Duncan Hamilton’s latest book is inspired by L.S. Lowry’s famously evocative painting ‘Going to the Match’. The artist painted the supporters approaching Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park in 1953 and Hamilton uses the painting as his starting point.
It is an enjoyable read as Hamilton travels as a fan to games throughout the 2017/18 season taking in matches from all levels of the football hierarchy across England, Scotland and Europe.
Going to watch a live football match is a common occurrence for many of us but Hamilton brings plenty of fresh observations and insights as well as reinforcing some commonly held views.
He cleverly interweaves his contemporary match day experiences with his football memories of yesteryear.
Current heroes Harry Kane, Mo Salah, Kevin De Bruyne and Paul Pogba are presented alongside footballing heroes of a bygone age, Sir Stanley Matthews, Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Charlton and Pele. He also assesses the managerial greats from Brian Clough and Jose Mourinho to Arsene Wenger and Gareth Southgate.
Hamilton has a researchers eye for the telling anecdote, for example, recounting how in 1928 the cartoonist of All Sports Weekly got it absolutely right when he predicted the ‘Armchair Football fan’.
It was an amazingly accurate stab in the dark but Hamilton says we now wait for technology to constantly amaze us, and so we are seldom thunderstruck when it does.
The author has twice won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year and spent his early years as local journalist chronicling the achievements of the European Cup winning Nottingham Forest team which provided him with the material for his memoir entitled “Provided you Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years with Brian Clough”.
Hamilton has strong memories of his time reporting when Clough was in charge of Forest. He also notes tellingly that they have appointed 20 successors to Clough in less than 25 years with little success.
For those unaware he informs us about Goal! The official film of the 1966 World Cup is an under appreciated gem – a kind of Citizen Kane of football movies. He says it tells the story of the tournament in the same way that Dickens or Tolstoy wrote novels.
Hamilton himself constructs some superb passages, for example, describing how a small publishing industry has grown up around football tactics but that the peerless Brazil 1970 World Cup winning team transcends all that analysis.
The tactics publishing industry is compared to how some victuallers speak of wine, the language becoming eruditely elitist.
‘But sometimes you don’t want to know how a wine is made…….You just want to get it down your neck and savour the taste of it, gorgeously, on your tongue. Watching Brazil in Mexico (1970) is the equivalent of that. Who cares about formations? The team moved instinctively and seamlessly from one to another, sometimes swapping from 4-4-2 to 3-3-4 in one fluid movement just because it could. No rearguard could have stopped them unless the rival manager had sneaked a couple of extra players on the pitch. Suppose you could have scored six goals against them? Brazil would have scored eight or nine in reply….’
At the end of his journey Hamilton returns to Bolton, the site of the old Burnden Park and Lowry’s painting and to the final game of the 2017/18 Championship season at the Macron Stadium.
Incredibly Bolton manage to pull off a great escape snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against Nottingham Forest and thereby retaining their Championship status.
Going to the Match is an entertaining journey through the football landscape from an accomplished writer but it is Hamilton’s passion for his subject that makes it extra special and really worth reading.
Going to the Match – The Passion for Football by Duncan Hamilton. Published by Hodder and Stoughton. Price £25.
This review first appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of Late Tackle magazine.