Once upon a time – a long, long time ago – I went to the same university as Norwich’s new chairman.
He is 48, I am 49. Different colleges and, potentially, different years. But same era.
The same era as half of the current Cabinet, if truth be known.
My life tended to revolve around running the bar and the football team; so I’m pretty sure I never met Ed – or, if I did, it was on a muddy football field. Him on one side, me the other.
It would be at least a decade later that we first came to share the same dressing room – in a charity match at Carrow Road that, invariably, involved little more than playing the straight guy to Disco’s Harlem Globetrotter. Much to the punters’ delight.
If memory serves, we would play together at least once more; it would be followed by food in Yellows where the rest of the Balls’ clan would join us.
I liked him.
His wife, the Labour MP Yvette Cooper, was equally engaging company.
And though it was all far removed from the bear pit of Westminster politics, you still got a glimpse of what made Ed Balls tick – combative in the tackle, with a good sense of positioning and certainly no-one’s fool.
You can meet various politicians – of every hue – and be struck by just how shallow and simple they are; that their sole purpose around the Cabinet table was to be the court jester – the one that was always good for a whoppee cushion moment.
Not so Ed Balls.
He was a serious player, whose considerable intellect, obvious energy and competitive spirit are now all about to be harnessed to the good of the Canary cause – in the bruising bear pit of Premier League football.
And his heart will be in exactly the kind of place where the club’s majority owners will want it to be – to the left of centre, keeping community values well to the fore as the Canaries continue to be a force for good in an era of foreign oligarchs, absentee owners and blood-sucking agents.
His predecessor never quite struck me as a footballing man.
He was, you suspect, more comfortable in the company of sons of the City than sons of Glasgow.
Balls will have far more by way of ‘the common touch’ – even if it left him just short at the last General Election where he lost his Leeds seat on the recount. Given events of late, it might prove to be a blessing in disguise.
Certainly his first speech at the club’s next AGM will be worth a listen.
Particularly with regard to the way Norwich is presented and positioned within football’s bigger family – how the Canaries need to find common cause with the Leicesters and the Southamptons, the Stokes and the West Broms if the professional game is ever to stay true to its community roots.
To recognise the vast gulf that now separates hard-pressed supporters from their Saturday afternoon heroes – why the actions of the Neville’s, Scholes and Giggs’ of this world in bankrolling Salford City need to be celebrated and repeated.
How the rivers of gold that flow through football’s hands at Premier League level need to find their way back into the communities that they serve – and not keep Willie Mackay in race horses and Monaco apartments.
To do that within the corridors of footballing power will require every ounce of political cunning and calculation that the last 20 years have delivered.
And at 48, Balls has both time and energy on his side. He could carve out a whole new career within the world of football if a return to the Labour fold under its new owners proved less than appealing.
He has cut deals, brokered powerful friendships in the City; he understands the big numbers; he gets how big finance works.
But you only have to look at the complete moral vacuum that is the game’s ruling body to realise just how much the game, globally, needs fresh political leadership and re-invention – root and branch reform to restore football to those it was built for.
Not the suits, the sponsors and the spivs. But for the people on the streets of Salford.
It is, in short, an intriguing appointment. One that starts, potentially, to address the legacy and succession issues that have always dogged Delia and Michael – how will the baton be passed on as and when the time is right.
A baton that was always about far more than the ownership of one, provincial football club.
It is about the values that remain deeply embedded within the people’s game – and have come to underpin the way that the club’s principal shareholders have run Norwich City Football Club for nigh-on 20, tumultuous years.
If I’m not wholly mistaken, Balls will let that band play on, stick to the same, powerful community beat and do his utmost to keep their legacy safe.
Nich Starling says
Very well put
Chris Anderson says
Good piece as always Rick. If everything you say comes to fruition then NCFC are indeed in a good place. I, like many, are rather tired of the Westminster playground and all those that inhabit it, but if Ed Balls can take the good things he has learnt and transfer them to the football circus then I for one will be even more proud to be a city fan. My only concern is the financial Ivory towers within football are getting higher by the day and principles are in short supply, so I wish him luck in trying. Like politics at the moment the £ sign is king in football and all decisions and attitudes are influenced by it good or bad. To not take this into account would be naive. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.
Jim Davies says
While I doubt that there will be that many Giggs, Scholes, Nevilles among Premier League players willing to put something back into grass roots football, it was nice to see that a reported target of ours, Mr Naismith, demonstrated some compassion for the homeless of Glasgow this Christmas. Makes a nice change from others who have been reported as driving around in their expensive cars with five or six thousand pounds of loose change laying on the passenger seat.
Michael D says
Well, it will be extremely interesting to see exactly what role Ed Balls does play at Norwich City. His first public statement in his new role was certainly that of a consummate politician – a lot of words that gave us absolutely no insight, as far as I could read, as to what he will actually focus on, other than the normal chairman stuff of overseeing a budget, annual plan etc.
Stewart Lewis says
Fine, fine piece.
Let’s not forget that Ed is a non-executive chairman. He’ll advise, set a tone and bring his experience to strategy-setting; I’m sure he’ll bring the kind of perspective and priorities that Rick describes so eloquently. But David McNally remains in operational control.
I assume that the Board is confident of the chemistry between the two of them. I’m not sure the chemistry was so good, and therefore productive, with Bowkett.
el dingo says
The key here is “non-exec”. I was horrified by the appointment at first but am coming round to realise that in a non-exec role the fact he is a career politician does not upset me so much:-) Nice to hear RW’s personal experiences of the man as well. I’ve met just about all our more prominent fans but not this one!
Dan R says
Like almost all Politicos these days, has he ever had a ‘proper’ job? His handling of the economy 2004-10 doesn’t inspire confidence in me at least…
The club receives £50+ million in TV money yet requires fans to opt-out of making a contribution to the Academy set-up.
That is hardly “keeping community values well to the fore”