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The book that shows us the familiar face of the football man

Take a look at the following passage and try to guess when the book it comes from was published:

“The whole appearance and manner of professional football have been transformed, not to everybody’s liking…The game is played at sprinter’s pace; it is more explosive than it was; players are cunning veterans by their mid-twenties; referees are frequently treated with undisguised contempt; managers grow more tense and anxious by the month; the conflict between the younger and older generations, which is one of the major contemporary tensions in society generally, is given emphatic expression in football.”

Although the abandon with which the writer uses semi-colons suggests otherwise, many of you might think that the paragraph could have been produced quite recently as so much of its content appears to hold true now. The remarks about referees and managers, for example, could be the subject of a radio phone-in on almost any weekend of the season. And football is faster than it has ever been; most top players look like they could run the 100 metres in around 11 seconds and often can do too. Some managers, meanwhile, most notably Arsène Wenger, are loath to offer a contract of more than one year to a player over 30 years of age, such is the growing belief in the game that the typical player is fittest and hungriest in his mid- to late-twenties.

It will probably come as a surprise, then, to learn that the passage comes from 1968. It can be found in a book called The Football Man, a collection of short essays and opinion pieces by Arthur Hopcraft. He was a journalist and football writer for the Guardian, the Observer, and the Sunday Times Magazine who went on to write screenplays for television later in his career. Hopcraft was 36 when The Football Man came out, placing him in the middle of that “conflict between the younger and older generations” that, at the time of writing, the extract alluded to.

The reference to a tension between young and old is certainly a clue as to the book’s origins in the 1960s, when pop culture truly blossomed and began to drive a wedge between the generations, but it is hardly a comment that seems irrelevant now. Parents are still driven to distraction by the music their children listen to and the way their offspring behave. In the context of football, though, Hopcraft wrote about the influx of the latest generation of fans having coincided with a rise in problems concerning crowd trouble at games and vandalism perpetrated on trains carrying travelling supporters. Both issues remain familiar to us now but, just as Hopcraft argued in 1968, they are not issues symptomatic only of football fans but of society in general.

Hopcraft suggested that football’s inherent physicality and aggression did, in part, explain how its fans behaved. Of course, he did not at all mean to say that the game’s supporters were all naturally predisposed to violence, but that the nature of the game (within which physicality and aggression are inalienable) engendered a certain kind of boisterousness amongst fans that, in the vast majority of cases, was good for the game. This boisterousness, he said, expressed itself in loud singing, humorous chants, and the movement of the fans behind the goals. Football is about grace and beauty too, but Hopcraft reasoned that the more base elements of the sport were what, to his great pleasure, separated football fans from those to be found at Wimbledon or watching test cricket.

The difficult thing is to foster the vocal and passionate support that makes a stadium come alive, and gives football its unique relationship between players and fans, without matters going too far. Hopcraft discussed this back in 1968 and, like so much of what he wrote about in The Football Man, his words still speak to us now.

Written By William Abbs

Article title: The book that shows us the familiar face of the football man

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