I’d gone to Mabel’s Tavern near Kings Cross to chat with a potential co-author about a book on England managers. The 2006 World Cup was still some months away, neither Rooney nor Owen nor Neville nor.. were yet injured, the beer was well-kept and I was thinking James Callaghan=Ron Greenwood.
As things stand with English culture, there are two leaders: the Prime Minister and the England Football Manager. It’s interesting how often they are the same sort of men.
Greenwood and Callaghan – avuncular figures both, reassuringly ancient-looking to the gangling figure I was in 1979, are the obvious pairing. Ramsey and Wilson triumphed together, and were tied together in defeat and disaster. Revie is Wilson’s third term, distracted, confused and truncated. Major and Taylor, intelligent, down-to-earth men handed impossible situations and given no help from the press in making the best of them. Blair and Sven, or Blair and Hoddle, depending on your opinion of TB. I prefer Blair (as leader in waiting) and Venables, from that lovely, sunny optimistic bubble of a period 1994-6.
Of course none of those comparisons would make it past any degree of scrutiny. And is Walter Winterbottom Attlee, Churchill, Eden or Macmillan? None of the above: he’s more like Gaitskell. And there’s the trouble: periods can look temptingly straightforward and easily classifiable when you glance back at them. Thus the misleading, always misleading, phrase of the blowhard: “It was a simpler time.” No it wasn’t.
Teams of the decade, similarly. The seventies belong to Paisley’s Liverpool, of course, no question, and the Youtube videos will have Teenage Kicks as their backing track. Except that Paisley’s Liverpool spill untidily into the worst of Thatcher’s eighties, and taking the seventies as a whole, they belong to Leeds, or do they belong to Clough, and is that to do with glam rock, or Brotherhood of Man?
(And anyway, Ajax were the team of the Seventies, just as the ’95 Ajax team were the best of their decade and then the most influential as its sensational Old Boy network monopolised the European game for years afterwards).
So it’s nonsense. It’s fun nonsense, though. Let’s walk it back.
We can agree, can’t we, that Newcastle United were the team 1900-1914 – Herbert Chapman said so, and he had the advantage of having been there.
Chapman is to blame for our next candidates, too: the Huddersfield Town side that won a hat trick of League titles and an FA Cup in the twenties. But only in the early twenties, mind: if you’re going to play that thing you have to wait until Dean’s Everton annus mirabilis of 1927, and the trouble with 1927 is that Cardiff City take the FA Cup out of England for the only time, and the trouble with that is that they beat Arsenal in the Final, and the trouble with that is that Arsenal are by then managed by Herbert Chapman. Let’s just give the man the trophy now and have done with it..
It almost gets dull in the ’30s: Chapman again, another FA Cup, another hat-trick of titles. He died relatively young, and that in 1934 with another 5 years of peace to play with, but not before being some kind of manager of England in one match. It’s safe to assume that had he lived, it would have meant more of the same. After he died, it was never the same: no Englishman has given our national game the same thought, nor brought to it the same energy and innovation.
England’s greatest ever international team flick by unnoticed in the postwar period, and then we are into the 1950s, groping about for a team to sum the period up. The Busby Babes, sure: but they were so far ahead of their time (they were an influence on that Ajax side). Better perhaps to choose gallumphing Wolves, crashing and fluking their way past elegant, brilliant Honved. Honved.. and then Real Madrid: two marvellous teams in countries run by authoritarian dictatorships. To think that Puskas might have come to England.
The Sixties are football’s longest decade. Four England teams come and go: the shattered post-Munich side of Robson and Kevan; the Greaves/Charlton racehorses under Winterbottom; Ramsey’s Amber Glow chaps; and I count the 1970 side, who were so good against Brazil that I simply have to see it again:
It’s very, very hard to isolate a club side. Don’t forget the Spurs of Blanchflower and co., who won the first double of the century and brought us back the European Cup Winners Cup. After the Mark Robins moment of the ’63 Cup Final (in which Leicester City were hot favourites), the United of Law, Charlton and Best. But Shankly’s Liverpool.. Revie’s Leeds.. late-decade flowering from both Everton and Manchester City as club football reached its all-time height amidst a storm of complaints from a purblind press.
Courtesy of Dominic Sandbrook, perhaps its time to admit that Leeds United were the team closest to the real heart of England in both the sixties and the seventies. Like the England of the time, paranoid, over-cautious, unselfconsciously corrupt, increasingly violent, but capable of lyricism when they allowed themselves off the leash.
That personality clash within the soul of the Leeds team; its very longevity; the drama of so many near misses; the way Revie has vanished from the popular mind more completely than Lucan. And the modern feel. No harking back to past glories, no Beatles associations – just a city ringed with motorways, a team with no history and no luck, a new badge, a new strip, and a moment in the sun on a big fat heavy staticked-up family television in a pale brick suburb in some town that doesn’t know yet just how hard the eighties were going to be to it.
And what about the eighties? In my head, I hear John Motson intoning “Rush.. Barnes… Beardsley.. McMahon now..” and I can still remember the heavy, lowering certainty that this was how it would be forever. Liverpool had all the money, bought up all the good players, left other sides in their wake. Which is why, perhaps, Big Ron’s Manchester United of Robson, Moses, Davenport and co. should be the eighties team. At Old Trafford, the eighties were the times when things were always about to come good. The old days were always nearly back again – held up by traffic on the city perimeter, sure, but on their way.
The Conservatives will never return to government until they revise the pollyanna-ish denialism of their happy-ending stories about the two huge recessions that took place under their watch. Manchester United had hoped to get back to winning league titles without admitting to all the rubbish in the garage, but resigned themselves to it in the end. It’s not just about buying one or two new players to complete the team: it’s an entire culture, and only Chelsea under Mourinho have changed their culture overnight.
I wish there was a decade to hand to Arsene Wenger’s beautiful Arsenal sides. There’s still time for it to be this one. It would be no bad fit: foreign wars aside, this has been a time of relative domestic peace and security in Britain. Picking Arsenal would deflect from the irresistable sense that the England team missed its moment in this generation, albeit largely through bad luck with injuries. That lovely polyglot, multi-ethnic, multi-nationality side stands for London, too, at at time when it has become World City again.
Looking back on that drink at Mabel’s, it feels as if no sooner had I plonked my empty glass down than the injuries came again, just like 2002 and 2004. Always Owen, always Beckham, now always Rooney: in 2002 it had been “always Gerrard.” Never the supporting cast. Always the stars. Always the Robin Cooks, the Donald Dewars, the Mo Mowlems..
Newcastle United: see the last MTMG film for NUFC 1900-14 footage in glorious slow motion (the last 4 mins or so)
Cardiff v Arsenal 1927:
Wolves v Honved:
Big Ron’s Manchester United Pub Side:
Wenger’s first Arsenal:
We came in with England. Two moments that encapsulate the last ten years between them: