The National Football Museum is putting together its Eleven Key Moments in Football History for their new location and is interested to hear yours. Here are mine:
1864-8: Quintin Hogg, assisted by right-hand man Lord Kinnaird (who’d go on to be President of the Football Association and create the tradition of a royal presence at FA Cup Finals) take boys from their Ragged School near the Strand out into the country to play football (and cricket) on day trips. It’s a very early instance of the use of football as an educational, life-shaping game for everyone. Churches, factories and mines up and down the UK will adopt the idea, and many of our most famous clubs will emerge as a consequence. Hogg goes on to pioneer football as part of the curriculum in secondary education at his Regent Street Polytechnic.
1883: Northern working class football overtakes the amateur game with Blackburn Olympic’s FA Cup win over Old Etonians (for whom an ageing Lord Kinnaird stars). In truth, northern teams had probably been better for a couple of years by then. But the sheer expense of travel, coupled with disadvantages in height and weight owing to diet, served to conceal the change.
1885: Professionalism gets the go-ahead from the FA, with especial support from Lord Kinnaird and Major Marindin. Within a decade, this will have the effect of all but closing off the international game (and the top of the domestic game)to amateur players of all backgrounds. A series of financial scandals between 1890 and 1914 will confirm the fears of professionalism’s opponents, but football avoids the splits endured by rugby and the bizarre master-and-servant compromises of cricket.
1892: Goodison Park becomes the world’s first really substantial football stadium. Nothing like the Old Lady had been built since the days of the Roman Empire. It triggers a stadium-building “arms race” which culminates in Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. No club – with the sole and partial exception of Leeds United – that failed to get its stadium up and running before 1914 will ever win a Football League Championship, and the biggest pre-1914 clubs still dominate the club game.
1901: the introduction of the Maximum Wage stabilizes the Football League financially. But players, some of whom have already become amongst the most famous entertainers in the land, will no longer be able to parlay their talent and work into a middle class standard of living. In 1927, Dixie Dean (Everton, 60 goals) meets Babe Ruth (New York Yankees, 60 home runs) and puts a brave face on the millions amassed by his US rival.
1919: with the creation of Division 3 (North) one season after the Southern League is rolled up into Division 3 (South), the Football League assumes its current size. It was then, and is now, the biggest and most stable professional football league in the world. But the impoverished, poorly-supported clubs of Division 3 (North) never match the title-and-cup-winning achievements of the Division 3 (South) entrants and remain the Football League’s Cinderella clubs to this day.
1925: Herbert Chapman and Charlie Buchan respond to the change in the offside rule by inventing the WM formation. It’s the start of modern English football management as we know it. And WM is the last real British football innovation. After this, the British game will cherrypick European and South American ideas but remain an intensely conservative thing of itself.
1928: Uruguay retain the Olympic football title. The South Americans are the first national team from outside the UK with a good prime facie case for being the world’s best. The 1924 and 1928 Olympic football competitions are bigger than any of the pre-War World Cups – and Uruguay would win the first of those in 1930 anyway.
1956: Manchester United become the first English side to enter the European Cup, following Scotland’s Hibs who’d entered the year before. The European Cup will grow to become one of the most important tournaments in the world, outstripping the World Cup itself for money and weight of talent – if not, as yet, for glamour. It’ll be another eleven seasons before first Celtic, and then Busby’s final United side, lift the trophy, reflecting just how much the footballing initiative has gone beyond Britain. British clubs will achieve much success in Europe over time, without ever producing evidence that British football has truly caught up with the modern game.
1989: the publication of the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough Disaster begins a process that will transform the country’s obselete stadia into the greatest concentration of safe, attractive modern grounds in the world. With a bit of assistance along the way from Sky Television and Paul Gascoigne, the Taylor Report will change the game’s image in England forever.
1995: the Bosman ruling finishes the job that George Eastham and Jimmy Hill started. The unfair and archaic class-ridden restraints of trade that prevented footballers from gaining market value from their talent are gone. Although there is now near-consensus that things have swung too far in players’ favour, with pay demands destabilizing famous old football clubs, there is none about how to restore the balance.
Needless to say, I could have written 100 – but eleven is the key. Put yours in the comments, and also send them to @footballmuseum on Twitter.
The top row of the gallery contains the kind of footballs that would have been familiar both to participants in friendlies in the 1960s and British schoolboys ninety years later.
Row 2 contains what my generation might consider the Ur-ball, the Adidas Telstar, father of a million hollow plastic replicas. A couple of months of being kicked up against a brick wall would take off that clean black-and-white and leave the basic leather exposed, but the panel pattern would still show through.
The most recent footballs – the aerodynamic, waterproof serious pieces of sporting kit – are the ones that look most transient, temporary and liable to break. You could say the same for today’s boots. Odd that the footballs and the football boots look least like their ancient forebears just at the time when shirts, shorts and socks have gone back – on the surface at least – to a bagginess Billy Wright might have recognised and his Hungarian opponents rejected.
The dry weight of this 1893 ball might actually be less than the dry weight of the new 2010 World Cup ball
The argument over the ball at the 2010 World Cup has brought to the fore, once again, the fact that even otherwise well-informed fans don’t always know the laws of the game.
It is a myth that the modern ball is lighter than the balls used in the past.
Since 1937, the dry weight of the ball has been specified by Law 2: 14-16oz. Prior to that, the rules governing the ball’s dry weight specified something lighter – 13-15oz.
This goes for the new ball used in 2010 just as much as it did for the 1966 ball. Whenever you read a comment along the lines of “I’d like to see modern players heading the leather pudding the ’66 boys had to put up with” you can assume that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
What has changed are (1) the material from which the ball is made, and thus the ability of the ball to avoid weight gain during the game through water absorption, and (2) the aerodynamics of the ball i.e. the smoothness of the surface.
The new ball isn’t lighter in of itself – which is what people seem to be assuming: but the new ball won’t get so wet in play. So in the broad sunshine of the ’66 World Cup Final, the famous orange balls were the same weight as the ones we see today. And so it has been on every dry day, on every dry pitch, since the balls were first standardized in the early 1870s.
Lecture inspired by a comment on Alex Massie’s TNT piece here – because I wasn’t able to comment there. As usual with the sort of places Alex posts at, onerous signing-up procedures loom..
Steve Bloomer: 19 goals in 23 England Appearances 1895-1907
The first edition of James Corbett’s “England Expects: A History of the England Football Team” has sat somewhere near my desk since about a fortnight after its initial publication. There hadn’t really been a proper full England history before. Of course, there’d been books about England managers – but that’s not quite the same thing, and in any event, by the time Ramsey was appointed, the first proper England manager as we know them, English international football was already 90 years old. So Corbett’s huge red hardback, which combined concise match reporting from the very start, concentrated on players and audience as much as managers, and in sharp, clean prose avoided all of the usual laddish clichees, was extremely welcome.
The second edition is a reillustrated, tightened-up paperback, and it gives a reader confidence when a photograph of Edwardian striking star Steve Bloomer is captioned author’s own collection. For James Corbett, the first half century of international football – 1870-1920 – isn’t the usual source of sneering fun, and his account has none of the usual sense that writers give of waiting for the real business to begin. So this is the best short account of the amateur-versus-professional controversy. The wealthy pioneers like Lord Kinnaird are proper sportsmen, not moustache-twiddling sexual obsessives. Snobbery is not the only reason keeping the Football Association out of FIFA. Professional league football is not the usual unmitigated triumph for the working man. Corbett lets the game grow in its own time and context, and that time and context are assuredly not ours.
Even non-fiction accounts, when done properly, fall into one or another of the seven plots, and there’s an enjoyable debate to be had about which one the England football team follows and at what speed. The usual unconscious pick of football writers is decline, fall, recovery, triumph! fall again, recovery, Gazzamania, and (insert blur of journalism to bring us “up to date”). Corbett avoids this. The inter-war period, badly filmed and so little-known to most fans, is closely covered without distracting references to past and future, making good use of what are actually fairly extensive primary autobiographical sources. The great England side of the war years and after – Lawton, Mannion, Matthews, Finney, Carter and co. – are recorded and celebrated for their own sake, not for that of Hungary and 1953.
Not that 1953 came out of the blue: Corbett incorporates it into a longer account of relative decline after the wartime side broke up, and remarks that the 6-3 defeat itself caused less upset amongst the game’s players and administrators than you might think. 1950-55 was one of a number of the fallow periods that England’s team have passed through – the 1920s, either side of Dixie Dean, was another, and so was 1975-80, and 1991-5. How would the Hungarians of ’53 gotten on against the Byrne-Edwards-Taylor England of 1957, or the Charlton-Greaves England of 1962? England’s recovery after the 1954 World Cup, in both club and international terms, was real enough, and Corbett’s chapter about those sunnier last years of the Winterbottom regime is headed by a fine meditative photo of Stanley Matthews besuited, new holder of the ballon d’or, gazing into the future from the sand dunes at Blackpool.
That future would be one in which England built three separate teams, in the space of twelve years, which were capable of frightening anyone, even the 1970 Brazilians. Three good sides – without revolutions in training, without changes to the league system (save the scrapping of the regional divisions in favour of a national Division Four), and without reform at the FA. Some things had changed: the ’57-58 pre-Munich side were the best nourished in history, thanks to rationing, and, thanks to education reforms and Walter Winterbottom, many of the ’66 and ’70 sides had received proper coaching in good conditions at school at the right age. But the biggest change of all was the ending of committee selection, partially under Winterbottom and finally under Ramsey. Corbett’s long, detailed examination of Ramsey’s construction of the ’66 side against strong and vocal opposition is the deserved highlight of the book. If you want to know what the verrou system is, you’ll have to buy a copy.
What follows ’66 is a kind of flatlining: the endless, exhausting efforts to do it again, to retrieve some footballing self-esteem, all while the game goes on about its own, quite separate business elsewhere. There are ways to make sense of this. It comes back to plot again: and Corbett, confronted by the triumph/disaster dichotomy that night/days its way out of the mouths of fans and journalists, opts instead for theme:
the insatiable burden of expectation facing our footballers and the way they have often been overwhelmed by it..shattered dreams and unyielding expectation (stretching from) origins among the mid-Victorians through to a modern era defined by money, massive egos and chronic underachievement(..) the monstrous expectation.. rears its head again and again and in so many different ways. There is, alas, no happy ending.
But there is happiness along the way. Hudson’s match in 1975 against West Germany; Keegan and Brooking’s attacking 2-0 Wembley win over Italy two years later; the vindication of Bobby Robson and Alan Shearer’s romp in the sunshine against Holland. Before that game, Terry Venables summed it up: “We are inclined to be a nation (which thinks) we are the worst team in the world or the best. Neither is true.”
The final chapters cover England’s progress during what will have been the period of James Corbett’s own writing career. Unlike many journalists, he’s resisted the temptation to place himself at the centre of events, appearing only when doing so adds an essential psychological point (Corbett’s meeting with Steve McClaren six months before the future Eredivisie winner’s England sacking for example). Nor, while writing about the unbearable expectations placed on England, does he overpromote the issue: what keeps us interested, in the end, isn’t expectation, he says, but something lighter and better: hope.
England Expects is fully footnoted and contains a comprehensive bibliography and is published by De Coubertin at £12.99.
The lack of English managers at the very top level has been well and truly noticed now: last night, Radio 5 devoted ninety minutes to discussing the situation with the likes of Tony Adams, Steve McClaren, Terry Venables and Sam Allardyce. The programme went out live, it’s not clear how much any of the participants had prepared, and the comments rarely went beyond the obvious and the hackneyed. Top clubs won’t give an English coach a chance; clubs don’t give managers long enough; there’s no realistic career path in which to gain experience; chairmen think top players turn into top managers.
Only Richard Bevan, of the League Managers’ Association, came up with anything new. Football management in England, said Bevan, is a profession that needs taking more seriously and whose members need taking more seriously, by those who employ football managers. His job is all about raising the profile and status of managers. This reminded me of the situation in Italy, where a manager is more likely to be considered experienced after a sacking than incompetent – and Italy, let’s not forget, trains its managers properly in an institution created for the purpose.
Privately, I was depressed by the programme. Compared with Scottish or Irish managers, the English ones – Sam Allardyce excepted – came across as inarticulate. And jejune, and ill-at-ease. Even Terry Venables. But then, the programme was live and it was long: plenty of bright, sharp people crumble at the mic.
What the programme missed was also depressing, but understandable. Here’s my take on the issue.
It’s assumed that there will, all else being equal, always be a through-flow of good English managers. It used to be assumed that there would be a flow of good English players, but not without reason: we’d set things up that way. Almost every school played the game from age 8 upwards; there were junior leagues aplenty, thousands of amateur football clubs, county and regional sides, and an army of volunteers to run it all. Post-war prosperity ate into all that to some degree, but there’s still a structure there that many countries would envy. We had players because we did something to get them. Not as much as Holland, but something.
What have we ever done to get ourselves managers? Even now, I would argue that UEFA ‘A’ and ‘B’ badges do not an infrastructure make. The programme noted, briefly and glumly, that there seem to be as many Scottish and Irish managers as there ever were, but no explanation was offered. I’ll offer one: there’s a cultural difference between Scotland/Ireland and England in their respective attitudes towards the possession of intelligence. England’s a clever, astonishingly literate country – so many people read on buses and tubes compared to Europe and the US – but it prizes the concealment of intelligence in the individual and team sports actively fear it. This doesn’t make for the production of managers, who need to be communicators and influencers (but you can be clever in a Scots or Irish voice without putting backs up). It makes for jobs for the boys, which is what England’s got at the moment.
Anyway: the good English managers are all dead. It’s not just that no English manager has won the Premier League – or, since Heysel, a European trophy. It’s that, with one exception, all of the English managers who have won League titles or European trophies have died. And the period of glory was brief. The first European Trophy won by an English manager, Tottenham’s European Cup Winner’s Cup with Bill Nicholson in 1963, is separated from Sir Bobby Robson’s European Cup Winner’s Cup with Barcelona by only 34 years. And we’ve had another 15 since then.
There were, in those 34 years, a small number of English coaches who were without doubt amongst the world’s best. Nicholson himself; Don Revie; Brian Clough (and Peter Taylor); Sir Alf Ramsey; Ron Greenwood; Bob Paisley; Sir Bobby Robson. (And I’d like to cull the list further – Clough and Paisley are streets ahead… but that’s an argument for the pub).
This suggests to me that there were the conditions, however briefly, in place to produce those managers. Those conditions have gone, and there’s nothing in their place. What conditions? Well…
Career dissatisfaction. Every man on our list lived through World War II. Greenwood, Nicholson, Ramsey and Paisley had their playing careers interrupted by it. Clough’s playing days were ended by injury, and he never got over it. Revie and Robson had full playing careers, but Robson “won nothing” in his and hated the fact. Keane, Adams, Southgate, Ince and co. had brilliantly successful, personally fulfilling careers. An earlier generation had finished playing but still had it all to do.
International and club humiliation at European hands. First it was Hungary in 1953. Ramsey played in that one: Revie changed his entire game because of it. Then it was Real Madrid, Benfica, Inter, Ajax, Bayern… not until Liverpool’s 1977 side was there an “English” team considered unequivocably, emulatably the best on the continent. But by then, the England team were embarrassingly bad. It’s hard to remember now, when England are assumed to be World Cup quarter-finalists and Premiership sides fill 3 out of 4 Champions League semi-final places, but for many years English managers fought as underdogs: there was something to prove and real humiliation to avenge. That feeling went before Heysel.
Northern Cultural Dominance. All of our list bar Ramsey were born in the north of England – and most of the northerners are from Middlesbrough or Newcastle. Of course, that’s to do with professional football being as much a phenomena of urban industrialization as machine shops, cotton mills and shipyards. Most people who played the game lived in the north. But in the sixties, seventies and early eighties, northerners were far more prominent in all of the most visible walks of national life. Where have they all gone, the Morecombes and Wises, the Barbara Castles, the Parkinsons, the Harold Evanses, the Alan Bleasdales? The working class voice of clichee used to come from Manchester or Liverpool, and the person using it was avuncular, middle-aged and smartly dressed: he was a warm and comforting figure that I knew well as a boy. But the Etonians are coming, and the working class clichee voice is Danny Dyer’s and despised. Cockney used to mean Michael Caine. We got accustomed to a world in which people from any background were starting to come through to national leadership, and then that world went away again. What Brian Clough stood for – brilliance, hope and rootedness, in one man – went with him, and we don’t know when we’ll see it again. His modern successors lack the polish and glamour that our age demands of leaders. Now, Roy Hodgson, you have to be posh or foreign, a Cameron or a Mancini. Signor Allardice was right. For the rest of us, there’s the X Factor.
A blue collar world. It’s old hat but true: football failed to follow the advice of a million working class mothers to go white collar. It’s starting to, now. But our great English managers predate, most of them, the days of universal secondary education. All of them possessed the intellectual strength to go on to 16, 18 and 21, but couldn’t. Today, it’s still unusual for an Englishman going into professional football to bother much with school after 16, but the question is whether potential Paisleys aren’t taking the risk that football represents as a career choice when staying on (and more than half of schoolchildren now express a desire to make university) offers such comparatively certain rewards. Football was never a great bet, and our great English managers won a hidden lottery to reach the places they did. But you have to be in it to win it, and with fewer boys playing football seriously in the first place, it has to be asked if men like our greatest managers aren’t now just choosing washing machines, cars, compact disc players, electrical tin openers and a fucking big television over the risk of football and the slim chance of great, grand adventure.
In short, I’m saying two things: there aren’t the English managers there were, and the big four aren’t entirely wrong to steer clear. But those that are around – Allardyce, Hodgson – aren’t given the chance because the culture’s played them crook. And Hodgson’s 63.. If this is to change, three things need to happen. First, “show us your medals” has got to go. Only one of the big four is managed by a man who was also any kind of player. There’s little real connection between great playing success and managerial brilliance. Second, England needs to set up a managerial college along French lines. Third, Richard Bevan’s efforts to raise the image of the profession must succeed, and the consequence must be that managers are given time and backing. If the structure of the league, which so penalizes failure now, must change to accommodate that, then so be it.
What mustn’t happen is any kind of affirmative action. It’s too late to appoint an Englishman to the England job just because he’s English: after Sven, after Capello, the second-choiceness of the situation would overwhelm anyone but the thickest-skinned. The next Englishman in the job must have the job because he’s the best of a superb bunch. And there’s many years of hard work and change before that comes about. In 1977, the choice was between Robson, Clough and Greenwood: that’s the level we must now demand.
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.
Take this clipping from the Daily Telegraph (24th February 1978):
(contra that heading, it is the Telegraph). Calmly and without fanfare, the DT chooses to employ “soccer” as its subject heading.
For the rest of the seventies, and for the first couple of years in the eighties, the Times and Telegraph use soccer without inverted commas – and without italics, although I feel driven to them myself.
But then something shifts. Little by little, match reports and commentary drop the term, so that by 1985 the term is used solely when the game is connected with bad news. Like this:
There is some evidence there that in the years after 1980 soccer became associated, inch by inch, with the side of the game that would end, in that beautiful summer of 1985, in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.
True or not, that’s long enough ago for an entire generation of young men to grow into their mid-twenties never having seen soccer used as an ordinary English noun. It’s an interesting example of a word setting out as slang, gaining respectability, and then reverting to slang, culturally disreputable slang at that.
UPDATE: If NewsUK is any guide, the process was all but over as early as 1991:
For the thirty-one years that divided England’s narrow loss to Brazil in the 1970 World Cup Finals and the 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich, there were three kinds of England international. The first kind were against minnows, nations with little football history or few players to call upon. England almost always won these matches handsomely. The second kind were against established football nations, perhaps without England’s deep well of talent, but well-coached and eager to show what they could do. These were usually close games, with little glory in victory for England and only ignominy in defeat. Finally, there were the games against serious opposition – the Italys, Germanys, Argentinas and Brazils. Regardless of performance, it was unusual for England to come away from these as winners.
These days, there are four types of opponent. The minnows, against whom England win narrowly after a demotivated struggle; the reasonable opponents, whom England will beat by two or more goals; the serious opponents, whom England now outplay; and Brazil, who beat us. This is change, at a deep level, change – against better opponents at least – for the better. It’s not been a matter of our having superior players these days – are the current crop really better than the Waddles, Gascoignes, Robsons, Beardsleys, Linekers, Shearers, Butchers, Walkers, Brookings, etc. of earlier years? There’s Rooney, of course, but then there’s also England’s manager to account for this improvement.
What kind of man is Sven Goran Eriksson? You’d be hard put to answer that question if all you had to rely upon was the British media, whose reply – “Foreign – ” says more about them that it does about the man himself. Fortunately, there have been a few writers willing to venture into the strange unknown worlds beyond parochialism and bigotry, and they all begin by discussing the calmness of Sven, his unflappability under pressure. Sven himself would explain this in terms of his upbringing, which taught him not to worry about those things beyond his control, an awareness he shares with Jose Mourinho. He’s very well-dressed – uncommon in Britain, and impressive to modern image-conscious footballers. He is by his own description “willing to fail”, meaning that he can fail at what he wants to do without he himself becoming “a failure”, another point of comparison with Mourinho. Sven has two loves in his life – an obsession with sport, and a deep attachment to Italy, a country he longed to perform in as a player and where he was happiest as a man and as a coach. The British find his calm difficult to comprehend without seeing it as some kind of facade – so, behind the facade, is a thrill-seeker, a ski-jumper in his youth, a romantic still chasing fortune and glory in football when other men with his money and achievements would have settled for the peace of the golf course. His temptestuous love-life – the very fact that he can pull – brings him closer to his players and further away from British journalists. He is an excellent communicator, and has an acute eye for detail – two more Mourinho attributes that Sven has, and which are characteristic of great coaches. Overall, I get a picture of Sven as a very unBritish individual – he’s not one of our football men at all, this smart lover of women and fortune and glory, with his cool self-control – and he doesn’t need our good opinion, that’s for sure. But he has the good opinion of his squad, and it’s worth asking why.
On the whole, footballers need three things from their coach in order to thrive. Certainty – knowing what is expected, precisely and simply and when, nothing too complicated, expecially when it comes to tactics and team selection. Security – knowing they are valued and have a part to play, knowing that their coach rates them. Thirdly, they are looking for the chance to improve and win things, caps and trophies. Sven has gone some way in overcoming the difficulty of providing these things within the limited sphere of international football by running England as a little club, with a settled side, hard to get into, hard to get out of. The line-up against Germany in 2001 is essentially the same one as will, with luck, start the World Cup this summer (substitute Rooney for Heskey, Cole for Scholes, Robinson for Seaman and Lampard for Barmby and that’s it, in five years). Within the little club, Sven has set out to create what he calls a “winning mentality”. This is a long-term project.
There are three parts to this “winning mentality”, and the first is the simple desire to win. It goes without saying, really. Virtually all players have this, and quite a few non-players too – if you or I were handed an England shirt, we’d probably want to win and do our best to that end. The next stage, however, consists of the simple, straightforward belief that victory is at least possible. Euro 2004 was the first tournament England went into with the genuine belief that they were up to the task, since Mexico 1970, and they were right both times. Practically every member of Sven’s core England side know without question that they are able to cope with playing at the very highest level and know that they are probably good enough to make winning a decent prospect. Great players don’t always share this attitude – Tony Currie, the wonderful Sheffield United midfielder of the 1970s, frequently lost confidence in his own ability, whereas an Owen or a Gerrard will still bet on themselves after a dozen consecutive errors. The final stage is that of feeling comfortable as a winner, of being congruent with it, expecting it, experiencing no dissonance with it. This stage has caused winning English teams terrible trouble in recent years. Both the rugby and cricket teams have achieved on the grand scale, only to revert to their accustomed mediocrity once the achievement was safely behind them. Winning really takes it out of us, creating a kind of mental exhaustion that Australian cricketers wouldn’t begin to recognise. We don’t, as a nation, feel like winners, nor do we like accustomed winners very much. There aren’t that many of them in football per se – Sven talks of Roberto Mancini and Sinisa Mihajlovic within that category, and you might add Zidane and Ronaldinho to the list. I can’t think of anyone in the core England lineup, with the possible exception of John Terry, who might qualify. But for England to possess an entire side who are at least at the second level is a novelty in itself.
Choosing players who have that belief that winning is at possible – that it is doable – is one part of building the mentality across the squad. Sven sees such confidence as catching – which I think is arguable, frankly. He also sets great store by a harmonious squad – one in which conflict is kept to a minimum. He looks for a squad in which everyone understands the goals of the group, and everyone subscribes to the goals of the group. Once again, the benefits of this are arguable. Pursuit of the harmonious squad has probably led to the exclusion of as good a player as Robbie Fowler, and in any case, there is little evidence that harmony outdoes discord at World Cups – in 1974, the final was contested by two camps absolutely ridden with internal dissent and failures of discipline. Some discord can provide that distraction from the matter at hand that relieves performance pressure from players, freeing them to produce their best game.
Sven, like most great coaches, is careful not to be too close to his squad. Like Robson before him, Sven has been accused of giving in to player power. It’s a good story. But the evidence of “player power” – the settled squad, Beckham’s retention as skipper – are products of the press’s imagination. We’ve dealt with the settled squad, and, in truth, even Sven’s hardest critics would be pressed to improve upon it. Beckham deserves lengthier consideration.
David Beckham wasn’t made captain by Sven – that was done by Peter Taylor, who, in his one game as caretaker manager, decided to blood young players and gave Beckham the armband both as a tribute to his recovery from France ’98 and because he was the most experienced young player of the day. Sven kept him on as captain, and has used Michael Owen as back-up on his occasional absences through injury and suspension. That in itself tells me that Sven doesn’t see the captain as a kind of inspirational mini-me representing him out on the field. Rather, the captain stands for the kind of atmosphere Sven wants around the team – calm, professional, good enough to succeed on merit, not having to win against the odds.
Beckham might just need the captaincy to get the best out of himself. Unlike a Scholes or a Barmby, Beckham seems to want the intense attention he receives, not because it raises the stakes for him especially, but – psychobabble alert – because he needs outside confirmation of his own significance in order to perform. He needs some form of sign that people know he is there, that he matters to what’s going on. The captaincy is reassuring for him in that respect. Beckham, like Eriksson, is a risktaker – going to Real Madrid to see if he could match the Zidanes and Figos, or, for instance, that halfway line kick against Wimbledon, or taking the last free kick against Greece, or his persisting with England penalty duty after repeated failure. But he is not the calm, control-aware kind of man that Erickson is, nor is Erickson a father figure to him. Rather, Beckham is the most team-orientated member of the squad, buying completely into the goals and ethos of the group Eriksson has built. If Eriksson’s intelligence is sometimes overrated, Beckham’s is always horrendously downplayed. As such, Beckham – and in the same respects, Owen – well repesents the cosmopolitan, sophisticated and accomplished team that is England today.
I’d describe Sven as having pursued an anti-England agenda, in that he’s had to eliminate from his squad as far as he can some of those very English characteristics that were holding England’s always talented players from achieving their due. Three words sum up what he stands against.
The first of these is Passion. Passion – the ranting, heart-on-sleeve, veins-on-forehead approach to football, is much loved in England. But it’s counterproductive. It doesn’t work. Why, if you wouldn’t expect shouting to get more from Bjorn Borg or Tiger Woods or Matthew Pinsent, do you think it might make all the difference in Darius Vassell, who at the end of the day is just an athlete playing a sport? Why look to Churchillian rhetoric, when the (successful) England rugby team actually chose quiet and concentration at half time, instead of shouting? A tight game is a hysterical situation enough on its own without the coach adding an extra layer on his own account. What a Clough worked towards was distracting his players from the occasion, not ramming it down their throats, because he knew – and Erickson knows – that raising the temperature is only going to increase performance anxiety and fear of failure. It’s not going to raise your or anyone else’s game. Passion is the resort of those who know that their skill isn’t up to the job, who know that they aren’t going to win, but are going to “do their best” (they probably won’t, because they’ll be too het up). Passion can blind a team to their true quality. In this season’s FA Cup, Luton Town built up a lead over Liverpool by playing cultured, passing football – but, shocked by this turn of events, they resorted to headless chicken “passionate” football and threw it all needlessly away, when calmness would have won the match.
The second of these words is “tricks”, the English word for an excellent level of ball skill. Only a certain level of skill is truly acceptable to the English, and anything beyond that is either supernatural or dishonest. Or the result of “natural rhythm”: it took Simon Clifford to go to Brazil and discover that the secret of their success wasn’t samba and beach football, but superb coaching and high standards. We still haven’t properly heard what he has to say – his treatment at Southampton was a disgrace. It’s OK for a British player to lose the ball through ineptitude, lack of technique or clumsiness – but if he dare lose possession because he was using his skills then he is to be condemned as a “show pony”. That’s not the same as saying that the Joe Coles don’t need to learn to work for the team, because they do. That’s something all players have to learn. And it’s not saying that fans don’t love their genius-level players – because the fans know better than the coaches in this regard.
The third phrase is “mind games”. It’s disreputable in the English game to recognise that there is a mental side to playing football. Not so in athletics, or golf, or tennis, or rowing, or rugby. Clough, Paisley and Shankly knew. But those were intelligent men, who knew that they did more than “kick one up the backside, put an arm around the other’s shoulder”. Although some part of the poor reputation psychology in football “enjoys” is down to the childish interchanges between Ferguson and Wenger, for instance, there’s some of the same suspicion here that gets shown to skill.
If only proper mental preparation – of the kind Clough promised were he given the England job – be allied with our existing teamwork, and with excellent ball skills – England could succeed. No more “Do I not like thats”, no more where-do-we-fit-Hoddle-Waddle-Le Tissier-into-the-team. Remember the spectacle of the most skilled England players not being picked because the coach didn’t know what to do with such ability. It was a big issue only ten years ago. It’s been thirty years since Ramsey’s England played Brazil in 1970 and matched them with a sophisticated, mature, aware and exciting performance: now, once more, England are on a level with the very best in the world.
This is an England team that has learned to pace itself across a tournament. After leading Portugal, England suffered injuries, and fell behind – only to demonstrate the ability to change the pace and course of the game. Only a tight refereeing decision, and bad luck in the penalty shootout, prevented an English victory that would surely have been followed by victory in the tournament as a whole. That an England team shouldn’t play flat-out all the time may be anathema to watching journalists, but the same strategy won world cups for Italy, Argentina and France in previous tournaments. In 2002, England were reduced by injuries and sapping heat, but even more so by their own beliefs that they would never beat Brazil; that negativity may well be gone now if the performances against Argentina and Uruguay are anything to go by.
It was odd enough winning the Rugby World Cup – even wierder to carry off the Ashes. Something wrong here.. so it’s just as well that the coach who has brought English football to this point is leaving in the summer. To be replaced, perhaps, by someone more in the Churchillian mode.