by Mick Rathbone
Vision Sports, £12.99
Reviewed by Jonathan Paxton
From WSC 294 August 2011
It's hard to imagine Trevor Francis, with his nasal, West Country drawl, as a figure to be feared but to the teenage Mick Rathbone in the 1970s, he was strangely terrifying. The author's thin skin and paranoia of failure dictate the early part of this book. Breaking into the Birmingham first team, Rathbone is struck rigid with fear every time he receives a pass from his idol, almost incapable of directing any ball towards Francis, and the most interesting parts of this book concern his lack of self-belief. He plays without shinpads in the hope of picking up an injury, dreads the papers giving him a poor rating and almost quits football for a job with Dyno-Rod.
The Smell Of Football has its moments but, unlike confessional autobiographies dealing with alcoholism or gambling addiction, being short of confidence doesn't generate enough shocking revelations, and the writing doesn't have the impact to make it compelling. The conversational style of the narrative is warm enough but some elements, such as dropping in lists of the leading pop acts and news stories of the time, suddenly push you away from the story.
There are smiles to be found but anecdotes that may get laughs among the regulars at his local don't have good enough punchlines to hit the mark here. Characters of real interest pass through Mick's career but, as that career is underwhelming and their parts in it unremarkable, they don't really add to the story. That Birmingham manager Alf Ramsey liked to be called "Sir Alf" by the players is about as much as we learn and I wanted to hear more about why a team-mate moved out of digs to live from his car. Later in Rathbone's career, being dropped from the Blackburn team for the Full Members Cup final at Wembley merits only a brief sentence and "We won some, lost some and drew some" isn't an adequate review of 300 games at Ewood Park.
The best parts of the book come with the end of Rathbone's playing career and his time at Halifax, first as part-time physio and then as an unlikely manager. At a struggling club with no money and palpably not up to the job, the inevitability of relegation is stark. It certainly isn't Left Foot Forward but tales of sleeping on hotel room floors and making a few quid selling reject clothes from his car give it a sense of real hardship. You don't begrudge "Ba" the good times when he gets the physio's job at Everton, although his claim that the players of his generation were just as fit as today's is slightly odd, especially from a fitness expert.
Full-backs are often the forgotten members of teams and Rathbone, never the greatest footballer, served out no more than a steady career in the lower divisions. The same could be said for The Smell Of Football; he isn't the greatest writer in world (please don't take it personally Mick) and the book is fairly unremarkable.