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

A golden decade for Team GB’s Olympic athletes

Believe it or not there was a time when people in the UK could choose whether or not they wanted to watch the Olympic Games.
It was a more innocent age when not being interested in handball, beach volleyball and synchronised diving wasn’t punishable by incarceration in the Tower of London.
It was a time when seeing Olympic athletes perform on telly in glorious colour was a relative novelty and BBC employees had the freedom to criticise stuff as they saw fit.
It was a period when we weren’t brow-beaten into repeating the mantra that sports we’ve never heard of are all wonderful and exciting just because it has almost bankrupt the nation to stage an Olympics.
That decade was the 1980s when colour TVs which were becoming a fixture in most homes turned some British Olympians into household names.
The Moscow summer Olympics of 1980 was the games that made baldness cool as swimmer Duncan Goodhew scooped gold in the 100m breaststroke and bronze in the 4x100m medley relay.
At the same games, which was boycotted by many countries including the U.S., Japan, China and West Germany because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, Scottish sprinter Allan Wells won gold in the 100 metres in a photo finish. He was pipped to silver in the 200m by just 0.2 seconds.
It was in Moscow that decathlete Daley Thompson announced his arrival on the world stage by taking top spot on the podium – a feat he then repeated four years later in Los Angeles.
The 1980 games saw current London 2012 supremo Lord Sebastian Coe, beaten into second place by his great rival Steve Ovett in the 800 metres – his speciality.
However, Seb hit back in the 1500m race to take gold, while Ovett had to settle for bronze. Coe replicated his achievements over both distances at the next Olympics in LA.
Those games in the City of Angels marked another golden period for British athletics when Tyneside’s Steve Cram – the ‘Jarrow Arrow’ – completed a one, two, three for us when he nabbed the silver in that infamous 1500 metres.
It was a race which was so thrilling that even I, a 12-year-old asthmatic and the laughing stock of Holden Lane High’s cross country course, was enthralled.
That year also saw Tessa Sanderson become the first black British woman win gold in the javelin. She went on to represent Britain at no less than six Olympics.
Meanwhile, her close rival Fatima Whitbread, whose personal story of triumph over adversity was as inspirational a tale as you could hear in sport, won hearts and minds when she scooped bronze at LA and followed this up with a silver medal four years later in Seoul.
Hockey forward Sean Kerly sealed a bronze medal for the GB men’s team with his winner against Australia in the Los Angeles games and went on to be the Aussie’s bogeyman again in 1988 when he scored a hat-trick against them in the semi-final.
Believe it or not, 1984 was the year that a young Steve Redgrave won the first of his five Olympic gold medals for rowing.
Little did we know back then that he would go on to become Britain’s greatest ever Olympian.
Swimmer Adrian Moorhouse had been expected to win gold in LA in the breaststroke but finished a disappointing fourth. Happily he made up for it four years later by winning gold in the 100m race.
My final Eighties Olympic household name will be no stranger to Sentinel readers.
Former policeman and Cobridge newsagent Imran Sherwani scored two goals and set up the third in Team GB’s demolition of West Germany in the final at Seoul.
It prompted one of the best bits of Olympics commentary ever by the BBC’s Barry Davies whose enthusiasm led him to ask the question: “Where were the Germans? And, frankly, who cares?”
All in all the Eighties was a great Olympic decade for Britain – before the time when the games themselves became the huge corporate monster that they are today.

I’m bored of the Olympics already. How about you?

NEWSFLASH: Contrary to what you may have been told, not everyone is obsessed with Olympics.

Despite what Lord Coe would have you believe, we aren’t all sitting at home wearing skin-tight, Team GB branded lycra outfits and waiting for the opening ceremony.

Some of us can live without tickets to the eagerly-anticipated Uruguay versus Outer Mongolia badminton clash.

Simply put, I reckon there are quite a few people like me – for whom – London 2012 can come and go. Really.

I won’t be sitting glued to the telly in 10 days’ time and assessing whether our opening show was better than the one in Beijing.

I can live without watching BBC presenters run out of adjectives again like they did during the Diamond Jubilee Thames pageant.

And don’t get me started on those ridiculous, one-eyed mascots – Wenlock and Mandeville – which are enough to frighten small children.

If truth be told I struggled to feign interest when the defective, fiery cheese-grater (sorry – I mean Olympic Torch) came to the Potteries.

It’s not that I don’t wish Team GB well. It’s not that I don’t want local heroes like pole vaulter Steven Lewis or rower Anna Watkins to be on the podium.

It is simply that I’m not that interested in the vast majority of sports served up by this overblown, over-hyped and over-commercialised behemoth.

This is sacrilege, of course and I will doubtless be roundly condemned in The Sentinel’s newsroom.

You see, I work in the media and thus I am obliged to get excited about any event involving more than half a dozen people, animals or vehicles. But I simply can’t stand the hypocrisy.

Maybe it’s my age but I can’t be doing with people becoming instant disciples of sports that they have never shown an interest in until five minutes before. Unless you are a child, of course.

I have friends who are hugely excited because they entered the lottery for tickets for London 2012 and managed to get a couple of passes for the first round of the weightlifting.

“It’s all about being able to say you were there,” they croon. “It’s about being part of a huge global sporting event. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Oh come on. It’s actually about sweating like a stuck pig on rammed tube trains and queuing for hours to watch eastern European athletes you’ve never heard of do stuff you’ve never tried in sports you’ll never understand and then wittering on about the ‘incredible atmosphere’.

For all that the Olympics is supposed to unite people through sport it’s actually a pretty bizarre and, I would argue, divisive event.

There are so many popular sports which aren’t even represented at the Olympics and a number of very odd, niche ones which are.

Let’s examine some of the sports on offer, shall we?

Beach volleyball: Do me a favour. We all know why lots of blokes will be watching this and it won’t be to enthuse about the Rally Point System.

Diving: This can’t be a sport, can it? Discuss.

Handball: I honestly had to look this one up and I’m still none the wiser.

Synchronised swimming: See diving. More a concept for entrants on a Simon Cowell talent show than a sport, surely.

Trampoline: Fun to watch the kids do at Rhyl. Beyond that I can’t see the point.

Wrestling (Greco-Roman or Freestyle): Can’t be taken seriously as Kendo Nagasaki, once of this parish, has now retired.

You see what I mean? The remainder of the offerings are niche at best – take canoeing, cycling, equestrian and fencing – hardly mass participation sports are they?

And when the Olympics does try to go mainstream we end up with some unique fudges.

For example, all but three of Team GB’s footballers have to be under the age of 23. Random or what? No wonder the governing bodies of world football sneer at the tournament.

Granted, the 100-metres final may pique your interest and you may enter the office sweepstake on the number of drug cheats caught out but, beyond the athletics, let’s not pretend most of us care. Especially if you live north of the Watford Gap.

As for it being an Olympics for the whole country I take my hat off to the organisers for doing their best to peddle that myth.

But I would suggest the only tangible legacy for the UK from this multi-billion pound extravaganza – funded during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression – will be new housing and sports facilities for a deprived area of London.

A small number of pottery firms may have made a few quid but I can’t see Northwood Stadium benefiting too much or see London 2012 inspiring a generation of youngsters in the Potteries to take up rhythmic gymnastics.

If this all sounds incredibly cynical then I make no apologies because the Olympics itself is a cynical, money-making enterprise.

Coming, as it does, hard on the heels of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Euro 2012 football tournament (I enjoyed both) I just don’t think I have it in me to get excited about something which may as well be taking place on the other side of the world.

There may be too much football, cricket and rugby on the TV but you can always switch it off – just like I do when Wimbledrone and that awful John McEnroe person put in their annual appearance.

If the Olympics is your bag then I hope you have an absolute ball and thrive on every minute of it.

But if, like most of us, you’re not the slightest bit interested, then you’ll do your best to avoid this London-centric bonanza of weirdness.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Newsagent who made his own sporting headlines

Come on, admit it: You all thought hockey was a game for girls. Most people still do.

But on October 1, 1988, this sport grabbed us all by the, er… short and Kerlys.

Sean Kerly, to be precise. Team GB’s talismanic top scorer – sort of like Gary Lineker with a hockey stick – and his teammates became household names.

We all huddled round the telly watching the action unfold in the 12,000-seater Songnam Stadium.

I was 16, had just left school, and remember it as though it was yesterday.

As is the way with many Olympic sports, we were all momentarily swept along on a tide of hope and euphoria.

Yes, our footballers may have consistently under-achieved since 1966, but apparently the men’s hockey team were good!

Unfortunately, standing between our boys and gold medal glory on that fateful day were the old enemy.

Yes, with typical Teutonic efficiency, the Germans had swept all before them on the way to the final in Seoul.

Their progress included a 2-1 win over Team GB. As omens went, it wasn’t great…

What hope did we have? Surely the inevitable penalty shoot-out heartache beckoned.

This time, however, the Germans had reckoned without a certain newsagent from Stoke-on-Trent.

Imran Sherwani, who ran a business in Cobridge, was the name on the lips of all Sentinel readers.

Little did we know, of course, that the man who had given up a career in the police because he couldn’t get enough time off to train for international matches, would become the hero of the hour.

As it turned out, the wing wizard had a dream game – scoring the first and last of Team GB’s three goals and prompting a veteran BBC commentator into a now infamous (and very un-BBC-like) outburst.

As Imran swept home Team GB’s third goal, the normally consummate pro Barry Davies asked the nation: “Where, oh where were the Germans? And, frankly, who cares?” Oh how we smiled.

Team GB won the match 3 – 1 – prompting scenes of delirium.

Imran threw his stick into the air… and never saw it again.

Perhaps it hit an official because he and Sean Kerly (now an MBE) were whisked off for a random drugs test and missed much of the after-match celebrations.

On their return to the UK, Imran and his teammates were treated to the kind of media scrum usually reserved for football stars – with crowds of cheering well-wishers waiting to greet them as they landed at Heathrow Airport.

Capped 45 times for Britain and 49 times for England, Imran played club hockey for Stourport and Stone before playing for and helping to coach at Leek Hockey Club. Aged 49, he now works as director of hockey at Denstone College in Uttoxeter.

Mercifully, he has long-since dispensed with the shockingly-bad moustache which he sported in Seoul and which I can only assume put the Germans off marking him properly.

This year, quite rightly, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) is making a fuss of all Team GB medal-winners and so Imran will be in demand.

But even when the London Olympics has come and gone I am pleased to say that Imran will never be taken for granted here in his home city.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Imran and his wife Louise through the organising of the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality Of The Year Awards. For as long as I’ve been involved in the awards, Imran has been a VIP guest.

After all, how many Olympic gold medal winners do we have here in the Potteries?

He’s also given up his time freely to be a judge – passing on his wisdom and expertise for the benefit of the city’s emerging sporting talents and coaching stalwarts.

May 30 this year will be a very proud day for Imran when he becomes one of the few people to carry the Olympic torch in his home city on its route to the London games.

It is an honour which I think we all agree is thoroughly deserved.

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

Idea of Scottish independence frightens and saddens me in equal measure

I know when it happened. I had just climbed up the steps to the top of the Glenfinnan Monument, squeezed myself on to the viewing platform and was looking out across the sun-kissed shores of Loch Shiel.

That’s when I fell in love with Scotland.

I’ve visited Skye several times and even Orkney, Mull and Iona as well as braving the elements for a boat trip to the stunning Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa.

In my opinion, there is simply nowhere in Britain to rival the rugged beauty and sheer majesty of the Highlands.

Like my nan and grandad before me, who enjoyed many coach trips north of the border, I love Scotland.

I holiday there every year and I’ve never viewed taking the high road as going abroad. To my mind it is more akin to popping next door.

We are all part of the same island, after all, and so it’s no different for me to driving from Staffordshire into Cheshire – albeit a tad further.

Thus I find it hard to accept the concept of Scottish independence and the much talked-about referendum leaves me cold.

Rarely do I venture off-patch in my columns but the planned vote which could see our northern neighbours secede the United Kingdom frightens and saddens me in equal measure.

On the one hand, the political and economic arguments just don’t stack up for me. Surely, as our city’s motto says, United Strength Is Stronger.

It stands to reason that Britain has far more clout than any of its constituent parts would have if they were to go it alone.

At present, our tiny nation punches above its weight on the international stage.

Why therefore, at this time of global financial crisis, would anyone think it a good idea to break up the union?

Surely the Scots don’t buy Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond’s vision of a Gaelic utopia fuelled by endless supplies of North Sea oil (and none of our nation’s debt).

While the SNP chases the Braveheart vision of freedom, it strikes me that unravelling the Union would actually be complex in the extreme.

The problems it throws up range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

What would Scottish independence mean for our Armed Forces? Would the Scots keep the Pound, adopt the Euro, or make up their own currency? How would shared border controls be handled? What would it mean in terms of tuition fees for English students studying at Scottish universities? What would happen to the BBC and Team GB?

To my mind, while far from perfect, the Union has far more advantages than disadvantages.

What’s more, time and again it is the echoes of our shared heritage which convince me that a break-up after 300 years would be deeply unpalatable.

The peoples of the United Kingdom share common values which I believe should not be lightly cast aside in a jingoistic fervor surrounding the 700th anniversary of a medieval battle.

Let the facts be presented: The legalities of who calls a referendum plus the costs, the ramifications, the benefits and the disadvantages of such a momentous splitting of cultures must be laid bare to bring some clarity to the debate.

Ultimately, the decision must rest with the Scottish people but the discussion is one in which we should surely all be allowed to take part.

I spoke to a friend of mine about it all – a Scot who has made his living and home here in Stoke-on-Trent – and asked for his views on Scottish independence.

He wasn’t even sure he would get a vote on the matter but if he did, he said he would be against the split on gut instinct alone.

He said: “I think about all those boys in the Army who fought together in the wars and it just doesn’t seem right splitting us up.”

Amen to that, brother.

Ready my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Forget London, the Olympics will be what we make of them

I was never very sporty. In fact, my only moment of glory was winning the wheelbarrow race during a school sports day when I was seven.

And, to be fair, most of the credit for that narrow victory has to go to the hands and arms of my best friend Glyn Shelley.

At secondary school I was always last pick for football – either stuck in goal where there was no running about to be done or lurking about in my favourite position of striker (AKA goal-poacher).

In my head I was Kenny Dalglish, pouncing on a through ball from Graeme Souness, turning on a sixpence and lashing the ball home.

In reality, I occasionally stuck out a leg, got lucky and claimed a soft goal from eight yards out.

Meanwhile, my classmates bemoaned my lack of effort and mobility, questioned my sense of fair play and wittered on about the off-side rule.

The truth is the fat lad with asthma just didn’t want to have to use his Ventolin inhaler more than twice in PE.

But if I was useless at football, I took sporting incompetence to even greater heights on the cross country course.

To say I dreaded this weekly chore would be an understatement.

If memory serves me correctly, our county ‘athletes’ could run the course in under 20 minutes.

I shambled round in about 45 – leaving me just enough time in the hour-long session to get changed out of and back into my school uniform.

I would, of course, comically run at the start and end of the course to give the impression that I gave a monkey’s.

My mates Richie and Rob would always walk part of the course with me, thus undermining any chance they had of finishing in a respectable time. But that’s what mates are for, isn’t it?

My PE teacher, Mr Gilson, would simply roll his eyes as I trotted back through the school gates and mutter under his breath, presumably questioning the point of waiting to record my umpteenth last place.

Amazingly, Mr Gilson is still doing his bit to nurture sporting talent in Stoke-on-Trent two decades later, but he now works as a sports coach and mentor at the hugely successful St Peter’s School in Penkhull.

However, rather than wasting his time with no-hopers like me, he is now overseeing rising stars such as teenage England cricketer Danielle Wyatt and cycling sensation Kian Emadi – one of number of Potteries prospects hoping to secure a place with Team GB.

Believe it or not, The Sentinel’s circulation area has more than its fair share of Olympic hopefuls to shout about as London 2012 approaches.

Aside from Kian, we have sprint siblings Alex and Ashlee Nelson, pole-vaulters Steven Lewis and Kate Dennison, sharp-shooter Glenn Eldershaw, rower Anna Bebington, cyclist Shanaze Reade and triple-jumper Ben Williams. And that’s just off the top of my head.

So when Lord Coe, or Seb as he likes to be called, comes to the Potteries in April as the guest of honour for the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards, my guess is he will enjoy the trip immensely.

Having the man who is heading up the UK’s Olympic plans on our turf is a fantastic endorsement for the city’s event, which has now been running for 35 years.

Like many others, I’ve been a cynic. I’ve asked just what an Olympic Games for London actually means for the rest of us.

I’ve wondered what the benefits are of an event that is costing the taxpayer countless hundreds of millions of pounds – other than helping to regenerate run-down parts of the capital.

And the conclusion I’ve come to is that it is up to us to make the most of the Olympics.

We can sit around bemoaning the fact that the event is truly London-centric and will have no tangible benefits for the rest of us. Or we can get in on the act.

Local companies can tender for contracts and also help to fund our Team GB hopefuls, who are wonderful ambassadors for the region.

They should be touring schools and inspiring future generations to chase their dreams.

Why? Because sport – and keeping fit – matters in a city saddled with a chronic obesity crisis and where too many people have low aspirations.

It’s one of the few mediums that can bring all ages together behind positive goals and genuinely inspire people to better themselves.

Although, sadly, I have to confess I can’t see the International Olympic Committee ever acknowledging the true magnificence of the wheelbarrow race…