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?'

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.

Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week