Politics / Sport

Brexit and the beautiful game

At the end of the day, football refreshes the parts referendums cannot reach.

Scotland’s soccer independence is beyond question, and each year England’s leading clubs spend millions just for the opportunity to get into Europe, with the associated immigration a cause for celebration. So it is hardly surprising that as a nation we have turned to football for its input into the Brexit debate.


It was only the other day that ex-England manager Sam Allardyce, a soccer boss of the old school, spoke out on breakfast radio, declaring:

[Donald Trump] has done more for America than we could ever imagine, in turning their economy around. Their economy is booming. And we are making a complete and utter mess, looking so stupid at the political level, it is embarrassing, it is a global embarrassment with what we are doing with Brexit … It is ridiculous. And I think the fact he has walked away [from the North Korea talks] is a massive lesson to Theresa May. She should look at what he is doing, not give him a hard time for not doing the deal because he is saying “look we are going to continue talking, but sometimes you have to walk away”.

A few weeks back Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock, also a soccer boss of the old school, spoke out at a post-match press conference, declaring: ‘I can’t wait to get out of [the EU], if I’m honest. I think we’ll be far better out of the bloody thing. In every aspect.’

On the other hand, Liverpool’s German head coach Jürgen Klopp, the very model of a modern football manager, with a foreign passport to boot, told the Guardian: ‘Let’s vote again with the right information – not with the information you’ve got around the Brexit campaign. They were obviously not right, not all of them. It makes no sense at all.’

An even more heated debate has raged among the England players of the mid to late 1980s, whose lukewarm attitude to the continent was shown by not qualifying for the 1984 European Championship and, having made the 1988 finals in West Germany, by contriving to be knocked out as early as possible (tellingly after underestimating the Republic of Ireland – no backstops in those days).

Crisp-flogging goal-getting TV anchorman Gary Lineker has led from the front with his anti-Brexit views, shared by John Barnes, though his fellow winger Chris Waddle (who played much of his career in France) declared: ‘Well done Theresa May, now let’s leave with no deal,’ and goalkeeper Peter Shilton doffed his cap to Jacob Rees-Mogg, tweeting: ‘He really knows what he is talking about and puts it across in a calm and calculated manner.’ That drew a rebuke from midfielder Peter Reid, a no-nonsense Liverpudlian and Derek Hatton chum, opining on the honourable member for North East Somerset: ‘He’s loopy, doesn’t know his arse from his elbow.’

Naturally, the genesis of this debate was around referendum day itself, which occurred in the middle of the 2016 European Championship in France (hence the England fans’ topical chant of ‘Fuck off Europe, we’re voting out’). While England themselves were arranging a swift exit from Europe four days after the vote by losing to Iceland (revenge for our EFTA desertion in joining the EEC in the first place?), Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini was fretfully following the British referendum: ‘I believe that the biggest concern is the domino effect this decision could now provoke. What would be bad would be if other countries start thinking about doing the same, and sadly this could happen.’

Czech Republic and Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Čech was more succinct, believing the vote was ‘based on [a] fake campaign and lies’, while former England defender Jamie Carragher tweeted: ‘A vote for Farage, Boris and a recession, well done to the over-50s for thinking of the future!’

Indeed, Carragher had been joined in the Remain camp during the campaign by ex-team-mates Rio Ferdinand and David Beckham, while another contemporary, Sol Campbell, bounced back from his failure to be selected as Conservative candidate for the London mayoralty and backed Leave. (A further member of England’s ‘golden generation’, Frank Lampard, was allegedly approached at one stage to stand for his beloved Tories in Kensington, but has kept his head down during the Brexit debate).

OK, so football has interfered, Russian-style, in the EU referendum as it has in much else during its current global hegemony. What’s new?

Soccer embedded itself in the political process not long after the Cambridge Rules were drawn up. But in those early days it was rarely the players that spoke up, and the idea of a high-profile manager was anathema, with teams picked by committee. Rather it was owners whose political leanings were often explicit.

The split between Liverpool FC and Everton FC, for example, was partly party political. Everton had played at Anfield, but Liberal-leaning (and Temperance-inclined) directors fell out with the Conservative brewer that owned the stadium; the club moved out and the landlord set up his own club called Liverpool. In post-Second Reform Act days local election candidates used Merseyside football allegiances as a campaigning tool among newly enfranchised voters.

To find a professional player (as opposed to a well-born amateur like C.B. Fry) speaking out in his own right, almost inevitably the spotlight falls on Jimmy Hill. The Brentford and Fulham forward gained fame in his role as chairman of the Professional Football Association, the player’s union, and his successful campaign to abolish the maximum wage and other restrictions. But beyond that Hill agreed to join Labour reliables like Humphrey Lyttleton on the Party’s 1959 Youth Commission, as befitted a man at home addressing the TUC.


Even in his later days as a TV pundit (as well as club chairman), Hill was not afraid in coming forward with his opinions on matters such as the reintroduction of national service and immigration (his Brexit views, should he have still been around, would not be hard to fathom). But in his playing heyday, his tendency to delve into politics beyond the beautiful game was an exception rather than the rule.

Nevertheless, soccer was on the spot when Britain first joined the Common Market. On only the third day of membership, 3 January 1973, a ‘Fanfare for Europe’ match at Wembley was held where a side made up from the three new community members (the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Denmark) took on players from the incumbent six (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany).

The Alf Ramsey-managed trio of EEC newcomers won, though the nearest the British players came to political comment was Alan Ball declaring: ‘The only thing that interests me about joining the Common Market is whether or not it will make my family’s summer holidays cheaper.’ Northern Ireland’s Pat Jennings was equally forthright: ‘I’m really not interested in the whole thing,’ while, as now, the real enthusiasm came from Eire in the shape of Johnny Giles: ‘A small country like Ireland needs close business and trade links with other European nations, so I’m certainly in favour.’

Despite that lukewarm welcome for Europe from British footballers, many were called into service during the 1975 referendum. Scotland boss Jock Stein, England manager Don Revie and former Manchester United chief Sir Matt Busby* all lined up for the ‘Yes’ campaign, while the BBC’s voice of football David Coleman ran a Sportsmen for Europe office.

Their fellow ‘Yes’ campaigner, Margaret Thatcher, was no football fan (despite her honorary vice-presidency of Blackburn Rovers), but she did not shy away from seeking soccer endorsement. Be-permed ‘Champagne’ Charlie Nicholas of Arsenal and Scotland showed up to a Conservative fundraiser, apparently inadvertently. ‘I was raised in Maryhill and a Labour supporter – I still am – I just remember being at yet another London do and suddenly realising that Kenny Everett and other celebrities were all clapping and cheering the Tories,’ Nicholas remembered ‘It was a surreal experience to hear that Mrs Thatcher wanted to meet me. I stood looking at this woman thinking, “My God, what the hell am I doing here?”’

Thatcher would nevertheless have commanded majority support among the footballers of the day, much to the chagrin of Tottenham Hotspur’s Steve Perryman; in Hunter Davies’s 1972 The Glory Game, there’s an incident when he’s told most of his team-mates are Tories, and exclaims: ‘Aren’t all the players Labour?’ The players who stuck their heads above the parapet in that era tended to be firmly on the left wing.

Two of Perryman’s 1980s Spurs team-mates, Chris Hughton and Tony Galvin, were contributors to Living Marxism and other left-wing journals. In fact Galvin also appeared on a poster to promote the Transport and General Workers Union’s ‘Campaign for a Living Wage’, and was a keen visitor to the Soviet Union, his understanding of Russian coming in handy when his Republic of Ireland team met the USSR at Euro 88.

Another of that Tottenham generation, Garth Crooks, actually took a degree in politics from North London Polytechnic (as was) while playing, and having cut his teeth in TV opining on soccer, was headhunted in the late 1990s to be one of the presenters of late-night BBC2 parliamentary round-up Despatch Box. However, of those anchors, it was Andrew Neil and not the former Charlton Athletic forward who was picked as the Beeb’s political frontman in the following decades, and though Crooks has had involvement in campaigning on race and social inclusion issues, he has in the main kept his political views to himself – other than suggesting light-heartedly that Theresa May might include then-Arsenal manager (and unsurprising staunch Remainer) Arsène Wenger on her Brexit negotiating team.


Crooks notwithstanding, it’s true that even in the 1990s, as football elbowed its way into the centre of British culture after decades as an undesirable ne’er-do-well outsider, soccer players were seldom sucked into the frequent celebrity endorsements craved by Tony Blair and whoever his opponents were at the time. Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was a staunch Labour man, as befitted a former Glasgow shop steward, but even then he seemed a figure from another age compared to those apolitical, hedonistic days. Early in the modern soccer boom, Sir Alex, as he now is, shared the political leanings of fellow Glaswegian managerial greats Bill Shankly and Matt Busby, as well as maverick north-easterner Brian Clough, but the next coaching generation took their footballing obsession up a notch, with little time left for a Ferguson-style hinterland of politics, wine collecting and racehorse ownership (more claret collectivism and thoroughbred tribunism than champagne socialism).

But we’re living in more serious times now, and even those blessed with football skills that would allow them to dribble past even the hardest of Brexits feel they ought to have their say. Partly, of course, social media has allowed footballers (like the rest of us) a platform to blurt out their political opinions, which tended not to come up when Match magazine was asking if they’d ever been late for training. After all, how else would we have found out who Stoke’s Jon Walters intended to back in the 2015 election?

Perhaps, though, it is the high political stakes being played for this decade, coupled with football’s now undisputed prominence in the cultural landscape, that has led to players past and present being drafted into matters of public import. During the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, separation was endorsed by recent internationals Michael Stewart and Steve Archibald while the Better Together campaign lined up both Barry and Alex Ferguson, as well as Alan Hansen and Billy McNeill and others (doubtless all the sorts once dismissed by SNP controversialist Jim Sillars as ‘90 minute patriots’).

Sir Robin Day seldom shared the Question Time table with, say, future knight of the realm Trevor Brooking, but in recent years latter-day players Joey Barton and Clarke Carlisle, as well as the recently retired Jermaine Jenas, not to mention John Barnes, have all joined the BBC Thursday-night panel. Jenas even delved into his knowledge of the game to analyse David Cameron’s EU negotiations in the impossibly long-ago days of March 2016: ‘You get a top player at a club, let’s use Wayne Rooney for example, and he wants a new deal at that club and the agent will then go to Real Madrid or he’ll go to Liverpool and he’ll go “right, get interested in our player” and he’ll almost force United’s hand to make sure he gets the deal he wants and it’s no different from this.’**

Oddly, the trend for footballers to pop up on Question Time seems to have started in 2006 with Derek Dougan of Wolves and Northern Ireland. Like Jimmy Hill, he moonlighted as a PFA activist and TV pundit (though not, Wikipedia fans, unlikely psychedelic recording artist, as the date and anagrammatic author of the Guardian article attest).


The strictly non-sectarian Dougan stood against Peter Robinson and Reg Empey in the 1997 general election in Belfast East as a Former Captain NI Football Team candidate, garnering 541 votes (not far off the SDLP candidate). Coincidentally, this was just at a time when the ‘Doog’ was promoting his updated autobiography.

But by the time Dougan appeared on Question Time, he had become a UKIP activist and appeared in that capacity in Sheffield on 14 June 2006, making little impression other than paying heartfelt tribute to his friend George Best, who had died the previous year. Still, Dougan was up against a panel which at the time would have seemed unremarkable but today seems stellar: Theresa May (then Shadow Leader of the House, now whatever she is by the time you read this), Shami Chakrabati (then independent, subsequently to lead a Labour inquiry into anti-semitism), Lord Falconer (then Lord Chancellor, subsequently to lead a Labour inquiry into anti-semitism) and Mark Oaten (then already the former Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs and abortive leadership candidate, now pro-fur trade campaigner).

Back then, Dougan was an exception, but since the UK decided to enter into fresh contract negotiations with the EU, with a view to a possible transfer, it has been as natural to hear a footballer opine on Brexit as it has been for many years to hear an ambitious politician feign soccer allegiance.*** Footballers are not the only celebrities dragged into the hurly burly of current affairs, but in the past those speaking out tended to be the likes of actors, comedians, even cricketers, rather than soccer players.

The trend has not been confined to Britain. Witness the likes of 1995 world footballer of the year George Weah, now president of Liberia, and Viktor Orbán, ex-pro turned Hungary supremo. If anything, England’s footballers have disappointed at the ballot box even more than they have dashed hopes on the pitch. The UK seems still to be a little way away from a top footballer rising in the ranks to match the political career of ex-referee Denis Howell, the first minister for sport (among other roles) in the 1970s.

But while it may not turn out to be the biggest effect of Brexit on this nation, there seems little doubt that in the near future those of us whose job occasionally requires them to solicit the opinions of soccer stars will have to add: ‘What did you make of proposals for Welsh local government reform?’ to our stock post-game quote-soliciting playlist. At the end of the day.


* Busby also stood firm against football’s original Brexit: the English game’s authorities banned League champions Chelsea from entering the first European Cup in 1955 but the future Sir Matt insisted on Manchester United taking part the following year.

** David Cameron left his post at the end of that season by mutual consent.

*** Not all do – just to mention recent prime ministers, Harold Wilson (Huddersfield Town), John Major (Chelsea) and Gordon Brown (Raith Rovers) were genuine childhood fans of their clubs.

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