Could boring England ‘do a Labour’ and win by default?

Parallels between the Euros and the election hardly seem encouraging.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics Sport UK

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Former UK Labour prime minister Harold Wilson declared that England only ever win the World Cup under a Labour government. Wilson was on safe ground, since we have only won it once, in 1966, shortly after he won a big electoral victory. Now there is at least a chance we might witness another England football triumph following a Labour landslide. But the comparisons are not encouraging.

After England’s first two games in the European Championship, I suggested here that manager Gareth Southgate was ‘the Keir Starmer of football’, a ‘risk-averse, safety-first bore’ who ‘believes being daring is too dangerous and probably equates “flair” with a distress signal’. The difference was, however, that Southgate’s England were ‘about to come up against some rather more daunting opponents than the pathetic Tory Party’.

Yet somehow England, without ever playing anything resembling good football, remain unbeaten and apparently undaunted, preparing to play the Netherlands in Wednesday’s semi-final. So, could Southgate really be about to ‘do a Starmer’ and win the big one by default?

After all, robotic, defensive Labour managed to achieve an election ‘landslide’ with only a third of the votes, thanks to the collapse of its opponents. Maybe miserable England can bore their way to being European champions, due to the poor state of the other teams? Well, maybe. Though many of us older England fans, scarred by past defeats and Southgate’s recent record, are still not holding our collective breath.

Of course, comparisons between football and politics are often about as precise as England’s woeful shooting; we all enjoyed a laugh when Rishi Sunak implied that the late, late comeback win against Slovakia meant it wasn’t too late for the Tories to stage a miraculous last-minute revival at the polls.

Yet there have been some discouraging parallels between the Euros and the General Election this time around. One has been their public invisibility. A visitor could have travelled through many of England’s towns and cities last week without realising that a General Election was taking place, such was the absence of the usual party posters, rallies and canvassers. Tory exhaustion, coupled with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Starmer’s Labour, combined to depress voter turnout to a near-record low of 59.9 per cent last Thursday.

These Euros have so far been marked by a similarly low-key public response. There has been little or no sign of the red-and-white St George’s flags that adorned millions of pubs, cars, vans, houses and children’s faces when England carried high hopes into previous tournaments.

On a visit to patriotic Clacton-on-Sea in Essex last week, I saw many more posters for Nigel Farage, the Reform UK leader and local candidate, than England flags. (Clacton, of course, was one of the constituencies that did have an air of excitement around, as Farage overturned a huge Tory majority to win with a swing of 45 per cent.)

As with Starmer’s Labour, this relative lack of public enthusiasm for Southgate’s England is not unconnected to the uninspiring style of play. The exciting players at England’s disposal have managed some of the dreariest, least dynamic displays of international football it has been long-suffering England fans’ misfortune to endure (and believe me, that is a pretty high bar).

Of course, football rather than politics remains England’s national game, so much so that a peak audience of 16.8million depressed souls watched the dire performance against Switzerland on Saturday night, where we eventually won on penalties. No doubt the ‘turnout’ in pubs and fan zones will shoot further upwards for the semi-final. But even if England limp past the Dutch, it is hard to imagine the final being marked by the sort of riotous outbursts of public exuberance that marked our appearance in the previous Euros final; could anybody be sufficiently excited by this England team to shove a celebratory flare up their backside?

One other depressing parallel between the football and politics has been the mainstream-media coverage. On election night, the panels of liberal-left presenters and pundits across most TV channels could not disguise their delight at Labour’s victory and the Tory annihilation. They played up the high number of Labour MPs, played down the low level of Labour votes and tried to disparage / brush off inconvenient facts that didn’t fit their narrative, most notably the rise of Reform UK and the outrageous fact that it got just one MP for every 800,000-plus votes won.

The BBC coverage of Saturday’s quarter-final versus Switzerland was even more conformist. After England’s first couple of matches, Southgate’s ultra-defensive retreat-first-don’t-answer-questions-later attitude had even rankled with such usual Gareth fanboys as Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer. On Saturday, however, having been criticised for their dissent from within the England camp, the BBC team was fully back onside, praising ‘brave’ Southgate’s supposedly risky tactics and the brilliance of the players who had ‘finally delivered the performance we’ve waited for’ before executing their ‘perfect’ penalty shoot-out.

All this propagandist guff from the state broadcaster came after another lifeless, spirit-shredding performance in which England’s superstars managed just one shot on target between them in 90 minutes, and little more in the 30 minutes of extra-time. Meanwhile, England’s defence, displaying more holes than the proverbial Swiss cheese, was very lucky to get away with conceding only one goal. The fact that our multimillionaire line-up finally managed to score five penalties was a cause of relief rather than unbridled joy.

As with the political coverage, the impression was of two entirely different contests: one as viewed by the professional pundits in TV land, the other as experienced by normal people in the real world of their locals and living rooms. Let us hope that ITV let Roy Keane into the studio for the semi-final, to add at least a little salt to the flavourless fare the rest serve us up.

Like every other England fan, I genuinely hope that we win on Wednesday night and in Sunday’s final. I also realise that we have got this far only because of the luck of the draw and the pretty execrable standard of the Euros overall. France have reached the other semi-final without scoring a single goal in open play. (They, at least, have the excuse that their star man, Kylian Mbappé, is hampered by having to wear a protective face mask, whereas our biggest players appear to have been replaced by masked imposters.) Even Spain, the attacking highlight of these Euros, were dragged down to the level of the rest in their quarter-final.

England expects, well, not very much. But despite the worst efforts of Southgate and the BBC, we still live in some small hope until Wednesday evening. And as ever in football, it’s the hope that kills.

Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. The concise and abridged edition of his book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by William Collins.

Pictures by: Getty.

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Topics Politics Sport UK


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