The Ten Greatest Mistakes in British Football History

Most of you will have read the contributions to Danny Finkelstein’s Ten Greatest Mistakes in British History question in The Times. I found most of them dubious – the Chartists not arming the London masses?

But it led me to think about what the top ten mistakes in British football history might be. In the week of the Munich commemorations, trying to take off through that bloody slush springs to mind. That’s half a club, half an “England” error. Every other club has its moments of regret, if not on the same tragic scale. What might have happened had Spurs been able to keep Gascoigne and Lineker? Or if Manchester City hadn’t sacked Joe Mercer when they did?

Anyone’s list of ten will betray something of their vision of the game as a whole. I want to see British football the best, the smartest, the most skilful in the world. I’d like to see a national programme sustained over twenty years to bring this about. It might not win us the World Cup – blind luck matters too much in football for that. But it might earn us what great achievement earned Brazil in 1982, Holland in 1974 and Argentina in 2006: the honour of being the best in the world in the eyes of the World. Whose ’82 highlight reel do you prefer?

So that’s what’s behind my ten. Here they are:

  1. The imposition at the start of the 20th century of retain-and-transfer and the maximum wage. These measures guaranteed that football would develop into a working class ghetto sport in the UK, owned and run by middle class businessmen. Not only did this prevent football from becoming a truly national game – it had much to do with the long-term ghettoization of rugby at the other end of society. The impact of this system on the life of the likes of Brian Clough and Wilf Mannion and Charlie Mitten is enough alone to render it a moral disgrace. But there were so many others.
  2. The 1925 change in the offside rule. Made for commercial reasons, the change led to the rapid adoption of the long-ball game, the emphasis on physique and the end of the classic Scottish passing game. Most observers at the time, including Herbert Chapman, noticed an immediate and lasting drop in standards, a retreat from what they saw as the more subtle, clever Edwardian game. Although this rule change applied worldwide, other countries, notably Brazil, drew different conclusions from it, and 1925 is one potential date for the loss of our leadership in the global game.
  3. Allowing the likes of Jimmy Hogan and Fred Pentland to go abroad. All of the most visionary coaches of the early twentieth century went overseas, barring Herbert Chapman and Jimmy Seed. Hogan in particular found his stress on skills coaching and thinking tactics rejected in England, and it wasn’t for nothing that he sat with the Hungarian contingent at Wembley in 1953. He was accused of being a traitor: the traitors were the English blockheads who rejected his methods in the ’10s and ’30s.
  4. Failing to enter the 1930 World Cup. We’d have been exposed to South American football twenty years earlier than actually happened. When we eventually played Brazil in 1950, the effect on the thinking of men like Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney was profound, and both reflect at length about it in their excellent autobiographies.
  5. Persisting with separate Football Associations for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s done for silly, jingoistic nationalistic reasons, and has actively damaged the game in Wales, let alone preventing a UK national side benefitting from UK clubs’ dominance of European club competitions 1965-85. “Auld Enemy”? If Liverpool could pull together Scots and English and Welsh and Irish, if Leeds and Manchester United could, and with such results, and later Rangers and Celtic, then just mourn what such silliness has lost.
  6. Failure to learn from 1953. The lesson there – that we were no longer world leaders in football – met with no concerted national response, and has not done so since. All we’ve had is occasional bleating about catching up, or the assertion that an organized side can beat a skilled one, as though a skilled side won’t be organized or won’t be capable of effective organization beyond the reach of journeymen. We should be talking about taking steps now that in twenty years will get us ahead of the world – or just admit that we’re too bone thick to work the long term.
  7. Failure to get to grips with fan violence earlier – it should have been nipped in the bud in the 1960s. Quite apart from that ’85 Everton side being denied a run at the European Cup, which is quite loss enough, it led to the effective exclusion of all but the all-out fan from large parts of some grounds. “Green Street” didn’t used to be part of “fan culture” (ugh) in the good old days that we’re always being told about by mockney fakers on Sky Sports, but it is now. And it led to the abolition of standing areas, of which more anon.
  8. The split between the Premiership and the Football League. We can all see where this is going. Including the new and monstrously tasteless idea of playing a round of matches abroad. It has also led to the decay of the FA Cup as a competition.
  9. The introduction of league formats in the European Cup. The tournament has lost a great deal of its former glamour, and the UEFA Cup has lost all of its. European nights benefit from scarcity; and “four teams qualifying from the Premiership” is just crass and tasteless.
  10. The abolition of all standing areas at English top level grounds. It’s killed the atmosphere. More has been lost than gained.

Other candidates throng. Giving Clough a run at England instead of Revie in ’74 was more than one step beyond the FA, whose shortlist that year was a shocking joke. Giving it to him in ’78 wouldn’t have been fair on him; he deserved better than to have to clean up after others, for all that he was willing. By ’82 it was too late for him, as we can now see, and his appointment then would have been cruelly unfair on Bobby Robson, another man who’d done remarkable things with a small club side. ’74 was the year, the last chance to sustain the momentum of ’66 and ’70 before it was gone for good. Ramsey had been unfortunate, and a confident hand to take over from him would have saved the situation. But who knew? Revie was the obvious candidate…

The treatment of Hoddle by England – as a player, obviously. And, still more so, of Waddle after he went to France and there played the best sustained football by an English midfielder in recent memory.

Gascoigne’s treatment by the various therapists he’s had over the years: the constant misdiagnosis, the grandstanding and advantage-taking by professional men both starstruck and condescending. British football’s bigoted attitude towards mental illness.

Selling Jaap Stam; selling Beckham. Dropping Beckham. Substituting Charlton. Picking Derek Kevan.

Dropping Tommy Lawton.

Trying to take off through slush.

Trying to take off through all that bloody slush.


3 Replies to “The Ten Greatest Mistakes in British Football History”

  1. Selling Jaap Stam

    Don’t agree with that. If an employee goes to print accusing his boss of criminal corruption, he gets fired, immediately, regardless of consequences.

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