Daniel Gray already has a collection of critically acclaimed football books, but this is another gem worthy of your attention. ‘The Silence of the Stands’ is partly football during lockdown, part travelogue, part social and economic history of Northern England and Scotland.
Gray’s travels provide a snapshot of our national game during Covid, the period from September 2020 to May 2021. He once again enthralls with his football centred lyrical prose. ‘Football was available again, but it had become hard to track down, a kind of prohibition pursuit where football grounds were speakeasies and Bovril was our Moonshine.’
This was a strange period when mental health was crucial to everyone and football fans needed their football fix, wherever they could find it. ‘The very act of going to a game matters tremendously. It matters to your routine, identity, and equilibrium, and it matters to the routine, identity, and equilibrium of so many thousands of others.’
Gray finds solace in non-league grounds such as Jarrow, Lancaster and Workington in England and Scottish teams such as Cowdenbeath and Raith due to the ban on professional sport during lockdown.
He superbly captures the sights and sounds of a match. Relishing the contenting sounds of football, ‘…the cattle stampede of studs on a hard pitch; the ball tumbling into the side-netting and making a whippy, threshing sea-shanty of a noise; an avuncular voice asking his friend, “Do you want a tea or Bovril at half-time?’’ These sensations and satisfactions are like popping bubble wrap for us followers of football.’
Gray is not only insightful but also humorous and entertaining. During his travels he overhears snippets on the train, in the towns and at the grounds. ‘Eeee, it must be bad if they’re calling off Northern League games,’ a Geordie friend had said to me. ‘They’d play through a nuclear holocaust that lot.’
We also learn about Kendal Town (the Mintcakes) and Lancaster City’s (The Dolly Blues) fantastic nicknames and that Billingham Synthonia’s name is a poetic portmanteau. The attraction of football is hard to avoid, ‘We are weaker than coins near magnets (near a football ground).’
He rightly identifies why football is so special to so many of us. ‘Never had we been more aware of the fact that going to the match was about so much more than going to the match.’
Gray is an endearing and authentic football observer, and this book reaffirms the meaning and importance of football in so many ways.
The Silence of the Stands – Finding Joy in Football’s Lost Season by Daniel Gray. Published by Bloomsbury Sport. Price £12.99.
This review first appeared in the November 2022 edition of Late Tackle magazine.