Association Football: A great game gone to rot

The sport is now characterised by the conditioned reflex of dishonesty, the bleating of the wronged

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The Autumn of 2020 brought a photographic treat. Pictures snapped half a century ago by the father and son team of Wally and Howard Talbot of Blackburn, found like so many good things in an attic, revealed notable footballers from the late Fifties and early Sixties in a playful mood that made the heart glad.

It’s easy to be sentimental, to lionise those who came before, particularly when we think of sport

Burnley players scoffed ice-cream from a Mr Whippy van before the FA Cup Final of 1962, while their rivals from Blackburn Rovers taught children how to swim at the local baths, or shovelled snow. Roy Hartle, the thunderous Bolton Wanderers full-back, wore the white robes of a chemist in a laboratory. Alan Ball, a World Cup winner in 1966 when he was a Blackpool player, accepted a cup of tea from his mother at the parental home in Farnworth.

Two images stood out. Tom Finney, widely thought to be the greatest English footballer of all, linked arms with team-mates to sing “Auld Lang Syne” before his final appearance for Preston North End in April 1960. Neil Franklin, the Stoke City centre-half, pulled pints in a local pub, kitted out in his England blazer, as supporters watched with genuine admiration.

The admiration was not misplaced. Although Franklin was drummed out of the English game by a vindictive Football Association for taking his talents to Colombia at the height of his career, he was a giant at a time when players represented the communities from which they had emerged. There was a link rooted in common experience between the men on the pitch and the supporters who turned up on Saturday afternoons to wave their rattles.

Without gilding the lily the Talbots had captured the spirit of a game that is no more. In those days footballers did not live in mansions equipped with private cinemas, or spend £64,000 on a bar bill, as an England international did on holiday last year.

Roger Byrne, the captain of Manchester United, who perished in the Munich air crash in February 1958, went to work on the bus. Duncan Edwards, the most illustrious of those players who lost their lives at Munich, spent his days off watching the planes at Manchester Airport. Bill Foulkes, who survived the crash, had begun his working life down the pit. These men wore their fame with modesty.

It’s easy to be sentimental, to lionise those who came before, particularly when we think of sport. The great days of Association Football gave us Finney and Edwards, but they also gave us the iniquitous retain-and-transfer system, buttressed by the maximum wage, which made slaves of all players engaged by every club. Loyalty, as Brian Glanville, the king of football writers, liked to say, was what they stuffed you with.

English football was never an Edenic paradise. Pitches were often ploughed fields, the rain-soaked leather balls were heavy enough to inflict lasting cranial damage, and there wasn’t much money to be had, no matter how many spectators tipped up.

Football has become part of “popular culture”

The grounds, designed to accommodate upwards of 50,000 people at close quarters, were filthy. The clubs didn’t worry about that, even if the folk who kept them in clover lost their lives, as 33 fans did at Burnden Park, Bolton, in 1946. It was common practice to keep one turnstile “open” so that the directors could enrich themselves.

But there was also a nobility it is hard to recognise now, when even modest players have banked their first million before they have reached adulthood, and when the perks of stardom stand out like a cormorant on a rock.

And the taste they display! The big house in Cheshire (usually built on the remains of a perfectly good property knocked down because it was old-fashioned); the Bentleys and Ferraris on the drive; the velvet-rope treatment at nightclubs; the trophy girlfriends; the holidays in Dubai and Las Vegas. These are the riches available to the modern footballer, along with the tattoos that cover almost every part of the body. It’s a novel form of individualism: the longing to look like everybody else.

Look at a team photograph of the players who won the World Cup in 1966. They were manly, in appearance and character. Bobby Moore, at 25, could have passed for a Brigadier, never mind a captain. Even Ball, the baby of the team at 21, resembled a young man, who had been forged in an adult game.

There were no daft haircuts back then, or absurd goal celebrations. When Geoff Hurst banged in his third and England’s fourth goal in the victory against West Germany, which gave them the Jules Rimet Trophy, he was happy to accept a handshake.

All gone, like shire counties and imperial measures. Football is now characterised by the conditioned reflex of dishonesty, the constant bleating of the perpetually wronged, and an absence of dignity. Referees are there to be duped by players, and abused by managers. Meanwhile agents gorge themselves by moving players from city to city while their clients profess undying loyalty to the clubs they fleece.

Worse, football has become part of “popular culture”. It hogs the television screens and airwaves every night of the week, attracting a largely uncritical response from the cast of former players paid handsomely to assault the language. Billions have been poured down the plughole of this froth-and-bubble world to appease a public bullied into submission.

Pity the politician, the celebrity, or even the news presenter who does not wear a club’s colours. It’s the surest path towards social exclusion.

Football is a great game. But it is only one game among many, and as that solitary World Cup victory suggests, it is not a game at which we excel. The most powerful football nations, in terms of actual achievement, are Germany, Italy, Brazil and Argentina. In recent years France and Spain have put out outstanding teams. Hungary in the Fifties, and Holland in the Seventies, changed the game more profoundly than any England team has ever done.

Ian Chappell, the flinty Australian captain, once said that apart from inventing cricket the English had done nothing to advance the game. It is tempting to make a similar claim for the English and their obsession with football. Tempting, but not correct.

Who doesn’t admire Jurgen Klopp, the superb manager of Liverpool?

For we have given the world the Premier League, an entertainment designed for international consumption. The clubs are owned by foreigners, some more salubrious than others, and most of the players and coaches have been recruited from abroad.

It is only right to acknowledge certain beneficial aspects of this social transformation. Who doesn’t admire Jurgen Klopp, the superb manager of Liverpool? There is a true football man, and a real football club. But the obsession with football as the stuff of life is unbearable. Give me the old game, rougher round the edges but far more loveable. As the Carole King song puts it, “Catch me if you can, I’m going back.”

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