Horrors for Hodgson

Three Lions on a Shirt,

Jules Rimet Still Gleaming,

Thirty Years of Hurt,

Never Stopped Me Dreaming.”

Thirty years of hurt? I’m guessing a majority of English football fans would give their right arms for it only to be thirty years at this moment. You must have been living on the moon if you don’t know the biggest sports story of the week. I don’t suppose any of you missed it, but for those that did, England crashed out of the Euros in the last 16 to the minnows of Iceland. Tiny Iceland. One of the incredible statistics being bandied about is that apparently the Scandinavian island has a population equivalent to Leicester. The 2011 census estimated Leicester’s population as approximately 330, 000. In terms of population, this allegedly makes the midlands town the eighth biggest city in England. You could say the result was like Premier League Champions Leicester City beating England’s national team. But it’s not. The majority of Leicester’s players don’t hail from the city, and the club’s owners are free to sign players from all over the world. To use a better analogy, then, this was like a Belfast team defeating England’s superstars, with the side being comprised only of Belfast born players. Although rather glib, such statistics help put Iceland’s achievement in some kind of context. I’ve been to Iceland. It’s a beautiful country full of wonderful, natural sights, but they wouldn’t be known as one of international football’s superpowers.

I remember when Terry Venables was England manager. English press and supporters absolutely loved him. Venables was regarded as a tactical genius, a coaching guru who could inspire any team to consistent levels of achievement. He used to talk about the “Christmas Tree” formation. Or maybe it was the “Diamond” formation? I don’t know. To be honest, I kinda switch off when football people make the game out to be overly technical or complicated. Football is one of the simplest games imaginable. I just don’t get it when fellas make it sound like rocket science or existentialist philosophy. Nevertheless, whatever Venables had, it worked. The former Spurs manager successfully got his charges to the semi-finals of Euro ’96, the first major tournament held in Blighty since Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy. 1966 and all that. English football was carried along on a wave of popular euphoria until the inevitable moment when Gareth Southgate missed the penalty to send the rival Germans into the final in England’s stead.  Oh well. At least, he got a Pizza Hut advert out of it. My point is this. Even the oracle that was Venables couldn’t get the perpetual under achievers over the line. What chance does anyone else have? I saw a documentary about Euro ’96 recently which revealed that Venables is now running a hotel in Spain. I imagine he’s not coming back any time soon.

From the outside, it seems that one of the biggest problems facing English football is a lack of self-awareness. Post-1966, the English have always had a superiority complex when it comes to football. And indeed most other major sports too! They think they should always be contenders. The prevailing attitude even creeps into sports like tennis where the English have no reason (based on history or climate) to consider themselves one of the game’s superpowers. Therefore, there’s usually a massive disconnection between expectation and achievement. It’s almost inherent, built into the English psyche. Before I get inundated with responses from beleaguered English friends, I’m not talking about the average English punter here. I understand that expectation among English football fans, for example, has been consistently low for many years. Year after year of penalty shoot-out elimination and knockout heartache does that to you. I’m talking about the media. The English press just can’t help themselves. Despite protestations to the contrary, they will always champion their boys as potential winners. It’s the same old story. For sure, they’ll mercilessly slate Hodgson’s boys for the latest underachievement, but as soon as his successor musters a couple of wins, they’ll talk England up as football giants again. It’s inevitable.

It’s a curious phenomenon. And it’s a syndrome we see at close hand from this side of the Irish Sea. Despite having our own televisual and media outlets, us Irish spend a disproportionate amount of time watching English t.v. and reading English papers. Therefore, we’re in an excellent position to assess the English propensity to talk up their sports stars. Sure, all countries do it, but the English are masters at hyping their sports men and women. One of the reasons we’re fascinated by such hyperbole in Ireland is that it’s so different from our own experience and reaction. In Ireland, we’re instinctively modest about our sporting prospects. Even on the rare occasions our sportsmen actually deliver, we scarcely believe it. It doesn’t seem real. We’re programmed to accept mediocrity and disappointment as par for the course. Any success we achieve, therefore, is welcomed as an unexpected delight. And once the euphoria dissipates, we eagerly resume our natural role as underdogs and challengers.

From the outside, certainly, it seems the English media view their sports teams and individuals differently. Maybe it’s a relic of empire, but the English appear to have an ingrained propensity to expect success. And such expectation doesn’t always correlate with the ability of the individuals and teams concerned. The consequence? The English public is almost guaranteed to experience disappointment. When the only yardstick of success is actually winning the competition, you’re setting your teams up for constant failure. The only way to break this perpetual cycle is to lower expectations.The English football manager’s job is a poisoned chalice. Regardless of remuneration, who’d want an impossible job? I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’ll be a queue of top managers wanting to succeed the unfortunate Roy Hodgson.

As a post-script to my last blog, I notice that Boris Johnson has withdrawn from the race to be prime minister following the latest bout of infighting  within the Tory party. I know there are more global issues at work, but given the belief that one of the primary drivers of the Brexit campaign was giving Boris a shot at his lifelong dream, doesn’t the Leave victory seem a little hollow now he’s backed down? The Boris-supporting leavers have campaigned for something that’s proved ultimately futile, a quest for professional aggrandisement that hasn’t even worked. For this-amongst other reasons-, we’re in a period of grave uncertainty? It’s a funny old world!

File:Genève Indoors 2014 - 20140114 - Roy Hodgson.jpg

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: [[File:Genève Indoors 2014 – 20140114 – Roy Hodgson.jpg|Genève Indoors 2014 – 20140114 – Roy Hodgson]] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gen%C3%A8ve_Indoors_2014_-_20140114_-_Roy_Hodgson.jpg

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Brexit: A Sleepwalk into Disaster

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union”

My alarm clock went off at 6:00 as usual on Friday morning, but the world I woke up to was markedly different to the one I left when I fell asleep. It was the dulcet tones of Conor Bradford that relayed this cataclysmic news to  me. For those unfamiliar with the broadcast journalist, Bradford is a newsreader and anchor on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme. His grand and patrician style is particularly appropriate for events of such significance. l couldn’t believe his words. Like most of us, I hadn’t seen this coming.

I’m a bit of political anorak and had spent most of Thursday evening watching the television analysis of the Brexit referendum. However, as I retired to slumber, all the meaningful early predictions and exit polls were calling a narrow but clear victory for the Remain campaign. Therefore, the mind-boggling news that the electorate had decided to end the UK’s 43 year membership of the EU came as an almighty shock. Coming from Northern Ireland, the Brexit debate has undoubtedly assumed a greater significance, given the complex dynamics of all-Ireland political and  economic structures. All of a sudden, we were facing the unsettling prospect of sharing a land border with the European Union. What would that mean for our industry and agriculture? On Friday morning, shock and confusion reigned above all else. Dismay was the prevailing emotion. The fact that Northern Ireland had voted to remain was scant consolation.

Once the shock had abated, my mind turned to a more rational analysis of these groundbreaking and unprecedented events. What did it all mean? How best to make sense of the madness? It occurs to me that whatever about the merits of the outcome, this was a decision made for the wrong reasons. My abiding impression of the Brexit fiasco is that this was a critical decision made by many without even a basic comprehension of the facts. I can scarcely recall a political debate where the campaign was so thin on information and rational argument. The Brexit referendum was a triumph of ignorance and alarmist rhetoric over rationality. There was plenty of noise, but no real substance. For a decision of such magnitude, the debate was painfully thin on detail. In fact, many people seemed genuinely confused about what they were actually voting about. Some folks seemed to think that the issue related to immigration. Although a misguided view, having regard to the EU’s insistence on the free movement of people, goods, and services, you can see how they came to that conclusion. Others strangely linked the referendum to terrorism. How bizarre! The idea that this unstable action has somehow made us safer in this volatile world must be the ultimate example of hysteria and ignorance triumphing over rational thought. The Brexit vote, it seems to me, is the result of a weird form of collective impulsiveness, individuals hastily making a vital decision without recourse to even the basic facts.

In truth, there are those who have no real interest in dealing with the facts in relation to this discussion . For events that are hijacked by such hysteria and febrile emotion, there is a form of “confirmation bias” at work here. Facts and details are consumed by a perfect storm of prejudice and preconceived ideas, sacred cows that cannot be challenged. It is my belief that the propagandists on both sides of this debate have no interest in hearing anything that remotely challenges their predetermined notions. For a debate of such fundamental importance, objectivity and emotional detachment were needed to drown out the rhetoric and emotion. Alas, the opposite appears to have been the case. As happens so often in these emotionally charged debates, individuals decide what side of the fence they’re on and then look for evidence, no matter how flimsy, to support and justify that preconceived view. That is an inherently flawed process when dealing with something so significant and fundamental.

The other curious factor was how many voters ostensibly sacrificed self -interest for  emotion.  It’s remarkable that Northern Irish farmers apparently derive over 70% of their income from the EU by virtue of the Common Agricultural Policy. And yet statistically, some of those same farmers must have voted for Brexit. In a region that is so dependent on EU finance and support, how can such actions be rationalised? And for that matter, it seems strange that the largest Unionist party supported a decision that seems, on the face of it, to be utterly detrimental to the stability and prosperity of their beloved United Kingdom. You wonder if they’ve given it any coherent thought. Maybe they want another Scottish referendum and the consequent break-up of the union they supposedly cherish?!  That’s before we even get to the dreadful miscalculation of David Cameron. The deeply flawed decision to hold this referendum is borne in arrogance and strategic senselessness. I’m no fan of Cameron and the Tory party, but I’ve always viewed Dave as an effective and clever politician; a consummate leader who  exerted an almost clinical control of an often dysfunctional and divided party. To have sacrificed his legacy, just a year after securing an impressive majority, is one of the greatest political errors of the last 50 years. Regret must be the least of Cameron’s emotions this morning.

In truth, Brexit has produced no real winners, aside from the remorselessly ambitious Boris and the eccentric, absurd Nigel. For all the well-meaning and naive talk of a second referendum, I think we’re stuck with this disaster. As someone living in Northern Ireland, we’re facing a particularly uncertain and potentially divisive time. What will the impact be in relation to our re-defined frontier? Surely there will be some form of enhanced demarcation and customs presence? No-one really knows for sure, but we’re about to find out. However, a time of great flux and uncertainty awaits the entire United Kingdom. Brexiteers. Strange term. Sounds a bit like musketeers. All for one and one for all? Not anymore following this seismic vote. Well, they’ve got what they wanted. The law of unintended consequences in all its dramatic glory. The UK has sleepwalked into Brexit. Now we all must face the consequences of this new and scary reality.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/25/Boris_Johnson_July_2015.jpg

File:Boris Johnson July 2015.jpg



Beware Brexit!

You only have to take a cursory look at any news outlet to appreciate that something quite fundamental is happening in the next few weeks. On 23 June 2016, Britain will vote via referendum on whether the United Kingdom will remain in the European Union. Ever since the UK entered the political union (or its predecessor the European Economic Community to be precise) in 1973, its citizens have had a rather distant relationship with the supra-national body. Unlike other European states like Germany, France, and the Republic of Ireland (who entered the union in the same year as the UK) to name just a few, it’s fair to say the United Kingdom has never been an enthusiastic advocate of the European project.

Throughout the complicated history of the European institutions, the UK has often seemed like a semi-detached observer, its politicians instinctively resisting the red tape, bureaucracy, and integration associated with EU membership. Indeed, successive British governments have effectively sought to renegotiate the union’s treaties and deals, often with mixed success. While British administrations of all persuasions have been locked in a seemingly perpetual cycle of renegotiation, it is not the minutiae of political rules that has led to next month’s crucial referendum.

Rather than the aforementioned red tape and bureaucratic intrusion that is often cited by  polemical commentators, the problem that many Britons have with continued EU membership has nothing to do with bureaucracy, but everything to do with perceived political integration. What clearly irks some of the loudest voices endorsing the “Leave” campaign is the notion that this alleged integration will become ever more pronounced, and all traces of national sovereignty will be permanently ceded to Brussels. Campaigners for Brexit fear a de facto United States of Europe above all else, it seems.

One of the more interesting aspects of the debate surrounding Britain’s European future is the overwhelming focus on emotion. With such a seminal vote imminent, one would have expected political leaders to focus on the details. After all, how else can voters make a genuinely informed decision? Instead, what many campaigners offer  (on both sides of the debate it has to be said) is emotive and immature rhetoric. Perhaps that is why the “Leave” campaign has attracted some very eccentric and vocal proponents to its cause.

Arguably, the propensity for populist and sentimental rhetoric is one of the reasons many observers are predicting the retention of the status quo in June’s referendum. For seismic constitutional change to take place, logic states that the middle ground must be persuaded. It’s difficult to make the case for substantive change when febrile emotion has hijacked the argument. It is easy to scoff at some of Boris Johnson’s more bizarre pronouncements, but it is clear that the former Mayor of London is much more intelligent and capable than the crude caricature often presented of him. Despite his unconventional demeanour, Johnson is undeniably a shrewd and ambitious operator. None of which makes him right on the Brexit question, of course. We’ll soon find out if Boris and his fellow Brexit supporters have persuaded enough British voters to leap into the unknown.

It’s interesting to observe the different dynamics operating on both sides of the Irish Sea. Unlike the UK, Irish people (of all political persuasions and none) tend to be more enthusiastic and vocal in their support of the EU. With some exceptions, Irish people generally give a wholehearted seal of approval to the European project. And how could it be any other way? Modern Ireland is testament to the triumph of the EU. Irish infrastructure, from roads and railways to everything else in between, has been transformed by EU finance.

It’s not just economic factors that underpin Irish support for the EU, though. A majority of Irish people have bought into the EU on all levels, viewing it as an institution that enriches their nationality rather than compromising it. One of the positive aspects of  Ireland’s progressive outlook is that it doesn’t allow borders to stifle the benefits of EU membership. Northern Ireland has benefited enormously from EU participation and peace funds are only a small  part of a substantial European investment. It’s easy to understand, therefore, why normally conservative Northern Irish leaders are reticent to back the  Brexit campaign. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a shock. Contrary to popular perception, residents of Northern Ireland instinctively understand complexity of identity, that someone can be British as well as Irish, European rather than insular. One of the consequences of our tragic history is an appreciation of this cultural and national nuance.

The very idea of Brexit threatens the layered and complex Irish political architecture that’s taken years to construct. The implications of a British withdrawal from the EU extend far beyond middle England, therefore. Ultimately, the British people will re-define their own relationship with Europe on June 23, but a huge amount is at stake. It is not an exaggeration to state that millions anxiously await the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Irish citizens (north and south) are included in that number.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey