Whenever lists of great football books are put together, the subject matter is usually about the playing of the game. But there’s a rich cultural tradition associated with watching the game too, and some great books have been written about that – books that help us understand just why the game has such a grip on so many of us.
Sure, there’s been a wave of identikit hoolieporn – colourful tales of tasty geezers taking liberties on someone else’s manor with a bit of cod philosophy about the martial nature of English males and a fair bit of fiction thrown in. But there are also books that acknowledge the darker side of the game while providing some thoughtful insight on football’s subculture, or simply books that just put those subcultures on the record.
Awaydays, Kevin Sampson (Vintage)
Much more than a book about football violence, Sampson’s novel is a richly observed tale of the teenaged need to belong. Ostensibly about a pack of Tranmere Rovers hooligans, there are also themes of class and sexuality in this pacey and evocative story. It conveys a sense of time and place vividly, something achieved to even greater effect in the excellent film of the novel that Sampson laboured for years to make. The scene in the film when the novel’s two central characters wander the dockside in Birkenhead to the soundtrack of Just for a Moment from Ultravox’s Systems of Romance album is one of the most perfect movie moments.
Casuals, Phil Thornton (Milo)
Generally acknowledged to be the most honest and through account of the casual scene, this is less hoolie war story, more social history. Thornton traces the roots of working class street gangs back to the Victorian scuttlers. Packed with interviews from many of the people involved in the early scene in the late 70s and early 80s, the book is written with an insider’s eye while maintaining an awareness of the bigger picture. It takes in the influences of music and club culture, and addresses head on the issue of whether casual was about dressing, fighting or both. There’s little self-aggrandisement, and lost of affection for a thing created from the streets up, without the aid of media or leaders.
Scum Airways, John Sugden (Mainstream)
Academic John Sugden embedded himself with a group of Manchester United hooligans to write this study of football’s black economy. His assertion is that the growing commercialisation of the game created both the space for the bootleggers, touts and grafters to move in, and the market. The title refers to the travel business set up by one of Manchester United’s main faces that expanded to ferry fans of other clubs to European games – including those of Leeds United, who christened it Scum Airways because of the Red connections. Sugden makes the point here that clubs trying to cash in on official packages were forcing ordinary fans who wanted to travel independently into closer contact with hard core hooligans and organised crime. There are some colourful and sometimes disturbing tales in the book, but it’s an essential read for anyone really interested in looking at how commercialisation has spawned a whole new set of problems. And there’s a great ending.
The Football Factory, John King (Vintage)
I once went for a disastrous job interview at Esquire magazine where I was asked what book I was reading at the moment. When I answered “The Football Factory” the look of disdain on the interview panel’s faces was a picture. Football wasn’t quite the darling of the literati it would soon become, and I guess I was a man ahead of my time. (I had my tongue fiormly in my cheek when writing that, I should point out. Or there will be letters). But this is another essential read, and deserves inclusion here even though it’s probably the most well-known of the list. Vivid, violent and very often thoroughly unpleasant, it is nonetheless a compelling a powerful first novel from a writer who has continued to portray a particular white, working class subculture that many shy away from. Don’t judge this book on the awful film that was made of it. As happened with Trainspotting, the moviemakers shied away from the politics and social observation that are essential parts of the book to present a romp. If you’ve dismissed the book on the back of the film, or as simply another hooligan read – think again.
Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters, Daniel Gray (Bloomsbury)
There’s a valid criticism to be made that football fan culture is too often taken to mean football fan violence. And four of the books on this list either touch on or dive deep into that aspect. Daniel Grey’s book doesn’t, and that’s one of the reasons it rounds off the list. Another, better, reason is that it is a beautifully observed and warmly written treat. Gray, who moved to Scotland from the north east when he was a kid, decides to rediscover England by visiting its provincial towns and their football teams. And Leyton Orient. In doing so he not only discovers how our passions shaped the game, but how the game shaped the country we are. It’s an essential folk history, a portrait painted with detailed brushstrokes and an affectionate homage to the people’s game.