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Kicking the Political Football

There was once a politician from Sheffield named Clegg. He was a member of the Liberal party, and took very seriously his role as a local politician.

This Clegg was not named Nick, however, but William, and in addition to being the Lord Mayor of Sheffield and the leader of the Liberal party on the council in the early 1900s, he was also a former Sheffield Wednesday and England international centre-half.

Most politicians do not have such good credentials when it comes to football, as David Cameron proved at a recent campaign stop, when, the victim of brain fade, he suggested he was a West Ham fan, rather than an Aston Villa one.

What’s one claret and blue team from another between friends?

Cameron does have a reasonable connection to Villa, his uncle Sir William Dugdale was Chairman at Villa Park between 1975 and 1982 – breaking up the reign of Doug Ellis, and overseeing the period which lead to Villa’s 1982 European Cup win.

Election campaigns do tend to bring out the Everyman in politicians. There is a necessity to appear personable, relatable, to the average voter, and by picking the right team, there’s a fair chance of also picking up a few votes.

Tony Blair – whatever his flaws, the most successful modern politician at winning elections – did a good turn at this. Alongside the rubbing shoulders with Britpop acts, he also expressed his love of Newcastle United. Two expressions of popularist sentiment, very unlikely to offend. Picking Oasis instead of Blur was more likely to be divisive than supporting Newcastle. Mind you, Alex James from Blur is now a neighbour of David Cameron’s, so Blair perhaps called that one right.

During the 1997 election campaign, Blair was filmed playing an impressive game of head tennis with Kevin Keegan. A modicum of footballing ability going a long way. All part of a larger plan to build Blair’s image. It didn’t even matter than this was the same Kevin Keegan who had posed on the steps of Downing Street with Margaret Thatcher less than 20 years previously, kissing the then Prime Minister on one cheek while Emlyn Hughes kissed the other. Hughes also joked that Thatcher he bet Mrs Thatcher wished she could grab Arthur Scargill’s balls like the football she was holding. A bemused Prime Minister held the pose for the cameras.

Like William Clegg of Wednesday and England, some footballers turn to politics when their playing careers come to an end. Hughes never returned to the steps of No 10 as a politician, and Keegan is unlikely to, but Sol Campbell, for one, seems to have his heart set on a political career now that his footballing one has drawn to a close.

Campbell has been courting the Conservative Party, with aspirations of being the party’s next candidate for London Mayor. In a city which has elected Boris Johnson twice, and where Eddie Izzard has expressed interest in standing as a Labour candidate for Mayor, Campbell’s name recognition would prove useful. He’s unlikely to garner much support in significant portions of North London, however.

A model for Campbell to follow is that of Brazilian legend Romario, who is now a Socialist Party senator representing Rio de Janiero. Romario’s fledgling political career has already seen him chairing a congressional committee for sport, speaking out against corruption during the 2014 World Cup and campaigning tirelessly in support of the rights of disabled people in Brazil.

It’s hard to imagine many Premiership stars finding contentment in the life of a public servant – albeit one with a high profile – although perhaps the routine and structure of bureaucracy suits those who have spent their entire adult life living to a timetable. And perhaps party politics suits those who are used to an us versus them approach to their work?

At least our politicians rarely combine public life with running a football team, as AC Milan owner, former three-time Italian Prime Minister and all-round good-time guy Silvio Berlusconi does. He, of course, also owns a media empire. We should all be thankful the closest we have is The Lord Sir Alan Sugar – mostly harmless by comparison.

When discussing football and politics, a special mention needs to go to the Right Hon Andy Burham MP. A former cabinet minister in the last Labour government and now Shadow Health Secretary, Burnham was instrumental in the formation of the Hillsborough Independent Panel after being heckled during a memorial service to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. When he returned five years later for the 25th anniversary, it was as a man who had listened, heard, and acted.

There’s a lesson there for everyone. Especially in politics.