OLIVER HOLT: Gordon Brown is the football mad former Prime Minister who can tell England a few home truths… he could still be a champion of the sport if the idea enticed him
- Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is as enthusiastic about football as ever
- Brown never received enough credit for being one of us, a football fan, in office
- He could be part of the solution to the mess of rampant self-interest and greed
A little terrier races out of the house and scampers across the lawn, past the footballs and the set of goalposts by the wall and dances around Gordon Brown’s chair as dusk begins to close in on the promontory overlooking the Forth Road Bridge. ‘He’s called Ethan,’ says Brown. ‘Like Ethan Ross, the Raith Rovers winger you saw playing at Stark’s Park last night.’
We talk about Ethan. The footballer, not the dog. I say it is apt Brown mentioned him because I thought he was the best player on the pitch. Brown nods enthusiastically and gives me an A to Z guide: on-loan from Aberdeen, 19 years old, winger, good prospect, a decent kid like so many of the Raith players Brown has seen come and go from his beloved club in more than 60 years supporting them.
Our former Prime Minister had tried to watch the Scottish League Cup tie between Raith and Inverness Caledonian Thistle on his iPad, he says, but he was defeated by sound issues and reception problems.
He got up this morning and watched the highlights of the 3-3 draw instead, including the penalty shoot-out win that gave Raith the bonus point in the competition’s mini-league format.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown remains as enthusiastic about enjoying football as ever
Brown’s knowledge of the game is encyclopaedic and his enthusiasm infectious. I don’t think we ever gave him enough credit for that when he was in office. For being one of us. For being a football fan. A sports fan. Maybe it was because we had been made cynical by a series of disingenuous politicians professing love for a game they knew nothing about in order to curry favour with voters. Brown was never like that.
I sat next to him at a dinner in London 15 years ago and not only was he excellent, warm company but all he wanted to talk about was football. Which is always a good thing. He had found a sports bar in Washington DC, he said, where he loved to sit on Saturday mornings before big International Monetary Fund or World Bank meetings, watching games from Britain on the banks of screens that lined the walls.
His dad took him to his first Raith game in 1958, when he was seven. He sold programmes outside the ground in Kirkcaldy to earn ‘a few shillings’. He got into the game for free that way, too, about 20 minutes after kick-off. ‘It taught me about mathematics, economics and finance,’ he says, smiling. Later, after he had become an MP, he persuaded Craig Levein to become Raith manager, helped with the signing of the centre-back Marvin Andrews and intervened to rescue the club from problematic owners.
Brown never received enough credit for being one of us, a football fan, during his time in office
The 69-year-old persuaded Craig Levein to become Raith’s manager and also rescued the club
He and his teenage sons, John and Fraser, are season-ticket holders at Stark’s Park, his wife, Sarah, ferries Fraser to football practice and Brown joins other parents on the touchline to watch his son play for the local boys’ team. ‘I’m an addict for watching football on television as well. And I don’t know why they abolished the Sunday Supplement,’ he says, referencing Sky’s discontinued football journalists’ discussion panel. ‘That was a good programme.’
He had other associations with sports journalists, too. After he had become an MP, he found himself on a night out in Edinburgh with Hugh McIlvanney, one of the greatest sports writers of his generation, and McIlvanney’s brother, William, a novelist and poet of great repute who created the fictional detective, Laidlaw.
A night of drinking in pubs like the Abbotsford and the Cafe Royal ensued and ended back at Brown’s flat with the McIlvanney brothers arguing with prominent historian Owen Dudley Edwards. ‘Owen was saying that Conor Cruise O’Brien could sit down at his typewriter, paralytically drunk and still write beautiful prose,’ says Brown.
Brown has associations with sports journalists, including the late, and great, Hugh McIlvanney
‘Hugh shouted: “Impossible” and they were arguing and arguing about it. Anyway, Hugh and Willie threw the guy out of my flat and they got up the next morning and they had forgotten all about it. It was incredible.’
Brown travelled to watch Scotland at their World Cup appearances in the Eighties and Nineties and was glued to their game in Serbia that saw them qualify for next summer’s European Championship. When he was Prime Minister, he asked his aides if there was a way he could get to a football match every Saturday. They politely demurred and Brown had to admit temporary defeat.
‘I have subscriptions now to Sky and BT, I have to confess,’ he says. ‘Football has always been my relaxation. When I was in Downing Street, when you are under pressure to do all sorts of things, what you look forward to is seeing a football match.’
A politician with Brown’s gravitas feels like an outlier now and it is tempting to think he could still be a champion for football if football had the wherewithal to entice him. He possesses international standing and diplomacy and intelligence, not qualities that the English game has been overly blessed with among recent leaders and which are painfully absent now.
The Scotsman was glued to the screen when his country beat Serbia to qualify for Euro 2020
So how about it? How about being the next chairman of the English FA? Greg Clarke had fallen on his sword the previous evening after achieving his Grand Slam of gaffes in front of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee so there is a vacancy. Brown laughs that stentorian laugh, shakes his head and references the fact he turns 70 next year. ‘I think the English FA needs somebody from the 21st century,’ he says. ‘I also think there’s a strong case that it should be a woman.’
Even if it’s only by listening to his views, it doesn’t mean Brown cannot be part of the solution to the mess of rampant self-interest and bald greed that is disfiguring the English game again. At a moment when the country and the sport is in crisis because of the crushing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, men like Clarke and EFL chairman Rick Parry, together with the richest English clubs, tried to take advantage by proposing a power-grab dressed up as an act of charity. Brown, like most football fans, saw straight through that.
‘The leaders of Project Big Picture were demanding that they should shape the league, two fewer teams, televising some of their games on their club channel, so gradually this is no longer about an English league but it is about a group of clubs that have broken away effectively but still control it,’ says Brown. ‘The question is can you achieve the same resources for football but make these resources distributed in a far fairer way?
‘When I saw the figures for the compensation that was going to be paid to the Championship and lower leagues, it seemed so small compared to what you could make from the television rights for these football matches. It does seem to me that something has got to be done to bring people together in a way that gets a better settlement that is fairer and gets the resources distributed in a way that helps young footballers be nurtured in lower clubs among other things.
There is no reason why Brown can’t be part of the solution to the mess of rampant self-interest
‘Football is a chain. So the Premier League say they buy the players from the lower leagues so they help the lower leagues. But actually it’s the lower leagues who nurture a lot of the players and bring them into the Premier League. The bigger clubs should be helping the lower leagues. Definitely. When you talk about a league and when you talk about English football and British football, you are talking about clubs that are linked to each other in a very meaningful way, not just because of the supply of players.
‘It is surely in the interests of the Premier League and all the richest clubs that there is an encouragement to play, to watch, to be part of it, even fathers and mothers helping the kids. It is organic. It’s like a chain. It’s like a circle that is being built up. We have got to bring people together to think of the future.
‘My fear is that if you have six or seven clubs that move so far away from the rest, the league becomes uncompetitive and whatever you give the lower leagues, who have got debts at the moment and are far more desperate for money than they would have been without the virus, it is not going to be enough if it’s charity. You have got to think of yourself as part of a community.
‘I would like people to think of it as Britain as well as England. The difficulty for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is that they do not have access to the television money that English clubs have. Even in England, they said enough when they were asked to pay £14.95 for extra matches. It was an emotional reaction to being asked to pay more at a time when people had less.’
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Brown is adamant that football clubs must be helped to survive so that they can remain at the heart of their communities. He wants people to fight for them with the same fervour they devote to other pillars of the community. ‘We have got to keep the community clubs in being,’ he says. ‘We cannot allow this pandemic to be the reason why they failed.
‘There are thousands of people who may never go to a football match but who want to see their local team survive and flourish and believe it is good for young people because it gives them some direction and something to aim for. When the team are doing well, people feel a lot better about the whole community.’
Brown is still a conviction politician, a man who mourns the fact that many working people have been priced out of watching football, who revels in the fact that the Old Course at St Andrews is still open to the public and who remembers the days when football was a way out for the miners who lived and worked in his old constituency in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.
There is only one area where he confesses his courage has failed him. I ask him who Fraser supports. ‘Don’t tell Alex Ferguson,’ he says, ‘but it’s Manchester City.’
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I walked into Stark’s Park in Kirkcaldy for the first time last Tuesday and almost stopped dead in my tracks. For a football ground nerd like me, the old, gabled stand in the corner, designed by architect Archibald Leitch, is a thing of rare beauty, possessed of the kind of character that transports you back to football’s golden age.
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