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Blue Moon: The Modern Football Classic of a Season Down Among the Dead Men: Down Among the Dead Men with Manchester City (Mainstream Sport) Paperback – 7 Oct 1999
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This volume traces a season in the life of Manchester City. Not just any season, but 1998-99, when the club found itself down among the dead men of English football. This once-proud club, with two League Championships and four FA Cups to its name - not to mention a phenomenal fan base - was forced to battle with the likes of Macclesfield Town, Colchester United and Wigan Athletic in English football's third flight. With the co-operation of the club itself, Mark Hodkinson was allowed to mingle with players, ex-players, directors, office staff and fans, to conduct numerous interviews with the people who form the passionate community of Manchester City. Hodkinson was involved in every aspect of the club through a long, stirring season, constantly on the look-out for the unusual, the offbeat, the hopeful and the heartbreaking. Through it all, he sought to remain impartial, and resist the temptation of becoming another facet of the club's PR operation.
About the Author
Mark Hodkinson is a freelance writer working exclusively for The Times. His previous book, Life at the Top, is widely recognised as a football classic.
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Hodkinson was asked to cover City after undertaking a similar task the previous year at Barnsley during the Yorkshire club's one season in the Premiership. The angle then had been the fight of a relative minnow against the top flight's giants. Manchester City in division two offered an obvious contrast, with by far the largest crowds and income in the section.
As a City fan, had I been told of Hodkinson's assignment before he began, I'd have been instantly mistrustful. In the preceding years the club had managed to consolidate its undisputed niche as English football's biggest laughing stock and it would have been all to easy for any author to resort lazily to cheap jibes. Hodkinson himself admits that it was "magnanimous" of City to allow him the access they did, but the club's trust wasn't betrayed. He's fair and the notes on the back cover can justifiably claim he's "impartial". This doesn't necessarily mean that I agree with every opinion he expresses on every topic but his views are sufficiently considered for the odd divergence of his outlook from mine not to grate.
This balanced approach contributes to making the book the most genuinely revealing I've read in a long time about Manchester City and the people there who count. Hodkinson has gathered thoughtful pieces centred round interviews with board members, the management team, the Director of City's Youth Academy and the team captain.
While it's these pieces which hold most interest for me personally as a City fan concerned about how my club is run, the book's entertainment value and its appeal to those whose priorities differ from mine are enhanced considerably by the variety of the other articles. Many of those focus on characters from the City community who are not currently playing a high-profile role within the club itself. Hodkinson covers a range of personalities in this category - such as former players, an ex-manager, former directors, an eclectic bunch of celebrity fans, the Maine Road laundry women and the editor of a City fanzine. Then there are pieces where the author reflects on the latest events at the club. Finally, there's a twenty-page chapter recording City fans' memories, expressed in their own words, of a dramatic afternoon at Wembley when City sealed promotion after trailing 2-0 with ten minutes of normal time remaining.
This breadth of scope notwithstanding, I have one or two other aspects of life at Maine Road into which I might have liked an insight, such as the routine of one of the young hopefuls at the club's Youth Academy or an overview of the work of the club's commercial and marketing operations. However, it's impossible to deny that the author conveys the variety among the adherents of the broad church which is Manchester City FC, so again the criticism is minor.
Furthermore, to emphasise this small gripe would be to ignore the quality of what actually is present. For instance, the depth of many of the interviews is remarkable. Hodkinson evidently has the knack of gaining his subject's trust (he's invited to Joe Royle's house at the end of the season, for instance) and the result is invariably far removed from the habitual, anodyne fare of many football interviews. Captain Andy Morrison is brutally honest when talking about his temperament and the problems it's caused him while assistant manager Willie Donachie talks openly about his tough upbringing in Glasgow in the fifties and sixties. Former player Paul Lake explains more fully than in any interview I've seen before how the club's flawed approach to treating his knee injury led to his retirement, while fanzine editor Tom Ritchie talks about how his City obsession cost him a marriage and his health.
An equally telling strength is the quality of the writing. Always eminently readable, Hodkinson's best pieces are delightful, none more so than the reflection on the play-off final which appeared in the next day's Times. This piece was posted, uncredited, on the Internet a day or two later and was immediately embraced by the new site for Irish City fans who, unaware of its origins, enthused that, "You won't get much better writing than that."
While these qualities derive from the author's abilities, the third major strength of the book (at least from a City fan's perspective) is a function of the subject matter. Now that City seem to be making progress at last, there's a certain enjoyment (born mainly of relief) in looking back at how things were in those dark days. Additionally, Hodkinson benefits from something almost unique in the Manchester City literary canon - a happy ending.
I'm confident enough in the author's writing ability and subject selection to feel that his work will be appreciated by non-City fans - after all, my own intention to read 'Life at the Top', his book on Barnsley, is evidence that I don't see partisanship as a pre-requisite for enjoying his material. However, this review is from the perspective of the avid Manchester City supporter. 'Blue Moon' offers an entertaining account of an emotional rollercoaster of a season which will live long in the memory. It offers revealing portraits of major personalities both inside and associated with the club. It's incisive and exceptionally well-written. For these reasons, I don't hesitate to recommend it as a book the committed City fan should own.
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