Regular readers know that this column prides itself on being first with the news. That is, first with the merest hint of a suggestion that football might be returning to the great and glorious 1970s.
Remember them? Long hair, muddy pitches, Kung-Fu tackling, toilet-roll cascades, pillars blocking the view, skinheads blocking the view, nothing blocking the view because there’s no roof and it’s lashing down. And one of the best things about the 1970s? Your new striker still calls himself a centre-forward who would regard “false 9” as a term of abuse and wouldn’t dream of taking a year to get used to his new club, not least because his disciplinarian manager would give him hell if he did.
Disciplinarian managers, whatever happened to them? You can’t get away with that sort of thing now, so we’re told. Players prefer an arm round the shoulder to a clout round the lughole. The manager cannot lay down the law to them. The boss cannot tell them who’s boss. Players cannot be deprived of their rights. Thus the old-school guy in the sheepskin turning himself puce with his touchline ranting is often portrayed as a politically incorrect dinosaur.
Except no-one seems to have told Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte that it’s not the 1970s any more. Each of them has issued the kind of diktat which evokes that blessed era when managers were managers and players just had to bloody well get on with it. You wonder if these guys were all watching Alf Garnett on repeat before pitching up in the Premier League and either thought this paint-stripper abrasiveness was still at large in England or that it was exactly what the country, and specifically its cosseted footballers, needed.
Guardiola at Manchester City is leading the way in the “Back to the 1970s” approach. He’s looked at coloured football boots in the same way Alf used to view hair on a fella which touched the shirt collar and he’s gone off on one. Now City’s academy players will only wear black.
This is an attempt to keep the young superstars “grounded” but it is just the latest of Guardiola’s tough rules. He’s also banned pizza, fruit juice and the internet, switching off the wifi at the club’s £200 million training complex so the players might start talking to one another.
Last week, Sergio Aguero revealed that the Catalan walked in on one of his charges using his mobile phone while he was having a massage. “Maybe he did not like that,” said the striker. “From then, he cut the internet.” These pampered multi-millionaires had better watch out: perhaps Guardiola, inset, went away wondering how he could ban massages as well.
OK, we know that back in the 1970s the care shown by clubs to their prize commodities sometimes left a lot to be desired. The great Leeds United and Scotland wing wizard Eddie Gray, whose career was hampered by injury, once told me how the medical staff’s remedy for a thigh knock was to plonk him in a salt bath. But they forgot he was there and the muscle calcified.
You wonder, though, as Guardiola cuts out bad food – and Conte follows suit by outlawing ketchup in the strict diet he’s introduced at Chelsea – if these foreign coaches know about Jock Wallace and the sand dunes of Gullane. They obviously believe their finely honed athletes could be honed further still.
Ex-Ranger Alex Miller once painted a vivid picture for me of the torture training the players had to endure under ex-jungle fighter Wallace while families used the East Lothian beach for pleasure: “When we got to Gullane we had to change into our kit in the car park in full view of the day-trippers while Jock rammed poles into the sand. Running across the dunes was bloody hard and I was really fit. Jock kept hold of one pole and Derek Johnstone would get a whack: ‘Lift your f****n’ knees up!’ A young lad, George Walker, collapsed. He got given oxygen but then it was: ‘On your f****n’ feet!’”
If you’ve heard footballers complain about how long it takes to settle in at a new club – as if my editor would wait a year for me to deliver half-decent copy – or make some other utterance which suggests they’ve definitely become a bubble-dwelling stranger to reality, then it can be hard to resist the urge to turn into Alf Garnett and call for the return of National Service or at the very least agree with Sgt Major Jock, who clearly believed that restaging that sadistic movie The Hill wasn’t going to do his players any lasting harm.
We mustn’t, though, punish footballers simply because they earn a lot of money. Their job is to entertain, and this they manage to do quite often. And even when they say daft things that’s entertaining too – often more so than what they achieve on the pitch.
Klopp’s big idea is also aimed at keeping his colts’ feet on the ground, in or out of coloured boots, and it’s the most interesting of the lot. He’s capped academy wages at £40,000 a year. This could mean Liverpool losing out on some kids who’re being offered huge financial incentives by other Premier League Clubs – £11,000-a-week contracts for 16-year-olds are rumoured to be out there – but the German clearly feels he has to make a moral stand against English football’s “too much, too young” culture.
This may sound disciplinarian but it’s not. For a proper throwback to harsher times, youngsters would be cleaning the senior players’ boots, then the stands – and then the toilets. When Gary Locke, the Raith Rovers manager, was a kid at Hearts this was his routine as a member of the ground staff. It was a persuasive reminder that there was other kinds of work a teenager could be doing if he didn’t appreciate his good fortune at having the chance to kick a ball about for a living.
“That was a useful lesson,” he told me the other day. “It taught me that I needed to be a footballer. I wasn’t going to take the chance on not making it and having to clean bogs.”
That’s all the 1970s news for this week, I think. Much of what happened in that era should rightly be flushed away but it wasn’t all bad. We can all think of perishers in the game we’d love to send to Gullane for even just one afternoon.