Updated: May 10, 2020
I’ve known Georgina Turner through the football writing Twitterverse for a while and I’m a regular reader of her writing in Sports Illustrated. I’m not as familiar with Rob Smyth’s stuff, but that gets one declaration of interest up front. The other is the fact that an incident from We Are Tottenham, the first book I wrote with Adam Powley back in 2004, is quoted early on.
I’ll admit I had an early problem with the book. The authors begin by setting out a Soul of Football X1, eleven names they reckon embody the “elementary qualities” of the game. There are some thought-provoking choices ranging from Danny Blanchflower to Lionel Messi through to coach César Luis Menotti. All are personal favourites of mine, which makes it easier to agree with their inclusion. But there’s one name included that brought me up short. At the risk of putting myself on a par with the man who killed Bambi, that name was Bobby Robson. The authors include him, it seems, because he was a very nice man, and because he had “an unconditional love for anything about the game.”
Now, I’ll concede an element of club bias here, but I’ll also say that there’s a fair argument too. While Robson was undoubtedly very successful in a number of nations and I’m told was indeed a very nice man, I define him slightly differently. For me he is the manager who refused to recognise and trust the ability of the finest footballer of his generation, Glenn Hoddle, and build the England team around him. That mistrust of skill and artistry is something which has dogged the English game for years. And, as anyone who has read Pete Davies’s superb account of Italia 90, All Played Out, will know, the success England achieved in their most successful of modern tournaments came only after the players rebelled against Robson’s favoured approach.
For a book which sets out to look for the lost soul of football, it didn’t seem an encouraging start.
But things get better, and that Soul of Football X1 provides just one of many talking points that afficianados of the game will love getting stuck into. If there’s a criticism it is that in some of the early sections the book seems to be trying to conjure up a rather retro chic image of ‘football as it used to be’ – rather as if the production team of Ashes to Ashes had set to work on recreating 1970s football. But even here there are some wonderfully observed details and great trivia titbits – such as the story of the policeman at the legendary Hereford v Newcastle FA Cup giant-killing.
The book could easily have fallen into the trap of being a compare and contrast exercise fuelled by some cleverly witty epithets, but the authors bring a deeper knowledge to bear to give the argument that things ain’t what they used to be some real substance. There’s a great analysis of why Serie A fell from grace included in a chapter that tears through the Premier League’s lofty pretensions and lays bare the undermining of the world’s top knockout competitions. The game’s rulers take the stick they deserve and – something which struck a chord with me – the ridiculous, preening, self-important buffoons who now bring the trade of refereeing into disrepute on a regular basis are cut down to size. “Referees should be stagehands, nothing more” they say, “yet in recent times they have taken over from the dramatis personae far too often.”
Perhaps not surprisingly given that the writers are both journalists, one of the most powerful chapters is on the press. “News organisations are now checking how quickly – not how well – they respond to events,” say the authors. “Whether the story is actually interesting, or worthy, barely matters. Nothing must be allowed to happen and reported later – technically that means we missed it.” It’s this rush to be always there, always on, that means we don’t give ourselves time to think and understand, say the authors. And so we have all the hype and noise and lack of substance of 90% of modern sports – and especially football – coverage.
I don’t entirely agree with a couple of conclusions in this section. When the authors say “football has a think problem” they don’t just mean the lack of a considered approach. They are also not keen on the emergence of deep tactical analysis and a certain over-intellectualisation of the game. They yearn for a time when football analysts “wore their knowledge lightly” and reporters “were busy committing to print the colour of the day.” I grew up reading writers such as Frank McGhee and Ken Jones in the Daily Mirror who could expertly conjure up images of a game I had barely heard on a crackly radio the night before for me as I scoffed my toast before school, and I loved them. But now that, for better or worse, we have the colour right in front of us in high definition it does provide room for a deeper consideration of the tactical approach and discussion of what lies beneath.
It’s true that football’s acceptance in polite circles as something worthy of more refined discussion can lead to some terrible pseud’s corner moments, but I think we need to be careful about writing off some of the very intelligent writing that’s emerging as a reaction to the kind of vacuous bustle that is correctly criticised earlier in the chapter. Much of that writing is emerging through newer forms of media, free from the traditional commercial and proprietorial constraints. And it’s on the new media front that the authors raise another bone of contention.
I agree with their observations that much of what appears on social media is far from social, that comments threads can too easily degenerate and that the anonymity of the keyboard combatant means that the social glue necessary to hold together a reasoned debate is often missing. But I don’t agree that “If news organisations were brave they’d close comments and print a simple statement; ‘You’ve had your chance. You’ve cocked it up. That’s your lot’.” The age of reader participation is here and it cannot be un-invented. Yes, it needs to be managed and, as everywhere, good practice encouraged. I agree that a return of the letters page “that doesn’t rob the majority of their say, but forces readers to make a reasonable and considered argument” should not be ruled out – although the authors have obviously not seen some of the letters pages I have. A well-managed letters page can work as well as a well-managed comments forum. It’s a pity that this argument overshadows the far more useful plea to the media and its readers to “stop shouting for a minute. Take a moment to look around, to listen. The game’s the thing.”
The fact that “the game’s the thing” is what sits at the heart of this book, and there’s no denying the passion Turner and Smyth have for a game that seems to be doing its best to repel even its most ardent admirers. It’s not just a prolonged moan, there are thoughtful, reasoned suggestions throughout, and a final chapter in which a number of achievable targets are put forward.
This a book that needed to be written. While fans old enough to remember pre-Sky era football but not too old to appreciate what the last 20 years have produced will perhaps find most to identify with, there’s plenty here for all sorts of fans. Definitely worth a read and worthy of sparking further debate.