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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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