Was British soccer ever that great?

Some years ago I read an article in the English press that greatly irritated me. I tore the page from the newspaper and put it aside for further study.

Around here, putting things aside is pretty much the same thing as mislaying them. The page quickly vanished, buried in the heap of similar cuttings and clippings, classified (by me) as TBF, To Be Filed.

This quarantine-enforced boredom has led me to look through a TBF mound (there are several), hence the surprise unearthing of that annoying -- but forgotten -- article. It now stares defiantly back at me from my desk. A page from the Daily Mail, October 6, 2013, with an article by “Football’s Best Columnist.” So it said, the columnist being former Manchester United defender Gary Neville.

In 2013 Neville was enjoying a new-found fame as a TV guru, widely praised for his analysis and his willingness to criticize. The fame seemed, to me, totally misplaced. I found it narrow-minded -- limited to English soccer, and a viewpoint dominated by Neville’s experience as a defender.

How on earth, I pondered, could someone living, writing and guru-ing in England, home of the Premier League where 70% of the players were not English, be so unaware of foreign influences in the sport?

So, to be confronted with a banner headline reading “We’ve forgotten just what made British football great” by “football’s best columnist” - well, I mean, how irritating can it get?

As I glare back at the column on my desk, all my old vexations return. For a start: when, exactly, was British football so great? When was this golden age? Possibly in the late 19th century when Britain was the only country where the sport was played? Maybe for a few decades after that as the quarrelsome Europeans and the devious South Americans began to learn.

I first heard about British superiority in the 1940s. England had never been beaten at Wembley Stadium was the claim. Quite probably, I joined in the boasting. The claim was, of course, spurious. England had already lost twice to Scotland at Wembley, but that didn’t count as, presumably, both were playing British soccer.

When I investigated the Wembley boast more closely, many years later, its falseness was clear. Was it coincidence (or simply xenophobic snobbery?) that, when a strong European opponent arrived, Wembley was not selected as the venue? Spain (1931) and Italy (1934) both played at Arsenal, Austria (1932) at Chelsea.

But the most resoundingly hollow part of the boast was the absence of any South American opposition until 1951, when Argentina arrived. The Wembley deception got what it deserved in 1953 when the Hungarians obliterated England 5-3.

That humiliation could be conveniently forgotten 12 years later amid the celebration of England’s 1966 World Cup win. That was the highpoint. For England, there has been nothing that could possibly be termed “great” since then. Some very good players, yes, but never a great one. Not even the lavishly worshiped David Beckham.

Yet here was Neville, in 2013, still yackking on about the once-upon-a-time British greatness. I think it’s pretty well established that people who sing the praises of once-happy bygone golden days have lost touch with reality. They are dreamers.

Neville looks back to 1966 and dredges up the name of Nobby Stiles, a midfielder on the England team. A word or two about Stiles. No one who’s thinking straight would link Stiles with the word great. His one acknowledged football specialty was fierce - and dangerous - tackling.

This “talent” was to be seen in England’s first two games in 1966. In the third game, against France, Stiles’ assault on Frenchman Jacques Simon was so blatantly violent that there were calls for Stiles to be dropped from the team. The calls came, not from aggrieved opponents, but from senior members of the English delegation itself. Coach Alf Ramsey stood by Stiles, and the matter was not pursued.

Yet here is Stiles being praised by Neville: “Back when I was playing for Manchester United’s youth team [early 1990s] I could always hear the voice of our coach Nobby Stiles ... delivering short, sharp messages: “Get to the ball quickly!” “Win it back!” “Get to him!” Shift it quickly! Move!

A short, sharp memory of my own intrudes. I was in Sweden for the 1991 Gothia youth Cup. I had been assigned a disagreeable driver to get me to some games. He dumped me at a deserted roadside. I could see no games. “Over there,” he said, “You have to go down.” And he sped off, leaving me fearing I would be attacked by wolves. Hell, did they have wolves in Sweden? Polar bears, then. I fled quickly into the grass, still not seeing a soccer field, but now I could hear shouts.

It might have been Nobby Stiles. “Run!” “Move your effing arse!” “Go on!” which came over as a snarling “Garn!" I caught glimpses of a soccer ball in the air in front of me, flying this way, then that. I hadn’t quite got down to field level yet, but there could be no doubt - the frantic, ugly yelling, the ball spinning way up in the air - I was approaching an English team in action.

It was predictably horrible, yet the coach with his constant verbal whip-lashing was behaving as Neville would wish, nothing more complicated than yelling for a faster, more physical approach. Soccer skills? Forget it. Getting “stuck in” has always come first in England.

That is what Neville is praising as the foundation of England’s supposed “greatness.” There is virtually no mention of soccer skills, or the merits of skillful players, in Neville’s fantasy. All that’s necessary is “organized hard work” and players “with an intent to work their backsides off.”

England, says Neville, has made the mistake of trying to become more technical and creative - which has “made us forget the things we’re good at.” And, horror of horrors, “We’ve started to indulge a few players.”

Neville, confronted by massive changes in the game, as reflected in the changing styles of top European teams, can see nothing new. What Barcelona and Bayern Munich are doing is merely what English soccer, at its best, has always done. His claims are nothing more than a repetition of the long-standing and moth-eaten English belief in a physical game, and that you cannot win with “pretty soccer.”

Logically, Neville finds it impossible to praise skillful players. He closes that 2013 column with this extraordinary appeal: “But don’t let anyone tell you the most impressive thing about Barcelona and Bayern Munich is the quality of their football. It’s not. It’s their work off the ball that is sensational and a privilege to watch.”

Which reminds me of former Norwegian coach Egil Olsen’s famous -- and fatuous -- claim that Norway was “the best team in the world, without the ball.” Such a pity that Norway never won anything. And a mystery that Norway never amounted to a major attraction - soccer fans, it seems, like the ball to be at the center of the action. Paying large sums of money for “the privilege” of watching players work “off the ball” has not caught on quite yet.

11 comments about "Was British soccer ever that great?".
  1. R2 Dad, July 6, 2020 at 9:08 p.m.

    Point taken, but during the intervening years England HAS improved. St. Geroge's Park was opened in 2012, and England's youth teams have actually gotten more technical and have won a few titles recently. English fans must like Neville's candor and the recallng of dominant United teams (, and I think he is tolerated now much like Roy Keane is ( despite their low-skill play. They are winners, and fans like winners. But all that agro is no longer allowed in football. Even the Ginger Ninja Paul Scholes doesn't smell of roses these days (, his poor tackling not due to timing but retaliation according to Crouch.

  2. frank schoon, July 7, 2020 at 8:52 a.m.

    When it comes to English soccer ,I count myself on top of the list of being its worst critic. As a kid playing in the streets in Amsterdam during the 50's my favorite team from England was Arsenal, for the name sounded cool. Granted I never saw them on TV for noone had or grew up with TV. I heard stories of the great Stanley Matthews of England before I ever saw him play, but among the kids I played Stanley Matthews was called the 'magician'. He was a myth a hero along with one of our dutch greats, Faas Wilkes' whom we did see play and whom Johan Cruyff modeled his style after.  There was no pro-league at the time in Holland and therefore Faas played in Italy for Inter and ended up in Spain playing for Valencia and chosen the best player of Spain one year over the greatest player in the world  DiStefano, as well as Puskas and Gento, all of Real Madrid.

    I heard lots of stories about the English soccer while sitting along the canal near the "Skinny Bridge" after having played street soccer for about 4hours on a saturday morning. Kids after playing didn't go home right away but sat together talking "shop', their craft. In other words, after finished playing we remained for another hour or so talking tactics, new moves, certain game situations, famous players,  teams, etc...This was our Youtube, our pub where all the soccer info was shared and talked about.  Can you imagine today any kids sitting together on the curb after practice talking soccer, etc...The only time you ever see a few kids talking soccer, is when they are on the soccer field, when a coach is present. Kids learned the game, the savvy from older kids, new info about the game and what not, and this is how we were introduced about the English game.

    I guess ,I was at the age where the English soccer was beginning to lose its polish. Realize England was looked up world wide  because they were first country to introduce soccer all over the world. They were the parents, so to speak. Yes, they were the best . But here is the problem their soccer stayed the same and never improved. The English game reminds me of what our women's program is going through. We are the best, because we are the first to start women's soccer and currently  remain top dog because of cultural resistances in women's soccer world wide.  But after having played Spain recently,  our soccer is beginning to show the cracks. Without improvement in our game the women soccer is going the way of  England.     NEXT POST...

  3. frank schoon, July 7, 2020 at 9:23 a.m.

    English soccer was in a state of shock when out of nowhere, Hungary appeared with Puskas. They showed England how bad they really were. All of sudden, in the streets of Amsterdam ,the kids were talking about Puskas, Hungary ,even Pele's father told him to watch Puskas and Hungarian Machine that was unbeatable. Although England got their butt beat so bad by Hungary twice, Stanley Matthews still remained a great player of English soccer. To me English produced two world great players, Stanley Matthews and Bobby Charlton, hands down.

    I found that English mentality even through the 80's still thought their soccer was the best. As a matter of fact English coaches knew little of the continental game , very snobbish. The English mentality is that they were the best. As a matter of fact, Ajax had English coaching up until the mid-60's, before Rinus Michels took over. There are certain aspects of the game which I admire  and that is their 'fighting mentality' and spirit, they are ready to go as soon as they are on the pitch. They are known as fair players, not dirty, tough and hard and not sneaky. If I want my kid to get some grit and learn how to head the ball send him there for a few months. But don't expect anything technical, feet wise, or brain wise to improve. Just like don't go to England to expect improvement in your culinary skills. The food is just awful, sorry...Considering the history of England, their influence everywhere, soccer wise, language wise, you would think they would have the best 'kitchen' anywhere in the world, instead  I'd prefer to pickup a menu at a restaurant run by tribe of Neanderthals... But comparing English soccer, their food is just as bad.

    But regardless ,I WANT ENGLAND PRESENT IN EVERY WORLD CUP. It's tradition. It is not that they have great players, you can't dislike England ,we need them for they can give you a game. They are honest, they don't hang back, park the bus, for it doesn't fit their character. They are open and want to play soccer, and forego all the tactical tricks and what not. The only thing they can leave behind at home are the 'hooligans'.......


  4. Alan Rubin, July 7, 2020 at 11:49 a.m.

    Hi Paul,

    I enjoyed your take on England not being the epicenter of the modern soccer world.  I was introduced to soccer at age 14 in 1948.  I had moved about a year earlier from Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, 6 miles down Route 4 to Teaneck, NJ.  I had wanted to play JV football, but you needed to be in 9th grade.

    A friend suggested that I go out for soccer to stay in shape until I was elligeble for football.  I commented at my first soccer practice that I knew nothing about the game and had never even seen one.  No proplem he said, go out for goalkeeper-you do not have to know anything.

    It was love at first sight as I found being a goalkeeper to be something special.  I played for ten years including high school, college and a few years as a semi-pro in Bethlehem, PA.  I excelled at other sports as well, but nothing compared to the joy of playing soccer.

    I will turn 85 this August and will finish my tens years as a goalkeeper coach.  The joy of having both coached and played will always be a highlight.

    I played for Lehigh University.  One evening, a teammate and I drove to Ebetts Field in Brooklyn on a school night to see Pele play.  I do not remember who Santos of Brazile played, but I have been a fan of South American soccer ever since.

    A summer league of professional teams was formed in 1960.  The final between Santos and England's Bromley was a classic clash of styles, England's booming kicks with their wingers racing down the sidelines, and Brazil dancing and passing down the field to the delight of the fans.

    Other countries have picked up and used variations of the Brazilian style,  but I have never enjoyed soccer as much as I did watching Pele & Co. play.

    Please keep up your timely reporting.


  5. Bob Ashpole, July 7, 2020 at 5:18 p.m.

    Enjoyed the article. It brightened my day. Thank you.

  6. beautiful game, July 8, 2020 at 10:10 a.m.

    Thank you Paul for sharing the memory of hit-man Nobby Stiles. I remember players like him who made their careers as dedicated muggers who prided themselves for being team enforcers. Lethal bruisers such as The Butcher of Bilbao or The Butcher of Torino et al bring back memories of soccer's beauty and the beast spectacle. Yet, it took a long time for FIFA to realize that injuries to skillful players by these goons was not in the best interests of the game.

  7. R2 Dad replied, July 9, 2020 at 12:51 a.m.

    Now if only we could protect U8-U18 skill players the same way. The most skilled kids I know all have nagging/recurring injuries that have prevented them from reaching their potential.

  8. Wooden Ships replied, July 10, 2020 at 8:53 a.m.

    R2, I agree. It's been that way forever though, here. Is it the English influence, the domestic eggball influence, that the artistry of the game isn't enough for US fans, are we desirous of a gladiator component? I could go on. Indoor didn't help, with its combination of marketing gimmicks and virtually full contact soccer. I've always had respect, and done some myself, got referees, but how can they have the knowledge and courage to err on the side of technical over physical when they haven't grown-up seeing it that played that way? Owners too, don't like calls going against them. If you don't allow a degree of recklessness do you ultimately get passed over for matches? 

  9. frank schoon replied, July 10, 2020 at 10:08 a.m.

    Ships, you're so right about the characterization of the indoor far as I'm concerned it is mayhem played with a ball. Years ago, back in the late 70's or early 80's ,Johan Cruyff's brother Hennie was staying with me in Reston. Hennie ,himself, was a great player, as a matter of fact, Ruud Krol, chosen by Cruyff's favorite  all time top X1 players took over Hennie's position on Ajax once Hennie decided to go in the soccer business instead of playing for it required too much personal sacrifice....

    We went to watch an indoor game, and Hennie's impression of the indoor game here characterized the level or quality of soccer played to a bunch of 'brainless farmers' running up and down after a ball, and further stated that  he and given two other players could beat a team like that silly.

    In Holland the indoor game is played with a size4 regular ball, with out of bounds lines,  no boards and no contact allowed. I think the no contact rule would be a death knell to the indoor game here.  The way it is played in Holland, you need good ball handling skills, fast thinking, good passing....As a matter the game is much faster which foregos body contact anyway. It is all about positioning ,thinking, and technique. This is why soccer on concrete or hard flat surface improves one's game in so many ways, including very ,very few injuries...

  10. beautiful game, July 10, 2020 at 1:02 p.m.

    If the youth coaching mentality has little purpose except to win at all costs, the goon pedigree or the "brainless farmer" become more tolerated.  

  11. Michael MacFaden, July 16, 2020 at 11:43 a.m.

    Mr Gardner is spot on. American Soccer needs no excuse for what it is and comparing it to other leagues is nonsense. If you don't enjoy it press the remote and watch something else. Now Twellman and those other FS1 announcers probably got their jobs from bosses that expect that by emulating American Football announcers they'd be popular with American fans. Sadly FS1 soccer announcers for me have not been able to get near or much less  hit the target of informative and insightful live game commentary. So Then Mr Gardner who would you prefer calling these games? For me its a no brainer -- Danielle Slayton and Chris Dangerfield.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications