The Men Who Changed Football

Tuesday, March 13, 2001 by

I had to tape part one of The Men who Changed Football, because Manchester United were playing in the Champions League on ONdigital that night. It wasn’t easy finding time to watch it the next day either, because Arsenal were on ITV, Leeds were on ITV2 and there was a big Nationwide League game on Sky. Three matches in one night? It’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when there were just three live matches on television a season.

But there was, and it was recalled in this programme, where grim archive footage of hooligans on the rampage, blazing stadia and Kevin Keegan puckering up to Mrs T was spliced with present-day interviews with the game’s movers and shakers to produce a fascinating and detailed audit of football in the 1980s.

Here was the dynamic, go-getting Tottenham chairman Irving Scholar, and his more sober, old-school Arsenal counterpart, David Dein, neatly contrasting the character of their rival clubs. Here too was Martin Edwards, chairman of an under-achieving outfit from Manchester. Oh, and here was David Mellor to state the blindingly obvious.

On film we were reminded of the more ludicrous attempts to counter hooliganism, from David Evans’s membership card scheme at Luton to Ken Bates’s electric fences at Chelsea. The Football League was run from its quaintly archaic headquarters at Lytham St Annes of all places, while a thrusting young[ish] Greg Dyke dashed about masterminding a breakaway ITV super league. Best of all, here was a surreal TV advert designed to drum up interest in Tottenham Hotspur, starring Ossie Ardiles, Ray Clemence and … Peter Cook.

Unfortunately, The Men who Changed Football, diligently researched and assembled as it was, was fatally flawed in three respects.

Firstly, most of the programme was devoted to football’s headlong dash for television cash, suggesting that this was the biggest upheaval in the game in the late 1980s. It’s easy to see why television itself might take this view, but it certainly wasn’t the complete picture, although it was fascinating to see Robert Maxwell, looking like a corpse seven years before his death, rightly insisting that football was selling itself too cheaply to the box and was worth £50 million a season.

But this attitude gave the impression that other factors, chief among them the 96 Liverpool fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster, were merely side issues in football’s gentrification, which plainly isn’t true. It’s an oft-quoted truism at Westminster that politics is dominated not by politicians but events. Hillsborough was the event that forced the most seismic material change in football’s history, overshadowing everything else achieved by the likes of Dein, Bates and Edwards, yet the programme seemed more interested in their power games, with plenty of footage of hotels, airports and interminable meetings and press conferences. That today’s Premiership clubs have transformed themselves on the back on their gleaming new all-seater stadia is undeniable, but none of it would have happened were it not for the post-Hillsborough recommendations of Lord Justice Taylor. If anyone changed football, it was him.

Secondly, noticeable by their absence were the players, the managers, and, naturally, the fans. All right, it was a programme about The Men who Changed Football, but where was the critical comment? Tottenham floating itself on the Stock Exchange? Oh, it was the 1980s, everybody was doing it back then. Yes, but why? What happened? How did the fans feel about it?

Thirdly, it seemed the programme was so pleased with getting access to The Men who Changed Football, it never bothered to stop and question whether what they were doing was right. It assumes that, with crumbling stadia, hooligans on the rampage, public apathy and the game in the red, any kind of change was welcome. Sure, the clubs needed to be better run, the game needed to be better marketed, the stadia needed to be better equipped. But nobody ever stopped to ask whether there were any better ways of rebuilding the sport. Hopefully the remaining two programmes might take a more reflective stance.

And sorry to get picky, but they should really have run the script past a football fan. To suggest that Manchester United drawing 3-3 at Liverpool in 1988 was the dawn of a new Old Trafford empire was ridiculous, given Fergie’s men wouldn’t win the title for another five years … with a completely different team. Liverpool beat Forest 5-0 in 1988, not 5-1. And I’m still chuckling at the line about Ossie Ardiles “adding backbone to the Spurs midfield”…

The Men who Changed Football is a fascinating story well told, but it could do with asking a few more searching questions. I’ll be watching the next two programmes, covering the formation of the Premiership and the unstoppable rise of Sky with interest … if they’re not showing a match that night.


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