Book Review: 50 Ways to Score a Goal and Other Football Poems by Brian Bilston

Poetry – the bane of many a young adult’s life. Talk of metaphors and metre, consonance and couplets and obscure words, like caesura and onomatopoeia, that never appear anywhere else and seem created just to cause maximum chaos (not least in how you spell them) was enough to send shivers down many a spine and put readers off poetry for life. Even decades on, mention of the dreaded ‘p’ word can bring back palpitations, with sonnets and free verse consigned to one’s schooldays, along with algebra and plimsolls. Wordsworth and Keats may be but distant memories, and gruesome ones at that, so the prospect of a book of poems – even if they are about football – may sound like some kind of modern torture, but I guarantee even if you’ve never enjoyed a single poem in your life and cannot relate to any poet in history, if you’re a football fan, 50 Ways to Score a Goal and Other Football Poems by Brian Bilston will change that.

First things first, this book is published by Macmillan Children’s Books and, as such, is apparently aimed at children – but don’t be deceived by that or the lime-green cover. What is so great about Brian Bilston as a poet, and perhaps what separates him from all of those seemingly impenetrable poets of old, is that his poetry is completely accessible – so, yes, children can read and enjoy these poems, but, actually, the references and humour potentially make them even more compelling for adults. There were a couple of poems that I did feel worked specifically for younger readers, but, by and large, adults will enjoy the subtleties and nostalgia of Bilston’s football-themed observations.

The collection of sixty, generally short and succinct, poems is delightfully split into three sections – First Half, Half-Time and Second-Half. And the poems themselves vary greatly in terms of their style and voice, but all with football at their core and all unquestionably accessible. Indeed, although Bilston is a remarkably clever poet, his greatest strength perhaps is that his poems are clever in a way that includes readers rather than excludes them. You don’t have to have a thesaurus at hand and five degrees to understand and engage with his verse, and yet he stills uses the same poetic techniques of the ‘greats’ and plays around with language and form in inventive and exciting ways. His poetry on the surface seems uncomplicated and playful, which makes it fun for readers young and old, but there is so much more going on, though, crucially, it never distracts or belittles the reader. There isn’t that sense of pomp or pageantry that perhaps can make poetry feel alien, nor bombast or floweriness that can unnecessarily obscure – Bilston’s poems, like football itself, are intended to be universal and inclusive.

That is not to say, though, that his poetry is not intricate and elaborate – far from it. Bilston is a master craftsman of poems. Indeed, across this collection, there are quatrains, haikus, acrostic poems and concrete poems, if you want to get technical, and all of them perfectly wrought, but the brilliance of Bilston is that concepts and terminology such as these, which can bewilder, and even intimidate, readers, are demystified and nullified by poems which make the experience fun and engaging. ‘The Thing About Wingers’, for instance, is the perfect example of a concrete poem – essentially a poem whose layout on the page creates a shape or pattern that matches the subject – but there is no need to know this to enjoy it, and the poem itself makes the whole process accessible. And similarly, although titles like, ‘Football Haikus: Starting XI’ and ‘Acrostic Town FC: Matchday Squad’, may conjure images of obscure poetic techniques, Bilston’s poems with their mix of linguistic humour and formal transparency ensure readers’ understanding and engagement. There is never any pretension or prohibition to these poems; even when they are doing the most elaborate and technical of tricks, they remain coherent and inclusive. And whilst humour is central to a lot of these poems and is something that will connect with football fans, there are also a number of more sentimental and poignant poems as well. But, again, rather than cloying and trite, these are perfectly pitched with brilliantly relatable themes, and I defy anyone not to be moved by ‘Kit’ and ‘Every Day is Like a Cup Final’.

The poems cover everything from that routine of picking teams in a playground, the types of goal it’s possible to score, sitting on the subs bench, the unique matchday experience, football sticker collections, the life cycle of a manager, supporting a local team and the trusty lucky bobble hat. Thrown in are really playful poems, including ‘An Educated Left Foot’, which puns on that old football cliché, ‘A Shaggy Dog Story’, which gives a dog’s point of view of chasing after a football and ‘A Ball Speaks Out’ which gives a football’s point of view of being kicked about! There are also tongue-in-cheek meditations on some of football’s more questionable aspects, including diving in ‘And the Award Goes to…’, the incredible curative powers of ‘The Magic SpongeTM’, and football cliches. And Bilston even finally answers that age-old debate: Messi or Ronaldo – in a fashion.

Given the book is aimed at children, I particularly loved the inclusivity of the poems, which feature both genders and different communities, in a very natural way. As a young girl growing up, I would have loved to have read ‘Wonderkid’, in which the footballing protagonist is herself a young girl, whilst poems like ‘The Language of Football’ and ‘The Laws of the Game: Playground Edition’ speak on themes of diversity and equality. ‘The Ballad of Dick, Kerr Ladies FC’ is also both an engaging and informative poem, and throughout the collection, Bilston creates a very real sense of football being everyone’s game and everyone being equal.

I’m hard-pressed to choose my favourite poems, because there are so many that I truly adored , so allow me the luxury of noting my ten favourites – and even that is a challenge, but here goes: ‘Pick Me’, ‘Keepie-Uppies’, ‘On The Bench,’ ‘A Suggestion’, ‘Fixtures’, ‘League Table’, ‘A Poem of Two Halves’, ‘Back of the Net’, ‘Kit’ and ‘Every Day is Like A Cup Final’. I love the variety and shifts in the poems, the way the collection moves so seamlessly from the creative and playful to the sincere and heartfelt, but at every turn there is something that football fans can relate to, and I am absolutely sure that every reader will relish at least one of these poems, although I suspect it will be many, many more. And, again, whether you like poetry or traditionally loathe it, I encourage you to give this book a chance and you may be rather surprised. There is nothing taxing or complicated here, just got old football themes delivered in a refreshing way. And I reiterate that though the book is intended for children, or at least marketed as such, this is really an enjoyable read for adults too, and certainly a book that generations can enjoy together. So whether you know a young football fan or are a slightly (!) older one yourself, I highly recommend this brilliant football book, which is also a very successful crash course in poetry. And you may just find by the end of it (or even at the start) that you’re a poetry fan after all, or at least a Brian Bilston fan.

Jade Craddock


(Macmillan Children’s Books; Main Market edition. May 2021. Paperback: 128 pages)


Review: Millwall Haiku by Howard Colyer

Football is a game often defined by its playing formations, such as 4-4-2, 5-3-1-1 or 4-3-3. But what about 5-7-5? Sounds implausible?

Well, novelist, playwright and poet Howard Colyer has used this form as the basis of writing a series of match reports from 2003/04 to 2015/16, based around watching his football team, Millwall. Still not clear?

The form in question is the haiku, defined in the Oxford English dictionary as: A Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world.

One of the immediate questions in reading this form of poetry is, can the ups and down, thrills and spills of ninety minutes be captured in such a short form? The answer has to be yes. And the reason? The haiku’s which cover thirteen seasons, seeing the Lions through promotions and relegations, the FA Cup and even a brief European adventure, capture the essence, the key moments of games, so that allied with the score and date of the game described, there is context for the reader.

For example:

Millwall 1 Nottingham Forest 0


A red card given

and a siege for half an hour,

Stack superb in goal.

Here the score tells us that Millwall won the game, but the haiku tells us that it was achieved with 10 men after having a player sent-off and that goalkeeper Graham Stack was outstanding in ensuring the Lions took the three points.

Millwall 0 Bristol Rovers 1


“I’m going to bed,

going home and straight to bed,”

the man said head down.

In this example, Millwall have lost the game and the haiku perfectly captures the total despair of a fan at what the reader can assume was a dire performance. Simple, but totally effective.

Poetry might not seem a natural bedfellow for football, but like the game, it has a pace and rhythm, which can reflect the ebb and flow of footballing fortunes.

A recommended read, in that it is an original style in which to capture the fortunes of a club, but also in that in the rereading of the haiku, different inferences and interpretation can be gained.

“No one likes us, we don’t care” may be the Lions infamous refrain, but not in the case of Colyer’s fine prose.


A Minute’s Silence

How long did a minute feel when panic had set in?
Arms pinned to your side.
Body contorted into unrecognisable shapes
by the pressure of those around you.
Brain realising there is no escape.

How long did a minute feel, your life’s breath seeping out of you?
Ribcage squeezed hard.
Then harder still.
Your only noise a choking rasp in a desperate cry for help.

How long did a minute feel as you slipped out in and out of consciousness?
Did you think of family and friends?
Did you think – how can I die at a football match?

How did it feel to be told that you were all drunk?
How did it feel to be vilified by the press and their version of “the truth”?
How did it feel to be patronised and despised by politicians as they stood at your graveside?

These questions will remain unanswered.
The minute for the 96 is now silent.

Standing Out In A Crowd

We’ve all seen him,
there on the home terrace,
just to the left of the goal.
Same stanchion and always stood on his own.
Dressed in Saturday best; flat cap resplendent come rain or shine.
It’s been his spot for forty years.

“Poor old sod. How come he’s on his own?”
“Did he never have the son he always wanted?”
“No friends or neighbours to come with?”

But we all keep our distance.
Contact restricted to a knowing glance and a nod.
A figure to be avoided in the half time tea queue.
Any conversations kept to a minimum.
No one wanting to get involved.

Forty years same spot at the bar.
Each weeks wages swilled down his neck.
Every night stumbling blindly home.
Back to batter his wife and son.

Loyalty only lasts so long.
Now he stands alone.

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Camp Nou

It fills my eyes.
It floods my brain.
I can’t take it all in.
I have to look away.

Gradually I turn to focus.
Down I look to the green heart pulsing below.
Slowly I scan upwards.
Taking in the blue and red veins that surge skyward.

Finally my head tilts back.
The black Catalan sky now appears.
I am calm.

Empty Seat

During a lull in the second half
with the match coming to a close,
a melancholic thought occurred.
“This could be the last time
I sit next to this man at a game”.

This is the man who back in the seventies,
held me by the hand and showed me where to go.
He made sure I had the right money
and found me a space where I could see.
Now I’m the one guiding him to his seat.
“Are you warm enough?”
“Can I get you a tea?”

We’ve been to grounds all over the country,
in all sorts of weathers.
League games and Cup games,
Friendlies and the like.
But you know what I remember most?
It’s the security of having you there,
sharing the joy and the despair.

When I look at that empty seat.
I’ll not forget.