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Is capitalism killing football?
Peter Taaffe reviews My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes by Gary Imlach, published by ELO Jersey Press (£7.99).
In the week when Wayne Rooney celebrated his 21st birthday and admitted in an interview that he owns three houses (two of them in Florida he has never even visited!) I was given this remarkable book to read by a friend.
Gary Imlach has done more than pay a moving tribute to his father Stuart Imlach, a professional footballer at Nottingham Forest, Luton, Coventry and Crystal Palace, and coach at Nottingham and Everton. He shows that football's roots lie in the working class; the players came from its ranks when Stuart Imlach played and, in general, lived in working-class communities.
However, that period and the present bear no comparison. Modern successful footballers in the Premier League, for instance, have a lifestyle that would have been unimaginable to Stuart Imlach. But once you read the details of how footballers were treated in the past - spelt out in every brutal detail in this book - you could almost be forgiven for not resenting their status today.
The author shows that "footballers were actually worse off than the crowds watching them from the terraces on a Saturday afternoon". In 1952, the average manual wage in the UK was £8 and 13 shillings a week, and footballers could earn up to £14 during the season and £10 during the summer, if they were on the league maximum.
However, the Players' Union at the time stated that only 20% of them were on the maximum wage. As late as 1955, the union put the average footballer's wage at £8, by which time factory workers were earning close to £11. No other industry had a maximum wage.
No matter how harsh the conditions of workers in other industries, they were at least "free to leave one [job] for another". Professional footballers had no such rights. Most of them were conservative in outlook - the obvious exceptions being those like Bill Shankly, Jock Stein and Alex Ferguson, who were socialists of one kind or another.
Nevertheless, the Players' Union was affiliated to the TUC and its representative addressed the congress of the TUC: "I stand here as a representative of the last bonded men in Britain - professional footballers. We seek your help to smash a system under which now, in this year of 1955, human beings are bought and sold like cattle. A system which, as in feudal times, binds a man to one master or, if he rebels, stops him getting another job. The conditions of the professional footballers' employment are akin to slavery."
This book shows that claim was no exaggeration. Players lived in 'tied cottages', houses owned by the clubs, from which they could be arbitrarily evicted at short notice. Players on the transfer list were not paid.
Some were forced out of the professional game, like TJ Jones, the great centre-half and captain of Wales, who caused uproar when he walked out on Everton for non-league Caerphilly FC. This had been his only escape from a club that had him on the transfer list but refused to sell him.
Owners and managers systematically cheated the players and pocketed ('bunged') illegal payments. Nothing, it seems, changes in football!
Nevertheless, despite these conditions, the sheer love of football by the working-class masses - those who played and paid to watch them in their millions - is described by the author. This is not a dour book, and its writer is not a stock-in-trade journalist. The sheer romance and excitement of football matches, particularly those that his father featured in, such as the 1959 cup final won by Nottingham Forest, is captured.
But this book does show how much football has changed, where the real fans are deterred from attending a football match by the huge cost of tickets, especially for a working-class family, and limited capacity at grounds. Most are reduced to spectators watching games on TV, played by players utterly remote from the day-to-day existence of ordinary people.
Stuart Imlach worked as a joiner and painter during the close season to earn extra cash. The great Tom Finney, Preston North End and England, was a plumber who turned up at the house of the head of the English Football Association, Alan Hardacre, to do a job on match day.
When the great footballer, John Charles, was signed by the Italian club, Juventus, his signing-on fee was £10,000, exactly 1,000 times what a player could be legally paid in England. Yet, Preston's directors refused an Italian club's request to buy Finney.
Six Spurs players lived in a working-class street in Rodean Avenue in Enfield, owned by the Tottenham club. They all went to work together, went out at the same time on match day, and if some did not come back later on, this caused trouble with their wives, who suspiciously complained, "why haven't you come home with them?"
In the 1959 cup final, Nottingham Forest won and Stuart Imlach was the man of the match. Some of the players were afterwards embarrassed to meet the queen because they had taken their false teeth out before the match, and some could not be found for the presentation of the cup!
The depiction of Stuart Imlach's life described here is a metaphor for the working class and sport in the 20th century. Time moves on and it is not possible to live in the past. But the author is right when he says, that in the process of changing and improving their lot, modern footballers lost something - their identity with where they came from.
The ranks of owners and managers in the past had their share of rogues and vagabonds. The Scottish Football Association refused to give an international cap to Stuart Imlach, and only relented after Gary had campaigned for it - awarding it posthumously.
Now, in the era of globalisation, billionaire owners who have robbed blind their own people in Russia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere use their obscene wealth to buy a 'hobby', a football club. Fans identify more with the 'shirt' than with a team representative of local identity and the pride that goes with it.
Play, in the broad sense of the term, is an important aspect of the human character. The character of a child is formed in play; the character of an adult is shown in play. Yet the mean-spirited attitude of the rulers of football, yesterday and today, as evidenced by the treatment of Stuart Imlach and his like, speaks volumes about the past managers of the game. But now, when money rules everything, it is worse.
Art, theatre, sport (which has an element of theatre on a mass scale) and play are important components of the human condition. They will probably endure in one form or another so long as humanity does.
While football lovers still thrill to the drama of matches, in capitalist society, with the commercialisation and commodification of sport, something has died. In a future society, where the greed of owners and others are removed, sport will become what it was meant to be - a spectacle, an inspiration, and a natural adjunct of the human personality.
This book is one of the best not just on football but on sport in general. It should be read by all those who love football - who thrill at the brilliance and sheer joy of watching Pele, Maradona, Di Stefano, Puskas, Hidaguti, Eusebio, George Best, Kenny Dalglish, Alec Young and even Wayne Rooney - but who abhor the selfishness, the greed, the diving, etc, which seems to go hand-in-hand with modern, commercial sport.
The Death of the People's Game
by John Reid
Individual copies £5 including post and packing. Bulk orders (10-40) £3.50 per book. Bulk orders (100 plus) £2.50 per book.
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In The Socialist 16 November 2006:
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