Calling urbane, European managers such as André Villas-Boas "the gaffer" verges on surreal. Photo: Getty
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Back to mine: why we still talk about footballers in the language of the pit

They may earn millions and drive Maseratis but today’s footballers are still described using old working-class terminology. It’s the last link with the game’s roots. 

In a sparkling recent column in these pages, Hunter Davies examined football’s fraudulent use of language. He pointed out that although footballers earn millions and drive Maseratis, their lives must still be described using old working-class terminology.

Any player who stays at a club for longer than the duration of a holiday in the Maldives is described as a “fantastic servant”. It is as though, in Hunter’s phrase, “he hadn’t been paid and had just been given food and lodgings, forced to sleep under the grandstand and wash his own kit”.

My favourite football cliché is the ubiquitous “He’s really put in a shift” – a commentator’s euphemism for: “He’s run around a lot today.” What was he supposed to do in return for £200,000 a week? Sit down in the centre circle and meditate?

It’s not just football. County cricket still tolerates the tradition of the “benefit year”, which permits players, who have driven to the ground in German saloon cars, to arrange plastic buckets to be passed around the stands, where pensioners rummage around in their purses for a couple of quid to throw into the whip-round. In the 1930s, when clubs treated professional players like tradesmen, the benefit year helped the seasoned pro settle into a well-earned retirement. Today’s pros have the protection of an effective union and EU employment law, as well as a lot more money.

Football is even more obsessed with retaining and celebrating its working-class origins. This is particularly odd when applied to the new breed of urbane, sophis­ticated and (usually) European manager. Yet we must still call him the “gaffer”. It is unclear exactly what Pep Guardiola (a devotee of Catalan poetry) and André Villas-Boas (the great-grandson of a viscount), with their skinny-fit suits, cashmere V-necks and multilingual panache, have in common with a factory foreman from Queen Victoria’s heyday.

The terror of the half-time team talk is another part of folklore. We are still led to believe that, at the sound of the whistle, 11 balletic young men, most of whom are far more at home eating tuna carpaccio with the Eurotrash crowd in Knightsbridge than unwrapping cod and chips, walk into the dressing room feeling like terrorised orphans in a Charles Dickens novel.

In reality, they will sip on isotonic sports drinks while listening to the kind of complex tactical information that football coaches – aided by their crew of quants and data gurus – now marshal into strategic decision-making. Backstage in elite sport these days has more in common with Nasa’s HQ than a coal mine.

Meanwhile, footballers have become spectacularly wealthy, though their astronomic annual salaries must still be expressed as a weekly wage – a mark of respect to their working-class predecessors. The equivalent salaries dished out by Goldman Sachs are never divided into working men’s chunks, so we remain unfamiliar with the phrase: “Lloyd Blankfein, who earns £8,000 per shift as CEO, answered questions about the bank’s profits . . .”

The players who entertain us so spectacularly in the Champions League and the Premier League – though this point holds more for non-British players – often do not fit the old template of boy-made-good. Kaká and Andrés Iniesta, for example, stayed on in school after the age of 16.

It is certainly true, both here and abroad, that the social composition of the fans has shifted. There is still guilty talk about the “authenticity” of football crowds but they are increasingly drawn from the middle classes. When a season ticket to watch Arsenal costs £1,470, they have to be. Those who can afford it still cough up, bemoaning the trend while not seeing the contradiction. “The tourist is the other fellow,” as Evelyn Waugh once said.

Meanwhile, as an inspiration to thoughtful critics, football has become one of the most sophisticated manifestations of contemporary culture. Jonathan Wilson or Simon Kuper’s forensic analysis of the strategic feints and counterpunches of Mourinho and Guardiola will probably be the most intelligent article you read in the newspaper.

Given all this, why do the old linguistic stereotypes endure? I would take Hunter’s thesis one step further. In the 25 years or so that I’ve been watching televised football, the obsession with working-class terminology has increased sharply. There are more “good shifts”, “gaffers” and “loyal servants” around than ever before. The language of industrial perspiration has hardened into the game’s collective mythology.

So industrial language is not a hangover from the past, an accidental residue that will one day die out. It is a willed, semi-deliberate aspect of football’s identity. Language always has a point, even if it is to obscure reality rather than to clarify it. As the players get richer and their social backgrounds broader, as the crowd becomes wealthier and more detached from the local community, as the writers dazzle intellectually – all this must be counterbalanced by constant references to a simpler, earthier time, when men were real men and hard-working defenders toiled away at the coalface (the tic is contagious), fearing a clip round the ear from the gaffer if they got caught napping on the job and let that whippet of an opposition winger get goal-side.

Roy Hodgson – a civilised and thoughtful man who relaxes by reading Philip Roth novels and who talks wistfully about the view from his old balcony overlooking the Italian lakes – now prepares to take our boys to Brazil for the World Cup. What else can we say to them beyond: “Don’t punch out unless you’ve got the job done and brought home the goods”?

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories