It is a story made current by the Olympic Games coming to London at the end of next summer, but for those of us whose sporting interest lies firmly with football, which remains an event more peripheral than its ubiquity in every other corner of the world of sport would suggest, Steve Menary’s new book, “GB United?” is something far more valuable; a history of the decline and fall of amateur football as seen through the prism of the Great Britain Olympic football team. It is a book which, in telling the story of this decline, hints at one of the less widely-reported identity crises that English football suffered, throughout the twentieth century.
The bare bones of this decline can be seen in a simple charting of the fortunes of the team, which went from gold medallists at a canter in 1908 to dismal failures to qualify for the its last few tournaments, before eventually giving up the ghost when the FA abandoned the formal distinction between professional and amateur players in 1974. Menary does an outstanding job of painting a picture of the louche, lounge lizards of the turn of the century, the gentleman players that could flit from sport to sport because they could afford to. The opening chapters of the book are dominated by Vivian Woodward, the England international that played with distinction for Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea in the years up to the start of the First World War. Woodward typifies a certain, now almost entirely deceased class of English gentleman, who considered any sort of payment for playing sport to be a vulgarity.
It was this hard line amongst the amateurs that led to a schism with the Football Association and the formation of the Amateur Football Alliance but, although the AFA was later brought back into the FA (it still exists to this day, as the only non-geographic County Football Association), the amateur ideals starting to die off within a few short years of the end of the war. Menary vividly describes a near witch-hunt of working class amateur players in the north-east of England, many of whom were banned for the most trivial of offences. Amateurism, it soon becomes clear, is less a sporting ideal than the preserve of those that didn’t need money in order to play.
While players from the Northern League were being banned for receiving tea and pies after matches and such-like, the nascent FIFA was being a little more even-handed in its treatment of the working class amateur in agreeing that broken time payments (money paid to amateur players to compensate them for having to take time off work to travel for matches) could be paid to amateur players, and it was a disagreement over this that led to the home nations leaving FIFA and not returning until after the end of the Second World War, missing the first three World Cups in the process. During the same period, the amateurs (most notably Dick Stoley) also sought a big chance playing against the professionals in the Football League with The Argonauts (which we have touched upon on this site before), and Menary traces their story set against the background of the ongoing rumblings between FIFA, the IOC and the home nations. After the Second World War, as the last vestiges of amateur ideals crumble and fall, the Great Britain Olympic football team becomes more and more of a throwback, eventually being thrown out altogether after the 1972 games.
Perhaps understandably, Menary chooses not to look too closely at the ongoing rows and arguments that have been circling over the idea of a British team playing at the London 2012 games. For one thing, there is every chance that the story will continue to twist and turn for several months yet, and it is also worth bearing in mind that such have been the contradictory nature of statements from FIFA on the subject that anything said about it could well be hopelessly out of date within a matter of days or months. It is wholly in keeping with the spirit of the age that the notion of a united British team playing at the games has caused a massive row, and it is unsurprising that this is perhaps an area that Menary seeks to avoid. The book is none the weaker for choosing to side-step this particular issue, though we may perhaps be able to expect a revised edition of the book once the games have been played, should a British (or, as seems most likely, English) team enter the tournament.
“GB United” is, however, a historical tome, telling (as he did with his previous book, “Outcasts! The Lands That FIFA Forgot”) a story that has been forgotten and overlooked elsewhere. This story is as much about a class struggle in twentieth century Britain as anything else, but in this case it was a struggle that the ruling class were always going to lose. Those that ran the game at the start of the twentieth century may well look at modern football and wonder what on earth it has become, but “GB United” tells a part of the story that is seldom looked at elsewhere with a keen eye for historical detail, a dry sense of humour and a mixture of disdain and respect for those that ended up shaping many of the paths that modern football would end up taking. It remains to be seen what direction the notion of a “British” team will take at the 2012 Olympic Games, but if “GB United” teaches us one thing, it is that Britain, football and Olympic ideals have always had a fractious relationship.
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