318 Victorianby Paul Brown
Goal-Post, £7.99
Reviewed by Terry Staunton
From WSC 318 August 2013

Buy this book


Pre-empting the terrace chants of several future generations, the 1878 FA Cup final referee was, indeed, a Bastard. Racehorse owner and solicitor Segar Bastard was the man with the whistle, although just a few years earlier he might have been waving a handkerchief to signal foul play, before a bright spark hit on the idea that something which made a noise might more easily attract players' attention.

It sounds like an obvious tweaking of how the game should be played, along with the 1871 ruling that introduced dedicated goalkeepers – instead of anyone on the pitch being allowed to take a "fair catch" – although it would be another 40 years before keepers' powers were reined in to prevent them from picking the ball up anywhere in their own half. Likewise, the Victorian equivalent of goal-line technology was the 1870s introduction of solid crossbars, thus ending the confusion and controversy caused by balls striking the strip of tape tied between the tops of posts.

Paul Brown's miscellany doesn't attempt a straight chronology of how the game developed while Queen Victoria was on the throne, and that is to the book's advantage. The time-hopping scattergun collection of pivotal changes to the laws governing play is liberally peppered with tremendously trivial tales of Zulu warriors playing exhibition matches in Scarborough, newspaper reports of therapeutic games played between inmates of lunatic asylums and revelations about the health-conscious 1889 Sunderland team containing seven non-smokers.

The author's visits to press archives come up trumps time and again, recounting St Patrick's Day riots at an 1840 match in Edinburgh ("a reinforcement of the police soon dispersed the cowardly assailants; four of the ringleaders, we are happy to say, are in custody") or Derby Council's decision to ban the game outright in 1846, declaring it "a vestige of a semi-barbarous age". And who wouldn't have wanted to witness the game played in Windsor, when both teams had their ankles tied 15 inches apart and the winners were presented with a cheese?

Among these myriad curios, Brown offers potted biographies of pioneering teams, players and personalities. Modern-day fans of Notts County may already be well versed in the club's history but it's intriguing for the rest of us to learn that antagonisms with their Forest neighbours stretch back to the very first derby fixture, when the latter team sneakily fielded 17 players. Rightful space is afforded to such movers and shakers as first FA secretary Ebenezer Cobb Morley, aristocratic Arthur Kinnaird (a 19th-century David Beckham, suggests Brown) and poet Nevill "Nuts" Cobbold, regarded as the forefather of dribbling.

The rules may have varied from town to town, even factory to factory, before the FA sought workable unification, while outbreaks of violence meant football habitually filled as many column inches of the crime reports as it did the sports pages, but the colourful transitions the game went through to become the beast we know today are endlessly fascinating. This book doesn't set out to tell the story in dense, sober detail, opting instead to present itself as a hugely entertaining exercise in eavesdropping.

Buy this book

318 NumbersWhy everything you know about football is wrong
by Chris Anderson and David Sally
Viking, £12.99
Reviewed by Barney Ronay
From WSC 318 August 2013

Buy this book


This book didn't have an easy start in life. At first glance, and for the first 100 pages or so, it is hard to look beyond the instant wrong turn, the unhesitating literary hari-kari, of that terrible title. Yes. Everything you know about football is wrong. Everything. Wrong. All of it. Presumably this includes all the bits you may have picked up from reading Soccernomics and its imitators, not to mention the many articles, columns and blogs to have addressed already the central conceit of The Numbers Game – the idea that football is a sport still mummified by cliche, folk wisdom and superstition; and that it is only via the forensic scalpel of the insistent academic outsider that this tapestry of mediaeval idiocy can be swished away to reveal The Truth beneath.

It is an approach that speaks very clearly to the way football is now consumed, a sport that has long since evolved at its top level into a sprawlingly incontinent mass media event. To be interested in football is not so much to support a team, to seek the connections and consolations of old-school fandom, as to enter an ongoing and irresolvable mass argument. True understanding can only be reached through wider reading, more zingily up-to-date stats. So much so that at times modern football appears to be less a form of entertainment as a kind of strident shared academic discipline, a mob-handed codification of the pub bore dynamic, and the idea that what is important in all this is to be right.

If The Numbers Game suffers at points from the fact that it must gear itself towards its natural readership, the winning-an-argument-at-work group, then there is also a fascinating and highly readable book in here. The authors Chris Anderson and David Sally are described as "a football statistics guru" and "a baseball pitcher turned behavioural economist" (aren't we all darling) and together they have some interesting and original arguments to make, expertly illustrated with stats, graphs and a broad sphere of reference.

This is essentially a book about "the inner truth" of football's numbers, albeit the attempt to stretch this into an absolute truth is at times a little gauche. Why don't all teams attempt to perfect the long throw, given its statistical success, the book demands, suggesting an obsession with aesthetics and "beauty" is behind this omission, when in fact it is as much to do with the more tangible tactical demands of rhythm and speed, a coherent and non-wishy-washy requirement for quicker, less random restarts. Barcelona can also produce some pretty convincing stats on this point.

Quibbles aside The Numbers Game is an illuminating experience, with some excellent passages – the Darren Bent analysis (surprisingly effective) is fascinating, as is the deconstruction of Chelsea's hire and fire policy. And if there is some unintentional humour in the recurrent deification of the "heroic" Roberto Martínez – everything I know about football may be wrong but I do know that Wigan have since been relegated – then this is simply a reminder that football remains a game where the numbers, like the rest of us, must follow at one remove.

Buy this book

313 FootballerFlyby Duncan Hamilton
Century, £14.99
Reviewed by Harry Pearson
From WSC 313 March 2013

Buy this book


A while ago at a book festival in Duncan Hamilton's native Nottinghamshire I was asked why the literature of cricket tended towards nostalgia. The implication of the question was that the literature of other sports – football in particular – didn't embrace the elegiac in quite the same way. I'd guess that's true. Or at least it was until recently. The success of Gary Imlach's excellent My Father And Other Working Class Football Heroes, released in 2005, has proved that there is an audience for books about football that don't simply focus on the here and now but drift back into the apparently perpetually mist-wreathed world of long ago. In football terms that is the 1950s (in cricket it would be the Edwardian era).

Duncan Hamilton's The Footballer Who Could Fly follows two fine works on cricket and taps into a similar vein to Imlach's book. It's not just about football but also fathers and sons. Jim Hamilton was a Scottish pitman, an adopted Geordie who was forced by colliery closures to move to Nottinghamshire. He is laconic, his relationship with his stammering only child carried out more or less entirely through conversations about football: "Without football we were strangers under the same roof," Hamilton observes.

From the opening account of a walk along the Tyne to Frank Brennan's sports shop, the pages of The Footballer Who Could Fly – who was, as no Newcastle fan will need telling, Wyn "The Leap" Davies – are so rich with nostalgia that if you sniff them you can smell woodbines, blended Scotch, brown ale, coal smoke and the whiff of crushed expectations.

Hamilton senior idolises Jackie Milburn, a man so shy and self-deprecating public adulation seems to cause him almost physical pain (as the author discovers when he sits next to him one day in the St James' Park press box and tries to engage him in conversation). He has great admiration too for Milburn's nephew Bobby Charlton and there is a fine moment when, during a spell as a barman (one of Jim Hamilton's many unsuccessful attempts to escape from a life underground), Jim Baxter spends an afternoon of lonely drinking in the rural pub where he's working. Baxter, the father tells his son, does not seem to dwell on what might have been, which is just as well since: "If he'd thought too much about what he might have done with that talent I'm sure he would have driven himself mad."

Though there's a welcome and pithy assault on the vindictive way Newcastle chairman Stan Seymour treated long-serving centre-half Frank Brennan, generally the opinions of both Hamiltons don't wander far from the orthodox. You know that when Bobby Moore appears you are going to find out that he wasn't very quick but he could read the game superbly (which is true enough, clearly). But familiarity is what we want from nostalgia. If you are over 45, reading The Footballer Who Could Fly is the literary equivalent of tucking into a big bowl of treacle sponge and custard. It isn't going to change anything but on a cold winter night it may be just what you need.

Buy this book

310 rabbiThe story of English football's forgotten tribe
by Anthony Clavane
Quercus, £17.99
Reviewed by Mike Ticher
From WSC 310 December 2012

Buy this book


After Jack Ruby shot JFK's killer Lee Harvey Oswald, he said he'd done it "to show the world Jews have guts". Almost no one ran with that implausible claim, except the great Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce, who half-joked that "even the shot was Jewish – the way he held the gun".

Anthony Clavane's remarkable history of Jews in English football reminded me of Bruce, in that few Gentiles would think of Brian Glanville, David Pleat or David Dein as having had a "Jewish" influence on football, any more than of Ruby primarily as a Jewish assassin. That indifference, or even ignorance, is clearly a good thing if it means anti-Semitism has had little bearing on how such people have been judged (a big if, in Clavane's view). But seeing them through a specifically Jewish lens is a fascinating and at times confronting experience.

Informed by a commanding grasp of English Jewry's identity struggle since the great migrations, Clavane argues that football has been a key way for Jews to "become English" and be accepted. The rise of Lord Triesman and David Bernstein in the FA suggests the journey is all but complete.

Clavane's book is packed with wonderful portraits and sharp insights into Manchester City, Leeds, Tottenham and Arsenal, among others. His research is outstanding, the complexity of his argument deftly handled and his snapshots unforgettable: the 1960s Orient directors Harry Zussman, Bernard Delfont and Leslie Grade handing players cash, tickets to the Royal Variety Performance and their own expensive clothes (defender Malcolm Lucas saved Grade's reversible lemon/light blue cardigan "for important dos"); Manny Cussins slipping away to work in the local branch of his furniture chain on away trips with Leeds; Pleat's Yiddish-speaking mother greeting him after every defeat with the words "So, where was the goalkeeper?".

The author sees the Jews who have flourished in football typically as outsiders who brought "a new vision, a fresh slant" – from Willy Meisl's 1956 polemical book Soccer Revolution, through Glanville's groundbreaking journalism to Edward Freedman's commercial revolution at Tottenham and Manchester United. In this light the Premier League looks startlingly like an all-Jewish production, with Irving Scholar and Dein in the lead and strong supporting roles from Alan Sugar, Alex Fynn and even, inadvertently, Lord Justice Taylor.

At times Clavane is so eager to welcome the growing influence of such "modernisers" that he disregards the wider consequences of their actions. Has the FA's reputation improved since Jews broke open its cosy elite? Barely. Should we celebrate the influence of Robert Maxwell (mentioned only in passing) or regard the power of Roman Abramovich or Pini Zahavi as a triumph over anti-Semitism?

It's hard to gauge how fierce that prejudice was, particularly off the field. Anti-Semitism, particularly the polite British variant, often goes unspoken and unwritten and is all the more insidious for that. Clavane often refers to unsourced "mutterings" and "references to a so-called kosher nostra" but direct evidence is sketchy.

He quotes the Burnley chairman Bob Lord, at a Variety Club function in 1974, saying: "We have to stand up against a move to get soccer on the cheap by the Jews who run television." I'm not sure if that quite amounts to Clavane's conclusion that "the game's traditionalists insisted it would be a tragedy if the Football League sold out to a race that was disproportionately represented in the entertainment business". Lord was a traditionalist in some ways but hardly a typical one – although it's equally arguable he was the only one willing to say what others thought.

On the field anti-Semitic sentiments were much clearer, though often aimed at general targets (Tottenham above all) as much as the small number of Jewish players. Some of the best material in the book deals with the refusal to accept insults by the working-class boxing and football clan around the Lazarus family, including Barry Silkman and Orient's Bobby Fisher. Silkman says of his relative Mark Lazarus, scorer for QPR in the 1967 League Cup final: "Lovely fella, didn't go looking for trouble, but if someone called him a Jew they'd be horizontal."

Clavane suggests interesting reasons for Tottenham's association with Jews – including the quirks of London's transport network and the inward-looking nature of the "natural" East End club, West Ham – although the claim that one-third of their fans in the 1930s were Jewish seems high. He is surely right that the carefree abuse of Tottenham as "yids" was fuelled by Warren Mitchell (grandson of Russian Jews) as Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part.

There is a lot to debate here but the depth and warmth of Clavane's work is a giant contribution to a subject long overdue proper attention.

Buy this book

311 GoalpostA new anthology of Victorian football writing
Edited by Paul Brown
Goal-Post, £8.99
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 311 January 2013

Buy this book


There has been a recent growth of interest in Victorian football, possibly because, as the editor here speculates, we "have grown weary of certain aspects of modern football [and] will no doubt find much to admire in the Victorian game". November 2012 saw a restaging of the 1872 FA Cup final at The Oval, next year sees the 150th anniversary celebrations of the FA and there is excellent and revelatory work being done on the early club histories of, for example, Arsenal – as featured in WSC 300.

From the modern fan's perspective 19th century accounts of football appear remarkable for their lack of analysis and self-awareness: plenty of hot scrimmages and backing-up but very little on how football became so popular so quickly and what it was about football that particularly engaged players and fans over other sports. This anthology of contemporary articles goes a short way to providing some of the answers.

It is not a history lesson but a "flavour" of football writing at the time. Still, it is odd to suggest that a piece from 1869 on how to make a football shares the same flavour as an 1898 interview on Tottenham's business plan for the 20th century (which was well executed, as it happens). There is no obvious organising principle and if you want to sense the development of the game chronologically you have to do the page-finding yourself.

Of the 21 articles a few are well known: the foundation meeting of the FA, the first Scotland v England international match. The earliest article is from 1862 and the latest from 1900 but there are only three from 1872-82, the decade which was the most formative period in establishing the popularity of football. This was the one era where that old Shanklyism "there's nothing new in football" would have failed. Paul Brown finds a number of later pieces that resonate with modern football concerns: the celebrity footballer tempted by the good life, a referee's view of gamesmanship, Burnley falling out of the top division into "the dark", and vulgar and abusive fans. There's even a forerunner of the Respect campaign, "success to football, irrespective of class or creed", in the form of an after-dinner toast, not pre-match banner.

One fascinating extract features a reporter travelling away with the team (think of Hunter Davies's 1972 The Glory Game set in a Victorian railway carriage) and another gives a good impression of what it was like to be in the first ever floodlit crowd (Bramall Lane, 1878, unsafe). Brown's intention is to make a series from this often beautifully written material and I look forward to seeing more of how much, and how little, football has changed since its first days.

Buy this book

311 GameChangerHow the English Premier League came to dominate the world
by Mihir Bose
Marshall Cavendish Business, £14.99
Reviewed by Huw Richards
From WSC 311 January 2013

Buy this book


Mihir Bose is an authentic journalistic heavyweight. Before becoming the BBC's first sports editor he made his mark as Britain's pioneer of serious sports business journalism. He has been ringside for every major sports story of the past 30 years and ranges well beyond that, with a catalogue including subjects such as Bollywood, the financial crash of 1987-88 and Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose (no relation).

So it is hard to think of anybody better qualified to attempt a definitive account of the Premier League. Sadly the attempt rather fails – maybe he knows too much. Some detail, like the reminder that Sky were forced by smaller clubs on the giants, who generally favoured ITV, is highly relevant. Much more is head-spinningly complex and some – such as what was eaten at important lunches – simply unnecessary.

It is oddly structured, with a long diversion into essays on Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and José Mourinho. None is bad in itself, and Ferguson is vividly portrayed, but in covering such excessively well-trodden ground the narrative loses a momentum it never really regains.

It starts badly with a chapter on football in the 1980s that fails to address the fact that crowds rose steadily from their 1986 lowpoint, making it possible that the Premier League inherited, rather than created, the upturn, and mentions the 1990 World Cup only in passing. If he is to convince that football was irredeemably horrible then he needs better witnesses than Tim Lovejoy and Piers Morgan. Hearing that a teenage Piers was clocked by a pint of piss at Highbury in 1983 will make more readers cheer than wince.

That typifies a problem with sources. Bose is not an unconditional admirer of the league but he appears not to have read its most cogent critics – the bibliography cites GQ and a welter of biographies but nothing by the Guardian's David Conn.

He has little time for organised fans and is critical of Manchester United's followers, while giving plenty of space to City advocates for the Glazers. Those voices are worth hearing but they'll have to do better than arguing that "If the Glazers walk away from United tomorrow, United is a sustainable business. You haven't got an uneconomic club like Chelsea", entirely ignoring that "a sustainable business" is what the Glazers took over.

Similarly, quoting figures to show that Wigan's turnover is proportionately closer to United's than it used to be ignores that one club has risen three divisions while the other stayed where it was. Numbers purporting to prove that the Premier League is outpacing its rivals actually show La Liga and the Bundesliga keeping up in absolute terms and making ground proportionately.

Apparently written in haste, this book desperately needed a rigorous editor. There's a decent read in here somewhere, probably around two-thirds the length plus the index which, unforgivably for a serious factual work, this lacks.

Buy this book

311 SitDownA history of sport on TV
by Martin Kelner
John Wisden & Co, £18.99
Reviewed by David Harrison
From WSC 311 January 2013

Buy this book


Having worked in broadcasting, I'm painfully aware that those on the inside can be guilty of attaching far too much importance to the social significance of their output. For the viewer, television remains essentially what you do when you get home and remove your shoes. But with average viewing holding steady at around four hours a day, there are so many opinions we've all accumulated – consciously or not. Consequently, donning our football hats, every one of us has a view on the relative merits of commentators, presenters, pundits and the like.

Martin Kelner has tapped into the great national pastimes of sport and TV with this extensively researched work. It covers the developing relationship between the two, from the early days – characterised primarily by suspicion and resentment – through to today when everything has changed, apart from the suspicion and resentment.

The opening chapters are fairly dull, accurately reflecting TV coverage of sport for most of the last century. Things don't really get going, in real life or the book, until the FA Cup's "Matthews Final" in 1953 when the first rights payment was made for coverage of a live sporting event. Kelner observes that this represented the first occurrence of footballers overtaking their cricketing counterparts in terms of public awareness. So many pioneering figures, on both sides of the camera, have helped drive televised sport to the intrusive position it holds today and Kelner is happy to acknowledge and credit, generally without attempting to compare – apart from the BBC incarnation of Des, his absolute favourite.

Age will determine where the reader's affections and admirations lie, but they're all here – from a football perspective commentators such as Captain Henry Blythe Thornhill "Teddy" Wakelam, who delivered Britain's first live sports broadcasts in 1927, through massive figures like Raymond Glendenning, Peter Dimmock, Kenneth Wolstenholme, David Coleman, Brian Moore and beyond. Pundits, effectively a 1970 World Cup innovation, are acknowledged and discussed, as are the off-screen visionaries who made it happen – men like the heroic Dimmock, Angus Mackay, Paul Fox, Bryan Cowgill, John Bromley and many others. And then there's Jimmy Hill, a man who could justifiably claim a place in all three groups.

The book is characterised by Kelner's gags; many dismal, for which he consistently and wisely blames others, but some very funny. The factual stories also contribute greatly. In the weeks before the consummate Coleman took over as presenter of Grandstand, I particularly liked the account of Dimmock's own attempts to read results from the teleprinter. Not a football man, Dimmock was confronted with "Cltc 3 Ptk Th 1" which, in the absence of any assistance through his earpiece, he delivered as "Celtic 3 Purr Thaaa 1". Kelner wears his lack of actual match attendance as a badge of honour and the device works well. If this book appears under your Christmas tree, you may well finish it before the turkey sandwiches appear.

Buy this book

308 BawburstA long-suffering supporter's search for the soul of Scottish football
by Iain Hyslop
Luath Press, £9.99
Reviewed by Archie MacGregor
From WSC 308 October 2012

Buy this book


The tumultuous events of the last few months in Scottish football have made any effort to offer a narrative on the longer term implications a hazardous affair, even for those providing the most up to the minute commentaries on the unfolding litany of farce, ultimatums and actual drama. Pity then Iain Hyslop, who set out the season before last to research and write this overview on the state of the Scottish game. Though he has tried manfully to keep his manuscript as up to date possible by adding brief references here and there on the Ibrox crisis, the sheer pace and scale of what has taken place leave his efforts looking hopelessly Canute-like.

Hyslop is actually a Rangers fan himself and the downfall of his club fowled by the emergence of "Newco" has served up several unforeseen ironies, not least the fact that here is a Rangers follower undertaking a safari tour of the grounds of all 42 senior clubs in Scotland. Like most of us he probably never imagined that his team would soon be following in his footsteps, paying visits to Annan, Berwick and Montrose.

Hyslop makes the case for some radical changes to the structure of the Scottish game, including that hardy annual suggestion – League reconstruction. In a desperately cynical throw of the dice, the chief executives of the SPL and SFA, Neil Doncaster and Stewart Regan, belatedly embraced all manner of changes to the league structure but only as a means of facilitating a soft landing for Rangers into Division One. The days of smoke-filled rooms having long since gone, everyone saw through that one.

Unfortunately it is not just the aftermath of the Rangers saga that leaves a sense of things not quite hitting the mark with this book. The format of visiting all the League grounds in Scotland has been just about done to death in recent years and observations about run-down facilities and sub-standard catering are hardly revelatory. There is little colour or insight afforded on the individual clubs, so the reader might as well head for the last 20 pages and consider Hyslop's suggested prescription for getting Scottish football off its knees.

Even here there is a sense of frustration. Few would disagree with clubs developing stronger ties with their local communities, greater supporter involvement or reduced admission prices. Rather than taking up space describing the texture of meat pies and cost of Bovril around the country, however, it would have been far more informative to have spent time examining why these worthy initiatives have worked at some clubs, but not in all instances. If summer football is indeed the way ahead why not take stock of the impact it has had on the League of Ireland? If earlier kick-offs really are more supporter-friendly as the author suggests, surely put it to the test by canvassing some opinions? The baw may not be burst, but the reader is certainly left more than a tad deflated.

Buy this book

306 Be-Careful-What-You-Wish-Forby Simon Jordan
Yellow Jersey Press, £18.99
Reviewed by Matthew Barker
From WSC 306 August 2012

Buy this book


Simon Jordan has never been the easiest of people to warm to. The public perception has generally been that of a perma-tanned flash git and there is little in this book to suggest otherwise. However, plenty enjoyed those inspired rants in his short series of Observer columns ("If I see another David Gold interview on the poor East End Jewish boy done good I'll impale myself on one of his dildos," etc).

Anyone hoping for more of the same in this autobiography is going to be disappointed. Yes, there is some fun to be had here, but the prose can be so clunky at times, full of bland cliches and feeble geezerisms, that it is clear Jordan benefited from a decent sub-editor when it came to his newspaper work.

The arc of Jordan's time at Selhurst Park encompasses some crucial moments, both for Crystal Palace and English football at large. Beginning with the failure of ITV Digital and ending with his club in administration nine years later, there is a simmering anger in these pages, erupting in a perfect storm after 2004's promotion and Iain Dowie quitting after the traumas of the following season. The fallout was bitter. To prove a charge of fraudulent misrepresentation in the ensuing court case, investigators even seized the departed coach's laptop.

Jordan is keen throughout to portray himself as the progressive young buck, kicking against the grey-haired, grey-suited establishment of club owners. Some of the promised score-settling turns out to be pretty tame. It is no great surprise that David Sullivan comes across as a nasty little man, making a point of loudly asking Jordan in the middle of the Birmingham boardroom if he was gay. The witty riposte – "Why? Do you fancy a crack at me?" – was equally crass.

Former Charlton chairman Richard Murray challenges Jordan to a fight after an invitation to lunch is turned down, while Steve Coppell, Peter Taylor and Trevor Francis are all portrayed as cheerless mopes of varying degrees. Steve Bruce, despite the whole gardening leave episode, remains "a firm friend".

There is, as you might expect, a fair bit of bragging too. Our man flits between his "exclusive Chelsea penthouse suite" and Puerto Banus, living in a world full of "beautiful ladies". Even more galling is his boasting about his friendship with former Wimbledon chairman Charles Koppel, a "close ally against all football bullshit".

For all that, reading the final chapters, Jordan's frustration and eventual weary resignation as he bemoans the grip of agents and watches as a succession of homegrown talent leaves the club, is palpable. The passages describing his attempts to avoid insolvency have a gripping inevitability; the sums of money quoted are startling and depressing. Jordan invested and lost a lot. And you have to feel for him.

Palace appear to have done better than most clubs after the shock of administration, but the game's landscape continues to alter and present new challenges, with the Elite Player Performance Plan and Financial Fair Play both starting to kick in. Maybe Jordan should write a column about it.

Buy this book

305GoldenSky There's A Golden Sky: How 20 years of the Premier League has changed football forever
by Ian Ridley
A&C Black, £18.99
Reviewed by Ed Wilson
From WSC 305 July 2012

Buy this book


In the same way that the X Factor is only capable of assessing the importance of the Beatles through the number of "units" they sold, the Premier League is often characterised as measuring success by spreadsheets alone. There's A Golden Sky is Ian Ridley's contribution to the debate about the impact of the League – and its money – on the English game as a whole.

Ridley, who writes for the Daily Express, takes the 2010-11 season – the 19th year of the competition, but the 20th anniversary of its conception – as the backdrop to his journey through English football, encompassing everything from the perennial contenders for the Champions League positions to Sunday league players struggling to keep down the previous night's drinks.

The author has twice served as chairman of Weymouth FC, so perhaps it is not surprising that this book excels when it deviates from the mainstream. There are touching profiles of Wembley FC and Truro City, a visit to Hackney Marshes and an intriguing encounter with Spencer Trethewy who, at 19, announced his ill-fated plan to "save" Aldershot FC on Wogan.

As well as highlighting the knife-edge existence of smaller clubs, these chapters constitute an attempt to answer the question of what drives people to get involved at non-League and grassroots level – from personal grandstanding to a genuine desire to serve the community. At this level, money is not much of a motivator.

Oddly, given the book's title, the chapters on the Premier League are the least engaging. Occasionally they throw up a new angle or a quirky fact. Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, personally checks each of his players for jewellery before they leave the changing room on matchdays. Don't think about it too much – the mental pictures aren't especially pretty. But too often the subjects have been covered so exhaustively that Ridley struggles to find a fresh perspective. If there is anything interesting left to say about Roman Abramovich's takeover of Chelsea it is unlikely that the club's chairman, Bruce Buck, is going to be the person to say it.

The book is relatively generous in its treatment of the Premier League. The structure prevents sustained polemic – each chapter could work as a standalone essay – and there are regular reminders that the interests of the game have not always been well served by other custodians, such as the government and the FA. This is not a demolition job of everybody involved with the top division; the account of the destructive impact of gambling addictions on players is sensitively handled and surprisingly affecting.

Ridley is rarely overtly scathing about the Premier League and there are more robust critics of its influence on the English game. Nonetheless, There's A Golden Sky is a witty and engaging survey of the way the footballing landscape has changed in the last two decades. The snapshots Ridley has chosen to include – from the Glazers' leveraging of Manchester United to local chairmen keeping clubs afloat with their own money – speak for themselves.

Buy this book

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday