Players used to behave

Players in the "old days" knew how to behave, unlike the overpaid prima-donnas of today. Not at all, says Steve Field

Think of an example of boisterous, drunken or oafish behaviour on the part of a highly-paid football personality. It might be Peter Beagrie’s Great Escape re-enactment in a hotel foyer, Brian Law’s hijack of a West Midlands Travel single-decker, Stan Collymore doing just about any­thing. The alleged misdemeanour could be sex­ual (Pleat, Shilton), financial (Macari, Venables), addiction-related or violent (too many to men­tion). Whatever, you can be sure of one thing. Within hours of the story breaking, pundits will be queuing up to proclaim that such a thing would never have happened in The Old Days.

The subtext is so comfortably nostalgic you could take it to bed as a hot-water bottle. Footballers in years gone by, you see, knew how to conduct themselves. They didn’t drink, smoke, take illegal sub­stances, fornicate or swear. Not for them nightclub brawls, fast cars and loose women. They lived in cosy lodgings, went to bed early, married comely girls from their home town and washed their Ford Popular on a Sun­day morning while chat­ting to ordinary, suburban neighbours. In unshakeable leg­end, This Happy Breed meets Chariots of Fire.

Sadly, acceptance of this particular fairytale is dependent on our subscribing to a number of subsidiary and progressively less believable truths. Human nature, we’re told, has become more uncontrol­led, less dignified since whatever cut-off point you wish to impose between now and your chosen golden age. Virile young men, under certain circumstances, are capable of being responsible and restrained under the influence of drink. To be poor is to be serene and disciplined. To be told what to do by society, the church or by a football manager one step removed from an army colonel is invariably to do it, in the certain knowledge it’s for your own good. And so on.

Partly the problem is one of primary sources. Doubtless, for example, tabloids have always exposed foot­ballers’ mis­deeds, much as they still do – the Sunday scandal-sheet is by no means a new phenomenon – but who’s still reading the News of the World from the Thirties, or remembering the content? Hence the illusion of a blameless past. The same is true of books. Football books until very recently were either authorised biographies or aimed at children. There was no third possibility. Who had any interest in telling the full, unsavoury truth? Not the players, not the authors, not the clubs. Readers 50 years from now, limiting themselves to Shoot! and ghostwriting, will doubtless come away with a similarly sanitised impression of the game as we know it. Won’t make it any more accurate, though.

The activities of yes­terday’s players acquire a false sheen of innocence when viewed through the dark glass of nostalgia. This, for instance, is Eddie Hapgood, England captain in the Twenties and Thirt­ies, in the appropriately named Football Ambassador: “When we were off duty on our tours abroad, we were always looking for excitement. We found it alright in Rome when we hired open, horse-drawn cabs, bribed the drivers, then two of the lads whipped up the horses. We went rattling through the streets. When the horses were exhausted and the drivers nearly frantic with fear, we got well clear of the scene before the carabinieri arrived.” Adams, Shearer and Sheringham racing stolen cars around a foreign capital? Just youthful high spirits, Your Honour.

There’s more, of course, lurking between the lines of many a dusty tome, if you’re prepared to hunt for it and to accept that role-models of the past – Finney, Matthews, Moore, Bobby Charlton – are about as representative as Lineker is today. Fighting and drinking, backhanders, gambling, drugs, bribery, wife-beating and adultery – the gamut of shabby adult behaviour, just the same as now, only far more taken for granted, far less remarkable.

The more you delve, the more you find yesterday’s foot­ballers weren’t better men, rather that their public simply didn’t expect them to be any less human than the people who watched them. If higher wages have taken footballers further from us, and increased our expectations of them, that’s a fault of our age. It certainly isn’t an excuse for rewriting history.

From WSC 170 April 2001. What was happening this month