From managers avoiding promotion to dodgy referees, supporters love making up exotic reasons for why their team have lost
6 June ~ Last month, when Carlisle let a two-goal lead at home to Crawley slip away to leave them four points adrift of the play-offs, the comments on social media from disgruntled Cumbrians had a familiar ring: manager Keith Curle was clueless and must be fired immediately. One poster, however, was certain the latter would not happen. Speaking with the authority that only deep cynicism brings, he or she declared: “KC has done exactly what the board demands of him – keeping our hopes of promotion alive for as long as possible while ensuring we do not make it out of League Two.” The obviously ludicrous comment was met with a blizzard of supportive emojis, though sadly no software designer has yet come up with one that truly conveys the purse-lipped, grumbled assent of a bitter football fan.
The assessment of Curle’s alleged strategy took my mind back half a century to the days when I first fell in love with football at Ayresome Park (well, when I say “love”...). Back then every season seemed to follow the same course – Boro in contention for the then two available promotion slots throughout the season only to fall away in the final few weeks to finish sixth or seventh. “The top flight’s too dear – wage bills, transfers,” the old codgers in the Bob End said then. “The board know they can make more money by stopping down. Every time we miss out on going up one of the directors buys a new Bentley.” It appeared to some that manager Stan Anderson had been tasked with keeping interest and gate receipts high for as long as possible before scuttling his team’s chances on, say, an unlikely home defeat to already-relegated Bury.
When considering both these conspiracy theories I found myself thinking of Stewart Lee’s comment: “It would be harder to hoax the moon landing than to actually land on the moon.” Likewise I suspect that constantly leading a team to the brink of success with the intention of buggering things up in the home stretch would be a much tougher job than simply winning promotion. Certainly if Jack Charlton was given that brief when he succeeded Anderson in 1973 he failed miserably, only curtailing his team’s undefeated streak when promotion was a certainty, and in so doing breaking the hearts of luxury car salesmen across Teesside.
Conspiracy theories are often seen as pernicious, but in football they bring solace to the forlorn by papering over the grim truth of human failure. Earlier in the month I was in a cafe in Durham talking to a friend about the troubles afflicting Sunderland when we were interrupted by an old chap at the next table, another Sunderland fan. After various complaints about the owner and the string of hopeless goalies the club have tried since selling Jordan Pickford to Everton, the old bloke announced apropos of nothing: “At the 1970 World Cup I shared a bedroom with Roger Hunt!”
It seemed he had been on an extended holiday in Mexico following the tournament with a mate and they had both booked rooms at England’s base in Guadalajara. “One afternoon Roger Hunt and Billy Bremner turned up. They were both writing columns for the papers. Neither of them had a room booked and all the hotels were packed out, so they went round asking if anyone had a spare bed. My mate and I both had double rooms with two singles in, so I got Roger Hunt and he got Billy Bremner. And I did well there, because Bremner was an absolute bloody nightmare. He started a fight everywhere he went, shouting about how he only wanted Scotch whisky to drink and creating a shemozzle whenever they didn’t have it, which was most of the time. In the end Roger Hunt had a word with him.”
The old chap mimicked the actions of an adult picking up a recalcitrant toddler and sitting it on a table. “He says: ‘From now on you’re going to keep your trap shut, because if there’s any more trouble you are on your own.’ Well, he might as well have pissed in the wind, mightn’t he?”
The old man said he had gained great insight into the game from his time bunking with Hunt. “That quarter-final against West Germany, you remember it?”
My friend and I both nodded. Who of our generation did not? It was traumatic, a catastrophe – it was our Titanic, a football Hindenberg. “Well now,” the old man asked, “what do you think was the cause of that defeat?” “Gordon Banks’ food poisoning?” I suggested. The old bloke shook his head. “The substitution of Bobby Charlton?” my friend offered.
A shake of the head again. “No. Roger Hunt watched that match and afterwards he told me, he said: ‘What has cost us that game is nothing we have done, it is the fact the referee was an Argentinian. Every decision went against us. Every one. And that is payback to Alf for Antonio Rattin and the ‘animals’ comment.’”
Seeing a look of disbelief on our faces the old man wagged a finger. “No that is right. That is what Roger Hunt said. ”
I doubt that Roger himself even believed it. Personally I prefer to think the FA had told Alf that winning a World Cup was too costly and he should just get as near as he could to retaining the title and then, with a couple of dodgy selection decisions, blow the whole thing apart. Same under Sven, too, in all likelihood. Harry Pearson
Illustration by Tim Bradford