Ken Jones: Dressing-room and press box lack irreverent humour of days gone by

'What's the matter?' said Dempsey. 'Don't your editor like you no more?'
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Point is, you see, that Shackleton got there first, sales of his autobiography Clown Prince of Soccer - published more than 40 years ago - sent zooming by a blank page beneath the chapter heading "The Average Director's Knowledge of Football". The Sunderland trickster's life story contained no dark admissions of guilt. Nor did it disparage fellow professionals; the promotional pitch, one that came naturally to him, was amusing irreverence.

An act like that would be hard to maintain in this feverish era, because people with a professional interest in sport, fellow toilers in this trade as much as any, take themselves so damned seriously. Danny Blanchflower called football the "glory game" but he never said humour was prohibited. "Why are the Leicester players named on their tracksuits and you aren't?" Blanchflower was asked by the Duke of Edinburgh when introducing him to Tottenham's team before the 1961 FA Cup final. "Because we know each other," Blanchflower replied.

Why don't we hear stories like that any more? What produced a shift in attitude so profound that levity is a crime in many dressing-rooms? Why do many inhabitants of press boxes sound like coaches at a convention? "You simply don't understand modern football," a distinguished veteran sportswriter was disrespectfully told at a Premiership match last season. What is modern football, anyway? Knowing your 4-4-2 from your 4-5-1 is one thing; being able to recognise real players and see through impostors is another.

During the 1920s, in his sportswriting days, the novelist Paul Gallico suggested to Jack Dempsey that they spar. "What's the matter, son?" the heavyweight champion said. "Don't your editor like you no more?" Jack Kearns, who managed Dempsey, protested. "Listen, you don't know this kid. He might be a ringer." Dempsey said, "Well I promised the kid and I don't break a promise." "All right, but don't be a fool," Kearns said. "Get him quickly."

Dempsey threw a left hook and Gallico went down. He heard Kearns saying six, seven, eight. "Like a goddam fool, I got up. By then Dempsey knew I was a bum. He whispered, 'Hang on kid until your head clears'. But he couldn't stop. He hit me with six straight rabbit punches on the neck, and the next thing I knew Kearns was saying, 'Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty'. A half-hour later I was writing my story."

I can't imagine that any young buck today would be daft enough to share a ring with a champion, no matter what the assurances. But listen to some and you would think that only lack of opportunity prevented them from turning out in the Premiership. Analysis without the responsibility of winning and losing comes easily to them.

No wonder that some of us older guys turn wearily to the sports pages. One dispute quickly follows another. Club against club, player against player, recrimination and protest. "Relax," a famed sports columnist, Desmond Hackett of the Daily Express, used to say. Hackett made up more fairy tales than Hans Christian Anderson, but, to my knowledge, nobody suffered from his inventions. Firm in the belief that sport was meant to be fun, he was from an era when sports writers were constantly instructed on their unimportance.

A generation of sports editors preached anti-ego sermons. Nobody cares about you, your busted dreams. Not a happy group, I thought, listening to their complaints. When it came to a proper understanding of sport, some were eventually found out by television scrutiny; Hackett among them. An entertainer, a pedlar of dreams, accuracy wasn't his strong point.

Sports books have come on a bit since the days when each was dismissed by an editor's avuncular, "Now remember, we're aiming for young adults, say 12 to 15."

But books are a reflective form; for reasons that range from art to production schedules, news and comment is a different business. A business short on humility.