For the laffs: Gazza back in 1989. Photo: Getty
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Gianluca Vialli’s wisdom, Swiss cheese hats and desperately missing Gazza

Hunter Davies’s The Fan column. 

So how did I feel after that Italy game? Disappointed? Nah, not at all. Can’t be disappointed when our expectations were so low that even white van drivers had given up flying tatty flags. In the days of the Golden Generation – what a laugh that was – we were all endlessly disappointed, conned by our own naive hopes, which, despite ourselves, were beginning to creep back upon us. Until that Italy game.

Angry? Nope. I gave up being angry about England ages ago during those endless games where they did something really stupid – gave the ball away, fell over, back-passed to the opposition, threw the ball into their own net, sent vital penalties over the grandstand. Against Italy, in fact, they didn’t make too many crass mistakes. And a lot of good it did them.

Sad, that’s all I feel, really. Sad. I look at my little pit, where I had hoped to be buried deep for the next four weeks, cheering on the lads into the semis, well, the quarters, OK surely out of the group stage, and I think oh no, there we’ve gone again.

So why did Italy win? The great Gianluca Vialli, awfully well-brought-up chap, once Chelsea manager, wrote in his 2006 book The Italian Job that Italians play with their head and the English with their heart. Which is pretty true, or used to be. More recently he went all philosophical and said the difference was down to history. The Italians have been invaded endlessly over the centuries and so developed a defensive mentality. The English for centuries have been great conquerors, used to going out and attacking, becoming gung-ho warriors. Pretty smart, but really not correct any longer. England’s strength today is in counterattacking, rather than up and at ’em.

They didn’t get stuffed by Italy, and could easily have drawn. Sterling was a delight. Sturridge did well. Rooney was poor, and it is becoming clearer all the time that no one rates him in Europe, while Wilshere is totally overrated. But apart from those two, our lads did their best.

So, what was the difference? The Italians are cleverer, both individually and as a team. We took dumb free-kicks and half-witted corners. That’s it, really. They thought about it, winning in their heads. Vialli was right.

Which leads to the question: what happened to Dr Peters, that ace psychiatrist Roy hired to sort them out? Fallen on his water bottle like Gary Lewin, the poor physio who ended up injured and has had to come home?

****

And where was Dave? Angela turned up to see Germany hammer Portugal but no sign of Cameron so far. I sense Angela really is a football fan, unlike Dave, though I will have nothing said against him. He has just sent me a signed photograph – after three requests. I now have an autograph or letter of every PM back to Walpole.

Angela Merkel looked neat in her red jacket and bobbed hair – and I realised where Joachim Löw, the German manager, got his inspiration. For years I have assumed he bought his black wig from a Beatles souvenir shop on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg – but studying Angela up close, I could see she is his model. Of course it’s a wig. No one of his age has hair that black.

The players’ hair has been a disappointment. Nothing truly stupid so far, except Raul Meireles with his monster bushy beard and Mohican. The crowd, though, has shown imagination with its silly clothes. During Switzerland-Ecuador we got a close-up of three fans wearing what looked like mortar boards with holes in. I rushed to the telly, frightening all the sheep outside the window, hoping for another close-up. When it came I realised their hats were in the shape of yellow cheese with holes in. Now is that called Emmental, or Gruyère? I missed the Swiss winning goal, trying to work it out – and also wondering why the Swiss see cheese as their national symbol when we usually think of cuckoo clocks. I suppose they are harder to make into hats.

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“QUICK!” I shouted to my wife. “THEY’RE LINING UP.”

It’s the only bit she watches, loves to see their little faces as they sing or mouth the national anthems.

She waited a bit longer than usual, as it was England, and asked what the referee was carrying in the little canister around his waist. “Is it a gun?” No, I said, try again. “Tear gas?” No, pet, you just have one more guess. “Water?” Good try, but no goldfish.

I explained it was shaving soap, or some sort of spray-on white paint, which disappears in 30 seconds, to mark the grass where the defenders must stand at free-kicks and not move forward behind the ref’s back, which players all over the world have always done.

It must be hellish awkward carrying it, and dangerous. Presumably it is some sort of aerosol, which could easily explode in the heat. I’m waiting for the first ref to drop it – then we’ll see what happens. Probably clear the ground.

In 1995, when Gazza was playing for Glasgow Rangers, the ref dropped his cards during a match at Ibrox. Gazza picked up the yellow card and, instead of handing it back, struck a ref-like pose, holding it up in the air and booking the referee. The crowd loved it. The ref didn’t think it was funny. Gave Gazza a yellow card.

I wish Gazza was there now. Not just for his skills. With this new canister, when it gets dropped, I can just see Gazza picking it up and going round spraying lines all over the shop.

Oh, how we could do with Gazza at this sad time. We need some football brains. And some laffs . . .

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 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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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