Game for a laugh

<strong>We Need To Talk About Kevin Keegan: a Bumper Book of Football Writing</strong>

Giles Smit

There's only one bad joke in Giles Smith's latest collection of his columns about football as seen from his armchair, and that's the title. We Need To Talk About Kevin Keegan is just lame.*

Fancy typography is needed on the cover, writing "Keegan" in a different face, to underline the pastiche of Lionel Shriver's novel about a mother and her psychotic, mass-murdering, 15-year-old son. Well, I say that's what it's about, but I can't be sure. I'm a male football fan, so the chances of my reading that kind of anguished, book-group fiction are about the same as those of my wife - who got the reference immediately, belonging to an all-female literary cabal that bases its reading choices on the overwhelming misery they are likely to induce - having the slightest interest in a compendium packed with in-jokes about Graham Poll, Clive Tyldesley and KitKat Kubes. So if those three names cause your brow to furrow with baffled lack of recognition, then look away. There is nothing here for you.

If, on the other hand, you immediately recognise a self-regarding referee who made a complete arse of himself at the 2006 World Cup as he issued three yellow cards to Croatia's Josip Simunic in a single game; ITV's senior football commentator; and a frankly baffling spin-off from the nation's favourite half-time confectionery, then I have good news. We Need To Talk About Kevin Keegan (and it doesn't get any better, no matter how often I repeat it) is just the book for you.

Smith has spent many years sitting in front of his telly musing on the idiocies of professional football, and he knows what he's doing. He appreciates that unrelenting satire is the only way an even halfway intelligent fan copes with the knowledge that his devotion is lavished on mercenary, treacherous lamebrains, managed by self- important buffoons, owned by dodgy foreign billionaires, administered by nitwits and TV-analysed by retired players lacking either insight or self-expression. Yet the good news is that there is never a lack of material.

How could there be, when footballers no longer confine themselves to the playing field, but now enter ice-skating contests, ballroom dancing shows and televised love-ins on tropical islands? Smith thus looks on in bafflement and awe as the former Manchester United mediocrity Lee Sharpe is "shocked and stunned and a little bit gutted" to be asked to spend 48 hours in a Fijian beachside villa (plus private pool and Jacuzzi) with a Playboy model called Nikki. "You can imagine George Best shaking his head in wonderment," Smith remarks. "Truly it's a different game these days. The players throw their hands up at even the slightest hint of phy sical contact."

Smith consistently spots the absurdity in any given sporting moment and responds in a way that any fellow addict will understand. He spends thousands of words, for example, mocking the World Cup, in which England's aw fulness on the field was matched only by the broadcasters' inadequacies off it. And yet, come the first day with no televised game, he is as bereft as the rest of us.

He also has a brilliant way with words. Jonathan Pearce commentates "as if he is being vigorously boiled in a bag". Mick McCarthy is "a pint of umbrage in a mug". Peter Schmeichel looks like "a couple of oak trees straddling a warehouse".

But my favourite laugh-aloud moment came in a piece inspired by the launch of his'n'hers perfumes by David and Victoria Beckham. Smith imagines other possible footballer scents. So Lava by Roy Keane is an "explosive debut scent that boasts a wickedly dangerous head note of petrol and spent matches, middle tones of tangy grapefruit peel and prawn sandwich finishing down with a base of wet Labrador. A real sock on the jaw, this abrasive confection actually foams on application. Nothing says, 'Take that, you cunt,' quite so spectacularly as 'Lava' by Roy Keane."

* Smith is very fond of asterisked footnotes, so I’ll end by pointing out that he thanks Paddy McAloon for suggesting the title. To which I say, what kind of fool takes a title from a man who called his band Prefab Sprout?

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop