Scotland fan ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on his texts with Gareth Southgate, meeting Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling – and why he’s found England so easy to like this summer
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); and Gareth Southgate has long tolerated my texts telling him why he needs to select more Burnley players. Not bad for a Scotland fan.
Though born and raised in Yorkshire, 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 PM John Major, I could feel his political pain as the feelgood mood 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. Third, I was really pleased for them. Not so pleased that I joined in the behaviour shown by some… 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 their national anthem, or cheered on seeing a German child cry her eyes out; the succession of ministers, who switched from stirring division over the players’ taking the knee to vying for a gold medal in bandwagon-jumping. “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 photocalls, on a giant England flag in Downing Street.
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 have been so different to those we see from the government, that it has been so easy to like this England team, whatever part of the UK you come from. Remember the Nolan Principles governing public life? Honesty. Openness. Objectivity. Selflessness. Integrity. Accountability. Leadership by example. Isn’t it remarkable that the England squad score better on all seven than the PM and cabinet?
Having made the mistake of giving me his phone number, Southgate takes in good humour my post-match texts. Even when, as after last week’s win over Germany, 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 got that night.
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, 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.
England captain Harry Kane spoke eloquently about taking the knee when I interviewed him for the Evening Standard recently. “I still think we should do it… We’re 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.”
In other words, do things because they matter, not because they fit the moment. What you might call the opposite of ‘the Boris Johnson way’. We saw it with his handling of Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals. Far the young Manchester United star, a real cause. For Johnson, a story, a star to be massaged and news to be managed. Rashford is another big reason people like this England team.
I’ve never fully bought into the idea that footballers are role models, simply because they are footballers. But Kane disagrees. “When I was a kid and I was watching David Beckham and players like that… 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.” Standards, remember those, government?’
Kane has become involved in Prince William’s Heads Together mental health charity. “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… 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.”
Though active on social media, he rarely checks what anyone is saying about him. He doesn’t read the papers. However, when it comes to abuse, and especially racist abuse, he thinks social media companies are not doing enough. “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… 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.”
Raheem Sterling knows more than most about 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 when he was seen eating a Greggs takeaway – in a Bentley! His ‘favourite’ was a spread on his cars. “They used pictures of every car I’ve bought from about 17 until I was 22 or 23… 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, at Chelsea, where lip-readable racist abuse was spewed his way.
He played on, but 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. He didn’t write about what happened to him, but instead focused on the difference between 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.
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 his dad to murder as a child, and how that has shaped him as a parent.
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.
Now, tattoos and underpants… I know it is the only thing that kept some of you reading to the end. 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.”
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 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, 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.” Something else ministers could learn from… admitting they’re not perfect, admitting mistakes, trying to learn from them.