The blind spots of inherited nostalgia

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 12, 2018

Lately, I find myself using the phrase “the modern game” a lot and nearly always in a disparaging way. Whenever an article touches on ticket prices, the behaviour of players, or even just the texture of contemporary sport, there it is.

“The modern game.”

Some self-indulgence – albeit for it context-giving purposes: I’ll turn 34 in July, I attended my first game in March 1992 (Bristol City vs Cambridge United), and can claim to have only just arrived before the dawn of the Premier League. Even then, I was too young to have travelled to the match alone, had my ticket paid for, and was gifted a scarf on the way out.

A few years later, Oxford United’s Manor Ground – bulldozed long ago – would provide further formative experiences. The London Road terrace was archaic enough, all concrete and painted metal as it was, but the ground itself only looked as if it belonged to a different era.

The point is this: when people of my age or younger talk of the “modern game”, the implication is that we experienced something different. When a grizzled septuagenarian with a fixed expression, cheeks hardened by the cold, proclaims that things aren’t as they were and are poorer as a result, it’s only right to listen.

But us – our generation and below – there’s no credibility there.

It’s an inherited nostalgia, bent to the purpose of defeating whatever grievances are voguing at the time. When those who were never there talk of a time that they weren’t around to experience, it’s always in solely good terms. Those appropriated memories are concerned only with the sense of community, players earning less, and supporters being able to pay their entrance with a fistfull of pennies and pocket lint.

But the history doesn’t lie. While not wholly inaccurate, that’s a heavily doctored version of the reality, one which ignores the squalor the supporters suffered, the pejorative associations they were pelted with, and the societal problems which bled into the grounds. Contemporary fans may now complain – rightly – of being treated as customers, but that’s surely an improvement on vermin. Study old pictures of the grounds, tally them with the anecdotes you’ve heard or read about, and consider whether the organisational compassion between club and fans, now mourned in its absence, ever really existed in the first place.

This happens with any form of nostalgia. When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union eighteen months ago, at least some of those Xs would have been cast in the hope of re-summoning a past which never actually took place; bowler hats, clipped accents and croquet on village lawns. It’s a view of England borrowed from a postcard, an Evelyn Waugh novel or the opening credits of an Inspector Morse episode.

And football is invariably the same.

Study old pictures of the grounds, tally them with the anecdotes you've heard or read about, and consider whether the organisational compassion between club and fans, now mourned in its absence, ever really existed.

So where does this come from? In all likelihood, the fairytales.

As a younger person, my first dose of “the way things were” came from the comic book needle. Roy of the Rovers, Billy’s Boots (guesting in ROTR), and also the range of characters and events described in Football Picture Story Monthly. They all presented the sport in a certain way, cleansed of its ugliness and prone to rewarding only the just. In that world, crooked agents never prospered, lazy players never fulfilled their talent, and any vaguely unpleasant behaviour was righteously punished. Stadiums were never shown to be dangerous and social problems like racism, homophobia and misogyny were rarely tackled, if at all. They were written for their own times (and for children) and before many of the irritations that exist today had emerged, but they were still careful to omit the more rugged aspects which existed.

Perhaps this has changed in the decades since, but I also remember there being a dearth of football fiction in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Occasionally, a library shelf might offer a dog-eared Paul Hardcastle book or something similar, but – again – the view of the game which children had access to was universally idealised.

Over time, that changes – or, at least, the cracks in facade begin to appear. Deeper interest leads to both first-hand experience and a growing thirst for the sport’s past, but that initial exposure seems to have a lasting impact. The ideals portrayed are so vivid and we’re exposed to them at such a young age, that they became an embedded, instructive truth. The values and imperatives implied within those pages are repeated often enough to seem incontestably accurate.

That’s what it must have been like.

Much of what has now been lost in the game remains desirable, not least its basic affordability, but the lasting suspicion is that younger generations long for something which never really existed. Something so perfect that we can’t help but use it to flog everything which now exists in its place – video technology, the breaking of nominal transfer thresholds, and even players wearing gloves on the pitch or warming themselves with blankets on a substitutes’ bench.

Anything new is an affront to yesterday’s standards and with each passing year that bar seems to rise a little bit higher.

What are you looking for?