Sport blog: Dead and buried by Halloween

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Premierships are being decided earlier every year. A few seasons ago - well, I’m thinking old First Division, Anfield 1989 - the top title in English football could go to the last kick of the season. Easter was conventional, February feasible and even Christmas possible. But having it all over by Halloween is spooky. It’s enough to disturb quite a few dead spirits of the game, as we repair to the churchyard, clean off their headstones and settle down to a chat and a meal with them, but it does little to quicken the pulse of the living. No good will come of it.

On a related theme, we are witnessing another, and maybe the last step in George Best’s urge to disengage. When did it first become apparent? After that amazing performance at the Stadium of Light - Lisbon version - when he took Benfica apart in early 1966, or two years later after the European Cup final victory over them at Wembley? It probably goes far deeper; something in the hard put-upon Protestant tradition? George’s statement, in as many words, throughout the decades has been: “I don’t have to be here”. I can’t recall precisely whether Pele said Best was better than he was, or was second best to him, but we’ll be left asking ourselves just what George could have done had he really tried. For some difficult-to-fathom reason, that may be what he wants.

Disturbing to read Brian O’Driscoll’s comments about New Zealand. I’m not thinking about his being speared into the turf by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu, but his comments about life on the streets. The aggression over rugby, he said, was palpable and had reached a point where it was impossible to be relaxed and engage with local fans in conversation about it, as once was the rugby way of things. I’ve never been to the country, thought once that I might love to but now would revise that to ‘like to’. A good Kiwi colleague here on the FT magazine says she has been noticing the change markedly over the years, and that there’s more envy and pent up aggression in what not long ago was a far more gentle place. Let’s not suggest that this has anything to do with New Zealand having undergone an experiment in Thatcher economics even before we had it over here.

Having spent many good afternoons at the Goldstone back in the 1970s, I’m glad Brighton are on track to getting their stadium problems sorted out. Who was it, however, suggested that the Falmer site (not “Falmouth”, as the Indepedent captioned in a pic this week) was a “run-down area”? The stadium is planned for just opposite Sussex university, one of the most idyllic locations in the country and at the point where the South Downs make their final climb towards the sea. I missed its foresaken, proletarian edge while I was there for three years. Someone must have been thinking of poor old Moulescoomb up the road, a little further towards Brighton. When working as a sweeper-come-dustman during the holidays, I was advised by full-time council hands that that was an area to get in and out of with our bins and brooms as quickly as possible. Poor link into a concluding sentence, this, but having on several occasions been nearly confined to the refuse container of history, may the Seagulls fly - or even clean up - in their new home.

There we were for years thinking Liverpool’s Steve Heighway was the first pro footballer with a university degree. Reminder: he’s the bloke who embarrassed Bob Wilson (who went on to a history degree at Loughborough) by slipping the first goal under his body in the 1971 Cup Final. Fortunately, Eddie Kelly and Charlie George got Bob off the historical hook. But no, we were wrong. I’d commend everyone to the letter of October 17 (see below) in the FT by Pat Brady, former Millwall defender of the early 1960s, in response to Sepp Blatter’s piece on football’s collapse into materialism. No surprise, says Pat, just the ways of “finance capital”, and you won’t get letters like his in the Daily Mail. Pat did his BSc in economics at the LSE (that’s the London School of Economics, the proper LSE, not the London Stock Exchange to which even this newspaper keeps awarding the acronym) in the afternoons after morning training at the university of life that was Coldblow Lane. His teammates, meanwhile, went on to the betting shop. The Football League paid the fees, an offer open to all pros at the time. Pat has no recollection of others taking it up. For those familiar with his name, he was pursuing his next career in teaching while Liam, his younger brother of 20 years, was coming on well as a footballing mind at Highbury, Juventus and Ascoli.

I was up in the West Stand with a commanding view of that Pires ‘penalty’ last week against Manchester City; the one that moved four inches and that many were unable to detect with the naked eye. The first big match I saw at Highbury in 1958 was against Manchester City, so there was a symmetry to things; both had German goalkeepers, Jens Lehmann for Arsenal last week and Bert Trautmann for Manchester City 47 years ago; and I suspect Man City is also the last game I’ll see at Highbury. A friend gave me the ticket, in the mistaken belief he owed me for something. I think it cost about £50. It wasn’t worth it (i.e. the price he paid for it, not my taking up his generous offer), despite there being several actual and potential world class players on the pitch. The 1958 game had none, with the possible exception of Trautmann and his counterpart in the Arsenal goal, Jack Kelsey. So, why was it a better spectacle? Because I was only ten and easily impressed? Nostalgia and its deceitful ways with memory? That once the Saturday game was over there was nothing much left to enjoy of the weekend (Sunday School, Liberace?) so the match couldn’t fail to shine? The fact that Trautmann, a British national hero, waved and spoke to the applauding crowd as he came down to the Clock End for the five-minute kick-about just before the match began? Danny Clapton’s first goal, blasted past him soon after from the right-hand edge of the six-year area? Kelsey’s command of the cross? Don’t know, but I’m grateful for Thierry Henry and Pires screwing up that penalty, because it was a small piece of history and the high point of the match.

peter.chapman@ft.com

More from this columnist

Dear Sir,

As a former £14 a week ‘semi-educated’ Millwall footballer allow me to comment on the Fifa president’s inadequate analysis of the modern game (Greed threatens the modern game Oct 12).

What he terms ‘insane wages’ are nothing of the kind. They are a product of the combination of a shortage of talent and a surplus of capital. What economists call economic rent.

The surplus of capital is due to the fact that in its declining phase capitalism adopts the form of finance capital reluctant to undertake productive investment due to slow turnover and organised labour. Instead it seeks out short term investments in unproductive activities. Football because it is the beautiful game with billions of fans and its connection with television and advertising is the ideal host for capital to feed off.

There is nothing haphazard about it. The reason why the English game generates revenues in excess of any other is that finance capital is logically most advanced in the oldest industrial country.

Patrick Brady

Kent

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