Helena Costa takes Hunter's "Top Girl" award. Photo: Getty
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At the end of this “incredibly exciting, best ever, world-class” season . . . it’s time for gongs

A good season for facial hair, a bad one for puns.

Beards Excellent season for facial hair, compared to head hair – which, frankly, has been boring, neat and tidy with a parting, as if their mums had done it for them. Pirlo of Juventus is still the World Master but Ashley Cole emerged as English chump, I mean champ, with the full Player’s packet. Now we know what he was doing all those months Mourinho kept him on the bench.

Big Sam v Steve Bruce This has gone to the wire. Steve did try to hide his enormous girth in a tracksuit that’s really a bell tent, while Big Sam has been bursting out of his suit. Every game, they seemed to put on a stone. Did they have a bet? The winner gets all the pies.

Thin Manager . . . and manager of the season – Tony Pulis, for keeping Palace up and turning them into a positive, attacking force, unlike the dour defender he appeared at Stoke.

Most Improved Players I had Gary Cahill down as a lump for years but blow me, this season he has looked positively cultured. Also Demichelis of Man City, a total liability, early doors, but came good when it mattered. And Jordan Henderson, with his funny, lumpy walk; but he, too, has improved. Which leaves Phil Jones of Man United still to demonstrate that he might not be as lumpish as he looks.

Top Girl Has to be Helena Costa of France’s second-league side Clermont, the first woman in the top two divisions in any of the leading European leagues to be appointed club manager. Takes over next season. Will she be La Gaffer?

Top Name Casper Sloth, who plays midfield for Denmark. What a mover. I bet he comes to Spurs next season – can’t be worse than the seven funny-sounding foreigners they acquired last year.

Fans Having Fun Well done to all the Norwich City supporters who voted for Carlo Nash as their Player of the Year – their reserve goalie, who never played all season. Also the Newcastle fans who walked out in the 69th minute because, er, I’m not quite sure why. Something to do with 69 years since they last won a home game?

Home Games An interesting aspect of this incredibly exciting, best ever, world-class, brought to you only on Sky/BT/BBC/ITV blah blah is not that the top teams were often surprised by bottom teams, but how often the top teams got beaten at home, such as Liverpool by Chelsea, Bayern Munich by Real Madrid, Chelsea by Atlético Madrid. Is home advantage a myth?

Nice Visual Joke I did like it when Samuel Eto’o of Chelsea staggered to the corner flag after he’d scored and held on to it like an old man. It was a pointed reference to Manager Mourinho saying he didn’t know Eto’o’s age.

Nice Banner “Brendan – the carefully chosen one”, held up by the Liverpool crowd. In a year or so the meaning will be lost, but it was to do with the Man United banner that announced David Moyes as “the chosen one”. David Moyes? Come on, you can’t have forgotten him.

Best Crowds Palace fans shouted even when there was nothing to shout about. Will they take over from Newcastle, the old leaders in chanting and baring their beer bellies?

Awful Pun “Kane shows he is able . . .” Sky commentator, speaking when Harry Kane came on for Spurs.

Awful Image “Van Persie should have shot himself”: another Sky commentator, suggesting van Persie shouldn’t have passed to Rooney.

Awful New Trend Players shaking hands with everyone on the bench when taken off. Takes ages: most benches have 100 tracksuits sitting there.

Fans Having No Fun At the beginning of the season I decided to sponsor one of the players for Carlisle United, my home-town team. I chose Mark Beck, recently picked for Scotland’s under-21s. It cost me £400 plus VAT. I got my name in the home programme and was promised Beck’s home and away shirts at the end of the season. He hardly got a game and in January went out on loan to Falkirk. Now Carlisle are relegated. Oh well, when I do get my CUFC shirts they should be sweat-free . . .

Right, that’s this season over. But back in four weeks for the World Cup.

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 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear