The author of a rather brilliant little book about football could just hold the key to Labour’s otherwise negligible prospects in next year’s election. Jim Murphy is the last of the devout Blairites left on the scene, following the fratricidal killing of David Miliband, the departure of James Purnell to big bucks at the BBC, and the decision of the head of the church himself to spend more time with his mansions. After 2010, the Ed Miliband team reshuffled him out to international development.
Murphy is direct, angry, utterly undeferential and passionate about everything he does. Remember him doggedly campaigning to keep the Union during the Scottish referendum, lugging his Irn-Bru crate around while assorted saltire-wielding headcases in fright wigs lobbed eggs and worse at him?
So a brave and passionate soul, who carries the traditional Scottish air of menace. He has just come under vicious fire from the Labour nutjob Tom Watson. Watson is furious that Murphy is standing for leadership of the Scottish Labour party. In truth, victory for Murphy on 13 December — which could mean Labour hanging on to more than a handful of seats north of the border — will be crucial if Ed Miliband is to scrape over the line next year. Then you hope he will be buying a shelf-load of copies of Murphy’s fabulous and funny book, The 10 Football Matches That Changed the World… and the One That Didn’t (Biteback Publishing).
Murphy is also an extremely good footballer himself, a strong midfielder. Opponents who have lived to tell the tale talk in hushed tones of his fierce tackling and uncompromising commitment. In the annual match between Labour and the press, you could normally rely on Murphy to have a big bust-up with someone, usually a Scottish hack if he could organise it. All in all, as you see, a most excellent fellow. And the book is every bit as admirable as its author.
It’s full of good Labour values, of course. The footballers of Blackburn Olympic get the first big Murphy seal of approval for beating those slacking blue bloods, the Old Etonians, in the FA Cup final of 1883. Olympic are now a pub side — well, a bit more than that — and in a revealing insight into grass-roots football today, Murphy spends a day as assistant manager.
Elsewhere General Franco’s Real Madrid comes in for a scything two-footed tackle, but Chelsea’s Pat Nevin is deservingly beatified for his courageous and outspoken attack on the vicious racism of his own team’s fans in the mid-1980s. A beautiful essay on how the Makana League, set up by the prisoners of Robben Island in the 1960s, helped bring down apartheid, would move a stone to tears. This is a lovely book: I just hope Ed Miliband has read it. Probably not. Miliband is a baseball guy, which is taking support for strike action a bit too far. He supports the Red Sox, naturally.
More intimations of mortality last week with the news that the first sports editor I worked for, John Samuel of the Guardian, had left the pavilion at the good age of 86. In his impeccable obituary, Matthew Engel observed that John was strangely underappreciated at the paper. This was true, oddly, although his editor Peter Preston was, and is, a huge sports fan. Perhaps it was because those well-meaning liberals felt uneasy about the full-blooded competitive spirit of sport. I don’t know, but whenever sports folk met, John was celebrated as one of the finest sports editors ever. The talents he nurtured are colossal: John Arlott, Engel himself, Mike Selvey, Frank Keating, David Lacey and many more. By anyone who cared for sport, John, you will not be forgotten.
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Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.
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