Commentary Box: The game with thrones – legends and servants

A FRIEND of mine left his job with a major investment bank where he had worked for more than 20 years. He was described as a “great servant” to the company. Given the person in question was earning well north of £ 150,000 per annum, plus considerable benefits, somebody quipped, “best paid bloody servant in history”. It raised a laugh or two, but never had a truer word been spoken in jest. Investment bank employees are not servants in any shape or form. And neither are Premier League footballers.

Nobody forces anyone to go into football, aside from pushy parents who see their offspring as a way out of a life of drudgery. Youngsters pursue the invariably forlorn hope of a career in the game as a way to get rich. In this age of freedom of movement, players (with the guile and distruptive tactics of their agents) often hold clubs to ransom. No servant, not even in the benign world of Downton Abbey,  ever held out for more money from his betters.

In the old days, the club stalwart would typically be a player who did a good, solid job for his club and was probably paid less than the stars. Often, the players who make hundreds and hundreds of appearances for a single club are not those that have been idolised by the fans, but are more likely to be solid, dependable fellows who have been through thick and thin with the club. There are exceptions, some very notable, like Tom Finney and Billy Wright, to name but two.

In the days before the maximum wage was abolished, players could be called “servants” – paid very little, covered in mud and at the command of club officials. Football was a classic case of “capital and labour” with the players in the latter category. Clubs still had the ability to sell their players without prior consultation until fairly recently in football history. It really was the age of servitude in the days of brylcreem, Woodbines and the “magic sponge”. And when the players got too old to be useful, and if they had put in 10 years, the football equivalent of a gold watch or carriage clock was the testimonial. Raising a few shillings for the servant. Gratuities, if you like.

Jimmy Dickinson, Portsmouth

Post-Bosman and into the modern age, testimonials are not a necessary, certainly not at the top level – fans (many of whom will be below average national wage, on minimum wage or zero hours workers) paying to see a game that earns even more money for the wealthy. There has been a shift in this process, though, with players now using their testimonials as PR exercises by donating the proceeds to charity. Cynics would suggest there is something vaguely distasteful in players getting the fans to provide the cash for their charitable donations. The player gets kudos, but what would really impress would be for the player to simply make a gift to charity at the end of his career to recognise that he had been extremely fortunate.

A “good servant” is a totally inappropriate term to describe a footballer at Premier level. A good employee, perhaps, but let’s not pretend that being a footballer is a hardship. Maybe it is tough, demanding and requiring dedication, but the rewards are immense. Investment bankers get well compensated and have to tie their souls to the job, but nobody would sympathise with anyone working in the financial sector complaining of overwork, invasive colleagues or constant pressure.

Let’s also examine the word “legend” which is used to describe anyone who has ever put on a shirt for Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool et al. What is a legend? First of all, a legend is something that has not necessarily been authenticated. It is something that is supposed to have existed. The term has been adapted to describe someone or something that is famous or notorious. People being called a “legend” is from the lexicon of the tap room and the red top, but in football terms, it is being used to describe anyone who has represented a club. It’s nonsense. Why? Because every club has poor players,  every team has players that come and go and do not leave a mark. The hypocrisy of history is that players who were not especially appreciated suddenly become “legends” when they crop up 30 or 40 years later. As a Chelsea fan, I remember the way Ray Wilkins’ brother, Graham, was often savagely berated by the club’s followers. Some years later, he was being greeted as a “legend” – if I were the former full back, I would take it all with a pinch of salt. Today, he would leave the club with a social media message to fans expressing love and best wishes while kissing the badge.

Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone celebrates after scoring

But how do you identify who is really a legend? Long-serving (not a servant, please..), successful, brilliant, a team man, sporting, appreciative of the fans and loyal. A legendary player is Bobby Charlton, Franz Beckenbauer, Pelé, Alan Shearer, Zlatan, Cruyff, Maradona and Eusebio – not the 100-game central defender who left on a free to Birmingham in 1974.

The need to call all and sundry a “legend” is typical of our times. Everyone’s a media star and many of us allow our lives to be defined by Facebook, self-gratification, self promotion and bullshit. We tell people they are wonderful because they in turn will heap praise back upon receipt. Nobody is wrong, nobody is a failure. We seldom tell the truth when asked oiur opinion for fear of offending or being defriended on social media. Success is deferred, never beyond reach. In 21stcentury Britain, “celebrity” is a job title, easily obtainable by a smart phone that films your every move, some designer clothing and a bit of Botox. We are all top men and women, all legends in our own lifetime.

Whether you want to be a good “servant” or aspire to become a “legend”, inflationary praise for footballers only serves to perpetuate an industry that is already overloaded with hubris. It also devalues the currency of gratitude, praise and evaluation. And in truth, to be a legend, you never really existed…

10 great servants
Jimmy Dickinson (Portsmouth); Tom Finney (Preston); Terry Paine (Southampton); Billy Wright (Wolves); Roy Sproson (Port Vale); Billy Bonds (West Ham); Ian Callaghan (Liverpool); Billy Bremner (Leeds); Peter Bonetti (Chelsea); Alan Woollett (Leicester City).

10 true legends
Jimmy Johnstone (Celtic); George Best (Manchester United); Alan Shearer (Newcastle United); Thierry Henry (Arsenal); Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool); Peter Osgood (Chelsea); Johan Cruyff (Ajax); Gerd Müller (Bayern Munich); Pelé (Santos); Pak Doo-Ik (North Korea).

Photos: PA



2 thoughts on “Commentary Box: The game with thrones – legends and servants

  1. Wells aid. In the internet era, everything is immediately “the best ever” or “the worst ever” and forgotten about after a month. Occasionally, a player defies that (Messi) and earns a place at the table. In some other cases, a player’s marketing transcends it (e.g. Ronaldo) and we pull up an extra seat for it only to see the chair slide away as the players dims into irrelevance. Now and then, though, marketing simply becomes a background noise and we have to look at the pretender (.g. Paul Pogba) and say “is is the grown ups table, go eta in front of the TV w the rest of the kids”

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