Super Greed: the Fight for Football – Sky Documentaries


This morning, before the Spring Statement, Sky News sent a reporter to Bury Market, to interview some of the people who run the food bank at Radcliffe.  Our region was very badly hit by the pandemic, and we’d had more than our fair share of socio-economic problems even before it.  And, in April 2021, with all that going on, when we were just starting to emerge from Covid restrictions after being under them for longer than any other part of the country, United and City signed up for the proposed Super League.  Liverpool too.  It was absolutely shameful.  For all the clubs. How on earth did the owners get it so wrong?  And it was the owners: the players and the managers more or less said that they were as disgusted as the fans were.  Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t even told about it until after the news had made its way into the press.

It was a bit ironic that this programme was made by Sky, given that it was Sky Sports who enabled the set-up of the Premier League.  But the Premier League’s not a closed shop.  It’s competitive.  There’s promotion and relegation.  And, yes, it’s been dominated by a small number of clubs, but Blackburn won the title in its second year, and Leicester won the title in 2016.  Relatively small clubs (no offence intended) such as Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town have played in the Premier League.  And the money doesn’t all go to the Premier League clubs.   It makes its way down, throughout the English game – although even that didn’t stop Bury going out of business in August 2019, nor Bolton Wanderers, founder members of the Football League in 1888, from very nearly following them.

Even the talk by one of the reporters on this programme of “the traditional Big Six” was nonsense.  What tradition?  When I was a kid, we had a “Big Five” – United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton.  Give it a couple of seasons and maybe we’ll have a “Big Seven”, with Newcastle in there.  Or maybe, given the current goings-on, Chelsea’ll drop out of that “Big” group.  Who knows?   All the best to Nick Candy’s consortium with their bid to buy Chelsea, by the way.   Until a couple of weeks ago, all I knew about Nick Candy was that he was married to Holly Valance, but he’s a Londoner and a lifelong Chelsea fan.

Going back, again, to when I was a kid, United’s chairman was Martin Edwards.  People used to call him for all sorts, but he was still one of us.  The Edwards family were self-made people from Salford, lifelong United fans.  Then along came the Glazers. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against any of the Glazers personally, and I’ve certainly got nothing against Americans, but what did they know about United, about Manchester, about football in general?  I remember once being on holiday somewhere in the US, Atlanta I think, and hearing the local American football club referred to as a “franchise”.   I mean, what?   A “franchise” is where you go for a hamburger.  A football club is an intrinsic part of a town or a city, of people’s lives.   And people, if they’re lucky to get tickets, travel to away matches, to other towns and cities.  Not to other “franchises”.  They do here, anyway.  They even do in Russia.

That was how it all seemed here, that it was about greedy foreign owners who knew nothing about the clubs.  The one exception being Spurs, whose owner had been born above a pub in the East End.  People pointed to the fact that Bayern Munich, who dominated German football to a far greater extent than any club dominated English, Spanish or Italian football, hadn’t got involved – because they were owned by their fans.  (Paris St Germain hadn’t either, but that was because their owners wanted to keep in with UEFA and FIFA.)

But it was different abroad.  Barcelona were also owned by their fans.  One of my initial reactions had been that Barcelona fans would be horrified.  Barcelona, mas que un club, surely they of all clubs would see how wrong this was.  But … well, it must have been representatives of club members who’d made the decision.  Juventus had exactly the sort of chairman we looked back to from the supposed good old days (er, not that English football in the 1980s was exactly “good”) – Andrea Agnelli was Turin born and bred, a lifelong fan, and had succeeded his father as chairman.  Florentino Perez, the chairman of Real Madrid, and the driving force behind it all, was a Madrileno.  None of that fitted the way it looked to us.

What was different?  Well, according to this programme, it was mainly money.  Italy and Spain had also been very badly hit by the pandemic, and some of the clubs involved had already had huge debts.  And, especially in Spain, the media and the government backed the Super League.  Sky put this down to the influence of Perez himself.  Who knows?   Italy was hardly mentioned, which a shame.

There was a lot of talk here, at the time, that the Government backed the Super League plans, and that there’d been secret meetings involving people connected with United.  I’ll just say that, whilst I can’t know for certain, I genuinely don’t believe a word of that, based on what I know of the people allegedly involved.  Anyway, with the fans of the clubs involved, the fans of other clubs, and every part of the media so vehemently opposed to the plan, the Government came out against it.

But it wasn’t about the Government, or even the media.  It was the fans who killed the proposal.  The fans of the clubs involved, who held huge demonstrations against it.  Sky spoke to someone from Marca, a publication which does not generally have anything positive to say about English football, and he said that the Super League proposal had been killed by English football fans.

And he was right.  And I think we can be rather proud of that. The whole thing collapsed within a week.

Watch this, if you get the chance.  It’s not perfect – as I said, it barely mentioned the mood in Italy – but it was very, very interesting.  And be proud, that we put football above money.  There are still all sorts of issues going on with English football, but we got this right.  The owners got it wrong, but the fans put it right.





Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football by Jonathan Wilson


This book is amazing.  I ordered it after a conversation with my young nephews about the interaction between the rise of Shakhtar Donetsk to surpass Dynamo Kyiv and the geopolitical divisions within Ukraine.  Sound like a flippant thing to say?  It isn’t: it really isn’t.  The book mentions it, and it was written *before* the conflict in the Donbass broke out in 2006.   It also makes the interesting point that Karpaty Lviv are part of it too.  I’d never really thought of that, probably because Karpaty aren’t that well-known here, but it’s a good point.  Football says so much.  Look at how Barca ended up practically at the centre of the row after the Catalan independence referendum.

The first time I realised that Yugoslavia was going to disintegrate into civil war was well before it did.  It was in 1990, and I was watching a programme called Trans World Sport, which, in those days, was one of the very few opportunities you got to see even a few minutes of tennis on TV outside tournaments played in the UK.  Red Star Belgrade, Crvena Zvedza, were playing Dinamo Zagreb, and horrendous violence broke out between the Serbian and Croatian fans.  It sounds daft, but the venom was so intense that I knew then that there was going to be a war.  According to this book, Red Star fans actually claim to have started the war.  They also claim that they were responsible for the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, later on.  It doesn’t surprise me.  I don’t mean that as anything against Red Star/Crvena Zvedza, just that it doesn’t surprise me that football can be so close to politics.

The book does stop short of attributing the 1989 revolution in Romania to football, but it does say that it worked the other way round – that Dinamo Bucharest’s winning the double that year, ahead of the Ceasescu-backed Steaua Bucharest, probably wouldn’t have happened if the revolution happened first.

Incidentally, as a kid, I used to ask why Leningrad didn’t have a decent football team.  I always had Russia on the brain, and it seemed odd that such a major city didn’t have a top class football team.  I never got a satisfactory answer, so, when I went to Russia in 1996, by which time Leningrad had changed its name back to St Petersburg, I asked a tour guide.  “It does have a football team,” he explained, “but they are very bad.  Like the blue team in Manchester.”  Those were the days.  Zenit got their act together a few years later, and have been Russian champions for the past three seasons.  The book barely mentions Zenit, but it does say a lot about the various Moscow teams and how they were affected by Soviet politics, and the firm belief in Georgia and Armenia that Stalin, despite the fact that both he and his head of the secret police were Georgian, would only allow teams from either Moscow or Kyiv to win the Soviet league title.

Sorry, that’s irrelevant.  To get back to the book, the author says at the start that he was the only kid in his class who was cheering for Red Star/Crvena Zvedza in the 1991 European Cup Final, rather than for Chris Waddle’s Marseille.  Me too, Jonathan, me too!  I was another kid with a thing about Eastern Europe.  Red Star won, and played United in the Super Cup.  The leg in Belgrade was cancelled, and only the leg at Old Trafford was played.  War had broken out by then.

As I’ve said, it sounds flippant, which it really isn’t, to talk about football rivalries and wars in the same breath, because we don’t really have that in England.  I’m not playing down what our own clubs have been through.  I grew up hearing about the Munich Air Disaster.  My dad, as a 12-year-old schoolboy, attended United’s first match at Old Trafford after the plane crashed, along with my late grandfather.  A distant relative on my mum’s side died at Hillsborough.  But, although obviously we have club rivalries which relate to regional rivalries which go way beyond politics – United and Liverpool, Newcastle and Sunderland, etc – we don’t have the political issues here.  Well, we do now, with all these goings-on over Chelsea and Roman Abramovich, but that’s not about domestic politics.

None of our clubs have had their president shot dead by a Falangist, like Barcelona, been purged by the Nazis because they’ve got a number of Jewish staff members and board members (Bayern Munich), been purged by Nazi sympathisers for the same reason and then been put under the control of a man who deported 40,000 people to Auschwitz (MTK Budapest), dissolved by Stalin for contributing the majority of players to a Soviet side which lost to Yugoslavia (CSKA Moscow) or had their chairman deported to a gulag because the head of the Stalinist secret police didn’t like him (Spartak Moscow).

We don’t have clubs named after freedom fighters (Levski Sofia, Red Star Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade), and we don’t have clubs which became bound up with Juan Peron (Boca Juniors).   And we don’t really have the complicated regional political issues which are mixed up with football in Spain and to some extent Italy … and, of course, Ukraine.  Romania too, I suppose – there are some issues in Cluj over Transylvania’s complicated Hungarian-Romanian ethnopolitics.  Nor do we have clubs affiliated to the Army or secret police organisations.

OK, that’s a lot of talk about issues which don’t exist in England, rather than issues which *do*, or did, exist in Eastern Europe!  And, of course, I’m saying “England” rather than “the UK”, because obviously Glasgow and Derry and various other places have different issues.

Anyway.  To get back to the book!   There’s a chapter each of several different countries behind the old Iron Curtain, and each one’s fascinating.  What Ukraine’s performance in the 2006 World Cup, Slovenia’s in Euro 2000 and Croatia’s in Euro 1996 did for each country’s sense of identity and self-belief.  And Hungary in the 1950s … when I went to Budapest in 2000, people were still talking about *that* match at Wembley in 1953, as if it’d been the greatest moment in Hungarian history.  The author claims that the Magical Magyars’ defeat by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final was what led to the 1956 Uprising.  That’s possibly pushing it a bit, but he makes a very convincing argument.

There are also very interesting chapters on corruption and other goings-on in football in Russia, Georgia and Romania (although nothing about Ukrainian football and some of what allegedly went on, or was attempted, with the Kanchelskis transfers), and Poland and Bulgaria also get their own chapters.  I could go on and on, but I don’t suppose anyone’s going to read this anyway. Still, I’m enjoying writing it.

I suppose he couldn’t cover everywhere, but I’m curious about the omission of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  I remain convinced that the Velvet Divorce was linked to the omission of the Slovak verse of the Czechoslovakian national anthem at the 1990 World Cup!  Maybe Czech and Slovak football just isn’t questionable enough.  East Germany doesn’t get a mention, either.  Nor does Belarus, nor Albania, nor Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, but they aren’t major footballing nations in the way that the Czech Republic and Slovakia are.  And the book’s now 16 years old, so it would have been written too early to mention the rise and fall of Anzhi Makhachkala.

Anyway, this book is very strongly recommended.  It isn’t for everyone, and not everyone likes to read about Eastern Europe or football, never mind both, but I loved it!




The Keeper


This was a rather romanticised and Roy-of-the-Rovers-ised version of the Bert Trautmann story, and it certainly wasn’t historically (or geographically) accurate, but it was an entertaining film and all the main points were there. In summary – I always thought everyone knew this story, but I gather not everyone does! – Bert Trautmann, a 22-year-old German soldier, was taken prisoner in 1945 and brought to North West England as a POW. He chose to remain here rather than be repatriated, and began playing for St Helens Town as a goalkeeper. In 1949, he was signed by City, and there was an almighty row: people were genuinely very shocked and distressed that a top-level club, especially one in a city with a large Jewish community, had signed someone who’d fought for the Nazis. There were big protests, a lot of letters of complaint were sent, and season tickets were returned. Rabbi Alexander Altmann, who’d come to Manchester as a refugee and lost both his parents and many other relatives and friends in the Holocaust, wrote a very courageous letter to a local paper, urging people not to blame one man for the war and the atrocities carried out by the Third Reich.

Things calmed down here, although for a while Trautmann continued to be abused at away matches, but eventually he won widespread respect, especially after he famously played the last 17 minutes of the 1956 Cup Final, which City won, with a broken neck. Tragically, a few months later, his 5-year-old son was killed in a car crash. Despite everything, he carried on playing, is regarded with great respect in Manchester by City fans and we United fans alike, is seen as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, and was awarded an honorary OBE for his work in improving Anglo-German relations. It’s a hell of a story even without film-makers romanticising it! Very watchable film, and wonderful use of Abide With Me, the Cup Final hymn which means a lot to so many people. I missed this at the pictures, but it’s out on Sky now, and is recommended viewing.

The timescale was all a bit bonkers in this – one minute it was VE Day, then the next minute the prisoners were being repatriated, and a minute after that it was 1949 – but, OK, you can only fit so much into a two-hour film, and I understand that they didn’t want to spend ages showing him in three different camps. It was all very romanticised, though! In this version of events, he was showing off his goalkeeping skills at the POW camp (as you do!) when his future wife and future father-in-law turned up to deliver some goods from their shop, and his future father-in-law talent-spotted him for St Helens Town, and invited him to work at his shop and move in with his family!  Then drove home through miles and miles of stunning open countryside, up hill and down dale … between Ashton-in-Makerfield and St Helens.  The East Lancs Road does not look like that, believe me! It is, however, true that he played for St Helens Town, and married the daughter of the club secretary. And, OK, it was all very Roy of the Rovers this way, especially as they had him saving the club from relegation, so I suppose it made for good viewing.

Then he signed for City. There’d been some unease at St Helens Town, but they, with all due respect, were a small non-league club.  City were a First Division club, and one with thousands of Jewish fans to boot.  The film did show the protests, and it did mention the rabbi’s letter, and show the famous scene in the dressing room in which the club captain said that there was no war there, but … well, whilst we all know what happened during the war, I thought it should still have made it clearer just why people were so upset. Some clips from the radio broadcasts of the Nuremberg Trials would probably have been the best way of doing it, along with some shots of the damage done by the air raids.  It did, to be fair, show flashbacks to him witnessing a young child being shot dead in the Nazis in Ukraine – but, in fact, he saw a full-scale Einsatzgruppen massacre.  Maybe it would have been too much to have shown a re-creation of that in the film.  And yet maybe they should have done – as much to show how much he had to cope with as to show how much City fans and everyone else had to deal with.

They did mention his having won the Iron Cross, and there were some vague references to “war crimes”, but I just didn’t feel that it fully got across the depth of anti-German feeling in the UK at the time and the reasons for it. I don’t know how people at the time came to terms with the Nuremberg Trials, with the details of what the Nazis did. I appreciate that it wasn’t meant to be a war documentary, but I thought it could have tried harder to show the effect that that hearing about the Nazi atrocities had on people, and why that made it so difficult for everyone to accept a former Nazi soldier joining a leading club. There was a lot of very 21st-century sounding talk about forgiveness and someone trying to find a new home, but I did feel that some more explanation was needed.

And I think they could also have done with, rather than just going on about how he had no choice, talking more about how he went into the Hitler Youth at the age of 9.  Because of Jojo Rabbit – although obviously this film predates that one – there’s quite a bit of talk at the moment about the indoctrination of children.  Lads like Trautmann joined the junior branch of the Hitler Youth as if it were like joining the Cubs – it was somewhere where they could get involved in sports, have fun with their friends.  So they were indoctrinated from a very early age.  It’s important to understand that.

However, you can only get so much into a film.  And it wasn’t meant to be a documentary.  And, as I’ve said, the main points were there.  It was a difficult time.  It was brave of Trautmann to stand his ground, when he was getting death threats, and being abused at every match.  And braver yet of Rabbi Altmann to get involved, after everything that had happened to him. He really was a hero.

Anyway, after that, we got lots of football, some of it actual film from the time. I think there was a bit of Bertie Magoo-ing going on here, though! Come on, how do you make a football film set in Manchester in the 1950s and not even mention the Busby Babes?! They could at least have shown Trautmann’s testimonial, when he captained a combined United-City XI. Or maybe it was just that the film didn’t have much sense of Manchester at all. Most of it was filmed in Northern Ireland!

I’ve always been quite sad that I was born too late for that era, when many United fans would go to watch City when United were away, and many City fans would go to watch United when City were away, without the unpleasantness that developed in the rivalries between different clubs later on.  We still get that Wider Football Family feeling sometimes, especially in times of trouble, but it’s not like it was then.

Heigh-ho!  But the way they showed the legendary 1956 Cup Final was great. And then … I could hardly watch the bit where the little lad was killed, knowing what was coming. Then … well, there was a strange scene in which Trautmann had a fight in a cemetery with a sergeant from the POW camp, whose wife and children had been killed in the Christmas Blitz, and who persuaded him to carry on playing. And then it showed flashbacks to his time as a soldier in Ukraine, and showed him telling his wife that he felt that their son’s death was his punishment for not intervening to stop the murder of a child there.

I don’t know where the idea that he felt it was karma came from, and I’m assuming it was fictional, but it was very powerful, especially with “Abide With Me” playing in the background, and it was a reminder of how difficult it must have been for those who fought for the Nazis to deal with it all.  There’s a lot of tension over Holocaust remembrance at the moment, and the authorities in some countries seem keen to play down aspects of what happened.  That’s wrong in so many ways.  We need to keep talking about it.  All aspects of it.

The film didn’t tell us that the Trautmanns’ marriage sadly ended as they struggled to come to terms with the loss of one of their children, but it did tell us about all the awards Trautmann received, both for his football and for his work in the community.  His story really is incredible.  Carrying on playing in a Cup Final with a broken neck would be story enough, but the story of the Nazi soldier – and he was initially classified as a Nazi whilst he was a POW – who became a hero in English football is something that you just couldn’t make up.

Football can do that.  It can bring people together.  It’s not always Roy of the Rovers.  It’s often anything but.  But it does throw up some absolutely amazing stories, and this is one of them.  Don’t go expecting historical accuracy, or indeed geographical accuracy, but, if you get chance, this is still a very good film to see.

Battle of the Sexes


Billie Jean King is an icon of tennis, the women’s rights movement and the LGBT rights movement. This film did so poorly at the box office that I assumed it hadn’t done her justice – it was only on at the pictures very briefly, which is why I missed it – but it turned out to be superb.  Very impressed. I’d love to know what Margaret Court, about whom there’ll no doubt, and with good cause, be another row come January, thought about being cast as the villain of the piece.  Bobby Riggs, meanwhile, just came across as a bit of a prat.

Sports films can be awkward. Nobody particularly wants to see actors and actresses and their body doubles pretending to play a tennis match.  If I want to watch tennis (which I do, pretty much all the time!), I’ll watch a proper match involving professional players.  But this wasn’t really a sports film, or a film just about the famous match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs: it was a film about people standing up for something they believed in.

The issue of equal prize money between men and women in tennis is still ongoing. It was only in 2007 that Wimbledon and the French Open began awarding equal prize money across the board, and the question still comes up umpteen times a year.  Back in 1970, a tournament was organised in which female players were offered only one-eighth of the prize money being offered to male players.

Billie Jean King and eight other women players, championed by publisher and former player Gladys Heldman – the Heldman character in the film also made a point about the anti-Semitism prevalent in some American sports clubs at that time – set up their own tour, sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes. I’m so ancient that I can still remember the days of Virginia Slims tournaments (I mean in the late ’80s and ’90s, not the ’70s!)!   It eventually became what we now know as the WTA Tour.  They were banned from tournaments organised by the USLTA (now the USTA), and a lot of women’s events outside the US were also dropped.  However, they stuck to their guns, and formed the Women’s Tennis Association, and their position gradually improved.

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, a retired player in his mid-’50s, had got his life in a mess because of gambling. Whilst his gambling addiction wasn’t the main focus of the film, it did raise the important issue of the number of professional sports players who struggle to cope with retirement, and fall into gambling or alcoholism or other addictions.  He came up with the idea of a match against a top female player, but, although he made a lot of remarks about women belonging in the kitchen and so on, it was clear that he didn’t really mean it, and that he was desperate for money and playing up the image of himself as a male chauvinist pig because he knew it’d gain publicity.  It’s known that he and Billie Jean King kept in touch after their match, and remained friends until his death.

Margaret Court, on the other hand, was depicted as an absolute bitch. I don’t honestly think that’s accurate: there’s never been any suggestion that there was bad feeling between her and Billie Jean King when they were playing.  Billie Jean King had a husband at the time, but had begun a relationship with … I thought Marilyn Barnett was her secretary, but she was portrayed in this as her hairdresser.  Anyway, they began a relationship, which went on for around a decade.  Eventually it all ended very unpleasantly, with Barnett revealing the relationship publicly and suing her for palimony, but that was years after the period covered by the film.  The way it was shown in the film was that Margaret Court had realised about the relationship, and she was shown making homophobic remarks and saying that she hoped Billie Jean’s personal life would fall apart and cause her tennis to do likewise.

I’ve never heard anything to suggest that that actually happened. However, in recent years, Margaret Court has been very outspoken against LGBT rights, and that’s led to calls for the Margaret Court Arena, the second court at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open, to be renamed.  Several players, including Andy Murray, have spoken of the possibility of boycotting the court, or even the whole event. Some of her comments, especially about transgender children, are just beyond appalling, and really have disgusted players, fans and everyone else.  She didn’t attend the Australian Open last year, knowing that she wouldn’t be welcome.  So it wouldn’t surprise me if she had made comments like that, but I’ve never heard it suggested that she did.

She, then the world number one, played a “battle of the sexes” match against Bobby Riggs, and he absolutely routed her. It was hinted in the film that maybe she lost deliberately.  Again, I’m not sure that that’s ever been suggested.  There have been suggestions that Bobby Riggs lost his match against Billie Jean King deliberately, which wasn’t suggested in the film; but I don’t think that’s true either.

Teddy Tinling, the British dress designer and former player, who famously upset the powers that were at Wimbledon by designing lace pants for “Gorgeous” Gussie Moran in 1949, and designed Billie Jean’s match for her match against Riggs, was, by contrast, shown as being absolutely lovely – incredibly supportive of all the women players and, openly gay himself, supportive of Billie Jean in her personal life too. The film didn’t show too much about her family, but she’s spoken openly about how she was frightened of coming out because of the attitude of her very conservative and religious family.  It did show her being warned that the women’s tour could suffer badly if sponsorship were to be withdrawn by businesses with homophobic attitudes – and, when her relationship with Marilyn Barnett was made public, she did indeed lose millions of dollars in endorsements.

After defeating Margaret Court, Bobby Riggs challenged any other female player to play him. Billie Jean King accepted.  He might have been doing it for the publicity and the money, and she might have felt that it was all pretty stupid, but, as she’s said, if she’d lost, live on prime time TV, to a retired player 26 years older than her, the reputation of women’s tennis and the morale of all the female players would have been badly damaged. The film made the match look a lot more serious than it was in real life – there was a load of silly OTT pre-match stuff in real life, dressing up and so on – but, even in real life, it was a big thing, and attracted a huge amount of attention.

Billie Jean won the match, 6-4 6-3 6-3. How much of an effect it actually had on women’s tennis, and on women’s sport and indeed feminism in general, is a moot point, but she’d certainly never have heard the end of it had she lost.  Maybe it was a big moment.  It’d be nice to think so.

However much effect that match did or didn’t have, Billie Jean King is a heroine, both as one of the greatest tennis players of all time and as someone who’s fought for equal rights. It’s a great shame that this film didn’t do better at the box office, because it really is worth seeing – not just by tennis fans, but by everyone.


History in the making – a summer to remember (one way or another!)


The spell is broken.  England are out of the World Cup, and, for a while yesterday morning, it poured with rain – the first rain we’d had in weeks.  I’m incredibly proud of everything that our young, inexperienced group of players and our inspirational manager have achieved, and we desperately need rain to put out the fires on Winter Hill and Saddleworth Moor, but I just want to turn the clock back to Wednesday afternoon, when everything seemed possible!

The football was still the headlines of the news yesterday morning, the morning after the night before, and we were still hearing about the twelve young lads and their coach being rescued from the caves in Thailand (although it’s so sad that one man died during the rescue effort, and possibly a bit tacky that there’s already talk of making a film about it all) … but then came Donald Trump, our incompetent embarrassment of a government, and yet another year of Twelfth Day of July unrest in Northern Ireland.

For a few weeks, we were Somewhere Over The Rainbow.  Skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream … .  (Incidentally, Simon Schama, the historian and TV presenter, once made a thought-provoking point about how that song could only have been written by the child of immigrants who’d fled persecution for the American Dream.)   Yesterday morning, the skies were grey, and it was sinking in that the World Cup was not coming home after all.  But, hey, what a time we’ve had!   Before the World Cup started, we didn’t dare hope for any more than getting out of the group.  Not to mention all the catastrophising about how the tournament was going to be spoilt by racism, homophobia and Russia’s troubled relations with the rest of the world.  And look what we got instead!   Talk about the feelgood factor.  It felt as if the whole country was singing Three Lions.

And we’ve still got Wimbledon!   Well, OK, this isn’t a national thing, but it will make me ecstatically happy if the French Open champion can win his third Wimbledon title on Sunday.  OK, I’m not holding my breath.  Nole looked worryingly good yesterday.  Balkan double?  Croatia win the World Cup and Serbia win Wimbledon?  How weird would that be?  And there are so many stories of the horrors of the wars of the 1990s tied up in all that.  Sport can give so much.

We hoped.  And we dreamed.  Everyone, including Princes William and Harry, was saying “It’s coming home”.  That song!   1996 was weird.  It started off being all so exciting.  I’d just been to Prague for a belated 21st birthday weekend away, and the Czech Republic were based in Manchester for Euro ’96, so the flight home was full of football fans.  There was such a buzz in the air.  Then the IRA blew up our city centre.  So we didn’t quite get the ongoing 1996 feelgood factor.  But we got the song.  Everyone gets the song!  Everyone’s been singing it.  Friends who normally have little interest in football have been posting on Facebook about how excited they are.  The day of the semi-final was even dubbed Waistcoat Wednesday, with people posting pictures of themselves wearing waistcoats in honour of Gareth Southgate!   At 7 o’clock on Wednesday evening, the streets were deserted.  Everyone was watching the match.  We were all in it together.

That hasn’t happened too much lately.  And the leadership qualities displayed by Gareth Southgate, and the sense of team spirit he’s instilled in the team, the togetherness, the unity – well, there’s been precious little of that around either.  I do appreciate that Theresa May’s in a difficult position, but, come on, two years to agree an internal position on Brexit, and then it all falls apart within three days?  How on earth are we meant to negotiate with the EU when Cabinet members can’t even agree amongst themselves?  Summoned to Chequers, told to put their mobile phones away, like a bunch of naughty schoolkids in detention – and then the whole thing falling apart anyway.  That’s not Three Lions; that’s Madness’s You’re An Embarrassment.

And the Opposition are no better.  Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to deal with anti-Semitism within the Labour Party is extremely concerning, as well as embarrassing.  And does anyone have the remotest clue what Labour’s policy on the best way of getting us out of the EU is?  No, me neither.  And all this talk about “Brexiters” and “Remoaners”.  The decision’s been made, OK?  You may as well label people as Hanoverians and Jacobites, or Roundheads and Cavaliers.  Move on.  But it’s very difficult when both main parties are making such a mess of everything.  There is not one senior politician at Westminster who inspires a scrap of confidence.  Leadership?  Togetherness?  Unity?  Hah!  Gareth Southgate for PM!   I’m telling you, he could only do better!   He and the players brought us together.

Sport does this.  London 2012.  Andy Murray winning Wimbledon.  Oh, it can go horribly wrong well, we all know that; but it can do this.  There’s something a bit different about it this time, though.  It’s not just the success – whilst it lasted.  It’s the team spirit.  This is not the so-called “Golden Generation” of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard & co, or the 1998 squad which included the likes of David Beckham and Alan Shearer.  Most of these players weren’t even household names before the tournament began.  But they’ve connected, to use a modern-day buzzword – with each other, and with the fans.  They got it.  We got it.

And the skies were blue.  And the sun shone.

I think it actually started with the Royal Wedding.  We’ve watched Prince Harry grow up.  We saw that little boy walking along behind his mother’s coffin.  We’ve seen him get himself into trouble.  And then we’ve seen him as a hero, whether it’s been serving in Afghanistan or helping to organise the Invictus Games.  Very few people have got a bad word to say about him.  And we’ve seen his romances with Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas end in tears, and longed for him to find his happy ever after.  And now, hopefully, he has.  We’d have been delighted for him whomever that was with – but the fact that his fairytale princess is a mixed-race American divorcee actress somehow did that bit extra to bring people together.  It reminded us that it doesn’t matter who you are.  It doesn’t matter who you love.  It doesn’t matter about race, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status … any of it.  All that matters is that people are happy.  It was the stuff of fairytales, but very modern ones.  It brought everyone together.  We needed that.

The sky was a perfect cornflower blue.  Not a cloud in it.  The sun shone down.

And then, as the sky continued to be blue, and the sun continued to shine, Gareth Southgate and his band of brothers gave us hopes and dreams, and showed us what leadership and togetherness are about – something that our politicians don’t seem to have the first clue regarding.

This is history.  Twenty years from now, we’ll be looking back on the early summer of 2018, and we’ll be remembering how it was hot and sunny for days and days on end, and how we got to the semi-finals of the World Cup.  We don’t know what lies ahead – but do we ever?  In 1990, we were riding the crest of a wave of hope, with the Berlin Wall down, Nelson Mandela released from prison and Germany set for reunification.  Well, that soon went pear-shaped, didn’t it?  Croatia, where they were celebrating as we cried, could tell us all about that.  In 2018, everything’s a mass of uncertainty.  But maybe it’ll all turn out for the best?  Well, you never know.

52 years of hurt can go a long way towards stopping you from dreaming.  I mean 52 years since 1966, OK – I have not personally experienced 52 years of hurt!  The first World Cup I remember was 1982!   But we’re dreaming again.  There’s a positivity in the air.  There’s hope, and there’s pride.  And there are waistcoats!

There were things I thought I might never see.  Growing up in the 1980s, you seriously began to wonder whether United would ever win the league again.  We waited 26 years.  City fans waited longer.  We waited 77 years for a British man to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon again.  Going back to 1990, or, rather, to 1989, I’m not sure that we thought we’d see the Berlin Wall come down in our lifetimes, or that Nelson Mandela would ever be released from prison.  We certainly never thought we’d see Prince Harry marry a lovely mixed-race American divorcee actress.

Things change.

And, yes, “We’ve seen it all before” and we know all about semi-final heartbreak.  But people are already looking ahead to Euro 2020.  And the country’s come together.  We’ve been reminded that we can do this.  We can do leadership.  We can do unity.  We can do hopes and dreams.  Thank you for that, Gareth and the boys.  We needed it from someone, and we’ve got it from you.  And we’ll never forget this summer.  We’ve been living through history in the making.



World Cup loyalties


Obviously England are going to win the World Cup 🙂 , but just imagine, oh horror of horrors, that that doesn’t happen.  Imagine that we get knocked out early on.  Whom are you going to support then?  If anyone’s actually reading this, please feel free to answer that!  A country featuring players from your own club?  I would think a lot of Liverpool fans will be keeping a close eye on Egypt.  Somewhere you’ve got personal connections to? – maybe you had a nice holiday there, or a family member or close friend comes from there?   Maybe – it is meant to be about the football, after all! – it’s all about whose style of play you like.  Or is it political/historical – I assume not too many of us will be supporting Saudi Arabia or Iran.  Or maybe you just want to win the office sweepstake.

OK, I know this has nothing to do with history, but the History Channel said it’d be showing a load of programmes on the history of football during the World Cup, and it hasn’t done! And the BBC somehow managed to get through the whole of Egypt v Uruguay, in Ekaterinburg, without mentioning the assassination of the Romanovs.  Seriously.  I assume we will get a few references to the Siege of Stalingrad when England take on Tunisia in Volgograd on Monday, but I bet we don’t get the Cossack revolts L .  So I haven’t got anything historical to review, as far as the World Cup goes … so, instead, I wrote a rather silly list of notes on whom to support and whom not to support.  And then I was just going to delete it because it was a load of waffle, but, having written it, I thought I might as well post it.  Waffles are associated with Belgium.  I hope that’s not a bad omen for Thursday’s match.

(Marked with a * if I’ve actually been there.)

Countries with a strong connection:

Spain* – after a long and wondrous clay court season, and with Wimbledon up ahead, my brain is practically running in Spanish.  And Spain have the biggest United contingent of any team other than England, with David de Gea, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata all involved.

Russia* – spot the Russian history specialist!  Been there twice, hope so much to go again.

Portugal* – a country I’m very fond of.  Pasteis de nata, pasteis de nata!  And he may be an idiot, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Sweden* – I have a long-standing soft spot for Sweden, going back nearly 30 years, and they’ve got Victor Lindelof in their squad.

Serbia – I’ve always had an interest in Serbian history.  And they’ve got Nemanja Matic.


Countries with some connection:

Brazil* – everyone’s got a soft spot for Brazil, haven’t they?  And a nice man lent me a toy World Cup to hold up outside the Maracana.

Belgium* – they’ve got Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini.  And they do make very nice chocolate.

France* – it always feels vaguely wrong to cheer for France ;-), but they have got Paul Pogba.

Argentina* – it may be 32 years since the Hand of God incident but I still have issues with Argentina!   But Buenos Aires has to be the most football-mad city I’ve ever been to, and that made quite an impression on me.  I thought there might still be hostility towards British visitors, even 34 years after the Falklands War, but I was made to feel welcome everywhere, and faces lit up whenever I mentioned the word “Manchester”.  And they’ve got Sergio Romero.

Morocco* – well, I had a very nice holiday there.  Even if someone did ask me if I was German.  I know my French accent isn’t exactly Parisian, but I’ve never been accused of being German anywhere else!!  But, hey, at least they understood me!

Egypt* – another place with happy holiday memories.  And they make tea properly.  Surprisingly few countries do.

Switzerland* – no real football ties, but it has lakes and mountains and chocolate.

Peru* – they’ve got Machu Picchu.  And they seemed to understand my Spanish.

Denmark* – well, they did have Peter Schmeichel.  And they make nice open top sandwiches.

Australia – come on, all Anglophones and Commonwealth countries together!

Nigeria – ditto!


Countries with no connection but which I hope do well:

Iceland – OK, they made fools of us at Euro 2016, but it was all kind of romantic, and I got really into their chanting.

Senegal – I can’t think of a way to say this that doesn’t sound patronising, but they are the poorest country to qualify, and I watched an interesting programme (presented by Eric Cantona) about how much football means to people there.


No strong feelings:

Germany* – I just don’t particularly cheer for Germany.  Don’t mention the war and all that.  Old habits die hard!


Costa Rica.



Mexico* (very briefly).

Croatia* – I have been there, and it was very nice, but it’s not somewhere I’ve ever felt a close affinity for.

South Korea.


Uruguay – it’s usually nice to see South American teams do well, but I cannot bear Luis Suarez!


Countries I won’t be cheering for:

Saudi Arabia.  I know the football team isn’t to blame for what’s going on in Yemen, Or the country’s attitude towards women.  Or its human rights record in general. But even so.

Iran – even if they are managed by Carlos Queiroz.  Again, I know the football team isn’t to blame for political issues.  But even so.

Poland* – I have studied a lot of Polish history, and I have been to Poland twice, and any country which produces cherry vodka deserves a certain amount of respect.  But this current government – ugh.

I use too many exclamation marks, don’t I? Apparently Prince Philip does, as well.

But obviously England are going to win. So all this is irrelevant.  Yes, indeed …

A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher


This is the story of how the Nazis persecuted one of the greatest tennis players of the 1930s, Roland Garros champion and three-times Wimbledon finalist Gottfried von Cramm, because he was gay, his boyfriend was Jewish, and he’d refused to join the Nazi party and had courageously spoken out in protest at the treatment of his Jewish friend and doubles partner Daniel Prenn.  American spelling of “splendour”! It also tells something of the wider story of the persecution of Jewish sports players – as a result of which one German Jewish tennis player, Nelly Neppach, was driven to commit suicide – and gay people in Nazi Germany.  Members of the tennis community, including King Gustaf V of Sweden, spoke out in support of both von Cramm and Prenn.  Both men thankfully survived the horrors of the Nazi era.  So many other people didn’t.

Following the recent controversy over the Twitter account of surprise Australian Open quarter-finalist Tennys Sandgren, John McEnroe gave a magnificent speech, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, about the prejudices faced by some of the great players of the past, and their struggles to overcome them.  The names of Arthur Ashe, who fought against racism, and Billie Jean King, who fought against sexism, are well known.  That of Gottfried von Cramm, Fred Perry’s opponent in the 1935 and 1936 Wimbledon finals, is much less so; and I was rather pleased to find that there was a book about him.

The book itself isn’t actually that great, it has to be said.  Some of the prose is really quite poor, some of what’s included isn’t particularly relevant, and it jumps backwards and forwards across time and between different themes and settings in a rather bitty and confusing way.  But it’s worth persevering with, because it’s a very interesting story.

It intertwines the story of von Cramm, and to a lesser extent that of Prenn, with the stories of Americans Don Budge and Bill Tilden, and a present tense description of the 1937 Davis Cup semi-final deciding rubber between von Cramm and American Don Budge.  That match, staged on the Centre Court at Wimbledon in front of a packed crowd including Queen Mary, is generally regarded as the greatest Davis Cup match ever played.  Some people say that it was the greatest tennis match ever played, but, come on, that was the 2008 Wimbledon men’s singles final … not that I’m biased or anything, of course 😉 .  I was in tears at the end of that 2008 final, between the stress of it all and the happiness at the result.  Oh dear, I’m getting off the point already.  Back to 1937!

Anyway, Budge won, 8-6 in the final set.  The relevance of the match is that it was shortly after von Cramm’s defeat that he was imprisoned.  He’d lost three Wimbledon finals in a row – two to Fred Perry, the second of which, during which von Cramm was injured and unable to compete effectively, was, of course, to be the last time a British man would win the Wimbledon men’s singles until Andy Murray’s triumph in 2013, and the third, in 1937, to Budge – and Germany had failed to win the Davis Cup, and so his credit with the Nazis as a shining example of German success was weakening.  And he’d already been taken in for questioning in relation to homosexuality in April 1937, three months before the Davis Cup match, although he’d been released without charge.

Himmler, who was, to use Marshall King’s words, “a murderous homophobe”, and who also disliked the aristocracy, had probably been ready for a while to move against him, but Goring was known to be a fan of sport and the arts and reluctant to attack any of the big names in either field – as long as they were bringing glory to the Third Reich.  There’s even a story that Hitler had phoned von Cramm before the match, and that that showed what a big deal it was.  The phone call story was probably untrue, and the Nazis would probably have arrested von Cramm anyway, but the book, whether for the sake of dramatic effect or whether because the author actually believes it, takes the approach that he was literally “playing for his life”.

However, I’m not sure that the juxtaposition of the details of the match and the story of what went on off the court really works that well.  One minute you’re reading about how the Nazis arrested thousands of gay men and sent them to prisons or concentration camps, and the next minute you’re reading about how well someone was serving and volleying at break point down … it’s just a bit too much of a contrast.

However, the book’s worth reading, for the stories of Gottfried von Cramm and Daniel Prenn, and also that of Bill Tilden.  There’s a fair bit of historical background detail too.  The point’s made that, unlike in Britain, sport was not a big thing in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – but was promoted by the Nazis.  Something that is now such an important part of the culture of Germany and most other countries carried, at the time, some nasty connotations of building a super race and proving racial superiority.  On a completely different note, there’s a lot of description of the nightlife and social life in liberal Berlin in the 1920s and early 1930s – the Berlin we know from the musical Cabaret, the most gay-friendly city in Europe in those days.  It’s also pointed out that Germany had also been seen as a welcoming destination for refugees escaping from the Russian Revolution, including the Prenn family.

Going back to Gottfried von Cramm, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, his name might sound like it belongs to a cartoon baddie but no-one seems to have had a bad word to say about him.  He was a real Boys’ Own hero – the perfect gentleman, the perfect sportsman, a wonderfully elegant player, handsome and charming.  I’ve got a thing about tennis players: I’d probably have had a major crush on him if I’d been around in the 1930s!  He belonged to an aristocratic family who could trace their ancestry back eight centuries, were fabulously wealthy and lived in a castle.  He looked like the perfect specimen of the master race, tall and blond.  He was incredibly popular both in Germany and elsewhere, and the Nazis would have loved to have had him as a pin-up boy.  But he wanted nothing to do with them.

He and Daniel Prenn formed the backbone of a German team that had a real chance of winning the Davis Cup, but, in 1933, the “Reichssportfuhrer” (and what a horribly creepy word that is) declared that Jewish players were to be barred from representing Germany.  The ITF did nothing, but it’s quite moving to read about the efforts made by individuals.  Britain’s Fred Perry and Bunny Austin wrote a letter of protest to the Times.  King Gustaf V of Sweden, a keen tennis player who’d played with most of the sport’s leading lights, went to Germany on a state visit, had to dine with Nazi officials and then, straight afterwards, went off to play tennis with Daniel Prenn.  For the monarch of one country to have made such a public gesture about his disgust at the internal politics of another is really very something.  Sadly, neither his gesture nor Perry and Austin’s achieved anything, but Daniel Prenn was able to move to Britain, thanks to the support and sponsorship of Manchester (let’s just get the local connection in there!) businessman Simon Marks, and lived out the rest of his life in peace in London.

Gottfried von Cramm was also later to speak out against the treatment of Prenn.  Not only refusing to join the Nazi Party but publicly setting himself against its policies was particularly brave because the Nazis had something on him – his relationship with a Jewish actor called Manny Herbst.  Von Cramm was married, but had been involved with Manny Herbst for several years, until Herbst had managed to leave the country after the introduction of stringent anti-gay laws in 1935.  He’d been unable to take his money with him because of the restrictions on Jews taking money out of Germany, so had left it with von Cramm, who remained in touch with him and was sending the funds on to him in stages, which was strictly illegal under Nazi law.

From 1936, the year before this particular Davis Cup match, the persecution of gay men –gay women were not targeted to the same extent – intensified.  Many people whom Gottfried von Cramm knew “disappeared”.  This, a tennis book, says more about the witch hunt against gay men in the Third Reich than most history text books do.  As with the Spanish Inquisition, the Terror during the French Revolution, Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union, etc etc, any sort of denunciation was seized on by the authorities: people who were just living their lives in peace were at the mercy of anyone who had any sort of grudge against them and was spiteful enough to act on it.

This is an under-reported part of the Nazi terror.  Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish doctor who became an advocate for gay rights (and also for women’s rights) after becoming aware of the high rates of attempted suicide amongst his gay patients, and was the first person to prevent statistical evidence showing that rates of depression and suicide were higher amongst homosexual people than heterosexual people, went into exile in France: his scientific institution in Germany was closed down, and the irreplaceable works in its library destroyed.  Around 100,000 men were arrested under the Nazi anti-gay laws, of whom around 50,000 were sent to prison and up to 15,000 sent to concentration camps.

Obviously, reading about this, as with reading about anything connected to the evils of the Nazi regime, is very intense and extremely distressing.  And then, right in the middle of it, the book suddenly witches to the life and career of Don Budge.  Budge was a wonderful player, and I was interested to read that his dad had played for Rangers, but it was just a common or garden story of a middle-class all-American boy who made it to the top of his chosen sport and became pally with several leading celebrities.   I was very emotionally caught up in the stories of von Cramm and Prenn and what was going on in Germany, and suddenly to be reading long descriptions of tennis matches and Californian pool parties instead was just very strange.  Maybe the contrast was meant to be effective in some way, but it didn’t really work that well for me.

Then it was on to Bill Tilden, the number one tennis player of the 1920s, who fell out with the American tennis establishment because they disapproved of his working as a tennis journalist, and, by 1937, was coaching von Cramm, and therefore in the strange position of being an American coach helping out the Germans in a Germany versus the USA tie.  Shamateurism and all the horrendous hypocrisy of it is an interesting saga – and it was still going on in rugby union as late as the 1980s – but this book wasn’t long enough to cover that as well as Nazi Germany, and including bits about it just made things seem very disjointed.

Anyway, eventually, it was back to Nazi Germany, and a lot of talk about the Max Schmeling-Joe Louis boxing matches and the Berlin Olympics.  This, although something everyone’s heard umpteen times before, was interesting, and helped to set the scene in terms of the relationship between the Nazi authorities and sport, but, again, the jumping about between times and places made things seem quite incoherent, and I kept wishing that the author would just stick to the main point, about the persecution of tennis players.

Also, the author insists on using “English” where he should be using “British”, and makes some cracks about the British upper-classes being pro-Nazi.  The Davis Cup format was different in those days.  Britain, as defending champions, would play the winners of the semi-final in the championship match.  With Fred Perry – Stockport’s finest 🙂 – having recently turned pro and therefore being ineligible for selection, our chances in the final weren’t great.  Germany were considered easier opponents than the US, and so the British crowd – mainly upper-class, at Wimbledon in those days – were mainly cheering for von Cramm.  The author does acknowledge that that was the reason, but also trots out the old chestnuts about the upper-classes admiring Hitler.  Some of them certainly did, but it’s not very fair to generalise – and it wasn’t even relevant to the book.  He also talks about Charles Lindbergh being pro-Nazi – well, he may well have been, but, again, it just wasn’t really relevant to the subject matter.  Stick to the point!!

Having said all that, to be fair to the author, it wasn’t his fault that I’d only bought the book because my attention had been caught by what John McEnroe had said about von Cramm, and that it was von Cramm I wanted to read about.  So maybe I’m being unfair.

Anyway.  Eventually, we got back to the Davis Cup tie, even if we did get an interlude concerning Bill Tilden’s finances just as Don Budge was about to serve for the match.  Budge won, the US beat Britain in the final, and Gottfried von Cramm then spent a further eight months away – first in America, then in Japan, then in Australia.  Returning to Europe in the spring of 1938, he thought he was going to spend some time with his family and then head off to Paris, to play in the French Championships and to enjoy a reunion with Manny Herbst, who was living there.  Instead, he was arrested and charged under “Paragraph 175”, the Nazi anti-gay law.  He was also charged with breaching foreign exchange rules for sending Herbst his money.  And, like many other men, he was also charged on completely fabricated evidence of having a relationship with a man he’d had nothing to do with, this second man being someone whom the Gestapo paid to tell a pack of lies to help bring about convictions under Paragraph 175.

He got a much lighter sentence than many, one year in prison.  That was largely because he claimed that Herbst had been blackmailing him over the money – they remained friends, and it’s likely that Herbst, safely out of Germany, was only too happy to have been used as a scapegoat if it saved von Cramm from a longer sentence – and, by some bizarre logic, because his partner was a Galician Jew and so that apparently didn’t matter as much as if he’d been involved with an “Aryan” who was in need of protection from him.  But it was bad enough.  In protest, Don Budge organised a petition signed by several leading sporting names including himself, Helen Wills Moody and Joe DiMaggio.  King Gustaf V also protested against von Cramm’s imprisonment.  As with the support given to Daniel Prenn, it sadly did nothing to change the laws, but the fact that they stood by their friend really does say something.  Homosexuality was illegal in both the US and Sweden at the time, but these people still spoke out.

Possibly because of all the publicity, von Cramm was released early, after seven months.   He was lucky, if that’s the right word.  The book describes how many other gay men in Nazi Germany were transferred to concentration camps, identified there by pink triangles on their uniforms, given the worst jobs and savagely beaten by guards.  It was very upsetting to read, and it was very strange to be reading it in amongst descriptions of serves, volleys, lobs and groundstrokes.  And, almost unbelievably, those who survived were, when the camps were liberated at the end of the war, sent back to ordinary prisons to complete their sentences.

Paragraph 175 was not removed from the German law code until 1994, and it was only last year, 2017, that it was agreed to pay compensation to those convicted under it.

Von Cramm returned to playing tennis after his release.  He won Queen’s in 1939, but was unable to compete at Wimbledon – reports conflict as to why  – and was unable to compete at the US Championships after the American authorities refused him a visa because of his conviction for “moral turpitude”.  Incidentally, the book also notes that the US Lawn Tennis Association did not at that time allow black players to compete in its events, and that many American tennis clubs did not admit black or Jewish people as members.  Some of that sort of thing was still going on in the 1980s: I remember Tom Watson, one of world’s leading golfers when I was a kid, speaking out against it.

Despite everything that the Nazis had done to him, and despite the offer of Swedish citizenship, von Cramm felt obliged to join up when war broke out.  He returned to playing tennis after the war, and was later involved with the German Tennis Federation (and having been divorced from his first wife in 1937, was briefly married to Barbara Hutton for a time in the 1950s), before tragically dying in a car crash in 1967.  Tennis writers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s included him as one of the leading players of all time.  His name isn’t very well-known now.  Maybe John McEnroe’s wonderful speech will ensure that it becomes so again.

At the end, we got a round-up of what happened to everyone else.  Daniel Prenn continued to play tennis after moving to Britain, and then became a very successful businessman, living on into his eighties.  Being a tennis player saved his life, really, because being banned from playing in Germany drove him to leave the country.  Tragically, though his widowed mother, who’d moved to Poland, and his younger sister, who’d moved to Czechoslovakia, were both killed in the Holocaust.  Don Budge won the Grand Slam in 1938.  He was sadly never the same player after suffering a shoulder injury during the war, but remained involved in tennis and lived a long and happy life.

Bill Tilden’s story was tragic, though.  He was also gay, and was convicted on two charges of indecent activity with under-age boys, probably trumped up by the homophobic Californian police.  California might have a liberal reputation now, but it didn’t repeal its homosexuality laws until as late as the 1970s.  He’s the only man other than Rafa and Roger to have reached ten finals at one Grand Slam event, and is regarded as one of the greatest tennis players ever.  But he didn’t get the support that von Cramm did, got into severe financial difficulties, developed mental health problems, and died of a heart attack at the age of 60.   In 2016 – yes, 2016, just two years ago – proposals to put up a plaque dedicated to him in his home city of Philadelphia were rejected.  A new biography of him’s due out very shortly, but it costs £31 to pre-order it on Amazon, so I won’t be reading it just yet.

Don Budge and Gottfried von Cramm remained friends, and played a number of exhibition matches in Germany, but were unable to play each other in America as the US authorities never allowed von Cramm back into the country – on the basis of a conviction handed down by a Nazi court.  So the US immigration authorities basically said that they agreed with a judgement made by one of Hitler’s courts.  That’s beyond appalling.   We’ve still got a way to go, but the huge backlash over the Tennys Sandgren Twitter affair hopefully shows that most people in tennis and in general are disgusted by racism and homophobia, and that’s encouraging.

The name of Gottfried von Cramm isn’t very well-known now.  It would be nice to think that John McEnroe’s very impressive speech will make it more so.  This is not a particularly good book – it’s disjointed, and the style of writing leads a lot to be desired – but it’s worth reading because of the subject matter.  As McEnroe said, people need to be aware of what went on in the past; and this book’s got a lot to tell its readers, whether they’re tennis fans or not.

When Football Banned Women – Channel 4


Last year, Sky One showed a two-part documentary about the history of football. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good, but it did raise the fascinating issue of the ban on women playing football imposed by the FA from 1921 to 1971, following huge success enjoyed by women’s football teams, especially in Lancashire, during and immediately after the First World War.  Now, Channel 4 have made a documentary, presented by Clare Balding, purely about this part of football history, which isn’t at all well-known.

Most of the women’s football teams were set up during the First World War, as works teams at munitions factories – partly as what would now be called “team building”, partly as a way of keeping fit, and partly just for a bit of light relief at a very difficult time. Then they began organising charity matches, to raise money for wounded soldiers and families who’d lost their breadwinners.  And the best teams were – naturally! – from Lancashire, notably Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, a team of “munitionettes” who worked at the Dick, Kerr & Co factory in Preston.

It even sounds as if, after the war, women who were known to be good footballers were given jobs there so that they could get them on the team. Their two star players, Lily Parr and Alice Woods, were both from St Helens, and had previously played for St Helens Ladies.  Most of the matches were local, and they attracted huge crowds.  27,000 at Gigg Lane.  33,000 at Burnden Park.  And, on Boxing Day 1920, 53,000 at Goodison Park, with another 14,000 locked out.  Seriously impressive attendances.  And considerable press coverage as well.

Then, in December 1921, the FA banned women from playing football. Well, it tried to.  It banned them from playing on grounds belonging to Football League clubs.  So they were reduced to using public parks or dog tracks instead.  Interest dwindled.  Press coverage pretty much stopped. Presumably the ban didn’t extend to, say, rugby or cricket grounds, and the teams did keep going, but the FA ban did pretty much kill women’s football as a force, and it didn’t really revive until the late 1960s – and still doesn’t attract the sort of interest and coverage in this country that it does in some other countries.

So why was it banned? That’s the question.  There were a lot of questions being asked at this time about women’s role in society generally.  During the war, women had taken on jobs previously only done by men: now, a lot of men wanted women shoved back into a domestic role.  All those arguments about whether girls should be taught domestic science at school, whilst boys were studying academic subjects.  I’m not sure that this would actually have been that much of an issue in industrial, working-class areas of Lancashire, where women traditionally did work, but then the FA wasn’t exactly representative of grass-roots football.  One of the official excuses given was that football was unsuitable for women and could damage fertility – the sort of theory that was very much tied in with wanting to get women out of a sphere that was seen as a male-only preserve.

The other official excuse given was that the money from charity matches wasn’t going to charity, but was being appropriated in “expenses” or used for “non-charitable objects”. This was 1921.  The date’s important.  In April 1921, coal mining, which had been nationalised during the war, was privatised, and the new owners immediately started talking about wage cuts.  Strikes were called.  The idea – this being before sympathetic strikes were banned – was that members of the transport and railway unions would walk out in support of the members of the mining union.  But they didn’t.  The miners were left to go it alone.  And then they were locked out by the mines’ new owners.

A team whose two star players were from St Helens really wouldn’t appreciate being described as “near Wigan” 🙂 – but this was very much a Lancashire thing, with the biggest teams being based in areas fairly close to the big Wigan-Salford coal mining belt.  Some of the money from the matches was going to help support the miners and their families.  So was that what really pissed off the men in suits at the FA, and was that the real reason for the ban?

I don’t know. It makes a cracking story.  Women are pushed out of the national sport for half a century because the Westminster elite were trying to do down the proud (I’m talking about Preston: I’ve got to get the word “proud” in there!) working classes of our great County Palatine.  But would the Establishment really have had that much influence over the FA?  We’re talking the 1920s, not the 1870s.  Then again, I suppose it didn’t have to be the Establishment: there wasn’t too much support for the starving miners and their families in many other quarters either.  It’s certainly a very interesting theory.

I think jealousy was probably the main cause, though. The men – and they were all men, and that’s an issue even now – at the FA just couldn’t bear the fact that female teams were attracting so much interest and such huge crowds.  Part of it was financial – they didn’t like the idea that ticket receipts etc which might otherwise have gone to men’s football were going to women’s football instead – and part of it was just pure male ego.  They couldn’t bear seeing women make such a success of something they thought should be a male-only preserve.

And, of course, the FA got what they wanted. Women’s football went into decline. It’s never, in this country, got back to the level that it was at in 1920.  It’s a lot bigger now than it was even a few years ago (oh, and don’t even get me started on the fact that United still haven’t got a ladies’ team – it’s a disgrace, and I find it extremely embarrassing especially given that the City and Liverpool ladies’ teams are two of the most prominent in the country) but even the women’s Euro 2017 event, currently taking place in the Netherlands, isn’t attracting the sort of interest that Dick, Kerr Ladies did back in the day.  You can’t force it.  There are plenty of other sports – tennis, for example – in which the women’s game does attract considerable interest.  But how different could it all have been if the FA hadn’t done what they did in 1921?   They killed something that was giving a lot of people a lot of harmless pleasure, and, whatever crap they came out with about it being unhealthy, they did it largely out of spite.  Red card.  Very definitely a red card.    And give the match ball to Clare Balding and Channel 4: Channel 4’s historical documentaries aren’t always very good, but this one was excellent.  Very, very interesting.

Just Call Me Martina – BBC 2


Word PressI will watch anything tennis-related, but this was particularly interesting – a documentary about the life of a woman who was not only the greatest female tennis player in the world whilst I was growing up, and indeed is one of the greatest of all time, but who also lived through the Prague Spring and its cruel end, saw Soviet tanks rolling through the streets of her homeland, defected to the West when she was only 18, knowing that she might never see her family and friends again, and had to deal with abuse from “fans” and discrimination from sponsors at a time when the battle for gay rights was a long way behind where it is now.

It was presented by Sue Barker, who was one of Martina Navratilova’s contemporaries on the tour and knows her well, and that was lovely because a lot of it came across as two friends chatting.  We heard about Martina’s childhood in Czechoslovakia in the difficult days of the 1950s and 1960s.  There were things they didn’t mention, notably her natural father committing suicide when she was a child, but you can understand why that would be too difficult for her to talk about.  She spoke movingly about the Dubcek reforms, and about how she and a friend were at a tennis tournament when the Soviet tanks moved in, and the friend’s dad rang to warn them both to stay indoors but they rushed outside to see what was happening.

A generation’s grown up since the end of Cold War – people born just after the Berlin Wall came down will be 26 now, which really makes me feel old! – but it’s still all so recent.  One thing that really struck me was when she said that, when she was first given a visa to go the United States to play in tournaments there, she put on 20lbs in a fortnight.  Even I’ve never managed that!  Junk food seemed to become a symbol of the East-West divide: it sounds ridiculous now, but it did.  I remember seeing pictures on the news on the day that McDonald’s opened their first branch in Russia, with an almost unbelievably long queue outside.  That was (thank you, Google!) in January 1990.  Young Martina, visiting the US from communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, was apparently so overwhelmed with there being so much food available, that she absolutely stuffed herself all the time she was there.  20lbs in a fortnight.  A little tale that tells an awful lot about the socio-economic and cultural divide of those times.

Then she defected, when she was 18.  “Defected” – now there’s a word that will always be associated with the Cold War.  I was only 10 when Gorbachev came to power and things started to change, but even after that we still heard about high-profile people defecting, and a lot of them were sportsmen and sportswomen.  Nadia Comaneci in 1989 is one that springs to mind.  Martina was only 18 when she defected.  She left behind her parents and her sister – who were given a hard time because of her defection – and all her other relatives and friends.  It’s so hard to imagine doing that, especially for someone so young.  The Czechoslovak media treated her as a non-person: her matches weren’t televised or even reported on.  Despite all that, when she returned to Czechoslovakia to play Federation Cup tennis for the US, she was welcomed as a heroine by the fans.

Happily, times have changed, she’s now a citizen of the Czech Republic as well as an American citizen, and she’s able to go back to Prague as often as she likes, but, back in 1975, no-one could have foreseen that happening.  Another thing that, thankfully, has changed a lot since then is attitudes towards gay people, and it was lovely to see film of Martina’s wedding to Julia Lemigova – with Chris Evert amongst the guests – although sad that they had to have the ceremony in New York as Florida, where they live, still doesn’t allow same sex marriage.  She talked about how she’d encountered some hostility from tennis-watchers because of her sexuality, and how she felt that she hadn’t got all the sponsorship deals she might have done because of it.  But other people – Elton John and Stephen Fry both featured a lot – spoke about how she’d been a wonderful role model for LGBT people.  It’s not necessarily part of the job of sports people to be spokespeople or role models for any particular section of the community, but many of them do fulfil that role and do it wonderfully well.  (Incidentally, the infamous Twitter conversation between Donald Trump and Serena Williams was a fake!)

Many other aspects of Martina’s life and career were also touched on.  Her amazing rivalry with Chris Evert – they met in 14 Grand Slam finals – , her brush with breast cancer, how she led the way in improving fitness levels within the sport, and that unpleasant court battle when she and Judy Nelson split up.  It was shown during Wimbledon, which was fitting, but it went way beyond tennis.  Well worth watching.