OK, so there was one of those standing-around-by-the-players'-tunnel moments at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon. The midfielder who walked past me couldn't even summon up the word "No" to a request for "two minutes". He resorted to sign language, pointed to the exit and sauntered off.
But that's not the reason for a reflection on how things ain't the way they used to be. The reason is a book, free of the ornament of the modern celebrity biography, which landed with a rather plaintive request that it at least be granted a viewing.
Its subject is Tommy Banks, the former Bolton Wanderers and England left-back whose birth as a miner's son in 1929 – just as the Wall Street crash had hit – was decidedly unpromising. Those were the days when pitmen's one-hour walk to work would begin with a "knocker up" hammering on the window with a pole at 4.30am and in which, as the book reminds us, silicosis and pneumoconiosis were among the hazards that condemned some miners to lingering and painful deaths. Banks, the only breadwinner, was down the pit by 1945, the year his father died, jettisoning offers of apprenticeships to keep money coming in after an education that was rudimentary.
His would have been the unremarkable story of any child of the industrial north, were he not to have displayed a talent for football that led him to Bolton Wanderers, for whom he played at left-back for 14 years, and England, whom he represented six times, four in the 1958 World Cup. The book, written by Ian Seddon, the Wanderers' midfielder of the early 1970s, depicts a forceful individual, quite prepared to deposit opposing right-backs on the gravel cinder track which lay three feet from pitch level at Burnden Park – and yet a very deep-thinking one, whose appreciation of the value of money to those who have nothing led to his very significant role in the fight for the removal of the maximum wage for footballers.
The Bury FC delegate at a landmark meeting of the Professional Footballers' Association at Manchester's Grand Hotel, in early January 1961, had just declared that a strike on the issue was wrong – because his father, a miner, didn't earn as much as he did – when Banks stood up. "I'd like to tell your father that I know the pits are a tough life," is how Banks' Lancashire vernacular roughly translates. "But there won't be 30,000 people watching him mine coal on Monday morning, while there will be 30,000 watching me trying to stop Brother Matthews here." The power of the speech and the theatricality of Banks pointing at Stanley Matthews brought the house down. Jimmy Armfield and Sir Bobby Charlton both still remember it like yesterday.
The current PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor, observes in his foreword to Seddon's book that "today's multi-million pound footballers owe a great deal" to Banks but this story is also deeply relevant to the way that a very significant preoccupation of the current playing fraternity is being tackled. Money is no problem and no object now, of course, yet there are at least 30 present and former players who will tell you that the incipient racial discrimination in the game frustrates them as much as the belief that such prejudice has been eradicated, simply because fans don't throw bananas any more.
So where are the Premier League warriors to fight this particular battle in the way that Banks once did? The words of elite players carry weight in these days of celebrity and the only star who has been ready to speak up is the Reading striker Jason Roberts. Quietly, behind the scenes, Roberts has been fighting, chivvying and, where necessary, castigating the PFA over the past year for failing to tackle his concerns about the absence of resources to provide an effective voice for black players.
As a last resort he took a risk last month, by making his frustrations public and putting aside a Kick It Out T-shirt. He immediately received a mocking rebuke from Sir Alex Ferguson and faced accusations about not making clear what black players wanted. Within hours of him detailing, in these pages, what he had been demanding all along the PFA miraculously finally committed publicly to work on a very similar six-point action plan. This small but significant accomplishment for Roberts was eclipsed when Rio and Anton Ferdinand issued some vague quotes on the subject, through their management company, a few hours later. They took the headlines and spotlight.
The point of all this being that it does not take intellectual insight and a university education to put right the wrongs that exist in the game. The story of the indefatigable Banks, with his school-leavers' certificate and almost indecipherable Lancashire accent, demonstrates that players have a job to do where injustice and prejudice exist within the game. There are enough players who share Roberts' view to ensure that he is not a lone warrior. Time to stop pointing and speak up.
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