When players were powerless

STEWART IMLACH was one of the best British left wingers of the time. Never better than in the 1959 FA Cup Final at Wembley for Nottingham Forest against Luton Town, making his team's first goal for Roy Dwight, uncle of Elton John — whose real name is Reg Dwight — running himself ragged to plug the left sided gaps when Dwight went off with a broken leg. Forest won the cup, 2-1, with their 10 men, but Imlach didn't stay there much longer.

As his son Gary Imlach explains in his furiously disenchanted memoir of his father, My Father And Other Working Class Heroes (Yellow Jersey Press). At the end of the following season, he was shipped off to Luton Town, who had just been relegated from the old First Division. "So that was it," writes his son. "No debate about the wisdom of the deal, no look back at his Forest career, no statement from the manager thanking Imlach for his services and wishing him well at his new club, no fanfare or farewell in the papers."

Nor would Stewart stay long at Luton, then inexpertly managed by a once famed goalkeeper, red headed Sam Bartram of Charlton. He would soon be shipped out again, dropping down yet another division, this time to Coventry City. In those days, even after the iniquitous maximum wage was finally abolished in 1961, players had little or no control over their destiny. As for Imlach's distinguished days at Forest, he played under a manager, Billy Walker, who may have been a famous England inside forward in his playing day, but as a manager was tight fisted and devious.

The book poses a remarkable dichotomy between father and bright son. With all due respect, there is nothing truly interesting about Stewart beyond his unusual talents as a footballer. Off the field he was, as his son suggests, a typical working man of his time. In fact, through much of his career he would work periodically as an expert joiner, even, at times on the stadium of the club, which he was actually playing for. When he left his little, local Scottish fishing town club, Lossiemouth, for Bury, it was as a part-time player who trained just twice a week, otherwise finishing his apprenticeship as a joiner.

By sharp contrast, Gary is an intellectual, an excellent natural writer, adversarial in the best sense, well aware and well informed. My mind goes back to one of the earliest football autobiographies, published in the latter 1940s, Spotlight On Football by Peter Doherty, one of the finest of all Irish inside forwards, later an exceptional manager of the Northern Ireland team which he guided to the World Cup Finals of 1958 in Sweden; where Imlach played for an appallingly mal-administered Scotland team. At a time when ghosted autobiographies were bland collections of inoffensive anecdotes, Peter Doherty's was a cry of outrage at the way players were treated and exploited.

Seldom more indifferently and ineptly than that Scotland team. It was Scotland's second World Cup. It could and should have been their third, but in 1950, when the team had qualified by virtue of finishing second in the British Championship, then used indulgently as a qualifying group, Scotland refused to go because they hadn't finished first! Such crazy hubris is hard indeed to understand in terms of the present day, but the ostrich like isolationism of the Scottish Football Association was almost pathological.

In 1954 in Switzerland they did deign to compete and were thrashed 7-0 by the Uruguayans. In 1958 they should have been team managed by Manchester United's illustrious Matt Busby, but by then he was still recovering from his terrible injuries, sustained in the Munich air crash of February that year. The Scots did not depute any other manager. In the words of the veteran right half and captain Eddie Turnbull, "We had to do it ourselves."

And in their ludicrous parsimony, the Scottish FA refused to allow their players any spending money! Imlach himself, who had looked effervescent in a previous trial game, shouldn't really have played at all, since he was injured. Nor would he ever play for his country again.

Scotland were accompanied to those finals by a parochial idiot who wrote under the pseudonym of Waverley and was esteemed one of the leading Scottish football journalists. He believed he heard the Portuguese-speaking Brazilian players shouting at each other in Spanish, and scornfully dismissed the chances of a brilliant French team, which, in due course, beat the Scots. In 1962, Stewart Imlach moved again, this time to Crystal Palace, where his career was virtually concluded by a brutal challenge off the ball by a Canadian hard man called Burgess, playing right half for Halifax Town. Palace were then a Third Division club but they had one of the finest post war English managers in Arthur Rowe, author of Tottenham's famous push and run teams of the early 1950s, and the two of them might have achieved something in South East London.

In due course, Imlach became an efficient coach, taking charge of the Everton first team, honest and hard working in the tradition of the fishing town he came from, never demanding much of a football world which then was inclined to give so little.

Ironic indeed to reflect that were he playing today he would unquestionably be a millionaire. The pendulum as we know has swung hectically away from the once almighty and oppressive clubs to the players.