Huddersfield Town 2016/17 Preview – The Wagner Revolution

Whatever team you support, every season begins with flushes of excitement and optimism. Every single season. And in about 1 in 10 does that optimism crystalize into genuine hope that the season will end in glory.

For Town fans, the 2016/17 season represents an exciting prospect not because there’s a feeling that an assault on the top 6 is possible but because nobody has any idea what’s going to happen.

A relegation dogfight? A definite possibility.

Mid table mediocrity? We live in hope…

A flirt with the play-offs? Some Town fans (mostly younger, less hard-bitten ones) believe that this might be the year…

The club is in the midst of revolution. A new manager instilled a new way of playing in the second half of last season and signed a slew of new players very early in the summer break.

So when the local newspaper’s football correspondent was called to name the best XI to start the season only three of the eleven featured last season. It’s not only the scale of the change that brings the uncertainty it’s that lots of the recruits are new to English football. Manager David Wagner has signed players from the German lower leagues, from Russia, the Premiership reserves and from the Australian A-league. Only ‘keeper Joel Campbell has any significant experience of British football after a season and a half of service to Oldham Athletic.

The New Defensive Recruits

The only leaving defender was Joel Lynch.
Mark Hudson is the remaining centre-back and Martin Cranie can play there too (although he’s mostly played as a right-back for Town)
Jason Davidson started last season as the first choice left-back. The club had high hopes for him but he made some expensive errors and we saw two left-backs join on loan.
Wagner has essentially re-built the defence. I’ve included the ages and experience numbers here just to stress that the new signings are neither promising youths nor solid professionals at the arse end of their career. These are players who should be in their prime – three of these four will be in the first-choice XI.

Further Forward

The key central midfielders of last season were Dean Whitehead and Jonathan Hogg who remain at the club. Phillip Billing emerged during the season whilst loanee Emyr Huws has returned to Wigan Athletic.

Town are well served in the wide areas with Harry Bunn, Sean Scannell, Rajiv van la Parra & Joe Lolley all very capable at this level. Last season the team lacked any consistent creativity through the middle once Jacob Butterfield was sold. Aaron Mooy looks to be the new creative spark. He’s on loan from Man City after a false start of a career in Scotland and then a couple of impressive seasons in the Australian A-League.

Up front, Nahki Wells, with 47 appearances, was the most used player in the squad (mostly due to a lack of any viable alternatives). There was a feeling that Nahki lacks the physicality to play as a lone striker, he still managed to score 17 of the team’s 42 league goals. New recruit Kachunga will probably be the back-up for Nahki – his goals/game ratio isn’t great, but he might come good. Loanee Jamie Paterson occasionally played the No. 10 role last season, Jack Payne comes in from Southend to (probably) play in that position – he’s well regarded but comes from a lower league and may not make the step up quickly enough (if at all).

Kasey Palmer looks a real prospect in the YouTube videos of Chelsea’s U21s. He’s the wildcard – he might be a revelation and the spark that fires a flirtation with the top 6. More likely is that, given his youth and inexperience, he’ll struggle to find consistency.

New ‘Keepers

Two young goalies with limited experience. I can’t say I know much about either. Ward played in the Euro 2016 finals with Wales as they won their opening group game – I’m not sure how much of a measure if his ability that might be.

So that’s it… eleven players in! With 5 outgoing… it truly is a revolution. Anything could happen!

The last three seasons have seen Town finish with a similar points tally and at a similar position in the table. If anything, the stats shows slight decline. In reality, the first season was a relegation fight and successive seasons has seen that threat a much diminished one. I’ve always felt that, in this division, we’ve been a bottom-six club. I always keep an eye on the three or four clubs who I feel are comfortably worse than Town. But this year Chairman and owner Dean Hoyle has targeted a step-up. For me, that means moving into the 6 positions above… 12th-17th rather than 18th-24. That seems realistic, if lacking in optimism.

However, clubs like Forest, Leeds & Fulham seem to be going backwards. Reading & Cardiff had underwhelming seasons last year and look like clubs that are standing still. Maybe this year is a real opportunity.

A good start will be crucial – those opening fixtures don’t look forgiving:

  • HOME Brentford (last season: lost 5-1)
  • AWAY Newcastle
  • AWAY Aston Villa
  • HOME Barnsley
  • AWAY Wolves (last season: lost 3-0)
  • AWAY Leeds (last season: won 4-1)

 

Reasons To Be Cheerful

  • Loads of new recruits
  • Undeniably deeper and more balanced squad
  • Signings concluded early and team’s had time to gel
  • Championship may be weaker this time out

Worry Lines

  • Lack of options up front
  • Lack of experience in goal
  • Lots of players may take time to acclimatise to the Championship
  • Opening fixtures are tough

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Great Newham Run 2016 10km

Last year, after running a marathon, I decided to drop down to 10km and 5km distances to try and improve my times. My 5km time was easy to tackle since I was running most Saturday mirnings at my local timed ParkRun. The 10km project took a little longer to get around to.

I was attracted to the Great Newham run because it ended in The Olympic Stadium. I wanted to run on the track before a football club moved in and the venue stopped being an atheltics stadium and became something else – and believe me, in a few years time this will be ‘The West Ham Stadium’. On the day there was a lot more hammer logos and claret and blue than I’d have liked, but not so much that you coouldn’t turn a blined eye to it.

The course started under the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower and wound its way around the Olympic Park, passing the old Media Centre an the Aquatic Center before hitting the stadiu itself.

I arrived around the time I’d planned to after a smooth tube journey, but my wave pen was already heaving with runners. I forget what time I’d predicted on my application form, but suspect my wave containied all the 45-55 minute runners.  I was behind thousands of them with a vague target time of 48 minutes in my head. When the race finally kicked off (the usual 20 or 30 minuts late) I spent the first 2km cutting through the field and dancing on and off the verge. Early parts of the course were very narrow for that volume of runners.

Before the wave was released the PA announcer had been sternly warning the throngs to NOT shoot for a PB in the hot conditions and NOT sprint finish in the stadium. It was sensible advice and lots of runners probably heeded it. When I felt the sun on the back of my neck during the warm-up I started re-claculating my pace and split times, but when I passed ver the start  line the clouds had closed in and I fell into my natural rythmn and pace.

The surface underfoot was good quality tarmac road, instead of 1 water stop the organisers put on 3 and an extra water sprinkler was added too. Once I’d got clear of most of the crowds I kept on pushing at my usual pace and aiming for a PB. I decided that if I blew up, or the heat got the better of me, I’d just slow and limp intp the stadium – I’d at least be able to soak it up and appreciate the privelege of being able to complete a circuit of the track.

But I never really felt like I was struggling, I just managed to maintain the pace I’d kicked off with. I wasn’t checking my GPS watch much if at all – just noting my time at each kilometer marker and feeling good about the time. I did wonder, upon hitting the 7km marker, if I had it in me to up the pace in the final three, but decided not to – I wanted the energy to kill the final lap!

Approaching the stadium was a big lift, the course took in the subterrenean councourse where the theme from Chariots Of Fire with added snippets of famous atheltics commentary was pipped into the PA system. I was looking forward to runing a corner and seeing the initerior of the area unfold, so it was a liittle surprise when we turned in the opposite direction and went outside for a lap of the practice track before prpoerly entering the stadium. The lap went too quckly – perhaps I should have slowed and drunk it in as was advised – but after slogging through 9.5km you want to epxend as much energy as possible in getting the best itme possible. I pegged it. I was caught from behind by a fellow athlete as he overtook, but that just felt like part of the experience (and I battled back to beat him to the line).

My finial time was 47.33 – much quicker than my fasterst previous 10km (which was probably north of 50mins) and just a little faster than the second half of the North London Half Marathon last year (which I’d roughly calculated at 48.47). It’s the runner’s disease tat you alwasy thnk you could have gone a bit quicker, and I rued starting at the back of the wave and having to contend with the crowded early stages. But, given the hot conditions,  I was pleased with my time.

I won’t make the mistake of starting at the back of the wave again – and will probably be wildy optimistic with my target times in future so I end up in a quicker wave.

If you’re reading this with a view to doing the race in 2017, I couldn’t recommend it more. It’s a well organised event and the course is a pretty fast one – a few inclines tot deal with but nothing remotely approaching what you might call a ‘hill’. And I don’t think youll get a better finish than the stadium provides.

My splits (taken from my Garmin wristwatch):

1km – 5:06
2km – 4:50 – 9:56
3km – 4:39 – 14:35
4km – 4:50 – 19:25
5km – 4:49 – 24:14
6km – 4:51 – 29:05
7km – 4:47 – 33:52
8km – 4:49 – 38:41
9km – 6:03 – 44:44
10km – 3:59 – 48:43

I suspect those last two ties are skewed by losing the GPS signal!

A Pain In The Chest

I went to see my doctor.

I’d been having chest pains. I wasn’t too worried about them – the pain felt like a bruise rather than anything heart-related – but you can’t be too careful, so I made an appointment and went to see a GP.

I’d phoned up at 8.30am to get an emergency-same-day-appoinment and was told to turn up at 10am.

I sat in the waiting room for over 75 minutes, reading articles on my phone and enjoying the winter sunshine that was streaming into the surgery. An toddler chuntered on to her mother in entertaining child-speak. It was a nice morning.

When I got to see the doctor I explained my pains, she listened to my chest and back with a stethoscope whilst I breathed deeply. Then she confirmed that the discomfort was muscular rather than cardiac.

I started to explain that I’d been fairly sure it was a bruise or something but that I was wary of ignoring chest pains as I’d lost two colleagues in the last 10 years to heart disease… and I then I started crying.

It caught me completely by surprise, off-balance. I sat there for 5 minutes or so, trying to stifle the sobs, apologising and mopping the tears from my cheeks.

When I’d regained enough composure to converse, the doctor looked me in the eye and asked “how long have you been suppressing that?”. Uh, seven or eight years I supposed.

“This is the reason you came to see me today,” said the doctor, “I felt it when you walked in the room. I’m psychic, I mean… I don’t see colours or anything, I’m just a little bit psychic.” She recommended therapy, two homeopathic remedies and a rose quartz crystal. 

I left the surgery feeling a lot better – a little suspicious that maybe she wasn’t a real doctor, but feeling much better.

There’s no moral to this story.

Football – Championship 2015/16 Preview

Another football season rolls around. There seems to be a lot of Premiership predictions floating about (yawn! everybody’s picking Chelsea to win it) but very few in-depth Championship previews.

The betting market is largely unsurprising with the exception of Bolton being such long odds. The favoured teams are those that narrowly missed out (or, in the case of Derby bottled it) last season and those coming down fro the Premiership.

Odds to win the league (courtesy of SkyBet)

Middlesbrough 9/2
Derby 11/2
Hull 9/1
Brentford 10/1
Burnley 11/1
Wolves 12/1
Q.P.R. 12/1
Ipswich 16/1
Brighton 20/1
Sheffield Wednesday 22/1
Bristol City 22/1
Fulham 28/1
Nottingham Forest 33/1
Leeds 33/1
Cardiff 40/1
Blackburn 40/1
Reading 40/1
Huddersfield 50/1
MK Dons 50/1
Preston 50/1
Birmingham 66/1
Bolton 80/1
Charlton 100/1
Rotherham 100/1

There’s a tendency to predict that those teams coming up from the division below will carry good form into the new season and hold their own. In recent seasons Norwich City and Southampton have managed to parlay that into promotion at there first attempt. More recently though, Doncaster and Rotherham have struggled. It seems optimistic to suggest that all 3 promoted teams will fare well – having MK Dons and Preston North End at 50/1 whilst Charlton Athletic are priced at 100/1 seems odd odds to me.

Key Transfer Activity

Boro have added two expensive signings in Stewart Downing (5.5m) and Christian Stuani (2.8m). They’ve lost Tomlin to the Premier League and Patrick Bamford was a key loanee last season. They’ve strengthened.

Derby have made loan signings Tom Ince and Darren Bent permanent. Andreas Wiemann replaces Jamie Ward in the squad and they’ve moved to revamp the back 5 by adding keeper Scott Carson and defensive experience with Alex Pearce, Chris Baird and Jason Shackell. No spectacular signing to rival that of Boro, but all good acquisitions. They’re my favourites to win the league.

The relegated trio of teams are all rebuilding. Burnley have lost two stars Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier, QPR have managed to offload Shaun Wright-Phillips, Adel Taraabt and Bobby Zamora whilst Hull have managed to recoup 15m for James Chester and Robbie Brady. By comparison all the players coming into these clubs are younger, cheaper, less proven. Difficult to see how the new first teams will gel. Burnley managed top retain the basis of their team, QPR and Hull could be disasters.

Two clubs have gone nuts hoovering up unknown foreign players: Brentford & Sheffield Wednesday. They’ve both got new men at the helm too. Good luck with that high-risk strategy…

At the bottom of the table Rotherham appear to have acquired a whole new first team. Preston have secured some loans on permanent deals. Bristol City have lost a key striker from last year and replaced him with an expensive french signing. French! Again, all the luck in the world with that… MK Dons have added experience in the form of Matthew Upson and his dodgy knees and a couple of signings from Madrid.

Most intriuging signing for me is Brighton’s capture of Scot Jack Harper from Real Madrid’s youth ranks,

The clubs who look to have weaker squads than last time round: Fulham, Cardiff City and Reading. Fulham shouldn’t have the massive handicap they had last season when they took 1 point from their first 8 games.

If I have to tip the top 2 for promotion, I’d plump for Derby County and Wolves. Wolves have a manager who knows this league, the team had strong spells last season, added Afobe late in the season and weren’t far away from the play-offs. They’ve lost Sako, but added Conor COady who should add strength to their midfield.

For the play-offs I’d tip Boro and Burnley. For the other two slots, well it could be any of a dozen or so clubs – this league is that close (or random, if you prefer).

Brentford surely can’t repeat the achievements last time out and I can only see Blackburn going backwards too.

Candidates for relegation… I’d have Rotherham, Charlton Athletic, MK Dons, Reading, Huddersfield, Cardiff and Preston.

The transfer window is till open though, so maybe some clubs still have some budget to splash on a key signing or two.

I’m looking forward to reading this post back in 8 months and seeing just how wrong I was!

Birmingham City
Outs:
Nikola Zigic (Released)
Darren Randolph [Birmingham – West Ham] Free

Ins:
Jacques Maghoma [unattached – Birmingham]
Adam Legzdins [Leyton Orient – Birmingham] Free
Jon Toral [Arsenal – Birmingham] Loan
Maikel Kieftenbeld [Groningen – Birmingham] Undisclosed
Tomasz Kuszczak [Wolves – Birmingham] Free
Alex Jones [West Brom – Birmingham] Free

Blackburn Rovers
Outs:
Jake Kean [Blackburn – Norwich] Free
Rudy Gestede [Blackburn – Aston Villa] £6m
David Dunn [Blackburn – Oldham] Free
Tom Cairney [Blackburn – Fulham] £3m
Joshua King [Blackburn – Bournemouth] £1.5m
Luke Varney [released]

Ins:
Nathan Delfouneso [Blackpool – Blackburn] Free
Danny Guthrie [Reading – Blackburn] Free
Bangaly-Fode Koita [Caen – Blackburn] Free
Sacha Petschi [CA Bastia – Blackburn] Free

Bolton Wanderers
Outs:
Craig Davies [Bolton – Wigan] Free
Alex Baptiste [Bolton – Middlesbrough] £750,000
Matt Mills [Bolton – Nottingham Forest] Free
Andy Lonergan [Bolton – Fulham] Free
Adam Bogdan [Bolton – Liverpool] Free
Jermaine Beckford [Bolton – Preston] Free
Keith Andrews [released]
Eidur Gudjonsson [Bolton – Shijiazhuang Ever Bright] Free

In:
Prince-Desir Gouano [Atalanta – Bolton] Loan
Derik Osede [Real Madrid – Bolton] Free
Stephen Dobbie [Crystal Palace – Bolton] Free
Lawrie Wilson [Charlton – Bolton] Free
Ben Amos [Manchester United – Bolton] Free
Gary Madine [Sheffield Wednesday – Bolton] Free

Brentford
Outs:
Stuart Dallas [Brentford – Leeds] Undisclosed
Jonathan Douglas [Brentford – Ipswich] Free
Moses Odubajo [Brentford – Hull] £3.5m
Nick Proschwitz [Brentford – Paderborn] Free transfer
Will Grigg [Brentford – Wigan Athletic] £1m

Ins:
Lasse Vibe [IFK Goteborg – Brentford] Undisclosed
Philipp Hofmann [Kaiserslautern – Brentford] Undisclosed
Josh McEachran [Chelsea – Brentford] £750,000
Andreas Bjelland [FC Twente – Brentford] £2.1m
Konstantin Kerschbaumer [FC Admira Wacker Modling – Brentford] Undisclosed
Akaki Gogia [Hallescher FC – Brentford] Free
Yoann Barbet [Chamois Niortais – Brentford] Undisclosed

Brighton & Hove Albion

Outs:
Craig Mackail-Smith [Brighton – Luton] Free
Aaron Hughes [Brighton – Melbourne City] Free

Ins:
Bobby Zamora [QPR – Brighton] Free
Jack Harper [Real Madrid – Brighton] Undisclosed
Vahid Hambo [FC Inter Turku – Brighton] Undisclosed
Niki Maenpaa [VVV-Venlo – Brighton] Free
Gaetan Bong [Wigan – Brighton] Free
Tomer Hemed [Almeria – Brighton] Undisclosed
Liam Rosenior [Hull – Brighton] Free

Bristol City
Outs:
Jay Emmanuel-Thomas [Bristol City – QPR] Free
Wade Elliot [retired]
Greg Cunningham [Bristol City – Preston] Undisclosed

Ins:
Callum Robinson [Aston Villa – Bristol City] Loan
Ryan Fredericks [Tottenham – Bristol City] Undisclosed
Jonathan Kodjia [Angers SCO – Bristol City] £2.1m

Burnley
Outs:
Ross Wallace [Burnley – Sheffield Wednesday] Free
Jason Shackell [Burnley – Derby] Undisclosed
Kieran Trippier [Burnley – Tottenham] Undisclosed
Danny Ings [Burnley – Liverpool] TBC
Steven Reid [retired]

Ins:
Renny Smith [Arsenal – Burnley] Free
Luke Hendrie [Derby – Burnley] Free
Jelle Vossen [Genk – Burnley] Undisclosed
Tendayi Darikwa [Chesterfield – Burnley] Undisclosed
Chris Long [Everton – Burnley] Undisclosed
Matthew Lowton [Aston Villa – Burnley] Undisclosed

Cardiff City
Outs:
Adam Le Fondre [Cardiff – Wolves] Loan
Kevin McNaughton [Cardiff – Wigan] Free
Tom Adeyemi [Cardiff – Leeds] Loan
Kevin Theophile-Catherine [Cardiff – St. Etienne] £1.4m
Nicky Maynard [released]

Ins:
Sammy Ameobi [Newcastle – Cardiff] Loan
Semi Ajayi [Arsenal – Cardiff] Free

Charlton Athletic
Outs:
Rhoys Wiggins [Charlton – Sheffield Wednesday] Undisclosed
Lawrie Wilson [Charlton – Bolton] Free
Simon Church [Charlton – MK Dons] Free
Joe Gomez [Charlton – Liverpool] £3.5m
Tal Ben Haim [Charlton – Maccabi Tel Aviv] Free
Chris Eagles [released]

Ins:
Simon Makienok [Palermo – Charlton] Loan
Naby Sarr [Sporting Lisbon – Charlton] Undisclosed
Zakarya Bergdich [Real Valladolid – Charlton] Undisclosed
Cristian Ceballos [Tottenham – Charlton] Free
Ahmed Kashi [Metz – Charlton] Undisclosed
El Hadji Ba [Sunderland – Charlton] Undisclosed
Patrick Bauer [Maritimo – Charlton] Undisclosed

Derby County
Outs:
Jamie Ward (Forward, Forest, free)
Connor Sammon (Forward, Sheff Utd, loan)
John Eustace [released]
Zac Whitbread [released]

Ins:
Tom Ince (Forward, Hull, 4.75m)
Jason Shackell (Defender, Burnley, undisclosed)
Chris Baird (Defender, Werst Brom, free)
Andreas Weimann (Forward, Aston VIlla, ?)
Scott Carson (Goalkeeper, Wigan, Undisclosed)
Darren Bent [Aston Villa – Derby] Free
Alex Pearce [Reading – Derby] Free

Fulham
Outs:
Patrick Roberts [Fulham – Manchester City] Undisclosed
Bryan Ruiz [Fulham – Sporting Lisbon] Undisclosed
Maarten Stekelenburg [Fulham – Southampton]
Kostas Mitroglou [Fulham – Benfica] Loan

Ins:
Sakari Mattila [Aalesunds – Fulham] Undisclosed
Jamie O’Hara [Blackpool – Fulham] Free
Jazz Richards [Swansea – Fulham] Undisclosed
Luke Garbutt [Everton – Fulham] Loan
Andy Lonergan [Bolton – Fulham] Free
Ben Pringle [Rotherham – Fulham] Free
Tom Cairney [Blackburn – Fulham] Undisclosed

Huddersfield Town
Outs:
Oscar Gobern [Huddersfield – QPR] Free
Conor Coady [Huddersfield – Wolves] £2m
Anthony Gerrard [released]

Ins:
Martin Cranie [Barnsley – Huddersfield] Free
Kyle Dempsey [Carlisle – Huddersfield] Undisclosed
Jason Davidson [West Brom – Huddersfield] Free
Dean Whitehead [Middlesbrough – Huddersfield] Free
Jordy Hiwula [Manchester City – Huddersfield] Undisclosed

Hull City
Outs:
Paul McShane
[Hull – Reading] Free
Robbie Brady [Hull – Norwich] £7m
James Chester [Hull – West Brom] £8m
Thomas Ince [Hull – Derby] £4.75m
Stephen Quinn [Hull – Reading] Free
Liam Rosenior [Hull – Brighton] Free
Steve Harper [released]
Yannick Sagbo [released]

Ins:
Chuba Akpom [Arsenal – Hull] Loan
Moses Odubajo [Brentford – Hull] £3.5m
Ryan Taylor [Newcastle – Hull] Free
Isaac Hayden [Arsenal – Hull] Loan
Sam Clucas [Chesterfield – Hull City] £1.3m

Ipswich Town

Outs:
Paul Anderson [Ipswich – Bradford] Free
Noel Hunt [Ipswich – Southend] Free
Darren Ambrose [Ipswich – Colchester] Free
Tyrone Mings [Ipswich – Bournemouth] Undisclosed
Stephen Hunt [released]

Ins:
Jonathan Douglas [Brentford – Ipswich] Free
Giles Coke [Sheffield Wednesday – Ipswich] Free
Larsen Toure [Arles-Avignon – Ipswich] Free
Jonas Knudsen [Esbjerg – Ipswich] Undisclosed
Ryan Fraser [Bournemouth – Ipswich] Loan
Brett Pitman [Bournemouth – Ipswich] Undisclosed

Leeds United:
Outs:
Steve Morison [Leeds – Millwall] Undisclosed
Billy Sharp [Leeds – Sheffield United] Undisclosed
Rodolph Austin [released]
Michael Tonge [released]

Ins:
Stuart Dallas [Brentford – Leeds] Undisclosed
Ross Turnbull [Barnsley – Leeds] Free
Tom Adeyemi [Cardiff – Leeds] Loan
Chris Wood [Leicester – Leeds] Undisclosed
Sol Bamba [Palermo – Leeds] Undisclosed
Lee Erwin [Motherwell – Leeds] Undisclosed

Middlesboro
Outs:
Lee Tomlin (Bournemouth 3.5m)
Dean Whitehead (Huddersfield, free)
Patrick Bamford (Loan ended)

Ins:
Diego Fabrini (Watford, loan),
Stuart Downing (West Ham, 5.5m),
Tomas Kalas (Chelsea, loan)
Jack Stephens (Defender, Southampton, loan)
Alex Baptiste (Defender, Bplton, free)
Cristhian Stuani [Espanyol – Middlesbrough] £2.8m

MK Dons
Outs:
Tom Hitchcock [MK Dons – Stevenage] Loan
George Baldock [MK Dons – Oxford] Loan

Ins:
Sergio Aguza [Real Madrid – MK Dons] Free
Matthew Upson [Leicester – MK Dons] Free
Sam Gallagher [Southampton – MK Dons] Loan
Rob Hall [Bolton – MK Dons] Loan
Cristian Benavente [Real Madrid Castilla – MK Dons] Free
Joe Walsh [Crawley – MK Dons] Undisclosed
Simon Church [Charlton – MK Dons] Free
Cody Cropper [Southampton – MK Dons] Free
Dale Jennings [Barnsley – MK Dons] Free

Nottingham Forest
Outs:
Greg Halford [Nottingham Forest – Rotherham] Free
Danny Collins [Nottingham Forest – Rotherham] Free
Jamie Mackie [Nottingham Forest – QPR] Free

Ins:
Jamie Ward [Derby – Nottingham Forest] Free
Matt Mills [Bolton – Nottingham Forest] Free
Daniel Pinillos [Cordoba – Nottingham Forest] Free
Ben Hamer [Leicester – Nottingham Forest] Loan
Tim Erlandsson [Halmstads – Nottingham Forest] Undisclosed

Preston
Outs:
Sylvan Ebanks-Blake [Preston – Chesterfield] Free
Kevin Davies [released]

Ins:
Marnick Vermijl [Sheffield Wednesday – Preston] Loan
Jordan Pickford [Sunderland – Preston] Loan
Will Keane [Manchester United – Preston] Loan
Paul Gallagher [Leicester – Preston] Free
Jermaine Beckford [Bolton – Preston] Free
Greg Cunningham [Bristol CIty – Preston] Undisclosed

Reading
Outs:
Danny Guthrie [Reading – Blackburn] Free
Adam Federici [Reading – Bournemouth] Free
Alex Pearce [Reading – Derby] Free
Jem Karacan [Reading – Galatasaray] Free
Stephen Kelly [released]

Ins:
Andrew Taylor [Wigan – Reading] Loan
Ali Al-Habsi [Wigan – Reading] Free
Jonathan Bond [Watford – Reading] Undisclosed
Paul McShane [Hull – Reading] Free
Stephen Quinn [Hull – Reading] Free
Orlando Sa [Legia Warsaw – Reading] Undisclosed

Rotherham
Outs:
Ben Pringle [Rotherham – Fulham] Free
Kári Árnason [Rotherham – Malmo] Undisclosed

Ins:
Lewis Buxton [Sheffield Wednesday – Rotherham] Free
Joe Newell [Peterborough – Rotherham] Undisclosed
Chris Maguire [Sheffield Wednesday – Rotherham] Free
Grant Ward [Tottenham – Rotherham] Loan
Greg Halford [Nottingham Forest – Rotherham] Free
Danny Collins [Nottingham Forest – Rotherham] Free
Tom Thorpe [Manchester United – Rotherham] Free
Emmanuel Ledesma [Middlesbrough – Rotherham] Free
Aidy White [Leeds – Rotherham] Free
Joe Mattock [Sheffield Wednesday – Rotherham] Free

Queens Park Rangers
Ins:
Grant Hall [Tottenham – QPR] Undisclosed
Oscar Gobern [Huddersfield – QPR] Free
Paul Konchesky [Leicester – QPR] Loan
Sebastian Polter [FSV Mainz – QPR] Undisclosed
James Perch [Wigan – QPR] Undisclosed
Tjaronn Chery [FC Groningen – QPR] Undisclosed
Tyler Blackwood [unattached – QPR]
Ben Gladwin [Swindon – QPR] Undisclosed
Massimo Luongo [Swindon – QPR] Undisclosed
Jamie Mackie [Nottingham Forest – QPR] Free
Jay Emmanuel-Thomas [Bristol City – QPR] Free

Outs:
Shaun Wright-Phillips [QPR – New York Red Bulls] Free
Bobby Zamora [QPR – Brighton] Free
Alex McCarthy [QPR – Crystal Palace] £3.5m
Steven Caulker [QPR – Southampton] Loan
Joey Barton [released]
Rio Ferdinand [retired]
Richard Dunne [released]

Sheffield Wednesday
Outs:
Giles Coke [Sheffield Wednesday – Ipswich] Free
Gary Madine [Sheffield Wednesday – Bolton] Free
Chris Maguire [Sheffield Wednesday – Rotherham] Free
Chris Kirkland [released]
Kamil Zayatte [Sheffield Wednesday – Al-Raed] Free

Ins:
Modou Sougou [Marseille – Sheffield Wednesday] Free
Rhoys Wiggins [Charlton – Sheffield Wednesday] Undisclosed
Lucas Joao [Nacional – Sheffield Wednesday] Undisclosed
Lewis McGugan [Watford – Sheffield Wednesday] Undisclosed
Alex Lopez [Celta Vigo – Sheffield Wednesday] Loan
Ross Wallace [Burnley – Sheffield Wednesday] Free
Marco Matias [Nacional – Sheffield Wednesday] Undisclosed
Vincent Sasso [Braga – Sheffield Wednesday] Loan
Darryl Lachman [FC Twente – Sheffield Wednesday] Undisclosed

Wolverhampton Wanderers
Outs:
Bakary Sako [Wolves – Crystal Palace] Free
Sam Ricketts [Wolves – Coventry] Free
Tomasz Kuszczak [Wolves – Birmingham] Free
Leon Clarke [Wolves – Bury] Free
Kevin Doyle [Bolton – Colorado Rapids] Free

Ins:
Adam Le Fondre [Cardiff – Wolves] Loan
Conor Coady [Huddersfield – Wolves] £2m
Jed Wallace [Portsmouth – Wolves] Undisclosed

Championship Football Predictions for 2014/15

Season’s over. Time to compare my Championship predictions with what actually happened in the real world.

At the beginning of the season I listed out the Championship teams in a rough order of where I expected them to finish the season. Nailing at definite order proved too tricky, but I at least grouped the teams into a groups of four.

Here we go:

1-4
Nottm Forest, Norwich, Derby, Cardiff

5-8
Blackburn, Wigan, Fulham, Leeds

9-12
Watford, M’boro, Brighton, Bolton

13-16
Bournemouth, Wolves, Ipswich, Reading

17-20
Sheff Wed, Charlton, Huddersfield, Birmingham

21-24
Millwall, Brentford, Rotherham, Blackpool

The order was based on my judgement of each club’s respective squads and the perceived wealth of the at club, which, I reasoned, might translate into some kind of buying power in the transfer windows.

And here’s the final table (annotated with performance against my prediction)

Pos Team Performance
1 Bournemouth +3
2 Watford +2
3 Norwich par
4 Middlesbrough +2
5 Brentford +4
6 Ipswich +2
7 Wolves +2
8 Derby -1
9 Blackburn -1
10 Birmingham +2
11 Cardiff -2
12 Charlton +2
13 Sheff Wed par
14 Nottm Forest -3
15 Leeds -2
16 Huddersfield +1
17 Fulham -3
18 Bolton -2
19 Reading -1
20 Brighton -2
21 Rotherham par
22 Millwall par
23 Wigan -4
24 Blackpool par

So, based on my judgements we have the following awards:

Biggest over achiever: Brentford (notable mention for Bournemouth)

Biggest under-achiever: Wigan Athletic (with notable mentions for Fuham and Forest)

Wigan actually win the under-achiever prize by quite a margin. Looking at their squad there’s no way they should have been relegated. They finished the season with James Perch, Marc-Antoine Fortune, Jermaine Pennant, Emerson Boyce, Scott Carson & James McClean in their team. On paper, they have a team that should be sniffing around for a play-off space. I was still of the belief that they had enough to scrape clear of relegation right up upto the point that their racist manager, Malky Mackay, was sacked. I guess the volume of change at the club this season was just too much to absorb.

Brentford confounded expectations throughout the season. Whilever I was convinced that Fulham and Wigan would rise up the table after bad starts, so I was of the conviction that Brentford would fall away. Seeing them dismantle my team Huddersfield Town at Griffin Park was a humbling experience. Jota, Pritchard, Toumani Diagouraga and Andre Gray have all had impressive seasons.

In terms of expected Vs actual performance, the ranking might look like this:

Pos Team Performance
5 Brentford +4
1 Bournemouth +3
6 Ipswich +2
7 Wolves +2
12 Charlton +2
10 Birmingham +2
2 Watford +2
4 Middlesbrough +2
16 Huddersfield +1
3 Norwich par
13 Sheff Wed par
21 Rotherham par
22 Millwall par
24 Blackpool par
8 Derby -1
9 Blackburn -1
19 Reading -1
18 Bolton -2
15 Leeds -2
20 Brighton -2
11 Cardiff -2
17 Fulham -3
14 Nottm Forest -3
23 Wigan -4

So fans of Millwall & Blackpool don’t despair! You were only as poor as I expected you to be.  That’s probably not much comfort I suppose. League 1 is actually quite a lot of fun though, so enjoy it.

Not sure what conclusions I can draw from this exercise particularly. It seems I was more successful picking the losers than picking the winners!

Maiden Marathon – Milton Keynes

I completed my first marathon yesterday. In the run-up to the day I’d been 50% terrified and 50% excited. As the day loomed closer the terrified half of me over-powered the excited half and completely took over. In the end though, the 3 months of training and a measured weekend of preparation stood me in good stead. Once the fatigue and emotion faded from the run I couldn’t have been more delighted with my time.

Walking from Bletchley Station to Stadium MK I’d briefly chatted to another runner who had run the course the year before. I asked him what is was like. “It’s a bit boring actually,” he admitted, “but it’s flat and wide, so you’ll have plenty of room, you’re able to go your own speed.” So it turned out to be. The first half of the course conforms to the cliché of Milton Keynes as a typical new town. It’s dual carriageways and roundabouts punctuated with U-turns. The second half of the course was on “Redways” which turned out to be pavements next to dual carriageways. Sometimes there’s a hedge between the pavement and the A-road, sometimes not. Occasionally the path dips into housing estate or parkland and it becomes more of a cycle path than a pavement, but you get the idea.

Starting and finishing at Stadium MK though, was lovely. It’s rare to have so many toilets at a marathon start and not to have to queue for 45 minutes for a stinking portaloo. The last 500 yards – downhill into the stadium and then around three sides of the pitch was a fitting finale, even if the stadium was sparsely populated.

Worried about being late, I’d arrived way too early. I took in the stadium (which has been finished since the last time I’d been watch a football match there) and then wandered down to the arena to prepare – a slow hydration and warm-up in a cavernous shed to the sounds of Alanis Morrisette over a tinny PA. The start line was only a five minute amble away where I whiled away another 45 minutes listening to Faithess and Katrina & The Waves over a better quality PA. Having learned from the North London Marathon a month or so earlier, I was clad in a black bin liner to stop from getting cold, the weather was bright but with a cold breeze and I was glad of it. The wind turned out to be a huge help when the race started, a tailwind for the first 4 miles, and then a lovely cooling factor for the next 4.

As per my (very rough) plan, I held myself back for the first 3 miles and then settled into my natural 8:40min/mile rhythm. A quick stop around 6 miles for sock maintenance was the only glitch. The miles ticked off and I was pleased to get to the halfway point in 1:55:57. I remembered the story that my colleague Harry McGarry told me of his London Marathon when, after reaching halfway in 2 hours, his day fell apart. “The race starts here,” I told myself. The plan was to maintain my natural pace, but I subconsciously upped my work rate with my two fastest miles coming in mile 14 and mile 16. Around this stage of the race you start to see people wilting and, eventually, slowing to a walk, but I felt good, I was into my rhythm, I found my mind wandering and it no longer felt like running anymore – it just felt like keeping on.

Having avoided the trap of feeling over-confident at halfway, I stupidly let myself feel a wave of relief at 20 miles. It felt like I was on the final straight – just another 10km to go! That’s nothing! A short training run! For me though, I’ve barely run beyond 18 miles before. This was a step into the unknown. My feet started to hurt, my thigh muscles and calves started to feel heavy and stiff. 20 miles was where the race started for me. I’d clocked in at 2:55 so I knew 4 hours was going to happen barring a disaster. I stopped looking at my watch, I stopped listening to my Runkeeper updates and just focussed on putting one foot in front of the other. Every corner I was searching the horizon for the next marker. The spectators felt more urgent at this stage, “come on! not far to go now!”, I was having to resist the temptation to ask them “exactly HOW far to go?”

mk-marathon-splitsThe wind, which had been such a friend early in the race, had disappeared by now. The sunshine had won the weather war. I started to get a dehydration headache right on the top of my head. Later water stops consisted of cups of water rather than bottles or bottles with large screw tops instead of flip caps. I was throwing more water in my face than was going in my mouth. I’d debated with myself when to award myself another gel and settled on the 19 mile marker. Then I delayed it to the 20. Then I decided against the complicated manoeuvre altogether in favour of just concentrating on maintaining a running action.

When the route turned a corner to reveal just a gentle incline I took it as a personal slight, like perhaps the organisers had planned this specially just to torture my calf muscles, to break me and to make me give in and slow to a walk before the finish.

I felt another wave of relief at 24 miles but, of the final 6 miles, each successive mile felt more painful, and further, than the last. The final 2 miles my pace dropped below 9 mins/mile for the first time. When the stadium revealed itself from behind a clump of trees it could not have been more welcome. Annoyingly, the course took us past the stadium and around a car park before we could finally enter the damn thing. I managed to speed up for the run down into the stadium and then managed another burst of pace in the final straight.

Crossing the finish line I was struggling to feel any specific emotion. I was relieved I suppose, but there were may other strong feelings that my brain couldn’t process and it was all I could do to stop myself from collapsing and sobbing. There were other runners laid in a crumpled heap on the pitch and joining them didn’t seem like a terrible idea, but I staggered on to get myself a bottle of water and a banana. I completely missed the medal handout and a small boy had to run after me to hand me my trinket. Emma had just arrived at the stadium 5 minutes before me. It was lovely to see her and get a hug and to know that she’d been able to see me cross the line but I didn’t have a single intelligible thing to say to her. I was overwhelmed, my brain was frazzled.

I hadn’t expected the whole thing to be such an emotional experience, and even now, 24 hours later I’m not sure what those emotions were.

Looking back on my half marathon experiences, it feels like a half-marathon is actually a pleasurable experience – a sensible and enjoyable distance to run. The full 26.2 miles though, for me, I’m not so sure. From here I’ll focus on improving my 5km and 10km PBs – I think I’ve actually beaten my best 10km time at some point in and amongst my last half, and was probably only a minute or two outside it in this marathon. If I can get a sub-50 minute 10km time and may sub 21 minutes for 5km this year I’ll be happy.

I’ve once more entered the ballot for the London Marathon in 2016, but I’ll tackle that if it happens. If the email comes in October telling me I’ve got a place, memories of the blisters I’m currently nursing and that mental and physical struggle in the final 2 miles along Saxon Street will have long since faded.

Milton Keynes Marathon Map

Royal Parks Half-Marathon

I ran my first half-marathon at the weekend. It was a much more pleasurable experience than the 10k earlier in the year.

Start time was 9am with runners scheduled to enter start funnels at 8.40am. Fearing having to stand around for a long time getting nervous before the start I rolled up at 8.15am figuring I’d have plenty of time to dump my bag and use the toilet before heading for the start line. As it was, bag drop and loo were two 20 minute queues(!) so I wasn’t able to head for the start funnel until 9.15am. No bother… it turns out I could still get into the 2nd funnel of runners. I crossed the line around 9.30am.

The first half of the race was a lot of fun. We headed out of Hyde Park, down the side of Green Park, in front of Buckingham Palace before tracing the outline of St. James’ Park, a quick jaunt over Westminster Bridge and back before running down Embankment to Blackfriars. It felt good to be running in a large field and with runners that were, for the most part, travelling at a pace I was comfortable with. I was pulled along with the pack – probably travelling a little faster than I had planned, but still at a comfortable rate and  with lots of room to run in.

When I’d started training for this distance I’d picked up Jeff Gaudette‘s “Sub 1:55” plan so that was the vague aim I had in terms of time. I’d actually abandoned the plan when it got too demanding in terms of frequency & intensity of training sessions. In the month or so leading up to the race I was running three times a week – two runs to work (around 10k / 6.5 miles) with a longer run at the weekend which I was extending a mile each week. I’d run 15 miles a week before the race so I knew I had the distance in my legs, but in my training runs I’d rarely run faster than 9mins/mile. I’d also discovered that I managed better times by starting slowly and gradually building my pace – often this happened naturally but I also found it easier to step up the pace once I’d run a few miles.

So my strategy for race day was to start slowly and build the pace as the miles went by, As it turned out, this wasn’t the most practical approach. The second half of the course was entirely in Hyde Park on footpaths. After the wide roads of the first 6 miles , this meant there was much less room for everybody. It makes perfect sense for the route to pack the narrower paths into the second half of the race, and I was grateful for that, but I’m not sure this race can take many more participants without a much more staggered start.

The plan to build the pace gradually also went to the wall. After starting strongly, I didn’t focus too much on my time – I was ahead of schedule! – but then found myself really speeding up around the 8 mile mark.

In my head I was calculating on 9 minute miles (which equates to 1hr 57mins finish time) and trying to hit the cumulative time for each mile marker: 8 miles (72 mins – 1 hr 12), 9 miles (81 mis, 1 hr 21) …and so on… But as I tired my brain struggled more and more to do this basic mental arithmetic. I’m really good at my nine times table too!

The last 2 miles was painful – in my knees, thighs and ribs. Courtesy of marathon-photos.com I’ve watched video footage of me crossing the line. I’m running faster than most of the people around me (which is pleasing) but my form looks really odd – I’m leaning forward, my head thrown back, shoulders drooped and my stride is almost a hobble. It’s the oddest thing. Like a dead man flailing around. I;m pretty sure I donlt run like that all the time.

Overall it was fun. The course is mostly flat, on good surfaces and takes in the major landmarks – it was a particular pleasure to run along The Mall towards Buckingham Palace. Once in Hyde Park there’s several tight (almost hairpin!) turns and places where the pathway narrows to only allow four or five people to run abreast, but I suppose that’s only to be expected. The course was extremely well marked and the mile markers exceptionally visible. The medals were nice too – tasteful, wooden, oak-leaf-shaped affairs – much nicer than the cheap, generic metal medals I;ve been given in the past.

The field, that I was exposed to seemed satisfyingly able and committed. I saw only 2 or 3 runners in unsuitable clothing (plus one gentleman in a kilt) along with two people dressed as dogs and one as a squirrel. I also didn’t experience competitors walking until after the 7-mile mark.

My final time was 1hr 55mins 02 secs. Just two seconds outside my most optimistic target! In truth, I’d have been happy with anything under 2 hours and my own watch (which I failed to notice I hadn’t stopped properly at the finish line) suggested I was closer to 1:56, so I was pleasantly surprised when the email with my chip-time arrived.

Full Timing Breakdown

Distance Time
1km 0:05:41
5km 0:28:39
10km 0:56:50
15km 1:23:42
20km 1:49:35
Finish 1:55:02

And split times…

Section Time
0-5km 28:39
5-10km 28:11
10-15km 26:52
15–20km 25:53

The race was so much fun, it might have been easy to forget the sometimes demanding (and sometimes painful) training plan I battled through in August & September. But I had a quick skip through my RunKeeper activity log just to remind myself. I’m hoping I’ll be able to keep up a sensible, fun level of running without the pressure of a race-day, but, well, we’ll see. I’m actually looking forward to getting back on my bike again, so maybe a Duathalon next year?

XFM.co.uk Relaunch (and why it’s not responsive)

The Xfm website relaunched today – on a new CMS and with a new design.

There’s very little absolutely new stuff that the previous site didn’t have, but lots of improved features, better UI and snappier performance. In particular, the playlist has been improved with better browse-ability and search. The content’s been re-structured too, with the site becoming more artist-centric than news-centric.

On the design front, compared to the last site, it’s bigger, bolder, brighter and more confident, which reflects the current buoyant mood at XFM generally. If you’re a regular visitor to XFM.co.uk, you might notice that the site refers to itself as ‘XFM’ rather than ‘Xfm’ – a tiny detail, but an important one.

xfm_relaunch_aug_2013

The re-launch has gone down well with feedback being mostly positive. The one criticism has been that the new site design isn’t a responsive one. As a Technical Lead on the team that built this new iteration of the site I guess I’m in a good position to answer this criticism, but, speaking honestly, it’s not really a technical issue – more one of commercial and cost issues.

XFM Is Not The Priority

Despite how proud we are of the new site, how confident we are it will be a success and how proud we are of it, it’s been a fairly cheap re-launch on the development front.

The development process was an investment of 20 man-days – a single developer for four weeks. That included the redesign, handling content migration and the bulk of the testing. If you have any insight into the web development process, you’ll know that, for a site of this magnitude, that’s next to nothing.

The parent company of XFM, Global Radio, is home to several radio brands: CapitalFM, Heart and ClassicFM as well as Gold, ChoiceFM and LBC. As you can imagine, the priorities of the company are the bigger brands: ClassicFM is a national FM station, The Heart network comprises 17 FM stations, Capital is 9 stations. By comparison, XFM is two stations and lies further away from the mainstream – in terms of revenue & audience it’s dwarfed by the three major brands.

It’s difficult for the business to prioritise XFM over the other brands. On the flip-side of that argument, the smaller brands may get the reflected benefit of investment in the larger brands. And that’s what’s happening here: If you look closely, you might see that the new XFM site has a lot in common with the site of a sister brand, ClassicFM. It’s a re-skin of the Classic site, with a handful of customisations.

When the Capital, Heart & Classic sites utilise responsive design techniques to render more helpfully on smaller devices such as iPhones, XFM will, I imagine, be able to follow suit.

Commercial Radio HAS TO Make Money

To answer the question as to why not a single one of the sites is responsive as yet, well the answer is probably one of cost and revenue opportunities.

The sites, in their current state, generate not-inconsequential revenue – mostly from display advertising and sponsorship. The mobile apps, for iOS and Android devices, also generate revenue via advertising. The two contexts utilise different third-party software to deliver those ads and the required relevant metrics relating to delivery and responses.

If you’ve ever had to work with ad software you’ll know it’s often shitty technology. The demand on the software is often to deliver creatives of ever increasing ambition, interaction and eye-candy. For this reason it often cocks a snook at web design/development best-practices. It’s seldom performant or cacheable and often fragile. On the websites the ads take upto 50% of the download and the time taken to render the site – on the apps the ads are the main reason for crashes and instability.

But those ads make money.

Once you start applying responsive design techniques to a site like CapitalFM you’ll find it increasingly difficult to retain effective ads – believe me, I’ve tried. The online ad industry has yet to seize the responsive challenge and run with it – even the Google AdSense platform has only recently dipped an experimental toe in these murky waters.

You could argue that, once a device isn’t able to deliver an ad creative in a performant and affective manner, maybe it shouldn’t deliver that creative at all. I might agree with you, but it’s not my call.

The bottom line is that making a commercial radio site responsive might not make money. It will be expensive – reverse engineering responsive qualities into a mature site isn’t easy – and it might not reap dividends. Maybe the site will get more repeat visits, maybe the site will get more traffic, maybe mobile users will visit more pages per visit, but if those users aren’t being exposed to effective advertising, then it’s difficult to justify the expense in the first place.

Mobile Listening – “Just Pushing To The App Isn’t Enough”

This is a more specific criticism that I’ve read (not just of XFM – but or radio sites in general). Visit any of the in-house-managed Global Radio brand-sites with a mobile device and, instead of a LISTEN button, you’ll be given a ‘DOWNLOAD OUR APP’ button. This is mostly because that’s currently the best user experience. A lot of time and care has been invested in the apps, they’re popular, people like them and they work. Also, they make money for the company. The current online, in-browser player, is part of the UK Radio Player. It doesn’t work on mobile devices and the user experience is poor. That will change in an up-coming update of UKRP, but it’s not code that is managed by Global Radio, so it’s been out of our hands.

As a side note, the next iteration of UKRP is also unlikely to be responsive. But it will be able to play audio.

Responsive Design – It’s Just Another Stylesheet, Right?

This is another comment I’ve read in and amongst the arguments for applying a Responsive Design Pattern. Well, maybe. But that’s just like saying: “Radio? It’s just a bunch of records, right?” It’s way more nuanced and complex than that.

I’m not sure that taking a 1Mb web-page, adding some more download weight to it and then expecting the user experience on a mobile device with a patchy 3G signal to be satisfactory is necessarily wise. It’s a common knee-jerk reaction, but I’m not sure how scalable or maintainable a technique that might be.

Ideally, the base site should be light, giving the browsing device the core essential information, and then make decisions on what extra styling/behaviour to download before the user sees the site. But this is more than just bolting on some extra stuff, it’s a delicate process that requires experimentation, care and time.

Conclusion

Global Radio relaunched XFM.co.uk, with lots win!

  • Better, more on-brand, visual design
  • Better playlists
  • Better search
  • News & Gallery in the iOS and Android apps. W00t!
  • A better CMS, meaning the editorial team can producing more, and better quality content
  • Better structure
  • Better SEO value

And, despite the lack of responsive design techniques, it does render much better and is more readable and more browse-able, on handheld devices.

The biggest win though, is getting it onto the in-house CMS and off a 3rd-party CMS that was rotting on the vine. It means we CAN improve it in the future – even tiny iterations over the last few years have been frustratingly difficult and costly.

A responsive design might even be one of the next iterations to look forward to.

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In Search Of An Android MP3 Player

I had first generation iPod Touch. A few months ago I decided it had come to the end of its useful life and the annoyances I had with it were outweighing the value I was getting from it.

When I was thinking about as replacement I wanted to leave Apple behind – iTunes is a massive pile of junk and I reckoned that other services – Spotify, Google Music, Rdio, A.N. Other would easily replace and surpass Apple’s bloated service as a music manager.

My requirements for this new device amountedf to a relatively short list:

  • A music player
  • A podcast client & player

With two nice-to-haves:

  • Last.fm scrobbling
  • The Runkeeper app (which requires GPS)

Unfortunately, the options for an Android-powered alternative to the iPod Touch were slim pickin’s.

Creative offer an MP3 player that runs on Android: The Zen Touch 2. It looks like a very limited version of the OS.

Sony offered the NWZ Walkman. It’s pretty pricey, reviews are generally positive, if a little lukewarm, but nobody tells you it’s a bargain.

So I went with the Samsung Galaxy S 8Gb MP3 Player. It was cheap – around £90 IIRC – it ran Google Music, scrobbled and I could podcast, first using the BeyondPod app then moving to PodKicker.

On the downside the GPS capabilities of the device and/or limitations with the Runkeeper app meant that was a fruitless experience. The GPS took an age to connect in central London, I’d be be finishing my first kilometre in before Runkeeper burst into life with some (incorrect) info.

The OS felt a little sluggish – certainly not as sharp as the iPod I’d ditched but not so sluggish that it annoyed me. It was running the Ice Cream Sandwich release of Android, was seemingly unable to upgrade and I suspected that the sluggish response times would really begin to show on Jellybean. Then… after a few months, it died. The screen went blank and all the device would do was vibrate until it ran out of juice or I removed the battery. Luckily, I got a refund. And the search started all over again.

At this point you might reasonably wonder why I didn’t just buy a smartphone and be done with it. Yeah, I wondered that too. Getting a phone and locking into a contract seemed the expensive thing to do. Buying a phone outright also seemed expensive. But, with a little research, it seemed like a cheap PAYG phone might meet my requirements. I bought a Huawei Ascend Y300 from Carphone Warehouse for £79 + a SIM card with £10 credit. It runs Jellybean and has 8Gb internal memory so already a step-up from the Samsung.

So… did it work out? Well. Yes. After some wrangling.

It’s not quite a vanilla version of Jellybean, you have to beat the Huawei-ness out of it which isn’t a simple process. And of that 8Gb internal storage about 800Mb is available when you first boot it up. I could squeeze maybe 4 of my own albums that I’d uploaded to Google Music on there. If I was downloading albums I didn’t own using my subscription, well, I could download 8 or 9 songs before the app refused to playback citing lack-of-space issues.

There’s an SD card slot though, so all was not lost. I rooted the phone and was able to trick Google Music into storing its audio files on the SD card using the ROM Manager app to create a symlink.

And so far, so good.

I also switched the O2 PAYG sim card for the Vodaphone one from my company phone and that works fine too – the SIM toolkit app doesn’t like it, but *shrug* so what?

I can’t believe it was quite that difficult, and I can’t believe no one’s filled that gap in the market with an iPod competitor – it doesn’t feel like a niche so small that it’s not worth bothering about.

But anyway, if you landed here with a google search because you too a looking for a simple MP3 player, I hope this post is helpful. Good luck!

Related Links

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British 10K London Run

wordpress-british0-10k

I ran the British 10K Run yesterday. I’ve run 10k events before – in Regents Park, Richmond Park and Hyde Park, but never on a London street course and never in an event of this scale.

The course was a good one covering some London landmarks on roads where it’s not normally possible to run. It started along Piccadilly, through Trafalgar Square, along Victoria Embankment and finally a lap of Parliament Square.

Looking at the map it looked like a fast course – the first few km a gentle descent to the Thames and from there on fairly flat. I;d trained well and figured, with the extra adrenaline from the race day atmosphere I could beat my personal best.

That wasn’t possible. For a handful of reasons I suppose. But more disappointing was that I didn’t really enjoy the race.

After dropping my bag at Waterloo Place I followed signs to the start line, a route which took me along Pall Mall and up Parliament Hill towards Hyde Park Corner. I arrived at Piccadilly around 9.05am in preparation for the 9.35am race start.

Now comes the first problem. I’d under anticipated just how busy a 25,000 competitor event would be. I’d also under anticipated just how difficult it is to organise an event of this scale. I stood in a crammed crowd, in the 30 deg heat for around an hour as we waited to start. There wasn’t really enough room to stretch the legs or to warm up, it was just a case of trying to stay hydrated and wait. And wait. Katrina & The Waves performed, an MC embarrassed himself, some old taxis paraded past (although I could see only their roofs), Sally Gunnell gave a speech, the Mayor of Westminster gave a speech. All I wanted to do was start running!

Athletes were being released in waves. A small number of elite athletes went first, but beyond that it was on a first-come-first-served basis. The first wave set off around 15 minutes late, watching the early leaders charge off on the opposite side of Piccadilly was a relief and little exciting. That soon dissipated as a runner next to me who had run the previous year estimated we still wouldn’t be running for another 20 minutes – his estimate wasn’t far out.

I’d guess I was in the middle of the field somewhere – waves seemed to be around 1,000 runners, and I was in the 10th or 11th wave released. The start line wasn’t marked, I don’t recall a banner or any chip-timing panels, reading the programme after the run it seemed a Routemaster bus marked the start line, but I don’t remember that. I just started my watch when I started running.

It turns out the lack of clearly defined start line was mirrored at the end of the race. Using up the last of my energy sprinting up Whitehall I was looking for a banner over the road or two inflatable columns to either side of the finish. As it was I found myself skipping over the chip timing pads and that was the finish – it would have been nice to have a clearly defined goal to be have been driving towards. There had been no KM markers either which I had expected there to be so I could control my pace and adjust my race strategy through out. I’d vaguely remembered that the water stations would be at 3km, 5km and 7km so that’s the only indication I had to work with.

The biggest obstacle to running a good time though, was, by far, the sheer volume of runners on the road. At most we had two traffic lans to run in – only single lanes once we came off Piccadilly and on the approach to Embankment. Given that the starting positions were on a first-come-first-served basis that meant having to battle though a lot of traffic – slow-moving runners and a lot more people walking than I’d expected. The field didn’t have too much of a fun-run vibe, I only spotted four or five costumes (and they were elaborate ones!) most people seemed to be keen runners. So I wasn’t prepared for people walking within the first kilometre – granted it was a hot day, but still, the first kilometre!

The first kilometre was fairly chaotic, with faster runners elbowing their way past the slower ones, weaving across the road in order to do so or hopping up onto the central reservation. I hoped that this problem would dissipate as the race went on and crowds might thin out. I was wrong – the problem got worse. I suppose, in retrospect, given that I was starting in the middle of the field I’d could only have expected to have encountered more and more tired and slowing runners as the race went on, but my brain wasn’t working like that at the time. As time passed more and more runners were feeling the effects of the heat, or of poor preparation and were turning to walking. In some cases where people were doing the race in pairs, or threes, or groups bigger than that, they’d abandoned running and taken to walking the course together – which just made them even bigger obstacles to overtake. This would be a problem would only increase as the race wore on – occasionally, where crowds were more populous or more vocal people would start running again, but that only resulted in the traffic piling up again once the crowds thinned – as happened as I entered the underpass just after Blackfriars Bridge and again on Westminster Bridge.

The heaviness of traffic meant it was difficult to find any kind of rhythm to build upon. My usual plan for a 10k is to start slowly, find a rhythm in the first 2km, gradually build the pace over the next 5km and then hit my top speeds in the final quarter. That just wasn’t possible yesterday. Having to concentrate on the crowd so much, to dart into gaps where necessary and slow when there was no way through meant my pace was all over the place.

The water stations were utter chaos. The marshals here have my sympathy, the constant barrage of the field was a tide that wouldn’t stop and the water stations were undermanned. Staff should have been positioned ahead of the actual stations holding out bottles, with other marshals directing racers passed the first table onto second and third tables. But what happened was that all the racers hit the first table wanting water where marshals were frantically ripping open crates of bottles and still not keeping up with demand.

Come the end of the race, despite the heaviness of the traffic, the heat and the difficulties of warming up before the race, I was only a smidge over two and half minutes off my PB, so it was a respectable time, but the most disappointing thing was that I hadn’t been able to enjoy the run. For most of the route I’d been consumed by the irritation of having to weave in and out of traffic, of being elbowed or kicked at particularly busy times – the three hairpin turns were particularly tricky.

On the plus side, the baggage area was well run and hassle-free – both at the start and the end – and there were plenty of toilet facilities at Waterloo Place. It is a fantastic route too, mostly flat and passing the London Eye, Trafalgar Square and The Houses Of Parliament – in fact, the highlight for me was running over Westminster Bridge just as Big Ben was striking 10 o’clock, it felt like a privilege to be on the course in that one moment.

I wouldn’t run in an event of this magnitude again I don’t think and I certainly won’t run in the British 10k again. If you’re planning on doing so I recommend getting to the start line as early as you possibly can to avoid the crowds.

I’m now aiming at the Royal Parks Half-Marathon in October and I’m hoping that will a be a bit better organised. The field will be half the size and I’m expected there to be a lot fewer poorly-prepared fun-runners who resort to walking the course.

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