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.

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[*] 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).