Day 3 of NaBloPoMo and my inspiration for today’s post comes unashamedly from Cardiff City’s historic victory over Swansea City in the first ever South Wales Premiership derby game this afternoon. It says much about the rivalry between the teams that for many Cardiff City fans, whatever happens during the remainder of the season will now be bearable. At least we put one over on the Jacks in the game at the Cardiff City Stadium!
My Favourite Year is a collection of what was at the time ‘new football writing’. I qualify the description because the time was (I am alarmed to find) 1993. That twenty years has simply flown by, but it’s a tribute to the quality of the writing in the collection that it remains as vibrant and entertaining now as it was when I first read it. The basic premise of the book is simple : invite thirteen football-mad writers to contribute an extended essay describing one particular season following their team, and why it was so special to them. Where the book really wins though, is in the quality of the writers selected. Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch; High Fidelity; About a Boy etc..) contributes a chapter and edits the whole anthology; Roddy Doyle (The Commitments; Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) writes about the Republic of Ireland’s 1990 World Cup Campaign; Harry Ritchie (former literary editor of the Sunday Times) describes following Raith Rovers promotion campaign of 1992/3 from his temporary home in London; and so on
The beauty of the book is that it captures the bitter-sweet agony of what it is to be truly in love with your football team. For the real football fan, ‘your team’ is not something that you choose – rather it chooses you. And once the connection has been made, you are as powerless to resist as a moth is to a candle. And while the result for the moth may be terminal, there will be Swansea City fans this evening who may well think that death would be preferable to the pain that they’re enduring following this afternoon’s game, and the banter that they will continue to endure from Bluebirds fans at least until the teams meet again later in the season
There is some simply beautiful writing to be found in My Favourite Year. Describing David O’Leary’s decisive penalty in the last 16 play-off game shoot-out against Rumania, Roddy Doyle writes : “He placed the ball. It took him ages. The tension; I was going to have to groan or roar; something was going to snap. He sent the ball up and right and it hit the net in a way that was gorgeous… I cried. It wasn’t the winning… it was being Irish”. Anyone who has supported their team through a successful penalty shoot-out will know that feeling of the ball hitting the net “in a way that is gorgeous”. It is impossible to describe the emotion in a way that makes any sense to someone who hasn’t experienced it, and yet “gorgeous” still comes as close as any word that I have seen used to capturing it
Matt Nation, describing Bristol City’s successful 1989/90 season notes that : “It was clear to anybody who watched the game from outside a press box full of perspicacious scribes reminiscing about how John Atyeo used to do it that promotion was attributable to three things : Robbie Turner’s upper body, Bob Taylor’s lower body and the fondness of both of them… for sweatbands”. Sweatbands, dodgy hairstyles, even dodgier forays into the music business – all were part of the football scene in the 1980s and 1990s; and whilst the hairstyles today are still the inevitable result of overpaid young men with time to waste in the ‘salon’, for the most part footballers are simply too professional (and image rights too profitable) for sweatbands or ‘normal’ body shapes. Even the referees now look as lean and fit as African distance runners!
The penultimate word for today must go to a Swansea supporter (I’m incredibly magnanimous in victory!). Huw Richards was an exiled schoolboy doing missionary work amongst the English in Bridgnorth during the Swans promotion-winning year of 1978/9. It was a turbulent period in British political and economic history, and Richards neatly refers to this in his opening paragraph : “The winter of discontent it may have been in public memory, but if you were a Swansea City supporter in 1978/9 your poet was Wordsworth rather than Shakespeare – ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven'”
And that really sums up the attraction of football for fans of all clubs all over the world. Governments may come and go; economies wax and wane; personal crises flare up and recede – but in the midst of it all, football remains. And even when your team is not doing well, there is still solace to be taken from the fact that it’s YOUR team. Nick Hornby writes about the Cambridge United 1983/4 season. “Cambridge United were a terrible team that year. They won four games (two of them after they had already been relegated) and lost twenty-four. They used thirty-two different players, fourteen of whom played in the number 7 shirt at some stage during the season, and four of whom were goalkeepers. And they got through the requisite three managers (one sacked, one caretaker, and one who saw out the rest of the season). It was brilliant.”
And it always is…
My Favourite Year (published by Witherby) ISBN 0-85493-236-4