Saturday, 24 November 2012

What's really annoying about Chelsea FC

It’s pretty clear from this week’s press and social media that there’s a widespread distaste for the way Chelsea FC has behaved in its sacking of Roberto di Matteo as manager. A glance at Twitter on Wednesday told me that there are plenty of Chelsea fans who are fed up with the way Roman Abramovich treats his minions, to the extent that some are at the point of not wanting to support the club any longer.

The affair has highlighted some of the worst aspects of modern football, an unhealthy melange of big money, big egos, demands that will never be fulfilled and a willingness to declare a manager a failure for a short term sticky patch. There’s an overwhelming sense of it being a plaything of a billionaire with little patience and less loyalty, made worse by knowing it could easily happen at other clubs that are not as big as Chelsea. Leave aside the stench that remains from the John Terry and Mark Clattenburg affairs, there’s something deeply unpleasant in the events of the past few days.

The worst thing about it is the sense that, despite everything that’s wrong with the club, it will go on being one of the elite in England and one of the most successful in Europe. It will still have the money for massive transfer fees and big wages, which means it will have a large pool of world class players who will win most of their games, and carry off a series of trophies, no matter how much managers are undermined and discarded. There’s a lot to be said for continuity in football, but the experience of the last twenty years shows that it comes second to the amount of money behind a club.

So it’s still possible that, even with a manager who most believe is there as a stopgap, Chelsea could win the Premier League this season, and probable that over the next couple of years it will win two or three trophies. The only real threat is that the owner’s money disappears, and even then a club of its size has a big enough revenue stream to keep itself in the top rank.

That’s what’s really annoying – money makes up for all kinds of mean minded madness in modern football.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Politics and data crunching

One of the interesting points to emerge in the aftermath of the US presidential election is that Obama beat Romney because he had better data crunchers on his side. An article by Michael Scherer in Time magazine explains a lot about how the Democrats used a big voter database to identify what would work with various groups of voters, ran countless projections, and used the information to whip up donations and get the vote out before and on polling day.

I’m sure this is going to have implications for politics in Britain, where the main parties have always got an eye on the latest techniques to find an edge on election days. Data analytics is already a big thing in the business world, and its potential for analysing and exploiting human behaviour makes it an obvious weapon for politicians. And it makes me wonder if this is going to be good or bad for politics.

We’re all familiar with the usual complaints about the way politicians try to get into our good books and scare us away from their opponents. You can call it spin, distortion or outright lying, and while it tends to make a bad impression on anyone who takes a thoughtful interest in politics, it’s highly effective on those who pay no more than a passing attention. And millions of the latter turn out to vote, which is why political parties spin, distort and lie out of habit.

Obama’s win has prompted some speculation that the days of the propaganda merchants are numbered. There’s an argument going around that the data crunchers are becoming more powerful than the spin merchants, and in future elections the use of the voter databases is going to make the most difference in who wins and loses. On first glance that’s mildly encouraging. It may not be inspiring, but there’s something positive about the suggestion that the parties will pay more attention to tapping up their support and making a good impression than using scare stories to hurt the other side. It’s not sexy, but it’s clean.

But looking a little further down the line I don’t see the spin/smear merchants going away. It wouldn’t be long before the data analytics is combined with a series of negative messages – which don’t have to be based on fact – to tilt the balance. Those voter databases can be used to target different groups more effectively, getting them to respond not so much to reminders of who they support, but the fears that can scare them away from a candidate who could otherwise win their vote. Elections could be settled not by one or two big lies, but a series of little lies that touch the buttons of different groups of voters. Give it a few years, and we’ll be reading reports of how the data crunchers have helped the spin merchants bring one or other party to power.

Sorry, it sounds cynical, but that’s politics.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out