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.


“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

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.