Book Review: Small Town Dreams
Small Town Dreams
by J. F. Cumming
Published by de CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Today, we are very pleased to welcome Ronan Munro to The Two Unfortunates. Ronan is Editor of the long-running and legendary Oxford music magazine, Nightshift but unbeknown to most of those who follow this august publication, Ronan’s loyalty to Oxford most certainly does not extend itself to football. As a Wycombe Wanderers supporter, he was in the perfect position to review James Cumming’s personal account of the club’s great FA Cup exploits of the early noughties, previously recalled in these pages by Kerry Andrew.
“If you support a small town team like Wycombe Wanderers, you’re going to go thirsty if you only celebrate the victories,” writes James Cumming in this self-published travelogue.
It’s a statement fans of any club outside of the Premier League elite will empathise with. You take your fleeting moments of glory where you find them and keep the memories of them close in the darker times that you know too well are just around the corner. Players unheard of beyond a few thousand lifelong diehards become, over time, regarded as legendary heroes to match those of Greek or Norse mythology (or, given the overwhelming odds at times, more like Sparta).
For Wycombe Wanderers fans, such names include Keith Ryan, Dave Carroll, Jason Cousins, Paul McCarthy (RIP), Mark Rodgers, Martin Taylor and Roy Essandoh. They were among the raggle-taggle, injury-ravaged squad of club stalwarts and journeymen who, in 2001, took the then third tier side managed by Lawrie Sanchez to the semi-final of the FA Cup, where they held out to a Liverpool team featuring Steven Gerrard, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen for 78 tantalising minutes. The dramas that led up to that day at Villa Park, including a marathon replay win against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park, and a last minute win against Leicester scored by a striker signed after an appeal on Ceefax, earned Wycombe an enduring place in FA Cup retrospectives and are regarded among fans as the club’s greatest adventure. Lifelong Blues supporter Cumming, who dreamed of such glories from childhood, missed the whole thing. He was on the other side of the world, having gone travelling with his partner after being made redundant, fulfilling his other childhood dream.
And this is what makes Small Town Dreams, for the most part, such an engaging read. The story of Wycombe’s cup run is told from the perspective of a fan who’s several thousand miles detached from the action and his friends and family back in England, who recount their own travels (which in the case of trying to get home to High Wycombe on the train from south London after a midweek penalty shoot-out are no less epic), all this acting as recurring backdrop to Cumming’s personal adventures in Thailand, China, Australia and beyond.
More than anything Small Town Dreams is a travelogue from the point of view of a likeable everybloke, and thus free of too much travel writing clichà©. Cumming is an endearing, unpretentious narrator, ready to admit his many failings — he has a lifelong habit of making an idiot of himself in front of girls, spends much of his foreign adventures sat on the toilet or being sick (a lowlight comes when he vomits profusely in a packed train carriage in China while being beaten by a broom-wielding conductor); has panic attacks, and isn’t afraid to cry, particularly where his beloved Wanderers are concerned.
If he’s prone to repetition (we’re left in no doubt about his love for The Charlatans and Stone Roses) and awkward turns of phrase (literally no one ever refers to The Wanderers of Wycombe in real life, do they?), his eye for amusement in mundanity in descriptions of Wycombe’s bleak bus station or chance encounters with drunken Scouse builders and sour-faced German tourists keeps the story alive. There’s genuine humour in tales of enduring five sleepless nights as a child when he believed his picture would be in the local paper giving the finger to an opposition keeper, and in pathetic midnight battles with cockroaches in a darkened Thai hostel.
Away from the accounts of Wycombe’s cup run — told through the experiences of his friends back home or his own experiences watching on telly in bars and hotels on the other side of the globe – Cumming offers brief but knowledgeable descriptions of the wonders he dreamt of visiting as a child — the Terracotta Warriors; The Great Wall of China; several thousand Buddha statues of myriad sizes. Back home the beery, blokey banter of his gang of friends (“The Roobarbs”) is less engaging, mainly because other people’s drinking antics and private jokes are even less interesting than hearing people talk about their dreams, though Cumming’s sarcastic girlfriend and travel companion Cathy is a major ingredient in making the book work, a sharp foil to his regular bouts of idiocy.
While the story of Wycombe’s unlikely journey to FA Cup glory will appeal chiefly to fellow Wanderers fans, the sheer scale of that achievement — last-minute equalisers; epic penalty shoot-outs; unjust sendings off, and a catastrophic injury list — should capture the imagination of any fan of a team who similarly dreams the impossible dream. It’s a universal story for supporters of small town teams trying to explain to the wider world who they are and why they stick with them over far bigger, more successful clubs.
There is a footnote at the close of the story explaining how Liverpool completed a cup treble that season, beating Arsenal in the FA Cup final, as well as winning the League Cup and the UEFA Cup, while sixteen years on, Wycombe have yet to reach the 4th round again. By happy coincidence they finally managed that feat this season, losing in heroic but heartbreaking circumstances to Spurs. Cumming was there to see it. It’s fair to assume he was in tears at the end. Seriously, he wasn’t the only one.