Football’s Golden Age?

Football’s Golden Age?

George Glover explores nostalgia on the football pitch. 

On the 30th July, 1966, previously unheralded centre-forward Geoff Hurst scored three times securing England a 4-2 victory against West Germany to win the FIFA World Cup on home soil. Over 30 million spectators switched on their TVs, seeing Hurst fire home his side’s fourth and hearing commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s legendary quote: “Some of the crowd are on the pitch! They think it’s all over… it is now!”

In Skinner, Baddiel, and the Lightning Seeds’ 1996 single ‘Three Lions’, the group sing of “thirty years of hurt” since England’s World Cup victory; today, that refrain would have to be updated to the slightly less catchy “fifty-two years of hurt” due to the national team’s failure to win the competition since Hurst’s hat-trick. It seems that there is an aching desire among British football fans to return to the days of muddy pitches and rock-hard balls, with the 1960s and early 1970s looked upon as a fabled ‘golden age’ of football.   

There are countless reasons for this nostalgia. Players from the Sixties, such as Brazil’s Pele, England’s Bobby Charlton and Northern Ireland’s George Best, are frequently venerated as some of the greatest of all time, but they also had an added level of relatability for ordinary fans. While in 2018, the average wage in England’s top division is £50,000 per week, more than most people make in a year, in 1960 this figure sat at just £20 per week, allowing fans to feel on par with the eleven men they cheered for every Sunday. Less media presence also led to a heightened degree of mystery for maverick players. The glamour footballers of the 1960s, such as George Best (who once remarked, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered”) enjoyed a much more charmed existence than their modern contemporaries, who face constant media scrutiny as the downside of their exorbitant wages. While Best’s partying and showboating was celebrated, a modern-day equivalent such as Cristiano Ronaldo is subject to constant questions about his work ethic and willingness to play for his team and not just for himself.   

The corporate element of modern-day football has also diminished the fan experience when compared to the ‘golden age’. While football clubs in the Sixties and Seventies were owned by local businessmen, today’s chairmen include Emirs, Sheikhs and oligarchs. This has led to alienation among traditional fans and, in the cases of clubs such as Blackpool and Coventry, boycotts against owners who are perceived to prioritise profit margins over their team’s performance. Intervention of entrepreneurs in the modern game has led to exponential growth in ticket prices; for example, the cheapest Manchester United season ticket has risen from a price of £7 in 1960 to a staggering £532 in 2017. Furthermore, a desire to spread brand appeal has led to a move away from the traditional localised fan group. Of United’s 660 million fans worldwide, roughly half live in the Asia Pacific region and, tellingly, only 0.1% live in Manchester. Surging ticket prices and increased numbers of ‘armchair fans’ have, for some, spoilt the sacred Saturday afternoon experience of cheering on one’s local team, a cultural phenomenon that was at its peak in the 1960s.

Another reason that British fans look back fondly to the 1960s and ‘70s is that British teams were highly competitive in world football. England’s 1966 World Cup win remains a high-point for the senior men’s team, who have not made the final of a major tournament since, infamously losing seven penalty shoot-outs in that time. While the national team’s struggles since 1966 are well-documented, it is also worth reflecting on the downturn in fortunes of domestic sides in European tournaments. In consecutive years in the 1960s, Celtic and Manchester United defeated European heavyweights Inter Milan and SL Benfica, respectively, to win the European Cup. In comparison, there have only been four British European Cup winners in the last thirty years, with Spanish, Italian and German clubs enjoying much greater dominance of football’s biggest club competition.

Yet while 1960s fans may have watched more relatable players on competitive teams for cheaper prices, it cannot be said that every aspect of football’s ‘golden age’ was superior to the modern game. Cheap ticket prices could only be achieved because fans were forced to stand in tightly-packed stadiums, leading to injuries and, on several occasions, fatalities. In 1971, as the ‘golden age’ period drew to a close, 66 Rangers fans were killed in a crowd crush at Ibrox Park, among them children as young as nine years old. Only in the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, did the Football Association and clubs finally co-operate to ensure fan safety; today, crowd disturbances are rare and often lead only to minor injuries.    

As well as being a perilous viewing experience, discrimination was rife in football in the 1960s and 1970s. Bermudan striker Clyde Best recalls his time playing for West Ham between 1968 and 1976: “It was all bewildering… As I ran on to the pitch, home or away, bananas would be thrown at me and there were stupid monkey chants.” Racism was institutionalised as well as on the terraces; no black player would start for the English national team until Viv Anderson in 1978. Furthermore, women’s football was illegal until 1971 due to an old FA ban that claimed that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. Sexism is slowly being phased out of the modern game thanks to FA initiatives such as a pledge to spend £30m on grassroots girls’ football.

Lastly, while modern-day fans often romanticise the players of ‘the golden age’, we are currently being treated to displays of extraordinary skill; contemporary players Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are undeniably two of the greatest players of all time and should be celebrated as such. Even though the national team has struggled this millennium, England fans were recently treated to a ‘Golden Generation’ to rival the 1966 side of Charlton, Hurst, Bobby Moore and Gordon Banks, with world-class players of the 2000s such as Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, John Terry and David Beckham hailing from these shores. And it should not be forgotten, England emerged victorious from a global tournament for the first time since 1966 last summer, albeit not the senior side: the under-20 and under-17 teams won the World Cup at their respective youth levels, meaning that the future looks bright for English men’s football.

It is understandable that the footballing community looks back to the 1960s as a golden age of football, featuring star players and wonderful fan experiences. But nostalgia can be blinding; we must be careful to not lose perspective of the legendary heights footballers are reaching in modern times and to remember the racism, sexism and crowd disasters that blighted the period.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons