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Footballers and False Idols



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Jumpers for Goalposts: How Football Sold Its Soul
by Rob Smyth and Georgina Turner
Published 1st December, £11.99 paperback original, Elliott & Thompson

Jumpers for Goalposts is a fascinating and funny reflection on why football has changed so much since the inception of the English Premier League in 1992, and why the old descriptions of “the beautiful game” and “the people’s game” no longer fit. An engaging study of how football has sold its soul – and, perhaps more importantly, whether it can get it back.

Smyth & Turner look at all the things that have stripped the charm and innocence from football, a list that includes grotesque wages and transfer fees, diving, 4-5-1, TV overkill, political correctness – and the lack of decent moustaches.

Here’s an extract from this excellent book:

False Idols

Dave Mackay is perhaps the best example of the strong, silent type so commonplace in football’s past. Mackay was the definitive man’s man, and definitely one of the good guys, an outstanding left-half who was at the heart of the most successful spells in Hearts’, Tottenham’s and Derby’s histories, and a truly honourable man.

He used his clout to put the hurt on opponents but never – never – to seriously hurt them. ‘Mackay was unquestionably the hardest man I ever played against,’ said George Best. ‘And certainly the bravest.’ After suffering a grotesque leg-break at Old Trafford in 1963, which would keep him out for almost two years, Mackay barely grimaced. As he was stretchered off he sat up leaning on his elbow, looking almost bored.

Mackay was a bona fide hero, the likes of which are increasingly rare in football. To some this will seem a piddling point, but it’s quite the opposite.

When American psychologist Abraham Maslow was working on his theory of human motivation in the 1940s (go with it, this almost works), he came up with a hierarchy of needs, at the tip of which was what he called ‘self-actualisation’. ‘What a man can be, he must be,’ Maslow wrote. ‘This need we may call self-actualisation… it refers to the desire for self-fulfilment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualised in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to… become everything that one is capable of becoming.’

Maslow didn’t mention heroes directly, but they’re an implicit part of the process: role models supply invaluable life lessons, idealise certain behaviours, and shape our ambitions – help to shape, that is, what we believe and hope we are capable of becoming.

For the sake of avoiding an embarrassing tête-à-tête with outraged psychologists in our local Wetherspoon’s, we should add that Maslow would probably expect the properly self-actualised person to eventually transcend these role models, and focus first and foremost on his/her own strengths and weaknesses. But you get the point: Bonnie Tyler isn’t the only one holding out for a hero.

This stuff doesn’t stop being important once you’ve solemnly removed the last page of SHOOT from your bedroom wall, put all your worldly possessions into the back of a Renault 5 and left home; fans of all ages invest a staggering amount of time and emotion in their team, the men they consider heroes.

When you consider how much bronze has gone into immortalising yesterday’s heroes – Johnny Haynes and Bobby Moore stand over sculpted footballs on opposite sides of London, Billy Wright looms large as life outside Molineux, Tom Finney lunges towards the ball in a Deepdale fountain; the list goes on – it’s nonsense to say that as adults and cynics we don’t care about the cut of a man’s jib.

When Blackpool unveiled a gigantic 9 ft statue of Jimmy Armfield in May 2011, manager Ian Holloway joked that ‘there can’t be any bronze left in the world’, but called it ‘a proud moment for everybody at the club’ and added: ‘I’ve given them some half-decent players who might in 40 years’ time be revered themselves.’

It’s not a complicated recipe – take a great and dedicated player, bake in the heat of fans’ adoration for a few decades, ready plinth – but Holloway’s appreciation for its essential ingredients is disappointingly rare in a world where Manchester United winger Nani reportedly hangs his medals on the life-size marble sculpture of himself that stands in the middle of his living room.

Just as words like ‘celebrity’ have rapidly depreciated thanks to giddy overuse, the currency of the football ‘hero’ has suffered the effects of quantitative easing – the modern habit of clubs celebrating any half-decent footballer as a hero, no matter how incongruous the label and his conduct.

This is an extract from Jumpers for Goalposts by Rob Smyth and Georgina Turner, published 1st December, £11.99 paperback original, Elliott & Thompson.