Football Mad

Martin Amis

  • The Soccer Tribe by Desmond Morris
    Cape, 320 pp, £12.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 224 01935 X

Readers of the London Review of Books who like football probably like football so much that, having begun the present article, they will be obliged to finish it. This suits me down to the ground. Intellectual football-lovers are a beleaguered crew, despised by intellectuals and football-lovers alike, who regard our addiction as affected, pseudo-proletarian, even faintly homosexual. We have adapted to this; we keep ourselves to ourselves – oh, how we have to cringe and hide! If I still have your attention, then I assume you must be one of us, pining for social acceptance and for enlightened discussion of the noble game. This puts me in the happy position of not really caring what I write. You will read me anyway. Ho-hum. If I could render a whistle on the page (a strolling, nonchalant whistle, hands in pockets, head held high), then that is what I would render … But let’s talk football for a while.

I am writing this piece, by the way, several days before the England v. Hungary encounter on 18 November. By the time you read me, anything might be happening. Brian Clough or Bob Stokoe or Elton John could be the new England manager, nursing bruised dreams for the World Cup in 1986. On the other hand, Sir Ron Greenwood might even now be contentedly inspecting the hotels in Bilbao, hoping to find a likely venue for the lads next summer. Thanks to a series of hilarious flukes, England need only a draw against Hungary to qualify, and so it’s a fair bet that the team will be gouged through into the Finals. However, this would be no vindication of anything or anybody. English honour has already been lost, on the playing fields of Norway and Switzerland. The predicament is unaltered. What are our realistic prospects? Where can we look for solace, for succour, in Spain? For all I know, of course, we got well stuffed by the Hungarians at Wembley.

Did you notice, during the Norway game, how the faces of our stars degenerated as the match went on? Kevin Keegan, a cross between Marc Bolan and Donny Osmond when he spun the coin in the centre circle, resembled a grimacing Magwitch by half-time. Paul Mariner, a picture of pampered, hammy self-love at club level, reminded me, as he trudged from the park, of the standard, traumatically chinless mod who puts in depressingly regular appearances at South Coast magistrates’ courts after Bank Holiday weekends. Trevor Francis, usually the identikit poet, dreamer and heart-throb of the lower sixth, looked like a mean and frazzled brawler when he missed that easy header in the second half. As for Terry McDermott, who cuts a pretty unreliable figure at the best of times ... By the final whistle, England looked like a scratch team from a remedial borstal, whereas the Norwegians, their blond locks bouncing in the air, were romping about like cosseted college boys.

It is curious that many of the automatic metaphors of football commentary, written and spoken, are connected with the idea of education. A thoughtful pass, a cultured back-heel. A football brain. Indeed, an educated right foot. You didn’t need to watch, as I did, all the episodes of the recent FACTS series on BBC2 to satisfy yourself that these concepts aren’t much in use on the training field. ‘Magic’, ‘class’, ‘great’, ‘nice’, ‘terrific’ and ‘unlucky’ seem to be the main epithets on offer there. In the post-goal frenzy, when the players roll and cuddle and leap in that delightful way, what are they saying to each other? ‘Sapient!’? ‘Profound!’? ‘Erudite!’? ‘Perspicacious!’? Unlikely, on the whole. I am trying to suggest that, conceivably, our football suffers from the dominance of its working-class ethos. They don’t seem to have this trouble in the rest of Northern Europe – where, in fact, they appear to have dispensed with the working classes altogether. It has been said that our footballers are paid too much money. Perhaps they should be paid in something else: book-tokens, lecture coupons, night-class dockets, culture vouchers.

A slight digression. One Sunday lunchtime, some years ago, I found myself in a high-priced restaurant on the Embankment – an expense-account, no-account gin palace, with tuxed pianist, brawny escort girls and many a spendthrift loudmouth yelling in the padded gloom. Who should be at the bar but Malcolm Allison (then manager of Crystal Palace) and Martin Chivers (then centre-forward with Spurs and England). Perched on stools, these big modern princes were talking intimately and earnestly, their heavy shoulders tensed over their drinks. Naturally I edged up close to Chiv and Big Mal, hoping to hear – what? Fluent, allusive talk of set-pieces, short corners, long throw-ins, one-against-one situations, professional fouls, banana kicks. What I heard went something like this.

‘The more you learn, the more you know.’

‘This is it.’

‘This is it.’

‘The more you know, the more you learn.’

‘This is it.’

‘In this life, if you learn something, you – ’

‘You don’t forget it.’

‘This is it.’

‘So that – ’

‘As you go on – ’

‘In this life – ’

‘You’re always – ’

‘Learning things.’

‘This is it.’

But Mal and Big Chiv weren’t talking football. They were talking philosophy.

What went wrong for England, on the night, on the park, during those two vital qualifiers in Norway and Switzerland? ‘Five minutes of madness’ was how Ron Greenwood explained the Norway debacle, whereas it had previously taken only ‘two minutes of madness’ to cost us the game in Switzerland. In these seven mad minutes, England conceded four goals to teams made up partly of amateurs – teams, we were sternly reminded by the press, that would ‘struggle in our Second Division’. In both cases, the hysteria produced in the England team by conceding one goal led instantly to the concession of a second. ‘And it’s gone in! It’s a goal!’ said Brian Moore, in a tender, incredulous moan; and before the great man could even clear his throat he was required to add: ‘And ... another goal! Disaster for England ... ’ God, what a croak it was. Any team might have let this happen once (and the Swiss goals, at least, were beautifully set up). But twice?

Of course, it is all too easy to blame Ron Greenwood. Yet I think we should blame Ron Greenwood, whether it is all too easy or not. The selection of Ray Clemence in Norway cost us the first goal, and the first goal cost us the second (thanks also to a skilful ‘tap-on’ from Terry McDermott to the lone Norwegian in the England penalty area). Big Ray was plainly in a terrible state after his nightmare inauguration at Tottenham. He came cartwheeling off his line to flail at innocuous crosses; all night he looked capable of being nutmegged by a beachball. It was very typical of Greenwood to fly in the face of popular counsel and ‘show faith’ in his man. But this display of purposeful calm clearly spooked the rest of the team. Much has been written to the effect that our players lack skills. Perhaps they do. The other thing they lack is the confidence to show what talents they do have. At the moment the team is quite without psychological cohesion. Greenwood doesn’t give players confidence: he gives them the jitters.

It is convenient, for the purposes of analysis, to look at the history of the England managership since 1970 as a drama, or tragedy, in three parts or phases. Part One could be entitled The Nervous Breakdown of Alf Ramsey, Part Two The Nervous Breakdown of Don Revie and Part Three, which is still running, The Nervous Breakdown of Ron Greenwood. Each part culminates in or leads towards the same crisis or ‘recognition’: failure to qualify for the World Cup. Each of the three tragic heroes played their parts in a distinct style.

Alf Ramsey was mild, defensive, strenuously elocuted, buoyed up by past glories and a secure knighthood. The visage of Don Revie, after his first few matches, became a disturbingly familiar sight: a mask of tanned and glittering desperation. Revie, of course, resigned half-way through the fifth act, having leaked the news to his pal Jeff Powell on the Mail, and split for Dubai, thereby embracing a wonderful opportunity to safeguard the financial security of his family.

Greenwood’s style is something else again. The Nervous Breakdown of Ron Greenwood might even now develop an epilogue or sequel, one very tentatively entitled The Remarkable Recovery of Ron Greenwood: but the lineaments of Ron’s tragedy are already clear. In this case, the grim psychodrama is bodied forth in terms of unpierceable serenity. The serenity is cultivated, precarious and, in fact, non-existent: but serenity is the keynote of the performance. Do you remember the smile of beatific repose that Greenwood found himself sporting throughout the defeat by Scotland at Wembley in the Home Internationals this year? A ghastly spectacle, much lingered-on by the television cameras. The smile suggested that this defeat, like all the others, was yet another feint or shimmy in a vast and inscrutable battle-plan which only Ron knew about. I need hardly add that the whole veneer has subsequently deteriorated and is barely visible behind the hot mists of paranoia which Greenwood now candidly exudes. Poor guy! But he has done nothing in the England job, except to distance the memory of Don Revie. Enough.

Where, then, do we look for our next Motivator, the next candidate for the prime-time and the valium? According to the Voice of Sport – I mean, the Sun’s Frank Clough – the ‘people’s choice’ is Brian Clough, who is no relation. According to Brian Glanville on the Sunday Times, the people’s choice, or rather the choice of the people who read Brian Glanville in the Sunday Times, is Jack Charlton – an extraordinary finding. Charlton, I suppose, has a head start on his rivals, in that he already suffers from onomatic aphasia, and keeps getting all the players’ names wrong. But what else has Jack got going for himself? The main thing about Charlton, as a figure, as a force, is his reputation for being one of the most ‘physical’ players ever to pull on an England jersey. This is what the people who make the people’s choice must be yearning for: a return to the ‘traditional strengths’ of the English game.

Brian Clough, of course, is mad already, but he isn’t anything like as mad as he used to be and would perhaps enjoy a certain amount of immunity in the England job. Malcolm Allison, too, went mad some time ago now, when Crystal Palace were relegated twice in successive seasons. The most common reservation about the amiable Bobby Robson concerns one central fear: we hear talk of his ‘excitability’. And as for Mad John Bond of Norwich and Manchester City ... it is tempting to conclude that being a football manager drives a man mad. God knows, it seems to be a heart-bursting business – the firings, the fans, the big money, the interviews with Jimmy Hill. But I still think that this diagnosis is too simple. It’s not being a football manager that drives them mad. It’s going on television that really does it.

Perhaps, then, we may modestly envision a quieter role for the England manager of the future: more cloistered, more thoughtful, more bookish. Under no circumstances, however, should the Boss be left alone with Desmond Morris’s new work: he would almost certainly go mad, or else simply die of inanition. In The Soccer Tribe Morris maps out the connection between ‘ancient blood sports’ and ‘the modern ball game’. Nowadays, the goalmouth is ‘the prey’, the ball ‘the weapon’, and the attempt to score ‘a ritual aim at a pseudo-prey’. Is this true? Or, more important, is this interesting? Morris goes on to say that ‘in England, there are four “divisions”, presenting a parody of the social class system.’ He then traces the analogies between football and religion: ‘Star players are “worshipped” by their adoring fans and looked upon as “young gods”.’ Later on, he develops a far more compelling thesis, arguing that ...

Ah, but the sands of space are running out. That’s enough football for today. I only have time to add that Morris’s book is handsomely packaged, that the pictures are great, magic, brill etc, and that the text is an austere, an unfaltering distillation of the obvious and the obviously false.