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August 2021

The Myth and British Steel and Spine


If you think you know your Arsenal, it is time to think again.

Coming next: How Tottenham Hotspur have been treated by the refs in 2011/12



Don McMahon

Let me begin by stating emphatically that I am not British nor do I have any particular bias for or against Britain. Now we’ve cleared that up, I will try and explain my viewpoint and its subsequent aspects.

Numerous bloggers, some of the media and many supporters from some EPL teams, seem to adhere to the dubious principle of British steel and spine as the solution to all things lamentable in the UK Football scene.

According to these admirers of the British principle,  their national and local Clubs could stand to infuse their starting 11’s with a good dose of British steel and spine, something like taking a vitamin like Iron (Fe) before embarking on their usual seasonal combat.

Their arguments usually follow common themes such as; back in the good old days, players like Sir Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Alan Ball, Jackie Charlton, etc. were all British and were tough, skilled Footballers who won things including the WC in ’66!

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Therefore, if we could find more such Footballers and parachute them into the national and local Clubs, all things would be cheery and cozy again…Britain would rule the waves…cheerio, blah,blah,blah.

Their second thesis is that British born and bred players have a more direct, tougher and no nonsense approach to the game, as compared to those fancy-footed, tippy-tappy, greasy foreigners who are showoffs and divers/cheats etc. This is the Stoke theory, which espouses a rougher, tougher, long ball, they don’t like it up them philosophy….clearly the future for teams with British spine and steel. If you can’t beat them by skill then beat them by brutality, even if you lose…at least they’ll not dare try that tippy-tappy fancy shite again.

The final nail in this particular coffin is the theory that, because Britain invented the modern game, and the game belongs to Britain, and until recently, was intended to be a very fast, tough tackling, physical and confrontational sport, it should somehow return to its roots. Small, agile, skilled and tippy-tappy players need not apply.

Well we  have all seen what British spine and steel has offered Britain since 1966 in all competitions such as the Euros and the WC. Over the last 6 seasons, the teams that won the EPL had a combination of hard-working, very skilled and very eclectic players from many countries. RVP was the player of the year in the EPL but he has Dutch spine and steel. From 2002-2012, 7 out of 10 PFA winners were greasy foreigners. Thierry Henry and Ronaldo each won it twice in that time.

The real question is whether British spine and steel actually exists or ever existed. To determine that we’d have to agree on and understand what this concept actually represents. Is it the ability to play through an entire season, regardless of injuries, fatigue or whatever and still play like a champion? In that case such stalwarts as Giggs and Scholes at United, Drogba at Chelsea and Gerrard at Liverpool among many others, have earned the title.

Is it the ability to frighten the crap out of an opponent by being particularly menacing and physically intimidating? Players such as Gary Neville, Keane, Viera, Carragher, Shawcross and others merit this dubious honour.

Could it be the ability to play under any and all conditions, whatever the score, and yet still give one’s best? I can think of men like Henry, Bergkamp, Shearer, Bale, Kyut, Schmeichel as prime examples.

I am sorry to admit that I can’t really accurately and precisely define what this supposed essential quality is and I really doubt that others could as well….but I’d be pleased to be proven wrong. In my humble opinion, if it can be proven to exist, it would be a rather insignificant factor in the total panoply of Football essentials because those who espouse such claims usually end up stating that such and such a team needs such and such a player, and we all know from experience that one player rarely makes a difference if the team is mediocre.

Sure Ronaldo and Messi do but that is the exception to the rule. Put them in a sub-par team and they’s struggle to make an impact in a competitive league. That is not to say that they aren’t superb talents on their own but both have what I consider to be the essential element of the Beautiful Game: the ability to produce results. This has little to do with nationality but everything to do with attitude and will to win. Now that takes steel and backbone!

Therefore, I conclude, rightly or wrongly, that British steel and spine are a myth. I officiated a friendly game between the WC champions England and a local Rolls-Royce 11 during the Montreal Expo in 1967.  I won’t reveal the score but what I saw was a superbly talented 11 capable of playing any position on the field (which they did in rotation) and which contained men who were proud to play the Beautiful Game with dignity, penultimate skill and enjoyment….we could learn from them about what Football really needs….and it isn’t a quick dose of steel.




23 comments to The Myth and British Steel and Spine

  • Matt Clarke

    I agree that “it” is hard to define and that whatever it is, it is not the nasty hack-and-smack that the likes of Stoke espouse.

    I do think, however, that it used to be something tangible and something useful to football in this country – football on a cold and rainy Saturday on a ploughed field.

    Something like dignity and bravery. Qualities not unique to the British, of course, but often necessary for playing in those conditions.

    What has happened is that those who go for the nasty football have hijacked the sentiment. They, and society in general, no longer value those qualities – everything is about the easy win and greed.

    Please don’t get me wrong here. I prefer watching football played on piches like ours in the sunshine – AND the skillful football that can be played in such conditions.

    Thanks for an interesting article Don!

  • Gunner4evr

    Keown has asked Wenger to sign a wc star when RVP leaves. I don’t know whether Arsenal have the means. If Arsenal have the money and Wenger refuses to get such players while focussing on youth,amd the gunners can’t challenge surely the fm shd know better.
    Another way is to pay the market rate for RVP’s wages. Hey you have a wc star in hand. It’s unlikely to happen with the club waiting for ffp. That could mean time wasted and the gunners being unable to hold on to top players in their ranks.Soon the gunners will be reduce to feeder club status for the big boys.
    Once upon atime Everton were a big club. Now they are there to make up the numbers in the epl. The gunners could join them one day if the trophy drought continues.

  • ryan

    I’ve lived in the UK for about 20 years and been around for 10 more, although I’ve never actually heard that expression before.

    Similar ones such as “stiff upper lip” would, to me, suggest a more grin and bear it attitude. One with less theatrics and Ref crowding as opposed to making them all world beaters.

    “Lie back and think of england dear” would be a bit different though.

  • RobL

    Scott Parker is always the name trotted out these days – the tough tackling action man and darling of the sub-sentient TV pundits.

    If this is the case then it means the ability to trot around the pitch putting in a lot of impressive last ditch tackles because your positioning and passing is slack.

    In Arsenal terms it means the famous English back 5, despite the fact that the best ever team was the Invincibles which only had a British centre back and left back – hardly a spine.

    Then again, never let the facts get in the way of a good soundb byte….

  • Adam

    I think it a bit unfair to state that this is a British trait (as portrayed by the media) as I don’t come across the same being said for the Welsh or scottish national leagues or teams. It’s the English media that misrepresents their ideals.

  • LRV

    Gunner4evr: How does your comment up there relate to the topic of this article? Couldn’t you at least dignify the article with a comment or acknowledge the writer? Sorry! I careless for your pessimistic views and others like it. If you are going to comment, please keep it to topic.

    Don the ‘Steel & Spine’ nonsense is a poor attempt at fashioning an excuse. The players you named, Sir Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore et al, were extremely talented footballers not the hackers & leg breakers of the Shawcross variety.

  • Stuart

    I think it is complete bs invented by ex footballers who had no skill, just bullying and aggressive tactics. Football is not about a show of strength, leave that for wrestling.

  • Mandy Dodd

    Steel and spine, British or otherwise is rarely enough any more. The law of averages will throw up, I mean literally the odd performance like Chelsea last season, or Greece in 2004 but these will become fewer and further between. Now Chelsea will change their style despite last years success, as will many other teams. English football has been held up for years by the doctrines of Charles Hughes, and the managers and referees who cannot let go of him. Unforthuately, looks like our international manager is one of them, if this summers tournament is anything to go by.As I say, this will change, the bright young managers of today reject this doctrine completely, as wenger always has. The refs that put up with this are going to have to change too. Just wonder if Brendan Rodgers and avbs teams will get more protection than we do?

  • nicky

    I have watched professional football on and off, for the past 70 years. There is no doubt in my mind that the fitness, technique, ball control and general awareness of the game has improved beyond all measure.
    Equally, I feel that up to and including circa the 1960’s British steel and spine played an important part in the backbone of the game.
    But, IMO, speed in attack and a general tactical knowledge of the game by the players has overtaken much of the old methods of play.
    This, coupled with rigid dietary and fitness improvements has resulted in such dramatic changes, unimagined by the pros of yesteryear.
    Never has “brain over brawn” been truer said.
    Whether the tendency for an increase in longterm injuries
    is related to the search for speed over brawn, is another matter.

  • I agree with you, nicky. Although somewhat younger than you, I can remember watching football here in England from the 1960s, and it’s changed enormously for the better over the last twenty years or so – more skilful, faster-paced. The increase in players from abroad coming here to play had a huge impact.

  • El Tel

    This kick bollock and bite attitude is in the system of our society. We constantly relate football to war.

    Although the hooligan element has been cleaned up from our game the fighting first attitude is still imprinted in football lovers.

    Check out the Chavski crowd next time they are on TV and you will notice many hundreds of 40 plus Men with shaven heads.

    I think changing their style of play will be very difficult until the next generation of fan comes along and the thugs like Terry have retired.

    Vieira and Keane were definetly bruisers but they were also world class players too.

    the difference today is that players like Shawcross,Terry,Vidic and others of this type are thugs who will never be WC but will always thrive in a League where fouling is accepted.

    There is outrage that Gareth Bale got a kick on the ankle the other day and Talkshite are now knocking the Officials.

    Where were these people when Diaby,Eduardo,Ramsey and Sagna had their legs broken?

    By the way, if you want to see why England will take many years to improve just take yourself to watch a kids match on a weekend and you will have the answer.

  • kc

    To me is not the nationalaity of the player, whether Brits or otherwise. Every team needs to have core players with fight and an attitude about them. it rubs off to their teammates and makes the opponents think twice. Players like Drogba, Ivanovic, Vermallen, Vidic, Gerard, Merreles, Kompany just to name a few. They truly inspire their team to greater heights and fight harder especially when down. That to me is the steel and spine one looks to.

  • ARSENAL 13

    well..BRITISH steel and spine, I think it exists. Jack Wilshere. Its got nothing to do with your physicality. Its a mental thing. OR we can simply say “never say die” attitude.

  • Gerry Lennon

    Arsenal 13 – I think you are falling into the ‘media trap’ by seeing a ‘British’ player have, as you put it, a never say die attitude and then assume it is xclusively ‘British’. You give Jack Wilshere as your example, how about Bacary Sagna retrieving the ball from the back of the Spurs net … with the rallying cry ‘Come on!!’? Or Thomas Vermaelin 70 yard dash to score a last minute goal … a point that could have saved our CL spot? All I am saying, as indeed is Don’s article, don’t take away from others what is essentially a character trait that has more to do with the individual than nationality?

  • Armin

    Well if “never say die” attitude is “national” mater, we are quite good equipped now, as we have 3 Germans in team, and they are probably most famous in that aspect of sport.

  • nicky

    @Michael Staley,
    Yes, I missed the very important point you make about the influx of players from foreign parts, where the physical side of the game is secondary to the close use of the ball. The advent of world-wide satellite TV where the likes of Brazilian trickery could be seen, has also helped.
    No doubt some would say that this has given rise to the use of the cynical foul.

  • ARSENAL 13

    @ Gerry….Jack is just an example.

    Sagna, Vermi, Szczesny……and even Kosc and Ramsey all have that fighting attitude, that is called British spine( media vocab). AND our new signings, last season and this (Cant say about Giroud), all look to possess that.

  • finsbury


    You forgot about grit!
    Grit, steel and a solid spine. That’s what you need.

  • finsbury

    Though I’ve heard that there can be a shortage of grit (stockpiles turning into mould?), at times.

  • Domhuaille MacMathghamhna

    Finsbury…..true grit? I forgot to mention ,what for me represents the greatest display of determination, never say die and true grit, courage, self-confidence and winning attitude…..the Liverpool victory against AC Milan in the CL of 2005! That match,represents for me, the epitome of what team spirit, leadership, conviction and perseverance can accomplish when it all comes together. I have recorded that game and watch it every time I lose faith in AFC or Wenger, which i do at least 3 times per season….then after watching, I realize that nothing is written in stone and that the media are all shit-heads looking for tragedy to hyperbolize.
    That was a display of grit,steel and spine by a motley crew of Brits, and greasy foreigners led by the greasiest manager available and cheered on by the most avid and faithful supporters from the Kop! Long live that spirit…even if it was an EPL opponent!

  • rusty

    I just don’t think you can separate this notion of “in the old days… British Spine!” from normal generational nostalgia. You see a little bit of it in US baseball, with appeals to a simpler, manlier time — when as it happens the league was segregated.

  • Ed

    this british spine is a load of crap. its spouted by the media because it is the only “positive” we can attribute to ourselves these days.

    how about the choking at penalty shoot outs?

  • jaroda

    “I officiated a friendly game between the WC champions England and a local Rolls-Royce 11 during the Montreal Expo in 1967. I won’t reveal the score but what I saw was a superbly talented 11 capable of playing any position on the field (which they did in rotation) and which contained men who were proud to play the Beautiful Game with dignity, penultimate skill and enjoyment…”
    Yes, less about the Rolls Royce 11…. were the WC champions any good? 😉