The best, the rest and the journeymen

The return of Hunter Davies "The Fan" column.

The new season seems to have been here for, well, not long really. Still can’t get my head round Van Persie in a Man United shirt. When they move here from a foreign club, your eye and mind can accept it quite quickly, as you never saw them enough to make them a household face, part of the furniture. But when it’s one of your own extended family moving in with those awful people from the next street, you keep blinking.

Berbatov, he’s another I haven’t quite assimilated. It’s not that he looks strange at Fulham but that he looks strange standing up. Got used to seeing him only from the neck up, sitting on his bum on the Man United bench.

Still trying to clear up what the Premiership refs have now got on their sleeves. Looks like they are being sponsored by something beginning with EXI that has an aeroplane motive. Could it be that Exit, the voluntary euthanasia people, and they are ready to fly off and end it all after a bad game?

Alan Shearer, alas, is still with us but even more shaven-haired. He has a fine jawline, a steady gaze, comes out with such authority and power when he is telling us something utterly banal that I suspect he is now being played by an actor. Patrick Stewart, maybes?

Looks funny there, the word “maybes” but how else can you spell it? It’s what Geordies say, artfully turning maybe into a plural.

Joe Cole and Michael Owen, I honestly have looked everywhere for them, scanned the comings and goings, checked the small print in the last-minute transfers. Have they fallen down the back of the sofa, been chucked out with the waste paper and are now shouting and screaming at the recycling depot to be rescued? I went to the Kentish Town dump last week and it’s enormous. You could drop Roy Hodgson’s full 23 squad into one of the containers and no one would ever know.

Joey Barton going to Marseilles, gosh that was a good ’un, never expected that – I still feel it’s a joke tweet. One of the points made by everyone during the Olympics was how lovely and charming and polite our Olympians were – and so they should be, all that money having been spent on their private-school education, up at 5.30 in the morning to train all on their own, then doing their PhD during the day, blah blah, not like our spoiled multimillionaires. But one of the many points in favour of football as an occupation is that it does keep yobs off the street. Good luck with the Frogs, Joey.

Bonus culture

Only three weeks into the season, yet I am already pissed off by Sky telling us the Premiership is the best and most exciting league in the world. I can only assume that Martin Tyler, whom I do like as a commentator, is under orders, perhaps bonus money every time he drags it in. He even had the brass neck to tell us that Man City have the best players in the world. What is he on? I mean per hour, which would explain why he has to earn his bonuses.

So we all had to laugh when Chelsea, our best team last year, having won the Euro championship, if rather fortunately – got well and truly stuffed 4-1 in that Uefa super cup in Monaco by Atlético Madrid. If the Prem is the best in the world, how come Chelsea can be taken apart by a team that finished well down La Liga last season – 44 points behind the winners, Real Madrid, and 35 behind Barça?

And if we are the best league, why can’t we attract the best players? Obviously Messi and Ronaldo will not be coming, not till they are aged 49, overweight and limping, but surely someone could have tempted Falcao away from Atlético Madrid?

If you look at the transfers this season, what we have mostly got from Spain have been the dribs and drabs, journeymen and unknowns.

The eye-catching ones have been internal, such as Van Persie, Berbatov, Andy Carroll to West Ham, the two Fulham players going to Spurs – Dembélé and Dempsey. By already playing here, they have been brainwashed into believing they are in the best league. The fools.


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 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.