Lembit Opik: Sing When You're Winning

The Cheeky Girl romancer and former Liberal Democrat MP loves Leicester City. We're surprised, too...

You already know several things about Lembit Opik, and none of them are to do with football.

He's that gangly Liberal Democrat MP with the safe seat in rural Wales. He’s the Have I Got News For You regular who believes a giant asteroid is on a collision course with Earth – “not a matter of if, but when”, apparently.

And, of course, he’s the geeky guy with the Cheeky Girl, having traded in ITV weather woman Sian Lloyd for Gabriela Irimia, one half of the Romanian twins with touchable bums, to general astonishment in December 2006.

What you don't know about Opik is that “as a Northern Irish-Geordie-Welsh-Estonian, I naturally support Leicester City”.

But, he quickly admits, “I’m not an obsessive football fan.” Hardly news since he’s turned up to meet FourFourTwo clutching briefing notes in the shape of a printout of the Foxes’ Wikpedia entry, soon cheerfully owns up that he is “almost never” at the Walkers Stadium and, at one point, refers to a replay as “a rematch.”

What Opik does know all about is the gallows humour of the perennially disappointed.

“It’s my grandma's fault,” he explains. “She lived in Leicester and we spent summers with her, so I chose the Foxes. One of those random decisions you make as a kid that causes you a lot of misery later on in life.”

Opik spent the other three seasons of his childhood years in Belfast, and remembers the “incredibly tense” days surrounding England’s Home Internationals visits.

“Everything was dragged into the conflict,” he remembers. “The England games would have such a heavy atmosphere, so would the league games between Linfield, the Protestants and Cliftonville, the Catholics.

"As kids we clung to George Best. He was like a patron saint of Irish schoolboys, someone both sides of the community admired.”

The member for Montgomeryshire’s own football career was strictly second best. “There aren’t many Estonian football heroes and I certainly wasn’t one. I went to the Inst, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

"Quite rightly they put me in Dill House, which had a reputation for being consistently terrible at every sport. Our football team was so bad we rotated the captaincy every week. I got one of our best results when I was captain, a 4-4 draw. Even then we’d been 4-1 up.”

Which sounds like a recent Leicester score. Opik shakes his head at the events of last season.

“Watching them became entertaining in a masochistic, car-crash way,” he says. “Actually, more like the sinking of the Titanic – slow, painful and expensive.

"I couldn’t bear to watch on the last day of the season. I went to a local fete and gave out the raffle prizes instead. It was the original fete worse than death.”

Opik refuses to pin the blame on Leicester's trigger-happy chairman, however.

“Some people tell me Milan Mandaric is mad. I think he’s probably just mad in the angry sense because he’s been let down by the people he’s hired. He was unlucky with Gary Megson and then Ian Holloway couldn’t cut it.

"I’d have sacked them myself. One of the signs of good leadership is a willingness to change.”

But then a Lib Dem would say that, wouldn’t he?

In recent years, Opik’s cosy party has acquired a ruthless streak of its own, ditching Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell with an efficient brutality rarely seen beyond the Chelsea boardroom.

“Politics and football have a lot in common,” he says. “You need a cohesive team with a strong leader. The big competition tends to roll round every four years, too, even if it's been 80-odd years of hurt since the Lib Dems won the big prize.

“Another common element is that the managers have to inspire you to achieve. When Nick �Clegg gives us a pep talk before Prime Minister's Questions, I feel like Martin O’Neill’s sending me out at Wembley to win the League Cup final.

"O’Neill would have been a great party leader. And Paddy Ashdown could have got Leicester into the Champions League.”

Opik recently sponsored a jokey Commons motion praising constituent Steve Goodwin, goalkeeper for Montgomery Town in the local Mitsubishi League Two, for scoring a direct 78-yarder he describes as “one of the greatest and most spectacular goals scored in the history of British football” (see it by searching for ‘Steve Goodwin goal’ on YouTube).

But he believes politicians should stay out of more serious football issues like ticket pricing.

“It’s not an essential service so it’s hard to see how any government can intervene, especially when there are people still queuing up to buy the tickets,” Opik says.

“The issue I’ve got more interest in is Sepp Blatter's Six-Plus-Five thing – on the one hand you want to see more homegrown talent coming through, on the other it’s hard not? to be a racist when your team is full of players from Europe and beyond.”

And what of Lembit’s own efforts at integration with the young people of Eastern Europe?

“I’ve told Gabriela to do all she can to get Steve Goodwin Romanian nationality,” he laughs. “He’s willing to change his name to Steve Goodwinscu if he can get a trial with the national team.

“She quite likes football, actually. We had a great night out at the Karma Club in Cluj-Napoca, her hometown, watching the Romanians play in a qualifier.

"I’ve not taken her to watch Leicester, though. We're not married yet and I think that would be grounds for divorce.”

Best moment
Probably beating Aston Villa in the League Cup semi-final second leg in 2000. Or the incredible goal Robbie Savage scored with his face against Leeds in the same year.

Worst moment
You could pick any one from last season. Going 1-0 up against Sheffield Wednesday in the penultimate game and losing 3-1 was pretty typical. If we’d won, they’d have gone down instead of us.

Leicester hero
It should be Gary Lineker, but Robbie Savage’s blend of technical prowess and violence appeals to me. He’s a street fighter and we could do with a few of those now. He doesn’t strike me as the type to be a Lib Dem voter, put it that way.

Leicester villain
Based on how impressed I was when we signed him and how underwhelming he was last season, Bruno N’Gotty.

Dream signing
It would be nice to sign a footballer who’s in the news, so I'll say Ronaldo. Unfortunately the only footballer in the news we’re likely to sign is Gazza.

Boo boy
Anyone who persistently dives and feigns injury, apart from Robbie Savage. What Dida did at Celtic last year was disgusting.

This interview originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of FourFourTwo.

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