Oliver Kay Interview

2016 is turning out to be a very fine year for football books but undoubtedly one of the best came out back in May. Oliver Kay’s Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius is a brilliantly original look at a brilliantly original footballing talent. I won’t give too much away because you really should read it, but Oliver was kind enough to answer my lengthy questions on the man, the myth and the book. Enjoy.

Forever Young

1. You talk in the book’s acknowledgements about the time in 2011 that you heard the name ‘Adrian Doherty’. Was it difficult to take the next research steps and when did you realise that there was a fascinating book to be written?

When I heard about him – essentially an untold, forgotten or neglected story about a guy who was rated alongside Ryan Giggs in the Manchester United youth team and who had drifted out of football and had died, his death pretty much unreported outside of Northern Ireland – the journalist in me was desperate to find out more and to write something about Adrian in The Times. I travelled to Strabane to meet his family. They didn’t want to do anything media-wise at the time, but I sat for hours and listened to them talk about him – not just about his talent on the football pitch but about his upbringing in Strabane, during The Troubles, and his music and his life away from and after football. I came away from Strabane that day feeling utterly hooked by the story and wondering whether, if they didn’t want a newspaper article, the story might be better suited to a book. So I kept digging and digging, speaking to various friends and ex-team-mates of Adrian’s, with a view to writing something at some stage and eventually, after some patience and gentle persuasion on my part, his family came around to the idea. I approached David Luxton, who is a literary agent specialising in sports books. He immediately “got” the story and we put together a proposal to send to publishers. Quercus loved it too and from there it was full steam ahead.

2. Has writing a book always been a dream of yours?

It had been an ambition, but, until this came about, it was a distant one – not something I was planning to do any time soon. That only changed because this story captivated me so much.

3. As a football journalist, do you see book writing as freedom to explore topics in greater detail and at greater length?

From one perspective, yes, for reasons of space, but the fact is that newspaper journalism is my day job, one that I love but one that leaves very little time for out-of-hours work – or out-of-hours anything, in fact. This book quickly became a labour of love, but it required an enormous amount of work (researching much more than writing), so I’m not sure “freedom” is the first word that would come to mind … .

4. And as a journalist, was it difficult to write a much longer story? What was the hardest part?

The length wasn’t the difficulty at all; I could easily have written another hundred pages if that had been required. No, by far the hardest part – but also the most enjoyable – was the research. Finding out about his upbringing in Strabane was easy enough, but there was very little archive material about his football career and even his family and friends didn’t know a great deal about his post-football life in Preston and Galway, so it wasn’t easy. I didn’t have much to go on at all, just his CV and a few names from his old address book, so it was a case of tracking people down and speaking to them about someone who had been in their life – in most cases fleetingly – in the mid/late 90s. A few of them told me they didn’t know too much about him (and were shocked when I told them he had been an exceptionally gifted footballer at Manchester United), but they all had stories and anecdotes that all added to the picture. One person led me to another and then to another and then eventually the jigsaw came together.

Oliver Kay

Doherty 2

5. The book is full of insight from top football people including Ryan Giggs, Sir Alex Ferguson, Gary Neville and Brendan Rodgers. Was it difficult to round up such an A-list cast or was everyone very willing to discuss Adrian Doherty and his tragic tale?

It turned out to be easier than I had imagined. If I can put this delicately, Adrian Doherty has been a sensitive issue inside Old Trafford, for reasons which are outlined in the book. I felt it wouldn’t be in my interests to seek out Ferguson, Giggs, Neville etc until I had done most of my other research. I wasn’t entirely sure, given the sensitive nature of the subject, whether those who were still at the heart of the United “family” would want to contribute to a book of this nature. But to my delight and considerable relief, they all did. The insight offered by Giggs and Neville was fantastic. Both of them gave a very technical breakdown of what he was like as a player. Giggs spoke brilliantly about how Doherty was “different”, the busking, the Bob Dylan obsession. Neville spoke about watching Doherty for the first time in a Youth Cup game at Old Trafford and how Doherty and Giggs (Ryan Wilson, as he was then) were the two that he, Beckham, Scholes etc were in awe of. I had heard it from others, less high-profile players, but it was great to have those sentiments validated by Ferguson, Giggs, Neville etc as well. “Incredible”, according to Giggs. “Out of this world”, according to Neville. That is not to say he was certain to make it at United, because there were those doubts about whether he really “wanted it” in the same way as others did, but, to me, that complex personality only made him a more interesting subject.

6. As you did your detailed research, what surprised you most about the story of Adrian Doherty?

It was something I was told at an early stage, but the other side of his life – the music, the poetry, the busking, the voracious appetite for reading anything and everything to expand his mind – and the personality was what truly captivated me. People said they could not work out what, if anything, motivated him as a footballer. It certainly wasn’t money or fame and perhaps not even winning trophies. He was just totally different to the typical footballer. I had been told at an early stage about his writing, but it was when I began to read it all – the poems, the songs, the unfinished Adventures of Humphrey and Bodegard – that I just thought “Wow.” Some of his writing is featured in the book. Some of it is silly, intentionally so, but a lot of is very clever.

7. At times, the book almost feels like a detective story, as it goes in search of answers. Is that how it felt to you as you investigated?

Certainly in terms of researching his post-football life, for the reasons I outlined earlier, and in terms of separating the truth from some of the myths that attach themselves to an individual such as Adrian Doherty. And above all, that applied to finding out the circumstances of his death. I was probably as guilty as anyone of putting two and together in my mind when I was first told he had died after falling into a canal in Amsterdam. You know, “Amsterdam, nudge, nudge, wink, wink”. But for one thing it wasn’t in Amsterdam – it was The Hague – and far more importantly I was able to find out that all the evidence, such as the police report, rules out drink, drugs, suicide or anything of that nature. That was a quest in itself. The Dutch authorities don’t make it easy.

8. One of the things that struck me most about the book was the optimistic tone throughout. What could have been a sad story of unfulfilled potential is instead a heart-warming story of a player that didn’t fit the classic mold and was strong enough to deal with it. Is that fair to say? If so, was that always your intention or something that emerged organically as you wrote?

I would say it emerged organically as I found out more and more about Adrian’s character and his unusual perspective on life. I had imagined the years in Preston and Galway, after he retired from football, would have been full of woe or bitterness at what might have been. Instead, what came out of my research was a picture of a guy who was happy doing his own thing, particularly when he was in Galway, writing his songs and his poems and performing at open-mic nights, living almost a bohemian life without even mentioning to most people that he had been a footballer. I would say I probably had a pre-conceived idea of what Adrian’s post-football life might have been like, but the reality, I found out, was different – and so the story, happily, reflects that. To that end, so does the book’s title, Forever Young, which was the Dylan track that his cousin sang at his funeral. If the tone is at times rather cheerier or light-hearted than might have been expected, given the nature of the story, it’s probably just a reflection of Adrian’s character.

9. And finally, would you write another book? Are there any ideas in the pipeline?

I definitely would, because I loved doing it, but it would have to be the right project – something that really captivated me, like Adrian’s story did – at the right time. It’s not ideas I’m short of. It’s time … .

Doherty

Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius is out now, published by Quercus, in hardback or on Kindle https://www.amazon.co.uk/Forever-Young-Adrian-Doherty-Footballs/dp/1848669941/ref=zg_bs_268089_7

The book has a dedicated Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ForeverYoungTheStoryofAdrianDoherty and Twitter account @ForeverYoungAD

Richard Foster Interview

Paul Dickov, Dean Windass, Clive Mendonca – you’ve gotta love the Football League play-offs. Richard Foster loves them so much that he’s written a very good book about them – The Agony & the Ecstasy (Ockley Books, 2015). The origins, the stats, the winners and the losers – they’re all there and more. I caught up with the Guardian journalist to talk all things play-offs.

Agony

1. At what stage did you decide to write the book and how did you approach Ockley about it?

I actually had the original idea about ten years ago. I had always been intrigued by the Play-Offs and following initial research was amazed that there was no book dedicated to telling the story behind them and so the journey started.

Having just finished my first book, The A-Z of Football Hates I had an offer from that publisher for the Play-Offs history but was introduced to Ockley by another author. I was impressed by Dave Hartrick’s enthusiasm, knowledge and most importantly, his emphasis on the quality of the writing.

2. What was the hardest part of the writing process?

Firstly, having written a fair chunk, around 20,000 words, I had my Mac stolen and stupidly hadn’t backed it up so that was a major setback. I could not go back to writing it for a year or two, as it was too painful. So that was a tough lesson learned – always back up your work.

Secondly, writing a history is a tough challenge as every year things change and I toyed with the structure for ages. The biggest decision was whether to go down the strictly chronological route or a thematic approach, in the end it turned into a mixture of the two.

Finally, the bane of every writer’s life is proofreading.  We all recognise it has to be done and it has to be done thoroughly but this book actually was proofread by three different people so by the end, I wanted to scream.

3. There are lots of great tables, stats and infographics throughout the book. Was that the plan from the outset?

I must admit that I am a sucker for stats and I had always thought that a dedicated Play-Offs table would be a good idea. But it did take a lot of toing and froing between Dave Hartrick and myself to come up with the final formula and, as a Brighton fan, he was not especially enamoured by the idea of Palace being the top Play-Offs team.

The infographics are the work of design genius, Mick Kinlan, who did an amazing job transforming all the facts that I dug out about each and every club that have competed in the Play-Offs into such a visual feast. My personal favourite is the Bristol clubs being linked by the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Class.

Agony 2.jpg

4. There are lots of insightful contributions from player, managers and fans. Was it hard work collecting these or were people very eager to discuss the play-offs?

Almost universally everyone I approached was more than willing to be interviewed about the Play-Offs and could recall the minute details of their experiences, which convinced me that this was a worthy topic for a book. There was one manager, who shall remain nameless, who asked for money to be interviewed, suffice to say, he is not included in the book.

5. Putting aside your beloved Palace, what is your favourite play-off memory?

There are so many to choose from but as a neutral I would have to say that the Huddersfield Town Sheffield United penalty shoot-out in 2012 League One Final takes some beating. Uniquely, all twenty-two players took a penalty and the last one by Steve Simonsen was perhaps the most inglorious failure and dramatic and heart-breaking ending of them all.

Agony 3

6. What are your predictions for 1-6 in the Championship this season and who do you think will win the play-offs?

Middlesbrough, Hull, Burnley, Brighton, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich. Fate decrees that Brighton will win the Play-Offs this year as consolation to my publisher for having to stomach Palace topping that Play-Offs table.

7. Would you be in favour of a Premier League play-off for the fourth Champions League spot?

I am with Sir Alex Ferguson on this one, which is not a phrase I use that often. I think it would be a little too artificial and considering the bleating that goes on about too many fixtures for the top clubs this would add fuel to the fire.

 I like the fact that the Play-Offs give the Football League clubs the stage upon which to showcase the excitement and drama of their season finale. All eyes are focused on the lower divisions for those Finals and that is a good thing that should be maintained.

You can buy The Agony and the Ecstasy here

Of Pitch & Page review of The Agony and the Ecstasy coming soon in TERRACE magazine

Football writers on the Best Books of 2015

Jack Pitt-Brooke, Football journalist for The Independent and i

GoldblattAt a time when the game of football itself is subject to endless dissection and analysis, The Game of our Lives by David Goldblatt tells the other story: what does football mean to us in Britain in 2015? Why does it matter? How do we experience it? How has it changed? From half-and-half scarves, to billionaire foreign owners, YouTube fan channels, and the rest, Goldblatt tells us with great narrative skill how we got here. Or, in the subtitle of the book, about ‘The Meaning and Making of English Football’. It is a remarkable piece of scholarship, showing an understanding not just of football, but of history, society and culture. Because the state of modern football, ultimately, is the state of us.

Matt Gardiner, sports bookseller at Waterstones and founder of Manchester Football Writing Festival

9781780893273(1)Living on the Volcano is another astonishingly strong book from the author of “Family” and “The Nowhere Men”. Mike Calvin has once again reached heights with his sports writing which seems to be unfair on his peers.  His ability to gain access to the people who really count is phenomenal and ensures once again that “Living on the Volcano” is a triumph.  The chapters which focus on the lower league managers are for me the strongest as we hear from men who don’t often make the headlines.  I for one can’t wait for what Mike does next.

Michael Calvin, Sports journalist for The Independent and author of Living on the Volcano and The Nowhere Men

The Soccer SyndromeCall me Mr Retro if you wish, but my football book of 2015 was first published in 1966. The Soccer Syndrome by the late John Moynihan has just been republished by his son Leo, through Ian Ridley’s Floodlit Dreams imprint, with an evocative new foreword by Patrick Barclay. It is a classic, an overdue reminder of football’s lost innocence which, in an age of corporate artifice, has rarely been more relevant. I worked with John as a young reporter; he was sardonic and perceptive, with a voice as rich as mulled wine. He understood football’s essential humanity – this is your chance to do likewise.

Paul Grech, author of Il Re Calcio: Stories From Italian Football

2015 has seen my shelf being enriched by a number of great new football titles.  As an avowed fan of Simon Hughes’ writing, I terribly enjoyed ‘Men In White Suits’, his analysis of Liverpool’s fall from grace in the nineties through the experiences of some of the players that shaped that decade.

From a football coaching perspective, I also enjoyed reading Carol Dweck’s Minset and Ian Leslie’s Curious.  Although neither one is a football specific book both have ideas that should inspire anyone who deals with coaching and indeed I wrote extensively about the impact of the latter book.

However, if I were to pick my favourite read for the year I would have to go for Michael Calvin’s Living on the Volcano.  This dissection of football manager, thanks to the experiences of famous and less well known managers, puts into focus the reality of football management.  Although I was never under the illusion that it is as easy a job as many seem to think that it is, there were passages in this book that still took me by surprise.

Martin Greig, co-founder of BackPage Press

InvincibleFrom the moment we founded BackPage – in 2009 – we wanted to publish a book on Arsenal’s Invincibles. Along with Pep’s Barca, they were the team that had most fired our imaginations.  We published the definitive book on Barca, but never got round to the Invincibles. Then Amy Lawrence wrote Invincible. At first I was devastated that we had been beaten to the punch, but on reading it I was simply thrilled that the subject had been properly documented. Invincible is excellent. Amy’s passion shines through. It is a sports book with a beating heart, like all the best ones.

Daniel Storey, deputy editor of Football365 and football freelancer

I believe in miraclesI Believe in Miracles is Daniel Taylor’s account of Nottingham Forest’s European Cup-winning team, told through the eyes of players, supporters, journalists, managers and club officials but knitted together perfectly by one of this country’s finest sportswriters. The book is split into two sections, the first regarding Forest’s rise to the league title, and the second the remarkable run to double European glory. At each stage of the journey the reader is given nuggets of information and anecdotes, all reminiscing about an achievement that will never be repeated.

There have been countless biographies and autobiographies written about each individual in that all-conquering Nottingham Forest era. This should be seen as the definitive book.

Sachin Nakrani, writer and editor for The Guardian and creator and co-editor of We’re Everywhere, Us

OstrichWe live in a world filled with season diaries (I should know, I’ve written one myself) and the job, therefore, of anyone who decides to go down that path is to avoid the obvious, well-worn methods of telling the story of nine months on planet football​ and provide the reader with something different​. Alexander Netherton and Andi Thomas achieve that with Are you an Ostrich? their take on the 2014/15 Premier League season with a book that is as sharp with its humour as it is with its considered, serious insight on the wider issues/topics-of-debate in the domestic game. So one one hand it creates a superbly surreal world in which Arsene Wenger cannot eat his breakfast without literally everything going wrong, while on the other offering the most powerful and intelligent take on why Ched Evans should not be allowed anywhere near a football pitch that I’ve ever read. Are You an Ostrich, which references the former Leicester manager Nigel Pearson’s infamous remark to a journalist near the end of the 2014/15 campaign, is a delight to read by two writers who have become experienced football diarists but continue to offer a fresh and must-read contribution to the genre.

Harry Pearson, football writer and author of The Far Corner

Touching DistanceMartin Hardy’s Touching Distance tells the story of Newcastle’s 1995-96 season, the year they could and – maybe – should have won the title for the first time since the 1920s. It’s built around a series of insightful and often funny interviews with key players including Peter Beardsley who relates how he informed his telephone-less parents that he had signed for his hometown club from Vancouver by sending them a postcard. Inevitably he got to Newcastle from Canada before it did. Ultimately Touching Distance is a bit like The Day of the Jackal – you know what the outcome will be but the author cranks the tension up so nicely that by the final chapter you start to suspect there might be an unexpected twist at the end.

Alex Stewart, freelance football writer

The Football's RevoltMy favourite football book of 2015 is only partly from 2015. To be precise, The Football’s Revolt, by Jan Le Witt and George Him, was originally written and illustrated in 1939 and reissued this year by the V&A. Witt and Him were two Polish artists who moved to London to work for the museum’s in-house design team, and also produced posters for the war effort, as well as their sumptuous children’s books. The Football’s Revolt tells the story of a match between Goalbridge and Kickford, a fierce local derby that gets out of hand when the football takes umbrage at being kicked so hard and takes to the clouds. The book at once manages to capture the intensity of football and its fans, while also undercutting that with sometimes very subtle humour. It is surreal and sly and celebratory, with a resolution that extols the simple pleasures of the game. The illustrations are lush and funny, perfectly complementing the style of writing. The Football’s Revolt is a great book for children, but will cause a wry smile to any football-loving adult who picks it up, and it is my football book of 2015.

Dermot Corrigan, football writer for ESPN, Irish Examiner, WSC and Unibet

Brilliant OrangeDavid Winner’s Brilliant Orange is not a traditional football book, but it’s still the best explanation of how and why the sport has evolved over recent decades. Johan Cruyff dominates, of course, but artists Johannes Vermeer and Jan Van Eyck are also brought into show how the Dutch are “a nation of spatial neurotics” for whom use of space is “a matter of national survival”.

Put more simply, with the ball you expand the pitch as much as possible, without it you restrict the space available for opponents to play in. Winner finds early evidence of this sophisticated tactical approach in the 16th century, when a visiting Spanish side [well, army] was squeezed of space in defence and thereby defeated – “anticipating by nearly 400 years the Total Football concept”. Spanish football caught up around 2008, and Cruyff’s influence at Barcelona is still strong. This book was published back in 2000, but is just as important today.

Ian Ridley, football writer and publisher of Floodlit Dreams

One of my favourite football books, and one that influenced me as a young football writer, was The Soccer Syndrome, by John Moynihan. It combines wit with perception, elegant writing with sharp opinion, and informs equally about the game at the highest level as well as on public park.

When his son Leo Moynihan approached me about re-issuing the book 50 years on to mark both its original publication and a half-century since England won the World Cup, I was delighted to work with him on it.

The result is a new edition, with foreword by Patrick Barclay and afterword by Leo, that we hope keeps alive the memory and spirit of John, who died a few years ago, and offers a chance to a new generation of readers to enjoy what remains a charming and relevant insight into English football.

George Rinaldi, English and Italian football writer and author of the upcoming Calcio’s Greatest Forwards

9781780893273(1)It comes as no surprise to say the most enjoyable football book I’ve read in 2015 was Living on the Volcano by Michael Calvin. It has become rather expected of Calvin to deliver such brilliance packed in to a small space, but he has done so once again with this superb reading of football managers. He isn’t afraid to scrutinise when he sees best, and also gives a number of different interviews with the Premier League’s top coaches. These managers do, however unfortunate, keep to a very stylised and cliché based response which might hamper the true feel of the book, but the writing is what I came for and it didn’t disappoint.

Adam Hurrey,

9781906850722The best football book I read this year was Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by Ian Plenderleith. The North American Soccer League is a fascinating chapter of football’s not-too-distant past. On one hand, it was a hugely ambitious, forward-thinking enterprise; on the other, an unsustainable financial mess. Whichever cap fits, the NASL burned half as long it perhaps ought to have done, but surely twice as bright.

Ian Plenderleith’s deals dutifully with the well-worn NASL stories – Pelé, Cruyff, Beckenbauer et al – but it is the peripheral nuggets that really keep the pages turning. The decision to move franchises to Las Vegas and Hawaii, in particular, provides the author with some entertaining tales of ageing journeymen struggling with both the unbearable heat and the obligatory four-day benders.

If you’re into your footballing curiosities – and if not, why not? – Plenderleith’s meticulous (but never pedestrian) retrospective is as compelling as it gets.

Iain Macintosh, ESPN football writer, author and editor of The Set Pieces

I would say Matt Dickinson’s Bobby Moore: The Man in Full. That was very special.

Bobby Moore

The Game of Our Lives

The Game of our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football

By David Goldblatt

Penguin, 2014 

GoldblattDon’t be fooled by the St George’s cross and three lions on the paperback cover; The Game of Our Lives is high-brow, academic stuff. In seven chunky chapters, Goldblatt explores English football from a range of social science approaches – economics, sociology, urban studies, politics, anthropology, race studies, gender studies. With a reference section spanning seventy pages, this truly is an exhaustive look at our nation’s favourite past-time.

‘How has English football changed in the last 25 years?’ Despite dips into deeper history, this is the central question in The Game of Our Lives. Goldblatt is interested in ‘the intersection, where Britain’s deep-rooted cultural relationship with football met the arrival of new media and new money’. His findings, as you’d expect, evoke a unique blend of pride and shame. Cosmopolitanism, collective ownership and crowd safety fight to float above a murky world of greed, mismanagement and sexism.

While the early chapters on the financials of the Premier League era (player/agent power, club ‘growth without profits’) and the fight against racism may feel like fairly well-trodden territory, they’re written with the finesse and detail that you’d expect from the author of The Ball is Round. ‘Keeping it Real? Match Day in the Society of the Spectacle’, meanwhile, makes nice use of the blow-by-blow live football experience to theorise on the ‘longing for the communal and the public in an individualized and privatized world’.

The later chapters offer up more distinctive insights. ‘English Journey: Football and Urban England’ delivers an absorbing lesson in cultural geography. Bristol, Goldblatt argues, ‘perhaps more than any city cleared its inner urban neighbourhood of football’s traditional working-class social base.’ Working from north to south and from east to west, the conclusions are hard to refute. ‘Football at Twilight: Britain’s Endgame’ is a fascinating look at the ‘domestic fragmentation’ through the lens of football. Goldblatt starts with the shifts in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland before moving on to discuss ‘the English football nation’ and the fans’ rejection of the Union Jack in the late 1990s.

Perhaps even better is ‘Last Man Standing? English Football and the Politics of Gender’. ‘Is there any other realm of public life where prominent figures proclaim the essential, enduring maleness of their world?’ Goldblatt asks rhetorically. What follows is a study of both the slow, fettered progress made by women in the game but also the rise of the sophisticated foreigner and in particular the metrosexual man, embodied by David Beckham.

As you’d expect from what is essentially a series of intellectual essays, The Game of Our Lives can feel a little dry at times. However, there are certainly moments of crackling wit from Goldblatt, such as the description of TalkSport as ‘the saloon-bar bear pit of sports radio’ and his character assassination of the FA in Chapter Six (‘a hybrid of the punctilious provincial town hall and the clannish rotary club’).

As the sum of its scholarly parts, The Game of Our Lives puts football where it belongs – at the very forefront of our society. ‘The Church, the theatre, festivals and soap operas – football has acquired a place in British culture that exceeds them all, for it alone is the equal of each in their domains of ritual, performance, ecstasy and national narrative.’ At times, Goldblatt may seem a little serious, but his point is that the role and meaning of modern British football is no joke at all.

Buy it here

The Club

The Club: Living the dream at the bottom of English football

By Simon Akam

Newsweek Insights, 2015

The ClubThe worrying growth of inequality in the UK over the last 30 years is something that we’ve heard a lot about recently, and that the situation has been replicated in English football is not news to anyone either. Television revenues have enabled the Premier League rich kids to push their salaries through the roof, from £75 million in 1991-92 to £1.87 billion in 2012-13. In 2012-13 the average Premier League club received £60 million in television revenue, while clubs in the fourth tier of English football, Sky Bet League 2, received just one hundredth of that amount. However, despite these historically high levels of disparity, there is still more money in the lower leagues than ever before and this is the world that Simon Akam investigates in The Club.

At League 2 side Luton Town, Akam is given full, behind-the-scenes access to players, facilities, fans and non-playing staff. We get to visit the training ground and meet the club physio, Simon Parsell, who treats players in a portakabin and bemoans the lack of top-quality resources to treat his players. Similar stories are brought forward by the club’s groundsman and Head of Catering; for all their dedication to their roles, there is a frustration regarding the constraints that they face due to limited funds.

There’s little surprising about this so far but the interviews are interesting in themselves and the scenes which Akam describes make for a thoroughly enjoyable read. On the training ground Akam joins in with practice, before quickly falling away when he is unable to keep pace with the athleticism of the League 2 players. In another portakabin, a humorous scene takes place as an electricity meter reader, a Luton fan, overstays his welcome. As Akam notes, ‘the high god of banter’ needs sacrifices. Perhaps best of all is the club’s young data analyst bravely attempting to persuade Luton manager John Still to buy better equipment, battling on in the face of sweary hostility.

In the book we meet some of the players who emerge from a wide range of back grounds. Higher league cast-offs, lower league journeymen, and ex-builders making their way in professional football for the first time; these are the men playing what Akam rather poetically describes as somewhere ‘between the gutter and the stars’. We meet club captain Stephen ‘Sumo’ McNulty and go jeans shopping with Jonathan ‘Smudge’ Smith and Danny ‘Fitz’ Fitzsimmons. In a look at the celebrity status of footballers at this level, we also meet one of the girlfriends, former S Club Junior member Stacey McLean.

Next up for Akam is the social makeup of the club’s support. Luton has a large Asian population on its doorstep and The Club looks at what Luton Town means to them. Alongside the well-known rationale – Asians prefer cricket, prefer to watch matches on TV, don’t like standing in the cold – are some interesting insights. An unknown source suggests that initial racism alienated fans from football over the past decades, and while work has been done since to improve relations, large-scale Asian support would only come when a local Asian player became successful at the club. On the opposite end of the scale, an interview with EDL founder and life-long Luton fan Tommy Robinson makes for interesting reading.

The one small gripe I have with The Club is that though it offers an insightful snapshot of life at Luton Town, it is just a snapshot of lower league life, and not an in-depth study. In fairness to Akam, that would have been beyond his remit here but many issues which he touches on could be the focus of research in their own right. Akam spends just a week at the club in the first instance, returning 6 weeks later for a second trip. Another issue is Luton’s unsuitability as a lower league example. The Hatters missed out on the Premier League by just one season, having been relegated in 91-92. In terms of stature, Luton Town would not be out of place in the Championship, and funds are available to offer some players up to £75k per year. Sadly, Akam’s approaches to Mansfield Town, Hartlepool United, and Morecambe FC, who collectively have managed just one season in the second tier between them (Mansfield in 77-78), were declined.

Ultimately though, The Club is an enjoyable and interesting look inside a lower league football club, and surely a must for any Luton Town fan. In what is a short book, Akam covers a wide range of lower league issues, not least the financial risks being taken by everyone including the players. Many leave secure jobs to embark on what is increasingly a very unstable career as a professional footballer. However, financial remuneration is better than ever before, minor celebrity status is achieved (in the locality at least), and the chance to play every Saturday, ‘somewhere between the gutter and the stars’, is something that most football fans would still do in a heartbeat… wouldn’t you?

John Mottram

Buy it here