Blinking like a pit pony: it can be hard to reacclimatise to the British gloom after a spell in the sun
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The Fan: the pointlessness of “warm-weather training”

Does sending the boys out to Dubai to kick balls around really achieve anything?

Last week the Chelsea manager, José Mourinho, explained that Oscar, one of his stars, has suffered a loss of form because of our dreadful weather. Everyone nodded. Poor petal, coming from Brazil, must be an awful shock to him. Forgetting that this is his second winter here.

Both West Ham and Man United have just come back from a warm-weather break in Dubai. At the end of the season, we’ll see how much good it did them. Norralot, I guess, but Big Sam returned with a rather fine tan. Looking for close-ups of David Moyes, I couldn’t see much evidence of his sunny sojourn – even his hair is going grey. I remember him in his youth as a redhead, or have I imagined it, confusing him with 10,000 other journeyman Scottish players?

They call it warm-weather training but what is the point? Before a world cup being held in sunny climes, I can understand the need, but not when they immediately have to come back here and play in the rain and cold. Then there’s ten hours each way on a plane, which is a total waste of their highly paid time. The average Prem player spends more of his life travelling than he ever does playing. I reckon that for every 90-minute game, they do up to nine hours’ travelling. And that’s just in England.

When it’s abroad, playing in Europe, or their pointless long-hauls to Asia in the close season to make the clubs even more money and sell tat, or their warm-weather jollies – sorry, intense training – I don’t know how they cope with the problem of jet lag. After my January break in the West Indies – which I need in order to escape our depressing winter weather, oh yes, how else can I remain on top form, just ask José, Dave and Sam – I can’t see for three days. It seems so dark, after the tropical sun and blue skies. I am blinking like a pit pony. Takes me a week to recover.

The players, I assume, have become inured to these long trips, their bodies hardened. It’s what they have been doing all their lives. Wayne Rooney, when he was just 13 and in the Everton Academy, went to Dallas to take part in a football tournament. He also played in Switzerland against 13-year-old kids who had come all the way from Brazil. They start them travelling young, in the modern football battery farms.

No wonder footballers have always been gamblers – at cards or the horses. Gives them something to do on those long, tedious journeys. Personally, I would pay money not to have to go to Dubai for a week. But managers believe it breaks the routine, the grind of a long, hard season, freshens up their fragile minds and tired legs.

The thing about blaming bad weather for making players depressed, or praising good weather for revitalising them, is that the weather can always be used as excuse. And dear God, managers need all the excuses they can find at this stage in the season,whether it’s at the top or bottom of the league. I think I will scream if another manager slags off the referee for his stupid/biased/half-witted decision that lost us the game.

Another excuse players and their managers use, which follows on from our shit weather, is acclimatisation. Foreign players, bless them, need time to settle down, get used to our funny ways, funny food, so you have to forgive them. Today, of course, it is the same for both sides, unlike the old days. In every Prem game, the vast majority of the players have come from abroad, and have been acclimatising since the age of 13, moving round the globe.

Wenger is now saying that Mesut Özil, his star signing, is not just having problems settling, but is awfully tired. I was at the Emirates for the Arsenal-Bayern Munich game and the Gooners round me were so abusive I had to cover my ears.

Mostly, when they cite the weather, problems settling, dodgy lasagne, pizza being thrown in the tunnel, wrong studs, itchy shirts, unlucky underpants, all of which I have heard being blamed for defeats, the true explanation is very simple: uselessness. 

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 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.