Football Writing – More of the not-so-same


Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football reviews 2012’s early crop of new football writing

In early March BBC Radio 4 broadcast Fever Pitched, the first of many, and well-deserved, retrospectives to mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. This was a book that both sparked a trend in football writing, the fan confessional, while reflecting a whole range of changes in the way the game is consumed in the wake of the huge success of Italia ‘90.

Within the space of a few years almost every club had its own version of Fever Pitch, some better than others but all giving a voice to what it means to be a fan. Two decades on it is arguable that this form is virtually exhausted, there’s only so many times tales of a wet Wednesday night trip to Hartlepool and the levels of devotion this represents can entertain, let alone inspire. But there are exceptions: Arsenal can now boast two pieces of superb literary merit. Jason Cowley’s The Last Game about the club’s 1988-89 title winning season, won of course in dramatic fashion at Anfield. While Anthony Clavane’s Promised Land explores what Leeds United means to its fans in a brilliant piece of writing that combines the social and cultural with what goes on both on the pitch and in the boardroom.

Others have pioneered different ways of writing about football. Simon Kuper’s Football against the Enemy helped to invent a new kind of travelogue combining football with its meaning in countries from Holland to the USA, and most points north, south, east and west. Meanwhile Jonathan Wilson has invented a writing style which manages to turn the dry subject of tactical formations into a strangely compelling read, first in his history of tactics The Inverted Pyramid and now in the splendid quarterly journal, The Blizzard.

But with such a huge volume of books published in the mid 1990s on almost every imaginable footballing subject its no surprise to find the quality in headlong decline, sales falling and most publishers retreating to the formulaic, the ghosted football biography that tells you nothing very much at all about its subject. Spectacularly breaking this mould is Michael Calvin’s Family, Life, Death and Football, a season in the life of deeply unfashionable Millwall FC as they fight, sometimes literally, for promotion from League One (or if you prefer in ‘old money’ Division Three). It is rare indeed for a writer to be given unrestricted access to the dressing room, training pitch, team coach and player’s homes. Calvin has all this and more, and makes fantastic use of his material, turning the season’s ups and downs into a compelling narrative of football at this level.

The book reveals both what life is like for a professional footballers and what playing the game means to them. As for Millwall, a touch romantic perhaps in the book’s depiction as representing ‘real football’, yet the raw emotional pride of the club’s localism deserves a fair hearing alongside the more usual, and often unfair, Millwall have had to endure too. The measure of Calvin’s achievement is that after reading this any fan would surely want something similar to be written about their club, and the fact that such access is so rarely provided seriously questioned.

Paul Hodson and Stephen North’s We Want Falmer is a the story of what can happen when fans’ complaints aren’t just heard but become the focus for a mass movement embraced not just by the supporters, but eventually the club too. Fifteen years is an extraordinary length of time for any campaign to be sustained but this is how long it took for Brighton to secure its own ground. The book, in the words of those involved in the campaign, records every twist and turn along the way, with the imagination, commitment and large numbers involved carefully accounted for.

There is little to fault as one obstacle after another is successfully overcome but by the end there is an element of doubt of what exactly has been achieved. Brighton isn’t a ‘phoenix club’ of the sort AFC Wimbledon, FC United and others have become. The ownership structure of the club remains more or less intact, and it is surely ironic that the new ‘community stadium’ has awarded its naming rights to American Express. The years of campaigning shaped Brighton’s support as a highly effective force for change, one the club learned it could not do without, but now the new stadium is complete and the crowds have returned to sell out the stands what role for this near-unique legacy? Nobody (well perhaps Palace fans might) would wish the kinds of calamities Brighton have had to battle to get here to return but for now it remains unclear how the battle to get the ‘Amex’ will change the club for good.

The Celtic and Rangers rivalry is perhaps one of the best known in world football. The ‘Old Firm’ may be in a state of financial disrepair and falling impact outside of Scotland yet the ferocity of the rivalry remains hardly unchanged. Author Richard Wilson in his Inside the Divide: One City, Two Teams, The Old Firm adopts an unusual format to detail all that frames the bitterness. He chooses to chronicle in the most minute detail just one derby match. Perhaps influenced by the peerless achievement of David Peace in The Damned United Wilson follows a dual narrative, the game itself, and the background to it. Mostly this works very well, with players, fans, the police, ambulance drivers and hospital staff, press, the church, and plenty more each contributing their own particular account of this matchday while Wilson provides an expertly written context. Stylistically he is a little hampered by the limitations, the game after all only lasts ninety minutes and he has 243 pages to fill, but for a book on the Old Firm this is certainly one of the very best.

Football remains of course a decent subject for any author to address. The dramas on and off the pitch may change yet they have hardly disappeared. One change that has certainly not occurred is the game’s maleness. An academic collection of essays Women’s Football in the UK, edited by Jayne Caudwell seeks to some extent to redress the balance. The writing is rigourously researched, with a theoretical bent that some might find too much to take. Yet this is the kind of work that is needed more than ever before to account for the game’s exclusions as well as its inclusions. The fact that this kind of writing is still largely limited to university research-papers and peer-reviewed journals is hardly the fault of the writers but until the points they make about the state of women’s participation in the game enter the mainstream of football writing the possibilities of change will remain largely restricted.

Four very different books. The standout one amongst them in terms of being a compulsive read, and one that serves to challenge conventions too, is undoubtedly Michael Calvin’s Family, Life, Death and Football. But each in their different ways serving to counter any suggestion that football is no longer a good read.

Mark Perryman

With echoes of Glory from Danny Blanchflower to Bruce Springsteen, and full of the flavour of Escape that European Travel brings, The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ tells the tales of a journey as Spurs returned to the European Cup for the first time in 49 seasons. It is available for preview and to download from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.