Priestley's 'beautiful game' can withstand Russian billionaires

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The Independent Football

Football is racing back towards us on the cut-price tail of a replica shirt. Another season, another reason, for makin' whoopee. Or perhaps old Gus Kahn meant makin' money? Or losin' money? Wastin' money? Goin' bust?

Joe Mercer once observed that there was nothing wrong with football, only the people in it. No change there then.

At its finest, played with skill, pace and controlled passion, football remains the supreme sport. Devotees, as ever, will be hoping for reassurance, not only that their club of choice will win prizes - few will - but also for a sign that the great game will be less inclined to distance itself from its roots.

Such a soppy, romantic notion is enough to bring tears of laughter to a chief executive's eyes, as daft as to suggest that Manchester United, for example, revert to playing pre-season practice matches behind closed doors, first team versus reserves.

The so-called people's game left town many decades ago, long before it was feasible that a Russian oil billionaire, Roman Abramovich, would fund the Pensioners of London.

Thanks to satellite television there is plenty of football to admire, at a price, and a lot to switch off. If you missed the last big game, tune in for another the following evening. Apart from other considerations, such as having the money to join a major club's membership scheme before it becomes over-subscribed, armchair viewing saves getting cold and wet.

Often there are reminders that class is timeless, such as the magnificence of Real Madrid's display against Manchester United during the first half of their Champions' League match in the Bernabeu, a performance as spellbinding as anything that was orchestrated by Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento.

As long as football stays in fashion it will continue to attract businessmen with a desire to be benefactors and businessmen with a desire to be even bigger or more popular businessmen. It has been that way ever since the "amateur" days of 1878 when Darwen took Old Etonians to two replays in an FA Cup tie, thanks chiefly to the skills of two Scottish imports, Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter, whose "jobs" in a local mill were a reward for their services to the club.

The game has lived too long with over-indulgence and hypocrisy for people to be shocked, and its followers have not lost their fascination, in good times and bad.

J B Priestley was on target 74 years ago in the opening chapter of The Good Companions: "To say that these men paid their shillings to watch 22 hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink... for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgements like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its art."

That gem of nostalgia ought to be photocopied and pinned in every boardroom, dressing-room and agent's lair.

Lowly legionnaires

The most important football publication of the year arrived with the timing of a Thierry Henry run on goal. England, Their England (Pitch, £18.99), Nick Harris's study of the evolution of foreign players in the English game, warts and all, sheds fresh light on great characters who attracted praise and pathos, pride and prejudice, as the "mother country relearned the game".

Harris has taken care to include the lesser known legionnaires who have played for clubs in the lower divisions, accounting for all 1,700 players born outside the British Isles who featured in the English League from its inception in 1888 to May 2003 (the author's deadline).

Sir Bobby Robson, Newcastle United's former England manager, was "staggered" to learn that nearly half that number arrived in the past six years. "They've been brilliant for us [for England as a whole]," Robson said.

Tell Harris. "What we have to be careful about is we don't bring ordinary players. We have to bring players who we haven't got the likes of in this country. Bring in ordinary players and it's obviously denying our own players the chance of progressing and we mustn't do that. And I think that has happened, to be honest."

I would strongly recommend the book, even if Harris was not an Independent colleague. Judge for yourself.