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?

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496