Orf side: Buckingham Palace footmen bring out half-time oranges at the palace’s first football match, October 2013. (Photo: Getty)
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The Fan: now Jermain Defoe has left Spurs, can we stop calling him a loyal servant?

When top bankers retire, no one ever says they’ve been great servants to HSBC, but in football romantic notions of service linger on.

So Jermain Defoe has gone off to play in Toronto. He’s 31. That’s pretty young to pack in the Prem and possibly the chance of being in the England squad for Brazil. No more will he hear Spurs supporters shouting, “Jer-main Dee-foe, eeza Yid-ohhhh,” which will no doubt be a relief to him as it did lead to all sorts of explanations, distractions, defences and apologias.

And no more will we hear football commentators intone, “Jermain Defoe, he’s been a good servant to Spurs,” though the cliché will continue, perhaps for ever, till the last syllable of recorded Match of the Day. Vidic of Man United is off to Milan at the end of the season, so listen up for “What a fantastic servant!” every time he kicks the ball.

Anybody who stays at a club for more than half an hour these days is deemed to have been a loyal servant, making it sound as if he hadn’t been paid and had just been given food and lodgings, forced to sleep under the grandstand and wash his own kit.

When top bankers retire, no one ever says, “Oh, he’s been a great servant to HSBC,” as we all know that what he served was himself. The same is true of footballers but in football minds, old romantic notions of service linger on, along with ideas of fair play and sporting behaviour .We like to believe that they love the club badge – why else would they rub it so passionately, eh? All bollocks, of course.

The language of football retains many industrial references, harking back to the sport’s 19th-century beginnings and the years when footballers’ contracts imprisoned them, stopped their freedom of movement and imposed a maximum wage.

Their wages are still expressed in weekly terms, as if they were members of the old working classes. Wayne Rooney, we have been told, is now to get £300,000 – per week. No mention is ever made of what that might be as an annual salary. It would take up too much space, for a start, but it’s really because we like to believe all professional footballers are still workers on weekly wages, like bus drivers.

Frank Lampard, “a fantastic servant to Chelsea” for about 100 years, is also said to have a “great engine”, another accolade with industrial overtones. All footballers, if they are not knackered when the final whistle blows, are praised for having put in “a good shift”. Down the mines or on the factory floor?

Van Persie, should he miss a sitter, will have been expected to score because he “has that in his locker”, as if he worked in a factory and had his overalls and tools safely put away.

When Jack Wilshere makes another rash tackle (which, alas, he won’t be doing for another few months now), the commentator will excuse his clumsiness by describing it as “an agricultural challenge”. This conjures up images of him as a 19th-century peasant with straw sticking out of his ears who has come to the big city.

Football managers all over the UK are referred to by their players as “the gaffer”, an Industrial Revolution term for foreman or overseer in charge of a group of labourers (the word is thought to be a 16th-century corruption of “godfather”). Outside of the building site, it’s only among footballers that the term has been retained. Other archaic phrases live on. A ball will miss the goals by inches, not centimetres, and players will be a yard too slow. You even hear references to a skilled player being able to “turn on a sixpence”. What’s a sixpence, Grandad? In Scotland, they admire a “tanner ba’ player” – a tanner being an old sixpence.

Perhaps the old language lingers on because footballers are in some senses still members of the working classes. That’s where they have come from and how they still see themselves. They get bossed around, live in fear of the sack, are told when to go to bed, get fined for misdemeanours. Very much like old servants. Except for their millions . . . 

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 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

Photo: Getty
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Emmanuel Macron can win - but so can Marine Le Pen

Macron is the frontrunner, but he remains vulnerable to an upset. 

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is campaigning in the sixth largest French city aka London today. He’s feeling buoyed by polls showing not only that he is consolidating his second place but that the voters who have put him there are increasingly comfortable in their choice

But he’ll also be getting nervous that those same polls show Marine Le Pen increasing her second round performance a little against both him and François Fillon, the troubled centre-right candidate. Her slight increase, coming off the back of riots after the brutal arrest of a 22-year-old black man and Macron’s critical comments about the French empire in Algeria is a reminder of two things: firstly the potential for domestic crisis or terror attack to hand Le Pen a late and decisive advantage.  Secondly that Macron has not been doing politics all that long and the chance of a late implosion on his part cannot be ruled out either.

That many of his voters are former supporters of either Fillon or the Socialist Party “on holiday” means that he is vulnerable should Fillon discover a sense of shame – highly unlikely but not impossible either – and quit in favour of a centre-right candidate not mired in scandal. And if Benoît Hamon does a deal with Jean-Luc Mélenchon – slightly more likely that Fillon developing a sense of shame but still unlikely – then he could be shut out of the second round entirely.

What does that all mean? As far as Britain is concerned, a Macron or Fillon presidency means the same thing: a French government that will not be keen on an easy exit for the UK and one that is considerably less anti-Russian than François Hollande’s. But the real disruption may be in the PR battle as far as who gets the blame if Theresa May muffs Brexit is concerned.

As I’ve written before, the PM doesn’t like to feed the beast as far as the British news cycle and the press is concerned. She hasn’t cultivated many friends in the press and much of the traditional rightwing echo chamber, from the press to big business, is hostile to her. While Labour is led from its leftmost flank, that doesn’t much matter. But if in the blame game for Brexit, May is facing against an attractive, international centrist who shares much of the prejudices of May’s British critics, the hope that the blame for a bad deal will be placed solely on the shoulders of the EU27 may turn out to be a thin hope indeed.

Implausible? Don’t forget that people already think that Germany is led by a tough operator who gets what she wants, and think less of David Cameron for being regularly outmanoeuvered by her – at least, that’s how they see it. Don’t rule out difficulties for May if she is seen to be victim to the same thing from a resurgent France.

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