Mind Games: Mental Health, Hockey Fandom, And How What You Love Can Nearly Kill You

Note. This post will contain swearing. It will also contain discussion of potential triggering topics like self-harm, suicidal ideation and verbal abuse. If you feel vulnerable to be triggered by any mention of these, feel free to stop reading at any point. In short-if you want sunshine and rainbows, then in this post you’re in the wrong place. 

People follow hockey, like any sport for many reasons. Some love the competition, some love the sense of community, some love to watch athletic feats very few are capable of.

Hockey, for me, is an addiction. I need the sound of an Easton Synergy striking a puck, the shhrip of skates on ice, the sight of a forward going end-to-end before beating a goalie, or the primal yowl of a goal horn like a crack addict needs a fix or a drowning swimmer needs oxygen. It flows through my blood like water. Whenever there’s a game on there’s a good chance I’ll be trying to find a way to either read about it on Twitter or watch it live.

So far, so “obsessed sports fan”. This post isn’t different to many others, is it?

Except for me, it is. One of the reasons I watch hockey so obsessively and it dominates most waking moments is because the thought of missing the next game and the community around it has, at times, been one of the few things keeping me alive during my battle with clinical depression.

People who’ve never suffered it get funny ideas about mental illness. They think that it’s something that people “bring upon themselves” or “choose to be miserable”. They think it’s something that can be joked about-“banter” in the hateful modern sense of the word. They also think that because you can’t see evidence of mental illness the first time you meet a person, or even often any evidence of suffering, that it’s somehow not a “real” thing.

And I envy anyone who can dismiss mental illness like that. Because they’re fucking lucky.

Depression, and indeed any mental illness is a cast-iron fucking bastard of a thing-because unlike most “physical” illnesses it’s not something you can get rid of after a while with the right plaster or a few days bed-rest. It also appears to have no discernible cause. You can’t “catch” mental illness, or take measures to avoid it through healthy lifestyle/exercise or whatever else. It either hits you or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, bad fucking luck.

It’s a thing that sufferers have to fight with every single day just to function like “normal” human beings. In the case of depression-imagine having a vicious demon sink its claws into your back, tear your soul to pieces in front of you and then spend every moment of every day whispering in your ear that the world would be better off without you in it…that you’re a burden on everyone and everything you love, and that every accomplishment and sense of self in your life has no value.

But also imagine that every so often, that demon leaves you for a little while, and so you get a glimpse of how life can be for those “normal” people. You think you’re doing better. Then, back they come again and every single thing you’ve done seems utterly pointless. And imagine that when you go to bed each night, you simply don’t know whether your own mind will leave you in peace for a little while or do its level best to kill you the following day.

Depression lies to you. It plays with your head, view of the world and everything you know about yourself like a dog playing with a chew toy. On its worst days, depression makes the endless black hole of oblivion sound almost welcoming compared to what its putting you through.

On its worst days, like it did with me last year, depression can lead to you standing by a level crossing with the gates down, listening to a train approaching and hearing a seductive, evil whisper in your ear, over and over again.

Go on. Step onto the track. Then all the hurt will go away and I’ll leave you alone. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Just one step onto the track. What’s stopping you?”

In my case, one of the things that stopped me was the thought “if I don’t step onto the track, I’ll still get to go and play hockey tomorrow”.

The struggles of hockey players with mental health have been well documented. Cases like that of Theo Fleury, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and others have gone a long way to publicising player mental health issues among hockey fans. They’ve been dealt with in print by me previously, and also far better by other people elsewhere so I’m not going to touch upon them here.

But here’s a thought…it’s struck me massively in my travels through hockey writing and hockey fandom that while there appears to be slow improvement across the hockey world as far as player mental health goes, the hockey community still seemingly has a lot of people who can’t accept that there are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions among them who are fighting their own daily battles with the black dog.

This brings me on to the second part of the post…hockey fandom. Whilst there are many, many supportive hockey fans out there who have either suffered their own struggles with mental health or know people who have, there are many, many others who seem, still, to think that diseases of the mind are things to joke about, belittle, attack, and ignore. Or who simply don’t realise that being sad about a player’s death and then in the next breath viciously abusing a fellow fan on social media, using terms like “mental” to describe player actions or generally attacking people is doing far more damage to the mental health cause than they realise.

Some of those elements of hockey fandom (some of whom like to set themselves up as “prominent mental health advocates” nearly contributed to me stepping in front of that train. They likely push others to consider doing the same, all over the world. Probably without even realising it.

The worst thing, still, is that whenever people like me try to speak out against the stigmatising and marginalisation peddled by some in the hockey community (notably, for British hockey fans, a team owner disparagingly referring to a rival as “mentally ill” live on a TV broadcast to get a cheap laugh) we’re told WE’RE the ones with the problem, not the attackers.

After all, making jokes about mental health to a whole community is exactly the same as calling someone a cunt on social media, threatening them, firing misogynistic or homophobic insults around amongst your friends about people who have a different opinion to you. It’s just…banter, right? It’s only words. Stop choosing to be offended! Lighten up a bit!

It’s not. Comments like those in the UK of Nottingham Panthers’ Gary Moran, or the regular horrendousness found in comment threads and sites like Barstool Sports in North America, and the dismissal of our concerns over it by the “cool kids” in hockey fandome is something that, for me and many others, makes one of the things I love the most not only something that keeps me alive, but at times something that makes my and many others’ battle with themselves harder. And it’s something that could be avoided so easily by people taking a few seconds before sending that abusive message, Tweet or yelling that homophobic or racist slur at a player who’s annoyed you and thinking “is this REALLY the best way to express myself here? How would I react if the same thing was fired at me?”

At the moment, mainly due to the above, hockey fandom is far from an ideal place for people like me. However, the number of people who are working to change that and make it a supportive, welcoming place is growing. It’s struck me recently how many people out there use hockey, both playing and watching, not just as a leisure activity, but as balm for wounded souls. It’s also struck me how many of them are now refusing to be ashamed by their feelings, and asking for help, or admitting that yes, they are mentally ill but whatever the black dog might say, they are still valuable.

Surely that’s a good thing. Surely a hockey fandom in which people can feel welcome whoever they are and whatever they’re suffering is better than one in which team owners can make jokes about it uncensured, and people can claim to be sad about one person’s depression and its effects because they happen to be a prominent hockey player while trivialising and even exacerbating it for many others.

Today is “Bell Let’s Talk” day in North America. It’s a yearly exercise run by the Bell telecommunications company to raise money for mental health causes. It’s also aimed at spreading the conversation about mental health and removing the stigma attached to it. It’s something prominently supported by North American players in the UK every single year.

Maybe it’s time that hockey in the UK followed the lead of North America, and began to publicly support mental health charities and causes.

Maybe it’s time to make a change.

Because those of us like me, who are hockey fans and also happen to suffer from mental health problems aren’t going away. There are far more of us than you realise, and it’s our sport too. For some of us, it’s part of a life-support system.

We’re here and we want to talk.

The question is, hockey…do you want to listen?

If you do, then the sport will be better for all of us.

So come on. Let’s talk.

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Pressure Cooker: Why This Weekend Is The One The EIHL Starts To Get Serious

It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.

Winston Churchill had a point. With around two months left in the EIHL season, teams are already starting to cast their eyes towards the playoffs and the crucial time March when titles and playoff places can be won or lost. But in doing so, they should be starting with this weekend, because yesterday, today and tomorrow see the real start of the title run-in and also the playoff chase, with crucial games everywhere and storylines aplenty to take a look at for most of the EIHL. So let’s run through them.

BRAEHEAD AND NOTTINGHAM: HEARTS AND MINDS

The Clan have a test unlike some of the other teams in the EIHL this weekend-one to see how they handle their first big setback of their season. The Challenge Cup Quarter Final loss to Coventry on Wednesday after leading the first leg 3-1 was not just mildly unexpected, it was the kind of shock result and performance that can set the butterflies going in title-chasing squads.

The Clan have no time to rest, though…a home tie with Edinburgh tonight is followed by a monumental trip to a surging Nottingham on Sunday…the Panthers are just four points behind the Clan with a game in hand at the top and are coming off a shutout of Belfast in the Odyssey last night. In short, if the Clan allow themselves to be rattled at all by Wednesday’s loss it could have huge consequences in the title race.

The mind games have already begun, with Corey Neilson repeatedly accusing the Clan of having an “easier run in” and the title being “theirs to lose” as the Panthers coach tries to gain any advantage he can. The Panthers win in Belfast would have given them a huge boost already…but closing in to within two points of the top spot with a win on Sunday just might cause the Clan to wobble a little and allow the Panthers to growl a little louder as the Purple Army feel the hot breath of the Black Cats on their neck.

CARDIFF AND SHEFFIELD: THE CHASING PACK LOCK HORNS

Speaking of huge games, Cardiff take on Sheffield at the Big Blue Tent tomorrow. As if one game with a title hopeful facing another wasn’t enough this weekend, there’s three (one of which we already know the result of). Sheffield and Cardiff both face tricky lead-in games tonight as the Devils face Hull away and Sheffield face a Coventry team on a high after an unlikely win in Braehead, but the Steelers have their task made trickier by an injury to starting netminder and key stalwart Frank Doyle…hastily-sourced replacement Josh Unice will have to settle quickly as the Blaze will fancy their chances of giving him a torrid debut. Tomorrow night is the big one, though…with Cardiff and Sheffield locked together on points just behind the top two, any point gained in matches against each other could be HUGELY valuable come the end of the season-the games from here on in just get more important.

COVENTRY: ANOTHER SHOT AT REDEMPTION

The Blaze are on a high at the moment. After a superb come-from-behind CC Quarter Final victory in Braehead on Wednesday, this weekend sees the West Midlanders with (another) chance to turn their season around with two games against a Sheffield facing their own roster issues (as mentioned above) and a home tie against a Dundee side just two points below them. However, there’s absolutely no room for error here-the Stars don’t play tonight and a Blaze loss in either game will be a missed opportunity to gain some ground both on Edinburgh above them and claw their way away from the bottom spot. Indeed, a loss on both nights could see a two-point swing towards the bottom for the Blaze. They need to start taking these chances now as the playoff race heats up.

DUNDEE: SIGNS OF LIFE

The Stars have begun to claw themselves back into relevance recently by pulling off several key wins, but this weekend in Coventry their lone game takes on some major significance, particularly if the Blaze lose tonight. With Coventry being the team immediately above them, and only a two-point gap at the time of writing, a win tomorrow in Coventry will potentially bring the Stars back up into equal-points contact with the rest of the league and finish the job of overhauling the massive gap (10 points at one point) between them at the bottom and the rest of the EIHL above them. It’s a huge away trip for the Stars…and a game Coventry have to win, too.

EDINBURGH, HULL, FIFE: SCRAPPING FOR POINTS

The “other three” teams still to play this weekend are arguably the least interesting storylines…but before any of their fans get annoyed, “least interesting” is a relative term on a weekend where every single team has “must-win” games. The Caps, Flyers and Stingrays are in the unenviable position as far as the league goes of not being in the title race, but just about being able to hold their heads above water into the P the O race. However, they still require the points just as much as anyone else does-and Hull in particular can do themselves a massive favour, since they have four games in hand already and can gain ground on Fife and Sheffield above them.
But they can also have an impact on the title race-Hull face Cardiff, Fife face Belfast and Edinburgh face Braehead. Pull off a result in any of those games and it massively helps any other title chaser.

This weekend has big storylines all over. It’s the start of the “real” run-in.

In short, it’s the kind of weekend that can have massive implications on a season.

Buckle up.

Selling Itself Short: How The EIHL Is Handicapping Itself With Its Own PR (And How Several Teams Are Breaking The Mould)

Marketing. It’s a thorny issue in the EIHL. After all, any mention of improving it tends to be instantly met by cries from some of “well, WE think it’s working fine” and “…but there’s no money for that!”. The job of “selling” British hockey in a country dominated by football and rugby is not an easy one, admittedly-but in its attempt to carve out a niche for itself, EIHL hockey marketing is increasingly developing in a direction which is not only seeming to forget it’s a sport, but also killing any atmosphere around it in the first place.

Let me explain. The very essence of sport’s appeal, the very essence of sports fandom itself, is that it’s basically legalised regional war with rules. It’s one of the few situations in which people of all races, genders and outlooks can unite in a tribe against “the other lot” and feel some sort of group identity in a fashion which isn’t harmful or destructive to those within it. The history of sport as a uniting force and also a way to allow people to feel pride in something is widely documented-look at the effect Liverpool and Everton have had on their city’s people through tough times, or, in EIHL cities, the reaction Hull City’s fans have had to their team’s identity potentially being taken away from it.

Which is all very well-except for the fact that any attempt to get an atmosphere going in many EIHL rinks is instantly annihilated once the game starts, as most rinks in the UK are filled with music and entertainment more akin to a One Direction concert or Saturday morning kids TV than a sporting event. In their drive to attract fans, the EIHL appear to have decided en masse that they’re going to go for a nice, friendly place where families can come, kids can run around enjoying themselves and sing along to the latest hits, and focus on turning the whole fan experience into a night out.

There’s one trouble with this:

It pretty much kills any chance hockey has of being considered a sporting event, and also any serious passion amongst the crowd. British hockey matchnights are being turned into an identikit experience where everyone gets along perfectly fine.

That’s great at a pep rally, a party or anywhere else. But at a sporting event-an environment which thrives on rivalries, people becoming involved in the heat of competition, the life is slowly being sucked out of UK hockey matchnights by the very people who claim that they want the best in atmosphere. By positioning themselves as “family entertainment” rather than a sport, British hockey is becoming sterile and anodyne.

Defenders of the “family friendly” policy will no doubt point to rising crowds as  a result-and yes, we are seeing people attracted to UK hockey. But the same people who say “we want hockey to be family friendly” will complain that there’s no atmosphere, no passion, and that clubs all over the league are increasingly seeing fans as money trees. This is particularly prevalent in places like Coventry, who were one of the few clubs NOT to reduce ticket prices (bafflingly) for the midweek Challenge Cup quarter finals.

Then, of course, we have the actions of certain league representatives. The EIHL this year has seen one of its most prominent members in Dave Simms publicly post misogynistic comments in advertising for a Sheffield PR girl, admit to racially abusing members of the Pakistani community and publicly get involved in trading insults with EIHL players both past and present (Joe Grimaldi, ex of Edinburgh, and Rory Rawlyk, ex of Coventry, are two that come to mind).

Couple that with Sheffield and several other clubs producing PRs littered with spelling mistakes, attacks on their own players in “official” podcasts the day before they’re released by club employees (Sheffield again)  the poor use of social media by several teams that seems to show a lack of interest in actually engaging with fans (some teams don’t even do matchnight updates (or if they do they’re sporadic at best), a preoccupation with snide digs at other teams or leagues (Nottingham Panthers are particularly guilty of this) and the overall lack of personality and lack of imagination from the majority of the league and you wonder what on earth the marketing teams are doing at some clubs-besides getting a free ride, that is.

Before I get accused of tearing the EIHL down, though, let’s look at the other side of things. Believe it or not, there are some EIHL teams that have this marketing thing down pat, and (gasp) they tend to be the teams reaping the rewards, while at the same time bringing the failings of their peers into sharp focus. Let’s take a look at them.

Perhaps the best possible examples of hockey being a uniting force and marketed to everyone, providing a common identity
in the EIHL can be seen in Belfast, Braehead, Fife and Edinburgh-and the fascinating thing is-they’re all doing it in different ways.

In Belfast and Fife, the marketing has always aimed to project a message of unity & pride in their city as selling points. In Belfast, the way that purposely emphasising that they’re a “team for all in Belfast” has caused great success in a Northern Irish sporting landscape traditionally riven by divisions along religious and political lines. In Fife, too, the Flyers are unashamedly part of Kirkcaldy-often to the exclusion of other teams even just across the Forth.

But here’s another key thing…when you go to the Odyssey, the sense of place you get is amazing. From the moment you walk into the foyer, there are images of Giants players, celebrations of success…the tribal feel is created all the way in. The same is noticeable at traditional bear-pit rinks like Fife…from the moment one walks in, the emphasis is on creating an environment that the opposition will find unfriendly and fostering pride in the home team.

While their matchnight differs (Belfast, as an arena team, attempt to market the whole matchnight experience and also have embraced fan media as a way to get their message further out there while Fife is all about the hockey), both teams are incredibly active in the local community (in Belfast, it’s written into their contracts). In Fife, the focus is on the Fighting Flyers…players such as Matt Nickerson are firm fan favourites and are out meeting fans as often as possible. It’s something that isn’t really seen at certain other teams.

Perhaps the best examples of what can be achieved through actual marketing effort in the EIHL are in Braehead and Cardiff, though. The Clan have always been a progressive organisation, and can be justly proud of the work done to establish themselves in a crowded sporting market in Glasgow. This season, though, they’ve moved up a gear, with sellout crowds becoming more regular, setting up their own regular half-hour TV show (which goes far beyond the traditional “two blokes talking about hockey” format to show the personalities behind the team). Oh yes, and they’ve also focused on material specifically aimed at attracting corporate sponsors-a move that seems so obvious but has only really seen Belfast do it to this point. And it’s a superb package that shows the scale of their marketing efforts, with a corporate brochure, attempts to form links to the local business community with a Business Club and the jewel-a corporate video that shows just how successful their efforts are as well as the extent of their marketing efforts:

In Cardiff, meanwhile, Todd Kelman has taken the successful template he used in Belfast and raised it up several notches. The Devils PR strategy is simple…don’t sell a product, sell being part of a community, using regular interaction with fans on social media, and clever touches like customised boards and programme messages welcoming away fans each week. Like this one:

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How clever is that? And more to the point-how simple for all teams to do to make fans feel part of something and that their effort watching their team is appreciated in a league where teams don’t always make that obvious?

I’ve written extensively about the efforts in Cardiff and Braehead and their effects-but now it’s got to the point where they’re frankly showing up the rest of the EIHL.

Other teams are slowly starting to follow suit. Doubtless at this point there will be claims of “budget and resources” but that is, frankly, a crock of an argument that can be disproved easily. Edinburgh are generally accepted as one of the “poorer” teams in the EIHL financially, but this year they, too, have massively stepped up their PR/marketing game in a way that puts the “big” teams to shame, with links with local companies, offers and PR image work to die for-I mean…look at this PR image and tweet from the Capitals of goalie Tomas Hiadlovsky in front of Edinburgh Castle. It’s BEAUTIFUL:

Watching the strides made and the efforts committed to marketing by teams such as Braehead, Cardiff, Belfast and now Edinburgh this year, and the frankly shambolic errors made by others who can’t claim lack of resources, including some of the biggest teams-(Sheffield, Coventry, Nottingham in particular) it’s making me and others wonder “if some teams are doing it so well, the only reason other teams aren’t is clearly because they’re not willing to make the effort”.

And that is a massive shame. In their lack of interest, some of the biggest teams in the EIHL are dragging the image of the league down and negating the incredible work being done by others. There needs to be a realisation across the league that what one team does reflects on all in terms of professionalism, and that the teams who are putting the effort in are the ones reaping the rewards.

If you’re a neutral investor at the moment-where does your money go? It goes to the teams who sell themselves the best-the most professionally run who can convince you that your money will be used well. And in the EIHL, Cardiff, Braehead, Belfast and Edinburgh are doing that by a street.

But their efforts are being hampered by the refusal of other teams to follow them, and it’s holding the EIHL back.

Other teams need to realise this, and quickly. Before they get left behind. Because eventually, their lack of professionalism, apathy (and in Sheffield’s case, outright failure to recognise that having a club representative say the kind of stuff that would get most sports teams employees fired on a regular basis is a bad thing) will destroy not just them, but potentially the rest of the league as well.

Publc image is everything in this world. The EIHL needs to follow the lead of its most progressive clubs and sharpen theirs the heck up, or the sport will never, ever reach its full potential in Britain.

They haven’t realised it yet, but they need to. Quickly.

A Tale Of Four Cities: Triumph, Despair and Anger on a Landmark EIHL Night

(note before we start: I know there were eight cities in the quarter finals – this post doesn’t deal with Nottingham v Fife or Sheffield v Dundee simply because those matchups, in their own way, went as they have always done in the EIHL and were nowhere near as potentially season-defining as the other two. Plus, frankly I’m not sure anyone really wants to focus on an 14-1 aggregate thrashing-that just seems unfair. Away we go).

Last night in the EIHL was something of a milestone.

It was a night when we truly saw just how things had changed this season for several teams. It was a night, as I wrote yesterday, that could define a season. And, arguably, it did. Or at least set the tone for the rest of it in four EIHL cities.

PART ONE: GLASGOW – PURPLE REIGN

““The principle on which to manage an army is to set up one standard of courage which all must reach.”

Sun Tzu: The Art Of War

The Braehead Clan came to Coventry last night in the ideal position. Leading the league by a decent margin, facing an opponent who had struggled all year. They came having won game after game, riding high and with many already expecting them to go through to the next round.

In short, they came in perfect condition to come unstuck. It’s a situation many EIHL teams have faced and done so in the past…and with all the talk beforehand from Coventry of “having to stay strong” and this being “the biggest game of their season” any weakness from the Clan-any hint that they were open to complacency-would have been seized upon like blood in the water.

Enter Braehead Clan captain Matt Keith.

Matt Keith. (c) Braehead Clan

I’ve written before about the Clan and their connection with their fanbase, of which Keith is a big part. As captain, you don’t really see him haranguing linemates, organising them or being overly vocal (at least on the ice). But last night his performance alone was something truly superb. As captain he didn’t so much make sure his team wasn’t complacent through words as drag them along with him with the kind of hard-charging performance that demands everyone else equals it. Turning his body into a 6’2, 210lb battering ram and playing the power-forward role to perfection, he tormented the Blaze defence mercilessly, taking prime position in front of Brian Stewart’s net time and again and smashing through any Blaze resistance with all the subtlety of a freight train going through a Ming vase. Along with the equally large Leigh Salters and Stefan Meyer he led his line like the commander of a Panzer battalion, simply rolling over and through the Blaze and creating gaps for his linemates to exploit. Assists on all three Clan goals earned him a deserved MoM, but it was his assist on Derek Roehl’s that epitomised it…no beautiful passing or fancy play here, just driving away at Brian Stewart’s net and causing absolute mayhem off a rebound to jar the puck free for a Roehl tap-in.

I don’t know whether anyone in Braehead has read “The Art Of War” but on a night that could easily have seen other teams take a night off, the Clan didn’t, at least partly because their captain set an example the rest of the team simply had to follow. The terrifying thing was-you got the sense that Keith and indeed all of Ryan Finnerty’s men could have raised the intensity level another five notches if necessary.

And if their performance in the first “biggest game of the season” means anything, they have a leader who is more than ready for the fight on ice, just as coach Ryan Finnerty is off it. Complacency is not an option any more.

PART TWO – COVENTRY: ANGER AND FRAYING ROPE

It’s all around me
The fear of failing
It’s all around me
And I keep looking down at where I know I could be”

Trapt: “End Of My Rope”

The Blaze have spent all season promising that things will get better, that they know what they’re doing, that improvement is just around the corner. They’ve denied there’s anything wrong as the holes have got more and more obvious, promising that the struggles would die with the abortive Marc Lefebvre era and trumpeted loud promises of “OK not being good enough” and “everything stepping up a level”.

Last night, on the heels of another horrendous home performance that destroyed any momentum they may have built up from last weekend, we finally saw reality hit the team full in the face and cut through the innumerable layers of spin, denial and plain bull faeces thrown up by the off-ice staff in order to try and hide their own failings. We saw real human emotion.

Unfortunately for Blaze fans (aside from Ryan O’Marra working like a Trojan and looking like a racehorse pulling a whole herd of uninterested donkeys) we didn’t see it on the ice. We did, however, see Russ Cowley break every taboo and censorship the Blaze owners have imposed on their PR by standing up in front of a pub full of fans, going off-message and, verbatim, giving a post-match interview that went simply.

Ryan O’Marra shoots against Braehead. He’s been one of the few bright spots this season (Scott Wiggins)

Sorry, guys. That wasn’t good enough. We let you down”

The round of applause that greeted this was the most noise Blaze fans had made all night.

It seems that finally, the predicament the Blaze are in has driven some players to the end of their rope, far beyond mouthing the party-line platitudes about “OK not being good enough”. With sponsors now privately expressing severe dissatisfaction with the ownership, this is a dangerous time for the Blaze-and it needs to be met.
Last night was the first time in recorded memory that anyone in the Blaze organisation has stood up and publicly admitted that there are problems that have been obvious and growing for years.

The response from Blaze fans of applause shows that they, too, finally appreciate being treated as human beings rather than the uncomplaining cattle the ownership would seemingly prefer.

Coach Chuck Weber, too, has torn into his team after last night, saying that “individually, our players aren’t good enough for this league.” That’s a SEISMIC admission for a coach to make in early January with hardly any time to change the roster. It’s also a big enough departure from previous Blaze PR messages to be not even on the same planet. Rather than a united organisation all peddling the same message, the on-ice staff have effectively turned round and rubbished every single thing the organisation off-ice have been saying. They know they’re on the edge of an abyss and the rope is fraying even as the off-ice staff desperately try to claim it isn’t.

Finally, it appears, the coach and players are tired of even pretending things are OK any more.

Whether or not the public bloodletting and apologies will have any effect on the team as a whole are questionable…after all, by now the Blaze fanbase has been bludgeoned into submission by relentless anodyne promises that were never met. If George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth had been a hockey team, it would have been Coventry.

But in the wreckage there are signs of positivity-in Ryan O’Marra’s refusal to simply join the apathy of some of his peers-in Chuck Weber’s straight talking. In O’Marra’s skill and refusal to lie down. In Steven Goertzen’s effort. In Russ Cowley’s sheer bravery in doing something that you’d have thought Coventry had forgotten how to do…be honest and open.

The team have now been pushed beyond breaking point. Last night could well be an epiphany of sorts.

Or, it could just be another false start. But at least now, the team and fans are actually on the same page for the first time all season.

It’s a shame it took such an abject loss to bring it to this point.

CARDIFF – ROAR OF DRAGONS

These are the faces that dance in your all night dreams

These are the faces that spur you as a team

These are the moments that raised you from the dead

This is the feeling when your heaven is full of bread”

Paul Henry for the BBC: “Red Army

Hell is empty. The Devils are all here”

Ariel, Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

If anyone needed a refresher on just how much this particular Devils team have become part of South Wales and South Wales has become part of it, they should have been in the Big Blue Tent last night. By all accounts the roar of the Red Army was a living thing, inspiring their troops on the ice to a 4-2 victory over Belfast that not only sent them through to the semis of the Challenge Cup, but laid down another marker in their title race.

This was the Devils facing a bitter rival and being plunged into adversity (the Giants went 2-0 up in the first period to lead the tie and undo all the hard work Andrew Lord’s team had done in Belfast the week before)…and then coming back punching to make sure that, unlike Devils teams in the past, they would not suffer another hard-luck story.

This was the Devils beating a bitter rival despite giving them a two-goal headstart and once again proving that they had steel wills to go with the snarly style of play and the brio brought to the setup by Todd Kelman and his ownership group that the South Wales crowd have embraced with a fervour bordering on the religious.

But in the final 20 minutes, it was something else. With many hailing it as “the best atmosphere they’d ever seen at a Devils game” (some claim indeed given the cauldron that was the old Wales National Ice Rink), the Red Army and their team went up another levl in their relationship.

The words at the beginning of this section were written for the Welsh rugby team, but they could easily apply to the “new” Cardiff Devils-and more specifically, how the Red Army relate to this team. I’ve written extensively about how important the Red Army are to their team and also the great work being done by Todd Kelman and all at the Devils, but last night was something that arguably stepped things up another level…you only have to read the quotes from Andrew Lord post-game to see that:

“The rink was so loud, we could hear the fans before we even hit the ice,”

“The entire first period was ridiculous and the final 10 minutes was insane.  We could hardly hear each other on the bench.

“I can’t tell you how much of a difference this makes to the guys.  In my two years in Cardiff, I haven’t seen anything like this and talking to everyone associated with this club, it hasn’t felt like this in years.”

“It hasn’t felt like this in years

Andrew Lord and his Cardiff team have a special connection with the Red Army this season (Helen Brabon)

Those are the kind of words of which championship challenges are made. Let’s not forget the Red Army are famously known for their passion, but it seems that last night they did something even they can’t remember doing in a long while despite the Devils’ consistency in the EIHL era…they carried their team home to victory (over a motivated title rival no less) by sheer volume.

That is a terrifying prospect for opposition teams to face for the rest of the season. For the Devils, though, it’s something that could make all the difference. If it doss, maybe last night will be looked back upon as the win that really joined team and fans as one in Cardiff this season.

BELFAST – FALLEN GIANTS

“You never get cheered for telling people the situation is not as simple as they think.”

Ken Follett: “Fall Of Giants”

Belfast are a team that, seemingly, isn’t quite sure of its identity any more. Despite having the vast majority of last year’s roster return and several high-profile additions (including Kevin Westgarth) join the team, they’re struggling to reach the heights that same unit did last season. Giants fans are already beginning to put gentle pressure on Steve Thornton and also several players-notably Westgarth, who hasn’t performed anywhere near the level an NHLer with his size and skill might be expected to. Last night was another arrow in the side of this Giants team-a team that on its best nights can still look irresistible as the one that won the EIHL league title by 20 clear points last season and got to the playoff final.

Kevin Westgarth has had an impact on the Giants, but not enough in the eyes of some Giants fans (BBC)

For many the situation is simple-for whatever reason the players in Belfast just aren’t working hard enough or performing to their full ability. Last night, though, they went 2-0 up against Cardiff and it all seemed to be rosy for a little while.

Last years Giants, given such a situation with a boot on the neck of their opponent, would have ground it down and choked the Devils out of the game with the ruthlessness that became their trademark under Paul Adey. But this time round, the lack of them doing the same thing showed just how important a change of coach can be in a negative as well as a positive fashion…the faces are the same, but with a new one at the helm, they just don’t look terrifying any more.

Of course, it’s not as simple as “new coach has ruined the Giants” – other teams have got better, the Giants have got a year older, maybe the hockey gods have decided to turn their eyes away from the banks of the Lagan and toward the banks of the Bay or the Clyde…but there is definitely a problem in Belfast. One that was thrown into sharp relief by coming up against their former GM…while the Devils have reached the Giants level of off-ice effort and gone up another gear, the Giants have stagnated. And now, they’re not just being caught-they’re being overtaken.

If last night had an over-riding theme, it was of the new trumping the old. New approaches, new optimism, new powerhouse teams trying new approaches and moving with the times showing former powerhouses who have opted to rest on their laurels just how dangerous that can be.

Last night was, in microcosm, a demonstration of a trend that this season has thrown into sharp relief as beginning to become self-evident in the EIHL. Running a successful team is a race-if you stop constantly moving forward, you get overtaken by those that do and left behind. Last night, that was plainer than ever for all to see in four EIHL cities.

Call To Arms: Why Tonight Is The Most Important Game Of Four Teams’ EIHL Season

“This is a call to arms
Gather soldiers
Time to go to war

This is a battle song
Brothers and sisters
Time to go to war”

30 Seconds To Mars: “Vox Populi”

Tonight is a big night in Coventry. And Cardiff, too.

In Coventry, two teams at completely opposite ends of the table meet in a Challenge Cup quarter final that could, potentially, have big ramifications for the rest of their seasons.

Meanwhile, in Cardiff two title challengers clash, one on the rise, one on the fall-in a game that will either give one team a HUGE “we can do this” confidence boost or allow another to potentially stop a slump that could derail their title challenge.

Let’s look in Coventry first.

The Coventry Blaze, still looking for that jumpstart for their season under new coach Chuck Weber, face the top-of-the-table Braehead Clan at the Skydome in their Challenge Cup quarter final first leg, in a game that could be crucial for the rest of the Blaze’s season.

After barely scraping into the quarters thanks to the benevolence of the Cardiff Devils in beating Hull, Chuck Weber’s men find themselves still with a chance at two pieces of silverware.

They also find themselves still outside a playoff spot, only four points off the bottom of the table (where Dundee are slowly showing signs of improvement which could allow them to pick up points in the second half of the season) and with a record of 4-13 under Weber.

Not where they want to be, in other words.

With the team now slowly returning to full fitness (although star centre Ryan O’Marra is a game-time decision) and a loss to Sheffield on Sunday that sapped any momentum gained from a hard-fought and duck-breaking win in Cardiff on Saturday night, this Blaze team now have to start proving their mettle under their new coach. A win against Braehead would be another big sign that slowly but surely Chuck Weber is turning things around for the better at the Skydome, not so much for the fanbase as for a dis-spirited team themselves. A loss puts them in an incredibly tough position for the long trip back up to Glasgow, and could choke off another chance of silverware unhappily early.

A lot will depend on whether O’Marra is fit. The big Canadian centre has had his critics among the Blaze fanbase this year but his absence through injury on Sunday removed one of the few driving forces offensively on the Blaze squad…at times O’Marra has looked to be carrying the team on his broad shoulders and along with Brian Stewart the weight has visibly worn him down in some games. He’s Coventry’s top scorer, their offensive leader and, essentially, everything good the Blaze have done for most of the season has gone through him and Steve Goertzen. His importance can’t be overstated.

Particularly against Braehead. In Scott Pitt the Clan have the leading goalscorer in the EIHL, while in Neil Trimm they have the top points scorer. They have offence to burn (3 20-goal scorers already) and calm composed defence. But, this is where the business end of the season starts. Lose to Coventry in the CC quarters and there could just be a few collywobbles start to creep in again-the weakness that assailed the Clan at times last season. Sitting with a six-point lead at the top of the table is all very well, and well-earned by the team…but any loss will ratchet up the pressure just a little…pressure the Clan don’t need right now with the four teams below them chasing hard.

Ryan Finnerty is not a man to do things in moderation-he’ll demand that his Clan players treat every game from now on like a war. For them, a win tonight will be very useful in potentially starting momentum that could see them roll to the title. A loss…well, a loss to a team they’re probably expected to beat just hints to other clubs that they might be starting to feel a little pressure as the games start to get more important. It puts a little blood in the water…and there are at least four sharks circling below Braehead waiting to seize on any weakness.

Two of those sharks clash tonight, all teeth and fury, in Cardiff. But both have slightly different agendas. The Devils have seen their winning run of nine in a row stop last weekend with losses to Coventry and an OT loss in Nottingham. While there is definitely no need to panic in any way, those losses may have brought up the criticisms thrown at the Devils earlier in the season-that they wouldn’t be able to beat their title rivals often enough to ensure finishing above them.

Tonight, though, the Red Army can get straight back on the horse and tear a vital chunk out of one of their closest challengers…the Devils face Belfast having taken a fine one-goal lead away from the Odyssey in the first leg. Now they have the chance to slay the wounded Giants and in the process go a little further to proving they are sustained and serious title challengers. Of course, the morale boost of getting to the Challenge Cup semis the hard way and facing either Braehead or Coventry (both rivals in different ways) might also have a boost on their league campaign, as well as stop a slide before it starts.

Speaking of stopping slides, the Belfast Giants desperately need to stop one of their own. The Giants are on a three game losing streak, throwing away vital points to Hull and Dundee (both teams they were expected to beat fairly comfortably) last weekend, as well as the aforementioned home loss to Cardiff. They’re a team that under Steve Thornton simply don’t look the same polished outfit they were under Paul Adey despite having many of the same players. This quarter-final and winning a very tough away game in Cardiff is their chance to emphatically stop the slide before it gets any worse and get back into the title race, as well as potentially regain the psychological advantage against a Devils squad they’re locked in a tight league battle with (the two are currently level on points)

With all the above going on and Sheffield taking on Dundee, too, it’s a MASSIVE EIHL night tonight, with stories everywhere to follow.

Time to go to war.

Bottom Of The Barrel: Have Blaze Reached A Turning Point?

Things get worse, before they get better. We find excuses to avert our eyes”

VNV Nation: “Testament”

You fioat right down, to the bottom of the barrel.  But then you get back on up”

This last weekend could be a significant event for the Coventry Blaze season. After a long, long wait Chuck Weber finally got his first win against an Erhardt Conference team after beating Nottingham on penalty shots in a protracted war of attrition at the Skydome. The same weekend saw Cardiff do the Blaze a favour by beating Hull, thus confirming the Blaze would in fact qualify for the Challenge Cup QF’s against the Braehead Clan

Much has been made of the “improvement” of the Blaze since Marc Lefebvre has left, so I decided to take a quick look at the statistics thus far in a range of areas to see just how the team have done since Lefebvre was fired on November 19th. Here’s a statistical breakdown

LEAGUE POSITION

When Lefebvre was fired – 6th. Now: 9th

Not the best of starts, is it?

COMPARATIVE RECORD

Blaze record under Lefebvre: 9-15 (37% won) – Blaze record since Nov 19th – 3-12 (25% won)

Ah. Erm…OK. Blaze need to win 6 of the next 9 just in order to equal Lefebvre’s record over 24 games. That’s…not exactly an encouraging start. But apparently the tedm have been playing noticeably better, improving, working harder according to all watching, so let’s dive a little deeper, shall we?

GOAL DIFFERENCE:

Blaze goal diff under Lefebvre: -17 (24 games) – -0.6/game – Blaze goal difference since – -14 (15 games), -0.9/game

 Oh. So they’ve got worse defensively, too, it would appear. This is…well, not looking brilliant so far. What about those much-maligned offensive problems?

GOALS SCORED PER GAME

Under Lefebvre : 58 in 24 (2.41 GPG) – Goertzen/Weber : 60 in 15 (4 GPG)

That’s some jump. The Blaze, despite injury problems, have nearly doubled their offensive output since Lefebvre has left, despite missing many of their top forwards. That’s some effort. And a rare sign of positivity.

GOALS CONCEDED PER GAME

Under Lefebvre: 70 in 24 (2.41 GPG) – Under Goertzen/Weber: 51 in 15 (3.4 GPG)

Oh. This would back up the whole “getting defensively worse” hypothesis. Which is interesting, since according to the vast majority of fans the Blaze have been BETTER defensively recently with a new system.

But wait. There’s a possibility here…if the Blaze are conceding more but better defensively, it must be the goalie’s fault, right? Maybe Brian Stewart’s struggling a little more recently. Let’s compare shots:

SA under Lefebvre: 885/24 games = 37 shots against – Under Goertzen/Weber – 540/15 = 36 shots again.

 So, Blaze are now conceding one shot less a game…but still giving up 36 shots, and now conceding a goal more a game. That implies that perhaps Brian Stewart did indeed have a stellar start to the season and possibly inflated Lefebvre’s numbers massively, since they’re giving up one shot less a game but conceding one goal more.

Basically-in every category bar one, the Blaze have got worse since firing Marc Lefebvre. This doesn’t exactly make for optimistic reading right now.

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

However, all is not yet lost for Coventry. In fact, this stuff is good news. Because after a coach is fired you EXPECT teams to struggle initially. Coaches having to adjust to a new league, players having to adjust to a new system, and simple time for measures to take effect.

Yes, the Weber era has really not started as many would hope. If it wasn’t clear to people before the coaching switch that firing Lefebvre would only be the start of a long and arduous process, the above proof that despite fan expectations and perceptions of the team “playing better and working harder” the Blaze have actually got either worse or stayed the same in every category except one suggests that Chuck Weber’s efforts haven’t even begun to have a noticeable effect where it counts most-on the ice and in results.

But this brings us to this weekend.

While statistically one game doesn’t make a monumental difference, it’s arguably an indication that, just possibly, things are starting to turn around in Coventry. All the stats prove above is that everything is progressing as it should-the “teams improving massively and instantly under a new coach midseason” idea is in fact a myth. It’s a fine example of the placebo effect as seen in medicine, in which because you’re being TOLD that this measure (whether it be a pill or a new coach) is going to do your team good, so you want to believe that it does in fact do a huge amount of good. While statistically the Blaze have got worse under Weber, let’s look at what he HAS achieved.

The fact that Weber has been able to hold the season anywhere near on the rails recently with this team, given the injury problems, should give Blaze fans cause for hope. Yes, there is deterioration in the statistics, but they’re nowhere near as marked as one would expect under Lefebvre given the opposition and Blaze’s injury problems. To improve the Blaze’s main problem area (scoring) so markedly despite missing most of his top six is some achievement…to have his defence conceding less shots despite missing half of them through injury (including his best defensive defenceman) is nothing short of miraculous. Couple that with the fact that Lefebvre’s defensive statistics and goals against were propped up by a goalie playing absolutely out of his mind and that Weber’s also having to deal with the inevitable statistical regression inherent in that, and to keep the drop in statistics as small as it has been is nothing short of a triumph.

This Sunday may well have been the first real sign that Weber’s measures are starting to take things in a better direction. Beating Nottingham is tricky on any night. This is the first time the Blaze had beaten them with a starting goalie in net. It was a game that saw them come from behind, only concede one goal to Nottingham (previously, they’d conceded an average of three goals a game against the Panthers attack) play in a disciplined fashion and, for one of the first times this season, give up less PPs than they had.

In short, it was arguably the first sign this season that they’re starting to do things right that they previously didn’t under Lefebvre. Comparatively, it was a MASSIVE leap forward.

They say that things often have to get worse before they get better. Maybe, the Blaze have now fallen as far as they’re going to, and Sunday is the first concrete sign of recovery. Certainly, there is hope that this weekend could be the turning point that Blaze fans have been praying for.

Halfway House: The EIHL At Midseason

It’s New Year’s Day, and the EIHL is halfway through its season. So, it’s time to run down the EIHL table and take a look at how the season has gone for every team as we move from the old year to the new, and see which teams hope for nothing to change and which hope a new year brings new hope:

1. SHEFFIELD STEELERS

And I know that we’ve still got time
But I do not think we’re invincible”

Enter Shikari: “Juggernauts”

The Steelers have so far answered every question posed of them at the beginning of the season. Would the new players perform? Could they hold out under the pressure?

They have done in spades so far. The Mike Forney/Colton Fretter/Mathieu Roy line has lit up the EIHL, Frank Doyle has been solid in net and every curveball thrown at Sheffield (like the 7-2 loss to Nottingham) has seen them respond well and avoid any potential derailing factors.
However, a Christmas period that wasn’t ideal (two losses to big rivals Nottingham) mean that they enter 2015 looking to bounce back quickly against Belfast. They’ve had a truly superb first half of the year…the only question for the Steelers now is not “can they perform” but “can they keep perfoming this well?” They’ll have to, because this season in a five-way title race any weakness has four other teams waiting to seize upon it. It can’t be denied that they’re in the best position right now, though. 2015 looks very bright in South Yorkshire.

2. BRAEHEAD CLAN

I’m ready for war. I’m ready for action, now watch me kick in the door

Nico & Vinz: “When The Day Comes”

The Clan, like Sheffield, have had an ideal first half of the season. They’ve been very strong indeed at home, and have only lost four times in their own Conference. More importantly, they’ve been picking up points against the Erhardt-and sit only one point behind Sheffield. Come the second half of the season, it’s wins against their title rivals that will be key-it’s so tight at the top that they simply can’t afford to let themselves have a single night off-nor can they allow suspensions to creep in. Like the Steelers, it’s how this team deal with any adversity that may come that will ultimately decide where in the top five they finish.

3. CARDIFF DEVILS

I’m gonna change you like a remix
Then I’ll raise you like a phoenix”

Fall Out Boy: “The Phoenix”

The Devils are the most dangerous team in the EIHL right now. Riding a wave of justified optimism, run by arguably the best ownership group in the league and with a unity between team and players not often seen in the EIHL, they’re climbing like homesick angels. From top to bottom the roster is filled with contributors, Andrew Lord has his team united, working together as one, going through walls for each other and in Joey Martin they have one of the most exciting players in the EIHL…some achievement in a team that’s truly glorious to watch right now whoever’s on the ice.

They’ve answered every single question in spades, they have the belief and fire of a twenty-hearted Welsh dragon, and oh yes…they’re on a 6 game win-streak and have nine wins in their last ten.

The Devils are well and truly back, and one point off the top of the table. They are a team to fear in 2015.

4. NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS

“I‘m selfish as selfish comes
You’re giving me a run for my money
Honey”

Cute Is What We Aim For: “Tease to Please (Left Side, Strong Side)”I

The Panthers are a tough team to work out. When they’re good, they’re very good. When they’re not…they’re often not. They’re a team with some serious quality…Chris Lawrence is a heck of a signing, and any other team would probably kill for several of their players, particularly the Brit pack. But are they consistent enough? They’ve struggled against the Gardiner teams this season in particular despite Corey Neilson’s much publicised views about them. For the new year, the Panthers have to go on a run to make up the four point gap against three very good teams ahead of them…otherwise it could be another year where slight incornsistency means Cup competitions provide the best chance of silverware.

5. BELFAST GIANTS

Great expectations…we had the greatest expectations”

The Gaslight Anthem: “Great Expectations” 

Belfast have the same title-winning team as last year, but they’re one of the signal examples of what effect a coach can have on his squad. Despite undoubted quality the Giants haven’t looked quite the juggernaut they were last year, with inconsistent performances at home raising fears among Giants fans that perhaps the rest of the EIHL had caught up with them.

The Giants squad have the tools-but for whatever reason they’ve been blunted this season at times. Despite this Belfast are still well in the fight, but like Nottingham they need to go on a run quickly and can’t afford to concede any more ground to the teams above them.

6. FIFE FLYERS

“I know I’m not perfect
But baby maybe I’m the best of the worst”

Charm City Devils: “Best Of The Worst”

The Flyers sit at the top of the bottom-that is to say they’re currently leading the bottom five of a league currently split into two clear groups (the gap separating the top five EIHL teams is only five points, but there’s a 7-point gap between the Flyers and Belfast above them). They have flaws…they will occasionally struggle v the top five and barring a run to dwarf that into the playoffs last season they won’t challenge at the top of the table…but the Flyers can beat anyone at home, and more than a few teams away this season-they’ve already proved that. Expect them to have a good second half.

7. EDINBURGH CAPITALS

We don’t do it now we’ll never make it
Lose this crowd
Oh break me out”

The Rescues: “Break Me Out”

The Caps have had a first half of…well, two halves. The nightmarish start to the season which led to Richard Hartmann publicly reading his team the riot act has been followed by a run similar to that of Fife last season to see the Caps climb out of the basement. They’re a team slowly growing on and off the ice and their off-ice activities in particular have improved massively this season. In 2015, though, they need to keep the momentum going…now they’ve taken the first steps and have momentum of sorts, with crowds growing slowly, it would be the ideal chance to bring hockey in Edinburgh back to prominence.

8. HULL STINGRAYS

besides did you ever stop to think
that we could keep this up living like thieves”

Taking Back Sunday: “Number Five With A Bullet”

The Stingrays have been better than anyone had a right to expect. With Omar Pacha as a first-year coach and a team made up of young imports with CVs nowhere near as gaudy as others in the EIHL, Stingrays fans could’ve been forgiven for expecting a long, tough year.

Instead, they’ve ridden the superb offensive play of Corey Tanaka, Jordan Mayer and Zach Hervato for some impressive victories. Cory Tanaka in particular has been a revelation, outperforming his brother by a massive margin. Defensively, as well, there’s quiet strength in performances from the likes of Yan Turcotte. Again, they’re a team that will probably be hoping for success in a cup competition or possibly the playoffs-which makes their early January Challenge Cup game against Cardiff (which they need to win to qualify) an absolutely huge one.. But the Stingrays could keep this up and against the odds have a season to remember.

9. COVENTRY BLAZE

Call it a safe bet, I’m betting it’s not
I’m glad that you can forgive, only hoping as time goes, you can forget”

Brand New: “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot”

The Blaze are in trouble. For all the rhetoric of “OK is not good enough”, this has been a season of one poor decision after another, from the hiring of Marc Lefebvre to the team recruitment to interactions with fans to star players publicly deciding to leave. This has been the worst season of the EIHL era for the Blaze so far and probably the worst in Coventry-they currently sit in their lowest-ever position in the table, and questions about the ownership haven’t been allayed in the slightest by the (very good) hiring of Chuck Weber in an attempt to sort out the horrendous tire-fire in Coventry this season.

The New Year has to bring change of truly epic proportions. About the only defence the Blaze can have is that they have had players injured and so Weber hasn’t yet had any chance to work with a full team. His credentials are superb. However, he’s currently trying to drag the team back up and keep their heads above water with an anchor tied to his leg, and only the Blaze ownership can cut the chain. Either that or Weber will need to drag a superhuman effort from his players.

Otherwise it could be a painful New Year in the West Midlands.

DUNDEE STARS

The only way is up, baby, for you and me now”

Yazz: “The Only Way Is Up”

Oh, Dundee. Currently the only team keeping the soap-opera in Coventry off the bottom, by being even worse. The effort is there, but Jeff Hutchins has struggled to get any consistency from his squad, Marc Cheverie has not had a good time in net and the loss of top scorer John Mitchell was a bodyblow.

The Stars need to return to this time last season, when they sat high in the EIHL and the northeasternmost EIHL town was full of optimism.

One thing’s for certain in Dundee-the second half of the season can’t be any worse than the first in the Jute City.

That’s your half-term report. With a five-team title race and stories galore, it’s going to be an interesting 2nd half for sure…