Afore ye go… what about the rest of the United Kingdom?

Are our flags about to change?

Are our flags about to change?

This time next week we could be living in a very different country.

Maps may have to be redrawn to remove the words ‘United Kingdom’. Certain flags may become obsolete and sporting unions would have to be changed dramatically ahead of, say, the next Olympics in Rio. Currencies would have to be re-thought.

I would suggest the loss of MPs north of the border would also make it far more difficult for Labour to win a General Election when relying on an electorate in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Yes, the list of repercussions of a ‘Yes’ vote in next week’s Scottish referendum on independence from the Union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland goes on and on. And on.

Why anyone would want to carve up our tiny island further is beyond me – particularly as the inevitable consequence will be that each part will have its influence on the world stage diminished as a result.

Having covered General Elections as a journalist since 1992 I’ve developed a healthy disregard for opinion polls.

But it seems that the result of next week’s vote is genuinely too close to call.

To my mind, both sides of the debate are guilty of scaremongering and crass hypocrisy.

I think the truth is neither side fully understands or can predict all the ramifications of Scotland going it alone.

Sadly, the main parties in Westminster give the impression they have only just woken up to the possibility of the ‘Yes’ campaign winning.

The sight of the Prime Minister, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg scurrying north of the border to bolster the ‘No’ campaign smacked of desperation to me and I can’t believe it will have any substantial effect on voters.

Meanwhile, Alex Salmond and the nationalists can’t shake off the simple fact that independence is a huge gamble – not just for Scotland, but for the UK as a whole.

Not that the SNP give much of a monkey’s about the rest of us.

A lot of the ‘Yes’ campaign’s rhetoric seems to be based on perceived historical injustices and the fact that the south east of England gets all the money and attention from the powers-that-be at Westminster.

Of course, on that basis, anywhere north of the Watford Gap has a gripe.

Indeed, I eagerly await Stoke-on-Trent’s bid for independence from London and the ‘sarf’ east.

I will, personally, be extremely sad to see a majority of the people in Scotland vote for independence. I love the place. I holiday there most years and I think it has the best landscape in Britain and, perhaps wrongly, I consider it part of ‘my country’.

I’ll be sad because we’ll be saying goodbye to hundreds of years of tradition and ties – involving, for example, the military and the Royal Family.

The Union that survived two world wars will have been undone by the drip, drip effect of devolution.

Even if it’s a ‘No’ vote this is a ‘win-win’ for Mr Salmond and the nationalists because more powers will be ceded north of the border by the main Westminster parties as an incentive to keep the fragile Union together a while longer.

I dare say there are plenty of people here in England who will say, without hesitation: ‘Let them go and have their independence!’.

They will be angry that the constituents of Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown continue to enjoy free prescriptions and free university tuition paid for, arguably, by taxpayers in the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile, here in England prescriptions cost £8.05 each and a university education is cost-prohibitive for many because it equates to a second mortgage.

I’m not jealous of the Scots. Good on ’em, I say.

In fact, here in England I would suggest we could learn a few lessons from them with regard to their relentless pursuit of equality and fairness for all.

I joked earlier about the Potteries and the north seeking independence from London and the south east. But I believe there is a genuine argument for the rest of the country outside London no longer being treated like second class citizens on account of the capital being ‘the City’ and our ‘financial powerhouse’ – as Boris Johnson and the like constantly to refer to it.

From an English perspective, the Scottish referendum on independence is sort of like watching your brother rail against his parents and threaten to leave home.

What’s worse is that you’re not allowed to have a say in his decision – even though your brother’s departure will have a huge impact on the family as a whole.

Whatever happens, I wish the people of Scotland all the best for the future because I consider them my friends and neighbours – even if they do take the high road.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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FIFA, the World Cup 2014 paradox, and 48 years of hurt…

A tearful Paul Gascoigne at Italia '90.

A tearful Paul Gascoigne at Italia ’90.

And so it begins. The office sweepstakes have been organised, the wall charts are up, the sticker albums are almost complete and a solid month of football lies ahead.

Despite the fact the game’s world governing body, FIFA, has about as much credibility as the elections in Syria, that didn’t matter last night when hosts Brazil kicked off the World Cup against Croatia.

The suits were out in force, amid all the pomp and ceremony, as the first match provided a welcome distraction for the embattled charisma vacuum that is Sepp Blatter.

The internal strife of the South American nation has been forgotten. The furore surrounding FIFA’s dubious decision to award the 2022 tournament to a country which is hotter than the sun has been conveniently parked.

As much as the World Cup is an inspirational event, we must accept that it’s also the poster boy for corporate largesse and hyperbole.

Here in England, the Spirit of ‘66 lives on – well at least it does in supermarkets up and down the country where you can buy flags of St George and T-shirts showing the late, great Bobby Moore OBE which will be worn by people of all ages – many of whom have no idea who he was.

England play their first game on Saturday night in a brand new stadium in Manaus – a place more suited to a location shoot for Raiders of the Lost Ark than top flight football.

The pitch is of a standard that many pub teams would baulk at and the stadium itself will only be used for four World Cup games because no major team in Brazil wants to base themselves in, well… the jungle.

But the lunacy that accompanies the tournament will be overlooked by fans of England and Italy because all that matters on Saturday night is the result.

I suppose it’s easy to understand why your average fan isn’t too bothered by what happens off the field or the domestic problems of the host nation.

The World Cup is one of those rare events – a sporting occasion which brings nations together, united in hope for an improbable dream.

Club allegiances are set aside (we’re all England now) and the only debates take place over matters such as whether Wellbeck or Sterling should start a game and the fitness or otherwise of Wayne Rooney.

For the millions of supporters of lower league clubs, like myself, the World Cup gives us – albeit briefly – a seat at the top table.

Whether you’re Port Vale or Rotherham, Crewe Alex or Yeovil, the multi-million pound Premier League superstars are now yours to support.

Even if it’s only for the group stages.

I was born in 1972 – by which time the glow of England’s only World Cup triumph was already fading.

Even so, I dare say few people who were around to see Geoff Hurst’s heroics would have thought that almost 50 years later the Three Lions would still be waiting to appear in another World Cup Final.

For as long as I’ve been watching England, they’ve been hugely disappointing.

Glorious and not-so-glorious failures are all I can remember.

We cling on to Bryan Robson’s lightning-quick goal, Lineker’s Golden Boot, David Platt’s sublime volley and Gazza’s tears.

We have recurring nightmares about penalty shoot-outs and still feel aggrieved that the greatest footballer of his generation used his hand to knock us out of the tournament.

We’ve seen a so-called ‘golden generation’ under-achieve hugely and been left questioning whether or not Champions League football perhaps matters more to overpaid Premier League stars than representing their country.

If I sound cynical I am. But it doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy the World Cup.

The one saving grace this time is that I can’t find anyone who thinks England are a force to be reckoned with.

Like Germany in 2010, we have an interesting mix of experience and youngsters with potential. We have no superstars. None.

No-one expects us to tear up any trees and that may just be Roy Hodgson’s greatest weapon.

I don’t expect miracles. I don’t expect beautiful football. But I do expect the national anthem to be sung with gusto and for the players representing our country to give their all. To show some passion.

Come on England. Do us proud.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

If Banksy wants it here in the Potteries, statue should stay put

The Gordon Banks statue.

The Gordon Banks statue.

I was genuinely saddened this week to read about the possibility of our wonderful statue of World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks potentially being moved from Stoke-on-Trent to Leicester.

When I say ‘our’ statue, I know full well that it actually belongs to the Gordon Banks Monument Committee. which was started and funded by Irish author and Banks fan Don Mullan.

However, I say ‘our’ statue because I honestly feel the wonderful sculpture – crafted with the help of Stoke City fans by Potteries-born artist and friend of mine Andrew Edwards – belongs here in our city.

As I understand it, the statue was originally intended to be one of three likenesses of England’s greatest goalkeeper – echoing the sculptures of Sir Stanley Matthews CBE at the Britannia Stadium. Like Stan’s statue, they were intended to sit on a plinth at the home of Stoke City but, for whatever reasons, the other statues never materialised and neither did the plinth.

Having failed to reach an agreement with Stoke City, Mr Mullan has held talks with Banksy’s other club – Leicester City – about the possibility of it moving to the Foxes’ King Power Stadium.

Local newspaper the Leicester Mercury is backing this option, along with former Leicester City players, while The Sentinel is campaigning to keep Banksy’s statue in the Potteries.

As Mr Mullan rightly points out, it does seem ludicrous that the statue of one of the world’s best-ever goalkeepers isn’t taking pride of place at a football stadium.

Well, there’s one just off the D-Road, Don, and the team there plays in red and white.

That’s where the Gordon Banks statue was intended for and that’s where it should end up, in my humble opinion.

Over the last 15 years, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Gordon Banks, who has attended many of the major awards ceremonies The Sentinel stages each year.

No matter who else is in the room, irrespective of whichever sporting VIPs are there to present the prizes – the biggest cheer of the night is always reserved for this giant of our national game.

If you sit and chat to Banksy, he is a lovely, warm and friendly bloke – always happy to reminisce, give his opinion on current teams and players, have his picture taken with awe-struck guests or sign autographs (I’ve got one in my office).

The people of the Potteries, not simply Stoke City fans, hold him in the highest regard which, I suppose, isn’t surprising when you think he has lived here for so long. How disappointing, then, that a venture which aimed to honour the brilliance of this Stoke City and England legend should result in an unseemly tug of war between the Potteries and Leicester.

For goodness’ sake, I reckon the cost of sorting this mess out is about the equivalent of your average Premier League player’s weekly wage.

The people I feel most sorry for here are sculptor Andy and Banksy himself – both of whom agree the statue ought to remain in Stoke-on-Trent.

That in itself is surely a pretty powerful argument.

Andy, the man who sculpted Sir Stan’s statue and the wonderful Staffordshire Saxon in the foyer at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, has made his feelings clear.

He points out that Stoke City fans, of which he is one, helped to craft the statue and that Banksy himself is now very much an ‘adopted-Stokie’.

Andy proposes a simple solution and one which would surely be acceptable to all parties – that of a second cast of the sculpture being made and this one being placed outside the home of Leicester City.

He’s even said he’ll work on the project for nothing.

But perhaps the last word should go to Banksy himself. He said: “When the statue was being made. I was told by the guy who was paying for it and people at Stoke City that it would be placed outside the ground. I don’t really know what’s happened since then. That is where I’d like it to be, as this is where I’m living.”

Who are we, then, to argue with the bloke who made THAT save? Now, how do I sign The Sentinel’s petition?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

There’s nothing wrong with having a little pride in our country’s heritage

A section of the front page fromThe Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

A section of the front page from The Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

If there was a poll to find the most unpopular person in England right now then Education Secretary Michael Gove would surely be in with a shout.

As many of his predecessors have been wont to do, Mr Gove has made it his business to tinker…

He’s tinkered with the curriculum. He’s even tinkered with teachers’ terms and conditions.

Granted, it has felt at times during the past three years as though the Government has been constantly attacking the teaching profession.

The problem is that when a politician attempts to change the way children are taught this inevitably puts him or her on a collision course with teaching professionals (and their unions).

Politicians can bring in all the experts they want: All the professors, academics and even celebrities. It won’t make a scrap of difference.

They will still be accused of poking their nose in business they know nothing about, bringing the morale of teachers down to rock bottom and endangering children’s education for generations to come.

In 2007 the then Labour Government controversially took the decision to remove key historical figures from the curriculum – including Churchill and Hitler – leading to accusations of a ‘dumbing down’.

Now Michael Gove wants our Winston back in again – and a lot more names besides.

His new draft curriculum would see five to 14-year-olds learning about the Romans, the Vikings, the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the development of the British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World Wars and the creation of the NHS.

They would learn history up to 1066 at primary school and find out about the Norman Conquest during their secondary education.

Sound OK so far? Well, it did to me, but apparently not to some education professionals.

More than 100 teachers from a variety of schools have signed a letter to a national newspaper claiming the proposals amount to a breach of their legal duty to avoid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”.

They point to the ‘jingoistic’ way in which both Mr Gove and the Prime Minister have promoted plans to change the curriculum and claim certain sections of the community – “ethnic minority groups and girls even” – may feel excluded by the proposals.

It’s at this point that I rather lose patience with the letter writers.

I often visit my daughters’ schools and enjoy viewing all the work they’ve done on topics as varied – for example – as space travel, the Great Fire of London and Diwali.

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with any of them and my girls will often come home and proudly explain what they’ve learned on any given day.

As far as I can see, studying something like the Gunpowder Plot and its remarkable legacy or the wonderful annual Hindu Festival of Light is all part of the rich tapestry of our unashamedly multi-cultural nation.

At the same time I can’t help but feel there’s been a creeping change in recent years in the way in which certain subjects and topics have been approached and taught in our schools.

I’m not sure at what point it happened but, at some time during the past 20 years, it seems to have ceased to be acceptable to be proud to be English or British in a historical context or to be proud of our country’s heritage.

Certain colossal figures have been airbrushed from the curriculum and, as a nation, we’ve done an awful lot of soul-searching about (and apologising for) past misdeeds.

I’ve never really understood this desperate need to appease and to avoid offending any and everyone because I don’t see how we, here in the 21st century, can be held responsible for events which happened hundreds of years ago.

For example, I don’t want an apology from the good people of France for the Battle of Hastings. Honestly, I’m over it.

The fact is Great Britain had an empire and it was mainly run or administered by men and thus the majority of ‘great’ (I use this term advisedly) historical figures were blokes.

I don’t say this to alienate women or girls: It’s just a fact.

Thankfully, the role of women has changed dramatically in the past 100 years or so to the extent that historians of the future will include far more women in the lists of ‘great historical figures’ than history teachers could when I was at school during the 1980s.

It’s also a fact that in any nation’s history there will be good and bad – things to be proud of and to be appalled at.

These are historical facts and I can’t see anything wrong in highlighting both while, at the same time, giving young people a sense of pride and belonging.

Surely it’s better that they learn about and admire figures such as Shakespeare, the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale or Churchill than whichever
X-Factor winner happens to be on their iPod shuffle this week?

There will doubtless be a huge debate in the coming months about the way in which we mark the centenary of the start of the Great War and the Government will do that thing of trying not to upset our German friends.

I’ve already started ploughing through The Sentinel’s archive as we here at this regional newspaper plan our coverage.

It’s not about offending anyone. We take the view that it’s important to honour the men from our neck of the woods who fought and died in the mud at Mons, Passchendaele or Ypres – just as other media outlets will be doing for their ‘patch’.

To that end, I would argue that being partisan, in this case, isn’t a bad thing at all.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

It’ll be all white. It’s only a bit of snow…

Heavy snow in the Moorlands in January 1987.

Heavy snow in the Moorlands in January 1987.

We are notoriously bad at coping with snow in the UK. Here in North Staffordshire is no different. A mere dusting of the white stuff and roads grind to a halt and schools close. Curtains twitch and people begin checking their stockpiles of Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies.

I’m not sure why we can’t seem to handle proper winter weather.

Perhaps it is because we get so little of it and it is so infrequent.

The truth is snow is a genuine novelty round these parts which is why most of us don’t bother fitting winter tyres to our cars.

When it does snow, my perception is that the majority of people over the age of 60 refuse to leave the house until the great thaw sets in.

This isn’t what happens overseas, I can assure you.

Our attitude is mad, really. Even after nine months of fairly incessant rain which made for a washout of a summer, many people fail to appreciate the beauty of the season of frost, snow and ice.

Thank goodness for children and their love of snowmen and sledges is all I can say.

In early December I flew to France for a festive weekend away with my mates Will and Rob.

It was a new alternative to the annual pub crawl around Newcastle – the idea being that we would sit in front of a log fire drinking vino, watching telly and playing games.

We landed at Geneva airport to be confronted by a white blanket covering the countryside.

The lady handing over the keys to our hire car – a very modest Vauxhall Meriva – asked Will if he wanted snow chains fitting to the tyres. She genuinely couldn’t advise whether we’d need them or not.

“Nah,” he responded after a few seconds’ thought. “I think we’ll be owrate.”

Two hours later it was squeaky bum time as the ill-equipped people carrier quite literally inched its way up Le Crêt de la Neige – the highest peak in the Jura mountains – in the worst blizzard I’ve ever seen.

To his eternal credit, Will fought with the steering wheel and gear stick for all he was worth to coax every ounce of life from the engine and find some traction in the deepening snow as darkness fell.

It was quite simply an epic journey and it was the snow that made it so.

Had it been simply overcast or raining the four hour journey to Will’s place in France would have been eminently forgettable.

As it was, that journey and the sight of the beautiful, snow-covered mountains and fir trees made the holiday so memorable.

You’ll have guessed by now that I’m a big fan of the white stuff.

Sadly, for me, we get precious little of it round these parts and, when we do, it never lasts for very long.

Indeed, properly disruptive snowstorms in the UK as a whole during the last decade or so can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case when I was growing up in Sneyd Green during the 1980s. Back then heavy snowfalls appeared with far more regularity and I think we coped a little bit better with them.

Football certainly carried on thanks to that genius invention, the high-vis orange ball. Remember them?

Trawling through The Sentinel’s archives I unearthed some wonderfully evocative pictures – highlighting the particularly snowy winters of 1981/2, 1987 and 1989.

The Christmas of 1981, for example, was a white one for the people of the Potteries and I was able to build a snowman with my brother on Christmas Eve.

Earlier that month, on December 13, snow blitzed the south of the country and even the Queen became stranded for several hours in a Cotswold pub.

Two ships foundered in the English Channel and some homes in Somerset were without electricity for five days.

Three weeks later, in the January of 1982, it was particularly cold.

On January 8 and 9 heavy snow and gale force winds saw severe blizzards across the Midlands, Wales, Ireland and southern England. Transport services were thrown into chaos and millions of commuters failed to get to work in London for two days running.

Sadly, in 30 years, we seem to have become worse at coping with the snow when it does arrive.

Perhaps the next time we get an inch or two in our neck of the woods we should try to appreciate the fleeting beauty of it and realise that it isn’t the end of the world. Honest.

Anyway, I’d better be off now. I think it’s starting to snow and I wouldn’t want to get stuck at work.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel for 12 pages of nostalgia

Thank you, Andrew Strauss. A cricketer and a gentleman

I dare say Andrew Strauss will never be considered a cricketing ‘great’. His stats simply don’t cut it.

He’s not a Bradman or a Sobers. He’s not a Lara, a Tendulkar or a Ponting. Neither is he a Boycott or a Botham.

He doesn’t even have the profile of Freddie Flintoff whose occasionally superhuman efforts and laddish charm won the hearts of a generation (even though, by his own admission, he should have taken more wickets and scored more runs).

No, Andrew Strauss will slip away quietly now that he has, somewhat unexpectedly, stood down as England captain and retired from the professional game.

There are all sorts of theories floating around about why he chose now to step down. A tough tour to India looms. The next Ashes is on the horizon. His form has been questionable of late (although no poorer than some other England players we could mention). And there was the ridiculous Kevin Pietersen (KP) affair which was a genuine googly for the England dressing room.

In truth I’m not bothered why Straussy chose now to make his move. I’m just saddened that I will never see this bloke open the batting for his country again.

There are many sportsmen – such as the flawed genius that is KP – who start to believe their own hype. Others act irresponsibly, act like yobs and forget they are in the public eye and that their actions bring their sport, their team and often their country into disrepute.

No-one could ever say that of Andrew Strauss.

He is a thoroughly decent, hard-working bloke who led England to back-to-back Ashes victories against the mighty Australians (once in their own back yard) and turned us into world-beaters.

Straussy is a man of no little talent with a bat, a good leader, an excellent fielder and a man with a great cricketing brain.

He also, in my opinion, possesses statesmanlike qualities which transcend the game and his previous roles.

No, he will never be considered a great. But Andrew Strauss was my favourite cricketer and I will miss him.

Thanks for the memories, skip.

Can Roy Hodgson’s England erase 46 years of hurt?

We’re doing it again, aren’t we? Building our hopes up. Having those ‘what if?’ conversations in living rooms, workplaces and pubs.

What if we can get past the group stage? What if Andy Carroll comes good? What if Roy Hodgson’s appointment is actually a stroke of genius? What if Rooney doesn’t get sent off?

Despite years of crushing disappointment and the failure of the ‘Golden Generation’ to shine, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and roll out the Three Lions song from Euro ’96.

It’s no longer 30 years of hurt. Or even 40. It’s, er… 46 years since the England football team actually won anything.

Since then we’ve had odd flashes of brilliance, the occasional dalliance with a semi-final and plenty of penalty shoot-out misery. But, for my entire life, it’s been soul-crushing, gut-wrenching, toe-curling disappointment and endless frustration. It’s been a montage of tears, tantrums, bizarre dismissals and the obligatory elimination courtesy of Teutonic spot kick efficiency.

OK. So we may not have had the most technically-gifted footballers in the world.

But we humble England fans would just like someone to explain to us why talented individuals who play out of their skins for their clubs in what is billed as the best league in the world become useless donkeys when they pull on an England shirt. Why does a lion of Istanbul become a lamb in Bloemfontein? Why does the top of the bill at the Theatre of Dreams suddenly get stage fright?

Is it because there’s no money at stake? Is it because their club contracts are so much more important? Is it because our many and varied managers have been deficient?

Or are we just, well, rubbish? Do we delude ourselves that we have ‘world class’ players when, in actual fact, they can’t do it on the biggest stages?

If we are being honest, it’s probably all of the above which explains the love/hate relationship England fans have with their team. Combine that with some pretty tepid or downright dire performances and we could be forgiven for chucking our St. George foam hats and red novelty wigs in the bin with our dog-eared copies of Hoddle and Waddle’s Diamond Lights.

In spite of all this, we can’t help ourselves but be reinvigorated with renewed optimism every time a major tournament comes around. It’s tribal, so I’ve been told.

We simply can’t prevent the hope of the glory.

We all have our favourite moments but some bond us together in the way that only sport can.

Moments such as captain marvel Bryan Robson scoring the fastest-ever World Cup goal against France at Spain in ’82.

Or never-booked Gary Lineker scoring a hat-trick against Poland at the ’86 World Cup in Mexico.

We get all choked up remembering Gazza’s tears at Italia ’90 and eulogise about THAT goal he scored against Scotland at Euro ’96.

We talk about Shearer and Sheringham dismantling Holland on that memorable night when we put four past the pass masters.

We recall David Platt’s sublime volley to end Belgium’s World Cup challenge.

We remember lion-hearted Stuart Pearce having the bottle to take a spot kick against Spain after messing up in a previous tournament shoot-out.

We savour shaven-headed Becks’ astonishing free kick against Greece and his fearless penalty against the Argies which exorcised the demons of his youthful indiscretion against Diego Simeone.
We enjoy replays of the 5 – 1 demolition of Germany in Munich when even Emile Heskey managed to score.

You see, England may have won nowt in the last four decades but we now have a rich history of glorious failure.

It is a heritage which marks us out as the nearly men of European and world football.

Roy Hodgson may be as dull as a dissertation on the Yellow Pages but that’s maybe no bad thing as, for once, expectation levels have not gone beyond the borders of reality.

Not just yet, anyway…

For now, at least, he’s our Roy and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is this year’s Theo Walcott.

As always, hope springs eternal in the birthplace of the beautiful game.

It’s back to two banks of four, men behind the ball and a big bloke up front.

All is well with the world.

Come on Engerland…