BY DARREN LUKE
In the run-in to the 1966 World Cup the general consensus among serious journalists was that English football was backwards and in need of root and branch reform. Few argued with the sentiments of the ‘World Soccer’ correspondent, who had seen it all before – ‘One thing is absolutely sure: the first time England meet a talented, well-balanced team, they will go out.’ The more things change, the more they stay the same.
When England Ruled the World provides a month-by month account, from the 1966 Charity Shield to the 1970 FA Cup Final, of the top level English game, domestic and international; a period that begins with England’s victory over West Germany at Wembley and ends with defeat to the same opponents in Mexico. Assembled primarily from contemporary newspaper reports, it provides a fascinating historical slice-of-life and immerses the reader in a revolutionary period in the game’s development.
The era chronicled by Steve Mingle is at once recognisably modern and yet very much another country. It is a world in which there are ambivalent feelings about the success of an England team whose pragmatic style is being negatively and often brutally adopted by club sides, alienating supporters and commentators alike; where there are tensions between the conservatism of the Football League and the financially-troubled clubs’ need to innovate commercially; where the increased exposure of the game on television and its marketing to younger fans is counterbalanced by increasing violence on the pitch and the terraces.
Domestic football was at something of a low point as the 1966 season began. The season’s opening day saw average crowds fall even on the previous season, which had seen league attendances at their lowest level since the war, largely due to the trend for negative football (the visit of Leeds to Highbury in May had been witnessed by a mere 4,500 souls). Alf Ramsey’s ‘method football’, in which individual players’ skills were subjugated to the tactical needs and shape of the team, didn’t sit comfortably with many, and there were plenty of commentators calling for more flair from an England team that one Scots journalist dismissed as ‘ruthless physical boneshakers’. It is not until 1968 that Mingle begins to detect a sea change in the critics’ attitudes, when England’s well-defined system was starting to be seen as a strength, a template into which different players could slot seamlessly.
Club sides began to adopt Ramsey’s methods, with even previously stylish teams like Southampton and Burnley pragmatically adopting more cynical, uncompromising systems, and by 1969 defensive away tactics had brought goals per game to a post-war low. Hugh McIlvanney decried the functional, organised, brutal style of play that had been adopted by many teams – ‘The irony is that Ramsey long ago started building something much firmer on his foundation of functionalism, leaving his hordes of imitators with an oily, ugly chassis while his England goes forward like a Rolls-Royce.’ In this mire emerged the ruthless ‘dark force’ of Don Revie’s Leeds, and in 1969 they duly became the only league champions in history to have scored fewer goals than they had accumulated points. It’s fitting that the last match featured in a book that documents the rise of ‘nasty’ football is the Leeds-Chelsea FA Cup Final replay, ‘arguably the most brutal top-level encounter ever seen on these shores’.
Tactical innovations were not entirely negative, though, and the adoption of more sophisticated tactics suggested the English game was moving into the modern age. In an era when foreign football was still generally regarded with suspicion, at Manchester City young coach Malcolm Allison persuaded manager Joe Mercer to employ Tony Book as a sweeper, a position hitherto regarded as a little suspect, as something for the continentals.
Although the tactics were generally negative, there is no doubt that the era produced some great players. In the book’s potted biographies of ‘Player of the Month’ we see the emergence of young talents – names like Emlyn Hughes, Peter Osgood, Allan Clarke, Stan Bowles, Mick Channon, Joe Royle, Charlie George – and also the first appearance of youngsters such as Trevor Brooking and Peter Shilton, whose lengthy careers would provide links to later footballing epochs. We also have cameo appearances from characters who would go on to achieve greater fame and infamy in the coming decades, such as a certain Ken Bates, who, as chairman of Oldham, hit on the innovation of providing a free, lavish programme on admission; a programme that acted as a mouthpiece for Bates to issue forth and pour scorn on his critics.
The tension between the Football League and the clubs is a theme that runs through the book. Spiralling wage bills that followed the abolition of the maximum wage led many clubs to struggle, and most league clubs were making a loss, with clubs at all levels living beyond their means. The Football League, which Mingle describes as a club of ‘excruciatingly self-important pensioners’ were proposing a re-introduction of a maximum wage, while clubs were looking for further income streams. Club merchandise started to become more available, with souvenir shops appearing at grounds, and the first emergence of replica kits for boys (it was still inconceivable that an adult would wish to be clad in a club shirt).
Shirt sponsorship had emerged in Austria, but the League considered it ‘extremely bad taste’. In fact, despite Mingle’s often justified mocking of the Football League, it was its inherent conservatism that helped to shape this brief period when English football was identifiably modern yet still bound in tradition. Even the kits of the period – no sponsors, no frills – are what we now view as ‘classic’. It would not be until 1970, and the pre-season Watney Cup, that English football would see its first sponsored tournament.
Two major developments of the era were the increase in television coverage of the game and its packaging to a younger audience in glossy magazines. The World Cup had seen heavy TV coverage and huge audiences, and in 1966 Match of the Day moved to BBC1 after spending its first two years tucked away on BBC2, a channel few viewers could access. In response to growing viewing figures LWT launched The Big Match. Hosted by Brian Moore on Sunday afternoon, the programme was slickly packaged, introducing slow-motion analysis of the action and giving birth to the TV pundit. The blueprint for today’s style of football consumption had been laid out.
The new kids’ magazines helped to create celebrities even of the more nondescript players, starting with the birth of Goal. Its weekly Girl Behind The Man feature focused on players’ wives and home lifestyles, revealing that, despite the abolition of the maximum wage, most footballers had just risen to the financial level of office middle managers. Shoot!, launched in 1969, had a similar Focus On… section. The first player to complete the questionnaire was Forest’s Terry Hennessey, revealing he was the proud owner of both a Triumph Spitfire and a Vauxhall Viva.
If polished TV presentation and the pages of Shoot! were offering football as a benign commodity, then the reality of actually attending games was often a more bracing experience. There were stirrings of hooliganism at Manchester United, West Ham, Millwall, Chelsea, Burnley and Leeds. Contemporary reports were often linking violent conduct on the pitch with crowd disorder, and in a bid to discourage inflammatory player behaviour the FA began dishing out lengthy suspensions to miscreant players. With no segregation within grounds, away fans were arriving early with the intent to take the home end, and it was not until 1969 at Upton Park that we saw the first fan segregation, with away supporters herded into a designated area of the ground. A different tactic was employed by the Manchester police, with many United fans watching the game in stockinged feet after being made to remove their bovver boots at the turnstiles.
If the era saw the emergence of aspects of the game that are now familiar, then Mingle also offers reminders of just how different football was then. Substitutions, for example, had only been introduced in 1965, and then were only allowed if the referee was absolutely sure a player was unable to continue. Tactical substitutions were regarded as a form of cheating. Players had little respite, and it is hard for us to imagine now the sheer slog a season would entail.
‘International breaks’ were unheard of. In 1968 the England team had to play a Nations Cup quarter-final in Madrid just four days after a crucial late-season league programme. Most of the English players had played three hard games in eight days. The authorities’ decision to prepare for the semi-final in Italy against Yugoslavia was to play a vengeance-seeking West Germany away, again just four days before. In March 1970 Leeds played eight games in fifteen days, including three cup semi-finals, and even after a gruelling season England immediately had to play the Home International tournament before heading for the heat and altitude of Mexico.
It is also remarkable that despite the debilitating number of games they faced, English clubs placed a bizarre importance on contests like the World Club Championship, which would now be considered nothing more than a prestigious pre-season friendly. Midweek viewers of Sportsnight with Coleman witnessed Manchester United’s first leg tie against Estudiantes in Buenos Aires, a match in which United were kicked and punched, spat at, headbutted, subjected to hair-pulling and a barrage of missiles from the crowd, such that ‘the brutality meted out on the pitch made Leeds look like blissfully stoned hippy pacifists’.
Mingle has a thing about Leeds, but most followers of the game at the time would probably understand. He also, forgivably, has an overriding fascination for his own team, Manchester City, and he is at his most expansive when describing City’s run-in to the 1968 title.
One of the main pleasures of the book is to be reminded of long-disappeared aspects of football culture. I had forgotten the existence of the Football League Review, the League’s Pravda, which came stapled inside most clubs’ programmes (the Review was predictably alarmed by the first appearance of the football agent: ‘If the day ever dawns when one agent controls a dozen players from a dozen different clubs… then the result will be anarchy’). Similarly missed are institutions like the original Football Pink, rush-printed and out to the newsagents by Saturday tea-time, its match reports detailed for the first hour of the game, becoming ever more succinct before they stopped at about 80 minutes in, when any further goals would appear in the Late Scorers section.
The challenge of the book is in maintaining the reader’s interest through what is essentially four years-worth of summarised match reports. It is a credit to Mingle’s style that he pulls it off, I think, just. It could well have been tough going in the hands of a lesser writer. Occasionally the pop-cultural references can feel a little shoehorned, but it’s curiously satisfying to know, for example, that on the day the BBC screened the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour Jeff Astle scored a last minute winner for West Brom against Man City. The tone is always wry and warm (except perhaps towards Leeds) and it is clear that this is the work of a genuine fan.
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