Up There

Up There: The North-East, Football, Boom and Bust

By Michael Walker

deCoubertin Books, 2014

51CE1dvjciL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As a very Southern boy, ‘Up There’ is exactly how I’ve always viewed the North-East. During my lifetime, the region’s biggest football clubs have yo-yoed between spectacular near misses and equally spectacular declines, with an ardent fan base the only real constant. This season, Middlesbrough are favourites for Premier League promotion, while Newcastle lost manager Alan Pardew to a team eight places below them in the table, and Sunderland have now sacked Gus Poyet after just one win in twelve games. It seems there’s never a dull day along the Tyne, Wear and Tees.

Michael Walker’s Up There: The North-East, Football, Boom and Bust is the definitive history that the region deserves, a combination of the untold stories and the stories that deserve to be told again and again. As with Promised Land, Anthony Clavane’s classic book on Leeds United, Up There is as much about social history as it is about football history. There is a noticeably separate identity in the North-East of England; ‘Part of that is distance, part of it was industry and part of it is political. Part of it is football.’

Where Clavane wove race, religion and literature into each era in turn, Walker chooses to set the social scene in one go, with first section ‘The Culture’. From the golden years of the early 1900s to the often grim reality of today, the North-Eastern decay is depicted in detail on several, inter-connected levels: money, jobs, community; the decline of coal mining, the decline of shipbuilding, the decline of local football.

With this backdrop established, that latter theme becomes the focus, as Up There takes a footballing journey from Bob Paisley through to Mike Ashley. Childhood neighbours turned arch rivals, Brian Clough and Don Revie; the Charlton brothers, perhaps the most famous Geordies to fly the nest; and, of course, Alan Shearer’s second coming on Tyneside. The thread that links these three narratives, and many more according to Walker, is exodus – talent born in the North-East, but sadly most successful elsewhere.

The later, modern sections are brilliantly and succinctly done. In around 20 pages, Walker tells the exhilarating story of Middlesbrough’s last 20 years, from Juninho all the way to Aitor Karanka. Conversations are used as key structural devices – the words of Newcastle’s Rob Lee and Sunderland’s Niall Quinn work very well as pivots for the highs and lows that surround them. Up There even manages to cover the lower tiers, with chapters on Hartlepool, Gateshead, Darlington and the Northern League.

Carefully researched and thoughtfully structured, Up There is also very well-written. Walker is highly skilled at combining the best aspects of short-form journalism (anecdotal details, insightful interviews, concise scene-setting) with a more literary eloquence. ‘If there is a constant down all the years at Newcastle, it is the milking of devotion’, Walker argues at one point. Later on, he describes Quinn as ‘a worried man. Wearside had a few of them, its talking wounded.’ The style feels perfectly suited to the subject matter, a rather bleak kind of beauty. With writing like this, perhaps the North-East won’t always be quite so ‘overlooked’.

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Promised Land: A Northern Love Story

Promised Land: A Northern Love Story

By Anthony Clavane

Yellow Jersey Press, 2010

Promised LandFor all the acclaim and attention, there remained a sad and predictable note to the reception for this ‘Northern Love Story’ four years ago. The Daily Telegraph compared it to Fever Pitch, The Sunday Times called it ‘the football book of the year’ and there was even praise from The Damned United author David Peace. Unfortunately, what these excellent associations did was pigeonhole a book that was always about a whole lot more than sport. Promised Land is a set of interlocking, coming of age tales: the story of a city, Leeds, alongside the story of the book’s Jewish author. The story of a football club – Leeds United – forms the third side of the triangle, the binding baseline of the equilateral. Incorporating politics, culture, literature and religion, Promised Land is the best expression of the game’s communal significance that you’re ever likely to read.

While Clavane’s engaging personal narrative is woven throughout, it’s never as self-centred as Hornby’s. A crucial balance is upheld between the subjective and the objective, between the love letter and the social investigation. Rather than the central theme, Clavane’s journey through adolescence is rarely more than a narrative tool to transport the reader from a to b to c to d to e. Because in little more than 250 pages, Promised Land takes in more than 50 years of British social history. In fact, if we include the early section on his ancestors’ arrival in England, that figure becomes 110. Such scope requires the tightest of structures and the most focused of analyses. The governing principle of Promised Land is this; ‘United’s peaks and troughs over the past fifty years have coincided with the peaks and troughs not only of the game itself, but also of the city of Leeds and its Jewish community.’ Simple, shrewd, succinct.

Promised Land is arranged around four key time periods: Don Revie’s side of the 1960s and the meteoric rise of the Northern Man; the decline and degeneration of post-1975 Britain, dominated by ‘the three Rs – the recession, the Ripper and the racism’; the early 90s revival of both club and city; and finally O’Leary and Risdale’s ill-fated attempt at Premier League domination, just as the city too ‘squandered its boom money on insipid, gimmicky projects’. In amongst this chronological progression, Clavane’s study sweeps deftly across the years: ‘Cantona, like Johanneson and Clough…epitomised the flamboyance and sense of adventure Leeds had always failed to accommodate’, ‘It had gone the way of all other Leeds dreams, from Brodrick’s – through Revie’s – to Risdale’s.’

The result is a convincing, overarching argument for Leeds’ ‘nearly-man inheritance’. 1975, 1992, 2001, 2011 – ‘at the most crucial moments in their history, just as they were about to close in on their pinnacle, they have, quite simply, blown it’. Beautifully crafted and meticulously researched, this final reckoning rings loud and true. Clavane is in his element, combining the authority and precision of the historian, with the passion and obsession of the football writer. Promised Land is at its absolute peak when placing the two eras of Revie’s reign (‘Dirty Leeds’, then ‘Super Leeds’) within the context of the post-war regeneration of the north.

The book concludes with a backwards timeline inspired by the ‘seven sabbaths of years’ prophesised in Leviticus. It’s the football writing equivalent of Ulysses and forms a fitting finale to what is a hugely ambitious and innovative study of everything Leeds; football and everything before, during and after.

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