The politician and his playmaker: Tony Blair and Alex Ferguson in 1996. Photo: Steve Eason/Getty
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Pitch perfect: the ten football matches that changed the world

Jim Murphy’s book combines a blokey ethos with a serious tone, and includes the Eton-smashing 1883 FA Cup final, the 1943 Spanish Cup semi-final and Robben Island’s  “Makana League”.

The Ten Football Matches That Changed the World . . . and the One That Didn’t 
Jim Murphy
Biteback, 352pp, £16.99

 

The unofficial New Labour Sunday league football team is called Demon Eyes, taking its name from the infamous 1997 Tory election poster by M&C Saatchi “New Labour, New Danger”, which portrayed Tony Blair as a crazed Stalinist Satan. The idea that such a crypto-socialist agenda existed was of great amusement to the confident new intake of MPs who arrived in Westminster on the back of the 1997 Labour landslide: no radicals they. Among them was the Celtic fan and talented striker Jim Murphy who, as an erstwhile president of the National Union of Students, had already earned himself a rebuke from Ken Livingstone for his reputation as a moderniser with a soft line on the abolition of student grants.

Here I should declare an interest. I’ve played a few seasons at centre-half for Demon Eyes, mostly alongside the Terry Butcher-esque former work and pensions secretary James Purnell. I’ve never met Jim Murphy, though I have man-marked Ed Balls, who is both sharp-elbowed and surprisingly mobile. Whereas Clement Attlee was a cricket man and Harold Wilson’s 1970 election loss has often been attributed to the national gloom that followed England’s World Cup quarter-final defeat by West Germany four days earlier, football was very much the New Labour thing. Even Gordon Brown professed an encyclopaedic knowledge of Raith Rovers and, in better times (1998), would pop next door to No 10 to watch Scotland in the World Cup.

Murphy goes as far as to claim that football played a crucial role in the rise of Blair. He tells the story of how, after 12 failed attempts, the nervous young barrister was desperately trying to win the nomination for Sedgefield in 1983 to save his fledgling political career as others, including Brown, stole a march. It was only when watching Aberdeen’s victory in the European Cup Winners’ Cup in May that year, masterminded by the Labour man Alex Ferguson, that the then 30-year-old Blair was finally able to bond with local party power brokers over a beer. Football remains the British common denominator.

Murphy’s book is very much in this mould, combining a blokey ethos with a serious tone and right-headed engagement with global affairs, as befits a shadow secretary of state for international development. Of the ten matches that “changed the world”, his first choice is an open goal for a Labour frontbencher: the 1883 FA Cup final, in which the previously dominant blue bloods of Eton College were beaten by the working men of Blackburn Olympic at the Oval cricket ground. This signalled a transition of football from the public-school playing fields to the industrial heartlands of the north-west and north-east. London has wrested much else from the rest of the country since but our national sport has yet to be dislodged from its power base in the industrial north.

Beyond these shores, too, Britain’s “most successful export” has been a uniquely powerful force – more so than any other sport, though not always to good effect. Although biting your opponents is a recent innovation, politics, violence, sectarianism and even match-fixing have been entangled with the game since its inception. Much of the bitterness that marks the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry to this day can be traced to the 1943 Spanish Cup semi-final, in which Barça travelled to Madrid with a comfortable 3-0 lead from the first leg. Allegedly threatened by the director of state security before kick-off, they had little choice but to succumb to the Madristas, capitulating 11-1 by the final whistle.

There is the inspiring story of the three-tiered “Makana League” on Robben Island, in which the prisoners of the apartheid regime in South Africa eventually won the right to play for a precious half-hour every week. Nelson Mandela, however, as a high-security prisoner, wasn’t allowed to watch from his window.

Most football fans will be familiar with many of the anecdotes in the book (Mo John­ston’s transfer, Peter Bonetti’s flap, Rod Stewart’s support for Celtic, quotes from George Best). There are also quite a few platitudes (“Nothing, including football, lives in a vacuum”; “England v Germany is a footballing clash with a century-long significance”) that put one in mind of the Fast Show character Ron Manager. Nonetheless, Murphy’s enthusiasm is catching and he reminds us how – despite the advent of Sky TV and all-seater stadiums – the game remains entrenched in our hearts.

At an 1863 meeting at the Freemasons Arms in Covent Garden, London, convened to codify the sport, a delegate warned about the likely effects of outlawing handling the ball and hacking opponents’ shins. “You will do away with the courage and pluck of the game and I will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice.” Plus ça change

John Bew is a historian and New Statesman contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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