The daft sentimentality of the British sports fan

Why do the British love a charismatic loser so much?

We Brits have a very strange attitude to our sporting heroes. Andy Murray’s face doesn’t fit with the British public - and not just because it rarely breaks into a smile. Murray threw us all last week because he succeeded in reaching the Wimbledon final. Not through fluke or guile or an improbable defiance of the odds. He succeeded simply by being brilliant at what he does. Which, according to the public, was a little bit dull and annoying. I hosted a phone in on a national sports radio station straight after the semi final last Friday where 90 per cent of callers said they’d be supporting Roger Federer in the final. Why? “Murray’s a bit miserable and scruffy” was the general response.

This is a quintessential characteristic of the British sports fans. We are immersed in sentiment, preoccupied with personality and yearn less for cold, efficient victory than we do for the dramatic romance of defeat.

Every British sports fan is forever waiting for that Gazza moment: the emergence of a maverick figure, rendered great by instinctive talent not methodical coaching, and driven by volatile emotion not clear-eyed will to win.  But what really immortalized Gazza was that he often wore comedy fake breasts and sometimes cried. The images of him doing so were captured forever and held dear to every football fan’s hearts. The loveable fool, the genius man-child, the wide-eyed idiot savant, stealing emotional collapse from the jaws of a glorious triumph. This is the sporting narrative that has obsessed the British public ever since.

But the truth is that Gazza was a failure. He showed glimpses of what he might have become back in 1990 but, from the moment he burst out in tears that night in Turin, he never came close to fulfilling his potential ever again. That’s why he is loved and romantiscsied so much. He could have been like his German counterpart that night, Lothar Mattahus, who went on to lift the World Cup before triumphing in a succession of other tournaments for club and country. He was not cheeky, daft, charismatic or given to stumbling drunk out of kebab shops in full view of the paps. And that was no coincidence either. He was a winner, so he went to bed early and trained hard every day. That kind of application doesn’t play with the British public the way it does with the Germans. Perhaps it’s because the British public see something slightly vulgar in winning.

We love charismatic losers like Gazza, Jimmy White, Alex Higgins, George Best and Frank Bruno. The rogues and chancers who blew their talent – or just weren’t quite that good enough. The real winners we have produced, from Steve Davis to Linford Christie to Lewis Hamilton to Lennox Lewis, have been deemed too dull and robotic to fully qualify for our affections.

We like our sporting icons to be ‘human.’ That is to say we like them to be flawed, ordinary, dumb and often drunk. Perhaps it was possible to be ‘human’ and successful a few decades ago, when international footballers could turn up five minutes before kick off smoking a fag with a fried breakfast inside of them and still bag a hat trick. But sport is more serious than that nowadays. There will never be another Gazza because someone like him would be lucky to be playing in the higher divisions of non-league football nowadays. Being ‘human’ and being successful are now mutually exclusive characteristics.

We Brits regard sport as a soap opera: everything must be richly infused with sentimentality and melodrama. According to the outraged critics who condemned Stuart Pearce over the matter, David Beckham should have been part of the Team GB not because he was one of the best British footballers available but because he was an icon, a patriot and a man who addressed television interviewers with an appealingly boyish politeness. This is the X Factor generation, who want their sports stars like their talent show contestants: either tragic, or comic, or both  - and with a back story that can be neatly encapsulated in a ninety second montage to the accompaniment of a Coldplay track.

But of course, Andy Murray should not have to wear fake breasts, eat a kebab or perform hilarious impressions of other tennis stars in order to convince us he is human. The ins and outs of his character shouldn’t be here nor there to any of us who love sport for what it is: a contest of physical prowess. Unfortunately, too many Brits regard a serious demeanor to be alienating and objectionable rather than an admirable sign of a winning mentality. Yes, Olympic Gold Medals are all very well for other countries. But over here, nothing quite matches up to the dubious prestige of the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year.

Sam Delaney writes for The Guardian and is a host on talkSPORT. Follow him on Twitter @delaneyman

 

Andy Murray: good at tennis, but "a bit miserable and scruffy" for our tastes. Photograph: Getty Images

Sam Delaney also writes for The Guardian, The Big Issue and numerous others.  He is the author of two books: ‘Get Smashed – The Story Of The Men Who Made The Ads That Changed Our Lives’ and ‘Night Of The Living Dad.’ He has written and presented documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 and is a host on talkSPORT radio.

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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.