Football and feminism

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote once: ‘There is nothing I hate more than a masculine man.’

Could feminism be a cause of England’s rubbishness at football? Greg Dyke, the chairman of the FA, did say there could be a number of reasons.

However, he seemed to suggest the main problem was that the Premiership was full of foreigners. Only 32 per cent of the starting line-ups last season were native English horny-handed sons of Albion. Not Albion Rovers, the Scottish team from Coatbridge, currently in the Scottish League Two, but Albion meaning England, as in “perfidious Albion”, though Albion, from the Greek, originally referred to our whole island. We’ll start again.

English players are a minority in their own major league: no argument there. But this is a result, not a cause, of the problem. It clearly limits Roy Hodgson when picking 11 English lads who can kick straight, and mostly to each other, but in the 1970s and 1980s, before the Premiership, the vast majority of our players were English – and did it help us win anything? Did it buggery.

So is it the Prem managers? Only five are English, so why should they care about encouraging young English talent if it’s cheaper and easier to buy someone half decent from eastern Europe, rather than east Essex?

Or the coaches? They’re supposed to spot local lads while they’re still in nappies, then knock them into shape. Again, the facts indicate there’s a problem. We have just 1,161 licensed coaches in England, compared to 12,720 in Spain and 5,500 in Germany. Something’s wrong here.

And yet for 20 years, since the Prem began, our coaching and academy system has been overhauled every three years; millions have been poured in; state-of-the-art training grounds have been built; we have more video suites than Hollywood and coaches with badges coming out of their arses. And where has all this got us? Exactly.

Coaching methods go in and out of fashion. They follow someone, or some system that seems to have cracked it, till it no longer works. Coaching methods are hard to transfer from one country or even one club to another. What works with one person might not work with another. You can’t bottle it, or even describe it. But it has to be done. Raw talent can’t be allowed to lie there, playing with itself. Oh, it’s all such a mystery.

Our Prem players are paid millions, even the cloggers, so you would think simple economics would play a part in these hard times –more, not fewer, young players should be coming through. The obvious explanation: lack of talent.

These things go in cycles. Look at Belgium, with a population of only 11 million, producing excellent players, running away with their World Cup group. Greece, also a country of 11 million, won the Euro 2004 and Denmark, which is even smaller, with a population of five and a half million, won it in 1992. For England, population 53 million: nada since 1966. Our time must come, I constantly tell myself.

What if the real reason is that our players don’t want to win? The handful who do come through get carried away with their flash cars, convinced they’ve made it. But when the knocks come, they are unwilling to fight harder, as Gareth Bale did. Spoiled, our modern youth, convinced that they’re owed a living.

More men watched The Great British Bake Off on telly than watched Arsenal against Fenerbahçe – 1.92 million as against 1.72 million. It’s a victory for feminism, so my wife immediately declared. Not sure about her logic but it’s awfully worrying.

It was, though, a very boring game, with the result never in doubt.

“Don’t forget,” she added, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote once: ‘There is nothing I hate more than a masculine man.’”

It used to be thought pretty sissy when I were a lad, blokes cooking, pinnies flapping. Now they’re all at it. My son and my son-inlaw both do the cooking in their families. Foony people.

Instead of being out in the street playing football under the lamp posts till bedtime, as I was, as nature intended, our soppy new generation is either in the kitchen or slumped in front of the telly watching other men cooking.

Greg, you’ll have to get a grip.

Is England rubbish at football? Image: Getty

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 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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