New book explores what old annuals tell us about past players’ lives away from the pitch
WSC readers can save £2 on The Heyday of the Football Annual here
6 October ~ You’re bound to have some in a dusty box in the loft, or mouldering in the shed; and you’ll have seen them warping in the sun at a car boot sale, or in the charity shop, sharing shelf space with Jeremy Clarkson books and old Dollar and Lionel Richie LPs – but don’t be so hasty in passing over the discarded football annuals. There are some nuggets to be had within those cheap-looking laminated covers – and I don’t really mean Steve Mackenzie’s “Focus On” column from the 1983 Shoot! annual, in which he was bold enough to proclaim that Barry Manilow and Johnny Mathis were among his favourite singers, and that a typical post-match routine involved going “down to the local pub for a drink”.
If you ask anyone approaching a mid-life crisis what their favourite or most-remembered football annual is, it won’t be long before Shoot! is mentioned. But in the course of researching our book, The Heyday of the Football Annual, we rarely came across anyone enthusing about Shoot!. Most just had it for Christmas and perhaps read the “Focus On” columns or looked at the pictures. From such columns you might have gleaned that Cyrille Regis put his success at West Brom entirely down to Ronnie Allen, Spurs’ Chris Hughton was a qualified lift engineer or that Everton’s Kevin Ratcliffe would have been a lorry driver had he not been a footballer – and that “chicken curry, fried rice and lager splash” was his favourite meal – but the problem Shoot! faced was that, in terms of football annuals, the template had been set, and everything had been done several times over by about 1974, just as Shoot! achieved lift off, elbowing out the likes of Charles Buchan’s Soccer Gift Book and the Goal! annual. Nothing felt that fresh any more, you could see it all on TV, and money was beginning to flood into the game.
Our publishers, looking to appeal to as many generations of football fans as possible, were understandably keen on the subtitle “Post-War to Premiership” – and that is literally true given we engaged a couple of modern-day annual editors in a kind of compare and contrast exercise – but there’s no question the light begins to fade on the real heyday of the football annual around the mid-1970s. That golden era started around 1950, when paper and colour printing and adverts for shiny new products such as Brylcreem were beginning to become commonplace after the war, and players such as Tommy Lawton and Bert Williams leant their names to austere-looking hardbacks.
A typical photospread in these publications would feature, say, Jimmy Dudley of West Brom sitting in his front room, antimacassar over the back of the chair to avoid any trouble with the pomade, with Pip the family budgie perched on his forefinger (all footballers had budgerigars in those days). The caption would read: “Rapt audience is Mrs Evelyn Dudley, [daughter] Janice, Twinkie the dog, and Rip the cat.” Janice looks terrified; Rip looks interested, pondering dinner; and fluffed-up Twinkie could probably do a star-turn at Crufts. Football annuals subsequently rode the wave of early TV coverage (initial volumes of Kenneth Wolstenholme’s Book of World Soccer and the Sportsview annuals edited by the first presenter of Grandstand, Peter Dimmock, are monochrome beauties) and then exploded into branches of WH Smith and on to newsagents’ shelves in the aftermath of England’s 1966 World Cup triumph – and into Technicolor just ahead of the carnival of yellow, green and gold that was Mexico 70.
It’s true that the annuals’ strong visual element attracted us in the first place. There is the naturalistic, wide-angled photography of the period – I never seem to tire of looking at aerial shots of Boothferry Park, capturing the railway platform adjoining the ground, turnstiles leading directly from the platform into the back of the East Stand – as well as players posing in simple, hugely evocative unadorned strips, with barely a club badge, never mind a manufacturer’s logo or sponsor, in sight. The likes of Colin Viljoen or Terry Neill would be captured striking poses, occasionally on misty training fields, but usually in empty stadiums – the sun shining down from a clear blue August sky, people’s houses and windows visible in the gaps between stands, blocks of flats rising above an open terrace, a solitary Double Diamond advertising hoarding adding a splash of colour.
But, as readers of the supplement that came with WSC 311 (January 2013) will recall, in the book we’ve tried to capture how football was presented and written about back in the day. Some of the writing in the football annuals back then was considerably more critical than you’ll find in any publication in the seasonal aisle in Asda this Christmas. Typically, the likes of Arsenal winger and Middlesex batsman Denis Compton could be found in the Sportsview Book of Soccer lamenting the lack of artistry in the game, fulminating over speed and workrate taking precedence over skill and flair... and over in Charles Buchan’s Soccer Gift Book, Roland Allen was heartily agreeing, depicting a British footballing nation with its head in the sand, “revelling in little tin-pot Cups [fully aware] we’re in danger of becoming a fourth-rate footballing power”. There was little talk of “the greatest league in the world”.
Plenty of the Buchan writers had their own strong identity too. The slightly lugubrious Peter Morris, who often sought to place football in the wider context of daily life in post-war Britain, was the sort of writer who’d hang around watching kids play football on former bombsites, between newly erected tower blocks of flats; he was also obsessed with patterns and themes of the game. A particular favourite was John Macadam – dapper, with an outrageous moustache, and at one point living the bohemian life on a Chelsea houseboat – who could have written for the stage, or novels, but just happened to fixate on sport. As far back as the early 1960s both peddled a strong sense that the best days had been and gone.
Eamon Dunphy’s regional soccer annuals, produced when he was a player at Millwall and focusing on the game in the Midlands, the North and London, have also stood the test of time well. These, and a bunch of other Pelham annuals, are from the late 1960s and early 1970s, so the emphasis is more on players and their personalities, but they offer up a treasure trove of detail – Trevor Hockey’s early life as folk troubadour, several pages on Peterborough’s Ollie Conmy struggling with life at a fourth division club in a “grey, flat town” – and, rather superbly, give as much coverage to Walsall, Mansfield or Oldham as they would Arsenal and Manchester United.
Or it could simply be the case that after reading 17 volumes of Charles Buchan’s Soccer Gift Book in about ten days straight, you tend to frenziedly seize on any bump or glitch that would be smoothed over in today’s blanded-out media. In fact, reading primarily old football annuals for the best part of eight months, sifting for nuggets among all the crap, it’s easy to lose perspective. I remember one afternoon getting in a rut over whether Colin Suggett’s brother holidaying in Belgium (this was the late 1960s) was interesting in a kind of pro-European-not-your-typical-holiday-destination-kind-of-a-way, or not. This summer, on holiday in Ljubljana, a gentleman in a second-hand record shop tried to sell me a battered LP of Slovenian folk music from 1967 for €30. It had a beautiful cover, but was probably unlistenable. I like to think we’ve taken plenty of the best bits and distilled the essence of all these old football books, just as the chancers in retro emporiums are getting in on the act. Ian Preece
The Heyday of the Football Annual is out now – WSC readers can save £2 here
This article was first published in WSC 344