Magazine article New Statesman (1996)


Magazine article New Statesman (1996)


Article excerpt

NEIL BERRY on the brainy cosmopolitans of British football

With two A levels to his name, West Ham's sometime soccer maestro Trevor Brooking used to be known to his team-mates as "Einstein". The Russian journalist Oleg Bitov felt that this summed up the latter-day British -- an oafish people with an oafish sense of humour. Certainly, it said much about British football, from time immemorial a working-class world on which education hardly impinged. In Brian Clough, football's John Bull, the game's shamelessly unacademic ethos found its definitive embodiment. This egregious British football manager was a truculent champion of common sense, his common sense.

Yet, if British soccer brimmed with anti-intellectualism, it was never without intellectual devotees. The late philosopher A J Ayer was an ostentatious supporter of Tottenham Hotspur; and, from Ian Hamilton to Nick Hornby, the metropolitan literati have often seemed to be queuing up to explain how much football means to them. Consider the scope that this most contentious of sports offers to intellectuals for indulging their instincts to pontificate; inside every highbrow football fan, there is a dogmatising Brian Clough struggling to break out (and all too often succeeding).

But who could have guessed that intellectuals would one day become dominant figures in British football? In the ratiocinative persons of the new England team manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, and the managers of Liverpool and Arsenal, Gerard Houllier and Arsene Wenger, the game has acquired something akin to an intelligentsia. University-educated linguists laden with advanced coaching certificates, these polished, adaptable cosmopolites possess qualities that Britain's s own sports culture is ill-equipped to nurture. That all three of them now enjoy prized positions in the country's soccer hierarchy bears witness to the dearth of indigenous managers capable of coping with the sport's almost inhuman exigencies.

The soccer savant has emerged in response to unprecedented challenges. This is a time when, thanks to satellite television, the top flight of the game is becoming a branch of global commerce, a prodigiously lucrative mass entertainment intimately linked to the advertising industry and packaged as an accoutrement of the affluent lifestyle. With transcontinental super leagues the shape of things to come, the leading British clubs are already pouring their energies into competing on the European stage.

In this ultra-Darwinian era, to achieve eminence as a football manager means co-ordinating multitudinous squads of sporting prima donnas. It means making a fetish of fitness, monitoring not just players' ball skills and exercise programmes, but the minutiae of their diets and general conduct. And it means exploiting all that technology can contribute (computer analysis of games, and so on) to optimise individual and team performances. Always an art, football management at the highest level is now a science -- a job for workaholic boffins who, on top of everything else, are PR specialists, adept at handling the media. Small wonder that the Clough school of blunt common sense (Get that bloody shot on target, lad) has yielded to the professionalism of the polyglot professor.

Not that the professorial approach rules out old-fashioned football fervour. The triumphal progress of Houllier as manager of Liverpool makes a piquant study on this score. It is true that the urbane Gallic patron seems a far cry from that most fabled of Merseyside managers, the fiery Scots showman Bill Shankly, thanks to whose inspirational efforts Liverpool became an unstoppable soccer juggernaut during the 1960s. …

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