If you want to win the heart of a middle-aged football fan try pointing out that football didn’t begin in 1992. They’ll agree and wonder whether the perception that it did is down to the media being made up of people aged 35 or younger. Scott Murray’s The Title: The story of the First Division ought to become a reference point for anyone who is ever tempted to count a football statistic from 1992 just because it’s easier.
Murray, a Guardian journalist on to his fourth book, describes his task as “an attempt to snatch the long-forgotten tale of the First Division back from the darkness”. It was ambitious to try to do so in only 329 pages; there’s a preface and afterword crammed in alongside stories from 104 seasons.
For me, in my mid-40s, the chapters I anticipated most eagerly were the ones about the 1970s – the impossibly glamorous time just before I started watching, and then the early days of my own recollection: my newly beloved Boro complete with white-banded shirt, Brian Clough’s Forest and the frustrating sense of Liverpool’s near-invincibility.
The book works best when Murray drops the pace and lets the stories breathe: Stanley Matthews inadvertently turning pill-popper when his club doctor treated him for flu; Bobby Charlton sweating himself into a lather on a TV quiz show to supplement his meagre wages at Manchester United; and the bizarre first attempt at live televised football with the main camera positioned behind the goal.
There is a fondness for the old days laced throughout although Murray avoids the simplistic notion that the game was always better in the past. We might miss some of the ragged aspects of pre-1992 but I wouldn’t advocate returning to the days of the staggered end to the season, for example. Games aren’t postponed at the rate they were back in the day but was it really OK that Bob Paisley was able to arrange Liverpool’s final fixture of 1975-76 for ten days after title rivals QPR had played theirs?
The years flash by which leaves us with lots of “Team A beat Team B 4-2 and then two days later Team X beat Team Y 3-1, so A were top on goal average”. I picture the author reaching for the thesaurus to find new synonyms for “beat”. But that’s what The Title is – a breezy overview of the top division from the not-quite-invincible Preston of 1888-89 to Howard Wilkinson, the ultimate winner of the Football League. If you were reading for a degree in football history it would be a great place to start – and then you could move on once you understand we’re not doing Wayne Rooney or Harry Kane any favours by isolating their achievements from giants such as Dixie Dean and Jimmy Greaves in whose footsteps they walk.