Football’s Real Golden Age?


James Hamilton, the Dabbler’s great sport-theory iconoclast and destroyer of accepted wisdoms, looks at some footballing ‘Golden Ages’…

I’ve been following football for thirty years – since the days of Ron Greenwood’s England – and one minor consequence of that is that a younger generation now accuse me of having lived through the Golden Age of Real Football, namely, the Seventies. Some would say I’ve lived through two – and I’d agree that the football of the mid-90s was exciting and that it was an optimistic period for the English game. But I’d take issue with both views, partly because I’ve seen ideas of what constituted the Good Old Days change again and again and distrust the concept altogether. 

If I had to make a choice, though, I’d pick from four main candidates. The Shankly/Revie/Busby/Clough era of 1964-1974, which saw success at both club and international level for both England and Scotland. The post-War boom years of 1946-1949, which saw the Matthews-Finney-Lawton England and packed league grounds. The Chapman/Buchan Years, 1920-1934, but in a way this is where the fourth choice comes in, because neither Chapman nor his lieutenant Charles Buchan would have agreed that the heights of their respective careers represented any sort of peak at all. 

In the period of Chapman and Buchan’s collaboration, there were three main strands of thought about the Great War. One, mostly forgotten now, saw the War and victory as a great vindication of Britishness and British ways, and this perhaps contributed to an increase in cultural conservatism as people sought to preserve what had proved itself in blood. There was the “classic” Owen-Sassoon ruling class betrayal view, in which traditional sources of authority had lost validity and influence. The third strand, in which Chapman and Buchan partook, saw the War as a great stunning: it had knocked things out of kilter, and before they could be restored, a new and rootless generation had taken a hold. 

Writing for the Sunday Express at the beginning of the 1930s, Chapman said: 

Football today lacks the personalities of twenty or thirty years ago. This, I think,is true of all games, and the reason for it is a fine psychological study. The life which we live is so different:the pace, the excitement, and the sensationalism which we crave are new factors which have had a disturbing influence. They have upset the old balance mentally as well as physically, and they have made football different to play as well as to watch. And they have set up new values. The change has, in fact,been so violent that I do not think the past, the players and the game, can fairly be compared with the present.

Of course, this isn’t “a fine psychological study” but some ill-thought-through lounge bar stuff from someone who become used to never being contradicted. Chapman’s Golden Age of Football was Edwardian, and centred around the great Newcastle United side of the era. Buchan would have disagreed only in detail – for him, the peak was the slower, more thoughtful, skilful passing game that characterised Newcastle before 1914, not Newcastle per se, although, far from blaming the young for putting things into reverse, Buchan’s analysis was actually quite subtle. 

Buchan acknowleged that the post-War audience probably demanded something like the faster, cruder football of the 1920s, but nevertheless he placed the real blame on two post-War developments. 

The first of these was the creation of Football League Division Three. Before the War, football had consisted of two elite professional divisions whose clubs hailed, for the most part, from the north, and a professional and semi-professional Southern League whose best members were a match for the great northern clubs. Beyond these was a thriving, rapidly evolving network of county and city leagues, mostly amateur, which represented the great bulk of all football played.  

To Buchan, this network of minor clubs and leagues was a supreme training ground for young men who might play for four or five clubs at various levels at any one time. This made it possible for the keen and dedicated to play almost daily, and doing so they would come up against every kind of opposition and build their skills, knowledge and experience. Think Outliers here, and Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule of mastery. By contrast, players contracted to Football League clubs would play only once or twice every week – or, if they were merely part of the huge squads clubs maintained in Maximum Wage days, barely at all.  

With League membership for the most important 40 non-League clubs came League registration for their players, and with that, the door closed to playing for multiple clubs, or for the same club but in a multitude of local competions. Buchan saw this as the cause of the degradation in skill he’d witnessed as the 1920s wore on.  

Buchan’s second culprit was the 1925 change in the offside rule, which led directly to something now considered traditional: the English long ball game. Overnight, the law change had made it unnecessary to think a way to goal – a punt up to a huge centre forward and his bulky, unsubtle colleagues, playing the percentages, was so much easier. Buchan’s own idea to combat this, the third back game, which he and Chapman introduced at Arsenal, went some way to offset this, at the cost of negativity.  

Chapman blamed the flappers, in other words : Buchan blamed the suits. This might in fact be the first really clear example of criticism being levelled at the men running the game in England, and I think it reflects something interesting, namely that the game was ageing and its administrators with it. In 1885, Lord Kinnaird, aged 38, and Major Marindin, aged 47, had masterminded the legalization of professionalism in football. Charles Clegg, who’d opposed the change, was 34. Charles Wreford-Brown, not involved at that stage, was 19. In 1918, when the FA met on the day after the armistice to plot the future of the game, of those present, Kinnaird – who’d lost two sons in the War – was 71, Charles Clegg was 67 and Charles Wreford-Brown 52. Football’s founders, but players no more. Old men. Die-hards. Traditionalists. Suits.

James Hamilton blogs at More Than Mind Games.
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20 thoughts on “Football’s Real Golden Age?

    James Hamilton
    August 24, 2011 at 10:51

    (I really should have said who Chapman and Buchan actually were, shouldn’t I? Herbert Chapman, 1878-1934, extraordinarily peripatetic footballer and then the first recognized modern football manager. As boss, won 3 League titles on the trot with Huddersfield Town in the 1920s; only death prevented him from seeing his Arsenal side replicate the feat in 1934. Probably financially corrupt.
    Charles Buchan, 1891-1960, footballer and later journalist of note. He featured in my post about the 1913 FA Cup Final in which he played for Sunderland. Mixed football with schoolteaching. A product of the Quintin Hogg-inspired Woolwich Polytechnic and so directly of the evangelical-reformer strand of football pioneers. Was subject of the then-record transfer fee when moving to Arsenal to join Chapman, and with Chapman, evolved the third-back tactic after the 1925 offside rule change. Went into journalism in retirement, founded Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, now much reproduced as a retro gift, and wrote one of the better early football memoirs (from a generally poor genre).

      August 24, 2011 at 13:21

      Thanks James!

    john halliwell
    August 24, 2011 at 14:24

    Thought- provoking and as insightful as ever.

    I take it that it goes without question that Chapman and Buchan, in their recognition that the Great War had knocked things out of kilter, acknowledged that the loss of experience and talent suffered on the battlefields of France and Belgium had proved a massive blow to the wider development of individual skill and of the passing game practiced by the pre-war Newcastle United? One can only surmise about the losses to post-war football from death and crippling injuries suffered on the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone.

    The 1901 film featured at the beginning of the post is, among other things, a reminder of the prevalence and prominence of outstanding Scottish footballers in the English game from that time until the 1990s. How sad it is to contemplate the current Scottish wasteland.

    Your reference to the period 1946-1949 certainly captures a truly golden generation of English footballers; contemplation of those names renders the 1950 loss to the USA totally incomprehensible. In a perverse sort of way, I believe a brief golden age of English football followed the excrutiatingly painful period 1953/54 when the Mighty Magyars made England look like footballing dinosaurs as Hidegkuti, Puskas and Kocsis destroyed them 6-3 at Wembley. England clearly learned little if anything from it, slaughtered 7-1 in Budapest within a year, still allowing Hidegkuti acres to ply his genius, and then the cracks papered-over by Wolves victory over Honved a few months later, and Walter Winterbottom probably saying to his masters at the FA something along the lines of: “There you go – I told you the Hungarians fluked it in 53/54.” And then, thankfully, the emergence of Busby’s uncompomising commitment to youth, the continental passing game allied to the great traditional strengths of power and commitment, and the utter refusal to be brow-beaten to stay out of European competition by that appallingly myopic little englander Alan Hardaker. I am perhaps biased, but the period 1955 to 1958 was a brief golden period and, but for Munich, Busby’s philosophy and example, if not his genius, may well have become more widespread across English football, with the golden time extended well into the sixties.

      James Hamilton
      August 24, 2011 at 15:59

      It would have been fascinating to put the ’57 England side built around Taylor, Edwards and co up against the Magical Magyars, John. I’ve done the stats, and it’s just as you say: England really got their act together after 1954, and but for the Munich Disaster the ’58 and ’62 World Cups might have told a very different story.

      I have the 6-3 game on DVD, and the gap between the teams is just shocking – 7-1 would have been a much fairer scoreline. It’s one of the worst England teams of all time – up there in the pantheon with Graham Taylor’s later lumbering picks – but Hungary’s class is absolutely unmissable. The real 1954 Champions – of course, plenty of people regard the Hungary-Uruguay semi as the “real” final anyway, don’t they?

      EA Sports’ FIFA2000 had a number of vintage teams you could play as or play against – in sepia, on the screen! which looked decidedly strange when superimposed on Brazil 1970 or Holland 1974. But the Magyars looked terrific, and would beat anything you put up against them..

      Chapman and Buchan had contrasting wars. Buchan was at most of the big battles – not Loos, if I remember rightly, but definitely the Somme and Paschendale. His autobiog boils all this down to about four lines. For once, this doesn’t seem to be a matter of drawing the veil on horrors: the war actually appears to have bored him thoroughly and he regards it as a nuisance keeping him from the more important business of sport. Chapman was a qualified, experienced mining engineer, and commerce/engineering almost tempted him away from the game for good on a number of occasions before Huddersfield came calling. He spent most of WW1 in production, but also, of course, involved in the financial corruption that saw Leeds City disbanded. We don’t know how deep in he was to the City shenanigans, because the evidence was destroyed at the time, but my guess, based on other aspects of his life, is that he was bent but teflon.

      I don’t know how directly either man attributed the actual fighting at WW1 to the changes in football – they just don’t say. Certainly and famously many great players died or were maimed, so although only 3 or 4 full seasons were lost, there must have been some overall drop in quality you’d have thought. At any rate, SOMETHING knocked the stuffing out of the game, because it changes from something vibrant, trendy, new and rapidly-developing into something conservative, reluctant to change, set in its ways etc. And that is down to 1914-18.

        john halliwell
        August 24, 2011 at 17:09

        Thanks for your response, James. It clarifies matters still further. Yes, I often wonder how that England team of ’55 onwards would have fared but for Munich. I remember watching the television broadcast of the 1956 Wembley game against Brazil, won 4-2 by England. I must have convinced my Mother that I was too ill to go to school or I bunked-off; I’m almost certain it was shown live. Anyway, England played some great stuff and missed two penalties. Three of Busby’s team played: Byrne, Edwards and Taylor, with the latter scoring twice. How long would it have been before Eddie Coleman and David Pegg joined them, with Bobby Charlton close behind? As you state, James, the ’58 and ’62 World Cups might have been very different. I think Charlton has expressed the view that if Duncan Edwards had lived he would probably have been England captain in 1966. It’s hard to believe he would have still been under 30.

    August 24, 2011 at 19:07

    Not being a sportist I’m afraid I can’t add much to this conversation except to say that I went to school with a chap called Wreford-Brown who I assume must be a descendant

  4. Gaw
    August 24, 2011 at 20:37

    Enjoying very much John and James – shaping up as the Saint and Greavsie of counterfactual football history.

    • Brit
      August 24, 2011 at 21:56

      I was thinking the Hansen and Lawrenson of counterfactual football history, with me cast as the Linekar, but Saint and Greavsie is much better.

  5. Gaw
    August 25, 2011 at 05:44

    As you mention him, Brit, don’t you find Lawro’s ‘jokes’ unfunny and his points dull? Pretty bad in a generally rubbish field.

    • Brit
      August 25, 2011 at 08:06

      At the last count there were precisely zero good football pundits operating on British telly, including Sky. The best in fact is Jamie Redknapp, who at least appears to watch football matches.

        john halliwell
        August 25, 2011 at 09:14

        I agree about Redknapp, Brit. I suppose Gary Neville might grow into the role, but early signs are that he’s in the clogging, badly timed tackle, phase. Hopefully the smooth-as-silk overlapping with Beckmam, followed by the swinging ‘on yer head, son’ cross, performance will arrive when he’s feeling relaxed and confident….

    August 26, 2011 at 15:33

    Excellent article.
    I also believe the last golden age was probably the Shankly/Busby/Revie/Clough era (I might also add Mee/Nicholson/Catterick to that list). For me one thing that makes football interesting is the level of competition in the league, at one time QPR and Ipswich were potential league champions but sadly those days have gone. Football has lost some of it’s lustre when the same clubs challenge every year and the only option for achieving success is spending a couple of hundred million. That’s not to say football isn’t still a great game, Barcelona are one of the best teams who’ve ever played while the Premier League can produce cracking games like last season’s Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4, though as a magpie I am maybe a little biased.

      James Hamilton
      August 26, 2011 at 18:40

      Stephen, you just triggered a thought in my head and I went away to check.. apart from the wider competition for the title in that Shankly-Revie-Busby-Clough era, another difference between then and now is that the top scorer in Division One hardly ever hailed from the champions – in fact, he hardly ever hailed from any of the top three. Now, almost always.

      There must be some kind of economics driving the sudden arrival of Ipswich, Southampton, QPR (and more briefly, Watford) at the top end of the table in that era between the ’73 Oil Crisis and the start of the Prem. That, or it’s something to do with the abrupt and simultaneous decline of some of the top northern clubs – Burnley and Blackburn for instance.

      A wage cap would solve the problem, although you’d have to apply it Europe-wide to have any real effect.

      Is Newcastle 3 Liverpool 4 still recent enough to count? It’s my best of the recent best…

    August 26, 2011 at 22:28

    The 3-4 game was possibly the most exciting football match I’ve ever seen even if the score was wrong. I wonder if English football has lost that kind of defensive recklessness with the introduction of studious coaches with laptops. Blackpool last season were a glorious exception to the safety first philosophy of many smaller clubs.
    I suspect that industrial decline reduced the power of some of the big clubs like Wolves and Burnley along with the end of the arrangement where the away side got a share of the gate receipts in league matches.
    I wonder too if the change from 2 to 3 points for a win had an impact on smaller clubs? Derby under Clough drew a lot if matches I seem to recall.

    August 27, 2011 at 06:34

    Perhaps a little unfair to call Chapman “corrupt”. He was only corrupt in the sense that black marketeers in a communist society were corrupt – he operated as much as possible according to the laws of the market, constrained only (and on occasion) by the attempts of the authorities to restrict trade (attempts that were subsequently judged illegal).

    Also, regarding John’s point about the effect of the Somme on the future of soccer: I’m sure it had a negative impact, but probably not anywhere near as negative as the impact on rugby and cricket. It’s always tempting to presume a golden generation would have emerged were it not for the war, but in the case of English cricket it’s probably a fair presumption.

    I’d argue that golden ages depend largely on results. Obviously negative performances can bring results – Norway had a golden age too – but in a sustained sense, one needs more than just route one football. So, with that in mind, the mid-60s to mid-80s were the British golden age. I’d place emphasis on the opening sequence, when it seemed just about any British team was playing in European finals (particularly Scottish – in 1967 Celtic won the main show, but Rangers were losing finalists in the CWC, and even Kilmarnock made the Fairs Cup semis!)

    The late 40s would be another good one, though the lack of proper competitive play makes it difficult to judge. Undoubtedly the era was a great one for the England team. As for the other two, it’s not a fair question. The golden age of Scottish football was the 19th century, when QP went unbeaten for improbably long stretches, and Scotland regularly trounced the Auld Enemy. But hardly anyone else played the game yet, or if they did it was hardly in anything like the numbers that Glasgow produced. It’s still a golden age, but perhaps not such a lustrous one, given how little competition there was.

    In my estimation, the main problem was not the War, but the parochialism and pettiness of the League administrators and owners. Buchan gets close to the problem there, and other football memoirs of slightly later bear it out (Shackleton, Matthews). The administrators resisted change time and again, saw little need for innovation, marketing, or evangelism, never mind international competition. William McGregor seems to have had a fairly ambitious approach, but even many of the principals of the 1890s were deeply conservative. By the 1920s, the influence of these men had become stultifying. Charles Sutcliffe should be singled out for particular castigation – he did for English football’s infrastructure what Reep and Hughes did for its tactics.

      James Hamilton
      August 27, 2011 at 12:04

      Yes, you’re right about rugby and cricket in WW1, Calgacus – Scottish rugby union took a beating from the Boer War, let alone the Somme. I’ve a hunch that Scottish sport and the armed forces were close colleagues in the early century – witness the rugby and cricket losses, but also Heart of Midlothian’s shocking sacrifices.

      There’s another strange side to rugby death which I must write up at some point: I’ve a chart of deaths from injuries in Yorkshire rugby league matches from the 1890s and it’s staggering: deaths per month, not per year. Put that alongside pre-reform early-century American Football and it becomes clear that some very popular, well-followed sports were capable of sustaining their own tragic damage without assistance from the continuation of politics by other means.

    August 27, 2011 at 09:11

    Great comments all! Learning a lot from this post!

    August 27, 2011 at 11:53

    I think the 60’s and 70’s was THE Golden Age for world football in as much you had Holland coming to the fore in a remarkably short space of time as well as the justifiably great Brazil side of 1970, the West Germany of Muller and Beckenbaeur, great British teams and Eusebio’s Portugal too. Oh and Newcastle won the Fairs
    The 90’s and early 00’s were a great era too, the 2 Ronaldo’s, Zidane, Batistuta, Maldini, Romario, Hagi…I could go on but I won’t 🙂

      James Hamilton
      August 27, 2011 at 12:20

      The Golden Age of World Football – as opposed to British football – it’s got to be one of those two Stephen – I’d plump for the earlier one for aesthetic reasons i.e. so much of it was filmed in technicolor. The 1970 World Cup – that marvellous modernist Apollo Programme sunshine.

      But the second period had Euro 2000 – take out England’s games and the Final and you have one of the great tournaments. Holland’s jawdropping performance against Yugoslavia, with the “Ajax 95” boys reaching their peak all in one game. And that second period had the arrival of African and Asian countries and entire new footballing cultures.

      Hard choice.

    john halliwell
    August 27, 2011 at 16:04

    This is a wonderful post and the debate could profitably carry on for fifty comments. Such a pity the holiday season may have removed the opportunity for several potentially interesting insights from absent commenters.

    For what its worth, I would like to contribute a few points to the very interesting discussion between James, Stephen and Calgacus.

    In an earlier comment I wondered to what extent the carnage of the opening day of the Battle of the Somme had adversely affected the development of post-war football. That was a single day (19,000 dead, upwards of 40,000 wounded), the most catastrophic in British military history, but across the four years of war, how many professional footballers were killed or wounded? The records seem inconclusive and confused, but two ‘facts’ stand out for me: 1) 2000 out of 5000 professional footballers who were registered as such in 1914 joined the armed forces and 2) by the mid 1930s, 500 of the 600 men who formed the ‘Football Battalion’ on its inception were dead, either killed in action or had died of wounds suffered in the conflict. I shouldn’t keep prattling on about what might or might not have been if that disastrous war had not happened. It did, so on one level such conjecture is hopeless. But the impact on post-war football must have been great, not just in Britain but in France and Germany.

    I’ve long held outstanding Scottish footballers in high regard. I suppose the great watershed for the Scottish national side, the equivalent of England’s 6-3 defeat by Hungary in 1953, was the 9-3 pummelling by England at Wembley in 1961. After that disaster, the Scots went through a very successful period, perhaps a golden period, through to 1967, losing only once to England, and famously beating the World Champions 3-2 at Wembley in 1967. What wonderful players they had, the glorious Jim Baxter, two other greats in Law and Bremner; plus four Celtic players who would lift the European Cup that year.

    The 1970 World Cup was a very high point in golden periods. The Brazilians were, on the face of it, the finest team in the tournament by a long stretch, but I find Bobby Charlton’s views interesting. In his autobiography he talks about the galvanising effect the Banks save from Pele’s header had on the team during the 1-0 defeat in Guadalajara. Charlton, not given to pie-in-the-sky hyperbole, believes that the game was the finest in the tournament and that if England had won it (and they had several good chances to do so) they would have gone on to retain the Cup, such was the confidence in an England side possessing three all-time greats in Banks, Moore and Charlton. Banks’ subsequent illness, Ramsey’s substitutions, and the ferocious Mexican heat may have had other ideas.

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