MI – Misanthropic Investor: The Bullseye Portfolio

When idly scanning through one of my stock screening lists recently, I was transported back to the Sunday afternoons of my childhood, and specifically the words of Jim Bowen. No, not “you can’t beat a bit of bully”, although that statement is as true today as it was then. It was the words that he uttered to some moustachioed, mulletted man from Walsall, at the very moment that they were suffering the anguish of seeing a speedboat that they never needed and would never have used slipping from their grasp: “look at what you could have won”.

You see a number of stocks in my screened list were showing gains, which isn’t necessarily unusual. What really stuck in my craw was that a couple of names caught my eye as ones that I had analysed in detail, only to discard as potential investment opportunities. Yet here they were, with a little green arrow next to them, taunting me.

As investors we are told to know the reason why we have invested in a company. This a strategy that has served me well, allowing me to ignore short term price volatility and focus on my original investment case – if this hasn’t fundamentally changed then I’m not going to be panicked into selling out. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever heard any advice to keep a record of why we didn’t invest in something. Not why we didn’t invest in something obvious, like a heavily indebted junior miner listed on AIM, but those companies that look good on paper, but after analysing them, we decide not to pull the trigger.

Yet surely this is as important as keeping a record of why we did invest in something. After all, if we keep choosing not to invest in stocks that go on to be long term winners, then we can learn from this and improve our performance. I call these stocks my ‘Bullseye Portfolio’, based on Bowen’s lament of what might have been. I don’t think any of these are bad investments, they passed my screening criteria after all. I just choose not to invest after weighing up qualitative factors. So here are some stocks from my Bullseye Portfolio, reminding me that, to use another Bowen catchphrase, investing isn’t always “super, smashing, great”:

Belvoir Group PLC (BLV)

Belvoir is an estate agent business that generates royalties from franchisees. On the face of it there is a lot to like. It’s a play on the housing market, which governments of any persuasion appear desperate to prop-up, the franchise system entitles them to a percentage of each franchisees profits and it has acquired the Mortgage Advice Bureau to add a complimentary service to its business. Revenues and profits are growing each year and it even pays a dividend. What’s not to like?

Belvoir Turnover & Profit since 2008

I tell you what’s not to like – yet another bricks and mortar estate agent. There are plenty of them and the barriers to entry are low. I have been unable to identify what Belvoir does that is better than any other estate agent out there.

At a recent Shares Magazine investor presentation, CEO Dorian Gonsalves implied that online estate agents having just 7% of the market share is a positive; perhaps customers prefer the in person touch? I’ve used various estate agents over the years, for buying, selling and letting property. I’ve never felt like I’ve got value for money from them. They take a percentage for doing very little, in some cases not even bothering to provide a decent level of customer service. I think the scene is set for an online estate agent, who matches low fees with excellent customer service, to take off and grab an ever bigger slice of the estate agent pie at the likes of Belvoir’s expense.

Perhaps Dorian Gonsalves agrees with me and that’s why he opted to sell options worth approximately £200k at the very beginning of 2020. I get that he already has a stake in the business, but if he is so bullish on the prospects for further growth, why not show that to the market by hanging on to these options. Despite my misgivings Belvoir continues to rise, up from £1.59 from when I decided not to buy to £2.17 today, a 36% gain.

Cake Box Holdings PLC (CBOX)

Cakebox holdings sell vegan cakes. Very impressive looking vegan cakes that are as eye catching as the distinctive purple and orange branding. It also operates a franchise model, that I tend to like, plays the growing vegan theme and like Belvoir, it is growing its top and bottom lines.

Cake Box Turnover & Profit since 2017

So what’s my beef with the vegan cakes? Although I had gazed longingly at the cakes in their shop windows, I had never sampled one, being somewhat vegan cake sceptic. So I took a look at on-line reviews of various stores in the franchise. A theme cropped up of customers complaining about the cakes being stale.

So at another Shares Magazine investor evening, I put the question of ‘how are franchise standards maintained’ to CEO Sukh ChamdalI. His response was that all sponges are made centrally and shipped to stores directly where they are decorated, which allows standards to be controlled.

Perhaps I expect too much after seeing the excellent Ray Kroc film, The Founder, but his response did not fill me with confidence. Either the sponges are stale when they arrived or the franchisees are hanging onto them for too long. Either one isn’t good, and his response didn’t show a desire to do anything about it.

The business of vegan cakes is also becoming a lot less specialist. All the major coffee chains now provide sweet vegan treats, so I’m not convinced that Cake Box can defend its moat, particularly if there are quality control issues.

The CEO also decided to sell over £6m of shares in September. He claimed that this was due to shareholder requests for greater liquidity, and I have no reason to doubt this. Yet selling just as the share price recovered to its pre-covid high struck me as suspicious. Still despite my misgivings Cake Box has served me a slice of humble pie, trading today at £2.63, up from the £2.12 that I decided not to buy at, a gain of 24%.

Polar Capital Technology Trust (PCT)

I like to pick up a good performing investment trust at a discount when I can. Such an opportunity presented itself in March when PCT briefly traded at a double digit discount off the back of a tech based correction.

This time my gun shyness in failing to invest was due to a very interesting interview the trust manager, Ben Rogoff, gave to the Investors Chronicle back in July 2020. Mr Rogoff stated that he invests very much with “an eye to the benchmark”, which he simply looks to outperform by 2-3%. He then went onto to explain how this prevented him from holding more Amazon when he wanted to a few years ago because it wasn’t in the benchmark.

This example is why I didn’t buy. I want my trust manager to be truly active and not to be constrained by the benchmark. I appreciate Mr Rogoff’s honesty, and he won’t be the only fund manager to have an eye on the benchmark with career risk in mind. But if I’m going active, that’s what I want for my additional fee. If I want to be conscious of the benchmark, I’ll simply invest in a tracker fund or ETF for a fraction of the price to compensate for missing out on winners like Amazon.

Still the Polar Capital Trust performance hasn’t been chilly, up from £20.85 in March to £23.60, a 13% gain.

The performance of these investments doesn’t surprise me. I don’t think that these are bad companies; they showed up on my screener for a reason and I seriously considered taking a position in all three. I understand why people invested in them. So why succumb to hindsight bias and torture myself with my Bullseye portfolio?

The curse of the investor is to always be haunted by the one company whose share price rockets after you’ve looked but not bought, the look at what you could have won. But we can’t buy everything we look at. For every investment we make, we are choosing not to invest in an alternative.

To truly measure my performance, to assess my investment effectiveness, I need to compare what I chose to invest in with what I almost invested in but didn’t and look at the long term effectiveness of both. Some of my actual investments may do better, some of the Bullseye portfolio may underperform, but at least this way I’ll know. Just writing this has raised the question of does selling by the CEO matter?

In few years I’ll have a better answer to that question and I can refine my analysis accordingly, but hopefully I won’t be looking mournfully at the investing equivalent of that speedboat!

MI – Misanthropic Investor: The REIT Stuff

MI – Misanthropic Investor: The REIT Stuff

Ah, is it just me or does anybody see
The new improved tomorrow isn’t what it used to be
Yesterday keeps comin’ ’round, it’s just reality
It’s the same damn song with a different melody

The More Things Change – Bon Jovi

The Great Fire of London in 1666. London burns, watched by people on the river. 1666

I recently heard a tale about how the Great Fire of London impacted London. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, it was royally decreed that London would be built back better with buildings spaced out so that flames would never be able to spread so easily again. Then reality took over. The public were eager to return to normal and wealthy landowners started to rebuild in the same footprint of their burnt buildings, keen not to surrender any square footage in the name of spacing. Politicians lacked the will to argue for the contrary with either party. Sir Christopher Wren’s new plans of a Parisian vision for London were left in tatters and the new London looked pretty much like the old one. So what has this got to do with Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs)?

Is it REIT

For diversification purposes I had eyed adding a REIT or two to my portfolio for some time. Why? I don’t hold bonds, which are the typical way to add some diversification to an equity portfolio. I see corporate bonds as being too correlated with the stock market, offering slightly lower risk for a lot less reward. Yields on GILTS are incredibly low, leaving them susceptible to any slight increase from our historically low interest yields. REITs however are an asset that offer a hedge against inflation (property prices, land and rents all tend to increase with inflation) and are a different asset class to equities. Yet I was put off by the price demanded by the market in response to investor demand for yield. Most REITs that interested me traded at par or a slight premium to a NAV based on slightly frothy property prices. That all changed in 2020 with the covid lockdowns. People didn’t go shopping, didn’t go into the office, and commercial property REITs crashed.

When is a commercial property REIT not a commercial property REIT

Despite your investment platform having a neat filter for commercial property, not all commercial property is the same. A quick search of commercial property REITs on my platform brought up trusts holding property classified as retail, industrial, offices, warehouses, supermarkets and combinations of all of these. We can all tell the difference between an office and a warehouse, or a supermarket and an industrial estate, so it seemed strange that such a varied group of property could be banded under the single label of ‘commercial’. REITs with an exclusive supermarket or warehouse theme held up, but the rest were sold off indiscriminately. Yet my view is that much like in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, post pandemic human habitats will return. This presented a potential opportunity for me to add some REIT exposure at a knockdown price.

The Macro View

The first thing I did was to screen out any REIT that was predominately retail focused. The demise of the likes of Intu was inevitable as people shifted to shopping online. Bricks and mortar retail was already in intensive care before the pandemic; although the pandemic didn’t put it there, it did pull the plug a little bit quicker. This left a handful of candidates who could benefit my portfolio should we see a vaccine led recovery.

Secure Income REIT (SIR)

SIR holds a portfolio of theme parks, hospitals, pubs and hotels (predominantly Travelodges). In the early days of lockdown things looked grim for some of its tenants, with Travelodge entering into a CVA. SIR explored alternative tenants for its hotel properties but ultimately stuck with Travelodge and rents are back up to 70% of contracted amounts. If we’re all vaccinated by summer then the Travelodge portfolio could benefit from a staycation boom. You may not be able to socially distance on a roller coaster but theme parks will also benefit from a vaccine led economic reopening, doubly so if this coincides with the summer holidays. By consensus the British public are all desperate for a return to pubs and SIRs tenant in this area, Stonegate, should be big enough to weather the Covid storm. Finally a large part of the portfolio income is from healthcare, a growing investing trend and a more defensive area to SIRs other tenants.

SIR’s management team clearly agree. There has been a number of director purchases whilst the share price has dropped. This is not a token amount to try and calm investors – we are talking in excess of £5m. SIR directors now hold shares worth over £6.5m. This is more than just skin in the game, this is having a major limb or two in the game. I like to invest where directors are putting their money where their mouth is – the SIR board are doing this.

Regional REIT (RGL)

The recovery potential for SIR is clear; it is not as obvious for RGL. RGL predominantly holds a portfolio of offices based outside of London. Offices I hear you cry, the office is dead. Teams, Zoom, WFH, living in the country! Not so fast I say.

RGL Portfolio

Human behaviour is difficult to change even in response to a once in a lifetime event, as shown by the London response to the great fire. People may go into the office less, but the idea of never going into the office is a fantasy in my opinion. The general consensus from my colleagues is that after a year of working remotely they are looking forward to returning to the office. I listened with interest when, on a recent Investors Chronicle podcast, Dale Nicholls, the manager of Fidelity China Special Situations, observed that in the largely covid free south China region commuting had returned largely to pre-pandemic levels. People are the same everywhere so I expect something similar in the UK. The human desire to socialise, plus the scepticism of bosses (Barclays and Goldman Sachs are already railing against full time home working) means that the office is far from dead. What happens when employees working from home start missing out on promotions to office based staff who have more visibility and have developed relationships that simply can’t be developed as well over a computer screen? What happens when bosses begin to suspect that home workers are spending more time gaming than grafting? The days of 5 days in the office may be coming to an end, but the days of 3-4 days in the office are very much alive, and for those 3-4 days, workers need an office building to house them.

RGL’s anti-London focus also plays into the trend being led by the UK government of decentralising away from London. Where central government hubs go, the private sector tends to follow, hoping to build relationships and get a slice of the publically funded pie. The private sector is also likely to note that not only is commercial property cheaper outside of London, the wages of the staff inhabiting it are too.

In the inevitable economic downturn immediately following the end of furlough, demand for office space may well drop. But demand could yet bounce back in the medium term due to all the factors mentioned above. In 7 Mistakes Every Investor Makes, Joachim Klement implores investors to look at the supply side, not just demand, showing the example of how a consolidated tobacco market in the late nineties benefitted despite a sharp decrease in demand for their products. Office demand may remain flat or even reduce slightly in the short term, but developers aren’t rushing out to build more of them. RGL could therefore also benefit from a supply side shock.

The Micro View

That’s the qualitative view but what do the numbers say? Taking a closer look at RGL and SIR reveals more aspects of both that I like the look of:

Debt levels: The property sector typically has high levels of debt as mortgages are used to buy property to generate a yield. Nobody would ever advocate a 100% or higher mortgage, yet some REITs have levels of debt greater than the value of their assets. This is not the case here; both RGL and SIR have debt levels of around 70% of assets and this has been falling in recent years.

Debt as a percentage of assets

As a result of having a manageable level of debt the income generated by RGL and SIR comfortably covers interest expenses. This leaves room for dividends to be paid to shareholders – a key attraction of REITs.

Interest cover

Room for Returns: The primary attraction of a REIT is the income they generate. From the point at which I started buying into RGL the yield, assuming a return to pre-pandemic levels, would be 10.3%. The dividend for 2020 held up reasonably well for such a covid hit sector, at 6.45p compared with a 2019 dividend of 8.25p. Similarly for SIR, a return to 2019 dividend levels would represent for me a yield of 7.6% and the 2020 dividend was again healthy at 11.5p (16.53p in 2019). Both RGL and SIR have reported strong rent collection levels despite the impact of the pandemic.

My intention with these holding is to hopefully reinvest their combined average dividend return of approximately 9% into equities that offer the potential for a higher level of capital appreciation. However both RGL and SIR are trading at a historic discount to NAV. If they can return to previous levels of trading at or close to par then there is a nice bit of, if not mind blowing, capital appreciation to be had. If the value of the underlying properties keeps pace with inflation them that capital appreciation should steadily tick upwards in the long run.

Price to NAV

REIT or wrong

I think that RGL and SIR offer my portfolio an attractive dividend yield and scope for the discount to NAV to reduce significantly, whilst also offering an inflation hedge and diversification to my equity heavy portfolio. As ever this is not a recommendation to buy and you should do your own research. Will the post pandemic world be much like the old one, or am I a luddite that is ignorant to the technical revolution? Post away and let me know your thoughts.

MI – Misanthropic Investor: Lessons from 2020

I was bitten by the investment bug in 2018 having had an epiphany when reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad – my money should work for me! I started investing in Vanguard funds and began learning more about investing until in mid-2019 I finally felt confident to take the plunge and buy my first individual company stocks. So 2020 was my first full year of investing since I started picking individual stocks and what a year to start! I reflect here on what I’ve learnt about investing and how I do it and, grits teeth, how I performed.

Going to bed a little smarter each day

When I first started buying individual stocks in 2019 I did so based purely on quantitative value measures. The concept of value investing – buy what’s cheap, wait for mean reversion, count the pound notes – made perfect sense to me and I began to pick stocks based on traditional value metrics. But despite value investing making sense, a lot of ‘cheap’ stocks appeared to be cheap for a reason. I found myself lacking confidence in what I had picked, essentially because all I could say for why I had bought them was that they looked cheap based on valuation metrics.

In 2020, influenced by Lord Lee’s How to Make a Million – Slowly and Phil Oakley’s How to Pick Quality Shares, I found myself changing my approach to finding cash generating companies with low debt at a low price and including a qualitative assessment before buying. I’m now much clearer on why I’m investing in an company, which gives me the confidence to ride out temporary falls in share prices and even potentially see these as a buying opportunity.

Through either good (or dumb) luck or judgement, investments I have made using this approach have performed better than my now defunct value only approach. Though I still constantly obsess over what I don’t know (am I the dumb money?) and strive to read more and learn more. ShareSoc’s recent master class on remuneration will now form part of my assessment of a company as no doubt will their forthcoming masterclass on Financial Analysis (if you’re not a member of ShareSoc, sign up here, the best £45 per year that you will spend, and while you’re at it go for the SIGnet add on too which provides a great forum for learning from other investors).

Mastering the Mind

Psychology is a big part of investing, so I laid down on my reclining couch and wondered about what Freud’s take on my decisions and behaviour in 2020 would be?

Mega Mind – March, when markets were plummeting, provided my first test of not only if I could hold my nerve amidst the panic and avoid selling out but could I be ‘greedy when others are fearful’. I was greedy! Not only did I stay invested but I also embraced the opportunity and bought shares in a few companies that I had previously admired but was put off by the price and added to some other positions that suddenly were on sale in the covid induced fire sale. How did I resist the panic?

  1. I only invest what I am prepared to lose and I have an emergency savings fund that I built up before I started investing. The money I invest is therefore money I can afford to lose. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to lose it, but I view this money as gone when it is paid into my ISA. Because it’s not money I’m counting on for say a house deposit or car, I’m prepared to leave it in my ISA forever. So seeing the sea of red arrows in March didn’t phase me, it inspired me to go on a stock shopping spree.
  2. I’m stubborn. When I’ve researched a stock and invested cash in it something fundamental would have to change to make me change my mind and sell. This could well prove to also be a weakness but in the panic induced drop in spring it proved to be a strength as I remained invested to benefit from the rapid rebound.

My only regret is that I didn’t have more cash in my ISA to snap up more bargains when the market was crashing, which brings me onto…

Brain Freeze – ‘Only swing at the fat pitches’ is one of the classic Buffet quotes. As my wife would attest, I find it easy not to spend in everyday life but for some reason when cash is sat in my trading account, it burns a hole in the pocket of my trading trousers. Doubly so when the market is creeping up and that cash is sat there earning nothing. This means that I am guilty of trying to find something to swing at when I perhaps should wait for that fat pitch. Some of that money invested during the short lived Boris bounce (Boris-one-bounce?) would have been better put to use in March and beyond. From now on I’m trying to invest less each month than I pay into my ISA so that I’ve got plenty of bats to swing when the fat pitches come along.

The FTSE Boris bounce followed the same trajectory as his approval ratings

Good Hunter, Bad Assassin

Lee Freeman-Shor’s excellent book The Art of Execution categories investors as either Assassin’s, Hunter’s or Rabbit’s. My hunting skills were sharp in 2020, taking the tanking market in March as an opportunity to buy more of the stocks that I already owned at a discount and benefiting from this approach when the markets rallied. But there were some holdings of mine that crashed and I did nothing, positively rabbit like. These were stocks that I selected using my old pure value based approach. I don’t think covid fundamentally changes their long term prospects, but perhaps my lack of action belies a lack of confidence in these holdings and I should sharpen my assassins blade and get rid.

Double Bubble with Investment Trusts

Some of my best performing investments this year have been Investment Trusts, largely because I bought or added to them in March when the crashing markets brought a double bonus. Because ITs were being sold off, they traded at a wide discount to an already reduced NAV. This meant I not only benefitted from the fall in NAV, but also the widening discount to NAV. This is shown below where I managed to pick up an IT I had long had my eye on, Lindsell Train (LTI). In March LTI was trading at a rare discount to an already depressed NAV. Yet less than a year later LTI is now higher than ever and trades at a premium. In future crashes I’ll look to fill my boots with good ITs that have been sold off to benefit from both a NAV recovery and discount reduction.

LTI trading on a rare discount to an already depressed NAV – its bounced back & them some since

The Final Score

As 2020 closed, it was with some trepidation that I finally got round to uploading my portfolio into SharePad. Would my efforts have been worth it, or could I have saved money and pain by simply investing in a low cost tracker fund or ETF. The good news is that I managed a total return of 12.3% and outperformed my benchmark of the Vanguard FTSE all-share (having more fun in the process). 12.3% may not be a superstar return and I’m sure plenty performed much better given the bargains that were on offer in March, but I’m happy with it. I’ve also picked up what I think are some good cyclicals that haven’t bounced back yet that I think will benefit post-pandemic, so there’s some potential to reap the benefit of this in the near future assuming a vaccine led reopening of the economy.

2020 Report Card

Star Pupil – Fidelity China Special Situations, a double bagger for me that continues to head upwards.

Class dunce Secure Trust Bank is yet to recover from it’s covid crash and the outlook for banks isn’t encouraging given that interest rates look set to remain low. One for the cull list.

One to watch – Secure Income REIT has remained flat but people are likely to want to visit theme parks and stay in hotels post pandemic. The agreement with Travelodge could be a positive if we’re confined to UK staycations in the summer. The yield looks encouraging and the share price is still 34% down from where it was pre-covid.

‘Friend & Fry’ worth a try

Friday 1st February 2019 was a national day of mourning in Middlesbrough. The night prior to this now infamous day the English Football League transfer window closed. As it slammed shut the whole of Teesside peered into it to catch a glimpse of who laid behind it. The answer? Nobody.

Some of the hysterics that have greeted this sight of nothingness are incredible. Fingers have been pointed, accusations made and criticism dished out to all and sundry employed by the club. The consensus is that the club has been run poorly and changes must be made.

Now I do not dispute that point, in fact I made it here just over a year ago in response to the appointment of Tony Pulis. But the lack of transfer window activity is not a negative thing to me. I view it as a positive sign that the club have acknowledged their mistakes and have set about changing their ways.

The cash thrown recklessly around by the club during the McLaren/Southgate era, the Strachan era and the Monk/Pulis era succeeded in doing nothing but saddling the club with players on big wages who could not be sold for anything like the fees that they were signed for. The resulting austerity was painful for all. Yet the recent lack of transfer activity suggests that the penny may have finally dropped and not, for once, into the pockets of players and agents.

Fans have short memories and a tendency to err towards confirmation bias. Southgate is largely exonerated for his part in Premier League relegation, yet this is the manager who ultimately gave his blessing to sign the likes of Afonso Alves, Mido and Didier Digard. Some claim Pulis hasn’t been backed, in part due to the Pulis propaganda that he has only made three permanent signings. Yet those three signings have cost the best part of £20m. McNair has rarely played. Flint and Saville, despite looking solid enough, don’t look like £7m players. If cash is in such short supply Tony, why target these transfers who don’t look to be worth what was paid for them?

I suspect Steve Gibson has surveyed the signings, the dire football, the horrendous home form and the fan discontent. He may have concluded that Pulis is unlikely to take us into the top two, even with additional players. So why, when Pulis’ contract is up at the end of the season, risk throwing good money after bad when we’ll likely have a new manager in the summer who wants to tear it up and start again. What if the lack of window wingers is actually the start of the longed for long term vision at the club?

A vision of ‘Friends & Frys’

Florentino Perez once had a vision of ‘Zidanes y Pavones’ for Real Madrid, a team of top transfers and youth team products. My hope for Boro is that this barren transfer window is the start of a ‘Friends and Frys’ era – well scouted value for money transfers supplemented with top Teesside talent from our expensive and productive youth academy. Throw in a managerial appointment that looks beyond the tired usual suspects (Wilder, Farke, Moore and Bielsa have shown the merit in this) and I have no doubt that fractured faithful at the Riverside will once again unite behind their team.

Boro field a starting line up of 10 academy players against Fulham in 2006

It may make the Premier League dream harder to achieve but frankly that dream has went the same way as the oft touted American one. Gone are the days when a middle sized club can compete with the Premier Leagues biggest and best. The cash grab by the top clubs has stacked the deck too far in their favour for that. As a result we now have the most predictable league in the world, one that I now find boring despite the quality on offer, due to the lack of genuine competition outside the top six clubs.

So give me a team that tries to play good football. One that is packed with Teesside talent. One that eschews expensive transfers in favour of hidden gems. One that plays in a genuinely competitive league. That’s a team that I can get behind regardless of results. I hope that Steve Gibson agrees and gives the ‘Friends and Frys’ a try. Finances may mean that he is soon forced to.

Rodwell Rage Ridiculous

What happens when a football club no longer wants to play with that once shiny new expensive transfer? The answer was illustrated during the excellent ‘Sunderland ‘Til I die’ scene were Martin Bain, the much maligned Chief Executive, is pleading with £10m+ signing Jack Rodwell to terminate his contract and leave the club.

Bain’s hope was that siphoning Rodwell’s £70k weekly salary from the Sunderland wage bill would free up funds. Funds that Bain, who earned a seven figure annual salary himself, and Sunderland would then like to throw at yet more signings as the club battles to beat the drop. Which is what Sunderland did in a futile attempt to remain in the Premier League the previous season. Bain is obviously not familiar with the widely accepted definition of insanity.

As it becomes clear that Rodwell is going nowhere, Bain’s desperation turns to anger. Apparently Rodwell had said that ‘it was about the football’. This is translated as ‘walk away from your contract and your wage’. In increasingly uncomfortable scenes Bain tries, and fails, to effectively bully Rodwell into walking away. I was hoping that Rodwell would respond with words to the effect of ‘if it’s all about the football why not give me a chance to play rather than leaving me to rot in the reserves in the hope that I’ll leave’. Words that would have been made more pertinent by Rodwell’s positive contribution to Blackburn Rovers Championship campaign this season.

Not only was Rodwell the Bain of Martin’s life, an increasing number of Sunderland fans also turned on him. This absolutely baffles me. It is not Rodwell’s fault that he was the only player that Sunderland did not insert a relegation clause into his contract which would automatically reduce his salary. Some of those same fans who now lament the spendthrift Sunderland approach to signings are likely to be the ones who demanded the club show ambition and splash the cash whilst the Premier League sun was shining.

This is not limited to Sunderland fans as shown by a similar issue regarding Stewart Dowing’s contract being played out distastefully on social media by some Middlesbrough fans. The same fans who are demanding that cash be thrown around to back Boro’s promotion bid. Football fans often expect to have cake and to eat it without even a trace of self awareness.

It often baffles me that when it comes to football players supporters often set standards that they would never expect from themselves. If your current employer tried to force you into leaving your job so that you could then do the same job on a lower wage you would likely end up in an employment tribunal. Yet the same people expect a footballer to do this with the minimum of fuss. However if the same footballer performed well and demanded a transfer to obtain a wage rise they would be maligned as mercenary. Imagine leaving your job for another for, shock, a pay rise. Cake and eat it indeed.

Footballer’s have a short career despite the handsome rewards for those that make it to the top. When Rodwell signed for Sunderland, injuries had started his transformation from the ‘great England midfield hope’ he was at Everton to the ‘what could have been’ tale of woe familiar to all football fans. If he was honest Rodwell likely knew this himself, with the consequence being that he would never again command the kind of wage that Sunderland were paying him. The fact that this fate had befallen him is a reason why Sunderland, with all due respect, were able to sign him in the first place.


So would those lining up to lambast Rodwell, knowing that they would never get as good a salary again, knowing that they may only have 10 years of earnings left, knowing that they are one injury away from the scrap heap, have done anything differently? Some claim they would because of the vast sums of money involved. I treat this opinion with a heavy dollop of scepticism given that people tend to adjust their lifestyle to their earnings. Very few of us would accept a pay cut for doing our job, particularly if the reason given was “I thought it was about the job”.

So set aside your hypocrisy and perhaps challenge why clubs are expected to throw vast sums of cash around instead in a futile attempt to challenge those same 5 or 6 top clubs that unfairly hoard the lions share of cash. The Rodwell rage is ridiculous.

Stat’s Setback – Why Boro will struggle to attract attackers

“Bolasie, Abraham, El Ghazi, if they had played in that Middlesbrough team today, they’d have found it very difficult to be creative” – Liam Rosenior on Middlesbrough’s 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa

For too long a significant and vocal section of the Boro support have had cognitive dissonance when it comes to Boro’s attacking record under Tony Pulis. According to these folk Pulis has been let down by the club. In the next window he’ll add attacking players. Then we’ll surely see goals galore to add to defensive solidity. Promotion and Premier League here we come.

Champ GS
Shot shy Boro lag behind spend thrift Wigan, Millwall & QPR in the goals scored column.

Let’s put to bed here the ridiculous notion that Pulis hasn’t been supported in the transfer market by the club. Despite his claims to be spendthrift Saville, Flint and McNair have all joined for £5m plus each. Baath, Besic, Hughill and McQueen have all been loaned from Premier League clubs. I’m sure that the majority of Championship managers would love that kind of non-backing.

Equally ridiculous is the notion that it is the personnel that are responsible for Boro’s Bluntness. Rosenior hit the nail on the head (another Boro fan claimed that even Messi would struggle in this Boro team, although it is questionable that Pulis would even pick him given his lack of height!). This is why Boro are lingering behind clubs of lesser means in the goals scored table. Any player would struggle to be an effective attacking outlet in this Boro side were the focus is primarily on keeping a clean sheet and the hope of nicking a goal from a set piece.

For this reason, perhaps Boro fans should look beyond the board and to Pulis himself for the explanation as to Boro’s failure to add firepower in the summer. Like it or not Boro are pretty much a stepping stone club. Perform well at Boro and earn a shot at the big time, generating the club cash in the process (see Traore, Gibson etc.). We’re unlikely to be a long-term option for any player of ambition.

But in these times where statistics play an important role in signings, why would an attacking minded player sign for Boro? Your distance covered, blocks and tackles will soar but goals, assists and key passes will dwindle. Which measures will prospective future employers look at when in need of creativity? I can hardly imagine a Premier League manager saying ‘forget assists, get me a number 10 who can track back and shield the back four’ (OK, maybe Mourinho might say that, but look at how things are going for him!).

So I can totally understand why a player like Bolasie, who has a point to prove after a lengthy injury, chose Villa over Boro. Tasked with proving that he could still cut it creatively, he was always going to choose a club that let him play high up against the opposition full back rather than a club that wanted him to focus on covering for his own full back. The former could well mean a Premier League return next season, the latter likely leads to another loan spell in the lower leagues.

So Boro fans, brace yourself for a winter window of stuggle as key attacking transfer targets turn us down. But before you blame Bausor and co, look at the man in the dugout. Nobody likes to be forced to do a job they don’t enjoy do the detriment of their career. Unfortunately that’s what the stats state is in store for any flair player pitching up at The Riverside. If Pulis wants to attract attacking talent, he needs to tinker with his tactics first.

The Grapes Of Wrath

Raisin – a partially dried grape

I was expecting a grape and I got a raisin. No, not the words of someone who is experiencing some form of fruit salad faux pas but how an associate of mine described an internet dating experience. The other party turned up looking significantly more wrinkled than their dating picture you see. Ok, they didn’t use the grape raisin comparison, but what better way is there of putting it?

Embrace the raisin that you are

Being of the age where you had to talk to people in person to ask them out, assisted by some liquid courage if you were lucky, the tactics and approach to internet dating fascinates me. And horrifies me! What kind of idiot adopts a tactic of using a dating picture that they will never live up to in the flesh? The picture may catch them on the hook but the grim reality of what you look like means that they will never hop into the net.

You’ve also exposed yourself as either deluded or a fraud as soon as you walk through the bar door on date 1 (a feat that used to take me until at least the second date in the good old pre-internet dating days). What goes through the mind of these people in the days leading up to date-day? Do they undertake an intensive moisturising regime? Spend all week wearing a face mask? Frantically trek around the world trying to find the fountain of youth. Or simply hope that their date is short sighted?

This will turn me back into a grape

If I have learnt one thing in life it is that it is always better to leave people pleasantly surprised rather than slightly disappointed. Not convinced? Read on:

The pictures of food on a menu when you go on holiday always look terrible, so when you’re served something that doesn’t look like dog vomit Manuel is instantly onto a generous tip. Compare that with my experience of the night when I was continuously promised the best curry in the world, despite the fact we were in Brighouse (effing Brighouse!), with predictable results.

Still not convinced? How about one of those meticulously planned parties by that ‘friend’ nobody likes (if you don’t have that friend, I hate to break it to you but you are that ‘friend’) that are really just exercises in narcissism and tedious to boot. Compare that to when you go to the pub for one and end up what can vaguely be described as dancing to ‘Killing In The Name Of’ at 2am (ok, 11pm!).

Lowering expectations always means that people can never be disappointed and a world of no disappointment, rather than the constant disappointment that is modern life, would be a beautiful place for us all to live, even if your dating profile is anything but.


So I say to all those tinderes, those who take a rod to hook plenty of fish and those who enjoy going to the match, promise your prospective dates nothing but the raisin that you are. That way they may even be pleasantly surprised when you turn up looking a bit more like a grape.

This boy reads…Jonathan Unleashed (Meg Rosoff)

This boy reads – a riposte to the gender selective book club ‘This girl reads’ frequented by some of my colleagues (you know who you are!). The beauty of the club is that it only requires ‘this boy’ to read.

Jonathon Unleashed

Youth is wasted on the young.  This can certainly be said for the title character of Rosoff’s novel.  In fact this can be said of both the central protagonist and his partner. The former allows his life to be dictated to him by those around him without stopping to think about what he wants from life, simply bobbing along in the hope that he’ll float into a pond of fulfilment.  His only release from the frustrations with his life and those in it are manifested by passive aggressive doodling’s.  The subsequent emotional release is not unexpected.

So what about the hapless soul who has to cohabit with this drifter?  Julie, Jonathan’s long suffering partner, is equally as irritating as him for precisely the opposite reason.  Her life is precisely mapped out according to convention and those around her are shoehorned into it regardless of their desires, a faceless supporting cast in her perfect life.  Career, marriage, kids, death. How insipid.

Throughout the novel I was irritated by both of the central human characters yet I still found it an engaging read.  It occurred to me that despite the gender clichés of Rosoff’s central characters (drifting young male lump of clay is moulded by a focused female) the author has cleverly captured human behaviour, that is why it feels so cliched.  Jonathan and Julie are irritating because I recognise them in people I know and people I knew (and perhaps in my younger self).  The irritation is the  frustration of wishing that you knew then what you know now.  The paradox of youth.  That’s why I kept turning pages despite the equally irritating supporting cast of humans.

The novel’s real flourish is the portrayal of the two canine character’s Dante and Sissy.  Anyone who has built a canine connection knows that each pooch has a particular personality. Rosoff brilliantly manages to unleash the personalities of our canine friends, who are the real stars of this novel.

At the end, despite his protestations to the country, has Jonathon really been unleashed? Or has he has merely had his shackles slightly loosened (although I appreciate that title isn’t quite as catchy)?

MI: Morality Implausible

Last Sunday, in part because I’m a sucker for movie hype and in part because my wife is a sucker for a Tom Cruise action flick, we visited a historic roman settlement to take in the latest Hollywood Blockbuster: Mission Impossible – Fallout. Or to put it another way we went to the Cineworld in Castleford to watch MI6.

Throughout the film, which provided plenty of time for me to ponder, my suspicion was aroused by just how much the other characters bang on about how good a bloke Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is. In my experience whenever people are at lengths to point out how nice someone is you can pretty much guarantee that the opposite is true. So it proved here. Ethan Hunt is in fact a bit of a cunt and not just because he’s a financier (he works for the International Monetary Fund). Here’s why:

He loves his wife – Ethan Hunt loves his wife. He is so in love with his wife that he is knocking off one of his colleagues. Ethan Hunt loves both women so much that he hasn’t told either one about the other. Ethan Hunt loves his wife so much that he chooses a colleague to copulate with that looks spookily like his wife, because that’s obviously romantic and not in the slightest bit weird at all. Yet both women seem to accept this with good humour and understanding. There’s one for the excuse list for you workplace Don Juan’s to remember; I only shagged her because she looked like you!

Ethan Isla.jpg
You remind me of my wife…Netflix & chill?

Playing God – Ethan Hunt can’t bring himself to let one of his friends die even when it means that a third of the worlds population will likely cop it instead. He is grief stricken when Alec Baldwin is shot even though there’s another seven Baldwin’s waiting in the wings. Yet he has no qualms about gunning down gang members. Fair enough you might think. Think again. Research tells us that gang members are likely to have come from difficult backgrounds. In short they didn’t choose the thug life. Yet Ethan Hunt shows no such sociological understanding when he slays them. To compound this lack of compassion he even chooses to save a French traffic warden. A traffic warden who is French! This shows how flawed Hunt’s judgement of character is. Perhaps it’s only because she looked like his wife.

Anti-Corbyn Smear – The whole of Mission Impossible –  Fallout can be pretty much written off as right wing, biased, anti-Jeremy Corbyn propaganda. Why is that you ask? Look at the lead villain Soloman Lane. He is a dead ringer for Jez we can. Nothing says ‘for the many’ like trying to wipe out a third of the earth’s population.

So there you have it. I should probably have mentioned that this spiel contains spoilers but then maybe I’m a bit of an Ethan Hunt myself. You’ve only got yourself to blame. You shouldn’t have listened to those idiots that told you what a good bloke I am.

Patrick could Punish Pulis

Leeds United fans should rejoice. New signing Patrick Bamford scores goals and he scores plenty of them. 12 in 23 Championship starts last season (despite not playing as a central striker until an injury to Rudy Gestede in late February). 17 in 32 Championship starts in 2014/15, a season where he was named Championship player of the year.

fan praying
Please let us sign Bamford!

The questions on many Boro fans lips is why are Boro selling a striker who averages over 1 Championship goal for every 2 starts and why are they selling him to a divisional rival in Leeds? Some have proclaimed that Bamford is not a Tony Pulis striker and will not be effective under him. Yet a look at Pulis’ time in charge last season paints a very different picture.

Up until the thrilling 3-3 Tees-Wear draw with Sunderland Boro had looked laboured going forward under Pulis. Gestede was playing the role of the archetypal Tony Pulis target man with plenty of direct balls forward. The end result was rarely pretty to watch nor was it particularly effective; Boro took 16 points from 10 league games scoring 13 goals.

During that 3-3 draw Bamford was moved to a central striking position in place of Britt Assombalonga. In that 10 game run up until Bamford was stretchered off at home to Bristol City Boro took 18 points and scored 18 goals with Bamford weighing in with 8 of them. Not only did results improve but the playing style became more palatable. With the window closed and no big man in the squad, Pulis realised that long balls would not suit the strikers he had at his disposal. Gone was the long balls forward and Bamford formed a burgeoning relationship with another key man in the run to the play offs, Adama Traore.

This scene could be reversed this season.

This begs the question that if Bamford is not a Pulis striker then who exactly is a Pulis striker? Bamford scored more goals under Pulis than any other striker on the books at Boro and he is proven at this level.

The speculation is that Pulis wants someone who can play in his style which is translated as he wants a big physical presence up front. The question is will this really make Boro a better team?

Pulis may soon find out that the style required for Premier League safety is not a style that is effective at securing Premier League football.