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28 November 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:31am

Penalty kicking: A gloomy assessment of English football

David Goldblatt is one of a loose group of football writers, all of them men born in the 1960s, for whom the sport since the summer of either 1989 or 1990 has been a slightly poisonous let-down.

By Leo Robson

The Game of Our Lives: the Meaning and Making of English Football 
David Goldblatt
Viking, 374pp, £20

The Second Half 
Roy Keane with Roddy Doyle
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 297pp, £20

When I was growing up football-crazy in the early 1990s, there was no such thing as a “book”. There was the “album”, which posed a greater challenge than any novel or treatise: when you got near to completing the thing, there were few depths you wouldn’t plumb in order to track down a smiling photograph of, say, John Fashanu, covered with cheap adhesive. And there was the “annual”, a proud navy paperback, sponsored by Rothmans and containing thousands of statistics – on a player’s weight, say, or the number of times he had played for Aston Villa – that were out of date by the time you began committing them to memory. This wasn’t what grown-ups called reading. But the front cover of my first Rothmans yearbook showed Gary McAllister, representing my team, Leeds, flying past Paul Ince in Man United red. With images of truth and beauty like that, who needed continuous prose?

Football stopped being bookless in late 1994 when a family friend, Jim White, published Are You Watching, Liverpool?, with its libellous accusation that I was a secret Man United fan, feigning Leeds worship for the sake of my delicate father. Are You Watching, Liverpool? seemed like a first: an object with pages but no place for stickers and hardly any stats. In reality, it was an addition to an established genre – the fan’s notes on a great season – published at a time when football writing was about to become altogether more social, analytical and sceptical.

The coming change was precisely not signalled by Nick Hornby, who wrote, like White, in a personal and celebratory spirit. If Hornby started a revolution, it was in confessional journalism and postmodern memoir, not football writing. When David Goldblatt calls Fever Pitch “an elegy for the old football”, that is hindsight speaking. Hornby might note the increasing expense of matches, but he doesn’t bemoan the passing of old-fashioned, honest footballers and old-fashioned, impoverished supporters, or moralise about wages and pay-offs, whereas Goldblatt’s The Game of Our Lives, like most accounts of “the new football”, rarely does anything else.

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Goldblatt is one of a loose group of football writers, all of them men born in the 1960s, for whom the sport since the summer of either 1989 or 1990 has been a slightly poisonous let-down. The Game of Our Lives, an attack on the Premier League that takes aim at much else besides, is the sceptics’ magnum opus. It is a football book that accords the game little respect, and indeed little space – the sort of football book that mentions the writer D J Taylor (born 1960) more times than it mentions Ryan Giggs.

Goldblatt’s approach is sociological but his reference points are literary. Liverpool in the 1980s was “magic realist”, Manchester was “rather more social realist”. Yorkshire football is like something out of David Peace – the early crime thrillers, that is, not the Yorkshire-football novel The Damned United. When Goldblatt says that football’s old “longings” are “the unseen something that hangs in the day”, he is misquoting Don DeLillo, whose unseen something in Underworld “haunts” the day. But, for all the local reminders of Peace, DeLillo and Márquez, it is the “state-of-the-nation novel” to which the new football bears the strongest resemblance. In support of this claim, Goldblatt alleges that England’s golden generation – Gerrard, Lampard, etc – were “found to be oversold” at “precisely the moment” that New Labour imploded and the housing bubble burst. It’s not the only time you’re left asking, “Really?”

Goldblatt can be as literal-minded with other people’s analogies as he is with his own. He says at one point that football’s “language of faith and salvation” collapses in the absence of “any real belief in the supernatural or the divine, let alone an established theology”. Does he think that Liverpool fans were being facetious when they addressed Robbie Fowler as “God”? Or was this just a return of the old magic realism, so prevalent at Anfield in the previous decade, rather than evidence of a fully developed theological system?

The Game of Our Lives proceeds, Goldblatt says, “thematically” and “essayistically”, so we get 70 pages on “football and urban England”, 50 pages on “match day”, 40 pages on “identity”. Stories relevant to more than one theme are simply repeated. The book’s language is often lazily manipulative, with descriptions used as a tool of editorialising (“wealthy gulags of executive mansions”). Mixed metaphor serves as a vehicle for paranoid hyperbole: modern “footballers are the vanguard of a steady rise in serious problems of gambling addiction, unsustainable debt, family breakdown and mental illness”.

The level of negativity is barely distinguishable from nihilism, and not at all distinguishable from crankishness. Does Exeter City’s use of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” really suggest a fear “that the audience might, just might, feel like this is not the greatest day of their life”? Reflecting on kick-off times, he says that an old economy “built around mass production” has given way to “the endlessly flexible rhythms of the post-industrial economy” – as if the notions of “evening” and “weekend” had long since passed out of currency.

Would it be inexcusably naive to suggest that football in the Premier League hasn’t only been about leveraged buyouts and massacred traditions: that one of its main differences from what went before has been its greater cosmopolitanism and technical sophistication? Goldblatt seems to think so. Zola, Henry and Bergkamp share a single grudging paragraph, while the racial assault by Lee Bowyer gets a page to itself. (The opposite emphasis is shown in Amy Lawrence’s cheerful yet searching new book, Invincible, about Arsenal’s 2003-2004 season.) Imagining the structures of modern football in isolation from the game – to see the waste but not the joy, the self-interest but not the hard work, the thuggery but not the intimacy – is the only way one can possibly engage with this determinedly downbeat survey.

Roy Keane, among the most successful figures of the new-football era, gets just two mentions in Goldblatt’s book, one for displaying excessive violence on the pitch and the other for showing typical disrespect to the once-treasured FA Cup in his first autobiography, published in 2002. The Second Half, the engrossing sequel, starts by revisiting the earlier book’s description of a violent foul that landed Keane in trouble – and therefore with a reflection on ghostwriting, as the description was the work of Eamon Dunphy. It’s a fitting start to a book that is both an exercise in truth-telling and a piece of literary football writing, the ghostwriter this time around being Roddy Doyle, author of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the only Booker Prizewinner that contains a long football scene (though some of the other winners could have done with one).

Keane emerges as a mixture of forces, contradicting any stark division between the old football and the new. He reveals in passing that as a Man United shareholder, he made “a few bob” from the arrival of the Glazers, villains in Goldblatt’s book. Yet he never used an agent and briskly dismisses a player he wanted to buy as Sunderland manager but whose wife didn’t wish to leave London: “The word ‘shopping’ was used.” He also declares himself “a fan of the FA Cup” – which should send Goldblatt’s opinion of him skywards. Keane displayed a rigour and discipline typical of modern football, yet David Winner, in a history of English football, rightly identifies him as an example of a “timeless archetype”, describing “Roy-ness” as “that distillation of essential British footballing manliness through the ages”. Keane sums up his own mixed nature when he says: “I’m interested in sports science. But I’m also old school.”

His status as a fallible human being undermines Goldblatt’s indignant judging of the kind of man who works in football. Keane acknowledges his own “low self-esteem” and the ease with which he rushes to self-pity, and offers distinctions between “anger” and “frustration”, feeling “low” and feeling “down”. For Goldblatt, corporatism and nostalgia just provide further opportunities for hand-wringing, but Keane says that appearing at junkets would “fill my soul, a little bit”, during periods of unemployment. Towards the end, there is a passage that goes some way to confirming Goldblatt’s thesis about the business, while at the same time making a complete nonsense of his priorities: although the stuff around football was a distraction and a drag, Keane says, he “never fell out with eleven v eleven”. 

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