How a defeat for England on the football field was a metaphor for national decline

A review by Anthony Clavane

When I was a history teacher, I would have killed for a contemporary historian like Dominic Sandbrook. Or a contemporary history book like State of Emergency. The likes of Eric Hobsbawm and Arthur Marwick would often produce great masterpieces, but they failed to engage with popular culture. And they particularly failed to engage with the sporting events that shaped people's lives.

So three cheers for Sandbrook who, entirely predictably, has been labelled "middlebrow" by that breed of earnest, high-minded academic who once dismissed the mighty AJP Taylor as a populist. AJP, of course, would never have dreamed of viewing popular culture through the prism of sport. Nor of describing an England football defeat, as Sandbrook does, as summing up the country's "wider economic and political decline".

The defeat in question was the first leg of the 1972 European Championship quarter-final against West Germany. The following year's home draw against Poland, which cost Alf Ramsey's side a place in the World Cup, would have been a more obvious emblem of decline. But Sandbrook has no great love for the obvious. Every page is full of original insights and telling detail. Did you know that Tory prime minister Edward Heath supported Arsenal? Or that he nursed a secret ambition to run a hotel? Or that Carry On star Kenneth Williams thought Don Revie would "make a better impression" as PM than either Heath or Harold Wilson? No, neither did I.

When lazy contemporary historians are not airbrushing the much-maligned Revie from history, they are gleefully casting him as the devil incarnate. A bit like the Thatcherites' treatment of poor old Ted. I remember one study of the era declaring that Revie's Leeds were, "in part responsible for everything bad about British sport and sporting attitudes" during this low, dishonest decade. In this brilliant third instalment of his ambitious social history of modern Britain, however, the Wolves fan sticks up for The Don. 

The dour, sinister Revie portrayed in the film The Damned United might appear to be a perfect fit in an age of miners' strikes, tower blocks and political corruption. Sandbrook, to his credit, challenges the dominant view, hailing him as a pioneer, a flawed revolutionary. So, as a Leeds United fan, I salute him. And as an ex-history teacher, I congratulate him for repeatedly looking at the bigger picture. Like Heath, Revie was a neurotically-insecure social climber. Like Ted, he was a product of the Depression years. Both were awkward misfits who rose from humble origins and were often crippled by self-doubt. It is fashionable - as, say, Alwyn W. Turner argues in 'Crisis? What Crisis? Britain In The 1970s' - to attack 'Don Readies' for his greed. "But the key factor," writes Sandbrook, "was surely not avarice but anxiety." The same thing could also be said of the Trade Unionists who were ritually accused of bringing the country to its knees.

The Heath-Revie era was a time of transition, an age of both anxiety and affluence. The post-war settlement had collapsed and the Thatcherite service economy had yet to take shape. "The old is dying and the new cannot be born," as Antonio Gramsci remarked of an earlier time. "In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears." 

One man's Morbid Age is another's Golden Age. As Sandbrook points out, this was an egalitarian moment, a period when unfashionable, provincial football teams could come from nowhere to win trophies. "Between 1970 and 1981," he tells us, "seven different clubs won the league title, while ten different clubs won the FA Cup." Contrast this with the post-Sky era -- and weep. Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United have won every championship since Blackburn Rovers' triumph in 1995. 

But Sandbrook is no nostalgist. Nostalgia is airbrushing of the mind. It sucks away at the deep and jagged lines of a country's divided and fraught history. Back in the Seventies, Britain was ripping itself apart. Football, like politics, was in ferment. Fans chanted "We hate humans" and hooliganism became "out of control". The optimism of the 60s had dissolved and the classless, meritocratic experiment was about to implode. "As is so often the case," wrote the Daily Mirror's Peter Wilson after the Poland game, "we have been content to dwell in the past and rest complacently on past triumphs until events - and other nations - overtake and surpass us."

You could argue, what with our present penchant for all things Seventies, with the success of novelists such as David Peace and Jonathan Coe, and with the popularity of TV series like Life On Mars and films like The Damned United, that we, today, are stuck in the past. There is a pining for the good-old-bad-old-days when clubs spotted footballers in local schools rather than imported them from Estonia, Serbia and Mexico. When British, not foreign, talent dominated the top flight. When teams outside the top three had a chance of glory.

"Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?" asked Sam Tyler in Life On Mars. "Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet." Sandbrook's stunningly rich narrative transports us back to a world of the three-day week, IRA atrocities and muddy sport. There are at least fifty references to football, most of them reminding us what the 'beautiful game', with its galactic wage bills and overpaid primadonnas, has lost. 

Planet Seventies has a bad reputation: part joke, part nightmare; economic decline, poor industrial relations and Jason King's "extraordinarily effeminate attire". For those of us who came of age during the era, however, it was an age of affluence and social mobility. State Of Emergency is a reminder of this lost, disappearing world.

Anthony Clavane is a sports writer with the Sunday Mirror and author of Promised Land: The Reinvention of Leeds United.

Read more about Promised Land.

Follow the link to buy State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974

For more sports books, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop. 


Popular posts from this blog

The watchers watched: Collins delivers a masterclass in the art of sharp and witty observation

Heavyweights slug it out for title hat-trick

Hamilton takes William Hill prize for a third time with brilliant biography of the venerated cricket and music scribe Neville Cardus