I preferred the early stuff: Ahistorical perspectives on success in football

No sooner have Leicester City FC won the top division in English football, the global behemoth that is the Premiership, than people have begun to suggest that this fairytale is not some story of a minnow overcoming great odds to beat off more illustrious rivals. In particular, the club’s extraordinary achievement in breaking the near monopoly of a handful of English clubs since the beginning of the Premiership, is cast as no fairytale next to the success of Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest team of the late 1970s. The Telegraph article written by Gary Birtles, who played for Forest between 1976-80, while claiming not to be sour grapes and reiterating that Leicester deserve it, also writes that “We didn’t have billionaire owners and let’s be brutally honest, the Premier League has been very ordinary this season. This was the best chance Arsenal and Manchester City have had for years and it’s quite damning for them that Leicester have won it because those teams are the ruling elite.” The claim is that this isn’t griping, but it is. The article vacilates between saying Leicester are a breath of fresh air, but aren’t anything so unusual because they have money behind them.

This is also indicative of a wider malais in football and how we understand its recent history. Increasingly, there is football before-the-Premier-League (BPL)  and football after-the-Premier-League (APL). Certainly the Premier League has represented a not insignificant shift in the history of the game, for a variety of reasons. And while Sky Sports seems to have taken to heart the idea that there is no history of clubs in the BPL era as such, and many rightly balk at this obvious attempt to recast football BPL for the globalised tv audience as somehow less important, the scorning of Leicester’s achievement displays another issue that many in football have: an ahistorical and sentimentalised view of the BPL era.

This sentimentalisation is driven in part at least by the huge success and rehabilitation of Clough thanks to first the book, and then the wildly popular movie adaptation, The Damned United, followed closely by another recent screen depiction of Clough. But perhaps the best of all works to consider Clough – truly warts and all – has been Jonathan Wilson’s biography, Nobody Ever Says Thank You. It largely avoids looking at the 1970s era of English football (and earlier to Clough’s playing days, as some halcyon period when all was right with the world, and Warburton’s white goodness). I can’t imagine that David Peace, author of The Damned United, for that matter, ever intended for his work to be used to glorify a kind of lost-era of a time when English football was somehow better, more magical, etc.

This is manifested in a number of ways including, especially, the valorisation of the loyal one-club-man, a person who is, statistically speaking, essentially an anamoly in the history of English (and indeed Scottish, Welsh, and Irish professional footballing history). One-club-men were often this because of the retain-and-transfer, a near fuedal conception of club’s owning a player’s labour. While the money paid to players is today astronomical, and puts them out of touch with the “common man”, it is surely better than the days when players were the effective property of Football League clubs. This sentimentality is also manifested in the insistence that modern sporting achievements are somehow tainted by money, as though professional football clubs that have existed for a hundred years and more have only existed on air, and not on continuous financial investment.

Yet, the comparing and contrasting of Clough’s Nottingham Forest sides and Ranieri’s Leicester City show an abject failure to understand that, since the Football League was founded in 1888, it was a money driven business. Matt Taylor’s book The Leaguers which covers the history of the professional game up until the beginning of the Second World War, along with his later synthesis work, The Association Game, provides a valuable antidote to the romanticised view that prevails today about how the money-men have ruined the people’s game. They have, but then, they always have been.

So yes, Leicester didn’t win it this League without a penny to their name, or without some financial backing, of course they didn’t. But the truth is that in the current, APL era, theirs is an extraordinary achievement, to go from bottom of the League mid-way through one season to seeing off all comers the next to win at literal odds of 5000-1 with a manager who was once derisively called by the English press the tinker man. Their victory is a resounding vindication of Ranieri, a man it is difficult not to like. It is also an important reminder that football, as long as it has been professional – 130 years almost – has been a money game. So let’s all sing together: If you know your history…

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