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The Friendly Clubs: Ipswich Town

Posted on 15 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

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

Bobby Robson at Ipswich Town 1971

Ipswich Town were always a homely sort of colossus, and they’ve left a comparatively cuddly monument in the lone and level sands. But for an eighteen month period at the start of the 1980s, they had a presence that only the Liverpool of Rush and Dalglish could match.

Practically every great post-Ramsey Ipswich player was on view that day against United. Surely that side, clearly the best in England, deserved better than just a European trophy and the semis and the second-places that they actually received.

They were a glamorous team only for their play. Suffolk lacked mines for Bobby Robson to whistle down. His Ipswich had medieval faces and tradesman’s names: Butcher, Cooper, Mariner, Mills. If you look at the team photograph now, it’s easy to imagine Robson following William Dowsing from church to church, Southwold, Walberswick, Blyford, Laxfield, and calling his men to him from the backs of pews and from high on the ancient stone.

Except for Eric Gates, whom Robson discovered in gnome costume, fishing for carp by someone’s pond in backstreet Bungay.

Perhaps not, but magic of some kind there must have been, because it all happened so quickly for Ipswich. They turned pro in 1936, became League Champions twenty seasons later, and within forty had added the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup, and scalps like Real Madrid’s and St Etienne’s. An even greater feat of chronology followed in 1981 when Messrs. Wark, Osman and co. inspired Escape to Victory.

It was the era of the friendly clubs – Ipswich, Norwich City, Luton Town, Watford and  Southampton.  Nevertheless Ipswich’s success defies easy analysis.

Bobby Robson inherited Mick Mills, but apart from Dutchmen Thyssen and Muhren, every other member of that 78-82 glory team was brought to Ipswich young, cheap and obscure. The blue streak was 1971-6, when Robson found John Wark, Russell Osman, Paul Cooper, George Burley, Eric Gates, Terry Butcher, Paul Mariner, Kevin Beattie, Allan Hunter and Roger Osbourne.

Missing from that list, because they came before or after, are Mick Lambert, Clive Woods, Trevor Whymark, Brian Talbot and Alan Brazil. Surely Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town are the most remarkable example of team building to be found in English League history.There is nothing like it before, during or after the Maximum Wage.

Robson thought Trevor Beattie the best of them. Indeed, he thought him the best English-born player he’d ever seen, and that at the end of a management career which had involved Alan Shearer.

But it was the team’s reassuring, moustachiod uncle, Mick Mills, that my mates wanted to be. He was a man out of Macdonald Fraser, the eternal NCO who gave his life for Flashman or wasted his time over McAuslan time and again. Bloodyminded,  sensible and hard as nails, he was the ideal foil for Robson, a balance for the manager’s inspiration and hysteria. Ron Greenwood, who knew Bobby Moore, made Mick Mills captain of England.

The England strip updated Mills and replaced his valve-work with silicon circuitry. When the dugout grieved and panicked, he, alongside his true contemporaries Brooking and Keegan, kept his nerve.

Yet Mills was betrayed, in the end. Robson left for the England job at the end of 1982, but first made sure he’d sold Mills out of the club he’d graced since 1966. Then he ended Mills’s England career along with Keegan’s and Brooking’s. Their replacements failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championship.

Perhaps it was just as well. Most of the great names were gone within two or three years, in a dismemberment greater even than that of Nottingham Forest. Brazil and Mariner went to London, Butcher to Scotland, the skipper to Southampton.

Those of us who’d loved and feared them in 1978-82 waited years for them to recover. Apart from one bright season under Robson protegee George Burley, they never came again. And that’s how you grow old.

But there’s one last turn to the story. Three decades on, most of that team, be they English, Scottish or whatever, have found their roots in Suffolk, and live there to this day.

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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.

Education

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.

Homophobia

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.

Coaching

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.

Conclusion

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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England and the World Cup: A Longer View

Posted on 26 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

I’m not going to enter into any detailed analysis here, but these are some pointers as to why I think England have only one World Cup star on their shirts:

  • England’s best teams have almost always peaked outside World Cup years – the 46-48 side, the 60-61 team, and the 75-78 side that Revie never picked are just 3 examples.
  • Although the press and the fans prioritise World Cup success, the FA haven’t on the whole, preferring to see the England team as an enjoyable adjunct to the real business of maintaining the best grass-roots game in the world. Choosing the England manager has been a case of finding someone who will take care of far more than just the international side – one reason among others for the appointment of Bobby Robson and Ron Greenwood; similarly, the non-appointment of Brian Clough.
  • For the first half of the twentieth century – the half that gave Italy two of their three World Cups, and Uruguay one half of theirs – England were quite correct to focus on the Home Championship as their source of international competition. Between 1900 and 1920, other international matches – such as the Olympic tournaments – were far too one-sided. England, with a fully-fledged league system behind them, got into double figures frequently, and ended up sending an amateur team to the Olympics just to make things more competitive. Between 1920 and 1950, things were a little closer – but when Italy brought their “World Champions” to England, they resorted to thuggish tactics simply to keep England in sight. After the war, England became far more involved in international football, but before 1950 the story was much the same – easy victory. It’s forgotten that England’s defeats abroad – to Spain, for example – were defeats for what was almost certainly a badly hung-over team who were treating the trip as a holiday yet playing hyped-up super-motivated opposition for whom the game was the highlight of their lives.
  • What’s seen as England’s fallow period since 1970 was in fact very short – lasting perhaps from 1972 and the Netzer game at Wembley, to 1977 and the defeats to Italy. It’s a period coinciding with Ramsey’s decline and Revie’s failure to pick a team from perhaps the best generation of skilful, inspiring footballers England’s had since the War. The anxieties and lack of confidence that were born in that period are still with us today, and are reflected in the bizarre, Cassandra-esque reporting of international matches. I believe that England teams have, until Eriksson, played at 5-10% below their real ability as a consequence of this. By contrast, our success in European club football in the 1970s raised confidence and expectations to such a degree that a mediocre side such as the Aston Villa of 81-2, or the talent-limited Forest teams of 78-9, could expect to win European cups and do so, repeatedly.

It sounds strange to say it, but behind all of this is an unexpected truth: we have cared less than other countries about winning the World Cup. Mexico have gone home already, but their team had six months together to prepare; we negotiated an extra week. During tournaments, there’s a lot of huffing and puffing in the media, but the fact is that we can put up with not winning – and that’s why we don’t.

Four years ago, Clive Woodward decided that nothing was going to stand in the way of England’s rugby men winning the ultimate title, and that was the beginning of a quite extraordinary and utterly focussed effort that just – by the skin of the teeth – succeeded. Such was the mental energy expended that the side have since gone into colossal decline, and have no chance of defending their title next year. Likewise, the England cricket team won the Ashes through what appears now as a moment of decision – that it mattered at the ultimate level to win, and it mattered now. Since then… it’s all gone away. In both rugby and cricket teams, the vital players have been missing through injury almost ever since.

If England win – and they seem to have a similar outlook to the rugby and cricket teams – you can almost guarantee four years of total mediocrity afterwards. You can probably guarantee it anyway – Erickson’s successor has been chosen, not to win trophies, but to facilitate the development of a new generation of English coaches. It needs doing, but it’s not a goal shared by the press or the fans.

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