It is definitely, definitely not the case that the teams in La Liga are better. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images
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Why are we messing up at top-flight football? I have all the answers

Champion of Europe? Not these days. Hunter Davies explains some of the reasons England aren't quite the footballing force they once were.

Why are we so bad? At this time of the year, England used to have four teams left in the quarter-finals of the Euro championship, two or three at the semis stage, sometimes an all-England final. This year: nothing, nada, disparu. Our four world-class Premiership clubs are long goners. The great brains of the football world have been wrestling with this most vexatious question, muttering into their fashionable beards that it’s a big ask, but now we have some answers...

We are not bad. It’s just that we are in the presence of greatness. Living at this time are some players of genius, so bow down before Messi, let us praise Ronaldo and let’s be grateful that our rough, simple lads get to play on the same turf, even if they spend most of the game lying down, the ball having passed through their legs, again. For last Sunday’s Clásico between Real Madrid and Barça, I stood during the whole game. Respect.

The pendulum will swing. It can’t go on like this. These bad spells never last long. Look at the England national team – why, it was only yesterday they won the World Cup, hold on, correction, 49 years, OK, forget England: that particular pendulum has somehow got stuck on the marker saying “Shite”, so we’ll move on...

Too many bloomin’ foreigners everywhere. They come over here, take all our street-sweeping jobs, provide brilliant service in Pret a Manger and sleep with all our English girls, so how can our lads get in any of our Prem teams? Have you noticed how they arrive in the Prem with big reputations, come to save us, show us how, yet the moment they put on the shirts of Man United, Man City or Spurs, they prove to be rubbish? A plot, obviously. “Are you a double agent in disguise?” they now sing on the Shelf at White Hart Lane.

Too well paid. How can they concentrate when they’re worrying about their HSBC account in Jersey, their five gardeners, three brand managers, two lawyers, two accountants and three French hens bought for tax reasons?

Not paid well enough. They’re being really horrid to Raheem Sterling at present, refusing him £150k a week. Liverpool are just so mean, just because he’s young and inexperienced. Why, it’s ages since he was in short trousers. How can he do his best if he’s worrying about where his next Bentley is coming from?

And the next haircut. People go on about rugby players not needing to bother, but come on, they look pathetic, bits all over the shop. Our footballers do have standards. Having that sharp parting made fashionable by Giroud is not easy. Fans don’t realise it takes surgery to get the line right. And a quiff at the front, or plastered up in the air, as the players do at Newcastle. You need a cool cut to hold your head up in a Prem dressing room.

Surrounding the ref. They also go on about rugger players never arguing with the ref. How craven is that? Far better to have a co-ordinated verbal assault on the ref, all the players going blue in the face. Takes ages in training, which is why they have little time for working on all that soppy stuff they do in Europe, such as passing the ball.

Easier in Europe. Oh yes, it is. Bayern Munich, 10 points ahead in Germany, often field only five players, sometimes just the wives of the first team, and still they hammer everyone. In Spain, Real Madrid and Barça are level pegging, but down at the bottom, dear me, it’s like a Sunday league, or playing Carlisle United. In our wonderful Prem, richest, most competitive in the world, it’s war every week.

The general election. Our lads have been distracted all season, worrying about the result. Once that’s over, you’ll see.

England are ahead of the game. In everything, being an advanced civilisation. Did we not have the Industrial Revolution first, and suffer the consequences first? Did we not give cricket, rugby and football to the world, then politely stand back while others did them better? See, we are the winners, really. Calm down...

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 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.