“Dirty Northern B*st*rds!” And Other Tales from the Terraces by Tim Marshall

DirtyI have to admit that when I first saw the title, the cover and the dreaded word “banter” I wasn’t sure that Dirty Northern B*st*rds! would be my thing, but I was quickly won over by the well balanced mix of humour, serious themes and history – both football and social. It turned out to be a light and easy but fascinating trip around the country discussing rivalries and stereotypes, the wit of the terraces, the roots of deep feelings and where lines are sometimes crossed, whilst providing regular chuckles, occasional moments for thought and reflection and a host of fascinating little historical tales.

The book is split into three sections, first half, second half and extra time, and they cover different aspects of football chants with the first one largely focused on rivalries and how chants have developed by emphasising our differences. The highlight of this section for me was an interesting discussion around interpretation that can lead to a chant being one side of offensive or the other. This particularly comes into focus with the issue of race and being only a distant observer of Tottenham Hotspur the focus on the “Y word” was fascinating. The influence of being in a crowd also plays an important part in this to the extent of individuals joining in with songs that they might find personally offensive outside of a football ground because of the group mentality.

The second half was my favourite as it covered signature songs of clubs around the country and their origins. I am a regular participant in Nottingham Forest’s rendition of Mull O’ Kin Tyre by Wings, in which the words are changed to “City Ground, oh mist rolling in from the Trent” and have always been impressed by visiting Stoke fans when their massed choir sings Delilah, though I never understood why before. It was also pleasing to finally discover all of the words to one of my favourite signature tunes; Sheffield United’s version of Annie’s Song by John Denver. Those words in full are:

“You fill up my senses

Like a gallon of Magnet

Like a packet of Woodbines

Like a good pinch of snuff

Like a night out in Sheffield

Like a greasy chip butty

Like Sheffield United

Please fill me again”

At the risk of upsetting Sheffield Wednesday fans I heartily recommend a trip to Bramall Lane to hear it sung by the Blades fans in person. In fact that was the great thing about this book, it introduces us to the history and character of clubs all around these Isles and putting rivalry aside in favour of the wider game it pricked my interest further in travelling around our football grounds to experience each unique twist on a shared passion. Redressing the Sheffield balance a little the Wednesday fans apparently serenade their team to “Honolulu Wednesday”, their take on a song that featured in the 1933 Laurel and Hardy film “Sons of the Desert” and there are a host of similarly obscure journeys made by songs to football terraces.

The final section is a bit like a Tim Vine show of one liner chants and wise cracks from the terraces and brings the book to a fast paced and funny close. The pace is suddenly slowed right at the end though for its best three pages. It focuses on Stockport County but its brilliance lies in the way it captures so much that is good about the game. I will leave it for you to discover for yourself but it is a perfectly selected way to end a book that is all about what it means to be a fan.

Apart from some inevitable bias towards the author’s favourite club this is an enjoyable journey through football and Tim Marshall has done his research to tell the narratives behind the songs thereby allowing us to glimpse a little of the heart of each club and its fans. On a Saturday afternoon we are rivals but this book celebrates both our unique and our shared stories for which we are all richer.

 

Dirty

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Jumpers for Goalposts – How Football Sold Its Soul by Rob Smyth & Georgina Turner

JumpersThe spiel on the back cover of Jumpers For Goalposts begins “On August 15th 1992, the Premier League kicked off for the very first time to the sound of money.” On August 16th 1992 I took up my familiar position at the City Ground as Nottingham Forest hosted Liverpool for the first live Sky television broadcast of a Premier League match. At the end of the game the roaming camera went straight to Teddy Sheringham, who had scored the only goal of the game to secure a Forest win, and he proclaimed whilst still on the pitch his desire for a move to Tottenham. It was a moment that announced to me that everything had changed, for my club and for the game as a whole.

This book is a lament for things that have been lost. It is not saying that everything in the past was perfect or that our modern game is all bad, it simply recognises that important things have been set aside as football’s collective head has been turned by money. That collective culpability is important. Yes, we have been let down by governing bodies and the way they have been blinded to their proper responsibilities by the bright lights of the Premier League. Yes, our heroes have turned sour as wealth beyond a normal person’s imagination has shaped their lives. But we fans also have to share some blame as we turn a blind eye ourselves to cheating, violence, racism and rape so long as the goals go in.

The voice of the book is that of the ordinary football fan and as such is as accessible as the thousands of pub debates that have taken place across the country every weekend since football began, which in case you’re in any doubt was long before 1992. It’s only real problem is that, just like the 24/7 rolling football coverage that bombards us from our television screens and internet feeds, it is relentless. With each tale of corruption and greed the reader’s heart grows heavier and there is a reluctance to keep going, but we need to face and acknowledge these painful realities if we are ever going to change them.

In Chapter One Theo Walcott happily tells the world how he heroically convinced his teammate Andrei Arshavin, who had been awarded a penalty, not to tell the referee that a mistake had been made. Walcott tells us that Arshavin was simply “too honest” but thankfully Theo spotted that honesty coming and quickly halted it. It is not simply the cheating that hits us in this story, we see that all too often now, but the way that Walcott happily tells this story painting himself as the force for good laughing at his fair minded teammate’s naivety.

Elsewhere we review the host of decisions that have been taken to re-organise competitions at club and international level in order to pocket some extra cash and the damage those decisions have done to the integrity and quality of those competitions. The decline of the FA Cup, begun by the FA themselves when they pressured Manchester United in 1999/2000 to withdraw from it in favour of the World Club Championship, to protect England’s 2006 World Cup bid. The expansion of both the World Cup and the European Championships that renders much of it, including qualification, meaningless, not to mention the corporate bullying that accompanies such tournaments. The creation of the Champions’ League, a complete misnomer given that champions make up a minority of teams playing in it and the revamped UEFA Cup, now renamed the Europa League, once a proud competition now held in disdain by even minor teams.

Rather than simply pointing the finger at everyone else, however, we are also encouraged to do a bit of self-reflection and in this we might find both the biggest problem and the solution to modern football – our consumption of it. We are now able to watch so much football and spend so much additional time analysing it and arguing about it that all the goodness is being sucked from the game we love. There is no mystique to visiting European teams or far off World Cup players because we have watched them via our TV subscriptions and signed them on Football Manager. There is no room for simple and genuine mistakes when every decision can be analysed to death, no time to build a team when transfer deadline hysteria kicks in and ambition is measured in pounds spent, no patience for developing young players when the manager’s head is called for after two or three defeats and no limit to our myopia when our star player crosses moral lines.

This is a book for fans who remember a time before Sky’s billions and know that not everything has changed for the better and for fans who have heard others complain that football isn’t the same anymore and want to know what the fuss is about. It is a timely reminder of important things that have been lost but should not be forgotten, or assumed to be irretrievable, and it is a call to consider how we participate in the national game and whether we might have had too much of a good thing. Read it, put together your own Soul Team, reaffirm your values and then carry them into the stands with you and reclaim the game.

Jumpers

Fan by Danny Rhodes

fanThe opening chapter of Fan, the new novel from Grantham born author Danny Rhodes, made me feel like this might be a book for Nottingham Forest fans of a certain age. I followed my team to Wembley to see them lift the League Cup, I was at the City Ground when we bade farewell to Brian Clough, Highbury when Brian Rice became a legend and I was at Hillsborough when a beautiful Spring day turned into a nightmare and as a teenager I came face to face with death on an awful scale. Later I even sat behind Clough at Eton Park as we both supported his son Nigel in his first steps into management. The fictional John Finch walked many of the same roads that I trod myself in real life.

It isn’t just about a personal history of following Forest, however, there is a wider social history in these pages that will resonate with a much broader audience. All football fans in the 1980’s, before Italia ’90, the Premier League and prawn sandwich hospitality, were impacted by the emphasis on control rather than safety of football crowds and the chapter on the Bradford fire will cause all fans to bristle with anger. And whilst football is a major backdrop these events also coincided with the Thatcher government, the Miners’ Strike and huge social change in Britain.

There is also a fierce human energy that drives the book forwards through a series of short, snappy chapters that keep the pages turning and emphasise the desperate emotion of a man overflowing with demons. The football is a backdrop but John Finch is really facing two points of crisis and transition, ones that we all recognise. In 1989 the safe and familiar environment of his youth is falling away and he is wondering what lies ahead of him, old friendships coming to an end and Hillsborough bringing the reality of death crashing into the experience of previously indestructible youth. Whilst in 2004 he is faced with another major change, a partner who wants to settle down and start a family, but he cannot provide a solid future for a potential wife and kids when his past is still unresolved.

Finch heads back to his home town of Grantham to face his demons, but it’s messy. He has to see the world through other people’s eyes as well as his own, has to learn to accept who he was and who he is now and has to acknowledge that life isn’t straightforward, answers are not perfect, the world does not revolve around him and everyone is just trying to make the best of it in whatever way they can. The narrative glides between these two periods of time as Finch tries to bring proper closure to his first departure so that he can leave again more able to move on into the responsibility of adulthood. It is an emotional human story that will appeal to anyone who has mourned lost youth and feared the responsibility of family life.

As a football fan it is the story of a game that has also had to face great change and has done so imperfectly. The warnings upon warnings that built up to death on a horrific scale at Hillsborough are devastating. Why did it take so long for anything to change? Why did the football authorities, the clubs, the government and the media seek to criminalise and dehumanise football fans, determined to control rather than protect? Why did the fans themselves not refuse the cages of death they were forced into each week and also refuse the violence within their own ranks?

In the end it took the loss of 96 innocent lives in Sheffield to make change happen and much of it has been good – the ability to watch football safely should never be under-valued, the past never forgotten – but in amongst it something significant has been lost. The changes have been used to increase prices, to sanitise atmosphere, to commercialise football and to replace the passion of labour with the wealth of capital. Football has been cleansed and as a result sterilised.

In his closing acknowledgements Rhodes calls for the game to be given back to the fans. It is an appealing statement but also a broad one that has all sorts of interpretations and implications. It is difficult to pin down, it’s messy, just like John Finch’s journey through his past and his tentative steps forward into an uncertain future. It is good that the game has moved away from its violent past, but it also needs to take some time to reflect on what it has become and where its future lies. Football is about the fans, but fans are a diverse group with different needs and all need to be considered.

The best writing stays with you, makes you think well beyond closing the back cover. Fan does that on two levels; life and football. What else is there?

*This review originally appeared on my football blog Mist Rolling In From The Trent on April 14th 2014

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Diary of a Football Nobody – A Play

diaryUnfortunately I made it along to see “Diary of a Football Nobody” only last night during the last week of its run at Nottingham Playhouse. As a result there are only five more performances which I can urge you to go and see before the curtain comes down for the last time – at least for now.

Although this is a play based on the diaries of former Notts County footballer Dave McVay you do not need to have an interest in football, and you certainly do not need to be a County fan, to enjoy it. This is a play that is fundamentally about humanity with football providing the backdrop.

You do need to be comfortable with a liberal use of swearing – this is 1970’s football – and your enjoyment will be increased if you are familiar with the regular nods to Nottingham life. Iconic record shop Selectadisc, world renowned designer Paul Smith, Clifton, Beeston Rylands and more are mentioned but are essentially proxies for your own childhood landmarks.

Local lad Perry Fitzpatrick plays the part of McVay with natural charm and holds the play together with this narration of events. Eric Richard is outstanding in his lyrical rendition of Notts’ legendary manager Jimmy Sirrel and Sophia Di Martino brings a much needed feminine perspective that elevates the piece from football to more universal themes.

After the performance we were treated to a Q&A session with writer William Ivory, director Matt Aston and the cast, which demonstrated the strength of feeling that they all clearly have for the work. One question from the audience was whether the play was aimed to be uplifting despite its themes being quite depressing – pointing largely to the illness of McVay’s grandfather – but for me this suggestion was misplaced.

The closing speech in which McVay sums up his coming of age in the minutiae of his experience is wonderfully uplifting and perfectly captures the essence of both football and life. Football is not more important than life and death but for many of us it is one of the prisms through which we experience them.

I don’t have many memories of my granddad but one that is imprinted in my mind is the old pre-match tradition. Initially it was my dad and brother who drove to Ilkeston to visit him before a home match. Having outlived his wife he would fall back on his staple hospitality – proper, homemade chips fried in a small pan on his stove.

My first interest in watching football as a youngster was really my desire to join this male ritual (and eat those chips) which created such bonds and memories and continues to do so as the predominant vehicle for the men of the family to spend time together and our major topic for discussion.

Billy talked about the pivotal scenes in the play being those in which the characters were totally present in the moment and this is also true of times which define a life. It is when we truly live into a moment and are fully present to it that the mundane becomes sacred and we get to share that with McVay and the people around him, as well as recall some of those sacred moments in our own lives.

He also said that he wanted to write a love letter to Nottingham with this play, and he has done that, but it is also a love letter to life and to family in all their messy, painful and mundane brilliance and though the setting is Nottingham and Notts County Football Club the themes encapsulate and chime with all of human life.

*This review originally appeared on my football blog Mist Rolling In From The Trent on October 17th 2012

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