Book Review: Black Boots & Football Pinks
Black Boots & Football Pinks
by Daniel Gray
Published by Bloomsbury
Daniel Gray’s last book, Saturday 3pm was a delight. A paean to the game, the fact that a whole chapter was devoted to the wonder of Jimmy Armfield bought it my vote from the off and the idea of fifty short essays on what makes football so special, packaged in a beautifully bijou jacketed book proved to be a real winner.
Gray has repeated the trick with a similar venture in Black Boots & Football Pinks, again deploying the essay format to provide fifty vignettes from football gone by. It’s again lovingly produced and again perfectly judged as a December stocking enlarger.
Nostalgia is much contested ground these days and Gray does acknowledge this in the volume’s initial chapter. This is no Stand Against Modern Football exercise (fine as that impulse is) and nor does it weaponise nostalgia in a village green, warm beer and monocultural kind of way. The overwhelming emotion is positivity, albeit with a tinge of wistfulness – it’s a reminder of many of the things we loved about the sport, but it never wallows.
Evidence of this is in the chapters devoted to recent nostalgia – pixellated scoreboards, ceefax and teletext – fleeting phenomena that were probably only with us for a decade or two before being superannuated – that it’s not all flat caps and white horses is to be commended.
There is much to enjoy and highlights include an age when one didn’t have to explain in convoluted fashion the level one’s team play at; the more widespread use of the phrase ‘caretaker’ manager (although I did hear Scott Marshall described thus a couple of times this week); local sponsors ruling the roost (see Leeds United advertising the Yorkshire Evening Post throughout their 1992 title season); pitch cambers; ramshackle dugouts (a big two fingers to those ludicrously tacky Premier League chairs); regional highlights programmes and old names for grounds. On the latter point, Gray calls for resistance to new coinages along the lines of the Bet 365 Stadium and this is an area where blogs are in a better position than mainstream media – you won’t come across us using the name ‘Vitality Stadium’ because nobody has given us money to oblige us to do so.
Of course there are one or two contributions with which not everybody would agree – personally, I refuse to get worked up about coloured boots now even 9 year olds can get them from Mike Ashley Land while old fashioned wingers can still be found (Robben and Ribéry etc.) Indeed, regulars on the non-league circuit will probably wonder what Gray is on about half the time given that most things in the book survive on in those quarters – but that’s not the point of the book. Then there are a couple of things that have undoubtedly gone from the game but surely well before the author walked the earth – street kickabouts and goalkeepers in hats and trousers (Gabor Király aside).
The prose is purple and won’t be to the taste of Hemingway devotees. Personally, I love a bit of floweriness in the style of a Henry Blofeld and there are some fine moments – a physiotherapist is described as ‘twitchy…alert as a fox in an aviary’ while ‘breeze blocks’ are labelled as ‘an unusually understated form of brutalism’. The book is at its strongest when amusing examples are conjured up – such as ‘David Kerslake drives a Fiat Uno’ in an entry about sponsored cars. Sections on luxury and bald players might have benefitted from a mention of a Mike Fillery or an Emerson; a Kevin Russell or a David Armstrong.
My partner and I wracked our brains for alternative topics but Gray has most things covered. So it is only tentatively that I would add badge sellers (although we did see them at Portman Road the other week); autograph opportunities higher up the leagues; UEFA Cup ties from behind the Iron Curtain with Army personnel lining the pitch; the absence of Chris Sutton as an analyst and watching The Pink Panther immediately before Final Score.
The book ends with a poignant section on Heroes although as we’ve seen with Harry Maguire, Jesse Lingard and others, it’s quite possible for their ilk to inject themselves into the national mood to this day. Nonetheless, this is another lovely volume from Gray and he continues to show an ability to capture the game that first came to our notice with Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters half a decade ago now.