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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era