WHAT has happened to the halcyon era when youngsters played football for the love of the game – and when sportsmanship trumped financial considerations?
This conundrum has even greater resonance after legendary cricket umpire Dickie Bird’s latest reflections about his sporting childhood in Barnsley offered such a vivid contrast to the moral malaise now afflicting the national game.
His great pal was Tommy Taylor, who would become one of Manchester United’s Busby Babes and was killed in the Munich air disaster of 1958.
Taylor’s upbringing was so humble that he was not picked for his school side on one occasion because his only footwear was a pair of well-worn clogs.
“He was lightning fast, quick on the ball and quite brilliant in the air,” observed Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s president in his evocative memoir Dickie Bird 80 Not Out.
“I used to chip the ball to him and he would leap to head it. I can just picture him now. Even in those days, he had a remarkable ability to hang in the air until the ball reached him and then – bang! it would fly like a rocket into the back of the net.
“Or it would have done if we had a net!”
It was the same when Bird and Taylor, played cricket at Burton Road Primary. There was no pitch – just a rough piece of ground littered with so many stones and pieces of glass that their “home-made ball” flew off the bat in all directions.
Yet such anecdotes explain, in part, why English football’s finest hour came in the 1966 World Cup final.
After all Sir Alf Ramsey’s team, which would almost certainly have included the towering Taylor if fate had been less cruel, all grew up in the post-war period when times were tough and they appreciated the fact that they could enjoy a kickabout in the street – unlike those fine men who never returned from the battlefields of Europe.
It is why these players, and notable names from these islands like George Best and John Charles to name two, were so revered; they grew up in the “jumpers for goalposts” era that Bird recalls.
It was an era when football had a soul and its clubs were the heartbeat of local communities up and down the land, players mingling with fans as they travelled to games together on the Number 68 bus. It was a time when the fathers and grandfathers were regarded as role models because of their work ethic, their commitment to the Armed Forces or the sacrifices they made working down the local pit.
Contrast this with professional football today and, supposedly, one of the most exciting title races in the history of the Premier League.
It’s headed by Liverpool, whose talismanic player Luis Suarez was a pariah a year ago after biting an opponent with cannibal-like instincts. Now he is the Professional Football Association’s player of the year. Some role model.
Next Chelsea, whose charmless and graceless manager Jose Mourinho seems incapable of keeping control of his mouth, his officials or his players.
Then there’s Manchester City who, let’s face it, have attempted to buy a second title in three years with Sheikh Mansour’s billions and a team of football mercenaries from overseas, with the honourable exception of goalkeeper Joe Hart and an occasional cameo for Leeds-born workhorse James Milner. So much for the Premier League being the best domestic competition in the world.
Yet what really irked me this week was the complacency of Manchester United’s under-acheving £16.5m defender Phil Jones after David Moyes could not fill Sir Alex Ferguson’s mighty boots – and legacy – at Old Trafford and paid the price with his job. This is what Jones said: “We are sorry he has lost his job and we probably didn’t get some of the results that we would have liked to for him, but that’s football.”
His “that’s football” response was so dismissive of his employers or supporters that I hope Jones is omitted from England’s World Cup squad his summer.
Yet it should not be like this, even though I do accept that the Bosman ruling has hindered the progress of those British players who did not enjoy the good fortune bestowed upon the ungrateful Jones.
Despite this, one-time PE teacher Dario Gradi continues to preside over a centre of footballing excellence at little Crewe Alexandra because of his ability to spot talent in local schools and develop players. And it is why the time has come for a tax to be levied on all football transfers over £1m, with five per cent of every deal being paid into a fund to help the sport at the grassroots level.
The reason is this. While many smaller teams do outstanding work in the community, it will compel the larger clubs to do more to fulfil their own “social contract” and become a greater force for good in their neighbourhoods. If it requires Ministerial action, the Government should legislate.
And I’m sure Dickie Bird would agree. For, as he had said with such passion, there is no greater pleasure for a child than kicking a football or playing a game of street cricket. It’s why Britain needs to go back in time if it is to rekindle its love affair with these great games, and certainly at an elite level where the greed of so many players now merits the legendary umpire’s famous raised finger.