Obligatory at election time are party leaders compelled to treat voters as dolts by declaiming lifelong devotion to the people’s game. In 1997 Mr Blair made a complete idiot of himself with a tear-inducing reverie of a childhood on the terraces at St James’ Park drooling over Newcastle United’s Jackie Milburn — but without checking first whether he would have been out of nappies when the black-and-white legend last played there. Shamelessly undaunted, Master T has played it safer this time, nominating a comparative modern — the eager pudding-basin scruff Peter Beardsley — as his favourite player and, for his most memorable goal, ‘Alastair [Campbell] tells me it has to be Malcolm Macdonald’s which put out Burnley in the 1974 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough.’ Meanwhile true-blue Mr Howard’s blood runs deep red for Liverpool FC. Most topping goal he ever cheered was the fulminating header (in the European Cup final in Rome in 1977) by his all-time favourite Tommy Smith. A midfield enforcer of unforgiving severity, Tommy’s immigration policy was transparently clear, too, when the foreign ‘invasion’ began in 1978 with Argentine Ossie Ardiles coming to Tottenham. Ossie’s very first touch of the ball left him ransacked in a writhing heap by Smith, who explained: ‘That was to make it clear to the posing fancy flicker that he’s joined the toughest and most manly league in the world.’ The same Tommy, in arthritic retirement, took part in a penalty shoot-out for charity in 1996 — to be informed next day that Bootle DSS had consequently withdrawn his weekly £132 disability allowance.
Mr Kennedy and the Lib Dems are lumbered with Ross County — ‘What time’s kick-off?’ ‘When can you get here, laddie?’ Most of their chilblained souls (average gate 2,000) stamp their boots at the Jail End, but at least Britain’s northernmost league ground is also its most dramatically picturesque — snow-capped Ben Wyvis imposingly yonder and Cromarty Firth alongside. Is any of it remotely relevant? Did William Hague’s passion for judo win him a single vote? Ditto John Major’s for cricket? Mrs T never gave a fig for sport. Heath sailed his Morning Cloud for a while; then it sank, and so did he. At the 1979 Boat Race dinner at the Savoy I remember being fondly touched by the languid, misty yearning of Harold Macmillan for sporting days ‘when the nation knew by heart every batting average of the day, ah good Hobbs and Hayward ...degenerate times when we could still play a match between Gentlemen and Players, or bet sixpence with Nanny on the outcome of the Boat Race.’
For Labour, Kinnock was a genuine rugger bod, Foot a true Argyle pilgrim. Clem Attlee could quote chunks of Wisden verbatim, especially dusty score-cards of Haileybury vs Cheltenham, or the Army vs MCC. I’m told Gaitskell died regretting not that he’d utterly botched the 1959 election but that, as hot favourite, he’d not won the senior cross-country race in his last year at Winchester. Harold Wilson, however, was on the ball. I was working for ITV before the 1970 election and, live on air and unwarned, we mischieviously challenged his boast about being in the Wembley throng at the 1938 Cup final when ‘he were but a penniless lad’. With neither a flicker of hooded eyelids nor puff of his briar pipe, to prove it Harold rattled off the teams, swot-perfect and parrot-fashion: ‘Huddersfield Town: Hesford, Craig, Mountfield, Willingham, Young, Boot...’ Mind you, he still lost the election.