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

A dazzling look at the beautiful game
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The Independent Culture

Masturbation has a lot to answer for. Thirty years of hurt, the song said. But, apart from one iconic blip in 1966, English football, and that part of the national identity that feeds on it, has endured nearly 150 years of under-achievement. And it all appears to be the fault of the Rev Edward Thring and his obsession with preventing the young men of Empire spilling their seed.

Masturbation has a lot to answer for. Thirty years of hurt, the song said. But, apart from one iconic blip in 1966, English football, and that part of the national identity that feeds on it, has endured nearly 150 years of under-achievement. And it all appears to be the fault of the Rev Edward Thring and his obsession with preventing the young men of Empire spilling their seed.

Thring, headmaster of Uppingham School, helped shape the classic Victorian idea of manliness, pioneering organised sport by day, stamping out self-abuse by night. At the same time, his brother JC Thring was helping to bring Association Football into being. The nascent sport went hand in hand, as it were, with moral panic.

Though it soon spread to the plebs, football was a product of the public schools, suffused with a mindless Christian muscularity. Stamina, spirit and courage became prized above artistry, guile and beauty, and that's the way it stayed. "What we cannot do by sleight we eke out by strength," Richard the Lionheart tells Saladin in Walter Scott's The Talisman - a "concise definition of English football", according to David Winner. Maybe things aren't quite as simple as that, but it's a persuasive and engaging thesis.

Football, Winner says, has become a vehicle for deeper anxieties about England's standing in the world. In this ambitious book, he takes the quintessential elements of the English game and traces them back to their origins in his singular, tangential way. It is effectively a follow-up to his Brilliant Orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch football: a mesmerising trip through the humanities. When he kicks off Those Feet by invoking an Egyptian creation myth involving sacred masturbation to explain football's beginnings, you get a clear sense of what you're in for.

He assembles a dazzling array of references - from Jung, who once dreamt about Liverpool as the centre of the life force, to Richard Littlejohn, who likened the English game to the last days of ancient Rome. Viz is there, of course, and The Italian Job. The likes of George Orwell, Hannibal, EM Forster, Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger come off the bench to score late winners.

There are chapters on mud, balls and boots and an extended riff depicting the national decline in terms of Michael Caine's film career. Winner also trawls entertainingly through the melancholic and masochistic tradition of English humour, with which football enjoys an intimate relationship.

He even watches the Eton wall game, one of football's godparents. At one point, it seems he is about to witness a rare goal, until a tall ginger lad who looks like Prince Harry saves the day. "I look again. Dash my buttons! It is Prince Harry!"

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