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