In recent years I have become increasingly critical and disillusioned with sport – but especially with football. I should explain that in my youth I lived for the game and even today, on Saturday afternoon at 4.50 I still look expectantly and urgently for the result of my beloved Preston North End – the team that I supported as a child and who played within a few hundred yards of where I grew up in Preston. But it increasingly seems to me that football at all levels, but especially the Premiership is at best a charade and certainly no longer a sport.
The reported incident over the weekend that the Chelsea player, Ashley Cole, took an air rifle into the Chelsea training ground and then ‘accidentally’ shot a student with the said gun, brings, for me, the Premiership to yet another low. It seems that the young men and managers who inhabit this world live in some bizarre alternative universe quite removed from the realities of normal life.
I could blog for England on this subject – none of it good! And over the years have increasingly turned to non league football for my sporting entertainment. Of course there are problems there too – but at least it is still populated by reasonably normal people - players, managers, and yes, spectators. One of my pleasures now is writing the various articles for the Arnold Town FC match programme – it gives me an opportunity to ‘vent my footballing spleen’ but also give something back to a sport which I have over the past fifty odd years much enjoyed – but, as I say, not anymore at the highest level.
The antics of the top players today are quite bizarre. They live in cocooned private houses guarded by the tightest security, their every foible is pounced upon by the media as if it were a pearl of wisdom, with a few notable exceptions they are functionally illiterate and monosyllabic, they are hugely rich and potentially violent young men. They have a life style and 'culture' that frankly gives tackiness a bad name and for some obscure reason (in reality it is money) their every misdeed is forgiven by their club and manager. When the rest of us would be immediately sacked for even a small portion of the things that 'stars' like Ashley Cole or Joey Barton or Paul Gascoine or Wayne Rooney do they are continually forgiven and even profit by it. In the latest fiasco with Cole, his manager Carlo Ancelotti says "There was never any chance [of Cole being sacked]. He's our player. He's always put in very good behaviour here. When a player says 'sorry, I made a mistake', it's difficult to do different”. He said the defender was “a role model for all aspiring footballers. He is highly motivated, a very good player and a very good professional. I think everyone who appreciates football should appreciate him because he is also a very fair player. He never shouts at referees or makes bad tackles on opponents. On the pitch he is an example." All that may be true, but, I would then ask, if it is true what is it that a player at Chelsea (or any other Premiership club) has to do in order to be 'sacked'. I’m pretty sure that as a teacher had I decided one day to take a gun into school and then 'lark about' with it and then fire it so that it injured one of the children in my class I would have been out of the door never to return – and I suspect that is true of virtually every other employee in any walk of life. The fact that I was a good teacher would have been rightly pretty irrelevant.
The fact is, of course, that these young men, high on testosterone, money and adulation have absolutely no sense of reality, nor do they have (usually) much intelligence and certainly little, if any, maturity. And of course they are mindlessly supported by thousands of other ’blokes’ who like Peter Pan, haven’t grown up and who sport the replica football shirt that they should have left behind as a child. Thousands of as mindless ‘wannabes’. And the likes of Alex Ferguson, Ancelotti, Mancini, and the rest humour their players' every whim and make it alright.
It’s a far cry from years ago. As a child in the mid fifties, I often accompanied my mother into Preston on a Saturday morning while she did her shopping. At lunch time, if mum was feeling flush, we would visit Joe Dunne’s little cafe in a Preston back street where we would tuck into Shepherd’s Pie. Dunne would take our order and a few minutes later bring our lunch and ask 'Are you at the match today?' or 'Are we going to win?'. And I, tongue tied, would mumble back. And then, a couple of hours later I would be at Deepdale, standing over the players’ tunnel, smelling the embrocation wafting out of the dressing room and then seeing the teams emerge Finney, Walton, Baxter, Docherty, Thompson, Cunningham, Morrison.......and Joe Dunn ............ . His brylcreamed hair gleaming. And, as he went past Dunne would give me a little wave. To me, he (and they) were real heroes. And they were community heroes because they lived in and abided by the rules of their community – not the bizarre world of the Premiership – and above all they were mature men respected in their own right, not foolishly idolised.
Twenty years ago, when I was still teaching I invited an ex-pupil to come into school to talk in assembly to the kids. Philip Starbuck. I had taught Phil and knew his family well. On leaving school he had, as expected, been snapped up by Nottingham Forest and was just breaking into the first team managed by Brian Clough. Phil still lived with mum and dad and was well know to the local kids. He talked to them about working hard to fulfil their dreams and about his life as a footballer – for 40 minutes 300 children from 5 to 11 sat entranced, hanging onto his every word. As a footballer he commanded huge respect – boy was I envious! It made me realise what huge power these people have as role models and what a responsibility their position gives them – whether they want it or not. Phil was never a super star, he spent his life as a journey man player, but always set the right example – a far cry this from Mr Cole and company. No matter how good Ashley Cole is on the pitch I wonder what the messages coming out of Chelsea are about acceptable behaviour. In a country where every so often we have some terrible unprovoked knife crime or gun incident involving youngsters and gangs and our politicians wring their hands in horror I wonder what messages the Chelsea action send out. “When a player says 'sorry, I made a mistake', it's difficult to do different” says Ancelotti - well saying sorry is a good thing, no-one can deny that, but I’m afraid in my book it is totally inadequate and indeed offensive.
Some weeks ago I wrote to Sir Alex Ferguson (didn’t get a reply!) expressing my disapproval at the way Manchester United (and Ferguson in particular) increasingly behave. I emphasised the way that dreams and sportsmanship epitomised by the era of the Busby Babes had fallen into neglect in the quest for trophies, money and stardom. A small part of what I said I copy below:
Christmas 1955 – I still remember pulling on my new Manchester Utd shirt – the new style, with short sleeves and a 'V' neck – very trendy. I felt the star of the show – so proud as I stepped out into Caroline Street sporting my best ever Christmas present. It wasn’t shop bought – it wasn’t even the right shade of red – but I felt a million dollars. We weren’t well off, lived in a two up and two down terraced house with an outside loo and no bathroom and mother had brought home a bit of red material from the mill where she worked as a weaver and made the shirt for me. It wasn’t the real thing but I was the envy of my friends. Manchester Utd were not even my team – Preston North End were – but everyone knew that United were the best; the most skilful, a cut above the rest, something to aspire to, a team that represented all that was good in the game. The honest, warm, father like Busby had created a young team of super heroes to be proud of – and I, like thousands of other ten year olds, wanted to be part of it. I knew that I might never visit Old Trafford – it seemed a world away from the Preston street in which I lived – my only knowledge of the team were black and white pictures on the back of the Daily Mirror, or if I was lucky enough to visit my uncle’s house and watch his tiny black and white TV – but I knew they were the greatest.
A misty teatime in February. I was playing football in the street with Gary Clarkson. A front door opened and then another. Women in aprons stood on their steps talking. 'What’s up?' called Gary. 'There’s been a plane crash' came the reply – 'Manchester Utd.' Like the Kennedy assassination, one of life’s defining moments when people like me would remember exactly what they were doing and where they were when they heard the news of the Munich disaster and the destruction of the 'Babes' . And three months later, sitting at my uncle’s watching the Cup Final, praying that my heroes would crown that terrible 1958 season by winning the Cup - only to see my dreams dashed by a Lofthouse challenge. Bolton were never forgiven!
And over the years since, Manchester Utd have always been an inspiration and a dream to aspire to. I did, in the end, visit Old Trafford - on many occasions, and was never disappointed - even when my team, Preston, went down! And when, as an adult, I moved to Nottingham – 45 years ago now – I watched United again whilst as a ‘half supporter’ of my adopted town – Nottingham. And again, whatever the result was never disappointed.
And then, on a chilly January night in 1993 I sat with my wife as we watched our son lead out the Notts County Youth team and then shake hands with a young ‘unknown’ called Gary Neville as the coin was tossed in the FA Youth Cup at Old Trafford. I could never have dreamed all those years ago when I pulled on my mother’s home made shirt that my own son would walk out onto the hallowed turf of the Theatre of Dreams. What a wonderful night. As expected we were comprehensively beaten 3-1, but that didn’t matter – to be beaten by Manchester Utd is not a dishonour – and in the event, to be beaten by the young lions of the Utd youth team - Scholes, Butt, Beckham, Gillespie et al of the early 90’s was certainly no disgrace. My wife and I drove back to Nottingham that night, stopping for fish and chips in Chesterfield at midnight, and felt a million dollars.
And finally, our daughter lives in Hale, Cheshire and on our many visits to the area in the past 10 years we have become used to seeing the occasional United 'star' in the pubs and shops of the area. Indeed, when my daughter put her little terraced house up for sale a few years ago one of the prospective buyers that she showed round was Bryan Robson - 'I’m looking for a property for my portfolio’ he said. My son in law was totally speechless and tongue tied for the duration of the visit – imagine once owning the house that was viewed by Bryan ‘Captain Courageous’ Robson to go in his 'portfolio' – something to tell the grandchildren! And then on New Year’s Day a few years ago I stood at the Hale recycling skip and chatted to Roy Keane as we both got rid of the Christmas empties. When I heard of the destruction of the 1958 team all those years ago I never dreamed that about half a century later, as a 60 something pensioner I would one day stand and chat to one of the modern United greats or that my daughter might have nearly sold her house to the United captain!
These may seem small almost pathetic events – indeed they are – but such is the glamour and the charisma of United (and wider professional football) they are the foundations of dreams. Throughout history great events and happenings have been the result dreams and aspirations founded on small, pathetic events. United, from the time of Busby, really have been the 'Theatre of Dreams' for so many.
But, the dreams, ideals and aspirations have all crumbled. I now realise that the once great name of Manchester United has been sullied. They are not the great club that they were and that represented all the best in the game. True, they still head the table, true they still attract the biggest names, true they are still the richest, the most glamorous. But they have lost their heart, sold their soul. They are no longer the club and dream of Busby.
And so I went on. I ended with a reference to my work in schools:
As a primary school teacher and head teacher for the past 40 years until I retired, I have, on many occasions, read to children the wonderful, funny and inspiring short story by George Layton – 'The Fib'. ['The Fib and other stories' by George Layton] Apart from being a rattling good yarn that children – and boys especially - can relate to, it captures exactly the esteem that great footballers and teams are (or were) held in. It’s about sportsmanship and awareness of the feelings of others and 'doing the right thing'. It’s about the pedestal that great sportsmen (in this case, Bobby Charlton and Manchester United) are on and the respect, awe and wonder with which they are looked upon. Sadly, I do not believe that I could, with the same enjoyment, read the story today – people like Ferguson have broken the link, ruined the dream. Nor do I believe that Layton could have written the story – with the obvious exception of Ryan Giggs there has been no player in the teams created by Ferguson who has displayed the sporting mantle expected by Busby and displayed by Charlton and his colleagues of old. This of course is sadly true of most teams and sports today – the stars of today rarely display sporting qualities but rather foul mouthed boorish behaviour. This is the role model they present to the young – not the qualities displayed in Layton’s story. Children would find it difficult to understand that the modern Manchester United would behave in the same sporting way – it is not what they witness day in day out. Instead they see unsporting behaviour, spitefulness and vindictive comments addressed at anyone or anything that contradicts Sir Alex Ferguson’s view of reality. I read in the paper this morning (Monday Jan 3rd 2011) that in an interview over the weekend Ferguson said that 'at Manchester United the manager is the most important person.' Exactly right and as such he has huge responsibilities to act in a professional and sporting manner. He has not and he does not. Sadly he has, whilst creating a winning team for the past quarter century, broken the dream, destroyed any vestige of sportsmanship which for so long Manchester United stood for. Both he and Manchester United should hold their heads in shame.
George Orwell, In 1945 wrote that sport (and football in particular) was 'war minus the shooting.' [George Orwell: the Sporting Spirit - 1945]. What would he have said today? And as so often happens, his words have a resonance today in the modern world. What would he have thought of Ashley Coles' actions and Chelsea’s inept response?