I’ve had 100 books published, but just as many rejected – including one about football’s origins

I had an idea I thought was brilliant, the story of two things that began in the same year, 1863 – the London Underground and the Football Association.

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I have just had my 100th book published. Well, I have been at it a long time. I have included titles my wife used to describe as non-books, such as collections of columns or interviews. It is my list. I can count what I like.

Over the decades, friends have sneered: “How many books you written this week, Hunt? Har har. Easy for you, with your contacts.” Strange how people mock the prolific.

I have also had at least 100 books turned down, proposals I sweated over to con (sorry, I mean persuade) publishers to commission them. I longed to do a biography of Canon Rawnsley, co-founder of the National Trust, but they all said “don’t bother us”.

There was one idea I thought was brilliant, the story of two things that began in the same year, 1863 – the London Underground and the Football Association. It often happens in fiction that an author takes two characters, not apparently connected, and follows them until they come together, or not. I don’t think I have seen it done in non-fiction. All my publishers turned it down, bastards. So much for contacts. One suggested two separate books, but I had set my heart on doing a combined biography. Potty, I know.

There is nothing obviously connecting the two, except the year of their birth, but in my mind I was going to trace their effects on our social, economic and artistic life over 150 years, including their influence on art and architecture. They did at one time come together. In 1932, Herbert Chapman, Arsenal’s manager, got the London Underground to change the name of the local tube station from Gillespie Road to Arsenal.

I started collecting old Tube maps, back to 1863, and I even managed to acquire some of the original artwork by Harry Beck. Come on, you must have heard of him? He designed the map we still use, first mass-published in 1933 and now studied in every graphic art department in the world as a design icon. Until Harry Beck, the Tube map was like a bowl of spaghetti. He made it so simple.

The FA had its first meeting at the Freemasons’ Tavern near Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London on 26 October 1863. Twelve London-based clubs attended, mostly composed of public school boys and Oxbridge graduates, many of them clerics. They came together to knock the chaotic, folksy, violent, lawlessness of football into shape – a shape, more or less, that has been followed all over the world ever since.

One of the strange things about the history of football is that it took 25 years for them to come up with the idea of a league. Until then, clubs played endless friendlies, or took part in the FA knockout cup. Once out of the cup, your season was in effect over. It seems so obvious that a league, based on points awarded, which lasted all season, playing home and away, was much more sensible. It was the idea of a Scotsman, William McGregor, chairman of Aston Villa. Twelve clubs formed the first Football League in 1888 – six from Lancashire, six from the Midlands.

One of my 2,000 bits of football history is a run of the Sporting Chronicle from July to December 1888, which covered the first season. It reports early examples of hooliganism – with cries of “dog” and “pig” directed at players – and that halfway through the league decided on two points for a win, one for a draw.

For 156 years, the Football Association has been the supreme arbiter of the rules of football. The rest of the world has had to suffer the arrogance of our FA, which has always acted as if it bossed the world just because it gave it the game.

The FA board has recently discussed calling itself “the English Football Association” from now on. It looks like being ratified. There will be rebranding, plus the name change. There is a commercial element to it because the blazers fear that when they apply to host the next available World Cup, calling themselves the FA would be held against them. Arrogant Inglanders, as we know, are not all that popular these days.

If I had done my book after all, I would now be pestering the publishers to reprint with the correct title. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 12 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure