Aidan Smith: Boris and the unseemly history of PMs and football … but should Ukraine get that World Cup bye?

In the past he’s harrumphed about our rain, the “gloomy Scotch mist” and, before it came to pass, the idea that a Scottish MP could be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Also, while a magazine editor, he published a poem calling us a “verminous race”.

Football has become a political football again with Boris suggesting Ukraine sould be given a World Cup bye
Football has become a political football again with Boris suggesting Ukraine sould be given a World Cup bye

No friend of Scotland, some would say of Boris Johnson, and I’m sure a good number of the Tartan Army are currently harrumphing right back at him over his latest whizzo proposal: that Ukraine be given a bye to the World Cup, this obviously coming at our expense.

To be fair to Boris he stresses he’s no expert on football matters. “Not my strongest subject,” he admits. Even so, he’s joined the long list of PMs who have been unable to stop themselves getting involved.

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Presented with a ball, be it an actual ball at a photo-op, they will attempt to give it a hefty kick. With the possible exception of kissing babies, nothing connects a politician more with the lumpen electorate - in the eyes of the spin-doctors at least - than hoofing the old pig’s bladder. And if a small child gets mown down in the over-enthusiastic display of people’s-game fraternising, well, too bad. (I know that when Boris did this he was showing off at rugby, but you get my drift).

Or, when merely asked a question about football, no tantalising sphere or gaping net or vulnerable kid in the vicinity, it’s imperative that they answer. Football matters too much for them to risk some casual and instinctive flannelling. Regarding “Partygate”, the big story before the attacks on Kyiv, a never bloody ending succession of government ministers, having been bundled into the Today programme radio-car, could prevaricate: “We must wait for Sue Gray’s report.” If the issue had concerned the game, though, this wouldn’t have been acceptable. Remember how quickly the European Super League was killed stone dead?

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Pre-Boris, Harold Wilson seemed like he was the first PM to spot the vote-winning potential of football. I was the size of the boy bowled over by Johnson when he was in No 10, but the few things I knew about him included: a) he smoked a pipe; b) he occasionally hung around with the Beatles; c) he re-arranged a General Election to avoid clashing with Steptoe and Son (still my favourite sitcom); d) he supported Huddersfield Town.

In 1966 Wilson couldn’t help boasting that England only won the World Cup when Labour were in power but four years later, when the reigning champs’ stand-in goalie - nickname, I think, of Tiddles - couldn’t prevent a quarter-final defeat and when this was quickly followed by Wilson being voted out of office, he was forced to change his tune: “The result of a football match does not affect the governance of the country.”

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His successor Edward Heath - though I was grateful to him for the three-day week in the way only a schoolboy could be, bunking off lessons for the afternoon kick-offs required by the floodlights ban - preferred sailing to football and I don’t remember the next guy into the Downing Street dugout, Sunny Jim Callaghan, being much of a fan either.

Maggie? Thatcher was nicknamed the Iron Lady but had no connection to Rangers’ Iron Curtain. She came from Grantham, but in a place-association game that town would prompt from me: “Don Masson.” The classy old Scotland midfielder has sought sanctuary there, hoping to escape journos writing Argentina anniversary pieces.

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Mrs T’s attitude towards football before Bradford, Hysel and Hillsborough isn’t recorded. Afterwards, things were a bit more unequivocal: life sentences for hooligans were proposed, along with the introduction of ID cards. These disasters made it imperative for the PM to get involved, but Thatcher went in with pit-boots - borrowed from a redundant coal miner, most likely - and in her declamatory way she tarred all fans with the same brush.

John Major professed himself a Chelsea supporter but he was more associated with cricket. Tony Blair? Ah, now there was a proper football man not a carpetbagging opportunist, and when he rhapsodised about watching Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle United we all thought: bona fide fan. Then, a short while later, we were like: hang on, when “Wor Jackie” hung up his boots, Tones was only four years old. And not even living in Britain.

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Ach, easy mistake to make. Just like David Cameron, the long-time follower of Aston Villa who then shouted: “Come on, West Ham!” No need for parliamentary inquiries or anything.

I’ve jumped one. Of course, Broon. Maybe Gordon Brown is the Ballon d’Or guy here. The PM who at Raith Rovers as a boy in a voice not yet broken yelled: “’Fishul programmes!” Who can still reel off the team for his first-ever game. Who had a wee greet to himself when Jim Baxter was spirited away to Rangers.

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Then there was Theresa May. Once asked to nominate the naughtiest thing she’d ever done, the second-ever woman Premier replied: “Stood up on the back seat of a supporters’ bus and mooned at Arsenal fans.” Sorry, I don’t know what made me say that, it was of course: “Ran through a wheat field.”

And so we’re back with Boris who thinks we - and Wales, too - should give give up on Qatar and wave the brave Ukranians through. I can see his point and at times over the last month watching cities being blown to bits I’ve thought it would be the right thing to do. Would England do it? I reckon not. Would Ukraine want it? Nothing will be further from their minds right now. But it would be some gesture …

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