The fan - Hunter Davies sees football overwhelming the books pages

Whole channels are devoted to football, but books get just two radio progs

This is appalling, said my wife, sounding like Prince Charles. Why oh why, she continued, sounding like the Daily Mail, do we have to have all these acres devoted to football? The literary pages have practically disappeared. Even the Sunday Times doesn't have a separate book section any more.

I've changed our Monday newspaper from the Indy to the Times, purely because of their footer section, The Game, which really is fab, so much for healthy boys and girls to enjoy. In the past ten years, there has been an explosion in football coverage, especially in the broadsheets. Every day, they devote more actual words, as opposed to pics and headlines, to football than the tabloids.

Poor old lit eds. She, for it is usually a she, has to survive on an ever-shrinking space, on her own in a cubbyhole, whereas every sports editor has an army at his command, big budgets, dozens of pages. On radio and TV, it's even more pronounced. I can think of only two radio progs, and not one on TV, solely devoted to books - A Good Read and Open Book on Radio 4. With football, there are whole channels, whole stations.

Football has now muscled in on the books pages, such as they are. There's an esoteric Italian novel by Luther Blissett, remember him? Well, it's not him. They've just used his name, but it shows the influence of football.

In the current bestseller lists, hardback and paperback, there are six football books, something I can't remember happening before. The Becks book we can understand, but look at Nobby Stiles, not kicked a ball in decades, never exactly a pin-up, yet his book is up there with Martin Amis. (Last week's Sunday Times reported 1,190 in the week for Nobby, 1,835 for Mart.)

Writing about football is as old as football. Even before there was a Football League, there were books and annuals written by gentlemen for other gentlemen, often beautifully produced, fit to grace any country-house library. Once the League began, in 1888, a new activity and breed of human appeared - football reporters. Newspapers, which had devoted their sports pages solely to racing, increased their sales fourfold by reporting football. The first known press box was created in 1894 by Celtic. Until then, hacks didn't get much help. H A H Caton, one of the earliest football writers, who wrote under the name of Tityrus, betraying his classical background, remembered a game in Nottingham in 1883 where he had to stand behind the goals, but he was able to interview the goalie - during the match.

Once it became a mass game, played by professionals, the working classes took over and the gents retired. Purple prose was saved for cricket while football writing got poorer, the books more cheaply produced. But fascinating none the less. From the 1920s onwards, in the popular football prints, you can read behind-the-scenes stuff about our heroes, their domestic life, their clothes, their likes and dislikes, just the sort of stuff Becks is dishing up today.

Football books did not sell well - just newsprint, the pink 'uns and green 'uns - but they did exist. Stars produced ghosted autobiographies, like David Jack in the 1930s and Len Shackleton in the 1950s. Mostly they were pretty anodyne, though Shack had a good dig at directors. His chapter about what directors know about football was blank.

What has changed today? Why do footer books sell so well? Football is at its most popular for 20 years, judging by attendances. But you now have to be well off, to have a season ticket or subscribe to Sky, so modern fans can well afford to buy proper books. They are also, in theory, more middle class, the sort who always had books in the house, and who have more of an interest in football history.

Well, that's what I like to think . . .

Hunter Davies's illustrated history of football from the past to the present, Boots, balls and haircuts, is just published by Cassell (£20)

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