More than a game

The Footballer Who Could Fly, by Duncan Hamilton, Century RRP£14.99, 352 pages

August 24 2012 / Financial Times

Ever since the publication of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch 20 years ago, any number of British sportswriters with literary ambitions have chosen to write as much about the experience of being a fan as what happens on the field of play. The sporting action becomes marginal to the larger psychological drama of young men’s journey into mature, reflective adulthood.

There’s something disturbingly passive about being an ardent football fan: your moods and wellbeing are affected by something over which you have no control. It is both an affirmation (a commitment to a cause) and an escape (from the everyday reality). For this reason, the bond between fan and club is essentially irrational; you can change your wife and job, even the shape of your nose, but, if you’re a true fan, you can never change the club to which you committed emotionally at a young age, no matter how much frustration and unhappiness it brings. You are bound helplessly to the mast of your own obsession.

Most of us men who like and watch football, as well as those who write about it, do so because of our fathers. The experience of being a fan is bound up with that of being a son; of how you were first introduced to the game and conducted into its codes and rituals.

As we approach middle age, it’s inevitable that we begin to reflect on how much the game has changed – from the days of the old standing terraces, when football was the working man’s passion, to today’s venal winner-takes-all English Premier League – and how our lives have turned out in the intervening period.

Duncan Hamilton, twice winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award and a former provincial newspaper journalist, was introduced to football by his father, who was a miner and a Newcastle United fan. Hamilton père was 40 by the time his son, an only child, was born. Remote and taciturn, he was prematurely aged, exhausted by working down the pit. The father spoke rarely and the son stuttered. Football brought them together. Without it, “we were strangers under a shared roof”.

Hamilton is an instinctive elegist – an earlier book, A Last English Summer, was about the decline of county cricket – and his prose has a sad Larkinian music. But he is also a sentimentalist; always a dangerous thing when writing about one’s own family. The opening of The Footballer Who Could Fly, a meditation on how our national game has changed since the 1950s as well a gentle memoir of his father, showcases his flaws and his virtues as a stylist.

He begins by recalling “with photographic quality” an image of his father as a younger man standing beside the Tyne Bridge, in the “cathedral light of a late September morning”. It’s an affecting image: most of us have a favourite recollection of a beloved parent.

“I remember everything about this long-ago hour,” Hamilton continues. “I remember that summer had long since left Newcastle, scythed away by north-easterly winds and the rapid advance of a russet autumn, already noticeable in the dampish air.” And so it goes on, sentence by slow-moving sentence, with the author wilfully surrendering to a kind of melancholic rapture.

Much of this is seductive, especially to a reader who knows the old ways of football, the passing of which Hamilton mourns. But the writing can snag on the thorns of its own nostalgic effects. Notice the ponderous repetition in “long-ago” and “long since”; how summer has been “scythed” away (isn’t that verb too mannered?); how autumn advances inexorably, darkening the scene, as it must.

The Keatsian grace notes are familiar and the warning signs clear: this is to be what Ian Sansom called, in a review of Gary Imlach’s My Father and Other Working-Class Heroes (2005, a football memoir that Hamilton has surely read carefully), a “grief-work”, a sporting chronicle of loss.

The book is episodic and meandering, a little humourless, unravelling in a series of extended vignettes of how central the FA Cup used to be in the nation’s sporting and cultural life, of club owners’ exploitation of noble players before the abolition of the maximum wage, and so on.

Hamilton indulges in novelistic descriptions of former players, such as Wyn Davies, the high-leaping footballer of the title. Many were his father’s heroes, whom he met as a reporter on the Nottingham Evening News – Tommy Lawton has a face “cleaved with the grooves of worry”; Bill Shankly’s “skin resembled the craquelure of an old painting”.

The book is sincere and deeply honouring of Hamilton’s father as well as dead greats such as Lawton, Shankly, Jackie Milburn, Duncan Edwards and Bobby Moore, men who lived alongside, and travelled to games with, those who paid to watch them. It will be of interest principally to football nostalgists happily sad to be reminded of how things used to be before the coming of Rupert Murdoch and the Premier League; before football became an icon of globalisation and the plaything of the international plutocracy.