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A classic of the genre
on 7 January 2003
Until recent years there was a scarcity of good writing on football. Anodyne biographies and glossy club histories were pretty much all one could find. However, there was one book that broke the mould of football writing and which has been extremely influential on many of the best books on football today: Eamonn Dunphy's Only A Game.
Dunphy was a much-travelled, hardworking and relatively skilful midfielder. Only A Game is his account, in diary form, of the 1973/4 season at Millwall, then in the old second division. The season began with great optimism as Dunphy, realizing that he had not too many years left in football, saw this as perhaps his final opportunity to achieve something significant in his career. His account of how the season quickly turned sour is compelling, and if the end to the ‘story’ is in some ways unsatisfying it is because this is not a fairytale but a slice of reality.
Throughout it is clear that Dunphy has literary aspirations, and he is indeed a good writer. Above all, however, the book has all the best qualities of a personal diary: honesty, frankness, occasional contradictions, and immediacy. Only A Game provides a particularly fascinating insight into a time when professional footballers earned similar salaries to the rest of us, when the game was not awash with money, glamour and foreign stars, and when the ‘hard men’ ruled and matches frequently descended into muddy pitched battles – in this respect the book has genuine historical value. Dunphy is very good when discussing the nature of his profession, and he brilliantly conveys the unglamorous side to the game. As an antidote to the numerous showbiz biographies of footballers, Only A Game is perfect.
Only A Game can be recommended both to football fans and to those who have only a passing interest in the game. By turns it is funny, sad, angry and bitter; but it is unfailingly human. As a work of football writing it is extremely important: Only A Game was one of the earliest books to demonstrate that football could have its own rich literary genre.