In 1963 Don Howe led a squad of disgruntled West Bromwich Albion players to revolt against their then old-school no-nonsense manager Jimmy Hagan. It was December, it was freezing cold, and Hagan had refused to allow the players to wear tracksuit bottoms during training. The uprising took the form of counter-refusals to train and mass transfer requests, but the act of defiance that my dad remembers most fondly was when, on Christmas Eve, the players pushed Jimmy Hagan’s car down a steep bank beside the training ground and into the canal.
In 2017, it’s hard to imagine a modern footballer ever having to push a car. It’s hard to get a grip on the sleek lines of a Bentley Continental GT, and it’s futile trying to push a hefty Range Rover Sport anywhere. Modern football’s too slick for any whiff of canals, industry, or manual labour. Try for a second to picture any player or manager manually winding down the driver’s side window to talk to the press on Transfer deadline day: you can’t do it can you? But you canpicture John Terry sweeping parking tickets off his Ferrari’s windscreen and reversing out of a disabled space with a menacing laugh. And you are probably not surprised by stories about Jermaine Pennant forgetting he’d left a Porsche in the car park at Zaragoza station. Or about a 20-year old Andre Wisdom, with a huge 14 Liverpool first-team appearances to his name, walking nonchalantly away from the £100,000 Porsche Panamera Turbo that he’d driven into a muddy woodland ditch en-satnav-sabotaged-route to Pride Park when on loan at Derby.
My dad told me about the canal revolution when I was a child. He’s retold the story several times, as his wont, each time as if he’s never told me before. He remembers the events with extreme fondness. In fact, he also remembers the events with errors. Hagan’s car actually careered backwards into the canal because he’d left his car in reverse, and the rebel players carried him back up the steep bank to safety (while Hagan chastised them for their lack of fitness, amusingly enough). It’s easy to be nostalgic about the world of your 18-year-old self, but, clearly, in the 60s, players had the sympathies of the supporters, even to the extent that my dad has nostalgia for insubordination that didn’t really happen. They stuck it to the man. Good for them. But will anyone from my generation ever reminisce about bygone years when the players stuck it to the man? Who will pine for the days when the rich powerful Ireland captain would stand up to his modestly-paid Northern manager with anatomically impossible invective (yeah, stick it up your bollocks, Mick McCarthy)? How many thirtysomething Forest fans currently tell their sons fond tales of Pierre Van Hooijdonk’s refusal to play for the side that got relegated?
The intelligent reader doesn’t need to be insulted with the obvious news that football has changed, but there’s no other way to put it: football has changed. Perhaps we can blame Jimmy Hill and his greedy chin greedily demanding that footballers good enough to represent their country at world cups should also be able to earn enough from the game to make their window-cleaning rounds dispensable. Maybe we can blame the greedy managers of the 1970s, hungry enough for the services of the best players that they forgot to pick up that brown paper bag full of cash they left under the table in a motorway service station greasy spoon. We can more safely blame players like Kevin Keegan for selling his soul (and his golden-booted soles) to Brut 33 and the moral vacuum of the world of advertising and sponsorship. And for that matter let’s blame any club that has ever prioritised sponsor’s cash over dignity and class, like Oxford United pretending to be oblivious to the sad fact that it said WANG on their shirts, or Coventry City swapping the very concept of a football shirt for a shit-coloured logo of a manufacturer of shit automobiles, and then being, quite literally, brown shit on the pitch. We can – and must – blame Hoddle and Waddle and their Diamond Lights for greedily seeking to enhance their privileged football lifestyles with the fame and glamour of pop stardom. And that’s all before we even approach the Premier League era, a golden age for unfit and improper persons laundering obscene amounts of dirty cash through the bespoke pockets of obscenely rich greedy twats (oh but they are), never fit to lace the boots of the beautiful and now mourned window-cleaning strikers of my dad’s youth.
It’s convenient, isn’t it, that we’ve got all these guilty parties to blame for the greed in modern football. Because, of course, it’s certainly nothing to do with us supporters. We can all indulge in vehicular ridicule of Jermaine Pennant and Andre Wisdom, but it’s not as if any of us would ever use a mode of transport for ridiculously indulgent nonsense, is it? Like flying a plane over a stadium because we think we’re too good for David Moyes, or because we want a very expensive Portuguese winger back. And none of us would ever rejoice if a billionaire turned up at our club and promised to bankroll success on the pitch; we would object, wouldn’t we, if someone with absolutely no emotional connection came along whoring our club out of its dignity and traditions? We wouldn’t allow them to rename the ground or change our home colours. We’d never overlook the immoral way our club’s new suitor “earned” his wealth just because his takeover meant that we’d get to sign Damien Duff. If kick-off times got changed at the whim of broadcasters we’d go mad, and there’s absolutely no way we would tolerate huge hikes in ticket prices, soulless pre-match anthems to greed, goal celebration music, or stewards telling us to sit down and stop swearing because a half-and-half-scarf-wearing tourist has just complained. If greed started to infect our game in any way, we’d stand up and stick it to the man. We’d take proper, effective action. We’d certainly do a lot more than stage vapid and riskless protests like marching from the pub to the ground (and then paying to go in and watch the match), or wearing the club’s traditional colours to the game (paying extra, of course, to watch the match with a programme and delicious array of snacks).
There are football fans of my dad’s generation who refer to the Premier League as “the Greed League”, a fitting epithet for what ostensibly began when a group of clubs split from an established, fairer, system so that they wouldn’t have to share an ever-growing pot of cash with anyone else. But let’s not pretend that we’re not complicit in the greed. When the Premier League was first formed, I never believed that my club, West Brom, would ever play in it. We missed the 1992 boat by some distance, and it seemed inevitable that the boat would sail further and further away from us with every season as we fought our way back to the old second division only to flirt with relegation on an annual basis. When we miraculously reached the playoffs in 2001, we drew 2-2 in our home leg with Bolton and then, somewhat inevitably, got battered 3-0 away. And the Albion faithful sang loud and proud and celebrated a brilliant season while the home crowd – already numbed, it seemed, by time spent in the Premier League, remained passive and unimpressed. Our manager Gary Megson spoke afterwards of spending the end of the match watching the fantastic support rather than the game. He took us up to the Greed League the following year, so we referred to it as the Promised Land instead. Now, we’ve got 8 full Premier Seasons behind us (and not all of them ending in relegation), our support never seems quite as loud. Unless, of course, you count the volume of the boos that greet any home defeat or the clatter and clamour of social media demands for more money to be spent on new players in every transfer window.
With instant replays and radio phone-ins available on tap, the contemporary football supporter can scrutinise and shout about every misplaced pass, every shanked clearance, every sliced shot, and every refereeing injustice in every 90-minute instalment of their team’s season. And we want every decision and every result to go our way. We have a greed for things we’ve never ever been entitled to. It has become commonplace, for instance, for greedy fans and lazy punters to bemoan League Cup team selections whenever a Premier League club sees its reserves get knocked out of the competition. Every development in English football over the past twenty years has contributed to making domestic cups of infinitesimal importance when compared with any Premier League game. We’ve greedily consumed all of the contributing factors, yet we bemoan their consequences. If you blame the Premier League, the FA, or the clubs for not “going for the cups”, whatever team you support, have a look through some old programmes from the 1980s; you’ll see that the club were putting out pretty much the same first eleven in the early rounds of the League Cup as they were in the League, but you’ll also see that in most cases, attendances at League Cup games were lower than for league games. Us supporters – or at least those of us who stayed at home on those midweek nights – were the ones that didn’t take the competition seriously. We started it.
But why let facts get in the way of a good rant? The collective spirit of the crowd on the terrace seems to have made way for the voices of individuals, all making their “points” on 606 or announcing their preferred starting eleven on Twitter (why?!?). As the sport itself has evolved into a business in which individuals (be they players, agents, investors, or whoever) seek to maximise what they can make / take from the game, so more than ever the supporter has become an individual with a voice, rather than an anonymous face in a crowd. It may be impossible to tell whether this is the cause or the effect of our failure to take any kind of collective stand against the innumerable undesirable elements that have entered our game (or what once was our game), but it is perhaps ironic that now that we all have such freedom and willingness to express our opinions as individuals, nobody’s listening. As a crowd we at least made a noise.
Modern football may be a gluttonous affair, but we’re the ones that legitimise the gluttony. In any conversation among fans about a player going elsewhere for higher wages, at least one person will make the point “yeah but you’d do the same in your career if you had the chance” and as a society we seem to have reached a point where such a perspective is an accepted and acceptable norm. But it’s based on the assumption that we all do whatever we do for money. Now, I’m a teacher, and my sister’s a nurse: how stupid must our family be if we’ve chosen our careers for the financial rewards they bring? As a teacher, if I’m committed to teaching a particular group of students for a particular period of time, then it would just be plain wrong of me to abandon those students because more money’s on offer elsewhere. Even worse if I have to uproot my family to go and get the cash; and what if my new fatter pay packet is going to be funded by a regime whose record on human rights would suggest they wouldn’t know morality if Roy Keane stuck it up their bollocks? I might be in an ever-shrinking minority, but no I wouldn’t do the same if I had the chance. I am, I realise sadly, perfectly happy to watch my team play in the Premier League, I’ve got my subscription to Sky Sports, and BT Sport, and I spend far more time in the company of 606 than is intelligently justifiable. And I know deep down inside that I’m as greedy and apathetic as the next football fan. We each sit alone, with a lonely waistline that guiltily answers the question that we used to chant together: who ate all the pies?
Mark Holloway is a self-confessed fat bastard, and would like to apologise to his dad for doing some proper research into Don Howe and co’s 1963 rebellion. The version of events that has the players pushing the car into the canal is infinitely preferable.