Why British Football Needs To Become More British To Succeed

This man went to the same state school as David Beckham:


Twenty years earlier, and in the north, these men were also products of ordinary backgrounds:

..whereas the man you see here was an autodidact:

I was on my uppers during the last recession, and took comfort in the humble location of this man’s blue plaque:

And this man was born in working class Salford. The Tate owns 25 of his paintings now, and good ones can fetch more than half a million pounds at auction:

Men from a country that boasts 101 Nobel prizes – Germany, with approximately twice our population, muster only 76, France 49. Men from a country that published 206,000 books in 2005, more than the US (172,000), China (100,000) and Germany (71,515).

Britain is a country notorious for originality and eccentricity. We saved the modern world in ’39-’45, then built it, with the jet engine, the transistor, the first proper computer (or was that another Brit, Babbage’s?), and who knows what else..

More recently, another man who had to fight for his education exemplified just what I’m getting at:

Has there ever been a more beautiful car?

Hell, we even invented football.

Which is why we should be ashamed to read this, from Franco Baldini, after his first few days with the best footballers in the country:

We are trying to play more with the ball because the English culture is after two, three passes to hit a long ball. We have to try to play more. We need more technical skill. We have to practise, practise, practise. Also, many times we think about why some players are so important for their club – not just domestically but in European competition too – but they are less effective for England. What we have to work out is why that is. Maybe with their clubs, they play with less pressure than they play with for England. We know they want to play and perform but it’s a problem we want to address. This week has been very important for us so we can see things at first hand.

Our football, if it were truly British, would be original, clever, thinking (and I don’t mean intellectual. I left academia in ’91 because I wanted colleagues who could find their way out of a paper bag) and one step ahead. It would be subtle, ironic, but effective. Instead, it’s hackneyed, backward.

Superficially exciting, but as embarrassing in international company as Daphne Moon’s brother.

It’s not a class problem. English rugby is a middle class pursuit, and won a world cup during a brief moment of applied intelligence under Sir Clive Woodward, but it couldn’t get away from all that kind of stuff fast enough once he’d resigned.

Motor sport aside, it’s hard to think of a single major British sport that is ahead of its rivals. Everywhere else, the talk is of doing enough to catch up. There’s no ambition at all to do any overtaking.

Given how popular football is, why doesn’t it enjoy the services of the British eccentric and original (I distinguish these from the “great characters” the media creates from time to time)?

In football’s case, I think it’s all about fear. Fear of the obviously intelligent, fear of those people who can do what you can’t. British sport is a safe haven from the “clever”: a place where you can get into a crowd and laugh at what secretly frightens you, makes you feel inferior.

Even football journalists don’t want to look clever. Instead, so many of them talk in a wierd, obviously-fake laddish version of mockney, a language as far away from working class accents as Bertram Wooster’s but twice as ridiculous. That daft change in register when the news team hands over to the sports correspondent..

There’s Simon Clifford, of course. But whereas all British schools once had Acorn’s BBC Micro in their classrooms, how many British schools have taken his approach to the game on board? It’s even non-contact and non-competitive and there are infant versions, so what’s the problem?

The fact is, British football just isn’t very British. It’s not British to be importing expertise – the brain drain’s supposed to be going the other way. It’s not British to be found gormless and clumping, unless it’s in our attempts to brew lager.

So the British game is fast and exciting.. but Arsenal fans don’t miss playing “British”, and neither would you if your club could perform like that. And even that isn’t how British players and British teams should play.. we should be much better than that. It should be impossible for foreign players to use merit to get into the Premiership, and England and Scotland, at least, have it in them to recover the Edwardian lead over the rest of the world. Not through hubris, but by being like the rest of the country.

It doesn’t have to be la-di-da or fancy dan. Tony Harrison isn’t, but look at this! This is what British is like..


Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead
we chew it slowly that last apple pie.

Shocked into sleeplessness you’re scared of bed.
We never could talk much, and now don’t try.

You’re like book ends, the pair of you, she’d say,
Hog that grate, say nothing, sit, sleep, stare…

The ‘scholar’ me, you, worn out on poor pay,
only our silence made us seem a pair.

Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.

At night you need my company to pass
and she not here to tell us we’re alike!

You’re life’s all shattered into smithereens.

Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between ‘s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.


The stone’s too full. The wording must be terse.
There’s scarcely room to carve the FLORENCE on it–

Come on, it’s not as if we’re wanting verse.
It’s not as if we’re wanting a whole sonnet!

After tumblers of neat Johnny Walker
(I think that both of us we’re on our third)
you said you’d always been a clumsy talker
and couldn’t find another, shorter word
for ‘beloved’ or for ‘wife’ in the inscription,
but not too clumsy that you can’t still cut:

You’re supposed to be the bright boy at description
and you can’t tell them what the fuck to put!

I’ve got to find the right words on my own.

I’ve got the envelope that he’d been scrawling,
mis-spelt, mawkish, stylistically appalling
but I can’t squeeze more love into their stone.

If only we realized it, we could do to 4-4-2 what Harrison does to that simple ballad form. And then invent new forms, faster and more easily than anyone else. Our popular musicians have. Bowie came from Croydon; Morrisey from Hulme. Harrison himself was a Leeds boy, of course.

Given the state of Arsenal, the reBritishization of football will have to start in the capital. And I have a poster to rally the ranks (click to enlarge):

(copyright cambridge2000.com)

Tout changes a Wembley, next, tout changes a Hackney Marsh, tout changes at the public parks and school pitches and non-league grounds. You can keep your hat on, as they say. But we were being British when we invented this brilliant game, and invented all of the structures that have kept it thriving for so long. Let’s be British in how we play it, once again.

Put Clifford’s methods into primary schools, and in 15 years the world won’t be able to touch our young players. And football will be British again. Because heaven knows what country it resembles now.

AFTERWORD: You’re all going to hate this, aren’t you? But please tell me why – I’d be particularly interested in answers to the question of our national ambition regarding the game, why we don’t seek to be the best, just to keep the rest vaguely in sight, and why it is that our technical skills are still behind fifty-five years after 6-3.


9 Replies to “Why British Football Needs To Become More British To Succeed”

  1. Good for you, James. But I suggest that you delete transistor and insert penicillin. Wikipedia says:-
    The first patent[5] for the field-effect transistor principle was filed in Canada by Austrian-Hungarian physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld on October 22, 1925, but Lilienfeld did not publish any research articles about his devices, and they were ignored by industry. In 1934 German physicist Dr. Oskar Heil patented another field-effect transistor. There is no direct evidence that these devices were built, but later work in the 1990s show that one of Lilienfeld’s designs worked as described and gave substantial gain. Legal papers from the Bell Labs patent show that Shockley and Pearson had built operational versions from Lilienfeld’s patents, yet they never referenced this work in any of their later research papers or historical articles.[6][7]

    On 16 December 1947, William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain succeeded in building the first practical point-contact transistor at Bell Labs.

  2. ……on those grounds, I’d have to remove jet engine too. But there are so many more to add that it makes little difference. Thanks for the extra info – I note that Shockley himself was British by birth, and wonder how many more we could claim via similar routes.

  3. I don’t honestly think many countries do play exciting, technically-gifted football these days, and certainly not the Italians. Possibly Argentina, some ex-Eastern bloc countries and the occasional African team. Part of it is due to panic and pressure, which causes teams to be ultra cautious or run around like idiots depending on the circumstances. Part of it also due to the footballs these days- they’re not much different to 50p floaters from seaside gift shops, so they are more difficult to control and easier to whack long distances.

    I wouldn’t say it was a British disease myself, and could be rectified if a different attitude is adopted.

  4. I agree with Igor Belanov. An example: The Ivory Coast team is full of exciting technically gifted footballers and Egypt destroyed them by being a better team, by being more disciplined, keeping their shape,etc etc – they didn’t have better individual players, but 4-1 was about right. (It helps to get the first goal)

  5. To be honest I haven’t the heart to argue with someone who quotes Tony Harrison, particularly as I know fuck-all about football myself. But (hey what the hell I’m a business school guy, launching into a new area armed only with a few generic solutions is what I do!), you seem to be arguing from the premis that the long-ball game is intrinsically wrong, and that any calculation that ends up with the long ball as a solution has to be flawed by that token. I’m not 100% sure that this can be justified – after all, if you look at rugby as a comparison (which you do), then you’re looking at a game in which the strategy changes radically from season to season in order to exploit changes in the rules. Football has had enough changes in the offside rule to make it implausible that something like the long ball game has always been the wrong solution to the relevant optimisation problem. I seem to remember that the original long-ball theorist was someone who had spent a hell of a long time analysing the contemporary equivalent of the Carling Opta statistics, wasn’t he?

  6. I think that’s rather good, James. The Brits do themselves down. Partly it is irony, but partly it is the dear old cliche – post-colonial guilt, self-doubt, loss of identity, and general uncertainty. The Scots, the Welsh and the Irish have dumped Britness in the laps of the English alone, and your article is essentially about the English-Brits.

    Like dsquared, above, I am not sure the it is the long-ball that is the cancer in the flesh. It is lack of variety and predictability along with an anxiety to satisfy a crowd (aided, abetted, led and followed by the press) that has little patience.

    There is British invention of course. Football itself. Ramsey’s wingless wonders. And there always has been skill and technique but often it was dismissed by both crowd and press as fancy stuff “without a product”. You only have to think of the view, even last year, of Ronaldo as an unproductive show pony.

    I don’t imagine crowds and press will change overnight. There are aspects of national character (which is not quite the same as culture) that are deeply rooted. Encouraging inventiveness, allowing for eccentricity and genius, as the lovely, peculiar line that runs from, say, Sherlock Holmes through to Matthew le Tissier and Gazza are not necessarily contrary to the desire for honesty, hard work and heart. The last three (the three Hs as Peter Cook might have put it) are not vices or traits to be dismissed. It is just that the they are not enough.

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