Tasty left foot, but what about his cultural passport?

The Only Game - The Changing Face of Football

June 7, 2002

From the economics of ticket touting to fans' selective colour-blindness, Huw Richards looks at studies of the beautiful game

The World Cup's visitation this month will bring its normal baggage of side-effects. Colleagues will go missing when matches are broadcast while employers curse mysterious summer flu epidemics coinciding with England games and people who previously identified Sheringham solely as a village in Norfolk develop strong views about who should play alongside Michael Owen.

Universities will not be immune - not that they ever have been, at least since the beneficiaries of post-1944 universal free secondary education and the post-Robbins expansion broadened the social base of their workforce. It is more than 20 years since the economist Maurice (now Lord) Peston, writing in The THES , illustrated the difficulties of defining when an academic is, or is not, working by pointing out that he was wont to while away the time when queueing at Arsenal by speculating on the economic effects of ticket touting. Many of his successors have football as the core, rather than just an enjoyable periphery, of their studies, and their claim to be working while watching Spain vs Paraguay on TV will be hard to dispute.

They owe an immense debt to the pioneers who challenged the attitude that sport is not worthy of serious interest. Sociologists can give thanks to the late Ian Taylor and the still active Eric Dunning. Historians recently did thank Tony Mason with the surprise presentation of his Festschrift at the British Society of Sports Historians conference, and they feel similar gratitude to James Walvin.

Walvin's The People's Game , published in 1975 (revised, expanded and reissued in 2000) was the first book-length proof that the sky would not fall if serious historians started publishing on football. His football writing remains essentially a relaxation and adjunct to a distinguished body of work on the Caribbean and on slavery.

The Only Game should be popular with the sixth-formers who appear to be its likeliest audience - a pleasant, readable canter through the game's history, enjoyably salted with anecdote, not least from Walvin's own experiences as a Manchester United supporter. Nor does a vantage point formed by following the game's commercial juggernaut blind him to the deepening problems - even before the ITV Digital collapse - further down the food chain.

Publishers seeking a broad readership believe, probably with justice, that the conventions and impedimenta of academia obstruct their quest. But some aspects of this book show how useful they can be. The absence of footnotes leaves the reader wondering about the provenance of some intriguing and well-chosen quotations.

The generalised style of the narrative appears to be aimed at greater accessibility, but sometimes works in the opposite direction. Generalised references become more effective - and probably more memorable - with a few specifics. A reference to Millwall being "especially prone to crowd disorders" in the 1930s would benefit from detail on the number of times its ground was closed in this period. Similarly, the section on fans, stadia and policing before 1914 says nothing of the Ibrox disaster of 1902 or the Hampden Park riot of 1909.

Walvin has been done few favours by his publishers billing the book as the "first total history of football". This is not so much inaccurate as meaningless - what does "total" mean in such a context? It also, by implication, dismisses Bill Murray's more scholarly and broad-ranging The World Game (1996), whose usefulness Walvin happily acknowledges in the "Guide to further reading".

Sociologists have been even more active than historians in examining football, in part because game and discipline aided each other in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher appeared bent on strangling the last sociologist with the entrails of the last football fan. Studies of hooliganism, particularly by Leicester University sociologists, gave the game a better understanding of its most pressing problem while proving that academics could make a serious contribution to debate about a major social phenomenon.

Racism was seen then, and continues to be seen, as a serious contributory factor in hooliganism. Less has been made of its role elsewhere in football. As Les Back, Tim Crabbe and John Solomos argue: "It is possible to talk about racism inside football grounds, but it is more or less taboo to ask about this issue on the training ground, the field of play and in the boardroom."

By breaking this taboo, and with it what they term the "racist/hooligan" couplet, they present a much broader view of issues of identity and racism within the game. What emerges is a subtler, more complex and in some senses more worrying picture than analyses based around that ugly (and undoubtedly extant) folk demon, the racist hooligan.

Overt racism certainly exists. So, too, does institutional racism - the authors rightly point to the paucity of black managers and coaches - and the sort of unthinking stereotyping that will doubtless be expressed during the World Cup in the description of Nigerian and Cameroonian defenders, who hold down jobs in the top European leagues, as "naive" or "disorganised".

The authors are most interesting when they uncover the unexpected and the counterintuitive - in particular an intriguing study of how Tony Witter, a black player, became a hero at Millwall, a club with many racist fans. This includes the eye-popping anecdote of a fan who had just participated in a stream of racist abuse directed at the pitch while Witter tangled with Ian Wright of Arsenal telling him: "Not you Tone, you're all right, it's Wrighty." Witter, understandably nonplussed, asked: "Do they not see my colour? Do I wear this shirt over my head?" Back, Crabbe and Solomos argue that racism is located within a much more complex set of attitudes and values, many localised - and that Witter's vigorous style of play provided the "cultural passport" that won him acceptance while another black Millwall player was reviled. It is such teasing-out and analysis of nuance and complexity, uncoupling racism from hooliganism, that makes this book both important and fascinating. Football should again be grateful to sociologists.

Huw Richards is visiting researcher, International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University

The Only Game: Football in our Times

Author - James Walvin
ISBN - 0 582 50577 1
Publisher - Longman
Price - £19.99
Pages - 292

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