It’s Bad Manners Being Clever: A Brief History of English Football’s Anxiety – Part 2

This is part 2 of a series on English Football’s Anxiety. Part 1 can be found here: Masturbation and Muscular Christianity: A Brief History of English Football’s Anxiety – Part 1 link

It's Bad Manners Being Clever: A Brief History of English Football's Anxiety – Part 2

The atmosphere of this island is enough to choke all artists dead

– Arnold Bennet, English Satirist, b1867-1931d

Take a deep breath. Take in the crackle of the kerosene lamp, and the salty musk of earth’s womb. To your left is the dripdripdrip of stalactites, formed from the precipitation of minerals over a millennium. At these temperatures, even rocks sweat. To your right you’ll hear the monotone interspersed with the clatter of metal pick on stone, all for the purpose of extracting more metal. You’ll find that there isn’t much air to breathe in here. Stay here too long, and you may choke on the smell of your own sweat/toxic fumes/sense of nihilism. Yet, miners like Aleksei Grigorievich Stakhanov remained hopeful.

In Soviet history and iconography, a Stakhanovite was a diligent and enthusiastic worker employing hard work or Taylorist efficiencies to overachieve at work. The Stakhanovite movement took its name from Aleksei Grigorievich Stakhanov (right), who mined 102 tons of coal in less than 6 hours (14 times his quota) on 31 August 1935.

Up on the surface, where the sun still sets, naked contours of twisted trees have their arms stretched in hunger for more sky.  The dust raised by the groan of post-war Britain powdered the leaves and put them to sleep. The light struggles to reach the chalk-lined grass of Old Wembley, but it doesn’t matter, for it is designed to be shred into finer strands by the studs of Stanley Matthews. He, too, was a type of Stakhanovite. To be a dribbler in this era, he had to be.

It’s bad manners being clever – The English inferiority complex

“You foreigners are so clever,” said a lady in passing. George Mikes, a Hungarian visiting England was initially heartened by the comment directed at him, only to later realise the negative connotations it carried in the English context. He explains in How to be an Alien (1946): “the word ‘clever’ is used in the sense: shrewd, furtive, surreptitious, treacherous, sneaking, crafty, un-English. In England it is bad manners to be clever.” The Hungarian comedian summed up a century of English anxiety in an anecdote.

It started with the public schools. Dr. Edmond Warre – headmaster of Eton, one of England’s most influential public schools, from 1884-1905, and consequently one of England’s most influential men – waged a holy war against originality, and set the precedent for the rest of the country. He propounded ‘a new educational doctrine of total control: Independence of spirit and individuality; free-thinking was malignant and undesirable’ and an inconvenience to the education system and the Empire with its fingers in too many colonial pies. It needed subjects, not savants.

Not to miss a trick, the church was not far behind. Reverend G.S.S. Vidal (former goalkeeper for Oxford University) stated that those who are guilty of “inoculating with continental vices deserved neither quarter nor compassion”.  

Football joined the picketing lines. “The real virtues of the English game are its vigour and drama. From time to time standards of technical excellence are to be seen, and I believe this can be built-in without altering the local accent,” wrote historian Percy Young dismissively as late as the 1960s. The virtuoso sportsman, C.B. Fry, the great-grandfather of Stephen Fry, wrote how their dallying on the ball “retards the wave of attack”; therefore counter-productive.

Hit cleverness for a six.

“Hacking is the true football game,” Mr. Campbell, one of the initial founders of the Football Association, declared in 1863. He was one of those people who would wake up in the middle of the night gasping for breath wishing he was a nicer person, but couldn’t get himself to be one.  “If you do away with hacking you will do away with all the courage and the pluck of the game…will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen (who liked their pipes and grog or schnapps) who would beat you with a week’s practice,” he added. Mr. Campbell eventually resigned and a historic genetic split between football and rugby occurred. The recessive rugby mutagen still endured.

Briskly, papers joined in the propaganda. Scottish Umpire called such nuances ‘Machiavellian.’ E.A.C . Thompson wrote in The Boys’ Championship Paper (1901), one of the many military agenda-driven papers directed at young boys, “Football is so typically British, demanding pluck, coolness and endurance…A sound mind in a sound body is produced by healthful exercise and effeminate habits are eschewed. He glories in the excitement of the hard-fought match, disdains to take notice of a little bruise, and delights to be in a vigorous charge, giving knock for knock.”

Polystyrene Men and Prophecies

I dislike having my boyhood-heroes squashed like trodden-on plasticine

– Arthur Hopcraft, The Football Man.

‘Knock for knock’. There was a notable increase of aggression in football leading up to the two World Wars. Football, it seemed, was a stage for working-class Britons to channel unresolved societal frustrations against their European encroachers. Dribblers were seen as foreign entities against the backdrop of their earnest kick-and-hoof football – vices that must be evicted from the pitch by hook or crook, or at the very least be made an example of.

1950’s version of ‘#banter’.

Like most forms of art, football was the shining beacon for this indigenous English attitude. The sport externalised and validated this contempt and need for uniformity prevalent in the larger society. Propagated by church teams, public schools, from miners to aristocrats, the dictum remained unchanged for centuries. Knock for knock, dribblers were booted to oblivion by executioners at dusk. 

They suffered from philosophy. Hughie ‘magic feet’ Gallacher – a Maradona prototype, a Scotsman who plied his trade in England – drunk, homesick, threw himself under the York and Edinburgh express train as means of instant release. He was one of the many tragic stories of talented ‘street footballers being treated like lepers’ – in the words of David Winner, “never fitting in anywhere due to a stigma against his type, being knocked around from pillar to post, left bankrupt of money and spirit.”Len ‘Clown Prince of Football’  Shackleton, who in his book, left a blank page in a chapter titled ‘What the average director knows about football’ racked up a sum total of 5 England appearances for his antics. Welshman Billy ‘wizard of the wing’ Meredith, was banned for attempting to establish a players’ union, and Frank Worthington, ended up an Elvis impersonator.

We weren’t kidding: Former Southampton, Sunderland, Leicester City footballer turned Elvis impersonator, Frank Worthington.

The English public welcomed eccentricity with all the hospitality of a well-aimed half-brick. German journalist Raphael Honigstein noted, “Football in the stadiums enacted a bigoted morality play instead of offering an arena for beauty.” Skills in the face of lionhearted labour were cunning, therefore undermining the very nature of what it meant to be English. To be clever was to invite contempt and attempted manslaughter. He added, “anyone with an excessive penchant for aesthetics had to be given a painful reminder of the true priorities of sports. They underwent years of torture at the hands of defenders, undiscerning managers and the media until, nerves shot, they drank themselves silly or retired hurt. It was the classic case of the self-fulfilling prophecy; technicians don’t amount to much, they were not reliable.”

This was the moment Sir Stanley Matthews swooped in to save the day and provided the pivot this story needed: faced with stony-faced brutes, his polite determination left them bashful on their backsides – an embarrassed rubble of limbs. He chipped away at the bedrock of English obstinacy and came out the other side to catch a glimpse and glory of the setting sun.

“There weren’t enough psychiatrists to deal with all the victims of Stanley Matthews. Defenders would grab his shirt or his socks, they would get him in wrestling holds or tackle him with kicks worthy of the police billy-club, but nothing stopped him.”

– Eduardo Galeano

Next issue: Magician, Stakhanovite, Stanley Matthews: A Brief History of English Football’s Anxiety – Part 3

Like a miner mining on shaky ground, Stanley Matthews on the touchline operated on the edge of disaster. The world caving in was an occupational hazard… (continued)

Next issue: Stanley 'Stakhanovite' Matthews: A Brief History of English Football's Anxiety - Part 3

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Léon L.

Music Journalist, Football Essayist, Stand-up Comedian, Comic Book Writer.