The beer flowed at Stradey
Piped down from Felinfoel
And the hands that held the glasses high
Were strong from steel and coal
And the air was filled with singing
And I saw a grown man cry –
Not because we’d won,
But because the pubs ran dry!

Ah, you can’t beat a bit of Max Boyce. The bard, not just of a golden age of Welsh rugby, but of a certain self-image. A jocular defiance and, above all, a working class one. Rooted in community, in “steel and coal”, pits and pints. Contra mundum. New Zealand beaten at Llanelli’s Stradey Park, the posh boys of England beaten biannually at the Arm’s Park and at their own game too. 

In football, it was much the same. Homely. You kicked a ball in the same terraced street over which the ground loomed. At Arsenal or Aston Villa, Charlton or Chelsea. And, if you were good enough, you were taken on as an “apprentice”, like Arthur Seaton at his lathe, and that’s where you stayed, leaving with a enough money to run a Ford Zodiac and a pub. The Goalkeeper’s Arms, ever open, for a Jennings-sized mitt to plant down a pint and tell a tale of stopping that screamer in League Division One or the Charity Shield.  

That, of course, was all before Trevor Francis became the first £million footballer or Jonah Lomu thundered up-field in South Africa dragging rugby union’s amateur game into the professional era, its blazered arms wrapped hopelessly round a single powerful thigh.

The damn had burst! Big money had corrupted the purity of sport! Never such innocence, again. Unsullied youth now had pound notes spilling from its pockets. The committee men’s most nightmarish prophecies had come true. Corinth had fallen, Paradise was lost. 

At least, that’s what one might conclude from Adam Boulton’s lament for the baleful influence of “big money sport” on society. But, as with all things nostalgic, it was never quite like that, was it?

Assuming for just one minute that rugby is “a big money sport” (even the best remunerated Premiership player will bank about £300k, the average about £70k and the finances of the RFU – the biggest of the world’s unions – are troubled), it is worth reminding ourselves of what the amateur game was like even at top level. 

It was a sport of legalised mayhem. Tip tackles, spear tackles, taking out a player in the air and self-policing rucks whereby players on the floor were moved using what New Zealanders call “a tickle of the sprigs” or in Britain “a good shoeing” were entirely legal. 

The fixer, the sly boot to the head, the blind-side punch for an opponent performing too well, or, indeed, the full on knock-down, drag-out brawl were illegal but commonplace. Officiating was patchy and more than occasionally partial. 

Sending off was a rarity even for the most egregious acts and substitutions were allowed only when a player was deemed physically incapable of continuing. Unconsciousness was considered something to be shaken off. 

Old hands fill their after-dinner speeches with the dire acts of a by-gone era. Anyone who has seen the highly polished performances of BT Sport presenter and former England lock Martin Bayfield know that his tale of England enforcer Wade Dooley coming round from a big right-hander only to point out the miscreant to the ref and mutter darkly, “Do NOT send that f***er off!” summed up the spirit of the game.

The French, of course, had a word for it. Several in fact. La bataille des clochers – the battle of the bell towers in which local rivalries took violent shape and referees their lives in their hands. My own first experience of playing on the vasty fields of France started with firecrackers being dropped into the changing rooms of the stade municipal and went downhill from there. A former coach once reminisced to me about his debut cap for Ireland in Paris where, at the first scrum, he had Ralgex rubbed in his eyes. 

Overseas tours were marked by war. The Battles of Brisbane and Ballymore in Australia, the Battle of Carrisbrook in New Zealand and the inevitable response of Lions captain Willie John McBride’s ‘99’ call in which all Lions players set about a 1974 South African rival in what he described as “getting your retaliation in first”. 

Big money sport would punish any of this with career-ending bans.

Then there was shamateurism, payment by stealth whether through money stuffed in boots or sponsored jobs, and it was winked at. A discussion with a professional scout from rugby league earned a life ban from the amateur code, a form of hypocrisy in which rugby’s amateur administrators were adept and whom Will Carling eventually dubbed “57 old farts”.

Meanwhile, in Wales, a de facto colour bar on wearing the plume of feathers, sent talented black players North into the meritocratic arms of the professional code. Poor Valley boys followed only to be ostracised when they left and ignored when they returned, miss passes zipping across them. As Jonathon Davies said of his return to Cardiff. “I was cold. I had never been cold playing rugby league.” The danger, of course, of industrial community is that you’d better not leave the union. 

Not that small money rugby league was much better. See This Sporting Life for further details. 

Either way, medical oversight, as far as it existed, was limited. Return-to-play protocols, advanced physiotherapy and the full recovery paraphernalia of ice baths and oxygen tanks were simply unheard of. 

And, as for football, well, who doesn’t recall fondly the pre-Premiership days when the FA Cup was 3rd round upsets and the final beamed to Royal Navy ships on bright May days when the nation stopped at 3pm and sang Abide With Me

Who remembers how the likes of Best and Worthington would finish their drinks, kick the supermodel out of bed and set off to score a wonder goal while Hoddle found God? What a pass! Rattles, rosettes and open-topped buses. Marvellous. 

More, I suspect, than recall riots and racism, death trap stadiums from Bradford to Belgium, the hardman cult of the crippling defender and the InterCity Firm, ploughed field pitches and the sponge man being the only medical recourse. 

Long before Jimmy Hill had pushed for the abolition of the maximum wage and ushered in Adam Boulton’s big money, George Orwell was aghast at what a post-war tour by Soviet side Dynamo to Britain had induced:

“Even the newspapers have been unable to conceal the fact that at least two of the four matches played led to much bad feeling. At the Arsenal match, I am told by someone who was there, a British and a Russian player came to blows and the crowd booed the referee. The Glasgow match, someone else informs me, was simply a free-for-all from the start.

He didn’t stop there either.

“Even a leisurely game like cricket, demanding grace rather than strength, can cause much ill-will, as we saw in the controversy over body-line bowling and over the rough tactics of the Australian team that visited England in 1921. Football, a game in which everyone gets hurt and every nation has its own style of play which seems unfair to foreigners, is far worse.”

A Boulton for his times then. And hardly a fiver changing hands.  

I could go on. About the gentleman and players snobbery of cricket. About how it took the “big money” of Australia’s Kerry Packer to have players properly financially remunerated and break the stranglehold of business class committee men who sent drinks back to the players in economy and about the attitudes that prompted the West Indies to haul together the roughest, toughest collection of fast bowlers ever to grace a cricket field. 

But the point is that there was no pre-Fall Eden in sport or society, big money or not. It has always been flawed but glorious. Its tales of triumph against the odds, of the great tribal togetherness of support, of the sheer joy in one’s own moment of strength and youth and endeavour, of the addictive thrill of uncertainty of outcome, of redemption and of the triumph of champions and desolation of defeat have always sat side by side with its ills. 

What big money has given it are enhanced standards of skill and athleticism, wonderful stadiums and top class broadcast coverage. It has made meritocracies where before only panelled-room vested interest and encrusted prejudice prevailed. For all football’s millionaire knee-taking lectures to its largely working audience, its faces tell a tale of doors thrown open to talent irrespective of background, on the pitch if not yet in the technical area. 

Officiating is professional, regulated and overseen. Medical support for prize-winning assets is cutting edge and player welfare an increasingly important part of the discussion whether it’s for the ruptured ACL or the lonely mental pressures of the opening bat. Safeguarding too.

None of which is to suggest big sport is perfection. As any top sportsperson will tell you, it doesn’t exist. The trickle down of its demands, attitudes and expectations have added to societal atomization in posing a threat to the village XI or the old boys XV in which the sheer physical demand is incompatible with the demands of real life. 

The essential nature of rugby as a high-impact endurance sport and its falling player numbers leave it at particular risk of becoming a college or pro game with no amateur hinterland to sustain the space between or its role as a leisure activity with a social soul. “We’ve all got to go to work on Monday!” as some peacemaker would inevitably cry.

Women’s team sport, for all its many advances, faces the paradox of being in a market in which sponsors can now sell boots and dreams to both sexes while at the same time having to justify in performance and audience terms its increasing demands for an equal share of the coverage and therefore financial pies. Cinderella gets her slippers and to kick the ball but those ugly market forces are as ruthless as they are democratising. Then there’s that trans thing, though that’s surely a matter of sexual politics rather than big money.  

Meanwhile unions, boards, committees still prevail with all their accompanying failings from petty politics to corruption and, of course, the love of money or a good freebie remains the root of all evil.  

But businessmen continue to save and develop clubs with the weary acknowledgement that the quickest way to become a millionaire is to become a billionaire and then buy a sports team. Just as the patrician Gerald Weaver did for a thinly disguised Wakefield RL in This Sporting Life, just as CPFC2010 did, for real, for Crystal Palace, 50 odd years later.  

Oddly, Adam, sometimes it really is for love not money.