Football: Lofthouse's humanity humbles today's heroes

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CHANCES ARE that readers merely glanced at the headline revealing a 35 per cent increase in Premiership salaries to an annual average of pounds 250,000, asked what was so unusual about that and turned to other sporting matters.

That conclusion is endorsed by Gerry Boon of the Deloitte & Touche Football Finance Review whose recently conducted survey revealed the above figure. "Supporters are used to seeing a 20-per-cent-plus annual growth in wages since the Premiership began," he said.

This is an improving thought to all of us who fret about escalating admission charges, whether the game can avoid the perils implicit in failure to establish a sensible economy and whether the interest of an upcoming generation can be held in an atmosphere of galloping inflation. According to Boon wages have risen in 10 years from 37 per cent to 50 per cent of clubs' revenue.

Apart from supporting the fact that any number of Premiership clubs would go to the wall without money from television, Boon's figures emphasise the extent to which professional football in this country has moved away from the romance that sustained it for more than three-quarters of a century.

At a dinner in London last week I was privileged to present an award honouring the playing career of Nat Lofthouse, the former Bolton Wanderers and England centre-forward.

In 503 games for Bolton, his only club, Lofthouse scored 250 goals, another 30 in 33 appearances for England.

Voted Footballer of the Year in 1953, his playing days came to an end in 1961, a year before the maximum wage, then at pounds 20 per week, was abolished.

Looking back, Lofthouse would not change anything. "We were criminally underpaid," he said, "and I don't begrudge what players get today, but we had something they will never experience.

"Whenever I turned out at Burnden Park I knew that some of the people watching had never travelled more than a few miles from Bolton. I imagined them working hard for half of what I was getting. I'd worked underground and I played football. I knew which was easiest. I was from folk who made up a large part of the crowd."

In the most profound and elegantly crafted book about football, The Football Man, published in 1968, Arthur Hopcraft wrote of how Lofthouse felt one summer in the long ago when setting off with Bolton on a close season tour of South Africa. "We were going away for nine weeks," Lofthouse told Hopcraft. "I'd left my house at half past seven to be picked up by the bus at the bottom of the road. There's a works down there and the men were all rolling in. Half past seven that was, and I was there with my cases going to South Africa, all paid with pounds 2 a day spending money."

Hopcraft caught the gratitude and surprise of the working man that worldly comfort could be his without the drudgery of manual labour. He saw it as a key factor in the people's nurturing of football. "Lofthouse," he wrote, "conveyed a sense of victory, not just pleasure."

I sometimes go back to those words because none more vividly impress the difference between English football as it was in Lofthouse's time and as it is today.

Teams applaud supporters in a common ritual at the end of matches, but opulence has inevitably distanced the connection. "Time was, and not because of any personal contact, when I could relate to those who were out there playing for us," someone said the other day. "But they're growing further and further away. Understandable I suppose when the money they get quickly turns them into millionaires. The sense of community is gone. I'm not knocking the foreign players - many of them provide terrific entertainment. It's just that something has gone forever."

The true tone of football, indeed of most games, in the 1990s is set by the elite corps, the most successful of the professionals, that is to say the richest of the game's people: the stars who have played their way up to prodigious salaries, are admiringly interviewed by sycophants and receive the same adoring space in print and across the airwaves as rock stars about their lavish pads, fancy motor cars and glamorous relationships."

As for the common touch, Lofthouse so warmly exemplifies, it is a shocking notion to put to any player. What do they think he was in this for - sport?