A Clueless American Sportswriter Bumbles Through English Football
by Chuck Culpepper
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99
Reviewed by David Wangerin
From WSC 249 November 2007
The disaffected fan will readily identify with the first eight pages of Chuck Culpepper’s book, a catalogue of much that is wrong with American sport, which the Virginia-born expatriate claims left him afflicted with “Acute Sportswriter Malaise”, the product of “a 14-year career immersed in a vat of drivel, banality and corruption, especially drivel”. His conclusion – “sport sucks, but I’d hate to live without it” – could be a motto for the 21st century.
Odd, then, that he should search for catharsis in the Premier League, an entity inducing waves of ennui from many. But while Yanks who “get” English football may no longer represent the curiosity they once did, to most of the United States the game remains as obscure as the contents of a meat pie. For Culpepper, this esoterica is irresistible: teams named Crewe Alexandra and Shrewsbury Town; Congolese players lining up alongside Croats; rallying cries based on American showtunes and dusty chart hits; bungs, derbies and relegation. Adopting Portsmouth, he sheds the faux objectivity of his profession in favour of naked loyalty, and bears witness to their best season in half a century. This, it seems, rids him of his “malaise”.
Make no mistake: our interloper is not here to rail against the drivel, banality and corruption in British sport, conscious as he doubtless is that his profession is already oversubscribed with ugly Americans. Commendably, he spares any attempt at justifying football’s global appeal, or rationalising America’s ambivalence towards it. His droll prose is also mercifully short of factual own goals (though there is a reference to John Kerr junior, who turned out for Pompey in 1987, being “the first American to play in the Premiership”). At times it may seem more of a writing assignment than a rebirth, but having covered Super Bowls, Olympics and whatnot, maybe that is unavoidable.
If the author is guilty of anything, it’s of trying too hard. He may recognise that effacement of self and country go a long way over here, but his efforts at playing the “clueless American” become rather tiresome (among other things, he “pretend[s] to comprehend the rarity of a Linvoy Primus brace”, as if a novice could not appreciate such a thing). Similarly, his enthusiasm for detailing the chants and songs he hears is wearying and largely unnecessary, unless I’ve assumed wrongly that everyone in the country knows Sing When You’re Winning.
While the book is a lot better than its cover might suggest, the one I wanted to read is an exposition on Culpepper’s “malaise”, and what might prevent it from spreading over here. He could also have addressed why so few in his profession have been courageous enough to bite the hand that feeds them in an effort to stamp it out. Maybe that’s unfair: Up Pompey is engaging and amusing enough, and a particularly agreeable diversion for those with a foot steeped in the sporting culture of both countries. But from a man who has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize – and who’s anything but a clueless American – I was hoping for a little more.