Cold Call

Sally Chatterton Rings Stanley Matthews
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The Independent Culture
THE WIZARD of the Dribble is still very much alive, but he doesn't sound as if he is getting much action on the pitch when I speak to him: "I've had a flu injection and it hasn't done me much good." It does rather sound as though it is his nose that is doing the dribbling, but he warms immediately to the subject of football these days:

"Everything has changed. Television has changed the game. It brings it right into our living-rooms. But the commentators, the ex-players. They talk and talk and talk. They've all become far better footballers since they've been on telly - or they think they have - than they were when they were really playing football."

"Do you have anyone in particular in mind?" I fish.

"Not really, no. They're all as bad as each other. They forget there are 20 players on that field who are all human and that there are bound to be mistakes. Some players have a couple of lucky breaks and they're called brilliant, but we all have our bad times. The problem is, everybody expects you to score goals every week. It doesn't happen."

"So. You don't care to watch it on television then?" I venture

"Oh no! I love that it's on TV, of course. I think it's great. It's very exciting. You can switch on and have a cup of tea and don't have to go to Luxembourg. But they do talk too much."

So much for the commentators. "What about the footballers themselves? What do you think of them and the way they behave these days?" I was hoping for a rant about the good old days and the disaster of change, but this octogenarian seems to be a bit of a liberal.

"Probably the money's got something to do with the behaviour of the youngsters such as Gazza. But I don't know. I wouldn't like to say. You've got to be able to look up to yourself as a sportsman. You've got to play the game."

He tries to simplify the Gazza conundrum for me:

"Once you're on that field there are two teams playing. One's got to win. You've got to try to beat them. And if it's the goalkeeper who makes a mistake then you're in trouble. So he's human."

"I see." But can he as easily explain the violence which is now indissociable from football?

"Well, there was no violence in my day. It's because the fair play has gone from the game now. Fans have got used to the pulling of shirts and dirty playing on the pitch. We've grown into the violence. It is disappointing, but it's the way of life."

"Does that mean you disapprove of the game these days?"

"No. It's just different. It's so glamorous today with your Ginolas and your Beckhams. Thanks to the telly you can be a star overnight. It's changed from when I was a lad."

His pay packets were certainly less weighty than those taken home by footballers these days.

"Yes, but it was good money in those days. And we were young, we were happy. We were outdoors."

"So you'd say that football is still your life?"

"Very much. One of my greatest joys. We saw the world free."

For a moment I think he is getting philosophical about his time on the pitch. "You set the world free?" I ask.

"No, we saw the world free, we travelled. And we weren't working in a factory. It's not bad at all, is it?"

Not at all.

I ask whether he would rather have played now, as a dribbling superstar in a sarong, or then, in the halcyon days of pounds 8 a game and the world for free. He laughed. His tone of voice indicated that he thought me very foolish.

"I'd like to play now, of course, it'd mean I was young again. Wouldn't it?"