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 are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.