Ken Jones: Why Ferguson will always remember lessons of old days

Click to follow
The Independent Football

As a 17-year-old embarking on what turned out to be an undistinguished career in football, I received the following advice from my father, Emlyn, himself a former professional player: "Look, listen and learn. And join the union [an obligation for anyone born into the bleak industrial valleys of South Wales]."

As a 17-year-old embarking on what turned out to be an undistinguished career in football, I received the following advice from my father, Emlyn, himself a former professional player: "Look, listen and learn. And join the union [an obligation for anyone born into the bleak industrial valleys of South Wales]."

A kindly man, whose social awareness was shaped by harsh experiences underground, my father would not have understood the sporting times in which we live. Profoundly grateful for the nimble skills that rescued him and four brothers from the pits - two, Ivor and Bryn Jones becoming notable Welsh internationals - he remembered the door to daylight slamming shut when his father asked for 10 shillings more than the £3 per week offered by Merthyr Town of the old Third Division. "I cried all the way home," he said. "I cried because it seemed that I would have to go back down that hole. In winter, dark when you went to work, darker down there than the darkest night and dark when you came up."

When relief came with Merthyr's increased offer, my father, weighing less than 9st, spent a month simply taking in fresh air. "I was told to stand on the terraces and breathe," he recalled. Alongside him stood another teenager, Dai Astley, who had been working for months on a coalface. "Dai stood around six foot but there was nothing of him," my father said. With nourishment, Astley would become a powerful Welsh international centre-forward with Charlton Athletic, Aston Villa and Derby County.

Barely three months after turning professional, a wage crisis at Merthyr led to my father joining Bournemouth. Six weeks later, in the autumn of 1928, he was sold to Everton.

"Nobody asked me," he said. "The chairman of Everton walked me around the ground, said I was joining one of the great clubs in the land. I was told. We had no rights."

Since the majority of players in those times were recruited from distressed areas and were subject to working conditions that a future chairman of the Players Union, Jimmy Guthrie, would describe as "slavery" - they were natural Labour voters, many like my father committed socialists.

Some of the players I joined as a teenage professional had fought in the Second World War and remembered vividly the injustices of the 1930s. Political discussions were not high on the agenda when travelling to away matches, but it could be concluded that all had helped vote Clement Attlee into office in 1945.

Yet by 1972, the publication of The Glory Game by Hunter Davies, a fascinating fly-on-the-wall account of a year spent with Tottenham Hotspur, made it clear how much political attitudes had changed in football since the removal of the maximum wage and the iniquitous retain and transfer system 10 years earlier. Davies wrote: "Of all the players, the only one with any real political feeling was Steve Perryman. Three altogether said they voted Labour, but Coates [Ralph] and Knowles [Cyril], the other two, did it simply because of their background, without thinking about it either way. But Perryman has strong views on tax ['It's got to be paid'] which are different from the other players ... he couldn't believe so many of the other players were Tory. Most were apathetic Tories."

The only professional player I can recall taking up political office was Roy Hartle of Bolton Wanderers, a former member of the PFA committee. Hartle, who established a reputation for uncompromising hardness on the field, sat as a Tory councillor. Brian Clough made no secret of his political leanings, supporting publicly a miners' strike when the manager of Derby County. Sir Alex Ferguson, for one, is not shy of declaring his support for Tony Blair, taking a seat alongside the Prime Minister and Gordon Brown earlier this week at a Labour rally.

In his autobiography, Ferguson wrote of hearing Jock Stein's voice when he failed to notice a group of miners who were campaigning for strike funds. Taking Ferguson's fiver, Stein added £10 of his own. "I'm surprised at you of all people forgetting these lads," Stein said. Ferguson offered no apology or excuse. "It was an important message he was giving me," he wrote. "And I have never forgotten it."

Comments