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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.