Ken Jones: Historic celebration marred by ignorance of modern times

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The Independent Football

The footballer telephoned me, which should inform you of his vintage. Young players do not waste change calling writers who are male. He was coming to town, the player said, and would be at tonight's annual dinner of the Football Writers' Association. Since our paths have not crossed for some time he looked forward to seeing me.

Once, I recalled, he and one or two other strays had slept in my house on the floor of what an imaginative estate agent would describe as a dining room. Still in their prime, they held about 60 international caps between them and all tomorrow meant was a hangover. "I remember it well," the old footballer chuckled, "other than a couple of million in the bank, I wouldn't change a thing."

In every sport you can think of, and in all sorts of ways, the difference between then and now is obvious. A great deal more money, for a start, so much of it swimming around at the apex of football that old-timers who, in the words of Dylan Thomas, "caught and sang the sun in flight," wince at the thought of it.

It should be their only regret because you cannot put a price on relationships that have stood the test of time, relationships formed when the world of sport behaved itself better. Once, as some of us can recall, the Football Writers' dinner was alive with the presence of heroes past and present. Footballer of the Year, to give it its proper title, was a coveted honour ­ "I've gained nothing grander," the late Joe Mercer once said ­ bearing the name of such notables as Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright, Tom Finney, Danny Blanchflower, Bobby Charlton and many others.

I will be at tonight's dinner, as I have been for more years than an old fool finds it comfortable to remember, once again turning back the clock. Some of the old heroes, Matthews, Mercer, Blanchflower, Wright, Bobby Moore, Billy Bremner and Don Revie among them, have passed on. Disgracefully, other winners of recent times ignore invitation.

Earlier this week, Chelsea's garrulous chairman Ken Bates aimed a childish swipe at the Football Writers' dinner ­ an event he has frequently attended in the company of lap dogs ­ comparing it unfavourably with the Professional Footballers' Association awards night on the basis of stereotypical assumption. Little, if anything, of what Bates says is ever taken seriously here, but if he is suggesting that the writers' event is a booze-up there are clearly gaps in his education. What would he have made of the old hard cases? More to the point, what would the old hard cases have made of him? The answer, for sure, is very little.

Meanwhile, less positive people ­ middle of the roaders, weary students of change ­ are going back to see where the rot set in. Who was to blame for making the FWA dinner less than it was? Not the organisers, because they have manfully coped with changes in attitude and economy, not least the print industry's decreasing willingness to subsidise the event in the entertainment column of expense sheets. Thus, sporting functions of every kind become the habitat of agents and sponsors, every agency that exists on the periphery of sport for the purpose of profit.

I am writing this with the blank air of a reporter, intending no I-told-you-so cynicism of an older generation. It's just that some of the changes I see make me yearn for a time when people in sport were not so much in the grip of advisers that only a pay-day grabs their attention.

Tonight, I will see one of my heroes, Dave Mackay, who, to my mind, is one of the greatest British footballers, arguably the greatest in Tottenham Hotspur's history. A past Footballer of the Year, he never fails to show up. It is not merely that Mackay ­ the Roy Keane of his day ­ is grateful for the good things that happened to him. Mackay's was a memorable career and it pleases him to think that he is still honoured.

Footballers come and go. I mean only to say, for all those who now take adulation lightly, may you walk in such green pastures.

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