Election '05: Sport and politics don't mix. Why not?

Politicians in Britain may crave the approval of sporting icons, but most sportsmen are just not interested in the result of tomorrow's General Election
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The Independent Online

Matt Lockwood is a committed and articulate supporter of his trade union. He represents it at his workplace and speaks passionately about its work in protecting the interests of its members. You might imagine he would be looking forward to exercising his democratic rights tomorrow.

Come polling day, however, the only cross Lockwood is likely to make will be at a Leyton Orient training session. The 28-year-old full-back, who is the Professional Footballers' Association representative at Brisbane Road, has never voted and does not intend to do so now.

"The election is obviously important and relevant to me, but I don't see it will make that much difference, whoever I vote for," he said. "Because I don't follow politics that much I don't really know what one party is offering compared to the other. I tend to think they would all do the same sort of job, so it wouldn't matter to me who's in charge."

Has the election been a subject of discussion in the Orient dressing-room? "Not at all," Lockwood said. "The lads haven't seemed interested in it. I imagine nobody would want to bring it up because they'd get hammered just for talking about it."

A similar picture could be painted at training grounds, dressing-rooms and sporting arenas across the country. Britain's sportsmen and women appear to be singularly unimpressed by the political process, while the politicians seem to feel little need to court the sporting vote, other than by basking in reflected glory.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown welcomed Sir Alex Ferguson on stage to launch Labour's election campaign last month and Michael Howard watched Liverpool last week in the Champions' League at Stamford Bridge, but serious questions about sporting policy have barely figured on the political agenda. Even London's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games has prompted little debate.

This is to the great chagrin of those sporting organisations fighting the chronic lack of investment in British sport. A recent study showed that sport contributes £5.5bn to central government through taxes yet receives only £660m in the form of grants. Government investment in sport falls well behind the levels of other countries: France has 80,000 full-time coaches compared to Britain's 10,000 and the difference in facilities is highlighted by the fact that there are more indoor tennis courts in Paris than in the whole of Britain.

British sport is suffering. Over the last decade the number of active footballers has dropped by a million, while there are 40 per cent fewer club cricketers. Yet nobody would doubt sport's value to the health of the nation, especially at a time when obesity and a general lack of physical fitness are such major issues. Even from a financial point of view sport is a winner. One study last year estimated that the feelgood factor surrounding Euro 2004 gave a £1bn boost to the British economy.

Yet the "sport and politics don't mix" mantra still prevails in Britain, even if only subconsciously. John Crawley, who has played first-class cricket for 15 years and appeared in 37 Test matches since graduating from Cambridge University, says the election campaign has not been a subject of discussion in the Hampshire dressing-room.

"Cricketers generally don't talk much about politics," he said. "When I was at Lancashire there was never any real interest and the same's been true at Hampshire. Of course it should interest players, because it affects anybody who's working. I certainly feel it's important. Sport is such a huge thing in this country that you would have thought it would have played a part in the campaign, though it clearly hasn't."

Scot Gemmill, the Leicester City footballer, recalled a recent conversation with two colleagues about the election, but added: "In my experience it's very rare for players to talk about politics. And this is the first time in my life that I've made a point of watching TV and listening to the radio with the specific purpose of finding out what's going on in the election campaign. I think it's to do with my age [he is 34]. I'm virtually at the end of my career and I'm interested to hear what politicians have to say."

Gemmill remembers his own initial surprise on discovering that his manager at Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough, was a staunch Labour supporter. Many footballers of Clough's era were politically motivated, particularly those who came from communities dominated by mining and heavy industry in poorer areas of the country. They also had their own grievances: Jimmy Guthrie, who took over as head of the players' union in 1947, complained in an impassioned speech to the Trades Union Congress about footballers' "slave contracts".

Yet as traditional industries declined and the lot of players climbed, a clear gap emerged between footballers and their audience. In Hunter Davies' 1972 book, The Glory Game, only three of Tottenham's 19-strong first-team squad said they were Labour supporters. Ralph Coates and Cyril Knowles said they were simply following a family tradition and it was only Steve Perryman who voiced strong views on tax and private schools, asking with incredulity: "Aren't all players Labour?"

Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, disputes the suggestion that players have swung to the right."I think the ballots we have held over the years have shown that it would be very difficult to categorise most footballers as being right-wing," he said. "The leading players, including lots of overseas players, have shown great solidarity with their less well-off counterparts in the lower divisions. I think football mirrors the rest of society."

Gemmill is not so sure. "I don't think footballers are a reflection of the country at large," he said, adding that in his experience most footballers held right-wing views. "Financially, they're much more secure than most people so they're sheltered from a lot of the things that politicians might be able to help the population at large with. It's easy for players to say that politics doesn't affect them, because even if taxes are raised they know that they're going to be financially secure. If they put council tax or any other tax up, nine out of 10 footballers know their life won't change."

If footballers appear reluctant to make political statements it is perhaps understandable in the light of the experiences of some of those who have stuck their necks out. Robbie Fowler, for example, was fined by Uefa for displaying a T-shirt proclaiming support for sacked Merseyside dockers during a European Cup-winners' Cup tie eight years ago.

At least Fowler did not have to endure the criticism John Taylor experienced after asking not to be selected to face the visiting Springboks after what he had seen of South Africa's apartheid regime on a Lions rugby union tour in 1968.

"The Welsh union were completely understanding, but if I had been English I don't think I would have played international rugby again," Taylor said. "Certain senior figures from the RFU said: 'How dare you? How could you possibly dream of turning down a chance like this in order to make a political point?'"

Taylor believes his stand cost him a place in the Barbarians' victory over the All Blacks in 1973. "The Lions had never played on home soil, but when the All Blacks came here there was talk of the Barbarians recreating the Lions team that had played in New Zealand in 1971. I'd played in all the Tests out there, so I should have been in the team.

"I wasn't picked initially and when Mervyn Davies got injured, John Dawes, who was the captain and my pal at London Welsh, told the Barbarians people that they had to bring me into the team. He was told: 'The man's a Communist. He will never play.'"

Andrew Castle was another sportsman who was made to pay for a political gesture. During a televised final against Jeremy Bates at the national tennis championships at Telford, Castle rested a placard on his seat proclaiming, "No to the poll tax".

"I got slammed heavily by the Lawn Tennis Association and those around them," Castle recalled. "They withheld my prize-money, I was called a disgrace and I wasn't allowed to talk to the press. I recognise now that it wasn't the right thing to do and I wouldn't do it again, but it was a heartfelt and a hard-held view that I was expressing. And if you can't protest as a young man, when will you?"

Pat Nevin, the former Chelsea and Scotland winger, was one of the most politically aware footballers but chose his stands carefully. He was particularly prominent in the fight against racism, which he cites as an issue in which footballers have been at the forefront of a largely successful campaign for change.

"In my first season at Chelsea I scored the winning goal in a game, but what I remembered most was the booing of Paul Canoville by a section of our fans," Nevin said. "After the game, instead of talking to the press about my goal, I said: 'I've only got one thing to say. I'm disgusted with those Chelsea fans who booed one of our own players.'

"I knew what headlines that would get, particularly in the tabloids. Afterwards some people told me not to bring my politics into the game. To which I would reply: 'If you don't bring your politics into the game, then I won't bring mine.' "

In recent years it has been overseas footballers who have seemed more prepared to stick their necks out politically. Sasa Curcic paraded around Selhurst Park with a banner opposing the Nato bombing of Serbia, Paolo Di Canio did not hide his fascination with Benito Mussolini and Robert Pires made public his doubts about the war in Iraq.

In the last two years it has been England cricketers who have been thrust under the strongest political spotlight. A long-running debate over whether they should travel to Zimbabwe for a 2003 World Cup match ended with the team pulling out, while players were given the option of withdrawing from last autumn's tour of the same country. Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff both stayed at home (though Flintoff had been rested anyway).

Derek Wyatt, a former England rugby union player, who has represented Sittingbourne and Sheppey for Labour since 1997, believes that the absence of public debate about sport is a reflection of the lack of importance which successive governments have placed on it. "We need to have a sport and health education department on its own, so that there's a secretary of state in the cabinet," he said.

Whether that will be enough to arouse political interest in young footballers remains to be seen. "I can't ever remember having a conversation with anyone of my age about politics," Matt Lockwood said. "I don't think most young footballers are either right-wing or left-wing. They're just not interested."