Brian Viner: Priestley still prompts a prayer for football's soul

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The Independent Online

It is impossible at this time of year to open a newspaper without being confronted by the "who said what?" feature the definitive collection of the best sporting or political or theatrical quotes issued over the past 12 months. But my favourite quote of the year was not actually uttered this year; nor, strictly speaking, was it uttered at all. It is a written denunciation of some of the ills creeping into football and it so happens that I have only just read it, and wanted to share it with you.

"Nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game: the heavy financial interests; the absurd transfer and player-selling system: the lack of any birth or residential qualification for the players; the betting and coupon competitions; the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the Press; the monstrous partisanship of the crowds; but the fact remains that it is not yet spoilt, and it has gone out and conquered the world."

With just a slight tweak of the phrasing, that passage could have been composed yesterday. But actually it was written almost 75 years ago by the playwright and author J B Priestley, in the chronicle of his travels round England in the autumn of 1933, the unambiguously titled English Journey.

Priestley's arrival in Nottingham coincided with the Nottingham Forest v Notts County derby and his account of it is worth reproducing here, not least because it offers a classic example of that old Nottinghamshire maxim: "plus a change, plus c'est la même chose".

"It is one of the anomalies of professional football partisanship that 22 players, collected from almost every corner of this island, can call their sides Notts County and Forest respectively, and divide the sporting allegiances of the city. Near us we had men who looked at one another with eyes shining with happiness when the County scored a goal. There were other men who bit their lips when the Forest seemed in danger. Sitting immediately in front of us was a party of two comfortable middle-aged women and a little elderly man who was like a mouse until some incident in the game roused him, and then he barked fiercely.

"But the two women were more unusual. Perhaps they were related to one of the players, for they were in possession of Christian names and used them freely in giving advice. 'Nay, Tom,' they would say quietly, as if reproving an erring child, 'don't stand still'. The huge crowd would roar like maniacs, but then in the silence that followed you would hear one of these two women gently remonstrating with a player: 'Nay, Bob, you ought to ha' let 'Erbert 'ave it'. It was if the two teams had brought their mothers with them."

A little further on, Priestley continued: "It is easy to understand, though some austere persons elaborately refuse to understand, why these crowds in the industrial towns pay shillings they can badly afford to see 22 professionals kick a ball about... It has yet to be proved to me that these men out of the dingy side-streets ever did anything better with their free time and their shillings.

"I never see them at a match without disliking their stupid partisanship, their dogmatism that has no foundation in knowledge of the game, the whole catcalling idiocy; but it is still good, when the right side has scored a goal, to see that wave of happiness break over their ranked faces, to see that quick comradeship engendered by the game's sudden disasters and triumphs.

"I know they do not last, that happiness, that comradeship; I know that religion, art, politics would give them something infinitely truer and more enduring; that comparatively this sport-turned-spectacle is a poor thing; yet if it is a poor thing it is their own, and I am glad they have it, this uproarious Saturday plaything."

Priestley lived until 1984, long enough to see that same Nottingham Forest lift the European Cup in successive years (I wonder if Tom, Bob and 'Erbert were still alive?), and almost long enough to see the landscape of English football change so comprehensively that his anomaly of professional football partisanship became 22 players collected from almost every corner of this planet dividing the sporting allegiances of a city.

What would he have made of Arsenal, one of the powerhouses of English football in the 1930s, regularly fielding not a single Englishman? For him it was dispiriting enough that they came from elsewhere in Britain. Moreover, football isn't an uproarious Saturday plaything any more. It is an uproarious Saturday, Sunday, Monday or whenever it suits Sky plaything.

And, of course, the game no longer really belongs to the working man about whom Priestley was so exquisitely condescending. English football has sold a large chunk of its soul to the middle classes, and, worse still, to foreigners.

On the whole, though, Priestley's reflections on the financing of football, the absurd publicity, the monstrous partisanship, the catcalling idiocy, are as apposite today as they were in 1933, a reminder that there is really nothing new under the sun. And that seems as cheerful a thought as any to carry into 2008. Happy New Year!

Who I Liked This Year...

Joe Calzaghe; Brian Ashton; Shane Warne; Mark Ramprakash; Muttiah Muralitharan; Tim Henman; Jason Robinson; Lewis Hamilton; John O'Neill (the Australian rugby union chief, whose ill-advised anti-England remarks made it even sweeter when we beat the Wallabies in the World Cup quarter-final); Padraig Harrington; Patrick Harrington (Padraig's son, pictured, who wanted to put ladybirds in the Claret Jug); Tanni Grey-Thompson; Mark Clattenburg (whose execrable refereeing of the Merseyside derby helped propel my team Everton on a 13-game unbeaten run); David Moyes (who also had something to do with it); and Steve Coppell (who so presciently pointed out that he would only stand a chance of the England job if his name ended in a vowel).

And Who I Didn't

Ricky Hatton's fans (or those among them who so boorishly booed "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the Mayweather fight); Steve McClaren (for his incompetence); Rafa Benitez (for calling Everton a small club and for daring to moan about his transfer budget); Joey Barton (for being Joey Barton); Audley Harrison (for sweet-talking me into thinking he might become a world champion); Freddie Flintoff (for being drunk in charge of the England cricket team); and Duncan Fletcher (for spilling the beans on Flintoff).

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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