Paul Vallely: The golden age of football is always some other time

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The Independent Online

There's this myth about that we're all eating baked beans because that's all we can afford in a recession. From credit crunch to credit munch, as it were. I'm not convinced. I think we eat beans, not because they're cheap, but because they cheer us up. With their thick sweet tomato sauce they are the classic comfort food that takes us back to the emotional security of our childhood and the days before beans meant borlotti, and drizzling was something only the weather did.

They are, of course, not the only source of contemporary comfort. We take refuge in moaning about all manner of things which, in the good old golden days, were immeasurably better than they are today. Take football, and the unhappy departure last week of the legendary Kevin Keegan.

Who could but lament the manner of his going? He is a football manager who has had, behind his back, players sold that he wanted to keep and players bought whom he had no interest in acquiring, because his club overlords have been making decisions without consulting him. Keegan, although nominally the manager of Newcastle United, has not been doing much managing in his eight months at the club, when it comes to the business of player transfers, at any rate.

It wasn't like that in the old days, a Man City fan said to me in the pub the other night. Managers were allowed to manage, players showed loyalty to the club, you could see Bobby Charlton on the touchline in the local park on a Sunday watching the pub football, and First Division players used to walk to the big match along with the fans who would be watching them. Today there is no honour left in football. Nor loyalty as the Ronaldo, Berbatov and Adebayor sagas have shown over the summer.

Perhaps so, but then is there much honour left in the world of big business, which is what football now is? And is it realistic to expect football to be insulated from the world around it, like some sanctuary in which only the old values obtain? It would be nice, but it's not going to happen.

When exactly was the golden age of football? I suspect it varies according to whether you ask an old codger or a young one. It was when they began paying professional wages in 1876, or took the cap off players wages in 1961, or when the first £1m transfer was paid in 1979, or at the foundation of the Premier League in 1992, or when Moneybags Murdoch began Sky coverage the year after.

The truth is that there has been an inexorable commercial logic at work ever since that cap on wages was lifted. As the punter famously said to the woman who had agreed to sleep with him for £1m: "Now we've established the principle, let's negotiate a more realistic price."

While one City fan is lamenting the passing of the old ways, the majority are celebrating the fact that the new £500bn Arabs presiding over the ground the local wags are calling Middle Eastlands have stumped up a record £32m to bring Robinho to sunny Manchester and talk of paying £135m to entice Ronaldo down the Mancunian Way.

Of course, the England team will continue to decline so long as English fans want their club teams to be filled with players whose name end in "o". But there's no use lamenting the end of the old ways and cheering on the fruits of the new. Wake up and smell the money.