By Paul Gardner
LONDON -- A couple of days after writing my previous column -- in which I expressed strong dislike of British attitudes to the nature of soccer and how it should be played -- I went along to the "Leaders in Football" conference at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium.
Here “the world’s most important football leaders” were gathered, though the schedule of events certainly had the air of a world dominated by Brits and the English Premier League. So be it -- that was a bias that afforded another glimpse of the Brit soccer mentality.
Not encouraging. Right from the start, from almost the very first words of Greg Dyke’s opening address, we got the usual crudities. Dyke is the newly appointed Chairman of the English Football Association. Certainly a world football leader, though his main experience has been in journalism, with governorship of the BBC (from 2000 to 2004) as his crowning achievement. He has had some soccer experience as a non-executive director with both Brentford and Manchester United.
But Dyke was evidently keen to impress the assembled attendees that he knew a thing or two about soccer. He chose to do it in a way that was so typically English that it was appalling in its naivete. Oh yes, said Dyke, I used to come to games here many years ago -- I remember seeing George Best sent off in a game, “after he’d been kicked all over the park by Chopper Harris ...”
Eh? Best, one of the most skillful British players of all time, gets a mention -- but only because he was repeatedly kicked by the infamous Chopper Harris. Dyke continued in the same vein. He had also seen Manchester United’s “Nicky Butt sent off for chinning [Chelsea’s] Dennis Wise who had grabbed him by the testicles when the referee wasn’t watching.”
Those were the incidents that Dyke considered worth mentioning. Two cases in which the victim of violent play was ejected. Who needs skill when it can be wiped out by Chopper’s thuggery or Wise’s knavery?
If you’re thinking I exaggerate in drawing attention to Dyke’s emphasis on physicality, consider this: one of the rooms in which the Conference took place was named The Harris Suite, a tribute to the lovely Chopper.
You could, I suppose, dismiss Dyke’s memorable moments as merely one man’s distorted view of English soccer. But that won’t do. Not only is Dyke now one of the most important men in the English game, but he has just announced the formation of an FA Commission whose task will be to make recommendations about the best way to develop young English talent.
Announcing some of the members of the Commission, Dyke began with “There’s myself, obviously ...” Maybe it shouldn’t be so obvious that a man with Dyke’s grotesquely selective memories of English soccer should be influential in its future.
Dyke’s rustic views could be dismissed as those of an old-timer. The new generation will think differently. Really? Try this: “We are English and we tackle hard, and we are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical, but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that.”
It’s all there. From the chest-thumping machismoto the snide dismissal of Spain and all that technical stuff. But this is not an elderly veteran speaking. This is Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, at 21 years of age, one of England’s future stars.
It’s worth pondering where Wilshere’s deeply traditionalist views come from. Because Wilshere has had what surely ought to have been the ideal background for quashing those attitudes and replacing them with something more enlightened.
At age 9 Wilshere joined the Arsenal academy. Meaning that he has spent -- so far -- 12 years under the influence of Arsene Wenger. Most of Wilshere’s vital formative years have been spent with Wenger as his mentor.
That’s Wenger as in Wenger the Premier League’s most ardent proponent of the Beautiful Game. The man who has resolutely defied repeated attacks on his style as not being “hard” enough and has stuck to his conviction that Arsenal must play skillful soccer -- that is, soccer with a great deal of that Spanish commodity, technique.
What has gone wrong here? Is Wenger not the master teacher that he has always appeared to be? Has Wilshere not been listening for 12 years? Neither, I’d say. What we have here is something that exposes, yet again, just how deeply rooted is the English preference for the physical game.
Wilshere is predominantly a skillful player. You can see why Wenger would like him. But Wilshere evidently feels the atavistic rumblings of the get-stuck-in culture and evidently feels he can obey its call while still being faithful to the Wenger formula.
It’s a nice idea -- but one that has never yet been known to work in practice. If there has to be a battle between skill on one side and muscularity on the other, I think the verdict came in long ago. Skill, technique -- the truly difficult part of the game, the truly soccerpart of the game -- must come first.