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David Winner is my friend, even if he is sometimes irritating, and so I can't possibly say whether his new book about English football, Those Feet, is any good or not. This is not a review of the book, which will be published shortly by Bloomsbury, just a discussion of one of its obsessions: the humour of English football. England is not the best football nation on earth, but until recently it was the funniest.

English football was funny because it was suffused with grandiose, late-Victorian militarist rhetoric that it could never live up to. Football was about strength, manliness, purity, but Winner shows that the modern game was invented in Victorian public schools to keep boys from masturbating. He proves this beyond argument. The idea was that if boys were out on the field in teams expending energy, they could never be alone to engage in "self- pollution".

Winner notes that the personnel of football and the anti-masturbation movement overlapped. Lord Kinnaird, for instance, "perhaps the single most influential individual in the first 60 years of English football", was treasurer of the Central Vigilance Society for the Repression of Immorality. The White Cross League, a purity group that targeted the working class, was a strong early influence on Manchester City. The club, founded by a vicar in 1880, used to play in black shirts with a large white cross.

The war on masturbation tailed off in the 1920s. Not much later the British empire fell. However, the school stories and comics purveying manly Victorian ideals lasted into the 1980s. Nobody talks about Roy of the Rovers anymore, but the comic shaped a generation of men now running Britain.

The macho, asexual all-British heroes of these comics seem ludicrous today. They have been recast as parodies in Viz magazine, whose football stories star the half-halibut goalkeeper Billy the Fish. It's just one example of how most postwar British humour mocks the Victorians. After all, they ruled the world and believed in greatness. Their descendants are beyond that.

What changed was that Britain lost the empire and ceased to matter very much. "A sense of calamitous decline - real or imagined - has been a key theme not only in football but in British culture as a whole since some time after the second world war," writes Winner. This mode of talking about Britain he calls "declinism".

English football being such a good metaphor for British decline, it was seized on by comedians. The Goons, and later Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, were the fathers of declinism, and Monty Python inherited the tradition. So did Barry Fantoni, creator of Neasden FC, the fictional team in Private Eye magazine that stands for the ineptitude of English football.

Declinism peaked in the mid-1990s with a documentary film called Do I Not Like That,about Graham Taylor's reign as England manager. The funniest thing about the film is that Taylor wanted it made, presumably to instruct future generations in his methods.

A typical scene shows him sitting on the bench during a game against Poland, between his assistants Lawrie McMenemy and Phil Neal. Taylor remarks that John Barnes, England's winger, should be playing 10 yards further inside. McMenemy and Neal agree. All three shout at Barnes and make mutually contradictory gestures. Barnes goes somewhere else.

"That's better," shouts Taylor. "That's better," shouts Neal. "That's better," shouts McMenemy.

Taylor spends much of the game grumbling about how bad his players are. He is right, because he hasn't picked Bryan Robson and Chris Waddle. After yet another English blunder he shouts: "Do I not like that!", a phrase that would become legendary. England missed the World Cup of 1994.

Taylor's failings curiously resembled those of the then prime minister, John Major. "Our football team's a bunch of thugs led by Corporate Man - and so is the government," commented the comedian Arthur Smith. But the early 1990s would prove Britain's nadir. After that the football team got better, while Tony Blair's government pursued a humourless policy of unbroken economic growth. This is wiping out declinism, which has erupted in Germany instead. Taylor now belongs to a bygone era, like Captain Scott or Lord Kitchener.

The joke is over, says Nick Hornby, and he should know. In 1992 Hornby published Fever Pitch,a very funny account of the horrors of English football and supporting Arsenal. Five years later Arsenal began playing fantastic football.

"All that old humour finished then," Hornby tells Winner. "All those jokes. And it will never come back." Does he miss the old ineptitude? "Oh, God, no!"

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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