A football match in the executive box: pop stars, DJs and former England physios

Disgusting, shouldn’t be allowed, ruining football as we know and love it. So naturally, when invited to be a guest in an executive box, I said brilliant, count me in.

One of the things that pisses off fans is all these private boxes. Jealousy, of course, why can’t we have all that comfort, but also fury that for ten minutes after half-time all their seats are empty.

At the Emirates, you look around that magnificent stadium and there’s a ring of emptiness, as if some idle cleaner has chucked the Domestos around the middle of the bowl only, leaving life struggling on elsewhere.

Disgusting, shouldn’t be allowed, ruining football as we know and love it. So naturally, when invited to be a guest in an executive box, I said brilliant, count me in.

It was Arsenal-Borussia Dortmund and I was there an hour early – to stuff my face with Cumberland sausage and mash, washed down with fine wines. (It said Cumberland sausage on the menu but they were just bangers. I do know my Cumberland sausage and it should be long and in a coil.)

There were about 15 people in this private dining room, like a hotel suite, with uniformed staff. I had been invited by a friend, Frank Barrett, a friend of the person who has the box.

When I was last in an Arsenal box, it was Arab-owned, but there were no Arabs, just chauffeurs, gardeners, restaurant managers, people employed by the Arabs, or being treated by them, not all of them with much of an interest in football. That could be one reason why they’re so slow to take their seats.

This time they all seemed keen and knowledgeable. One of them was Gary Lewin, the England physio, who for 22 years was the physio at Arsenal. I went across and asked him about Roy Hodgson. Is it true he can speak four foreign languages, something I’ve oft scoffed at? At the last England game, Gary heard Roy converse fluently in German with a German coach and then turn and speak Italian to an Italian. So there, that was me in my place.

I didn’t recognise the other well-known person, a tall, striking blonde who turned out to be Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud. I sat down beside her and her boyfriend – at least, a bloke who said he was a DJ and record producer originally from Stockport – and said come on then, what’s Ashley really like? She must have met Ashley Cole when he was married to Cheryl, also in Girls Aloud. Do keep up.

Both of them certainly did know Ashley – but I had to cover my ears when they started. Having been taken once, along with Wayne Rooney, to the high court by David Moyes, I don’t want to repeat anything that might get me in bad bother.

I went out to take my seat before the whistle blew carrying a final glass and another sausage but was sent back by a jobsworth. No plates or glasses are allowed in the seats outside. So, a second reason for empty seats. People are still scoffing.

I drank up quickly and rushed outside again – and found myself sitting beside Gary. A bit inhibiting. How can I come out with my banal, half-witted observations when I’m sitting beside someone who does know about football? Didn’t stop me, of course. When I said Arsenal seemed lethargic, no bite, do they think they’re still playing Norwich, Gary nodded politely, then turned to look the other way. When he observed that Arsenal was missing Flamini, a proper holding player to counter Dortmund’s quick attacks, I said spot on, Gary, I was just thinking that myself. And also Theo, Gary added. Exactly, I replied, thinking, now who’s Theo, their new physio?

I asked him if Arsène would give them a bollocking at halftime and he said no, that was not his style. In all his years working with him, he could remember Arsène losing his temper twice. I did ask for details, but it was half-time and I was rushing for the lavatory.

There was just one WC in our private dining room – so that could be another reason for the delays with taking seats. It was locked. Eventually the waitress knocked at the door and asked whoever was inside if they were OK, and out came the pop star, saying she’d been sick and had been ill all day. Hope it wasn’t the Cumberland sausages – which weren’t . . .

When lucky enough to be watching football from a more expensive vantage point, it pays to be humble. Image: Getty

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 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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