Whose game is it?

Richard Keeling has a view on a recently-burning topic.

Graeme Souness’s howler after the Chelsea v Spurs match at the weekend has made me chuckle all week. Firstly, he was in the company of a women’s international footballer when he announced that football is a man’s game. Second, he seemed to have forgotten that the media have been going to extraordinary lengths in recent weeks to push women’s football. And finally, he had overlooked the fact that the women have recently achieved what the men have been trying unsuccessfully to do since 1966: to win a major international competition. The levels of competition in the men’s and women’s games are no doubt very different, but the women have the bragging rights, having won the Euros, at least until the men do something about it.

I missed the incident, but a friend drew my attention to it and my first reaction was to suggest that Souness should have said that football is a thug’s game, as that would have been gender non-specific and would have been appropriate coming from him. If he had said that football is a person’s game, he would have been less controversial but he, er, might not have got his message across. In any case, my friend reckoned that Souness is a nicer chap than I gave him credit for. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me and my friend is right, but it all set me thinking about that cliché about the man’s game, which has been around all the years that I have been watching football.

It must have come into existence as an excuse to condone the thuggery which has been endemic in British football, no doubt as far back as the mists of the nineteenth century, even before the game first became an organized activity. Since the advent of the Premier League and the transformation of football into an international TV spectacular, strenuous attempts have been made to sanitise the game. I wonder what the likes of Beth England, Eniola Aluko and Karen Carney, senior women football internationals who have been brought up with the Premier League and who objected to Souness’s remark, would have made of Billy Bremner Norman Hunter, Ron Harris, Tommy Smith et al back in the day.

Another expression that I remember from years back is that a good big ‘un is better than a good little ‘un. That seems to me to be quite closely related to the expression about the man’s game. It too conveys the view that football is about physical strength rather than finesse. In the days before football was invented in 1992 finesse was not unknown but pitches in those days did not encourage it, as they tended to become mudheaps after a few games had been played on them.

A definite benefit of the present TV circus is that great pains are taken to prepare pitches which are suitable for football rather than mud wrestling. Regarding good big ‘uns and good little ‘uns, there have always been some good little ‘uns around, but size and strength are rather less critical in top flight football now, as Emi Buendia generally demonstrates when he has an opportunity.

Yet another frequently heard expression used to be that rugby is a thugs’ game played by gentlemen while football is a gentlemens’ game played by thugs. In this country we have always been very class conscious and rugby has tended to be played at posher or more pretentious schools than football, with the result that rugby clubs were and probably still are much more the preserve of professional types such as doctors and lawyers.

Rugby always had a strong amateur ethos as a result. There used to be a regular high-profile pre-season friendly between Cambridge University and Micky Steele-Bodger’s XV. That gentleman was a Cambridge Blue and former England rugby international, and I believe he used to have a veterinary practice in Tamworth. His brother Alasdair was for many years a vet in Lichfield. Rugby has however in recent years followed the football route by becoming professionalized and commercialized, so we possibly hear less of it being a thugs’ game played by gentlemen these days.

Whose game is football these days, then? It belongs to the Bollocks Brigade of course. These are the tycoons and billionaires who are obsessed with wealth and power and are keen to control everything, not just football. Females aren’t excluded from this gang, but they are fairly few and far between and are awarded honorary bollocks.

If football is no longer exclusively a man’s game, what should Graeme Souness have said in order to condone the recent over-exuberance in west London? I think he should have said that football is a physical game. Old habits die hard, though, and there are plenty of diehards around.