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1 April 2020

From fry-ups to one-touch virtuosos: all the ways football has changed for the better

Before games, they would have steak and chips. And, of course, smoke like chimneys.

By Hunter Davies

The lack of football makes me think nostalgically of the good times, the nice times, not horrid things such as the rise of the agent, boo, making millions for doing eff all. So for my last appearance of the season I would like to consider the best things that have happened in football. Oh, the changes I have seen…

I was born in 1936, a year that the first division was won by Man City and the FA Cup by Arsenal, so nothing different there really. The Top Teams are still the Top Teams.

But my goodness, the way the game itself has changed during my lifetime, who would have believed it would be so different? Not fundamentally, because it is the same sport, with 11 players trying to get a ball in the net. Someone going back now and watching a prewar game would find it easy to follow what was going on, and admire the skills, just as someone born in 1936, such as, well, moi, can understand and appreciate what is going on today… most of the time

There are have been rule changes – messing around with offside and substitutes – and the positions in which players play have got different names, but really a centre back is still a centre half and a striker is still a centre forward.

But let me count the ways in which I think football has changed for the better. 

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Boots. I have hanging beside me on my bookshelves a pair of boots from the 1930s. They are brand new, never used, and underneath you can read THE ALEX JAMES.

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He of course, as all fools and fans know, was a Scottish star at Arsenal, helping them to win six trophies in the Thirties. He was known for his baggy shorts, under which he wore long johns to keep himself warm, as he had awful rheumatism. The interesting point about his name being on these ancient boots is that people today think that famous players doing advertising began with David Beckham. It has been going for well over 100 years, since they all drank Bovril. These 1930s boots are exactly the same as the ones I played with in the 1940s and 1950s – solid leather, high on the ankles, with toecaps the texture of steel. They weighed a ton, so walking in them if you were a skinny kid, as I was, was agony. Thank God for modern light boots, which weigh and feel no heavier than slippers.

Balls. They were made of leather, in panels, stitched together in patches. At this time of the year they were double the weight in the rain and the mud so it was like kicking a cannonball. Again, hurrah for modern footballs, which are much lighter, rounder, and don’t hold water.

Pitches. In winter there was no grass, just mud and puddles – something akin to a quagmire. I think in many ways the modern pitch is probably the single best improvement in my lifetime. All the other advances rely on the pitch.

Diet and Health. Players did have training in the old days, and work on formations, practise free kicks and corners, work in the gym when the pitch was impossible, but then they went to the pub or the caff and had a fry-up and ten pints. Before games, they would have steak and chips. And, of course, smoke like chimneys. Now all players are faster, leaner, their bodies honed, constantly checked and monitored. 

Technique. Goodness, the change is miraculous. Players’ control of the ball is instant, incredible, one touch, mastering the ball from any and every angle. I used to spend hours trying to control a ball like my heroes by waiting for it to come down and then trapping it under my boot. Even if you did it properly, you got knocked over. Today they are magicians. 

Foreign Players. In the old days, foreigners meant Scots. Players from abroad now dominate most Prem teams and have been responsible for so much that is good. They had lightweight boots before we did, took dieting seriously and brought different cultures 
With those happy thoughts, see you next season. 

This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021