Peter Watts’s recent visit to Whitgift showed a football returning by inches to being a true national game, involving, like cricket and racing, everyone regardless of income and background (the bulk of the 2005 Ashes winners were state-educated incidentally).
What it wasn’t, and couldn’t have been, was a comment on the level of intelligence within football.
It’s probable that the spread of intelligence levels of every kind in football matches the spread of intelligence in society in general. At the same time, it’s fair to say that there’s a perception that British football could “show more intelligence”. The traditional attitude that “Only a horse can become a jockey” is troubling not just because the likes of Wenger, Ericksson and Mourinho prove it wrong, but because it contains within itself the seeds of its own stupidity. British clubs, it says, end up managed by Bottom.
The best British managers, of course, are up there with the Wengers. You might even describe a golden age stretching from Matt Busby through Shankly, Revie, Taylor and Clough until you get to David Moyes of our own era. When you start looking for footballing unintelligence, it melts away, loses you in the back streets, the alleys and the courts..
My theory has been that football is where the English, with all their Nobel Prizes and world-changing invention and colossal literacy, go to to be stupid. However clever we are, we aren’t going to show it in football. It’s different for the Scots and Irish, and probably the Welsh too.
What to make of John Cameron’s take on the issue then, in the Penny Illustrated Paper of September 26th 1908?
There was a time when the player was not an educated man, as he is today. He is very often a gentleman by instinct and nature, and particularly a good sportsman. You have a man like Fleming, the Swindon centre-forward. He is saving up his money to become a clergyman; Alex Glen, the old Southampton and Tottenham player, saves all the money he can to prepare for the medical profession; while Charlie O’Hagan, the Irish international captain, gave up a good position in the Civil Service in order to play the game.
Cameron’s was a small sample, but similar tales emerge from Herbert Chapman’s squad at Huddersfield 15 years later.
Let’s not forget that universal secondary education was a post-War phenomenon. My great aunt Violet failed a grammar school scholarship at the age of 12 owing to nerves and indigestion on the day. She spent her next fifty years sewing for what became Debenhams, and hated it. In retirement, she lived in a terraced house that shared a wall with a sewing factory, and spent the rest of her days listening to the Singers murmuring at her through the Bedfordshire brick.
Likewise, Alfred Williams, author, poet and folksong archivist, found himself unable to escape hard labour at Swindon works until his health got too bad for him to continue.
If free education wasn’t available to those who had the ability to take every advantage of it, then you had to find another way. Cameron’s terse, typically judgemental paragraph shows how that surplus income that football provided could go into education and retraining. If you had your wits about you, and could set yourself career targets, and were lucky with your club and injuries, it could be done. You had the money and the spare time. Football was a window of opportunity.
Edwardian football presented a few smart men with fresh opportunities of its own. John Cameron managed Spurs, although – as I’ll be writing about in a little while – what that meant in 1900 was different to what Aidy Boothroyd does now. You could try journalism. Cameron had his eye on that almost from the beginning. In May 1902, “Banshee” of the PIP, Cameron’s future employer, records:
Late on Monday I received a telegram from Mr John Cameron stating that he had signed on Houston, of the Heart of Midlothian, as centre-forward for the ‘Spurs. The new man is not a whit inferior to Sandy Brown, and the ‘Spurs will be as strong as ever.
So did Herbert Chapman, whose Daily Mirror columns were collected in book form after his premature death in 1934. Cameron, by now writing for the PIP, took a proprietorial interest in Chapman, who’d played for him at Tottenham in his last years at the club:
They (Northampton Town, Chapman’s first club as manager, here winning in 1908) thoroughly deserve the position they have got, for their supporters are always to the fore, no matter how the side is doing. To Manager Chapman, one of my Old Boy Spin Brigade, the honours are largely due.
But on the whole, football did not and does not offer a lifetime’s career path to British players – which applies as much to the women’s game as to the men’s. Nor is there any great feeling that it ought to. So, like the armed forces, football continues to spit its children out in the end to sink or swim.
Perhaps this is where the public schools, who can afford to be career-orientated, come in. Can they create a viable lifetime career model for professional sport that works for everyone who goes into it, from whatever background? Or will they mimic the FA, who have largely ignored the problem for the last 120 years?