the state of the game

This article originally appeared in MEHSTG Vol. 2 Issues 19 & 20 (February & April 2001)

I started supporting Spurs at the age of twelve having caught the bug during the 1966 World Cup. My father was already committed and I followed in his footsteps.  All my close friends were Spurs fans as well.  I knew no Gooners, but there was a Chelsea fan and one Man U.

During the sixties you came to a game knowing we would win. Jimmy Greaves was the best forward in the game.  Mike England the best centre half, Pat Jennings the best keeper, and so on.  It was easy to believe things would always be that way, at least from my perspective.  Not that we won every game, but you always expected to.

There was a greater differential of ability at each club then than now.  Each club having two or three players who had an edge on the others.  This led to results that were much less predictable, and a wider variation of scorelines.  With only two points for a win.  Playing for a draw was more common.  The first division was larger and only two teams were relegated each year.

There were no foreign imports, but the Scots Irish and Welsh were considered honorary Englishmen until the Home Internationals were played.  The best (Jocks, Micks and Taffs) all played in the old first division.

1967 - When the good 
times rolled.

The Transfer business was deadly secret and led to the constant speculation we now see in the press every day.  The main difference was that if a player of real ability could be bought, Spurs or Man U would be the clubs most likely to buy them.  Usually for a record fee.  There were no players agents which meant the player would deal directly with the manager of the purchasing team accompanied by the scout who had recommended the player.

There was never a chance that a player would choose not to play for Spurs, and so Martin Chivers arrived, followed by Martin Peters, and all the others we remember so well.

During the Seventies transfer fees and players wages started to really escalate.  The decade started badly with The Scum winning the double after years of nothing.  We had already won the League cup earlier in the season.  The following season we carried off the UEFA cup while Arsenal lost the FA cup final to Leeds.

Nevertheless the game did not change significantly until 1976 when Man U were unexpectedly relegated and then we followed them in 77.  Both clubs managed to secure promotion within a season, but the attitude had forever changed.  During the close season of 1978/79 following the world cup, Ossie Ardiles and Ricardo Villa signed for Spurs, and several other Clubs began importing players from a variety of countries like Yugoslavia and Rumania.  The only qualification being that they had to be of international standard.  Today Britainís place in the European Union coupled with the effects of the Bosman ruling have resulted in the wholesale dilution of the English game by foreign players.

Also during that period the attitude of the footballing authorities changed towards players discipline and bookings and sendings off soared.  It was considered a great dishonour to be sent off and would lead to headlines in the press for days. Alan Mullery was the first ever player sent off while playing for England, whereupon his father said he was a disgrace to his family.  Arsene Wenger now routinely makes excuses for his players when red carded, or claims he never saw the incident. Quite a contrast.

During the seventies the Manager became a celebrity in his own right.  Bill Nicholson did not do post match interviews.  There might be a comment taken as a quote in the press, but that was it.  The first manager who had to explain himself after a match was probably Sir Alf Ramsey.  Before long Brian Clough , Malcolm Allison, Bill Shankly and then Matt Busby were all at it.

Club Chairmen were not heard from at all. Iíve yet to hear a comment on the running of a club by a Chairman that had any bearing on the results the club might achieve.  Yet today Sugar, Edwards, Dein, and Bates all deliver through the media the kind of comments best left in the boardroom.  This is not to say I donít want information, but the rise of the football Chairman as a public figure in the game has not improved it.

By the time the Eighties dawned English clubs were the best in Europe with Liverpool, Villa, Forest and even Ipswich having success.  We began the decade by winning two FA cups, but we also lost at Wembley for the first time ever in the League Cup against Liverpool.  The early eighties were good times for Spurs fans.

The big issue was crowd control as the previous decade had also seen the growth of football hooliganism.  Banning away fans and identity cards were the two cures proposed by our government, but the clubs, prompted by the police, decided that the best way to keep us under control was to surround us all with fences in small isolated pens.  This policy lead to tragedy, but before that, the game also embraced another major change.

In 1983 the first ever live televised league match was screened.  The match chosen was Spurs at home to Forest We won the match 2-1 with a late goal from Steve Archibald, but live football meant that the TV companies now decided when fixtures would be played, and the concept of everyone playing at the same time on a Saturday was now gone forever.

The remainder of the decade saw the availability of replica shirts accompanied by wide ranges of club merchandise sold in dedicated Club shops.  Club sponsorship led to shirt advertising, and the inclusion of Executive boxes inside the ground.  The Money men were beginning to take over.

In 1983 Spurs floated on the London stock exchange with high levels of publicity given to players and fans who put their money where their mouth was.  In principle, this was fine, except that our management decided to invest the club's money in some diverse ventures, and when the stock market crashed in 1986 we almost went broke.  Spurs are still suffering because of Irving Scholarís Chairmanship.

The middle of the Eighties saw a number of disasters relating to crowds.  The fire at Bradford, coupled with Heysel and finally Hillsborough.  Liverpoolís exploits at Heysel resulted in English clubs being banned from Europe for five years, this caused a lot of the best English players to move to continental clubs to further their careers, and the standard in our first division dropped.  For the first time English players began turning out in numbers for Scottish clubs.

The Bradford fire followed by the events at Hillsborough in 1986 resulted in the Taylor Report recommending that top class football should only be watched in all seater stadiums.  The clubs were given five years to comply.  The grounds were duly converted to all seater status with a reduction of capacity an unavoidable consequence.

Some clubs used the enforced redevelopment to good effect, as the condition of their stadia was pretty grim.  New stands replacing the old terraces in most cases.  Some clubs have even relocated to brand new purpose built stadiums.  The football watching experience is now a much more civilised affair.

The down side of this is cost.  In order to finance these wonders of sporting architecture.  More clubs floated on the stock market.  Some created debenture schemes for fans to mortgage their seats for the future.  Most clubs however simply raised their prices year after year relying on the loyalty of their fans to pay for their own safety and comfort.  Each new stand included more executive boxes, and corporate hospitality is now a principle activity at matches.

Another consequence of the all seater stadium is limited ticket availability.  Every match is now all ticket.  The casual "lets go and watch Spurs this afternoon" has gone.  You either become a season ticket holder, join the members club, or pay through the nose by booking one month in advance on the Clubís ticket line.  The clubs have an intense dislike of selling tickets on match days.  It means handling large sums of cash.  Ticket touts must love the all ticket concept.

Transfer deals are now more transparent with players agents actively touting them from club to club.  The agent can only make real money as a percentage of a transfer fee.  It is therefore in his interest to keep his client on the move.  The players make ever more outrageous demands and the agents see to it that the clubs deliver.  In 1988 with Spurs in real financial trouble and the east stand half re-developed Chris Waddle was sold to Marseilles for £5 million, two months into a new seven year contract.

The late eighties saw Spurs with an improving team under David Pleat and then Terry Venables.  The club were in financial difficulties for the first time.  Hoddle and Waddle disappeared to France.  Gough went back to Scotland, Alan Sugar became our chairman, but the worst thing that happened in the eighties from a Spurs point of view occurred at Anfield, with the last kick of the 1988/89 season.  George Graham succeeded in creating a monster at Highbury.  They knocked us out of the League Cup after a replayed semi final in 88, but in 1989 by winning the League the seal was set for the next decade.

When the nineties began Terry Venables had a good squad of players including Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne and Gary Mabbutt.  In 1991 we had an outstanding run in the FA cup, defeating Arsenal in the semi final at Wembley.  This win had more significance for the average Spurs fan than probably any fixture since.  Even winning the trophy itself did not give the same buzz.

The game itself did not undergo another serious change until the FA Premier league was inaugurated in 1992.  Coupled with Rupert Murdochís Sky Satellite TV deal even more re-arrangement of fixtures resulted, as they were to televise on Mondays as well as Sundays.  Soon Sky were televising matches on every day of the week .

The deal itself did put a lot of money into the clubs.  There was a one million pound bribe for each club that voted for the deal, including those clubs relegated at the end of the season.  However if you give every club an extra million and they spend it on a player all you really achieve is to inflate the price by the same amount.  Simple supply and demand.

Then there is Europe.  In 1996 the old European Cup was replaced by the UEFA Champions League.  Instead of a two leg knock out cup, the new competition worked just like the World Cup on a four team league basis. Before reverting to a knock out for the final stage.  It is really a stepping stone to a pan European super league.

Initially the competition was for the League Champions only.  It has now been expanded to include up to three entrants from each country.  Forcing ever more midweek fixtures, and more TV revenues.

Throughout the last decade the principle English participants have been Man U and Arsenal.  Which means both clubs have become much richer, and have decided that domestic cup competitions are less important to them.  With the abolition of the Cup Winners' Cup, the FA Cup is now no more prestigious to win than the League Cup as the winners both qualify only for the UEFA Cup.

The clubs in the Champions League are also the ones who wish the Premier League to be reduced to eighteen clubs as they continually complain about the number of fixtures they have to fulfill.  The more successful a team is, the more international players it will have, and so the best players end up playing even more fixtures because of international commitments as well as extended runs in the cup competitions.

Inclusion in the Champion's League also benefits the participants because the best players all want to play at the highest level they can, and are much more willing to sign for a club that has qualified. Even if it means they donít play regular first team football.

The top clubs solved this problem by purchasing more players and they now have up to forty players in their first team squads.  So Man U and Chelsea can realistically field two separate first teams, either of whom can be expected to cope with any opposition from their domestic league.  The downside to this is that players like Solskjaer spend most of their careers sitting on the bench.  Apparently happier to watch a winning team than try to play against them.

Qualification for Europe remains every clubs aim each season, by Christmas itís easy to see who the most likely candidates are.  At the other end of the table, clubs are ever more desperate to retain their places in the premier league.  For relegation means less income and therefore less ability to compete for players.

Some of the more successful clubs in Europe are now proposing permanent membership of the Champion's League for themselves removing the requirement for them to qualify each season.  If this were to go ahead, the consequences for a club like Spurs are unthinkable.  It would mean that Man U, Arsenal, and Liverpool playing in Europe each year without having to rely on domestic results to get there.  There would be no benefit in playing them even if we won.  This is especially poignant when you realise it was Spurs who were the first British club to win a European trophy.

The players in the meantime have achieved pop star status.  They can attract salaries that the average fan can only dream of.  They exhibit no real loyalty to their clubs except for each time one kisses his shirt after scoring.  One week itís Newcastle the next Man U, or Chelsea, or Spurs.  The extended contractual wranglings seen this season over Messrs Anderton, and Campbell are typical of the modern player.  Both insist they want to stay at their club and that the problem is not money.  Yet money is the only reason a contract is not quickly signed.  The players, and their agents try to raise the club's wage bill ever higher.  Fans on the other hand face increasing costs, and competition from corporate sponsorship, and executive boxes that are always placed in the fans favourite viewing positions.

The actual standard of play we currently have is a pretty thorny subject.  The foreign imports at each club have added some silky skills to the repertoire of very ordinary clubs.  There is however; far more gamesmanship, and down right cheating going on than ever before.  Defenders grab forwards with both hands at every dead ball, usually in full view of the ref who never sees this as a foul.  Any player who runs with the ball can expect to be held or have his shirt pulled.  There are frequent off the ball obstructions.  As well as forwards who dive if they are challenged anywhere near a penalty area.

Dangerous play is also more common with players being jumped at when ever there is a high ball.  This results in more head injuries with forwards usually more likely to be hurt than defenders, as the defenders tend to jump from behind.  We see studs up challenges. Players refusing to give the ball back at free kicks and then not retreating ten yards.

The "get a result at all costs" attitude has led to tinkering with the rules to improve the flow of the play, and a far harsher application of yellow and red cards.  We now see people sent off for trivial offences.  The referees walk a tightrope as FIFA and UEFA insist on compliance with the rule changes, and the players concentrate on trying to influence decisions by feigning injury, and actively attempting to get opponents sent off.

The next major change in the game is looking to be the abolition of the transfer system for players.  FIFA and UEFA seem happy to allow this to happen.  This issue is being pursued by The European Commission as they seem to think that signing a contract with a club restricts the players freedom of movement within the labour market and therefore infringes their right to choose who they work for.  In essence the clubs must honour their contracts with the players, but the players may walk away from their clubs at will.  Again this will create difficulties for all except the richest and most successful clubs.  Any player in a struggling team could leave at the most critical point in a season and make a bad situation worse.  Equally a successful team suffering an injury to a key player, or a suspension at a critical time, could openly poach any player it chose, without paying a fee or compensation to the club losing out.

The future looks increasingly bleak with an elite of European clubs intent on forming an exclusive League, that other clubs cannot break into.  The less successful clubs will no longer be able to hold onto their better players, even if they have been brought up through their own development system, and the established players will be free to hop from one club to another, in the hunt for medals.  What kind of competition are we going to get?

TV now owns the game.  To ensure their control remains permanent, clubs are being bought into by media companies, the bigger the club the better the offer.  FIFA and UEFA are bowing to political pressure to allow players to control the destiny of the clubs.  They tinker with the rules and change the way it is played.  Have they improved things?  The rich clubs are getting richer and the poor clubs are struggling to survive.  The gulf between them is growing wider all the time.  How long can that continue?

Given that the number of clubs who can compete at the top level is contracting.  Are we beginning to see the meltdown of the traditional game?  Where clubs of more or less equal ability play each other in a meaningful competition.  Or will we see the same clubs win everything year in year out, with the rest playing merely to avoid relegation?

The clubs rely on a fan base that has something to hope for.  So the more successful clubs can be sure they will continue to pick up new support, and the less successful will see their support dwindle away as they have less and less to play for.

So the bottom line for all Spurs fans must be.  Do we join in and compete?  Or do we sit tight and hope the bubble bursts for Man U, The Scum, Juventus, Barcelona, etc etc?

Eddie Gilbey

Back to homepage