For years – since boyhood, really – I’ve seen myself as an above-average soccer bore. At my peak, I would happily hold forth for hours about the rugged terrace-time I’d served, at Feethams, White Hart Lane, the Manor Ground. And when it came to the archival stuff, if you could spare the time, well, so could I. ‘Name three of the Spurs’ double side’s reserves,’ I’d say, or: ‘How many of the 1964 West Ham cupwinning team had names beginning with a B?’ Or it would be: ‘Pick an XI in which every position is taken by a Gary. I will start you off. Gary Bailey in goal. Gary Stevens right back. Now you carry on.’
Yes, truly boring. But in those days soccer-mania was dark and lonely work. Outside my small circle of co-bores, most people I knew just didn’t want to know. From time to time, I’d cut a prole-ish dash in pubs or quell some terrace skinhead with a deft statistic but there were few other social benefits, so far as I could tell. Soccer scholarship cut no ice in the examination halls of Life and it helped not at all with girls. ‘I thought you were supposed to be a poet,’ they would say. ‘But soccer,’ I’d protest, ‘is poetry – well, at its best, it can be, or it nearly is ... Take Jimmy Greaves. The Man United game.’ And that, usually, was that.
Those were the days. Now everything has changed. Over the past five years or so, soccer has moved to the very centre-circle of our culture. Books, magazines, TV shows have been sprouting on all sides. Nowadays everybody wants to be a soccer bore. And, what’s worse, everybody seems to have found it pretty easy to become one. Trivia I once treasured as peculiarly, eccentrically mine are now revealed to be the dreary stuff of common knowledge. Faced with my archival fire-power, these new young soccer bores don’t even blink: ‘Who doesn’t know of Bovington, Boyce, Brabrook, Bond et al,’ they say. ‘And as for all those Garys you’re so keen on, why not make up two teams of them, plus subs? Let’s see now: Ablett, Bennett, Brookes ...’
These past few years, these years of rampant soccer cred, have been a slow torment for the antique soccer bore. In the old days we were friendless and perhaps despised but we enjoyed a steady faith in our own expertise, our strength-in-depth: we knew the lot. The depressing thing about these new-wave chaps is that they know it too, and then some. For instance, quite a few of them were ten-year-olds when England played Brazil in the 1970 World Cup but mention that Jeff Astle miss and they will shed real tears. And they go further back than that. Tell them about the first Wembley Cup Final, the one with the white horse, and they will talk as if they had had a seat in the front row: actually, the horse wasn’t white, they’ll say, it was dark grey – it just looks white in that over-exposed snapshot you keep showing me.
Where did they get this stuff? From Sky TV, from Fever Pitch, from Skinner and Baddiel? Or did they get it from their fathers, old soccer bores with nobody to talk to except their captive kids? ‘Once upon a time there was this big white horse.’ Another dismaying feature of the new ‘soccer-literacy’ is that its exponents tend to be Lit-literate as well. They can zap you with fantasy-league teams of big-name authors: Borges and Márquez up front, Kundera in midfield, Sam Beckett ‘in the hole’. They like to assure you that Gunter Netzer’s hairdo belongs in the same world as Gunter Grass’s prose. They know all about Nabokov and Camus, and not just because the pair of them kept goal. A recent new-wave soccer-book gives something of the flavour:
Albert Camus, Algerian goalie and French Existentialist, never took a penalty but it would have been interesting to watch him try (if, say, a penalty shoot-out against a Structuralist XI went all the way to the respective goalkeepers during sudden death). Would Camus have beaten an upright and non-diving Russian Formalist like Vladimir Propp? And if a penalty shoot-out is inherently meaningless and absurd, would Camus have exercised his will effectively by scoring, thereby bringing individual meaning to the experience? Or would he have deliberately ballooned the ball over the crossbar, thereby defining himself through negative action? And what would he have made of that old Romantic bourgeois Hamish McAlpine, the Dundee United keeper who used to take all of his side’s penalties whenever one was awarded during regular 90-minute matches? Come to think of it, Camus taking a penalty at Tannadice doesn’t bear thinking about. He’d probably have stood over the ball for 30 agonising seconds, before whipping out a revolver and shooting a suspiciously dark supporter in the George Fox Stand (since United fans are known colloquially as ‘Arabs’).
This muddle of transdisciplinary pretentiousness comes from a book called Not Playing for Celtic: Another Paradise Lost, and, yes, the paradise in question is indeed John Milton’s – or Big John’s (as he is called here):
Beating Airdrie in this year’s final has hardly sent warning shock-waves reverberating around the football giants of Europe, but having witnessed the emotional scenes which followed, it seems appropriate to quote Milton once again:
Some natural tears they shed, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wondering steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.
A ‘lack of pace’ might seem to be the problem with this dual strike-force, but happily the author – David Bennie – does not say so.
Nick Hornby cannot be blamed for writing of this kind, although Fever Pitch has helped to set the tone. In some ways, Hornby has links with the old school. He knows and cares that there is something ‘moronic’ about his passion for the game, and about his Arsenal-fixation. Old-style bores used to keep quiet about this aspect of their calling; Hornby has had the nerve to make a book out of it – and a most unmoronic book, at that. A terrace Holden Caulfield, he doesn’t even like Arsenal, for Chrissake, but he knows that he is stuck with them, just as he is stuck with pop music, junk lit crit, trash TV, just as he is stuck, really, with himself – a self shaped not by action or direct experience but by a kind of bombed-out cultural passivity, a wry/glum putting up with what’s on offer, what’s served up to him, week in, week out.
Soccer fans are nothing if not passive. The games they go to hardly ever turn out as they would wish, as they have dreamed. Football is nearly always disappointing. Epic confrontations turn out to be tepid stand-offs; celebrity performers are forever going through ‘lean spells’ or getting injured. If a star actor were to turn in a succession of substandard performances – forgetting lines, appearing onstage at wrong moments, tripping over during sword fights – he would soon enough not be a star. With soccer, the spectator is conditioned to expect the second-rate. He gets to like it; he gets even to prefer it. As with Nick Hornby, the new soccer bore’s most vivid memories tend to be drawn from adolescence, that stretch of non-life when everything is less than it should be. TV at the moment is obsessed with soccer of the Seventies: the soccer watched with maximum intensity and thwartedness by the now-thirty-somethings who decide what is broadcast on TV. For types like these, supporting, say, Watford is remembered as a kind of pimply rite of passage, like going out with the wrong girl, the only girl who would have them in those days.
To be a new-style soccer bore, then, it is not enough merely to know about the soccer. It is what you muddle the soccer up with that wins marks. For Seventies adolescents, all of life’s dramas were enacted to the sound of music, the music that just happened to be there, as Watford – and that girl – just happened to be there. Thus, the new soccer bore is expected to be as knowledgeable about chart-placings as he is about league tables and cup-runs. He has to be able to come on (more or less) as follows:
Abba’s ‘Super-Trouper’ got to Number One on the Friday before the Luton game. I remember hearing it on someone’s tranny on my way to Vicarage Road. I’d just split up with Sue, partly because I’d missed her birthday the week before; it was the same day as Wolves away. That was a crap game, nil-all, but I suppose it served me right. Anyway, Abba at the time were spot-on, so I thought: ‘I was sick and tired of everything/When I called you last night.’ And I was reading Philip Larkin, where he says about nothing like something happening anywhere. The next Saturday it was West Brom at home.
Puppy love, pop tunes, A-level poetry, crap soccer. This seems to be the recipe. Old soccer bores don’t really stand a chance.
Even so, it has to be confessed that soccer-writing is a lot livelier these days than it used to be. Even the lowest forms of soccer-lit – the star player’s ghosted ‘Life’, for instance – have become noticeably more candid and style-conscious. For one thing, not all players choose to hire a ghost. David Platt’s Achieving the Goal is, we are told, all Platt’s own work. Unluckily, in this case, the author seems to have modelled his prose style on soccer books that have been ghosted, so not a lot is gained. As a player, David Platt always seems over-anxious to project himself as the ‘model professional’, and on the page he evinces a similar unease. When in doubt, he falls back on backpage soccer-speak, as if believing this to be a model of correct procedure.
Still, now and then he does come close to speaking his own mind, or so it seems. He admits that the goal he scored against Belgium in the 1990 World Cup changed his status overnight from ‘eager-midfield-runner’ to ‘man-capable-of-magic-moments’. Without that goal, Platt may not have been so lucratively pursued by the Italians. He may not even have lasted in the England team.
Graham Taylor, though, was always a Platt fan, and Platt owes a lot to Taylor. One of the most strenuous sections of Platt’s book is devoted to repairing Taylor’s reputation: a forlorn task, but rather touching to behold. Taylor, we learn, is ‘one of the best observers of people I have ever met’, whatever that might mean. Platt never quite praises his old boss as a tactician but he makes no mention of that foul-mouthed video and manfully condones Taylor’s notorious substitution of Gary Lineker during the 1992 European Championships: ‘I know Graham well, and can state categorically that the substitution was tactical and not vindictive. If we had equalised in that final twenty minutes Gary would have worn his number ten shirt in the semi-final. Quite simply, it wouldn’t have been his last game.’
This anodyne generosity of spirit is in evidence throughout. Even Ron Atkinson, who long ago ‘released’ Platt from Manchester United’s youth squad – released him to Crewe Alexandra – comes in for a few words of praise. The only time Platt shows even a flicker of unwholesomeness is when he comes to describe his unhappy season with Juventus. Juventus, he says, never got the best out of him because they played him in the wrong position. One suspects, though, that Platt’s experience of the Italian big time was more sharply humbling than he makes it out to be. In Turin, he may well have come to recognise that he was not, and never would be, quite the equal of his reputation. He would never improve on that heart-stopping Belgium goal – but then, who could?
A few years ago, David Platt’s book would have been an altogether thinner, shoddier affair – aimed cynically at a fan readership not used to reading books. This is not to say that he does not incline towards the shoddy: ‘You can only take people as you find them’; ‘confidence is a funny thing’; ‘an old cliché says that time flies,’ and so on. All the same, Platt does from time to time make a real effort to analyse the mechanics of a footballer’s career. He is no good at describing what the soccer itself feels like but on the subject of what the papers call ‘personal terms’ – cars, contracts, houses, perks – he is enthusiastically informative. For access of this sort, we should be grateful. Platt even reveals that his own Access card was once withdrawn because he had strayed into an offside position. This disclosure – from an England captain – would have been unthinkable in the old days.
Ghosted lives still have a market, though. This season has already brought us Gary McAllister’s Captain’s Log (‘with Graham Clark’) and Blue Grit by Glasgow Rangers’ John Brown (‘with Peter Watson’). Would Brown reveal some juicy Gazza tales or give us the dirt on Graeme Souness? Not a chance. Gascoigne is not mentioned (perhaps he arrived too late) and as for Souness: ‘I haven’t got a bad word to say about Graeme. I don’t know if he was appreciated the way he should have been in Scotland. He had an arrogant streak, but he knew what he wanted and was a winner.’ Would McAllister provide some inside dope on Eric Cantona? No, not a drop. These footballers write about their teammates as if they had never met them, as if – like us – they get their information from the Sun. Take McAllister on Cantona: ‘But Eric, on and off the pitch, is different, and you have to live with that. His biggest problem is undoubtedly his temperament. We never saw too much of the dark side of that when he was with us, but it has reared up time and time again since he left. I think it must go with the territory of being something of a genius, even if that in no way excuses some of his excesses.’ Cantona ‘was a great guy any time we went out’; ‘he had simple tastes and wasn’t at all materialistic’; ‘he spoke what is basically a football language and gelled immediately with the rest of the lads’; ‘Lee Chapman was particularly pleased to see him.’
For all I know, the real-life Gary McAllister is as boring and pious as this ‘log’ makes him seem. I doubt it, though. And one day we may find out. Television’s current soccer-madness has engendered a fashion for ‘oral testimony’ and already a few tongues have been loosened – usually the tongues of players who no longer play, but even so. Kicking and Screaming, the edited text of BBC TV’s recent ‘oral history of football in England’ has several splendidly unbuttoned sound-bites. The book covers all of soccer history’s important milestones – the Matthews final, the Hungarians at Wembley, the Munich disaster, the various World Cup campaigns – and offers intelligent close-ups of individual players, clubs and managers. It also covers most of the big soccer ‘issues’ – the maximum wage, hooliganism, bungs, all-seater stadiums. Altogether, the ideal ‘how to’ book for the aspiring soccer bore. But there are also rich pickings for the fan who knows it all: Kicking and Screaming is particularly good on English soccer in the early post-war years, when star players were paid next to nothing and, on top of that, were treated with crass condescension by the suits and bowler hats at the FA. There are several sardonic contributions here from members of the 1947-8 England team that beat Holland 8-0. Italy 4-0 and Portugal 10-0. For such triumphs the England players got a £10 appearance fee and a third-class train ticket home. And maybe a ‘well done’. Just around the corner lay the 1953 defeat by Hungary, and a new epoch for English soccer: more money, higher status, fewer wins. Kicking and Screaming is admirably undecided on the matter of which epoch it prefers.
Less useful is Tom Watt’s A Passion for the Game, which pokes about ‘behind the scenes’ of week-to-week league soccer, interrogating the game’s faceless servants, from club secretaries to groundsmen to tea-ladies. Watt says that his book is modelled on Studs Terkel’s Working but his tape-recorded informants are less interesting and much less articulate than Terkel’s. A ticket-office clerk, a press-box assistant, a programme editor: Watt does his best to heroise these worthy toilers but most of them are deadly dull, and so too are their jobs. Some of Watt’s workers are humble volunteers: ‘They don’t do it for the money. For them, it’s Mark Bosnich calling them George or Steve.’ Others view their tasks as inherited family traditions: Brentford’s chief steward, for example, is the son of a Brentford turnstile operator and already has two daughters selling Brentford programmes. For several, though, the ‘soccer industry’ is just a job, and involves no special loyalty to the employer. These hard men tend to belong in merchandising or match-day hospitality. Thus, Liverpool’s commercial department is staffed by Evertonians, and Manchester United’s away strips are the brainchildren of a fugitive from Irving Scholar’s Spurs. Hmm. Is that so? How boring. I must take a mental note.