Epitomes of English Football

Back from Berlin, and as promised I have photographs to do with the man who I consider to epitomise the history of English football. But before I give you my nomination, I want to expand on the suggestions people took the time to make in comments on my original post.

Peter Jackson nominates two players, both of whom starred for Manchester City in their respective eras. First up, Billy Meredith:


Meredith is a fantastic nomination on a number of counts:

  • Although he would have become a professional on joining City in 1894, like others who went “full time” on joining Football League clubs, he had played in non-professional league set-ups prior to that without hindrance from his amateur/semi-professional status. Professionalism was only in part about making the game accessible to the working class, and this aspect of the subject is heavily overplayed for class politics reasons in most, perhaps all, easily accessible football histories.
  • Meredith was one of a large number of players of the day who would, in our own time, more than likely find himself playing his sport as an adjunct to his college or university studies. He wrote widely on the game, and later coached, using modern media to the full.
  • He was also involved in the painful birth of the Professional Footballers’ Association, which was the second attempt amongst League players to organize. The story of footballing trade unionism is an important part of the overall early struggle for union rights, and he was at the centre of it. He was also caught up in the flipside of the struggle for fair pay and proper treatment: corruption, in the form of the infamous City scandal of 1905.
  • Meredith was Welsh, of course, and was one of the very large numbers of non-English players drawn into the English game by money and Edwardian football’s arms race for players and spectators. When Meredith joined City in 1894, City were just one of dozens of clubs in the Manchester environs competing for public attention and the concomitant profits. By the time he returned to City in 1921, City and United were very much “the” Manchester clubs, owning huge stadia and attracting the bulk of local support between them. Their competitors were either gone altogether by this stage, or unable to break out of lower division football. Clubs that hadn’t made the breakthrough to the top division by 1921 would never join the elite group. Some would win cups and titles, but since the Great War, really the two Manchester clubs, the two Liverpool clubs, the principal London clubs and, until the 1960s, the north-eastern rivals, have had things to themselves.

Peter’s other nomination is Colin Bell. Bell belongs to that curious late-Ramsey-post-Ramsey period during which the England team couldn’t quite regain its composure after the shock of meeting Netzer at Wembley in 1972. Peter describes him as “maybe the last Charlton-style universally respected player”. Here are some reasons why:


Peter points out that Bell was a local lad, and (early career aside) a one-club loyalty player. I think there’s a debate to be had as to which is the more typical of the history of English football – the local player loyal to his local club, or the travelling man. I’d argue – and will argue, when I post about my own nomination – for the travelling man, and I’ll call in evidence the way players were really treated by football clubs, what the relationship really was. The players might have had to be loyal, else leave the game or starve, and as for the clubs… But I agree with Peter that the local player as a kind of representative of that area, especially in the eyes of fans, has been a feature of English football since its beginnings.

Bill suggests Dave Mackay. Mackay, by any measure, is an extraordinary man. As he’s a Scot, playing the bulk of his career in England, he would go some way to fit my bill of the epitome, especially as he played for Spurs, of which much, much more in my own nomination post. He’s another of the men who a later era’s school system might have diverted away from professional sport – although, in his case, you have to suspect that he’d have gone right ahead and played whatever other options were open to him. His career straddled the period in which what Billy Meredith helped start was (almost, but awaiting Bosman) finished. And he went on to manage abroad, in addition to excellent seasons at Derby in the post-Clough era. Mackay is not my man, and was in his cradle when my man died. But they’d have understood each other very well. Dave Mackay, then:


(If the embed hasn’t worked for you, click here to watch the Mackay video)

Kris and “John Terry’s Mum” both plump for Gascoigne. (I second the recommendation of the Gascoigne autobiographies, written with Hunter Davies. It’s the second of these that convinces me that Gazza has been consistently misdiagnosed – not (primarily) alcohol or OCD in my view, but instead an extreme but uncomplicated lifelong generalized anxiety disorder. But bear in mind that “distance” diagnoses are highly suspect, and it’s very possible that Gazza’s therapists are in the right).

Gascoigne is that very, very occasional English phenomenon, the Best/Garrincha/Maradona type all-out genius. I rate him at least at Garrincha level, if that makes any sense at all, and admire him immensely both for getting as much out of his career as he did as well as for the great help he’s provided to fellow patients whilst in treatment. I wish it would do more for the man himself… but these are by far the hardest problems in the mental health field, ones with no generally agreed treatment paths or indeed treatments with much track record.

In terms of his footballing abilities, he’s the exception that proves the rule. Great skill does not have to be accompanied with offputting “cunning” and great play can go along with laughter and fun. Despite his injuries, he played until his early thirties, and because, unlike Best, his every move was put to film, he has a fabulous greatest hits reel.

The trouble with Gascoigne’s situation is that a lot of people imagine he can somehow take a decision and walk away from it. Instead, he has to wake every morning straight into the middle of feelings, emotions and automatic reactions that are difficult to handle and pretty much impossible for outsiders to imagine. “Fighting his demons”, they call it, as if they can be cast out if only he were to try hard enough.

Who are the other English Gascoignes? Wilf Mannion? Peter Osgood? Alan Hudson? He had contemporaries of slightly different kinds in Chris Waddle and Glenn Hoddle, but I’d argue that not since Best has there been a player like him for sheer unpredictable edge-of-your-seat excitement. If he was on the pitch for England, there was always room for optimism.

I don’t know if I’d describe him as epitomising anything about English football other than himself. Here is my favourite Gazza moment, one among how many in a ten year international career:


Ismael Klata nominates Kevin Keegan. What I’d say about Keegan, other than that he was THE football hero of my childhood, is that he epitomises, completely and perfectly, English football between 1972 and 1982. Everything about it: its northerness, teatime in front of World of Sport, warmth and friendliness (let’s forget hooliganism for the time being), patriotism combined with a kind of cosmopolitanism when the working class boy from Doncaster made such a brilliant success of life in Hamburg. He represented us well, didn’t he?

Later, he was Paul Scholes’ favourite England manager, and, in my view, showed great honesty and courage in the manner of his departure from the England job. He was right to resign, and brutally, bravely honest in how he did so. I don’t think I could have displayed that kind of grace in defeat myself.

The story of English football over the course of his career was of club success but international frustration, coupled with a sense that something was rotting in the Football League’s ancient, astonishingly resilient structure. He was at the heart of all of that, and, at Newcastle as player and as manager, the gatekeeper for the wealthier, glossier future, a future he did much to give a human face to. Now, he’s the trusted witness for what is happening to and within the Premiership, still speaking with the openness and honesty and courage that we all still want to be typical of England, of Britain. Here’s that voice, the first time we heard it:


Gary Langham nominates Ian Wright, because of Wright’s recent dismissal of the idea that coaches need specialist training. As he says, only in England, and that is a theme that stretches right back to the Edwardian era. I’ll revisit it at length in my own nomination post.

There are other reasons to nominate Wright, though. His stress on bringing passion and enthusiasm to the game are very English traits, and it’s his misfortune to have been the man who finally began to bring overreliance on them into popular disrepute. He deserved better – no one was ever more committed to the England cause, despite frustration under Taylor and Venables, nor more unlucky with badly timed injuries. His hamstring injury before the 1998 World Cup was, forgive me, gutting.

Ian Wright is the embodiment of the victory of English black players against racism. That kind of victory always seems to need winning again, but he is one of the men who had to do the hard digging, and it’s one reason why I think he’s an excellent nomination. Here he is. Sayonara, Lineker-San:


Karthik nominates Paul Scholes. Interestingly, he does so because Scholes is atypical, saying “how England produced Scholes is a mystery to me..” I think we can all see where he’s coming from on this. A short, quiet, asthmatic local boy who supports Oldham, Scholes was rated by both Marcello Lippi and Edgar Davids as one of the very great world midfielders.

I am and always have been a great fan of Sven Goran Ericksson, as both club and international coach. My sole deep criticism of his England stint was that he preferred Gerrard and Lampard in central midfield to Paul Scholes, who’d be pushed out onto the left. Granted that there was a time, long ago, when England never lost when Steven Gerrard played, and hindsight is terribly convenient, yet still..

His one contribution to English football history is a Manchester United one. In other words, my initial question is in danger of playing down a magnificent career just because it doesn’t fit in with it. Here’s my favourite “Scholes” – Paul enjoying himself under Keegan. Nine years ago!


I mentioned that I’d be taking some photographs in Berlin in relation to my own nomination. And so I did. This is the best of them, and it’s a clue to the name of the man I am going to write about at some length this week. In the meantime, see if you can guess who it is (click to enlarge).

5 Replies to “Epitomes of English Football”

  1. Not Hogan – but very, very close! And his life paralleled that of my nomination in many respects, although Hogan long outlived him.

  2. Not Steve Bloomer. But Bloomer was present for the events behind the photo…

  3. Colin Bell was from Blackhall in Durham. Not exactly local to Manchester.

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