We end the year in darkness. Or on a dark topic, at any rate.
In Glasgow and Edinburgh, 1909 began with the outbreak of “smog” – the sticky, intrusive and often lethal combination of coalsmoke and fog – that led not only to the coining of the term, but to an estimated 1,000 deaths.
The deaths themselves were hidden, elusive tragedies: The Scotsman notes only that the unusual weather had closed ports and railways, stopped ferries and hindered work in the docks. But the reports go on day after day.
Des Voeux, who actually came up with the word “smog”, spent a lifetime campaigning for clean air. Two years later, in London, he wrote to the Times after a particularly bad Sunday:
How long – oh, how long! – will the people of London continue to endure the murkiness and gloom of its winter months, the fogs that turn daylight into a darkness worse than night, and the dirt which penetrates into all houses and covers the rooms with a film of sticky filth which only arduous and continuous labour can remove?
What he says next casts light, surely, on what must have been a constant, now hidden, factor in the life of football clubs in the period. Imagine as you read that he is discussing Saturday, not Sunday, and that kick-off is at 3:
As I write (at 2pm) we are in complete darkness, the whole house lighted artificially, the daylight being absolutely blotted out by a black cloud overhead, produced, not by a threatening storm, but by the smoke that has been formed from the fires that have cooked the Sunday luncheons or dinners of 6,000,000 million people.
The tone of the protester rings the same from age to age:
At 8 o’clock this morning the air of St James’s Park was clear, by 9 darkness was coming on, and by 1 o’clock it was nearly complete. Sunday fog and darkness are always an hour later than week-day fog, thereby indicating their origin from the domestic hearth.
What this implies is, of course, that a football ground to the east of central London would stand every chance, in the right (wrong) conditions of being blacked-out long before the game was underway. But there are few reports of matches being abandoned because of fog in these circumstances. That can only mean that men were made to play in conditions that were dangerous for their health.
Given that we have records of men like Thomas Bradshaw who, having contracted tuberculosis, played on for his club until shortly before his Christmas Day 1899 death so that he could feed his family, this is no surprise.The same fate overtook Herbert Chapman’s England international brother, Harry.
Players had little choice, or at least were driven by a self-sacrificial zeitgeist to forgo what choice they had. Contractually, they had to play or forfeit their income. The physical courage this required was matched, in black-and-white fashion, by the financial corruption and profit-taking typical of club owners before the First World War (I don’t mean that clubs were, horror of horrors, privately owned, but that good business practice was even more of a stranger to the game in this period than it became thereafter).
Others, not much better paid, but unencumbered by a carry-on-regardless culture, found their own solutions to the smoke. Arthur Clark was a schoolmaster in Manchester in 1913. Robert Roberts, who was a slum child in Salford at the time, remembers queuing for coke beside the hot walls of a plant, smoke (not steam) billowing down over the line of women and children, filling their lungs and covering their clothes with soot. Clark lived as far out as he could, but even so:
Early in March I had given notice (to his landlady); I had endured influenza twice in two months and was utterly weary of a Manchester suburb with its damp and its early spring fog. So I decided to live for a few months under canvas. Of course, my friends told me I should die, but a kindly colleague helped me to collect my outfit, and on March 16 I started my camp in a little village some sixteen miles south of the city..
It didn’t go well, at least not at first:
It certainly was cold. For days we woke up in the grey morning to find the water in the buckets at the tent door frozen. We had to get up before six o’clock if we were to get our breakfast, clean up the tent, cycle sixteen miles (the last four over badly-paved streets), and turn up bright and early for nine o’clock prayers.
It still beats turning out on a Saturday with TB.
But getting back again at night was worse. Five hours of steady teaching is tiring, the journey back to camp was uphill, and the usual south-west anti-trade made all the hills seem stiffer. And when we arrived it was to find a cold, damp, unlit tent with a door that flapped mournfully in the wind.
Things improved in the summer, which was a good one, as was the summer following until it was interrupted by the outbreak of war.
If you’ve come across Humphrey Spender’s "Worktown" series of Bolton photographs from the ’30s (see his Bolton Wanderers sequence here) then you’ll enjoy this multi-part documentary about Tom Harrison, whose fault the whole Mass Observation thing ultimately was. Nosiness will never be the same again:
A 1985ish Scotsport documentary on Alex Ferguson, the manager of Aberdeen, in three parts. It’s now ten years since the publication of Ferguson’s “Managing My Life” – if that doesn’t make you feel old, at the fag end of another year…
Comments Off on Christmas 2009: Alex Ferguson’s Early Life
In 1981, Manchester City, a club in Salford whose big spending hadn’t brought results, allowed in the television cameras. Not entirely by coincidence, he chose the same period to sack championship-winning City coach Malcolm Allison in favour of John Bond, who’d take them to the FA Cup Final. Twenty years earlier, Bond had been a disciple of Allison’s, part of a group including Bobby Moore and Noel Cantwell who grew up in Big Mal’s exuberant shadow at West Ham.
It’s all here. Compelling, saddening, and embarrassing all at once:
Merry Christmas, everyone, and two contrasting, non-sporting things for you today:
A message to the Empire from King George V:
And an Irish folksong. It’s not about the words – which we’ve had before – it’s about the accent. After 15 months in Scotland of bringing conversation to a halt every time I open my mouth, it’s my turn to laugh at someone else’s voice:
So many forward-thinking men in English football in the Fifties: Matthews and Finney after seeing Brazil in the 1950 World Cup, Malcolm Allison after watching Austrians train in Vienna in 1946, Joe Mercer and Don Revie in the wake of the Hungarians. It took England four years to go from the Magyars to once again being one of the world’s best teams – a fact disguised, filthily, by Munich.
But even before then, they had their moments, Here England put nine past Ireland, with Finney man of the match:
Scotland drew the World Champions – and such World Champions! in their first round at their first World Cup. And played them off the park. Only Rivelino would have deserved a place in Willie Ormond’s side that day.
Scotland could, if they wished, remember 1974 for this. Only the Netherlands, against the same opponents, would put on a better display in the entire tournament. It might be the best Scottish performance of all time, but if you’d rather have Baxter in ’67, a much ropier display all round, then suit yourself.
If not quite the best ever, undoubtedly the best of the ’80s. 1982’s Brazil don’t really seem to belong to their decade – shouldn’t they be in Basle in 1954 to take on the Magyars whose formation they aped?
Scotland had them at 1-1 at half time, and with a little more self-belief might have held them. Not matched them. And there’s no shame in that. No one matched them. Italy won the tournament, apparently, but without leaving memories like these:
I’ve just been reading David Tossell’s excellent biography of Malcolm Allison, Big Mal: The High Life and Hard Times of Malcolm Allison, Football Legend. In it, Allison joins that small but oh-so-familiar band of men whose intelligence and forward-thinking threatened to transform English football but who found themselves marooned by drink and the cowardice or incompetence of lesser men. One of Allison’s closest compadres was England captain Bobby Moore, and in place of a review, I’m giving you three short excerpts that involve the two men.
In the first, Allison, having lost a lung to TB, has fought back, like Clough at Sunderland, to the brink of a first game in the top division:
Moore himself recalled the early days of the 1958-59 season before his first-team debut. ‘It’s not like Malcolm to give up. By the start of the ’58 season we were battling away together in the reserves, Malcolm proving he could still play, me proving I might play one day.’ Moore was torn emotionally by the fact that selection for the United game camde down to a straight choice between the two men. ‘I’d been a professional for two and a half months and Malcolm had taught me everything I knew. For all the money in the world I want to play. For all the money in the world I want Malcolm to play because he’s worked like a bastard for this one game in the First Division. It would have meant the world to him.’ (..)
Almost two decades after that night, (Jeff) Powell wrote: “Through solitary hours spent counting shadows on bedroom ceilings, Moore still nurses the guilt that his own precocious arrival on the centre stage of English soccer denied Allison the fulfilment of his own playing career. In the moment of Moore’s accession to the number six shirt, Allison lost his folorn chance of playing just once in the First Division for West Ham United. Allison, the man who taught Moore all he knew. Allison, his idol. Allison, friend. The immaculate Bobby Moore was conceived out of Allison’s most grievous disappoinment.”
Sixteen years on, Allison was manager of Crystal Palace and Moore was out of the England team and out of West Ham:
One who had hoped to be in a Palace shirt was Bobby Moore, released by West Ham in March 1974 after winning the last of his 108 England caps earlier in the season. Having previously indicated his interest in Palace to Ray Bloye he was convinced Allison would attempt to sign him. ‘I believed Malcolm could give me the lift and the appreciation I needed to go on playing well, raise my game again. I wanted Malcolm to tell me where I went wrong and to pat me on the back when I did well. I wanted to play for Malcolm so much I decided in my mind that if Palace were a bit tight for money I would take £5,000 less on my contract to go there instead of any of the other clubs.’ Allison didn’t make a move and while he was attempting to steer Palace out of the Third Division, Moore was helping his new club, Second Division Fulham, to an FA Cup Final appearance against his former team.
The last word is Jeff Powell’s again:
Malcolm had this long, red leather coat and when Bobby saw it for the first time he’d said, as a joke, “Love the coat.” Typically, Malcolm had given it to him. The last time I saw Bobby we had lunch in the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington. He never went out again and he had come to say goodbye. It was quite a warm day, certainly not one where you needed a jacket, but Bobby had this coat on and he sat and wore it through a long lunch. I commented, “I see you have got that old coat on again.”
Bobby said, “Yes. This might be the last time I ever go out. I wanted to wear the coat Malcolm gave me.”
The first thing Capello said on becoming England manager was that when an Englishman pulled on his international shirt, he lost all the confidence he felt at his club: he played in fear. The task for Capello was to create the conditions for confidence that already existed at Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. And in that he succeeded, but could he have done it for Scotland? I argue not. The Scottish job, for the time being, is beyond the power of a single man. If the Scotland team are to experience what England experienced in 2009, change has to come from the Scottish FA, the Scottish press, the Scottish clubs, and, especially, in Scottish fan culture itself.
The problem doesn’t lie with Scottish managers, and it doesn’t lie with Scottish players. Scotland, as any glance at the English Premiership or at post-War European Cup football will show, has a competitive advantage when it comes to the production of fine football managers. Any country in the world, with the possible exceptions of Italy and Holland, would love to possess the Scottish managerial production line for themselves. Nor, as I will argue, are the players deficient. The obstacles are psychological. There are three of them. Sadly, just because it’s “all in the mind” doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to shift.
Obstacle One: The Scottish Team’s 2 Contradictory Roles
Scotland are underdogs, so the song says. I’ll come back to the song in a minute. It’s an easier position for a fan than a player: compare the joyous flagwaving and national pride with the fear and tension visible in that row of dark blue shirts. Beside them, the Italians, who were meant to be intimidated by the weather and the passion, jog easily on the spot and wait their turn.
Football has plenty of real underdogs – Iceland, Slovenia, Faroe Islands – countries with neither population nor history nor experience to help them. For places like these, the status can work for them from time to time, and the sheer lack of expectation can work in their favour.
But Scotland’s footballing pedigree isn’t Iceland’s, or even Norway’s. Think of that managerial competitive advantage. Think of the comparatively huge domestic audience (far more Scots per head actively watch the game than any other country in the British Isles and indeed in Europe). Think of Scotland’s clubs, successful on the European stage.
Scotland’s song is an underdog’s song for a country that is not quite comfortable with playing the underdog. There’s the sneaking suspicion that, had it played its cards more cleverly, Scotland would not now be comparing itself with nations with 5m people – the Irelands – but with nations of recent international pedigree, like France or Holland. And unlike England, Scotland thinks it should play its cards cleverly.
So in trying to play the underdog card against Italy – by throwing rain and cold and bluster and bullshit against one of the most experienced sides in the world – Scotland was both true and untrue to itself. Italy scored almost from the kick-off. It was all the ringmasters at Hampden deserved for ungracious, psychogically ill-advised behaviour. All it achieved was to put the wind up their own men.
The Italian goal cleared the air of all the nonsense, and after that, Scotland put in exactly the sort of fine performance they are entirely capable of. If only they’d been able to approach the game in a more steady, mature and calm manner – which would have been both politer to their Italian guests and less likely to play into their hands – it would, I am sure, have been the means to the qualification that Scotland deserved.
But it’s easy to say, less easy to achieve. Consider this well-known and recent moment in the history of the Scottish national team:
This is the Scottish Underdog Rampant. (I can’t watch it all the way through: it’s all so embarrassing and painful). Note the various assumptions at work: for Scotland to win, one or more players has to put in a lifetime perfomance – beating a team like France is a once-in-a-lifetime miracle and not plannable for – hysteria and invocations of magic are appropriate and acts of patriotism. (I don’t want to take away from the win against France, which was enjoyed right across the British Isles – it’s just a convenient example).
But those ingredients aren’t the only ones around. Had that been Iceland, Icelandic fans would have celebrated the win without ever looking for it to happen again. McFadden’s had to go into subsequent internationals burdened by that goal and the other one – burdened because Scotland aren’t comfortable with the underdog idea, and end up wanting underdog-style victories at regular enough intervals to achieve non-underdog footballing goals.
Let’s go back to the song, now. For those of you not familiar with it, here are the most important lyrics:
And stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again
I acknowledge, by the way, that this is Scotland’s choice of unofficial national anthem – their Land of My Fathers, their O Canada. It’s the country’s obvious right to choose their own song. But that passage is in all three verses. I just regret that Scotland chose something so.. Balkan, so Greater Serbia, when they had Scotland the Brave or The Banks of Loch Lomond to choose from.
It’s the England thing, and if we’re already having to cope with a clash between the desire for underdog status and the suspicion that underdog isn’t good enough, then don’t add the England thing on top of it. But Scotland has, does, and probably always will.
It’s a pity. Because I’ve learned two things about the England thing since moving to Scotland.
The first thing is that Scotland is not just different from England. It’s probably more different from England than France, Spain or Italy. The sheer number of basic differences in language, attitude, approach and opinion is so great that there is no danger – of any kind, at any time – of Scotland being remotely impinged upon to any effect by her southern neighbour. I’ve learned that not many Scots in Scotland realize just how secure as a country and as a nation they really are. It’s a shame: they can afford to relax into themselves much more than they do where England is concerned.
The second thing that I’ve learned is how few Scots realize that the English have gone away, never to return. The Scottish-English rivalry – it’s one hand clapping. The English just don’t care. The Scots can be as passionate in their distrust as they please. It makes no difference to the Rosbifs.
It irritates, even infuriates, some Scots that English football fans will cheer a Scottish team, club or international, as if it were their own. Not all: I’ve seen Scots hush Scots during an England game when they tried to catcall during the anthems. And England, don’t forget, are still stuck with God Save The Queen, and what that awful dirge has to do with sport or country is anyone’s guess.
I can see the Scottish point of view. I don’t agree with it, but I can see it. It feels patronizing to some, as though the English still regard the Scots as property. They don’t, but that’s a common view here, and because it plays a part it, and those who hold it, need to be understood and taken seriously.
The Scots are now alive to the cost to their politics of the England thing, and there’s what amounts to a consensus that the time has come for Scotland to stand on its own financial feet as much as possible, and that the costs of that are worth the trouble. The England thing has meant a dilution of responsibility – there was always Westminster to blame! but that’s fading fast now as experience of government from Holyrood (a place Westminster could learn from, incidentally) accumulates.
The cost of the England thing in sporting terms is best described as a distortion of ambition. Beating England matters too much. If beating England matters more than e.g. catching Holland or France in the World rankings, then certain things don’t get done. Because England can be beaten in one-off games, like 1967, like 1977, or bested without victory as in 1996 and 2000. But catching Holland requires that Scotland see all that as second class goods – all very well and enjoyable, but not to the point. Letting go to that degree is hard.
We’re not finished with the England thing, but let’s move on to our second obstacle:
Obstacle Two: The Scottish False Football History
It isn’t often said, so should be said more often: the surprising thing about the 1960s is not so much that England won a World Cup, but that Scotland didn’t. England have had periods in their history when they’ve had better players available in greater numbers than 1966. 1946, for instance, or 1957, or 1970. For Scotland, the 1960s were the boom years. I look at the qualification matches for the 1966 World Cup and note that, but for five minutes of madness against Poland at Hampden, Scotland would have matched Italy for points (and beat Italy, too, 1-0 at Hampden. It would have done in 2007..)
In 1970, Scotland had to get past West Germany:
It could have gone either way: had just one of those endless Law headers turned into a goal, Scotland would have gone into their final two games with everything to play for. Up against one of the leading quartet of world sides in 1969, Scotland looked… every bit their equals.
But did they know it? Is that how it felt at the time? Up against a divided country full of American soldiers and shoved up against Russians, unable to stand on its own two feet? Because that’s the thing: you can choose underdog status without realising that you’re doing so, and it leaks all over your talent and ability, corroding what would otherwise shine. It might have occurred to the West Germans that theirs was a client country, with only fifteen years of proper football participation behind them, up against the nation of Stein! and Celtic! a nation whose men sat even until then in tanks in the Rhineland.
I think the first obstacle – the reluctant underdog thing – creates a second: Scotland do not know to this day how good they are at football. On occasion, a sort of pumped-up hysteria is allowed in as a substitute for knowledge, as against Italy in 2007, or in the equally ill-advised Hampden farewell in 1978.
The real story of Scotland’s 1970s World Cups remains to be told. The one that’s out there is inaccurate and unhelpful in the extreme. I refer to what you might call the humiliation scenario, and claims of upset hubris.
The humiliation scenario sets out to portray Scotland’s teams of 1974 and (especially) 1978 as having gone out with big heads and come back with sore ones having embarrassed the nation in the process. That’s one way to describe a winning draw with Brazil and victory over Holland.
I see those two World Cups, and to a lesser extent the (in my view) equally misrepresented 1982 World Cup, as creditable perfomances from a side who had no idea, when all is said and done, of their own powers. A side who went into tournaments full of the knowledge that they’d never proceeded beyond the first round and empty of the knowledge that they wielded a squad containing Law, Dalglish and Bremner..
..and how Capello’s “fear” comes in and works its magic. And how the idea of humiliation and embarrassment leaks in and damages everything in sight.
No one outside Scotland thought them humiliated. Outside Scotland, everyone thought that you’d just about beaten Brazil (and Scotland must have thought themselves up against the 1970 lot to begin with). Outside Scotland, everyone thought you were coping well with Peru by playing your own game, and that it was when you tried to ape the short passes of south americans that things went wrong. And as for the Holland game, no one did better against that great Dutch side, ever: Scotland genuinely beat them, in justice as well as goals, something that neither West Germany (1974) nor Argentina (1978) could claim.
Scotland, in short, took the lessons from their ’70s and ’80s losing World Cups that Argentina could well have taken from their dubious winning ones. And in doing so, Scotland creating a rolling accumulation of pain and disappointment that was both unnecessary then and too much for men to carry now. It’s time for a reassessment.
The self-flagellatingly harsh assessment of Scotland’s World Cup performances has had two powerful effects on subsequent events. First, the weight of perceived failure has led to defeats in important games that would otherwise have been won. In 1996, the unnecessary defeat came against England, who were outplayed on the day, and even a draw would have taken Scotland through to meet France in the second round. How many Scots remember a fighting draw against the Netherlands of Bergkamp, Davids, Seedorf, Reiziger and de Boer? As it was, only a Dutch consolation goal against England kept Scotland out of the next round. Embarrassed? Humiliated?
The other impact is on Scottish players now. How does it feel to fill the shoes of men you are constantly told were legends who.. humiliated Scotland, a humiliation you – you inferior soul you – have to avenge? These players were one scuffed shot against Norway away from a World Cup playoff place this year, but you wouldn’t have known that from the treatment they and the manager received, not just from the press and television, but from their own Scottish Football Association.
Properly organized, the men Scotland has at its disposal are perfectly capable of qualifying for one of the two international tournaments. But not if they are told that they’re a dud generation, lesser men than the heroes who let down their country. That’s too much to carry. It’s the same burden that did for English national teams in the wake of 1966: never as good, never as moral, never as.. English! as the crewcut heroes of yore.
There’s opinion in Scotland that thinks this is a national trait: “we”, meaning the Scots, just kind of.. go in for.. noble inglorious humiliating defeat: it’s part of our identity, part of our history…
..in which case, why do you sing about Bannockburn before matches, and how current would this view be now had e.g. Scotland scored once more against Yugoslavia in 1974, once more against Holland in 1978, and once more against the Soviet Union in 1982?
That’s how close it was, and that’s noble inglorious defeat and national humiliation for you. There’s another way to look at it, one that could help Scotland under a new manager now. But it’s hard to make that kind of change, certainly now when that historical cement has had 30 years in which to set fast.
Even if the trick could be pulled, there’s still another obstacle in the way.
Obstacle 3: Dances of Death
That’s two dances: between the Scottish national team and Scottish national puissance, which we’ve already vaguely touched upon – and between the Scottish national team and the Scottish Premier Division.
There’s nothing wrong, and quite a lot right, with a country choosing to use football to express itself on the international stage. Brazil chose to, quite deliberately, back in the 1920s, before they had any footballing tradition at all. 25 years later, they won their first World Cup, which shows what can be done with determination. Almost a decade after the Brazilian decision, Germany decided that football was a lower class pursuit and that there were better ways to assert one’s nationhood.
Scotland is in the perfect position to choose the Brazilian approach over the German. And it may be about to do so. Henry Mcleish taking on the job of reporting ways of promoting Scottish football is the equivalent of Tony Blair doing the same for England – except that, to match Mcleish, Blair would not have watched Jackie Milburn as a child (which he never claimed to have done, by the way) but have been Jackie Milburn.
There’s only a 5 million population to play with, and not many of that population actually play at present (10% of Dutch turn out in one form or another). But the depth of knowledge and the history is there, and there are good things being done quietly in some of the smaller clubs up and down Scotland that promise much for the future.
But for now, it would be better if Scottish puissance were not seen as quite the function of Scottish footballing performance it is now. It’s too much for men to carry, not without the infrastructure, training and attitude necessary to bring it off. And when so few Scots actually play the game, it’s unfair on those who do. Choose literature; choose wave power; choose Edinburgh’s superb pubs. Choose something else until football can manage it.
As things stand, any Scottish team has to carry not just the hopes, but the perceived reputation of the country on its back. No one outside Scotland thinks that the country is somehow diminished by its footballing performance, and in any case, outside perception of what that performance is is almost certainly higher in Paris or Rome than in Glasgow.
Then there’s the matter of the Scottish Premier Division. Europe’s triumphant overachievers in European and UEFA Cups, over the entire period up to and very much including Celtic’s UEFA Cup Final of a year or two ago: but there’s a perception that when the Premier Division fails, it’s the job of the national team to compensate. Or, when the Premier Division succeeds, it’s the job of the national team to do likewise. With options like those, it would be as well to take “Proud Edward” (by the way – the 1967 songwriters mean Edward II!) out of the tune and replace him with a front two of Scylla and Charybdis.
I don’t think the national side can get away from any of this: it’s the backdrop they’re stuck with. But continue in this vein, and there’s no other future but more of the same: a potentially perfectly competent side carrying too much baggage and fear to play in the way it needs to to achieve what it’s capable of.
There’s no quick or easy way out. But there may be a way out. If the Mcleish report comes up with a sensible development plan that can deliver a steady stream of decent players to back up the ones that are produced more or less by accident as they are now, that, added to the gradual away-from-England, away-from-the-past lensing effect that Holyrood is achieving (albeit by inches) might be enough.
There’s no need for a foreign manager, although I believe a case should be made for the continuing excellent crop of Scottish managers to seek work in mainland Europe more often than they have before now. But Scotland has fine managers. Learn from a Capello, sure: but Scotland’s managers have plenty to teach others. That isn’t the problem.
Flower of Scotland isn’t the problem, although it’s a nonsense and not anywhere near as good as older rivals. Playing the underdog card is the problem. Call it The Fan Delusion if you like: the idea that the emotional experience and attitude of the fan in the stand is the one required by the players on the pitch if they are to succeed. It let Scotland down badly in 2007.
I felt it coming before the game. Scottish commentator after Scottish commentator came forth to claim that Scottish passion! and Scottish weather! and the Hampden crowd! would make life hard for Italy and sweep the Scots home. It betrayed football, that attitude: it betrayed Scottish footballers. It said, you aren’t good enough. Only hysteria and superhuman (“McFadden! James McFadden!”) performances of which you aren’t ordinarily capable will get us there.
It took an Italian goal to clear all that nonsense out of the road. After that, Scotland played an excellent match. Why did they have to give Italy a goal start in order to do that? Because, as things stand, playing for Scotland is eleven impossible jobs. It’s a psychological burden that would bring down an Ali, a Waugh brother, a Michael Johnson. I wish I could see it ever being shifted. In fact, I see it getting worse.