Sports Book Chat: Musa Okwonga

Paul Grech Monday, July 25, 2011 , ,
It is hard to pin down Musa Okwonga. The blurb at the top of his blog on the Independent's website casually has him as a 'football writer, poet and musician', as if it was only natural for someone to be all of those three. Yet not even it goes as far as to include that he is an Eton educated lawyer in his list of achievements.

What Okwonga is without any shadow of doubt, however, is an author of two very good football books. His first, A Cultured Left Foot, which looks at the different elements that make up a truly great player was nominated for William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in 2008.

The second book, Will You Manage? looked at what makes a great (or not so great) manager which isn't a topic that hasn't been covered before but not in the way that Okwonga has. Suffice to say that Sun Tzu's The Art of War frequently gets a mention. It also goes without saying that this too is an excellent book.

It is his determination to look at popular subjects from different angles, to look outside football in order to find what determines success, that makes Okwonga such an interesting writer.

What's your earliest football memory?
Probably the 1985 Cup Final win over Everton (I'm a Manchester United fan). Back then they were an underachieving team of romantics, who alwatys tried to play exciting attacking football.

Did you immediately fall for the game or was it something gradual?
It was definitely an instant thing, my love for football. It's the fact that the game is so complex, but at first appears so simple, that is endlessly fascinating for me.

You're an Eton educated lawyer and also a poet: not too many people with those attributes who also follow football, let alone write books about the sport. What made you decide it was something you would like to do?
Looking at that list of attributes, I'm surprised that a publisher would touch me with a bargepole! Seriously, there are a huge number of people who followed football at school and in the City (not so many poets, though). And, in truth, it was the natural thing for me to get into. Football is second nature to my family - my grandfather managed the Uganda national team for several years, and a couple of my uncles were elected to the All-America squads when they were in college there. We all love the game, and that's a love which has endured no matter which professions I've gone into, or out of.

How much does your talent or skill for poetry help?
Being a poet definitely helps as a football writer. As a poet, you're constantly trying to find images and narrative forms that engage your audience; I'm conscious that I should always be concise, and that I should capture a moment for a reader. When I'm writing particular passages of prose, let's say when I'm describing a goal, I try to make them visual in a reader's mind. One of these days, when I pull my finger out, I'm going to try my hand at football poems that punters will enjoy, which remind them of their favourite moments in the game.

You've also come out with the fact that you're gay. Yet football as a whole seems quite homophobic. Is that something that bothers you? Could it be something that turns you off from the game?
Slight edit: I'm bisexual, I have a girlfriend of 14 months! But as to your question, it does bother me, though I understand the roots of that prejudice. It's based on a particular conception of manhood, which (given my own traditional, conservative upbringing) I once shared; that men who are gay are soft, are weak. I learned that this was absolute nonsense, and football will one day learn that too. And no: unlike hip-hop, which to my mind has far fewer redeeming features than football, I never lost my love for the game.

Similarly, what do you think of the recent case of Anton Hysen who announced that he was gay?
Anton Hysen is an excellent case in point. Brave guy, supported by his family and friends, he's showing how football is learning and developing. It'll be a slow process - we're talking about a sport that still shuns video replays - but we'll get there.

Where did the inspiration for the ideas behind each one of your books come from?
Football is a game with a billion viewers, and a billion experts. So I wanted to frame that raucous discussion with books that would encourage further debate, that would serve as the platform for talking points. I couldn't believe that no-one had actually written books about what makes great managers and players - I think they were too busy arguing about these subjects to put pen to paper. So I thought I'd have a go, and see where I ended up.

Although the style of your books is to break down complex topics to make them appear simple, it is quite obvious that you put in a lot of research and try to incorporate left field ideas in your writing. What's that process like? Do you determine what you like to research or do you let the research itself guide you?
I love getting under the skin of a subject. My attitude to football is that, love it or hate it, it's an exceptional social phenomenon. It's only existed for about 150 years in its modern form, but it dominates discussion the world over. There are probably religions who envy the reach of its influence. And so I try to place each of football's elements into a wider anthropological context, drawing on sociology, psychology and so on. Very often this approach yields exciting results. Aidy Boothroyd coached my football team for a session, and I noticed how he always used very positive language to point out flaws; so I asked if he'd taken formal training in communication. It turned out that he was 12 years' qualified in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which is used by several leading executives with their staff.

How often (if ever) do you re-read your books? Do you find yourself thinking that there is something that you would change?
I re-read my books as much as I look at photos of my exes, which is very rarely if at all; like photos of my exes, I don't own copies of them. I worry that having them around my house, even if they're out of sight, will make me big-headed that I've achieved through getting work published, and will remove my motivation. As Jay-Z said, "on to the next one".

On a similar vein, which one of the two books is your favourite?
My romantic favourite is my first book, A Cultured Left Foot, since that's where it all started. I had no name as a football writer, and when it received a nomination for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, that all changed. Will You Manage is also very dear to me. I felt great pressure to exceed the quality of A Cultured Left Foot, and I think I did it. It cost me several sleepless nights though - not of anxiety, but of writing.

What are your plans? Any more books in the pipeline?..
I have a very exciting project in the pipeline which I can't say anything about for now - but please get in touch in the next three months and I'll tell all. For anyone reading this piece, Paul has always been a tremendous supporter of my work, and so it would be a pleasure to share the news with him as soon as I have it.

This interview originally appeared in the June / July issue of Swinging Balls magazine.

Building the Player Development Machine

Paul Grech Thursday, July 7, 2011 , ,
A $100M player development machine.

It is impossible to talk about the Boston Red Sox and their transformation into two time World Series winners without mentioning Theo Epstein.

When he was appointed as the franchise's General Manager he was, at 28, the youngest man ever to take on such a role. He was also a man with a deep fascination for sabermetrics - the search for objective knowledge about baseball largely through the use of statistics - and whose vision included incorporating this into the Red Sox's approach to scouting.

Often, it is on that aspect that most evaluations of Epstein's work tend to focus. Yet his vision, and that of the whole group running the franchise, has been much more far reaching then that. Their whole strategy has been based on looking at every aspect of the organisation, breaking it down and seeing how it could be improved. Sabermetrics was simply a tool that they could use to achieve that in one specific area.

Another area that also received such a treatment was that of player development. Before being taken over by FSG, the Red Sox had a long history of bad calls in the player draft and their strategy for the development of players was a haphazard one.

It was the desire to rectify this traditional failing that prompted Epstein into claiming that he wanted a "$100M player development machine" where the goal was to "develop a constant flow of impact talent". This wasn't some jumped-up comment from a manager eager just how much he wanted to win but formed part of an over-reaching plan that had carefully considered the potential benefits of acting in this manner.

In a 2003 interview with the Boston Dirt Dogs, Epstein would go on to list these benefits. Included among his reasons were the access to talented young players who were more likely to stay healthy and improve than older ones, access to inexpensive talent which would free up financial resources to strengthen in other areas and, poignantly, also the "added pride in the Red Sox uniform".

Lift those points out of a baseball context and they would easily slot into any vision aimed at improving Liverpool FC. How much money has been spent on squad players like Salif Diao, Diego Cavallieri and Philipe Degen - players with clear limitations but who were signed in the hope that they would give the squad added depth - could have been diverted to get one player of established class had there been faith in the players coming out of the academy to fill those squad padding roles?

That question isn't an original one; nor is it an overly imaginative one. Yet the faith quite simply hasn’t been there just as it wasn’t there for the Red Sox before FSG changed the set up.

What the Red Sox did to do so was to develop a plan for the identification and development of players throughout the whole organisation. There was to be a holistic approach to playing, a certain style that was to be reflected regardless of whether a player was in the major league roster or whether he was affiliated to one of their minor league teams. They cemented what is known as the Red Sox Way.

This is at odds with what Liverpool have done for the past two decades. Money, and huge amounts of it, were invested in the setting up of the academy but this was then left to operate in isolation. Those running the academy were at odds with the club’s senior management with nothing being done to fix this situation.

In this environment of conflict, players were being taught to play in style which didn’t fit with what the first team was looking for. The result was a system that was producing players that no one wanted and a first team that was asking for money to spend to get the players to fill the spots that should have really been taken up by the players coming through.

Resolving such a farcical situation would have been quite near the top of FSG’s priorities upon taking over Liverpool FC were it not for the simple fact that when they did take over the problem had already been solved.

The man to thank for this is Rafa Benitez. He was the one who had the vision to fight for control over the academy, who had the courage to sack a number of coaches he felt weren’t good enough and who brought in people like Pep Segura. It is Segura who, along with the likes of Frank McParland and Rodolfo Borell, has developed what within the academy is known as ‘The Plan’.

This, in essence, is a framework that includes the coaching and developmental steps that need to be undertaken for the players at the academy to improve. Almost twenty four months down the line, the initial results of this are more than apparent, with the good games that John Flanagan and Jack Robinson had in the first team more than underlining it.

It is impossible not to see these two as part of next season’s first team squad along with the likes of Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly. Indeed, Damien Comolli acknowledged that much when he claimed that “if there is a very good 18 or 19-year-old full-back we need to make sure that in two or three years they are in the first team and not sign another player in front of him from outside. That's the strong message I give to the staff at the academy and also to the scouts. I say don't push players in a position where we already have a talented player. If we did then we may as well shut down the academy."

With Liverpool now having a vision of how their teams should be playing the game – where Segura has often quoted the Liverpool Way of passing the ball as being the cornerstone of their systems – and also a plan of how players should progress from one stage to the next, all that remains is to put further meat on the bones.

For that, it is appropriate to look at what has happened at the Red Sox.

"We will work long and hard to get the best out our minor league players and turn out as many prospects as possible,” Epstein has promised. “We will be not be afraid to try new methods, nor will we abandon proven methods. If there's someone out there who will help us develop a player, we will hire him. If there's something out there that will help us develop a player, we will buy it. Period. It's that important."

And that is what is likely to happen next. People like Segura and Borrell have both been exceptional thanks largely to their background at Barcelona. Yet there is always plenty that can be learned not only from different academies across the world but also in what different sports do to help their players to fulfil their potential. It isn’t just about how many resources you put in, it is also about being clever and continuously learning so as to keep on improving.

It is what has happened at the Red Sox, just as Theo Epstein has promised. And, although no one has gone about promising to build a “€100M player development machine” it is what Liverpool are aiming to do.

This article was originally published in Issue 8 of Well Red magazine. Special thanks go to Albert Skorupa for his help in the preparation of this piece.

Family Honouring Shankly’s Legacy

Paul Grech , ,
When talks were first being held for the formation of the supporter's union that eventually came to be known as Spirit of Shankly, it was to Karen Gill that they turned. From her, the grand daughter of Bill Shankly, they wanted confirmation that they could refer to the great man in the name of this union that was being set up to help save the club that he himself had transformed in the sixties.

When the reply was delivered, it didn't simply contain the confirmation they were looking for but also an inspirational message that gave the Shankly family's wholehearted support to the union. "My grandad had a dream for Liverpool Football Club and you are all helping to keep that dream alive," she wrote. "It's the people with dreams who achieve things in the end because they have a vision which drives them on. We know Bill Shankly 'made the people happy' but I know that you would have all made him happy were he alive to see this legendary support today."

As Brian Reade noted in his book an Epic Swindle, "Karen is a marvelous woman who has inherited many of her grandad's traits, not least his fight and his passion."

Considering the relationship that Shankly had with the fans, Karen's reaction was always something of a foregone conclusion. "They literally meant everything to him," she says when the question of what the fans meant to her grandfather is put to her. "The club and the fans were his life. No exaggeration."

"He’d be shocked and appalled at football today in general and he would be devastated
at the terrible damage that Hicks and Gillette did to his beloved club," she continues, looking back at the past three years. Yet it is also reasonable to assume that he, given his Socialist ideology, would have been immensely proud to see the fans working so hard together to get rid of those who were destroying the club.

Typically, Karen's favourite memory of here grandfather in a football context includes the fans. "I like all the stories about him taking time out to visit sick children at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and I’ve had messages from adults who say they remember his kindness to them to this day."

As for Karen herself, what she remembers is a kindly and playful man. " I have many recollections of my grandfather. Firstly I spent most of my childhood with him. We would always eat together on a Sunday at his house or sometimes he would take us to a nice hotel in the centre of Liverpool for a special meal. My favourite times though were when he would take us to Anfield and we’d run around and sometimes get to sit on our favourite player’s knee!”
At the time, however, she didn't fully realise who he was and why he was so important."I always knew he was important as from an early age I saw that he was followed around by people wherever we would go. People were always coming up to him and talking football. Journalists were always on the phone to him etc. But it wasn’t until I came to Greece that I realised the extent to which he is admired, literally all over the world."

In time, this sparked off her desire to write a book about him with the result being the excellent The Real Bill Shankly that came out a couple of years back. "That was one of the best experiences of my life. I’d wanted to write a book about my granddad for a while but it was when I met the supporters from the official Liverpool Supporters Hellenic Branch that I realised that I should do it. I talked about the idea with Stephen Done (the curator of the Liverpool Museum) and he put me in touch with Ken Rogers from Trinity Mirror and he thought it was a great idea. I just wanted in some way to help keep my granddad’s memory alive"

If that was her aim, then she has done her job to perfection. Just as, with her determination and inspiration at the birth of SOS, she was more than honouring the legacy of her family's surname. Bill Shankly would most certainly have approved.

This article was originally published in Issue 8 of Well Red magazine.

A Little Comic Relief

Looking back, it wasn’t a particularly healthy habit. Growing up, from an early age my dinners would be accompanied with a comic from a stack that someone had given us that I would read as I ate. It was often juvenile stuff – the Beano or the Dandy – and it got to a point where I knew every one of them by heart. And still I kept going through them.

Later on, I would task anyone who I knew was going to Italy to get me a copy of the latest Paperino edition or would do a little squeal of delight every time the local stationer stocked a new copy of the World War II themed Commando comic. I still recall my joy at coming across an Asterix graphical novel at the public library and how I read through it over and over again.

Comics were my first portal to the world of books. It is through them that I fell in love with reading; they were the ones that lit my passion for the published word. From them I graduated to the Enid Blyton’s children books that seemed to be the only ones the local library stocked for kids my age and then on to every book I could lay my hands on.

Yet I also recall being told off for reading comics and how they would do nothing for my vocabulary. They will make you lazy, I was told, and you won’t want to read normal books. Judging by how much I read today, and the fact in itself that I’m writing in this magazine would indicate that I’ve managed to build enough of my vocabulary, reading those comics didn’t hinder at all.

Indeed, it was exactly the opposite. They showed me that reading was fun, they taught me how to follow a story and they boosted my imagination. Often, when I’m reading or writing, I think back to those dinners with a comic besides me that laid the foundation for everything.

Thankfully, my kids love books and have tried to learn to read from a very early age. For them, a trip to the library is akin to a visit to the sweetshop, such is the excitement that it generates. But I realise that I’m among the lucky ones. Just as much as I am aware that this could all change as soon as they’re given the first school text book which they have to read for their curriculum. Nothing can suck the joy out of something like being forced into doing it.

So I’m already looking for ways to keep them interested and, if the lessons of my childhood are anything to go by, then comics and graphic novels are the perfect solution. They’ve definitely loved the ones I’ve gotten them so far which is always a joy for me.

Just as long as they don’t read them during dinner.

This article was first published in the Summer 2011 issue of Growing Up in Malta magazine

Changing the Beliefs on Comics

“There’s a lot of misconception and a lot of ill formed opinions out there. It is something that needs to worked on to improve the situation.” As opening statements go, that by Chris le Galle is particularly forthright. Yet it is hardly surprising.

As the founding members of the annual Malta Comic Con and an author of one of Malta’s first graphic novels in the form of The Golden Lizard, comics inevitably have a major influence in his life. His desire to share the hobby, however, isn’t completely driven by his own love for comics but a belief borne through personal experience of their benefit.

“I was always a bookworm. Naturally, when you’re young, stories with imagery appeal more to you so I used to really enjoy them,” he recalls. “I have comics from when I was a kid that I still occasionally read today. Then there was a period in my life when I effectively only read novels because it was very difficult in Malta to find comics for sale. Eventually, I found out that there was a comics’ store here as well and when I saw all those comics I went crazy!”

For him, comics provided a way to re-ignite his love for reading. “A lot of people complain because their kids don’t want to read but it depends on what you give them to read. When I was young we used to be told to read the Reader’s Digest but for me that was extremely boring. Then I found an English teacher who told me not to read that and encouraged me to read what I like.”

Le Galle story is fairly typical. Sadly it often has a different conclusion with the child in question deciding that books aren’t for him.

Yet there will also be those whose opinions of comics will always be that they are, effectively, a bit of joke with poorly written English. It is a claim that Le Galle has often heard before and one that he immediately rebuffs.

“A lot of people who write comics have also published novels. One of the most popular is Neil Giaman whose reputation was formed by modern classics like Neverwhere and American Idols but who has also written a number of comics.”

“As with any other medium, particularly one that has a strong industry behind it, there are professional editors who go through the work.” Le Galle continues.

“The fact that there are images helps one to understand expressions, characterisations, how different people interact. Personally, I think that there are some exceptional writers out there. Obviously, there are also amateurs. Self published graphic novels, for instance, can be a bit or miss but that is the same for any genre of books.”

“As with any other entertainment medium, it is very pleasurable. The story telling element is very strong in comics. Myself, being a writer, that is something that I look out for. Obviously, an artist will tell you a different story and that they look out more for the drawing side of things. I think that’s important as well but I give greater weight to the story narrative element.”

So what makes a good comic? “One that is entertaining, that has a very good story and is visually very interesting,” comes the reply.

Three years ago, Le Galle’s love for comics took a different twist when he helped set up Malta’ s own comic con.

“The whole thing started when Joe Bugeja wanted to do an exhibition of artwork and the people at St. James Cavallier asked us to look at ways to make it more interesting. What we did was round up local comics’ artist and we did a sort of gathering for them. There was a lot of interest in and we decided to do a full blow convention.”

At this point it might be fair to ask what a con is. “A comic con is a convention which celebrates the whole comics culture,” is Le Galle’s response when asked about the con itself. “It doesn’t include only comics but also movies, table top gaming, video gaming, Cos play, there’s even music that is purely dedicated to this culture. We invite guests from abroad to do talks. In the first comic con we had five, then seven in the second one. This year we’re looking to bring ten.”

“Then there are the local creators. Each one has a table so that they can exhibit their material and, at the same time, it puts the creator in touch with his audience. We always put up stands for Playstation and Xbox to allow people to play and have competitions.”

“For kids we have workshops that are specifically aimed at them. We always have a workshop on each day where kids are split into age categories and there are artists - both Maltese and foreign - who guide them on how to draw comics. They teach them who to draw and how to link everything together. And, I have to say, the kids love this.”

In the context of this magazine, this final point is perhaps particularly poignant. In truth, in the previous edition of the convention there has always been a lot of focus on getting children interested.

“For us, we see being able to get to the children as being extremely important.”

And, in this respect, there has been some progress. “Last year we had an eight year old boy who was the youngest creator at the Comic Con. What happened is that his mother had seen us on some television show promoting the event and she got in touch because her son was very much into drawing comics.”

“We invited him to come along, set up a table for him and he really enjoyed himself. As for us, we were impressed that not only did he draw but he did so in comic format so much that we did an exhibition of his work.”

“We encourage parents of children like this to bring them along. As long as there’s a guardian with them, they’re more than welcome.”

The work to get more people, specifically children, more interested in this culture isn’t limited to the annual event that is the Malta Comic Con.

“We’d also love to be able to go to schools to educate. However, when we tried to do so through the Education Department we got nowhere because, basically, they don’t see it as being important. So what we do is find art teachers who are into the subject and they invite us to do a workshop during one of their lectures.”

“I’ve been involved in loads of scenes: I’ve played guitar in a band and I’ve written plays. However, I’ve always maintained that in Malta we abhor creativity. It is our job to foster it. If you go to the USA or even England, comics are part of the curriculum. You can get degree and masters in comics.”

“Our job is to expand the local scene as much as possible. We have to educate about the culture, which is ultimately an entertaining culture, but also one that you can learn from. Recently there’s even been a trend to publish classic novels in the form of graphic novels which have proved to be really popular.”

So they would in Malta, probably, where they widely available. As Chris later admits, “the problem of accessibility is a big one” and, with very few Maltese outlets selling any form of comic, children do not have as much exposure to such books.

This is a huge obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. The key, ironically, lies with the parents. Tell them what the benefits are, show them how the children will learn (and have fun) and you’re likely to see an increase in the popularity of such books.

More information about the Malta Comic Con and the Maltese comics scene can be found on their official website.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Growing Up In Malta magazine.

A Comical Education

First off, what is a comic? And why is it different from a graphic novel?

Let's start with the obvious: what unites a comic and a graphic novel is the fact that both tell their stories primarily through sequential illustrations and text. Yet, whereas graphic novels tend to cover one story in its entirety, comics tell only part of a story. Physically, comics tend to be thinner than graphic novels that are more similar to books.

Secondly, why so much interest in comics by a parenting magazine? The answer is rather simple: they can be of huge help to any parent, but in particular to those whose children struggle to read.

For a good number of children reading is a chore, something that they are forced to do as part of their studies. Eventually, they come to dread the prospect of being faced with a book in which there is page after page full of text. When that child suffers from ADHD, then reading can become next to impossible.

Comics take out that tedium. Details of what is going on are portrayed through the images rather than words and this adds vivacity to the act of reading. They can enjoy not only the story but also lose themselves in the drawings, their colours, the details in the background, the expressions on the character’s faces.

There is also the psychological element that plays a huge part. Traditional literature relies on words to explain what is happening and this can mean drawn out paragraphs which can require a significant effort to get through. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to read, this can seem like torture.

But when you’re faced with a comic you can easily read through a page and this boosts your morale: the faster you go through a page, the more encouraged you are to keep on reading.

The lesson here, however, isn’t that kids reading of traditional novels should be scrapped in favour of comics. What it does mean is that children should be taught to enjoy reading if we really expect them to keep on reading for the fun of it, rather than because they have to. And comics are an excellent way to achieve this.

For additional information about why comics can be of help and for recommendations as to which graphic novels to buy, visit Graphic Classroom

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Growing Up in Malta magazine.
Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer