Book Review: Saturday, 3pm: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football by Daniel Gray
Although published in 2016, Daniel Gray’s Saturday, 3PM couldn’t be more fitting for the current times. Ask any football fan what they’re missing about matches played behind closed doors or the entire absence of football in the lower leagues and they’ll reel off a selection of things that Gray includes in this book of his ‘fifty eternal delights of modern football’.
Starting with seeing a ground from the train through to the last day of the season, Gray picks out those wonderful – and often weird – quirks of a football fan’s existence, the small as well as the large pleasures of the game that only true followers will understand – ‘watching an away end erupt’, ‘talking to an old man about football’, ‘physiotherapist races’, ‘club eccentrics’, and, yes, even ‘losing’ (I’m not entirely convinced by the latter!). In fifty bite-sized and accessible chunks, he waxes lyrical on this half-century of football fetishes, in genuinely evocative and, dare I say, even poetic, refrains. Indeed, the descriptions and sketches are compellingly vivid in such a way that they send the reader whirling back in time and place to when football stadiums were open, and crowds were part and parcel of the sporting experience.
Reading this book mid-lockdown, mid-pandemic really is a poignant and nostalgic experience that leaves you hankering for the thrills of matchday, whether that be ‘slide tackles in the mud’ or ‘seeing the team bus’, ‘visiting a ground for the first time’ or ‘standing on a terrace’. They’re simple experiences but ones that are fundamental to football fans and the whole panoply of going to a match, and ones that are sorely missed right now. And although a book can’t replace the real thing, I felt myself soothingly transported by Gray’s words, wrapped up, as he describes, in the ‘warm blanket football is’, and what a joy that was after so long in the wilderness. I suspect other readers will feel the same too, and it’s rare that a book can conjure such magic, such feeling, and it’s all the more powerful for doing so. Similarly, very few football books are truly universal; autobiographies tend to be only interesting or enjoyable to those readers who like the particular player or their affiliated teams, whilst other football non-fiction can feel quite didactic. But Gray’s book is genuinely for all fans and will be completely relatable for everyone. It’s also a really nice, effortless read that can be easily dipped in and out of. So for anyone struggling to choose what to buy a football fan, I would recommend this book without hesitation, regardless of the recipient.
And whilst my one disappointment was that I would have liked to have seen more of Gray’s writing, and certainly a few additions to his list of fifty football delights (I could think of a number to add, not least that classic football moment of the ref falling over or similar), what a bonus to discover a follow-up book was published as recently as October 2020 (mid-VAR and mid-pandemic) and I can confirm that I’ve already placed an order. So whilst I long for the day that normal football resumes and I can watch a match live, I rest easy in the knowledge that, for a short time at least, Daniel Gray will once more transport me back to the stands, to the joys of ‘defensive walls and drop-balls’ to ‘jeering passes that go out of play’ and ‘watching in bad weather’, and the thrills of ‘getting the fixture list’, the ‘ball hitting the bar’ and ‘outfield players in goal’ will be all the sweeter when they finally return.
Gray’s book concludes with his reflections on the end of the season and that abyss when football is missing, ending with a fitting homily for the times: ‘The sun sets but we all know morning will come again soon enough, bold as brass and brighter than ever. The birds will chirp to a new tune. That’s football genius. It never really ends.’ Thank goodness that it doesn’t.
(Bloomsbury Sport. October 2016. Hardback 160 pages)