BorisThe Bank Holiday Monday that never was – not unlike the airport that never was or the garden bridge that never was; it’s not as if Boris Johnson doesn’t have a history when it comes to grandiose promises he fails to deliver on. I suspect his numerous wives and mistresses could testify to that. Mind you, in this particular case his promise proved to be wishful thinking, probably made when he slipped an England football shirt over his normal clothes – as you do. This was a promise dependent upon England winning Euro 2020 and, as everyone no doubt knows by now, we didn’t. I suppose it could be seen as an addition to the ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative that has run through the government response to the pandemic ever since the PM’s historic television address to the nation. Incidentally, that particular broadcast famously gatecrashed the long-held list of most-watched TV broadcasts ever in the UK when it was seen by almost 28 million viewers in March last year, and it’s now been joined in the top ten by the Euros final, coming straight in at No.4 with only the 1969 ‘Royal Family’ documentary, Diana’s funeral and (of course) the 1966 World Cup Final ahead of it. Seems the boys of ’66 will forever be the unsurpassable yardstick.

As every politician does when seeking to be seen as being at one with ‘the people’, Boris enthusiastically embraced the excitement stirred by Gareth Southgate’s team going one step further than any England side in 55 years. And who can blame him? It was the briefest of breathers as society came up for air before resuming the drowning-by-division that has characterised the past five years. And, as crassly opportunistic as Boris’s attempts to exploit a rare ‘feel-good factor’ have been, he was beaten to the finishing post in the toe-curling stakes yet again by the hilariously hapless Keir Starmer. The leader of the Opposition posed for several photos where he was pictured ‘enjoying the match’ with a pint strategically placed in front of him; the pint had been initially absent, then mysteriously appeared, and then when Starmer’s aides belatedly realised it was full, one of them no doubt took a sip (probably provoking the same appalled expression a child wears when given its first taste of bitter) and placed it back on the table to prove what a real man Sir Keir is. Mate, you’re a middle-class London lawyer who’d much rather be at Glyndebourne than Wembley; pretending otherwise just makes you look an even more disingenuous prat than you already are.

The fragile sense of togetherness marked by a great sporting occasion that captures the public’s imagination is never destined to last, and the swift resumption of where we were following the defeat of England by Italy on Sunday was swift even by the low standards we’ve come to expect. General Southgate’s baffling tactical decision to send the youngsters over the top at the climax of the penalty shootout was especially strange considering his own youthful exposure to the pressure of the spot-kick; but the way in which the failure of the trio in question to convert the vital penalties then saw the deflation of some manifested as depressingly predictable racist abuse aimed at the players has been exceptionally unpleasant. Of course, it has also curtailed the suspension of hostilities towards football’s fan-base from the chattering classes; quietly genteel empty stadiums, knee-taking and rainbow flags created the perfect environment for the middle-class dilettante to pose as a lover of the beautiful game, but then the barbarians that were greeted with similar horror when they descended on the Oval for the very first FA Cup Final in 1872 were let in again and look what happened!

Those that are fond of bracketing all genuine working-class football fans as frothing-at-the-mouth racist bigots and Brexiteers had the perfect excuse to rant as a tiny handful of brain-dead trolls took out their frustration on England’s black players. There has always been a small section of football followers who think this way, though let’s not pretend football has the copyright on them. Grafting the ideological cancer of Identity Politics onto the sport, with its incessant emphasis on race as the single most important characteristic of any individual, is something that stokes instant division by highlighting a factor that most decent people don’t even think about. In the build-up to the final on Sunday, social media was awash with statements pointing out how many members of the England team had ‘immigrant’ backgrounds, as though this not only somehow vindicated the divisive immigration policies of the past 20 years but was also responsible for the players being able to kick a ball in the first place; as long as the latter skill is good enough to warrant selection for the team, that’s all that matters. Attempting to portray a football team as ambassadors for free movement within the EU is hardly something that will inspire unity; the Left once again turning on the daughter of immigrants who has actually achieved her own success story by becoming Home Secretary just seems to show the hypocritical cant at the heart of this mindset is as toxic as any online racist halfwit throwing a virtual banana in the direction of Marcus Rashford.

So, ‘unity’ via an impressive run in a football tournament is over, so where does that leave us? Well, whilst there may have been a brief moment of genuine unity amongst the population when the first lockdown took place – back in those innocent, halcyon days when we trusted our elected leaders to do the right thing in a situation few of us then understood – that unity has subsequently dissolved and dissipated as warring factions and rival camps have asserted their opposing stances on the Covid issue. Pro-vaccine/anti-vaccine, pro-mask/anti-mask, pro-lifting of restrictions/anti-lifting of restrictions – the new frontline causes stepping into the space temporarily vacated by the Leave/Remain debacle. The Covid unity – if indeed it can be called that – fractured fairly early, probably at the point when lockdown was breached by BLM marches that seemingly had cart-blanche to break all restrictions without any of the over-officious response from the police that ordinary law-abiding folk were being exposed to on a daily basis.

The hypocritical activities of Dominic Cummings, Neil Ferguson and Matt Hancock lifted the lid on the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach to restrictions by the powers-that-be as much as the supine reaction by the forces of law and order to rule-breakers sharing the same ideology as them. As the restrictions that came with the initial lockdown have been extended way beyond the projected timeframe we were originally promised and the goalposts keep being moved in a manner many wished had been the case on Sunday night, people’s frustrations with the situation are perfectly understandable. Earlier on Sunday, I watched the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. After winning before an audience of non-socially distanced and largely unmasked multitudes in the stands on Centre Court, Novak Djokovic was then interviewed by Sue Barker, who appeared to be standing half-a-mile away. I couldn’t help but think of the Python sketch when a TV presenter interviews someone on the street with a hand-held microphone, pointing the mic at the interviewee when asking a question and then pointing it at himself when receiving the reply. Am I the only person whose increasing exasperation with the ludicrous rules and regulations still governing interaction with others makes me feel as though I’m now living in a permanent Python sketch?

Despite desperate pressure from the SAGE soothsayers and their media cohorts, the PM is to be commended for standing his ground and insisting all restrictions will end as of next Monday. Even if caveats keep being inserted into the promise – whether pub passports intended to coerce the young into submitting to the vaccine or the threat of continued mask-wearing – this is still the one promise Boris cannot shirk from delivering. If he doesn’t deliver, the fear is we’ll be living this way forever – and, let’s be honest, some have been so successfully conditioned they’d be quite happy with that. When divisions over the vaccine and mask-wearing run so deep that they are creating schisms between families and friends reminiscent of the Miners’ Strike, you know it’s time to curtail this social experiment. If only it were that simple to do so just by ending restrictions. They may think it’s all over, but sadly, it isn’t.

© The Editor




MurrayFor years, sport in the summer months was an annual (or bi-annual) exercise in national humiliation for either England or the UK as a whole. How many Ashes defeats? How many Wimbledon whimpers? And how many deflating exits from either the World Cup or the European Championships? Most of us were raised in the shadows of legends and were taught that once upon a time we used to be the best at sports we invented, before the colonies and other countries we exported those sports to at the end of the Imperial era gradually overtook us and turned the teacher/pupil relationship upside down. A decline on the playing fields we’d laid out in the first place appeared to mirror a decline in our overall global standing, as though one was inexorably related to the other, and the past was somewhere we’d always been world champions. For endless decades, the last Brit to have won the men’s singles crown in SW19 had been before the Second World War; the name Fred Perry was once an ubiquitous yardstick TV viewers grew tired of being referenced year-after-year, yet it seemed he’d always be mentioned to remind us of our collective ineptitude at a game we become obsessed with for a solitary fortnight whenever June bleeds into July.

The England cricket team had the tables turned on it by the Aussies quite early, losing its first Test match to the uppity Antipodeans as far back as 1882; this prompted the infamous mock obituary that proclaimed ‘the death of English cricket’ following the defeat at the Oval, and gave birth to the Ashes series. The England football team managed to sustain the illusion a little longer, until overconfidence was punctured by two severe lessons in the early 1950s – a 1-0 loss to the amateurs of the USA at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, and the 6-3 thrashing by Hungary at Wembley in 1953 (which was England’s first defeat on home soil by Continental opposition since 1066). The latter result coming in the wake of the morale-boosting conquest of Everest served as a telling reminder that our spell on top of the world wasn’t destined to last long.

Of course, the England football team recovered and eventually did the business in 1966; but thereafter it was a slow slide back into international ignominy – the 3-2 loss to the West Germans in the 1970 World Cup after being 2-0 up; being outclassed by an even better German side 3-1 at Wembley in the 1972 European Championships; and then the ultimate humiliation, failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup with a 1-1 draw against Poland in 1973, a result that cost Sir Alf his job. To make matters worse, that World Cup was to be held in West Germany, and even worse (from an English perspective) the Scots had qualified. Yet, the whole country having to drape itself in tartan then became the new narrative of national failure. Despite having an abundance of talent at its disposal in terms of players who had lifted every club trophy north and south of the border (as well as in Europe), the Scotland teams we had little choice but to support in 1974 and 1978 heaped further humiliation on the nation, failing to get past the group stage on both occasions and producing some memorably embarrassing score-lines in the process.

My childhood exposure to summer sport on a national level was one characterised by bewilderment and questions. I wondered why England never qualified for the World Cup, why only British women occasionally won Wimbledon (though even that ended with Virginia Wade in 1977), and why the Aussies always won the Ashes. It was probably a good life lesson, actually, to realise that you can’t always get what you want – even if it would’ve been nice to have got it every once in a while. Any tiny sign that we might have sired a world-beater was grabbed with gusto. Although the tally of Great British gold medals at the first few Olympic Games I saw was pretty pitiful (never exceeding more than 5 from Munich in 1972 and plunging to a nadir of just the one at Atlanta in 1996), it probably helped propel the elite athletes who did get their hands on gold to levels of fame they’d otherwise have evaded – even if it also contributed towards the risible comedy cult of Eddie ‘The Eagle’, who was celebrated for being crap and accelerated the tedious ‘Plucky Brit’ narrative.

In sports not associated with the summer months we seemed to do better. We were always good at Formula One, for example, with the likes of Jackie Stewart and James Hunt crowned world champions during my formative years; and in boxing we appeared to have several champs in different weights, even if the one everybody wanted – the heavyweight – remained impervious to our efforts, despite the likes of Joe Bugner, Richard Dunn and Frank Bruno all having a shot. We were no better come the time of year when strawberries & cream were the delicacy of choice. After Roger Taylor reached three Wimbledon semis between 1967 and 1973, there then followed an interminably lengthy period in which futile hopes rested with the likes of John Lloyd or Jeremy Bates, both of whom the viewer knew would wilt when confronted by a genuine world-beater – and they always did. And then Tim Henman appeared out of nowhere.

Despite looking and sounding like a member of the Shadow Cabinet from the years when the Tories were cast out into Opposition, and despite attracting the kind of unhinged granny fan-base that camps outside London hospitals for days when a royal birth is imminent, on court Henman exceeded every expectation bar one. Four Wimbledon semis between 1998 and 2002 was undoubtedly impressive considering what had preceded him, yet he just couldn’t cross that line into the final. What Britain needed at Wimbledon was the kind of figure that had given English cricket a kick up the arse in the 80s, Ian Botham. The immortal Ashes turnaround of 1981 made ‘Beefy’ an old-fashioned ‘Boys Own’ national hero, with Botham not only socking it to the Aussies but the stuffy old MCC fossils as well; his off-the-field antics also played their part in his legend, and it was a long time before English cricket again came close to the heights it had scaled with its best all-rounder leading the charge. It was hard to imagine an Englishman bringing that to the refined arena of Wimbledon, so perhaps it took a Scot to do it.

A contrast with gentleman Henman’s Home Counties niceness, Andy Murray’s rages at himself when a shot went astray was a joy to behold as a Brit. Here was a player with fire in his belly and a will to win none of us had ever seen before. His progress up the world rankings was rapid, reaching his first Grand Slam final in 2008 (the US Open) and the first of three consecutive Wimbledon semis the following year. In 2012, he went one better and became the first post-war male Brit to reach the singles final, though couldn’t make it past the immovable object of Roger Federer; however, that same year he did achieve a unique double of the US Open and Olympic gold. A year later, the British hoodoo was smashed when Murray won Wimbledon, beating the mighty Novak Djokovic in straight sets; a second Wimbledon win followed in 2016, with Murray’s glorious battles becoming intrinsic to the Great British Summer for a good few years in the 2010s.

The 2012 Olympics in London was a pretty qualified success for this country on many levels, not least the amount of medals won (including 29 gold) that placed us third on the final board; investment in British athletics from the Olympic low of 1996 onwards had paid off. The England cricket team’s memorably dramatic 2019 World Cup win (reminiscent of that edge-of-the-seat Ashes triumph in 2005), when placed alongside the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and Murray’s achievements, could put forward the argument that the 2010s were British summer sport’s golden age. The one area in which we continued to struggle on the global stage was football. Anyone who witnessed the atrocious capitulation to the minnows of Iceland at the 2016 Euros cannot fail to be impressed at the transformation overseen by Gareth Southgate’s management since then. A World Cup semi in 2018 and now one step closer to completing something my generation (the first with no memory of 1966) has had to live without longer than any other. And all we have to do is beat Italy…

© The Editor




Sterling20 years ago this September, England’s footballers lined-up to play Germany in Munich for a World Cup Qualifier and the omens weren’t great. The corresponding home fixture had taken place almost a year earlier and was memorable for all the wrong reasons – it was the last-ever game played beneath the old Wembley twin towers, England manager Kevin Keegan quit after the game, and the Germans won 1-0; oh, and it also pissed it down. The occasion was a far-from fitting send-off for the Empire Stadium. By contrast, Germany hadn’t lost a match at Munich’s Olympic Stadium for almost 30 years, and they’d only suffered defeat once in their previous sixty qualifiers – and that had been for the distant 1986 World Cup. With the exception of a 1-0 win in the group stages of Euro 2000, England’s competitive record against their old rivals since 1966 was pitiful and few anticipated anything other than a hammering for the visitors. However, in one of the all-time great England performances, Germany were blown away 5-1 in their own backyard.

This unexpected result raised expectations for England supporters beyond anything resembling realism for the forthcoming World Cup and also elevated relatively new manager Sven-Göran Eriksson to a lofty status he didn’t entirely warrant. So euphoric was the response to the 5-1 victory that it even inspired a dire hit record by ‘comedy’ duo Bell & Spurling; but at least the inaccurate line in the song that Eriksson ‘looks like Jimmy Savile’ should secure its place in permanent oldie oblivion. The 5-1 score-line was regarded by some as a national morale-booster, but just ten days after the fixture 9/11 happened and all the optimism for the future the result had generated evaporated overnight. Suddenly, the future didn’t seem such a great place after all.

Fast forward to yesterday’s England Vs Germany game in the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and the 2-0 win for the home team against the old enemy was again viewed in some quarters as precisely the tonic the country needed. The situation now is very different from 2001, however. One wonders why the nation required a morale-booster 20 years ago. What did we have to complain about? Nobody bar a few trainee pilots knew what was just around the corner, the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (and their endless ramifications) hadn’t yet happened, and – best of all – there was no coronavirus pandemic. To employ a well-worn line beloved of the elderly, we didn’t know when we were well-off. Yet, after the kind of twelve months and-a-bit we’ve just endured, a victory by the England national team over a country that has pooped so many English parties over the past half-century – 1970, 1990 and 1996 in particular – probably was a good thing, if only because it meant those that care had something to cheer about again.

That last week before the War on Terror kicked-off and ushered in the modern age was the closing chapter of a decade of relative global stability and general optimism. It seemed to be the point at which the trend of each successive generation being better off than the one preceding it ground to a halt. Various unrelated elements were gradually conspiring to bring about this state of affairs – and it’s fair to speculate the good life was living on borrowed time for the second half of the 90s; but the single horrific incident of 9/11 now retrospectively feels like the symbolic full stop that ended one epoch and began another. Nothing that has happened since then has been worth celebrating in the way the demolition of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid was – there’s been nothing comparable to what those events represented. Instead, what Adam Curtis labelled ‘the politics of fear’ has become the ongoing pessimistic narrative. Two decades of relentlessly negative headlines concerning Islamic terrorism and a climate apocalypse have combined with the establishment of battle-lines in which issues such as Brexit, Trump and Identity Politics are the divisive ammunition the entrenched sides hurl at each other. And then we get Covid, lockdowns and the imposition of a Communist Chinese design for life on the West.

In this respect, a trivial breather such as the England football team inflicting a well-deserved defeat on one of its oldest international rivals is bound to be embraced as a sign that things can only get better. Indeed, with more fans at Wembley than we have so far seen in this competition and some even engaging in communal celebrations without masks, things looked almost ‘normal’ yesterday. But, of course, they’re not. Even if England were to defy the odds and go on to win the tournament, it will only be a joyous respite from what we’re living through. Lest we forget, the executive boxes at Wembley will have been crammed with dignitaries for whom the restrictions the rest of us are still being forced to endure were quietly waived. Exemptions for the wealthy and powerful aren’t merely exclusive to UEFA bigwigs either.

The inevitable resignation of Matt Hancock – a man who could (and should) have been fired for far more damaging crimes than indulging in a bit of how’s-your-father with one of his taxpayer-funded aides – highlighted how some are being spared that which they preach to the plebs. New rules regarding ‘senior executives bringing economic benefit to the UK’ were sneakily announced by the Government this week. For all Sajid Javid’s efforts at making an instant impact in his new job by declaring all restrictions should be lifted by the middle of next month, until then those of us who don’t hold VIP status should be made aware that those who do are already enjoying the kind of freedoms that we all took for granted and shouldn’t by rights be denied us in a supposedly-free society.

According to these two-tier rules, ‘you may be permitted temporarily to leave quarantine for coronavirus in England if you are a senior executive in a business’. These include ‘multinational executives – executives based overseas who are part of multinational firms and visiting their UK subsidiaries or branches’ and ‘international executives – executives of overseas companies normally based overseas who are seeking to undertake exempt activity in England related to either making a financial investment in UK based business or establishing a new business within the UK’. So, that’s thee and me excluded, then. Any mention of the word ‘executive’ instantly evokes a certain loathsome type who would describe himself as such, and that type was best represented in a Fry & Laurie sketch around 30 years ago when Hugh Laurie played a smarmy businessman insistent on referring to the breakfast lounge of the hotel he was staying at as ‘the executive breakfast lounge’ simply because it made him sound more important than he actually was. As satire, I think it retains remarkable relevance.

The doom-mongering Mekon of SAGE Prof. Chris Whitty, fresh from his unsettling encounter with members of the public who – depending on which source you believe – either heckled him or simply requested a selfie, is now safely back in his bubble and issuing pessimistic predictions of autumnal lockdowns, so we’d best enjoy this little moment of permitted euphoria while we can. However, as much as politicians may like to hitch a ride on the England football bandwagon in the hope some feelgood vibes might rub off on them – and as removed from the terraces as the whole corporate carnival of Euro 2020 (21?) might be – the joy many feel at the win over the Germans is a purely spontaneous celebration born of hereditary national pride utterly detached from knee-taking and rainbow flag-waving and all the other officially-sanctioned gestures granted by a ruling elite who actually despise such simple, non-ideological patriotism. So, whether you give a shit or not, make the most of it while it lasts. And hopefully it will last longer than Saturday’s Quarter Final against Ukraine in Rome.

© The Editor