The fan - Hunter Davies recalls footballers and naked girls in hotel corridors

Even in 1972, I knew of players passing a naked girl from room to room

When did things go wrong? Why has football turned into a cesspit? Which is what the Daily Mail maintains. Have our footballers become morally depraved drunks, druggies and sexual beasts? Is football itself now totally corrupt? That has been the opinion of most people writing and talking about football these past few weeks. Why does Jonathan Pearce say "I seem to remember" while trotting out some idle, piddling fact, when you know he's got it written down in front of him?

That last question is a mystery, but all the others are easy to explain. Football has always been morally and financially corrupt. Right, I think that's cleared that up. Oh, when? I forgot to tell you when it all started.

About five past three o'clock on 8 September 1888. That's when the first professional season kicked off and the first shout of "My ball, ref" was heard from someone either lying, as he knew it was not his ball, or who had no idea whose ball it was but was trying to seek an advantage. From then on, the moral decline set in. Cheating, lying, injuring, diving, threatening, intimidating - all became a normal part of the game.

Traditionally, the English public school boys who gave us football played fair. Today, in a corner of every foreign field, or in the dressing room, you'll see a notice, in the local language, which includes the English words "fair play". From my knowledge of public school boys, they have always been as nasty, devious and cheating as anyone else, only smoother with it, but the myth lives on that football, as invented by English gentlemen, is meant to be played fairly.

The Corinthians, as amateurs, did try. When the opposition lost a man, for whatever reason, they would deliberately send off one of their own men, just to keep it fair and equal. Professionalism did away with all that nonsense.

It was around the same time, say 4.40pm on the first day of the first season, that the financial fiddles started. A proportion of the gate money would be kept back, undeclared, and used either to pay stars a bit extra, a few pound notes in their boots, or to persuade rival players to join them, with cash in their back pockets. Even when all the clubs agreed to abide by a maximum wage, or rigid transfer rules, they would still get round it. They didn't see it as morally wrong, or even corrupt. It was done for and justified by "the good of the club". Which is what they tell themselves today, when four or five million disappears during a big transfer deal, used to oil or pay off some dodgy agent or shadowy intermediary.

The sexual behaviour of players before the war was never made public, but we know there were always drunks and bad characters. Teams got invited on Saturdays after a game to the local music hall, plied with drink, paraded on stage, and if they had won, were cheered by all, including no doubt a few chorus girls.

Girls throwing themselves at footballers, such as George Best, appeared in the public prints from the 1960s. In 1972, I was aware of Spurs players passing a naked girl down a hotel corridor, from room to room. It didn't make the papers.

What's new today is the coverage. The tabloids, which in the past few weeks have been going tut tut, how disgusting, will pay up to £100,000 for a juicy kiss'n'tell, thereby encouraging dopey or cynical girls deliberately to target dopey or cynical footballers. The big wages in the Premiership are also new. Players do light joints with £50 notes, pour £300 bottles of champagne over each other's heads and see a £150,000 Ferrari as an impulse buy.

So is their moral behaviour getting worse? Not really. Do we care? Not a lot. Fans, like their managers, care most about what happens on the pitch, not off it. Playing shit, that's what really upsets us, not being a shit. The idea of them as role models is a laugh. That's not their job.

Will we now be put off watching football because we've been told, as if we didn't all know, that football is a cesspit? Leave it out . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for childhood