I find it risible when politicians bang on about football in an attempt to appear down to earth and normal. If anything, for most it just highlights how rareified their lives actually are and how far from normal.
Nobody believes David Cameron is much of an Aston Villa fan. His vague support for them is likely to be not much more than that of someone who wasn’t very interested in football remembering the big team from when they were about 10. A year or two older and he could have said Nottingham Forest with equal conviction. Tony Blair’s support for Newcastle United was similarly lampooned even if the apocryphal story of him recalling being sat in the Gallowgate end at St James’ Park watching Jackie Milburn playing was something he never said. Ed Miliband also claims to be a Leeds United fan.
However, while neither Blair nor Cameron have done much more than give a dutiful nod in the direction of football, Miliband has built it into his back story. That might be understandable given his need to overcome some public perception of him as a bit weird and dorky. Only last week he mentioned Leeds United in a speech and he also included it in his speech on Britishness earlier in the year. However, it is perhaps telling that it is difficult to find any reference to his support for the club earlier than during his successful bid to lead the Labour Party in 2010.
Even then, the first reference I found had him describing himself as a “lapsed” fan in July 2010, blaming the “pretty dreadful 20 years” the club had had. Now, few will deny that the period from 2004 onwards has been pretty dreadful, but between 1990 and 2004 the club had managed to win the old league championship and fly high in the Premier League and European competitions. It isn’t as if the club did much of note during the first ten years of his support, coming as it would have during the club’s decline from the successes of the Revie era.
Keeping on that cynical line, Miliband was about 7 when he moved away from Leeds. It is rather hard to picture him going to any games at infant school age at Elland Road in the late 1970s. Living in leafy Rawdon, which was, if anything, back in those days even less of a hotbed of football support than it is today, it isn’t that plausible that he might have become a Leeds fan by playground default (in the North West segment of Leeds kids are much more likely to be Leeds Rhinos fans today than Leeds United fans). Carrying that support through years of “normal” comprehensive schooling in North London and only lapsing a couple of decades later doesn’t really ring true. I somehow can’t see him being like Simon Desborough, a lad in my class in a village school in rural Cambridgeshire who was obsessed with Liverpool FC, so much so that every story he ever wrote was a convoluted mechanism for talking about Liverpool and Kenny Dalglish (including one titled “The talking dolphin”, who, it turned out, had been taught to speak by Dalglish).
Maybe I’m being cruel, but I wonder whether Miliband has ever been to Elland Road other than as a VIP guest.
Of course, none of this matters much apart from the niggling feeling that if someone has to work so hard to make themselves seem ordinary, perhaps they’re just a bit too odd. It isn’t quite as bad as John Redwood practising smiling. Not quite, but it is perhaps telling that Nicola Murray, the hapless and soon to be deposed opposition leader in the final series of The Thick of It who appears to be inspired in part by Miliband does spend much of an episode practising how to walk without falling over.
Being normal is better than giving a superficial appearance of normality. If you can’t quite be ordinary, better to be authentic – as Miliband ironically does manage to be when talking about the Boston Red Sox baseball team who he included in his Desert Island Discs interview where he didn’t mention Leeds United and football. Leaving the drabness of 1978 West Yorkshire for the bright lights of the US would leave an impression on most 8 year old boys. Maybe the spin doctors thought that following baseball since the 1970s was a bit too close to eccentric and a bit too far away from normality now.
Hopefully all politicians will stop insulting our intelligence in this way and realise that coming from one pursuit where tribal loyalties are deeply and sincerely held, faking those emotions in relation to another is a pathetic stance.