Sir Keir Starmer interview: My role in bringing Declan Rice to Arsenal

Labour Party Leader and Arsenal fan Keir Starmer speaks to Jason Burt
The potential next Prime Minister is a committed Arsenal supporter - Darren Staples for Telegraph Sport

Sir Keir Starmer is talking about his role in Declan Rice’s £105 million transfer to Arsenal. “So, when we played away at West Ham last year and Declan was still a West Ham player I took my son,” the Labour leader says.

“Mark Noble, Mr West Ham [now the club’s sporting director], took us down to meet Declan. And so my boy had his programme open ready for signing and obviously we put the contract [for Arsenal] in underneath! Declan signed it and thought he was signing the programme, but actually he was signing for Arsenal!”

It is the kind of cheesy anecdote that only a true fan would revel in – although cynics might counter it is also a story that might perform well with political focus groups.

But Starmer, who admits to joining in the song that Rice is “cheap at half the price”, is a genuine Arsenal fan. A season-ticket holder who, despite his obviously heavy schedule, “religiously” puts the team’s fixtures in his diary when they are released every June – and, then, like other fans curses when they are switched for television.

“So, you think you have secured a slot with the team in the diary and then it gets moved to a Sunday or worse a Friday,” Starmer bemoans.

‘I enjoy the release’

Politicians claiming to be football fans – presumably to boost their everyman credentials – has a chequered history. Remember when David Cameron could not recall whether he supported West Ham United or Aston Villa? Or Boris Johnson thinking Bobby Moore had scored a hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup Final and also declaring he “supports all the London teams”.

But Starmer has earned his stripes and put in the yards. He is not “Roger Nouveau”, the Johnny-come-lately Arsenal fan with his wicker lunch hamper lampooned in the 1990s in “The Fast Show”. And neither is he an apparently fair-weather supporter like Rishi Sunak, who (very) infrequently follows Southampton.

Labour Party Leader and Arsenal fan Keir Starmer speaks to Jason Burt
Sir Keir in conversation with Telegraph Sport's Jason Burt at St George's Park - Darren Staples for Telegraph Sport

No, if anything the 61-year-old has become more of an Arsenal fan the older he has got and, interestingly, even claims it is his “release” from the day job of trying to be the next Prime Minister.

In fact, currently, he is going home and away with Arsenal as they chase their first Premier League title in 20 years – the most excited he has been since “The Invincibles” of 2003-04 – and he intends to continue taking his seat at the Emirates even if he takes up occupancy of 10 Downing Street.

“Because of the intense love I have got of football, which I have always had,” Starmer says in an exclusive interview with Telegraph Sport. “But also the busier I have got and the more intense the day job the more I enjoy the release. Whether it’s playing football, and I still play, or watching football it takes you completely away from the day job.

“I go with one of my very best friends, who I know from school, his son and my son. And this sounds very, well, almost emotional for me. But for me and my very close friend to walk down the road to the Emirates with our two sons in front of us is a really incredible feeling and I love that.”

That emotion is also felt within the stadium. “It is,” Starmer says. “We’ve been in the same seats in the Emirates since the stadium opened. There are five of us and there are then three rows to the side. That group of people – and half of them I don’t know their second names – has been through an emotional roller-coaster together. The choreography, which you couldn’t script, of everyone reaching up when the goal goes in or the hunched feeling of silence when you realise ‘that’s it, we are not going to win’.”

But it must be harder to go given how obviously busy he is – and intends to be?

“It is,” Starmer says before reiterating that if he is elected PM he still “hopes” to carry on as a season ticket-holder. “I will certainly still get them in the diary as soon as the fixture list comes out,” he adds. Starmer has accepted hospitality in the past – not least from the Premier League – but “I prefer to be in the stands in my own seat”.

‘Arteta has built a real squad’

Starmer started following Arsenal in the schoolyard where he grew up in Oxted, Surrey, admitting he was one of those kids who “clustered around some of the successful clubs” at that time. Arsenal – the 1971 double winners – were one of them but it was not until he left university and moved to north London, off the Archway Road, in the mid-80s to pursue his law career that Starmer had the means to regularly attend their games.

“A whole group of us starting going down to Highbury, where you could get in through the turnstile and stand on the North Bank,” he says. “I have been going pretty regularly ever since.”

For Starmer there is, also, a day every season that is a cause for celebration: when the last Premier League team loses its unbeaten record, meaning The Invincibles’ remain unchallenged having not lost a fixture during that 2003-04 campaign. “As every Arsenal fan does,” Starmer says. “Absolutely… They (The Invincibles) were just an incredibly thing. Forty-nine undefeated (in all). So every year when whoever it is at the top loses their first match I know that record in intact for another season.”

That campaign was, Starmer says, the happiest he has been following Arsenal. But he declares that the current team, under Mikel Arteta, are challenging that.

“This is some of the best football certainly that I have seen for a while.This is more intense. It is a more integrated squad. Arteta has built a real squad. I give you an example: we meet up with mates before the game. The usual discussion ‘what’s the score going to be? Who’s going to score?’ And afterwards there is another discussion ‘who was player of the match?’ There’s genuine debate about that every week. There’s never a single player… I think that is really amazing. You are not every week saying ‘it’s Thierry Henry; it’s Aubameyang’ or whoever it is.”

Mention of Henry raises Starmer’s favourite Arsenal player – although not the one he was most keen to get a ‘seflie’ with. That was Michael Thomas, who scored the last-minute goal that sealed the incredible title triumph at Anfield, against Liverpool, in 1989.

“The win at Anfield all those years ago,” Starmer says, declaring it – unsurprisingly – his “favourite ever” Arsenal game. “Michael Thomas – it’s up for grabs now! It has to be that one,” he adds.

“It had been so long since we had done it; the mathematics were so acute and it had to be two (goals) and it was. And it was right there. That was the greatest ever. And I saw Michael Thomas. He came into Parliament about 18 months ago and he’s now doing work on players who get into financial difficulties and it was just amazing. He wanted a ‘selfie’ and I wanted a ‘selfie’.”

And Henry? “He is my favourite player,” Starmer says. “But that’s a hard one because Bergkamp is right up there. But Henry, there was just something about him. As soon as he got on the ball there was that sense that something was going to happen. He almost…. It’s hard to describe but he almost went out like a hovercraft, almost above the ball. It was just fantastic. So, he has to be my all-time favourite. But some of the current ones are getting there – look at Bukayo Saka, look at Declan Rice, Martin Odegaard. These are great players.”

‘Arsenal are no chokers’

Mention of current players brings us back to the present and Arsenal’s title challenge.

“When have I been most disappointed as an Arsenal fan?” Starmer asks. “Oh, every year when we go and blow it! Last year was a classic example. We were doing so well and then we got to six or seven games to go and on paper they were games we should have easily won – and then there is that sinking feeling of knowing it’s not going to happen this year.”

So what about the accusation that Arsenal were chokers? “No, I don’t accept that,” Starmer replies. “Arteta probably got that team to a better place than anyone expected last year. If you said two years ago to people ‘what are your expectations of Arsenal?’ Then they would not have expected them to win or come second. So they got ahead of expectations. This year expectations were high so…”

Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, during an Sky Sports interview with David Garrido at Emirates Stadium, London, ahead of Arsenal v Liverpool on Green Football Weekend
Starmer attends Arsenal games with a friend and their respective sons - Labour Party

Starmer is unstinting in his praise of Arteta – and even talks enthusiastically about the recent ‘park the bus’ goalless draw away to Manchester City, a game he also attended.

“He’s a great manager because he has created a squad with a purpose; a team with a purpose and a focus,” he says. “I went to see Arsenal play away at Man City just the other week and the intensity and the discipline of what we had to do there was really incredible….Nil-nil is never then best of games for fans but to see a team who for 90 minutes everything every player had to do had to be on the money showed you what a team Arteta has built.”

Warming to his theme he does, finally, split back into politician’s speak. “And he has built a real team there,” Starmer says. “Things like making Odegaard captain. I saw Odegaard when he first played for us, he was on loan from Real Madrid. And I thought ‘there’s a really technically gifted player’.

“But by making him captain he has given him a responsibility and a status that we can see reflected through the player. Odegaard is a leader on the pitch now. If everything is going through Odegaard, if he is playing well, he’s lifting the other players. And at the end of every game Odegaard will go round the whole pitch, applauding the fans. That’s real leadership.”

So can Arsenal do it? For all of his enthusiasm, he is not convinced. “It depends on City,” Starmer admits. “It’s the best title race for ages, this year, and I have been going every game home and away. City are good though. Look at De Bruyne. Look at Haaland. These are great players.”

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