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.