Those Feet: A sensual history of English football, by David Winner

Eat your heart out, Johnny Continental!
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The Independent Culture

Recently a contributor to a radio debate discussing London's 2012 Olympic bid complained, quite seriously, that Croydon, all of 10 miles distant, would gain nothing from the building of a sporting complex in East London. What a perfect snapshot of the battle between parochialism and the wider picture which forever defines our national attitude to sport.

Recently a contributor to a radio debate discussing London's 2012 Olympic bid complained, quite seriously, that Croydon, all of 10 miles distant, would gain nothing from the building of a sporting complex in East London. What a perfect snapshot of the battle between parochialism and the wider picture which forever defines our national attitude to sport.

It's an attitude reflected throughout David Winner's second volume on that most important of all trivialities, football. As he cites a succession of gloomy voices, you might mistake the book for a transcript of an episode of Grumpy Old Men. "Declinism", the belief that things ain't what they used to be, permeates the book. Not only was English football never any good, neither, it seems, was England.

Take the contributions of Stuart Ward, a chippy Australian academic who mistakes the headlines on the tabloid back pages for evidence of the national mood. Ward seriously believes the satire boom of the early 1960s was inspired by the disappointment felt by Peter Cook and chums at Macmillan's inability "to project a more commanding vision of Britain's role in the world". The possibility that they might have found it amusing to mock an Establishment that simply didn't reflect them seems to have escaped him. He doesn't say too much about football though, because, like Americans, Aussies only shine at sports no one else cares about (and cricket).

Unreliable witnesses queue up to offer pithy inaccuracies. Barry Fantoni, who introduced the never-all-that-funny Neasden FC to the pages of Private Eye, fails to recall Millwall's one season in the top flight. Although he condemns their consistent mediocrity, are they really any worse than their lower-division counterparts in Italy and Spain?

Even the usually humane Nick Hornby seems to advocate a brutal cull of weaker clubs hindering an inevitable mini-league of his beloved Arsenal, Man Yoo and whoever they deem acceptable, which may surprise anyone who's heard some of the feeble bands he's encouraged. Hell, even the oft-reviled Roman Abramovich has helped the wider game, his cash effectively saving West Ham. You'll find better arguments on club forums.

More cheerfully, Winner exhumes a host of hardened scrappers named Keane/Keene from generally overlooked Victorian and Edwardian boys' literature. An irresistible chapter on the Victorian cult of muscular Christianity and its concomitant belief that physical exercise, preferably mindless, could deflect a young man's thoughts from the "horrible thing done in secrecy", a sin traditionally associated with referees, explains plenty about the English style. Though the worship of physical prowess in contemporary Germany led indirectly to the horrors of fascism, in England its logical conclusion was the aesthetic horror of Wimbledon's "Crazy Gang".

The author's previous work, Brilliant Orange, a highly original study of how the game in Holland came to be so, well, Dutch, was deservedly acclaimed. Yet in football terms the Netherlands is a relative parvenu. In England football is so deeply embedded in culture and even language that simply analysing a few undervalued sources can't possibly summarise its complexity. Beyond reinforcing the ancient truism that the English game values effort over technique and remains in thrall to its inglorious past (yawn), Winner really has little to say. His scepticism towards fandom betrays him as a man with no team. Yet the English were divorced from the land and going to the match while our neighbours were still digging in the fields. No wonder so many treasure the idea of supporting the same useless club their forefathers endured.

In short, Winner is a bit sniffy about what he sees as an emotional attachment to a crude, dated form of the game. The public schools are mentioned, but not the great clubs and their mass support. He fails to see that Seventies soccer satyr Frank Worthington wasn't given the nickname "Wanky" because crowds mistrusted his trickery, but because it rhymed. The fact that at any major football championship the biggest contingent of fans is always English is ignored. They're not just red-faced boozers hurling plastic furniture at the police either. Thousands watch matches with no English involvement because they so love the game.

Nowadays Johnny Continental has watched and learned and has often improved that which we pioneered, from transport to sport. He knows what we still have though, even if we don't value it ourselves. A few years back Ruud Gullit memorably complained after trying to improve his Chelsea team's diet: "They are too accustomed to the sausage. They must have it. What can I do?" Let them have it. Let them have the sausage.

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