Book Review: The Club: Living the Dream at the Bottom of English Football
The Club: Living the Dream at the Bottom of English Football by Simon Akam
Published by Newsweek Insights
Simon Kuper, author of the outstanding Football Against the Enemy and the deeply flawed Soccernomics aka Why England Lose, is responsible for one of my least favourite quotes from modern footballing lore and one that Simon Akam, in this intriguing new book published in Newsweek’s excellent Insights series airs in full:
England and Germany are the only countries where people will watch bad football in reasonable numbers
Leaving aside my quickly heating blood, my presence at the weekend’s astonishingly low quality FA Cup quarter final between Bradford City and Reading would leave me conceding that Kuper might have a point, enjoyable though the match was for its sheer sturm und drang.
Wages in League 2 or its equivalent totalled £0.8 million in 1994-5 and climbed to £2.46 million by 2012-3, players drive Italian sports cars (albeit perhaps on eternal credit), the away end toilet walls at Stevenage’s Lamex Stadium are plastered with an advert for a local independent school and some players at the level are taking home £75,000 a year – why all this evidence of milk and honey in a supposed backwater of poor quality?
Akam set out to answer these questions and his investigations involved spending several weeks chez Luton Town in the autumn of 2014, a particularly apposite case study given that the Hatters are a club that once excelled in the top flight, unluckily during English football’s dark days of the 1980s and before the big money came.
Doubts about the worthiness of the product are largely debunked. Turning out for Luton Town of a Saturday would put a player comfortably within the top 1,000 best people in the profession in the country while I would expect the 1,000th best paid banker or insurance professional to be earning a lot more than 75k with no societal benefit or ability to inspire loyalty among followers. Exeter City boss Paul Tisdale is quoted in that League 2 players are infinitely more professional in their habits than the top flighters of a quarter of a century ago, there are not a few teetotallers and Akam is left for dead when invited to train by the club – even by notorious ‘sumo’, Steve McNulty, a man who you actually wouldn’t consider to be fat at all if you met him in the street and who has been a cornerstone of the Hatters’ attempts to manoeuvre themselves back up the leagues.
Akam, a somewhat gauche observer in a land where ‘the banter god’ is king, is a keen observer and stylist – he perceptively describes the division as ‘a place of oil and water’ where ‘the ascendant meets the descendant’ while the narrative does not presume prior knowledge and is exceptionally well judged. When writing of Luton’s previous domicile, the Conference and its sponsor, Skrill, he says:
To my ear at least it also suggests ‘krill’, the small crustaceans that whales feed upon
The Luton dressing room is depicted as a deeply unreconstructed environment, perhaps inevitably given the recent relationship with non-league and it’s fascinating to speculate how much that probably contrasts with traditional rivals Watford at the current time – I’m not sure villain of the weekend Fernando Forestieri engages in ‘il motteggio’, the rough translation of ‘banter’. Manager John Still presides over it all of course and is shown as ruling with an iron grip where mickey taking of the weaker players is gloried in and a fan who arrives to read the electric meter and outstays his welcome is amusingly sent packing – ‘anything else you could tell me would be much appreciated’ remarks Still drily. The manager also shows deep mistrust of player tracking software and ‘moneyball’ style methods – this is no hipster icon.
But if some of this is a relatively harmless hangover of football culture past (a groundsman proudly claims that ‘we’ve got 100% grass coverage’ like a character from a Magnus Mills novel), it occasionally spills over into something more malign and excruciating – club CEO Gary Sweet says that ‘we recognise that we have supporters who are EDL (English Defence League) supporters. They are welcome.’ – a naïve statement that doesn’t need to be voiced in a town where the EDL was formed (Akam interviews the founder) and where relations with the surrounding Asian community remain uneven. A strength of the book is a chapter that analyses these aspects.
Riding high at the time the book is set, Luton now have work to do to challenge for automatic although it’s still been an encouraging return to the Football League. This book should be a hundred percent required reading for all fans of the Bedfordshire club while any fan of lower division football and indeed of the sport in the UK should also seek it out.
The Club is on sale at this link.