May 24, 2021

Observations of football over several decades

One of the most remarkable – but actually predictable – sporting events took place in the UK recently.

The “Premiership” (launched in 1992/93 replacing League Division 1, or “The First Division”, for more than 100 years) is a bloated, top heavy monster made up of a lot of nonsense in the pursuit of cash, with insane earnings levels for players of football, now further blighted by the poor administration of  VAR (not the stallion) and rule-tinkering.

The owners of six of the Premiership clubs joined like-minded owners on the continent to form the European Super League. It lasted less than two days, torn to the ground and stomped on by real football fans, by government, by HRH Prince William who as an avid Aston Villa supporter and Chairman of the FA rushed into print, by most managers, by football punditry at large and by scores of players from the 92 clubs that form our professional game. They used to be divided into Division 1, Division 2, Division 3, Division 4 and are now called Premiership, Championship, League 1, League 2 in some silly scheme to avoid low (but accurate) labelling.

(Actually Divs 3 and 4 were created from the original Division 3 North and Division 3 South, when transport times were different to today).

HRH Prince William die hard Aston Villa fan and Chairman of the FA, and the Duchess of Cambridge take HRH Junior Villa Fan to an away match at Norwich City

HRH Prince William die hard Aston Villa fan and Chairman of the FA, and the Duchess of Cambridge take HRH Junior Villa Fan to an away match at Norwich City, local to Sandringham. Villa won 5-1 Photo: James Dawson

The ESL? Smashed. Kicked into the long grass. Quite right. It was so far from the roots of the game that rebellion was instant, spontaneous and powerful. It might even signal the death knell for the inappropriate, inexpert ownership of many clubs, especially in the top two divisions, or at least put off culturally alien “investors”. Or – as actually happened at Old Trafford – it may force seemingly remote owners to engage with club supporters.

Some clubs – and we can hardly call the big name few “clubs” these days – are owned by Middle Eastern potentates and/or American money makers and/or people from Mars and China who are not football people at all.

Who would have thought that it would be Chelsea fans first out onto the streets to break their club out of the ESL? Chelsea – a “newer” team founded only in 1905 – had not won a lot – one League Championship in the 50s – until they got bought and started buying Premiership titles. But in addition to the Abramovich era’s so-called “supporters”, there is a core of real Chelsea fans. The old Shed End at Stamford Bridge was as loud as any when I was a lad.

Mind you, nothing was more exciting than the Chelsea side of the late 60s/early 70s under Dave Sexton. Charlie Cooke was one of my favourite players, along with charismatic Peter Osgood, ferocious Ron “Chopper” Harris and Peter “The Cat” Bonetti in goal. One of England’s most talented players ever, Alan Hudson, was injury plagued in that team, missing the momentous 1970 Cup Final which Chelsea won 2-1 against Leeds United in the first replay (at Old Trafford) since 1912.

Leeds gave us the great Don Revie teams – in this particular match Billy Bremner, Allan Clarke, Johnny Giles, Peter Lorimer hitting them from 40 yards and of course Jack Charlton. Eddie Gray was a sort of Charlie Cooke winger, and Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter – good but not approaching the excellence in the no.6 shirt for England of Bobby Moore – was every bit as ferocious as Chopper Harris, probably more so. Seriously combative football in the mud.

Imagine the fervour of Leeds fans today in 2021. Having slithered all the way down to closer to the bottom of the 92 clubs than the top, Leeds have clawed their way back into the Premiership and finished a heady 9th. Leeds is an excellent city with a super university plus many relocated corporate headquarters and administrative departments. Sir Alex Ferguson recently observed that Leeds will have an enhanced chance to reach the very top in a one-club city, compared to other big or substantial cities Manchester (City and United plus all the surrounding clubs such as Bolton Wanderers, Oldham Athletic), Birmingham (City, Aston Villa and in the adjacent Black Country West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers), Liverpool/Everton and others, Sheffield (Wednesday and United). Bristol (Rovers and City). Not to mention London (Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, Fulham, QPR, Charlton Athletic, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Millwall, Leyton Orient, AFC Wimbledon and any that I have forgotten).

Although a Londoner, my own club-of-my-life was elsewhere (see below) but I would go to Stamford Bridge for some mid week evening First Division matches – alternating with Spurs at White Hart lane to which I could easily cycle as a young teenager and leave the bike outside. The crowds were much bigger then with so much standing and so little safety.

Liverpool fans on The Spion Kop would darkly comment that you needed to keep your raincoat pockets buttoned over as there was no chance for your standing neighbour to get off the terraces to the Gents.

At White Hart Lane, the bike was always there when I came out from the side entrance to the “kids’ enclosure” which was on the touchline, a little below pitch level.  I caught, live, the Bill Nicholson Double Side with Danny Blanchflower, Cliff Jones and Dave Mackay, later a stalwart for Derby County. Jimmy Greaves moved there later and was there ever anyone better at his job?

Later still, when I was teaching in a gap year in York, some of us on the staff would occasionally drive the 25 miles to Elland Road, Leeds to see one of the greatest ever teams play.  South African Albert Johanneson then wore No.11 on the left wing and had become the first black player to appear in an FA Cup final (Leeds v Liverpool 1965). He was not good at heading the ball, so if and when the ball actually made contact with him up there, nearly 60,000 people would erupt with a huge cheer.

Liverpool seems to have plenty of supporters in South Africa. Perhaps because they won so much in the 70s and 80s under Bob Paisley, or perhaps because of Heysel and Hillsborough. “My” Liverpool as a young lad was a Second Division side of no great account until Bill Shankly put it all together with the great team built around Ron Yeats and Tommy Smith, inspired for years by Ian St John. That defensive pairing gave way to such as Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, later Sammy Hyppia and Jamie (“Sort that out, Sammy”) Carragher.

It is always strange when meeting a Liverpool fan without a Scouse accent. Like Newcastle United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Nottingham Forest and – in London – Fulham, Millwall and QPR, Liverpool always retained the feel of a local club.

My father was born in Liverpool and for football he was in the blue half of the city, Everton, Goodison Park being actually only a stone’s throw from Anfield. He was still excited decades later by the exploits of (now) Hall of Famer Dixie Dean in the 30s.

In fact Everton were the original occupants of Anfield, moving out in 1892 when Liverpool  A.F.C was formed and Goodison Park was built. (A.F.C  for Association Football club – the formal name of the game. Hence the schoolboy abbreviation “Soccer”, as for “Rugger”, “Tenner” and so on).

For me, Everton was all about Howard Kendall (later Manager), Colin Harvey (later Assistant Manager to Kendall), and Alan Ball (World Cup Winner). Kendall had caught the imagination when becoming the youngest ever to play in the FA Cup Final, at left-half for Preston North End who lost in 1964 2-3 to West Ham, winning it for the first time with Moore and Hurst in the side. Everton’s 3-2 win against Sheffield Wednesday in the 1966 Final, shortly before England won the World Cup, was a brilliant match.

Liverpool's Thee Graces and the Anglican cathedral in the background

Liverpool’s Thee Graces and the Anglican cathedral in the background

As a smaller boy I was introduced to Liverpool’s Three Graces, viewed from the Mersey, sailing up river on the newly commissioned ss Empress of Britain from her final fitting out, ready to take on passengers for her maiden voyage to Montreal. Visiting (from London) distant cousins over the years, the view from the river became more and more familiar as we took Mersey Ferry rides for recreation.

Liverpool was a rough old city in those days. Pub chucking out time was as scary as Glasgow, yet both cities have transformed into brilliant places to visit. In Liverpool, it started with music and football. The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black plus Bill Shankly’s Liverpool FC. ”They say that football is a matter of Life and Death. It is much more important than that,” said Shankly in his broad Scots accent, more than once. Another of his famous sayings concerned Tommy Smith who played seemingly for ever. “Smith was not born, he was quarried”.

The two awful disasters at Heysel and Hillsborough have marked Liverpool for life. Just last month, another landmark court ruling impacted on the families of the 96 who died at Hillsborough.

The “local club” fervour of Liverpool fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone – from son of Liverpool Gerry Marsden – he also sang Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey, another Liverpool anthem – is spine tingling. Liverpool (Association) Football Club is a very big version of Tranmere Rovers, just across the river in Birkenhead.  Prolific Liverpool striker John Aldridge ended his career with seven years at Tranmere.

Liverpool’s greatest rivalry – hatred, some would say – is with Manchester United. The Reds v The Red Devils, 35 miles on the M62. And it is Manchester United that has the most international fans, with good and sobering purpose.

For marketing reasons, there are millions of “Man U” fans in China, Japan and some other East Asian countries. This is all to do with David Beckham. In fact, on one trip back to where I had lived for 18 years, my wife and I stood next to the enormous chocolate David Beckham in Shinjuku, Tokyo where the school girls swooned at the thought of the real one.

But that’s not the good reason. Manchester United is all about Munich. After Munich in 1958, until 1970 and beyond, any English person anywhere in the world only had to say “Bobby Charlton” to break the language barrier. I vividly remember the grainy newsreel pictures of Charlton, Dennis Viollet and others in hospital while the nation kept vigil over Sir Matt Busby who recovered and Duncan Edwards who did not. The similarly adored youngster Tommy Taylor had died instantly.

23 people were killed when that aircraft got stuck in the slush bringing the “Busby Babes” home from beating Red Star Belgrade, and others lost their careers. When, in the 70s, I attended a business gathering in one of the City of London’s ancient Livery Company Halls, one of the speakers  told the story of the Munich crash as inspiration for “Rising from the Ashes”. It was less a case of “no dry eyes” but more of men in white tie and tails sobbing uncontrollably.

When the surviving Babes came to play the 1958 Cup Final against Bolton Wanderers – spearheaded by England’s centre forward Nat Lofthouse – emotions were raw. Bolton won 2-0 with both scored by Lofthouse. The second was one of the most controversial goals in football history, still talked about now.

The Manchest goalkeeper was Harry Gregg – the absolute epitome of unsung true hero. In the plane crash, with the aircraft smelling of fuel and partially afire, Gregg heard a cry and successfully found a baby. Then he went in again for the mother, pregnant. Then again for the father. And reportedly for several players.

At Wembley, Gregg parried the ball upwards and turned to catch it. Lofthouse shoulder charged Gregg and ball into the back of the net. Goal!

1958 may be a long time ago but the whole point of being a football supporter is to live with the fabric of “your club”. Not shout and scream on Twitter as some idiot “fans” do about their own players (occasionally causing actual mental harm – witness the recent football boycott of all social media) but to be “Albion til I die” or “Millwall til I die” or, like famous jockey Hayley Turner, totally devoted to her local club Notts County. Nottingham Forest may be the “great” team of that city, having won back-to-back European Cups (now called Champions League), but Notts County is the oldest professional football club in the world, founded in 1862 – 3 yers before Forest. Nottinghamshire Hayley would know that!

We are into the next generations after Munich by now of course, but all of this stuff gets passed down through families. Fathers and Mothers to Sons and Daughters. The folk lore and the famous names are all known. Twelve year olds know who they all were. At the protests outside Old Trafford after the ESL fiasco, you could see the real supporters who scrimp and save to pay the huge ticket or season ticket prices staring down – as it were – their American owners who have done little to sustain the sheer class of that footballing institution since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down.

Manchester United’s next “Babes” had clawed their way back to the top, becoming the first English club to win the European Cup in 1968 (Glasgow Celtic was the first British club, the year before)  with “The Holy Trinity” of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. Nothing in British club football has ever surpassed those three playing together.

For me, sitting in the stands at one London club or another much later in the ’90s with a big “ManU” fan (my daughter going through a phase), the Red Devils were Schmeichel flinging it wide to Kanchelskis who would beat one then pass to Mark Hughes. “Sparky” would hold it against massive pressure until slipping it perhaps to Brian McClair to go through, often taking the return and burning the netting with his shot.

Then came the kids. Jo and I watched two of them come on as substitutes – at QPR or maybe Brighton I think it was – with all around us saying that they looked bloody good. They were Beckham and Scholes, to be joined in the first team by the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt and one Ryan Giggs.  Roy Keane and Eric Cantona added special personalities to footballing genius.

Manchester United goals by Best, Charlton, Law, Hughes, Sheringham and Beckham are seared into the memory. 

At my own club West Bromwich Albion – a committed supporter since I was 5, never missed a beat – the affiliation is not for geographical reasons but something in the mind of a 5 year old that has never wavered. In fact driving up the M25/40/42/5 to The Hawthorns is not convenient, but each visit is a pilgrimage,and in covid times, each match is on TV. I may have seen Albion play more London, Norwich and Ipswich away matches than home games.

West Bromwich Albion at home at The Hawthorns against Hull City

West Bromwich Albion at home at The Hawthorns

This wonderful club – founded in 1878, a massive contributor to Black Country local communities, charities, hospitals and so on with a brilliant academy – has given me plenty of top flight football over the years as well as following the careers of some graduates who get away like England’s “Captain Marvel” Bryan Robson who came back to manage Albion’s “The Great Escape” – bottom of the Premiership on the final day, but beat Portsmouth while all the others down there lost. A Miracle.  Another match verging  on the miraculous was the 5-5 draw with Manchester United – Sir Alex Ferguson’s last match in charge.

In recent times, 10 out of about 15 years have been in the Premiership finishing as high as 8th, but we have been relegated 5 times the Premiership was formed (including this season). The current Chinese owners are completely unsuitable having bought the club for around £200 million for what seems to be a failed marketing exercise in China and have invested minimally since. That will change soon.

But modern “West Brom” is a Yo-Yo club, never staying out of the Premiership for longer than two years. Now, having barely reinforced a squad that stumbled across the promotion line a year ago, we go down after one season with Fulham who also came up last season, passing Norwich City and Watford who went down the year before, plus Brentford in the top division for the first time for around 70 years.

Sir Tom Finney Preston North End and England

Sir Tom Finney Preston North End and England


Fulham and Norwich City are really nice clubs (and grounds). West Brom, 5 times FA Cup Winners, has a bigger history but today those three and some others are good institutions in spite of transient ownerships. Think of historic Sunderland languishing in the lower leagues. Coventry City who have had their moments and once great Lancashire sides Preston North end (Sir Tom Finney of England) and Blackpool (Sir Stanley Matthews of England, The Wizard of the Dribble and star of “The Matthews Final” at Wembley, although when he was playing at the age of 50 he had moved to Stoke City).  All have a large pool of fervent supporters.

Laurie Cunningham Brendon Batson and the great Cyrille Regis of West Bromwich Albion with the real Three Degrees

Laurie Cunningham Brendon Batson and the great Cyrille Regis of West Bromwich Albion with the real Three Degrees

West Brom is proud to have fielded black players – including the “Three Degrees” of whom there is a statue in the town – before most other teams. West Brom fans loved The Three Degrees to pieces, especially super hero Cyrille Regis. And Brendon Batson, Three Degrees full back, injured out of the game, got the OBE/MBE for services to football being Deputy CEO of the PFA, Managing Director of West Bromwich Albion Football Club, and a trustee of numerous organsations.

“The Throstles” (Birmingham slang for Thrushes, one being featured on the club badge) or “The Baggies” – are generally popular wherever they go. People enjoy the Albion “Boing Boing-ing” i.e. bouncing up and down in unison, who knows why, and are startled when a ribald bunch of Albion away supporters singing loudly switches to a word-perfect rendering of “The Lord is My Shepherd”.  Why? It started at an away match (Everton) in the 70s when the travelling thousands of Albion fans had mostly been in the pub too long or were too lubricated on the club buses and sang it because the match was on a Sunday – which was unusual then.

Like Leicester City, Ipswich Town, West Ham United, Southampton, Middlesborough and many more, they have their days in the sun while 25,000 people wait for the opportunity to walk to the ground, mingling, take their favourite places and deliver their reactions-in-unison, some ritualistic, some very funny, while supporting the lads. Once a Baggie always a Baggie.

Many traditional top division sides are not in the Premiership. The aforementioned Preston and Blackpool (who are promoted into the Chmpionship next season just as their “Tangerine” fans are allowed back) are examples. Blackburn Rovers were Premiership Champions in its third year, nurturing the ex-Southampton striker Alan Shearer, before he went to another great club – Newcastle United (in the Premiership).  Newcastle last won a major league title in the 1920s and last won the Cup in the 50s. They literally threw away the Premiership title in a purple patch in the 90s under Kevin Keegan but there is no more strongly supported club in all the leagues. Newcastle’s Geordie fans are delightfully deluded.

At similar levels of finance and ambition to each other, but without great histories, Brighton and Hove Albion (currently Premiership) and Reading (Championship) have wonderful stadia and a deeply entrenched fan bases in good cities. They are a pleasure to visit.

There are some that are not a pleasure – where fans can turn on their own team – but we leave them well alone. The most alarmed I have ever been at a football match was at Upton Park (West Ham) not so long before they moved to the Olympic Stadium surrounded by screaming “fans” shouting “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” (along with something that rhymed with “fit”) at one hapless player who had made an error. West Ham were losing at home to Watford in the Premiership.

What had happened to the great club of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters? But current success means that their proper fans of The Irons are, fortunately, still “forever blowing bubbles” while playing nowadays in the not cosy, wide open spaces of the Olympic Stadium.

West Ham

In many respects, the Championship (League Division 2 as was) offers a lot more excitement than the Premiership with its perennial dominance of the “bought” teams like Manchester City. City was nothing great until the money although at the greatest of all World Cups in 1970, when the England team was better than the team that won in ’66, Manchester City provided the excellent Franny Lee and Colin Bell.

Perhaps the Manchester City story that is passed down most is that of goalkeeper Bert Trautmann. A German prisoner of war, Trautmann stayed on in England and in that odd way of things, was taken to the hearts not only of Manchester City people but also of football supporters across the land who welcomed him wherever he played. In the 1956 Cup Final against Birmingham City (Man City won it 3-1), Trautmann broke several vertebrae in his neck in a collision but played on until the end, frequently rubbing at his neck.

Bert Trautmann of Manchester City plays on with a broken neck

Bert Trautmann of Manchester City plays on with a broken neck.

Just as I hope that West Brom bounce back up and look forward to the complex machinations of players out and in, promotion of academy products (restricted by covid bubbles) and perhaps sale of the club, so Norwich City fans see their relegated-last-season Canaries bounce straight back up.

When having a business near Newmarket, I and our General Manager – a Norwich boy through and through  – would regularly drive north to park somewhere within reach and walk to Carrow Road. Some of the chants towards Delia Smith – famous chef and owner of Norwich City – were unrepeatable but she would take it all in good heart, famously making a very drunken (and cringeworthy) speech to the crowd at half time against Manchester City after a very long lunch.

We were also not far from Ipswich – First Division Champions in 1961 but not a lot since – who play at a welcoming ground at Portman Road. Not dissimilar to my occasional visits to Aldershot Town, Vanarama National League South, at the HQ of the British Army only 5 miles from home in Surrey where a couple of thousand people troop down the hill to see some pretty good football and have a bit of a laugh.

Bear in mind that this is the barmy country where some Londoners time their dog-walks to take in Sunday morning football on Hackney Marshes where there are 82 – yes 82 (used to be 120) – football pitches for hire.

Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning

Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning

My first ever professional match was Southampton Reserves v. Lincoln City Reserves at The Dell, aged about 5. I wish I had been more often to The Dell (now St Mary’s) to see Matt Le Tissier play. Now those were special Premiership goals, time after time.

But two of the most memorable matches were at Wembley, a few miles from where I grew up in North London.

Sadly I watched the 1966 World Cup Final from home, cutting open my head on a light fitting when Peters scored. We thought tickets were impossible, but the day before had enjoyed a kick about in the park behind our house with the non-playing England squad members as the training ground at Hendon was waterlogged.

We joined them that evening at the Hendon Odeon, seeing Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines which was the whole squad’s preparation for the World Cup Final. More or less the whole cinema audience walked them back to their Hendon hotel, wishing them well and being received cheerily. Shades of Bobby Charlton – who was on that walk. He used to catch the same bus home as the fans after matches at Old Trafford.

One “dream match” was when my father took me to the Amateur Cup Final. This may not mean much, Dear Reader, but every year from Dot to 1974 100,000 people filled Wembley for this showpiece of the amateur game. I grew up in Hendon, routinely cycling to see Hendon play Athenian League rivals. The Amateur Cup Final – with players filling the Olympic Football team – would be competed for by giants such as Bishop Auckland, Crook Town, Enfield and on this occasion Kingstonian whom Hendon beat 2-1, scoring twice in the last two minutes.  Hendon is in the Southern League now after over 50 years in the Isthmian and Athenian.  I have the club cap.


Amateur Cup final Programme

Amateur Cup final Programme

England v Rest of the World

England v Rest of the World


The other dream match for a kid was the 100th Anniversary of the FA.  England v. Rest of the World in 1963.  Bobby Moore, the finest player I ever watched live regularly (and the anniversary of whose young death I quietly mark), was in the side but not yet captain. Jimmy Armfield (Blackpool) was skipper. Greaves and Charlton were in the side as was a TV face well known in SA Racing Terry Paine.

SA TV racing pundit and Honorry President of Southampton FC, Terry Paine

SA TV racing pundit and Honorary President of Southampton FC, Terry Paine


 A year beforehand, I had been taken by hotel staff where we were on holiday on the Costa del Something to see Barcelona play Real Madrid (5 times European Cup Winners), standing in a truly massive crowd. The Real forward line was Kopa, del Sol, Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento. Unbelievable to see them in the flesh.

At Wembley I watched in wonder as Kopa, De Stefano, Gento were joined in the Rest of the World forward line by two other gods, Denis Law of Scotland and Eusebio of Portugal. Puskas, ageing, was a substitute who wandered on during half time and fired a shot from at least 40 yards straight at the great Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin. Yashin punched it straight back past Puskas’s head and 100,000 people, or most of them not queuing for a pie and a pint, gave those two a standing ovation of thanks for being there.

The beautiful game.