Liz Truss’ strange and chilling desire to ‘channel the spirit of Don Revie’ | Jonathan Liew

At The Conservative Party stampede in Leeds six weeks ago, Liz Truss says he wants to “channel the spirit of Don Revie”. Which suggests she wasn’t quite familiar with her experience leading her country. Yet as she takes office amid dismal polls, with a skeptical parliamentary party and an election looming in 2024, the new prime minister can look back on just three years of work, followed by a lucrative and widely reviled sinecure at the Middle East, as a pretty decent result.

Of course, political coverage in this country has long been influenced by the confected drama and lack of grassroots seriousness of its sports counterpart. And of course, much of the recent coverage of the Tory leadership “race” has been essentially indistinguishable from the media wave that typically greets big football leadership appointments.

The hazy characteristics of his background and education. The feverish speculation over spending plans and behind-the-scenes appointments. The usual references to his trash can, as if the monumental responsibilities of a prime minister were somehow akin to administrative duties. One: make Downing Street a fortress again. Two: shoot Jacob Rees-Mogg again. Etc.

There is, however, a serious point to be made here. Perhaps one of the reasons that this country’s political culture has developed such an air of impermanence is the insistence on covering it up as if it were a rolling entertainment product: the obsession personality clashes and instant judgments, the fixation on crises and instant solutions, the impatience and mad mood swings of a football club chasing three points to boost morale every Saturday. Who “won” the Prime Minister’s Questions? Can Boris Johnson turn the tide? What is the Sue Gray report, what time does it start and what channel is it on?

In many ways, Johnson was the logical outcome of this process: a light-hearted, unprincipled politician who treated work as if it were pure sport, a game in which the main objective was simply to outsmart the opposition and win at all costs. Naturally, he was fully prepared to exploit the popular appeal of football for this purpose.

He enthusiastically opposed the European Super League despite hosting Manchester United’s Ed Woodward at Downing Street days earlier and declared it – according to a government source – “a great idea”. Likewise, the abortive Anglo-Irish 2030 World Cup bid, which was in many ways the ideal Johnsonian project: an opportunity to wear high-visibility jackets, emblazon one’s patriotism and make lavish spending pledges without having to to answer for only one of them.

Jack Charlton and Don Revie
Don Revie (right) was and remains a hero at Leeds but is coldly scorned in the wider English game. Photography: Varley Picture Agency/Shutterstock

Unlike his predecessor, who as mayor of London once said he supported “all London clubs”, Truss is a Norwich fan. He became strictly to ridicule politicians for their clumsy attempts to engage in the nation’s most popular sport, and naturally there are far more important and pressing reasons to be wary of a Prime Minister Truss job.

But if – as was widely reported last week – one of his first actions as Prime Minister will be to ignore the recommendations of the fan-led review of English football promised in the 2019 manifesto and released last November, it might just offer some quiet cooling. portends how she will approach government.

The exam is not a perfect document. He has very little to say about state ownership, women’s football, the exploitation of young footballers or the sport’s toxic relationship with the gambling industry.

But his diagnoses are broadly correct: fundamental disconnect between supporters and owners, inadequate regulation at national level, significant and growing financial inequalities between the biggest and the smallest clubs.

He suggests setting up an independent regulator and a 10% transfer tax on Premier League clubs to distribute to grassroots football. These are first steps, but good steps.

So who benefits if Truss decides to veto his recommendations? The Premier League, certainly, as well as the billionaire owners who have a stake in it. The repressive regimes that for nearly three decades under successive governments have been allowed to use our stadiums to whitewash their human rights abuses. Unscrupulous agents, who the report says should be subject to stricter regulation.

That’s why Truss’ Revie comment was subtly telling for a number of reasons. Revie may be a hero at Leeds, where he was responsible for their greatest and arguably only era of success, but he remains coldly disdained in the English game more generally. Maybe Truss knew. Maybe she didn’t. Either way, it demonstrated a trait that has defined conservative leadership in recent years: a brazen willingness to curry favor with one public by showing two fingers at another.

Perhaps we should expect nothing less from a woman who, as equalities minister, criticized taking the knee before football matches as ‘not the right thing to do’, and a form of “identity politics focused on symbols and gestures”, only to urge Premier League players to boycott a possible Champions League final in St Petersburg in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Listen, of all the people who are going to be seriously disadvantaged by a Truss government, lower league football clubs are probably at the bottom of the list. But there’s a larger ideology at work here: a prime minister committed to making the rich richer, who sees people first as clients, who promises sweeping change but seems stubbornly committed to a status quo that favors a handful cynical mercenaries. Perhaps, on reflection, Truss has a better understanding of modern football than we initially thought.

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