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Why do male footballers suddenly need to wear bras?

Is it some sort of new fitness fashion? 

I rushed back last Saturday from Broadstairs, where I had been spending a few days, all excited to see Spurs on the telly, away at Man United. I was so excited that I went mad and caught a black cab home from St Pancras Station. Cost me £15 for a 15-minute ride, as opposed to nothing with my Freedom Pass on the bus in 20 minutes, but I did not want to miss kick-off.

The taxi driver said she had been waiting in the long queue of taxis for 35 minutes, presumably most of that time with her engine running. All Saturday morning so far she’d had only three fares. Poor thing. I do have an Uber account but don’t use it. Can’t understand it. The taxi ride cost more than half my train return to Broadstairs. The economics of travel costs are beyond me.

I did make kick-off, however, settling down convinced that Spurs were going to make up for that awful performance against West Ham in the Carabao Cup, losing after being 2-0 up. But Man United won 1-0. It’s happened again. Despite all the media applause, Spurs are still a middling team. And I wasted 15 quid.

Then I noticed that the England under-17s were on BBC Two. Now how do I get that? I only ever watch football. All I know is Sky and BT Sport. It was the under-17s World Cup final, against Spain, in India – bound to get stuffed, they were quickly down 2-0. Amazingly, they came back to win 5-2. England’s second major success this year: the under-20s won a World Cup as well.

It was such fun watching the team celebrate. The players had looked so mature on the pitch, wearing their adult men faces, which they keep in a jar by the changing room door, but when it was over you could see their baby faces, their infantile delight. Then it got a bit weird. They started pulling off their shirts to reveal that most of them were wearing a bra.

A sort of sporting bra, which sportswomen wear. Some sort of new fitness fashion? You often see athletes, men and women, with a stomach belt, scared that they are going to pull something, but why do young men need to protect their upper chest? The BBC commentator did not tell us.

The remarkable thing about the win was that the majority of the team was black – eight out of 11. The proportion of non-white players in the Prem is now 33 per cent, double what it was 20 years ago. The mystery is still why there are so few non-white managers in the football league – I can find just three out of the 92. (Chris Hughton at Brighton, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at Northampton Town and Keith Curle at Carlisle.)

The other mystery is why England continue to play so badly when we have all these youth teams becoming world champions. The sudden improvement is being credited to the opening of St George’s Park National Football Centre at Burton-upon-Trent in 2012. Perhaps soon these young players will come through and win something at senior level.

That’s if they can get into the first team at their clubs. There is now the strange situation of some talented English teenagers moving to Germany in order to get experience of the Bundesliga, knowing they are unlikely to make it in the Prem if they stayed at Chelsea or Man City.

I like to believe if native players are good enough they will make it here, as Harry Kane and Harry Winks have done at Spurs, but on the other hand it is great experience for players, such as the 17-year-old Jadon Sancho at Borussia Dortmund, to go abroad.

The plus side to all the foreign players here is that our top teams – Man City, Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs – are doing well so far in the Champions League. We might have two of them still in the competition in the New Year. Gosh, so much to look forward to. And it’s not even Christmas…

PS Just done some research. The sports bra apparently conceals a monitoring device to track their performance. It needs to be held securely in place near the heart. Rugby players in Australia have been using them for some time. Isn’t science wonderful?

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 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.