The posh-ing of English football

Image of Simon Kuper

I never thought it would happen, but England’s football team is becoming middle-class. England could kick off next month’s European Football Championship with a midfield featuring the private schoolboys Frank Lampard and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Scott Parker from the very middle-class London state school Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College, and the quantity surveyor’s son James Milner, once a promising schoolboy mathematician. England haven’t been so upmarket since public schoolboys disappeared from the side circa 1900. Certainly, there aren’t many recent England internationals who can match Lampard’s A* for GCSE Latin aged 16, not to mention his football matches against Eton. The last working-class bastion is finally falling.

All of the last century, there were three requirements to play for England: you had to be male, you had to be a good footballer and you had to be working-class. The working-class requirement survived even after most English people became middle-class. While nearly half the population entered higher education, England players continued to be sons of railway workers, heating engineers and dustbin men.

People in football fought to keep the game working-class. If you hadn’t left school at 16, they viewed you with suspicion. Lampard asked his father, an ex-footballer, about staying at school. But, he reports in his autobiography, “Dad was very clear: if I didn’t do my apprenticeship then I wouldn’t learn the real basics of the game. You need to know the background in football, even when it means scraping the mud off other people’s boots.” Leaving school at 16 was above all a cultural norm: it kept the middle classes out.

The few middle-class kids who entered football’s citadel rarely felt welcome. A one-time youth trainee at Oldham Athletic remembers arriving at the club one day carrying a copy of the Daily Mail – in his teammates’ eyes, the ultimate middle-class marker. He recalls: “Aside from the club-wide piss-taking, I had Deep Heat rubbed into the lining of my slips.” Similarly Erik Thorstvedt, Tottenham’s Norwegian goalkeeper of the 1990s, remembers teammates chucking bread rolls at his head when he opened a broadsheet newspaper on the team bus. Private schoolboys can feel awkward in such settings, says Malcolm Bailey, the teacher who runs football at Charterhouse school in Surrey.

But then the middle and upper classes began capturing British sports. The prompt was probably the sell-off of thousands of state-school playing fields under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Many state schools stopped playing ballgames.

Ed Smith, the privately educated former England cricketer, charts the consequences in his recent book Luck. In 1987, Smith writes, almost all England cricketers had attended state schools. Today, most are privately educated, as are most England rugby players and half the UK’s gold medallists at the last Olympics. For comparison, only 7 per cent of Britons went to private schools. Michael Gove, Britain’s privately educated education secretary, cited Smith’s stats in a recent speech lamenting the grip of private schools on national life. “More than almost any developed nation,” said Gove, “ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress.” That’s now becoming true even in football. Traditionally, posh private schools (like Oxlade-Chamberlain’s alma mater, St John’s College, Southsea) preferred rugby. But that’s changing. Pat Francis, a scout for Aston Villa and former football coach at the independent Forest School in London, says: “A lot of top rugby schools now want to play football, because of the injuries in rugby and the prestige that football is getting.”

Posh boys increasingly follow football (Prince William arrived at Eton a fan), and independent schools have the resources to play football well. Charterhouse, for instance, has 16 grass football fields. Bailey says, “These days we have 18 sides playing. Eton probably has more. We’re lucky with our facilities, and it does help with the standard of football.” Private schools have also begun giving scholarships to good footballers: Johnny Gorman of Wolves became a regular with Northern Ireland while still at Repton school in Derbyshire.

Noticeably, both of England’s private schoolboys, Lampard and Oxlade-Chamberlain, are footballers’ sons. In other words, their origins are culturally working-class. But private schools are precisely the route by which children from “new money” (in Lampard’s phrase) enter the English establishment. These schools don’t just educate you; they make you middle class. Lampard says his parents had “felt a bit uncomfortable with some of the others at my school”, and he felt embarrassed walking around his east London neighbourhood in his school cap. But, he writes: “[School] was a lot less stiff than I expected and I adapted quite quickly.”

He might find English football surprisingly middle class now. Even the state schoolboys increasingly come from better-resourced schools. Parker and his Hatcham College contemporary Shaun Wright-Phillips are examples. Chris Smalling of Manchester United attended traditional Chatham Grammar School for Boys, whose website boasts of ample sports fields.

The job of the England team isn’t to win prizes, it’s to incarnate the nation. The nation has become a faux-meritocracy, where the best seats are mostly allocated at birth, and the national football team is starting to follow.

‘Soccernomics’ (previously published as ‘Why England Lose’), by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, is published by HarperSport, £8.99

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