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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste