Daniel Gray – a social historian, Englishman and Middlesbrough fan exiled in Edinburgh – decided last season to explore his adopted homeland through its lower-league football teams. So, picking out 12 fixtures around the country, he set out to learn about Scotland and its football. The result is this series of vignettes, 12 chapters each based around a match, but for the most part an excuse to delve a little into the history of the home teams, the towns that host them and the connections between the two.
The histories of many of these clubs are intrinsically linked to the local industries –be it mining, brewing, linoleum factories or blast furnaces – but that Morton were started up by the temperance movement was news to me (and, I suspect, to publicans in Greenock). There are some fascinating incidental tales along the way, including that of Jane Haining, the only Scot to die in the gas chambers at Auschwitz; the tragic military career of Hector MacDonald; the aborted socialist revolution that (nearly) started in Cowdenbeath and the day that Arbroath withstood the might of the French navy.
Of the football stories, I was particularly interested in the "Brake Clubs", the gangs responsible for much of the football violence in the early 20th century. On the pitch there are accounts of the early days of some players who went on to make it big elsewhere, such as Alex James of Raith and Hughie Gallacher at Queen of the South, as well as some of those local heroes, often with wonderfully evocative names – Alloa's Willie Crilley, Ayr's Hyam Dimmer and others – who never were able to shine on a wider stage.
The book is, by design, anecdotal and thus can seem a bit patchy. There's also the odd gaffe that betrays his lack of familiarity with the terrain, but this is generally outweighed by the air of occasionally bewildered amusement he is able to bring to the subject as an outsider. As someone who is at least passingly familiar with all the grounds visited, I found the descriptions to be faithful and recognisable portrayals, be they of towns, stadiums, players or local pubs. They're affectionate portrayals too, he's even about as kind as anyone can be to the architects who designed Cumbernauld. And regular lower-league congnoscenti will have no difficulty identifying some of the individual fans who pop up along the way – East Stirlingshire's Mad Bill, for example, "a bearded bloke carrying a Morrisons plastic bag", standing behind the goal levelling abuse at the opposing keeper.
To what extent the book will find a wider audience I'm not sure, the Scottish lower divisions being a bit of a niche market. But there is enough in here to interest the casual reader, and if you're looking for a book that provides at least a flavour of life in the SFL and a bit of background to some of the social histories from which Scottish football and its teams grew, then this would be a reasonable place to start. And not only because of the lack of any other books attempting the same thing.