Book, grass Photo: Pixabay / Public Domain

As what’s seemed like a never-ending lockdown approaches some sort of close, Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman has been reading up on the sport we’ve lost and what sport might become

Way back when, during the first lockdown, March 2020, Jonathan Liew wrote a brilliant column on small sport vs big sport. What Jonathan meant by ‘big sport’ was what we watch, for the lucky few as fans in person, for most on the TV. And ‘small sport’? What we do, a jog, a bike ride, a workout session via youtube, an open water dip. Can be done on our own, non-competitive, little or no kit required, cheap, and in theory open to just about all. It is ‘small sport’ that has persisted through the pandemic while ‘big sport’ has been cancelled, postponed, threatened with financial oblivion, struggled on in a much reduced version.

the-age-of-fitness-lg.jpgAs a handbook for these curious conditions and whatever might follow few will better Jürgen Martschukat’s timely The Age of Fitness. His pioneering argument is that the obsession with individual performance via such ‘small’ sport is emblematic of, a product of, neoliberalism. Competition, individualisation and commodification certainly all play (sic) their part. But does the potential exist for a sporting counterculture? I would argue it absolutely does, however first we have to understand sport cannot be reduced to a simple binary opposition, big bad sport vs small good sport. This book brilliantly provides the framework for just that necessary insight.

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics are pencilled in to mark big sport’s return with a  vengeance this summer. Postponed from 2020 the sensible move would have been to keep to the quadrennial Olympic cycle and defer instead to 2024. But commercial interests and lucrative broadcasting rights outweigh any such good sense in the hands of conservative sports administrators. ‘The Games Must Go On’ becomes the mantra.

The latest edition of Understanding the Olympics by John Horne and Garry Whannel, is the best possible explanation of where this unwelcome alliance of commerce, broadcasters and conservative officialdom with big sport has come from. That isn’t to say there isn’t much to enjoy about the Olympics or, as I put it in the title of my own book for London 2012, ‘Why the Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, and How They Can Be’; countervailing tendencies exist.

Gender is one such way what the Olympics represents is challenged, Jean Williams’ pioneering Britain’s Olympic Women is of the ‘hidden from history’ feminist tradition of uncovering those whom otherwise would be forgotten. From the first games of the twentieth century via the early post-war and Cold War games to the 1980s and the impact of professionalism, Jean Williams tells the story, including  athlete Audrey Brown at the Nazi Olympics of ’36, swimmer Margaret Wellington at the ’48 austerity games, equestrian Pat Smythe and the 1952 Cold War games, and so many more to leave readers questioning why hadn’t we heard her story before? Uncovering such a story and many others of women Olympians is, eventually, a happy ending.

The big fear is that the modern pressure to succeed at the highest level has no such positive conclusion, instead bullying, abuse and drugs in the chase for gold.  Where might this end? The Medal Factory by Kenny Pryde achieves the difficult task of reminding readers of the collective joy and national pride as Team GB’s cyclist swept the medals board while not ducking the dark side of the coaching and competitive culture that lay behind all that success. A revealing read.        

Pandemic sport, watching on the TV or doing it ourselves, has offered many a relief from the horrific daily updates on ever rising death rates. A snatched moment of normality, win, lose, or draw, the chance to dream. Ian Ridley’s The Breath of Sadness was written before Covid, yet its incredibly emotional trail around country cricket as a journey through the loss and grief of losing his relatively young wife at the age of 56 to a lethal cancer is sadly very much a book of the current moment. 

where-there-s-a-will-lg.jpgWhere There’s a Will by Emily Chappell shares a similar theme, sport versus grief, in Emily’s case the distraction of endurance sport, ultra distance cycle racing. But also the inspiration sport can provide to help untangle the tangled up emotions of death for the living, why them, why not me? Paul Fournel’s Need for the Bike approaches this emotional role of sport from a different angle, an instant classic when originally published in France, now translated into English, this is a story of the bike as companion, purveyor of agony and ecstasy, the perfect vehicle for a two-wheeled two fingers to everything the pandemic threw at us.

Meanwhile in 2020, what ‘big sport’ lost was the sense of being there, in the stands, down the pub, watching with mates, and for the lucky victorious crowd, celebrating too. Few missed the latter more than Liverpool fans, a first domestic league championship since the old First Division title of 89-90. Anthony Quinn’s Klopp is testament to all that Liverpool achieved in this most unusual of seasons and the manager arguably uniquely well-placed to make this long awaited achievement possible.  Liverpool’s era of nearly-but-not-quite coincided with a failure to find a successful managerial culture to follow the immensely successful ‘bootroom’ era of  Shankly and Paisley and to a lesser extent Evans and Dalglish too.

Man Utd found the same in the wake of both Busby and Ferguson, and now after the Wenger years came to an end at Arsenal too. While Arsène’s autobiography My Life in Red and White isn’t exactly a ‘kiss and tell’ (few football autobiographies are that revealing), there is more than sufficient insight to reveal what Wenger brought to Arsenal and the scale of the problem in coming anywhere close to replacing his contribution. For that missing element in a decent football book, the confessional, Rob Steen has this down to his customary fine writer’s art with The Mavericks. Originally published in 1994, now reissued and updated, Rob’s book goes behind the changing room door to reveal the backstory of a generation of 1970s flair players whose ability to entertain on, and off the pitch, was much more about their lawlessness and free spirit than sticking to the plan and playing for the team.

Harry Pearson’s Far Corner subtitled ‘a mazy dribble through North-East football’ was also first published in 1994. Rather unexpectedly, almost three decades later, Harry’s written a follow-up The Farther Corner, this time subtitled ‘a sentimental return to North-East football.’ Of course sentimentalism in and of itself is not enough, although any book that takes in the clubs Newcastle Benfield, Pontefract Collieries, Seaham Red Star and plenty more where that lot came from will help convince that it is an emotion in a time of such chronic uncertainty not to be lightly dismissed either.  

For an appreciation of all that we have missed for the past year, and a reminder of both from whence our football clubs came from and mod£rn football’s insatiable desire to consume (sic) the traditions they helped generate, the books of Daniel Gray are an essential pleasure. Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters, telling the story of what Daniel dubbed ‘England’s football provinces’ or in other words life outside the big city clubs, was the first of what has become to date a quartet. The latest Extra Time adds a further 50 (50!) ‘eternal’ delights of  mod£rn football to the 50 he’d uncovered previously in Saturday 3pm which just goes to show putting the £ into ‘modern’  cannot destroy everything we hold dear, well not yet. In between producing these two finely optimistic books Daniel also managed to find ‘50 lost wonders of the beautiful game’ neatly summed up in the book’s title Black Boots and Football Pinks. Sadly there will be ample scope post-pandemic for a second volume of these losses too.

A visual memento of what a year not going to games has robbed us of us is superbly provided by British Football’s Greatest Grounds compiled by Mike Bayly. I have shelfloads of football photography books, all much treasured, but I was beginning to think the genre might almost be exhausted by now. Mike’s book confounds that with photos that give an all-round sense of the stadium as an environment and located in its surroundings; the sharply observed essays Mike provides to accompany the photos; a format rank-ordering the must-see 100 grounds with my club Lewes FC’s Dripping Pan at number one – I couldn’t possibly comment – but the ‘100’ will have readers arguing over the selection and rank-ordering for years to come, and that’s what I call a formula for a great book!  

In his book Because It’s Saturday, Gavin Bell defiantly describes lower league football as the game’s ‘heartlands’, though even here the march of mod£rn football isn’t entirely absent. In which version of Orwellian Newspeak was the fourth division reinvented as ‘League Two’? For an insight into the commodification of the ability to stop, make and score goals, Daniel Geey’s Done Deal is both unrivalled and deeply unsettling.

project-restart-lg.jpgWhen Coronavirus struck there were those in the game, as the saying goes, unwilling ‘to let a good crisis go to waste’. The most extreme version of this became known as Project Restart, to entrench the wealth and power of the ‘big’ clubs at the expense of the rest of the Premiership, never mind the ‘pyramid’. It ended up being rejected, for now. Jon Berry ingeniously subverts the phrase for the title of his book Project Restart to describe the impact of twelve months’ worth of virus and lockdown on a sport, lest we forget, that stretches from Sunday league to Premier league, and all points in between. And Berry concludes with the interesting question, when it’s all overcan football be part of making the post-pandemic world a better place? Lets hope so.

Long before the current crisis Jim Keoghan established himself as a chronicler of how to turn such hope into reality. First with Punk Football, Jim’s spirited account of the rise of fan ownership, a hugely significant movement vital to a better football. Though as recent reversals at Swansea, Portsmouth and Wrexham illustrate, the commitment even amongst fans to such a model, when a rich investor comes calling promising success on a plate, remains fragile. The continuing need nevertheless for fan ownership is made via the title of Jim’s new book How to Run a Football Club - well it would be with the simple insertion of the word ‘not’. The argument made in this finest of reads is that whatever level football is enjoyed at, the ‘simple love of the sport’ should be paramount, but isn’t.  Fan ownership would inevitably mean scaling back the huge operating budgets of the behemoth clubs, and would that be such a bad thing? What precisely would we miss? And what would we gain?

apartheid-is-not-a-game-lg.jpgUnlike the supporter ownership movement, Football’s response to #BlackLivesMatter, however laudable, was characterised by a corporate version of social responsibility, in this case anti-racism, almost entirely divorced from any kind of initiative that could be described as fan-led. When ‘taking a knee’ becomes an obligatory pre-match ritual rather than how it originated as an act of rebellion, it is increasingly doubtful this is a player-led response either. Two recent books explore an entirely different situation where sporting officialdom for the most part, players and many fans too, pitched themselves against anti-racism. Geoff Brown and Christian Høgsberg’s short book Apartheid is Not a Game revisits the notorious 1969 South African Springboks rugby and South Africa’s 1970 cricket tour of Britain and the successful efforts by mass protests, disruption and sabotage to stop them.

Pitch Battles by Peter Hain, one of the key organisers of those protests and his co-author, South African scholar and activist André Odendaal, connects sport’s boycotts and protests’ vital role in the anti-apartheid movement to a wider struggle for an anti-racist sporting culture, bringing the story bang up to date with both present-day South Africa, lockdown and #BlackLivesMatter. A superb read for resistance and change in 2021.

Racism and English Football by Daniel Burdsey points to all the complex, but very necessary, challenges in developing such a response. Until these are faced a truly anti-racist football will remain as far away as before last year’s explosion of black resistance.  A fine and vital book, but academic publishers and authors who produce such invaluable books, why no cheap paperback edition?

ultras-lg.jpgWhat might a fans’ resistance movement on race and the extremities of commodifying this most fabled of ‘people’s games’ look like? Three recent books provide an inkling. St Pauli: Another Football is Possible by Charles Viñas and Natxo Parra connects the history and development of this club as icon of resistance to a wider social movement of change rooted in fandom but not restricted by it. In Ultras, Mark Doidge, Radoslaw Kossakowski and Svenja Mintert describes a very particular fan culture that is in turns passionate, orchestrated and performative, global in appeal – though to date English fandom has remained largely unaffected, unimpressed even. Digital Football Cultures edited by Stefan Lawrence and Garry Crawford points to an experience of supporters which today is more genuinely international, following the game online, building fan communities, expressing a cultural ownership of club, team, and players, in a manner not always welcome. A football from below? Possibly. 

Finding the answer to this, and other, questions isn’t easy, but to treat football with the seriousness it deserves means we have to at least try. And in a manner the conventions of both the game and politics barely equip us with the ideas and tools the task requires. In this regard, as the co-founder of Philosophy Football, Stephen Mumford’s book Football: The Philosophy Behind the Game quite naturally appealed to me. I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint with its stimulating mix of the game’s attractions, including beauty, chance, victory and the ideas we observe, but sometimes miss, in the course of ninety minutes. 

For those of a particular inclination, David Goldblatt is the ‘Eric Hobsbawm of football writing’ just like the greatest of historians tracing of our society’s past to explain the present David has done the same with football. His latest The Age of Football surveys a sport in the grip of neo-colonial power, the crisis of an institutionalised Europeanism, corruption and shifting great power politics. In David’s hands context is all and makes for the very best of footballing reads.

things-that-make-white-people-uncomfortable-lg.jpgThe unprecedented support for #BlackLivesMatter across the sporting establishment couldn’t be more different to how sport responded, if at all, to Colin Kaepernick’s original act, which was absolutely of anti-racist resistance. And Kaepernick wasn’t alone, as fellow pro American Footballer and Superbowl winner Michael Bennett details in his sharply titled book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable. He argues that this is a movement of protest against injustice, opposition to racism and the way black communities are policed.

How neatly all of this can co-exist with the most powerful forces in sport seeking to co-opt it remains to be seen. A book that provides the kind of framework to help us not only anticipate such outcomes but shape them too is The Game is not a Game by Robert Scoop Jackson, who like Bennett and the peerless Dave Zirin all hail from the USA, and all three authors published by the left books outfit over there Haymarket Books. So here’s a question, why doesn’t a sports-obsessed culture like Britain’s, with honourable exceptions, produce committed left sports writing of this sort and supported by the main left publishers to produce it in cheap, accessible and attractive formats? 

a-people-s-history-of-tennis-lg.jpgThree examples of the art of the possible from three different British independent publishers, and on perhaps not the sporting subject matter we might expect for such an endeavour. First off, from Pluto Press David Berry’s A People’s History of Tennis in which he traces the making of a sport beyond the Pimms, strawberries and cream set, constructed instead out of feminism, socialism and migration. ‘Tennis from below’, who’d have thought it?

Next up, from Repeater, same sport but a very different approach, Racquet is a celebration of the sheer diversity of tennis, edited by David Shaftel and Caitlin Thompson, consisting of articles from the magazine of  the same name now available as a book. The downturn of the late twentieth century boom of tennis as a popular recreational sport, the roots of elitism in tennis versus race, gender and class on and off the court, the sexualising of Maria Sharapova, this is a range of politicised sports writing to enthuse and inspire others, whatever our sport.

My third example pushes at the boundaries of possibility, Self Made Hero have published Czech author Jan Novák’s graphic novel  Zátopek, a pioneering combination of words by Jan with the comic-strip art of Jaromír 99. It creates a mix that both engages the modern reader and informs us of the achievements of one of the true athletic greats and the social system, post war East European  communism, including its flaws, that framed his achievements on the track. Form and content, together, producing a truly memorable read.

the-miracle-pill-lg.jpgAnd my book of the Spring? The Miracle Pill by Peter Walker would be the ideal book any year as we emerge from Winter, spring into Spring and look forward to the Summer. Combine this with the pressing desire by many to reassess their lifestyle choices after the best part of twelve months under one lockdown restriction or another and Peter’s book is spot-on perfect. What makes this read really special is the argument that the sedentary position isn’t an individual choice but the product of social imperatives that diminish, ignore and do little to encourage an active life. The consequences are severe and costly, the alternatives cheap and beneficial, a progressive popular common sense vision of building back better would do a lot worse than taking this as its starting point. A miracle? I’m told they can happen.

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

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Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here


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