MARTIN SAMUEL: Football does not need politicians without a clue

MARTIN SAMUEL: The last thing football needs is politicians without a clue… the Business Secretary doesn’t even know what division Reading – the team in HIS constituency – are in!

  • Alok Sharma’s gaffe shows football does not need politicians without a clue 
  • The business secretary was unable to answer which division Reading are in 
  • Manchester United star Marcus Rashford is outmanoeuvring leading politicians  
  • With the football pyramid facing hardship like never before we need real leaders 

Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, was on the radio last week when he encountered Paul, in Reading.

Paul is a Reading fan. Sharma is the club’s local MP, for Reading West. Paul was worried about the huge losses the club had made during the pandemic and concerned it might not even survive to celebrate 150 years, in 2021.

Sharma was placatory. ‘Yes, of course, I hope Reading make it through,’ he simpered. ‘I hope at some time we’ll be back in the Premiership (sic).’ Note the implication in that ‘we’. As in us. As in all of us, together. The host, Nick Ferrari, then shone a little light on the magic.

‘Where are you currently?’ he asked.

Alok Sharma’s latest gaffe shows that the last thing football needs is politicians without a clue

The business secretary was unable to answer which division his local team, Reading, play in

That’s a pretty straightforward question for any person presuming to call Reading ‘we’. A bit like knowing the colours or the name of the ground. Ferrari was, in effect, asking what division Reading were in. Easy, but Sharma didn’t know. ‘Er, we are in, er, in, er, Division One,’ he faltered, ‘and we’ll leave it there.’

But Ferrari didn’t leave it there. As Sharma tried to regain his credibility, he again interjected. ‘No you’re not. Excuse me, you’re not. Do you want to rethink that?’ Sharma displayed a frozen, tight-lipped smile. ‘Perhaps you’ll help me rethink that,’ he pleaded. ‘Aren’t you in the Championship?’ Ferrari prompted. ‘That’s what I meant,’ insisted Sharma. ‘I apologise.’

‘Where are you in the Championship?’ asked Ferrari, by now sensing one of those tiny moments that reveals more than a two-hour grilling. ‘I think we’re doing OK, aren’t we?’ bluffed Sharma. ‘I don’t know precisely where we are.’ At the time, Reading were second, but still in the automatic promotion places; they are now five points clear at the top. A little better than OK.

‘To return to the serious point,’ Sharma told Paul, who by then must have had doubts whether any club would make it to Christmas, given the level of engagement on offer.

Yet, compared to his platitudes, Sharma’s actual knowledge was undoubtedly the serious point. For, as football continues to struggle, the calls for Government intervention in the form of regulation grow louder. Yet, laid bare on LBC’s Call The Cabinet was the reality.

At a time when many in football’s pyramid are facing hardship like never before, the Business Secretary did not know the difference between the Championship and Division One — which ceased to exist as an entity in 2004 — and does not know that the club in his constituency are challenging for promotion.

So what price governance? What price external regulators appointed by our political class?

A recent paper calling for independent regulation was supported by Helen Grant, a former Sports Minister. Yet, in that role, she proved no more knowledgeable than Sharma. Asked to name the year the club in her constituency, Maidstone United, fell out of the Football League, she had a guess at 2012. It was 1992.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Manchester, also advocates independent regulation and might even fancy the job himself.

He is at least a genuine football fan. Then again, he is also the former Sports Minister who said women’s cricket should get equal broadcast coverage to men’s and then, when asked, couldn’t name a single woman cricketer.

Andy Burnham is a fan of football and the mayor of Manchester is good at giving a soundbite

Burnham is great offering soundbites on the demise of Bury, but his row with the Government over the bail-out for Manchester was one of the most overplayed hands in political history. Burnham rejected an input of £60million because he wouldn’t accept a penny less than £65m, so ended up returning with £0m.

This is known as the Rick Parry school of diplomatic negotiation: hatch a plot to land £250m, get found out and offered just £50m, reject that and spend the rest of the month leakily blaming everyone else for your failure.

We live in a world where the leading politicians in the country — and a supposed populist government — are currently being out-thought and out-manoeuvred on child poverty by Manchester United’s 22-year-old centre forward and his mum; where Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, told a Commons select committee that rugby league, not just football, was a huge part of community spirit in the North East of England; and where the Government’s response to football’s financial crisis is to investigate reform of gambling legislation that would negatively impact commercial revenues at 16 of 24 Championship clubs, already teetering on the brink of oblivion.

This lot? This is who we should be placing in charge of football? These people — or their preferred nominees? The last thing the sport needs is another political appointment passing through, making decisions for the good of a career rather than the good of the game.

James Purnell leaves the BBC this week after four years as director of radio, having abandoned his career in politics as a former Culture Secretary in the Gordon Brown government.

Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford has done more to help than many politicians 

Purnell was appointed by director-general Lord Hall and presided over the dumbing down of sports broadcasting on the network, and the departure of many of its most beloved voices.

Is that what football requires? An independent regulator whose calls largely further a c.v. as a reforming presence for hire, a figure unafraid to make the bold calls? They are all up the greasy pole, these guys.

We know football’s governance is unfit for purpose. We know issues around wealth distribution and the structure of the game require reform. It can be argued that an independent governance panel may be the way forward. Yet anyone who thinks political involvement will make it better or afford gravitas, has not been paying attention to recent events.

It is going to take some very smart people to chart football’s path from here. The Business Secretary didn’t even know what division his football club were in. What about Britain’s political class makes anyone think they are qualified to answer the real hard questions?

Sorry, you’re too late Sergio 

Sergio Aguero now says he will apologise to assistant referee Sian Massey-Ellis for making physical contact with her during Manchester City’s game against Arsenal.

Well, he didn’t exactly say that. He didn’t say anything. As ever, Pep Guardiola said it for him. ‘I’m sure if she felt bad, he will apologise without a problem,’ confirmed Guardiola. 

But it shouldn’t be for Massey-Ellis to demand, because any apology would then be insincere. Aguero should have apologised at the time, in the aftermath of the incident. It is too late now. 

Pep Guardiola says Sergio Aguero will apologise to Sian Massey-Ellis, but it appears insincere 

Time to zip up about your slip up, Stevie 

Steven Gerrard has been talking about that infamous slip in 2014. Again. He always mentions it. If an interviewer brings it up, Gerrard feeds the beast. His anguish, his remorse, how the moment haunts him to this day and probably for ever more. Why? This was not even the point at which Liverpool lost the title.

Coming out of that defeat against Chelsea they were still two points clear of Manchester City, who had a game in hand. Had Liverpool held a 3-0 lead at Crystal Palace, City would have been under far greater pressure to win their remaining matches. Instead, due to a superior goal difference, they knew by then that a win and a draw against Aston Villa and West Ham at home would probably be enough.

Then there is the matter of the fateful slip. It happened in the 45th minute. Liverpool had a whole half to at least equalise with Luiz Suarez, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho and — from the 58th minute — Daniel Sturridge on the pitch, against a Chelsea defence that included Tomas Kalas where John Terry should have been.

Gerrard should stop beating himself up. Liverpool did not lose the title over his mis-step. In the nicest way, it wasn’t all about him. 

King Lewis doesn’t need love 

‘Will we EVER learn to love Lewis Hamilton?’ this newspaper asked, after he outstripped Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 Grand Prix wins at the weekend. But guess what? It doesn’t matter. Same as it doesn’t matter whether you love Andy Murray. 

He won, you lost. He’s the champion, you’re posting little missives of spite and negativity beneath reports of his great achievements. It’s game over.

Who cares whether you, or anyone, loves him? He’s won more grands prix than any driver living or dead. And he did it from a Stevenage council house. Frankly, your approval isn’t required.

It doesn’t matter whether you love Lewis Hamilton, he is the champion and record breaker

Passing trend putting Mendy in danger zone 

Entering the 32nd minute of Chelsea’s match at Manchester United on Saturday, their goalkeeper, Edouard Mendy, and the defence had tried to pass out from the back on eight occasions. And how many times had they successfully made it into the opposing half, without conceding possession or the ball going out of play?

None.

It was at the ninth attempt that Chelsea made enough forward headway to mount an attack. They could even have been a goal down by then as, on one of the previous occasions, Mendy almost passed the ball into his own net. This is not a criticism of him.

Mendy looks good but like Bernd Leno at Arsenal, or any number of current goalkeepers, he is clearly acting under instruction.

So much of his supposed playmaking ended with an unseemly scrap midway in Chelsea’s half because defenders were quickly closed down and lacked the vision or technique to pass accurately under pressure. It became very random. Almost as random as lumping the ball long from a goal-kick and then trying to pick up the spare second ball. Same chaos, but at least it’s happening 50 yards away, not on the edge of your area. At least mix it up.

Edouard Mendy is following instructions to pass out from the back but it is not benefitting him

Big Six’s slow start a refreshing change  

We may yet end up with the same old, same old, but for now the numbers are definitely encouraging. This is the first time since 1967 that no team in the top division are unbeaten after six games, and Manchester United’s start at home is the worst since they finished 18th in 1973 — the same year that Leicester last won at Arsenal.

Arsenal’s eight goals in six league games is their second poorest return in 20 years and previously when Manchester City had an equivalent number of points after five games they finished 14th. Only six games gone, mind, but wouldn’t it be marvellous if we were still talking like this with six to go?

How much help do you want, Edwin? 

It was Edwin Van der Sar, representing Ajax, who in 2019 made a case for his club to qualify for Europe every year, regardless. Steve Parish, chairman of Crystal Palace, was in the room at the meeting of the European Clubs’ Association, incredulous.

‘He explained his club developed a lot of young players but one year are in the Champions League, the next the Europa League and for two years did not manage to qualify at all,’ reported Parish. 

‘His solution was that the rules be changed so his team always qualify because they must have stability. In a room full of instability, worry, risk and jeopardy, this guy wanted to be a special case for ever.’

At the weekend, Ajax beat VVV Venlo 13-0. Seriously, how much of an advantage do these clubs want?

Get real, Digne played his part  

Carlo Ancelotti was angry about the red card shown to Lucas Digne and blamed the week-long furore over the Jordan Pickford and Richarlison’s tackles during the Merseyside derby. 

He may have a point about Everton’s city rivals effectively branding them a dirty team but Digne certainly contributed to referee Kevin Friend’s decision.

He had one swing at Kyle Walker-Peters of Southampton and missed, before clumsily treading on his ankle in another attempt to get close. The whole passage of play gave the impression of a defender trying to take his opponent out and finally succeeding.

Lucas Digne needs to get real – he endangered Kyle Walker-Peters and was rightly sent off

Just holding your hands up in innocence when the collision happens is not mitigation, either. 

Even if the final contact was more severe than planned, Digne endangered Walker-Peters.

(By the way, if they can’t play like Everton, at least try to look like them. Sunday’s strip was apparently ‘seafoam green and charcoal’, when not one item of blue, white, white would have clashed with Southampton. That kit deserved everything it got.)

Why Neymar is missing from list of greats 

Paris Saint-Germain play in Istanbul on Wednesday, but which Neymar will turn up? The one with claims to be the best in the world, or the player we witnessed against Manchester United last week? 

The same with Eden Hazard, back in the Real Madrid squad against Borussia Monchengladbach after another spell out injured amid doubts over his readiness. Some years Hazard excelled for Chelsea, on others he seemed uninterested. 

Neymar can appear similarly disengaged. This is why it is ridiculous to discuss either player in the same breath as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Whatever the match, whatever the occasion, there was never any doubt they were up for it. 

Paris Saint Germain will play Istanbul on Wednesday, but which Neymar shows up is in doubt




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