“David Cameron”, once remarked Alex Ferguson, “looked really weak under pressure – and that is the last thing you want in a Prime Minister.”
How fitting, then, for all his gaffe in confusing them with West Ham, that the man facing arguably the biggest test of his political career is an Aston Villa fan. As Villa slipped to yet another torrid defeat, this time at Manchester City, if the Prime Minister was watching he might have remarked on the similarities between himself and the hapless Rémi Garde.
The pair of them, who are both 49, have seen enough of life to be experienced but are not (yet) bruised enough to be jaded. Both think themselves still full of enough vitality to face the sizeable challenges ahead of them. Both will ultimately be judged on the success or failure of the next six months.
Cameron will be hoping that, for all the parallels, Garde is not merely himself further down the line. There is a definite sense that the Frenchman perhaps bit off more than he could chew when taking on the job at Villa Park, or perhaps didn’t quite realise how bad things were, and as Villa fans walked out during their last home game, Garde’s positively plaintive response said it all:
my job is difficult enough.
Birmingham, it seems, is not Lyon – news that David Cameron will hardly welcome as he gears up to persuade the British public that we have enough in common with our continental peers to justify political union.
Alex Ferguson, for his many great skills, was no prophet: he was disastrously wrong regarding David Moyes and has since stayed notably silent. Yet this is the moment where we find out whether Fergie was right, as a wave of Eurosceptic pressure mounts on David Cameron, not least from inside his own party.
On the 23rd of June, Brits up and down the country will go to the polls to decide whether Britain should, or should not, remain in the European Union.
Football is surely the last thing on voters’ minds – but it’s important to note that a ‘Brexit’ would be disastrous for English football and the Premier League.
A Brexit, as the Financial Times has shown, would be disastrous economically. As nationalists north of the border rattle their sabres, it would most likely be disastrous politically too. Yet beyond the impact on the everyday man and woman held up even longer in overheated and understaffed dingy airports in the south of Spain, most of us would also be hit by the effects on the Premier League.
Whilst economic forecasting has suggested that the economy would most likely be hit by a Brexit, resultantly hitting the UK-based finances of major clubs, the very art of forecasting is necessarily speculative, and clubs like Manchester United have their biggest revenue streams far outside of Europe in any case.
Similarly, to predict that were fans that little bit poorer then attendances would be just a little bit lower is to assume much with little support, and to second-guess a resilient human nature that has often turned to football more fervently as the world outside becomes more inhospitable.
All these things could hit fans and clubs alike. Yet clubs aren’t all that worried by no longer having access to a common market (which the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign recently admitted would result from a Brexit) because they’re not structured like other businesses, and it’s hard to guess what might happen to fans.
What a Brexit would instead damage is the ever-important and often derided labour base so integral to defining the level and nature of the national game – the players.
The Premier League is the best in the world: even as we witness the most maddening (and at times frustrating) season yet, the soap opera at the top of a potential victory for a Leicester team chased most closely by a Tottenham side that haven’t won the league title since 1961 dwarfs by far the surprise victory of Atlético Madrid in contravention of the established La Liga duopoly.
Nevertheless, as the poor performance of Premier League clubs affects their European coefficient and Italy threatens to steal a Champions League berth from English clubs, the Premier League is under threat. English football must innovate to stay ahead, and all that money soon to pour in from the generous arms of Sky will be for nothing if English clubs can’t keep their prized assets.
Were Britain to leave an EU that allows free movement of labour, it not only affects limits to non-EU players in squads (which would no longer be a viable definition) but makes the movement of Italians, Frenchmen and Germans so much harder.
In real terms, that means Thierry Henry, Matteo Darmian and Mesut Özil would all have found it much, much harder to move to Premier League clubs. In 2014, Manchester United struggled to get a work permit for Marcos Rojo.
Now imagine this on a far wider scale: particularly with the rise of China, many more players would wonder if it was worth the bother and, like Ezequiel Lavezzi, decide that they’d rather just take the easy cash on offer elsewhere.
English isolation from the continent might have all sorts of long term effects: in 2009, the journalist Simon Kuper and the economist Stefan Szymanski argued in Soccernomics that being disconnected from European knowledge-sharing networks affected performance in all things – especially football. Yet besides theorising, a Brexit would tangibly affect employment legislation and affect the movement of players who the Premier League simply needs in order to stay ahead of rivals.
It’s hard enough for clubs to beat the likes of Real Madrid or Bayern Munich to top players like Arturo Vidal without throwing up extra barriers. Paul Pogba, if rumours are to be believed, is already unconvinced by ditching Italy for England when the path now is so much clearer than it otherwise would be.
English clubs are already struggling enough in European competitions without cutting Britain even further off from the wider world.
Even if the jingoistic tide that would result in a Brexit being voted for in June didn’t prompt Greg Dyke to bang his recently silent drum of more roles being reserved for English players, this would likely logically follow from a lessening in foreign player imports.
This is an equally disastrous strategy that begins the path to ruin not just for the Premier League but for whatever remaining credibility the England national football team has.
There are economic arguments. There are political arguments. There are security, cultural, social and progressive arguments all against a Brexit. And now, it seems, there are sound footballing arguments too against Britain leaving the European Union.
If the threat of economic woe, heightened terrorism or cultural divorce doesn’t sway you, at least think of the Premier League when June comes.