Football, Bloody Hell

OR: Did You See That Ludicrous Display Last Night? 1

Content Advisory: Adult language

In Football, Bloody Hell, Rachel Eng kicks off a riveting game in search of scoring her most important literary goal: Why isn’t there more of football literature? This “unexpected delirium” of football (and) literature, perhaps the literary equivalent of commentary by John Motson, deserves a full 90 minutes of reading with extra time.

Football matters, as poetry does to some people and alcohol to others…Football is inherent in people…There is more eccentricity in deliberately disregarding it than in devoting a life to it.
– Arthur Hopcraft, The Football Man

If football literature were actual football then Fever Pitch would be Leicester City winning the Premier League; unexpected, fantastical, and completely changing perceptions of the game. Fever Pitch lifted football from the clutches of the Hooligan Yob and into the manicured hands of the Gentrified Middle Class, complete with its own Colin Firth movie (a movie that, like most Arsenal seasons, is worth forgetting). Suddenly writing about football was sexy – something that wasn’t just the backdrop of a highbrow novel trying to get into the headspace of the Fascinatingly Boorish Lower Class. You must remember that Fever Pitch also came out in 1992, which was a fundamental moment in the history of English football – it coincided with the beginning of the Premier League, and did much to rehabilitate the image of the football fan three years after Hillsborough had unfairly tarnished it.2

Football non-fiction has skyrocketed in terms of breadth and quality ever since. Respected journalists like Sid Lowe enter the fray with Fear and Loathing in La Liga; David Goldblatt is as close to football’s official historian as anyone will ever get, with Futebol Nation and The Game of Our Lives; even economists and mathematicians have attempted to get in on the action with Soccernomics and Soccermathics. Howler and 8by8 magazines are amalgamations of football and design. Duncan Hamilton’s writing straddles the border between non-fiction and literary fantasy, so vivid and beautiful are his descriptions of George Best playing. If you notice, football has an inordinate amount of books written by amateurs – as a Manchester United and England fan I’m aware of books like Ta Ra Fergie and One Night in Turin, but there are Liverpool tributes (mandatory side-eye), non-league ones, all manners of people bursting to tell their own love stories.

And therein lies the curiosity of football, and perhaps of sport in general. Because while football non-fiction is generous, the field of football fiction has remained smaller than Tottenham Hotspur’s trophy cabinet. For how popular the beautiful game is no one seems to want to write stories about it. When I was doing research for this article I came up with a list of football fiction books; I could count them on my fingers, and the national library didn’t even have half of them for me to read. So to take home and away quite literally – a phrase so ingrained in football culture that I voted for it without thinking, regardless of how many flashbacks to the 4-0 MK Dons defeat it sparked – here is a brief, completely self-indulgent contemplation on the state and character of football literature.3

One reason there isn’t a lot if it might be that the audience is niche. As Hopcraft astutely writes, there are two kinds of people: those who devote a life to it, and those who deliberately disregard it. (There’s also the third kind, who don’t actually exist, but we call them Man City fans.) Unfortunately, the manic obsession that the first group tends to project puts the second group off, and consequently football writers are left with a very niche audience. By clicking on this piece you are in fact a member of a minority, and writers don’t write for members of minorities unless

a.     Their manic obsession levels are very high – and I mean having to decontaminate your limited edition United watch by inserting it into your fifty United kits for a period of 24 hours after your Liverpool-supporting uncle touched it; or
b.     They’re getting paid for it.

And – let me tell you – there is a serious lack of people who own fifty United kits.

But football is the most supported sport in the world, you cry; well, therein lies the problem, because even within this niche but massive audience there are divides that some call rivalries and others call completely insurmountable. (Anyone who’s ever seen Madridistas and Culés try to get along on Twitter will understand.) Fever Pitch is an exception – in general, the closed ranks of football fans mean that some books just can’t be read. Many United fans would give both of David Peace’s fiction books, one about Leeds and one about Liverpool, a pass. And I doubt that die-hard England fans are going to get much joy from the German-praising Das Reboot, unless it reimagines a future where penalty shootouts are abolished and draws are decided by how fast you can spell the name ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’.4

Above all, football fiction is as self-indulgent as this article. People write about football because they’re the ones who want to read it. I once read a review of David Peace’s Red or Dead which was scathing in its criticism of the book as something written for no one: “you can only assume that Peace wrote it for that most reliable, persistent and forgiving audience: himself.”5 One gets the feeling that J. L. Carr must have supported the smallest of football teams, since How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup reads like a personal fantasy of reaching Wembley. Fever Pitch and those of its ilk are the most self-indulgent of all, chronicling their own journeys, not professing universality or even good writing (I sometimes wonder if Ta Ra Fergie was edited before being published). The stab of modernism that Red or Dead took aside, football writing is perhaps the most lowbrow of forms, with every great writer outnumbered by a million mediocre ones, and the same story (there’s a ball, people kick it, someone loses, and might I just say fuck Huddersfield Town, fuck Chelsea too, and we may as well fuck City while we’re here) is done over and over again.

But therein lies the reason why football and literature work. First off, football literature isn’t just about football. As the clever folk of Soccer & Philosophy write, ‘football re-enacts the drama of life’.6 The stadium becomes an arena for other, human conflicts and concerns to shine through: Wanderers is also about the nostalgia for disappearing old towns; Bring Me The Head of Ryan Giggs is as much about idols and hero worship as it is about Welsh wizards; London Fields reads like class conflict. Even Bend it Like Beckham, probably the most famous football movie, is about belonging and the clash of cultures.  Horribly big ideas can be distilled into a ninety minute sport spent kicking the life out of each other, because ‘football is fictional in character’, and therefore can be manipulated as such.

And the fictionality of it is what lends it universality. Football, more than anything else, is about the human condition. Going back to Soccer & Philosophy, ‘the study of football – be it historical, sociological, economic, or philosophical – is a study of humanity, in all its glory and debauchery’. A diehard Liverpool-supporting friend of mine (mandatory side-eye) recently described Fever Pitch as (in capital letters, no less) ‘VOLDEMORT’S SOUL DIARY N I WAS GINNY READING IT, EXCEPT VOLDEMORT IS NICK HORNBY’.7 Multiple who have very many reasons for hating Arsenal or even not caring at all relate to it because all it takes is a little stretch of the imagination – instead of Arsenal, it’s United, instead of Wenger, it’s Ferguson, but the melodrama of if they don’t win I will throw myself out of a window remains. Every football fan, in the end, feels the same way.

Football is the only sport where the ‘Narrative’ is bandied about, and events like Istanbul (2005) become part of a cultural fabric and shared memory that is used as the story of who we are and why we are. Football literature is about people, emotions, feelings, and above all the fantasy that is such a part of our nature. It marries the escapism of a book with the escapism of the game itself. The Steeple Sinderby Wanderers beat professional teams by fantastical margins: its 6-0, 7-0 scorelines are reminiscent of the ridiculousness that is Shaolin Soccer, and yet where you wouldn’t believe the quintessential Stephen Chow nonsense somehow you are carried by the narrative of the Wanderers, all the way to the final, willingly suspending your disbelief. Because you aren’t expecting reality here. You are reading a genre where a team hammered the opponents they always lost to on penalties 5-1 (England v. Germany, 2001), where a team bottom of the league the previous year went on to win it (Leicester, 2015/16), where a team scored two goals in the last three minutes of the game to win the Champions’ League final (Manchester United v. Bayern Munich, 1999). Literally anything can happen. You, too, long to have it that easy – for your own team to win the cup, or for yourself to win the lottery, or for a promotion to fall into your lap – and in football, where the lines between escapism and real-life miracles are blurred, that narrative is actually within reach. To paraphrase Phil Neville, ‘it might be fantasy, but I think that football is built on a little bit of fantasy’.8

So to answer my original question: the reason there is so little football fiction is because the subject matter itself is fiction. You can’t distinguish the two genres the way you can, say, distinguish a book about the history of the Cold War and a James Bond novel. The only reason fiction needs to be written in football is to have greater control about the secondary messages you want to put across – class and race and all that – but, ultimately, all of your concerns have already been framed in the language of actuality.

Football is real life. It is also so much more than real life. (United fans, forgive me for sounding like Bill Shankly here.) It is only in this genre, with the possible exception of historical fiction, that real person fiction is mainstream – Red or Dead and The Damned United are both fictionalised accounts of real people in ways that other forms of literature might have denounced weird or slanderous. Non-traditional forms of literature abound here – as mentioned, almost literally anyone can publish a book about football, regardless of credentials or indeed the ability to write – because what matters is not the writing but the narrative. Sometimes in writing about high ideals and achieving technically beautiful language writers neglect the story itself. Well, football writing brings you right back to the heart of the matter. Because literature, after all, is a reflection of humanity, and football is humanity in all its community, spirit, glory. Football is not a highbrow thing. It is a working man’s sport, and appeals to the most fundamental of our nature. Self-indulgence is something that anyone can enjoy. Even if the writing itself can’t convey the feeling of going to a football match, it stirs in us the same ideas of communal identity and free emotions; to some extent a modern day religion. There’s a reason your own football stadium is called your home.

Football literature shouldn’t be looked down on because it’s part of the Uncouth World of Sports or because someone’s written in the colloquial ‘I was stood’ instead of ‘I was standing’. Football players needn’t be associated with stupidity and football fans needn’t be associated with mindless violence. It might be lowbrow, but that only means that it is more raw and human than many other forms of the written word, and that is no bad thing.

People who’ve read Fever Pitch will be able to utter that immortal, vaguely heteronormative first line about falling in love with football the same way as he would later fall in love with women. But my personal favourite comes from the Liverpool-Arsenal (mandatory side-eye) game towards the end of the book. It is an appeal to the non-sporting amongst us to try and understand why football is so important; a hope that people can look past boozy forty-year-olds banging on about the offside rule and see the nucleus of human consciousness at the heart of the game; or at the very least something that might encourage you to pick up a copy, see for yourself, and earn me some kind of referral fee, since fifty United kits is never enough.

So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.
– Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

Books Mentioned That Are Ranked Higher Than Leeds United

  1. The Football Man by Arthur Hopcraft
  2. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
  3. Fear and Loathing in La Liga by Sid Lowe
  4. Arsenal
  5. Futebol Nation by David Goldblatt
  6. The Game of Our Lives by David Goldblatt
  7. Immortal by Duncan Hamilton
  8. Ta Ra Fergie by Pete Molyneux
  9. One Night in Turin aka. All Played Out by Pete Davies
  10. Das Reboot by Raphael Honigstein
  11. Red or Dead by David Peace
  12. The Damned United by David Peace
  13. How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers won the FA Cup by J. L. Carr
  14. Soccer and Philosophy ed. Ted Richards
  15. Bring me the Head of Ryan Giggs by Rodge Glass

Books Not Mentioned That Are Still Ranked Higher Than Leeds

  1. Provided You Don’t Kiss Me by Duncan Hamilton
  2. The Footballer Who Could Fly by Duncan Hamilton
  3. Tor! by Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger
  4. Arsenal
  5. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants by Soren Frank
  6. Saturday, 3pm by Daniel Gray
  7. My Favourite Year ed. Nick Hornby
  8. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGuinniss
  9. God is Round by Juan Villoro
  10. Football in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

As evinced by the unnecessary bibliography and even more unnecessary footnotes, RACHEL ENG is a history graduate now working in a museum, surviving only on salt, bitterness, and old youtube videos of Ryan Giggs’s chest-carpet. She has over a hundred titles on her football books wishlist and accepts combined birthday-Christmas presents. Her claims to fame include dissolving into a sobbing wreck in front of Gary Neville, touching the Premier League trophy more times than Steven Gerrard, winning Man of the Match after waking up at 3am to catch England lose to Iceland, and watching Class of ’92 enough times to qualify for the sobriquet of Why, God, Why. In her spare time she makes Bad Jokes and runs a football website called We Lose Every Week that redefines the term ‘self-indulgence’.

Photo Credit: Rachel Eng

  1. This was stolen from The IT Crowd‘s beautiful depiction of the fan/non-fan dichotomy (–1aw), but given the amount of Arsenal already featured I felt the title ought to go to something United, just to salvage my dignity. Sir Alex Ferguson’s immortal quote summing up the fantasy nature of football works better than his other one about knocking Liverpool off their perch, as much as I would rather have fucking printed that. 
  2. The Hillsborough disaster saw 96 Liverpool fans killed because of police negligence, and media/government opinion at the time unfairly blamed the fans themselves for being ill-behaved. 
  3. Sometimes, at night, I can still see Jonny Evans backpassing. 
  4. With a W2L12 record, England are the worst penalty shootout takers in the world. Trivia for you, tragedy and despair for me. 
  5. The pointlessly bitter savagery might remind you of Roy Keane, but it isn’t. 
  6. Hoyningen-Huene, Paul. Why is football so fascinating? In: Ted Richards (ed.), Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2010. 12. 
  7. Thanks Shaz for being more entertaining than Steve Gerrard in 48 seconds, in itself a hard act to follow. 
  8. Life of Ryan: Caretaker Manager. Fulwell 73. DVD. 

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