The Etihad Stadium. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

I’m sorry – there’s no beating the view from the Platinum Box

There is still part of me that hates all this hospitality stuff which every Premiership club now offers.

The invitation was so exciting. Guest of the Arabs to watch Man City at home against Chelsea, match of the weekend, perhaps the season. “Exclusive treatment in the Platinum Executive Box at the Etihad Stadium. VIP guest, three-course meal, complimentary drinks throughout the day.” Hmm, but would there be booze drinks, or just drinks drinks, these Arabs, eh?

With all games these days getting there always hangs over me, which is why I haven’t travelled to an away game for years. Last time I saw Man City at home they were at Maine Road, not the Etihad. What does the name mean anyway? At least the Arabs should be able to tell me.

I was assured that transport was all arranged, these Arabs know how to treat a chap. Would a helicopter pick me up in my garden, or perhaps on the Heath? That would be handy.

No, I had to assemble at 11 on Sunday morning at Euston, where I met my three fellow guests, all hacks, plus a glamorous, bouncy young PR person aged about 13 . . . OK, let’s say 23, as she graduated from Bath University a few months ago.

First shock – we were not travelling first class. Awful how greedy and ungrateful one becomes when one is not paying. Second horror was having to wander round the stadium for ages, unable to find out where to pick up our VIP, platinum blah blah tickets.

After that, it was treats all the way. Platinum turned out to be the best boxes in the main Colin Bell Stand and ours had a dining table properly laid out. On my previous two football freebies, at Wembley and the Emirates, the meal had been a stand-up buffet. This was clarty posh.

There is part of me that hates all this hospitality stuff which every Premiership club now offers. It takes up so much space. Most of the guests have no interest in football, they stuff their faces and they take their seats so late that for 15 minutes after half-time it looks as if part of the stadium has been evacuated. On the other hand, as an occasional invitee, I find myself thinking, brilliant idea, just what clubs need in these hard financial times.

Our hostess was ever so efficient, serving real drinks straight away, then it was a huge antipasto followed by contre-filet of English beef, yum yum. It’s true I get fed at home, and drinks all day, and Mrs Davies never gives me the bill, so kind that way, but freebies somehow always taste different.

I complimented the hostess and made the sort of crass remark I make to foreign minicab drivers: “What did you used to do back home, a brain surgeon?” Turned out that during the week she’s a midwife at Oldham General. A proper, vital job, unlike serving freeloaders.

We were guests of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority – and I must say they didn’t shove the wonders of Abu Dhabi down our jam-packed throats. It was all low-key, relaxed, informal. There were four Arabs there, all quite young, mostly on their mobiles, all a bit reserved – in fact, it was hard to get much out of them, though the one I sat beside during the game did know about football.

“We love you, Sit-eh,” the home fans shouted. I asked him if he understood the words, and he nodded.

“Fook off, Mourinho.”

He wasn’t so sure about that.

I explained they were shouting in a Manchester accent. If you go to Stoke, Leicester or Hull, they all chant “Come on, City”, but if you close your eyes you can tell by the slight differences in pronunciation exactly which city you’re in. Same with “Fook off, Mourinho”. That’s northern. “Fahck off, Mourinho” indicates you are in London or the south-east, but the sentiment is the same.

It ended 1-1, all the excitement coming at the end, and I heard a phrase I’ve never heard sung at a football game before: “There’s only one James Milner.”

The Arabs have owned Man City since 2008, when Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi bought it. Etihad Airways became the sponsor and the stadium was later renamed. And now I know why. Etihad in Arabic means “united”. Bad research, if you ask me. They should have bought the other club. 

Hunter Davies’s latest book, “The Biscuit Girls”, is published by Ebury Press (£6.99)

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 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.