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Foul football nostalgia, The Independent On Sunday

My beloved’s innocent voice echoed round the stand: “Shouldn’t they be kicking the ball in the other direction?’”

One crisp New Year’s Day in the late Eighties, I took my future wife to a cherished place, somewhere that would, I quietly hoped, ignite her spirit as it did mine: Old Trafford football ground. There the sun shone down as my lifelong team, Manchester United, faced Charlton Athletic. It was one of the dullest games of football ever played. Rain began to fall and play stumbled to a 0-0 final ‘score’.

At one point, a United defender passed a long ball back to the goalie (Chris Turner, in my yellowing programme). Turner picked up the ball, bounced it a few times, then rolled it to the defender on the other wing. He tapped it about, thought a moment, then passed it back to Turner. He picked it up…

My beloved’s innocent voice echoed round the stand: “Shouldn’t they be kicking the ball in the other direction?” Two veteran Reds in front shifted resentfully in their brown overcoats. I mumbled something about building to an attack but knew the only response was, “Yes.”

Until the rules changed in the Nineties, the brain-ossifying dullness of stale defences tapping the ball back to the goalkeeper’s hands plagued football. Yet this is often forgotten, one tiny example of what is overlooked by the damp-eyed, misty vision of football nostalgia.

Every inconsistent, selfish striker from the past with a drink problem and ‘an eye for the ladies’ is now seen as a character, a maverick of the type sadly lacking today. A team only has to win a cup game for the commentator to gabble, “and will they recreate the glory year of (insert cup run won by dodgy penalties and poor off-side decisions)?” Homicidal midfielders of yesteryear are respected as ‘hard men’ from an age that was somehow more ‘honest’.

Indeed violence is a blind spot to those who yearn for football’s past. There is something very poignant about the “Welcome to our visitors” items in my old programmes, when that welcome was  voiced on the terraces in choruses of, “You’re going to get your fucking heads kicked in” and “You’ll never walk again.”

Those feelings didn’t stay on the terraces. My first game at Old Trafford ended early when Denis Law scored for Manchester City. The Stretford End invaded the pitch and the match was abandoned. A City-supporting friend, Andy, once arrived at a derby without a ticket. Naively he followed two 10-year-old lads down an alley after they offered to take him to someone selling spares. One dropped behind. When Andy turned, he saw the little lad about to hit him on the back of the head with a brick. Even Andy, a man later asked to leave the French Foreign Legion for misconduct, was shaken.

It was a serious national problem, not only United’s. Yet in the Bovril-clouded world of nostalgia, it only appears in the self-serving memoirs of leading psychotic casuals, or dubious documentaries featuring former hooligans sitting around their lager bellies and chuckling ruefully about having been “a little bit naughty” in youth.

True, the atmosphere created by a tight-packed terrace in full song was potent (jokes about the odour from grey hamburgers and people pissing in their neighbours’ pockets aside). But the atmosphere included monkey chants whenever an opposition black player got the ball. Racism was far worse than in most grounds today.

“But people were more loyal, they supported their local teams,” nostalgics will say. Not necessarily. Can Liverpool claim the same support now as in their silver-snaffling Seventies and Eighties? And the Lancashire and Cheshire playgrounds of my childhood were clotted with boys whose idea of “local” stretched across the Pennines to Leeds for no other reason than Leeds kept winning things.

Of course there’s always the “obscene amount of money players get these days” to complain about. Well there’s more money in football now. In fact there has always been money in football but in the ‘golden days’ players saw a great deal less of it. When Tom Finney retired in 1960, he was one of the greatest players in the world. He was earning £20 a week, around £275 today. Which era is more unjust? Which is more “obscene”?

More than financial recognition was denied to football folk. In 1967 Jock Stein became the first British manager to win the European Cup, the biggest trophy a club manager can win. Unlike Sir Alex Ferguson, Stein’s feat, a greater one, gained him no knighthood. Brian Clough won it twice and remained Mr Clough. While Mr Bob Paisley should have had a peerage for winning it three times. And for decades, many of the England team that won the 1966 World Cup went without so much as a Boy Scout’s badge. It was left to the appalling present to pay tribute. Tom Finney was knighted. In 1998.

Players are no more skilful now than they were, their achievements no greater, and not everything is rosy. But it’s better than in the rose-tinted past.

5 October 2003

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