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Review: Revie – Revered and Reviled; the Authorised Biography by Richard Sutcliffe

Posted on 21 January 2011 by JamesHamilton

Revie and Clough debate Leeds on ITV in 1974

Say this for David Pearce’s novel The Damned Utd – it was the first really unembarrassed cultural treatment that the national game has ever had. Fever Pitch broke the ground. But Fever Pitch was gauche, blushing, unsure of its reception. It was essentially uncontroversial, and that is what has set The Damned Utd apart: the real hurt and confusion the novel caused, the bad memories it revived, the losses it refreshed. It may have helped cement Brian Clough in his full and proper place in the public life of the country, but The Damned Utd exhumed Don Revie and Revie’s Leeds along the way, and didn’t do the same for them at all.

Much of the drive for Richard Sutcliffe’s new biography of Don Revie comes from anger at The Damned Utd, and because the issues that the novel raised about Revie are the narrowly footballing ones, it’s these that Sutcliffe concerns himself with. Why isn’t Revie seen in the same kind of light as Busby, Shankly, or Clough? Do Leeds deserve to be remembered only for cynicism and winning at all costs? What’s the real story about Don Readies: the manager and his money? What really happened to Revie at England?

There is a wider significance to the life and work of Don Revie, which Sutcliffe leaves aside. The way Revie stands for Leeds, for instance, as the Chamberlains do for Birmingham. The sheer depth and breadth of change in the life of a man born in poverty in Middlesbrough, whose son went to Repton and Cambridge, who ended his career wealthy and honoured in the Middle East where his home is now a beloved shrine. The issue of what happened to leaders with backgrounds like Don, who before the 1973 Oil Crisis seemed set fair to rule Britain and take her into a better future.

What does it mean, too, that Don Revie was so young when he retired? He had just turned fifty when he resigned from the England job. More than half of all current Premiership managers are older, including Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce. It hardly seems possible, but Revie was largely photographed in black and white, which, unless you are a Beatle, makes you look older than you are.

All that had to be left aside. Football matches make football biographies different from those of politicians, artists and writers, because games turn careers and there are so many of them. There has to be at least one book that does the heavy digging of tracing an important career through, game by game, club by club, transfer by transfer. What we really lacked was a proper, basic, detailed reference biography of Don Revie, and this is what Sutcliffe has provided.

Revie’s Managerial Achievement

Sutcliffe wants to make the case that Revie’s achievements were equal to those of his rivals and contemporaries. Contemporaries they were, too: Shankly and Nicholson both retired in the year Revie left Leeds, Busby wasn’t long gone, and Clough was about to take himself out for three seasons.

In terms of sheer club achievement, there’s no doubt that Revie is at home with the very best. He was only at Leeds for thirteen years, and when he began, Leeds was a cricket and rugby league city. United were considered beneath not just Yorkshire Cricket Club and Leeds (Rugby League) but Hunslet and Bramley RFCs as well.

This table compares Revie’s achievements at Leeds with those of Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Bill Nicholson over the same period. I’ve included the 1975 European Cup Final because although it post-dates Revie, it was Revie’s team in Paris that night, ably shepherded by Jimmy Armfield.

(Click the chart to enlarge)

No Harry Catterick, Bertie Mee, Brian Clough, Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison here, but the table highlights just how competitive an arena Revie found himself in. Most observers agree that the period 1956-1973 was the absolute apogee of English club football, in achievement and in absolute depth of talent. Leeds’ total of seventeen significant football achievements is some way ahead of what Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham managed in the same time. Yet, before Revie, Leeds had had no top-level honours of any kind. Even Clough’s clubs had won top trophies before his arrival. Revie had had to build his club from scratch.

Dirty Leeds

The manner in which Revie succeeded is this biography’s second issue, and Sutcliffe deals with it carefully. Leeds weren’t a cynical team: they were a maturing team learning their trade. Revie was protective as they grew. The “Cantona” signing was that of Bobby Collins, who really was a hard case, but he put heart and belief into the talent around him. Other teams had similar players – Chelsea have Ron Harris, for instance. European opposition spat, hacked, rabbit-punched behind the referee’s back.

In his last two years at Leeds, Revie took the shackles off his side, and they played memorable football, the kind that would have flattered Anfield or Old Trafford. But by then, the mind of the public had already been made up.

When Revie went to England, he realized that the opposition players he had worried over and warned against in his pre-match dossiers – players he now had at his disposal – were not as good as he’d thought, and that his old team, Leeds, had been much better than he had ever realised. In Sutcliffe’s account, Revie came to regret not letting his team express themselves much earlier in their development. So much more might have been won. His caution had robbed his lads of the medals they’d deserved.

Don Readies

Sutcliffe treats Revie’s financial dealings in a similar way. Revie was either innocent or no worse than his feted rivals. Revie met Alan Ball on Saddleworth Moor in 1966 to bribe him, but Matt Busby left a suitcase of cash at the young Peter Lorimer’s house in the hope of buying his signature. Sutcliffe denies outright that Revie was ever involved in match-fixing: everyone wonders why he never sued. Perhaps he didn’t want the hassle..

Match-fixing aside, Revie’s relationship with money really does have to be seen in context. Then, as now, the real control of football and the real money in football lay with the club owners. Wealthy as players are now, they are still nowhere near the level at which they could think about buying a controlling stake in a Premiership club.

Revie had come from an impoverished, insecure background. In depressed Middlesbrough, Revie’s family were worse off than most. His father found work hard to come by. His mother died. As a consequence, in adult life he took care to balance job security with income maximization. For instance, as a player, he believed in changing clubs reasonably often, and looked out for signing on fees. But as Sutcliffe makes clear, professional care accompanied great personal generosity.

Revie at England

After England had beaten Czechoslovakia at Wembley in Revie’s first competitive start, he told his son something that would prove key not only to his management but that of all of his successors. “We haven’t got the players.” In particular, he meant that there were no English equivalents of Bremner or Giles, his key Leeds lieutenants, but he was right across the board: the post-War supply of talent -  nourished by fair rationing of food, playing on car-free streets, coached on proper pitches at new schools, made sensible by hardship -  was fast drying up.

But Revie had issues of his own in any case. A clever man – his son, as we’ve seen, became a Cambridge graduate given the chance – he had always been a deep football thinker. Not necessarily where you’d think – the “Revie Plan”, Sutcliffe establishes, was Manchester City colleague Johnny Williamson’s idea. But his tactical acumen and attention to detail, his novel training approaches and openness to novelty are well established. With England, however, his brain had too much time on its hands.

Revie overthought everything. In the weeks and months between internationals, his natural paranoia, superstition and caution overwhelmed his marvellous instincts for a player, a position, an on-field situation.

Nor did the techniques he used so effectively at Leeds translate to England. Sutcliffe thinks that players’ opposition to things like dossiers, carpet bowls and bingo have been exaggerated. But that didn’t mean that the Leeds family atmosphere could be rebuilt in Lancaster Gate, it didn’t mean that players could win Revie’s trust in quite the same way and it didn’t mean that the dossiers didn’t sometimes eat away at players’ confidence.

Sutcliffe makes clear that Revie was one of those who were gifted with extraordinary emotional intelligence – a man manager of the highest calibre. In the early 1960s, this had enabled him to pull Leeds together, and keep it together, by dint of the extraordinary work he put in to keep his side happy and the support staff involved. But at Leeds, he’d had everyone around him, all the time: at England, bureaucracy and the sheer lack of player contact proved more than he could compensate for.

It’s clear from Sutcliffe’s account that England were unfortunate not to qualify for the 1976 European Championship. An absurd draw against Portugal doomed England when they were by some margin the best team in a limited group. But qualification for Argentina 1978 was another thing altogether. Revie’s selection for the crucial match against Italy in Rome was so unexpected – so panicked and erratic, with players out of position and established performers excluded – that the Italians took it as a bluff at first. Then they took advantage.

It hadn’t helped that Revie’s attempts to get political with selection misfired. Sutcliffe sets out an intriguing version of events surrounding the 1975 Wembley match against World Champions West Germany. So convinced was Revie that England would be beaten handily, the story goes, that he picked the players he’d been urged by the press to pick, intending them to fail. Mavericks and playboys: Alan Hudson in particular believed that his call-up was to make sure that he’d play himself out of England contention for good.

In the event, the “new” defence of Gillard and Whitworth proved solid, Hudson ran riot, and England humiliated West Germany for ninety glorious minutes. Anyone not aware of what had prompted the selection of this particular team might consider that Revie had found a team to win a World Cup.

Revie’s disintegration was accelerated by FA machinations. Sir Harold Thompson, an enemy to Ramsey and to Brian Clough in turn, was at the heart of Revie’s troubles. It wasn’t just the secret negotiations with Bobby Robson behind Revie’s back or the comic snobbery (“Revie – when I come to know you better, I will call you Don”); it was the terrible punitive hounding of Revie once he’d left for the Middle East.

The worst one can say of Revie with regard to leaving England is that he sold the story to one paper – to Jeff Powell at the Mail, and he came to see it as a mistake in later years. But he had every right to leave, and every right to do the best for himself when he did so. If Sutcliffe’s account is true, then it isn’t Revie’s loyalty and patriotism that should be in question, but that of Thompson and his colleagues.

The story of Revie in the Middle East isn’t often told. It’s a happy one. He and his wife enjoyed their time there, and Revie was successful in kickstarting UAE football: his youngsters would take UAE from the bottom of the Arabic pile to qualification for the 1990 World Cup. He is still warmly remembered, and his house has been kept as it was when he lived there.

The rest is taken up with – taken away by – motor neurone disease.

This is the right biography for Revie, now, and it opens up the field for writers who will consider him, and what he achieved, in the life of the country as a whole. Because where does football stack up? Where do football men like Revie stand in importance to England and to the UK compared with, say, William Golding, Jennie Lee, Charles Mackintosh or Benjamin Britten? That’s for later. Richard Sutcliffe has given us both a rehabilitation for Revie and an essential reference work built around him. It’s the very least that Revie the man deserved.

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Review: James Corbett’s “England Expects: A History of the England Football Team”

Posted on 03 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

Steve Bloomer: 19 goals in 23 England Appearances 1895-1907

The first edition of James Corbett’s “England Expects: A History of the England Football Team” has sat somewhere near my desk since about a fortnight after its initial publication. There hadn’t really been a proper full England history before. Of course, there’d been books about England managers - but that’s not quite the same thing, and in any event, by the time Ramsey was appointed, the first proper England manager as we know them, English international football was already 90 years old. So Corbett’s huge red hardback, which combined concise match reporting from the very start, concentrated on players and audience as much as managers, and in sharp, clean prose avoided all of the usual laddish clichees, was extremely welcome.

The second edition is a reillustrated, tightened-up paperback, and it gives a reader confidence when a photograph of Edwardian striking star Steve Bloomer is captioned author’s own collection. For James Corbett, the first half century of international football – 1870-1920 – isn’t the usual source of sneering fun, and his account has none of the usual sense that writers give of waiting for the real business to begin. So this is the best short account of the amateur-versus-professional controversy. The wealthy pioneers like Lord Kinnaird are proper sportsmen, not moustache-twiddling sexual obsessives. Snobbery is not the only reason keeping the Football Association out of FIFA. Professional league football is not the usual unmitigated triumph for the working man. Corbett lets the game grow in its own time and context, and that time and context are assuredly not ours.

Even non-fiction accounts, when done properly, fall into one or another of the seven plots, and there’s an enjoyable debate to be had about which one the England football team follows and at what speed. The usual unconscious pick of football writers is decline, fall, recovery, triumph! fall again, recovery, Gazzamania, and (insert blur of journalism to bring us “up to date”). Corbett avoids this. The inter-war period, badly filmed and so little-known to most fans, is closely covered without distracting references to past and future, making good use of what are actually fairly extensive primary autobiographical sources. The great England side of the war years and after – Lawton, Mannion, Matthews, Finney, Carter and co. – are recorded and celebrated for their own sake, not for that of Hungary and 1953.

Not that 1953 came out of the blue: Corbett incorporates it into a longer account of relative decline after the wartime side broke up, and remarks that the 6-3 defeat itself caused less upset amongst the game’s players and administrators than you might think. 1950-55 was one of a number of the fallow periods that England’s team have passed through – the 1920s, either side of Dixie Dean, was another, and so was 1975-80, and 1991-5. How would the Hungarians of ’53 gotten on against the Byrne-Edwards-Taylor England of 1957, or the Charlton-Greaves England of 1962? England’s recovery after the 1954 World Cup, in both club and international terms, was real enough, and Corbett’s chapter about those sunnier last years of the Winterbottom regime is headed by a fine meditative photo of Stanley Matthews besuited, new holder of the ballon d’or, gazing into the future from the sand dunes at Blackpool.

That future would be one in which England built three separate teams, in the space of twelve years, which were capable of frightening anyone, even the 1970 Brazilians. Three good sides – without revolutions in training, without changes to the league system (save the scrapping of the regional divisions in favour of a national Division Four), and without reform at the FA. Some things had changed: the ’57-58 pre-Munich side were the best nourished in history, thanks to rationing, and, thanks to education reforms and Walter Winterbottom, many of the ’66 and ’70 sides had received proper coaching in good conditions at school at the right age. But the biggest change of all was the ending of committee selection, partially under Winterbottom and finally under Ramsey. Corbett’s long, detailed examination of Ramsey’s construction of the ’66 side against strong and vocal opposition is the deserved highlight of the book. If you want to know what the verrou system is, you’ll have to buy a copy.

What follows ’66 is a kind of flatlining: the endless, exhausting efforts to do it again, to retrieve some footballing self-esteem, all while the game goes on about its own, quite separate business elsewhere. There are ways to make sense of this. It comes back to plot again: and Corbett, confronted by the triumph/disaster dichotomy that night/days its way out of the mouths of fans and journalists, opts instead for theme:

the insatiable burden of expectation facing our footballers and the way they have often been overwhelmed by it..shattered dreams and unyielding expectation (stretching from) origins among the mid-Victorians through to a modern era defined by money, massive egos and chronic underachievement(..) the monstrous expectation.. rears its head again and again and in so many different ways. There is, alas, no happy ending.

But there is happiness along the way. Hudson’s match in 1975 against West Germany; Keegan and Brooking’s attacking 2-0 Wembley win over Italy two years later; the vindication of Bobby Robson and Alan Shearer’s romp in the sunshine against Holland. Before that game, Terry Venables summed it up: “We are inclined to be a nation (which thinks) we are the worst team in the world or the best. Neither is true.”

The final chapters cover England’s progress during what will have been the period of James Corbett’s own writing career. Unlike many journalists, he’s resisted the temptation to place himself at the centre of events, appearing only when doing so adds an essential psychological point (Corbett’s meeting with Steve McClaren six months before the future Eredivisie winner’s England sacking for example). Nor, while writing about the unbearable expectations placed on England, does he overpromote the issue: what keeps us interested, in the end, isn’t expectation, he says, but something lighter and better: hope.

England Expects is fully footnoted and contains a comprehensive bibliography and is published by De Coubertin at £12.99.

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The Brain and Mind: A Short Annotated Reading List

Posted on 03 April 2010 by JamesHamilton

I’ve put together reading lists before – see here. This one will overlap the earlier list, but is meant to provide a number of quick but intelligent ways into the whole brain/mind/therapy/neuroscience subject spread. As such, many of these books will be familiar, some perhaps not. Amazon UK links presented where possible.

The Human Brain

Rita CARTER, Mapping the Mind. A beautifully illustrated grand tour of the brain, this is, first and foremost, a thing of beauty. Lightly but carefully written, Carter nonetheless doesn’t shy away from current controversies, and if you are looking for an introduction to the subject that will detain you for no longer than a couple of evenings, this is the one to choose.

Eric KANDEL, In Search of Memory: the emergence of a new science of mind. This is Kandel’s biography and at the same time an in-depth history of neuroscience. If you’ve no previous knowledge, start with Carter, but if you have, Kandel provides a thrilling page-turner with the occasional mental roadblock as you chew on the difficult bits. I can’t forget his account of  Edgar wiring up a neuron to loudspeakers in 1928 and hearing it speak (a percussive bang! bang! bang!) for the first time…

One of Kandel’s first career goals was to find the physical location in the brain of Freud’s ego and id. We are a long way on from that, but it serves as a warning that the most basic theoretical underpinnings of neuroscience are still fresh and unstable and liable to drastic change at any time.

History of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy

Frank TALLIS, Changing Minds: the history of psychotherapy as an answer to human suffering. Tallis’s book is short – only 170pp. – and is by a substantial margin the best introduction to the changing nature of talk therapies. It begins with Freud, and covers every important player and significant development. Tallis’s heroes are Beck and Bowlby – which, if you don’t know, is a demonstration of  good taste – and Tallis’s almost Jeevesian politeness doesn’t prevent him from giving famous flakes like Binswanger, Reich and Perls all they deserve.

Richard BENTALL, Madness Explained: psychosis and human nature. This is a “controversial” book, because it pretty much kicked off the current debate about both the efficacy of psychiatric treatment and the influence of culture and geography on experience of psychosis. For the record, I am Bentall’s man. You’ll find the first two chapters particularly useful on the essential psychiatry pioneers such as Emil Kraepelin, contemporaries to Freud but neglected men despite their victory in the battle of ideas (a victory which Bentall calls into question).

Edward SHORTER, A History of Psychiatry: from the era of the asylum to the age of prozac. A companion to Bentall. Shorter has the whole story of psychiatry, including ECT, which would ordinarily mean Reference Only for all but the most determined. But Shorter can write, and isn’t prepared to ignore controversy purely because he isn’t looking for a fight himself. You’ll find everything that matters here that isn’t in Tallis or Bentall. Unless you are looking for a history of the self-help/motivation movement – and I’m not aware that a good one exists. A project for Francis Wheen, perhaps.

Human Consciousness

Consciousness is still as much a philosophical issue as it is a neuroscientific one: we are still defining terms. Both scientists and philosophers matter here.

Nicholas HUMPHREY, Seeing Red: a study in consciousness. This is the best introduction to the subject: Humphrey’s ability to clarify ambiguous and difficult ideas borders on genius at times. A book that will make you feel more intelligent than you actually are.

Daniel DENNETT, Sweet Dreams: philosophical obstacles to a science of consciousness. Humphrey’s thinking is deeply influenced by Dennett’s, and, like Humphrey, my money is on Dennett’s fame in the brain Multiple Drafts Model of consciousness outlasting the competition. Sweet Dreams is a gentle, humourous attack on Dennett’s philosophical opponents. The punch-up is head-clearing. Dennett’s older, longer Consciousness Explained is also worth the effort.

Susan BLACKMORE, Conversations on Consciousness. This is an entertaining, often funny series of interviews with Dennett and his various allies and opponents in the consciousness field. Pretty much everyone who matters is here – the Churchlands, Penrose, Chalmers, Gregory, Searle… and the book is the best way to get a feel for their viewpoints before rejecting them for Dennett’s.

Human Memory and Emotion

It wasn’t long ago that the scientific study of emotion was a backwater, territory for cranks and the green-ink brigade. By the end of the 1990s, it was home to some of the most magnificent and moving scientific writing of our times.

Steven PINKER, How the Mind Works. This rather long book was always going to feature in a list of this type: it’s a good thing that Pinker can write. It’s not a comprehensive tour so much as an entertaining chase around some of the colourful bits, and Pinker is assuming that you won’t take rhetorical and logical errors too hard. Nor should you.

Steven ROSE, The Making of Memory. I can’t stand the man’s politics, nor his wife’s, but the original edition of this book won the Rhône-Poulenc Science Prize. The book centres entertainingly, sometimes chillingly, on Rose’s own laboratory work, but expands where appropriate to demonstrate the contact between experimental findings and philosophical thinking. Rose is also good on the weakness of much modern brain metaphor. There are problems, he says, with seeing the brain entirely in terms of modern office procedure. If you have to choose ONE book to read about human memory, this is the one to choose.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN, Phantoms in the Brain: human nature and the architecture of the mind. A hugely entertaining series of essays about brain function and human experience – phantom limbs, mirror agnosia, Balint’s Syndrome.. Published in 1998, the book has been unfortunate in how much of it has been overtaken by subsequent work, but this is still the most accessible way into emotional neuroscience.

Antonio Damasio’s trilogy Decartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens and Looking For Spinoza is essential, but if you had to pick one, go for The Feeling, which really ought also to be listed under Human Consciousness as the neuroscientist’s contribution. Damasio mixes his own work, recent neuroscience and biographical/philosophical musings into a seamless discussion of what it means to be human. The trilogy as a whole is the most substantial single achievement on this list.

Joseph LEDOUX, The Emotional Brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. An intimately written, personal view of the human condition as expressed by brain activity. LeDoux is excellent company, and must be read if you aren’t going to go for the entire Damasio oeuvre. You might feel, having read this, that CBT is skating on thin ice, and you’d be right to do so.

Paul EKMAN, The Nature of Emotion: fundamental questions. This collection of expert essays is by some distance the densest item on this list. It explores different views on everything from the nature of emotion through to the issue of emotional control, unconscious emotion, emotions and mood, the subjective experience of emotion and emotional development. Fifteen years old, now but a fabulous ground breaker if you have the time and patience.

Nature vs Nurture

Steven PINKER, The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature. I will be voting Labour in the election, but I don’t expect my copy of The Blank Slate to follow suit. All mainstream British politics is required, nowadays, to take a strong position in favour of the nurture side of this debate, but Pinker won’t have it: both nature and nurture are involved, but much of nature’s involvement is, to modern eyes, both inconvenient and irresponsible. Supporters of the Euston Manifesto will find that some of the negative Amazon comments jog memories..

Alice MILLER, The Drama of Being A Child: the search for the true self. It’s only short – 150 pages or so – and it’s a passionate book that you’ll finish in one sitting. The problem with Pinker’s revival of the “nature” side of the argument has been that those who are politically wedded to an overwhelmingly nature-biased view would rather lose sight of any “nurture” element at all. Miller’s no scientist, to say the least of it, and her views are highly controversial, but there is a pro-nurture counterweight worth having here. She is also the first writer to take the situation of children raised by personality disordered parents and explore it properly.

I haven’t really touched on therapy in this list. CBT manuals are dry, psychodynamic ones can be creepy and psychoanalysis gave up on it all many years ago. Dorothy Rowe has occasional trouble disentangling her politics from her psychology (she wouldn’t see it that way: not doing so is an occupational hazard for the entire field) and Irvin Yalom deserves a review post of his own. Too many others subscribe either to an “everyone’s broken” philosophy that leaves me cold or to varieties of radicalism that do no more, I feel, than avoid the question. Environmentalism is not a source of the kind of meaning and significance that matters  for depressives, and neither is the Respect Party. There are some good collections of couch memoirs, and some good accounts of the experience of mental illness, but too many again to discuss in this post.

This subject enjoys some high quality online coverage – I recommend:

BPS Research Digest – the blog of the British Psychological Association

Mind Hacks – much of this excellent review site is written by KCL’s Vaughan Bell

Seed Magazine

Edge -  especially the Annual Question, answered by dozens of top scientists, thinkers and writers

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How Much Can Football Books Tell Us?

Posted on 01 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Noticing the lack of decent writing about the post-devolution Scottish experience, Gerry Hassan turns his attention to the superior insights available in – of all places – recent books about Scottish football:

On the issue of football’s importance in Scotland, recently I wrote about the lack of defining books about modern Scotland post-devolution. I know that some of my non-football loving friends are not going to thank me for this train of thought, but it seems the nearest we have come – more than in any other area – is in the serious football book.

In particular, Archie Macpherson’s ‘Flower of Scotland? A Scottish Football Odyssey’ and his ‘Jock Stein’ biography are magnum opuses about the journey of modern Scotland. They are not just football books, about what happened in this or that game. Instead, they tell passionately the accounts of men involved in football, the players, managers, owners and coaches, as well as the fans, the dreams of the often grim, working class communities the Jock Steins, Alex Fergusons and Jim McLeans came from, and how football was both a kind of glue and form of escapism.

Macpherson’s two books are beautifully written and, for anyone with a passing interest in Scottish society, paint a vivid picture of the heroes, villains and flawed figures who made up the game. People like Willie Waddell, the Rangers manager who endured the tragedy of the Ibrox disaster in 1971 when 66 people died, keeping his composure, as all around lost theirs. He won the European Cup Winners Cup for the ‘Gers the next year, but was a man ultimately destroyed by his alcoholism.

Anyone who has spent time with the best football writing will know instinctively that this is correct: that football can provide a new slant and a fresh perspective. This is as true of recent Scottish political and cultural life as it is of the Victorian and Edwardian history that I’ve been writing about here. Football is both unthreatening and familiar. We don’t expect it to shed any light, so when it does, it does it with superlative force. The clicheed history of Victorian and Edwardian football – its whiggish progression from “toffs” (boo!) to professionalism (seen as the triumph of the working man: hurrah!) – is set in concrete, but so staggeringly wrong and misconceived that any attempt to correct it immediately illuminates the society around it in new and creative ways.

Gerry’s review of the Scottish football writing scene is far more thorough than I am capable of, although I’d second his recommendation of Hugh McIlvanney’s collected articles, and raise a plea in mitigation for Harry Reid’s The Final Whistle which Gerry thinks less of than I do. I’ll certainly be following up some of his list, especially Bob Crampsey’s biography of Jock Stein (Stein is a central football figure, but also an essential part of any full understanding of the way the UK lost its footing in the years after the Oil Shock of 1973).

This excellent list of Gerry’s doesn’t set out to hide the obvious point, that there is always going to be a degree of luck involved when a football book manages to enlighten its readers about anything beyond the game. How far can that go? and what do we want from football books, anyway?

Because surely no one goes to football to find something to read. Not at first, anyway. Cricket is a different matter – all that time spent waiting to pad up needs to be filled with something, and you’ll want more than just Irish whiskey and cigarettes… I went to football to play, first and foremost. But you can’t play forever. Then I went to watch – but you can’t always get tickets, and you can’t always get to a pub with a big screen. Only after all that’s done with are there books.

Which is why football books have such short lives. Fever Pitch aside, I can’t think of a single title that has been able to sustain multiple reprints. In cricket, C.L.R. James goes on forever, and so will Gideon Haigh. Hugh McIlvanney is a match for either of them, but just you try finding a copy. I bought mine in a remainders shop on the Charing Cross Road for £1.

Long games have the better chance of generating literature. So cricket, baseball and golf are understood to be worth the author’s attention and to be capable of providing wider social and political commentary and metaphor. The game of football itself – the playing side of it – almost never is.

The best football books, as Gerry’s review demonstrates, are mostly about what goes on around and off the pitch. All of the interest is in the characters of those involved, in the geography and nature of their upbringing, in the changes they experience, and in the aftermath of their fame and triumph.

Even in Fever Pitch, which describes match action about as well as prose writing is capable, actual play matters more in what it means to the fan than in what it is in itself. A cover drive (lovely phrase) is enough on its own. Jim Baxter playing keepie uppie is meaningless without centuries of context, and even then only to those of a certain frame of mind.

The longer ago a particular game gets, the less important gameplay becomes: almost no one watches Mitchell and Kenyon’s Edwardian matches for the same reason they click on the “Video” tab at 101 Great Goals.

When you try to look at the match action on its own, and draw out meaning from that instead of just pleasure, you enter the realm of the strange and bizarre. Take this, for example:

..the symbolism of football is that much more pronounced, starting with the very mechanics of the sport: the aim of the game is to shoot, thrust or shove something small and white into an opening. It doesn’t take the genius of Sigmund Freud to work out what’s simulated here. Derek Hammond takes a similar view. The origins of football go back to ancient fertility rituals, the historian argues in (David) Winner’s book. ‘These are pre-Christian rituals which only survived because they were in places everyone forgot about. They were probably part of the original heathen, naturalistic British religions which were about the earth and the sun, and killing and fucking.’ (From Englischer Fussball: A German’s View of Our Beautiful Game by Raphael Honigstein).

Or this, from the same source:

By contrast, the highbrow, left-leaning German broadsheet taz appreciated goal-keeping legend Oliver Kahn as ‘an aesthete of the anal’ whose one and only concern was to make sure that ‘nothing came in at the back’. Taking their cue from Schümer, taz realised that Kahn never enjoyed ‘the striker’s orgasmic joy at scoring’ – because he knew he was the one getting shafted. ‘I’m the arse,’ Kahn once said about conceding a goal: ‘a feeling of loneliness grabs hold of me’. Who but a certified maniac would want to engage in such an existentialist fight against the odds?

Obviously there’s the chance here, if you want it, to laugh at over-the-top, misdirected sociological and sexual theorising.

But it’s the attitude that most offends me: these stupid, repressed footballers, so far below our own impeccable levels of enlightenment.. added to (brief digression follows) the shockingly stupid missing of the real sexual point of football. It’s not simulating sex at an unconscious level – it’s simulating battle at a very conscious level, and one of the principle points of that battle is to impress women (YMMV, obviously), or to feel entitled to impress women by working our way up the on-pitch pecking order.

I’ve felt that: haven’t you? The need to run harder, tackle more determinedly, go in where the boots are flying to impress a girl who might not have been at pitch-side but who you were always aware of in your head, metaphorically looking on?

Football has never been unsensual or sexless. But it’s a case of everything in the right order. And a certain kind of sociological writing about football gets that wrong because it itself is consumed by an (unconscious/subliminal) desire to laugh at the lower class ruffians, presumably as an alternative to fearing them or envying their (compared to some academics) success with girls. So reads its alternately tinny and nasal, superior tone.

I don’t think there’s anything to learn here, either, about the origins of, and how to end, the current homophobia in football. Whatever that’s about, it’s not sacred symbolism, Freud or Oliver bloody Kahn.

And not all Victorians thought masturbation sent you mad, certainly not all doctors or schoolmasters or clergymen. Furthermore, ways of diverting young men from sex matter more in a world without modern condoms or any means of treating STDs that were, in the nineteenth century, more prevalent and more virulent than they are now. Something to consider, when mocking the likes of Victorian headmasters, reformers and sportsmen from a luckier age that has the benefit of latex and penicillin.

Bad attitudes aside, there is another thing to learn from this kind of tortured nonsense. It’s that football is only so granular: it only breaks down so far. Football can only explain so much.

The kind of focal length we’re accustomed to using in biography or in narrative history works well with football and yields a clear, useful  picture. Change the lens, and sense breaks down.

Football can show you something of Scotland. It can show you something of history and society. But it resists being cracked open itself like some great sociological Kinder egg. If what you want from football is evidence of someone else’s false consciousness and repression, football is just as likely to hand you evidence of your own.

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