Lost Wonders of Football: Rebels and Mavericks

This article is from Edition Nine of The Cynical, our free online magazine.

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‘What is a rebel? A man who says no’, wrote philosopher and accomplished goalkeeper Albert Camus. The sport Camus loved has become a game of men who say ‘yes’, of convention, of fitting in, of never breaking the mould. There are still footballers with fireworks in their boots, humans capable of glittering the turf. Yet no player, could you say, is a maverick, a dissenter, a rebel.

For the past year, I have been thinking about what has disappeared from football during my thirty years of attending matches. The result is a new book, Black Boots and Football Pinks: 50 Lost Wonders of the Beautiful Game. The book is a collection of short loveletter chapters dedicated to all that has been lost; an attempt to sketch a ghost before it leaves the room.

Many of these wonders were physical things – the two in the book’s title, goalkeepers’ trousers, ramshackle dugouts, paper tickets… Some, however, were less tangible, and more shifts in footballing philosophy (Chapter 19, Old-Fashioned Wingers) or society itself (Chapter 16, Kids Playing in the Street). In a chapter called, simply, Heroes, I identified the loss of something that crosses both the sporting and ‘real’ worlds.

The lost hero described is the rebel, the maverick, rather than the modern version neatly marketed on to the back of a million child-size Barcelona shirts. There is no room for him in a game and a society that liquidates individuality: football, with its chainstore teams.

He was a backyard idol, his ball work and hairstyle impersonated, his posters veiling bedroom walls. He was the one who made everything alright, the one who sculpted dreams. He was the one who tied the tongue of autograph-hunters, the one whose name thousands sung like a hymn and a war cry.

On this paragon were hopes rested and wishes cast. It could feel as if he had a halo above his head when he took possession of the ball. A modern player can turn heads and sprinkle joy, but transfers soon make a faint memory of him, the scent of Regal Kings on a book that once belonged to your granddad.

There was usually an edge to him. Wound into a frenzy by some clog-happy centre-half, he could snap – a double-edged tackle, a jerking headbutt, a throat throttled. The rebel, though, existed beyond Saturday afternoons. He swaggered on the pitch and off it. He looked good and dressed well. There were always stories of largesse and misdemeanour, of sex and booze.

Were God to give us a modern George Best, would Hibernian sign him now? No risks are taken, there is no space for the agitator and the provocateur, for magic and fairytales. Who would give Willie Hamilton a chance, Chic Charnley a contract?

All we have is YouTube, nostalgia, and our innate ability as football fans to open up doors into rooms of memory. History helps too; many of my heroes were dead before I was born, kept alive only in history pamphlets and sallow old newspapers. Here, then, are five of the rebels I like to think of.

 

Hyam Dimmer. Chances are, you haven’t heard of Hyam Dimmer. Despite the circus performer’s name, Dimmer was a wiry inside forward from Scotstoun who lit up Ayr United’s Somerset Park in the few years prior to World War 2. Beanpole-tall, Dimmer became renowned for gyroscopic contortions, a human magic box of flicks and pirouettes. Defying tactical plans and frustrating team-mates, his core reason for playing football was to whip up joy and laughter on the terraces.

Andy Ritchie. Arguing with Jock Stein hastened Ritchie’s exit from Celtic, but perhaps a club like Greenock Morton suited the forward. Outside the Parkhead pressure chamber, he had room to create at will, to turn on the skill when he saw fit, the ‘Idle Idol’, as some called him. But what sorcery when he did: twisting free-kicks like some bewitching alchemist, or flipping the ball over defenders, leaving them resembling bewildered children chasing helium balloons.

Alex James. Born in the Lanarkshire coalfields, Alex James, another inside forward, signed for Raith Rovers in 1922. A sufferer of chronic rheumatism, James was ridiculed for wearing gigantic shorts which actually served to cover the tights that warmed his icy joints. He was never a man to let such things bother him – despite the demands of coaches and fans for simple industrial football, James played in his own way, a gallus wizard. It earned him Scotland caps and moves to Preston North End and then Arsenal.

Vic Kasule. It wasn’t easy for Vic Kasule, first of Albion Rovers and then five other clubs. A black player in Scotland in the 1980s was a rare thing, racial prejudice disgustingly common. Yet this Glaswegian son of Ugandan parents defied the slurs to play on with gusto, soon becoming the toast of Coatbridge. That he possibly liked a toast himself a little too much earned Kasule the nickname ‘Vodka Vic’. The lighter side of his eccentricities brought moments such as a red card for singing a George Benson song at a referee.

Brian Clough. Before there was Clough the rebel manager, there was Clough the rebel footballer. There is now a statue of Brian the player close to the house he grew up in in Middlesbrough. It shows the young forward on his way from home to training at Ayresome Park, boots slung over shoulder. Though he would score 197 goals in 213 games for the Boro, Clough frustrated teammates and management alike with his forthright views, so much so that his appointment as captain led to a player mutiny.

 

-Daniel Gray’s new book ‘Black Boots and Football Pinks: 50 Lost Wonders of the Beautiful Game’ (Bloomsbury, £9.99) is out now. Buy it in all the usual places, or direct and signed from danielgraywriter.com/shop

 

 

This article is from Edition Nine of The Cynical, our free online magazine.

Download the magazine here:

ePub version (great for smart phone readers)

PDF version


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