Irving Scholar was just one of the strange heroes of The Men Who Changed Football. The BBC documentary gave only a partial account of the past two decades, says Nick Varley
I was one of the men who changed football. Well, actually, I was one of those in The Men Who Changed Football, BBC2’s three-part documentary on how the game was transformed from “national disgrace to big business”. Granted, it was a fleeting appearance, lurking behind Tony Banks and David Mellor, the Laurel and Hardy of west London, after they completed an ill-advised football-playing photocall before the launch of the Task Force. The press conference which followed the slapstick routine was, you won’t be surprised to hear, a lot less entertaining.
But my cameo is worth mentioning purely because, apart from some file footage of the Football Supporters’ Association’s Kevin Miles and a few crowd shots, it was almost the only appearance by a fan who watched football in the 1980s from the terraces – rather than from a box of one sort of another – in the entire series.
For The Men Who Changed Football were, at least according to the BBC, exclusively chairman or directors, administrators or television executives (such as, coincidentally, the current director-general of the BBC), players’ agents or commercial managers – or Graham Kelly. There were no ordinary fans, not even when the final part of the trilogy suggested that supporters might be a little disgruntled or even marginalised in the game today. There was no one to counterbalance the hagiography of the likes of David Dein, Martin Edwards and Irving Scholar. And, most disgracefully, no one talking about Hillsborough in any depth and explaining why it was actually, more than any other, the Day That Changed Football.
Comedy, of course, is all in the timing and what made the misguided concept of The Men Who... appear even more laughable was that, as it was heaping unquestioning praise on the former Tottenham chairman Scholar and the supposed business acumen he introduced (we won’t mention Hummel sportswear), Spurs were demonstrating the logic of such a business-driven approach. Whoever you believe in the bitter war of words which has erupted since George Graham’s sacking, the issue which ultimately made his position impossible was the limitation put on the club’s transfer budget – because the majority shareholders could not or would not approve such spending.
The punchlines came think and fast: that the present day incarnation of Scholar’s business mentality had cost Spurs their manager on the eve of an FA Cup semi-final; that Alan Sugar, bemoaning his lot, made a £14 million profit when he sold up, a fact the programme omitted; that, as Graham Kelly and others discussed how the Premier League, conceived by The Men Who..., would help the national side, England were bottom of their World Cup qualifying group. And that Greg Dyke, the champion of new, lucrative TV deals, now runs a national broadcaster which has been stripped bare of football.
There’s no doubt that the story of the football revolution is a fascinating one, not just for those of us who were there around the mid-Eighties nadir but for a whole new generation. It could make a superb series. Its cast list might include, to name the first few names that come into my head, John Barnes, New Order, Trevor Hicks, Rogan Taylor and Simon Inglis. Its locations, Anfield, Hillsborough, Sardinia, Rome and Middlesbrough. And, among the key props, inflatable bananas. The narrative would probably centre on Hillsborough, the past which led inevitably to the disaster and the game of today that sprang from it. As Andy Gray said in the film: “It probably took Hillsborough for people to say, ‘Hold on a minute. What the hell’s going on? This is ridiculous. We’re talking about a sport here and people are losing there lives’.”
Instead, The Men Who... offered little more than suits and boardrooms, with familiar faces to the fore. Dein, Edwards and Scholar (who, incidently, were all on their respective boards for six years or more before Hillsborough) have told their story dozens of times, but were allowed another lengthy run-out. Perhaps least gripping was Edwards, now so media-trained that he’s more likely to read the news than make it. The script called him a “self-made man”, which is only true if inheritance is regarded somewhat differently at Old Trafford and the BBC than elsewhere.
The bulk of the story was centred on the TV deals from 1985, via 1988, to 1991. In the final part of the trilogy, the impact of the influx of Sky’s millions on clubs (beneficial), players (very beneficial) and their agents (not bad, thanks very much) was examined. Fans (some unhappy) got a mention in passing.
There were moments of entertainment and, sometimes, illumination. A clip of Kenneth Williams on football is priceless. (“It’s a rough game and people in it are very rough and it seems to excite a lot of roughness in the people who support it, doesn’t it?”) Other snatches of archive film – a black-and-white board meeting, footage from some of the first live matches and England v Belgium in 1990 (narrated by David Platt) – were worth watching too. Plus, recollections of Manchester United’s grey kit fiasco: a Nineties classic.
But there seemed to be too little knowledge or consideration of football outside the boardroom – or the Premier League. Using Ipswich, for instance, as the main example of a club which struggled to survive in the brave new commercial world when both Bournemouth and Northampton had flitted across the screen seconds before seemed perverse to say the least. Worse still was the use of supposedly evocative footage to break up the talking heads and archive clips: derelict Plough Lane posing as an Eighties ground, muddy players traipsing off Hackney Marshes and a fan in the dozen or so replica kits he owned. No amount of moody shots or clips of flare-wearing hooligans made up for a the absence of a good account of what it was like from the bottom up as well as the top down.
Those who were on the terraces – and those who formed the FSA, who campaigned against ID cards and who saw off the Man Utd Sky deal, to name but three groups– were also some of the Men (and even Women) Who Changed Football. It was a pity The Men Who... didn’t bother to talk to any of them. It told a great story. But it was by no means the full story.
From WSC 171 May 2001. What was happening this month