Of the many things that young people no longer do that I did in my youth, buying second-hand books is one that I am fairly confident never happens any more – at least not annuals from market stalls. On Saturday lunchtimes, as a boy I would go to the old band-stand in the centre of Enfield market and flick through the acres of old football books that they seemed to have for sale there. The price was usually written in pencil on the inside of the front page, and it was seldom more than twenty pence. I purchased dozens of old football books this way – most often “Roy Of The Rovers” annuals (they also usually kept an box of old copies of the weekly comic, if money was particularly tight), occasionally Rothmans Football Directories and, most commonplace of all, old copies of “The Topical Times Football Book”.
The internet hasn’t been kind to “The Topical Times Football Book”. In an environment in which the most arcane of historical details have been recorded in almost gynaecological detail, the history of this austere publication seems to have been lost to the ether. Sitting here, flicking through a pile of old TTFBs (ranging from 1965 to 1982), the feeling of nostalgia is almost overwhelming. There are no adverts in any of them, and there aren’t even any mentions made of what “The Topical Times” actually is. It sounds like it should be a racing newspaper like the “Racing Post”, but there are no mentions made of gambling and not even a byline for what these annual books are actually a annual compliation of.
On top of this, there is an endearing egalitarianism to them. Opening, say, the 1968/69 edition brings up a two page article on Southampton and colour photographs of, amongst others (of course), David Munks of Sheffield United and Bobby Hope of West Bromwich Albion. If it wasn’t for an almost desultory interview with Pat McCrerand towards the back and a page of grainy black & white photographs of (what would now be called) That Night At Wembley, you’d never even guess that Manchester United had, that May, been crowned the champions of Europe for the first time, and tougher still to establish that Manchester City had seen off their city rivals in a First Division championship battle that went to the very last day of the season.
It is difficult to say what the target age of TTFB is. The humour is certainly gentler (each edition has at least one page of cartoons that make one’s toes curls with their corniness), and there are hints that children might just be in the sights of their writers. Certainly, there is little room for anything approaching criticism in the world of TTFB, and the three or four pages given over to cartoon strips that seem to be already ten or fifteen years out of date. The feeling of being a relic, even as long ago as the late 1960s and early 1970s, seems to be pervasive. Did anyone apart from PE teachers, as long ago as 1972, call football “footer”? Because they do in that year’s edition of TTFB. The 1971 edition even features a cartoon called “The Goalie’s Name Was Muggins”, an arcane, sub-“Boys Own” story about a goalkeeper with a name lifted straight from the script of “Carry On Camping”.
Easy though it is to laugh at the out-dated nature of The Topical Times Football Book (one thing that it reminds you is that Britain in the 1970s was a much greyer and duller place than our rose-tinted memories might have us believe), the surprising thing about it is that it lasted for as long as it did. Again, it’s a struggle to get a definitive answer on this, but the last edition of it that I could find on sale anywhere is from 2001. Whether this advert was similarly devoid of advertising is, I should imagine, open to debate. That it survives on so many bookshelves, still occasionally flicked through by obsessionists such as myself, should be no great surprise to any of us.