I am in love with Jeffrey Schlupp. I like writing his name down. Photo: Getty
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Hunter Davies’ Half-Season Awards

Cheer up, Stevie! Go, Schlupp! And Pearson, don’t come down from the stands.

Stand by your beds for the Half-Season Awards, plus groans, moans.

Still with us Every back-page clever clogs had Alan Pardew of Newcastle down for the chop just half an hour ago. Now look at him, the saviour of Tyneside. For the next half-hour anyway. And Louis van Gaal, his demise looked imminent. Now Man United could win the League,
if their boring but fortunate run of play continues.

Also doing good Great season, early doors, for Southampton, West Ham, Swansea – but are they cute enough to keep it up to the end?

Cliché of the season “Cute”, according to all the commentators, no longer means “cuddly” and “appealing” but suggests an inner wickedness – an ability to do wrong and get away with it, to have the other player sent off, to con the ref, all of these qualities considered admirable in football, finance, politics, most things, really.

More clichés “Stepping up to the plate, going down to the wire”. Sounds like a contortionist. Some early spottings but the torrent won’t start until about Easter.

Sad face Steven Gerrard has always looked tired, older than his years, even when things were going well. Liverpool is now out of Europe, his career nearing its end, and yet he has won so much. Cheer up, Stevie. At least you are not playing for Spurs or Carlisle United, the two teams I have always supported. About which I don’t really want to talk. Next!

Sad body Oh, I feel so sorry for Yaya Touré. When he is not on the ball, he lumbers around the pitch looking for somewhere to go, to rest his aching, weary, old limbs. I know just how he feels. I wonder if, when in a sitting position, he says aloud, “One, two, three,” before eventually forcing himself up? My family hates it when I do that. But, my goodness, when he’s on the ball, you should see him zip around. What a worker, what energy and drive still at his age. Just like moi, actually.

Philosophical quote of the season “I just wonder how many goals he would have scored if he had scored more goals” – Michael Owen, speaking on BT Sport.

Haircut of the season For the first time in 18 years there has been no outright winner. Mad haircuts have gone out – pineapples and bird’s nests have disappeared. They are all roughly short back and sides with old-fashioned partings, the only novelty being the positioning of the partings and, oh, gel, loads of gel. Girls, girls, do try harder.

Most improved players Bony of Swansea has done good. Harry Kane of Spurs is trying hard. Connor Wickham of Sunderland shows promising signs of not being a total lump. Bolasie of Palace looks cute.

Going backwards Raheem Sterling of Liverpool, so exciting last season, seems
to be marking time. Ditto another promising youngster, Adnan Januzaj at Man United. Of the senior players who were doing well, Gary Cahill is looking dodgy and Joe Hart of Man City and England is not quite as good as he used to believe he was.

Manager alarm I do hope Nigel Pearson of Leicester does not give up sitting high in the stands. So sensible, so cool. Yes, his team is doing so badly. Is there a connection? I am sure there isn’t. I think. Can’t believe there is. Possibly. Maybe.

Schlupp Please don’t let Leicester go down. I am in love with Jeffrey Schlupp. I like writing his name down, then rolling it round my chops.

Striking images I can still see Mourinho’s lovely smile when Chelsea went two down against Newcastle – a beatific, angelic, rueful smile. But why? They went on to their first defeat of the season. Was he pleased the stress of it all was over?

Really nice image Wayne earning his 100th cap for England, bringing his two little boys on to the pitch. Klay, the younger, had “Klay” on the back of his England shirt while Kai, the elder, had “Daddy 100”. Coleen’s face was a study. Bless.

Worrying image All those gaps in the Aston Villa home crowd. Always a bad sign when fans who have paid for the season don’t bother to turn up, even just to boo. At least at Spurs there are no gaps yet. Booing does keep you warm.

Pointing Definitely on the increase. What you do when you have done something really, really stupid – such as let their star man run rings round you, give away a petty foul on the edge of the penalty area, balloon a clearance – is immediately turn round and point. Doesn’t matter where, or at whom. The very act of violent, agitated, imperious, pointless pointing is enough. Then you move on.

Barclays They are still at it, with their banal perimeter advertising, trying to personalise it the way politicians do. “Thank you, Joe Bloggs, for your passion for Swansea. You are the true spirit of the game.” The names at each ground always sound real but are they? Have the people been paid? Can they sue? Oh, I do hope so.

Crowd action During the Spurs-Partizan Belgrade home game, an intruder got on the pitch. The security men lumbered on, stumbled about, while the intruder ran rings round them and the crowd cheered. It happened twice again, by which time the players and ref – who suspended the game for a while – were getting really pissed off. Was it political or just pranksters? One was taking selfies, which suggested the latter. It was the best action and entertainment of the game. Perhaps all season . . .

Hunter Davies’s latest book is “The Beatles Lyrics: the Unseen Story Behind Their Music” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)

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 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.