Book Review: On the Brink: A Journey through English Football's North West
On the Brink
by Simon Hughes
Published by de Coubertin Books
At first sight, the idea of a book devoted to a particular region of England may seem a little random and arbitrary – after all, the region in question, England’s North West, contains rivalries and differences within its borders that are as strong as those with those outside.
Such is the relative dominance in the country’s football history, however, that one soon realises that it’s ripe territory indeed for a study. Liverpool and Manchester United are still probably the two biggest clubs in England in terms of history and tradition as well as trophies, Manchester City are now serious players at the European level, Everton possess narrative in spades including not a few national titles and even the likes of Preston North End (The Invincibles, Tom Finney), Blackpool (Stanley Matthews, Jimmy Armfield), Blackburn Rovers (Alan Shearer et al.) and others have a position in the upper consciousness of the game. In a cross-pennine debate on which of the upper two halves of the country have been the most successful in football history, then Yorkshire and the North East come a very poor second.
Simon Hughes, best known as the author of a slew of books on Liverpool Football Club, has hence branched out here to attempt to grasp the DNA of football in the region – and what a fine job he does. Deploying the format used by Nige Tassell in his recent book The Bottom Corner, as well as an approximation of the approach of Michael Calvin in his recent trilogy of volumes, Hughes devotes a chapter each to the majority of the North West’ senior clubs, tackling matters through the lens of a single interviewee and interlacing that person’s thoughts with his own impressions on the fortunes of a club, both current and historical.
So we have Sean Dyche representing Burnley, the ‘not official chairman’ of Preston, Peter Ridsdale, ex-Manchester City player turned executive Dennis Tueart, Morecambe boss Jim Bentley and scouse cheeky chappies John Coleman and Jimmy Bell for Accrington. Indeed, Hughes really hits the jackpot by getting Jürgen Klopp and Gary Neville to talk openly about Liverpool and Salford City respectively – there are some real big hitters in here.
But it’s the range that so impresses and often it’s the non-league subjects that are the most interesting. The inelegantly named Home Bargains are used as a prism to analyse the FA Sunday Cup, the ridiculously over endowed but underachieving football town of Northwich is introduced and we learn of junior super team Fletcher Moss Rangers – the Senrab FC of the North – the club that begat Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Danny Welbeck and others.
Especially good are early chapters on Carlisle United and Barrow – both of which suffer from acute geographical isolation – and Hughes is excellent at depicting the socio-political backcloth of the clubs. Tales of strikes, lock ins, the shut-down of industry, the ravages of Thatcherism and the sheer difference between the haves and have-nots are a recurrent theme. It may be trite to point out the different conditions at Manchester City’s Eastlands from Droylsden, a mere couple of miles away but they are no less real for that.
Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic are not included while not all the interviewees come across as sympathetic – notably David Haythornthwaite of AFC Fylde who nails his preferences for the UK Independence party to the mast – while Tueart says that he still regards fellow interlocutor Joe Royle as a mate but that the latter probably doesn’t regard him as one after sacking him from the hot seat at Man City. Descriptions of City’s globalisation programme would not look out of place in a dystopian novel with the provision of private education for teenage signings a jaw droppingly cynical element of their world view.
Given the shortness of managerial shelf lives, the book could have been way more out of date than it is. It’s also lavishly produced with cartoon maps of the region seeing Accrington represented by a milk bottle. Although Hughes is a North West man, one hopes that he will now proffer the same treatment to all the other parts of the footballing country.