Nige Tassell Interview

Nige Tassell’s The Bottom Corner is undoubtedly one of this autumn’s must-read football titles. In between romantic pilgrimages to the far-flung stadia of our fair British Isles (I’m guessing here), the author was kind enough to answer some questions about books, writing, and the magic of non-league football.

1. How did a music journalist end up writing a book about non-league football?

Although the majority of my income over the past 15 or so years has been from scribbling down half-formed opinions about music, I’ve never been exclusively a music journalist. Very few people are. There’s simply not enough work to go round. So I’ve always written about other subjects, in particular sport – whether it was spending a day in the Test Match Special commentary box for The Word or persuading retired footballers to relive their moments of glory for FourFourTwo.

Book-wise, writing about sport was always the aim, the final destination. There are very few music books left to write. Sport, however, constantly renews itself. New stories emerge every week, every month, every season.

2. Was it a difficult sell to the publisher?

I’d be a lousy salesman, so fortunately that’s what my agent is for. But, no, it wasn’t. I was in the process of changing agents and touting around several different ideas for books, but the kindly soul who took me on – Kevin Pocklington – knew exactly where to take The Bottom Corner, so it was a comparatively quick process. I was delighted and hugely flattered to be signing for Yellow Jersey. I’ve been a huge fan of their list for years and years.

­­­­Getting a book commissioned means getting departments right across a publishing company excited – having an enthusiastic editor is just the first stage. But everyone at Yellow Jersey was on board very quickly. It certainly helped that the country seemed to be going non-league mad during the actual week it got commissioned, thanks to the first series of the Salford City documentary, their FA Cup triumph over Notts County and everyone falling for Jamie Vardy’s non-league-to-England fairy-tale.

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3. Have you always been a die-hard non-league fan? Do you ever watch league football?

Well, everyone knows that the greatest season in the history of any club wasn’t that of Man Utd’s treble-winners, nor Arsenal’s unbeaten Invincibles. It was Colchester United’s glorious 1991-92 campaign when they did the non-league double – pipping Wycombe to the Conference title on goal difference and then winning the FA Trophy at Wembley against Witton Albion. Non-league has been in my blood since then, although ‘die-hard’ might be too strong. That’s a definition reserved for those hopelessly devoted groundhoppers. They are a breed apart.

After watching non-league, league football just doesn’t appeal. You can’t wander around watching from various different standpoints. You can’t watch with a beer in your hand. And you go home with far less money left in your pocket.

4. Did you have the season all planned out in advance, or were some aspects more spontaneous?

Back last August, I knew I’d be following two teams throughout the season and that their respective stories would form the book’s narrative backbone, from which I’d depart and return throughout the book. These were Tranmere Rovers, just about to experience non-league football for the first time in their 94-year history, and Bishop Sutton of the Toolstation Western League Division One, who started the season on the back of a 19-match losing streak from the previous campaign. They complemented each other well.

I also knew that I’d be covering certain other aspects of the non-league year – for instance, the Third Round of the FA Cup in January. But, yes, I certainly left myself open for stories that would unfold during the season, such as Ashley Flynn bagging more than 70 goals for Emley, or Hereford FC’s phenomenal first season as a phoenix club.

5. Were there bits that didn’t make the final cut?

Not really, no. The great thing about non-league from the point of view of a journalist or author is that it is a vast canvas with so much rich material to pull from. There are a huge number of great stories to be told. I was able to cherry-pick the ones that, when placed together within the confines of a 320-page book, combined to create what I hope is a vivid snapshot of a world so removed from that of the Premier League with its oligarchs, supercars and tattoo addictions.

I also cherry-picked the more interesting people to talk to. Each and every one was fascinating in their own way, from the millionaire chairman/owner with dreams as big as the sky to the raffle-ticket seller who wants her ashes scattered in the centre-circle of her beloved club. I interviewed more than 50 people for the book and not one of them had their words abandoned on the cutting-room floor.

6. Were there any football/sports writers/books that inspired or influenced you?

When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to have a library at the end of my street. I was also lucky that the only football book they had on their shelves was Hunter Davies’s The Glory Game. I had that book out on permanent loan between the ages of eight and 15. I must have read it two dozen times. I can probably still quote chunks of it today.

That was the pioneering book that introduced the ‘a season with’ format. It’s such a natural, unforced framework for a book, a format that will never tire. It’s the equivalent of the three-minute pop song. Tried, tested and never bettered.

More recently, Michael Calvin’s The Nowhere Men – aside from its terrific writing – showed there was very much an audience for a football book that took the reader into the game’s less glamorous quarters (in that case, the scouts charged with unearthing the stars of tomorrow while just being paid petrol money). That book’s success, both critically and commercially, certainly helped The Bottom Corner get published.

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7. As a narrator, you keep yourself largely invisible. Was that a conscious decision, to let your subjects do the talking?

It was, yes. I approached the book much more as the semi-detached journalist than the matey first-person narrator detailing every ground visited, every pie munched, every train missed. If the book’s premise had been for me to visit as many grounds as possible in a season, then I would have put myself much more in the foreground.

But while I do occasionally in the narrative, for me the crux of the book is represented by the people who populate non-league. The subtitle is A Season With The Dreamers Of Non-League Football; these dreamers are the focus. The ex-pros trying to extend their careers, the groundhoppers aiming to visit every possible ground, the young lads wanting to walk in Vardy’s bootprints…

8. ‘Heartland’ feels like a very apt word for what you show in the book. Were you at all surprised by the warmth that you found?

The phrase ‘the non-league family’ is one that’s banded around a great deal, but it’s banded around because it carries so much truth. Everywhere I went, from Glasgow to Lewes and all points in between, I was welcomed with open arms. Everyone had time and patience to answer the questions of this nosy parker with his notepad and Dictaphone. I had access all areas. No restrictions, no barriers.

This sense of fraternity extends across the whole non-league world, whether it’s the lack of segregation from the Conference North and South down, or fans and players mixing in the bar after the game. Non-league football offers a salutary lesson to how the wider world could operate, for sure.

9. Are you still following the fortunes of Tranmere and Bishop Sutton? Will there be a sequel?

Bishop Sutton have had a slight upturn in their form, while Tranmere – having recently sacked their manager – are at a crucial point in their season already. Can they regain the free-winning ways they showed at the start of the season, or will they return to their erratic performances of last campaign?

Being based in Somerset, it’s hard to get up to Tranmere too often, so I’ll definitely be among the Super White Army when they make the long midweek trip down to Forest Green Rovers in November. Even if the match is dire, their baiting of Forest Green’s meat-free ways offers plenty of cabaret.

The next book is already in the planning, but it won’t be a sequel to The Bottom Corner, I’m afraid. Perhaps I’ll revisit the non-league territory in ten years’ time to see whether everyone’s dreams did actually come true…

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The Bottom Corner

The Bottom Corner: A Season with the Dreamers of Non-League Football

By Nige Tassell

Yellow Jersey Press, 2016

the-bottom-cornerRarely have I opened a football book with such high expectations. After all, this is not just a Yellow Jersey Press title, but also one that comes recommended by Stuart Maconie, Danny Baker and Barry Davies. The Davies quote on the back cover even compares it to Arthur Hopcraft’s legendary book The Football Man. So is The Bottom Corner really that good?

The answer is yes, although Nige Tassell’s ‘Season with the Dreamers of Non-League Football’ is perhaps more reminiscent of Michael Calvin’s The Nowhere Men and Living on the Volcano. Like Calvin, Tassell takes a case study approach to his subject matter, seeking out the great, lesser-known stories and offering a depth and variety of insight. You may have heard about Salford City and Forest Green, but have you heard of Hackney & Leyton Football League chairman Johnnie Walker, or Philippines captain Rob Gier? Instead of a strong, invasive narrative voice, the characters speak for themselves. ‘Here you’re part of the team,’ an interviewee neatly summarises. ‘In the Premier League, you’re just a number.’

The structure is simple but very effective – a chapter for each month of the season, and three or four stories within each chapter/month. Real thought has gone into it, with September (the international break), for example, dedicated to ‘International men of mystery’, a trilogy of absorbing and exotic tales of far-flung travel. Two particular stories – Bishop Sutton and Tranmere Rovers – recur throughout the book, offering a clever narrative thread. The writing is engaging, descriptive but not too descriptive.

And the tone is perfect. ‘Heartland’ is a word written large in the book’s blurb and it really encapsulates the spirit of the book and the individuals, organisations and communities that it follows. These are heart-warming tales of hopes, dreams and dedication in the face of serious adversity. Instead of the doom and gloom that sometimes dominates the discussion of non-league football, The Bottom Corner offers up optimism and positivity. The harsh reality is not ignored but it is approached with the realism and the wry humour of the amazing stalwarts that keep on carrying on.

 

Footballers ‘Write’ Other Books

These days, any half-decent footballer will eventually become an ‘author’. But I trawled the backwaters of Amazon.co.uk to find some examples that might surprise you.

Tim Cahill – Pecked to Death by Ducks

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‘Tim Cahill lives the life of adventure we all wanted when we were kids’, Village Voice declare on the front cover of this nature classic. From Sydney to Millwall – yes, I see their point.

Joe Allen – Retirement: A No Fluff, Step-by-Step Guide To A Life Of Financial and Emotional Freedom

A bit premature for this, isn’t it Joe? Maybe he wrote this before the Euros.

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Tying the Knot: A Premarital Guide to a Strong and Lasting Marriage – Rob Green

He does like a long club stint but a safe pair of hands?

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Mini Farming: Mini Farming For Beginners – Anders Svensson

‘DIY Guide to Build a Self-sustainable Backyard’ – oh that’s what he was doing at Southampton. It all makes sense now.

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The Suggestion Book – edited by Duncan Ferguson

I’d hate to think what’s in there and I’m not even a referee.

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Personal Statements: How to Write a UCAS Personal Statement – Paul Telfer

That explains why Gordon Strachan kept signing him.

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Fight for Success – How to achieve any Goal Big or Small – Chris Sutton

SAS, then 1 in 28 games for Chelsea.

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Crate Training: The Complete Dog Training Guide – Learn How to Crate Train Your Puppy In 5 Days Or Less! – Kevin Nolan

He is Big Sam’s best friend, after all.

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Surprised by Laughter – Stephen Carr

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He always did have a good face for it.

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Cruel World – Joe Hart

Too easy. Too soon.

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Striker! – Steve Bruce

Oh wait, this really is the Steve Bruce.

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The Wrestle

i

Few children have ever had a sweet tooth like me. That boast is neither idle nor proud – it just strikes me as a good place to start this story. Back then, I could compete with a heroin addict and, naturally, that worried my parents. Ice cream and chocolate were carefully rationed with hiding places and tally charts but one thing escaped the clamp down: diluting juice, or high juice squash. Mum marked the bottle level from time to time but the addition of water made it only a moderate level health risk. How wrong she was.

Tropical was my flavour of choice, with its bevy of exotic fruits. Why have one when you could have ten? Regrettably, that was my attitude to many things back then. The marigold nectar became my midnight feast, especially at the weekend when my parents went to bed after watching Parkinson. I would wake at 12.30 like a cuckoo in a clock, my mouth dry and craving sugary goodness. My bare feet landed softly on every other step on the staircase, leaping the creaky, mid-way landing like it was a crocodile-filled ravine. The adventure gave my young heart a real work-out.

My brother Daniel and I used to do everything together: football in the back garden, football in the park, football on the computer, football in notebooks on car journeys. Even when we moved to separate rooms, we’d have football sleepovers in the school holidays. But now, at the age of 14, he had become a nocturnal beast. Daniel was two and a half years older than me and that came with special privileges. First among these was TV. To protect his vision, Mum marked out a ten yard distance like a football referee but that was pretty much the only legislation on a Friday night. So Daniel brought his duvet and pillow down and set up camp on our new sofa. Within weeks, it held the deep imprints of his contours.

I crept along the hallway like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. The kitchen light was still on and I stealthily poured myself a strong one, running the cold tap at a quiet trickle. A double, I’d call it now. Usually, that was the end of it but on this occasion, I was wide awake and curious. I padded over to the lounge doorway and peered around the corner. The volume was turned right down and at first, the screen was pitch black. Then a single gold spotlight appeared in the top corner and confetti swirled through the air. The camera panned slowly down to reveal a dimly-lit figure with long blonde hair, wearing an extravagant golden robe. I can still remember the mix of fear and excitement. It’s the same feeling I get now when I watch the YouTube video.

‘What is this?’ I whispered.

With cat-like reflexes, Daniel changed the channel. But a Dad’s Army repeat wasn’t fooling anyone.

‘Why aren’t you in bed?’ he asked.

‘I could ask you the same question’ I thought to myself but I didn’t say it. Instead, I went with ‘Just getting a glass of water.’ But I stayed where I was and Daniel had a decision to make: keep pretending to watch Dad’s Army, or trust me to secrecy. With a searching look, he chose the latter.

‘It’s Smackdown,’ he whispered, lowering his head back to the pillow as if his work was done.

I lay down on the thick green carpet, close enough so that I could hear the commentary. I can still remember the cold touch of the metal threshold on the tips of my toes. The blonde-haired figure was now standing at the centre of a square that was fenced around with ropes. It looked like a boxing ring but where were the gloves? Slowly, the robe was removed to reveal a tight gold and black suit. Then, off came the long blonde wig to reveal a man with short blonde hair and a face painted gold. His eyes and mouth were painted black like a panda. I still had no idea what I was watching. ‘GOLDUST’ the TV caption said. That made some kind of sense.

When the lights came back on, Goldust began to fight. But this was no playground fighting. The duel had the back-and-forth energy of a courtroom drama, and the acrobatics of a synchronised gymnastics routine. When someone got punched, they didn’t pretend that it didn’t hurt; they fell to the floor like they’d been shot and then stumbled back to their feet. They stood, dazed, and waited for further punishment. Was this how adults fought? I looked at Daniel and we shared a complicit smile, our first since he had started secondary school two years earlier.

The commentators spoke an alien, raucous language of ‘turnbuckles’, ‘supplexes’, ‘pins’ and ‘sleeper holds’. Daniel seemed to know what was going on but it wasn’t the time for questions. I just watched and absorbed. It was like a comic book come to life, a pantomime with heroes and villains and ‘he’s behind you’ moments.

1! 2! 3! It’s over!

And so began the wrestle.

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Smackdown became our weekly, brotherly ritual. Often we cheered on rival fighters, placing bets of 10p a time. Sometimes, my pocket money disappeared altogether. But best of all were the matches where we were routing for the same team. And no-one received our shared devotion like the Legion of Doom.

What a RUSH!

Road Warriors ‘Hawk’ and ‘Animal’ rode motorcycles to the ring and wore big, spiked shoulder pads. My guess is that now they’d be Donald Trump supporters but back then, they were our heroes. They had Mohawks and painted faces, and were the greatest Tag Team Champions in WWF history. Red and black were their colours, the same colours as the football team that Daniel and I played for.

Their big move was the ‘Doomsday Device’, a grand term for a flying clothesline. One Road Warrior would lift an opponent onto his shoulders and the other would jump down from the top rope. Once the ‘Doomsday Device’ had been detonated, the match was always over. It was amazing how devastating an arm across the face could be.

‘Don’t try this at home’ the adverts always said but we didn’t listen. I would stand in the middle of our parents’ big double bed with a pillow on my shoulders and Daniel would jump off the laundry basket in the corner of the room. With a little more training we believed that we could be the next Tag Team Champions. I was ‘The Glamma Kid’ and Daniel was ‘The Trendsetter’. Together, we called ourselves ‘The Icons of Style’. Our finisher was a flying legdrop called ‘This Year’s Fashion’. My brother wasn’t much of an artist and so I drew our profiles with matching costumes and our vital statistics. I even drew a picture of us fighting against the Legion of Doom. We kept these in a plastic wallet for when we were ready to compete professionally.

It was all fun while it lasted. Looking back, wrestling was the ideal bond, pitched perfectly between us. I was young enough to delight in a ‘grown-up’ thing and Daniel wasn’t yet old enough to show much interest in girls. In other ways we were disentangling but Friday Night Smackdown was our weird and wonderful tether.

There were several key factors in our retirement from the ring. The first came quite early on and it crushed me like few things have ever done since. I’d heard rumours at school but nothing from anyone I considered trustworthy. I decided that only one person could tell me the truth.

‘Dan, wrestling is real, right?’ I asked in as casual a way as possible. My brother didn’t need to know the impact that his answer could have.

There was a long pause.

‘Sorry Sam, I thought you already knew,’ was all he could muster. It was like Father Christmas all over again.

The second was that we broke our parents’ bed. One day as Daniel landed ‘This Year’s Fashion’, we heard the loud snap of slats. We looked at each other, panic in our eyes. We tried to tape things back together but the game was up. We never said a word to our parents but one day, a new bed arrived. It was tempting to continue but we agreed that we couldn’t risk breaking another.

Besides, Daniel was showing signs of restlessness. He wanted to go solo. He was now much stronger than me and so for a while, I became his punch bag. ‘The Chokeslam’, ‘The Rock Bottom’, ‘The Pedigree’ – I experienced them all, with varying degrees of pain. We were careering towards the final collapse, the breaking of this particular tether. It came with a ‘Tombstone Piledriver’, performed on a thinly carpeted floor. Daniel’s technique was flawless with one notable exception. When The Undertaker did it, his opponent’s head never hit the floor. Mine did and at full speed.

‘Sam, are you ok?’ he asked as I stumbled off to get a glass of water.

‘Yeah,’ I said, rubbing the bump that was already rising. I could feel a migraine coming on.

‘Are you sure?’

I nodded and went up to my room. The wrestle was over.

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iii

A 30th birthday requires a special gift, especially if it’s your brother. If it can’t be expensive, it has to be really thoughtful. A fancy restaurant voucher? No, I had to do better than that. The adult world had brought us closer again – his son was my nephew, and football was still football.

Mum and Dad were downsizing, which for me meant a long weekend of cleaning and nostalgia. After university, I had never bothered to go home and collect the first eighteen years of my life. They sat there in my old bedroom like a poorly organised museum. It was on the second day of sorting that I found the plastic wallet containing our wrestling profiles. ‘The Legion of Doom’ vs ‘The Icons of Style’. What a time to be alive.

My first thought was Wikipedia – what were Hawk and Animal up to these days? The answer was largely distressing. After years of drug and alcohol addiction, Hawk had died of a heart attack at the age of 46. Animal, however, was still making occasional WWE guest appearances and his son was an NFL linebacker. He had even written an autobiography called The Road Warriors: Danger, Death, and the Rush of Wrestling. With one Amazon click, I bought it for £8.48.

My next thought was Twitter. There were several ‘Road Warrior Animal’ listings but the one with the most followers (4,614) looked to be the real deal. I clicked ‘Follow’ and sent him a tweet asking for him to follow me back so that I could send him a direct message. After two months of trying, he finally did. Not only was Animal now my first celebrity follower but I had the chance to speak to him. I had so many questions but I needed to stay focused.

‘Dear Animal, I hope you’re well. My brother is a big fan of yours and it’s his 30th birthday next month. If I send you something, could you sign it for me please? Ps. I’ll send you money for the return postage.’

A week later, Joe Laurinaitis (his real name) sent me an address in Chicago. I put the autobiography in a Jiffy bag along with my drawing of ‘The Legion of Doom’ vs ‘The Icons of Style’ and a short letter:

Dear Road Warrior Animal,

I really appreciate your help with this. When we were growing up, my brother Daniel and I loved watching the Legion of Doom. I’m very sorry to hear of Hawk’s death. If you could sign the book and the drawing, it would really mean a lot to my brother.

If you don’t mind, I had a couple of questions that I’d like to ask you:

1) Why ‘Hawk’ and then ‘Animal’? If you’re going to call one after a particular type of bird, why call the other something so generic? I always thought you should have been called ‘Falcon’, ‘Eagle’ or ‘Buzzard’

2) Were you ever tempted to leave those spiky shoulder pads on when you wrestled? You would certainly have won more fights that way

Kind regards,

Sam Murphy

 

I still haven’t received anything from Animal, and Daniel’s birthday was two months ago. Perhaps it got lost in the post, perhaps Animal has a huge backlog of fanmail, or perhaps he reacted badly to my questions.

Luckily, Daniel’s favourite footballer, former Newcastle winger Nolberto Solano, is very active on social media, and his signed shirt hangs proudly on Daniel’s wall:

‘To The Trendsetter,

Best wishes, Nobby’