How New Labour Ruined the Beautiful Game

posted by Geoff Andrews at Saturday, March 29, 2008

In his recent article 'Power Games', the Financial Times political editor George Parker describes how 'Demon Eyes', the amateur football team composed of such rising New Labour luminaries as Tim Allan, a former Blair press officer, James Purnell, now Minister for Pensions, Andy Burnham, now Culture Minister, Dan Corry, the current head of Gordon Brown's policy unit, Ed Balls, Minister for Children, Schools and Families, and Foreign Secretary David Miliband, 'took over Britain', by forging lasting political links on the football pitch near Kings Cross station.

The name of the team, Demon Eyes, was taken from the 1997 Conservative Party election poster, which portrayed Blair as satan. By 1998, this new generation of government advisers, spin doctors and New Labour functionaries were bonding well on the pitch and even winning a few matches. More importantly they were consolidating extensive and powerful political networks. According to Parker:

'The story of Demon Eyes is also about New Labour, New Britain and its new religion: football. Football has been a thread throughout New Labour's decade in power. It greases the wheels of politics: it is a networking tool; it is a political message. And Demon Eyes emerged in the 1990s at a time of intense change for two of Britain's most venerable working class institutions: the Labour Party and football'.

Unsurprisingly Demon Eyes played their matches and practiced in Highbury Fields and Market Road, not far from the New Labour heartland of Islington which was also the location of Nick Hornby's novel Fever Pitch, which had helped make football respectable amongst the middle classes. Parker is right to see football being used to 'grease the wheels of power', though in more subtle ways than it has for Silvio Berlusconi in Italy of course.

However, it also reveals another version of Labour's top down managerialism which modernises and consolidates the instruments and institutions of power while failing to engage with the progressive modernising social currents. After Italia '90 and Nick Hornby there were two broad interpretations of the future of football on offer. There was the relentness extension of corporate power and the commodification of the game with all its negative implications for the soul of football. And there was the popular revival of fan culture, a defence of the simple pleasures of football and greater respect for the technical side of the game, (an end to the 'brainless football' of the 1980s) enhanced by the arrival of more foreign players. The two are not completely separate given the money and the TV interests etc, but there has always been an important distinction.

New Labour's open celebration of corporate culture extended to football. Hardly surprising perhaps that Chelsea should be a favourite team amongst the Demon Eyes players, while the New Labour government courted the football world as the Conservatives used to appeal to the aristocracy. The difference between Blairites and Brownites does not work any better in football, whereby the Brownites are regarded as traditionalists, than it does in attempting to distinguish the rest of their politics. Both sides embraced corporate culture and their attitude to football reflects their view of politics; short-term and populist, career enhancing and subservient to business interests.

However the short history of Demon Eyes, which began a year after New Labour entered power and ended as soon as the players got cabinet positions, suggests that we can hold New Labour not only partly responsible for encouraging the corporate take-over of football, but for ruining the beautiful game on the pitch too. According to Parker, Demon Eyes were not a pretty bunch; pot-bellied and physical, their control freakery brought them into frequent disputes with the referee and punch-ups with the opposition. 'We had a reputation as an unpleasant team to play against', Andy Burnham, now minister of culture, admitted to Parker. According to Liam Halligan, an FT journalist who knew them in this period: 'Most of them didn't have any touch - they couldn't really play football, but they tried. They ran their arses off'. The picture of the team shown in the article, where they are dressed in black ties attending a ball in France, could be that of any British ruling class over the last century. Hardly, the modern, cutting-edge and technically sophisticated face of the people's game.

Here I have to declare an interest as Tim Allan, a close confidant of Blair and Peter Mandelson before leaving to become head of Public Relations at Rupert Murdoch's News international, played a couple of games for Philosophy Football in 1995, recruited by PFFC's assistant manager, Gareth Smyth, who had a knack of finding players to make up the numbers at short notice. All I can remember of Allan's appearances is of him sulking on the wing, refusing to pass the ball and arguing with the ref. David Miliband, from whom we would have expected a more philosophical approach to the game, unfortunately never made it for us despite being named in a couple of our squads.

Philosophy Football, along with When Saturday Comes, and the growing number of grass-roots fan initiatives, shares the alternative story of the post Italia '90 period. This is rooted in the defence of football culture in campaigns against commodification, celebrating the pleasures of the game through cultural events, and giving a voice to fans through forums and fanzines. This is an alternative culture which started before New Labour came to power and is sure to outlast the short-term power games of Labour's first eleven.

Published in Il Manifesto 10/4/08

Our Own Capello

posted by Geoff Andrews at Sunday, March 23, 2008

Most agree that Fabio Capello is the man to revive England’s fortunes on the football pitch. His appeal is borne largely from has gone before: unlike his predecessors he is a 'winner’, a disciplinarian and someone who will stand up to the press. But are England supporters, players, WAGS (wives and girlfriends) and journalists really prepared for the cultural changes, technical sophistication and iron discipline that ‘Don Fabio’ is likely to introduce? Philosophy Football’s own brush with Italian management suggests that some kind of transformation might be on the horizon for English football that will match Italia 90, when the nation was moved by Nessun Dorma and Gazza’s tears.

Philosophy Football FC was set up in 1995, not long after our T-shirt company and sponsors sold the first Albert Camus shirts. Adorned with the words of the famous existentialist, we were a bit more politically correct than some, but in all other respects we shared in our formative years the generic values of an ordinary Sunday League team; a few pot bellies, ill-fitting shorts and a desire to get the ball forward. Quickly. We were also spectacularly unsuccessful. At the end of our first season, I received as manager a trophy inscribed with the words: ‘Gone to the Dogs. Bottom of the League. Philosophy Football’.

After a few years meandering in the mediocrity of Sunday league football, things changed dramatically between 1999-2000. We recruited a new generation of players, among them Raj, a left wing defence lawyer destined for the highest political office in Camden; Cornish Al, a not so left wing barrister, subsequently the mercurial veteran of numerous tours and trophies; Rob, an actor and goalkeeping legend; Owen, technologically challenged off the pitch but technically impeccable on it; Paul, literally the ‘defender-as-book-keeper’ in Capello’s estimation of that role; Joe, as robust in his writing as he was in his tackles, and the only football player in the world going by the name of Goober. We also recruited our first Italian player. Filippo Ricci had just moved to London from Rome as football correspondent for Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s leading sports daily. He already owned one of our shirts, received in exchange for an article in When Saturday Comes, the alternative football weekly which also shares an office with Philosophy Football. On a dark and wet September afternoon in Regents Park, Filippo came along to watch us play. Though he only managed to brave the first half of a tight 2-2 draw against Grafton FC, we kept in touch after the match. Desperate to strengthen the squad, I had also just started writing about Italy and I was intrigued by what Filippo might bring to the squad.

So Filippo joined the team, initially as a player, though shortly after, as a kind of joke, he became known as our ‘Direttore Tecnico’, (Director of Football), alongside myself as ‘The Gaffer’. His first contribution, however, had nothing to do with our inadequacies on the pitch but with our sartorial limitations. The mismatching shorts and socks had to go. Shirts had to be tucked in. He was also appalled by our dressing room habits where players would clamber backwards and forwards through the mud to the shower protected by a towel the size of a beer mat. Now, following his example, players clad in shower robes and flip flops had to find somewhere to plug in their hairdryers.

Next, was the replacement of the post-match pint with a team meal at his local tapas bar in Maida Vale. He also had the team around for dinner on numerous occasions. This may be a treat awaiting the England national team, given Capello’s prodigious appetite for good food and wine. Filippo couldn’t understand why British players were so formal and cold towards each other; in Italy, he told us, football is a way of life and players in clubs at all levels have obligations akin to family responsibilities. We never had to deal with the WAGS issue that Capello has to address, but I do remember once being dissuaded from re-arranging a match scheduled for Valentine’s Day on Filippo’s advice that ‘football comes before everything else’.

Following many convivial evenings together and the introduction of more visiting
Italians to the squad (including Marco, an old fashioned number ten; Lele, a Gastroentorologist; Giacomo, a trainee neurologist; Mauro, a DJ and Vito, an over-worked Roman lawyer), the team’s cultural transformation was complete. The indifferent handshake was a thing of the past and I was now confronted with players hugging and kissing each other. And this was before the match started.

But it was the winning mentality that would define Filippo’s – and, as England fans
now hope, Capello’s – contribution. He thought we were insufficiently motivated to win games. ‘Why you say “unlucky”’, he once castigated one of our players who had offered some polite commiseration as a team-mate’s sliced shot flew towards the A3. ‘In Italy we say it’s “crap”’. Following a 1-1 draw against lowly Sporting Falcon, he interrupted the jovial post-match dressing room banter with a rant against the lack of commitment. In the ensuing email debate which followed he explained his reaction: ‘For me this is our Premier League. If we don’t win then we have to feel the pain, so that next time we are better’.

He wasn’t averse to playing pre-match psychological games with the opponents, telling many rival managers, in English that is better than Capello’s, that he was ‘sure you win, cos we have a lot of players missing’. It invariably worked and the new mentality brought a remarkable revival between 2002-2004, when we won three consecutive league championships, twice conquering the Grafton Millennium League and then winning the London Midweek League Division 1.

On the back of this success, we travelled frequently in Europe, with Filippo taking us three times to Rome where this team of British Sunday leaguers played at La Borghesiana (the Italian national team’s training ground), and the Stadio dei Marmi, which has hosted U-21 internationals, in a game against a team of Italian writers that was kicked off by Italian legend Gianni Rivera.

Like Fabio Capello, Filippo is a great lover of British football traditions with a particular affection for the FA Cup. His attempts to enter our club for this illustrious competition failed, however. Unfortunately you need your own stadium and be able to play on Saturday afternoons, an impossibility given he was normally at Stamford Bridge or Highbury at these times.

In early 2006, Filippo left London to take up a new position for the Gazzetta in Madrid, ironically following Capello through his eventful year with the Spanish champions. Six months after his departure we were with him once again playing in a tournament against his new ‘Philosophy Football Madrid’ team, which was setting out on its own adventure. The managerial skills he had practiced with his ‘squadra Inglese’ were being put to good use. Later we went to see Real Madrid lose a vital league match and ate together at the Mesun Txistu, the restaurant favoured by Real’s players. In a quiet corner, eating alone, we could see a gloomy Don Fabio, perhaps reflecting on his predicament and pondering his next move. After the experience of our ‘own Capello’ this could be a bigger challenge than many predict.

The Richest Team in the World

posted by Geoff Andrews at Sunday, March 16, 2008

These are extraordinary times for Queens Park Rangers, the West London team, for so long the poor neighbours of Chelsea and currently lying in the bottom half of the Coca Cola Championship, or Serie B. In October, the club, deep in debt, was bought by Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone of Formula One and, just before Christmas, Lakshmi Mittal, the fifth richest man in the world, who is worth 30 billion euros, also bought shares, making QPR effectively the richest football club in the world.

Of course, most of the fans are ecstatic. Never mind that Briatore, when told that QPR was for sale, thought that he was being offered a restaurant (as he admitted to the Daily Mirror), or that Ecclestone’s knowledge of football is similar to the average Italian person’s knowledge of cricket. For a team which spent many years in the top division, this was the chance to bring back the glory years of the early to mid 1970s, when they possessed some of the most skilful players of that era, including Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh and Gerry Francis, who was also captain of England, and nearly won the League Championship in 1975-76 (thwarted by Liverpool at the death). The FA Cup draw, which took QPR to Chelsea last Saturday, was an early opportunity to show off their new wealth against their rivals, in a match billed as the clash of the billionaires.

However, this has not been a smooth transition from rags to riches. The last two years have seen QPR almost go bankrupt. They were eventually saved by a former Italian football agent, Gianni Paladini (who is now regarded as a Saint by the Loftus Road faithful), along with his compatriot Antonio Caliendo, known to Italians as a corrupt football agent who has served time in an Italian jail. The reign of Paladini, who has remained chairman after Briatore’s take-over, has not been without incident. In August 2005 he was held at gunpoint and ordered to sign his resignation papers, (the case was later thrown out in court). In February 2007, QPR players were involved in a mass brawl with the Chinese squad, which led to the suspension of QPR’s assistant manager. And at the start of this season tragedy struck when 19 year old striker Ray Jones was killed in a car accident, two years after another promising teenager at the club was stabbed to death in a school playground.

Moreover, the events at QPR reflect some of the wider contradictions of the modern game. What price would you pay to see your team return to the top? For supporters of a club like QPR, which has the reputation of being a small, friendly club, which plays attractive football and was synonymous with the cultural movements of the 1970s, when rock stars mingled with the fans and the players, there are some dilemmas.
The hostility towards despised rivals Chelsea grew massively after Roman Abramovitch took over; now even his wealth does not match that of QPR’s new owners. At Saturday’s match, QPR fans taunted their rival supporters by waving £20 notes at them. There is even talk of the traditional Bovril being replaced by something more appropriate for the new era, supplied by Cipriani, the Mayfair restaurant owned by Briatore.

Briatore and his entourage, which includes Naomi Campbell and Elisabetta Gregoraci, are clearly enjoying their visits to Shepherds Bush and more changes in the infrastructure of the club are expected. As QPR begins its biggest ever spending spree now that the January window has opened, (ironically without former Juventus scout Franco Ceravolo, another Paladini appointment, who returned home early for family reasons), some fans have doubts. ‘Kropotkin 37’ wrote the following on one of QPR’s messageboards: ‘I confess that I’m a little scared now. I can’t believe there’s no one else on these boards who doesn’t feel a bit like this. We’ve all cried when we’ve lost cup finals. We’ve all been torn to bits by relegation. I’ve always been a proud fan of a small club. What’s going to happen? In a few years time, I’ll tell someone I’m a QPR fan and they’ll think I’m somebody completely different than they would have done before all this’.

Perhaps the one thing all QPR fans can feel happy about is the new manager, Luigi De Canio. There are implications here, too, for the new England regime. He and Fabio Capello share the same translator, Ruben Reggiani, a 22 year old Anglo Italian who hopes to row in the British Olympic team. When De Canio was appointed there were a lot of doubts. He didn’t speak English. He plays ‘boring football’ - ‘are we doing ‘catcha natcha’?, one fan asked. Most fans couldn’t (and still can’t) understand his formations or team selections. The same may happen with Capello when he starts organising the England midfield. Yet, the unassuming ‘mister’ from Matera turned things round before the spending started, with some shrewd tactical decisions. They gave Chelsea a close match, losing 1-0, which was inconceivable a few weeks ago. He has won the fans back and, together with Capello, may make some positive changes to British football. If Briatore doesn’t get bored in the meantime.

This article was first published in Italian in Il Manifesto ('Il Club piu ricco del Mondo') 8 January 2008

Geoff Andrews is the author of Un paese anormale (Effepi Libri 2006), the manager of Philosophy Football FC ( and a Queens Park Rangers supporter.