Book Review: My Favourite Year
My Favourite Year
Edited by Nick Hornby
Published by Gollancz/Witherby
October 1993, £5.99, ISBN: 978-0-854-93236-8
(New edition, 2001 published by Phoenix)
For his second of hopefully many contributions to The Two Unfortunates, William Abbs of blog Saha from The Madding Crowd turns the spotlight on something of a lost classic of football fandom.
As football fans, we all have seasons that resonate in our memory more than others. That simple premise forms the idea behind My Favourite Year, a collection of chapters by various writers each describing the campaign they remember most fondly. What the book does not assume, however, is that a warmly recalled season has to have been a straightforwardly successful one on the pitch for the team being followed. Turning away from that convention challenges what it means to be a fan and becomes My Favourite Year’s greatest asset.
Published in 1993 at a time when the literary industry was beginning to realise that a great many football fans preferred to use their opposable thumbs to hold a pen rather than form a fist, My Favourite Year was released only a year after the formation of the Premier League. As such, the modern incarnation of the top flight hardly gets a mention. The book’s stories are rooted in the Football League as remembered by men who grew up in the fifties and sixties and entered adult life over the following two decades. Ten of the thirteen bath or toilet break-friendly chapters (depending on your household’s hygiene rules) focus on teams from Divisions One to Four, as they were, with the other three essays broadening the book’s scope to include Scottish football, the Non League game, and the Republic of Ireland’s matches at Italia 90.
Nick Hornby, whose autobiographical novel Fever Pitch came out in 1992, edits the book and contributes a piece not on Arsenal but on Cambridge United’s record winless run of 1983/4 and his perverse enjoyment of it. The success of Hornby’s book the previous year obviously helps to explain why this collection came about shortly after, but several of the themes raised in Fever Pitch surface again in the chapters under discussion here. Nostalgia, childhood, and father-son relationships all figure large. On a football level, My Favourite Year also touches upon topics such as dual-allegiance, selective memory, and the constant struggle to justify the extremes of life as a fan to the rest of human society.
Other renowned contributors to the book include Roddy Doyle (who is behind the opening essay on Jack Charlton’s Ireland), D.J. Taylor (who recounts Norwich City’s topsy-turvy path to finishing third in the country in 1992/3), and the ever-inventive Harry Pearson (responsible for the chapter on Middlesbrough’s run to the play-offs in 1990/1). For all his irreverent humour – a favourite being “Poole was so reluctant to leave the safety of his goal I began to wonder if he was agoraphobic” – it is Pearson who probably captures the match experience best:
It was ten days before Christmas and the ground was packed. In the away end, the low roof of the stand reverberated with the noise, the air was chill with the sharp crackle of frost and anticipation; the pitch glistened under the floodlights. It’s at moments like these that you know for certain why you come to football.
As touched upon before, My Favourite Year’s age means that its warm tone is not tempered by the extremes of Premier League culture as much as a similar book might be now. There is very little bitterness on show. Nonetheless, the contributors are not ignorant of the commercial forces encroaching upon football at the time of writing. D.J. Taylor notices how Liverpool are on television and in the papers whether they win or lose, because of what they have won in the past and how many supporters they boast, which rings as true now as it did in 1993 when Taylor was bemoaning Alan Hansen for making excuses for Graeme Souness’ side on Match of the Day at the expense of mentioning Norwich’s presence at the top of the table. Likewise, in his excellent chapter on Raith Rovers’ First Division title year of 1992/3, Harry Ritchie points out that location and regional infrastructure increasingly govern the aspirations of many clubs: “With a population of 50,000 and a local economy based no longer on coal and linoleum but apparently centred on a large Asda on the outskirts, Kirkcaldy couldn’t finance a big club.”
Above all, My Favourite Year works because it covers the universal issues that appeal to all fans interested in football’s heritage and who can testify to the game’s ability to grip young minds and never let go, but does so in a format that celebrates the provincial and the personal too. Unless you come from Norwich you probably won’t read D.J. Taylor’s quip about Robert Fleck frequenting the clubs of Tombland without commenting ruefully that, as far as the city’s nightlife goes, Riverside and Prince of Wales Road are where it’s at now. But then, even if you didn’t grow up in the seventies, Watford fan Olly Wicken’s quite possibly fabricated admission that he sequinned his initials to his shin pads as part of the glitzy glamour of the era will raise a knowing smile.
The last word should probably go to Hornby though: “I still have no idea whether football is a much simpler or much more complicated game than I believe it to be. All I know is that I haven’t got it right yet.” Arguably, it’s football’s imponderables that unite the contained, season-follows-season drama of being a fan that My Favourite Year announces so successfully.