The doyen of English football writing discusses the forefathers of modern sports journalism
Writing what is supposed to be an introduction to a conversation with Brian Glanville about past masters of football writing, the temptation was to write a piece about Brian Glanville himself, who deserves that epithet more than most; indeed, perhaps more than anyone else. 'He invented the World Cup,' the Guardian's Kevin McCarra once said, not without reason, as any reader of The Story of the World Cup would agree. No writer did more than the fearless, talon-sharp and unfailingly fair reporter of The Sunday Times, The Observer and countless publications besides to open the eyes and minds of the British public to international football at a time when it was barely reported on, and when images of matches involving 'them' and not 'us' were limited to newsreels which seemed to cut to reaction shots every other frame.
In Patrick Barclay's words, "There are two sorts of football writers: those who've been influenced by Brian Glanville, and those who should have been." Hyperbole? No. In the course of a prodigious career which has entered its seventh decade — a 19-year-old Glanville, fresh from Charterhouse, ghosted Cliff Bastin's autobiography in 1950 — he has covered every major tournament in which England could have played from the 1962 World Cup onwards, attended thousands of games (which he still does, be it at the Den or the Emirates), written film scripts (including that masterpiece, Goal!, the official film of 1966 World Cup), a play, collections of short stories, 19 novels which ought to be far better-known (of which the most recent, Dictators, may be the finest), disproving his own assertion that "had I not been born, it wouldn't have made the slightest difference." Such is Brian's outlook on life and football. He once told me, "the best advice I ever got on football writing was to keep repeating to myself, 'it doesn't matter... it doesn't matter,'"; except that it does, a great deal, to anyone who's read his Football Memories or for whom the final whistle hadn't been blown on English pitches until you knew what Glanville made of it all on a Sunday morning.
There'd be no Blizzard if there'd been no Glanville, such is the debt all football writers owe him, whether they know him or not. Long before it was a hip (and conventional) thing to up sticks and taste a year or two of life in Barcelona or Berlin, the son of a Jewish Dublin dentist, then a very young man, moved to Florence and started writing in his fluent, highly idiosyncratic Italian for the Corriere dello Sport, La Stampa and others, sharpening his understanding of British football — and what was wrong with it — on the whetstone of calcio. He was later to be found in New York, where he counted Lenny Bruce as a friend, and where Henry Kissinger provided him with a gem or two for his inexhaustible fount of anecdotes. Ha, the stories! Brian, whose memory is frighteningly accurate, has more than most, including hundreds of unprintable Jewish ones, and tells them with the gusto of a born raconteur. As a result, conversations can be a bit one-sided; not that the listener will mind. This is one of them.
Could you assign a date of birth to football writing as we know it?
The 1890s. The real father, grandfather and progenitor of English football writing was JA Catton, who went by the byline of Tityrus, the shepherd in Virgil's Bucolics. They all used to do that sort of thing then. His career, largely on the old Manchester Athletic News1 which used to come out twice a week, and was the bible for a very long time, right into the 1920s, spanned the last decade of the 19th century and went right the way through... I think the very early 1930s. He was a tiny little man in a bowler hat; perhaps a little bit rigid and reactionary towards players' rights, etc, etc, but he was a very, very good journalist who got everything right. He saw, very, very early, the significance of the rise of foreign football. He said England would be overtaken, because others would use more modern methods. I quoted him verbatim in my Soccer Nemesis... "Write me off as senile and silly," he said, "but the truth will prevail, and this is the truth." This was probably in 1920 or so. Catton stood alone. He was absolutely right about that, you know. I'm not aware that he travelled abroad. Nobody travelled abroad for football games anyway. He had a great deal of integrity. He didn't write 'stories'. It wasn't expected of him. He'd describe games and express opinions, which were very sensible opinions. He was tremendously respected in the game as well. The point is worth emphasising: if you wrote for a 'quality paper' then, you weren't read in the football world at large.
So the best football writing was found in the popular press?
Once in a while, you'd find something wonderful in the Times, like their report on the 1934 Battle of Highbury [England's hard-fought and controversial 3-2 win over the world champions Italy]. Speaking of the Italians, it read, "players who'd previously run wild began to run into position." Oh — that reminds me of what Geoffrey Simpson, the Daily Mail columnist, wrote about that game. "Stanley Matthews — nineteen then — displayed the same force of slowness and hesitation that he did in the recent inter-league match. Perhaps he doesn't have the big match temperament." Matthews... Yes, the finest writers were to be found in the popular press. That's why I wrote Looking for an Idiom, as an idiom that would transcend social classes had been found by American — and French — writers, but not here. Catton was followed as editor of the Athletic News Football Annual by Ivan Sharpe... heard of him?
He was a fascinating character. He'd been an excellent footballer himself2 and wrote a superb book, which I recommend, called Forty Years in Football. Not a literary masterpiece — but fascinating. He was a wonderful player; he was a left-winger and played in the same Derby attack as Steve Bloomer — probably the most prolific goalscorer there's ever been in English football. And he was the outside left in the Great Britain team that won the Olympic tournament in Stockholm in 1912. There's a marvellous story... I think he was at Watford at the time... he wrote to Jimmy Catton, asking him, "Could you give me a job?" Years and years later, he went to see him and got the job: his letter, unopened, was still on the desk. Sharpe had a wonderful feeling for the romance and the characters of football. Herbert Chapman, a great friend of his, came to him and said, "How do you go to Arsenal? Can you get me to Arsenal?" It's a fascinating book. Do read it if you can get a copy. Sharpe was not a great writer, no, but a superb journalist, a genuine journalist, not one of these freaks that we have now, who have all their rubbish ghosted for them. There was a great deal of charm in football writing at that time, the 1930s. Some time in the 1950s, when I was researching Soccer Nemesis, I went into the British Library to get permission to go to Colindale — the newspaper library. There was a dear old boy behind the desk. "I tell you what's interesting," he said, "The Football Chat!" And I found that wonderful weekly, really charming stuff. "The French didn't play football, they frivolled." Roland Allen was terribly good too.
He wrote for the Evening Standard, and very well, about things like the Austrian Wunderteam, more or less saying that when they could turn their extraordinary technical talent into something concrete, then they'd be really something. He came up with some nice lines. When the Barcelona then Real Madrid keeper Ricardo Zamora came over and had a shocking game with Spain against England in December 1931, letting in seven goals at Highbury, he wrote, "if Zamora earns £50 a week" — which was a fortune at the time — "Hibbs, the England keeper, deserves a benefit once a fortnight." Allen also briefly wrote a weekly match report in the Sunday Times in the 1950s. And there was LV Manning. Ever heard of him?
I'm afraid not.
He was the father of the sports columnist Jim Manning. LV Manning was not quite a god-like figure, but certainly a... Jove-like figure. When I was at Newlands prep school, he was the great seer of football, an arbiter of the game, a tremendously authoritative figure. I remember, once, when there'd been this so-called "fog farce", when Arsenal played Dynamo Moscow at White Hart Lane in 1945, the butler of our school, Harry Haines — we called him the butler because he and his wife ran the kitchen, saying things like this when he served us fish: "this one wasn't caught; it gave itself up" — told us, "Well, we'll have to see what LVM says about this." He had tremendous prestige, even if, as Cliff Bastin once told me, he was much too hard on players making their debut for England. An example — I was a tremendous fan of Bernard Joy, a great big blond schoolmaster, the amateur centre-half who took over from Herbie Roberts for Arsenal, one of the last amateurs to get a full England cap, in 1936, when they lost 3-2 to Belgium. I was wondering when he'd get another opportunity to play for England. Then he got a war-time game against Scotland. "Joy deserves this belated honour," says LVM in the Daily Sketch. But Joy had a very difficult first half against the Scottish forwards. England recovered and scored six. And LV Manning, two days later, wrote, "Joy has had his match." I thought that was a bit much. This said, LVM was awfully good about Dynamo Moscow during their 1945 tour. In the fog, "a thousand men lighted a thousand cigarettes and it looked like a thousand bonfires" — a bit contrived, but that was really rather good. Then, despite a headline reading "Time saves Dynamo from a knock-out" when they drew 2-2 with Rangers, he said that this was another step down in the decline of Scottish football, which had become very direct and physically challenging, and he could write — this is where Scottish football is going to go, betraying its roots, you know? He died crossing the road on a Saturday morning, in the late 1940s, and JL Manning — his son — succeeded him, not a bad bloke, but very self-important. I don't put that one in my pantheon. A very prominent journalist, but a rather conceited sort of man. His father was far more influential, even if he contradicted himself, within days at times.
What did Manning's readers expect from him or from other prominent football writers at the time?
It was fairly limited. There were no interviews. Bugger all. No press conferences. You never had quotes, you never had to get them, which was great. A blessing. People wrote straight reports, none of that zeroing in on a tiny facet of the game that the manager might have said something about. It was exceedingly rare to have a manager write columns as Chapman did for the Daily Express: journalists had the field for themselves. You didn't have to dig up stuff. But we now come to a man worth writing about, Henry Rose, the man who wore a black homburg, a Cardiff Jew, immaculately dressed, perfect moustache, splendid overcoats and suits, who was a complete stuntsman. He was supposed to go to London and work for the Express, and he failed there. So they sent him up to Manchester, where he really broke through, because everything he did was a stunt. Which one is he going to pull next? Which is why he had such an immense following. He had practically every station-master and ticket-collector in the area paid. "Station-master for Wilmslow here, Mr Rose! George Radnor of Manchester United has just passed through the turnstile — I think he's on the way to Bury!" When he turned up for a match, he'd go to the hotel and slip a few quid to the porter or the concierge. Then you'd hear, "Telephone call for Mr Rose! Call for Mr Henry Rose of the Daily Express!" He'd then glide across the foyer to take the call — which he'd paid them to do. Amazingly self-important man, but fascinating. Whenever he went to Liverpool and turned up in the press-box, the whole of the Kop booed and jeered him. But when he died — in the Munich air crash — had they been allowed to, the Kop would've given him a gangster's funeral. There's nobody like that today. He had a kind of inspired, defiant infantilism about him. Much better than the other Express football writer, Desmond Hackett, who wrote unadulterated shit.
Another very fine journalist who died in Munich, one of the best, was HD Davies, who wrote as 'An Old International'3 for the Manchester Guardian. He was funny; there was a strong Mancunian aspect to his writing. "So-and-so tried to dribble. Why didn't he learn? He's got nothing else to do!" He was a very popular broadcaster as well, on Sports Report. Every Sunday morning, he'd repair to his study, shut the door, God help anybody who would interrupt him, and he would spend three hours on his football report, which seems monumentally disproportionate to me.
What was expected of a football journalist then, between the 1930s and late 1950s? What people would call 'fine' writing?
No. Take people like Frank Butler, a very successful writer through the war and beyond, who had the most appalling effect on my style. "Ian MacPherson, call him Mac the magnificent!" or "so often surrounded by red Charlton shirts that it looked as if he was addressing a communist meeting"...These are the terrible habits that I had to grow out of. Football writing declined a great deal in the 1950s and 1960s. It's much better now. But now and then, Butler, a very powerful figure in those days, would come up with something really good. He once wrote a piece about the "pimply young men who prepared for the war" seeing their sporting heroes jumping out of planes, landing onto beaches, and then suddenly, to their surprise, it was these pimply young men who were leaping onto beaches while their heroes were still at home, playing football, as the policy was, as you know, to keep them there. A lot of the writing in the popular press was terrible, the most appalling jargony stuff. Catton and LV Manning were exceptions. What was mostly expected was pontificating, or cheap and cheerful, racy and entertaining stuff. Or provocative stunting. On the other hand, a footballer could do what he liked off the pitch, and it wouldn't come out. There wasn't really any good investigative journalism. As late as 1974, when Keith Botsford and myself investigated the Solti case4, I wanted everybody [in the English press] to join in.
I said, 'We've done all this, if you come to us, we'll give you everything we've got. We're not trying to make a monopoly for us.'
'No no no, you've done it all, there's nothing we can add.' That shows you. Things have changed since then.
Could football journalism be thought of as a true vocation then?
People drifted into it; as someone like Geoffrey Green of the Times did. I'll say this about him: he had this tremendous prestige that he never used. He never led the way morally. He could have been a beacon for the sport but didn't do it. He liked to be liked. Green, an excellent amateur player as well, was very much looked up to by my generation and I'd say that, at his best, he was the best. A great anti-semite, by the way. He was tremendously admired. Geoffrey, who used to ad lib most of his reports, came up with one of the best phrases ever produced by a football journalist, after the 6-3 defeat of England by Hungary in November 1953. "Right where Puskas pulled the ball back with the sole of his foot, Wright passed him by like a fire engine going to the wrong fire." But in his dotage, he started mixing his metaphors in a rather extraordinary way. "They danced like dervishes who've reached harbour." is an example. "There's no will-o-the-wisp, so to speak, to take the game by the scruff of the neck" is another. "The ball's been brought into their court by the stormy petrel." Strange character. There, have a biscuit.