Football is a pleasant game, according to Manchester United song lyrics, but several challenges would suggest otherwise
When is a foul not a foul? Well, if you're talking about the 1957 FA Cup final, when it is a shoulder charge to the cheekbone. "Football is a pleasant game," went the first line of Edric Connor's 1955 song The Manchester United Calypso, and peculiar though it seems to contemplate such sentiment now, generally speaking, it was. And the bouncing bunch of Busby Babes it describes were most certainly covered by that definition, a collection of nice young men able to kick footballs well but aware that it was only kicking footballs well.
After winning the first three FA Youth Cups, beginning in 1953 – the club's consecutive run would extend to five – in 1955-56, they had strolled to the league title, secured by an outrageous 11 points. Then the following season they defied the authorities to compete in the European Cup – to test themselves against crack continental sides, in the comic book parlance of the time. This was no small stand; a year earlier, Chelsea's champions had been banned from competing in the inaugural tournament, the Football League secretary, Alan Hardaker, opposed to dealing with "too many wogs and Dagoes"; a trophy in his name is still presented each year to the man of the match in the League Cup final." Similarly, his Football Association counterpart, Stanley Rous, was known for his support of South Africa's apartheid regime; England and Scotland contested a trophy named in his honour until 1989. Pleasant game, what?
Anyway, United came up short in Europe, losing the first leg of the semi-final 3-1 to Real Madrid in front of a crowd of 135,000 before snatching a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in the return match. But again, they accelerated away with the league title, finishing eight points ahead of second-placed Tottenham. And where, the previous season, United had been eliminated from the FA Cup by Bristol Rovers of Division Two, this time they had reached Wembley, where they would play Aston Villa, who had finished 10th in the table, 21 points off the top. The first Double of the 20th century was expected.
But Villa, defending their status as the last team to achieve the feat, in 1897, and also in pursuit of a record seventh FA Cup win, were not minded to make things easy. A crowd of 100,000 came to watch – "They went to see where the Cup's going, and how, and why," said Pathé. Meanwhile, in the dressing room, the Villa players read telegrams of well-wishes sent by supporters, no doubt brushing their hair and polishing their earrings at the same time.
The teams then emerged to the traditional waved programmes and papers, the Queen even finding space in her schedule to attend, rather than dispatching inferior relatives as became her custom in more fraught times. Though, of course, deigning to meet the lowly folk gathered for one's entertainment was simply beyond one's pail, a task allocated instead to one's famously gracious husband.
The game was to be a contest of force against finesse. "Aston Villa had a reputation for being a hard side," wrote the Observer's HA Pawson, "and at the start it was clear that they were going to rely on strength rather than skill. It is permissible tactics to try and hustle a team out of its stride by quick, keen tackling, but in their early enthusiasm, some of the Aston Villa players went beyond the proper limits."
Then, on six minutes, Villa's left-winger, Peter McParland, tamely headed a cross at goal, easily gathered by Ray Wood, who advanced to throw clear. Except that McParland continued zoning towards him and, arriving not so much late as posthumously, imparted shoulder to cheekbone as Wood ducked, swiftly alleviating his burden of consciousness.
"Just one of those things that can happen at football," said Kenneth Wolstenholme in commentary. "A fair shoulder charge and then two heads just collide and well, you know what happens when your head hits somebody else's."
There was an absence of fuss and the referee remained unsurrounded as Wood was carried off, the jeers of some in the crowd roundly chastised by Wolstenholme. "It's rather unfortunate that some of the spectators here are booing," he said, "because that was a pure accident and certainly McParland need have no recriminations at all."
"Already there is a growing volume of opinion that England should follow the lead of the rest of the world and adopt their rule that as soon as the goalkeeper has the ball in his arms he is immune from the all forms of manhandling," wrote the Guardian's "Old International", the byline of Donny Davies, who would die the following year in the Munich disaster. "Any more brash interpretations of the charging rule, like Saturday's, and we shall have the 'Goalkeepers' Friendly Society' demanding that in future goalkeepers shall be allowed to take the field in crash helmets and wearing padded garments like American footballers. Heaven protect us from that spectacle!" But he need not have worried; the FA remained steadfast, resolved to do everything possible to ruin the game of which it continued to assert ownership.
Wood would later return to play on the right wing – a passenger, in the comic book parlance of the time – and in the meantime, Jackie Blanchflower went in goal, United reduced to 10 men. There had for some time, existed a campaign to introduce substitutes into the English game – they were permitted in World Cup qualifiers as early as 1953 – but the FA remained steadfast, resolved to do everything possible to ruin the game of which it asserted ownership. Only the following day, its council rejected a resolution by Fifa recommending precisely such an amendment, the move ratified the following month by the FA annual meeting, and it was not until 1965 that the first substitute appeared in the Football League
But Blanchflower and United repelled Villa for just over an hour, until, on 68 minutes, Johnny Dixon, the Villa captain, ran down the right and crossed towards the penalty spot, for McParland to thump home a header. "One up, and not without comment from Manchester folk," said Wolstenholme.
Then, five minutes later, Myerscough's shot hit the angle and McParland turned home the rebound; "two goals and a goalkeeper", became the maxim for his day's work. Though Tommy Taylor's header reduced the deficit with seven minutes remaining, United could not find an equaliser. "It was unfortunate about Manchester losing their goalkeeper," said Dixon afterwards. "Best of luck to Manchester next year."
And that next year, in the aftermath of Munich, United somehow reached Wembley again, fielding only two men who had played against Villa. This time, they met Bolton Wanderers, led by Nat Lofthouse, the Lion of Vienna – a moniker he earned after scoring twice in England's 1952 win in Austria, riding a tackle from behind, followed by an elbow followed by a foul in the act of arranging the winner, before being dragged off the pitch by his team-mates.
And within two minutes, he put Bolton ahead, first to react when Bryan Edwards slid a ball into the box, sliding a finish past Harry Gregg. Then, early in the second half, Dennis Stevens – a cousin of Duncan Edwards, and who would later be flattened by Colin Webster after a piece of badly received patter – advanced from the left and fired a rising shot at goal. But although it was not towards the corner, Gregg, resplendent in the kind of baggy cap now deemed to by some to be wearable in social settings, could only palm the ball into the air, allowing Lofthouse to bravely deposit both him and it over the line with a deft ram of the shoulder – a move he later admitted was not entirely within the rules of association football, though, probably, it was. And 2-0 was the final score.
But Lofthouse's behaviour gravely disappointed the citizens of Manchester, a city not exactly renowned for its reticence in remonstration.
So it was that when the Bolton coach passed by Salford's Irlams o' th' height - "Cheyenne country," said the coach, George Taylor – it was ambushed by a crowd of local kids, their displeasure expressed via a barrage of "stones, tomatoes, flour bags and lumps of turf", breaking a window close to where Lofthouse's wife sat. "I know that no United fan would do such a thing, said club director Louis Edwards, who was less vocal on the ethics of the selling of condemned meat to schools.
Football is a pleasant game.
"We decapitate and we do business with whatever's left". So advised Phil Leotardo, and who's to argue with him?
And that is certainly how Chelsea and Leeds approached their 60s and 70s games with one another. The animosity between the two can be traced back to 1962, when Don Revie's developing Leeds side beat Tommy Docherty's "Diamonds" in a Second Division game that left Leeds' Eric Smith with a broken leg.
The rivalry, wrote Rob Bagchi in these pages, was not simply about allegiance but identity. "For Leeds, the London club represent something typically metropolitan and louche," he explained, "all of which stems from a rivalry that began in the 1960s which cast one as King's Road cavaliers, the other as whippets-and-flat-cap roundheads."
But one thing that the teams shared in common was a passion for mean and intense brutality, which, of course, made for some quite wondrous entertainment – most particularly when they met in the 1970 FA Cup final. The game was played on a Wembley ravaged by the Horse of the Year show, held just a week previously – the authorities once again safeguarding the integrity of the sport in suitable style – and finished in a 2-2 draw. Its principal features were the manner in which Eddie Gray tormented David Webb and the error by the Leeds goalkeeper Gary Sprake that gifted Chelsea an equaliser just before the end of normal time; "He put his head in hands and dropped it," went the saying.
The replay, played 18 days later, was held at Old Trafford and watched by a television audience in excess of 28 million – still the second highest recorded for a UK sporting event, bettered only by the 1966 World Cup final. And viewers were treated to rich array of spectacular sadism; when David Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill) rewatched the game in 1997, he adjudged six red card offences and 20 yellow. Match referee Eric Jennings (Stourbridge) awarded one yellow, to Chelsea's Ian Hutchinson. There followed a rolling absence of outcry, furore, shame and disgrace, the only thought directed towards the children permitted to stay up late and watch the game in its entirety.
In such context, it is almost immoral to isolate only one aspect but like all Quality Street consumers and parents, however much we pretend otherwise, we still have a favourite favourite. So, after Peter Osgood cancelled out Mick Jones' opener with only 12 minutes remaining, the Leeds full-back Terry Cooper – one of the more placid characters amongst the 22, who had nonetheless spent much time exchanging laces and lumps with Chelsea's winger, Tommy Baldwin, of similar relative disposition – raced down the left and slung over a cross. Headed up but not away by Eddie McCreadie, he then pursued the loose ball and vaulted his corporeal into a kick that slammed the head of Billy Bremner against the ball, thus achieving the desired clearance. Jennings could not have waved play on faster if he had caught Old Wilkie and Matron en flagrant.
Immediately, Hutchinson raced down the other end to fire into the side-netting, while McCreadie – "Aware of the problems that he's caused Bremner," observed Brian Moore – paused to help replace the pieces of cerebellum and cortex scattered about the pitch, the decapitation actual as well as metaphorical. Bremner, for his part, responded with diffidence, as had become his wont. "He still is naughty on occasions," wrote the Guardian's Eric Todd after the 1969 Charity Shield, "although when he perpetrates a foul, he now accepts reprisals as an automatic consequence, and does not retaliate any more. Which might appear to be a roundabout way of proving one's reformation. No matter. None of us is perfect."
There is a mathematical theorem that operates in playgrounds worldwide and is expressed as follows:
Being a good bloke = talking about being hard = being hard = being a good bloke. But, like many equations of similar genesis, it is not entirely accurate; the very hardest, and by some way the scariest, are not those who maim for the sake of conversation, nor to illustrate their virtue but those who do so with dispassionate silence, driven not by ego, temper or revenge, rather simple pathology.
Stuart Pearce was such a man. He neither loved violence nor choose violence but was its personification and incarnation; he possessed it and it him and they delivered one another swiftly and often because neither could know any other.
In November 1988, his Nottingham Forest side visited Leicester City for a League Cup derby and, early in the game, home midfielder Paul Reid accepted possession from his full-back, just inside his own half and minding his own business. Ordinarily, this would be fair enough but with Pearce in the vicinity it became a foetusboy error, and sure enough, in he combine-harvestered, studs chopping knee, arm immediately raised in acknowledgement. "I think Forest's skipper and England's first-choice left-back will be cautioned," ventured Alan Parry. "I think he'll take a few minutes to run that one off." Cautioned? Minutes? Sectioned and years, more like.
Then, at the start of the second period, nature erupted once more in all its savage glory. Again, Reid received the ball, again inside his own half, again posing not the remotest threat to anything. It was not his fault. He did not ask to be passed to. But no sooner was possession his, then in hitch-kicked Pearce like Dhalsim in a roid-rage, employing two feet this time and introducing Reid to the experience of big air before it had even been invented. So, up went the arm once more, Pearce the anti-Macavity: his powers of levitation, would make a fakir stare, and when a tackle's discovered, Stuart Pearce is standing there. He was sent off.
And yet – or, more properly, accordingly – it is players such as Pearce who are our favourites. For all the skilful ones we watch, it is those who inflict most pain with whom we connect and identify most profoundly, the attainable face of aspiration. Do humans lack humanity, does humanity lack humanity, or does humanity misunderstand humans?
Aside from tactics, the beauty of football is its simplicity and versatility – all that is needed to play is an implement that can be manipulated using a foot – and as such, the term "professional foul" is in equal measure inaccurate and insulting. Offences of identical ilk are regularly found in every back garden, park, playground and corridor, and not as a reflection of any kind of seriousness, rather the reverse – it is a wanton, safe, achievable violence that legitimises and inspires in equal measure. It looks beautiful, it feels beautiful and hurts just enough to be hilarious.
And the genre takes many forms, the common factor a joyous abandon that can touch everyone – even Mark Hughes. After securing Manchester United's passage through to the fourth round of the 1994 FA Cup via a brilliant goal at Bramall Lane that gave his team a 1-0 victory, he quickly sought out David Tuttle to celebrate, ceremoniously imparting instep to anus and welcoming the eventuating red card, departing with a cheery expletive.
But the defining iteration of the genre must incorporate a slide tackle. In October 1990, Liverpool, the defending champions of England, visited Old Trafford in the League Cup third round, having won 12 and drawn two of their first 14 league games. This included a 4-0 thrashing of United, who actually played better than they had in more than a few of the victories that consoled them during their generation of inferiority; although no one knew it at the time, the tide had turned.
And United tore into Liverpool, scoring twice in two first-half minutes, before, at the start of the second half, a moment of eternal beauty. Shortly after Ian Rush missed an easy chance from in front of goal – still, he had not scored against United, a statistic he would destroy in vicious style the following season – Danny Wallace raced clear, taking possession just inside the centre-circle and with no one between him and goal. But, no sooner had he mounted his bicycle than in from behind hurtled David Burrows, lifting a leg to ensure the desired obstruction, a crowbar through the spoke of its wheel that flipped Wallace over the handlebars with urgency and ecstasy. Take that!
That is football, that is happiness.
Broken bones, broken dreams and broken hearts; there is nothing on earth that cannot be redeemed by strong intoxication. Nothing on earth, apart from attendance at panto, screaming kids and overbearing adults leaking into an excruciating meld of cringing, crowing skinwaste.
This accords Gorka Pintado a status of no small measure, the only man in history to make the form in any way redemptive. We all know how it goes, because we have all fantasised about it, revolting dark matter that we are; we espy Robbie Savage, unsighted, alone, and palely loitering, in the corner of the pitch. There exists 10 yards to rev up pace and temper. Rrrrrrm, rrrrrrm, rrrrrrrrrm. Everyone there can see what is about to happen, apart from Savage himself, the precise frustration of your Christmas treat. But because it is Savage himself, no one calls out to tell him; there is no vomitously shrill shriek of "it's behind you". But behind him it indubitably is, Pintado motoring at homicidal speed and primed to attack. Oh no he won't! BA-BOOM! Oh yes he will!
There is a famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a man appears in a crowded market and ostentatiously waves a cutlass in a manner aimed to threaten Indiana Jones. Although in different circumstances, Indy might have approved of the show, here, he takes one look at him, imparts disgust via lightly curled lip and shoots him in the face. The message is clear: by all means, be a smart one but know that it may not always be advantageous so to be.
This is not a lesson heeded by Kerlon, the Brazilian midfielder now of Fujieda MYFC. Not much of a player but an exceptional circus, as a youngster he would flip the ball on to his head and thusly carry it through defences – the "drible da foquinha", or "seal dribble" as it was known. Curiously, there were defenders not altogether keen on being made to look like hot drink receptacles, employing the hakapik forthwith. So, when playing for Brazil Under-17s against Colombia, Kerlon moseyed along the touchline in characteristic style, ire was experienced, and although he managed to ride the first cursory, matter-of-principle hack, the second was generated via an organ-trembling body kick, his progress summarily halted.
And this was not the only time that it happened; in September 2007, Dyego Rocha Coelho, of Atlético Mineiro, was banned for 120 days, reduced to five games on appeal, after aborting the manoeuvre with a judiciously applied elbow.
But Kerlon was not the only man to suffer similar remonstration. Nani is another – although of course that was just as likely personal. Ronaldo is another still – although of course that was just as likely personal. People do not like people who are good at things.
Daniel Harris's new book, The Promised Land, on Manchester United's treble season, is available here