Ahead of the Game

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Jimmy Greaves was my boyhood hero.

It was great to see Campbell given his marching orders. Can‘t stand the man. Once a diehard, then an opportunist willing to do anything for his new paymaster - no, you just can‘t trust ...Sol (Judas) Campbell, the Spurs renegade turned Arsenal mercenary.

He represents all that‘s bad about the modern footballer. No loyalty, go anywhere if the price is right, willing to snub the fans who worshipped him.
Why should he care about fans? He may not quite be in the David Beckham wealth bracket, but he lives a lifestyle and enjoys a salary that is beyond the dreams of almost all those who pay to watch him. As I say, all that‘s bad about modern football.

With this in mind, a newspaper ad caught my eye. ’Before The Hype,‘ it read, ’There Was Football‘. Eyecatching enough, but what really caught my eye was the picture of a footballer in his prime, ball at feet. The picture sent a shiver, for a man just turned ...well, let‘s not say. I was suddenly 12 again, and there he was, my boyhood idol as I remembered him.

It is a strange admission for this column to make, but my boyhood idol is a reactionary Tory who adored Maggie Thatcher, who holds crap views on almost all subjects, a plump, round-faced, balding ex-alcoholic, who became something of a national joke.

He didn‘t appear like that when I was a kid. No, then he was lean with sharp features, a cheeky grin and an ability to score goals that would make Michael Owen look ordinary. His name - Jimmy Greaves. The book being advertised was his autobiography, Greavsie.

When I was eight I became a Spurs fan, and Greaves my hero. Living in Cork there was no particular reason why I should support Spurs. But they were playing in a cup final and my friend Barry‘s older brother told Barry and me that Spurs were the best team, and Jimmy Greaves the best player in the world.

That was it, I was sold. Such was my worship that despite being Irish I supported Jimmy and England in the 1966 World Cup. But Jimmy got injured, and although fit by the final, the manager didn‘t pick him. That was enough for me. I cheered West Germany with gusto. How dare England snub my hero.

I (and I know many of you will find this sad) went out and bought the book. Although still a fervent football fan I longed to be swept back to the age of innocence. So does Greaves.

Greaves started playing when the maximum wage was £18 a week. This would have been a very good wage for a working man, but certainly didn‘t elevate you to the middle classes. After the abolition of the maximum wage, Greaves said he never earned more than £90 per week. To be sure, this was transporting you to the reaches of the middle class, to suburbia and so on, but it wasn‘t taking you to the stratospheric heights of the likes of Beckhamham Palace. Connection with the fans and their everyday lives was still possible. The empathy appeared much greater.

Of course, there wasn‘t the TV money, the huge sponsorships, the massive revenues of today‘s corporate football world. There were, however, huge attendances with 50, 60, 70,000-strong crowds packing the terraces. Truly this was the time of the football good guys, the working class game, before big business and bloody Nick Hornby (the man whose book Fever Pitch made it trendy for the middle class to like football) stole our game, our players, and our fantasies.

Or was it?

Despite his fondness for ’his time‘, Greaves reveals much about the glory days that causes one to stop and think. The players who were packing crowds onto the terraces were paid a tiny proportion of the gate, so where did all the money go?

The fans were herded like sheep onto dirty, smelly and at times downright unsafe terraces. The facilities were little beyond being able to buy bags of peanuts and cups of Bovril.

The toilet facilities for men were so scarce that the terraces became like open-air urinals. As for facilities for women - forget it, they weren‘t really meant to be there anyway.

Players who were paid relative peanuts became susceptible to under the counter deals and, even worse, bribery and betting scandals. The football authorities and club owners were snobbish, patronising know-nothings who treated the players like serfs.

Greaves describes getting his first call-up to the England under-23 side. A letter arrived that began ‘Dear Greaves’, telling him he had been selected. He was then told he must ‘wear a jacket, shirt and tie, with shoes suitably polished. You must travel third class.’

Later, when he was in the full England team and emerging as the bright young star of English football, he was stopped from eating a teacake at Heathrow by chairman of the FA Sir Stanley Rouse.

‘Greaves, put that cake down,’ said Rouse. ‘You will be fed on the plane.’ This had nothing to do with diet, but everything to do with knowing your place. As Greaves says, the language is fascinating. He wouldn’t be having a meal on the plane, certainly not dining. He would ‘be fed’, like an animal or at best a child.

On air flights, the officials travelled first class, the players not. A stewardess, having given the officials canapés, asked whether she should serve them to the players. One official was heard to retort, ‘No, no, it would be like serving strawberries to donkeys.’

As Greaves says, the players were regarded as working class riff-raff.

So much for the golden age. Whether small-time capitalists, patriarchal snobbery, or multinational corporate greed, capitalism has always, one way or another, robbed the game of its real glory.

As for Campbell, thank god he’s gone... Alastair, that is.