Monday, 21 May 2012

Torquay United Football Club

Another post on one of my common and favourite themes; that of family values, community and the strength that can be garnered by the unselfish act of working for others.

Three days ago, our family found themselves fighting that feeling of bitter disappointment that Torquay United had fallen short of the last hurdle in the promotion play-offs! It is almost exactly a year on from when I last wrote about them, in "Coping with Defeat..." following their narrow defeat in the play-off final by Stevenage at Old Trafford.

But now, a few days have passed and some perspective and a sense of proportion has returned, so I feel able to write something about it.

Firstly, a reflection of how well they have played all season; given that it is always tempting to ponder on the result of one or two games, which it's easy to feel they should have won, but didn't, that, if they had, they would have gained automatic promotion; that is how close they got and there is no doubt that would have been an astonishing success!

Secondly, the play-offs are, almost by definition, a separate knockout competition, in which it can be argued that each of the four teams, who have earned the right to be there, have a one in four chance of winning through to promotion. This is despite the observation that it is so often not the team who, out of the four, finishes the season with the most points in the table; more often it is the team in the third or fourth play-off place, who wins promotion. If you accept the evenness of their chances then there is a one in four chance for each of them to win through to promotion. And, as if to provide evidence for this, Torquay United have been involved in the play-offs in four out of the five seasons my son-in-law, Kevin Nicholson, has played for them; and they succeeded in one of them, beating Cambridge United 2-0 at Wembley three years ago to win promotion back into the football league.

The third and final point of perspective here has to do with the spirit of the team. I think it's fair to say that Torquay United do not have one of the largest playing budgets in League 2; they are not a 'big' club. Their location, geographically speaking, is not ideal to attract players and anyone that does move there, as Kev would tell you, have to be prepared to spend a large number of hours in the season sitting on a coach. They have a relatively small first team squad of players and it is a tribute to the fitness and commitment of the players that their legs have carried them this far.

There are bound to be opinions that run counter to these and, if there are, I hope you will accept my invitation to you personally to make your feelings and knowledge known in the space for comment below. Given these perspectives, however, Torquay United have, without any shadow of doubt, punched well above their weight over the past two seasons. But how do they do this? How is it possible in an industry, whose headlines are punctuated by money, big budgets and players, who are paid tens of thousands of pounds a week? There is an answer to these questions, but in case you hadn't already spotted it, allow me to reveal what it is.

Can't recall who owns this photo... any clues?
Before I do, however, I want to express my overwhelming feeling of pride for the thoroughgoing dedication and professionalism of, you might not be surprised to hear,  my son-in-law, Kevin Nicholson, who recently gave a very honest and revealing interview with 'bechampionstv', part of the support systems being set up by the Professional Footballers' Association, and who has played probably the best football of his career this season. But of course it is not just down to him. His neighbour, friend and the inspirational Captain, Lee Mansell has also been a force to be reckoned with all season, along with a number of other core players in the Torquay United squad, the whole squad of players, in other words, who, with what proved to be some seemingly quiet but astute management by Martin Ling, who gives me the impression of being an unusually human of human beings (as football managers go), have melded together a team to be reckoned with. So much so that Kev, along with Lee Mansell and team mates, Eunan O'Kane and goalkeeper, Bobby Olejnik, were nominated in the League 2 'Team of the Year' PFA awards; four players from one team out of twenty four teams; joining seven players from other teams out of perhaps more than four hundred players in the league. That is some recognition!

Now, I need to bring another sense of perspective to all of this by asserting that I have no inside knowledge of the workings and budgets of Torquay United Football Club. I have very few if any conversations with Kev about what goes on behind the closed doors of the changing rooms and, if there is any discussion about this, then it is often about how his team mates are feeling, how is team spirit. The majority of conversations I have with Kev are about how he feels he is playing, how fit he is feeling, how is the ankle injury that he carried for the last couple of months of the season. It is none of these things that I bring to bear in all of this.

No, I'm making no attempt at a commentary on a game, of which I have little technical experience (I played Rugby Union for twenty years) it is my own observations of human nature, of the human condition, that I bring to the table.

It is about team spirit, the bond (and band) of brothers, the close support of wives, girlfriends, family and last but not least the amazingly loyal and supportive fans. Also, the management and supporting staff of a club are involved, in this respect, to make this club probably the best that Kev has played for in his fifteen year career as a professional footballer. It is this sense of 'family', in the literal as well as a broader sense of that word, that I think gives so much added value to the success of this football club. Aside from the fact that Torquay has proved to be not exactly the worst place in the world for him to live with Jen and their two children, it is the cohesive effects of this 'family' that enables synergy to be achieved - that is to say doing the sum, 2 + 2, and coming up with 5 as the answer!

Since we are talking about family, it is also very timely and appropriate that I should mention that Torquay United has just been awarded the 'Family Excellence Award' for the 2011-12 season by The Football League. You can read about this here. This is why we have so much enjoyed going to watch the football that Kev plays in this league, because there isn't the same level of celebrity hype and hysteria that associates itself with the game at the highest levels.

You can put all the money you like into a man's pocket and, yes, he may have almost all the technically prescribed attributes that the ideal footballer is deemed to need, but, at the end of the day, he is still a human being, as we all are; a unique product of his genes and environment; a human being with emotions and an ability for his subconscious mind to take control and do things that are sometimes not exactly ideal and perfect, both on the field of play and off it. Unless you have human cohesion, common purpose, support systems in the form of WAGs, families, team management and essential staff to help you through those moments when you aren't feeling at your best, and, above all else a will to work for your team mates, then, if you are a professional footballer, you are at risk of serious career damage; you are on your own and nobody but a sociopath can survive that.

It is family, loyalty to the team, working for each other and the strength of the spirit that is borne from this attitude that makes a successful team; enables them to achieve beyond budgets and expectations. The team of highly, and, in my view, over paid individuals that will represent England in the European Championships this summer, would do well to take a leaf out of Torquay United's book, which describes the journey they have taken over the past few seasons.

Well done boys, well done!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

I'll be Dashed... if I Care about Poetic Form!

If I were to say that the famous poem, "The Dash" by Linda Ellis, if it is, as I suspect, an attempt at a poetic 'ballad', then it fails technically and, in several places, it's scansion is a tad clumsy and makes it sound like amateur poesy, would you think me a grudging old academic bore and a purist!

You'd be right if you did, because its sentiment, its message, its feeling for what I know most thinking writers will agree encapsulates a view on life, for taking time to live 'in the moment', will endure for ever, particularly of course at that special family gathering, the funeral, where sensitivity to poetic emotion is always high. Perfect poetic form will not endure without the right words.

For these reasons I think "The Dash" is therefore a great poem and shows that, in my view, poetic form on its own is not what counts; it is the choice of words, how you string them together and the 'X' factor - what lies between the lines, its aura, the je ne sais quoi - that have by far the greatest impact.

"The Dash"
I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend.

He referred to the dates on her tombstone

from the the end.

He noted that first came the date of her birth
and spoke of the following date with tears,

but he said what mattered most of all

was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
that she spent alive on earth...

and now only those who loved her 
what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own;

the cars....the house...the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard...
are there things you'd like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
that can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough

to consider what's true and real,

and always try to understand
the way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger,
and show appreciation more

and love the people in our lives
like we've never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect,

and more often wear a smile...

remembering that this special dash
might only last a little while.

So, when your eulogy's being read
with your life's actions to rehash...

would you be proud of the things they 
about how you spend your dash?

Copyright: Linda Ellis 1996

In fact, on further analysis of this poem, setting aside the odd bit of clumsy scansion and its preachy feel, the principle of the Ballad, with its root in couplets written in heptameter, holds pretty well.

Whatever, I take my hat off to Linda Ellis, who struck a rich commercial vein of good fortune following the publishing of this poem. A lesson for us all, you never know as a poet, when your work will get noticed and it could surprise you that it may not be the poems you'd expect to become well known. Sometimes a poem takes on a life of its own. 

Give yourself time to take note of your life and it may surprise you!