On The Brink: A Journey Through English Football’s North West
By Simon Hughes
deCoubertin Books, 2017
‘I love being in a region where everything smells like football,’ Jürgen Klopp says in On The Brink. The Liverpool manager is talking about Merseyside but the sentiment can be applied to the whole North West, the subject of Simon Hughes’ brilliant new book.
The project is an ambitious one. Michael Walker’s Up There focused largely on the North East’s Big Three (Middlesbrough, Newcastle United and Sunderland), while Anthony Clavane’s A Yorkshire Tragedy looked at 8 sporting powerhouses in the region. On The Brink ups the ante, by aiming to give equal coverage to 22 football clubs, from Liverpool right through to Barrow-in-Furness. Somehow, Hughes manages to cover the key geographical, political, historical and football points in tight 15-page sections. It’s impressive to say the least.
What On The Brink lacks in depth, it makes up for in characters. As he has shown with his Liverpool Players’ Stories series, Hughes is an excellent interviewer. He picks interesting people and then gives them the stage. ‘Jimmy and James are talking between themselves now,’ he says in the Accrington Stanley chapter. ‘I am listening.’ His experts range from current club chairmen like Preston North End’s Peter Risdale to old club managers like Oldham Athletic’s Joe Royle.
The anthology approach of On The Brink works to highlight the common experiences. Some struggles, like the rise of social media and the Premier League, feel more universal but some feel more North West-specific. Themes of isolation, suffering, spirit and scepticism recur again and again. With the exceptions of Liverpool and Manchester, these are football communities battling to stay relevant.
At one point, Hughes asks, ‘How does a football club exist in a place where there has been years of economic decline, where the possibility of regeneration was snuffed out by the blow of recession?’ He is talking about Morecambe but again, the sentiment can be applied to much of the region. On The Brink isn’t the most uplifting book you’ll read this year but it offers a fascinating survey of north-west life and football in the 21st century.