Soccer Sociology

Hans Keller

  • Association Football and English Society: 1863-1915 by Tony Mason
    Harvester, 278 pp, £15.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 85527 797 1

Language, logic, style – these are usually thought to be aspects to wind up a review with, concerned as they are with the secondary ‘how’ rather than the primary ‘what’. Yet so much of your ‘what’ can depend on your ‘how’, so many of your reasons are rationalised motives, that your manner will easily yield a bird’s-eye view of your matter. And no ‘how’ is more enlightening than the basic one: how do you start your book, symphony, movements, chapters?

Let us try the opening of the Introduction: ‘One thing that mattered to most working men in late Victorian England was how they spent the time when they were not at work.’ To most whom doesn’t it? Perhaps Chapter One’s opening conveys more: ‘This book is an attempt to write a social history of Association Football in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.’ Fair enough, but once we realise that Chapters Two, Four and Five start with the phrase ‘This Chapter ...’, Chapter Five concluding, moreover, that ‘in this Chapter, we have examined ...’, we diagnose, at the very least, a stamp-collector.

Does one sense limitation, then, however self-imposed and selective? Cautious fact-finding rather than complex truth-seeking? Sight (and a sharp sense of sight at that) rather than insight? ‘1863-1915’ had aroused one’s suspicions, anyhow: what’s wrong with 1919-1979? Why, for that matter, ‘English Society’, which, football-wise, has always been penetrated by Scottish society – not to speak of Continental societies whose English football inevitably reflects light on English society? All over the book, ‘obviously the answer is unknowable,’ ‘it is very difficult to be precise about these questions’: quite a few answers could have been obtained through wider and longer questioning.

What about language? Are we right in suspecting such phrases as the ‘healthy mind in healthy body syndrome’, or ‘all this crossroads activity’? As a matter of fact, my own suspicions were too shallow: I still could not believe my eyes when I saw a senior university lecturer stress that ‘there is some occupational data ...’; we must not allow data to go the way of all stamina and, more recently, agenda. And so back to logic, of which the Introduction’s opening sentence has indeed provided a faultless character picture. Church, public house and work-place, for instance, are described as the three ‘major preexisting institutions to play an important role in the origin of football clubs’, but since ‘cricket clubs often gave birth to football clubs’, their role can’t have been all that unimportant either. Now, first we learn that Everton ‘were closely bound up’ with a religious institution. A page or two later, however, ‘Everton’s first few seasons were spent at the Queen’s Head in Everton village and they were still using a pub as a pavilion in 1885.’ Turn another four pages, and Everton are identified as the child of a cricket club. I am not alleging misinformation, yet something must have gone wrong with the original classification. But then, the author is even capable of extended thoughtlessness – for the fun of it: ‘Play was good for you but it was also done for fun. Indeed, that was why it was good for you [in which case it wasn’t ‘also’ done for fun]. It was not to be confused with work which was also good for you. [Nobody confused it.] Playing for money was something gentlemen did not do.’

My bird’s-eye view is factual, but not altogether fair: the book does contain an enormous amount of carefully scrutinised information, without indulging in historical theories. It is, in fact, a characteristic piece of modern history: where the historian of the past invented post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacies and talked about things he didn’t know about in order to complete his theories, our own time’s historian renounces causal analysis and finds most questions unanswerable, with the result that his ‘attempt to write a social history’ almost proudly fails – as indeed, according to Schopenhauer, it is bound to do. How, then, does one conscientiously review such a book? There would be much to list; there is nothing to summarise. If, in addition, one happens to be interested in the game of football itself, one is driven into a reviewing attitude yet more factual – yet unfairer on this diligent assemblage of odds and beginnings.

Of the nine chapters, the first six are so remote from the game itself that you begin, and continue, to doubt whether the author has ever seen a match in his life. Then, suddenly, comes Chapter Seven’s opening revelation: ‘Any book about Association Football which does not have at least a short chapter on the game itself is open to the criticism that it is Hamlet without the Prince.’ Do 13 pages (or 15, with the scholarly notes) out of 258 constitute a prince? It depends on the pages, you might say. Since they contain such phrases as ‘certain acts of deliberate foul play’ (as if foul play that wasn’t deliberate were a possibility), as well as unreliable technical information, the answer is not easy.

The centre-half at the turn of the century, for instance, is described as ‘a skilled, constructive player and not the relatively undistinguished defender he was to become in the 1930s’. Scholarly reference is here made to Vol. II of Gibson and Pickford, whoever they are, but the comparison is a load of rubbish, nevertheless – which, at the very least, throws the author’s ignorance or neglect of both extra-English and modern football into relief. In the Thirties, that is to say, I grew up surrounded by Austrian football, where the constructive role of our ‘Miracle Team’s’ centre-half was crucial: Smistik was his name, he played for Rapid, and my early teenage memories of his many outstanding moves are fresher than my recollection of Mr Mason’s descriptions of ‘The Game’.

Nor am I prepared to accept that in England, the centre-half’s role was radically different: in Vienna, I saw the Miracle Team draw 0-0 with England and beat Scotland 5-0, and while the British centre-halves surprised me with their defensive heading ability, they did, at the same time, play a central attacking role, most strikingly at corner-kicks and comparable free-kicks.

It is, however, the Hamlet chapter’s paragraph on the Corinthians (born 1882), an amateur club unofficially ‘confined to expublic schoolboys or [he means ‘and’] members of a university’, which raises the gravest doubts about the author’s knowledge of the game’s modern history: ‘Around the turn of the century they regularly took on the previous year’s FA Cup winners in a match played for the Sheriff of London’s shield, all proceeds going to charity.’ Not a word about today’s Charity Shield – the pre-season match between the FA Cup winners and the League winners – which clearly and interestingly derives from the Corinthians’ annual event: now at last I (as distinct from Tony Mason) understand how we come to have these singular, unfriendly friendlies (a historic occasion ever since, in one of them, the Spurs goalkeeper Pat Jennings scored – punted – a goal against Manchester United), these uncompetitive matches, the only charity games of their kind. Nothing could better illustrate the sorry limitations which the author’s self-imposed temporal limits produce; in fact, he stops his social history just before any octogenarians amongst us get a chance to check on it first-hand.

As for the far end of his history, no, I’m not even happy about 1863, because things happened before then, things which are still alive. Indeed, Mr Mason himself talks about ‘the earliest clubs ... in the late 1850s and 1860s’, without giving us much detail, except for ‘the Forest Club ... formed 1859-60’ – Epping Forest, mind you, not Nottingham. But Nottingham reminds us of an important historical date of which Mr Mason is altogether oblivious. Not Forest, mind you, but Notts County FC – which is the oldest extant football club in the world! How could ‘an attempt to write a social history of Association Football in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods’ miss its birth-year? Easily: it was 1862, the year before Mr Mason kicks off. He accumulates no fewer than 18 references to Notts County (one of them misleading in his Index), but hasn’t discovered that while Forest have just been re-confirmed as ‘the greatest’ (or the luckiest?) in Europe, County are the oldest in the world. Yet it’s he, not me, who makes a meal of such historical data.

And is his history all that social, anyway? It’s class-conscious all right – conscious of the middle and working classes’ influence on football, imaginary or real, and of football’s on them: the English sociologist sees causal class everywhere, as indeed does the Englishman impure and simple – whereas before I first came to this country in my midteens, the concept of a middle or upper class was unknown to me; of the ‘proletariat’ and, for that matter, the bourgeoisie I had heard from my boringly Marxist girlfriend.

Nor would it have been possible in Vienna to talk about football – players or spectators – in terms of class. I knew the occupations and, yes, professions of all the players in the professional First Division club I supported: they ranged from a labourer to a gentleman of leisure with a private income who, nevertheless, did not sneeze at his football wages, and a student of medicine in his last year. Oh dear, did I say ‘a gentleman of leisure’? That’s my English downbringing: in Vienna, the concept of a gentleman (for whom there is no German word) was meaningless too. There were no gentlemen players: the difference between an amateur and a professional was simply that the amateur wasn’t good enough to be a professional, and there was many a professional player with a comfortable private income, or a comfortable salary he drew from another source. The aforementioned medical student was a case in point: his First Division career survived into his medical practice. (Nowadays, too, it’s amusing to watch unbelieving English eyes as they spot academics amongst foreign internationals.) The difference between the Austrian professional and the Austrian amateur can most clearly be traced through the history of the present, distinguished FC Austria-Vienna. In my early childhood, they were simply called Austria, since the First Division was confined to Viennese clubs – but they had only just acquired that name: my sister, ten years older than I, still knew them as the Amateurs. They changed their status and their name, but not their players, as soon as they were good enough: the selfsame players turned into wage-earning footballers with the greatest of ease, without socio-psychological complications.

That the English see and feel class where nobody else does is nothing to write home about – but when they see class causing things and being caused by things which, elsewhere, develop the same way without social causes, one has to regret that they don’t look further, both geographically and historically: by now, one can say that Austrian football has developed much the same way as Association Football in England, and never mind about either Austrian or English society.

There is a negative and a positive reason why a book of this kind – a cumbersome collection and recollection of facts together with their football-less interpretations – deserves to be read and reviewed in extenso. The negative reason is the positive reviews it inevitably gets, if only because the reviewer’s own facts are fewer. Nothing is more important than to see, to experience first-hand, the nonsense that our civilisation is trying to turn into sense: only through such alertness can culture survive. ‘Almost every word written today about football is quite worthless in the literary sense,’ opines Benny Green in the Spectator, and proceeds to call Tony Mason’s volume ‘by far the most profound social study of the game ever written ... faultless both in the thoroughness of its research and the commonsense with which it has been put to use’. If, on the other hand, you think – no, you know – that a single Sunday Express article by Danny Blanch-flower, a single Sunday Times report by Brian Glanville, contains more realistic thought, let alone soccer expertise, than tens of thousands of words conveying Tony Mason’s profound commonsense, it is your duty to show them up – your duty, too, to read them all and, none the less, not to be lulled into academic idiocy. ‘During a match, the crowd doubtless responded to what was happening on the field and what descriptions of behaviour we have either involve outbursts of anger or the exultation that followed the scoring of a goal.’ If you want to know what time or place or clubs the author is talking about, you are, for the duration of your interest, mentally sub-normal: it’s all times, places, clubs.

The positive reason for one’s sustained application to a fact-bag is that so long as the facts are related to one’s own preoccupations, some of them are bound to deepen or widen one’s insight. At the time of the first FA Cup Final between the Wanderers and the Royal Engineers in 1872, ‘both sides played with a goalkeeper, two backs, one half-back and seven forwards.’ Today, when the more adventurous amongst us at last try to avoid playing with eight to ten backs most of the time, we still win the FA Cup and two successive European Cups by mere 1-0 victories. The Wanderers won 1-0, too! ‘Most players were attackers’ – to little avail, it seems. What we might call the era of Real Madrid and Brazil, however, has meanwhile taught us that great – inventive, intelligent, highly skilled – football is successful attacking football, and that successful attack depends on a creative midfield – whereas England’s World Cup victory in 1966 is now seen as hollow: some of us thus saw it at the time. Brian Clough’s recent 1-0 triumph over SV Hamburg, likewise, owed a great deal to English physique and the best of British luck: a man who publicly sneers at the midfield creativity of a Trevor Brooking will never create a great team, nor indeed an internationally prestigious one; despite their retaining the European Cup, Forest’s game is currently being described as ‘anti-football’ in the German press. Grotesquely, it is in what is, perhaps, this midfield creator’s most sovereign season that we are regaled with Clough’s denial of his greatness: on top of his inventiveness in midfield, Brooking scored decisive goals in the FA Cup Final and against Scotland.

The man in charge of our national side, however, does know about great football, to which – win or lose – he has devoted his life. Ron Greenwood knows about Trevor Brooking, too, more than anybody: he brought him up, and selected this world-class Second Division player for his squad at the European Championship in Turin. What happened there, however, is a mystery. Brooking was replaced by Kennedy in the decisive match against Italy: as Mike Channon aphoristically put it, Ron Greenwood failed to pick his own team – or indeed to make amends at half-time when, notwithstanding many an England player’s impressive performance, their lack of both preparatory and punishing penetration had become as obvious as the likely result.

It isn’t only Tony Mason’s facts, the most interesting among them, that prompt one’s thoughts about football’s essentials: it’s also his determination not to think about them, and to be soberly scientific, uncreatively factual instead. He thus stupefies the mindless and stimulates the mindful into compensatory, reparative mental action: nothing is as good for some of us as a conscientious, researchful, respectable bad book, as which I recommend this one as unreservedly as docs Benny Green.