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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 politician and his playmaker: Tony Blair and Alex Ferguson in 1996. Photo: Steve Eason/Getty
The politician and his playmaker: Tony Blair and Alex Ferguson in 1996. Photo: Steve Eason/Getty

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