Book Review: There's a Golden Sky
There’s a Golden Sky, By Ian Ridley
Published by Bloomsbury, £18.99
It’s often been asserted that the one remaining advantage mainstream media has over bloggers is the issue of access to the game’s personalities – Jonathan Wilson made this point on establishing The Blizzard earlier this year and Kevin McCauley expounded on the subject in an overview of a spat between blogger Les Rosbifs and Teamtalk that fired up the twitterati last week.
Given my limited appetite for another story that proclaims Robin van Persie to be ‘really happy to be scoring goals for Arsenal’, I turned to this new book from established football media face Ian Ridley with some weariness. After all, Sky’s Sunday Supplement provides a low watermark in terms of how many egos can appear in one television programme – the image of the press as a pack of jackals is well ingrained now.
To give Ridley his due, however, he comes across as one of the more likeable denizens of the Fourth Estate. I remember a television documentary that followed his Chairmanship of Weymouth FC a few years ago – a peer through the fingers affair that saw this good natured Paul Merton lookalike eaten for breakfast by the likes of Steve Claridge and Robbie Pethick. That Ridley has been prepared to put his head above the parapet twice for the sake of his local club elevates him to a position over Brian Woolnough or Henry Winter at least.
And so to There’s a Golden Sky – a book that charts the twelve months of a footballing year; its time frame the 20 or so years since the establishment of the Premier League. The text is broken into four parts with each representing one of the four seasons and Ridley pitches up at a variety of grounds up and down the pyramid in an attempt to see how the soul of soccer has been altered by the creation of this behemoth.
The most satisfying sections are those that see Ridley visit more homespun clubs – an overview of the Crewe Alexandra academy, a charting of the controversial rise of Truro City and a trip to see Doncaster Belles at the onset of the new women’s Premier League are informative, but no chapter is better than a recalling of the Bradford fire: the event that, along with Hillsborough, did more to shape modern football than any other – here, the author talks to members of the burns unit at a local hospital – the results are deeply moving.
Elsewhere, a discussion with Matthew Etherington about his gambling problems and two bookending sections on Gazza provide interest, although both represent examples of the ‘access’ issue I mentioned at the start of this review – other interviews with the grand and the good tell us little and there is a tendency to be too kind to some of the games rogues – David Sheepshanks, Bruce Buck and even 19 year old former Aldershot chairman Spencer Trethewy (now Spencer Day) are allowed a platform to only mild criticism. Gérard Houllier, clearly something of a mate of Ridley’s, makes constant reappearances and at one point the claim is made that he might have made for a good England manager.
An underlying theme of the book is the battle between the Football Association and the Premier League but, good as this is, it only left me frustrated at the book’s lack of coherence. Inevitably episodic given the format, the volume reads more like a collection of essays, giving the impression that each chapter may have appeared as a newspaper column in its own right. At times too, I found the tone too light and the points made too obvious – we need a swingeing semi-academic overview of this period – the kind of book that one might expect David Conn or Ridley himself to deliver. Instead, we have a breezy run through of the past two decades in English football, but quite an inconsequential one.
Overall, the volume provides a helpful introduction to the uninitiated – if a similar book were to exist on Major League baseball or the NFL, I would love to read it as an outsider. It is something of a missed opportunity though.