In a recent newspaper column new West Ham manager Sam Allardyce placed the blame for the declining standards of soccer in the United Kingdom firmly at the feet of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (I will leave aside the irony that he was writing this column for “The Sun” newspaper, one of Mrs Thatcher’s most vociferous supporters).
His argument was that her Conservative Government, elected in 1979, took the decision to sell off many of the public playing fields and furthermore refused to pay teachers for the extra time that they spent teaching sport, thus leading to an increase in both obesity and a general lack of fitness in the nation’s children which became a time-wasting, and sometime insurmountable, burden for any team that eventually took them on.
There is no doubt that obesity is an issue in the UK (as it is in much of the developed world) but to blame the demise of UK soccer purely on the Thatcher factor seems a stretch too far.
The fact that, of the four UK nations, only Scotland managed to qualify for the two World Cups prior to her election gives some indication that the game wasn’t in the healthy condition that Big Sam seems to imagine it was prior to her entering Number 10 Downing Street.
Perhaps though the real demise came in the post Heysel period, when a significant number of top flight players were denied the chance to play against their continental counterparts, and the domestic game spent a significant period of time in which it became even more insular than it had previously been.
Then in 1992 the advent of the Premier League, swiftly followed by the establishment of the European Champions League, swung the pendulum sharply in the other direction, with more technically gifted overseas players suddenly becoming highly prized assets and the more “agricultural” domestic stars becoming far less fashionable.
These two new competitions also led to an increased concentration of cash to a small number of big clubs which led to deeper squads, giving the genuinely talented young home-grown players greater riches but less playing time (Scott Parker at Chelsea anyone?).
So Sam seems to have got this one wrong. The game in the UK didn’t falter because Margaret Thatcher took away the playing fields, it faltered due to a variety of factors that were beyond the control of any government.
If you do want to blame her for something though (and believe me I do) then you can at least blame her for cultivating a society that prized financial value over all else, a political philosophy that was surely the catalyst that helped to create the cash driven behemoth that modern-day soccer has become.
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