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11 October 2023

Why are Tories so obsessed with Gary Lineker?

Also this week: a brawl at Lord’s and the US-Saudi golf rivalry.

By Jon Holmes

A fine end to my cricket-following season: Friday at Lord’s, a full house, sunshine and watching England’s revitalised side demolish New Zealand to conclude the abbreviated series. The next day I travel further north to Trent Bridge, Nottingham, for a thrilling encounter between the south and the Midlands, as my home county, Leicestershire, beat Hampshire to win their first trophy since the early days of Tony Blair’s government. Just as the triumphant team prepared to receive the trophy, a fight broke out between ten or 12 alcohol-fuelled, middle-aged, mostly overweight men at the other end of the ground, close to where my friends and I had enjoyed the day.

The rather elderly stewards were incapable of curtailing the skirmish, which lasted for nearly a quarter of an hour – nor did they manage to summon any police assistance. We stood watching, open-mouthed and powerless at the display of furious anger. It was a cricket match, one of the best events of a glorious season for the summer game: the Ashes, the Hundred, and One Day International series.

Where did this fury come from, I pondered? Were these men retired football hooligans, or expressing other pent-up frustrations? As the violence concluded we walked away; blood covered several rows of seats and walkways. It all stood in stark contrast with Lord’s the previous day, where greater volumes of booze were surely consumed: a north-south divide.

Below par

Another fierce struggle is taking place in sport, between the US and Saudi Arabia, as both seek to develop their own football leagues, wielding their cheque books in pursuit of European talent. The rivalry is also being played out over ownership of Premier League clubs, with the Americans trying to establish a kind of business model and the Saudis engaging in sportswashing.

The other front is golf, which, while not being created in the US, has long been considered an American possession. But LIV Golf, backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, made such an unwanted and abrupt incursion it led to a quick surrender by the US, prompting questions in the Senate. For many years the US has sought to extend its international reach through sport, but attempts to spread the gospel of gridiron, baseball and basketball have been ignored. Now, as the nation prepares jointly to host the next football World Cup, is its international status waning?

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[See also: No one has the honour in golf’s civil war]

Small but mighty

This summer I attended the memorial service for Donald Trelford, the long-time Observer editor. A diminutive man, Donald was variously described as “small but perfectly formed” and “tiny”. A tale not related at the service but indicative of the Fleet Street survivor’s life dates from his retirement. A great luncher and bon viveur, Donald lived in later life mostly in Mallorca, but retained an apartment in Henley. Returning there one day from a long lunch in London, he was confronted by one of the town’s familiar traffic jams and by a rather voluble car owner over-exercising the vehicle’s horn. Donald attempted to persuade him to moderate his anger. The driver took exception to this and left his BMW to confront the pint-sized pedestrian, who administered a “Glasgow kiss” resulting in much gushing of blood, a possible broken nose and the arrival of the constabulary. After evidence had been taken, Donald rather sheepishly enquired whether the officer thought it likely the matter would be taken further. “I don’t think our friend is keen to admit to being felled by a man half his size and twice his age,” came the reply.

The BBC bubble

The Hardie Report into BBC employees’ use of social media has been published by the broadcaster, which accepted its findings. The report is extensive and as clear as is possible on such complicated concepts as impartiality and free speech. My client – he of “Linekergate” fame – comments “all very sensible”. On the morning of publication I am bombarded by requests for interviews with Gary, overwhelmingly from the BBC – a solipsistic bubble of the media talking to itself.

It remains a source of amusement to me that the Conservative Party and its media supporters are so obsessed with a Match of the Day presenter. Is it his intelligence, politeness and wit; the power of football; or the lack at the top of any understanding of the game’s significance that worries them most? In my lifetime the only prime ministers to have had any clue about football were Harold Wilson, Tony Blair (probably because he had Alastair Campbell in his ear) and Gordon Brown. Maybe it’s class, or intellectual snobbishness. “You should stick to football!” has always seemed to me such a bone-headed shout.

Jon Holmes is a talent agent and former Leicester City chair.

[See also: A new age of volatility]

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits