If one believes the authors of Soccernomics, the provincialism of the nation’s working class remains one of the maladies plaguing English football. Though the authors acknowledge England’s creeping post war “embourgeoisement”, working class attitudes continued to dominate footballing circles and not necessarily for the better. In America, football depends largely on the middle class, but in England, for much of its sporting history, working class culture produced the vast majority of players. Soccernomics laments this development, suggesting the exclusion of the nation’s middle classes from competitive soccer acts as a “brake” on England’s international hopes. Furthermore, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that the provincial proletarian mindset continues to bedevil the sport. Pointing to the insights of Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson as evidence, Britain’s working class players subscribe to a theory of work in which they are “entitled” to a couple pints every night (provided they’ve put in an honest day’s work), not to mention the semi-frequent Saturday night bender. Ferguson identifies this belief system as a direct result of “the shift worker’s mentality”. How very Scottish.
The authors are not completely unkind. They point to long traditions of self education among working peoples, the rise in college attendance among the general British public, and the blame that the middle and upper classes deserve for the wayward educational opportunities of England’s proletariat, yet despite these examples “the anti-intellectual attitudes that the soccer administrators encountered do seem to be widespread in the English game,” write the authors, “These attitudes may help explain why English managers and English players are not known for thinking about soccer.”  For many players and managers, education serves as a mark of suspicion rather than achievement; Kuper and Szymanski label this the “anti-educational requirement.” While Soccernomics points to many truths about the game, it is not the rosetta stone of football. The book is sometimes guilty of ahistoricism (or at the very least flawed periodization that doesn’t always fully reveal all the nuances and turns of their subject’s narrative) and economic determinism (which some fairly point out should not be a surprise considering its title). The question is, how to get at these slippages?
Gary’s Imlach’s My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes refutes, validates, and illustrates several of the arguments presented in Soccernomics. Perhaps, more importantly Imlach essentially attempts to craft a memoir of his father, Scottish footballer Stewart Imlach, based on memorabilia, his own recollections of the man, and the fading, flickering shreds of memory to which his father’s few remaining contemporaries tenuously cling. The book is encased in the fallibility of memory. Soccernomics supposes to judge a sport that many argue remains qualitative, with a distinctly quantitative approach that sometimes rests uncomfortably on its social science scaffolding. In contrast, My Father and Other Working Class Heroes suffers the indignities of a past remembered only by the individuals who lived it. The narrative carved out by Imlach provides a welcome human perspective on the game, adding historical context that confirms some and refutes other arguments in Soccernomics, yet undoubtedly My Father remains hostage to sources that might be generously described as fluid.
The Dodgy Scots?
Thirty voters, two-thirds of them Labour loyalists or Labour-leaners, the rest floaters, were presented with biographies, speeches and interviews of five potential candidates for the Labour leadership, including Mr Brown. Worryingly for Mr Brown, they found him stale and too Scottish.
– Economist, “They’ll Miss Him,” 28 Sept. 2006.
One might be forgiven for at times forgetting that the creation of the UK required a large amount of state violence, oppressive rule, aristocratic sell out, and cultural friction. With that said, acknowledging the unique ethnicities that comprise its population, it still seems odd when observers remark about the Scottishness of an individual as a potential pitfall. Former English Prime Minister Gordon Brown represents this phenomena. The Economist repeatedly referred to his “Scottishness” while also pointing out Tony Blair’s reticence toward his own Scottish heritage. Describing Blair as “reticent” on the subject, the British news magazine pointed out that, “[h]e never, . . . makes anything of his Scottish roots: he was born in Edinburgh of Glaswegian parents and went to Fettes College, Scotland's poshest school. “ The periodical suggested Blair’s Scot heavy government required him to downplay his own Scottishness. (Economist, “Scots in the Government”, 6 June 2006). The article titled “Scots in the Government: Jocks Rule, is that Ok” came with the odd subheading, “The government is full of Scots. Oddly, this may turn out to be good news for England’s regions.” Well who can argue with that? One could go on with other examples, but it would only belabor the point. Still defining this apparent “Scottishness” remains a murky task that seems to exist on two poles 1) the thrifty emotionally parsimonious Scot or 2) the outlandish lovable idiot who drinks too many pints and smokes too many cigarettes but god bless that crazy bastard. Certainly, one imagines the Economist might be referencing the former rather than the latter. Gary Imlach views the stereotype a bit differently, summarizing his father’s locker room contributions, “But in the dressing room and on the field his role in the cast of characters that makes up every football team was the chirpy Scot. The decent, honest, humorous Scot, who always gave 100 per cent. And he was, and he did.” (85)
The elder Imlach’s story unfolds throughout the small nation, however, his soccer career does take him to England to play for Nottingham Forest along with coaching stints at Everton and other English sides. Playing for Nottingham Forest brought Imlach to the pinnacle of his career but also, with the exception of the 1958 World Cup, served to exclude him from the national side as (due in part to structural changes in international soccer that would take to long to explain here) other Scots playing “abroad” in England failed to receive the attentions of Scottish selectors.
Class Class Class
Clearly Stewart Imlach played in the pre-Premiership era. His story, or at least the story constructed by his son, undermines some of Soccernomics class based analysis. Players in Imlach’s era were paid poorly, often lied to, cut without regard, and ultimately owned by their club. The examples are too numerous to recount, but they are persistent and always present. Few players from the era seem bothered by the low wages as according to Imlach many never expected soccer to make them rich. Often, players developed a trade skill on the side to deal with the inevitable retirement from the sport, Steward Imlach worked as a joiner. during and after football. Ironically, the low wage structure allowed even small clubs to compete with the metropolitan teams (Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham, and on) that today dominate the English league, meaning fans in the midlands could enjoy more than a puncher’s chance at victory. Unfortunately, one individual’s liberty sometimes reduces another’s, or at the very least modifies it negatively. Though eventual changes in player compensation led to what we know today as the Premiership, a league of ultra wealthy footballers, the super league had yet to develop, and players often feared being inadequately compensated.
Low wages failed to infuriate Stewart Imlach’s generation, but the club’s total control of their fortunes rubbed some the wrong way. Stewart Imlach endured the vagaries of such an existence. Throughout the book and often with little relation to his skills, the Scottish international shuffles up and down England’s dizzying array of divisions, After a sparkling 12 months at Forest, where Imlach had proven himself one of the team’s superior players and a key cog in their 1959 FA Cup victory, the club sent him packing to the very side, Luton, that Imlach had tormented in the final. For anyone following American Football, Philadelphia’s trading QB Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington might serve as a parallel example. Unlike Imlach who was at the peak of his powers, McNabb is clearly on the decline. The trade was widely viewed as a comment on Donovan’s diminishing talents, so an individual might wonder how Imlach took such actions. Imlach’s son attempts to get at his father’s feelings about the move but can only confirm his dad’s usual stoicism. However, others held opinions. As one of the elder Imlach’s contemporaries recounted, “You really were chattel to be bartered . The two clubs would have agreed – even to the extent of what date they were going and how much money the player would get at Luton as distinct to Forest,” he remembered, “Some just threw up their arms – your dad probably did – and said, “Oh well, bugger them if they don’t want me.” (142) When players formed a union, protesting for greater autonomy in 1959, the response of officials and coaches proved telling. The Football League president denounced players’ resistance as “sickening” and promised agents a lepor like existence within English football. FA council members protested players traveling in the same first class carriages as officials. Even Nottingham Forest coach, Billy Walker, shortly after an FA Cup semi-final victory, remarked to an audience of businessmen that players were “better dressed than he was – indeed better dressed than the committee men who ran the club. Sixteen of them had cars.” (116) As the younger Imlach notes, these provications were less about actual wages and more about place, as in one’s proper place, “Billy Walker wasn’t accusing the players of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, just beyond their station.” (117) This version of events begins to bring into question Soccernomics claims of working class bias. Might Kuper and Szymanski have mistaken stark regional provincialism for class or failed to account for the intertwining of the two?