SUMMER IN AUTUMN’S CLOTHING

Are policemen getting younger or are you getting older? Is the English football season kicking-off earlier every year or…no, balls to that! It is kicking-off too bloody early this time round – far too bloody early. Granted, we have another seven days before the pampered Prima Donnas of the Premier League are chauffeur driven through the gold-plated gates of their millionaire mansions and deign to breathe the same air as the common people for ninety minutes again; but that will still only be August 11. This weekend, English football’s pimp – otherwise known as television – again fires the starting pistol for a marathon that will take us all the way to next summer’s World Cup in Russia; the three Football League divisions have a week’s start on the Premier League, and their campaign opens this evening.

Domestic football is not, and never should be, a summer sport. The bi-annual international tournaments are different, and the fact we have the granddaddy of them all at the end of the 2017/18 season is perhaps why this season gets underway just four days into August. The traditional curtain-raiser to the top division’s very own marathon, the match between last season’s champions and FA Cup winners that most of us prefer to refer to by its old name of the Charity Shield, takes place on Sunday (not Saturday, heaven forbid!); and the Premier League kicks-off proper next…er…Friday.

Although there’s always an overlap between the cricket season and the football season at either end, it never feels quite right when they’re being played simultaneously; it’s an uneasy, jarring combination – a bit like listening to Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ during a heat-wave in July or anything by The Beach Boys in December. When the football season is galloping towards a (hopefully) exciting climax – with promotion and relegation places still up for grabs and everything in the balance – the second half of the season has been building up to such a frenetic pace that there’s no time to catch one’s breath. It then appears anachronistic that in the thick of this high-speed race to football’s finishing post, the first day of plodding play at Headingley is taking place, greeted by a smattering of old geezers armed with packed lunches and brollies.

The chasm between the two sports is partly the nature of the climate in which they are supposed to be played. True, rain regularly stops play in cricket during those chilly early weeks of the county game and the opening day of every football season is usually bathed in blazing sunshine; but the erratic temperament of the English summer aside, that unpredictable bridge between spring and autumn can occasionally produce the kind of weather entirely conducive to leather-on-willow, not to mention the sedate commentary of ‘Test Match Special’ rather than the hysterical castrato that goalmouth action can inspire on ‘Match of the Day’.

Both sports are so associated with the time of year in which they’ve traditionally taken place that whenever the football season impinges upon cricket’s turf, it almost makes football appear to be a narcissistic, scene-stealing actor, unwilling to allow any other member of the cast to grab the audience’s attention while he has no lines. When the England cricket team are busy playing a home Test series against South Africa, football should just let them get on with it and be gracious enough to grant them their brief moment under the spotlight before being edged off-stage by the plunge back into 24/7 fanatical coverage spanning eight or nine whole months that football regards as an entitlement. Few pay attention when the cricket season creeps into view, right at the moment when the football season is reaching its dramatic climax; yet football thinks nothing of gate-crashing cricket’s place in the sun.

If I want to evoke the sound of a childhood summer, I only have to hear the voices of John Arlott, Jim Laker or Richie Benaud and I’m there; if I want to evoke the sound of a childhood autumn or winter, I hear the voices of John Motson, Barry Davies or Brian Moore. These individual voices are as associated with a specific time of year as an Easter egg or a harvest festival. Each has its proper place and its seasonal relevance, but perhaps the way in which lines drawn in the sand that always divided the respective seasons have been blurred in recent years – particularly where the retail sector is concerned – has been compounded by the increasing extension of the overlap between cricket and football every August.

Come September, October and (especially) November, I will be as hooked as everyone else with a semblance of interest in the football season; the nights drawing in, the clocks going back and the fire being switched-on are rituals that perfectly complement the football season at its grimy, gritty best, when men are separated from the boys on muddy quagmires and teams scrap for scalps as the money-spinning prospect of the Third Round of the FA Cup hovers into view. There’s a kind of masochistic pleasure in anticipating the worst of the winter, knowing it will pass and that spring is waiting at the finishing line. If a team can survive January and February unscathed, the prize is all the sweeter come March and April.

Yes, when the Ashes are staged in Australia, they take place in the incongruous environs of a Southern Hemisphere winter; but that’s the other side of the world, and it’s permissible as a result. One couldn’t imagine county cricket being played on English pitches in November, so why should we have to invite the football season into our homes at the beginning of August, when we’re neither prepared nor bothered? It’s arrived at the party ahead of everyone else and hasn’t even brought a bottle with it, despite being able to afford an entire wine cellar. That’s just not cricket.

© The Editor

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THE YEAR OF INDECISION

Well, exactly one year ago today we were all about to wake up to the news that a majority of the Great British Public had voted to leave the European Union. At the time, this blog showcased a variety of views pre-vote, and I welcomed them all into what I hoped would be perceived as a healthy forum for the great debate of our times. Twelve months on, the subject remains on the tip of that same public’s tongue, though the phrase ‘Brexit’ has become so ubiquitous that I have to admit I’m pretty sick of it. The General Election of just over a fortnight ago was called in order that Theresa May could strengthen her position when it came to orchestrating the actual physical withdrawal from the EU, and the inconclusive result of that campaign speaks volumes as to how divisive the issue has remained ever since June 23/24 last year.

For all Nigel Farage’s understandable euphoria when he saw his life’s work finally succeed, Britain’s ‘Independence Day’ didn’t necessarily mean everything changed in the space of 24 hours. We’ve had a year to get used to the result, though it’s only been in the past week that a Minister from the UK Parliament has actually sat down with the Brussels mandarins and begun negotiations; we’ve still got two years of this to look forward to. The result was more or less as close as the result of the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 and the reaction of many whose vote wasn’t on the winning side has been similarly ill-tempered and emitting a distinctly malodorous odour of sour grapes.

A rash of hissy-fit protests in the wake of the vote and then the emergence of figures such as Gina Miller have served to intensify divisions that even led to a tediously-vocal audience member being ejected from the ‘Question Time’ audience last Thursday. If the EU Referendum exposed divisions in the UK that had been fermenting for decades, the General Election has simply reinforced them.

The glaring divide between young and old on this issue has been simplified in characteristic tabloid fashion both in the actual tabloids and on television, though the divisions distinguishing the metropolitan mafia of Westminster bigwigs and media commentators from those residing outside of the self-contained M25 bubble are more prescient. A lazy assumption that to vote Leave was somehow the exclusive province of Britain First-supporting white working-class bigots or racist pensioners is typical of numerous distortions propagated over the past year; in reality, many British-born Asians voted Leave, some doing so because they believed Britain’s traditional loyalties lie with the Commonwealth rather than Eastern Europe.

A year on, many who didn’t pick the winning horse (not all of whom belonged to any ‘elite’) have accepted the result with good grace and are grown-up enough to acknowledge that a democratic vote doesn’t always side with the way you yourself voted; some, however, cling to the slim hope that the will of the people can somehow be overturned and what they regard as common sense will prevail in the end. These dissenting voices stretch from Europhile Tory grandees like Clarke and Heseltine to the aforementioned Miller and the conscience-stricken Christian Lib Dem ex-leader Tim Farron. Their determination that a so-called ‘Soft Brexit’ will preserve membership of the Single Market and Customs Union, therefore enabling free movement of labour to continue, flies in the face of the immigration issue that was so pivotal to the Leave vote in the first place; but as much as their argument effectively negates the actual result, any ‘Hard Brexit’ strategy has been trashed by the failure of Theresa May to achieve a majority in the Commons.

The problem with Brexit as far as most people are concerned is that they still don’t know what it fully entails; the simplistic Remain/Leave option on the ballot paper a year ago has become so ambiguous and open to so many interpretations in the last twelve months that it has allowed both sides to fill in the blank spaces with their own notions of what it should mean. It’ll take another couple of years before the full ramifications of the decision that claimed the head of a serving Prime Minister (and May well claim the head of another) are fully understood, and by then who knows what this country will resemble? As a means of healing divisions, Brexit remains an unconvincing Superglue.


GENTLEMEN PREFER RUNS

There’s something about cricket that lends itself to a certain kind of voice. John Arlott, Johnners, Jim Laker, Fred Trueman, Richie Benaud, and Henry Blofeld – none of these great gentlemen could have commentated on football or rugby league, for example. The fast-paced nature of both those sports was suited to immortal voices belonging to the likes of Brian Moore or Eddie Waring – the former able to capture goalmouth action with such a memorable level of fevered excitement that it ensured Jim Montgomery’s miraculous save from Peter Lorimer in the ’73 Cup Final would be incomplete without him; and the latter perfectly complementing what was once a gritty, grubby sport played on cold, muddy pitches with a bullish northern delivery that was never better expressed than when Wakefield Trinity’s Don Fox missed a penalty kick in the dying seconds of the ’68 Challenge Cup Final that handed the cup to Leeds – ‘eeh, the poor lad’.

Cricket, with its often soporific interludes and evocation of quintessential English summer serenity, requires a different kind of commentary, and with all of its past poets now gone, ‘Blowers’ was one of the last of the old school still elucidating at will on long-wave. Alas, no more. Blofeld has announced his retirement from ‘Test Match Special’ with the end of the current cricket season in September. His diction is pure pre-war and why not? Estuary English has no place in cricket and it remains one of the lingering bastions of unfashionable pronunciation that is allowed because it implies a certain eccentricity in the context of a sport that, certainly at county and Test Match level, refuses to adhere to the hyper pace of modern life. And even if you don’t like cricket, it’s hard to deny such a rare precious anachronism in the twenty-first century must be embraced.

Blofeld, whose father was at school with Ian Fleming and therefore no doubt provided the surname for James Bond’s nemesis, has been a fixture of radio’s most mellifluous sports broadcast since 1974 and it’s as hard to imagine TMS without him as it once was to imagine it without his illustrious predecessors and one-time fellow commentators. It turns out he’s ‘only’ 77; I imagined him to be closer to 100, but maybe that’s merely due to the voice, which betrays an admirable immunity to healthy living as recommended by government guidelines. But it will go on. As will he – one hopes. England needs him.

© The Editor

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HELLO GOODBYE

gainsbourg-2On a night when Paul Nuttall, British politics’ very own Walter Mitty, followed in the illustrious footsteps of his predecessor as UKIP leader by failing to gain entry to Westminster, there were mixed messages again for Jeremy Corbyn. Had Labour failed to retain Stoke-on-Trent Central, a seat they’ve held since its inception in 1950, chances are we may have had to endure yet another leadership election; as it turned out, Labour didn’t lose the by-election triggered by the recent resignation of Tristram Hunt, but it was a different story up in Cumbria.

Until the early hours of this morning, 1982 was the last time a sitting government won a by-election in a constituency held by the opposition; that the Tories took Copeland from a Labour Party that has clung onto the seat since 1935 either suggests Theresa May is the most successful Prime Minister since Mrs T or that the Conservatives are blessed to be up against such weak opposition. I suspect the latter is closer to the truth, though various factors played their part in this upset.

With the Sellafield Nuclear Power Station being a major employer in the constituency, it’s possible Jeremy Corbyn’s famous aversion to nuclear power influenced the 6% swing away from Labour towards the Tories. The Conservative candidate Trudy Harrison overturned a Labour majority of 2,564, which is an achievement not to be sniffed at; the last time a sitting government enjoyed such an impressive by-election victory was in January 1966, a win for Labour in Hull North that filled Harold Wilson with enough confidence to call a General Election that March. Confronted by a Labour Party incapable of holding onto a seat it has owned since the days of Clement Attlee, maybe Theresa May will attempt to strike before 2020 after all.

Had Labour lost Stoke Central, it’d be feasible to claim Corbyn isn’t working beyond his London heartland; as it is, holding at least one traditional Labour seat has given the beleaguered leader a breather, but for how much longer? Yes, he is beloved by the faithful, but half of Corbyn’s own MPs can’t abide him, and his message isn’t exactly sweeping the country when the party in power is hardly the most popular to ever hold office. It seems to be a damning indictment of the dearth of talent Labour can call upon that it has nobody capable of realistically challenging Jezza or of connecting with the electorate outside of metropolitan enclaves. The prospects aren’t great, whenever the next General Election takes place.

Equally, UKIP may have taken the runner-up prize in Stoke, but their hopes were considerably higher in a city that voted overwhelmingly Leave in last year’s EU Referendum; if it can’t win there, where can it win? Answers on a postcard to Bongo-Bongo Land. Being the permanent bridesmaid doesn’t amount to much in an electoral system that continues to adhere to a first-past-the-post policy, and for all their headline-grabbing PR it’s hard to envisage that situation changing – especially when the one thing UKIP formed for in the first place has actually happened now.

So, what do last night’s events tell us about the current political landscape? Well, it confirmed UKIP as the No.1 protest vote party again, an honour once held for decades by the Lib Dems; it confirmed Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to invigorate voters outside of those who see the sun every time he bends over; and it confirmed that even a Government that, in one shape or another, has steered the country through seven bloody awful years can still keep winning when the competition is so piss-poor. The Revolution has been postponed for the moment.


LeicesterThe decision of the Leicester City FC board to dispense with the services of their manager Claudio Ranieri is the latest example of how the cut-and-thrust tactics that were once the hallmark of continental football have infiltrated the Premier League. The man who achieved arguably the most remarkable miracle in English soccer since Brian Clough captured the league championship with newly-promoted Nottingham Forest in 1978 is now out of job, barely nine months after leading his team to an unimaginable pinnacle.

With last season’s champions now hovering just a point above the bottom three, the Leicester board have panicked and sacked the man whose Midas Touch has deserted the club in a ridiculously short time. But the players deserve to carry the can for the disaster as much as the manager; their performances have been largely lacklustre this season. Perhaps the shock transition from making up the numbers to suddenly being amongst the big-money prima donnas has gone to their heads. Maybe; but there’s precious little other excuses they could come up with to justify their appalling lack of commitment to the cause of defending their title. And now the man who masterminded that title has paid the price for their on-the-pitch indolence.

A sign of how times have changed is that when Leeds United won the league in 1992, they too followed it with an embarrassingly bad defence, finishing the following season in a pathetic 17th position after failing to win a single away game and allowing Eric Cantona to be picked-up by arch-rivals Manchester United for a mere £1 million. Yet manager Howard Wilkinson kept his job for another three years before being shown the door; had today’s rules applied, he’d have bitten the bullet before the end of the 1992/93 season.

Moreover, Alex Ferguson would never have lasted three-and-a-half years at Old Trafford until winning the FA Cup in 1990 were he at the helm for the same period without success today. The great money chasm between the Premier League and the Championship has instilled a fear in the boards of the top division’s clubs that provokes knee-jerk responses when relegation or an empty trophy cabinet stare them in the face. But it negates building the foundations for long-term success when football adopts a quick-fix mentality. That it should happen to a decent man such as Ranieri and at a club all neutrals were delighted to see crowned champions last May says a great deal about the national sport at a domestic level.

© The Editor

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HACKED OFFSKI

palsWhen Arsenal are awarded a disputed penalty, Arsene Wenger never sees the contentious incident that provoked it; on the other hand, when a penalty is awarded against Arsenal, Wenger has a meticulous recall of the foul that led to the spot-kick, as though he’d been inches away from the tackle. Similarly, Donald Trump swore the FBI were unmistakably accurate when they added to the Clinton email saga just days before the US electorate went to the polls – ‘Bigger than Watergate’, you may recall; now that the CIA have confirmed Russians hacked into confidential Democrat files that they then leaked to the media in order to assist the President Elect’s passage to the White House, Trump won’t have any of it.

What real impact intervention by hackers might have had on the US Presidential campaign is hard to tell this near to events in October and November. In many respects, Hillary Clinton didn’t need hackers to bugger things up for her; she was more than capable of doing so on her own, whereas Trump seemed able to get away with saying whatever he liked, however obnoxious and reprehensible, and it only added to his popularity ratings. He can therefore greet the CIA announcement with scepticism and dismiss those who are worried about the ease with which America’s perceived enemies can access private information. Even notable Republican John McCain went on US TV to declare his belief in the CIA’s findings, though Obama’s 2008 opponent is practically a Socialist next to some of the party’s leading loons that Trump has recruited, so his opinion doesn’t count.

According to the CIA, the Russian hackers also targeted the Republican Party, though declined to pass on whatever they found out to WikiLeaks; I suppose one might conclude it would be handy for Moscow to have something on them for safe keeping. But it was evident from the off that Trump would be Putin’s preferred candidate for the Presidency, so if the revelations of the CIA are indeed true, perhaps there’s more to this than simply sour grapes on the part of the Democrats. That said, the priority for America right now should be less about the blame game and more about upgrading their software.

Bearing in mind the increasing sophistication of hackers that forever seem to be one step ahead of the systems in place to prevent them doing their job, it would be no great surprise if the CIA’s findings are genuine. Trump and Putin have never hidden their macho admiration for each other and yet one cannot help but feel that the Al Capone of the Kremlin, with his KGB/Stasi background, looks at his American counterpart and sees a pliable idiot who only requires a little ego-massaging to make him favourable to Moscow. There are understandable concerns that this will be the case when the two men eventually meet in person as world leaders, so the timing of the CIA’s conclusions re the hackers is as fortuitous as the timing of the FBI’s conclusions re Hillary Clinton’s emails.

These revelations come hot on the heels of last week’s condemnations of Russia’s institutionalised doping regime in sporting circles, specifically the Olympic Games. I’ve no doubt Russia does engage in dubious medical practices where their athletes are concerned; the Soviet Bloc as a whole was notorious for it, and there’s no reason to suppose practices changed when the Iron Curtain was dismantled twenty-five years ago. But the allegations against British athletes that emerged via documents leaked online several months ago, presumably from Russian hackers again, revealed that many of our great Olympians are apparently at it as well – though their tracks were covered by the fact that most of them are stricken with asthma, believe it or not, which makes their achievements all the more remarkable. Again, fortuitous timing switches the spotlight East once more.

The propaganda war between Russia and the West is, as it was during the Cold War, a game of extreme exaggeration on both sides with a grain of truth always present; and the one-upmanship of acquiring a defector retains its point-scoring prestige. A Nureyev or Philby figure was a prized weapon back in the day, and with Russian athlete Yuliya Stepanova blowing the whistle on the State doping programme of her homeland – a brave move necessitating her flight from the country to a clandestine location somewhere in Western Europe – ‘our’ side holds the current moral pawn.

It suits the West’s narrative on Russia (not to mention deflecting attention away from European and American sporting doping) to focus solely on its wrongdoing in a tournament that long ago shed its amateur ethos and pretences to fair play, just as it equally suits that narrative to condemn its involvement in Syria, even when we and the Americans are effective sponsors of what the Saudis are doing in Yemen. Trump labelled Castro a ‘ruthless dictator’ upon the death of the former Cuban leader, yet the human rights abuses attributed to Fidel’s regime are far exceeded by the crimes against humanity committed by some overseas allies of the West. But, of course, the bad guys are the ones who wear the black hats, and it is those with the white ones who select which heads will be donning this season’s ebony headgear.

© The Editor

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO US

cakeI suppose it would have been neater to open proceedings on January 1, yet if I had I would’ve missed the emergence of Donald Trump as a Republican contender, the hysteria over Tyson Fury’s inclusion in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year line-up, the Christmas floods and the death of Lemmy. Okay, so the closing weeks of 2015 seem quite tame when one examines the seismic shifts of 2016 as an almost-whole, but it was exactly one year ago today when the first edition of the Winegum Telegram was published, and I felt like marking that anniversary by casting my retrospective eye over the past twelve months before we reach the end of what has been an eventful (if rarely enjoyable) year.

Gruesome reports of gang-rapes attributed to Middle Eastern migrants in Cologne on New Year’s Eve opened the year with further questions raised over Angela Merkel’s ‘open door’ immigration policy, and that wouldn’t be the end of the issue as 2016 rolled on. The biggest, not to say saddest, cultural event of January was the unexpected death of David Bowie. For those of us whose adolescent identity – and indeed adult one – was shaped by the multi-layered impact of this unique artist, his passing was one of those rare occasions when the death of an individual one has never personally met can impact as much as the death of a friend.

February marked the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring, with the shock waves of the shake-up continuing to reverberate throughout the year in virtually every country in the Middle East and beyond. The month also saw the surprise arrival of Bernie Sanders as a leading Democratic candidate in the US Presidential race, giving Hillary Clinton the kind of challenge she hadn’t anticipated; if only things had turned out differently. The same could be said from the perspective of David Cameron, who announced the date for the EU Referendum in February, firing the starting pistol of a marathon that would end with his resignation. If only the entire nauseating collective of Hollywood A-listers had taken a leaf out of Cameron’s book and retired from public life before staging the politically-correct Nuremberg Rally masquerading as the Oscars ceremony on the last day of the month, with the biggest bucket of vomit reserved for Lady GaGa’s Victim’s Symphony.

March saw the wave of Puritan censorship and intolerance of free speech contaminating North American and UK universities continue to grab headlines after the unpleasant experience of Canadian journalist Lauren Southern in Vancouver, whilst other notable departures from a more open-minded age included ‘Coronation Street’ creator Tony Warren, Beatles producer George Martin, Prog Rock’s premier keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson, legendary Dutch football auteur Johan Cruyff, and the print edition of the Independent. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith quit the Cabinet in the wake of the latest George Osborne attack on the claimants of disability benefits, realising he would be the man carrying the can when the shit hit the fan; he quickly threw in his lot with the Leave team in a bid to rescue his career. However, next to the carnage unleashed on the streets of Brussels by yet more European Jihadists, IDS’s hissy fit was rightly relegated to a footnote of 2016.

The Referendum campaign gathered pace in April, though internal wrangles within both major parties served as a distraction, such as Ken Livingstone’s ill-advised comments that kick-started Labour’s anti-Semitism row. BHS, Victoria Wood and Prince were added to 2016’s dearly departed, though Her Majesty reached a milestone by overtaking Queen Victoria as the country’s longest-serving sovereign. Meanwhile, a belated verdict in the Hillsborough Inquiry reminded the public that our police forces have been riddled with corruption for almost as long as Elizabeth II has been on the throne.

Whilst supporters of Leicester City FC celebrated their fantastic achievement in winning the Premier League, May saw further rejections of Corbyn’s Labour Party in the local elections, though Sadiq Khan’s capture of the London Mayoral office was one Labour victory of note in a year to forget for HM Opposition. However, it was in June that politics really grabbed centre-stage again when the countdown to the EU Referendum was marked by a no-holds barred campaign of unprecedented viciousness that reached its appalling nadir with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox on the streets of her constituency. Undeterred by this awful event, the British people delivered the bloodiest blow to a generation of Europhile politicians by voting to leave the EU. The ramifications of this decision are still with us, but the greatest scalp in the immediate aftermath was that of PM David Cameron. Another in a long line of American massacres, this time in Orlando, inadvertently impacted upon the Presidential Election, whilst the same nation mourned the passing of Muhammad Ali.

Rumours of a coup against Jeremy Corbyn opened July as most of his Shadow Cabinet walked out on him, and an official challenge to his leadership came in the unlikely shape of Angela Eagle; women were making a big political mark during the summer, with the two contenders for the Tory leadership being virtual unknown Andrea Leadsom and Home Secretary Theresa May. We were guaranteed our second female Prime Minister. July also saw the spectre of a former PM resurrected when the Chilcot Inquiry was finally published, whilst fresh blood was shed in the US (the turn of Dallas) and in Turkey, with a failed coup giving President Erdogan an excuse to extend his grip from democracy to dictatorship. Owen Smith replaced Angela Eagle as the challenger to Corbyn before July ended, but for me personally the month was marked by the death of my constant feline companion of 18 long years.

Despite Theresa May now being in Downing Street, political attention remained fixed on the Labour Party in August, though it wasn’t until September that the leadership challenge was resolved with another resounding victory for Corbyn. That same month, an increasingly ugly US Presidential Election campaign plumbed further depths as two of the most despised candidates in American history went head-to-head for the first of three TV debates. Mind you, online responses to Trump and Clinton were mild compared to those awaiting footballer Ched Evans when he walked away from prison a free man after serving half of a quashed five-year sentence for rape in October. Gary Lineker may have been spared that, but he was hung, drawn and quartered by certain quarters of Twitter as the imminent closure of Calais’ Jungle refugee camp provoked contrasting responses.

November saw screaming tabloid protests when a wealthy individual intervened in the ongoing Brexit saga, and the decision of judges that Parliament should have its say in the process led to remarkably hysterical headlines. In a month that the liberal left’s worst nightmares were realised when Donald Trump was elected US President, few of its more vocal representatives spoke out against the increasingly farcical police fishing parties into historical child abuse, such as the one targeted at deceased PM Edward Heath; moreover, none questioned the motives of former footballers when they gave the historical child abuse industry a new outlet in the shape of the national sport and its dead or dying villains. A year of numerous breaks with the past ends with a return to the narrative that has constituted so much of this decade so far. Somehow, I expected it probably would. Time to blow out that single candle on the cake.

© The Editor

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THE UGLY GAME

police-boxJust when you thought it was safe to put the Paedo back in the box, the blighter has escaped again. Someone call the cops! Not to worry – cometh the Paedo, cometh the Chief Constable; this time it’s the turn of Norfolk’s main man, Simon Bailey. The No.1 Bobby from the land of big-eared boys on farms also happens to be ‘lead for child protection’ of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, so he obviously knows his stuff.

Chief Constable Bailey declared on Saturday that there will be a significant increase in numbers coming forward to report historical sexual abuse in sports other than football. Without even heading for the hat-stand in the hallway and reaching for the headgear marked ‘cynic’, it’s hard not to detect the palpable relish in a statement that means we will once again see the nation’s individual police forces devoting their resources to investigating alleged crimes committed twenty, thirty or forty years ago rather than coping with the far more difficult task of solving crimes committed in the here and now. It’s the crime-fighting equivalent of opting for the cosy familiarity of Radio 2’s playlist instead of taking a risk with 6 Music because the memory-laden soundtrack of the past is easier on the ears and easier to deal with than the unpredictability of the contemporary.

In what our law-enforcers know is a tried-and-trusted self-fulfilling prophesy, the announcement by a prominent policeman (at least in his own neck of the woods) that he suspects ‘there will be other sporting governing bodies…who will come forward and who will identify the fact that they have similar problems’ is guaranteed to unleash the kind of workload the police are evidently in sore need of as well as fuelling this nation’s insatiable appetite for the subject it clearly can’t get enough of. The words ‘credible’ and ‘true’ have yet to be bandied about, but other hackneyed phrases that constitute the lexicon of the historical child abuse narrative have reappeared, just as we all knew they would.

‘Brave’ and ‘Courageous’ were employed to describe the sad TV confessions of a group of ex-footballers fulfilling the moral obligation of the moment by providing a voyeuristic public and a salacious media with the most intimate and explicit personal details of their pasts; and, of course, ‘other victims coming forward’, that other old chestnut, was wheeled out for one more encore. As we are informed that four separate forces are stepping into their customised police boxes for further journeys back in time following last week’s high-profile revelations of a former youth coach who has already served time and is recognised as a past offender, the farcical national inquiry into child sex abuse has said it is ‘watching events closely’, perhaps intending to add football to its itinerary in around three or four years time.

The NSPCC, supposedly a children’s charity, has become the unofficial sponsor of the grown men whose miserable childhoods took place decades ago; the usual ambulance-chasing law firms have pricked-up their ears at a development that holds the prospect of fresh exploitation as well as financial salvation; and Crewe Alexandra, the perennial lower-league dwellers who once employed Barry Bennell, the man at the centre of these allegations, are apparently launching their own investigation into the unpleasant affair to boot. The wheels of the industry are being oiled anew and timing, as ever, is everything.

The BBC has given extensive coverage to this story, excitedly rounding-up the ex-pros to spill the beans on Victoria Derbyshire’s coffee-table chinwag in classic Oprah Winfrey fashion; one can’t help but suspect the Corporation is rubbing its hands together as it has done on numerous occasions post-Savile, eager to prove it wasn’t alone in allowing rampant Paedos to fiddle about to their dark heart’s content on their premises in the past. And, of course, the boys in blue, still smarting from the justifiable condemnation they received following the publication of the report into Operation Midland, are desperate to deflect attention away from their own ineptitude and corruption of justice, hoping they can win back the public’s trust in them by embarking upon a new mission against the common enemy.

As the most extreme extension of the ‘they’re all at it’ conspiracy theory conviction, the historical child abuse industry has been one of the few post-2008 success stories in the UK over the last five years; and like every booming business, it has a network of individuals and institutions that are financially dependent upon it. What would become of the arms industry, after all, if there were no wars taking place in which the latest weaponry was required?

Likewise, having exhausted the respective worlds of showbiz, politics, academia and various branches of Christianity, this particular industry has spent a great deal of time and energy engaged in a search for the next untapped source of revenue. So far, sport – usually bogged-down with match-fixing or drug-taking scandals – has evaded the shadow of historic abuse. Now, however, its time has arrived.

Like many detached observers witnessing yet another chapter in this saga unfolding, I often ponder on how and why we got here. I sometimes wonder if the obsession of Britain with a rare sexual peccadillo and the belief that every outlet of ‘the establishment’ has been a haven for its practitioners due to institutionalised blind eyes betrays a deep grievance with this society’s social and financial inequality. Intense envy of the rich, the famous and the powerful has grown in line with the dramatic decrease of social mobility; and as economic divisions widen rather than narrow it would appear the only way in which many can deal with the harsh truth that they will die in possible poverty and undoubted obscurity is to take the rich, famous and powerful down with them. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of this nihilistic approach to a hopeless situation are themselves, if not famous, then increasingly rich and increasingly powerful.

© The Editor

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SICK AS A PARROT

linekerNow, then – were we pre-modern before we were post-modern? Or were we simply modern? Whatever the correct term, there once was a time when presenters of television sports programmes were a straight, serious bunch in suits. These bastions of broadcasting for several decades were not beyond the occasional joke, usually when a comedian appeared as a guest on the less formal ambience of a Christmas special or those Cup Final shows that had hours to fill before the ref blew his whistle at 3.00. Largely, however, they had the same avuncular trustworthiness of the era’s newsreaders. It was hard to envisage any of them having a life outside of the studio or sports arena. I don’t think any of their political views or opinions on the day’s issues were ever expressed during a broadcast; they were there solely to air their views on the sport they were covering and the sportsmen and women participating in them.

In a way, Jimmy Hill was the first break with the formula; his initial appearances on London Weekend’s ‘The Big Match’ portrayed him as a bit of an arrogant dandy, with his beard, bushy, long-ish hair, and Carnaby Street-style neckerchief. His naturally combative style as a pundit also set him apart from the genial gentleman’s club of the comb-over crowd; that haircut seemed to be a requisite coiffured touch at the time, worn by such stalwarts as David Coleman, Frank Bough, Harry Carpenter and Brian Moore. Once Jimmy Hill moved into the presenter’s seat, he toned down his opinionated spiel, but I’ve no doubt that if social media had existed in the 1970s, Hill and the likes of Brian Clough (who became a household name mainly through his blunt speaking TV punditry) would have utilised it to get their egos across to as wide an audience as possible.

Would they, however, have engaged in the kind of non-football arguments Gary Lineker has engaged in on Twitter this week? Having kicked-off the season hosting ‘Match of the Day’ in his pants, Lineker is certainly cut from a different cloth to his predecessors. David Coleman in a similar situation that led to Lineker’s unappetising striptease would probably have said he’d eat his hat if Leicester City won the league, though Coleman belonged to the generation that would have actually worn a hat. But Lineker, plying his trade on the pitch through the 80s and into the 90s, belongs to the generation that sought to shed the archaic image of footballers who headed for the golf course to the strains of Robert Palmer or Dire Straits and were polite young men when interviewed by father figures.

In the 90s, ‘Fantasy Football League’ and ‘Under the Moon’ were new, late-night post-modern commentaries on sport that brought the irony prevalent in both the music press and magazines like ‘Loaded’ to a TV genre that had previously been in the hands of dads. Building on the success of Saint and Greavsie on ITV in the 80s, Sky had established its own even cruder double act in the shape of Richard Keys and Andy Gray, though their humour was essentially old-school and certainly didn’t equate with the post-graduate atmosphere that rejected both the starchy presentation of the Beeb and the ‘Wheeltappers and Shunters’ coarseness of its satellite competition.

As for the BBC, it took the retirement of that smooth silver fox Des Lynam from ‘Match of the Day’ for the vacancy to be filled by Lineker, who dispensed with the desk and imported a polished version of ‘TFI Friday’-type presentation to proceedings. The days when Des would soberly don his glasses to speak seriously on the subject of Eric Cantona scissor-kicking hecklers hurling abuse at him were long gone.

With the exception of Frank Bough and the somewhat racy escapades he’d much rather have kept out of the headlines, BBC sports presenters used to keep a low profile off-screen; their non-sports opinions were certainly kept to themselves. But in the Twitter age, Lineker has an online voice as loud as the current players whose performances he analyses on ‘Match of the Day’. Were he to reserve his tweets for the sport he played and presents, his opinions would only be of interest to football fans; but in expanding his Twitter portfolio by commenting on wider events in the world, he has been drawn into the murky waters of trolldom and the instant outrage agenda that generates it.

Making an enemy of UKIP and the EDL, not to mention the Sun – a paper whose track record when it comes to football tragedies alone is hardly something to shout about – won’t necessarily end Lineker’s career; if anything, it could well prolong it. Murdoch’s masses mouthpiece demanding ‘the jug-eared lefty luvvie’ be sacked for questioning the nasty, scaremongering reporting of the refugee ‘children’ arriving on British shores from Calais is a bit rich; but the Sun ascending the moral high-ground is always amusing. Lineker played into their hands by foolishly labelling anyone disagreeing with his own viewpoint as racist, though it was no more stupid than Tory MP David Davies describing Lineker’s response as ‘emotive and controversial views’.

The Sun resorting to playground taunts on the size of Lineker’s ears is just about the level this particular spat has descended to, leaving the actual subject under discussion the province of the prejudiced on one side and the apologists on the other, with no middle ground – again.

© The Editor

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RUSHING TO JUDGEMENT

chedWhat’s the order again – 170,000 slices of humble pie for the signatories of a petition as well as the judgemental Olympian associated with Sheffield United? Okay, collect said meal from Cardiff Crown Court along with a side-order selection of words to eat. Available the moment footballer Ched Evans re-enters society as a free man. We apologise for upsetting the recommended meals for those who subscribe to the ‘she-who-must-be-believed’ menu, but you will have ample opportunity to decry a rare verdict by claiming the decision of a jury will henceforth prevent ‘victims coming forward’. However painful for some it may be to accept, the girl who cried wolf is to blame for genuine rapists getting away with it rather than the jury (including seven women) that found Ched Evans not guilty of rape after he’d already served half of an initial five-year sentence.

It’s extremely easy (not to say lazy) to rush to judgement when it comes to young men paid far too much money at too young an age, partly motivated by envy and partly by the possibilities it presents for the worst kind of lads-on-the-town behaviour. But what of the breed of predatory young women – and, yes, they actually do exist, you who want to propagate the myth of shrinking violets with incorruptible virginal virtue – whose sole purpose in life is to carve as many notches into their bedposts as said wood can take? If anything, both they and the footballers themselves are the victims in all of this, neither having received any designs for life other than those provided by lurid tabloid headlines and ‘mad for it’ TV shows that act as sex education guides in the absence of any advice from absent elders.

Should we expect wise heads on young shoulders when the main role-model teenage girls are presented with is a synth-faced slapper whose main claim to fame is the size of her arse? Reluctant as I am to coin an archaic phrase such as ‘you reap what you sow’, it’s hard to avoid it after a decade or more of relentless media masturbation over a string of vapid inflatable dolls acting as examples of what astonishing heights a woman can achieve. Yeah – sex tape circulated online, marriage to a millionaire, fashion-accessory children, 24/7 reality TV spotlight; that’s what feminism was supposed to be about. Looking down on their legacy, the Pankhurst’s must be so bloody proud.

Hardly renowned for being the finest arbiters of taste when it comes to the opposite sex, young footballers need the kind of steady hand from their employers (and their team managers) when conducting themselves in social situations that they clearly aren’t receiving. George Best’s sad example should have put a plan in place fifty years ago, but the astronomical increase in wages brought about by television investment and corporate sponsorship has elevated practitioners of this particular sport to the kind of league once previously occupied by rock stars and aristocrats. Unlike their illustrious debauched predecessors, however, sportsmen are answerable to governing bodies that are supposed to uphold codes of behaviour, even if an influx of millions has essentially neutered them into irrelevance.

In both cases, how can society support and encourage ‘megalolz’ hedonism whilst simultaneously condemning the ugly extremities of its outcome, whether that of Ian Watkins or – up until this afternoon – Ched Evans? Perhaps the game as played out within the media requires a natural car-crash conclusion, another twist on the old build ‘em up/knock ‘em down syndrome, with heroines and villains each acting out their defined roles. Only, when a verdict in a retrial overturns the neat curtain-closer, what are we to make of it?

Twitter evidently can’t handle the deviation from the script. Some have claimed anyone applauding the outcome is therefore guilty of what Ched Evans was originally found guilty of. It’s the same infantile logic that says everyone who voted Leave in the EU Referendum is a Britain First-supporting racist and everyone who voted Remain is a sandal-wearing, tofu-scoffing Corbynite.

Revelations that the girl who had accused Evans of rape had engaged in the same consensual activities both before and immediately after his participation (when she was apparently traumatised in the latter case) obviously had an impact on his release; but disclosing her less-than-wholesome lifestyle in court has been cited by some as an unfair development. Unfair for actual justice? If this verdict prevents genuine rape victims reporting their abuse to the police, Ched Evans isn’t to blame; responsibility for any future reluctance to do so lies with those who cry rape when it suits them – or suits the politically-motivated legal system that has been quick to exploit the climate.

As for what comes next, it will be interesting to see how the tattered career of an international footballer can be re-established when a no-smoke-without-fire culture will continue to cast doubt on a verdict that nevertheless shone an unflattering light upon the after-hours world of a profession in sore need of some moral guidance.

© The Editor

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OWN-GOAL OF THE SEASON

allardyceIt might have been twenty-three longer than Cloughie lasted at Leeds in 1974, but 67 days is still a pretty pathetic regime when all’s said and done. Sam Allardyce has been forced to surrender the most poisoned of English football chalices and the FA are again left up shit creek without a paddle. The man who allegedly came to the rescue of England’s shamed national side following the humiliation of Euro 2016 – mainly because there was no other available Englishman to take the job – has been relieved of his duties after one solitary match in charge due to being caught exhibiting his avarice in a tediously familiar Fleet Street sting, boasting of ways around the rules governing player transfers in the company of ‘foreign businessmen’ (AKA Daily Telegraph undercover reporters) and apparently fixing a £400,000 deal to act as a representative for their fictitious company. Do these greedy bastards never learn?

Caretakers in the post have always had short runs, though even the likes of Steve McClaren and Kevin Keegan as official, full-time England bosses at least had a year to prove how inept they were; Allardyce’s 67 days has set a new and unenviable record. Don Revie was crucified by the press for bailing out of the job after just three years in 1977, despite them calling for his head on a plate; that he accepted a well-paid post managing the United Arab Emirates immediately thereafter, securing his financial future at a time when running a pub was the best ex-players and managers could hope for, was greeted with outrage, though hindsight bestows a less malignant sheen on Revie’s actions. Now that the game is awash with money at the highest level, the suicidal greed of Allardyce seems especially repugnant.

The decision of the Telegraph to pursue this entrapment exposé, however – following a recognised path that has caught out numerous politicians and minor royals over the years – raises many questions. Was the motivation merely to catch out another public figure, thus giving their readership one more opportunity to adopt a smug, holier-than-thou attitude, or were they determined to bring down the latest holder of an unenviable job because it presented them with the prospect of endless headlines bemoaning the ‘national disgrace’ of the national sport, thus hoping to arrest falling sales of their paper? Probably a bit of both, I suppose.

The British public like nothing more than rounding on an individual lacking in the kind of fantasy humility that few demonstrate when presented with a something-for-nothing windfall; in a get-rich-quick culture fuelled by rampant acquisitiveness and the expectation of an instant fortune that will spare its recipient the long, hard slog of earning it, how many would behave differently to Sam Allardyce if placed in his position? Not that his behaviour is in anything other than deplorable (considering the kind of wage he would have been on as England boss, an estimated £3 million-a-year), but to pretend the majority – let alone Fleet Street – would react with unimpeachable piety if served up a similar offer on the same silver salver is laughably sanctimonious.

Whatever the reasons behind the sting, the national side of the national sport has again been abandoned by one more ‘saviour’, and at a moment when its ability to generate national pride is at a particular low ebb in the wake of the summer’s embarrassments. Sven and Fabio were the great experiments in looking farther afield than the British Isles, yet neither achieved much other than collecting handsome redundancy packages when the inevitable axe fell; and the paucity of Englishmen managing football clubs at the top level means the talent pool for recruitment is more threadbare than it has been at any time since Walter Winterbottom was the first man promoted to the post in 1946.

Yes, we’ve been here before; but Jeremy Corbyn has more chance of filling his frontbench with outstanding Parliamentarians that will win over the non-Momentum electorate than the FA have of finding a dynamic English coach with enough experience of managing millionaire Prima Donnas to make a success of a job that has ruined the reputation of every man to take it on since Alf Ramsey.

The dismal showing of England when up against a team of part-timers from Iceland proved it’s no easy task to mould a group of average players accustomed to plying their weekly trade alongside top overseas talent into a successful all-English unit; Sam Allardyce may have cracked the conundrum, but he would most likely have ended up sacked within a year before returning to the Premier League touchline at the likes of Burnley or Bournemouth.

All this incident has done is to bring forward the decision for the FA by twelve months, embarking on another search for another ultimate failure who can at least look forward to a golden handshake before being waved off on his way. With just the one World Cup qualifier under its belt, the national side now has a series of fixtures to play under the guidance of one more caretaker, in this case Gareth Southgate, while the FA is faced with filling a vacant post that has few capable of filling it. They think it’s all over; and for the England team, it almost feels like it is now.

© The Editor

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THE CLASS CLOWN PROSECUTION SERVICE

gazzaIt’s hard to think of a greater expression of sheer bilious venom to have ever been captured on disc than Bob Dylan’s 1965 top ten single, ‘Positively 4th Street’. ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve/to say you are my friend’ snarls Dylan in the opening line. ‘When I was down/you just stood there grinning’. Its lyrical target remains the subject of speculation, but at a time when Dylan was delving into more obscure and oblique lyrical realms, the song is a uniquely direct collection of grievances spat out at the disgruntled folkie audience from the newly-electric troubadour. The time-honoured ritual of kicking a man when he’s down, especially when the kickers in question built the man up in the first place, is particularly pungent in this country. The British media – and to an extent (it has to be said) the general public – like nothing better than the downfall of a famous name they once lauded and applauded; when the Law gets involved as well, the one-time darling doesn’t stand a chance.

A quarter of a century ago, Paul Gascoigne was one of the most famous people in the country. Already recognised as a prodigious talent by regular followers of football, his role in the England team’s unexpected route to the World Cup semi-final in 1990 caught the eye of the fair-weather fans that only pay attention when the national side does well in a major tournament. Receiving a yellow card in the battle with the Germans, Gascoigne’s realisation that he would therefore miss the final should England make it provoked something nobody had ever seen a participant in such a masculine pastime reduced to before – he burst into tears. Overnight, ‘Gazza’ became a national treasure for wearing his heart on his sleeve, an instant household name whose emotions placed him under the scrutiny of a spotlight his emotions were ill-equipped to deal with.

England manager Bobby Robson had described his star youngster as being ‘daft as a brush’, and Gazza certainly played the joker within the England team, his evident hyperactivity and childlike enthusiasm for being the class clown masking a deep insecurity and emotional vulnerability at the root of his manic persona. When his career didn’t quite pan out as it should have, Gazza found the intense press intrusion into his private life and personal relationships a downside to the fame he had embraced with such gusto in the aftermath of Italia 90. The trajectory his life followed thereafter uncannily echoed the route taken by that other outstanding football talent produced by the British Isles, George Best. The demon drink took hold and after one final glorious hurrah on the pitch with Euro 96, Gazza ended his days as a player turning out for lower league clubs seemingly to make ends meet. It was a sad winding down to a playing career that should have ended on a far higher note.

Sport, like many other areas of society, has become adept at smugly patting itself on the back of late via various initiatives allegedly aimed at stamping out prejudices towards ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals and the mentally ill. But its ability to aid those within it that have suffered as a consequence of previous inaction on the part of sporting authorities is fairly limited. Paul Gascoigne’s alcoholism and mental illness have received precious little assistance from football’s governing bodies; some fellow team-mates have done their bit to help him out, but Gazza has paid the rent in recent years by joining the after-dinner circuit. A man whose natural talent on the field of play is the kind today’s England side would die for has been relegated to a graveyard it’s difficult to imagine contemporaries such as Gary Lineker or Alan Shearer enduring.

Throughout the years since he retired from playing, Gazza’s difficulties have been reported on with obscene relish by the tabloid press. The ‘How the mighty have fallen’ subtext to every telescopic lens image of Gascoigne staggering around dressed in wino chic is appalling, though who would expect anything less from the press? Unfortunately, Paul Gascoigne is not emotionally equipped to cope with that kind of intrusive voyeurism and one suspects the dream headline craved by the pack who persist in slavering over his every misstep would be the one announcing his premature death.

And now poor old Gazza has been subjected to another irredeemably corrupt British institution – the Law. Today he was found guilty of ‘Racially Aggravated Abuse’, following an ill-timed and innocuous throwaway rehash of an old unfunny Bernard Manning joke during one of his ‘An Evening with Gazza’ events in Wolverhampton. The fact that the utterly reprehensible Crown Prosecution Service (a pusillanimous stain on this country’s legal profession beyond compare) chose to pursue this charge all the way to court merely because it could is despicable enough, but the box-ticking, self-righteous piety encapsulated in the summary of the District Judge at Dudley Magistrates’ Court reads as a last will and testament for common sense within British Law.

After praising the contemptible CPS for bringing the case to court, District Judge Graham Wilkinson pompously declared: ‘As a society it is important that we challenge racially-aggravated behaviour in all its forms. It is the creeping low-level racism that society still needs to challenge. A message needs to be sent that in the twenty-first century society that we live in, such action, such words will not be tolerated.’

And yet the CPS is tolerated, despite its jaw-dropping catalogue of sanctimonious moral crusading and politically-motivated pursuance of those whose crime has been to utter a mistimed gag in public or to have indulged in a consensual intimate encounter with a willing participant decades before that has now been reclassified as post-therapy rape. Fined £1,000 for ‘threatening or abusive words or behaviour’, were Paul Gascoigne clued-up on the rancid and redundant institution that dragged him into court he might well ask what the monetary value would be of a suitably fitting fine the CPS should receive for its deplorable record over its lamentable 30-year existence. I suspect the amount is incalculable.

© The Editor

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