I imagine that many reviews of Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters could begin thus: ‘For those disillusioned by modern football; by sky-high ticket prices, players who may as well have trained as high-divers, and boardrooms made up of foreign billionaires more interested in sponsorship deals for their dubious looking countries/gambling endeavours, Daniel Gray gives us the antidote: football as it should be, back-to-basics with shin pads held up by gaffer tape, managers whose bellowing can be heard from ten rows back, and gate fees of less than a fiver. Via weekends in Luton, Crewe and Middlesbrough, amongst others, Gray paints a picture of the true game; the one we all fell in love with as kids, with our fathers at our sides and our heads in the clouds.’
Or something like that. Which would all be fine and true, but such a review, to me, would dampen what this book – at its core – is really about: community and belonging, and the search for them amdist a hyper-globalised world of CEX second hand electronics shops and the ubiquitous, blue pasty seller we’d do well to avoid talking too much about, given both reviewer and author’s origins in the North East.
Which is where we begin. The early 90’s, outside Ayresome Park, where Gray and his accomplices, Chunky and Moustache, are queuing up for autographs from their beloved footballers. Gray, starting the book so nostalgically, risks putting us off; risks, dare I say it, excluding the readership beyond those not au fait with football that this book richly deserves. And I don’t just say that because I’m a Sunderland fan. No, the unenviable task of writing about Middlesbrough – Football Club and town – without resorting to wistful ‘oh, those were the days’, or ‘fucking Thatcher’, is a task handled beautifully by Gray. I say ‘beautifully’ because, as he points out, on the ‘10.30 to Nunthorpe’, ‘the theme colour is rust’, yet Gray, returning from his now-home in Scotland, is like Craig Raine’s martian, seeing the world afresh. Teesside, Gray tells us, is a ‘giant Sci-Fi set’ which makes his ‘heart leap with joy’. There is a sentimentality to this – of course there is, Gray even admits as much – but there is also a gritty realism: an acknowledgment of stronger, more economically productive times and a scathing criticism of the damage caused to post-industrial towns like Middlesbrough by a succession of self-centred Conservatism and ill-thought out Labour dreams.
I’ve actually skipped ahead, and forgotten to summarise the introduction, which explains why Gray is back in England, and why he plans to visit these less than celebrated football towns. It’s simple: he is, at least as the book starts, on the verge of turning thirty. Based now in Scotland, the author wants to reacquaint himself with his mother land, to see if his ideas of what England is and what it has become chime with his biases. He also considers 2011 – the year the book was conceived – an important year because ‘England seemed to be repeating itself.’
During his travels through ‘England’s Football Provinces’ – Sheffield, Burnely, Newquay, all are here and more – Gray sets out to take the national pulse, and to see how he feels about it all. The results are a country gazed at through the various lenses of lower league English football. In Chester, Gray is uplifted to see the revitalised Chester FC, now owned by their fans, and, at the time of his writing, recently promoted. In Newquay, Gray pays £4 – the same price he did to see ’Boro in the 90s – to watch football at, well, England’s foot. In Ipswich, he finds a more quiet England; in Bradford a one still fraught with racial divides, but making baby steps towards solidarity; and in Meriden in the West Midlands, he watches the national side, finding that it is OK to like a club team and support the Three Lions simultaneously.
There are repeated motifs, as you would expect, but repetition does not equate to monotony. Each visit is loosely shaped around the same basic premise: arrive early, amble round town, describe its significant histories, make way to ground, comment on idiosyncrasies of club, watch match, comment on quirks of said club and fan base, leave, have dinner and beer, amble back in to town, reflect on said town’s nightlife, return to hotel, repeat. Despite how boring I’ve just managed to make that all sound, I can assure you that in Gray’s hands, it is in no way tiring. There is a misconception that football teams and matches, in fact football in general, is all the same: 22 overpaid men kicking a ball about for an hour and half, watched on by pie-scoffing, lager swilling blokes in their fifties. Gray’s encounters in the weird and wonderful places he visits attest that yes, that is true, but there are also countless other types of football, and countless other ways to watch, appreciate and talk about it. This, he ultimately posits, is a reflection of England: one which, in spite of (or even because of) its ubiquitous coffee shops and chicken restaurants, is made thrillingly, unknowingly and charmingly unique and alive.
Gray’s decision to not visit a Premier League club seems to me the only flaw to be levelled at this book. Flying over Liverpool, he spots Anfield and Goodison from the air and notes that ‘ending with a Premier League game would be like finishing a wholesome, happy marriage with a cocaine-fuelled orgy.’ Ending the book, maybe, but I personally would have enjoyed a visit to a top-flight club – somewhere less glitzy like Stoke, or Sunderland(!), would, I’m sure, have revealed just as vivid a socio-historical tapestry and just as much footballing passion for the author to comment on. Anyway, that is a small criticism, and probably more my desire to see Gray rip the piss out of the Mags (and us) while trying to float something poetic about West Bromwich, or Hull.
In the end, I have to resort to review type, singing the airs and graces of Hatters...which contains more than its asking price. For a start, this is a genuinely funny book – I laughed out loud (yes, actually LOLd) several times while reading it. I would give you examples, but the one that immediately springs to mind is only funny if you’re familiar with the Northern Rail route between Newcastle and Middlesbrough. It’s also a terrifically well-written book, which might sound daft, but Gray is both an erudite scholar and someone I’d like to have a pint with. There are few if any pretentions to his prose, and his style is chatty, humble and very northern without sounding like some twat from Manchester that everybody secretly wants to chin (apologies to anyone from Manchester – you were my go-to northern knob; next time I’ll pick Huddersfield, or Washington). Anyway, my point is that the writing never feels laboured: historical anecdotes sit perfectly against football commentary, itself handled quite unlike anything you’ve ever heard on Sky Sports, and observations of people and situations are exacting, fresh and generous. A choice quote, and there are many, describes a central midfielder thus: ‘For a period he repeatedly collects the ball from his back four and spreads it among them, one-two by one-two. His distribution is equalled and measured, a parent making sure every toddler wins at pass the parcel’. Alan Shearer this ain’t.
All told, Gray shows us that football is the type of game that we always knew it was: one that unites us more than it divides us. This is a hugely entertaining book which, if you’re reading this because you somehow think I’m a good selector of Christmas gifts, would make ideal reading for everyone from the diehard fan with his or her team’s initials tattooed on their knuckles to the Stuart Maconie or Simon Armitage fan who enjoys a bright take on this little island of ours. Buy it, read it, tell all your mates about it, then go and watch your local team kick lumps out of each other – it might just make you realise how good we’ve still got it.