I need something to distract myself from Chris Oakley’s execrable contribution to the Guardian’s football pages this morning (really – it would help if it were funny, but it’s like being trapped in a lift) so, completely off the cuff, I’m going to name my books and people of the footballing year 2006. If someone comes up on the rails in the next two months, I’ll revise, obviously.
Books:David Peace’s The Damned United was far and away the biggest surprise. It’s probably the first football novel that succeeds as a novel, whilst remaining about football. On the face of it, it follows Brian Clough’s life from the moment of his career-ending injury to his sacking by Leeds, but that’s almost incidental and not the reason why the novel is worth picking up. There’s been decent football fiction in the past – Bill Naughton’s The Goalkeeper’s Revenge, set amongst working class boys in the industrial north of England, and J.L.Carr’s How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup, in which a foreign coach takes a village team to etc., but Peace operates at another level entirely. (Carr’s novel isn’t really at a level with his others, and certainly not with A Month In The Country).
..They are generally referred to as ‘characters': where would the game be without characters? There just aren’t the characters any more, and so forth. Anyone can be a character, and it is generally the hallmark of inferior performance. To be a character requires some kind of superstructure built onto a personality: as compensation for the inadequacies of the original personality.
Chris Oakley can whistle for that much insight, let alone the ability to write like that.
Vialli’s book is, as far as I am aware, pretty much the only one we have that has made a serious attempt to answer questions of English football from outside the English cultural wagon ring. Why less ball skill, why such uninterest in tactical possibilities, why the managerial merry-go-round, why is the English football press not really interested in football – all and more deeply explored without apparent agenda or mockery or dislike. It’s incredibly dense, slow reading simply because of the sheer amount of material on every page. I think it renders just about every other “state of the game” book of the last ten years utterly pointless. It’s all here.
What about some players? This was supposed to have been Rooney’s year, but injury has restricted his contribution to a variety of interesting sideshows. It may be that in six months’ time we’ll know that what he is doing now is inspiring a new Manchester United side to a league title and a Champions League Final, but that will make him 2007’s man.
No prizes for guessing that Peter Crouch is my outstanding player of 2006. He began as the most fringe of fringe England players, still fresh from what was for most commentators a shock move to Liverpool (“Well, I was surprised,” WSC would have us believe he told them). From there, via boos from “the best fans in the world” he progressed to a permanently-good position on the all-time England international scoring table, some genuinely outstanding goals and the enduring memory of his wonderful, brave performance against Portugal. A team man and a fine man, he is being primed by the England set-up to be their next fall guy, but he’s young enough still to return when our traditional English managers run out of excuses and fall on their swords.
A warm mention also for Owen Hargreaves and Theo Walcott, both of whom have amply demonstrated now why they were in the World Cup squad. They take into 2007 the uncomfortable silence of their critics, who were in many cases older men who had watched a lot of football and perhaps should have known better. They certainly should have understood better.
My manager of the year is Adrian Boothroyd. This isn’t just because he took Watford up into the Premiership when all he had been asked was to avoid relegation. It’s because he’s going to keep them there this season, and because under him Ben Foster is turning into the best English goalkeeper since the peerless David Seaman. Given poor Chris Kirkland’s endless injury travails, and Paul Robinson’s ill luck, we need another good ‘un, and one’s coming.
The match of the year is of course that absurd jumpers-for-goalposts FA Cup Final. But I’d have preferred a West Ham win.