State of the Art

John Lanchester

  • Manchester United: The Betrayal of a Legend by Michael Crick and David Smith
    Pelham, 246 pp, £14.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 7207 1783 3
  • Football in its Place: An Environmental Psychology of Football Grounds by David Canter, Miriam Comber and David Uzzell
    Routledge, 173 pp, £10.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 415 01240 6

The broad distinction among English football teams is between hearties and aesthetes. The aesthetes have, fortunately, tended to carry off the main footballing prizes – certainly they look set to do so this year, in the persons of Liverpool Football Club – but the hearties dominate numerically, and set the tone of most of the matches to be seen anywhere in the country on a Saturday afternoon. Hearties subscribe to two tenets, both of which have their origins in a characteristic national turning-away and turning-inwards. The first hearty tenet is called work-rate. Since the early Fifties it has been clear that England was not as good at football as it once thought it was: the traumatic 1950 World Cup defeat at the hands of the USA made this apparent, and it was emphatically rubbed in by the two cataclysmic losses to the Hungarians, 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest in 1954.

Alf Ramsey’s tactics as manager of the side that was to win the World Cup in 1966 had a lot to do with the shock of discovering this gap in skill: Ramsey emphasised the need for a successful team to work hard, run hard and to play negatively. Poncey foreigners might have more talent, but we would prevail through grit and effort. His team – the ‘wingless wonders’ – had its share of very good players, but its spirit was exemplified by the short, toothless, totally committed figure of Nobby Stiles. (After perpetrating an especially gruesome foul, Stiles would explain to the referee that he hadn’t meant to kick anybody, it was just that the floodlights were playing havoc with his contact lenses.)

Another team crucially influential in spreading the gospel of work-rate was the widely-admired, widely-hated Leeds United team of the early Seventies. Several of the players – Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter, Johnny Giles, Peter Lorimer, Alan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke – had a lot of ability, but they also tended to have Jekyll-and-Hyde natures, the Hyde component of which their manager, Don Revie, did nothing to suppress. The fact that the most successful team in English football was one of the hardest and dirtiest teams in the League had a considerable, entirely malign effect. English football became, and remains, full of what Eamon Dunphy, the Millwall-player-turned-journalist, called ‘Johnny Giles/Peter Lorimer clones without the talent’[*]: players who deny opponents space, close people down, tackle as violently as they can, and generally run around like headless chickens. This is called work-rate. Don Revie became manager of England.

The other hearty tenet is adherence to a tactic called ‘the long ball game’, also known as ‘up and under’, ‘biff-bang football’ and ‘FA Coaching Manual Route One’. A team playing to this pattern eschews the normal tactic of gradually building up a move through the midfield in favour of hoofing the ball upfield as fast as possible towards the strikers. The idea is to give defenders a constant supply of the kind of ball they dislike most, the kind which forces them to turn and allows an attacker to get in behind them. (This tactic only works in England, where teams play with a flat back four: abroad, where teams play with a sweeper, it simply gives the ball away – it’s like throwing fish to a sea lion.) All the sides which use this tactic have a tall, robust striker who acts as a target for the long ball, and who will usually not be averse to using an elbow every now and then: the best-known current examples are probably Justin Fashanu of Wimbledon and Tony Cascarino of Millwall.

The long ball game has a history. It first appeared in the Fifties when Stan Cullis’s Wolverhampton Wanderers adopted the ideas of a Wing-Commander Charles Reep. Reep had invented a theory called POMO, or Point of Maximum Opportunity, which involved getting the ball to the aforesaid point as soon as possible: the long-ball game, in short. He worked out a formula which would guarantee a team promotion:

S = R/Nxn

All of which sounds like the work of a harmless nutter – but as applied by Stan Cullis, the fitness-maniac manager of Wolves, it won the FA cup in 1949 and 1960, and the League Championship in 1954, 1958 and 1959. Then things started to go less well, Cullis got the sack, and POMO lapsed into obscurity, until a strange thing, a kind of historical rhyme, occurred. Elton John bought Watford Football Club and appointed the energetic Graham Taylor as manager. Taylor, looking for a way of fulfilling his boss’s ambition of making Watford into a First Division team, came across a statistical survey which showed that the majority of goals comes, not from intricate, aesthetically-pleasing passing manouevres, but from mistakes by defenders, and from moves which have the fewest number of passes in them. In other words, pressurise defenders and do yourself a favour by getting the ball forwards immediately. POMO was reborn. By applying the method, Taylor and Watford zoomed into the First Division at record speed. It was an influential example.

The tactic has been especially effective for sides hoping to gain promotion from lower divisions. But although it has had its famous successes – among them Wimbledon’s 1988 FA Cup victory over Liverpool – it has without doubt been responsible for some of the dullest, most predictable and talent-stifling football every played. Unfortunately, the long ball game is looked on with great favour by FA coaching schools (coaches love a method), and it seems likely to become even more prevalent. As long as English football remains isolated from the reality-principle of European contest, there is a risk of things getting very much worse – our forwards growing less and less skilful, our defenders growing taller and stupider, as in some dark 19th-century fantasy of racial degeneration.

Luckily the hearties don’t have it all their own way. Michael Crick’s and David Smith’s book describes how, at the same time as Stan Cullis was assembling his Wolves team, Matt Busby at Manchester United was embarking on a managerial career uniquely committed to attractive attacking football. The triumph’n tragedy saga of United under Busby is rehearsed: the Busby Babes, the ’56 Championship, the Munich disaster, the risen-phoenix championships of ’65 and ’67, the cathartic European Cup triumph of ’68, with the team all the while playing some of the best football ever seen, and playing it in front of all-time record attendances (an average gate of 57,759 in 1967/8). Then Busby’s retirement and the subsequent managerial musical-chairs-cum-vaudeville-act: the Wilf McGuinness fiasco, the Frank O’Farrell disaster, the Tommy Docherty fandango, the Dave Sexton snoozathon, the Ron Atkinson chequebook spree, the Alec Ferguson let-down. The authors don’t really get the best out of their material here, especially with the rich subject-matter of Docherty: ‘I talk a lot. On any subject. Which is always football.’[†] Busby’s wonderfulness as a human being and a manager is stated rather than evoked, so that at times the portrait of Saint Matt the philosopher-king grows dark with excessive bright. There is no glimpse of the man wondered at by Eamon Dunphy:

The great thing about Busby was that you would go in to see him full of demands. And he would give you nothing at all. He might even take a tenner off your wages. And you would come out thinking ‘What a great guy.’

According to Smith and Crick, however, all is not as it seems at Manchester United. They interweave the tale of Busby and his epigones with another story, a story with a villain – a whole family of villains. Louis Edwards was a corrupt Manchester butcher who became a director of Manchester United on the day after the Munich crash and who thereafter took control of the club, over a period of years, by buying a majority of its four thousand shares. This involved relatively little financial outlay – between £31,000 and £41,000 is the authors’ estimate. Nor did it immediately bring in much money, as FA rules insisted on directors being unpaid, and limited any dividend on shares to 5 per cent of their face value. But this all changed in 1978 when Edwards and his family, with their meat business failing badly, first increased their share in the club (to 74 per cent of it) and then announced a rights issue of a million shares – a textbook piece of insider dealing, not then illegal. A change in FA rules meant that dividends of up to 15 per cent were now permitted, so Edwards had at a stroke increased potential dividend earnings from peanuts to a maximum of £150, 000, 74 per cent of which would, of course, go you-know-where. When Louis Edwards died, four weeks after a television investigation into his business activities, his place as chairman of the United board was taken by his son, Martin Edwards, who became (under a change in FA rules which he supported) the first-ever paid director of the club, earning £87,825 last year. The family had by now given up the meat business. As well as telling this story, Manchester United: The Betrayal of a Legend also expresses the personal grievances of David Smith, its co-author, who was sacked from his post as chairman of the Manchester United Supporters’ Club by Martin Edwards.

In the context of football boardrooms, the activities described in the book aren’t really all that amazingly unusual. So how shocking are these malfeasances? The answer probably depends on how strongly you feel about Manchester United – and this book, written throughout in a tone of garment-rending lamentation, conveys something we already knew, which is that a lot of people feel very strongly indeed. One of the mysteries about football is the depth of the need it seems to fill. It’s as if the conditions of modern society help to create people who have inside them a football-shaped hole. Hardly anything ever written about this phenomenon – certainly not the most recent contribution, the pitiful Football in its Place – gives any useful insight. ‘The point about all these different viewpoints is that they complement one another,’ we are told, in this ‘environmental psychology of football grounds’. ‘There is no definitive basis on which it is possible to say that some are right and some are wrong.’

Time to come clean: my own football-shaped hole contains a yellow-and-green canary with the words ‘Norwich City Football Club’ written on it. So it’s been a tumultuous year, with Norwich – who are fully paid-up aesthetes – playing some of the most attractive football in the country. They have been exemplary in showing how a club with very limited financial resources, and without star names, can compete with vastly richer and more glamorous clubs by emphasising the simple verities of good football: accurate short passing with generous off-the-ball running in support. Really good football has an odd evanescence to it, a strange sense of delicacy – it’s much easier for a move to go wrong than to go right, for a pass to go astray than to reach its destination – so that when a team is playing very well there’s a dreamlike quality to it, a kind of fragile inevitability. Liverpool and Nottingham Forest have generated that feeling this season, and so, a few times, did Norwich, until their confidence started to falter and the team came apart in public, most conspicuously so when they lost five-nil to Arsenal at Highbury. But that always happens: most teams don’t win anything during most seasons, and their fans know it. The aggregate experience of supporting a football team is disappointment and defeat.

But Highbury won’t be the game I remember best from this season. Two days before Norwich lost to Arsenal I went to see Tottenham play at Millwall, the first match I had gone to since Hillsborough. Millwall have long been renowned for having the nastiest and most violent supporters in the country. They famously sing, to the tune of ‘Sailing’ by Rod Stewart:

No one likes us, no one likes us
No one likes us – we don’t care.
We are Millwall, super Millwall,
We are Millwall, from the Den.

They also have a way of singing the first syllable of ‘Millwall’ and of holding the note for as long as possible: when several thousand people do this the effect is one of giant breath keeping going for an impossibly long time. It sounds demonic. Other teams hate having to play at the Den. Docherty remarked of a side which earned a draw there: ‘They did well to get a point. Usually all teams get at Millwall is the tyres let down on their coaches.’

All this – which I had, of course, secretly been quite looking forward to – is supposed to be a thing of the past. Millwall get a subsidy from unimpeachably socialist Lewisham council to acknowledge and to foster their role in the local community. They were the first team in the Football League to have a crèche. At the match I was in the Millwall stand, behind a group of fans of varying ages – several family-men in their forties and fifties, and a few teenagers, all of them white (I’ve never seen fewer blacks or women at a match: women normally make up a quarter of regular League attendances). This is what they shouted: ‘you Jewish cunts,’ ‘you cheating Jewish bastards,’ ‘you lazy black cunt’ (at a Millwall player), ‘you fucking black cunt’ (at a Tottenham player), ‘the referee’s a rabbi,’ ‘who’s the rabbi in the black?’ One of the least helpful of many unhelpful charts and tables in The Environmental Psychology of Football Grounds contrasts the percentage of people who say that there are a lot of racist chants at their ground with the percentage who are worried by them. The response at Millwall was 30 per cent and 45 per cent respectively. Millwall also had a song about Paul Gascoigne, to the tune of ‘Glory Glory Hallelujah’:

Gascoigne takes it up the arsehole,
Gascoigne takes it up the arsehole,
Gascoigne takes it up the arsehole,
Because he’s just a Northern cunt.

I suppose it served me right for going to the Den in a spirit of safari. Tottenham won five-nil, in a good result for aesthetes everywhere, and in the process they played some of the best football I’ve seen all year. But it left me feeling as if I had been swimming in effluent.

[*] From Only a Game?, Dunphy’s embittered and revealing account of his last season as a Millwall player, recently reprinted (Penguin, 224 pp., £5.95, 1987, 0 14 0102 906).

[†] The Book of Football Quotations by Peter Ball and Phil Shaw has, among other good things, a fine collection of Dochertyisms (Century Hutchinson, 272 pp., £5.95, 1986, 0 09 166161 7).