Finally, a book on football that's more than just a stack of stilted clichés

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: reviewed.

Writing about football tends these days to want to take on the big themes, to paint the big picture. The game itself is pumped up, self-important, at times hard to love, even for those of us who admitted we were hopelessly hooked years ago. So much importance is attached to a game that seems never to avoid the opportunity to shout about how important it is.

And yet, as is so often the case, the real pleasure, the real measure of worth, resides in the small things, the tiny details and quirky corners that come together to create something loved and valued, something with meaning. That’s why Daniel Gray’s book Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters is such a delight. It’s the kind of book, filled with astute observations of small details, that might just convince the most confirmed football sceptic why football has such a place in our culture.

Gray is a Teessider who, having lived in Scotland for 10 years and realising he is about to turn 30, embarks upon a search for the essence of the England he left behind. He choses to visit provincial football grounds, but the match is merely the hook for an exploration of place and identity. Gray takes the trouble to research the history of the places he visits, all the better to understand what makes his destinations what they are.

In each place he tells the tale of how the club was formed and how the local people embraced it, providing a history of industrial development and later decline as he does so. In Middlesbrough, where he grew up, we learn of the influence of Quakers and steel, and of the rise and fall of the wonderfully named Middlesbrough Ironopolis, early rivals of Middlesbrough FC. In Luton we learn of hatmaking, popular riots and the brief establishment of a workers’ Soviet by disaffected soldiers after the 14-18 war, and of a modern town more comfortable with its mix of people than the demagogues of the EDL and the radical mosques would have us believe. In Ipswich, the boozy paternalism of the posh Cobbold family is writ large, while in Chester the establishment of a supporter-owned club heralds a more modern notion of community, but one rooted all the same in working class traditions of self-help.

It’s Gray’s eye for detail, thoughtful observation and lyrical turn of phrase that make this book more than the stilted stack of clichés it could have been. And so, most importantly, does his ability to recognise things for what they are, rather than to sneer and patronise. In his introduction he says: "I wanted the book to celebrate the provinces and pinpoint why parochialism matters and is not always a bad thing". Later on he observes how easy it is to condemn the Everytown trend instead of looking behind the High Street facades. His historical research is complemented by a social awareness and an ear for dialect, snatched snippets of conversation and a lashing of incisive asides weaved together with vivid description of place to bring to life a middle England far richer and positive than the narrow and depressing place the phrase conjures up.

In Luton, for example, Gray is struck by the segretation between communities, but also at the way people come together: “It is done in subtle ways, in food, in football, in young people boxing together”. In Sheffield, the steel city that cradled the English game, his observations lead him to reflect on how “history and the present are interwoven; how good England was and can be, instead of bemoaning the state of things”. And he says, “this England I have come across resembles the highest ideal I built in my Caledonian exile” – one of a number of asides in which he wonders if the seeming inevitability of a more formal split between England and Scotland will simply show the sum is greater than the parts.

The football clubs in Sheffield and Luton and Chester and Crewe and Hinckley and all the towns Gray visits are as much a part of the place as steel or hatmaking or locomotive assembly ever were. Noticeably, Gray does not visit any of the clubs in the grandiously-titled Premiership. For one thing, the price and sheer trouble of getting a ticket does not make it easy for the casual visitor, for another, Gray seems to conclude, football at the top level is already a place apart, while “away from the jaded cynicism of its highest reaches it remains a social movement”. It is an observation that goes to the heart of the modern game, raising the prospect of a detached top tier that may eventually be undone by its remoteness from those very ideas of place and identity that made football what it is.

As Gray concludes: “In an England of flux, where no job is certain, families break up or live far apart, community or church is loose or weak, football is more important than ever. It breeds belonging in an uncertain world.” Gray manages to be both realistic, eschewing the rose-tints, while retaining an optimism often missing from modern social histories. The result is a book to savour and to make you think.

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters by Daniel Gray is published by Bloomsbury.

Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.