Twenty years on from the 1992 publication of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch it might be assumed that there wouldn’t be any subjects football-wise remaining to write a half-decent book about. It is true there’s a lot of dross, personally I avoid almost all ghost-written player biographies like the plague, and the ‘Hornbyesque’ diary of a season/lifetime has been mostly done to death. But there’s also enough fine writers, some new, some vintage, to still provide a literary sparkle to writing about the Game.
Jimmy Burns’ unauthorised biography of Maradona was one of the stand-out books that helped define the new football writing. His latest, La Roja maintains his exceptionally high standards as a football writer, detailing the cultural and social context from which the Spanish team has emerged as World and European champions, arguably the finest national team ever. Of course Spanish club sides aren’t bad either, though domestically La Liga is dominated by just two teams (sound familiar?). Richard Fitzpatrick’s El Clasico provides a superlative explanation of what the Barcelona vs Real Madrid rivalry represents on, and off, the pitch.
At home the biggest story of the year was Man City’s ending of their own years of hurt, in City’s case numbering 44 seasons since last winning the league championship. The finest investigative sports journalist working in the British media is without much doubt David Conn who also happens to be a long-suffering City Fan. His book Richer than God manages to combine quite brilliantly a tribute to all that his club has achieved while at the same time unravelling how the super wealthy owners are a major part of all that is wrong with football today. A hugely insightful and opinionated commentary on the modern game has also been written by an anonymous top-flight player, I Am The Secret Footballer. Almost every topic covered from inside the dressing room, no culprits named though which makes for a well-informed guessing game!
Against Mod£rn Football has been the T-shirted manifesto of Philosophy Football pretty much from our start back in 1994. Of course loudly declaring that football isn’t what it used to be can sometimes descend into a conservative nostalgia. This isn’t something you could accuse Duncan Hamilton of, author of the powerfully evocative memoir The Footballer Who Could Fly. A multi-award winner for his sports writing, Hamilton in his latest book traces the reasons why under the influence of his father he first became a football fan, and what the sharing of their passion taught him about family, masculinity and community. An entirely different take on football’s evolution is provided by Gavin Mortimer’s innovative A History of Football in 100 Objects. Taking the format of Neil MacGregor’s hugely popular TV series, and book A History of the World in 100 Object Mortimer provides a richly original account of the game’s past, present and future without letting the quirkiness of the format get in the way of the interesting facts he expertly uncovers.
In the late 1980s a wave of football fanzines appeared. They were the space where an emergent movement of fandom developed ideas, insights and hopes towards a better game. Few if any of those ideals have survived the commercialised onslaught that the Premiership was to become but that doesn’t mean they don’t remain in the corners of almost every club support. Changes in publishing technology have meant that most of these voices have now gravitated to websites, blogs and twitter feeds. Dig around and the imagination and commitment that once framed the fanzine movement can still be found online. Amongst the best of the new football writing is to be located at In Bed with Maradona and the good news for those whose reading habits remain pre Web 2.0 is that the best of their articles, features and essays have now been compiled into a book, In Bed With Maradona : The First Two Years. The do-it-yourself maxim remains unchanged, the quality unbounded. But one gripe, why is it that the authors are almost exclusively male? Football is framed by its masculinity, in my book that is one of the limitations to the game any new writing should be challenging, not reproducing.
A splendidly alternative tale of football is recorded in Freedom through Football. Founded in 1992, Bristol’s Eaton Cowboys and Cowgirls are punk-footballers who have not only built a truly community club in their native city but also travelled to Mexico, La and Palestine to spread the internationalist word of football for change. Truly inspiring and testament to what the Game, at its best, can become. An entirely different tale of football’s potential is beautifully told by Anthony Clavane in his brilliantly titled Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?. Season 2011-12 was one when the cause of anti-racism in football took a few steps backwards, and to date there’s not much sign of the furore disappearing. In contrast Anthony Clavane’s remarkable book describes how football helped provide Britain’s immigrant Jewish community with an early basis for organising, forming an identity, strengthening their cause both for representation in their own right but to connect with host communities and organisations too. Superbly written, it is a story largely hidden from history. In their different ways it could also be told as a tale of football in the Asian, African, Chinese, Eastern European and other migrant communities who have organised around football in a similar way. In discovering this history we learn not only something about football, but of ourselves too. The perfect combination for a good read about the Game.
An eclectic line-up to shamefacedly suit those who have an inclination not just to check the scoreline, but the meaning of football too. Whilst wishing for six points over the Christmas period may be a forlorn hope for most, with a selection of these reads stuffed in your stocking the read on the bus, train or car home may at least spread some of that fabled seasonal comfort and joy.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, Philosophy Football.