Heart of Football

by David McVay
Reid Publishing, £9.99
Reviewed by Pete Green
From WSC 261 November 2008 

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How should a serious newspaper cover lower-league football? The Guardian hardly bothers at all, contemptuously summarising 72 clubs’ weekends in a negligible bullet-point “round-up”. The Times and Telegraph, superficially at least, sometimes offer the lower divisions greater respect, with weekly columns dedicated to life outside the top flight. But exactly how respectful is it to commission lower-league specialists to get their hands dirty at Underhill while their staff writers hoover up the posh nibbles in comfy Premier League press rooms?

Heart of Football is the Daily Telegraph’s go at slumming it: a compilation of columns from 2007–08 by David McVay, a former Notts County and Peterborough full-back. McVay’s love for his subject matter is palpable – he “became forever smitten with life in the nether regions of the Football League” when a team-mate showered an abusive fan with expletives during a reserve game on a filthy night at Halifax. And the material would have made an entertaining little weekly titbit in the paper. But in a book the formulaic style grows just a little wearying.

You know the sort of thing: the author finds a riff and rolls with it, so Nottingham is “harshly renowned as the gun capital of Great Britain”, then Colin Calderwood is “enduring a fraught football version of Russian roulette”, his team are “firing blanks”, and so on. A nadir arrives on a riff about red and revolution, with a tortuous 63-word sentence contrasting Joseph Stalin with the directors of Swindon Town. I’ve read it a dozen times and I still can’t understand it all.

When he’s not trying too hard, the author has a wordy wit that you can warm to: the agent Sky Andrew is “innocent of all charges perhaps but definitely guilty of retaining a name that suggests he may have been fostered by Bob Geldof and Madonna in a previous life”. But you might be left cold by a snipe at “the dreaded Health and Safety”, a baffling non sequitur about strikes at British Leyland, and praise for Keith Alexander because he doesn’t “blabber on about racial inequality” – the sort of ill-informed right-wing exasperation more at home in the Daily Express.

This is a pleasant book to dip into – a reasonable cistern-top volume for the Christmas market – but it is unambitious. The Ikea outlet that facilitated MK Dons’ new stadium prompts wordplay around furniture, but no questions about franchise football or questionable planning decisions. McVay’s heart is in the right place, but too often his coverage is only skin-deep. And if this is a flaw that’s unavoidable in the column format, then that’s all the more reason for proper ­coverage of the Football League instead. You don’t need to justify reporting on a competition with massive and growing support.

McVay is at his best when he eschews the wordplay and quirky characters to depict lower-league football straightforwardly – as the same game played at the top. Newspaper sports editors, take note.X

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