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Review: James Corbett’s “England Expects: A History of the England Football Team”

Posted on 03 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

Steve Bloomer: 19 goals in 23 England Appearances 1895-1907

The first edition of James Corbett’s “England Expects: A History of the England Football Team” has sat somewhere near my desk since about a fortnight after its initial publication. There hadn’t really been a proper full England history before. Of course, there’d been books about England managers - but that’s not quite the same thing, and in any event, by the time Ramsey was appointed, the first proper England manager as we know them, English international football was already 90 years old. So Corbett’s huge red hardback, which combined concise match reporting from the very start, concentrated on players and audience as much as managers, and in sharp, clean prose avoided all of the usual laddish clichees, was extremely welcome.

The second edition is a reillustrated, tightened-up paperback, and it gives a reader confidence when a photograph of Edwardian striking star Steve Bloomer is captioned author’s own collection. For James Corbett, the first half century of international football – 1870-1920 – isn’t the usual source of sneering fun, and his account has none of the usual sense that writers give of waiting for the real business to begin. So this is the best short account of the amateur-versus-professional controversy. The wealthy pioneers like Lord Kinnaird are proper sportsmen, not moustache-twiddling sexual obsessives. Snobbery is not the only reason keeping the Football Association out of FIFA. Professional league football is not the usual unmitigated triumph for the working man. Corbett lets the game grow in its own time and context, and that time and context are assuredly not ours.

Even non-fiction accounts, when done properly, fall into one or another of the seven plots, and there’s an enjoyable debate to be had about which one the England football team follows and at what speed. The usual unconscious pick of football writers is decline, fall, recovery, triumph! fall again, recovery, Gazzamania, and (insert blur of journalism to bring us “up to date”). Corbett avoids this. The inter-war period, badly filmed and so little-known to most fans, is closely covered without distracting references to past and future, making good use of what are actually fairly extensive primary autobiographical sources. The great England side of the war years and after – Lawton, Mannion, Matthews, Finney, Carter and co. – are recorded and celebrated for their own sake, not for that of Hungary and 1953.

Not that 1953 came out of the blue: Corbett incorporates it into a longer account of relative decline after the wartime side broke up, and remarks that the 6-3 defeat itself caused less upset amongst the game’s players and administrators than you might think. 1950-55 was one of a number of the fallow periods that England’s team have passed through – the 1920s, either side of Dixie Dean, was another, and so was 1975-80, and 1991-5. How would the Hungarians of ’53 gotten on against the Byrne-Edwards-Taylor England of 1957, or the Charlton-Greaves England of 1962? England’s recovery after the 1954 World Cup, in both club and international terms, was real enough, and Corbett’s chapter about those sunnier last years of the Winterbottom regime is headed by a fine meditative photo of Stanley Matthews besuited, new holder of the ballon d’or, gazing into the future from the sand dunes at Blackpool.

That future would be one in which England built three separate teams, in the space of twelve years, which were capable of frightening anyone, even the 1970 Brazilians. Three good sides – without revolutions in training, without changes to the league system (save the scrapping of the regional divisions in favour of a national Division Four), and without reform at the FA. Some things had changed: the ’57-58 pre-Munich side were the best nourished in history, thanks to rationing, and, thanks to education reforms and Walter Winterbottom, many of the ’66 and ’70 sides had received proper coaching in good conditions at school at the right age. But the biggest change of all was the ending of committee selection, partially under Winterbottom and finally under Ramsey. Corbett’s long, detailed examination of Ramsey’s construction of the ’66 side against strong and vocal opposition is the deserved highlight of the book. If you want to know what the verrou system is, you’ll have to buy a copy.

What follows ’66 is a kind of flatlining: the endless, exhausting efforts to do it again, to retrieve some footballing self-esteem, all while the game goes on about its own, quite separate business elsewhere. There are ways to make sense of this. It comes back to plot again: and Corbett, confronted by the triumph/disaster dichotomy that night/days its way out of the mouths of fans and journalists, opts instead for theme:

the insatiable burden of expectation facing our footballers and the way they have often been overwhelmed by it..shattered dreams and unyielding expectation (stretching from) origins among the mid-Victorians through to a modern era defined by money, massive egos and chronic underachievement(..) the monstrous expectation.. rears its head again and again and in so many different ways. There is, alas, no happy ending.

But there is happiness along the way. Hudson’s match in 1975 against West Germany; Keegan and Brooking’s attacking 2-0 Wembley win over Italy two years later; the vindication of Bobby Robson and Alan Shearer’s romp in the sunshine against Holland. Before that game, Terry Venables summed it up: “We are inclined to be a nation (which thinks) we are the worst team in the world or the best. Neither is true.”

The final chapters cover England’s progress during what will have been the period of James Corbett’s own writing career. Unlike many journalists, he’s resisted the temptation to place himself at the centre of events, appearing only when doing so adds an essential psychological point (Corbett’s meeting with Steve McClaren six months before the future Eredivisie winner’s England sacking for example). Nor, while writing about the unbearable expectations placed on England, does he overpromote the issue: what keeps us interested, in the end, isn’t expectation, he says, but something lighter and better: hope.

England Expects is fully footnoted and contains a comprehensive bibliography and is published by De Coubertin at £12.99.

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Anyone But England: English Football Fans in Scotland

Posted on 25 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

It wasn’t so long ago when the English felt free to mock inhabitants of Her Majesty’s erstwhile and remaining possessions(start at 2m 16 secs)…

..and going further back still, most early histories of the Football Association refer to Scottish professional players in alienating terms: they were foreigners, come from outside to take the shilling and pollute the holy amateur game of England.

Those Edwardians angry at the incomers were administrators and (a few) journalists. There’s no hint that the Preston or Blackburn or Villa fan at the turnstile minded their Scottish players at all. And one hundred years on, I don’t even want to contemplate what the Football League would have lost had it not enjoyed Nevin, Dalglish, Law, Alex James and what must be thousands of others.

Some Scottish fans will know how hard many English find it, to feel how they’d like to feel about the Premier League and the England national team. “Is Wayne Rooney England’s only likeable player?” asks Football 365. “Anyone But England” has never hurt less than it does now. What might have been an insult of real force – when an England team could contain a Charlton brother, a Brooking, a Mick Mills or a Gordon Banks – now sounds, in the era of Cole, Terry, and Ferdinand, no more than a sound but slightly exaggerated opinion that many disillusioned Englanders quietly share.

“Anyone But England” isn’t, of course, anything to do with the rise and fall of the England moral barometer. Neither is it reciprocated. There are a few English fans who become exasperated enough by ABE to stop actively supporting Scotland’s teams in European or international competition, and a small number who go further and cheer on Scotland’s opponents. But we really are talking about very tiny minorities: the English tradition is to support the other British Isles nations and, where available, other Anglophone countries too (USA excepted, if not by me personally).

Not all English traditions are so evenhanded. Especially when it comes to other countries, and that’s why I’d defend Scotland’s silent but mutually-reinforced decision not to adopt this one. Nevertheless, it’s true to say that Scottish fans can go to English pubs to cheer Scotland on and, for the most part, not have to give it a second thought. What happens to England fans, going to Scottish pubs, to cheer on England? I’ve done it, and here’s what I have to say:

The number of Scots who express ABE in anger is vanishingly small, and any discussion of ABE on talkboards will attract comment from Scots who disagree with it and dislike it as a childish hangover and a block on Scottish development.

The golden rule about ABE is that it must be expressed in a humorous tone. Serious use of ABE is considered de trop. But so is energetic argument against it from an Englishman, which is why the wearing of an England shirt in a Scottish pub, whilst unlikely to inspire anything worse than brief comment, is seen as inappropriate, a misjudgement of the situation. That shirt, there, is such an energetic argument.

You are highly unlikely to meet anyone who wants to press the ABE point  even amongst those Scots for whom ABE is an important fact of life. The conversation always moves on. There are other things to talk about, and this is especially so when it comes to football.

Much ABE isn’t about England at all. It’s not about hating the elderly in their freezing deckchairs at Morecambe, for goodness’ sake,  or a playground of children in Gateshead or a Leytonstone mum struggling to stretch her pennies. And there’s always a note of regret behind the humour, a sorrow that Scotland isn’t better than she is, an indefinable if-only..

The expression of a small measure of ABE is expected of you if you are Scottish and part of a group of fans whose teams have made contact with the auld enemy. But you don’t actually have to believe it. And you are, remember, expected to use inverted commas as you say it. Fail that test and it isn’t ABE at all, but something more serious, something nastier that Scottish football is keen to leave in the past.

ABE is not a first-order expression of Scottish nationality. It isn’t the equivalent of wearing a kilt, or a Scotland shirt, or of flying the flag of St Andrew or making a Burns Night toast or climbing your last Munro. Next to these things, ABE is a ginger wig on match day, ABE is an inflatable haggis.

In this sense, then, wearing an England shirt in a Scottish pub is a betrayal of the principles of ABE - it’s missing the joke, missing the point, ignoring house rules. You’re unlikely to get any worse for it than a comment or two, if even that. But you’ll have insulted your hosts. Your England shirt – boorish and aggressive in most places even in England – is a tiresome, humourless and provocative rag up here. It is, above all, boring, dull as a wet day and just as depressing. Don’t forget, either, that there are still amends to be made, all around the world, for what louts in England shirts did in the years between the Heysel ban and the Beatles last LP. This is not just about Scotland.

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