Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Paolo Di Canio? He’s a bit right-wing for me - Nigel Farage outflanked by Sunderland boss

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Pensioner Angela Hay was in shock. She had been sitting on a bench in South Shields’ King Street, enjoying the sunshine, when Nigel Farage and Ukip’s parliamentary by-election candidate Richard Elvin, along with assorted TV crews, descended on her.

Gamely rising to the challenge, she told the Ukip leader: “I don’t know what your name is but I recognise your face.” When Mr Farage mentioned, as he is wont to do, that Britain should unleash itself from the grip of Brussels, and the candidate asked her if she would be voting for the party, Ms Hay, 70, nodded encouragingly, only confiding later that while she liked the Ukip leader’s face and manner: “I’m tempted but I’m not 100 per cent sure. You can’t say that while they’re there can you?” More concerned that she might have made her first television appearance, she added “At least I was wearing a clean jumper.”

Ms Hay was one of the relatively few voters the Ukip leader met on his walkabout. He is – at least in South Shields – in that intermediate state of celebrity in which his every step is dogged by the media but in which the public is only beginning to grasp how pivotal he may prove to be. That said he was warmly greeted by half a dozen passers-by as he made his way to The Stag’s Head for what has already become the standard pub visit of any Farage tour, one in which the photographers crowded along the publican’s side of the bar to catch him with his trademark pint.

One of his lieutenants candidly explained that he had asked the landlord to move a sign declaring “Beer: Helping ugly people have sex since 1862”. Even for a man who makes as much of his own political incorrectness as Mr Farage that would have been the wrong pictorial backdrop two days before elections.

But while Mr Farage may not like Europe – or at least the EU – Europe seems increasingly to be warming to him. Paradoxically he had triggered an unprecedented invasion of South Shields from France (Le Monde) and TV and radio reporters from Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, the last of whom he congratulated lavishly on his country’s trading success outside the EU. “You’re in a much better position than we are,” he assured Swiss listeners. And he repeated at every opportunity his contention that the British political class” was made up of people who had not “had real jobs”. Which puts them, come to think of it, in the same category, though through no fault of their own, as quite a lot of South Shields voters.

Otherwise this had all the trappings of a crucial by-election, including the presence of Channel 4’s redoubtable Michael Crick who gallantly harried Mr Farage on the exposure of his more extremist candidates – and whether the party supported Mussolini-admirer Paolo Di Canio as the manager of nearby Sunderland FC.

Here he proved himself more statesmanlike than his candidate – who seemed enthusiastic about the appointment – suggesting that if he had been a club director he might not have approved the appointment but that he was a cricket rather than a football man and, anyway, “it is a matter for Sunderland.”

Asking about the internal Ukip disputes on strategy that surfaced at the weekend Mr Crick also drew from Mr Farage the frank admission that at times the job of leading the party was one “you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.”

Ukip clearly believe they are on roll in this historically rock solid Labour area. Mr Farage said he wouldn’t be betting –even at odds of 12-1 – on winning. Ed Miliband, for one, will be hoping fervently his caution will be proved right.