One Nation, One Great British Football Team?

Nik Darlington 6.00am

Since the SNP secured an unprecedented majority at Holyrood, commentators have been wondering what it could mean for the Union. In the aftermath, the Sunday Times (£) reported that the Tories want a snap poll, pointing to the fact that only one-in-three Scots would vote for independence. The Sunday Telegraph reported that Alex Salmond has threatened David Cameron with “guerilla war” and a long independence campaign.

Some words just belong together. Strawberries and cream. Dashing and gentleman. Political and scandal. Sunderland and Labour hold.

Or “canny” and “Alex Salmond”. If I had a (British) pound for every time that I read in the newspapers, see on the telly or hear on the wireless the words “canny” and “Alex Salmond” together then I would be, well, I’d be on a beach somewhere instead of writing this on a Sunday evening.

But it is true. Alex Salmond is canny, or else he would not so brilliantly have turned around an apparently unassailable Labour lead, nor won a majority in a parliament that was designed so that no party could win a majority. Therefore he also knows to resist any notion of an early referendum, which he would lose (interestingly, it isn’t in his power to call one, that belongs to Westminster). He hopes that by playing the long game, he can snipe from his perch in Charlotte Square at decisions made south in Downing Street. Some commentators therefore are putting a big red circle around 24th June 2014. The 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn (another two words: wicked and irony?).

This weekend, I’ve had a different date in mind. 11th August 2012. The final of the Olympics football tournament at Wembley. Why? Because on Friday, the Times (£) told me that the Football Associations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have conceded they can’t stop any players from signing up to a combined British team.

There used to be a time when any British football side would have been ten Englishmen plus Ryan Giggs a Welsh winger. Not only did England have a perennial left-side problem (Sinclair, McManaman, Barmby, or Murphy anyone?) but the Celtic nations had a perennial footballing problem.

Times are different now. Northern Ireland have climbed astonishingly quickly from a lowly FIFA ranking of 124th in March 2004 to 65th today (via a high of 32nd in 2007). Scotland’s ranking is steady, one place behind in 66th. At 114th, below Haiti and the Central African Republic, Wales’ ranking is appalling but they have some of the best young talent. As the Olympics is effectively a youth tournament, this matters, and don’t forget that England will likely just have competed in Euro 2012, making their top players unavailable.

Despite admitting they can’t stop them, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish pen-pushers maintain that they don’t want their players participating. Only a few players have indicated they want to, such as Welsh winger Gareth Bale. But imagine it happening; imagine seeing Great Britain in the Olympics football final, an aged and inspirational David Beckham in union with Aaron Ramsey, Barry Bannan and Ryan McGivern. You remember what Euro ‘96 did for English football? Apart from the inane fluttery car flags, it gave the country pride. Alastair Campbell’s diaries talk about how Labour feared that John Major would call a snap election. And win.

Personally, I vote for One Nation, One Team.

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For what it is worth, here are my tips for a Great Britain XI (with a little help from my more clued-up friends). It largely ignores English players likely to be involved in Euro 2012 (e.g. Theo Walcott, Andy Caroll) but includes Joe Hart because you need a quality goalkeeper and, frankly, they can’t get that tired, can they? *Asterisks mean over-23.

4-5-1: Joe Hart* (Eng); Kyle Walker (Eng), Jonny Evans* (NI), Danny Wilson (Sco), Kieran Gibbs (Eng); David Beckham* (Eng, capt.), Aaron Ramsey (Wal), Jordan Henderson (Eng), Barry Bannan (Sco), Gareth Bale (Wal); Daniel Sturridge (Eng).

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