Football Intersectionality: The Collision of Ethnicity, Class, and Memory in "My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes"

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.” [21] For many players and managers, education serves as a mark of suspicion rather than achievement; Kuper and Szymanski label this the “anti-educational requirement.”[22] 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?

When the authors of Soccernomics lament the lack of a middle class perspective in England’s footballing classes, one can only assume they are strictly referring to training and tactics, because describing club owners as somehow abused by working class mentalities sounds questionable. Even so, did it sound like Forest Coach Billy Walker was hamstrung by class? Furthermore, there were other decisions made by clubs in Imlach’s time that appear foolhardy today. For example, when a deal was struck between the league and ITV to broadcast a game of the week, numerous clubs came out in opposition opposing the imposition of television. Among the dissidents, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Spurs, along with several others. “There’s no telling how great the pace of change might have been then, or how different the game might look now,” Imlach writes, “but the great reshaping of football by television that took place in the 1990s could have begun three decades earlier; in fact did being, only to be suffocated in the boardrooms of the old First Division.” (153) Again, can one attribute this to working class bias, English provincialism, or owner’s desires to maintain control over their players/league?

Obviously, class remains, if not the third rail, a problematic topic for the English. Moreover, it’s hardly unidirectional. Men like Stewart Imlach believed in the station they had been assigned in life. Billy Walker’s protestations over players apparent inability to recognize their proper place whithers upon further reflection. The elder Imlach’s golfing exploits highlight the falsity of Walker’s accusations. In retirement, golf became a part Imlach’s daily routine. A working class sport in Scotland, he joined the local Formby Golf Club. However, though he could have afforded a full membership he chose to join as a “artisan,” meaning lower green fees, but less access to the course and no access to the clubhouse. Instead, artisan members used a brick bungalow constructed by past artisans themselves that sat behind the parking lot. According to Gary Imlach, his father never felt inferior but did exhibit a strong sense of self and his place within the class structure, “Becoming a full member at Formby … would have been deserting the dugout for the director’s box,” reflected the younger Imlach. “Not that he’d ever felt any sense of personal inferiority among the cigars and cashmere coats but he recognized the divide and knew which side of it he belonged. He made sure the main club knew it too.” (220) For the elder Imlach, his captaining of the artisans to victory over full members in the club’s annual President’s Cup provided one of his post-football highlights.

The Booming Provincial Club

In defense of Kuper and Syzmanski, they do acknowledge the peculiar nature of England’s middle class fandom. Beginning in the 1960s, the movement of Britons both physically and socially resulted in a twisted relationship to working class culture. As increasing numbers of Britons continued their schooling at university, the nation gradually transformed into a middle class country. The authors of Soccernomics describe this change for some Britons as traumatic: “Their fathers had been factory workers, and now they were managers/professionals, with the different set of experiences and attitudes that entails. They lost touch with their roots. Naturally, many of them began to worry about their authenticity deficits.” (220) As the 1990s drug on, the game “went upscale”. Food at the stadiums transformed from “working class pies” to “middle class quiche.” Ticket prices skyrocketed. Understandably, protests arose in response which Kuper and Szymanski treat with a mix of bemusement and distance: “All these changes prompted endless laments for a lost cloth capped proletariat culture from people who themselves somewhere along the way had ceased to be cloth capped proletarians. They longed to be authentic.” (220) Less generous observer might argue Gary Imlach’s book serves as a manifestation of similar motivations, but too be clear this reader does not share this view

In the interest of fair play, one must also point out that Imlach’s time at Forest provides rich supplement to one of Soccernomics more interesting insights. In the immediate postwar period, clubs dominating international soccer arose from fascist regime capital cities. Real Madrid (Franco) and Benfica (Salazar) won 8 of the first 11 European Cups. Several runners up in this period could make similar claims such as Panathinaikos (Athens – military dictatorship). However, by the late 1960s and early 1970s this dominance evaporated as provincial port towns and industrial centers took central prominence. The movement of peoples to large industrial centers for work often resulted in a search for community. Soccer served as a key social lubricant (and in moments obstacle) in this development. “[M]ore than a century of brand building. Manchester United became arguably the most popular club on earth largely because Manchester had been the first industrial city on earth,” Kuper and Szymanski observe, “the club is only the biggest local soccer relic of the era. The forty three professional clubs within ninety miles of Manchester probably represent the greatest soccer density on Earth.” (138-139) The influx of populations, the creation of industrial wealth, and the binding social capital of football conspired to deliver titles to clubs in provincial towns across Europe.

Imlach preceded Nottingham Forest’s European Cup victory (1979-80) by twenty years, but his time there provides the reader with a sense of the squad that controversial English manager Brian Clough led to European glory (Soccernomics praises Clough and his long time partner Peter Taylor for successfully manipulating the transfer market better than any other coaches in the leagues history. See The Damned United). The smallest of the provincial champions of this era, Forest’s constituents hailed from a surrounding metropolitan population of less than 500,000. Imlach’s experience also helps readers to acquaint themselves with the game’s grubbier areas regarding owners and players, notably Forest’s tawdry handling of Imlach following the 1959 Cup Final. For all the praise Clough and Taylor received, players seem to be little more than livestock, talented livestock, but livestock nonetheless.

Do You Remember?

When the evidence offered is the evidence of “experience,” the claim for referentiality is further buttressed-what could be truer, after all, than a subject’s own account of what he or she has lived through? It is precisely this kind of appeal to experience as uncontestable evidence and as an originary point of explanation-as a foundation on which analysis is based-that weakens the critical thrust of histories of difference.

– Joan Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Social Inquiry, Summer 1991, pg 777

Few people have shaped the way historians discuss gender and difference over the past 20 years like Joan Scott. Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (1986) sparked debate and scholarship across the discipline, while charting new theoretical territory on gender. To this day it remains the most reproduced article from of the Journal of American History. Her credentials secured, Scott moved on to investigate the role of experience as a foundation for evidence. Her reflections, excerpted above, point to the very tenuousness of oral history and memory. Though Scott’s concerns focus specifically on historians of difference, its larger point rings true. Observers must be careful about who serves as the foundational reference point and what that means.

Gary Imlach probably agrees with Scott on the dangers of experience. Continuously throughout My Father, Imlach chases the retreating memories of old men. When speaking with one of his father’s former manager (one who jettisoned his father unsentimentally), Jimmy Hill, Imlach quickly realizes Hill does not remember the sequence of events correctly. Braced for a stinging evaluation of his father whom Hill had traded away, Imlach experienced something worse, invisibility, “the greater and unavoidably insulting fact was that Jimmy Hill had managed my father for half a season – picked him, played him dropped him, sold him – and had no memory of doing any of it.” (164) Players memories proved little better. Members of the 1958 Scottish World Cup team (for which his father started two matches), recall vividly how an impossibly errant rebound from a John Hewie penalty led to a sudden counter attack goal by France that changed the tide of the game and ultimately sunk Scotland’s hopes. To the players, that kick’s irrevocable failure cost them the game in a fluke series of events. In reality, when John Hewie stepped up to the penalty spot Scotland had already gone down a goal to France. Nor did an epic rebound result in a counterattacking goal by the French. In fact, the missed kick’s rebound set off s scrum for the ball such that the referee had to stop play, “There was no sucker punch. No sudden reversal. Just a missed penalty in between two French goals.” (105) The magic of memory, individual and collective

Gary Imlach’s attempt to craft a memoir from the bits and pieces of the past deserves recognition. To his credit, he bravely points out his father’s weaknesses like his small town morality that could turn brittle and bitter or his absentee fathering (it seems he was always away and while not cold not warm either). The fact the younger Imlach even felt the need to write the book reveals something about their relationship that was unfulfilled. Though he successfully conveys his own thoughts and emotions regarding his father, Imlach never recounts direct conversations between himself and Stewart Imlach, rather everything seems filtered through the experience and eyes of others. Gary Imlach then takes these filtered observations and runs them through his own set of experiences and memories. Thus, by the time the written (typed?) word reaches readers, Stewart Imlach’s memoir exists as an amalgamation of memory and experiences. In this way, one might suggest My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes is really a memoir about UK football from the viewpoint of the Scottish. The elder Imlach serves as conduit for the emotions, memories, and yes stoicism of a generation of players, now fading fast into the night.

Ryan Reft