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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage