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Blog

This is where I write about what interests me.

The Perfectionist's Plight

James Stratford

I am a perfectionist. It might amuse some people I know to hear me say that because I can be quite untidy, often have a day or two of beard growth and make little or no attempt to style my hair! I promise you, however, I am a perfectionist.

Being a perfectionist is a curse. It makes me hugely unproductive. In everything I do I want to impress; I want to do things to 100% of my ability. This all sounds great; high standards are never bad. The problem is that life is not perfect. There are ever decreasing returns on how much time and effort will pay off. Getting from 95% to 100% of what I am capable of demands exponentially more time and energy than getting from 80% to 95%.

Even worse than this is the fact that in our universe of imperfection, 100% is actually unattainable. Time constraints, tiredness, personal tastes of clients, a lack of proficiency et cetera can get in the way. This leads me to sometimes taking an unfathomably long time to complete tasks. This frustrates family, friends and employers alike. It also infuriates me.

I don't want to tell anyone to lower their standards. For every perfectionist reading this with a nodding head there will be someone who happily accepts slap-dash. They probably tell themselves they are the ones that 'get things done.' In reality, too often people just don't care about their work. Those people are the ones that create the stupefying situations in life where a product or service is breathtakingly bad. Those people make my head hurt.

Of course, the world needs those people who get things done well. They are the ones that end up in suits in boardrooms. They meet deadlines. They're also the ones that understand the perfectionist's plight the least. They could never design a beautiful product or write a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. They are the agents who call the writers and tell them they need to get a move on! It takes all kinds…

Most people are somewhere in the middle. They care about their work – they want to do well – but in the end they know that things need to get done and they draw a line at a sensible point and finish the task.

I need to learn that 95% is good enough and that the more work I can do to 95% of my ability the better that 95% will look. As one improves, that 95% will almost certainly become better in absolute terms than what once would have represented 100%. Keep working, keep improving. Stop worrying, procrastinating and nitpicking.

…but I digress.

Financial Fair Play's Big Moment

James Stratford

When UEFA announced their Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, I was happy but doubtful they would be implemented. With Manchester City refusing to accept their sanctions this week, the issue has come to its inevitable head and lovers of the game like me wait with baited breath to see what happens next. Will UEFA be able to force clubs like Manchester City to comply with FFP or will the lawyers get to tear it up in the courts? The future of the game's soul is at stake.

Football is a sport, not a business.

Football is a sport, a game, a competition. It's 11 men playing 11 men in a contest of skill, guile, tactics, mentality, guts, athelticism, passion and willpower. It's the greatest game on earth and is loved accordingly.

I detest it when I hear people tell me that football is a business. Like anything that is popular, it can be monetised with great success. That does not mean that it becomes a business. The business should always piggyback on the sport, not the other way around.

I'm not being naive, we'll always have money men in sport and to an extent they are necessary. What he have seen in football is that these men cannot be trusted to self-regulate and the situation has gotten out of hand. Huge clubs like Glasgow Rangers, Leeds United, Valencia, Liverpool, Manchester United amongst others are either facing or have recently faced huge financial trouble. It is an insane situation and as the governming body of European Football, it is UEFA's job to change things and ensure the health of the sport for the sake of the fans.

Why is FFP a good idea?

In short, FFP means that clubs have to be run within their means. It would seem spectacularly obvious that this is a good idea that would lead to a healthier sport and a fairer competition.

According to UEFA President Michel Platini, 50% of clubs are losing money each year. When FFP was being drawn up in 2009, UEFA said that 20% clubs were in actual financial peril. Many of these clubs are playing in leagues that turn over large sums of money. It is madness that the game is in such a sorry state financially.

Why does it happen? Because club owners know that their is a correlation between the money a club spends on wages and its success on the field. It sounds obvious, of course, but the correlation is more direct that you might expect. This means that owners downplay the risks of big spending, dangerously mistaking gambling for investment. Over time, the prevalence of this attitude has inflated wages and transfer fees to a point that the game cannot sustain.

In England, we saw all too recently one of the great clubs destroy itself with this thinking. In 2001 Leeds United were in the Champions League Semi-Final playing Valencia. In 2004 they were relegated to the Championship. Incidently, Valencia have also suffered from debt problems, being forced to sell the likes of David Villa, Juan Mata and David Silva. Leeds United's problems came from a gamble that the clubs success could pay for its loans. When the success dipped, the club imploded.

Glasgow Rangers are another club that spring to mind. A great institution of fooball ravaged to the point of near-oblivion by financial mismanagement.

It has to stop.

So why go after the rich clubs?

The logic is very simple. The more billionaire-backed clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain spend on players and their wages, the more normally-aspirated clubs will act irresponsibly to compete.

One of FFP's stated aims is to create a level playing field. If the regulations took the wealth of the club's owners into account then nobody could compete on the level of these clubs. That is not a level playing field, and that is not sport. Michel Platini calls it 'financial doping.' I have to say I find that pithy and apt.

Why is Manchester City being singled out?

They're not. The rules are the same for City as they are for every other club wanting to compete in UEFA competitions. They have had years to comply and have clearly failed to do so. Now that they haven't been able to pull the wool over UEFA's eyes and are discovering that UEFA is willing to back FFP, they are falling back on a questionable moral argument that the owners are being punished for their benevolence to the club.

What is beginning to annoy me about Manchester City is the disingenousness and muddying of the waters to justify their position. They cite their investment in the local area. They have expanded the stadium and set about the construction of phenomenal youth facilities. There is no doubt that the owners are good for the club and the area. That is not the point.

They know that the more noble areas of their investment are not held against them by FFP. It is not relavent to the discussion. They mention it because it makes UEFA look unreasonable. Sadly, some are buying it. They can invest all they like – spend billions and billions if they want – on youth facitilities and it will not be punished.

Nobody begrudges new owners investing in clubs. It's a great thing and to be encouraged but it must be done fairly. Huge investment in youth facilities is fantastic. Expanding the stadium lets more fans see the games. Building the brand of the club adds to the richness of the sport. These are all great things and nobody is criticising City for any of it.

FFP is not about stopping investment in clubs, it's about stopping the use of money as a sporting advantage, thereby removing a dangerous incentive to run clubs irresponsibly in order to compete. That means reigning in the billionaires as much as the irresponsible. It's not rocket science.

What about Manchester United?

Another handful of mud City's owners are throwing at FFP is that it does not punish the incredible situation Manchester United find themselves in. I agree with them wholeheartedly that UEFA ought to do something about clubs being taken over in such a way, but that is a separate argument and I am not sure what UEFA can do in that instance.

The Glazers have effectively made Manchester United buy itself on their behalf. It's truly remarkable what they have done there and I can only imagine how angry the club's fans feel about it. However, as far as FFP is concerned, they haven't gained any competitive advantage – quite the opposite.

Manchester United's problems with its owners do not appear on Manchester City's balance sheet.

A cartel of elite clubs

I've heard some journalists and fans accuse the traditionalists of simply wanting to support a status quo where the traditionally successful clubs continue to dominate. This is nonsense on two levels.

Firstly, it's short-sighted. The big clubs wax and wane over the decades. Mancester United's dominance over the past 20 years was preceded by a fallow 26 years. Liverpool haven't won a title since 1990, Arsenal a trophy since 2005. A cartel of the elite doesn't exist. The English game and UEFA competitions have never been sown up by a small group of clubs for any length of time.

Secondly, why would replacing such a group of elite clubs with another group of mega-rich clubs be any better? If the only clubs in contention for silverware were those owned by billionaires, would the game be better for it?

UEFA has it right for once

UEFA had two choices on how to deal with the financial situation of the game. It could crackdown on clubs losing money or it could make all clubs live within their means regardless of the wealth of their owners. Doing neither was not an option.

Do we really want a sport where the fans have to cross their fingers and hope a billionaire decides to choose their club as his plaything in order to dream of success?

It is no surprise to anyone that turkies don't like Christmas. Of course Manchester City fans are loving their newfound success and it's hard to begrudge them it, but they should also remember that Manchester City was itself in financial trouble before the new money came in and relieved them of Thaksin Shinawatra.

It's easy for fans to talk of club rivalries and accusations of sour grapes or jealousy but FFP is good for the game and I hope UEFA can make it stick. If they do, it will improve football in Europe immeasurably. If they fail, it could be a long time before another serious attempt to heal the game can be made. The stakes are high.

…but I digress.

Static

James Stratford

There are more people alive now than there has been throughout the history of the human race in total. We saturate our planet. Geographers will tell you that if we were to spread out evenly we’d each have 47¾㎢ to live in. But we don’t spread out. We clump together and live packed into apartment blocks that tower upward like sequoia trees in asphalt jungles. Perhaps this way of living exacerbates the problem I want to talk about, but the fact is there is just a heck of a lot of people around these days.

When you combine the sheer volume of human life with the globalisation of thought and culture that cinema, satellite television and the internet have brought, you get a real cultural problem. I’m going to call it ‘static’.

In our great cities, people are everywhere.

I visited London recently and walked along the South Bank from The Shard to Westminster as the sun set. As I walked by the Globe Theatre a notion that had been forming in my mind crystallised as I thought of Shakespeare and the famous names of old; there’s so many people now in this place that potential great ones are lost in the background noise.

Where are the original thinkers? The great artists? The luminaries? I thought of Dick Whittington setting off for the city where the streets are paved with gold and asked if there was really any opportunity in this place any longer. Does anyone succeed in our time without a huge slopping spoonful of good luck? By extension, do great people stack shelves whilst unremarkable celebrities dominate our culture?

When Shakespeare came to London the population of the city was a little over 100,000. Think of how much more intimate that would have made the place. How much more likely the great people of the age would have bumped into each other. In 2013, London is infested with 8 to 15 million people depending on how you define it. I feel jealous of those that got to live in a time when they shared the earth with so many fewer people.

The London of today is vast compared to that of Shakespeare's day

This vastness of connected humanity means it takes exponentially more effort, money, luck to rise above the static. It’s not enough any more to write a nice song, you have to strip naked and swing on a wrecking ball to get airplay. It’s not enough to paint a beautiful landscape to be a famed artist, you have to set dead animals in formaldehyde or dress like an insane Arnold J Rimmer. You can’t write a great book and have it published and wait for the success you deserve, you must win a prize to gain media attention so your book stands above the others. It goes on and on.

I find myself wondering would Shakespeare have been famous in 2014? Would we even have noticed his talent? Perhaps with such an astonishing talent the question breaks down, but would Beethoven have been celebrated above Lady Gaga or would he have had to create some ‘look’ to get noticed? In an age of X-Factor and Britain’s Got ‘Talent’, would he have been relegated to the classical music charts whilst our inane culture bought the latest nobody’s single in the hundreds of thousands?

I can’t help feeling the age of the great individuals has passed. Now, great scientific advances come from institutions, not individuals. Committees of civic planners shape our cities rather than the great philanthropists of yesteryear. Perhaps nothing has fundamentally changed, but the scale of our numbers now seems to have removed the romanticism, lengthened the odds for individuals and drained our world of personality.

…but I digress.