No gold medal for Goldenballs Beckham

Dropping Beckham from the Olympic squad may have effectively ended his international career, but it was the kindest thing to do.

David Beckham’s dream is over. There will be no gold medal for the golden-haired Goldenballs of English football, the towering presence who has stood astride Wembley these past 15 years, and who was hoping for one last hurrah.

There will be no close-ups of Posh in the crowd as he takes a deep breath and lines up the vital last-minute free-kick to go sailing into the top corner. There will be no frenzied applause as he jogs up and down the touchline at what at first appears to be warming-up speed but is actually as fast as he can go nowadays. And there will be no glory for Beckham as his international career comes to a close without him even kicking a ball.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Stuart Pearce, the former electrician and part-time national hero who is now coach of the Great Britain Olympic football team, has opted for pragmatism rather than pride, and left Becks out of the final squad.

In some ways it’s sad that someone who was so instrumental in bringing the Games to his East London backyard should be passed over in favour of players who have achieved much less, yet who can run faster. But in a purely competitive sense, Pearce has made the right choice for everyone – probably including Beckham himself.

A brilliant career with England, Manchester United, Real Madrid (and yes, the LA Galaxy) is coming to an end. He may still be young at 37 (I say this as a 37-year-old), but his best days are well behind him, when he was scoring at will and delivering incredible dead balls from all over the pitch.

Despite the moments of joy he brought at international level – the smashed redemption penalty against Argentina, the coruscating free-kicks against Colombia, Greece and Ecuador, the vital part he played in that 5-1 false dawn against Germany in Munich – he couldn’t lead England to glory, no matter how hard everyone tried.

He was so talented, England tried everything with him, even playing him as a ‘quarterback’ on one particularly ill-conceived night of shame when Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England were well beaten by Northern Ireland. But that reflected a part of the problem with his brilliance: Beckham was made for a game with rolling substitutions. His all-round game, emphasised perhaps by his jumping out of a crucial tackle that led to Brazil’s goal in the World Cup quarter-final Shizuoka in 2002, never matched his technical class, and that only became more obvious as time went on.

Beckham is part of the misfiring ‘golden generation’ who have promised so much but delivered so little. The less sparkling part of his legacy lives on – where once he was the undroppable player, put in the team regardless of form or tactics, now it’s Wayne Rooney who occupies the position of England’s sine qua non, even if he’s not quite up to scratch – as was the case in Euro 2012 and that tame capitulation to Italy the other night. But so do the best qualities that Beckham brought – a devotion to the England shirt, a desire to put skill first and graft second, and a fierce competitive edge.

In some ways, it’s a kindness that Pearce has given Beckham by denying him his last lap of honour. Imagine him hopelessly outpaced as he attempts to keep up with the under-23s haring up and down the wing, waiting for one dead-ball situation to rescue the team. Imagine his team-mates hearing a bigger roar for someone on the bench than they hear for themselves.

That’s no way for the man to bow out. He deserves better – a knighthood will probably do, in time. For now, he’ll just have to watch from the sidelines like the rest of us, if he can get tickets (and I suspect he might). In the end, the decision to drop him was made for purely footballing reasons – something Beckham will probably respect in time, no matter how much it hurts right now.

 

David Beckham holds the Olympic Flame as it arrives at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall. Photograph: Getty Images
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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.