WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
We are hardly short of football writing nowadays, but sometimes it pays to look back at what our predecessors had to say about the game. In the late 1960s, Arthur Hopcraft found the perfect balance of anecdotes and analysis as he profiled the game’s great characters in The Football Man…
Late last month, I arrived at my office to find a book on my desk, with a post-it note attached to the cover.
“Enjoy”, read the note, written in the familiar handwriting of a colleague who knew very well that I would, and underneath it was a copy of Aurum’s re-released version of Arthur Hopcraft’s The Football Man - a classic piece of sports writing, originally published in 1968, which, I was about to discover, remains essential reading for anyone with an interest in the history of the game and its cultural roots.
Dividing the book into nine sections, Hopcraft discusses the roles, lives and careers of the game’s great players, managers, directors, fans and referees through a series of interviews and anecdotes that span his career as a football writer.
Every aspect of the game and every era up until the book’s release is accounted for, while the rich stories that he tells make reading this book feel like you are spending an evening in the pub with each and every character that Hopcraft touches upon. There is Stan Matthews who reveals improbably that he often felt quite unsure of his surroundings as he dribbled with the ball.
“When some of these youngsters start telling you they beat one man, then two men, then three men, well I don’t know what they’re talking about,” Matthews explains. “I never know whether I’ve beaten one man or three or four. It’s just feet.”
Then there is Matt Busby and his assertion that a promising young talent simply cannot be overlooked by the very best managers, even if they are scouted on an off-day.
“He may have a bad game the day you watch him, but there will be something about him that strikes you,” the Manchester United manager insists. “There’s something in the really gifted player that hits you. Is ‘instinct’ the right word? You look for that.”
Yet Hopcraft’s own perceptive eye stands out above all the footballing luminaries quoted within the pages of his book. Here is a man who, after immersing himself in the game for several decades, possesses the confidence to articulate the conclusions he has drawn. When discussing the challenges facing the manager, whose direct influence over a club can only in exceptional cases become anything other than temporary, he pinpoints the character trait that allows a single man – who may or may not be in the job for very long – to take control of a dressing room full of confident, young professionals.
“It is not a question of being a nice man or a nasty one, of being likeable or aloof, of being imaginative or cautious, hard or indulgent in discipline,” Hopcraft tells us. “All of these things are subordinate to the essential quality that, it seems, all the most successful managers have: the capacity to dominate. This is not just an overbearing manner, a thrusting of two fists at the world; it is not just arrogance. It is a steeliness in a man’s make-up, the will to make his methods tell. He is the kind of man who will not permit interference by the amateurs, and the kind who will never be invited to work for a board not prepared to be overshadowed. The successful manager may have all kinds of talents, from charm to low cunning, but to stay successful he needs to be very close to indomitable.”
In the final chapter of his book, Hopcraft looks to the future and his prescient comments reveal just how well he understood the course the game was taking and the necessary changes this would demand of its organisation. He has the foresight to advocate professional referees, to predict the advent of an exclusive, commercially-led Premier League and to argue in favour of a new form of safe standing.
It is in debating the latter that Hopcraft – himself a graduate from the terraces to the press box – truly comes into his own. Seeing the need to create a safer standing environment for supporters than the “squalid” terraces of old, but fearing the sanitisation of the sport he loves, he gives a balanced view of the need to update the “cavernous and stark” football grounds, which he describes evocatively as “sport’s version of the gloomy, comfortless factories for whose workers they were built… monuments to the general poverty of the period and the absence of aesthetic consideration which went with it.”
He may not provide concrete answers, but Hopcraft is clear about his desire to see the atmospheric traditions of football supporters respected while recognising the need for spectators to feel safe at the ground.
“The clubs have to find a compromise between a stultifying orderliness on the terraces and a deference to their traditions,” he argues. “Has any club asked an architect to create a new style of goal-end terracing?
“I certainly have no wish to see imposed a planner’s end to honest rancour and loyalty, just because they are coarsely expressed: the merchants of blandness are already legion enough. But it ought to be possible to preserve the circumstances of excitement while doing away with the opportunities for viciousness. In fact, it is vital to.”
Hopcraft – who passed away in 2004 – may have been surprised to hear that calls for safe standing were still falling on deaf ears almost half a century after his book was initially published, but the fact that he was thinking about such matters as early as he was seems quite striking in retrospect. We often talk in condescending tones about the great footballing figures of the past as though it were an age of innocence from which we can learn very little, but admire much. However, The Football Man proves that a thorough understanding of the game’s past not only informs your comprehension of its current state, but also offers you an insight into its future direction. Progress must be informed by the weight of history, or it simply becomes a process of change for the sake of change, something Hopcraft clearly understood all those years ago.