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

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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:

 

The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

...is, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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