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.

Photo: Getty
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What to look out for in the 2016 local and devolved elections

Your guide throughout Thursday night and into Friday. 

22:00: Close of polls. My advice is to use this time to stock up on vital supplies, like energy drinks, dips and fast food. And also to open the New Statesman’s all-singing all-dancing liveblog, which I will kick off from 10pm.

23:00: First to declare will be borough councils in Sunderland and Tunbridge Wells.  Sunderland is a Labour stronghold while Tunbridge is a Conservative fortress and both elect in “thirds” – electing a third of their councillors every year, a break every four years, as councillors are elected once every four years.

So even if the Conservatives win all 25 seats in Sunderland or Labour storm Tunbridge, it won’t matter in terms of who runs services there. You may ask “Hey, isn’t this a really stupid way of running elections, designed to produce gridlock and political failure?” The answer to this question is “Yes!”

Though frankly if we see Labour gains in Tunbridge – they have three councillors there in total – David Cameron is going to have to start updating his LinkedIn pretty damn quick, but keep an eye out for how Ukip do in Sunderland.

23:30: Look out for Rugby, which also elects in thirds. The Conservatives took back control of this council in 2007 after years of it being hung. On a good night for Labour, they could knock it back into no overall control, and it’s places like this they need to be posting good results in if they want to get back into power in 2020. (Winning Rugby on a uniform swing would mean Labour was in power with a majority of eight.)

Less interesting is Tameside, another Labour stronghold, though watch out not only for how Ukip do but whether the Conservatives can come through the middle in any of the seats here. Overall, though, the non-Labour parties haven’t gone above double figures here since the 2010 election, so anything other than hegemony is a troubling sign for Labour.

00:00: Remember Nuneaton, commonly known as the site of Ed Miliband’s Waterloo? (It was defeat here in 2015 that made it clear that not only were Labour not on course for victory, but that defeat was going to be worse than many predicted.) Well, half of the council seats there are up for grabs in the council of Nuneaton and Bedworth. Nuneaton and Bedworth elect in halves – where, spoiler alert, they elect half their councillors every two years. Although Nuneaton has a Conservative MP it is solidly Labour at a local level and anything other than a Labour hold here would be very worrying.

Keep an eye out for the Labour strongholds of Wolverhampton and Sefton, both of which elect in thirds. There really should be nothing to see there, but if things are going badly, you might see Ukip making some gains.

Southend-on-Sea is a lot of fun – this true-blue seaside town is run by a Labour coalition with a group of independent parties, after a long period of rule by the Conservatives. Can Labour and its ragtag coalition keep control? Demographic change is very slowly moving Southend towards Labour, so keep an eye out for some progress here.

00:30: Another Labour council in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, which likewise elects in thirds. The Liberal Democrats – remember them? – ran Newcastle from 2004 to 2011, so although a change of power is unlikely, if there is indeed a serious revival in Liberal Democrat fortunes since exiting the coalition, they should look to make some gains here.

01:00: Results will start to come through from the Welsh Assembly, with the rock-solid seat of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. If Labour can’t win here, they can’t win anywhere, but watch out for how well Ukip can do here. Ukip’s rise in Wales is the “biggest polling movement you’ve never heard of”, in the words of Cardiff University’ Roger Scully, and if they get a strong second expect that to signal big, big gains in the List system. (Wales uses the additional member system, a combination of first past the past and an area list, similar to the list method for the European Parliament.)

In England, results will come in from Ipswich and the Wirral, which both elect in thirds. Ipswich is Labour-run with two Conservative MPs, while Wirral is Labour-run with two Labour MPs. The seats of Ipswich, Wirral West and Wirral South are all key marginals – so both parties will be hoping for good performances here.

01:30: Provided that nothing unexpected has happened, there should be two routine Labour victories in the safe seats of Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough and Ogmore, by-elections which are being held on the same day. I wouldn’t rule out a good second for Ukip in Ogmore but other than that, nothing that interesting to see here.  

More interesting will be the councils of Bury and Swindon, both marginals. Bury is currently Labour-controlled while Swindon has been Conservative-run since 2003. Labour should win both if they are on a winning trajectory, although the fact it is on the thirds model means that a winning performance on the night might not be enough to take control in Swindon.

02:00: Is that a unicorn? No, it’s a Liberal Democrat run council! Eastleigh is one of just nine left in the country. The council elects in thirds and having been a one-party state in 2010, the effects of coalition mean that Eastleigh now sends a Tory to Westminster and has six Conservative councillors out of 44. Knocking out the two Tories who are up will have Tim Farron pouring champagne over himself, while the Conservatives will hope that they can continue their revival.

Scotpocalypse! The first results should come in from Scotland, with Cunninghame South, East Kilbride, Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Rutherglen, Uddington and Bellshil all due to declare. With the exception of Rutherglen and Uddington and Bellshil, the SNP won all of those seats in 2011, but expect those two Labour seats to turn a pleasant shade of yellow.

There should be better news for Labour in Blaenau Gwent in Wales, which is also due to declare.

02:30: Councils, councils, everywhere. Basildon, Birmingham, Coventry , Lincoln, Stockport, Walsall are the ones to watch. We’ll have an idea who is having a good night after they declare.

The yellowcoats are coming, the yellowcoats are coming! Watch out for the result from the constituencies of Orkney and Shetland, both solidly Liberal Democrat. If the SNP take both, expect a clean sweep of every constituency in Holyrood, with the other parties exiled to the lists. Less exciting will be Perthshire South & Kinross-shire, Perthshire North, and Stirling , all of which ought to go SNP.

And more news from Wales: Alyn & Deeside, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, Delyn, Yyns Mon and Vale of Clywd all declare. The Vale is one of a handful of seats that Labour won in the 2011 Assembly elections but lost in 2015 to the Conservatives – Labour has to hold onto and ideally do better in those seats this time – look out for Gower, Cardiff North and the Vale of Glamorgan later on in the night, too.

03:00: It all kicks off around here. (If you wanted, you could probably get away with going to bed at 8 and setting your alarm for three.)

Crunch time in Wales, with Aberavon, Aberconwy, Arfon, Brecon & Radnorshire, Clywd South, Clwyd West, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Gower, Montgomeryshire, Neath, Swansea East, Swansea West, Wrexham, Caerphilly, Islwyn, Newport East, Newport West, Ceredigion and Monmouth all due to the declare. By 4am we should have a clear idea of who’ll be running Wales. (Spoiler alert: it will be Labour, with the question being whether they will be able to govern alone or will have to make a deal with Plaid Cymru and/or the Liberal Democrats.)

Ones to watch: Aberconwy, a three-way marginal between Labour, the Conservatives and Plaid, currently Tory-held. And Gower.

Meanwhile, in England, Bolton, Crawley, Dudley, Exeter, Great Yarmouth, Harlow, Hastings, Plymouth, Southampton, Stevenage and Thurrock are the councils to watch as a whole bunch come in. Bolton, Southampton and Plymouth are Labour-run and home to seats that were Labour in 2010 but went to the Tories in 2015 – Labour should hold on comfortably if they are to have  shot at winning back those constituencies in 2020. Harlow, Hastings, Crawley and Stevenage are Labour-run but Conservative since 2010 at the latest, and are places where Labour should consolidate power.

Can Tim Farron win on his own doorstep? A third of seats in South Lakeland, which includes his own seat of Westmoreland and Lunedale, are up for grabs. Even amidst general Liberal Democrat woe in 2015, his party actually gained two seats in Farron’s own seat and lost just two across South Lakeland. Expect a good night here.

And in Scotland, Angus North & Mearns, Angus South, Ayr, Carrick, Cumnock & Doon Valley, Clydebank & Milgavie, Cunninghame North, Dumbarton, Dumfriesshire, Dunddee City  East, Dundee City West, Galloway & Dumfries West, Greenock & Inverclyde, Kilmarnock & Irvine Valley, Strathkelvin & Bearsden will all declare.

03:30: Declarations from Edinburgh and Glasgow. It was Edinburgh that gave Labour its one MP in Scotland in 2015, but Edinburgh Southern, which holds the bulk of the wards in Ian Murray’s Edinburgh South seat, is already an SNP seat, while Edinburgh Central, which holds the remainder, is also already a fetching shade of yellow. But Edinburgh is still, despite having a near clean-sweep for the SNP at Westminster, one of the swingiest, most marginal-heavy cities in the United Kingdom, so something exciting could happen. (The word “could” is working very hard here.) Expect the SNP to win every seat in Glasgow, unless something untoward is happening.

In England, Redditch and Trafford are worth watching. Redditch was Labour until 2010 and Labour runs the council there – but they were defeated there in 2015 so it’s a must-win seat if Labour is to stay in the game for 2020. Trafford is an island of blue in a seat of red – it includes the safe Labour seats of Kate Green and Mike Kane, but also Graham Brady’s Tory stronghold – where victory would put Labour in a strong position at this stage of the parliament.

04:00: It never rains but it pours. Results to look out for are Cambridge, Carlisle, Colchester, Derby, Peterborough, Portsmouth and Slough. In Cambridge, if there is a Liberal Democrat revival, it will be here. Everywhere else is a straight Labour-Conservative battle.

And it’s decision time in Scotland, as Aberdeen Central, Aberdeen Donside, Aberdeen South & Kincardine North, Argyll & Bute, Clackmannanshire & Dunblane, Cowdenbeath, Dunfermline, East Lothian, Fife Mid & Glenrothes, Kirkcaldy and Moray all declare. But the newsworthy results will be in the list results from Glasgow and South Scotland, which should be announced. We’ll begin to know what the SNP’s opposition will look like at this point.

04:30: If you’re wondering “when’s best for a power nap?”, here’s not a bad shout. We should have a good idea of who’s had a good night, whether Labour is on an upward trajectory, if Cameron is in real difficulties, and who’ll be calling the shots in Cardiff and Holyrood by now. You can safely shut your eyes until 8am.

But if you’re as cool as me, you’ll stay up for a swathe of Scottish seats and at...

05:00: Results from the Scottish list system will start to come through.

In England, if the Greens are going to make any sort of splash tonight it’ll be in places like Norwich, where they are already the official opposition to Labour. The signs from by-elections so far is that Corbyn’s Labour goes down a treat in cities like Norwich, so there is a real risk that Labour could do them serious damage here. Getting out with the same number of seats, or even more, would indicate that there is life for the Greens even while Corbyn is Labour’s centre-forward.

Also keep an eye on Reading, one of a number of councils that is Labour at a local level but Conservative at Westminster. Labour really mustn’t fall back in places like if they are to have a shot at power in 2020. We’ll get the last results from Wales, with Cardiff North and the Vale of Glamorgan two to watch out for.

05:30: Results from the Lothian region will come in from Scotland. It’s these party list votes that will be responsible for the bulk, probably the entirety, of the non-SNP presence at Holyrood. 

07:00: We should have results from the list vote in Wales, where Ukip will likely do well, while the last few regions from Scotland should report in too. Votes start being counted in the mayoral races. You can grab a cheeky two and a half hour sleep about now.

09:30:  Results from the mayoral contests in Liverpool, Bristol, London, and Salford will come in. Expect fairly quick declarations from Liverpool, Salford and London, all of which look fairly likely to return Labour candidates by large majorities. Bristol is a trickier test for Labour though it is another part of the country where Labour ought to gain a boost from having Corbyn as leader.  It could be as late as 11:00 if the contests are close.

11:00: The excitement begins anew, as Cannock Chase – Labour at a local level, Conservative at Westminster declares.

11:30: Kirklees, which contains the marginal seats of Wakefield, Colne Valley, and Dewsbury, declares.

12:00: Another rare Liberal Democrat local authority in the shape of Cheltenham. They elect in halves and the council was last up in 2014. The Liberal Democrats held the constituency of Cheltenham from 1992 until 2015, when the Conservatives regained a seat they had held without interruption since 1950. If the Liberal Democrats have a future, it’s in securing a big result here and using that to kick on and retake the seat in 2020.

Hyndburn (Labour nationally and locally) and Milton Keynes (Labour minority administration locally, Conservative in both Westminster seats) are the marginals to look out for. A great result for David Cameron would see them chip away at Labour’s majority in Hyndburn and take back Milton Keynes. A good result for Jeremy Corbyn would be a majority in Milton Keynes and advances in Hyndburn. Both elect in thirds.

12:30: Calderdale declares. Calderdale is made up of two marginals – Halifax, held by Labour’s Hollie Lynch, and Calder Valley, held by the Conservative Craig Whittaker. It’s currently run by a Labour minority administration. A good result for the Conservatives would be to tip the balance of power their way, a good result for Labour would be full control. The status quo would indicate that the 2020 election will look pretty much the same as the 2015 one.

13:00: Gloucester declares. Gloucester sent a Labour MP to Westminster until 2010 but is Conservative at a local and national level. Though the thirds model makes it difficult for Labour to take full control, knocking it into no overall control would indicate that Corbyn is on his way to becoming Prime Minister in 2020. Also declaring is Stroud, Conservative in Westminster but Labour locally. Defeat here would indicate Corbyn is on his way to Milibandtown in 2020.

13:30: Blackburn with Darwen. This is a weird unitary authority, combining solid Labour territory in Blackburn (though watch out for how Ukip do!) with more marginal areas in Darwen. And it elects in thirds. So, basically, if Labour do very well here, we’ll be able to tell. Otherwise, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

14:00: Pendle, currently no overall control but run by the Conservatives in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – hey sounds familiar! – has had a Tory MP since 2010. A good night here – Pendle uses the thirds model – would be good news for Labour’s chances in 2020.

15:00: Another unicorn aka Liberal Democrat-run Three Rivers, which has stayed orange despite no record of success at a Westminster level for that party since 1906. It’s up in thirds, so the Liberal Democrats are aiming for consolidation while the Tories are hoping for erosion.

Rossendale, which has sent a Conservative to Westminster since 2010 but is Labour run, has a third of its council seats up for election. An increased Labour presence on the council would indicate Labour was on course to take back the seat – a reduced one would suggest quite the reverse.

16:00: Get ready for the end of an era? Watford has been Liberal Democrat run since 2004 but their majority was slashed to just one in 2015. Get ready for a changing of the guard.

17:00: Rotherham elects in thirds and Ukip did spectacularly well last time on the back of a child sexual abuse scandal. Look out for their performance this time.

18:00: One last Labour-Conservative marginal fight in Warrington. A few late bloomers will declare over the weekend, but at this point you can go outside, get dinner or go to the pub.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.