Groundhopping: Cadbury Athletic (v Sutton United)

Competition: Midland Football league Division 2

Date: 14 January 2023

Result: Cadbury Athletic 2 – 2 Sutton United (Birmingham)

Tickets: £5 (adult)

Attendance: 100 (rough head count)

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆☆

The Game: Cadbury Athletic was a fun little add on to my Birmingham trip, which was mainly to see Villa, but what a spot it is. I was lucky enough to catch a top of the table game, which saw Cadbury (second) play league leaders Sutton United (the Birmingham side, not the much higher placed South London one) in what is a Midlands division in the seventh tier of English non-league football.

I learnt before the game that Cadbury actually would have been promoted last year had they been allowed to build floodlights, a requirement for the next tier up, having won the previous season’s title. If you look at the ground, I suppose its obvious why generic floodlights somewhere like this might not appeal, so that could be an expensive add on.

Sutton United twice led in this game, despite Cadbury having marginally the better of it overall in my view. The first was a penalty, before a classic non-league moment saw a one-on-one for Cadbury’s striker saved by the goalkeeper, but bounce back off the striker’s face and go in. Sutton led again through a really impressive long-distance volley, and Cadbury equalised at the death, in a game that they probably needed to win to stay in the title race. Another classic non-league moment fell in the middle, when the referee gave and then withdrew a red card (presumably a mistaken identity on a second yellow, I’m not sure).

The game was really scrappy to start with but as it went on I was more and more impressed with the quality, well worth watching.

Groundhopping: Aston Villa (v Leeds, Villa Park)

Competition: Premier League

Date: 13 January 2023

Result: Aston Villa 2 – 1 Leeds United

Tickets: €39.50 (adult), in the second row of the Holte End Upper.

Attendance: 42,008

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆☆

Disclaimer – I am a lifelong Aston Villa fan, so this may not be the most neutral take. My first trip since 2017 (covid, babies, etc). had to be documented, so here it is.

The Game: There’s been a growing rivalry between Villa and Leeds in recent years, and this definitley had a little bit of bite (not least Jesse Marsch, the volatile-feeling Leeds manager), but I’m impressed with Villa’s newfound composure. Bailey put Villa in front in about the 3rd minute, curling a beautiful shot just inside the post from the edge of the area after a break from Kamara, who is nothing short of exceptional.

From then, Leeds dominated for large parts of the game, but didn’t create a huge amount as Villa frustrated them with lots of slick passing around the back and created a couple of decent chances of their own. There were two forced changes for Villa in the first half, with Watkins and Digne going off injured, leaving the ineffective Ings and newly signed wide man Alex Moreno to play most of the game.

Moreno looked seriously nervous at first, but soon found himself playing in heaps of space as Leeds defended narrow; he looks really effective. Villa led 2-0 when a VAR check eventually ruled Emi Buendia onside after he scored from a rebound from another Bailey chance (he had many, most seemed to run down blind alleyways), before Bamford scored off what looked suspiciously like a foul from Gnonto in the build up to set up a tense finish.

A great game to be over for, semi-riotous under the Friday night lights, and I got to sit a few seats from my old season ticket location in K5, near the front of hte Holte End Upper. It’s been way, way too long.

Roe Byrne: “I was a total introvert before I started busking”

© Dan Butler Photography

Roe Byrne is a young singer songwriter already making waves, ashe prepares to headline his first ever show at Sound House this weekend. Having already racked up ove ra million views for his songs on Facebook as he finished school and headed off to study music, he’s been heacvily tipped as one to watch on the Irish music scene.

Ahead of that first ever headline show and the release of the first single of 2023, entitled ‘Set Me On Fire’, I caught up with Roe to talk over the merging of music and emotion, busking as a learning curve, and how much of his prolific back catalogue will ever see the light of day…

First of all, tell me about your obvious love for Dermot Kennedy…

Ah, where do I start! My music teacher in second year, Jessica Reilly, introduced me to his music and thought I would really like it… little did she know I would absolutely fall in love with his music the second I heard it.

The lyrics he writes and humbleness that comes from him is just so admirable. The way his music can teleport you anywhere is amazing. I have huge respect for him and I can’t wait to see what else he does this year!

Does your music draw on your own experiences and emotion in a similar way to Dermot’s?

I definitely write about my own experiences, but I take a lot of inspiration from what’s around me. Story’s that other people have told me, situations that friends of mine may be in and even just the people I meet on a random day busking, they all have a story to tell, it’s just getting that message across with a catchy melody that’s the hard part!

I try not to write about negative emotions, I feel people have enough negativity in their life and use music as an escape! So I try to pick the best parts of life and try to make a sense of either nostalgia or hope with it.

I understand you write new songs on an almost daily basis. What’s your back catalogue like at this stage, and do you feel being so prolific helps you develop?

I have so many songs now, but a lot of them I would find too personal to perform or release. Maybe someday when I feel comfortable being extremely vulnerable, I might release some songs that I wrote about my own struggles but as for now, I think playing in front of people and having them judge you as a stranger is a pretty vulnerable position to put yourself in, but I absolutely live for it.

Writing consistently definitely makes it easier, it’s the same as everything, the more you do lift weights, the easier it gets.

Indie shirts: Stingz, the One-Man Multinational

Ernest Stobbs is just one man, but he makes a serious shirt. From Tuvalu’s evocative, traditional national shirt sported at the almost-international CONIFA 2018 tournament in London, to the current international rugby shirts of Serbia, Uganda and Kazakhstan, Stobbs and his newly-constructed Stingz Sportswear brand have gone global since he started out making shirts for his local club team in Devon.

“I have links to manufacturing, so I could do it quite easily. I came up with a design for my team, got it professionally rendered, and as soon as it came through I fell in love with it,” Stobbs says of his first design. “It was for my team Farway United. I thought, I wonder how far I can push it.”

“I’m connected with a global fashion brand called Giordano, who I do brand ambassador and consulting work for, and they decided the best way to market a product was probably sports sponsorship. So we sat down and came up with a two pronged attack, approaching teams with a combination of a sponsorship package and a shirt manufacturer.”

“We got involved with CONIFA and the 2018 World Football Cup, after I heard Paul Watson [former CONIFA executive member] talking on TalkSport. I was so disillusioned with FIFA and the world governing bodies and all the money, and they stood for so much more, for community and for football for people in countries that aren’t recognised.”

“If you look at the shirts,” Stobbs says, “you’ll see our unique selling point is really in the detail. They all really reference the culture and the landmarks of where they come from, and I put a lot of time into making sure we get that right. It sounds cheesy, but it’s for the people. The shirts represent history, heritage and people.”

The Five Best Books I Read in 2022

It’s become an annual tradition of mine to put together a post about my favourite books of the year, in part, I think, as I find reading to be such an essential part of writing, and one of the bits that I don’t, as a matter of course, write about. Each year I present my favourite five of, typically, about 50 books (48 this year – I blame having a young baby in the house for the slight shortfall!), because I think being in the ‘top ten percent’ of stuff that grabbed my attention within a year is a fairly strong recommendation.

This year’s selection is more ‘novelly’ than usual, and is shaped, I suspect, by being both exciting and fairly easy reading, so I could follow the text despite long bouts of being quite tired (again, that baby!). Nevertheless, I think it’s an excellent selection. Unusually, this year doesn’t feature any sports books. As usual, the ones I have picked are not necessarily (and in fact, in this case, exclusively not) books released in 2022. They’re just my favourite five that I have read. Here goes…

(while you’re here, check out my top books from previous years: 2021, 2020201920182017, and 2016)

Panic by Lauren Oliver

Now an Amazon Prime series, Panic is the story of a small American town and an annual tradition of graduating school kids participating in a kind of ‘ultra dare’ game for a large prize fund contributed to by each of them over the course of the year. Some of the challenges are scary, some tailored to their specific fears, and others are full on life-threatening. As a consequence, the event has become notorious in hte town, bringing with it police attempts to shut it down, and occasional deaths.

What’s really well done here, though, is the character development. From those who run Panic (kept carefully hidden and passed on annually), to those who take part (for reasons that vary wildly), each person in this book feels distinctly ‘real’, even against such a wild premise. It won’t change your life, but it’s one of the most pleasant reads I’ve picked up in a long time.

David Attenborough’s Life On Air

I’m a huge fan of David Attenborough, and this chunky tome is an exploration of his life in full, so it was always giong to appeal. An interesting side of it is the almost coincidental way he ended up involved in doing environmental TV programming, and how it ended up absorbing his life, including having heaps of rare animals living in his home as a side effect of in-studio broadcasting. It sounded chaotic.

As well as the stunning life stories, the book also sets out Attenborough’s concerns for our future, taking on a kind of ‘Inconvenient Truth’ meets personal experience angle as he outlines what he’s seen environmentally as he’s globe trotted his way through some of the world’s less-visited corners. It’s compelling throughout.

Aimée: “My main inspiration all comes from Sweden”

Dubliner Aimée’s latest single ‘Nobody Else’ is a positive, upbeat, poppy number, and a tribute to her boyfriend. It comes at a time of rejuvenation: Aimée’s career is on the rise, after signing for Universal and gathering a substantial live and online following.

She’s taking things slow, though, focusing on a return to live stages after years away, something that was never going to be easy, as well as a series of singles that are intended to stand alone, before she drives slowly towards an album. Her primary influence is in the current wave of Swedish pop, something she’s incorporated into her production process. But for now, it’s all about the shows.

“The worst part was the nerves, as it had just been so long,” she said of returning to the stage in recent months. “My nerves got the better of me to start with, but as soon as I stepped on stage it was like I was never off. It was great, such a good escape from life. I had so much fun, I think you could tell by everyone’s faces that it had been too long.”

The latest single ‘Nobody Else’ also required a reopening, as Aimée went out to the spiritual home of her music.

“With the single, I went to Sweden to finish it off and it was my first time meeting my producer in person, instead of virtually,” she said. “Finishing the song together was just the best. Swedish pop is my bread and butter, every producer, artist, anybody who is my main inspiration all come from Sweden, so it makes sense for me to go back to basics and go to what I see as the pop capital of the world.”

Such opportunities are linked to some degree, of course, to that sign up with behemoth label Universal.

“Universal have, from day one, treated me as the captain of my own ship,” Aimée told us. “I decided what I want to release, and I’m just so lucky that they’ve been so supportive. You hear horror stories about labels making artists make music they’re not passionate about. They back me 100%.”

Badhands: “I’ve always tried to make music that’s a little bit cinematic.”

Dan Fitzpatrick lives something of a musical double life. On the one hand, he’s a gravelly-vocalled, poetic, semi-solo artist who goes by the name of ‘Badhands’. On the other, he produces beautiful ethereal tunes designed to provide the backing track to documentaries, sounds that have appeared on the BBC, RTE, and American broadcaster PBS.

His 2022 album ‘Far Away’, as such, comes a full four years after his debut release ‘Predictable Boy’, and is vibrant yet sorrowful, with themes like isolation, but also lightheartedness and optimism. Between the two records came ‘Oceans’, a kind of environmental record that used the world’s great bodies of water as inspiration. Fitzpatrick is, in short, colourful, varied, and knows how to grasp a theme.

“I would say that ‘Far Away’ generally has a bigger sound than the first record, ‘Predictable Boy’,” Fitzpatrick says. “There were a few songs on the first album that were a little more sparse, solo efforts, compared to this record where everything features the whole band. The record also features a little more use of electronic instruments, as I was getting a bit more into synths while we were making it, though they’re mainly just used subtly and texturually on the album.” 

“The vocal sound is a little different too; I experimented a bit with double tracking vocals, possibly as I just had so much time at home to work on them. I was aiming to get them sounding a bit like the John Lennon Plastic Ono Band album.”

“I recorded a lot of the vocals in my bedroom during the full on lockdown early last year, and there were times when it was difficult to get into the studio to work with the band, which was frustrating,” he continues. “It was definitely a more sporadic way of operating given the circumstances.” 

“I just had to do what I could at home and get into the studio whenever the restrictions eased up. But a good bit of the work was also done before Covid hit, and that was much the same as the previous album, working with the same musicians: Chris Barry, Aoife Ruth, Tom Cosgrave and Ken Mooney.” 

Less Than Jake: “I always felt odd about being called a ska band”

Less Than Jake are in a rare musical position: almost undisputed kings of a musical niche. The long-standing band from Gainesville, Florida, sit at the head of a genre that arguably peaked in the late 90s, ska punk, and perform a vibrant mix of colourful, poppy punk music backed up by a horn section. It’s loud, descriptive, and while the band are still going as strong as ever, somewhat of its era. For many who grew up in the late 90s, the band are a true symbol of teenage rebellion.

“The spirit of the band is still the same, to get out and play a live show, that’s all we really wanted to do,” singer Chris DeMakes says on a video call, in which he’s surrounded by Less Than Jake’s incredible selection of records and merchandise, something of a calling card. “It’s got easier, though. You have to listen to your body, so staying out until 5 or 6 in the morning isn’t conducive to a good show.”

“We’ve been playing shows that are a little bit like a 30th anniversary, with songs from every album. But you have to please yourself and the audience, to keep it interesting for yourself. We don’t mind making a mistake on stage, it keeps it real, so we keep a rotation of a lot of songs on the setlist.”

“I always felt a little bit odd about being called a ska band,” DeMakes says of his sound. “I felt it was a little disrespectful towards bands like The Selecter and English Beat who were doing it ten or 15 years before we were even a band. We have elements of ska, but we’re not the forefathers of ska. We weren’t the first.”

“It’s important to us that we do things correctly, and that we don’t gouge people for our tickets or merchandise, that things are priced correctly. We try to stand by that. But we make a lot of merch” 

“I have one of everything the band ever put out, which looks pretty insane. There are albums on top of albums. At one point I had 700 or so different Less Than Jake shirts, and I took them all to a show in Gainesville and sold them. They took up multiple closets, and I thought I’d get them to fans. The clothing became too much. But I have all the albums, cups, belt buckles.”