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Bob Lalasz’s Must Read Soccer

Bob Lalasz has had the startlingly good idea of creating a kind of Arts and Letters Daily for soccer websites. The result is Must Read Soccer, and it’s a beauty (and a whole lot better looking than A&L itself in my opinion). Bob will be pulling together high quality writing from blogs and websites (as compared to 101 Great Goals which has been the published press aggregator of choice for the last 2-3 years now) and I recommend you bookmark it for daily reading.

Most of the best new football sites are coming from the United States at the moment. It’s been obvious for some while that the best sites on tactics (pace Football Further, which is keeping the European end up nicely) are Stateside: given the way the game has been growing there in recent years, it was only a matter of time before the commentary reached the same high standards.

England, Scotland and World Cup Ennui

I know I’m not the only one who isn’t really looking forward to the World Cup.  But your reasons will be different from mine. I don’t enjoy tournaments which feature home nations – too tense, too much hoopla. And I enjoy ones with only England in even less – the loneliness leaves them even more exposed than they already were. Oh, to be in 1998, in the summertime, with a beer.

There have been so many World Cups now, and they aren’t getting better. This is to contrast them both with the Olympics and the European Championships. World Cup piles onto World Cup and each one squashes flat beneath the last like the ingredients in some kind of ever-accumulating Double Whopper.

Scotland aren’t there, of course, and Craig Levein gets his tenure off to an unpromising-sounding start against the Czech Republic having had almost no time to gather his thoughts. He should, if he keeps things calm and relatively quiet, steer Scotland into a play-off place without too much trouble. His successors ten years down the line will have an easier time of it: this is the muddy bottom of Scotland’s lean period, and it’s Levein’s unenviable task to steer the team out of it.

The England situation is depressing for different reasons.

This is still Ericksson’s 2001 team in many respects. John Terry and Wayne Rooney have arrived, but – and this is just astonishing – with the sole exception of David Seaman, every member of the starting XI, and two out of the three substitutes, is still a regular Premiership player or playing in Serie A (or Owen Hargreaves would be, barring injury). Scholes and Carragher have retired from international football, sadly, and Nicky Barmby is no longer considered a serious candidate for selection. Otherwise, it’s very much the same names.

When you consider that 5-1 squad absentees Lampard and Barry had both made their England debuts prior to the Munich game, it becomes clear that for the core established squad, 2010 is the last chance to win an international trophy. I think 2004 and 2006 were the years for these players. It’s probably too late now.

Always with the injuries, England. Terry’s back problems, Ferdinand’s back problems, Ashley Cole’s broken ankle, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, Michael Owen.. Owen might not have been a major candidate for the plane, but this point is not about him. It’s about the way England have gone into tournaments with what would be a very serious team, if fit, but one in fact hastily recruited from the squad’s unfashionable outer regions. Sometimes it can work – Danny Mills was an effective stand-in for Gary Neville in 2002, and.. no, there weren’t any successful stand-ins in 2004 and 2006, were there?

Too many front pages: say no more, really. All that started with Lampard and Terry at the airport a week and a day after Munich (because the core of this team have been around more or less since the foundation of Blogger) and there’s usually been something or other on the boil ever since. Frankly, were the UK press less nosey, prurient and possessed of such peculiar priorities, we’d neither know nor care. But it’s still depressing.

The fringe players: I wish I didn’t count Jermaine Defoe in this bracket, but he’s only two years younger than Michael Owen, and the gap between the careers of the two men – to say nothing of other members of the squad – is impossible to ignore. His Spurs partner Peter Crouch is a little over a year younger than Owen, and the same comments apply. The main hope has to be that Defoe and Crouch continue on this dream-like season of theirs (surely the one which will define them) and carry all that confidence into the World Cup. And Crouch is no certainty to travel.  Injuries have robbed us of what might have been a thrilling season-long duel for Beckham’s spot on the right wing between Lennon and Walcott: all we can hope for now is that one or other of them is fit. Let’s skip over the goalkeeping situation.

The Good News: Carlton Cole has grown up, and is a kind of prozac every time one reflects on what’s happened to Michael Owen. Tom Huddlestone, but he’s injured, of course… And Capello doesn’t seem to understand the idea that England might perform less well when essential players are missing. It’s the kind of blind spot I don’t remember an England manager having in the past, save for Ericksson during his early, experimental line-ups (Chris Powell – remember his nutmegging Guardiola?).

No, the real good news is this: barring something from left of field, the rebuilding England will need to do will be done by Capello, whose contract, let’s not forget, continues until the end of the European Championship in 2012. Who, given how consummately well he has done so far (I called him a “More Than Mind Games manager” when he was appointed, and he hasn’t let me down) would you rather have the job?

Sex and the Edwardian Footballer

It’s obvious that something has changed between sex and footballers. The questions are, what? and by how much?

The what question is simple. For the last year or so I’ve been researching for a book about the gradual amelioration of British urban life between 1860 and 1939, using three very familiar things (football, sex and transport) as yardsticks. And what’s changed between sex and footballers is pornography. And, to some extent, access, which I’ll come to, but porn is the main driver here: there is anecdotal evidence that people in their teens and twenties are increasingly influenced by porn in their approach to, feelings around, and beliefs about their sex lives. It would be surprising, after all, if they were less influenced, and surprising if footballers as a group weren’t to be included in that.

It’s a democratization of an older phenomenon. Perhaps it had more glamour when the names attached to it were Anais Nin and Henry Miller, rather than Titus Bramble. The change is not that kinds of sexual activity are new, but in who is best known for taking part in them. Porn, famously, stays at the technological cutting edge, and daguerrotype nudes appear within months of the process’s invention. There are Victorian stag films which would be completely familiar, if bafflingly silent and monochrome, to any of our boys who’ve made it to front and back of the News of the World. But we know that the participants are established sex workers: the idea that an ordinary citizen would film themselves, and then make that film available, only really arrived with the advent of the portable VCR camera and the internet i.e., with the arrival of privately-accessible porn.

How much is a completely different question. What we know very little about sexual activity in the Victorian and Edwardian period. The sources are unreliable and contradictory, and the historians of the subject are, for the most part, politically motivated.

Let’s get the whole Victorian/Edwardian masturbation thing out of the way at the start. I just don’t think it was the case that the United Kingdom was gripped by the belief that masturbation was a threat to mental health. The idea was present in some circles, but never universal in any one circle. The original idea came over from France (it’s in Diderot’s Encyclopedie) and spread from Paris, then the world centre of medicine, to Britain by way of young physicians who’d gone to France to study under the masters. At the time of the reform of the English public schools, the idea was brand new and had the backing of the best minds.

William Acton is the British author of the time who takes most of the blame for the idea’s spread. But his book – The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive System – is evidence in itself that masturbation fear was never universal, never generally accepted. Acton is aware of the gaps in the evidence trail between masturbation and mental breakdown, and his account of breakdown is in fact one of the first and best descriptions of the travails of adolescence. And he brings in alternative opinions – doctors who regard masturbation as a safe outlet; clergymen who regard human celibacy as an outlandish, unlikely and peculiar demand.

Nor did Acton paint it as a moral or religious issue. He had walked the corridors of the lock hospitals in Paris, and had seen more than most men what the new wave of sexually transmitted diseases could do to you. In the absence of any effective treatments, other ways had to be found. He himself supported the series of Contagious Diseases Acts which went through near-empty Houses of Commons late on hot summer nights: these set plain clothes units from the Met loose on garrison towns and ports, arresting any woman suspected of being a prostitute and subjecting her, on pain of imprisonment, to gynaecological examination.

The exact proportion of men in the British Army who were affected by sexually transmitted disease, in the age before antibiotics is unknown, but is thought to be between one third and one half. Although that will have been higher than in the general population, you can extrapolate that the possibility of contracting disease would act as a downward pressure on sexual activity overall, and extend that downward pressure through to the end of the nineteenth century.

Sexually transmitted disease is one reason, then, why Victorian and Edwardian footballers might have been less sexually active than their post-War counterparts. Masturbation fear isn’t.

What about the sexual culture from which Victorian and Edwardian players were taken?

The lives of Arthur Kinnaird and Quintin Hogg, who were both closely involved in the first unofficial internationals in the early 1870s, were almost certainly atypical. Their families were closely connected with Lord Shaftesbury, and both men had been personally influenced by the American evangelist Moody. Their Eton and Cambridge playing contemporaries, by and large, were not, and would have enjoyed 1860s London, the last real rakehell’s decade, to the full. Hogg himself campaigned against the sex industry in his early twenties – and was on the end of two murder attempts for his pains.

The professionals of 1885 and after came from industrial cities, and we have some decent first-hand accounts of the atmosphere in which they’d have been working prior to taking the game up full-time. Both Robert Roberts (growing up in Edwardian Salford) and the Hammerman Poet Alfred Williams (in Swindon Works in the time of Churchward) report the air turning blue with innuendo and foul language: Roberts’ account is crowded with rumours of extra-marital relationships and entertaining raids on brothels by mobhanded housewives (and he has one quite heartbreaking tale of a reformed prostitute who lived her last 25 years quite blamelessly, but who was forever after shut out by her neighbours).

Roberts’ account is particularly interesting because in his Salford, it’s the sportsmen who are the cock of the walk, the toast of the local pubs, and given the pick of the local women.

But exactly how much extra-marital activity was going on is almost impossible to tell. My own guess – and that’s all it is, a guess – is that there wasn’t much. Throughout this period, the educated opinion was that the poorer the area, the less respectable the behaviour of the inhabitants – throw in here phenomena such as illegitimate births, wife-selling, child prostitution and so forth. Even as late as the 1930s, Mass Observation went to Bolton and Blackpool expecting to find widespread extra-marital sex (they found only two instances, one of which included their own observer).

In fact, what little first-hand evidence of slum life survives points away from the poverty=sex equation, at least in the cities. Living ten to a room actually seems to have exaggerated the desire to act respectably: the children of the time, looking back in old age, could not remember ever having seen their parents unclothed, and generally do not remember any hint of sexual activity whatsoever. Girls and boys could grow up in Salford, by Roberts’ account, quite ignorant of the facts of life. Blue talk and malicious rumour seem, in Salford at any rate, to have taken the place of any or at least most actual..action.

The different accounts of Quintin Hogg and Henry Mayhew concur (and William Acton, writing in the 1850s, agreed) that the majority of women who entered prostitution in the Victorian urban environment did so because their breadwinner had died, leaving the wife destitute but with children to feed. Sewing, the other option, often did not pay enough to pay for food, shelter, heat and other essential costs, which was why the Hoggs and Kinnairds involved themselves in a large scale scheme to employ seamstresses at wages higher than the market could supply unassisted. The urge to be respectable overrode everything short of starvation, and even then, some chose to starve and the rest pleaded for understanding and mitigation.

In any case, the market for prostitution seems to have declined rapidly after 1870, as did the proportion of illegitimate births, and some opinion links both of these phenomena to the contemporaneous arrival on the scene of Charles Goodyear’s rubber factories.

Roberts remembers the effect of condom use in Edwardian Salford. It was just as you’d expect: the alpha males boasting to local women that they tested all their rubbers very thoroughly before use – no chance of the shame of pregnancy if you come with me!

So the sex lives of Victorian and Edwardian footballers would have been subject to conflicting pressures. Although they would have been the well-paid, sporting alpha males in their districts, disease, overcrowding and the demands of respectability would have acted as natural controls, whereas the arrival of relatively reliable contraception would have pushed things the other way.

What about the men themselves?

Again, the sources – at least as they’ve been used up until now – aren’t able to give a clear picture. Those players who went on into journalism, men like John Cameron, tended to play lip service to Arnoldian sporting values. Because they saw it necessary to deplore drinking and smoking, it’s reasonable to suppose that these were rife in the game. They don’t mention sex, nor eve hint at it, and neither do the critics and opponents of the game. When Chelsea F.C. were founded in 1905, the local newspapers were worried about gambling and fan violence, not sexual misbehaviour.

Until the 1930s, also, many top teams, especially Newcastle and Huddersfield, contained men who were vocally committed to Christianity and a teetotal lifestyle. Huddersfield’s great 1920s team had at least two lay preachers in its first XI. The evangelical campaigns that began with the Hogg and Kinnaird families ran long and deep.

It’s worth remembering, also, that footballers were relatively well-paid – until 1901, and the advent of the maximum wage, some were very well paid indeed, more and more each year. This helped them marry young – practically every player who died as a result of accident or disease (and many did) left a wife and family.

None of this translates into Edwardian versions of the famous modern nightclub scene, in which young, fit, wealthy footballers attract a competing crowd of women. It suggests only that a Victorian or Edwardian player would have had some additional access compared to his peers on the factory floor, but that there existed some very strong downward pressures that would limit the extent to which he would take advantage of it.

These factors probably remained in place until the late 1960s at the very earliest. Nightclub scenes of the News of the World variety do seem to be a relatively recent development, and it’s hard not to see it as a function of the players’ sheer earning power rather than the softer status playing alone can provide. It’s a shift from sex being available if you want it, to sex being practically thrust upon you every time you go out. I’m reminded of an anecdote about Manchester United from the 1990s. Team and board were out celebrating one of Ferguson’s early triumphs. They were clubbing, and there were women aplenty. But they weren’t mobbing the players. It was Martin Edwards, the millionaire chairman, who was receiving all the attention. Make of that what you will.

Recent Comments Going Astray

Sorry for the problems some of you have been having commenting here lately. Turns out it was Akismet rolling up its sleeves. Hope I’ve sorted it now.

How Much Can Football Books Tell Us?

Noticing the lack of decent writing about the post-devolution Scottish experience, Gerry Hassan turns his attention to the superior insights available in – of all places – recent books about Scottish football:

On the issue of football’s importance in Scotland, recently I wrote about the lack of defining books about modern Scotland post-devolution. I know that some of my non-football loving friends are not going to thank me for this train of thought, but it seems the nearest we have come – more than in any other area – is in the serious football book.

In particular, Archie Macpherson’s ‘Flower of Scotland? A Scottish Football Odyssey’ and his ‘Jock Stein’ biography are magnum opuses about the journey of modern Scotland. They are not just football books, about what happened in this or that game. Instead, they tell passionately the accounts of men involved in football, the players, managers, owners and coaches, as well as the fans, the dreams of the often grim, working class communities the Jock Steins, Alex Fergusons and Jim McLeans came from, and how football was both a kind of glue and form of escapism.

Macpherson’s two books are beautifully written and, for anyone with a passing interest in Scottish society, paint a vivid picture of the heroes, villains and flawed figures who made up the game. People like Willie Waddell, the Rangers manager who endured the tragedy of the Ibrox disaster in 1971 when 66 people died, keeping his composure, as all around lost theirs. He won the European Cup Winners Cup for the ‘Gers the next year, but was a man ultimately destroyed by his alcoholism.

Anyone who has spent time with the best football writing will know instinctively that this is correct: that football can provide a new slant and a fresh perspective. This is as true of recent Scottish political and cultural life as it is of the Victorian and Edwardian history that I’ve been writing about here. Football is both unthreatening and familiar. We don’t expect it to shed any light, so when it does, it does it with superlative force. The clicheed history of Victorian and Edwardian football – its whiggish progression from “toffs” (boo!) to professionalism (seen as the triumph of the working man: hurrah!) – is set in concrete, but so staggeringly wrong and misconceived that any attempt to correct it immediately illuminates the society around it in new and creative ways.

Gerry’s review of the Scottish football writing scene is far more thorough than I am capable of, although I’d second his recommendation of Hugh McIlvanney’s collected articles, and raise a plea in mitigation for Harry Reid’s The Final Whistle which Gerry thinks less of than I do. I’ll certainly be following up some of his list, especially Bob Crampsey’s biography of Jock Stein (Stein is a central football figure, but also an essential part of any full understanding of the way the UK lost its footing in the years after the Oil Shock of 1973).

This excellent list of Gerry’s doesn’t set out to hide the obvious point, that there is always going to be a degree of luck involved when a football book manages to enlighten its readers about anything beyond the game. How far can that go? and what do we want from football books, anyway?

Because surely no one goes to football to find something to read. Not at first, anyway. Cricket is a different matter – all that time spent waiting to pad up needs to be filled with something, and you’ll want more than just Irish whiskey and cigarettes… I went to football to play, first and foremost. But you can’t play forever. Then I went to watch – but you can’t always get tickets, and you can’t always get to a pub with a big screen. Only after all that’s done with are there books.

Which is why football books have such short lives. Fever Pitch aside, I can’t think of a single title that has been able to sustain multiple reprints. In cricket, C.L.R. James goes on forever, and so will Gideon Haigh. Hugh McIlvanney is a match for either of them, but just you try finding a copy. I bought mine in a remainders shop on the Charing Cross Road for £1.

Long games have the better chance of generating literature. So cricket, baseball and golf are understood to be worth the author’s attention and to be capable of providing wider social and political commentary and metaphor. The game of football itself – the playing side of it – almost never is.

The best football books, as Gerry’s review demonstrates, are mostly about what goes on around and off the pitch. All of the interest is in the characters of those involved, in the geography and nature of their upbringing, in the changes they experience, and in the aftermath of their fame and triumph.

Even in Fever Pitch, which describes match action about as well as prose writing is capable, actual play matters more in what it means to the fan than in what it is in itself. A cover drive (lovely phrase) is enough on its own. Jim Baxter playing keepie uppie is meaningless without centuries of context, and even then only to those of a certain frame of mind.

The longer ago a particular game gets, the less important gameplay becomes: almost no one watches Mitchell and Kenyon’s Edwardian matches for the same reason they click on the “Video” tab at 101 Great Goals.

When you try to look at the match action on its own, and draw out meaning from that instead of just pleasure, you enter the realm of the strange and bizarre. Take this, for example:

..the symbolism of football is that much more pronounced, starting with the very mechanics of the sport: the aim of the game is to shoot, thrust or shove something small and white into an opening. It doesn’t take the genius of Sigmund Freud to work out what’s simulated here. Derek Hammond takes a similar view. The origins of football go back to ancient fertility rituals, the historian argues in (David) Winner’s book. ‘These are pre-Christian rituals which only survived because they were in places everyone forgot about. They were probably part of the original heathen, naturalistic British religions which were about the earth and the sun, and killing and fucking.’ (From Englischer Fussball: A German’s View of Our Beautiful Game by Raphael Honigstein).

Or this, from the same source:

By contrast, the highbrow, left-leaning German broadsheet taz appreciated goal-keeping legend Oliver Kahn as ‘an aesthete of the anal’ whose one and only concern was to make sure that ‘nothing came in at the back’. Taking their cue from Schümer, taz realised that Kahn never enjoyed ‘the striker’s orgasmic joy at scoring’ – because he knew he was the one getting shafted. ‘I’m the arse,’ Kahn once said about conceding a goal: ‘a feeling of loneliness grabs hold of me’. Who but a certified maniac would want to engage in such an existentialist fight against the odds?

Obviously there’s the chance here, if you want it, to laugh at over-the-top, misdirected sociological and sexual theorising.

But it’s the attitude that most offends me: these stupid, repressed footballers, so far below our own impeccable levels of enlightenment.. added to (brief digression follows) the shockingly stupid missing of the real sexual point of football. It’s not simulating sex at an unconscious level – it’s simulating battle at a very conscious level, and one of the principle points of that battle is to impress women (YMMV, obviously), or to feel entitled to impress women by working our way up the on-pitch pecking order.

I’ve felt that: haven’t you? The need to run harder, tackle more determinedly, go in where the boots are flying to impress a girl who might not have been at pitch-side but who you were always aware of in your head, metaphorically looking on?

Football has never been unsensual or sexless. But it’s a case of everything in the right order. And a certain kind of sociological writing about football gets that wrong because it itself is consumed by an (unconscious/subliminal) desire to laugh at the lower class ruffians, presumably as an alternative to fearing them or envying their (compared to some academics) success with girls. So reads its alternately tinny and nasal, superior tone.

I don’t think there’s anything to learn here, either, about the origins of, and how to end, the current homophobia in football. Whatever that’s about, it’s not sacred symbolism, Freud or Oliver bloody Kahn.

And not all Victorians thought masturbation sent you mad, certainly not all doctors or schoolmasters or clergymen. Furthermore, ways of diverting young men from sex matter more in a world without modern condoms or any means of treating STDs that were, in the nineteenth century, more prevalent and more virulent than they are now. Something to consider, when mocking the likes of Victorian headmasters, reformers and sportsmen from a luckier age that has the benefit of latex and penicillin.

Bad attitudes aside, there is another thing to learn from this kind of tortured nonsense. It’s that football is only so granular: it only breaks down so far. Football can only explain so much.

The kind of focal length we’re accustomed to using in biography or in narrative history works well with football and yields a clear, useful  picture. Change the lens, and sense breaks down.

Football can show you something of Scotland. It can show you something of history and society. But it resists being cracked open itself like some great sociological Kinder egg. If what you want from football is evidence of someone else’s false consciousness and repression, football is just as likely to hand you evidence of your own.

Anyone But England’s 1966!

My first post on this is here; Alex Massie here and Rob Marrs here have taken the subject further.

Rob, being English, won’t shut up about 1966:

Scots talk about the English bringing up 1966 far more than English folk ever bring it up. I would note to Celtic fans reading if you tire of people talking of 1966 you might wish to put 1967 in a box. This very day, I sat in Kay’s Bar in Edinburgh and heard four Scots moan endlessly that the English talked about 1966. I was drinking with another English chap and neither of us had brought it up, the TV presenters hadn’t brought it up… the four Scots had brought it up.

I can still remember how surprised – shocked, even – I was on the rainy day in 1979/80 when I discovered that England had once won the World Cup. I was 11 or 12: My Manchester United-supporting stepfather had lived with us for seven years. I’d played at right-back for my football playing schools and sat through Argentina ’78 without once hearing anyone mention it.

So the news had to find its own way to me. Rummaging through a pile of old books in a junkshop in some left-over of a Bedfordshire village, in the last days of Callaghan’s Britain, I came across a battered Pan paperback about great postwar sporting moments. The usual list, but I was getting it for the first time: Maureen Connolly, Tommy Simpson, Gary Player, Cassius Clay, Celtic 1967. Oh, and England.

Well, the first thing I read about sex was a “found” copy of “Letters to the Happy Hooker” by Xaviera Hollander. She invites an American footballer over and, you’re joking..

In the late 1970s, England were a team of tired cloggers, playing heavy football in a wet, bored country without wine. Surely they’d never…and I wanted to run into the street to collar passers-by for confirmation: is this real? yet part of me thought I could believe it.. because I have early memories of a very different world and of a sunlight streaming into my pram, sunlight rich with colour and promise. 1960s sunlight, always dappling through leaves or through the long hair of the mini-skirted blonde who has bent down to pet me. A modern, confident light, shining on Alan Whicker and the Banana Splits and me, last seen at the 1970 World Cup and never again. In that light, anything can happen. Moonshots. Bob Beamon’s jump. An English World Cup win.

I had eleven months in which to enjoy the sixties, and, for want of better information, I trust I made the most of them. And I’d have eleven years in which I didn’t know about 1966: I hope I made the most of that, too. Because to listen to anyone who thinks the English don’t shut up about all that, you’d believe that we’re boasting about it: that England thinks itself, as of right, World Cup Winners, in the sunshine, top of the tree. Nothing could be further from the truth.

1966 is spoken about more than it was. Three contrasting things brought that about.

One is the 1990 World Cup, when England stumbled through the nettles to a semi-final that no one saw coming.  Before the semi against West Germany, English mood was split. The casual fan, who hadn’t seen the horrible earlier games, was excited. Those of us who had watched them, through our fingers, felt only dread. The West Germans forecast they’d win 4-0. Most English opinion worth having agreed. The English opinion that wasn’t worth having, however, had had old memories stirred.

In the event, England played quite well. The luck tank was dry, but the performance inspired hope for the future. The very quality of that gallant defeat, and it was real enough, did something quite peculiar and contradictory to the English footballing mind. Without any change in the fundamental belief that England just weren’t on a level with Italy, Holland, Brazil and the West Germans, an expectation formed. From here, England could kick on… 16 years later, Charlton fans would have the same thought, as they bid farewell to underperforming Alan Curbishley. Over all who would kick on, a great dark bird silently circles..

And of course, (don’t blame Nick Hornby for this) in the wake of 1990, literary types took an interest. I’d like to, but can’t, pass over the nausea, the disgust-inducing nature of some of the TLS-style stuff that’s been poured over English football since 1990. Think yourselves lucky, Scotland, that you had Irvine Welsh. Because England got David Winner…

So here the TLSers come, like missionaries and anthropologists, and all of the fan violence and the decaying stadia and the obvious clicheed football things have to acquire context and meaning and they become a subculture and it all gets plugged into history, and what’s in history? 1966 is in history, and, lovers of clumsy lecture-room humour as the TLSers are, look! it’s just like “1066 and All That”. Which is  really awfully amusing! And on the TLSers went, in Granta and the London Review of Books, taking from football  such insights into post-industrial alienation and radical politics and the working class..

Thirdly, and most regrettably, in February 1993, Bobby Moore died.

Bobby Moore’s death was, and felt, premature. It hurt in the gut: shouldn’t people survive cancer, these days? There was a general sense that, although he’d not followed up on his football career, he still had time. And, if there was still time for him, there was still time for his playing colleagues to do whatever it was that you might call writing another chapter. Jack Charlton and Alan Ball were both still managers, weren’t they? Contemporary figures, men busy in the active present, not ready, yet, to be rounded up with Ramsey and the rest and frozen in carbonite..

More time for Moore would have been more time for us. When he died, death lurched a lot closer. It felt a lot later in the day, all of a sudden: no more pretending that the the 1960s have only just finished. Nor more pretending that all that brilliant sunshine is just waiting its opportunity to return.

With Moore dead, it became important to remember, and to gather the memories of those who had taken part in it all, whilst they were still around and able to reflect.

Idiots got their piece of the late captain too. Moore’s death amplified a thought that had always been there and thereabouts in the minds of control freaks and anal salt-of-the-earth types. England’s 1966 side, according to this thought, were the last of a better breed. What that breed was, no one could decide, but no matter. The last street footballers. The last real grafting working-class team who rode the bus to matches with the fans (no one ever refers to players riding the bus home with the fans afterwards, do they?)  The last to cut their hair short/drink mild/use dubbin/pinch matron/shovel coal/wear slippers/wear lipstick.

The purpose of this particular, and very footballing, narrative is clear: it’s to rough up the moderns. To lay a punch on those long-haired types with their skinhead cuts, who’ve been made soft by the abolition of national service, white collar jobs, comprehensive school, Eagle Magazine, foreign cars, pretty girlfriends, Central London, not drinking with journalists, Southport, Dubai, Ipod Twitbook, corporal punishment, sex with nuns and the horrors of NuLab Thatcherism.

What it isn’t about, most emphatically, is English arrogance. If only it were so.

Because if you’ve read all of this up until now, you’ll know that although I’ve tried to tell it from the English point of view, I’ve missed out on the Scottish. Because I’ve been trying to say to the Kay’s Bar guys that it ain’t so. I’ve been trying to give them reasons to think more kindly, with more gentleness than they do, about England. But it’s not about that, is it? There are no reasons. What reason do you need to be shown?

The myths that sustain a nation and its sense of self, after all,  can be about other nations. It’s a Scottish myth, that England go on about 1966 all the time. They don’t; it isn’t true. More than they did, but not all the time, and not like that. But the Scottish myth has its place in a much wider conversation. Argue, if you like, that it’s projection: Scottish insecurity, confronted with an English achievement that Scotland has undeniably failed to come close to matching, creates a mitigating counter-factual to reduce the pain of it all. But why bother?

Because they may be bigger than us, for all that we’re bigger than Scotland, more successful than us, they may have more money – but they’re more stupid than we are, they’re loud, arrogant, blundering, badly-dressed, less cultured, less educated and short on common sense. And this is all good news. Because without it, how could we English go on? Go on, being English, in a world we lost to the United States… (This isn’t a narrative I buy into – but you can see the parallels I’m sure).

I didn’t hear about 1966 until I was almost in my teens. This despite growing up playing the game and reading about it and watching it on television at every opportunity. (I discovered 1966 in the same year I found out about Munich, which says something) It wasn’t a topic of constant discussion in England then, and if it is a topic for some discussion now, it’s because the men behind it are dying like  Beatles. And, to tell the truth, because we’re afraid we can never match them. And not just at football.

(And it’s a comparatively gentle myth, isn’t it? Typical of Kay’s Bar, really – the best sporting pub in the UK, a place where I once spilt a stranger’s drink and found him buying us a pair of replacement pints…)