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Was the beautiful game ever really that pretty?

This article is over 17 years, 8 months old
With the new football season upon us, Phil Vasili looks at a bygone age
Issue 2016
Fans celebrate a Barcelona goal - but has football changed? (Pic: Angela Stapleford)
Fans celebrate a Barcelona goal – but has football changed? (Pic: Angela Stapleford)

In John Tennant’s evocative book of black and white photographs, The Golden Age of Football: Extraordinary Images from 1900 to 1985, there is a captured moment from inside the legendary Liverpool boot room, taken in May 1980.

The depth of its silent comment equals any illumination that could have been provided by hundreds of words on the changing forces within the game – manager Bob Paisley is holding court while the rest of Anfield’s inner sanctum look on.

There is a horrible, worn spiral carpet on the floor, a swear box on the coffee table, benches along two walls that are fronted with industrial shelving units that look to be held together by wire. A car wing mirror perched on the top shelf reflects a portion of our scene! Bob occupies the only chair.

Had they not been in shorts or tracksuits, the scene could have been mistaken for a secluded corner of a factory floor found the length and breadth of 1970s Britain.

Liverpool had just won their fourth league title in five seasons, two seasons earlier they had won their second successive European Cup. A year later they would win their third European Cup.

I’m not a Liverpool fan. But I did feel an affinity with the cultural values embodied in their success of the 1970s and 1980s.

Their pass and move football expressed collective ideals personified by a management who (had they not had such wonderful jobs) would have been the fans who paid their wages, stepping heavy or light each Saturday depending on the result. After one of the European finals the cup ended up in a pub.

Liverpool and Premiership football have come a long way since ex-miner Bob Paisley built upon the success of ex-miner Bill Shankly.


Like New Labour the top league has eagerly embraced the values of the market and cultivated an affluent constituency of support. These are people who can afford to spend as much on the club outside the ground as in it.

What would Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and the others make of today’s game? An industry that has purposely overpriced itself, jettisoning its social and cultural origins? Pay to get in by credit card, my arse! How much?!

Am I being overly nostalgic for John Tennant’s golden age that never really existed? Hasn’t the corporatisation of football brought much needed resources into the game? Coca-Cola and MacDonald’s are putting something in at the bottom end with their sponsorship of coaching courses and other grassroots activities.

Premiership footballers are now sharing in the financial success they have created. And unlike almost every other branch of British industry, aren’t football clubs still taking on apprentices – “scholars” as they pretentiously label their young intakes.

This practice is seen as archaic by most employers who have made the economic decision to use labour trained by others, usually in poorer countries. Sorry I’m not being fair to the British army here. If you’re young, working class and are prepared to travel, kill and be killed they’ll train you in the trade of your choice.

Yes, there is more money in the game but once this happened – with Rupert Murdoch’s television deal – the Faustian pact demanded a social cleansing of the game in order to sanitise its media image. The net result has been to literally screen-off live Premiership from the view of ordinary fans. The electronic version is now the staple of their football diet. Witness the mega screens at the World Cup.


Fortunately many don’t feel so well inclined toward football’s corporate “friends” as Fifa and the FA.

Sussex University Students Union has banned all Coca-Cola products from its premises on campus because of the company’s treatment of union organisers at its bottling plants in Colombia – effectively giving them bullseye T-shirts with “shoot me” written on them.

Talking of shooting lefties, this probably was not too far from the thoughts of the Croatian fascists who choreographed the swastika while making Nazi salutes at the recent international match with Italy in Livorno.

The Italian club have a socialist fan culture which added to the symbolic value of the display. Similar actions have occurred recently in Germany and Poland.

The recent television documentary on the violence of some England fans in Germany this summer should have shattered the smug complacency of the football authorities here that racism has all but been eradicated from our game. They will have suffered as much as those who were unfortunate to have had tickets for England’s sterile displays.

Moving from the past and present some predictions about the new season. Crowds will be down in the Premiership, clubs will devise marketing ploys to sell tickets (a reduction in price in all but name), Chelsea will not win the Champions League and José Mourinho will be sacked.

One manager who won’t be sacked is Martin O’Neill. On accepting the job at Aston Villa, the former Celtic manager – who won all that he could in Scotland and took the Bhoys to a Uefa final – said his immediate priority was to prove himself to the fans.

Watch your back at the next board meeting, Martin.

Phil Vasili is the author of Colouring Over the White Line: The History of Black Footballers in Britain. Go to for more details.


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