Daniel Gray revisits football’s fertile ground in his follow-up to the splendidly evocative ‘Saturday, 3pm’. In Black Boots and Football Pinks he celebrates 50 lost wonders of the beautiful game such as goalkeepers in trousers and hats, proper division names, turf patterns, pixelated scoreboards, and of course, Saturday evening pink newspapers…”They were gritty stardust that made football special.”
His preface is called ‘Sketching the ghosts before they leave the room’ which neatly sums up what the book is all about. Football has changed significantly in the last 30 years, sometimes for the worse, and Gray wants us to remember those authentic joyful experiences before it’s too late.
It is inevitably nostalgic and sentimental but it is all the better for it. Gray yearns for less corporate fan experiences. Times when clubs had provincial businessmen owners before big business took over and football wasn’t controlled by Saudi Sheikhs, Russian Oligarchs, Chinese and American corporations.
He reminds us of simpler football pleasures, for example, remembering the names of the 92 English or the 38 Scottish grounds. He rightly bemoans the passing of identifiable names of grounds.
Special moments during a game are remembered affectionately: small men marking the post, terrible goal kicks and foul throws, player brawls and understated goal celebrations.
Some of these including goalkeepers in trousers and hats have been lost to us now.
“There lingered too, the very slim and yet slapstick possibility of a goalkeeper throwing his hat down having conceded a goal.”
For many fans the link between the local shirt and hoarding sponsors was umbilical,
“To those of us whose eyes tinted everything with the colours of football, certain brands became a team and place once they were a sponsor for long enough: Southampton was Draper Tools, Oxford was Unipart, Coventry was Peugeot, Charlton was Woolwich and Brighton was Nobo.
“The shirts themselves were made not by multinational manufacturers but through homespun labels, whose names evoke the local sports shop: Spall, Ellgren, Matchwinner, Influence, Scoreline, Ribero and Frontrunner. It added to the sense that each place was different, exotic even.”
Football Pinks are no longer with us but are lovingly celebrated. The sheer joy of reading a football pink straight after the game is recalled with great fondness.
“Football Pinks were a comfort blanket, a fixed and sure gift. They extended the match day and cheered or consoled any evening. They were weekly telegrams from the frontline of war bearing the words: Safe and well, home soon.”
Gray has superbly brought back to life a bygone age of football. He revels in football’s peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, for example, matches played in fog, beams and imperfect views, turnstile operators, huts on stand roofs and goal nets with personality.
A list, which might seem ridiculous to the non-football fan, is cherished with a knowing smile by football supporters of a certain age. He sums it all up perfectly when he says,
“This was an age of character and difference.”
Gray’s eloquent prose-poetry entertains throughout and there are some particularly evocative passages.
On Kids playing in the street….”It was a tender symphony of the tarmac.”
Main stand clocks…”The main-stand clock saw more happenings, moved through more history, than God’s own sundial.”
Paper tickets…”Touching these slices of paper throws me up in the air and lands me in another world. Ruffling through their textures of my enveloped pile gives the misty thrill of kicking rustling leaves”.
Luxury, superfluous players….”There was opulence in his first touch. To watch him bring down a ball was to gargle with champagne. He accepted an over-hit pass as if it were a ping-pong ball landing on a bean bag. This control made the noise of an expensive car door closing.”
Gray has managed to capture the true essence of the game with his 50 lost wonders, this book may be small in size but it is a tour-de-force of football’s almost bygone pleasures.
Black Boots and Football Pinks – 50 Lost Wonders of the Beautiful Game by Daniel Gray. Published by Bloomsbury. Price £9.99.
This review first appeared in the December 18/January 19 edition of Late Tackle magazine.