Archive | January, 2008

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Fabio Capello’s First Squad

Posted on 31 January 2008 by JamesHamilton

When Sven Goran Ericksson put out his first squad back in 2001, it sprang surprises, not least for Charlton’s Chris Powell. Powell was an effective left-back for England until Ashley Cole was ready (at the time, he was another surprise – too young, too inexperienced, it was thought by many). There are none in Capello’s first essay, just confirmation of dolour for Beckham and Robinson.

Beckham’s the victim of the US football season being out of sync with our own. Robinson, on the other hand, may be watching his entire career unravel. There have been comments made this year by former England keepers about the attitude of the new generation to training, learning and development – not complimentary ones, and although these comments haven’t been levelled at Robinson personally, nevertheless they give plenty of food for thought.

Robert Green can clearly forget all about England now, failing the absolute demise of every other English keeper. His omission, Beckham’s and Robinson’s aside, is Capello’s main departure from the Ericksson template. Otherwise, it’s clear that Capello’s brief time in England has led him to agree with the Swede: there really is only this core group of players who are up to international level, plus twenty or so hangers-on to this tasting menu of a squad.

Likewise Jermaine Defoe. It’s temperament with him – he combines his individual standoffishness with a reluctance to work on his game, with the result that his runs and positioning are no better now than they were when he was a teenage prodigy at West Ham.

I’m not surprised by Curtis Davies’s inclusion. His famous “pub footballer” interview, combined with some good recent performances, mark him out as someone with the right attitude to go with his talent. If he keeps this up, a long international career could await him. And, given the sheer number of Aston Villa selections, perhaps domestic trophies to boot. Martin O’Neill is building quietly, but it’s bearing fruit.

And it’s good to have Capello mention Walcott, Hart, Wheater and Lennon by name. Walcott and Lennon are on the verge of becoming for real what they have promised to be since 2006 – truly exciting, exceptional players, but both need a bit of luck at the moment. The boost of being singled out for mention will help them. Wheater surely won’t be out of the full squad for long, and there are rumoured to be others to follow from the excellent Middlesbrough youth set-up.

I saw Hart play against Sheffield United, and, comic disaster with balloons aside, he looks like a proper keeper. There’s a presence about him that wasn’t so evident with Robinson and Green. It’ll be interesting to see who of Kirkland, Carson and James get the nod against Switzerland.

Overall it’s a defensive squad, with more out-and-out defenders compared to midfielders than we saw under McClaren. Hargreaves or Barry will fight it out for the defensive midfield role, presumably behind Gerrard who looks as if he’ll pick up the armband in the absence of John Terry, unless Alex Ferguson’s proffering of Rio Ferdinand comes through.

There was talk of Michael Owen joining Beckham on the sidelines, but in the end, common sense won out. The doubts expressed about Owen mystify me: when he returned to the colours last year, it was to bring yet more goals. No other England forward does that so reliably.

It looks bad for Dean Ashton, though, who must – like Robert Green – be wondering what he has to do, what fates he has offended. But for injury, he’d have gone to the 2006 World Cup instead of either Walcott or Crouch. McClaren was on the verge of picking him, when injury came again. At one stage in 2005-6, he looked like a younger, more skilful version of Alan Shearer, an old style English centre forward but with subtlety.

Likewise Andy Johnson and Darren Bent. Neither has done anything since 2006 to contradict Ericksson’s judgement of them as, essentially, journeymen. Bent is injured at present, after having come so close to scoring against Croatia, but given what’s happened to Defoe, it will be interesting to see if he is picked when fit. England’s over for Johnson, the Kevin Phillips de nos jours.

Anyway, what do you think? Good squad, bad squad, meaningless? Who are the missing men? Do we learn anything significant about Capello’s ideas for England, or does that await the first of his actual elevens? Is Sol Campbell’s back injury the only reason for his absence, or is his England career over too?

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A Minute’s Silence For Munich

Posted on 30 January 2008 by JamesHamilton

As you’ll know by now, Manchester City fans have appealed to Manchester United to abandon the minute’s silence in honour of the Munich dead at their match this weekend. There’s been a certain amount of debate about what this lack of trust in the fans’ behaviour says about modern society, and modern football culture.

Just for once, I’m going to come in in favour of the British football fan. The risk of a break in the silence doesn’t mean a loss of civility and it isn’t a symptom of society’s decline.

There will be more than 70,000 spectators present at Old Trafford this weekend. To compare, the population of the town in which I grew up, Bedford, is 79,000. I am absolutely confident that Bedford contains enough fools to interrupt a minute’s silence held for any reason whatsoever and at any time. The presence of that subset of idiots says nothing about the bulk of the population, nothing at all, and no one would suggest any such thing.

My guess is that the silence will go off uninterrupted. This is still England, after all, and Munich was Manchester’s disaster, not just United’s. It was mining Yorkshire’s disaster too – there’ll be old men remembering on the other side of the Pennines.

But should a small group break ranks, it won’t be football’s fault.

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Dennis Wise at Newcastle

Posted on 29 January 2008 by JamesHamilton

So: the appointment of a manager who hasn’t seen a league game for longer than I have is followed up by the appointment of a Director of Football who not only has no experience of the job, but who – really, truly, honestly – isn’t anyone’s idea of the first step towards a continental style of management.

A continental style of management, which, a week ago, no one was told was coming. And which Keegan hardly fits.

Still, it puts to bed the idea that Mike Ashley is after a preservation-railway club, the kind of museum piece that will sell shirts to Anglophiles the world over. And, given the men he has chosen, it’s hardly the long-term Tottenham style of operation, which is beginning to bear fruit in north London. Nor is it the Arsenal/Arsene model..

I’m speechless, by which I mean, sotto voce, that I think it’s a case of wide boys collecting “real football men” for their beery, stripey northern train set.

And I feel hugely sorry for Newcastle fans. Much more of this, and no properly talented player – or talented coach, for that matter, and they’ll be needing one soon – will look at the place. If only Bobby Robson wasn’t so reduced by his recent illness.

Earlier in the season, I said that the biggest recent change in the Premiership was that powerful, wealthy owners were no longer able to allow their managers to manage – which was making the Premiership a dangerous place for coaching talent. Mourinho gone, Allardyce gone, Jol gone. Coming talent like Billy Davies gone. Rafa under siege.

All of that must ultimately impact on the field of play. We’ll see it first at St James’s Park.

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Newcastle: An Astonishingly Stupid Idea

Posted on 18 January 2008 by JamesHamilton

UPDATE: also see George Szirtes’ contrasting view here and here.

British football can choose, if it likes. But there are only two options. Either determine to develop the most skilled young players in the world, and the most intelligent, groundbreaking tactics. Or go for that heady, nostalgic, quick fix, with its underpinning of panic and fear.

Slaven Bilic, the university-educated manager of Croatia, thinks we’re going for the second:

I don’t understand why you played Austria four days before such a crucial game. I thought it was disrespectful. You don’t play Austria away before a proper game, the key game. But we didn’t beat you because you didn’t respect us. We beat you because we are better. In the games, the qualification, we were a better team than England. End of story. We were better and we still are.

So it was, and yet it turns out not to have been humiliation enough. Capello got the England job just in time. Were the selection process to begin again now, the little-Engerlanders would win the day, and we’d be off around the passion-and-commitment mulberry bush all over again. Capello always did have to win every game at a canter to keep the purblind off his back, but now that Keegan has returned to Newcastle, his early months are going to be all that harder. Let’s hope that he really doesn’t care about the press.

Make no bones about it – Newcastle are going to throw the kitchen sink at the opposition for the rest of the season. The bottom four are quite bad enough to stave off any thought of relegation, and with Arsenal up next in the FA Cup, that competition’s gone. It will look quite good, although not “good” as we define the word for Arsene Wenger’s beautiful team. It will look English, in the way a steam preservation railway looks English. It will look like revival.

In the summer, Keegan will be out looking for defenders again, but already the voices will be raised about how if this kind of thing can work for Newcastle, why can’t it work for England, who are playing “like Italians”..

Let’s be quite clear about this. Keegan’s reappointment at Newcastle is a terrible, terrible idea. I can’t imagine what Ashley and Mort were thinking – unless, and this is all too possible, they were thinking that he was the only man capable of contemplating taking the job on.

There is no evidence that the new owners of Newcastle have any idea at all about turning the club into an institution capable of winning trophies. They have just fired the one member of their staff who did. And replaced him with someone who, by his own admission, hasn’t seen even a Premiership match in a number of years. And then asked him to decide whether or not to have the club’s big hero, a man with no coaching or management experience and no unusual insight into the game, as his no. 2.

And look at Newcastle’s shopping list. Jermaine Defoe, Wes Brown, Wayne Bridge, Shaun Wright-Phillips. All well-known names, all not quite the best in their positions. Arsene Wenger’s first signings for Arsenal were men you’d never heard of. You know about Patrick Viera and Emmanuel Petit now. Nor had you heard of Thierry Henry – at least, you hadn’t heard of the version that Wenger managed to produce. Had Chelsea not moved first, perhaps Nikolas Anelka would have been on the list. Whose protegee was he again?

No, Newcastle can only say that Keegan has arrived to bring back the good old days. The “M” word is flying about. When you hear “Messiah” on someone’s lips, it means they’ve let go of all reason, and they have a mob at their back. Who want past glories restored.. although it’s 51 years now since Jackie Milburn left, and in another ten years no one at St James’ Park on a Sunday afternoon televised match will have seen him play. Newcastle are the first Premier League fans to be nostalgic about a team that won nothing beyond what would now be called the Championship.

For anyone not a Newcastle fan, and I’m married to one, it’s hard not to be reminded of the passion-and-commitment rubbish that was flying around in the weeks before Steve McClaren’s appointment as England manager. It’s there again, around Newcastle. But this time, there is no question whatsoever of “a manager who understands English players” because Newcastle can’t survive on England players alone.

Keegan’s almost successful 95-6 team was, as most Premiership sides were then, heavily native. Harper, Hughes, Warren Barton, John Beresford, Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand, David Batty, Rob Lee, Paul Kitson, Peter Beardsley, Keith Gillespie – not all English, of course, but all British. Only Pavel Srnicek in goal (who was at Newcastle before Keegan and, but for Allardyce, would have been there to welcome him back), David Ginola, and that epitome of blood-and-thunder football, Faustino Asprilla, came from non-Anglophone countries.

It won’t be like that now. Newcastle’s current squad is still more British than most, but, Owen aside, they aren’t of the required quality. To win titles and cups requires world class players. Last season, Chelsea won the League Cup and the FA Cup – and in the latter, they beat title winners Manchester United in the final. In terms of depth and strength, Newcastle are nowhere near this level. Neither are another side managed by an ex-England manager, Manchester City. But at least Ericksson spent his “time off” energetically scouting Europe for the “good unknowns” – the likes of Elano.

What’s more, Ericksson is blessed with the ability to restore confidence in players. Darius Vassell is returning to something like his old self. Michael Ball is thinking of an England return, at least to the squad, after squandering the bulk of his career. And, before Sven, who’d heard of Joe Hart or Michael Johnson outside of City? We know who they are now.

When Keegan himself left City in 2005, Danny Mills is alleged to have brought champagne to the training ground:

“I felt training under Kevin wasn’t up to the standard it should have been. The quality was poor. There were lots of little things I felt needed to be put right. Discipline could also be a bit lax.

Michael Owen, a better player by far than Danny Mills, was inspired by Keegan when Special K was in charge of England, and four years later, wrote:

He seemed the complete package. But if it was for some players, it wasn’t for me. I assume the manager had conveyed to his staff what he thought of me and plainly it wasn’t complimentary. I felt I was being singled out… there was so much pressure on him he needed a scapegoat – as soon as he said one negative thing about me it led to another one and then it became a habit. Looking back on the Keegan era, one main feature stands out for me. It made me question my footballing ability for the first time in my life. And, yes, it scarred me. I used to go into games believing that the opposition was scared of me and that nothing could get in my way. That feeling, that belief, evaporated at times when I played under Keegan. Certainly it was a dark phase in my career. It made me more sensitive and self-protective.

And Rob Lee has pointed out that, whereas players of his generation idolized Keegan, young men of today do not.

Keegan’s reappointment displays every single error of the kind that has held English football back for so long:

  1. The inspirational manager: “Belief” quickly evaporates if it isn’t based on reality. Arsene Wenger really does know what he’s doing. So, evidently, does Alex Ferguson. So does Sam Allardyce, and I put his obvious lack of real regret at being out of Newcastle down to his realization that he wasn’t working with grown-ups but wealthy kids who think they’ve bought a train set. Keegan’s appointment confirms that suspicion.
  2. Restoring old glories: As has been rehearsed ad infinitum in the recent football press, you can’t go back. Successful second stints are so rare, and none have led to FA Cups or League titles. Where is the evidence that Keegan can buck this trend?
  3. Passion and commitment: Passion and commitment loses to skill and strategy nine times out of ten. And it just isn’t a unique attribute of British football. Passion and commitment just aren’t standout features of British football – saying that is like asserting that King Arthur still has an active role in domestic politics. Let Slaven Bilic tell you about British football:

    I saw you at the European Championship in 2004 and your team was brilliant,” he said. “Should have beaten France, easily beat Switzerland, slaughtered Croatia and you play Portugal in the quarter-finals and you are leading 1-0. And then Wayne Rooney gets injured. And you sit back. And you have been sitting back ever since.

    2002-4 was a rare period when England did not sit back: I’ve been screaming at television screens since the late ’70s watching it happen again and again.

    Our players do NOT have more passion and commitment than foreign players. And it’s not the manager’s fault. And, as for the British fans.. get over yourselves.

    Bilic also has this to say, about the influence of the league: he’s echoing Herbert Chapman..

    …if you have the best league in Europe, there’s the danger that you won’t have a great national team. For the best league in the world you need the best players in the world – and that makes it a problem for you. I read something in FourFourTwo about the Arsenal team that won the FA Youth Cup. People said they were going to be a great team but they all had to leave to play football. Justin Hoyte is one of the few still there. There’s no way that would happen in Croatia. I didn’t play Modric and Corluka because they played for my Under-21s. I did it because they played regularly for Dinamo Zagreb, against Arsenal and in the Uefa Cup.

    To sum up, I prophesy that Newcastle fans will enjoy the rest of the season – the team will attack constantly for the remaining 16 games, and will win some of them impressively. Over the summer, there will be a lack of signings of the quality required to challenge the top four, and some significant players will leak complaints to the media. Pressure will mount in the new season, as the club will have something to play for again. But the team just isn’t good enough, and neither are the tactics, and the league position will mimic that of the last few years.

    I don’t want to look any further than that as it’s all too depressing and stupid. Bilic says it better than I can:

    With you English, you always have to find excuses. Rather than saying you weren’t very good, the easiest thing was to blame McClaren. The whole story became, ‘It’s all due to McClaren; if we’d had Capello we’d have been top’. Everyone, including the players, did that.

    So England, and so Newcastle.

    Links
    Bilic in the Times
    Bilic in the Independent
    Michael Own on Keegan: The Guardian and Daily Telegraph
    Rob Lee on Keegan in the Independent

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Your Favourite Footballers

Posted on 14 January 2008 by JamesHamilton

Norm’s latest poll put me in mind of a list of my own – my ten favourite footballers. Not the ten I think the best. Just the ten closest to my heart, as it were.

I found choosing my ten “favourite” novelists revealing – what a fireside and slippers little Englander I turn out to be, despite the preponderance of Scots in my list. I wonder if the same will be true of my footballers?

1. George Best

A controversial choice, I’m sure. The little-known Manchester man from long ago etc. But G. Best was the first player I was specifically aware of, and what a way to start. Imagine if it was all like this!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crIyvF1AnCQ&rel=1]

2. Steve Coppell

Steve Coppell was the first player who I wanted to be. It wasn’t that I was a winger – only in rugby union; in soccer I played in defence. But I looked up to Coppell, and that was twenty years before I knew the man had a degree under his belt. How pleased I was to hear him praised in his absence by Ron Atkinson when United made it to yet another FA Cup Final. And then he vanished from my pre-internet radar. Forced into retirement at 27. Imagine: had he played until 35, he might have been at the 1990 World Cup. My best memory of him is his running the West Germans into the ground in the 1982 World Cup: you’ll have to settle for the subsequent match against Spain.

3. Trevor Brooking

Trevor Brooking taught me to play football. His football skills strip cartoon in the Daily Mail had me outside in all weathers, using the recommended tennis ball, learning just about everything I still know. That strip should be given to every new born child in the UK along with their compulsory copies of the Beatles’ albums and Our Island Story.

Brooking spent his entire career at West Ham, which was a cozy London club with a reputation for attractive football. Then, as now, it was an academy producing an unbroken run of fantastic players. Were it not for their financial situation, the Hammers would have won even more than they actually have – a title or two at the very least.

4. Duncan Edwards

I’ve seen film of him now, but didn’t have to have done: he shines out of every Manchester United history as the epitome of a proper boy’s hero. Modest, hard-working, from a good honest background and abundantly talented – and the pain of 1958 is still there, even for those of us not born for another decade. Brutal, heartbreaking waste, on all kinds of levels.

5. Stanley Matthews

Matthews, like Sir Tom Finney, is hard to get at now from under all of the patronizing schmaltz the media have piled onto them. I found out about Stanley Matthews from 1950s football annuals I’d bought in junk shops aged eight or nine, and they told me that he was the best player in the world, and a gentleman to boot.

Turned out to be true – read about his work against apartheid sometime.

6. Alfredo di Stefano

Another 1950s football annual suggested to me that, in fact, Alfredo di Stefano was the best player in the world. Here was a real father figure, with his stately carriage and receding hairline. Practice until you can do anything with a ball, he said, and I tried. What good advice, after half a century, for someone to give to our children.

7. Dixie Dean

These players aren’t all my direct contemporaries, are they? But Dean has to be here. I think his was the first proper football biography I ever read, and that sole shaky photograph of his sixtieth league goal haunted me. Now I know that his great feat was aided by a rule change, but it’s still impressive. And he got to be alive in the 1920s, which I once deeply envied in people, and still believe must have been fun in the right places.

8. Bobby Moore

His looks alone gave to this too-young-for-’66 child the impression of having been born too late for a better, cleaner age. The truth about Moore was far more complex than the blonde brilliant ubercaptain I first admired, but in some ways he comes out better as a human being. But I’d have given much to have been able to comprehend this greatest game in the history of this greatest sport when it was fresh:

9. Bert Trautmann

In the early ’80s I met a man who’d been in the same POW camp as Trautmann. His wartime experiences had convinced him that England was the greatest country on God’s earth – he’d never been to Scotland – but his own nation, for all its horror and tribulations visited and received, still produced its good ‘uns, and Bert Trautmann was one of them. When I was young enough to think myself immortal, I imagined myself being heroic enough to attempt to run off a broken neck..

10. Mick Mills

The epitome of the greatest Ipswich side, a team who were prevented only by a truly exceptional Liverpool generation from completely dominating European football. Why it was Mills, and not Wark or Mariner or the two Dutchmen or even the savant Kevin Beattie, I really couldn’t tell you.

He looks older than players do now. But all the players do. Are they really in their twenties?

Hon. mentions to the Charlton brothers, both Manchester United Pearsons, Sandy Turnbull, Charlie Roberts, Billy Meredith, Alan Ball and Martin Peters.

My choice of novelists revealed me to be a fire and slippers little Englander. I can’t say what my footballers show. An obsession with misplaced nostalgia?

Tell me yours. Remember, it’s your ten favourite players; not the ten you rate the best, or the ten most influential. Fictional players allowed, although I think I’ll pass on Roy Race.

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Stopping Smoking On Your Own: Tips and Tricks

Posted on 14 January 2008 by JamesHamilton

Smoking was the twentieth century’s badge of adulthood. At one point, three quarters of the population of the United Kingdom were smokers. Now it’s down to a quarter. Cigarettes are going the way of bowler hats and leaded petrol.

It’s happening because people are stopping smoking in droves. Most of them are doing it without any assistance: NHS clinics, hypnotherapists, Allen Carr and co. account for only a small proportion of the ongoing smoking cull.

So the chances are that anyone reading this who is considering moving on from this iconic habit has it in mind to go it alone. Perhaps some of what happens will make life easier – or at least clearer.

If you haven’t done so already, you might want to read my earlier articles on the subject here and here.

Belief and Stopping Smoking
Stopping smokers are liable to experience something akin to a reversal of the placebo effect. Most smokers believe that stopping will be hard to do. That, on its own, clear of any other factors, will make stopping more difficult than it need be.

It’s not a daft thing to believe. If you’ve already had a series of “failed” attempts to stop smoking, or if you’ve watched friends and colleagues climbing walls in the first days after stopping, or if you’ve watched the UK government’s spectacularly unhelpful “don’t give up on giving up” advertising campaign, then “hard” might seem like a fair summary of the situation.

But believing that stopping is hard brings its own baggage.

I can tell you now that stopping smoking does not change the world you live in very much. It’s the same stressful, neurotic, randomly dangerous place, and non-smokers are equally acquainted with grief. Stopping smoking doesn’t lead you to sunlit uplands.

When you stop smoking, you are just going to have to deal with life in a different way. You’re still going to have to deal with it. And in those first few days, life is going to come at you from all directions. What is going on will have nothing to do with whether you’re smoking or not, but the chances are that because you believe stopping smoking is difficult, you are going to attribute every last irritation and loss of temper and low feeling and hunger pang and so forth to the absence of cigarettes in your life. You’ll be looking out for these feelings too. It’s like one of those cognitive exercises: look around the room for something coloured red, only this time, you’re scanning the environment for the things that get your goat.

If you expect to feel bad, and are going to attribute that feeling bad to cigarettes, you’re going to have a worse time than you really need to.

So what I suggest is that you make a deal with yourself before stopping. Take it on board that the lack of cigarettes does not account for all of your mood (let’s agree that it’s partly responsible, just out of respect for common sense). Assume that part of what you’re experiencing is just life. The rest – that part you are attributing to cigarettes – is that grand dark night of the soul that men and women who have never smoked will never get to experience, outstare and outlast, that time under mental and emotional fire that stopping smokers discover that they can endure and never after forget that they can endure.

But is there something you can do to weaken that belief before you start?

You have a lot of people in your life who once smoked and are now non-smokers. I might have met some of them: before I went into practice, I interviewed close on a thousand. When I set out, I had no idea how I myself was ever going to manage to stop smoking, and I was deeply afraid that I would become one of those smokers who’d leave it too late, and suffer both illness, pain and the darker pain of regret and self-recrimination, who’d put that load of grief and anguish on my family and friends.

But the more people I spoke to who’d managed this strange, impossible thing, the more everyday it began to seem, the more it was brought down to size. I discovered that not every smoker goes through agonies – that the experience is heavily dependent upon our essential personalities. If, like me, you are prone to blowing things out of all proportion, it can be useful to gather these role models around yourself. Simply, if they can do it, so can you. And if it took them several attempts (it took me north of thirty) then you have permission not to succeed first time. If you fail this time, you don’t have to be hard on yourself: get up and go again.

So, talk to the non-smokers you know. They’ll have a range of experiences to impart, and perhaps some additional advice or tips that have escaped great minds like mine. And it’ll weaken your belief that it’s hard. And that’ll help.

Get Straight About Your Reasons

By and large, the reasons smokers give for wanting to stop fall into the same few categories. Health, don’t-want-to-be-a-slave, smell/dirt, money, “other people”, smoking’s growing pariah status. The trouble with these reasons is that they are poor sources of motivation. Most of them are too easy to get around – smoking outside turns out to be preferable in the short term (and it’s always the short term where smoking is concerned), breath freshener works, being a slave isn’t that bad really, and smoking still isn’t all that expensive compared to the price of a round of drinks.

Look on these classic smoker’s reasons not as reasons to stop, but as a list of smoking’s little inconveniences. Reasons to fear continuing to smoke. None of them, not even health in the majority of cases, mean that you have something real to show for stopping smoking. I repeat: don’t expect stopping smoking to transform your life. On its own, what stopping smoking does for you is remove a convenient source of stress relief, quick concentration, social connection and style. On its own, stopping smoking is a net loss.

That’s not to say that you won’t succeed in stopping smoking when you’re doing it just for smoking’s sake. I know plenty of people who’ve done just that, and so do you. But this is about making the whole thing more straightforward.

It’s better to have, or to create, something in your life that means a great deal for you that stopping smoking can be just one part of. That’s why pregnant women often find stopping smoking easy (not all – genetic disposition/personality works here too, as my own mother will tell you).

What that might be is absolutely individual. I stopped smoking in order that I could jam the fact of my success up the nose of a close but irritating friend again and again over many years. That’s not a worthy goal, and it makes me look like the way it makes me look. You might prefer the man about to adopt with his wife, who wants to keep up with his new son until the son is at least 14. Or the saxophonist who knows she has the potential to go pro – once her lungs have recovered their capacity after stopping smoking. Or the runner, dreaming of a race along the Andes to raise money for a cause dear to their heart.

If at all possible, don’t stop smoking just for stopping smoking’s sake. Have a greater cause. It’ll make stopping more straightforward, and it’ll keep you interested in stopping if you do that human thing and have a setback.

Consider Deliberately Failing To Stop Smoking

A study – which is now so deeply buried in the BMJ’s archive that I can no longer find it – established some years ago that people who repeatedly fail in successive attempts to stop smoking nevertheless gradually improve their chances of success next time.

The study shouldn’t have been necessary. Of course repeated attempts get you closer to eventual success.

For one thing, you get used to the idea of trying to stop. The next attempt is not such a big deal as the first. The pressure upon you lessens with each attempt, and, perhaps counterintuitively, perhaps not, that increases your chances of success. If you can fail and not start hitting yourself with blame and recrimination, then the stakes for your next attempt are lower, and the whole experience will be better.

For another, you get to know what to expect. You grow to know and recognize your own reactions to the stopping smoking situation, and begin to learn your own workarounds.

You get used to the idea of going days without smoking simply because you’ve done it. And although it might not have “caught” with you first time, the prospect is less frightening.

I’ve met many people who decided to “give up” for a fixed period, but who then simply failed to begin again. After a while, you forget those experiences of psychological advantage from smoking. That’s the point when you walk past the tobacco counter in the supermarket and the display – once so colourful, now, in the UK, a sea of white warning and panic – and find that it means nothing to you. It inspires all the appetite and pangs of the catfood aisle.

If your first attempt at stopping smoking was traumatic, you can learn through other attempts that it need not always be so.

Choosing and Making Your Time To Stop

With many habits, such as excessive drinking, or Class A drugs, choosing a special moment at which to quit them is largely futile, if you are working alone. Not so with smoking.

That’s one reason why that although many New Year Resolution stopping smokers fail, a fair few make it through the net and out to the other side. January 1 is a date like few others, and it’s a strong peg to hang something like stopping smoking on.

I’d recommend augmenting the peg, however. As per becoming clear about your reasons, it can be good to roll stopping smoking in with a raft of other minor changes. Stop smoking at the same time as starting the novel, or setting up a GTD sytem, or losing a pound or two.

And, in private, mark the occasion. I say in private because I’m sceptical that having a load of people aware that you’re stopping smoking is a great idea. I’ve never found that terribly motivational – if I’ve been in that situation, more often than not I’ve merely “gone underground” with whatever it was I was allegedly stopping doing.

Smoking was this great twentieth century thing, something you have in common with writers, film stars, leaders and politicians, soldiers in the trenches and heroic doctors on insane shifts, miners and airmen. What an army of pathetic addicts that had so many in its ranks of brilliance, courage, humour and self-sacrifice.

Go and find a high view, smoke your last cigarette there, and enjoy it. Then, quietly, put it out, and walk away into the rest of your life. Buy a special pack if you like – my grandfather smoked Camels, my stepfather B&H Gold – why not a pack from your past? Or pay a visit to Davidoff in London and go for something unusual. Smoke your last and then begin the rest of your life with a meal at a new restaurant, or with a run in the dawn sunlight.

What Not To Try

“Cutting Down.” Really not worth the bother. There really isn’t any proper evidence that you can wean yourself off nicotine slowly, let alone any evidence that doing so produces a more tolerable experience than going cold turkey. In the years immediately after the Second World War, rationing and low incomes made it worthwhile for many British smokers to attempt to play out their limited cigarette supply over a longer period than they would otherwise have done. Almost invariably, cigarettes earmarked for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow were smoked “today”. Anyway, you deserve to treat yourself with more respect than this.

Stopping Smoking On Holiday. It spoils your holiday, and then the real world comes rushing in all at once and overwhelms you. Do it whilst you’re at work. Mark stopping with a special occasion, sure, but not a two-week type of one.

Putting the money you save into a special jar. Non-smokers don’t do this. All it will serve to do is remind you of smoking. And, do you plan to give yourself change out of a note? Or put money in the jar using your switch card? Remember that you’ll still be making all the other real-world transactions which once would have included cigarettes anyway. Again, either be smoking or not smoking: there is nothing between the two save dangerous no-man’s land.

Asking other people to step in if they see you smoking. Your friends and relatives don’t deserve that kind of burden, and you don’t deserve the damage this can do to your relationships. Either fully own your smoking or become a non-smoker. If you need to consider doing this, you need to do some further thinking about stopping before you embark on it. Reread my articles, or for a different opinion on all of this, try this series by Gillian Riley.

Avoiding situations where you expect to smoke. I stopped drinking, but I didn’t avoid my friends or the pub. If you try to avoid places of temptation, you will find there are so many of them that your life is mangled and you will, quite rightly, resent what has brought that about. My advice is, go out, enjoy yourself, see people, do things, have your life. The rewards of stopping smoking are too slight to be worth changing your life upside down for – that’s not rhetorical, just the plain fact of the matter. Stopping smoking does not lead to nirvana: it leaves you in the same neurotic world you were in before.

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Sporting Consolations: The FA Cup Third Round

Posted on 07 January 2008 by JamesHamilton

When things go bad on you, you need distractions. Thankyou Chasetown, for getting an entire weekend’s worth of perfect distraction underway:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiPa9lllIcI&rel=1]

Although Cardiff pulled it out in the end, Chasetown set the tone. This was one of those Third Round weekends. I don’t know which I enjoyed most. Havant and Waterlooville, who sound like a Napoleonic killing field? Coventry, a city I’m fond of in any case, knocking seven bells out of, of all teams, Blackburn, who you’d have fancied to be immune to this kind of thing? Sheffield United, recouping a little late justice against Bolton?

I thought the BBC coverage – both on TV and Radio 5 – was excellent. In particular, it was interesting to see footage of a merely middle-aged Stan Matthews, played just before Stoke and Newcastle compared styles on Sunday afternoon. How good he was, and how good just to think that, without wanting to do my usual thing and plonk it all into historical context and a diatribe about football clichees.

After the hypertension of Sky, BBC live coverage is like a big comfortable old sofa. It hasn’t really changed since the ’80s, a feeling made stronger by the Championship sides and their lower-league cohorts with their surprising wealth of British players. I half expected it to cut to the wrestling and the racing results. I half wish it had. What would you do, if you could go back and start again from (insert year), but knowing what you know now?

Aston Villa v Manchester United, and then Match of the Day, and then Burnely v Arsenal and Luton v Liverpool (how 80s Kenilworth Road still looks), and then Stoke v Newcastle, and then the final whistle and the comments, and then reality pushes its face back into mine.

With Havant perhaps having a trip to Anfield if they can overcome Swansea, it might not be over yet.

This is not the first time in my life that sport has given me time off.

I was mugged in late ’92. I was outside my front door with armfuls of Byron biographies and thus my assailants caught me at an unusually defenceless moment. I’d been planning to write a Byron biography myself. But my book lay under a gypsy curse. First, I had the front of my head kicked in – the resulting fracture of my frontal lobe was too dangerous to operate upon, so I haven’t headed a football in fifteen years. Secondly, I’d been given the chance to discuss publication with John Murray himself – the descendant of Byron’s own publisher. But waiting for me at home was a letter from him in crabbed handwriting apologising that he was about to go into hospital. He died there, and my former tutor and mentor who’d arranged it, Angus Macintyre, would himself die in a car accident 18 months later. I’d given up before then.

Immediately after the attack, I found that sunset brought on immediate, intense, inexplicable terror. I remember it happening once when I was safe in a car surrounded by family in the middle of the Berkshire countryside on my way to a birthday meal. But nonetheless I was determined not to let criminals change my life, and I kept my same route home and my same habits.

Two weeks later, I ran into the same gang – and, without waiting to see if I’d been recognised, scarpered, all bravado stripped and gone. I ended up in a nearby shop, panting and whimpering at the counter. There was no sign of the shopkeeper, and the shop itself was empty. My ears picked up the sound of a radio.

Football commentary. Manchester United against West Ham: Pallister, Hughes, Bruce, and it was the last few minutes. We had them under siege.

Sometimes you just need to lose yourself in a greater cause. The shopkeeper came back, and we stood together listening. A teenage couple came in, then an old man, then a small boy. No one said a word. We stood in a little group with our lives suspended. Manchester hit the bar, then blazed over it. West Ham cleared their lines. Then a free kick, sent back into the mixer, chaos, then the ball ran clear again. A throw-in, and then the final whistle.

The spell broke, but not before we exchanged shakes of the heads and rueful expressions. I left emptyhanded, walking out into a bright Gospel Oak evening, my head cleared of fear and the gang quite forgotten.

Earlier that summer, a run of bad luck had ended for me in a mad dash to catch an Olympic event on the radio which was all I had then. Hard now to describe how much anticipation and concern centred on this one ten second snippet of one man’s life, but the country stopped to acknowledge… this:

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Stopping Smoking – A Review of Methods

Posted on 03 January 2008 by JamesHamilton

As a preliminary follow-up to my previous article, I thought it would be useful to review some of the existing smoking cessation approaches from the point of view of someone who has worked extensively with smokers. I’m going to touch upon NRT (nicotine replacement therapy), group counselling, hypnotherapy, and acupuncture. There are others out there, of course.

NRT – Nicotine Replacement Therapy

When I was still myself a smoker, NRT was just emerging and beginning to obtain the acceptance it has now. The idea behind it is a simple one: people get addicted to nicotine rather than to smoking, so let’s give them an alternative source of the nicotine and wean them off it. It’s assumed that gradually reducing nicotine intake will be accompanied by a lessening dependence upon it, which assumes in turn that a dependence upon nicotine was present in the first place. When NRT first came onto the scene, the second of these assumptions had some decent evidence behind it – it was established that nicotine was psychoactive, although only since the advent of superior brain scanners of different kinds have we understood some aspects of how nicotine acts in the brain and body. The first assumption remains just that, an assumption, a hope to cling to.

In the United Kingdom, advertising for NRT claims, correctly, that it more than doubles your success at quitting. I’m afraid that doesn’t say very much. The most favourable peer-reviewed NRT research I’ve been able to find is this from the British Medical Journal – the researchers chose a laudably long reference period, giving follow-up results after six years. The study was concerned with comparing success rates between a group of smokers using nicotine patches only and a group using both patches and nicotine inhalators:

After 6 years, 1 out of 6 participants was still abstinent in the treatment group compared with 1 out of 12 in the patch only group.

I’m assuming that people looking to stop smoking are interested in stopping for more than six years. In these circumstances, the figures are deeply depressing. More depressing still is that the figures obtained by this study are actually higher than those obtained by practically every other (and there are hundreds of properly run studies of this kind going on all the time – try Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group Specialized Register and the databases MEDLINE, EMBASE, AMED, SCI, SSCI and CISCOM for starters).

And more depressing still is that no one seems to notice how terrible these figures actually are. Given that nicotine is a dangerous substance in its own right, over and above any tendency to create dependence, given NRT’s proneness to side-effects, and given the sheer demand from smokers for effective cessation methods, I would have hoped to come across at least one researcher’s comment expressing regret at the enormous failure rates experienced by NRT patients.

My hunch is that NRT is driven largely by people who have themselves never smoked and who are therefore looking from the outside in. There’s long been a desperate desire for “drugs to fight drug addiction”, especially given that psychotherapy has, by and large, failed to provide any breakthroughs.

I reflect on one thing. I must have spoken to thousands of people who have succeeded in stopping smoking, the majority of them with no assistance whatsoever from an outside source. In every case, I was the first person with a serious professional interest in their success to have asked. I’d like to see a series of studies that interview, in-depth, 10,000+ successfully stopped smokers to see if the same patterns emerge as emerged for me when I undertook my own, more limited and subjective, interview research.

Group Counselling

NHS Smoking Cessation services keep reasonably good statistics, albeit in the short term. Here is a summary of the state of play as of mid-2001. 48% of participants were still abstinent after four weeks. The same document assumes that only 60-65% of that 48% will relapse by the end of the year, without giving any grounds for that assumption. If that were true, NHS clinics would be managing a success rate of one-third, which would be headline news if true – that’s the sort of figure we can start to get to work with, after all. But the true story is almost certainly sadder and darker.

Eugene Mill’s BMJ paper looked at Tyne and Wear. He says:

In 2003-4, 20 103 people in the region used smoking cessation services, of whom 9910 had still quit after four weeks (49.3%). Of these, I estimated 35-40% would still have quit after a year,2 a long term figure of 3500-4000.

Again, there are no reasons given for that estimate, and I think it’s too high. One reason is the sheer scale of drop-out from these services, as seen in the Scottish experience.

Of the 46,466 quit attempts made between 1st January and 31
st December 2006, there were 45,641 for which one month follow-up
data was available. Of these, 15,471 were recorded as successful
quits. This figure is based on client self-reported ‘not smoked, even a
puff, in the last two weeks’. Follow-up may have been undertaken ‘face to
face’, by telephone or by letter/written questionnaire. Of the remaining
30,170 cases, 15,384 had smoked in the last two weeks and
14,786 were ‘lost to follow-up’/unknown.

Information on exactly what kind of support is given in NHS clinics is relatively hard to come by, not for any sinister reason but because practice varies from place to place, there are pilot schemes to take account of and so forth.

Nevertheless, these are still depressing figures.

Whenever NHS attempts to improve matters in these areas are concerned, funding is always an issue – one quarter of the British population smoke, of whom a substantial number not only want to stop but actively try. There are not enough NHS clinics around to dent the numbers, and if I find the figures depressing, I hope that’s not taken as criticism of the people working in that system and doing their best to achieve the impossible with the minimum.

Hypnotherapy

As a qualified hypnotherapist, let me give a word of warning. Two, in fact. If you are thinking about “trying” hypnotherapy, here is what to avoid.

Avoid any therapist who cites, without source, studies “indicating” that their “new methods” are achieving a 95% success rate. Where they exist, and quite often they don’t, these “studies” are not what I mean by study i.e. properly conducted, peer-reviewed research. One hypnotherapist I know contacts 100 or so of his smoking clients after a year and takes his success rate from that – which strikes me as a reasonable approach in the circumstances. Most won’t.

Avoid anyone claiming that a “new combination of NLP and hypnosis/hypnotherapy” is bringing home the goods. NLP is a marrying of some ideas from CBT and hypnosis, so the statement is tautologous and merely displays that the advertiser is ignorant of their own field.

There is an almost complete lack of smoking cessation studies in relation to hypnosis. In fact, there is an almost complete lack of any studies whatsoever outside of NRT and behavioural therapy (whether individually or in groups). This is a consequence of the lack of a standard hypnotherapy procedure for smoking cessation, the lack of a single governing body for the field, and the sheer difficulty of excluding certain variables from study. It’s also the result of contemporary hypnotherapy’s deliberate positioning of itself outside the medical mainstream, for all that the BMA has accepted it as a valid approach since the 1950s and the existence of the British Society of Clinical and Academic Hypnosis.

At root, hypnotherapy’s approach to smoking cessation is entirely psychological, and there are two principal approaches. On the one hand, some practitioners will attempt to take and magnify your anti-smoking feelings and magnify them to the point where the iidea of smoking is too disgusting to contemplate. On the other, some practitioners will attempt to replace your smoking habits and the benefits you gain from smoking with more helpful habits and feelings – to replace the psychological experience of smoking with a superior experience or set of experiences.

Few studies, and not a lot worth reading. There’s this, from the New Scientist in 1992, which cites a metaanalysis undertaken on behalf of ASH (which I can’t find a confirmatory source for – I’d like to know how they overcame the heterogeneity of existing studies that other attempted analyses complain about) and also this more general article from Scientific American, but it’s not much to lean on.

My gut feeling from my own practice is that I achieved between 40% and 60% success rates over 12 months. I receive the occasional email from people years on who are still smoke-free. But I suspect that a significant number of my former clients who did go back to smoking simply didn’t blame me or the therapy for it.

You’ll excuse me if I leave the placebo effect out of it for now. We are going to know what that is, in measurable terms, in the not too distant future, and I’ll discuss it then. It’s no more than a phrase describing something we don’t understand for now.

Acupuncture

Again, practices vary: the word of mouth accounts I’ve had are black and white, either instantly and effortlessly successful or not at all.

The impression I gain is that it works better for the type As amongst us.

I suspect that the Cochrane Review Summary here – which complains about the paucity of studies – has it about right.

Allen Carr’s Easyway

I’d say worth a try, because the Allen Carr Clinic approach is both an actual process you can go through, but it respects your intellgence and invites your dissent and argument. That makes it highly unusual in the therapy field to put it mildly.

No other approach has created quite the wave of enthusiasm, yet there are no proper studies to add to it. That’s a shame; I’d be fascinated to see them.

The core idea, for what it’s worth, is that nicotine sets up a chain reaction – the relief afforded you by a cigarette is not genuine relief but merely temporary respite from the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. A host of psychological consequences follow. Frankly, the outcome thus far of research in brain scanners bears Allen Carr out more than it bears out the wean-them-off ideas of the NRT adherents, but there are problems involving the relationship between the interval between cigarettes and the active life of nicotine in the brain. Nevertheless, it’s an idea worth pursuing further than it has been.

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