“What we cannot do by sleight we eke out by strength. No more concise definition of English football exists.”
The average American soccer fan is probably more familiar with names like Charlie Adam, Lee Cattermole, and Kevin Nolan than anybody who plays for Athletic Bilbao or Bayer Leverkusen. Nevermind that the former trio are nondescript players on nondescript teams, while Bilbao and Leverkusen will take part in this year’s Champions League. For a variety of reasons, English soccer receives far more attention than its continental counterparts.
For Englishmen of a certain age, this is still a bit strange. The English soccer David Winner is most familiar with was played on muddy pitches, defined by physicality, and of a lesser technical quality than the soccer in Italy and Spain. The modern day popularity and quality of the Premier League is due not to the English, but to the high priced foreign talent. In Those Feet, Winner sets out in part to answer this question: “why don’t the English play sexy football?”
The introduction makes clear that English soccer is a personal subject to Winner. He recounts a conversation where a friend suggested that he write a book about the English game. He replied at the time that he couldn’t; “I’m much too close to it.” And so this doesn’t read or feel like a history. The chapters aren’t laid out in chronological order, but rather they seem more like stream of consciousness. Winner likens the book to a therapy session.
Winner is fond of the grand metaphor. In his mind, the traditional English way of playing—relying on strength and athleticism, distrusting of creativity—has its roots in Victorian sexual repression. Indeed, as he details, the game’s early development happened in part to keep schoolboys from masturbating. The book continues in this way, using British culture to explain the way they think about and play the game they invented. A chapter that wasn’t in the original release describes Charles Reep, an RAF pilot who went on to use statistics to support direct football, the longball game that often defined English soccer. In Inverting the Pyramid , Jonathan Wilson points out how Reep’s own numbers fly against his hypothesis; Winner is content just to note the similarities between the longball game and the often aimless bombing campaigns undertaken by the RAF during World War II.
You wouldn’t describe it as scientific, but Winner certainly taps in to the British psyche, especially when it comes to soccer. Much like baseball in the United States, Winner describes English soccer as inextricably tied to its past, unlike the game’s treatment in other countries. He writes:
One of the reasons the English love football is because it is seen as old. The game floats on an ocean of nostalgia, sentimentality, tradition and myth in which its historicity is constantly invoked and celebrated. Fans speak without irony of their clubs ‘heritage,’ ‘heroes’ and ‘legends.’
Similarly, he harps on the cynicism surrounding the game, and the way that the English national team, much like England, is perpetually seen as being in decline, regardless of how accurate that assessment is. Winner notes how the “almost biblical sense of loss” pervades English life, and likewise its soccer is always hoping to replicate 1966.
Those Feet is not a particularly long book, but Winner packs a lot of wit and research into it. If you’re at all interested in English soccer, it’s worth a read.