On The Brink

On The Brink: A Journey Through English Football’s North West

By Simon Hughes

deCoubertin Books, 2017

On The Brink

‘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.

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.

the-bottom-corner

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.

nige-tassell-w

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…

tassell

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.