Could it be love?

Saturday 11 March 2023

There’s been a new man in my life for a few months now and I think I might be falling…

Oh Erik Ten Hag! The artful Dutchman, who has brought pride, respectability and a whole lot of happiness back into the lives of beleaguered Manchester United fan, may well have stolen my heart!

Did he have me at United’s return to winning ways? Let’s just look: currently third in the Premier League, winners of the EFLcup (a first trophy in 6 years), into the last 16 of the Europa League after knocking out the mighty Barcelona. Well it is undeniably a great start! Like many other fans, after years in isolation, I am able to venture back onto Twitter, risk an occasional bit of work-based footie banter and dare to tune into Match of the Day. (Not this week of course – #standbygary in our house, but that’s a story for another day.)

But my feelings have moved beyond mere gratitude for this glimpse of glory. The man is strong and principled; dare I say the managerial equivalent of a ‘super dad’. He is undeniably tough but he improves players and motivates them by communicating trust in their abilities. And I like that.

The standout example- the glorious resurgence of Marcus Rashford. After woeful form in the previous season, late Summer 2022 saw rumours of a move from Old Trafford. Ten Hag however, said ‘no question’ of a player of this quality being sold. And, if we believe the MEN, went on to enthuse,

“…he knows I love him, he knows I want him to be here so I will tell him that again!”

Whatever the truth, Rashford stayed and the results have been phenomenal, even wowing the Spanish press,

“ His numbers are frightening and the feeling he left at the Camp Nou is that of a striker capable of changing a game on his own. He shook the entire Barcelona defense and was pivotal to both United goals.”

But it was Ten Hag’s reaction to our “7-0 spanking at Anfield” (Gary Lineker), when I was finally slain. Against tidal wave of social media clamour for change, he kept the same team and the same captain for the next match. When explaining this decision in a post-match interview, Ten Hag explained

“... we played 23 games in a row with one loss and in the 24th game we had a huge defeat, but you can’t ignore the 22 games before, when this team played massive good…

Oh be still my beating heart… the man understands performance statistics! A rare, rare quality in the sporting world which, despite an embarrassment of data riches, still favour a knee jerk reaction to the immediate in any ‘analysis’ and commentary. So, successful, decent, intelligent and numerate … Erik simply could be my ideal man!

Above all however, it is joyful once more for Small boy and I to watch United matches. Football has become ‘our thing’ as we ‘trust in Erik’ and the team to put in a performance. If we spectate together on the TV, we have rituals, lucky hats and favoured chants. If Small boy is watching with friends, we message at goals. For one cup match and birthday present, when prices fell below three figures, I bought my son a ticket to a match with his friends. A nervous moment, fellow parents, watching your child head out unaccompanied into the Old Trafford cauldron but an an exciting rite of passage nonetheless.

Small boy also unwrapped Ten Hag’s biography for this birthday and that sits ever-proudly on our mantlepiece, with Erik gazing wisely into the lounge.

So, for all of this, Erik Ten Hag, you currently eclipse all other sporting heroes in my head and heart. Will it last forever? I think it just might…

Fags, scratch cards and Sky TV!

Thursday 29 October 2020

Today I buy my first ever scratch card! Let me explain why…

A 6 mile run takes me from and to the garage, as hardworking Windsor indulges in an Autumn service. I also rake garden leaves, file my tax return, turn the house upside down looking for Small Boy’s missing coat and get through tons of washing. By 7pm, my thoughts turn to a treat. But as I pour a modest gin and ginger, toxic voices on a local radio phone-in make me realise that I am really selling myself short and missing out on a whole world of wild living. Apparently the rest of the single-mum sisterhood are out squandering their child benefit on a giddy cocktail of fags, Sky TV subscriptions … and scratch cards?

Seriously? Who are these people?

They’ve been spurred into vitriolic action by the last week’s Free School Meals vote in the Commons. Here a majority of MPs chose not to extend the provision of holiday meal vouchers for our poorest families; an additional Covid -19 measure that was secured over the 6 week Summer break in response to a campaign by Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford (MBE).

Following the rejection of the Bill, the media is initially swamped with positive stories of local business and councils stepping in to provide free meals in place of central funds. Campaigner Rashford reflects on this spirit of generosity, avoiding any anger or political posturing with his comment that he ‘could not be more proud to be British’. However, at heart, Britain is not a united country. The splinters of division deepen as this current crisis wears on and the ‘undeserving poor‘ are always an easy target for those who thrive upon judgement and scorn.

Because this debate revolves around responsibility for ‘hungry children‘, parents in general and mothers in particular are quickly in the firing line for those aiming their guns at ‘state handouts‘. John Penrose, husband of NHS Test and Trace chief Baroness Dido Harding, blames ‘chaotic parents‘. Pompous, middle aged men blame modern women and reminisce about the ‘good old days’ when their mother’s fed the entire family for a week on a bag of turnips and a couple of potatoes and ‘no-one ever went hungry’. Personal responsibility is hurled like a weapon at struggling parents.

“Why should I pay for other people’s children’

Dont’ have children if you cant afford to feed them!”

As for single mums, well let me introduce you to the root cause of those empty food cupboards! It’s us… prioritising flashy mobile phone contracts, TV streaming services, cigarettes and alcohol … oh and let’s not forget the scratch cards … above feeding our offspring!

Is there any truth in these stereotypes? I search for some facts and find that whilst data on smart phones, and ‘on demand’ TV platforms does show a growth in ownership amongst ‘lower income’ families in the last decade, the proportions still do not match those of more affluent groups. Meanwhile, more conclusively, the CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) does report a sustained rise in child poverty between 2010 and 2020, and cites the proportion of children from lone parent families living in poverty at 44% in 2018-19. Both the TUC (2019) and the CPAG highlight a ‘jump’ in the proportion of poor children from ‘working families‘. The pandemic has made the situation ever more stark, a Guardian article this month highlighting the “surge in numbers” of pupils applying for free school meals.

In many ways I am lucky. Eleven years ago, lone parenting did not push me into the ‘eligible for free school meals’ bracket but it did transform me overnight from a woman who for 40 years had scarcely considered money, to a person who thinks about, worries about and loses sleep about it all the time. I will survive and my children will not starve but my point is this; shit happens! Having walked in these toughest of shoes, I know that these tired and clueless stereotypes of single mothers as “uppity and irresponsible women” (Boris Johnson 1995) are not only cruel and unfair, they also draw attention away from the real issues; those of deprivation, division and inequality in our 21st century society. They scream out about how little many of our leaders (and smug radio callers) know about the lives that the population lead.

Which is why I trust and align myself behind those that do. Marcus Rashford has used his profile to campaign for a fairer world than the one he grew up in. And speaking in the House of Lords, Labour peer Lord Griffiths whose family relied on free school meals in the 1940s also makes a striking contribution, describing how he ‘can still smell and taste the panic’ of holidays in what was a ‘threadbare existence‘.

Because when money is an issue on top of everything else, life is ‘threadbare’ in many ways, stripped of fun and an endless battle of stress and worry. One of the nicest posts I saw this week, came from a bakery who were delivering food parcels to local families and including a bunch of flowers, to “brighten someone’s day”. Now they really do understand!

It is at this point that I decide stick 2 fingers up to the snobbery and prejudice of the radio callers and buy my first every £1 scratch card. As I uncover my numbers, it a moment to dream of a carefree life, cushioned from financial crises by a windfall of a few thousand? Not really – 11 years have taught me that there never is an easy way out! It is however engrossing for 10 minutes and everything else melts away for a few blissful moments. In a life of sometimes relentless grind that seems priceless…