Let’s face it, football’s always been on the fiddle

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column.

"The Fan" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

I was still on my hols, in downtown Bequia, when I first saw the ballboy incident – you know, Charlie Morgan of Swansea time-wasting against Chelsea.

I thought, hey up, that’s expensive hair, for hair in sport is an abiding fascination – but how can he afford it when he is only a lad, a mere ballboy? He looked more like a young Prem footballer, Gareth Bale, or a member of a boy band. The sticky-up bit at the front needs regular care and gel, which is not cheap. In our area, it’s cool sixth-formers at public schools – Highgate and University College School – who can afford such style, thanks to daddy. Turned out Morgan was 17 and the son of a multimillionaire.

I came home to find the story still reverberating, after the back-page hacks realised they could give each side a good kicking – Morgan for being a spoiled, rich brat and Eden Hazard of Chelsea, who kicked him, for being a spoiled, rich brat. There were two targets to have a go at – a ballboy timewasting, however awfully, should not be allowed; and rich footballers, don’t they make you sick?

Award-winning older columnists, such as those on the Independent and the Mail on Sunday, love these “talking points”, tuttutting at modern football, feeling awfully virtuous, latching on to something easy to criticise as opposed to going through the bore of describing the game itself.

It’s fun giving players a good verbal kicking these days – for there is no point in arse-licking or keeping in with them. They are not going to give you an interview, have a drink with you on the plane or hotel or a word in the car park. They are separate beings, in a different world, with monster mansions, Baby Bentleys to sleep with and all the girls they can drive and, of course, the hacks are furious and welljel. (I got that from my granddaughter. You can work out what it means, being clever.)

These self-righteous, pompous columnists continually hark back to the old days, when football was not obsessed by money and players were honest and fair, tra-la, which is bollocks. Football was money mad and on the fiddle from the beginning, even before it officially went professional in 1885. Players might not have kicked ballboys but they knocked the shite out of each other. And they were allowed to, in the main, charging goalies into the net.

I can’t think of one real hooligan in the Prem today, the token thug who every team had to have, such as Tommy Smith, Peter Storey and, more recently, Vinnie Jones and Robbie Savage.

Their job was to destroy. Passing the ball was an optional extra. “Try that again and I’ll break your fucking leg,” was the normal welcome from the hard man to any young player on the other side. Doesn’t happen now. Partly because they are all foreign and don’t swear in English.

I should think Arsenal fans are probably longing for an old-fashioned hard man at present, instead of all these foreigners with funny hair fannying around. The reason lies with Barça, who became world-beaters with seven-stone weaklings in midfield and a skinny , weedy striker up front.

With age, you are supposed to grow curmudgeonly, regretting what is happening now, but, so far, hand on heart – oh, God, where is it? – I think in football all is for the better. The players have more skill; they are cleverer, fitter. We are in a golden age: not in the England team, obviously, but worldwide. Switch on to the Africa Cup of Nations, if you can find it, and you will see terrific players you’ve never heard of.

The money the stars make? Doesn’t worry me. The ballboy playing silly buggers? Come on, that was a laugh.