tag of £15m he did not play. Whether that is because “his head was in the wrong place” weighing up the chances of a move to a Premier League club or the club simply didn’t want to lose the potential fee as they did last season when Alan Judge got injured is moot.

What the last two team performances have shown at least as possibilities is that just as the team surprisingly prospered last season after Judge’s injury, it might do so again were Hogan to leave even if not replaced with a striker who can make a similar impact immediately. My theory is that this is because his clear excellence at lurking far up field and making runs from apparently innocuous positions to score distorts the way the entire team plays so that they (quite sensibly) focus on picking him out with through balls played from a long way out. This means that other than against very weak or very open teams our midfield can easily get pushed back so that if the ball does not get to Hogan we are a long way from being able to follow up and often will be immediately pushed back into defending. This happened less last season because Hogan was coming into a team that had already set up differently and he had to adapt to it, whereas this season, it has looked a lot more like the team being organised to take advantage of his strengths. This is a little different to the situation with Judge where I think it was more a case that an inexperienced and young squad relied too much on Judge rather than stick to what they were supposed to be doing as a team – reliance on Hogan had been intentional as a tactic at least until Dean Smith changed to playing 3 Centre Backs from the home game against Birmingham City.

That switch has helped to push the midfield further forward so that Hogan was no longer the sole realistic attacking threat. The emergence of 19 year old Tom Field as a capable Left Wing Back to balance out Maxime Colin on the right and finally utilising the fact that we have four very good Centre Backs in Bjelland, Barbet, Dean and Egan has made the team look a lot more balanced. Prior to that there was too much wishful thinking in hoping that one of the midfielders, perhaps Yennaris, would blossom into a defensive midfield enforcer in front of the back four, or that suddenly more creative players like Sawyers or McEachran would go round shouting at referees. Instead, there has been a clear strategy of one or more of the Centre Backs being given licence to go forward in support of attacks and free up the midfielders to go up ahead of them. It is still a work in progress though as I recall from the game away at Leeds where midway through the second half Dean found himself with the ball at his feet just outside the Leeds penalty area and didn’t really know what to do with it next. I’ve been pleased to see both McEachran and Sawyers (who I picked out unfortunately correctly in our first game of the season as being likely to be a target for booing from some of our fans) playing more consistently and effectively. In part this has been because, particularly for McEachran, the little deft flicks and touches are now being read and expected by his team-mates rather than appearing to go randomly to nowhere. None of them are by any means perfect yet, but it is also very easy to forget how young the squad is. Even Bjelland and Vibe, who I’d taken to thinking of as old are 28 and 29 respectively, with most of the rest between 19-23.

In the game against Newcastle, this increased fluidity meant that during the 9 minutes of time added on at the end we almost inverted our formation to push almost everyone forward but still seemed to have enough central defensive cover to recover and restart attacks once Newcastle cleared. It is encouraging and the team has again become good to watch, which is a bonus when it is probably going to be a struggle to reach the play offs.

One thing which I am confident of is that we are unlikely to have any more of a real battle against relegation than we did last season. At the half way point of 23 games, we had 29 points and were in 14th position. My rule of thumb is to consider that as the par score for the second half of the season so that if we perform as we did overall in the first half we’d finish on 58 points which I think would always be enough to finish safe from relegation. Each return fixture in the second half of the season where we have done better than in the original game is a bonus which sees us going up the table. So far, we have managed a draw at home against Norwich (who thumped us 5-0 a few weeks previously at Carrow Road), a win away at Birmingham (who were lucky to have beaten us 2-1 at Griffin Park) and today’s defeat to Newcastle (who beat us much more convincingly 3-1 at St James’s Park). If we can maintain our first half season results for the remaining 20 games that would put us on 62 points. I suspect that we could do somewhat better than that as the team looks a lot more robust and is becoming more consistent. At the very least I’d hope that we can get home wins to make up for the away defeats at Blackburn and Rotherham.

If somehow we can retain Hogan (and not fall back on relying on him as sole threat), Judge does manage to play 10-12 games at the end of the season, Jota gets fully up to speed, Rico Henry recovers from injury to be even better than Field or to generate a healthy rivalry for their shared position, and we acquire some good new players (such as Sergi Canos who we were outbid for by Norwich who then decided he was too far the pecking order to play) we could do rather better than that. Oh, and there’s just the little matter of a trip across West London to play Chelsea in the FA Cup 4th round as reward for beating Eastleigh. Now that really would be fantastic, Bees.

Trump’s Eulalie

I haven’t written anything about last year’s US Presidential Election or the choice Americans made of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton before. Both candidates were pretty unappealing in different ways and in any case, as a Brit I had no vote or influence as well as not much knowledge of the everyday concerns of Americans about how their country should best be run. Working with quite a lot of Americans I was surprised during the Primary Campaigns at how widely disliked Clinton was by even liberally inclined Democrat voters who could see that Bernie Sanders was not a sensible option so I was not entirely surprised when she lost.

The stories emerging this week of Trump’s links to Russia and lurid tales of him paying to watch prostitutes to urinate over each other on the hotel bed previously used by President Obama are just the latest in a long line of critical reports arguing that Trump is a very bad man who will be a very bad President. Who knows if they are true? More importantly, they won’t change the underlying fact that in just over a week’s time, however much one might think him terrible in so many different ways, he will be inaugurated as President.

What few of his critics seem to have properly digested is that all these allegations are much of a muchness with the reams of other improprieties which were well known and publicised before he was elected. Regardless of the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, there were enough people in the right States who did vote for him to make him win and they voted in the context of knowing all this stuff. Of having seen him mock a disabled reporter and mimic his disability (or at least look like it – as with much in politics, if you have to explain what looks obvious you’ve probably lost that battle). One of the things from which all politicians could learn is Trump’s ability to speak in very simple, often literally simplistic, language that is clearly intelligible to ordinary people who aren’t paying a lot of attention to detail and nuance. That extends even to where the words themselves don’t make a huge amount of sense – in this he’s like our John Prescott whose garbled syntax and grammar didn’t prevent from getting across a general impression. So, when, as he did yesterday in his first press conference since the summer , he says that he’s an asset because President Putin seems to like him, sophisticated commentators can infer a pun about “asset” meaning a spy or plant for Russia but it will be heard by ordinary people who are busy thinking about other stuff as him saying that he’s a good thing for America.

One aspect of the allegations about his relationship with Russia and the possibility that Russia could have incriminating evidence about him which they could use for blackmail purposes is that it makes an assumption that he can be blackmailed. But I don’t think he can in any traditional way because it is difficult to think of anything that is so massively more disreputable than the things he’s already been proven to have said or done which could emerge and which he’d do anything to keep from being made public. You can’t really shame the shameless.

So, I think the best approach, if you really wanted to bring down Trump a peg or two and to make his supporters reconsider their support would be to go in a different direction for “dirt”. This would most likely involve finding Trump’s Eulalie.

This comes from PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories and the character of Roderick Spode *, a caricature of Oswald Mosley who Wooster could get to behave quietly and decently by whispering that “he knew about Eulalie”. This alluded to Spode’s other profession of designing and selling lingerie and the fear that were this to become public knowledge, it would rather undermine his appeal as a fascist hard man. All that remains then is to find Trump’s Eulalie. What otherwise harmless thing has he done which would make his supporters blanch? Perhaps there might be evidence of him actually being a highly sensitive soul who relaxes by playing the flute. Or that he likes nothing better than to write love poetry in classical Greek.

No, it’s no good. Apart from being implausible he’d just use it to show he wasn’t the ignorant loudmouth he might seem. He could, I think, even convert to Islam and not upset his supporters because you can just imagine him doing so and then being the first to sign up to his proposed register of Muslims in America. You see, that’s the problem, he really is shameless and that is his truest asset. Bigly. So Sad.

* Now, another prominent modern day Spode is of course Wodehouse’s fellow Dulwich College alumnus, Nigel Farage. If the allegations about him having sought German citizenship turn out to be true, they could be his Eulalie. Or perhaps someone could go a little further than Steph & Dom from Gogglebox who very nearly exposed him as an utter lightweight when they drunk him under the table. I live in hope.

How to be Alone

I haven’t blogged much this year. There’s been plenty to write about but I haven’t really felt like it very often. I’ve also found it hard to read fiction because real life has made caring much about made up ones difficult. So this isn’t a late review of Jonathan Franzens’s collection of essays of the same title (although it is very good and his latest novel, Purity is one of the few I’ve read and enjoyed in 2016).

About 18 months ago Mrs B and I started the process of separation. This year has been one of adjusting and learning how to be alone. Loneliness has started to become something which is being talked about and taken seriously. Prior to her horrific murder, the local MP, Jo Cox was working on a campaign and commission to look into and tackle loneliness and this is being launched in January 2017. I have a degree of scepticism about how practically this might work but it is good that someone is trying. There very clearly is a lot of low hanging fruit – getting people to look out more for older people in their communities or struggling new mothers – but the linked article rightly points out a huge number of different types of people who are suffering from loneliness. There’s an irony that the issue of men’s loneliness is being led on by the Royal Voluntary Service which was established for Women. The typically cheery main storyline of EastEnders over the festive season focused on Lee’s lonely spiral towards attempting suicide, with suicide being the largest killer of men under 45. How much can the public-spirited folk who organise such campaigns really understand about the people they are trying to help (in this regard I think the most important part of the story linked above is Seema Kennedy MP talking about how lonely she felt after first having a child)?

My own personal journey hasn’t been so harrowing, although I have had the odd occasion of feeling almost overwhelmingly teary (oddly usually at Waitrose on a Saturday) or ruefully musing that it is good thing that I am utterly incapable of tying a knot. Strangely, despite having had the week since Christmas alone it is only tonight in a few moments while the returned son is catching up with his friends on his dearly missed XBox that I’ve been able to write.

I’ve been fortunate in maintaining a friendly relationship with Mrs B, still spending a lot of time with Oli and discovering that you are never really alone if you have a dog. Yet there are still times when I can go days on end without speaking to another adult properly, particularly as I work from home half the week. So a lot of this year has been about changing that a bit (you’ve got to work with your own personality – I’ve never been one for striking up conversations with random folk) and about learning how to be OK with it more generally.

I think people are not that good at being alone and it is too easy to let that turn into feeling lonely rather than to embrace the peace of solitude. I’ve found it surprisingly pleasant to go to a pub on my own with a book and enjoy there being others around without feeling that not actually being with them was a problem or a loss. I’ve dabbled with online dating, largely on the basis that if I didn’t have a go soon after being in a relationship I’d most likely have completely forgotten what one involved if I waited until I was really desperate to have another one. What I’ve learned from it is that if you’re not really that good at striking up conversations with random folk in real life you’re probably not going to be much better at doing so on the basis of a collection of photos and a pen portrait. And that there are a lot of tall nurses, hairdressers and horse-owning middle-aged women who have discovered triathlon since becoming single.

Lots of think pieces are being written about how modern life and its increasing reliance on social media is part of the problem, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve been surprised at the kindness of complete strangers on Twitter. Particularly when contrasted to some of the things apparent real life friends have thought appropriate (although to be fair, the vast majority have been lovely). But unlike real life, muting and blocking people online is much easier to do without feeling guilt, and even unpleasantness can be dismissed by remembering that these people don’t know you (which is harder to do with people who you thought did).

We’re all different and so different things will work for different people. Some will have their lives improved by kindly volunteers knocking on their door to check if they’re OK. Others by knowing that actually people are interested in their problems if they want to say to talk about them. And maybe some others will learn that you can be on your own without being lonely, just as sometimes you can feel at your loneliest when surrounded by others when you’d rather something different.

So, roll on 2017. I’m confident that I can face you with the luxury of being upset by celebrity deaths or appalled by the political choices of other people when in 2016 such things had much less impact on my real life than reality. I might even write a bit more.

Happy New Year.