Writing in the Observer, Euan Ferguson says:
We learnt that Blair is, undoubtedly, a fan of the programme. Ten past 12, every Saturday he can, he's watching Football Focus, and we know this because on a number of topics - ticket prices, the FA/Premiership fallouts - he referred back, with mention of "as you guys were saying last week", "that discussion you guys had a while back".Except that it proves nothing of the sort. It is entirely possible that someone at Downing Street made a point of watching the last few editions of Football Focus and prepared a briefing for the prime minister. Indeed, it is easier to believe that than to credit that Blair makes the time every Saturday to take in the programme's bland chatter.
This picture of Tony Blair as a great soccer fan has never really convinced. Football may be classless today, but when the young Blair was at prep school and public school it was less common for someone of his background to follow the game.
Certainly, thanks to this Peter Oborne article in the Spectator (you can see enough of it without subscribing - thanks, Boris), we know that as a young man Blair's enthusiasm was for cricket:
Of course one can follow both sports, but Blair the cricketer rings truer than Blair the football fan.
I used to play for the same cricket club as Tony Blair, though not at the same time. It was called the Cricket Pistols, named after the punk rock band which is still indelibly associated in the public mind with the names Johnny Rotten and the late Sid Vicious. My own association with the Pistols was comparatively brief. They were affable, faintly druggie types, many of whom had attended Cambridge university, and in some cases completed their degrees. At least one had spent time in borstal. The Pistols were fairly down at heel then, but have since made good and tend to live in large houses in Notting Hill Gate.
Tony Blair used to turn out occasionally about 25 years ago, when he was establishing himself as a barrister but before he became an MP.
There is another reason for doubting soccer Blair's credentials. In his early years as prime minister he was interviewed on local radio in the North East. He was talking about what a great Newcastle United fan he was and how he used to watch the team with his father in the 1960s. Naturally, the interviewer asked who his heroes were in those days.
There was a horrible pause before Blair managed to dredge from somewhere the names of Jackie Milburn and Malcolm Macdonald. The only trouble with that was that Milburn played in the 1950s and Macdonald played in the 1970s.
This embarrassing incident has grown in the telling. For instance, in 2000 Francis Wheen described it as follows:
he told an interviewer that his "teenage hero" was the footballer Jackie Milburn, whom he would watch from the seats behind the goal at St James's Park. In fact, Milburn played his last game for Newcastle United when Blair was just four years old, and there were no seats behind the goal at the time.This must have rankled with Blair, for yesterday morning the original recording was played on Football Focus. And it can hardly have been the programme's editorial team who suggested exhuming it.
Euan Ferguson writes:
The BBC had helpfully dug out the original Radio Five interview, which quite unequivocally had the PM saying he'd arrived after Jackie's time.But hearing the interview again did nothing to dispel the doubts. Here was someone who claimed to be a big Newcastle fan in the 1960s, yet was unable when asked to name a single of the team's players from that era.
If you want to know what a real football fan turned politician sounds like, you should have heard Jenny Tonge on Adrian Chiles' programme on Radio Five Live. She talked rhapsodically about obscure Baggies cloggers from the 1950s. For if you are a football fan as a child, the trivia from that era stays with you for life. I am still an expert on minor Chelsea stars from the late 60s and early 70s. (Derek Smethurst, anyone? Barry Lloyd? Bill Garner?)
I conclude from this that when Blair said he was a Newcastle fan in the 1960s he was not telling the truth.
Remember that a year or two before Blair became prime minister, Newcastle - with Kevin Keegan as manager - was briefly the most fashionable team in the country. Given Blair's wish to be down with the kids it is not surprising that this was the team he suddenly developed a life-long affection for. It also fits with his tendency to be just behind the beat. He embraced Oasis just as everyone else was realising how thinly the group's talent was spread.
All of this makes you wonder about another of Blair's soccer-related outings as Labour leader. He appeared with Keegan, played head tennis and proved very proficient at it.
It may be that he was a keen footballer all along. But I have a horrible suspicion that Alistair Campbell had him out practising every evening for months, like a crazed American determined to make his young daughter a tennis champion.