Tim Sherwood. Photo: Getty
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The Fan: Tottenham's new manager Tim Sherwood has to be seen to be believed

Back in the press box again.

When I gave up being a staff journalist, oh, many years ago now, I didn’t miss having to go to an office every day, listening to boring people boring on, but there was one thing I did miss: the lunches.

When I gave up doing match reports, I didn’t miss having to send off 750 words the moment the final whistle blew; that always hung over me, ruining the pleasure of watching the game. A free ticket, drinks and pies at half-time were nice – but the only thing I really missed was the press conferences.

These are not to be confused with the post-match interviews you see on the telly after the game. They take place in a titchy cupboard plastered with ads for the sponsors. The manager gets asked two banal questions: how do you think it went and what did you say at half-time?

Post-match press conferences are theatrical events, with rows of packed seats and hacks from all over the world, determined to get in their questions. The manager sits on a dais, the club press officer beside him, supposedly to keep order. These are press conferences not seen on TV, from which the manager storms out, or where he says something stupid that haunts him for the rest of the week.

They came in when the Prem began 20 years ago. Before that, it was all pretty much ad hoc. Hacks would wait in the car park after the game, hoping to accost any player or manager stupid enough to hang about. Higher-profile managers would invite the chosen few into their offices, the ones they thought they could trust.

I remember doing a match report at Upton Park when Ron Greenwood was manager, which means it must have been in the early 1970s. I followed the chosen few into Ron’s office and was given a glass of whisky. Before Ron could sit in his chair, Jimmy Hill of the BBC had grabbed his seat, put his feet up on Ron’s desk and proceeded to give us his views on the game. Another time, at Aston Villa, when Ron Atkinson was the manager (so that must have been in the early 1990s), we trooped into his office and all got champagne.

The other day, for the first time in a few years, I got a ticket for the press box at Spurs. Usually I don’t bother to apply for one – the bureaucracy is so time-consuming and you have to prove your publication has millions of pounds in personal liability insurance in case you knock over someone’s laptop and it kills the star striker. But it was the north London derby: Spurs v Arsenal. I wanted to see Tim Sherwood, the new Tottenham manager, in the flesh.

The press box is now double the size it was when I last went. On the left of the tunnel sit the print journalists. On the right are the internet people. Don’t ask me what they do. You sit right behind the two team benches, which gives wonderful immediacy – see the hairs on their arms, smell the embrocation – but there are now so many of them (coaches, medics, physios, video geeks) you can hardly see the pitch.

Wenger was the first into the press theatre, looking even more professorial than usual, his suit jacket off, revealing a woolly cardy, his hands clasped in front of him. He carefully deflected a question about his striker Bendtner, recently accused of being drunk and naughty in Denmark, saying he had yet to talk to him.

Tim Sherwood was wearing dinky brown suede boots, which I hadn’t noticed on the bench. He also had on what the Indie and Guardian described the next day as a “gilet” but to me was a waistcoat, which he had thrown off at one point in disgust.

He started off praising his team but was soon revealing his real feelings: he had been dealt a bad hand and could name only two players he thought were good (Adebayor and Lloris). “Others might play for their national teams but they might not be my cup of tea . . .”

All afternoon, after Arsenal’s early goal, their fans had been singing Sherwood’s name. “He comes from Borehamwood, he ain’t no fucking good.” They could be spot on.

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 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses