How Much Can Football Books Tell Us?

Noticing the lack of decent writing about the post-devolution Scottish experience, Gerry Hassan turns his attention to the superior insights available in – of all places – recent books about Scottish football:

On the issue of football’s importance in Scotland, recently I wrote about the lack of defining books about modern Scotland post-devolution. I know that some of my non-football loving friends are not going to thank me for this train of thought, but it seems the nearest we have come – more than in any other area – is in the serious football book.

In particular, Archie Macpherson’s ‘Flower of Scotland? A Scottish Football Odyssey’ and his ‘Jock Stein’ biography are magnum opuses about the journey of modern Scotland. They are not just football books, about what happened in this or that game. Instead, they tell passionately the accounts of men involved in football, the players, managers, owners and coaches, as well as the fans, the dreams of the often grim, working class communities the Jock Steins, Alex Fergusons and Jim McLeans came from, and how football was both a kind of glue and form of escapism.

Macpherson’s two books are beautifully written and, for anyone with a passing interest in Scottish society, paint a vivid picture of the heroes, villains and flawed figures who made up the game. People like Willie Waddell, the Rangers manager who endured the tragedy of the Ibrox disaster in 1971 when 66 people died, keeping his composure, as all around lost theirs. He won the European Cup Winners Cup for the ‘Gers the next year, but was a man ultimately destroyed by his alcoholism.

Anyone who has spent time with the best football writing will know instinctively that this is correct: that football can provide a new slant and a fresh perspective. This is as true of recent Scottish political and cultural life as it is of the Victorian and Edwardian history that I’ve been writing about here. Football is both unthreatening and familiar. We don’t expect it to shed any light, so when it does, it does it with superlative force. The clicheed history of Victorian and Edwardian football – its whiggish progression from “toffs” (boo!) to professionalism (seen as the triumph of the working man: hurrah!) – is set in concrete, but so staggeringly wrong and misconceived that any attempt to correct it immediately illuminates the society around it in new and creative ways.

Gerry’s review of the Scottish football writing scene is far more thorough than I am capable of, although I’d second his recommendation of Hugh McIlvanney’s collected articles, and raise a plea in mitigation for Harry Reid’s The Final Whistle which Gerry thinks less of than I do. I’ll certainly be following up some of his list, especially Bob Crampsey’s biography of Jock Stein (Stein is a central football figure, but also an essential part of any full understanding of the way the UK lost its footing in the years after the Oil Shock of 1973).

This excellent list of Gerry’s doesn’t set out to hide the obvious point, that there is always going to be a degree of luck involved when a football book manages to enlighten its readers about anything beyond the game. How far can that go? and what do we want from football books, anyway?

Because surely no one goes to football to find something to read. Not at first, anyway. Cricket is a different matter – all that time spent waiting to pad up needs to be filled with something, and you’ll want more than just Irish whiskey and cigarettes… I went to football to play, first and foremost. But you can’t play forever. Then I went to watch – but you can’t always get tickets, and you can’t always get to a pub with a big screen. Only after all that’s done with are there books.

Which is why football books have such short lives. Fever Pitch aside, I can’t think of a single title that has been able to sustain multiple reprints. In cricket, C.L.R. James goes on forever, and so will Gideon Haigh. Hugh McIlvanney is a match for either of them, but just you try finding a copy. I bought mine in a remainders shop on the Charing Cross Road for £1.

Long games have the better chance of generating literature. So cricket, baseball and golf are understood to be worth the author’s attention and to be capable of providing wider social and political commentary and metaphor. The game of football itself – the playing side of it – almost never is.

The best football books, as Gerry’s review demonstrates, are mostly about what goes on around and off the pitch. All of the interest is in the characters of those involved, in the geography and nature of their upbringing, in the changes they experience, and in the aftermath of their fame and triumph.

Even in Fever Pitch, which describes match action about as well as prose writing is capable, actual play matters more in what it means to the fan than in what it is in itself. A cover drive (lovely phrase) is enough on its own. Jim Baxter playing keepie uppie is meaningless without centuries of context, and even then only to those of a certain frame of mind.

The longer ago a particular game gets, the less important gameplay becomes: almost no one watches Mitchell and Kenyon’s Edwardian matches for the same reason they click on the “Video” tab at 101 Great Goals.

When you try to look at the match action on its own, and draw out meaning from that instead of just pleasure, you enter the realm of the strange and bizarre. Take this, for example:

..the symbolism of football is that much more pronounced, starting with the very mechanics of the sport: the aim of the game is to shoot, thrust or shove something small and white into an opening. It doesn’t take the genius of Sigmund Freud to work out what’s simulated here. Derek Hammond takes a similar view. The origins of football go back to ancient fertility rituals, the historian argues in (David) Winner’s book. ‘These are pre-Christian rituals which only survived because they were in places everyone forgot about. They were probably part of the original heathen, naturalistic British religions which were about the earth and the sun, and killing and fucking.’ (From Englischer Fussball: A German’s View of Our Beautiful Game by Raphael Honigstein).

Or this, from the same source:

By contrast, the highbrow, left-leaning German broadsheet taz appreciated goal-keeping legend Oliver Kahn as ‘an aesthete of the anal’ whose one and only concern was to make sure that ‘nothing came in at the back’. Taking their cue from Schümer, taz realised that Kahn never enjoyed ‘the striker’s orgasmic joy at scoring’ – because he knew he was the one getting shafted. ‘I’m the arse,’ Kahn once said about conceding a goal: ‘a feeling of loneliness grabs hold of me’. Who but a certified maniac would want to engage in such an existentialist fight against the odds?

Obviously there’s the chance here, if you want it, to laugh at over-the-top, misdirected sociological and sexual theorising.

But it’s the attitude that most offends me: these stupid, repressed footballers, so far below our own impeccable levels of enlightenment.. added to (brief digression follows) the shockingly stupid missing of the real sexual point of football. It’s not simulating sex at an unconscious level – it’s simulating battle at a very conscious level, and one of the principle points of that battle is to impress women (YMMV, obviously), or to feel entitled to impress women by working our way up the on-pitch pecking order.

I’ve felt that: haven’t you? The need to run harder, tackle more determinedly, go in where the boots are flying to impress a girl who might not have been at pitch-side but who you were always aware of in your head, metaphorically looking on?

Football has never been unsensual or sexless. But it’s a case of everything in the right order. And a certain kind of sociological writing about football gets that wrong because it itself is consumed by an (unconscious/subliminal) desire to laugh at the lower class ruffians, presumably as an alternative to fearing them or envying their (compared to some academics) success with girls. So reads its alternately tinny and nasal, superior tone.

I don’t think there’s anything to learn here, either, about the origins of, and how to end, the current homophobia in football. Whatever that’s about, it’s not sacred symbolism, Freud or Oliver bloody Kahn.

And not all Victorians thought masturbation sent you mad, certainly not all doctors or schoolmasters or clergymen. Furthermore, ways of diverting young men from sex matter more in a world without modern condoms or any means of treating STDs that were, in the nineteenth century, more prevalent and more virulent than they are now. Something to consider, when mocking the likes of Victorian headmasters, reformers and sportsmen from a luckier age that has the benefit of latex and penicillin.

Bad attitudes aside, there is another thing to learn from this kind of tortured nonsense. It’s that football is only so granular: it only breaks down so far. Football can only explain so much.

The kind of focal length we’re accustomed to using in biography or in narrative history works well with football and yields a clear, useful  picture. Change the lens, and sense breaks down.

Football can show you something of Scotland. It can show you something of history and society. But it resists being cracked open itself like some great sociological Kinder egg. If what you want from football is evidence of someone else’s false consciousness and repression, football is just as likely to hand you evidence of your own.

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4 responses to “How Much Can Football Books Tell Us?

  1. This was probably not your intent, but you’ve convinced me that I probably want to buy Honigstein’s book (he also writes an excellent column for the Guardian).

  2. James Hamilton

    It is a good book and I would recommend it. Sorry if I gave a different impression! Anyone interested can get it here:
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Englischer-Fussball-German-View-Beautiful/dp/022408013X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267633301&sr=8-1

  3. An excellent conclusion, and one that I think is borne out by a lot of work on the social history of football [you made me think of Franklin Foer’s ‘How Football Explains The World’ in particular]. Thanks for a great post!

  4. I find the over-educated Honigstein horribly smug and condescending.