Spring into Sport

As one sport’s contest approach its climax another has barely begun. Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman reviews Spring books for those who measure their years out in seasons not months.

11 May 2019, 10.27am
Liverpool's Mohammed Salah, manager Jurgen Klopp and Virgil van Dijk celebrate after winning through to the UEFA Champions League Final this week
Peter Byrne/PA Images

May. The Carabao, or those of us a tad old skool, League Cup Final is long gone. The FA Cup staggering its past-the-sold-by-date towards the Final, ditto the Champions and Rich Runners Up league. Up and down the divisions clubs have jostled their way to win promotion, staved off relegation or clung on to mid-table mediocrity. And for the few, not the many, the Premier League title. Before you know it, all this will be done ’n dusted ready for it to begin all over again, the 2019/20 edition.

What better time to reflect on the modern meaning of our much-fabled People’s Game? For a comic-strip insight mixing fine art with bittersweet commentary there’s none better than David Squires. David’s strips, 2014-2018, are now handily collected in one very tasty volume Goalless Draws. Stuart Roy Clarke is another who takes a visual approach to locating the lost meaning of football, this time though via a photography that he has made his own under the rubric ‘homes of football’. Stuart’s latest collection The Game combines the finest photographic record of the changes in football, with a superb accompanying text from the one of the founders of football’s academia, John Williams. Together they make for a superlative double act.

Part of Stuart and John’s argument, and the appeal of their book, is that there really is no substitute for ‘being there’. This is an experience that has changed markedly since the ’89 Hillsborough tragedy, a moment caught most poignantly by David Cain’s book-length poem Truth Street. For the most part those changes have been for the better, but no one can pretend that ‘being there’ is the same as it once was. It’s also a point expertly made by Duncan Hamilton in his new book Going to the Match – a journey to games which confirms that despite all the worst efforts of corporate homogeneity, the proverbial wind and the rain of 90-plus minutes in the stands cannot be beaten. What the modern ‘matchday experience’ (ugh!) has become is the effort to convert our fandom from active participants to passive consumers. Dave Roberts is having none of that in Home and Away, as he travels round non-league football to find a game largely untouched by the trappings of what has become disapprovingly known as ‘Mod£rn Football.’

For those who can afford the time, and the expense (though with a bit of careful pre-planning these trips can be surprisingly cheap) another way of escaping the way our domestic game is consumed can be via a European away weekend. An excellent starting point for choosing such a trip is Neil Frederik Jensen’s Mittel, which uncovers the appeal of heading off to see a game in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. A more familiar trip would of course be to La Liga or the Bundesliga. For the former pack a copy of Jonathan Wilson’s latest, The Barcelona Legacy, in which Jonathan provides his now customary digest of tactics to better understand the game unfolding before our eyes. And for Germany, specifically Borussia Dortmund, take with you Uli Hesse’s Building the Yellow Wall for a superb account of this most idiosyncratic of clubs. It was as where Jurgen Klopp learnt his managerial trade, and Jadon Sancho is currently building his formidable playing career.

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But of course the biggest – and as it turned out, the best – away trip of the past twelve months has to be the one those lucky England fans made to the World Cup 2018, which saw England’s first World Cup semi-final appearance in 28 years. In How Football (Nearly) Came Home Barney Ronay tells the full, and unforgettable story of that glorious English summer of football. If the wait for the next similar achievement is as long, at least we’ll have a classic read that stands comparison with Italia 90’s All Played Out by Pete Davies to savour in the meantime. Of course, some football destinations are more welcoming than others, but that’s not to say fans shouldn’t take the risk of being pleasantly surprised. Andrew Hodges helps readers towards that happy outcome by unpicking the more complex reality behind the fearsome reputation of Croatian football in Fan Activism, Protest and Politics: Ultras in Post-Socialist Croatia.

Closer to home, Michael Calvin has an unrivalled reputation for chronicling football’s pluses, and all too many minuses, via a series of award-winning books. His latest, State of Play, ranges over stories of players, managers and clubs to create the kind of picture of English football that rarely makes it on to the back pages. Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg’s The Club doesn’t have much doubt what has perverted the sport – the unseemly wealth and disruptive influence of The Premier League. And the latest edition of Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski provides a highly accessible and entertaining framework to understand the Premier League’s evolution.

Or for an unashamedly radical deconstruction of the entire edifice Gabriel Kuhn’s Soccer vs The State, also now available in a new edition, should satisfy all who harbour such an ambition. If on the other hand the preference is for an alternative universe of football then David Wardale’s Wasting Your Wildcard is a hugely entertaining, not to mention indispensable, guide to that mid 1990s throwback, Fantasy Football, which appealed to this co-founder of another football-inclined mid-1990s throwback!

Beyond the beautiful game - cycling

Football, be it modern, fantasy, philosophy, or any other version has of course become an almost entirely sedentary pastime. A national obsession divorced from any kind of desire to physically partake in it as a sport. Football more than any other sport demolishes the role model/emulation model. If the Premier League or an England World Cup run can’t get the nation off our sofas, what hope for any other sport? The exception, for a while at least, has been cycling, although of late even this seems to have levelled off. Cycling’s temporary success in boosting numbers on two wheels coincided with unprecedented British cyclists’ success at both the Olympics and Le Tour. How to Ride a Bike by Chris Hoy combines both the spectacle and the practicalities – all the glamour of the experience of a six-time Olympic Gold Medallist, along with a how-to-guide for those who’d like to cycle both further and faster.

Unfortunately, however closely we follow Chris’s helpful hints only a tiny minority of us will ever reach the kind of speed, uphill and downhill, catalogued in The Cycling Podcast by Richard Moore, Lionel Birnie and Daniel Friebe. They are as much a joy to read as their podcast was to listen to. Of course the highlight of cycling’s 2018 was Geraint Thomas surprising everybody, not least himself, by winning Le Tour – a story he retells in his own inimitable way The Tour According to G

Meanwhile for those of who still hanker after two-wheeled speed and endurance Peter Cossins has written the near perfect book Full Gas in which Peter seeks to instruct mere mortals in the tactics of the peloton. If we cannot dream, well what is the point of doing, or watching sport?

Looking ahead – rugby, cricket, golf, tennis, and darts

As the sporting summer fast approaches there’s plenty of contenders for the stand-out event. A home cricket world cup? The women’s football world cup? The debut of the UEFA nations leagues semis and final? Another home world cup, netball? In years gone by an Ashes summer would have seen off the lot of them – but not anymore, since the disastrous decision to sell live and free-to-watch test cricket to the satellite TV moneymen. And cricket has its own problems as a sport too. Australia’s fall from grace via a ball tampering scandal is brilliantly chronicled by Geoff Lemon in his Steve Smith’s Men.

And then there’s the Rugby World Cup in the autumn to look forward to, hosted for the first time by Japan, instead of one of the ‘traditional’ rugby nations. The sport’s globalisation, like cricket’s, remains faltering at best, however. A world cup model has been adopted to ape football for commercial reasons, but there’s a lack of any cultural ambition to truly spread the game. Perhaps rugby’s bigwigs should read Stuart Barnes’ full-on rugby memoir Sketches from Memory to remind themselves of what the sport at its best has to offer the world.

Golf has its own version of globalisation, with the Ryder Cup surely the only sporting event with a team competing under the EU flag. But what will happen to British golfers in Europe post-Brexit? Tiger Woods is the one golfer of the current era to reach beyond the sport’s core support to revive interest, his April 2019 win at the Masters being absolute testament to that. A hugely talented but much troubled figure, Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s unauthorised biography Tiger Woods helps untangle the reason for why Tiger is, and remains, a figure who towers above his sport.

Wimbledon fortnight provides a sudden burst of interest in tennis, otherwise languishing down there with the also-rans of sporting interest. Gregory Howe’s Chasing Points is therefore a welcome insight into the pro-tennis tour, as players scramble for points to climb up the rankings. A revelation, it helps to put the world of All England’s SW19 into some kind of perspective.

For a sport on the up, look no further than darts. The game’s rise and rise is hilariously chronicled by the always brilliant Ned Boulting in his new book Heart of Dart-Ness. Bullseyes, the pub game, a packed Ally Pally, world champions, and those garish shirts, Ned’s book has the lot. Darts is a sport just about anyone can play. There might not be as many pubs with a handy dartboard as there once were, but this kind of accessibility still provides darts with its instant appeal. Too many sports have either lost this ease of taking part, or – despite the appeal of so-called ‘role models’ – never had it in the first place.

Sport’s social construction, inclusions and exclusions

Helen Croydon’s This Girl Ran provides the kind of inspiration, in shedloads rather than the odd spoonful, to get off our collective sofa and enjoy the doing , rather than the watching, of sport. Helen’s tale, including triathlons, takes this to extremes, but the maxim remains pertinent – we can all run. Bump, Bike & Baby by Moire O’Sullivan takes this how-to philosophy to another level, combining pregnancy, parenthood and ultra-endurance adventure racing. Remarkably she proves the combination is not only possible but desirable. The latter may not be the response of too many readers, but the very fact that Moira survives to tell her tale could just prove sufficient inspiration for others to follow in her footsteps, just not quite as many.

Of course, most won’t. This has precious little to do with individual choices, rather it is down to the social construction of sport. Vikki Krane’s Sex, Gender and Sexuality in Sport is as near as we’re ever likely to get to a comprehensive analysis of just one dimension of the exclusions sport both produces and reproduces. There are, unfortunately, plenty more. Despite this, it is rare indeed to find any kind of politics that takes this seriously. Gabriel Kuhn has done an excellent job, therefore, rediscovering and translating from the 1930’s Julius Deutsch’s writings AntiFascism, Sports, Sobriety for a model of the possible.

One writer and political activist above all others effortlessly made the connections that others either struggle with or dismiss. In his classic work Beyond a Boundary, Pan-African, Marxist and cricket-lover CLR James asks the rhetorical question ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ The same question could be asked, and answered for each and every other sport too. My pick of the quarter therefore is Marxism, Colonialism and Cricket. No, not your common or garden title for the most outstanding sports book of 2019 to date, perhaps that’s the problem? But what the editors David Featherstone, Christopher Gair, Christian Høgsberg and Andrew Smith have achieved is truly special, mixing James’ personal and political life story, the context of cricket in the West Indies, and the past, present and future of cricket writing. Superb, just the read whilst that old imperial encounter, The Ashes, seeks to nudge the Premier League’s off season from the back pages this sporting summer.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.

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