Mayo Smith, a baseball manager, once said, "Open up a ballplayer's head and you know what you'd find? A lot of little broads and a jazz band." The footballer as dunce is an ancient metaphor, guaranteed to get a cackling response at corporate lunches and testimonial dinners. Take the story of a Premiership manager who sought proof of intelligent life in the dressing room. "How many of you read books?" he asked. Getting a largely negative response, he muttered: "You could at least watch the bloody history channel."
The notion that scholarship and sport are not congenial cultures has been with us since the advent of professionalism more than a century ago. Perpetuated today by intellectuals who have enrolled in the football boom, it assumes that the brains of even serious types can be found in their feet. "Intelligent, for a footballer," was the patronising phrase one critic used when referring to the performance of a television pundit.
My father, a professional footballer in the great depression of the 1930s, was an avid reader. Marx and Engels fuelled his commitment to socialism. However, few of the players I knew as a teenage professional two decades later would have listed reading as an extra-curricular activity. They were more likely to be found in a snooker hall than a library. Card-playing was, and remains, the preferred means of eating up time on travels.
Recruited at an early age, the football aspirant is seldom made aware of life's larger picture. The former Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday player Mark Bright, speaking in support of a scheme to encourage young fans to expand their literary horizons, admitted that he didn't read much when he was younger. "Everything was football - I just read football magazines."
The initiative would have appealed to the late Danny Blanchflower, who captained Tottenham Hotspur's Double-winning team in 1961. Having spent some time at St Andrews University, the cultured Ulsterman had no time for trivial pursuits. While the cards turned, Blanchflower read, lost in his own world. I know what his choice of books would have been: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald.Reuse content