In Praise Of… “The Beautiful Game? Searching For The Soul Of Football”, by David Conn
In November 2001, I (as was my wont at the time) made the short journey from my flat in the centre of St Albans to Clarence Park to watch The Saints play Basingstoke Town in the Ryman League Premier Division. It was an uninspiring match – a flattering 3-1 win – but more concerning was that, rather than being able to settle down to watch the results come on Sky TV afterwards, we were stuck with the BBC’s coverage. The club hadn’t been paying its bills, and the satellite TV had been cut off. Two months later, the sky fell in. The club failed a CVA that it had entered into and the chairman put it up for sale for £1. The Ryman League suspended the club until it secured new ownership and got its house in order. For five long weeks, with no match day revenue to sustain it, St Albans City slid towards what seemed like an inevitable winding up order. On the clubs message board, tentative discussions were held over what we would do when the inevitable came, but none us really understood very much about what we could do as supporters to save the club. At the last minute, a new owner was found and the club was rescued, but St Albans City sailed very, very close to the wind during those five, dark weeks at the start of 2002.
The new owner has hardly covered himself in glory. He infamously insulted AFC Wimbledon by claiming (a claim that overstepped the line between idle speculation and slander by a country mile) that Wimbledon – possibly the most transparent in English football in terms of their accounting – had deliberately understated the crowd for an FA Trophy match between the two clubs, oversaw one disastrous season in the Conference, during which his club demonstrated itself as being singly unprepared for life above the regional leagues of English non-league football and has alienated a good number of supporters with ill-advised comments in the press and programme notes. Many people at Clarence Park still believe (whether rightly or wrongly) that he is still primarily interested in the club because of the lucrative potential from house-building that could come with moving the club from its home for the last 100 years to an out of town stadium. Football supporters have famously short memories, and he remains a figure that is at best tolerated at the club. With the benefit of hindsight, one wonders how different things might have been had “The Beautiful Game?” been published five years earlier. If it had been, those of us that spent every evening fretting over something that we felt we had no control over might have organised ourselves and claimed St Albans City FC for its supporters. But we didn’t. six years on, I have moved from St Albans to London, and then on to Brighton. And now, thanks to one book, a book which completely and irrevocably changed my perception of football. It’s the reason why this site exists – it may sound like an overstatement but, if I had to choose one, I would have to say with my hand on my heart that “The Beautiful Game?” is the book that changed my life.
Many (if not most) of you will be familiar with David Conn’s writing from his newspaper work for The Independent and The Guardian. He remains the only mainstream journalist that regularly investigates football and its murky links with the worlds of finance and property development, amongst other things. “The Beautiful Game?” is a journey from the cash-soaked but ageing Premier League, down through the divisions, stopping off at some of the most horrific football stories of the last ten years. He skilfully unpicks the creation of the Premier League as a vehicle to make money for a few individuals under the banner of “modernisation”, using Arsenal as a demonstration of how even the club regarded as, to the extent that there is such a thing, football’s “establishment club” could be turned into a profit-chasing cash cow, treating their neighbours with abject disdain in the rush to secure the site for The Emirates Stadium at Ashburton Grove. At Sheffield Wednesday, he wonders at the grim irony of Graham Mackrell, who kept his job in spite of being the man ultimately responsible for the safety certificate at Hillsborough at the time of the Leppings Lane disaster, resigning in 1999 as West Ham United’s Chief Executive over the playing of the ineligible Emmanuel Omoyimni for West Ham in a League Cup match against Gillingham, which led to them being expelled from the competition.
As he descends through the divisions, the characters become more and more macabre. At Bradford City, the chairman, Geoffrey Richardson, puts the club into a financial meltdown (from which they still haven’t fully recovered) with a lavish spending spree after they unexpectedly stay in the Premier League. The oldest professional football club in the world, Notts County, has had to rent their own executive boxes from chairman Derek Pavis, who was renting them himself from the club free of charge. At Bury, there is a jarring symmetry between the bottom of the Football League and the top of the Premier League as Neville Neville, the famously-named father of Gary and Phil works without pay to try and keep the club alive. York City’s chairman, Douglas Craig, takes personal umbrage at a supporter campaign against him and deliberately runs the club to the point of extinction before selling up to John Batchelor, who almost completes the job as the club’s supporters trust collects loose change from buckets outside the ground. York City survive, but at the cost of their place in the Football League. They have yet to return.
The centre-piece, however, is the chapter about AFC Wimbledon, which skilfully dissects and summarises the rise and fall of Wimbledon FC, the subterfuge and machinations that resulted in English football’s most famous franchise club and the swift and immediate rebirth of the club, playing in the Combined Counties League. Conn is scrupulously fair throughout (indeed, one minor criticism of the book might be that he is rather too fair to Pete Winkelman, who takes the withered husk of the club to Milton Keynes), yet manages to encapsulate the journey into the unknown that the birth of AFC Wimbledon was for all concerned. The beauty of it is in the detail, from Kris Stewart putting “1889” as the club’s start date on their application to join the London FA to a list of Wimbledon’s crowds at Selhurst Park in the year after the split, including an unforgettable 664 for a League Cup match against Rotherham United. The narrative circle of the book completes itself in the North West Counties League at Glossop North End, where the club struggles to raise the £8,000 per year that they need to stay afloat while a Tesco store opposite their ground brings in £30m per year. Tesco doesn’t do local sponsorship. The crowning irony comes with the fact that Peter Hill-Wood, the chairman of Arsenal, is descended from the mill owner that made the family’s fortune in the nineteenth century, whilst his grandfather, Samuel Hill-Wood was Glossop North End’s primary benefactor in the 1890s, even briefly taking them into the Football League. Peter, of course, doesn’t give a tu’penny damn for the team that represents the town which gave his family the foundations of where he is today.
Conn’s skill is in leading the reader to draw their own conclusions whilst only rarely expressing an explicit opinion of his own. His keen sense of journalistic integrity means that even those within the book that he seems to despise are treated fairly and given a right of reply, which some even choose to take up. There are one or two minor niggles within “The Beautiful Game?”, though these are largely to be found only with the benefit of hindsight. One jarring section eulogises Charlton Athletic as being “run… the right way, shot through with self-knowledge”, which sits uncomfortably with what we now understand about their financial plight. But how could Conn have known, in 2004, what was to come? These are minor details, though. This book, picked almost at random from the sports shelf of a small book shop on Kentish Town Road felt, as I read it, like seeing the light and, for the first time, an alternative, sustainable future for English football. It strips away the gloss of the Premier League and tells the story of what we have come to know as “The Game”, when such a thing doesn’t really exist. What actually exists is a complex set of relationships between different casts of characters – club owners, media people, players, supporters, officials – which is often a fractious one, and one in which the best interests of the single biggest group of the lot (which also happens to be the group which also pays the lion’s share of the money to keep the whole thing afloat, whether directly or indirectly) often seem to be the last to be taken into account. It is a story that continues to unfold, and one can only hope that David Conn will take up the challenge of continuing the story. I wouldn’t make this statement unless I truly believed it – if you want to buy a book which tells the story of English football over the last twenty years, “The Beautiful Game?” is your only serious choice.