The Scottish and Scottish Football

Gerry Hassan has expanded, generously to say the least, on my earlier post about the place of the Scottish national team in the minds of Scots. I’m going to begin my response by considering some of Gerry’s points. But his fasinating post has attracted exactly the kind of in-depth, thoughtful, informed comments that I’ve found more common in discussions of Scottish football by Scots than in equivalent discussions of English football by the English. That isn’t an anti-English comment – both countries suffer by comparison with the Netherlands – but I’m not sure how aware Scotland is of the presence within its borders of various manifestations of quality to do with the national sport and feel this particular manifestation is worth pointing out.


Gerry says of anti-Englishness:

One of the worrying trends is that you can see such a phenomenon across society: in the support for anyone playing the English at football, in the slow rise of a bigoted anti-Englishness, and related to it a kind of romantic, sentimental national feeling (I wouldn’t credit it with the intelligence of a nationalism) which mixes ‘Braveheart’ with ‘Whiskey Galore’.

I’ve not been in Scotland long enough to comment on longer-term trends. But I have had experience of anti-Englishness in Scotland: the experience of not experiencing it. “Hating the English” is one of those things that a small subsection of society get up to, and because (a) they themselves believe it and (b) they think themselves the salt of the earth, they think everyone feels the same way. Everyone who’s really Scottish, of course. Most Scots don’t seem to agree, and regard hatred of the English as (1) insulting to their English friends, girlfriends, wives, relatives (2) racist (3) dim.

It’s weather talk, code, not real. I’ve been warned several times about certain people that they’ll hate me because of my origins (I don’t consider myself English – I’m a Londoner, and other Londoners will catch something of what I mean even if they don’t feel that way themselves). Every time, without exception, the person to whom these dark mutterings referred turned out to be more inclined to open a second or third bottle with me and talk the sun back into the sky. I’ve come to read “I hate the English” as “I love Scotland, and I’m proud of it, for all its faults and shortcomings: I want to be warp and woof of this place of places.” Every time I drive up the A9 into Perthshire and beyond – every time a stranger takes me into conversation on some Glasgow suburban station – every time I smell the breweries on the Edinburgh air – so do I, but then I feel Gloucester Road calling me and pull away from the thought.

Football as an anchor point

Gerry has a three-point strategy intended to place football in a healthier place in Scottish culture:

First, to put football in its proper context in an age which we are constantly told by IT gurus and new economy geeks is constantly filled with choice and diversity, and yet which in many respects has become narrower and more conformist. Is football used by (mostly) men as an anchor point in a culture of chaos and confusion, and why do we not want to talk about that?

I can think of one important way in which the age has become narrower and more conformist, namely the prohibition of recreational drugs in the late 1960s. And one unimportant way: the rise of management-speak (although I think all that’s done is replace earlier forms of the same thing). I’m not sure, either, that we’re being told that the age is filled with choice and diversity: some commentators would like more, and others see diversity as a general good that gives breathing space to immigrants, ethnic minorities and social minorities (and that’s my view too). But Gerry’s core point is the use by men of football as an anchor point and maladaptive displacement activity, and here I have to plead guilty.

I don’t agree that we live in a culture of chaos and confusion – compared with the 1870s, or 1919-23, or 1946-50, or 1979-81, the UK is a laughing paradise. And compared with the period of industrialization and urbanization of the nineteenth century, life has been stable and unchanging to an unprecedented degree since World War Two. Compared to the lives my grandparents lived, my 40-odd years have dodged every imaginable bullet. So what about the use of football as an anchor point?

The bullets I didn’t dodge – parental breakups plural, having my skull fractured in a mugging outside my house, unemployment, business failure etc. – have left me at times, yes, taking comfort in something stable and ongoing and distracting. After my mugging, I determined not to let my attackers or the experience beat me, just as I’d refused them my wallet until I realised my injuries were becoming serious. I kept my same haunts, my same walk home. It was about as frightening as I could endure, but for the first week or so I managed. Then I met the same gang again, and they, recognising me, gave chase. I ran into a nearby shop, and, as I was no longer alone, they left me there. The shopkeeper had a television on behind his counter, and there was a match on. Memory says it was Leeds v Rangers in the European Cup. Memory also says that I watched it with the shopkeeper, and found that bit by bit the sheer ordinariness of it all and the shared company helped me pull myself together enough to get home. I moved away shortly afterwards.

Likewise, during the early credit crunch when the business I’d spent a decade building began its rapid break-up, I don’t think I missed a single Match of the Day, and my 3-DVD set of old MOTD editions – an at-hand reminder of earlier, relatively safer days – saw heavy use. “Look at his face!.. Just look at his face!…” that would be Franny Lee’s, and, next morning, my own, longer, dead-eyed one in the shaving mirror.

I’d regard the use of football as a comfort and distraction from problems as an entirely positive thing. The fact is, it only lasts a short while. In hard times, the information comes at night, as Martin Amis says, and I’ve known it turn up during daylight hours too,to check if you’re busy. That’s why I don’t believe that men are using football talk to dodge realities (I’m reading Gerry’s point as meaning “political realities”) and why I don’t believe men are talking about football instead of what they ought to be talking about. I agree that awareness and consciousness trump their opposites, but I don’t get to define those terms for other people, and in troubled times, you are all too aware, aware of things that are all too close, for any sustained conceptual analysis or bigger picture.

As fans of Simon Kuper know, in unfree political societies, football talk elides into political code and political representation naturally and automatically. The flipside is also true: where free political discussion, campaigning and voting are available, politics and football separate off, unless they are kept together by sectarianism on the one hand or by political self-consciousness (nostalgia for crowds of cloth caps being run together with Liverpudlian socialism, for instance, or the Guardian’s ethical World Cup).

Which leads me to want men to keep the football talk: if the UK really does abandon the free political culture of the later twentieth century – and I think the illiberal urge is at its zenith now, about to go out of fashion and into decline – then they’ll need it. It’ll cover a multitude of tiny, hard-won illicit freedoms, as it did in Nazi Austria and the post-War Communist bloc and as it does today in China.

Know Your History

Gerry’s second point:

Secondly, the Scots need to address some serious issues about their culture and society. Knowing a bit more history: both real and on the football field would be a good start.

Yes, absolutely. Scottish history is avowedly not a story of innocent kite-flyers repeatedly, pointlessly, intruded upon by rosbifs; Scotland is not under occupation nor has it been oppressed. I refer the reader to Alex Massie’s recent exchange with his readers over the issue of the Council Tax – it ends with his nationalist opponent resorting to the surreal claim that St Andrews isn’t really part of Scotland. Whether or not you support independence, it’s hard not to admire the efforts of the bulk of the SNP to create a vision of the country’s future that is open, forward-looking – a vision antagonistic to the paranoia and parochialism of the kind of nationalism that shapes  the Glasgow omnibus version of even recent Scottish history.

I agree with Gerry that there are, if you want them, credible ways of addressing Scottish history that nourish rather than tear down, encourage rather than depress, unite rather than divide: the story of the national football team is one of those. (I think I can speak for both Gerry and myself in deploring, ultimately, the idea that the discipline of history has to be “for” anything, let alone this). I’m old enough, for example, to remember the excitement around the 1978 Scotland team of Dalglish and co. – excitement, that is, in the Home Counties of England, and to remember the sheer force and pleasure of the reflected glory felt in England as Scotland beat the team of the tournament with the goal of the tournament. Humiliated? Who was humiliated? England wasn’t even there: they hadn’t come close to qualifying.

What to do about the Old Firm?

Gerry’s third point:

Finally, it would be great to do something about our football, the sad awfulness that is the Scottish Premier League and the nature of ‘the Old Firm’. Maybe getting them to commit to the Scots domestic game for the next ten years and engage in a root and branch transformation, which would involve Celtic and Rangers seeing their successes as interlinked with the success of Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen and Dundee United.

I waver over the “Old Firm.” As a small boy who didn’t know anything about a row between any Catholics and Protestants, I started supporting Celtic because I liked their name, and was delighted, once I could read properly, to find out that they’d once won the European Cup and were actually quite good. Lucky, happy accidents: I picked up my English team by turning on the FA Cup Final by mistake in 1976 and, being a good little Brit, cheering on the losing team..

Holland has the same “problem”, for instance, of domination by a pair of big clubs, yet still produces stunning footballers. My favourite foreign team of recent years is Ajax 1995. And, given enough determination, other Scottish clubs can compete: Hibs are coming up fast on the Old Firm, and not as a one-off one-season blue streak. Hibs have worked hard to build infrastructure, and have a period ahead of them now when Celtic and Rangers will be hobbled financially. There’ll be at least one league title at Easter Road to show for it.

Root-and-branch transformation might well happen, too: the blogs are shouting for it, the former First Minister is putting a plan together for it, the new Scottish manager wants to be involved in it, there are no illusions in the media about skimping on it, and there are men and women – especially in Ayr and in the unsung Highlands – who aren’t waiting for anyone else and are getting on with it themselves. In Edinburgh, there isn’t just the new Hibs training complex: there’s also Spartans, one of the most inspiring non-league clubs in the UK.

I’m pessimistic, for now, about the national side. As I said in my initial post, I think the job is beyond the reach of anyone at the moment. Football, I think, is where the English go to be stupid: where a literate and intelligent country lets its hair down. Sir Trevor Brooking is a lonely figure down there sometimes. The Scottish value intelligence and its expression as a positive thing  – just read the comments on Gary’s post – and are able and willing to put proper minds to work on the national game. That won’t, however, stop the mass media going all Greater Serbia over the national team, but, then, perhaps those reporters don’t, in the end, know anything about the game.

Sportscene is filmed on a depressing, recession-blue set inside what appears to be an abandoned refrigerated warehouse. The presenters wear the expressions of doomed men. To the right of the screen flicker latest scores from little clubs playing in cold places at the end of single-carriageway trunk roads. Two retired players with earthworm complexions discuss Motherwell and Falkirk. What they have to say is articulate, intelligent and interesting. But in context, it feels like something is coming to an end here.

I do think something is coming to an end. It goes for the whole of Britain that, when the last of the comfortable predictions has died out and all is dark and wet and frightened quiet, good things are beginning. So it is, I think, for Scottish football. It’ll take many years for it to reach the national side, for reasons I’ve discussed before. But the worst is over, before we know it or are aware of it. It feels like 1980 in Scottish football: all unemployment queues, dodgy auction surplus shops in the High Street and no one to vote for. There are people in the jungles of Scotland who fight on unaware that that early ’80s recession has been over for thirty years. The football one’s over too, for all that it doesn’t yet show. When it does, it’ll become clear that the Scots pulled themselves out of it, on their own and on their own resources, and it’ll be a point of pride in the end. But even in my own, sunny version of Scottish football history, it’s been a low and bitter period for all kinds of reasons.

Getting back to the good days is like leaving a capital city by train. You do it through tunnels, and each time you think you’re out and free and can stop swallowing to unpop your ears, you’re back in the dark again. By the time you hit the suburbs, you’ve lapsed into a sullen acceptance of bad artificial light and your fatty, middle-aged reflection in the window and the filthy wire-strewn brick beyond it. Forty minutes later, everything’s been fields and sunshine and rich oaks and dude ranches and good times out there for as long as you can remember.


Soccer Stars For Haiti

Please head over to Left Back In The Changing Room and read Rob Marr’s post on soccer’s efforts to raise funds for relief in Haiti. A host of great names from the recent past are involved – and for each, Rob has attached a greatest hits video…

Scotblogs Awards 2010

My colleagues Rob Marrs and Alex Massie have been nominated for Scotblog awards. You can vote for up to ten blogs, so pop over and add your pencil cross.

Rob’s writing on Scottish football in particular has been just about the best on offer up here for the last 12 months: he’s also English, and a vote for his site, which has quite frankly raised the bar in the last year to places where the actual Scottish press don’t seem able to go, might persuade him to stay that way. Here’s my favourite recent Rob Marrs piece. Like all of the best football writing, it makes you think more than it dictates your thinking, and makes you work at forming your own opinions. Rob’s also been a great supporter of some superb new football blogs and football writing over the year, and has made the most original contribution to the ongoing “future of Scottish football” debate. He began the new and excellent trend amongst British football blogs to start the adult discussion of tactics, and has done a great deal to bring the central European footballing renaissance out of English-speaking obscurity.

Alex wrote what I consider to be the best thing I’ve read on cricket that wasn’t by Gideon Haigh in the last ten years in 2009. Given the infamous SNP reference to cricket last year – and Andrew Anthony’s ludicrous claim in 2010 that cricket is an upper class preserve here (so why was I watching it on telly in a modern house in suburban Fife last week?) – a Massie victory would be one in the eye for the wrong end of the SNP. The inspirational wing of the SNP would be hard served, mind you..

Of course, the award will go to the Scottish Guido, but there you are.

Where did all the English managers go?

The lack of English managers at the very top level has been well and truly noticed now: last night, Radio 5 devoted ninety minutes to discussing the situation with the likes of Tony Adams, Steve McClaren, Terry Venables and Sam Allardyce. The programme went out live, it’s not clear how much any of the participants had prepared, and the comments rarely went beyond the obvious and the hackneyed. Top clubs won’t give an English coach a chance; clubs don’t give managers long enough; there’s no realistic career path in which to gain experience; chairmen think top players turn into top managers.

Only Richard Bevan, of the League Managers’ Association, came up with anything new. Football management in England, said Bevan, is a profession that needs taking more seriously and whose members need taking more seriously, by those who employ football managers. His job is all about raising the profile and status of managers. This reminded me of the situation in Italy, where a manager is more likely to be considered experienced after a sacking than incompetent – and Italy, let’s not forget, trains its managers properly in an institution created for the purpose.

Privately, I was depressed by the programme. Compared with Scottish or Irish managers, the English ones – Sam Allardyce excepted – came across as inarticulate. And jejune, and ill-at-ease. Even Terry Venables. But then, the programme was live and it was long: plenty of bright, sharp people  crumble at the mic.

What the programme missed was also depressing, but understandable. Here’s my take on the issue.

It’s assumed that there will, all else being equal, always be a through-flow of good English managers. It used to be assumed that there would be a flow of good English players, but not without reason: we’d set things up that way. Almost every school played the game from age 8 upwards; there were junior leagues aplenty, thousands of amateur football clubs, county and regional sides, and an army of volunteers to run it all. Post-war prosperity ate into all that to some degree, but there’s still a structure there that many countries would envy. We had players because we did something to get them. Not as much as Holland, but something.

What have we ever done to get ourselves managers? Even now, I would argue that UEFA ‘A’ and ‘B’ badges do not an infrastructure make. The programme noted, briefly and glumly, that there seem to be as many Scottish and Irish managers as there ever were, but no explanation was offered. I’ll offer one: there’s a cultural difference between Scotland/Ireland and England in their respective attitudes towards the possession of intelligence. England’s a clever, astonishingly literate country – so many people read on buses and tubes compared to Europe and the US – but it prizes the concealment of intelligence in the individual and team sports actively fear it. This doesn’t make for the production of managers, who need to be communicators and influencers (but you can be clever in a Scots or Irish voice without putting backs up). It makes for jobs for the boys, which is what England’s got at the moment.

Anyway: the good English managers are all dead. It’s not just that no English manager has won the Premier League – or, since Heysel, a European trophy. It’s that, with one exception, all of the English managers who have won League titles or European trophies have died. And the period of glory was brief. The first European Trophy won by an English manager, Tottenham’s European Cup Winner’s Cup with Bill Nicholson in 1963, is separated from Sir Bobby Robson’s European Cup Winner’s Cup with Barcelona by only 34 years. And we’ve had another 15 since then.

There were, in those 34 years, a small number of English coaches who were without doubt amongst the world’s best. Nicholson himself; Don Revie; Brian Clough (and Peter Taylor); Sir Alf Ramsey; Ron Greenwood; Bob Paisley; Sir Bobby Robson. (And I’d like to cull the list further – Clough and Paisley are streets ahead… but that’s an argument for the pub).

This suggests to me that there were the conditions, however briefly, in place to produce those managers. Those conditions have gone, and there’s nothing in their place. What conditions? Well…

  • Career dissatisfaction. Every man on our list lived through World War II. Greenwood, Nicholson, Ramsey and Paisley had their playing careers interrupted by it. Clough’s playing days were ended by injury, and he never got over it. Revie and Robson had full playing careers, but Robson “won nothing” in his and hated the fact. Keane, Adams, Southgate, Ince and co. had brilliantly successful, personally fulfilling careers. An earlier generation had finished playing but still had it all to do.
  • International and club humiliation at European hands. First it was Hungary in 1953. Ramsey played in that one: Revie changed his entire game because of it. Then it was Real Madrid, Benfica, Inter, Ajax, Bayern… not until Liverpool’s 1977 side was there an “English” team considered unequivocably, emulatably the best on the continent. But by then, the England team were embarrassingly bad. It’s hard to remember now, when England are assumed to be World Cup quarter-finalists and Premiership sides fill 3 out of 4 Champions League semi-final places, but for many years English managers fought as underdogs: there was something to prove and real humiliation to avenge. That feeling went before Heysel.
  • Northern Cultural Dominance. All of our list bar Ramsey were born in the north of England – and most of the northerners are from Middlesbrough or Newcastle. Of course, that’s to do with professional football being as much a phenomena of urban industrialization as machine shops, cotton mills and shipyards. Most people who played the game lived in the north. But in the sixties, seventies and early eighties, northerners were far more prominent in all of the most visible walks of national life. Where have they all gone, the Morecombes and Wises, the Barbara Castles, the Parkinsons, the Harold Evanses, the Alan Bleasdales? The working class voice of clichee used to come from Manchester or Liverpool, and the person using it was avuncular, middle-aged and smartly dressed: he was a warm and comforting figure that I knew well as a boy. But the Etonians are coming, and the working class clichee voice is Danny Dyer’s and despised. Cockney used to mean Michael Caine. We got accustomed to a world in which people from any background were starting to come through to national leadership, and then that world went away again.  What Brian Clough stood for – brilliance, hope and rootedness, in one man – went with him, and we don’t know when we’ll see it again. His modern successors lack the polish and glamour that our age demands of leaders. Now, Roy Hodgson,  you have to be posh or foreign, a Cameron or a Mancini. Signor Allardice was right. For the rest of us, there’s the X Factor.
  • A blue collar world. It’s old hat but true: football failed to follow the advice of a million working class mothers to go white collar. It’s starting to, now. But our great English managers predate, most of them, the days of universal secondary education. All of them possessed the intellectual strength to go on to 16, 18 and 21, but couldn’t. Today, it’s still unusual for an Englishman going into professional football to bother much with school after 16, but the question is whether potential Paisleys aren’t taking the risk that football represents as a career choice when staying on (and more than half of schoolchildren now express a desire to make university) offers such comparatively certain rewards. Football was never a great bet, and our great English managers won a hidden lottery to reach the places they did. But you have to be in it to win it, and with fewer boys playing football seriously in the first place, it has to be asked if men like our greatest managers aren’t now just choosing washing machines, cars, compact disc players, electrical tin openers and a fucking big television over the risk of football and the slim chance of great, grand adventure.

In short, I’m saying two things: there aren’t the English managers there were, and the big four aren’t entirely wrong to steer clear. But those that are around – Allardyce, Hodgson – aren’t given the chance because the culture’s played them crook. And Hodgson’s 63.. If this is to change, three things need to happen. First, “show us your medals” has got to go. Only one of the big four is managed by a man who was also any kind of player. There’s little real connection between great playing success and managerial brilliance. Second, England needs to set up a managerial college along French lines. Third, Richard Bevan’s efforts to raise the image of the profession must succeed, and the consequence must be that managers are given time and backing. If the structure of the league, which so penalizes failure now, must change to accommodate that, then so be it.

What mustn’t happen is any kind of affirmative action. It’s too late to appoint an Englishman to the England job just because he’s English: after Sven, after Capello, the second-choiceness of the situation would overwhelm anyone but the thickest-skinned. The next Englishman in the job must have the job because he’s the best of a superb bunch. And there’s many years of hard work and change before that comes about. In 1977, the choice was between Robson, Clough and Greenwood: that’s the level we must now demand.


“Footysphere” is an umbrella title for a rich range of football resources – history, culture, news, images, pretty much everything – run by a Blade in (obviously enough) Sheffield.

Here’s the core Netvibes site: Netvibes Footysphere (Note the tabbed categories)

And the Flickr photostream

And the Twitter feed

And the Tumblr site.

There’s probably even more to the network, but if that little lot doesn’t keep you going until the snow melts..

Edwardian Football Tactics: Reality and Survival

The tragedy of the 100+ Mitchell and Kenyon films is in their length, or lack of it. Getting a real idea of what an Edwardian soccer match was like from any one of them or all of them is next to impossible. This example, Newcastle United v Liverpool at St James’s Park in 1901, is about the best of the bunch.

I suppose one of the best teams there has ever been was that claimed by Newcastle United for ten years or so before the War and that part which so many of them have since played in the game indicates that they were intellectually above the average. Herbert Chapman 1934

Chapman believed in clever players, and thought that War and what followed it was driving them out:

Football today lacks the personalities of twenty or thirty years ago. This, I think, is true of all games, and the reason for it is a fine psychological study. The life which we live is so different: the pace, the excitement, and the sensationalism which we crave are new factors which have had a disturbing influence. They have upset the old balance mentally as well as physically, and they have made football different to play as well as to watch. And they have set up new values. The change has, in fact, been so violent that I do not think the past, the players and the game, can fairly be compared with the present.

There are echoes there of 21st century jeremiads about Facebook, and one would like to have heard Billy Meredith (who played in the First Division from the time of Victoria right up until 1925) on the subject.

Certainly Chapman and his fellow veterans thought that things were getting worse. If they were right, that has interesting implications for the debate about when England and Scotland were caught by the rest of the footballing world. England and Scotland were caught in two phases – in playing potential, they lost their outright lead by 1928, but their psychological advantage endured for another twenty years, preserved in part by the Second War. But Chapman has England in retreat while the others catch up:

It is sometimes said that, if the old players were to come back, they would show up the limitations of today. But there is no coming back. I know how boldly and confidently the old-timers speak of their prowess, and how they are inclined to belittle present players. To support their arguments they point to the difficulty of the selectors in trying to build up a stable international side. England teams come and go. From one season to another they can scarcely be recognised. They have, unfortunately, to be altered from match to match. Men good one day fail the next. They do not even play consistently in their club form. This is one tell-tale piece of evidence of how football has changed.

For such a great man, Chapman is frustrating on specifics. This is the man who, along with Buchan, pioneered the use of the third back in 1925, the last significant footballing innovation by an Englishman until the advent of Simon Clifford, but this is as close as he comes to telling us what the game was once like:

I am not prepared to depreciate the men of today, being fully conscious of the many matters which have added to their difficulties. Competition has heightened enormously, and it is no longer possible for men or teams to play as they like. Thirty years ago, men went out with the fullest licence to display their arts and crafts. To-day they have to make their contribution to a system. Individuality has had to be subordinated to teamwork. Players have to take part in many more matches and the strain on their physical resources has greatly increased.

Licence, artistry, creativity and the Old Days: I’ve heard the tale told of the 1950s in the 1970s, of the 1960s in the 1980s, and, heaven help us, of the 1970s ever since.

But Chapman’s not the only guilty party here. Other Edwardian bosses wrote about the game without any real hint as to the tactics they employed – if any. John Cameron played for Queens Park, Everton and Spurs before managing at White Hart Lane in the early Edwardian period. His account of football management, written in 1905, uses a word most of the writers of the day bandied about undefined – combination:

Even if he succeeds in obtaining a team of stars – every player an acknowledged master – it does not follow that the combination as a whole will be successful. A team that appears invincible upon paper has an exasperating way of disappointing expectations. And when this is the case, the manager has to sally forth again in quest of fresh talent.

Cameron talks purely in terms of his first team – nowhere in his (by his own admission truncated) essay does he think in terms of a squad as such, despite most clubs of the day keeping 20+ professional players on their books at any one time. Nor does he indicate that his first team might be directed in different ways for different opponents or phases of play.

R.S. McColl, the Edwardian Scottish international who went on to found the eponymous chain of newsagents, was a little more helpful, if pedantically so, writing in 1913:

It is so much of a truism nowadays that combination in football – as in many other things – pays best, that it appears almost superfluous to urge its importance.

Successful combination, Bob explained, described the

team whose advantages of physique, head, and experience dovetail best.

What about tactics?

Too rigid a system of play, in which all the moves are known, will not do. There must be flexibility; endless variety and versatility, constant surprises for the other side. System must be inspired by art and innate genius for and love of the game.

McColl establishes for us, then, that creativity was a strong value in the play of top Edwardian teams (and you can see him in the film above). It’s creativity within a system. But what system? Once again, we have no word. Either there was no system as we would understand it, or he assumed that we would know what it was.

Kenneth Hunt, who was an ordained priest, was one of the last amateurs and Oxford men to win an FA Cup – scoring a “wonder goal” in the process for Wolverhampton Wanderers at Crystal Palace in 1908. He’d play twice for England in 1911, keeping his amateur status throughout.

Writing in the same year as McColl, Hunt at once said more than anyone else about the actual tactics of Edwardian soccer and also hinted at something eternal at the heart of the game’s soul: reading him, I wonder to what extent tactics have ever changed at all:

..there are two generally prevailing styles of forward play, which we will here describe as the “three inside,” and the “wing to wing” game. Which is the more dangerous style of play it is difficult to say; each has its own advocates, and personally, I unhesitatingly plump for the “wing to wing” method of attack. In this style of play the wing-forwards lie as wide as possible on the touch-lines, ever on the look-out for those swinging passes, which they know their insides will give them at the first opportunity. The whole danger of this method lies in its suddenness. For myself, I prefer to see the centre-forward slightly in advance of his two insides, and the wing-forward considerably in front of the centre.
The plan of attack is then something as follows: Should the centre-forward receive the ball he swings it well out to one of his outsides, but in such a way that the wing-forward has to run ahead to receive it. In the meantime, the three inside men are all making tracks as hard as they can go for their opponents’ goal, and so are probably in time to reach the centre as it comes skimming across.
In the other style of play, most of the attack is carried on by the three inside men, and the outsiders are only used as a last resort. This kind of game is prettier to watch, but my experiences as a half-back tell me that it is much easier to checkmate thatn the more open style of play, which is far more likely to flurry the opposing defence.

To which some Arsenal fans will say yea.. and Alf Ramsey’s shade nay.. and Chelsea fans both, remembering Mourinho’s Chelsea team of Duff and Robben and the team that followed after.

But what matters is that you can picture what those two approaches would have looked like, and, with that in mind, it’s possible to watch that Newcastle-Liverpool clip again with a more enlightened eye.

The choice between going via the wings or down the middle took place in the context of an evolved 2-3-5, according to J.C. Gow, who – writing in 1913 once again – put the formation into historical context:

The whole plan of Soccer at its best is based on perfect combination and clear understanding between the members of the eleven. (Ed: as everyone keeps saying). Both as regards attack and defence does this statement hold true. There have been many changes made in the last forty years, both with respect to the number of players in various departments and as to their duties. But I believe, if you went into the matter closely, you would find that in every case each change made has been entered on with the view to strengthening the combination of the eleven as a whole, rather than with the idea of making it possible for this or that man to score individually. You may recall that in past years there used to be only one back and one half-back. This disposition of the forces was altered as time went on so as to afford finer combination and strength, until today, by having a team arranged in the shape of five forwards, three halves, two backs and a goalie, we have probably got as effective and powerful a combination for Soccer as can possibly be used or suggested.

Note that sense at the end there of arrival, of satiation: football, in Gow’s eyes, had reached a tactical end of the road, and now all that remained was to fit the best set of players to the (found) best tactical layout. Edwardians didn’t discuss tactics because they were at the end of four decades of fast, decisive, and above all, player-led, change. That change had led them to a final solution as they saw it to the football tactics problem.

In Edwardian football, therefore, formation and tactics were more or less the same thing, leaving a choice between attack down the middle or attack from the side. The players themselves had worked this out, almost by accident, by unconscious evolution: there is something redolant of Malcolm Gladwell or Steven Johnson about this process.

After 1919, Chapman’s “heightened competition” would take the matter out of the players’ hands and – in effect – place it into his hands and Charles Buchan’s.

It is still a shame that we don’t have fifteen minutes of Chapman’s favourites, Edwardian Newcastle, filmed from height, instead of the two or three minutes shot from one point on the ground. Perhaps, to get a true feel for what that lost side were like to watch, we need to look elsewhere.

As Jonathan Wilson has made clear, not every country switched to the third back game in 1925. The South Americans persisted with 2-3-5 into the 1950s, and its perhaps to them that we must turn to find us the ghosts of Edwardian Newcastle. Fortunately, film of Uruguayan and Brazilian football of the 1920s was done well. It won’t be a direct equivalent, but this was the generation of players who learned the game at the hands of the first British coaches to travel abroad. It might be closer than we think. Remember; 2-3-5, freedom, and artistry:

Uruguay here are using the same kit, the same ball, the same rules as the British teams, but are doing so uninterrupted by World War One and the burden of a 38 game league season. Would a 1920s Newcastle have been like this, absent Sarajevo? Chapman might have liked to think so.

There’s one other thing to say about Edwardian 2-3-5. As we’ve noted, it emerged from the pure experience of players, finding how the game evolved just through their interaction with it on the pitch over 40 years. That alone would indicate that there might be something inevitable about the formation, something that still exists down there buried beneath the modern game. Perhaps 2-3-5 has a way of emerging uninvited, an example of what bad poets call a palimpsest. Watch Italy attack in 2006 and see how their front line behaves, and remember what Kenneth Hunt said so long ago: there is wing play, and there is the three men through the centre…

Brain Tumours and Sport

John Hartson

This post is in memory of Willie Logan, supporter of both our friends Dunfermline Athletic and our charity Brain Tumour Action. Willie died in 2009 at the age of 45, two years after his own brain tumour was diagnosed. He leaves his wife, Karen, and son, Ewan, and a host of others who miss him greatly.

You’ll know the names and the stories. John Hartson, whose testicular cancer spread to his lungs and brain. Seve Ballesteros, who underwent multiple neurosurgeries in 2008 for an oligoastrocytoma. Kirsty Taylor, the European Womens Tour golfer, who spent the same year fighting a tumour that just seemd to become ever more serious.

It’s likely that what you’ve read about them has followed the classic style of every celebrity cancer story in the media: diagnosis is followed by the very latest treatment, and then there’s recovery: the famous patient thanks their supporters, pledges to “fight this thing” and cues a host of sporting metaphors about difficult rounds and a full ninety minutes.

Most of my work for the last year has been for the charity Brain Tumour Action and I can confirm what you’ll already have guessed: behind the scenes, things are very different from their press portrayal.

Brain Tumour Action exists to support patients and their families, to fund research, and to provide information and education about brain tumours. We’re nearly 20 years old, but the needs we seek to fill are as desperate as when we started. Let me explain.

Brain Tumours at ground level

Before I began my work with the charity, I believed what most people with no direct connection to brain tumours believe. It’s a cancer, which is bad, but there are new treatments and things are much better than they used to be. You’ll have an op, or perhaps a series of them, then what’s left will get cleared up with a bit of radiotherapy and chemo and good luck.

For sure, survival rates are substantially higher than they were forty years ago when President Nixon declared war on cancer. Even the truly wicked cancers that creep up on their victims, like lung cancer, which can be undetectable until it’s almost too late, are no longer just death sentences.

These days, the average 5-year survival rate across all the cancers hovers at about 50%. However, forty years ago, 5-year survival rates for brain tumours stood at about 10-12%. In all that time, we’ve hardly made it to first base. It’s about 12% now for men, and for women, 15%.

The big dark evil elephant in the room

In the brain tumours world, in the brain tumours “scene” if you will, we tend not to dwell on this. That’s not because of positive thinking, or because people think that they’ll fool their cells into healing with a smile. Nor is it because people regard their brain tumour as a “gift” that has opened them up to truth and life. We don’t dwell on it, because it’s the big dark evil elephant in the room.  Every patient wakes up each morning to a forcible reminder of impending mortality. They know. And that’s enough of that.

So it won’t be dwelt upon at length in our newsletters or on our websites. Instead, you’ll find the upbeat stories, the successes, the overcomings of adversity. These aren’t propaganda. People do win the little victories against meaningless, against the cruelty and randomness of what is, so very specifically, their fate. But it can be worse than 12% and 15%..

The survival rate of GBM IV, one of the worst malignant types of brain tumour you can get, is at around 4% after five years. And five years isn’t some kind of finishing post which you get past and then relax in a silver dressing gown. It’s just the standard measure. Brain tumours recur, and can recur at any time in the future. Brain Tumour Action‘s former patron, the late and much missed Fife MP Rachel Squire, died after her tumour returned for a third time.

Grim reality

This means that the stories that don’t make the web or the newsletters or the tabloid press are grim ones. There’s the man with a new GBM IV diagnosis, whom I sat beside during the presentation on GBM survival rates that first brought home what really lay ahead of him. There’s the young women whose  tumour is inoperable but slow growing, who “lives life” with gusto now but is who always “waiting” and who “can’t believe when I wake up every morning that I won’t grow old.” There’s the once brilliant professional man, ten years on, whose personality changed totally after his treatment, or the teenager whose operation saved him for a life in a wheelchair, his face hanging limply down on one side. There’s the nurse who, having treated many patients with tumours herself, was diagnosed with five of her own, and knows all too much about what she is in for. Then there are the people whose lives are sustained by a “shunt”, a plastic pipe relieving fluid pressure on their brains, a pipe that can block at any time without warning.

Fortunately, brain tumours are rare cancers. But that scarcity can present problems with diagnosis: the average GP may only see one every seven years. Bad, late or wrong diagnoses are a common topic on our discussion board. But they are not so rare, as a proportion of cancers or as a problem, as they once were.The facts may surprise you. Here they are:

What you need to know about brain tumours:

  1. Brain tumours are now the biggest cause of death from cancer amongst children. They are a bigger child killer than leukaemia.
  2. Brain tumours are the biggest cause of death from cancer amongst adults under the age of 40.
  3. 25% of all cancers now spread to the brain.
  4. Brain tumours receive a disproportionately low level of research funding – less than £1m per year in the UK, compared to leukaemia’s £14m.

The problems we face

  1. Brain tumours are very hard to diagnose. A scan alone is usually insufficient. A biopsy – in which a slice of your brain is removed for examination – is often necessary. That, of course, comes with its own consequences.
  2. The quality of treatment and aftercare varies dramatically across the UK. Edinburgh is, relatively speaking, a good place to be diagnosed with a brain tumour, thanks to a concentration of focussed, dedicated people in the local NHS, and the work of charities like Brain Tumour Action and Maggie’s Centres. So is Birmingham, thanks to people like the brilliant surgeon Garth Cruickshank. Other areas are less well served. This must change.
  3. Aftercare needs are deep and complex. For instance, there is the transition a child patient makes from paediatric care into adult wards: the teenage years for patients with brain tumours are fraught ones. Patients may need alterations to their home, or help with getting around. Getting a job or a career underway after treatment is hard: the chances are that, during treatment, your financial situation fell away around you – many patients lose their home.
  4. Because brain tumours are rare cancers, it can be hard for helping agencies like Brain Tumour Action to make contact with people who are spread thinly and living quietly across small towns and villages. Patients still in treatment will probably have to travel many miles from home to receive it.
  5. Brain tumours are rare cancers, but there are more than 120 varieties. Furthermore, GBM (glioblastoma multiforme) is, in effect, many different kinds of cancer at once. You can imagine how hard that makes even what limited treatment is available.

We don’t know the causes

There is very little solid information about the causes of brain tumours. Indeed, their very scarcity might mean that there are no specific causes and that they are the consequence of random genetic mutation. There is no good evidence to link brain tumours with mobile phone use, overhead power lines or local geographical factors. There is a faint correlation between instance of brain tumours and employment as a firefighter, and suggestions of similar links in the cases of some chemical workers and nuclear energy workers. It is known that chronic immunosuppression can be involved with primary CNS lymphomas, and that cranial radiotherapy can be linked – cruelly, as it’s a treatment, of course – to gliomas and meningiomas. But, for the most part, we just don’t know.

Brain Tumours and Sport

It’s only limited comfort to John, or Kirsty, or Seve, that their cases have done a little bit to improve public knowledge of brain tumours. Improved public knowledge, above all else, is key to obtaining political support to fund research into improved treatment and care for this neglected area. I’ve been throwing what weight I have behind the new Seve Ballesteros Foundation for this reason. The Foundation, like Brain Tumour Action, raises funds for research, and is a partner of Cancer Research UK. That Seve has been able to get this up and running whilst seriously and debilitatingly ill says everything about the man (and I can confirm that he is constantly, heavily involved in everything it does).The opportunities his involvement has opened up are extremely exciting. He might represent a kind of breakthrough for people who have spent years fighting unsuccessfully for public and political attention.

He’s not the only golfer involved. Brain Tumour Action are organising a golf-centred day in autumn 2010 with the assistance of committed Rotarian players from St Andrews. Other sportspeople are on board with us. We’ve had a lot of help from the good people at Dunfermline Athletic., the people behind the Soccer Pro nutritional supplement, have come forward. And then there’s the host of cyclists, runners and swimmers who have used their sport to get people behind our cause over the last few years.

How you can help

Getting involved with brain tumours in 2010 is like getting involved with cancer research in 1970: you will be in at the beginning. Almost everything that needs to be done remains to be done. If you like pioneer territory, here it is. Furthermore if you want to experience charitable work at a high, policy and decision-making level, this is a good place to start, as the field is largely one of small, cooperative groups rather than one huge faceless body. You can start a voluntary sector career here if you wish.

Here are some straightforward things you can do that will make a difference:

  1. If you are a blogger, or use Twitter or Facebook, please consider a link to this post and to if that would fall within your chosen remit.
  2. If you are a journalist, and would like to write about brain tumours, email me at
  3. If you are a friend or relative of a patient, then let them know about Brain Tumour Action. We are here to help them when they need it, at the times of their choosing.
  4. If you are experienced in political lobbying, and would like to volunteer your experience to us, email me at
  5. If you’d like to help us to increase public knowledge about this issue in your local area, email me at
  6. If you’d like to raise funds for us, email me at
  7. If you are an Edinburgh resident with strong graphic design skills and would like to bolster your portfolio by volunteering with us, we’d like to see your CV!

And thank you, everyone, for reading.

Smog, Matchdays and Camping on the Eve of War

Late 19th Century Widnes

We end the year in darkness. Or on a dark topic, at any rate.

In Glasgow and Edinburgh, 1909 began with the outbreak of “smog” – the sticky, intrusive and often lethal combination of coalsmoke and fog – that led not only to the coining of the term, but to an estimated 1,000 deaths.

The deaths themselves were hidden, elusive tragedies: The Scotsman notes only that the unusual weather had closed ports and railways, stopped ferries and hindered work in the docks. But the reports go on day after day.

Des Voeux, who actually came up with the word “smog”, spent a lifetime campaigning for clean air. Two years later, in London, he wrote to the Times after a particularly bad Sunday:

How long – oh, how long! – will the people of London continue to endure the murkiness and gloom of its winter months, the fogs that turn daylight into a darkness worse than night, and the dirt which penetrates into all houses and covers the rooms with a film of sticky filth which only arduous and continuous labour can remove?

What he says next casts light, surely, on what must have been a constant, now hidden, factor in the life of football clubs in the period. Imagine as you read that he is discussing Saturday, not Sunday, and that kick-off is at 3:

As I write (at 2pm) we are in complete darkness, the whole house lighted artificially, the daylight being absolutely blotted out by a black cloud overhead, produced, not by a threatening storm, but by the smoke that has been formed from the fires that have cooked the Sunday luncheons or dinners of 6,000,000 million people.

The tone of the protester rings the same from age to age:

At 8 o’clock this morning the air of St James’s Park was clear, by 9 darkness was coming on, and by 1 o’clock it was nearly complete. Sunday fog and darkness are always an hour later than week-day fog, thereby indicating their origin from the domestic hearth.

What this implies is, of course, that a football ground to the east of central London would stand every chance, in the right (wrong) conditions of being blacked-out long before the game was underway. But there are few reports of matches being abandoned because of fog in these circumstances. That can only mean that men were made to play in conditions that were dangerous for their health.

Given that we have records of men like Thomas Bradshaw who, having contracted tuberculosis, played on for his club until shortly before his Christmas Day 1899 death so that he could feed his family, this is no surprise.The same fate overtook Herbert Chapman’s England international brother, Harry.

Players had little choice, or at least were driven by a self-sacrificial zeitgeist to forgo what choice they had. Contractually, they had to play or forfeit their income. The physical courage this required was matched, in black-and-white fashion, by the financial corruption and profit-taking typical of club owners before the First World War (I don’t mean that clubs were, horror of horrors, privately owned, but that good business practice was even more of a stranger to the game in this period than it became thereafter).

Others, not much better paid, but unencumbered by a carry-on-regardless culture, found their own solutions to the smoke. Arthur Clark was a schoolmaster in Manchester in 1913. Robert Roberts, who was a slum child in Salford at the time, remembers queuing for coke beside the hot walls of a plant, smoke (not steam) billowing down over the line of women and children, filling their lungs and covering their clothes with soot. Clark lived as far out as he could, but even so:

Early in March I had given notice (to his landlady); I had endured influenza twice in two months and was utterly weary of a Manchester suburb with its damp and its early spring fog. So I decided to live for a few months under canvas. Of course, my friends told me I should die, but a kindly colleague helped me to collect my outfit, and on March 16 I started my camp in a little village some sixteen miles south of the city..

It didn’t go well, at least not at first:

It certainly was cold. For days we woke up in the grey morning to find the water in the buckets at the tent door frozen. We had to get up before six o’clock if we were to get our breakfast, clean up the tent, cycle sixteen miles (the last four over badly-paved streets), and turn up bright and early for nine o’clock prayers.

It still beats turning out on a Saturday with TB.

But getting back again at night was worse. Five hours of steady teaching is tiring, the journey back to camp was uphill, and the usual south-west anti-trade made all the hills seem stiffer. And when we arrived it was to find a cold, damp, unlit tent with a door that flapped mournfully in the wind.

Things improved in the summer, which was a good one, as was the summer following until it was interrupted by the outbreak of war.

Christmas 2009: Tom Harrison and Mass Observation

If you’ve come across Humphrey Spender’s “Worktown” series of Bolton photographs from the ’30s (see his Bolton Wanderers sequence here) then you’ll enjoy this multi-part documentary about Tom Harrison, whose fault the whole Mass Observation thing ultimately was. Nosiness will never be the same again:

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:

Part Five:

Part Six:

Christmas 2009: Alex Ferguson’s Early Life

A 1985ish Scotsport documentary on Alex Ferguson, the manager of Aberdeen, in three parts. It’s now ten years since the publication of Ferguson’s “Managing My Life” – if that doesn’t make you feel old, at the fag end of another year…

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three: