Ken Jones: Arthur Hopcraft, world citizen and true 'Football Man'

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The Independent Football

Impervious to the bombardment of television and newspaper coverage, there are some intellectuals who deem an interest in games as evidence of arrested development.

Impervious to the bombardment of television and newspaper coverage, there are some intellectuals who deem an interest in games as evidence of arrested development. They seldom miss an opportunity to boast that they are utterly uninformed about sports and wouldn't know Sir Alex Ferguson from Sir Henry Cooper. Theirs is a foolish snobbery that exposes their own inability to see a whole, round world in which games have a part along with politics and science and industry and art.

Arthur Hopcraft, who died this week aged 71, understood this. Acclaimed for his television adaption of John le Carré's bestseller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the Charles Dickens classic Hard Times, he also left an indelible mark on football writing, not only with his work for The Guardian and The Observer but with a seminal book The Football Man, published in 1968.

In contrast to the modern football writers that can't live without tape recorders, Hopcraft wrote accurately from memory. People appreciated him not only because of his style but because they knew he was telling the truth. He combined the keen eye of a high-class reporter with a fan's passion. In the introduction to The Football Man, he wrote, "The point about football in Britain is that it is not just a sport people take to, like cricket or tennis or running long distances. It is inherent in the people. It is built into the urban psyche, as much a common experience to our children as are uncles and school. It is not a phenomenon; it is an everyday matter. There is more eccentricity in deliberately disregarding it than in devoting a life to it. It has more significance in the national character than theatre has. Its sudden withdrawal from the people would bring deeper disconsolation than to deprive them of television. The way we play the game, organise it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are."

Recently, a student of this dubious trade asked whether the publication of Nick Hornby's book Fever Pitch had encouraged a new form of football writing. I told him to buy, beg or borrow a copy of The Football Man. "For in it you will find all there is to know," I said.

I knew Hopcraft pleasantly but not intimately. He came up the hard way, covering the games of Stafford Rangers in the old Birmingham Combination. Later he would grow close to Manchester United, forming a friendship with Matt Busby and gaining the confidence of a young George Best. Together with Hugh McIlvanney, Ron Atkin and the late John Rafferty he was a member of the formidable team assigned by The Observer to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

But it was The Football Man that defined his sportswriting stature. Of Best, he wrote, "... he is not fundamentally ostentatious; he is merely young, popular, and rich by lower-middle-class standards. It is only because the pay and working conditions of leading professional footballers were so recently those of moderately skilled factory helots [the maximum wage of £20 per week was not lifted until 1961] that Best and his contemporaries look so excessively and immodestly affluent ... I was struck by his bravura and his enjoyment of the spotlight. He was not hogging it, but acknowledging its presence while it burned for him. He plays the football he plays because of the person he is."

Written long before freedom of contract, the television boom and the salary explosion, The Football Man nevertheless remains fresh when directed at the game's component parts, the player, the manager, the director, the referee, the fan, the press. He wrote that the language of football reporting has been, as it remains, a target for pedants and, privately, for football writers themselves. "The nature of the game encourages emotive words, staccato phrases, comparisons with war. The swelling thunder of the crowd, the mixture of the graceful and the frantic on the field, the deep-lying involvement in the game on the part of the spectator, all insist on a florid content in the prose."

Sportswriting has changed since The Football Man appeared. The romanticism of a more innocent age has yielded to higher standards of journalism, which has been a mixed blessing. The best of the old-timers, who saw their roles primarily as drama critics and bards, were facile essayists. Some may not have recognised an unscheduled news story if it had a letter of introduction, but they could tell you who got the game-winning goal while they tickled you. They told a mean fairy tale.

Many, meanwhile, have merely traded one set of clichés for another, substituted pointless or insincere quotes for their own perceptions, and remained patsies for a new breed of entrepreneur.

Hopcraft insisted the game compelled scrutiny and not just blind acceptance. "I have tried to salute football while remaining as watchful for its blemishes as affection allows," he concluded. Our turns come and go. I mean to say, for all the fellers, Arthur, may you walk in green pastures.