The football writers laid on a tribute do for Steven Gerrard the other night, not as you might suppose at Nando’s — but at the Savoy and very jolly it was too. As someone said, it’s about the only honour he’s likely to get now, what with playing just for Liverpool and England and all that. Anyway, there were jolly speeches from Gérard Houllier, Gary McAllister and especially Jamie Carragher, who may be tricky to understand but is clearly going to be a considerable force in English football when he locks away his shinpads.
Gerrard didn’t make a speech, but did a perfectly inoffensive Q&A with Henry Winter. Hell will freeze before Gerrard knowingly says anything that isn’t obliging and inoffensive. More to the point, it would be nice to think that someone who has captained Liverpool and England felt up to making a speech to a few journalists and their wives. The room was full of countless people who would be willing to lend a hand. I remember some years back Frank Lampard making an absolutely brilliant speech at such an event, so good we just shoved it in the paper a few days later. Come on you celebretariat: outlaw the Q&A.
Far more interesting was the opportunity to chew the fat, or at least the sushi and avocado, with the admirable Brian McDermott, manager of beleaguered — or resurgent, depending where you’re standing — Reading FC. McDermott is a Heston Blumenthal lookalike with the easy manner of the bloke you like to meet down the pub. But what he’s achieved along the M4 is remarkable, and not just because he must have quadrupled his Russian owner’s £30-odd million investment. He is a real self-improver and a brilliant man manager. The books he reads are management books, not football ones, and that’s the ethos he’s brought into Reading.
That’s why he doesn’t seem intimidated by the challenge of surviving in the top flight even though the odds — and the wage bills, a fraction of most Premier League clubs’ — are so stacked against him. There is a culture there of hard work and improvement, so that he can be satisfied with his work even if it doesn’t keep his team up. When we spoke Reading had just beaten Newcastle away after being 1-0 down at half time. So no wonder when you ask, ‘How do you persuade players to come to Reading?’ McDermott says, ‘I don’t. They have to want to join and to learn.’ If there were more men like Brian McDermott in English football, then it might attract the Pep Guardiolas of this world.
‘There are really two different ways to look at the world,’ he says. ‘When you realise that success is in your own hands, rather than something that happens to you by way of talent, a light goes on in your mind. We never use words like “talent” here. We focus on hard work; how players and staff can grow over time. We may not become Premier League champions, but we will reach our potential.’ Well said, and come on you Royals.
Critics — what a bleak life it must be. Endlessly having to say ‘I’m a critic’ when people ask what you do. And if you’re a TV critic, you’re having to snip away at programmes that will always be watched by millions more people than will read a word you write. How else to explain the insanely savage response to ITV’s cheery diving show, Splash? The show’s a faintly nutty but engaging attempt to get people to shift out of their comfort zone. It’s all under the tutelage of tiny Tom Daley, and what’s not to love about him? Quite why anybody should be so derisive about people trying their best to do something scary beats me. And the audience all have those giant sponge hands, and there are few things that lift the spirits more than a giant sponge finger. Good for you, Tom.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 January 2013