UK Football Book Reviews

Looking for a good football book to read? Soccerphile reviews some of our favourite books on British soccer.

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The Last Game

The Last Game: Love, Death and Football

Jason Cowley

ISBN: 184737185X
Simon & Schuster, 288pp

When Michael Thomas raced through the opposition half to score at the end of the final game of the 1988-89 season, it was more than just the most dramatic finish ever to an English First Division Season.
In 'The Last Game- Love, Death & Football', Gunners fan and New Statesman editor Jason Cowley argues that his team's last-gasp snatching of the title from Liverpool also marked the end of English football as we knew it.
Twenty years on, he looks back at how Hillsborough, six weeks earlier, had set the wheels in motion for dramatic change. The removal of the fences at Anfield was the first sign of metamorphosis. Today's megabucks Premier League, fan-friendly stadia, priced-out locals and foreign player influx took seed, it is clear, on the fatal steps of Leppings Lane. The final game, as climactic a finish to a season as could be imagined, was indeed a fitting monument to the history that had gone before.
Much of the book is sensitive autobiography, as all great sports books are, but it does feel at times like well-tread territory. Cowley concentrates on his relationship to his father while they both followed football, a favourite of confessional sports memoirs, but is engaging nevertheless. His research, via some illuminating interviews, on the two teams involved is fascinating, as is his period detail of the two clubs and their native cities.
He rightly notes the many negative sides to the Sky revolution, though his conclusion that we must accept the status quo so as not to wallow in nostalgia will not be for everyone.
Cowley writes well and rephrases the old v new football debate with reference to what it was like to be a fan in the 1980s. It is a thought-provoking book which should be on the shelves of all thinking football fans' libraries.

Sean O'Conor

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My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes: Click on the image to purchase.

My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes

Gary Imlach

Yellow Jersey Press

ISBN: 0224072684
Paperback, 256pp

One of only four football books to win the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes is a touching tale of a son's quest to know his father, in the process painting a valuable canvas of the lost world of English football.
Imlach's father Stewart played for Scotland at the 1958 World Cup and won the FA Cup with Nottingham Forest a year later, but the young Gary knew little of his life until he went looking after his death, discovering amid yellowed newspaper files and recollections of elderly colleagues an era of low-wage, grafting, bread & butter footballers, utterly unrecognizable to today's 'baby Bentley' prima donnas.
The final two chapters, recording how the stars of yesteryear have fallen as fast as they had risen, and the author's melancholy admission that he was falling out of love with football as his father was dying are particularly poignant.
Like Tony Cascarino's extraordinary autobiography Full Time, this comes from an unexpected source. But, like the former Irish international, sports presenter Gary Imlach has produced a studied work of pathos and a considered reflection on the game's social importance to those involved.
Eschewing the conventional approaches to sports histories, Imlach's vested interest in unearthing the past endows a football story with nostalgia-free emotion and creates an instant classic of the genre.

Sean O'Conor

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The Fan: Click on the image to purchase.

The Fan

Hunter Davies

Pomona Press

ISBN: 1904590020
Paperback, 352pp

As a season-ticket holder for both Tottenham Hotspur and their North London rivals Arsenal, Hunter Davies has a stronger claim than most to the title of "The Fan".
His loyalties lie with Spurs (he shares his Highbury seat with another semi-regular), but as he explains with his trademark good humour, his true passion is the game of football itself.
That love, though, is not unconditional. In his collection of observations of the game between 1996 and 2003 - first published in his fortnightly column in The New Statesman - the prolific and celebrated author is clearly unhappy with the direction the British game has taken in an era when Sky dictates kick-off times and players earn tens of thousands of pounds a week before the bum-fluff has been blown from their chins.
Like many supporters with middle-class sensibilities, Hunter had a satellite dish installed only when it dawned on him that any attempt to face down the Murdoch media juggernaut would be self-defeating, depriving him, as it would, of his raison d'etre - long afternoons and evenings in front of the box, soaking up anything from the Champions League to the French lower divisions.
The original format for his musings mean the chapters can seem unconnected - a diary this is not. But all of the important occasions are there: Euro 2000, the departure of "our Kev" and the arrival of Sven, the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, and the stirrings of Rooney-mania.
In between we are treated to entertaining digressions - set out in short, pithy chapters - on everything from following Carlisle United, Davies's topsy-turvy diet, his neighbours in the stands, the FA, Sky (again), Julie Burchill's excruciating attempt to explain David Beckham's sex appeal, Prince William's support for Aston Villa and, in a more serious vein, Spurs' latter-day neglect of their elderly former legend, Bill Nicholson.
There are also vignettes from the Davies household, usually involving genteel digs at his wife, who, despite her preference for evenings alone at the theatre or cinema, probably knows more about football than her hubby lets on.
Who, after all, could have lived with a man of Davies's obsessive nature for so long and not be influenced by it?
The reader's time in his company is limited to a few hours over 300-plus pages, but his seductive techniques, buttressed by amiability and humour, are no less sharp for that. For most of us a season spent watching football at White Hart Lane is a terrifying prospect, but one imagines being able to sit next to Davies at his wryest every other Saturday would make it more than bearable.
Compared with the (surely worn-out) fandom genre whose writers delight in recalling pints sunk and noses split, or miles clocked and funny foreigners encountered, Davies occupies another football universe. As a highly recommended close-season read through "The Fan" should prove, "Hunt" is no mere "supporter with a pen," but, happily for us, a first-rate writer who happens to be barking about "footer".

Justin McCurry

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Farewell but not Goodbye: Click on the image to purchase.

Farewell but not Goodbye

Sir Bobby Robson

Hodder & Stoughton

ISBN: 034082347X
Paperback, 352pp

Sir Bobby takes us on a stroll down memory lane here in his 2005 autobiography, a leisurely trip through a life steeped in football. From his days down North-Eastern mines right through to his less than ceremonious exit from Newcastle United, the club he grew up supporting, Robson's is an endearing story of a life far-travelled and come full circle.
This is well-written, engaging and packed full of anecdotes and quips from the dressing room and training ground involving younger versions of household names – certain misters Gascoigne, Moore, Figo, Ronaldo and Mourinho are just a few – and reminders of those half-forgotten in football history. Starting out at Fulham, by his own admission he had less than an illustrious career playing club football (no medals and his best was a fourth place finish with West Brom) before time with England as player then coach ("It wasn't the hand of God, it was the hand of a rascal") and then off on his globetrotting international career, battling cancer a couple of times on the way, the faithful Elsie, wife of fifty odd years always by his side, propping him up when needed.
You can't help but hear Sir Bobby's distinctive voice taking delight in recalling his eventful life with relish, probably with a finger wagging and a glassy look in his eyes. His age obviously comes in here, the book reading like a story that only an old man could tell, but the beauty of this is you've got a get out card - it's a book. You don't have to sit there awkwardly for that little bit too long stifling yawns, you can shut him up at any time by just putting it down. But make sure you come back to it again later, because it's good stuff.

Paul Robinson

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Provided You
Don't Kiss Me
20 Years
With Brian Clough

Provided You Don't Kiss Me - 20 years with Brian Clough

Duncan Hamilton

ISBN: 0007247109
Fourth Estate; Paperback, 256pp

The legend of the green sweatshirt grows by the day but 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me - 20 years with Brian Clough' is the first book written by one of King Clough's inner circle.
Throughout Clough's Nottingham Forest years, Duncan Hamilton was within spitting distance, at first as a sheepish teenage reporter at the City Ground and before long traveling with the players on the team bus and sitting across the desk from the boss every day.
This is a riveting tale of how greatness rises and falls, a chronicle of how nagging insecurities and internal weaknesses eventually conquering a publicly swaggering genius. Touching and eloquently written, 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me' is Clough in close-up - a painfully honest, word-for-word, as-it-happened history of an amazing man at his best and worst.
Anyone who remembers Clough should read this book, and anyone who doesn't too - for he was one of the true characters of the English game.
Every chapter reveals extraordinary incidents - vignettes of Clough's coaching genius, his myriad eccentricities, moments of human pathos, drink-fuelled rages, bitter rants and quarrels, or acts of family love and random kindness.
While accepting the enigma of Clough will endure, Hamilton has probably come closer than anyone ever will to distilling a remarkable football coach and unforgettable man.

Sean O'Conor

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Comrade Jim

Comrade Jim - The Spy Who Played For Spartak

Jim Riordan

ISBN: 0007251149
Fourth Estate; Paperback, 240pp

A few years ago a man pretending to be George Weah's cousin hoodwinked Graeme Souness into giving him a run-out for Southampton.
Portsmouth-born Jim Riordan's appearance for Moscow Spartak in 1963 was equally amazing, given he was in Russia not as a footballer but as a translator and communist activist, yet unlike the fake Saint, he was called back by the club to play for them again.
Imagine taking part in a Sunday league game and later that day arriving at a stadium as one of 50,000 fans, only to discover you are going to be on the field!
While that is an amazing tale in itself, this engrossing and touching memoir is far more a valuable document of the failed communist dream. Like many others from across the globe, Riordan travelled to Moscow fuelled by the desire to forge a better world from the ashes of the war.
Football does not get much of a mention until halfway in and despite the title, does not form the centerpiece of this engaging autobiography, but the author's vivid recollections of Soviet life, and the famous faces he mixed with make this the most enjoyable book I have read this year.

Sean O'Conor

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The Damned Utd

The Damned Utd

David Peace

ISBN: 0571224334
Faber and Faber; Paperback, 368pp

David Peace's 'The Damned Utd' is a landmark book in the soccer canon because it hauls football into the domain of the historical novel. Lavished with praise from the literati, this will appeal just as much to any fan ever touched by the entrancing madness of King Brian Clough. David Peace impersonates 'Ole Big 'Ead' during his 44 days of hell at Leeds United in 1974, to recount one of the most bizarre and enigmatic episodes of post-war English football. Despite sitting on the fiction shelves, this reads throughout like Cloughie himself is speaking, unbeatable in the fortress of his own ego, desperate to get his revenge on life's slings and arrows, but doomed once more to go down in merciless flames when he steps into the lair of his demons. Peace has scoured the history books, newspaper cuttings and player biographies of the period to produce what is really a new departure for soccer literature, a novel which feels uncannily like a real testament of sporting history. 2009 sees the release of the feature film version of 'The Damned Utd', surely one of the greatest football books yet written.

Sean O'Conor

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Fever Pitch: Click on the image to purchase.

Fever Pitch

Nick Hornby

ISBN: 0140293442
Penguin; Paperback, 256pp

You must've seen the movie, you must've read the book, he's a mellow yellow feline...well, two of these lines apply to Hornby's Fever Pitch, still more than very probably the world's most famous football book over ten years after its publication. Seen the film? Haven't read the book? If not, why not and if yes, well it's about time you read it again. Don't like football? Doesn't matter, read the thing anyway. A book not just about football for football fans, but about obsession, about a burning, inexplicable (I mean I could understand it with the Mighty Boro, but Arsenal...) passion and where it drags the author over the years from his childhood in the sixties and seventies through to his continuing childhood in the early nineties. Often hilarious, always engaging and well written, Fever Pitch is Hornby's attempt at making sense of his obsession, to put it into perspective in the grand scheme of things and maybe help people on the outside of this phenomenon to understand somehow. But of course there is no sense to be made of it, it just happens, it just is, and that's what makes it so interesting, so funny and a bloody good read.

Paul Robinson

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Pyramid Football Guide To Non-League 2004-5

Pyramid Football Guide To Non-League 2004-5

Joe Bush (Editor)

ISBN: 0954346653
Paperback, 190pp
IBS Publishing

If you have yet to savour the delights of English lower league football, then what sublime pleasures and delights await you: For here beats the true heart of English football with its die-hard fans who wouldn't swap it for the Premiership any day. For the uninitiated, there is no better starting-point than the Pyramid Football Guide to Non-League 2004-05, a superb 200-page glossy guide to the teams and competitions below England's four full-time professional divisions. Here you will find the Blyth Spartans, Hickley Towns and Leigh RMIs of this world; as the cover says, "local clubs for local people". There are six divisions covered, plus resumes of all the major competitions, useful local information and excellent directions for finding the stadia, never an easy task at this level! In the introduction, editor Joe Bush rightly mentions the "value, history and unique nature" of this level of football, "a culture", he continues, "that you would struggle to find anywhere else in the world and whose praises we should all be keen to sing."

Sean O'Conor

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Flick-to-kick: An Illustrated History of Subbuteo: Buy this book from Amazon.

Flick-to-kick: An Illustrated History of Subbuteo

Daniel Tatarsky

ISBN: 0752860836
112 pp

Ah, Subbuteo – the flicking of little figures around a crumpling sheet of green baize that boys young and old recall so fondly. In the now forgotten age before computers, Subbuteo was the closest approximation to soccer to be found in a game format and could also be played alone, allowing the fan to indulge his own fantasies based on the beautiful game. Everyone who was into football at school, it seemed, owned a Subbuteo set.
This charming book, great value in hardback at £7.99 and wonderfully illustrated, retells the history of this curious game. For so long a cottage industry of hand-painted figurines, Subbuteo (Latin for 'hobby') was started in 1947 by a Kent man more interested in ornithology than football who deliberately sited new factories in areas good for bird-watching.
As well as historical nuggets such as the police investigating the company over the theft of the World Cup in 1966, there is plenty on those eccentric accessories plus its lesser-known editions, which included speedway, angling and snooker! When its makers announced in 2000 it was to be withdrawn there was an outpouring of piqued nostalgia, and they were forced to retract. As the author triumphantly concludes, "As long as the game of football is played I believe so will the game of Subbuteo".

Sean O'Conor

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The Fashion of Football: Buy this book from Amazon.

The Fashion Of Football: Soccer From Best To Beckham, From Mod To Label Slave

Paolo Hewitt & Mark Baxter

ISBN: 1840188073
224 pp

Music and style journalist Paolo Hewitt and friend Mark Baxter decided to chart a neglected theme running through modern football history: The clothes. From the wildly dressed George Best in the swinging sixties to the Armani-ed Premiership boys of today, sartorial style has accompanied footballers in England. And running parallel to the players' styles is the story of the fans' attire. The Fred Perry and Tacchini tops of the 1970s through the 'casual' looks of the eighties to today's Stone Island-clad lads is an equally important part of England's football culture that completes the picture of football culture. But this is as much a book about style and youth culture itself than its football-related history, written in a free and unchained style, where Soho's Bar Italia rubs shoulders with 1960s London boutiques, '70s mods, Rodney Marsh and David Beckham.

Sean O'Conor

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Those Feet: Buy this book from Amazon.

Those Feet - A Sensual History of English Football

David Winner

ISBN: 0747547386
288 pp

In a follow up to the magnificent "Brilliant Orange - The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football", David Winner tackles the kaleidoscopic character of the English game, a far from easy task.
His excellent opening chapter on the Victorian origins of football is enough to shock readers expecting a conventional narrative as it postulates the thesis that the aggressive English style is a direct consequence of a long-held national angst about masturbation.
Winner bravely tries to cover all bases in his psycho-analytical overview of the national game. Other chapters address nostalgia, xenophobia, the weather, pessimism and the loose concept of 'Englishness' forged in our imperial heyday. Whilst it is easy to pick holes in many of Winner's ideas, at the same time books of this type have elevated football literature to levels that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago.

Sean O'Conor

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Woody and Nord: Click on the image to purchase.

Woody & Nord: A Football Friendship

Gareth Southgate & Andy Woodman

ISBN: 0141012145
Paperback, 304pp

Woody & Nord tells the story of 2 very close friends - Gareth Southgate & Andy Woodman - who met and became the best of friends as young, wide eyed apprentices dreaming of the future at Crystal Palace, their contrasting career paths at different ends of the professional football spectrum and the lasting bond of friendship between them.
The book is a refreshing take on the footballer autobiography/ghost writer format, providing an interesting look into the workings of the mysterious world of professional football at the highest and lowest levels. Gareth with Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and England while Andy struggles to earn a living in the lower leagues and stay in professional football as long as possible - Southgate's search for professional fulfilment versus Andy's fight for mere financial survival.
The book does, especially towards the beginning, seem like it might become a tad too sentimental any time soon, though they manage to veer away from that path in the nick of time to make a very interesting and entertaining read, one of best football biographies, and certainly the best autobiography (if you forget about the ever present lovely assistant) out there at the moment.
The one thing that appears to have remained constant throughout both players' turbulent careers is their friendship, but this aspect isn't excessively pushed on the reader, it is simply an onrunning thread that is worked quite subtly into the text, providing a link between what are, on the surface, two very different footballing characters and careers and giving an extra perspective on events. Don't worry, it doesn't become a full on heartwarming Nick Hornby affair that it has the potential to do, but instead makes a much more interesting propositon of each player's individual biography. Gareth himself admits that his and Woody's own separate autobiographies would hardly have anyone but their most diehard (Are there any of you out there?) fans waiting with baited breath.
Both players manage very well to give a thoughtful, informed analysis of football's disappointments, disillusionment and triumphs and the similarities and differences of very different levels of the game through their own experiences, being two players who are very much at critical points in their lives. They both have lot of serious thinking to do about their futures making it the ideal time to look back.

Paul Robinson

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The Best of Enemies: England v. Germany, a Century of Football Rivalry : Click on the image to purchase.

The Best of Enemies: England v. Germany, a Century of Football Rivalry

David Downing

ISBN: 0747549788
Hardcover, 251pp

Downing's book is a fascinating and thoughtful look at one of football's most exciting/ passionate/ dull/ controversial/ over-rated (delete as you see fit) clashes - the England vs Germany match. Downing examines England-Germany games at both international and club level - the triumphs, the failures and the (gulp, swallow the pride and whisperingly admit it) far too regular mediocrity of arguably the most eagerly awaited event in any English football calendar - from their very first meeting in the death throes of the nineteenth century up until the Euro 2000 group stage meeting in Charleroi.
As an historian and football fan, he brings the best of both worlds together in writing this book, giving us history without sterility and managing to conveying the excitement and passion of the beautiful game without coming across as just another overzealous fan. England & Germany meetings over the years are recounted in a refreshingly objective way; accounts are presented from numerous sources from both sides of the divide and subtly peppered with his own comment. The best way to put it might be that it's like the story's told by a very knowledgeable bloke in the pub but without the droning on, repetition, off-track ramblings or spit flying into your pint.
And you can easily get away from it if you want. Downing writes about the actual football in tandem with the games' social and political background, painting a vivid picture of the times in which they were played and their importance (or lack of it). We go from the first ever meeting with "youngish, fit-looking men" reading about the developments in the Boer war as they travel to Berlin by a combination of train, horse-drawn cabs and foot, through the "shameful salute", the world wars and the English-German sentiments left in their wake and, of course, 1966 to the tabloid frenzies and penalty shootout disappointments of recent years. It all adds up to give a fuller understanding of these games' effect on each nation's psyche as well as being an utterly entertaining, revealing and often piss-funny read. Stereotypes and the perceived differences of the two nations are presented and deconstructed and, maybe surprisingly for some, a hell of a lot of similarities are revealed (possibly the source of a lot of England-German animosity, but that's by the bye).
The Best of Enemies is a great book that manages to provide everything that a lot of books try and fail to - it's got heroes, villains, highs, lows, cry-babies, bad losers, blinkered idiots, inspirational mavericks, unsung heroes - and all with the added bonus of being true! And about football! Woohoo!

Paul Robinson

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Referee: A Year in the life of David Elleray: Click on the image to purchase.

Referee: A Year in the Life of David Elleray

David Elleray

ISBN: 0747536929
Hardcover, 256pp

Take a little trip down memory lane to the 1997-98 season and peek into the diary of one of football's most respected and thus, on more than the odd occasion, hated professional men in black (green/blue/yellow - delete as applicable). In "Referee: A year in the life»" posh nob David Elleray gives a day to day account of refereeing at the highest level, juggling the life of a Premiership match official with that of a Harrow Housemaster with all the stress and reward that entails. Due to the diary format it occasionally gets bogged down in the minutiae of daily affairs but the account gains momentum as the season progresses and we follow Mr. Elleray to such far flung locations as Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Keele University as well as all the usual Premier League haunts, ending with his appraisal of the 1998 World Cup as viewed from the eyes of a referee who was unfortunately unable to participate. It's an eye opener to see what a referee has to cope with when not being screamed at and abused by all and sundry on a Saturday afternoon and may even, horror of horrors, evoke a little sympathy in some football fans. Of course, not only the pressures and the pitfalls of refereeing are covered here, but also the praise and reward that comes from being one of the most respected figures in football, not just from the powers that be but from fans too. Mr Elleray comes across as a serious professional whose heart belongs to the game, though it causes no end of conflict with other aspects of his life while at the same time providing him with life-affirming experiences that would be so difficult to give up. Mr Elleray said in one TV interview, "The challenge was to say something interesting without being too controversial", and that is what he has managed to do here - there is a little bit of bitching and a good dose of personal opinion thrown in, but nothing that could cause him grief in future seasons. An essential read for anyone who has realised that they may never score for England and is thinking of refereeing seriously and a good holiday read for fans of the game generally - no matter what your opinion of the blokes with the cards. Even Mackems can find solace in Elleray's words and convince themselves that the Stadium of Light is indeed one of the games "great footballing cathedrals".

Paul Robinson

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Among The Thugs: Click on the image to purchase.

Among The Thugs

Bill Buford

ISBN: 0099416344
Paperback, 316pp

Classic and often comic must-read account of American journalist meets British football hooligans in the 1980s and 1990s. Ex-Granta editor Bill Buford begins his epic journey to the ugly heart of fan violence with Manchester United in Turin in 1984 and the book reaches a personal, painful climax with England in Sardinia at Italia 90. In a series of thrilling narratives describing his dark odyssey of discovery into football mob violence, Buford takes us along to comprehend the attraction and ultimate repulsion of that oft-repeated euphemism 'crowd trouble'.
If you only ever read one book about football this should be it.

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England's Quest For The World Cup: Click on the image to buy this book.

England's Quest for the World Cup: A Complete Record 1950-2002, Third Edition

Clive Leatherdale

ISBN: 1874287619
Paperback, 334pp

The FA's aloofness and wariness of 'Johnny-foreigner' kept England out of the first three FIFA World Cups. Leatherdale's absorbing book kicks off in 1950 when the Home Internationals were first used as World Cup qualifiers and Scotland declined to go to Brazil in 1950 as 'runners-up'. Every subsequent England qualifying game and World Cup match comes complete with a detailed and compelling match report and full statistics, scorers and attendance. The strengths of the book lie in Leatherdale's precise and fluent prose, which never lapses into any glorification of England's checkered history in the competition and the intriguing subplot of England's continuing failure to adapt their football for success on foreign fields.
The appendix has a complete list of England's World Cup goal scorers, goalkeepers, captains and records against other teams. The statistics reveal England have never beaten Brazil in a World Cup game and the book as a whole reveals many of the reasons why.

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She Stood There Laughing.

She Stood There Laughing: A Man, His Son and Their Football Club

Stephen Foster

Paperback - 208 pages (2004)
Scribner UK; ISBN: 0743256832

From their glory days in the 1970s Stoke City fell into the lower leagues of English football in the subsequent two decades, offering little joy to their loyal fans. In the 2003-4 season however,with an influx of Icelandic(!) money and backing the team found itself in the First Division. She Stood There Laughing relates the tale of one man's support for his beloved team over the season and his relationship with his son through the medium of football. Unlike many football dads the writer doesn't force his affiliation on his offspring. "It's lifelong pain pain, misery and despair you're looking at here, you know that don't you?" he warns, further complicated by the fact that they live in Norwich some 200 miles away from Stoke. Nevertheless his son agrees to go along for the ride which includes trips to some of the less glamorous venues in England. The book is a reminder that for millions of people the football fan experience is not about following the high flying Man Uniteds and Real Madrids of this world but about devotion to underachieving teams that, at best, offer the possibility of a reasonable cup run or the joyous relief of avoiding relegation. In a kind of low-fi Fever Pitch the writer makes intellectual asides without being pretentious and is often quite funny. A little more background about the local Stoke-Port Vale rivalry might have been helpful for most readers but otherwise She Stands There Laughing is one of the better additions to the 'fanlit' canon.

Michael Marshall

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