Cereball

Sport - Neil Berry on the brainy cosmopolitans of British football

With two A levels to his name, West Ham's sometime soccer maestro Trevor Brooking used to be known to his team-mates as "Einstein". The Russian journalist Oleg Bitov felt that this summed up the latter-day British - an oafish people with an oafish sense of humour. Certainly, it said much about British football, from time immemorial a working-class world on which education hardly impinged. In Brian Clough, football's John Bull, the game's shamelessly unacademic ethos found its definitive embodiment. This egregious British football manager was a truculent champion of common sense, his common sense.

Yet, if British soccer brimmed with anti-intellectualism, it was never without intellectual devotees. The late philosopher A J Ayer was an ostentatious supporter of Tottenham Hotspur; and, from Ian Hamilton to Nick Hornby, the metropolitan literati have often seemed to be queuing up to explain how much football means to them. Consider the scope that this most contentious of sports offers to intellectuals for indulging their instincts to pontificate; inside every highbrow football fan, there is a dogmatising Brian Clough struggling to break out (and all too often succeeding).

But who could have guessed that intellectuals would one day become dominant figures in British football? In the ratiocinative persons of the new England team manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, and the managers of Liverpool and Arsenal, Gerard Houllier and Arsene Wenger, the game has acquired something akin to an intelligentsia. University-educated linguists laden with advanced coaching certificates, these polished, adaptable cosmopolites possess qualities that Britain's own sports culture is ill-equipped to nurture. That all three of them now enjoy prized positions in the country's soccer hierarchy bears witness to the dearth of indigenous managers capable of coping with the sport's almost inhuman exigencies.

The soccer savant has emerged in response to unprecedented challenges. This is a time when, thanks to satellite television, the top flight of the game is becoming a branch of global commerce, a prodigiously lucrative mass entertainment intimately linked to the advertising industry and packaged as an accoutrement of the affluent lifestyle. With transcontinental super leagues the shape of things to come, the leading British clubs are already pouring their energies into competing on the European stage.

In this ultra-Darwinian era, to achieve eminence as a football manager means co-ordinating multitudinous squads of sporting prima donnas. It means making a fetish of fitness, monitoring not just players' ball skills and exercise programmes, but the minutiae of their diets and general conduct. And it means exploiting all that technology can contribute (computer analysis of games, and so on) to optimise individual and team performances. Always an art, football management at the highest level is now a science - a job for workaholic boffins who, on top of everything else, are PR specialists, adept at handling the media. Small wonder that the Clough school of blunt common sense (Get that bloody shot on target, lad) has yielded to the professionalism of the polyglot professor.

Not that the professorial approach rules out old-fashioned football fervour. The triumphal progress of Houllier as manager of Liverpool makes a piquant study on this score. It is true that the urbane Gallic patron seems a far cry from that most fabled of Merseyside managers, the fiery Scots showman Bill Shankly, thanks to whose inspirational efforts Liverpool became an unstoppable soccer juggernaut during the 1960s. Yet the highly charged, symbiotic relationship that has sprung up between Houllier and the Liverpool fans is reviving emotional memories of the Shankly era, and, for the Frenchman, it is a dream come true. As a student in Liverpool in the late Sixties, Houllier found the city's fixation with football hugely to his liking. When, 30 years later, Liverpool headhunted him as their first foreign manager, an old friend of his exclaimed: "Gerard must be in heaven."

Houllier is shaping up as the Diderot of the Anfield dugout, an adrenalin-addicted philosopher alive to Liverpool's idiosyncratic sociology and to the special place occupied by the Merseyside soccer psyche. Bent on appending a chapter of his own to the club's legendary narrative, he is, in a sense, a postmodern manager, a figure befitting a period when football has become a furiously self-conscious activity, the stuff not just of endless media coverage, but of a budding academic industry, with centres of football research increasingly common and a role emerging for distinguished former players as university luminaries. (These days, Trevor Brooking is, among other things, an honorary fellow of the University of East London.) In keeping with all this, Houllier himself, in his own right, is already a field of inquiry; earnest academics are on his case. A new collection of annotated essays, Passing Rhythms (Berg, £14.99), put together by a trio of soccer scholars, features a probing interview with the Liverpool manager - of the kind that used to be reserved for writers and art-house film directors.

Houllier fields the questions of his academic interrogators with aplomb - he could probably have written their book for them. Nothing if not thoughtful, he suggests that the "passing game", which has been Liverpool's trademark, corresponds to the "Liverpool imagery" - to the sense that Liverpudlians nurse of themselves as a people who stick together. This is an arresting remark, one that perhaps only an astute outsider could make, and there is doubtless something in it - even if it is also tempting to speculate that Liverpool's insatiable hunger for soccer hegemony is bound up with the legacy of empire. Could it be that this quondam imperial port, robbed of its maritime raison d'etre, and faced with the prospect of historic redundancy, has pursued footballing dominance as a way of preserving its self-esteem? Liverpool's fans have been peculiarly loath to settle for anything less than unassailable ascendancy, and Houllier needs no reminding of the burden of tribal expectations now resting on his erudite shoulders.

An agent of the embourgeoisement of football, Houllier conforms to the game's upmarket new image. Journalists have joked that he spices his managerial pep talks with references to Sartre and Camus. What is certain is that this baggy-eyed insomniac is a full-time football fanatic, much given, when not attending live games, to studying videos of matches. At the climactic close of the last season, he was exhorting his trophy-chasing team to go out and "play for immortality". Such zeal has long found favour on Merseyside. Yet where in Britain, in 2001, does inordinate zeal on the subject of soccer find favour? The historian Ross McKibbin avers that football is "central to the public culture" of contemporary British life. And the message of Passing Rhythms is that a famous club such as Liverpool now counts as a talismanic social asset, a means of enabling communities to flourish in today's brand-name-dominated, globalised economy.

Houllier is a thinking football manager in an age when having football on the brain threatens to become an inescapable condition.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot