BACKSIDE OF THE NET

World CupAlas poor Mick – the former Southampton centre forward named Channon was one of the few permanent fixtures of the unstable era in English international football that constituted the sad decline and fall of Sir Alf Ramsey as well as the inconsistent tenure of Don Revie. Mick Channon made his England debut in 1972 and played his final game for his country in 1977. At a time when England were incapable of finding a settled side and rarely played the same line-up two games running, Channon’s name was one of the few automatic choices on the team-sheet, and he collected a total of 46 caps, scoring 21 goals over five years. Yet he remains the most-capped Englishman never to have played in a World Cup or European Championships tournament, for he was prominent amongst a generation of great English footballers that also included the likes of Tony Currie, Gerry Francis, Roy McFarland and Malcolm Macdonald – men who unfortunately missed out on the kind of international competition today’s players take for granted because they were playing at the wrong time.

The 1970s was a curious period, almost reminiscent of that pre-war era of international football, when the England team effectively opted-out of the World Cup, regarding the newfangled tournament as being somehow beneath them; at least the team tried to qualify during the 70s rather than declining to participate, but they still failed to do so. The blow to national morale that came with the fatal draw against Poland at Wembley in October 1973 meant that, for the first time since their inaugural entry in 1950, England wouldn’t be going to the World Cup Finals. To add insult to injury, Scotland had qualified, and the tournament would be held in the backyard of another old enemy, West Germany; oh, and the Germans ended up winning it as well. 1974 could have been written off as an unpleasant blip for English football, but it happened again four years later.

After having to pretend to support Scotland at the 1978 World Cup (something that didn’t stretch much beyond the lacklustre draw with Iran), it was a relief that England finally qualified for the 1982 tournament; for my generation, it was the first time we’d been able to cheer on our own country in the contest, and the excitement in the build-up – along with familiar, misplaced optimism – was something that has become mandatory ever since; well, until this year. Indeed, given the uniquely low-key overture to the 2022 World Cup, you’d be forgiven for not knowing it kicks-off this coming Sunday. I’ve never previously experienced such muted hyperbole preceding the World Cup before, especially with England participating; and, for once, England go into a tournament having performed exceptionally well at the previous two – semi-finalists in the 2018 World Cup and runners-up at Euro 2020. However, there are reasons for this noticeable dearth of enthusiasm, and it says a great deal about the multi-million dollar business the beautiful game has become in recent years.

Qatar is a country that has never qualified for the World Cup and has no footballing pedigree whatsoever. It had no notable stadia when winning the right to host the tournament, so embarked upon an intensive building programme thereafter, undertaken by cheap migrant labour; many of the exploited labourers died during the construction of this stadia, though estimates vary as to the numbers. Mind you, considering summer temperatures in the country can reach up to 113º Fahrenheit, it’s probably fair to say hard labour in such conditions isn’t recommended. The searing heat is utterly unsuitable for running around a football pitch for 90 minutes, which is why a sacred tradition has been broken to accommodate the fact and this World Cup has been put back to the end of the year. Of course, this has meant the suspension of domestic league programmes, smack bang in the middle of the season; league football is the weekly bread-and-butter of the football fan, and the majority would rather see their own club win the title or the cup than have their international team do well instead. World Cups and Euros have increasingly become a summer side-dish to the main course of club football – the snack between meals you can eat without ruining your appetite; the prospect of a season being interrupted just so the World Cup can be held in an appalling autocracy where being gay means a prison sentence and women are second-class citizens frankly stinks. Sure, countries with dubious human rights records have held global sporting events before – the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 1978 Argentina World Cup, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and indeed the very last World Cup, which was held in bloody Russia. But this feels even worse.

The awarding of the World Cup to Qatar back in 2010 embodies everything that is ugly, obscene and unedifying about football today. 11 of the 22 members of FIFA’s Executive Committee who gave the vote to Qatar twelve years ago have subsequently been suspended, indicted, banned or fined; two were excluded from the decision-making process even before it took place due to allegations they’d offered to sell their votes; a year after the right to host was won by Qatar, the Sunday Times alleged two other committee members had each been paid one and-a-half million dollars to vote the right way. The stench of bribery, corruption and brown paper bags has not cleared since the disgraced voting of 2010; anybody with half-a-brain knows the sole reason the World Cup went to a footballing backwater like Qatar was that Qatar bought the tournament. And this blatant truism has definitely filtered through to the TV stations, presenters and pundits, who are conspicuously quieter than usual. One gets the feeling that even the overenthusiastic cheerleaders for the competition are ashamed, toning down their normal giddiness at the prospect of the World Cup being just days away.

Unsurprisingly, some in the game have echoed FIFA’a scruples by taking the money and running with it, struggling to uphold their routine Woke posturing in the face of hilarious hypocrisy. Just a couple of months on from winning plaudits after choosing to queue-up to see Her Majesty’s coffin at Westminster Hall rather than using his celebrity status to jump that queue, David Beckham’s reputation is in the gutter following revelations of a handsome gratuity from his Qatari paymasters; similarly, infuriatingly right-on pundit Gary Neville – the arch-advocate of taking the knee – has decided not to boycott the World Cup and will instead be covering the contest on site, for a mouth-watering fee. It was almost a throwback to the glory days of ‘Have I Got News for You’ when Ian Hislop ripped into Neville a couple of weeks back, and he was as deserving of it as Matt Hancock is of being showered in koala crap on his own primetime reality show. But the hypocrisy doesn’t end there. After two years of bombarding football fans with nothing but political issues and slogans, the football authorities are now claiming politics has no place in the sport and supporters should concentrate on the games instead of questioning the ethics of holding the World Cup in a country like Qatar. You couldn’t make it up.

When the MSM has cautiously touched upon those ethics, the focus has predictably been the threat to travelling members of the ‘LGBTXYZ Community’, something a Qatari World Cup Ambassador provided ammunition for by stating, ‘Homosexuality is damage in the mind’. But as football isn’t primarily regarded as a particularly ‘gay’ sport, the impact of such prejudice is probably more minimal than some of the other unsavoury elements surrounding the whole atrocious circus. Like most, I’ll no doubt tune in to see how England fare, but I won’t be especially annoyed if they fail to make it out of the group stages this time round. The sooner the team are jetting home to prepare for the recommencement of the domestic season, the better. Qatar bought the tournament, so Qatar may as well buy the bloody trophy; let them have it. Any other winner would only be tainted by association.

© The Editor

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THE COLOUR OF MONEY

Pointing 2Like a stubborn dad repeatedly making a pig’s ear of repairing something in the house, determined not to lose face by calling in a professional tradesman, the knee-taking footballers cannot countenance entirely dropping the habit. Even though the virtue-signalling futility of it has seen the ritual reduced to specific showcase matches rather than a pre-match ceremony before every game, its presence remains. Then again, the FA are too full of their own noble narcissism to accept such a vacuous gesture is a safe pose compared to making a real stand against genuine injustices by, say, refusing to participate in the upcoming World Cup in the human rights haven that is Qatar. Similarly, rentagob Woke football pundit Gary Neville, notoriously swift to seize upon any imagined discrimination within the game, clearly sees no contradiction in accepting lucrative offers from the totalitarian Middle Eastern autocracy that has built stadia via slave labour – which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the hypocritical morality of a sport too eager to maintain the affluence to which it has become accustomed to put conscience before avarice.

Football authorities capitalised on the absence of uncouth fans and their dissenting voices when resuming play behind closed doors during the pandemic; the national game was quicker than any other sport to bombard viewers at home with divisive dogma and political sloganeering because it – as with every other institution that profits from a weaponised cause – knew any objections could be instantly dismissed as bigotry. And the moment supporters were allowed back into the newly-consecrated temples of ‘tolerance’, the inevitable objections to being preached at were predictably (and unjustly) branded as bigoted nostalgia for the bad old days of bananas being thrown at black players. The supporters’ beef wasn’t with Footballers of Colour, but with being lectured by wankers who view them as inconvenient scum; not that they’re given a break from it, mind. Watching ‘Football Focus’ these days is akin to being battered about the head with a copy of the Guardian, so relentless is the pushing of ‘the message’ with endless features on mental health issues or homophobia or misogyny or racism. Not that the programme is unique when it comes to BBC1, however.

Having been reluctantly forced to sit through a sample of Saturday evening BBC1 a few weeks ago, I discerned the latest box being ticked on the BBC inclusivity/diversity checklist appeared to be dwarves. There was one on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, one on a trailer for a sitcom, and then one as a contestant on ‘Blankety Blank’. It goes without saying that there’s no reason whatsoever why dwarves should be excluded from such shows, but the fact three in a row featured within the space of fifteen minutes was obviously yet another example of the cynical – not to say condescending – BBC approach to a minority within society. You overload every programme with the minority-of-the-week to compensate for past omissions and then present a lopsided picture of that society, all the while patting yourself on the back for being such a Good Person. Many years ago, a friend of mine saw a thalidomide comedian at a small venue and told me how the audience was crammed with smug, self-satisfied middle-class punters laughing hysterically at every joke, demonstrably pleased at how they were in possession of so little prejudice that they’d treat a thalidomide comedian the same as any able-bodied comedian; only, they weren’t treating him the same; they were effectively patting him on the head.

This trend is never more apparent than when these types – and a fair few of them work for the BBC, let’s be honest – speak to any non-white guest on TV or the radio. One can almost count down the minutes until the ‘racism question’ gatecrashes the interview. Anyone white who has a black or Asian friend or neighbour would find such a line of questioning rightly ridiculous in ordinary conversation, yet the MSM presenter has to insert it in there as soon as possible. ‘Oh, you’re black, therefore you must experience racism all the time’. Yes, I’m sure the minute the interviewee steps out of the door he or she feels as though they’re in 1950s Alabama. Of course someone black or Asian will probably have experienced some form of racism in their lives, just as many women will have experienced some form of misogyny, many gay people will have experienced some form of homophobia and so on. But chances are other things far more interesting will have happened to them in their lives – or even merely ordinary, relatively dull things that everybody experiences. Not that the MSM want to know that, though; they need their precious victim narrative reinforcing, even if organisations that exploited it have belatedly been exposed as charlatans.

Suddenly, celebrities who could’ve been relied upon to ‘do the right thing’ a couple of years ago are openly questioning BLM. Fancy that – everyone from Kanye West to Sharon Osbourne. Ozzy’s missus wants her money back – good luck with that. They’ve just realised this unashamedly Marxist mafia that deliberately stoked division, were sponsored by everyone from ice cream manufacturers to the Mayor of London, and scammed a fortune from well-meaning individuals motivated by good intentions, using the cash not to improve the lives of the impoverished communities they purported to speak on behalf of but to feather their own multi-million dollar nests, aren’t saints after all. Well, some of us were pointing that out at the time, whilst Seattle neighbourhoods were burning and lockdown-breaking marches were laying waste to our city centres. The online reaction to famous names expressing their feelings of being conned has ranged from deafening silence to obstinate denial to confused claims these former fellow suckers have turned ‘right wing’ overnight.

But when you have a world in which medical students – such as those at Minnesota University – are forced to take an oath to ‘fight white supremacy, colonialism and the gender binary’, don’t be surprised that opportunists will spring up to build careers and generate immense wealth on the back of it. Not that spinning this shit is exclusive to seats of learning in the US, however. Only the other week, the Students Union at the University of Westminster announced it was getting into the colour bar business by declaring white students would be barred from its ‘Black History Month’ events, which will be ‘reserved for black students to encourage a safe space for discussions and honest conversation’. Dr Neil Thin, a lecturer at Edinburgh University, said in response, ‘It is bitterly ironic to see the rhetoric of “safe spaces” abused to justify racial segregation. Nothing is more likely to make social spaces unsafe than this kind of wilful sowing of interethnic suspicion and division.’ Indeed. Isn’t this…er…institutionalised racism?

Ditto the NHS. Amy Gallagher, a nurse in the final stages of a two-year course in forensic psychology, is suing London’s Portman Clinic following claims she had no choice but to participate in a compulsory 2020 online lecture titled ‘Whiteness – a problem of our time’. When she raised objections, Gallagher says she was threatened with suspension from her course. ‘They are forcing Critical Race Theory onto people,’ she says. ‘You’re not allowed to disagree with it or they will bully you for two years. The NHS is forcing someone to adopt a racist ideology and it needs to be stopped…what they describe as anti-racism is racism. What they describe as tolerance is an intolerance of anyone who thinks differently to them. Left unchallenged, such institutional bullying will only be emboldened.’ As with the long-overdue questioning of the ethics of child transgender clinics and the disturbing theories of their affiliated organisations such as Stonewall and Mermaid, it was only a matter of time before people began standing up to the toxic ideology that has infiltrated our institutions. There may be a long way to go, and many battles to be fought, but at least it’s a start.

© The Editor

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FINAL SCORE

Football RadioSure, it’s not the end of the world; but it’s the end of something. The BBC’s decision to drop the classified football results from the long-running ‘Sports Report’ sounds like one of those crass decisions made by a new controller of the station in question (5 Live) who’s keen to make his mark and shake things up a bit. It’s a familiar pattern on BBC radio, like when the Radio 4 UK Theme was axed back in 2006. Commissioned in 1978 to open the station every morning after the handover from the World Service, the medley of traditional English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish melodies heralded the dawn of the day’s broadcasting and quickly became as much of a wireless institution as the theme tune to ‘The Archers’ or the sound of ‘Sailing By’ announcing the arrival of the Shipping Forecast. The man who wielded the axe for the UK Theme was the then-controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer; many were suspicious this was an action motivated by embarrassment within the ivory corridors of Broadcasting House that such a popular piece of music didn’t reflect the way the BBC likes to think of the nation, though Damazer claimed what he described as ‘a pacy news briefing’ was what listeners wanted first thing on a morning. Well, perhaps it was what the BBC overlords felt they ought to want first thing on a morning. After all, they know what’s best for us.

At a time when theme tunes introduced virtually all radio shows, the debut of ‘Sports Report’ in January 1948 naturally came with its own sonic calling card. ‘Out of the Blue’ was in the same vein as other jaunty themes to be found on the BBC Light Programme during this era, such as ‘Music While You Work’ or ‘Top of the Form’; it fitted perfectly into its times, yet along with the aforementioned theme from ‘The Archers’ and ‘Sailing By’ – as well as the theme to ‘Desert Island Discs’ – it’s one of the few to survive into the 21st century. ‘Out of the Blue’ has long since passed the stage of being regarded as old-fashioned, and its anachronistic sound is now recognised as the aural equivalent of a vintage item of clothing, cherished precisely because it is so antiquated and out of step with the here and now. In a sense, such a tune becomes timeless if it sticks around long enough; had it been replaced in the 80s or 90s, those replacement tunes would now sound more dated and old-fashioned than ‘Out of the Blue’ ever will.

The theme to ‘Sports Report’ is one of those pieces of music so bound up with the time and day of its transmission that it becomes inseparable from it, so utterly woven is it into the fabric of the Saturday teatime experience. Indeed, it’s as impossible to imagine hearing it on any other day as it would be to listen to a Christmas song in the middle of July. But it’s not simply ‘Out of the Blue’ itself that has been regarded as a time signal for millions of listeners for more than 70 years; what have always traditionally followed it are the classified football results. Remarkably, this weekly roll-call of winners and losers has only ever been recited by three different voices for the entire run of ‘Sports Report’. John Webster held the post from 1948 to 1974; James Alexander Gordon was the reader from 1974 to 2013; and Charlotte Green succeeded him, occupying the hot seat until the decision to drop the results was suddenly announced. The man in the middle of this trio with golden vocal chords is the one most of us grew up with. James Alexander Gordon’s famous delivery, in which his intonation would rise and fall to indicate whether the home team had won, drawn or lost before revealing how many goals they’d scored or conceded, was a hallmark of listening to the classifieds for almost 40 years, and one that left the listener eager to hear every result, not just the one involving their own team.

Even with the advent of ‘Grandstand’ on TV and its super-fast ‘tele-printer’ bringing the results to the viewer in the comfort of their living room, the classified football results on the radio were still a vital source of information for the supporters, especially those on the long journey home from an away game. If one were lucky enough to be making that journey home by car after a cold, wet fixture in some drab provincial town, the sound of the afternoon’s results being read by James Alexander Gordon would be as soothing to the occupants of the vehicle as a roaring fire would be to the fair-weather fan who stayed at home. I suppose it is this warm association that has given the results on the radio such an affectionate place in their hearts of football followers for decades, and why their abrupt removal has been met with the same kind of anger that the axing of the Radio 4 UK Theme provoked in 2006. A couple of years ago, a book I wrote about the 1970 FA Cup Final – ‘No Place for Boys’ – contained a passage on the subject of how significant the reading of the classified results on ‘Sports Report’ has continued to be, and I reproduce it here to spell it out…

For generations of football fans, even those who can now access every result via their Smartphones seconds after the final whistles have been blown, tuning in is still key to the experience of following the sport in Britain. If football is a religion, then the ritual of catching ‘Sports Report’ late on a Saturday afternoon is one of its holiest ceremonies. In a curious way, hearing all those score-lines coming in from across the country is one of the rare moments when that country actually feels like the otherwise-mythical One Nation, with millions of its citizens sharing the same sensations at the same time – all the way from Elgin City FC down to Plymouth Argyle. And whichever end of the country you’re at, all you need is a radio and you’re part of it.

The reason the BBC has given for dropping the classified football results from ‘Sports Report’ is that live commentary on the Premier League fixture at 5.30pm means the programme has been shortened and there’s no room for the results in the mix anymore. Sounds a bit like ‘the pacy news briefing’ excuse Mark Damazer used. This particular excuse was also expanded upon in a rather predictable way, citing the availability of other, faster means of accessing the day’s results than the traditional practice of waiting to hear them at 5.00. This misses the point entirely. Just as far more landlubbers tune into the Shipping Forecast than fishermen – who could access all the shipping news they need in a superior form to ye olde Long Wave via satellite tracking systems – the fanatical Sky Sports subscriber who rarely takes his eyes from the screen as scores are flooding in throughout the afternoon is not the target; many listeners who couldn’t care less about the sport switch on simply to hear the names being recited. In the flesh, Crewe Alexandra or Queen of the South are no more exotic locations on the map than Cromarty or German Bight, but when their names are joined together for the recital, they acquire a uniquely poetic resonance that renders them almost romantic. And there’s not a lot of romance about in 2022.

Expecting anyone at the BBC today to remotely understand their listeners is a tall order; dropping the classified football results is merely another example of not only how out-of-touch the Beeb is with its audience, but how it continues to view it with condescending contempt. When the ground beneath the feet is as insecure and unstable as it is at uncertain and often unnerving times like these, people tend to be naturally drawn to the few remaining signposts they feel they can rely on to reassure them all is not lost. During that first bewildering lockdown, millions retreated into the safe womb of nostalgic telly, music and pastimes, desperately seeking something that could take their minds off the horrors of the present day. We may be through the worst now, but the scars of that unsettling time run deep and variations on the Project Fear formula are keeping many in a state of emergency. The yearning for the kind of security that is connected to less stressful and more innocent times remains potent. The classified football results were a fixed point at a fixed time on a fixed day, and had been since most of our parents were in short pants. Taking them away now is not a great idea.

© The Editor

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OUT IN THE COLD

VladWhen a long (ish) life means you find yourself with feet on either side of a divide that separates one era from another, it can be interesting to realise how a personal living memory is little more than a Wikipedia entry to those who emerge in the years and decades after the world map is redrawn. Unencumbered by any remembrance of how things used to be, those for whom the Iron Curtain or Apartheid are as irrelevant to the here and now as Ancient Egypt or the Incas invariably see the past in a completely different light. I guess for anyone of a certain age – i.e. over 40 – the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela had an immense significance that is difficult to articulate to someone born after 1990; and, to be honest, it can sometimes be easy to forget the way things were even if you were there. I remember once watching a documentary about Live Aid in which a member of Paul Weller’s Style Council recalled how the band had a testing journey to reach Wembley Stadium on the day, flying from an overseas tour that required taking the long way round on account of not being able to venture into Soviet airspace. The recollection served as a reminder of just how different the global situation was then.

A couple of decades earlier, when television satellite technology was in its infancy, an attempt to link up the four corners of the globe for the first time in the groundbreaking ‘Our World’ broadcast was confronted by an effective no-fly zone when Eastern Europe declined to participate; the programme may best be remembered for the unveiling of ‘All You Need is Love’, but the ambitious aim of the enterprise was squandered by the opting out of Iron Curtain countries. Back then, the Eurovision Song Contest was the optimistic TV showcase for post-war European harmony, though no East European countries ever took part bar Yugoslavia. At the same time, however, Eastern Bloc sportsmen and athletes competed in events such as European club football tournaments and the Olympic Games, and there was also the cerebral Cold War clash on the chessboard that came with the infamous battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972; so at least the East had a degree of visibility denied South Africa during the 70s and 80s.

Often it was sport that provided the most high profile example of South Africa’s international isolation, notably cricket and rugby union, when regular tours by South African teams were scrubbed off the sporting schedule from the early 70s onwards – a situation it had actually taken a surprisingly long time for the rest of the world to agree on. Once agreed, however, the boycott was enforced with a heavy dose of moral and emotional pressure imposed on those who wavered from it. Hard to remember the uproar now when so-called ‘rebel tours’ of South Africa by cricketers took place in the 80s or when the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Queen, Status Quo, Sinatra and even Shirley Bassey played profitable gigs in Sun City. Anyone named and shamed for participating in breaking the boycott was severely criticised thereafter; Freddie Mercury and the lads were added to the UN’s blacklist of sanctions-breakers following their ill-timed 1984 concert at the luxury resort, which took place at a point when serious civil unrest in South Africa had highlighted the injustices of the regime for the world to see once again.

The cultural Apartheid could also extend into some bizarre areas. Clout were a relatively inoffensive all-female rock band – itself something of a novelty in the 70s – who enjoyed the dubious status of one-hit wonders via their 1978 smash by the name of ‘Substitute’; the record stalled at the No.2 spot behind the immovable ‘You’re The One That I Want’ for several weeks that summer, yet ‘Top of the Pops’ had to settle for airing a clip of the band on a foreign TV show as the blanket ban on all things South African meant Clout were prevented by the Musicians’ Union from appearing in-person on the nation’s most-watched music show. The anti-Apartheid crusade was a particular passion for the Left in the 80s, and then – as now – the Left tended to monopolise the creative industries, meaning the boycott was the leading cause of the day in a way Palestine has become in the 21st century. Artists were expected to fall into line and most of those with any sort of conscience did so. The white South African was a cultural bogeyman during this period, so much so that a South African-born actor like the recently-deceased Anthony Sher was in denial of his origins when trying to make it as a thespian in the UK, conscious that he’d be confronted by a degree of prejudice that could jeopardise his ambitions.

Perhaps more than any other form of sanctions, a cultural boycott tends to be effective. A country’s art, along with its sport, can often be the way it successfully sells itself on the world stage. For example, what do most people immediately think of when they think of a country like Brazil? The Bossa Nova might spring to mind, but chances are the Brazilian football team will get there first every time. Likewise, during the era of the Soviet Union it was Russian composers and musicians sharing the international spotlight with athletes like Olga Korbut that offered a far more positive image than Leonid Brezhnev observing the parade of nuclear missiles on May Day. The USSR may be defunct as a nation now, but Russia has continued this tradition to project a less-toxic brand to the world; the coup of hosting what turned out to be a highly enjoyable World Cup in 2018 was a great leap forward that even managed to edge the country’s appalling record of using performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics off the back pages. Recent events have put the brakes on this progress.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the universal cultural condemnation has been swift and fairly unprecedented – nowhere more than on the football pitch. After announcing that the prestigious Champions League Final, scheduled to be staged in St Petersburg, has been moved to Paris, UEFA then linked arms with FIFA and barred all Russian clubs and the national side from competing in domestic and international competitions as well as the former dropping its sponsorship deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom. The close ties many oligarchs and Russian corporations have developed with numerous Premier League clubs in this country has been uncomfortably underlined this past week, resulting in Manchester United and Everton cancelling sponsorship deals with Russian companies; but perhaps Roman Abramovich deciding to put Chelsea up for sale is the most notable rat looking for the lifeboats.

Elsewhere in the world of sport, the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix has been cancelled whilst Russia and its warmongering sidekick Belarus have both been banned from rugby union competitions by the sport’s governing body. The International Olympic Committee may have taken away the rights of Russia and Belarus to host sporting events, but initially allowing the nations to compete in Olympic tournaments under a ‘neutral’ flag received such severe criticism that the IOC has now announced the two countries will not be participating in the upcoming Winter Paralympics. In the arts, a prominent scalp came in the sacking of Valery Gergiev as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic; Gergiev, known to be favourable towards Putin, failed to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and after the orchestra was confronted by a string of cancellations, the Mayor of Munich fired him from his position.

Unlike the usual suspects of ill-informed Hollywood halfwits queuing-up to signal their virtue, the cultural boycott when applied across the board has a habit of hitting the target where it hurts. It can’t stop a war, but it can rob those in whose name the war is being fought of all the things that can truly enhance life. It’s worth a try.

© The Editor

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A SPORTING CHARACTER

GreavsieI can’t say I’ve noticed policemen are getting younger, though the fact they’re certainly fatter than they used to be is perhaps the contemporary pointer to a generation gap between them and me. If anything, the passing of years seems more accurately measured by the passing of childhood characters that once personified the physical benefits of the sporting life and are now either withered old men diminished by dementia or have already sunk six feet under. Barely a week goes by without one former cover star of ‘Shoot’ magazine in the 1970s being revealed as struggling in the early stages of Alzheimer’s; recently, the likes of Denis Law and Gordon McQueen have joined the lengthening ranks of former footballers who illuminated the game during my formative years and are now feeling the belated after-effects of all those seasons heading heavy balls into the back of the net decades ago. But even more unsettling than the sad, shambling squad of ex-players reduced to shrunken shadows of their past healthy selves is the expanding roll-call of footballers to have had their boots hung up by the Grim Reaper of late. The latest casualty of an alarming list is someone whose time as one of English football’s all-time great goal-scorers predates my memory, yet whose unexpected second shot at fame turned him into a household name all over again.

Every once in a while a prodigious footballing talent emerges whose skills appear to belie their tender years; the teenage sensation appearing out of the blue and unleashed on an unsuspecting opposition like some secret weapon launched without warning is a recurring story in the sport and in 1957 its representative was 17-year-old striker Jimmy Greaves. The press wasn’t averse to generating hype even back then, and the success of Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’ inspired the less-well remembered ‘Drake’s Ducklings’, a tag coined to described the young players under the management of Ted Drake at Chelsea. Greaves made the biggest impact of all the Ducklings, scoring on his debut (as he did at every club he turned out for) and ending his first season as Chelsea’s top scorer. When a generation of English football’s bright young things were cut down in their prime by the Munich air crash of 1958, Greaves then became the focus of the future, though he was plying his trade in a team unworthy of his talents and at a time when the fruits of his labours were limited by a maximum wage and the status of virtual serfdom where football’s governing body was concerned.

The exodus of top British footballers to the riches of Italy’s Serie A at the end of the 1950s was robbing the Football League of its brightest stars, so it was perhaps inevitable something had to give. The abolition of the maximum wage was lengthy and hard-fought, but by the time Fulham and England captain Johnny Haynes became Britain’s first £100-a-week player in 1961, Jimmy Greaves had already been sold to A.C. Milan. It was an unhappy move for Greavsie and he played barely a dozen games for the Italians before Milan accepted a bid from double winners Tottenham Hotspur to bring him back home. The sudden improvement of a top footballer’s financial lot in England also affected transfer fees, though Spurs manager Bill Nicholson spared Greaves from the burden of being the country’s first £100,000 player by signing him for the unusual fee of £99,999.

Bill Nicholson needn’t have worried that the big bucks spent to sign Greaves might affect the player’s performance. Greavsie carried on at Spurs where he’d left off at Chelsea, but playing in a far superior side; he ended his first season at White Hart Lane by lifting the FA Cup and his second saw Spurs become the first British team to win a European trophy by beating Atlético Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final. He scored in both Finals. By this time, Greavsie was well-established at international level as England’s first choice striker and his tally of 35 goals in an England shirt, reached in 1964, set a new record; he played in all four games England took part in at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, and with his domestic goal-scoring remaining amongst the best in the League, his was one of the first names on Alf Ramsey’s team-sheet for the 1966 World Cup. Indeed, he played up front in all three of England’s group games at Wembley and understandably imagined it was his destiny to win the competition on home soil, a crowning glory written in the stars. Alas, an injury ruled Greavsie out of the Quarter Final, and his replacement Geoff Hurst kept the job thereafter; although Greaves was fit for the Final, Ramsey decided to stick with the same side and as this was an era before substitutes, Jimmy Greaves played no part on the pitch, forced to sit and watch from the sidelines with no prospect of participating.

Greaves himself often denied his descent into alcoholism was a consequence of the immense personal disappointment he felt at being denied his destiny in 1966; but by the time he joined West Ham in 1970, his enthusiasm for the game seemed to be waning as his fondness for alcohol appeared to be on the rise. Temptation was hardly hard to come by, however. Off the field of play there was a long-standing, hard-drinking culture within English football, and it was only really with the advent of the Premier League in the 1990s – and the new strict fitness regimes introduced via the influx of Continental coaches – that excessive boozing gradually began to be frowned upon. The rise and fall of George Best is routinely highlighted as football’s cautionary tale when it comes to alcohol, though Best’s pop star profile kept him in the public eye even when he prematurely retired. After Jimmy Greaves quit in 1971 and quickly slid from post-match boozer to professional pisshead, he vanished from sight for several years, only occasionally surfacing to turn out for non-league teams in the mid-to-late 70s before finally slipping out of the game.

Unlike George Best – who never really conquered the bottle – Jimmy Greaves did eventually succeed where Best couldn’t and overcame his demons in a remarkable fashion. By the beginning of the 1980s, Greavsie had become permanently sober and this was the point at which his second career began to take off. After impressing viewers as a pundit on ATV’s regional soccer show on a Sunday afternoon, he was recruited to the ITV team for the station’s coverage of the 1982 World Cup, introducing the whole nation to a sharp-witted middle-aged man at odds with the sad drunken has-been who’d periodically popped-up in the Sunday papers throughout the previous decade. In today’s media landscape of post-modern punditry, where a light-hearted and jokey approach to discussing the game is commonplace, it’s easy to forget how stiff and formal football presentation on television often was at the time Greavsie gatecrashed it in 1982. It could be argued he singlehandedly changed the way in which punditry was presented as an ingredient of the formula, and when he began to appear alongside ex-player Ian St John in the ‘On the Ball’ segment of ITV’s ‘World of Sport’ every Saturday lunchtime, the spark between the two prompted a spin-off.

For seven years, ‘Saint and Greavsie’ was a lynchpin in terrestrial TV’s football schedule, though it’s telling the ending of the series coincided with the arrival of the Premier League and Sky coverage. Perhaps it did seem a bit tired by then, and Greavsie himself was regularly ribbed on the far hipper likes of ‘Fantasy Football League’ from the mid-90s onwards. Nevertheless, the resurrection of Jimmy Greaves remained one of football’s true success stories from an era when there were few – if any – safety nets for players who’d fallen on hard times; he clawed his way back without the aid of any high-profile programme or campaign backed by the virtuous signalling of the FA, and a generation who’d never known him as a player came to know him as an entertainer. A funny old life when all’s said and done, but an admirable victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

© The Editor

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THE FINAL WHISTLE

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

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PLAYING FIELDS OF GOLD

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

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EXORCISING GHOSTS

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

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KEEPING THE BRITISH END UP

Postcard 3Well done, Matt Hancock. Credit where credit’s due; the Health Secretary has at least publicly apologised for breaking social distancing rules, even if he hasn’t done likewise for breaking his marriage vows. Considering his way of spurning social distancing was to snog and grab the arse of his ‘close aide’, I would’ve personally thought the ramifications for his marital status mattered more. Mind you, he’s a Tory Cabinet Minister and it’s fair to say that strange breed do have something of a history when it comes to this sort of thing. And, of course, he’s not any old Tory Cabinet Minster; he’s one of Boris Johnson’s Tory Cabinet Ministers, which means pretty much anything goes except your job. It was evident from the recently-released private messages between Dominic Cummings and the PM that Hancock had been nominated as the patsy for any failures associated with the Government’s pandemic policy; he will carry the can come the day of judgement, and the longer he stays in his post the likelihood of another f**k-up is fairly strong, so I guess the Health Secretary can sleep a little easier tonight – in the spare room, naturally.

Boris has apparently accepted Hancock’s apology, and whilst this could be viewed as akin to the kind of public backing under-fire football managers receive from their club chairman on the eve of being sacked, if the plan is for Hancock to shoulder the majority of the Covid blame then the PM is not likely to dismiss him just yet. Not that Boris himself has much of a moral leg to stand on considering his own extramarital track record, nor in his ‘flexible’ approach to social distancing as seen at the recent G7 summit in Cornwall. Photos of the gathered world leaders not exactly adhering to the ridiculous rules and regulations us plebs are still honour bound to observe in the name of ‘safety’ hammered home the difference between VIPs and me & thee, if it even needed to be hammered home. It’s not as if we didn’t already know it.

Hot on the heels of Michael Gove being spared post-foreign travel isolation, the bigwigs from UEFA and FIFA flown in to gorge on prawn cocktails in the Wembley executive boxes haven’t had to jump through any of the myriad hoops any ‘un-important person’ has to endure when arriving from abroad; but we’re told the Euros will be abruptly relocated to the land of the free that is mainland Europe if we don’t bend the rules for football’s international dignitaries – and they’re all renowned for their virtue and probity, anyway, so it’s not as if we shouldn’t receive them with the red carpet and accompanying grovelling. No, we don’t really need to see shots of mask-free FIFA gangsters quaffing champers as the England players deliver their latest lecture on how racist we all are to be reminded of our place in the scheme of things, I suppose.

Any Brit hoping to travel in the opposite direction to said dignitaries won’t be welcomed in quite the same way. In a move absolutely not remotely related to any ongoing punitive punishment by European leaders for Brexit, Frau Merkel and Monsieur Macron have demanded the EU impose quarantine restrictions on British visitors in order to prevent the potential spread of the Narnia Variant on the Continent. Brits can actually set foot on French soil at the moment free from self-isolation as long as they have the double vaccine passport on account of our place on France’s amber list, though Germany has quarantine restrictions for British tourists and wants the rest of Europe to fall in line. However, the likes of Greece and Spain – which have always been favoured destinations for Brits due to their ownership of the sun – are less likely to follow suit if they want to continue having a tourism industry. Either way, crossing the Channel this summer hardly seems worth the effort, so why not holiday at home, eh? Fine – if you can afford it.

Back when the worst night of the week for the television schedule always seemed to be Sunday – reflecting the unique boredom of the day of rest, I guess – one of the main offenders for me was the BBC’s long-running ‘Holiday’ programme. The period of the show I most remember is the one when comb-over king Cliff Michelmore presented and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ was used as the theme tune; indeed, it took a good few years before George Harrison’s joyous ditty finally shook off its drab Sunday teatime associations in my head as a consequence. The programme aired in the winter months for the same reason travel agent ads suddenly bombarded every ITV commercial break as soon as New Year’s Day was out of the way; the aim was to look ahead (and book ahead) to the summer, but reports on exotic climes the majority of viewers wouldn’t be able to afford somehow seemed to emphasise the chasm between sun-kissed beaches and chilly January Blightly even more. For most of my childhood, holidays equated with home soil, and every permutation from caravanning to camping and from Butlin’s to B&B’s was sampled for a week – or two, if it was a particularly lousy summer.

For obvious reasons, holidaying at home is one of the few remaining options open to those who don’t happen to be VIPs yet still feel entitled to a break again after a year off in 2020. It’s no great surprise, however, that an industry no different from many others in that it suffered financial meltdown during lockdown has capitalised on circumstances by raising its prices way beyond what holiday-makers would ordinarily expect. A week for a family of four at Center Parcs apparently costs more than a Caribbean vacation this year; a holiday let in Cornwall is up 30% on 2019, whilst Skegness has increased its prices by 40%; even the traditionally cheap choice of the caravan park will charge a family of four an average of around £1,800 for a week. Donna Brunton, a nurse from County Durham, had booked an all-in holiday for her family at a four-star beach hotel in Malta for the princely sum of £2,500 and was then forced to look closer to home as an alternative. ‘A holiday park in north Cornwall was quoting £3,699 for the four of us to stay seven nights, self-catering in what looks like an upmarket caravan,’ she said in a Guardian exposé on the economic realities of ‘Staycation’.

Ever since taking one’s child out of the classroom during term-time for a holiday became a crime, owners of cottages, campsites and hotels in coastal resorts have become accustomed to hiking prices during the school summer holidays; added to that routine this year is an additional increase making the most of the fact that fewer families will be leaving the country in July or August. Having said that, avoiding the obvious tourist spots is as useful a tip in the UK as it would be were overseas restrictions not in place. One can’t really blame the travel industry for exploiting the climate after a fairly fallow year (to put it mildly), and if people are not going to use their imaginations by flocking to the same old locations, it’s inevitable the prices are going to rise considerably – and it seems most of them are already fully booked-up for the school’s out season.

Whether or not father of three Matt Hancock will be enjoying a family holiday this year is not something the Health Secretary mentioned in his statement earlier today; I suspect that decision will be down to Mrs Hancock. But the fact he followed in the footsteps of the SAGE soothsayer Neil Ferguson in sacrificing social distancing for a spot of hanky-panky with a married woman at least shows he’s human. Someone needs to tell him we are too.

© The Editor

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THE PEOPLE’S SHAME

FansBack in the 1990s, Professor Rogan Taylor – a Liverpudlian cultural commentator whose appearance as a talking head was once compulsory on documentaries about football – made a simple but telling point on the origins of the national sport. Around the time football was becoming fashionable again in the wake of Gazza’s tears and the birth of the glamorous Premier League, he reminded everyone that football clubs are not named after people, but places. So familiar are the names of clubs dotted around these islands via years of subliminal exposure to the football results, we can easily forget how such institutions were founded to represent their community, not some prominent individual within it. It’s West Bromwich Albion, not West Maurice Albion; West Ham United, not West Stan United; Peterborough United, not Peter United. The Industrial Revolution created the modern metropolis, but if industry turned little provincial hamlets into big, bolshie cities that quickly demanded parliamentary representation, the codification and formation of association football in the late 19th century gave those towns and cities something that would eventually outlast the industries that initially defined them.

The vital branding that a football club brought to so many corners of the country previously only known for what they manufactured was something that still lingers beyond the lush emerald carpets of the Premier League. This is why when a club such as Bury FC goes to the wall, as happened a couple of seasons ago, the town it belongs to suffers the kind of existential trauma that reflects how deeply engrained in its very DNA the club is. Take away Bury’s football club – no matter how under-achieving it might be – and what else does a small, one-time mill-town long ago swallowed up by Greater Manchester have going for it in terms of identity and sense of belonging? This is the very ‘grass-roots’ that football pundits and commentators are prone to uttering with the same token tone applied to buzzwords such as ‘global warming’ or ‘diversity’ when they emerge from the mouths of politicians.

As a term, grass-roots is often casually bandied about by wealthy clubs raking it in at the pinnacle of the precarious pyramid – as though the pennies that trickle down to the bottom are contractual charitable contributions for which the recipients should be grateful; but so cosseted are the global brand mega-clubs from everything outside of their own jet-setting bubble, they can no more relate to the realities of the clubs propping-up the rest at the foot of the old Fourth Division than the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation would recognise the goat he purchased for some distant African village as a means of signalling his virtue. Most of the men in whose ownership such clubs sit would struggle to recognise their own supporters, never mind those who congregate at Carlisle United on a dank November evening.

Once upon a time, the majority of clubs used to be in the hands of small-pond big fish who were the characteristic self-made men born of the Industrial Revolution; you might remember the guys I’m talking about. These civic dignitaries were fond of reminding their detractors how they once ran around without shoes on their feet, but now ran the local council, rode around town in a chauffeur-driven Rolls and were probably Master of their branch of the Freemasons; they were the regional money-men depicted in ‘kitchen sink’ novels of the 50s like ‘Room at the Top’. They may have been intolerably pompous, avaricious egotists full of their own self-importance, but they were inexorably bound to the locations they sprang from; being chairman of the town’s football club was the ultimate feather in their capitalist caps. It said they, and their town, amounted to something.

Foreign ownership of a football club changes that dynamic completely, and at its most seemingly superficial it can be seen both in the way an outsider makes his purchase and instantly decides to change the colours a club has always played in or rename the ground after a corporate sponsor – acts that instantly rouse the fury of the lifelong supporters who intrinsically understand how each separate, historical component of a club is crucial to what it really adds up to. These incidents have routinely been written off as little more than isolated storms in parochial teacups. What does it matter what colour strip the players are wearing? What does it matter if the home stadium is now named after a Japanese phone manufacturer? Well, down in the football basement, it matters quite a lot – and scratch beneath the surface of the glamour clubs who court the fair-weather fan with no geographical attachment to his chosen team and you’ll find a hardcore of supporters for whom it also matters.

When I think of some foreign owners of football clubs, I can’t help but recall those lines from ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd – ‘New car, caviar, four-star daydream/think I’ll buy me a football team’. To them, a football club is indistinguishable from a diamond ring or a Picasso original; they come to it with no knowledge of (or affinity with) the club’s back-story or the town it belongs to, so we shouldn’t be surprised when these bloodsuckers put their heads together and devise a fresh way to maximise their investment. In a sporting weekend that saw the cautious return of spectators to several high-profile events after a year of fixtures being played behind closed doors, the so-called ‘Big Six’ football clubs decided to announce something that detaches them even further from the actual fan-base that they’ve managed without during this strange knee-taking, crowd-free spell. A new European ‘super league’ comprising Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur from England, along with Italian giants AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, as well as Spanish titans Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid, has been mooted as a way forward for these greedy, overblown corporations whose craving for the cake they can already claim sizeable chunks of is apparently insatiable.

Lest we forget, the global brands whose arrogant entitlement as founding members of a grotesque European elite implies they’re the cream of the crop aren’t all setting their respective leagues alight at the moment. As things stand, the two Manchester clubs may hold the leading spots in England, but as for the other contenders, Chelsea are fifth, Liverpool are sixth, Spurs are seventh (on the day they’ve sacked their manager) and Arsenal are ninth. On merit this season, Leicester, West Ham and Everton rank higher than some of those included in this breakaway proposal, so what are their rewards? Condemnation has been universal across Europe, with notable German clubs such as Bayern Munich rejecting the proposal, whereas the game’s birthplace has seen an impassioned evisceration of the idea, with divisive ex-player and current pundit Gary Neville earning overnight admiration for his diatribe against the entire concept. Even someone whose playing career was spent in the privileged cocoon of Old Trafford recognises the disastrous consequences of the game’s leading lights abandoning the ‘lesser teams’ to indulge in a soulless competition based solely on the prospect of financial gain, with the kind of annual giant-killing thrill thrown up by the FA Cup or the possibility of a shock championship snatch like Leicester managed five years ago being rendered redundant.

If a once-great club like Bolton Wanderers can be confronted by points deduction, relegation and possible expulsion from the league after simply struggling to make ends meet, I doubt few would dispute Gary Neville’s suggestion that the clubs seeking to line their fatted pockets further by throwing their lot in with this hideous idea deserve the same treatment. Let’s see how long they all last with their players barred from international football and their glorified Harlem Globetrotters brand of the beautiful game boring the pants off TV subscribers the world over. They might finally realise they didn’t come into existence in 1992, but have always been ultimately dependent on the faithful whose faces they have farted in with such cavalier contempt.

© The Editor