Reviews from When Saturday Comes. Follow the link to buy the book from Amazon.
Simply the best
by Tom Miller
Black & White, £9.99
Reviewed by Gordon Cairns
From WSC 337 March 2015
The radio football parody Only An Excuse captured the Scottish perception of Jim Baxter almost to perfection back in the 1980s. His character explains his most famous performance, against England in 1967 where at one point he juggled with the ball: “I had a couple of great teachers... and three White & Mackays and a double Grouse, before I went on the pitch, like. That would explain the languid fluidity.” Unfortunately, the only inaccuracy was the choice of spirit – Baxter preferred Bacardi over whisky. Tom Miller tries to expand on the popular caricature of an incredible footballer who loved a drink by offering an explanation for Baxter’s self-destruction in this new biography, with somewhat limited results.
James Curran Baxter is often described as Scotland’s greatest player but ended a 12-year playing career with only ten domestic medals, which was not a lot given that Rangers were the dominant team in Scotland for most of his time at Ibrox. Perhaps that is why his eulogists focus on individual performances, including two victories at Wembley and being picked for a Rest of the World select. However the extent of Baxter’s drinking and lack of training must surely limit claims that he was truly world class. Although alcohol abuse was rife in the football culture of the 1960s, it’s questionable whether you can consistently operate at the top level with high volumes of alcohol in your bloodstream – Pelé and Eusébio weren’t playing with hangovers.
It seems Baxter’s problem was that he simply didn’t value the natural ability that raised him out of the ordinary, his career a long attempt at sabotaging the skill he possessed. In the most interesting chapter, sports psychologist Tom Lucas examines how never being acknowledged by his birth parents as their son during his playing career may have affected Baxter. (He grew up thinking his real mother was his aunt, who he was raised by.) Lucas’s conjecture is that the pitch was the only place Baxter could escape from the pain of rejection by his mother while his womanising could be connected to his feelings of abandonment.
Published two years after what was billed as “the definitive biography”, the bulk of this book rehashes the well-worn tales of Baxter’s drinking, gambling and occasional footballing. Miller, an in-house commentator for Rangers, didn’t have to wander far in his choice of interviewees, the majority of whom seem to come from the club’s “family”, including current defender Darren McGregor and youth-team coach Davie Kirkwood, I assume because both had played for Fife clubs like Baxter, hardly justifying their inclusion. Baxter’s own voice is barely heard, yet for most of his playing career he wrote syndicated columns. Although ghost-written, surely a trawl through these would have unearthed something more relevant than how McGregor felt when he joined Rangers.
The inclusion of two poems and a selection of pen portraits from the back of football cards feel like fillers to make the book up to the required length. There is no interview with Alex Ferguson, who played alongside Baxter; Scotland’s greatest manager’s views on getting the best from Scotland’s most talented player would have been compelling. Neither is there any input from Baxter’s sons or first wife, which could have given greater insight into how he felt about family, especially if he had issues about abandonment.
The autobiography of Jimmy Case
by Jimmy Case
John Blake, £18.99
Reviewed by Seb Patrick
From WSC 337 March 2015
If things had worked out differently, Hard Case could have been the first footballer’s autobiography to be crowdfunded. Jimmy Case and his ghostwriter Andrew Smart initially sought to get the book printed via online publisher Unbound, a site on which authors solicit advance orders for titles, last year but Case’s memoir didn’t attract enough pledges. Undaunted, they’ve instead managed to find a traditional publisher to take it on – but unfortunately, this change in approach doesn’t seem to have affected the content of the book, which feels badly in need of a stronger editor’s hand.
What becomes immediately apparent from its disjointed, conversational style is that Hard Case is essentially a transcription of Case talking about his career and sharing anecdotes. An opening chapter centred on his Wembley experiences at both Liverpool and Brighton suggests that these thoughts have been grouped together in some kind of thematic order; but from then on it’s a roughly chronological run through his playing career, which nevertheless takes in several diversions forwards or backwards whenever the mood strikes him to refer to something elsewhere.
It’s clear that making itself an accessible read is one of Hard Case’s foremost aims – it’s a welcoming book, from its fairly large print size to its apparent desire to directly replicate the experience of hearing Case reminisce in person. But this style lends itself to repetitiveness very quickly, and by the time you’ve read him guess at having played “thirty-seven games” for the reserves in a particular season only ten pages or so after having already stated that same figure as precise fact, you begin to yearn for Smart to start interfering in the narrative a bit more decisively.
Case himself is difficult not to warm to, especially when telling the Daily Mail’s Jeff Powell directly to his face that he hates him, or responding to a Kenny Sansom taunt about his lack of England caps with the reply “Sorry, I thought you said European Cups”. In his time at Liverpool he was the archetypal example of a hard-working, tough-but-honest 1970s pro and his career is littered with distinctive quirks, from being allowed to continue his apprenticeship as an electrician after signing for Liverpool (essentially becoming a semi-pro player for two years) to being a contemporary of Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan who was somehow still playing in the Football League as late as 1995.
Yet while there’s much about Case’s career that was unique to him, there are also a good number of his stories – especially on the pitch – that are on the somewhat generic or predictable side. He even manages to squeeze in perhaps one of the most forgettable Bill Shankly stories yet recounted in an autobiography. It’s a shame that so many of these take up space that could have better been spent exploring his life outside football a bit more.
Instead, once the tale of his later years on the south coast is concluded, Case switches to a chapter in which he discusses the present-day Liverpool side’s prospects with an optimism born out of the events of the 2013-14 season. It’s an ill-advised sojourn that has the effect of severely dating Hard Case even before it’s reached shelves; and it’s symptomatic of a book that, for all its good intentions and occasionally lively source material, is sorely in need of knocking into better literary shape.
In search of
Louis van Gaal
by Hugo Borst
Yellow Jersey Press, £9.99
Reviewed by Jonathan O’Brien
From WSC 337 March 2015
Hugo Borst was supposed to analyse the 2014 World Cup for viewers of Dutch television. Instead, however, he spent the tournament lazing around on a sofa in the NOS studios, petting his dog and quaffing bottles of red wine, while saying hardly anything in the entire month. Not so much punditry as performance art – and a penny for the thoughts of whoever signs NOS’s cheques.
Borst and Louis van Gaal used to be close friends – the way Borst tells it, anyway – but fell out when Van Gaal accused Borst of giving his mobile phone number to another journalist. Borst’s long-standing obsession with his former pal has now reached its deranged apotheosis in this ludicrous but strangely compelling book, which has been translated from the original Dutch in the wake of Van Gaal’s move to Manchester United. Determined to saw his way through the layers of obstinacy and arrogance in order to unearth the “real” Van Gaal, he decides to analyse his hero/nemesis through the prism of psychology – and to get other people to do it.
So Borst ropes in a succession of Dutch experts in their own fields to make sense of the managerial martinet. If you’ve ever wanted to know what a stand-up comedian makes of Van Gaal (“He goes against the grain of the times we’re living in”), or how a politician regards him (“There are signs that he’s mellowing”), fill your boots. Luckily, some of the contributions are more illuminating. A priest, pondering Van Gaal’s publicly stated renunciation of God and all religion after his wife died of cancer, muses: “It’s understandable, of course. Who else are you going to hold responsible? It’s a mystery. The mystery of suffering. Where does it come from, and why? And why am I the one to suffer?” The cleric concludes that Van Gaal finds salvation in “unrelenting hard work [and] achieving results”.
There are times when Borst wanders onto somewhat dubious ground. Hiring a psychiatrist to analyse a third party who they’ve never even met is fatuous at best, and deeply crass at worst. The bit where he rings up Ronald de Boer to ask if Van Gaal uses Botox makes you feel embarrassed for him. And was it really necessary to pick over the contents of a long-ago phone conversation between Van Gaal and the doomed Robert Enke, when the latter was about to sign for Barcelona?
Borst just about gets away with all this because his way with words is undeniably very entertaining (either that or the translator did an extraordinary job with the raw material). His authorial voice, gently sarky and sardonic without ever quite overdoing it, puts you in mind of another Dutch writer, Herman Koch, whose deceptively serene tales of middle-class viciousness have found a wide audience both in the Netherlands and outside it. Sure enough, it comes as little surprise when Koch himself turns up on page 100, musing on how Van Gaal reminds him of one of his old teachers at school. A weird book, but despite its numerous lapses of good taste a fun one.
The story of Frank Large
by P F Large
Pitch Publishing, £17.99
Reviewed by Alan Fisher
From WSC 336 February 2015
Growing up in the early 1960s, I got to know the players not through television or the papers but via my collection of bubble gum cards. On the front was a colour photo of my heroes, I devoured the brief biography on the back. Many times I shuffled the pack to create imaginary teams but one man always led the line.
Frank Large was the epitome of what I believed a centre-forward should be. Rock solid, over six foot tall, his rugged face battered, I presumed, from aerial battles with similarly uncompromising defenders. The right attributes too: “Honest, works hard, good in the air.” False nines, a pivot, mobile and pacy, I get it, times have changed but that image remains.
Large played for nine League clubs between 1958 and 1973, a total of 629 appearances including three spells at Northampton Town. His career spanned four divisions and he scored goals in all of them, well over 200 in total.
Large’s assessment of his talents is characteristically straightforward: “I can only do one thing but I’m good at it.” The story of this engaging, open man is lovingly told by his son through match reports, personal memories and interviews with ex-pros and managers, including his boss at Fulham Bobby Robson, who speaks with the humour and tenderness that footballers of a certain generation reserve for team-mates who they respect as a professional and friend. There’s a theme though – knock it up to Frank, Frank gets on the end of it, Frank never gives up.
Managers wanted him, often to give that extra push for promotion or to stave off relegation. Yet he was also easily dispensable as these same managers looked to upgrade. In 1966 alone he played for Carlisle, Oldham and Northampton. If he had regrets, he seldom showed them because this proud man was grateful for the chance to play.
There’s no in-depth analysis but the many anecdotes portray the life of this football man as a world away from that of today’s top professionals. Arriving at Halifax, his first club, he looked so bedraggled the other players gave him clothes. His reward for a cup run with Northampton was four new tyres for his second-hand turquoise Mini Clubman. There are many more and enjoyable they are too.
Perhaps the most telling insight comes when the game has finished with him. Returning home after his first morning in a factory, lungs and eyes chocked with toxic dust, he vows never to return yet picks himself up and endures the Dickensian conditions, 60 hours a week for 11 years, to provide for his family.
Frank Large died in 2003 aged 63, content in retirement in Ireland. His son’s readable, pleasing account does ample justice both to his father and a bygone age of football. Then again, Large will always be fondly remembered by supporters across the country as much for his wholehearted approach as for his goals. One of his most important for Leicester in Division One is described thus: “Frank slides in on his arse and crashes a shot into the top corner.” That’s my kind of centre-forward.
by Jeremy Goss with
Amberley Publlishing, £12.79
Reviewed by Paul Buller
From WSC 336 February 2015
Jeremy Goss is not a player who can claim to have had a long and illustrious career. He did, however, light up English football in Europe after its very darkest days and brought myself and other Norwich City fans two seasons of sheer pleasure, the like of which we’ll probably never experience again.
Best known for his UEFA Cup goals in 1993 that helped Norwich become the only English side ever to beat Bayern Munich at their Olympic stadium, the midfielder briefly became a household name. His rise to fame, however, was as much a surprise to him as it was to those of us in the stands at Carrow Road who’d watched him endlessly trudge up and down the sidelines hoping to get a game.
Goss’s story charts his time in the wilderness very personably and it’s hard not to feel for him. Stuck in the reserves at Norwich for ten years, to this day he holds the record for most consecutive picks as first-team substitute (18). He doesn’t drink, he rarely goes out with the lads and he trains harder than anyone at the club. He’s sick of hearing managers tell him “Your time will come, son”. Yet every time he tries to move clubs, Norwich give him a new contract.
Perversely then, things work out for him just at the point he’s decided he doesn’t care anymore. He has become so sick of Andy Townsend getting picked ahead of him that he decides to go off the rails and enjoy a few pints, get a bit lippy around the training ground and nastier on the pitch. Enter the new manager, Mike Walker, who tells Gossy he’s going to build the team around him. And he does. Goss becomes an integral part of a Norwich team who start the season by beating Arsenal 4-2 at Highbury, are eight points clear at the top of the inaugural Premier League in December and finish in third place having qualified for the UEFA Cup.
On top of this he starts scoring spectacular goals – namely 20-yard volleys that win him goal of the month on Match of the Day, an honour he is almost childishly (and touchingly) proud of. A season in Europe ensues and Goss plays his huge part in creating history. He and the team believe they’re going to win the UEFA Cup and only Inter put a stop to it in the third round. And then his career crumbles as suddenly as it rose. Walker leaves for Everton, players are sold, Goss is back in the reserves.
Tales of banter are refreshingly scarce; this is a story of how hard work, dedication and an incredible belief gave Goss and his team their just rewards at a time when football was still more about competition than money. Gossy is a proper story and an interesting insight into what a footballer is actually paid to do – train, work hard, play and win. And he enjoys it. At the end of the book, whether you’re a Norwich fan or not, you can’t help but admire the man.
From Barry Stobart
To Neil Young
When the FA Cup really mattered vol 1 – the 1960s
by Matthew Eastley
Pitch Publishing, £14.99
From Ronnie Radford To Roger Osborne
When the FA Cup reallymattered vol 2 – the 1970s
Pitch Publishing, £14.99
Reviewed by Adam Powley
From WSC 336 February 2015
There’s a game that’s been doing the rounds among fans of a certain age for a while. It involves being asked to name every FA Cup-winning club from a starting point – usually the mid-1960s – up to the present day. The respondent can invariably name each one, until he or she gets to the late-1990s, when all finals seem to blur into one boring, “Big Four”-dominated melange.
The point is to illustrate that the FA Cup is so obviously not what it used to be that it means we forget the recent past and savour the more distant. Memory can play curious tricks, however, and as Matthew Eastley shows, plenty of the finals during those supposed golden years of the 1960s and 1970s were far from being the classics of popular imagination.
For every totemic game and incident – Everton fan Eddie Cavanagh leaving pursuing police trailing in World Cup year, Chelsea battling Leeds in 1970, Sunderland embarrassing Leeds in 1973 (the best chapter in this double offering) – there are mediocre and pallid matches that undermined the final’s claim to its status as the biggest game of the season.
Yet the myths endure. Eastley writes extensively on every year in each decade, drawing on recollections of the fans who were there. Blended with references to newspaper stories and often laboured connections to hit singles of the day, the tale of each competition is told in present tense. The narratives are common: the thrill of the third round, building excitement as a Cup run gathers momentum and the agonising tension of semi-final day. The finals themselves express the wide-eyed wonder felt by supporters present for the great occasion, and the extreme emotions of victory and defeat. These really were games that mattered.
Other testimonies dare to contradict the orthodoxy. Hooliganism increasingly becomes a problem, even at finals. There are also the horrendous problems with ticketing and the annual disgrace that (then and now) saw loyal fans of competing clubs miss out while the touts enjoyed massive paydays. Eastley’s books do make some missteps. Many of the interviews read suspiciously like they were conducted via email, betraying a lack of natural conversational flow, and there is a lot of cliche. Clubs are “beloved”, Abide With Me sends “shivers down spines” and the experience, of course, is a “rollercoaster”.
But then FA Cup nostalgia is one big cliche. The competition’s rituals and customs have become the game’s liturgy, and its progress defined the rhythms of the season. League titles lacked the prestige and glamour of football’s great occasion. It was a Wembley FA Cup final everyone dreamed of seeing their team play in, and even if the old stadium was rundown as early as the 1960s, the whole event still rendered fans giddy and touchingly emotional.
Now, sadly, it is an afterthought, an inconvenience that gets in the way of the more lucrative Premier and Champions Leagues. The FA Cup is football from a different time and age – when, as Eastley delightfully shows, referees from Merthyr Tydfil named their house “Offside”, workmates generously strove to source a final ticket for a teenage colleague and fans could sing “Ee Ay Addio We Won The Cup” with sincere pride and not a hint of embarrassment. Eastley recognises the special place the Cup once had in fan affections and has created easy-going and perfectly justified wallows in nostalgia to suit.
The life and crimes of
a footballing enigma
by Alan Pattullo
Reviewed by Archie MacGregor
From WSC 336 February 2015
For someone who so determinedly shunned the media throughout his playing career Duncan Ferguson had quite a knack for grabbing headlines. The two were intrinsically related of course and contributed to him polarising opinion like few other Scots-born players have in recent decades, with perhaps only Graeme Souness ahead in the queue. This book lays bare not only justifications for his brooding hostility towards the press pack but also in turn how such unwillingness to explain himself fuelled antipathy towards him, especially in Scotland.
For those with strongly held opinions over whether Ferguson was a chronic underachiever with delinquent tendencies or a mixed-up kid who just needed to feel appreciated it’s unlikely this thoughtful and even-handed appraisal by Alan Pattullo will persuade them to change camps. Among the undecided there is simply just a lot more to ruminate over.
On the playing side the book chronicles Ferguson’s emergence as an exciting prospect at Dundee United, a then record-breaking £4 million transfer fee when he moved to Rangers in 1993, his failure there and the headbutt on Raith Rovers’ Jock McStay that led to a short jail sentence, a smattering of generally underwhelming international appearances and finally rejuvenation of sorts, eight sendings-off and near folk-hero status in two spells at Everton. Off the field Ferguson also emerges as no less paradoxical. For every interviewee testifying that he was “fun”, “sensitive” or had “a heart of gold” there is another portraying him as a “hellraiser”, “cruel” or “difficult to like”.
It’s hard not to escape the view that Ferguson’s early experiences under the successful but authoritarian Jim McLean at Tannadice shaped his seemingly ambivalent attitude towards the game. Along with notoriously long contracts to tie players down, there were results-driven pay packages with low basic wages topped up with relatively handsome appearance and win bonuses. This bred a “brutal” culture within the club where players competed ferociously with one another to make sure they were in the matchday squads. Newcomers were treated as unwelcome potential rivals and details of how Ferguson once humiliated a young German trialist by cutting up his suit in the dressing room make for particularly uncomfortable reading.
His penchant for getting into trouble ultimately led to a spell in Barlinnie prison. This was viewed as harsh by some but three previous convictions for assault prior to the McStay incident hardly stood him in good stead in court. However no one in the book offers any support for the SFA also seeking to impose a 12-game ban as its own punishment – a move that wholly soured Ferguson’s relations with the Association and all but extinguished his desire to play for Scotland.
It was letters of support from Everton fans, including one from a young Wayne Rooney, that Ferguson credits with keeping him going through those dark days and helped forge the strong relationship he has with the club to this day. Pattullo, like others who have taken a keen interest in his tumultuous career, could barely imagine him ever becoming a coach but there he is, an integral part of Roberto Martínez’s back-up team at Goodison Park. Heavens he’s even started speaking to the press occasionally. Maybe the autobiography will be next.
The man who said no to England
by Dave Thomas
Pitch Publishing, £17.99
Reviewed by Harry Pearson
From WSC 335 January 2015
Jimmy Adamson was born in Laburnum Terrace, Ashington, a few doors along from Bobby and Jack Charlton. All three would be Footballers of the Year. They shared character traits too; Adamson had Big Jack’s abrasiveness and Bobby’s tendency to aloofness. Unfortunately he didn’t have the charm of the former, or the diplomatic skills of the latter. The result, as lifelong Burnley fan Dave Thomas relates, in this illuminating and well told biography, was a career that promised much but ended in frustration.
Adamson’s childhood was brutally hard. His father abandoned the family at an early stage; his mother’s struggle to raise her children on her own ended in depression and suicide. Later he would suffer the horror of having his two children predecease him.
Whisked away to Burnley as a teenager after the north-east clubs took their traditional path of rejecting a local star, Adamson started as a winger but soon switched to half-back. Intelligent, tough, with a rare ability to pick a pass, he quickly became one of the stars of the team that took the League title in 1960.
As a coach Adamson was ahead of his time, a thinker and a tactician. After serving as assistant to Walter Winterbottom at the 1962 World Cup, he was offered the England manager’s job but turned it down to stay on at Turf Moor as player and eventually – after some backstage shenanigans to oust incumbent Harry Potts – the manager.
From Potts, Adamson inherited a side rich in young talent, labelling it “the team of the Seventies”. Unfortunately the economics of football had changed since his playing days and small-town clubs such as Burnley now struggled to compete with the big-city sides. The resulting financial pressures brought Adamson into conflict with Burnley chairman Bob Lord. Sitting in the head office of his butchery business in front of a large portrait of Winston Churchill, the man Arthur Hopcraft called “the Khrushchev of Burnley” was a self-made autocrat straight out of satire. (Indeed, one of the many entertaining nuggets the author has dug out is the fact that Brian Glanville wrote a sketch about Lord for That Was The Week That Was. Sadly it was never performed.)
As “the team of the Seventies” were dismantled to pay for ground improvements and fend off debt (and to line Lord’s pockets, it is alleged) the once close relationship between the two men descended into acrimony. “I wanted to build a team, the chairman wanted to build a stadium,” Adamson famously remarked after the split finally came.
Away from Turf Moor, Adamson never really settled. A spell at the side he had wanted to play for as a boy, Sunderland, ended after a couple of inconclusive seasons, the appointment at Elland Road in 1978 was fraught with problems from the off. By then alcohol seems to have blunted Adamson’s talent and exacerbated his prickliness. After Leeds he did not work in football again.
Adamson continued to live in Burnley, but was so bitter about his treatment by Lord he refused to go and watch even after his nemesis had departed. Thankfully he eventually made his peace with the club he had served so well. He received a warm and heartfelt ovation from Clarets fans on his return to Turf Moor. It gave some semblance of a happy ending to a life marred by rancour and loss.
edited by Jethro Soutar
and Tim Girven
Ragpicker Press, £10
Reviewed by Nick Dorrington
From WSC 335 January 2015
The Crónica is a Latin American literary form, somewhat akin to the output of the new journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s, in which the author involves themselves, to some degree, in the story. Written from a bold and engaging first-person viewpoint, it is a form that is the subject of a number of dedicated magazines across Latin America.
It is through the medium of the Crónica that this collection explores the football and society of a region in which a team bus is shown more deference than an ambulance in traffic, where villagers gather on a hillside to get the best possible signal for the radio broadcast of a match and where entire cities can be brought to a halt by an important fixture. These entries are supplemented by a book extract in similar style and three short stories.
The standard varies a little from piece to piece but the overall quality of both the writing and translation is to be applauded. Authors from across South America, plus two from Mexico, have been included, writing on subjects as varied as a prison team in Argentina, a Latino immigrant league in New York and a team of transvestites in Colombia. The rare missteps occur when the focus is on well-known subjects such as Alcides Ghiggia or Romário.
One of the most interesting entries is by the Peruvian writer Marco Avilés. It tells the story of the women’s football team of a high Andean village where no Spanish is spoken and the comforts of modern society are not to be found. The women travel down to the nearest developed city to take on the local team in a match that Avilés bills as a battle of ojotas (rustic flip-flops) versus trainers; ancient tradition against globalisation.
The changing face of football is masterfully described in a wry short story about an elderly man denied access to a stadium due to his failure to produce a shop loyalty card. “Purchasing power is all that matters,” a steward tells him as the man fruitlessly describes the various triumphs and defeats he has witnessed in his many years in the stands.
The best pieces in the collection are those about people who for one reason or another stand on the margins of mainstream society. We sometimes forget that football, in its most basic form, can act as a unifier for communities, or provide a platform for those whose voice is rarely heard. This theme is beautifully summarised in the final entry, a short story by Vinicius Jatobá that provides a fictionalised account of the genesis of Brazilian football and the emergence of Leônidas da Silva in the docks of Rio de Janeiro.
Laced with local patois and references to the art, food and history of the region, the book is, at times, a challenging, even daunting read. Explanatory footnotes would have been a welcome addition. Yet it is still an enlightening and ultimately rewarding excursion into the football and culture of Latin America.
The meaning and making of English football
by David Goldblatt
Reviewed by Alan Tomlinson
From WSC 335 January 2015
David Goldblatt writes with the authority of a serious academic theorist of the globalisation process, but displays a lucidity and fluency to match the best feature journalists and sport writers. In The Game Of Our Lives he draws on specialist journalism, consultancy reports, arcane academic findings, new media and personal observations to analyse how English football has both mirrored and anticipated the broader neo-liberal agenda over the last two or three decades. Citing JK Galbraith in his conclusion, Goldblatt argues that English football represents the triumph of unaccountable affluence for the few over the many whose experiences and hopes are increasingly defined by the deprivations that denies them access to the game’s new riches.
The book confirms how swiftly the Premier League seized power in the early 1990s, and how timid the FA were in defence of the traditional values of the game. There may have been reviews, commissions and discussion of the need for serious change and modernisation; but the FA never managed to act, beyond the backing of the Taylor report for reform following the Hillsborough tragedy. Yet the consequent modernisation of grounds, in significant levels publicly funded in the name of community and civic goals, was a transformative project that Rupert Murdoch must have thought was a ruse or a booby-trap. But no, here it was on the eve of transnational satellite broadcasting: a cleansed and modernised infrastructure for him to buy into and sell on worldwide. Rarely has any besieged culture handed the battering-ram to the invasive aggressor in such a naive and timid way.
Goldblatt knows the sport too, and this is far from any dry history of the economics and politics of the game. He conveys the enduring cultural appeal of football, the resonance of matchday in the face of the forces of “fragmentation and distraction” that the new mobile media bring to bear in threatening the crowd’s “unbroken engagement and shared experience”. Analyses of the culture of the game, including the lost genius of the flawed Paul Gascoigne and the global profile of the feted metrosexual David Beckham, alternate through the book with vignettes on the political and economic realities of the emerging neo-liberal agenda. He illuminates the meaning of the game in its Premier League phase, balancing an evocation of its excellence and attractions with a critique of its financing and governance, reminding us too of the collective values that originally made football possible in its modern form, and of the game’s capacity to offer models of co-operative endeavour.
In a synthesising achievement of this scale, errors will certainly have crept in, and Burnley’s former chairman Barry Kilby is presented as “benefactor… Barry Kidder”. Wigan Athletic were formed in 1932, not “the late 1970s”, which was when they replaced Southport in the League; England’s “first defeat by a foreign team at home” was not the Hungarian lesson at Wembley in 1953, but a 2-0 loss to Ireland at Goodison Park in 1949. But this is a superb study that will surely inform and sustain debate on the nature and culture of the game, and the impact of the excesses of the Premier League upon football’s rich cultural legacy.