Saturday, May 11, 2013

Talk About The Past


(Book reviews, part one - Mike Jay and Ian Haddrell "Geoff Bradford: Bristol Rovers Legend": Edward Giles "Bristol Rovers: The Bert Tann Era": Keith Dewhurst "Underdogs")
Music is boring, isn't it ? Books, on the other hand, are the new crack, apparently. So it's fine - and not in any way a craven acceptance of the crushing triumph of capitalism over education - for Waterstones (formerly Waterstone's, but apparently that apostrophe was so difficult) et al to fill their window displays with authors of the calibre of Katie Price, Pippa Middleton or A.N. Other Bloke Off The Telly, because as soon as someone buys said volume it becomes a "gateway" drug leading to a lifelong addiction to the wonderful wider world of literature, and within days they'll be insatiably glugging down Proust and Baudelaire in the original French. Such classical delicacies are way beyond us at this hour, mind, so for this post we'll stick to non-fiction.
While wilfully refusing to review any records (UKIP-defying Euro-techno aside), we were reading Mike Jay and Ian Haddrell's biography of Geoff Bradford. Mr Bradford, for those of you who may somehow be unfamiliar with the post-war playing roster of Bristol Rovers, was an old-fashioned centre-forward, a remarkable striking talent.
Just to be clear: this is a man who played for England. While at Bristol Rovers. Unsurprisingly, nobody else has ever done that. Bristol-born Geoff bothered the Denmark net, too, in that one England match in 1955, leaving his all-time international goalscoring record to stand for the rest of eternity at a fairly impressive one goal per game. And this wasn't at a time when England had the thin pickings striker-wise that we've since become accustomed to: Geoff took his bow in a five-man forward line alongside Jackie Milburn, Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse and Don Revie. Now *that*, in the words of the Pastels, is a classic line-up (plus, as Geoff would find to his cost, there was a fresh-faced youngster called Johnny Haynes coming up on the rails). (Despite not having been alive while it existed, we desperately *miss* 2-3-5, even to the extent that our all-time Rovers XI - of players we've actually seen - lines up roughly thus: Parkin; Tillson (c), Yates; Astafjevs, Maugé, Skinner; Stewart, Lambert, White, Roberts, Hayles).
The book recounts a strangely topical yarn, too. By the start of the 1960s, Geoff had already proved a great servant to the club (making his début in 1949, he was to spend his whole fifteen-year playing career with the Rovers). However, he then found himself shunned by the dressing room because he didn't agree with the younger players, who were agitating for removal of the footballers' maximum wage (this was at the time that Jimmy Hill was leading the PFA into battle on the subject). Geoff didn't, it seems, object to increasing the wage cap, but he did have the foresight to know the endgame of abolition: that one day, players would be overpaid rather than underpaid, the payer of the piper would call the tune, and all bets (pun intended) would be off as to the integrity of the game (yes, it is a game, and bobbins to all those overgrown children, bred on Sky and "EPL" hype, who tell you it's a just "business" now, usually as a way of justifying the latest atrocious free market assault on this once-great sport).
Geoff's loyalty to Rovers (and, some might say, his resolutely old-fashioned nature) was epitomised in 1961, when Bill Shankly came calling, but Geoff decided to stay in Bristol rather than decamp to Anfield. After retiring, he would spend the rest of his working days based in Avonmouth, driving a petrol tanker. And that wasn't even his first driving job: as the book recalls, even in his prime Geoff used to spend the close season driving a van around Bristol, selling lemonade.
So. As you know, we don't have much time for obsequious hero-worship or eulogy: Gang of Four's "Not Great Men" usually sets us straight on that. But as far as anyone can tell, Geoff Bradford really was a good guy, a fine footballer and a great ambassador for a sport that has now largely been ruined by cigar-chomping charlatans. He deserves this thorough and reverent biography.
* * * * *
"The Bert Tann Era" by Edward Giles deals with another Eastville legend. Londoner Bert Tann never played in the blue and white quarters: but he managed the side from 1950 to 1968 (and was on the club staff from 1948 until he died in 1972, aged only 58). This was a period of phenomenal strength for the Pirates which included, in January 1956, possibly their finest ever performance: the 4-0 FA Cup demolition of the Busby Babes, the same Manchester United team that was on its way to winning the Football League title that season (anyone remember the Football League ?) at an absolute *canter*. (And yes, a certain Geoff Bradford was on the scoresheet that day). Rovers, however, would miss out on promotion to the First Division at the end of the season by a mere four points, and it's generally thought to be no coincidence that Rovers, having been second in mid-April, fell away just at the point Bradford was out of the side through injury.
At the heart of Tann's reign was his "no buy, no sell" policy, the kind of thing that would make Harry Redknapp's head implode but that, aided by the minimum wage (a disincentive for players to jump ship and swim for better financial climes), helped many a club build well-knit squads of largely local talent. For those of us following Rovers in the last two decades, and witnessing the inevitable departures to higher planes of Marcus Stewart, Bobby Zamora, Jason Roberts, Scott Sinclair, Rickie Lambert, Junior Agogo, Nathan Ellington, Barry Hayles, Gareth Taylor, Jamie Cureton, Will Hoskins, Mustafa Carayol etc bloody etc, it's a salutary reminder of what could be achieved by such stability (accepting, of course, that it's a financial inevitability for clubs these days to succumb to the lure of the cheque book). The curtain came down on "no buy, no sell" of course when - despite Geoff Bradford's reservations - the maximum wage was eventually torpedoed. Indeed, only a year after Tann's death, another Bristolian Rovers recruit, Larry Lloyd, did what Geoff Bradford had not and joined up with Shankly at Liverpool, where he went on of course to achieve great success.
(A reverie: fast forward to 12th February, 2011. I am sitting in the stands at Orient, watching Dave Penney's Bristol Rovers side succumb to their fifth league defeat in 14 calendar days, a 4-1 spanking taking the total goals conceded over that fortnight to a fairly hefty nineteen. The Penney era lasted less than two months: in retrospect, the only surprise is the fact that included a whole 23 days after that Brisbane Road reverse. Bert, God rest his soul, would rightly have turned in his grave.)
Again, the book is full of insight. I hadn't realised, for example, that none other than Eddie Hapgood (who was he, you say ? Only much-admired 1930s captain of Arsenal and England, that's who) was another Bristolian, and one who was offered a contract by Rovers after turning out for the reserves. He rejected it, though. (Perhaps understandably, you won't find that on the blurb written in his name on the side of the Arsenal stadium at Ashburton Grove).
There are also reminders of the football authorities' diffidence to the fact that Rovers shared their stadium with a greyhound track, and the long-held view of the FA that gambling should have as little to do with football as possible. It's all rather touching, when set against your typical half-time commercial ad-break these days: betting firm advert, betting firm advert, Wonga advert, betting firm advert, repeat until skid row. The FA today are evidently - to use a Mandelsonism euphemism - "relaxed" about the gambling industry's continued encroachment on / annexation of the game.
* * * * *
But I know what you're thinking. Typical hipster blogger, going on about mid-20th century football. What about *real* football, decades before those johnny-come-latelys like Stan Matthews turned up with their fancy footwork and wizard dribbles ? What you want is something on the game in the true golden days, the nineteenth century, when men were men and a football weighed as much as a baby whale.
Try Keith Dewhurst's "Underdogs", then. It's ostensibly a book about Darwen FC's giantkilling run in the 1879 FA Cup. But of course it's about much more than that. It's impossible for a story about football not to be fascinating when it deals, so skilfully, with the era when the game was growing up, and crossing over from the public schools to the northern working towns. It's full of both interpersonal stories and intriguing details: how Darwen's ultimate nemeses, Old Etonians, could choose whether or not to play extra-time after a draw, and whether the replay should be in Lancashire or at the Kennington Oval (unsurprisingly, they opted for the latter). How even in those days, clubs could create journeymen professionals by tempting them from their home with promises of better-paid work (Darwen featured two talented Scotsmen, Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love, who in moving to the English mill town first laid the trail, perhaps, for the international mercenaries of today).
We would eagerly clutch more books on that era to our hearts. Maybe one about noble Upton Park, who withdrew from the FA Cup in protest when matched with a professional side. Or about the pioneering Clapham Rovers, who gave south London a rare taste of FA Cup glory in 1880. About the side Rovers conquered, Oxford University, claiming the prize six years before, something that feels rather more significant a sporting achievement than winning every other boat race. About the princely, peripatetic Wanderers, the first club team to dominate the trophy. About the great early rivalry of the two Blackburns, Rovers and Olympic. About Preston North End's unbeaten League and Cup double under the captaincy of Fred Dewhirst, one of the greatest ever England players (oh, the laughably-branded EBJT and his ilk would not be fit to tie Fred's outsized bootlaces). About the Black Arabs of Bristol who would eventually become the (not so mighty) Rovers of Bristol.
And "Underdogs" also, of course, acts as a stark reminder of how the FA, the most craven and supine organisation on the planet, now seemingly as spineless and as relevant as a trilobite, colluded in the watering-down of the FA Cup, what should still be the jewel in their crown, the world's first football competition. Since 1871/72, a season-long celebration of all the wonders and all the levels of the English game, culminating in a showpiece final. Its width and history are incomparable and, if tendered with the absolute minimum of competence and respect, no other competition would be capable of competing with it. Indeed, to mess up the FA Cup, to demean that legacy, requires rather more than mere incompetence. The trophy which bears their name rings with over 140 years of history: yet they bow down instead to the shrill call of modern marketing ephemera, of the ludicrous over-importance of those who actively pretend there was nothing before there was the Premership, or EPL, or whatever its acolytes call it these days.
Thankfully, these books are pertinent reminders that it wasn't always this way, and the joy that's still to be had when we learn about how things once were.

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