January 01, 2011

Comments policy

I thought I'd clarify something because of something that I came across this evening- I don't want to be mystical about it but that's all I'm going to say. Basically my comments policy on this blog is pretty straightforward: I will publish and respond (if I have time) to any comment that I think is genuinely engaging with what I have to say. I'll be a bit more curt with comments that I think are being curt with me. I won't publish comments that are obviously spam or offensive in some way.

If a comment is acceptable by my criteria and with people like Claude or Goodbanker or Edmund and numerous others that's almost always true, the only reason I won't have published it is that I've just forgotten to check comments recently! I should be better: sometimes I wonder if I should take off moderation, that is until I get attacked by the spammers again. But that's the basic rule: anyone who engages with me as a commenter, who thinks and wants to be in a conversation with me and others will be published: if you don't, you won't.

If anyone is ever worried about a comment not being published do email me on the email address which is around somewhere but is gracchii at gmail and I'll respond.

(And come and look at my website selling spanners is not a comment which is the start of a conversation about near anything this blog covers!)

December 27, 2010

Review:The Anatomy of England: A history in ten matches

November 25 1953 is a date burnt into the memory of English football. A team including several of England's best ever players (Stanley Matthews at rightwing, Stan Mortenson at centre forward, Alf Ramsey and Billy Wright) were not merely defeated but were thrashed in the Autumn at Wembley. It was England's first ever defeat at home- a record that had stood for ninety years- and symbolised the ways in which the inventors of football had been left behind tactically and imaginatively. Harry Johnstone, the centrehalf from Blackpool, was unable to find the Hungarian centre forward who played very deep, Matthews was uninvolved until late in the game and his counter part on the left Robb, a school master whose pupils were in the crowd, was completely isolated. The Hungarian side led by Puskas simply left England in the dust, playing the game a way that had been antique twenty years before in a style that was prehistoric. Traditionally this game marked the moment at which England became an inferior side. Previous defeats in the World Cup (against America in 1950) or internationally (Spain in 1928) were ignored domestically or explained a way (dodgy food or heat) but Hungary had taken on and beaten England on a November day in London. Short of dragging the Europeans to Hull and feeding them chip butties for three days, there weren't many more English conditions and the English had been thrashed.

Jonathan Wilson's new book about the history of English football reflects on this and ten other games which have significantly influenced the way that the English have felt about their national game. Wilson's story both magnifies and diminishes games like that at Wembley in November 1953. It magnifies it because it is a story focused around separate matches. There is no denying that football is tied to specific moments: England and Hungary's battle in 1953 demonstrated something about English football. Harry Johnstone couldn't pick up his opponent because England were tactically behind the Hungarians. It also diminishes those games by illustrating how far they are part of a longer narrative, they are peaks in an overall story. England had been beaten before 1953 by foreign sides, in 1929 they were destroyed by Spain for example in the first of Wilson's games. The memory of English defeat though stretches back to the turn of the century with the Scottish sides of the 1900s who passed their way through English individualistic midfielders. Games reflect a longue duree, a history of the game which suddenly is revealed in individual instances. In that sense Wilson performs here the classic task of a historian: he takes isolated moments from the past and strings them together with a philosophical approach, he is both an antiquarian and a philosopher, a Coke and a Voltaire and hence becomes the combination an historian.

So what's the story? Wilson identifies two issues that English football has faced since the 1930s if not before. One is an addiction towards individualism. The greatest exponents of that individualism were the old fashioned wingers. The iconic moment for Matthews in Turin in 1948 was when he was remembered to have gone past a fullback, stopped the ball, taken out a comb and straightened his hair and then gone past the same fullback again. Its untrue but is a wonderful story to exemplify English individualism. Perhaps the greatest exponent of that theme was Paul Gascoigne, a player who could never be caught thinking, was as daft as a brush (and consequently put one in his sock) but for a couple of moments in 1990 and 1996 was a genius. The second aspect, tied to the first, was a reliance on effort over tactics. Ken Wolstoneholme cried out against Hungary that some good old fashioned tackling would sort out the Hungarians. He was the prototype for every football fan who ridicules Arsenal's ticcy taccy style and proclaims that Blackburn, Bolton and Stoke will sort them out by tackling hard. Again you can see the line through to the modern day, Kevin Keegan's England were the epitome of the all effort and no thought. Notice the double theme, whether the winger who stands a solitary genius or the growling centre half (think Dave Mackay holding Billy Bremner) the ideal is not to think. Jonathan Wilson casts English football as an unintellectual pursuit, occasionally wrestled into thinking about itself by a visionary (Ramsey in 66, Venables in 96) or by accident (Robson 90).

Within that macro story, Wilson does allow the celebration of individual generations. For example, he writes perceptively about the England Italy game of 1948. He argues that in that game, England played possibly her greatest ever forward line- Matthews on the right, Mortenson at inside forward, Lawton at centre forward, Mannion as the other inside forward and Finney on the left. The English beat the then world champions four nil in Turin. Wilson argues that this was in part due to the virtuosity on display. He blends through his matches the rise and fall of playing careers- by 1972 against Germany many of the players who had won the world cup especially Bobby Moore the captain were too old. During the 2000s, the golden generation both represented an amazing opportunity- Wilson identifies that players brought up at the same club have an instinctual understanding of where they need to accommodate each other and that generation included the Fergie Fledglings (Neville, Neville, Beckham, Butt, Scholes)- but were brought down by clumsy management (England lost Scholes their best player in 2004) and over expectation. This threading of the generations through the story fuses the tactical with the tale of talent. Football history is about judgement but its about the luck of producing great players at the same time and using them to win something: when a golden generation and tactical insight come together you get the Spanish success of 2008 and 2010.

This is a pretty convincing story: and Wilson makes his points well. The debate over how to fit Lampard and Gerrard into the same midfield is finely ridiculed. His discussion of the older more insular English football culture is brilliant. However one element is missing. When Matthews played, he played in a league where there were no foreign players and no foreign managers: the only foreign players you encountered were oddities (see Trautman, Bert) or Scottish or Irish. Since 1980 and probably since the World Cups of the seventies, through television and through the growth of football as a business, the entire game all over the world has become internationalised. Stephen Gerard for example has been managed for most of his career by a Frenchman and a Spaniard. Frank Lampard has worked since 2001 for an Italian (Ranieri), a Portuguese (Mourinho), an Isreali (Grant), a Brazilian (Scolari), a Dutchman (Hiddink) and another Italian (Ancellotti): it is in that period that all save one of his England caps were awarded. During his time at Chelsea Lampard's most frequent midfield partners have also been international. What you are seeing since 1990 and probably earlier too is a fusion of football cultures. Famously it took place at Arsenal in culinary terms: the new French manager Arsene Wenger refused to allow his squad to eat steak and chips, replacing them with pasta and vegetables. Wilson doesn't fit that into his story of English football nor does he speculate on how that internationalisation of football will leave national style.

The other thing that Wilson doesn't do as well is tie his story back into the story of England and football itself. Obviously the hubris of 1953 faded at almost the same time as Suez, but such a comparison is facile. The interesting questions about English football remain who goes, who plays and who pays and have the answers changed. The 1990s changed the spectators a lot: anecdote suggests more women and middle class people went (as the middle class expanded- another story- football may have been a way for the socially aspirant to retain their origins). Furthermore in terms of the wider history of football, was it necessary for England to lose its power? The magic of contemporary football glimmers with memories of different national styles- Brazil, Argentina, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Uruguay, Sweden, Hungary, Austria all have their proud football histories. Without the achievement of so many nations, would football be as popular? English decline was inevitable because of the size of its population relative to the rest of the world, but one wonders had it not happened- had England dominated as America does in its sports, would football have been so popular.

Wilson's book like all good books opens up further questions, but those questions go out from his matches out into the impact of football onto a wider world- a wider world of class tensions, national rivalries and ultimately the choice of individual humans to watch and play a global and not an English game.