The political football: A history of British Prime Ministers and the beautiful game

By All Blue Daze.

Back in 1966, with the country basking in the glory of being World Champions, Prime Minister Harold Wilson took the opportunity to fold his political party into the celebrations by declaring that England only win the World Cup when Labour are in power.

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Four years later, England were knocked out by West Germany at the quarter-final stage in Mexico. A few short days later, as the country voted Wilson out of office, he was at great pains to say that ‘the result of a football match does not affect the governance of the country.’ Whether that’s true or not, there’s a bit of a history over the past 50 years between those in residence at 10 Downing Street and the beautiful game.

Wilson was born in Yorkshire and despite crossing the Pennines to represent the Liverpool constituency of Huyton, was a lifelong supporter of Huddersfield Town; apparently standing on the terraces with his father to watch the Terriers as a lad. His great political adversary of the time was the Conservative Edward Heath, whose tenure as PM was sandwiched by Wilson’s two terms. It’s perhaps apposite, therefore, that while he supported a Yorkshire club, Heath apparently favoured one from Lancashire.

There are a few references stating Heath’s preference for the Turf Moor club, but many seem to be built around a visit he paid to Burnley during 1973. He was invited back to officially open a new stand by the then-chairman of the club, the redoubtable Bob Lord. Ironically, the construction was delayed due to a shortage of steel caused by the three-day week that had been imposed due to Heath’s dispute with the miners. By the time the stand was completed, he was no longer in office, but he still attended to complete the ceremony before the game against Leeds United. The programme of the day carries his picture on the front cover.

Wilson’s second term was curtailed by retirement, and the office was taken up for three years by James Callaghan. As a Welshman, it may be that ‘Sunny Jim’ had a greater affinity for the oval ball game, as I can find no reference to any association with football. If Callaghan was fairly ambivalent about football, his successor was much less so. Margaret Thatcher was a three-term PM between 1979-90, and her time in office encompassed the tragedies of Hillsborough, Heysel and Bradford.

Whether there was a natural antipathy or it grew due to events, it’s certainly the case that she considered the game and its followers a malaise. It was under her premiership that the government sought to introduce a compulsory identity card scheme that all fans would have to carry. Fortunately, it never came to fruition and football survived both the apathy of Callaghan and the antipathy of Thatcher.

John Major took over from Thatcher in 1990, and then secured a second term as the Conservatives were returned under his leadership. Despite his oft-quoted love of cricket and warm English beer, he was a steadfast Chelsea fan and was often pictured in the stands at Stamford Bridge. Major was ousted in 1997, at the beginning of Tony Blair’s decade in power.

Representing Sedgefield, Blair proclaimed long and hard his support for Newcastle United. He was once quoted as saying he remembered watching Jackie Milburn play for the Magpies, even though by the time ‘Wor Jackie’ retired Blair was only four years old and living in Australia with his family; and also that he remembered sitting in the Gallowgate End of St James’ Park, at a time before seating was installed.

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Some time later, however, The Sunday Sun newspaper announced that both reports had been an error by their reporter who hearing of an interview second-hand conflated different elements of the interview to cause the confusion. It seems it’s for each of us to decide who is more likely to have problems with facts – newspapers or politicians.

Blair was succeeded in 2007 by Gordon Brown who was apparently a long-standing fan of Raith Rovers. Reports suggest that as a youth he sold programmes for the Kirkcaldy club on matchdays to gain free entry to the ground, and recalls one of his favourite days as being when Rovers defeated Celtic on penalties in the Scottish League Cup in 1994. He also was a strong advocate of the bid to bring the 2018 World Cup to England.

And so up to date with David Cameron. The current PM is said to be a keen sportsman and was pictured with Barack Obama watching the World Cup match between England and the USA whilst at a G20 summit. He also claims to be a fan of Aston Villa from early teenage years. That said, in a recent interview he apparently stated that he was a West Ham United fan, before correcting himself. Confusing clarets is certainly not good form for a boy from the Bullingdon Club! When Villa recently defeated the Hammers at Villa Park, he may well have been ‘sick as a parrot’ and then ‘over the moon’ at the result.

Having an association with football is becoming more and more relevant in politics as the game eats further into the culture of the country. It seems likely, therefore, that those occupying the seat of power may also have another one in the stand at their favoured club. Whoever they support however, any Prime Minister’s favourite player is always likely to be the number ten.

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