Political thought and footballers just don't mix

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The Independent Online

He is probably earning in excess of £1m a year. He is paying, he boasted, "more in tax than the people who write about me get altogether". He lives in the sort of house people associate with movie stars; he is the owner of three, or is it four cars, sends his children to private schools and takes holidays in the south of France. A professional footballer, truly a modern success, his approach to political issues, if not actively hostile, is at least belligerently ignorant. "Never voted in my life," he said, "and if I did it would be Tory."

He is probably earning in excess of £1m a year. He is paying, he boasted, "more in tax than the people who write about me get altogether". He lives in the sort of house people associate with movie stars; he is the owner of three, or is it four cars, sends his children to private schools and takes holidays in the south of France. A professional footballer, truly a modern success, his approach to political issues, if not actively hostile, is at least belligerently ignorant. "Never voted in my life," he said, "and if I did it would be Tory."

It was pointless confronting this fellow with changes in the social instincts of professional sports performers that have occurred since 1945 when most fell in behind Clement Attlee to sweep Labour into office.

Harbouring bleak memories of the industrial wastelands from which they had escaped before Second World War, footballers still held to a maximum wage, then £10 per week, and bound by a iniquitous retain and transfer system could vote no other way.

Some were admirable in their determination to help change the society they had been brought up in. My father, a miner at just 13 years old, one of five brothers who made their mark in the game, two of them Welsh internationals, remained absolutely true to his environment. "I'll never forget returning to Merthyr in the close season and looking into the eyes of men with no hope but too proud to ask for a cigarette," I remember him saying. Crippled by a knee injury, he became an active member of the Communist party and died a devout socialist.

I would come across many men in football who shared the principles by which my father lived but the effects of increased prosperity were evident in the voting habits of Tottenham Hotspur players revealed by Hunter Davies in The Glory Game published in 1972.

Less than 12 years after the maximum wage was lifted and 17 years after the then chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, Jimmy Guthrie, passionately sought the help of the Trades Union Congress to smash a system "under which, in this year of 1955, human beings are being bought and sold like cattle", only one member of Tottenham's playing staff, Steve Perryman, a committed Labour voter, had any real political feeling. Davies wrote: "Three altogether said they voted Labour, but [Ralph] Coates and [Cyril] Knowles, 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, and is against private schools. He couldn't believe that so many of the other players were Tory..."

The idea of political thought in sport stands a long way from the words of a baseball manager, Mayo Smith, who once said: "Open up a ballplayer's head and you know what you'd find? A lot of little broads and a jazz band." Paul Breitner's Marxist leanings didn't spark off any debates in Bayern Munich's dressing-room. It can't be imagined that today's general election was seriously discussed by England's players during the build-up to last night's game in Athens unless it touched on taxation.

The medium is the message. And the message that filters through the medium of television is that the majority of people in professional sport today are apolitical. "I stay well out of politics," a prominent manager recently said. "I've got enough to do dealing with the politics of this club. A politically minded player? Never met one."

Affluence and the influx of foreign players have combined to take British football away from the working class roots that set an agenda for such notable managers as Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein whose origins could be found in the west of Scotland coalfield. Born to the labouring poor, they never lost touch with the harsher experiences of their upbringing.

A knighthood was never likely to intrude upon the values Alex Ferguson absorbed when working in the Govan shipyard. Even if the action has become blurred, the instincts of a Labour voter still thrive in him.

Sadly, political apathy prevails no less in professional sport than it does throughout society. "There are players earning a million a year who wouldn't know how to vote," an old player recently said. A joke about this would have made my father cringe. Player sticks his head out of the voting booth and says" "I've done half of it."

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