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The Return of Kenny Dalglish

Posted on 09 February 2011 by JamesHamilton

A few days after her death, my grandmother comes in through my bedroom window after lights out. I am six years old.

She does so again on other nights. The dream always follows the same path. Malevolent twilight and her body framed against it, her back turned to me. The head slowly coming round; and the face wrong, changed, and wicked with appetite, wholly intent upon me; my rollercoastering nausea coming up and my fear: my stomach clenching, then darkness, a chorus of voices howling in the black and I’m falling, down, faster and faster and gritting my teeth, holding my eyes shut until I impact on the bed and waken into a chamber that’s unlit and alive with menace. I’ll hold still on my sheets, tight and noiseless, til sunrise.

Three years later, and I’m in my father’s living room in a town two and a half hours’ drive from home. Windows at each end let in album cover sunshine and there’s snow outside. Alone but vigilant for raised voices starting up away in the house, I’ve turned the stereo’s knob to tuner and found Radio 2. Football: the voice of Peter Jones. Or was it Bryon Butler? Or Alan Parry?

Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool are playing my Manchester United. I’ve been waiting for this game: waiting for it in the way you wait for a school bully, or a bombing raid. The speakers smell of cloth and dust, and their rich bass tone adds a luxury and a cruelty to what is unwinding, inevitably, out on the pitch at Old Trafford. I am armless in this fistfight, powerless, unable to do anything to help.

What’s forgotten now, except by those who were children at the time, is just how frightening Liverpool were. And in particular, just how frightening the one player every 8 year old had heard of was: Kenny Dalglish.

Back then, Dave Sexton’s United was a team of friendly, fatherly figures. Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan, Martin Buchan, Brian Greenhoff. Ipswich had them too: Mick Mills, Paul Cooper. You could imagine them joining in your playground kickabouts; you could imagine them wanting to; you could imagine them being the sort of grown-up who knew what to say.

My Liverpool fan mates might have worshipped him, but to me, Dalglish wasn’t friendly or a father figure: he was a knife. A cool, sleek blade that cut you. He was a boiling kettle, hovering over ants…

I won some of my United team at school through Panini flick-card competitions. If you had Dalglish’s card, which hardly anyone did, however, you wouldn’t enter it. You kept it separate. You kept it clean and undogeared. It gave you power and standing, in a way and of a kind that everyone understood. For children, iconic power is hard, tangible. Our best playground player knew it, and when he got the ball he’d shout out “Dalglish!” and dribble around you all, endlessly untackleable and unbeatable.

What made it worse was that my Liverpool fan mates seemed to have been Liverpool fans forever. They’d inherited their team through some distant, mysterious group exercise in wisdom and integrity from which I, foolishly and unknowingly, had absented myself.

Ending up with Manchester United felt like an act of carelessness. Because everyone was Liverpool.. Dave Sexton’s team spent that season fighting Coventry City for a mid-table spot.

I’m still United now, and of course, you might say, it ended well. Not so much of a supporter after Heysel, of course. Blind allegiance died that day: now it’s warmth and best wishes, no more, because no more could be justified. Nevertheless, I could wander down to the Baillie in Stockbridge in 2011 to catch Liverpool v United in the Cup and feel somehow shielded by all those titles and trophies. I could relax on a good seat with my wife in that great navy captain’s cabin of a pub, wander over to the bar for a pair of pints and some crisps, and get ready for a game that wouldn’t have a great deal at stake for me.

But just before kickoff, Kenny Dalglish emerged into view, framed against the light from the tunnel.

He was deep in conversation with – Sammy Lee? with his back to us, and as Dalglish slowly came round towards the camera, I saw his face with another thirty years on it, changed, wrong, and wicked with appetite: somewhere inside, I felt an ancient vertigo that I’d thought grown-out-of, beaten and outrun, starting up once again and I remembered what it felt like to fall, what it felt like afterwards to cling on silently, too frightened to move..

It’s one month later. In their last game, Manchester United lost to Wolves. Liverpool are DWWWW.

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Review: Revie – Revered and Reviled; the Authorised Biography by Richard Sutcliffe

Posted on 21 January 2011 by JamesHamilton

Revie and Clough debate Leeds on ITV in 1974

Say this for David Pearce’s novel The Damned Utd – it was the first really unembarrassed cultural treatment that the national game has ever had. Fever Pitch broke the ground. But Fever Pitch was gauche, blushing, unsure of its reception. It was essentially uncontroversial, and that is what has set The Damned Utd apart: the real hurt and confusion the novel caused, the bad memories it revived, the losses it refreshed. It may have helped cement Brian Clough in his full and proper place in the public life of the country, but The Damned Utd exhumed Don Revie and Revie’s Leeds along the way, and didn’t do the same for them at all.

Much of the drive for Richard Sutcliffe’s new biography of Don Revie comes from anger at The Damned Utd, and because the issues that the novel raised about Revie are the narrowly footballing ones, it’s these that Sutcliffe concerns himself with. Why isn’t Revie seen in the same kind of light as Busby, Shankly, or Clough? Do Leeds deserve to be remembered only for cynicism and winning at all costs? What’s the real story about Don Readies: the manager and his money? What really happened to Revie at England?

There is a wider significance to the life and work of Don Revie, which Sutcliffe leaves aside. The way Revie stands for Leeds, for instance, as the Chamberlains do for Birmingham. The sheer depth and breadth of change in the life of a man born in poverty in Middlesbrough, whose son went to Repton and Cambridge, who ended his career wealthy and honoured in the Middle East where his home is now a beloved shrine. The issue of what happened to leaders with backgrounds like Don, who before the 1973 Oil Crisis seemed set fair to rule Britain and take her into a better future.

What does it mean, too, that Don Revie was so young when he retired? He had just turned fifty when he resigned from the England job. More than half of all current Premiership managers are older, including Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce. It hardly seems possible, but Revie was largely photographed in black and white, which, unless you are a Beatle, makes you look older than you are.

All that had to be left aside. Football matches make football biographies different from those of politicians, artists and writers, because games turn careers and there are so many of them. There has to be at least one book that does the heavy digging of tracing an important career through, game by game, club by club, transfer by transfer. What we really lacked was a proper, basic, detailed reference biography of Don Revie, and this is what Sutcliffe has provided.

Revie’s Managerial Achievement

Sutcliffe wants to make the case that Revie’s achievements were equal to those of his rivals and contemporaries. Contemporaries they were, too: Shankly and Nicholson both retired in the year Revie left Leeds, Busby wasn’t long gone, and Clough was about to take himself out for three seasons.

In terms of sheer club achievement, there’s no doubt that Revie is at home with the very best. He was only at Leeds for thirteen years, and when he began, Leeds was a cricket and rugby league city. United were considered beneath not just Yorkshire Cricket Club and Leeds (Rugby League) but Hunslet and Bramley RFCs as well.

This table compares Revie’s achievements at Leeds with those of Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Bill Nicholson over the same period. I’ve included the 1975 European Cup Final because although it post-dates Revie, it was Revie’s team in Paris that night, ably shepherded by Jimmy Armfield.

(Click the chart to enlarge)

No Harry Catterick, Bertie Mee, Brian Clough, Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison here, but the table highlights just how competitive an arena Revie found himself in. Most observers agree that the period 1956-1973 was the absolute apogee of English club football, in achievement and in absolute depth of talent. Leeds’ total of seventeen significant football achievements is some way ahead of what Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham managed in the same time. Yet, before Revie, Leeds had had no top-level honours of any kind. Even Clough’s clubs had won top trophies before his arrival. Revie had had to build his club from scratch.

Dirty Leeds

The manner in which Revie succeeded is this biography’s second issue, and Sutcliffe deals with it carefully. Leeds weren’t a cynical team: they were a maturing team learning their trade. Revie was protective as they grew. The “Cantona” signing was that of Bobby Collins, who really was a hard case, but he put heart and belief into the talent around him. Other teams had similar players – Chelsea have Ron Harris, for instance. European opposition spat, hacked, rabbit-punched behind the referee’s back.

In his last two years at Leeds, Revie took the shackles off his side, and they played memorable football, the kind that would have flattered Anfield or Old Trafford. But by then, the mind of the public had already been made up.

When Revie went to England, he realized that the opposition players he had worried over and warned against in his pre-match dossiers – players he now had at his disposal – were not as good as he’d thought, and that his old team, Leeds, had been much better than he had ever realised. In Sutcliffe’s account, Revie came to regret not letting his team express themselves much earlier in their development. So much more might have been won. His caution had robbed his lads of the medals they’d deserved.

Don Readies

Sutcliffe treats Revie’s financial dealings in a similar way. Revie was either innocent or no worse than his feted rivals. Revie met Alan Ball on Saddleworth Moor in 1966 to bribe him, but Matt Busby left a suitcase of cash at the young Peter Lorimer’s house in the hope of buying his signature. Sutcliffe denies outright that Revie was ever involved in match-fixing: everyone wonders why he never sued. Perhaps he didn’t want the hassle..

Match-fixing aside, Revie’s relationship with money really does have to be seen in context. Then, as now, the real control of football and the real money in football lay with the club owners. Wealthy as players are now, they are still nowhere near the level at which they could think about buying a controlling stake in a Premiership club.

Revie had come from an impoverished, insecure background. In depressed Middlesbrough, Revie’s family were worse off than most. His father found work hard to come by. His mother died. As a consequence, in adult life he took care to balance job security with income maximization. For instance, as a player, he believed in changing clubs reasonably often, and looked out for signing on fees. But as Sutcliffe makes clear, professional care accompanied great personal generosity.

Revie at England

After England had beaten Czechoslovakia at Wembley in Revie’s first competitive start, he told his son something that would prove key not only to his management but that of all of his successors. “We haven’t got the players.” In particular, he meant that there were no English equivalents of Bremner or Giles, his key Leeds lieutenants, but he was right across the board: the post-War supply of talent –  nourished by fair rationing of food, playing on car-free streets, coached on proper pitches at new schools, made sensible by hardship –  was fast drying up.

But Revie had issues of his own in any case. A clever man – his son, as we’ve seen, became a Cambridge graduate given the chance – he had always been a deep football thinker. Not necessarily where you’d think – the “Revie Plan”, Sutcliffe establishes, was Manchester City colleague Johnny Williamson’s idea. But his tactical acumen and attention to detail, his novel training approaches and openness to novelty are well established. With England, however, his brain had too much time on its hands.

Revie overthought everything. In the weeks and months between internationals, his natural paranoia, superstition and caution overwhelmed his marvellous instincts for a player, a position, an on-field situation.

Nor did the techniques he used so effectively at Leeds translate to England. Sutcliffe thinks that players’ opposition to things like dossiers, carpet bowls and bingo have been exaggerated. But that didn’t mean that the Leeds family atmosphere could be rebuilt in Lancaster Gate, it didn’t mean that players could win Revie’s trust in quite the same way and it didn’t mean that the dossiers didn’t sometimes eat away at players’ confidence.

Sutcliffe makes clear that Revie was one of those who were gifted with extraordinary emotional intelligence – a man manager of the highest calibre. In the early 1960s, this had enabled him to pull Leeds together, and keep it together, by dint of the extraordinary work he put in to keep his side happy and the support staff involved. But at Leeds, he’d had everyone around him, all the time: at England, bureaucracy and the sheer lack of player contact proved more than he could compensate for.

It’s clear from Sutcliffe’s account that England were unfortunate not to qualify for the 1976 European Championship. An absurd draw against Portugal doomed England when they were by some margin the best team in a limited group. But qualification for Argentina 1978 was another thing altogether. Revie’s selection for the crucial match against Italy in Rome was so unexpected – so panicked and erratic, with players out of position and established performers excluded – that the Italians took it as a bluff at first. Then they took advantage.

It hadn’t helped that Revie’s attempts to get political with selection misfired. Sutcliffe sets out an intriguing version of events surrounding the 1975 Wembley match against World Champions West Germany. So convinced was Revie that England would be beaten handily, the story goes, that he picked the players he’d been urged by the press to pick, intending them to fail. Mavericks and playboys: Alan Hudson in particular believed that his call-up was to make sure that he’d play himself out of England contention for good.

In the event, the “new” defence of Gillard and Whitworth proved solid, Hudson ran riot, and England humiliated West Germany for ninety glorious minutes. Anyone not aware of what had prompted the selection of this particular team might consider that Revie had found a team to win a World Cup.

Revie’s disintegration was accelerated by FA machinations. Sir Harold Thompson, an enemy to Ramsey and to Brian Clough in turn, was at the heart of Revie’s troubles. It wasn’t just the secret negotiations with Bobby Robson behind Revie’s back or the comic snobbery (“Revie – when I come to know you better, I will call you Don”); it was the terrible punitive hounding of Revie once he’d left for the Middle East.

The worst one can say of Revie with regard to leaving England is that he sold the story to one paper – to Jeff Powell at the Mail, and he came to see it as a mistake in later years. But he had every right to leave, and every right to do the best for himself when he did so. If Sutcliffe’s account is true, then it isn’t Revie’s loyalty and patriotism that should be in question, but that of Thompson and his colleagues.

The story of Revie in the Middle East isn’t often told. It’s a happy one. He and his wife enjoyed their time there, and Revie was successful in kickstarting UAE football: his youngsters would take UAE from the bottom of the Arabic pile to qualification for the 1990 World Cup. He is still warmly remembered, and his house has been kept as it was when he lived there.

The rest is taken up with – taken away by – motor neurone disease.

This is the right biography for Revie, now, and it opens up the field for writers who will consider him, and what he achieved, in the life of the country as a whole. Because where does football stack up? Where do football men like Revie stand in importance to England and to the UK compared with, say, William Golding, Jennie Lee, Charles Mackintosh or Benjamin Britten? That’s for later. Richard Sutcliffe has given us both a rehabilitation for Revie and an essential reference work built around him. It’s the very least that Revie the man deserved.

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The 14 Year Rule: Football Management and Career Length

Posted on 18 December 2010 by JamesHamilton

Sir Bobby Robson (Ipswich Town 1969-1982)

This weekend, Sir Alex Ferguson will surpass Sir Matt Busby’s record as the longest serving manager in Manchester United history. He’ll go on to serve his full quarter century next year, and eventually retire (or die in office) as the greatest manager of modern times.

However, Sir Alex did not have the opportunity to manage at the top level during British football management’s real golden age. He didn’t take over at Aberdeen until 1978, by which time the good years, for what they were worth, were all but over.

Consider this. Between 1967 and 1974, the following managers and management teams were active in the English and Scottish leagues, at the clubs which they are most famous for: Jock Stein at Celtic, Bill Shankly at Liverpool, Bill Nicholson at Spurs, Don Revie at Leeds, Clough and Taylor at Derby, Ron Greenwood at West Ham, and Bobby Robson at Ipswich.

What those men have in common are trophies, memorable football, the passionate love of the fans and – all being dead now – the status of latterday saints and guardian angels, safeguarding the souls of their clubs. They have something else in common too. Look at this:

Jock Stein Celtic 1965-1978: Tenure 13 years

Bill Shankly Liverpool 1959-1974: Tenure 15 years

Herbert Chapman Huddersfield/Arsenal 1921-1934 : Tenure 13 years

Harry Catterick Everton 1961-1973: Tenure 12 years

Bill Nicholson Spurs 1958-1974: Tenure 16 years

Don Revie Leeds 1961-1974: Tenure 13 years

Clough and Taylor Derby/Notts Forest 1967-1982: Tenure 15 years

Mercer/Allison/Book Manchester City 1965-1980: Tenure 15 years

Joe Harvey Newcastle United 1962-1975: Tenure 13 years

Ron Greenwood West Ham 1961-1974: Tenure 13 years

Sir Bobby Robson Ipswich 1969-1982: Tenure 13 years

There are obvious caveats – Clough’s post-Taylor years saw success and overperformance from Forest, and Robson’s management career had almost three decades yet to run when he left Ipswich for the worst job in the world. I’m not sure what I’ve said about Manchester City makes complete sense. Bertie Mee – a war hero who spent a decade at Arsenal – should receive honorable mention. So should Sir Alf Ramsey, England manager for 11 years and a manager for 25 years until leaving Panathinaikos in 1980.

But other than that, isn’t it striking how similar in length are the careers of British football management’s golden age greats? Although there are variations, 14 years seems to be a benchmark figure. Why?

Natural Wastage: the job of football manager is famously ageing, and it might just be that 14 years is as long as most people can take. Chapman died at the end of his, and Jock Stein – victim of a serious car crash – was felt to be not the man he had been.

Footballing Followers: 14 years is also a good benchmark length for a playing career. The great managers acquire followers: John McGovern went with Clough wherever the manager led him. Revie left Leeds believing that his team were becoming old and that the Elland Road club could not afford the players to rebuild. Do the followers retire after 14 years? Is the effort to replace the familiar faces all too much?

Vanishing playing talent: it’s striking how many of these men chose 1974 in which to bow out. By that year, the wartime children, the greatest cohort of footballers in British history, were beginning to fade away.  Derby’s first championship year was the most competitive in history, and, not coincidentally, the year in which most of that cohort were at their peak. Never again would so many clubs be realistic contenders. Did managers see a less talented future coming, as Sir Trevor Brooking does now?

The 1973 Oil Crisis: a better point of comparison for 2008-2011 than 1929, and an event that sideswiped so much of British life that we are still only beginning to realize just how extensive the damage was. What influence could it have had on British football management? Certainly, in financial terms, clubs would never be so secure again.

Pop Culture in Football: The big cultural change amongst players – think of it as the transformation from Jack Charlton into George Best – happened in the early seventies, famously bewildering Alf Ramsey. That, and the abolition of the maximum wage and retain-and-transfer, undoubtedly made team-building more difficult. Has a similar change come to pass more recently, with Bosman and the vast financial power now wielded by players? Do these cultural changes also occur every 14 years or so, making generation-straddling careers that much more difficult?

Clubs used to give managers enough time: It’s true that managerial tenure used to be longer than it is now, but football clubs have always been run by trigger-happy idiots. So I don’t buy this one.

Really, though, none of these explanations feel remotely satisfactory, which tells me that one of two things must be true. Either I’ve too small a sample of managers here for such generalizations to be made – or there are indeed factors that work towards creating a 14 year career length for great managers, but I’m missing them completely. What do you think?

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More PreWar Colour Film from Britain – But Twenties, or Thirties?

Posted on 11 December 2010 by JamesHamilton

An English summer sky after 1914 - but before Hitler

Here’s another surviving piece of pre-War colour film, one of precious few to come down to us that feature the old country. From the look of it, I’d say it was a well-preserved example of the Dufaycolor process (some remaining Dufaycolor has darkened very badly indeed). But Dufaycolor didn’t come onto the general market until 1932. What few clues this film contains as to its likely date point, tantalizingly, to the 1920s.

It’s not, I don’t think, a Friese-Greene out-take: there aren’t any of those that I’ve heard of. What it could be is an example of an experimental use of the Dufaycolor process, which existed in principle from Edwardian days. The cameraman’s obsession with brightly coloured objects, so typical of pioneering colour work (early monochrome film obsessed, in turn, with movement, and so football/trains/crowds, but here we have flowerbeds and pretty girls etc).

Cast your expert eye, anyway, and let me know what you think in the comments.

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Lost 30 minute film of the 1938 World Cup

Posted on 08 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

A “lost” official-esque 30 minute film about the 1938 World Cup: fantastic work in uncovering this by Tom Dunmore at Pitchinvasion, and you can read his account of it – and watch the film – here.

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Anyone But England’s 1966!

Posted on 28 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

English football doesn’t obsess about 1966 as much as Scottish fans might like to think.

My first post on this is here; Alex Massie here and Rob Marrs here have taken the subject further.

Rob, being English, won’t shut up about 1966:

Scots talk about the English bringing up 1966 far more than English folk ever bring it up. I would note to Celtic fans reading if you tire of people talking of 1966 you might wish to put 1967 in a box. This very day, I sat in Kay’s Bar in Edinburgh and heard four Scots moan endlessly that the English talked about 1966. I was drinking with another English chap and neither of us had brought it up, the TV presenters hadn’t brought it up… the four Scots had brought it up.

I can still remember how surprised – shocked, even – I was on the rainy day in 1979/80 when I discovered that England had once won the World Cup. I was 11 or 12: My Manchester United-supporting stepfather had lived with us for seven years. I’d played at right-back for my football playing schools and sat through Argentina ’78 without once hearing anyone mention it.

So the news had to find its own way to me. Rummaging through a pile of old books in a junkshop in some left-over of a Bedfordshire village, in the last days of Callaghan’s Britain, I came across a battered Pan paperback about great postwar sporting moments. The usual list, but I was getting it for the first time: Maureen Connolly, Tommy Simpson, Gary Player, Cassius Clay, Celtic 1967. Oh, and England.

Well, the first thing I read about sex was a “found” copy of “Letters to the Happy Hooker” by Xaviera Hollander. She invites an American footballer over and, you’re joking..

In the late 1970s, England were a team of tired cloggers, playing heavy football in a wet, bored country without wine. Surely they’d never…and I wanted to run into the street to collar passers-by for confirmation: is this real? yet part of me thought I could believe it.. because I have early memories of a very different world and of a sunlight streaming into my pram, sunlight rich with colour and promise. 1960s sunlight, always dappling through leaves or through the long hair of the mini-skirted blonde who has bent down to pet me. A modern, confident light, shining on Alan Whicker and the Banana Splits and me, last seen at the 1970 World Cup and never again. In that light, anything can happen. Moonshots. Bob Beamon’s jump. An English World Cup win.

I had eleven months in which to enjoy the sixties, and, for want of better information, I trust I made the most of them. And I’d have eleven years in which I didn’t know about 1966: I hope I made the most of that, too. Because to listen to anyone who thinks the English don’t shut up about all that, you’d believe that we’re boasting about it: that England thinks itself, as of right, World Cup Winners, in the sunshine, top of the tree. Nothing could be further from the truth.

1966 is spoken about more than it was. Three contrasting things brought that about.

One is the 1990 World Cup, when England stumbled through the nettles to a semi-final that no one saw coming.  Before the semi against West Germany, English mood was split. The casual fan, who hadn’t seen the horrible earlier games, was excited. Those of us who had watched them, through our fingers, felt only dread. The West Germans forecast they’d win 4-0. Most English opinion worth having agreed. The English opinion that wasn’t worth having, however, had had old memories stirred.

In the event, England played quite well. The luck tank was dry, but the performance inspired hope for the future. The very quality of that gallant defeat, and it was real enough, did something quite peculiar and contradictory to the English footballing mind. Without any change in the fundamental belief that England just weren’t on a level with Italy, Holland, Brazil and the West Germans, an expectation formed. From here, England could kick on… 16 years later, Charlton fans would have the same thought, as they bid farewell to underperforming Alan Curbishley. Over all who would kick on, a great dark bird silently circles..

And of course, (don’t blame Nick Hornby for this) in the wake of 1990, literary types took an interest. I’d like to, but can’t, pass over the nausea, the disgust-inducing nature of some of the TLS-style stuff that’s been poured over English football since 1990. Think yourselves lucky, Scotland, that you had Irvine Welsh. Because England got David Winner…

So here the TLSers come, like missionaries and anthropologists, and all of the fan violence and the decaying stadia and the obvious clicheed football things have to acquire context and meaning and they become a subculture and it all gets plugged into history, and what’s in history? 1966 is in history, and, lovers of clumsy lecture-room humour as the TLSers are, look! it’s just like “1066 and All That”. Which is  really awfully amusing! And on the TLSers went, in Granta and the London Review of Books, taking from football  such insights into post-industrial alienation and radical politics and the working class..

Thirdly, and most regrettably, in February 1993, Bobby Moore died.

Bobby Moore’s death was, and felt, premature. It hurt in the gut: shouldn’t people survive cancer, these days? There was a general sense that, although he’d not followed up on his football career, he still had time. And, if there was still time for him, there was still time for his playing colleagues to do whatever it was that you might call writing another chapter. Jack Charlton and Alan Ball were both still managers, weren’t they? Contemporary figures, men busy in the active present, not ready, yet, to be rounded up with Ramsey and the rest and frozen in carbonite..

More time for Moore would have been more time for us. When he died, death lurched a lot closer. It felt a lot later in the day, all of a sudden: no more pretending that the the 1960s have only just finished. No more pretending that all that brilliant sunshine is just waiting its opportunity to return.

With Moore dead, it became important to remember, and to gather the memories of those who had taken part in it all, whilst they were still around and able to reflect.

Idiots got their piece of the late captain too. Moore’s death amplified a thought that had always been there and thereabouts in the minds of control freaks and anal salt-of-the-earth types. England’s 1966 side, according to this thought, were the last of a better breed. What that breed was, no one could decide, but no matter. The last street footballers. The last real grafting working-class team who rode the bus to matches with the fans (no one ever refers to players riding the bus home with the fans afterwards, do they?)  The last to cut their hair short/drink mild/use dubbin/pinch matron/shovel coal/wear slippers/wear lipstick.

The purpose of this particular, and very footballing, narrative is clear: it’s to rough up the moderns. To lay a punch on those long-haired types with their skinhead cuts, who’ve been made soft by the abolition of national service, white collar jobs, comprehensive school, Eagle Magazine, foreign cars, pretty girlfriends, Central London, not drinking with journalists, Southport, Dubai, Ipod Twitbook, corporal punishment, sex with nuns and the horrors of NuLab Thatcherism.

What it isn’t about, most emphatically, is English arrogance. If only it were so.

Because if you’ve read all of this up until now, you’ll know that although I’ve tried to tell it from the English point of view, I’ve missed out on the Scottish. Because I’ve been trying to say to the Kay’s Bar guys that it ain’t so. I’ve been trying to give them reasons to think more kindly, with more gentleness than they do, about England. But it’s not about that, is it? There are no reasons. What reason do you need to be shown?

The myths that sustain a nation and its sense of self, after all,  can be about other nations. It’s a Scottish myth, that England go on about 1966 all the time. They don’t; it isn’t true. More than they did, but not all the time, and not like that. But the Scottish myth has its place in a much wider conversation. Argue, if you like, that it’s projection: Scottish insecurity, confronted with an English achievement that Scotland has undeniably failed to come close to matching, creates a mitigating counter-factual to reduce the pain of it all. But why bother?

Because they may be bigger than us, for all that we’re bigger than Scotland, more successful than us, they may have more money – but they’re more stupid than we are, they’re loud, arrogant, blundering, badly-dressed, less cultured, less educated and short on common sense. And this is all good news. Because without it, how could we English go on? Go on, being English, in a world we lost to the United States… (This isn’t a narrative I buy into – but you can see the parallels I’m sure).

I didn’t hear about 1966 until I was almost in my teens. This despite growing up playing the game and reading about it and watching it on television at every opportunity. (I discovered 1966 in the same year I found out about Munich, which says something) It wasn’t a topic of constant discussion in England then, and if it is a topic for some discussion now, it’s because the men behind it are dying like  Beatles. And, to tell the truth, because we’re afraid we can never match them. And not just at football.

(And it’s a comparatively gentle myth, isn’t it? Typical of Kay’s Bar, really – the best sporting pub in the UK, a place where I once spilt a stranger’s drink and found him buying us a pair of replacement pints…)

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Brian Clough: who he really was, and what he really achieved

Posted on 06 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

We’ve done it, at last, haven’t we: taken the silent and unanimous decision that Brian Clough matters. He’s made the step up: Brian Clough’s cultural now, gone from the close, sweaty barracks of football because he stands for England like Elgar and Dickens.

The news about Clough isn’t in the tabloids anymore.  It’s  strictly broadsheet, review and monthly: it’s been to the London Film Festival and must by now be under Granta’s walls, in strength. All that whilst never being out of place: all that, whilst never abandoning Derby, all that without losing the common touch. Clough, more than Ramsey, or Revie, more even than Shankly, his only possible rival, is a cornerstone and comment upon the zeitgeist, and post War Britain is impossible without him.

You can see his shape and hear his voice in all of it: it’s there in the memories of wet bus queues and Tony Blackburn and Green Shield stamps and Sportsnight and the whine of the milkman’s electric float.  Clough’s is one of that medley of reassuring provincial voices that dominated Wilson and Heath’s Britain, a Britain that felt so safe but left with a suitcase thirty years ago: he’s there in the head with Jim Callaghan, Eric Morecombe, Jimmy Savile and Noddy Holder. All gone, at least as we knew them then, all towed off in the back of the last Sealink Ferry or municipal dustcart.

Clough, like the others, started out with hack-written biographies and My Lifes. They’re all down in the Bodleian somewhere, still, browning in a stack with a host of others with the same huge type and bad binding and three sets of photos, one in colour. Books about sporting immortals don’t have long lives. The best a given copy can hope for is to be bought, by accident, by a badly-funded public library, where it can lurk at the back unnoticed long after its St Ives-printed brothers have been pulped or landfilled.

Ten years ago, something happened to books about Clough.  Or maybe it was something they did, something Clough himself would never have dreamed of: they betrayed their origins. They jumped genre. They became “proper books”, a transformation achieved dangerously close to the disputed border between snobbery and defensible taste and identification. A Clough book would henceforth be a proper autobiography, then a proper biography, then a novel, and then there was a Clough film – which, to show it was keeping up with developments, would feature real actors, and have football in it yet succeed.

Now come the memoirs, and the best of these is BAFTA-winning writer and film-maker Don Shaw’s Clough’s War. Clough’s War, as the title suggests, is Shaw’s first-hand account of the player rebellion at Derby whose ultimate failure brought the great post-1964 rush of English football to an end. After 1973, English club success in Europe covered cracks. It might not have had to. That it did was because Clough was an end, not a beginning; he was the last and greatest product of the only string of good English managers the game has ever produced. That string appeared just as the traditional but resilient business practices that built the game in the late Victorian and Edwardian period were being eased out. Eased out too slowly, too late for Clough: Shaw’s account of a world talent being forced to manouvre amongst petty provincial businessmen, whose sole concern was their local standing amongst their peers, is enough to set your trigger finger twitching back and forth.

Shaw deliberately leaves his picture of Clough incomplete: there are areas of the man into which he can’t see, and he says so. Shaw is a typical Clough friend: outside football but passionate about it, intellectually strong but of ordinary background, possessed of a powerful instinct for, and respect regarding, friendship and loyalty. And, of course, skilled with words. Philip Whitehead, film producer and Labour MP, was another of these Clough acolytes. Had the momentum of the 1960s and early 1970s continued, England would have ended up under the rule of this kind of clever, ordinary northerners and midlanders. 1973 did for that in all sorts of ways: Callaghan gets the blame, for dodging the autumn 1978 election and precipitating Thatcher, but the damage was done in the oil crisis. And, just as much,  in the community halls, pubs and discreetly parked football managers’ cars of Derby.

Part of Shaw’s Clough comes across well in this 1979 interview (9 mins):


Here, confronted with the young John Motson, Clough displays some of the attributes Shaw notices, describes and frets over:

Fearlessness: “Clough felt invulnerable” says Shaw, “because he knew that the world held him in awe. That is why he could launch his slanderous attacks and suffer no consequences.. Lesser mortals, doing the same, might have expected a smack in the face. Not Clough. He knew that the pedestal on which he stood was high enough to be out of the range of brickbats.”

Self-belief: “I never think of Clough as suffering from megalomania,” says Shaw, “but its dividing line from self-aggrandisement is very close. His reference to Generals Wingate, on the British side, and Patton, on the American, was significant in that their insistence on self-belief, allied to their strong feeling of destiny, was central to their military philosophy, as it was to his approach to football management. His courage was unquestionable. His statement, ‘If I’d been a Spitfire pilot I’d have taken on a squadron of Messerschitts,’ could easily be dismissed as ‘Old Big ‘ead’ bragging. But to have been in his presence when he spoke those words was not to induce intense scepticism, but to accept it, such was the matter-of-fact way in which he made the claim.”

Psychological Aggression: Clough is waiting for Motson to provide him with something with which to disagree, whereupon he will present the disagreement as the product of moral and intellectual failing by Motson and the broadcasters. But Clough doesn’t wait for opportunities to put Motson off balance: putting Motson off balance is the core plot of the interview. In a player, likewise, Shaw says, “Clough searched for character traits and patterns of behaviour, which, once grasped, gave him a power over the player intended to induce fear initially, out of which would come obedience and respect.”

What doesn’t show in the interview are other traits that Clough would bring in to play to help his team. Humour – which he and Peter Taylor would bring deliberately to the table at specific times to reduce tension and pressure on the players – was a big part of the Clough persona, at least until 1982 and the end of the Clough-Taylor partnership. Simplicity: Clough’s advice to his players rarely reached any greater complexity, Shaw points out, than you’d find on a school playing field. Simple things can be remembered in pressure situations, and we saw the principle in reverse during the first McClaren international against Croatia.

Group bonding, brought to a height in the close Derby team, was essential to Clough. During the Ian Storey-Moore debacle, in which Clough essentially kidnapped Moore in order to hijack Moore’s move to Manchester United, he left Moore alone for a chat with each of the first team players in turn. They were quizzed for their views afterwards – “If a guy isn’t liked by the squad, then he’s out”. Moore passed his inspection, so Clough told him, late that evening, “We’re down in the lounge. Come down and have a cocoa with your wonderful mates.”

Nottingham Forest, Shaw thinks, was different: in the end, everything boiled down to fear. At any rate, his relationship with his Derby team represented the height of his career and his life, never to return.

There are sides to these Clough traits which Shaw doesn’t mention but which round out the Clough picture somewhat.

Gaslighting: “Gaslighting” is a technique to put a person off balance. You attribute a thought or feeling to your victim which you cannot know that they have and that they probably do not have. If they deny the thought or feeling, you rubbish their denial. If you are in any sort of authority or close relationship with your victim, this is extremely unsettling for them. The victim starts to distrust themselves, to question the message they are getting from their emotional responses. It slows them down, weakens them. Motson comes in for it constantly, and Clough uses the technique in almost every lengthy interview including the famous Revie conversation of 1974. The point about gaslighting is not just to point out that Clough employed the technique, but to reflect upon what that says about Clough.

Compartmentalizing: Clough didn’t make friends of his players – although he fostered friendship between them. Nor did he make friends on his various boards, or, indeed, Taylor aside, in football generally. This trait is an enabler of other traits: you can’t treat John Motson – or Sam Longson – or a player – as Clough did, and care about their opinion.

Grandiosity: It’s not just in Clough’s words (“..but I’m in the top one.”) but in his manner. Again, with Motson, he interviews like a captured Nazi general who can’t quite believe it isn’t 1940 anymore. Grandiosity needs to be defined in contrast to a sense of superiority: it has an element of defensiveness, of camouflage to it. Reading between Clough’s lines, I sense a frustration at only having football to perform in, a sense of being overpowered for his milieu but of being shut out from the stages that suited his size. Call it an air of frustrated self-importance.

Seeing others only in his own terms: Shaw’s account is one of Clough utilising Shaw’s loyalty, admiration and friendship as political pawns to play in his battle with the Derby board. The board, and the club, exist only as an opportunity for his self-expression. In the Motson interview, he sees the League Championship purely as an exercise in brilliant management, and the quality of the players is a secondary issue. This is the context, I believe, for the various set-piece Clough generosity stories. People for whom human relationships are all manouvre and negotiation, who lack some of the old-shoe moment-by-moment comfortable getting along with their peers, go in for the memorable, exaggerated gesture that the rest of us wouldn’t think of, or if we had, would be too bashful to attempt. Set-piece generosities backlight an otherwise selfish person’s interactions – we assume that they mean well, or that they are “really” generous and the more common selfishness is only an occasional blip of the sort everyone is prone to.

Football success carries enormous social, communal value, and, consequently, it brings with it tremendous forgiveness. The English, like everyone else, enjoy having someone coming from among them who can deliver something worth as much as football trophies. They enjoy having someone as different from most of them as Clough coming from their own stock – even someone differentiated by the sheer quantities of ego, selfishness and bullying as Clough could muster. At a distance, it’s easy to hang onto such personalities other values that the English hold dear – honesty, integrity, etc., and, having hanged hung them, easy to celebrate them: this kind of thing was projected onto the young Henry VIII just as it was onto Clough.

Shaw thinks that Clough’s “management style” and personality could only have thrived at the 1970s Nottingham Forest because only there, and nowhere else before and certainly since, would he be given complete control. I’d put forward a similar argument. Clough displayed many of the traits that apply to the collection of behaviours together known as narcissistic personality disorder. You might share with me my concerns about personality disorders – the way they yoke together what are, after all, behaviours that are part and parcel of human nature, and the arbitrary nature of the yokes themselves. But you’ll also share with me the knowledge of what being on the receiving end of those behaviours is like. Clough, being the man he was, could have succeeded outside football. Both business and politics reward men with just Clough’s traits. But only in football are such men celebrated.

Clough is unusual in football, though, for the sheer range of reasons for celebration and remembrance. His teams played glorious football – both Derby and Forest are still wonderful to watch, even now. His players reached career heights they’d not have seen but for him: perhaps Stuart Pearce was the last of a line that began with John McGovern. He won two league titles, two European Cups, and a host of lesser trophies. He made a football establishment we knew to be inadequate look inadequate, and our gratitude for that has lasted three decades undimmed. He was a great Englishman at a leaderless time, and when Muhammed Ali recognized him, the Champ recognized us all by proxy. I’ve shaken Ali’s hand: I feel I’ve also shaken Clough’s.

He achieved something else, too: something less obvious, less visible to the naked eye, but interesting nonetheless. He did everything with tools left over from another age. To understand this, consider the history of English football management.

Organized football got underway in the 1850s and 1860s. Most sides of the period, playing in the nascent FA Cup, were managerless teams of friends or teams put together at universities or military institutions. The team captain was also the team convenor, the man who knew everyone, could contact everyone, could bring everyone (or nearly everyone, in amateur days) together for matches. Personal acquaintance with the team was the key to playing for the team.

Teams of this type were to all intents and purposes unstaffed. There was no trainer, no doctor, no physio, no kitman. What changed this was the game’s own development. Early international teams – take, for instance, Quintin Hogg’s unofficial Scottish side of 1870-1, made up entirely of London-based Scots – were like club sides, comprised of friends and acquaintances. As the number of clubs increased, and with it the number of serious players, acquaintance became increasingly second hand, and a player would be picked for England or Scotland on the strength of reputation and word of mouth, not always personal knowledge.

As the number of teams based in the north of England multiplied, this became more complicated. A Blackburn Olympic might play southern teams twice in a season, perhaps three times, and only in the FA Cup. Knowledge of Olympic players amongst the men picking the England or Scotland teams was limited.

But with the northern teams charging for entry to their matches, the likes of Olympic, or Preston, found themselves needing to produce elevens of the sort of quality that might attract a crowd. That sort of eleven wouldn’t be made up of people the captain had heard of, but of people a crowd would come to hear of and talk about, or that a newspaper might celebrate. Very quickly, the logic of the situation demanded that a northern club have on its staff someone who had knowledge of players from a wide area, and the ability and desire to expand that knowledge faster than his colleagues at rival clubs. And, with entry fees being charged, and then, wages being paid, some business skill might come in useful. Thus the secretary-manager was born.

Within twenty years, the secretary-manager was a standard, accepted figure at every major football club in the Football League, the Southern League, and the other professional leagues. John Cameron, writing in 1905, described the manager’s duties as

  • the acquisition of a decent first XI
  • keeping the club’s accounts up to date
  • managing the fixture list
  • administering the stadium (maintenance etc)

By this stage, and no doubt as a result of the time constraints upon the manager, a second accepted figure had emerged: the trainer. Cameron describes the trainer as

regarded as the father of his side. Attending to the players’ smallest wants, dressing their injuries, rubbing them down, hardening their muscles, and freely giving advice in a thousand matters, the occupation of a trainer is a busy one.

Only by his efforts and shrewd judgement the appearance on the field of a popular player sometimes depends. Mistakes result in crippled players, and cause vexation of the spirit to the club’s officials.

In the space of barely thirty years, clubs went from being loose associations of mates to being joint stock companies with full-time staff. But very few full-time staff: it’s interesting to contemplate a club with a squad of twenty, plus manager, trainer and turnstile staff, weekly being confronted with crowds of twenty, thirty and forty thousand people. Such disparities had been seen only at the quiet branch stations serving the likes of Epsom, and then only once or twice a year. An Everton or a Tottenham were now handling them every fortnight, and without a railway company as backup.

Something stalled in British football when play halted in 1915. Crowds would continue to grow in the 1920s and 1930s, but the only signficant change in the way clubs were run would be tactical, Chapman amending the traditional 2-3-5 in 1925 to cope with the altered offside law. Manchester United went through the 1950s with four core administrative staff. Around the great league clubs of the north, industry and its management was transformed, by the arrival of the modern assembly line, by the arrival of efficient road transport, and by the impact of successive education acts. Football management stayed the same.

So, when Clough arrived at Hartlepools, Peter Taylor had to begin by masquerading as “trainer”, despite having even less relevant knowledge than his sponge-wielding peers. And, at Derby, his appointment was the cause of the first of Clough’s many conflicts with Sam Longson.

During the great years of his management career, in other words, Clough was, to all intents and purposes, a secretary-manager (Derby appointing “secretary” Webb only after a financial scandal caused by Clough’s indifference to the demands of accounting).  Clough was in an Edwardian role. So were his English counterparts. But his European rivals were not.

Clough’s attitude towards team and tactics were Edwardian too.  John Cameron, in 1905, might have been speaking for Clough in 1973:

Every manager is aware that if a professional team is to show successful results there must exist a genuine spirit of good fellowship among the players. The little jealousies that sometimes occur between different members of a team are unfortunate in the extreme, and should on all occasions be firmly repressed by those in authority.

Cameron never discusses tactics, and we know from other Edwardian writers that the basic 2-3-5 was considered to be the optimum formation, arrived at organically through experience and experimentation. Don Shaw describes just such an attitude in Clough:

Clough disregarded ‘tactics’ which, he said, were ‘the best thing to talk about if you want to ruin a team’s rhythm.’ Blackboard analysts were condemned as counter-productive. ‘Tactics aren’t for me,’ he declared. ‘They’re things teams dream up because they’re scared they might lose.’

Here Clough is channelling R.S. McColl, the Edwardian footballer and founder of the newsagent chain, who wrote:

Too rigid a system of play, in which all the moves are known, will not do. There must be flexibility; endless variety and versatility; constant surprises for the other side. System must be inspired by art and innate genius for and love of the game.

“We pissed all over Benfica,” said Clough after putting McColl’s advice into practice in the European Cup. “You don’t teach genius,” he said on another occasion. “You watch it.”

Clough’s Hartlepools and Derby were built around the Edwardian idea of the primacy of the first XI, not on the later squad concept first properly seen in England in Paisley’s Liverpool side of 1976-8. The essentials were a good goalkeeper (e.g. Colin Boulton), a good centre-half (e.g. Roy McFarland), a good link man (e.g. John McGovern), a good winger (e.g. Alan Hinton) and a good centre-forward (e.g. John O’Hare). The rest would follow.

Clough’s achievement, then, was to take the Edwardian-style football club to the very highest level of play and achievement that the structure offered. At a time when the frozen administrative set-up of British football was so obviously eating into British football’s future, and making clubs like Derby look like museum pieces put next to Benfica or Juventus with their tactical sophistication and modern stadia and evolved youth policies, Clough made it all work, one last time.

Like Cameron, like Chapman, Clough was a narcissist fuelled by his self-perceived superiority over the men he worked amongst. It took that unusual, splintered, often unpleasant and unnegotiable personality to pull success from such an unlikely hat as the Edwardian-style football club. Men like that can and do succeed elsewhere, in politics and business. But only in football are they truly celebrated.

Because England never came for him, there is a sense of something missing from Clough’s success. And the success he did have, vast as it was, helped to sustain the illusion that there was nothing wrong with British football, that all we had to do to catch up with Holland, with Brazil, with Germany, was find another Clough, another man who could crank the same rusting handle as hard as he had been able.

But we haven’t found another Clough. He was the last. Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away. Perhaps his greatest tribute is the sheer scale of the silence he’s left behind him.

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John Cameron and the History of English Football

Posted on 08 July 2008 by JamesHamilton

(WARNING: this is quite long)

I’d been casting about for months for an image that might effectively sum up the history of English football. A face, a stadium, perhaps a team lineup or training session. Perhaps a German airport, snowbound. It was a search for a picture that would say the most in the least time about 150 years of the sport. Not easy.

My mind kept closing in on one image in particular, but I rejected it as too clever, too knowing, and too beside itself for its own good. They’ll never guess this – the slogan of everyone who has tried too hard to impress. But the image kept coming back and refining itself.

It’s of a middle-aged man in tweeds, riding alone in a railway compartment. Red-faced, probably; hat in the rack above his head, stick leant beside his knees. He’s not smoking right now, but smells of tobacco, that catch-all deodorant of the Victorian age. It’s a bright day, and he has the window down. Outside, he can see a river widening in a businesslike way as it nears the sea.

Then I see him striding into town, the port town of Ayr. If we were there with him, we’d notice what for him is just background: the long-forgotton but utterly distinctive taste of coal smoke, and the whiff of untreated sewage. In the streets, boys play, some of whom don’t have shoes. He won’t ever know how quaint and strange this scene is to us, because like us he experiences himself living at the very cutting edge of time, at the end of history. The countless thousands of miniscule changes that convert his time into ours have not yet begun.

There are photographs of Victorian Ayr, of course. A large number of them are sepia. That alone banishes them from any sense of our common era – sepia photos are automatically old and subject to that mockery owed by the future to the past. (They are old because sepia worked: it was supposed to add fade-protection to otherwise shortlived images). When they were first taken and processed, they emerged as monochrome images depicting their full colour world. Of that world, only that tiny photographic slice of life was black and white. Now, of course, almost everything that survives of that world is black and white. The insignificant slice has become all that’s left, and it’s as though it always was everything. For people of my generation, born in the late sixties, black and white represents everything that happened before we arrived. Colour is everything that’s happened since. Match of the  Day went colour when I was six months old.

Because of that black and white – colour transformation, and because of other things besides, there’s a distancing. I don’t know my traveller’s name, or even if he existed, although I know why he’s in Ayr. But as I’m going to use him as a peg on which to hang some history of football, it’s worth pausing just to consider that, for him, in footballing or in other terms, he isn’t aware of being a “pioneer” or that the game he is involved in (he’s a football man) is going through its early years. To him, this is modern football. If he reflects upon it at all, as he rolls up at the field where Ayr Parkhouse FC play, then football has already done its developing, turning into the brilliant, boisterous late-century fad that it seems to him.

Not that he’s making any money out of it: this man, whose existence I’ve invented, also has an unpaid job that I’ve invented for him. He’s a scout for the world’s most famous and successful football club. He represents the side that has won the most trophies, introduced the best innovations and tactical developments, provided the most internationals and which, as he makes his way on, is taking a self-sacrificial stand to protect the smaller clubs of the game and to protect the game itself from the looming threat of corruption. Our man is a scout for Queens Park in Glasgow, and he’s come to offer membership to a burly twenty-something forward called John Cameron. I dare say he doesn’t know what he’s starting. Nor does Cameron know just what he’s getting into.

Records disappear, and we don’t know when John Cameron joined Queens Park, the most famous team in the world. But it was probably between 1892 and 1894. The Scottish Football League had been formed in 1890, and, because the League was intended to boost the profits of professional clubs by providing regular fixtures, Queens Park, a staunchly amateur side then as now, refused to join.

This wasn’t, as it’s so often painted, a matter of class snobbery. Football history is too lazy when it comes to the issue of professionalism. You know the conventional story, I’m sure. Public school toffs (boo!) who invented the game, codified it and built its institutions, but who despite this are flannelled fools with irritating laughs, don’t like professionalism because it’s working class. But they have to give in. Hurrah for professionalism and working class sport and we’re the masters now and so on and so forth. Nigel Molesworth would put it better.

I wonder whether a fair number of sports historians, especially in the UK, are that kind of historian because they secretly long to be one of the lads. The classic version of events around professionalism owes a lot to this. It’s less history, more of a “dogwhistle” – meaning, “I’m on the side of the people, I’m one of you.” Let’s put that classic account to one side and piece the thing together with John Cameron’s help.

Cameron was a working class man, but also a product of Scottish education, meaning that he was highly literate, free-thinking and independent of mind. He’d probably been out of school for a decade by the time Queens Park came calling, playing as an amateur for Ayr Parkhouse. This implies that his mode of employment, which we don’t know, was sufficient both to make his living and leave him time for sport. Sport clearly meant a great deal to him – as we’ll see later, he was proficient at more than just football – and a move to Queens Park, who were scrupulous in their background checks at this time, meant that he was confident of finding work in Glasgow too. And that playing for Queens Park was worth the disruption and risk all on its own. There would be no money in it for him.

Cameron epitomises the history of English football because he’s a clever, educated man from the West of Scotland, and because his move to Queens Park puts him at the centre of the change from amateur to professional dominance of the top levels of football.

Working class men could, after all, play serious football as amateurs. This approach to the game – moving around from job to job whilst playing for amateur clubs – is played down by historians, but it’s actually far more typical of the life of serious Victorian and Edwardian players than was full-time or part-time professionalism. The vast majority of players in organised teams in organised leagues at this time, and to this day, were and are amateur. In Scotland, so in England: Herbert Chapman’s playing days were peripatetic in the extreme, and he, like Cameron as we will see, only turned professional late in his career.

Professionalism, we are told, comes about through payments to working class players to compensate for work time lost to football. I wonder, not least because of the unlikely picture of benevolent employers letting their workers absond for the sake of the latest big fad. I’m sure that this is part of the story, but not all.

First of all, consider amateurism. There is little evidence that it has anything to do with aristocratic values. The major sports of the first half of the nineteenth century were corrupt affairs, bent out of shape as we would see it by the demands of gambling, gambling being what kept most of them in being at all. Love of fair play and love of the game were deliberate creations in the public schools and churches, and these ideas spread only as a result of a lot of hard work, persistence, determination and argument. One result was the excellent state of late century cricket, which, given the ructions, controversies and financial catastrophes of the preceding fifty years might not have seemed terribly likely at times. Just getting people to play by the rules when there is no tradition of doing so means creating that tradition from scratch, no easy thing. And then, just as amateur football has swept the nation, and the FA Cup is thriving, and international “home nations” football is thriving, and cities like Sheffield and Glasgow and the industrial towns are burgeoning with new clubs and competitions, all of it helping along a general improvement in law and order and public behaviour… just as it’s all going so well, professionalism rears its head again. Money starts changing hands, clubs poach each other’s players, and it all begins to get a little bit ugly with the promise of much worse to come.

Can you see how there might be other reasons beside snobbery for opposing professionalism? John Cameron’s new club, Queens Park, had players from all walks of life, and provided them all with the chance to play the sport at the very top level. But, having no financial goals other than to pay their own expenses, Queens Park were in a position to stand up for newer, smaller clubs and the benefits those clubs brought to members and players, in a way that Rangers and Celtic were not.

To understand the pressure for professionalism, it’s necessary to remember just how remarkable a fad football was at the end of the nineteenth century. Because of the growth of industrial cities, there existed concentrated populations keen for entertainment. Football offered businessmen a new and substantial opportunity. Ring off a field, get two teams together, and charge admission: build it, and they will come. But you need to persuade people to come to your show, not your rival’s from the other side of town, so you need to find out who people will pay to watch and get them in somehow. Offer them a job in your factory, or just give them cash in hand. If your rivals have the upper hand, raise the money somehow and steal their entire team! This fate befell the first professional FA Cup winners, Blackburn Olympic, whose side was “bought” en masse by Blackburn Rovers. Olympic soon vanished from sight.

The more people you can get in to see your games, the more profit you make, so the period 1890 – 1914 sees what is in effect an arms race of stadium building and team building. You have to become the big club in your town before someone else does. Chelsea appear out of nowhere in 1905 complete with Stamford Bridge: their founders took a huge financial risk that they only just got away with – had they not been able to persuade the Football League to give them instant admission, they’d have folded immediately. After 1920 or so, no new “big clubs” appeared: the period of meteoric growth was over. The fast money left football for cinema, motoring and radio.

So early professional football was about getting the best showmen and the best big top before the other guy did. So, for a while, the best players could command a premium for their services. But not for long.

Queens Park were right, in the end, about the threat posed by the Scottish League to small clubs. The years after 1890 were ones of terrible winnowing, even for those clubs who did join. One third of the founder members did not see the decade out. Cambuslang, Cowlairs and Renton had all ceased to exist by 1898.

They were right in another way, too. By remaining amateur and remaining, for the time being, away from the horror and bloodshed of the Scottish Football League, they kept the top level of Scottish football open to all. In England, amateur players were being squeezed out of the national team and out of the clubs. In the Edwardian era, only Vivien Woodward of the hundreds of thousands of amateur players in England made any great international contribution.

In 1896, John Cameron made his debut for Scotland. Alongside him was another Queens Park alumnus, one R.S. McColl. If that sounds like a newsagent to you, it’s because that’s what McColl later became.

Cameron wouldn’t live so long, nor become so rich. Shortly before his cap, he went professional, burning his bridges with Queens Park, and joined Everton.

John Cameron epitomises the history of English football by being one of the many Scottish mercenaries who came to play in England.

Cameron arrived at Everton at a propitious time. What we now call “The Old Lady” – Goodison Park – was reaching completion as the first football stadium to completely enclose its pitch with stands on all sides. And here, in the biggest and most modern arena in the entire world, he made an instant impact as Everton thrashed an excellent Sheffield United team 5-0.

We are now so familiar with the idea of the big football ground that we forget just what was happening in Liverpool first, then in Manchester and Glasgow. It’s thought that the Colliseum in Rome could hold 50,000 people. Within a few short years, Cameron would play a vital and historic match in front of more than twice that number. In our industrial cities, at the end of the nineteenth century, the largest secular, peaceful gatherings in the history of our species would take place. And, only fifty years after the Chartists provoked panic in London with their Kennington Rally, a Cup Final only a few miles from that spot with an equivalent number of attendees would barely raise the authorities’ collective eyebrow. Football was a fad, but it was also a miracle.

And cities that were, in effect, brand new, landmarkless places, suddenly acquired symbols for themselves in the form of the new stadia. Liverpool was Goodison Park and, later, Anfield – and these places would be known the world over. Manchester was Maine Road and Old Trafford. Queens Park had the last laugh over the professional upstarts: Glasgow was Hampden.

Now that stadium building has recommenced, this is happening again. If you had to think of a building in Reading, is the first that comes to mind the Madejski Stadium? Or Bolton, the Reebok? Middlesborough, the Riverside?

Goodison Park was the very first of all these, the first ever: and Everton “acquired” John Cameron to help fill it. In the ten years of professionalism that had already passed, many Scots had “come south”: Cameron was no pioneer in that respect. Hundreds more would follow over the years, and even a short list reads like a greatest hits of the game: Dalglish, Law, Busby, Docherty, Gallacher, even our very own Alex Massie.

Cameron joined Everton just at the moment when the great days for professional footballers were coming to a close. In the previous year, the Football League introduced its registration scheme, by which a player could only turn out for the club he was registered with, regardless of his own future desires and intentions. Henceforth, his club would “own” his right to play League football, and should he leave them, could prevent him, should they wish, from playing for a rival.

The registration scheme was belated recognition of what Queens Park had seen five years before: professionalism left unchecked would make life impossible for smaller clubs. The early years of the Football League had been dominated by the richest clubs, purely and simply, and this was a danger to the stability and the viability of the League itself. Their solution was to turn players into bondsmen. And bondsmen they would remain, right up until the 1960s.

Loyal local players playing loyally for local teams are much admired these days – the Scholeses and the Nevilles and the Carraghers. It’s thought that they hark back to better days when that kind of thing was much more common, and they are seen as a dying breed. But the loyal players of the past – like Tom Finney at Preston – had no choice in the matter. They could not have moved had they wanted to, without their club’s agreement. At the height of his powers, Finney received an offer from an Italian club which would have rendered him free of financial worries for the rest of his life. Preston refused to countenance it. And that’s one of the better stories. Players could be and were left in limbo, registered at a club but with no contract.

Even as late as the 1950s, most football contracts were for the season. Many players would be cast off for the summer, forced to find jobs until the next year’s fixtures came around. The registration scheme meant that, unlike their colleagues in industry, there was nowhere for them to go. So much for the loyal players; so much for the game “before it was ruined by money.” A fine man like Tom Finney deserved better than the peverse combination of fame and feudalism he was dealt, but that was what the best players faced, and the mediocre ones fared far worse.

The registration scheme, the first turn of the key in the lock if you will, came a year before Cameron’s arrival in England. Worse was about to come. John Cameron, as we’ve seen, was able to work and support himself outside football and yet play at the top level. Players, being considered as showmen and entertainers (the idea of the “sportsman” was in its infancy), training and development were at best ad hoc, and there is no evidence to suggest that professional players were decisively fitter than their amateur counterparts. If it wasn’t the football that brought him to Everton, then, it must have been a combination of a big money offer and his own sense of travel and adventure.

The money was next to come under threat. The arms race to build stadia was squeezing clubs’ finances. Clubs which, only a couple of years earlier, were spending their money on players, had now realized just how large football crowds might get before the soccer bubble burst. Bums on seats became a priority over boots on the ground. It was this realization that cleared the way for the registration system, and now the clubs turned their attention to the imposition of a maximum wage.

It was Cameron’s moment to come into his own.

In theory, at least, the registration system made it possible for clubs to lower the wages of their players without losing their services. But because the registration system only covered Football League clubs, it was still open to the disaffected to move to Scottish League clubs or to clubs in the growing Southern League in England. But in 1897, the Scottish League banned this kind of poaching – and within the Football League itself, the lobbying for a £4 maximum wage was gaining ground rapidly.

Most players received less than that, but the elite, including Cameron, were drawing salaries of up to £10 and saw their livelihoods threatened. Cameron, intelligent, confident and literate, was not about to allow that. In February 1898, John Cameron was able to announce that the new Association Footballer’s Union could call upon 250 members. He was Secretary, and with his Everton and Scotland colleague Jack Bell as President, the driving force. Billy Meredith, of Manchester City, was in, as was Jimmy Ross of Preston North End, Tom Bradshaw of Liverpool, and others.

There had been earlier unions, of course – ASLEF was up and running by this date – but the AFU predated both the NUM and the NUR, to say nothing of the General Federation of Trade Unions. It was an early and audacious foundation, formed under acute time pressure and within a highly peripatetic workforce spending a great deal of its time on the railway and the road.

Although the immediate threat was that to existing pay scales, Cameron knew, as Jimmy Hill and George Eastham would know sixty years later, that the “retain and transfer” registration scheme was at the very heart of their problems. He called for negotiations regarding transfers to involve the club and player concerned – not, as was usually the case, merely the two clubs with the player excluded. Bell, meanwhile, promised that the question of pay would be left alone for the time being and that there was no question of a strike.

Cameron did not know how long he had to save the situation. Once a maximum wage was imposed, he knew, that was that – his career’s potential destroyed in the interests of the Everton board. So, when a better offer came his way, he took it.

So did Bell; so did Bradshaw. Bell was replaced as AFU chairman by a Preston player in the twilight of a great career, Bob Holmes. Holmes himself would demonstrate my point about professionalism by “retiring” as a professional in the wake of the collapse of the Union in 1899, yet playing on as an amateur for Preston for another three years. For Holmes, it was twilight. For Cameron, the adventure was only just beginning. In the summer of 1898, he joined Tottenham Hotspur of the Southern League. His successor as Secretary was a schoolteacher.

it was the big money move. And it was a move away from retain-and-transfer, away from the immediate threat of the maximum wage (which came in finally in 1901, remaining in force long enough to snag the likes of Charlton, Greaves, Clough and Haynes).

John Cameron epitomises the history of English football because he was closely and personally involved in the losing battle against constraints on players’ pay and conditions.

It was a step up the social ladder, too. Late Victorian Tottenham was a far cry from the sea of industrial terracing Cameraon had known in Glasgow and Liverpool. He left behind a game that was in the process of ghettoising itself for the sake of money. First professionalism, then the League, then the retain-and-transfer system, then the maximum wage – all were measures to extract as much money from large crowds in large towns and cities as possible. In the process, they robbed the real attraction of the piece – the players – of their just share of the profits. The working class could come and watch. The working class could sign away their freedom and security and play. But the money that was the reason for it all went into other hands. If this was working class sport, then so was Roman gladiatorial combat.

Cameron, meanwhile, found himself well paid and in London, living a few streets away from where A. E. Housman was putting the finishing touches to A Shropshire Lad. His club was young and ambitious:moreover, it soon knew that in Cameron it had more than a star player on its hands. By February of 1899, he had become player-secretary-manager, one of the very first players to make the step up.

The step into management was not the obvious one it seems today. At this stage in the development of the English game, the players were seen as the experts in the art of playing. As we’ve seen in the case of Cameron, there were highly intelligent players with intellectual capacity to go with technical ability, and this would have meant some degree of on-field adaptability and thinking. Herbert Chapman acknowledged as much about Edwardian football, looking back on it from the 1930s, blaming the 1925 change in the offside law for the loss of subtlety and cleverness in the English game. His own Huddersfield team of the 1920s had its little university of writers and preachers. There have been few such since, and most of those are called Blanchflower and Giles, and how many of those are English?

The secretary-manager’s primary task was not to plan tactics but to act as go-between for the board and players. In some cases, the choice of, negotiation for and acquisition of players was also involved. All his other duties could just as well come under the heading of clerk. The idea of an ex-player moving into management needed some actual ex-players to bring it into being, and, as we’ve seen in the case of Bob Holmes, the Football League was barely old enough to be generating ex-players at all.

John Cameron epitomises the history of English football by being one of the very first Scottish ex-player managers in the League, and one of the first ex-player managers of any nationality.

As you might expect by now, Cameron was one of those managers who took a role in choosing players, and, as he continued to play himself, on-field tactics. Had there been tracksuits available to him – at this stage, British athletes still wore dressing gowns, and only US athletes had the actual tracksuits – he might have been called a tracksuit manager.

As it was, he masterminded the first successful comeback by a non-League side against a League side since 1888, scoring against Sunderland in a victorious FA Cup tie.

Cameron’s signings were good ones: Jack Kirwan, briefly his successor at Everton came; so did George Clawley from Stoke. Tom Morris was to become a long-term Spurs stalwart, but was new on the scene when Cameron led the side out for the first ever game at White Hart Lane.

John Cameron epitomises the history of English football by taking a leading role in the top-level game’s arrival in London.

By 1899, the Football League’s position on pay was beginning to endanger its preeminence in England. There was a steady flow of players from the Football League to the Southern League, and the evidence of the FA Cup showed that the southerners, without the benefit (outside the capital) of large industrial populations, were catching up. In 1900, Southampton  reached the FA Cup Final, where they lost to Bury. They had already featured in a semi-final, partly due to the good form of George Clawley in goal.

Another of the former AFU men, Thomas Bradshaw, had also made the trip south to Tottenham, and played alongside Cameron in the victory against Sunderland. Shortly afterwards, he was to illustrate in his own life just what the AFU had been needed for.

Bradshaw joined “Thames Ironworks” – the future West Ham – in the close season of 1898-9. He was injured in a game early in his season, but although he recovered to play again, it was already apparent that tuberculosis had him in its grip.

Bradshaw had mouths to feed at home, and was possessed of powerful, unselfish courage. He played his last game, visibly short of breath and stamina, on the 9th of December. By the time Christmas Day was over, he was dead.

His own tragedy was his family’s too: he would not have been insured, nor would compensation have been due. Professional footballers were well paid for their time, especially in the Southern League, but not enough to make widowhood and being orphaned anything less than a disaster.

Cases like Bradshaw’s would inspire Billy Meredith and his colleagues to rebuild the fight for union rights in the opening years of the twentieth century. Bradshaw’s colleague, Syd King, would write him a sad eulogy in his 1906 “Book of Football,” a year after King had become the first English sportsman to endorse Oxo.

Tuberculosis was far from uncommon as a cause of death amongst footballers – it took Harry Chapman, Herbert’s then more famous brother, before the Great War.

Two years after Bradshaw’s death at 26, Cameron led Spurs to the FA Cup Final, where they met one of the crack sides of the Football League, Sheffield United, and took on the unique challenge posed by William Henry “Fatty” Foulkes.

Over 110,000 supporters attended the Final, held at Crystal Palace, a venue which – unlike Goodison – was not yet enclosed on all sides.

United were deservedly strong favourites, and began well, taking the lead through Fred Priest on 20 minutes. Spurs levelled through Sandy Brown almost immediately, however. The next day’s newspaper told the rest:

When Brown was put through by Cameron to beat Fouike again with a rising shot for Tottenham five minutes after the interval, the predominantly southern crowd went wild. Hats went into the air, handkerchiefs were waved, and spectators daringly perched in the trees around the ground almost fell out of the branches. But the match was far from settled, for within a minute a strange incident changed the face of the match.

A linesman flagged for a corner-kick after Bennett had charged Totten­ham goalkeeper Clawley near the goal-line and the ball had gone behind. The referee then surprised everyone by awarding a goal to Sheffield, on the grounds that the ball had crossed the goal-line as Clawley had attempted to field Lipsham’s shot from the left seconds before Bennett had moved in to charge him. The general opinion was that referee Kings-cott had made a sad error of judgement. He was too far up the field to be able to decide the point, yet he refused to consult with a linesman much nearer to the incident.

Daylight robbery. The replay, at Bolton’s Burnden Park, is here:


Cameron scored in Spurs’ 3-1 win. Tottenham Hotspur under John Cameron remain the only non-League side to win the Cup since the formation of the Football League.

It would fall to other men to lead Spurs into the Football League itself. By then, a player’s union would finally have clawed itself into existence. After 1910, in any case, the Southern League and the Football League came to an agreement which regularised retain-and-transfer across both organisations. Had that not happened, it is interesting to speculate that a post-1918 Southern League might not have taken advantage of depression in the north of England and become the game’s dominant force, with players able to earn their market worth and that outside of the working class bondsman’s ghetto that the Football League had become.

Cameron remained manager after he hung up his boots, but the loss of his place on the field led to the loss of a great deal of his influence. The players he had brought south with him had one by one retired or left, and by 1907 Tom Morris was the last significant member of the Cameron inner circle remaining.

Not for the first time, Cameron made the adventurous choice. He left England, and followed his former playing opponent William Townley to Wilhelmine Germany.

Townley, another smart man frustrated by the restricted ethos of English football, had gone over some four years earlier, and found the water warm. Although football in Germany was somewhat frowned upon, being seen as a socially inferior sport, its fans and enthusiasts had one thing about them that had great appeal. They didn’t think they knew about football, and they wanted to learn.

Cameron took over at Dresdner SC in 1907, by which time Townley was at Karlsruher. They were the first of a series of significant, thinking football men who’d seek disciples abroad before World War One, men who’d shape the whole future of European and ultimately World football. Jimmy Hogan followed them out two years later, closely followed by Jack Kirwan, Jack Reynolds and Fred Pentland. German, Dutch, Spanish and Hungarian football has reason to remember their names.

Football was spreading, but it would be a mistake to see this as a recognisable development at the time. The first modern Olympiad only took place in 1896, and the whole idea of international competition outside of Ashes or Home Championships style fraternal meetings was unfamiliar. Nor had any modern sport escaped the borders of its founding culture. Most existing sports in 1900, apart from the Victorian British inventions, had their equivalent in the ancient world. The idea of taking e.g. football and “developing” it in new countries and for new culture simply did not exist. Even Cameron and co. were merely meeting a demand in a way that paid them well and which they found satisfying.

That demand reflected a situation and created a trend. The situation: the English being alien to the concept of coaching or of football being something that could be learnt or improved upon. The trend: the best English coaches being, in effect, driven out. It took fifty years to work itself out, until 1953 and the Magyars’ huge victory at Wembley. But the English had rode their luck. Had the Austrian team held a more confident view of itself in the 1930s, defeat might have come to London twenty years earlier. The brilliant postwar England team of 46-48 hid the underlying trend for another couple of years. But by 1953, all of the best men knew what had happened. Mercer, Finney, Matthews, all realized that they’d been overtaken and that change would have to come. We’re still waiting for it.

Somewhere out there, perhaps there’s a corner of some foreign Cameron or a Townley waiting to come to visit us.

Cameron enjoyed seven good years amidst the beauty and culture of Dresden. Then came war, and with it, the strange, marvellous, tragic climax of his life.

It took place here.

This, along with some bales of hay tucked away behind, is all that remains of Ruhleben Race Course, in Spandau, Berlin. In 1914, the German Empire rounded up the “enemy aliens” within its borders. A large number of them ended up in a camp at Ruhleben. See an inmate’s sketch of the camp here.Cameron was here, along with a star-studded cast of British footballing names. Steve Bloomer came; so did Fred Pentland.

Pentland and Bloomer can be seen at the extreme left of this Ruhleben team lineup from 1918.

Also present were Fred Spiksley – who’d been coaching in Sweden before Germany – Samuel Wolstenholme, another former international to take the Kaiser’s football shilling, John Brearley – a Cameron signing at Spurs, and Edwin Dutton, whose father introduced football to Berlin.

(Jimmy Hogan was interned in Austria; Jack Reynolds  saw the war out in Holland and passed the time by getting Ajax of Amsterdam off to a good start. His immediate predecessor was another Cameroon, Jack Kirwan, who returned home to fight, before helping Italian football get started in the postwar period).

So, in the unlikeliest of settings, began the four year symposium of almost everything of the best in British football coaching. There has never been such an event or such a group since. Ruhleben left copious records, including inmate newspapers and magazines. Sadly, what isn’t recorded is the conversation between these people. We know they organised teams, cups and league competitions. But what they must have learned from one another there.Whatever it was, in 1918 it left Ruhleben and spread around the world.

After the war, Pentland went on to coach the Spanish side that beat England in 1929, and broke up the Spanish inheritance of Edwardian tactics and formation for something not dissimilar to the Hungarian formaton of the 1950s.

Spiksley went on to coach in Mexico, before returning to Germany.

Steve Bloomer went on to coach successfully in Spain, after pre-war coaching in Germany and the Netherlands.

The first two years of internment seem to have been bearable. 1914-16 account for most of the accounts of football – and of tennis, at which Cameron is alleged to have excelled. Thereafter, things darken. Food is certain to have run short at times, and it’s possible that the huge German losses of 1917 would have lessened sympathy for the prisoners, and wiped memories of their having helped Germany before. Pictures survive of work gangs: a memoir is entitled “Hell Could Not Be Worse.” Another hints at physical mistreatment of inmates.

Whatever went on, Cameron changed direction after the war. A year at home, coaching in Ayr, was followed by a move into writing and journalism. He had form of this already, writing a “souvenir”of Spurs’ entry to the Football League from his new German perspective in 1908. It was a route taken by quite a few players at the time – and there would be others later, notably Len Shackleton, who did so much to get Brian Clough’s managerial career underway.

By comparison with his performance up until 1914, Cameron’s post-War career is quiet, almost silent. You scan the years, expecting him to pop up again, to do something new or unexpected. It doesn’t happen. John Cameron was 46 by the end of the War, and, at that age, even for a fit man, 2-4 years of imprisonment and privation can mean breakdown. He is the only significant football man not to be in Steve Bloomer’s 1918 picture. The reasons why are probably sad ones.

In his career, John Cameron was at the heart of every issue that has marked British football. Except for one: race. That he narrowly missed: the great Walter Tull joined Tottenham Hotspur two years after Cameron’s departure. Tull travelled with Spurs to play Bristol City in his first season. A correspondent relates:

A section of the spectators made a cowardly attack on him in language lower than Billingsgate.. Let me tell those Bristol hooligans that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football whether they be amateur or professional. In point of ability, if not actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field.

Tull’s war saw him become the first Black officer to lead white troops into battle – indeed, to become the first British-born black officer ever. Sadly, the end of the war did not come soon enough for him.

Cameron lived until 1935, long enough to see the rise to fame, and the death, of the last innovative English manager, Herbert Chapman. All of the footballing change and growth that Cameron had lived through in his career before 1914 stopped thereafter, apart from Chapman, and I wonder what he would have made of the passivity and stasis of the interwar English game, especially once Arsenal’s great manager was gone. Since 1935, certainly, history has simply repeated itself. Here we are again, a few rich clubs dominant, buying their talent from outside England’s borders, denying the need for coaching, bickering over player’s pay.

We’ve done it all over and over again, but Cameron was there first. And that’s why he’s the Scotsman who epitomises the history of English football. Well, I did say he didn’t have to be English….

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Why Did British Football Cease To Innovate?

Posted on 04 October 2007 by JamesHamilton

Fans Arrive at Crystal Palace for Newcastle v Villa FA Cup Final 1906

What British football had become by 1905, the world game reflects now. League systems, knock-out cups, international matches, the basic rules, professionalism, the nature of the football club, football administration – they’re all British inventions dating from a hectic 42 year period beginning in 1863 with the formation of the Football Association.

But in the 42 years after 1905, there is only one innovation to add to the list, and it’s a minor one, not universally adopted: the Buchan/Chapman third-back game. British men were responsible for innovation abroad – see the excellent El Bombin site for more on this – but Herbert Chapman’s many other frustrated ideas aside, the domestic game goes quiet.

In the subsequent sixty years, we’ve become wholesale importers of ideas and trends – some good, some not so good. We have exported Bobby Robson and hooliganism.

It’s worth asking why this is so. When English thinking has changed the design of rugby union kit in the last decade, when English cricket has invented the 20-20 game in the last decade, when British designers have dominated Formula One racing – it’s worth asking what happened to our national game to make it such a passive affair, content to jog along behind.

What follows are ideas, not conclusions: have at them.

The end of Britain’s industrial dominance

Industrialisation happened to Britain first, and had the effect of creating in short order a large number of large towns and cities with new wealth and few traditions of their own. Football clubs appear in these places as soon as the first shoots of reform free up time and energy, when there is enough of a railway system to make competition possible, but before suburbanization pushed available clear land out of range of the high-density inner cities.

By 1914, that development had run out of steam in many respects. The railway network had peaked, leaving no new territory that could be opened up. The industrial north, changed out of all recognition since 1840, would remain in its essential Edwardian form until World War II. The football clubs of the north would do likewise. They were born in innovative places, and stagnated in stagnating ones.

Football was an entertainment, not a sport

Once the idea of the large football stadium had been made real, starting with Everton’s Goodison Park, it found its typical form very quickly. Today, as in 1905, there seems to be a maximum crowd size of 60-100,000. Beyond that, the fan is too far from the pitch. Pace television, that imposes an upper limit on the income available from playing matches – and, as a maximum wage had been imposed by 1905, it imposes an upper limit on what’s worth building. There are few significant new stadia built after 1914, and no extensions of capacity beyond that maximum.

Most of the changes seen between 1863 and 1905 had served to create the situation in which football could perform as a mass entertainment – the standardization of rules, the incorporation of professional players, the creation of competitions. Once this was done, the question of why the game should continue to change became moot. The next major change – the loosening of the offside rule in 1925 – came because the status quo was not providing the same entertainment and football, already an expensive option for working and lower middle-class men, was facing strong competition for its audience.

British international dominance

South America and Europe caught up with Britain because we were there to be caught up with. We allowed ourselves to be caught up because we were ahead for a very, very long time, and our psychological advantage endured for a good twenty years after that. Since 1953, we have never regained the lead, but we have kept the rest of the world sufficiently in sight for the situation to be relatively painless. This is because of the relative strength of the Football Association and domestic football structures which have shown incredible resilience over the years and have kept standards up to a level above that which would trigger drastic remedial action.


That first generation of professional footballers were, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the first generation of working class people to undergo compulsory education. As a result, there were a large number of highly intelligent men playing professional football – the kind of intelligence that white-collar work and red-brick universities would claim in ever increasing numbers in subsequent years.

Because the idea of football as a lifelong career didn’t exist as it does now, few of these men remained in the game. Those that did – and Herbert Chapman is the supreme example – did not have successors. Edwardian football was a home to the intelligent and articulate; these people would find better homes in later years, the game itself undergoing a brain drain that has never really gone into reverse, not even now in an age where footballer’s wages dwarf those of white collar professionals.

Significant numbers of the great postwar managers – Busby, Shankly, Paisley – came from Scottish or north-eastern mining stock, areas where white-collar escape remained difficult longer than in the big industrial cities. Others – Clough, for instance – failed to take the opportunities of their education.

Football’s economics after 1914 limited the need to think and innovate – the run-on from educational reform meant that there were ever fewer people in the game able to do the thinking.

Gentlemen and Tradesmen

The traditional British idea of the gentleman – not sullying his hands with work – lives on: the dream of the country house and the ownership of land as the ultimate goal of the approved British life is as powerful now as ever. British sport has a version of this – most recently seen in the resistance to professionalism in Rugby Union. Games are for enjoyment, not to be taken seriously; training spoils the fun. And that British nostrum, “don’t be clever” converts into a sporting “don’t be skilful” – unless you propose to justify your skill in the manner of a Best or Gascoigne, that is.

In short, the very idea of improvement, of innovation, is suspect in the British game and always has been.

Alongside that is the determination – the tenacity of the idea – that there are such things as English or British values and that these are more important to victory than skill or intelligence. “Passion and commitment” in short. The Australians, who show both of those qualities in spades, disagree with us, and want intelligence and strategy too. We don’t: witness the steady, stealthy writing-out of Clive Woodward from the English memory of the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

Those who are keenest on the “passion and commitment” idea think themselves the salt of the earth; in reality, they are the dupes of snobbery, ignorant of their need of Langland’s advice and prisoners to an invisible, Austenesque social snare.


The rest of British life has benefitted from the cultural, economic and moral energy released by the horribly belated correction of moral attitudes towards homosexuality. I don’t know why the hell football doesn’t want that too, other than its usual reasons of childish, sniggering cowardice. Football is prone to mistake intelligence or creative thinking for homosexuality and to see that in a negative light.

Feminism: repeat to fade. Poor Jackie Ashley.

Football has done a great deal to fight racism in Britain – perhaps that deserves the term “innovation” in the light of recent experiences in Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe. That it felt it to be in its own interests to do so doesn’t take away from the courage shown by the pioneers who set that change in motion thirty years ago. But in relation to other things, it can seem anomalous.


The Premier League’s coaching certificate is a qualification that you cannot fail – all you need do is put in the hours. Isn’t that extraordinary? but it comes from a tradition that insists on coaching, if it really must take place, mustn’t be too clever and must come from the heart, from natural talent, not from actual learning.

On Radio 5’s 606 last night, a Chelsea fan urged the replacement of Avram Grant as manager by Kerry Dixon and Gianfranco Zola. In British football management circles, you have to have been a horse if you are to become a jockey. Wenger, Mourinho and Benitez, none of whom played top level football, are living arguments to the contrary, but this conundrum has a habit of failing to impose itself on the national sporting consciousness.

“The lads in their wisdom,” in Gordon Strachan’s phrase (used after his Coventry City side ignored his instructions and took a beating) has always been the attitude. Edwardian football didn’t have managers in charge of tactics and strategy until Chapman, and there haven’t been that many in truth since. Foreign managers working in Britain or with British players complain at the lack of interest in matters of tactics, of strategy or problem solving, something exemplified by the difference between Sven Goran Ericksson’s approach with Manchester City compared to his treatment of England.


The British game that grew out of industrialization was an entertainment, not a sport: it was “only a game” albeit one with serious life lessons to teach. Once it found a viable form, as it had by 1905, the season in which the six-yard zone ceased to resemble breasts, once it was making as much money as was possible, why change, and how?

The British were top dogs at football for a very long time – and have never been so very bad at it as to feel the need for any significant alteration in their approach to it.

Football was, and perhaps still is, badly positioned to attract the active interest of the kind of British person who is responsible for the UK’s reputation for ideas, inventions, eccentricity, Clive Sinclair and Beagle II. But it’s good at engaging the interest of the type of person who hates all that sort of thing. Wodehouse divided humanity into golfers and poets. Football probably thinks Wodehouse was a ponce.

But football’s a frightened little lad in an overlarge body, laughing too loud at the rest of the world with the boys in the crowd, and the cheap words still come too easily.

What do you think? Nonsense? What other angles of this deserve coverage? Did British football cease to innovate?

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