Accents and Football History

For most of its life, football in England as a mass sport has been industrial, and it has been Northern.

It shows in the voices. So many North-Easterners: so many Scots. And the others from north of Birmingham. Shankly, Busby, the Charlton brothers, Lawton, Milburn, Finney, Matthews, Paisley, Law. And the great Irish players: Best, Giles.

There are fewer Londoners. Greaves, Hurst (born in Lancashire, but in Essex from the age of 8), Peters, Brooking.

The balance is probably still to the North now (a Match of the Day featuring Lineker, Hanson, Shearer and Lawrenson is not suffering from southern bias). But now that England has a distinctly London feel to its team (think Terry, Ferdinand, both Coles, Beckham) and London teams have become predominant in the Premiership, a form of cockney is starting to barge its way through. In other walks of life, it’s already more or less the accepted demotic. If you are brought up speaking RP and want to get on, you’ll adopt some mangled form of that. You won’t pretend to be Geordie or Scots.

Is there any British accent that has changed so much, so fast? The accent of Greaves, Moore, Peters and Brooking is warm and comfortable, short of the yapping, quacking hostility, the wheezing self-satisfaction of the more modern versions. Consider these two films. The first is the best I could find of Brooking – it’s his appearance on Phoenix From The Flames, something I’d usually consider beneath this site. The second is the introduction to The Real Football Factories, a programme glorifying violence, featuring an actor who’s had stick here before. It’s not hard to understand why:


Compare and contrast. You don’t have to sit through it all:

My private suspicion is that that second accent is at least 50% a put-on: an exaggeration advantageous to survival, like a peacock’s tail but in the shape of a fist.

What I don’t understand is the speed of the change, its universality (I live on the edge of South London, and the locals make Mr. Real Football Factories sound like Dan Cruickshank) and the direction taken – that hostile, cornered, no-negotiation aggressive tone.

Question: am I just imagining all this? Is this just my personal bias showing through? Or am I right in part, and if so, why?

3 Replies to “Accents and Football History”

  1. If it is a real phenomenon, here’s two theories:

    The absorption of features of London accents into mainstream RP has forced people who see themselves as—or who want to be seen as— ‘real’ Londoners to exaggerate their accents to distinguish themselves. I mean when Tony Blair, of Fettes and Oxford, starts dropping his haitches, what’s a Londoner to do but Dolittle himself up a bit?

    Or it’s the influence of Eastenders. an entire generation of Londoners has grown up watching their community reflected by the distorting mirror of a bunch of thesps playing them as a cast of crooks and tarts.

    Although if you ever get a night bus across South London, you learn that the next generation is developing a kind of Jamaican-flavoured cockney that I don’t think is represented much in the mainstream yet and which makes Eastenders look like a nostalgia piece. Which of course it is: Barbara Windsor anyone?

  2. Yes.. although I grew up in Bedford which has a large Caribbean community, and I’ve been familiar with Jamaican voices ever since they belonged to kind ladies brushing grit out of my cut knees during playtime. The Nightbus importation is from rap, another pumped-up, aggressive distortion of something warm and bright.

  3. It might be a more general vowel shift going on all over the country though; there is certainly a similar change going on in Scouse accents, which have also got a lot shorter, sharper and less melodic.

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