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Let’s face it, football’s always been on the fiddle

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column.

I was still on my hols, in downtown Bequia, when I first saw the ballboy incident – you know, Charlie Morgan of Swansea time-wasting against Chelsea.

I thought, hey up, that’s expensive hair, for hair in sport is an abiding fascination – but how can he afford it when he is only a lad, a mere ballboy? He looked more like a young Prem footballer, Gareth Bale, or a member of a boy band. The sticky-up bit at the front needs regular care and gel, which is not cheap. In our area, it’s cool sixth-formers at public schools – Highgate and University College School – who can afford such style, thanks to daddy. Turned out Morgan was 17 and the son of a multimillionaire.

I came home to find the story still reverberating, after the back-page hacks realised they could give each side a good kicking – Morgan for being a spoiled, rich brat and Eden Hazard of Chelsea, who kicked him, for being a spoiled, rich brat. There were two targets to have a go at – a ballboy timewasting, however awfully, should not be allowed; and rich footballers, don’t they make you sick?

Award-winning older columnists, such as those on the Independent and the Mail on Sunday, love these “talking points”, tuttutting at modern football, feeling awfully virtuous, latching on to something easy to criticise as opposed to going through the bore of describing the game itself.

It’s fun giving players a good verbal kicking these days – for there is no point in arse-licking or keeping in with them. They are not going to give you an interview, have a drink with you on the plane or hotel or a word in the car park. They are separate beings, in a different world, with monster mansions, Baby Bentleys to sleep with and all the girls they can drive and, of course, the hacks are furious and welljel. (I got that from my granddaughter. You can work out what it means, being clever.)

These self-righteous, pompous columnists continually hark back to the old days, when football was not obsessed by money and players were honest and fair, tra-la, which is bollocks. Football was money mad and on the fiddle from the beginning, even before it officially went professional in 1885. Players might not have kicked ballboys but they knocked the shite out of each other. And they were allowed to, in the main, charging goalies into the net.

I can’t think of one real hooligan in the Prem today, the token thug who every team had to have, such as Tommy Smith, Peter Storey and, more recently, Vinnie Jones and Robbie Savage.

Their job was to destroy. Passing the ball was an optional extra. “Try that again and I’ll break your fucking leg,” was the normal welcome from the hard man to any young player on the other side. Doesn’t happen now. Partly because they are all foreign and don’t swear in English.

I should think Arsenal fans are probably longing for an old-fashioned hard man at present, instead of all these foreigners with funny hair fannying around. The reason lies with Barça, who became world-beaters with seven-stone weaklings in midfield and a skinny , weedy striker up front.

With age, you are supposed to grow curmudgeonly, regretting what is happening now, but, so far, hand on heart – oh, God, where is it? – I think in football all is for the better. The players have more skill; they are cleverer, fitter. We are in a golden age: not in the England team, obviously, but worldwide. Switch on to the Africa Cup of Nations, if you can find it, and you will see terrific players you’ve never heard of.

The money the stars make? Doesn’t worry me. The ballboy playing silly buggers? Come on, that was a laugh.

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 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.