Adrian Chiles: The good old days: abuse, play acting and assaults on referees

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The Independent Online

Football - what's it coming to? I'm grateful to Alan Wyle, from Lewes, for sending me an article he's found which says just about everything I want to say about the way the game's going: the writer is as sick of players as I sometimes am. He hates to see "balls banged high out of touch, 'go slow' tactics to waste time, petty and so often deliberate and malicious fouls, hands held high in constant appeal, and the martyred expression assumed when the player is rightly pulled up by the referee."

Football - what's it coming to? I'm grateful to Alan Wyle, from Lewes, for sending me an article he's found which says just about everything I want to say about the way the game's going: the writer is as sick of players as I sometimes am. He hates to see "balls banged high out of touch, 'go slow' tactics to waste time, petty and so often deliberate and malicious fouls, hands held high in constant appeal, and the martyred expression assumed when the player is rightly pulled up by the referee."

That was written in 1953. It appeared in Nomad, the magazine of Royal Air Force Khormaksar in Aden where Alan was on National Service. The piece confused me. My Dad and Grandad both always told me that the game was much fairer in the olden days.

Jimmy Armfield captained England and played no fewer than 568 games for Blackpool between 1952 and 1971. He says there was much less play acting in his day, but in most ways the game's actually better now: "There were hard men in those days, real hard men. It was much harder refereeing. I got booked once and it made headlines it was so rare, but a modern referee refereeing one of those games would have booked everyone."

Johnny Haynes knows a thing or two about football in this era having made 594 appearances for Fulham between 1952 and 1970. He's another one who's not sure if things were any better then. For instance, was he - giant of the game that he was - above holding his hands "high in constant appeal" or assuming a "martyred expression" to extract favours from the ref? "That's always happened. People just don't remember." He laughs drily. "Everyone wants a penalty when they need one, don't they?"

The writer of our article is as scathing about British spectators as he is about the players: "good-natured banter and friendly rivalry are part of the fun, but highly insulting remarks aimed directly at a player can be provoking in the extreme, and can lead to trouble."

Johnny remembers getting plenty of abuse from the terraces: "Whenever I played north of Watford I got loads of stick, but I dealt with it." And Jimmy Armfield says it wasn't only the crowd using bad language: "I remember Stan Cullis on the touchline at Wolves when I was overlapping - he was shouting "who the f-ing hell's going to stop this devil. Running down the touchline screaming at us. Today people would have lipread that.

"And though fans never had quite the same aggression, I can remember Blackpool beating Wolves in a cup replay on a Wednesday afternoon. Blackpool had a player sent off and they had to protect a referee at the end of the match. All the crowd were swarming on to the field."

All of which prompts questions about the accuracy of our impressions of the game then - in that it wasn't so Corinthian after all - and our perception of declining standards now. "The simple truth is that the bad stuff is highlighted more now," says Jimmy. "Yes, the media today just make more of it," agrees Johnny Haynes. "I feel quite sorry for the players - not that you can ever feel really sorry for them because they make so much money they should put up with whatever they need to put up with - but it's hard for them because everything they do is picked up."

Nothing brings on a yawn in a journalist more than the suggestion that something is "all the media's fault". But there is evidence that we do go on about the bad stuff more now, and articles like the one I've quoted were rather rare 50 years ago because most journalists tended to downplay the game's more unsavoury aspects.

In a paper for the Social Issues Research Centre an excellent, much earlier, example is cited. It's from a report in the Leicester Mercury on 3 April 1899 of a match between Loughborough and Gainsborough: "The referee's decisions had caused considerable dissatisfaction, especially that disallowing a goal to Loughborough in the first half, and at the close of the game he met with a very unfavourable reception, a section of the crowd hustling him and it was stated that he was struck." And that's it. No shock, no horror, no wailing about what the world's coming to.

The research paper goes on to wonder if "the press facilitated (consciously or not) the view that football crowds were becoming more orderly and well behaved by underplaying, or just not reporting, incidents which did occur."

And I have evidence above my toilet that there was a certain restraint, too, in the way the football itself was reported. There hangs a framed back page of the Sunday Dispatch from the day after West Brom beat Preston 3-2 in the 1954 Cup final. I don't know if it's because I read it every time I go for a wee, but I see more and more meaning between the lines every time.

Preston went 2-1 up with a goal from Charlie Wayman who was, in the words of the correspondent, one Pat Reekie, "yards offside when he received the ball". Either side of Mr Reekie's report are interviews, written in the first person, with Charlie Wayman and West Brom's Ronnie Allen. Here's how the Preston player remembers his goal: "Even as I shot goalkeeper Jim Sanders called to me 'how much further do you want to be offside Charlie?' [I bet you anything there was an expletive in there somewhere] I was surprised, surprised too to see the West Bromwich players crowding round the referee protesting."

Then, quickly, lest this mention of West Brom's dissent is seen as sour grapes, Wayman remember himself, somewhat incongruously stating that "it was a beautifully fought clean game on a grand piece of turf." However, in the very next sentence he says how sorry he felt for his team-mate Tom Finney: "Poor Tom was brought down very heavily many times. I thought once or twice a free-kick should have been awarded."

Allow me to supply a translation: "the flaming keeper tried to put me off by screaming about me being offside; the West Brom players ought to be ashamed of themselves for trying to bully the ref, and it was a bloody disgrace how the cheating b******s kicked Tom Finney all over the park."

Finally, I had to get this quote in from this week's Heat magazine. Jade Goody, pneumatic former Big Brother woman, reflects on her boyfriend, Northampton Town's Ryan Amoo: "Ryan's a bit thick. The other day he asked me if an Eskimo was an animal." In this respect the past was a better place: I can't believe there was a single professional footballer in 1953 who didn't know what an Eskimo is.

adrian.chiles@btopenworld.com

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