Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Into the Archives

Yesterday I spent a few hours with one of my PhD supervisors in the Sir Michael Cobham library at Bournemouth University, rootling through the ITA/ITV archive. I've been through newspaper archives before, searching through microfiches as part of my research into Lindy Delapenha's time at Portsmouth Football Club. This however was a new experience for me, being deluged with files and folders, and a series of paper trails dating back some 60 years or so. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect but, at the risk of confirming my status as a sports history geek, I found the whole thing rather exciting. 

Previously held by Ofcom, the archive is the most detailed record of ITV's - and, to a lesser extent, Channel 4's - history as you will find, The archive catalogue contains more than 21,000 entries, with each of these folders containing a myriad of documentation: meeting minutes, scribbled memos, letters, reports, viewing figures, internal correspondence and press clippings. About a third of the collection is kept on site, housed in grey stacks that, once upon a time, might have been opened by turning a giant wheel at the end of each row, but are now accessed through a magnetic fob and electronic keycode. 

The size of the archive is, if you'll excuse the lack of academic formality for a second, fucking massive - especially in the eyes of someone who has only just gone through the research yips. We chose just 15 of the most obviously relevant folders and barely scratched the surface in five hours of reading and discussion. Oddly, perhaps, this wasn't the most striking feature of the archive. That honour falls to the content itself, which was, ahem, variable in quality. At points I found myself reading between the lines of a behind-the-scenes power struggle, at others I was bogged down in the minutiae of management and bureaucracy. 

For the first fifteen minutes I read through an interminable exchange of letters from 1955, most of which were sent by Lord Aberdare of Duffryn, in which he and various other IMPORTANT people attempted to organise a meeting of the Sports Advisory Committee. Eventually they decided on dining at the Park Lane Hotel, although the top table were expected to foot the bill of a loss-leader event designed to curry favour with the assorted guests. Sadly no one had thought to include the set menu in the archives.

At best, though, the information in these folders was absolutely fascinating. Tedium was the exception rather than the rule. There were three areas in particular that stood out. First was the attempts by the ITA to formulate a policy around sports programming in the mid-1950s. Despite the efforts of Aberdare and co, the files include as many apologies for a lack of progress as they do ideas for moving things forward. Meetings were sporadic; a list of possible sports to cover and governing bodies to be approached was drafted. In much the same way as Bernard Sendall would characterise ITV's early sports programming, the whole discussion felt "sparse, random and sometimes amateurish".

The second thing that caught my eye was 'the wrestling', or, more specifically, the audience reaction to the coverage of British professional wrestling in the 1960s. Amidst the selection of wrestler profiles and contract negotiations were a wonderful selection of letters sent by viewers either aggrieved or outraged by the results and presentation of the wrestling. In these post-kayfabe days it's not uncommon to see marks angry at the bookings, but these letters were noticeable for their unknowing innocence as their Mary Whitehouse-style righteous indignation. One correspondent couldn't understand why matches were repeated over and over again. Another, quite wonderfully, wrote in to say that his daughter had turned on the television and accidentally caught a bout. The horror! The horror, I tells ya! Grapple fans, trust me when I say these letters deserve, and will receive, a post all of their own.

Lastly, and most importantly, was a file from the late 1960s discussing the future of ITV's Saturday afternoon sports magazine show World of Sport. The network had long struggled to match the resources and experience behind the BBC's sports coverage. In no small part this was because of the federal structure of ITV, in which each regional franchise would create or procure programming. Eventually ITV would form a centralised sports department but this did little to ameliorate the tensions between various companies, at least in the short term. This political struggle was played out through the plans for World of Sport. Should it be changed or scrapped altogether? Should ITV bother with live sport at all? In the end, of course, the programme would continue for another 20 years. But in that moment it was touch and go.

The archive experience was fascinating and a string of article ideas have come out of this first visit. Over the next few weeks I'd like to try and write:
  • Keeping it Kayfabe - audience reaction to ITV's wrestling coverage
  • The Politics of the 1954 TV Act
  • ITV's Programming and Accusations of Americanisation
  • Won't Someone Think of the Children? - 1950s TV Advertising 
  • Federalism vs Centralisation: The World of Sport Debate
Will I get all of these done by the end of January? Possibly, although I'm likely to lose the next fortnight to a festive, Bailey's induced, stupor. But it's not a bad plan. Happy Christmas one and all!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Research: Novelty, Process and Panic

It’s been two months since I started my PhD. Two months of living a loop of reading and note-taking, reading and note-taking, reading and note-taking. As it stands I have a document containing some 10,000 words of thoughts, asides, quotes, references, possible leads and half-written sentences. One line simply reads “The”. I’ve drawn on scores of secondary sources – and read (and discarded) a whole lot more – ruining five highlighter pens in the process. I’ve raided libraries at three separate universities, talked to half a dozen academics, and googled every possible variation of the words ‘sport’, ‘independent television’, ‘ITV’ and ‘Channel 4’.

I’m not at all sure what I expected from this initial period, but at the start of the month I found myself in a state of mild panic and confusion. I said I would get back in the habit of writing. I haven’t. I've written nothing of substance. What should I have done by now? Am I on the right track? Should research really make me feel so much self doubt?

The irony is that I should have seen this coming. Research isn’t entirely new to me, and, more pertinently, I’m now in my fourth year of supervising undergraduate dissertations. In pre-Christmas supervision sessions students regularly explain how intimidated they feel by the sheer volume of things there are to read/know/explore/analyse on their subject. They’re worried about not making headway. They’re concerned that, no matter how much work has been done, they don’t even feel like they’ve started. Don’t worry, I say, it’s natural to feel this way. Keep reading. Keep taking notes. Try to write, even a little, as often as you can. It seems supervision, much like my parenting style, is a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

I carried a disconcerted air into my own supervision session. When my supervisors asked how my research was going I was stumped. It was a simple question I found almost impossible to answer. I ummed and ahhed in a five minute, rambling response that seemed to carry on for hours. Every sentence started with something along the lines of “I’m trying to get a handle on…” or “I’m just starting to get to grips with…” Knowledge disappeared, the ability to talk in coherent sentences dribbled away, I forgot what I had read. By the end I was embarrassed. Everything I had done for two whole months appeared as a giant amorphous research blob. Don’t worry, they said, it’s natural to feel this way.

And it’s true. Identifying what is known and what is not – that is to say, reviewing the literature – is an integral part of the research process. Almost certainly there is a novelty to investigating a topic in such depth, even when you think you know it well. There are new writers, new theories, new facts to consider, and digesting it all takes time. Sometimes you read something that opens up a new avenue of research, sometimes you’re led down a cul-de-sac. The research process can be, in turn, enlightening and frustrating. At worst, it can feel as though you’re treading water and each day that passes without writing something – anything – can feel like failure. Yet, whether you are digging down into the archives or conducting a series of interviews, your primary research will build on everything you are doing here and now.

Sometimes you’re not always in the best position to judge how your own work is coming along so my supervision session gave me some much needed perspective. As with plenty of other students, I still wish I was further along and had written more. But this is a feeling of frustration rather than panic or anxiety. The process is moving forward. I now realise that I need to prep for supervision sessions, to know what I want out of them. I’m now in a position to write pieces on particular themes/events and have two (possibly three) planned for the next month or so. In doing so I’m structuring my own thoughts and those 10,000 words. The panic was understandable, but part and parcel of the research process.

So, how is the research going? Better than I thought.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sport on Commercial Television: 1955-1992

Below is the successful application I submitted for the De Montfort PhD scholarship on ‘Sport and Commercial Television, 1955-1992’. It is posted here in the hope that it might, in some way, aid my research over the next three years…

In the book ITV Cultures, Johnson and Turnock lament the fact that “ITV has often been marginalized or neglected in histories of broadcasting in Britain” (2005:1). One might argue that this is especially true of sports broadcasting on independent television which, while not entirely absent, certainly appears to place a distant second in comparison with the BBC.

Nor does sports programming feature extensively in the histories of commercial television that do exist; for instance, the subject does not feature in the index of ITV Cultures. Elsewhere the early coverage of sport by independent television has been derided as “sparse, random, and sometimes amateurish” (Sendall, 1982:324).

When discussion of sport on commercial television does appear, the narrative is usually framed by reference to sport on the BBC (Crisell, 1997; Chandler, 2004). Such an outcome might be considered inevitable given the BBC’s established (and, perhaps, establishment) position. From its inception the existence of Independent Television – indeed, its very name – has been defined by its relationship to the BBC. By the time independent television first appeared in 1955 the BBC was already “consolidated in the field” having “developed expertise, equipment, contracts and contracts” (Whannel, 1992:45).

Peter Dimmock, BBC’s head of outside broadcasts in the early 1950s, recognised that the new ITV network could pose a serious threat to the BBC and that sport coverage would be an invaluable weapon. This foresight, coupled with innovations in technology and format, and their connections to sports administration (Collins, 2013:116), provided the platform from which the BBC has built its reputation as a sports broadcaster able to “tap into the national psyche in a way ITV could not.” (Holt and Mason, 2000:103)

Sports programming on ITV and Channel 4 is too important to be relegated to the position of adjunct in the story of another broadcaster, even if it would be impossible to construct a history of sport on commercial television without mention of the BBC. A number of works have attempted to overcome this problem while examining specific issues or historical moments: the rivalry between ITV and BBC (Whannel, 1992:67-86); the 1966 World Cup (Chisari, 2004); and the attempts to introduce American football to a British audience (Maguire, 2011). As important as these works are they paint only a partial picture. The history of sport on commercial television has yet to be written.


Given the scope and scale of an inquiry into sport on commercial television from 1955-1992, it is imperative to structure the research effectively. It is possible to divide the evolution of sport on commercial television into four distinct periods, the beginning of each being marked by significant moments of public policy intervention in the sphere of television broadcasting: the Television Act (1954); the Pilkington Report (1962); the report of the Annan Committee (1977); and the Peacock Committee (1986)

Constructing distinct phases around public policy is advantageous in two ways. Firstly it allows us to clearly identify the nature of commercial broadcasters who, although independent from the BBC and reliant on advertisers for revenue, remain dependent on the government for both its licence and remit. As such independent television broadcasters such as ITV occupy a “hybrid position as a ‘commercial public service broadcaster’” (Johnson & Turnock, 2005:3)

Such periodisation would also allow us to examine the production of televised sport as a social process conditioned by wider political, economic and cultural factors. It allows us to chart the chains of interdependence between government, broadcaster, sports’ governing bodies, advertisers and sponsors, and audience. Furthermore, we are able to identify how these relationships have in turn been shaped by power, status, finance, class and gender.

The TV Act (1954): The economic boom of the post-war period underpinned the rapid expansion of television ownership. Although the majority of the population in the UK would not own a television set until 1960 (Szymanski, 2011:113), demand was outstripping supply by the early 1950s (Haynes, 1998:218) and the “significance of sport for this phenomenal rate of penetration should not be underestimated” (Goldlust. 1988:8).

ITV launched in 1955, comprised of six franchises spread over three geographical areas. Sports broadcasting did not appear high on its agenda. In part this reflected the dominant position of the BBC, but it also reflected the problems inherent in the network’s composition which left it at a disadvantage (Crisell, 2002:127) compared with its competitor. Its regional structure made it almost impossible to secure the type of national broadcast deals required to televise sports, and this fragmentation mitigated the economies of scale available to the BBC. With no centralised policy, sports programming featured sporadically and those “first ITV companies to introduce sport into their schedules faced an upward struggle” (Boyle & Haynes, 2009:39).

The Pilkington Report (1962): The Pilkington Report was critical of ITV’s sports coverage in its early years of broadcasting. Even then ITV seemed slow to respond. Its coverage of the 1966 World Cup paled in comparison with the BBC. ITV offered half the output of their rival (26 hours compared to 55 hours on the BBC) and, where matches were televised on both channels simultaneously, drew a fraction of the available audience (Chisari, 2004).

It was not until 1967 that ITV created a department dedicated to the production of sports programming. This period seems to signal a marked increase in confidence for ITV sport. They jostle for position in the sports broadcasting marketplace with the BBC and attain a certain level of parity. For example the rights to show highlights of football league matches are shared through the 1970s as ITV and BBC operate what has been variously described as a “bilateral monopoly” (Buraimo et al, 2010:462) or “informal cartel” (Dobson & Goddard, 2004:81). The upwards trajectory was not without its setbacks and contradictions. ITV dabbled somewhat farcically with coverage of cricket’s Gillette Cup (Holt & Mason, 2000:109) and provided only minimal coverage of the Olympics in 1976 (Whannel, 1984:31).

The Annan Report (1977): In many ways Channel 4, which began broadcasting in 1982, opened up “new vistas for sports broadcasting” in the UK (Boyle & Haynes, 2009:41). The broadcasting of minority sports on ITV had been the result of experimentation and necessity. Channel 4 were proud to position themselves as niche and it fitted their “minority and controversial” identity (Ranelagh, 1998:56). Coverage that eschewed the “traditional form” (Maguire, 2011a:951) only added to this image.

It would be fair to see these developments as part of the wider trends of globalisation and Americanisation (Maguire, 2011b:969). Channel 4’s weekly magazine package Trans World Sport offered highlights of such diverse sports as sumo wrestling from Japan, Australian rules football, and kabaddi from India; both Gridiron and basketball were ‘traditionally American’ sports, even if coverage of the latter was from a British league. Yet it is important to point out that neither trend originated with Channel 4. The globalisation of sports broadcasting can be traced back to at least the European Broadcasting Union, while concern over American influence on independent television was apparent from the very beginning of ITV (Hill, 2002:105).

The Peacock Committee (1986): There is a certain historical irony in the fact that the Peacock Committee should open the door to satellite and cable television during the period in which ITV was beginning to establish a degree of dominance in the field of sports broadcasting. The BBC still held the rights to broadcast England’s home test matches and key domestic and international fixtures in both codes of rugby. Moreover its coverage of sport global mega-events helped the corporation retain a belief in its production quality.

In this period ITV “began to evolve the strategy of opting out of some major event coverage, whilst securing others exclusively” (Whannel, 1992:51). It had secured a range of contracts in key sports, notably boxing, athletics and, most importantly, football. For the first time in its history the network could claim with some justification, “If it’s live and exclusive it must be ITV sport!” The shift from tacit cooperation to outright competition was not without its consequences. Sports administrators realised the value and potential profitability of their ‘product’. The market in which ITV had fought so hard to establish itself was revolutionising, and market forces would usher in a new era of sports broadcasting.


The nature of this project allows for a mixed-methodological approach. Although the research would rely heavily on archive material there is a potential to incorporate quantitative data, a wealth of secondary source material and, perhaps most interestingly, a series of interviews with key figures involved in commercial broadcasting from (the latter part) of the period 1955-92.[1]

Any attempt to research the history of sport on commercial television is, however, confronted with the specific methodological problems posed by the regional structure of ITV. With the network divided into 15 regional franchises – and, in turn, three of these sub-divided between weekday and weekend programming – the paper records of the various franchisees have never been collected in a single location. In addition, a number of companies that ran regional ITV franchises no longer exist and/or have been subsumed within other companies, resulting in a “relative lack of access to archival material” (Johnson & Turnock, 2005:4). A number of major archives do exist and the following would form the first steps in research: 
  • ·        The ITV archives held at Bournemouth University
  • ·        The papers held at the British Film Institute in their Special Collections
  • ·        The regulator Ofcom holds some paper records for its predecessor organisations
  • ·        The Independent Television Commission Archive Papers (1954-65) held at Edinburgh University Library
  • ·        The archive material available through the Royal Television Society
  • ·        BBC Written Archive Centre

The availability of complete back issues of the TV Times, both online and through the painstaking digitisation undertaken by the AHRB, would also be interesting source material. First published in 1955 these magazines would provide valuable quantitative data in terms of which sports were broadcast (and how often), as well as highlighting regional differences and the overall priority accorded to sports programming. Similarly the figures available from the Television Audience Measurement and Audits of Great Britain organisations can contribute important data regarding the popularity of sports programming on the competing television channels. Newspaper archives would also be useful, as would the innumerable papers, memoirs, autobiographies, and letters left behind by key figures in independent television. Finally it might be possible to conduct interviews with some of those who had roles in the production of sport for commercial television.

Boyle, R., & Haynes, R. (2009) Power Play: Sport, The Media and Popular Culture, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh

Babatunde Buraimo, Juan Luis Paramio & Carlos Campos (2010) “The Impact of Televised Football on Stadium Attendances in English and Spanish League Football”, Soccer & Society, 11:4, pp461-474

Chandler, J. (2004) “The TV and Sports Industries” in Rowe, D. (ed.) Critical Readings: Sport, Culture and the Media, Open University Press: Maidenhead, pp48-69

Chisari, F. (2004) “‘Shouting Housewives!’ The 1966 World Cup and British Television” in Sport in History, 24:1, pp94-108

Collins, T. (2013) Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History, Routledge: London

Dobson, S. & Goddard, J. (2004) The Economics of Football, University of Cambridge Press:

Crisell, A. (2002) An Introductory History of British Broadcasting (2nd addition), Routledge: London

Ellis, J. (2005) “Importance, Significance, Cost and Value” in Johnson, C. & Turnock, R., (eds.) ITV Cultures: Independent Television over Fifty Years, Open University Press: Maidenhead

Goldlust, J. (1988) Playing for Keeps, Longman Cheshire: Melbourne

Haynes, R. (1998) “A pageant of sound and vision: football's relationship with television, 1936–60” in The International Journal of the History of Sport, 15:1, 211-226

Hill, J. (2002) Sport, Leisure & Culture in Twentieth-Century Britain, Palgrave: London

Holt, R. (1989) Sport and the British: A Modern History, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Holt, R. & Mason, T., (2000) Sport in Britain: 1945-2000, Blackwell Publishers: Oxford

Kennedy, E. & Hills, L., (2009) Sport, Media and Society, Berg: Oxford

Kelner, M. (2012) Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV, Bloomsbury: London

Joseph A. Maguire (2011a) The consumption of American football in British society: networks of interdependencies, Sport in Society, 14:7-8, 950-964

Maguire, J.A. (2011b) The global media sports complex: key issues and concerns, Sport in Society, 14:7-8, 965-977

Johnson, C. & Turnock, R., (eds.) (2005) ITV Cultures: Independent Television over Fifty Years, Open University Press: Maidenhead

Ranelagh, J. (1998) “Channel 4: A View from Within” in Contemporary British History, 12:4, 53-59
Sendall, B. (1982) Independent Television in Britain, Vol 1: Origin and Foundation 1946-62, Macmillan Press Ltd: Basingstoke

Szymanski, S. (2011) “Jeux avec Forntieres: Television Markets and European Sport” in Tomlinson, A., Young, C. & Holt, R. (eds) Sport and the Transformation of Modern Europe: States, Media and Markets 1950-2010, Routledge: London, pp113-127

Whannel, G. (1984) “The Television Spectacular” in Tomlinson, A., & Whannel, G. (eds.) Five Ring Circus: Money, Power and Politics at the Olympic Games, Pluto Press: London

Whannel, G. (1992) Fields in Vision: Television Sport and Cultural Transformation, Routledge: London

[1] Although not an academic text, Martin Kelner’s book Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV (2012) is notable for its combination for archival references and quotations and observations drawn from interviews.

On Writing, Not Writing (and writing again)

I started this blog four and a half years ago. Time flies, eh? Over that time I hope I’ve produced a number of worthwhile, interesting and (perhaps, even) important pieces of writing. I’m delighted that so many people have visited the site, although my stats hardly set the internet ablaze. This is not surprising – a Marxist writing about sport is hardly going to draw the numbers of a page dedicated to porn or cat memes. Yet over the last couple of years I have been writing less and less. Indeed, my output over that time has slipped to such a degree that there are now rumours Theresa May is going to lay me off and sell the site to a Chinese consortium. So what do I do with the blog now?

There was never anything as pathetically managerial as a mission statement but the blog’s premise was simple enough: the intersection of sport and politics was something worth exploring. This in itself was nothing new – others have been doing something similar for a good long while. Still, I felt that I had something to say, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what that was. “How do I know what I think,” asked E.M. Forster, “until I see what I say?”

This personal desire to write was also coupled to a definite political angle. I passionately believe that those of us on the left should have something to say about sport. Millions of working class people play and watch sport so we should be able to offer more than a lazy critique denouncing playful competition as a mirror image of the workings of capitalism. While I’m not arguing for socialists to have a line on half-and-half scarves (they’re wrong) we should, at least, have something to say about sporting issues.

More than that I wanted to produce intelligent and accessible writing about sport. The criticism of Marxism as largely unintelligible to the ‘ordinary’ worker is, like most bullshit, a lie built around a kernel of truth. The left does, at times, feel as though it is speaking to itself with in-house technical jargon and references to long-forgotten texts – but this is nowhere near as bad as one might believe. This blog was an attempt to connect with the sports fan that reads. I am most proud of the fact that this blog has been an open space for anyone on the left to post their thoughts on sport.

Yet I have always found writing incredibly hard. Even the most basic pieces seem to consume an inordinate amount of time and leave me emotionally drained. The available space required to write – both mentally and physically – has diminished. Unable to respond quickly to the big story of the day, and without the headspace required for longer pieces, the blog has dwindled to dormant. Somewhat ironically, given that my impact on ‘the left’ has been just the low side of negligible, the blog had an enormous, unexpected, impact on my life and career. Enough people read my work that I was asked to contribute to books, journals, magazines and a variety of websites. This in turn led to a job teaching the history and sociology of sport at a university in London. Oddly this impacted upon my writing.

Reading and writing are now a means to an end, directed to the production of lectures and slideshows. Add to this the usual slings and arrows, and the birth of my daughter, and one begins to understand why I haven’t blogged since the death of Johann Cruyff. Life, I guess, is what happens when you’re busy making blogging plans.  On the plus-side I now have a skill-set that includes the ability to knock-up a PowerPoint presentation on the train and change a nappy on a park bench.

The less I wrote, the less I found myself wanting to write; the less I wanted to write, the more I doubted my ability to write. This has to change. I find myself wanting to write again. More importantly, I need to write again. Soon I start a PhD with De Montfort University, researching the history of sport on commercial television. Writing regularly is required. Rather than leave this blog dormant there is a change of direction. Instead of starting a new blog, Inside Left will be home to my research and thoughts on that process. While this doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll only post PhD related content, it stands to reason that there will be less in the way of current affairs and politics. And there’ll probably be fewer jokes, which, on reflection, is probably a good thing. Think of it as a strategic repositioning in the climate of post-Brexit uncertainty. Or something.

Apologies, then, for a self-indulgent, self-absorbed posting, though I hope it serves its function. Twenty years ago I asked the jockey-turned-novelist, Dick Francis, for the one tip he would pass on to every aspiring writer. “Know your subject,” he replied. Currently I know more about the frustrations of not writing – and how daunting it is to write again – than anything else. Purpose and habit have to be renewed. As another sportsman, who, like Francis, saw an inexplicable slip clutch defeat from the jaws of victory, once said, “We go again.”

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Revolutionary Johan Cruyff

It seems to me that the number of sporting revolutionaries is greatly over-estimated. They are, for instance, far less common than actual revolutions, those explosions of tumult and rebellion that challenge old orders and political regimes. Yet sporting revolutionaries do exist. And Johan Cruyff, who died last week from lung cancer at the age of 68, should certainly be counted amongst their number.  As Richard Williams notes in his piece on the Dutchman, “football has never quite had a revolutionary quite like Johan Cruyff”.

It is not difficult to see why Cruyff deserved such an accolade. His athleticism, his ability to glide past opponents, and, above all else, his grace were unique. Cruyff was the star name in the unfathomably talented Ajax side of the late 1960s and early 1970s that won six Eredivisie titles in eight seasons and swept to three consecutive European Cups. Rinus Michels may claim to have masterminded Total Football but it was Cruyff who proved to be its charismatic figurehead. 

Total Football was a style of play built upon technical excellence, fluidity and positional interchangeability; Cruyff was the brightest of its creative sparks, its theorist and conductor. As David Winner explains in the wonderful book, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football: “His vision of perfect movement and harmony on the field was rooted in the same sublime ordering of space that one sees in the pictures of Vermeer or church painter Pieter Jansz Saenredam. It was the music of the spheres on grass." 

The way Ajax played was new but it represented more than just a tactical revolution. Winner again: “Total Football was profoundly imbued with democratic impulses. It prided itself on being the most cosmopolitan, creative conception of the game; a perfect balance between collective responsibility, equality and individualism, a system that allowed every player to excel and express himself.” While Cruyff would welcome those “democratic impulses” on the pitch, they did not always sit well with him off it. When in 1973 the Ajax players elected Piet Keizer club captain, a disgruntled Cruyff decided his time in Amsterdam had come to an end. Within three weeks he had moved to Barcelona.

As with so many revolutionaries, the enduring romance of Cruyff’s story is not his success but, rather, his glorious failure. By 1974 totaalvoetbal was to become the national style of play. The Netherlands, comprising a core of Ajax players, reunited Michels and Cruyff. Their footballing superiority and attacking abandon endeared them to fans the world over, and made them the neutral’s choice for the final against West Germany. More than this they, and Cruyff in particular, oozed cool. That they should play so well and still lose merely cemented their legendary status.

Yet the appeal of Johan Cruyff went far beyond the pitch. He was the rarest of creatures: a footballer you actually wanted to hear talk. As a manager he combined style and success. As a much sought after pundit he would skewer the fad for defensive football, attack the game’s preoccupation with statistics, and was lambasting Louis Van Gaal long before disgruntled punters in the Stretford End took up the cudgel. Equally he never seemed short of opinions on politics, religion or life. Did Cruyff have a political philosophy to match his footballing philosophy? It’s difficult to tell. Trying to fathom Cruyff’s political outlook is a bit like trying to unpick the Gordian knot whilst wearing mittens. Perhaps Cruyff didn’t know himself; perhaps he never wanted us to know. One cannot help but be reminded of Cruyff’s response to a journalist’s persistent line of questioning during a press conference: “If I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better.”

There has always been the temptation to view Cruyff through the prism of Dutch stereotypes: the artist, the Dutch master, the synthesis of Orange inclination to arrogance and contrarianism. Such appeals to national characteristics always strike me as decidedly trite. Those traits we most associated with Cruyff – his outspokenness, originality and self-belief – might similarly be used to describe Bill Shankly and Brian Clough, products of the Scottish and English working class respectively. Each made their name prior to the point media coaching became part and parcel of one’s football training. This is not to say, however, that Cruyff was not a product of his time.

While it may be more accurate to say that Johan Cruyff the man was ‘progressive’ rather than ‘revolutionary’, one can detect the vestigial traces of Amsterdam’s mid-1960s radicalism. From the moment, as a brash teenager with long hair, he refused to wear anything other than the number 14 shirt, Cruyff captured the era’s anti-establishment, counter-cultural air. When Cruyff’s wife Danny gave birth in 1974 they named their child Jordi in what was widely interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the people of Catalonia. His decision not to participate in the 1978 World Cup because it was being staged in Argentina, then under a brutal military dictatorship, was another example of a man unwilling to negotiate away his principles. “How can you play soccer,” asked Cruyff, “a thousand metres from a torture centre?” And he carried that anti-authoritarianism throughout his life – as witnessed by his numerous spats with the hierarchies of Ajax and Barcelona. Certainly he was indulged and insulated, courtesy of his wealth and reputation, but Cruyff seemed like a man who would never shy away from controversy, always on the lookout for the next conflict.

By virtue of his prodigious footballing skills, the sheer force of his personality, and his bouts of outrageous egotism, Cruyff could simultaneously forge a team around him, and, as an “explicit elitist”, supersede it. He was both the key figure in Total Football – the beautiful apotheosis of teamwork – and the man after whom the Cruyff turn was named, a piece of skill often copied but rarely mastered. This is no coincidence. At a time when society had yet to decisively determine which should come to dominate, he epitomised the glorious tension between the collective and the individual.

Monday, January 4, 2016

New Year Blues

So, that was Christmas. And what have I done? Another year over and this one has, apparently, just begun. Well, to answer your question, not only have I recycled some lyrics to baulk out a blog post, I’ve also saved a little good cheer to open 2016.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been researching and writing about Lindy Delapenha, Portsmouth Football Club’s first black player. Pompey fans might be interested to know that two recent publications carry pieces on Delapenha. First up is Neil Allen’s excellent Played Up Pompey, a beautiful book containing a whole number of interviews with some of the most loved and iconic figures from Pompey’s past. I presume it is available from the normal selection of online retailers, but if you live locally, and you’d prefer not to give your hard-earned cash to the tax-dodging bastards at Amazon, then you can pop into Waterstones in Commercial Road where there’s a whole display dedicated to the book.

Secondly, the lovely folks over at Soccer History have published a piece I’ve written charting Delapenha’s time on the south coast. Some of the article will be familiar to those of you who have read my posts elsewhere on the blog (for example here, here and here), but there’s some new stuff as well – not least some consideration as to why Delapenha faced relatively little racist abuse when in Portsmouth between 1948-50.

And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite Soccer History is chock full of other fascinating pieces, including Fulham FC during the First World War and the rise and fall of women’s football in Bradford at the start of the twentieth century. And all for the princely sum of £5.