Decline and Fall
The end of Ron Knee and Private Eye’s relationship with football
“In football today, no manager is more than five games from the sack,” Andy Roxburgh once observed. Even so, the departure of Ron Knee, the tight-lipped, ashen-faced 59-year-old manager of Neasden Town FC, came as a shock to the media, the club’s fervent supporters (husband and wife Sid and Doris Bonkers), its one-legged goalkeeper Wally Foot and, most of all, to Knee himself.
One of the last old-school managers in British football, Knee never saw life in the dugout as a series of three-year projects at whichever club offered him a munificent salary. Nor did he complain, with semi-continuous monotony, about being hamstrung by a dearth of transfer funds. A loyal one-club manager, with a longevity that makes Arsène Wenger look like a one-season wonder, Knee’s dismissal was triggered by the demise of his beloved Neasden. Discreet to the last, he retired without a lucrative testimonial – or an even more lucrative tabloid tell-all exclusive. We shall not see his like again.
Knee would be the first to acknowledge the part others have played in his quite remarkable career. He wouldn’t have become a Neasden FC legend without the wavering support of the bluff, 67-year-old dry cleaning magnate and club chairman Brigadier ‘Buffy’ Cohen; the contribution of his greatest signings, the ever-present custodian Foot and the intrepid half-back and ‘own-goal hot shot’ Baldy Pevsner; the purple prose of the reporter EI Addio (aka your man in the press box with a Yorkie bar and Sporting Life), and the “heaving throng” of the Bonkers, the club’s most famous – actually, only – supporters. The biggest disappointment of his career was probably Hernández de Pratwinkle, the Argentinian star signed from a Dollis Hill hairdressing salon, who flattered to deceive.
Created in the early 1960s by the then Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams and the cartoonist Barry Fantoni and cheered on by Peter Cook (who funded the satirical magazine in its early days and wrote editorials as elusive proprietor Lord Gnome), Knee exemplified the Eye’s eccentric, idiosyncratic view of British sport.
Neasden FC was probably founded in 1965 – initially as Neasden United FC – and the club soon acquired an unforgettable slogan: “We’re on the way to Wembley – you have to go through Neasden to get there.” Its song exuded a similar fatalism, especially in its key lines: “Good old Neasden Town/There’s nothing wrong with Neasden/Except she’s going down and down.”
Cook and Fantoni always had a good eye for the hyperbolic nonsense that filled Britain’s sports pages. In 1970, after England’s shock World Cup exit to West Germany, Private Eye pithily parodied Fleet Street’s verdict: “Whatever the score may say – Britain’s 12-0 defeat by plucky little San Marino admittedly looks on paper like a defeat – there is no doubt at all which was the best team in this Mexico marathon.”
The Eye’s other regular feature celebrating the sporting life is Colemanballs, a treasure trove of commentators’ gaffes named in honour of the late, great David Coleman, which still endures. (Personal favourite: Alan King saying “Swindon started very, very brightly till the Achilles heel which has been biting them in the backside all year suddenly stood out like a sore thumb.”) More recently, in a development which coincides with – and possibly contributed to? – Neasden FC’s demise, the Eye launched a cartoon strip called The Premiershits, which riffs savagely – albeit unsubtly – on modern football’s excesses.
Part of Knee’s charm was that the joke became so familiar – if Neasden conceded fewer than 10 in a Northern Circular Relegation League match, it was a moral victory. Given the Eye’s format, the gags were usefully succinct. By the time Knee had – or had not – uttered a post-match cliché, there was usually just enough space to recount how many own goals Pevsner had scored, whether the Bonkers had assaulted the manager and to mention the referee Sid Himmler who, when feeling generous, would score a goal for Neasden to even things up a bit. Occasionally, a late result would indicate that an unlikely, but topical, team such as Taleban FC had recently thrashed the north Londoners.
So why has Knee been dismissed? In the 2011 book celebrating 50 years of Private Eye, Fantoni lamented the demise of Neasden FC, insisting that it was because the editor Ian Hislop “seems not to know anything about football nor be interested in it.” Curious to know whether club and manager had been killed off, I wrote to Hislop who – and if this was a different kind of publication, I would be hailing this as a “World Exclusive!” – had the courtesy to reply, saying: “Ron Knee was Barry Fantoni and Richard Ingrams’ great creation. He featured less frequently after I took over as Editor and even less often after Ingrams left the magazine. I stopped doing Knee pieces entirely when Barry Fantoni himself left to go and live in France.”
So it’s official: Knee and Neasden FC are kaput. This is a pity because even though football is doing an ever more accomplished job of parodying itself, Neasden FC has been the gift that keeps on giving, epitomising the comic ineptitude that still characterises English football. Knee is one of the game’s truly great fictional managers, more interesting than Roy Race (when he hung up his boots to move into the dugout) and more consistent than England’s Mike Bassett which, in the words of the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “looks like a superfluous tribute to Channel 4’s genuine fly-on-the-wall classic on Graham ‘Do I Not Like That’ Taylor.”
The names dreamed up by Ingrams and Fantoni for their Neasden FC cast are not as random as they might sound. Ron Knee was not, as has been suggested online, a nod to Ron Atkinson who, when the storyline was created, was a robust wing-half, nicknamed ‘The Tank’, playing for Southern League Oxford United. There were plenty of Rons in English football in the early 1960s – Ron Greenwood took charge at West Ham United in 1961. As a first name, it was also synonymous with the older generation against whom Cook, Ingrams and Fantoni were rebelling in the early 1960s. Knee’s most entertaining rival in the fictional dugout is another Ron: The Fast Show’s Ron Manager whose ‘jumpers for goalposts’ shtick owed a lot, his creator Paul Whitehouse admitted, to Alec Stock.
‘Baldy’ Pevsner was a snook at the German scholar Sir Nikolaus Pevsner who, in 1955, gave the BBC’s Reith lecture on the Englishness of English art. Even though Pevsner had fled the Nazis to come to Britain in the 1930s, the idea that he, as a German, attempted to define Englishness in English art struck many as presumptuous. Cynics dismissed his lectures as a load of sweeping generalisations while John Betjeman, who wrote about local planning outrages for the Eye, decried them as “propaganda” for the modernisation of Britain. So what ought to have been Pevsner’s crowning achievement – being asked to lecture in memory of the BBC’s legendary founder Lord Reith – exposed him to ridicule.
No one is quite sure why Ingrams found Pevsner so profoundly irritating but their satirical rebuttal is lethally precise. ‘Baldy’ mocks the scholar’s perceived pretentiousness – in real life, his hairline was receding but he was no “slaphead”. Even more damning, as Stephen Games notes in his book, Pevsner: The BBC Years: Listening To The Visual Arts, was that “the idea of Pevsner as an own-goal scorer wickedly but accurately sums up the damage he had done to himself in the Reith lectures.”
The other characters in this comedic narrative were more simply named. Sid and Doris Bonkers were sometimes known as Hill, a pun on nearby suburb Dollis Hill. Foot referred primarily to the fact that the “legendary one-legged custodian of the uprights” may also be inspired by Paul Foot, the Eye’s investigative journalist who supported the West Indies cricket team and Plymouth Argyle. The striker Bert O’Relli was named after an Italian restaurant but also alluded to Peter Marinello, the Scottish forward signed by Arsenal in 1970 for a then club record fee of £100,000, who fell foul of the curse of being hailed “the new George Best”.
And then there’s ‘Buffy’ Cohen. As Trevor Hooper pointed out in Tribune in April 2016, “Cohen is not quite as far-fetched as one would imagine. Local bigwigs with a few bob and a big mouth have fed the back pages of local papers with their five-year plans to bring success, only for the plans to falter while the chairman’s ownership of a plot of good real estate (the club’s ground) has resulted in some clubs disappearing altogether.”
Cook and Fantoni bonded soon after the latter joined the Eye in 1963. Cook was an avid Spurs fan and recognised a kindred spirit, with Fantoni recalling, “Peter said I was the only member of the editorial staff who knew what a football looked like. During a big cup match, we’d watch the contest in our homes, while amusing each other with personal observations. This would have a particular poignancy and more jokes – if Spurs were playing.”
For Fantoni, the Neasden FC storyline was part of his indictment of British society, in a similar vein to the 1963 portrait of Prince Phillip in his underwear that made his name. Many wealthy Englishmen retire to live in France but given Fantoni’s diatribe in David Winner’s book Those Feet about England being a “shit arse fucking dump” which has only produced one original genius (Isaac Newton) his choice seems to reflect a deeper antipathy – or, as Winner puts it, melancholic declinism to the point of absurdity.
Growing up in an Italian Jewish family in south London, Fantoni attended – and was expelled from – the Camberwell School of Art. He joined the Eye in 1963 and, although he certainly knew his football, he never seemed to derive much pleasure out of it – possibly because he had the misfortune to support Millwall.
Fantoni told Winner: “Neasden was just my melancholic view of being a Millwall supporter. Millwall are the only team in London never to have played in the First Division [top flight]. Ever! We lose everything. It was always a crap, shit team, still is.” His behind the scenes access under Millwall chairman Reg Burr gave him an even more jaundiced view of the game. Players, he decided, were “thick cunts” who, with rare exceptions, didn’t care about their jobs. Managers were more interested in sex than football. And the fans were mainly motivated by the many opportunities football presented to assault someone.
The only redeeming element of this hellish vision of football was that Fantoni relished the game’s role as show business. It is, he told Winner, a drama in which players play themselves: “Becks is Becks playing himself playing football. Harry Cripps would put on his ‘Harry Cripps’ mask on every week and go out and play as the person people wanted him to be.” This realisation inspired him to invent a team of ludicrous characters that would give him an excuse to use – and ridicule – as many football clichés as possible.
Knee ended up managing Neasden FC by happenstance. Neasden was the nondescript suburb of London that the Eye’s founders drove through en route to the printers, Huprint in north London. Willie Rushton, one of the Eye’s other founding fathers, even wrote a song about the place with the immortal lines: “You won’t be sorry that you’ve breezed in/ Where the rissoles are deep-freezed in”.
The adoption of Neasden, once described by Betjeman as “the home of the gnome and the average citizen”, may have been inspired by the Goons who had adopted the equally nondescript suburb of Finchley to similar comic effect. In 1972, The Last Goon Show of All was broadcast, as Harry Secombe announced, “live by satellite from Neasden”. In a bizarre case of life imitating art, the Eye’s favourite suburb was later the inspiration for Athletico Neasden, better known as Neasden Academicals, an amateur side, mainly Jewish, who played in the Maccabi Southern Football League in the 1970s and 1980s.
Knee became such an enduring archetype of a certain kind of English football manager that, roughly 50 years after his fictional debut, Rod Liddle wrote in the Sunday Times, “Knee is a new kind of satire entirely: pre-emptive satire. They meant Harry Redknapp, didn’t they? All those years ago, they saw Harry coming and created Ron Knee.” The Neasden FC supremo’s legend can be used to damn any English manager. As the Guardian pondered England’s debacle at Euro 2016, one reader commented, slightly unfairly, “Hodgson at the top is the very spit of Ron Knee.”
You don’t have to be English to be likened to Knee. In November 2011, after Airdrie United lost 7-2 to Albion Rovers, the match report in the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser described losing manager Jimmy Boyle as “the shell-shocked Airdrie gaffer”. In a statement worthy of Knee, Boyle said: “I’ll take that on the chin.”
The tragedy of Knee’s demise is that it means he is not in contention, even satirically, for the England job. Yet in some ways, it’s hard not to feel his time had come. The Buffy Cohen generation of club owners have largely disappeared, selling their clubs to a variety of global concerns, Chinese consortiums and Looney Tunes. In an age when coaches are the new superstars – in which, Gérard Houllier says, the most important 30 seconds in a manager’s week are his post-match comments on TV – Knee’s tight-lipped demeanour would seem disappointingly anachronistic. The globalisation of football management in England – with only three English bosses in charge of Premier League teams at the start of this season – was the final probably blow for Knee who must now contemplate retirement with his usual ashen-faced brand of sangfroid.
This article appeared on Episode Sixty Two of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.