If you have read the New European, or the ipaper this week, some of this will be familiar to you. This is a much longer analysis of why this England team is so, so special, and so different to the liars and charlatans running the country.
I wouldn’t overstate my England football credentials, but I have seen Harry Kane naked but for his underpants (more later); and Raheem Sterling has given me a guided tour of his many tattoos (ditto). I am on good terms with Kieran Trippier from his Burnley days; and manager Gareth Southgate has long tolerated my texts after every Burnley game telling him why he needs to select more of our players. Not bad for a Scotland fan.
Though born and raised in Yorkshire, and a lifelong Burnley fanatic, my Scottish parental blood runs thick. Sometimes, this has meant ‘ABE,’ Anyone But England, including in 1996, at THAT match, when Southgate missed THAT penalty. Seated a few rows behind then Prime Minister John Major, I could feel his political pain as the amazing feelgood mood sweeping the country evaporated on the back of defeat to Germany, and I had the unworthy thought: ‘Serves England right for beating Scotland, and serves the Tories right for basing election strategy on a football team.’
Three big differences this time round. First, they didn’t beat Scotland. Second, they did beat Germany, then Ukraine, and then Denmark. Third, I was really, really pleased for them. Not so pleased that I joined in the Brexity behaviour shown by some … the idiotic Lord Moylan trying to link the win to Brexit; Tory MP Andrew Bridgen urging Chancellor Merkel to put the German team in quarantine; the fans who booed the national anthem, or cheered on seeing a German child cry her eyes out on the big screen; the succession of ministers, who switched effortlessly from stirring division over the players’ taking the knee, to vying for a gold medal in the bandwagon-jumping contest. ‘We don’t believe in gesture politics,’ says a government led by a man who does nothing but gesture politics, including one of his thumbs-up photo-calls, on a giant England flag in Downing Street, ahead of the 4-0 win over Ukraine, and dressing up in an England shirt for the semi-final, not realising it is a crime against football humanity to wear a shirt over your work clothes.
It is precisely because Southgate is so unlike any and all of the above, and because the style and standards he and his players display are so different to those we see from the government, that it is so easy to like this England team, whatever part of the UK you come from, and want them to do well.
Remember HOOSIAL, the Nolan Principles governing public life? Honesty. Openness. Objectivity. Selflessness. Integrity. Accountability. Leadership by example. Isn’t it remarkable that the manager and players of England’s football team score better on all seven than the Prime Minister and Cabinet?
Southgate is a regular attender at Burnley matches, and having once told me he liked my book, Winners and How They Succeed, and made the mistake of giving me his phone number, he takes in good humour my post-match scouting texts telling him why he needs to select Ben Mee and Ashley Westwood. Even when, as after the wins over Germany and Denmark, you send him congratulations with a ‘NO NEED TO REPLY message, such is his politeness that he does, with three emoji lions at the end! And heaven knows how many texts he gets after winning a game.
In 1999, a man named Niall Edworthy wrote a book about England managers, titled ‘The second most important job in England.’ OK, hyperbole, but the job matters, and there is politics attached to it, which Southgate manages superbly, by doing something else ministers could learn from, namely sticking to principles.
So, when Home Secretary Priti Patel and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden were busy siding with those who booed the players taking the knee, as part of the culture war which has replaced any discernible governing strategy, and some Tory MPs were comparing the gesture to the Nazi salute, a manager of lesser stuff might have urged the players to stop and focus on nothing but football. But no, he stuck to his and their principles, calmly explained why it mattered, ignored the hoo-ha for what it was. Incidentally, I think Patel took gold in the bandwagon-jumping with her ‘It’s coming home’ videos of a Lion inside a flag of St George. Tweet of the tournament: ‘If football came home, you’d deport it.’
England captain Harry Kane spoke eloquently about the taking the knee row when I interviewed him for the Evening Standard ahead of the Euros. ‘I know there has been talk about whether taking the knee before the game has lost its impact, but I still think we should do it. I think it is really important. We are watched by millions of people round the world. There might be someone watching for the first time, sees us taking the knee, asks “what is that about?” It keeps that conversation going. If we did stop taking the knee, I would still like to do something amongst the players, because it is important to keep it going, not let it fade away and die out.’ In other words, do things because they matter, not because they fit the moment, speak to a fad, and then you move on to the next story. What you might call the Boris Johnson way. We saw it with his handling of Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals for poorer children during the pandemic. Far the young Manchester United star, a real cause, something he really believes in, on which he keeps going. For Johnson, a story, a star to be massaged and news managed like everything else. Rashford may have spent most of the Euros on the bench, but he is another big reason people like this England team. He shamed a shameless government into doing something it didn’t want to, which happened to be the right thing.
I have never fully bought into the idea that footballers are role models, simply because they are footballers. Kane is 27, Sterling 26, Rashford 23. Why do we expect young men to be diplomats and educators because they were good at a sport as children? But Kane, who described Rashford’s campaign as ‘absolutely extraordinary’, disagrees. ‘When I was a kid and I was watching David Beckham and players like that, I was looking at them wondering how they got to be so good at what they did. I wanted to know what they were like off the pitch as well as on it, learn from it all. So now that I am being watched in the same way, by the next generation, they are looking to me to set an example, set standards, and I have to do that.’ Are you listening, Johnson, Patel, Dowden, Hancock, Jenrick et al? ‘set an example … set standards.’ You could learn from that.
And whereas I find it hard often to believe many of today’s ministers claiming to be in politics for ‘the people’s priorities,’ their current three-word slogan of choice, rather than their and their mates’ and donors’ own interests, I totally believed Kane when he said this: ‘Fame has changed my life, but it hasn’t changed me as a person. Money has changed my life, but not changed me. It means I can look after my wife and my family, and it means there are lots of things I can do that I couldn’t if I didn’t have money. But I can promise you this … if football was still an amateur sport, and we got paid nothing, I would still be a footballer. I don’t play football for money. There is no other job that could give me the satisfaction this one does. I just happen to be playing in an era where the top players earn a lot of money.’
Kane has become involved in Prince William’s Heads Together mental health charity. ‘It came to me because I am England captain but I do have a special interest in this area. I didn’t have to take it on, I wanted to. People looking in on football from the outside think it’s all just young guys living the dream, making a fortune, and OK, I see why. But it is not all easy. It’s hard to cope sometimes. How you deal with setbacks, failure, injury, the manager not picking you, loss of form. I have had all that, I have experienced it, and I have dealt with it well, overall, even though I had some low times when I was being sent out on loan and not always getting selected at smaller clubs. But I have friends and other players who have not dealt with it, who really struggle mentally, and young players don’t always get the support they need. I can help with that, help give the support, but also help fight to get it for them.’
Though active on social media, with more than ten million followers on Instagram and millions more on twitter, he rarely checks what anyone is saying about him. He doesn’t read the papers. ‘Whether it is too much praise or too much abuse, neither is good for you. It doesn’t help you focus on the job, so don’t let it get it to you, don’t let it get in the way.’
However, when it comes to abuse, and especially racist abuse, he thinks social media companies are not doing enough. ‘They have to be more accountable. I guarantee they say stuff about us they would not say if they saw us in the street. They need to find a way of people having to identity themselves when they sign up. There has to be more accountability, more responsibility. As the player, the person getting the abuse, I don’t even look at it. But there are times I might post something, and for sure my wife or my brother might take a look at the responses, and it can be hurtful.’
We discussed a particularly unpleasant example, after he revealed his wife Kate opted for a natural birth for their second child. ‘She went down the hypnobirthing route, and she found it really helpful, she was a lot less scared than the first time, and she had lots of tips to deal with it, breathing tips to stay calm, and she did it with no drugs, no gas and air and I posted something about how proud I was of her, and that’s when the abuse came, like I was saying every woman should have their babies like this. I wasn’t saying anything except how amazing she was, and how it had gone well for us, and it’s just strange that people can have these opinions about such a personal thing for someone else.’
Kane’s fellow goal-scorer against Germany, and perhaps Player of the Tournament, Raheem Sterling, knows more than most about racist abuse, on and offline. Even during this tournament, both he and Kane have had their share of being on the wrong end of the keyboard warriors’ wrath. I interviewed Sterling for GQ magazine a couple of years ago, and it was only when I was doing the research that I realised just how much crap he had to take, for years, not just on social media, but most days in several papers.
My ‘favourite’ was the ‘fury’ (sic) sparked by him being spotted eating a Greggs takeaway – in a Bentley! His own ‘favourite’ was a huge spread on his cars. ‘They used pictures of every car I’ve bought from about 17 until I was 22 or 23. I drive into training, they could take a picture of it so they used these cars bought over the years and said “this is my car on Monday, this is my car on Tuesday, this is Raheem’s car on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday”. They made it like I had one for every single day of the week. I had one car at the time.’
Sterling is clear that racism lay behind what he saw as a hugely distorted and unfair profile. Then came the match, away at Chelsea, where lip-readable racist abuse was spewed his way as he went to take a throw in. He played on, and played well. But he spent all night thinking about it, and then posted a few thoughts on social media, which had a huge impact on the debate about race in the media, and on his own image. He didn’t write about what happened to him, but instead focused on the difference between media coverage of two team-mates. White Phil Foden buys a house for his Mum – sweet, generous, family man, lovely story; black Tosin Adarabioyo does the same – flashy, overpaid, bling-bling, labels Sterling had lived with since his teens.
He had pictures of the Daily Mail cuttings on Foden and Adarabioyo on his phone. ‘I’ve always thought it was an issue, and I thought “let me use this example to bring light to this situation that I felt I needed to speak up on,” … the wording, the subtle messages that newspapers use, that’s had a massive effect on how the public perceive a lot of young black players. If the public don’t see you on a regular basis and don’t know you, that’s what their perception of you is going to be. I wasn’t trying to say, “you lot are this, you lot are that”, I was just trying to put a point a point across just to do better in newspapers … it was more “just open your eyes and give people a fair chance.” It wasn’t having a go; it was more trying to do it in a way that was calm, and people got the message. I never thought it would have such a massive impact.’
I found Kane a lot more interesting and funny than I expected to, and Sterling a lot nicer and smarter, very open, whether about losing has Dad to murder as a child, and how that has shaped him as a parent – ‘I make sure I give them that love from the father figure that I didn’t have, and I think that’s probably helped me feel better as well’ – or on the importance of his Christian faith. It underlines the point: we all form opinions of people we don’t know based in large part on what the media portrays of them, even if, as I do, you have experience of how it all works. I wish I had a tenner for every time someone has attended a talk I have done and comes up afterwards and says: ‘You’re so different to what I expected from reading the Daily Mail.’
There is a genuine humility about Southgate and his team. Our politicians never tire of telling us of their ‘world-beating’ success stories, usually as a way of covering their failures. However Southgate’s journey ends, and it won’t end with the Euros, isn’t it another irony that the potential world-beaters talk down their talent, while this useless, wretched government do nothing but tell us how marvellous they are?
How weird must the rest of the world find it that we have a football manager who comes over as a Prime Minister should – highly intelligent, well-dressed, impeccably-mannered, who brings the country together, respects opponents, treats the media with openness and courtesy, does his job diligently and innovatively, and is making people feel hopeful about the future -; and a Prime Minister who looks what a pub side manager would look like if Harry Enfield had a go; a scruffy narcissist who exploits any bandwagon, tells any lie, and turns any situation into a story about himself, and the opportunities he sees within it.
Gary Neville was so right. The country’s leaders have been so bad recently, and ‘that man’ – Southgate – shows what a real leader is like.
It was fascinating, interviewing big football names on Good Morning Britain this week, to see how they all have such love and respect for Southgate. I thought Tony Adams was going to cry at one point, so moved was he by what his mate and fellow centre back in 1996, had achieved.
But I am convinced one of the main reasons so many non football fans have suddenly discovered football is because he and his team of footballing-playing philanthropists from humble backgrounds are the antithesis of the conduct, character and entitled background we see from Johnson and his ministers day in day out. Not just Rashford who shamed the government into agreeing to feed poor children during school holidays. But his club team-mate Harry Maguire who when unable to play during the first lockdown spent his time delivering food to elderly people unable to get their own shopping. Sterling who has confronted and shifted the dial against racism. Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson speaking up for LGBTQ fans. A team of players who are planning, should they win, to donate big chunks of their huge bonuses to health service charities.
That is why I find it sickening to see a government largely responsible for the need for many of the causes and campaigns the players so generously support try to jump aboard the bandwagon. A government whose now disgraced and departed health secretary Matt Hancock called on footballers to take a pay cut to show they cared about others in the pandemic. Never forget that. Boris Johnson the man who once confused football with rugby even as he played it. Whose reaction to the pain of campaigners fighting for justice for 96 Liverpool fans killed in at a match in 1989 was to criticise the city’s ‘victim culture.’
Only they could move so effortlessly from backing the fans who booed the players to posing as their biggest fans, his trip to the front row of the royal box at Wembley just another Trumpian thumbs-up photo op. We saw the same at the London Olympics of 2012. It was good for the mood to have in Johnson a flamboyant colourful character oozing positivity as London Mayor. But I remember ex-Labour minister Tessa Jowell, a driving force before, during and after the Games, saying to me that Johnson was a ‘gold medalist at taking the credit for the hard work of others.’
How deep runs the Trumpian narcissism that he cannot see what millions in the country and around the world can see – that he is everything Southgate is not.
Southgate who under promises and over delivers. Who talks his own talents down and endlessly thanks his staff and the players, who treats his opponents with respect. Who is not scared of difficult decisions, nor i driven by the passing winds of a media mood. Obsessed with detail and hard work. He doesn’t lie. He sees and analyses the world as it is not as he wants to believe that it is. He understands he represents the country and so sets himself high standards of personal and professional conduct, and he never drops from those high standards. He learns from experience instead of repeating mistakes. He takes pride and pleasure in uniting people unlike Johnson who rather sees political advantage in driving them apart. In short, Southgate is a good man. Johnson is not. Southgate leads by example. So, alas, does Johnson, which is why he drags his team down with him, breaking every Nolan principle every time they meet one.
Having worked in Downing Street with Tony Blair, I know how much sport matters to politics, the economy, the mood and confidence of the nation. Of course political leaders should take an interest in the sporting success of the nation. Of course they should wish the team well. But their bandwagoning is grotesque and hypocritical opportunism.
If England go the whole way and win the tournament, inevitably the Queen will invite them to Buckingham Palace and Johnson will invite them to Number 10. Quite right too. Southgate’s impeccable manners ensure he won’t do anything other than be polite, respectful, behave well in every regard. But I really hope that if they go to Number 10, some of the players take the knee. Johnson and Priti Patel previously condemned this as ‘gesture politics’ and one of their more idiotic MPs is refusing to watch any England game until the players stop taking the knee. Yet Patel now wears the shirt over her work clothes too, and tweets pictures of herself cheering them on. Yet if she had been in charge when Raheem Sterling’s mum left Jamaica after his dad was murdered when the young boy was two, he would probably never have been allowed to be here and become English in the first place, such is the ‘tough’ image on immigration she loves to portray. Only three of the England team are of non-immigrant stock.
Far from the England players taking the knee being gesture politics, it is a political statement born of principle and leadership and real values that stand the test of time and the vicissitudes of a life spent on the rollercoaster of many wins and many defeats. It is something Johnson simply does not understand because in his entitled world he just does what he wants and gets what he wants. It is why he will never understand that whether England win or lose on Sunday, Southgate and his players have earned deep and enduring respect and love from millions. They have united the country in a way that he never has and never will. As this wonderful tournament nears its climax, he would get a lot more credit from the public if he sat down every now and then and asked himself: ‘I wonder how would Gareth Southgate would conduct himself in this situation?’
Finally, tattoos and underpants … I know it is the only thing that kept some of you reading this far. Kane was trying on different outfits for a photoshoot. When he was down to his Y-fronts, I noticed his body was entirely free of ink, a rarity among footballers. ‘I’ve got nothing against tattoos if that is what people want to do with their body,’ he told me, ‘but it’s not for me. I idolised David Beckham when he was a player, and he started the whole football tattoo thing in a way, but I never went down that route. It’s just not my thing.’
Sterling, on the other hand … so many, and the subject of some of those tabloid morality tales … like the one of a gun on his calf, which he says is a way of remembering his Dad’s death, an anti-gun message, but which the haters whipped into a frenzy about the glorification of violence. The cross on his chest speaks to his faith. There are family members on there but his Mum, he told me, who he clearly worships, wishes he had chosen the Kane route. ‘She hates my tattoos. If I could go back and start and I didn’t get my first then I wouldn’t have any. It’s another thing that when you’ve started you can’t stop. If you get one you get another one. I know it’s wrong but it’s addictive now!’ Something else ministers could learn from … admitting they’re not perfect, admitting mistakes, trying to learn from them.
Good luck England, you deserve it. Good luck Britain and Northern Ireland, in getting rid of the worst possible Prime Minister, and the worst possible government, at the worst possible time.