Alistair Burt is MP for North East Bedfordshire and is a former Foreign Office Minister.
Was there ever a better, more contemporary phrase to describe anxiety or tension, than the one invented by Sir Alex Ferguson as the football season approaches a climax? Almost as soon as he said it we all knew both exactly what he meant, and wondered why no one had ever put it that way before.
Football matters. Ok, it doesn’t matter to everyone, and some of the more ridiculous high-blown suggestions that we all have the game as a national obsession are wide of the mark. But in much the same way that politics has a bearing on everything that goes on in life, though only a small number of us (like Con Home regulars) are obsessed with it, it still matters to everyone else, and we need to be aware of some its currents to engage meaningfully with the world.
Squeaky bum time refers to that sense of anxiety which has a physical manifestation, as we consider hopes and fears of imminent events which cannot be avoided, though the outcome is uncertain. Like elections. For the Premiership, the run in to this year’s climax is one of the best ever. Three teams can still win, and it looks like going to the wire. And the season up to now has been full of twists and turns, which has kept interest at home and overseas sky high.
There are of course a number of parallel football universes, in which the leagues that our own clubs play. I watched Bury FC, the mighty Shakers, play at Northampton Town. It was a grim ‘six pointer’, i.e. one that mattered to both sides, close to each other at the bottom of League 2, the old fourth division, with the trapdoor to non-league football and the great unknown perilously close. The Shakers won, 3-0, and while fans rightly celebrated, the handshake between the rival Chairmen spoke volumes. No words needed to be said, just the unspoken sympathy of one for another as both face the last few games for survival. One may now be just that bit more easier than the other, but life is never easy at this level of the professional game.
By the way, the Premiership matters overseas? You bet. The Premiership is one of the UK’s best exports, a phenomenon which has increased revenues from some £46m in 1994 to over £1.6bn now. But it is not just money and commerce. Surveys suggest that the excitement of our game gives those abroad a warmer feeling about the UK than many of our institutions from Parliament to the monarchy. The Premiership and the FA also take skills in coaching courses around the world, reaching thousands of players and trainers, encouraging physical development whilst saying something good about us at the same time.
So as the next few weeks unfold, and whether or not you are suffering a squeaky bum because of football, our back pages are being as avidly read abroad as our front ones. It’s truly soft power for a modern age.