Football and Englishness are intimately connected, with a corpus of books now devoted to the history of the national game and what it tells us about this relationship. England fans have been made to confront unfortunate truths: the head-in-the-sand belief that we were still best in the world, which led to decades of underachievement, 1966 notwithstanding; a mistrust of pure talent allied to misplaced faith in workhorses; the rise of the thug; the process that began with the end of the maximum wage and was jet-fuelled by the Sky-based big bang which saw footballers mutate from lads-next-door to lads-in-mansions, and the Premiership become the world's most sought-after sporting brand.
In Football Nation, Andrew Ward and John Williams quote former FA coach John Cartwright: "We are a fierce sort of nation, but at the same time we have shown the world that we can have a lot of grace and art and culture. Unfortunately we tend to disregard this when it comes to football." Skill and imagination sacrificed on the altar of brute strength: it's not a pretty story.
Ward and Williams have come up with an interesting angle of entry for their account of British football – English, mostly – since the Second World War. Large chunks of the story are filtered through the experiences of individuals, footballing everymen (and a few women). So their account of the war and its aftermath leans heavily on case studies of survivors and non-survivors; the end of the maximum wage in 1960 is told through Joe Richards, "Mr Football", chairman of Barnsley FC and FA bigwig. The slow integration of different ethnic groups is recounted through Highfield Rangers, a team formed in Leicester in 1970 by Afro-Caribbean immigrants.
Fantastically well researched, the book almost feels like oral history. Such an approach means that not all the bases get covered. It's essentially a celebration, not an investigation, with no concerted attempt to tackle the awkward truth that for years the product on the pitch was occasionally inspired, rarely better than mediocre - and quite often downright rubbish. Off the pitch, the Tony Kay/Peter Swan match-fixing scandal in the 1960s is glossed over in a paragraph, while there's no mention of the Bruce Grobbelaar affair.
Raphael Honigstein, on the other hand, tells that story at length and with relish. The writer and TV pundit, who reports on English football for Germany and German football for England, seems to admire us and be irritated in roughly equal measure, but Englischer Fussball is often brutal. It's hugely entertaining, and he has us bang to rights on a few things, but mostly it's a series of caricatures.
Like all good caricatures there's truth in there, but he proceeds largely by wild generalisation. There's our joylessness ("elsewhere, football is a synonym for joie de vivre and other nice things"); our ridiculous obsession with history; our hypocritical racism; our arrogance; our endemic corruption; our terrifying hardness. "Why is it," he asks, "that the English find 'the beautiful game' most attractive when it becomes a fight to the death?" - a reflection prompted by having lumps kicked out of him playing for University College seconds.
We are, it must be said, a soft target. But because it's a foreigner - a German, indeed - sticking the boot in, there's a natural defensiveness in the face of Honigstein's sustained assault, even though many of the items on his charge sheet are undeniable. It's a hugely entertaining polemic and we shouldn't allow his penchant for making every individual sin a symbol for our unworthiness to obscure the fact that he delivers a recognisable portrait of the English, viewed through the kaleidoscope of the game we claim to have invented. Oh, we didn't, by the way – it was the Chinese, although I can't imagine that our medieval meatheads who came up with the idea of an ultra-violent contest between villages were au fait with goings-on in the Orient.
Confidence in his perspective is undermined by a sometimes careless relationship with the facts. A selection of mistakes: Geoff Hurst, not Roger Hunt, replaced Jimmy Greaves during England's World Cup-winning run in 1966; 32 Italians, four Belgians, two French and an Irishman died in the Heysel disaster, not 38 Italians and one Belgian; David Beckham was famously sent off for kicking the Argentinian Diego Simone in the calf, not the thigh. Though Robbie Williams, majority shareholder at his beloved Port Vale FC, watches the occasional Manchester United game – don't we all? – he might be mortified to see himself described as a fan.
Honigstein gets in one final, telling kick. The Germans might be our bête noire, but we scarcely register on their rivalry scale. Their real enemies are the Italians; we're just not good enough.Reuse content