Book Of The Week: Updating the identity of the national game

Football and the English By Dave Russell
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The Independent Online
Football and the English By Dave Russell (Carnegie Publishing, paperback, pounds 11.99)

In 1833, striking trades unionists condemned the street football played in their town as "barbarous recklessness and supreme folly". Which only goes to show that Dennis Wise and Roy Keane, far from representing a new malevolence, are upholding traditional values.

Dave Russell, who relates this early perception of football as an opiate of the masses, is a university lecturer who felt that the extraordinary changes of the past decade meant it was time to update the game's social and cultural history.

Rather than poring over famous matches and landmarks, he examines the relationship of players, supporters, managers and administrators to wider English society, providing a fresh context for events, like the BBC's annual screening of the FA Cup final, which were always taken for granted.

Satisfying the academic audience is a reasonable, if somewhat incestuous aim. Fortunately, Russell has an eye for the evocative image and a fluid if not racy style, which should also engage the historically inclined lay reader. The early chapters trace the progression from the massive "set-piece" games - often involving whole towns - to the first, tentative steps of the "association" code. The aforementioned street matches played a key transitional role.

After the FA's formation in 1863, the sport became the preserve of a "leisured elite". Professionalism came, irresistibly, and Russell shows that football's transformation into a phenomenon "at the heart of English male culture" would have been impossible but for the commitment of the working class. In 1938, a meeting of 3,000 Stoke supporters heard an industrialist claim that some of his workers were so upset about Stanley Matthews' transfer that they could not do their jobs.

Football's importance as a vehicle for expressing local identity persists, though in the age of the omnipresent Manchester United replica shirt it is not as powerful as it was. Russell recalls that in 1961, some 30,000 Prestonians mourned relegation with a mock funeral; Blackburn fans sent a wreath of vegetables.

To support his theory that the game has since reinvented itself almost beyond recognition he analyses a range of factors, from satellite TV and the advent of "new" entrepreneurs to the impact of the Taylor Report on stadiums and the class profile of those using them.

In some respects, however, the more football and society change, the more they stay the same. King George V attended the 1915 Cup final because the monarchy "needed to build its repertoire of `democratic' practice". What price the would-be people's Prince, Charles, cosying up to Wisey and Becko next May?

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