Here we go

Those Feet: a sensual history of English football

David Winner <em>Bloomsbury, 274pp, £14.99</em>

This book illustrates with a rather ominous clarity some of the difficulties facing any intelligent person who sits down to write a book about football. Perhaps, in the end, there is only one: the hulking gap between, on the one hand, the top-of-the-range treatment that a phenomenon of this magnitude seems to demand and, on the other, what is known, or merely presumed, of the likely audience. To put the dilemma at its starkest, sooner or later the writer who sets out to examine some practically unexplored corner of the landscape - the impact of soccer on the creative imagination, say - will stumble up against a sub-Fever Pitch constituency more exercised by the flavour of the pies on sale at the grandstand.

This tocsin clangs on in the background to any literary endeavour, sporting or otherwise, but its clamour is particularly insistent in the world of football writing. No doubt the thought occurred to David Winner when he started work on this follow-up to Brilliant Orange, his well-received study of the Dutch soccer scene. Winner's inquiry takes in that part of the English game notoriously excluded by the meat-and-potatoes, graft-over-artistry brigade - the "sexy football" practised by such flamboyant mavericks as George Best, Rodney Marsh and Stan Bowles: creative artists, Winner believes, who "caressed the ball, made it obey their whims and desires", and were consequently ignored by successive England managers in favour of tough northern cloggers with reliable work-rates.

This kind of quest necessarily drags the researcher far along the tributaries of English social history, and Winner, who has clearly done some back-breaking spadework among the secondary sources, next offers a survey of the late-Victorian cult of manliness, with its jutting jaws and masturbation neurosis. He hastens on to a consideration of "footballing warriors", English football's debilitating fixation with the past, the curious masochism - first defined by Nick Hornby - that makes it seem as if we actually want to lose, and the idea (ventilated on and off by academics these past 20 years) that national and sporting decline run in dismal late 20th-century harness.

At this point, though packed out with incidental detail, the book loses the thread of its argument, petering out in a series of mini-chapters about soccer parapher-nalia and the surfaces on which the game gets played. The wider question remains: how far do you go? In one sense, not far enough. For example, anyone wanting to examine the cult of manliness ought to start with its philosophical roots, that whole Victorian ideal of "Godliness and good learning" of which the late 19th-century obsession with sports was the bastardised result. In another sense, further than is desirable. Winner is one of those writers who delight in name-checking their sources. Paragraph after paragraph opens with an advertorial salute ("In his book Warrior Nation, historian Michael Paris shows how . . ."; "In her book Manliness and the Boys' Story Paper in Britain: a cultural history, 1855-1940, historian Kelly Boyd obser-ves . . .") and the thought of a work stitched together from third-party summarisings is sometimes a mite obtrusive.

Yet when Winner does detach himself from the spectacle of "the historian Percy Young" describing a "typical contest between Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City" in nineteen-sixty-whenever-it-was, the book is full of neat, niggling little insights. Check out, for instance, Winner's account of the epoch-defining England-Hungary match of 1953, where he detects among the English fans not masochistic bitterness at the home team's 3-6 drubbing, but a kind of satisfaction in a lesson well taught by old hand to promising newcomer. Alternatively, there is a revealing (and very funny) section on the later career of Roy of the Rovers, culminating in the moment at which Sir Alf Ramsey, belying his reputation for gnomic dourness, was persuaded to accept the managerial seat at Melchester. Why hadn't Roy been picked in 1966, a wag inquired. "Roy was too young at the time, too inexperienced," Sir Alf deadpanned back.

Inevitably, certain facts have to be massaged to fit - agreed, Jimmy Greaves was "left out of the 1966 World Cup Final for workhorse Roger Hunt", but Greaves had been injured in the preliminary rounds and Ramsey was understandably reluctant to change a settled side. In general, however, Those Feet is full of arresting theories. That it does not entirely cohere, in the end, is more the fault of the procedural problems listed above than the author's grasp of his material.

D J Taylor is working on a book about the decline of amateurism in sport