Top Ten Football Fiction Review: The Match by Alan Sillitoe
The Match by Alan Sillitoe is a short story contained within a collection titled, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. This anthology contains nine short stories, which besides the collection’s title story and The Match, includes, Uncle Ernest, Mr Raynor the School-teacher, The Fishing-boat Picture, Noah’s Ark, On Saturday Afternoon, The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale and The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller. The book was first published in 1959 by W. H. Allen & Co. Ltd.
The Match opens at a game between Notts County and Bristol City. It is a cold and misty winters day and hints that County are having a bad season, as the crowd “…hope of at least one home-team win before Christmas…”. Lennox a forty year old mechanic is at the game with his young, recently married neighbour, Fred. Lennox asserts that he knew before the match that County would lose, “…because he himself, a spectator, hadn’t been feeling in top form…”. The home team do indeed lose as Bristol City get a second half goal to gain a 2-1 victory.
Sillitoe creates some wonderful images of the match, such as one description of a home attack when the “…Notts’ forwards were pecking and weaving around the Bristol goal…”. Another is the detail surrounding the build-up to Bristol scoring, which captures the feeling of incredulity and inevitability by fans, when you know your opponents are going to score. “…Suddenly the man with the ball spurted forward, was seen to be clear of everyone as if, in a second of time that hadn’t existed to any other spectator or another player, he’d been catapulted into a hallowed untouchable area before the goal posts…”.
Despite the lambasting of the home team by Lennox and others in the home crowd that supporters of any era will recognise, the modern reader is left in no doubt that this is a game from a bygone era. The dress code of Fred, “…done up in his Saturday afternoon best of sports coat, gaberdine trousers and rain-mac, dark hair sleeked back with oil…” is in contrast to the army of replica wearing masses that attend games today.
However, the football match is the back-drop to a larger picture that Sillitoe portrays. He provides the reader with various clues about the respective lives of Lennox and Fred. Lennox is a man not happy with his lot, whether it be the fact that his football team has lost, the problems he has with his eyes, his work (the threat of losing his job) or indeed his marriage. Fred is younger, newly married and more concerned with, “…a chunk of hearthrug pie…” than by County losing a football match. He is as Lennox mockingly describes, “…living on love…”.
The reader sees more of the despair of Lennox existence once he returns home after the game. There is no greeting by him to his family (or indeed vice-versa), instead Lennox utters a complaint that the parlour smells musty and orders his eldest child to light a fire. Another damning part of the domestic situation is established when Sillitoe details Mrs Lennox, “…she was forty, the same age as Lennox, but gone to plainness and discontented fat, while he stayed thin and wiry from the same reason…”. Lennox continues to treat all those around him with rudeness, arrogance and aggression, with even the family cat not safe from his behaviour. Mrs Lennox frustrated by her husband, argues back but pays the price as she is struck three times by Lennox until she falls to the floor. The closing image is of the house left quiet as Mrs Lennox and the children leave “…for the last time…”. The reader is left to ponder whether Fred and his young wife Ruby will eventually go the same way as Lennox and his wife, or will the Iremongers’ break the chain?
Finally, in order to consider The Match in a modern day context, in March 2011 The Guardian published an article about the violence that coincided with the Rangers v Celtic games in Scotland, which highlighted that, “…Strathclyde police claimed domestic abuse rates doubled after Old Firm games, while there were more than 200 crimes of violence and disorder in the area after an earlier Rangers-Celtic game in February …”
Fact and fiction – where does one begin and the other end? Fifty years on and The Match still holds an uncomfortable truth.