This article titled “Jumpers for Goalposts: how football sold its soul – extract” was written by Rob Smyth and Georgina Turner, for guardian.co.uk on Wednesday 21st December 2011 10.00 UTC
Of the many ways a fan could relate to a player in the past, few were greater than the sight of a man wheezing after his own first touch, his gut pressing insistently at the tight polyester of his shirt. Though we know that the increased professionalism of football is largely a positive development, we reserve the right to add it to the list of worthy things – a meat-free diet, reusable nappies, The One Show – whose reality we don’t completely and utterly relish. It’s absurd, chanting “you fat bastard” at men with six-packs. Where are the portly players of old? No one’s been eating all the pies!
For almost all of his lustrous career, Ronaldo was able to carry a bit of extra weight and still excel at the very highest level, and a bit of flab was no problem for short, stocky geniuses like Diego Maradona and Romário. Indeed Romário insisted he played better if he’d downed calories aplenty the night before. Ferenc Puskás, whom many regard as the greatest player of all time, simply loved eating. After his Honvéd side visited Molineux in 1954, the Wolves captain Billy Wright watched him scoff at least 12 crackers with butter and cheese. It didn’t do him too much harm. A generous waistline has always leant a bit of extra colour to the game.
William Foulke, who kept goal for Sheffield United and Chelsea at the turn of the 20th century, is still the heaviest first-class footballer on record, weighing 22 stone even in his prime. During his one appearance for England, he snapped the crossbar in half, and when during a league game he accidentally landed on top of Sheffield Wednesday’s Laurie Bell, he thought he’d killed him. Yet he was considered unbeatable for much of his career, helping United to the First Division title in 1898. “The manner in which he gets down to low shots explodes any idea that a superfluity of flesh is a handicap,” according to one write-up.
Foulke is an extreme from another time, but it is only recently that the fat footballer has become an endangered species. Christened ‘Fatty Arbuckle’ by Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan, Neil Ruddock once calculated that he had eaten 212 steak and kidney pies in a year. In 2001-02, Swindon had to commission a pair of shorts for him after he had failed to fit into all 86 pairs that the club had; Ruddock was a disgrace to professionalism, but you have to admire his not inconsiderable front. According to Stan Collymore, Ruddock once sat eating a bacon sandwich in the Liverpool gym until warned that the assistant manager Ronnie Moran was approaching, at which point he dumped the evidence in his training bag, poured water over his head to simulate sweat, and started panting on the treadmill. Moran pointed to Ruddock as an example of the commitment needed to reach the top.
The stories in football’s Old Testament had a bit of meat on them, and often the distinct whiff of fermented hops. During his time playing under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, Teddy Sheringham grabbed one of the glasses of half-time orange juice that were on a tray in the dressing room. “I took a long swig and for the next 10 seconds I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “It was a very large, barely diluted, vodka and orange.” It could belong to only one man.
Clough locked the team in a hotel room before the 1979 League Cup final, insisting they get through two huge crates before being released; half the side went to bed hammered, but they beat Southampton the next day. Earlier that season, Clough sensed an unusual nervousness on the way to Anfield for the second leg of a European Cup tie. He stopped off at a pub, made each player drink a couple, and later that day they easily secured the 0–0 draw they needed to put the holders Liverpool out of the cup on aggregate.
Alcohol has played its part in the decline of one or two of English football’s finest players, and Clough’s last years in football make for a powerful case against it, but booze has often been a vital tool in building team spirit. In the world of cricket, Australian batsman David Boon downed a record 52 cans of lager on the flight to London for the 1989 Ashes series, went to a cocktail party after landing and then slept for 36 hours. Yet he made more catches than anyone else (nine) and averaged 55 runs an innings as Australia claimed the Ashes with a 4-0 whitewash. “You played for each other, for the team, for the moment in the dressing room,” said opening batsman Geoff Marsh. “That’s the thing everyone loved doing – getting in that dressing room after a good day and having a couple of drinks and a laugh.” Examining alcohol’s fraternal qualities, social psychologists coined the phrase ‘liquid bonding’. Most of English football’s great teams just before and just after the start of the Premier League were notorious for their booze culture, from Arsenal’s Tuesday Club to Sir Alex Ferguson’s first great Manchester United side.
There is a salient point here, among the anecdotes. Clough revelled in the fact that John Robertson, the X-factor in his European Cup-winning sides, was fat. Before Forest’s second final, against Cologne in 1980, the subject of Cologne’s experienced international right-back Manny Kaltz came up in an interview. “We’ve got a fat little man who will destroy him,” said Clough gleefully. Robertson scored the only goal of the game. Clough knew his team had a vanilla hue without Robertson’s genius on the wing, and it was often the case that larger players brought something different to the table in more than one sense. They provided the flair of the side. An exclusive focus on athleticism is dangerous, and today’s football is often too fast, a helter-skelter ride of witlessness.
This trend has been increasing for years, and there was something disconcerting when, in 2006, the England manager Steve McClaren described Micah Richards as a “new breed of player – strong, quick, athletic and mobile”. Not a single mention of skill. Gareth Bale, the PFA Player of the Year in 2010-11, is extremely talented, best demonstrated by a technically immaculate left-footed volley against Stoke at the start of that season, but his core strengths are athletic. Watching Bale roast a full-back over a 30-yard sprint is utterly exhilarating, but it doesn’t engage the soul in the way that someone like Robertson did.
This is an extract from Jumpers for Goalposts: how football sold its soul by Rob Smyth and Georgina Turner, which is published by Elliott & Thompson
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