English Football and its “Get Stuck-In” Mentality

It was a glum group of players and supporters who filed out of Matlock Town’s Causeway Lane ground in 1982. Hyde United had lost 5-2 in the FA Trophy and it was going to be a long journey home through the Peak District night.

The damage had been done by the quicksilver Bob Mountain. The former Huddersfield Town striker was lethal that season, claiming 39 goals to finish as the Northern Premier League’s top scorer. He bagged another hatful in the cups — three of which came against Hyde that November afternoon.

Climbing up the steps on to the team bus, I turned to Colin Darcy and said: “I’m really sick we lost, but you’ve got to give it to Bob Mountain, he’s unbelievable.” Darce disagreed with a grimace and a shake of the head: “Why? All he did was score.”

Those dismissive comments may have been the knee-jerk reaction of a disappointed goalkeeper who had just conceded five goals and was not feeling well disposed to the man who had claimed a hat-trick. But in many ways Big Colin’s brief words encapsulate an attitude that has still holds fast today, and which could be said to be holding back the English game.

Even after almost 25 years of the Premier League with its highly-paid overseas players and managers, and for all the megabucks investment in academies and coaching, the average English — or indeed British — fan still tends to prize physical endeavour over silkiness. He, or she, just can’t help it.

As former Manchester City manager Joe Mercer once put it in the 1970s: supporters want to see a pint of sweat from each player. They value passion, commitment and intensity over measured and patient skill.

When it comes to the World Cup, we may admire a peerless Pirlo as the pivot on the park. In the Champions League we may applaud the Tiki-taka of Barcelona. But when it comes to our own side, on a Saturday afternoon, we want to see players getting stuck in. Only in Britain will a biting tackle win a round of applause every bit as loud as the one for a defence-splitting pass or a mazy dribble.

Defenders are regularly encouraged with shouts of “Let him know you’re there”. We may not recognise it about ourselves, but there’s still a feeling, however deep down, that overseas players are soft. It’s somehow part of the English football DNA.

Overseas tarts will rarely compare with our own terriers. The received wisdom is that before the foreign legion turned up there was no shirt-pulling, no waving of imaginary cards, no diving. Just a solid man’s game. A 100-percenter like Billy Bremner is still more likely to win the genuine affection of a British crowd that a “softy” like Ronaldo, no matter how talented he might be.

However much we talk about improving our game. However much we spend on doing so, that love of the physical can never be entirely eradicated, even when we see our own clubs outclassed by the Madrids, Barcelonas and Bayerns. We hold fast to the philosophy that a good big ’un will always beat a good little ’un. Maybe that’s why many of our greatest and most radical football thinkers have had to ply their trade abroad.

Take Jimmy Hogan, who has rightly been described as a prophet without honour in his own country.

Tommy Docherty and Ron Atkinson have both described the Burnley-born coach as the biggest influence on their career. Yet when Hogan died in 1974 he was unmourned by the English soccer establishment.

That’s because he did most of his work in Europe, where he is revered as a pioneer. His methods influenced the Hungary team which twice humbled England in the 1950s. Even though it was their choice to ignore his skills, many at the FA saw him as a traitor.

Like so many great coaches, Hogan was nothing special as a player. He began his career in The Netherlands, and then moved to Austria. When the First World War began he was interned but allowed to coach at MTK Budapest. He also worked in Switzerland, Germany and France.

Whereas English clubs put the emphasis on stamina, Hogan believed in ball mastery. He had no time for the belief that players should train without a ball during so that they would be hungrier for it on a Saturday.

Hogan was teaching what would become known as total football in the 1970s. The Europeans were eager to learn from him, but whenever he worked in Britain his ideas were met with indifference.

Helmut Schoen, who managed West Germany to World Cup success in 1974, called Hogan a shining example for the coaching profession. In 1953, Hungarian FA president Sandor Barcs said: “Jimmy taught us everything we know about football.”

After England’s double humiliation by the magical Magyars, the press urged the Football Association to use Hogan’s talents. The FA said he was too old at 71.

Perhaps Danny Blanchflower, captain of the double-winning Tottenham Hotspur team of 1961 best summed up the English psyche.

“No play, movie or TV programme, work of literature or music induces such a polarization of emotion on a weekly basis. We curse football for having this power. Conversely, it is football’s power to so readily and regularly corrupt emotions and senses that is the addictive and enduring appeal of the game. It’s an intangible power. It exists somewhere out in the ethers. It is the heart of the game.”

Even today, when Sky’s billions have ripped football from its working-class roots and thrown it to the prawn sandwich brigade, those words still ring true. Maybe you can’t love football too much, but perhaps you can love it the wrong way — at least in terms of prospering in the modern global game.

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