Book Review – The Football Man

The nights are drawing in, and the pubs are closing at ten if they are indeed opening at all, writes Roy Thomson.

The bloody virus is, unfortunately showing no signs of disappearing. If like me you prefer to go to the football rather than visit the cinema, theatre or shoot grouse it could well be a long dark lonely winter. With that in mind, and with Christmas also lurking, I thought I’d share with you three excellent football books I’ve read over the years. Only because if you have not already read them, you might find them interesting and enjoyable (the first, out of sequence thanks to a rubbish editor, was here).

I’ve chosen books that are different from the autobiographies or club histories that usually fill bookshops or go straight to the top of Amazon’s top-seller lists. Although the texts may not be about Lincoln City, they are about football and what it means to people, something worth highlighting over and over again in current troubling times.

The Football Man, Arthur Hopcraft

‘The way we play the game, organise it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are.’

Arthur Hopcraft wrote these words in The Football Man in 1968, and they seem just as powerful and pertinent to the situation football finds itself in today as they did back then. The extraordinary beauty of this book is that it doesn’t seem at all dated over fifty years after it first hit the shelves. Its longevity is one of the significant reasons why many experts consistently vote it as one of the best books about football ever written.

At the time of publication, Hopcraft was a journalist, working primarily for The Observer, writing match reports and features. Much of the book is based on interviews conducted with leading figures in the game. Largely biographical in nature, the portraits are skilfully interwoven with Hopcraft’s own views and observations. The book was initially welcomed by critics who considered it an intelligent account of football, one that was generally lacking in football literature at the time.

Amongst his legendary atmospheric descriptions of the great crowds of the day, the author offers forthright views on many ills of the game. Hopcraft worries over rising commercialism and bemoans the effects of the increase in player wages brought about by the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961. At the same time, he is scathing about the rising number of affluent middle-class fans attending matches. He criticises new owners and directors for bringing modern business methods into the boardroom. He is also more than a little sniffy about the latest pop star media status of leading players like George Best who he describes as ‘excessively and immodestly affluent’ as opposed to Stanley Matthews who he praises as a local urchin turned golden boy. This idea of social change brought about by the ‘New Deal’ is seen further when he focusses on Sam Ellis. The future Lincoln captain and manager achieved 3 A levels but chose football over a university place, a decision which Hopcraft argued set ‘him apart from previous generations which needed to play football to avoid the pit or the dole.’

It is fascinating stuff, and the book is undoubtedly a romantic homage to the working-class origins of football dripping with sentimental nostalgia. However, Hopcraft also makes some astute predictions on threats to the future of football, most notably when he talks insightfully about the growing problem of crowd violence. He is less sharp when failing to foresee the role television would play in shaping the sport, with the emerging medium barely mentioned in the text. However, he was more assured when criticising the amateur way the sport is governed by ‘the family doctors, head-teachers and variety of master tradesmen who make up the Council of the FA.’

The book is a beautifully written judgment on the social and cultural importance of football in England during the 1960s, which, at a time when the game as we currently know is under threat, is well worth reading. The Football Man, in essence, was written by a fan, giving us an insight into his beliefs, not just concerning football but about society in general. It is, therefore, so much more than a book about football, and this makes it both charming and provocative.

It is so good you can still buy it on Amazon fifty years after Hopcraft first wrote it.

If you want to take Roy’s advice, click here to find the book on Amazon, as two of you did with his last book review.