Sponsor a footballer? Go on then

It costs £400 plus VAT, but you do get your name in the programme and on the big screen.

I am not sure what sponsoring a footballer means. Do you have to give him £1 a mile every time he runs round the training ground, or £1 each time he eats all the pies, scores the most goals or the most babes?
 
I was reading the programme at Carlisle United’s first game of the season, against Leyton Orient. Of the 26 players in the first-team squad that day, plus the manager, 11 were still listed as “available to sponsor”. Poor petals, they must feel so unwanted, or that someone was trying to tell them something.
 
The sponsor of Greg Abbott, the manager, was clearly sending some sort of message. Abbott was sponsored by Cumbria Waste Management.
 
Mr Abbott had been manager of Carlisle since November 2008, so had served almost five years, which, weirdly, worryingly, made him the third-longest-serving manager in English football. Arsène is tops since Fergie went, with 16 years, followed by Paul Tisdale of Exeter with seven years. Managers are like dogs – you have to multiply their years by three to get their true lifespan.
 
I was in the directors’ box, thanks to one of the directors, my friend David Clark (once in Tony Blair’s cabinet), and next to me was a chap very casually dressed in a sweatshirt with a heavy rucksack. I had been told to wear a jacket, collar and tie if I wanted any scoff in the boardroom at half-time. This bloke looked like a hitchhiker who’d got lost on his way to Scotland.
 
I pointed to the programme, showed him the list of players still available to sponsor, and asked if he fancied any. He said it was his first game of football, ever. He didn’t quite know the rules, let alone the names of Carlisle’s stars.
 
Well, I said, where do I begin? Those are called goals, the sticks at either end, the round thing is a ball and it’s 11 players on each side. Hold on, correction: Carlisle just got a player sent off.
 
After half an hour or so, he asked me who was getting on top. I said it was fairly even, hard to predict, which shows you how much I know. Carlisle got stuffed that day 5-1.
 
He then introduced himself as Dr Shah, Carlisle’s new doctor: not the team doctor, but the crowd doctor. All league games have to have them these days in case anyone in the crowd falls ill. For the past five years he has been team doctor for Workington Town Rugby League team, but this was his first time as a crowd doctor.
 
Awful that I’d taken him for a hitchhiker. Even more embarrassing, it turned out he was an orthopaedic surgeon at West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, where I had an op on my big toe ten years ago, and where, by the look of it, I’ll be needing another op soon.
 
So at half-time it was your highness, your majesty, let me get you some tea, do excuse my condescending comments about your football knowledge.
 
When I got home I showed my wife the list of players for sponsor. “I like that one,” she said, pointing to Lewis Guy. “He’s got a nice beard. Or Josh Todd. His surname is very Cumbrian. But why are you doing it?”
 
Hmm, showing off, I suppose. It costs £400 plus VAT, but you do get your name in the programme and on the big screen – which actually was not working that day. It belongs to Eddie Stobart, and had broken down.
 
Since that first game, Carlisle have won just once. They’ve been stuck near the bottom of the league. And the manager’s just been sacked, so I wonder how Cumbria Waste Management feels now. Oh help.
 
Which is what I am doing. CUFC are a community club, part of the glue that sticks us all together in this remote region, the only League club left in the county. They lost £500,000 last season, so they need a good run in one of the cups or one of their young players suddenly to become valuable, such as Mark Beck. He’s come through the youth team and has played under-19 for Scotland.
 
If he ever makes it as a first-team regular, and is still with Carlisle, and they still exist, at the end of the season, as his sponsor, I get to keep his shirt, home and away. See, all worthwhile . . .
Carlisle United FC - a community club. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.