Strikers and defenders
By Harry Eyres
Published: August 22 2009 02:50 | Last updated: August 22 2009 02:50
|Players in the early part of the 20th century were just as skilled as they are now|
I always resent the start of the football season – it seems indecent that the game of the inflated sphere should resume in August, the rightful month of the sport played with the hard leather ball. We should have a longer sabbatical from the narcissistic excesses of Cristiano Ronaldo, the shadow boxing of belligerent managers, the telephone-number salaries of men who behave louchely in bars.
But a book has come my way which puts all these lamentable contemporary phenomena in fascinating perspective, taking us back to the innocent dawn of football as a mass spectator sport, making me sympathise strongly with players’ demands for more money (in 1909, at least). The book – George Myerson’s Fighting for Football – does far more than that. It also transports us to the trenches of the first world war and the remarkable football matches played by the Footballers’ Battalion in France and Belgium, in earshot of the guns. And then, finally, it sheds light on an even bigger subject: what makes a human life, or rather a Life, that is to say the written story of a life.
The book is an unusual kind of biography of a footballer named Tim Coleman – one of the best and certainly one of the most articulate and interesting of the footballers of his day, which spanned the first world war. Coleman played for Arsenal, Everton and Nottingham Forest, as well as being capped for England. He probably would have represented his country more often if he had not been a founder member of the awkward squad.
This is not one of those biographies which tells you a lot about the subject’s parents and grandparents, the house and street he grew up in; even wife and children play minor parts. George Myerson has chosen to write a much more selective kind of biography – not so much the story of an individual as of the way that person intersected with certain major phenomena of his time, the meaning of his life rather than the accumulation of its detail.
The first of those phenomena is football itself, as it gathered popularity at the start of the 20th century. Football’s great original breeding grounds were the industrial cities of late Victorian and Edwardian England. Between 1888-9, the first season of the English Football League, and 1905, attendance at League games soared from 602,000 to over 5m. The number of registered players rose from 448 in 1891 to 4,470, signed up to the Players’ Union, in 1914. Fighting for Football gives an intoxicating whiff of the original excitement and enthusiasm which launched football, an inspirational antidote to grinding work in factories and mines. But it also captures the character of the game as it was played then and the people who played it. Because we picture it performed by jerky little figures in long shorts, we tend to think football a hundred years ago must have been an amateurish shadow of the modern game. But players then were just as skilled as now, and similar arguments raged about the rival merits of the intricate passing game and the long ball hoofed upfield.
One huge difference was money. When the players went on strike in 1909, they were protesting against a maximum wage of £4 a week (a skilled labourer’s wage, no more) and a transfer system that limited the player’s take to £10 (out of what might have been a £1,000 fee), as unjustified restrictions on their livelihoods. The FA had demanded that unionised players sign a pledge to leave the union, or face exclusion from the game. Tim Coleman was the most articulate of those who held out against the intimidation, and formed the Outcasts FC at Manchester United.
Coleman was prescient in seeing that the players were at the heart of the value of the game, and were probably worth a bit more than £4 a week – though heaven knows what he would have made of the vast sums earned by the likes of Ronaldo. He himself never made any money out of the game, but that does not mean his career was a failure. Having served bravely in the war and survived it, in the 1920s he went over to Holland and, as manager, won the Dutch national championship with the obscure club SC Enschede. Once again Coleman was probably ahead of his time, anticipating the Dutch style of total football which would eventually sweep and enchant the world.
His life did not end gloriously, at least as we now envisage glory. He was not a celebrity but an anonymous labourer when he met his death during the Blitz of 1940, falling from the roof of an electricity generating station as he attempted to replace some broken glass. But neither was his death inglorious. Plutarch thought the value of biography was in giving examples of virtue to emulate. Tim Coleman was no Pericles, but his life, and death, show a sort of everyday courage and determination and articulacy that could make you weep. Boys might learn more from him than from Ronaldo.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009.