Archive | December, 2008

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Alf Ramsey Picks The Team: Budgie’s 1964

Posted on 30 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

The mid-sixties brought a gentlemen’s agreement: Liverpool would do the music, and London would do the football. It might have happened earlier. Most capital cities dominated the football in their respective countries, and London had only missed out because we’d invented the game, and invented it north of Watford Gap.

But by 1964, the English national side, managed by a Londoner, was filling up with men from the south east. Moore, and Greaves were already there. So was Maurice Norman. Johnny Haynes was attempting a comeback from injury. More were to come.

But the World Cup was two years away, and it would bring South American sides with it, and anyway, it was too much to ask even the revitalised ’61 side of ’63 to keep it going until then.

And it was about time for another impact player. Charlton and Greaves were bedded-in, Clough was gone and Haynes going. In later years, it would be Gascoigne, Owen, Rooney who’d re-excite the side.

In 1964, it was a West Ham forward, Johnny “Budgie” Byrne.

Byrne looked like a Londoner. In some photographs, he’s John Terry, but taller, slimmer and faster. He’d started his real career at Crystal Palace, coming to life when Palace switched away from 2-3-5. There, under Arthur Rowe of Spurs “push and run” fame, Byrne would become the only Division Four player to get the England call, albeit into the Under-23s.

Then came West Ham, who provided one of those what-if? moments by offering Geoff Hurst as a makeweight before thinking better of it. They still ended up breaking the British transfer record for him.

Byrne would have some great seasons at Upton Park, but ’63-64 was the one to remember: 33 goals in all competitions, a League Cup semi-final and an FA Cup Winner’s medal. It was only enough to finish 14th in Division One, but it was a year in which only eleven points separated the Champions Liverpool from seventh place Blackburn Rovers.

Ramsey took Byrne on tour with England in the summer of ’63, and played him against Switzerland. It came off well: he scored two, Charlton bagged the match ball and he’d outshone Greaves, who failed to score at all in the 8-1 victory.

He was unfortunate in his next game, against Scotland. Once again, Ramsey brought the best out of Jim Baxter and the wind got the better of Gordon Banks.

But then came the Byrne glory charge through the spring of 1964. He scored two goals against Uruguay at Wembley, and, all-importantly, victory against one of the South American giants. Victory in London, made in London, with Cohen, Moore, Norman and Greaves all there to share it with him.

Then a hat-trick against Eusebio’s Portugal in Lisbon. Five Londoners on the pitch against a European team full of stars.

Greaves, alongside him, wasn’t scoring, but he was bringing the best out of Byrne. Both men would be at their physical late-20s peak come the World Cup, and they’d have eighteen months to bed the partnership down.

It could only get better, and did. Both Greaves and Byrne scored in the comfortable 3-1 win over Northern Ireland. In the summer of 1964 England would tour the Americas, and the Londoners would get their chance against Brazil.

But this is another story about flawed genius. Byrne had a reputation as a drinker by this stage, although, as George Best would later protest, so did most players. Byrne had been one of a group who broke curfew before facing Portugal, but at least he’d performed thereafter. But there were more shenanigans on tour in the Americas.

The tour had begun well, with a comprehensive 10-0 win over the United States in New York. Byrne was left out for that one, but another Londoner, Mike Bailey of Charlton, enjoyed an impressive debut. Like Ken Shellito in 1963, he looked set to continue, then broke his leg. He would not be the last before ’66 came round.

But Brazil was a disaster. Pele destroyed England in the second half, and although Greaves got his goal, 5-1 was about right. The gulf between Brazil and the European game was all too apparent.

Then, defeat against Argentina. And no goal for Byrne.

He was dropped after that, reappearing briefly in the autumn against Wales where he’d see Forest’s Frank Wignall score on his debut. But his conduct, and Ramsey’s doubts about his partnership with Greaves against the very best sides, extended his international exile.

That left West Ham to take a monopoly on all Byrne’s excess energy. At club level, 1964-5 would be his annus mirabilis. He stormed to 25 goals in 33 games, and helped West Ham win the first leg of their European Cup Winners Cup semi-final against Real Zaragoza.

A recall had to come, and it came, with a year to go before the World Cup, against Scotland.

For England, it was a bit more like it, a 2-2 draw despite playing with only nine fit men. For Byrne, it was disaster. When Ray Wilson left the field at half time, he slotted back into defence, and then tore the ligaments in his knee. He played on through intense pain, worsening the damage.

Some say that it was now that his drinking really took hold. But in fact he recovered well – and helped West Ham to another European Cup-Winner’s Cup semi-final. Ramsey named him in the provisional 28-man squad for the World Cup Finals, alongside his strking partner Geoff Hurst.

He didn’t make the cut, and what followed resembles a man falling down unexpected stairs. In 1967, West Ham offloaded him to Crystal Palace, where he had just enough time to score one goal in fourteen games in a failed promotion push. Palace passed him on to Fulham.

After that, and it was another brief, unsuccessful sojourn, Byrne emigrated to South Africa, and found a happy footballing life for himself in Durban. Ron Greenwood had once compared him to Di Stefano. In 1964, Greenwood could have compared him to anyone at all, and not been far away.

Despite Byrne’s departure from the scene, and Greaves’s international decline, England would go on to great things. But they’d never score goals in quite that way again.

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Alf Ramsey Picks The Team: 1963

Posted on 29 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

By 1963, England’s top players would have been well used to foreign travel. They were familiar with the routine and experience of flying, so Ramsey’s first fixture shouldn’t have posed a problem just because it was an away friendly.

But it was an away friendly in Paris, that most unfriendly and unEnglish of cities. It smelt of drains. There were French cars in England of course, but not so many, and not carrying those alien licence plates. And the food, the bathrooms: you can travel a lot further, and feel a lot more familiar.

And the manager was new, and, it soon became clear, quite the xenophobe. He was young, too: nine years before, they’d turfed him out of the England team after that display against the Hungarians. Since then, all he’d done was Ipswich: and, as a look round the dressing room revealed, there were no Ipswich players here. Just the usual blokes, a little louder than usual, sitting a little closer together than usual.

Munich was almost exactly five years ago. Since then, England teams had been drawn from lesser sources than United. Great, gallumphing Wolverhampton Wanderers; ambitious, modern little Burnley; lucky champions Everton. And Spurs, a team of ex-pat Celts plus Smith and Greaves.

Bobby Moore was there, looking like he’d fallen out of a spaghetti western into Duncan Edwards’ boots. He was only 22, and his first England experience had been the 1962 World Cup. He’d been someone Winterbottom had been able to protect from the vagaries of the selection committee. Ramsey had seen him play, well, against Wales in November.

So Moore was in Paris, and it was a disaster, and England lost 5-2. Lose to the French first, said Ramsey’s ghost to the sleeping Capello, and then beat the Germans in a friendly. It’s what Ramsey did, at any rate, but first he got all kinds of things out of his system by losing to the Scots.

Nobby Stiles would say later than Alf Ramsey could get a man to feel like a giant. It was true, but the first player to feel the bad brylcreem roaring through his football veins was Jim Baxter. What was it between Baxter and Ramsey? Slim Jim would always turn it on for Alf, and in Ramsey’s second game, Gordon Banks’s debut, he’d scored twice before half time.

Then came the 1-1 against Brazil, then, as now, a good enough result. But it left England with what amounted to one point out of Ramsey’s first three matches. They’d scored four goals, but let in eight. No one had shone. There was no sign of the “system” of which Ramsey had spoken. Charlton and Greaves, once so prolific,  had done nothing.

England would play six more games before 1963 was out. They’d win them all. Charlton and Greaves would produce every single time. Between May and November, it would be played 6, won 6, for 28, against 8.

What happened? Greaves happened… a run of two goals in eight internationals was followed with one of eight goals in five. It would be his last real burst of scoring for England. He wouldn’t have Bobby Smith to play alongside after that. Smith had scored 13 goals in his fifteen internationals and he and Greaves scored 31 times in their 13 games together.

In the 4-0 win over Wales in October, Bobby Charlton’s goal took him to the all-time England scoring record, overtaking Nat Lofthouse and Tom Finney with a total of 31. Greaves was on 25 by then, but although he’d end up with 44, not a single one of the additional goals would make a meaningful difference for England. Charlton’s would kick-start the World Cup, and he’d score more important goals in the ’68 European Championship.

But in November 1963, with only two full years to put together a team for the World Cup, Ramsey’s England was little more than Winterbottom’s, flywheeling on.  No new “system” and few new players. It would all change in  1964. Ramsey had been to watch West Ham, and he’d found a new centre-forward, one good enough to become a legend..

But if it was a matter of repeating the 9-3 heroics of 1961, Ramsey could claim to have fallen only one goal short, ending the year with an 8-3 against Northern Ireland. Will those of you in the Catholic seats clap your hands?

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Early Radio Sports Commentary

Posted on 29 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

An early hero of Dick Booth’s brilliant new history of broadcast commentary Talking of Sport is Seymour Joly de Lotbiniere. “Lobby” took over as Head of Outside Broadcasts at the BBC in 1935, and was determined to cover more sports. He was especially keen on live commentary with all its spontaneity and excitement.

Some sports were trickier than others. Here’s Aidan Crawley in 1936, commentating on a schools racquets match:

A man is just going to serve. That was a fault. Well served… it’s very difficult to describe it’s so fast. Well hit, sir, well hit. …terrific pace they’re playing. It’s Winchester three Rugby ten. Lord Abbeydale has just served.

This is a game that requires great hand and eye ability, so inheritance is a factor, so there are a lot of public school participants. A certain amount of mothers and sisters are here. I wish more people could see this game. I’m sorry… it’s a very exciting game. Well hit sir. I’m trying to hear the score, you’ll hear it in a moment.

And then there’s this, a 1924 rugby union match from Australia:

He’s going… he’s going.. He’s almost there. He’s going to score.. God! He’s down… The poor chap, he’s wounded. Good God! He’s dead.

Voice in the background: Don’t be a fool man. He’s only winded.

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George Best: Football is Ballet's Ballet

Posted on 26 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

There are only so many clips available for Youtube to uncover. And those it has come up with don’t answer all of our questions. Such as, has the game we love, the game we suspect has more significance to it than just entertainment, topped out? Have we already seen it at its best; have we already seen its best players?

A lot of these questions can be answered by film, and complicated by it. There is more footage of Pele than Matthews, and more of Matthews than of Sindelaar or of Dixie Dean. Most of football history is lost to us. Dean scored 60 goals in 42 league matches in the 1920s; 100 goals in 60 matches altogether. We’ll never see him do more than train. (Some impressive footage does remain of this).

I think that enough film remains of George Best to answer the oldest question about him: was he better than Matthews, Di Stefano, Pele, Maradona? (I’d add Finney to the mix).

Only Maradona was on camera enough to allow a proper analysis. But I think there’s enough in this film of Best to clinch the debate.

Only – this doesn’t remind me of Pele, or of Maradona. It reminds me of Matt Le Tissier.


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Sent Off For England

Posted on 26 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

The England team have an excellent disciplinary record. Only ten players have seen red since 1966 – eleven red cards altogether, as David Beckham now has two in his trophy cabinet to put alongside his 107 caps.

It’s a tiny sample, so these are only “fun” stats.

  1. Of eleven red cards, seven have gone to men who have played for Manchester United: Beckham (2), Rooney, Scholes, Ince, Alan Smith and Ray Wilkins.
  2. Managers Alf Ramsey, Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan each led England to two red cards apiece.
  3. Sven Goran Ericksson is the red card champ, with three.
  4. Only Trevor Cherry managed to get sent off during a friendly..

What was the most significant sending-off in English international history? Of course, David Beckham’s first red against the Argentines in 1998 springs to mind. England were more than matching their opponents at that stage, and had improved with every game. Hoddle had prepared them superbly, and it was all going so well, until…

Then there’s Rooney’s against Portugal. England’s successive defeats against Portugal were unfortunate to say the least. Ericksson’s England were the better side each time. Portugal were limited and hesitant, and should have been put away long before Rooney absented the scene (injured in 2004, harshly dismissed in 2006).

Scolari rode his luck to the point of exhaustion, and at Chelsea his limits are showing. Where are the bold substitutions, where his smart handling of “primadonnas” now? Hindsight is being kind to Ericksson, and at Manchester City too.

England should have won Euro 2004. But Rooney’s 2006 dismissal surely didn’t lose England the World Cup. That went with his injury earlier in the year, and Owen’s, and Beckham’s, and Nevilles: the Ericksson pre-tournament ill luck. England had played as well as anyone in patches, but overall had the dreadful stretched look of exhausted men.

So the most significant England sending off is the first one. Because the competition is so different now, it’s forgotten that England, as World Champions, made it to the semi-final of the 1968 European Championship. There they faced Yugoslavia. It was a tight and brutal game, goalless: with ten minutes to go, both that match and the other semi-final were still tied.

Then Alan Mullery retaliated after yet another bad Yugoslav tackle. Seven minutes to play. A high cross: Moore misses the header. Five minutes to play. Then, England beginning to flag, disaster. Yugoslav captain Dzajic snatched the winner.

Russia and Italy had to be separated by the toss of a coin. Italy went through, relieved not to be meeting England, their bogey team, in a Final they would be playing in Rome. England would beat Russia handily in the third place match.

Under Capello, England have suffered only five yellow cards, to five different players, in ten games. Three of those cardwinners played in the 5-1 Munich victory over Germany seven years previously, and two of them scored. Make of that what you will.

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Merry Christmas

Posted on 22 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

There are so many bad decisions in the first two minutes of this clip that I really don’t know where to begin:


I’d started school the previous January. My grandmother and her sisters had attended Clapham Road Lower School too, seventy years before. It had been brand new then; by the time I was there, it was clapped out. We came in week after week to find the windows broken. Sadly, the intruders never stole the milk, which we drank through the sharpest plastic straws the British Empire could provide.

Christmas was a matter of Gerry Cottle’s circus, then an early evening in Violet Black’s terraced house with cakes, buns, coca cola and then off to bed. At an hour so late only grown-ups could breathe its air, someone crept in and lay a pair of tights on my bed. Chocolate money; a red plastic watch with moveable hands; an india-rubber ball. It would never be so perfect again.

Night-time in 1974 was dark brown, warm and alive with safety and love. They left the landing light on for me, and from where I lay I could hear these friendly, reassuring men singing up the stairs:


I’ve sat here for about ten minutes trying to come up with a New Year’s wish that isn’t either “Brace! Brace!” or “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Well, good luck everybody: see you on the other side. As it were.

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Alf Ramsey Picks The Team: Prologue

Posted on 21 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

He wasn’t first choice: that was Jimmy Adamson of Burnley. And when the job offer did come, he didn’t agree straightaway. Alf Ramsey had enough about him to negotiate, and, courtesy of those elocution lessons he always denied, the voice to do it with. In 1962, these words were not blindingly obvious:

I think an England manager must make up his mind what players he has and then find a rigid method for them to play to. If any player, no matter how clever an individual is not prepared to accept the discipline of the team’s method then I can see no advantage in selecting him.

The football conundrum is that it is a team game with all the room in the world for individual expression. The weight has to go somewhere. In England, with a traditional dribbling game, it went to the individual. In Scotland, with a traditional passing game, the team was more the thing. Ramsey hated Scots. But he thought like a Scot about England.

To get him, the FA had to change the habits of ninety years. No more selection committees. Ramsey was to be in total charge of tactics and team selection.

That was more than a change in manning and demarcation. It completely altered the cultural place of the England team in the national game. The selection committee, with Walter Winterbottom’s involvement, would try to put together a winning side, true. But an England shirt was also seen as a reward for service. And there was a pork barrel element to it too: committee members would favour players from their own clubs. All this would now stop, and something else take their place.

But Ramsey’s desire to pick the team himself didn’t make the complete sense in 1962 that it makes now. There was still very little football on television, and what there was was insufficient for tactical analysis or judgment of players or the spotting of new talent. The England manager would need a thousand scouting eyes. He’d need to attend matches as often as he could.

In 1962, with the maximum wage only just abolished, football club squads were far larger than they are today – probably at least twice the current size. They would be predominantly English. Furthermore, the retain-and-transfer system, which still had a year to live,  meant that a lot of top talent was trapped in the lower divisions. Picking the best squad from such a throng, let alone the best side, was a formidable task.

By 1962, too, the war babies were coming into England contention. They were the best fed generation before or since, and their crucial street football years had been clear of cars. Hungary aside, the South Americans, who’d sat out 1939-45, dominated post-War football. By 1966, England would have a new group ready to take them on. And what a group it was: between 1966 and 1972, the First Division had enough talent to carry seven different title winners, all of them memorable sides.

What’s more, this group were in receipt of better training and tactics that any previous English players. Ramsey himself had played in both the 1-0 defeat to the USA in 1950 and in the 6-3 Hungarian disaster. He wasn’t the only man in English football to spend the ’50s suffering from and obsessing over these experiences. Joe Mercer and Walter Winterbottom went into the schools to institute Jimmy Hogan-style skills training; Stanley Matthews pioneered modern playing kit; Don Revie brought Hungarian ideas to Manchester City. And the clever Scots, Busby and Shankly, had arrived.

By the end of the 1960s, the culture would have changed, and working class male talent went, successfully but with no track record, into music. But before the decade was out, England would send a team to the top of the world and bring it safely back again. Four times. Once before Ramsey, in 1961, Winterbottom’s last great side with the young Jimmy Greaves. In 1964, the year of Johnny Byrne. In ’66. And – it’s right by my calendar – 1970.

It was done despite a querulous press corps (“What’s it about, Alfie?”) and some spectacular condescension from television and middle class media. It ends, as we’ve seen, in endless remembrance, celebration and a lifetime of receiving lifetime awards.

Ramsey took over in May 1963. 1961 had been great, but better was to come.

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A Footballer's Death That Changed Britain

Posted on 20 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

In May 1957, England came up against the Republic of Ireland at Wembley and won 5-1. Within two years, one in four of the players on show would be dead.

Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne, Liam Whelan died in the Munich crash of February 1958 and Duncan Edwards succumbed to his injuries shortly afterwards.

But it was Jeff Hall’s death in April 1959 that had the most far reaching and lasting impact.

Hall was born in Roger Bannister’s year, 1929, and, at the age of 27, the game against the Republic would be the Birmingham City man’s last cap. Don Howe, later a famous coach, took his place despite Hall’s partnership with Roger Byrne yielding only the one defeat in 17 games. Compare Bobby Moore, who lost four of his first seventeen.

In March 1959, Jeff Hall played against Portsmouth at Fratton Park, then began feeling ill. He was diagnosed with polio, went into hospital, and died there only two weeks later.

Polio was not an ancient killer in Britain; it was no tuberculosis. As in the U.S., it had its terrible heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, provoking “polio scares” and killing or crippling its victims. Youth and vigour were no defence.

Jonas Salk’s vaccination against polio was freely available in Britain by 1959, and had been for some years. But Jeff Hall hadn’t had it, and neither had the majority of his generation. Vaccination wasn’t the automatic choice that it became. What happened to Hall changed that attitude overnight.

On April 4th, he died. On the fifth, Hall headlined the Monday papers. Birmingham mourned the loss of a famous son. But everywhere else, in coffee bars, dance halls, cinemas, pubs and biker cafes, the message was clear: if it can happen to him, it can happen to me.

Crowds demanding vaccination surrounded ordinary GP surgeries and NHS hospitals.  Authorities opened emergency clinics. Jets flew in from the States with extra supplies.

By the beginning of the 1960s, polio vaccination was being given to every schoolchild. Polio soon ceased to be a part of British life. In 1955, there were 6,000 polio cases. In 2005, there were none. If it wasn’t for the determination of certain Nigerian imams to spread conspiracy theories, the disease would all but have ceased to exist.

If only it was just Nigeria. In Britain, the Lancet’s publication of Andrew Wakefield’s paper about the MMR jab, and the anti-MMR autism scare that followed in the Independent and elsewhere, has helped to end children’s herd immunity to measles. Herd immunity needs vaccination rates of at least 95%. In recent years, the percentage has dropped to 90.

But the anti-MMR campaigners could not have thrived had others not laid the ground for them. The homeopathic community in Britain contains organized groups and individuals who propagandize against the whole idea of vaccination and have done so for many years. Then there is the science-is-just-another-ideology idea, the natural-products-versus-chemicals wing of the green movement, the Thalidomide disaster and other contributing factors.

The anti-MMR campaign has had measurable results. Measles cases jumped  30% in 2007 alone. It’s not what the anti-vaccinators want to happen. But it’s what they get. In 2001, there were 72 cases of mumps in Wales; in 2005, 3,000. In 2003, Scotland saw 181 cases; in 2004, 3,595.

Pre-1988 vaccination programmes had significant weaknesses and the figures include immigrants whose own childhood immunisation is unclear. It’s not all down to the Wakefield fiasco.  But the drop in immunisation take-up is large, measurable, and has only partly been reversed. And that involves the  anti-MMR movement up to their necks.

Britain might have forgotten Jeff Hall, but Birmingham City certainly hasn’t. A clock was erected in Jeff’s memory at St Andrews shortly after his death, and there’ll shortly be a new one, chosen by Birmingham fans, after they deemed the initial replacement clock too small.

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The Friendly Clubs: Luton Town

Posted on 18 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

There was a period in the early 1980s when the great clubs of England’s industrial cities gave way to smaller clubs from quieter places. Southampton, Ipswich, Norwich, Watford and Luton all had their great days between Clough’s first European Cup and the end of the Falklands Conflict. To this south-eastern boy, they were  home teams, teams you could conceivably go to watch. They  hadn’t the big names or the history. But perhaps they were the future. They were the Friendly Clubs.

Give Luton credit for bothering this season. The shocking points deduction they’ve been handed makes their departure from the Football League almost inevitable. With half of the season gone, they are still in negative points and are sixteen points away from safety. On standard form, they’d be in a respectable mid-table position.

It shouldn’t have been like this. Luton isn’t a pretty place – although the Council and local people are  in the process of changing all that – but its prosperous and has excellent transport links. There are other parts of the south east that combine motorways, a number of smallish prosperous centres, rich villages and IT skills. Hidden cities, made up of suburbs and out-of-town housing, and sooner or later a football club is going to be able to tap into all that wealth and population properly. It could have been Luton. There isn’t another club for miles. But the fans wouldn’t relocate.

So Kenilworth Road looks much the same now as it did when I went there as a boy. The cages that I saw Manchester United fans break out of are gone, of course, and so is the cigarette smoke and stale beer smell. But in all other respects, it’s the same wholly male place that it ever was, and football is quite obviously the only reason to be there.

It’ll go when Luton go, and the Council will redevelop it. If Town can keep going, relocation might even be their chance to revitalise once again, as they’ve done twice in the past. But if they don’t, there’ll be ageing men who I saw as young players who’ll stop and remember from time to time.

And they’ll have something intelligent to say about the matter, because Luton Town in the early ’80s was something of a brains trust.

They were managed, of course, by David Pleat, who’d come up through the ranks of the club before securing the top job. Pleat was ahead of his time and was obliged to pursue the best years of his career during the Football League’s rackety last pre-Premiership years. Luton were his first big project, after which he concerned himself with long, frustrating and interrupted  efforts to return Spurs to the top of English football.

His captain at Luton was Brian Horton, at that time a sort of cut-price Mick Mills. Horton was the man unfortunate enough to be on the end of that peculiar skipping run/dance that Pleat produced when Luton stayed up:


Like Pleat, Horton was a management talent, and is one of the few men to have overseen more than 1,000 league games from the dugout. It is worth noting that every single club to divest themselves of Horton’s services has fared worse under his successor, most notably Manchester City who replaced him with Alan Ball.

Brian Horton was the team veteran. With him in midfield was the much younger Ricky Hill, who, for a few months in the early ’80s, looked to be growing into a serious talent of international stature. Like Huddlestone now, he had physical presence, but never Huddlestone’s ability to produce a pass or his power of shot. But he played for England three times, and then went on to a successful coaching career.

For an hundred reasons, Hill should have been a black manager in the English top flight long before Paul Ince’s recent breakthrough. But the English have no respect for titles won in the United States or in the Caribbean, and no English club besides Luton has given him the opportunity he deserves.

Because English football has dealt rather successfully with racism on the pitch, it thinks it has carte blanche to give an airing to every other possible prejudice and hatred. And dealing with racism on the pitch hasn’t cleared it from the dugout.

More recently, Danny Wilson has managed in the top flight.

But Pleat, Horton and Hill all pale by coaching comparison with the scorer in that clip, Raddy Antic. Antic is the only man to have coached Real Madrid, Barcelona AND Atletico.

Madrid and Barcelona: such luxury, heat and exotica after Luton.

Luton’s brush with relegation, ended by Antic,  came because of the flamboyance of their football. Only Champions Liverpool scored more away goals that season, which gives you some idea of how little attention Luton paid to stopping the opposition. Instead, they relied on the goals of the coming men, Brian Stein and Paul Walsh. And how exciting they were together, how bright they made the future seem.

They were so young. There was so much time. And we had Barnes, Blissett, Mark Chamberlain, Peter Beardsley and young Gary Lineker all coming through on the heels of Regis and Cunningham. When you read the names, it almost hurts.

Walsh and Stein got their chance, partnered together in a friendly against France by Bobby Robson. Robson was never as adventurous in international management as he was with his clubs, and this was a step out of the ordinary for him. Bedfordshire crowded around the television, waited for “Look East” to get out of the way and then switched on. It was 1984, and something that had been building for five years was about to make it to the next level. After this, nothing would be able to stop Luton’s young men.

Poor Stein froze. He was never the same man again after that. Walsh would go on to win a League title with Liverpool, but won his European Cup runner’s up medal at Heysel. He’s one of Jeff Stelling’s brave boys now, after a peripatetic career in which he pleased fans more than managers.

It was less of a turning point for Luton. Horton went, and the captain’s headband passed to Steve Foster, another local hero type. Foster’s probably the forgotten member of the 1982 England squad. But his clubs are forgotten too: before Luton, he enjoyed the rest of his top-flight career at Brighton and Hove Albion. A kind of delayed-fuse albatross, then, Steve Foster: he was in the losing 1983 FA Cup Brighton team, and won a League Cup with Luton, something that still makes those who witnessed it blink:


Stein was back at Luton by now, and in hindsight, that winning Final (that’s Pleat in the commentary box) was as much about 1980-4 as it was about what was to come for Luton.

All the friendly clubs are gone now, and the young men who lit them up are in late middle age. I had a football annual for the year 1980; I forget which one. There was an article on the new generation of talent that was coming through – so much talent – and a series of predictions for them, ending with the phrase “And – of course – England will win the World Cup!!”

But the talent stalled, and England didn’t, and sometimes, when the rain’s lashing against the window like it is now, it feels as if we’ve gotten nowhere since the early ’80s, and as if nothing since then has actually happened. In a moment, I’ll wake with a jolt, and find myself back in my bedroom with its view of Goldington Power Station and the Renault Fuego sitting in our drive.

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The Friendly Clubs: Watford

Posted on 18 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

There was a period in the early 1980s when the great clubs of England’s industrial cities gave way to smaller clubs from quieter places. Southampton, Ipswich, Norwich, Watford and Luton all had their great days between Clough’s first European Cup and the end of the Falklands Conflict. To this south-eastern boy, they were  home teams, teams you could conceivably go to watch. They  hadn’t the big names or the history. But perhaps they were the future. They were the Friendly Clubs.

If you were a fly on the wall, the first thing you’d notice is the dim lighting, then the pool table and the small fellow bent over it. His hair’s thinning, but it’s his Jagger mouth and eyes that catch you. Nearby, a larger, fatter figure in a hat drums his fingers on the keyboard of an untuned piano. Two black guys lean against it, and young men loll about the room on a variety of uncomfortable chairs. Through the ignored window, Communist Peking stretches away on all sides. The cheap orange streetlighting shows empty roads.

If you were that fly, then I envy you: this is one of my favourite football moments of the early 1980s. That’s Martin Amis playing pool, and it’s Elton John on the piano. Around them array the players of First Division high-flyers Watford F.C.; this is their first tour of China. In a moment, Graham Taylor will come in, chatty and ratcheted-down into off-duty mode.

He’d been at Vicarage Road, that most cosily-named of grounds, for almost a decade. He and Elton turned up at more or less the same moment, and the famous five-year ascent to the First Division from the Fourth began  immediately. Stunning progress was the fashion then – Swansea were about it too – and, remembering Northampton Town and Carlisle United – it was a Seventies revival at a time when the Seventies were deservedly in the doghouse.

In Division Two, Watford docked with Luton Town, and the two great rivals set about a kind of tag-team duffing-up of the Division. There was a youthful glamour to the pair of them, at least to schoolkids who couldn’t remember the Luton of the 1950s and 1960s. On the news every evening, we watched the North being sold for scrap, and northern clubs took on some of that clapped-out, wet brazier air. Small, nimble, southern and new things were to be preferred, and football duly came up with a couple of prime examples.

Living in Bedford, it was hard for my crowd not to prefer Luton. When the brickworks at Stewartby allowed, you could smell the success coming up the A6. Paul Walsh, Brian Stein and Ricky Hill  looked like boys bunking off from our school.

But Watford were warm to the touch in that glowing yellow and red strip, and they had Luther Blissett.

For years, Watford Gap had put Watford on wrong part of the map. Promotion to Division One provided a correction. One evening at about this time, I had a bike to move from Camberley to Bedford. I changed at Richmond, Willesden Junction, and then Watford Junction, and, getting closer to the latter, started to crane my neck around: there were famous men here. (My next change was at Bletchley, where I’d forgotten there was no Sunday service..)

Watford’s success meant that the Bakerloo Line kept a service going to Watford Junction for years longer than made normal operating sense. This means that Graham Taylor trumps Herbert Chapman as the London Underground Football King.

It mattered, too, that Watford was known as a family club. Football’s reputation as a fun, safe afternoon or evening out was ruined by this stage, and attendances were in what looked like terminal decline. Watford made themselves safe for children with their famous family enclosure, at a time when, courtesy of Millwall,  another kind of thing was happening to Luton (apologies for the revolting top and tail of this clip):


Luton Town was the end of a good road for its manager and players: all had their best days there. But Watford under Graham Taylor was more of a finishing school. When Watford’s old men get together over a drink, John Barnes will talk about his goal against Brazil, his Liverpool and England careers; Luther Blissett will talk about Italy and his books and continental cafe politics; Graham Taylor will talk about Aston Villa, England, and the day he saved Elton John from himself.

In reality, he’d probably demur on that last one. But Taylor has always been a man to admire. He was treated appallingly over England – this should be more of a source of national shame than it is – but has behaved with extraordinary grace and dignity over it. His enthusiasm and love for the game survive untouched.

Worse, because of his treatment, it’s forgotten how well he began. Capello’s first ten matches featured one defeat, one draw and eight wins. Taylor’s first twelve matches saw no defeats at all, and saw good wins over Cameroon, Poland, Hungary and the USSR and a draw with Argentina which really should have been another win.

Taylor’s record at the beginning of the 1992 European Championships read:

P23 W13 D9 L1

No doubt, something broke then, and the final figures of P38 W 18 D13 L7 tell the story of the final year eloquently enough.

So we remind ourselves that Watford under Taylor finished their first season in the First Division in second place. That doesn’t happen now – but, remember, it didn’t happen then either. Taylor was forced on occasion to defend his team’s style:


One year before Taylor joined Watford, a Northamptonshire recluse named J.L.Carr published another of his eccentric, curmudgeonly novels. Carr’s books are of two kinds. There are the ones about failure and grief in a sort of Hardy-cum-Brideshead England (A Month in the Country). And there are the semi-autobiographical ones that rail against the Welfare State and national decline (Harpole and Foxberrow, General Publishers).

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup is as different as it sounds. A village team take on a foreign manager (Hungarian, if I remember correctly: I had to sell my copy for food in 1992). He teaches them two things: how to run with the ball at their feet without looking at it, and the long ball game.

The book’s title tells you what they did with these skills (Carr actually chickens out of describing the final victory at Wembley, which is surprising given how far out the book already was by that stage) but what I’ve long wondered is, did Carr give Taylor ideas? Because a year after Sinderby was remaindered, Watford began their climb to the top with a long ball game, and with players who – very famously in one case – could run with the ball without looking.

And then, of course, there was this. Not quite a day in the sun, as it turns out, but one to remember for Sherwood, Rostron, Jackett and co.


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