In the big Premiership football match at Tottenham yesterday (Saturday, September 28th) the Chelsea star – a hugely paid and idolised player - Fernando Torres was eventually (and rightly) sent off by the referee. One of the reasons for his dismissal was that he intentionally grabbed and gauged the face of an opposition player, Jan Vertonghen. I saw the incident on TV and read about it in today’s papers and it put a sharp modern day contrast and perspective upon my week.
You see, I have, this week, just finished reading a wonderful book. I have read it, I think, faster than any other so involved was I. It’s written by sport’s journalist Duncan Hamilton and is called “The Footballer Who Could Fly”. I’ve read all of Hamilton’s books to date – and each one has been outstanding but this one really did tick all the right boxes. My son bought it for me thinking I might quite enjoy it – he was wrong, I was quite overwhelmed. When I say it brought tears to my eyes I feel no guilt in admitting that. Apart from hugely enjoying Hamilton’s writing I genuinely felt it was speaking to me. Reading the book made my week.
As anyone who has read my blogs before will be aware I have long loved football but increasingly in recent years have fallen out of love with the game (and, indeed, other sports too). The mindset of modern players and “fans”, the gross commercialisation, the total lack of sportsmanship, the ludicrous amounts of money paid and spent and worst of all the thuggery, cheating and mindless behaviour of players, managers and many fans leaves me yearning for a better time. Duncan Hamilton’s book reminded me of those better times but, more importantly, revived some of my flagging interest and enthusiasm for this once great game. I finished the book off in two days and am now on the verge of re-reading – and, in the process, boring everyone I meet with my commentary and my quotations from it!
Despite the fact that the book is about football and footballers of the past that is not its central theme. It is a personal journey for Hamilton as he relates the bond with his father (now dead) and how football was such an fundamental part of that relationship – indeed football is what held an otherwise tenuous link between father and son together. It is a journey through footballing heroes, great games, memorable moments and dashed dreams but all within the context of an emotional trip between father and son against the back drop of coal mines, drab post war Britain, hopes and dreams, great football stadiums and footballing gods. It is at the same time a tale of remembered happy times for father and son but also of regrets at things not said or done. It is about being human.
Hamilton was called Duncan after the great Duncan Edwards – who many might argue was the greatest player England ever produced and who has gained almost mythical qualities in the half a century since his death. Edwards, at the early age of 21, died with several of his Manchester United team mates – the Busby Babes - in the Munich air disaster of 1958. He was the youngest player to play for England and by his late teens revered as something quite extraordinary. His early death gave him a status unique in footballing folklore – a mythical quality that he still very much retains today. For football fans of my generation (and, I suspect, for many who are not particularly involved in football), just as with President Kennedy’s death, people can remember what they were doing or where they were when news of Edwards’ death came through. Having read of and seen the incident at Tottenham yesterday I wondered if modern fathers would be tempted to name their sons Fernando to remind themselves of this “delightful” young modern day football star and his nasty on the field actions. And I wonder whether, skilful though Torres is, he will be remembered with the affection, awe and worship that Edwards still is. I would like to think not on both counts.
|The book that has so enthralled me.|
In the book Hamilton’s father tells his son (of Duncan Edwards) “I saw him only play once........” – an innocent enough comment - but when I read it a shiver ran through me because those few simple words are the ones that I have used on many occasions when speaking of Edwards and they hide a myriad of emotions still.“I saw him only once....” and I can still remember the day in November 1957 when almost 40,000 squashed into Deepdale, Preston’s ground. United were already top of the Division and would go on to win the Championship. Preston finished third that year and on that day the game ended as a 1-1 draw. The local paper had been full of it for days – the Busby Babes were coming to town in a top of the table clash between United and Preston. But there was probably even more press coverage given to the fact that Duncan Edwards was expected to play – he was the player everyone wanted to see – and play he did. This interest in a star was remarkable for it was in age when the “superstar celebrity” was unknown. Few people had a TV and so in reality few had actually seen Edwards play – it was all by word of mouth or by newspaper reports that the young player’s fame, skills and personal qualities were becoming known.
I remember going to the game with my friend Tony Clarkson. We pushed our way to the front to sit on the cinder track in front of the great crowd and on the very edge of pitch (as was the fashion for children in those days). I don’t remember much of the game – it was Duncan Edwards that I had come to see. I was not alone – I’m sure that the majority of the Preston fans there had come only to see this young colossus (a word more than any other that is used to describe Edwards). At the end of the game at 4.40 pm (in those days there was only a 10 minute half time and 4.40 was when games finished – none of the nonsense of today when they can drag on and on because of stoppage time) Tony and I both pushed our way through the exiting crowd and ran. We had newspapers to deliver at 5 o’clock. As I collected my Saturday evening “first post”/early edition round from Joe Unsworth’s newsagents (and got a telling off from Joe for being late!) the headlines were still of the upcoming visit by United and Edwards – they had been printed prior to the game. But by the time that I took my second round – the “Football Post” - just after 6 o’clock the match report was there and the photograph on the front of the paper was not of the goal scorers it was of Duncan Edwards! I walked around the streets reading the report and knowing that I had seen what we would call today a superstar – but to me, and thousands like me, he was a true hero not simply a great footballer.“I saw him only once........” - I am absolutely sure that over the past fifty years since Edwards’ death those few words, or something similar - have been uttered by many of my generation.(See blog: http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/those-whom-gods-love.html ).
And this was one reason why the book meant so much to me and why I felt that in its way it was speaking to me. I cannot write with the same skill as Hamilton nor do I have the same sporting background or knowledge but I found myself time after time almost knowing what Hamilton was going to say when he described some of these great players from the past – Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Duncan Edwards and the rest. I also knew that many of the points that he made – or that his father had made to him and which were recorded in the book – were exactly the same points that I had made in some of my footballing blogs or in some of the programme notes that I have written for football matches over the years. For me it was gratifying to think, or even know, that I was not alone in my views. When Hamilton rightly criticised the modern game he used much the same arguments that I have used.
There was a second reason why I loved the book – it explored Hamilton’s often difficult relationship with his father and how football rescued it. I could identify with that. I didn’t have a difficult relationship with my father but saw little of him as he was a long distance lorry driver and our opportunities to do things together were infrequent. As I have grown older and especially since my father died I have increasingly regretted the things that we didn’t have the chance to do or say. The few things that we did do together like occasionally going to the cinema to see some 1950s adventure film such as “King of the Khyber Rifles”, “Cockleshell Heroes” or “A Kid for Two Farthings”, or a visit to watch Preston North End play football were and still are much treasured events and memories – and become even more so as each year passes (see blog http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/wooden-ships-and-iron-men.html). When my mother died Dad and I talked more than we had ever done before but by then he was an old and ailing man so my regrets for the lost years have became even more important to me. I’m sure that Hamilton would recognise this and this is why football is so important to him – it was the vehicle to his Dad.
And finally, I enjoyed the book because it reminded me of better times – that there once was something called sport and that football had higher ideals than it has now in the age of Fernando Torres. It restored much faith that I had lost. For the first time in many months it encouraged me to think that I might attend another game – not a big Premiership match (I wouldn’t, as a matter of principle, pay the bloated entry fee to feed the pockets of multi-millionaires like Torres!) but one of my local games to enjoy not only the game but the touchline banter and the half time beer in the bar.
|The young Edwards after the match|
"Society is founded on hero worship," the 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle once observed and in his book Hamilton paraphrases Bertolt Brecht when he comments ''Unhappy is the land without a hero and unhappy is the land that needs one” and I suppose Brecht’s rather downbeat observation is true. Read any newspaper or watch a few nights’ TV and it won’t be long before a new “hero” is paraded before us. The trouble is that it seems to me that society’s modern day heroes are maybe of a different stuff from those of past times. True, we might today still celebrate and look up to someone who has shown exceptional bravery but all too often the modern hero is a hero because he or she is a celebrity rather than for what they have done or is. Young people, especially, today look up to the fame, the riches and the glamour of the football star rather than for what they are as a person. They are quite prepared to worship and glorify a football star or TV personality or pop singer knowing that they have many faults – that the football star will openly cheat or display bad sportsmanship, that the TV or film star may have a very dubious life style or present a not too pleasant persona. Amy Winehouse, Louise Suarez, Russell Brand, Wayne Rooney, Paul Gascoigne, Tiger Woods, Jimmy Savile, and a thousand others have all been in their time worshipped and adored and often treated as heroes; they might have very fine skills is some area or other but they lack the human attributes that define a true hero and so are false gods. And, as a result, in the modern world, our heroes quickly become our “zeroes” as the media circus moves and to an even bigger or better hero as we increasingly discover that those we thought were heroes were not so heroic after all as their past or behaviour comes up to bite them!I do not believe that this was so true in the past – sportsmen, politicians, film stars and the rest were idolised because of what they were and the values they portrayed rather than their wealth or fame or celebrity status. They represented the best that we could aspire to as humans and because their heroic qualities were largely based upon what they were as people rather than some particular skill or their wealth or stardom it is my belief that they have stood the test of time and remain heroic. As was famously commented about footballer Bobby Moore “Ask me to talk about Bobby Moore the footballer and I will talk for days. Ask me about the man and I will dry up in a minute – he was what you wanted all men to be and what we all want to be” or as is inscribed on Moore’s statue plinth at Wembley stadium: “Finest legend of West Ham United. National Treasure. Master of Wembley. Lord of the game. Captain extraordinary. Gentleman of all time." Or, as broadcaster Alistair Cooke said of the golfer Bobby Jones: "In his instincts and behaviour, he was what used to be called a gentleman.......I do believe that a whole team of investigative reporters, working in shifts like coal miners, would find that in all of Jones's life...he did nothing common or mean." In the case of Duncan Edwards, after the Munich disaster Edwards clung on to life for almost two weeks before finally passing away and throughout that time I remember his struggle to live being headline news and people with no interest in football being moved at the loss of this young man who not only held such sporting promise but who was, all agreed, someone who you would want to call your son or for your daughter to marry – both, I would suggest heroic personal qualities. And that I think is why so many people, like me and Duncan Hamilton’s father, would say with sad regret as they look back, “I saw him play only once....”. It is in memory of the qualities of a hero – not simply a good footballer – and a reflection of what might have been.
I have no doubt that it is part of the human condition that we need heroes because they define our aspirations and our ideals - courage, honour, selfless love, intellectual brilliance, sporting prowess...... and these in turn define ourselves. Heroes symbolize the qualities we'd like to possess and the ambitions we'd like to satisfy. Sadly, in the modern world, many of these heroic human qualities have been forgotten at the altar of money, commercialization, stardom for its own sake. Too often, it seems to me young people and wider society wishing to be defined by, and aspire to, wealth and fame rather than sportsmanship, intellectual brilliance, selfless love,honour or any other of the heroic qualities. Duncan Edwards – like many of his generation - was never sent off nor would he have resorted to such unsporting or unpleasant behaviour as Mr Torres. Of course, the current system for penalising offending players or sending them off for misconduct is a relatively new phenomena - it was only in the 1970s that it was introduced - so it is perhaps unfair to judge players like Edwards in the same terms as modern players. Having said that it is perhaps a sign of how the times have changed in that such sporting legislation is needed today - it was not required in the times of Edwards. I have absolutely no doubts that most players of Edwards’ generation would look in horror at Torres’ actions and at the casually aggressive, vindictive and unsporting manner in which modern players routinely behave. Edwards himself wrote this shortly before he died: "Sport is a character making occupation and it is up to you to discipline yourself to see that the effect it has on your character is good.......never argue with the referee,,,,,never get involved in duels [with an opposition player] ....allow the losing team to leave the field with dignity". Hamilton’s book reminded me of this better time when real heroic qualities could be attributed to footballing and sporting greats like Charlton, Best, Edwards, Moore and, without doubt the greatest of them all the "Preston plumber" - Tom Finney - a man whose footballing skills were applauded in equal measure to his sporting and loyalty qualities - a man whose skills, mindset and conduct both on the field and off it would simply not be understood by today's players and supporters. (see blog "How Times have Changed": 5th April 2011).
While writing this blog a bit of Shakespeare has been rattling around my mind: "....... This story shall the good man teach his son........". I have many “favourite” bits of Shakespeare – phrases, verses and speeches that I am both familiar with and can quote at the drop of a hat. But one bit of the Bard, for me, stands out above all others - and those few words "......This story shall the good man teach his son....." come from it. Not only do I love the language of the piece and the way the words roll off the tongue but it works for me, it raises my spirits and makes me feel good – which was exactly what it was supposed to do when it was written and subsequently spoken in Henry V. It is Henry’s great motivational speech to his generals before the Battle of Agincourt:
“........This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
For many years I used this speech as a starting point to introduce 10 & 11 year olds to Shakespeare and to be a starting point for some writing of their own. We would read the passage, talk about it and then usually watch the actor Kenneth Branagh speak the words in his film version of Henry V. Then we would watch the battle scenes of carnage and blood letting – and for the kids Shakespeare wasn’t boring. The boys loved the blood and guts and the girls said “Ugh.......”. But the lesson always worked and after it the class got down to some writing of their own – not in iambic pentameter or rhyming couplets or whatever – but simply writing a motivating speech of their own. It might an imaginary speech by a football or netball team captain before a big match or a leader of some explorers about to go into some dangerous territory or a King or Queen trying to inspire their people to rise to some great occasion. The results were always good or very good – and there was always a bonus - a long list of children who wanted to borrow my video of Henry V to watch at home! Shakespeare was being seen as enjoyable and worthwhile!
|Henry V (Kenneth Branagh) rouses his men |
to heroic deeds......"This story shall the
good man teach his son...."
And, in reading Duncan Hamilton’s book this week, on thinking back to the great Duncan Edwards and other sporting heroes, and on sadly reflecting upon the behaviour of the distinctly unheroic Fernando Torres I have reflected on Shakespeare’s words:“......Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, But he'll remember, with advantages........” . They remind us that the old soldiers who took part in and survived Agincourt would, in their dotage, have looked back to that great day when they were heroes and fought with heroes. Maybe, like me, they would look back with rose coloured glasses – maybe they and their comrades and their generals weren’t quite so brave as they remember. Maybe Duncan Edwards or Bobby Charlton or Bobby Moore were not quite so good or heroic as I and Duncan Hamilton want to believe. But that is not the point - the point is that what they projected at the time and what inspired thousands to idolise them and to remember them was intrinsically good and represented the best that humanity could aspire to. They had true heroic qualities.
And just as Shakespeare forecast, these old men will each year tell their sons and daughters of their great deeds and of the heroes who fought with them:
“....This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered......”
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered......”
This was what Duncan Hamilton’s father did with the young Duncan when they talked football and of the great heroes who graced the field half a century ago and a bond was made between father and son. These father/son discussions were not just about football they were much more. They were about the values and aspirations that these great sportsmen – our heroes - stood for and projected and these values being passed on when “the good man” taught his son. In short sporting heroes of the past were largely about what is good and worthwhile in the human condition – and in projecting these values and aspirations they, in turn, formed the values, dreams, beliefs and aspirations of those who watched and worshipped them. And that is why I loved the book - it was full of memories – all happy – but it was also inspiring and about what all of us would want to pass on to our children. As the Bard wrote “....This story shall the good man teach his son...”