A vignette of a vintage year – ‘1953: Life in Football Seventy Years Ago’ reviewed

Football’s stellar names and iconic matches of a shabby, post-war Britain still hampered by rationing are recalled in a memory jogger of a book by Marvin Close and reviewed by Eric Brown…


The year 1953 brought a little relief to gloomy, post-war Britain through sporting achievement and royal pageantry.

A nation revelled in the June coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and celebrated the first ascent of Everest by British-backed climbers.

This royal event sparked interest in television which moved quickly from treat for the privileged few to general accessibility for those eager to witness the greatest live event yet covered by BBC TV cameras.

It would still be some time before television embraced the world of football with similar enthusiasm, usually restricting coverage to British Home Internationals and the FA Cup Final.

What a cast list television could have featured if only BBC chiefs had realised sooner the potential for football coverage.

The year 1953 was graced by some of Britain’s most legendary footballers. Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Len Shackleton, Nat Lofthouse, Tommy Lawton, Billy Wright and Billy Liddell, Wilf Mannion, Don Revie, Alf Ramsey, Joe Mercer, Trevor Ford and Alf Ramsey were just some of the stellar names entertaining fans throughout England.

In grounds around the country, grandstands, lounges, bars and restaurants can still be found bearing their names while rooms and corridors are decorated with their portraits.

Why didn’t England win a trophy with such talent? Perhaps because team selection was handled by a committee and not manager Walter Winterbottom. None of the above had ever played professionally.

The committee, largely made up of football club chairmen and directors, naturally wanted their own players to be capped, often at the cost of more talented rivals.

Also, tactics were welded to tradition through a long-established WM team formation.

This out-of-date thinking was totally exposed by a Hungarian team that not only became the first foreign nation to beat England at Wembley but simply embarrassed them with skills unimagined at FA HQ.

When they first came out for a pre-match kick-in that November, they were derided by England players who decided they couldn’t afford proper kit and their so-called star man was way overweight. Puskas played a leading role in England’s 6-3 demolition.

As author Marvin Close points out in ‘1953: Life in Football Seventy Years Ago’, this should have been a wake-up call for an England set-up now left behind by smarter continental rivals yet it was still some years before they started playing catch-up.

The other big match of 1953 also came at Wembley when Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers met in the FA Cup Final in early May.

Blackpool had made it for the third time in five years but Matthews was still waiting to claim that elusive winner’s medal.

Tangerine fans were convinced that at 38 he was starting to show signs of decline and regarded this as his last chance. Little did they know. Matthews got his medal thanks to Stan Mortensen and Bolton injuries – and played on at the top level for another 12 years.

No matter how many extra fans these stars pulled in, they were still restricted by a maximum wage which could be as little as £12 a week and an archaic retain-and-transfer system which meant they were little more than slaves.

The battle to overturn this clear injustice is dealt with so fully that Mr Close throws forward his tale to the early 1960s when Johnny Haynes became the first £100-a-week footballer as Fulham chairman Ernie Clay kept a promise. At least that’s what Mr Close says. I’m sure Tommy Trinder was the chairman who coughed up the cash.

There’s an excellent chapter on the tragic Sheffield Wednesday goalscorer Derek Dooley, although a reference to him “finding his feet in the top division” might have been better avoided as he was soon to lose a leg.

Also better avoided would have been: “The centre forward playing up front” and a reference to “whole villages butchered and hung from a tree”.

Of particular interest to journalists will be the in-depth description of how Saturday evening football papers were assembled and published. Young scribes will be amazed at how those green un’s or pink un’s etc – depending on where you lived – collected, processed and regurgitated match reports from 3pm kick-offs into a publication sold on streets by 6pm.

The book also tells the story behind the launch of Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, often described as the world’s finest football magazine .

Marvin Close has done a fine job with this memory-jogger of a time when players freely smoked before matches and at half-time, travelled on buses to matches with the fans (often after putting in a shift down the pit), wore boots that stretched over ankles and shorts that covered knees, and ate steak and chips as a pre-match meal – if clubs could obtain meat, with wartime rationing still in force.

Amazing times. It follows his similar volume on football in 1923, which was published last year.

‘1953: Life in Football Seventy Years Ago’ by Marvin Close is published by Pitch Publishing, priced £14.99.

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