Don’t weed out the weeds: they’re the real winners

I used to be small, weedy and asthmatic as a boy. I know, hard to believe, when I turned out a hunk, but through my school years all my friends
were a foot taller, which was so embarrassing. Especially when they were girls.

At my secondary modern the headmaster asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, ie grew old, for there seemed little chance of physical growth. I boast, out of inverted snobbery, that I went to a sec mod, but it was a secondary technical, where I was sent aged 11. We had moved from Dumfries across the border to Carlisle and I had missed the 11-plus, which in Scotland was at 12. I went on at 16 to the grammar school.

“I want to be a professional footballer" was what I said. The head looked at me, pityingly. I should have said a draughtsman at Laing's the builders, which was the correct answer for any ambitious boy.

It must have been obvious that being small and weedy I had little chance, but it spurred me on - I'll show them, I'll make even greater efforts, which I did for what, well, must have been a week. I might as well reveal it now. I never did become a pro footballer.

One of the many joys and attractions of football, and why it is played worldwide, is that it can accommodate all shapes and sizes. Except in Britain.

There is this tradition that even if you are small you must be stocky, fiery, thick-thighed, thick-necked, will fight anyone in this room, like, say, Billy Bremner and Kevin Keegan, sent off for fighting in 1974 - at the Charity Shield.

Over the centuries, there have been slender and weedy British players, but rarely in the middle, controlling things. They have mostly been kept out on the wing, like Aaron Lennon, skipping out of the way of the thug at full back trying to break his leg. Otherwise you had a bullet head up the park, choppers in the middle and lumps in defence.

This could somehow be connected with the birth of football in England in 1863, when it diverged from the handling and hacking game that included most sorts of physical assault, which did not disappear for some decades. When it was taken up at the end of the century by our friends in Europe and South America, they inherited a more refined form of play - which they have retained ever since.

We like to look back to 1966 with a warm glow - what else have we got to glow about? - but if you think glowingly about that team, you forget Stiles was a hooligan, Alan Ball was manic, while Bobby Charlton, our most gifted player, was solid and stocky. Jimmy Greaves - a little, weedy ball player - was seen as a luxury and left out by Ramsey.

Big jessies

One of my heroes today is Luka Modric of Spurs - who is so weedy, weighs nothing, that you fear for him in a high wind.

He bounces up the minute he is knocked down, doesn't mess around rolling and writhing, like those big jessies Didier Drogba and Emile Heskey. I believe that small, weedy players get injured less. The lumps have further to fall, land harder, but also growing up, they don't get used to being thumped the way the weeds have to. Weeds also tend to have fewer tattoos - arms too thin for a start, plus they don't feel a need to look macho.

I also love David Silva and Samir Nasri at Man City, Javier Hernández and Nani at Man Utd and I like the look of Juan Mata at Chelsea. He could be André Villas-Boas's love child, except they look the same age.

Notice something about all these players, apart from their weediness? Yup, they are all foreign. The masters in this weedy field are Messi, Xavi and Iniesta of Barcelona, who just happen to be the world's best players in the world's best team. All are titchy, seven-stone weaklings.

Now if all those skinnymalinks had been growing up in England, would our coaches have bothered with them? It does happen now and again, as with Scholes, but rarely. We don't breed them. Messi, of course, had to be given growth hormones, otherwise he would have been invisible. Oh, if only I had grown up in Catalonia instead of Carlisle. I could have been a contender.

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 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.