In praise of Mark Selby, the ‘Congester from Leicester’

Mark Selby is a Leicester City fan, but if the four-times snooker world champion has an equivalent football club, it is surely Millwall: “No one likes us, we don’t care.” Reading below-the-line comments during Selby’s progress to his latest world title over the past fortnight, it has been fascinating to witness how he divides opinion among fans.

Selby’s methodical style is a danger to the existence of the sport itself, some argue. Tactical play like Selby’s must be stamped out at all costs. A maximum shot time of one minute must be introduced. The likes of Selby should, essentially, be forced to get a move on by the game’s rule makers. Selby indulges in pure gamesmanship, they argue, by taking three minutes to think, before rolling the cue ball slowly into the pack.

But hold on a second. Take a step back, and this barrage of criticism begins to look very strange. Single-mindedness, after all, is a universally-lauded quality in sport, is it not? Criticising Selby – now one of only five players with four world titles – for taking his time over shots, essentially, is criticising him for taking his job seriously, for wanting to maximise his chances of success. His major crime, it would seem, is trying to squeeze the most out of his talent. But if he is guilty of anything, it is simply not caring what anyone else thinks.

For Selby every shot is paramount: no matter the match situation, no matter the stage of the tournament. Every shot is worth considering, and then, quite often, reconsidering. He thinks obsessively about tactics and his concentration is total. He will sometimes go down on a shot, before having second thoughts, standing up and reassessing his options. Gamesmanship, or attention to detail? The relentless quality of his tactical play provides the answer.

The outgoing World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn, who has done an admirable job of promoting the game globally, would prefer a higher tempo because he thinks TV viewers equate speed with excitement. As is often pointed out, snooker was never more popular than in the 1970s and 1980s when players such as Cliff Thorburn, the slowest of them all, were at the forefront of a game watched by tens of millions on TV.

Granted, the world has changed since then and the TV audience, perhaps rightly, will remain the priority. But if you’ve spent £120 on a ticket and embarked on a 400-mile round trip to watch a session of snooker, as I did on Sunday, do you want every frame to be concluded within 10 or 15 minutes? Do concert-goers and theatre audiences hope the musicians and actors hurry things up so everyone can get home? Selby’s meticulous approach, his ability to cut out external factors and pressures, is an art in itself. And this is before we mention how he has risen to greatness after a deeply difficult start in life.

Neither is Selby a flawless, robotic presence at the table. The final against Murphy was error-strewn at times, both players making costly mistakes and missing regulation pots. But Selby made fewer mistakes, generally won the tactical battles and scored more heavily when he was among the balls. He sometimes took the conservative option when a pot was available: he also took on risky long pots, in one case sinking a shot-of-the-championship contender. He threw in a dash of self-deprecatory humour, too, feigning to get out of his seat to continue a frame on Sunday afternoon when Murphy had left him needing several snookers. He laughed at himself after one particularly inept miss. The increasingly vocal and well-lubricated crowd were mostly on Murphy’s side but Murphy, while playing some good stuff, too often failed to capitalise on his opportunities.

“I want a free-flowing game,” complained Stuart Bingham in the moments following his semi-final defeat by ‘The Congester from Leicester’, as one witty BTL commenter dubbed Selby. But since when has competitive sport been about giving your opponents what they want? Selby put the brakes on and made things tactical against the far more fluent Bingham because that was his path to victory. The plus-one-hour frame they contested on Friday night was one of the most memorable of the tournament, if not any tournament.

The shadow of Ronnie O’Sullivan – the greatest player of his generation and perhaps of them all – naturally looms over the Selby debate. The Ronniefication of snooker fans’ expectations seems at the heart of it, allied to the modern compulsion for everything to be faster. As any snooker fan will tell you, O’Sullivan on form probably gets closest to achieving perfection as any sportsperson ever has. We are lucky to have witnessed that. But saying that every player should try and emulate O’Sullivan is plainly wrong, akin to saying that every football team should play like the Barcelona of Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi.

Emile Heskey, another son of Leicester, was the England striker some fans loved to hate. They said he lacked skill, that he couldn’t finish, that more clinical players deserved a chance. But they were wrong: Heskey was a nightmare for some of the world’s best defenders and fully justified his place. Perhaps Selby exists in the same sphere. Some fans may not appreciate it, but ask the pros who they least like to play, and many will name Selby. That – and his increasing collection of trophies – shows he must be doing something right.

Steve Smith’s intent is impossible to prove but ScuffGate was out of line regardless

To paraphrase Jürgen Klopp, sport is the most important of the least important things. As the pandemic tightens its grip with each passing day, the wisdom of those words only seems to increase. While the Covid-19 death toll shoots horrifyingly and inexorably upwards, some of us have still found the time and inclination to debate an impossibly tight offside call or a dangerous clear-out at a ruck. 

Perhaps it’s a coping strategy. There is ongoing discussion over the ethics of staging elite sport during a global pandemic, but as Klopp’s Everton counterpart Carlo Ancelotti justifiably pointed out, televised Premier League football can serve as a useful diversion from the reality of lockdown.

The naturally socially-distanced sport of cricket has been chewing over its own moral dilemma this week: a controversial, hotly-debated and ultimately meaningless incident at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It’s had everything, this meeting of familiar sporting adversaries, and I don’t mean the Test series between Australia v India. I mean people on Twitter who think one thing vs. people on Twitter who think another.

Old wounds have re-opened while half-forgotten resentments and perceived injustices have flared up anew. England’s mint-sucking from all the way back in 2005 has been mentioned, along with – of course – the original Steve Smith SandpaperGate scandal of 2018. Accusations of Australian media bias, Indian media bias and English media bias have been tossed around, and naturally that staple of every sports social media bust-up has reared its head: “Have you ever even played the game?”

What seems deeply odd and at the same time in keeping with contemporary sporting debate (hello, VAR), is that two people can watch the same 30-second video and insist it conclusively proves their own diametrically opposed interpretations.

The stump-cam clip in question – posted by Virender Sehwag on the fifth day of the drawn SCG Test – has been liked 137,000 times on Twitter and retweeted nearly 29,000 times. Rishabh Pant was smashing the Australian bowling attack to all parts at the time. India were chasing an unlikely fourth-innings target of 407, but with Pant scoring at nearly a run a ball, it was by no means impossible. 

In the video Steve Smith, who struck 212 runs in the match with typical brilliance, indulges in a bit of shadow batting at a drinks break: First lining up with a left-hander’s stance, then his own right-handed stance. After that he drags his foot across the batting crease four times to mark guard, despite the fact he is not batting, and walks away.

One view is that this is a complete irrelevance. Another is that when the opposition are batting, the fielding side should leave the batsmen’s guard-marks untouched. This is an unwritten but well-established law of cricket – so well-established, at least for some of us, that it does not warrant discussion. It follows that regardless of the intent, regardless of whether Pant would have re-marked after drinks, and regardless of the state of the fifth-day pitch, Smith should not have been interfering.

In light of Smith’s ‘I was marking middle stump’ defence, there are also a couple of problems with the video. Watch closely and you will see that as he’s dragging his spikes over the batting crease, after doing so twice, Smith shifts his foot slightly towards a right-hander’s off stump. Thus it seems clear he is not trying to make a precise middle-stump mark, as if he was about to take guard. 

Secondly, rather than carefully placing a single spike on the deck, the usual method of scoring a precise mark, he appears to flatten his foot against the wicket, dragging the entire sole of his shoe with its several spikes across the batting crease. Before he starts, the Indian batsmen’s guard marks are visible, and when he’s finished they have disappeared. 

Even if the leg, middle and off stump marks have been grooved into the pitch by day five, batsmen will naturally still make their own marks on the pitch, in the condition they find it: all part of following their normal process and getting themselves in the right headspace to bat. This specific part of the batting crease belongs to the incumbent batsmen. 

Wide of the mark, you think? You’re not alone. But how much does this actually matter? It may have been a minor annoyance for Pant if he was obliged to re-mark after drinks, and in that sense, it is a triviality. But the fact it appears so puerile and needless is precisely why it has provoked such a reaction. It wasn’t cheating, Smith’s detractors mostly agree, but was an obvious attempt to disrupt Pant’s concentration, as the spectre of Ben Stokes and Headingley hove into Australia’s view. Given the furore and the level of disagreement it has caused, it would not be wholly surprising to see the ICC release some guidance on the issue for match officials and players.

The fact that there was no complaint, official or unofficial, from Pant or India is irrelevant, simply because it was not a big enough deal to complain about. But that doesn’t make it right. The video of groundstaff sweeping the pitch and repainting the crease during drinks is also beside the point, because a batsman’s guard, scored in the pitch with a stud, easily survives such treatment for the resumption of the session.

As Chris Woakes has said, only Smith knows what his true intention was. Perhaps those criticising him for a petty distraction tactic have got it wrong. Even in that case, there is still a strong and widely accepted argument that Smith had no business acting as he did. In context of Smith’s history, following his ban, of course he will be held to a higher standard than others. But leaving all that aside, and based on the video alone, he does have a case to answer.

Looking ahead to the fourth and final Test, which begins on Friday, there will be plenty of attention on Smith when he takes guard in Brisbane. Be prepared for some side-by-side, frame-by-frame video analysis of his guard-marking vs. the ScuffGate video. Drinks breaks when the Sydneysider is at the crease will also offer plenty of potential intrigue, not just at The Gabba, but for the foreseeable future. Hilarity or enmity or a mixture of both will probably ensue. Whatever happens, from the icy grip of a January lockdown, we should thank Smith and the sunny footage from Australia for providing us with such an invigorating, diverting and inherently meaningless debate.

Maradona the master

Put everything else aside for a moment: the progression from street kid to world champion, the global fame, the money, the controversy. The ball itself is where the story begins and ends, because no one could control a ball like Diego Maradona. Of all the people who tried he came closest to achieving perfection: not just in the execution of pure skill, but its application in the chaos of a match. What appeared to be God-given natural ability was created and honed by years of work.

Anyone who has ever invested time in trying to learn ball control will feel some sort of loss this week. Anyone who has spent countless hours alone, merely trying to keep a ball up in the air, balancing it on their head, bouncing it on their thigh. Attempting to build an instinct for how a ball behaves, and how to make it behave. Anyone who developed a childhood obsession with training their limbs and body in this way will be in mourning. Because Maradona was the master.

No one played as demonstratively as Maradona, either. No one played the game with more obvious, untrammelled passion. No one – from Pelé and George Best to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – brought the same kind of intensity and downright joy, with such an ability to show their hunger for the game (and therefore for life) through their play. And that, in turn, stirred passion in others.

The emotion that showed in his football – expressed so totally and fearlessly, with nothing left in reserve – is naturally why Maradona provoked such strong emotion in anyone who saw him play. From the Neapolitans and Argentinians who elevated him to the status of a demi-god, to the fans of AC Milan or Juventus who hated him for Napoli’s success. You could not fail but to feel some profound emotional response. It is part of the reason he became, at one time, the most recognisable human being on the planet. It is part of the reason it is so hard to believe he is gone.

One of the many strengths of Asif Kapadia’s documentary is that it focuses on football as much as the footballer. The off-field story is compelling but would not be nearly as interesting without the archive match footage that educates the viewer about Maradona’s ability. How he could rise above the chaos, for instance when creating Jorge Burruchaga’s winner in the World Cup final against Germany in 1986. It is a cliche, but true: the freedom Maradona found on the pitch did not exist anywhere else in his increasingly fraught existence. 

A cheat? England fans all too easily forget English players’ cheating, such as Michael Owen’s dive to win a penalty against Argentina in 1998 (a night when Owen, like Maradona at Mexico ’86, also scored one of the great World Cup goals). I myself used to play lowly club football in Surrey with a crafty old centre-half who occasionally used his hands when he couldn’t reach a ball with his head, and sometimes got away with it. 

The idea that cheating is alien to English football was partly born out of anger and resentment that Maradona was able to commit such an outrageous ‘crime’ in such a high-stakes match. For most fans it only increased his genius, and in the context of his career, it is little more than a footnote. As David Lacey wrote in his Guardian match report in 1986, would England have beaten Argentina if the ‘Hand of God’ never happened? Probably not.

Kapadia’s film ends with footage of a decrepit Maradona playing a slow, social match with friends and family. Perhaps some viewers found that sad, but for me it only reaffirmed Maradona’s regard for the game. Physically broken, barely able to walk, he still wanted to play and still loved playing.

Diego Maradona was a football hero before football was fashionable. He tamed the ball like no one else, and played with a passion and commitment that we won’t forget. I will always be grateful.

Inside No 9: Why scrum-halves will decide the Rugby World Cup semi-finals

How are rugby matches are won and lost? Scrums and line-outs, destructive defending, clinical attacking? Forwards assure you it’s about winning up front, while the backs, remarkably, insist it’s all about attacking verve.

Each element is important, and there will be no shortage of pre-match analysis ahead of this weekend’s Rugby World Cup semi-finals about the battle at the breakdown.

Securing your own possession and disrupting the opposition’s is crucial, and quick ball is indeed the oxygen that every rugby team needs. But it is only the first step. Speed and quality of decision-making with the ball is what makes the real difference, which is where the scrum-halves comes in.

As the pace of the professional game increases, a quick-thinking scrum-half becomes more important. Where gaps do occasionally exist, they are very quickly shut down in modern defensive systems.

South Africa’s first try against Japan on Sunday was a perfect example of a scrum-half creating a score, Faf de Klerk capitalising on a huge shove by his forward pack to free Makazole Mapimpi on the short side.

But in the second half against the Brave Blossoms de Klerk took total control. As Springbok power began to tell he orchestrated their fearsomely strong driving maul, and scored a try himself after one 30-metre shove up the middle.

It all evoked memories of Fourie du Preez’s decisive contribution to South Africa’s 2007 World Cup triumph. England fans in particular will remember the way du Preez tormented the defending champions in that 36-0 pool stage dismantling in Paris. Just as in this modern-day Boks team, the scrum-half was their creative lynchpin.

As for modern-day England, Eddie Jones’s selection for the quarter-final clash with Australia proved 100 per cent correct, with George Ford benched and Owen Farrell switching to No 10 to accommodate Henry Slade at No 13.

But while Jones is happy to alternate his combinations at fly-half and centre, the idea of Jones dropping scrum-half Ben Youngs for Saturday’s semi-final against the All Blacks is clearly preposterous.

Youngs is the player who makes England tick. At his best he is one of the finest tactical minds in the game, capable of spotting space behind the opponent’s defence and kicking accurately to exploit it, or knowing when the time is right to bring England’s strike runners into play.

From one first-half line-out against the Wallabies, Youngs bypassed his fly-half entirely, going straight to England’s midfield destroyer Manu Tuilagi, thus keeping his team’s attacking game fresh and unpredictable.

As a young player at Leicester Tigers Ben Youngs had a few useful pointers from French team-mate Julien Dupuy. The French like their No 9s to run the game and for the past decade England have benefited from Youngs’ willingness to take responsibility for key decisions on the field.

For their part, Australia lacked precision at crucial moments in that last-eight clash against England, but also caused their opponents serious problems at times. The smooth and speedy service of Will Genia was the most important factor in how effectively they moved through attacking phases.

All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith scored twice in the quarter-final demolition of Ireland, dismissing any suggestion he might be a weak link for the defending champions.

New Zealand’s double-playmaker selection with Richie Mo’unga at No 10 and Beauden Barrett at No 15 arguably makes Smith all the more important: Steve Hansen’s team like playing an unpredictable, flexible attacking game with both Mo’unga and Barrett possessing the creative skills to dismantle any opposition. But Smith is the man who decides how and when they will be brought into play.

As Australia discovered in the pool stage, scrum-half Gareth Davies is one of Wales’s key threats, his spectacular interception try setting them on the way to a win that saw them top the pool and avoid England in the semi-finals. A brilliant piece of athleticism and skill by replacement scrum-half Tomos Williams, somehow keeping an Australian kick in play in the dying minutes, was also a defining moment.

As we approach two matches this weekend that will go such a long way to defining the tournament, and determine the finalists, it’s the quality and speed of decision making by scrum-halves that will make the difference.

Bayliss holds key to withstanding the Australian media’s Ashes onslaught

If England’s cricketers suspect there is an Australian conspiracy to undermine them at every step, they may also conceivably wonder if they are being paranoid. But they are not.

Like many touring teams in Australia in the past, England are facing a campaign to distract, embarrass and upset them. To understand the intensity of the Australian media’s assault on touring teams, you really need to be in Australia, as I was during the British & Irish Lions tour in 2001.

The media barrage aimed at the Lions was relentless. Any hint of weakness or discord in the tourists’ camp was seized on and ruthlessly taken advantage of. The last thing they needed was provocation, but when mild-mannered Austin Healey called Wallaby lock Justin Harrison a ‘plank’ in a newspaper column, the Aussie media war machine went into overdrive.

The Lions won the first Test in Brisbane but fell to a 2-1 series defeat, Harrison stealing a late line-out in Sydney to deny Martin Johnson’s side a chance of victory. The Australian media regard themselves as an extension of their team(s). They try to attack sporting tourists – particularly the Poms – from all angles. If that affects events on the pitch all the better.

England’s recent embarrassment was maximised following Jonny Bairstow’s friendly headbutt on Cameron Bancroft. Perhaps the distraction will weaken the tourists’ performance, even if it felt like Steve Smith was pushing things a bit far with his tears of laughter sitting alongside Bancroft.

The good news for England? Their coach Trevor Bayliss is an Australian who instinctively understands how the Aussies do this. He should therefore be more than capable of preparing his players to deal with it. He has always exuded a calm authority – he must now be calm and authoritative, and take pressure off his team.

Can Bayliss now focus his players’ minds on what counts: events on the pitch in the second Test in Adelaide? Or will they let Bairstow’s Perth headbutt, media accusations of general thuggery, or Ben Stokes’s proximity in New Zealand distract them? It won’t be easy but there are some encouraging signs for England. They competed well for most of the first Test. Even Glenn McGrath admitted a 10-wicket victory did not fairly reflect the way England scrapped at the Gabba.

Attention is focused on Alastair Cook’s form, but Mark Stoneman, Joe Root, James Vince, Dawid Malan, Moeen Ali and Bairstow all batted well in Brisbane. If one or two of them can produce big scores in Adelaide, and day-night bowling conditions favour James Anderson and Stuart Broad, England can put Australia under pressure.

Bayliss’s challenge is to block out all the distractions and get his player focused on cricket, focused on their strengths, and committed to a plan to beat Australia. Even then they may not be good enough, but it would be a shame if off-field ‘scandal’ derails the tour. Bayliss may yet prove England’s greatest asset; if not in overcoming that media onslaught, at least in rationalising it, understanding it and ignoring it.

RIP Graham Taylor

Graham Taylor, Holland v England, October 1993, pre-match team talk:

“In life, there’s so many opportunities, and they’re always round about us, but there’s too many people in life that never see them. Then there are those people who see the opportunities … but they don’t want to grasp them. Then there’s the other people that generally are life’s winners … They see the opportunities, they go looking for them, and when they see them they grasp them. And that’s what you’re facing now on the football field isn’t it? Go and take the opportunity, it’s there for you, and wring every little bit out of it.”

Watch “The Impossible Job” on YouTube

Football gold on YouTube

A small selection of excellent football videos on YouTube, in no particular order (aside from the first one, which is obviously the funniest thing ever).

How the f*ck have you kicked that over here?
Then Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp loses his shit during an interview with Sky Sports.

I’m a f*cking football manager
Harry Redknapp loses his shit. Again.

Iceland were … how you say? Ze Underdog
Steve McClaren is confident that England are going to take care of Iceland at Euro 2016. For a few seconds. Keep dominating!

Massive underdogs
As referenced above, McClaren also developed a faux Dutch accent soon after taking over at Dutch side FC Twente, causing much lolling on Twitter.

Gary Neville achieved notoriety with his EMF-inspired commentary on a Fernando Torres goal that clinched Chelsea’s win Champions League win against Barcelona in 2012:

UN-BELIEVABLE – part deux
Here is the original.

What sort of thing is happening here? (Long-form video warning)
If you’ve never seen the documentary ‘The Impossible Job’, about Graham Taylor’s ill-starred reign as England coach, here it is. It’s a treat, partly because Taylor is clearly a lovely man, and partly (unfortunately) because he was falling apart under the strain of the job. It’s 49minutes well spent, whenever you can manage it. (It’s not called Impossible Dream, but sincere thanks to whoever uploaded it).

Maradona warms up
Maradona is a true legend. Unlike John Sitton.

Sitton inside so strong
He’s so right: When it pops out, you’ve got to be crafty. He’s wasting his breath on some of them. Still not a legend, though.

Recoba’s rockets
Back to Italy to enjoy Alvaro Recoba’s explosive debut for Inter Milan back in 1997. His new team were losing at home to Brescia and even Ronaldo couldn’t find a way through. Enter the Uruguayan with a left foot like a traction engine. And another!

Good lad!
Brian Clough v Don Revie. Say no more.

On me ‘ead son
Let’s finish with Martin Palermo scoring a header for Boca Juniors from about 40 yards back in 2009. Incidentally he missed three penalties for Argentina in a Copa America match in 1999, but the video isn’t all that. Thanks for watching. Goodbye.

The increasingly bad idea of Brexit

If Brexit felt like a bad idea before the EU referendum in June, it feels like a truly terrible idea five months later.

Brexiteers can often be heard insisting we must all ‘roll our sleeves up and make the best of it’, which begs the question: make the best of what? There is no clarity on what Brexit means, and no guarantee if it’s even legally or constitutionally possible.

Self-satisfied editorials in Eurosceptic newspapers tell us the good economic news keeps on coming while ignoring the obvious point made below by Private Eye: the ill-effects of Brexit are mainly yet to be felt because – breaking news – it hasn’t happened yet.


Worryingly, TV news reporters sent to Brexit-voting provincial towns now find people who genuinely believe the UK has already left the EU.

If that is the level of engagement and political understanding we are dealing with, surely even the most ardent Eurosceptic would have to wonder if the referendum was such a good idea after all. Many in the media also carelessly refer to living in ‘post-Brexit’ UK, when we are only post-referendum, and the fun is only just starting.

Economic education
Like many who’ve taken some interest in Brexit, I’ve read more about the dismal science of economics in the past six months than ever before.

Here is what I have discovered: no-one fully understands the complexities of international trade and economics* – but free trade is good, and uncertainty is bad. It is not condescending or patronising to say Brexit voters failed to understand the economic dangers. It is just a fact. And the dangers are worse than we thought back in June.

The evidence of the past few months demonstrates that Brexit will certainly be a lose-lose situation. Voluntarily extricating ourselves from the single market, or ‘internal market’, is an act of spectacularly stupid self-harm.

According to a new study, economic uncertainty has already led to £65billion worth of investment being abandoned. Much unseen damage is being done, combined with the more obvious stuff like the plummeting pound.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson tells a Czech newspaper we will ‘probably’ come out of the customs union, while threatening Italy on Prosecco sales if we are not allowed to stay in the single market. (Incidentally, they don’t care.)

Bizarrely, the Conservative Party have now become the anti-business party. Take a moment to let that sink in. The Conservative Party are setting the UK on a course overwhelmingly likely to lead to profound economic depression.

A couple of months back, Prime Minister Theresa May told Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn he is a laughing stock – maybe he is – but it is May’s party who have made the UK a laughing stock across the world. People on the outside looking in are scratching their heads, wondering how we could have got ourselves into such a ludicrous mess.

UK citizens are already significantly poorer. Tesco fell out with supplier Unilever over price hikes last month, with Marmite grabbing the headlines. The Post Office increased prices of overseas deliveries due to the weakened pound. Apple quietly raised prices of all their computers. Spending power of overseas travellers, or UK nationals living abroad, has also been significantly hit. And price rises across the board will really begin to bite next year.

Brexiteers insist Britain will flourish economically when we leave the EU. Really? Leaving aside the time it will take to negotiate new trade deals (which will not begin until we leave) it’s worth remembering we live in an economy so vibrant and healthy that the Government has recently been forced to step in to bail out failing private train operators.

There is paralysis over airport expansion – it has taken over a decade to get back to square one, with the recommendation of a third runway at Heathrow. Internet speeds (vital to a vibrant modern economy) are so woefully slow, the regulator publically accuses the network provider Openreach of huge under-investment.

The furore over HS2, the forgotten scandal of Wembley Stadium, now the ongoing saga at the ex-Olympic Stadium. There is plenty of evidence the UK is poorly equipped to go it alone and become a champion of free trade – especially as our European friends may well be keen to make an example of us.

Perhaps understandably, a lot of people are bored of the issue already. Something else, like Donald Trump, will always come along. Unfortunately Brexit isn’t going anywhere fast. Many people who voted for it thought they could stop immigration by ticking a box. They were wrong: and unless we are careful, they will also make themselves much, much poorer in the process.

Vote Leave’s collapse
Has a political movement ever won such a momentous victory, then fallen apart so swiftly? Johnson thought he was being terribly clever and strategic in backing Brexit, believing it was his golden chance to become PM, and has seen the whole thing blow up in his face. He gambled the country’s economic future in trying to further his own career. Unfortunately for everyone else, he lost. Shouldn’t this be a criminal offence, along with high treason?

Nigel Farage – who nearly lost the referendum for the Leave side, if you believe their campaign director Dominic Cummings – is a constant irritant in the media despite doing nothing more than criticising those actually attempting to grapple with this rapidly developing political crisis.

Michael Gove is contrite: he admits he made a mistake in challenging for the leadership. Too late to save his reputation. Meanwhile, the likes of pro-Brexit MEP Daniel Hannan can be found on Twitter demonstrating an embarrassing lack of knowledge of international trade.

Sanity prevails at High Court
The recent High Court ruling against the Government which compels them to consult Parliament before triggering Article 50 was a glimmer of hope for Remainers. Theresa May assured the Tory party conference that the idea she lacked power to invoke A50 without Parliamentary consent was ‘an insult to the intelligence of the British people’. Apparently not.

It is a fantastic irony. Brexiteers so keen for the UK to regain ‘sovereignty’, and for British courts to have the final say on constitutional matters were furious that a British court handed down a ruling they didn’t happen to like.

Since June, Remain voters had felt as if the lunatics had taken over the asylum. Unless the Government wins the appeal at the Supreme Court – which seems unlikely given even many senior Brexiteers are advising the Government to drop the appeal – Parliament will have the chance to hold the Government to account on the terms of Brexit.

As a Remainer, that’s all I ask for. I don’t believe Brexit should be blocked, or stopped. But we need to be careful about the path we choose, and limit the economic damage as much as possible. Exponents of hard, economically disastrous Brexit must not be allowed to dictate the terms.

Straight after the vote in June, I feared it might lead to a domino effect and the collapse of the European Union. I now suspect the opposite. Which other European Union member state would be so phenomenally stupid as to get into the same mess that we find ourselves? Post-Brexit Britain remains a long way off, but our problems are only just beginning.

*International finance is an endless mystery; October’s sterling flash crash was mainly notable because no-one actually knows why it happened. Some blamed automated software monitoring negative media headlines about the UK currency. This seems incredibly dangerous, and would open a separate debate about computer automation, but seemed to pass more or less unquestioned.

The Nazi Gold Train: a legend we all want to believe

It sounds more like a Hollywood blockbuster than a news story.

A deathbed confession by a former Nazi soldier. An armoured train hidden in a secret network of World War Two tunnels. Tonnes of stolen gold treasure and priceless works of art, lost for 70 years. Treasure hunters descending on a sleepy town hoping to claim their share of the loot. It might sound like Quentin Tarantino’s latest pitch to Harvey Weinstein, but in fact, it was the most fascinating news story of last year.

In August 2015 two men, Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter, paid a visit to the Mayor’s office in Wałbrzych – a former coalmining town in southwest Poland. They claimed information from a dying German man had led them to the exact location of the mythical ‘Nazi Gold Train’: loaded with stolen gold and treasure and hidden by Nazi soldiers in what was then Waldenburg, Germany, as Russia’s Red Army swept across Europe in 1945. Lawyers representing the men made a simple demand: 10 per cent of whatever was on board.

The story spread quickly: NAZI GOLD TRAIN FOUND. Nobody could deny it made an eye-catching headline – especially after Poland’s deputy culture minister Piotr Żuchowski fuelled enthusiasm by announcing he was ‘99 per cent sure’ the train existed.

International TV news crews, journalists and hundreds of amateur treasure hunters armed with shovels and metal detectors descended on this sleepy Polish town of 120,000 people. It was a 21st Century gold rush.

But with no evidence aside from one inconclusive radar image, the first news reports only produced more questions: Were the men telling the truth? If the train exists, what could be on it? How is it possible to hide an entire train? Did a visionary employee in the local tourism office cook up the entire story … ?

Local legend supported Koper and Richter’s claim. The myth of a hidden Nazi Gold Train had reverberated around the city for decades. Ex-miner Tadeusz Słowikowski popularized the story in the 1970s and has spent 40 years searching for the train he’s convinced is hidden in the region.

The Germans did build a network of tunnels in the Wałbrzych area during the Second World War. ‘Project Riese’ consisted of seven underground structures in the Owl Mountains: thousands of prisoners of war died during their construction. One Riese project is directly beneath the picturesque Kziaz Castle, seized by the Nazis in 1941 and apparently ear-marked as a future residence for Adolf Hitler.

The exact purpose of Project Riese is a matter for debate. But the extensive underground network would have allowed the Germans to hide a train. Once the treasure-laden train was in place, the track was ripped up and the open end of the tunnel concealed with dynamite. Or so the theory goes.

A vast array of art and treasure looted by the Nazis during the Second World War remains lost – that is not in doubt. The greatest missing treasure of them all is the Amber Room, presented by King Frederick William of Prussia to Peter the Great of Russia in 1717 – described as ‘priceless’ or ‘worth about $380million’ depending on which report you read. Stolen from a palace near St Petersburg in 1941, it was transported to Germany and never seen again.

After the Gold Train story surfaced last year it took on a life of its own. Treasure hunters were warned the train was likely to be booby-trapped or perhaps even contain Xyklon B, poison gas used by Nazis in WW2 concentration camps. On behalf of the Kremlin, a lawyer declared anything looted from wartime Russia must be ‘passed back to the Russian side’. The Polish government disagreed, insisting they would own anything that was found. One report said that instead of claiming their 10 per cent bounty, Koper and Richter might instead face prosecution.

Journalists and TV crews returned to Wałbrzych in force in December 2015 to hear the findings of two separate research projects carried out since August. Perhaps the whole thing was too good to be true. Professor Janusz Madej from the Academy of Mining in Kraków announced they had found no evidence of a train. A hidden tunnel, perhaps, but no evidence of a train – at least not where Koper and Richter claimed. But Koper remained defiant. “I am convinced we will prove its existence,” he told reporters from across the world. “We need a bit more time … we need to excavate.”

Impact on the city

Train or no train, Wałbrzych’s tourism and marketing departments were quick to respond to the opportunity. Gold Train t-shirts, imitation gold bars, Gold Train chocolates and local tours have all been created. A stream of offers from TV and film companies has flowed to City Hall: Discovery Channel agreed a deal to film the surveys by Polish scientists.

“All of a sudden we have been given a gift,” Wałbrzych Mayor Roman Szełemej tells me. “We had already been working to change the city’s image: dark, dirty, full of unemployment and other unwelcome results of the abrupt closure of the whole economy here.”

Coalmines had been the foundation of the region’s financial health and were closed decades ago. The recent stereotype of Wałbrzych, says the Mayor, has been deprivation and economic depression. But the Gold Train myth has given fresh impetus to his PR project. Szełemej terms the attention focused on the city since August 2015 ‘a kind of avalanche’.

“Of course, having a few tonnes of gold could probably solve some of my problems,” he jokes. “But seriously, it’s very interesting, it gives energy to people working on it. It’s something new, it’s revitalizing my staff. Why not?”

It seems to be in the city’s best interests to perpetuate the story because it’s clearly having a positive effect. Anna Żabska, Director of Stara Kopalnia (a former coalmine now converted into a thriving museum and cultural center) agrees the effect on the city has been profound – not just in attracting visitors but for local morale.

“It’s been very good for people who live in Wałbrzych,” says Żabska. “Now we don’t have to explain to anyone where we are from. We are proud of the city. We’ve had a traumatic history, and the reputation of the region was unattractive. But this is a new chapter. In a way, it’s made us famous.”

Treasure hunters

A current joke in Wałbrzych says it’s now impossible to buy a shovel in the city because treasure-hunting tourists have snapped them all up.

On a freezing, steel grey day in December I visit the site specified by Koper and Richter – a stretch of train track close to the city known as ‘Kilometre 65’. The embankment next to the track does indeed look large enough to house a tunnel and a train – that is the extent of my scientific research. The TV news crews have long since moved on, and there is precious little evidence of the huge global story centred on this nondescript spot for the past several months.

Trees have been cleared from an area roughly the size of a football field to allow the detailed radar research. Ragged police tape sags from trees surrounding the clearing. Apart from a steady stream of traffic on the busy road nearby, there is nobody in sight.

The lack of security suggests local authorities are satisfied that no unofficial treasure hunter would have the persistence or the necessary equipment to dig deep enough to discover what lies beneath.

Until Mayor Szełemej decides to excavate, this particular mystery will remain unsolved. Szełemej tells me any digging will have to wait until spring: “There is no rush.”

And neither is there a hidden gold train, if you believe Professor Madej and his team of scientists from Kraków. But even if nothing is found at Kilometre 65, considering the extensive network of Nazi-built tunnels in the area and the myth which has existed in the city since the end of the Second World War, the book will not be closed.

It’s plausible such a train exists in or near Wałbrzych. Koper and Richter, the original treasure hunters who sparked a modern-day gold rush with nothing more than a blurry radar image and a convincing story, would doubtless agree and will not easily give up their search.

If it generates interest in the region and boosts the local economy, Wałbrzych’s hoteliers, restaurant owners and the people at City Hall will hardly be complaining, either. Like the Mayor they will ask: Why not?

For sheer drama, for a fascinating legend, for echoes from the increasingly romanticized Second World War, it’s a perfect story – one many of us want to believe. For the moment, it’s just a little short on evidence. But we’ve not heard the last of Wałbrzych’s Nazi Gold Train.

Leave campaign’s NHS leaflets crossed the line into pure deception

The Vote Leave campaign was fuelled by lies of all kinds, but their unauthorised use of the NHS logo crossed a line into blatant deception. They did not earn a legitimate mandate to alter the course of our history.

Back in March, you may remember seeing an NHS leaflet which spelt out in emotional language why voting Leave in June’s referendum could boost the National Health Service.

Except for one small problem: it wasn’t an NHS leaflet. It was produced and distributed by the Vote Leave campaign using the NHS logo in the top-right corner, just like official NHS literature. In other words, it was straightforward deception.

The Department of Health told the Leave campaign to stop using the logo, but the damage was done. How many leaflets were distributed? How many voters went to the polls on 23rd June genuinely believing the NHS actively supported the Leave campaign? 

The level of the referendum debate was depressingly, relentlessly low and as Michael Gove has shown there are dirty tricks in any political campaign. But a distinction should be made between misdirection, or massaging statistics, and deception.

The fake leaflets call into question the legitimacy and even legality of the vote. Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings told the Treasury select committee in April that ‘accuracy is snake oil for pussies’. Are we really allowing these people to shape our future? People who openly sneer at the need for accuracy and honesty in politics?

How many voters swallowed the inaccurate claim about £350million a week supposedly sent to the EU? How many Leave voters already feel cheated by the Leave campaign’s lies?

“I’m starting to feel like I’ve been played,” said a Leave-voting Question Time audience member last Thursday. “I shouldn’t have put my trust in someone like Nigel Farage.”

In the history of British politics, have campaign promises ever been so swiftly disowned? Hours after the result was announced Farage said the £350million claim was “a mistake”.

Iain Duncan-Smith chipped in by pathetically remarking that Leave campaign commitments, made to millions of voters across the UK, had suddenly become “a range of possibilities”. No wonder people feel like they’ve been played.

“Get over it – you lost,” say the Leave crowd. But this is not a game of playground football. It’s not the fairness of the vote that must be challenged, it’s the means by which it was achieved.

Political journalists are now focused on the battle for power in the main political parties, how the next Tory administration will be formed, and what form Brexit may take. But we need to stop and ask: have we arrived at this point by fair means? The answer is an emphatic “No”.

If the result remains unchallenged then a bunch of liars and chancers have determined the UK’s future. Boris Johnson never believed in Brexit. It was a campaign built entirely on deceit. Last Monday, Nigel Farage became the latest rat to leave the sinking Brexit ship.

For some people the campaign is ancient history. Not me. We have a great country, and we deserved a great debate. We didn’t get one. With a 52/48 result either way, the protests and recriminations and legal challenges will inevitably rumble on for many years.

If the Leave campaign had narrowly lost the vote, rest assured they would now be battling on, refusing to accept defeat. That is exactly what the Remain camp must do.

Farage insisted a 52/48 win for Remain would be unfinished business. A decision of this magnitude – that will impact not only the UK but Europe and the wider world for generations – must not be taken on the basis of Vote Leave’s lies. Especially in view of those fake, misleading NHS leaflets, this is unfinished business.