Commentary Box: Into perspective – England’s quartet

THIRTY years ago, it would be nigh on impossible for one country to provide all the European finalists. The only way it could have happened was if the holders of the European Cup and European Cup-Winners’ Cup were English and the qualifying clubs from England were not the holders.

In 1971-72, we had a UEFA Cup final between Tottenham and Wolves – a competition where a number of clubs from the same country were admitted.

In that two-legged final, Wolves’ team comprised eight Englishmen, one Northern Ireland international and two Scots. Spurs had one Northern Irishman, one player from the Eire (as we called it then), eight Englishmen and one Scot. It was, essentially, a clash of two English clubs and just one player from outside the United Kingdom. Spurs and Wolves were owned and run by British folk. They had five England internationals in their line-up – Cyril Knowles, Alan Mullery, Martin Chivers, Martin Peters and Ralph Coates. Steve Perryman would eventually gain a cap.

Times change and the English game is very different, no longer the place where Englishmen ply their trade at the top level, but instead we have fantasy football elevens of hired guns earning vast sums of money. The clubs are owned by foreign investors and the fanbases have become global. Tottenham and Wolves, for example, are no longer the property of local fans, they are mini corporations that have built a “franchise”. Spurs, as an example, are no longer representative of London N17, an area of London that is very cosmopolitan and has a high crime rate. The average Spurs fan might well come from Stevenage, Welwyn Garden City or Leigh-on-Sea

1963: Tottenham Hotspur’s Terry Dyson and Jimmy Greaves show off the European Cup Winners Cup upon their return to England, after beating Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the final

Spurs have tenuous British ownership in the form of ENIC Group, which is owned by Joe Lewis (via the Bahamas-based Tavistock Group) and club chairman Daniel Levy. ENIC’s Bahamas-registered subsidiary, ENIC International, holds 85.55% of the club. The club has a reputation for including English players, but against Ajax in Amsterdam, only three made the team.

Liverpool, who will face Spurs in Madrid after battling out one of the tightest league title races in history, are owned by American investors. Their starting line-up against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final included just three Englishmen. Their manager is German. Liverpool have fans from all over the world. In other words, this is not a team of scousers, fed on the spirit of Shankly.

Similarly, Chelsea is Russian-owned, has an Italian manager and their team kicked-off their Europa League semi-final second leg with just one English player, Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Arsenal are now in the hands of an American and also fielded one Englishman, Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

On the face of it, this quartet of clubs represent globalisation more than “Englishness” and they are not standard-bearers for a resurgent England team. The soul of English football sold out to mammon long ago and what we are seeing today is the result of a period where Premier League clubs benefitted from the enormous gifts pushed their way by sponsorship and broadcasting. That’s the way it is, and despite some people claiming they are against modern football, the waiting lists and sell-out crowds suggest that somebody certainly enjoys it.

Multiple finalists has been done before, though. It is tempting, and in the spirit of “presentism” to believe that football began in 1992-93 with the inauguration of both the Premier League and Champions League. But in 1990, Italy provided four finalists and won all three UEFA competitions. AC Milan won the European Cup (Benfica 1-0), Juventus lifted the UEFA Cup ( beating Serie A stablemates Fiorentina 3-1 on aggregate over two legs) and Sampdoria won the Cup-Winners’ Cup (Anderlecht 2-0).

1968: Leeds United’s (l-r) Terry Hibbitt, Gary Sprake, Peter Lorimer and Billy Bremner with the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup after winning it with a goal-less draw (1-0 on aggregate) versus Ferencvaros in Budapest. Photo; PA

With the World Cup in Italy approaching at the time, many people saw this triple crown as a pointer to the likely winners of the competition in 1990. AC Milan, who provided four of Italy’s team in their first game in the World Cup, were a stunning team, but their stars were not Italian. Three Dutchmen, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, made Milan an irresistible force. They still had some outstanding Italians, notably Franco Baresi, Carlo Ancelotti and Paulo Maldini, but Serie A’s ability to attract foreign talent was unmatched at that moment in time. Juventus and Sampdoria were almost 100% Italian teams and needless to say, in 1990, Italians owned Italian clubs. The UEFA treble was very much born and raised in Italy.

English clubs, once they had got their feet under the European table, started to win regularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Tottenham won the first European prize, the Cup-Winners’ Cup, in 1963 and West Ham followed two years later in the same competition. In 1968, Manchester United and Leeds United were both successful in the European Cup and Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (a non-UEFA competition) respectively.

In 1969-70, England went very close to scooping the treble. Arsenal and Manchester City secured the Fairs Cup and Cup-Winners’ Cup and Leeds were beaten in the semi-final of the European Cup by Celtic. On two other occasions, 1972-73 and 1983-84, a similar tale unfolded. As has been well documented in the movie, The Damned United, Derby County were controversially dumped out of the European Cup at the semi-final stage. Meanwhile, Liverpool won their first European prize, beating Borussia Mönchengladbach in the UEFA Cup final and Leeds, forever the nearly men, were beaten in the Cup-Winners’ Cup final against AC Milan, just days after losing the FA Cup final to Sunderland.

1977: Liverpool captain Emlyn Hughes holds aloft the European Cup along with his victorius teammates after the English club beat German side Borussia Moenchengladbach in the final held in Rome, Italy.  Photo: PA

In 1983-84, Liverpool won their fourth European Cup while Tottenham lifted their second UEFA Cup – both teams winning on penalties – and Manchester United were beaten in the last four of the Cup-Winners’ Cup by Juventus.

The all-domestic European final is not always welcomed by neutrals and must make UEFA wince a little – from a commercial perspective, two teams from the same league restricts the potential to leverage the occasion and as a spectacle, they lack that certain edge.

They have happened more often than people think – 17 times. The first all-domestic European final was in 1961-62 between Valencia and Barcelona in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Barca also took place in the second, against Zaragoza in 1965-66 in the same competition. The UEFA Cup/Europa has provided nine, the first between Spurs and Wolves, but since then there were all-Italian affairs in 1990, 1991, 1995 and 1998. Two Spanish sides reached the final in 2007 and 2012 and there  was an all-Portuguese decider in 2011 between Porto and Braga. There was also a German shoot-out in 1980 between Frankfurt and Gladbach.

As for the Champions League, Liverpool versus Spurs will be the seventh occasion. The others:

1999-00: Real Madrid 3 Valencia 0 in Paris; 2002-03: Juventus 0 AC Milan 0 (Juve on pens) in Manchester; 2007-08: Manchester United 1 Chelsea 1 (United on pens) in Moscow; 2012-13: Bayern 2 Dortmund 1  at Wembley; 2013-14: Real Madrid 4 Atlético 1 in Lisbon; 2015-16: Real Madrid 1 Atlético 1 (Real on pens) in Milan.

With the current structure of the Champions League, the prospect of further local derbies in the competition is very real. Some people are desperate to see Real and Barca face-off in a final, but the romantics would prefer an unlikely team winning through. Already some pro-Arsenal pundits are claiming that Tottenham are the worst-ever Champions League finalist, but that’s unfair and a case of allowing local rivalry to colour the view of the writer.

Any team that slaloms their way through the competition deserves their place in the final. It’s a journey (everyone’s on a journey these days) that is laden with pitfalls and banana skins. So let’s enjoy the success of teams we see every week on the TV or in the flesh and cast aside petty rivalry and jealousy. In the past, football fans would, generally, get behind an English team if they were in a European tie. Actually, that is patriotism. When Liverpool won the European Cup in 1977, the first of their five wins and the first by an English club since 1968, most people were pleased. Healthy competiveness and appreciation of a remarkable feat by the opposition has all but disappeared in the modern world, the sentiment of “you’re with us or against us” seems to prevail in all walks of life. It goes back some years – in 1985, I applauded a young Mark Hughes when he scored for Manchester United at Stamford Bridge (it was a cracker and the applause was instinctive) and was clumped around the head by a fellow Chelsea supporter. I believe I can trace my neutrality and rational approach to football back to that moment.

I found it strange (and somewhat sad) that Arsenal fans, for instance, were positively sickened by the prospect of Tottenham reaching the Champions League final. Likewise, I see Chelsea fans’ continued hatred of Leeds as invalid, when the two clubs have not been in the same peer group for a couple of decades. More locally, a non-league club’s fans despising the local Football League club who once played in the same non-league division but have long moved out of the same universe. From the league club’s perspective, the non-leaguers don’t really exist any more.

Some would argue, given the facts and realities of modern football, that lending your support to Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal, in particular, is not necessarily getting behind an “English” club anymore. They may be domiciled in England, may play in the English league, may have an English name, but in truth, they are a product of our time and no more representative of a country than any of a dozen top clubs around continental Europe.

Photos: PA




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