Book Review: The Smell of Football
The Smell of Football by Mick ‘Baz’ Rathbone
Published by Vision Sports Publishing
July 2011, £12.99
I have a regular correspondent who likes to talk football. A Liverpool die-hard, man of Shrewsbury, our exchanges normally concern the current wiles of his personal idol, Rafael Benitez, or his affection for his hometown ‘Salop!’ boys and our shared whimsy for the Midlands club born of our bonding over mutual appreciation for Grant Holt and Paul Simpson. Lately, though, his musings on football have taken a rather different turn. My pal, you see, is currently employed in Shanghai and his missives now often shed light on the micro-culture of football support in East Asia.
In a recent dispatch he shared his dismay that his football scarf, the red and white stripes tapered with the familiar Liver Bird, had become an invitation for hitherto cordial and austere exchanges to descend into farce. Recalling a meeting with a high powered executive of a multi-national corporation he told how his sweeping on his red and white necker to stave off a chill had prompted an unseemly show of ribaldry from his sober companion. ‘Liverpool eh? Load of rubbish!’ The discomfitting exchange continued as they descended at pace from the Shanghai sky and ended with a disturbing payoff – ‘still struggling with the language? I find the best way to learn is with a female companion in a horizontal position.’
‘It came from nowhere. It MUST have been the scarf, he saw it as a bridge to behave like a boorish prick,’ swore my friend.
If you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering what on earth this anecdote has to do with Mick Rathbone’s critically acclaimed and largely excellent book The Smell of Football. Well, in my view it presses home at what is at once both the book’s core strength and its achilles heel – the conflict between ‘Baz Rath’, the footballing dinosaur trapped by a nostalgic view of ‘the good old days’ of his early playing career and Mick Rathbone, the man who has considered, eloquent thoughts on the game, and whose chastening self-awareness give the book’s early chapters an edge which has been dwelt on by most reviews I’ve seen.
Rathbone’s is a fine book. In many ways an antidote to the ghosted, self-satisfied and self-pitying sagas that pass for sports literature these days. He has a deft style and his penmanship is never far away from raising a smile. He also has anecdotes to burn. The best amongst them recalling the dressing room dominance of ‘Big’ Duncan Ferguson in his time as Everton physio; his days under colourful Preston gaffer John McGrath; and my own favourites surrounding his Blackburn Rovers pal Russ Coughlin’s eating habits and living arrangements.
However, his real skill is in weaving these stories – the solid core of all such tomes – amongst more weighty and sober observations on the game at large. As noted, many have chosen to major on Rathbone’s confessed idolatry of Trevor Francis which caused panic and anxiety attacks and stalled progress at his boyhood club, Birmingham City. Whilst these sections were enlightening, I found they became wearying and repetitive. Instead, the tales of hi-jinx that came after a move to Lancashire and, especially, a forensic retelling of Rathbone’s ill-fated spell at the helm of Halifax Town brought more succour.
The passages recalling that time of struggle, of weeks unpaid, plagued by self doubt and staring down an inevitable, pitiful relegation are the book’s dark heart; the real reward for those who stay the course. One particular snap of Rathbone slumped, can in hand, contemplating his fates in the aftermath of that event is worth the cover price alone. That his prose adds colour and light to this portrait is testament to the author’s skill.
The book’s final third paints a pleasing portrait of football’s ‘have nots’ and ‘haves’ and Rathbone’s path from one to the other – an image smartly captured in metaphor through the author’s blinking eyed obsession with his Everton club Jag. It also casts the eye to the physio room, a place not often found in football books, and in so doing sees the game from a new and different angle as Rathbone salves the demons of his quarry in a way he never could his own.
This element brings a pleasing symmetry to the piece but is perhaps a little spoilt by a streak of earnestness that pervades the whole book – we could perhaps have taken as read that ‘Baz’ had many to thank for his journey from the gutter to the stars, so the direct and forthright nods addressed to pals and scattered throughout the text alongside repetition of a number of tropes such as the linger of ‘Deep Heat’ in the dressing room (The Smell of Football – geddit? You will!) do become cloying, though they do betray an endearing streak of humility in the likable Rathbone.
Many great books are called such on the basis of a single novel conceit or observation. It is Rathbone’s triumph that he has supplied us with these on almost every page. Our great game needs, and deserves, more people like him. Particularly if they can learn to spare us their stories of ‘that night in Bangkok’.