Show Hide image

The fine art of the two-liner

After every Big Game, such as an England international or a Cup Final, all newspapers give a rating out of ten for every player. Now the Sun on Sunday, which is so homely I could cuddle it, making the People's Friend look like an early edition of Oz, is giving a rating out of ten not just for the Big Games but for every single Prem player each week, plus a pithy two-line comment.

The work, my goodness, the work and the brain-power needed, good grief, but also, of course, the power. As I travel around, I find I am constantly being asked about the Ratings Game.

First degree

Do I need special training?
You certainly do. A first degree is essential, preferably in mods or rockers or land economy, followed by a PhD from one of our leading football universities.

I recommend De Montfort in Leicester. Oh, and the ability to count up to ten, forgot to mention that.

On what criteria are the ratings awarded?
I noticed after the England-Holland game that Scott Parker got an 8 in the Guardian while the Indy only gave him a 6. In the
Daily Express Gareth Barry got a 6 while in the Mirror he got only a 4.

It is a very complex, long-drawn-out procedure that most fans cannot comprehend - not having the Latin.

It is vital for any ratingsologist, as the new profession is called, to be at the bar in the press room when all the hacks huddle together to decide who scored, what day is it, is that steak pie left over from last week?

The ratings are consistent and highly scientific - it just so happens that some hacks are hard of hearing, or pissed.

Why are the posh papers now devoting as much space to it as the tabloids?
Reader participation. Every fan has opinions, so make him or her shout and swear. We are all in the "big society." People must have a say. It's also very cheap - and the posh papers have no staff.

Do you have to have published a literary novel to be allowed to write the two-line description?
It helps. Two-liners are a totally different skill from merely giving a ratings mark.

It is often done by a fellow of All Souls or the chief sub, if he has been awake at home watching the game on the telly.

Can you give me some examples of good two-liners?
Well, it is no use saying, "Balotelli turned up late, came on the pitch, did OK." You have to be pithy and or rude. Being ellipitical also gets extra praise. For example, the Sun on Sunday said that Balotelli in the Man City-Blackburn game, "Stole the show with another T-shirt".

What did that mean? Who knows now, but it will be studied and deconstructed for years to come by the Senior Harold Pinter Fellows at De Montfort.

But does anyone really care about these ratings?
Gareth Barry's mum did when the mean old Mirror only gave her Gareth a measly 4. She was livid all weekend.

Scott Parker's wife gave him a right bollocking when she read the Indy on his performance - after he had come home and told her he'd been well brilliant. She is now doing night classes at De Montfort. So she says.

Ratings game

Come on, surely the whole thing is worthless?
Not if you are the agent for a Prem player. All his best ratings are attached to his CV and used when negotiating his next contract. Sometimes, of course, the ratings have to be massaged and/or influenced.

You mean there is some corruption involved?
Listen, it's football, innit, backhanders and bungs are a traditional part of the game. Hacks get paid peanuts compared with even the doziest Prem player, so naturally they look favourably on the players whose agents have provided an all-expenses holiday in a luxury apartment in Dubai.
Or even better, given him a quote in the car park after the game.

If I am a player, can I protest whenever I get rubbish ratings compared with my deadly rival?
The FA is now setting up a Dubious Ratings Panel, similar to the Dubious Goals Panel. But I am sorry, I cannot reveal more details, as of this moment in time. They have asked me to be chairman.

Thank you.

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 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex

David Young
Show Hide image

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