Top critical review
Enough shots on target to be entertaining....
on 30 September 2015
For a long while books about football seemed to have the burden of the reputation of being poorly written, riddled with clichés and not particularly interesting. Since the 2000's this has changed with some insightful books that have tackled the sport from an original angle with fascinating results. Daniel Gray's book adds to the list with the novel approach of writing a book about which only about 30% concerns the game.
This is a bizarre book and the reader who gave up after three chapters can be forgiven. However, there are moments if this efforts which are almost poetic and Gray's endeavours to capture the flavour of visit provincial football grounds from the non-league through to the Championship are excellent essays. Some work better than others, the chapter of Ipswich probably being the pick. That said, the latter 2/3rds of the book represent the best and it is interesting to relate his perceptions of away grounds such as Burnley that I have visited. I would almost award this book four stars but for the fact that there is the constant suggestion that football support somehow remains at it's most pure in the North of England and amongst working class supporters. A former member of Socialist Worker, the author tends to over-egg this significance and if most supporters will concur with his sentiments about the artificiality of supporters following the bigger clubs in Europe and lacking any real connection with the community, he is also a bit wide of the mark on some occasions.
As a supporter of Southampton and non-league Winchester City I can appreciate the perspective he is writing from and it is clear he is most sympathetic with the non-league clubs such as Chester and Newquay, the last clubs confounding his expectations and teeing up the summary where he writes of various "Englands " and the uniqueness of football clubs. However, by this stage, the reader will have read through some chapters which misfire such as the one on "middle England" and the constant references to the destruction of Working Class communities by Margaret Thatcher which, whilst true, the author must have barely remembered having been a child at the time of her demise. The chapters generally follow the form of a description of the community having got off the train, a tour of the sites and some pen-portraits of the inhabitants before the history of the team is elaborated on. This serves as a build up to the match where none of the players are named yet we can guess at their identities. Whilst this may assist with no tying the book down to a date, it isn't really successful as the fortune of the various clubs have changes since this account. Each chapter winds up with the writer's thoughts on the town, usually seen through rose-tined, socialist glasses.
Although I ploughed through the book, it did seem appropriate to deduct a point for the almost sceptical tone adopted towards Southern clubs. Whilst Ipswich may be seen as the archetypal "family club" it would be interesting to read his opinion of Southampton which I would imagine would be unfavourable. He would probably find Portsmouth more to his liking, especially with the club currently owned "by the community" yet I think he would probably find the club to have a far more working class feel that he could have predicted and found his preconceptions smashed by a famous fan base whose passion is probably only surpassed by Newcastle. Gray's opinion of the contrasting fortunes of the modern and professional Southampton and tragi-comic Portsmouth would make interesting reading and it is such a situation which makes me feel he has been too selective in many respects.
Gray's feel for the towns visited is ably captured by his prose although he is not so good when describing the matches. This is an odd book and one which will appeal to Left-leaning readers of magazines like "When Saturday comes." However, the football almost seems incidental in some chapters rendering this more to do with the match day experience than any actual analysis of the game. This book is more like a Championship team occasionally producing dazzling football but just missing the play-offs as opposed to Brian Clough's Forest coming from the provinces and taking the game by surprise.