Talent north of the border

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column.

I’ll be cheering on Celtic on 6 March against Juventus in their Euro Champions game – because of the name of their goalie, Fraser Forster. He’s had a tough career: seven years at Newcastle United without getting a first-team game, on loan to Norwich, then on loan again two years ago to Celtic, who eventually bought him for £2m. Thanks to his great displays for Celtic against Benfica and Barcelona, he got called up for international duty in the England squad. That’s when I realised he was not Scottish. Which I had originally presumed.

His first name sounds Scottish and the second bit is pedigree Border – as I know well, being married to a Forster. Right along the border, east to west, on both sides, you find Forsters, as Walter Scott pointed out all those years ago in “Lochinvar”: “Forsters, Fenwicks, and Musgraves, they rode and they ran.” No mention of the Braggs in that poem, as I am always telling them. Fraser Forster was born in Hexham, so that is spot on, geographically. What I didn’t know about him, until I looked up his background, is that his father is Brian Forster, QC, recently made a circuit judge. Now that did surprise me.

Yes, I know, don’t say it: why should footballers not come from a middle-class, professional background? Because they just don’t. He even went to a top school, Newcastle Royal Grammar School, now independent, though it was an ordinary grammar when

I played against it for the Carlisle Grammar School first XV. (We played their fourth XV. And got well stuffed.)

Fraser did play rugby, early doors, only later turning to football and then joining Wallsend Boys Club, the football academy whose alumni include Alan Shearer, Peter Beardsley and Michael Carrick.

There are a few vaguely middle-class sons in the Premiership, but only of the second-generation variety, such as Frank Lampard, son of a well-known footballer, brought up in affluence and a big house. You don’t often come across doctors’ or barristers’ sons – which I thought would have happened by now, as Prem players are so well paid, even better than the average barrister. Foreign players are different, in every way. Quite a few of them have middle-class backgrounds and higher education, always have done. Sócrates of Brazil was a medical doctor.

At one time we did have a few home-grown players who were graduates, such as Steve Heighway and Steve Coppell; both studied economics. Steve Palmer, who played more recently in the Prem with Watford, and also with Ipswich and QPR, had a Cambridge degree in software engineering. He retired from playing in 2005. Since then, there does not appear to be a single graduate in the Prem, not that I can find. Unless they are crouching. (In League One, Matt Smith of Oldham has a Manchester University degree in business management.)

I assume one reason is not the lack of graduate talent but that these days it all starts so early. In the 1970s of Heighway and Coppell, you could come into football late, but now the net is cast so widely – they’re fishing for raw talent in every corner of the globe – and you get spotted and signed up at ten, then dumped on the scrapheap at 12. It’s very hard to break in once your balls drop and your voice breaks.

So Fraser has done jolly well to stick it out and not let his rather privileged background and educational opportunities hold him back from what he really wanted to do. He’s six foot seven, so anyone in the dressing room who might accuse him of being a posho should beware. Hard luck on his dad, though. I bet every time he’s in court some joker says he hopes his son won’t have to spend too much time on the bench.

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

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 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.