Sound the sirens - our top-flight teams are rubbish

It's so exciting. The Premier League, it can only happen here - that's what the Prem is all about. The most envied league in the world, the most watched, the most open, with the best players, who are the best paid . . . Oh, bollocks, I can't keep it up. Because none of it is true. Except, perhaps, that it's the most open.

Open at the bottom, for it is so close that we won't know who will be going down till the very end, and open at the top, because it's going to be tight there, too. The normal reason given is that the standard has increased all round, the so-called lowlier teams having improved and become able to pay Prem-level wages and attract talent from around the world, as everyone wants to play in the Prem, etc.

A team like West Ham can even attract players with degrees, such as that 25-year-old big head from Senegal who runs around with "BA" on the back of his shirt. It may be a big deal in Senegal to be a graduate, but over here it's meaningless. It won't even get you a job stacking shelves.

I think the reason it is an open season is very simple - our top teams are rubbish. They're inconsistent and liable to get beaten by anyone, at any time.

And why are they rubbish? Three reasons. First, the lack of half-decent British talent coming through. Second, the drying up of top foreign talent - we only get the second-best these days, such as Torres and Fàbregas, who are considered top-class over here but can't make Spain's first team. And can you see Messi ever wanting to play here this side of his old-age pension, or Ronaldo returning, unless he decides to buy Man United with his loose change?

Gaffers' gaffes

Third, there are our top managers, such as Fergie and Wenger, whom we adore, who have been so successful, kept in their posts for ages, unlike the ones with those flighty foreign outfits that change their gaffers on the hour. They've lost it and peaked - they're over the top, not much use, you know.

Fergie is failing to renew Man United. They have no dynamic midfield driving force to lead or urge them on when things are not going well - a Roy Keane or a Bryan Robson - or a talisman such as Cantona, whom the whole team can look up to. Yes, hard to find, but when Scholes and Giggs retire, who will have the creative skills to fill their places? Not Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, John O'Shea or Darron Gibson, and certainly not Gabriel Obertan. Poor old Owen Hargreaves is a crock.

At the back, when Rio and Vidic are out, that's it. Rio is well past his best anyway. The back-up players, such as Chris Smalling, are raw and naive. At the front, something is still wrong with Rooney, while Berbatov is still Berbatov, driving his manager mad. Hernández looks promising but Fergie appears not quite convinced. Only Nani gives hope.

Man United will probably still win the League and FA Cup, and they have progressed in Europe with a win against Marseille, but it will only disguise their problems. Arsenal, alas, have already collapsed before our eyes, deflated and decaying, mainly because Wenger has refused to sign a fully formed star player, preferring to shape his own. Fàbregas is supposedly his best player, but I can't remember the last time he dominated a game. A fit van Persie is vital - but he's always injured. Nasri is good, but he fades from games. Wilshere is not strong enough, yet. The Barcelona manager was right: Wilshere would only make their reserve team. The rest, such as Bendtner and Chamakh, would be lucky to make their third.

At Chelsea, the last of our modern-day top three, Lampard has had it, Drogba is getting old, Torres is a flop. Who have they got coming through, internally or from a big purchase, to make the heart leap?

Liverpool offer a bit of hope that gaps are being plugged when Andy Carroll and Luis Suárez bed down together, though Gerrard is fading fast. Spurs, on their day, do raise a smile.

I don't think it's watching Barça that makes English football depressing, but that Man United and Arsenal are falling below their own high standards. It's a national crisis. The coalition government has to act fast. Come on, Dave, get a grip.

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 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide