Book Review: Ooh-Aah: The Bob Booker Story
Ooh-Aah: The Bob Booker Story
by Greville Waterman
Published by Bennion Kearny
In academic history books of recent years, the tendency has been to move the story away from a concentration on the machinations of Kings, Queens and politicians and to attempt to understand the past by shining a light on the experiences of ordinary people. Hence, the experiences of a seaman in the Royal Navy in World War II or a crofter in eighteenth century France are of equal importance to that of Winston Churchill or Louis XVI.
Similarly, in football, while tales of Alfredo Di Stefano, Michel Platini and David Beckham continue to stir the soul, one might expect to learn just as much about the development of the sport from an account of the life and times of long-serving Auxerre manager Guy Roux, Southampton legend Terry Paine or Norwegian midfielder Øyvind Leonhardsen.
As footballing everymen go, there are few as workaday as Bob Booker. A classic utility man of self-proclaimed mediocre talents but always in display of 110% effort, Booker’s playing career span fifteen years between 1978 and 1993, all of it at Brentford and Sheffield United bar a short spell at Barnet where he failed to make a competitive appearance.
That in itself surprised me. I had envisioned Booker as very much a 1990s mainstay. The knowledge that he started out at Griffin Park way back in the 1970s was news to me and on examination, his modest number of career appearances are probably the reason for that – Booker often found himself left out in the cold at his various clubs, sometimes due to injury but more often due to his unfailing cheeriness and commitment making him an easy man to leave out.
Greville Waterman, author of two titanic overviews of recent Brentford league seasons, does a great job of recounting Booker’s career and manages skilfully to tease out this idea of the ordinary player as an exemplar for an age – at times Booker seems to be a kind of sporting Forrest Gump, present at many of the main events of the era and crossing paths with nearly everyone in football throughout his time in the game. As Waterman states at one point, what seems to be coincidence is actually the norm.
For instance few people would be in a better position to tell you first-hand accounts about soccer’s hard men. Booker was in the same Brentford side as Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, was later joined by the fearsome Terry Hurlock and had played for the same Hertfordshire team as Vinnie Jones while growing up. Those names will give you a taste of the number of anecdotes that the book possesses and that’s another of the book’s strengths – Booker’s reminiscences are unlikely to garner headlines so he and the additional impressive list of interviewees Waterman managed to invite to pass comment – Steve Coppell, Frank McLintock, Dave Bassett, Dick Knight and Harris among them – make for a fascinating read for anyone whose earlier footballing memories spanned these years.
After bumbling along in frankly unremarkable fashion for a decade at Griffin Park, Booker was surprisingly thrust into the limelight when Bassett signed him for Sheffield United following an injury to Simon Webster. Two promotions later and the Watford lad was pinching himself and playing in the top flight – and doing well too. The Blades’ style was, to put it mildly, no nonsense and this suited Booker down to the ground – I find it hard to come across his name without thinking of that doyen of Sheffield commentators Alan Biggs expounding in honeyed tones.
After a second stint in west London was curtailed by injury and a jaw-droppingly callous jettisoning from the club by David Webb, the same man is described as hiring him back onto the coaching staff before Booker went on to display incredible powers of survival as assistant boss at Brighton – a period again garlanded with promotions and many a tale of the dressing room as well as several household names of managers. It’s to Waterman, a Brentford fanatic’s credit, that he is as compelling in describing his subject’s times at other clubs as he is in telling of Booker’s times at Griffin Park.
Younger readers might scratch their heads at all this – and this is yet another tome that underlines how much the game has moved on tactically and socially. Booker never made serious money and is now a driving instructor while even a few seconds of legendary 1990 fly on the wall documentary United will make one realise how much banter ruled the roost back then – to an even greater degree than it does now. In all though, Booker is a canny choice to shine a light on.