50 years of trials and triumph with football’s
by Tim Quelch
Reviewed by Nick Miller
From WSC 301 March 2012
Part memoir, part collection of anecdotes and – perhaps slightly surprisingly – part modern history, Underdog! is a collection of stories about when the improbable occurs in football. There are the obvious tales, such as Wimbledon winning the 1988 FA Cup, along with more obscure stories, like the Northampton Town side that reached Division One in the mid-1960s.
These stories would be reasonably interesting in themselves, but Tim Quelch also attempts to place them in a socio-economic context, discussing what was going on in wider society while the events played out on the field. This works for the most part, but a few of the 430 pages could have been saved with a little less background. A passage about the Falklands War, for example, does not add a great deal to the end of a chapter on Bristol City and Swansea. It just breaks up the flow of the book.
The expansive approach can, however, provide new perspectives on stories you already know. Quelch notes, for example, that the FA Cup-winning Wimbledon side was eventually sold for £12 million – twice the amount it cost to assemble the Liverpool team they beat at Wembley.
In many ways, Underdog! is a book that could only have been written by an English football fan. Our fascination with the little guy is arguably derived from an innate suspicion of success – or at least a desire for those that are successful not to get too big for their boots. By celebrating teams and individuals that don't win very often, we have nurtured the idea that losing is acceptable, while still complaining when our sportsmen don't come up to scratch.
The underdogs are treated with such sentimentality by the media that it would be easy to go down that route with this book, but Quelch avoids that approach. Watching essentially rubbish football teams is not always a picnic, as displayed by the wonderful account of a Division Four game between Rochdale and Swansea: "Rarely have I seen a match so bereft of punch, pace, passion, poise or point. Although, disgracefully, both teams received one apiece for their dismal efforts. I've had more fun cleaning the cat's litter tray."
There is a difference between celebrating and romanticising something you love, and Quelch recognises it. Indeed, the only real nod to sentimentality is in a moving last couple of pages, when he talks about his final days with his dad, and how a fondness for the little guy was passed from father to son.
Underdog! won't sell more copies than the latest bland autobiography of a 23-year-old Premier League player who is barely out of the youth team, but it will give those that do buy it a warm glow.