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.

 

Leicester City Books: The Lowdown

Publishers are like bloodhounds when it comes to surprise success. And it’s not really a survival of the fittest scenario, either; instead, it’s the more the merrier. At least seven books have been published, or are being published, about Leicester City’s extraordinary, title-winning season. Do we need them all? Which one is the best? I offer no answers but here’s a quick look, in chronological order, at each one:

King Power

Title: King Power: Leicester City’s Remarkable Season

Author: Supposedly King Richard III but in truth, I have no idea

Published: 16th May 2016

Publisher: Fourth Estate (literary)

Price: £9.99 hardback

Format: in humorous Olde English, Richard III, recently buried in Leicester Cathedral, tells the story of Leicester’s triumph

Length: 176 pages

Foreword: N/A

Endorsements: N/A

Verdict: An early wildcard but the response has been good. ‘A bit of fun’, one Amazon reviewer calls it.

Tanner

 

Title: 5000-1 The Leicester City Story: How We Beat The Odds to Become Premier League Champions

Author: Rob Tanner, The Leicester Mercury’s chief football writer

Published: 18th May 2016

Publisher: Icon Books

Price: £8.99 paperback

Format: A month-by-month look at the season from a journalist who saw it all.

Length: 320 pages

Foreword: ‘Sky Sports’ Alan Smith’

Endorsements: N/A

Verdict: The early bestseller, timed to perfection like a Jamie Vardy run.


WorrallTitle:
Jamie Vardy: The Boy From Nowhere – The True Story of the Genius Behind Leicester City’s 5000-1 Winning Season

Author: Frank Worrall, unofficial football biographer extraordinaire

Published: 19th May 2016

Publisher: John Blake

Price: £7.99 paperback

Format: the Jamie Vardy story, told from birth to glory

Length: 288 pages

Foreword: N/A

Endorsements: N/A

Verdict: Perfect for the impatient but if you’re looking for a little more insight, wait a little longer (see below)


HarrisTitle:
The Immortals: The Story of Leicester City’s Premier League Season 2015/16

Author: King Harry Harris, author of 76 football books

Published: 25th May 2016

Publisher: G2 Entertainment (obscure)

Price: £9.99 paperback

Format: Each month of the season gets a chapter of its own and there’s a section of results and stats at the ends

Length: 260 pages

Foreword: Gordon Taylor, Chief Executive of the PFA and Richard Bevan, Chief Executive of the LMA

Endorsements: N/A

Verdict: A classic Harry Harris book – not very pretty or insightful but certainly comprehensive. A bit like Robert Huth, I guess.


Bevan

Title: The Unbelievables: The Amazing Story of Leicester’s 2015/16 Season

Author: David Bevan, Leicester City season ticket holder and football journalist

Published: 30th June 2016

Publisher: deCoubertin Books

Price: £9.99 paperback

Format: match-by-match diary entries interspersed with trips into the club’s past

Length: 216 pages

Foreword: Alan Birchenall, Leicester City Club Ambassador and pre-match and half-time host. ‘Mr Leicester’ according to the internet.

Endorsements: There are quotes from Ranieri and Lineker on the back cover but I don’t feel that they refer to this book specifically.

Verdict: Told by a fan, for the fans. And the Dave Williams cover artwork is sensational.

 

NorthcroftTitle: Fearless: The Amazing Underdog Story of Leicester City, the Greatest Miracle in Sports History

Author: Jonathan Northcroft, the Sunday Times football correspondent

Published: 22nd September 2016

Publisher: Headline

Price: £20 hardback

Format: ‘Fearless will document Leicester’s hunt of their impossible dream. It will tell the greatest football tale of the Premier League era, in loving detail, with the inside track. Now that Leicester have gone all the way and won the title, it is the best story in world sports – for years.

Premier League champions. The side who’d been adrift at the bottom 12 months previously, who’s started the season as relegation favourites, whose manager was favourite to be the first one sacked once the campaign got underway. A League One side only seven seasons previously. A squad of £500,000 and £1m men. Leicester. Ridiculous. Miraculous. Fearless.’

Length: 352 pages

Foreword: N/A

Endorsements: N/A

Verdict: Now that the confetti has settled, this is the one that everyone is waiting for. This promises to be an engaging and insightful book by one of the best in the business.

VardyTitle: Jamie Vardy: From Nowhere, My Story

Author: Jamie Vardy, and rumour has it that there’s no ghostwriter in sight

Published: 6th October 2016

Publisher: Ebury Press

Price: £20 hardback

Format: ‘The incredible story of Jamie Vardy’s rise from non-league journeyman to Premier League Champion in his own words.’

Length: 336 pages

Foreword: N/A

Endorsements: N/A

Verdict: The Christmas market beckons. Let’s just hope it’s something like his early Twitter account.

Books Round-up: Early 2016

As I hinted back in April, May was a great month for football book releases. Here are my thoughts on two of those titles, plus an earlier gem:

When Football Came Home by Michael Gibbons (Pitch Publishing)

Reading this book ahead of Euro 2016 was like watching Christmas music videos in early December. The tales of Terry Venables, Gazza and co filled me with naïve hope once again that football might indeed come home. It’s a story that many of us are very familiar with but Gibbons gets the content just right. Old favourites like the dentist chair are wheeled out once again, alongside less famous details. England’s matches are explored in detail but not too much detail and the myths surrounding the team’s performances are neatly dispelled. ‘Euro 96 became a sugar-coated memory…The 4-1 win over the Netherlands was the high point, but they could easily have gone into that game under the pressure of having two points or less.’

When Football Came Home

The cultural backdrop of Tony Blair, Oasis, Blur and Northern Ireland is neatly tied in without taking the focus away from the boozy brilliance of the football itself. In terms of tone, the book reaches for Pete Davies’ witty reportage in All Played Out and gets close. It’s a very enjoyable whizz down memory lane. Now that England’s tournament is over and in such spectacularly underwhelming fashion, When Football Came Home reads like beautiful chaos, which beats limp resignation any day.

Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

First of all, Fitzcarraldo Editions make truly gorgeous books and this is no exception. Now for the ‘but’. To start a book with ‘This is a book that no one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual’ is a very bold move. It takes a perceived divide and attempts to widen it. Having finished the book, I can agree with the author but not for the reason offered. Football-lovers won’t like this book because Toussaint isn’t much of a football fan and this book isn’t really about football.

Football Toussaint

Instead, Football is a book about ‘melancholy, time and childhood’ that happens to touch on the beautiful game from time to time. And when it does, it is dismissive and offensive. There is some eloquent, philosophical writing in the book, especially ‘Zidane’s Melancholy’, but take the following statements: ‘the football of adults leaves me cold’, ‘in Europe, most football supporters are male, violent, racist, full of beer or wine’, and ‘I’m starting to get a bit fed up with football. I prefer poetry’. For Toussaint, it is ‘vulgar, coarse and perishable matter’. In my experience, football fans welcome intellectual writing that takes a deep and critical look at the sport. Too much of this, on the other hand, is shallow and offensive.

Forever Young by Oliver Kay (Quercus)

I know it’s early to talk about the Best of 2016 but I’ll be surprised if many books this year can compete with this exceptional story of ‘football’s lost genius’, Adrian Doherty. Doherty was an Irish wing wizard some thought was better than Ryan Giggs, who loved poetry and music as much as, if not more than, football. But just as he was on the verge of the Manchester United first team, Doherty’s career was tragically ended by injury.

Forever Young

Kay narrates this extraordinary tale with warmth and care, offering fascinating detail about Manchester United’s youth team during the late 1980s-early 1990s revival, as well as the treatment of injuries during this time. Kay deserves real credit for his brave, investigative style; no stone is left unturned and he refuses to cower in the long shadows cast by Manchester United’s modern empire.

If there must be a criticism, mine would be that at over 400 pages, the book is a little long. In trying to include so many different player testimonies, Forever Young becomes repetitive in its conclusions: Doherty was an incredible and unique talent, an outsider that everyone liked but few really knew. But ultimately, like the player himself, Forever Young is an extremely welcome breath of fresh, eccentric air.

The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs

The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs

By Richard Foster

Ockley Books, 2015

AgonyI have a vivid memory of sitting glued to the 1998 First Division play-off final. As an entitled Premier League fan, I knew nothing about either team but I soon declared my allegiance. I chose Charlton – Richard Rufus, Saša Ilić, Clive Mendonca – and cheered with glee as they beat Sunderland on penalties after an incredible 4-4 draw. The play-offs were an alien concept to me but I was sold straight away on the downright drama. It never crossed my mind that they might only be as old as me.

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Richard Foster is ‘A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs’. As the Martin Tyler endorsement on the front cover suggests, it is amazing that this is the first book on the subject. ‘Nerve-shredding, gut-wrenching tension’ tends to be a popular choice for literature, as do heroes, villains and financial gain. The Championship play-off final is now the single most lucrative sports match in the world, with £134 million resting on it. Mistakes are costly and goals are glorious.

The Agony and the Ecstasy begins its journey in the mid-1980s with the Heathrow Agreement, where the play-offs were included as a temporary, American-inspired measure to offset changes in the Football League structure. From this inauspicious start, few could have foreseen the role that they would have as a ‘significant catalyst in the rebirth of the game’. The play-offs offered something positive and engaging for an English public disillusioned by a spate of football-related disasters. Where before seasons had petered out for most teams with months to go, suddenly there was cause to hope and strive until the death. As Foster puts it, the play-offs offer ‘a much more varied tale of success and a distinctly fresher feel’.

The book goes on to chart the relatively few changes over the years – the rejection of the inter-division model, the shift to a one-leg final, the move to Wembley – and also to discuss the seismic impact of the Premier League boom and broadcasting revenues on the fight for promotion from the Championship. While the financial figures showing the widening gap between the top flight and the lower leagues aren’t particularly new, the particulars of the £134 million payment plan make very interesting reading, as do the increasing parachute payments for relegated teams.

In most respects, The Agony and the Ecstasy is incredibly comprehensive. There are 200 pages of dense text, plus an array of graphs, tables, photos and statistics. The book is a trivia buff’s dream. The level of research is excellent and the infographics are a fun, creative way of presenting the facts. While the Championship play-offs receive the most attention, Leagues One and Two are far from ignored. Foster makes good use of original cameos from the likes of Tony Cascarino, Steve Claridge and Ian Holloway, as well as extracts from autobiographies and memories from club bloggers.

The only aspect that seems underdeveloped is the actual match coverage. The structure of the book – ‘part chronology and part thematic’ – leads to repetition, with several sections labouring over the same points: the special nature of the play-offs, the contrasting fortunes for players and fans, and the rise of the play-offs coinciding with the decline of the FA Cup. More economy here could have allowed more room for ‘The Clubs: The Cursed, The Blessed, The Unfortunate and The Blighted’, the brilliant final section of the book that explores a selection of the best and worst team records. It would be nice to read more about the best games, the best goals, the best and worst individual performances – perhaps these could feature in a second edition.

Foster’s conclusion that the play-offs now represent ‘the true climax to the season’ and the ‘most successful innovation in post-war football’ is well argued throughout. Their impact and legacy are difficult to dismiss. However, as a history of the play-offs, The Agony and The Ecstasy too often tells of the drama and spectacle, rather than really showing it.

Buy it here