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Now and Then, and then again…

Words, music, pictures, and more words

The Sheffield Football Crisis – 2021

The city of Sheffield has now had both professional clubs relegated in the same season – the seemingly impossible, and in the cradle of professional football.  So what’s up in the Steel City?  

For those who know the name well but not what lies behind it, Sheffield is up there as one of the very largest British cities, built on and around its seven hills, with all the characteristics of a set of interlinked villages, and largely minding its own business.  60% of the city is green space, it’s home to the largest community of artists and designers outside London, has a huge University community and it’s full of self-deprecating, friendly locals with their dry and quirky sense of humour – quite unlike other big cities in the North, brash Leeds, self-confident Manchester, and vibrant Liverpool.  Sheffield folk don’t want to be known as too loud or too cocky.  So is it too nice a place to compete in the big wide world, tucked away as it is in the southwest corner of Yorkshire? 

The journey for United and Wednesday this season has been all-too-familiar for those who have followed either club over the years – good reasons for optimism soon dashed by the inevitable reality of the unforgiving world of football.  But why Sheffield, and why does the city seem to breed perennially underachieving football teams?

After a long tradition as a centre for steel and cutlery manufacture, it has had to reinvent itself over the last decades since the ‘Thatcher effect’ and the pricing of Far East suppliers forced factory closures by the score.  Many people only associate the city now with the World Snooker championship played at the Crucible Theatre.  Not a resounding affirmation of years of toil and creativity.

In line with other big cities, you might expect continuing success at the highest levels on the football field – after all, the city is steeped in football tradition with the oldest club in the world (Sheffield FC – and still going strong in the Northern Premier League), and the third oldest professional club (originally The Wednesday Football Club), with both United and Wednesday proving that they’re able to sustain a near 30,000 home gate with a moderately successful team.  

United’s demise could be rated as something of a surprise after their 9th place in the Premier League in season 2019/20.  But an unforgiveable lack of investment in quality players in the close season quickly rendered them non-competitive, with a lack of necessary class and alternative strategies to that which worked for them the previous season.  2020/21 has seen a freefall descent to relegation, a situation which must have galled their energetic and proven manager Chris Wilder so much, that he ended up waving goodbye to the club he supported, played for, and managed after a ‘breakdown in his relationship with the club’s owner’.  There’s only ever one winner in that situation, but they never saw any value in hanging on to their greatest asset.

I have lived with this situation for many years, being Sheffield-born and a supporter of Wednesday – and a past admirer (but never a supporter) of United. 

United’s current problems seem straightforward, as the investment-focused Premier League takes no prisoners and waits for no man.  

As regards Wednesday, I posed the ‘Why Sheffield?’ question on the excellent fan forum Owlstalk and received a welter of genuinely useful (and printable) suggestions and comments, and I’m grateful to all those who showed interest – undoubtedly hoping to unearth the golden nugget, and help put the club and city on a fast-forward track to some consistent success.

Owlstalk seems to mirror traditional British football support, as, in a very recent census of its membership, 90+% were white, middle-age males, with the majority living in the local area.  But these are the ones inevitably best placed to pronounce verdicts on what has and hasn’t happened over the years.

Sheffield United’s recent experiences mirror those of Wednesday in so many ways that it’s easy to bracket the two together, and as one set of statistics for the last 50 years show, both clubs have spent 26 years in the 2nd tier, Wednesday have been in the top tier a little more than United, and a little less in the 3rd tier – very much a  B- exam result. 

There have been scattered flashes of tantalising success, such as 2nd tier Wednesday winning the Rumbelows Cup in 1991 against Man U, two Cup Finals against Arsenal (losing them both), and 3rd place in the last season of Division 1 in ’92.  United can justifiably point to the success of Chris Wilder’s management with their dizzy rise from the middle of the 3rdtier in 2017, to 9th place in the Premier League last season.  

Supporters of both clubs must have thought at the time ‘at last we’ve got it right and we here to stay at the top table’, but it wasn’t to be.  So, why?  How can clubs like Burnley, Brighton and Crystal Palace crack the code, and why can’t a Sheffield club do a Liverpool, or a Manchester?

United’s issue of a lack of investment seems to be a straightforward one, but there is still much commonality in the issues affecting both clubs.

Wednesday were always going to have an uphill struggle starting this season on -12 points due to accounting irregularities (later reduced on appeal to -6 points).  Interestingly the blame for failure isn’t directed primarily at the players.  I’ve seen them many times this season, and never did I think they didn’t care, or weren’t fit enough, or lacked basic skills.  They have been inconsistent to a fault and prone to individual errors at vital moments, but is that due to too much tinkering by the four managers they have had in charge of them this last season?  I would question why the managers have largely set them up to defend rather than attack.  Never likely to win friends or matches, this certainly didn’t play to the strengths of those selected to represent the club on the field.  So why in 2020/21 season, has the team on the field lost 27 points from winning positions, and (just let this fact sink in), won only one single point in a game where they have fallen behind (the last match vs. Derby).  Those two facts are staggering in their own right and would justify much finger pointing at the team, but they indicate much deeper club-wide issues.

Leadership

People usually buy football clubs to turn a profit in the future. They think they’re good enough to do that.  Some do, some don’t.  Anyone from outside this country who buys outright or has a major share in a club and who is not aware of the club’s history, culture and customs, may well be on a hiding to nothing.  Dejphon Chansiri (SWFC owner) seemed to know nothing about SWFC when he bought the club from Milan Mandaric in 2015, but had the money due his family’s track record in the Thai fishing industry – hardly a guarantee success on the football field.

Credit to him for the new playing surface, appointing the charismatic Carlos Carvalhal as manager, and pitching in with a wad of cash to buy some name players, albeit some who were sliding down from the top of their game and some who spent more time sliding onto the treatment table.  His first two seasons at the helm brought a play-off final vs Hull (lost 1-0), and the playoffs the following season (lost to Huddersfield).  At that point the good times, such as they were, stopped rolling, and Wednesday now find themselves spending the 2021/22 season in Division 1.  Mr Chansiri’s investment has not worked out – and he laid himself open to criticism with his choice of ‘advisors’, when all he had to do upon arriving was to listen to those who understand Sheffield football, and appoint former manager and Wednesday all-round legend Howard Wilkinson – a man thoroughly versed in the club and city culture – as his right hand.  If he had, most are certain that there would have been a different story to tell.  His own choice of ‘advisors’ seemed bizarre at best, with one of them, Erik Alonso, going on to buy Derby County, Wednesday’s opponents in the final match, andf with whom we vie for a relgation spot.

United’s owner is Prince Abdullah bin Mosa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and like Chansiri, not a local lad, but one who might sniff a return on his investment in due course.  There has been friction around the club both before and after his arrival, coming to a head in the High Court.  His son-in-law, Prince Musaad, has recently resigned from his role as Chairman.  But the true test is how he has invested in his acquisition.  The investments he has overseen on the playing field, have been very poor, resulting in swift relegation back to the Championship, but with the benefit of parachute payments to soften the blow.  They should have enough about them to ensure no further drop from there.

With the current situation, this is the real test of their leadership and those whom they entrust with the day-to-day running of the clubs.  It should not be a money-centric view either – it’s a root and branch exercise for both of them this time.

The City

What makes for a successful city these days?  Certainly being in the centre of things helps – again, think London, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle with their ‘names’, geographical location and easy transport links.  Sheffield is a border city, tucked away in a corner, and put at an economic disadvantage.  The M1 passes it by, the main river isn’t navigable, it’s on a branch line of the main railway network, but, with a degree of foresight not common in these parts, and with all those hills to contend with, Sheffield did at least build its own airport from scratch and opened it in 1997.  It had a London City Airport length of runway, too short to ensure success matched the ambition.  It closed in 2008 and the site was sold for £1.  It says a lot about Sheffield and its city fathers.

The City authorities seem to regard local football with distrust and even hostility, and relations with the local police has been distinctly icy since the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.  There’s no forward plan to include football as part of any ‘Invest in Sheffield’ PR campaign.  It has been cursed with the ‘sleeping giant’ tag for longer than I can remember.  Both clubs can rely on good attendances when times are good, enough to fund a decent club with decent investment levels, and attract the money men.  Why would one want to buy Bournemouth with a ground capacity of just over 11,000? – but that’s another story…

So, Sheffield is a fine place to live and work but not a wealthy city with its own industry or reputation in leading-edge finance, sports or media, and also in a relative backwater.  Should that influence sustained success on the pitch?

Fate

All supporters say that their clubs are victims of the whims of the footballing gods.  Sheffield Wednesday can lay justifiable claim to having angered the gods as much as any club, since the 1950s.  Here are just a few fascinating examples of fate lending a hand along the way:

  • Derek Dooley, the most prolific scorer of the early ‘50s and Wednesday legend, suffered a freak accident on the pitch, having to undergo a leg amputation
  • 3 players found guilty of match-fixing in ’64, and banned for life
  • Managers like Harry Catterick and Howard Wilkinson were allowed to leave – both going on to success with Everton and Leeds respectively
  • The Hillsborough Disaster in 1989
  • Bringing Eric Cantona to England in the first place, only to say that he wasn’t what we needed, after a trial
  • Relegated from the top flight just before the big money and parachute payments came in
  • Securing the services of the proven Steve Bruce in 2019, only to have him walk out 6 months later to become manager of his boyhood club, Newcastle United
  • Latest manager Darren Moore has been off work COVID infection and complications for the last and most important matches of the season

Wednesday have made some good decisions as well, such as buying Chris Waddle when at the peak of his powers, but these seem to be overwhelmed by the indifferent ones, affecting all parts of the club, with the final nail in the coffin being the points deduction for this season, leaving them tantalisingly short of the number of points necessary to stay up. 

So, is the Sheffield Football Crisis down to the teams, club leadership, the city or fate?  Take your pick.  Optimism will be in short supply next season, but, with some well-thought out strategic decisions taken, Sheffield football could surprise us all by being truly competitive.  We supporters live in hope of a bright future – but we aren’t holding our breath.

Anniversary #1 – Pop Goes The Weasel

It’s exactly one year since I published my first WordPress blog entry, so it’s back to childhood for this short post. Pop goes the Weasel is one of those peculiarly English expressions, which, on the face of it, is hard to comprehend*. It is a nursery rhyme from the days of yore, and it’s one which I seem to have known for ever.

Only a couple of days ago, I heard the words, and, even though it must be the best part of 50 years since I heard the song, I was singing the words to Anthony Newley’s 1961 hit of the same name – word for word. If you don’t know the singer’s name, he was an actor, singer and songwriter whose heyday was in the 1960s – a very clever man with an easily distinguishable London-accented style.

This ‘singalong’ ability of mine isn’t restricted to this Anthony Newley song – many, many other songs from the ’60s easily come back to mind word-for-word even if I’ve barely heard them over the years. They must have stuck there as they were in my formative 13-18 years – and of course I remember much else from that period – I even remember the ‘summer of love’ in 1967, when it’s said that if you remember it, you weren’t there…..

At nearly 71, I feel I am lucky to have retained my memory function seemingly intact, whereas many have either lost recall or are losing it. It always seems to be ‘I remember what happened 50 years ago, but not 50 seconds ago’. A common problem linked to the Alzheimer’s brain disease, which I can only hope never comes my way.

It may be pre-written into my genetic makeup that I get it or not, but I just make a point of stretching myself mentally as much as possible – stretch not stress – and I’ll keep up with this for the rest of my days, if I’m spared.

*’Pop Goes the Weasel’ meaning (according to the lyrics in Anthony Newley’s version).

Pop goes the weasel refers to
The habit of London hatters long ago
Popping or pawning their weasels
Or accessories on Saturday night
To buy liquor, isn’t that interesting
….

5 Brief Business Lessons – #5 – the Price

Each lesson is a direct personal experience. My 45 year career was packed with memorable happenings, but the people – whether colleagues or customers – taught me there was a right way to do good business, whilst making friends and helping organisations grow and prosper along the way.

Maintaining a proper sale price for anything, will result in income generation which should enable a business to pay its way and prosper.  Selling things at a discount from list price – unless the list price has been deliberately hiked – is a road to nowhere, unless you are dealing in such large quantities that any bad effect on profits, is nullified.  But how often do you see 70% off etc – which may go to show how much profit margin was being made in the first place, or, more likely, reflects more or less the cost-to-make – so better to sell at a break even price if it clears the shelves for stocking more profitable items.

Products are one thing, but where you are selling products and services,  – i.e. you have to support the products with people who need paying – then anything other than a ‘proper price’ is unacceptable.

In my last posting before ‘retirement’, a young salesman asked if I would accompany him to a meeting, at which he hoped to clinch an order.  The proposal involved software licenses, maintenance services, plus training for the staff. 

We arrived at the customer’s premises, to be met by the owner and the sharp-eyed lady company secretary, whose role, I soon learned, was to drive down the price by a combination of charm and stealth.

Lady:  Right, we have your prices here, and we want to go ahead with it – but what can you do about the price?

Me:  So I presume that you want to pay less than we are asking for?

Lady:  Well, yes – I’m sure you can squeeze it a bit as I’m sure you’d like the order today.

Me:  Of course I can do a lower price.  Which bit don’t you want?

Lady:  What do you mean?

Me:  You can pay less, but which elements of the quotation don’t you want”

Lady:  We need it all, don’t we?

Me:  I would have thought so – and if you want it all, the price is the price we have on the quotation page.  And any reduction in the price won’t be accepted by the company, as each element goes through our ISO 9000 quality control system, and any attempt to deviate from this will result in a non-acceptance.  There is one exception, in that if you choose to pay in full with your order, it allows for a 2.5% reduction on the full price.  Would you like to do that?

Lady:  (slightly flustered , having been rumbled)  Oh, and that’s final?

Me:  I can’t do anything about it – but I’m sure you know that it represents fine value, and it is what you want – and you do get me at no charge if you want to discuss anything related to all of this in the futureAnd (smiling). I am great value too.

So the deal was done and everyone was happy with the outcome.

As soon as we got in the car to go back to the office, the young salesman said ‘that was brilliant – and you said it all with a straight face’.  I said it wasn’t a question of saying anything other than what I knew and believed.  ‘If you believe it, it’ll come over perfectly naturally, and you’ll say it every time.  Besides, if you knock money off, that comes off the company’s profit margin, your commission etc etc – and the customer will think that he can always ask for it.  It’s all about VALUE, not price.

The Moral

If the purchaser perceives (or is reminded of) the VALUE of what he is buying, price recedes into the background – which is why it’s vital to focus on this and the expected ROI (Return On Investment) he can receive.  And if you can demonstrate this from other customer experiences, you are a long way down the road to maintaining both your margins and the future success of your business.

5 Brief Business Lessons – #4 – the Poisoned Chalice

Each lesson is a direct personal experience. My 45 year career was packed with memorable happenings, but the people – whether colleagues or customers – taught me there was a right way to do good business, whilst making friends and helping organisations grow and prosper along the way.

The Poisoned Chalice

At the age of 21, when my career as a fledging accountant had foundered on the rocks of unsuitability, I changed paths into a career that could use what I had learned, but in a more practical way.

The company which I joined had a fine reputation for investing in their new employees by training them thoroughly in all aspects of the business. They didn’t let me down on that score, but, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

My chosen path was to provide companies with accounting machines (as they were known back then, and before the electronics boom which began in the mid 1970s), mainly to do ‘debit/credit/plonk’ work, maintaining their sales and purchase ledgers, as well as an ability to work out payslip information – with the aid of good old Table A and Table B, for those who remember. Not forgetting that the basic ability of these machines extended not much further than addition and subtraction, it was still a whole leap forward for most organisations whose previous take-up of technology went as far as a stack of pens and an adding-machine.

It’s fair to say that I had an inauspicious start, with a combination of lack of confidence and unsupportive management, being my reasons. And then, in 1975/6, a change of management to a couple of guys who just had the best of attitudes, and their help combined with a new-found confidence, brought about a swift change in fortunes. In 1976, I was the second most successful salesman in the UK at my level, which was reflected in some decent remuneration and other prizes along the way. BUT with the plaudits, came the poisoned chalice!

The UK Divisional Director (to us the Big White Chief) contacted me directly to congratulate me on my success, and, being as I obviously had the golden touch (!), he asked if I would like to take 4 weeks out of my current job, and come to Head Office in London, and run some training courses – and my peers would be the ones I would be training. Aaarghhh ….I knew most of them and there was no chance I was going to get an easy ride.

I went to London (having negotiated a salary hike to cover loss of normal earnings) to be given the course material, and then I had to write it up. There would be three separate modules, taking 3 days x 3 groups of salespeople (all men, as lady salespeople was a step too far in the mid 1970s).

And so to the courses themselves:

Course 1 – truly dire, lacking in conviction with poor communication skills, and worst of all I came up short time-wise in every element. Could it get any worse? The saving grace was that the attendees gave me a decent critique, so it can’t have been as bad as I thought, or were they showing some fraternal support for one of their own who had drawn the short straw?

Course 2 – better – more confidence, more knowledge, more open discussion, more time used up, but not all of the allotted, but getting there – and I was beginning to enjoy it.

Course 3 – loved it – complete confidence and grasp of subject matter, and I felt that I could answer any question fired at me. Full interaction, and, believe it or not, I actually overran my time on all sections – which wasn’t a problem, as it meant everyone was getting full value. Great critiques too.

Of course, all this did wonders for my overall confidence, and opened up other channels of activity over the years. I ended up doing a lot of training, CPD sessions, I ran seminars, performed on stage etc – and I like to think that all these extra facets to my normal work only came about because I was handed the poisoned chalice, but didn’t choose to drink from the cup.

The Moral

You can learn a lot from doing the difficult things, how to do them better, because you never know where it might lead. It’s a bit like doing an Open University course in the evenings to gain a further qualification, or taking singing lessons even though you are a perfectly competent singer. It’s always worth going the extra mile because you find out so much more about yourself by doing it. I’m glad that I did!!

5 Brief Business Lessons – #3 – People who Love People

People Who Love People

Each lesson is a direct personal experience.. My 45 year career was packed with memorable happenings, but the people – whether colleagues or customers – taught me there was a right way to do good business, whilst making friends and helping organisations grow and prosper along the way..

I received a ‘phone call from a lady in London (300 miles south of my office), asking for a price for a new software system specific to her profession (she nominated the product for which we were Gold Star resellers), with support, training course, ongoing maintenance etc. I didn’t know her, and she didn’t know me, but I detected a slight note of exasperation in her voice. She knew exactly what she wanted in terms of licenses etc etc (always a brownie point for organisation!)

Me: Have you been given proposals from suppliers in your area?

She: (hesitating a little) Yes, I’ve had quotations from A and B (the two major London area suppliers)

Me: But have they discussed how best to implement it with you, and dare I say, made a business proposal on the back of that?

She: No – they’ve given me quotations

Me: But surely if you’re spending that amount of money, you expect a little more TLC?

She: Yes – well put. We know we need to do this, but I’m not convinced that I have found the supplier I want to work with

Me: (sensing the opportunity). OK, I understand, this is what I propose….

I said that I would prepare a document summarising what she said she needed, a draft plan of implementation (to be discussed) – and of course the financial implications of their purchase. I said that I would do this, on the premise that if she liked what she read, I would come down to London without obligation, and talk/walk her and her management team through the whole implementation process from A-Z – something I would expect to do for any company.

So, arrangements were made for me to go to London. When I talked this through with colleagues, there was many a dissenting word – ‘a waste of a day’, ‘A or B will always get the deal down there’, ‘haven’t you better things to do?’. I explained the scenario, and whilst I couldn’t guarantee an order, I felt sufficiently strongly about it that I would be prepared to fund the trip myself, in the event of no contract. They went along with my assessment – and maybe the thought of a £10000 margin for a day’s effort was an influencer. People, eh?

The day came – train into King’s Cross mid morning, a one mile walk to their offices, and a 3 hour meeting over an extended lunchtime. They seemed happy with my approach and how the implementation would be achieved over the following 12 months to achieve the payback they wanted (making sure that they understood their responsibilities). They said that would get together as soon as I left with a view to coming to a decision. They also knew that I was asking for a 30% prepayment with order.

I walked back to King’s Cross, and caught up with my messages on the concourse, waiting for my scheduled train. PING – a new email, and it was from the company I had been with that day. “Thank you for coming to see us today. We are happy to confirm our order for the new system as proposed, and if you would forward your company’s bank details, we will lodge a payment for the agreed 30% of the contract value”.

I raised my arm in the air was if celebrating a winning goal, and forwarded their email to the team back at the office, with a smiley face.

The Moral

Take each prospective sale situation on its merits, and make a judgement. Many, many times you might choose not to progress a situation, or at least make sure that your price covers the inevitable challenges which some customers present. Listen to what is being said to you, and how it’s being said, and see if the main ‘qualification’ boxes are ticked. I think I’ve always been good at doing this – there’s no value in coming a glorious second in the race – that just costs time, money and reputation. AND the bonus of this luxury of choice, is that you should ensure a good, long-term and profitable relationship, with people you enjoy working with. You will become a ‘trusty’, and your word should not be questioned – as long as you keep your promises and and don’t let anyone down along the way.

They will then be happy to sing your praises, which in turn helps the next sale, and so the carousel of business goes around.

5 Brief Business Lessons – #2: The CPD Presentation

Each lesson is a direct personal experience. My 45 year career was packed with memorable happenings, but the people – whether colleagues or customers – taught me there was a right way to do good business, whilst making friends and helping organisations grow and prosper along the way.

The CPD Presentation

CPD is the 3-letter abbreviation for Continuing Professional Development. It refers to the process of tracking and documenting the skills, knowledge and experience that a person gains both formally and informally in their job, beyond any initial training. It’s a record of what you experience, learn and then apply.

CPD may be a requirement of membership of a professional body. It can help to reflect, review and document learning and to develop and update professional knowledge and skills.

So where do I come into this?

The professions – accountancy, law, architecture etc – are particularly wedded to CPD as a measuring tool for personal development, and whilst it is down to the individual to progress and instigate a plan for him/herself, it is very often the professional practice which sets up meetings and presentations, nearly always at lunchtime. The deal was that the invited presenter (me) would provide lunch for those sitting in. This would be a large tray of sandwiches to be eaten whilst I was presenting, and if I was lucky there may be one left at the end for me. Strictly time-limited, they were not a sales exercise, but a learning and development tool for those attending. I performed scores of such presentations in the latter years of my career, to the architectural design profession, for whom my company was an accredited CPD provider.

Whilst being professionally managed by both parties, even to the extent of issuing a certificate to all those attending, it was an opportunity to expose both the partners and ‘workers’ in a practice, to (in my case) the latest trends in design technology. Case studies would explain why other practices had decided to follow the trends, with the unspoken sub-text being ‘if they’re doing it, why aren’t you, because if you don’t you’ll be left behind‘. This tack was often very much in the minds of the partner/director i/c within the practice, who wanted to promote the use of newer technology, but regarded the CPD as a way of ‘persuading’ others.

The younger members of the audience were nearly always vocally enthusiastic about the possibilities presented by the latest design tools – after all, if they didn’t have these skills, where was their career heading. The more senior people were more measured in their attitudes, but, whilst it would mean a considerable investment in new software and staff training, they would have been denying an opportunity to move their businesses forward. My saying ‘Of course, the partners/directors will have a medium to long-term plan for the future‘ usually resulted in muffled laughter, sometimes even from the company leaders. There was rarely any resentment in my saying this, even if each was being ‘hoist with his own petard’, and grudgingly knew that there was really no choice than to keep pace at a minimum with their competitors. Anyway, who would want to work for a business which didn’t have a plan for the future!

The Moral

Not everyone has the luxury of being accredited to give CPD presentations, but they fulfil many and different objectives, both for an individual and for their employer organisation. It helped both me and my company look professional, and they are a very powerful influencer in the overall process of helping to give individuals and clients a leading edge within their own profession.

5 Brief Business Lessons – #1: The Curve Ball

Each lesson is a direct personal experience. My 45 year career was packed with memorable happenings, but the people – whether colleagues or customers – taught me there was a right way to do good business, whilst making friends and helping organisations grow and prosper along the way.

The Curve Ball

A meeting was set up with an installer of security systems (CCTV/Intruder Alarms etc) in the south of England. My company was a specialist supplier of business management software to this market, so this was a typical situation where a sales inquiry had been made, and I would arrive with my laptop to show and discuss the system with the Directors, and in this case, the lady who was responsible for managing the company’s accounts and administration functions. I had also invited a prospective agent who might work on our behalf in the south of England, to help generate additional business and thereby ease my burden.

I sat next to the lady (so that she could see the system information on the computer screen), with the two directors opposite us, and my guest at the end of the table, listening and hopefully learning. All was progressing normally until about 5 minutes in, where the conversation took a strange turn:

Director 1: Robert, can I just stop you there?

Me: Of course, what can I help with?

Director 1: Could you stop staring at her breasts, please – it’s very rude. (sharp intake of breath and open mouth from my guest at the end of the table)

Me: (trying to assess the situation quickly) I didn’t realise that I was….. but they are particularly lovely. (Yes, I know that it could all have gone very wrong at this moment, but I made a judgement call based upon my existing perceptions of those around the table)

Lady: (laughing) Just ignore them, Robert – they’re always doing this – it’s their way of sussing you out

Director 1: (smiling) Carry on, Robert, you’re doing fine – as good an answer as I’ve ever had

At the end of the meeting, they agreed to purchase the proposed system, helped in no small measure by the ‘lady’ and her forthright attitude to wanting it. Friends all round at the end, and no further curve balls to dodge…..

The Moral

I’ve had many examples of people trying to trip me up – some on my industry knowledge, and some more malicious ones, and even the odd strange one like the above example. I learned that you have to be prepared for anything, and calmness and presence of mind only come with age and experience.

Also, you will never know as much about your customer’s business as they do, so never ever pretend that you do, as you’ll soon be found out and sent packing. Do make sure that they understand your areas of expertise, and how you can apply those to any given situation. It worked for me – I always said why it was important that they got ME as part of the deal. Of course, you always have the luxury of choice in the matter, and I have backed out of many prospective sales situations, after seeing that the two parties’ respective aims were incompatible with a long, friendly and profitable relationship. Telling people that is almost as rewarding as winning a contract.

My First TV Appearance

My first TV appearance was in 1961 – as was my last TV appearance, but still a story worth the telling.

1961 was early in the history of national TV in the UK. The BBC was covering most of the country by 1955, but still with limited broadcasting hours, and it was in that same year that a group of commercial stations under the title ITV – an abbreviation of Independent TeleVision – had come into being to bring some competition to the established channel. At this time, all programmes were shown in glorious black and white – there was no colour broadcasting as yet, whereas conversely, the paying customer had been used to seeing colour in the cinema since The Wizard of Oz in 1939.

I grew up in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and the local ITV franchise was the Manchester-based Granada Television. This was set up to cover the Lancashire/Cheshire/North Wales areas, and took not only national ITV programmes, but was also tasked with creating its own output. One such drama series of its own making, was called Family Solicitor.

This was composed of 18 episodes, all made and broadcast in 1961, and starring Geoffrey Palmer, Philip Grout and Robert Flemyng – all well-known British character actors.

One of the 18 episodes was titled First Eleven Plus and this is the one in which I featured. I can only imagine the plot surrounding the new ‘young star’ in the show, a 14 year old by the name of Peter Noone, but this was an open door for a budding actor wanting a career on stage and screen. In Peter Noone’s case, it didn’t give him an instant career break – he followed this up with a couple of appearances in the Granada soap Coronation Street (yes, that one!), before really hitting the big time after forming the pop group Herman’s Hermits in 1962.

Over the next 9 years, this group, with Peter Noone as ‘Herman’, sold many millions of records, with 14 gold singles and 7 gold albums of unremittingly clean, feel good music. Who, of a certain age can fail to remember such songs as No Milk Today, I’m Into Something Good, There’s A Kind of Hush, and Mrs Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter*. Peter still performs, living in Australia, and still looks enviably young and fit.

Back to me, and First Eleven Plus. This episode featured Peter as the schoolboy who was also a cricketer. My school was chosen to host the cricket match in which he featured as a batsman, with the school first XI filling in as the fielding team. I was the wicket-keeper in the team, so had the pleasure and privilege of standing directly behind Peter, as the camera, positioned at silly mid off, was filming him batting. It rings a bell with me, that Peter, as the batsman, hit a cover drive which succeeded in striking the cameraman on his shin, which must have brought much pain and laughter. I remember little else about the filming.

The broadcast date was August 31 that year. This coincided with being on holiday in Trearddur Bay in Anglesey with my parents and brother. Those of you who know this part of the world, will know that you can’t really go any further west in North Wales, without falling in the sea. This geographical fact also means that it was just about at the full range of the Granada Television transmitter at Winter Hill, near Bolton. something over 100 miles as the crow flies.

We sat down to watch in the cafeteria of the caravan site where we were staying, and waited with bated breath as the titles rolled. This is where the 100 mile gap between transmitter and TV betrayed the technology. It was like watching a raging blizzard. Alas, there was no chance of making out much at all visually. There was sound, but I never did get to see my TV debut – nor was it repeated, and nor has the Granada Television archive been able to turn up a copy sitting on a shelf. What a shame – my TV debut and swansong consigned to the bin….it almost might never have happened. But I keep thinking that someone, somewhere, must have a copy.

We both went on to wildly different careers after that TV programme and are now both in our 70s, and, I hope, happy with our lot.

* Mrs Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter was written by the actor and songwriter, Trevor Peacock, best known to many TV viewers for playing Jim Trott in the BBC comedy series, The Vicar of Dibley.

A young Peter Noone , and

An older Trevor Peacock (as Jim Trott)

ADDENDUM – February 2021

I watched a programme on the late comedian Bob Monkhouse last week, and established that he was one of the first to import a recording machine from SONY around 1960, for the price of a small car. His intention was to record as many TV programmes as he could, at a time when nothing was recorded, and many broadcast shows were overwritten immediately after broadcast, to save on film usage.

When BM died, his entire collection was given to Kaleidoscope, otherwise known as TV Brain, an archive of British TV from 1936 onwards ( http://www.tvbrain.info ), specialising in lost footage. It’s well worth a trawl if you have time.

I enquired as to whether “my” TV programme was part of the archive – alas it isn’t, so another door closes on this one. I still firmly believe that there must be a copy somewhere…..

“We’re from England, and lost”

Back in late 1983, we, the Directors of our business, decided to run a company-wide competition which everyone could enter. We devised the rules so that everyone had targets, regardless of the level of responsibility and experience. No-one was disadvantaged and absolutely anyone could win. The prize would be ‘something you wouldn’t normally consider doing/booking’ – and that prize was a return day-trip from Heathrow to the Pyramids in Egypt on Concorde – Wow, with a capital W.

I managed to win the competition by a very short head, and the tickets for the trip were duly booked. But, alas, one week before departure, we were informed that the company running the trip had gone bust – so no trip on Concorde 😦 I was asked what I wanted to do, and suggested putting the value of the prize to a holiday trip to Florida for Sue, I and our then 3 children under the age of 7. And so it came to pass….

The stories I could tell about this two week break at Easter 1984 are legion, even though, as far as the US Immigration Department was concerned, we were never there. I’d omitted to fill in a form upon landing – probably something to do with lugging suitcases with no wheels, and manhandling 3 children, and with airport staff taking pity on us and ushering us through quickly. Anyway, upon leaving Miami to come home, I was asked for this form which I had omitted to fill in, and said that I’d never had one and couldn’t produce it. The man said (quite loudly) “As far as we are concerned, you have never been to the United States of America”, and ushered us off in the direction of our flight.

We visited Disney, EPCOT*, the Gulf Coast, a MacDonald’s restaurant for the first time, and generally had a memorable stay. During our second week there, we moved from Orlando to a condominium in Indian Shores overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, watching the prehistoric-looking pelicans flying past the windows. We took advantage of the proximity of Tampa, to visit the world-famous Busch Gardens. It was an easy hour’s drive in our rental Chevy Station Wagon, taking the long road bridge across Tampa Bay, listening to the local rock FM station playing good music – living the dream.

Once off the I-275 and into Tampa itself, we managed to lose the signs for Busch Gardens, drove round for a bit and ended up in the ‘wrong’ part of town – the part where there were big guys in baseballs caps on every street corner, seemingly without much to do. I was lost – I had to ask someone for directions. There was nothing for it – play the lost Brit card. So, I was out of the car, walking up to the first burly guy with “We’re from England, and lost. We’re trying to get to Busch Gardens.” It seemed at first to be a bit of a stand-off – no immediate reply. Perhaps he was deciding whether I was worth eating. I tried to let no sign of emotion show on my face, although the heart was beating rather quickly. Soon enough, a drawled response with instructions (which happened to be correct), and I smiled a thank you. He didn’t smile back, so I was back in the car and we were away without too much indecent haste.

I remember telling someone that we’d had to ask for instructions in this not-so-salubrious part of Tampa, and the first comment was ‘And I hope you didn’t get out of the car…’ There was a look of disbelief when I recounted what had taken place – a look that said ‘Are you truly deranged or what?’

We had a great time in Florida, even though we’d never officially been there. We managed to lose one child in Disney World – we were beside ourselves until we located him. He wasn’t bothered at all. We dressed all 3 children in identical Mothercare track suits (see under), making them easy to spot. This was fine until a fourth child in the same tracksuit ended up in close proximity. A confusing moment.

1984 was less than 10 years after the end of the Vietnam War. We were reminded of this when the pilot of the shuttle ‘plane between Miami and Orlando announced that our destination was now off the port wing, and that ‘we’re goin’ in‘, as he banked the craft steeply and down to the airport. I imagined he said the same thing on a bombing mission in Vietnam. I never did get to fly on Concorde….

*EPCOT = Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow

(Adam, Sally and Chris in their matching Mothercare tracksuits)

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