Live Report. After 40 minutes. Scorers: Foodbanks 16 mins. Rashford 28 mins. Lineker 37 mins. (penalty)
If politics was a spectator sport, the crowd would be chanting “Sacked in the morning, you’re getting sacked in the morning, sacked in the morning…..” at any government figure foolish enough to stand in the technical area in front of the team dug-out. Right now, the nomination of the person who has to don the track-suit of shame is being passed around like a Northern Ireland Minister of State who backed the losing candidate. The main problem for the government is the above chant is one usually sung by opposition fans; the prospect of the home fans joining in, then singing “Sack the Board” and “Get out of our Club” concentrates their minds and they must wonder if they can survive until the second half and regroup and hope for a lucky win in a penalty shootout thus avoiding the dreaded vote of confidence from the exhausted 1922 Committee.
Pick your battles
One characteristic of a failing regime is that nothing ever goes right. Steve Howey tells a marvellous tale of Newcastle United, at the time facing relegation to the Third Division under Ossie Ardiles, conceding an own goal against themselves in an exercise of “confidence training”. As ex-minister David Gauke says, the government could have dealt with this easily by sticking to the “conservative” virtues of free speech and fair opinions. A Rishi comment to the effect that “we live in a free country, Gary’s views are sincere and we all wish we lived in a world like that but unfortunately we have to govern in the national interest, and the immigration situation requires urgent handling by those in possession of all the facts; and he’s looking forward to watching Lineker and the Lads on Match of the Day and he hopes Southampton get a result”. But if this was a football match, an exhausted government would be showing fatigue, try to boot it long and hope for a miracle, blaming their midfield for not having enough faith as they lose control of the ball; the opposition looks up, senses the crowd turning and gets the confidence to run at the defence and shoot past any defensive (red) wall. First the slow burn of Football Foodbanks collecting at grounds up and down the country since 2016, then Marcus Rashford gets school dinners sorted in summer then Gary Lineker steps up to back refugees and criticise the government, they trip him up and he scores the penalty. It’s 3-0 to us.
Form is temporary, class is permanent
If anyone wonders why Andrew Neil (talk about a “Spectator”), Lord Sugar, Michael Portillo, Karren Brady and even Deborah Meaden and Carol Vorderman are not “stepped back” by the BBC from their roles due to their public pronouncements on Twitter, it isn’t just politics. The class based instincts of the British deep state show up like at times like this and regrettably, it isn’t just Conservative placemen, their media propagandists and the whole saloon bar of prejudice who think that footballers, pundits and fans are not entitled to an informed opinion about politics because they’re working class and therefore not clever, whereas, the mostly working class and refugee origins of the above have been filtered out by conformity and respectability even though the women will no doubt pay a savage price for their profile. Footballers pay might be lots, but it’s denominated in pounds per week, not a monthly salary. The prejudice that footballers are thick, only interested in birds, booze, Ferraris and reality TV, who need a PA to boil them an egg and are soon parted from their obscenities of wealth by anyone with a Tax scheme and a Villa in Marbs is about as valuable a piece of social knowledge as “rich people like to spend money in daft ways sometimes”. No one considers the achievement, the sacrifices, the talent, the constant mental and physical resilience and, above all, the intelligence you need to become a footballer.
The pain and the fury
If you want to play football even for a team in our own semi-amateur Northern League, (the second oldest in the world), you have to be a non-smoking, fitness obsessed, gym goer who abstains from drink. You have to train as a group twice a week and absorb the kind of detail that would be appropriate for an executive meeting. Then you have to exert yourself, deal with the pain of running on smashed toe-nails, everyday cuts and bruises as well as the odd injury where you lose teeth, strain ligaments or break bones. Your dressing room environment is a hothouse of emotions where every physical characteristic and every action, pronunciation and experience is analysed, mocked and derided by your best mates as you do the same to them. Then you play in front of a few hundred critics who will shout the most demeaning things, calculated to hurt you to the core, with a referee who will get things wrong, against an opposition who will do all of the same and kick you and laugh when you fail. After all that, someone from local radio will ask you how it felt to concede a last minute winner away to Consett in February. Think how few people could deal with even a tenth of that, then increase the standard of talent, attention, dedication and care by 7 leagues to the superstars in the Premier League where everything is analysed by tens of thousands at the match and millions on media and wonder how any politician who’s maybe been in a debating society thinks they can begin to take on any footballer at any level at anything. Then think how a man who can do all of the above, travel from Leicester to Everton, Spurs and Barcelona to Japan as a player, being a star of the England team, front a revered national media show for 20 years, who is independently wealthy, liked by the public, and has the respect of his respected fellows. His mates back him not because they necessarily agree with him, (although they probably do), but because he believes he’s right and they respect his opinion because they shared those dressing rooms with him and you can see how the BBC, its political masters and the government misjudged everything so badly. They pick on the weak, they bow to the strong and they got this wrong. He’s only a footballer you can hear them think; he’s only a presenter? But him, Wrighty and especially Shearer can compel the whole edifice of the BBC Football effort to close down with a few words. They are baffled because they aren’t used to meeting men of principle who stick to their word.
A week is a long time in football
Next week, on 18 March Gary Lineker will step forward again and present Match of the Day. The BBC have said sort of sorry. It’s likely that Ian Wright and Alan Shearer will be with him. They have form for dropping the odd meaningful word into unrelated conversations, (Shearer used to put song titles into World Cup interviews), and redeployed “Kremlinoligists” will no doubt analyse every nuance and intonation of speech for mentions of “defensive walls”, and attacking “right wingers”. We all know what caused the furore. Gary Lineker stood up for immigrants desperate enough to cross the channel in open boats in winter and criticised the language of our government, saying it was like that of Germany in the 1930s. That it was also like the language of the British government in the 1930s when the “Kindertransport” was only for the kids because the parents were denied entry is maybe something that is still too shameful to be said out loud. The sense that something disgusting is at the centre of our government shows signs of breaking through like a stinking flood; green cards, tax schemes, energy prices, lockdown parties, Hancock and his NUFC shirt, PPE contracts, Russian influence, turnips not tomatoes, failed Brexit promises, broken treaties, broken people begging on the streets all around you and broken communities of the poor, the old, the marginalised, and the fact that many are just sick and tired are all issues that one their own could threaten a government. Together they could sweep the most successful governing party in the World, the Conservative and Unionist Party, into marginalised vintage remnants. They could be Non-League 12th Division, Old Etonians vs Old Carthusians.
Football isn’t very political but it is tribal
St. James Park is a place where we go to forget the everyday problems. Conversations and exclamations are about football or people. People go with their friends and catch up, “How’s your Mam?” conversations abound. We operate the NUFC Fans Foodbank stall on Strawberry Place and thousands of our fans stop and donate coins, cash and food. The generosity is utterly extraordinary and universal; we don’t hear any criticism, we feel solidarity, charity, concern, dignity and love. I heard nothing about Gary Lineker yesterday and that’s because it doesn’t need to be said. But the underpinning of the BBC controversy is of course, racism. As one of Newcastle United’s old players, John Barnes said yesterday, why do refugees from war from Ukraine receive a different welcome from those refugees from war from Afghanistan or Syria? Moreover, why does no one want to discuss it and if Gary Lineker is to be discouraged from having public political opinions, why was he allowed to talk about Human Rights issues in Qatar? World Cup programmes discussed the situation in Russia in 2018, Brazil in 2014 and I remember an excellent documentary that Alan Shearer did about township life in South Africa in 2010. Why can’t they ask questions about their own country?
Footballers in today’s game play with people from all races beliefs and orientations. The friendship of Newcastle’s own, Benfield School attending (My mam taught him) Lee Clarke with his England Under-21 colleague Andy Cole was a triumph of racial inclusion on Tyneside. Now, in contrast to the awful days in the 1980s when two Sunderland players were “monkey-chanted” off the pitch in 1985, racism and homophobia are rare. (11 exclusions for racist behaviour, two for homophobia last year out on 1 million + attendees last year). No doubt people who read the papers and are influenced by social media are concerned by the government’s dire warnings but many of our footballers have played with refugees. Newcastle United have had four; Shefi Kuqi, Kazenga Lua Lua (who arrived as a dishevelled ten year old kid), Yanga Mbiwa and Chancel Mbemba. We have refugees helping us at the Foodbank stall, the amazing Biswas family who were showered with black’n’white scarves, a picture of the Tyne Bridge and match tickets for the next game, and Mohammed who got a ticket for the Man City 3-3 draw. Gary Lineker, Ian Wright and Alan Shearer have played with these people and know people now in the football family who still do. Shearer went to QPR to play with his friends Ian Wright and Sir Les Ferdinand in the Grenfell Tower fundraiser. It didn’t get much national publicity, (what do you expect from the BBC if it can embarrass this government?) but it mattered to the communities who suffered. Football can be a method of incredible societal progress that can show community progress or it can be a tribal sectarian nightmare where the virtues of one club eg Glagow Celtic “Founded by Refugees” will be opposed by its enemy Rangers as a kind of cultural reflex, but if one of those refugees played in blue would be lauded to the skies and forever made welcome. It’s a funny old game. Football can never be the foundation of society as some of us in our wilder moments believe but it can teach the lessons of the universality of humanity, the capacity for cooperation between all and lately the possibility that mass participation in women’s football as competitors and spectators makes our world a better place to live, work and study in. More to the point, football is totally agnostic about a players origins, it cares for talent and popularises origins and backstories, Jill Scott in the Jungle, Solano in Peru, Miggy in Paraguay, Bruno’s taxi-driver dad in Brazil, Shearer, the sheet-metal workers son from Gosforth. Every person I’ve spoken with who “doesn’t like refugees” thinks that a system to give citizenship in exchange for service would be fair. The fact that such a system seems not to function is either atrocious incompetence, (another forseen consequence of a hard Brexit), or a deliberate mess caused to blame the victims and profit from their squalor. By contrast organisations like NUFC Foundation get refugees playing football, meeting people, learning the language and making community integration happen. Progress is slow, but like the tree that grows by the waterside, it shall not be moved.
Attack vs Defence
The government and their placemen at the BBC tried to show their strength based on a false impression of the power and solidarity of football. A public school rugby playing education can miss that essential lesson. Regarding Lineker, they’ll no doubt deliver some kind of hypocritical fudge of a social media policy that allows them to indulge their friends at The Spectator and the various offshore media barons then his contract will not be renewed as the tabloids gasp at how many nurses his wages cost. They’ve already sneered at the increase in viewing figures the reduced football highlights programme shown on BBC got, claiming validation and triumph as they ignore the truth that people switched on to see what defeat looked like and got the popcorn out. If they win their culture war election they’ll employ skint presenters on zero-hour contracts on Match of the Day so that they’ll behave in future and the BBC will be either sold or made even more compliant than it has been; the pursuit of “impartiality” instead of truth where any crazed nonsense can be given equal weight by a paralysed purchased broadcaster trading its previous credibility for likes. Our country will face a terrible descent into a quasi-fascist autocracy where “privileges” like voting will be dependent on income and the ability to hold identity cards. Foodbank dependence will be increased and they will be forced to work with evangelical churches, (as in America), and people will queue for “free medical treatment” in shopping centre car park clinics. Conscripts will be on border patrol watching the beaches but might try to escape themselves. Our youth will emigrate to Australia, Ireland and Canada where anti-English movements will protest against migrants. Dependence will become institutional and generational and no one will be able to afford a match ticket. The government will claim we don’t believe in them enough. We haven’t beaten this lot yet, they’re dangerous, angry and humiliated. We need to keep control of the ball, stay focussed and not give any penalties away. Get into the last ten minutes and then start to express ourselves. Make it 5-0 and humiliate them. Howay the Lads!